In an abrupt, belated alliance with the Women’s Temperance Union, Aunt Mollie decided that the road sign announcing the location of our town’s watering hole had to go. Even though it had been erected two decades previously just after Prohibition had ended, she felt that its presence offended her and others of like mind. Listing to one side like a drunken sailor, the sign and its directions were not far from collapsing of their own accord. The letters “CE” and “OD” had faded, pale ghosts of “ICE COLD”. But the word “BEER” remained prominent in dark blue letters along with a tilted, frothing mug of suds, making any thirsty passerby able to comprehend the message being conveyed.
A long time neighbor of Aunt Mollie, Ben Jones, lived across the road from her. The elevation of his dilapidated house allowed him to see most anything happening up and down the two lanes including the sign across the way. Plopping his huge butt into his remaining rocker, he began the back and forth motion that would take him for a nap. A few minutes later, with eyes almost closed, he watched with sleepy interest as his neighbor strode out of her driveway with an axe perched on her shoulder. Curiosity aroused him. What was she up to? It didn’t take long to find out as she carefully worked her way through weeds and briars and then began to deliver blows to the supporting posts with a righteous punishment. With barely a drop of perspiration having formed on her brow, the sign collapsed languidly into the surrounding blackberries.
“Hell,” Ben later told the sheriff, “hit didn’t take her more’n five or ten minutes to slay those goddam timbers!”
Aunt Mollie marched back home in triumph coupled with satisfaction. Placing the axe against the chopping block to await the execution of another chicken, she went out to thin the green beans just emerging in the garden. Her mind had moved on to other objectives.
Next morning, the sheriff, with warrant in hand sworn out by the tavern owner, arrested her as she hilled the potatoes and weeded the English peas. Making no resistance, she left calmly with him. As she did, she glanced over her shoulder at the cold frame next to the wash house and noticed that the spring onions weren’t up enough to merit attention but the lettuce was struggling under-attended and over-grown.
“I need to thin that lettuce right away or I’m gonna lose it all” she proclaimed to no one in particular. The sheriff glanced uncomfortably at her, holding her arm firmly but gently as he guided her to his car. Making declarative statements intended for just her ears helped her to remember things. For others, it reinforced beliefs held about her eccentricity.
Insisting on riding up front with the constable in his official car, she maintained an unruffled, regal disposition as she was taken to be incarcerated. Word got around town quickly about the incident spreading faster than kudzu on a sunny bank. A couple of women from the Second Baptist Church (members of the First Baptist congregation elected to “not get involved”) did some arm twisting of their respective husbands and convinced their men to get her released. There was some initial resistance. However, their feminine persuasive powers were enhanced by threats of withholding food combined with a dramatic reduction in bed time privileges.
On the scale of demands made upon married men, this was a relatively small request, so Aunt Mollie only spent four hours behind bars. By then she had eaten lunch courtesy of the County and engaged two fellow prisoners in lengthy conversations. They had been caught running ‘shine a week earlier as they had failed to share some of their bootlegging with the proper authorities. She invited them, and they agreed, to come by her place as soon as they were released and have some of her famous country fried steak smothered in gravy. Later, the incongruence of inviting strangers who had been hauling the product to which she objected, and been briefly jailed, was not lost on some of the locals. However, Aunt Mollie didn’t see any contradiction at all.
“Those are humin beins, NOT billboards”, she retorted with compassionate logic.
Refusing all offers of assistance, she smoothed the apron on her dress as best could be done, re-pinned the wisps of hair that had managed to escape her bun, and then walked the three and one half miles home as if being jailed and set free from confinement were all part of a normal day. ‘Normal’ for Aunt Mollie was atypical living for most.
At the end of such an average summer day, I sat on the edge of her front porch enjoying her oatmeal cookies and a glass of milk. I think I was about thirteen or fourteen and she and I had spent most of the afternoon clearing an area above the chicken house of weeds and brush. Clucking with enthusiasm, the chickens were appreciative of the disturbed soil and avidly pecking away at any exposed earth. Watching their movements, I became mesmerized as I enjoyed those delectable cookies. Transfixed, I sat with an immobility that left red imprints on the back of my legs from the rough wooden planks that decked our favorite sitting spot. Aunt Mollie rocked slowly in her chair while I focused on slating my burgeoning adolescent appetite.
Being close to dusk, the sun was settling down into a cotton candy bed of rose and pink clouds. For what seemed like a long while, our sharing of sweets and sunset displaced any talking. Although no words were spoken, our shared reverie had a plethora of communication for both of us. With typical suddenness, she broke our mutual silence.
“Y’ever thought about gettin’ a casket?” Her question caused me to stop chewing abruptly. Although I was accustomed to her spoken fastballs, this one had whizzed by me before I knew it was being thrown. I wasn’t mature enough to have the reached the age of reason and balance necessary to parry with an adult, especially one as complex as she. I swallowed hard.
“I ain’t old enough to need one am I?”
“Are ya puttin’ aside some of the money I give ya for helpin’ me ‘round here? Are ya still savin’ yur earnins from mowin’ grass and sich?”
“Course I am, Auntie! That’s how you taught me. I got ‘most twenty- five dollars in the bank right now!”
“Well, then, ain’t nuthin’ wrong with havin’ a little savins for yur end time neither. Anywho, I got Joe Hollingsworth (our local mortician) to give me a two fer one deal on solid oak caskets. Ya might be a bit short for either of ‘em, but you’re still growin’. Doesn’t hurt to plan for the future.” Picking up the rusting coffee can next to the rocker, she spat into it, wiped her mouth on her apron, and then concentrated on the waning sun. As she was focusing her eyes into the distance, she seemed to be talking to the horizon instead of me. Understandably I found her logic distracting and immediately lost my appetite. As I pondered her offer, the u-shaped bite I had made out of my cookie grinned back at me. Before I could respond, she continued.
“Matter of fact, I got the whole thing planned out.”
“What whole thing, Auntie?” My juvenile mind was trying to keep pace with hers, making a strong effort to find some common ground of understanding.
“The funeral; my funeral.”
I was getting lost fast now. I looked up at her, blinking and bewildered. In the nighttime gloaming around us, crickets were beginning their chorus and fireflies were emerging from the grass with their erratic connecting dots of light. A lone bullfrog gave his throaty call from the creek which flowed by not far away from where we sat.
“When’s it gonna be?” I didn’t know what else to say. The surrounding elements of nature were not having their usual soothing effects on my psyche.
“I think I’ma gonna have it in about two weeks. That’ll give everybody tha’s interested plenty of notice so they’s can be here if they want to.”
Now I was really starting to fall behind with her line of thought. I felt as though I had agreed to race a sprinter but instead found myself competing with a marathoner. I hadn’t been trained for this sort of event.
“You mean you’re going to have your funeral here . . . at your house?” Realizing I had placed the cart before the horse, I quickly added “Do you mean you’re gonna be dead in two weeks?” My heart beat fast with dread. I was incredulous and my still developing voice slipped upwards in part because a lone raisin had lodged against my larynx. ‘Weeks’ ended up sounding like ‘squeaks’.
Without hesitation, Aunt Mollie handed me the glass of milk sitting by my side and said, “Nope, I don’t plan on that. I want to be ‘round to enjoy my own funeral. What good does it do a body, and a dead ‘un at that, to have flowers and tears that ya can’t enjoy if yur stiffened up in a casket?”
As if to add emphasis, she began rocking briskly. “Nope, I’ve already been down to Miller’s and bought me this purty pink, satiny dress and I’m gonna walk around in it and listen to all those friends of mine tell me how much they are gonna miss me. Loretta, (who had been instrumental in arranging for her jail release) has one of them record machines. I’m gonna ask her to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’” by Elvis and “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” by that Sinatra gal.”
At this point in time, I was completely overwhelmed and too confused to know what sort of emotions I should be feeling. The two or three funerals I had attended were hardly parties and the preachers seemed to devote most of the services to saving the souls of the living. At one in particular, the fellow being eulogized had been a rascal. The minister made him a practical saint saying he had agreed to be ‘saved’ on his last day on earth. I wanted to rattle the box in which he lay and make sure we were considering the same person that I had known. All sorts of thoughts roiled in my mind, speeding through like moonshiners on an overnight delivery. But Aunt Mollie continued as though I were right with her.
“I’ll make a stack cake and I’ll get Jessie to bring over his freezer and crank up some homemade peach ice cream. He’s been getting’ some nice fruits from his orchard up at Blowing Springs. I gotta remember to get some rock salt. I can’t expect him to bring everthin.”
While she had certainly never been the depressed sort, I couldn’t recall her looking so happy and unburdened. She paused and I was able to gain a little ground. Breathing deeply in an effort to steady my thoughts, I asked, “How you gonna let folks know? Are you gonna invite a preacher?” No bigger than a bar of soap, her frame had not darkened the doorway of a church since her husband passed.
Hesitating for a moment as though she had not considered this possibility, she quickly recovered. Her voice rose an octave or two, passion evident in her words, “Yeah, I’ll invite any pritcher that wants to come, but he ain’t gonna waste MY funeral on hellfire and brimstone! He can sit ‘round with the rest of us’n’s and act like reglar folks.”
TO BE CONTINUED . . .