The Great Aunties
I was mad. I was burning up with the very flames of hell mad. I am surprised that I didn't break something by the way I was handling things. Screen doors slammed. Feet stomped up the back stairs but I knew enough to walk quietly in the house. I had had a switch across the back of my legs; it stung and Mama wouldn't let me swim until it was healed after a few days. Well, I wanted a swim.
I helped Mama prepare the plates. She had pickles out and made sandwiches out of the roast chicken from the night before. Maybe she knew that the Aunties were coming and didn't tell us. We didn't have a lot of money but Mama could make a table look like everything was special. I hinted to her that I wanted to go up to the creek but she wasn't listening to me at all. She was so excited and happy, almost as excited as when Daddy had wired us that he found a job.
I was folding the napkins when I heard a knock at the door. I looked up at Mama, who suddenly looked very young and fresh. She ran to the door and the gaggling began.
Oh, Evvy! Good to see you. Minna, honey!
Minna. Why Evvy, how beautiful you look!
Is that Viriginia Min? Look how big she's grown
Little Kenny? Well, he certainly isn't little any more.
And on and on like that. Hugging. Kissing. It was pushing noon in August in St. Louis. The moist heat weighed down a body's skin. Auntie Cora was the youngest and she was a large woman with a round face and magnificent steel gray hair set in a bob; it made her blue eyes sparkle with life. Aunt Zonie was quieter, with dark hair. Then there was my Granny, the oldest; the shortest one with a little square face and an imposing jaw.
"I thought we would sit outside under the tree. It's so sticky in the house." Mama pointed the way through the kitchen out the door. I helped carry two plates of pickles and watermelon rinds. I noticed that Kenny carried one little plate: the butter for the bread. He wasn't clumsy. He could have carried the plate of bread but he made Auntie Zonie carry it.
Mama had set out our little kitchen table in the yard under beautiful honey locus. The little, light green fronds let dappled sunlight through and let the hot, sweaty breeze tease us with a promise of relief. The white sheets flipped limply on the line. Hurricane force winds could not cool us in the August noon in St. Louis.
I don't remember what they talked about. I ate a pretty finger sandwich and a couple of pickled melons. But when the pink glass pitcher got low, I carried it up the wooden steps, through our wood screen and back out and then did it again as the ladies wiped themselves with their handkerchiefs. Kenny sat and squirmed and slumped in his chair. Well, that's what he got for only bringing out one plate of butter.
I set the glass pitcher on the table and took my place between Auntie Zonie and Granny.
"Kenneth Stevenson, sit down in that chair." Granny leaned forward and dabbed her neck. Kenny was sliding out of his chair next to Mama; his legs and knees were in the grass and his body was draped across the seat.
"Oh, Min, he's just a boy and hot, isn't it, honey?" Auntie Cora giggled as she watched him melt down into the grass, right himself and sit down in the chair with a scowl. "It's such a hot day. I'll bet you'd like to go take a swim in a creek." Auntie hit her arm; although they loved the dusk, a few desperate mosquitos hunted in the heat.
"There's a creek not too far from us. My friends are all there." Kenny's voice had a little catch in it. He could lay on the pity when he tried.
"My friends are there too, Kenny," I growled and sat back in my chair with my arms crossed. The sweat ran down the crook of my arm but I didn't care. Better fold my arms than give a good pinch to my little brother in front of relatives.
"Aw, Evvy. Let the boy go to his friends. Kenny, you've eaten so nice and you've been so quiet. Evvy." Auntie Cora took a long drink of water and dabbed her upper lip.
"Cora, it is his mother's decision, not yours." Granny fixed that jaw of hers and sat ramrod straight.
"For pity's sake, Min, he's a little boy and he should be out running around." Auntie Cora looked away with her nose turned up slightly into the air.
"He can sit still a few minutes with his great aunts." Granny leaned forward and stared a hole into Kenny. "The great aunts that he hasn't seen in good while."
"Look at the poor dear, Min. He was always as cute as--"
"Yes, as a bugs ear. We've heard that before, Cora. The boy can sit."
"But he's so hot--"
"We're all hot."
"It's fine, Mama. Kenny, go on." My Mama stood up and poured out the last of the water. He was gone before the last drop in Auntie Zonie's glass.
"I'm hot, too," I pleaded with the aunties.
"You sit down, Virginia. You're a girl and one day you will be a woman. You will have a nice sit down with us." Auntie Cora smiled and sat back in her chair.
And then the talk about the old days in the hills of southeastern Missouri. The endless discussions about people and relatives I never knew and would never meet. Births. Deaths. The scandal of a cousin who married her aunt's husband, left him, had a baby and then died of tuberculosis. On and on. Eternity on a hot, summer afternoon.
"Would you be a love and bring your Auntie more water, angel? Thank you." Auntie Cora picked up the pink pitcher and handed it to me. I looked at Mama who smiled so I took it into the house with a sigh.
I let the door slam and put the pitcher on the counter none too gently. The door slammed again and my Auntie Zonie appeared, holding the two plates of pickles.
"I thought I'd bring these in and help you, Virginia. I brought a picture that I wanted to show your granny but I think you'd probably like to see it first." Auntie Zonie had a soft, kindly look just like Mama or maybe Mama had a look like Auntie Zonie. I followed her into our front room. It felt like a hot, stifling oven with no breeze coming through the windows. She set her purse on the dining room table and pulled out an old black and white picture. There were three young women with ice skates hanging over their shoulders. The snow was deep from the looks of it and their clothes were old fashioned.
"This picture was taken in Fredericktown when we were young women. See your granny? She was small but she was so pretty. There's Cora. She was so stylish. See the stripes on her coat?"
"Is that you on the end, Auntie?" I asked as I examined the picture and pulled it close to my nose. Her face was blurry but even then she had that kind, gentle look that Mama had.
"We had a lot of fun that day. It wasn't too long after Min met a handsome young man named Leroy." Her face turned serious for a moment. A hot breeze blew the cotton curtain. Auntie smiled again. "Your grandfather."
"What was he like?" I smiled back at her and pushed my sweaty hair behind my ear.
"Well, it wouldn't be right to hear it from just one person and the quietest one of the girls. Let's go outside and ask my sisters, Virginia." She smoothed back my hair. It felt nice. Familiar. Loving. I've never forgotten that gesture, even though I'm an old woman. How I miss her. But that afternoon I was 9 years old and it was a hot summer day. I wanted to go to swim in the creek with Kenny but Auntie Zonie had just sweetened the pot.
"Are you thirsty, Virginia?" she asked. I nodded. Without a word, we got up and went into the kitchen.
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