She: an unexpected arrival by Kathryn Windham
Upon leaving from an inviting time with a dedicated team of educators and the talented staff with the Southern Law Poverty Center in Montgomery, Alabama, along with a new friend Lois, we set out a day to visit Montgomery. We walked briskly to numerous places such as the Dexter church where Martin Luther King Jr preached and traveled to the Rosa Parks Museum where we learned of Rosa's journey. Stories of the Civil Rights Movement were shared from first person experiences.
However, how was I to know that I would soon be greeted by another first person story of familiarity.
We stumbled on the New South bookstore. For a storyteller this place is a treasure trove, rich with oral histories and historical and personal collections. Upon entering I asked if they had folklore and ghost collections. A delightful young lady named Brandie with a red streak in her hair approached with a smile and shared the book Jeffrey's Favorite 13 ghost stories by Kathryn Windham.
This invited warm talk and re-introductions to Kathryn and her work. We recalled what she said in her written works and I shared about her as a storyteller. I shared that the only way to introduce her was by her name. This said it all. Kathryn could light a room by bringing back an old way of life in the forefront or tell about her friendly ghost encounters. I remember sending her a collection of superstitions that my students collected and receiving a handwritten note with Jeffrey on the cover. Her personal note is something I value.
I shared that she had her own coffin made and the story of how the whole town thought she died when it was delivered. In a flowing white gown she answered the door to reveal that the truth of her death was a misconception. She had a great sense of humor. In her later years, I shall never forget if you called her to come and tell stories, she would respond "if I am here." In that little bookstore, her stories re-appeared and it was good to hear them.
It was comforting to talk about her in her home state of Alabama. It turns out her works were published by the same press with the name of the bookstore. (The press was directly behind the bookstore.) This is when the book manager shared that there was another book by Kathryn in the store but they only had one copy and could not let it go. I negotiated to see it and discovered it was her last work. After some searching, and some gentle pleading, the kind manager located another book and I was on my way with my copy. Lois bought the ghost collection.
(You can order this book from the link above or directly from New South www.newsouthbooks.com)
The book is Kathryn’s last. It is called She: The old woman who took over my life (2011). I had not read it. However, reading it was like hearing Kathryn all over again. It has her voice. It should , after all, she wrote it.
As a journalist and as a storyteller Kathryn talked about what was real. She only told about ghosts that she seen and regaled us with many evenings about her time in Alabama and her unique way of looking at the world. She was a collector of superstitions and regaled us with tales of Jeffrey, the ghost who lived in her home. Jeffery was the name on her license plate. We feel the loss of her old Valiant loses its driver because of "She."
However, this book chronicles the story of change and letting go. She talks about growing old and blames “She,” a manifestation or cause of her aging. She blames “She” for taking away her time for writing. But also thanks her, just a bit, for allowing her to slow down to see the world in a new way. She talks about how "She" enters her life, so does the massive cords. She tries to replace them but slowly everything has a cord. She asks, what we might ask as well, "Do they expect a phoenix to rise from this nest of electric cords (p. 66)?"
She used to write for hours, but now has trouble reading and writing for longer periods of time. She details slowing easing away from driving and cooking. We follow Kathryn on the trip to aging but in true Kathryn fashion, she tells the story with comfort and distress. We snicker as she insists with Carters drugstore personnel that her pill bottles not be “child proof” as she works to open them. She longs for them to be in easy to open glass bottles. However, it can't be done so she makes more use of the pill bottles. She uses the caps for garland at Christmas time.
As she notes, “She” moves in when she least expects it. She states that people often ask her what she does with her free time? She replies she does not have free time, instead she cares for a “crotchety old woman and that’s a full assignment. (p. 10)."
This old woman takes over her life, but at the same time we are provided a view of her perspective on the changes she ensures, faces, and even embraces. She treasures the past. She holds on to father’s relics from the Depression years. A time when he worked in the bank but soon this gave way to the Depression. She also talks about the hardness of having to not collect everything. But despite the insistence of "She," Kathryn sometimes overrides her. When "She" suggests they clean out the house, Kathryn sticks to her guns. She insists that her giant plaster leg will stay with her until they take her away. We can hear her laugh as people wonder why it is there. This is just like Kathryn, sharing a secret chuckle in the way she knows how.
We learn about everything from “brag cooks” to funeral lists. But this story is less about leaving, more about adapting and re-shuffling what age presents. As she nears “scratching distance of her 93rd birthday,” (p. 24) we follow Kathryn into her secret habit of drinking Eagle brand condensed milk with a spoon. We join her as she relishes in the joy of napping, even during sermons. We follow her as she ceases going to church but continues to read the Bible but while reading about Daniel, "She" causes her to receive a black eye from falling into the table. Even though this can be hard to take, the adjustments of growing older, Kathryn finds the light moments in the changing times. She is the only one I know that can laugh about “disposable underpants.” What is evident in the book is her rye sense of humor.
She does not fear death, a lesson she learned from her American History teacher who said it was the greatest adventure. However, we do hear about her impatient sister Annelee who keeps taking people off the pallbearer list because they don’t visit or someone was found gambling and is not worthy of the duty.
The work ends with Kathryn speaking of her own funeral, but for me, as I read it, she was very much alive. As much as I cry out “rabbit, rabbit” in honor of Kathryn at the beginning of the month, her tradition continues. Her voice resonates in this work. I am thankful for New South introducing me again to a friend who I had not heard from for a long time. Perhaps in the next week or so, I might just see Jeffery. One never knows.
*I invite you to share a Kathryn tale. I bet she is listening. I know we are and would love to revisit with you.
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