Poor Miz Minnie
We lived in a very comfortable and roomy two-story house just five houses away from our beloved Mamaw and Papaw Ridley, although when I say “five houses away,” you must understand that all the houses on our street and all the streets around had lawns, gardens with paths running through them, and stands of huge old sycamores, poplars, sweet gums, oaks: you had to go out of your way to see neighboring houses. Our house had two driveways—one that ran in a semicircle in front of the house and its formal entryway (where the grandfather clock was), and another that ran down the side of the house to the back door, which was the entrance used by family, close friends of the family, and gardeners and housekeepers. The real life of the house was upstairs in the dominion of children and guests (poor guests!) or there in the back on the first floor where the den and the kitchen were, and the master bedroom (Molly called it the “Master’s Bedroom”) and the nursery, and a very windowed room that Matu sometimes called her “office” and sometimes called her “studio,” a room adjacent to the nursery and near the kitchen, of course.
The front of the house had a study, a formal dining room, and a formal “living room” or parlor, a very public room. Almost every house I knew as a child had such a room, traditionally used for formal visiting, for sizing up the male escorts of young women, and for laying out the dead before burial. My parents were laid out side by side in such a room, which is perhaps why I associate parlors with water and weeping. Of course, as dying occurred more and more in hospitals, such laying out was transferred more and more to funeral homes, and even those who managed to die at home were, and are still, wheeled with inelegant promptitude out the nearest door by men in sheeny black suits and shiny black shoes. (Those men have not arrived here yet.)
As children, we were very strictly forbidden to enter this room unless we were invited to or required to. We wouldn’t have spent time there anyway because it was a fussy, uncomfortable room that did not accommodate children: we called it the Old People’s Room. In our house, it was used primarily for visits from the minister, or committee ladies’ teas, or presentations by cookware salesmen Matu didn’t have the heart to turn away because they were relatives of someone she knew. And this room was also used for what Matu and everyone we knew referred to as the “visitations” of Miz Minnie.
Although it seemed as if Miz Minnie was always showing up, she in fact visited our house only a few times a year, as she had a lot of territory to cover elsewhere. There was always something official about her arrival as if she came to report the tragic death of a loved one at sea or to represent the health department in some delicate or disastrous matter. As it was, under the transparent ruse of “dropping by” for a visit, she came to tell who was doing or not doing what when and where and with whom, and she often spoke of people we didn’t know and never would. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, her discourse about real people was often jumbled up with events and characters on soap operas. She specialized in misdeeds and misfortune and was always ready to bolt imaginatively ahead to catastrophes that had not yet happened and, except in the case of death, often probably wouldn’t.
During a slack period she was capable of stirring up fictitious trouble or getting her “wires crossed,” as she said, about things that might or might not be news that everyone needed to know to cultivate the appropriate measure of neighborly concern. People who did not know this about Miz Minnie did embarrassing things such as taking funeral casseroles and cakes to the Bennett home long before Mr. Bennett was actually dead (he in fact simply had a cold and lived for thirty more years), or taking casseroles and pink baby clothes to the Armiges when they were adopting a twelve-year-old boy.
If Papaw was at our house–as he usually was since he and Wolf were the closest thing we had to a nanny–he always muttered something under his breath and referred to Miz Minnie as “the local scold” or “that gossip-monger” or “that old funeral bird.” During one visit, apropos of nothing, Miz Minnie leaned forward in that earnest, handwringing way she had and said, “Yes, God never gives us more than we can bear,” and Papaw, who had been nodding off and on the verge of snoring, erupted like a shaken-up soda bottle and said “Bullshit!” in falsetto. He quickly covered his outburst by saying “Pardon me, Miz Minnie, I just inhaled a sip of tea.” His teacup had not even remotely been near his mouth, of course, for at least five minutes, but Miz Minnie seemed not even to have noticed what he said.
Now Papaw was a closet lover of television soap operas and thus, I suspect, secretly enjoyed Miz Minnie’s visits except for her professions of knowledge about what the Lord had on his mind, which was about where Papaw drew the line. And although Papaw occasionally nodded off, he clearly paid close enough attention to Miz Minnie to do ruthless imitations of her. I remember one afternoon in particular when he was entertaining Molly, Adela, and me with an accurate and frightening imitation of Miz Minnie’s drawn-out and breathless description of Owen Manfield’s open heart surgery. Deena, on her way to see Matu in her studio, passed by the room where we were gathered and stuck her head in and said, “Poor Miz Minnie.”