My brother from another Mother . . .

I love this review from the Anniston, Alabama Star because it’s so personal.

H. Brandt Ayers: Identical twins, different lives — Time spent with Norma Watkins

Aug 28, 2011 | 901 views |   | 5  |  |

I brought a charming, just-this-side-of-rebellious little Mississippi girl up to the North Carolina mountains with me, and she grew up right before my eyes into a conventional Jackson Junior League housewife and mother.

And then she left all of that for a new life with another man.

Norma Watkins in her memoir, The Last Resort, writes of a childhood in the war years and coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s Mississippi, which means we were almost exact contemporaries.

We share close friends, and more than that, we were both born into a civilization to whose flaws we gave little thought until that whole way of life crumbled under our feet and violently began to remake itself.

Similarities ceased there, the arc of our lives diverged; she felt imprisoned in the life she was expected by her class and race to lead. Journalism freed me from binding social conventions to follow history in the making … up close.

But I felt a strong bond with this woman because we were passengers on the same historical train, strangers who meet and discover so many commonalities in their lives, “I know how you felt; I felt the same way.”

We were both college undergraduates when the Brown v. Board of Education school-integration case was decided and thought “the end is near” declarations of our parents’ generation slightly crazy.

She witnessed coffee being poured on sit-in demonstrators in Jackson and felt sympathy for the polite and well-dressed students getting doused. In Raleigh, I was a pea-green reporter witnessing the origins of that strategy.

For Norma Watkins, the Mississippi end of the Freedom Rides was a television event. I was shocked that one of those buses had been burned outside Anniston, but it was news from a distant battlefield for a young reporter about to marry an arresting Raleigh debutante and contemplating a new life in Washington, where I had been assigned as correspondent for The News and Observer.

My angle of vision was a national perspective as a regular at Bobby Kennedy’s Justice Department, from which Burke Marshall was dispatched to try and create peace in Birmingham, where anxious aides prepared for the 1963 March on Washington, and where seminal civil rights legislation was being born.

From the narrow end of the spyglass, Norma felt the constricting bands of life in a family where she was becoming a stranger. The father she idolized was no longer a god in Navy dress whites but counsel to the White Citizens Council. He endured his wife with wordless disdain, and she drank too much.

This was not the life Norma imagined for herself during the war years when she lived at the family’s rambling, 75-year-old Allison’s Wells Inn and Spa, a magical place for a child surrounded by wide porches and a battalion of “colored” help who loved Norma unconditionally. She loved them back, and from time to time had a twinge of guilt that their lives were more corralled than hers.

Dinners at home were miserable affairs. She argued with her father, the mother was half-soused and a younger sister was disturbed. The monotony was broken one evening in 1962 when Tom Watkins was negotiating between the state’s empty-headed governor, Ross Barnett, and Bobby Kennedy about the integration of Ole Miss.

Barnett could not make a hard decision, so negotiations got nowhere and the attempt to get James Meredith quietly registered turned into a riot quelled eventually by a sluggish National Guard.

To escape the emotional crypt of her parents’ home, Norma married a nice fellow with whom she had nothing in common but four well-loved children.

Allison’s Wells burned to the ground in 1963, the year I covered the March on Washington as a last big story before returning home. Was there a cosmic connection between the two events? Surely it is this: the past in the Deep South would never be the same again.

As the scented taffeta and velvet bands of convention tightened around Norma, she watched events unfold with guilt that her life didn’t allow her the freedom to be involved in a struggle she knew to be right.

We both felt the disapproval and outright enmity of the majority in our hometowns, and in 1966, we both gave vent to our feelings.

For me, it was watching a crew slapping WALLACE bumper stickers on cars at a busy intersection. The Wallace crew worked the intersection for hours, and as time passed, my isolation, my angry, lonely estrangement from my people was reinforced. I think I really and truly hated my beloved South in those days.

I got a reprieve the next year with a fellowship to Harvard and returned with more friendly and understanding feelings for my people.

Norma met a handsome civil rights lawyer and, after telling her family, left with and eventually married him. Did she run away? I think you have to go away to see the flaws and values of your life in proper perspective.

She was finally free and confident enough in her newly discovered self to return home with honest feelings for her dying mother in 1970. That was also the first year of the election of the moderate New South governors.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.

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