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Tom Chaney: Confluence of Memory: Continuity of Love
Of Writers And Their Books: The Confluence of Memory: The Continuity of Love. Tom tells us that Eudora Welty wrote, "....the greatest confluence of all is that which makes up the human memory -- the individual human memory. . . . The memory is a living thing -- it too is in transit." This column first appeared 3 May 2009.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Catching a Ballad
By Tom Chaney
The Confluence of Memory: The Continuity of Love
I must confess to a love affair with an older woman. She was at least thirty years my senior and never knew of my affection. It was a serious affair of the heart on my part. Her part was made up of stories which entwined themselves into my very being.
My first encounter with Eudora Welty came in the spring of 1963 -- all such affairs should begin in the spring -- in Jackson, Mississippi.
It was the first year of my teaching. I was just emerging from the gospel imperative which had ruled me for some seven or eight years from high school, through college, and into two years of the seminary.
After a year of graduate school in Texas, a friend thought I was ready to teach at Lees Junior College in another Jackson, this one in Kentucky. That friend, also a member of the faculty there, fled the mountains of Breathitt before I arrived -- surely not wanting to be close enough to share the blame for my ineptness in the classroom.
However, Lees had some other good teachers of teaching who kept me from too much embarrassment.
The spring of that year an aunt of mine who was teaching at Belmont College in Nashville, taking some pity upon me and my students to come, issued a welcome invitation. She asked me to accompany a group of faculty and students from that little Baptist school to Jackson, Mississippi, and Millsaps College for the annual gathering of the Southern Literary Festival.
The events and people of that festival have faded as memory will allow over half-century and more -- save for one vivid image.
Enter Eudora Welty.
She was on the program for an evening event in a rather large auditorium. I sat far in the back. I suppose she talked for a bit, and then she read her gripping story "Powerhouse."
I have no memory of what Miss Welty looked like from that evening -- of course I have seen pictures since.
The image I retain of that evening is one she created. I see a massive black piano player, Powerhouse, with hands bound in by the small keyboard -- straining to find more than eighty-eight keys -- feet keeping their own time on the floor on either side of the pedals as, through his own sorrow, he pounded out wonderful dance music for his white audience.
Miss Welty has said that the musician Powerhouse was based on Fats Waller. I think it might have been the other way around.
That performance led me into a forty-six year, and counting, affair with Eudora Welty -- in no way diminished by her death in 2001. The south has produced some fine writers over the years -- many from Mississippi. I can't even say she is the best of that state's lot -- William Faulkner and some others give her a run for their money. But what a space she keeps filling! From time to time I return to recordings of her reading "Why I Live at the P. O." and "A Worn Path" to mention just two more of her stories.
All of this comes up now because I have just reread the fine little book she wrote about writing. Modestly titled One Writer's Beginnings, it grew out of her William E. Massey lectures at Harvard in 1983. The three lectures are titled "Listening," "Learning to See," and "Finding a Voice."
One critic has noted that these lectures are an incisive study of the nature of memory.
Welty discusses the final scene of her novel The Optimist's Daughter. She describes Laurel traveling back and forth by train to Chicago -- usually in a sleeper -- but this time with Phil on their way to be married -- in the day coach dozing, dreaming of the wedding, of the confluence of two lives, and awakening to realize that the train was soaring above the trees near Cairo and she was, indeed, seeing the dream realized in the confluence of the massive waters of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
Phil is dead within the year. "For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love." The confluence of waters, Laura saw, was still happening.
Miss Welty writes, "Of course, the greatest confluence of all is that which makes up the human memory -- the individual human memory. My own is the treasure most dearly regarded by me, in my life and in my work as a writer. . . . The memory is a living thing -- it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives. . ."
Powerhouse still wrests that tune out of that piddling piano on that stage in Jackson -- playing his heart out for white folks to dance.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney
This story was posted on 2014-05-04 01:42:22
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