Laurel remembered her father’s lean back as he sat on his haunches and spread a newspaper over the mouth of the chimney after he’d built the fire, so that the blaze caught with a sudden roar. Then he was young and could do everything.
In The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty follows Laurel McKelva Hand in the days after her father’s death. Her father, Judge Clinton McKelva, dies in the opening pages after an eye operation, and Laurel is left to bury him, manage his young (younger than her!) wife, and come to terms with three deaths: his, her husband’s and her mothers (the other two long past).
Here, helpless in his own house among the people he’d known, and who’d known him, since the beginning, her father seemed to Laurel to have reached at this moment the danger point of his life.
“Did you listen to their words?” she asked.
“They’re being clumsy. Often because they were thinking of you.”
“They said he was a humorist. And a crusader. And an angel on the face of the earth,” Laurel said.
The father Laurel remember is no less heroic, but more human, more real. Laurel spends the remainder of the book recreating the man he remembers as well as his love for her long dead mother.
When Laurel was a child, in this room and in this bed where she lay now, she closed her eyes like this and the rhythmic, nighttime sound of the two beloved reading voices came rising in turn up the stairs every night to reach her. She could hardly fall asleep, she tried to keep awake for pleasure. She cared for her own books, but she cared more for theirs, which meant their voices. In the lateness of the night, their two voices reading to each other where she could hear them, never letting a silence divide or interrupt them, combined into one unceasing voice and wrapped her around as she listened, as still as if she were asleep. She was sent to sleep under a velvety cloak of words, richly patterned and stitched with gold, straight out of a fairy tale, while they went reading on into her dreams.
What burdens we lay on the dying, Laurel thought, as she listened now to the accelerated rain on the roof: seeking to prove some little thing that we can keep to comfort us when they can no longer feel—something as incapable of being kept as of being proved: the lastingness of memory, vigilance against harm, self-reliance, good hope, trust in one another.