The Middle of the Story
In 1968, T.P. was transferred to Charleston, South Carolina. He began flying C-141 Starlifters into and out of Vietnam, while Deborah attended St. Andrew’s Parish High School in Charleston for two years. Here she learned to type and how to dissect an earthworm. She also fell in love for the first time, with a boy named Jim who actually loved her back. Imagine that!
It was a changing time in Charleston and in the world (and in Deborah’s world!). Boys grew their hair long and girls raised the hems on their skirts. Boys picketed the school with signs that read, “Jesus had long hair!” The school system made them get haircuts anyway.
There was lots going on with school integration at that time, too. New laws were passed that brought black and white children to school together. There were fights in the lunchroom — kids sometimes shoved one another and threw chairs across the room and there was lots of shouting. Often the Charleston police stayed at school all day. Sometimes Deborah was scared, but mostly she was quiet, watching, wondering.
There was lots to wonder about. Her family joined the JCC at this time — the Jewish Community Center — even though they weren’t Jewish. This opened up another new world for Deborah. She loved the people and the pool at the JCC, where her now-not-so-rotten red-headed younger brother Mike became a swim-team star. In Charleston, schools closed on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Deborah wondered what these holidays were — the world held so many mysterious secrets and Deborah wanted to know every one of them.
Deborah’s English teacher was Mrs. Ackerman and Deborah loved her. Mrs. Ackerman had the class read lots of Shakespeare, lots of poetry, and she asked her students to write and write. Senior high boys drove the school buses in Charleston. They also tormented Mr. Koger, a first-year history teacher, and Deborah wondered why they did that. Today Mr. Koger is a history professor in Florida.
Friday night football (Go, Rocks!) was the most exciting thing at St. Andrews. Deborah didn’t care about football, but she spent many Friday nights freezing at a football game, waiting for the award-winning marching band to play at half-time, because she was in love — yes, that first love — with the sousaphone player. His photograph is on this page. See if you can find it!
Just when Deborah was getting settled in high school, T.P. was transferred again, this time to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. How upsetting, to move before a senior year of high school! But in the end, it was wonderful. Deborah hated Economics class, but she loved English even though she had to read — the horror! — HEART OF DARKNESS and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (which she ended up loving). Deborah graduated from Wagner High School where she made fast friends. She recently saw these friends again in Boston this past summer (for the first time in over 30 years) and danced the night away at a reunion.
After graduation, Deborah went back to Mississippi to go to college at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville. She ended up getting married after one semester at Jones. (Oh what a long story this is, and way too much to go into here.) It would be a long time before she went back to college.
In the meantime she raised four great kids through two interesting marriages and lots of nuttiness and mayhem. As a young girl, Deborah wanted most to be a mother. She got her wish. She loved every minute of motherhood (she realizes this is a nostalgic reflection and not specifically accurate, but really, she did. And does.).
She also wanted to be a writer from the time she was in her early twenties. It took a long time, many more moves, and, finally, much staying in one place and raising a family for that dream to come true. It took much paying attention . . . and here’s what she did:
She read and read and read. She wrote and wrote and wrote. Her essays were rejected for years before they were published. Same with her stories for children. She kept learning, though, by taking apart essays and stories, to see how they were constructed. And by practicing, practicing . . . And by going back to school to learn more.
She wrote lots of essays and worked as a freelance writer for a long time before she became a writer of stories for children. She also held a slew of jobs over the years to support herself and her family. She worked as a journalist, an oral history gatherer, a teacher … also as a school bus driver, a burger queen, and an underwear salesperson. She was very lucky in work.
She has been lucky in writing, too. Once she understood that the events of her life, big and small, had meaning and purpose and she could write about them, Deborah began to take all the memories of her childhood, all the things she wondered about, all the things that she’d quietly observed and thought about, everything that had made her happy/sad/angry/confused/ and more, and write about them while making up a story. She wrote from her house in Frederick, Maryland while raising her family and watching her kids grow up and begin lives of their own.
After 25 years living in Frederick, Maryland, Deborah decided to move back to the South. Today she lives in a little house she bought in Atlanta, Georgia. In Atlanta, Deborah avoids the traffic, climbs Stone Mountain, and visits with friends when she isn’t writing. Her children are interesting grownups. Her parents, T.P. and May-Ree, who were married for over fifty years, both died in 2003, within three months of one another. Even though Deborah was 50 years old when her parents died, this was a terrible blow. It was a hard year for the whole family. EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS comes directly out of those losses, and other losses as well . . . losses that go back to childhood, to memories, to paying attention.
In the past five years, lots of things in Deborah’s life have ended, just as lots of things have begun. And isn’t that just like life? Good/bad, light/dark, yes/no, up/down, in/out, terrible/terrific — we live in the opposites of life. In LITTLE BIRD, Uncle Edisto says, “Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!” Deborah tries to live by this motto. Some days she’s better at it than others. Aren’t we all?