Cousin PJ and Julia Walker
I was scheduled to teach a lunchtime writing class on February 27th to thirty plus OLLI students enrolled at the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa campus. Departing from Birmingham, the Appalachian foothills dwindled quickly to flat lands as we exited Jones Valley on Interstate 20. An hour and a half or so later we were on the campus searching for the Osher Lifelong Learning Center building. Their noncredit classes are offered to adults over 50. I was a little anxious about this teaching since I didn’t feel qualified. It was definitely out of my comfort zone. Teaching about writing was very different from the OLLI classes I had taught on ticks and tickborne diseases.
The building held the latest audiovisual equipment, the students were enthusiastic and full of comments and questions, and my cousin PJ MacAlpine, sitting in the last row, cheered me on. What fun it turned out to be. Several of the students came to the reading the next night at Ernest & Hadley Booksellers, the only independent bookstore in Tuscaloosa.
Ernest & Hadley is named after Hemingway and his first wife and their happy time in a Paris apartment. The bookstore is, indeed, a happy place. In an old house, it is cozy, full of nooks and crannies, with wonderful books everywhere. The reading was very civilized with the gracious owners, Easty and Ian, offering wine and eats aside the helter-skelter chairs placed where they could best fit in the front room. Being now a bit seasoned from several prior readings, I had come to enjoy the process and the anticipated questions from the attendees. From decades of presentations on medical topics, I had already learned that questions during or after presentations, though sometimes challenging or even provocative, were always interesting, and always a teaching.
Thanks to my editor Claire Lewis Evans, PJ and I had an invitation from a friend of hers, Julia Walker, to stay with her the three days we were in south Alabama. So, after the class on Monday, we headed southeast past the little town Greensboro, the heart of McAlpin country, to where Julia lived. I had gone to Greensboro in 2019 to research for Unloose My Heart. Staying with Julia was full of learning and discoveries, and we came away with a new friend. She and the ladybug aggregation where she lived offered several treats: getting to know her, enjoying her delicious cooking, and experiencing the ladybugs.
Julia had recently moved back to Hale County where she had grown up, one of ten in a scrabbling, dirt poor, and remarkable family. Almost all the children, including Julia, turned out to be writers among other things. There are few secrets surrounding her family due to the fascinating memoir, Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood, her brother, Norman McMillan, published in 2002.* Julia’s people had once been better off, in fact, one branch had been enslavers. Her return to her homeland is why PJ and I got to meet her at a very large house on a former dairy farm. Julia lives in a small apartment created out of part of the first floor. The owners kindly share the whole house with Julia when they are not there.
Built by Baseball Hall of Fame Frank Allen about 1912, the house has held three generations with all the oriental rugs, paintings, books, maps, furniture, and even chamber pots from before bathrooms were put in. It was charming. No wonder thousands of lady bugs took up residence in the corners of the rooms in their annual love fest. PJ and I got to pick our movie set-looking bedrooms. My first night in mine I discovered the ladybugs would land on my book, on me, the lamp shade, and everywhere else. When I took my first sip of bedside water in the middle of the night, I almost swallowed one who must have been as thirsty as I was. I deemed the flavor they imparted as a bitter musky taste with floral overtones. Who doesn’t love these pretty helpful little creatures? Plus, they were a good sign, symbolizing good luck and resilience. The little beetles of assorted reds, oranges, and yellows with their black spots became our mojo, our totem.
My view on our first morning is one tucked forever in my memory. Sleeping in a bit, I got out of bed in my large corner room and stumbled down the twenty-two stairs to the first floor following my nose to the coffee. I soon heard peals of laughter coming from outside. There they were, Julia and PJ, both nightgown clad in rockers on the corner of the long and wide L-shaped porch, their coffee in hand, in deep conversation punctuated every few moments with mirth. The just risen sun sent shafts of light dancing across the rolling fields, piercing the pecan trees, kissing the daffodils, skimming the cows, and then landing on Julia and PJ. I soon joined them, feeling taken back into another world. It was a better one than what was here two centuries ago but still with problems we were to learn. Hale County is the dirt and blood of the shared ancestors who link PJ and me.
Without Julia as our guide, we would not have met Pastor Jones who gave us a personal tour of the little house, now The Safehouse Museum, founded by Civil Rights Activist Theresa Burroughs. It was there, on March 21, 1968, Greensboro’s Black residents protected Martin Luther King, Jr. from being lynched by the Klan. I hope to share more stories from Pastor Jones later. After the museum, we went to the courthouse to check on McAlpin(e) records as it had been closed for Confederates Day when I was there in 2019. (Yes, really.) Who was there but the town historian and attorney whom I had met in 2019 and then written about in Unloose My Heart. He didn’t recognize me, so I left it at that. I was already wondering if anyone who came to the reading might know the two in my anonymous accounts about meeting him and a previously unknown cousin of mine whom he had introduced me to. Read on for that story.
Our gracious hostess also showed us a few other sites. On March 1st, we were honored to have Julia’s brother Norman and his wife Joan come for the day and evening. This occasioned a fancy luncheon by Julia, a happy afternoon with the five of us in rockers on the porch talking and talking, and then all heading off for the book reading that evening in Greensboro.
The energetic librarian, Stephanie Nixon, had filled the largest space in the little library with every chair they had. I was worried that attendance would be sparse, especially when, with only a few minutes left until starting time, there were still a lot of empty seats. My editor, Claire, drove down from Tuscaloosa with an enormous pile of books to sell which made me cringe to think most might remain. By the time to start arrived, as I got my papers ready and introductions began, there was not a seat left. By the end, the books sold out!
This reading was a fitting denouement to the Alabama Book Tour. After I read, PJ performed excerpts from her longer work, In the Garden, which I have written about before.** The audience was both dazzled and moved. The chandelier above us swayed. Our ancestors were surely looking on.
When PJ finished, a contemplative silence followed for a few moments. Slowly, the Black and white audience began to ask questions and make comments. We ended with our thanks to all. One of the women on the front row approached me with her companion. “That was my husband you wrote about!” A man approached, “The cousin you wrote about, I knew her well.” I took a deep breath. Thankfully, they offered no objections and added more details. Two white women who waited until most people had gone, approached in tears. One, speaking for both, told me they came, having seen the library’s announcement of the reading and what it was about, because they had felt so alone growing up in their white supremacy world having to keep their sympathies for their African American neighbors secret. They wanted to meet other white people who felt as they did.
The next day, full of gratitude to everyone and for all our experiences on the eight-day tour, we said goodby to Julia and our ancestral land and headed back to the Birmingham airport in a scary heavy rain. Thankfully, PJ, as usual, was driving. My deepest thanks to her and to everyone who was part of this tour.
*Norman kindly gifted PJ and me each with a signed book. See www.newsouthbooks.com/bkpgs/detailauthor.php?author_id=829 for the book description. Order from Amazon: Distant Son: An Alabama Boyhood (Voices Along the Trace) by Norman McMillan.
** PJ MacAlpine performed two vignettes from her longer work In the Garden. The link is on the FaceBook page for Unloose My Heart: www.facebook.com/Marcia.E.HermanGiddens/. Scroll down to April 20 to /fb.watch/j_D58VvEhq/?mibextid=YCRy0i.