Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nipping at Her Heels

Barnard Street, 2008

(This is a true story. Some of the people involved are still around, so I’ve changed a few things.)

A friend who lives in a small town told me about a meeting of the altar guild of her church. The meeting took place in a grand old mansion built in the mid-1800s. Carpathia, as the house is called, has fourteen-foot ceilings, double parlors, a ballroom sixty feet long and half as wide and cast iron balconies all around. The family that owned it was known to be having a hard time keeping the place up, so it wasn’t a surprise when the ladies arrived and found the house cold and drafty this particular January night. Draperies swayed as the wind whistled up from the harbor and around the tall windows frames. Wooden stairs and floorboards creaked under foot. Even in the dim light you could see that the paint was chipping and the furniture in the front parlor was practically threadbare. A few ancient cats kept to the shadows.

If you’re not from the South it can be hard to understand the importance of pride and presentation. Southern women of certain generations do not simply have people over and open a can of spray cheese, no matter what their circumstances. The dining room at Carpathia was set as if for a party. All the leaves were in the table and all thirty chairs were polished and arranged around it. There were enough refreshments on the sideboard to feed half the town. All the good wines and liquor were out. The silver platters and serving spoons shined in the light of the crystal chandeliers. Candles burned in the sconces on the wall. Logs crackled and burned in the fireplace. Three arrangements of fresh flowers lined the dining room table.

There were only about ten ladies attending the meeting, so they all sat at one end of the long table. The hostesses’ mother, a fragile old woman quieted by a succession of strokes, sat by her daughter near the head of the table. As the meeting proceeded, the old woman would occasionally make short Tourette-like outbursts, unintelligible, but not curses. She’d grab at her arms or reach under the table at her legs. Her daughter would gently reach over and calm her mother and urge the other ladies not to be distracted.

This happened many times throughout the evening. The old woman would screech. The daughter would calm her. The meeting would lose momentum, but pick up again.

As the night wore on, my friend said she had to reach down a few times and swat away what she assumed was one of the cats brushing against her legs. She noticed that other ladies were doing the same and made a mental note to wear slacks instead of a dress the next time she came to an altar guild meeting at Carpathia.

By the time the meeting ended, the ladies were anxious to gather up their coats and get back down the street to their own much warmer homes. It wasn’t until they stood up from the table and the hostess helped her mother stand to receive polite kisses on the cheek from the ladies that they noticed that the old woman was covered from ankles to arms with flea bites and that they, too, were developing little webs of little red nips around their own ankles.

Not exactly A Rose for Emily, but true.

1 comment:

  1. OMG!! What a story! That sounds like something out of a Eudora Welty story.

    Reminds me of the time I sat outdoors with a friend (in the south, of course) and we thought we were having the most delightful, relaxed afternoon sipping wine and catching up. The next morning, I woke up and discovered I had CHIGGERS. I was still what I'd consider a Northern gal, and so I'd never even heard of chiggers, and so I had no idea what I was experiencing, but I went to the doctor and that was the diagnosis. When I called my friend, she informed me that she had the same. I will never forget that--it was awful!! Love your description of these folks.