I Want To Be In That Number
What could the passing of Art Buchwald, pimento cheese and the possibility that the Saints might go to the Super Bowl have in common? For me, they converged this week in a Proustian moment of reverie, transporting me back in time to childhood weekends at my Grandmother Mabelle’s apartment in Biloxi, Miss.
She was one of a kind, my grandmother, smoking her endless Salem cigarettes out of those little plastic holders, as we watched pro golf and pro football on Sunday afternoons. The golf could be excused by the fact that she was married to my grandfather, a professional golfer named Emmett O’Neal “Buck” White, for more than four decades. But football?
My grandmother was educated at Vassar and a lover of poetry and short stories, both dying art forms she used to claim. In college, she wrote her thesis on William Faulkner when he was a young emerging author decades before he gave that famous Nobel Prize speech. She was also a keen investor who read three newspapers a day, and an avid follower of politics who enjoyed the witty satire of Buchwald and Mark Russell. [The only political causes she ever advocated for personally were the right for women to smoke at Vassar and wear pants in the lobbies of prestigious hotels.] Yet football ranked right up there in a list of her passions, particularly the Miami Dolphins, her home team for many years, followed by the Saints in order of importance.
I remember going to the Superdome with Grandmother Mabelle and a friend of hers visiting from Florida to see the Saints play the Dolphins in a rare match-up -- and a moment of great conflict for her. It turned out to be one of first times then backup quarterback Dan Marino took the field. He, of course, went on to Dolphins greatness. Grandmother Mabelle and her friend Jean, cheering wildly for the Miami team, made more than a few enemies that day in the Dome stands. Fortunately, for us, the Saints prevailed. At least that’s the way I remember it today, more than two decades later.
In many ways, visiting that musty apartment on Sundays was like entering her own particular brand of literary salon, although sometimes it felt more like a sports book because Grandmother Mabelle was always willing to take a good bet. We talked about current events, political candidates, American and English history, the stock and bond markets, horse racing, golf, football and, of course, literature. She understood that the common bond between all these varied subjects was character, the stuff of which real people are made. In many ways, those Sunday afternoons made me who I am now, and like today in my own adult life, I always left wanting more, hungry both intellectually and literally.
Grandmother Mabelle ate to live, strictly, so an emerging glutton like me often found slim pickings in her icebox. The one thing I could always count on, though, was a small tub of commercially made Pimento cheese, especially on Masters weekend, and a box of Wheat Thins, a combination that held me in good stead when the only other options were black coffee, menthol cigarettes and the occasional can of ginger ale.
So Buchwald’s gone; his death represents a passing of the kind of gentle Eisenhower age approach to political humor that Mabelle would still find far more tasteful than the jaded barbs of Jon Stewart or the obscenity studded rants of Bill Maher. The Saints are one game away from the Super Bowl, something inconceivable on those Sundays in the early 1980s. And NPR waxed poetic this week about the Southern charms of pimento cheese, ultimately reaching my memory banks through my taste buds.
On my first post-Katrina trip home to Mississippi, I drove by the ruins of her old apartment building, and chuckled at my grandparents’ seeming indifference to hurricanes. They lived with hurricanes most of their adult lives, first in Hollywood Beach, Fla., and then Biloxi, where they moved when I was young to be nearer to us – to me. Grandaddy Buck always went to bed as a storm approached, saying, “Mabelle, wake me up when it’s all over.” Meanwhile, she stocked up on batteries for her flashlight, mainly for reading in the case of a power outage.
Their both gone for a long time now, so we’ll never know if they would have fled Katrina, or decided foolishly to ride out the storm, like they had done so many times before. Likewise, I don’t know if I’ll be in that special number marching into heaven when my time here is up, but if so I am sure looking forward to seeing Grandmother Mabelle, hopefully with a color TV and a tub of pimento cheese because I am ready to pick up where we left off…