Overheard, out and about, Mrs. Grundy sees all, tells all

Published 2:23 pm Monday, February 7, 2011

Peeping through my Venetian blind, I noticed that the Kiss-Me-at-the-Gate was blooming with its little, yellow-white, pungent blossoms. Cousin Jo calls it Breath of Spring and says that hers has been in bloom some time now in South Carolina. To me, it’s the first sign of spring.

Seen at Tabby D.’s the first of February (Feb-ROO-ary) were Judge “Trippy” McGuire, Jerry and Linda Andrews, Larry and Vicki Popwell and the lovely Mary Evers. The Popwells gave me a copy of a collage of their granddaughter, born just that morning, Lacey Jane Wells, daughter of Daniel and Laura. Lacey Jane was pictured with her older brother, Grover. “Pop” Popwell predicts Lacey Jane will be president one day.

I ran into a former student, Roger Smith, Andalusia High School Class of 1978, the other day. Roger tells me that he’s settled in Oklahoma but travels widely, racing horses. For 33 years, he was a jockey.

Seen at the Corner Market buffet were James Summerlin, Frances Ptomey and James Bristow.

I want to thank Valerie Nowell-Strickland of Panama City, a cousin of our own Angie Theus, for being one of the faithful, gentle readers of this column on Saturdays. Bless you, Valerie!

America’s first Mardi Gras in 1703 was in Mobile, not New Orleans. This year’s parades, featuring Moon Pies, are scheduled for February 18 – March 8.

In commemoration of the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the War Between the States, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery has planned two plays about the old days, The Flagmaker of Market Street (February 4 – March l9) and Blood Divided (February l8 – March 20).

Since last Saturday anniversary events of 150 years ago have included the secession of Texas on Feb. 1 and two national meetings. February 4 a Peace Convention in Washington, headed by former President John Tyler, met unsuccessfully to work out a compromise among the states and save the Union. The same day in Montgomery, just up the road from us, the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America met for the first time to organize. The next day, Feb. 5, plans were made by the Provisional Congress to establish a Confederacy of states. The old Capitol where this happened still stands at the head of Dexter Avenue (once, Market Street).

Congratulations to Robert Lee Holley for identifying last week’s mystery person, Charlotte Thomasson. This week’s mystery person is hardworking, a piano teacher, fun-loving, the mother of two, the grandmother of one, wife of a veteran, organist and loyal friend.

Birthdays last week included those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, only person elected to third and fourth terms as our President; Franz Schubert, Austrian composer of his “Unfinished Symphony”; Victor Herbert, American composer of operettas such as Toyland (with its title song and the “March of the Toys”); Sidney Lanier, Georgia’s most famous poet, author of “Song of the Chattahoochee” and “The Marshes of Glynn”; Felix Mendelssohn, German composer, pianist, and conductor; and Abram Joseph Ryan, an American, Catholic priest known for his pro-South poetry about the War Between the States. Ryan lived in Mobile for a time and is buried there. A statue of him stands there as well. Tragically, his lovely cottage along the beach in Biloxi was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

One of the sad facts about our Nation is that so many prefer “garage ‘music’” to the gorgeous sounds of Victor Herbert. Now his was music, especially “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”

Sidney Lanier lived for a time in Montgomery and worked in the Exchange Hotel, where Jefferson Davis spoke, following an introduction by William Lowndes Yancey. (That hotel was rich with history and should never have been destroyed.) Lanier taught school in the Prattville area, too. Lanier High School in Montgomery was named in Lanier’s honor.

DeFuniak Springs, Fla., has returned this year to one Chautauqua weekend rather than two separate programs. I had conflicts this year, but managed to drive down (it’s only an hour) for Thursday afternoon and night, Jan. 27, and Friday morning.

I had forgotten how charming DeFuniak Springs is, filled with friendly ghosts of yesteryear. Oh, I like it! I like it! I like it!

For those who don’t know, Chautauqua is an Indian name for a lake in New York State where, years ago, during the summer, folks met to improve their Sunday-School skills. Gradually all sorts of cultural classes were added, plus famous speakers, concerts, sports, and crafts. Today, Chautauqua continues in New York. DeFuniak Springs was selected for a winter Chautauqua because of the relatively mild weather. The Southern Chautauqua didn’t last long, but some have tried to revive it for a weekend a year, at least.

Thursday I joined Dennis Ray, chairman of the Florida Chautauqua Center, and a retired professor from the University of Alabama and other schools, as he narrated a tour, aboard a trolley, around Circle Drive, which circles the round lake at DeFuniak. We saw the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood (still standing from the old Chautauquas), the Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, St. Agatha’s Episcopal Church, the restful park between the drive and the lake, Victorian and other houses, the home of the children’s author, Pansy, the home of her next-door neighbor, Wallace Bruce, a poet and early president of the Chautauqua, the oldest library still in use in Florida, the depot, the Octagonal House (once a center for arts and crafts), the large magnolia, the outdoor theater, and Dr. Ray’s own home, “the Lemonade House,” so called because its early owner, Mrs. Thorpe, allowed visitors to the old Chautauqua to eat their picnic lunches on her porch and served them lemonade, too.

I noticed something new since last year, a set of herringbone walks and a fountain in the park area.

I ran into several old acquaintances, Dean DeBolt, professor, historian, and presenter; Voncille McLeod, who roomed with Pennye (Norred) Anderson at Troy when they were girls; Marilyn Louwerens, treasurer of the FCC and retired teacher who started the Book Store in DeFuniak (her daughter runs it now); and Marie Hinson, wife of Charles Hinson, once, choral director here at A.H.S.

I stayed over at Best Western, which includes in its cost a sit-down breakfast at a cloth-covered table, bread plate, waitress and all.

I took supper at McLain’s, which offered a barbecue buffet that night. Many in Andalusia will recall when McLain’s was located in Crestview. Well, the food is still good, though now in DeFuniak. They even offer fried oysters on their weekend, seafood buffets.

Friday morning I heard Celine Cousteau, a filmmaker and the granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, speak of her travels around the world.

She spoke to a combined assembly of the Chautauqua and the student body of Walton High School in the new (2009) building, located next to the old high school.

Her famous grandfather co-invented SCUBA gear and often appeared on television specials.

Celine’s address was followed by a class on Florida history by Gregory Garland of the Pentagon.

After a purchase in the Book Store, I took lunch in Murray’s, across the street. Richard Murray Jr., came over and chatted awhile. He, his dad and sister run the restaurant known as Murray’s. Richard, Jr., ran one of the same name here in “the Dimple of Dixie” for a time, but had to give it up when his mother died and he had to return to DeFuniak to help his dad. The building on East Three-Notch here that had been known as Murray’s became C.J.’s, which, in turn, has just closed its doors because the building was sold by the Murrays to some attorneys. C.J.’s has to relocate. Murray’s in DeFuniak is for sale but still open till it sells. Young Richard, meanwhile, is associate pastor of First Baptist in Defuniak.

For lunch, for old time’s sake, I selected Richard’s Invention, a hamburger with fried, green tomatoes in it, invented by the older Richard.

There were three more days of classes, concerts, performance teas, and animal shows; and I wanted, oh, so much, to stay; but I needed to head north to visit my father and brothers in Montgomery and to attend a Sunday-matinee performance of the opera Faust, sponsored by the Opera Birmingham, at Wright Hall on the campus of Samford University.

I recall hearing the close of Faust over the radio when I was a child. It thrilled me. As an adult, I bought a set of records of Faust and listened over and over. Some 40 years ago, I went to Troy to hear Faust performed.

It is rare that I can hear an opera in person, so I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Faust Sunday afternoon.

Faust is the story of an elderly German who sells his soul to the Devil, Mephistopheles, in exchange for youth and a second chance at life. Among Faust’s youthful demands is the love of the beautiful Marguerite, whom he gets with child. In shame, she kills her baby and is condemned to die in prison. Faust kills her brother, who tries to defend her honor, and tries to free Marguerite, who prefers repentance, death and salvation, which come to her as she, Faust, and the Devil sing in perhaps the greatest trio in all of opera as a chorus of angels welcomes Marguerite into Paradise.

Other thrilling moments are the song of Marguerite’s brother, Valentine, “Even Bravest Heart May Swell,” and the “Soldiers’ Chorus.”

As Keats wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

A small screen at the top of the stage curtain scrolled the English words of the French text. The composer, Charles Gounod, was French. He based his opera on the famous poem by Goethe of Germany, who wrote the original Faust. Gounod’s opera premiered in Paris in l859.

While waiting for the curtain to go up, I talked with Lucy (Case) Lewis, a friend of John and Frances Carter, who helped me earn my teacher’s certificate when they were teachers at Samford and I, a student.

Lucy told me that Frances had begun in 1998 an organization to honor women who worked in World War II to support the troops, and their descendants. It is the Rosie the Riveter Association. Women who actually worked during the war are known as roses; their daughters are known as rosebuds; their sons as rivets.

Lucy introduced me to Gloria Parvin, when she arrived. Gloria sang the comical role of Martha in the opera, a neighbor to Marguerite. Faust was sung by Bryan Hymel; the Devil by Kirk Eichelberger; and Marguerite by Mary Dunleavy. At intermission Lucy introduced me to Gloria’s mother.

To conclude today, I shall turn my column over to the Portly Gentleman to continue his trip into South Carolina.

“It was the first day of fall. I awoke in Pap’s cabin and soon drove over to Cousin Jo’s house for breakfast. Jo is Pap’s daughter, and my hostess.

“We motored over to Carroll Campbell Place, named for a former governor of South Carolina, a retirement home, to visit our mutual cousin, Ruth Caughman. Ruth was in good form, and we had a delightful time. Ruth’s daughter, Charlotte Compton, whose home is next to Pap’s cabin, joined us for more talk and fun.

Leaving with happy hearts, we drove from Lexington, up Corley Mill Road, past Zion Lutheran Church, toward the state capital, Columbia.

“Corley Mill Road is a beautiful, wooded drive at the edge of Lexington. A new high school is being built along its upper end; I hope the construction doesn’t spoil the scenery.

“Zion sits at the top of Corley Mill Road and is the church my ancestors joined over 250 years ago. The first members of my family in America were members at Zion, and I still have cousins in its congregation today.

“We drove into Columbia to the University of South Carolina where our meeting was scheduled.

“You see, Jo and I belong to the William Gilmore Simms Society, which meets every two years. We became admirers of Simms some years ago and have been to several national meetings to discuss him and keep his memory alive.

“Simms was the most prominent author in the Old South, a poet, novelist, editor, essayist, short-story writer – you name it! He was to the Old South what Sir Walter Scott was to Scotland in his day.

“The first session was that afternoon. Jo and I had timed our arrival so as to enjoy a leisurely lunch at the McCutchen House along the Horse Shoe, the main campus of the USC. We enjoyed a Caesar salad, shrimp and grits, tomato pie, sweet-potato pie, and coffee. The setting was elegant with cloths on the tables and beautiful surroundings. The restaurant has been made in a grand, old house.

“We were not sure where the first session was to meet, so we mistakenly walked down the Horse Shoe to the Caroliniana, the great library of rare materials at USC. Finding it the wrong spot, we headed for the Thomas Cooper Library and, there, heard Nick Meriwether and Dr. James Kibler present papers on Simms. Both are scholars and have become our friends. Nick recently was hired to work on research in California. Till then he was a scholar at the Caroliniana. Dr. Kibler founded the Simms Society and has written volumes and volumes. He is a great Simms scholar.

“Then something astonishing happened! In the crowd of scholars I by pure chance heard someone refer to the famous Simms scholar, John Guilds, whose biography on Simms I had read and re-read. I had thought Dr. Guilds was long since dead; but, to my great shock, I looked in the direction of the address and there Guilds stood in person. I stared at him as if a child at Santa Claus! Before I knew what I was saying, I blurted out, ‘Dr. Guilds! I thought you were dead!’ He laughed, bless his heart; and there was an instant bond between us. My hero!

“That night Jo and I ate supper in Carolina’s Restaurant in the Clarion Hotel, a swanky place where we like to eat every chance we get.

“I had taken a room in the Inn at USC for the weekend and retired for the night. Jo commuted daily from her home in Lexington.”

I shall ask the Portly Gentleman to continue his story next time.

Now, gentle reader, let me encourage each of us to be in his place of worship this weekend, Lord willing. Fare thee well.