“Chance meetings, missed connections, wrong turns — none of us knows when our fate awaits us or how many obstacles stand in the pathway,” writes Cassandra King Conroy in her memoir Tell Me a Story. Although the book touches on her own family history and literary accomplishments, it’s primarily a labor of love devoted to her late husband, award-winning novelist Pat Conroy.
Conroy describes how she and Pat met cute at a literary party in Birmingham in 1995. She was stuffing her mouth with strawberries, believing she’d missed her chance to meet the famous writer by arriving late, when her friends led him over to say hello: “I choked, swallowed, and coughed before blurting out, ‘Oh, God Almighty!’” she recalls. “Pat threw his head back and laughed a big, hearty laugh. ‘Not quite, but close enough.’”
Both of them were recently divorced, and although the attraction was immediate, Cassandra lived in Alabama, while Pat was firmly ensconced on the South Carolina coast. Nevertheless, they exchanged phone numbers and began a friendship that culminated two years later in their first proper date in Atlanta, followed by an irresistible romance: “How could I possibly know that after one lovely but platonic dinner date, Mr. Conroy was about to come storming into my placid life with the force of a category 5 hurricane, and that nothing afterward would ever be the same?” She eventually moved to Pat’s beloved Fripp Island home, and they married in 1998.
As Tell Me a Story depicts it, the Conroy union was a marriage between an ant and a grasshopper. A former pastor’s wife and mother of three sons, Cassandra (the ant) excelled at caretaking, organization, and hospitality, but she worried that her lack of sophistication would betray her in front of Pat’s famous friends, including Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg, Kudzu cartoonist Doug Marlette, and Georgia novelist Anne Rivers Siddons. Pat (the grasshopper) was extravagant and generous and never let the facts ruin a good story. He insisted that Cassandra, who had published one novel, must have her own writing room in their home, and he encouraged her career.
During their years together, they published five books each and saw their children married, parents and siblings buried, and the storms of life (literal and metaphorical) weathered. Along the way, Cassandra learned more about Pat’s family, especially his heartbreaking estrangement from his youngest daughter, Susannah. She befriended his father, the inspiration for the abusive title character of his novel The Great Santini, and she writes, “I never doubted for a minute Pat’s version of the father of his childhood. For one thing, Pat’s siblings verified it, but even if they hadn’t, my intuition told me all I needed to know.”
More a portrait of the man than of the artist, Tell Me a Story reveals Pat to be a colorful yet sometimes formidable character with an acerbic wit and a way with people. But, “first and foremost, Pat was a teacher,” Conroy notes. “Although he never returned to the classroom, his love of teaching came out through his mentoring and support of other writers.” This is evident near the end of his life when he accepted the position of editor-at-large for the Story River Books imprint of The University of South Carolina Press. His presence at book signings drew larger crowds for the authors, and he pushed himself to show up even as his health began to fail.
A man of large appetites — for food and alcohol, as well as for life — Pat was, in his widow’s words, “careless with his health to a degree that bordered on self-destructive.” Despite both their efforts at late-in-life reform, he was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after months of decline and died on March 4, 2016, at the age of 70.
Cassandra King Conroy has indeed told her readers a beautiful story — one that memorializes her famous husband with tremendous sweetness, highlighting his kindness, sense of humor, lust for life, and great capacity for love.
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.
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