Remembering my friend and storyteller, J.J. Reneaux

Note: I wrote this column for the Barrow Journal in 2009 in remembrance of my friend, J.J. Reneaux.  Today, February 29, 2012 is the anniversary of her death.  Since it only comes around every four years, I thought I’d repost it on my blog.  J.J. is the person who first taught me the importance of oral storytelling.

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s been ten thirteen years this week today since my friend and children’s author/singer/songwriter/storyteller, J. J. Reneaux, died of cancer.  I met her when she taught a storytelling class, and though I always loved stories and writing, she is the person who made me realize how important stories are in our everyday lives.  Without stories, we would have no way of framing our own lives.  They can offer wisdom, tell our history, entertain and enlighten us.

J. J. spent part of her life living in Southwest Louisiana, and the folk tales from her varied background, especially her Cajun roots, inspired her storytelling.  According to her obituary (Athens Banner-Herald, March 3, 2000), J. J. won many awards for her books and recordings, including the Anne Izard Storyteller’s Choice Award for “Cajun Folktales.”  Her book “How Animals Saved the People,” which is my favorite and was published posthumously, also won the Anne Izard Storytellers’ Choice Award and was chosen for the Outstanding Children’s Book of 2002 Award from the Southeast Booksellers Association.  She toured in the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, and Europe, and she was a regular guest at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

I did not know how well known she was until I read her obituary.  This is probably due in part to my naïveté and also her easy, humble manner.  She had a beautiful, calm voice, and I looked up to her because I felt she had wisdom to impart to me.  I still think of her often, and I’m grateful that during the short time I knew her, she made me feel welcome in her home.  Whenever I feel like a fish out of water, I remember how she encouraged me to walk down my own path.

Before she died, I left for my yearlong stay in Japan where I was an assistant English teacher.  Though I knew she was ill before I left, I never once thought she wouldn’t be here when I got back.  I had looked forward to our continued friendship, so when I received word of her passing, it was very difficult for me.

I did receive hints of her condition before she died, however.  I used to write long, rambling e-mails about my experience in Japan to family and friends, and she rarely returned my messages except once or twice.  Once she told me that a person really learns whom their friends are when you are in a wheelchair.  She added that she encountered some toddlers whose expressions were like, “Cool Wheels!”  It’s this that tells me her courageous spirit was unwavering, and I can only hope to emulate that in my own life.

She left behind a loving husband and two children, and now that I’m inching up to the age she was when she passed, I can’t help but count my blessings and my stories.  I plan to use stories liberally while educating my children.  Moral lessons and history lessons are always more easily digested when they are learned through stories.  Part of the reason I write this column, I think, is to record the stories I want my kids to remember.  And if there is anything I can do for J.J., it’s write about her so that you can share in her stories too.  So, please, next time you go to the library, look up one of her books.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Note: To find resources on how to start telling stories to your children, see my Storytelling Page.

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