RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Annual French fantasy overpowers any idea of practicality

FISHTRAP HOLLOW, Miss. – Until you have sat with others listening to Edith Piaff warble while watching an artistic friend transform your ugly propane tank, you haven’t experienced the blend of whimsy, longing and sincere down-home hope that leads up to Mississippi’s Bastille Day.
Anne Holtsford painted for days on the standard-issue tank, making the bulbous lid the center of a giant sunflower, treating the unlikely canvas with painstaking care, as if it were the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The end result was so lovely that I’ll now have to buy the leased tank from the gas company that owns it.
And then there came my Washington, D.C., buddy, one Betty Douglass, who inquired on the way from the airport if plans for the annual party were going well.
“Oh, I dropped the ball,” I said casually, never imagining where my admission would lead. “I meant to have a local welder build an Eiffel Tower out of rebar.”
“I can do that,” Betty said in that matter-of-fact way she has.
And build it she did, 9 feet of it, using duct tape and rebar and an old rusty pot and blue wine bottle for the top. She cut every rebar piece herself with an ancient hacksaw, laboring in 95-degree heat to finish the project just before guests arrived. Move over, Gustave.
Baby Cora acting as audience, David and Katy Coleman worked for months over in Texas on the music that would, for one night, echo through the dark hollow. They played for tips, which filled John Bedford’s hat and their gas tank for traveling home.
Heroic Hines Hall risked life and limb to climb a wobbly extension ladder to the top of a sycamore tree to hang high the French flag.
Friends who can cook filled the outdoor tables with salmon quiche and salade nicoise, ratatouille and chocolate tarts. Anita McRae baked baguettes, enough to outlast the crowd that gathered at twilight to indulge my annual fantasy.
Every year I swear that the expense and trouble of feeding my voracious imagination has gotten too high, that I won’t work so hard ever again to pretend my corner of tired old Mississippi is actually France. It’s silly. I’ve been told.
But then something happens, some memory jogs, some scrapbook tumbles from the shelf and reminds me of an unreasonable passion I have for another place. And it’s off to the races. Mona Lisa is hung crooked from a gum tree, and the pink toilet paper in the bathroom.
So sue me.
If you can’t make believe for a few days now and again that your address is somewhere far away, that music transports, that art is not confined to galleries and museums, that friends will rally to help you in the good cause of fun, that revolutionary urgings are in us all, if you can’t do all that, then what’s the point of this life?
It’s easy enough to admire Paris, to love exotic or beautiful places, to eat well in fine restaurants. But maybe it’s more important to savor the memory off a gravel road in a yard pocked with armadillo holes and filled with true friends.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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