I’m posting paintings of my maternal aunts. There were seven sisters. I loved each of them differently but greatly.
My first is Olive Gray, my namesake and Godmother. Her she is holding my daughter Wilton Gray, her namesake, at her christening. She is the one that always used to say, “Nobody better not spank my baby.” It doesn’t matter that they didn’t listen but it did matter that she said it. I loved her for that and I loved for her to come and visit. She’s the one that bought my birthday cakes every year. One year she brought the cake that was the dress of a Barbie doll. You remember don’t you? The doll sticking up the middle of her swirling icing princess dress? I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was so in love with that cake, I didn’t want anyone to cut into it and actually take a bite. Darn. I can’t remember if that is the year that she bought me the brass horses that were bookends. I really wanted a statue of a horse but Momma said for me to be grateful because Aunt Olive had gone all over eastern North Carolina to find me some horses and they cost twenty dollars too. That was a whole lot of money back then especially for Aunt Olive. She didn’t graduate from college and as a result worked as a foreman in a textile mill. She was always giving us pants from her factory. You can believe that she earned every penny of that twenty dollar horse bookend so whether or not I wanted a brown statue really wasn’t relevant. I acted thrilled.. She was my love.
The first lady of the family is Edna Earl. She taught school, later becoming a principal and opening the first library in Pitt County. So of course her favorite gift was books. Reading was her passion. Getting someone to read better or giving someone who could not read a chance was her life mission. After she retired she ran for mayor of Farmville. I remember that. Her license plate read, “Gon 2 a Meet’n.” And she was too and you had better get out of her way. She kept Christmas up all year, literally. You could hear her singing Santa on the 4th of July. We thought that was pretty special. One Christmas she gave my son lots of candy. We asked him where in the world all the candy had come from and he said proudly, “One of the antiques gave it to me.” It was of course Auntie. This portrait shows her standing in her son Billy’s yard at the family reunion. While the pig lay roasting, she stood with her yellow pad, giving directions and announcements so we would know where we came from and where we were going. In the later years, we dropped in unannounced so the “antiques” wouldn’t fuss and go to so much trouble. But it didn’t help because she would stop whatever she was doing, pull out the mixer and bake a pound cake. One time she broke her hand in that mixer she was fussing with pimento cheese, cake batter or egg nog so hard but even that couldn’t slow her. She lived to be 100 and received the honor of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine the year before she died. We sang Christmas carols at her funeral we were so happy that she could hear again.
Margaret was the first princess. She could cook but preferred to have others cook for her. Or she would cook a special dish for a special occasion. But cooking everyday for the hungry was not her thing. Aunt Margaret and Aunt Olive lived together. They depended on each other and thats just the way it was.
Aunt Margaret was a teacher. She was precise and particular. All her students say that about her. She was married secretly for years. She and Uncle Archie were so afraid of his mother that they didn’t tell for two years, until she got pregnant. I guess by then they had waited so late that news of the wedding was better than the other. I’ll never forget when she died, she left dozens and dozens of matching shoes and pocketbooks. And I’ll never forgive myself for not taking a photo of her closet before they cleaned it out. I stood there looking, shaking my head and saying, “This is the end of an era.” She was that and I loved her.
Next is Mary and I guess I knew her the least because she lived up “North” in Virginia. Her daughter and my mother could tell quite a few stories though. The ones I heard revolve around Aunt Mary’s store and Momma going up to Norfolk to help her in the summer. Buying a coca-cola and dropping peanuts into it, watching them fizzle up and around the bottom was a big deal. Novelty was always being sought and peanuts in soda fit the bill. Aunt Mary was in a wheel chair early in her life. She was in the hospital at UNC when I was in college. I thought walking all the way to south campus to visit her was on the other end of the moon. Now they have many dormitories there and that huge football stadium. Here she is she is sitting in her chair in front of her sixty-third birthday cake. Or I should say it is her 63rd birthday. I doubt if she had that many cakes. Seven girls and one son. A tobacco farmer with a sickly wife and huge family probably didn’t celebrate everyone’s birthday with a cake. Think about it. Eight children and two parents would make ten parties a year. Wow. Anyway, she did have a cake that year. I think they celebrated at Aunt Effie’s. The older they got the goofier they were about hats, horns and party favors. I always wondered if they were making up for lost years but never asked.
Aunt Bertha is missing. She worked the hardest and had the most children. Things got a bit tough for her and she died early with a heart attack. We spent every Christmas in Farmville with Momma’s family. Then got up the next day and went to Rock Ridge to be with Daddy’s family. My memory is that we were walking in the door to my grandmother Kate’s when we got the news. Momma collapsed on the floor. We got in the car, turned around and went straight back to Farmville. I think I saw her in the hospital but she didn’t live long. At least that is what my memory is telling me. Anyway, no one has a picture of her. I think she worked so hard and baked so many cakes-German chocolate was her favorite, that she just couldn’t outlast the sisters. I’m going to paint something from memory soon.
My favorite memory of her is when she came to Lumberton for my sister’s wedding. One of the sisters was going to fix her hair for her. She sat down to let them comb it and when they got it just right, picked up the spray can and sprayed away. They thought it was hair spray but it was furniture polish! Oh Lord, some cuss words flew then because the sister’s were always pulling pranks and I think Aunt Bertha thought this might be one. Even Aunt Effie wouldn’t spray furniture polish on her sister’s hair before the rehearsal dinner so we never really figured out exactly how that happened. Aunt Bertha almost didn’t go to the dinner her hair looked so bad. Truly awful. But I think she did end up going, fuming though. She was proud.
Aunt Effie is a stitch. You could sit here all day and read whatever I write about her because she was a “cut up.” She was a social worker and majored in home economics. Boy could she cook. She made the best everything in Roanoke Rapids. Momma always said, “My sisters don’t think I can cook.” Everyone in Robeson County knew better but her sisters would never let her bring anything until later when they were so old they had to give in. Aunt Effie smoked and then smoked and then lit up another. She could light a cigarette before the first one burned out and not miss a beat with the joke she was telling. Mostly they were funny but I remember after integration that sometimes I’d feel embarrassed because they were racist. She didn’t know. I think if she had lived longer she would have figured it out because even though she had a cutting wit, she had a bigger heart. I loved her. We used to visit in the summer and she would take me to the haunted house and try to make us get out of the car. We were listening for the train and looking for a ghost with the lantern, walking up and down the tracks looking for his head. I never saw him but my sister did. Then we would go home and make mints. Boil that hot sugar mixture on the stove, pour it out on a marble slab and when it cooled just enough we’d pick it up and start pulling. Criss cross, cross criss and again. Blowing on our red hands they’d get so hot from pulling that candy. Effie was one very special lady.
Here she is sitting outside at a table with Aunt Olive after Wilton’s christening. She made the rolls for every occasion and no rival could defeat her. I miss the smell of yeast, don’t you? Once after Sunday lunch everyone was pretty logy but Momma. The girls were clearing the table and getting ready to wash massive mountains of dirty dishes. Put away relish, ham, chicken salad, crackers, sweet potatoes, butter beans, corn, pickles and cornbread when Momma took her trivet and opened it up in the middle,( it expanded for large casseroles). She squeezed it hard on Aunt Effie’s nose. We never did hear the end of that because every time it got cold, Aunt Effie would complain loudly and to whom ever would listen about how her nose still throbbed from that pressure. I made sure to take that trivet from Momma’s place to mine when we sold and cleaned her house out. I want my children to learn that story it is so hilarious to me still. Even if that was one joke that never made Aunt Effie laugh. Oh I miss our fun.
And last but never least are Momma and Louise. Momma is the baby of the family. Edna Earl was twenty years old the day she was born. Momma always says that Edna Earl tried to “rock her out of the cradle” she was so mad. Everybody was pretty mad at Momma even on the first day of her life because her Momma was so sick. Diabetic, blind, pernicious anemia, all contributed to my grandmother’s death. Momma was only twelve years old when she died. Her Daddy dying one year to the day later when she was thirteen. Exactly on the day. How many times have you heard that tale told? Anyway, Momma always said that Edna Earl was her Momma and her sister because she came back to the farm and raised her. Although I believe when Momma was little she lived with various aunts and cousins. Her Momma being too sick to watch a baby. I never have completely understood the timeline of her life but I know that much is true. She grew up and married my father. Graduating from ECU, she stayed there and taught and got her Master’s in Business. She helped my father grow their insurance office into the best agency in town. And she could cook too. No matter what fabrications the sisters invented. She ran the book club, garden club, DAR, hospice, meals on wheels, Methodist church and our family. There really wasn’t much she couldn’t do. Folks have been known to show up at the beauty parlor at 9am on Fridays to catch Momma sitting down so they could tell her something important. All this and then the last twenty years of her life went to water aerobics almost everyday to increase her mobility after shattering her humerus. She was out late playing Canasta and slipped on a rock coming down Miss Huntley’s front stoop. Thank God Aunt Effie was with her then too. I am so fortunate to have my Momma with me. She is the only one still alive and we talk almost everyday. God bless her. In this portrait, she is reaching out for our beautiful Kathryne to give her a big kiss. That’s another thing Momma does best. Hug and kiss somebody.
Here is Louise with Wilton. Wilton is sucking her thumb again and Louise is looking at her as if that is the best idea ever. Just like she always looked at me. I have written many poems about Louise. However, my computer crashed in 2007 and I lost much of my work. Of course I never back anything up, hadn’t really figured out how to do that even though I wrote a thousand poems. And that would be alright with Louise too. That was her magic. She loved you no matter what you did. Never got angry or harsh. My sister used to throw the biggest tantrums when she lost a library book. Seriously, was the world stopping because Tanglewood School would have one late book in it’s library? To listen to my sister you would think so. And to listen to me trying to help her so we wouldn’t be late would make you think so too. But Louise would calmly say, “Now girls, where was that book the last time you had it?” And Jamie would say something and then Louise would mystically walk to the spot where the book was lying and give it to us so we could run the one block through the fields to school. I spent most of my time after school playing kickball and then later sitting on a vinyl stool watching her fry chicken for our supper. I never heard her say once that I was in the way and she always let me have the gizzards even though Momma liked them too. She let me eat them before Momma got home. We’d hear Momma come in the front door from work, “Ouuwee, that chicken smells so good. Have you saved me a gizzard?” And we would say there wasn’t one in this chicken. It must have been removed at the butcher and all of us would laugh. Everybody in the family liked the liver and gizzard but most of all the heart. Because the heart was where our family lived together and loved each other. That included my Louise, the love of my life.