Birthdays and Memories

Posted: March 28, 2015 in Uncategorized

The four of us

Today is my favorite aunt’s birthday. Aunt Maxine is eighty-four and I see her young; and of course, I am a little kid. I am fortunate to be blessed with a great memory, so I remember most of my great aunts and uncles and those who followed, and it was simple to know all your regular aunts and uncles since they lived in the same area, some close enough to walk into their house. No one had to lock doors.

I recall sitting in the dirt in the dead heat of a Mississippi summer and just watching steam from the ground float upward. I wondered why it did that, but I hadn’t been to school yet and didn’t know that type of thing. I was an observant and nosy little kid with an inquisitive mind that never stopped asking Grandma questions about her parents and siblings. Genuinely, I wanted to know. She was quite open and loved to answer anything I’d ask. Oh, how I loved my grandma. She and my grandpa lived the next farm over, so my brothers and myself were there from breakfast till it began to get dark, with lightning bugs coming out. We never wanted to go home, it was a paradise of a wonderland for kids, especially since there was a deep semi-dry creek bed that had Tarzan vines to swing down into the creek itself. I was the one who always got the others in trouble, then I’d be as pure as rain, with the rest getting punished with switches. Then they’d beat me, after the grownups were out of sight, for getting them whipped. As a kid, all my ideas usually did that.

Honest, my grandma had to tell us that Mother and Daddy would worry about us. We never wanted to leave that big house that held so many mysterious sounds. I had this bonding type of thing going on with Grandma that I didn’t have with my mother, because I was the only child to be a carbon copy edition of my daddy. Daddy treated Mother like his servant–all the while he was the perfect father to us. He reminded us of thinking we were his chicks and he wasn’t at peace unless we were home and under his wings before he went to sleep. He put us first, always in everything. If ever a perfect country daddy existed, he had my daddy’s name.

Aunt Maxine, my birthday aunt, lived with my grandparents with her daughter Melissa, who was a year younger than my youngest brother. We were like stair-steps in age, so Melissa was like a sister. (I still call her or she calls me every other day. She lives in another state, alas. But she’s the only relative I have left who remembers the same things I do, because we were together through high school.)

The four of us kept my Aunt Maxine busy keeping up with us. She didn’t have a husband when I was a small kid; her husband, the love of her life, came later. You have to imagine a picture of a thousand acres of land that my grandparents lived within, and the house was haunted. In other words, people had died in the house and spirits remained. Their house was off the highway and it was surrounded by dirt roads, footpaths, and woods. I’m referring to uncut trees that dated back to forever. The original property owners were among the founding fathers in the county and wealthy. The land was share cropped over the years and leased for housing, but for the most part it was short on tenants. Every now and then, my brothers, Melissa and I would find an old ground well, covered by a lid to keep a kid from falling in. All up and down the road we’d see where early settlers, or long deceased families had lived –minus a house.

My grandpa owned a portion of that land, while the major landowner owned everything surrounding our farm and my grandparents’ farm. Uncles and aunts were scattered all over that property, so that’s full of memories with them too. The family cemetery was/is on the hill above my grandparents farm, but from our farm it was an easy walk up into the hills, on an elevated portion of land. The graves dated back to the 1600’s, as verified by old gravestones within the cemetery. Actually, my Aunt Maxine, in trailing the five of us, fell in a grave on one of our wanderings. It was a soft part of earth at the cemetery into an old grave. She never saw it coming. My brothers, and Melissa were with her at the time and it was a scary sight. We thought the ground had swallowed her up. The ground was soft, from a rain and had a sunken look, so with us in tow, she probably didn’t see it. I think that was at the time I was about eight and my eldest brother was thirteen. We grabbed her hand and pulled and pulled some more. She did make it out of that dark, sunken grave, but she was covered with red, muddy earth. She said she felt the top of a rotted wood coffin. Creepy, to the five of us who truly believed in ghosts from all the stories Grandma and Aunt Maxine had told us–Images they’d seen, sounds they’d heard at night, such as a man with a hat on, standing under the eves in pouring rain, or Melissa snoring and the same sound mimicked by something as she slept. Another was: Grandma washed dishes one night and heard sounds at the back door. She went, with knife in hand to the screened door. A man stood on the steps, gray in pallor, fleeing upon sight of the butcher knife. Sightings and sounds were endless. And we soaked it all up like studying for a test later on, when she gathered us round her feet, as she sat in Grandpa’s rocking chair.

So many graves in the cemetery were (and still are) unmarked and the cemetery was pretty full of occupants even back then. Family wanted their loved ones to be buried together whether poor or just “making a living,” which was farming unless you worked at a shirt or shoe factory. Back then, that’s all there was.

Aunt Maxine was young at heart enough to match us, the nieces and nephews, who were underfoot day until night. There had also been family sicknesses that brought the entire line of families together at night. It was eerie in darkness, in the humongous house with the long porch and high steps. If the windows were up, you could hear something that sounded like a baby crying. As I grew older, I thought it could be a bobcat. I had seen one on one of my walks up to the cemetery and it sat on a limb in the daytime. I walked slow at such times and made my way back to the house. A winding dirt road followed around the cemetery and back down the hill, beside my grandparents house, and kept going to connect with a two lane road. Not much traffic back then.

I have many, many memories of Aunt Maxine. She grew older; we grew older. On Saturday nights, she had a radio and listened to something with Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner singing together. I never liked country music, but that’s all there was on any radio where we lived. In our silly way, we sang along with the radio, Aunt Maxine did more so than us. She had the radio going, her cigarettes out and always a box of candy to snack on. We were attentive to the noises, her laughter, Melissa’s being spoiled, and my brothers with the roughness of a country boys rough- housing and picking on one another. In the living room, my grandpa had a big, floor type of radio that’s like an antique now. He listened to news–no music. He’d sit in his rocking chair before that floor radio and have his own good time spitting snuff into a Maxwell coffee can. I recall one time the can was red with a distinguished male image on the outside of it. Grandma usually went to bed. Sometimes, if we stayed too late, Daddy would walk over and retrieve us. Saturday nights were always good. We’d kid Aunt Maxine about having a crush on a couple of guys who logged down the road. And she’d just laugh and feel flattered. I swear, Aunt Maxine was a lot of fun. She kept us together wherever we wandered. Without her, we would have been lost forever or swallowed up by “something on four feet.”

She was special and unforgettable and acted like one of us or pretended. I think it was a mixture of everything, because we loved her. I have a ton of memories at that cemetery, adventures in the house, with some dark rooms without electricity, the semi-dry creek bed, the revival meetings in the old church at the cemetery (that used to be a school-house when my mother went to school), it was a busy place whether there was a burying or just the regular Sunday gatherings of a humongous family, when people would come from far either in a pick-up truck or on foot. I would love to go back and find my “people” there–alive. I’d ask more questions.

:When you are a kid growing up, you have youth and the thought of family disappearing on you doesn’t enter the mind, but one by one each leaves with some type of memory that you don’t want to turn loose, which is always the case with me–sentimental and reliving happier times. Isolation will do that.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Maxine and I hope to see you at Easter.

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