Revival of an American Storyteller: My Walk with Kathryn Tucker Windham

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Revival of an American Storyteller: My Walk with Kathryn Tucker Windham

 

Photo courtesy of Janet Gresham Photography

    They came from an era vastly different from our own.

     In medieval times, people combined stories, poetry, music, and dance as a form of entertainment. The ones who excelled at this practice were revered and respected, often reaping the greatest benefits of their talents as honored members of royal courts. The people called them troubadours or minstrels, and women held these roles just as frequently as men.

     They journeyed from land to land gathering news and learning favorite tales of the regions. Often they developed their own stories but sometimes… sometimes, they took bits and pieces of other people’s tales and adventures and embellished them with their own. It is said that good storytellers have the ability to hold an audience in the palm of their hand, observing their reactions and interpreting their needs, connecting with the listener in a way that most normal people can’t.

     Oral storytelling has lost much of its prominence in our society today, taking a backseat to modern forms of technology, and storytellers are all but forgotten. But they knew something we’ve begun to lose sight of, these ancient storytellers. They understood the importance of passing on a story from one generation to the next. They knew the intimacy, the personal connection people craved for the past, the need to leave their mark, to pass on something precious and delicate and rare to them yet universal to all: their story, our heritage – a vital part of our past, present, and future still.

     During my short lifetime, I’ve been fortunate enough to have known, albeit by accident, a truly great storyteller that had a strong impact on my life, Kathryn Tucker Windham, a little lady dubbed “the state’s best storyteller” by the people of Alabama.

     But my walk with Kathryn was much more intimate than the impersonal gathering of information necessary to fill this article.

     Our first journey took place in a library when I was nine. Our second journey, long after she had died.

     Both journeys began in the same fashion - with a ghost story…

The Ghosts in the Tower Room

Photo credit: K.L. Burns

     It’s July 2012 and I’m standing on the slightly overgrown lawn of one of the most impressively constructed southern plantation homes I’ve ever seen – Kenworthy Hall, or Carlisle Hall as it’s known to some in these parts.

     Kenworthy Hall stands exactly two miles west of the Perry County Courthouse in Marion, Ala., on the north side of the Greensboro Highway. The house sits so far from the road you’d never know it was there if not for the gated entrance pillars leading up to a circular wooded drive, and of course, for the well-known ghost story associated with the house, which is my entire reason for standing on the lawn in the summer heat, sweating bullets and snapping pictures of history.

     A U.S. National Historic Landmark, Kenworthy Hall was designed from 1858 to 1860 by the then popular architect Richard Upjohn of New York for planter and cotton factor Edward Kenworthy Carlisle. It is one of the best preserved examples of Upjohn’s distinctive asymmetrical Italian villa-style homes. According to the State of Alabama Historical Commissions official description, the house is constructed of locally made dull red brick and New York brownstone with brownstone trim. What’s unusual about this house is the division of family and public spaces, with two separate stairwells for each.

     I had toured Kenworthy Hall once while in college but never with as much interest as I felt today with a specific goal in mind – to see the fourth floor tower room, the main setting of my all-time favorite local ghost story, The Faithful Vigil at Carlisle Hall…

******

    It was 1993. At the age of nine, I had yet to pen my very first short story. My craze during that time was books – any book I could get my hands on, I devoured. I had a special affinity for the unusual, the dark and mysterious, the unexplained. And so explains my attraction for one of many books I pulled from my elementary school library shelf that day, 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey by Kathryn Tucker Windham and Margaret Gillis Figh. I immersed myself in the stories – true ghost tales based on local folklore throughout Alabama that the two writers had gathered – and went back for more. In total, Kathryn published eight books based on Southern ghost stories. I was fascinated with Jeffrey – the books’ namesake and Kathryn’s inspiration, the “family ghost” she claimed shared her Selma, Ala. home with her and her family. But this one tale in particular spoke to me and my future hopelessly romantic soul.

So the story goes…

     Anne Carlisle grew up in Kenworthy Hall and the tower room was her favorite room in the house. The tower was square with 12 arched casement windows, three on each wall that lighted the room all around. Anne is seeing a young man, a neighbor whom she is in love with and they plan to be married.

     But Anne’s lover volunteers for service in the Confederate Army and must leave. Before he departs, he asks Anne to wait for him to return and vows to send his personal servant, a slave named Big Tom, to bring news to Anne of his master after the first battle. Big Tom would be waving a white flag if his master lived, a red one if he perished.

     So, weeks passed and Anne hardly left the tower room, sitting on the window ledge and looking out towards the drive for the arrival of Big Tom. She even took her meals in the tower room. It was during one of these meals that Anne heard a horse approaching. Rushing to the window she saw Big Tom’s steed galloping up the drive and in Big Tom’s hand, he clutched a red flag. So overcome with grief was Anne that she flung herself over the stair rail, calling her dead lovers name, and fell down through the spiral stairwell to the hall three floors below.  Today, it is said Anne’s anguished screams can often still be heard by occupants of Carlisle Hall as she falls to her death.

     I step across the arched threshold of Kenworthy Hall, leaving the white hot light of the day for the cooler yet gloomier interior of the front hallway. The ceiling is high with a beautiful sparkling chandelier and the view ahead of me brings to mind a scene from the movie Gone With the Wind, complete with grand staircase and red floor runner with an arched stained glass window in the background. The room has an air of majesty about it, as if it were wise, but there is sadness, too.

     My tour guide is Blake Barnes, co-owner of Anderson & Barnes Antiques in Marion, and a former owner of Kenworthy Hall. He gives me a thorough, well-thought-out tour of the house and guides me up the wooden staircase to the tower room above. Most of the house has no air conditioning and the tower room, being the tallest point of the house, is sweltering. But the room is bright as a result of the 12 windows, giving me a sense of calm and even happiness.

     I stand before the middle window with a view of the front lawn, just where Anne stood waiting for her lover, and look out towards the drive heavily screened by foliage, thinking of another lady in another time that stood here as well contemplating Anne’s story. This is perhaps the closest I’ve ever been to her…

The Little Lady with the Long Pause

     Kathryn Tucker Windham was an American storyteller, author, photographer, and journalist born in 1918 in Selma, but she grew up in Thomasville. There, as a teenager, she wrote movie reviews for the local paper. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Huntingdon College in 1939 and became the first woman hired by the Alabama Journal in Montgomery. She would eventually be a reporter and state editor for the Birmingham News and later the Selma Times Journal, the local newspaper whose city she came to settle in with her husband and three children.

     It was in 1969, almost 23 years before I would ever read her words, that she wrote her first set of ghost stories. Following an invitation to speak at the National Storytelling Festival in Tennessee, Kathryn began traveling around to storytelling events, historical meetings and classrooms. Her story telling was authentic. She commanded attention of her audience with a soft spoken Old South accent, an accent and way of speaking that is almost extinct today, even in the rural south., and her storytelling was punctuated by long pauses that she said she picked up from her own father’s storytelling she listened to as a child on her family’s front porch in the evenings. She was the founder of the Alabama Tall Tellin’ Festival, which has been held in Selma since 1978, and became a fixture on National Public Radio’s  All Things Considered. She died in June 2011 at her home in Selma at the age of 93.

     But Kathryn’s voice and stories would not be all that people would remember her by. For a chosen few, memories would be the greatest, kindest gift she would leave…

******

     It was 1954 when Marie Barker and her family moved to Selma. Kathryn lived on Royal Street a few blocks up and Marie had barely gotten settled into her new home the day Kathryn knocked on her door with a plate of cookies and a welcoming smile. She invited the Barkers to come join her for church on Sunday at Church Street United Methodist. So they did, and Kathryn and Marie formed a fast friendship, one that would never falter for 57 years, until the day Kathryn died.

     In Kathryn’s later years, Marie would often accompany her to places where Kathryn would tell her stories.

     “Listening to her was like no one else,” Marie said. “She never had notes. She had this uncanny ability to read an audience and just know what they needed.”

     Marie said Kathryn often ended her storytelling the same way – with a promise that every family has a storyteller, and a plea for each listener to learn their stories and how to tell them.

     Kathryn loved exploring old churches with Marie and she had a fondness for making art out of oddities like old dirt dobbers’ nests and junk, and would then gift her creations to her friends. She took furniture-making lessons from a local wood maker once and left him with a strange request. “She told him she wanted him to make her coffin,” Marie said. “So he took her measurements and customized a simple pine coffin for her.”

     Kathryn kept her coffin in her garage for years, using it like most people would a storage bin. People were often surprised when she offered to give them some of her old crystal or copies of her published books, and promptly yanked the items from beneath the lid of her coffin.

     Perhaps it seems rather morbid but such was the way of Kathryn’s quirky sense of humor and she was so comfortable with the idea of death that she seemed almost to embrace it as openly as she did the ghosts in her stories. But, this was probably because of the “strong sense of personal values” she possessed, as described by her seven-year friend Loyd Anderson of Marion.

     “Kathryn was the most boldly honest person I’ve ever met – not rude, but she had strong basic core beliefs. She was a very moral person but she found humor in everything.”

     Loyd met Kathryn when he was new in town and had received an invitation to attend a meeting of her social club The Rabbit Breakfast Club in 2004. “The club got its name from the old belief that if you said “Rabbit, Rabbit” on the first day of each month, it would bring you luck,” Loyd explained. “It was just a monthly gathering of friends who got together to talk.”

     Loyd already knew a bit about Kathryn’s history as a writer and storyteller but became deeply fascinated with her as a person almost from the moment he met her. He asked her that day if she really believed in ghosts and her response was “Gosh yes! I put three children through college because of them.”

     Loyd invited Kathryn to speak at his church in Montevallo, Ala. and was looking forward to the hour long drive with Kathryn. “I thought I would get to hear some of her stories but she wanted to know mine. I think that’s how she developed her story telling, from other people’s stories.”

     Loyd’s grandmother died when he was seven but from the edges of his memory he can recall her holding him as a child, rocking him to sleep while telling him stories.

     “I can’t remember what the stories were about but I can remember it was a soothing, pleasant feeling her storytelling gave me,” Loyd said. “That’s what attracted me to Kathryn – she reminded me of her; she was like “every person’s grandmother.” When grandparents say it, you know, you believe it. There is comfort in the wisdom of older people, and Kathryn had a lifetime of wisdom to impart.”

******

     The walls of the tower room are now painted a bright yellow and red-velvet upholstered antique furniture occupies the space. Almost 173 years separate me from the time when young Anne of the story stood near the tower window ledge, and almost 43 years from the time Kathryn wrote Anne’s story. The last time Kathryn stood in this tower was 2005 and an eager crowd of listeners had gathered.

     I can almost picture her, standing in Anne’s own footprints on a cool November night, her white haired, barely five foot tall frame commanding attention – but it was Loyd’s memory to share…

******

It was Thanksgiving 2005 and Loyd was having his family reunion in Kenworthy Hall. There were some 40 family members in attendance and he had invited Kathryn to come join them. While visiting the tower room, someone asked Kathryn to tell the story of The Faithful Vigil at Carlisle Hall.

     “She sat on the window sill of Anne’s window and there was dead silence in the room,” Loyd said. “She didn’t have the story memorized word for word but she knew it – made it personal. It was like a scene you might see at Christmas, with everyone gathered around the fireplace listening to Christmas stories. It was surreal and still gives me chills to this day.”

     This is Loyd’s most treasured memory of Kathryn – in her element, sharing her gift with those fortunate enough to listen.

     Kathryn died on the evening of June 12, 2011. Even her death would leave a lasting impression.

     “It was Kathryn’s wish for there not to be any big “to do” about her funereal,” Marie explained. “She wanted to be put in her coffin and buried within 24 hours of her death; she didn’t want to be embalmed.” Her funeral was at 10 a.m. the next morning and then her coffin was loaded onto the bed of a truck, tied into place with rope, and driven to the cemetery.

     “That was her way, always unusual,” Marie said fondly. “She knew it could turn out to be a big deal and she didn’t want that. Sometimes I still can’t believe she’s not here, I just want to talk to her…”

******

     I leave the tower room and descend the worn staircase to the stairwell where I stare pensively down into the gloomy dark depths of Anne’s fall. There is a skylight cleverly cut into the ceiling above and a bright beam of light pierces through to the ground floor, dust motes twirling within.

     And I wish I could talk to Kathryn, too, because I never did when I had the chance. During my last year in college, she was invited to speak. She sat in a chair in the campus chapel and I remember thinking how frail she looked. I don’t remember all that she talked about that day but I do remember the regret I felt later for not waiting around to introduce myself to her when she finished. Even then I did not grasp the significance of her contributions to my home state.

     I wouldn’t grasp, until now, how closely related we were in our walk.

******

     I am eight or nine, maybe younger, and sitting on a cool cement slab that is balanced on the pillars of two other vertical cement slabs beneath the shade of an old oak tree in my grandparents’ backyard.

     My pawpaw is sitting next to me on a separate cement slab, drinking a cup of cold sweet tea. His cap is pushed back on his head so that the bill sticks up at an odd angle and his clothes are faded and torn, with dirt from the garden staining them here and there. He has a big barrel chest and hands that are so large they could only be described as paws. When he talked, people listened – he only had one volume: loud.

     When he was done with his chores for the day, he liked to relax beneath the shade tree and it was then the stories flowed - tall tales, some so embellished as to be unrealistic; tales of olden days and baseball glory. Tales of excursions hunting with his favorite hunting dog, fishing for monster fish in a neighbor’s lake, and, once, escape from a raging bull. His eyes alive with excitement, he’d wave his hands in imitation of one character or another. He was always the hero of his tales. If you got caught in the middle of pawpaw’s tall tellin,’ you could be there all day.

     I can remember often trying to escape one tale or another to go ride my bike or risk my life hanging from the limbs of trees, things that seem important to a child’s mind in summertime. He was such a prominent figure in my life – so big and strong and full of life – there would always be time for tall tellin’ later, I thought.

     In 2009, the stories stopped all at once, silence filled the hours. My pawpaw took up permanent residence it seemed on the sofa with the T.V. tuned to old Westerns, a blanket covering his legs, his mind ravaged by Alzheimer’s, and gradually, with each passing day, he becomes a little less like himself. And now, I’m the one left telling the stories.

********

     As I crunch my way back over the gravel drive to my car, I pause and turn one last time to look at Kenworthy Hall. Shadows from overhanging tree limbs cast some of the windows into darkness, giving the impression of sad, empty eyes - an abandoned feel. I remember a comment Kathryn made during an exclusive interview she granted to a project called Alabama’s Ghost Trail in 2010.

     She was standing in her yard in front of a blue bottle tree and the camera was close to her face.

     “Ghosts love a place so much they never quite want to leave it,” she said, a wistful smile playing on her lips. “They come to deliver a message mostly.”

     I didn’t see any real ghosts during my tour of Kenworthy Hall… but maybe I wasn’t supposed to. The ghost of a memory that was Kathryn’s message – her life’s purpose – was already loud and clear.

     And so, the stories go on…


Sources that contributed to this story/photos:

Alabama Tall Tellin’ Festival - http://taletellin.selmaalabama.com/index.html

Kathryn Tucker Windham Museum, Alabama Southern Community College

Alabama’s Ghost Trail, YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8F6B5FC8237472FB&feature=plcp

Wikipedia

State of Alabama Historical Commissions official National Historic Landmark paperwork on Kenworthy Hall

Windham, Kathryn Tucker and Figh, Margaret Gillis. 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. 1969. Print.

2 Comments

  1. Judy Mosley

    Enjoyed this SO much!! It was wonderful to get read another “Katie B.” story! It has been too long and looking forward to more. You made me smile (and cry) and I am sure Kathryn Windham did the same from above.

  2. Myra Astin

    Kati B. You hooked me! Wow! I knew you were gifted even at 9 years old. I can’t wait to read more.

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