Memories are a patchwork of colors, sizes, and arrangements. In that jumbled assortment of recollections, some pieces repeat themselves throughout the fabric of one’s existence for many reasons. Aunt Mollie is such a redundant presence in the first decades of my life in rural Tennessee.
None of my family was related to her and she was more of a mother figure to many in our community. From the time I was allowed to move about with some degree of freedom, I felt her gravitational pull and soon learned to navigate the quarter mile or so walk from my home to hers.
She was a sweet but independent-minded woman. Married long before I was born, her husband had been killed in an accident at the hosiery mill which provided most of the employment in our county. Their union had produced no children and, seemingly, no regrets as I never heard her speak of him. She treated me with a degree of equality that was absent in the behavior of most adults that I knew. As a youngster her candor caused me some difficulty in understanding her conversation, but I always grasped the genuineness clearly present in her words.
Her style of living would be viewed today as archaic, yet I never thought her preferences as odd simply because those habits were the way by which I knew her. She owned two or three faded, patched gingham dresses. They were clean but the full apron she wore would be flecked with bread crumbs, chicken parts, or black soil from her garden. Those particles from her various activities created mosaics of modern art that would have made Jackson Pollack proud.
She wore her hair in a bun and her chores would, as the day progressed, gradually free wispy puffs in downward drafts like grey and white smoke about her cheeks. She also dipped snuff, its presence marked by a pale brown trickle that crept out of one side of her mouth and disappeared beneath her chin. Along with cash, she kept the tobacco stuffed over her left breast inside her clothing. Keeping several empty JFG coffee cans at strategic sites about her home gave her the convenience of being able to spit the effluent of her habit into those handy reservoirs. The odor of her spittle and the dark brown fluid that collected in those cans gave a sickly sweet smell that was pervasive throughout her home.
The interior of her house was dark, yet to me it felt inviting and a bit mysterious. On the back side, a small screened porch provided a retreat where I felt safe and cozy. She would reinforce my comfort with a few of her oatmeal cookies or a saucer of homemade pimiento cheese and crackers. Her cooking was renowned, although her method of preparing vegetables was the other side of al dente. By the time I was in grammar school, her place had become the center of my small universe.
Somewhere in the alphabet soup of mental issues, Aunt Mollie had drifted from ‘eccentric’ to ‘peculiar’. In that era, most folks accepted others with various forms of dementia and accommodated them in their lives. Part of this tolerance was borne of the fact that institutions were reserved for the desperate or defenseless and spaces simply weren’t available for mid-grade emotional deficiencies.
For example, “Crazy Arthur” lived in town and was viewed by folks much like a wart that exists on one’s hand. He pretended to drive the small section of downtown using the top of a garbage can lid as his steering wheel and his own two feet for propulsion. The locals accepted Arthur’s parking privileges with gentle derision as he placed a few pennies into the meter. He continued this habit until, at the age of thirty-eight, he was punched by an irate out-of-towner from Ohio who thought Arthur was being disrespectful to him. Arthur was rightfully upset that this stranger had run over and then parked on top of his ‘car’.
And then there was the well-known brother and sister in Pop Holler who co-habited in the house they had inherited from their parents. Embarrassed personnel from the county health department would periodically come out to deliver an oblique lecture on incest and separate the two beds that they had pushed together to make one. Then the siblings would stand together at the front door, watch the county people leave, and as soon as the dust had settled on the driveway they would push those beds right back together. So, while Aunt Mollie had slipped a bit in society’s view of normalcy, she was still several categories removed from temperamental and really not much of an exception when compared to some other characters.
It was easy to figure out where Aunt Mollie stood on just about any issue as she didn’t mince words. “Shit fire, and save matches!” she declared in frustration at the post office upon learning that the government was adopting the practice of Daylight Savings Time.
“Those sinators from Washington have forgotten that roosters crow at the crack of dawn and that cows need milkin’ ever day at the same time no matter what hour they want to say it is! That’s messin’ with God’s time!” While Aunt Mollie was not particularly devout in the traditional sense, she knew the value of invoking the Good Lord’s name when applicable.
She was incensed about ‘losing’ an hour in the springtime when the clocks were moved forward. “I’ll be dadgum if’n I’m gonna die before October!” In frustration, she repeated this oath each April along with underscoring her rebelliousness with a refusal to adjust the time on her own clock.
In addition to an expansive garden, she raised chickens. I watched her many times as she severed a hapless bird’s head with an axe, and then held the legs while the decapitated body splattered red blood over the green grass and her hands. Once though, she absentmindedly left the chicken on the grass with green bottle flies slowly circling the white feathered body and walked the two miles to Cas Wallace’s store. Having also forgotten to clean the chicken’s blood from her hands and put on a clean apron, she strode unerringly to the spot where she knew cornmeal was kept and picked up a bag. Approaching the worn wooden counter, she looked Cas straight in the eye as if older women with blood stained hands and aprons were a regular occurrence.
“Put this on my bill, iff’n you don’t mind, Cas.”
Cas had certainly seen many an oddity in his long years, but he right then and there deeply regretted not having closed the store earlier that morning and gone fishing as he had wished. Complying with her request, he kept one eye on her as she sailed through the squeaking screen door and headed back down the dusty road towards her home. But that incident paled in comparison to a couple of years later when she was arrested.
To Be Continued . . .