The simple question sent my mind reeling backward through time to those hot, hot, muggy oppressive days of summer. The question was from a neighbor commenting on how hot and uncomfortable the month of July has been. Temperatures have resided in the mid 90s with the heat index well into the 100s. 

Ours is a walking, jogging, bike riding neighborhood.  People stand in the yard and talk to each other. These days you can do that early morning and late evening but during the middle of the day the heat has been too much. My neighbors question sent my mind back to the heat of yesteryear. 

“How did you all stand practicing outdoors in this hot sun? I can’t imagine,” was the question? 

I answered immediately, “I don’t know. Sometime I ask myself that question.” 

Looking back to the 1970s, it was always brutally hot in Auburn, Alabama in July and August. For clarification, it’s brutally hot in Auburn most summers. But for that five-year period, I was practicing with the football team in the steamy hot sun, with no breeze and only the occasional water break. 

Walking on, I had to prove I deserved a scholarship. I did. I had to earn a starters job. I did. I had to keep that job for three years and help us win games and national rankings. I did that too. Standing in the hot sun with my neighbor, I felt a trickle of sweat run across my brow and down my face. Looking back on it now, in a six-decade old body, I wonder how we did it as well. 

You see it was about more than being a big man on campus, the glamour of television, or signing autographs. Those were the byproducts, the benefits of hard, grueling, day-to-day grinding work in summer camp. Since school had not started we could devote all our time to practice. Summer camp could make or break our season.

We were young and frisky like colts. Reporting to camp we went at it twice a day for two full weeks before we tapered off to a regular practice schedule. The heat was unbearable. But we were on a mission. We went out in the morning in full pads. We hit, we hit and we hit some more. 

In the afternoon practice we did it all over again. Dripping wet with sweat, our pads and practice uniforms now weighed close to ten pounds more as they were soaked. There was no Gatorade. There were no water coolers. It was according to our coaches, “How bad do you want it?” 

We did get the occasional water break! People laugh when I tell them we had a water spigot about six inches off the ground that we had to kneel down to slurp its precious cold water on our two water breaks a day. It was yesteryear when the hardship of making a football team was equated with your manhood. “Prove you’re a man,” was the message we were given. If that was what it took to be a man we were willing. 

My mom feared for me because I could not hold my weight in that hot sun, running miles and miles a day.  I assured her I was okay. 

Between practices we stuffed ourselves with food. Caught a quick nap and headed back out for the afternoon practice. Before dressing out we would check the afternoon depth chart. Had anybody moved up on the roster? Had I moved up on the roster? 

Inevitably we reached that point in practice where attrition would take hold and those who refused to do it any longer would pack their bags and ease out of their dorm room under the cover of darkness and sneak off to another life. Putting that experience in their rear view mirror. We didn’t hold it against them. Maybe it took more courage to leave than it did to stay. 

Was it worth it? Yes! Would I do it again? Yes! Absolutely. Could I do it again at this stage?  Absolutely not! 

As I explained to my neighbor what that part of my life was like, I smiled as I remembered the angry screams from coaches, the camaraderie we built, the games we won, “the teammates for life” tag we have placed on ourselves. The stories we now tell. All because of that “torture” we underwent in that brutal oppressive heat. 

“I don’t see how you all did it,” my neighbor exclaimed.  

With youthful exuberance and a big smile, the words shot from my mouth, “It was fun.”

Chris McNair has died.

My first memory of him is of my being a little boy and greeting him as he brought the milk to our front door. A gregarious man, dressed in white and driving a White Dairy Milk Truck he was the milkman who my parents and aunts knew. Later, after I finished college and moved home to Birmingham, I went to work with him on his magazine, Down Home.

Down Home showcased his beautiful award-winning photography of people and places in the Deep South. I wrote many of the magazine’s articles both under my name and my pseudonym, Dwayne Stanley. We sold the magazine all over Alabama and to those black transplants who had generationally been a part of the great migration from the southern states to the good life, “up north.”

Working full time for BellSouth/AT&T, I would leave work, change clothes, get a bite to eat and spend the evenings at his studio, working with him on story ideas, accounting for the ads and magazines I had sold, and more importantly we would sit and talk. Because I had known him for so long, he always referred to me as “boy,” but that was okay. In terms of what I would learn from him, I was a boy.

Much has been written and discussed about him, the tragic death of his daughter in the

16th street Baptist Church bombing, his artistry as a photographer, his many civic and personal attributes, his time as a politician and his fall from grace. But for me it’s the nights we spent in his studio, talking, me mostly listening.

He often asked me about life at Auburn University where he would later send one of his daughters. He was interested in what life was like in the downtown corporate power structure, where I had “a good job.” I often detected regret at his having come along “too early,” to enjoy the rewards of integration.

Only once did I ever see him lower the barrier of his manhood and break down in tears as any man would who had experienced the life he had experienced, from Fordyce, Arkansas, to Tuskegee, to Birmingham, to the bombing at the sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the tragic loss of his daughter. “Why do we have to go through this?” he wailed, tears streaming down his face.

I didn’t say a word. It was his moment. I sat in silence.

I suppose I should say Chris McNair went to prison for stealing the people’s money. I’m a believer that you don’t run away from your history. He didn’t. He pled guilty to that crime. But if there was ever an elected official that the public wished could have been forgiven it was Chris McNair. He’d suffered enough many said. The crime and punishment was a testament to the contradictions of life. We can be upstanding in the light of day and perhaps do what we feel we need to do when the shadows of darkness surround us.

My memories will always be of the man I got to know personally and intimately, a man who during a five-year stint in my life became a mentor and friend. Toiling and talking in his junked-up studio, we strived to shine a light on what was happening “Down Home.”

I’m in love with my dad.

Do I love him? Yes. But I’m talking about being in love. I like him. I like being around him. He’s funny. He makes me laugh.  He’s special.

You see I didn’t grow up throwing the ball with him in the backyard. We never sat by the fireplace and had older man, younger man talks. No, my dad worked all the time, all the time. He left home for his pipe shop job around 4:30 am, returned around 3 pm and would leave again around 4:00 pm for his nighttime janitorial job. On the weekends he did plumbing with a family friend, Goat.  

Yet, as much as he worked, we all knew he was there for us, a reasoning safe presence. For me, his oldest and only son, he foresaw a changing world. A world he was willing to send his son into but would not live in himself. He accepted his supporting role in life but wanted a starring role for his son. So he worked. He worked to make the funds necessary to send me, and my two sisters, to private school, buy us a house, allow us to live comfortable lives. When things got tight, we, the children, would be made aware of it because we were a team and everyone pitched in to make things work. 

What I remember most and what I enjoy most now is listening to him talk. Born in 1925, in Elmore County Alabama, he’s seen a world I could not have survived. Almost being accosted by white strangers because they thought my light-skinned mother was a white woman. Having to step off the sidewalk when a white couple approached. Working all day, sun up to sun down behind a mule for 50 cents. Building his own bicycle from spare parts and riding with his brother into downtown Wetumpka, Alabama to go to the movies, and of course, sit in the black section of the theatre.  Going to the army at 18. Afterward, moving to Birmingham to join his sisters and brothers as they transitioned from rural country life to city life, marriage and a family.

His wife, my mother, had been raised Catholic and had gone to Catholic schools. She set the standards. He converted to Catholicism. He worked so we could go to Catholic schools. When I became a popular athlete at the school where I integrated the sports teams, what he didn’t understand he didn’t stand in the way of. He never limited me. When I pushed back against his more restrained ways he supported me.

There are times, while visiting him that we will take a drive to visit with his friend, Kit. They worked together at Acipco Pipe. Kit’s ten years younger than my dad and babysits a tire service he runs with his wife. There are few customers so he and my dad can have an hour or two to just talk.

They both survived 35 years in the plant. Made it out. Retired and have lived long enough to enjoy it. They witnessed their place of work go from their supervisor referring to them as “These are my Ni_ _ ers,” to a measure of respect for who they were as men. They laugh a lot at the supervisor who they told jokes to in order to get him laughing and telling jokes. While he entertained them they got to rest.

Our adult worlds have been different; his blue collar, mine entrepreneurial. Sometimes that has been frustrating.  When I vent about a client issue, he comes back with “running the ball, but you got to be blocking and you need a tall receiver who can snatch that ball, then you can score the ball.”

Traveling in parallel universes is sometimes frustrating. “What are you talking about?” I wanted to say. But I studied him. Now 93 and hard of hearing, he still is the master of his shrinking domain, holding on to whatever control he can.

I thought about what he’d said. The light went on. It was a strategy. A strategy I could utilize. I would utilize. I had to get back on offense. Score some points. I would.

This trip I spent three days with him. My sisters, his angels, are his full time caregivers. I come in once a month to substitute and give them a tiny break. Daddy and I talk, watch television, go on rides through familiar territory, and eventually nod out on the couch in the evening.

The hardest part is leaving.  We always make good eye contact, our eyes express the thankfulness of being in each other’s lives and the loving words he cannot verbalize but doesn’t have to. I know.  

He always says,  “I hope I see you again.” I always give him a big hug and say, “You will.”  

I’m in love with my dad.

Happy Birthday Dad!

We met him in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris twenty years ago. He always said he was attracted to my wife’s (joyce) stylish hat, or at least that was his story and he stuck to it. An art history professor, an American living in Paris, he invited us to join him on a tour he was giving to his students. “Would you and your man like to join us?” he asked joyce.  With an invitation like that, how could we not? “Yes,” we agreed. For the next two hours we listened and learned. The man was a walking, talking art history lesson. After the tour, we were invited to lunch with the group. We politely declined, figuring we had imposed enough on their time.

joyce & Brandt a few years ago

As we exited the museum, I mentioned to joyce that we should have gotten the gentlemen’s contact information so we could send him a nice note of thanks. She confidently replied,  “Oh we’ll see him again.” True to my name as a doubting Thomas, I confidently spouted, “We’ll never see that man again!” Two days later, while lunching at an outdoor café, joyce jumped up shouting, “There he is.”

“Who?” I asked. She was already giving chase. “The Professor,” she replied on the run.

She brought him back to our table. That evening we had dinner with him and his friends who were also Americans living in Paris. After that we visited for the next twenty years until his passing in March of this year. He came to our homes in Fort Walton Beach, Florida and Birmingham, Alabama. We visited him in Maine after he moved back to the states.

A physically short man with encyclopedic knowledge and an inquisitive mind regarding social issues, he was stimulating to be around. We went to a jazz performance on the River Seine in Paris. We went to the Moulin Rouge. He spent a Christmas with us in Fort Walton. He visited us in Birmingham for the premiere of my play, Speak of Me As I Am. Issues of ethnicity and American racism peaked his interest and touched off lively conversations. He always inquired about our son, Dixson. He was just incredibly special! I will never forget him.

The last time we saw him was in Maine two years ago. Living with his son Peter, he was confined to a wheel chair, but insisting that he would go back to his beloved Paris as soon as he was able. This month, in his 9th decade, weak and frail, he passed away.

His son Peter posted a wonderful picture of him with his beloved glass of wine and a twinkle in his eye. Brandt Kingsley, you were one of a kind!

Most mothers have to wait months and sometimes years, after a son or daughter marry, to get grandchildren. I’ve always been one to make my own rules and forge my own path. Getting to become “Gram” was no different!

When our son married my amazing new daughter (notice I did not say, “daughter-in-law”), we automatically got grandchildren (laughing). I’ve heard people say it and never really understood, how you can love your grandchildren with every fiber in your being… now I get it. Don’t think there is anything I wouldn’t do within my power for Jenna, Channing, Parker, LuLu, and Collin. Anything! They are amazing, well adjusted, appreciative, and accomplished young people, ranging from age 26 to 9. Another time, I’ll fill you in on all the details. Right now, I want to talk about my first Christmas with (some of) my grandchildren (laughing)!

When Dixson and Sissy told us they could come for Christmas, I cried… then I started making a list! Favorite foods I already knew from Parker and Lu coming last summer. Gift ideas and little surprises. Decorations. House and Carpet cleaning. Things to do on that Sunday after they arrived and Monday for Christmas Eve. I had a full page of things to check off. Excited doesn’t even come close. Oh, for sure I was glad to spend Christmas with my son and daughter… But!!!

On the Sunday before Christmas, I woke up before 6am, too excited to sleep any longer! Dixson, Sissy, Parker, and Lu were leaving Savannah after Dixson got off work at the restaurant where he cooks. They would arrive around 9am and I wanted to make sure everything was ready. Decorations inside and out… Check. The weeks and weeks of food cooking, cookies, cakes, and pies in the fridge for warming… Check. Pot of soup ready for dinner… Check. Waffle batter, bacon, sausage, and fruit for breakfast when they arrived… Check. Gifts wrapped under the tree and stockings hung… Check. Bedrooms fresh and decorated… Check. Pop (aka Thom) ready… Check. FINALLY the text that they were 25 minutes away came!!!

Hugs. Kisses. Tears of happiness. The moment they walked into the door, I couldn’t stop smiling. They were here!!

Breakfast Sunday morning, then Parker, LuLu, and I just “had” to go to Target to get “stuff”… without parents, of course (laughing). We had a ball! There was a new game just calling our name (they like playing board games as much as we do). Some slime had Lu’s name on it and some gummy worms had Parker’s. So did a few other things. We escaped Target with minimal damage done. Back home, Pop decided to take Parker and LuLu to Wild Willy’s Adventure Park to play laser tag (something he had never played), ride go carts, and play games in the Arcade. The three remaining adults crashed and took naps (lol)! Parker won laser tag, Pop won air hockey, and Lu won in the Arcade. We played our new game, Oregon Trail after they got back, then had homemade beef vegetable soup with cheese and crackers for dinner and watched a Christmas favorite It Happened on Fifth Avenue… highly recommend it. Off to bed for everyone.

Christmas Eve, we had breakfast, showered and dressed, then went to the Okaloosa Island Pier to look at the marine life down in the water below. Lu touched a mostly domesticated pelican that hangs around the pier waiting for the fishermen and women to toss him (or her) fish. Heading back, we just had to stop at the Splurge Trampoline Park! Dixson, Parker, Lu, and… Gram jumped! Pop and Sissy watched and cheered us on. LuLu bested me on the one where you have to jump over a spinning boom arm (laughing), after falling down on both of my tries, I gave up. But I won on the obstacle course!! We jumped on everything there while Parker organized a group of boys into a “HORSE” basketball game on another trampoline… he won! Tired, and hungry, we headed home to warm and cook the rest of Christmas dinner. We ate until no one could eat any more, then cleaned up and bundled into the car to go look at Christmas lights. Because they had to leave on Christmas morning, we opened gifts that night. Pop and LuLu took turns playing “Santa,” handing out packages and stockings. Paper and ribbon piled up. Lots of excited squeals. Plenty of thank you hugs and kisses. Everything I could possibly have wanted and more.

Christmas morning. Breakfast. Loading up a cooler full of food for them to take home. More hugs, kisses, and tears. Then, they were gone.

Grandchildren at Christmas are the BEST EVER. Maybe next year, all of them can be with us!

Christmas food, beverages, gifts, decorations, and stockings $$$... Gram’s First Christmas with Grandchildren, PRICELESS!!!

Christmas is a special time for many children in the world. Those who celebrate the holiday suddenly remember around Thanksgiving, that they need to be “good” in order for Santa to come on Christmas Eve. The world is filled with suddenly helpful, obedient, and non-fussing-with-sibling, children (laughing)! It’s a wonder that parents don’t arrange for “Christmas”to arrive every month, just to keep children in line!

There are many Christmases that stand out for me. Christmas of 1964 is near the top of the list.

I remember being so extra good that November and December.At seven, I did my chores without being reminded… a first; I brushed my teeth for real instead of just swishing with water; I went outside and ice skated in the park with my friends instead of staying in my room reading as I usually did… I was the model poster child. It didn’t last beyond Christmas when I reverted to my usual “Oh Joyce!” persona (laughing). But that year, I had an extra special Christmas list.

Christmas morning arrived and I leapt out of bed and ran to my parent’s room. “Mommy, Daddy! We have to see if Santa came!” I yelled excitedly. My mommy, who was about ready to deliver my brother at any moment, smiled up at me. “Go look and see, but don’t touch anything until we get there,” she said. I ghosted!

In our living room, I looked across the vast distance,zeroing in on the Christmas tree. Something caught my eye and I turned to the right. “I got it! I got it!” I screamed, jumping up and down. “Santa brought my piano!!!” There it sat, a brand new Lyon & Healy upright piano. I plopped down on the bench and lifted the lid, already envisioning the beautiful sounds I would make, just like the woman at the symphony I’d seen in January. I would be just as famous as she was in no time! Placing my hands on the keys, I positioned my fingers just as hers had been and plunked out the most awful sound in the world (laughing). Stunned, I resettled my fingers and tried again…same mess.

“You’ll have to take lessons, Joyce,” Mommy spoke from the doorway. “Practice and practice and you will play beautifully some day.”

“But I want to play Christmas music for everyone today,” I wailed. “I should be able to play, I watched everything she did.”

“Who did?” Mommy asked, confused.

“The lady with the symphony in January,” I exclaimed. “I want to play like her.” By now, I was crying.

“Joyce, stop. You will be able to play just as beautifully as the soloist at the symphony someday, if you practice hard and do everything Mr. Wooten tells you to do.”

“But I have been!” I explained through my tears. “I thought I just needed my own piano to be able to play better. It should have worked.”

“Oh Joyce,” Mommy sighed, brushing my cheek, “It just doesn’t work that way. You have to focus and practice.”

I slammed the keyboard lid down and got off the bench without a word. Marching across the living room in search of more cooperative gifts!

On my way, I spotted the bike… no, The Bike… the 3-speed English Racer bike that was just like my cousin David’s, only for a girl. Euphoria filled me again, the piano fiasco long forgotten… and I never did playlike the symphony soloist, by the way!

“Can I go outside and ride it? Please Mommy?” I begged, hopping up and down.

“May I, not can I. No Joyce, there is snow everywhere. You may ride when the snow clears.”

“Can I ride it in the basement then?”

“May I… Yes, but not today,” Came her automatic response.

Further frustrated, my eyes landed next on the brand new ice skates with their gleaming white boots and silver sharp blades. Promptly sitting on the floor, I threw off my slippers and shoved my feet into the skates. Already picturing myself gliding across the ice just like the Olympic Skaters we watched every winter. I could hear the roar of the crowd and see myself standing on the 1st Place box with my Gold Medal around my neck. Standing on my brand new ice skates, so much better than the babyishstrap-on ones I currently had. This will make all the difference, I thought. “Can I… May I go across the street to skate on the rink?” I added a big smile, certain that it would make the difference.

“No, Joyce. It’s Christmas morning.”

“Right, so I should get to play with my presents then,” I pointed out. “It’s not fair to get presents I can’t do anything with!”

“Joyce,” she sighed, “Just open the rest of your gifts.”

Turning back to the bounty under and around the ceiling tall tree, I spotted a large box, beautifully wrapped, and grabbed for it. “My Easy Bake Oven!!!” I yelled. “Uncle Cal got it! He got it for me! I’m going to cook wonderful dinners in it!” I looked up at Mommy with a big grin. “I can cook Christmas dinner for you, so you can rest with the baby.”

“Thank you Joyce, why don’t you practice on simple dishes first though?”

“Okay,” I yelled. “I’ll cook something now.” Then I paused.Was this to be yet another gift I had to wait until I could use it… or would this one get me a “pass”?

“Ladies don’t yell Joyce. That’s fine, just don’t make a mess,” Mommy said as she turned toward the kitchen.

“Oh wait! I have to open the rest of my stuff and you and Daddy have to open yours.” She turned back and walked over to one of the chairs to sit.

Mommy watched me open the pile of presents and toys that could have been distributed to an army of children with an indulgent smile. I ripped and tossed paper and bows all over the living room. Daddy came out and sat to watch.

Finally, finished and exhausted, we had all unwrapped the Christmas bounty and exclaimed over every item. Ready to start baking, I turned back to the Easy Bake Oven box, prepared to open it and read the instructions.“Make your list so you can write your thank-you notes tomorrow,” Mommy said over her shoulder on the way to the kitchen to start Christmas dinner. Sigh, always the thank-you notes, Ithought. Bet other children don’t have to do this… just us! I left the living room, headed to my room for paper and pencil to make the dreaded list. It was the same for every birthday and Christmas. Make a list of the gift and who gave it to me. Use my stationary to write a thank-you note to every person… even relatives… get the addresses and stamps from Mommy… put them in the mailbox for the postman to pick up. Sheesh, I already thanked them yesterday when we were out delivering our gifts and I’ll see everybody else when they get here today for dinner. So why do I always have to write and mail the notes?I grumbled inwardly. If I have children,I’m not going to make them write thank-you notes! was my final thought of defiance as I finally returned and started my task.

Later that morning, Nana arrived with hugs and kisses, then Uncle Cal and my cousins, Gigi, Auntie, Grandpa Ed, and a host of other relatives filled our house with laughter and love. Mommy came up to me and hugged me. “I’m going to the hospital to get your little brother or sister now,” she whispered in my ear. “Why is he there? Is he sick?” I asked, having already decided this summer that I would have a brother, not a sister.

“No Joyce, that’s where Mommy’s go so the doctor can take the baby out of their tummy’s.”

“Oh. Okay then. Come back with him soon so I can play with him,” I replied, engrossed in the cake recipe for my oven. She kissed me and left.

The rest of the day was filled with people, phone calls from relatives in other states, and playing games. I plunked out a one-fingered version of Jingle Bells on my new piano, to my disgust and everyone else’s delight. I made recordings of everyone on my new tape recorder from Uncle Cal.

At about 8:30 that evening, Nana came into my room to wake me up. “Mommy wants to talk to you,” she said. “Put your robe and slippers on and come to the phone.” Sleepily, I complied. Walking into the kitchen, I took the phone from Nana. “Hi Mommy,” I sleepily mumbled. “Joyce,” Mommy said, “You hav ea little brother.” “I know. I already told you that I was having a brother.” I replied, hung up the phone, and went back to bed (laughing).

The CNN special 1968 is worth watching. Why? History matters. It always has. 1968, fifty years ago, resonates today through the resulting cultural and social changes of that year. That year changed our country and influenced many of us who lived through it.

In 1968, I turned 16. Social changes rocked the country. Integration was now the law of the land. Old restrictive ways, legal and illegal, said and unsaid, began to erode. Civil unrest reigned. Riots, demonstrations, the struggle for women’s rights, a presidential election that included the governor from my home state of Alabama, and the Vietnam War dominated the headlines.

At 16, my priorities were simple teenage desires. I was focused on the freedom a driver’s license could bring me. I got my license in February, but initially there was little driving for me. I had to earn the money to pay my car insurance. It took me a while even though I had a weekend job. Finally! I had a license, insurance and occasional access to the family car.

While the world swirled around me I continued in my teenage world.

On January 14, I watched the Green Bay Packers with Alabama’s Bart Starr defeat the Oakland Raiders 33-14 in Super Bowl II at Miami’s Orange Bowl.

Five days after that, on January 21, my family celebrated my birthday with homemade vanilla ice cream and my favorite of my Mom’s cakes, chocolate icing with pecans.

In sports, I went out for spring football practice.

As a fledgling speaker, I admired Dr. Martin Luther King. That year he delivered two of my favorites. Years later, I would learn his The Drum Major Instinct and I See The Promise Land and would deliver them in churches.

On April 4, many of us who were teens had to grow up when a gunman ended Dr. King’s life, and the hopes and dreams of many Americans, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots erupted across the country. It was a scary night for me as I made my way home from spring football practice. The crosstown trip would take two-and a-half hours and three buses to make the trek from my private high school to my home.Since the age of 14, I had lived in the segregated world and the integrated private school world that my dad paid for with two and sometimes three jobs. I often said that I was an ambassador between those two worlds. That night, I felt as if both worlds had failed me. I was alone and afraid.

Two months later, Robert Kennedy, running for President, was assassinated like his brother President John Kennedy was in 1963. Literally, the world has never been the same. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same year two months apart. Five years after John Kennedy. What if, they had lived? What if’ was the question many of us asked over and over. A world of justice, peace, and love had seemed so close.

Change continued throughout the year.

On May 13, one million students marched through the streets of Paris.

In the fall of 1968, Henry Harris, a basketball player from Boligee, Alabama, entered Auburn University as its first African American scholarship Athlete. He was the first in the states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. He would become a friend and big brother to me.

On September 24, 60 Minutes debuted on CBS.

On October 16, at the Olympics in Mexico City, with the world watching, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in a black power salute after winning, respectively, the gold and bronze medals in the Olympic men's 200 metres. They were both banned from future Olympic games.

On November 5, Republican challenger Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and American Independent Party candidate and Alabama Governor, George Wallace. Nixon would become the President of the United States.

On November 14, Yale University announced it would admit women.

1968, like 1963, changed us all. Many of us remember what we were doing when those critical historical moments occurred. Some still debate the value of those times. I agree with Dr. King, “Time is neutral it can be used either constructively or destructively.”

Most of us have several names, other than the ones we are given at birth. Throughout our lives, people give us names of affection, nicknames or abbreviations, diminutives and more. What do all of our multiple names mean? What messages do they convey to others and to us? I think they tell a lifetime of stories!

When I was born, my parents gave me the name “Joyce Karen Gillie.” I’ve been called many things during the years between birth and today. Each of my names has a story… I’d like to share a few with you and hear the stories of your many “names.”

At birth, my Uncle Cal called me “Princess” and treated me as one also. Mommy said that when she brought me home from the hospital, he came into my room, lifted the mattress with me on it, into his arms, and stood there for hours, just looking at me with tears in his eyes. She said that he looked at her and whispered, “She is my little princess,” as he held me. Princess is what he always called me.

From about 18 months until I was 6 years old, my name was, “Oh Joyce!!!” Courtesy of Mommy (smile). She uttered it at least 100 times daily, usually in some variation of, “Oh Joyce! How could you…? Oh Joyce why did you…? Oh Joyce what am I going to do with you…? Well, you get the picture (laughing). Problem was, I really did think that was my name, which turned out to be a problem when I got to kindergarten and the teacher asked us to stand and say our names on the first day of school. You guessed it… I proudly announced to the class that my name was, “Oh Joyce!” My teacher, Mrs. Wilson, said gently in that very special kindergarten teacher voice, “No sweetheart, what is your name? What does your mommy call you?” Wait for it… “Oh Joyce!” I forcefully replied (lol). “Okay dear, it’’s all right, you just have a seat,” she replied as she moved on to the next student. That evening, Mrs. Wilson called the house and Mommy called me from my room. “Joyce, why wouldn’t you tell Mrs. Wilson your name?” She asked. “I did, Mommy,” I told her, very confused. “Well,” Mommy said, holding out the phone, “Tell Mrs. Wilson your name again for me.” Completely confused, I spoke into the phone, “Hi Mrs. Wilson, my name is Oh Joyce!” Snatching the phone away from me and not missing a beat, my mother said, “Oh Joyce! How could you…?” I remember clearly just looking at her and she evidently realized what she had said, because she sent me to my room (as usual). And that was the end of “Oh Joyce!”

I became, “Joyce Karen” from about age 6 until about age 15. I think that was for two reasons, the first was so that I wouldn’t grow up thinking that my name was “Oh Joyce” and the second was the birth of a cousin. She was the third Joyce in the family, Aunt Joyce, my godmother being the first; I, Joyce Karen being the second; and now Baby Joyce was the third. I think the other reason I became Joyce Karen is that it was paired with “Gillie” about 100 times a day… as in, “Joyce Karen Gillie, how could you…? Joyce Karen Gillie, get in here this instant…! Joyce Karen Gillie, what on earth have you done…?” Not much had changed from being Oh Joyce! in that regard (laughing).

During the next few years, I added several more names. I became “Godmother” to Max when I was 15 and later to Ramelle; and had my name legally changed to “joyce karen gillie” when I was 16. People still have difficulty wrapping their heads around that one. My favorite of my two favorite names was given to me when I was 23. “Mommy.” My son, Dixson made me a mother and I cried when he called me Mommy for the first time when he was a little boy (still do, but don’t tell him that). Then at 30, I became “Auntie joyce” thanks to goddaughter Kat and nieces and nephew Jaz, Corey, and later Myko. Along the way I added more godchildren, Jordan, Justin, and Alex and more adopted nieces and nephews, Joanna, Tessie, Crystal, and so many others. I love being Auntie joyce. If you remember the movie and play, Auntie Mame, that’s me! I’m the one who gave the noisy gifts, forbidden candy and treats, planned super fun summer vacation visits, and basically drove their parents NUTS! Great fun! They’re all older now, so I’m just waiting until their children come along to continue the tradition (laughing)!

At 40, I became “The Best Gurl,” and eventually had a business named after me when I crossed paths with Thom Gossom Jr, who has plenty of his own name stories to tell! He introduced me to Alfre Woodard that way at the premiere of the film, Miss Ever’s Boys in Los Angeles. After they embraced and shared warm greetings, he reached for my hand. “Alfre,” he said as he drew me forward, “I want you to meet ‘The Best Gurl in the Whole World.’” I was basically speechless… first because I didn’t know he felt that way, since we had only been dating a short time, and second because it was Alfre Woodard and she is as stunning and commanding in person as she is on screen. That February evening, I became Thom’s Best Gurl and it is my second favorite name, right up there with Mommy! 

As adults, Mommy didn’t always call me “joyce karen gillie” or “joyce gillie gossom,” at least not very often (laughter). After our first adult road trip, she started calling me “Louise” and I called her “Thelma”…and she was!! You’d never believe how silly and outrageous she could be away from her school and her staff. 

A few months ago, I added my final name so far. Thanks to Dixson and his fiancée Sissy, I am now a “Grams” and have four grandchildren to love and spoil rotten (laughing)! We’re already planning trips to see them and summer vacations with us… parents optional and not necessarily preferred! 

What’s in a name? Hundreds of relationships and stories. Many, many facets of a life. What’s in my name? An entire lifetime of love! 

What’s in your names? Drop me a line and tell me about them!

“Nine o’clock the next day and I’m ready to go. I’ve got 600 miles to ride to do one more show.”

Those lyrics from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s What’s Your Name paint a picture of a raucous band going from city to city performing by night and traveling by day, sometimes on 600-mile journeys to the next evening’s show.

Such has been my adult business life. No, not the raucous, band playing part; but since 1979, starting as a management recruiter for South Central Bell/AT&T/ Bellsouth, I’ve been on the road from one gig to another, making my living as an actor, consultant, writer, or speaker, and then moving on to the next episode.

It started with recruiting new management hires for South Central Bell. It was technically a 9 to 5, however some weeks I left home on Monday and returned on Friday after visiting at least three college campuses. I could offer jobs to deserving young people and that was satisfying.

Later, I added acting in film and television to the consulting work I did in my firm after leaving BellSouth. For six years it was back and forth from my hometown of Birmingham to Conyers, Georgia to work on the television show In the Heat Of The Night. What started as community theatre and consultation has become a 30-year career in film and television and consultation. In the Southeast, I’ve traveled highways between Birmingham, Northwest Florida, Atlanta, Nashville, Jackson, Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah, for gigs on movies, speeches and corporate communications.

I’ve flown into airports in most major cities. I flew into Memphis from Los Angeles to catch a connecting flight home only to turn around and get back on the plane to LA, because duty called.

The longest commute began in 1997, Birmingham to Los Angeles working as an actor out of the Los Angeles market. Then came Florida to LA, back and forth and back and forth until we got a place in Santa Monica and used it as our work home. I still enjoy spending time in Santa Monica with friends, Irish Joe, Michael O, and Sterfon.

Into this second decade of the 21st century it’s been, Charleston, Atlanta, Charlotte, Auburn, Birmingham, Nashville, Washington DC, Dallas, New York. I identify cities by the gig I worked there, Atlanta: Containment, Nashville: Sing Me the Blues Lena, Wilmington: Miracle In The Woods, Jackson: The Chamber, Los Angeles: Fight Club, NYPD Blue, etc etc.

The latest gig was in Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve worked Charleston now a half dozen times. I could know more about it. I could have seen more, even visited the few people I know who live there, but that’s the road life. Go in do your gig, enjoy the crew and fellow cast members, another temporary family, and head for home awaiting the next episode of life to call. Home for me is the cherry on top of my life’s bowl of ice cream. Home is where I live my life.

How many final checks have I done? You know where you walk through the room and make sure you haven’t left anything, only in the back of your mind you feel you’re leaving something. It’s a road ritual; like zipping up the final item in your suitcase only to then remember something you specifically and meticulously planned not to forget only to have to unzip, reposition and remember what you promised to remember to pack, in the first place.

Leaving Charleston, I fired up some Allman Brothers and headed to Savannah. In Savannah, I stayed in a hotel I’d stayed in before. For every night I have paid for a hotel room, I could own an entire hotel by now. Sometimes I get to mix business and pleasure. In Savannah, I got to visit with Dixson (our son) and his family.

I am working out of Atlanta again. Looking back there is a sense of pride in having made it work. In having honored my commitments, both business and personal.

When will I stop? I don’t know. What I’ve done for money over the years, I’ve also done for free. It’s what I enjoy. I love the actual performing, consulting, and writing.

There is little more satisfying to me than siting in my office in the early hours of morning writing a piece and watching the sun come up over the Bay.

Then the phone rings, an e-mail hits, a text gets my attention.

“Nine O’clock, the next day and I’m ready to go!”

(Photo from Vladimir Pcholkin via Getty Images)
(Photo from Vladimir Pcholkin via Getty Images) 

“Joyce, please report to Mother Superior” (my name was still legally capitalized then). It was April 1971 and I was in the eighth grade getting ready to graduate. 

My first thought was, Who told? and my second thought was, How much did they tell? (laughing)

I was always getting others to do daring or sometimes, slightly dangerous things with me, just to see if we could do them. The thing is, since I looked so completely innocent, I pretty much never got busted for them, and my classmates never told on me for some reason. Just lucky I guess! Anyway, between homeroom and the Principal’s office, I had to get my face and expression right. Surprised innocence worked with just about everybody except Mommy… she was never swayed and always knew when the antics were the result of my influence (sigh).

“Yes Sister,” I replied and rose from my seat, headed for the door. She smiled at me. Oh boy, this is not good I thought. Sister and I had a mutual dislike fan club of two… This is going to be so bad… trickled through my mind as I left the classroom and started down the hallway.

I reached Mother Superior’s office and stood in front of the clerk. “Hi Joyce,” she said with a smile. “Go right in.” “Thank you,” I replied and knocked on the office door, waited for the response and stepped into the room.

You know those moments where everything seems to shrink into a long tunnel and you only see a part of the room or area? When it feels like the room and the people in it come zooming toward you, only you know in some part of your brain that they aren’t? …I was having one of those moments. I watched, mouth getting dry; hands getting clammy, as Mother Superior and our Parish Pastor seemed to zoom in for a close up. Oh gosh! Wait, Mommy isn’t here, it can’t be expulsion yet, I thought. Breathe, Joyce. Just breathe.

“You wanted to see me, Mother Superior?” I said breathlessly.

“Yes, Joyce. We did. Please sit down,” she replied.

I looked up at her beautiful brown face and thought, as I always did, that she should have been a mother for real instead of a nun. I loved this woman… at least I did before today! Doing the only thing I could do, I sat. Gone was the surprised innocence. The only defense I had for this inquisition was confession. Mother Superior, I could pull off. Father Regan, not so much. He could see through ten feet of reinforced steel, let alone one 13-year old girl!

Father leaned forward in his chair. “Joyce, as you well know, graduation is in a few weeks.”

“Yes, Father,” I replied. Then waited.

He glanced at Mother Superior, then back at me. They both were looking way too serious for my comfort level. Whatever it was is it going to keep me from graduating? I thought frantically. I was ready to confess to everything I’d done throughout elementary school… the broken window at the Rectory, the food fight in the auditorium, using the holy water to wash blood off of Vinette’s scraped knee, trading communion wafers for candy, all of it! I just couldn’t not graduate. Mommy would kill me!

Clearing his throat, Father said, “We have never had a speaker at the graduation ceremony; however, in your case we are making an exception and would like you to deliver the class response before I confer the diplomas.” He stopped and looked expectantly at me.

Wait, what!!!

Give a speech? At graduation? Me? Why?!

“Joyce?” Mother Superior asked. “Did you understand Father?”

“I think so,” I managed to whisper. “You want me to make a graduation speech.”

“Exactly,” she smiled. “You will be the perfect person to address the class and parents and express all of the thoughts, experiences and emotions of the day.”

So it was, that on graduation day May 30, 1971, I gave my very first speech… and received my first standing ovation. More important, I discovered that I could make a difference in the lives of others. I discovered my mission!