48 hours in Bessemer bring a flood and floodlights of memory. Last night at the Hall of History, I signed copies of my essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother (No Baptists harmed in the making of the book!), and met people I had only heard my mother tell me about before like John and Jane Bradley and Sandra Butler. I also saw a guy I vaguely knew from high school, Johnnie Chambers, whose love of comic books I learned of just last week. I’m driving past two spots as I leave town today: the former home of Chambers Grocery behind the old Westlake Mall where Johnnie’s dad resold his old comic books, and the former home of Black Sheep Ink on First Avenue, the spot where Tyler Goodson of “S-Town” tattooed John B. McLemore, among others.
Among the old friends I saw last night were the Dunlavy sisters, Paige and Blair, both of whom shared many calculating Sunday nights with me at our old Methodist Youth Fellowship gatherings. Once, I even held Blair’s hand during a seance there.
And then there was Dee Ann Windham, a girl I first met in first grade — the only person from my first grade class, Mrs. Baird’s class, I still keep in touch with. Now that’s history! She is one of my most faithful readers too, and I love her for still remembering the way our mothers raised us!
My down-the-street neighbor Carla Shaw was there too, and I asked if she still remembnered the days when we were teenagers and she played 45’s for us on her portable record player.
“Not only do I remember,” she said, “but I still have that old red and white record player saved in my attic.
Rick Abbott dropped by, too, and I hope his brother Gary gets better soon. His brother Frelon was there, too, and I asked Rick if Frelon still kicked up dirt on little league infields when he got mad.
“He did have a temper,” Rick offered.
My mother and I had had supper earlier with Randy Manzella, his wife Bryn, daughter Ashlyn, and sister Vicky. Most of us ordered the pecan-crusted snapper with crabmeat, and I think I found my new favorite way to prepare fresh Gulf snapper. Thanks for supper Randy, but more thanks for remembering how close we were from grades 5–12, for helping me through Biology, and for reminding me of certain stories that I’ll have to alter a bit before I pass them on.
Earlier that day we had barbecue at Bob Sykes with Joe Terry, whose sister Lou and her husband Bill also dropped by the dance. Joe treated us to chopped pork plates and spoke a bit about his two daughters who are both expecting twins imminently. This seems so appropriate for the Terry family.
I missed some old friends at the dance because I had to get my mother home before she fell out from back pain and heat exhaustion. Sorry I didn’t see Wanda Parsons Chandler, but I’ll see you at WT’s next time.
My special thanks to William and Chris Eiland and Bobby Cooper for staging this event and hosting me!
On this near week-end, many of us are still reeling from last weekend in Charlottesville. In Birmingham, the attorney general is suing the mayor for covering up a downtown Confederate Monument. I won’t go into here the history of Birmingham, Race, and Civil Rights, but I get the feeling that, as Faulkner said, the “past isn’t dead, it’s not even past.”
Steve Bannon is out, or at least heading home to Breitbart. I hope Boston survives whatever trouble is coming there, and I hope that all of us can find our better selves.
In any case, here is one thing that’s changing, and if this one thing can change, I see better days coming.
My mother who has always adored Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate lore, said on Thursday, after I had just arrived, that
“I didn’t feel this way until recently, but now I think all those Confederate monuments need to go…to a museum or somewhere else. It’s time.”
Time is the only way we peek into history. History is always there for us to study, read, march into. My memory says that in Alabama, we studied the Civil War in fourth and ninth grade, though it feels like we were always studying it. If you haven’t read it, I recommend Tony Horowitz’s Confederates in the Attic, where you might see what obsession looks like in gray and blue.
As I said to Joe, it’s amazing to me that people will march and fight and hate and even kill about the removal of one kind of history — these statues — but if you look around Bessemer, no one decided that our old grammar school, Arlington, was worth saving or fighting for. The building lies in rubble now — it had been a shell/crack den by the end — but in the beginning, or near that beginning, Joe’s and my parents had attended there. Joe had his father’s first grade teacher, Mrs. Shine, and I had my mother’s second grade teacher, Miss Pearson.
Arlington was the only school I ever loved. It’s where I met Dee Ann and where I walked home many days with Carla and her brother Steve, or with Joe’s sister Mary Jane whose books I often carried.
I will remember its history and write about it, even though I will never see the object/building of my desire again.
I think I’m ready to go now: ready for home and fall and another semester teaching students, I hope, how to appreciate fine literature and the hard work of writing and remembering.