Biography of Deborah Wiles
by Comfort Snowberger:
Explorer, Recipe Tester, and Funeral Reporter
Note: Deborah Wiles hired me to write her Life Notice now, while she is very much alive and can enjoy reading it. I said okay because my Aunt Goldie thinks it would be good for me to write about the living. I can interview the living, she says. And so I did. I’ve been working on this Life Notice in my big closet, where it’s quiet and comfortable and smells like opportunity. I’ve got my art tablet, a mayonnaise jar full of number-two pencils (recently sharpened), a wooden ruler (accept no substitutes), and a box of colored pencils and crayons. I’ve also got way too many pictures of Deborah Wiles. I’ve got my interview notes, scissors, and lots of Scotch tape. Here’s what I’ve put together so far. I think it’s pretty good. —Comfort Snowberger
Deborah Wiles started her life as Debbie Edwards. She was born at Brookley Field in Mobile, Alabama. Her dad, Tom Edwards, was a dashing Air Force second lieutenant from Louin, Mississippi who had just graduated from flight school at Goodfellow AFB in Texas. Her mom, Marie Kilgore, who was from West Point, Mississippi, had just landed a plum civil service job as a stenographer at Brookley. Tom (or, T.P. as everyone in Mississippi called him) and Marie (or May-Ree, as T.P. called her) met on a blind date, where they found out they were perfect for one another.
They got married and had three children. Deborah used to be the eldest. Now she’s not so sure. At any rate, her family, which included the rotten-redheaded-younger-brother-Mike and the sweet-curlyheaded-baby-sister Cathy, moved and moved as Deborah was growing up. Mississippi became the answer to “where are you from?” as Deborah spent her childhood summers in Louin, Mississippi, where she watched the socks spin at the washerteria, wandered the cemetery, plunked on the piano in the unlocked Methodist church, shelled butterbeans with her great-grandmother, and listened to stories….
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. Deborah was born in Alabama.
She lived in Mobile for five years, where the ice cream man and Captain Kangaroo were her heroes. It was in Mobile that Deborah discovered the 64-count box of Crayola crayons with the sharpener in the back. Bliss.
T.P. was transferred to Hawaii. Deborah started kindergarten at Pearl Harbor Elementary School and lived in a neighborhood called Foster Village, where she starred in countless home movies, strung leis for May Day, put together puzzles that came in round tins, learned to read, and started playing the piano badly. She still plays the piano badly and loves the many sounds of music.
When she was eight, Deborah moved to Camp Springs, Maryland, where she lived for seven blissful years (not counting 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis). Her dad was stationed at Andrews AFB near Washington, D.C. In Camp Springs, Deborah had a best friend, Gale Morris, who lived next door. Once, Deborah and Gale sat on either side of a telephone pole in the front yard and argued about whose property it was on.
At Camp Springs Elementary School, Miss Bourdon (3rd grade) was beautiful and Deborah discovered she loved spelling. In fourth grade, Mrs. Delaney got sick and Mrs. Wingfield substituted for her most of the year. Deborah discovered she hated math (actually, she just didn’t understand it until college), but she loved being read to, which Mrs. Wingfield was good at.
Also in the fourth grade, Jeannie Martin’s mom (who was French) came into class twice a week to teach French lessons — Deborah loved this. And there was music! The elegant Miss Farrell, who became Mrs. Cassidy and who wore high heels on her feet and a thousand tinkling bracelets on her arms, wheeled her cart of music into the classroom twice a week. She introduced Deborah to classical music (Peer Gynt and Bolero and Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra!), and started a glee club which Deborah joined (“It’s a Grand Night for Singing!”). She also taught Deborah her first piano lessons. (Sorry, Mrs. Cassidy.)
In fifth grade, Miss Creasy and Mrs. Rodriguez taught Deborah how to take notes, which she absolutely loved doing (still does), and how to love history. Mr. Adler, Deborah’s sixth-grade teacher, told her she was a good writer, and Deborah never forgot it. Well, she forgot it for a while, but she remembered it when she needed to.
Deborah attended Roger B. Taney Jr. High, which is now Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Temple Hills, Maryland. She has traumatic math memories from these years, and physical education memories that aren’t much better, but let’s not go into that. She loved chorus.
Through these growing-up years, Deborah spent summertimes in Louin, Mississippi with the aunts and uncles and cousins and friends of the family, where folks shouted, “Come here and love my neck!” whenever she arrived. She loved these folks, and they loved her.
In 1964, the year Deborah turned 11, she went to Mississippi and found that her favorite public places had closed: the Pine View pool, the Cool Dip ice cream parlor in Bay Springs, the Lyric Theatre — even the rollerskating rink! She didn’t understand why these places had closed and no one could explain it to her in ways that made sense. It took a long time for her to understand that The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been passed, which said that “everybody under the sun, no matter what color” could attend the same schools, eat at the same restaurants, swim in the same pools… and some white-owned businesses in the South had locked their doors in protest.
At age 11, Deborah’s world changed, and she wondered — what would it be like to be a black child who had never been allowed to swim in the Pine View Pool or eat ice cream at the Cool Dip? Thirty five years later she would write FREEDOM SUMMER, a story about that experience. But for now, she just noticed. She began to learn how to pay attention to what was happening in the world around her.