Whenever I look back upon my earliest memories of my aunt Mabel and Uncle Ernest, I can hardly comprehend how poor they were at that time. Although they would later improve their conditions considerably, when I was about 5 or 7, they lived as close to the ground as possible. There was a hand pump in their kitchen which only sometimes worked. It seems you had to pour water into the top of the hand pump to get anything out of it all. (This is where I learned the phrase, “to prime the pump” which means to invest a bit of time or money or energy to obtain greater rewards in the future. )
I never used to enjoy any prolonged stays at my aunt and uncle's home. You see, I was a rather spoilt child of the suburb, comfortable with all the conveniences of modern living, such as indoor toilets, central heating and ready to eat meals. My brother and sister would always tease me about being so extremely pampered and being a cry-baby. They had only three reactions as far as I was concerned. Sneering amusement, head-shaking disgust, or silent evil-eyed resentment.
As far as toilet facilities, my aunt and uncle used a falling-down outhouse behind the chicken coop. Needless perhaps to say, it was no great treat to have to venture out in the tall grass surrounded by the glowing (and probably imaginary) eyes of coyotes and wolves, possums and the curious raccoon or feral cat. I recall returning from one trip to Arkansas clearly sick as a result of trying not to use the toilet for three days.
There was a stove in the living room upon which my aunt roasted peanuts for later peanut brittle. Unlike my mother's mother, my aunt was a proud and exceptional cook. She would wake before sunrise every morning, and make biscuits. “Go look in the fridge.” She would tell us from her rocking chair with a sly grin, as we three children came barging into her home.
My aunt was a round and short woman with sagging jowls and a quick wit. She had this wonderful way of pointing out the most ridiculous aspects of the human behavior with the minimum of words. But then, when one least expected it she would turn that critical sardonic eye back upon herself. That quality, the ability not to take one's self too seriously was something I always admired her for and tried my best to emulate. It is a wonderfully disarming trait which seems to become harder and harder to find as the years go by.
When I was about 10, with a loan from my parents, my aunt and uncle were able to move from that hovel to a newly built house on the hill. The house was quite a step up, two indoor toilets, a large kitchen and porch with an expansive vista of the crossroads, where absolutely no one could come without an advanced warning. Just before the move, my uncle laid down the law: The cats would not be allowed in the house. In fact, if my aunt wished to keep the cats at all, she was, from that time on, obliged to feed them at the old house. Of course, that was a clear misreading of the natures of both my aunt and felines in general. Within a week, Snootsy the Siamese was sitting on a my aunt lap. And when she told us this story, she told it very very gently for my uncle had an easily bruised ego and eruptive temper.
For years, it was my aunt's obligation to be my grandmother's nurse when the older woman became bed-fast. It could not have been an easy mission in life but she took it as her duty. Grandma loved her grandchildren and loved to probe their minds, ask them what they were feeling and thinking, what they hoped to be in the future- a future she knew she would never see.
Oh, of course, there were good things about our visits. My aunt made a wonderful dewberry pie and one of the best examples of pecan pie. My uncle on the other hand was a strapping monster of a man, copper tanned arms and a white forehead, a booming voice with a tendency to become wild and angry unexpectedly. He would cause the house to bounce when he stomped about in a tantrum. My aunt found some way to handle him- usually by keeping quiet and not taking anything he said very seriously. They never had children, no reason was ever given but we were clearly her surrogate children that she loved in a unspoken and private way.
A memory: it is very early Spring. Easter. The grass is so new it is a whitish green. There is the smell of wet soil. Buttercups line the path to my uncle's porch. They have hidden the painted eggs all over. My grandmother, for me always invalid, watches from the window. My aunt is standing on the porch in her flour-dusted apron. My uncle in his faded blue overalls shyly walks to my father and they walk off in the wrong direction to discuss the things men normally do: the recent weather, the hunting season- though my father never hunted- that long trip from St. Louis and which highways we had taken.
They are all gone now, my grandmother, my father, my mother, my aunt and lastly, my uncle. And their first house has fallen in, abandoned for nearly 30 years now.
Today marks the seventh year since her passing. There is something ghostly about memory, for example, how my aunt is still making sage-scented pork sausage in the very early morning- if, now, only in my mind. I am thankful that as a child, perhaps more sensitive that your typical child of that age and background, I studied them all very carefully. They have a place where they can still exist in their purest- quintessential form. She is gone, cannot defend herself against revision and accusation, but I think my memory is charitable and fair. I hope it is because I owe her that much, at least.
In fact, of all my father's brother's and sisters, she was the last to leave, burying her little brother, my father, whom she had practically raised. How devastating that must have been for her.
One time, I recall asking my aunt what my father was like when he was growing up and she leaned close and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, “Spoilt.” Then, she flashed a smile that lingered there for a moment and then, she returned to her sewing.