"Oh, you're famous now, Eudora, sure enough," someone greeted Eudora Welty, the Mississippi writer, yesterday after she had accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter.
"I think so," she said, pleased as a dog with two tails.
"Give you a lot of money, too?"
"No," she said, "and I don't need any with what I got."
She opened a polished walnut box, and there, against white silk, was the gold (not "real gold" in these economical and, to be plain, cheap times) and red enamel medal with five eagles standing around the outside stretching their wings, the whole suspended on a blue and white ribbon.
"And with it you get a little on, too," she pointed out. Bill Smith, the poet, told her he recently got a distinguished medal in Budapest and it, too, had a tiny version, and he asked what the miniature was for:
"To wear on your pajamas," he was told.
Welty may or may not wear hers to bed, but it pleased her to get it, partly because, she said, "it was not just a representative sort of thing -- I felt the citation sincerely reflected the president. [It spoke, among other things, of Welty's "triumphant" humor.]
"They give you lots of things to take home," she went on, opening the blue leather folder lined with watered silk that held the presidential citation honoring her for her fiction and other dandy works.
Home is, of course, Jackson, Miss., to which she is returning to get on with her work.
"It's a story I've been working on in my head. It doesn't seem to quite fit as a short story, but it's not at all something I want to make a novel of," she said.
"Well, once people start reading," she was encouraged, "they won't mind going on another few minutes. I hate to think you'd start throwing things out just because they didn't fit a short-story space."
"If they fit, fine. But that's the problem; I'm not sure they do. I may just file it. Or I may throw it away."
With Welty, the task is for the work to emerge perfect, very like Athena from Zeus' head -- organic, powerful, lovely and reasonably immortal. It's not a question of just batting out a nice story. It has to be monumental and easy, too, for that writer eschews on-the-cuff nobility. The nobility her readers mark in novels like "Losing Battles" and short stories like "The Worn Path" is built in, not stuccoed on.
As a result, everything takes her forever. She once delivered some lectures upon considerable urging, and it takes her several months to write a lecture.
"So now I've written all the lectures I know, and therefore I can't deliver them any more. They've been published, and it would be a rip-off if I delivered one now, now that anybody can read them in a book.
"But I do like to read some of my things to young people. We have question-and-answer sessions. Sometimes when I read a batch of stories at colleges, I am amazed at how bright young people are. At that age, I could never have written anything as good. They master the hard short-story form so quickly."
"When you get back home, people will leave you pretty much alone to do your work, won't they?" she was asked.
"Yes, I learned a long time ago not to try doing everything at once. I divide my time into working, at home, and then I spend other time reading at colleges or traveling. I don't try to work when I'm gone.
"Spring in Mississippi was strange this year. Cold, then lots of rain. The yellow banksia [a rose that's a great favorite of Southerners] came and went in a flash. It was the same way with irises."
"It's that way every year in Washington," she was reminded. "Up here people don't count on settled weather till the end of June. That's why they're increasingly up to their ears in day lillies, that only bloom in full summer."
"Same with me," she said. "More and more day lilies. I like the ones that bloom at night and smell good. Still (thinking back on the spring) you feel cheated of part of your life."
Welty was dressed in a pale green dress that showed off her snowy hair nicely. Asked to say something wise, she ignored it and went on with her reflections of spring:
"My mother was the real gardener," she volunteered.
"Yes. Even after she was sick," someone observed.
"Even after she couldn't see," Eudora corrected.
One of the most complicated of all English words is, of course, the word "see."
"She used to hate the combination of magenta thrift and bright yellow daffodils and azaleas. She used to say, 'Now don't let's drive down that street, they have all that thrift there,' so we'd drive another way.
"But I don't know, I don't think it bothers me so much any more. I used to worry about tangerine azaleas mixed with those fuchsia-colored ones."
"Still," she was interrupted, "You have to admit they clash well,"
"Clash well. Yes. I suppose you might say all flowers are meant to bloom together."
"This may sound insulting, but perhaps you are mellowing.The tangerine and fuchsia and thrift and those things no longer drive you mad?"
"Mellowing," she said. "Oh, don't say that."
Eudora Welty is celebrated, among her admirers, for grace but not for accepting outrageous combinations of things.
"Is the world the same or worse or better or what?" she was asked. She has, after all, seen a lot of young people.
"About the same, isn't it? With me, it's just that it took so long to begin to understand it. To understand how complicated things are."
Complex, one is almost tempted to volunteer, rather than complicated.
Her art, after all, appears always to have been aimed at grand simplicities, not usually found at the first flirtation with a typewriter, but not all that complicated, either. It takes years, perhaps, to learn what is simple and what is right.
For example, in one of her books she includes a common enough rural scene, in which a family sit on a porch and watch the young men of the family come up from the valley for supper. The sun has commenced to fail, but in the half-light the old folks can still see the youngsters' white shirts. Then, they can't really even see the shirts, but they know they're there and know the young men are coming on up, so they still "see" them. Welty uses a phrase, "their love outlasting the light" or something similar. They still see the young guys climbing the hill, even if technically the light is too far gone for the eyes to register literally.
As Eudora's mother still saw the garden, even after she couldn't see.
It's this kind of thing in her stories, so simple and in such accord with what everybody knows to be true, that has given her a reputation for accuracy, even if it's all made up.
Of course, there has to be something that lights up the kids' climb, when the eyes are none of the best and the very shirts are hid in the darkness, and in Eudora's story -- that particular one -- the thing that lets the old folks see is simply love.
But to convey it convincingly, and with grace and humor, is something that takes Welty a lot of time and energy.
It's nice, in a way, when she notices people like the stuff that she is at such effort to turn out.
"Triumphant," as President Carter put it, and you didn't hear all that much argument and nit-picking (for a change) over his choice of language.