Friday, May 29, 2009


Watching the National Spelling Bee this week brought back memories for me. I’ve had a lot of disappointments in my life so far, as is true of everyone, but the disappointments whose bitter memories of regret still linger are those times when I have disappointed myself. I don’t really consider myself a perfectionist, but I do have high standards and aspirations.

I’ve never been a great cook, but one dish in 1974 singlehandedly ruined my culinary reputation with my husband - curried apricot pork chops. I don't think it was anything I did; it was a dreadful combination of flavors to begin with. Hey, if it’s printed in a cookbook, I figured it has passed some kind of taste test. Ed occasionally “experiments” in his cooking repertoire these days, but he does this with aplomb because he can always say, “Well, that was bad, but not as bad as those curried apricot pork chops.” It’s so rewarding to know that my cooking effort has been set as the gold standard - for failure.

I’ve been disappointed in how my quilts turn out and how my solos (voice, piano, organ, harp) sounded. I’ve been disappointed in photographs I have taken. I have been disappointed that I quit college after one year (and worried that I let down my parents even more with that decision). I’ve been sorely disappointed with some grades I have received. But I can say that the personal failure that gnaws at my gut every time I think about it is the Memphis Spelling Bee of 1968.

Spelling has always been a passion of mine. I like the exactness of it. There is no room for ambiguity. A word is spelled this way, not that way. Of course, a few words can be spelled more than one way - therein lies my pitiful story.

Picture it: I was an 8th-grade geek who won the East Junior High Spelling Bee in Memphis, and as such, had moved on to the Memphis Spelling Bee, which was broadcast live on the radio. Such opportunity! Such pressure! It finally came down to three contestants, two girls and me. I can’t remember any words I spelled in that whole bee - except my nemesis word - ELEGY. Oh, yes, ELEGY. The word is burned into my brain. So is this paragraph in the local newspaper: “Carol Tiffin, an 8th-grader at East Junior High, won a $25 bond from The Press-Scimitar as second runner-up. Carol missed the word ‘elegy,’ but a judge said after the contest that the word she spelled would have been accepted if the judges had realized at the time she correctly spelled the wrong word.”

How does one “correctly spell the wrong word”? I spelled the word ELOGY, as I could have sworn I had seen that word somewhere at some time. After the bee, I went down to the judges’ huge dictionary and looked up the word ELOGY. It was there. And since the winning words were IMMUTABLE and ONYX - words I could have easily spelled - I could have been a champion. Sigh.

Just for fun, today I looked up the word ELOGY on Yep, it’s still there. A testament to my missed opportunity for fame and fortune. You might think I’m petty to continue to think about this after 41 years, and you may be right. However, it’s one of those missed opportunities I wish I could go back and change. A 14-year-old named Betty Gay Luton (described in the article as a “tall, willowy eighth-grader” - a description which rubs salt in my wound) won the Memphis Spelling Bee that year.

I wonder what those judges are doing today. I hope they are preparing to sit down to a tasty meal of curried apricot pork chops. Revenge can be sweet.


Joy said...

I wonder what the judges are doing today--if they're alive at all! They should've had a redo! I know you would've won the national title, and we could've had yet another trip to DC!

Cuidado said...

I think you're too hard on yourself especially with the mix-up. About cooking. Learn to cook one dish that will knock Ed's socks off and offer to cook it often if he never mentions the curried apricot dish again.

Carol Tiffin James said...

LOL, Cuidado, I gave up cooking right after that. My husband has always loved to cook and excels at it, and I never enjoyed it and wasn't good at it (I do bake bread but that's about it), so we decided 35 years ago that he would do the cooking and I would take tasks more suitable and enjoyable for me, like handling the finances, bank statements, etc. The family joke is "How many slices of bread does it take for Mama to make a grilled cheese?" and the answer is "a whole loaf." (I tend to burn them and have to start over...) Especially now that he is retired, what a pleasure it is for me to come home from work and smell dinner already cooking!