Most of all I preferred to be with Aunt Lois and Aunt Hilda, technically my great-great-aunts and the last of the Simmonses. The sisters, born in the final decade of the nineteenth century, were in their seventies by the time I came along. They lived together in a tumbledown shack at the end of a gravel road that ran through a pecan orchard near our house. That tin-roofed wood cabin, framed by sweet olive trees and enclosed by groves and gardens, was, like C. S. Lewis’s enchanted wardrobe, a doorway into another world.
I now know that Lois and Hilda—whose father, recall, had fought in the Civil War—were the most extraordinary people I will probably ever meet. As a little boy, though, they were just Loisie—rhymes with “choicey”—and Mossie (Hilda married Ashton Moss, who died young). They had grown up in Starhill as strong-willed country girls who loved life on the farm, but who also yearned for adventure. When the United States entered the Great War, the sisters volunteered as Red Cross nurses. They caught the train at the bottom of the hill near their family home and didn’t stop their journey until they arrived at the Red Cross canteen at Dijon, France.
On many mornings in my early childhood, after Buckskin Bill, the Captain Kangaroo of Baton Rouge, told his loyal TV viewers good-bye from Storyland Cabin, my mother would give me a couple of diapers and let me walk through the orchard to Loisie and Mossie’s place for the day. Sometimes I would stray from the pea-gravel path and walk under the pecan trees, with their faintly tangy musk. In the springtime a spray of white dogwood flowers hung high in a thick grove of trees opposite the pecans, a bunting celebrating the end of winter and marking the border of Loisie and Mossie’s yard.
In that cabin I would sit with the two aged aunts, thin and frail as dried kindling, on their red leather couch and look through canvas-backed photo albums of their war years. There was the time, Lois said, when General “Black Jack” Pershing showed up at the canteen late one night and nobody could find the key to the kitchenware cabinet. Lois had to strain the general’s tea through her petticoat. Hilda told of being in Dijon on the day the Armistice was announced, and slapping a giddy Frenchman when he seized her on the street, shouted, “La guerre est finie!” and tried to kiss her. She pretended to be scandalized by this, but what I heard was the excitement of someone who had had a grand adventure in a part of the world unlike our own, where nothing ever happened. Sitting on the couch beneath three rare Audubon prints, the sisters told me of their travels through Provence, the Côte d’Azur, Toulouse, and Paris, beautiful Paris. We tracked their route on the pages of a vintage Rand McNally atlas splayed on our laps.
Sometimes I would sit in Loisie’s lap in the kitchen, not much bigger than a closet, and stir her pecan cookie batter by hand. We would pull sheets of those cookies out of the oven, each one buttery and crisp and about the size of a quarter, and eat them with cold milk on the front porch (or “gallery,” as the old aunts called it, in the antique usage). Often we would sit by the fire and read the newspaper together. I loved the look and sound of those exotic words in the headlines. Kissinger. Moscow. Watergate. I could only intuit it at the time, but these elderly ladies, spending their final years in rural exile, were among the worldliest people I’d ever meet. Hilda, an eccentric Episcopalian, taught herself palm-reading. Scratching her bony finger across my soft pink palm one day, she said, “See this line? You’ll travel far in life.” I hoped it was true.
Lois was an accomplished amateur horticulturalist, and took me with her on strolls in her gardens. There was a large Magnolia fuscata tree in her front yard, with its pale yellow blossoms that smelled of banana. Loisie and I would walk, me holding her hand, past her camellia bushes, the stands of spidery red lycoris, King Alfred daffodils, and jonquils. There was a pear tree, a chestnut, cedars, live oaks, flowering dogwoods, and, towering over the backyard, an old Chinese rain tree, its podlike blossoms puffed like a thousand and one pink lanterns.
There was a king snake that lived in the bushes under the huge magnolia tree in Loisie and Mossie’s yard. Loisie taught me that the old snake was our friend. If he was there, she said, he would keep rattlesnakes away. One day when I was eight, I walked with a friend to the aunts’ cottage, and there was the king snake, black as night and marked by pale yellow runes, stretched across the pea gravel, sunning itself. My friend was paralyzed by fear, but I stepped right over the snake without bothering him. Loisie had said he was our friend, hadn’t she, and inasmuch as she was the happy genius of this grove, who was I to doubt her?
This was my haven as a boy, a house and a garden a three-minute walk from my house, where I learned things that would shape the course of my life.
But years later, long after Lois and Hilda had died, and that property passed into another side of the family, which had let it all fall into ruin, I came home from Washington for a visit. I could faintly see the outline of the old cabin through a thicket, and decided to investigate:
I crawled through the barbed wire and navigated slowly through the overgrown brush. Brambles, briars, and overgrowth had consumed the camellia bushes Loisie had so carefully tended. The orchard and her gardens were a ruin, and so too, I now saw, was the old cabin, which predated the Civil War. I had not laid eyes on it since Loisie died and Mossie moved to a rest home some fifteen years before. The front porch was so overgrown by bushes and vines that I couldn’t reach it. A tree had fallen on the roof over Loisie’s bedroom, on the downstairs level, cracking open a window frame. I climbed through.
The cabin was vacant and musty, but it still held the faint aromas I rememberd from my childhood. The damp, charry clay smell from the fireplace. The cracked corn dust from the bin in the pantry where they’d kept bird feed. That peculiar scent of their enameled cast-iron washbasin in the kitchen. If I closed my eyes I could recall absent smells: cut jonquils and paperwhites in a Mason jar; the Keri lotion Lois kept by her rocking chair to keep her hands moist; the nutty, buttery pecan cookies baking in the kitchen, or golden cupcakes from Loisie’s 3-2-1 recipe. I would sit on her lap at her table in the kitchen and stir the batter in her pale green 1940s Fire-King mixing bowl. Batter. Loisie taught me that word. I loved saying it, and licking the spoon when we were done mixing, feeling the grains of sugar with my tongue against the roof of my mouth.
As a grown man, I stood in the dark, cobwebbed kitchen, wondering where it all had gone. There, on a board above the washbasin that served as a shel, sat Loisie’s mixing bowl. I held it in my hands, this priceless relic I had thought lost forever. My emotions overwhelmed me, and I felt the strong urge to leave. I took the pale green bowl in my hand, and went down the back steps into the bedroom … climbed back through the bedroom window, slogged through the thicket, squeezed between the barbed wire of the fence, and was one again in the sunlight. I looked across the yard at Mam and Paw’s brick house in the near distance, as the evening began to fall. Suddenly it struck me that one day their house would be as Hilda and Lois’s cabin was today. I could hear people inside, our Thanksgiving guests, laughing and talking, but they would all be dead one day. Perhaps some great-grandchild yet unborn, or one of his children, would come in through a back window and search for relics of a barely remembered past. I tucked Loisie’s missing bowl under my arm and walked on back to my mother and father’s house.