By Rheta Grimsley Johnson
FISHTRAP HOLLOW – One cold January day two decades ago, I looked out the frosted front window and saw marching up my drive a solitary person. She held a brown paper sack in front of her, the way a child might offer an apple to the teacher.
Annie Louise Laxson was delivering an elephant ear bulb, and she had walked the half-mile from her house to mine to do so. Those of us with January birthdays – I am proud to share Franklin Roosevelt’s – are touched by any old remembrance in the frigid and frugal month after Christmas, much less a renewable, hand-delivered gift.
Annie Louise and I were neighbors and friends and constant allies in the fight against snakes and change on our road – not to mention against carpenters and plumbers and county politicians and other men who thought all women idiots. We consoled and counseled one another, usually at her house, standing in front of the open fire in the wintertime, or on the cluttered front porch in summer.
She had nearly as many opinions as I, and could riff about raunchy shows on television, the power company’s indiscriminate cutting of trees and certain snobby local matrons she invariably referred to as “the town women.”
Annie Louise suffered no fools and was loyal as the family dog. She was beautiful in the way certain country women are, with snowy hair she’d sometimes pin up beneath a purple cap. She loved color and embraced it. Her features were strong, her eyes merry and her geography abysmal. She referred to both Europe and Mexico in the same breath as “over there.”
The first significant conversation we had was when she asked for a ride to Tupelo; she was catching a plane to visit her daughter. I obliged. Did she want me to feed her dog while she was away? “He’ll hunt,” she said.
That was typical of the tough-minded philosophy she came by honestly, living in this dark Mississippi hollow almost all her life. She loved the outdoors, but was unfailingly realistic about it. Life could be hard in the country, and she knew that firsthand. In her later years, she planted flowers, no vegetables, because, she said, she’d had enough of working in gardens and fields to last forever. Many nights she went to bed before dark. But if an armadillo was digging holes in her flowers at 2 a.m., she’d jump up and consign it to hell with her old shotgun.
Her biggest fear was bad weather. During tornado alerts she’d sit in the hallway of her little house wearing her late husband’s pith helmet. Lightning once stripped her car of all its paint, as if to justify the years of dread.
When, for byline purposes, I used poetic license to name our hollow “Fishtrap,” she objected. “This is Possum Hollow,” she said flatly. I explained that it was a whimsical name, purposely vague because I didn’t enjoy spending my free time answering the questions of strangers who read the column and track me down on weekends. She offered to lend me her shotgun.
She moved to town a few years ago. I jokingly told her she’d become the enemy: a town woman. But in town, Annie Louise kept the same habits: reading her Bible from cover to cover and starting over again, watching wildlife out the window, making cryptic notes on her calendar.
When she died last week, I thought of our long ago trip to the Gulf Coast. We arrived in Pass Christian late one afternoon, just in time to watch the sun sink into the Mississippi Sound. “I dreamed of that blue, blue water all night,” she said the next morning. In her normally no-nonsense voice there was awe and reverence.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a syndicated columnist. She lives in the Iuka vicinity. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.