The first time my stories appeared in the newspaper was in second grade when my teacher had the class write letters to Santa. I can still see my daddy seated at the end of the yellow Formica bar in our family’s kitchen reading my letter from the Richton Dispatch as my mama listened. You would think I had won the Pulitzer Prize. I asked Santa to bring Daddy a new tractor, Mama a fur coat and diamond ring, and then my list of toys rounded out the letter. I figured Mama could enjoy that ring while washing dishes and wear the coat to the grocery store.
The next time I put pen to paper was in the sixth grade when students were asked to write an essay for the Richton Garden Club Society on how we planned to spend our summer vacation. I confess that I played to my audience with my eyes on the prize, a week at a summer camp. Larger-than-life adjectives described my love of lakes, bird-watching and nature hikes. Even though I learned much later that verbs, not adjectives, should do most of a writer’s work, wouldn’t you know that Darren Nicholson and I tied for first place. We had the grandest time that July at summer camp.
In college, I loved writing essays in philosophy and sociology classes, but the light came on inside me when my English professor took a special interest in my writing. I discovered the art of storytelling right there in a classroom at Jones County Junior College where I found my voice. I put my stories aside to make a living and to cultivate a career as a hairstylist and make-up artist. Chignons and Estee Lauder had more allure than words for a while. I would not write very much again until 2004 while teasing bouffants at Earle and Joseph Salon in Jackson, Mississippi, where a casual conversation with a regular blow-dry client led to something big. She was the editor of the largest social newspaper in town, and she gave my stories life again as I became known as the “makeover guy.” As I made women over with hair, make-up and fashion, snapped their photos and wrote stories about their lives, I found a new calling chronicling struggles with breast cancer, the challenges of first-time moms, the joy of recent college graduates, and even a real Sweet Potato Queen. I moved onto a salon of my own, but kept writing this column for years.
I have had the pleasure of publishing weekly columns in newspapers from almost every corner of Mississippi to Colorado on every topic under the sun from frosting caps, little black dresses and the Oscars to reveries of childhood, reminiscences of my mama and memories of rural Mississippi school days. At some point I stopped focusing on beauty on the outside, and my generous editors allowed me to do a more general interest column which explored beauty on the inside in its many divergent forms.
For the past 15 years, thousands of readers invited me into their lives and walked along with me as Mama got sick and found her angel wings, through birthdays, Christmases and many, many roads I traveled. Today, I say farewell to my weekly newspaper column and begin considering new paths, not because I don’t enjoy it anymore, but because, honestly, I need to experience new life to accumulate new stories.
The thing I cherish most is the healing power of sharing my stories with all of you. You have often spoken of the gift I have given you, but truly, I am thinking of the gift you have given me, for which “thank you” is woefully inadequate.
I leave you with one final memory of the star of my columns, and my life, my mama. I sat on the yellow carpet near the chest of drawers in her bedroom. Staring into framed photos nestled on top of her dresser, my tear-stained eyes drifting from her perfume bottle to a big pair of earrings, my heart smiled as I pulled a drawer open. Underneath old baby photos and saved Mother’s Day cards was a big stack of my newspaper columns. She read me like no one else ever has.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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