I lifted Miss Eudora with hands cupped under her frail arms that
seemed longer than natural for her size, helping her maneuver into
her motorized lounger. The hands could have been a portrait in themselves
- long fingers gracefully reaching.
She seemed weightless, as easy to lift as she was to talk with.
Nine decades had allowed time to weave her genius and she spoke
with a pleasantness and humor and kindness that drew attention from
That Sunday afternoon, for the first time in her presence, I sensed
a rush of emotions and nostalgia, flashing back to my childhood,
and more poignantly, my transition to adulthood. Until then I couldnt
have expressed why the woman intrigued me so, or why I was there
in her home, sharing with her my recently completed bronze portrait
bust. I had been driven to do it. A catharsis of sorts.
How can one accomplish this and practice the art of medicine
at the same time? she had asked with that unique voice.
Kept it in the clinic break room and worked between pap
smears, I had spontaneously responded. A gynecologist could
sculpt. No reason to confine ones passion to puerperal pathology.
We should call it between paps then. It would
be a true name. Telling. Even her verbal phrasing sounded
like her short stories. The revelation was logical. She simply typed
down what came into her head. Type and speak the words or speak
the words and type. It did not matter.
I had researched for a year, formed the peculiar face in clay,
completed the mother mold and then cast the figure in bronze. Yet,
I realized in that moment the work had actually begun twenty years
I was no literary scholar, a casual reader at best. I hadnt
known her work very well. Not her writing. Her wonderful use of
language had not led me to the bust, but the bust had lead me to
her words. Wonderful language.
I had first been connected to her through her images and not the
verbal ones. For twenty years I had absorbed her published photographs.
Though she considered herself simply a recorder of life through
the lens of her camera, she, despite all humility, obviously possessed
a natural gift, an eye for composition. I saw it. Even then it helped
form my own eye.
At the time, I couldnt express an opinion about her images
in as many words but I could express them with pencil on paper,
and I was doing just that on a Fall weekend in 1977.
It was there as I sat at the foot of my grandmothers hospital
bed on that cold tile floor, in a room that smelled like the doctors
offices of my youth, complete with alcohol and porcelain basins
and white sheets, that I met Eudora Welty for the first time.
I had given Mom (my grandmothers nickname) a Welty photo collection
as a Christmas gift and I sat studying the black and white images
as I watched her lie there still, life slowly moving to a new place.
That was the year she was finally told what she seemed to be waiting
her whole life to hear; at least her whole life as my grandmother.
She had cancer, pancreatic no less.
And though I had no conscious memory of my own mothers death
from cancer fifteen years earlier, I was indeed living her mothers
illness, and that day, that one time and one place, was the last
chapter, last verse, last word. A sigh would describe it better
as we shared her last breath together, face to face, eye to eye,
heart to heart.
Now I knew. In some strange way Miss Eudora had been there too.
An unknowing comforter.
I lacked a coherent agony, one I could express. My grief was beyond
simple emotion. Not something here today, gone tomorrow. Maybe if
I could write it down, but I couldnt find the words, the authorized
version of my distress.
But there, two decades later, Moms frailty and unchanging
kindheartedness came flooding back in my mind as I sat in the parlor
on Pinehurst Street. Despite the months of work, it was only then
that the connection and relationship became obvious. Mom had never
known Eudora Welty, nor had Miss Eudora known Mom. And Mom, to my
knowledge, had never read the work, though the simple life in Harperville,
Mississippi, could certainly have read like a Welty short story.
The dots were connecting.
Eudora Welty never like being labeled a southern writer.
She simply communicated life where and how she knew it. Mom never
declared or denied being a southern woman, she had simply been born
in rural Mississippi, lived there, and died there. And she, like
Miss Eudora, had made life richer, more worthwhile, for those around
Mom never won a Pulitzer Prize, or the French Legion Honor, or
was referred to as Americas First Lady of anything. But she
did what she thought God put her on earth to do, and did it with
equal courage and passion. Sharing life.
So I sat in the parlor sipping ice tea, talking and listening.
The worn sofa rested underneath the window that looked out to the
neighborhood of her childhood and the rest of her life. A personalized
photo of Bill Clinton sat casually on the fireplace mantel. On the
far wall, a William Hollingsworth watercolor of a wet, slippery,
sloping Jackson street announced her personal friendship with the
long deceased local artist from another era. Books filled a bookshelf
along one wall and more books covered an upholstered love seat.
It had become a place to sit stacks on stacks of books words
making up sentences making up paragraphs making up pages and bound
together to be held in the hand; a temporary resting place, a seat
for what she loved. More books were scattered about the room. No
particular order or filing system was evident. Nothing marked them
as particularly outstanding except that they were hers.
What do you think? I nodded towards the bronze portrait.
Well, I suppose I shouldnt offer an opinion since
I am no master of the medium. But if you were to ask, do you like
vanilla ice cream, I could render an opinion.
I pondered the response. Then I thought of another Mississippi
writer asking Eudora as they rode leisurely down a kudzu enfolded
Mississippi back road, referring to a road sign that read PARADISE
ALLEY, Eudora, should we take this turn?
With her usual quick wit she had responded, Why, Willie, wed
be fools not to.
When she was a girl, little Eudora had loved to take Sunday rides
in the family car just to see the town and listen to the adults
converse as she sat in the back seat middle. With the bronze Eudora
Welty in front of me and the real lady beside me, I was reminded.
One day, Lord willing, on another Paradise Alley, riding in the
back seat middle myself, I will turn to Mom and Miss Eudora to say,
as little Eudora had so many years ago, Now, yall talk.
Two women, sharing life in a new time and a new place.