William Ferris: Comfort in My Mother’s Stories
We welcome a guest post today from William Ferris, author of The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. The Storied South features the voices—by turn searching and honest, coy and scathing—of twenty-six of the most luminous artists and thinkers in the American cultural firmament, from Eudora Welty, Pete Seeger, and Alice Walker to William Eggleston, Bobby Rush, and C. Vann Woodward. Masterfully drawn from one-on-one interviews conducted by renowned folklorist William Ferris over the past forty years, the book reveals how storytelling is viscerally tied to southern identity and how the work of these southern or southern-inspired creators has shaped the way Americans think and talk about the South.
In his last post, “A Little Bit of Story in Everything,” Ferris explored storytelling as an essential means of communication for southerners. Here, Ferris describes his relationship with his mother and how her stories, no matter how far away, connect him to his family and continually ground him with a sense of identity.
Each day I call my mother and check in to get the news “on the hill.” She has lived in her home on the farm where I grew up for over 74 years. Mother is 95 years old, and I am 71. I greet her with “Hello, Mrs. Ferris. This is your son William.” And she replies, “Good day, Sir.”
Each call opens a window into my mother’s rich cache of stories. It helps me understand the person whom I have known longest. We speak about Mother’s childhood, how she met my father, which flowers are blooming in her garden, and what she plans to serve at her noon dinner that day. If I ask, she also tells me what she will serve at her Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners six months from now.
Each day I hear a small chapter from my mother’s life. Her familiar pronunciation, her carefully chosen grammar, her sense of humor, and her long memory prepare me to face the day.
Sometimes I remind Mother of favorite stories from her childhood and ask her to repeat them for me.
Several years after she married my father and moved to the farm, word came to Mother that Martha Appleton, who lived nearby, was in labor. She drove her sixteen miles to the Mercy Hospital in Vicksburg. As they drove into town, Mrs. Appleton told Mother that if the child was a girl, she would give the baby her name—Shelby. If it was a boy, she would name him for my father—William. The child was a boy, and she named him William Ferris Appleton.
Our daily conversations help me understand Mother’s story. Her long life is filled with tales, like a library with shelves of books. Each day we select a story that reminds me of who I am and why family and place are so important in my life.
While I cannot share coffee with Mother each morning, her voice transports me back to her world. Its familiar sound reminds me that I am still Billy Ferris in her eye. She makes me a child again. For a brief moment, I revert to my old worlds, kept alive through Mother’s stories. I savor them as deeply as the taste of her pickled okra and wild plum jelly that will grace her table on my next visit to the farm.
William Ferris is Joel R. Williamson Eminent Professor of History and senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. A former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ferris is author of Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, among other books, and coeditor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
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