Tag Archives: memoir

Tuscaloosa Babylon

 A friend of mine who has an authentic voice and a story to tell recently told me that she is beginning to write an “autobiographical memoir.” Those words immediately made me flash on Family Bible (University of Iowa Press, 2008), Melissa J. Delbridge’s autobiographical memoir about growing up in Tuscaloosa in the second half of the 20th century. I consider it a benchmark of the genre.

Since the book was on my mind, I pulled it down and began to re-read it. Delbridge has written a fearlessly honest account of being a child and coming of age in a dysfunctional and highly entertaining family in Alabama, which she labels a “simmering stew of religion, race, sex, and corruption.” She writes vivid and loving portraits of her parents that present each as simultaneously charismatic, loving, and at times repulsive. Her colorful and skilled way with language makes for hilarious reading at some times and gut-wrenching accounts at others.

I have enough familiarity with the places that Delbridge references in the memoir to find my own connections. We did our laundry at the same University Boulevard laundromat and attended the same high school, albeit a few years apart. All of us at that time had late night adventures at Hurricane Creek and Moundville. She changes some names of people and places for discretionary reasons, but it usually isn’t hard to fill in the blanks if you were around then.

The first time I met Melissa was when she paid a visit to Mrs. Garrabrant, the faculty advisor of the high school literary magazine that I served as a co-editor in my senior year. I had leveraged my editorial position into an excuse to spend my final class period in Mrs. Garrabrant’s room instead of the study hall to which I was assigned.

I remember being a little in awe of Melissa’s worldliness as well as her earthiness. I was a fairly sheltered teenager, always shy from often being “the new kid” in various schools. Melissa was forthright and uninhibited; she seemed in complete control of herself and of her surroundings.

The next time I remember encountering Melissa was in a University Theatre summer production of Gypsy. She was one of the strippers in “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” and further confirmed that she was way ahead of me in the worldliness category.

Years after both of us had left Tuscaloosa, I read an article about “Alabama Literature” in Encyclopedia of Alabama that referenced Melissa Delbridge’s Family Bible. I searched it, bought it, and marveled at the writing skills of a work that was so embarrassingly familiar but still so removed in many ways from my own experience of Tuscaloosa. My parents would have disapproved of certain things about the Delbridge family.

In Family Bible, Delbridge writes with an effortless grace that complements her acerbic, spot-on wit. She is a clear-eyed observer who withholds judgement as she presents truth about her faith – “I was the most frequently baptized child in the state of Alabama,” about her family, and about her sexual awakening(s). In a note “To the Reader” at the front of the book she concludes “I’m writing from memory most of the time, so be forgiving, gentle reader. I went to college in the seventies.” Despite that disclaimer, her words ring with truth and authenticity. I hesitate to doubt her memory.

Rereading the entire book after about a decade, I am struck by my fresh reactions. When I read it for the first time, shortly after its publication, I was moved, amused, and impressed. Not much shocked me. Reading it now, in the wake of “Me Too” and the more fragile sensitivities of our times, I find myself occasionally shocked by some of the memories – not so much for myself (after all, I went to college in the seventies, too), but for the fragility and thin-skinnedness of our times.  I ponder how our society has managed to become both annoyingly super-sensitive and alarmingly callous and crass at the same time.

I have not read most of Family Bible in over a decade, with one exception. The essay, “Billy Boy,” is one that I find myself drawn to year after year. I share it with other writers as an example of a powerful evocation of memory. A forthright account of Delbridge’s physical abuse by her step-father, “Billy Boy” is told with a compassion and grace that seem unparalleled in abuse narratives. The author lays out the facts of her own experience and truth while taking into account the truth of her abuser and his wretched background. It is a rare and unique balancing act, highlighted by this harrowing and triumphant passage:

Enough. You can have the nights. Granted, I suffered some wrongs as a girl. Once upon a time a pathetic man scared me with his ugly bedtime story. I will never deny this experience, but I refuse to grant it more than its true weight. We all have wonderful and horrible experiences having nothing to do with our own actions, right? … We don’t always deserve what we get. Most times that’s a blessing.

The book’s final essay, “Girls Turned In,” is a poignant account of Delbridge’s time working with mentally and emotionally challenged “residents” at Tuscaloosa’s various mental institutions such as Bryce Hospital and Partlow School. Some of my family that lived in other parts of the state seemed to think that “Tuscaloosa” and “Bryce’s” were one and the same. If someone said “they had to send her (or him) down to Tuscaloosa,” they usually didn’t mean the University.

Although Melissa and I were only casual acquaintances, I was always pleased to run into her during our Tuscaloosa years. She was a stimulating conversationalist with sparkling eyes and a wicked dry humor. I often thought that her style of Southern womanhood was a modern incarnation of Tallulah Bankhead, the outrageous actress daughter of a most prominent Alabama political family.

Back when Melissa and I knew each other, we were both probably poor as Job’s turkey. Since its publication, I have purchased at least a dozen copies of Family Bible – for myself and as gifts for others. Melissa is in North Carolina now, and I hope those royalties have gone to buy her a couple of sweet teas – which I probably owe her – or a few meat and threes at Posey’s. Better yet, perhaps they helped fund some early morning breakfast at The Waysider – to once again scope out who spent Saturday night with whom.

“I Love You, Alice B. Toklas”

IMG_1114   I bought my first Gertrude Stein book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, at the late great Smith and Hardwick Bookstore on 20th Street in downtown Birmingham in the ‘70s when I was an undergraduate at Alabama. Smith and Hardwick was one of those amazing bookstores with an outstanding jumble of books on two levels in seeming disarray. It was owned by the Praytor sisters – Virginia and Anna – and by Anna Praytor alone when Virginia died in 1974.

If you were looking for a particular title in the store and couldn’t figure out where it might be in the dusty stacks, one of the Misses Praytor always seemed to know exactly where it was located. Here’s what great locally-owned bookstores were like back then: I was in school in Tuscaloosa and if there was a book I needed I would telephone Miss Anna Praytor in Birmingham. She would mail the book the same day and enclose a handwritten bill and thank you.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) was Stein’s own autobiography told in the voice of Toklas, her long-time companion, secretary, cook, confidante, hostess, and handler. Alice B. Toklas (1877-1967) and Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) met on Toklas’s first day in Paris in 1907 and were never apart until Stein’s death thirty-nine years later. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a huge hit and led to Stein and Toklas’s triumphant first tour of the U.S. that spanned seven months in 1934 and 1935. Stein captured the experience of the American tour and other events in a 1937 book titled Everybody’s Autobiography. Whatever else Gertrude Stein may have been, she was never modest.

Over the years I have been fascinated with Gertrude Stein and have directed and adapted her plays, delivered papers about her oeuvre and influence, and conducted acting workshops based on the enigmatic short ditties she referred to as “plays.”

And the more I have learned about Stein, the more interested I have become in Toklas and her quirky and ongoing influence. Eugene Walter knew Toklas (of course) in Paris in the ‘50s and “adored [her] because she had this little moustache, and I swear she waxed it.” He says that upon meeting her “Right away you could see cat and monkey” (his two favorite creatures). “She had a logical mind, but she also had the gift of the parenthesis.”

Walter and Toklas exchanged cooking ideas and recipes and it was The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) that brought Toklas a surge of attention after Stein’s death. The Cookbook is really a fascinating memoir with recipes presented in a witty, earnest, and distinctive voice. In a chapter entitled “Murder in the Kitchen,” Toklas discusses the unpleasant tasks of preparing live animals for the kitchen: “The first victim was a lively carp brought to the kitchen in a covered basket … So quickly to the murder and have it over with.”

As Toklas assesses and deals with the fish she observes:

The carp was dead, killed, assassinated, murdered in the first, second, and third degree. Limp, I fell into a chair, with my hands still unwashed ready for a cigarette, lighted it, and waited for the police to come and take me into custody. After a second cigarette my courage returned and I went to prepare poor Mr Carp for the table.

Later in the same chapter Toklas describes her preparation of “Six white pigeons to be smothered, to be plucked, to be cleaned and all this to be accomplished before Gertrude Stein returned for she didn’t like to see work being done.”

In addition to being very readable, educational, and entertaining, the Cookbook continues to inspire into the 21st Century. A brief passage in Toklas’s chapter entitled “Servants in France” about the hiring of an Indo-Chinese cook named Trac inspired the creation of a beautiful and award-winning 2003 novel, The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong. Truong’s seductive and meditative book explores a fictional Vietnamese cook, Binh, who comes into the Stein-Toklas household.

No doubt the part of the Cookbook which caused the most stir is a recipe for “Haschich Fudge” in a section of the book called “Recipes from Friends.” The marijuana brownie recipe “which anyone could whip up on a rainy day” was given to Toklas by Brion Gysin and is described as “an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR.” The chapter of recipes from friends was inserted to fill the book out and Toklas might have been clueless about what she was presenting with the fudge recipe. Even so, the American publishers left the recipe out of the first American edition but it was included in others and became notorious and sort of a code, especially when the hippie movement of the 1960s took hold.

That recipe is the reason that a fairly insipid and badly dated 1968 Peter Sellers comedy directed by Hy Averback is called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! Sellers plays “Harold Fine,” a strait-laced attorney who falls in with a group of very stereotypical hippies and is especially enamored of one particular hippie, Nancy, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. Nancy, of course, bakes Alice’s brownie recipe that fuels much of the frolic. The title song, penned by Elmer Bernstein (who was no hippie) and performed by Harpers Bizarre, has the refrain “I love you, Alice B. Toklas / And so does Gertrude Stein.” Other lyrics evoke “Coriander baby elephants singing ‘Silent Night’/ Sweet cinnamon and nutmeg Che Guevara.” (The ladies would be so proud.)

Sly references to Toklas’s fudge recipe had a way of sneaking in to pop culture. In a 1969 episode of the sitcom “Bewitched,” Samantha’s mother Endora is offered a cookie. Endora asks if it’s from an Alice B. Toklas recipe. When she’s told it’s not, Endora says, “… I’ll pass.”

My favorite recipe from the cookbook is “Oeufs Francis Picabia” from the chapter titled “Dishes for Artists.” Here it is:

Break 8 eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities ½ lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take ½ hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

I am no gourmet, and this recipe is too rich to serve a lot, but I have prepared it and can attest to the fact that it is delicious.

In 1963, needing money, Alice B. Toklas finally got around to writing her own autobiography. It is called What Is Remembered. Even though she outlived Gertrude Stein by over two decades, she chose to end her own life’s story with the death of Gertrude Stein.

Last Minute Shopping for Chocolate-Covered Cherries

IMG_1074   My parents’ house was quiet and last minute preps were pretty much finished by 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve when I retreated to the bedroom to reread “A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote’s timeless and touching memoir of a childhood Christmas in Alabama. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that beautifully written story.

As tumultuous as Capote’s later life became, “A Christmas Memory” is an enchanting and innocent tale of a seven-year-old boy and his 60-something-year-old distant cousin making fruitcakes and homemade presents in Monroeville in Depression-era south Alabama. I saw Capote read the story live during an appearance at The University of Alabama and it is still a cherished and moving literary memory.

Capote was in his later years – he was only 59 when he died in 1984 – and his various addictions and career disappointments had taken their toll. His legendary bitchiness was definitely on view that night in Tuscaloosa as he read and commented on various passages from his career.

When he read “A Christmas Memory” to end the evening, however, he seemed somehow transformed. The arch bitterness left his voice and one felt like we were seeing a brand new Capote – untouched by the jadedness and later trials of his life. There were many cynics in that audience – I was one of them – and I will venture to guess that most of those in the room were Alabamians who had grown up with the story; it was my first-hand observation that none of us left the room unmoved by the power of that beautifully written memoir told in such an honest and loving voice.

On this Christmas Eve 2014, as I reread the story, I got to the familiar passage in which the narrator lists the things he would like to be financially able to give to his cousin.  “I would like to buy her a pearl-handled knife, a radio, a whole pound of chocolate-covered cherries …”

Then it hit me. I have seen no chocolate-covered cherries in my parents’ house this year. My dad loves chocolate-covered cherries at Christmas – the inexpensive kind you find at the discount stores. As long as I can recall, there were always boxes of them at the house, gifts from friends who know about Dad’s passion.

Some of the friends who always supplied the boxes of cherry treats are now too far away for the gift exchange. My sister-in-law and nephew always make chocolate-covered cherry mice around the holidays and this year’s batch had already come and gone closer to Thanksgiving.

For years, I would send Dad a box of the Harry and David chocolate-glazed Bing cherries until my mother confided that he really preferred the cheap cherries you could get at the drugstore.

And this year it was Christmas Eve and there were no chocolate-covered cherries in the house. I looked at the clock – 5:20 – and went in to where Mother was reading.

“Did anybody bring Dad chocolate-covered cherries this year?”

She grimaced and said “I completely forgot.”

I told her I’d be back and headed for the door. She whispered who is going to be open now? and I assured her that there were places open until 6 or later on Christmas Eve.

“Try the drugstore first,” she said.

The drugstore was crowded but near the front door were shelves with chocolate-covered cherries on sale – two boxes for the price of one.

I grabbed two boxes, wished the cashier a Merry Christmas, drove back to the house, and passed the chocolates off to Mother who put them in stockings at the fireplace.

With my Christmas shopping finally done,  the clock struck 6:00 as I went back to the bedroom and finished Capote’s story.

“… a brief meditation …” : Why I Mail Christmas Cards

IMG_0444   My Christmas cards went in the mail on December 1. I started designing my own Christmas cards over a decade ago and it has become something many of my correspondents seem to appreciate. And expect.

I looked forward to receiving and looking at Christmas cards when I was a child and many of the people who sent cards to my parents every year were people I never met but felt I knew from the stories my mother would share about them each December when the card arrived. Genevieve O’Brien in Chicago, Christine Allen in Georgia, and Doris and Bill Fuller in Fort Worth are among the annual cards we received without fail from people I never met. When I was grown and out on my own, I would send Christmas cards as often as I could but sometimes work schedules or finances would make it prohibitive.

From a very young age I had set opinions about Christmas greetings and Christmas décor. For example, I am a Southerner and never quite understood why so many Southerners would buy into the Madison Avenue version of Christmas and send out pristine snow scenes and winter scenes depicting images that were not part of my reality of the season growing up in Alabama. I have traveled and worked all over the country and I have had white Christmases a few times. But the Christmases of most of my life have been bracing Alabama Christmases with a chill in the air and no snow. Actually, I’m not a fan of snow and have never once dreamed of a white Christmas.

A number of years ago I decided to design my own Christmas cards and feature photographs that represented December in the South. I developed rules: 1) The photograph had to be taken during the month of December and 2) the photograph had to be taken somewhere in Alabama. Those are the only hard and fast rules but over time most of the photographs have been of old country churches I have discovered around the state. A couple of times the image has been landscapes around Mobile Bay where I try to spend some time each December.

The only exception was in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina. I didn’t design the card that year; instead, I purchased museum holiday cards with a detail from a still life of a bountiful holiday table which somehow reminded me of good times on the Gulf and in New Orleans.

I developed rituals: I try to get my card to the printer around October 1 each year. I start signing and addressing the cards by November 1. On December 1, my cards are in the mail. Over time the mailing list has gotten quite large. Most of the people on my list don’t send cards anymore. For me, however, it’s a way of keeping in touch with old friends and acquaintances all over the world. Some of them are people I may never see again but I like to keep a connection. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and the Christmas card list is something that keeps me in touch and grounded.

Most people who know about or receive my Christmas cards are grateful and look forward to them each year. Someone might ask if I’ve picked next year’s image yet or they’ll send me a new mailing address to ensure that they won’t miss this year’s card.

But occasionally someone will grouse “I don’t know why you do it. Who has the time? It’s so expensive. And so much trouble.” Here’s my response: If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. I do it because it gives me pleasure. I look forward to it. I want to do it.

With each card I sign and with each address I write on an envelope, it’s a brief meditation on that recipient.

When I first moved to Huntsville, there was a lady, Grace Clark, who lived in my apartment complex. We didn’t see each other often, but whenever we did we’d have a very pleasant conversation. I added her to my Christmas card list. She never mentioned my cards but when I moved from that apartment to my house I kept sending Christmas cards to Mrs. Clark. A couple of years ago, when Christmas was past, I received a note from a woman I didn’t know. She was Mrs. Clark’s daughter telling me that her mother had recently passed away. She told me that when she was going through her mother’s papers, she found a stack of my Christmas cards. Mrs. Clark had saved each one over the years.

If you don’t have time to send Christmas cards, I totally understand. I’m busy too. I have no time for Facebook and Twitter. We each choose what we have time to do.

This year’s image, by the way, is St. Luke’s Church (c. 1850), a cedar church in Cahaba. Cahaba is a ghost town and state park now, but it was Alabama’s first state capital from 1820-1826.

Happy Holidays.IMG_0456


Food Memory: Kushmagudi


IMG_0881     As the cold weather holidays roll in, I look forward to family food traditions. Going into Thanksgiving week and celebrations in Birmingham with my family, food memory kicks in bigtime.

There is a dish called “kushmagudi” (this is my own spelling; there is no official spelling) which is always on the Journey family tables at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is simple Southern food and its name (and my phonetic spelling) has no precedence that I can find.

My brother wrote a lovely essay about this dish a couple of years ago but since I haven’t been able to retrieve it, I will reintroduce the basics to “Professional Southerner” readers.

My grandmother Eula Harbison used to make kushmagudi and I always assumed that it was a known thing, like salt on watermelon, pepper on cantaloupe, and celery sticks served with turkey. As long as I can remember, kushmagudi was on the holiday table so I would mention it casually and be surprised at the blank stares I received. As I lived and traveled around the country, I realized that nobody outside my immediate family seems to have a clue what “kushmagudi” is.

Many might know some variation of the dish, I think, but not by that name.

Kushmagudi is nothing more than a tasty mixture of crumbled cornbread with the potlikker of turnip greens. I say “nothing more” but I am convinced that one needs a cook’s instinct to pull off the right mix. I have always heard stories about Grandmother feeding the masses of her family and crowds from church at short notice in the ‘30s and ‘40s and having family move into her family home between jobs and houses, during travel, etc. Based on what I know, I realize that Grandmother’s kushmagudi may have been invented as Depression food and a way to make the food in the rural house and garden go farther.

Based on what I know, I am sure that the word “kushmagudi” is Grandmother’s own coinage to name a dish she already knew but reinvented for her immediate and extended families. I have talked with Southerners who know a variation of potlikker and greens but, so far, none outside my own family have referred to it as “kushmagudi.”

After Grandmother died in December 1995, I was asked if I would make the kushmagudi for Christmas. I will admit that I was daunted. I had eaten it all of my life but I had never thought about it.

I relaxed and thought about the dish. I realized that it is a basic and instinctual recipe and that if one understands its components one should be able to make it in a satisfactory manner.

Here’s my basic recipe for my grandmother’s kushmagudi:

Eula McCarn Harbison’s Kushmagudi

  1. Make 1-2 cakes of cornbread or use leftover cornbread if you have it (remember that sugar is never acceptable in cornbread).
  2. Boil up a pot of turnip greens with your favorite spices and seasonings.
  3. Bring the greens to a boil and simmer on low for at least a half hour.
  4. In a large mixing bowl, crumble 1-1½ of the cakes of cornbread.
  5. Ladle the potlikker of the greens over the crumbled cornbread in the mixing bowl and mix to your preferred consistency and taste.
  6. Let the mixture meld for a while, keep it warm, and serve it.

I like to mix some collard greens with my turnip greens to vary the flavor of the potlikker a bit. Grandmother tended to use less spices in her greens than I do; she used salt and pepper. I like to add a little pepper sauce, sage, bacon fat, garlic powder, thyme, and other seasonings to the greens before I strain them into the cornbread. I also might add a small dash of sugar to the greens (but never to the cornbread). I also like to mix more of the actual greens into the mix. Grandmother generally just used the potlikker and served the seasoned turnip greens as a separate side dish.

This is truly a recipe that may be adapted to your and your family’s preference.

A bowl of kushmagudi with a glass of buttermilk is a perfect meal on a chilly night in late fall or winter.

Even though kushmagudi is cornbread-based, it is different enough that my family serves it alongside Mother’s traditional cornbread dressing. I think one must sprinkle pepper sauce over a good kushmagudi at table. This is a dish that is always on my family’s table at Thanksgiving and Christmas and is often a side at my New Year’s Day luncheon.

If you have a variation of this dish, or a variant name, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve never tried it, you ought to. It’s easy and tasty.

Happy Thanksgiving.

My Grandmother’s Quilt

IMG_0861   In the popular imagination, there has long been a romanticized picture of quilting as “quilting bees” in which ladies gathered, gossiped, and used their genteel skills to create colorful quilts. Folk art aficionados and museums have elevated quilts made for everyday use into works of art and the market for vintage quilts has gone through the roof in recent decades.

Quilts are works of art but lost on many are the practical utilitarian reasons for quilts to exist in the first place. As beautiful and artful as quilts may be, they were used to keep us warm and most of the people – mostly women – who created them were creating them as part of their job to feed and clothe and look to the comfort of their families. As beautiful as many quilts are and as much pride as is shown in the careful and intricate construction of quilts, their exhibition and appeal to collectors was far from the motivation for the quilter. More likely the motivation was along the lines of Will it keep the family warm at night? and Will it hold up? and Will I be embarrassed for the neighbor ladies to see it hanging on my clothesline?

As a child, I was fascinated with the quilts that would come out of the chiffarobes and cedar chests and closets when the nights started to become cool in the fall. The intricate patterns and pieces of fabric told a tale of the maker and her family. As I became older, my mother would occasionally offer me quilts that she had from her or Dad’s families. I have never turned down the gift of a quilt and now have a small but precious collection.

I am always curious about the provenance of the family quilts I receive but, because of the nature of the pieces and their creation, the information is often sketchy. These quilts, after all, were not made to be passed down as heirlooms. They were made to cover people and beds and serve a purpose. I have quilt tops that never got quilted and at least one quilt attributed to Snow Patton Journey, one of my paternal great-grandmothers.

Most of the quilts I have, however, were made by Eula McCarn Harbison (1909-1995), my maternal grandmother. All but one of Grandmother Harbison’s quilts are traditionally patterned –star and snowflake forms are popular – and delicately and masterfully structured. There is one exception and that quilt is on my bed as I write this and has been on my bed every cold season for years. This exception is one that my mother gave to me with the disclaimer that “your grandmother would be horrified if she thought anybody would see this one.”

I hope Grandmother Harbison is not horrified when I say that this is my favorite quilt and I am proud to show it to others. It is clearly a “crazy quilt,” with unmatched and large pieces of fabric and no patterning. In examining it, my guess is that it was put together very quickly (perhaps in advance of an approaching cold spell?). It is also the heaviest and warmest quilt I have ever encountered. I don’t much like cold weather but one of the few pleasures of “the weather of northern aggression” is knowing that I will be sleeping under this amazing quilt for a while. My mother can’t remember when this quilt was made but I am guessing the 1940s before Mother’s family relocated to Birmingham after World War II. Mother says that’s a good guess since she doesn’t recall Grandmother quilting after the move to Birmingham.


As an artist and as a lover of art, my tastes often run toward the modernist and minimalist and Grandmother Harbison’s quilt fits in both categories in its abstract and random collection of fabrics and in its asymmetrical and challenging composition. There is a large square of solid olive fabric placed near one of the corners that always reminds me of the blocks of color or text found in some Asian prints. This would not have been something my grandmother necessarily knew about but the artistic impulse and prescience intrigues me. Grandmother always said that every room should have a touch of red somewhere and I always thought Well, she and Diana Vreeland have that in common! 

One of Grandmother’s “nicer” more traditional quilts lives on the foot of the bed in my guest room but it’s the thick and crazy one that will cover me tonight and for many nights to come.


(All quilts shown are by Eula McCarn Harbison.)




On Being the New Kid

100_3255  A writer friend once challenged me to write my autobiography in 700 words. I’ll always rise to a writing challenge. I began by listing the different cities and towns where I had lived in a lifetime. I have lived in a total of 14 separate cities and towns. That list took up the first 29 words. Then I recounted how many separate moves I had made from one city or town to another – there were 24 of those. For example, I moved back to Birmingham from other places at least five different times. This list does not include the times I moved from place to place within the same city. During my time in Tuscaloosa in the 70s and 80s –finishing high school, going to college, etc. – I moved at least eight times that I can recall.

I sent the 700 words to my friend. He sent a chastising email back, chiding me for a “cop-out.” He felt I had dealt with superficial things as a way of avoiding writing about myself.

I stood my ground. I feel that the moves are a large part of what defines me. I was born in a military hospital but my father was discharged from the Army when I was six weeks old so I am not a military brat. However, Dad’s work transferred us a lot and I ended up attending ten different schools from grades 1-12. That gave me a lot of experience in being the “new kid.”

In a recent post for “Professional Southerner,” I realized how many times I use the word “community.” In fact, I even used that word in the title of that essay. One of the impacts of being the new kid is that you are always looking for your community – the place where you fit in and belong. And when you move around as much as I did, once you think you may have found it, it is taken away and you have to start over again, build up your shell, and carry on. A miracle of the whole experience is that, despite the moves, I always managed to keep my grades up. That was tough.

I have a deformity of my left hand. It is relatively minor but it is there nevertheless. I am missing a little finger and my middle and ring fingers were fused together at birth. The fingers were surgically separated when I was very young but they are still noticeably misshapen to an observant eye. Some people never even notice and others spot it immediately. I am very good at not drawing unnecessary attention to the issue; I’ve had a lifetime of practice.

If you are no longer the new kid, classmates get used to the irregularity and don’t even think about it. If you are constantly the new kid, classmates are constantly discovering, staring, and whispering for the first time. Over time, I developed an aggressive way of dealing with the stares and comments. “I see you’re looking at my hand,” I would say boldly. “Let me show you what’s wrong with it.” Then I’d whip out the hand, explain the defect, and carry on. Some seemed uncomfortable or put off by my candor but most, I think, were grateful to have the mystery solved. I realize that my aggressive response was a defense that I built up to cover my discomfort at always being newly discovered.

I am shy. I am able to cover it pretty well and my current college students chortle in disbelief when I say it, but it’s true. Walking up to a group of total strangers and inserting myself into their consciousness is not something with which I am comfortable. Over the years, when I plead shyness, someone inevitably says, “Well, you’ve moved around so much. Surely you’ve conquered it by now.” I haven’t conquered it, but I have a lifetime of experience that helps me to build up defenses that hide it better, I guess.

As a boy, there was often an impulse to redefine myself when I moved. I would analyze what had worked and what had not worked so well at the old place and try to adjust accordingly for the new place. I’d change my “style,” my attitude, and sometimes my clothes and hair, and take it for a test drive. Probably the redefinition worked most quickly and successfully at my favorite of all of the schools I attended – Shades Valley High in metro Birmingham (in its original location between Homewood and Mountain Brook for those who remember). I immediately felt at home and like I fit. I first seriously pursued theatre at Valley, took my first real curtain call at Valley, and had a close and diverse circle of friends — none of whom, incidentally, I am still in contact with. That’s a collateral effect of constantly moving: One tends to lose touch.

I only attended Shades Valley for four months and we moved again. At the new schools in Jackson, Mississippi – I had to attend two schools because one did not offer all of the classes I was taking at Valley – I auditioned for shows but, as the “new kid,” nobody knew who I was and I was never cast. So I started to redefine again.

Jackson in 1971 was where I first encountered the unfortunate policy of busing to achieve racial integration in the schools. Regardless of your political point of view about what was right or wrong about busing as a solution to a real problem that needed to be fixed, it was incredibly uncomfortable for those of us who actually participated in it. My parents offered to send me to a private school in Jackson but I felt that if you weren’t part of the alleged solution, you were part of the problem and I felt some sort of 16-year-old’s drive to be a part of the solution, no matter how inconvenient and painful it was.

Lunch is always the very worst time of day for the new kid. All of the affiliations are established already and you have to step carefully to avoid stepping on toes or putting yourself in an even more awkward situation. I remember on a first day at lunch in Nashville in 1968 a girl plopped down and informed me that I was “new.” I told her she was right. She asked me where I was from and I told her Birmingham. “Oh,” she said, “a southerner … how do you like living up north now?” I patiently informed her that I wasn’t “up north” but in Nashville.

On the first day at lunch in Jackson in 1971, another girl plopped down across the table from me. Again, I was informed that I was “new.” I introduced myself. She did likewise and asked where I was from. “Birmingham,” I said. “Oh,” she sneered, “another Yankee.” I assured her that I was not a Yankee but from Birmingham, Alabama, and she asked me a few uncomfortable questions about my politics (I was 16, mind you), and then informed me that “nowadays” everybody who wasn’t from Mississippi was a “Yankee.” I did make friends at the schools in Jackson but that girl wasn’t one of them.

Eventually, Dad took a job in Tuscaloosa and we were there for the last part of my junior year and my entire senior year in high school. I found friends, fit in, became an editor of Tuscaloosa High School’s literary magazine, and went through all of the activities one associates with a high school senior’s year. Still, I went through senior year as one of the “new kids” and never quite felt like I was totally a part of the picture in the way that my classmates, most of whom had gone through school together, might be. The yearbook came out and my name was misspelled. It was just a typo and those things happen but it felt a little bit like a repercussion of being perpetually the “new kid.”

My brother is twelve years younger than me and the family had pretty much settled in Tuscaloosa by the time he entered school and I went to college. It’s interesting to observe how we had the same wonderful parents but such different childhoods. On a couple of occasions over the past few years, Mother has felt the need to apologize to me for all of the moves and upheaval of my growing up years.

I appreciate that she has said it, but I don’t feel anybody is owed an apology for this. Yes, it was difficult at times, but I’m sure it made me tougher, more flexible, more tolerant, and more of a survivor when the pressure starts to build.

We all do what we must do. I don’t know for sure how much my growing up years contributed to my decision to pursue a career in theatre. I have noticed, though, that many actors have a transient or “military brat” childhood. Whatever the reasons, I worked in professional theatre after graduate school and, in doing so, I extended the vagabond lifestyle for another couple of decades.

Now I have lived in the same place with the same job for twelve years. But I still get mighty restless.

(The image is an untitled portrait by Patrick Grogan, 1999),