Friday, April 28, 2006

Memories of Miss Eudora

Having lived near the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi, I had the privilege of enountering Miss Eudora Welty on several occasions: sitting behind her at local plays; spotting her at a muffler shop patiently waiting for a ride; dining near her table in a local restaurant; browsing books in a popular bookstore; or shopping for groceries at then-famous Jitney 14, to name a few. Stories passed around in readers' circles of where they had encountered this author at the most unexpected moments. She led her life as any other Jacksonian--with no pretensions.

There had always been an unwritten rule among book lovers that one didn't call Miss Eudora on the telephone or stop her on the street to engage her in conversation, unless you were a good friend. A brief greeting to this lovely person was as far as anyone dared.

Once, I was searching in a new bookstore for a copy of her biography to gift my dad. The store was gaining a reputation for stocking Mississippi authors (of which there are many). As I thumbed through several editions, I heard her familiar deep, Southern drawl.

Turning my head in that direction to confirm my suspicions, I saw her standing several feet away. How to speak to her and not feel flustered? I picked my selection, all the while trying to think up something appropriate. I proceeded to the cashier, arriving at the same time as she. Flustered to think she would consider this move planned, my speech faltered as I said to her, "Wha-what a nice surprise to see you here. I'm giving my dad a copy of One Writer's Beginnings for his birthday." She smiled, a brief moment passed, and then she said, "Well, would you like for me to autograph it for your father?" She did.

As a teacher of senior English during the mid 70's, I discovered the students had never read any of the classics, so their book reports centered on authors I knew were important to prepare them for college English. The school library had very few copies of the books I required, so off to the second-hand bookstores in several towns. Also with help from friends and a raid of my personal collection, there were enough paperbacks to pass around.

During that year Miss Eudora was presented an award from the French Embassy at our capitol building on a schoolday. Students from the three classes loaded into cars and headed for the ceremony. She appeared before the crowd, a tiny figure, while the ambassador reminded us the reason this author was so popular in France: her description of people and places in a rural setting appeared familiar to that of the French countryside. French readers loved her stories. The students discovered this famous-under-their-noses author quiet and unassuming, not at all fitting the looking-like-an-author mold they had created in their minds.

The next year the Jackson library expanded into a new building and was named the Eudora Welty Library. A grand presentation and reception was held. The next year's students were invited to this event. Introduced by another author and a dear friend, Jim Lehrer, the lady of the hour, to the students' surprise, was surrounded by dignitaries from Washington, New York, and Europe. Still, the fact that they were in dignified company failed to capture their interest.

Miss Eudora died in 2001 at the age of 92. She had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. I hope a few of my students, now adults leading their own lives, stopped for a moment to remember her. Maybe by then they even had read some of her stories.

A few years later when our daughter graduated from Leslie College, Cambridge, MA, the family celebrated the event by attending. The next evening we went to a local club to hear a band popular with our kids. As usual, the young people had to present their identification at the door. When I got to the front of the line, I blithely asked, "Do I need to show you mine?" hoping he'd think I was younger than I looked. A joke, really. But not to our kids. Mom had outdone herself in embarrassing them.

Several hours later my husband and I left the group and headed towards the door. The ID checker to whom I'd spoken upon entering, walked up to us and said, "Did I hear from your voice that you're from the South?" We said yes, and he began peppering us with questions about his two favorite authors, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. "Well," I reminded him, "I can tell you a bit about Faulkner, and a whole lot about Welty." For the next two freezing hours or so outside the club I related everything I ever knew about both of them, his mind cataloging the facts. He told us he had majored in literature in college, had traveled around the world, but had never visited the towns where these famous authors lived.

His next question was, "Now, is Mississippi near Texas?" I smirked and said, sort of and gave him the general locations of the home towns, Oxford and Jackson. Finally, the February cold of this eastern city became unbearable to remain outside, and we bade goodby to our avid listener. His parting words were "I'm going to Oxford and Jackson on my next vacation." I felt warmed that I had entertained the mind of a stranger with my Welty/Faulkner knowledge.

Miss Eudora left her home and its furnishings to the state of Mississippi in 1986 while she was still living there. This weekend for two days visitors will be able to see this National Historic Landmark where her parents instilled in her a life-long interest in reading. It is a literary house, not a museum, fully furnished just as Miss Eudora left it. I'm going to be first in line Saturday morning.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Morning Quiet

Mornings are my favorite time of the day. I like to wander about the house silently, or grab my keys for a drive into Madison. Few cars pass me. I glide along the strip malls whose storefronts are dark,lonely. No signs outdoors glittering, beckoning. I take the backroads where few houses stand and marvel at the sun as it streaks through the trees with its yellow fingers caressing the leaves.

Where most people enjoy the night lights of favorite cities of their travels, I like the mornings after. I remember seeing the twinkling night lights of Venice, New Orleans, Paris, Madrid, whose carnivals of music, laughter, and foreign tongues stir the pot of nightlife and continue into the early morning until revelers stumble to their beds.

In these same cities I wander the streets near the hotel and, with the exception of water gushing from hoses, brooms swish-swishing, and silverware clanking inside open doors, I am alone. These scenes lay bare the awakening of cities whose inhabitants stagger up for another work day while the late-nighters sleep until noon. Sometimes I encounter an early riser sipping his coffee on an upstairs balcony or leaning inside the downstairs entrance. Unexpectedly, a lone dog follows me, hoping for some bit of food; a parrot in his cage fluffs his feathers in the cool air; a housemaid shakes into the air sheets of a touseled bed. The sounds increase when bikers tinkle their bells, trucks clank open their back doors, and men appearing with loads on their dollies, begin to unload. Morning has begun. One deep breath announces the scents of baked goods and coffee. I sit outside the first open cafe and enjoy breakfast like a native.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Don't Poems Rhyme Anymore?

I've never been one to truly enjoy poetry other than that from children's books and English Lit texts, with their specific rhythms and rhyming words...I'm not one whose parents read poems to me; I read my own,favoring those by Ogden Nash. Reading to my three kids, I had fun pronouncing Dr. Seuss' words and rhymes. Recently sharing her writing with me, my friend DJ is showing me how to appreciate poetry that sings but doesn't rhyme.

At the Jackson, MS, rally for breast cancer held recently, sponsored by the Susan Koman Foundation, DJ received permission to read the following to an enthusiastic and receptive audience. This is dedicated to all women who are having or have had chemotherapy:

One of my most vulnerable moments of my mother's experience with cancer occurred when I went outside to "help" her brush out her hair. My hair-removal efforts were minimal at best, because I really didn't want my mother's hair to come out. Mom, however, brushed quite vigorously--she was on a 'mission'. She wanted her hair to fall outdoors because she didn't want to add hair-clogged drains to my father's concerns that day. She cheerfully told me that she thought the birds could use the extra nesting material. Even after she voiced these positive points, I still struggled. Writing this poem provided needed resolution for me as I moved beyond the world's view of beauty, symbolized below by the gilded mirror, to a fuller appreciation of her spiritual beauty and strength, represented by the looking glass. My mother has asked that I share this poem, "A Reflection on Two Mirrors," with other women going through cancer in hopes that it might be a blessing to them as well. My own prayers go with it.


A woman's crowning glory, her hair,
Unwillingly relinquished and surrendered,
Drifts and falls gently about her feet:
A necessary casualty of the battle.

But she does not let the loss take her spirit
Down into the depths, for at this very moment
Is the victory as the crowning glory of this world
Yields to a far more glorious crown.

And yet the world's gilded mirror, while resplendent,
In confusion furrows its brow and frowns
Because it cannot understand and
Capture the spirit's radiant countenance.

The looking glass, albeit with body and soul laid bare,
Emerges triumphant through the tempering;
And it alone reveals there is no greater beauty
Than the human spirit tested and shown true.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Spring Surrounds My Yard

Azaleas of all shades of pink have burst into bloom. Although the bush has an early season flower,it heralds that warm weather is here to stay. The azaleas in our yard were planted over 30 years ago and get an occasional trim after blooming. But despite the neglect we give them, they return to please us year after year.

Photinas were planted across our back yard, its leaves turning red on their tips, hence the name "Red Tip Photina." Slow to grow in heighth and breadth, a few years passed before they were providing shade on our yard. Being unfamiliar novice gardners, we were surprised to find one spring tiny bunches of flowerlets with a sweet fragrance. They deserve their own photo.

My dad raised a beautiful Grandfather's Greybeard from seeds. When he presented us with an envelope of six seeds, he expected us to plant them in our yard. We kept them for several years indecisive about waiting for their slow growth. Finally, we decided to buy three small trees to plant. The seeds had dried out and were discarded. Each spring the trees surprise us with light green leaves and tiny fingers of white flowers pushing out from underneath to droop gracefully.

As I drive away from my home and tour the small, bustling city of Madison, I am pleased with the care in which neighbors, citizens, and city officials have worked to make yards and corners of every street and roadway a surprise of myriad colorful blooms. The downtown area has Bradford Pear trees lining it, and spring is a special sight when passing through.

The East has its beautiful fall foliage, the West, its majestic mountains, and the South, its spring parade of flowering beauty. Everyone should see the natural beauty of our country before a burgeoning population destroys it.