Welcome to Richmond, Miss Welty

by Tyler Scott


I had the opportunity to invite some of my favorite writers to visit me in Richmond. Colette said she couldn’t come because her Christmas cactus was about to bloom; Flaubert didn’t respond; Truman Capote was cruising in the Mediterranean with Babe Paley; Jane Austen was suffering from a cold and wanted to come when she felt better. Only Eudora Welty responded, saying she’d be able to stop for a short visit on her way from New York, heading home after accepting an honorary degree from Columbia. These are some of the highlights of our short visit.

She was arriving from Penn Station on Crescent Train, #442—on time today. The hour was 10:20 AM. While waiting for Miss Welty, I was so excited I paced and thought about what it would be like to spend the afternoon with Eudora Welty, writer genius, voice of the Old and New South, author of fifteen beloved novels, short story, and photography collections. I noticed the Indian man in the kiosk was going ‘bout his day, moving newspapers, making coffee, ignoring passers-by like me. A baby across the way broke into that nerve-wracking jangle only a parent can listen to; the girlish mom clutched and hushed the infant with ease. I wish I’d had the nerve to stand up and shout that one of America’s greatest living writers was about to step off the train, but of course I could never do such a thing. I’d been raised right and modern politesse doesn’t allow for such outbursts. Anyway, I wanted Eudora all to myself.

Note: How did an unknown like me come to know Eudora Welty? Well, truth be known, I’d never met her before, but my grandmother had been friends with her mother Chestina while my grandparents lived in Mississippi. How the original connection was made has died with my relatives though my Uncle Richard always said my grandmother made a point of never knowing a stranger. A few years ago my mother gave me some old photos of Mrs.Welty and Granny and on a whim, I wrote Miss Welty, enclosing one of the photographs. She appreciated the gesture. Letters were exchanged. In one I told her I was an aspiring writer. Last summer she accepted my invitation for a visit. “It has been a king’s age since I visited the Capital of the Confederacy,” she wrote.

The loud speaker blared the train’s name and number, only five minutes late. A crowd moved towards the door to file through, bunched up like some strange, dark, undulating creature. An old man in an Amtrak uniform, saving his hellos for the youngsters, smiled as we streamed by in the sunlight.

I recognized Miss Welty as she stepped off the train. Hesitating for just a moment before she let the porter’s hand lead her off the small stool. She looked like my favorite picture: whitish hair slightly curled, eyes bright, looking ahead. Attire: flannel grey skirt, blue blazer, navy scarf tied around neck, practical raincoat draped over an arm. A somewhat new looking suitcase, I remember it was tapestry, made its way down behind her.

It gave me an odd feeling to be with one of literature’s greatest writers, especially since we were virtually unnoticed in the crowd. Unlike Hollywood stars, great writers can often move along as quietly as a small breeze. Writers are known for their words, not their miens or the swish of their perfect figures.

“Miss Welty?” ”

Her glance fell on me and I waved. We hugged shyly.

She could only spend the day with me so I didn’t want to clutter up the hours with fawning family and friends and didn’t plan much. Like most Richmonders, I started our tour on Monument Avenue. Richmond’s veil of spring feathered across the lawns and trees like a crocheted shawl. Remembering my school day lectures, I told her about the bronze of Robert E. Lee. She liked the detail the statue had been transported through the streets by the locals and the ropes used were later passed down in families. I suggested she write a story called “Inheriting the Rope.” I continued driving down the Avenue and we passed Stonewall Jackson and Matthew Fontaine Maury (I had to look him up after she left because I didn’t know what “Pathfinder of the Seas” meant—he was an early historian, astronomer, and the father of modern oceanography. He also invented the first torpedo.). The car sailed by the last monument—Arthur Ashe.

“Seems a bit out of place," Miss Welty observed and we both agreed, with all due respect to Mr. Ashe, it was the ugliest statue we had ever seen: He was holding a racquet and book above the heads of clamoring children.

How do you entertain a famous writer? I’d read the Suzanne Marrs biography, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” One Writer’s Beginnings, The Optimist’s Daughter so I knew more than I was willing to admit. Neither favorite dishes nor colors yet I’d learned about broken hearts (over John Robinson); least favorite people (Margaret Millar, wife of great friend and love Kenneth Millar). I knew she was passionate about the arts. Loved parties. Didn’t think much of going to church. Wasn’t big on Prokofiev. In fact I knew more than I was comfortable to fessing up to. Since she’d just been in New York, hobnobbing with the intelligentsia, I figured she’d had enough of crowds and splashy affairs; since she lived in Jackson, I decided not to bother with too much local color though Richmond certainly has its share. Miss Welty was an enthusiastic gardener so I invited her to have lunch and spend the afternoon at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, 40 acres of blooms, berries, and bridges over little ponds with a Japanese tea house, children’s garden, and Kew-style Conservatory. She laughed when I pointed out that local wags say Richmonders have more time and money for their gardens and abandoned animals than the poor.

A quiet trip to the garden was my way of not making too much of a hoo-ha over her. I confess I planned on asking a few questions about writing, however, I’d made a mental note not to make a nuisance of myself. I did have a modicum of self-respect and never intended on joining the long lines of hopefuls I see at readings, books in hand, shyly asking for quick words of encouragement from the master because after all, they were more talented than the others in line—they were real novelists or poets or painters or actors, not just a bunch of wannabees in sensible shoes and bifocals.

It was a cloudless Friday with a light soothing breeze. The Garden was not crowded. We agreed on a walk before lunch in the Tea House.

Miss Welty was a sturdy walker as we made our way down to the lake. It was the time in Virginia when tulips have just started to fan out, a last breath before dying, and the daffodils have already gone brown except for the late blooming doubles. We walked in thought and admired the flora, reading the cards marking the flowers and trees. In front of a grandiose purple azalea, I read “Karen’s Azalea.” She said “Ericiacea,” admitting as a teenager she’d often memorized many Latin names and recited them while weeding. She still remembered a few.

A school group twittered in the distance as they made their way up a mansion of a treehouse which had been built to much fanfare and cost last year. Miss Welty was silent for a minute then said she wished she’d had children and asked me if I ever thought about becoming a mother. Tulip: Tulipa pulchella. . . Fringe Tree: Chionanthus pygmaeus. . . Hyacinth: Hyacinthus orientalis. . . “Yes, but does it have to be babies or books?”

“No. No, it doesn’t. All that didn’t work out for me and by the time I started to focus on it hard, there were other distractions. You can have both,” she murmured.

We stopped to admire the purplish, blue, wide strip of Virginia Blue Bells (Mertensia virginica) running along the walkway. Miss Welty said she loved these, but they didn’t like Jackson. Too humid.

She admired the garden greatly, but seemed pleased when I said perhaps it was time for lunch.

The Botanical Garden has a teahouse style restaurant, but there are no kimonos and no one eats while sitting on pillows though the surrounding gardens are Asianesque and the serenity is more Far East then Down South. The menu has chicken salad and its various and sundry relatives. We ordered two salad plates and glasses of Pinot and sat outside, the Mondo grass (Opiopogon japonicus) and Heavenly bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea) tumbling down to the edge of a circle pond.

Miss Welty and I chatted about family and she remembered my grandparents vaguely, whereas she didn’t have any wonderful memories for me to retell the next generation. It looked like none of my people were in her stories—perhaps a good thing. We discussed Richmond’s black mayor taking on the Establishment and changes in the South (“It’s disappearing!” I said. “It will always be here,” and she pointed to her heart.”). I admit there were other questions I really wanted to ask her: Why did you hold on to the dream of John Robinson for so long when surely you knew he was gay? Why did you insist on cultivating a deep friendship with Ken Millar when he was married? No wife likes her husband to have close women friends! Wasn’t that a little devil may care on your part? And most importantly, the question everyone was asking: Why didn’t you write the last twenty years of your life? Yet, these were not questions the young could ask the old.

I decided to err on the side of good manners. After all, what if someone had read a biography about me and then over lunch asked me questions like: Why did you marry your first husband when you knew it was a mistake even as you walked down the aisle-- you looking so pretty in that fancy white gown? Why did you work all those godawful odd jobs when you decided you wanted to be a writer? Wouldn’t it have been easier to become an editor?

I did ask Miss Welty this: “How have you achieved so much?”

“My writing?”

“Your writing.”

“Are you asking me as a writer or a reader?”

“A writer.”

“I just did it. There’s no magic.” She sipped her wine and lifted her eyebrows to punctuate the sentence. “I quote Guy de Maupassant, “‘Put black to white.’”

“Where do you get your ideas?”

A question so often answered. “I’m always watching. It could be a sentence. Or I like the look of someone. Or I see a couple sitting next to each other on the train and I simply make the whole damn thing up.”

Later, we sat in front of the Conservatory, a tiered glass palace full of orchids and fountains where Richmond’s bluebloods attend some very grand white-tent fundraisers. A small girl in a pale green dress trotted by while singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” And then, like most ladies at the end of a visit, we treated ourselves to the giftshop. Behind the counter, the dark haired woman widened her eyes and when it came time, read Miss Welty’s charge card, fumbled it, got a funny look on her face, and blurted out she loved her work. Ten thousand compliments later, the face still breaks out in a smile. I heard a quiet thank you.

Of course, on the way to the station, Miss Welty told me to keep writing. That I would prevail. And she told me to keep in touch. The dramatist in me hoped she’d press some keepsake into my hand, a gold cross from childhood, a favorite pen, but of course she didn’t. The last image I saw as she was climbing aboard the train, to borrow loosely from The Optimist’s Daughter, was the twinkling of her flat hand. There were a few more short notes and one Christmas card before cardiopulmonary failure laid claim to Eudora Welty on July 23, 2001. I’d like to think she’s gone on to her Maker, but I do believe she had a few other ideas on the subject.