Daniel Ponder is the amiable heir to the wealthiest family in Clay County, Mississippi. To friends and strangers, he’s also the most generous, having given away heirlooms, a watch, and so far, at least one family business. His niece, Edna Earle, has a solution to save the Ponder fortune from Daniel’s mortifying philanthropy: As much as she loves Daniel, she’s decided to have him institutionalized.
Foolproof as the plan may seem, it comes with a kink—one that sets in motion a runaway scheme of mistaken identity, a hapless local widow, a reckless wedding, a dim-witted teenage bride, and a twist of dumb luck that lands this once-respectable Southern family in court to brave an embarrassing trial for murder. It’s become the talk of Clay County. And the loose-tongued Edna Earle will tell you all about it.
“The most revered figure in contemporary American letters,” said the New York Times of Eudora Welty, which also hailed The Ponder Heart—a winner of the William Dean Howells Medal which was adapted into both a Broadway play and a PBS Masterpiece series—as “Miss Welty at her comic, compassionate best.”
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About the Author
Date of Birth:April 13, 1909
Date of Death:July 23, 2001
Place of Birth:Jackson, Mississippi
Place of Death:Jackson, Mississippi
Education:University of Wisconsin
Read an Excerpt
My Uncle Daniel's just like your uncle, if you've got one — only he has one weakness. He loves society and he gets carried away. If he hears our voices, he'll come right down those stairs, supper ready or no. When he sees you sitting in the lobby of the Beulah, he'll take the other end of the sofa and then move closer up to see what you've got to say for yourself; and then he's liable to give you a little hug and start trying to give you something. Don't do you any good to be bashful. He won't let you refuse. All he might do is forget tomorrow what he gave you today, and give it to you all over again. Sweetest disposition in the world. That's his big gray Stetson hanging on the rack right over your head — see what a large head size he wears?
Things I could think of without being asked that he's given away would be — a string of hams, a fine suit of clothes, a white-face heifer calf, two trips to Memphis, pair of fantail pigeons, fine Shetland pony (loves children), brooder and incubator, good nanny goat, bad billy, cypress cistern, field of white Dutch clover, two iron wheels and some laying pullets (they were together), cow pasture during drouth (he has everlasting springs), innumerable fresh eggs, a pick-up truck — even his own cemetery lot, but they wouldn't accept it. And I'm not counting this week. He's been a general favorite all these years.
Grandpa Ponder (in his grave now) might have any fine day waked up to find himself in too pretty a fix to get out of, but he had too much character. And besides, Edna Earle, I used to say to myself, if the worst does come to the worst, Grandpa is rich.
When I used to spot Grandpa's Studebaker out front, lighting from the country, and Grandpa heading up the walk, with no Uncle Daniel by his side, and his beard beginning to shake under his chin, and he had a beautiful beard, I'd yell back to the kitchen, "Ada! Be making Mr. Sam some good strong iced tea!" Grandpa was of the old school, and wanted people to measure up — everybody in general, and Uncle Daniel and me in particular. He and Grandma raised me, too. "Clear out, you all," I'd say to who all was in here. "Here comes Grandpa Ponder, and no telling what he has to tell me." I was his favorite grandchild, besides being the only one left alive or in calling distance.
"Now what, sir?" I'd say to Grandpa. "Sit down first, on that good old sofa — give me your stick, and here comes you some strong tea. What's the latest?"
He'd come to tell me the latest Uncle Daniel had given away. The incubator to the letter carrier — that would be a likely thing, and just as easy for Uncle Daniel as parting with the rosebud out of his coat. Not that Uncle Daniel ever got a letter in his life, out of that old slow poke postman.
"I only wish for your sake, Grandpa," I'd say sometimes, "you'd never told Uncle Daniel all you had."
He'd say, "Miss, I didn't. And further than that, one thing I'm never going to tell him about is money. And don't let me hear you tell him, Edna Earle."
"Who's the smart one of the family?" I'd say, and give him a little peck.
My papa was Grandpa's oldest child and Uncle Daniel was Grandpa's baby. They had him late — mighty late. They used to let him skate on the dining room table. So that put Uncle Daniel and me pretty close together — we liked-to caught up with each other. I did pass him in the seventh grade, and hated to do it, but I was liable to have passed anybody. People told me I ought to have been the teacher.
It's always taken a lot out of me, being smart. I say to people who only pass through here, "Now just a minute. Not so fast. Could you hope to account for twelve bedrooms, two bathrooms, two staircases, five porches, lobby, dining room, pantry and kitchen, every day of your life, and still be out here looking pretty when they come in? And two Negroes? And that plant?" Most people ask the name of that plant before they leave. All I can tell them is, Grandma called it Miss Ouida Sampson after the lady that wished it on her. When I was younger, I used to take a blue ribbon on it at the County Fair. Now I just leave it alone. It blooms now and then.
But oh, when the place used to be busy! And when Uncle Daniel would start on a spree of giving away — it comes in sprees — and I would be trying to hold Grandpa down and account for this whole hotel at the same time — and Court would fling open in session across the street and the town fill up, up, up — and Mr. Springer would sure as Fate throttle into town and want that first-floor room, there where the door's open, and count on me to go to the movie with him, tired traveling man — oh, it was Edna Earle this, and Edna Earle that, every minute of my day and time. This is like the grave compared. You're only here because your car broke down, and I'm afraid you're allowing a Bodkin to fix it.
And listen: if you read, you'll put your eyes out. Let's just talk.
You'd know it was Uncle Daniel the minute you saw him. He's unmistakable. He's big and well known. He has the Ponder head — large, of course, and well set, with short white hair over it thick and curly, growing down his forehead round like a little bib. He has Grandma's complexion. And big, forget-me-not blue eyes like mine, and puts on a sweet red bow tie every morning, and carries a large-size Stetson in his hand — always just swept it off to somebody. He dresses fit to kill, you know, in a snow-white suit. But do you know he's up in his fifties now? Don't believe it if you don't want to. And still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world. He has the nicest, politest manners — he's good as gold. And it's not just because he's kin to me I say it. I don't run the Beulah Hotel for nothing: I size people up: I'm sizing you up right now. People come here, pass through this book, in and out, over the years — and in the whole shooting-match, I don't care from where or how far they've come, not one can hold a candle to Uncle Daniel for looks or manners. If he ever did a thing to be sorry for, it's more than he ever intended.
Oh, even the children have always reckoned he was theirs to play with. When they'd see him coming they'd start jumping up and down till he'd catch them and tickle their ribs and give them the change he carried. Grandpa used to make short work of them.
Grandpa worshiped Uncle Daniel. Oh, Grandpa in his panama and his seersucker suit, and Uncle Daniel in his red tie and Stetson and little Sweetheart rose in his lapel! They did set up a pair. Grandpa despised to come to town, but Uncle Daniel loved it, so Grandpa came in with him every Saturday. That was the way you knew where you were and the day of the week it was — those two hats announcing themselves, rounding the square and making it through the crowd. Uncle Daniel would always go a step or two behind, to exchange a few words, and Grandpa would go fording a way in front with his walking cane, through farmers and children and Negroes and dogs and the countryside in general. His nature was impatient, as time went by.
Nothing on earth, though, would have made Grandpa even consider getting strict with Uncle Daniel but Uncle Daniel giving away this hotel, of all things. He gave it to me, fifteen long years ago, and I don't know what it would have done without me. But "Edna Earle," says Grandpa, "this puts me in a quandary."
Not that Grandpa minded me having the hotel. It was Grandma's by inheritance, and used to be perfectly beautiful before it lost its paint, and the sign and the trees blew down in front, but he didn't care for where it stood, right in the heart of Clay. And with the town gone down so — with nearly all of us gone (Papa for one left home at an early age, nobody ever makes the mistake of asking about him, and Mama never did hold up — she just had me and quit; she was the last of the Bells) — and with the wrong element going spang through the middle of it at ninety miles an hour on that new highway, he'd a heap rather not have a hotel than have it. And it's true that often the people that come in off the road and demand a room right this minute, or ask you ahead what you have for dinner, are not the people you'd care to spend the rest of your life with at all. For Grandpa that settled it. He let Miss Cora Ewbanks run it as she pleased, and she was the one let the sign blow down, and all the rest. She died very shortly after she left it — an old maid.
The majority of what Uncle Daniel had given away up to then was stuff you could pick up and cart away — miscellaneous is a good word for it. But the Beulah was solid. It looked like it had dawned on Uncle Daniel about property. (Pastures don't count — you can take them back by just setting their cows back on the road.) Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might gothe Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out from under Uncle Daniel's feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn't there to stop him. Once Grandpa was in his grave, and Uncle Daniel shook free, he might succeed in giving those away to somebody not kin or responsible at all, or not even local, who might not understand what they had to do. Grandpa said that people exist in the realm of reason that are ready to take advantage of an open disposition, and the bank might be compelled to honor that — because of signatures or witnesses or whatever monkey-foolishness people go through with if they're strangers or up to something.
Grandpa just wanted to teach Uncle Daniel a lesson. But what he did was threaten him with the asylum. That wasn't the way to do it.
I said, "Grandpa, you're burning your bridges before you get to them, I think."
But Grandpa said, "Miss, I don't want to hear any more about it. I've warned him, now." So he warned him for nine years.
And as for Uncle Daniel, he went right ahead, attracting love and friendship with the best will and the lightest heart in the world. He loved being happy! He loved happiness like I love tea.
And then in April, just at Easter time, Grandpa spent some money himself, got that new Studebaker, and without saying kiss-my-foot to me, Grandpa and old Judge Tip Clanahan up and took Uncle Daniel through the country to Jackson in that brand-new automobile, and consigned him.
"That'll correct him, I expect," said Grandpa.
Child-foolishness! Oh, Grandpa lived to be sorry. Imagine that house without Uncle Daniel in it. I grew up there, but all you really need to know about is it's a good three miles out in the country from where you are now, in woods full of hoot-owls.
To be fair, that wasn't till after Grandpa'd tried praying over Uncle Daniel for years and years, and worn out two preachers praying over them both. Only I was praying against Grandpa and preachers and Judge Tip Clanahan to boot, because whatever you say about it, I abhor the asylum.
Oh, of course, from the word Go, Uncle Daniel got more vacations than anybody else down there. In the first place, they couldn't find anything the matter with him, and in the second place, he was so precious that he only had to ask for something. It seemed to me he was back home visiting more than he ever was gone between times, and pop full of stories. He had a pass from the asylum, and my great-grandfather Bell had been a big railroad man, so he had a pass on the branch-line train, and it was the last year we had a passenger train at all, so it worked out grand. Little train just hauls cross-ties now. Everybody missed Uncle Daniel so bad while he was gone, they spent all their time at the post office sending him things to eat. Divinity travels perfectly, if you ever need to know.
Of course, let him come home and he'd give away something. You can't stop that all at once. He came home and gave the girl at the bank a trip to Lookout Mountain and Rock City Cave, and then was going along with her to watch her enjoy both, and who prevailed on him then? Edna Earle. I said, "Dear heart, I know the asylum's no place for you, but neither is the top of a real high mountain or a cave in the cold dark ground. Here's the place." And he said, "All right, Edna Earle, but make me some candy." He's good as gold, but you have to know the way to treat him; he's a man, the same as they all are.
But he had a heap to tell. You ought to have heard some of the tales! It didn't matter if you didn't know the people: something goes on there all the time! I hope I'm not speaking of kin of present company. We'd start laughing clear around town, the minute Uncle Daniel hopped off the train, and never let up till Grandpa came chugging in to get him, to set him on the down-train. Grandpa did keep at it. And I don't know how it worked, but Uncle Daniel was beginning to be less openhanded. He commenced slacking up on giving away with having so much to tell.
The sight of a stranger was always meat and drink to him. The stranger don't have to open his mouth. Uncle Daniel is ready to do all the talking. That's understood. I used to dread he might get hold of one of these occasional travelers that wouldn't come in unless they had to — the kind that would break in on a story with a set of questions, and wind it up with a list of what Uncle Daniel's faults were: some Yankee. But Uncle Daniel seemed to have a sixth sense and avoid those, and light on somebody from nearer home always. He'd be crazy about you.
Grandpa was a little inclined to slow him down, of course. He'd say, "Who? — What, Daniel? — When? — Start over!" He was the poorest listener in the world, though I ought not to say that now when he's in his grave. But all the time, whatever Uncle Daniel might take it into his head to tell you, rest assured it was the Lord's truth to start with, and exactly the way he'd see it. He never told a lie in his life. Grandpa couldn't get past that, poor Grandpa. That's why he never could punish him.
I used to say Mr. Springer was the perfect listener. A drug salesman with a wide, wide territory, in seldom enough to forget between times, and knowing us well enough not to try to interrupt. And too tired to object to hearing something over. If anything, he laughed too soon. He used to sit and beg for Uncle Daniel's favorite tale, the one about the time he turned the tables on Grandpa.
Turned the tables not on purpose! Uncle Daniel is a perfect gentleman, and something like that has to happen; he wouldn't contrive it.
Grandpa one time, for a treat, brought Uncle Daniel home to vote, and took him back to the asylum through the country, in the new Studebaker. They started too early and got there too early — I told them! And there was a new lady busying herself out at the front, instead of the good old one. "Low-in-the-hole!" as Uncle Daniel says, the lady asked him who the old man was. Uncle Daniel was far and away the best dressed and most cheerful of the two, of course. Uncle Daniel says, "Man alive! Don't you know that's Mr. Ponder?" And the lady was loading the Coca-Cola machine and says, "Oh, foot, I can't remember everybody," and called somebody and they took Grandpa. Hat, stick, and everything, they backed him right down the hall and shut the door on him boom. And Uncle Daniel waited and dallied and had a Coca-Cola with his nickel when they got cold, and then lifted his hat and politely backed out the front door and found Grandpa's car with the engine running still under the crape myrtle tree, and drove it on home and got here with it — though by the time he did, he was as surprised as Grandpa. And that's where he ends his story. Bless his heart. And that's where Mr. Springer would turn loose and laugh till Uncle Daniel had to beat him on the back to save him.
The rest of it is, that down in Jackson, the madder Grandpa got, the less stock they took in him, of course. That's what crazy is. They took Grandpa's walking stick away from him like he was anybody else. Judge Tip Clanahan had to learn about it from Uncle Daniel and then send down to get Grandpa out, and when Grandpa did get loose, they nearly gave him back the wrong stick. They would have heard from him about that.
When Uncle Daniel got here with that tale, everybody in town had a conniption fit trying to believe it, except Judge Tip. Uncle Daniel thought it was a joke on the lady. It took Grandpa all day long from the time he left here to make it on back, with the help of Judge Clanahan's long-legged grandson and no telling what papers. He might as well not have left home, he wouldn't stop to tell us a word.
Excerpted from "The Ponder Heart"
Copyright © 1982 Eudora Welty.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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