Today would be Miss Eudora Welty’s Hundredth Birthday. Her name springs to mind in the same thought as Harper Lee, when Southern Women of Letters are mentioned. Miss Lee put her mark on the South in the Sixties, with one of the grandest, most gripping, most colorful and poignantly striking novels of all American literature. And that one was enough for all time.
But Miss Welty, now---her characters were more of the everyday sort; the common ones who lived with scarcely a ripple in the scheme of things---with lives and foibles and quirks and traits we’d all recognize. They lived and breathed that hot, humid air---the air of steamy cottonfields, of gin-hum and tractor-dust and life lived hard and full, with graceful mansions steak-by-jowl with shacky tenant houses and poverty of the heart.
I knelt at the feet of Miss Welty once, at her home in Jackson; I remember the black dress I was wearing, with a little slit up the sides, and how I pulled it tight around my knees, so as not to have them RIGHT THERE, bare, where such a lady had to look at them. I recall the moment of sinking gently in front of her, a bit to the side, but I cannot for the life of me figure how we got there, or why we were invited. My escort was friends with quite a few of the literary cognoscenti who were mingling about the house, and I knew several of them, as well---I recognized the stentorian bray of Willie Morris from the next room. Much as I liked his company and loved his books, I was too enthralled at being in the presence of Miss Welty’s own voice.
It was one of those moments like meeting The Queen or Churchill---you were IN it, but not OF it, somehow, and I hoped madly for invisibility or a veil between, so I that I could sort of bask in the aura of HER, absorbing up close the sheer REAL of her capabilities and her knowledge and way with words, and she take no notice of me.
She sat in a big old rattan chair on a sunporch kind of place, the huge chair forming a sort of throne-enclosure around her. She had on the widest-spread skirt I think I’ve ever seen---it looked like it was made of a plaidish tent, and swirled around her ankles as she sat, like a wash of brown tide about her sandals. She had the soft, drawling voice of the Jackson-raised, a bit refined, but every bit as slow as my own, and she was speaking to another visitor of a trip to Holly Springs for the antebellum pilgrimage.
She’d taken my hand when I was introduced---her own hand bony and long-fingered. I judged her to be tall, going by the angularity of her arms and face, but she was bent so forward in the chair, I think that time had probably decreased her height from her thin, lanky youth. She remained seated for all the time we were there, receiving her guests and friends graciously as a monarch greeting visitors.
She smiled around each word, saying them carefully and slowly as the words of her stories must be read---she’s one of the read-it-aloud authors, with the savor of the words on the tongue as pronounced as the colors and actions portrayed.
I remember smelling a pot of coffee brewing, and the scent of a lemony polish; the air was just a little bit dusty, as befits a home I imagined to be unused save for the writing room, and it was a perfect afternoon. We came out into the glare of the Mississippi sun, leaving behind a shady place, a place of shadows and people and characters created from that vivid, fertile mind and the active imagination of that quiet, smiling woman of letters and far-reaching words.
She not only defined the South, far above the drama of Gone With The Wind’s shouts and battles, pouts and primpings---way beyond the Snopeses and Big Daddy Varner and Maggie the Cat and Miss Scarlett and all their ilk. She set us plain folks into prose and sent us out into the world, and she captured us in the telling.
I’ve KNOWN people who came to “borry some fire,” and whose hard-scrabble lives were ground out day-by-day, as if they’d learnt not to hope for tomorrow. Miss Beatha Crow, a neighbor during my early childhood, was straight out of her pages. She came to Mammaw’s house to get a tray of ice one Summer-noon dinnertime, squinting her way in the screendoor, sending the request into an exact one-eighty, as she brought her own story into the house, asking if she could "borry some ice."
We asked politely, “How’re YOU, Miss Beatha?”
“Ah been arnin’ all mornin’” she replied, fanning her red face with a big floppy hat as she sat right down at the dinner-table just as we finished. She smelled of the hot clean of older women whose cotton clothes have been line-dried, with just an overlay of talcum staving off the heat-sweat, and of the licorice-scent of the smear of Mum visible in her sleeveless dress.
Invited to have a bite, she just kept demurring a clean plate for herself, as she dragged my Grandpa’s just-used one over in front of her with a “Oh, No’m! This’ll be jest fine.” She picked up the neatly angle-set knife and fork from the plate, helped herself to peas and cornbread, and started to eat. I was amazed at her quick-to-the-point hunger, so dismissive of manners or grace, and I always wondered if her sister just sat waiting for the ice for her own glass of tea until Miss Beatha came home.
In the century since Miss Welty was born, a formidable group of writers have surfaced to chronicle the South’s days and years. Some echo her quiet, precise voice; others trumpet our idiosyncrasies and ills and sins like the gaudy rack of supermarket rags in a check-out line. Fiction fashion changes, fads grow and wane, and the true voices are the ones which endure. And we the people---we sleeve the sweat off lip and brow, turn a page, see our lives in the printed lines.
The South’s HOT. It’s full of mosquitoes and snakes and gators and other hostile life; it’s growing by bounds, and it’s melting into the ground in places. But it’s FERTILE, pretty near more fertile than any same-sized plot of ground on this Earth, and the fertile imaginations are the most impressive crop.