Remembering Eudora Welty
A Chapel Hill author travels to Mississippi to say goodbye to an old friendBy Elizabeth Spencer
August 15, 2001
So Eudora has finally left us. As we all knew, she had been departing gradually for some years. First unable to go upstairs, then unable to go out at all. She took her place daily by the front window, able at least to look out at the world she knew so wonderfully how to observe, then give it back to us in her stories, full of what we had seen too, though we didn't really know it until we read her words.
Of course, I went to the funeral. July in Mississippi: hot. Friends met the plane. As we drove into Jackson, my memories kept roving back. How I, as a green and awkward student at Belhaven College, right across the street from her house on Pinehurst, had dared to call her, and in a timid voice unknown to her, invite Eudora to a meeting of our little "writing group." To my amazement she said she would come.
It was 1942. She had published one book, A Curtain of Green. We had noted the reviews, but at the time she was not widely known. She walked across the street to join us, listened patiently to our little strivings at fiction, made modest comments. Afterward, as she and I walked back across the campus, we fell into conversation. I was bold to say I wanted to write. She was kind enough to say that was good. We talked a blue streak. It was spring. Everything that could bloom was blooming. From that time on, I was encouraged to call Eudora Welty my friend.
|Eudora Welty with Elizabeth Spencer, circa 1985|
I learned that day her storytelling ways. In print or in person, she never stopped telling stories. Katherine Anne Porter figured largely in her talk even then. Years later, when I was living and writing on the Gulf Coast, she brought Katherine Anne down for a visit. She did the same for her longtime friend Elizabeth Bowen, then on a lecture tour of the United States. She never let me feel I was beneath anybody.
So now the inevitable day had come. For the first time since 1942, I was in Jackson without her. One already felt the vacant space at the city's center.
We went first to the "viewing" in the rotunda of the Old Capitol. The coffin (not opened; she wouldn't have liked it that way) was draped in a simple off-white throw with a cross. The mood, which persisted throughout the funeral on the following day, and so continued, was not one of grief. We were all sad, missing her already--her soft voice, her humor, often hilarious, her perceptions, dead-on. The atmosphere was subdued but pleasant. I think she would have liked it that way.
If anyone seemed actually to be grieving, it was Daryl Howard, her faithful African-American nurse-companion in her last years. I said: "What are you going to do now, Daryl?" "Miss Elizabeth," she said, "I do not even wish to think about it."
The day of the funeral dawned in a deluge of rain. At the friend's house where I was staying, the drainage gutter in the backyard overflowed and ran fast and turbulent as a river. We thought it was in for the day, but around noon the rain stopped. Pearly gray stayed overhead, but no more torrents fell.
Galloway Memorial Methodist Church was filled, though not overflowing. The mood was quietly respectful. Her agent Timothy Seldes had come from New York. His speech of appreciation included an episode related by Reynolds Price, who was unable to attend. Once traveling by car with Eudora and finding no place for the night, Reynolds asked her if she would mind staying in a run-down trailer near a highway. She said, "I'm so tired I could sleep in a gunny sack in the back of a pickup truck." Former Gov. William Winter, the pride of all Mississippi writers because he took pains to honor us, spoke feelingly of his friendship with her.
Then there was a sermon. A sermon? To my certain knowledge, Eudora had little time for churches. Her minister (she had apparently been baptized Methodist) made it seem otherwise, perhaps out of personal friendship.
Now, the cemetery.
Richard Ford, the noted author who is also her literary executor, had come down from the Maine woods, looking as if he had barely made it. He and longtime friend Hunter Cole of the University Press of Mississippi were among the pall bearers, along with her remaining relatives, women mostly. The organ pealed softly. We followed her out.
I couldn't help but note that Jackson was rising to the occasion. Beautiful shady streets, magnolias and roses blooming. And a remarkable quietude; the air seemed full of what it knew.
Greenwood Cemetery is the old one. On rolling grassy land just west of North State Street, near Millsaps College, it manages, despite the busy setting, to suggest peacefulness. Here tombs date back to the last century, and gravestones are dusted gray with age. There were many old friends greeting one another. Roger Mudd and his wife had come down out of loyalty to long friendship. Another, the noted poet William Jay Smith, had flown in from Massachusetts. Author Kaye Gibbons had flown from Raleigh. There were many others, including two young women who had come from New Jersey (or so I recall)--no kin, not even acquaintances, but they had heard of Eudora's death and wanted to make the journey.
From there we went on to a reception at the house of one of the Welty nieces and her husband. We rode out toward a new part of the city that was once countryside, where with our college horseback riders I had often cantered down country roads. We passed down Pinehurst, the very street that divided the campus of Belhaven College from the Welty residence. For the first time, a pang of loss struck me full force. She had crossed that street the day I met her. She had sat in that front parlor before the windows so many times when I visited. Once in the '70s, I had taken a cab to her house. When the driver heard the address, he said: "Lady, unless you got a appointment, you ain't got a prayer to get in." I told him I did have such. And I knew she would be in that room.
In her last years it was where she sat in her specially rigged chair. No longer able to read. Piles of unopened mail lying on a table. Looking out, she remarked a little girl wandering away from her father on the campus, a purposeful squirrel hopping through her yard. Even then, nothing escaped her.
Now the window was empty. I looked at it and realized that, and was shaken by its finality. As someone said in one of the numerous articles now appearing about her, "We have all lost a member of the family."
Elizabeth Spencer was born in Carrollton, Miss., and currently lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. She is the author of over a dozen collections of short stories and novels, including the recently published The Southern Woman, from the Modern Library. She has received five O. Henry Awards and has been published for over four decades in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Southern Review.Eudora Welty wrote the introduction to Spencer's 1981 collection, The Stories of Elizabeth Spencer.Spencer returned the favor by penning the introduction to Welty's last title, Country Churchyards,published in 2000.