A mockingbird sang an eight-part song with no repeats, ceasing only at the insistent squeal of a fledgling. Now they are silent. Besides the basil and rosemary in the garden, my daughter has a fig tree and a crape myrtle. Next door is a pink mimosa, not the kind you drink. The air is heavy with the kind of Mississippi River humidity most Americans have not learned to love the way I do. Memphis is not Houston, but coming from the north, St. Louis, I might be fooled for a bit. The bungalows on my daughter’s street could be in Montrose, right in the heart of Houston. Ancient magnolias with their blown white flowers and rubber leaves grace the corner.
Memphis may not have the petroleum-based euphoria of Houston, but it may be just as misunderstood. It is much more than the town where our nation’s most tragic assassination occurred, at the now civil rights monument of the Lorraine Motel. It is a music and barbeque city, with much theater. It is the big city Faulkner’s characters flee to.
There is the Memphis of excellence, with St. Jude’s hospital for children, Autozone, and Fed Ex headquarters, along with universities, University of Memphis, and Rhodes College. But there is a lack of opportunity that is different from Houston. There are racial divides I do not know the scope of. Many flee to places with names like Germantown, but why do they not choose to live in colorful Cooper-Young, Vollintine/Evergreen or verdant Central Gardens or more generally midtown or downtown? There is a big park with zoo and plenty of green trails. Tomorrow we will kayak the Ghost River.
But this is not written as a travelogue for Memphis, city of contrasts. It is good bye. My daughter has spent four wonderful years at the University of Memphis where scholarship is celebrated and students who might otherwise not find higher education at all are cherished. She has found wonderful colleagues and lives on a city block where people look out for each other. They help with soup for the ill, dollies for moving, cat sitting and most of all many front porch parties. It is the kind of community that seems more easily found inside cities than out in the suburbs. It is a place where furniture is traded among neighbors. This block seems quiet now, before most have had their coffee, but later the neighbors will be out and chatting.
I wish I had looked at Wikipedia on this interesting city earlier. It was apparently purpose built on the bluffs over the Mississippi, on the fourth Chickasaw bluff, above the confluence of the Wolf and Mississippi rivers. Early it was a major city, just as St. Louis used to be. But they took their water from the Mississippi and suffered from swampy conditions that contributed to the yellow fever epidemic of 1878. The numbers I came across said there were 50,000 on 5 August 1878, then 30,000 fled, all those that could and of the 20,000 or so left, all but 2,000 got yellow fever and about 5,000 died.
Does a city that loses its leaders stumble forever, or do leaders as good as those before emerge from the masses the way my social amoebae can endlessly form a new front to its slug? What if there are plenty of great leaders, but the resources the others brought from outside changed it? Could Memphis have rivaled Atlanta? Might St. Louis have become Chicago had the railroads gone another way? Surely Galveston would have been what Houston is without the hurricanes of 1900 and 1915? I am not a historian, so I do not know how to answer these questions. I do know that saying goodbye to Memphis will be hard.