I had read Mary’s short stories before hearing her speak at several writers’ conferences. Then, one day about 13 years ago, we met and struck up a friendship. She admired my youth (I was about 48 at the time), and she, who was about 80 years old at the time, said she wished she were younger so she could have more years to write. We talked at length at the conference, and I asked if I could come and visit her. She said please do.
A few months passed, and we set a date. My friend Suzanne Cunningham and I headed to Marion about five hours away and literally drove to a rural section of the Black Belt where sat Mary’s ancestral home, a white frame, two-story house that her father had built. Its antique walls were lined with colorful art and many books on multiple shelves.
I am not sure there were peas in the fields near her home, but her house sat in the middle of several cultivated plots of farmland. I had a feeling of familiarity, and it was probably because the environment of the Black Belt area is so well described in all of her stories I had read.
Mary greeted us and led us to her kitchen table where we enjoyed a light lunch. As we ate, we looked out the windows into her grassy yard. She told us about leasing the farmland, a yard sale her church was planning, and about her son Kirksey, who lived nearby with his wife and two daughters. I was a new grandmother myself and identified with her glow as she talked about the two girls.
Mary was a delicate, dark-haired woman with an aristocratic, Southern accent. She had a humble, yet sophisticated personality. After we ate and listened to her describe how she accumulated her artwork, we moved to the front porch and talked about writing. I asked her why she poured so many hours into polishing her stories, as she was known for spending months on each story. “To achieve art,” she said, dropping the “r” as if the word was “ot.” “To achieve art.”
Indeed Mary’s stories are artistic. In her first book, “Tongues of Flame,” she wrote a short story of the same name. In it, she described Dovey Goodwin, a typical Southern church woman who had a burning passion for a neighbor man and for her church. It is also a story of Dovey’s desire to save the man from hell, of her church’s fiery preacher and of how a fire damaged the church building wall – a fire caused by the neighbor man who was bad to drink too much alcohol. Here is an excerpt describing how Dovey felt after the fire: “… she felt she had never been through such a night in her life. Her mind still blazed out of control, and there was no one to put it out for her.” The story is typical of Mary’s work, words infused with layers of meaning.
She told Suzanne and me about giving up her life of writing for several years not only to raise her son but also to prepare for the life of writing she wanted to embrace.
“During those years, I studied,” she said.
Because of outstanding writing skills, officials from some place in the Soviet Union once invited Mary there to speak. She had an especially strong following of readers there. It seems that the Soviet citizens who loved literature appreciated Mary’s ability to describe to the human connections of individuals living within a community.
Indeed, Mary loved the Black Belt region, in spite of its many economic and racial problems. The area was her late husband’s home, and she had loved him and their life together. Mary wrote what she knew, and she preserved stories typical of the lives of her neighbors and family members. Thanks to her, their lifestyles will be preserved for coming generations of fans.
Before Suzanne and I left Mary’s home, she said how lucky we were to have each other as friends. “I had a close friend, too,” she told us, “and we did so many things together before she died.”
Mary’s popularity at writing conferences grew, but her health declined through the years. There came a time when she was unable to circulate among those of us attending her sessions, as things changed to the point that she would be ushered in and out of the events in order to save her energy.
Mary died on Tuesday, May 14. Alabama lost a great writer. Her friends lost a great mentor. Those of us who appreciate Alabama literature lost a significant contributor to this state’s literary jewels.
For those who may not have read her works, they can likely be found in local libraries. Besides “Tongues of Flame” (1986), Mary wrote “It Wasn’t All Dancing and Other Stories” (2002) and “Fanning the Sparks: A Memoir” (2009). Her awards include a PEN/Hemingway Award form PEN New England writing group and an Alabama Author Award from the Alabama Library Association (ALA), both in 1987. In 1991, she won a Lillian Smith Book Award from the Southern Regional Council. She received the Harper Lee Award from the Alabama Writers Forum and another ALA award, both in 2002; and, in 2003, The Fellowship of Southern Writers presented her with the Hillsdale Fiction Award in 2003.
Email Sherry at firstname.lastname@example.org.