78-year-old college student, author from Clay, shows the world it is never too late to pursue your dreams
By Crystal McGough, copy editor
CLAY — Gayle Young has dreamed since childhood of being a published author. In the seventh grade, she took her first steps toward her writing career when she entered and won a play-writing contest. The winner of the contest would have their play performed in front of the entire seventh-grade class, and being chosen as the winner inspired young Gayle to continue writing and collecting stories throughout her life.
Gayle’s dreams to become a writer were put on hold, however, when she got married right after graduating high school and began to build a family. She spent her life working in law offices and raising her four children, but she never gave up the dream of writing. During that time, she added another dream of going to college.
“I did not go to college, it didn’t seem that important at the time,” Young said. “As it turned out, I got divorced and it was very important. All through my kids’ childhood I kept saying, ‘When y’all go to college,’ and I kept telling them our lives would have been so much better and we would have had more money … I’ve been doing that for years.”
One day, decades later, Young found herself on the phone with her daughter, Donna Estill, who is the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Calhoun Community College. She was once again lamenting not having gone to college. As she was getting ready to hang up the phone, her daughter surprised Young by telling her she had just enrolled her in college. All it took was that one push and now, at the ripe, young age of 78, Young is a straight-A student studying environmental science at Calhoun Community College.
“I love doing these courses,” she said. “I worked in a law office my whole life, but I should have been in academia. I love it there!”
A couple years ago, Young decided to preserve her children’s heritage in personal notebooks. This idea would lead to the fulfillment of her childhood dream.
“One Christmas, I decided to make little notebooks for them,” she said. “I gave them little spiral binders and put pictures and stories and stuff in it. Then I thought, I could make a book out of this!”
The book took only about a year for her to put together, and in April 2019, “Redbirds, Roses, and Ghosts” was published. Young met her publisher, Angela Broyles of Bluewater Publications, at a writer’s conference in Monroeville, Alabama. The two hit it off right away and became good friends. Young showed Broyles her book, and the rest is history.
“She liked it and said she’d like to publish it,” Young said. “And so I was real excited! We had a good relationship from the beginning and were like friends from the beginning. So, it’s been a good experience for me.”
Young has previously published short stories in writers’ magazines, as well as an article published in The Birmingham News. She also had a nostalgic piece published in an anthology called “From Eulogy to Joy.” This, however, is her first book.
The title of the book, “Redbirds, Roses, and Ghosts,” was inspired by Young’s experiences and surroundings while sitting on her back porch enjoying retirement.
“I sit on my back porch in the mornings, early mornings, and sip coffee. This is something I dreamed about when I was working,” Young said. “I spend a good bit of time every morning just sitting there and I have these two resident redbirds – there’s a male and a female – that live in the little wilderness behind my house. So, I talk to the redbirds.”
Young said that, while she knows redbirds cannot really talk back, she will ask the birds questions and when an answer pops into her head, she attributes it to the birds.
“I know it’s not really talking, but still, it’s my world and my motto is, ‘Reality is highly overrated.’ I like my little world out there with my redbirds,” she said. “And my mother, who died in 1990, she comes and has coffee with me. She’s the ghost. And the roses … when I was writing it, my rosebush was just beautifully blooming. So that’s where the name came from, ‘Redbirds, Roses, and Ghosts,’ because they were like my inspiration that kept me writing.”
In her memoir, Young combines real, factual memories from her life with some fantasy and fictional embellishments sprinkled throughout. Short fictional stories and poems are also woven throughout the book.
“When I write, I sort of have these things come into my head, and I start writing and I really don’t know what’s going to happen until I’m finished writing,” she said. “This is how it goes: I’ll remember something, and the memories – the parts of the book that are nostalgic or melancholy or sad – those memories are pretty much verbatim. I write them exactly how I remember them. There are other things in the book that are highly exaggerated … it’s based on a kernel of truth, but I just exaggerate it to make it funnier and more interesting.”
As the last living member of her family of origin, Young said that some of the most nostalgic memories in the book center around her family.
“Every time I write about them, I cry,” she said. “They are real. Even my brother died young and that stays with me.”
On her mother’s side, Young is descended from two founding families of the city of Clay: the Taylors and the Claytons. Her great-great-grandfather, Littleberry Clayton, was one of the original founders.
“I remember seeing this when Clay first got to be a city and they showed some articles that were in the very first Clay paper way back in the 1800s,” she said. “Littleberry Clayton had taken some wood from a church that had burned and built him a barn. That was in the paper and that was my great-great-grandfather.”
Young, a Birmingham native, now lives in Clay with her husband, Larry, and their two dogs.
She will be speaking and answering questions about “Redbirds, Roses, and Ghosts” at the Clay Public Library on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, at 11 a.m.