The Society Page Editor – The Latest News From Watervalley

debutante2Bitsy Hamilton came by my office this past week with a rather unusual request. She wanted my advice on an obituary.

Bitsy is the editor of the society page for the Village Voice, a position she has proudly held since the Reagan Administration. A likeable but somewhat proper old spinster, for decades she has meticulously and tastefully reported on every one of Watervalley’s debutante parties, engagements, weddings, christenings, garden clubs, book clubs, graduations, charity balls, and blessed new arrivals… including the birth of some beloved pets.

Her ancestors were WFF’s, one of Watervalley’s first families and she grew up breathing in the privileged air of old money. Unfortunately, back in the day, Bitsy’s father, Winston Rice Hamilton depleted most of the family fortune on liquor, gambling, fast cars, and even faster women. The rest of it he squandered. Better known by his nickname, Hound Dog Hamilton, he loved to romance the ladies. Being married served as only a modest deterrent. Despite having crammed four years of education into seven to attain his degree from UT, Hound Dog had no marketable skills. This left him unqualified for any line of work save that of State Legislator. So, he spent most of his time perfecting his golf swing and getting more pickled than the little cucumbers on the County Club buffet.

Despite his shortcomings, Bitsy indignantly claims that her father was simply unlucky, noting that he had been struck by lightning on three different occasions. The third time had a profound effect on him and he vowed to swear off drinking till at least mid-afternoon. His liver finally caught the angel bus to rehab heaven, taking Hound Dog along for the ride.

After his demise, when the smoke cleared on the family ledger, a brisk selloff of assets was required, including the family estate, Hamilton Place. All that Bitsy and her mother had left were their good name and their good manners, neither of which paid the electric bill. So, Bitsy parlayed her sole gift of decorum into becoming the Society Page editor.

A stickler for etiquette, Bitsy has always been the unquestioned warden of appropriate behavior and social protocol. In her salad days, she was herself a debutante and still talks with a rather thick “moonlight on the old plantation,” Southern drawl.  Thus, she is obsessed with the old traditions and matters of form and thinks that everyone else should be too. For years, Bitsy has been the leading force behind Watervalley’s Junior Cotillion and believes there’s a special place in hell for anyone who pokes fun at it. However, her greatest calling is that of the obituaries.

Known as the Handmaiden of the Grieving, Bitsy writes obituaries that make people look better dead than they did alive. She has a certain knack for discerningly accentuating the positive qualities of the deceased, but not so much as to make them unrecognizable to friends and family. She also has an unspoken policy of giving top-of-the-page and larger print space to those who have been stalwart contributors to the community. Those of lesser moral fiber, ill-mannered reputation, and dishonorable social behavior found themselves in the small print at the bottom of the page. Apparently, to Bitsy’s thinking, even in death, people should know their place.

In contrast to her rather haughty standing on social formalities, whenever someone shed their mortal coil, Bitsy would plunge in to help orchestrate the preparation of dishes for the family and for the reception after the funeral. In Watervalley, food is grief therapy. Essential to the list is green bean casserole made with mushroom soup and, of course, ham and biscuits for finger food. Without these, you could scarcely get a death certificate.

Sweet tea and fruit punch in endless quantities are also vital to the reception for the bereaved family. However, experience has taught Bitsy to be specific in these assignments ever since Eula Mae Hopkins made fruit punch that could have doubled as insecticide. Eula Mae was old enough to have gone to prom with Eisenhower and probably emptied out quart fruit juice cans that had been sitting in the pantry for decades. Given the propensity for folks to turn to the bottle in times of trial anyway, enhancing the punch with a quart of vodka seemed fully justified. The resultant melee was a shameful debacle that had the participants speculating on who might be next in line for the heavenly roll call and thus provide a potential repeat of the festivities.

Over the decades, Bitsy had delicately handled the reporting of some rather awkward passing’s. The departure of Tommy Dean Turner a few years back was a classic example. Tommy Dean, who everybody thought was a little off in the head in the first place, left specific instructions to be cremated and dropped from a crop duster over his corn field. For Bitsy, the whole affair felt peculiar. It just didn’t seem like a funeral without throwing a little dirt on someone. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a windy day and a good part of Tommy Dean ended up in the Sunflower Miller’s chicken yard. She swears to this day that the eggshells were twice as hard as normal that year.

Another problem occurred with the Lemkowskis, who had move to Watervalley only a couple of years ago and had surreptitiously bought plots in Rose Hill Cemetery. Rose Hill is clearly one of the most coveted addresses in Watervalley. The FFW’s, the first families of Watervalley would simply refuse to die if their place was not guaranteed. The Lemkowskis brought their grandmother in from out of state and buried here there. It was bad enough to have an unintroduced stranger in the midst, but then, instead of a headstone, the Lemkowskis put a statue of a dog at the head of the grave in honor of Mr. Whiskers, the grandmother’s pet schnauzer who had been her constant companion and yappy protector. Everyone was appalled, seeing it as a desecration of the final resting place of their beloved ancestors. The Lemkowski’s were from Ohio and, being outsiders, just didn’t know any better. In time, Duncan Hargrove, the caretaker discretely and tastefully planted a privet hedge around that area, curtaining the concrete fido off from general view.

Perhaps the most difficult obituary had been that of Zadie Dell Hampton, a floozy of the country club set whose promiscuous behavior had earned her the nickname “Target,” since every man in Watervalley had had a shot at her. Zadie Dell’s affinity for cigarettes and martinis had put her in an early grave. But despite her bad habits, she was an absolute knock-out, an attribute that did little to endear her to other women. It was highly suspected that much of her shapely curves were due to some aftermarket work, but that didn’t seem to matter to the soon-to-be-reprimanded oglers. And the most heinous attribute of Zadie Dell was that she had the audacity of showing up to the Episcopal Sunday morning worship wearing tops so sheer you could read the bulletin through them. The balance of the time she wore dresses that showed enough skin to upholster a love seat.

Upon her demise, she scandalously insisted that the embalmer use Purple Lust on her fingernails and she wore a shamefully revealing low cut dress. But the coup de gras was her smile. Zadie Dell had always been proud of her strong white teeth and specifically required her lips be parted in a full luminous smirk. It just took things over the top to have her lying in her coffin with her eyes closed and grinning from ear to ear… like she had already had a peek at the eternal roll call and was delighted to know which of her friends weren’t on it. Furthermore, the normal solemnity and dignity of an Episcopal funeral service was completely violated by Zadie Dell’s choice of the Mount Bethel Strutting Gospel Choir to sing the music, instead of the Episcopal church choir with their traditional stodgy smells and bells decorum. Bitsy claimed she almost needed a hit of nitrous oxide just to get through it.

It was around four o’clock on Thursday afternoon when she arrived to the clinic and asked if we could talk privately in my office. A small woman, she was dressed in business attire. Normally she projected a polite but reserved air of gentility. But perhaps due to my status as a physician, she regarded me as an equal and thus worthy of confidence. As soon as I shut my office door her persona de-glossed into that of a chatty socialite. She seemed nervous and was gushing more than Old Faithful.

I retreated to my desk chair and smiled broadly. “Bitsy, what can I do for you?”

She paused and immediately assumed an expression of consternation that seemed consciously done, as if this were needed to set the stage for her comments. “I need some help writing an obituary.”

I tightened my gaze at her and thought for a moment. “Not exactly one of my strengths, Bitsy.”

With an effusive smile, she flipped her hand at me. “Oh, I understand. I probably didn’t phrase that right. What I meant to say was that I need some advice on an obituary.”

I shrugged. “Okay, do I know this person?”

“I’m pretty sure you don’t.”

“Bitsy, I’m at a bit of a loss here.”

She pursed her lips and offered an appeasing nod. “Of course. Let me explain. You lived in Atlanta for quite a few years, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I grew up there.”

“Well, then you would know about all the wonderful social gatherings that happen there. It’s simply the epicenter of so many delightful events; the Middlethon-Chandler Gala, the Corps de Ballet Kick Off Luncheon, the Crystal Ball…the list goes on and on.”

My response was hesitant, fumbled. “Um, well, yes. I guess I’m generally familiar with them but I certainly wasn’t a regular.”

“The deceased in question was.”

“Mmm, okay.”

“Yes. Her name was Sandra Louise Davis…at least, when she lived here it was. Everyone called her Sandy. But in Atlanta she was known as Louise Kruger, wife of Dr. Johann Kruger.”

I stared at her a moment. “Hold it. Why do I know that name?”

“He used to work at Emory.”

“That’s right. I remember now. He was a pretty famous neurologist.”

“Yes, I think that’s correct.”

After saying this, Bitsy fell silent. With her lips pressed together, she looked at me pensively, occasionally diverting her gaze to the floor. I leaned back in my chair and crossed my arms, exhaling a long, deep breath. “Bitsy, tell me what the story is here.”

At first, she seemed reluctant. But after a short moment, she nodded her head and her entire posture took on an expression of fortification. “We were best friends…all the way back to elementary school. Sandy’s people were poor; a little trashy, actually. They lived in one of the row houses over behind the Co-op. But I didn’t care. She practically lived at my house. We laughed and giggled all the time, told each other all our secrets, spent the summers hanging around the pool at the Country Club. I even bought her prom dress for her. It was great.”

“So, what happened?”

“Johann did.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He came our senior year. His father was the Assistant Director of the DuPont plant back when it was running. Johann was German; tall and blonde and unbelievably handsome. He and I immediately hit it off. We were sweethearts all through the fall and winter. He was so interesting, so amazing. He spoke three languages, he had seen the Coliseum in Rome, the Louvre in Paris. He had been so many places, done so many things. I was deeply in love with him.”

She paused and looked up at the ceiling, carefully processing, reflecting.“We used to double date…Johann and me and Sandy and Lexie Caldwell. They had been dating for years. Lexie was a nice guy. His dad was a farmer. I think Lexie’s been with the railroad these past thirty years.”

“I’m guessing something changed.”

“When Spring of our senior year came along, I was in the throes of choosing a college. I had actually been accepted to Wellesley and Dartmouth, but chose to stay near home and went to Vanderbilt. Sandy had no prospects at all. She couldn’t afford community college, much less a private university. So, I guess she saw her life coming to a dead end. That’s when she decided to zero in on Johann. Sandy was pretty; really pretty. She was funny and laughed easily and had an incredible ability to put forward an acceptable counterfeit of herself to cater to the situation at hand. It’s funny, you know. All those years of hanging out with me at the club had taught her well. Anyway, she must have seen Johann as her ticket out. She poured on the charm to him and he fell for it. He even took her to prom. Like an idiot, I just stepped back and let it happen. She followed him to the University of Georgia. I think they lived together for a couple of years and then eventually got married. She invited me to the wedding, but I didn’t go. About this time, Daddy died and everything just went to hell in a handbasket. Meanwhile, Johann went to med school. Later on, I think Sandy went to school and got some kind of degree. Then she did a full gainer into Atlanta Society. The rest is history.”

“And you stayed here in Watervalley so you could write meaningful articles about Betty Jo Clanton’s Schnauzer having puppies.”

“Yeah, pretty pathetic, huh? Although, I will say, that one didn’t bother me. That Schnauzer has a much higher pedigree than its owner.”

I laughed and scratched my head. “So, why is it that you are writing the obituary?”

“Because for some reason unknown to God and man, Sandra Louise Davis Kruger wants to be buried back here in Watervalley.”

“If you two were in high school together, that makes her only mid-fifties. What did she die of?”

Bitsy grinned. “Liver failure. She pickled herself.”

“Doesn’t sound like a very happy life.”

She shrugged. “So it would seem. She and Johann split up a few years ago, although I don’t think there was ever an official divorce. She lived in some high-rise condo in Buckhead.”

“And she wants to be buried back here?”

“Yes. Seems absurd, doesn’t it? Coming back here just to be surrounded by the same annoying relatives she left town to escape.”

“Okay, so what are your thoughts on the obituary.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something like, ‘The deceased, affectionately known as Sandy, was a lying, cheating sack of shit whose true nature was that of scum sucking bottom feeder. On a positive note, the rest of her has now chilled to that of her stone-cold heart. However, there is little doubt that she will soon be off to a much warmer climate, if you catch my drift.’”

“That might be seen as a little harsh.”

“Hmm, maybe you’re right. Perhaps I should leave off the scum sucking part.”

“Yeah, not sure that’s going to completely do the job.”

Bitsy folded her arms and smiled. “Well, as you can see, doctor, this one hits close to home. I know it seems like an odd thing to ask of you. But it occurred to me that since you have lived in both worlds, I thought maybe you could give me some advice.”

I leaned forward in my chair, planted my elbows on my desk, and rested my chin on my folded hands. After thinking for a long moment, I looked Bitsy squarely in the face and smiled.

“Bitsy, here’s what I got. I think your friend Sandy did something very human. She dallied with love but married security. Then she spent the rest of her life looking for something she could never find. She was looking for a word, a voice, an affirmation…something that would convince that scared little girl from the row houses that she was okay and accepted just as she was. That’s why she spent her whole life surrounding herself with ever new, ever more important people. She ran the table on the gala circuit and still came up empty. She never found what she wanted. I suspect that over time her misery came out sideways and ruined her marriage. Booze probably helped drown out the lonely voice, but it took more and more of it to do so. Eventually, alcohol takes its pound of flesh. And probably worst of all, she knew she was in exile. She could never come home again. So, the way I see it, her dying wish was to be affirmed by the one person who had been her only true friend; the one person who knew exactly who she was, and had still loved her.”

I paused for a second and once again, smiled at Bitsy. “The irony of all this, Bitsy, is that during all these years, you have found something you weren’t looking for. You have found your way into the hearts of countless Watervalley families. It would seem that your father’s death left an indelible impression on you. You know what it feels like to lose someone you love despite their failings. True, you grew up in a world of privilege, but it looks to me like you’ve spent your entire life reaching out to hundreds of Sandys. You’ve captured in words their best moments, and you’ve found the right words to comfort them with their worst ones. I can’t imagine what Watervalley would be without you. Give it some time, Bitsy. The right words for this obituary will come to you.”

By now tears had welled in Bitsy’s eyes and she regarded me with a tender gratitude. “Thank you for saying those things, Luke. Do you really think that though? Do you really think Watervalley would be any different?”

“Absolutely. If it weren’t for Bitsy Hamilton, Watervalley would be nothing but a bunch of square dancing hicks.”

She responded with a mischievous grin before rising from her chair. I walked her to the door where she stopped once again and thanked me. Magically, I could see the haughty persona beginning to re-emerge. But before leaving, she leaned in and spoke in a low, confidential voice.

“By the way, cotillion was a French country dance popular in the 18th century. It originally had four couples in a square formation and was a refined version of the English country dance. In America, it was the forerunner of what we now call…The Square Dance. You see, doctor. Watervalley really is just a bunch of square dancing hicks. We just prefer to call it Junior Cotillion.” She winked at me and was out the door.

For now, that’s the latest news in Watervalley.

Until next time.

 

 

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