Several years ago I had one of those days when I seemed to be on the phone all day…I normally go weeks without speaking voice-to-voice with a sibling, but I talked with four of them on this particular day—I have seven. The fourth call drew my shopping cart to a halt in the middle of the fabric section at Walmart late in the evening. My eldest sister called to alert me that my dear Aunt Marie had moved her home to heaven.
When I read about aunts in fiction, they seem to be harsh, austere women of great girth. I imagine Anne Shirley or characters from Dickens or Twain, the victims of vicious attacks from hateful women who delight in breaking the spirits of young, willful boys and girls. My reality stands in stark contrast to these fictional matriarchs. While the scenery of those childhood memories still tempt my senses, much like the kitchen of Green Gables, the memories of my aunts inspire me to love my nieces and nephews as these beautiful women loved me.
I could not possibly envision my aunts outside the little town of Jamesville, North Carolina. Those beautiful old farm houses with their sprawling front porches, equipped with the obligatory porch swing, form the backdrop for all the beauty that was my aunts. Each home held its distinct character and favorite spots. Esta’s more modern home with its automatic garage door opener still holds a particular fascination for me. I have yet to live in a home with one of those magical buttons; though, somehow in my mind, that simple little button represented the epitome of success. That tiny garage—usually home to Uncle Leslie’s El Dorado—collected precious memories over the years. Its long portable tables and chairs evicted the prized car and instead hosted long nights of rummy and reminiscence.
A quick jaunt down to Aunt Marie’s—two doors down without crossing a street—stood grand pecan trees, the bounty from which made its way onto every dessert table. Aunt Marie’s perfectly matched ensembles safely protected under an apron would seem a bit out of place in most kitchens, but not in hers. I never remember a hair out of place or a sharp word from her mouth. We played long afternoons on that front porch and sat in her living room with chairs in a circle and talked for hours. I was one of the youngest of the nearly thirty cousins, so I didn’t have much input on the conversations, but I learned about my family, its history, and its love.
Jamesville’s perfectly manicured lawns and grid of quiet streets drew us to walk rather than drive to the other aunts’ houses. Aunt Poss’s backyard provided a jungle paradise with its beautiful trees, flowers, and even a pool. Her beautiful platinum hair pinned up with a fashionable and always colorful bow or pin, her deep tan from hours of yard work, she was the most beautiful woman I knew. Occasionally, I would hear some boy from the church proclaim how mean Mrs. Martin was in school—a temporary blight on her perfect image. Years later I would chuckle at the errant boy’s comments, understanding that tough teachers don’t often enjoy the affection of naughty children. I knew where my love of teaching came from.
Grace always made me laugh. The whole family thought she was a little crazy, and maybe she was, but in a moment of clarity, she confessed the act simply made it easier to live with Uncle Paul. With a wink she slipped me some cash on a solo visit in the summer following my senior year in high school and assured me there was no need to let Paul in on our little secret. Jo’s kitchen, small as it was, welcomed us all in with hugs and yummy treats as well. The smell of pine trees takes me back to that brick ranch house, where the garage door stood perpetually open with a flow of grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Even the aunts who lived elsewhere have their context for me in that small town. Aunt Iceline liked to pinch our behinds, and Lucile seemed so cosmopolitan, flying in all the way from that foreign land of California, usually with Bertie in tow.
Others I have fewer memories of, but the common thread, no matter where they lived, were those kitchens and makeshift dining rooms formed in garages and on lawns across that little town. The sizzle of fried chicken and earthy scent of biscuits and cornbread assaulted our noses and drew us in. Cold, sweet iced tea told of a love, a kindness, the very fabric of our existence. These women wove their character into our hearts as they kneaded our biscuits and floured our chicken; they taught us to care as every one of them marched us into church on Sunday morning and took food over to the neighbors who fell ill or lost loved ones. They encouraged us and made us feel we could do anything, and then demanded we try.
That little town shrinks today, the cemeteries filling with pieces of our grieving hearts. On the day we lost Marie, only a few remained; Esta was the only one left from that generation in that little piece of heaven, and I think perhaps heaven itself has annexed our little Jamesville. Today I picture a city block in heaven, with white mansions boasting expansive farmhouse wrap-around porches facing streets of gold. I picture Aunt Marie with her dear Albert, hosting all the other aunts and uncles who had gone before, maybe even in a circle of chairs reminiscing over old times. Perhaps there’s a garage door opener there, with long tables and cold sweet tea, and they’re waiting to welcome us all back home.
Marie was Albert’s wife:
…and that’s the view from My Front Porch.