Archived Stories
from the Road


GROWING UP SOUTHERN—Stories from the Attic of Childhood Memories

Leesburg, Florida
Chapter 2

This is a story about SynchroDestiny that occurred during the Morris Girls’ recent road trip retracing our family roots from North Carolina, to Georgia and Florida.

Deepak Chopra coined the word “SynchroDestiny” to describe a conspiracy of improbabilities in which seemingly unrelated conditions or circumstances come together to create an unexpected event. It is orchestrated in a non-local domain of reality where conscious or unconscious intention is present. SynchroDestiny has the ability to transform our lives once we understand what is happening, enabling us to experience miracles and feelings of joy, and consciously participate in our own evolution with a better understanding of our meaning and purpose in life. The ultimate goal of SynchroDestiny is to expand consciousness and open a doorway to enlightenment – a rebirthing or awakening.

Some years ago, I went to a lecture given by Deepak on the subject of SynchroDestiny. It had a profound effect on my life and perception of reality. I began to understand more about the power of intention and the mysterious and magical way it works in everyday life.

When I travel, for instance, my intention is to have no expectations or attachment to the outcome, yet remain open to whatever unfolds on the journey. The act of travel in itself is an act of opening a door to change—stepping through the threshold is the first step toward transformation.

Once upon a time, my friends Chrissie England and Jim Kessler were planning to visit Jim’s parents who had recently retired in Leesburg, Florida, the town where my brother, sister and I were born. Shortly before the trip, Jim and his parents, who I knew quite well, had come for a visit at Skywalker Ranch. While we were having lunch an idea came into my mind and I said, “Jim, would try to find my childhood home when you’re in Leesburg?”

On a paper napkin, I drew a map of Main Street indicating where Daddy’s Rexall drugstore was located, across the street from a bank with big white columns on either side of the front door, and catty-corner from a movie theater. I extended the map west on Main Street, past the Methodist Church that my family attended, to where it intersected Perkins Street. The Durham Young Hospital was on the corner of Main and Perkins. Doctor Young’s son, Ferrell, was my classmate, and he was the first boy I ever had a crush on.

I hadn’t been to Leesburg since I was around twelve years old, and I was amazed how easily I could visualize many details along the route of the map, the images effortlessly forming as I drew the lines. I indicated a right turn on Perkins Street, proceeding past the elementary school before crossing a railroad track that would take them to Sunshine Park, one of the first subdivisions built in Leesburg in the early 1940s. Sunshine Park was in the shape of a triangle. Our house was situated in the middle of the bottom flat line of the triangle with a neighbor’s house on either side at the corners.

Much to my surprise, not only did the Kesslers find the drugstore, the church, the hospital, and the school, but they also found our house. They videotaped their expedition, and on Mother’s Day, shortly after returning to California, presented me with a copy. There was a “For Sale” sign in front of our house, and when I showed the video to my mother when she came to California for a visit later that year, she asked jokingly, “Oh, honey, why don’t you buy it for me?”

When Kitty and I were on the Morris Girls’ Road Trip, we arrived in Leesburg very late on a Thursday night, having driven from Swainsboro, Georgia, where we had been visiting our cousin Glynda (named after our Daddy) and her husband Roger Rich. We stopped midday in Savannah to have lunch at Paula Deen’s restaurant, “The Lady and Sons,” delaying our arrival.

The next morning, our brother Jimmy, who still lives in Florida, met us at the motel where we were staying, about half a mile from our family home on Perkins Street. We drove straight to the house.

I pulled into the driveway at 413 Perkins Street, and the moment I stepped out of the car, I stepped back into my childhood. It felt as natural and familiar as if I had only been away for a short while and was coming home from college or vacation, yet my heart was pounding. I was flooded with emotions spilling out of the attic of childhood memories. Fifty-five years had passed since I last stood at the threshold of my childhood home. The experience was dizzying.

The canopy of the oak tree, dripping with Spanish moss, now covers the entire front yard. Our house was painted white with green shutters when I was a child, but had sometime in the recent past been painted a hideous flamingo pink. On either side of the steps to the front porch, there had been large gardenia bushes that were no longer there, but everything else seemed to be almost exactly the same.

Jane reading “The Night Before Christmas” Storybook

It was obvious that the house was currently unoccupied, and there were indications that a major renovation was underway. We began our inspection, peering through the windows into the empty rooms. Because the house was vacant, I could visualize each room as Mother had furnished it. The living room still had the original stained glass windows on either side of the fireplace, and I could feel myself nestled in the big overstuffed chair reading “The Night Before Christmas” storybook.

The dining room, kitchen and garage were situated on the right side of the house, and the three bedrooms and bath were on the left. Daddy’s room faced the street off the living room. I remember having my first slumber party for my eleventh birthday in Daddy’s bedroom. Grandmother Morris occupied the middle bedroom, next to the bathroom and Mother’s bedroom.

Off Mother’s room was the nursery where Jimmy and I slept until Grandmother Morris returned to Georgia when she was ready to die. After she left, I slept in the middle bedroom from that time on until we moved away. I thought I was so grown up to have a room of my own.

The kitchen sink, stove and refrigerator were just as they had been. One of the kitchen cabinets to the left of the sink was open where I remember Mother kept glasses and cups and saucers. There was a pantry to the right of the sink counter. But the screened back porch where our colored maids would eat their meals had been boarded up, and the door had no window.

One of my earliest memories was during the Second World War, several years after Pearl Harbor. When the siren would wail at dusk from its perch on the roof of the building next door to the Rexall drugstore, I’d come running into the house, slamming the back porch screen door behind me, yelling, “Back out, Mama, back out!” It was the signal to turn off all the lights for a “blackout” in the event enemy aircraft would fly over and bomb our house. Even though I was too young to understand what was going on, I remember being scared that something bad would happen if I didn’t get inside the house quickly enough.

After walking around the outside of our childhood home, we returned to the front yard. I noticed a woman coming out of her house across the street. She walked to the edge of the sidewalk on her side of the street and called out, “Can I help you?” Jimmy and I went across the street and introduced ourselves and explained what we were doing and why. Her name was Mrs. Black, and she had lived in her home for over thirty years.

“Did you know the Prossers who lived on the corner?” I asked. “Their children Barbie and Butch were friends of ours.” “Yes,” she replied, “but they moved away a long time ago.” “And what about the Greggs who lived on the other side of us? We were friends with Julia and Billy, too. And, what about Mrs. Lopez and her son who lived next door to you?”

These people hadn’t entered my mind in decades, yet their names and memories of them came into my awareness at that moment as vividly as though it was yesterday. Mrs. Black had known them all, but everyone on our block had died, or moved away and she had not kept in touch with any of them.

Finally, I asked about the Webster family who lived around the block at the point of the Sunshine Park triangle. “Oh, yes, Donald Webster still lives in their family home with his wife and children.” “Martha Jean Webster was my BEST friend!!!!” Mrs. Black said, “Well, Donald works at the telephone company about half a mile away, and walks right past here every day,” pointing to Webster Street, the cross street on the right side of the triangle named after their Grandfather, “to have lunch with his family. He’s probably there now.”

I knocked on the back door of the Webster home just as I had so many times as a child. Donald answered the door, and I told him we’d just spoken with Mrs. Black. He said, “I saw her talking to some strangers and thought I should go over to see if everything was okay, but I have a meeting at 1:00 pm and have to get back to work pretty soon.” But with true Southern hospitality, he invited Kitty and me to come in. Donald remembered our family and that Martha and his older brother David, and I were friends. He asked, “Didn’t you have a brother?” I told him Jimmy was outside by the car having a smoke.

Jane Clair and Martha Jean (3 years old) in front of Jane’s house on Perkins Street

Donald and his son were just sitting down to lunch, but he asked, “Would you like to talk to Martha?” “You bet I would.” So he picked up a cell phone sitting on the kitchen table, pressed the speed dial button for her, and put the call on speaker phone. Having caller I.D., she answered the phone, “Hello, Donald.” I said, “Martha, this is your long lost childhood friend, Jane Morris, do you remember me?” She shouted, “Jane Clair?”

I hadn’t been called Jane Clair since the fifth grade. There was another girl in our Kindergarten class named Jane Clark, and - for some reason - I was called by my first and middle name from the beginning until the end of my days as a student at Lee Elementary School. And, there was another Martha in our class, so Martha Jean and I were both called by our first and middle names.

Martha and I could hardly believe what was happening, but we were absolutely elated. We immediately picked up a conversation as though we were old friends. I was dying to know about some of our other classmates. “What about Madge Clements, and Sally Galt, Jane Clark, and Louise Quint, and Cathie Giles, Shellie Griffis, and Ferrell Young and Allen Brown?” I asked. Martha said they were all still alive except Cathie Giles, who had died of pancreatic cancer.

As it turns out, Martha had organized the 45th Reunion of the Leesburg High School Class of 1959 and offered to send a copy of the program with the names of all the senior class, photos and current information including email addresses on everyone. I could hardly believe it when she said, “I’ve been living on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle for over a year.”

We started to share a few memories of our lives as children. “One of the things I remember was coming over to your house to get a piece of cinnamon toast for breakfast.” Apparently, Martha’s father wouldn’t let his children have white bread or sugar, and mind you, this was in the late 1940s, but my Mother made cinnamon toast almost every morning. I remember dunking a piece of cinnamon toast in a cup of coffee - actually half milk, half coffee - which I was allowed to have with breakfast. I never drank coffee as an adult, preferring my caffeine cold, in the form of Coca-Cola.

When we were little, there were no fences separating the neighbors from each other. All our backyards overlapped, and we’d walk to each other’s houses through the backyards rather than going around the block to the front door. We went barefoot most of the time and we were constantly getting sandspurs in our feet.

There was a row of red hibiscus bushes in my backyard, and when they were in bloom, Martha Jean and I would pull off the blossoms and suck out the nectar, making sure my mother didn’t see what we were doing.

After a few minutes, it began to feel awkward on the speaker phone, so we exchanged email addresses and vowed to be in touch in the very near future.

By this time it was close to one o’clock, and Donald needed to return to work. We were starving and asked his recommendation for a restaurant downtown that served Southern food. Even though Kitty and I had eaten our way through Dixie, we hadn’t had enough. Donald said he knew just the place.

As we left the Webster home, we drove around the block counter-clockwise, turning left at the tip of the triangle onto Sunshine Avenue. We stopped at the corner of Sunshine and Perkins before crossing the railroad tracks where there still remains a large oak tree that Jimmy and I climbed as children. Standing under the tree, I remembered once falling off a low branch that was about six feet from the ground. I suffered no injuries, but it had been a scary experience.

There was hardly any evidence of the railroad tracks except for a long stretch of the raised bed of earth and a few rotted wooden railroad ties on which the track had been laid, but it was mostly overgrown with weeds. I’ve always loved the sound of a train in the distance, the engine racing down the track, the whistle blowing in the wind, and the rattle of the cars. Those trains were going somewhere. Perhaps the fascination with trains came from a deep-seated longing to explore the world in search of an answer to the proverbial questions, “Who am I, and what is my purpose in life?”

When we were kids, for fun we would put pennies on the track so the trains would squash them as they rolled by. One year, sometime after the Fourth of July, I was on my way to the drugstore — with an American flag in hand — when a train came along, moving quite slowly. I stood very close to the tracks and touched the tip of the flag stick to the side of the passing cars which made a clacking noise as the train rolled by.

When I got to the drugstore, Daddy was all in a huff because one of the neighbors saw what I had done, and, out of concern that I could have gotten sucked under the train, reported my actions. Daddy delivered a long lecture on safety and how dangerous trains are and said, “You’d better not ever do that again.”

Another memory that arose was from a day when I was still quite young, our colored maid, Annie Lee Hutchins, was walking with me to the drugstore. As we crossed the railroad tracks, I said, “Look at that old nigger walking down the tracks.” Annie Lee responded, “Miss Jane, you calling that man a nigger would be like somebody calling you poor white trash.” I never forgot what she said, and even then I understood exactly what she meant. It was my first awareness of prejudice.

Daddy loved Annie Lee Hutchins as much as he loved his own mother, and that was a lot. Sometimes he would let me go with him when he took Annie Lee home after her day’s work was done at our house. She lived with her husband, whose name I don’t remember, in a one-room shack with a dirt floor and tin roof located outside of town near an orange grove. They got their water from a nearby well, and had no electricity. They lived by the light of an oil lantern, a hurricane lamp, and cooked on a wood-burning stove. I loved being there. It smelled of the earth. When Annie Lee died, Daddy cried like a baby.

Kitty, Jimmy and I went to “The Chopping Block” on Main Street for lunch and got exactly want we wanted — collard greens with cornbread, fried green tomatoes (just as good as Paula Deen’s), stewed tomatoes with okra, black-eyed peas, green beans with ham hock, and large tumblers of sweet tea.

While Kitty and Jimmy were engrossed in conversation, catching up on the latest Morris family news, I sat quietly, having an internal dialogue with myself. I hardly spoke a word during the meal. Even though my mind was reeling from the excitement of finding Martha Jean, I felt a slight undercurrent of uneasiness creeping in and questions began to arise. I thought, “What is causing these unsettling feelings?” “Am I afraid of finding skeletons in the attic of my childhood memories?”

Yet, the timing of arriving at the Perkins Street house when we did, of meeting Mrs. Black, and Donald Webster being at home, then spontaneously reconnecting with Martha was certainly SynchroDestiny. The doors of awakening had opened.

We spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out on Main Street, the heart of downtown Leesburg. Catty-corner from “The Chopping Block” was the old Fain Theater (now the Tropic Theater) where Jimmy and I would go on Saturday afternoons to see movie serials like Flash Gordon, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan and The Lone Ranger or a western film with Gene Autry or Roy Rogers. It was the B-movie house in town.

What I remember most, though, about the Fain Theater was that colored people were allowed to attend the same movie theater as white people, but they had to come in through a separate entrance and could only sit in the balcony.

After the movie, Jimbo (as Kitty and I sometimes call our brother) and I would walk down Main Street to the corner of Fourth where Daddy’s Rexall drugstore was located, across the street from the First National Bank, which is still there. We’d get a Coke or milkshake at the soda fountain. I’d look at the latest “Saturday Evening Post,” “Colliers” and “Women’s Home Companion” magazines or go to the pharmacy at the back of the store to watch Daddy make prescriptions until he was ready to go home for supper. Dinner was the midday meal in those days.

Rexall Drugstore and Palace Theater
on Main Street

The Rexall drugstore is long gone, but in its place is Michael’s Couture Salon, a beauty parlor as it would have been called in those days. The entrance was exactly as it had been with large plate glass windows on either side of the front door which was set back at an angle. The original white hexagonal tiles were still at the entrance. We found it amusing that Daddy’s old drugstore had been replaced with a beauty salon since our mother had been a beautician.

We went inside. I approached one of the hair stylists, and told her about writing the new book and why we were there. She introduced herself as Sue Murphy and said, “I’ve worked in the salon since it opened and knew all about it having once been a drugstore.” Sue offered to give us a tour.

When it was the Rexall drugstore, just inside the entrance, on the right-hand side of the room, there had been a newspaper and magazine rack, and along that wall was the soda fountain, followed by booths for luncheon customers. There had been wire café tables and chairs in the center of the long rectangular space. On the left-hand side of the room were the tobacco counter and cashier. Long glass cases with cosmetics, perfume, stationery and Sheaffer fountain pens and various other sundries lined the wall leading to the pharmacy, which occupied the entire width of the back end of the store.

Cousin Glynda and Uncle Ed Hatcher
at Rexall Soda Fountain

Apparently, a lot of the original wooden cabinets and shelves were still in place when the owner of the salon rented the space about fifteen years ago. Sue wanted to keep them, but the owner wanted to modernize and tore them out. Sue took us back to where the pharmacy had been located, and the sliding glass window where a customer would drop off a prescription to be filled was still there. That room is now used for pedicures and was occupied with a customer so we couldn’t go in, but Sue showed us the stairs to the loft above where all the medical compounds had been stored.

Sue said that there had been one last remnant of the former drugstore, a rubber tube that ran through the ceiling from the room above, down to the pharmacy. The pharmacist would pour various powder compounds through a funnel into the tube which would flow into a bowl or dish in the pharmacy below to be mixed by hand into medicine, a far cry from the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry of today. Unfortunately, the tube had been removed as well, but Sue’s description was exactly as I remembered it.

We went to the little kitchen and bathroom in the very rear of the store that still had 1950s-looking linoleum on the floors. There was a hallway with a large plate glass window that ran down the left side of the pharmacy area leading to the back door that was also unchanged, except that the window had been lined with a pink neon light. I could feel Daddy’s presence. I could hear his laughter and warm mellifluous voice echoing through the back rooms of the old pharmacy.

And, as we walked back toward the front door of the salon, I thanked Sue and said, “I’m so grateful to you for taking the time to let us reenter Daddy’s world.”

Leesburg has gone through a major historic renovation in recent years following the national redevelopment trend of historic downtown areas, most well-known among them, the work done in Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. According to Hector Abreu, a professor of historic preservation at the Savannah College of Art and Design, “The historic redevelopment trend and its long-standing popularity stem from humanity’s need to preserve its legacy. A lot of it goes back to us being interested in preserving part of our collective history. To allow these buildings and structures to be torn down and destroyed, we are allowing part of our history to be obliterated.”

Leesburg was always a small town. It was first settled by Evander Melver Lee in 1857, but the city of Leesburg was not incorporated until 1875. The population in the 1940s was only a few thousand, and according to the 2007 census, there were only 19,835 residents, mostly retirement age.

Yet, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was the hub of social life in central Florida. Two sets of railroad tracks brought visitors from around the state to Leesburg’s Main Street, shops and hotels. In 1890, an Opera House was built. Touring companies would travel from Miami by train to perform in it.

In 1922, the Palace Theater was built in Neo-Classical style architecture on the corner of Fifth and Main Streets. It was a three-story building. The Masonic Temple was housed on the top floor, and the second floor was used for doctors’ offices. Our dentist, Dr. Charles Rivers, was located there. I hated going to the dentist, but from drinking Coca-Cola in my baby bottle, I had a mouth full of cavities as a child. And one of my favorite treats after school on a warm sunny day was a slice of fresh baked white bread spread with softened butter, and sprinkled with granulated sugar. The origins of a sugar addiction that still prevail to this day.

The theater was originally built as a silent movie house with 344 seats, but was converted to accommodate sound in the early 1930s after the release of “The Jazz Singer” with Al Jolson in 1927. The Palace Theater was one of the first to show “Gone with the Wind” in 1939.

We went inside the theater which was being remodeled into a dinner theater style venue. The stage remained, the ceiling was still covered with the original pressed tin, and the wall sconces were reproductions of the art deco fixtures of the past. The floor was being leveled; however, there was one bank of seats on the right side of the theater that had yet to be removed. Mother and I would always sit in seats on the aisle in one of those rows when we went to the movies. The theater seemed much smaller than I remembered, but it still possessed its original grandeur. In its day, the Palace Theater was the A-movie house in town.

The first movie I ever saw was at the Palace Theater when I was six years old. It was “The Yearling,” adapted from the novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It tells the story of the Baxter family and a boy who adopts a fawn as a pet. It stars Gregory Peck as the father, Jane Wyman as the mother and Claude Jarman, Jr. as the pre-teenage boy. After the Civil War, the father, who had been a rebel soldier, settles his family in Florida where they became pioneer farmers.

Mother was a movie buff and had gone to the picture show almost every day when she was in high school in North Carolina. Her favorite actor was Adolphe Menjou. He was suave and debonair, and very alluring to a country girl like my mother. She took me to see “The Yearling,” I suppose, because it was a popular film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a Southern farming family that may have reminded Mother of her own childhood.

I remember crying when the deer was shot and killed, but Mother put her arms around me and held me close. We stayed through to the end of the movie, which culminated with the mother, who had been haunted by the deaths of her other three children, overcoming her fear of losing her last child. She had withheld her love from the boy for fear he would end up dying, too. Now she was filled with happiness and emotion, knowing that the fear of losing her last child was finally over. She asked for his forgiveness and showered the boy with motherly love and affection.

“The Yearling” was filmed in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness in the Ocala National Forest less than a hundred miles from where we lived in Leesburg. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. And Claude Jarman, Jr. was awarded a special miniature “Juvenile Oscar” for Outstanding Child Actor of 1946.

Jim, Kitty and I continued our leisurely stroll around town, crossing Main Street and walking half a block down Fifth until we came upon the Opera House. Located in what was the largest building in downtown Leesburg when construction was completed in 1890, it covers the entire block between Fourth and Fifth Streets.

I remember one Saturday morning, when I must have been about six or seven years old, I participated in a talent show. We performed on the stage of the Opera House and the program was broadcast “live” on the local radio station.

My talent was tap dancing and it was a solo performance. After the program, Mother and I walked around the corner to the drugstore. As we entered, I was greeted with applause from Daddy and everyone in the store, customers and staff alike. They had all listened to me tap dancing on the radio.

We visited the Leesburg Heritage Museum (Historical Society) located on Sixth Street which originally was a gathering place for the Woman’s Club until 1946 when it was sold to Paul Lassiter to house the Lassiter-Ware Insurance offices. Being there brought up painful memories of stories Mother had told me when I was a teenager about Daddy’s infidelities, including having had an affair with Paul Lassiter’s wife among several other women in town.

Our next stop was the “Sinful Sweets and Treats” shop on Main Street. We enjoyed double scoops of homemade ice cream sitting outside on wood and wrought iron benches in a garden facing City Hall, which has also undergone a major restoration.

Behind City Hall is Fountain Lake Park where Jimmy and I and other babies were taken in our strollers for afternoon outings by colored nannies in starched white uniforms who worked for our parents. In our day, the lake, actually a shallow pond created from a swamp, was called “Swan Lake.” It’s only about four feet deep. From the time it was created, the lake has had a waterspout in the center that sprays a fine cooling mist in the air; hence, the name Fountain Lake. There were swans who called the pond home for many years, but they were dispatched in the 1990s after several “swan attacks” occurred when people got too close to the males during mating season.

When Jimbo and I were older, we would walk by ourselves to the lake to have a picnic before going to the Fain Theater on Saturday afternoons. I’d make sandwiches with Vienna Sausages, sliced lengthwise, on white bread with mustard and mayonnaise with homemade “bread and butter” pickles on the side, or pickled watermelon rind that Mother would put up every summer. As a young girl, watching the swans glide elegantly across the pond, I thought Swan Lake was an enchanted place.

Kindergarten/Lee Elementary School. From left to right sitting on floor: Cathy Giles, Suzanne Moore, Jane Clair Morris, Mary Ellah Kramer, Madge Clements. Seated at table: Jane Clark (in plaid dress behind Jane Clair) and Martha Jean Webster sticking her head out in front of teacher Mrs. Battle. Upper right from top down: Teacher Mrs. Mattox, Jackie Moore, Martha Ballou and Allen Brown.

Before returning to the motel that afternoon, we drove back by our house on Perkins Street, stopping first at Lee Elementary School. The original building was constructed in 1915 and had twelve classrooms with the auditorium as a separate building. I attended the school from kindergarten through the fifth grade. It was an elementary school until 1974 and has since been used as an adult education school, hurricane shelter, and as temporary classrooms when Leesburg High School was being expanded.

I walked to and from school every day, sometimes with my classmate Allen Brown and his younger brother Randy. One day on the way home, just outside the entrance gate on the corner of Perkins and Lee Streets, Allen came over and punched me right in the stomach so hard it took my breath away. I started to cry, and they ran off laughing. They had to walk right by our house to get to theirs, and when I got home I told Mother what had happened. She said sweetly, “Now listen here, honey, the next time those Brown boys come to our house wanting something to eat, they aren’t going to get a thing.”

Mother fed anyone and every thing that showed up on our doorstep: stray dogs, cats, children, friends, neighbors and strangers. One weekend morning, Randy Brown came to the kitchen through the back screen door and saw a country ham and biscuit sandwich on a plate sitting on top of the stove. It was left over from breakfast, and Mother was planning to have it for lunch, but Randy said, “Miz Morris, if nobody’s gonna eat that old biscuit and salty ham, can I have it?” And, of course, she gave it to him.

But the most profound memory that arose while we were at Lee Elementary School was the day my fifth grade teacher, who was a very nice but somewhat homely woman, had taken me out of our classroom for a little chat. She knew we were leaving Leesburg after that school year ended. We sat in the stairwell between the first and second floors, and she started out by saying, “You may have heard some nasty rumors about your father, Jane Clair, but I want you to know he is a good and generous man. When one of my children was very sick, the doctor called him, and your father got up in the middle of the night and went to the drugstore to prepare the medicine for my son. He would give people the shirt off his back if they needed it.”

I was surprised by her comments, but felt comforted by her kindness. Not long before that day, I had been at the home of one of my friends and was visiting with her father who said, “It’s too bad you and your family are leaving Leesburg, but your father has a bad reputation so it’s probably for the best.” A bad reputation? I asked Mother what it meant, not telling her what had happened, and she said, “It’s when someone has done something that would offend the Lord or hurt someone else.”

It turned out that Mother had given Daddy an ultimatum - move away from Leesburg or she was going to divorce him.

That night, back at the motel, I sent Martha Jean an email:

“Martha, oh, Martha, words cannot describe the joy I’m experiencing in reconnecting with you. All my life, I have felt a hole in my heart because I was ripped away from my best childhood friend, YOU, and it is so karmically interesting that we should be reunited at this time, precisely at the moment I’m beginning to start writing a new book, “GROWING UP SOUTHERN ­ Stories from the Attic of Childhood Memories.”

“After we moved away from Leesburg, I never felt like I was ‘at home’ wherever we went. We lived in four houses in Tampa and I attended two different schools (grades 6-7-8) during the three years we were there. We moved to Lakeland my freshman year in high school (grades 9-10-11-12) and lived in three different houses. My family life was so unstable and chaotic that I had no sense of roots. My whole world had been turned upside down and sideways.”

“But today, when I heard you say, ‘Jane Clair?’ I felt like I was home again, back where I belonged. I have come full circle.”

The next morning, I received her reply:

“What a blessed treat to have you call me yesterday! Today is my 67th birthday, and having you drop back in my life just now is more delightful than you can know!”

Sunshine Park parade: Martha’s brother David (with Japanese flag), Jane’s brother Jim, Jane Clair with arms crossed, and Jimmy Cole pulling Martha Jean in an American Flyer wagon.

“Since you called, I’ve had memories of hopscotch on the sidewalks, parades around the neighborhood, bike rides, and playing marbles in the sand near our houses. We used to play toy cars with Jimmy Cole, our next door neighbor, who had asthma attacks and was very sickly sometimes. We played cowboys and Indians, and put on plays and made our brothers be in them, too.”

“I was never blessed with a girlfriend to share with after you left so the rest of my childhood involved many boys and I didn’t like it much. I was so upset when you left Leesburg and moved to Tampa and we all lost track of you. I’m thrilled that you’re living in Northern California and am looking forward to seeing you in person very soon.”

Martha and I have many of the same memories, but I also remember nearly biting off Jimmy Cole’s ear the time he stepped on one of my toy cars and squished it flat as a pancake. I don’t know what possessed me. He ran home screaming bloody murder. His parents never let him play with me again, and I was in big trouble with Mother and Daddy. I think they took my toy cars away for a couple of weeks as punishment.

When we were children, Martha and I loved to sing and play the piano; we still do. Growing up we both sang in our church choir and high school chorus. Martha was an accompanist for the school chorus her last two years of high school, and together with Shellie Griffis, Susan Hope and Karen Walker, sang in a quartet called the MisChords during the 7th through the 12th grades. Music is the great healing balm, the food of love, and continues to be an important part of our adult lives.

Martha plays “romantic” piano music professionally at a local restaurant on Whidbey Island. She reminded me that we used to walk around the block (Sunshine Park triangle) holding hands and singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from the Disney film “Song of the South” at the top of our lungs.

“Song of the South” was one of my favorite movies as a child, which I also saw at the Palace Theater. Based on the Uncle Remus cycle of stories written by Joel Chandler Harris, it’s a folk tale in which Uncle Remus, an elderly Negro man, relates the vivid stories of the adventures of Br’er Rabbit and his friends in the Briar Patch.

I could easily relate to the character Ginny. Her mother used her wedding gown to make a beautiful dress for Ginny to wear to her friend Johnny’s birthday party at his grandmother’s Georgia plantation. When the day of Johnny’s birthday arrives, he comes to take Ginny to his party, but on the way, her two older brothers get into a fight. Ginny is pushed during the scuffle and ends up in a mud puddle. With her dress ruined, she refuses to go to the party, and, without her, Johnny doesn’t want to go either. His parents have separated, and his father won’t be at the party. Uncle Remus discovers the two dejected children and cheers them up by telling the story of Br’er Rabbit and his “Laughing Place.”

It was the first live-action film from Disney, but the anthropomorphic animal characters appear in animation. “Song of the South” was controversial, with blacks and whites alike, from the first day it was released. The NAACP acknowledged “the remarkable artistic merit” of the film, but decried the supposed “impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship” even though the story is set after the American Civil War.

Uncle Remus was a wise man, a philosopher who told stories to children that communicated values and moral ethics in a way that I could understand. It wasn’t preachy or condescending, just plain, straight talk. I learned many of the verities of life from the movies I saw as a young girl.

“Song of the South” has never been released in its entirety on video or DVD in the U.S. because of content that could be construed by some as racially insensitive towards African-Americans, which I completely understand, however, it has been released in its original form in the UK and Japan.

When “Song of the South” premiered in Atlanta, Georgia in November of 1946, James Baskett, who plays the role of Uncle Remus, was unable to attend any of the festivities because, at the time, Atlanta was a racially segregated city. Due to the personal efforts of Walt Disney, however, James Baskett received an honorary Oscar in 1948. The hit song from the film, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” won the Academy Award for Best Song.

Growing up Southern, there was latent racism in my family. My great-grandfather in North Carolina had owned slaves until after the Civil War, and segregation was still a way of life when I was born. I remember when water fountains were designated for whites and colored people, and Negros were relegated to sit in the back of the bus.

I had been raised by a black woman who was truly loved as a member of our family. As a child, I didn’t realize what lay beneath the surface. I learned a song in Sunday School that we sang every week. I believed it was true.

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

So when did He stop loving everybody?

I had been taught that two things were considered to be impolite topics of conversation: religion and politics. Racism was never openly discussed in my family until during the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s when I was in college. It came up in subtle, insidious ways that reflected the societal attitudes that were prevalent in the South at that time.

My parents were comfortable with the separate-but-equal theory, but with the integration of schools, their lifelong assumptions were being challenged. They didn’t consider themselves bigoted people, but I felt they were hypocrites. Their beliefs created a huge “generation gap” between us. The racism issue was swept under the rug, causing a rift between me and my parents that lasted for several years. I was ashamed and embarrassed by my heritage, and it was one of the reasons I dropped out of college and moved to New York City, and ultimately to California.

But, on November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, I was overwhelmed with joy. The subliminal veil of guilt that I carried for the sins of my ancestors for nearly half a century began to diminish, and I felt like a new day was dawning on race relations in America.

Within twenty-four hours of being reunited with Martha, I heard from Madge Clements and several other childhood friends. Madge related an interesting story. When she attended their 45th Leesburg high school reunion, Madge ask almost everyone if they knew what had become of Jane Clair Morris. No one knew. She went on to say, “For a number of years, Sally Galt, Jane Clark and I have gone to Crescent Beach, south of St. Augustine, for a week of R&R, just us girls. Last summer we talked about you and wondered where you were.”

Madge asked, “Do you remember when Cathy Giles and I came to Tampa on a Greyhound bus for a visit shortly after you left Leesburg?” I had forgotten, but remembered when she mentioned it. That was the last time I saw them.

After their visit, the circumstances in my life changed dramatically. I came down with a mild case of polio in the 6th grade and had to wear a brace on my left leg for two years. My favorite cousin jumped off the roof of his dorm at FSU his first week in college and died. I went through puberty the following summer. I felt alone and lost. It was the end of the innocence of childhood.

Daddy had taken a job at Walgreens, but not as a pharmacist. He was managing their liquor store, which was like letting a fox guard the chicken coop. We were so poor that our car was repossessed several times when Daddy couldn’t make the payments. When we had a car, Mother would drive him to work every morning down Bayshore Boulevard going past Tampa General Hospital where she had been confined to the psychiatric ward for six months shortly after Jimmy’s birth, suffering from severe post-partum depression and a nervous breakdown caused by Daddy’s adultery and betrayal. It pains me to this day to think what the quality of her life must have been like at that time.

The three years we lived in Tampa had been traumatic, but I told Madge, “When I met Elvis Presley during the 8th grade, things began to change for the better.”

In further conversations with Madge, I asked if she had ever heard anything when we were kids about my father having a “bad reputation.” She hadn’t, but said, “As I’ve talked with other childhood friends, I’ve learned that we were not always fully cognizant of our family life or problems of even our closest friends. In ‘those days,’ parents were generally careful not to include children in adult conversations. We just played happily and didn’t really pay much attention to problems unless they interfered with our fun. Now, I think of those as the Golden Years!”

Jane Clark wrote, “Oh my goodness, is this really Jane Clair Morris? I think it is so neat to hear about you. What a fabulous life you have led since leaving the sleepy little town of Leesburg! I swore when I left college in Missouri I would never return, but, alas, I took my husband and three children back there to live so my children could have the wonderful childhood I remembered. All three of mine graduated from Leesburg High School. My oldest son, Clark, and my only daughter, Alice Jane, both live in Jacksonville near me, but my middle son, Jon, is still living in Leesburg.”

I’ve been invited to attend the 50th LHS Class Reunion in March of next year as an honorary member. No time was wasted in sending the registration form to Judy Cromwell, another of my classmates that I remembered. I’ll be there with bells on. In some inexplicable way, I feel much closer to them than any of the friends that I graduated with in Lakeland.

Growing up in Leesburg, I was under the impression that we were rich. I could take my friends to the drugstore, and we’d order anything that we wanted at the soda fountain. I always had money in my pocket, and shiny new shoes. Mother was an excellent seamstress and made most of my clothes until I graduated from high school. When I was five years old, she made a complete bridal gown ensemble, including gloves and a veil, for the Halloween Parade on Main Street. She wrote in pencil on the back of the photograph my comments that day: “Mother, I don’t mean to be bragging, but honest to God, I think I’m beautiful.”

The proverbial question in the South is “Who’s your Daddy?” I thought my Daddy was a pillar of the community. He owned the Rexall drugstore; he was a member of the Country Club and went to church on Sunday. I idolized Daddy when I was a little girl and he adored me all of his life, but I was devastated by his fall from grace, which I didn’t understand for many years to come.

Jane sitting in basket of Daddy’s bicycle and our dog Blackie

Daddy wouldn’t think twice about taking us out of school to go to Asheville, North Carolina, so he could play in a golf tournament with some of his political cronies like Congressman Sid Herlong and Senator George Smathers. When he was investigated by the FDA for practicing pharmacology without a license, his friends came to his defense. He wasn’t arrested or even fined, but was only required to have a licensed pharmacist on duty at all times to oversee his work. Daddy threw a big party in the drugstore to celebrate and came dressed as a “jail bird” in black-and-white stripped pajamas with a red heart-shaped pocket on the shirt.

Within less than a year of selling the drugstore, Daddy had squandered all the money he received from the sale, and Mother had to go back to work as a beautician.

During high school, Mother worked her fingers to the bone to make sure I had beautiful clothes to wear which she made on a pedal sewing machine from patterns of the latest fashions. More than anything, I wanted to look good and fit in.

Capezio shoes were all the rage at the time, and Mother scraped together enough money to buy a pair. They were black leather. It wasn’t long before I’d worn holes in the soles of my shoes. Daddy cut out an insert made of cardboard to put in each shoe so my feet wouldn’t get cut or scratched or wet if I got caught in the rain.

As a teenager, when I learned more of the details about Daddy’s shameless philandering, I developed a smoldering anger toward him because of the pain and heartache he had caused Mother. I was terribly conflicted about my feelings because I loved him so much, yet I felt he had brought such shame and disgrace on our family.

There was no one to talk to about these feelings which I hid and internalized. It made an imprint on my subconscious creating a mistrust of men that lasted most of my adult life until one day I woke up, through my spiritual practice, to the realization that the only person who was suffering from clinging to these afflictive emotions was me.

Mother had forgiven Daddy all along, and, in their later years, they were good friends and companions. By that time, I had learned a lot about forgiveness from Mother’s example. At a time years later when I was visiting from California, after reading out loud a story in the local newspaper about a bigamist in Florida who had gotten caught for having two families in separate towns, Daddy made the comment, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We never talked about it, but I let go of my anger toward him, and felt we had reconciled long before his death at the age of seventy.

Since returning to the place of my birth, what I’ve come to understand about my childhood is that I lost my identity when we moved away. I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. I had lost the intimate bond that was created in those very early formative years of development where I experienced a strong connection and identification with my peers. We had our own little soul tribe.

There was never any doubt in my mind that my parents loved me, unconditionally, but that knowledge wasn’t enough to create a stable foundation for a life of my own. I know my teenage years would have changed no matter where we were living, but somehow, I always felt cheated out of my childhood. Maybe these are some of the reasons why I was so driven to be popular in high school and college, and why, as an adult, the core of longing was to be part of a community, and know who I was in the world.

Being reunited with my childhood friends, I’ve been able to look at my life from a new perspective, recovering a sense of wholeness. I feel reconnected to the rich experience of place and time growing up Southern.

Recently, I learned that many of my Leesburg friends have suffered terrible losses in their lives. Cathie Giles’s brother committed suicide, Jane Clark’s brother, Yates, was knocked out of a tree and became a quadriplegic, and her parents died in a terrible house fire caused when her father fell asleep in a living room chair while smoking a cigarette.

Jane wrote that “...those things really did happen to me and it has truly impacted who I am today. As I have tried to teach my own children, it is not so much what happens to you in life as how you take it. You can let it ruin you and give up, or you can decide to move forward and let it help to make you stronger. Since my divorce, I am definitely a stronger person than I was while married. I have lived on my own a good many years, before and after my marriage. I rather like living alone, and enjoy my own company most of the time. And, I love reading and painting now that I have retired from teaching.”

There’s no getting around it, loss is part of the fabric of life.

Yet here is SynchroDestiny, working its magic and creating great feelings of joy and happiness. It seems like a miracle that my childhood friends have welcomed me back into their lives with open arms. In the program that Martha created for their 45th Leesburg high school class reunion, I found a poem written by one of my classmates:

By Shellie Griffis Lyon

Love, like a golden thread
Runs shining through the fabric of our lives.
Binding the rough edges of failure,
Darning the holes left by death,
Stitching a fine seam of purpose,
Until at last the garment, though mended
Is whole, has form, and catches the light.

©2006 Jane Bay - All Rights Reserved