I’m in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, which is in California’s Central Coast, on the Monterey Peninsula. The climate here is the draw: it is year-round, temperate weather, often shrouded in coastal fog, which gives it a misty quality that reminds me of historic parts of the UK. What makes this part of California unique is the prevalence of cypress tress. I have spent the past few days going down to Carmel Bay for a long walk on its white, powder sand, and can’t resist photographing the area with the convenience of my cell-phone camera! I’m sharing the photographs I’ve taken here so you can get an idea for the magic that is Carmel-by-the-Sea, California!
You’ll see in this photographs that I’m standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day in the middle of an Irish field, with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me.
Observant people might ask why the monastery is behind me, and I am holding a set of keys in my hand as if it were the bigger focal point. Here’s the story.
We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by this I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, Ireland. We’d been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a match box, with its steering wheel on the right side, while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia. Tama is a devout Catholic, who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn’t have adhered to a plan had we had one. “Stop,” Tama would shout every time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures off in the distance. We’d scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread- ye- lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after yet another sweep inside a church, I’d take to wandering the halcyon graveyards to read the Irish tombstone inscriptions, while Tama would light a red votive candle and fall to her pious knees.
I thought I was alone in the yard when a voice came sailing from behind me. “Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?” it queried. I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of three quarter down jacket and rubber soled shoes. “It’s just up the road there,” she continued, pointing. “Just knock on the door of the middle house across the road and ask Lily for the keys.”
I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. On one verdant field, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray; some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, and one in particular beside an impressively tall stone spire, which had two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door raised high from the ground.
Immediately the front door opened, and a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with an inquisitive, “Yes?””Are you Lily? We’re here for the keys,” Tama said.”The keys, is it? Just a moment there,” the woman said, and after closing the door, she opened it seconds later and handed us a set of long metal keys. “Just slip them through the door slot when you’re through,” she said, closing the door with a quick nod.I can’t say there was any indication of which key went to what, among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but we figured it out. I was so tickled over the keys that I couldn’t get over it. “Is this weird?” I said to Tama. “We could be anybody. It’s not that there’s anything anybody could steal, but that’s not the point.” I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates and pushing through doors in the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that’s not my point either. My point is that’s Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of sacred space when nobody else was around. But suddenly a German couple appeared as we were on our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide eyed and queried, “What is this place?”
“It’s a 7th century monastery,” I said, “here, take the keys and slip them through Lily’s door when you’re through.”
While I researched my novel, Little Tea, I visited three locations in the Deep South: Greer’s Ferry Lake in Heber Springs, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennesse, where I grew up; and Como, Mississippi, which is 45 miles south of Memphis. It was the month of July, in the high heat of summer, and if you’ve ever been to the Deep South in the month of July, you know the gauze-like, humidity is part and parcel to the experience.
I embraced it all from the second my plane from Southern California landed. Through the automatic, sliding glass doors, the humidity hit me with the life force of a raging inferno and followed me all the way to my friend’s waiting car.
In the Deep South, much thought goes into escaping the heat. People live in air-conditioned wind tunnels that drown out all sound and wear cotton sweaters inside, which seems, to me, utterly ironic, but there you have it.
There’s a specific character to the Deep South in the summertime that has much to do with the climate, a weighted sultriness that eases on the skin and slows everything down to the point that most things seem nice and easy. Nobody complains about the heat because it’s a regional given. Southerners live in harmony with the heat, build their houses with verandahs, put ceiling fans above, screens before their front doors, and rocking chairs out front because channeling the slightest of breeze is a cultural pastime.
It’d been a long time since I’d been to the South in the dead of summer, but I wanted to photograph Little Tea’s setting in the region’s full, resplendent nuance. I wanted the setting of the Little Tea to depict the South as character, and for that, I needed the trees in their fullness, the flowers in bloom, the sun’s glaring halo over Greer’s Ferry Lake, and the dirt roads fully shaded yet dry as a bone.
Photographing the setting of Little Tea, I knew, would anchor me to the South as I wrote the story, back home at my desk in California, but what I had in mind all along was a series of moving images with which I could gift the reader. After all, a picture tells a thousand words when it comes to a lasting impression. Included, here, is the book trailer of Little Tea I created. My hope is it will give Little Tea’s readers a good sense of place.
I had cause to go to Como, Mississippi when I researched the area during the writing of my novel, Little Tea. A friend of mine knew I was writing a book set in Como and had the inspired idea to introduce me via e-mail to a Como local named Sledge Taylor. “Trust me on this,” she’d said. “Sledge Taylor will show you the lay of the land.”
I set a date with Sledge Taylor and flew from California to Memphis, where I stayed a few days then drove 45 miles south to Como, anticipating a full afternoon of being a tourist.
What follows is my attempt at sharing that memorable trip to Como, Mississippi, in hopes it will give you a taste of what can be found in a small gem of a town tucked away in the Deep South.
Driving from Memphis to Como, Mississippi on I-55 South, the flat Delta land is weighty. In the greening of May, both sides of the highway teem with flourishing oak, elm, hickory, and pine set among ochre forest litter so dappled and dense, it haunts with a history, its watchful eyes on the back of your neck.
Turning off I-55 to Oak Avenue into Como, the first thing I saw was a rust-colored water tower on Sycamore Street,
across the road from red-brick and multi-windowed Como Methodist Church, which looms on the corner of Oak and Main, its black signage announcing in white block letters, “Blessed Is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord.”
Down on Main Street, a row of one-off businesses sit like ducks in a row facing the railroad tracks.
On the berm before the tracks, two community storm shelters lie side-by-side, their weathered metal doors to the underground ensconced like coffins with handrails no bigger than a coat hanger.
I met Sledge Taylor at his office, in a brick building his family has owned since 1880. It was tucked down a hallway behind a glass door announcing “Office, W.S. Taylor, Jr. Farms,” topped with adhesive decals telling of his life: Delta Wildlife, Farm Families of Mississippi, University of Mississippi, and the National Cotton Council.
In his office, tiers upon racks upon bookshelves like a shrine to Como’s antiquity. There were plaque awards from cotton associations, faded photographs of men in bowties smiling before stacks of cotton bales,
and multiple images of his family’s plantation taken at different stages of prosperity.
In the corner, a full-size taxidermy turkey perched in profile, its red head and tail feathers up, glowering above a computer.
It was a thinking man’s racket of an arrangement, a ramshackle office on beaten wood floors so fascinating at every swivel, I wanted to stay and disregard why I was there.
Sledge Taylor didn’t seem the agrarian type. Were you to pass him on the street, the last thing you’d think is there goes a farmer. A scholar or historian would be your first guess, and you wouldn’t be far off because today’s version of a Como farmer necessitates artist, historian, and scientist rolled into one. Spending time with this erudite man was an education in small-town history and what it means to be a gentleman farmer.
After a gravy-smothered plate lunch at The Windy City Grill,
Taylor I took to the sidewalk of Main Street, where I received a tutorial in the history of every building standing shot-gun style on the historic street. Taylor currently owns the building that was once the town’s general store.
In its interior, everything was frozen in time. A mule harness dangled from a wall peg, a massive dust-covered, slatted accountant’s desk stood high with a matching wood stool, rows of curio shelving housed pitchers and planters and sets of china,
and in one of the walls, a man named S.L. Sturdivant had thrown an ice pick at the 1968 Como Parts calendar, and it remained embedded because it made a good story and nobody thought to remove it.
At the north end of Main, Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church sat white wood and A framed, with two gold crosses emboldening its red, cathedral doors beneath a porte cochere beside an oak tree.
Inside, red-carpeted oak floors, pine pews, and five cathedral stain glass windows graced either side, one memorializing a Taylor named Robert, who died in 1916.
Above the door on the way out, Jesus stood in a field beside three lambs, holding a staff in his hand and looking out from a pastoral mural.
Out on the street, I photographed an elegant willow tree rustling in the breeze as we made our way to Taylor’s four-door, Ford F-150. In ten minutes, we were on the outskirts of Como proper, where a chiaroscuro of forest primeval stretched as far as the eye could see on either side of the mostly unmarked roads, winding through what seemed like borrowed time. Canopies of hickory, cherry, oak, and sweet gum covered Johnson grass, honeysuckle, Bermuda grass, crabgrass, and sage.
As we careened through the countryside, there wasn’t a car in sight, nor was I given a heads up when my guide turned up a gravel road that rambled on two hundred acres until a house came into view.
The house was massive. It rose up to a pitched red roof on a patch of groomed velvet lawn. Its four columns bracketed a seven-foot front door, but we sailed past and parked behind it. Like a ghost from the ether, a tall man approached and addressed my guide heartily as Mr. Sledge, though we were not expected. Within minutes, the ground’s caretaker of thirty- nine years invited us inside, and I was given a tour of one of Como’s grand houses. As the house is a private residence, primarily used as a weekend getaway, out of respect for its owners, I will refrain from posting interior photographs and let you use your imagination. I will share that we entered through the kitchen, whose entrance was heralded by a series of weathered brick steps beneath a heavy muscadine trellis, positioned just so, to abate the sweltering summer heat.
I’ll describe the interior of the house for you: Every spacious room downstairs had a crown molded ceiling towering at nine feet. Beneath area rugs, the wood floors flowed through the dining and living rooms, straight to a screened porch furnished with leather club chairs beneath a whirring ceiling fan. In the catacomb of the entrance hall, two bedrooms opened at the left, adjoined by a dressing area and attendant ivory-tiled bathroom. In the center, a wooden staircase rose to a second-floor landing with a view of the grounds rambling to a cabin by a pond. Upstairs, three more bedrooms, one with a white mantled fireplace and two matelassé covered beds. All the bedrooms were resplendent with antiques. Some had four-poster beds, tall chests of drawers, and porcelain in nooks besides built-in shelving. Mounted on walls were portraits painted in oil: austere, looming family member facsimiles with eyes that followed you everywhere. It was not a glittering, ostentatious plantation house, boasting in pomposity, rather, it was a shop-worn, elegant house, pitched to a practicality that gave it a warm, sophisticated edge in a way that lived and breathed history and spoke of safe haven.
And it’s fascinating what you learn when being given a tour of a historic house in Mississippi. I learned there’s a problem in the area with ladybug infestation, that they swarm the window screens by the millions and lay eggs to the point where the light can’t get through, and that an Eastern box turtle crossing the road is as good a portent as any of coming rain.
Sledge Taylor drove me to another of Como’s magnificent houses, which had hundreds of rows of pecan trees at the front of the property. I saw his family’s cotton gin, and fields where they’ve grown cotton and rice and soybean for as long as anyone remembers.
The sky above Como is endless in otherworldly hues I’ve never seen the likes of anywhere else. Hazy blue, yellow and cream, like sunlight filtering through gauze, and the air so soft in the first week of May, it enveloped the surroundings in a dreamscape.
I did all I could to describe Como, Mississippi during the writing of Little Tea. Como has an inexplicable feel to it well worth writing about. It sings of history and belonging. It’s a gem of a town in the loess country of Panola County; population of 1,245, the likes of which spawn a man such as Sledge Taylor: a proud steward of land passed down through generations, the kind of man so proud of his Mississippi roots, he takes the time to show them off to a writer.