It was November 1999, one month after my first book had been released and had made best-seller lists across the nation, aided greatly by Barbara Walters.
But that’s another story.
This one is about Mama and me. Bellsouth, at that time one of the South’s greatest corporations, sponsored a seven-city book tour for me across the state of Mississippi following a major tour that had been presented by my publisher, Penguin-Putnam. Boldly, perhaps naively, I approached BellSouth executives and convinced them that we could cross promote between my book and their services. Women make or influence 80% of all buying decisions so a book about Southern women was a good crossover marketing opportunity for a Southern-based company, trying to find more women consumers.
Daddy had died a year earlier and Mama was both lonely and eager to wander so I invited her along.
“You’ll never get outta the driveway without getting in an argument,” predicted one friend. I bet her differently. And I won. But only because I waited until we were out of the driveway, still within sight of her house. Of course, you must understand that I never started the fights. I just responded and defended. Kinda like Virginia did when the Yankees pushed themselves uninvited into the Shenandoah Valley during the War of Northern Aggression.
Even though there were a few disagreements along the way — the worst happening in, of all places, a historic cemetery in Natchez, MS — it was generally a pleasant trip with Mama, me and my dachshund, Highway.
And even though there are many moments to recall such as Mama holding court in Oxford, MS during MY book signing, how we slipped Highway into a Holiday Inn in Tupelo, the friendship she struck up in Starkville, our awe at the sight of the majestic magnolias in Meridian and the night Mama put her foot down and refused to taste the crawfish gumbo that a kind woman had made for us in Fairhope, AL it is the Natchez Trail I remember most.
For it was there as we drove along the parkway, that Mama began to tell her story. Oh, I had heard bits and pieces of it before but this time when she started, I said, “Wait a minute!” By God’s sweet grace, I had a small tape recorder with me. I turned it on, set it in the seat between us and for two hours, she told the story of her life as a young woman. How she met Daddy. How she worked in a hosiery mill and for her aunt at the boarding house. How she had survived World War II with a baby in arms and a husband in the South Pacific that she did not see for two years. How when he returned, she had saved every penny of his Navy pay by taking in sewing, cooking and ironing.
I knew that tape was “sommers”, as Rodney says, but I didn’t know where. One day, I ran across the recorder with the tape still in it. I pressed play and heard my Mama’s voice as recorded on a beautiful fall day in the middle of Mississippi. Two sentences in, the recorder quit. New batteries did not revive it.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a microcassette recorder in today’s digital world? Finally, my friend, Debbie, uncovered one in a cabinet drawer and brought it to me. I began to transcribe and was seven sentences into Mama talking about her first date with Daddy and how she was going to break up with her other boyfriend before she went to church with him again when the tape broke.
I began to sniffle, fighting back the tears.
Tink promises he will get it fixed. And I know he will. He understands how important it is to me to hear Mama tell her stories from her own mouth.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know.” Sign up for her newsletter at her website. Her column publishes Tuesdays.