Friday, January 16, 2009


Aunt Lou (not Aunt LO, the baby of the bunch, but the older, sedately quiet one in gray) is always lit in my mind in gray tones, from her hair to her clothes to the haze of Lucky smoke that hovered as her aura--- it was she who taught Mother the kitchen/ironing/piecrust lessons, and on hearing that story, I wondered that she ever had time---she and her husband owned one of two little general stores in Mammaw’s tiny town, and she seemed to be there every second, reaching down goods, cutting three chops at the half-a-tree butcher-block, scooping out a pound of pintos and a pound of blackeyes from the half-barrels of dry beans.

She could "tot up" a long string of numbers in her head, still reaching down the aspirin, measuring out the coal oil, slicing off a steak. Her quick busy hands wrapped, bagged, dipped into the glass rainbow where all the candy lived, as she asked about the family, the crops, the son away in the Navy.

She was the only woman in the family besides my Mother who “worked” and she had a maid/cook. She and her lanky, taciturn husband went across a little screened dogtrot from store to house and sat down to a hot noon dinner every day. Then they went back to work whilst their long-time Chambliss did the dishes, re-set the table, and threw a clean white ironed cloth over the table, food and all (excepting for the Jello).

Uncle Jake required three things on the table at every meal: biscuits, soft slumpy baked sweet potatoes, and red Jello, made in the little aluminum half-moon refrigerator tray that came as part of the Frigidaire’s trousseau. I was always made welcome to help myself to anything from the covered table, and I loved those cold, satin-soft potatoes.

I never encountered one on their table that was even warm, so I thought for a long time that they sprang full-blown in the fullness of their chill, without intervention of hand or oven. My imagination had them sort of moldering away in their big crate in the store, achieving some alchemy of sweet and rich, and being grabbed up for every meal by the lucky store proprietors, who never sold those “good ones” to customers.

At Closing Time, they’d lock up, go in the back door, get out the Jello, and sit down. She said “We eat it as we find it,” with no warming-up of the leftovers. The two of them were austere folk with the WORST offspring in the whole family, or county or state---Cousin Jenny was a HORRID person, a tattletale and a hitter and a pincher. She'd tell your deepest secret to anybody, with a sly look at you to gloat for your dismay. We all disliked her.

But she gave me huge boxes of BOOKS, and I will always bless her for that---I guess a gift of books can cover a multitude of sins.

Poor hard-working never-a-minute-to-herself Aunt Lou found a hobby. She painted by number. From that time, her house was redolent of the turpentiny smell of those little paintpots in their garish colors. The boards always came two-to-a-set, and I got the barns, neat red edifices with rolling green, a lightning rod on one and a rooster-vane on the other. She painted people and mountains and horses and fruit, all in sets of two.

And I think she felt productive. She certainly liked to talk about them and show them to people. She had them all framed just alike---I had an idea she found frames she liked and went around to all the stores, collecting every single one in just that size. They all had a string like the silk braid of a window-shade pull, way up higher than the top of the frame, with a pretty rosette right at the apex to cover the nail in the wall. Her walls were ringed round with brightness, and she seemed brighter for it, herself.

She gave a set of two to the local Baptist Church: Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary. They WERE religious pictures, after all, the nicest Palmer Paint had to offer. And thus the Deacons’ conundrum: demur and hurt the feelings of a forever-member whose tithes were regular and generous, or accept those two unacceptable-to-the-brethren-of-this-denomination pictures.

Last time I was there for a wedding, they’re still hanging in the vestibule---a little dusty, a little faded, but perfectly-done, not a dot out of place, not a single blue outline visible between the strokes. And she’s been dead for many years. I wonder what out-of-towners there for a visit or funeral or wedding think when they see those, then go inside and sing, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” with that foot-thumping rhythm that only a Southern Baptist can achieve.

I remember the day she died. I loved her a lot, and she deserved a better life than that dawn-til-dark one she lived in that store. With that energy, that endless patience, that quick laugh and "head for figures"---I wonder what she COULD have done, could have been. I still wish she'd had better.


Rebecca263 said...

More, please.

racheld said...

Certainly, Ma'am!! I just keep reaching into the Memory-Bag and haulin' 'em out.

Be well and warm, my Faraway friend.