Daddy’s next-in-line sister Aunt Meggie had a less fortunate life than the other two girls---her husband did not have such a prosperous occupation, and they moved often. She was a pretty blonde woman, with the dark family brow and eyes, but faded young, with a hardening of her features with each succeeding year. I remember her in drab white short-shorts and those sleeveless cotton blouses that button down the front, with an ever-present Kool grasped in her yellowing fingers. Her nails showed an effort, but not upkeep, with chipped red polish, and indeed, I don’t know how she found time to do any sort of grooming at all, with that great riot of five children always underfoot.
Bonnie Gail was the oldest, perhaps three years older than me, and helped out with the four younger---all fists-and-elbows boys, barefoot and bursting through life in great leaps and shouts. She was blonde like her mother, and slender-strong, with wiry muscles like her brothers, and a great laugh. I remember her and Aunt Meg, all three of us cross-legged on my bed, all doing our nails, (very odd for me, for I’ve never, ever been of that communal-grooming bent). There was one other time when Bonnie Gail and I and all the Memphis girl cousins went out into Aunt Billie’s yard and stripped the head off nearly every aster and dahlia on the bushes in order for all of us to make great coronets around each others’ updos, with the boys going off into jibing hilarity at our unwieldy crowns, and offering to “water our heads” before the day was out.
The family once moved from out-in-the-country into a tiny house---perhaps four rooms--- in a neighbor's back yard less than a block from us. The place was of a type called a “servant-house” by several of the folks in town, whose maids and yard-men had lived on the place in memory, but the small dwellings were then mostly junk-houses for cast-off furniture and lawnmowers.
I can remember going over to visit the kids on occasion, and as my Mammaw used to say---“they lived all OVER that house.” What little furniture they had crowded the rooms, and with five children and both adults at home---I STILL can’t imagine how they moved around, let alone where they all slept. Bonnie Gail offered to make fudge when I visited one afternoon, for they DID have sugar and cocoa and a can of Pet milk, and I ran home for a stick of Parkay.
I know it was Wintertime, for we all crammed into the tiny kitchen as she lit the stove, and stood sniffing our hearts’ content of the enticing scents, as the mixture began to boil and send out the unequalled redolence of simmering sweet chocolate. I washed my hands and greased the waiting platter with a tiny pat of the oleo, and since there was only cold water to the sink, I well remember the vain scrubbing as I held my hands back under the faucet, trying to scrub and scrape off that clinging grease, so as not to smear it off onto the only clean dishrag I could see.
The platter was an old white crockery one like everybody had, kind of oval, with slightly pointed ends, and we all held our breaths as Bonnie Gail dropped a little drip of the syrup into a cup of cold water. That was the test for READY, and we sighed as we watched the first two tries dissolve and float away like wispy dreams. And when we saw the third try forming the requisite soft ball, I think we all cheered, as she poured that thick panful onto the tray. The tiniest hairline of a yellow oleo moat formed and edged the spreading pool, and somehow, the flow stopped magically just at the brimming rim of the plate.
I don’t know if anybody got burned by their impatience, for I fully remember Bonnie Gail holding back the boys' grabbing hands by shouldering them away---I can still hear the scruffle of her shoe soles across that kitchen floor as she evaded their pushing by pushing back---and I don’t think the stuff had time to cool and set up, for those grubby fingers barely waited til the knife made the first cuts. They scooped up and pulled stretches and blew on their fingers, making those indrawn sss-sss-sss cooling sounds as they gobbled up the candy. I think it was one of my first exposures to a “grab what you can get” episode, and I can remember a little tingle of shock to see them almost fighting over the treat.
And I did get to taste a tiny crumb, after she loudly reminded them of their manners---it was sweet and rich and still warm, but already going to that wonderful old-fashioned sugary texture that happened about two times out of three with that old recipe. I'm so glad that it WAS that way---the authentic kids-in-the-kitchen, slightly off-kilter goodness that's probably much better in memory than in actuality. For that moment, it recalls as perfect.
I have no idea why this small time made such an impression on me---I was probably about ten, and had been making candy and cakes for a long time already. It was just the interest and the avid waiting, and the impromptu delight of creating something so unexpected on a dull day, in a house without books or games or television, and where a great part of the entertainment was punching each other in the arm or wrestling across the floor. I had such a great sympathy for Bonnie Gail, to have to live a girl’s life in that rowdy roil of boys---they weren’t BAD, but the suffocating energy and tide of preposterone in that little house were overwhelming---no wonder she married young and moved on.
And all those boys---all of them grew up to be kind, hard-working men, dedicated husbands and fathers. I hope they remember the sweetness most of all.