My Last Aunt

My father was born in 1913, toward the middle of a family of 10 children.  Mother was born in 1916, in the middle of a family of five children.  I am the youngest in my family of

Aunt Agnes at 90
Aunt Agnes at 90

five, 19 years younger than my oldest sister. So I grew up with a multitude of aunts and uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and even a couple of great-aunts in addition to my grandfather, when I was small.

I only have one aunt left out of all that multitude–27 aunts and uncles by blood or marriage when I was born (one had died young), and just one surviving now.  Aunt Agnes is 90 years old, born in 1924, Daddy’s youngest sister and 11 years younger than he was.

My sister Sherrie and I went to see her a few weeks ago when I made a quick visit back to Tennessee.  Aunt Agnes is still living on her own at her insistence, and with the assistance of her two children who take turns visiting every day and checking on her.  They wanted to get someone to live with her, but Aunt Agnes wouldn’t agree to it.  They had to take her car keys away a few years ago after she had a wreck and narrowly avoided a really bad accident.  She had a stroke a few months ago and recovered well, but she is unsteady on her feet now and has trouble with her short-term memory.

Aunt Agnes has always been a curious combination of unconventional and conventional.  She stayed in a painful marriage until her husband died, probably because divorce was shameful to her and her family.  Yet she worked at Fort Campbell as a civilian employee for many years, raising her family as a working mom.  Not a common thing in the ’50s and ’60s, even in the ’70s!  She’s always been devoted to her church and is a firm believer, but never to my knowledge cast aspersions at people in her family (like me, and some others I could name) who did not always live the way good Southern Baptists are supposed to live.  With her, family comes first, and her fondness for a relative goes a long way, even with a wayward niece like me.

Since the stroke she’s lost her appetite and has become quite thin and frail.  While Sherrie and I were there, Sherrie asked her if she wanted to have lunch.  Aunt Agnes had forgotten it was lunchtime.  She mentioned how she missed going to Captain D’s after church on Sunday, so I went through the drive-through and brought back that nasty, salty, fried fish for us all.  She ate maybe three bites.

I was surprised to get a card from her this week–I wasn’t sure if the stroke had affected her ability to write.  Inside was a perfectly clear and coherent note, and a $20 bill to pay for the lunch.  “Do not send the money back,” she wrote, and underlined it.  In her mind I’m still little Connie.  She’s the last one to remember me that way.

 

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Visiting Aunt Lou and Uncle Floyd

Uncle Floyd
What follows is an exercise I wrote for a class several years ago.  We were to remember a time and place that was lost to us, and write all we could remember.  So I did:

We drive up the blacktop road toward  sunset, my parents and I, the old Ford pickup laboring up the hill.  Turning into my uncle’s gravel driveway kicks up a small cloud of dust.  The truck wheezes to a halt, and the dust settles as we climb out and walk to the house.

Across the blacktop road from the house is a tree-lined field  with cattle grazing quietly in the dusk.  They are a motley bunch, a mix of  Herefords and Holstein crosses, too bony for good beef cattle, too stocky for good dairy cattle.  My aunt’s little Jersey is the only princess, with her fawn-colored coat, her delicate hooves, her big brown eyes.  Aunt Lou keeps the milk cow so she can churn her own butter; she thinks it’s better than store bought.

At the side of the yard is my aunt’s garden.  Honeysuckle spills over the woven wire fence, scenting the humid air.  The first two rows of the garden are flowers:  zinnias, marigolds, snapdragons, daisies.  The rest is food for the summer, and for preserving:  beans, corn, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers for pickles, canteloupes, watermelons.

In the shade of the back yard, past the chicken coop, is her mother-in-law’s wildflower garden.  Miss Blanche transplants sweet william, violets, and trillium from the woods, watering them faithfully. Their colors are paler and more delicate than the sunny flowers in the other garden.

Tall, old oak trees and maples shade the back yard and the front yard during the day.  Now that the sun is slouching down below the hill, birds rustle the branches as they settle in for the night.  They fuss and squabble in the trees.

The old clapboard house is painted white; the tin roof is shiny.  There’s a dogtrot hall running through the middle, with a couple of large rooms on either side and a kitchen in the back.  For many years there wasn’t a bathroom.

On a summer night the most important room is the front porch.  This is where we all sit and talk while night falls.   There is a porch swing, where I sit with Miss Blanche, and two wooden rocking chairs for the two men, tired from a long day in the fields.  My mother and Aunt Lou sit on metal chairs in the front yard, hoping for a breeze.

The women’s voices are low and even.  The men rumble in baritone, punctuated by my father’s laugh.  Miss Blanche and I are quiet as it grows dark, waiting for the tree frogs to begin their high piping.  Lightning bugs blink erratically  in the yard.  The humidity settles in the hollow like a ground fog.

“Look,” Miss Blanche says.  A deer broaches the mist in the hollow, sights us, and floats away into the dark.

Soon, the moon will rise above the hills.  It is time to go home.