by Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson
Cleveland, Mississippi, is smack dab in the middle of the Delta, which is purported to “begin in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, and end on Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”
And that’s where I grew up.
We were never more than two and one-half hours from city life--Jackson or Memphis--and on a good day either trip could take even less. However, Memphis seemed to be the city of choice for Clevelanders when we just had to go somewhere.
Memphis had, and still has, a plethora of entertaining activities and events. Long before the mega-malls and planned communities, those of us from the rural area of the Mississippi Delta thronged to Overton Park, Southland Mall, Corky’s BBQ and the Mid-South Fair.
For most of us, the Peabody Hotel was out of reach, but there was a Downtowner Motel right across Union Avenue where kids could hang out the windows and ogle bejeweled ladies strolling hand-in-arm with their suited gentlemen to the grand hotel for dinner. That sight inspired our imaginations and set our sights upward.
“Some day,” we would whisper, “that’ll be us going in that hotel”
I made it to that point as an adult, but the nights spent with my parents and brother in the old Downtowner far surpass the thrill of walking the magnificent mezzanine or watching the parade of ducks from the broad elevator to the fountain in the center of the vast lobby of the Peabody.
Southland Mall introduced me to Casual Corner, Butler Shoe Store and Piccadilly Cafeteria. I think my choice of clothing is still inspired by the selections I made at Casual Corner all those years ago. I’ll take one hundred percent cotton over silk any day. I’d rather pull my hair back in a ponytail than have it carefully coiffed by a “stylist,” and cafeteria food is still my idea of comfortable dining. Don’t get me wrong; I like a good Italian or Greek meal from time to time, but I can wear my jeans to a cafeteria without raising eyebrows.
My parents never had much money, so our yearly outings to Overton Park for a picnic followed by a trek through the zoological park became routine.
Every year from the time I was three until I was, well, older than I care to admit in writing, we traveled fully loaded to Memphis. In fact, we made that trip so often that many years later I made the same trip with a church group and led us straight to the gate of Overton Park without missing a beat.
Mama and Daddy timed our arrival at exactly the perfect moment to find a quiet, shady spot under the ancient oaks where our picnic could be enjoyed at leisure. I can still smell the aroma of Mama’s tuna salad. Mmmm! Home grown tomatoes, barbequed ham sliced by John Bruce at Gold Star Supermarket, crisp lettuce, chips and Coca Colas. Remember those six-ounce Cokes in bottles? Daddy would pack them in hand-chipped ice he broke off a block from the icehouse, and those drinks would be so cold the first sip would freeze our teeth.
Afterwards, we would enjoy an always-exciting walk through the zoo before heading home. I continue to compare all zoos to the one in Memphis. So far, none have measured up. Maybe next time I should take a picnic lunch.
In 1965, several of us bought tickets to see the Beatles at the coliseum in Memphis. But that’s another story altogether.
Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson is a Mississippi Delta native who now lives in North Carolina where she teaches English. Lonnye Sue is a regular contributor to USADEEPSOUTH.COM. Read more of her stories by clicking these links:
Lions & Tigers & Bears, Oh my!
The Most Marvelous Southern Pageant Ever
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