In the Eye of the Beholder
One of the South's beloved writers, Rheta Grimsley Johnson, takes a fresh look at her Iuka homestead through the eyes of good friends.
Find out more about Rheta's books at RhetasBooks.com. Rheta's new gallery/shop, Faraway Places, is located at 102 West Front Street, Iuka, Mississippi. You can also look for it on Facebook!
I’m not being falsely modest here. I love my place in this dark hollow the way a parent loves her child, but it has – and always will have – rough edges. I see this most clearly in the days leading up to special company.
I do my best to stage it for visitors. I cut and clean and hide and polish. I even wash windows. But minutes before the scheduled arrivals, I take a look around and see the truth.
The yard is a yard, not a lawn, and it looks good for approximately half a day after mowing.
Then the briars and the weeds and the gum balls begin to compete for attention, and visitors realize the endless river of green they first glimpsed is hopelessly polluted. It’s not a space for playing croquet, but more like a practice field for teaching youngsters how to drive a pickup with a straight shift.
The “house” really is a collection of two small cabins, one bedroom and one bath respectively, made less claustrophobic with a screened porch tacked on each. You better like your hosts and those with whom you travel when you land here.
And don’t think quaint. There is none of the “cottage charm” that Bay St. Louis residents take for granted, but instead a 1950s look with low ceilings, thin floors, inherited furniture and too much sentimental swag. Clutter is clutter is clutter.
But this is a story of redemption, so stick with me. My sister-in-law from another life used to say that we, the permanent residents, eventually are the last not to see the worst things about our own abodes. We’ve grown used to the problems and no longer notice the wavy Sheetrock and rotten eaves. That’s not true, not this summer. I see it all.
As I sit wondering what the latest guests must think, they tell me.
A visitor cries out, and I think she must have slipped on the mildew-covered walkway between the cabins, something I’ve done myself. “Look, look,” she says, pointing. One of last night’s crop of luna moths is sticking around. They routinely beat against the wickedly irregular windows in the back room, drawn to the light.
Together we study the moth’s green velvet wings.
That night the visitors see the stars in a sky uncluttered with ambient light. They remark on the lightning bugs and rhapsodize over the lack of traffic. They hear the whip-poor-wills and owls and frogs. They notice things I take for granted. But good things.
The next day I take them to the old pontoon boat that floats in a nearby Pickwick Lake marina. Earlier in the season I’d wrapped the cracked vinyl seats like big birthday gifts with a few yards of sale cloth in a color that matched nothing else on the boat.
“Oh, what magnificent spider webs,” one visitor says, just as I am about to knock the webs down with a broom I keep aboard for that purpose.
I drive most guests to the late Tom Hendrix’s wall in nearby Florence, Ala. He spent a quarter of a century building a mile-long wall from eight million pounds of river rock he harvested and hauled himself. The wall honors his Native American great-great grandmother’s five-year trek home from Oklahoma after her forced march on the Trail of Tears.
In a world where people like lively entertainment, a rock wall is a quiet anomaly. But my visitors get it.
We picnic on the Tennessee River along the Natchez Trace. The breeze is constant, the conversation lively. And suddenly I’m proud of where I spend half of each year, half of my life. Domestic imperfections seem inconsequential, dwelling on them silly.
If you invite the right people, if you have the right friends, gracious living is a given.