This piece was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
Ross Priddy is the man behind Douglass Gray. He is also my older brother. We grew up under the same roof with the same traditions, which formed many of the same memories. His childhood— I was there for that. Which, I assume, is why I was asked to tell the story of Douglass Gray—because that really is where it started . . . in his childhood.
My brother was an imaginative kid. He took everything to the next level. If he was playing army, there was ketchup blood and little sisters on sleeping bag stretchers. If he was selling lemonade, he was sending neighborhood kids to the corner with posters on yardsticks to direct oncoming traffic to our cove. He made a strong sell, and I remember emptying out my piggybank on several occasions to invest in one of his new ideas. He was the visionary, laborer, and self-promoted CEO of whatever project he was involved in.
Naturally, this drive caused a few problems in grade school group work, but Ross worked through that and channeled his acute attention to detail and enthusiasm to other things—like becoming the most outrageous JCM football fan as a high school student, dressing in full retro green and gold attire for every game. This is is also when his hobby of collecting things transitioned into his room becoming a full-blown museum. Literally, he lined the perimeter of his room with a shelf running a foot below his ceiling that he filled with his treasures: things like old Wheaties boxes, street signs, commemorative coke bottles, antique board games, and other random finds.
Looking back, I can’t believe my mom let him get away with it. Maybe it resonated with her in some way. My mom is a great decorator, and our house always looked like it was out of a magazine, but not the pretentious kind. Rather the cozy kind where people feel comfortable. She was always very thoughtful about every detail, taking the time to get it just right—even with the little things. Holiday décor and traditions are her specialty. She nailed it every single holiday. Every single year. This is is where we pick back up with Douglass Gray.
Douglass Gray started as an Etsy holiday shop when we were all living in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And although there were many things we loved about the Northeast, we were certainly far from home. I think it’s the being away from home that actually draws it out of you. Home becomes much clearer. You tell more stories about it. You keep symbols of it. You’re suddenly happy for it to define you in a way you weren’t before. And so we found ourselves carrying out those same holiday traditions that had calendared our childhood, but now in New Jersey. This came most naturally to my brother, so it really wasn’t surprising when he said he was going to start selling the pennant-style paper banners he had been making for different events.
I remember thinking, “Well, why not?” It turns out there were a few reasons why not. Mainly, my brother couldn’t sew, which was a problem since he had decided the banners would consist of a printed letter on canvas fabric, stitched down each side, with two brass grommets in the top that festive ribbon would weave through to form holiday sayings like “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Birthday.”
The requests for my help started with, “Do you think I could borrow your sewing machine?” to “Ok, so how do you work this thing?” and then to “Maybe you could show me. . . .” I remember my brother sitting in the kitchen of our tiny, one-bedroom apartment with his long arms hunched over a mini travel sewing machine that I’d agreed to donate to the cause. To be honest, he wasn’t that bad, but I knew he wouldn’t really be doing any of the sewing himself. Like I said before—Ross is more of the CEO type.
It wasn’t more than a few days before he started dropping off stacks of letters at my door. He “just needed a little help.” He would print them, and then I would just cut, fold, iron, and sew them . . . and like when we were kids, I couldn’t say no. So, despite my husband’s frustration, sewing pennants became my nightly ritual. As soon as I finished one stack, another would be delivered. And every night, I’d grumble as the hum of my 1964 ice blue sewing machine (a hand-me-down from my granny) filled our apartment late into the night. It was for my brother, so I decided not to mind.
We made a few dozen banners that Christmas when Ross decided to set up a booth at a local craft fair. The fair turned out to be a total bust—it was actually quite hilarious. But that day, the “craft fair” solidified Ross’s hobby into an actual brand. I thought we’d just keep it low key and blend in with the other vendors who had set a few trinkets out on trusty, old card tables, but my brother doesn’t half-do anything. When I showed up at 6 a.m. that morning to set-up, Douglass Gray had been born. Ross had covered our space with red and black flannel fabric, decked out with a real baby Christmas tree strung with clear lights. We were suddenly equipped for credit cards, had order forms, and a new navy and white logo. His business was officially named—a combination of my father’s middle name (the man he now credits for his interest in business) and my brother’s favorite color/weather/temperament. It was called Douglass Gray, and it said so right there on the oval sticker centered on each craft paper shopping bag.
That was the only holiday season we worked together. Ross and his wife Laura had been in New Jersey for five years, and by the next Christmas they had moved back home to Tennessee. It was back home that Ross decided to focus on one holiday: Christmas; and on one product: stockings. He says stockings became the product because they couldn’t find what they were looking for when shopping for their boys, Jack and Thad. (All of my mother’s children are rather particular.) And when you can’t find what you’re looking for, you just make it yourself, right?
To be honest, I had nothing to do with those stockings. But I did receive several fun phone calls from my granny. She would say, “Now Abby, to tell you the truth, he’s keeping me real busy with the stockings, and I am getting kindly tired. But I won’t tell him that.” And I would say, “Of course you won’t.” Because I knew exactly what she meant. There’s just not much a granny won’t do for her oldest grandchild, or that a sister won’t do for her older brother. Thankfully for Granny, she now loans her machine out to Ross’s wife Laura, who has become the chief seamstress of Douglass Gray.
Ultimately, Douglass Gray isn’t some huge dream that Ross is hoping will turn into something bigger. He’s now a banker, and that’s what he wants to be. But he’s also a maker, and I’m confident that my brother will always be creating something. He needs the outlet. I’ve already explained that he’s like my mom in that way, but he’s also like my dad.
To hear our dad tell it—his childhood in 1960s Jackson, Tennessee, could be mistaken as an equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Ross has the same nostalgia. Objects support those memories, and he still collects them—although I am happy to say his tastes have refined into collecting actual antiques and arranging them tastefully throughout his space. This Christmas he’ll be able to put on a record, light a fire with real logs, pour a cup of single origin coffee, and stuff original Batman toys and antique PEZ dispensers in his son’s stockings—the ones that his wife sewed on his granny’s machine for their boys. In the same way, my mom will hang our childhood stockings—all unique but coordinated, velvet lined with our names stitched across the cuff—for another Christmas. He’ll do it because she did it. And now, because of Douglass Gray, you can too.
Abby Helms is a Jackson native, graduating from Madison Academic and then Union University in 2010 where she studied graphic design and art education. After college, Abby moved to New Jersey where she met her husband Paul and learned to speak without a Southern accent. After a few years in the Northeast, Abby and her family moved back to her hometown to raise their three children: Silas, Ollie, and Lewis. She currently works as the marketing director and art teacher at the Augustine School, and has started using "y'all" again.
Photography by Ross Priddy.