Make ‘Em Light
I took Claire for her afternoon walk on New Years Eve. When we got about a half-mile away from home the skies opened up and rain hurtled at us like it was running from something causing me to imagine someday comforting a worried child by telling him that a thunderstorm is just the angels hurling water balloons at us.
I was proud for remembering to carry an umbrella until Claire shook her third load of rainwater on me. As I wiped the rain flying up at me from my eyes I heard a voice call out from across the street. An ancient woman, stooped and gray, was yelling something. I strained to hear her, but the rain falling on my umbrella made too much noise. I motioned for her to wait for me to cross the street so I could hear her better.
When I got closer I realized it wasn’t just the rain that made her difficult to understand, but the relative scacity of teeth in her head. She flashed a friendly grin and asked me if she was headed in the direction of Washington Street. I told her she was, that she just had two more stop signs to pass and she would be there. She had a big umbrella with her. While she looked a little ragged, she didn’t seem particularly helpless. I tried to imagine my grandmother walking in this weather.
“It’s pretty wet out here today, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yep. Hey, that’s a perty dog you got there.” She turned to walk away and then swung back around like she’d remembered to tell me something. “Hey, spell ‘dog’ backwards.”
“G-o-d,” I said.
“Think about it,” and with that she proceeded purposefully toward Washington St.
“That’s something to think about, alright,” I hollered after her. I thought about asking her how she knew that my dog operates under the delusion that she is God, but I opted for a “Happy New Year” instead. She returned the wish with a backward wave and kept moving.
My conscious kept trying to make me feel sorry for her—old, missing parts, walking in the pouring rain—but I couldn’t manage it. All I could muster was respect and a faint desire to turn around and go wherever she was going. I probably didn’t have enough information to do so, but I put her in the category of happy-tough women that I have always loved.
My first experience with women like this was when I was a 15 year-old working as a sack clerk for Town and Country grocery store. Two women, sisters, came in nearly every day. Their names were Marva and Melvita (sounds like Velveeta).
Marva and Melvita were in their late seventies. They had broad and constant grins that folded in over their toothless gums. Their skin had the kind of wrinkles you get from a hatless life lived in the sun. Their hair was dyed a shade so black that light had a better chance of escaping from a black hole than reflecting off of it.
They came in the door every day in their cotton print dresses, smiling, cackling, and patting people gently as they passed. I think they are the only people I’ve every actually heard cackle. By the way, don’t pass up a chance to hear a really good cackle.
Their lack of teeth made it nearly impossible to understand a word they said. It didn’t matter though. I quickly learned that Marva and Melvita were endlessly engaging because they had mastered one of the key principles of southern conversation: if you smile and laugh in a way that is at all humorous as you say something, whomever you’re talking to will automatically say something in reply, typically with a similarly light inflection. Such exchanges frequently lead to lengthy laughter-laced conversations in which very few, if any, words are understood. Though comprehensibility is a desirable feature in conversations, it is hardly a necessity.
In fact, every day, all over the south many perfectly pleasant conversations happen in just this way, with no thought being exchanged other than the passing recognition that everyone is having a good time. Of course, for a conversation like this to succeed the hope of entertaining your companion is a requirement. Without a sincere concern for another’s interest, the Sermon on the Mount could easily be turned into a State of the Union address.
I’m sure Marva and Melvita didn’t have an easy life. They cleaned several homes for a living, including that of a friend of mine (she never understood a word they said either, but loved being around them just the same). The only words of theirs I was ever sure I understood were “May‘um wight. Wewh waltin,” which after the third time I sacked their groceries I eventually figured out meant “Make them light. We’re walking.”
And walk they did. To work, a half-mile from their home to the store, and I’m sure lots of other places, every day. And they carried their groceries by themselves, too. But whenever they turned to walk away, they were always smiling and laughing and talking. And I always wanted to go with them.