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.



Shopping on Christmas Eve

$(KGrHqN,!k8FJjOch,IcBSc9stGJU!~~60_14[1]My dad always bought our Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.  This was before online shopping, so people did actually shop in stores (as some still do.)  I’m not sure why he waited until then, but it may have had to do with not having the money until he was paid, which seemed to happen right before Christmas.  Once or twice Mother put money in a Christmas club at the bank (now there’s another antique concept!) but usually our Christmas was dependent on credit at the store and Daddy’s paycheck.

I made a Christmas list, being careful not to ask for anything I knew we couldn’t afford, or at least, as far as I knew.  Sometimes Daddy’s perception of what fit the bill was a little off.  One year I asked for a guitar, and I got a plastic one from Santa Claus.  Ooops!  Not what I had in mind.  But I was grateful and started learning chords.  The next Christmas Mother made sure I got the real thing, a 1968 Sears Silvertone Spanish acoustic guitar, so I could look mournful and sing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” an essential for any moody teenager at that point.

Sometimes Daddy got taken with a toy himself.  At least that’s the only way I can explain receiving a Charley Weaver Bartender mechanical toy when I was pretty small (see photo above, from an eBay seller.)  He was a character on Jack Paar’s Tonight show, invented and played by Cliff Arquette, telling old jokes and stories about “Mount Idy” and its residents.  In later years he was on the Hollywood Squares, and a heavy user of double entendres.

My family was teetotaling Southern Baptist.  So it was a little odd to get a Charley Weaver toy which shook a cocktail shaker, downed the “drink,” then turned red and spouted smoke from its ears!  If only I had kept that thing–it’s worth up to $200 on eBay at this point.

So to all my family and friends who are celebrating Christmas, have a merry one!  And I hope your shopping is done.

Remembering Daddy: The Denim Jacket

Mother and Daddy at home on the farm
Mother and Daddy at home on the farm

I have Daddy’s denim jacket hanging in my hall closet.  It is an old, faded Wrangler’s denim, lined with red plaid flannel, in the classic style worn by farmers and cowboys.  When I came home from college in the fall or winter, I would borrow that jacket from him and wear it every time I went out while I was at home, unless he needed it to wear on the farm.

Daddy always seemed the right size to me, not too big and not too small.  He would be considered barely medium height now, barrel-chested, with strong shoulders and muscular arms and legs.  He wore khaki work pants and shirts when he worked at Clarksville Base, and he wore them to work on the farm.  They were heavy cotton and were a pain to iron, but I learned to iron on those work clothes.

When the weather was colder  he put on heavy, lined coveralls which zipped up the front and were dark green or dark grey.  All these clothes were meant for hard outdoor work, mending fences, herding cows, digging postholes, the work that couldn’t be done from a tractor or a truck.

When it wasn’t cold enough for the coveralls, he wore that jacket.  Many times I saw him put it on as he headed out to drive the school bus (when he had that job) or feed the cows just as the winter sun was coming up.

So after Daddy died, when Mother was cleaning out the house, that jacket was the only thing of his I wanted, and the only thing I brought home to New York with me.  I have never worn it again.  I guess I was afraid it would wear out.  It is quite frayed, and, I just realized, more than 30 years old.  But it is a last bit of him, and of frosty mornings when the cows patiently waited for him, lining up at the barbed-wire fence nearest our house, their breath making clouds.  “Hello, babies,” he would say, and they followed him at a stately pace to the stable, to be fed.

Happy Father’s Day to all fathers, and to all of us who love and remember them.


Remembering Mother on Mother’s Day

Fronie Bowers Jones
Fronie Bowers Jones
I still miss Mother a lot. We made each other crazy when I was growing up, and I got as far away from her as I reasonably could. But I never left for good and I always came back. Following are some excerpts from a story I wrote for a writing class. It wasn’t really a story; it was a list of recollections. So here are some random memories of Mother, for Mother’s Day.

1. Her eyes used to be dark brown, very big. Uncle Hoy said she was the prettiest girl in the community where they grew up, which was Blooming Grove, Tennessee. In her old age, they faded to almost tan-colored.

2. She wore print cotton dresses in cheerful flower patterns. She didn’t wear pants until after Daddy died in 1977, I don’t think.

3. She fell and cracked her kneecap chasing my dog Whitey around the yard when I was 8 or 9. She was trying to throw away sticks blown off the trees by a storm. He kept fetching them back, and she yelled, “You stupid dog!” and chased him with a stick. I laughed and laughed, until she slipped on the wet grass and fell.

4. The only time she ever went to Florida, I took her. I drove from Atlanta in September 1981 and picked her up. We drove to St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. It was the coolest September on record. But she finally saw the ocean, the red and orange sunrises and sunsets, walked in the edge of the surf, and sat in a beach chair on the boardwalk with some other people, who seemed elderly to me. We went to Marineland, and she was too tired to walk from one show to another. That’s when I knew she was sick, not just getting older. She was sick ever after that. Mother must have been about 62 years old.

5. She stayed with me in the hospital for a week when I fractured a vertebra in my back. I was 10 years old, and had been thrown out of a swing when the chain broke on my side–six kids in a porch-type swing in a frame, trying to see how high we could go. I was so bored, because the hospitals didn’t have TVs then (1965?), and she couldn’t drive, so she couldn’t get to the library. She bought me every children’s book in the hospital gift shop, all the ancient paperbacks—Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Elsie Dinsmore. I read them all. I hated Elsie Dinsmore. What a little priss!

6. When I was in high school, she made a trade with Aunt Eunice Settle (Daddy’s sister). We would can a bushel of Kentucky Wonder beans for her, and Aunt Eunice would slipcover our couch. It took both of us an entire day. Aunt Eunice’s work was done in about three hours. Aunt Eunice always got the best of any bargain going.

7. Mother’s hands were always big and knobby-jointed. She said they were like Papa’s (her father, Herman Bowers), while mine were long-fingered and thin like Mama’s (her mother, Blanche Collier Bowers). Papa and Mama both died before I was born.

8. Mother never learned to drive, ride a bike, or roller-skate. She liked to play Rook, a sort of Southern Baptist card game with no “face cards.” Good Christians didn’t play cards when she was a child.

9. Aunt Elsie was Mother’s best friend from the time they were five years old. One day when they were children Mother had a new dress, a rare occurance, and Aunt Elsie wanted to wear it. They switched dresses on the way to school so Aunt Elsie could wear it. That’s how much Mother loved her, that she would do that. Aunt Elsie was an aunt by marriage. She and Mother married brothers; Mother married George, Aunt Elsie married Jesse. Aunt Elsie’s brother, Uncle Floyd, married Mother’s sister, Aunt Mattie Lou.

The entire “story” is “50 Things About My Mother.” I wrote them in a notebook as I commuted by train to Manhattan. I’m glad I got them written down. Happy Mother’s Day to all my family, friends and readers!

Earliest Memories

Reading will carry us through
Reading will carry us through

My book group read a fascinating book this month–not an easy read, but it led to a lot of questions and a great discussion. “Austerlitz” by W. G. Sebald was the book, a novel ultimately about a man searching for his origins and his lost family, a child of the Kindertransport.

We talked about a number of themes in the novel and how it was structured and narrated. It had a dreamlike quality, but also conveyed the destructiveness of buried memory and lost history.

One of the members of our group raised the question–what is your earliest memory? She is a psychotherapist, and she said the stories people tell about their earliest memory often encapsulate all the issues they deal with throughout their lives.

I thought this was amazing. One of our group members had clear memories of being in the hospital at age three, and how frightened and abandoned she felt. Most of us had no clear memories before age four or five.

I started thinking about it, and realized I just had an impression of emotions before I was four or five (and a clear memory of the family’s cocker spaniel, Janie, who died before I was five years old.) Between four and five I learned to read, and I clearly remember the moment when I was sitting on Daddy’s lap, looking at the Sunday comics. He was reading them to me, and I suddenly realized I knew what the words meant. It was like being struck by happy lightning! I started reading to him, and he was so proud.

Hence my lifelong love of words and books. I felt warm, safe, happy and loved, and my brain was totally charged up. I ruled the world! What could be better?

What do you remember? What is your earliest memory? I hope it is warm and happy.

The Bowers Girls

Marvel, Mother, me, Sherrie, Juanita, Glenda, niece Judy, baby Weston

All children have a fantasy that they don’t belong to their family of birth.  I actually was a Cherokee princess, kidnapped from my tribe, or sometimes the sad orphan of a rich, privileged family that was tragically wiped out by war or disease.  Maybe it’s a function of reading The Secret Garden or A Little Princess, or any of myriad children’s books that glamorize the feeling of strangeness or not-belonging so many of us have.  Eight Cousins was another, in which the little orphan girl is taken in by a bachelor uncle and discovers she has eight boy cousins, all of whom come to adore her, of course.

My fantasy was compounded by not actually looking much like my sisters and brother.  My eyes are a weird light hazel, and my hair had auburn tinges in it.  However, if you took my parents’ faces and gave me the top of Mother’s, and Daddy’s from the cheekbones down, you got my face.  Apparently my coloring came from my grandfather, and my lack of height from both grandmothers.  Amazing how you can mix and match the genetic pieces!

I never thought there was much resemblance among us sisters or cousins until I looked at this photo, years after it was taken at my nephew’s wedding.  At first glance, we don’t look alike.  We’re tall, short, square, willowy, young, older.  My cousin Marvel particularly does not resemble the rest of the family.  Then I noticed our legs.  We all have calves and ankles that are shaped the same.  So it’s from Mother’s side of the family–Bowers legs.

Mother would say they are bad legs, because some of us tend to painful knees and arthritis.  But I think that curve of calf to ankle is kind of nice.  Now I have to hunt for photos of the younger generations and see if the shape has been passed on.  I hope that piece of the genetic code has legs!

Father’s Day Special II: The Right Way to Do Things

Ford Tractor, Like Daddy’s

My daddy was a man who considered there was a right way to do anything, whether it was repairing a car engine or eating cornflakes.  He was not dictatorial or oppressive in any way.  Daddy just knew what he considered right, and he demonstrated how to do things, expecting you to follow his example.

When my nephew Jarrett was quite small, my sister Juanita and her family stayed on the farm with my parents for several weeks while they were in the process of moving to Kentucky.  Jarrett and his brother Mason followed Daddy around and absorbed his every utterance, but Jarrett was particularly impressionable.

Years later I met him and his fiancee for lunch in Manhattan and listened to Jarrett explain to her the proper way to eat cornflakes.  “Granddaddy showed me, ” he said.  “You pour the flakes in a bowl, then you crush them with your hands, like this”–he demonstrated.   ‘Then you put sugar on top, and finally you pour the milk on.”  He then moved on to the proper methodology for having molasses and biscuits.  “You have to put the butter on the plate, then pour the sorghum molasses on it.  You whip it up with your knife.  Then you split your biscuit, and spread it on the biscuit.”

Daddy’s lessons weren’t always absorbed.  He tried to teach my brother to work on a car engine, but Gil preferred to bounce a tennis ball off the side of the house.  He never managed to teach Mother to drive, because she would get nervous, he would get gruff, she would dissolve in tears, and the lesson ended.  Consequently she was dependent on other people for transportation her entire life.

But some of the lessons did sink in.  He taught me to change a tire after I had two flats in one week.  I had to jump on the crowbar to loosen the lug nuts, but I could do it.  It stood me in good stead for many years.

Daddy died of a heart attack when I was 22 years old.  I miss him to this day.  Happy Father’s Day to dads everywhere.  Your daughters love you.