I stopped reading the daily newspaper in 1990.
My best bet, I had learned, was to rely on my husband for news. He had rarely missed a day in his adult life of memorizing the daily paper.
I had grown accustomed to that open newspaper flung out each morning and the grunts that came from behind it if I commented on the blue jays fighting. Tommy would say, “School board’s against raising ad valorem taxes.” I’d say, “Mimosa’s starting to bloom.”
We had lived in Autauga County, Ala., for most of the 1980s. In Prattville, small town South at its best, I learned from my friend, Betty Clapper, all the unwritten social rules that I had not learned living poor in rural Alabama. Now when I start to write anything that might sound high and mighty to the reader, I glance to the bookcase at the left of my desk to remember who I really am. A crystal vase holds three cotton bolls that I stopped and picked in a field when my husband’s work took us to Prattville. Cotton in crystal—the duality and disparity of my writing.
Our move into the Hydrick’s house (it would be termed theirs until we sold it) was duly recorded in the weekly Prattville Progress, a weekly. Ms. Doster’s column cataloged new arrivals as well as the comings and goings of families to the beach or to the mountains.
When I think back on meeting Betty, she must have guessed cotton through and through, but this would be my decade of crystal. Betty apprised me of who one should invite to group parties, how one must always respond with handwritten notes on good paper and what activities one would be expected to participate in, given that her husband held a prominent position in the local paper company.
Under Betty’s tutelage I joined a study club when invited, but not hers. The Study Club already had women who’d turned gray on the wait list. I joined a bridge club and absorbed the cardinal rules of having one’s house look un-lived in, and one’s powder room burgeoning with ironed linen and lace fingertip towels — rarely used, and if so, only faintly rumpled.
I quickly got the hang of kibitzing. Once I showed off my daring by producing a Beef Wellington whose golden crust was sealed with cut-out pastry flowers. The whole was served surrounded by parsley and peeled or scored mushrooms. My entertaining pinnacle was the Hawaiian luau which Tommy and I hosted, along with Betty and Bob and my next-door neighbors, Willene and Owen, in our backyard.
That party was written up in the society column of our daily newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser: the red Anthurium Betty had flown in, floating in the pool with lights; a champagne fountain; and leis for each guest as they entered. Truly, until I became immersed in politics, the society columns were about all I ever kept up with.
All of that would change. Reading the Progress began to feel little like Googling my name does now. I found myself modeling for Hope’s, a downtown dress shop, and often pictures of the models were published in the Progress. I joined Prattville Creative Writers, and an article about that first meeting at Sue Scalf’s home would be published and winners of contests named. Sometimes a picture accompanied such articles. I remember well the Wednesday that the Progress came out holding my first published article — one describing the annual luminaries project in Deer Trace. And there were subsequently pics of the many wedding teas, showers and luncheons for my daughter — pics of us both of us smiling with the hostesses.
It was, however, politics that precipitated my perusal of the Montgomery Advertiser. My short, frantic life as a politician began as a member of the Republican Women and moved on to my being made chair of the Autauga County Republican Party. In that position one has to keep up with news around the state, even if some of it is woefully wrong. I chaired the Cordy Taylor campaign for state senate. I also campaigned for George H. W. Bush. And, that decade, the party managed to elect the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Guy Hunt from Holly Pond, who served from 1987-1993.
Although Tommy’s newspaper knowledge has always made him a popular conversationalist, it has never helped me much at all. Guy Hunt was forced to resign early in 1993, but I didn’t want to read about it. Too much effort went into his election.
Cordy and I lost the senate campaign. And I was lost living in Savannah in our empty nest. Our son would be entering the University of Alabama in the fall.
In my bitterness over politics, I vowed in Savannah I wouldn’t even learn the governor’s name. I immersed myself that decade in becoming The Writer. I would rely on hubby to tell me if the world was coming to an end.
My husband’s habits never changed. We immediately subscribed to the local paper when we moved here in 2000. One day a few weeks ago, Tommy folded his Birmingham News. I couldn’t imagine what news he was about to impart. His face was contorted, and he started saying, “You won’t believe what I’ve just read.” Anger fizzled out, and it was a hurt look, as if someone had personally offended him. Once he told me of a woman in Wetumpka who put her baby in the oven, and that was gruesome grist for my fiction mill.
“They’re cutting back to three times a week,” he said. I waited for him to say what in the world he was talking about. “I’m just going to cancel my subscription. Or just get the Sunday paper.”
“Need a refill?” I said. He ignored the coffee and said, “You know, that just rips it.”
Here is a man who has long loved the print newspaper (or as Corey Dade, NPR online, refers to as the “dead wood version”) as opposed to the digital version. Following that announcement he resumed reading each page with a vengeance. His reaction was the same as mine would be if someone handed me a Kindle and said, “You may read books on paper only three days a week.”
Since moving back to Birmingham, I have regressed, more or less, to the radio for my news. I grew up with the radio as my only news source. In fact, a piece on NPR kicked off my life as a newspaperwoman: “Thumbs up, Palmer” was my essay about the potential demise of cursive writing. After that, one was published in Weld, I was hooked.
Tommy and his daily paper, Keats and his nightingale: Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades/?Past the near meadows, over the still stream… I dash out to Planet Smoothie for my weekly Weld. My husband and I, at least once a week, can again devour our separate newspapers across the breakfast table. He reaches to squeeze my hand, blackened by newsprint, in great reverence.
Kathleen’s fractured writing life includes a degree in fiction writing, three published poetry books and a truckload of unpublished work. She plans to study creative nonfiction in Paris this July. Follow her at her blog, www.wordspinningbykathleen.blogspot.com.