Averyell A. Kessler.
Edna Hart knew all about the south. How could she not? She’d seen Gone with the Wind on a wide screen in Detroit’s Majestic Theatre and watched Bette Davis toss her curls in Jezebel. As a result, she learned a lot about southern women, how they spoke, dressed, and practiced the basic technique of outrageous flirting. These assets would serve her well as she accompanied her husband Al on a business trip to Mississippi for a meeting with his client, my grandfather, W.G. Avery. She made plans and went shopping. Ruffles and lace were a priority, as well as an abundance of swirling fabric. She searched for a dress designed to show off her almost tiny waist and deep bodice. After that, an intriguing hat and perhaps a parasol. She rejected Scarlet’s dreary curtain green and selected yellow as her color of choice. Sadly, the only thing poor Edna succeeded in duplicating was the long practiced southern art of carrying on.
I learned the meaning of “carry on” at Robert Stockett’s High Street stable when a pack of his hunting dogs chased a fat racoon up a scraggly pine tree near his front gate. I’d only heard the phrase in classic movies starring stiffly dressed British officers and pirate ships. “Carry on men! Full sail ahead!”
I also knew it referred to a small piece of luggage heaved into an airplane storage bin. Not until Mr. Stockett spoke, did I understand what carry on, a true southernism, really meant.
“Hey, Onie,” Robert shouted, “What the heck is goin’ on by the front gate? Those dogs are carryin’ on somethin’ awful.”
So, that’s it. Carry on, close kin of hissy fit, or a frantic melt down of the first degree. It’s Donald Duck quacking his head off, Ricky Ricardo losing it with Lucy, Sgt Carter tearing into Gomer Pyle.
Should you chip one of Cousin Maude’s ancient Wedgewood teacups, she’ll carry on. Possibly for weeks.
If a child’s tearful plea does not result in a candy bar from the grocery store’s treat rack, he’ll send up a howl that wakes the dead.
When Aunt Pauline accidently knocks over Uncle Harlon’s ancient bottle of Old Fitzgerald squandering several glugs of prime bourbon whiskey, he’ll carry on like an angry wild cat.
I witnessed “carry on” myself when Edna Hart came to dinner at our house. On this night, my grandfather WG was strangely quiet, but I learned from his tactic too. I call it “the closed mouth theory” or “strategic silence.”
Edna arrived in Belhaven dressed head to toe in overwhelming yellow, not buttercup yellow, or the soft color of sunlight drifting through trees, but a blinding, knock you down, school bus yellow. WG already had a firm grip on Edna’s elbow and was steering her toward the front steps.
“Banana.” I whispered, as she approached. I was familiar with Chiquita commercials and had memorized the words. Mama clapped her hand over my mouth before I could speak again.
Edna’s husband Al was a timid soul. Although he was chief purchasing agent for the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, he followed his wife like a hound chasing scent. She stepped across our threshold in a flowing skirt, long sleeves trimmed in lace, and a belt that surely impeded her breath. Her hair was tucked under a swirling satin turban featuring a large pink rose, which matched the pink parrots dangling from her earlobes. My father said nothing; Mama didn’t either. I knew what WG thought by the expression on his face.
Dinner was fine, but boring, as it often is when strangers share a meal and conversation lags. But I wasn’t worried. WG had already introduced me to a wide variety of his acquaintances. I spoke as easily with a bank president, as I did with a post hole digger, a Hinds County Deputy, or a questionable politician on parole from Parchman farm. Perhaps the adults would let me join the conversation. As I hoped, things perked up when dessert arrived.
“You haven’t said anything about my ensemble, Al,” Edna said, fingering one of her earrings. “Don’t you like it,”. It was a simple question with enormous consequences.
“You mean that get-up your wearing?” he replied.
“Get-up? she said. “I’d hardly call this dress a get-up. Its Vogue, Paris Match, or Hollywood. Gone with the Wind, perhaps.”
“Maybe Sunset Boulevard,” Al whispered.
“My parents did not move, WG’s eyes raked the ceiling. He squirmed as if he was sitting on a hot griddle at Woolworth’s lunch counter. I was fascinated.
“Idiot,” Edna hissed.
“You’re a fine-looking woman, dear,” Al said, laying his fork aside, “but…………”
“You don’t look normal tonight.”
“Yes, she does,” I interrupted. “Last week, I saw a lady just like her.”
WG came to attention. “Where?” he asked. His face radiated approval.
“At the circus,’ I continued. “She told fortunes in a purple tent and had crystal balls!”
WG smiled, stifling a laugh. Al leaned back in his chair, his eyes bulging in delight. ”Crystal balls, huh?” He laughed so hard that a sprinkling of strawberry shortcake fell on the tablecloth.
“Well, I never….” Edna growled.
“Come on, Edna,” Al said. “The child is absolutely right.”
“What do you think…. Paula? Howard?” she asked looking from face to face. “What about you Mr. Avery?”
“Well, folks,” WG boomed. “Big day tomorrow. Time to take you back to your hotel.” He tossed his napkin on the table and stood. Dinner was over. Somehow, he was able to hustle the Harts outside before all *&&*@# broke loose.
We stood at our front door and watched silently as Edna, big, loud, and brassy, carried on something fierce. She outclassed them all, Cousin Maude, Uncle Harlon, even the scrabbling hounds at Robert Stockett’s front gate.
Al appeared in WG’s office the next morning, chastened, but alert. He’d also learned the meaning of carry on. Somehow, he’d survived. I don’t know how.