Feature Articles

Loving life, writing about food

Mountain Brook’s Katherine Cobbs.

By Rick Watson

Katherine Cobbs is living her dream. “I pinch myself daily because I feel so lucky to get paid for doing what I love,” she said.

What the Mountain Brook resident loves is food, and writing about it. She is food editor for Oxmoor House/Time Home Entertainment Inc. at Southern Progress Corporation in Birmingham, and has worked with chef Frank Stitt on two books.

Food played an important role in Katherine’s life even from an early age. She said her parents when she was growing up in Oklahoma City were “competing cooks.” Her mother specialized in more traditional dishes, and her father leaned towards ethnic fare. “Everything was always a production, and that was fun for me.”

After graduating from Austin College in Sherman, Texas, she moved to Washington D.C., and took a job as an event planner for the Smithsonian Institution. Her favorite part of the Smithsonian job was working with the caterers and helping plan menus for events.

She loved the work there, but it was exhausting. She decided it was time to travel. “I flew to France and took a short-term job at an amazing vineyard in Bordeaux called Domaine de Chevalier, picking grapes with the laborers during the day and living at the chateau at night,” she said.  “I met so many interesting people, and every night we cooked up simple, but always fabulous, meals.”

After the grape harvest, she worked as a nanny in Aix-en-Provence for a while before heading to Paris where she stayed a few months with her sister and her new French brother-in-law. “It was a wonderful experience that impacted me in many ways,” Cobbs said.

When Katherine returned to the U.S., she landed a job as an editorial assistant at National Geographic.  “It was a phenomenal two years of learning the ropes of magazine publishing.”  She did research for the magazine and wrote captions and blurbs, which she said was exciting at that stage in her young career. “It was a fun place to work–the sort of place it’s easy to get too comfortable in and never leave.” A wise editor encouraged her to get as much experience as possible with different publishing outlets, and she moved on. As it turns out, the advice helped to move her a little closer to Birmingham and her dream.

She was in the process of relocating to Austin, Texas—which would put her nearer to her parents—but something strange happened on the way to the Lone Star State. The rented moving truck was stolen, along with everything Katherine owned except for the clothes she was wearing.

The loss threw her for a loop, but it also changed the course of her life. She remembers “being down in the dumps for a while and thinking, ‘What have I done? I just gave up this great life and job to move here, and now I’ve got nothing.”

Then she received a call from one of the editors at National Geographic who had learned  about her loss, and told her about an editorial position at a new publishing outfit in Sausalito, California.

She flew to the West Coast and quickly landed the job. Nowadays she wonders how different  things would be, had the truck not been stolen, but friends have pointed out that life often throws curves and pushes us in one direction or another. This particular curve was especially fortuitous for Katherine because she met her future husband, John Cobbs,  a native of Mountain Brook, on the day she landed in California.  “Serendipity, for sure!” she said.

It was during her time in San Francisco that her dream began to take shape. “Eventually, I knew I wanted to somehow fuse my love of food and writing into a single job,” Cobbs said. She took an editor’s position at a cookbook publishing house in San Francisco and began working on cookbooks for Williams-Sonoma and Time-Life—then left that position to attend culinary school there. After graduation from culinary school, she helped launch the website http://www.cooking.com that still exists today.  She also freelanced as a food writer and recipe developer.

It was during this time that Katherine and John began to look for a place that was less expensive to live, and better suited for raising their two young children. They considered Austin, near Katherine’s family, and Santa Fe, N.M. But then, with the help of his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Glenn Cobbs, they found a house for sale in Mountain Brook—John’s hometown.

They made the move in 2003, and in their first week here, through a set of coincidences, Katherine was asked to meet with chef Frank Stitt, who hired her as ghostwriter for his first book, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.

“We’d meet weekly over coffee, pick a topic or two, and then talk,” Katherine said. She audio-taped their conversations and later wrote essays based on them. “Frank is so eloquent and passionate about what he does, it’s infectious.” Katherine “loved working with Frank, his wife Pardis, the cooks in the kitchen, and the other folks there.”  For Stitt’s second book Bottega Favorita, he made Katherine his co-author. The success of those books helped land her next gig as co-writer of Chris Hastings’ book, the Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook.

During the seven years of writing chefs’ books in Birmingham, Katherine also wrote for Portico and Birmingham magazines, eventually becoming Food Editor of the short-lived magazine Thicket. Last January, with the faltering economy, she decided to return to a full-time, salaried position and took on her current job at Southern Progress.

Her current role is to help conceive, develop content, and see projects through the editorial process each season, mostly for the Southern Living brand. She has several pots on the stove, editing-wise, including an upcoming book with Todd English, a chef from Boston, who owns restaurants in New York and internationally.

Katherine does have interests outside of writing about food. She loves to exercise and when they first moved to Mountain Brook, she spent time running on Jemison Trail to acquaint herself with her new surroundings. Lately she’s become interested in CrossFit exercise which has a food component. She also enjoys preparing meals with family and friends. For that, she says she never cooks from a recipe, but may use one as inspiration. “I like to use a recipe as a jumping off point,” she said. She usually goes to the grocery store or farmer’s market to see what’s fresh and appealing, then builds her menu around that.

If the guests are from out of town, she leans toward fresh seafood, but if they’re local she often does ethnic food—which might be Vietnamese, Thai, or Indian. “I love it all.  First and foremost, it depends on what I have access to, and secondly, my audience.”

Katherine says she not only loves her work but also loves living in Mountain Brook with John, a web developer with Luckie & Company, and her three girls, Parker, Ella, and Adeline. “I almost feel like I’ve moved to Mayberry,” she said with a laugh. “When my parents, John Ed and Jean Withers, visit us here they feel like they’re back in 1955 when people dressed up to go to church. They love that our children say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir.’”

In fact, she says Mountain Brook is such a well-kept secret that she’s hesitant to tell outsiders just how enjoyable it is to live here.


Chemo, Courage & Cupcakes

Rollins Wilkerson and her big brother Garner enjoying a recent trip to Disney World to celebrate the end of Rollins’ cancer treatment.

By Brooke Wilkerson

It was another ordinary day in the summer of 2008.

My daughter, Rollins, had just celebrated her 2nd birthday, and now it was time for her yearly check-up. Rollins was a healthy toddler, happy and seemingly perfect. There were no signs that something could be terribly wrong.

We arrived at our pediatrician’s office on Thursday, June 19. Shortly after Rollins’s height, weight and labs were completed, her doctor returned to tell us we needed to go to Children’s Hospital to have further blood drawn. I rushed Rollins to the hospital and cried while holding her in my arms, terrified of the results. When your entire world rests on a test, crying is all you can do to keep from screaming.

We agonized all weekend over the unknown and arrived at Clinic 8 the morning of Monday, June 23rd for a bone marrow biopsy. The devastating news came quickly: her bone marrow was 86 percent full of leukemia. Our world stopped!  I’d never felt so helpless and lost in my life. I had to remind myself to breathe, knowing I wanted to stop.

After about an hour, we were sent to the 4th tower of Children’s Hospital to begin treatment and more tests. It happened so quickly—one minute my family was healthy and safe, the next minute the world came crashing down.  My husband and I spent that first night—and many nights to come—sleeping beside her crib, praying with every bit of energy we had left, knowing and believing all things are possible through Christ.

The next day, Rollins’s port was inserted, and her chemo began. I carried her down the long, dull corridor for surgery, terrified to let her go and scared for her future. I didn’t yet know or understand her leukemia and what it all meant. I was crying uncontrollably, praying to wake from a nightmare. The doctors came in to discuss her surgery, and I’ll never forget what one said to me: “And we will put the port here so the scar will be hidden by her bra in the future.”

I stopped (for just a second) and smiled at him. He probably wondered why. At that moment, all I wanted to feel was that she’d get through this and be perfect again. Those words gave me the hope I needed. He didn’t have to say it was a common surgery, or A.L.L. was a survivable cancer. He didn’t have to say anything else. It was exactly what I needed to hear, like a voice from God, telling me she’d be okay.

The next few months required us to find a “new normal.” I watched Rollins struggle through 28 days of heavy steroids that first month, endure various horrible new chemos, have two blood transfusions and receive bone marrows and spinal taps week after week, month after month. She’d be nauseated one minute and exhausted the next. Still a baby, she was supposed to be playing, happy and free from pain and fear.  Day after day, I saw an amazing God-given strength in her. Even on terrible days of chemo and treatments, Rollins would find a beautiful smile from within that comforted me. In the months to follow, I’d learn how to fight alongside her.

Rollins continued grueling procedures, treatments and chemo for 2 years and 4 months. I recall a message written on one of many red wagons at Children’s Hospital saying, “Don’t tell God how big your storms are, tell your storms how big your God is!” Relinquishing all control and feeling helpless, I had to entrust God with her, knowing he had mighty plans for her future.

I let go, and He caught her.

On the glorious day of August 27th, 2010, Rollins received her last dose of chemo! You can probably recall a few pivotal moments in your life when your breath was taken away by something magical, something one-of-a-kind.  A time when you catch yourself laughing and crying simultaneously; so overjoyed, so speechless.  August 27th, 2010, was that and more. We remembered Rollins’s past and celebrated her future. God had blessed us through this terrible journey and given my family a miracle!

Throughout my daughter’s brave battle, I hit rock-bottom several times, falling to my knees and crying out to God. It was the pain of a “mother’s heart,” wanting to take the cancer from my child and bear it alone. But through Rollins’s fight, I was transformed into a life unexpected. I became aware of blessings like never before, simple everyday joys that get overlooked—things as simple as my kids going to bed with no sniffle, sneezes or coughs.  These ordinary, uneventful days are now treasured around our house. No surprises, pain or hospital visits…just peace.

One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from Rollins is to live in the moment. She doesn’t fear tomorrow or burden herself with the past. She doesn’t weigh herself down with the baggage of fear, sadness or “what if’s.” She simply lives for today, never missing what’s in front of her.

Cupcakes are one of Rollins’s favorite sweets. They’re perfect for small celebrations—or to put a smile on her face. Following her monthly labs and check-up, Rollins and I like to celebrate her good report with a cupcake or two. Each clear check-up is a special milestone, a reminder of my many blessings, both big and small.  As Rollins happily enjoys her treat, I quietly reflect on a precious victory.

She doesn’t understand the significance of a tiny cupcake, but for me it’s a reminder of a miracle given and the simple, sweet joys in life…through the eyes of a child.

Brooke Wilkerson is a Mtn. Brook mom of two and former elementary school teacher who enjoys writing and painting. Contact her at brooketyne@hotmail.com.


“This is the blessed life – not anxious to see far in front, nor careful about the next step, not eager to choose the path, nor weighted with the heavy responsibilities of the future, but quietly following behind the Shepherd, one step at a time.”  Excerpted from Streams in the Desert.

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A God Thing

By Kari Kampakis

Editor’s Note: Following is a story from Kari Kampakis’s blog, found on her website www.karikampakis.com. It was posted in November 2010.

Something cool happened the other day—and the best part is, it started with a little girl.

Her name is Rollins Wilkerson. She loves Barbies, dancing, and princesses. And until her two-year-old check-up—when results of a routine blood test led to a leukemia diagnosis—she seemed perfectly healthy.

Rollins lives in my neighborhood. Her brother Garner is in Ella’s class, and her parents—Brooke and Lee—are two of my favorite people. The courage and strength this family showed as Rollins endured chemo and treatment has inspired thousands. Through Caringbridge, Brooke publicly shared her journey. She’s a gifted writer—this despite no training—and with every post I read, I felt she’d taken me by the hand, led me through the darkness of her pain and the light of her faith.

Rollins is now four, and after her last treatment in August 2010, I asked Brooke to share her story in Village Living. Brooke e-mailed it to me the night of November 4. Titled “Cupcakes, Courage, & Chemo,” her story touched me. It was full of great quotes, but what stood out most was a verse Brooke once saw on a red wagon at Children’s Hospital:

“Don’t tell God how big your storms are, tell your storms how big your God is.”

Isn’t that great? I decided this deserved to be passed on, so I posted it on Facebook around 9:30 p.m. Several people expressed positive comments—including a Facebook friend from my hometown, Mark Kessler. I couldn’t remember having seen Mark comment on anything before, so it came as a pleasant surprise.

Twenty minutes later, I received an e-mail. It was work-related, and at the end the person told me that Sara Evans—the country music superstar who lives in Birmingham with her husband, Jay Barker—had posted the same storm quote I had on her Facebook fan page. I thought it was a crazy coincidence.

Before I could check out Sara’s page, Mark commented on my post again. Kari, he said, you never know when God will take your testimony and make it HUGE. Mark said he saw my post and loved it. He was texting a friend and sent it to him. His friend’s wife loved the quote and tweeted it to her fans. The wife, it turns out, is Sara Evans.

Sara’s Facebook page has 86,000 fans. By noon the next day, the tweet had gotten more than 1,600 “likes.” Two days later, Jay told Mark that it made the Top Twenty Tweets on CMT for the week.

It goes without saying that this quote took on a life of its own. As an added mystery, no one knows who coined the phrase—or who donated that particular red wagon to Children’s. When a child finishes chemo, the family decorates and leaves a wagon for patients to use. As Brooke tells it, she saw this wagon at a very low point. She was sobbing her eyes out, wandering around Children’s overwhelmed by fear and a lack of control, when it suddenly caught her eye.

“I felt like God was talking to me,” she says. “That’s when I realized I had to entrust Rollins to Him.”

Can you guess what the Wilkerson family wrote on their red wagon last August when they donated one to Children’s Hospital?

I leave you with one final, thought-provoking question: Will the story of “Don’t tell God the size of your storms, tell your storms the size of your God” carry on? Will the chain reaction continue, or has the momentum stopped? I can’t answer my own question, obviously, but I can tell you this: It sure feels like a God thing.

Mountain Brook Resident on “Jeopardy!”

Local "Jeopardy!" contestant Alice Jackson

By Rick Watson

Let’s play a game.

Contestant one: I’ll take Local Celebrity’s for $1000

Host: Alice Jackson

Contestant one: Who is the only person from Mountain Brook, Alabama to appear on the game show Jeopardy?

Host: That is CORRECT!

Each year, thousands of people try out for a slot on the popular game show Jeopardy. Very few are chosen, but Alice Jackson of Mountain Brook ran the gauntlet of tests, interviews, as well as personal evaluation and managed to capture one of the coveted slots on the game show.

Alice and her husband Matthew Jackson of Mountain Brook both love Jeopardy. She said they try to watch the show daily.

Back in January, a promo came on explaining how to become a contestant and they decided to give it a shot. “My husband is good at Jeopardy too,” Alice said.  She doesn’t recall how they decided, but ultimately she was the one who did the online version of the game which was the first step to becoming a contestant.

Once online, the questions came fast and furious, she recalls. “Everything was timed and the questions were really hard.”

She thought she’d bombed her tryout.  But in April, she got an email saying she had made it to the next stage, and asked if she could attend regional tryouts in New Orleans on June 12.

Alice told them that date would be problematic because a new baby was on the way and would be about five weeks old on June 12. She asked about other possible dates, but none of them seem to work either, so after a brief family discussion, they were New Orleans bound.

Alice’s parents came up from Fort Walton to sit with their three year old daughter Ann Monroe, and newborn son Otto, while Alice and Matthew went to New Orleans.

Alice didn’t do a lot of cramming to prepare for her tryouts. Her husband bought her a Shakespeare for Dummies book, and a friend bought her a copy of The Intellectual Devotional, which is a book that covers a wide range of topics similar to those that might appear as questions on Jeopardy.

She also felt confident that her Masters Degree in Art History from the University of Alabama in Birmingham, where she currently teaches part-time, would serve her well in her quest.

“I tell my students all the time that art history is about so much more than just art. Art history touches on religion, politics, mythology, and many other topics,” she said. “I keep telling them that what they learn will come in handy someday.”

When they arrived in New Orleans, she met with producers and took yet another test which was much easier than she expected. “I’m not sure why, but the test at the tryout was much easier than the online test,” she recalled.

The contestant hopefuls were split into groups and they played mock Jeopardy against each other. “We played the game with buzzers and an audience,” she said. The producers also interviewed the contestants in front of the crowd to see how well they performed.

Alice felt that she did well, but in talking with other contestants, many of them had tried out multiple times and had never been selected to appear on the show. She left the tryouts thinking, “oh well, this was fun.” She felt that being chosen on the first round was a long shot.

But Alice was wrong! A few weeks later, they called and asked if she could be in Los Angeles in late August. “I was in shock for about three days,” she said. “We were so excited!”

Once in California, the producers bent over backwards to make contestants feel at ease. “Everyone was great!” she said.  She arrived on set at 8 a.m. and the staff went over the rules, gave them helpful tips, and provided background information in a very relaxed manner. “They told stories and went over all the specifics so there would be no surprises on the air,” she said.

Before taping, they did her make-up and hair to get her camera ready.

All the contestants had a chance to do dry run games so that they felt comfortable with the set and the game.

Prior to taping, Alice provided producers with some biographical information. “They were looking for something interesting about each contestant that they could talk about on the show,” said Alice. She happened to mention that she’d been a bridesmaid in fourteen weddings.

They found that very interesting and when she told them she had twelve bridesmaids in her own wedding they were amazed. “I guess we do things big in the south,” she said. The producers loved that line so that’s the story she told on the air.

During the show, everything seems spontaneous, but “they leave little up to chance,” she explained.

Alex Trebek, who has hosted Jeopardy for twenty-seven years, was personable according to Alice. All the contestants had their pictures taken with him and he made being on the show “a great experience.”

Alice can’t divulge any specifics about her appearance on Jeopardy but you can see for yourself by watching the show on December 28th 2010.

The Jacksons regret not having had time for sight-seeing in California, but their schedule was tight.

Alice thought to herself as she flew to LA for the show, “Whether I win or lose, doesn’t matter,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’m going to enjoy it”.

And she did.

Rick Watson’s book Remembering Big is available at The Little Professor Book Store in Homewood or online at www.homefolkmedia.com. You can contact him at rick@homefolkmedia.com


Queen Elizabeth meets Rebecca, Luke and Bob Moody

Watercolors of former Mountain Brook City Councilman Recognized Worldwide

By Lauren Nix

After singing “God Save the Queen” in Saint Bartholomew’s the Great, the oldest church in London, Mountain Brook residents Bob and Rebecca Moody, along with their son Luke, walked across the street to the reception where they would present Bob’s second book of paintings to Queen Elizabeth.  In the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prince Philip and Her Majesty the Queen, Rebecca and Bob were “blown away,” Rebecca said.

Then the moment came for the family to remember the rules they were told before the ceremony – how to curtsy, do not speak until spoken to, how to address Her Majesty – because the Queen was making her way to them. “She was so gracious, just as sweet as she could be,” Bob said.

Most Mountain Brook residents know Bob as the talented architect who has served on the City Council from 2006 until recently.  What many people may not realize, however, is that Moody is an exceptional, accomplished artist recognized not only by the Queen of England, but by many, many others.

Seven years after their encounter with the Queen, Bob and Rebecca are working on new projects.  They hope to complete more books, the first being a book of Bob’s watercolors of Birmingham.  For this, they would like to take suggestions about what buildings and sites are special to Birmingham residents.

“We’re working with a web design company to make it interactive so that people can suggest things that Bob can paint, and maybe include some stories about why it’s important to them,” Rebecca said. “We want to make it not just our Birmingham, but everyone’s Birmingham.”

Rebecca says she also hopes to send out a monthly newsletter with a free watercolor included to keep people updated on their plans.  A book with paintings of the livery halls in London and a book of New York Churches are also possibilities.

She is a writer and he a painter, and with their combined talents, the couple has self-published their two books.  The first, “Gifts of Grace – Alabama Churches in Watercolor,” was published in 2001 and, as the title suggests, is a collection of Bob’s watercolor paintings of various churches in Alabama along with a description and history of the churches and Bob’s personal experiences there.

“It really was fun,” Bob said. “I had traveled the state so much, and I had sketched and painted a lot of churches in Alabama, and I thought we’re going to do a book.  And that was just a natural with Rebecca being a writer.”

The second book, “The Church Triumphant – English Churches in Watercolor,” is the one presented to the Queen.  It is comprised of Bob’s paintings of English churches.  James Blott, director of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, approached the couple and asked them to create this book after seeing their work in “Gifts of Grace.”

“[Gifts of Grace] had been out for about two years, and we got a call from an Englishman, and he said that we needed to get involved with the Historic Preservation Trust in England because they were having their 50th anniversary,” Rebecca said. “A lot of their churches had been bombed in World War II, and so they were restoring them and wondered if we would come over and work on that, so we did.”

The Historic Churches Preservation Trust is an organization whose goal is to preserve and restore churches in England, and her majesty the Queen is the patron. Bob and Rebecca expected the book to take a few years to complete, but were told if they could have it done by the Trust’s 50th anniversary ceremony, they could present the first copy to the Queen.

“We started in October, and he said if you can have it finished by next June and published, you can present the first copy to the Queen at this 50th anniversary ceremony,” Bob said.  “So we worked like fiends and got it produced.”

Before the Books

After graduating from Auburn University where he earned a degree in architecture with a focus in interior design, Bob began working as a graphic designer for R.G. LeTourneau in Dallas, Texas.

Next, he worked for NASA in Huntsville when it was first formed as the Art Director in their future projects department. His department was responsible for illustrating the Apollo I project, and his illustrations were presented to Congress. Each slide was a hand-painted watercolor.

“Our future projects department did 56 slides of the Apollo program,” Bob said.

After working at NASA for seven years, Bob said he felt it was time to return to architecture, and moved to Birmingham to work for Charles H. McCauley, which was the largest architectural firm in the southeast at the time.

After heading their interior design department for seven years, Bob decided to open his own firm, Moody and Associates, which specialized in historic restoration and renovation.

“Our office did about 50 buildings in downtown Birmingham, plus all over the South,” Bob said.

Bob and Rebecca have been married for 31 years and working together for 30 of those.  After meeting at Redmont Gardens, Rebecca left her job at Southern Living magazine to work with Bob at Moody and Associates.

“She, for not being trained in design, is the best designer who ever worked in the office,” Bob said. “We’ve been a pretty good team.”

After 30 years in business, Bob and Rebecca closed the office to write a book.  After the completion of the two books, Bob began serving on the City Council in 2006.  He says his only regret is not being able to get Mountain Brook Village designated as a historic place on the national register.

“I had worked so long in historic preservation and restoration, and Mountain Brook Village, to us, is the most special place in America,” Bob said.

Bob was also the only council member to vote against the Lane Park development, a vote he is still confident in today. “I worked in that [industry] for 30 years or 40, and I just feel like my vision for Mountain Brook is what it ought to be, and when you feel that strongly that’s the way you vote, whatever the consequences.”

Overall, Bob feels serving for the council was a positive experience and allowed him to learn about the city. “I got to know all of the city and realized we have the very best,” Bob said.  “I was amazed at the number of volunteers.”

Bob’s work will be featured at the Mountain Brook Art Association’s Holiday Art Show on Nov. 4.

For more information on Bob and Rebecca, and to see some of Bob’s watercolors, visit their website at www.moodywatercolors.com or find them on Twitter at twitter.com/moodypaints.

A Bird For All Seasons

Sharon Graham with Montevallo Road's favorite rooster

By Lauren Nix

Sharon Graham has become something she never expected: The Rooster Lady.

She earned the title because of the elaborate costumes and decorations she dresses the stone rooster statue in her front yard at 3749 Montevallo Road in Mountain Brook for every holiday and occasion.

“I just put the rooster out there, and I didn’t think a thing about it,” she said. “I just decorated it.”

Now she says she must always have some outfit on the rooster because people have come to expect it, and even drive her way to see it.

“If it’s naked even for a morning or a day then people will say ‘I made a special point to drive by the rooster and it wasn’t dressed up,’” Graham said.  “Or ‘I almost got in a wreck today looking at the rooster.’”

The rooster always has an appropriate outfit for whatever time of year it is.  Right now, he is dressed in football attire and will soon have on an orange wig and pumpkin hat for Halloween.

“Well [the costumes] range from all the holidays of course — Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Veteran’s Day- all the holidays,” Graham said.

“The most bizarre [costume] I have is for New Year’s Eve.  I have a lamp shade with tassels all over it and it’s decorated and I put that on the rooster,” she said. “The joke was ‘He got so drunk he put the lamp shade on his head,’ so for New Year’s I put the lamp shade on his head.  But I do have to explain that one to a lot of young people.”

Graham says the rooster even gets letters and gifts from people.

“I get letters to the rooster from children, and I’ve gotten two gifts to the rooster.  One, when I decorated it for my first grandchild, someone left a baby gift by the rooster,  and then another time a lady gave a little metal rooster to the rooster with a note saying ‘I go to work every day and it just makes me happy to see the rooster.’  And that’s what all the letters say,” Graham said.

The rooster has become a neighborhood staple and something that can bring a smile to anyone passing by.  Graham says she just started decorating it for fun because she decorates everything.

“If I see something I’m going to decorate it, it can’t just sit there plain,” she said.

The rooster was stolen one Labor Day weekend a year after they moved into the Montevallo Road house.

“My husband came home and said the rooster’s gone,” Graham said.  “I just happened to be down at the beach on Labor Day where I bought the rooster so I could replace it.”

The rooster hasn’t been bothered since then, and is consistently dressed in an appropriate outfit for whatever occasion.

Graham says she has several Christmas outfits for the rooster and she decorates him with baby things whenever a child is born into their family.

“People are always walking by,” she said.  “If I’m out getting the mail people always stop and tell me they love the rooster.  I’m known as the rooster lady now.  I never thought I’d be the rooster lady.”

If you’re driving or walking down Montevallo Road, be sure to look out for the dressed up rooster that has a special place in the Mountain Brook area.

Creating a Legacy Through Art

By Jennifer Gray

In Mountain Brook, the tradition of commissioning portraits has always been popular. Southerners in general have a real spirit of family that expresses itself through having a portrait.  “It is a tradition that has always been in style, most notably in the South.  Some families have a tradition of portraits, and some may want to start that tradition,” said Kelly Moffatt of Portraits Inc.

Many consider portraits to be the most dramatic form of artwork. Families have always wanted to preserve images of their loved ones and this art form has long been regarded as one of the most special and meaningful ways to do that. Kelly says that when you commission a portrait, “You are creating a legacy and a way to capture that something special about that person that you always want to remember.”

The popularity of portraits as a form of art can be found throughout history. Portraits originally captured a person in the only way available since photography hasn’t always been an option.   Some of the best-known pieces of artwork are portraits such as the Mona Lisa.

Mountain Brook residents frequently turn to locally owned Portraits Inc. to help them with the process.  Founded in 1986 by Beverly McNeil, they have over 60 representatives across the country and represent over 200 artists.

Emily and Walter Dunn, of Mountain Brook, recently went through the process of commissioning a portrait.  They knew that they wanted an oil portrait of their two children to grace their newly renovated home.  “Children grow up so fast.  You want to capture a moment in their childhood,” said Emily.  Kelly Moffatt helped the Dunns with the entire process.

That process starts with selecting the style portrait you want; oil painting, charcoal, casual, formal, outdoor setting, or indoor setting and the style of the portrait; contemporary or traditional.  If you want multiple family members painted, you must determine if you going to have them painted together or separate. “It is an investment to enjoy for the rest of your life, so you want to take your time and make certain that you are going to love it,” said Moffatt.

Next, you must determine your budget and select an artist.  Prices vary from artist to artist and also by the medium that is chosen.  Most portraits are priced by the number of people in the painting and the size of the piece- head and shoulders, three quarter, or full length.  “We have a lot of artists in all price ranges,” she added.

Kelly showed Emily multiple painters and some of their work. The Dunns settled on Carol Baxter Kirby of Atlanta.  Emily said that what drew her to Carol’s work was that each portrait that she saw looked like a beautiful piece of art that happened to include the children she was painting.  She also said she liked that Carol’s style was not real tight, and that the focus was on the faces.  “Carol is really artistic, but she also does a great job of capturing children in realistic life,” said Kelly.

Emily knew what she wanted to achieve with this commission.  “Families change so quickly.  They (her children) were at the perfect age.  I wanted a little picture of our lives at that moment,” she said.  Brokers like Kelly Moffatt help make that dream come true.  Using a portrait broker takes away a lot of the guesswork.

Once the artist has been selected, there are photos taken of the subject, in this case two young children.  The Dunns helped review the photos and weighed in on the ones they liked the best.  Carol then starts by studying the photos and pulling anywhere from five to twenty to use to create her drawing.  She then works on creating a sketch for the portrait that is the actual size she is recommending.   The client then sees it and again can provide feedback to her on anything they would like to see drawn differently.   “When a client loves the drawing, I know they will love the painting,” Carol said.

Some artists do a color study that might be a small oil painting that represents the composition.  Others do charcoal studies prior to the final oil painting.  Some artists just start with the final product.  “The process varies a little from artist to artist,” Moffatt said.  “Most artists want the client’s input in helping chose the photographs and the feel of the portrait, but there are some that retain complete control of the process.”

Kelly says she is often asked when is the best time in one’s life to have a portrait commissioned.  “There is no perfect age.  It’s all about when you want to capture what is a special time in that person’s life.  There is no right or wrong time.  Some people think that if they go past the age of six they have missed the right time,” she said. “But that’s not so.”

Another popular type of portraits is Institutional or Corporate portraits.  Becky Keyes, another Broker with Portraits, Inc. handles many of this type of client along with her individual clients.  “Often times non profit businesses honor their donors. Sometimes they name a building after the donor and this might include a portrait.  Commissioning a portrait is one of the big ways they honor them,” she said.

Also, when someone retires from a key leadership position in a company, the company often honors them in this way.  “Some companies or universities have a tradition of having a collection of portraits for a particular position that are displayed,” Keyes said.  She said that she almost always sees the person making the decisions regarding the commission share the same level of respect and honor for the person being painted as if they were a family member.

Most commissions, whether corporate or individual, take anywhere from three months to a year, depending on the artist, for the entire process- photos to finished portrait.

When Kelly and Carol delivered the finished painting to the Dunns, everyone was excited.  The painting was placed on an easel in the home and Emily and her children were brought in to see it.  All were overwhelmed with the finished product.  “Everyone has photos of their children in their home, but I also wanted something that was timeless.  Even when they are grown and out of our home, Walter and I will enjoy looking at this painting of them,” Emily said.  “There is also a lot more depth in a painting than a photo,” Carol added.

Lessons from Virginia

By Abby Frazer


Abby Frazer with daughter Virginia

I remember a page from our premarital counseling workbook that asked me to rank a list of potential hardships according to which one would impact me most were it to materialize.

I can’t recall what topped my list, but I can tell you what fell in last place: Having a child with special needs.

It’s ironic to me that I only remember that one exercise from all of our premarital counseling, and I have to laugh at the naïveté of my answer. But even if I’d known I’d have a daughter with cerebral palsy, there’s no way I could have prepared myself for the intense suffering that lay ahead.

Virginia was born in October of 2003, and due to gross medical negligence, she has severe cerebral palsy. I cannot put into words the pain of those first few years. Virginia’s suffering was extreme, and she cried almost constantly. Nothing about motherhood was even close to what I’d imagined. My heart broke daily as I watched her struggle.

I thought our family would never have another happy moment.

But I was wrong.

Over the past few years, the pain and shock have begun to lessen, and our family has started to smile again. Obviously, I’d take away all of Virginia’s suffering if I could, but I’m finally in a place where I can acknowledge some of the blessings that have come from our tragedy.

For starters, Virginia’s life has taught me a lot about the profound relationship between suffering and joy. It takes time, but joy always rises from the ashes of suffering. The hard things I’ve been through allow me to experience joy on a much deeper level – and to appreciate moments I might otherwise have taken for granted.

Virginia’s injuries are somewhat isolating, so we get to spend a lot of time together as a family. Nothing lifts my spirit more than witnessing the bond between my children and realizing that Wills and Eliza love to hear Virginia laugh just as much as Findley and I do.

Virginia’s suffering has also changed my perspective on life. I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. It doesn’t matter to me if Wills makes the varsity basketball team, or if Eliza is a National Merit Finalist. What does matter to me is that they become individuals with a heart for those who suffer. I’m already beginning to see the seeds of compassion in their young lives.

Virginia embraces life with a vigor that’s taught me firsthand how to seize each moment. For a long time, I was frozen in my sorrow, too overwhelmed by what lay ahead to celebrate today. But I’ve learned that life isn’t ever going to be exactly like I want it, and if I wait for things to be perfect, I might miss a chance to make her smile.

Virginia needs me to infuse as much joy and laughter into her day as I possibly can. We eat a lot of ice cream at our house, and we never miss an opportunity for a dance party.

Having a special needs child is an invitation to a slower paced life. I’ve tried very hard to embrace that invitation. Yes, I sometimes mourn the fact that we can’t eat Chick-fil-A in the back of the car in route to ballet lessons, but when I’m honest with myself, I realize I’ve been given the chance to spend time with my children and build strong relationships within our family. There are lots of activities we have to pass up, but the result is a unity I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The physical and emotional support that I need to care for Virginia is humbling. I feel lucky to live in a place that really does seem like a village at times. Our first Christmas in Mountain Brook, we went to see Santa Claus ride into the village on a fire truck. The entire hour we were there, we didn’t see one person whom we knew. When we got home, I realized Virginia had lost one of her new gloves. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll never see that again.

When I went to get the mail the next day, there was her tiny pink glove. I still don’t know who returned it – or how they knew it was Virginia’s – but it seemed magical to me. That gesture made me feel like people could tell we had our hands full, and they were doing what they could to lighten the load. I felt very welcome.

I often come home to find homemade bread on my doorstep, or a note of encouragement in my mailbox. Tammy at Gilchrist knows to make Virginia’s milkshake a little on the thin side. Mr. Joe at the Western always offers to push my grocery cart so I can maneuver her wheelchair.

Having children, especially ones with special needs, reminds us all that we really do need to live in community. We need to push ourselves to get to know our neighbors and encourage those who bear extra burdens. Virginia is a tremendous blessing not only in our lives, but in the lives of all of the people in our community who have come to know and love her.

When I think back to the workbook page from our premarital counseling, I realize that not only would it have been impossible to wrap my mind around the heartbreak of having a child with special needs, it also would have been impossible to get even a glimpse of the joy and love Virginia brings to my life.

Abby Frazer is a Mountain Brook mother of three who enjoys reading, writing and listening to sports radio. She seeks to provide hope and humor through her blog, www.absgab.com, where she writes about her family’s unique journey through life. She can be reached at abbysgab@gmail.com.


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