Athena Marler Creamer — Chronicler of Old Destin
Writing seemed to be in Athena Marler Creamer’s destiny. “I was making little books when I was three, so I guess it's been a lifetime pursuit.” Creamer constructed these books in school from paper, drawing pictures and stapling them together before presenting them to her father. She recalls being a “college baby,” both parents students at Florida State University, where little Athena spent many hours in the university library.
Her years at Fort Walton Beach High School, under the tutelage of a demanding composition teacher (“the dreaded Miss August”) further honed her skills. She devoured science fiction, read her way through Best Loved Books, Nancy Drew and Harriet the Spy, and was an early subscriber to teen magazines and even Glamour, which fed her dreams of modeling. She had to work at it. “I excelled in English and art,” she says, “but not easily.”
Her grandmother, Cleo Marler, often told stories of her life to young Athena, which led to her decision to begin writing a biography of her grandmother. “Another writer offered to do it, but I asked her to turn them down and allow me since I was her granddaughter and she would have more creative control.”
Creamer audited a class at then-Okaloosa Walton Community College called “Writing Your Own Life Story,” which gave her a method. The book about her grandmother remains to be written, though Creamer’s sister Beth Marler Fife may be the one to do it. “Beth is a very good writer, and we will do a humor book together called It Happened at the Dock.”
Creamer has a degree in marketing from University of West Florida, with a minor in advertising. She spent years in marketing and advertising, forming her own agency in 1987. In 2000, she completed her first book, The Impressive Art of Straightening the Home, Creating a Home of Importance Where Greatness Happens. “The process took us two years, and cost $5,000. It only resulted in having 200 books to sell, and my dad gave 42 away the first day.”
Creamer buckled down and studied, learning more about writing and the changing world of publishing. She mined the Internet for information and educated herself in the business of writing, publishing and selling online. “I can learn anything from a book, and the computer is an extension of a book,” she says.
Creamer’s latest book is The Help of Destin, a blend of memoir and biography about Emma Irby, a black woman who worked as a housekeeper and babysitter in the homes of many families in Destin from the 1950s to the early 1990s. The book is told through interviews with acquaintances and employers.
Creamer was 6 years old when she first met Irby. Twenty-four years later, Irby helped Creamer with her home and baby. “She was a ‘fixture’ of Destin for 37 years, but quite mysterious and secretive about her past,” says Creamer. “I lost touch with her for 19 years, but after seeing the movie The Help, I knew it was time to write her life story.” Creamer went into depth in researching Irby’s background. She learned that Irby was originally from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a “lost cotton plantation,” settled by black families dating back to the Civil War, and which later became known for the artistry of its handmade quilts.
Creamer reconnected with Irby following a report that an elderly black woman had been found dead in a ditch in Destin. When Irby turned up alive, Creamer told her, “Half of Destin thinks you’re dead!” In addition to interviews with others, Creamer draws on letters from Irby, which she calls “very much her voice.”
Creamer had her own experiences around town with the sometimes eccentric old lady, who reportedly heard voices and had various phobias. “I felt like a hummingbird, furiously beating her wings, flitting up and down and all around Emma, like she were a blossom, trying to see and understand her inside and out, to bring out all the sweetness in her life as I could,” says Creamer.
One of the high points of Irby’s life was being invited to the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, a gesture of gratitude for the work Irby had done making phone calls during the campaign. Creamer has sent a copy of her book to the former president. Irby, nearing 100, resides in the Parker Adult Foster Care nursing home in Mobile. Creamer shares royalties with Irby from her book, and sends her gifts, including purple lipstick (her favorite color). When Irby passes on, Creamer plans to purchase a brick with her name on it for the Destin History and Fishing Museum.
Creamer has other books in the works, on assorted subjects, and rarely goes anywhere, including the bathtub, without a pad and pen. “My main mission is to write enjoyable, Christ-centered books that tell the stories, people and places of Old Destin. It's a different Destin today in my children's eyes than it was for mine growing up here. They tell me they can't even imagine it. They live in the more crowded, faster paced and commercialized city, and I lived in the sleepy fishing village. So I write for them.”
For more information about The Help of Destin, go to thehelpofdestin.blogspot.com.