“A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.
That’s why there are so few good conversations:
due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.”
I have just been transported to the land of moonlight & magnolias, Spanish moss, gentility and good grammar (all this to be read in your best Julia Sugarbaker voice). DooDaddy was graced with a visitation from his cousin Gene Ham, whose grandmother, Tommie Lauderdale, was DooDaddy’s grandmother Lillie Wiley’s half-sister. Aunt Tommie’s daughter Josephine married Gatewood Ham, the most eligible bachelor in Greenville, Miss. Lillie Wiley married Richard Kirby, born in Blount County but reared in Middle Tennessee; they later had six girls, one of whom was DooDaddy’s mother Lillian. You got all that? ‘Cause there might be a quiz later.
Cousin Gene is a true Son of the South, having attended Sewanee and then the University of Virginia before returning to Mississippi to live out the life of an eccentric academic. He sports a full beard on an elegantly emaciated frame that renders him anachronistic in modern clothes. He looks like a friendly ghost from another century.
I last saw him while attending my Great Aunt Helen’s funeral in DooDaddy’s hometown of Fayetteville, Tenn., where the consonants drop off the ends of words like rose petals in the sweltering summer sun. The service was followed by a reception at Cousin Gene’s Aunt Frances Dean Barry’s house. The table was laden with the requisite Southern funeral food – country ham, beaten biscuits, deviled eggs and coconut cake – bless Aunt Helen’s heart.
Although Gene grew up in Greenville, he summered in Fayetteville, after a stop in Nashville where he and his brothers, Charlie (pronounced “Cha-lee”) and Billy, were outfitted in matching white linen suits right out of a Truman Capote short story. As little boys, they played together with Cousin Randy (later known as DooDaddy) among the towering seed sacks at Uncle Willy’s Seed Store.
During his most recent visit, Cousin Gene was lamenting the demise of good grammar as he recounted lively anecdotes of his days as an adjunct Latin teacher at Lincoln County High School. This led to a conversation about Robert E. Lee Grammar School in Fayetteville, where DooDaddy’s fifth grade teacher, Miss McKinney, wore a large diamond ring, which she had inherited. She banged it absentmindedly along the radiators as she paced the classroom. The clack clack of her diamond alerted wayward students to quit dawdling and doodling before Miss McKinney arrived to rap their knuckles with a ruler.
Over white wine for courtly Cousin Gene and vodka rocks for dapper DooDaddy, the conversation meandered to so-and-so whose husband had Parkinson’s and whose mother had Alzheimer’s. And blah blah blah.
Next up was a story about the “finest wing shot in the Southeast,” whose potted asparagus fern became home to a daring dove. Seems she laid her eggs and hatched them right under the nose of the legendary dove hunter. His prowess was known for miles around.
“Either the dove was stupid or smart. We never knew which. But she was safe from predators under his protection,” said Cousin Gene. “As he couldn’t very well shoot a bird that lived on his front porch.”
Gene Ham is the keeper of ancestral lore, the curator of family history and the raconteur of legends. It was he who told the woeful tale of the Cherokee mother who gifted Aunt Tommie with a deerskin beaded bag when Aunt Tommie gave her a drink of water as the shameful march along the Trail of Tears passed by the Lauderdale farm in Fayetteville.
DooDaddy hung on Cousin Gene’s every word, as they swapped stories and memories and reminiscences of days gone by that were as vivid, perhaps more so than recent events.
“Aunt Lillie was born with a foot in the road,” Gene recollected, referring to DooDaddy’s grandmother and her love of travel.
We bemoaned the misuse of “me, myself and I” and mourned the lost conjugation of “lie” and “lay.” We felt sure that Gmamma, a staunch grammarian, was commiserating from the other side of the Pearly Gates.
I meant to stay only a few minutes but was irresistibly drawn to Gene’s guileless charm and rapier wit. DooDaddy rose to the occasion, matching his cousin story for story. Two hours passed in the blink of an eye.
Maybe it’s like this everywhere, but I suspect the genteel art of Southern conversation is rare and fragile, much like the dove in the asparagus fern.
This golden afternoon, every word was well chosen, the cadence well paced and the yarns spun convivially between cousins without malice or ill will.