Gloria Ludlam Bennett
The summer I was four, my mama woke up early one morning and decided she was tired of living with her parents in their sleepy little town in north Florida. She confided to me as we snuggled under the sheets that she longed for something different. So out of the blue, she wrote to her sister Barbara, who lived in the southeast corner of Alabama, to see if she and I could possibly go live with her for a while, until she could get on her own two feet.
Aunt Barbara wrote back almost immediately that she and her husband George would love to have us and could probably even help her find a job, so less than two weeks later, Mama had packed up most of our stuff, despite my grandparents' protests, and Jim, one of her first cousins, a lanky boy dressed in faded overalls, came driving up in his daddy's Chevrolet to get us.
After a brief visit with my grandma and grandpa, Cousin Jim loaded up the trunk of the car, and we told everybody goodbye. I think my grandfather took our leaving the hardest.
I climbed into the backseat and fell asleep almost as soon as we hit the blacktop. When we reached our destination, a little less than three hours later, Mama said, "Wake up, Kathy. We're almost there."
On my very first ride through Irwinton, I was fascinated with the beautiful old homes in the historic part of town. Antebellum mansions lined the quiet, canopied streets, and rows of Spanish moss hung from majestic pecan trees. As we made our way down Broad Street, I kept trying to guess which house belonged to my Aunt Barbara; I would have been happy with any one of them, but my favorite was Kendal Manor, with its tall white columns. They reminded me of soldiers, guarding the wide veranda.
While we were waiting at a traffic light, my mind began to wander, and I decided that if my aunt and uncle didn't mind, I'd take a bedroom on the second floor, where there would be plenty of room to hang out with all of my imaginary friends. Unfortunately, before I could get too caught up in my fantasy, the light turned green, and Cousin Jim drove right on past Kendal Manor.
I soon found out that my relatives did not live in that part of town. Our people lived in modest, smaller homes in older neighborhoods and in mill villages on the outskirts of town. That was probably my first lesson towards an understanding of the different social classes that existed in the South during the late 1960s. My ancestors had never lived on any plantation, and if they had been involved with the production of cotton or indigo, they would have done so as poor white sharecroppers.
After driving past more of the beautiful old homes in the center of town, we finally arrived at my aunt and uncle's place, a small white two-bedroom wood-frame house that I later learned they rented from the cotton mill my uncle worked for. Mama and I took the second bedroom, which held a full-sized white wrought iron bed, a rocking chair, and a small mahogany dresser that I suspected had originally belonged to my grandmother. Mama and I had always shared a room, as well as a bed, so we had everything we needed.
I enjoyed living with my aunt and uncle the first week or two. Much of our pastime centered around their television, and Aunt Barbara introduced me to two new shows the first week we were there: American Bandstand, which we liked for the music and dancing every Saturday morning, and Dark Shadows, a show about vampires that scared me half to death every weekday afternoon. I'd hide my face under the covers and ask Mama to tell me what was happening next. These were both shows that I instinctively knew my grandparents would not have approved for even my Mama to watch.
My aunt and uncle seemed to have a lot of friends, and there was never a dull moment while we were staying with them. All of the houses in their neighborhood stood close together, on tiny lots, so random people were always dropping by for short visits, especially late in the evenings after everyone got off work. They had cookouts in the backyard a lot, and for the first time in my life, it was okay for me to eat hamburgers, hotdogs, French fries, potato chips on a regular basis.
I remember a house filled with people. Young people were always hanging out at their place—eating, dancing, or playing card games—but the excitement soon wore off for me. I got homesick and wanted to return to my grandparents' house in Florida, but Mama found a job at a sewing factory and told me we were staying.
Mama didn't have a car, so we had to depend on other people to give us rides whenever we had to go anywhere, but when she finally got around to showing me where she worked, the first thing I wanted to know was what she did there all day. The only work for pay I had ever known my Mama to do was to clean houses for older people that my grandparents were acquainted with in their hometown.
"I make collars for men's shirts," Mama said. "No sleeves. No buttonholes. Just collars. All day long."
"Do you like makin' collars?"
"Not at all. It is, however, a steady job. And that means independence."
I wasn't old enough yet for kindergarten, so I started staying with Mama's Aunt Lucinda, my grandmother's sister, during the day while Mama worked. I later found out that she was also Cousin Jim's Mama. She had a head full of pure white hair that reminded me of soft, fluffy cotton. I was surprised by this because my grandmother's hair was still jet black in color. Aunt Lucinda was also a lot thinner than my grandmother. When I pointed out these contrasts to Mama, she said it was because Aunt Lucinda's belly hadn't been permanently stretched out by ten pregnancies, and her hair color didn't come out of a box.
Aunt Lucinda and her husband, Uncle Frank, lived near the river, just a short drive from Aunt Barbara's, in what Mama called a tarpaper shack. I had never seen anything like it, and it was a far stretch from the houses I had seen on our way into town when we first drove up from Florida.
The first time we went there, Aunt Barbara dropped us off at the street on her way into town. We paused for a moment by the front gate, and I bent down and touched the asters growing there, delighted by the softness of their petals. The stone path leading to the front porch was lined with zinnias, one of my grandmother's favorites, and several other flowers that I did not recognize. Morning glory vines had wrapped themselves around the posts that held up the front porch, and potted plants filled almost every corner.
To my surprise, they had no running water or indoor plumbing. That first day I stayed alone with her, I eagerly watched Aunt Lucinda as she collected water into a shiny metal bucket from a well right outside their back door. I was not at all impressed, however, the first time she escorted me down a long, winding foot trail through poplar and beech trees that led to the toilet facilities, an old wooden outhouse in a shady spot at the back edge of their property.
"Somethin' stinks!" I protested, holding my nose as soon as she opened the door to let me in. "I ain't goin' in there."
"Well, there ain't no where else to go, Sweetheart. You just climb on up there now and be quick about your business."
"Well, don't you let me fall in," I said, as I grabbed onto her apron.
"You ain't fallin' in." But she agreed to hold my arm, just in case.
Aunt Lucinda didn't own a television, and since there wasn't much else in the way of entertainment, I usually just followed her, and sometimes even Uncle Frank, around the house while they did their chores. Like my grandparents, gardening took up a huge part of their lives. They kept a large rectangular plot out in the backyard for growing long rows of produce. Some of the food items I immediately recognized were: peas, beans, cabbage, potatoes, corn, onions, carrots, cucumbers, greens, Brussels sprouts, squash, zucchini, cantaloupes, watermelon, green peppers, and tomatoes. They also grew gourds, which I had never known anyone to eat. They were used instead for a variety of functions around the house. For example, once they were dried out, they became good birdhouses, and Aunt Lucinda had her share strung up around the back yard for just that purpose.
Uncle Frank took care of almost everything outside that dealt with machinery. He plowed, mowed the grass, cut up firewood and stacked it for winter, mended fences and chicken houses, and took care of anything pertaining to the garden that required the use of a tractor. On the other hand, Aunt Lucinda worked mostly inside, especially in the kitchen, canning and freezing all kinds of fruits, jams, preserves, and vegetables, and sometimes even meat.
It didn't take long for me to figure out that Aunt Lucinda was an extremely good cook; perhaps she had been the one to teach my grandmother. Every afternoon when it was time to start on supper, I sat at the kitchen counter on a round wooden bar stool and helped her make buttermilk biscuits.
"This is better than playin' in the mud," I said, as I mixed the dough with my hands in a big oval-shaped wooden bowl.
"Just be sure you don't get flour everywhere," she laughed. "Keep it all in the bowl now, and you'll be fine."
Aunt Lucinda had a thing for colored glass. Her cabinets were full of pretty pieces she had collected over the years, and whenever I helped her set the table she almost always let me choose the pieces we would use. The ones that stand out the most in my memories was a set of small emerald green drinking glasses that came inside specially marked boxes of oatmeal. She would sometimes let me reach inside the round canisters to dig them out. It seemed like a treasure hunt to me and was well worth washing my hands for. She had a set of little plates, some bowls that were just about the right size for cereal, ice cream, or pudding, and an assortment of drinking glasses in three different sizes. Always beautifully set, her table was a sharp contrast to my grandmother's completely practical one, set quickly to accommodate a large household of hungry people.
Like my grandmother, Aunt Lucinda starched and ironed almost everything she washed, even Uncle Frank's boxers and handkerchiefs, only she didn't have a houseful of daughters to help her. She always set the ironing board up in the kitchen, near the window, and kept an old Coke bottle filled with water on the stove. Every now and then, she would put her thumb over the opening and sprinkle water on the clothes to make for smoother ironing.
I have always admired bold, colorful fabrics, so I especially enjoyed watching Aunt Lucinda while she worked on her quilts. They were attached to a square wooden frame that she lowered at will from the living room ceiling whenever she got the urge to work on one of them. She had a cedar chest full of quilts in her bedroom, in various patterns and colors. In addition to being functional, they were beautiful pieces of artwork.
For the most part, she and I got along well, but there were some things about Aunt Lucinda that I had trouble getting used to. For one thing, she had unusual methods for making me feel better when I got sick or hurt myself. Instead of giving me little orange flavored pills out of a medicine cabinet, like my grandmother had always done, she would mix up a cure from herbs she had grown in flowerpots right outside the front door. She knew the names of all of them and exactly what they were used for. On occasion, a neighbor would stop by and ask her about a remedy for some illness they had, and she was always glad to help.
A bee stung me one day while I was helping her hang bed sheets on the clothesline to dry. As soon as I cried out from the pain, she grabbed my arm and spit a mouthful of snuff on it.
"What did you do that for?" I wailed.
"'Cause that's the best cure there is for insect bites," she said. "Let's go on up to the house now and rest for a spell. We'll get us some cold lemonade to drink."
Right after I began staying with her, she discovered that I had warts on several of my fingers. She noticed them the first time we sat down together to work on her quilts. She had asked me to thread a needle for her, and when I told her I didn't know how, she took it upon herself to teach me.
"A gal your age should a been taught to thread a needle and how to use it proper by now," she said, "but truth be known, I don't reckon my sister has had the time teach you, what with all them children to take care of."
My Mama had always told me that my hands were one of my best features because I had beautiful long fingers, but my cousins back home had made fun of me and had accused me of playing with frogs the first time they saw all those warts. I had maybe ten or twelve of them at one time.
To rid my hands of these unsightly growths, Aunt Lucinda cut a small branch from an elder tree one day and cut with a butcher knife as many notches as I had warts. As she cut, she explained to me that elder wood had preventive powers and could cure a long list of diseases. Then together she and I buried the branch in secrecy at the edge of her flower garden in the rich, moist soil.
"You can't tell nobody about this, or it won't work," she told me.
She didn't really have to emphasize this to me because I had been born into a situation that required my knowing the importance of being able to keep a secret.
Aunt Lucinda assured me that as the wood rotted away in the ground, my warts would subside, and I would no longer be bothered with them. True to her word, my warts were completely gone by the end of the summer, and my Mama treated me to a handful of new dime-store rings and bracelets and encouraged me to show off my hands.
Aunt Lucinda was also very superstitious. For that reason, I had to be especially careful about what I did around the house. For example, while I was helping her rinse the dishes one day, I almost slid off the stool I was sitting on and accidentally splashed some water on the front of my dress. After that, she became obsessed with the idea that I was now doomed to one day marry a no-good drunkard. Another time, she got upset when she saw me sweeping leaves off the front porch after dark while I was waiting for my Mama; this would somehow bring unwelcomed visitors to her house before the week was over. As she took the broom from me and scolded me, she further warned that I should never get in the way of anyone who might be sweeping; it would mean disaster if they accidentally swept over my feet while trying to get at the dirt. She was convinced this would somehow cause me to grow up to be an ugly old spinster, unable to attract myself a husband.
Shortly after I started staying with Aunt Lucinda, I learned that she had another sister, in addition to my grandmother, and everybody called her Dell. She was a widow and lived in Irwinton too, not too far from Aunt Lucinda's, in a little white house that was nearly covered in green ivy. According to Aunt Lucinda, the ivy was supposed to protect the people who lived there from evil and witchcraft, but too much of it is said to bring bad luck. Dell's husband had died years before from mysterious causes, and her only son had been killed in a logging accident in Florida only a few days after he had found work at the paper mill down there. Living alone with only her memories to entertain her sometimes worked on her mind.
Uncle Frank had to drive to Columbus, Georgia, one day to see a doctor about an illness that wasn't explained to me, and Aunt Lucinda decided she would go with him for the ride. I wanted to go too, but she said we'd have to do it another time. When I pouted, she promised to stop by Sears and bring me back a brand new baby doll. The one I had gotten the previous Christmas had definitely seen better days, so that at least gave me something to look forward to.
Mama couldn't afford to miss a day of work, so she told me I would have to stay with Aunt Dell.
"Just be careful," Mama warned, "cause she ain't exactly right in the head."
The first time Aunt Lucinda took me to meet Aunt Dell, she decided we'd walk to her place, rather than wait for someone to drive us there; there were places she wanted to show me along the way. The back roads we took there twisted and turned, reminding me of my grandfather's unwound fishing line, and the old blacktop had been smoothed to gray many years before. This walk was a treat for both of us, but especially for Aunt Lucinda, for she rarely had more than a few minutes to spend outdoors simply walking and looking closely at this landscape she had always loved. We stopped more than once to drink in the beauty and promise of so many colorful flowers, all of which Aunt Lucinda could name.
We passed a graveyard on the way, and Aunt Lucinda led me inside an old wrought-iron gate that had vines growing all over it, and pointed out the final resting place of several of my ancestors. It was a small cemetery, with probably no more than fifty graves. The limestone markers were faint, but still readable, and she read me the names of relatives who had passed long before my time. Then she showed me her own Mama's grave, this woman who would have been my great grandmother, and told me the story of how she had died from tuberculosis at the height of the epidemic when my grandmother was only three years old, just a year younger than I was that summer.
A little further down the road, we left the pavement and took a dirt road. It was overgrown with grass and weeds and snaked through a growth of pine trees. She showed me where a wooden one-room church, a general store, and a post office had once stood, but the foundations were all that remained. She told me how she and Aunt Dell and my grandMama had all spent time there when they were children.
As we neared Aunt Dell's house, Aunt Lucinda pointed out a thicket of close-growing holly bushes in the side yard as we walked up the stone path that led to the front steps, and she assured me that as big as they were, taller than a grown man, I would be even further protected from any spells or evil doing while I was there because, as everyone knew, holly wards off natural disasters like lightening and thunder and also keeps one safe from witchcraft, evil spirits, fairies, and other pranksters.
Aunt Dell's house wasn't anything fancy, but it was exceptionally clean and welcoming. Early every morning, the sun came in a long slant through the front door and windows, filling the house with light. White cabinets and appliances filled the tiny kitchen, and everything was spotless. It was hard to imagine that any evil could reside in a place alongside all that brightness. I felt reassured that I would be safe in that house.
Blue spruce trees shaded the back of the house in the summer and filled the air all around her house with the fresh scent of pine. I knew I would be happy enough while I stayed with her if she allowed me to set up a temporary playhouse on the back porch. Having lived in Florida, I appreciated porches and the cool breezes they offered during the summertime.
One thing I did find especially unusual about Aunt Dell's house was the fact that she kept a life-sized doll in the corner of her living room. It had blonde hair and blue eyes and was almost as tall as I was. It stood in the corner near one of the windows, beside an armchair that I later learned had been her husband's. Aunt Lucinda had already warned me beforehand not to touch that doll; I would not ever be allowed to play with it, so there was no need to ask.
"But why does she even have a doll if she don't got no children?" I asked Aunt Lucinda the first moment we were alone.
"The doll belonged to her husband. Dell bought it years ago, long before he passed."
"But why?" I asked. It seemed silly to me that a grown man would want anything to do with a doll.
"She bought him it for him 'cause he wanted a little girl so bad."
"She didn't have no girl babies, did she?"
"Well, actually, she did have one girl baby, but the poor thing lost it. It was a terrible, sad day for all of us, 'specially bein' that she was so far along and all."
I was horrified with that knowledge, but not for the reason Aunt Lucinda assumed. In my innocence I did not understand that losing a baby was another way of saying she had suffered a miscarriage. Those topics weren't discussed back then, especially with a four-year-old girl child. Learning that Aunt Dell had lost her one and only daughter, however, made me question the judgment of both my Mama and Aunt Lucinda; why, after all, I reasoned, would they want to leave me with a woman who couldn't keep up with her own baby girl.
In my mind I began to dream up several possible scenarios for how the daughter had been lost, and the one I finally settled on was the one in which the family had gone off on a picnic down by the river and the little girl had just wandered off alone, never to be seen again, while Aunt Dell and her husband napped on a quilt they had spread out under an oak tree after filling themselves with fried chicken and watermelon on a humid July day. I made a mental note to myself that this was one more family secret I was going to be required to keep.
I was happy to learn that Aunt Dell had indoor plumbing, and she frequently made use of it throughout the day. Unfortunately, she would make me go to the bathroom with her every single time she had to go because, according to her, the spirits of her deceased husband and son often stopped by to visit her whenever no one else was around.
"You're so tiny, they won't even know you're here, and I'm afraid it might scare you if one of them just suddenly appears in the living room while I'm off taking care of personal business," she said. "You'd better come with me."
To maintain some sense of privacy she had me stand by the door, facing away from her, and listen carefully for footsteps. I kept my ear pressed firmly to the bathroom door, but I never did hear anyone approaching.
I had to start staying with Aunt Dell on a regular basis because Uncle Frank's health continued to worsened, and before long he required Aunt Lucinda's undivided attention. Then, before the summer was over, he got up early one morning just after sunrise while Aunt Lucinda was out in the backyard picking peas and shot himself in the chest with one of his own guns. When she found him, he was lying there in the middle of her flowerbeds, surrounded by a multitude of colorful blooms and the unmistakable scent of jasmine.
Gloria Ludlam Bennett writes poetry and prose and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and reviews. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Gainesville State College in Gainesville, Georgia, where she also serves as faculty advisor for the Chestatee Review, an award-winning student-produced literary magazine. She also serves as President, Board of Directors, for the Georgia Writers Association. She is currently at work on a novel.