01 February 2009

Groundhog Day: Happy Birthday, Mrs. Nutter

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day, which anyone without tolerance of the inane at least ignores. It’s stupid, and is an opportunity to pretend to observe an irrational superstition and act the fool. The point, however, is that sometimes it’s fun to act the fool. Perhaps that reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.

In recent years, Groundhog Day has been most connected to the Bill Murray movie of the same name. In the movie, Murray consciously relives the same day over and over. It’s a queer “quest” movie, temporal rather than geographical, and perhaps the lesson is to think about what we would do if we had the time or were willing to take the time. In his case, it was to learn to play a mean jazz piano. Or perhaps I’ve missed the point entirely and there is a much more meaningful lesson or perhaps I’m an intellectual snob and it’s merely fun and there’s no lesson at all there.

(Aside: I use the word “queer” intentionally. I will not countenance the hijacking or our language - queer, straight, life, choice, for example - by political pirates.)

First thing in the morning is the annual Groundhog Day Breakfast put on by First Exchange Bank. This is a rather fun event which represents marketing for the bank, but also one of those y’all-come community business things that are don’t-miss. Oh, there’s a strong slug of boosterism involved, and that’s OK, too. I think that Babbitt gave boosterism a bad rap. What it amounts to is a positive attitude of a community which, if followed by helpful action, usually produces positive results. There’s also an annual prognostication contest which is mostly blind luck, since economists and futurists consistently get short-term forecasts dreadfully wrong.

None of that really impresses me to death. The meaning of Groundhog Day, to me, is that it’s Mrs. Nutter’s birthday.

When I was growing up, our family moved around a lot due to my Dad being transferred to various jobs within the Power Company. About a week into the school year of third grade, we moved to Bridgeport, and I entered a new grade school, Bridgeport Elementary. By “new,” I mean newly built. Whenever I've gone into a construction project or a new building ever since I was a kid and smell concrete dust and the other odors of construction, it's taken me right back to Bridgeport Elementary.

I was placed in Mrs. Nutter’s third grade class. Mrs. Nutter was an unforgettable figure. She was short. I mean, she was short. And she was old. Now, to an 8 or 9 year old, “old” is relative, but she was white-haired and wrinkly, so I’m sure she was into her 60's. She wore matronly dresses and big clunky heels and had a raspy country voice. I don’t remember much about the academic subjects, other than flashes here and there. Mrs. Nutter was a wagon boss about handwriting and drilled us kids mercilessly. My mother still comments - no, laments - that I got certificates for good handwriting from Mrs. Nutter. Oh, the lamentations are because that training didn’t stick and my cursive now is perfectly readable - to me.

But I remember Mrs. Nutter’s lessons. I remember them because they affected me and still have an effect on my behavior. Some find me a bit stiff in my constant use of “sir” and “ma’am.” That comes primarily from Mrs. Nutter. She preached courtesty, politeness and respect. She demonstrated how goofy disinterested slang sounded and how interested and respectful proper address was received. Well before I read Robert A. Heinlein’s explanation of courtesy as the lubricant of human interaction, Mrs. Nutter had demonstrated that concept.

Mrs. Nutter also pushed respect for others through the herds of the 60's sacred cows. Racial discrimination certainly was a part of West Virginia at that time, but not so blatantly as in the Deep South for the simple reason that there weren’t nearly so many black folks. Mrs. Nutter’s lessons about tolerance were nothing short of passionate sermons, about how totally stupid it was to judge somebody by color. I remember her talking about suntans and eye color and probably other stupid stuff to illustrate what a lame concept the whole thing was. There is a lesson there. Pass all the civil rights acts and so forth you want, if you are attempting to modify the actions and beliefs of adults, you have the ol’ tough row to hoe. Teaching children and trusting them enough to reason with them and tell them why, that is our responsibility as parents and as communities and as a society.

Let’s see: I remember Mrs. Nutter talking a lot about human hardship. Like many in the early 60's, she had been through the great economic Depression of the 30's, and she brought that feeling of hardship to us as much as she could to little kids. I remember her talking about the Shinnston tornado. To my midwestern readers, know that tornados are very rare in West Virginia. Every couple of years, our county gets what appears to be a really small vortex that damages a few acres of woods, and that’s a big deal. Out and out tornados are almost mythical. The only one that I’ve ever really heard of which took lives was the June 1944 tornado which destroyed much of Shinnston, Harrison County. I remember Mrs. Nutter describing the noise and the funnel cloud, and the aftermath, the devastation, people with dirt blown into their skin. And I remember Mrs. Nutter talking about human failings. She talked about how stupid it was to light something on fire and suck down the smoke, way before the surgeon general did. She talked about obesity when nobody really was noticing. When we did organized physical activity, she exercised right along with us, clunky heels and all.

I’ve no idea of Mrs. Nutter had biological children. But she did have children and did leave a legacy.

So Happy Birthday, dearest Mrs. Nutter.

Pippa passes.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How interesting that the first time I log on, I read about Mrs. Nutter -- wonder if that's Thelma Nutter, one of the dear souls from Bridgeport United Methodist Church? Seems like it would have to be...I've heard MANY stories about her kindness, generosity & teaching ability, but never one so eloquent. I'll bet she has family members still here who would appreciate this post -- I'll poke around to see if I can find them & let you know!
Shawn Morgan