I’ve known her all my life, as she is my mother’s sister, and she never ceases to entertain me or perplex me, or take care of me. Recently, when I told her that she could find the phone number for the Cabell County Courthouse online, she called and left a message to say that she had gone to the site, but she couldn’t get the phone number as the letters didn’t go all the way down.
No, I have no idea either what the heck that meant. That’s my aunt Norma and at 70+ she does all right at the computer, quite frankly. Just the occasional glitch, and one can understand, surely, when the letters don’t go all the way down.
She is two years younger than my mother, and they grew up on Kanawha County farms in the St. Albans area speaking a private language between them like twins do. Norma’s hair and eyes were dark, like the Indian ancestry we share, while Mom was blonde and blue-eyed like the Irish and English side of the family. They were inseparable, playing all over their West Virginia hills, dresses made of feed sacks, like most children post Depression. Mom often told me that they hung from trees like monkeys, when they weren’t gathering the milk cow in from the pasture or scooping up eggs from the chicken coup, or flipping up rocks looking for snakes. Their mother, a diminutive woman at 4 foot ten, and their father, a farmer and factory worker of 6 foot 4 stature mostly worked hard and left kids to their own devices. Until their mother died before she was even 50, after birthing 10 live babies and losing two to miscarriage, their lives, nevertheless, were mostly idyllic, like a Currier and Ives lithograph.
Life gets hard for many folks and my mom and my Aunt Norma were victims of hard times, but what they held in common was a sense of humor, a wit sharp enough to cut yourself on, and a determination to do better. And they did. Both funny in their own ways, my aunt was a bit more skeptical than my mom, but she also conversely possessed a more positive outlook. Both had the ability to laugh at themselves, so that getting above their raisings was never an issue. My aunt, though, always had a fuzzier logic.
We receive news of her antics on occasion. She once pounded the hell out of coffee grounds all over the countertop, convinced they were ants. Until she put on her glasses. When she was 68, she decided she wanted her own ATV until she wrecked it swerving to miss a tree in a flat yard and broke her shoulder. Oh the wailing and carrying on that brought. She’s in good shape now, though, and that ATV went back to the store immediately. She has three great-grandchildren that keep her hopping. Especially the youngest who’s apt to dislodge breakers in the electric box, which he reached by stacking boxes and buckets, causing the power to go out to the freezer, ruining several pounds of meat. And this little Dennis the Menace was only three at the time. He’s four now. And taller. That’s a scary thought, my aunt assures me.
When I was growing up, my mom couldn’t drive, so we depended on Aunt Norma to take us places while dad was at work. Yard sales were a given on a Saturday morning. Bumping along back roads, my aunt’s Rambler seemed trained to sniff out sales in the most remote places. It’s a good thing as Aunt Norma rarely paid attention to her driving skills. A yard sale sign would pop up out of nowhere and the steering wheel jerked in that direction, regardless of oncoming traffic. Once while zipping along a dirt road a car came around the bend and surprised my aunt, or perhaps just her Rambler, but whichever it was it meant we swerved into the ditch. In those days, sewer lines in the country sometimes meant the house drained into the ditch beside the road. The car landed on its passenger side. I was in the back seat, and it was my great misfortune that my window was open so that my nose was but 2 inches away from raw sewer. This was before seat belts. My aunt’s sister-in-law, Drexel, lay on top of me. My aunt teased me for years about “laying in the sewer.” I knew enough not to tease her back about her driving skills. If I had, I’d never go anywhere again. Or she’d just blame the Rambler.
Anyone in the front seat with my Aunt Norma—to this day—is safe even without a seat belt. When my cousin Joni was small, she stood on the seat beside Norma as she drove. Norma throws an arm across who ever is sitting in the seat beside her, an automatic reaction from the old days of keeping her daughter from flying through the windshield.
When my parents retired, they followed Norma and her husband to South Carolina and the yard sale visiting resumed for a number of years, until my mother died. Then Norma stepped up to the plate to take care of me in my mother’s stead. Three weeks after Mom died, I traveled to South Carolina to help take care of Mom’s clothes and effects. As I sorted, Norma had a running commentary: “Jean never wore that. The tags are still on it.” “Oh, I saw her many a time wearing that T-shirt.” “I told her not to buy them shoes. Now, look at that. Never worn.”
That’s when she had the bright idea of taking all the clothes and shoes back to the stores where Mom had bought them. I looked askance at her. Take them back? With Mom gone it seemed . . . weird. But Norma insisted. Being the practical woman she is, and knowing my mother probably better than I ever did, she reasoned this was sensible. So, a bit dazed and confused from Mom’s recent death and just glad to have someone else make decisions, we gathered the tagged items in bags and set out to discover where they had come from and to get refunds.
It was strange to approach the customer service counters at Wal*Mart, K-Mart, Hamricks, and other stores and have my aunt say to the folks behind the counter, “This here is my niece. Her mom just died. We’re here to return some clothes.” I let her say these things, take care of business. The good people behind the counters would look at me with sympathy and offer condolences and then do the best they could to determine if the items were indeed from their stores. Sometimes I’m pretty sure they were not, but they refunded me anyway. I wondered idly if they thought this whole thing odd as I was 46 at the time, but you would have never known that from my Aunt Norma. Without being condescending in the least, she simply thought of me as being 10 and in need of taking care of because my mother, her sister, has passed away. This is what nurturing women like my aunt do, and have done, forever.
Besides, we netted ninety-five dollars in refunds. “Your mom would have been proud,” she said.
Do you have an Aunt Norma? I hope so.