The Mississippi Delta has always smelled of wet soil. The Delta itself is the shared flood plain between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. It encloses the northwestern region of the state of Mississippi, and its location makes the Delta land known for its richness. The fertility of the Delta has been used for many centuries, but the origins of the Delta we have today date back to the 18th century, with the hands of enslaved black people and the orders of plantation owners. For those who tirelessly worked the land for no share of the crops they harvested, the Delta definitely smelled of wet soil, but it also smelled of pain. This pain was passed down through generations, since even after the abolition of slavery, the majority-black population struggled to find success. Pain is embedded deep within the Delta’s history, but that pain has inspired music that touches the soul, with Blues legends like B.B. King having been born and raised in the Delta. The Delta has turned its collective suffering into a culture that celebrates the commitment to persevere, one that is alive with community. One such community is a town situated in its very heart, a town called Hollandale.
Sitting between fields of cotton and corn, Hollandale is a small town comprised of 2.21 square miles of land. Hollandale has exactly one grocery store, one school, one bank, and one cemetery. In 2021, there were 2,277 inhabitants of Hollandale. There are fewer now. But one inhabitant has lived in Hollandale for 74 years, a woman name Shirley Ann Jenkins. Shirley has seen Hollandale change throughout the years. Shirley was around when there were two schools instead of one (before the white school was torn down). Shirley remembers when bath time consisted of a metal tub in the backyard where she bathed in the same water as her siblings. Shirley spent her teenage summers in the fields, when summer break was meant for picking cotton. Shirley left Hollandale briefly for college and when she returned, she worked as a math teacher for decades. In her 74 years in Hollandale, Shirley has gotten to know the town quite well, just as the town has gotten to know her. The residents of Hollandale call her by many names. Old students of hers call her Mrs. Connors (her name from her first marriage). Younger students call her Mrs. Jenkins (from her second). Her friends and siblings call her Shirley or Shirley Ann. Church members call her Pastor. My mom and uncle, who are no longer residents of Hollandale, call her Mother. And I, who have only been a visitor to Hollandale, call her Nana.
Nana’s house, where she has lived for over fifty years, sits on Rosenwald Street. It is the quintessential Hollandale home, standing one-story high like every other house in town. Bricks of earthy gray and brown shades cover the house, except for a small wooden section on the left, which was added on after the initial build. At the front of the lawn, which is kept nicely cut even when the grass in brown, there is a crooked yellow mailbox. And where the lawn meets the house, there are three pillars supporting the awning over the path to the front door, where Nana often sits to read and wave at neighbors.
There is not a building in Hollandale that you can walk into without being greeted by its unique smell. The grocery store has a strong odor of spoiled meat. But Nana still goes there every week, first quickly grabbing whatever groceries she needs from near the deli section before moving onto the aisles, where she’ll stop to talk to a man in a black apron who’s stocking the canned green beans–he’s an old childhood friend. In Hollandale, a quick trip to the grocery store can easily turn into an hour-long venture. It can often take Nana ten minutes to walk the hundred feet from her car to the front door depending on who she runs into in the parking lot.
The convenience store at the sole gas station (which surprisingly enough sells the best catfish I’ve ever tasted) smells of hot grease and cigarette smoke. The store is always loud, with people talking while buying snacks or coffee or lottery tickets.
Each place has a smell handcrafted by Hollandale. A smell that lets you know exactly where you are. And Nana’s house is no different. The scent engulfs you when you open the door, whisking you inside with the promise of good conversation.
The kitchen table lends itself well to these conversations. A white table cloth with embroidered details usually covers the rectangular table, which is as high as the kitchen counter. Six chairs surround its perimeter, and Nana keeps a bowl of walnuts on the center of the table, ready to be cracked over casual chats. Friends who happen to be driving by will stop to say “hi.” They’ll say that they only have a few minutes. That they’re just stopping by. But they always end up staying for longer. Hollandale says, “Forget where you’re going. This is where you’re supposed to be.” While many visitors come and go from the house on Rosenwald Street, the most frequent was my great aunt Jean.
As Nana’s older sister, Aunt Jean was one of a few Hollandale residents who had been there longer than Nana. These conversations with Aunt Jean had been a staple since Nana’s childhood. Their talks often consisted of the same topics. They shared familial updates. Aunt Jean would talk about her son Anthony’s success as the manager of a restaurant and Nana would talk about a new research paper that my mom had published. After discussing their kids, they always made sure to talk about how their grandchildren were doing in school. They also gave updates on their old classmates. One of them was sick. Well a lot of them were sick, but a new one became sick since the last time they talked. Soon, discussion about the sick turned into discussion about those who had passed on. This was a topic on which there was never a shortage of conversation. They talked about an old friend’s wife, who had died two days ago. He had lost his wife and his son within a year. A town away, there was the high school football player that died on the field after breaking his neck during a play. In Leland, a town 20 miles from Hollandale, two children drowned after the car they were in rolled into a creek. These stories haunt me, but to Nana and Aunt Jean, death is just the daily news. I wonder what Aunt Jean would’ve thought if she knew that she would be next.
After their conversations, Nana would usually drive Aunt Jean home, because she didn’t drive, and they would bid each other goodbye until a few days later when Hollandale would bring them together again.
While many embrace the attributes of life in Hollandale, for some, Hollandale leaves no room to breathe. To my mother, Hollandale was restrictive. The smells of each building were so distinct that she could not pretend she was anywhere else. To Mommy, Hollandale smelled like poverty and stagnation, and a destiny that threatened to confine her to the same 2.21 square miles for the rest of her life. She needed more. She graduated high school as valedictorian and received a full scholarship to a college in Washington, D.C., a city that smelled of promise. To her, D.C. promised a medical degree, which led her to a job as a physician in Nashville, Tennessee–a place that is nothing like Hollandale.
Aunt Jean’s funeral was a rare occasion for which Mommy returned to Hollandale. Only a few weeks had passed from learning that her aunt had contracted COVID-19 to making the six-hour drive from Nashville to Hollandale for the funeral. For Mommy, that trip showed her how much Hollandale had deteriorated since she left. The white house across the street from Nana’s was gone, having been replaced with cigarette butts and empty chip bags. There had been reports of a recent shootout in the grocery store parking lot. And when Aunt Jean’s casket was being interred, it was clear that the only place that is always growing in Hollandale is the cemetery.
To Mommy, Hollandale is a place to escape from. So when Nana comes to visit her in Nashville, she always makes sure to point out a new apartment complex for seniors. She takes her to the nearby church for social events. She schedules Nana’s doctor appointments and has the prescriptions ordered to the pharmacy in Nashville. She sets up a table in the house for Nana to read her daily scriptures. Every gesture is an act of persuasion. Nana understands Mommy’s intention, but she doesn’t pay it much attention. She knows that at some point she will miss the smell of wet soil. She knows that she’ll eventually hear the Delta calling out to her, saying “It’s time to come home; the rivers haven’t run dry.”