Back in the days when Mark Zuckerberg was using a Sippee cup, my mother had pen pals all over the world. For those of you born with a smartphone in your hand, check this out. People used to write letters and mail them to each other via the United States Postal Service. We used stamps and everything. There was no e-mail or instant mail. We didn’t slide into DMs or post on anyone’s wall. Friendly folks like my mom would write a physical letter to another person and then that person would (hopefully) write back a couple days or weeks later. Antiquated, I know.
One summer day when I was around 12 years old, our house phone (I don’t have the energy to explain what a house phone was) rang one morning. As was usually the case, Mom answered. She then heard an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line. One of Mom’s pen pals, a woman in her mid-40’s,had arrived via Greyhound bus to Cleveland without any type of prior warning and declared she was staying with my family for the next week or so. To any other family, this moment might have seemed strange. But to ours? Hell, it was just Tuesday. As my older brother likes to say, we quit being normal the moment he and my older sister moved out when I was around 8. So, with Mom being Mom, she was overjoyed at the thought of Ms. Crocodile Dundee shacking up at the house for a week. Dad being Dad, he just shook his head, went to work and rolled with it. 12 year old John being 12 year old John, I was trying to figure out how in the heck a strange-talking lady claiming to be from the Land Down Under ended up in our living room. Our visitor realized she had dropped in (from another effing continent!) unannounced, so she was adamant we should carry on with our lives as if she weren’t here. Do what you would do any other day, she said. Those days, Mom’s days usually consisted of running errands around Cleveland, so Mom just drove around Cleveland all day all day with her Australian sidekick in tow.
We were in the middle of June, and the sixth month might mean winter in Australia, it brings a sweltering summer in the Mississippi Delta. Deltans have learned to swim in the humid air, and once the brutal sun set, we were joined by the local mascot, the buzzing and biting mosquito. I had a Dixie Youth baseball game that evening at Bear Pen Park, and everyone knows the yellow baseball lights are a shiny beacon to insects like the Batsignal in Gotham City is to Bruce Wayne. The captive audience of parents and friends gathered around a mini-diamond was like manna from heaven for the bloodsuckers. My parents usually brought lawn chairs to the game, and Dad, being a Southern gentlemen, offered his chair to our guest. She swatted in her chair more than my team swung at the plate. She got up and walked around to try to avoid the buzz and bites. She coated her body in Off! mosquito spray like she was a 14 year old boy slathering on his dad’s cologne before his first school dance. She might have been from Down Under, but I think she would agree there was little difference, in her mind, between Hell and the Delta at that very moment.
Once my game ended, we came home. Our guest stood in our kitchen with tears in her eyes. Her hair was dripping with sweat, and her clothes were soaked with that familiar mixture of repellant and perspiration. Welps and bites covered her body, along with red marks caused by her constant self-inflicted slaps. For our part, Mom, Dad and I acted normal because, hell, it was normal for a Deltan.
“You know, the real mosquitoes don’t come out until July,” Dad said with a sadistic tone in his voice.
An icy glare was the only response. If she would have had a skewer, Dad would have been roasted on the Barbie.
At 6:30 a.m. the following morning, Mrs. Dundee woke up my parents with some startling news. Her plans had changed, she said. Sure enough, she had her bags packed by the back door and needed a ride to the bus station. She would continue her trek around the United States, but she had logged enough time in the Mississippi Delta. Apparently, one day of Delta hospitality was enough. I can still see the sly smirk on Dad’s face as he walked out the back door to take our guest to the bus station.
In hindsight, I think she and Mom quit writing to each other shortly thereafter. I guess sometimes long distance relationships are better off remaining long distance. But who knows? Maybe that poor lady’s fingers were too swollen to write anything else after she left us.
- A version of this post was previously published in The Bolivar Bullet on July 28, 2021.