John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Friday, April 2, 2010

The last of the Earlys

My mother had a sharp tongue – as the proverbial expression has it, the only edged tool that gets sharper with use. It is part of her legacy to me.

She employed it on Election Day one year when she heard that a local official in Fleming County, Kentucky, had made improper use of an official vehicle to ferry supporters to the polls. When word got around, that official confronted my mother and demanded to know whether she had been spreading the story.

That official, commonly for the area, was a tall, beefy character, and he obviously intended to intimidate my mother, a short, slender woman. His mistake. My mother looked him in the eye and said, “I told everybody I saw, and the ones I didn’t see I called and told.”

(I suspect she also fixed him with the expression that we her children knew as “the camel look,” a glare that could have melted glass. My daughter can produce the same look, evidently by genetic inheritance.)

As the postmaster of the fourth-class office in Elizaville for twenty-four years, she was admirably placed to both receive and transmit information. Nearly everyone in town came by the post office, and in the long interval between the morning mail and the afternoon mail she observed all the comings and goings. If someone drove past, she could identify who it was, where he was going, what he would do there, and when he could be expected back. And if she couldn’t tell you that, she would work the phone until she could.

Living in a small town in Kentucky in those days subjected you to a level of surveillance that Stalin would have envied.

My sisters and I came to call her “Murn,” a local mispronunciation of her name, Marian. “Murn, why are those children calling you Murn?” the source of the mispronunciation once asked her. It became one of her favorite stories. She liked to tell stories, stories of the family, stories of the local people, and mildly improper jokes. (Ask me sometime about the three clergymen who called on the farmer’s wife.)

In her seventies and eighties, after the death of my father, she started dating, and at the time of her death in November 2001 was seeing someone who had been a sweetheart in elementary school, whom she had not seen in decades. Afflicted with Parkinsonism and half a dozen other chronic ailments, she insisted on remaining independent, living alone in the house on the family farm, grudgingly consenting to the presence of a companion at nights. 

Independent is one term, stubborn another, and, as you may imagine, she was not always easy to get along with. As her heart was giving out, my older sister, Georgia, tried to comfort her. Almost her last words were a sharp remark about the likelihood of the ambulance’s arriving in time. She spoke her mind, and she lived on her own terms to the end.

Marian Early McIntyre, the last of the Earlys, would have been ninety-three years old today.


  1. What a beautiful and moving tribute to your mother! Thank you for sharing it. ~ V

  2. John, this is my favorite of your posts.

  3. What a delightful tribute! We could use a postmistress like her today. It seems that today's managers of branch post offices would rather harass letter carriers than politicians.

  4. I had such a mother whose sharp tongue was often used against me, unjustly I thought at the time, and unjustly I still consider.

    But there was also wisdom in those cutting remarks which have been a guiding light for me.

  5. Virginia MerchánApril 2, 2010 at 11:01 AM

    I WANT TO BE LIKE HER: I want to speak my mind, as she did... I also want to live on my own terms to the end. She sets an example to me.

    Thank you, John. She must have been so proud of your sweet/sharp tongue. :)

  6. A very nice tribute to your mother.

    For what it's worth, I looked her up in the Social Security Death Index, and it lists her birth year as 1917. I've never been a whiz at math, but I know enough to know that would make today her 93rd birthday.

    I presume that her son would know when she was born and how old she would have been. Since you say she would have been 92 today, that means she was actually born in 1918.

    You might want to contact SSDI about getting the year corrected.

  7. Very nice. And as someone who grew up in small town, I can attest to the Stalin-like level of surveillance.

  8. Living in a small town in Kentucky in those days subjected you to a level of surveillance that Stalin would have envied.

    Living in a small town in Illinois in the present day isn't much different.

  9. Great post, Prof! Thank you for sharing that story.

  10. That was a very vivid and enjoyable portrait of your mother. I was told the telephone operator in Summit, N.Y., near where I grew up, had a similar command of the life of the community. Among other services, she connected callers to the people they wanted to reach even if the person being called wasn't at home.

    My children call "the camel look" by a different name -- "the death stare." It was very useful when I worked as a substitute teacher.

    Barbara Phillips Long

  11. Lovely, thanks for sharing.