by Peter Wallace, © 2007
When I travel for work, I often regret not having brought a book along to pass the inevitable hours in airports and planes, so as I rushed out of the house Friday, I grabbed a book that I had started, but hadn’t finished. It was a collection of columns by Southern humorist/columnist Lewis Grizzard.
To describe Grizzard’s writing is easy. To describe it well, isn’t. If you took Jeff Foxsworthy and spliced his genes onto Garrison Keillor from public radio, you’d have Lewis Grizzard. This may sound to some like a contradiction in terms, but it’s not: he was a very intelligent, articulate, good-old boy.
I say “was,” because in 1994, at the age of 47, he died. He had endured multiple heart surgeries and complications, and the last infection proved to be too much for him. He continued to write columns during his illnesses, and showed both normal fear and abnormal courage in each one.
As I read some of the carefully selected columns in this book, I realized that the place to which I was flying was Jackson, Mississippi – which could hardly be more Southern if it tried. Here I was, reading Lewis’ stories of his days in the South, just as I was landing in it.
I was only in Jackson for less than 24 hours, which was long enough to sleep, have breakfast, present a workshop, have lunch, present another workshop, go back to the airport and read some more. I also worked in a couple of leisurely walks around the Mississippi state capitol area. It was a beautiful day.
In an era of spotty customer service, everyone I encountered in Jackson was, or appeared to be, sincerely interested in how my day was, and how they could make it better. Desk clerks, maids, cab drivers… all ages…. they were each as pleasant as can be.
In the security line, I struck up a conversation with some elderly Black ladies behind me, each with two hat boxes in addition to their purses. We talked about how hats aren’t as popular as the once were. They were returning from a funeral, and felt that wearing a nice hat helped show their respect for the family.
I realized two things at that point: The was that these ladies were right out of a Lewis Grizzard story, and represented a small part of what he treasured in the South, and the second was that 70 year old Black ladies are the nicest people to talk to in the world. And I stand by that statement.
On the plane, my belief was reconfirmed by another lady I sat next to, who was doing a beginner’s Sudoku book – to keep her mind sharp. She wasn’t having any trouble doing the puzzles, which proved that she was already sharper than I am.
I finished the book, and learned that Lewis Grizzard’s dog, Catfish, about whom he wrote frequently, had died four months before Lewis himself passed. He wrote several columns talking about the passing of his dog, and how his heart hurt, and it made me wonder if Lewis died of an infection, or a broken heart, or both.
So, that’s my story of some things that just all kind-of tied together in my mind. A teller of stories, whose own story had a sad ending, the South that he loved to write about, and some ladies who, had he known them, he would have enjoyed as much as I did. Not that strange a series of events, I guess, but still on my mind.