A reporter remembers Reynolds Price

Posted January 21, 2011

Reynolds Price's body kept him confined to a wheelchair, but his mind remained free to roam the universe in search of stories to tell, poems to write, plays to create – and to cherish his childhood memories of elephants.

"I'd have one in my backyard right now if I could," the masterful artist of words once told me.

In 2000, Price published "A Perfect Friend," a book for children that tells the story of a boy named Ben who becomes friends with an elephant named Sala. The names mean "Sacred Tree," and the book's cover features Sala with Ben who is nestled comfortably amongst a tree's massive limbs, napping in the warm sun secure in the knowledge that Sala stands guard nearby.

Is that a young Reynolds? Likely so.

The famed artist Maurice Sendak, a friend of Price, drew the cover. Price was immensely proud of that book and the artwork that reflected the singular form Sendak showed in "Where the Wild Things Are."

Yet Price also savored the fact that "A Perfect Friend" let him indulge his own elephant fantasies that dated to memories of his late father, William.

"The earliest I can remember about drawing is my father sitting at the kitchen table with me when I was two years old," Price said in an interview with me and fellow writer Miranda Kosoff for Raleigh Metro Magazine in 1999.

"I, for whatever reason, had developed an obsession with elephants. Many boys fall in love with horses. I fell in love with elephants. I can still draw for you an elephant that looked like one of his. You would say it looks like an elephant, but it's very stylized."

Price won so many awards and international recognition for his vast repertoire of work. Many have been translated into multiple languages.

But the publishing of "A Perfect Friend" was a special benchmark.

"It was just a long time desire ... That desire must have come from the fact books were so important to me in my childhood," he remembered fondly.

"I wanted to add one more to the long shelf of good books for young people. … It was a lot of pleasure. I got to go back and do a lot more reading about elephants."

'Your mother and dad made you what you are'

The voyage into the world of Ben and Sala also kept even more fresh in Price's fervent mind the memories of his parents, both of whom died of cancer. William died 21 days after being told he had lung cancer – on Reynolds' 21st birthday.

"I have a lot of friends – and my father was one of them – who any time any one person was out of eyesight they thought they would never see that person again," Price remembered. "Every night of our lives, even after I was a grown man, he kissed me and my brother and my mother goodnight."

Price dearly loved his parents, pointing out, "Your mother and dad made you what you are."

To keep his father close, he wore a pocket watch around his neck similar to one owned by his father.

Despite the intense pain over the last decades of his life – the "thorn" as he called it – Price poured his passion and creativity into writing.

In "The Collected Stories," published in 1993, Price wrote:

"John Keats's assertion that 'excellence of every Art is its intensity' has served as a license and standard for me. From the start my stories were driven by heat--passion and mystery, often passion for the mystery I've found in particular rooms and spaces and the people they threaten or shelter. My general aim is the transfer of a spell of keen witness, perceived by the reader as warranted in character and act."

He strived to never let himself think about being old.

"I roll past a mirror in my house, of which there are extremely few, and I think, 'Who the hell is that old guy you're with?' " he said with a hearty laugh.

"I think most human beings have a kind of permanent age if you leave them alone. They sort of feel a certain way, feel a certain age. I suppose I feel like a late adolescent waiting to learn how to navigate this ocean called life."

'I'm remarkably content'

A decade before his death, Price had found contentment.

"I would say that I'm a man who has read enough Greek tragedies to know the dangers of letting the gods hear you say you are happy. My mother used to say 'God loves to hear us making plans,'" he said in that interview. "But I would say that I feel amply rewarded for my life, for the efforts I have made in every direction.

"I don't feel satisfied in the sense of folding my hands and stopping my work, but I don't come to the end of many days now with any sense of incompletion, of frustration.

"I certainly don't feel that I have succeeded at everything I wanted to do. My failure rate is as high as anyone's I know, both in terms of my life and in my personal relations. I'm remarkably content."

In "A Perfect Friend," Sala could speak to Ben's mind – words only the young boy could hear.

"Behind you is safe," spoke Sala. "All around you is safe. Be fearless now."

Price, a literary lion, roared with life and creativity until his weakened body no longer was up to the tasks his mind demanded.

Now, he is safe. The journey of the mortal body is over.

The never-ending journey of the undying spirit lives on – perhaps with Sala walking at his side and now able to create wonderful pictures of elephants again with his father who can now again kiss him goodnight.

Rest in well deserved peace, Reynolds Price. And bravo!

(Note: The full text of Smith's interviews with Price can be found at Raleigh Metro magazine: Part One{[/a}}, {{a href="external_link-8984801"}}Part Two.)


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