I was in Asheville doing a book event, and Ruth knew I was coming to Asheville, which is of course near Little Piney Cove [the Graham’s home]. I was just floored when I received an invitation, a personal invitation in her wonderful left-leaning handwriting, inviting me to come and see her. She said, “We’ll send a car for you.”
So, they picked me up at the book event, and I was just like a kid. I was very nervous and excited because, gee whiz, we’re talking Ruth Graham! And I arrived at Little Piney Cove, and I was starving. I was so hungry. I’d driven up the mountain alone and without any lunch or anything, and Ruth herself went into the kitchen and made me the most beautiful lunch.
I can see it now. It was a big bowl of fresh fruit with a starched white napkin on a tray, with lovely sterling flatware and a pot of tea.
When she came up the hall to greet me, I’ll never forget how she was dressed. She wore a black leotard and ballet slippers and a white poet’s tunic with full sleeves, and she was so petite. She seemed to float up that hallway toward me. I just instantly fell in love with the bright hummingbird spirit of this woman.
I didn’t know I was going to get to meet Dr. Graham. That was a big surprise. She said, “Well, Billy’s resting now, but he’ll be in and join us later.”
I thought, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to meet Billy Graham!” And when he walked into the room, my heart just, I mean, I can’t tell you. I was overcome with a kind of a joy. It was already plenty moving just to be in their home–it’s among the most comfortable homes I’ve ever visited, and she helped build it, which is a whole other story.
But in comes Dr. Graham. He was wearing a blue denim shirt and blue jeans, and that mane of silver hair and that gorgeous profile… I was just, I was just…but he walked in, and I said, “Oh, Dr. Graham, I’m so happy to meet you.”
“Oh no,” he said, “call me Billy.” And he gave me a great big hug, and instantly, I was home. They just were family, instant, lovely family.
Ruth was very high-spirited to her great credit, very creative, very beautiful as is my main female character, Cynthia Coppersmith. So, that’s how we first connected really, because she loved my work, and the characters in it.
I must tell you that it took me a while to realize that Ruth Graham was an extraordinarily gifted poet. We hadn’t known much about this side of Dr. Graham’s wife, and when I discovered that great gift of hers, I was absolutely enchanted.
The first poem I ever read by Ruth Graham was “Sitting By My Laughing Fire.” Right there is where my admiration began to grow for her because even in that title, she brought music to the words: “Sitting,” an active word, “by my laughing fire.” A laughing fire! Who would’ve thought it?
And I did, of course, get to sit by her laughing fire, and a fire does have a sort of chuckle, I suppose you could say; and she knew that and could find that in her fire. If I read nothing else, I knew I loved Ruth Graham’s work, and of course as I delved into it, I realized how wonderful her poetry is for reading aloud. It’s absolutely made for reading aloud.
Perhaps the most arresting thing to me about Ruth’s work as a poet is that she dares to show her wholeness. I found a complete woman in her poetry because she showed me her anxiety, her depression, her fear, her longing … her yearning, her joy, her surprise. … And of course it goes without saying: she showed me her great faith and her devotion to Our Lord, Jesus Christ; but all of this was so unabashed.
Here is the wife of the most famous and celebrated and beloved preacher in the world, and she’s not trying to be that wife. She is being herself, the self that God made her to be and she’s willing to share it. That’s what I think is so terrific about her work; she just gives you everything she’s got.
Jan Karon is the author of more than 20 books, including the bestselling “Mitford” series.
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