Tuesday, July 23, 2019


This past weekend, my oldest daughter and her family were staying with me after their return from three weeks in Asia. On Sunday morning, she came in to where I was my practicing my French horn, and told me that she'd just had a message from my cousin that my Aunt Cecilia had died. It wasn't a shock, since my aunt was 93 and had been ill for some time, but for her nine surviving children, their families, her brother, and countless nieces, nephews and friends, it would leave a huge gap, except that she spent her life filling all around her with love and laughter.
As my daughter wrote, "she raised 10 children, wrote a regular newspaper column for many years, wrote several books, and was named both Missouri Press Woman of the Year and Missouri Mother of the Year. Her kind heart and cheerful spirit made us all love her." My mother often claimed that Aunt Cecilia got things wrong when she wrote about their childhood, but my aunt teased her that she could write her own book. She was a mentor for me in combining writing with raising her children, and she appears in my novel, Sooners in Backwater. The excerpt that follows is fictionalized only in names.

When we pulled up in front of Aunt Cecilia’s rambling brown farmhouse, across the road from the long white dairy barn, we couldn’t wait to take a run up the huge pine that grew at an acute angle in the front yard so that even the smallest child could hike up and down almost as easily as climbing stairs. As soon as we’d said our hellos, we tore out with our cousins to the barn, climbed up to the hayloft and took turns jumping down into the bin full of grain that cushioned our landing. The cows were all out in the field, but the barn was filled with the musty ambience of hay and cobwebs, dust motes sparkling in the shafts of light that came through the open doors, and the Guernseys whose aroma lingered penetratingly. We admired a new batch of black and white kittens hidden behind a hay bale in the loft while we exchanged stories of our families and activities since we’d last been together.
Then Johanna, who was as much of a tomboy as I was, invited us down for hog rides. The young hogs, as opposed to the old sows, were generally amiable creatures who didn’t seem to mind little and bigger girls climbing on their backs and pretending to be cowboys. By the time we’d invented a rodeo and giddy upped to our hearts’ content, we were about as dirty and fragrant as our mounts, who signaled that they were tired of the game by heading with deliberateness towards the muddy corner of the pen.
We slid off quickly, climbed through the fence bars and headed back to the house to help Aunt Cecilia with the dinner. My favorite job was shelling peas. I loved to pull the string, pop open the pod and aim the peas into a measuring cup where I could watch the fruits of my labors mount up in a slippery green pile. Hannah and Emma helped our cousins set the table, marveling that there were even more places than at ours. And we all marveled at the speed with which the platters of fried chicken were dispatched.
Since we had a dishwasher at home, doing dishes by hand seemed like fun; Aunt Cecilia could wash so fast, she kept us all busy drying and putting away, except for Hannah, who had the coveted job of taking the slop bucket and throwing it over the fence for the hogs. This trash technique enchanted us all and we agreed to take turns, much to the amusement of our cousins.
Aunt Cecilia told us, while we were busy with our dish towels, that when she had been expecting one of the babies, and had been quite sick, she had sent Corinne, the oldest girl, to make dinner. She had made a big pot of soup, and when they sat down to eat, one of the younger boys, made a face and said, “This tastes like slop.” He was roundly reprimanded, but continued muttering to himself. After Aunt Cecilia had taken her first bite, she asked Corinne what she had cooked. 
“I just added water to all the cut up vegetables in the pot and cooked them.”
Aunt Cecilia choked. “But, Corinne, that was the slop pan!”
We were enchanted with all of the differences between life on the farm and what we saw as a much duller existence at home. When I went to help Maria, who was just a year older, do the wash the next morning, I discovered to my delight that we were to accomplish this with the aid of an old fashioned wringer washing machine, which up to that point I thought had existed only in history books and museums. Maria pointed out that it was quite up to date, since it was electric, but this advantage soon contributed to catastrophe. After I had watched for a while, I begged Maria to let me feed the clothes through the wringer.  I loved watching the water pour off the back and the clothes come out, flat and scrunched on the other side. Unfortunately, I soon became too busy watching the end result and let my fingers get too close to the wringer, and I let out a shriek of terror and pain as I felt them pulled into the wringer. Maria watched in horror, but had the presence of mind to turn off the machine. Unfortunately, she then thought that what was needed was to put it in reverse, and my fingers began to be flattened more as they came back out. By then, Aunt Cecilia, brought downstairs by my agonized cries, rushed over and turned off the machine, and flipped a lever that separated the rolls of the wringer so my squashed hand could be extricated. 
My fingers were so bruised and flattened that I didn’t want to look at them, and Aunt Cecilia thought she’d better rush me up to Hannibal to have them x-rayed. She admonished Maria to call Mama and let her know what happened, and we were off. Despite the aching in my hand, I thought it was a rare treat to have Aunt Cecilia all to myself, because she had an inexhaustible store of funny stories about herself, her family, and everyone she knew, and she brought out a novel’s worth of them on the ride. When the x-ray showed no broken bones, and my aunt treated me to a piece of cherry pie with ice cream on top, in the hospital cafeteria, I decided it had been a very worthwhile adventure, and returned to the circle of cousins and sisters waiting for us with something of the air of a conquering hero. But I watched the operation of the wringer washer from a distance for the rest of the visit.
When I reflect on that day now, I am sure that a long drive over dusty roads with a niece who should have been more careful with a piece of equipment she knew nothing about, was not my aunt's idea of time well spent.  It was summer, and there was always gardening, canning, cooking, hanging the endless laundry on the lines, and feeding what seemed to be no fewer than 20 people every night.  But she never complained, and turned an accident into a special afternoon.

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