by thea marie
For my aunt, who helped script the preface to my life....
My Southern Comfort
Mamie Williams was a big woman in every sense of the word. For as far back as I can remember, the promise of a visit from Aunt Mamie and Uncle Lem was an event to which I would look forward with gleeful, giddy anticipation.
As a child, I was not allowed to be in the presence of adults when they were talking together.
"Don't be standing around listening to grown folks' conversation. A child stays in a child's place!"
But fascinated, I would linger outside the periphery of their circle, hidden behind furniture, pretending to be doing my homework at a nearby table; trying not to be obvious- visible even- but soaking up her every word.
The two of them, my aunt and my uncle, worked hard and traveled extensively. But their idea of vacation was spending time from their jobs personally interacting with family around the country. When they departed from us, I would mope around, missing her for days.
Aunt Mamie was one of my favorite people on earth. When I would go "down south" every summer, the poor kid's equivalent of going abroad, I would be shufffled among my various aunts, but her house was my favorite.
Her wide, friendly face and laughing, pecan brown eyes warmly invited me into her space. She draped her large body in comfortable, shapeless, cotton sundresses that other people called tacky. Brightly splashed with busy florals, for me those dresses mirrored her disposition.
By no means a poor woman, her closets lined with all kinds of shoes; she preferred going barefoot. I can still hear her approaching my room in the early mornings; her splayed, ashen feet with the big, rough, rusty heels shooshing along the smooth timeworn wood floors of her airy Alabama home. I can still see her in the doorway, "becking" for me to wake up and entreating me to join her in the new day.
As a little girl I thought I felt sorry for her because she was fat and people talked about her for it. But still, I loved her because she was so happy and upbeat all the time. Everybody seemed to feel good and be happy when she was around. I was a teenager by the time I finally understood exactly what it was that I loved so much about her. Out of all the women I had encountered in my young life, she was the first woman that I recognized to be happy in her own skin. She made no excuses for anything. She was her own, self-appointed queen.
Her throne was a wicker high-backed chair in the corner of her front porch where we would so often sit to escape the summer heat trapped inside the house. I would sit out there with her and we would be free from the annoyance of the bugs flitting freely outside the screens between them and us. But we could still hear them and we could still feel the breezes when they came, and the sun could still kiss our faces.
She was my aunt, but she was also my friend. She told me that she liked me, and she helped me understand the difference between like and love. She said that she had to love me because I was her brother’s child, but that she liked me for the person I was becoming. She was the first person to qualify that for me, and I understood that liking me wasn’t something she had to do. I loved her for liking me.
She explained to me that after long years of trying and failing fad diets, of attempting to conform to society’s perceptions of beauty, while at the same time being the oldest of seven difficult siblings, and struggling with keeping her own home and family together; she had finally reached that age and that place where she could say, “The hell with it.” One day, she just decided that she liked herself just as she was. She said that once she came to that conclusion, she found that she was able to enjoy life a whole lot more.
The summer that I was thirteen, my Uncle Lem had a terrible accident. Up on the roof, laying new shingles, he accidentally came into contact with an exposed electrical wire. A contractor had done some electrical work up there for them not long before, and it was he who set the circumstances of the rest of my aunt and uncle's lives.
The shock Uncle Lem received violently repelled him, and he was thrown from the roof to the ground, the small of his back striking a brick border around their lawn. He was hospitalized, near death, for a very long time. He eventually recovered, but he never walked again.
From the day of that accident, my aunt shut down her life to care for him. Once he returned home, she dedicated the rest of her life to assisting my uncle in what was left of his. My visits to her became less frequent. I felt so sorry for both of them, but especially for her.
In my youthful narcissism, I couldn’t see shutting down my life in that way for someone else. She spent most of her time with him in that bedroom that had been converted for his use, and I hated going in there. But when I did visit, I never heard her complain. She would come out of that room for me, and as far as I could see, she continued to be the optimistic person she had always been.
“You take what life give you, child," She would say. "And you make the best of whatever it is. Life give you a whole lot of rain, you take it and you drink it down. Least you won’t be thirsty.”
Even though I was young, that made sense to me, and I remembered it.
Once upon a time, she said, she had been as thin as I was at the time, sitting there in front of her, all of a size five.
“A lil’ bitty thing. But you start havin’ them babies, and the weight just comes. You fight it. It fights you back. You get tired after a while, and finally you just look in the mirror one day, and you figure you might as well like what you see ‘cause it don’t matter what nobody else say if you don’t like what you lookin’ at, yourself.”
I would sit and listen as she related tales of our family. Stories like the one about Uncle Jim with the twenty-four children, and how even after they were all grown and gone, Uncle Jim continued to be the petty thief he felt he had been forced to be while trying to feed so many.
“Just used to stealin’" Aunt Mamie summed up. "To feed all those chirrun of his. We standing ‘round in the kitchen, fryin’ fish, and Jim stops by, he say, just to see us, and there the jelly jar sat. You know, one of those big ones that you buy, not ‘cause you need that much, but ‘cause it’s too good a buy to pass up. Well, Jim spied that out and soon as he got the chance, he snatched it up and ran on out the side door ‘fore we even knew what had happened. Now, ain’t nobody livin’ up at that house but him and Sadie. They ain’t need no jelly they couldn’t go to the store and buy outright. Just a habit he can’t break, I guess. I didn’t even make a fuss about it.”
She had been laughing all the while she was telling the story. I laughed with and at her. I couldn't help it. Nobody could tell it like she could, complete with the facial expressions and voice inflections. We both laughed until tears flowed down our faces. We both knew Uncle Jim and how he was. She should have written a book.
Nobody knew as much as she did about other people's lives, and nobody could weave stories about those people like she could.
When I spoke to her, she would listen and she would respond in kind. She would talk with me, not to me. Being from a family who believed that children, especially girls, should be seen and not heard, I wasn’t used to that. She was the first person in my life who acted as if I had something to say. She called me smart, and said that I should start writing things down. And that’s what I began to do.
“The things you think of are there one minute, then gone, just flying away like a bird the next. When you write down on paper what you think, that stays right where you put it until you’re ready for it the next time.”
When my daddy had his "episode", she had to come see about him and to us. I tried as hard as I could to stay out of grown folks' way, but
she was the one to pull me to the side to let me know that it was okay to think whatever I wanted about my father. A child tends to overlook and keep silent on certain things about her parents that don’t seem quite right. My aunt knew that I was a thinking child, and that it all had to be bothering me.
She told me, “He’s my brother, but your mamma’s got her hands full with that. I know it. She knows it, and I want you to know that it’s all right if you know it. Don't push it away. Look it in the eye, and don't back down from it. Sometimes the men in a woman's life can be a burden, but you have to decide if the burden is worth carryin’ or if it needs to be put to the side of the road so you can carry on better by yourself. The truth is the light, girl. Payin’ attention to the truth, don’t mean you love your daddy any less. It just means you know he’s human and that you’re smarter and better for the knowin’.”
It embarrassed me a little that day to have her tell me that she knew what was going on in my head, but I was glad to have it out in the open. I had been wrestling with why my father would want to try to take his own life. At the tender age of ten, my father had been diminished in my eyes, and was a hypocrite for trying to take the weak way out, a thing for which he frequently berated my sensitive, quiet older brother. I was glad to have somebody I trusted tell me that it was okay to acknowledge the truth, no matter how painful or troubling it might be. For me, in those dark days, her words were my light. She helped me to understand that my father was my father, but he was also only human.
Even though she had come in from outside to care for him, my Uncle Lem outlived my Aunt Mamie by two years. But as far as I know, she never complained or made excuses about anything. His outliving her seemed a little ironic to me at the time of her passing, and then I realized that it had to have been somebody’s way of having her leave her burden by the side of the road. She had taken good care of him for all those years, but in doing so, she had begun to neglect herself. Her leaving was someone's way of allowing her to carry on better for herself.
Just as Mamie Wiliams said it would, time passed, the babies came, and I’m a big woman myself now. But I am comfortable in my own skin. I know how to laugh at what’s funny. I can see things and people for what they are, and I can accept them and their shortcomings as human. I also know how to put unnecessary burdens away from me when they keep me from carrying on better for myself.
I still write things down, and although I can’t do it in writing as well as she could orally, I think I can tell a pretty good story. I often think of my old Auntie. I think of her and thank her for teaching me to acknowledge and accept the truth, and to know, like, and accept who and what I am. Nobody else can do that for me if I don’t do those things for myself.
Because of her, I greatly admire strong, smart women. It is what I have aspired to be in my own life.
And I listen and talk with the children who now come to sit at my knee, especially the little girls.