The Elitist: Tea with Miz Welty
The early January chill came right through my thin sweater as I stood on the sidewalk looking at a Jackson, Mississippi house: a combination of Stockbroker Tudor and center hall Colonial, two-storey with a small portico, the muckeldey-dun colored brick merging right on into a clear but leaden sky. We were looking south, and on the city street which forms the southern border of the Millsaps College campus.
The other in the “We” being my amigo Frank, who had conned me into driving down in my cavernous Mercury Town and Country Stationwagon to collect some furniture which his wife Elizabeth had stored before the move to Little Rock. The wagon was loaded and parked down the street at Elizabeth’s aunt’s house. Frank said we ought to stretch our legs before driving back, so we had walked up the hill and he suddenly stopped.
“Well there it is!” He announced loudly. “I spent most of three days under this house when I was a junior in high school, but I got it perfectly level, and it should still be that way.”
I could hear a typewriter clacking away through a partially open upstairs window.
Frank continued to boom away. “Daddy owned a house leveling and moving company at that time, and he was too busy with house-moving so he sent me over to do this. I used a clear plastic garden hose with red-dyed water as a builder’s level, and we got it perfect from corner to corner, north-to-south, east-to-west! Damn, I’m good!”
The window eased a bit up. “Frankie, if you wanted to come in why didn’t you just ring the bell?”
“Well, Miz Welty, had you been working and not wanting to be disturbed, you would have come all the way downstairs for nothing. This way you can just tell me to go-way.”
“The front door’s open, and there’s a fresh pitcher of iced tea and glasses on the drainboard. Come on up.”
“Damn, Frank. Is this Eudora Welty’s house?”
“Sho is! I jes wanted to suhprize y’all a bit…C’mon!”
Tea in hand …to quote Frank, “Sweet tea, house wine of the South!” We went upstairs where Miz Welty had been working.
“Miz Welty, this is my friend Dave, but everybody calls him Pulver. On the drive down Highway 65, we couldn’t get any good rock ‘n’ roll, and we started talking about our favorite stories. He told me that his favorite was about an old Nigrah woman. I asked him to tell it to me, and I thought it would take about mebbe five minutes, but it took him all the way from Lake Providence to Vicksburg! When he’s through, I asked him who wrote it, and he said ‘Eudora Welty.’ So I just smiled and said nothin’ but decided to bring him ovah!”
The two of them continued to “catch up” on family members and friends, as all Southerns do, and I came under Miz’s spell. She was not at all a pretty woman, and very closely resembled my Aunt Ruth. Prominent teeth, prominent eyes covered by thin lids. Very fine, straight, beige-colored hair, and overall a spare and slight frame. I bear the feeling even unto today, that she was a perfect exemplar of Cracker Culture at its educated, soft-spoken best.
Another trait Miz Welty possessed was focus. When you conversed time didn’t actually stop, but everything else in the surroundings retreated, and the most important thing was the sharing of person. Your words were heard. Your reactions were noted. There was no rush from thought to thought. And there was an ample allocation of time for a thought to register in response to her comments. Finally, she wasn’t heavy, her thoughts and converse refreshing.
She turned to me.
“Well sir, what was this story that took you forty-five minutes to tell?” she asked.
“ ‘Old Phoenix’,” I replied.
“ ‘A Worn Path’,” she said.
I must have given a blank look, for she said, “’A Worn Path’ is the name of the story about Old Phoenix.”
I turned scarlet.
“Miz Welty, I have to confess that I haven’t read the story in close to twenty years.”
“But you can’t be more than twenty-five or so now,” she replied.
“I’m just twenty-seven, ma’am.”
“Then that means that you were only six or seven years old at the time. That’s very heavy reading for a child of those years. How did it happen?”
And I told her.
We lived at 514 East Boeing Street in Midwest City, Oklahoma. My daddy was the football coach at the high school, and taught twelfth-grade English. I think I was actually only six at the time, and came into the house from outside. In the southeast corner of the living room was a window, and next to it was a huge French Balloon wing-back chair. Where the wood was exposed it was cherry red, and the upholstery was a cream and madder toile. Daddy was sitting in the chair with his class textbook. He was very good to read to me, and I especially liked Shakespeare because he didn’t leave out the naughty bits. For a six year old to be able to announce: “Faugh! Thou smellest of horse piss!” is a great encouragement to pursue reading.
“What are you reading Daddy?”
“I’m preparing for class.”
There on the page of the text was a black pen-and-ink drawing of a very old, black woman. She was walking from right to left on the page, and at her feet you could see the dust, and to the side, the weeds which grew between the path and the fence. The caption was “Old Phoenix.” Daddy read me the story. It was very sad.
Old Phoenix is a country nigrah who lives way off of any road, in rural Mississippi. She has a little granddaughter she keeps, the child’s mother having gone off to Detroit to work. The little child “got into some washing lye,” and drank it, burning and permanently scarring her little throat. Old Phoenix takes the child in to the free clinic at the University Hospital in Jackson every month, and has to carry the child starting out in the morning, walking along the “well-worn path” to the bus out on the highway, and in to Jackson, and then back in the night. Coming back, bone weary, again to the “worn path.”
I summarized the story to Miz Welty, about like above.
She said, “Tell me, what do you remember most about it?”
“I remember sitting next to my Daddy, and smelling his daddy-smell. I remember knowing how the hot, floury dust on the path felt between Phoenix’s toes, and my toes. I remember the smell of the sunflowers, and the tomatillo, and sage and Indian paintbrush, and the sound of the grasshoppers snapping their wings, and I remember the hot tears running down my cheeks thinking about the hurt of that little girl, and of how she should be laughing and happy instead of sad. I remember how her old granny took her to the doctor every month.
“But Miz Welty, I remember most of all what my daddy said when I asked him about black people. I asked what they were like, because I’d never lived anywhere near any.
“He said, ‘David, I’ve never really been around many Negroes other than Pullman porters, and I once saw Paul Robeson on the stage as Othello. But I can tell you that I have formed an opinion about them, and that is that they seem to have an unconditional love for children.’
“That’s what I remember. I’m embarrassed that I can’t tell it any better.”
Miz Welty looked away.
“That’s a pretty heavy story to tell a seven year old, but it seems not to have harmed you,” she observed. “I couldn’t ask for a better rendering, especially considering that it happened over twenty years ago.”
She was gracious in that. For I had recalled Old Phoenix as having a granddaughter, when in the story, it was actually a grandson. Yet the kind author let my memory’s error pass.
In the forty-some-odd years since I had Tea with Miz Welty, I’ve often remembered that encounter. Yet I’ve tried to recall its ending, and cannot.
There must have been the usual remarks of pleasure and “Come again”, but as to how the disengagement truly transpired I am at a loss. There remains the memory of a mood. And that, on both sides, was and to me remains one of thoughtfulness.
I like to think that Miz Welty had some pleasure in another person’s recounting of her story, wherein their own reactions and memories were movingly relived. And that her creation had truly affected two lives, and stimulated an indelible personal memory.