My first months in town, I was curious why such separation exists between new people and longtime residents.
I went to the Chamber of Commerce Dinner and the opening concert for the Watermelon Carnival and met few newcomers. At Bozart openings and an Art Council meeting, I saw even fewer longtime residents. I wondered when people came together to share living in a rural North Mississippi town.
The answer has proved to be complicated.
Water Valley is a place where high school graduates drive only a few miles for their 50th High School Reunion. Here grandfathers of grade school boys played baseball together and helped each other mow hay for winter. A family of first cousins meet at church on Sunday mornings and celebrate the next generation’s birthdays, weddings and baptisms. People know each other.
Into this mix comes someone like me.
New York is in sharp contrast to Mississippi. I knew that before I sold my Long Island home and packed my bags. Our politics, our religious beliefs, our Sunday dinners are literally miles apart. Northern investment in education, its zoning ordinances and funding of public libraries clearly reflect a different experience in the world.
But I was curious about Water Valley’s experience.
And when I decided to come here and try out the South, I was aware that no one invited me. There was no call to Long Island asking me to come and judge Water Valley or to be smug and pretentious about its ways.
My task was to observe and decide what I was willing to live without for what I was gaining in small town life. I went fishing, drove a tractor, visited a cotton gin and gave Dunn’s pulled pork a thumbs up. I stopped by a kindergarten class to read Dr. Seuss and hung a watermelon plaque on my porch. I sampled being part of the town. It was less that I discovered Water Valley and more the place just happened to me.
At no time did I have illusions about changing this conservative Bible Belt community into liberal New York. Nor did I have illusions about changing who I am. I fly North for regular doses of city lights, drink Scotch and most likely will never lunch on okra or grits. Yet, after a year and a half here, I found the two things, Water Valley and me, quite compatible.
Of course, I am retired, living in a long-term rental. I have no desire to buy up open land or a stable of income properties or revamp the schools to increase profit on all that real estate. My interest falls in living a full life in a small southern town.
At the same time, I recognize the rights of young families and novice business people to live where they find opportunity. The complication is how to establish a town that is fiscally productive and sustainable with such diverse neighbors, where new and old residents both have a stake in the town’s success.
The challenge has accelerated, gathering speed with each new house going up to act as a safety valve for the population explosion rolling out of Oxford.
The real estate market now translates every open space and livable structure into a commodity whose value is mainly outside the control of its owner. All of this brings into sharper focus the separation between newcomers with their plans to improve the town and third generation families who want to preserve the distinctive character of their home.
And here I am, the odd duck. New, but wanting that distinctive character to continue.