Crinkled brows, eyes shifting from side to side, estimating, evaluating; finally a bark of laughter erupts and a lead card is thrown onto the table.
“We have you now,” shrieks a female voice.
“Maybe,” replies a male opponent as a second card meets the first.
A third card, higher ranked, joins the small pile, and a fourth. The trick is taken by the opponent.
“Always expect a holdout,” the man’s voice advises.
The aroma of strong coffee and one of Mom’s baked wonders tantalizes nostrils and stomachs of those present. It’s always the same group; couple vs. couple or men vs. women. The game might change from Euchre to rummy or to Pitch, but the night would leave everyone relaxed and satisfied.
Mom’s sister had a great deal to do with that feeling of hilarity. She loved playing the fool during card nights and did it very well. Some nights she was more boisterous than on others, but she seldom turned serious when games were in play.
My younger brother and his counterpart cousin generally watched TV during card night and then settled down to sleep. My older cousin and I watched the game in the kitchen as interested by-standers. We didn’t play. If Euchre was being played, we definitely were not allowed to play. In our part of the country, that game was a gambling game, even when not played for stakes. No children need apply.
None would ever consider the two women as not being family. My mom resembled my aunt in coloring and hair style. Their builds were nearly identical. Both were natural artists and could turn almost anything into a piece of art.
My mother worked in paint and clay or metal and findings from the forest. Her sister worked in paint and fabric, for the most part. Both loved antiques, but my aunt could have been a dealer. The knowledge she had was gleaned from years of scouring antique shops, auctions, and estate sales.
Most of all, both women loved the outdoors and nature. They’d grown up in the country. Their mother had taught them a deep love and respect for what grew wild or by design. They each enjoyed growing food for their tables as much as gathering from the wild.
With all of these commonalities, they managed to remain individuals who stood apart from each other.
Auntie was more playful than Mom. Mom had better rapport with children and animals. Auntie desired a house full of antiques and a spotless home. Mom liked things tidy, but she preferred a sense of home and comfort to fill rooms meant for living.
Aunt and Uncle often took Grandma and my cousins on trips away for a weekend to see other relatives. Mom didn’t bother. Her sister took great pleasure in that part of mother-daughter time; leaving Mom to do the Sunday home visits for family time.
Sisters, friends, companions, champions, confidantes; each filled those roles for the other. They talked in person or on the phone every day, without fail. Close didn’t begin to describe their relationship. They could have been twins for all the difference there was between them.
Except, of course, at the card table. Auntie bantered nonsense, trying to throw off the opponents. She’d accuse her husband of stacking the deck if he wasn’t her partner, and encourage him to throw better cards her way during the deal if he was her partner. The poor man couldn’t win an engagement with her either way.
Mom would go along with the gags, kidding, nonsense, and laughter, all the while keeping herself unaffected by it. I figure that for her it was like being at one of the old carnivals. A person heard the barker calling out to those passing by, but that didn’t mean that the person had to pay the quarter to see the Freak Show.
It was the night’s total atmosphere and camaraderie that Mom enjoyed, and much of that atmosphere was created by her sister. Auntie was a one-woman show and didn’t need much encouragement. That was how she liked it, I think.
There are times when I think back to those nights just to listen to that laughter and to see again the absolute joy on my aunt’s face when she’d pulled off a really good card play. It’s been a nearly thirty years since she left us, but I can still smile at her antics, knowing that she entertained us as much for her own sake as for any other reason.
My father’s next youngest sister epitomizes the term “generosity of spirit.” As a young woman she could have modeled for any top agency in the world, with raven hair, laughing eyes, full mouth, and alabaster skin, all in a tall lithesome frame. She had all of this and more.
With marriage to a kind and playful man came responsibilities of farm, home, and family. Two daughters, each unique and talented, kept her busy and focused. Bickering inside the family was unheard of.
By the time the first grandchild came along, this dark beauty had become a matron, happy in her authentic plantation-style house and space enough for the girls to have enough land of their own to build homes next to the big house. Any threatening clouds to her life were as yet unnoticed. Her life was moving along very well to all appearances.
Months rolled by, minor medical issues came into the household for her, but for the first grandchild, the issues were serious and potentially deadly. She dealt with her fears and uncertainty as she dealt with life in general. She faced them, head-on, one step at a time, and helped wherever she could.
The grandson never grew out of his early medical distress. The situation grew more complicated and disconcerting as time wore on. Soon another child entered the picture, and he, too, suffered from the same disabilities.
Soon, the younger daughter had begun building her own family, living on the other side of Mom and Dad. The brood had expanded with another son-in-law and three more grandkids. Over the years serious medical concerns stalked the branches of that family tree, bringing with them sorrows, fortitude, and making do for the family’s members.
My aunt moved ahead through it all, through her own medical troubles, with frequent hospitalizations, treatments, etc. She did what she’d always done. She took care of her family; cooking, cleaning, soothing feverish children, smiling, praying, and loving.
She did all of this, and if she ever complained about her lot in life, I figure only God witnessed it. She has faced her days with gentle resolve to do the best she can, able to laugh at the foolishness and play of both human and animal, and using her indoor voice most of the time. Getting flustered never gets a task done, so she never bothered to use it.
I remember this lady from the time I was five or six years old. I’ve never known her to exhibit rage, prejudice, or ill-will. I’ve seen her cry, rock a sick child for hours in the middle of the night, and work until her fingers bent with arthritis. I know why her family is the way it is.
Those in her immediate family follow hers and my uncle’s example in their generosity and grace. There are no personal complaints about how life isn’t fair. They recognize that truth and work hard with what they have to make their situation—whatever that might be–the best it can be at that moment. They accept their roles in life, without blaming anyone for them.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Always happiness and light, never raw emotion hanging on the clothesline for all to see, no enemies or troubles coming from the outside.
Like most things in this world, happiness is a relative emotion. These lucky people love and respect each other. They work as a team to make it in the world and to move forward as quickly as they can. Their happiness comes from trusting God and knowing that they are safe in the hands of one another. They support one another in all ways.
She and my uncle act as a lode stone for their family. They create the core from which other members gather strength and direction. That doesn’t diminish the innate strength of my cousins, their husbands, and their children. Indeed, each of the younger generation has manifested that same sense of strength, resolve, and grace.
I’ve watched and admired this branch of my family for most of my life, as I’ve admired all of my family members for individual reasons. I’m blessed to be shown a living example of grace and generosity each time I envision my aunt working in her kitchen, hearing her laugh about some small clumsiness she experienced that day. I know that I’ve been shown one the self-actualized people in the world and thank God for it.
There is no such thing as perfection on this earth, but until the real thing comes along, I’ll keep using this family as my lode stone for living a good life.
“Don’t touch that bed” must have rang out many times on that drizzly cold day back when I was so small. Mom always contended that my great-grandmother’s bed was a prized and sacrosanct object to be avoided at all costs.
I have only one memory of that great lady of the South. Mother and I were visiting. Baby brother was still “in arms,” as they said back then. I don’t recall who else was there, other than it was a woman; probably Dad’s mother or one of his sisters. The vague memory I have of our matriarch ebbs away further with each passing year.
Her meticulous home with its furnishings reflected who she was as a person. Her bedroom and the backyard are the clearest images I have of that day.
A tall sea of white bed linens fosters an itch in my palms. The sheets and coverlet look so crisp, so pure. I know that under those bedclothes are feather beds half as thick as I am tall. I can imagine well how soft these must be for sleeping because I sleep on my own, thinner, feather-bed at home. I keep my hands clasped behind my back.
Mom told me to touch nothing, and she’d positioned her Shaker chair to watch me through the bedroom door from the living room.
Narrow, multi-paned windows reach from my waist to near the ceiling, swathed in sheer white nylon curtains with their ruffles and frills; very girly. Stark walls resist the need for ornamentation that clutter rather than emphasizes. Shaker chairs in here, too, sit as if waiting for someone to occupy them while putting on socks and shoes.
In one corner a small round table exhibits a Victrola, its horn pointed toward the front window. At near eye-level for me, I can see the arm resting, waiting for the record to spin and for someone to flip the head and place it on the grooves. The crank hangs, unmoving, tempting.
I reach out to feel its smoothness and hear “Don’t touch!”
Questing hand retreats in a snap of muscle and chagrin. Too dangerous. Everything is too dangerous in this room filled with white.
Outside in the narrow backyard, new spring green is taking hold of everything in view. The back fence keeps chickens and other stock from roaming around the house. A fine mist envelopes me as I explore the cistern area, looking for early blossoms. The trees have begun to bud but remain barren to the eye.
Mom will be upset with me. Sunday shoes, wet grass, Great-grandmother’s clean floors. Not good, not good.
I’m the only one left who can attest to this short episode in my life. Perhaps that’s why I try to hang onto it as hard as I do. Great-grandmother died not too long after that day. My Dad’s mother and my own are both gone as well. Only I remember the day of drizzle, white linens, and a silent Victrola.
Do you remember throwing a temper tantrum as a child? If so, where were you and who calmed you down? Do you remember the reason for the tantrum?
I have one memory of such an event and there’s very little to it. I was at my father’s parents’ house. I stood facing my grandpa, who was trying in vain to placate me. My young five/six year old self was having nothing to do with placation.
My parents had promised to be home soon and they hadn’t come yet. Were they dead and no one had told me? Where were they and why weren’t they here?
Neither Grandpa nor Granny could calm me down. I was furious, terrified that I’d never see my parents again, and I was headed for a complete meltdown. The end of my memory was where I kicked Grandpa in the shin as hard as I could and demanded he produce my parents “right now!”
My mother, many years later, told me that she and Dad had remained in town to visit other relatives while my little brother and I went back to my grandparents’ home. She said that they’d been delayed for a couple of hours because of friends and other relatives taking up their time.
It seems like a simple enough explanation, and one that probably would have worked on an older child who wasn’t terrified that her parents were lying dead somewhere along the road. I never bought it, she said. Their excuse was never accepted by me. I believed, though I didn’t want to, that they’d lied to me when they said they’d be home shortly.
Looking back on it now, from so many years into my own future, I can understand my fears and accusations. I quail to think of my striking out at that most gentle of men, my grandpa, even as I can fathom the depth of my feelings. I can’t remember if I ever apologized for my actions that evening.
There are some fears that take precedence over logic. Fear of abandonment is a child’s worst nightmare. Does a child ever outgrow that tendency to hang on so that the caregiver can’t disappear? Does that fear develop from a toddler’s misperception that a person/thing disappears when no longer in view?
I’m sure I don’t know the answer to that question. I doubt the experts do either. I do know that when I invest my trust and love in a person, I expect them to honor it and not throw me curve balls. I’ve always had that response in relationships, whether within the family or those outside of it.
Perhaps Grandpa’s mistake in dealing with me and my fears was actually two-fold. He tried to speak to me in a reasonable tone and manner, and he didn’t know where my parents were and admitted it to me. Grandpa’s are, after all, supposed to be all-knowing, all seeing, and above all else, always right!
If I ever threw another tantrum, I don’t recall it. Thank God! The recollection of this one has haunted me for enough years already.
There are those within family groups who play major roles but don’t take major precedence. The fault doesn’t come from any absence of caring, but rather a lack of connection between two members of the group. One case in point was my maternal grandfather.
I never felt as if Grandfather St. Clair liked me. I honestly don’t know how that conviction arose, whether from a perceived coldness toward me or whether it was simply that he didn’t know how to relate to little girls. Whatever the cause, I had that impression.
He showed me only a reserved man who had much knowledge of natural history and personal experience. He knew and understood so many secrets of the deep woods, and he connected with my brother on that level. They were always great friends, who spent entire days together, hunting, fishing, and sharing.
I couldn’t get close to Grandfather. I couldn’t understand his sense of humor any more than I could guess at his feelings toward me. All I could do was watch helplessly as opportunities to connect eroded over the years.
Wonderment always flowed through me after I discovered the history between my grandmother and him. When she met him, she was a widow with three marriages behind her and four sons and a daughter to finish rearing. He was a friend of her eldest three sons.
One day, when she grew tired of his hanging around her house and eating food that she’d provided through a great deal of hard work, she told him that if he was going to continue to practically living there, he might as well marry her and help provide a few groceries for the table. Grandfather took her up on that proposal.
That reality has the power to stun a person on first hearing. A woman, with four nearly grown sons and a young daughter, and a nineteen-year-old husband is not usually something one considers commonplace during the 1920’s. Today she’d be called more than a cougar, I’m sure.
Back then, though, times were hard. Practicality ruled the lives of many. Necessity drove the bus to the future.
The newlyweds settled down. Within a year my mother was born. The year was 1930. My grandmother was 44 years old at the time, and the Depression was deepening.
Grandfather took a job in the stone quarry to supplement what their small farm’s production. Each day he rose before dawn and walked five miles across country to get to work. He labored there until nearly dark and then returned home through those same hollows, fields, roads, and forests. I never discovered whether he complained about this new lot into which he’d entered so casually.
When WWII arrived on the country’s doorstep, he and my mother’s four brothers entered the service and were shipped abroad. My grandmother was left holding down the responsibility for two young daughters and a farm, as well as the worry of perhaps losing all of her sons and her husband.
At war’s end all the menfolk returned. Grandfather had survived North Africa. Was that the cause of the brooding gazes that took control of his eyes sometimes? I have no way of knowing. Or, did he remember how Grandmother’s youngest son—my brother’s namesake–and his good friend, died at an unmarked railroad crossing along with two other young veterans shortly after returning from the war?
This was fresh family history when I came along as mother’s firstborn. I knew the man who could produce a fantastically productive garden and harvest from the wild much of the other necessities for my grandmother’s kitchen. I watched the man who held secrets close to his shirtfront and rarely laughed.
I don’t remember him at my grandmother’s funeral, but only afterward, due to circumstances that resonated into the months that followed.
This is my memory of my grandfather. I heard about his humor from others. It must have been too subtle for me to recognize as a child. By the time I reached adulthood, we were both different people who acknowledged each other, gave due respect, and found common ground in the family group.
I admit that these are only a few of the memories that I should have of the man and that time in my life. I also admit that, due to an accident, I remember only a small bit of those early years. I have images and impressions of some of my childhood and many of those triggered only because the recollections from other members of the family.
The thing that I found odd, now that I stop to ponder this man and my family, is that my grandmother was 74 when she died in 1960. He died in 1984, having barely attained the age of 75. They both had major strokes before death claimed them. Even apart, they came together.