Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Rheta memoir heralds: Keep moving forward

“Keep moving forward. Three words to remember when you want to forget.”

So ended Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s memoir, Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, which I devoured as soon as Barnes and Noble delivered it to my doorstep.

Nationally-syndicated columnist, Auburn journalism graduate and my first editor, Rheta Grimsley Johnson was always my hero and mentor, even though we only worked together a few months, and through the years I only talked to her maybe once every 10 years and kept up only via the times I found and read her columns.

When we worked together at the Auburn Bulletin in circa 1979 and she was the editor, me the Lifestyle editor, Rheta used to tell me I was the fastest writer ever. She, on the other hand, was and is one of the best ever. Her writing is witty, honest, thorough, detailed, lyrical and well-thought-out and structured to the point where I find myself going back and rereading favorite sentences and phrases.

The same is true with Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, in which Rheta traces her life from Colquitt, Ga., to Montgomery, Ala. to Auburn, Ala, where she was Plainsman Editor and met her cartoonist first husband Jimmy Johnson, of Arlo and Janis fame (yes, Janis looks like Rheta, but she claims she never acted like her). The memoir takes us to St. Simons Island, Ga., where she and Jimmy and friends started a short-lived weekly newspaper, then to Monroeville to work on that excellent weekly, then to Jackson, Miss., then Greenville, Miss. and the beginning of Rheta’s run as a syndicated columnist. During the last 30-plus years, she’s written about the South and southerners with carefully drawn prose that touches the mind and heart.

In this book, she writes with beauty and skill about growing up (I identified with the chapter: The Year the World Lusted for Barbie), being a journalist, then a columnist, about her relationships, her friends, her triumphs and mistakes. She wrote the book, I believe in part, to help her to begin to heal from the heartbreak of losing her husband Don Grierson, a journalism professor retired from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who died at their Iuka, Miss. farm-in-the-hollow a few days after heart surgery in 2009. I wish I had known her Don, but feel like I did after reading about their adventures in Cajun Louisiana, France and on the “Fishtrap Hollow” farm in Mississippi.

I last saw Rheta at Auburn two years ago, where she came with her sister-in-law Annie (Don’s brother’s widow) for Rheta to accept an award from Auburn University, as distinguished alumna, I believe. She came to the event, probably because she said she would, barely weeks after losing her husband – whose memory she and friends had celebrated with a gathering in the Mississippi hollow where only Hank Williams music was played (all Hank, all day) and echoed across the hillsides.

Even then, even with her heart still broken and a speech to make, she was kind to me and to the others gathered for the event which also honored Selma’s Kathryn Tucker Windham (another great writer I’ve been privileged to cross paths with and learn from).

You see, another reason I remember Rheta so fondly, in addition to her talent and the abilities, is that she was extraordinarily kind to me during my worst of times. My mother got sick with cancer a few months into my first, real post-graduate journalism job as Lifestyle editor, photographer and sometimes general-assignment reporter at the Auburn Bulletin (a twice-weekly – technically a semi-weekly) newspaper originally founded by Neil and Henrietta Davis (two more reporter/journalism heroes I was privileged to know and learn from).

Eventually, I had to be in Birmingham all the time, as we watched my sweet mother die. During those days that turned into weeks, it was Rheta who did my work, edited the weddings and recipes, wrote the features and pasted up the Lifestyle pages, so that I could still get the $125 per week salary that was keeping Frank and me in our honeymoon trailer house on Wire Road. Rheta did that for me, without fanfare, without wanting credit. Instead, she’d ask how I was doing, if I was holding up alright. She’d find something positive to compliment me about as she made light of the work that was piling deeper and deeper on her.

I never forgot that about Rheta, and I wished so much that day two years ago at Auburn that I could do something to ease her pain. But, as she writes so well in her book – which also celebrates Barbies, horses and men and grandmothers, food, music and newspapers:

“Pain is personal. When you rap your thumb with a hammer, nobody feels it but you. Nobody else cusses or cries. Grief is the same. The hammer hasn’t hit anyone but you. People will bring you a cold rag to wrap your finger and say they are sorry you are hurting, but the endless throbbing doesn’t go away when the sympathetic visitors do. It lasts. And lasts. “

But the book is not about the pain, but it includes it, just like life does.

I e-mailed Rheta about a month ago, to compliment her on her column on Auburn’s Cam Newton, which had been reprinted in Auburn Magazine, the alumni publication. In the column, she compared watching Cam on the field to Dancing with the Stars. It was great.

She replied to the e-mail, and in typical Rheta fashion with me, she apologized for not being in touch. She was feeling better, she said, after a year of “ricocheting off walls” after Don died. She didn’t mention her book, just out, but did comment on my almost-finished novel, which we had discussed briefly at that luncheon in Auburn, when I was just starting it. She offered praise for finishing the first draft, saying, “I'm delighted that you're finishing it. The two most common problems most of us writers have are 1.starting and 2. finishing. You've done both, it would seem.” See, she writes well, even in e-mails. Rheta also gave me advice on publishers and offered to write a blurb or anything I might need WHEN (not if) the novel gets to the publishing point.

There you go. That’s Rheta, and that’s why she is able to capture the soul and heart of the people she writes about and why her friends are her friends forever. And that’s why this memoir spoke to me so clearly and strongly about the joys and the pains that are LIFE, and how all any of us can do amidst the painful parts is: Keep moving forward.

Picture of the day:

Book cover of Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, by Rheta Grimsley Johnson. I'm not sure, but the old typewriter (we used typewriters then!) and block walls look like very much like the Auburn Plainsman office.

Song of the day:
In honor of Rheta's Don, let's pick a tune from Hank Williams, the songwriter's songwriter.
The Alabama Waltz
By Hank Williams (1950)
I was sad and blue, I was down hearted too
It seemed like the whole world was lost
Then I took a chance and we happened to dance
To the tune of The Alabama Waltz, waltz, waltz
The Alabama Waltz
There all my fears and cares were lost
There in your arms with all of your charms
We danced The Alabama Waltz


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