In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks. There was a mission-style oak grandfather clock standing in the hall, which sent its gong-like strokes through the livingroom, diningroom, kitchen, and pantry, and up the sounding board of the stairwell. Through the night, it could find its way into our ears; sometimes, even on the sleeping porch, midnight could wake us up. My parents’ bedroom had a smaller striking clock that answered it. Though the kitchen clock did nothing but show the time, the diningroom clock was a cuckoo clock with weights on long chains, on one of which my baby brother, after climbing on a chair to the top of the china closet, once succeeded in suspending the cat for a moment. I don’t know whether or not my father’s Ohio family, in having been Swiss back in the 1700s before the first three Welty brothers came to America, had anything to do with this; but we all of us have been time-minded all our lives. This was good at least for a future fiction writer, being able to learn so penetratingly, and almost first of all, about chronology. It was one of a good many things I learned almost without knowing it; it would be there when I needed it.
My father loved all instruments that would instruct and fascinate. His place to keep things was the drawer in the “library table” where lying on top of his folded maps was a telescope with brass extensions, to find the moon and the Big Dipper after supper in our front yard, and to keep appointments with eclipses. There was a folding Kodak that was brought out for Christmas, birthdays, and trips. In the back of the drawer you could find a magnifying glass, a kaleidoscope, and a gyroscope kept in a black buckram box, which he would set dancing for us on a string pulled tight. He had also supplied himself with an assortment of puzzles composed of metal rings and intersecting links and keys chained together, impossible for the rest of us, however patiently shown, to take apart; he had an almost childlike love of the ingenious.
In time, a barometer was added to our diningroom wall; but we didn’t really need it. My father had the country boy’s accurate knowledge of the weather and its skies. He went out and stood on our front steps first thing in the morning and took a look at it and a sniff. He was a pretty good weather prophet.
“Well, I’m not,” my mother would say with enormous self-satisfaction.
He told us children what to do if we were lost in a strange country. “Look for where the sky is brightest along the horizon,” he said. “That reflects the nearest river. Strike out for a river and you will find habitation.” Eventualities were much on his mind. In his care for us children he cautioned us to take measures against such things as being struck by lightning. He drew us all away from the windows during the severe electrical storms that are common where we live. My mother stood apart, scoffing at caution as a character failing. “Why, I always loved a storm! High winds never bothered me in West Virginia! Just listen at that! I wasn’t a bit afraid of a little lightning and thunder! I’d go out on the mountain and spread my arms wide and run in a good big storm!”
So I developed a strong meteorological sensibility. In years ahead when I wrote stories, atmosphere took its influential role from the start. Commotion in the weather and the inner feelings aroused by such a hovering disturbance emerged connected in dramatic form. (I tried a tornado first, in a story called “The Winds.”)
From our earliest Christmas times, Santa Claus brought us toys that instruct boys and girls (separately) how to build things—stone blocks cut to the castle-building style, Tinker Toys, and Erector sets. Daddy made for us himself elaborate kites that needed to be taken miles out of town to a pasture long enough (and my father was not afraid of horses and cows watching) for him to run with and get up on a long cord to which my mother held the spindle, and then we children were given it to hold, tugging like something alive at our hands. They were beautiful, sound, shapely box kites, smelling delicately of office glue for their entire short lives. And of course, as soon as the boys attained anywhere near the right age, there was an electric train, the engine with its pea-sized working headlight, its line of cars, tracks equipped with switches, semaphores, its station, its bridges, and its tunnel, which blocked off all other traffic in the upstairs hall. Even from downstairs, and through the cries of excited children, the elegant rush and click of the train could be heard through the ceiling, running around and around its figure eight.
All of this, but especially the train, represents my father’s fondest beliefs—in progress, in the future. With these gifts, he was preparing his children.
And so was my mother with her different gifts.
I learned from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or to be read to. My mother read to me. She’d read to me in the big bedroom in the mornings, when we were in her rocker together, which ticked in rhythm as we rocked, as though we had a cricket accompanying the story. She’d read to me in the diningroom on winter afternoons in front of the coal fire, with our cuckoo clock ending the story with “Cuckoo,” and at night when I’d got in my own bed. I must have given her no peace. Sometimes she read to me in the kitchen while she sat churning, and the churning sobbed along with any story. It was my ambition to have her read to me while I churned; once she granted my wish, but she read off my story before I brought her butter. She was an expressive reader. When she was reading “Puss in Boots,” for instance, it was impossible not to know that she distrusted all cats.
It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass. Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them—with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself. Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.
Neither of my parents had come from homes that could afford to buy many books, but though it must have been something of a strain on his salary, as the youngest officer in a young insurance company, my father was all the while carefully selecting and ordering away for what he and Mother thought we children should grow up with. They bought first for the future.
Besides the bookcase in the livingroom, which was always called “the library,” there were the encyclopedia tables and dictionary stand under windows in our diningroom. Here to help us grow up arguing around the diningroom table were the Unabridged Webster, the Columbia Encyclopedia, Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, the Lincoln Library of Information, and later the Book of Knowledge. And the year we moved into our new house, there was room to celebrate it with the new 1925 edition of the Britannica, which my father, his face always deliberately turned toward the future, was of course disposed to think better than any previous edition.
In “the library,” inside the mission-style bookcase with its three diamond-latticed glass doors, with my father’s Morris chair and the glass-shaded lamp on its table beside it, were books I could soon begin on—and I did, reading them all alike and as they came, straight down their rows, top shelf to bottom. There was the set of Stoddard’s Lectures, in all its late nineteenth-century vocabulary and vignettes of peasant life and quaint beliefs and customs, with matching halftone illustrations: Vesuvius erupting, Venice by moonlight, gypsies glimpsed by their campfires. I didn’t know then the clue they were to my father’s longing to see the rest of the world. I read straight through his other love-from-afar: the Victrola Book of the Opera, with opera after opera in synopsis, with portraits in costume of Melba, Caruso, Galli-Curci, and Geraldine Farrar, some of whose voices we could listen to on our Red Seal records.
My mother read secondarily for information; she sank as a hedonist into novels. She read Dickens in the spirit in which she would have eloped with him. The novels of her girlhood that had stayed on in her imagination, besides those of Dickens and Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, were Jane Eyre, Trilby, The Woman in White, Green Mansions, King Solomon’s Mines. Marie Corelli’s name would crop up but I understood she had gone out of favor with my mother, who had only kept Ardath out of loyalty. In time she absorbed herself in Galsworthy, Edith Wharton, above all in Thomas Mann of the Joseph volumes.
St. Elmo was not in our house; I saw it often in other houses. This wildly popular Southern novel is where all the Edna Earles in our population started coming from. They’re all named for the heroine, who succeeded in bringing a dissolute, sinning roué and atheist of a lover (St. Elmo) to his knees. My mother was able to forgo it. But she remembered the classic advice given to rose growers on how to water their bushes long enough: “Take a chair and St. Elmo.”
To both my parents I owe my early acquaintance with a beloved Mark Twain. There was a full set of Mark Twain and a short set of Ring Lardner in our bookcase, and those were the volumes that in time united us all, parents and children.
Reading everything that stood before me was how I came upon a worn old book without a back that had belonged to my father as a child. It was called Sanford and Merton. Is there anyone left who recognizes it, I wonder? It is the famous moral tale written by Thomas Day in the 1780s, but of him no mention is made on the title page of this book; here it is Sanford and Merton in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin. Here are the rich boy and the poor boy and Mr. Barlow, their teacher and interlocutor, in long discourses alternating with dramatic scenes—danger and rescue allotted to the rich and the poor respectively. It may have only words of one syllable, but one of them is “quoth.” It ends with not one but two morals, both engraved on rings: “Do what you ought, come what may,” and “If we would be great, we must first learn to be good.”
This book was lacking its front cover, the back held on by strips of pasted paper, now turned golden, in several layers, and the pages stained, flecked, and tattered around the edges; its garish illustrations had come unattached but were preserved, laid in. I had the feeling even in my heedless childhood that this was the only book my father as a little boy had had of his own. He had held onto it, and might have gone to sleep on its coverless face: he had lost his mother when he was seven. My father had never made any mention to his own children of the book, but he had brought it along with him from Ohio to our house and shelved it in our bookcase.
My mother had brought from West Virginia that set of Dickens; those books looked sad, too—they had been through fire and water before I was born, she told me, and there they were, lined up—as I later realized, waiting for me.
I was presented, from as early as I can remember, with books of my own, which appeared on my birthday and Christmas morning. Indeed, my parents could not give me books enough. They must have sacrificed to give me on my sixth or seventh birthday—it was after I became a reader for myself—the ten-volume set of Our Wonder World. These were beautifully made, heavy books I would lie down with on the floor in front of the diningroom hearth, and more often than the rest volume 5, Every Child’s Story Book, was under my eyes. There were the fairy tales—Grimm, Andersen, the English, the French, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”; and there was Aesop and Reynard the Fox; there were the myths and legends, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and St. George and the Dragon, even the history of Joan of Arc; a whack of Pilgrim’s Progress and a long piece of Gulliver. They all carried their classic illustrations. I located myself in these pages and could go straight to the stories and pictures I loved; very often “The Yellow Dwarf” was first choice, with Walter Crane’s Yellow Dwarf in full color making his terrifying appearance flanked by turkeys. Now that volume is as worn and backless and hanging apart as my father’s poor Sanford and Merton. The precious page with Edward Lear’s “Jumblies” on it has been in danger of slipping out for all these years. One measure of my love for Our Wonder World was that for a long time I wondered if I would go through fire and water for it as my mother had done for Charles Dickens; and the only comfort was to think I could ask my mother to do it for me.
I believe I’m the only child I know of who grew up with this treasure in the house. I used to ask others, “Did you have Our Wonder World?” I’d have to tell them The Book of Knowledge could not hold a candle to it.
I live in gratitude to my parents for initiating me—and as early as I begged for it, without keeping me waiting—into knowledge of the word, into reading and spelling, by way of the alphabet. They taught it to me at home in time for me to begin to read before starting to school. I believe the alphabet is no longer considered an essential piece of equipment for traveling through life. In my day it was the keystone to knowledge. You learned the alphabet as you learned to count to ten, as you learned “Now I lay me” and the Lord’s Prayer and your father’s and mother’s name and address and telephone number, all in case you were lost.
My love for the alphabet, which endures, grew out of reciting it but, before that, out of seeing the letters on the page. In my own story books, before I could read them for myself, I fell in love with various winding, enchanted-looking initials drawn by Walter Crane at the heads of fairy tales. In “Once upon a time,” an “O” had a rabbit running it as a treadmill, his feet upon flowers. When the day came, years later, for me to see the Book of Kells, all the wizardry of letter, initial, and word swept over me a thousand times over, and the illumination, the gold, seemed a part of the word’s beauty and holiness that had been there from the start.
Learning stamps you with its moments. Childhood’s learning is made up of moments. It isn’t steady. It’s a pulse.
In a children’s art class, we sat in a ring on kindergarten chairs and drew three daffodils that had just been picked out of the yard; and while I was drawing, my sharpened yellow pencil and the cup of the yellow daffodil gave off whiffs just alike. That the pencil doing the drawing should give off the same smell as the flower it drew seemed part of the art lesson—as shouldn’t it be? Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again. Here and there, it’s the same world. Or now and then we’ll hear from an artist who’s never lost it.
In my sensory education I include my physical awareness of the word. Of a certain word, that is; the connection it has with what it stands for. At around age six, perhaps, I was standing by myself in our front yard waiting for supper, just at that hour in a late summer day when the sun is already below the horizon and the risen full moon in the visible sky stops being chalky and begins to take on light. There comes the moment, and I saw it then, when the moon goes from flat to round. For the first time it met my eyes as a globe. The word “moon” came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon. Held in my mouth the moon became a word. It had the roundness of a Concord grape Grandpa took off his vine and gave me to suck out of its skin and swallow whole, in Ohio.
This love did not prevent me from living for years in foolish error about the moon. The new moon just appearing in the west was the rising moon to me. The new should be rising. And in early childhood the sun and moon, those opposite reigning powers, I just as easily assumed rose in east and west respectively in their opposite sides of the sky, and like partners in a reel they advanced, sun from the east, moon from the west, crossed over (when I wasn’t looking) and went down on the other side. My father couldn’t have known I believed that when, bending behind me and guiding my shoulder, he positioned me at our telescope in the front yard and, with careful adjustment of the focus, brought the moon close to me.
The night sky over my childhood Jackson was velvety black. I could see the full constellations in it and call their names; when I could read, I knew their myths. Though I was always waked for eclipses, and indeed carried to the window as an infant in arms and shown Halley’s Comet in my sleep, and though I’d been taught at our diningroom table about the solar system and knew the earth revolved around the sun, and our moon around us, I never found out the moon didn’t come up in the west until I was a writer and Herschel Brickell, the literary critic, told me after I misplaced it in a story. He said valuable words to me about my new profession: “Always be sure you get your moon in the right part of the sky.”
My mother always sang to her children. Her voice came out just a little bit in the minor key. “Wee Willie Winkie’s” song was wonderfully sad when she sang the lullabies.
“Oh, but now there’s a record. She could have her own record to listen to,” my father would have said. For there came a Victrola record of “Bobby Shafftoe” and “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” all of Mother’s lullabies, which could be played to take her place. Soon I was able to play her my own lullabies all day long.
Our Victrola stood in the diningroom. I was allowed to climb onto the seat of a diningroom chair to wind it, start the record turning, and set the needle playing. In a second I’d jumped to the floor, to spin or march around the table as the music called for—now there were all the other records I could play too. I skinned back onto the chair just in time to lift the needle at the end, stop the record and turn it over, then change the needle. That brass receptacle with a hole in the lid gave off a metallic smell like human sweat, from all the hot needles that were fed it. Winding up, dancing, being cocked to start and stop the record, was of course all in one the act of listening—to “Overture to Daughter of the Regiment,” “Selections from The Fortune Teller,” “Kiss Me Again,” “Gypsy Dance from Carmen,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam,” or whatever came next. Movement must be at the very heart of listening.
Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers—to read as listeners—and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.
My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.
In that vanished time in small-town Jackson, most of the ladies I was familiar with, the mothers of my friends in the neighborhood, were busiest when they were sociable. In the afternoons there was regular visiting up and down the little grid of residential streets. Everybody had calling cards, even certain children; and newborn babies themselves were properly announced by sending out their tiny engraved calling cards attached with a pink or blue bow to those of their parents. Graduation presents to high-school pupils were often “card cases.” On the hall table in every house the first thing you saw was a silver tray waiting to receive more calling cards on top of the stack already piled up like jackstraws; they were never thrown away.
My mother let none of this idling, as she saw it, pertain to her; she went her own way with or without her calling cards, and though she was fond of her friends and they were fond of her, she had little time for small talk. At first, I hadn’t known what I’d missed.
When we at length bought our first automobile, one of our neighbors was often invited to go with us on the family Sunday afternoon ride. In Jackson it was counted an affront to the neighbors to start out for anywhere with an empty seat in the car. My mother sat in the back with her friend, and I’m told that as a small child I would ask to sit in the middle, and say as we started off, “Now talk.”
There was dialogue throughout the lady’s accounts to my mother. “I said”… “He said”… “And I’m told she very plainly said”… “It was midnight before they finally heard, and what do you think it was?”
What I loved about her stories was that everything happened in scenes. I might not catch on to what the root of the trouble was in all that happened, but my ear told me it was dramatic. Often she said, “The crisis had come!”
This same lady was one of Mother’s callers on the telephone who always talked a long time. I knew who it was when my mother would only reply, now and then, “Well, I declare,” or “You don’t say so,” or “Surely not.” She’d be standing at the wall telephone, listening against her will, and I’d sit on the stairs close by her. Our telephone had a little bar set into the handle which had to be pressed and held down to keep the connection open, and when her friend had said goodbye, my mother needed me to prize her fingers loose from the little bar; her grip had become paralyzed. “What did she say?” I asked.
“She wasn’t saying a thing in this world,” sighed my mother. “She was just ready to talk, that’s all.”
My mother was right. Years later, beginning with my story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” I wrote reasonably often in the form of a monologue that takes possession of the speaker. How much more gets told besides!
This lady told everything in her sweet, marveling voice, and meant every word of it kindly. She enjoyed my company perhaps even more than my mother’s. She invited me to catch her doodlebugs; under the trees in her backyard were dozens of their holes. When you stuck a broom straw down one and called, “Doodlebug, doodlebug, your house is on fire and all your children are burning up,” she believed this is why the doodlebug came running out of the hole. This was why I loved to call up her doodlebugs instead of ours.
My mother could never have told me her stories, and I think I knew why even then: my mother didn’t believe them. But I could listen to this murmuring lady all day. She believed everything she heard, like the doodlebug. And so did I.
This was a day when ladies’ and children’s clothes were very often made at home. My mother cut out all the dresses and her little boys’ rompers, and a sewing woman would come and spend the day upstairs in the sewing room fitting and stitching them all. This was Fannie. This old black sewing woman, along with her speed and dexterity, brought along a great provision of up-to-the-minute news. She spent her life going from family to family in town and worked right in its bosom, and nothing could stop her. My mother would try, while I stood being pinned up. “Fannie, I’d rather Eudora didn’t hear that.” “That” would be just what I was longing to hear, whatever it was. “I don’t want her exposed to gossip”—as if gossip were measles and I could catch it. I did catch some of it but not enough. “Mrs. O’Neil’s oldest daughter she had her wedding dress tried on, and all her fine underclothes featherstitched and ribbon run in and then—” “I think that will do, Fannie,” said my mother. It was tantalizing never to be exposed long enough to hear the end.
Fannie was the worldliest old woman to be imagined. She could do whatever her hands were doing without having to stop talking; and she could speak in a wonderfully derogatory way with any number of pins stuck in her mouth. Her hands steadied me like claws as she stumped on her knees around me, tacking me together. The gist of her tale would be lost on me, but Fannie didn’t bother about the ear she was telling it to; she just liked telling. She was like an author. In fact, for a good deal of what she said, I daresay she was the author.
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.
It was taken entirely for granted that there wasn’t any lying in our family, and I was advanced in adolescence before I realized that in plenty of homes where I played with schoolmates and went to their parties, children lied to their parents and parents lied to their children and to each other. It took me a long time to realize that these very same everyday lies, and the stratagems and jokes and tricks and dares that went with them, were in fact the basis of the scenes I so well loved to hear about and hoped for and treasured in the conversation of adults.
My instinct—the dramatic instinct—was to lead me, eventually, on the right track for a storyteller: the scene was full of hints, pointers, suggestions, and promises of things to find out and know about human beings. I had to grow up and learn to listen for the unspoken as well as the spoken—and to know a truth, I also had to recognize a lie.
It was when my mother came out onto the sleeping porch to tell me goodnight that her trial came. The sudden silence in the double bed meant my younger brothers had both keeled over in sleep, and I in the single bed at my end of the porch would be lying electrified, waiting for this to be the night when she’d tell me what she’d promised for so long. Just as she bent to kiss me I grabbed her and asked: “Where do babies come from?”
My poor mother! But something saved her every time. Almost any night I put the baby question to her, suddenly, as if the whole outdoors exploded, Professor Holt would start to sing. The Holts lived next door; he taught penmanship (the Palmer Method), typing, bookkeeping, and shorthand at the high school. His excitable voice traveled out of their diningroom windows across the two driveways between our houses, and up to our upstairs sleeping porch. His wife, usually so quiet and gentle, was his uncannily spirited accompanist at the piano. “High-ho! Come to the Fair!” he’d sing, unless he sang “Oho ye oho ye, who’s bound for the ferry, the briar’s in bud and the sun’s going down!”
“Dear, this isn’t a very good time for you to hear Mother, is it?”
She couldn’t get started. As soon as she’d whisper something, Professor Holt galloped into the chorus, “And ’tis but a penny to Twickenham town!” “Isn’t that enough?” she’d ask me. She’d told me that the mother and the father had to both want the baby. This couldn’t be enough. I knew she was not trying to fib to me, for she never did fib, but also I could not help but know she was not really telling me. And more than that, I was afraid of what I was going to hear next. This was partly because she wanted to tell me in the dark. I thought she might be afraid. In something like childish hopelessness I thought she probably couldn’t tell, just as she couldn’t lie.
On the night we came the closest to having it over with, she started to tell me without being asked, and I ruined it by yelling, “Mother, look at the lightning bugs!”
In those days, the dark was dark. And all the dark out there was filled with the soft, near lights of lightning bugs. They were everywhere, flashing on the slow, horizontal move, on the upswings, rising and subsiding in the soundless dark. Lightning bugs signaled and answered back without a stop, from down below all the way to the top of our sycamore tree. My mother just gave me a businesslike kiss and went on back to Daddy in their room at the front of the house. Distracted by lightning bugs, I had missed my chance. The fact is she never did tell me.
I doubt that any child I knew ever was told by her mother any more than I was about babies. In fact, I doubt that her own mother ever told her any more than she told me, though there were five brothers who were born after Mother, one after the other, and she was taking care of babies all her childhood.
Not being able to bring herself to open that door to reveal its secret, one of those days, she opened another door.
In my mother’s bottom bureau drawer in her bedroom she kept treasures of hers in boxes, and had given me permission to play with one of them—a switch of her own chestnut-colored hair, kept in a heavy bright braid that coiled around like a snake inside a cardboard box. I hung it from her doorknob and unplaited it; it fell in ripples nearly to the floor, and it satisfied the Rapunzel in me to comb it out. But one day I noticed in the same drawer a small white cardboard box such as her engraved calling cards came in from the printing house. It was tightly closed, but I opened it, to find to my puzzlement and covetousness two polished buffalo nickels, embedded in white cotton. I rushed with this opened box to my mother and asked if I could run out and spend the nickels.
“No!” she exclaimed in a most passionate way. She seized the box into her own hands. I begged her; somehow I had started to cry. Then she sat down, drew me to her, and told me that I had had a little brother who had come before I did, and who had died as a baby before I was born. And these two nickels that I’d wanted to claim as my find were his. They had lain on his eyelids, for a purpose untold and unimaginable. “He was a fine little baby, my first baby, and he shouldn’t have died. But he did. It was because your mother almost died at the same time,” she told me. “In looking after me, they too nearly forgot about the little baby.”
She’d told me the wrong secret—not how babies could come but how they could die, how they could be forgotten about.
I wondered in after years: how could my mother have kept those two coins? Yet how could someone like herself have disposed of them in any way at all? She suffered from a morbid streak which in all the life of the family reached out on occasions—the worst occasions—and touched us, clung around us, making it worse for her; her unbearable moments could find nowhere to go.
The future story writer in the child I was must have taken unconscious note and stored it away then: one secret is liable to be revealed in the place of another that is harder to tell, and the substitute secret when nakedly exposed is often the more appalling.
Perhaps telling me what she did was made easier for my mother by the two secrets, told and still not told, being connected in her deepest feeling, more intimately than anyone ever knew, perhaps even herself. So far as I remember now, this is the only time this baby was ever mentioned in my presence. So far as I can remember, and I’ve tried, he was never mentioned in the presence of my father, for whom he had been named. I am only certain that my father, who could never bear pain very well, would not have been able to bear it.
It was my father (my mother told me at some later date) who saved her own life, after that baby was born. She had in fact been given up by the doctor, as she had long been unable to take any nourishment. (That was the illness when they’d cut her hair, which formed the switch in the same bureau drawer.) What had struck her was septicemia, in those days nearly always fatal. What my father did was to try champagne.
I once wondered where he, who’d come not very long before from an Ohio farm, had ever heard of such a remedy, such a measure. Or perhaps as far as he was concerned he invented it, out of the strength of desperation. It would have been desperation augmented because champagne couldn’t be bought in Jackson. But somehow he knew what to do about that too. He telephoned to Canton, forty miles north, to an Italian orchard grower, Mr. Trolio, told him the necessity, and asked, begged, that he put a bottle of his wine on Number 3, which was due in a few minutes to stop in Canton to “take on water” (my father knew everything about train schedules). My father would be waiting to meet the train in Jackson. Mr. Trolio did—he sent the bottle in a bucket of ice and my father snatched it off the baggage car. He offered my mother a glass of chilled champagne and she drank it and kept it down. She was to live, after all.
Now, her hair was long again, it would reach in a braid down her back, and now I was her child. She hadn’t died. And when I came, I hadn’t died either. Would she ever? Would I ever? I couldn’t face ever. I must have rushed into her lap, demanding her like a baby. And she had to put her first-born aside again, for me.
Of course it’s easy to see why they both overprotected me, why my father, before I could wear a new pair of shoes for the first time, made me wait while he took out his thin silver pocket knife and with the point of the blade scored the polished soles all over, carefully, in a diamond pattern, to prevent me from sliding on the polished floor when I ran.
As I was to learn over and over again, my mother’s mind was a mass of associations. Whatever happened would be forever paired for her with something that had happened before it, to one of us or to her. It became a private anniversary. Every time any possible harm came near me, she thought of how she lost her first child. When a Roman candle at Christmas backfired up my sleeve, she rushed to smother the blaze with the first thing she could grab, which was a dish towel hanging in the kitchen, and the burn on my arm became infected. I was nothing but proud of my sling, for I could wear it to school, and her repeated blaming of herself—for even my sling—puzzled and troubled me.
When my mother would tell me that she wanted me to have something because she as a child had never had it, I wanted, or I partly wanted, to give it back. All my life I continued to feel that bliss for me would have to imply my mother’s deprivation or sacrifice. I don’t think it would have occurred to her what a double emotion I felt, and indeed I know that it was being unfair to her, for what she said was simply the truth.
“I’m going to let you go to the Century Theatre with your father tonight on my ticket. I’d rather you saw Blossom Time than go myself.”
In the Century first-row balcony, where their seats always were, I’d be sitting beside my father at this hour beyond my bedtime carried totally away by the performance, and then suddenly the thought of my mother staying home with my sleeping younger brothers, missing the spectacle at this moment before my eyes, and doing without all the excitement and wonder that filled my being, would arrest me and I could hardly bear my pleasure for my guilt.
There is no wonder that a passion for independence sprang up in me at the earliest age. It took me a long time to manage the independence, for I loved those who protected me—and I wanted inevitably to protect them back. I have never managed to handle the guilt. In the act and the course of writing stories, these are two of the springs, one bright, one dark, that feed the stream.
When I was six or seven, I was taken out of school and put to bed for several months for an ailment the doctor described as “fast-beating heart.” I felt all right—perhaps I felt too good. It was the feeling of suspense. At any rate, I was allowed to occupy all day my parents’ double bed in the front upstairs bedroom.
I was supposed to rest, and the little children didn’t get to run in and excite me often. Davis School was as close as across the street. I could keep up with it from the window beside me, hear the principal ring her bell, see which children were tardy, watch my classmates eat together at recess: I knew their sandwiches. I was homesick for school; my mother made time for teaching me arithmetic and hearing my spelling.
An opulence of story books covered my bed; it was the “Land of Counterpane.” As I read away, I was Rapunzel, or the Goose Girl, or the Princess Labam in one of the Thousand and One Nights who mounted the roof of her palace every night and of her own radiance faithfully lighted the whole city just by reposing there, and I daydreamed I could light Davis School from across the street.
But I never dreamed I could learn as long as I was away from the schoolroom, and that bits of enlightenment far-reaching in my life went on as ever in their own good time. After they’d told me goodnight and tucked me in—although I knew that after I’d finally fallen asleep they’d pick me up and carry me away—my parents draped the lampshade with a sheet of the daily paper, which was tilted, like a hatbrim, so that they could sit in their rockers in a lighted part of the room and I could supposedly go to sleep in the protected dark of the bed. They sat talking. What was thus dramatically made a present of to me was the secure sense of the hidden observer. As long as I could make myself keep awake, I was free to listen to every word my parents said between them.
I don’t remember that any secrets were revealed to me, nor do I remember any avid curiosity on my part to learn something I wasn’t supposed to—perhaps I was too young to know what to listen for. But I was present in the room with the chief secret there was—the two of them, father and mother, sitting there as one. I was conscious of this secret and of my fast-beating heart in step together, as I lay in the slant-shaded light of the room, with a brown, pear-shaped scorch in the newspaper shade where it had become overheated once.
What they talked about I have no idea, and the subject was not what mattered to me. It was no doubt whatever a young married couple spending their first time privately in each other’s company in the long, probably harried day would talk about. It was the murmur of their voices, the back-and-forth, the unnoticed stretching away of time between my bedtime and theirs, that made me bask there at my distance. What I felt was not that I was excluded from them but that I was included, in—and because of—what I could hear of their voices and what I could see of their faces in the cone of yellow light under the brown-scorched shade.
I suppose I was exercising as early as then the turn of mind, the nature of temperament, of a privileged observer; and owing to the way I became so, it turned out that I became the loving kind.
A conscious act grew out of this by the time I began to write stories: getting my distance, a prerequisite of my understanding of human events, is the way I begin work. Just as, of course, it was an initial step when, in my first journalism job, I stumbled into making pictures with a camera. Frame, proportion, perspective, the values of light and shade, all are determined by the distance of the observing eye.
I have always been shy physically. This in part tended to keep me from rushing into things, including relationships, headlong. Not rushing headlong, though I may have wanted to, but beginning to write stories about people, I drew near slowly; noting and guessing, apprehending, hoping, drawing my eventual conclusions out of my own heart, I did venture closer to where I wanted to go. As time and my imagination led me on, I did plunge.
From the first I was clamorous to learn—I wanted to know and begged to be told not so much what, or how, or why, or where, as when. How soon?
Pear tree by the garden gate,
How much longer must I wait?
This rhyme from one of my nursery books was the one that spoke for me. But I lived not at all unhappily in this craving, for my wild curiosity was in large part suspense, which carries its own secret pleasure. And so one of the godmothers of fiction was already bending over me.
When I was five years old, I knew the alphabet, I’d been vaccinated (for smallpox), and I could read. So my mother walked across the street to Jefferson Davis Grammar School and asked the principal if she would allow me to enter the first grade after Christmas.
“Oh, all right,” said Miss Duling. “Probably the best thing you could do with her.”
Miss Duling, a lifelong subscriber to perfection, was a figure of authority, the most whole-souled I have ever come to know. She was a dedicated schoolteacher who denied herself all she might have done or whatever other way she might have lived (this possibility was the last that could have occurred to us, her subjects in school). I believe she came of well-off people, well-educated, in Kentucky, and certainly old photographs show she was a beautiful, high-spirited-looking young lady—and came down to Jackson to its new grammar school that was going begging for a principal. She must have earned next to nothing; Mississippi then as now was the nation’s lowest-ranking state economically, and our legislature has always shown a painfully loud reluctance to give money to public education. That challenge brought her.
In the long run she came into touch, as teacher or principal, with three generations of Jacksonians. My parents had not, but everybody else’s parents had gone to school to her. She’d taught most of our leaders somewhere along the line. When she wanted something done—some civic oversight corrected, some injustice made right overnight, or even a tree spared that the fool telephone people were about to cut down—she telephoned the mayor, or the chief of police, or the president of the power company, or the head doctor at the hospital, or the judge in charge of a case, or whoever, and calling them by their first names, told them. It is impossible to imagine her meeting with anything less than compliance. The ringing of her brass bell from their days at Davis School would still be in their ears. She also proposed a spelling match between the fourth grade at Davis School and the Mississippi Legislature, who went through with it; and that told the Legislature.
Her standards were very high and of course inflexible, her authority was total; why wouldn’t this carry with it a brass bell that could be heard ringing for a block in all directions? That bell belonged to the figure of Miss Duling as though it grew directly out of her right arm, as wings grew out of an angel or a tail out of the devil. When we entered, marching, into her school, by strictest teaching, surveillance, and order we learned grammar, arithmetic, spelling, reading, writing, and geography; and she, not the teachers, I believe, wrote out the examinations: need I tell you, they were “hard.”
She’s not the only teacher who has influenced me, but Miss Duling, in some fictional shape or form, has stridden into a larger part of my work than I’d realized until now. She emerges in my perhaps inordinate number of schoolteacher characters. I loved those characters in the writing. But I did not, in life, love Miss Duling. I was afraid of her high-arched bony nose, her eyebrows lifted in half-circles above her hooded, brilliant eyes, and of the Kentucky R’s in her speech, and the long steps she took in her hightop shoes. I did nothing but fear her bearing-down authority, and did not connect this (as of course we were meant to) with our own need or desire to learn, perhaps because I already had this wish, and did not need to be driven.
She was impervious to lies or foolish excuses or the insufferable plea of not knowing any better. She wasn’t going to have any frills, either, at Davis School. When a new governor moved into the mansion, he sent his daughter to Davis School; her name was Lady Rachel Conner. Miss Duling at once called the governor to the telephone and told him, “She’ll be plain Rachel here.”
Miss Duling dressed as plainly as a Pilgrim on a Thanksgiving poster we made in the schoolroom, in a longish black-and-white checked gingham dress, a bright thick wool sweater the red of a railroad lantern—she’d knitted it herself—black stockings and her narrow elegant feet in black hightop shoes with heels you could hear coming, rhythmical as a parade drum down the hall. Her silky black curly hair was drawn back out of curl, fastened by high combs, and knotted behind. She carried her spectacles on a gold chain hung around her neck. Her gaze was in general sweeping, then suddenly at the point of concentration upon you. With a swing of her bell that took her whole right arm and shoulder, she rang it, militant and impartial, from the head of the front steps of Davis School when it was time for us all to line up, girls on one side, boys on the other. We were to march past her into the school building, while the fourth-grader she nabbed played time on the piano, mostly to a tune we could have skipped to, but we didn’t skip into Davis School.
Little recess (open-air exercises) and big recess (lunchboxes from home opened and eaten on the grass, on the girls’ side and the boys’ side of the yard) and dismissal were also regulated by Miss Duling’s bell. The bell was also used to catch us off guard with fire drill.
It was examinations that drove my wits away, as all emergencies do. Being expected to measure up was paralysing. I failed to make 100 on my spelling exam because I missed one word and that word was “uncle.” Mother, as I knew she would, took it personally. “You couldn’t spell uncle? When you’ve got those five perfectly splendid uncles in West Virginia? What would they say to that?”
It was never that Mother wanted me to beat my classmates in grades; what she wanted was for me to have my answers right. It was unclouded perfection I was up against.
My father was much more tolerant of possible error. He only said, as he steeply and impeccably sharpened my pencils on examination morning, “Now just keep remembering: the examinations were made out for the average student to pass. That’s the majority. And if the majority can pass, think how much better you can do.”
I looked to my mother, who had her own opinions about the majority. My father wished to treat it with respect, she didn’t. I’d been born left-handed, but the habit was broken when I entered the first grade in Davis School. My father had insisted. He pointed out that everything in life had been made for the convenience of right-handed people, because they were the majority, and he often used “what the majority wants” as a criterion for what was for the best. My mother said she could not promise him, could not promise him at all, that I wouldn’t stutter as a consequence. Mother had been born left-handed too; her family consisted of five left-handed brothers, a left-handed mother, and a father who could write with both hands at the same time, also backwards and forwards and upside down, different words with each hand. She had been broken of it when she was young, and she said she used to stutter.
“But you still stutter,” I’d remind her, only to hear her say loftily, “You should have heard me when I was your age.”
In my childhood days, a great deal of stock was put, in general, in the value of doing well in school. Both daily newspapers in Jackson saw the honor roll as news and published the lists, and the grades, of all the honor students. The city fathers gave the children who made the honor roll free season tickets to the baseball games down at the grandstand. We all attended and all worshiped some player on the Jackson Senators: I offered up my 100’s in arithmetic and spelling, reading and writing, attendance and, yes, deportment—I must have been a prig!—to Red McDermott, the third baseman. And our happiness matched that of knowing Miss Duling was on her summer vacation, far, far away in Kentucky.
Every school week, visiting teachers came on their days for special lessons. On Mondays, the singing teacher blew into the room fresh from the early outdoors, singing in her high soprano “How do you do?” to do-mi-sol-do, and we responded in chorus from our desks, “I’m ve-ry well” to do-sol-mi-do. Miss Johnson taught us rounds—“Row row row your boat gently down the stream”—and “Little Sir Echo,” with half the room singing the words and the other half being the echo, a competition. She was from the North, and she was the one who wanted us all to stop the Christmas carols and see snow. The snow falling that morning outside the window was the first most of us had ever seen, and Miss Johnson threw up the window and held out wide her own black cape and caught flakes on it and ran, as fast as she could go, up and down the aisles to show us the real thing before it melted.
Thursday was Miss Eyrich and Miss Eyrich was Thursday. She came to give us physical training. She wasted no time on nonsense. Without greeting, we were marched straight outside and summarily divided into teams (no choosing sides), put on the mark, and ordered to get set for a relay race. Miss Eyrich cracked out “Go!” Dread rose in my throat. My head swam. Here was my turn, nearly upon me. (Wait, have I been touched—was that slap the touch? Go on! Do I go on without our passing a word? What word? Now am I racing too fast to turn around? Now I’m nearly home, but where is the hand waiting for mine to touch? Am I too late? Have I lost the whole race for our side?) I lost the relay race for our side before I started, through living ahead of myself, dreading to make my start, feeling too late prematurely, and standing transfixed by emergency, trying to think of a password. Thursdays still can make me hear Miss Eyrich’s voice. “On your mark—get set—GO!”
Very composedly and very slowly, the art teacher, who visited each room on Fridays, paced the aisle and looked down over your shoulder at what you were drawing for her. This was Miss Ascher. Coming from behind you, her deep, resonant voice reached you without being a word at all, but a sort of purr. It was much the sound given out by our family doctor when he read the thermometer and found you were running a slight fever: “Um-hm. Um-hm.” Both alike, they let you go right ahead with it.
The school toilets were in the boys’ and girls’ respective basements. After Miss Duling had rung to dismiss school, a friend and I were making our plans for Saturday from adjoining cubicles. “Can you come spend the day with me?” I called out, and she called back, “I might could.”
“Who—said—MIGHT—COULD?” It sounded like “Fe Fi Fo Fum!”
We both were petrified, for we knew whose deep measured words those were that came from just outside our doors. That was the voice of Mrs. McWillie, who taught the other fourth grade across the hall from ours. She was not even our teacher, but a very heavy, stern lady who dressed entirely in widow’s weeds with a pleated black shirtwaist with a high net collar and velvet ribbon, and a black skirt to her ankles, with black circles under her eyes and a mournful, Presbyterian expression. We children took her to be a hundred years old. We held still.
“You might as well tell me,” continued Mrs. McWillie. “I’m going to plant myself right here and wait till you come out. Then I’ll see who it was I heard saying ‘MIGHT-COULD.’?”
If Elizabeth wouldn’t go out, of course I wouldn’t either. We knew her to be a teacher who would not flinch from standing there in the basement all afternoon, perhaps even all day Saturday. So we surrendered and came out. I priggishly hoped Elizabeth would clear it up which child it was—it wasn’t me.
“So it’s you.” She regarded us as a brace, made no distinction: whoever didn’t say it was guilty by association. “If I ever catch you down here one more time saying ‘MIGHT-COULD,’ I’m going to carry it to Miss Duling. You’ll be kept in every day for a week! I hope you’re both sufficiently ashamed of yourselves?” Saying “might-could” was bad, but saying it in the basement made bad grammar a sin. I knew Presbyterians believed that you could go to Hell.
Mrs. McWillie never scared us into grammar, of course. It was my first-year Latin teacher in high school who made me discover I’d fallen in love with it. It took Latin to thrust me into bona fide alliance with words in their true meaning. Learning Latin (once I was free of Caesar) fed my love for words upon words, words in continuation and modification, and the beautiful, sober, accretion of a sentence. I could see the achieved sentence finally standing there, as real, intact, and built to stay as the Mississippi State Capitol at the top of my street, where I could walk through it on my way to school and hear underfoot the echo of its marble floor, and over me the bell of its rotunda.
On winter’s rainy days, the schoolrooms would grow so dark that sometimes you couldn’t see the figures on the blackboard. At that point, Mrs. McWillie, that stern fourth-grade teacher, would let her children close their books, and she would move, broad in widow’s weeds like darkness itself, to the window and by what light there was she would stand and read aloud “The King of the Golden River.” But I was excluded—in the other fourth grade, across the hall. Miss Louella Varnado, my teacher, didn’t copy Mrs. McWillie; we had a spelling match: you could spell in the dark. I did not then suspect that there was any other way I could learn the story of “The King of the Golden River” than to have been assigned in the beginning to Mrs. McWillie’s cowering fourth grade, then wait for her to treat you to it on the rainy day of her choice. I only now realize how much the treat depended, too, on there not having been money enough to put electric lights in Davis School. John Ruskin had to come in through courtesy of darkness. When in time I found the story in a book and read it to myself, it didn’t seem to live up to my longings for a story with that name; as indeed, how could it?
Jackson’s Carnegie Library was on the same street where our house was, on the other side of the State Capitol. “Through the Capitol” was the way to go to the Library. You could glide through it on your bicycle or even coast through on roller skates, though without family permission.
I never knew anyone who’d grown up in Jackson without being afraid of Mrs. Calloway, our librarian. She ran the Library absolutely by herself, from the desk where she sat with her back to the books and facing the stairs, her dragon eye on the front door, where who knew what kind of person might come in from the public? SILENCE in big black letters was on signs tacked up everywhere. She herself spoke in her normally commanding voice; every word could be heard all over the Library above a steady seething sound coming from her electric fan; it was the only fan in the Library and stood on her desk, turned directly onto her streaming face.
As you came in from the bright outside, if you were a girl, she sent her strong eyes down the stairway to test you; if she could see through your skirt she sent you straight back home: you could just put on another petticoat if you wanted a book that badly from the public library. I was willing; I would do anything to read.
My mother was not afraid of Mrs. Calloway. She wished me to have my own library card to check out books for myself. She took me in to introduce me and I saw I had met a witch. “Eudora is nine years old and has my permission to read any book she wants from the shelves, children or adult,” Mother said. “With the exception of Elsie Dinsmore,” she added. Later she explained to me that she’d made this rule because Elsie the heroine, being made by her father to practice too long and hard at the piano, fainted and fell off the piano stool. “You’re too impressionable, dear,” she told me. “You’d read that and the very first thing you’d do, you’d fall off the piano stool.” “Impressionable” was a new word. I never hear it yet without the image that comes with it of falling straight off the piano stool.
Mrs. Calloway made her own rules about books. You could not take back a book to the Library on the same day you’d taken it out; it made no difference to her that you’d read every word in it and needed another to start. You could take out two books at a time and two only; this applied as long as you were a child and also for the rest of your life, to my mother as severely as to me. So two by two, I read library books as fast as I could go, rushing them home in the basket of my bicycle. From the minute I reached our house, I started to read. Every book I seized on, from Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue at Camp Rest-a-While to Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, stood for the devouring wish to read being instantly granted. I knew this was bliss, knew it at the time. Taste isn’t nearly so important; it comes in its own time. I wanted to read immediately. The only fear was that of books coming to an end.
My mother was very sharing of this feeling of insatiability. Now, I think of her as reading so much of the time while doing something else. In my mind’s eye The Origin of Species is lying on the shelf in the pantry under a light dusting of flour—my mother was a bread maker; she’d pick it up, sit by the kitchen window and find her place, with one eye on the oven. I remember her picking up The Man in Lower Ten while my hair got dry enough to unroll from a load of kid curlers trying to make me like my idol, Mary Pickford. A generation later, when my brother Walter was away in the Navy and his two little girls often spent the day in our house, I remember Mother reading the new issue of Time magazine while taking the part of the Wolf in a game of “Little Red Riding Hood” with the children. She’d just look up at the right time, long enough to answer—in character—“The better to eat you with, my dear,” and go back to her place in the war news.
Both our parents had grown up in religious households. In our own family, we children were christened as babies, and were taught our prayers to say at night, and sent as we were growing up to Sunday school, but ours was never a churchgoing family. At home we did not, like Grandpa Welty, say grace at table. In this way we were variously different from most of the families we knew. On Sundays, Presbyterians were not allowed to eat hot food or read the funnypapers or travel the shortest journey; parents believed in Hell and believed tiny babies could go there. Baptists were not supposed to know, up until their dying day, how to play cards or dance. And so on. We went to the Methodist Episcopal Church South Sunday School, and of course we never saw anything strange about Methodists.
But we grew up in a religious-minded society. Even in high school, pupils were used to answering the history teacher’s roll call with a perfectly recited verse from the Bible. (No fair “Jesus wept.”)
In the primary department of Sunday school, we little girls rose up in taffeta dresses and hot white gloves, with a nickel for collection embedded inside our palms, and while elastic bands from our Madge Evans hats sawed us under the chin, we sang songs led and exhorted by Miss Hattie. This little lady was a wonder of animation, also dressed up, and she stood next to the piano making wild chopping motions with both arms together, a chairleg off one of our Sunday school chairs in her hand to beat time with, and no matter how loudly we sang, we could always hear her even louder: “Bring them in! Bring them in! Bring them in from the fields of sin! Bring the little ones to Jesus!” Those favorite Methodist hymns all sounded happy and pleased with the world, even though the words ran quite the other way. “Throw out the lifeline! Throw out the lifeline! Someone is sinking today!” went to a cheering tune. “I was sinking deep in sin, Far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, Sinking to rise no more” made you want to dance, and the chorus—“Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else would help, Love lifted me!”—would send you leaping. Those hymns set your feet moving like the march played on the piano for us to enter Davis School—“Dorothy, an Old English Dance” was the name of that, and of course so many of the Protestant hymns reached down to us from the same place; they were old English rounds and dance tunes, and Charles Wesley and the rest had—no wonder—taken them over.
Evangelists visited Jackson then; along with the Redpath Chautauqua and political speakings, they seemed to be part of August. Gypsy Smith was a great local favorite. He was an evangelist, but the term meant nothing like what it stands for today. He had no “team,” no organization, no big business, no public address system; he wasn’t a showman. Billy Sunday, a little later on, who preached with the athletics of a baseball player, threw off his coat when he got going, and in his shirtsleeves and red suspenders, he wound up and pitched his punchlines into the audience.
Gypsy Smith was a real Gypsy; in this may have lain part of his magnetism, though he spoke with sincerity too. He was so persuasive that, as night after night went by, he saved “everybody in Jackson,” saved all the well-known businessmen on Capitol Street. They might well have been churchgoers already, but they never had been saved by Gypsy Smith. While amalgamated Jackson church choirs sang “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” and “Just as I Am,” Gypsy Smith called, and being saved—standing up and coming forward—swept Jackson like an epidemic. Most spectacular of all, the firebrand editor of the evening newspaper rose up and came forward one night. It made him lastingly righteous so that he knew just what to say in the Jackson Daily News when one of our fellow Mississippians had the unmitigated gall to publish, and expect other Mississippians to read, a book like Sanctuary.
Gypsy Smith may have been a Methodist; I don’t know. At any rate, our Sunday school class was expected to attend, but I did not go up to be saved. Though all my life susceptible to anyone on a stage, I never would have been able to hold up my hand in front of the crowd at the City Auditorium and “come forward” while the choir leaned out singing “Come home! Come home! All God’s children, come home, come home!” And I never felt anything like the pang of secular longing that I’d felt as a much younger child to go up onto the stage at the Century Theatre when the magician dazzlingly called for the valuable assistance of a child from the audience in the performance of his next feat of magic.
Neither was my father among the businessmen who were saved. As if the whole town were simply going through a temperamental meteorological disturbance, he remained calm and at home on Congress Street.
My mother did too. She liked reading her Bible in her own rocking chair, and while she rocked. She considered herself something of a student. “Run get me my Concordance,” she’d say, referring to a little book bound in thin leather, falling apart. She liked to correct herself. Then from time to time her lips would twitch in the stern books of the Bible, such as Romans, providing her as they did with memories of her Grandfather Carden who had been a Baptist preacher in the days when she grew up in West Virginia. She liked to try in retrospect to correct Grandpa too.
I painlessly came to realize that the reverence I felt for the holiness of life is not ever likely to be entirely at home in organized religion. It was later, when I was able to travel farther, that the presence of holiness and mystery seemed, as far as my vision was able to see, to descend into the windows of Chartres, the stone peasant figures in the capitals of Autun, the tall sheets of gold on the walls of Torcello that reflected the light of the sea; in the frescoes of Piero, of Giotto; in the shell of a church wall in Ireland still standing on a floor of sheep-cropped grass with no ceiling other than the changing sky.
I’m grateful that, from my mother’s example, I had found the base for this worship—that I had found a love of sitting and reading the Bible for myself and looking up things in it.
How many of us, the South’s writers-to-be of my generation, were blessed in one way or another, if not blessed alike, in not having gone deprived of the King James Version of the Bible. Its cadence entered into our ears and our memories for good. The evidence, or the ghost of it, lingers in all our books.
“In the beginning was the Word.”
After Sunday school, Daddy might take us children to visit his office. The Lamar Life was in those days housed in a little one-story four-columned Greek temple, next door to the Pythian Castle—a building with crenellations and a high roof that looked as though Douglas Fairbanks might come swinging out of the top window on a rope. On Sunday, nobody else was in Daddy’s building, and the water in the cooler was dead quiet too, warm and flat. There was a low mahogany fence around his office with a little gate for people to enter by, and he let us swing on his gate and bounce on the leather davenport while he went over his mail. He put the earphones over my ears to let me discover what I could hear on his dictaphone (I believe he had the first in Jackson). I heard his voice speaking to Miss Montgomery; this was his secretary, who always wore her hair in stylish puffs over her ears, and I had seen her seated at her typewriter while wearing these earphones right on top of her puffs.
He allowed us all our turns to peck at the typewriter. We used the Lamar Life stationery, which carried on its letterhead an oval portrait of Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, for whom the Company had been named: a Mississippian who had been a member of Congress, Secretary of the Interior under Cleveland, and a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a powerful orator who had pressed for the better reconciliation of North and South after the Civil War. Under his bearded portrait we all wrote letters to Mother.
She kept one of Walter’s. There wasn’t much of it he could spell, but it said, to help her guess who had written it, “Dear Mrs. C. W. Welty. I think you know me. I think you like me.”
I can’t think I had much of a sense of humor as long as I remained the only child. When my brother Edward came along after I was three, we both became comics, making each other laugh. We set each other off, as we did for life, from the minute he learned to talk. A sense of the absurd was communicated between us probably before that.
Though he hated to see me reading to myself, he accepted my reading to him as long as it made him laugh. We read the same things over and over, chapters from Alice, stretches from Tom Sawyer, Edward Lear’s “Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World.” Whenever we came to the names of the four little children we rang them out in unison—“Violet, Slingsby, Guy, and Lionel!” And fell over. We kept this up at mealtimes, screaming nonsense at each other. My mother would warn us that we were acting the fool and would very shortly be asked to leave the table. She wouldn’t call one of us a fool, or allow us to do it either. “He who calleth his brother a fool,” she’d interrupt us, “is in danger of hell fire.” I think she never in her life called anyone a fool, though she never bore one gladly, but she would say, “Well, it appears to me that Mrs. So-and-So is the least bit limited.”
Walter, three years again younger than Edward, was soberer than we. In his long baby dress he looked like a judge. I snatched up his baby bathtub and got behind it and danced for him, to hear him really crow. On the pink bottom of his tub I’d drawn a face with crayons, and all he could see of anybody’s being there was my legs prancing under it. Walter wore a little kimono when he was up from acidosis, and, another way of adoring him, Edward tried to teach him to fly off Daddy’s chair in his kimono, spreading the sleeves, then cried on the floor with him. Walter grew up to be the most serious in his expression of the three of us, and remained the calmest—the one who most took after our father.
When one of us caught measles or whooping cough and we were isolated in bed upstairs, we wrote notes to each other perhaps on the hour. Our devoted mother would pass them for us, after first running them in a hot oven to kill the germs. They came into our hands curled up and warm, sometimes scorched, like toast. Edward replied to my funny notes with his funny drawings. He was a born cartoonist.
In the Spanish influenza epidemic, when Edward had high fever in one room and I high fever in another, I shot him off a jingle about the little boy down our street who was in bed with the same thing: “There was a little boy and his name was Lindsey. He went to Heaven with the influenzy.” My mother, horrified, told me to be ashamed of myself and refused to deliver it. So I saw we were all pretty sick, though a proper horror, on finding out what heedless written words of mine have really said, had to come later, as it has. But Edward and I and Lindsey all three got well, and so did Mother, who had much the worst case.
All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies. Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons—schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.
In devotion to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Ben Blue, and the Keystone Kops, my brother Edward and I collapsed in laughter. My sense of making fictional comedy undoubtedly caught its first spark from the antic pantomime of the silent screen, and from having a kindred soul to laugh with.
The silent movies were a source also of words that you might never have learned anywhere else. You read them in the captions. “Jeopardy,” for example, I got to know from Drums of Jeopardy with Alice Brady, who was wearing a leopard skin, a verbal connection I shall never forget. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari turned up by some strange fluke in place of the Saturday western on the screen of the Istrione Theatre (known as the Eyestrain) where it was seen by an attendance consisting entirely of children. I learned “somnambulist” in terror, a word I still never hear or read without seeing again Conrad Veidt in black tights and bangs, making his way at night alongside a high leaning wall with eyes closed, one arm reaching high, seeing with his fingers. But of course all of us together in the movie had screamed with laughter, laughing at what terrified us, exactly as if it were funny, and exactly as grown-up audiences do today.
Events that weren’t quite clear in meaning, things we children were shielded from, seemed to have their own routes, their own streets in town, and you might hear them coming near but then they never came, like the organ grinder with his monkey—surely you’d see him, but then the music went down the other street, and the monkey couldn’t find you, though you waited with your penny.
In Davis School days, there lived a little boy two or three streets over from ours who was home sick in bed, and when the circus came to town that year, someone got the parade to march up a different street from the usual way to the Fairgrounds, to go past his house. He was carried to the window to watch it go by. Just for him the ponderous elephants, the plumes, the spangles, the acrobats, the clowns, the caged lion, the band playing, the steam calliope, the whole thing! When not long after that he disappeared forever from our view, having died of what had given him his special privilege, none of this at all was acceptable to the rest of us children. He had been tricked, not celebrated, by the parade’s brazen marching up his street with the band playing, and we had somehow been tricked by envying him—betrayed into it.
It is not for nothing that an ominous feeling often attaches itself to a procession. This was when I learned it. “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” had done more than just hint at this. In films and stories we see spectacles forming in the street and parades coming from around the corner, and we know to greet them with distrust and apprehension: their intent is still to be revealed. (Think what it was in “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.”)
I never resisted it when, in almost every story I ever wrote, some parade or procession, impromptu or ceremonious, comic or mocking or funereal, has risen up to mark some stage of the story’s unfolding. They’ve started from far back.
We all had something like the same sense of humor. It was in losing our tempers that we were wide apart. Our tempers were all strong and intense. When we children quarreled, my brother Edward, in the terrible position of having to hit either a girl or a baby, yelled the loudest in outrage and was driven to bite. Walter, resourceful and practical in his childish fury as in everything else, was locked into the basement once by Edward who had grown tired of being followed around; but our little brother found the ax and made a good start on chopping himself a hole through the bottom of the door before rescue came.
I didn’t hit other people or hit purposefully, I just hit. Some object would be at fault. In one case it was a pin-oak tree in the park which I had climbed all the way up and now couldn’t get down. So I screamed and hit it with my head, the only part I could spare, and did my best to have a tantrum, while my family stood below making fun and arguing that nobody could bring me down but me. My anger was at myself, every time, all vanity. As an adolescent I was a slammer of drawers and a packer of suitcases. I was responsible for scenes.
Control came imperfectly to all of us: we reached it at different times of life, frustrated, shot into indignation, by different things—some that are grown out of, and others not.
“I don’t understand where you children get it,” said my mother. “I never lose my temper. I just get hurt.” (But that was it.)
One time, and one time only, she told us in a voice that opens a subject to close it, “I believe your father himself had a terrible temper once. But he learned to control his, a long time ago.”
We tried to imagine Daddy swinging our ax. We could not, even our precious Walter, who had done it.
Of all my strong emotions, anger is the one least responsible for any of my work. I don’t write out of anger. For one thing, simply as a fiction writer, I am minus an adversary—except, of course, that of time—and for another thing, the act of writing in itself brings me happiness.
There was one story that anger certainly lit the fuse of. In the 1960s, in my home town of Jackson, the civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered one night in darkness, and I wrote a story that same night about the murderer (his identity then unknown) called “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” But all that absorbed me, though it started as outrage, was the necessity I felt for entering into the mind and inside the skin of a character who could hardly have been more alien or repugnant to me. Trying for my utmost, I wrote it in the first person. I was wholly vaunting the prerogative of the short-story writer. It is always vaunting, of course, to imagine yourself inside another person, but it is what a story writer does in every piece of work; it is his first step, and his last too, I suppose. I’m not sure this story was brought off; and I don’t believe that my anger showed me anything about human character that my sympathy and rapport never had.
Even as we grew up, my mother could not help imposing herself between her children and whatever it was they might take it in mind to reach out for in the world. For she would get it for them, if it was good enough for them—she would have to be very sure—and give it to them, at whatever cost to herself: valiance was in her very fibre. She stood always prepared in herself to challenge the world in our place. She did indeed tend to make the world look dangerous, and so it had been to her. A way had to be found around her love sometimes, without challenging that, and at the same time cherishing it in its unassailable strength. Each of us children did, sooner or later, in part at least, solve this in a different, respectful, complicated way.
But I think she was relieved when I chose to be a writer of stories, for she thought writing was safe.