Miz Minnie’s Boy
If Molly and I were at home, Matu forced us to be in attendance during Miz Minnie’s visitation. This was odd, for we were taught never to pry, never to talk about other people, never-ever-ever to speak ill of anyone, and never to repeat things about other people that people said to us. I suspect that Matu wanted to make sure that Miz Minnie’s visits weren’t a total waste of time and intended them as some kind of lesson for us. Indeed, “Don’t be a Miz Minnie!” was a powerful admonition in our house and cut short our speculating aloud about things we knew nothing about. Perhaps Matu also viewed these occasions as opportunities for Molly and me to learn graciousness, patience, how to look convincingly attentive no matter where our minds were roaming, roaming, how to sit still without fidgeting. I also suspect we were required to partake of Miz Minnie’s visitations to curtail the degree of gossipy detail she felt compelled to deliver and thus to curtail her visit. It hardly mattered to us anyway since we viewed disease, deformity, death, the draft, and a host of other things as if they happened only in some other country, some country that was far, far away from that of our childhood.
Because we associated Miz Minnie’s wound-up and wiry appearance with advanced age and associated her with the Old People’s Room, we thought she was old as the hills, but she wasn’t. People tolerated Miz Minnie because there was always the chance that some gossip that might be hurtful to others might be helpful to them, or because they found her amusing, or because they knew of her own hardships and privations in life and pitied her and felt that her tale-mongering fulfilled some obscure need in her. There was no Mr. Minnie in sight, and in addition to what Molly called her “visitating,” Miz Minnie was working part-time in a bank and raising a son all by herself.
Everyone knew who “Miz Minnie’s boy” was, and nobody anywhere except the meanest of children would dare harass or try to hurt him even though there were several things about him that just screamed for attention from bullies, who, as hateful as they are as individuals often nonetheless police the boundaries of what communities consider acceptable. It was impossible for Miz Minnie’s boy to obey that first commandment of the playground: don’t stand out. First of all, his name was Rupert, which seemed both foreign and somehow ornate and therefore feminine. He routinely made the best grades in his classes, and he was extravagantly talented, could play both the oboe and the bassoon (weird, suspect instruments). And he was gorgeous, a regular pre-Raphaelite boy with flawless olive skin and deep-pooled eyes and long-long dark eyelashes to just break your heart. (He was a year ahead of Molly in school. And of course we were always both a little in love with him.)
I guess you can see that if Miz Minnie’s boy’s name had been some familiar diminutive like Jocko or Butch and he had spent class time throwing sticky spitballs and loudly passing gas instead of paying attention or if he had played more familiar instruments, the tuba, perhaps, or even the clarinet and had mildly unruly hair or a discreet scar on his cheek or just some freckles, he would have fit right in with the other boys. But he didn’t.
Looking back on it now, I think that probably the only thing that protected him from the harsh punishment difference elicits in restrictive environments was his mother’s widespread reputation as someone who knew or could appear to know everything about everybody. We could write Miz Minnie off as an entertaining, harmless busybody, but one sure thing about gossip is that once it gains currency, it doesn’t matter if it isn’t true, and protests against its untruth just keep it circulating. Thus, being known as a gossip made Miz Minnie herself a potential bully and gave her, as ridiculous as it seems, a kind of power she wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Bless her heart. She was doing something that would have been unforgivable in someone with real power over unrelated others–a boss, for example–but she was a mother. It was probably the only way she could try to protect her boy. If Miz Minnie had not been a woman, she probably would not have been an endlessly-dropping-in-on-people gossip. If she had been, for example, a stocky, brawly, easy-to-offend man, she could have been menacing with greater clarity and much, much less elaborate effort.