In the chapter "Love at First Sight," including Davey Morris as a student who suffers through the embarrassment of stuttering while giving a speech in front of his sixth grade classmates was a purposeful decision, although I didn't initially set out to create a character who stutters. It may sound strange, but my character Davey decided to stutter. I allow my characters to develop on their own, and I don't force them to fit perfectly into my preconceived notions. I don't write my books with a clear, sharp idea of the fullness of my characters. They seem to develop traits on their own. They have their own unique voices and personalities. And I allowed Davey to be Davey. He first appears in Chinaberry Summer, while receiving a severe tongue-lashing from Miss Maude Jones because he dares to talk in line, and later on he tries his best to explain to the principal why Sissie isn't at fault for the class bully Rusty Jackson's unfortunate encounter with a common Southern toad. I decided to bring him back again in On The Other Side.
Among the storytellers in my family was my grandfather, Grover Cleveland Smith. Born in April 1892, he unfortunately lived in a time when high blood pressure and strokes dogged so many people, and not many medications were available to treat blood pressure problems or prevent strokes. So there he was, a man who stood six feet three and was rail thin, felled by a stroke at 65. He remained bedridden at home and passed away in 1960 at the age of 68.
Before his massive stroke left him unable to talk well, we often sat together on the front porch in the swing, and he told me stories between drawing puffs of his Camel cigarettes or cigarettes he rolled from the tobacco in his can of Prince Albert tobacco he carried in his overalls' pocket. Neither of those vices helped his blood pressure issues, and he always walked with a homemade cedar cane because of previous small strokes he had suffered through the years. He told me lots of stories, a few of which have appeared in my books. I loved to hear him describe what it was like going to school when he was a young boy. His turtle hunting. The games he played as a child. The friends and relatives he knew that I would never know except through his stories. I thought he was old, because, well, I was in the single digits of my youth. And he did look older than a man his age would look today because of his ongoing health problems.
He wore a hearing aid, the kind with a wire that extended from his ear down to a shirt pocket where he kept the battery. He lost much of his hearing in his twenties training stateside for World War I, a war he never saw because heavy artillery training damaged his ear drums.
A few years ago after a family member passed away, we were greeting guests at the visitation in a nearby town. That funeral home has seen more than one of my relatives safely delivered to the cemetery. One of the local folks, Mr. Marion, came up to my sister and me and struck up a conversation.
"I knew your granddaddy, Mr. Grover. In fact, I remember the time he tangled up with some wild black honeybees in the woods." Mr. Marion was quite a storyteller himself.
I already knew that my grandfather had tried his hand at robbing honey from beehives when he was younger, but he usually carried a smoker and wore a protective net. It seems that particular time his gear failed him. He had to run for cover and jump in a creek as the angry bees stung him all the way there. He had apparently regaled Mr. Marion with the bee misadventure.
Mr. Marion went on to tell us, "Them bees sure do sting, don't they, Mr. Grover?"
"Y-yep, they sh-sure d-do!"
Outwardly, I chuckled at the story and pictured the scene in my head, but , like Sissie, my mind was suddenly struck by a question that needed an answer.
One of the last times I visited my late Aunt Janie, I asked, "Did Pa stutter?"
She smiled. "He sure did, baby."
How did I not know that? How did I not remember that? Fifty years had passed, and I had no recollection that my grandfather stuttered. Then an explanation hit me.
I didn't remember Pa's stuttering, not because I was young, but because I loved hearing his stories. I simply didn't notice. I didn't concern myself with judgments and observations. I cared about him. I loved spending time with my grandfather, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. And sitting in that swing with me, just a man talking to his young granddaughter, must have given him a sense of ease that he could talk to me and pass down the stories and adventures of his life without worrying about how he spoke. Without worrying about being judged.
So when Davey stands before the class, it takes an enormous amount of courage for him to give his informative speech about the beautiful barred owl that patiently rests on his arm. His uncle is there giving him moral support, and the serene owl serves as his "wing man."
It is my sincere hope that young people or adults who read my books will find characters that speak to them. Maybe readers will learn from Davey that it's more important to hear what Davey and others like him in the real world wish to say rather than how they express themselves . Maybe Davey will speak to a young reader who feels marginalized by some aspect of his own speech or physical appearance. Maybe someone who feels embarrassed or fearful to speak in front of classmates will identify with Davey.
And, by the way, an owl really did wink at me during an informative speech in the sixth grade. And I have loved owls every day of my life since then.