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Rheta Johnson: The old hollow in holiday duds


Rheta Grimsley Johnson



FISHTRAP HOLLOW -- Norman Rockwell might have painted the scene, except it would have been too idyllic for him. 


I have seen a bluer sky, but only on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The sun warmed the earth to 70 degrees. Orange leaves held fast to the limbs of pear trees. 


The oldest child visitor, 13, produced her copy of Southern Living and whipped up something called a Robert E. Lee pound cake on my old kitchen table. Mary Drue wore her stylish clothes beneath my pressman's apron and looked like a million dollars. Hey, hey, Betty Crocker. This girl is a rocker.... 


The youngest child, Darcy, soon to be 11, ran relentlessly through drifts of fallen leaves with my dog Hank, acting the way children used to before they were tethered to television and computers. Long, shiny tresses were pulled back from her perfect face in an effortless coif.  


Their mother read a book in a pool of sun on the porch. Their father hunted squirrels in the woods. Their grandfather, my husband, pushed a big turkey into a small oven. 


If Thanksgivings were scripts, ours would have run on the Hallmark channel. 


For 25 years, I've yearned for a weekend like the one we had. I knew this place had the potential. I just never could conjure up the family. 


Except for a sisterly squabble over socks and one late-night, shrill political rant by me, the holiday went off without a hitch.  


Writers always think a lot about "sense of place." It is a phrase that crops up at conferences and in books that analyze famous literature. A "sense of place" is deemed important. 


Before you can have a sense of one, you must have a place. 


I knew I had found mine when first I saw this lonely hollow a quarter of a century ago. That's not long in land-owning measure. My grandfather didn't raise cotton in the field across the road. My mother didn't rock me to sleep on the porch. I didn't' grow up seeing the sun set over the hay field. 


But for a nomadic journalist like myself, 25 years is an eternity. This dollop of Mississippi hill country feels like an anchor at times, holding steady in stormy seas. And, yes, at times like a burdensome albatross. 


I've lived places that were easier to love. Beautiful St. Simons Island, Ga., for instance. Nobody wonders how you end up there, if you do. They look around at the live oaks and fine beach houses and quaint seaside village and figure it out on their own. 


This is different. It takes an imaginative gene and romantic heart to love this place passionately. The grounds aren't groomed, and the old house is a time warp of good intentions and timber. I sit by the wood stove today to write these words because the window by my desk won't close all the way.  


Flaws can be beauty marks. Or they can be flaws, depending on your mood. 


All I know for sure is this. On a November Thursday with a holiday name, ordinary things came together in an extraordinary way. Pine beetles and rotten floor joists and wavy sheetrock and roadside ravines full of litter were forgotten, ignored. 


Fishtrap Hollow was more silk purse than swine's ear, and a few dear others shared the vision.



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