My family is from the Bootheel. But I’m not Italian and the reference isn’t to the delicate stiletto that dips into the ancient azure Aegean. We’re talking the Bootheel of Missouri, which digs deeply into the sandy, flat farmlands of western Tennessee and northeastern Arkansas.
Despite confusion from outsiders as to where this part of the state fits in regionally-speaking, the Bootheel is as southern in talk, tastes and traditions as the most remote corner of rural Alabama. It rests squarely against the mighty Mississippi buffered by levees, surrounded by cotton fields and phalanxed by flood ditches caused by a 150-year-earthquake from a fault that still threatens the region today.
Although I’ve never lived there, for all the years of my life I’ve traveled to the savannah-like plains (now dotted with intermittent fast food clusters) that fall 100 miles west of Memphis to visit the bosom of my family. They have clung to this dismal country, which could have stood-in for scenery from “The Grapes of Wrath,” despite its utter lack of beauty, culture, or any redeeming qualities that I can think of — except that it is home to people I love.
The small Bootheel town where my mother grew up and where my parents returned to retire is Kennett, Mo. The population, for as long as I have been able to read, has been 10,000. Its one recent claim to fame is as the hometown of Sheryl Crow, a fact that has been added to the sign as you enter town. Still she’s better known as Wendell and Bernice’s daughter around there, and as a waitress at Horton’s Barbeque, the local favorite once told me, “Sheryl ain’t no big deal, I went to Kennett High with her.”
Other than Sheryl’s addition to Kennett signage, very little has changed for the good in the last 50 years. Like all towns of its size in the south, it has been Wal-Martized. Where once there was an array of bustling shops and even department stores anchored around the square facing the Dunklin County Courthouse, there are now the dreary dregs of commerce that occupy space in the death- throws of retail extinction — a tanning bed salon, a manicure place, a pawn shop and an ever-changing assortment of mom and pop cafes and bargain barns that courageously open and predictably fail almost before I leave town at each visit.
The once proud and prestigious James Kahn Department Store, owned for generations by Jewish Poles who improbably ended up in Kennett escaping the Nazi terror, is now a demolished hulk sitting like a beached whale at the edge of the square. Broken glass pits the logo on its faded sign and its shabby storefront, once carefully arrayed with mannequins dressed in the latest lady’s apparel, is now filled with old crates from some unidentified business that sells T-shirts and other cheap crap right out of the boxes.
On the outskirts of town stands the Super Wal-Mart, which has sucked up every Kennett enterprise like some malevolent monstrous Hoover. Even the little grocery stores could not survive the onslaught and now everyone buys all of life’s necessities at “Wally-World.” Lettuce, a new pair of glasses, a haircut, condoms, a new suit (only needed for funerals), shrubs, diapers, and even Crown Royal (the locals’ preferred booze) are all purchased in this one ugly edifice. You could easily survive in Kennett from womb to tomb without a deviation from the road to Wal-Mart and back again.
As if things weren’t bad enough, God decided to smite the Kennettians with a violent ice storm in February that kept the power out for a month, and took out almost every tree in town. My seventy-five-year old mother and eighty-year old father had to make a swift departure from their home in the middle of the first night of the storm as branches crashed on their roof and onto their swimming pool’s frozen-solid surface.
When the ice melted and the power came back on, I decided I’d better make the journey to check out the damage and see what I could do to help. So, I set forth on the numbingly familiar nine-hour trek from Atlanta. Such a drive can only be bitten off in chunks, and through the years, my husband and I had developed a routine: from Atlanta to Chattanooga, stopping to get a book-on-tape at the first available Cracker Barrel; from Chattanooga to Nashville, the halfway point where the least objectionable fast food is grabbed and scarfed-up amid kid-spills and chaos as we parcel out the correct clam-shells; from Nashville to Jackson, marking the beginning of the final push; and finally, from Jackson to Dyersburg , Tennessee, which is then just a bridge across the Mississippi and the last few miles to Kennett, Mo.
Once over the Mississippi, the verdant fields around the nurturing river soon begin to fade to a mud-gray and the road becomes a straight line which seems to flatten into infinity. As I drove past the sign that told me that Kennett was only ten miles away, I began to notice that the countryside looked even more blighted than normal. The rows of trees that lined the highway looked as if they had been upended, and what were branches looked like thick black, twisted arms reaching up in grotesque pleas to the heavens.
As I drove past “Welcome To Kennett, Home of Sheryl Crow,” the entrance to the Kennett Country Club on my left was piled six feet high with gnarled and broken trees pieces, twisted branches and debris. The grounds of the golf course, which, granted, could never rival Pebble Beach, looked like an elephant’s graveyard of tree trunk bodies.
I soon realized that, if possible, Kennett was uglier than ever and the grey skies that hung low and menacing seemed to punctuate the surrounding bleakness that called to mind “The Day After.”
The desolate skies continued the first days of my visit as I assessed the damage with my parents and commiserated with their housing repair challenges. By day three, after numerous trips to Wal-Mart, I became increasingly despondent over the devastated surroundings and the thought that I would eventually have to leave my parents in this God- forsaken place. I knew that no matter what, they would never leave until they joined my many other family members in the cemetery just around the corner from their home.
One of those, my beloved grandmother, lived her entire life in Kennett. She was an avid reader of the New Yorker, despite having never been there until I took her when she was seventy-six, and where she charmed every cab driver and swayed to the music at the Rainbow Room. All of her life, she’d dreamed of voyages that never sailed and instilled in me a love of the great writers who were her older contemporaries — Thomas Wolfe, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who married three women from Missouri.
The second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer was born in St. Louis, but her wealthy family later settled in Piggott, Arkansas, a mere twenty miles from Kennett. My grandmother distantly knew the family and had often spoke to me about how Hemingway spent extensive periods with the Pfeiffers in Piggott during the late twenties.
He met Pauline, a writer for Vogue, in Paris while married to Hadley Richardson, also from St. Louis. When asked once about the cause of his multiple marriages, Hemingway replied that the problem was he kept marrying women from Missouri. After a separation from Hadley, during which Pauline fled to Piggott, Hemingway divorced. He and Pauline then married, but it was doomed from the start. He blamed Pauline for ruining his life with Hadley. Eventually, his guilt and her clinging dependence soured the union.
Hemingway wrote the bulk of “A Farewell To Arms” while with Pauline in Piggott. The childbirth travails of its heroine Catherine were based on Pauline’s own illness after laboring to deliver son Patrick.
But, despite the tales I’d heard for years, I’d never traveled the twenty miles to see the unlikely location in which one of the 20th century’s greatest novels was completed.
Hemingway in Piggott — not a title you’re likely to see in a Barnes and Noble window. But on a bleak winter’s day in catastrophe-covered Kennett, in seemed a destination that beckoned to be seen at last. So, my mother and I traveled there together, with the spirit of my grandmother riding by our side wryly commenting on it all.
As we came into the town, which was unsurprisingly like every other in the area, it struck me that Hemingway once traveled this same path — but by way of Paris. What great love or lust consumed him that he could make such an unlikely journey? The many pictures I’d seen of the plain Pauline did not seem to motivate a passion leading to Piggott. But my own path and experiences had taught me that, as Woody Allen famously said, “the heart wants what it wants.”
Once past the shabby storefronts, fast-food joints and yet another Wal-Mart, we followed the distinctive brown and white signs marking the path to a “historic district.” The road passed straight through a tattered neighborhood of 50’s-era houses and all at once, we came upon a solitary Victorian-style home that stood out among the ranches so grandly that it had to be Piggott’s shrine to “Papa.” As we pulled up, we could see a back-house marked with a plaque that read “Hemingway’s Writing Studio.” Of course, it was all closed because it was a Monday.
My mother solicitously asked if I wanted to park and walk around the grounds. I paused to consider if I did. But I declined. As with so many things in life, the destination was a let-down from the one that I’d imagined much more romantically in my melodramatic adolescent ponderings.
I preferred to sit in the car with my mother, consider the surroundings, and the situation.
I thought of how Hemingway probably came here in the heat of youthful lust to legitimize his forbidden carnal pleasure. Inevitably, marital sanction turned his ardor to acid and grinding bitterness, and his restlessness could not abide any one place, or any one person. So, on to another wife from St. Louis, Martha Gelhorn, the war correspondent he met during the Spanish Civil War (who ironically was also the daughter of first wife Hadley’s gynecologist). Then, on to Key West, Cuba and the final and fourth wife (not from Missouri) and to the path that led him to the self-inflicted bullet that ended the adventure.
If marriage counseling or his gigantic selfishness had been reined- in to preserve his life with Pauline and an intermittent presence in Piggott, what would the story have been? In this land-locked forlorn place there could not have been an old man and the sea. And, where would he have found the inspiration for the earth-moving fervor of Robert and Maria’s band of Basques? Besides, as a devout Catholic, Pauline supported the pro-Franco fascists.
The death of Hemingway’s Pauline-lust was meant to be, and the birth of journeys that formed pages even his infamous hubris could not have contemplated.
As one who has never believed in the theory of a master plan, I was strangely hopeful that there was one after all. Or at least, a master outline.
Hemingway was never meant to stay here anymore than my parents are meant to be in Paris — or Atlanta. And despite the ice storm that further devastated the grim surroundings I so wanted to rescue them from, my mother viewed it as an opportunity to plant new shrubs and add an improved roof.
I realized that it is their journey, not mine. And, their story was written here in the Bootheel.
This thought gave me a strange peace and with that sliver of solace, we drove on. As we departed Piggott, the sun finally emerged from the veil of clouds, bathing the lonely landscape of endless fields into something quite beautiful.
For more information about the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Educational Center in Piggott, Arkansas visit http://hemingway.astate.edu/