A tropical storm is swirling to the west of us right now, bringing intermittent winds and rain to my part of Alabama. Unless I am in the brunt of a tropical storm – and I have been on a few occasions – I am drawn to the energy of that peripheral circuit of occasional storms moving ever onward with their wind-driven rain and distant thunder. Those tropical rains always seem, to me, more cleansing than other weather events.
Fittingly, the “Peggy Martin” heirloom rose that I ordered a couple of months ago was delivered to my front door today between brief showers. The Peggy Martin was bred from a rose in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, that survived for two weeks under twenty feet of water in Mrs. Martin’s yard after Hurricane Katrina. Neighbors in my parents’ Birmingham neighborhood have trained one over their garage and the blooms are magnificent. Once I heard the history of the plant, I had to have it for myself and was able to order it from Petals from the Past in Jemison, Alabama (www.petalsfromthepast.com).
When people learn of my retirement, which was official on June 1, they ask me how I plan to “celebrate.” This is not a celebratory time; I can think of no appropriate celebration. A trip is out of the question and I’m not anxious to go sit in a restaurant just yet. I enjoy being outside and think it will be enough for now to take walks, work in the yard, and find some place quiet to think and reflect.
The traditional gift for retirement was a gold watch or some other sort of commemorative timepiece. It symbolized that one’s time was finally one’s own, no longer owed to an employer.
It’s a nice idea, but metal watches and I have a bad history. I can wear watches with leather or synthetic bands, but it is proven that some people’s body chemistry stops watches and I must be one of those people. Every metal-banded watch I have ever owned has died prematurely. Whenever I adjust the time or date on my father’s gold watch, I limit my contact lest my curse cause consequences.
Today, I think, a timepiece would mostly symbolize counting down the remaining days and hours of the annus horribilis that is 2020.
Nevertheless, I am fond of ritual and, to commemorate this particular milestone, I have been writing short thank you notes to people who were influential in my career and education over the years. It is a peaceful and positive step, interrupted by the news that another friend from my Tuscaloosa years has died – the fourth such friend I have heard about since New Year’s Day. Notes of thanks give way to an expression of sympathy and loss.
On a more positive note, I can truly celebrate that, after close to two years, I have finally finished reading every single word of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. At times, it seemed like a burden, but I enjoyed the task overall. Throughout a lifetime of reading, I have found that I will often tackle a book at just the right time, and the past two years seemed the right time to conquer Mount Proust. It’s a masterful novel, full of digressions and rife with human foibles, not the least of which are those of the Narrator himself. His paranoiac jealousy and obsessive nature are often irritating and I occasionally tossed the novel aside in disgust. Yet I always returned.
Proust’s catty social satire, which often made me laugh out loud, is a clever indictment of a milieu I’ll never know firsthand. I was often startled to realize that the society he describes in the final volumes is barely a century past. Each time he evokes an airplane or automobile, I felt myself jolted into the modern era.
Hundreds of characters come and go through the 3300 plus pages. Some leave and never return; some leave, only to reappear volumes later. Some die.
On a more prosaic note, I ventured out for some necessities this afternoon and, as I walked past a clothing store geared to big and stout women, a woman walked past me wearing a tee-shirt that proclaimed “In the South We Say ‘Hey Y’All’.” I have no problem, really, with “Hey Y’All” and I might have said it on occasion; I can’t remember when, and it would have been ironic, no doubt, but still, I don’t find it offensive. I was actually relieved that the tee-shirt manufacturer had punctuated “y’all” correctly. Still, what kind of person would feel a need to proclaim such a thing on a tee-shirt at the big and stout store?
Baseball great Willie Mays, from the Birmingham suburb of Fairfield, has been known as the “Say Hey Kid” throughout his storied life. And, of course, the Gomer Pyle character, created by actor Jim Nabors, made “hey” a sort of mantra. Even now, whenever somebody tells me that somebody sent me a “hey,” I will usually reply, “’Hey to Goober.”
I say “y’all” whenever it feels right, but I must admit that Southern cook Paula Deen sort of ruined “y’all” for me forever.
Recently, I was talking to a pregnant friend. She was healthy and upbeat and our conversation shifted to current events. I commented that it is amazing, really, how well we are all functioning – all things considered. “It’s really horrible,” I said, “what the world is going through. And yet, we are dealing with it; we’re still functional.”
“Yeah,” she said, “we just need some certainty, some direction. Everything is so fluid now.”
My Peggy Martin rose doesn’t look like much right now, as it basks in the rains of the remnants of a tropical storm. I think, though, that I may look to it for a great deal of symbolism in the months and years to come.
I’ve been meaning for some time to drop a note to thank you for your wonderful and wonderfully insightful essays. Thanks to you and Rick Bragg, I feel less a Northern fish out of water. I was inclined to nitpick your paean to Altman’s Nashville (somewhere Sergei Eisenstein is turning in his chilly Siberian grave), but will let it slide given your recent Proustian achievement. Good on you! Mount Melville is sitting on my bedside table–again–as I find excuses to avoid its watery depths. I send good wishes and look forward to seeing your Peggy Martin come to exuberant life. We all need a little color and beauty in our Covid-cramped existence. Nancy
Thank you, Nancy. I appreciate your kind words — and putting me in the same company as Mr. Bragg is quite an honor. As for Altman’s Nashville — nitpick away, but I’m afraid you’ll have to stand in line.