My Six Weeks with Barbara Royal’s Shawl


Showing another woman’s fine accessory a good time.

by Cherri Ellis

Last week I was at a fundraiser called Dancing With the Silver Stars. It was held at The Club, which of course one must pronounce as “THE Club” lest it be mistaken for one of many. It is a grand old property whose opulence hearkens to days gone by, but the view has become more staggering with time as the city grows beneath it.

I was there to support UAB’s Center for Aging and cheer on my friend Dianne Mooney as she performed a particularly smoking hot tango with Fabian of “So You Think You Can Dance” fame. At my table of eight was Barbara Royal, noted philanthropist and founder of Momentum,  who I do know but not well. While we attend many of the same events, I think it’s safe to say that she will always be seated closer to Maya Angelou than I will. On this night Barbara was wearing a simple black dress, but over her shoulders she had thrown the most enchanting beaded shawl I had ever seen. Its thin black silk was meticulously woven with tiny silver and clear beads, and it caught the candlelight in a way that made it glow but not outright sparkle.  When I complimented her on it, she said something blasé like “Oh, thanks. I got it in Mexico. Would you like an orange roll?”

Not ten minutes later, as the lights dimmed and the show began, imagine my surprise when she slipped it off her shoulders and had the gentleman between us pass it to me. I looked over at her with curiosity and she held up six fingers and smiled.   “Six weeks,” she mouthed. “Keep it for six weeks.”

WTH? Barbara Royal gave me her beaded shawl for six weeks? I looked at it mounded in my lap. The idea of spilling something on it made me pull my napkin across it, but then it looked strangely like I was smuggling out another guest’s accessories, so I just pushed my plate back and turned my attention to the performers. I was touched at her gesture—moved, really—but I knew that I would thank her with great sincerity and hand it back to her when the lights came up.

It lay heavy in my lap, and I couldn’t help but wonder when she got it. As I watched a septuagenarian get thrown upside down in a Lyndey hop, I was thinking… Mexico?  Like… years ago, as a newlywed, bought from a kiosk frequented by cruise ship tourists?  Did she win it off a shopkeeper’s wife doing tequila shots in a backroom card game? Was it handmade for her in gratitude for starting an elementary school in a remote village?  Do they have a Belk in Mexico?

The show ended to a standing ovation, but when the bows were over Barbara Royal was gone. She hadn’t even asked for my card or slipped me her number—she gave me what I by now had decided was a priceless beaded heirloom and slipped off into the night.

My first instinct was to wrap it in tissue paper and put it in my closet up high where my cats could never find it and attach a note to myself with the date to return it, but that felt wrong. She was nice enough to loan it to me unasked. That is not the gesture of someone who wants it wrapped in tissue in a darkened closet. I slipped it around my shoulders and felt how the weight of the beads settled into the hollows around my collar bones. It felt like some sort of feminine chain mail.   Right then and there, I decided to show Barbara Royal’s shawl a very good time.

The next morning, I tied it around my shoulders while I drank my coffee, which made for a bold fashion statement over my short white fuzzy bathrobe and Uggs. Tomorrow I am going to Atlanta on a girl’s trip to shop and go to a party and playplayplay, and you can bet Barbara’s Mexican shawl will be tied over an LBD (translation for straight men: Little Black Dress), or knotted over a white shirt and jeans and boots. Later this week it may find itself knotted around my hips in a Zumba class. Surely at some point I will take it out for drinks. It’s the right thing to do.

I have also decided to answer this act of generosity with a little pay it forward of my own. I will start by sending a donation to the A.C.E Unit at UAB’s Center for Aging.  They are a nonprofit that cares for the specific needs of our oldest citizens at a stage in life when extra attention is needed. Growing old is a privilege denied many, and if I am lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, I will want a well-funded organization staffed with crackerjack geriatricians whose whole collective raison d’etre is to make sure I’m comfortable.

Maybe one day I will be cool enough to slip off some fabulous accessory and hand it across a table. Till then, I am going to act a little more like Barbara Royal in other ways, like actively supporting the causes I believe in. With the onset of a fresh year ahead, the time feels right to give back. I also have five weeks left with Barbara Royal’s beaded shawl, and I am pretty confidant it will find its way out some more.

When I return it to her, I plan on fervently complimenting her jewelry. I’ll let you know how that goes.

2 Responses to “My Six Weeks with Barbara Royal’s Shawl”

  1. Holly Barnard says:

    I love my former next-door neighbor Barbara Royal; I love this story; and I love the smile that tickled my heart when I read this beautifully written story.

  2. Barbara is our neighbor here at Pepper Place. What a lovely story, and not at all surprising! Cherri you wear it well! I’m going to share this to remind my friends to ‘pay it forward.’

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