Sunday, April 22, 2012


A green and leafy jungle of tomato plants overflows the bed of the white pickup parked on Ashland, Alabama's courthouse square. Their overall-clad caretaker cheerfully expounds on the merits of each variety, the canning tomatoes that ripen from the inside out, the hearty beefsteaks, the heirlooms that grow to almost grapefruit size. His silver hair shines bright beneath the sun. Each pot sports a popsicle stick with a handwritten name.

I settle on a Rutgers, and Parker hands him our dollar. He takes it, then turns to survey the abundance in the truck.

You're sure you don't need any more? he asks.

No, I say. I don't have space for more than one.

It's a weak excuse, of course, and doesn't slow him down a bit. He picks up a second pot, and hands it to Parker.

That's a jellybean tomato, he says. You can grow it in a five-gallon pot. His daughter lives in military housing where pots are all they have, and the jellybeans do just fine for her.

As we keep talking, I tell him that we've driven down from Charlotte. His smile brightens, and he picks up a third plant, this time a beefsteak. You can grow that in a pot, too, he says. Since we came all this way, we ought to have another one. He'll tell his friends that some of his tomatoes are going to North Carolina. He looks back at the truck, clearly trying to find a reason to give us yet another, but decides it's time to stop.

Parker looks down at his armful of tomatoes and grins.

This is why I brought Parker to Clay County, Alabama. I wanted him to meet the people I once saw almost every day, the ones who don overalls and live on gravel roads and have the most generous hearts I've ever known.

If only Ken Elkins were here to take a picture.

If only we hadn't come to Alabama for his funeral.

For almost half a century, Ken Elkins and the rural people that he loved made art together. They raised children, grew tomatoes and worked hard at mostly low-wage jobs, while work, sun and age roughened their hands, swelled their joints, etched wrinkles deep into their faces. 

They decked their houses with American and Confederate flags, with pictures of family members, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King. They turned the task of making do into an art: fashioning door locks from pieces of rough wood, staking gorgeously straight rows of beans, hauling ponies in the back seat of a car.

Ken devoted his life to catching them on film, not from a distance, but up close. I remember the way he'd sit down on someone's porch steps to chat. After a while, he'd raise his battered camera and start sighting it around, casual, just looking. By the time he got down to business, taking shot after shot, trying angle after angle, most people were ready to give back, to share of themselves the way they shared flowers, cucumbers and recipes. The results touched people all across the state. 

As he made his rounds, Ken schooled generations of young Anniston Star reporters, opening their eyes to a world they never knew, sharpening their appreciation of texture and detail, teaching them the secrets of getting to know the people whose lives they sought to depict. I was one of those.

Eventually I left the Star to follow in Ken's footsteps, bearing a tape recorder instead of camera gear, asking questions instead of making pictures. During the year I spent in Clay County I heard stories about goats and raccoons, about car wrecks and tornadoes, about faith and love and war. I drank home-churned buttermilk, played practical jokes, turned my violin into a fiddle and went to my first open-casket funeral. 

All the while, Ken was riding the same roads, taking his magic pictures in-between assignments for the Star. His images and my new friends' words ended up in a book, You Always Think of Home.

When Ken died last week at the age of 76, I'd been absent from Clay County for almost twenty years. Still, as I turn onto Highway 9, the place looks just like I remember it. The ground rolls gently up and down, like swells out in the ocean, and you know that you're deep in the country. The long ride into Ashland traverses a familiar landscape of pastures, newly plowed fields, squat chicken house arrays and the occasional frame house with a garden and a porch. 

The biggest change I find is in the graveyards, where I have more friends at rest. Although we don't have time for all of them, Parker and I visit one small hilltop plot, where Annie and Hilton Dawkins, Teddy Freeman and my dear friend Howard Hamil have joined several generations of their predecessors.

We park at the courthouse square, and Ernestine, who still runs Sunshine Cleaners, grabs me in a hug. "Your mother loves Clay County," she tells Parker with a smile. Johnie Sentell, proprietor of High Points Coffee and Books, is delighted to meet us, and talks eagerly about Ken, about You Always Think of Home, and about the historical museum that he and other residents are developing. We explore the square, give out a couple of books, have a few more conversations. Parker talks me into buying him a second-hand CB radio. Then we stop by the tomato truck.

"I like Clay County," Parker tells me as we head back to Anniston for Ken's service. "I like it too," I say. 

Once home, I plant my Clay County tomatoes in the front garden, alongside a descendant of Annie Dawkins' forsythia bush and near the wren gourd that Howard Hamil made for me. I pull out my stack of Ken's photos and leaf through them, marveling once again at all the life he captured with his lens and with his heart, remembering the people and the place that changed my world forever. 

Thank you, Ken.


  1. Pamela, this is a beautiful tribute to your friend, and to the the place that helped to mold you into the woman you are..You are so wise to introduce Parker to the places and people who loved you...

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story with us. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend and mentor. Would love to read your book - will order a copy from Park Rd Books.

  3. Thanks, Elyse. The book is out of print, but I can loan you a copy sometime. I'll get you one too, Dianne. I think you'll really like it.

  4. From Sherry Kughn, longtime writer for the Anniston Star:

    Pam, you did a great job capturing Ken and his Alabama life. I am blessed to live among these small-town folks, most of whom have roots in the rural counties around here, myself included. I especially have lots of kin in Clay County, and I have a plethora of childhood stories to tell about visiting cousins, aunts and friends there -- stories of playing in the chicken houses, buying penny candy from the country store, freezing when my feet touched the floor of houses heated only with one fireplace. I am not sure if any of my kin still live that way. Most of us are a step above that, financially, and small-town life, for my family members, has replaced rural living. I am glad many are still there, though, to carry on the stories and scenes of Clay County and other counties around here like it. I hate I have lost my ties to them, and maybe one day, I'll have time again to revisit those places and dig up any kin I still have left there.

  5. Oh Pamela! This is a beautiful piece of work because it comes from deep within your heart. I like you. And now I like Ken and Clay County too. You are such a treasure. Thanks for sharing this with us.