There are lots of things I’m good at – baking, math, drinking too much coffee – but making small talk in the Midwest is not one of them. I love talking to people in New Orleans, but when I lived in Missouri, I seemed to manage to say something off-color, awkward, or otherwise offensive whenever I opened my mouth.
“Sure, let’s definitely order margaritas with lunch! … Oh, wait, you were joking. Haha, me, too. We don’t drink in the middle of the day – that’s crazy!”
“Well, at my dad’s fifth wedding over Easter to Merrie Christmas …”
“We were all happy when my cousin left her husband … until she married his dad …”
These are all things I said in Missouri only to be greeted with looks of blended confusion and horror.
And this made the process of interviewing for my first real job pretty challenging.
The woman who finally hired me, after months of fruitless and frustrating searching, was, of course, a hilarious, foul-mouthed Louisiana native who also had no filter or Midwestern sense of decorum. Her name was Bev, and we took to each other immediately.
Although I got along with (almost) all of my coworkers – I made several real, lasting friendships; I have people skills, just not small talk skills – Bev and I had a special bond. We always brewed a separate pot of coffee for just us because no one else in the office would drink it as strong as we liked it, and we couldn’t abide the weak, see-through stuff they drank. We hated the cold weather and took it as a personal affront. We had colorful family stories that we loved to tell, always trying to one-up each other. We had tiny feet and a deep affection for the F word and strong passion for food (but disdain for typical Missouri food).
She was unapologetically blunt and once ordered me out of her office – “I can’t even look at you right now!” – because I innocently asked her who Andrew Lytle was.
When she calmed down, she came into my office and taught me a lesson I admittedly should have learned earlier but still have never forgotten: “Do your f*cking research.” There was no decent excuse for me asking my boss a question I could have answered through a simple Google search. And now I know a great deal about not just Andrew Lytle but all of the Southern Agrarians. Just ask me about John Crowe Ransom!
She had simple tastes: I once tried to impress her with a batch of homemade hazelnut truffles for Boss’ Day, and she gave them away to our other coworkers. “I like Hershey’s,” she said. “Or M&Ms. I only like the cheap stuff.”
Most important, though, she taught me about being a working mother. She was, she told me, back at work four days after giving birth.
“That’s not going to happen,” I told her. “I get 12 weeks, and I’m taking them.”
“Fine, but if you don’t come back, I’m kicking your ass,” she said.
I actually came back a week early because I was going crazy stuck inside my house in the freezing Missouri winter with no real adult interaction. I had thought I’d miss my daughter something terrible, and I did – sort of – but I also loved being able to drink a cup of hot coffee without worrying about splashing it on her head. I loved having two hands to type. I loved using my brain to do something other than try to remember what side I’d nursed on last.
Of course I worried that this made me a terrible mother. And Bev assured me that it most certainly did not. “You’re not leaving her home alone in a closet,” she said. “She’s fine. She’s being cared for by people who love caring for babies and are better at it than you are. You’re better at this. So am I. Now get back to work.”
And when my ex got a job in New Orleans and we decided that I’d stay home with Ruby, Bev came into my office.
“I’m not gonna tell you your business,” she said, “but I remember that crazy look in your eye when you came back from maternity leave. I don’t think staying home would be a good idea for you.”
“No, no, it is!” I insisted, and to her credit, she didn’t argue with me, just sent a skeptical look over her shoulder as she walked away.
I realized, though, that she was right, and as soon as she was gone, I started looking for jobs in New Orleans. The very first one that popped up on my search was to edit Louisiana Life and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles, and I stayed late at work to fire off a cover letter for my dream job, giddy with excitement.
The job interview with Errol went beautifully because I am capable of talking to people in New Orleans, and having Bev as my reference sealed the deal. If she hadn’t come in right at the moment she did to hassle me about not leaving the work force, my life and career path would have been very different.
I learned last week that Bev died on Dec. 18, and I was obviously sad – but I was pleased to see that she died in Louisiana. She, like me, understood the value of coming home.
I hope she’s up in heaven telling stories, eating M&Ms, cursing, and lecturing absolutely everyone about Southern literature.