ERROL CASTENS: A greeting from the grave



It used to be that many Mississippians lived well away from any public road. In their economy, it was more important to be close to the land they farmed, however remote and rural, than to the nearest path to the wider world.

Sometimes one can see the remnant of an old chimney of homemade brick or a few short brick pillars that held a long-ago house off the ground. Sometimes, it’s hard to see that anyone ever lived there at all.

The former residents are, like their houses, long gone. The ones who have surviving offspring may be remembered these generations later by an inscription in a family Bible or in a fuzzy-focus photo in a seldom-opened album. There are others whose names have been lost to human memory for decades.

It’s easy for today’s wanderer, if he recognizes a defunct homestead at all, to think merely of the difficulty of life 150 years or more ago. While the people of those days wouldn’t recognize modern furnishings, technology, work, entertainment, purposes or attitudes, the contemporary might be bumfuzzled or even disgusted that his forebears largely had to make their own food, furniture, clothes, houses, roads, medicines, music, toys and ambitions.

To olden-day generations, labor was a daily – often daylong – reality. Food was fuel, not fetish. Illnesses that sneaked up on people and killed them in a few days were common, and stillborns and infant deaths were facts of life. Cataracts, cholesterol and other now routinely treated conditions inflicted their share of suffering, but the self-inflicted diseases that kill us slowly and expensively were rare.

On these remote farms, with pigs and cows and mules around, folks endured their share of flies and stench. They sawed and split and hauled and burned wood to stay warm, and cooked and canned their food over the same woodstoves in the hottest parts of summer, sharply aware that food security, for those with a little soil and sunshine and seeds, was personal rather than political.

It would be easy for us moderns to presume life was little more than a struggle for survival in such times, but next week or perhaps the next, these folks will send us a little reminder that they were once here.

They’ll tell us metaphorically that whatever the differences in our lives and theirs, they enjoyed the goodness available to them. As most of us do, they loved their families, savored their pleasures, tried to be neighborly and found meaning in small advances.

Their remembrance will come later than usual this cold year, but when clumps of daffodils pop up around otherwise disappeared homesteads sometime this month, as they have every late winter for decades, the knowing wanderer will smile, savoring the greeting from the grave.

Errol Castens is reporter for the Oxfrd Bureau. Contact him at