For many of us who call ourselves “mother”, there are two types of children in our lives: those that are born to us and those that come into our lives and become “ours” for life. For me, this was the case with Agatha Whitechapel, daughter of my dear friend (who I commonly refer to as, simply, “Whitechapel.”) I think of her as a version of her collages, fully realized – a lifelike composition of images pasted together to create a portrait. Adopted daughter to me; young girl grown up; mother of Elijah; photographer; and, finally, friend. Agatha cut her teeth in Europe of the 1990s, traversing between London and Vienna. Agatha’s school was the keen eye of her mother, music video film-sets, and the world of skateboards. When I met her, she was a 12-year-old girl, fascinated with hearing and telling elaborate stories. According to Agatha, she has taken her “childhood obsessions with fantasy and storytelling and turned them into visual explosions with as much colour, pop and pomp” as she can possibly fit into one picture.
In 2011, and just before my 50th birthday, I publicly—on this Journal—declared a detox. I don’t really like to write much about my private life, as Alabama Chanin has grown into something so much bigger than me. And, truth-be-told, I am a rather shy and private person. However, I forged ahead and wrote in the second post:
“I felt reluctant to continue writing about my detox after the first post as I thought that it could be, frankly, a bit boring. Each of us has visited a site where the writer has a fondness to overshare about their eating habits and diet: each morsel eaten, photos of unmentionable detox attributes, things that we really don’t want to know—way too much information. I don’t want to be that person.”
But, the fact of the matter is that I completed the detox, lost 25 pounds, and felt better than I had in years. At the time, I vowed to stay “on the path.” I swore to be committed, stay focused, and to forge ahead. The best laid plans of mice and me…
Do you remember your first day of school? I don’t remember the actual day, but I do have photos of myself, standing outside my first grade classroom, smiling, wearing a plaid dress and knee socks. I do remember my children’s first school days—the nervous excitement they showed and the bittersweet pride I felt at witnessing this important milestone. While I don’t take those moments for granted, there was never a doubt that those moments would come. It’s common now to see Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram light up with school photos that document every moment of our children’s educational lives. A few months ago, I received an email from an old friend that provided some much-needed perspective.
The email offered a link to a Ted Talk by a woman named Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder of SOLA—Afghanistan’s first all-girl boarding school. The word “sola” means “peace” in the Pashto language, but it is also an acronym for School of Leadership, Afghanistan. Shabana was 6 years old when the Taliban took over Afghanistan and made it illegal for girls to go to school. So, for five years, her family dressed her as a boy and sent her to a secret school to learn. Even at this young age, she understood the risks that she—and her parents—were undertaking. She would walk for 30 minutes, even an hour, to schools. The locations would move, and she would walk different paths each day; sometimes class would take place in the morning and other times in the afternoon.
I picked up the TIME magazine pictured above at an airport kiosk some time ago. While traveling that day, I lingered over this inspiring—and disturbing—story about Kym Worthy. It is true that some leaders find their calling early and some crusaders know their mission almost from birth. Others come to leadership by accident or they pick up the mantle of responsibility simply because no one else will. Perhaps Kym Worthy falls more into the latter group, but she is no less driven because of it. In fact, she is an example of how one person can have a massive impact on the life of another person, a community, and a national conversation.
In 2009, Detroit Assistant Prosecutor Robert Spada discovered over 11,000 unprocessed rape kits in an abandoned Detroit police warehouse. As Michigan’s Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy couldn’t help but be shocked by this discovery. As she told Katie Couric, “These [rape kits] were women’s lives. They go through this examination thinking that this evidence was going to help find their perpetrator. And it’s sitting on a shelf, gathering dust. And this was their life—and nobody cared.”
Since that discovery, Worthy—herself a survivor of rape—has made national headlines for her work, bringing attention to the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits. She has worked at the local and national level to fight for funding to have the kits tested, eventually receiving a $1 million federal grant to begin testing Detroit’s massive backlog. Worthy said that she and her team had to literally dust off the kits, physically open and inventory each one to collect victim information. The statute of limitations on many of the cases had long since passed. Still, Worthy’s team manually cross-referenced the kits with police reports and incomplete investigations. DNA evidence is only one component of any case—and each of these cases had to be re-established and reinvestigated (or, sadly, investigated for the first time).
I have known many storytellers in my life. Some have a natural and unrehearsed style that feels captivating and immediate; some present new or unfamiliar points of view; others are quite deliberate and thoughtful in approach; all of them are enthralling to me. As a storyteller born into a family of storytellers, I find master storyteller Gael Towey both compelling and inspiring. She has a distinct perspective and is skilled at many things: crafting a storyline, discovering and highlighting the unique qualities of her subjects, eliciting a response from the audience, and designing beautiful visual elements. Her work has informed contemporary visual language in a way we can barely imagine.
I was lucky to be among Gael’s subjects as part of her series of short films about artists called “Portraits in Creativity” www.portraitsincreativity.com (and I especially love her piece on friend and heroine Maira Kalman). Each of her portraits uncover the unique qualities of her subjects and reveal Towey’s fascination with the creative process. For over two years, we have been speaking with Gael about her past, her present, and the creative processes, media, and methods she uses to propel her ideas forward.
Gael was raised in New Jersey and was the oldest of six children. She revealed that, as a child, she was mildly dyslexic and almost flunked the second and third grade because she couldn’t spell; she reversed all her consonants and vowel combinations. She was drawn to art and studied it enthusiastically through college. “I loved printmaking and accidentally signed up for a class in typography, and I fell in love with it from the first lecture,” Towey says. “I’d never looked at the design of a letter and had not noticed how beautiful they are.” She switched her major to graphic design and graduated from Boston University, College of Fine Arts. Gael said, “I was extraordinarily lucky. I have met so many young people who don’t know what they want to do, but I always knew. I struggled academically and art was the only thing I was good at… And it’s funny that I wound up working in the publishing business since I had no confidence in my ability to write properly.”
Gael worked on the book, In the Russian Style, with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Last week, we introduced you to Ashley Christensen: chef, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and badass. She is August’s featured chef in our café (and collaborator for our upcoming Piggy Bank Dinner). Ashley recently spoke to us about good food, sustainability, community, and what she has planned next.
AC: Congratulations on your recent James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. How did you celebrate? (We hope you took time to celebrate…)
We had a total of 22 folks sitting with us at the ceremony, so we kind of brought the party with us, which was really fun. After the awards, we decided to make the party about simply having a good time with our crew. We called in a pile of to-go Shake Shack burgers, ordered a bunch of champagne and crowded about 40 friends into our little room at the Ace Hotel. We followed this celebration by attending Jamie Bissonnette’s victory party at Toro, and then the Nomad’s epic party at the Highline Ballroom. It was more perfect than I could ever find the words to describe.
AC: You currently operate five restaurants in the Raleigh, North Carolina area – with more on the way. Do you have a different role at each establishment? How do you balance your roles at each? And how have those roles changed as you continue to grow?
In addition to being the proprietor, I’m the Executive Chef for the company, but I consider my most important role at this point to be “lead catalyst”. I have lots of ideas for new projects, and for refining existing projects. My job is to make sure that we ask of ourselves to improve each day, and to see the opportunity in studying the details that guide us to do so. We have an amazing crew of folks who make it happen every day, on every level. It is also my job to provide the tools and support that make them feel competent, empowered, and appreciated.
Last year, I was introduced to Inez Holden over a glass of dry white wine at a fundraising event in our community. Mrs. Holden’s story, told with humor and passion, reminded me that the fashion industry runs deep here in our community. Before Alabama Chanin and Billy Reid, there was Bubbles Ltd.
As Alabama Chanin continues to explore the world of machine-made fashion with our new line and manufacturing division, A. Chanin and Building 14, respectively, Mrs. Holden reminded me that we humbly follow in a line of companies that completely designed and manufactured a fashion line in The Shoals and the surrounding area.
We’ve previously spoken about the rich history of textile production in our community and some of the local manufacturers who led the nation in textile and t-shirt production, but we were excited to discover Bubbles Ltd.
Around 1983, Mrs. Holden got her start as a designer quite by accident. She bought an oversized top and banded bottom pant that she loved the style and fit of, but the material was very rough and scratchy. So, she asked a friend of hers to help her make more sets in a similar style, but out of jersey fabric. She had about five sets of these pantsuits made in different colors, but kept giving them away because so many of her friends and family wanted them.
As part of our ongoing Heirloom series that focuses on the precious things we treasure – even though they might not be considered valuable by the rest of the world – we continue to tell stories of items that have been passed down through families, from one generation to the next.
Today, we hear from Sara Martin, one of our Journal contributors. She shares a story of her great-grandmother’s butcher knife and how a potential family scandal became a source of family pride.
My great-grandmother, Roxie Mae Hurst, doted on my sister and I when we were born. She passed away when I was quite young, so I don’t have many memories of her. But, my family tells stories of her frequently – of her bold actions, her stoic nature, and her toughness.
She was (somewhat scandalously during that time) married twice. In 1907, at the age of 20, she married the Circuit Court Clerk of Lauderdale County, Alabama. His family was financially well off and his brothers were both respected county judges.
My great-grandmother was not particularly well liked or respected by her first husband’s family. They were well-educated and held substantial wealth and community respect; she was bright and literate, but not formally educated. This caused a cultural and social disconnect in the family that lasted beyond her husband’s lifetime. He died unexpectedly of a stroke in April of 1912.
It has been said that holidays like Mother’s Day are actually manufactured celebrations, created only to sell cards and gifts. It is not really true that Mother’s Day was created to boost sales and create commerce, but that’s not to say that the evolution of the holiday didn’t cause quite a commotion, especially by its own creator.
Holidays very much like our American Mother’s Day have been celebrated globally for centuries. There were festivals in Egypt and Rome honoring the goddesses Isis, and Cybele and Rhea, respectively. European celebrations of the Virgin Mary were expanded in the 1600s to include all mothers with a celebration called Mothering Day. The Mother’s Day as we know it today in America was established by a woman named Anna Jarvis. Her mother, named Ann Jarvis, had attempted to establish Mothers Work Clubs in the late 1860s, meant to help clean cities and tend wounded Civil War soldiers. After the war, she established a Mother’s Friendship Day to unite families from both sides, North and South.
Ann’s death devastated Anna, who began what has become our modern Mother’s Day. She wanted it to be “Mother’s Day” (singular), rather than “Mothers’ Day” (plural), so that each family could focus on their own mothers and not all mothers, everywhere. It was meant to be a day to spend time with your mother, to thank her for all that she had done for you. Jarvis campaigned heavily for Mother’s Day to become a national holiday, finally finding success when Woodrow Wilson proclaimed it so in 1914. The carnation became the symbol for the holiday, simply because it was Ann Jarvis’ favorite flower.
This May, Alabama Chanin is featuring two of my personal heroines (and, now, dear friends) as part of our ongoing Chef Series at the café. They might not be chefs, but Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva are The Kitchen Sisters—independent producers who create radio stories for NPR and other public broadcast outlets. Davia and Nikki are two of the most genuine and real women I know. Without their dedication to telling the real story, I would not be the person I am today. Route 66 changed my perception of storytelling in the autumn of 1994. I remember the first moment I heard their tracks; in the third story of a rented house on a square in Savannah, Georgia. Just like that my life changed.
Davia and Nikki met and began collaborating in the late 1970s, hosting a weekly radio program in Santa Cruz, California. Their name was taken from two eccentric brothers—Kenneth and Raymond Kitchen—who were stonemasons in Santa Cruz in the 1940s. One night, they were discussing the Kitchen Brothers, who were featured in a book about Santa Cruz architects, as prep for an interview with the book’s author—while also cooking dinner for a group of people on the commune where Nikki lived—and got caught up in legends of local masonry (chimneys, yogi temples, Byzantine bungalows…), and food prep fell to the wayside. Dinner that evening was a disaster, and The Kitchen Sisters were (laughingly) born.
Oral histories heavily influenced their style of radio production. Over the years, they have produced a number of series, such as Lost & Found Sound, The Sonic Memorial Project, The Hidden World of Girls, and Hidden Kitchens. Regardless of topic, Davia and Nikki find a way to build community through storytelling.