S Is for a Sin & a Shame: #atozchallenge

 

LONG before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.

~ Eudora Welty, “Listening in the Dark

 

In the olden days, my family spent most holidays in my hometown with my father’s side of the family. Dinner rotated year to year from my house to Aunt Laura and Uncle Joe’s to Great-aunt Ethel’s. The woman hosting cooked turkey and dressing; the others brought side dishes.

Some of the same sides appeared year after year: Great-aunt Bettie’s potato salad, Great-aunt Aunt Jessie’s something-or-other salad, my mother’s pecan pie. Aunt Bettie put sugar in her potato salad–the older generation of Wallers sugared everything–and it was delicious.

Mother’s pecan pie was delicious, too; every year I ate  pumpkin pie, then regretted it. The pumpkin was good, but, as Garrison Keillor pointed out, the best pumpkin pie you ever ate isn’t that much better than the worst pumpkin pie you ever ate.

Aunt Jessie’s salad was a delicious enigma. Nobody knew what was in it then, and nobody knows what was in it now. Finely chopped pecans were recognizable. Lime Jello was highly probable. It wasn’t Jello-smooth, it didn’t taste like Jello, and it didn’t jiggle. As to the third major ingredient, I’m guessing cream cheese.

She brought it to every communal dinner, and  the other women wondered aloud what was in it. If anyone asked, she didn’t get an answer. Aunt Jessie certainly didn’t volunteer the information. She was known for not telling anything, most of all her age. After Uncle Curt died, she put up a double tombstone with her birth date engraved on it. Everybody in the family made a point of driving out to look at the miracle.

After dinner, we sat in the living room and the men–my father and his brothers–told stories, some about their childhood, others about local current events. As the only child there, I wasn’t outside playing with other children; I was sitting on the floor, listening.

Like Aunt Jessie’s salad, the same stories were served every year. Most of them were funny, and we laughed as hard each year as we had the last. Fentress was a singular place. It was like Charles Dickens created enough characters, most of them elderly, for an entire book and then set them down in a little town in Central Texas. Their quirks, their mannerisms, their speech, their opinions, their actions marked them as individuals.

Mr. John Roberts steered his old green Chevy well to the right before turning left, just as if he were still driving a horse-and buggy. Every time his brother, Mr. Perry, left the post office, he backed his old gray pickup at least a hundred yards before turning around to head for home (long-time residents knew not to not park behind him). My grandfather rolled Bull Durham cigarettes with one hand, drove on the left side of the road, and glided right past every stop sign he saw (if he saw them).

The stories were about small things, but they were our history, and worth hearing again. For example:

Mr. George Meadows used to wake my father up in the middle of the night because old Fritz was down in the river bottom baying at a treed raccoon and disturbing everyone’s sleep, and he wasn’t going to stop till my dad took his shotgun down there and took care of the coon.

When Great-uncle Carl was agitated, he fidgeted with the waist of his trousers. Once, back in the 1920s, a group of teenage boys, including my father’s oldest brother, Joe, went to Seguin, about twenty miles away, imbibed some alcohol, and landed in jail. The next morning, word got back to their families, and the fathers gathered downtown in the Waller store, to discuss what they should do. “Leave them there,” said Uncle Carl, “just leave them there and let them learn a lesson.”

Then someone mentioned that Carl Jr. was among the incarcerated. Uncle Carl started fidgeting with the waist of his trousers. Aunt Bettie said she thought he was going to pull his pants clear up under his armpits. He drove right over to Seguin and got Jr. out.

The best part of the story, in my estimation, is the crime that sent the boys to jail: They stole an anvil. I’ll bet in the history of the world, they were the only ones who ever stole an anvil.

The law imposed no consequences. I assume the anvil was returned to its owner and he boys apologized and that was that.

There. Those anecdotes aren’t interesting to the general public, including the readers of this post–they fall under the heading “You Had to Know the Participants,”–but I remember Uncle Carl’s fidgeting, and the image is as vivid now as it was sixty years ago. And that anvil . . .

The stories told on those holidays represent some of my happiest memories. They’re also material. I write fiction, and if you think I’m not weaving in bits and pieces, you can think again.

It would have been a sin and a shame if I’d missed out on those holiday gatherings.

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I’m pleased to report that Uncle Joe went on to be a sober citizen, and a postmaster, and in that job he saw and spoke with most of the townspeople every day, and therefore had the opportunity to gather more stories to share at family gatherings.

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Eudora Welty, “The Making of a Writer: Listening in the Dark.” New York Times on the Web.

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Images of Raccoon and Anvil via Pixabay.com

 

Like Sending a Bucket Down the Well

I never wrote a word that I didn’t hear as I read.
~     Eudora Welty

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Familiarity. Memory of the way things get said. Once you have heard certain expressions, sentences, you almost never forget them. It’s like sending a bucket down the well and it always comes up full. You don’t know you’ve remembered, but you have. And you listen for the right word, in the present, and you hear it. Once you’re into a story everything seems to apply—what you overhear on a city bus is exactly what your character would say on the page you’re writing. Wherever you go, you meet part of your story. I guess you’re tuned in for it, and the right things are sort of magnetized—if you can think of your ears as magnets. I could hear someone saying—and I had to cut this out—”What, you never ate goat?” And someone answering, “Goat! Please don’t say you serve goat at this reunion. I wasn’t told it was goat I was served. I thought—” and so on, and then the recipe, and then it ended up with—I can’t remember exactly now—it ended with, “You can do a whole lot of things with vinegar.” Well, all these things I would just laugh about and think about for so long and put them in. And then I’d think, that’s just plain indulgence. Take it out! And I’d take it out.

~ Eudora Welty, quoted here

 

How Not to Apply for a Job

English: I took photo of Eudora Welty at Natio...
I [Billy Hathorn] took photo of Eudora Welty at National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. U.S. government collection, public domain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
How could The New Yorker reject the writer who coined the word concubineapple? And who had the nerve to use that word in her letter of application?

Beats me.

See what other qualifications Ms Welty offered her potential employer at Letters of Note: “How I Would Like to Work for You!”

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/10/how-i-would-like-to-work-for-you.html

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Image by Billy Hathorn (National Portrait Gallery, public domain.) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

My hero(es)

William is curled up in my clothes closet, either napping or plotting an outrage.

He looks so darling, wearing his little orange cream striped pajamas, that I’d like to post a photo of him here. But then you, Gentle Reader, would know more about my closet than would be good for either of us.

Moving on.

Fannie Flagg will appear this Saturday at BookPeople. Her latest novel, I Still Dream About You, is described as “equal parts Southern charm, murder mystery, and that perfect combination of comedy and old-fashioned wisdom…” That quotation appears on the Random House website but is probably accurate even though the possibility of bias exists.

Emma Hagestadt, writing in The Independent, (see link, below), says the book is “a comedy-mystery featuring a group of post-menopausal estate agents – a golden-girl romp every bit as eccentric as it sounds.” Ms. Hagestadt is an experienced reviewer who obviously knows funny when she sees it.

Here is my favorite story about Fannie Flagg: In 1975, Flagg, who had never written fiction, went to the Santa Barbara Writing Conference because her “idol,” Eudora Welty, would be there. As part of the conference, she wrote the story “Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man.” But instead of submitting it under her own name, she used a pseudonym. Flagg’s story won the contest and later became the basis for her first novel.

I don’t know which amuses me more: the fact that Fannie Flagg, an experienced actor and television writer, was too shy to enter a fiction contest under her own name; or the thought of the twinkle in Eudora Welty’s eye when she presented the prize for best story to Pearl Buck.