Guest column

OPINION | SARAH WEELDREYER: Honoring an exquisite writer and thinker

When I think of Paul Greenberg, I think of fat envelopes stuffed with newspaper clippings addressed to me in the dorm rooms and apartments of my early adulthood: New Orleans, Austin and Washington, D.C.

These were articles my father would have pointed out to me--"You need to read this"--had we been sharing our morning coffee.

When I learned of Mr. Greenberg's death last week, I went searching. Sure enough, I found them--editorial pages of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette with Dad's handwritten notes in the margins. Greenberg and my dad are the same vintage, 1937, and of similar influence: Southern Jewish men who spent slivers of their youth in the northeast then returned home.

Sentimental types like me are taken back to certain times and places by movies, fashion and music. "Oh remember, we would roll down the windows and turn up the volume and sing Natalie Merchant and Tracy Chapman at the top of our lungs."

I have the same kind of nostalgia looking at these clippings and seeing Greenberg's bespectacled, grinning face. I was 20 in 1992, the year Paul Greenberg came to my hometown paper, the year the man who was my state's governor ascended to the White House. I had flown the coop by then; a sophomore at Tulane University taking women's studies classes and standing in line to cast my first vote against David Duke in the Louisiana gubernatorial election.

I wore my hair long, no makeup. I was playing at being a hippy. Everyone around me was swooning over Governor Clinton, and I wanted to join in. George Bush was old and stodgy. Bill Clinton was the JFK-like idealist. A vote against Clinton was a vote against youth itself.

But I had Greenberg's voice in my ear via Dad's fat envelopes. According to his obituary, Greenberg wrote 146 columns about Bill and Hillary Clinton. I'm sure I didn't read every one, but not because I didn't have the opportunity. (These columns were bound into a book, "No Surprises: Two Decades of Clinton Watching.") Yet, despite his skepticism about Clinton's policies and character, Greenberg wrote this after election day:

"And finally, the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 is buried without ceremony in the only way historical identities can be changed--not by being ignored, but by being replaced. Not by being rationalized but by being redeemed. It is 1992 now, and a sea of upturned faces diverse and united as America, full of hope and triumph, now represent us to the nation. The real Arkansas has rejoined the consciousness of the Union. We have Bill Clinton to thank for that, too."

Isn't it quaint to read this now? A peaceful, protest-free transfer of power documented in beautiful, historically relevant prose by someone who was certainly disappointed in the election's result.

That was the thing about Greenberg: the writing! I think having one's social and political consciousness formed and filed by the likes of Paul Greenberg makes Twitter even more loathsome and unpalatable than it would be anyway. How can anyone expect me to take 280 characters of knee-jerk blah-blah-blah seriously when I have, in the depths of my memory, this description of a visit to Montgomery's Civil Rights Memorial:

"The water flows on, covering all the names and dates and places like God's grace. Like rain forever falling on ever fertile, ever forgiving Southern soil. On a curved wall behind this limpid circle of dark memory, the words of Amos still resound: ... until, justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. A silent Amen resounds in the air. A kaddish in stone. And in healing water."

Besides a discipleship to his pitch-perfect writing, I always appreciated where the interest of Mr. Greenberg's gaze landed and on what topics he chose to fill the space allotted to him. He used his discerning voice for so much more than politics. It's hard to pick a favorite, but his earnest ode to the Bradley County Pink tomato might be it:

"The genuine Arkansas pink tomato should never be eaten without taking a moment to notice one of nature's finest works. Pause to let the law of gravity bring home its just-right weight. Note how this tomato was designed not for shipping purposes but for the human palm. This fruit has no need of gas, brine, wax and fine wrapping paper. It just sits there and blushes, the way the naturally good do."

Then there was his ability to bring tears through newsprint as in "People of the Book," his column on the first Passover after the loss of his first wife, Carolyn. He writes of pulling down the Haggadah to ship to his daughter in Boston for her Seder:

"These old books are falling apart; some of the wine-stained pages now fly loose from the binding, along with old guest lists and other inserts that accumulate over the years. Which is fine. Is there anything sadder than a prayer book that's still in mint condition, its pages uncut?"

Whether or not you are a descendant of Abraham, if you have ever sat down to a Seder and breathed in the sticky-sweet aroma of Manischewitz wine mingled with apples and cinnamon, then Greenberg's gathering of words will surely take you back there.

To have this voice, this Southern Jewish voice, shape my earliest worldview and inspire my own wrangling of words, has been a gift. His work is a testament to the importance of local newspapers, and I'm grateful he will not live to see their demise if it tragically comes to that.

Dad still sends opinions that he thinks are important, now via email. It's not the same; no inky clipping with my name spelled out in recognizable and beloved handwriting. What will the millennials and Gen-Zers have left of their parents--what we thought about, what words shaped us? A Facebook page? A Twitter following?

Thank you, Paul Greenberg, for your contribution to the file in my desk where I can go visit my younger self, my father's love, and a most exquisite printed collection of words.

Sarah is a Little Rock native and freelance writer who lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two sons.

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