How the People of Decatur Met My Great Uncle Darrell

The title might make this post sound a little more interesting than it really is, but isn’t that the point of a great title?

I did something a little different this Tuesday night—I participated in a live, open mic Southern storytelling event! If you’re in the Atlanta area and are interested, here’s the information you need. I participated in a group called Stories on the Square that meets the second Tuesday of every month at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia. It’s an awesome venue where people go to actually listen to live music, but other groups can use the space.

I’ve done open mic events before, usually poetry slams and readings, so I was expecting a little something like that. I brought an edited and updated version of “Exposure” thinking I could do a fun, dramatic reading from it and get some more feedback. However, the event organizer saw me reading over my text and making cuts and told me that we weren’t allowed to read from a printout or even use any notes! YIKES!

I frantically scanned my document, trying to memorize a basic outline and a few of the better images and jokes, when Wayne (my amazingly intelligent husband) suggested, “Why don’t you just tell the story about Darrell and the letters?”

I jumped on the idea instantly because I’ve told the story so many times I have it nearly memorized. I instantly felt more relaxed and started working to remember the better details and tangents that I could include to make it more interesting. I know it was a million times better because it came out of my head rather than from a page. I could just tell a story organically and let it ride rather than fight to follow a pre-set template.

If you’re interested in joining me next month and want to avoid the same near catastrophe I did, here are the rules. The Facebook site I linked to above is where you can get the month’s prompt or topic. For instance, this month’s choice was “rule breaking,” but many of us didn’t know before the event because we were new. Hence, the stories ranged from musings about buddies lost in Vietnam to urban chicken farming and even crazy people you meet when you work at a law firm. (“I am Rose M. Jones, comma, the I AM, the Superior Goddess of Love.”)

Each participant gets seven minutes. However, if your story is engaging, you can push that a little bit. Also, if fewer people are there to tell stories, you can have a little more time. Just plan accordingly. As I said, you cannot use any notes. You cannot do a “stand up” act, sing (unless it’s relevant to the telling of your story), or go on a political rant. Your story needs an engaging hook, it needs to follow a clear narrative pattern, and it needs to have a definite, punchy ending. It’s all the stuff that a written story requires…plus a theatrical element with regards to presentation. Things like body language and tone of voice enter into it. Some of the tellers were hilarious because of of what they said AND how they said it.

If you’re Southern, you know at least one great storyteller. He or she usually holds court on a front porch and can keep people there well past the time they meant to leave as they ream out one hilarious, poignant, or bizarre story after another. This monthly meeting is an attempt to keep that art form alive, and I think it’s another great way to use storytelling skills and practice my writing. I highly suggest you join us at Eddie’s Attic next month or, if you don’t live in the metro Atlanta area, to find a similar group in a neighborhood near you.

Photo courtesy of Shannon McNeal

Here I am telling my story, which went a little something like this…


I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Would you be enthused about admitting your from a state whose unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi”? (That’s so we don’t have to come in last in everything.) Well, folks from Arkansas, we’re a little…different. None more so than my Great Uncle Darrell. My grandmother’s youngest brother, one half of a set of twin boys, was the quintessential Qualls (their last name). Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in the presence of one, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my cousin repeatedly lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times in rapid succession. He only stopped when my grandmother flipped him the bird, which sent him on a laughing jag.

So Darrell was a Qualls through and through. And he was highly intelligent and creative (though not college educated), which is a lethal combination in a super villain but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.”

Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply? It was,  “Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.” (I’ll leave that one up to you to figure out. It’s worth it in the end!)

Well, Darrell once had a job working at a paper mill on the night shift when there wasn’t a whole lot of “pulping” going on. He was up in the control tower watching lights blink on and off on a gigantic board (hopefully in the right order). That made for a lot of staring, and (if you’re Darrell and have more brains than you know what to do with) a whole lot of boredom.

So he started writing letters to a friend named Leroy. This was a guy who hung around with Darrell and spent a lot of time with our family. Leroy had fought in a war. It could have been Vietnam, it could have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and kicking. I personally think he made the same deal as Dick Clark.

Well, Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing rather than scary to me when I was a child. One of the oddest things he did happened whenever he came around to eat a meal with us. He’d load up his plate, grab a napkin and fork, and proceed to stand in a doorway to eat it. “Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asked, though we all knew he’d answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He’d come back to refill his plate or glass and then return to the doorway to continue eating. And he could put it away, perhaps because it could just go straight down his leg. I dunno.

Well, Darrell got this bright idea that he would write letters to Leroy in which he posed as a bookseller trying to get him to purchase “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each letter, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles.

He also made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. His brain needed something to do. Wouldn’t you like to read:

The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel

Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars

The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen

Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia

How to Grow Yellow Blueberries

and (my personal favorite) How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity

Well, every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail. For seven years, this happened. And never once did Leroy order a book. Leroy also never knew it was Darrell who was sending the letters.

At Darrell’s funeral many years later, we were all sitting around after the service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and forced smiles onto our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal….boring. Everything Darrell had never been.

Well, we were sitting around after the service picking petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, and talking about how odd a funeral actually is when someone mentioned Darrell and asked, “What do you think he thought about it?” Well, as we are wont to do in the South, that question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about our dearly departed Darrell. And you can guess which story came up. Yep, Leroy and the letters. Mind you, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Darrell’s brother, Doug, and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was responsible for all them funny letters all them years ago?”

When Doug (who was more heartbroken than he let on at the time, what with losing his twin and all) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a loud, full-bodied chortle full of joy and replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of laugh that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief. 

And I can’t help but think that was Darrell’s reason for writing those letters all along.


Phun With Photoshop!

One of my lovely co-workers, who happens to be both an amazing athlete and a healthy eater, sent everyone on our floor an email this morning to let us know she had whipped up a batch of millet muffins that were free to all.

Before I had the chance to ask The Google exactly what “millet” was, a delightful conga line of muffins designed using Photoshop began to parade through my inbox.

The first, second, and fourth ones came from a co-worker who is an artist and unparalleled comedian. If you’re interested, you can view his blog here on WordPress!

This one arrived with the line, “Not to be confused with a MULLET muffin!”

Another co-worker chimed in at this point and said, “I’ve actually seen one of those in one of the ministry refrigerators. It had a very interesting testimony.”

The creative genius behind the mullet muffin then continued the hilarity by asserting, “They are much easier to chew than MALLET muffins, though.” He included this visual…

The one who asserted that she had, in fact, seen a mullet muffin then joined in the fun and created…

The text for this one read, “True. But it cannot compare to the MIDGET muffin. That’s always a crowd pleaser.”

The Millay muffin was also proposed…

And I even tried out my Photoshop skillz and created….

The Miller muffin!

All this delightful madness goes to prove two things. One, Photoshop had more uses that I had ever thought possible. And two, I have an awesome job and work with a team of hilarious, creative people!

Now I’m craving a muffin…but not one with Arthur Miller in it. That would just be gross.

Put on Your Yarmulke…It’s Time to Celebrate Jenukkah!!

I didn’t just want an excuse to put that song in a blog, I promise! However, if you want to get into the spirit of this post, I highly suggest you watch. Sing along, too!


I am one of the few people in the world who can actually say I like my boss. (Most people will do so and then flinch, waiting for the inevitable lightning strike sent down to punish audacious liars.) And when I say I like my boss, I don’t just mean that in the “I’m friends with her on Facebook” sense or even the “I’d consider going on a vacation with her” sense. No, no. Nothing so piddly or ephemeral as that. I’m talking in the “Yes, of course she can have my kidney/liver/bone marrow” sense.

This year, her birthday falls on Thanksgiving, which meant that we wouldn’t be at work to celebrate it. Also, it’s a milestone birthday, one that ends in a zero, and it deserved a little extra ooomph as such. Naturally, all the little elves and I put our pointy hats together and came up with a fun and unique way to celebrate the miraculous and wonderful birth of one truly amazing person. Feel free to steal our ideas or just the concept itself in order to truly show someone you care about how glad you are that his/her mother chose to give him/her life.

We decided one day was simply not enough for the beginning of a new decade, so we elected to go for the week-long celebration instead. Thus, Operation Jenukkah was born. Naturally, we went with the Hanukkah idea as it provided a fun framework and title. Granted, our celebration was five days in length rather than eight, but no one (not even we) works eight days a week! 🙂 (Well, maybe Jen does, but that’s a story for another blog.)

Day Zero (Saturday)

You don’t think it’s too subtle, do you?

On Saturday, I snuck up to work and with a roll of obnoxiously pink wrapping paper, copious amounts of tape, and a few other gewgaws and transformed her door into a package just waiting to be opened. Yes, it does look like a five-year-old, a highly distracted one, did it. But it’s the thought that counts, right? Right!?

**This turned out to be an unforeseen (but important) advertising element, the effect of which you’ll see on day five.**

Day One (Monday)

Simple Gifts

The key to throwing someone off the track regarding a Jenukkah-type birthday is to start simply. Seriously, think more “Ang Lee” and less “Michael Bay.” It gives you somewhere to start and work your way up from. We opted for flowers and a nice notepad as you can see here. Oh, and a jaunty balloon on a stick. Everything, and I mean everything, is better on a stick.

** Concerning logistics, it is best to sneak in before your friend gets to work. Thankfully, ours left her door unlocked, and that made this operation a cinch to carry out. If your friend/loved one is a little less trusting in humanity and locks the door, you have two options—1.) Buy and learn how to use a set of lock picks or 2.) Bring a box or two of tasty homemade baked treats to the building manager in exchange for access.**

Day Two (Tuesday)

Sweets for the Sweet!

Day two featured all manner of sweet things. Candy from Peterbrooke, a cupcake from CamiCakes, and a balloon featuring, you guessed it, a pink cupcake! She mentioned later in the week that this gift was well timed as she was stressed and fell upon the CamiCake like a Tasmanian Devil. After that, the day was better all around.

This is the lousiest picture I’ve ever taken, and not because I’m only slightly more skilled with a camera than an orangutan. Granted, there’s a ton of work on her desk in this one (as per usual), but the gift is not well featured. That’s something else to consider when carrying out your own operation. Gift placement is essential. It needs to POP, to draw the eye immediately. Her screensaver is more attractive than this set up. However, it was all themed, and that goes a long way. I’m a big fan of themed things. Just ask my mother about winning the neighborhood Christmas decorating contest a few years ago when we beat the guy who wins almost every year. It was like something out of Hoosiers.

Also, on a humorous note, Jen beat me in to work that day, so I had to stop, drop, and roll (all while holding a balloon) to get out of sight in time. She didn’t leave her office until nearly eleven, which is when I ninjaed in there with treats in hand. I suggest stretching before delivery each day…you know, just in case.

Day Three (Wednesday)

Beautiful Inside and Out

As you can see here, day three was all about the Achilles’ Heel of all females–make-up and bath products. One of the other girls at work snuck this one in and took the picture for me, and I have to say she’s a much better photographer than I am. She took several shots, all of which were done from different angles and levels. It made the gift look artistic! Also, she left a nice handwritten note to add to the surprise. Jen already had an inkling that something was up by day three, so letting her in at this point was part of the fun.

**Bonus idea! I had considered little handwritten notes explaining the theme of the day in doggerel verse, but time was short. It’d be a nice touch if you can pull it off.**

Day Four (Thursday)

A Few of Your Favorite Things!

By day four, it became apparent that the gifts were getting bigger. This one had the first double digit priced gift, a B&N gift card. (Great, now I’m singing “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity in my head!) The rest of the gifts are a clever cup from CB2 that has a place for a spoon in its handle, a box of vanilla almond tea from a company called Purse-anali-Tea. (There’s no link for this one because I can’t figure out how to spell it, and Google is giving me some weird as heck results I’m not keen on sharing here! It’s a purse full of tea. Hence the clever play on words. You get the idea.) We also threw in a cute little gift book, Wisdom for the Sole, because Jen is a shoe fanatic nonpareil. It’s full of fun footwear quotes and clever drawings, and it cost next to nothing.

**Shop smarter, not pricier! I find more often than not that people appreciate gifts that are well-thought-out to those that are pricey. It requires a little more work to find them (in this case, fifteen minutes perusing B&N after grabbing the gift card), but she said it was one of her favorite gifts of the week.**

Day Five (Friday)

Get Your Fash-On!

Two things you’ll notice here. One, I took my own advice and made the gift much more attractive on the desk using a pillow from her couch. Had I thought about it, I’d have borrowed a mannequin (or at least one of those terrifying body-less ones that people use to display wigs). However, like Indiana Jones, we were all making it up as we went along. The scarf was from Charming Charlie, a great place for accessories, and the LOFT gift card was for her to pick an outfit to go with it from her favorite store.

The other point of note is the green bag sitting bashfully off to the side. Throughout the week, other people starting bringing in little things to add to the pile, things that we had nothing to do with! How cool is that!? Co-workers had begun talking about the door, which led to a discussion of the plan, and on their own, a few other folks started dropping things off on the sly as well. 🙂 Isn’t it great when an idea takes off!?

Unexpected Blessings

I think it’s replicating!

By the end of the week, Jen had a pretty sizable stash of treasure on her desk. However, according to her, the best thing was the fact that something else showed up on her desk each day…sometimes two or three times a day! The surprise is indeed the thing.

The Grand Finale

Have your cakes, and eat them too!

We finished the week with something we dubbed Cakeapalooza! A co-worker made the delicious cookie cake on the left and topped it with homemade whipped cream and strawberries. I did the chocolate peanut butter cake on the right. Naturally, we got together, sang, and ate a ton of sugary, carbtastic goodness. However, Jen (the smiling woman you see in the middle) thought her gifts were at an end and the cake was all there was. However, a group of people had chosen to contribute to another gift, and it was a whammer! Over the course of a week and a half, they had gathered enough to get her a $200 gift card to the Apple Store for the purchase of a new iPhone 4S, which she had been needing/wanting/dreaming about since it came out. Talk about an exciting conclusion! In fact, she was so stoked, she ran to the store before the end of the day and got exactly what she wanted.

So, all in all, Jenukkah was a fun experiment in gift giving we got to enjoy as much as the recipient. I highly suggest doing it to see how many people get caught up in the fun!

Have a happy, happy, happy, happy Jenukkah!