Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Visit to Dodo's House

My childhood Mississippi friend Pam Evans (Howell) and I had grits and omelets for breakfast on Friday morning and then tootled together to the Eudora Welty House on Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi. Eudora moved into this house with her parents when she was 16. She would write her fiction here, in the upstairs bedroom, where her office looked out of the three windows on the left.

Books were everywhere: stacked on tables, spilling over on sofas, tucked into plum reading nooks -- books. Eudora Welty worked upstairs in her office -- which was also her bedroom -- where she had a commanding view of the street below and Belhaven College directly across the street. She often read in her favorite living room chair, where she could see who might be coming up the walk. Folks would knock on the door and ask Eudora to sign a book for them, which she would graciously do.

She traveled, she gardened with her mother Chestina, she kept up a correspondence that filled boxes, file cabinets, closets, bureaus, and this secretary. (You can see the electric typewriter near the window. Eudora never quite got used to it. According to one of the excellent tour guides, she thought the hum it made was telling her to hurry up and write.) What I loved about the desk were the small notebooks that dotted it -- notebooks Eudora carried with her to record the smallest of details. She collected names in her notebooks, and would often write "REAL" beside them so she wouldn't use someone's actual name in a story.

When her brother Walter died young, Eudora became even closer to his two children, her nieces.

"She even drove car pools," said niece Mary Alice White. Mary Alice now takes good care of visitors when they arrive at the Welty home. She told me that her sister had trouble pronouncing "Eudora" when she was young, and the word came out "Dodo." So Eudora Welty became Dodo to the two girls. "For years we received cards and letters signed 'Aunt Dodo,'" said Mary Alice.

I love this story. I shared with Mary Alice that in THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS, there is a six-year-old girl named Honey, who calls her dog -- a loveable old pug -- "YouDoggie" throughout the book. Honey hears the name that way, even though her brother, House, tells her that the dog's name is.... Eudora. Eudora Welty. YouDoggie, Aunt Dodo, Eudora.

Welty's home has been preserved with the same furniture, books (in all the same haphazard places), photographs, hairbrushes, china! It's intact and looks the way Welty left it, thanks to the family's bequests and the hard work of many, many volunteers.

The gardens are being restored to their Chestina Welty glory-days as well. I found my favorites, zinnias, nodding their old heads in the September morning. Friend Pam told Mary Alice that she'd see about coming to volunteer and cut back the roses. Moonflowers (another favorite) climbed a trellis near the house and a cold frame stood ready for this coming spring.

Welty had a wide and varied life outside the south. She traveled extensively, loved her friends lavishly, and supported emerging writers ardently (including dear friend Reynolds Price, whose work I so admire -- read his book A WHOLE NEW LIFE to start, and then move on to his fiction). She wrote reviews, articles, essays and fiction -- my favorite fiction is DELTA WEDDING followed closely by THE PONDER HEART, which makes me laugh. I also love the short stories "Why I Live at the P.O." and "Powerhouse," which was written after Eudora saw Fats Waller play.

She was a courageous writer as well. On the night Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson (see previous post on this), Eudora sat down and wrote in a white heat, "Where is the Voice Coming From?" It was written in the voice of the person who killed Evers, although no one had yet been apprehended for the crime. It is a powerful indictment of racism in the deep south.

You can read more about Eudora Welty in Suzanne Marr's wonderful biography. Here's chapter one. You'll see that Welty was something of a renaissance woman, although I doubt she'd claim that word. She was anything but a provincial southern lady who sat in her home making up provencial southern stories. She had a vision.

If you've read ONE WRITER'S BEGINNINGS by Welty, you'll know this house on Congress Street, where Eudora was born and grew up... where she started out, a stone's throw from the state capitol building, with a cow in the back yard. Here's a wonderful review of that book. You can hear Eudora read her work here. Eudora was a photographer as well. You can see some of her Depression-era photographs of people all over the state of Mississippi here.

Eudora Welty started out on Congress Street. Debbie Edwards (moi) started out here, with these folks, and I am glad to call them family. Both my parents died in 2003 (part of the genesis of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS) but my father's sister keeps me in her heart, as does the rest of my Mississippi family. Here is Aunt Beth, the girl who raised chickens in Louin, Mississippi, just as Ruby Lavender raises chickens in LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER. Uncle Jim still plants peppers and tomatoes from seed in his Brandon, Mississippi back yard every summer.
I'd asked for tomato sandwiches for lunch, and that's what I got! "The last tomatoes of the season," said Uncle Jim. Aunt Beth gifted me with her treasured 1915 copy of LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY (I will take good care of it, I promise). After lunch, Cousin Carol and I sat with Aunt Beth and looked at a notebook full of old photographs and clippings (many of them obituaries -- Comfort Snowberger would have loved this!)

Aunt Beth read out loud some of the research she'd copied on the Edwards family tree. We got to laughing so hard we couldn't stop. Here's one snippet from "Memoirs of Mississippi" found in the Neshoba County Library in Philadelphia, MS:

"Records show that James Madison Edwards, merchant and farmer, Shuqualak, Mississippi, is related to some of the best old families in Mississippi. He is a man whose enterprise, energy, and business sagacity place him among the state's most progressive citizens, destined to be long felt as a factor in all that constitutes the solid development of her grand possibilities."

Through our laughter, Carol managed to croak out, "Whose opinion is that?" and we laughed until we cried.

Mississippi. Such a land of contrasts. I love it and think of it the way Welty did: "Place conspires with the artist. We are surrounded by our own story, we live and move in it. It is through place that we put out roots."

Thank you to Pam Evans and Cousin Carol (the pretty cousin) for driving me all over the place, and thanks to the wonderful staff at the Welty House for making us feel like family.

Got home very late on Friday (thunderstorms dotted the air) and slept. Took two naps on Saturday. It's Sunday morning now, and I'm feeling rested and ready for tomorrow -- Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, North Carolina. I hope you've rested some this weekend and are ready for twelve straight days on the road with me! I don't know this new territory -- I will need to learn a new, west-coast geography. I hope you'll help me! Here we go --