Southern Life

No memory of having starred
Atones for later disregard
Or keeps the end from being hard.

The other night, my wife and I had supper at a table in the dining room of our local continuing care retirement community, described in its website as “Serving Older Adults in the Quaker Tradition.” Around the table were retirees with sterling memories of having starred. Peyton, on my left, the son of a famous missionary in China, had led Episcopal seminaries all over the world; John Gunn, emeritus economics professor at Washington & Lee University, still asks the sharpest liberal-leaning questions at lectures on the W&L campus; Harrison Kinney, on my right, was a “Talk of the Town” writer at the New Yorker until John Updike took his office in the 1950s; Jo McMurtry, next to him, is retired from the University of Richmond’s English Department. She and I were reciting a Robert Frost poem together, from memory, the one from which the stanza above is taken.

Also at the table was my wife’s mother, herself respectably accomplished with a degree in economics from Cambridge University and a pioneering government career starting in the Navy WAVES and in Occupied Japan. She has recently moved from Florida to this idyllic old folks home beside the Blue Ridge. My wife and I visit a lot, but last night it was because I was giving an after-dinner lecture, “When Journalism Was an Honorable Profession.” (The title was merely a set up for my opening line: “Honorable? Hell, it’s never even been a profession.”)

The Frost poem ends bitterly, as Jo and I underscored with chilly irony as we quietly completed our duet:

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all. Provide, provide.

The residents sitting at tables around the dining room, in their 80s and 90s, certainly have paid dearly for such first-rate friends. Kendal at Lexington ain’t cheap. But the lesson isn’t in the last stanza of the Frost poem, but in a stanza that applies to so many of these retired professors, or retirees returned to the little-changed town where they graduated from W&L or the Virginia Military Institute around the years of World War II.

Some have relied on what they knew;
Others on simply being true.
What worked for them might work for you.

After my lecture, in which I mentioned my past employment at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and even mentioned this website, Like the Dew, John Gunn came up with a twinkle in his eyes. “I have a song to sing for you.” I thought he was kidding. No kidding, he sang a song from memory, from when he was a student at Georgia Tech, something played on WSB radio no doubt. So may you all live well, kids, and keep your memories.

The Atlanta Journal covers Dixie like the dew.
Everybody there will tell you so.
Daily it reviews
Everything that’s news.
It will tell you all you want to know,
[soft voice: “I’m telling the world that”]
Every hour and every day
both here and far away,
The Atlanta Journal’s on the air,
If you want that Dixie flavor in your mouth,
Tune in on Atlanta and the Voice of the South,
The Atlanta Journal Covers Dixie like the dew,
And it hails   from   down   in  Geor–gia.

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming

Doug Cumming worked for newspapers and magazines in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta for 26 years before getting a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002. Since then, he has taught at Loyola University in New Orleans and Washington & Lee University, where he is now a tenured associate professor of journalism. His first book, "The Southern Press: Literary Legacies and the Challenge of Modernity," has been published by Northwestern University Press. His father, Joe Cumming, was the Atlanta bureau chief for Newsweek magazine during the years of the Civil Rights movement.

  1. This is a vivid and much-needed reminder, beautifully written.
    When a nurse’s aide walks into a nursing home room to change a diaper on an incontinent old man or woman, the accomplishments of that person in the bed mean nothing whatsoever. That’s a body to be cleaned, and if that underpaid tired aide isn’t in the best of moods, the process can be pretty rough on both of them.
    We count as important for only as long as we talk sense. Those elderly people surrounding Doug are the very, very fortunate ones whose sound minds followed them into old age.

    1. Well, that’s what we’re about, isn’t it? Giving meaning. I think I found my ideal American in the steel worker in Pittsburgh who read and re-read Dickens as a hobby. There are all kinds of tedious tasks in life. If her education has been worth while, that aide in the nursing home has something else to think about while she tends to the needy.
      Those also serve who are waited on.

  2. Billy Howard

    I love the writing and how you weave the story in and out of Frost’s poem. Beautifully told.

  3. lovely work doug — and a great story

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