I was a single mother raising a brilliant daughter

May 12, 2024

Mary Alice: “I started playing the piano when I was three. I was so young that I don’t remember starting. I got a piano for Christmas a couple of years later. Every morning, I went straight to the piano and started playing.

Music was probably the most important part of my childhood. In third grade, I went to choir practice with a friend as an outing after school. The piano player didn’t show up, so the choir director asked if anyone could play the piano. I raised my hand. I joined the Baptist church and started playing for all of the choirs. One of those was a teenage boy quartet that played at Baptist revivals. I didn’t realize that one revival had snake handling. I almost had a stroke.”

Sarah: “You grew up in a segregated time but played piano for all churches. Black and White. Music exposed you to other cultures in different communities. I think that’s why you raised me with open ideas.”

Mary Alice: “Then I went to school on a music scholarship at Southern Miss. I learned early that being an accompanist is the role I’m comfortable in. I want to be helping in the background.”

Sarah: “You don’t like attention. You like being the support.”

Mary Alice: “After I married your dad, I stopped playing music. I went to work for a roofing mill as a lab technician, taking samples in the mill every hour. Later, I became the shop steward. I started at the mill in 1972 and was the first woman to work there since World War II. Back then, if you got the opportunity to be in a man’s world, you took it to open doors for other women. 

The head of the mill was married to Adelaide Marston, one of the owners of The Haunted Book Shop. They introduced me to Eugene Walter. He had just returned from Europe and was living with them at Termite Hall on Dauphin Street. Eugene and I became good friends; he taught me how to have a dinner party. I was divorced by then and didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I would get what we needed for less than $5 at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. We threw great parties that went into wee hours of the morning. Eugene would talk about Europe and his friends. He was a free education for Sarah.”

Sarah: “Mom and Eugene housed a gallery of his art collection in one room of our house in downtown Mobile. Called it the Gingko Gallery. She opened it on Saturdays as a European-style salon where Eugene greeted patrons. Sometimes, she dropped me off for a day with him. Every inch of his house was covered with art, books, and papers. I tried to help him organize them.”

Mary Alice: “Eugene and I once did an interview about our Christmas memories for Alabama Public Radio. I talked about making ambrosia in a special bowl with my grandmother. You’ll get that bowl one day since you’re an only child.”

Sarah: “You know I only buy you gifts that I want to get back later on. 

Mom has wonderful taste and was always a decade ahead. Now I see that she created magical worlds in our house. She speaks through everything she touches and makes things happen. She started the Jazz Blues Circle in Mobile, revitalizing the jazz scene in Mobile in the 1980s. She housed foreign visitors and was a founding member of the Cuban sister city society between Mobile and Havana.”

Mary Alice: “After your father and I divorced, I was a single mother raising a brilliant daughter. I looked for inexpensive ways to give you cultural enlightenment. I started playing the piano again for musical theater–a great experience for you, too.”

Sarah:  “I learned from you that the shit in life gets real. But you do whatever it takes to care for others–even if that’s not the cool, creative thing you wanted to do. You worked at the roofing mill and other things that didn’t fit who you were, but you did it to take care of your family. But you were always integrating creativity in my life. You still set the tone for our relationship, making it clear that you will never stop wanting this connection with me. Your support gives me room to grow. I try to do this for my own kids.”

Mary Alice: “As I get older, I will need you more and more. But I will still be strong for you, too.”


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