The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years
by Rheta Grimsley Johnson
by Carole McKellar
It is a special pleasure when this column can introduce you to local authors. This time, no introduction is necessary. Rheta Johnson has written her seventh book - in addition to being a nationally syndicated columnist and contributor to The Fourth Ward Cleaver. We are proud to know her, and, if there is a cry of nepotism for reviewing one of our own, well ... we are about to earn it.
Rheta’s new book is “The Dogs Buried Over the Bridge.” It is the story of a life lived with and enhanced by the companionship of dogs. The story traces the evolution of attitude, told through her family dogs, but referring as well to home, love, loss, grief, and resilience.
Rheta has spent forty years as a journalist and this memoir showcases her skill as a writer. She dared enter the profession when few women did. She is a keen observer of people and able to write of human foibles with both humor and kindness. She is drawn to characters and story. When she expressed sympathy at the eight-year widowhood of a new and elderly neighbor, the woman retorted, “Best eight years of my life.”
Implying that Rheta’s life has been all sweetness and light would misrepresent her struggles and successes. Rheta and her first husband’s start-up newspaper failed, her journalism career had a rocky start, and her second husband died of heart failure. Rheta faced these challenges with the determination she exhibited choosing a career in a male-oriented profession. Friends both human and canine grieved with her and helped her retain her wit and exuberance.
After her divorce and with the memory of her grandparents’ rural and bucolic farm life, Rheta decided to purchase 100 acres and a ramshackle house in Tishomingo County. She described Mississippi hill country as “an unlikely and remote spot.” She struggled to make a home at “Fish Trap Hollow” and to overcome “permanent outsider status” with the reticent hill country locals.
Since childhood, dogs have been a requisite part of Rheta’s life. Dogs are a favored companion because they “never interrupt us, contradict us, scold us. They don’t gossip. They communicate quietly, with their eyes, which is what more humans should do.… They are mysterious and open all at once, a dichotomous blend of need and indifference.”
The bridge, in the title, refers to a wooden structure spanning the “branch” at Fish Trap Hollow. Mabel was the first dog buried on the other side of the bridge, which further ties Rheta to the land that for so long she thought only a temporary home.
Rheta said it best when she wrote:
On the days when yet another newspaper closes its doors forever, when the
branch floods, floors rot, human friends feud, and bills come due, a dog or two
have been here to commiserate, to put paw to thigh in a gesture more protective
and loving than perhaps any other. While I cherish my human friendships, I believe
I’ve learned the most about life, how to lead a good one, from the dogs that have populated mine. Or maybe there’s no longer any way of separating the human
and canine lives in my world, and the lessons overlap.
It is a wonderful journey told well.
Also by Rheta Grimsley Johnson:
“Hank Hung the Moon and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts”
“Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming”
“Poor Man’s Provence: Finding Myself in Cajun Louisiana”
“Good Grief: The Story of Charles M. Schulz”
“Georgia” (with Craig M. Tanner)