The Day I Went North Toward Home
By Billy Field
I was a senior at the University of Alabama, when my father called and said, "There's this boy from Mississippi, and he can write like hell. He wrote this book called North Toward Home, and you need to read it." I got that book and read it. It changed my life. I will tell you how.
When I was 12 years old, my mother took my sister, my grandfather, a family friend and me on a trip around the country in a 1961 Rambler with a canvas cargo carrier on top. We were driving through Seattle, with our Alabama license plate, when suddenly our car was surrounded by scowly faced protesters, shouting: "Go back where you came from." I didn't know why they were angry. Like most kids, my first thought was that it was our fault, as if we had done something wrong. Finally the small mob receded, and we drove away. I asked my mother, who was driving, what they were mad about. Distraught and humiliated, she almost wept, "They're not yelling at us. They're yelling because we're from Alabama and Alabama has such a horrible reputation."
That was a profound experience for a 12-year-old. I can still see the hate in those white faces, spewing spit and judgment. During the remainder of our trip, while in the North, I covered our Alabama license plate with mud and cultivated an amazingly believable Yankee accent. I even made up a story that I was from Florida. If any part of my Southern accent snuck through, I figured the Florida angle would explain it. From that traumatic day in Seattle, until my senior year in college, I was ashamed to say, to anyone outside of the South, that I was from the South.
Then I read North Toward Home.
It gave me back who I was and then some. After reading North Toward Home, I was proud to say I was from the South. If somebody didn't like it, to hell with 'em.
About that time, I got a job offer in Kansas City. I wanted to make films. There was a company in Kansas City that made Industrial Films. I figured it was a good place to learn.
Before leaving home, though, I wanted to pay my respects to the South. I had come to think of Yazoo as the Mecca. I wanted to travel to Yazoo, see it, kiss the ground that it was, then vanish into the North. I packed my car, left my crying family at 5 in the morning and drove from the small town where I grew up, across toward Yazoo.
It was the third of June. Bugs swirled in the Mississippi heat, and the smell of fertilizer was strong in the cotton fields. A politician named Seay was running for Senate, smiling down from billboards. Finally I came to the hill that Willie described in North Toward Home, the hill that plummeted down into the Delta. I knew I was in Yazoo.
I stopped downtown and parked the car, alone, except for my copy of North Toward Home. I got out of the car and walked around. There was the statue of the Confederate soldier who was taking the gun, but looked "a little like he didn't want to take it." I wanted to see the house where Willie had grown up, but I did not want to intrude. People have a right to privacy, even the mothers of heroes. But I had to go. This was the house was where Willie had played football with Skip and Benji and Bubba. This was where Willie wrote his first stories, in the back room while his mother taught piano lessons. I was determined to find the house, but was still unsure about knocking on the door.
I got back in the car and drove around town, looking for landmarks, when I saw a postman crossing the street. He was thin and stood straight and tall. I asked if he knew where Willie Morris grew up. He looked perplexed and said, "Who?" I knew that North Toward Home had been controversial in Yazoo, so I didn't want to identify Willie by the book. I was afraid, if the postman didn't like it, he wouldn't give me the address. I repeated that I was looking for where Willie Morris grew up, then added, "His father was named Rae and worked for the gas company. And his mother teaches piano lessons." Suddenly the postman's eyes got big as he rared back and said, "Ohhh! You mean that ol' boy that wrote that book." I nodded. He said, "He grew up right down there on Grand Avenue 615 Grand. I've been delivering mail there for years." I thanked him and drove to Grand Avenue.
There it was the house that I had seen in the picture on the dust cover of North Toward Home the picture with the 32 year old Willie leaning against a tree in the front yard. That was Willie's house. That was the front yard where Skip ran the flea flicka. I circled the block. I did not want to intrude, but, finally, I figured the worst that could happen is they'd tell me to leave. I parked the car and walked toward the door.
I knocked. The door cracked open and a woman's round face appeared. This had to be Willie's mother, I thought. Her face was the same shape as Willie's in the photo by the tree. She looked at me curiously then asked, "Yes?" I stammered, "I'm sorry to bother you, but I'm looking for where Willie Morris grew up." The round face immediately disappeared behind the door and I thought that, surely, I must be the 20th person by here this week and she's about to slam the door. But, then, just as quickly, the door opened wide and Marion Weeks Morris, Willie's mother, smiled big and said, "Come on in."
I went in to visit Willie's mother. She was thrilled that I had come. She said that people came by all the time, and that she loved it. "A nice minister from England came by earlier in the week," she said.
Mrs. Morris showed me Willie's bedroom in the back of the house. She said it still looked much the same. We visited Skip's grave, which is beside the house, between the house and the driveway. The same piano was in the living room, where Willie's Mama continued to teach piano lessons.
We got into Mrs. Morris' car to take a tour. She was proud of the car, most of all because Willie had bought it for her. We drove out to the Yazoo River, toured Willie's school, then climbed Brickyard Hill to visit Viola. Viola wore a purple dress and was excited to see us. Pictures were taken. Stories were told. Here's one I remember: Do you know how Willie got his name? He wasn't always "Willie." His mother called him "William." When Willie was in the seventh grade, he ran for class president. His imaginative campaign manager came up with the slogan, "Don't Be Silly, Vote For Willie." Needless to say, it stuck. Mrs. Morris was furious. "I always wanted him to be 'William,'" she said. "It sounded so much more dignified."
Late that afternoon, the shadows grew dark across the piano in the living room. It was time to go. I got into my car. Mrs. Morris and I said our good-byes.
In North Toward Home,Willie described the road between the Delta and Memphis as being so flat and straight you could drive it on automatic pilot. I put my car in automatic pilot and drove north, toward my new home.
Over the years Marion Morris and I would become friends and write many letters. I would also write Willie, and he would write me. In his letters, he would end by saying, "My mother remembers you fondly." I remember her fondly too and that afternoon in Yazoo where, now, Marion Weeks Morris, her husband, Rae, and their son, Willie, rest in peace, on a gentle hillside, overlooking home.
[Billy Field is a screenwriter who wrote for the television series FAME, Trapper John, M.D. and The Lazarus Man. He lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he writes screenplays and runs a cyber studio located at www.makeamovie.net].
Copyright © The Southerner 1999.