RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Natchez, like a big history book, spills with color, characters

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

NATCHEZ – It’s all in the name of work, you understand. …..I lollygag Under the Hill where Mark Twain once supped and drank. I order hot tamales at Fat Mama’s and eat every spicy bite. I take a long walk into a virgin spring down by Old Man River. I roll back the car’s moon roof and play Lucinda loud.
Natchez isn’t wearing its full spring crinolines yet, but is poised on the cusp of the sweet season. I get to spend one night here on my way to a Louisiana engagement. One short night is a tease, but better than nothing.
I check for a room at the old Eola Hotel first. I always do. It is full – there’s a literary conference in town – but it doesn’t much matter where I put my head. The most boring box of a room will do in Natchez. For when I wake, I find myself inside a thick history book, one spilling with color and characters.
I love old Natchez, its profusion of fragrant vines, slow pace and azalea-colored houses. I like the way the town never changes much population-wise, and that to get here you have to be coming.
The famous mansions are beautiful, of course, and in the past I’ve done my share of touring them, admiring sideboards and stained glass and hearing the usual complement of stories of hiding silverware from Yankees.
But the older I get the more I prefer the funkier, smaller places that no doubt have their own histories – love stories, lost fortunes, scandal. The smaller places look more user-friendly, easier to paint and clean, and appeal to the practical streak that seems to grow inside me as I gray.
I even like the look of certain old houses threatening to topple into the river, though I guess I wouldn’t if I owned one. They remind me of how temporary anything man-made is.
Best of all are the rainbow of shotgun houses that sit chockablock as if to prop up one another, bright and necessary drops of punctuation in a place known for its grand mansion and sagas.
It’s not all about looks and big houses. I admire the way Natchez citizens seem to wallow in their eccentricities and thumb their collective noses at rules.
A dog sits on a barstool Under the Hill, looking ready to order whatever’s on draft. Nobody but us tourists seems to notice. The town’s Christmas tree was in the center of a downtown street one year, creating an instant roundabout and forcing everyone to slow down and circle it.
It takes a certain civic confidence to allow people to be themselves. That doesn’t happen everywhere. Most towns don’t have enough chutzpah to embrace residents who color outside the lines. In Natchez, there are no lines.
My theory is the town is creative and aesthetically attuned and markedly different because it is run by females. Everyone knows about the garden club women who, decades ago, started and ran the Spring Pilgrimage. Once you’ve pulled off that kind of civic coup, nobody challenges your authority. The men provided the war that now serves as backdrop, but I think it is Natchez women who run the show.
Anyhow, that’s my theory and I’m sticking with it. What I’m enjoying is a kind of matriarchal March madness. Halleluiah and stir the grits.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

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