Last evening I read the news that Kathryn Tucker Windham, renowned storyteller of the South, died at her home in Selma, Alabama–a few days after celebrating her 93rd birthday. I was first introduced to “Ghost” (a nickname my dad gave her) 3rd grade through her book 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. From my bedroom in Birmingham, I was immediately gripped by her retelling of mysterious ghosts, haunts and happenings in my home state. And I remember my classmates and I often debated whether Kathryn’s best friend, a ghost named Jeffrey, was real or not. She would tell me years later that Jeffrey was indeed real and although “Ghost” was an incredible storyteller, she never told a lie or stretched the truth. Kathryn told it like she saw it in stories and pictures which focused mostly on her family and childhood, life in the South, and her career as a newspaper reporter and editor (She was the first female police reporter for a big named newspaper in Alabama and a pioneer for women’s rights in the work place). So I believe unequivocally that Jeffrey was real and provided Kathryn with a good friendship and some terrific yarns.
I met Kathryn Tucker Windham face-to-face years later in the spring of 1998 while I was working as an assistant Arts and Entertainment editor for The Auburn Plainsman. I was covering a story on The Azalea Storytelling Festival in LaGrange where Kathryn was doing a storytellers workshop. I introduced myself and told her we had a mutual friend in Ed Williams, journalism professor at Auburn and faculty adviser on the student newspaper, and Lain Peel (now married with a new last name) who I grew up with on Presbyterian Church (USA) retreats and conferences. The connections delighted her immensely.
Kathryn Tucker Windham loved many people, regardless of their identity or background., and it was that love for folks that made her the kind of storyteller that could connect with another and make them feel a sense of warmth and love in their life.
In the workshop she led at the Azalea Storytelling Festival, she said: “I just tell stories and try to encourage you to tell stories. You have stories from your childhood. Are you telling those stories, because you got to tell them. My father made me remember the stories people tell are important. He said: ‘Don’t ever get involved in things, things aren’t important, people are important.'”
Kathryn was a treasure of stories about a host of subjects like a a friend who had five cats that slept in doll beds or the time in her 80s when she got caught flying down the highway, 30 miles over the speed limit on the way to a storytelling seminar. The police officer, recognizing the author of his favorite ghost books, beamed with excitement, apologized for pulling her over, asked her to be careful about her speed and let her go on her way without a ticket!
It was hard not to be mesmerized by a woman who told stories to children and families while having an afternoon picnic in an old cemetery or who wasn’t bashful about showing off her pacemaker scar or kept her “good dishes” in the pine coffin box that she will soon be buried in.
Kathryn and I kept some correspondence following our meeting at the Azalea Storytelling Festival. After sending her the article on the event, she wrote the following note (on her custom made Jeffrey The Ghost postcards) which I’ve kept for years along with other KTW letters and articles in the back of her autobiography Twice Blessed:
Thank you for the excellent story you did about the Azalea Storytelling Festival. I’m glad you have discovered how much fun storytelling is. Tell Lain to bring you to Selma.
A few months later, I sent Kathryn some of my articles from The Auburn Plainsman and The Mobile Press-Register where I was doing a summer internship shortly before graduation. She wrote me back:
Thank you for sending me your articles. I am pleased that you wrote about storytellers–and you wrote so well. You’re in the finest profession in the world. Enjoy!–Kathryn Windham. P.S. Jeffrey sends fond regards.
I enjoyed the newspaper profession for a little while but in September 2001, decided to leave the world of journalism and answer God’s call of me to go to seminary and become a minister of the word and sacrament in the PC(USA). I was interviewed by an Auburn journalism student about my new-found calling for a story that ran in the journalism department’s publication The Auburn Reporter. After receiving her copy of the Reporter, Kathryn sent a card to Ed Williams (a mentor and dear friend for more than a decade) who then mailed the card along with the article to me:
Have you seen this article. You must be mighty proud of Andy. I’d like to be able to attend the church he serves. He must have learned about compassion, caring and real friendship from you. Thank you! Thank you! –Kathryn
To be fair, I learned about compassion, caring and friendship from both Ed and Kathryn as well as numerous other folks, both in the church and community.
It was while I was serving in my first call as a an associate minister in Silver Spring, Maryland that I learned my dad and stepmom were neighbors and close friends with Kathryn’s daughter Dilcy Hilley and her family. Dad would visit Kathryn at her home in Selma on New Year’s Day to listen to her stories and eat some of her delicious black-eyed peas (which Southerners claim will bring you good luck in the coming year). And because January 1 was my birthday, Dad, as a present to me, would give me a call and then put Kathryn on the phone to sing me a song and give me good wishes. It was a wonderful treat that lasted about three years. Every time, Kathryn told me to come visit her in Selma, but I never made the trip. It’s one of a few regrets I have. Honestly, I thought there would always be an opportunity to see Kathryn, as if she would live on forever and ever. When you’re still a spark plug as she was at 90, it’s easy to consider the possibility that God may give some folks earthly immortality.
I do take comfort in knowing that her stories will continue to be told and hopefully last longer than many of us, tales passed from one generation to the next. And great joy fills my heart as I envision the stories Kathryn is telling now with all the sinner-saints gathered around her in God’s kingdom. One day, we’ll all get to hear ’em.
When death comes, I want to be stripped of any medically usable body parts, be wrapped in a quilt one of my black friends made for me, be put in my coffin and have the top nailed down with those square nails. However, somebody will have to take out the Rose Point Crystal, complete service for twelve including water pitcher and butter dish, that’s stored in it. The crystal was a gift from an elderly relative, but I had no place to put it in my crowded cabinets, so it is stored in my coffin. My grave marker won’t be one of those fancy examples of stonemason’s art, nor will it have a flowery epitaph. I’d like to have some words from one of Jan Struther’s poems: She was twice blessed: She was happy; She knew it.