Rae Turnbull Touches Fans Far and Wide with Her Poetic Writing
● By Melissa Mendonca
Simple Moments Making a Big ImpactAugust 2015
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Syerra Eickmeyer
If you're from a family of article clippers - people who save and share snippets from newspapers and magazines - chances are, somewhere in your stash is at least one essay from Rae Turnbull. The prolific writer from Capay (rural Tehama County) had a selfsyndicated newspaper column from 1992-2002, which published three times per week in seven newspapers nationwide, including the Record Searchlight and Chico Enterprise-Record.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many memorial services have happened across the country where I’ve been contacted by people who found a piece of mine in the personal effects of a loved one and they wanted to use it in the memorial service,” says the writer, now 81.
“I really think that I spoke to people who were a little shy about putting things into words,” she says of the small moments in family life that added up to big feelings and found their way into her work. “It’s the common chord that we all share,” she adds. “When you speak to that it’s very strange – my readers range from far left to far right, urban, suburban, ranch, farms. There’s a common language.”
At the height of her column’s run, Turnbull was published in papers as large as the Omaha World Herald and Las Vegas Review Journal. “I never had an editor say they didn’t like the work,” she says. “But they did say they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Her essays are poems, with openings such as, “I stepped into his kitchen/and met his memories/The refrigerator door was crowded with snapshots/of small children/now grown and on their own/And a smiling wife/ before she lost her fight with illness and with time.”
If her editors didn’t always know what to do with her work, her readers certainly did. They clipped her stories and sent them to friends and family when no other words could be found. Or they tucked them away in drawers for safe keeping to call upon for comfort on another day. And they wrote to Turnbull in appreciation, hoping to connect with the writer who had connected so well to their hearts. “One lady in particular said, ‘I finally figured out who you are. You’re living in my closet!’” recalls Turnbull. “And I loved that.”
A letter once arrived from Lincoln, Neb., saying, “I want you to know that I have file drawers filled with your essays.” That reader is now a friend of Turnbull’s and the two have visited each other and introduced family members. “People felt that I was like family,” she adds.
The column began after her son’s birth, “which was a long time ago,” she says with a laugh. “It was probably about 40 years ago that my husband said, ‘You really should get these published.’” She began in Huntington Beach and eventually had 12 essays published in Good Housekeeping, whose editors suggested she syndicate.
Eventually she did, and took much of her inspiration from life in rural Capay, where her family moved so husband George, a renowned artist and designer, could take a new position at Chico State University.
“A line would come into my head and I would know that I would have to write it down,” she says. If she was driving, that would mean needing to pull over on a rural road to jot down notes. As characteristic of a small farming community, someone would inevitably pull over to ask, “Ma’am, do you need some help?”
Eventually word got out that the neighbor frequently pulled over on the side of the road was a writer. They began looking for themselves in her column. “They would very seldom be mentioned by name,” she says. But her neighbors often inspired her and found their way into her work.
While the column retired in 2002, Turnbull remains as busy and creative as ever. “I’m 81 and I’m still writing,” she says. She also, along with George, is operating the well-regarded Orland Art Center, which features monthly exhibitions and weekly fine art classes and workshops.
The Art Center draws artists both local, national and international, and has included the works of both Turnbulls. “My drawings are like my writing,” says Turnbull. “Spare. Precise. No more, no less.” Husband George, by contrast, frequently works in watercolor and oils, and creates vivid landscapes and visual stories of Great Basin Buckaroos.
The home that the couple shares is a testament to a life welllived and full of creative pursuit. “When we bought this place it was 20 acres and a cornfield,” says Turnbull, overlooking a park-like setting with horses in the background. “Everything on this place my husband built.” As the two share a look of admiration and mutual support, it’s clear that the home was built with love, as well.