Lila Pennington Ryals’s mother died in 1931, just days before her ninth birthday, and her dad didn’t want to care for the last of his six children. She and her younger brother, Buddy, were left to their own devices to feed themselves, manage their health care, get through school, and provide for their safety. 

At 91 years old, Lila has written a memoir, What Would Mama Do, Growing up an “Almost Orphan” in Fairhope, and it is a fascinating read. The story of how they survived during the war years in Fairhope, will have you laughing and crying but you will also be astonished at their doggedness and fierce love for one another. “What would Mama do?” was the question they would ask themselves when they were in trouble and their strong faith and immense love for their mother would help them find ways to endure. 

I heard Mrs. Ryals speak about her book at the Fairhope Public Library and was amazed at her sharp and clear memory of her childhood. Bombarded with questions, she answered and explained, clearly painting the picture of her youth and the historical elements of Fairhope. Another chance to hear her speak will be at the Fairhope Museum of History on March 30th at 1 PM, as part of their March Speaker Series. 

Lila and Buddy were 9 and 7 when they were left alone in a house their father had rented on Grand Avenue. He worked and lived in Mobile and rarely checked on them. When asked why no one in the community reported their neglect, she stated, “You have to remember the population of Fairhope at the time was 1400 people and we lived on a road with only 5 houses. We didn't want people to know we were alone for fear of being separated so we kept to ourselves.” Her faith, her pain, her hope and her ability to survive at such a young age is unbelievable but true. 

The book is filled with descriptions of the landscape of old Fairhope and the presence of the woods, the gullies, and the bay are important characters in the plot. The children learned to live off the land and made a little money by doing chores for neighbors. They survived storms both physically and emotionally by hiding in a cave they dug out of a cliff in a gully. Adventures, good and bad, are told with compelling images; I was moved to tears at times but mostly awed by the perseverance of Lila and Buddy. 

I can’t tell you much more about the countless challenging events they faced, without spoiling the book for you, but I promise you will be inspired and heartened by the narrative. Somebody needs to write a screenplay because this story is Hollywood-worthy. At 300 pages, it is a compelling read and can be purchased on Amazon or at the Page and Palette Bookstore. Lila Ryals lives in the Bluff area of Fairhope and still walks miles every day. She always wears a red Alabama ball cap. If you see her, be sure to tell her that she is my hero.

Mar 13, 2024
Events That Inspire

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