ON CONVERSATION

 

My mother could talk to anybody, and she never missed a chance to do so.

Nothing stopped her. For years she carried on a conversation with a neighborhood couple who could neither hear nor speak. She’d grab a pen and paper, head up the street, and they’d go at it eagerly. Their son Billy, who was born with club feet, which never were well-corrected, would interpret when he was around. He made a doctor. That’s Texan for “he became a doctor.” The last I heard, he was practicing pediatrics in rural China.

Mother’s penchant for gab served her well later in life. After my father died, she became a “financial advisor.” In truth, the financial advice she gave was to buy the brand of mutual funds she was selling – the more the better, and don’t even think about going to a broker to buy some other brand. That transpired during a period of economic growth, so her persuasiveness and insistence did little harm.

One time I saw her start a conversation on an elevator in a department store. In the time it took to travel from Ladies Sportswear on 1 to Luggage and Notions on 2, she persuaded a stranger to accept her card. “Give me a call and let’s talk.” He probably did.

I’m somewhat loquacious, myself. So was my brother. On a good day, i.e., when I’m not busy writing something in my head or otherwise self-absorbed, I take my turn with the family specialty. But not exactly.

I don’t recall Mother ever being in a situation when she didn’t want to talk. I’m not like that. I avoid starting conversations with people who I sense do not share my very godly beliefs about politics, religion, the designated hitter rule, and such. That leaves out most of the earth’s population –­ but it doesn’t delete the inherent urge. So I often make do by talking to myself. (When Ann observes me in the act, she laughs – somewhat rudely, in my view – and goes all superior. But let it go.)

Lately I’ve been having a long talk – about two weeks long, actually – with a dead man, my great-grandfather, Thomas Luther Hester. Several pictures of him are hanging in the monastery, and when I passed by one of them the other day, he reached out to me.

People called him Judge. The reason for that is unknown. He was not a judge, he was a small-time rancher and subsistence farmer. But he was quite at home with authority, and that may have been what got him his name. He once pulled a gun on a U.S. Marshal who was attempting to serve him with a writ of replevin for some cattle Judge Hester had repatriated from a nearby ranch. Oddly, his son-in-law, my maternal grandfather, a gentle cowboy turned butcher, was also known as Judge.

Hester’s progeny called him Pappy. (My people were a little rustic when it came to assigning family names.)

I was sixteen when he died. I remember some things about him, but I don’t remember anything he said. So in our conversation, I’ve had to make up his lines. I think I’ve been true to his character, but if not, no one’s going to correct me. To my knowledge, I’m the only living person who knew him.

Pappy was born in 1871. His place of birth is no longer known, but by the turn of the century, he was running cattle near Porum, Oklahoma, down in the southeast corner of the state.

If you ask the right questions you can get anyone to open up, and you can both have a fine time. Maybe sell some mutual funds while you’re at it. So I tried Pappy on a few subjects of current interest. He didn’t have much to say on them, though.

“What do you think about this election, Pappy?”

“I liked Roosevelt better.”

“Yes sir. You’re not alone in that.”

That was about it.

“Well, what about gay marriage?”

“Gay marriage? Too much work just putting food on the table to be gay about anything.”

“No, Pappy, I mean like when two people of the same sex get married. These days, we call that sort of love ‘gay’.”

“Oh. You mean like Charles Lee [a distant cousin of mine] and his friend, what’s his name. They might as well have been married. They lived together for years.”

I didn’t pursue the subject.

As I said, it was a long talk, and so we covered a number of other subjects, but mostly, I just let him run with stories about scratching out a living on the land.

I don’t remember seeing him walk without a cane. Kept a slop jar under the bed so he wouldn’t have to limp out to the privy (or to the bathroom after he and Big Mama finally got indoor plumbing) to pee at night. I was given to understand that he’d had that limp for a long time. A horse had kicked him in the hip. It probably would have been easily fixed today. Not then, not in rural Oklahoma.

When Pappy’s father, Big Grandpaw Hester (1848-1938) died, Pappy became the family patriarch. The role suited him well in my opinion. I found him a little stern. Seemed to prefer adult company.

My mother had a different view of him. One time she and I were visiting Henry VIII at Hampton Court, when she heard a hymn playing on the gift-shop sound system. Mother seldom cried, but she teared up at the sound of it.

“Pappy used to sing that to me when I was a little girl,” she said.

The hymn was “Who Would True Valor See” (text from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; tune, Monks Gate, adapted from a Sussex folk melody by Ralph Vaughan Williams). I’m surprised she recognized it. We were hearing a rollicking, folksy version by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. I guess Pappy sang it to her a lot.

Pappy and Big Mama, aka Biggie, were regulars at Presbyterian services when I knew them in the 1940s and 1950s. I suppose they always had been.

The tough times of their life would have made religious belief and practice welcome. One of their sons – I don’t know his name – died young of a carbuncle on his neck. Another one, Burley (known as Bebb), died when his foot got hung in the stirrup of a runaway horse. Son Cliff was killed in a four-year-long range war that began in 1906 with a misunderstanding about who owned what livestock. If Pappy and Biggie only went to church for funerals, that would have been sufficient to learn some hymns.

Though I’m not a talker to the extent my mother was, I do enjoy a good chat now and then, sometimes even with live people. About every three months, for example, I have a salutary conversation with my primary-care physician. I’m in good health, but for some reason when my appointments end, he tells me to come back in three months. Maybe he enjoys our talks as much as I do.

I hope he does, because he’s losing money taking care of me. Medicare rates don’t cover appointments that last as long as mine do. The most recent went from 3:30 until the staff was turning out the lights and heading home. He is very thorough, but only ten or fifteen minutes of it was given over to medical matters per se – blood pressure medicine, TGN symptoms, “how’s the back?”.

Mostly we just talked. It was good talking. Comfortable as an old sweatshirt. I left feeling healthier – physically and otherwise. In fact, I was healthier. Good conversation can do that.

When he entered the examining room, I had a copy of The Confessions of St. Augustine on my lap. “How’s that going?” he asked, pointing at the book. I made my own confession that I was stuck on high center. Him being a Yankee, I had to explain what that meant.

I presented an excellent dissertation on how sometimes unpaved roads will hump up so high between the ruts that vehicles get stuck. In the process, I mentioned that years ago Ann and some friends had put together a list of Texas expressions (mostly outlandish and, in truth, little used) to help her Wall Street colleagues communicate more acceptably when they had to take care of some matter south of the Red River. (I’ve been told that in such a situation, Texas lawyers will put on cowboy boots and big hats so as not to disappoint their New York counterparts.) I took my Yankee doctor a copy a few days later. I expect his mode of discourse to be much improved at my next appointment.

At present he’s reading Agatha Christie and Thomas Merton and Deer Hunting with Jesus. That last one hit me like he had said he’d discovered a cure for toenail fungus. I’ve known exactly one person, a severely leftwing Democrat, who has read Deer Hunting With Jesus; Dispatches from America’s Class War. It consists of raw evocations of the lives of working poor.

I don’t recall how the subject came up, but at some point, we agreed that much benefit results from monastic retreats. Somewhat ironically, we talked rapidly and at pretty much at the same time about how taking a few days off from speaking is revitalizing, especially if done as part of a religious exercise but also if it’s purely secular.

Circling back to Augustine, we agreed that a good physician is pretty similar to a confessor.

I’ve forgotten what all else.

Like I said, the guy is losing money having me for a patient.

Texting and tweeting are here to stay, I guess, but they’re no substitute for conversation. My mother would probably agree with that. On the other hand, a smart phone or an iPad would have made her communication with deaf people go a lot smoother; her handwriting was challenging.

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “ON CONVERSATION

  1. MJW

    I think I’d like to read Deer Hunting with Jesus, but am afraid I might get depressed. I hate getting upset about something I’m in no position to fix.

    Reply

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