(Unless otherwise noted, the Kathryn Tucker Windham blogs are written by her daughter, Dilcy Windham Hilley.)
It must have gotten tiresome.
For all our growing up years, my mother slept on the sofa by the kitchen the night before Thanksgiving. That way she could get up periodically and “see to the turkey,” basting and such as needed doing.
Sometime around 1990, Mother was taken by a brilliant notion. Sometime that September at a family get-together, she announced, “For Thanksgiving I have rented a beach house at Fort Morgan for the week. Anybody who wants to come down for any length of time is welcome to do so.”
My brother and sister and I were surprised. What? No more gathering of the family at Mama’s long pine table? No more setting up card tables for the children and overflow guests who inevitably appeared? (For years those guests included the two young men sent to Selma by the Mormon Church in an always-bankrupt attempt to convert somebody…anybody.)
We were puzzled, caught off guard, but we recovered quickly. After all, it was the beach. It was a new adventure. It was still a family assemblage, and that’s what mattered.
That very first year at the beach, everyone adapted quite well. A roomy house right there on the shores at Ft. Morgan was, after all, something to be really thankful for. And no turkey on earth could hold a candle to the pot of boiling shrimp---huge tasty Reds---that became our traditional Thanksgiving meal.
In the early years of the new tradition, Mother would drive down from Selma with my sister, Kitti, on Monday to set up the house for other arrivals later in the week. The rest of us would go down as soon as possible, hording vacation days from work to stretch out the family time at a place that is near perfect in November.
In 2005, my sister died just weeks before Thanksgiving. My mother, by then in her 80s, acknowledged her failing eyesight prevented the long drive alone to the beach. But her indomitable spirit insisted on continuing the tradition.
“Kitti would want us to go.” That’s all she said.
So, every Thanksgiving until Mother’s death, our “adopted” family member, her next door neighbor, Charlie Lucas, would drive with her down on Monday to set up the house.
My mother, deeply rooted in her Methodist upbringing, would call all in attendance to gather around the Thanksgiving table. We would hold hands. Mother would say a short and beautiful blessing and make her annual attempt to have each of us say a word of personal thanks. It would begin well.
“I’m thankful for each family member and for our friends gathered here today,” I would say.
“I give thanks for recovery from the illnesses this family has suffered,” my sister-in-law would say, her words of thanks precious, for there had been many.
“Thank you, God, for these people who have taken me in to be part of their loving family,” was Charlie’s prayer.
But when it came his turn, my wonderfully irreverent brother would dispel the earnest mood. “Roll Tide!” he’d say, and we’d all collapse into laugher. Even after Mother’s death in 2011, we continued the annual trek to the beach with friends and family for the holiday.
This year another Windham has died. This year at Thanksgiving, we will scatter brother Ben’s ashes in the waters at his beloved Fort Morgan. He would want us to.
(Unless otherwise noted, the Kathryn Tucker Windham blog is written by her daughter, Dilcy Windham Hilley.)
When Mother got really old, she decided to write a book about getting really old.
Mother was a prolific writer with more than two dozen books in publication when, at 92, she decided to take on this new subject matter. She’d always written about the places, people and topics she’d known best, and old age was no exception. She said she would write about the burdens and mishaps of having to deal with the visitor that life’s December delivers to your door. She would call it SHE: The Old Woman Who Took Over My Life.
As she always did when she wrote, Mother sat at the dining room table with a yellow legal pad and began in longhand. She was not especially well at the time, but she chose to ignore her failing heart and to get on with a project that seemed to energize her. She was in and out of the hospital and physical therapy in those months, but still she wrote.
When I went to Selma to visit, she was eager to share new chapters with me. She read aloud to me about her visit to the ophthalmologist who was aghast to learn that Mother had driven herself to his office. She read to me the chapter about repeatedly dialing her prescription number instead of the number for the pharmacy. I cackled out loud about her quest to stay fit by goose stepping through the house while arm-pumping cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.
It was good writing. It was hard work. And then one day it came to an end.
Mother was back in the hospital. She’d hit a particularly rough patch, and her spirit was damaged. I went to see about her, and I asked how “SHE” was coming along.
“I’ve given up on it,” she told me. “It’s no good.” Mother died within weeks.
Her editor and good friend, Randall Williams of NewSouth Books, wouldn’t let the project die with her. By some miraculous turn, he took the barely legible manuscript and pieced it together with pages she had already given him, and he made a book.
I wish Mother had lived to see it published. It was on the local bestseller list for weeks and weeks. So many people have told me what joy they’ve gotten from that slender little volume. Now in paperback, it remains a strong seller. It was good.
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"Some people are important to intellectuals, journalists, or politicians, but Kathryn Tucker Windham is probably the only person I know in Alabama who is important to everybody."
–Wayne Flynt, Professor Emeritus in the Department of History at Auburn University.
Ben Windham & Dilcy Windham Hilley
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