An author whose family has deep local roots has written a book about a woman with deep local roots who only a few longtime locals may have heard of.
“The Help of Destin, Emma Irby,” is a self-published book by Athena Marler Creamer.
Characterizing the book as biography, Marler Creamer said she was inspired to write about Emma Irby because of her gentle, caring nature and unique place in Destin history.
The author was six years old when she met Irby. Irby was ironing clothes at the house of Marler Creamer’s cousin. Children hovered around her.
“She was very warm and kind,” said the author. “She was being so kind to the children. … She was a little more focused on us. ”
Irby made an impression on Marler Creamer for another reason, too.
“She was only the second black person I saw in my life,” recalled the author.
Irby was Destin matron Mattie Kelly’s housekeeper between 1966 and 1992. Marler Creamer added that Irby also freelanced, working for other families. She made coleslaw for a restaurant, helped with weddings, and, of course, babysat.
Excerpts from the book indicate that Irby was a woman of contrasts. She was stubborn but willing to compromise, proud but also humble, and charitable though seldom willing to accept charity.
Irby seemed able to adapt to any adverse situation she faced. Prejudice. Poverty. Periodic homelessness.
She enjoyed moments of happiness and routine, even if it sometimes seemed that Irby was taken for granted or treated as an object by those she helped.
“She was passed from friend to friend, family to family, place to place,” wrote Marler Creamer. “She helped pioneers and newcomers alike.”
In another excerpt from the book, Marler Creamer wrote, “Emma walked the same streets of Destin and Fort Walton for 57 years. I calculate 12 miles per week over 2,964 weeks, would be an incredible 35,568 miles! That's a lot of sand in her shoes. She walked over the Destin bridge to Fort Walton for one job, and back for another, in a single day in 1992. She never drove, but rode in the back seat of her clients’ cars, thinking it her place.”
Irby never married, but had plenty of opinions about men and marriage, added the author.
She was the only African-American resident in Destin before the Civil Rights movement.
The inspiration for “The Help of Destin” came after Marler Creamer wrote her first book, which covered the godliness of keeping a good home. Irby believed in cleanliness and orderliness.
The housekeeper came from Gee’s Bend, Ala., and every now and then found herself homeless. She persevered through the bad and welcomed the good. Sometimes, she earned a little money by picking up discarded cans. She was also known around town for her creative paper hats.
After their first meeting, Marler Creamer didn’t see Irby for 20 years. The women grew closer in the early 1990s.
Today, Irby is 98 years old and living in Mobile, Ala. Marler Creamer plans to visit Irby to give her an autographed copy of the book and reading glasses. A portion of sales of the book will go to Irby.
“The Help of Destin” is available at Amazon.com or Createspace.com. It is listed for $14. Some copies also will be available at Bay View RV Campground, 749 Beach Drive, Destin, which is a business that Marler Creamer owns.