PARVUM OPUS NEW HERALD COLUMN - Rhonda Keith Stephens Calhoun Connections


Rhonda Keith Stephens (shown left with husband Fred Stephens) has strong connections to Calhoun, but not unlike thousands whose roots are in this sod, has gone to the bigger world to live her life and have a career.

Her column "Parvum Opus" will become a regular on the Herald (under COLUMNS) starting today, where she mostly dissects language, English and meaning, but sometimes gets into other interesting areas.


In 2002, I moved from Boston to Cincinnati to marry Fred Stephens. I'd been working for years in publications, but in Cincinnati, I've mostly been teaching English part-time for Berlitz International Language School.

I wanted to keep my hand in writing. I started Parvum Opus partly as a professional calling card, and partly out of compulsion. As any editor knows, editors automatically proofread everything they read or hear, and as a teacher, I'm compelled to talk about my English language obsession, when I can find an audience.

I believe writers start out by talking to themselves. I've been having a conversation with myself all my life, interrupted only by conversations with other people. I have to write it down.

The first piece I wrote was about the misuse of the word "actionable," which I'd run across a few times and which really bugged me. I mailed that one out the last week of 2002. It was about 280 words. Originally I intended to write a short paragraph on one item each week, but it grew.

Now I mostly keep it at about 1,200 words, usually on several subjects. Occasionally I write one long piece.


My parents both grew up on farms in Calhoun County. They knew each other growing up. They're of Scottish ancestry, going back in America to the mid-eighteenth century.

My father was Gordon Gail Keith, son of Gail Keith and Pearl Snodgrass Metz Keith. My mother was Ruth Douglas Keith, daughter of Albert and Ina Siers Hunt Douglas (both grandmothers remarried after losing their first husbands.

I have a few old family photos online at my first, now rather aged web page, Rhonda Keith's Home Page, going back to great-great grandparents William W. "Squire" Bailey, a one-armed Civil War vet on the Confederate side, and his wife Lucinda Godbey Bailey, who my mom said was half Cherokee.

My uncle Harry told me a story about Lucinda tipping a Yankee raider into a big kettle she had set up to clean a butchered hog. Squire Bailey was a farmer, and became a constable, sheriff, and justice of the peace in Calhoun County.

When I was a kid and my dad was in the Air Force, we visited his parents on their farm in Milo, where they lived all their lives. It was great excitement when we drove off the road and through a creek up to the house. Dad had to go open a gate and close it after the car went through.

A niece of my dad's still lives on that farm. I heard a gas company that drilled wells there built a bridge over the creek. In the 1950s, my dad's parents still got their water from a well out back, still had an outhouse and chamberpots, still had a fireplace and a crank phone and a feather mattress and a good parlor.

Grandpa chopped wood, and Grandma killed chickens and cooked on a wood-burning stove. Grandpa stacked his cone-shaped haystacks by hand, and hung beautiful twists of tobacco in the barn to dry.

It was a completely different world from the towns and military bases I was used to in Florida and Texas, and from Akron, where we lived when my dad was sent overseas to the Philippines and to Thule, Greenland.

My mom used to tell me great stories about her life growing up on the farm. I think my mom's parents' farm was in Mary's Fork, if you can say it was "in" anyplace. For a good picture of that way of life, I suggest the book The Legend of Mammy Jane by Sibyl Jarvis Pischke.

Unfortunately, her death at 88 was just reported by the Hur Herald, and I think her books are not easily available now. Mammy Jane Jarvis's son Newt married my grandfather Albert Douglas's sister Stella.

I also enjoy books by Sharyn McCrumb and Charles Frazier set in the Appalachians. I've done some genealogy but I'm not a real student of the area or of history.


My mother's parents sold their farm and moved to Akron, Ohio, during World War II. They were getting older, and their oldest children - in a family of eleven - had left home.

Some of the boys had joined the service. My Uncle Harry Douglas joined the Navy after he saw my dad visiting in his Navy uniform. That uniform made a big impression. Harry had been working in the CCC camps, or perhaps it was the WPA.

My dad had enlisted right out of high school, in 1939. (I was fortunate enough to be given a copy of the 1939 Calhoun County High School yearbook by William Kight, which I scanned and posted at

My Uncle Nelson Douglas ran away from home when he was about 15, and got a relative, Warden Bailey, to lie for him so he could join the Navy too. Said he was older. Harry told me that made him really angry, because Harry was in the South Pacific where the fighting was bad and he didn't want his little brother there. Harry's ship was blown up and he floated around for quite a while ingesting diesel fuel, and ended up in Tahiti for surgery and recuperation.

His story was that he shacked up with a Tahitian girl, and didn't know she was pregnant when he went back home. Their daughter was named Tarita, who later married Marlon Brando. Harry said Brando located Harry years later and called him up to chew him out. Harry was indignant because he said he didn't know anything about it, and hung up on Brando. I don't know if this is true. Harry destroyed a manuscript of his memoirs.

In Akron, my mom became Ruthie the Riveter. She actually was a riveter at the big Goodyear Hangar during the war.

After the war, my dad married my mom in Akron, and he started working in a factory. He didn't like factory work, so he re-enlisted, this time in the Air Force.

I was born in Akron, and my brother, Sam Keith, was born in Florida at Eglin Air Force Base a couple of years later. We were Air Force brats till Dad retired after 20 years in the military. Then he became a park ranger with the Florida State Parks.

He and my mother divorced when I was 15. We had moved around quite a bit, and after the divorce Mom, Sam, and I moved back to Akron. My mother eventually remarried, to another West Virginian, George Leo Boggs of Clay County.

Only the two youngest of that generation of Douglases remain, my uncles Nolan and Bill Douglas, who live near Akron. Of the Keiths, only my dad's older sister, Vera Keith Jarvis, remains; Vera also lives in Akron, and is still cooking at 90 years old.

I finished high school in Akron, then went to The University of Akron, where I started teaching English as a graduate student. I got my love of reading from my mom, and she encouraged my education. I believe I'm the first female of my family to go to college, other than a cousin who was a nurse.

Well, I guess that makes me the second, but my cousin contracted polio early on and never worked after that. After I got my master's degree, I quit teaching for about eight years, then entered The University of Tulsa doctoral program, where the feminist writer Germaine Greer had started a graduate program in women's literature.

But by then I was raising two children alone, sons Jude and Foy, and it was just too much, trying to get a degree, work out my fellowship, work on the side, and take care of the boys.

Something had to go, and it was the Ph.D. So I went from part-time to full-time writing and editing. I regretted giving up that Ph.D. for maybe about one day. My boys grew up in Kansas. They're both in Boston now.

I met Fred Stephens in Akron in 1976, in our hippy days. That's a rather long story. We were "just friends," as they say, but he fascinated me. However, I lost track of him till he found me on the Internet at the end of 2001, and I moved to Cincinnati within about three months of his e-mail.


I started e-mailing Parvum Opus to most of my friends, family, and professional contacts. Some pass it on to their friends, and ask me to add their friends to the list. Occasionally somebody finds something he or she likes in the columns posted online, and ask to subscribe. So the list has grown.

I started using comments that my readers send in, and sometimes they more or less write the column for me! They always have something interesting to ask or to contribute. I think of some of them as friends now, even some I haven't met yet.

From time to time I throw in a book or movie review, or political or cultural observations.

I always try to make a connection with some point of language, but I can't ignore the war, for instance. Language doesn't have meaning apart from some context. My opinions have alienated a few readers, I've lost a couple. But I think you ought to argue things out, not just walk away.

When I make a political point, I try to keep it very narrow, rather than make sweeping generalizations, and try to stick to logic rather than emotion, so there will be a clear basis for discussion. But some people who knew me in college can't figure out why any of my opinions should have changed over the years. I know some of the mental roads people go down, and I try to find a crossroads where we can stop and chat.


These days, besides teaching and writing, I'm working on a couple of new projects. I've designed cushions especially for women to use during massage, chiropractic treatment, etc., to take the pressure off the breasts when lying on the stomach. It's especially helpful for women who've had surgery. You can check it out at Rhonda's Breast Cushion.

I'm also planning to self-publish and sell some booklets with stories I've written. There's not a wide or varied market for short stories. I've written a novel about cloning, but I don't know if it's worth trying to self-publish.

Last year, I organized two retreats with a writer and Christian mystic named Bernadette Roberts, of California. You can find her books at Amazon. Fred is seriously interested in her work and I thought this was the best way for us to meet her.

Also, CafePress is good spot for ideas that are just big enough for a T-shirt or a mug or something. I still do some freelance writing and editing. My credentials and all the back issues of Parvum Opus are online at

As you see, I'm very dependent on the Internet. And after all, it brought Fred back into my life.


I'm glad I got to visit my grandparents' Calhoun farm, though I wouldn't want to live their life. As my Uncle Harry said, it was nothing but hard labor from dawn to dark, just to put food on the table. But that was how all farmers lived then, and how most people in the world used to live. It shouldn't be forgotten.

Most kids today have even less contact with nature, outside of their own bodies, than I did growing up. They can't see many stars at night because of the electric lights. They don't know what the world really is. They seldom have a moment of silence.

When I visited my grandparents' farm, I found the long shadows of the mountains too cold and dark, because I was used to the sun of the Florida beaches and the Texas plains. But the natural world was closer there, and it seems more distant today.

Truthfully, I have a stronger sense of connection with my computer. For me to have made a life out of reading and writing is a luxury that was built on many generations of farmers and fighters. I hope I can draw something from their memory, and I hope they're looking on my work with some interest and amusement.