Eyes and mind open, a dear one goes from 'where Baby Jesus was born,' to adulthood

Joe Rutherford 5/29/09 for saturday bottom
hed: Eyes and mind open, a dear one goes from ‘where Baby Jesus was born,’ to adulthood

Chelsey is going to Washington. The niece you’ve “watched” grow up in this column in the past 21 years is headed to D.C., the nation’s capital. I get to drive her.
During this historic administration, at a pivotal national juncture, in a summer full of American challenges and firsts, Chelsey will intern at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. She’ll watch the Independence Day fireworks under Obama stars. Watch out, Washington.
It seems like just yesterday that she was 4, standing with me by the side of an Ocean Springs street, wearing her Auburn cheerleader outfit and watching the Mardi Gras pass by. After the parade, a kind woman gave Chelsey a big cup of beads, Chelsey confidently said: “I guess I must have won the prize for best costume.”
Or, when she was 3, riding through Birmingham in the passenger side of my old Explorer, playing with her Barbies. “Look up, Chelsey,” I said. “Look at the Vulcan. We’re in Birmingham.”
“I know, I know,” she said, not happy about the interruption. “Birmingham. It’s the town where Baby Jesus was born.”
Whenever she stayed with me, which was often, Chelsey simply hopped in the truck and rode along, wherever I had to head – hunting columns, interviewing strangers, keeping weird hours and living off fast food. On one memorable day, we photographed a playhouse built over a child’s grave in an old Alabama cemetery, visited a relative at the nursing home and had dinner with Myron Florin, the accordion player from “The Lawrence Welk Show.” She never complained or thought it odd or acted bored. She was 9.
Another year, after deadly tornadoes struck a Birmingham suburb, we watched from a distance as President Bill Clinton and his motorcade surveyed the unspeakable damage. After interviewing survivors, we both cried.
By the time she was 14, she’d seen the homes of Joel Chandler Harris, Margaret Mitchell, William Faulkner and Helen Keller. By 17, she’d been to France and Spain and Alligator, Miss. Chelsey saw beauty in all three.
I introduced her to the music of Hank Williams and to his daughter, Jett Williams, who let Chelsey hold Hank’s hat. By our next visit, she knew all the lyrics to Hank’s hits and lesser-known songs, including those of “Luke the Drifter.”
Then there was the summer of our romantic film fest, when I rented all the melodramatic movies that once had thrilled my pubescent heart. We munched popcorn and wept through “Camelot,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “The Way We Were,” “Love Story” and, of course, “Gone With the Wind.” After that, my expert seamstress sister made Chelsey a green dress like the one that came from Tara’s velvet portieres. Chelsey was Scarlett three Halloweens in a row.
I was there the first time she saw the ocean, for her first major award, for her high-school graduation and for her one and only ballet lesson. I was not there when she had surgery for a cancerous thyroid in March, but she understood. Chelsey understands a lot.
I fussed at her about wanting to take her horse to college, told her she was lucky to be going herself. She won an equine scholar award and made a fool of me. She rides, paints, reads voraciously and looks like Julia Roberts’ prettier, younger sister. Chelsey is not perfect. Her room is a wreck.
But if ever there was a young woman open to life and its endless possibilities, a thinking person with a big heart and kind soul and keen mind, it is Chelsey. I would drive her anywhere.

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

Joe Rutherford

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