Monday Motivator: Be Like Jim

This weeks’ motivator is by Michele Adkerson. It is the eulogy she gave for her brother-in-law, Jim Ridley, the editor of the Nashville Scene. She gave me permission to use it, and I’m grateful because it’s a reminder of how life should be lived.

Dancing at Vesuvio’s

My favorite image of Jim will always be upstairs at Vesuvio’s bar in San Francisco in 1996, the weekend I flew down from Seattle and met him and Alicia there, the day we each got tattoos in Haight-Ashbury. His was the letter A, on his back, which I’m pretty sure he kept secret from his parents, even then, and about which I teased him unmercifully, promising to check it regularly to ensure it wasn’t getting any bigger. He chewed gum like a soldier under that needle. Alicia, on the other hand, held a video camera and filmed her own tattooing.

Back at Vesuvio’s bar on that spring afternoon, we took the stairs to the sunlit second floor where huge murals of great writers—Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Allan Poe—splayed across the side of City Lights Bookstore just beyond the giant glass windows of the bar. Jim had unloaded a pocketful of quarters into the jukebox, lining up the best songs there, and in thanks, the bartender sent up a second round of drinks on the house. Among the empty tables and chairs of Vesuvio’s bar on a spring afternoon, with Etta James wailing lost love on the jukebox, Jim and Alicia danced. It was the most beautiful, the most tender, and as always, with Jim, the most perfect moment I ever remember.

He has been lauded for days, and you have not gathered here today unless you knew how laudable he was, how sweet, how funny, how thoughtful and kind. But also how brilliant and sharp and masterful. He was a film critic’s film critic, a writer’s writer, a magnificent editor, a much-admired leader, a mentor, a friend.

It takes a family member to tell you his flaws. So here I am, Mr. Pink’s sister-in-law, Madame Rouge.

Jim Ridley was the worst driver I ever agreed to travel with. I have been Jim’s buddy since we met in high school, and we took many a long drive in those early days, following the next curving road at a whim not knowing where we were headed, just drifting down those dark ribbons of road through the night to talk and to listen—to Kristofferson and Tracy Nelson and Guy Clark and John Prine and Springsteen and Dylan and Joan Baez and Janis Joplin. I “taught [him] all the lyrics to ‘Mercedes Benz,’” which we sang full throttle, collapsing in giggles together at the end.

But even in high school, when we are unquestionably certain of our immortality, I repeatedly faced the knowing and conscious decision to enter the passenger seat of that 1965 cherry red Dodge Coronet convertible, the one his daddy bought on the day Jim was born, and even way back then I knew I risked life and limb by doing so.

Jim waited at 4-way stops for everyone else to go first, something that confused the other drivers, infuriated the guy behind him—but delighted the old ladies. He sped up on exit ramps but entered the freeway in lunges. He took the most meandering route possible—a joy on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday night, but maddening when everyone else was waiting at the house to unload the furniture from the truck he was navigating.

And that penchant for one more adventure could drive a wife crazy when the next day was a school day but Jim nevertheless embarked on a 6-hour detour through Kentucky to grab a shot of an old sign at the tail end of a long and surreal weekend vacation in … wait for it … Indiana. She is thinking of homework and dinner and getting the kids showered and in bed; but he just knows this is the right road and they can still make it to the sign while there’s daylight.

I remember back in high school and college waiting for him to arrive, thinking overtly how foolish I was to step foot into the car with him. And I had plenty of time to think on that since he usually showed up over an hour later than planned.

Then he was there, smiling and holding open the long door of that great big red convertible. How could any girl resist a guy, that guy, holding the car door open for her? Untraveled roads and mighty midnight quests awaited; a long black hinged box lined with clear plastic cassette cases mostly filled with mix tapes sat prepped and ready for the night’s travels; and oh, the conversation that was coming!

But none of that future mattered for a moment because what Jim could do, what I strive for and rarely achieve, is that he lived in the moment every moment of his life. He may have had a plan in mind for the night or the future, but it was always vague and free to evolve. Jim lived in the moment. And he always opened the car door for me, and every time, that simple gentlemanly gesture was for me a welcome pause in the long day, a thoughtfulness, a moment of grace and graciousness that never failed to bring me joy. Every time he held that car door open for me, the future did not matter; being with him is all that I wanted.

So he was always my brother, but he made it legal when he had the exquisite good taste to marry my sister, Alicia. And they were perfect for each other, just as surely as you see it in every photo of them. They connected; they were one. Over board games and cards, they were an unbeatable team. For the first few years at the Scene, in those pre-internet days, Alicia was the walking film encyclopedia he called for the right actor’s name or who won the Oscar in a long-ago year. If she didn’t recall—and she usually did—she knew just where to look in her vast recorded movie collection to find it.

No one I know caught his puns more quickly than she. (I, always, trailed seconds behind them both and sometimes got the joke only much later.) Last week, Kat and Jamie and Alex and Ava and Maggie were hanging out in the front yard. My sister Tracye and I stood nearby, talking and waiting for the pizza to arrive, and Kat exclaimed: “There are aunts all over my yard!” One, two, three beats, and then I looked at Tracye: “She means us.” It’s good to know his punster verve continues in Kat the First.

He was the best daddy two kids ever had. Even at the cool-kid double-digit ages of 14 and 11, at the sound of Jim’s car on the gravel, Kat and Jamie would leap up and rush to the door, grinning and excited because Daddy was home!

Many know Read as Bear; but to our niece and nephew Maggie and Silvio, “Bear” was Uncle Jim’s name. They, too, when they were little would rush to embrace their Big Bear—the origin of his name obvious to everyone of us who ever luxuriated in his huge, holding-you-tight-forever hug.

Kat and Jamie wanted nothing more than to be curled up against him, warm and drifting off watching Sullivan’s Travels or Kill Bill or anything with Jackie Chan way past bedtime. Jamie could sit beside Jim for hours playing Xbox—or more often, beside Jim napping while Jamie played.

I was, after all, revealing flaws. Jim napped whenever he stopped for a moment. I sat through several classes with him at MTSU and mostly spent my time nudging him awake, his notes on the lined page having drifted in a squiggly scrawl to the edge of the paper and then to the desk. I especially remember Arts Appreciation. The instructor insisted on being addressed as “Professor” plus her long last name (which Jim would know but I have long ago forgot); we assumed the sobriquet was due to her feeling some shame for having only a master’s degree—we resented that we couldn’t use the more syllable-efficient “Dr.” and wouldn’t have minded “Ms.”

The class was just after lunch, and Professor Art Instructor pulled the thick curtains to darken the room in order to project the artwork on the screen. Jim snored through each and every lecture, leaning against my shoulder in the back of the room. I learned it was better to let him sleep, moving him quietly to ease the snoring. Too sudden an awaking had him exclaiming, loudly. But Professor Art Instructor couldn’t say a word; Jim wrote the loveliest essays for every assignment and, as he did always and with everyone, won her over.

He was self-effacing to a fault. Like his Uncle Bid had been before him, Jim was always himself his favorite butt of any funny story. And he was always willing to make an utter fool of himself to bring joy to others—to let every little boy nail him repeatedly in Laser-tag, to dress in drag to MC Best of Nashville (at which he looked shockingly and way too much like his mama!), to wear his bathrobe to work and perform a striptease as reward for hitting sales benchmarks, to Karaoke “Mack the Knife” for the neighborhood party every New Year’s Eve, and for those few lucky enough to have been there, to reenact the interrogation scene from Basic Instinct, playing Sharon Stone. Contemplate that careful crossing of the legs: pure Jim.

Women loved him. How could we not? We were always sexy and beautiful and perfect in his eyes, and he knew just how to please us—with treasures: a copy of Desert Hearts for a birthday, a just-in-time arrival with illicit sweets for two old girls watching the final episode of Downton Abbey, a personal escort of my excited little sister to Nordstrom’s huge opening celebration. Mind you, such a venture was anathema to Alicia and me, but Tracye treasures still the Nordie’s Grand Opening poster he bought for her that day and the Movers and Shakers pic of the two of them that showed up in NFocus.

He bought Mom a lottery ticket every payday. He took my Texas mother to see George Strait in concert—twice. And on Easter Sunday, which this year fell on Mom’s birthday and whose celebration we had delayed, he showed up at her backdoor with a six-pack of Lime-a-ritas to wish her happiness.

For as long as I have known him, Jim has brought me the first buttercups of the spring. For all the early years, those first few decades of my loving him, his first flowers were always from the big yard at his family’s antebellum home outside town. When he came to visit me in England, he brought those first buttercups, wrapped in wet paper towels, which he had carried with him through two long flights. When I lived a decade in Seattle, he mailed me something every spring with buttercups, a card, a small print, handmade miniature yellow flowers. He was the first person I told that I was marrying Greg, and Jim planted buttercups at the side of the house, just where I could look out the kitchen window from the apartment we were renting upstairs and see them. They bloom there still.

And that’s part of the key to learning to live without those bear hugs: the treasures he left behind for us bloom here still. There are buttercups every spring where he planted them. The dogwood in the front yard blossoms soon after—and always earlier than most. His guitar strings will not sit unstrummed, for his daughter has inherited his love for the instrument. His vast work—his words—are with us forever. Those of you who have remembered him last week and this, your tributes immortalize him. As Tennyson reminds us, “[We are] a part of all that [we] have met.”

And Jim was, very much as his mother was, someone who never met a stranger. He engaged with everyone he met. Jim lived his life in the moment, and he lived every moment of his life.

That means Jim also understood loss and keenly felt the agony of absence. As Danni reminded us recently, Jim knew what we are feeling now. And as always, he had exactly the right words to say. When his mother, Polly, passed away, Jim wrote these words: that “sometimes, faced with sorrows too vast to comprehend, there is nothing that can sustain us like a small good thing”; and Jim told us this about the loss of his mother—these are Jim’s words, for us now:

There will come a time, maybe next week, maybe next month, when someone you know is hurting. Perhaps they are going through lean times; perhaps they’re sick or caring for someone who is. Or perhaps they just lost the one person whose love sheltered them without judgment, without limit, without equal — a person whose absence leaves a cold and bitter void. I can tell you that they will feel hopeless, and confused, and scared, and that they will feel as if they have been sealed off from the life that goes on for everyone else. When that happens, there is nothing that would make my mother look down upon you more kindly, than if you would take them a ham.

Jim was a man who absolutely loved people, who adored talent and despised its waste, but most of all, he was a man who waded in the creek with his kids, turning over stones to see what lay beneath them; who mowed around the wild onions and garlic; who took time building the fire for the grill so that he could talk music with Scott just a little while longer; who first learned to love Galyn by watching Scully and Mulder together with her and Alicia on Friday nights; who exulted in the sheer joy of watching The Evil Dead as much as he delighted in an analysis of Persona.

And so Jim blooms again in each of us and in each “small good thing” we do. But most of all he lives in the family he treasured above all others: His Papa, whom he saw at least twice a week; his remarkable brother Read, the finest brother there ever was; but especially in Alicia, the absolute love of his life and the woman who mattered most to him in the world; and Kat Dillon and James the VI, the finest books he ever wrote.

For Jamie, who has taken to stubborn heart his Daddy’s penchant for culling language to its essence—and so prefers three-word responses where his sister writes pages, I say only this: Be on time, and don’t cut your hair till you have to.

For Kat and me, just as it was with Jim and me before her, it always comes down to sound, rhythm, flow, and meaning. We share a favorite poem, one that feels right to me today, so to paraphrase my old friend Edna St. Vincent Millay:

[His] candle burned at both ends;

It [would] not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—

It gives a lovely light!

But let’s not end there; let’s end with Jim’s own words. These are the last few lines of my all-time favorite song by Jim Ridley, “Dixie D’Light,” with tweaks:

Morning came; [he] was long gone,

Leaving not a shadow on the empty lawn.

I think I cried; I almost died.

But something made me smile from deep inside:

The memory of a song on a summer night,

Rocking with the legendary [man of] Delight.

Rock on, Jim!

 

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