Alabama lost a treasure.
I can’t say I knew Mrs. Brown (Mary T, as her friends called her) very well. To my knowledge, we met only a couple of times. The last was 2004 or so after I had finally gotten around to reading her 2002 collection of short stories, It Wasn’t All Dancing, and I was so taken by it that I just had to make the trip to Hamburg, down in Perry County, in the heart of the Black Belt, and meet the author.
Hamburg wasn’t much out of my way, just a turn off the highway I normally traveled when I visited my mother (she’s doing fine, thanks for asking). All I needed to do was leave home a little early so I could swing by just to tell her how much I liked what she wrote and tell her that my daddy sent his regards.
I don’t generally drop in unannounced, especially on a lady in her 80s. I don’t like people to drop in on me. But that day I broke my rule and appeared at her door.
She welcomed me graciously, invited me inside, and in the cool of her parlor, we sat and talked.
I did not want this to appear a literary pilgrimage, not that there is anything wrong with that, so I did not bring her books with me. I am awkward enough talking to historians about their work. Talking to the writer of award-winning short stories (an American Chekhov, my friend John Sledge called her) was intimidating enough. I knew that trying to talk knowingly about the work that won those awards and cemented her reputation was beyond my critical capabilities. So we talked about family and place.
She had known my father when he was a cadet at Marion Military Institute in the 1930s and she was a student at Judson College. She remembered him but recalled better his younger brother, my Uncle Mac, who was something of a scamp. And we talked about how Marion, Selma and the Black Belt had and had not changed — changes and consistencies she had subtlety woven into her stories.
Delightful, charming, witty, insightful — she was all that and more.
Then I left, wishing I had brought my copies of her books for her to sign, and vowed that I would have them with me the next time.
Only there wasn’t a next time. The years passed and I never swung by again.
Then, on April 30, I got a note from John, “Mary T is deathly ill.”
A few days later my friend Susan, who plants and proprietors the Mockingbird Farm outside of Marion (“Clean Food from Alabama’s Black Belt”), wrote to confirm John’s diagnosis. Susan had gotten to know Mary T, who was one of her good customers. They had swapped stories, and Susan had gotten advice about how to navigate the nuances of Perry County society.
By the time Susan wrote me, there were fewer stories to swap, as Mary T was slipping in and out, lucid at times, at times resting peacefully.
T especially liked the fragrant herbs Susan brought, for as the disease progressed, smell was the sense that held on the longest. On Susan’s last visit, her friend spent energy she did not have thanking her again and again for bringing them to her. Before she left, Susan put some lavender mint close to her nose so she could smell it and got a sweet, weak smile of thanks. Then, Susan wrote, “her eyes closed and her face took on a beatific expression — she was there, and holding my hand.”
The funeral was May 17, at St. Wilfrid’s Episcopal Church in Marion, one of those little architectural gems that traces its history back to the Episcocratic planters who came to the Black Belt in the 1830s and brought with them a way of life that lingers even today, a way of life Mary T understood and wrote about.
(I recall how she laughed when I told her that when I was at MMI, cadets wanted to attend St. Wilfrid’s because they served real wine at communion.)
“Never a graceless moment,” was how Susan described Mary T, and from my brief association with her, I can only agree.
Now she is gone, but her stories remain.
We will always have that.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.