Must-See, Must-Hear Memphis

Discovering the mighty Mississippi, music, and family-friendly fun

Patrick’s first love, before the kids and I entered the picture, was music. Whether he was playing his beat-up Les Paul in his garage band after school or spending every weekend in college chasing the best live music he could get to, rock & roll was his thing. Nowadays, he spends more time playing lullabies for our daughters, Kylie and Olivia, than he does grinding out rock anthems, but he is still a sucker for the deep thrum of a bass guitar, well-played percussion, and any live performers who leave a little bit of their souls up on stage.

That’s why, when my mom and dad relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, last year, I immediately began planning our visit (oh, and to see them, too!).

Red-carpet entrance

On our first day in town, after dropping off our bags at my parents’ house, we all went downtown to the famous Peabody Memphis hotel for the duck march. Throngs of people were gathered around a gorgeous marble fountain, placed in the center of a hotel that is all elegance and sophistication. A red carpet lined the floor, reaching from one side of the fountain down a hall to a set of elevator doors. Kylie and Olivia sat down beside the carpet next to at least a dozen other girls and boys lining the corridor.

When the doors of the elevator opened, six mallard ducks came waddling out onto the carpet. The duck march is a daily spectacle of the resident ducks’ commute from their Royal Duck Palace on the roof to the lobby where they enjoy time splashing about around the fountain’s stone cherubs. This tradition dates back to the 1930s. All eyes were on the ducks as they walked the red carpet like any other celebrities, ignoring the oohs and ahs of their adoring fans.

“Make way for ducklings!” my mom quietly exclaimed, referencing the children’s book of that title.

The ducks had an unflappable demeanor as they made their way down the carpet amidst a crowd of spectators, guided by a Duckmaster. I was thoroughly amazed by the fact that not one of the children sitting within arm’s length of the famous feathers reached out to try petting the ducks. I’m sure the pampered yet still wild fowl appreciated that.

My heart was grateful for that guilelessness, and at the same time, it felt honorable to introduce them to these heroes.

A struggle worth remembering

Our next stop, in downtown Memphis, was the National Civil Rights Museum. It is a somber place in many ways, housed as it is in the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The exhibits tell stories of the struggle for civil rights, and they bring them to life in a way that made the girls curious.

“Who’s this?” Kylie asked when she took a seat across from the figure of Rosa Parks in a bus.

It gave us the opportunity to talk about the Montgomery Bus Boycott with the kids in a way that helped them picture what had happened, even if they couldn’t quite comprehend a world that would make it necessary. A big part of my heart was grateful for that guilelessness, and at the same time, it felt honorable to introduce them to these heroes who fought for justice.

Just around the riverbed

We left the museum and took the monorail to Mud Island River Park. The park’s scale model of the Mississippi River enchanted the girls. They ran around the flowing waters that wound through the Riverwalk. Patrick and I noted the exceptional level of detail put into the model’s riverbed.

The girls might not have been that impressed by an up-close glimpse of the real big muddy river until they visited the Mississippi River Museum at the park. The exhibits there did a great job of explaining the importance of the river to America’s history, so for the rest of the trip, every time they saw a body of water, they’d ask with a kind of awe, “Is that the mighty Mississippi?”

The kids were exhausted after exploring the Mississippi, but Patrick and I were too excited to sleep—there was a whole world of music to explore! Thankfully, grandma and grandpa offered to go on babysitting duty.

This is Memphis

The famous Beale Street, brimming with history, bright lights, and soulful music, awaited us. As we explored, melodies flowed out of every bar and storefront, classic and new, live and recorded, blues and rock—the air was charged with rhythm. We ordered beers and wandered out onto the street, enjoying the novelty of drinking a beer on the only street in Tennessee where it is legal to do so. We passed by Silky O’Sullivan’s, nodding our heads to the sound of dueling pianos spilling out of the open front door, and the Orpheum Theatre, where we paused to peek at the posters advertising upcoming shows. We then investigated the oldest store in Memphis, A. Schwab Trading Co., and marveled at its products, which include everything from taffy to tarot cards.

We finally stopped for dinner at B.B. King’s Blues Club. The band played, loud and smooth, and the scent of barbecue hung spicy and sweet in the air. I inhaled with all my senses and thought to myself, This is Memphis: blues and barbecue. Even if that was all they did, they do it so well that it would be enough.

Memphis family medley

The next day, we decided to explore outside as a family and rode our bikes to Arkansas along the Big River Crossing rail and pedestrian bridge. It is a short bike ride, but Olivia loved saying that she rode her bike to another state!

Afterward, we went to Overton Park, where we saw animals at the Memphis Zoo and then played “I spy” at the Brooks Museum of Art. It was a great way to get the girls to look at art without getting too fidgety.

Finally, we visited the Pink Palace Museum & Planetarium to finish out the day. The girls’ favorite part of the Pink Palace—aside from the grand-looking mansion itself—was definitely the replica of the first Piggly Wiggly grocery store, where they enjoyed perusing the old-fashioned food on display. Another highlight was the planetarium show that featured the night sky and a visit to the moon, hosted by Big Bird and Elmo. We finished the day with the whole family at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous restaurant for their famous dry-rub barbecue ribs.

The King’s castle

On our last day in Memphis, my music-loving husband told me that we had to see everything Elvis. Everything.

We started with a visit to Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Patrick was in his element, of course, but Olivia and Kylie loved the funky decor of the rooms—leopard print and mirrors—and the audaciousness of all that is Graceland. After leaving, it seemed only natural to stop for lunch at the beauty-shop-turned-restaurant where Priscilla Presley used to get her hair done, aptly called The Beauty Shop Restaurant. Kitschy in the best way, the beauty-shop motif is only a backdrop for the excellent and unique cuisine, with dishes such as the pumpkin seed Hawaiian tuna salad, and fish club sandwich. It wasn’t barbecue, but it was mouthwatering Memphis nonetheless.

Watching Patrick visit Sun Studio was like watching a religious man visit a shrine. The place where Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded, where rock & roll basically came to life, was a thrilling place to be. I think even the girls could feel it, and they hammed it up at the old-school microphone for some pretty memorable photos.

The Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum was the last stop on our trip. To me, it was the perfect final note for our Memphis visit because we learned about the birth of rock & roll in this town and the endurance of its music, all in spite of race and class obstacles. What a powerful thing to have running through your head and humming in your veins, or, if you’re Patrick, right at his fingertips when he plays his guitar for our daughters.

Experience the soul of Memphis.