Fanning the Spark: A Memoir

Fanning the Spark: A Memoir

by Mary Ward Brown

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358662
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/15/2016
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 166
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

In addition to publishing two acclaimed collections of short fiction, Mary Ward Brown has received the PEN/Hemingway Award for Fiction, the Hillsdale Prize for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the Lillian Smith Book Award. She lives in the village of Hamburg, between Marion and Marion Junction, Alabama, in the same house in which she was born and raised.

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Fanning the Spark

A Memoir

By Mary Ward Brown

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5866-2



The urge to write must have smoldered in my makeup from the beginning, but my childhood did not ignite it.

My parents, with little formal schooling, had no interest in writing. They were doers. Born and raised in relatively poor Chilton County, Alabama, they moved in 1910 to Perry County, the then-prosperous Black Belt. From its owner-operator, they bought a large two-story general store in the Hamburg community, nine miles of unpaved road from Marion and twenty-one miles from Selma.

They lived first in the top floor of the store, a building so large the upstairs hall had first been used as a skating rink. As they prospered they bought land for cotton, row crops, and timber. My mother became the storekeeper/bookkeeper, while my father looked after what came to be, besides the farm, a cotton gin, dairy, grist mill, shop, blacksmith shop, and sawmill.

With roads all but impassable in wet weather, the village of Hamburg was basically self-sustaining. There were small stores other than my father's, a Post Office with postmistress, and a Methodist Church. The Southern Railroad ran through twice a day bringing mail and dry goods. In time my father shipped bales of cotton from the Hamburg station.

By the time I was born in 1917, my parents still lived in the top of the store, but a growing number of black people lived and worked on their land. My mother ran the store with the help of one black clerk, Bob Spencer, and kept all of the books. My father, unless dealing with salesmen up front, was out on the place or back in his office, the only room in the large open space of the store.

During all of my childhood, except on Sundays, both of my parents were already at work when I work up in the morning. Black people took care of me all day. My early childhood is a blur of long directionless days, followed about by various nurses. Like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, "I just growed." I could go and see my mother in the store whenever I liked, but she was usually busy with a customer.

Joanna Jackson, a black woman, was my mainstay during those early years. She was there before I was born and until I was grown and married. I was taught to call her Mammy as a necessary member of our family. "Mammy" is now considered demeaning, a reminder of servitude and oppression. For us it was a term of respect and affection, as for a surrogate mother or grandmother.

She was officially our cook. I had a succession of nurses, but she was the one in charge while my mother was at work downstairs. And she probably saved my life. As a toddler I was wasting away with colitis because no formula agreed with me. Mammy couldn't bear to see me pick up crumbs from the floor to eat out of hunger, so one day she slipped me a teaspoon of buttermilk. When it did no harm, she gave me more. By the time I was drinking a full cup and improving, she told my mother.

I once wrote a description of her lap. "If my mother ever sat and held me as a child I don't remember, but I do remember the solace of Mammy's lap. Though she was small, light-skinned, and far from the stereotype, her lap could spread and deepen to accommodate any wound. It smelled of gingham and a smoky cabin, and it rocked gently during tears. It didn't spill me out with token consolation but was there as long as needed. It was pure heartsease."

The previous owners of the store had sold coffins. Leftover black metal caskets were stacked halfway to the ceiling on one side of an unused room upstairs. The rest of the room was empty space. The Coffin Room, we called it, and I liked to play in there with my dolls and doll buggy. I put my dolls to sleep in the cheap caskets lined with yellowing white satin, and sometimes got in myself and lay down. I probably took a few naps in the coffins. I don't remember that a nurse was ever in there with me, but it was just off the big dining room, so Mammy could check on me from the kitchen.

In and around the family I was called Sister because of my two half-brothers. My mother, a young widow, had married my father, who was divorced. Each had a son seventeen years old at the time I was born. So William Ward and Sheldon Fitts, no kin to each other, were both blood brothers to me. I regret having to put one before the other, even to give their names.

Sheldon, my mother's son, whom I called simply Brother, was a football star at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville, Georgia, when I first became aware of him. Handsome and affectionate, his short visits home were as good as Santa's to me. Later, from the University of Georgia where he was an even greater star, he brought me a Little Sister Sigma Chi pin, which I lost playing in a pasture behind the store, and hunted for years without finding. And once he called to say he'd had an orchestra play "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi" for me at some event, probably a dance.

His football glory at the University was short lived, however, because of a knee injury. The university sent him to New York to a famous sports surgeon, but the injury couldn't be repaired. So he lost his football scholarship and went to work, first for the Coca-Cola Company.

In time, in Chicago, he earned a law degree in night school and married Frances Balhatchett, daughter of a Chicago surgeon. They had two children, Sheldon Jr. and a daughter, Barbara, who died tragically from a ruptured appendix at age eleven. Years later, they moved back to Hamburg and lived just down the road from me.

William Ward was usually known as Willie, but I followed the lead of his wife's sister who called him Brother Bill. He had a mind for business like our father and was already, when I first remember him, working in the Selma shoe store he was later to own. He was also already married to Sister Myrtle (Harrison). They came to visit on Sunday afternoons. Sister Myrtle had two diamonds in tall Tiffany settings inherited from her grandmothers, and I liked sitting beside her on the sofa, playing with her rings. All of our shoes came from Brother Bill's store.

Hurt no doubt by divorce, Brother Bill was less outwardly affectionate than Brother but equally as tenderhearted. His mother, "Miss Irene," my father's ex-wife, lived with him and Sister Myrtle all of her life. When my own mother died and our father remarried, Brother Bill invited me to come there whenever I liked, and I went from time to time. Miss Irene treated me as a member of the family, and I enjoyed going out with friends, to movies on my own, or reading in summer on their screened side porch beneath a large ceiling fan.

In addition to the shoe store, Brother Bill became a landowner like our father, whom he called Papa and I called Daddy. I think Brother Bill aspired to equal or outdo the parent who'd left him, and he did. But he enjoyed his success as our father never did. Brother Bill wore expensive suits and ties, drove good cars, took long summer vacations. When I was a teenager, he and Sister Myrtle took me to the beach in summer. In 1962 they took my son Kirtley Ward and me to the World's Fair in Seattle. For most of his life Brother Bill had kidney problems like our father, and lived for several years with one kidney. He died in 1964.

He and Sister Myrtle had no children so Kirtley Ward was one of his heirs. Kirtley Ward lives today on property, and in a house, inherited from his Uncle Bill.

Among my memories of the store, one has to do with a white farm overseer who had a drinking problem. In the memory, he whispered to me in a corner of the store, "Sister, go back there (behind the counter) and get me a bottle of lemon extract." I didn't think I was supposed to do it, or to let anyone know if I did, but I remember going and giving him the bottle. He drank it for the alcohol content, I was to find out in time.

Another store memory is of sliding back doors to the candy counter and taking out a handful of Hershey's kisses, silver-wrapped then as now. Peeled and packed into one side of my jaw, they melted slowly, deliciously. I don't think this was forbidden since I did it often, with cavities to show for it later.

One indelible store memory is of my mother, sitting at a homemade wooden table with heavy account books spread out before her. As she pulled down the lever to a large black adding machine on her right, she was silently weeping. When she looked up to see me she attempted to straighten her face, caught my small body, and hugged me fiercely to her.

My mother had heavy responsibilities. Besides her work in the store, she was responsible for our living quarters upstairs and for two children, one away from home. Upstairs she had a cook and someone to clean, but she never knew who or how many would be at our table for "dinner," as southerners called the main meal of the day served at noon. Two rural schoolteachers lived and boarded with us. One farm overseer ate with us regularly, plus any salesman, county agent, dairy inspector, or anyone else who happened to be in the store on business at the noon hour. Salesmen, called drummers, ate with us on a regular basis. There was Roy Carter day, Cecil Kynard day, Mr. Cox day.

In summer my mother supervised a season-long canning operation upstairs. Hundreds of jars of fruits, vegetables, pickles, and preserves were put up in our kitchen. They helped feed us in winter, were shared with my brothers, and used as gifts for friends. In winter, hogs were killed, the fresh meat cooked, and by-products made into sauce meat. Hams, and sausages packed in casings, were prepared for the smokehouse out back. My mother was running up and down the stairs all day.

She kept a flock of turkeys for holiday dinners, ours, those of my brothers, certain friends and drummers. Brother's turkeys, in homemade wooden crates supplied with grain and water, went by train to Chicago. The turkeys hadn't sense enough to get out of the rain and would stand in a downpour with their heads up and drown. My mother had to run out in boots and raincoat to put them up.

Feeling overwhelmed no doubt, on the day of my memory, she must have looked up to see me and thought, "And you, my neglected baby!"

Some of the happiest times of my childhood were spent with the Lee family who lived across the pasture. Mrs. Lee was a musician who gave me piano lessons. I had no talent but learned to sight-read well enough to finally play hymns for the Hamburg Church. And after lessons I could stay and play with her six children. In their large front yard we played baseball and games such as Red Light and Slinging Statues. In the house we played charades and card games. In summer Mrs. Lee took us swimming in the Hamburg community swimming pool, and in the fall nutting in the woods for hickory nuts and chinquapins.

After I'd grown up, someone said to me one day, "You always walked with your head down when you were little." We hadn't known that I was nearsighted until I was tested in school. Finally fitted with glasses, I wouldn't wear them out of vanity. For years I was putting them on, taking them off, losing them, and trying to find more becoming frames in ever changing styles, big, little, wire, plastic.

I still remember one strong feeling about my early years. I didn't like walking barefoot in the black prairie mud, and I didn't want the soupy muck squishing up between my toes. I wanted to be somewhere else at the time, I remember, somewhere I thought of as nice.

And later, when I began trying to write fiction, I read with great admiration the work of Katherine Anne Porter (Flowering Judas; The Leaning Tower; Pale Horse, Pale Rider). Her claims of growing up in fine houses, tall secretaries filled with leather-bound classics, made me feel deprived. I could be a better writer, I thought, if I'd grown up in such surroundings.

But after Porter's death, her biographer, Joan Givner, brought to light that she'd grown up in poverty, her early years without certain needs, much less luxuries. This impressed me even more with her accomplishment. I saw what genius can do with a given material, even deprivation and dreams.

And it made me face a truth of my own. I did not have genius and, if I intended to write, would have to make do with the ability I had. I wasn't even sure that what I had was talent, and not simply a strong desire and will to write.



School changed my life with books and learning. I went first to the Black Belt Consolidated Academy, grades one through five, a few miles from Hamburg. There were two teachers, two rooms, and a cloakroom.

I don't remember learning to read, only that the world began to widen out from the one that I knew, and doors seemed to open in the skull of my head. I was enchanted by my readers, with their stories of the Little Red Hen and her seed, of Big Billy Goat Gruff and the Troll.

At home there were newspapers and farm magazines but no books except the Bible, which I never tried to read. There must have been a few children's books of some kind, as evidenced by an early snapshot with my father on the store porch, but I don't remember them. I do remember looking forward to a magazine subscription such as Child Craft, to which I submitted a poem and received a rejection in the mail.

In the Methodist Church behind our house, attended by everyone in the community (my parents were Baptist), there was a book titled The Devil in Society or Palaces of Sin. It had pictures of women in bloomers kicking up their legs in a chorus line, and of the devil himself with his pitchfork. I brought it home to read but found it no more understandable than the Bible. Years later, when an interviewer asked what books I read as a child, the only title I could think of was that one.

After skipping a grade, I went to junior high school in Marion on the schoolbus and discovered, or uncovered, a lasting love for literature. In the school library I found and read Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, in which I was somehow able to recognize good writing. Conrad didn't remain a favorite, but I remember being excited by the discovery that writing can be good enough to be read again and again, over years, good enough to be art, the meaning of which I could only intuit at the time. Afterwards, I was always looking for that quality in the books that I read.

And I came to look upon literature as a friend. It was my nature to like people, so I always had friends. But friendships are subject to change, even heartbreak. My high school boyfriend with the sun-bleached blonde hair moved away and out of my life. My brilliant college roommate developed schizophrenia and turned against me as a member of "the plot."

But literature was always there with fact or fiction. A good book could take me from problems of my own to those of Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, to Ahab and his long pursuit of the Great White Whale, to Gandhi and his amazing Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

There was only one time when literature couldn't help. When my husband died, I couldn't read fiction for more than a year. Finally a short story, "The Boat," by Alistair MacLeod of Nova Scotia, caught and held my attention. I was so grateful that I wrote and thanked the author. "The Boat" is still one of my favorite short stories, the author one of my favorite writers.

I loved my high school English books, loved writing themes, and soon began writing for the school paper, The Perri-Winkle (Perry County High School). During my second year as editor, The Perri-Winkle won second place in a statewide contest sponsored by the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University) School of Journalism. My letter from Professor Joseph E. Roop, March 20, 1934, said in part, "I think you can well be proud of having defeated the papers from such large schools as Phillips and Ensley in Birmingham. Better luck next year."

Doing well in high school was easy, because I wanted to learn and liked to study. My schoolbooks were not thrown around, dogeared, or allowed to get wet, though I felt free to underline pages with a pencil if I made the lines straight. And I set myself to do each daily assignment. When not attuned to a subject such as trigonometry, I simply memorized it.

My parents had built, while I was in grammar school, a modest house next door to the store. So I had a quiet room of my own and studied by the light of a kerosene Aladdin lamp. The house plan they chose was from a book featuring the American Bungalow, an awkward style popular in the nineteen twenties. Our house had two stories instead of one, and one redeeming feature: All of the interior walls were of heart pine saved from my father's sawmill. A sleeping porch was added later and the breakfast room enlarged. It's the house that I live in today, still with only one bathroom. Upstairs.


Excerpted from Fanning the Spark by Mary Ward Brown. Copyright © 2009 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Childhood 1

2 School 9

3 Marriage 23

4 Return to Hamburg 31

5 Trying To Write 39

6 The Twenty-five-Year Silence 52

7 Major Changes 61

8 Alone 78

9 Back to Writing 87

10 My Fifteen Minutes 104

11 It Wasn't All Dancing 133

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Fanning the Spark 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
candacekvance on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Mary Ward Brown will be coming to read in Jackson next month. I can not wait to meet her. This is a must read for anyone struggling to find time and justification to write while also struggling with being a mother and wife and making ends meet. She never complains in her memoir, but delivers hope to all of us who do. I borrowed this from a library, but after reading it, I know I'll have to buy it and hopefully have it signed. This book is a good companion to Tillie Olsen's book, Silences.