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Monday, May 18, 2009
Joan Burnette Harrell - A light that continues to shine
Sometimes you meet someone and feel an immediate affinity. There's a warmth, a sparkle, a feeling of shared interests and values that slides that person into your circle of favorites as deftly as a shoehorn easing a heel into an oxford.
That's the way I felt the first time I met Joan Harrell, with her soft Georgia accent, telling stories about growing up dirt poor in rural Georgia. She told me about her mother, a World War I war bride from France who left her home country to live with her husband's kin on a Georgia hill farm where she was seen as an odd foreigner, unable to speak the language.
Joan was writing a memoir, telling of that brave French mother, of a hardworking farmer father, of struggling to survive in hard times. The book would continue with Joan's own life story--marriage at age fifteen and divorce after three children, of living alone and struggling to feed those three mouths. She told of falling in love again, but still with financial burdens impeding. Love found a way, and in 1950, Joe, the man of her dreams, came to her door and said simply, "Hello, Beautiful."
Their marriage was to last over fifty years and produce four more children. Happiness, heartbreak and hard times ensued, but Joan shone through it all. After her children were grown and settled and her husband had died, she searched for something new to help fill her life. She decided to dedicate herself to turning years of journals and dreaming about writing into the creation of a book.
That's how we met--at a writers' retreat, where she was polishing her fascinating tale. Her stories told of sitting on the back porch of the family farm, listening to her mother's stories about France, of her mother's yearning remark, "I wish I could build a bridge to France." That became the inspiration for Joan's title - "A Bridge to France."
At the end of the retreat, Joan said, "I'll be back next year, if the good Lord's willing." We all laughed.
We weren't laughing this spring when we learned that Joan had been diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain tumor. She chose to fill her final weeks, not with medical appointments, chemotherapy and radiation, but with short trips with her adult children, visits with friends and grand- and great-grandkids, laughing about old times and poring over family photo albums.
Three friends from the retreat volunteered to try to get the book into print before Joan died, so she could realize her lifelong dream of publication. Her daughters emailed us the manuscript and we edited and proofed and swapped ideas back and forth with huge help from the daughters. Before Joan died she was able to hold a formatted manuscript in her hands and hear the final two chapters read aloud by her children. She knew, finally, that her book would be finished. Perhaps more important, she knew that her children would share in her project and take it to completion.
This sad story has unparalleled beauty. I felt honored to have been a part of Joan's heroic journey, supported by her children. I was so touched by the care and love they showed her.
Joan was a beautiful light in this world for all her years, and in my life for just over two and a half years. In my mind I still hear her melodious voice relating tales, and I feel transported to that back porch. I laugh when I remember her bringing field peas to the St. George Island Writers' Retreat last fall, and my reluctance at having to admit that, Yankee that I am, I'd never tasted them and didn't know how to cook them. That was okay, I quickly understood. Joan had taken joy in picking and freezing them the previous summer and would gladly prepare them for the group. Mmmmmm. They were SO good. I loved sharing time, stories and field peas with her.
I think about her life, from which she exited so graciously. I think about her remark, "I'll be back next year, if the good Lord's willing." And I wonder about what her life has become. Is Joe there? Perhaps he'll say, once again, "Hello, Beautiful." It seems only fair.
Adirondack Gold - A novel by Persis Granger, personalized for you by the author
A young Adirondack boy of the 1890s strives to understand his father's death and forge a bond with his embittered grandfather by reopening the family's maple sugarhouse. Historical fiction for kids 12-99.
Adirondack Gold II: A Summer of Strangers
Strangers enter the life of Hollis Ingraham during a summer of hard times for his family and difficult choices for him. Historical fiction for kids 12-99
Shared Stories from Daughters of Alzheimers- Writing a Path to Peace, edited by Persis Granger
I've written two historical novels for kids 12 - 99, "Adirondack Gold," and "Adirondack Gold II: A Summer of Strangers." I've also contributed to and edited "Shared Stories from Daughters of Alzheimer's; Writing a Path to Peace." Each year, under my business name Fiction Among Friends, I host The Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat in the Lake George Region of New York, in summertime, and The St. George Island Writers' Retreat on the Florida panhandle in November. I also edit the Quarterly, published by the John Thurman Historical Society. I freelance when I can, and have placed articles in "Adirondack Life," "Adirondack Family," "Healing Springs," "BackRoads," and "Adirondack Guest Infomer." Since the summer of 2009 I have helped organize the Second Thursday Readings at Willows Bistro in Warrensburg, NY. Please read more about my projects and passions at www.PersisGranger.com or www.FictionAmongFriends.com.