The Mississippi Sound was uncharacteristically angry when I visited my parents last weekend. The shallow, muddy body of water I grew up on definitely spends more time smooth as a polished diamond than it does imitating its bigger, deeper and more intimidating relatives. But this past weekend it was as worked up as I’ve ever seen it without a named storm pushing the issue.
Honestly, I would rather have had crystal-blue skies and skillet-flat water broken only by redfish tails and shrimp than the 40-mph maelstrom and banging surf, but bad weather is definitely the better show.
My son, dog and I came over Saturday after my parents invited us to accompany them to the Biloxi Elks Lodge for steak night. How could we refuse? Actually, the dog — Georgia — wasn’t invited, to her great dismay.
I’m nearing the half-century mark, but I’m not quite Lodge-age yet, so it was an adventure for us to tag along. Yeah, there was a bit of a high school cafeteria feel to the place, but the gigantic elk’s head on the wall, dim lighting and a couple of more “mature” musicians knocking out one classic oldie after another created a unique atmosphere. The steaks were great and watching my parents walk in carrying their “dancing shoes” in small backpacks was classic.
The wind had been up Saturday afternoon and by the time we returned from our steak-and-dancing adventure that night it was howling. As I took Georgia outside for her pre-bed activities around midnight, I could have sworn a tropical storm was coming.
My mother was up before dawn after her standard four hours of sleep. Some of my siblings and I inherited the night owl genes from her and seldom sleep before midnight, but now she often gets up around dawn as well, which kind of scares me as I find it harder and harder to sleep late.
Just after 5, my mom started checking email and loudly playing a video of some noisy bird a friend had sent her. This sent Georgia rocketing out of bed next to me and meant I had to get up and take her out to pee. I had planned on a zombie-like walk outside, then quickly stumbling back to bed for a few more hours, but there was too much going on.
The wind was blowing so hard it was actually pushing me around during gusts. My mom came out and started tending to potted plants that had blown over while I picked up blown-over chairs. The sun was just coming up and the eastern sky was bright orange over Ingalls Shipbuilding. And even though there was a fierce wind, much of the sky above was blue.
A lone frigate bird glided above us and we started talking about how it looks like they’re having so much fun surfing these huge winds. Often the frigate birds portend a hurricane or tropical storm, but sometimes they just show up on a particularly windy day. They’re more welcome in my mind on days like Sunday.
It was a morning for bird watching. The wind was too much for the seagulls, who I surmised had retreated to a Wal-Mart parking lot somewhere, but small flocks of brown pelicans glided by every few minutes, flying in pattern and making slight course corrections in unison as if operating from the same brain. I’ve always marveled at how some birds can move together and change directions so rapidly with not even the dumbest or most distracted among them missing a beat. I tried to make some poetic comment about how a good relationship should move that way, but that’s probably pushing it.
A flock of egrets zipped overhead moving way too fast, everybody flapping out of time, no real formation and looking mostly like they’d made a mistake getting out of the bayou that morning. We started talking about how when we first moved to Gautier in the late ‘70s none of these birds was around. There were no pelicans and even the wading birds were rare. The first pelicans I saw fly past our house came when I was a senior in high school. Now they are everywhere, as are the herons, egrets and osprey.
Lately a bald eagle has even been landing on my parents’ beach. A bald eagle! Aliens landing on the beach would have seemed more likely 10 or 15 years ago. I told my mother how I wished the eagle would show up, and just as my sentence ended she glided out from over a neighbor’s oak tree and soared up in front of us. My mother has decided this is a momma eagle, so I’ll go with that. She was huge and amazing. I know Ben Franklin thought the turkey should be this country’s official bird, but he was wrong. It’s hard to watch a bald eagle without being impressed.
Later that day Georgia and I went out onto my parents’ pier at the height of the wind’s fury. The pier was built intentionally low and as such it may have been the only one on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to survive Katrina. Our family home still stands too, although it was washed through and many of my parents’ belongings wound up half a mile away.
So on that pier the waves were crashing all around us, shooting water up through the gaps between the boards. Georgia was barking nonstop and running back and forth trying to look over the side and avoid getting drenched. She lost that battle. But it was beautiful and amazing, all dog barking aside. I thought about how many times my brother Matt, my cousins and I took our little aluminum skiff out into the Sound and ended up paddling for our lives hours later when a big storm came out of nowhere. Once we actually abandoned the boat and waded in while lightning rained all around.
As my parents get older they often talk about selling this magnificent two acres on the muddy, shallow Mississippi Sound, and intellectually I know that day might be coming. But even in a 40-mph wind, Sunday my mother looked at me and said, “It’s awfully hard to think about ever leaving this.” Amen.