I’m basking in memories from last night’s 47th GAYA (Georgia Author of the Year Awards) ceremony, not because I was an award recipient (Oh, that my manuscript somehow transformed into a winning novel), but because of the feelings I brought home. Though I’ve been a member of GWA for a few years, I’d never attended the annual ceremony. Frankly, at the time I wasn’t thrilled about going last night. I attended alone, which didn’t bother me; I no longer find walking into a room full of strangers intimidating. It’s that my head was divided into two other places—the funeral I’d left where I hugged the necks of old friends I’d not seen in eight years—not yet ready to leave—and my rising-senior son’s tournament baseball game, where every at-bat matters. Not to mention that I was literally driving into a storm. If I’d not committed to the dinner reservation, I might have skipped out. But the man who was to receive the Life Time Achievement award was my dear friend, and more than anything, I wanted to witness that portion.
A couple U-turns later, I found the KSU Center, parked, wiped the last of the exequies from my brow, and marched in to the hubbub towards the gathering of people. Scanning over the crowd, I saw the honoree, Terry Kay, wearing a grin and walking towards me with outstretched arms. “Why did you come to this?” he asked, downplaying his upcoming award. He led me to the registration table and went back to other admirers, all wanting a word, a glimpse, a picture with the man-of-the night, though I assumed he’d be more comfortable in an easy chair sipping a Scotch.
The overpowering nose of fish told me beef wasn’t on the menu.The buffet line stretched across the room, and I took a spot in line checking my email and Twitter feed on my iPhone. Another baseball mom sent me updates from the game I was missing. A rain delay kept that urgency at bay for a while, so I engaged fully into the event at hand. Once reaching the chafing dishes, my eyes widened at the food selection; it looked better than it smelled—a dressed salad, scrumptious mini-twice baked red potatoes, veggie medley, strips of chicken, salmon (thus the aroma), and bite-size desserts. With a glass of lemon-topped ice water in hand and a full plate in the other, I juggled through the room to find a place to sit.
I asked those seated at a half-filled table if I could join them, and they dutifully accepted this newcomer to their evening. Little did I know that I’d joined a couple of the evening’s hopefuls—entrants in first novel and memoir categories. Friendly conversations emerged with an exchange of cards, discussion of our work, and a guess about how the Terry Kay novels on the table would be divvied out. I’d made it clear that I REALLY wanted the thin Christmas book, To Whom an Angel Spoke, because obtaining it would complete my collection of all Terry’s books. As luck would have it, I had the necessary sticker on the left leg of my chair indicating I was one of the winners. Happiness. My only credential was that I’d copyedited his latest novel, Bogmeadow’s Wish, and he’d mentioned me on the acknowledgements page. I joked that I had my name in a novel one way or another.
Terry brought his daughter Terri over to meet me and talk about my family’s upcoming mission trip to Moldova. I scanned her beautiful face to see any similarities with her father. I hoped to meet her sister and mother while we were there too and wondered if her brothers were at the table. Terry had told me that a couple tables of folks from Athens would be in attendance. I also heard the name Grady Thrasher, TK’s best bud, and I wanted to meet him as well.
Lisa Russell, the administrative wheel behind Georgia Writers Association kicked off the evening with quite a funny bone. She must be quite a hoot to work with on the Owls’ campus at KSU. Next the emcee took the stage. Jessica Handler’s own resume intrigued me enough to buy her novel, Invisible Sisters, at the close of the evening and get an autograph. I admit that I read the first chapter this morning and hated that I had to put it down to eat breakfast. She delivered the program with professional air, moving through the lists of nominees at an even pace (unlike the protracted MLB draft earlier this week) and pronouncing unusual names fluidly as if they were poetry in her native language.
Though neither of my table-mates won in their categories, I was happy for the other winners. I imagined how rewarding it would feel to walk up front, receive the award and smile for the photographer. I also imagined the loud “WOO HOO!” I would certainly shout if my name were called. It wouldn’t be planned but rather a natural reflex of enthusiasm, similar to my kindergarten graduation four decades ago. When 5-year-old Denise Jordan heard her name called, I yelled out, “That’s me!” And so it continues.
Next came the introduction of Terry Kay by Dana Wildsmith, another of his friends and finalist in the creative nonfiction essay category. She gave a lovely set-up for Terry quoting from one of his best novels, The Book of Marie. When Mr. Kay took the stage, the room fell silent. He congratulated the evening’s winners and made all the writers in the room feel accomplished for their work.
When he spoke of writing as the reader and who all he has been able to become, to do, to have, to explore, to love, to achieve through the words of other authors, it was liquid silk to the audience’s ears. A room filled with people who put one word after another for themselves or for others, maybe to be recognized, noticed, confirmed, or maybe to fill their spirit. They write, not because they’re made to, but because to deny it would be to deny their gift. Not writing would be like trying not to scratch a nagging itch. Terry Kay lifted the audience of writers to an almost spiritual level, and we felt satisfied.
At the close of the ceremony, I traipsed back over to Terri to ask if her sister Heather were here. Right next to her she sat. An adorable, tall, spunky younger sister popped up from her chair, and I asked her about her recent back surgery—a topic I know too well. I told the girls I hoped to meet their mother too. We turned around as she was approaching me. With her hand extended, Mrs. Kay said, “Hello, Denise.” She knew who I was! “Yes, I know who you are,” she told me. These Kay women were delightful, and finally having the chance to meet them glittered my day.
I looked at his daughters and marveled. I wondered what they thought of their father. I’m always envious of people with fathers. I lost mine at 18. But Terry Kay isn’t a father figure to me. He’s something in a category of its own—mystical and lyrical, yet tangible. He’s believed in me and invested time in me. For what, I don’t know, but I’m grateful. I’m just one of many whom Terry has surely mentored along the way, and I aim to make him proud as I move through the revision stage of my manuscript. Who knows? Maybe one day I might have an entry in GAYA. At least I can move in that direction.
And yes, I did get to meet Grady Thrasher, and for some unspoken reason, I felt Bogmeadow wink in approval.