Careful not to fail Cathey Russell testBy MARION MILES,
Cathey Russell has the amazing talent of turning conversation. When her path crosses anyone’s, the person might ask “How are you, Cathey Russell?” and she will respond with, “Oh, I am just fine, but tell me about your daughter Susie Ella....is she still at State?”
Suddenly you are giving all the exciting events in Susie Ella’s life, and then it is time to go.
Wait, you think, I have no idea what’s going on in Cathey Russell’s life. Cathey Russell gives ‘prompting’ questions that encourage you to elaborate, and she appears to be totally involved in listening to the answer until it dawns on you that she is the nicest person you know. We like to laugh about people we talk to who either pass or fail the Cathey Russell test. Did they ask about us (passes) or was it all about them (fails)? As we attempt to say something, are they already anticipating their next remarks?
Jump-starting a conversation used to be a talent. Aunt Mary seemed genuinely interested in hearing about whatever was on our minds. She would respond with interesting repartee, so she could be a joy to talk to. She was willing to talk about unusual topics. Ma and Pa Willis, for example, were among the first people in Philadelphia to have electric lights. On a visit there, Aunt Mary watched the gaslighter go down the street attending to the street lamps. Imagine seeing him and knowing that the times were changing.
Mother could do the same thing, but she could be devious. For example, nurses would come in to give her a gazillion pills, and she would admire the pins on their uniforms. “What is that one for?” she would inquire, and off they would go. I saw one nurse one time who said, “Uh uh, you can’t do that to me...you got to take your pills,” whereupon Mother asked if she had children and how old were they, and did they just love school and did they have the same gorgeous eyes as their mother.
Our daughter has the gift also. But she handles it in a different way. After asking a question she imitates my father who simply didn’t talk. She is content to let the air fill with silence until the person begins to babble. Then she simply asks a follow-up question. If you removed the first-person pronouns from their vocabulary, many people would be tongue-tied.
Mrs. Churchlady came up to me as another friend was asking about Fred. “Oh no. No one told me he was sick. Why didn’t they tell me? What is wrong?” “He has a couple of cancers.” “Oh, I am so sorry. My husband had blah-blah and his second cousin’s uncle died of that. Now, I need a hug,” she announced as she turned toward the other person.
I tried to teach the children that conversation is like a tennis match. You hit the ball to the opponent’s court, and that person bounces it back. The point is not to fill-in-the-blanks with one or two-word responses; the point is to add a tidbit that will give the other person something to inquire about.
Example: “How are you, Johnny?” “Fine.” Gives me no clue what to say next. But if you answer, “I have just been fishing and caught a purple fish,” I can ask about the fish, and do you fish a lot, who goes with you, do you have a boat, etc. If you don’t want to talk about fish, tell me that you have just completed a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle or something. Then we can talk. With “Fine” there is nothing more to say - which if you hate me or are not interested is probably acceptable.
We began to lose the art of conversation when TV arrived. People watched the ‘tube’ and then tried to discuss it...”Did you see the dress she wore?” “Yes.” But there is no more to say since you watched the same show with identical reactions. This is what you call pointless. No one thought to say “Let’s discuss the dress” or something. Indicative of these times is the T-shirt that reads: “Been there, done that,” which certainly put a quietus on any further discussion about that topic.
Now with phones, conversation has become a lost art indeed. I have even seen people text another person in the same room. Sometimes they text about others in the room reminding me of how we used to whisper. I guess it is less rude - I can remember hands covering mouths as the direction of a person’s words went into only one ear. Or maybe they just find the company they are with (me) dull, so they turn to games or breaking news to keep life from presenting them with five boring minutes. Of course, phones are handy when you ask “Who said nuts as a response to being asked to surrender?” and Google instantly answers thus forgoing the necessity to look it up. Assuming anyone you know would even know that a person ever said nuts.
I can picture a future where we have become so dependent on our gadgets that when a Calamity causes a disruption and all the circuits are scrambled, we can’t even figure out how to let people know to LEAVE the Burning Building. I can imagine my great-grandchildren asking, “What’s a shout? Did you actually do a shout?” Someone made a fortune listing “icebreakers.” These are questions designed to inspire conversation. Basically, they are made up of questions people used to ask. “Tell me about your family,” and “Where would you like to live when you grow up?” There are also “interview” questions like “What are your strengths?” In either case you can get a surprise by asking the unexpected “What do you think of Wyoming?”
This can backfire however. Chappell and Fred were having a ‘conversation’ one day while exploring the yard. “Daddy Fred,” she asked as she looked up at him, “Tell me all you know about mushrooms.” Think bewildered. “Don’t look at me,“ I laughed. “I don’t know anything about mushrooms. You’re on your own.”
Another time he was at a loss for words (a rare event in his life) was when a lady told him, “Oh, I’ve heard how delightful you are and how you are always joking. Say something funny.”
A friend in the nursing home was given a book where each page had a question. “What is your first memory?” “Tell me about the oddest job you ever had.” “How did you decide to live where you do?” “Describe your first girlfriend.” He used it to make visitors comfortable and give them a topic other than “How are you? You look wonderful.” Seriously? I’m in the nursing home. It had the added benefit of preparing a book of memories for the children as he answered the questions after the guest did.
Cathey Russell doesn’t need a book. She isn’t dependent on icebreakers or interview questions. She tennis-balls the question and waits.
But . . .we ran into Cathey the day she was flittering around getting ready for her daughter’s wedding. She was so excited and busy and regaled us with the adventures of her life as mother-of-the-bride. We loved hearing her news and being happy for her.
Finally, after years of telling her all about us….we got to hear about her. I passed the Cathey Russell test.
Marion Miles is a Northsider.