The Old Aunts & Me
Here’s some Southern comfort, from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, my forthcoming memoir, to be published April 9 — one month from today, woo-hoo!:
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?
Pre-order Little Way here, or wait a month till it hits bookstores. The book tour will hit NYC, Philly, DC, Asheville, Atlanta (Decatur), Dallas, Mobile (Fairhope), New Orleans, and end in Baton Rouge on Saturday April 20. More details to come. Oh, and if you are in West Feliciana or the Baton Rouge area and want an early copy, Grandmother’s Buttons, a gift shop in downtown St. Francisville, is hosting a special early-release signing on Saturday April 6, exclusively for Ruthie’s hometown. More details on that event also to come.