What tickled me most was what she said on a hot spring day when he escorted her on her 86th birthday to a surprise party at a shopping mall bookstore. As they walked rather slowly along the storefronts, they came to where a man was inflating colorful balloons. When each balloon was filled, the cylinder would let out a loud whoosh of air. When Ms Welty looked about to find the sound, Ford said, “Balloons.” He then took her hand and added, “Someone’s apparently having a do.” “Oh,” she replied. And as those luminous, pale blue eyes ignited and her magical face suppressed once again an amused smile, she whispered, “I just thought it was someone who saw me, sighing.”
I think I fell in love with Ms. Welty after reading her great short story “Why I Live at the Post Office” years ago as an undergraduate. Her short stories and novels were about the South where she wrote of the importance of place and the paradox of human relationships. Place to her was what made fiction real, because with place came customs, feelings, and associations. In addition to answering the questions of what’s happening and who the players are, her intent was to probe and prompt our memory. The stories were there to remind us of the ghosts who still walked with us and whispered secrets now that we were old enough to ask the right questions. Unfortunately, those we wished to question the most were usually already gone.
I was jealous of Ford.
But then I remembered a certain lady who flitted about the edges of my own life when I was an adolescent. She might not have been a Eudora Welty, but she was a good teacher and kept me interested in reading and perhaps even in writing. I was one of the lucky kids who got into her senior English class in high school. She took a liking to me, too, which I kind of appreciated at the time but not as much as I do now.
When I heard last fall that she had passed on into the Great Mystery, I was pulled back in time, now over 50 years since I saw her last. I don’t think she had ever married and everyone called her “Miss Roe.” She was attractive and treated me as though she was genuinely interested in what I had to say. On the last day of school before graduation, I slipped into her office and left a gift of The Last of the Plantagenets by Thomas Costain. She sent me a thank you note in the mail, but for some inexplicable reason I never responded to it.
This little oversight came rushing up to me recently when I saw a copy of the book in a local thrift store. It just kind of nudged itself out of the shelf a wee bit and smiled at me. “Hello, young fellow, remember me?” I was immediately back to Miss Roe’s class, fated to a seat in the row by the wall due solely to the alphabet’s roll of the dice.
I remember once showing off some vocabulary word I thought I had learned but totally misused in a paper she had assigned. She took the time to congratulate me for trying to use the word, but also taught me a life lesson in proper diction. In her sweet and measured way she explained the importance of using the right word in the right place. It was the first time I had heard Mark Twain’s famous maxim “that the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
She was kind and thoughtful and no one ever left her office without a smile as she challenged us all. In the words of the poet W.H. Auden, “In times of joy, all of us wished we possessed a tail we could wag.”
I can still see her in her office, smoothing her dress as she sat down, talking to me in her calm yet animated way. As I grew older and learned a bit more of the mysteries of women, I think she might well have been described as a “fine peppercorn” of a companion, as a girlfriend once described herself when posing in what she thought was a “sophisticated” recline.
My girlfriend is long gone, but Ms Roe remains. I only regret I wasn’t there at the end to take some of the trouble from her eyes.