When my husband and I moved to Oxford with our newborn son to attend Ole Miss in the fall of 2001, I fell fast for this little town.
Hard not to. It’s a place that reminds you of all you believe to be right about the Deep South.
Oxford is not perfect. Like any small Mississippi town, the city and campus share a storied past.
But if we’re talking Southern Living and sweet tea, it’s about as ideal a town as one could imagine.
I loved Oxford so much I didn’t want to leave. Everything about it—its small-town charm, easy-going living, the churches, the schools, the homes, the people—beckoned me to put down roots.
But leave we did. And six years after our return to the place I once loved, I can admit the rumors are true:
Oxford has changed.
Visitors now frequent this small town not intended to be a destination spot.
Condos galore are built and swallowed up on the daily by those desiring a second home.
From the looks of the Grove, game days appear to have become mandatory, leaving Oxford citizens to wonder if anyone still watches the Rebels play on television.
And the Square has become a sardine can of people who curse a lack of parking and bloated restaurant waiting lists. (Don’t even get me started on West Jackson Avenue.)
No, this is not the Oxford most of us remember.
It is instead an Oxford filled to the brim with retirees and a burgeoning populous of college freshman seeking the status that attending Ole Miss brings.
And speaking of status, not to hurt my Delta or Jackson transplants, but many have carried with them a certain societal expectation birthed from places where debutante balls, grand homes, junior leagues, and last names still read like a page out of The Help.
And those within the fast-growing liberal arts community often stick out like a sore thumb against the backdrop of Mercedes and Louis Vuittons owned by mere sophomores on the college campus.
Then there’s the rest of us, those of us who have always called this place home or who couldn’t let go of what stole our hearts long ago.
Like my family, many people moved here not knowing such change was taking place.
Now? There’s no excuse. The over-growth of Oxford has been seen, discussed and written about at length.
Before last year, I think we wondered if Oxford could exist amid so much change. It seemed the Old Oxford didn’t much care for the New.
But then the tragic happened.
It started when we were rocked by the loss of six very special people.
Over the course of one short year we would grieve even more loss, teenagers and children too young to die, older citizens who had devoted their lives to this town.
We endured a presidential election we feared might split us for good, scandals we never saw coming, hurt and heartbreak.
Our once-solid ground, already shaky, felt more like quick sand.
But instead of falling apart, I’ve watched us fall together.
We’ve rallied around parents who lost children and children who lost parents.
We’ve accepted that we all have thorns, that even the people we place on pedestals are human and will fall.
We’ve debated over coffee and conversation, in meaningful ways that bring healing.
And we’ve formed a bond created only through the closeness that immense pain brings.
Before last year, I began to regret moving here. I felt guilty for contributing to the crowded schools and streets and the feeling that the city had grown too big and too different.
But I’d forgotten what a place like Oxford is really all about.
It’s about progress. The good kind.
The progress that coincides with hope.
The progress that lends itself to better days for ALL.
Behold the trees in the Grove, planted during tumultuous times in the hopes of standing proud on a campus that would eventually come to believe education is a moral right for every person on Earth.
Or study the courthouse, rebuilt after the decimation of an entire city by a war fought over an entity so evil it treated humans as property.
Consider the bricks that make up the university’s buildings, where both hurt and healing have occurred; the wood lovingly painted on homes that have sheltered generations of children; the stained-glass windows of churches formed centuries ago by believers who knew the promise Oxford held.
Visit Neilson’s Department Store, still successful after all this time. Or the Beacon, a literal beacon of older citizens who gather there daily as they have for decades.
Oxford is one of the only places left in America that holds its past in as high a regard as its present.
It’s one of the only towns that looks to its future while promising its ancestors not to forget what it once was.
A town that has opened its doors for so many to grow and learn and leave their mark.
A town that has welcomed back those who left their hearts behind.
A town for those just passing through.
A town full of people who have always been here and never plan to leave.
A town of different skin colors, cultures and beliefs.
Can so many of us exist within these tiny boundaries?
I believe we can.
Because the last year has taught me this: No matter our differences, we are united through an imperfect past that, like a mirror, reflects who we are and what we’ve been through.
We are a town that doesn’t need to be defined by status or politics, though you are welcome to bring both, as long as neither are forced upon us.
We are a town that shows hospitality to the visitors who grace our campus on college game day, both opposing team and die-hard Rebel.
We are a town where a family home sits beside a house full of rowdy college kids, and neither is bothered by it.
And we are a town that sticks together like glue, even when we disagree. As the old saying goes, we can talk about us all we want, but you better keep your mouth shut.
We are a town full of compassion for those who have lost what can’t be replaced, a town who forgives those who have messed up.
We are a town of love. And love has limitless capacity.
Here’s the truth about Oxford: We will continue to show love to all who come here and choose to embrace its progress with hope.
Because hope is a promise we make to each other, even in unknown times of change.
And hope holds close the past, and the memory of those we’ve loved and lost.