OPINION: Thanks in 2009 embraces pain of loss, sweep of friendship

I had an unlikely friend when I was in the second grade. My family moved from Pensacola, Fla., to Montgomery, Ala., and to an old suburban street with the fanciful name of Holiday Hills.
We missed the bottle-green ocean and the sugar beach, and one of our new bedrooms in the rental was painted a horrible magenta. But we were lucky in neighbors.
Right next door lived a wonderful man known to me only as Mister Evans. I’m sure he had a first name, too, which I cannot recall. He was nearing retirement age from his job at the Kilby Prison dairy, and I was 7. For some reason, we became fast friends.
Mister Evans brought me chocolate milk from the prison, and a fine jump rope made of hemp.
Whenever the doorbell rang, I expected Mister Evans to be standing there with zinnias from the prison garden or a shiny quarter. Many times he was.
One day, in what amounted to a private field trip, Mister Evans took me with him to the prison dairy. I was amazed to meet some of the most polite and obliging men I’d ever encountered, the trusties assigned to run the dairy. It might have been Sunnybrook Farm.
Years later, I’d hear a Merle Haggard quote that went something like, “There are a lot of nice people in prison.”
And after decades in the newspaper business interviewing the accused and convicted, receiving letters from inmates, covering trials, I know my first impression, the same as the Hag’s, was right.
Along with the lowest of the low, there are a lot of nice people behind bars.
But for some cog or bum switch in the elaborate machinery called fate, I could be in prison, and so could you. I was born white in the wealthiest country on earth, to middle-class folks who fed and clothed me, which put me at great advantage. Statistics – along with a terrible fear of breaking the law – are on my side.
So that’s what I’ve chosen to be thankful for in 2009, not the best year I’ve ever had. I’m thankful never to have known prison life. And if that seems to be coming at Thanksgiving backwards, maybe it is. This has been a strange year.
But I’m also thankful for old dogs that snore, and photos in albums and firewood in the barn. Fall has been long and warm and wet, which suited me.
I’m grateful to have sold my little Louisiana house in a bad economy to people who need it more than I. The fellow who bought it is living because his daughter gave him a kidney. I’m happy for them.
I’m thankful Kris Kristofferson didn’t make a career of the military, and that Jeanette Latiolais likes to cook. I feel amazingly lucky to have read Melissa Delbridge’s book, “Family Bible,” and Robb White’s “How To Build a Tin Canoe.” I’m glad to have heard Helene Boudreaux sing in her kitchen, and to know that Greg Guirard soon will be setting his crawfish traps in the swamp. I’m thankful for T-Sue’s king cakes and Norma’s fried livers.
My heart is full of thanks for friends, good friends, who tried never to let me get lonely in this, the longest, toughest year. I raise a glass and a drumstick to you all.

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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