Thursday, January 15, 2009



Down Yonder Antiques photo

Aint Bessie, the girl-twin, married a man from “off” and moved to Mobile. She came back a time or two per year, always staying with Mammaw up there in the HOT Mississippi Delta, though her house was smallest and two other sisters lived right there in town. Aunt Bessie had some sort of malady that necessitated her lying down a lot, and not doing any housework or gardening or getting up to get her own refreshments throughout the day. She wrapped her legs, knee to ankle, in gauze every day, telling us every time how painful and dangerously-affected they were, though they looked perfectly fine to me, pearly and pale and smooth, when she undressed at night or took her bath.

I had a grievous envy of her “standing order” for a case of Co-Colas to be delivered to her back porch in Mobile every morning. A CASE. Of the six-ounce glass bottles, which she drank during the course of the day, leaving the empties in their neat wooden rack for pickup in the morning. I’d seen a milkman making his deliveries in several of my books, but the thought of a COKE-man, bringing that elixir to your back door---Mobile took on the magical dimensions and value of a Corner of Heaven.

She whiled away her days with Glamour or Harper’s or my favorite: Any magazine that featured Screen Stars. She brought big suitcases with her, a whole set of pearly-beige Samsonite, and often wore dresses echoing the white of that family portrait. She bathed, she dressed in garments that we’d have worn to church, and she sat. In the swing, on the couch, on a neighbor’s porch after she had limped theatrically across the yard. I was just a kid, and I saw right through her.

Mammaw and I rolled our eyes at her, muttered about her lazy ways while we hoed or picked in the garden, and just sort of tolerated her, counting the days til the bus took her back South. One day there were several guests for noon dinner, and Mammaw and I (ten or so, but VERY handy in the kitchen) had cooked a really nice dinner, with macaroni salad with all kinds of chopped vegetables---our own country primavera, so to speak, and a baked ham which had been in the oven since breakfast and had heated the windows-wide hot kitchen to inferno status.

We got all the food and dishes arranged on the table, the ice in the glasses, and most of the kitchen neatened up before we called the company in---they had been entertained by Aunt Bessie, swaying lazily in the porch swing, her white dress and lace collar cool and pristine, while we were drenching our cotton dresses and aprons in that HOT house.
The big old round dining table was set against the wall beneath the middle-room window, and also occupying the middle room of Mammaw’s little shotgun house were a double bed on the opposite wall and a parlor organ on another. That organ---I loved to pump the pedals with my foot, pull out all the "stops" and bang away at "Blest be the Tie" and "What a Friend," my vigorous jouncing causing all the stuff on and attached to and hanging from all the gingerbready carvings of that big old piece of gee-gaw to sway and bounce.

There were hats and pincushions and an apron or two, hung by their ties, as well as a tape measure and a calendar-with-a-string and my hair ribbons and one ball of twine, seated atop a pointy finial, handy for reaching and cutting a bit when needed. We just sorta moved stuff aside and ran the duster over and around, and with all the years' accumulation of colors and fabrics, the whole thing took on the look of a melted carousel.

We’d had to wait for the men to come in and move the table out a bit so we could all get around it. Before they all arrived, Aunt Bessie wandered in, noticed a fly on the window screen, and exclaimed, “Look at that OLE FLY!!”

Before we could stop her, she took a mighty swing with the flyswatter, and “WHACK!!”---she sent a cloud of dust and screen-rust flying all over the table, the food, the shining Good China plates. The ONE moment she’d got up off her lazy bee-hind the whole trip, and she’d ruined ten people’s dinner and a whole morning’s hot kitchen labor.

There was a LONG silence, and everyone stared at her, with expressions from rueful to snickering, to woebegone at the loss, to downright hostile. Mammaw and I grabbed up all the food, took it to the kitchen, and carefully took an inch or so off the top of every lovely salad and vegetable dish. We had to remove about twelve slices of ham, already cut, then cut more to fill the platter, and that BEAUTIFUL crusty cornbread got its entire top (the bottom crust, flipped up to stay crisp) sliced off with a big ole bread knife, so no dust could have penetrated. Nobody likes nekkid, crustless cornbread.

The ice in the glasses was a goner, so we had to send to a neighbor’s house for all the trays she could spare, and wash the glasses. Everybody went back out on the porch while we did all the repair we could, and I still wish I could have heard the conversation out there with Aunt Bessie.

She never did live it down.

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