A doctor’s wife talks about snow leopards, love at first sight, and meeting William Faulkner.
Miss Emily’s voice makes everything into a story, even answering the phone. She answers the trilling white wall console with the kittenish daintiness of a 1950s secretary, warmed with the lovebird coo of her deep Southern accent.
“Hello, who’s calling? Oh, I love NAMI, but I can’t do it this time. Call me in January or February?”
The request is winningly plaintive, like she doesn’t wish to trouble the caller but she really will just die if they don’t call her back. She thanks them and hangs up, adding in a sly sotto voce,
“I’m not going to tell you that I’ll be out of town!”
Miss Emily doesn’t care for conflict. It’s the principle difficulty she’s had with her lifelong dream of becoming a novelist. The fascinating characters she creates become as real to her as her own friends, and because she simply can’t bear for them to suffer, nothing ever actually happens in the plot.
She shows me a photograph of five of her real-life friends, taken perhaps ten years ago. They are all standing outside a big touring bus, wearing summer clothes and smiling. They call themselves the Growing Up Girls, and have almost since they all met in 5th grade. Emily had her first cup of coffee in their company, during a graduation party for Hutchison Girls’ School senior class of 1947.
“It was very exciting for us, to put on our best clothes, to go to the Peabody, up in the Skyway. There weren’t many people to serve, and there weren’t enough people waiting tables to bring us water; we didn’t have anything to drink but coffee.”
She was so thirsty, she drank it down at once, black and hot. And like so many things Miss Emily has tried for the first time, she thought it was simply fabulous.
“So I’ve never put cream or sugar in my coffee.”
There are four of the Growing Up Girls left, not all in Memphis but still not far removed from each other. One lives downtown, on the river, one has a fabulous place way out in the country in Arkansas. They meet up once a month, to catch up, talk about children, grandchildren, vacations, and gardening. At Christmas, though, Miss Emily treats everyone to lunch at the Peabody. They have a glass of wine in the lobby, which is beautifully decorated and usually has a children’s choir from the local public schools; then they go to lunch at the restaurant, and remember the dances they attended in the second-floor ballroom.
Another group of Miss Emily’s friends meet on Monday nights, to discuss novels, sometimes watch a documentary or historical series, and have a drink or two. Some of them, anyway.
“One doesn’t drink anything at all. One’s an alcoholic, and we don’t talk about it. And two drink gin martinis.”
A good drink is another thing Miss Emily loves. She had a fall a few months back, that resulted in a subdural hematoma. It took a long time for the blood to subside from her brain; her doctor forbade her from anything that might contribute to light-headedness or imbalance–alcohol, sleeping aids, too much sugar. The next time she saw him, Miss Emily assured him that she’d been very good. She repeats what she told him archly, into her glass:
“I don’t take anything to help me sleep!”
Miss Emily’s family has always valued travel nearly as much as they valued education. They’d intended to send her to Europe after she graduated college, but the Korean War got in the way of that. So instead, some years into her married life, Miss Emily’s mother offered to make up for the opportunity by taking her on a five-week European vacation.
It must, Miss Emily stipulated, be an ocean cruise. An ocean crossing sounded so much more glamorous than going by plane. They were discussing it at the tennis court when Miss Emily’s friend Dorothy overheard and asked if she could come along, too. Her first husband had just died, and she had been friends with Miss Emily since childhood; of course, they said yes. She would plan to join them in London.
This was back in the days of accommodations on cruises; Holland America’s first class was sumptuous, and Miss Emily and her mother were counseled by a couple they met in the dining room that they must make the most of it. For Miss Emily’s sense of adventure, this naturally must begin with calling each other something grander than their everyday names.
“I,” said Miss Emily, “shall be Stephanie.”
“I,” said Emily’s mother, “shall be Valerie.”
On account of Dorothy’s recent bereavement, though, they thought they’d better keep the frivolity in check when they met her in London. However, it wasn’t long before one of them slipped and referred to the other with their sophisticated alias. Dorothy wanted to know what it meant. They explained, and Dorothy, after a reflective pause, said,
“Then I shall be Julie Christie.”
Another thing Miss Emily loves is literature, the subject she majored in at Duke University. Mention almost any book, and her gaze will travel directly to its location in the capacious library that takes up most of the north wing of her house. She spends hours at a time in her favorite tufted chair in the library, attended by Claude and Zoe, the miniature poodles who wear knitted sweaters with uncommon dignity.
“Did you know Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter were written the same year? I just think that’s fascinating.”
She asks who my favorite authors are; at the mention of Flannery O’Connor, she asks if I am familiar with Joan Williams, a childhood friend with whom she attended Hutchison Girls School and shared an ambition to write.
Joan, however, had the jump on her; she published a short story in Mademoiselle during college, that won their college fiction contest. This, she tells me, was “big doin’s.”
Joan was possessed of the desire to meet William Faulkner, who had just won the Nobel, though Miss Emily tells me that her literature professor at Duke was of the opinion that Robert Frost should have won it. Memphis being not too far from Oxford, Mississippi, Joan got a gentleman friend to drive her down to Rowan Oak.
“You know, they apologized for intruding, but anyway somehow she struck up a conversation with him. And so she wrote her first book, and he helped her. I don’t mean he wrote the book for her, but he was helpful.”
During one Christmas holiday, Miss Emily (home from Duke) was on a lunch date with a gentleman friend (home from Vanderbilt) when they saw Joan break through the swinging Western doors of the dining room. She called out, “Emily! I want you to come and meet somebody.”
“So I followed her, and here sitting at the booth was this very dapper, white-haired man with a mustache. And he stood up, and she said ‘Bill, this is Emily Boone. Emily, this is William Faulkner.’
“All I could think to say was ‘You shouldn’t have won the prize.'”
Aghast, I ask if she actually said that. She’s aghast that I would ask.
“No. No. No! No, I didn’t. All I could say was ‘How do you do?’ I went back to my date and I said…”
She drops to a whisper.
“‘I just shook hands with William Faulkner! I’m not going to wash it.'”
As such stories must wind up, so did Joan’s. Miss Emily minces no words and pretends no delicacy in relating that Joan moved quickly from Faulkner’s protege to his mistress. But that, she hastens to add, is no comment on her literary prowess.
“She’s a really fine writer. I’ve got her books up there. Her first book was The Morning and the Evening, and it was about a poor white person who was demented. And then she wrote the one I like the best, Old Powder Man, which was about her father, who was instrumental in helping the levies in the south so we wouldn’t have so many floods. My friend Nancy gave it to me, and it was right after my father died. I took it with me to a medical meeting, and I sat in the room and read that and cried all the way through. Then the next one was, I think, Pariah. And The Wintering…”
Miss Emily gets pensive.
“She was sad. Dear person, but sad, and she drank too much.”
The Wintering was written at the time when Joan’s affair with Faulkner lay dying. (Sorry…I had to.) In 1954, she left Faulkner to marry Ezra Bowen, the journalist son of biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen, a writer whom Miss Emily doesn’t care for overmuch, though she liked her biography of John Adams.
“Their marriage didn’t last. But they had two sons, and they’re very creative and do creative things.”
Still hung up on the Faulkner thing, I speculate (somewhat resentfully) that Joan Williams must have been quite a lot younger than him. In the curtest phrase she will employ all week, Miss Emily answers,
Miss Emily didn’t ask me to call her “Miss Emily,” but I can’t help it. Half the time I try to swallow the “Miss” so as not to embarrass her. Blame it on the influence of Memphis, on the cool pristine domesticity of her kitchen with its neat white shutters and cobalt accents, on the the natty perfection of Miss Emily herself in wool houndstooth pants from the Orvis catalog, a red turtleneck sweater and a string of perfectly-sized pearls. All of it makes me want to celebrate the mannerly intrigue by taking Southern courtesy just a little over the top.
Boo, Miss Emily’s daughter, brings in the mail. Miss Emily shows me a brochure for the Memphis Ballet. On the cover is a man with his body arched in a gorgeous firebird leap. This is the dancer Miss Emily sponsors, and he is as admirable for his art as for his courtesy. He calls to express his thanks every time she renews her subscription. Sometimes he just calls to say hello–he did so only yesterday.
“I’ve had ones that never said boo turkey, and I didn’t sponsor them again. He’s adorable.”
She got the idea of sponsoring a dancer from her friend Dorothy, whose second marriages brought her into possession of–Miss Emily’s voice drops conspiratorially–something like a billion dollars.
“When her second husband died, she said to me, ‘I will never be able to spend all the money I have.’ Well, she sure tries. She does wonderful things, like…the symphony needs a new piano? So she gives them the grand-grand-grand. When her husband was alive, they gave the zoo two snow leopards.”
She gestures toward Boo.
“Boo wanted her to help with an idea she had. I said, ‘Dorothy dudn’t do ideas…'”
She holds for a beat.
“She does pianos and leopards.”
By contrast, she says, sponsoring a dancer is quite a bargain. And unlike pianos or leopards, they can make a phone call now and then.
In the evening, Miss Emily puts on a ruffled housecoat and her slippers and calls for Claude, her beloved cockapoo, to join her in bed to watch Downton Abbey. She’s watched all four seasons at least three times through. But when she hears I’ve never seen it, she won’t hear of going to bed until I’ve begun it over again with her.
She chuckles at the Dowager Countess, and pleads genially for allowances to be made for Mary, while remarking caustically on Mr. Pamuk, much as if they are relations who simply refuse to take her advice.
One episode finishes and she looks at me with thinly veiled excitement:
“Should we watch just one more?”
Her bedroom is a marvel of taste and whimsy–a little girl’s princess room updated to maturity, with soft green walls and voile curtains and a perfect little vanity table with a puffed ottoman to sit on, in front of the mirror. A spindle staircase winds up from the back of the room to the room just above, which is now Boo’s painting studio. On the bureau facing her bed, there is a portrait of herself in her wedding gown. It’s satin, high-necked, creating a beautiful long line that flows from her chin down to a fan of lace that spreads out across the floor. She looks beautiful and in love and completely of her era, nearly too romantic to believe.
Miss Emily laments the way mating rituals have changed for young people like me.
“All of my age group, we all say we lived in the best of times. We had a lot more fun than you all. We dated all the time. Maybe during the holidays we’d have a lunch date and a dinner date, just having a big time. The relationships were so sweet! We never did anything but kiss.”
She acknowledges that wasn’t the case for everyone—both the strictly-kissing policy (she did know a girl who got in trouble) and the best of times (she knew it wasn’t that way for black people). But for her set, life was simple. It was as if they were all part of a large square dance where everyone changed partners and you were delighted no matter who you ended up with when the music stopped.
And if the music should ever start again, so much the better.
“My mother married three times. My father died–they were happily married for 35 years, or whatever it was. Then, several years later, she married another attorney, whom she had known when they were all at the University of Alabama. And that marriage lasted ten years, and he was sick five of them. Then he died, and I was in this kitchen, standing over there, and she said…”
Miss Emily’s voice falls to a hesitant hush.
“…’What would you think if I told you I wanted to marry Jack Ramsey?’
“I said, ‘Well mother this is the third time, and it had better be the last.’
“They were more in love than I have ever seen any couple. They were both 83, and they couldn’t keep their hands off of each other.”
She rolls her eyes like a teenager.
The romance, I feel, must come from the simplicity, from not taking any of it too seriously. Love seems to me like such a heavy ordeal. It’s as if we’re all wallflowers, blaming each other for not knowing how to dance.
She tilts her head, gives me a look of frank, if kind, assessment.
“I think you have all the charm–all the charm–that you need. I don’t whether you’d put any more charm. You just don’t think you have the confidence that you would like to have. Do you think that’s because you are not around men enough?”
That, I say, is definitely not the problem.
Miss Emily gives a philosophical shrug, but looks me shrewdly in the eye.
“You don’t ever know…”
She doesn’t wag her finger, but her expression gets the same point across.
“You do not. Ever. Know. Put that in your head…you never know when you might meet somebody! Whether the person is sitting next to you in the airplane…you just don’t ever know when you might meet somebody.”
The August of 1950 was particularly hot in Memphis. Miss Emily’s summer break from Duke was almost over, when a friend called and asked her to be a last-minute bridesmaid for a wedding sped up by the Korean War. As was customary, the blessed event was preluded by a slew of parties and social functions, for which Miss Emily (as was also customary) was paired with Stanley Trezevant, who later became one of the biggest developers in Memphis. (And, she adds, was real nice.)
The first of the parties was the rehearsal, which was at the groom’s parents’ home–a very beautiful home, not far from where we are now–Miss Emily points down the street. It was hot outside, but it was cool in the house. There were magnolia leaves and blossoms all around. The women wore long dresses, the men wore white dinner jackets.
“And I walked in and I saw this guy.”
She gives a long, luxuriant pause.
“He was standing with his elbow on that, in his white dinner jacket, with his drink in his hand. And I poked my best friend, that I walked to school with every day of my life, and I said ‘Nancy! Who is that?’ And she said ‘Oh, that’s Bobby Ruch! He lives down the street from me.”
“And I said, ‘Well, that’s the man that I’m going to marry.'”
It wasn’t a decision, nor even an observation. The best she can describe it is as a gasp–it just came out.
He wasn’t altogether unknown to her–she’d gone to school with his younger brother, his mother had driven her to kindergarten in the carpool, his father had founded a prestigious OB-GYN clinic that put Memphis on the map. This might not have been the very first time she was seeing Bobby Ruch, but it certainly felt that way.
The wedding was the next day, at the great big Presbyterian church in town. They had the prettiest bridesmaid dresses–Miss Emily recounts the details delightedly: pink silk net, big silk sashes. And when they all lined up, it just happened that Bobby Ruch was standing right behind her. If that wasn’t the universe beaming its approval, it certainly got things off to a strong start. They chatted, off and on, all evening at the reception. Then he went back to his last year of residency in St. Louis, and she went back to Duke, ready to have a great time during her senior year.
“Oh, I thought about him. I was relieved–I had found the person I was going to marry. You know–that took care of that. But I didn’t have to be true to somebody that didn’t know I existed.”
Senior year was going great–she was a Phi Beta Kappa, she was dating someone cute–until Miss Emily came down with shingles on her face. She hardly went anywhere but to class and to the infirmary all semester, until the Christmas ball put on by the Yuletide Revelers.
“And guess who was there? Bobby Ruch! He was home for one day.”
It didn’t bother Miss Emily at all that they both had dates. (Both, incidentally, were “very cute.”) It was customary for all the couples to “break” from time to time–it was the best way to “keep things going” and make sure the “stags” got a shot at dancing.
“We danced, and danced, and danced. He was a wonderful dancer…and I’m a good dancer, so that was a plus. He danced with me maybe 15 times”
Back at school after the break, Miss Emily was waylaid by a sorority sister who had just returned from holidays in St. Louis, who said “Oooh! I’ve got a message for you from the cutest doctor!”
“I said ‘Oh, I know who that was…oh, yes!'”
She spreads the one syllable out like butter–yay-yus–and follows it with a big belly laugh.
After graduation began the summer social functions, and Miss Emily schemed how she and Bobby would meet again at every one, but he never showed up. She had just about given up on him, until the ninth of July, when the telephone rang.
“This voice says ‘This is Bobby Ruch. I just got home, and I have got to see you.’
“I said, ‘I have got to see you, too.'”
Another long, devastating beat. And then she laughs, as if she’s won a carnival game.
“So I rushed upstairs to my mother, ‘Ooooh! Bobby Ruch called! I gotta have a new dress!'”
Their first date was playing bridge in the sunroom of his parents’ home. And despite every reason to be confident–her new dress, her experience with cards, her friends playing with them–the date went terribly. She played terribly and even spilled beer all over her dress. She left absolutely sure that Bobby would never ask her out again.
“When we got home, got up to the front door, he said ‘Now when can I see you again?'”
She clasps her hands into joyous fists.
“I said ‘Oooh!'”
All summer long, they went out playing miniature golf, saw movies, had dinner with friends, stayed up late playing charades. He called her every afternoon, at about five o’clock, just as he was finishing work at his father’s office. Occasionally she’d have already made a date with someone else, which kept him on his toes. But then he upped his game: he asked her to come with him on a weekend business trip to St. Louis. Miss Emily had to ask her mama, and her mama said no.
The next time Bobby came to pick her up for a date, he apologized handsomely to her mother.
“He said ‘Oh, Miz Boone, I’m so sorry that I asked the wrong thing. You know, I don’t have any sisters, and my mother’s out of town, and I just didn’t realize that I asked the wrong thing, and I apologize.’ And mama says…”
Her voice melts into an ingratiating coo.
“‘Oh, she can go.'”
Miss Emily told all the young men she’d been dating that she was going out of town and she’d call them when she returned…secretly hoping she’d never have to call them back. As it turned out, her instincts were right. After a lovely trip to St. Louis (where she stayed with seven of her Theta sisters–“I was not the forward generation”), they were driving back when Bobby Ruch told her he loved her.
It felt so right, so proper, that she didn’t even think to say it back. So she was very surprised when, as soon as they got back to her home, he slunk off almost as soon as they reached the door.
“All of a sudden, he got really peculiar. No, he didn’t want to stay for supper. No, he wanted to get home. And I thought, ‘Well, he’s just sorry about this whole weekend, and he’s sorry he told me.’ I thought, ‘Well…you know…maybe that’s the end of that. I don’t know.’ Here we’d had this glorious time, and he told me he loved me, and he’s going off in a huff.”
Then he began to call again, and they went out every night.
“It turns out that he suffered from…what’s the word? Depression. I didn’t really know what that was. But my eyes were glazed over. I was thinking ‘Oh, how wonderful–I’m home from college, and there are all these wonderful things to do for young unmarrieds, and I have somebody I’m crazy about to take to these events!'”
And then he called her to say “I got my orders.” The Air Force had put him through college and medical school, and now they were collecting.
From that moment forward, a cloud of uncertainty hung over their dates. He would say “What are we going to do? I’m leaving in September–what are we going to do?” and Miss Emily would answer “I don’t know. What are we going to do?”
They decided what to do after a bridge game. Maybe it was how well they played together. Maybe it was, as Faulkner says, the “thin and eager” air of late August “with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar.” Maybe it was being left alone in the living room together after Miss Emily’s parents went up to bed.
“We’re just standing there and he said ‘Will you marry me?’ And I said ‘Yes!’ And he said ‘Don’t you want to think about it?’ I said ‘I have thought about it.'”
They decided to get married in January at the insistence of her tax attorney father, who insisted on his fatherly right to one more deduction from her. Bob went off to California to join the service, and straightaway, Miss Emily started to get anxious.
“I thought ‘What am I doing? I’m going to marry this man I don’t even know, and I’m going to go out to California, and I don’t know how to cook anything!’ You know the pictures of brides in magazines, and oh, they’re just floating, and I thought ‘That’s a lot of crap!’ I mean, nobody could have been more sure than I was, and then…gone was that assurance.”
Her anxiety was eased by a kindly talking-to from Bobby’s father, also a doctor, and by the letters that Bobby wrote her from California. They’re still fresh in Miss Emily’s mind–she reread them recently.
“They are fan-tastic. They’re just fan-tas-tic.”
On January 26th, they walked the red carpet down the aisle of the Episcopal church; her bridesmaids, all very cute girls, wore adorable white tea-length frocks and carried red flowers. Between the extended families on both sides, good friends, casual friends, and professional acquaintances, the guest list grew to 800 people. Again, her accountant father put his foot down about hosting a cocktail party for 800 people; so her mother hosted the reception at their home for just the families of the wedding party. Miss Emily didn’t care–it was all lovely, and she was about to drive across the country with the man she’d been right about.
“We were leaving the house and getting in Bob’s car to drive to where we were staying the first night, and one of his groomsmen tried to stop Bob from getting to the car, some kind of mischief…and Bob knocked him down!”
She giggles excitedly.
“He socked him! He knocked him out!”
He must, I speculate, really have wanted to get into that car.
Miss Emily’s silence is eloquent.
“We drove to West Memphis in second gear. We were both…”
She chuckles, and trails off. Hers, after all, was not the forward generation.