By Karen Brode
Aunt Winnie had made a freezer of home-made ice cream and we sat waiting at her dining table while she scraped the dasher and the sides of the can. It was one of those hot, steamy July days that never seemed to end. Even with the dark of night, the heat never really went away and with each new morning, the heat grew more oppressive.
Winnie smelled of talcum and flowery cologne as she bent to dip ice cream into my bowl. She never used her good china except for Sunday dinner and, on this night, we ate from her new Melmac set that boasted of being unbreakable.
The visiting preacher who would be preaching at tonight’s gospel meeting, Charles Kuhn, sat at the head of the table and had just finished his second bowl of ice cream. He had challenged me to an ice cream eating contest, but I had known who would win. His hands were so white that it seemed they had never seen the sun. When he smiled, his face lit up the whole room, and I thought he must be a little like God.
It was almost time to leave for church and I smiled at Uncle Pete straightening his tie and combing his few white hairs ever so carefully. Pete was the song-leader at the Ambrose Church of Christ and if he didn’t carry a tune well, he made up for it by singing loud.
On a big Sunday, there were about nineteen people scattered about the small country church. Tonight, because of the Gospel meeting, there would be a large crowd of thirty-five or forty.
Winnie went to sit by the window on the south side of the church about four rows from the front. She fished in her purse to find her fan that had been dispensed by the Mullican Funeral Home and also to give me a piece of juicy fruit gum. The shiny, varnished pews were hard and unyielding as I took my place beside her.
As people gathered, the building grew hotter and the window air conditioners whined wearily. I could see several cows grazing lazily in the pasture outside the window and I longed to be out of my starchy clothes and playing in the summer evening. Every time I moved, a piece of my collar stabbed my neck and perspiration was beginning to roll down my sides. I was eight years old but I felt older. My daddy had died last November and Charles Kuhn had preached his funeral, but I had already forgotten what had been said.
No one responded to the invitation song and church was dismissed. Outside, the country sky seemed enormous and filled with stars. The night smells were settling in the fields and I ran across the road to the schoolyard to sit in the swing. Winnie had told me that she had taught in that schoolhouse when she was only eighteen. She had known she would be a teacher when she was three years old.
The sky was faintly pink in the west even though it was after nine o’clock. I dragged my shoes in the soft sand underneath the swing and watched the people milling about on the front porch of the church slapping at mosquitoes and brushing off june bugs as they visited.
When we got back to Aunt Winnie’s house, it was time for bed. The air conditioner had gotten the house almost cold in our absence. Winnie was so proud of her two air conditioners. She had one in the living room and one in the north bedroom, and she often remarked that she didn’t know what she had ever done without them.
Her house smelled of dove soap, knitting yarn, and furniture polish. She gave me a quarter every time I got under the dining table and polished all the legs of the table for her. With a quarter, I could get two candy bars and some gum at Cody’s store across the street.
When she tucked me in that night, I showed her the dollar bill that Charles Kuhn had given me, and she asked me if I had thanked him.
“He told me that I was just as welcome as the flowers in May,” I said.
She held up my hands to check them and once again asked me to try real hard not to bite my nails. She took it personally that I bit my nails. She lay down beside me and held my hands in each of her hands so that I could not bite my nails.
“Do you think Momma is okay?” I asked her. She said Momma was probably asleep in her own bed having happy dreams. I hoped Momma wasn’t lonely or sad.
When I rolled over to put my arm across Winnie, I realized that she had gone to her own bed in the next room. I pulled the quilt up under my chin and listened to the low voices of Aunt Winnie and Uncle Pete in their bedroom. I fell asleep to the country night sounds of crickets chirping and far away dogs barking.
The next day it was so hot that I went immediately to my swing in the shade after lunch. Aunt Winnie had served fried chicken and I had eaten two drumsticks and a lot of tomato slices. My stomach was tight, and I just wanted to sit in my swing. I heard Aunt Winnie calling me to come in. She said that we were going to Aunt Emma’s and the cemetery. I wanted to disappear.
Before long, Aunt Winnie was at the back porch screen door telling me that she had a surprise for me. I couldn’t resist, so I followed her through the house to the north bedroom. She went to her sewing machine where she had just finished a new shift for me. It was red and white checked and she had painstakingly sewed red rick-rack on the bottom for trim. When I tried it on, I saw that it came well below my knees but Winnie was beaming with delight at how well it fit. I suppose it was somehow fitting that I should wear something like that to Aunt Emma’s house and the cemetery.
Aunt Emma’s house was on the way to the cemetery. As we drove into her driveway, I noticed that the porch had sagged a bit more since I had been here the last time. There were two ancient worn couches that sat on the front porch which spanned the front of the house. The house was weather-beaten and hadn’t ever been painted. Aunt Emma had been ill for as long as anyone could remember, but no one seemed to know exactly what was wrong with her. My father had died from a brain tumor, and for awhile after he died, Aunt Emma thought she might have a brain tumor. She made Winnie feel of her head to see if she thought it was growing.Winnie had told me in private that if Aunt Emma’s head was growing, it was horns and not a brain tumor. In spite of her worries, Aunt Emma seemed to be able to do whatever she wanted. She walked on a walker but I had seen her walk very well without it when she thought no one was looking.
I dreaded the weekly visits to her house. There was nothing for a child to do.
Uncle Charlie stayed out in the fields away from his wife as much as possible. His skin was almost as weather-beaten as the house he lived in, and it was rumored that he had buried vast amounts of money all over his field in mason jars. He and Emma didn’t believe in banks.
As we walked up to the porch, the dogs that lay in the cool dirt under the house growled low in their throats. Aunt Emma came out onto the front porch and stood leaning on her walker.
“Don’t you worry about them dogs,” she said. “They won’t hurt you.”
Aunt Winnie went into the house to talk to Emma and I walked around to the side of the house looking for something to do.
Out back there was an old outhouse that looked as if a strong wind might blow it over. On the west side of the house, the lawn was made up of sparse pieces of Johnson grass scattered about the sandy dirt; “bottom land,” they called it, because it was so close to the river.
I ran up and down the cellar door for awhile and then wandered back into the house. I felt slightly queasy in Aunt Emma’s kitchen. There were no modern conveniences. A bucket of water that had been drawn from the well sat on the counter and inside it was a dipper that was used by anyone who wanted a drink.
There was a bed in the living room and on winter days, the pot-belly stove would turn red with heat. There was no television even though Winnie had begged Aunt Emma to get a TV just to watch The Beverly Hillbillies. Winnie knew that she would like Granny Clampett.
I went to sit on the front porch with the two women who had moved out there because of the heat. Aunt Emma’s hands looked like chicken that had been fried too long and turned brown. The skin on her legs was wrinkled and sagging like worn out hose. She felt sorry for me because my daddy had died, and I thought she had a kind heart. Sometimes, she looked as if she was going to cry just thinking about me. She would put her arm around me and say, “Poor little thing” as her eyes misted with tears.
As we drove through the gate into the cemetery, I stuck my face in front of the air conditioner vents in Winnie’s car to get a final blast of cool air. Then I watched her bend over her hoe to clean off the graves and commune with her ancestors. She wore a sunbonnet to protect her face from the unrelenting Texas sun.
I had often explained to her that the people who were dead – especially my father – didn’t care if they had grass on their graves. I could just picture my father sighing with resignation as his sister paraded forth each week to hoe the grass off his grave. She was wearing herself out for nothing.
I finally convinced her to come and sit in the pavilion provided for weary visitors at the cemetery. She sat there and wiped rivulets of sweat from her face and tried to catch her breath. She had heart trouble, and even at my age I knew that swinging a hoe was probably not the best thing for her to be doing. I took her hoe and half-heartedly began to dig the yellow summer grass off my grandmother’s grave. I told Winnie that someday when she was gone, I would do this for her.
She smiled as she listened to me make promises that she knew I would not keep.
Karen Brode grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.