Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Tillie Adjustment

Rarely do I really lose track of the calendar, but I did this week as I became immersed in the excitement of a new research project.  Only last night as I was going to bed did I remember that I was facing blog day.  Thus I find myself sitting before a computer screen instead of setting off for my regular early morning swim—the obligatory nature of which is for me as the law of the Persians and the Medes.  Naturally there is a back story.   As most of the world is aware, the northeast coast of the United States has been experiencing a serious cold snap.  The current thermometer reading is 9ยบ Fahrenheit.  Getting to the gym and back involves a fair amount of outdoor walking.  It is not entirely inconvenient for me that the law of the Persians and the Medes should on rare occasion be subject to meteorological modification.  I am not unwilling to invoke the “Tillie Adjustment”.

            I had a great uncle named Win or Wynne.  He has been dead for probably sixty years, but he is oddly fresh in my memory.  He was an older brother of my paternal grandmother, and he would briefly descend upon the Arkansas farm at long and irregular intervals.  I never saw the name written out.  I now presume it was an affectionate nickname or abbreviation for something more mainstream and conventional, even if I can’t tell you what.  Like my grandfather Fleming he was a veteran of the Spanish-American War.  Having served in the Spanish-American War appeared to be by far the most significant fact of my grandfather’s life in the years I knew him, and he seemed always happy to welcome under his roof a brother-in-law his children seemed to regard as suspect.

            Little pitchers have big ears, and I deduced from unintentionally eavesdropped talk among my aunts that Uncle Win was some kind of Bad Boy.  His turpitude, so far as I could tell, was largely stylistic.  He smoked, but so did my own parents as well as two of my uncles and one of my aunts.  He also—rarely but memorably—did use very vehement and foul language.  I thought that Uncle Win was a pretty stylish old guy.  I never had known a man with jewelry, but he wore a dramatic Masonic ring with actual sparkling stones.  He would descend upon us from somewhere in the Chicago area driving an older model of a huge luxury car.  Once it was a Cadillac.  While not technically in violation of state law, this vehicle was so culturally inappropriate for an Ozark farm as to fall beneath my aunts’ barely suppressed censure.

            I now realize that his real crimes were marital.  He had been married to somebody named Aunt Elsie.  Aunt Elsie has been universally beloved of the Flemings, but she had died before the dawn of my consciousness.  Uncle Win shocked his nephews and nieces by declining to remain a widower.  He married again—and again.  Number two wife was also deceased by the time I became aware of things, but it was clear in the eyes of my uncles and aunts she had fallen far short of the standard set by the sainted Aunt Elsie.

            This anecdote involves wife number three who, like Win himself, had an odd name.  It was Tillie.   Win and Tillie probably were both about eighty when they married in Saginaw, Michigan, or some such place.  Very soon thereafter Win put his new bride into a big old Oldsmobile and headed south.  One of the few things known to us in advance about Tillie was that she was a practitioner of Christian Science.  The fact was damning on the face of it.  Better by far a Zoroastrian.  They arrived, melting, in the middle of a hot Arkansas July day.  Win said, as he always said on such occasions, “I thought I’d just pop down for a little visit.”  What “a little visit” entailed was a talking contest of gigantic proportions undertaken by talkers of heroic abilities.  Uncle Win talked about the good old days with a geography and population unknown to me.  What the Flemings mainly countered with was the good old days as exemplified by how great Aunt Elsie had been.  Seldom in human history was so little said by so many at such great length.

            Tillie was hard to take, but I did feel sorry for her.  She was a demanding, obtuse whiner; but I tried to think what it must be like to be thrust among strangers, ignored by an equally obtuse husband whose relatives’ sole topic of conversation appeared to be the virtues of his former spouse.   She was suffering terribly from the heat.  She actually panted.  Air conditioning did not exist in that time and place.  She fanned herself with a folded magazine.  She mopped sweat, real or imagined, from her brow.  She made a great show of being unbearably hot.

            “Win,” she said, “I need some ice cream.  Do you think they have ice cream?”  Although “they” were sitting within ten feet in the same room, Tillie addressed all her remarks concerning the establishment to her husband, who ignored her.  She continued at a slightly higher pitch: “Win, do you think they could get us some ice cream?”  At this point one of “them” stipulated that “they” had no ice cream and that the nearest ice cream was about twelve miles away.  This information was conveyed in such a manner as to suggest that people who require ice cream to endure the supposed rigors of unexceptionally seasonable weather are sissies.  Tillie’s next utterance was in the imperative voice: “Win, get in the car and go and get me some ice cream.”

            For some reason the peremptory tone riled Uncle Win.  “My God, woman” (he actually talked like that) “my God, woman, can’t you put up with a little heat?”  He went on to appeal to the principle of mind over matter.  “I thought you were supposed to be a Christian Scientist!”  Her reply, now enshrined in my private philosophy as the “Tillie Adjustment”, was striking.  “I usually am,” she said, “but not in Arkansas.”  What a sensible subordination of the theoretical to the meteorological.