Moselle Burke Hodgson was universally known as ‘Chick’ or ‘Chickie’.  She was a native of Washington in Wilkes County, Georgia.   Chick was married to Edward Reginald Hodgson, III, of an old and large Athens family.  They had a very long and happy marriage which issued in one child, a son named, naturally, Burke.  Both Chick and Edward were amusing talkers, but Edward tended to be dry, laconic, and sometimes even sly, while Chick was much more effusive and dramatic.

I first called on the Hodgsons early in 1983, when I began to visit Athens twice each month while I finished up course work at Duke.  At the time I was endeavoring to visit people interested in the parish, some of whom had made a decision to join the new Saint Stephen’s Church, some of whom were undecided, and almost all of whom were members of the Society for the Preservation of the Book of Common Prayer.

In the case of the Hodgsons, I believe it was another parishioner, James Koert Reap, who took me by and introduced us.  We found Chick in partial recline on a sofa holding a cigarette and a glass of red wine and wearing a house coat and valuable-looking pins and rings and other jewelry.   The red wine received swift explanation:  burgundy alone seemed to ease an ailing back injured by a fall from the refrigerator.  I asked the natural question, to which the answer was that the refrigerator provided the best access to the window which Chick was attempting to curtain.  I do not believe Chick drank much, and the red wine did not feature in later visits after the back injury healed.  It was many years before the jewels were explained, but we will come to that in due course.

Our first visit was highly successful in that it became almost immediately clear that Chick and Edward intended to join Saint Stephen’s.  It was even more highly memorable due to Chick’s explanation of her agreement with the parish’s principles concerning the Prayer Book and the male character of the priesthood:  ‘Priestesses belong in the temple of Isis, not in the Church of God,’ was Chick’s brief, and not impertinent, summary.  Her devotion to traditional liturgical language was also strong, no doubt in part on account of her general devotion to our mother tongue.  I learned that for many years Chick had been the secretary to the English department at the University of Georgia.  She was recognized (at least by department members whom I came to know – Charles Beaumont, Marion Montgomery, Bill Provost, and Robert West) as the resident expert on Byron and was generally believed to be about as well-read as most of the faculty members, though without their formal credentials.  She also was the author of much-valued doggerel for departmental birthdays and similar occasions.

I do not recall if I learned on that first visit about Chick’s devotion to Byron, but it came out eventually.  My grandmother, Ruth Isabella Poteat Bender, in the last few of her 97 years, lost the power of speech.  When I would visit Gram after the onset of that handicap we both enjoyed me reading to her from our greater English poets, especially the Romantics.  Gram would often reply to a poem with comments written on a little chalk tablet.  After explaining all that to Chick I told her that once following a Byron poem Gram wrote, ‘Bad man!’  To that Chick replied immediately and very emphatically, ‘OH, NO!!  Byron’s servants adored him, and no one knows you as well as your servants!’

The Hodgsons when I knew them did not have servants, apart from an occasional yard man, but Chick still knew about them.  On one occasion during a strike by telephone employees, I received a note from Chick.  She explained that normally she would have called about the matter, but that she had misplaced my telephone number and did not dare to call directory information during a strike:  ‘I am able to deal with uppity servants, but it takes it out of me.’

The Hodgsons in any case became regular church attenders.  Edward in particular would attend choir practice or parish dinners or even go to a doctor’s appointment with fellow parishioners.  Sally and Rufus Adair lived just around the corner from Chick and Edward and became delighted and helpful friends to the much older couple.  Rufus, who at the time was a reporter for the local newspaper, even did an article on a ’possum bite suffered by Chick inside her house.  It included a memorable quotation from Chick:  ‘I knew I was in trouble when I saw those evil little eyes.’

Edward seldom missed a Bible study and when present without exception always asked a question.  In fact he always asked the same question:  ‘Why if Jesus was perfect did he have to be baptized?’  It is a good question which I answered each week.  Either my answer was found wanting or Edward’s memory was slipping or he was being mischievous, because next week out came the same question.  Less regularly, but not infrequently, my answer led to a personal anecdote about baptism.  Edward was raised a Methodist and until his death he attended the Tuck Sunday School Class at Athens’ First United Methodist Church, before hearing Mass at Saint Stephen’s.  Despite his Methodist background, Edward chose to undergo baptism by immersion in a Baptist church with his twin brother:  ‘I decided I didn’t want to risk losing out on a technicality!’  Edward also had a favorite phrase, which I much admired, that he used for certain sorts of fine actions or people:  ‘Neat but not gaudy.’  I thought the phrase was an Edward coinage, but years later I encountered it in a mid-19th century south Georgia letter in The Children of Pride.[1]

That was not the only occasion on which what I assumed to be a contemporary Hodgson matter in fact turned out to be Victorian.  Chick often spoke about Lucy Toombs, a childhood friend in Washington, Georgia, and about General Toombs, whom I assumed was her friend’s father or a near contemporary.  Later I learned that Robert Toombs was actually a general officer in the army of the Confederate States of America.  Among other assertions from Chick about General Toombs were two that I recall:  ‘General Toombs would not allow the railroad to come to Washington.  He said Washington didn’t want the kind of people a railroad would bring.’  And, ‘General Toombs would not allow a hotel in Washington.  He said that if a gentleman visited Washington he was welcome to stay with the Toombses.  If the visitor weren’t a gentleman, we didn’t want him to spend the night.’

Everything Chick and Edward said came out in a lovely Georgia accent that I have since heard described as ‘Georgia rural aristocratic’ – now quite extinct.  One notable feature of the accent was an almost Brooklynesque treatment of ‘r’s before ‘l’s:  ‘woyld’ and ‘goyl’.

For many years I would visit the Hodgsons on occasion, and the visits became more regular when one of them was unable to get to church – and particularly more regular after Edward’s death.  In time Chick gave up smoking.  I asked about that.  She told me that she was able to do without cigarettes so long as she kept a pack near at hand.  Knowing that she could have a cigarette in an emergency helped her avoid panic.  Always Chick had on her remarkable jewelry.  About that I did not ask.  But after many years an explanation came forth spontaneously.  The following is not an exact quotation, but it is pretty close:

You know, Athens is prone to tornadoes.  If your house is destroyed, they don’t care about your jewelry, but THEY ALWAYS FIND THE BODY.  I want Burke to have my jewelry, so I wear it all the time. 

I did think to myself, ‘Well, there are safety deposit boxes,’ but I kept my mouth shut, and Chick continued to be encrusted in rubies and diamonds.

Then one visit after Edward’s death the diamonds and rubies were gone, replaced by semiprecious stones.  This I noted to myself as well, but again did not say anything.  In a relatively short time the disappearance of the jewels also was explained:

There are all sorts of tradesmen in and out of here, and I don’t want the story getting around that I’m a rich old lady living alone.  Someone might come in and bash me on the head and steal my jewelry.  So I’ve put it in a safety deposit box.

Where also, of course, it was as safe from tornadoes as from kleptomaniacal tradesmen.

Chick’s neighborhood in Five Points was pretty safe, and eventually she acquired a tricycle that gave her more mobility than her feet afforded.  Still on occasion there were problems.  One day Chick saw that her elderly neighbor, Miss Eileen Sisley, was being annoyed by a man in her yard.  Chick grabbed the sword from the mantle, ran out her front door waving the sword over her head, and yelled, ‘I’ve called the police, Eileen, and they’re on their way!’  The masher took one look at the lady with the sword, and ran off.  A good thing, too, since Chick in fact had not called the police.

Edward died in Easter week of 1988.  I took him his Easter communion at home a day or two before his death.  He and Chick had just celebrated their wedding anniversary and stayed up late looking at pictures from the wedding and from their honeymoon in Havana.  We should all hope to die after receiving Easter communion and a day remembering happy things.  Chick lived until 1997.

Burke got the jewels, Chick (I assume) has gotten to meet General Toombs, and Edward understands in full the reasons for his Lord’s baptism.

[1] Susan Frances Barrow Tate, another parishioner, also had a connection to this book.  When Mrs. Tate worked for the Hargrett Rare Book Room at the University of Georgia, she was asked to read the manuscript.  She urged the University of Georgia Press to publish it.  They did not.  Yale University Press did, and it went on to win many awards.  The origin of the phrase is not clear.  Something close occurs in Shakespeare, but the earliest use of the precise form of words that I can find is not much before the Victorian era.  It also occurs in one of Dorothy L. Sayer’s mystery novels.


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