by Joel Howard
Nina and I had just the one aunt and no uncle. Aunt Marla lived in a large, old Victorian house near downtown, one still possessed of wavy-paned windows and paint-flaked shutters sagging in despair. She’d saved the house from the wrecking ball, eliciting chuckles and head shakes from more than a few folks. Having sat unloved for many years, my aunt declared the house a “grand old dame in sore need of some loving, and I’m the grand old dame who’s gonna give it to her”. Every piece of intricate woodwork was, to her eyes, a small bit of artistic history crying out for her attention.
When dad first saw the house, he allowed that Marla had taken her independent streak a bit too far, and the decrepit “pile of termites and trouble” was to be her swan song. And while my aunt never got it up to any kind of standard that passed muster with dad, she’d managed to slap some lipstick and love on the old house and get her presentable. I loved the house, it being an edifice that made no apologies for its warts, and proudly proclaimed its presence among new townhomes and chic coffee shops. And its nooks and crannies, niches and built-in bookshelves, provided a sort of play land for me, allowing my mind to wander among the treasured air of the past. The house had character in abundance, as did my Aunt Marla, so they were a fitting pair of bawdy broads.
Being with my aunt was always an interesting proposition, as she marched not just to a different drummer, but to a soundtrack known only to herself, one she never shared, and would perhaps be unable to accurately describe had she been asked. Astrology, driving a VW van, wearing kaftans and tie-dye scarves, these were all so mysterious, my being raised in a household of upper middle-class mores, a sort of straightjacket on creativity being the norm. Ours was a home set rigid with my dad’s starched severity and short temper, a place where dissent was met with his drowning voice and disdainful sneer. Life for us was one of constant striving for the best, the latest and most coveted, all as decided and dictated by dad. Aunt Marla’s sing-out-loud living and who-needs-a-damn-rule-book attitude presented everything we Morrisons were not.
As much as Aunt Marla was a woman smashing generations of female servitude, my mom seemed to be the woman destined to ferry such legacy from one generation to the next, pushing such a norm along much as she did the vacuum in her daily cleaning ritual. In my youth, they provided contrast as opposingly hued as black from white. My aunt declared that “marriage is best left alone at the altar,” while mom spoke of its enduring role in familial order.
Dad hadn’t much use for my aunt, her ways presenting the antithesis of his idea of a female’s proper role. It chaffed against his orderly view of life. She in turn delighted in vexing him, treating him as a toy to be batted about as a child does a bouncy ball. She poked, she prodded, she tapped on the shoulder of his beliefs before quickly ducking away when he’d turn to confront her. His face was forever turning red, veins bulging along his forehead, causing her to smile – these are memories hard-etched into the landscape of my youth. As for mom, she wrung her hands and frittered about with stuttering ineffectiveness in most every situation as regards my dad and aunt, serving as reliable background static for such events.
Aunt Marla referred to dad as the Pious Pimp, something even Nina, who had three years of worldliness on me, had to look up before she attempted to explain the nickname to me. Even then, I only knew it as a put down that made dad fume, my aunt smile, and my mom go back to the hand wringing. I learned then: a person can like something without having any understanding of it. Sometimes it ever tastes better under such constraints of knowledge.
Such effusive otherness of which my aunt was blessed made her a dear part of my childhood. In her I saw possibilities, a vibrant world beyond the rigid confines of the severely structured world of my father’s expectations. She was the one person who had the ability to make me feel as if I was perfect just as I was – with no need for apologies or explanation. She embodied, in a word, hope.
In the early 80s, when I was near the age of ten, I began spending more time with my aunt, often sitting with a book in the front parlor of her home. From that vantage point, I could look through the wavy glass of the old windows, seeing life as if in the reflection of a funhouse mirror. My parents were often fighting, the sore topic mostly being my mom’s suspicions of dad having affairs. While mom at times leaned on her sister for emotional support, my aunt’s eventual advice of “ditch the bastard” would ultimately have a chilling effect on their time together, at least for a period of about one year. Dad had about this time resigned himself to the fact that I was not the son of whom he’d dreamt, there being no sports accolades in my future.
One Saturday, the morning having dawned bright and unusually warm for October, my aunt invited my mom and I to join her for a road trip. Nina was away at an ill-fated camp, an attempt on her part to gain popularity as a cheerleader, it all ending in her returning home with a broken arm and dashed dreams.
Our little sojourn would be an especially welcome break for mom, as I’d heard whispers of divorce, and mom had been bleary-eyed most days. My assumption was that she wasn’t sleeping well, having recently moved into the guest bedroom.
The trip that Saturday took us into East Texas, a place I only knew through the stories of my aunt, who decried it as a haven of racism and institutionalized idiocy. It was just like her to want to wade into hostile territory, her having grown somewhat lonely at not having dad to play with.
“Oh, Marla, that is such a long drive for a single day.” Mom lamented most anything that fell beyond the normal routine, the proposed trip being no exception.
“So you think we should get a hotel for the night?” My aunt knew how to push mom’s buttons as well.
“No, no, that’s not what I was thinking. Not at all.”
A long pause ensued, as it often did at this exact moment in such situations between the sisters.
“I guess a day trip would work.” As per usual, it took less than five seconds for mom to come around to my aunt’s way of thinking on the matter. The familiar scripted scene was now finished, lower curtain.
On the day of our trip, mom gave one last argument about us using her car. Her arguments had been numerous: but my car is newer, your van doesn’t have air conditioning, my car’s more comfortable. These all fell on deaf ears. This was my aunt’s trip, and it was to be in her old van that we travelled. For me, it all added up to an adventure outside the norms of my life.
“Okay, you can pay for the gas” was my aunt’s one allowance to mom’s various suggestions and pleadings.
We’d spent the time in East Texas scouring various junk shops and tag sales, my aunt always on the hunt for the unusual and bizarre. She’d bought several framed paintings, all of which came from an estate sale. There was no theme between the five pieces. They ranged in size from no larger than a paperback, all the way to a long, low piece that depicted a clown asleep. Or dead. It was open to interpretation. It was at this same sale that we ended up with several books on numerology, a book on mysticism, copious amounts of incense, and a well-worn Ouija board. The owner of all these things had died, and her daughter, having met my aunt, proclaimed “you’re my mother come back to life”. It seems even East Texas has free spirits. Or at least they did have one.
Along the way and at various places, we’d bought used clothes, old kitchen utensils, bed linens – all manner of things. Aunt Marla either repurposed things with her sewing machine, or donated much of it to those who hadn’t much of their own.
The hours went by quickly as we hopped from place to place that day, three honeybees flitting from bud to bud. It was late afternoon before we even thought to start back. At just shy of five o’clock, we agreed to stop for dinner, lunch having been hot dogs from a man selling them out of an old converted camper. I found myself staring at mom, watching her wide-eyed reaction as such dining was foreign to her, our eating out always done at rather nice restaurants, certainly not from old recreational vehicles turned rolling kitchen.
“Vernie’s Eats” was the name of the place my aunt selected, having jerked the VW off the road at the last minute, a plume of dust and gravel announcing the arrival of three strangers in a suspicious hippy-ish van. “See those semis parked off to the side?”, my aunt asked me. “That means decent grub. Truckers aren’t going to waste their precious time away from the road on crappy food.” I thought I heard mom groan, thinking she’d perhaps just then realized a nomadic hot dog vendor’s food wasn’t so bad in hindsight.
Inside, every head save a couple turned to eye us. Those that didn’t turn, I theorized, must be strangers like us – or deaf. I confess feeling a bit ill-at-ease, but this was a moment for my aunt to shine and sparkle.
Mom had taken the lead of our hungry threesome, marching without hesitation toward a booth way in back. At the time, what was for her a show of bravado, of unexpected leadership, surprised me. That wonder was soon cast to the wind when my aunt said, “No, Lydia, let’s sit up here where we can see out the windows, admire that great big world out there.”
She’d said it with a flourish of her arms, the billowy sleeves of her pirate blouse waving as beacons of free thought and everything not East Texas. Mom acquiesced, no doubt not wanting to call any more attention to us, her sister’s theatrics no doubt having annoyed her. Head lowered, she joined us at a table that was perfectly centered at the front of Vernie’s, casting a rarely seen withering glare at Aunt Marla as she took her seat.
“Well, my only wonder is this: is Vernie a boy or a girl? You know, it could go either way”, my aunt proclaimed rather loudly. Mom buried her head in her menu, the three of us having been handed them by a spindly woman who appeared as a tall pine tree shorn of all but two of its limbs. Her hair stood high and her glasses perched impossibly low on her nose.
“LaVerne Standley. A woman, though she’s been dead, oh I don’t know… how long Vernie been dead, Les?” My aunt smiled at her question being quickly answered.
A man as round as he was tall looked up from his fried catfish. “Close to five years now, I reckon.” Les took an oversized bite of fish, stuck his head up as if sniffing the air, and then thought to add, while chewing, “Yup, five years come middle-uh next month.”
“May she rest in peace, that’s what I say,” my aunt offered on a smile of sincerity. “I bet you make sure the food’s always delicious, just as Vernie would want it.”
This statement garnered a look of uncertainty from Margie – if her name tag was to be believed. She let it go though, nodding a tight smile toward my aunt, but keeping her eyes in tight reptilian slits.
“Special today is our Vernie’s fried catfish, comes with hush puppies, green beans, and any potato you want – ‘ceptin’ scalloped. We don’t do scalloped.”
“And why would you? A lot of work, scalloped potatoes. Don’t you agree, Lydia?”
Mom mumbled something unintelligible, her eyes cast upward for a split second. In a small child, such impoliteness would warrant a scolding, but this was often how outings with the two sisters went.
We ordered our drinks. I then watched my aunt as she surveyed the room, her smile accompanied by quick dips of her head, together heralding a silent ‘hello’ to those who continued staring our way. As her head slowly scanned our surroundings, I took note that almost every diner looked away as her eyes came their way, as if just a nanosecond of visual contact from the oddly-clothed Aunt Marla would somehow curse them. To my young discernment, these people of East Texas were indeed odd, if for no other reason seeming to have a collective hostility toward fun.
Margie never did seem to suss out whether my aunt was being facetious in her questions or not. In all honesty, looking back, I think Aunt Marla’s natural curiosity as regards people in general caused her to ask the questions. This was simply her way with strangers. She hadn’t the ability to tame her flamboyancy, even in a place that saw such a trait as suspicious, even immoral. A small restaurant in a little bump-in-the-road town was no different to my aunt than a fancy diner in Dallas. A case of old dog – new trick, or rather old dame – new mannerisms.
I was still reflecting on the people we’d seen – and spoken to, in some cases – back at Vernie’s when I heard the siren. Looking behind us, I saw that the flashing lights were not to make way for the police car, but rather calling for my aunt to pull to the side of the road. As we slowed to a stop on the grass berm, the air from the open windows calmed to a stifling stagnation, causing the heat to settle about us as a prison pall of sorts.
Mom fretted and fussed as was her way, at once admonishing my aunt for some unknown traffic grievance, and then begging her to be contrite with the officer. My aunt just shooed her, smiling as she retrieved her wallet from her denim handbag, an accessory adorned with iron-on flowers and stars. .
“Are you old enough to carry a gun?” The first words spoken to the young deputy elicited a chuckle from where I sat and a guttural croak from mom. I thought this might be the final straw, that there’d be no more family trips such as this adventure, that Mom’s patience had overtaxed at last.
The deputy said nothing. It was like s standoff, big city hippie woman vs small town cop. I felt my first sense of dread, as if my aunt were pushing things to a bad end.
“Ma’am, you were weaving a bit back down the road.”
“Was I? Oh my, perhaps I was distracted for a moment. Lydia here gets me to laughing, and well, you know how two sisters on a lark can be. Right, Lydia?”
He took the license, mumbling as he looked it over. Aunt Marla was humming some song, one that I soon realized was ‘The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia’. I’d never once heard her speak of or sing the song, but there she was, humming loud enough to be bothersome.
The deputy peeked toward the back of the van, eying me and the tightly crowded stash of newly bought pieces. I smiled, thinking that he indeed was young, the acne along the edge of his jaw looking like a row of tiny rosebuds. To my eye, he looked like a teenager not much older than myself.
“This your vehicle?” He said it so that there seemed to be four or five syllables in the last word, before leaning back and surveying the VW with a critical eye from front to back.
“Oh my, it certainly is, deputy. Had it for many years now.”
This elicited a ‘harrumph’ from the young cop.
Aunt Marla took the lead on the conversation, spinning lies as if they were gold lace. “Owned it for, oh, I’d say, about ten years now. Bought it at the church auction. First Baptist takes in any donation they can get, and this was just perfect for my needs.”
The deputy eyed her with suspicion, not unlike Margie the waitress had done less than an hour earlier.
Pointing her thumb over her shoulder, she continued. “All this stuff you see back there, it’s mostly to help the needy. We bought up some clothes and linens and such to have for pastor to give to those less fortunate than folks like you and me. Now I confess, the paintings are for me. I fancy myself a struggling artist and seek inspiration most days. Beyond what the scriptures can give me over morning coffee, you know.
“Oh, and that boy, he’s not for donating. That’s my nephew Jackie.” There broke on the young officer’s face the tiniest arc of a smile, his overly red lips twitching.
My aunt spoke as if the tale she spun was real. It fell realistically from some place deep within, having been nurtured there and set aside for such an occasion. Her kindness coupled with her narrative seemed to weave magic on the previously stern deputy. Afterward, my aunt counselled me about her lies, calling them fibs that were allowed when dealing with traffic cops or Baptists.
When the deputy returned her license, a full smile accompanied it. My aunt, as was her talent, knew her audience and played to it admirably – and believably.
We entered back on the highway with only a verbal warning and a sense of having, at least for me and I sense for mom, too, emerged unscathed from something foreboding. Mom released her breath in one loud whoosh, as if a tiny ember had reignited deep within her soul, bringing it back from death’s cold clutches. Within the confines of that battered VW, a new aura seemed to settle upon us all. We all fell one after the other into a fit of laughter. The three of us frolicked and bantered the next hour, tears running down our faces, often gasping for breath. The van itself seemed to float above the roadway, transporting us on a triumphant haze of ill-defined, but very welcome, promise. That trip was not the last of its kind, but rather the first of many. And I had a different mother after that day in East Texas. Society’s expectations, as mom had always lived them, had been, if not shattered, at least tipped on end, and for her, they were never again to be positioned as before.