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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Matters Familia - Dying People Don't Eat Duck

J. Balfour Miller

What is it with my family? From as early as I can remember, my grandmother was a dying woman. I’d call her on the phone or go see her and she’d scowl:

“Why haven’t you called me lately? I’m a dying woman, you know. I might not be around much longer.”

“Um, I just called you.”

“Well, you should do it more often. I might die.”


Way back in the early 80’s my (then) husband and I were running a restaurant. (We lost our behinds with that, btw. Never, ever again.) But I digress. Anyway, the phone rang and it was my grandmother calling to see what we were having for the daily special.

Ring, ring!

“Broadway Station,” said spouse.

A pitiful groan, followed by, ‘Hellooo?” Who is this?” Cough, cough! Sob.

“Oh, hi, Bessie Rose,” said spouse. “It’s Jeff.

“What do you have today, dear?”

After awhile she’d forget she was dying and start talking in a normal tone of voice.

“Oh, we’re having duck à l’orange. Would you like me to send you a plate?

A gasp followed by retching and coughing.

“God, child! Don’t you know dying people don’t eat duck?? Sob!”

My great uncle Balfour was a hypochondriac, too. No matter what time of day or night it was, he could always be found in his bathrobe and slippers in the TV room with a twinkle in his eye, a drink in his hand and spittle in the corners of his mouth, insisting on a kiss from the ladies. Out of deference for his age, most of them would comply. Well, okay. Maybe he was kinda cute.

When he was in his twenties, he predicted he’d be dead by thirty. When thirty passed him by, he decreed he’d be gone by forty. But somehow, he made it into his fifties, certain that someone that ill would never make it to his sixties, which is when I came along.

He spent his sixties with the Grim Reaper knocking at his door, and his seventies with one foot in the grave. It was about then that he started showing up at the hospital ICU, suitcase in hand. He’d pick a bed and climb in, and when the nurse asked him what he was doing there, he’d reply, “Well, I’m waiting for the doctor, of course.”

“But, sir. You’re not a registered patient here. We don’t have a doctor for you.”

“Well, then get me one,” he’d reply.

In the meantime, he’d call his favorite saleslady at Godchaux’s and ask her to bring a case of her best jewelry. There she’d sit on the side of the bed showing him brooches, rings and other assorted baubles, which he’d buy and give to his wife and her friends. It wouldn’t do to die without leaving something to remember him by.

By the time he reached his eighties, he and the Angel of Death were on a first-name basis. Rather than show up at the hospital, he had a hospital bed brought into his bedroom.

I remember a conversation I had with him when he was about 90. He said, “You know, when I turned seventy, I figured I’d better write my will. I knew I was going to die within a year or so. You know what I just realized? That was over twenty years ago.”

He was baffled.

But you know what? He was right. Hypochondria finally did kill him when he was ninety-three. He died in 1985 saying, “I told you I didn’t feel good.”

He’d even purchased a tombstone and had it engraved, “One of Natchez’s prominent philanthropists,” which now that I think about it, was awfully similar to the monument that had been erected for J.N. Carpenter, who did so much for the city of Natchez. Talk about keeping up with the Joneses.

One day, my great aunt Annet and her friend Lillie Vidal Boatner were driving through the cemetery. They passed Balfour’s stone.

“Oh, look, Annet,” exclaimed Lillie Vidal. “They’ve misspelled philanderer.”

Come to think of it, I think maybe Uncle Balfour was a bit of a narcissist...and a philanderer.

But enough about him. Let’s talk about me.

A few weeks ago, I suddenly started aching. It started with a sharp pain in my right knee. Then it migrated to the left knee. Then it went to my hip. And then sometimes I noticed when I woke up in the morning the joints in my fingers hurt.

So I’ve given it a lot of thought and have narrowed it down to two possibilities:

a. Lupus


b. Lyme Disease

Oh, gosh! I think I might DIE! Of course, it could just be that I’m just getting old and fat.....nah.


  1. I'm sure Bessie Rose and Balfour would be pleased. As my grandmother (Lillie Vidal Boatner) always said, "Imagine if you were so dull that no one ever had anything to say about you behind your back!" Of course, blogging hadn't been invented yet, or she would have added "or in blog."

  2. Eek! I thought she was a Blankenstein. Fixed that! And thanks for commenting, Chesney. I do hope it's an enjoyable post.

  3. And after hearing Lillie Vidal's comment, I'm sorry I didn't get to know her better. Anybody who is that spontaneously funny (in addition to being pretty, which she defintely was), has to be smart and fun to be with.

    I know Lillie Vidal finally quit Bessie Rose after one too many awful irritations. And I also know Grandmother was sorry that she lost a great friend. Sometimes Bessie Rose really was her own worst enemy. Poor thing. With death, time and distance between us, I've learned to really pity her. She isolated herself from many really nice people and really good friends.

  4. Oh, they were great childhood and really lifelong friends, despite getting really mad at each other in their 70's.

    When their dear childhood friend Sis (Smith) Richardson (whose family owned the Natchez Hotel, which burned) moved back to Natchez in the 1970s from a life in New York, Lillie Vidal (Davis) Boatner and Bessie Rose (Grafton) Pritchartt decided to be friends again.

    Throughout my life, any time anyone would mention Bessie Rose, I'd immediately think of the little ditty from Gram's Memory Book: "Bessie Rose sat on a tack and bessie rose."

    Gram's Memory Book from the 19-teens is full of stories about her teenage years and her friends, including Bessie Rose and their other buds. The Memory Book is a handwritten and illustrated diary. She would draw pictures and also cut out pictures from magazines and paste them in.

    Gram wrote in a straight up and down, bubbly cursive with upside down m's and w's like so many of the girls in her class. They must have all learned to write that way at Stanton College and then sat around and practiced together. Gram's older sisters (Josephine and Laura) didn't write that way! Your grandmother had a similar handwriting, I believe. (Bizarre that I would know that.) Gram also had a photo album: Brownie Kodak pictures of Gram as a girl and her friends, including Bessie Rose, fill the pages.

    What a unique world we Natchezians live in. Many of us keep up with our childhood friends across time and distance, and many of us think of Natchez as home, no matter where we live. And now you're back from LA, and I'm back from Atlanta. And we're not alone!

    But here's the strangest thing of all -- the part that's really unique: In many cases, our parents were childhood friends and our parents' parents were childhood friends. And we know all these people -- the parents and parent's parents and the siblings and the extended families and the ancestors! In some cases, I can even identify the ancestors of some of our friends in photos and portraits, and maybe you can too.

    There is a photo of one of Wensel Ballard's ancestors (by Norman of course) and if you saw it, you would KNOW that she is a forebear of Wensel's. No doubt about it.

    About the old Natchez Hotel, I recently learned that the one story building on Franklin (across from the Eola Guesthouse) where Bass Pecan used to be (adjacent to Dr. Bug) is actually the remaining ground floor of the burned Natchez Hotel. It's the building that has those strange cast-iron faces across the facade.

    Well, on it goes.

    Til next time...


  5. Oh my gosh!! this is great! I remember Balfour and Play Mama doing their almost daily "ride bys". We would have to walk out to the car to greet them. Balfour was always in his robe and slippers. I, too, remember those wet kisses. Patty K

  6. Chesney, I've seen that photo of Wensel's ancestor. Mrs. Ballard portrayed her last year in Angels on the Bluff and it looked so much like Wensel, it took my breath away.

    Mrs. Ballard told me that the picture once ran in the Natchez Democrat and everybody in town wanted to know where Wensel got the old-fashioned dress.

    I know what you mean about knowing who many of the old photographs are, too. There's a photo up at Stanton Hall of Mrs. Morrison as a child, and it's a dead ringer for Joie Morrison. No need to tell me who it is. It's Virginia.

  7. What fun reading all this! I remember Elodie telling me the story of "Dead people don't eat duck!". Speaking of the Natchez Hotel, I believe my great grandfather, Robert E. Bost (Annie Louise Wilson's father) came to town to build it. He might have been the architect. That is where he met my great grandmother, Annie Davis.

  8. Chesney, not long after Sis Richardson moved back to Natchez, I saw her walking down the street in front of Stanton Hall.

    All of a sudden, I see this kid run up and grab her purse right out of her hand, and run off.

    Leigh Ann Lovitt and I went in hot pursuit and saw him jump into a car around the corner where the railroad tracks were. We got the plate number and took Sis to the police station to make a report.

    In no time, they had the kid, who I picked out of a lineup, and he was convicted of...well, I don't remember. He WAS a kid, after all.

    But after that day? Nothing anybody said about me could change the fact that I was Sis Richardson's favorite kid in town. :)

    Cindy, you should call Mimi Miller. I bet she'd be able to tell you if he was the architect.

  9. D'oh! I forgot to say I remember that handwriting VERY well. It's very distinctive. And you know what's funny? My handwriting looks very similar to my grandmother's.