Evoking the charms, sorrows of a lost black South

By Sandy Coleman, GLOBE STAFF

"You got to come home. "

When you live hundreds of miles away from your hometown and your relatives, there are no words that can shake you with anticipated dread more than the ones that open the first chapter of Leaving Pipe Shop: Memories of Kin, an engrossing new memoir by Deborah E. McDowell that reconnects her with the Southern roots from which she has tried to untangle herself.

"You got to come home. "

When the author, now a professor at the University of Virginia, hears the words over the phone, she rightly braces herself for the worst. She has cause to worry, considering that the messenger is her Auntee Estella. The woman is like the evening news, the way she's always unfolding the latest tragedy--who has died, been murdered or fallen on hard times.

Although there was a 15-year period in the author's life in which she lost most of her loved ones, including her greatgrandma Edie and both her parents, no one has died this time. Her aunt is calling her home to her Pipe Shop neighborhood in Bessemer, Ala., because the company where her daddy worked is giving out settlement money for workers who were victims of asbestos poisoning. Although the author's father died of a stroke 20 years ago, her aunt insists that it's worth checking to see whether he might have suffered from asbestos poisoning on the job.

Her eventual journey back to Bessemer opens up a trunk of memories. Scraps of the past are looked over and reviewed like the pieces that might go into a colorful quilt. Some of them are comforting, like recalling the black South the way it was back in the '50s and '60s. It was a time when folks sat on porches, when Avon ladies still came to the door selling bubble bath and talcum powder, when women and girls sat up in Ophelia's beauty shop on Saturdays gossiping and downing hot dogs and Coca-Colas as they waited all day long to get their hair done, when children learned and forgot Easter speeches.

Pipe Shop is a rural industrial community, 12 miles from Birmingham. It got its name from the US Pipe and Foundry plant that dominated the neighborhood. It was a place where men worked for piddling wages in sooty overalls pouring molten iron into molds for casting pipes that were sold all over the world.

McDowell was brought up in Pipe Shop surrounded by family; her mother, a great seamstress who had no qualms about letting folks know what they had no business wearing, her grandfather, called Papa, known for his lemon poundcake; her grandmother, whom McDowell called Mama, a strong-willed family head who was also a live-in private-duty nurse for a wealthy white family. McDowell had three siblings. And, of course, her father.

"My fondest memories of my earliest years in Pipe Shop are all laced with the sounds and smells of summer. After a year of walking to school and standing in lunch lines behind moldy-headed boys with runny noses and girls whose socks always scooted down, like mine, to expose ashy heel, the summer's images were light and breezy, fired with roisterous sun-splashed days and scented with honeysuckle so strong it burned your nostrils....We lay spread eagled on the grass or did headstands in someone's yard, our legs gaped open wide to receive the warm rays of the sun - that is, until some woman passed and said, 'Get up from there. That ain't nothing for a nice girl to be doing.'"

Some memories are disturbing--like the lost loves her Auntee Estella and her grandmother never quite got over, like the rift that developed between the author and her father, Wiley McDowell, a man who laughed from way down deep in his throat and taught her to love words. That love shows in the way she can tell a story, giving just enough detail to paint subtle portraits of the colorful South without embellishment. Like a proper Southerner, she digresses well: Something in the middle of a story will remind her of something else and off she'll go in that direction, always remembering to return to the story at hand.

Humor runs throughout the book, most of it in hilarious dialogue. It's funny just to hear some of the names that only the South could produce: Baby Jean, Buttercup, Mama Lucy, Cookie, Pokie. Overall, the author has a seductive way with words that makes "Leaving Pipe Shop" as good as a piece of sweet potato pie served after a plate of greens and fried chicken.

When McDowell was growing up, her grandmother always told her she should leave Pipe Shop if she wanted to make something of herself. When she left--in 1968, to go to Tuskegee Institute--she vowed to return only for quick visits. Today, McDowell is a professor of English and African- American Studies. "By escaping Pipe Shop," she writes, "I would permanently put the images, slights and restrictions of racial segregation far behind me (or so I naively thought).... While summer's palette, its summer's sounds and smells, had framed my childhood memories in Pipe Shop, at least from adolescence onward, the place looks sere and desolate in my mind's eye and conjures up the sadness I often feel when roses shed their petals and magnolia blossoms turn from cream to rust."

"Leaving Pipe Shop" is about one African-American woman's family, but it's also about how the past follows all of us - how "home" holds all of us, no matter how far we go in trying to break away. The author left Pipe Shop, but Pipe Shop never left her. For that, readers can be thankful.

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