Like countless other Alabamians, I have my stories of meeting this remarkable woman, as when 10 years ago, with her grown son, Ben, I sat at her wooden kitchen table at Selma one evening and ate her grilled cheese sandwiches, while we told her to her delight of our expedition earlier that day to William Weatherford’s grave, and how thunder rolled into an otherwise calm blue sky just as we found this Creek Indian warrior’s grave.
But there is so much more: Mrs. Windham, along with Harper Lee and Hank Williams Sr., are our state’s foremost pride and joy in their native narrative gifts and wise humanity.
She also was a pioneering female journalist in Alabama, when such women were as rare as Unitarians in our state; and by dint of her writing she was, widowed at an early age, able through her hard work to be the support of three children whom she supported throughout college, and yet was always a kind and available parent, rare indeed for any single parent and, particularly, for a parent who is a practicing journalist.
We will not see her like any time soon again, not her grace, nor her talents, nor her hard work and ground-breaking careers for other Alabama women.
— David Robertson, Cincinnati, OhioSpeaking to Mensa
My favorite Kathryn Tucker Windham story occurred eight or nine years ago when we both were invited to speak to the national convention of the Mensa genius group. Although very bright, not all of them were what I would call normal human beings. I struggled through my session and warned Kathryn that she was in for a challenge the next morning. She expressed some misgivings about the audience but soldiered on.
After her first story, some in the audience looked at each other in bewilderment as if to say what is this old woman from Selma doing on this program? But by the third or fourth story, the audience began to warm. And by the last story, a particularly funny story about Selma leaders bringing a Passion Play to the town at Easter time for performances for white and black school children and adults in an attempt to unite the divided city, together with the hilarious misadventures of the cast, the audience was enraptured and hanging on every word.
When she finished, the packed room burst into such applause and standing ovation that it hurt my ears. If they had been electing a president of the U.S. that day, I am convinced she would have received every vote in the room. They thoroughly fell in love with her. And so did we all who knew and loved her.
— Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn UniversityIn Kathryn’s kitchen
I’m sitting in Kathryn Tucker Windham’s kitchen, drinking sweet tea and eating cheese straws, listening to her tell me about different characters around Selma.
The whole of 2006, I was in the Black Belt working on a project. It was lonely for me and the whole thing got to be a bit of a chore, being away from my family so much. But I always stopped in and visited with her, made me feel so much lighter, because it was just like being with my grandmother, in the kitchen, soft voices, funny stories, goodness all around.
I wrote a story about her once for Longleaf magazine. It was about the dirt, how she was a part of the earth, down to it, how she forged her friendships in the simplest of ways.
We spent some time talking about her neighbor, the folk artist Charlie Lucas, how they put the garden together, went fishing together. Well, that’s what friends do, they garden and fish together. He’s black, and when you get around to talking about what defines the South, well race is at the heart of it, and Kathryn seems to have solved that riddle a long time ago, knowing all along there was a very simple answer to it.
She sent me a postcard after the magazine story. She scrawled a note, a lot like Allen Gurganus’ character in “Blessed Assurance” who sends a note to the hero after she can’t make her policy payment anymore (he sells funeral insurance), saying something like, “The truth is, I miss you more than I miss it.” She said much the same to me … “Thanks for the kind words, but I would rather you say them to me, in person.”
I had made reference in the piece to a cemetAry, somehow managing to spell it incorrectly, So at the end, she wrote, “I believe the word is spelled ‘cemetery.’”
— John Fleming, Anniston Star editor-at-largeCollecting odd eggs
I didn’t meet Kathryn Tucker Windham in my childhood like most folks I know. Her books were not read in elementary schools on Army bases. Truth be told, the first time I met Kathryn Tucker Windham in person I had never heard of her. That seems almost blasphemous to live in Alabama and admit, but it’s true.
In 2007, when the Anniston Star and the Knight Foundation hosted a storytellers conference, Windham was a featured speaker. At lunch, she asked me if I’d ever read “13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.” I told her, “No.” She stared at me for a moment and cracked a smile. When I followed up by asking her who wrote it, she laughed out loud. She told me later that I was probably the most honest person she’d ever met.
The next year, she sent me a copy of “Odd-Egg Editor” after telling me that I should consider the editorial title for myself. We both had a love of odd eggs and people with character. The memoir about her early days as a “girl reporter” is among my most prized possessions.
For the fall 2009 issue of Longleaf Style magazine, we published an excerpt from Windham’s book “Spit, Scarey Ann and Sweat Bees.” She explained to me that the “Scarey Ann” doll had a lever on her back that, when pulled, would make her hair stand straight up. She wished she still had her Scarey Ann doll from childhood, because she feared she had dreamed her up.
I searched online and the following week, there was a new listing on eBay. It was as if God himself had arranged for me to buy it. Josephine Ayers, editor-in-chief of Longleaf Style, and I drove to the Alabama Book Festival in 2009 and surprised Windham with the doll. As she held it, she cried. In the years following, there wasn’t a conversation or letter that she didn’t mention Scarey Ann to me. Or the fact that I made her cry.
Many of our last conversations were about her children and her husband, who died in 1956, and about our love of odd eggs and journalism. I’ll miss swapping handwritten notes and our conversations. Most of all, I’ll miss knowing someone else with the gift of collecting odd eggs. I was happy to have been one of them.
— Theresa Shadrix, Longleaf Style managing editorRelated article
With her Jeffrey, Kathryn Tucker Windham added to the legacy of Southern ghostlore