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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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.

 

The Mystery of Owls

Growing up on a farm, I was familiar with the sound of owls calling at night.  Most owls really don’t hoot, in my experience.  Screech owls were the most frightening–they sounded332px-171_Barn_Owl[1] like a woman screaming in the woods.  Many a night I heard them shrieking to one another in the distance.

We had a tobacco barn that was about two stories high, at least.  It was used for firing dark tobacco.  There were beams running across from one side wall to the opposite wall, spaced so racks of tobacco could be hung to dry.  When it had dried enough, Daddy would build a smouldering fire with sawdust and keep it going for days, firing the tobacco.  Climbing up in the barn was perilous work but had to be done.  Usually the younger and stronger ones did that and hung the tobacco.

In the spring and summer the tobacco barn was empty, and that’s when the barn owl came to hunt mice, and sometimes just to perch.  One day Daddy called me to come with him and “see something special.”  We trudged down the rocky dirt road to the tobacco barn, trailed by my dog, Dusty.  I named him that because he was the exact color of that dirt road.

Daddy opened the smaller door within the big doors so we could go in, letting a little daylight in to the shady, cool interior.  “Look up in that corner,” he said.  There was a huge barn owl.  It slowly turned its head and stared down at us with yellow eyes.  Dusty was nosing around the dirt floor of the barn, and the owl watched him intently.  Then it spread its wings and flew out through an open hatch on the side wall.  It seemed to fly in slow motion, as if you could see every feather moving precisely.

When I saw this Audubon print it reminded me of that owl.  I can see why owls were Athena’s bird and associated with wisdom.  That level stare implies knowledge and intuition beyond what we know.

Father’s Day Special: Don’t Try This at Home

Daddy and Mother

I’m the youngest of five children, and there are almost 20 years between my oldest sister and me.  Daddy turned 40 years old not long after I was born.  That’s not unusual today, but in my parents’ day they were considered old enough to be grandparents!   There are seven years between the next-to-youngest and me, so I’m sure Mother and Daddy thought their family was done long before I came along.

You’d think they would not have been pleased, but from all accounts they were thrilled.  Even when I was a teenager, Daddy still spent time with me and did things with me, difficult as that was for him with a girl who wasn’t athletic, and at a time when we didn’t have money to spare for movies or dinners out.

One inspiration he had falls squarely into the “don’t try this at home” category.  It rarely snowed more than a dusting in our part of Tennessee–ice storms were more prevalent.  So any snow was a huge treat and a special occasion.  One winter we got a few inches of snow, and school was closed.  I had a sled, but the runners kept getting bogged down in the wet snow.  Then Daddy had his big idea.  He took a discarded car hood from my uncle’s garage, and chained it upside-down to the back of his tractor.  “Get on the hood, baby doll, and hold on!” he said.

We spent a good part of the afternoon going up and down the slushy, ice-slick road with the tractor and car hood.  Looking back on it now, I wonder why the hood didn’t slide into the tractor’s rear wheels, and how on earth I kept from falling off.  But I had no problems at the time, and it was exhilirating to ride and slide in the cold.

Finally we went home, and Daddy unchained the hood.  My boy cousins next door had been watching enviously.  “Uncle George, could we use that car hood?” Dale asked.  Daddy said they could.  Dale and Don launched themselves down a hill, completely unable to steer the hood.  They hit a tree and Don broke his arm.  Oops!  Like I said, don’t try this at home!

Blooming Grove

Dogwoods by Albert Bierstadt

            The white clapboard church is barely set back from the asphalt road, an old cemetery on one side, the raw red brick parsonage on the other.  The church is small and spare, with only a steeple for adornment.

            My car pulls into the small parking lot, spitting gravel and dust as it halts.  There are battered pickup trucks, washed and polished sedans, a couple of jacked-up muscle cars.  It is already hot, although it is not yet 11 in the morning.  The air is thick with humidity, a dense wall almost too thick to breathe.

            The men stand outside by the front porch, smoking and talking.  Their faces are sun-reddened.  They wear short-sleeved shirts and ties, and have removed their dark suit jackets in the heat.  They will put them on to go in the church, then take them off again and fold them carefully before the sermon starts. 

            I go up the worn concrete steps into the vestibule, suddenly dark and a little cooler, and emerge into the sanctuary.  The old, dark wood floors are muffled with runners of faded red carpet on the aisles.  The pews are old, dark wood as well, hard and slippery from generations of churchgoers.

            The white walls are bare.  There is no cross on the wall or statues in niches.  There are only a bare wooden pulpit, a small choir loft, a slightly out-of-tune upright piano, and a communion table—the altar, we call it—with a vase of flowers left over from a funeral, beginning to wilt.

            The sanctuary smells of dusty carpet, furniture polish, the wilting flowers, and people beginning to sweat as the room fills.  The women’s polyester flowered dresses are bright against their husbands’ Sunday suits.  I fan myself with a paper fan on a wooden stick.  It is printed with a scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  He is kneeling in a white robe and praying, pinned  in a beam of white light like a deer in the headlights.

            Then the preacher comes in, the choir loft fills with my aunts and uncles and cousins and neighbors, and the service begins.  The preacher cannot stir me.  I am impervious to his thin, nasal voice; the mistakes in his grammar gall me.  His collar is too big.  My heart is harder than stone, it oozes contempt like the asphalt road outside oozes tar.

            But I am undone all the same.  It is the old country hymns, sung by untrained voices.  My uncles, my aunts, my cousins, my neighbors sing harmony without effort or thought, singing a melancholy song their parents sang to them.  They sing, “O come, angel band, come and around me stand/O bear me away on your snow white wings/ To my immortal home.”

            And I am borne away on those wings, out the back door of the church, into the green graveyard.  Ancient cedar trees shade the graves; the breeze whispers through the branches.  My grandparents are there, and my great-grandparents, and my great-great grandparents.  The old, grey stones are worn and crooked.  They are simple, no fancy carvings, no weeping Victorian angels.  They sink into the mossy graves.   There is no room for anyone else.  The past owns this place.

Twenty-seven Cousins and One Aunt

Oldest Cousin With Her Daughter and Grandson

I made a fast trip to my home town in Tennessee this weekend because my sisters were all driving there for the cousins’ lunch.  Usually my sister Sherrie is the only one who can go, because she lives less than an hour away.  For the rest of us, it’s a lengthy drive or, in my case, a two-hour flight.  But we all agreed to get together this time and go to the lunch.

The Jones family used to have big reunions in the summertime.  We’d cook out and picnic in the local park.  I remember my grandfather, Pap, sitting in a lawn chair under a huge shade tree, his back poker-straight.  He had rather cold blue eyes and a beak of a nose.  Mammy, my grandmother, had passed away by the time I remember the reunions. His ten children would be there with their spouses and children, so it was quite a crowd.  My cousin Mary Ann organized reunions later, after Pap died.  It got harder and harder to gather the group as some moved away, and others died.  Then Mary Ann passed away suddenly from a medical condition and the reunions stopped.

A few years ago the last of Pap’s children started meeting at a restaurant for lunch occasionally along with some of their nieces and nephews, i.e., the cousins.  The lunch on Saturday was one of the biggest ever.  Aunt Agnes was there, the youngest of Pap’s children–she’s 86.  And there were 27 cousins, ranging in age from Lurleen, who is 87(oldest daughter of Pap’s oldest son), to four of Pap’s great-great-grandchildren, three of whom were less than 10 years old. 

It was pretty overwhelming, especially when I realized our teenaged waitress was a cousin, too (one of the great-great-grandchildren), and did not remember her great-grandfather, who was one of my dad’s brothers.  Whew!  And I’m not that old!  I guess that’s what happens when you have a large family spread over 20 years, and some of them have large families spread over 20 years, like my parents did.   

The world is different now.  We are scattered far and wide, and many of us don’t know the other cousins.  One of my nephews met a cousin when he and his wife took their first child to the pediatrician.  They had the traditional Southern “where are you from?  where is your family from?” conversation.  Turns out they were both Pap’s great-grandchildren and had never known each other.   Now they are friends.

Here’s a short video of everyone at the lunch!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Pmfuf3RC-0&feature=channel_video_title

Home Cooking

Fried Chicken
Photo credit: Niall Kennedy

I have my mother’s recipes.  When she had to move to a nursing home some years ago after having a stroke, my sisters and I cleaned out her apartment, and the recipes went home with me.  Most of them are not anything you would want to cook now—classic ‘50’s and ‘60’s concoctions she’d torn out of women’s magazines, full of Campbell’s soup or condensed milk, or even, God forbid, that syrupy Eagle Brand stuff.  But the notecards have the recipes I remember as a child, growing up in Tennessee.

Some of them are so terse they are unintelligible.  I called Mother at the nursing home and asked her about Mama’s Tea Cakes.  (Mama was Mother’s mother.)  It calls for “flour,” no amount specified.  “What do you mean, ‘flour’?” I asked her.  “How much?  Two cups?”  She said slowly, “Enough flour.  You’ll know when you see it.”  True enough for someone who made biscuits from scratch all the time, but not for me.  I finally figured out how much by the texture, when the dough was just dry enough and not too dry.  I wrote down the amount for future use.

The chocolate pie recipe became a matter of contention after Mother died in 2004.  For some reason I took a notion to bake it for the first time in years.  There were two versions, and neither was complete—oven temperature?  How long do you bake it?  None of my sisters remembered, and they had variant versions from our aunt Elsie.  Finally, after comparing with a hokey hillbilly cookbook from a Cracker Barrel store, I think I got the definitive recipe.

Mother’s Southern Baptist Sunday School class cookbook was a great source of recipes as well.  I have their recommendation on how to cook perfect fried chicken every time.  I’ve had to adapt the cooking time, because chickens now are bred to have bloated breasts and take longer to cook.  

When I was growing up, everything was fried, even the vegetables, unless they were “cooked down” with a piece of fat meat.  Dessert was a part of every meal, sometimes just biscuits with butter and jam or sorghum molasses, but always there.  Mother cooked three meals a day, every day, and cooked for whoever was home, including the workers getting in the tobacco in the fall, as many as 10 or 12 people.

 My family has a terrible history of heart disease and high blood pressure.  All of us try to cook healthy things now, which pretty much kills everything I grew up with.  But every once in a while I throw caution to the wind and make that chocolate pie, or a Baptist pound cake, which requires a pound of butter and six eggs, or even fry some chicken.   It makes my tiny condo kitchen smell like home.