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Sidekick: Travels With Eleanor Roosevelt

 

In the Summer of 2002 my roommate Betsy from Chapel Hill days joined me for another trip through the Delta country. Our Elvis/Faulkner trip through Mississippi and Tennessee several years ago had been such a success that we thought we would give the Deep South another whirl. The Delta is foreign territory for East Coast Betsy, who grew up in Durham and got her master's at Yale after UNC, whereas I am like Brer Rabbit back in the briar patch, savoring every minute in the thicket of the Deep South.

 

Betsy emerges from her cultural cocoon for these trips. How can a woman who counsels "to-be-weds" at Arlington Chapel next to the cemetery (who knew folks could be married as well as buried at Arlington?), raised three sons to adulthood, and lives in the hip environs of D.C. lead such a sheltered life? Traveling with Betsy is like touring with an alien.

 

Betsy is the only sixty-something person I know who has never heard of American Idol, SpongeBob SquarePants, Brad Pitt, or body piercing and hasn't seen a single movie since Risky Business. She is blissfully unaware that Liberace has been dead for nearly two decades and that reflexology has nothing to do with Tourette's syndrome. An innocent abroad in pop culture, Betsy doesn't subscribe to cable TV or own a cell phone, a VCR, a hot comb, or a garage door opener. Her mother lived to ninety-five, so she has a long and clueless life ahead. She is the ultimate Luddite and a great traveling companion. Who else would be impressed by the Wendy's drive-through? To think you can get fast food through a window is miraculous to my friend! And imagine, senior discounts are out there for the taking, if you only know to ask.

 

A pragmatist, when her dentist recommended a mouthpiece to prevent nocturnal teeth grinding, Betsy deemed the cost excessive. She went to a sports equipment store and bought a regulation soccer mouthpiece, which works perfectly well, thank you very much. The only drawback is the bizarre appearance it gives to the sleeper. The mouth guard transforms my sleeping friend into first runner-up in the Eleanor Roosevelt Look-Alike Contest. I feel as if we should be accompanied by the Secret Service.

 

Our last night in Memphis, after watching the Flying Elvi, sixteen in all, parachute from a plane and perform with cardboard guitars in Handy Square on Beale Street, we headed back to the car. Betsy was the designated night driver, since riding with me after dark is like being piloted by a human mole. I have turned into a sunshine girl in my old age. I drive only in daylight.

 

Betsy wanted one lat look at the mighty Mississippi, so we swung down to the waterfront area. We locked the doors. As we headed north, we missed the turn that would have led us out of the area. We were disgorged onto the elevated expressway...and were promptly lost.

 

"I'll just pop down and see where we are," Betsy said. I looked at my watch. It was well after midnight. We descended to the seedy streets beneath the off-ramp-, and the opening scene of The Bonfire of the Vanities danced in my brain. Few people were out except for knots of young men moving in surly groups along the dark street. Betsy slowed for a stop sign.

 

"Don't stop," I hissed. "Just roll on through. Keep moving. Don't stop"

 

We cruised through the projects, two old ladies in a rented car, one crouched almost to the floor, riding shotgun. At last, we saw a ramp to take us out of the underbelly of Memphis and back to the lighted road of Taco Bells and Krispy Kremes. I had never realized how beautiful neon is.

 

As we unlocked our motel room, I looked at Betsy numbly. "Honestly, now, weren't you the least bit afraid back there?" I asked.

 

"Oh, yeah," she nodded, reaching for her Eleanor Roosevelt soccer apparatus. "I was afraid, all right. I was afraid you were going to kill me."

 

 

 

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Nan Graham