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Rich: A gentle woman and her gentle tales
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In the sleepy Southern town of Selma, Ala., there is no denying that history has visited in times past and made its memorable mark. To enter into the town from the interstate, it is necessary to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge, made famous by the march of civil rights protesters.

Selma, though, is home to more than just history. It's the residence of renowned Southern storyteller Kathryn Tucker Windham, who is noted as the key jewel in the treasure chest of Alabama folk art.

I accidentally discovered Miss Kathryn in Williamsburg, Va., at a storytelling festival. I was in town for a speaking engagement, heard about the festival and attended one evening. At the concessions tent, I asked the vendors to recommend the best storyteller.

"Miss Kathryn Tucker Windham," the lady said. "Ain't no competition. She's the best."

I bought two CDs and promptly fell in love with her gentle storytelling that is more a lyrical reminiscent of times past, told in her sweet lilting Southern accent.

Her stories aren't dramatic or loaded with bombshell endings. They are, however, soothing and intriguingly compelling, illustrating that wonderful stories can be found in the simplest of recollections and circumstances.

Every fall, she hosts a storytelling festival in Selma and I had been determined to go but scheduling conflicts kept me away.

She's past 90 now and I feared I might not have many more opportunities to hear her in person. It took some doing to attend the last one but I made it, coaxing one of my sidekicks, Stella, to join me. She picked me up at the airport after I landed from a trip to Arkansas and we headed straight for Selma.

"You're going to love this woman," I promised as we zipped down Interstate-65 toward Montgomery. "I have every CD she's recorded. I listen to them repeatedly."

We crossed Edmund Pettis Bridge and found our way through little side streets over to the old school campus where the event was being held.

"Oh, it's lovely!" I exclaimed when I saw the auditorium, a familiar-looking building that many Southern towns had at one time or the other. Two-stories, red brick, eight or 10 poured concrete steps leading to the front door and two rows of evenly spaced windows across the front. And, of course, it was shaded by wonderful, old trees that added just the right touch of character and charm.

We paid our money then stepped into the auditorium. Again, old-fashioned charm with the sloped-floor seating and interlocking wood chairs with seat bottoms that pull down. The wood-floored stage was dressed by crimson-colored, velvet drapes.

I took a sharp breath. "My goodness," I whispered, "It looks just like the stage in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird' where Scout is dressed like a ham." She nodded and smiled as we edged down a side aisle and slipped into our chairs.

Minor storytellers told their stories first. They were entertaining but I promised, "The best is yet to come. Just you wait and see."

There was an intermission before the star appeared so we went to get Cokes and found that a local service club was selling the refreshments: hot dogs, hamburgers, homemade pies, cookies and cakes. Cokes were poured from liter bottles rather than a machine.

"This is so sweet," Stella said.

"Takes me back to my grammar school basketball games where all the mamas pitched in and did the refreshments," I added.

Shortly, Miss Kathryn, dressed in an ankle-length full skirt and matching blouse, took the stage. Unpretentiously, she stepped to the microphone and told her stories, most of them recollections of a childhood more than 80 years earlier.

"She wonderful!" Stella proclaimed as we eagerly joined the audience in a standing ovation.

Kathryn Tucker Windham is more than wonderful. She's a Southern legend.

Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of "What Southern Women Know (That Every Woman Should)." Sign up for her newsletter.
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