By M. Scott Morris | NEMS Daily Journal
You might expect an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner after reading Leslie Criss’ book, “Still & Yet.”
Barring that, perhaps you’d like to attend the next Criss family reunion to talk about her beloved niece, Bailey, along with her sister, parents and assorted aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.
At the very least, you’d feel comfortable sitting on a porch with Criss to discuss major and minor issues of the day, while dogs stretch out in the sunshine.
“When I first started, I guess I didn’t know any other way to be but open and honest, and that’s what came out,” said Criss, 54, features and special sections editor for the Daily Journal.
Over the past year, she and her best friend, Cheryl Sproles, searched through about two decades worth of columns, and put a portion of them together in a 177-page book.
“Still & Yet: A Collection of Columns” documents Criss’ shyness that might have gotten its start during “The Baptist Boat Incident,” nearly five decades ago when the Episcopalian went to a Baptist summer camp.
Criss was too slow when a friend and “eager Beaver Baptist,” jumped out of a toy wooden boat they were playing in.
“The boat flipped, pinning me underneath. I wasn’t hurt, but the boat was too heavy for a 5-year-old to lift alone. So I lay there. Silently. Too shy to call attention to my plight,” she writes.
Some of that shyness persists today, but it’s alongside a life-long love for the written word.
The Grenada native went to Mississippi College with the intention of becoming a doctor like her great-uncle, Dr. Ralph Jackson Criss. Physics and calculus classes crushed that idea.
“I chose English because I loved it and always did well in it,” she said, “but nobody told me that if you major in English, you’ll probably be teaching.”
She taught junior high and high school for several years, before realizing that the teaching life wasn’t for her. Graduate school at the University of Mississippi beckoned, and she picked journalism.
“I wanted to write. That was how I would do it, was through newspaper,” she said. “I grew up reading newspapers and loving them.”
When Criss was working at The Carthaginian in Carthage, an editor surprised her by telling her to write a column.
“Every columnist I ever admired was either older than I or more experienced,” Criss said.
Her career took her to The Vicksburg Post, then to the Daily Journal, where she still writes a weekly column.
“Still & Yet” is broken into six sections, “Family,” “Animals,” “Holidays,” “People,” “Opinions” and “Favorites.”
The book begins with an open letter to a then-newborn Bailey Cook, where Aunt Leslie promises “we’ll sleep out under the stars and I’ll point to the heavens and show you the special stars named for people I’ve loved who are no longer here.”
The collection closes with a celebration of a hole in the ground in Grenada, where a 4-year-old Leslie once sat and dreamed of “racing through England on my own horse just like a young Elizabeth Taylor did in ‘National Velvet.’”
Between the covers, Criss salutes people who “dance with diversity” and go out of their way to do the right thing in an often complicated and troubled world. She also shares her thoughts on smaller, though certainly not trivial, matters, such as the joy of getting a new box of crayons.
“Still & Yet” is a labor of love, but something about putting out a book runs counter to Criss’ shy streak. A recent signing at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore helped her realize a bunch of readers already consider her part of their families.
“I dreaded it because I don’t like attention, but it was actually very fun and very humbling, just to see the people who came,” she said. “Most people are good friends who wanted to be supportive, but some people came by just because they liked to read the column.
“It was a nice little pat on the back, that it was OK to do this book, I guess.”