Summer 2009: Prelude
Paige P. Parvin
Going to Graceland
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
In the movie The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman star as unlikely companions who set out to complete a list of essential experiences before they die—see the Pyramids, go skydiving, drive a Shelby Mustang.
I have no idea what a Shelby Mustang is, honestly, or what’s so special about it, but I suspect that most of us have our own list of things we’d like to do—or perhaps more correctly, to be able to say we did. Some are undoubtedly unique to individuals, but others, like seeing the Pyramids, are near-archetypal experiences—the things that people travel for days, walk for miles, line up by thousands, and wait for hours to do. Then they talk about them for years.
While planning this issue of Emory Magazine, Associate Editor Mary Loftus and I decided we couldn’t properly get into the spirit of the thing without taking a pilgrimage of our own. So we decided to cross an experience off our lists and visit one of the ultimate sites of the South—Graceland. Luckily, we had an excuse in the form of a book on Elvis Presley fashion created by alumnus Michael Feder 91MBA, and we also planned a detour to Oxford, Mississippi, tracing the route that Sally Wolff-King 79G 83PhD travels with her students each year to William Faulkner country. We didn’t need much more encouragement to pile into the car—no Shelby Mustang, but my slower, safer Honda CRV—with our two middle school kids (Elvis who?) for an old-fashioned road trip.
Both my parents were born in Mississippi and grew up in the era of Elvis, so I was especially interested in gaining a deeper understanding of those influences. Mary, in addition to indulging her natural curiosity about Graceland, was determined to capture the trip on camera with the aim of posting a short video on the Emory Magazine website.
As for our twelve-year-olds, they were just happy to be out of school and on the road, eating junk and watching DVDs in the back seat. On the way to Memphis, we made them play the classic Blue Hawaii, and they gamely gave it about forty-five minutes before getting bored and switching to Jurassic Park. (Which may be why, when we discovered that you can actually buy one of Elvis’s hairs, my son said, “Oh my god. DNA. We could clone Elvis!”)
We took the VIP tour of Graceland, soaking up the 1960s décor, the fabled Jungle Room, the paneled walls lined with cases of music awards and elaborate stage costumes worn by the King. We saw the stables where Elvis rode his beloved horses and the plush basement den where he played pool. We filed by his gravesite, where even on a hot weekday afternoon there were so many people I had to elbow them out of the way, gently, to take a decent picture. Then we shared a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich—Elvis’s favorite.
Later that evening, we walked Beale Street, taking in the ambiance and attempting to interview passersby for our video. B. B. King was playing in a blues bar and the place was hopping. We caught snatches of music through a few open windows (kids can really cramp your style) and ate burgers at Huey’s.
This magazine is filled with accounts of much weightier journeys than ours: an ambitious sailing trip, an annual literary quest, an exploration of Native American reservations in Montana, a midlife flight set to the strains of Joni Mitchell. But what these travels have in common is a desire to find not just place, but purpose; to share a common event with others across space and time; to create an experience that won’t fade into oblivion, but will take on new meaning in memory, relished and retold.
In his message for this issue, President James Wagner likens college students to “pilgrims of the mind” and universities to sites of profound transformation. I have no doubt that any one of Emory’s 3,810 new graduates would have agreed with his reverent description as they reflected on their university experience during Commencement this spring. So, too, would those hundreds of alumni who journeyed to campus to take part in the ritual once again.
Life isn’t a series of landmarks that you can check off a list. But there’s something to be said for making moments that become stories—the stories that connect us with others through shared human experience. Now, for example, I can say I’ve been to Graceland and eaten a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. And you know, we all agreed, it was strangely delicious.