Sue and Babe, Aunt Annie, and Em
They were sisters and lived together three houses down from us on Woodfield Drive. Mama was good friends with them. Daddy leaned towards Babe—no, not what you think, but because she was a highly personable, masculine force of nature who could build a house. She wore a toolbelt as naturally as any man—back in the era when she wasn’t trying to say anything by it, she just needed it. Sue was either a widow or divorced, I’m not sure which, and had a son about my brother’s age, and Babe was unmarried. I loved them both. Later, another sister, terminally ill, came to live with them bringing her brilliant son who was my age. He was into chess, electronics, arcane literature, and not throwing and catching things. I was into airplanes, Alistair MacLean, James Bond, and throwing and catching things.
Babe owned a beauty shop downtown by the Tiger Theater and I delivered a paper there and collected once a month. I enjoyed going in there—what other kid could or would?—drawing fawning clucks from the hens in mid-beautification or dunked over backwards into sinks or sitting under those sci-fi cones—amid that smell—that pungent chemical smell of the beautician’s dark arts.
Babe was friendly, outgoing, funny, always a joy to see. Everybody loved her.
Thank God there was no word for what she was. Well, actually, there was: Babe.
Aunt Annie is a ghost to me. I can’t have seen her more than three or four times in my life, on our rare visits to my great-grandparents’ house in northwest Birmingham, but it was enough to leave me with a faint mental image of a pale, thin, bunned woman in a black dress. I can’t remember when she died, but I can hardly have been in double digits.
Funny, I’m not really sure whether she was my great-grandmother’s (Mu’s) or my great-grandfather’s sister, but it was one of them. She had her own room, where the children were forbidden to set foot, and worked at a department store downtown. She would walk down to the bus stop every morning and take the bus to work. In the afternoons she would reappear. She paid half the mortgage, and her share of household expenses. Of course she ate with the family because she was part of the family. My memory is very, very dim, but I don’t remember her as melancholy or morose. She talked, she laughed, she played the part of Aunt Annie quite well—in that age when parts for women were few. I think she read a lot.
In my experience Abe was right that people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. She was the spinster sister but had made peace with her fate long ago and was living her life. Like Mu, she was deeply religious—I mean, Mu used to cut out the whiskey and lingerie ads from the newspaper before the children could see it. Certain sections of the Sears catalogue were banned as well. I’m thinking these images weren’t that lurid in that age; no matter—children had no business looking at pictures of grown women in their underwear. Some might argue they still don’t, but it’s too late.
Grandfather (as Mama called him), a tall, taciturn man with an odd whimsical streak, a builder of curious weathervanes and windmills in the labyrinthine back yard, a coal mine inspector, memory tells me was not Mu’s match in piety, but maybe since in all his years of work, the one day—the one day!—he said he just didn’t feel like going in to work and there was a cave-in, he should have been. The chiropractor who in treating his bad back had dislodged the blood clot that killed him put chiropractors on the family black list for two generations. I still harbor dark misgivings and have yet to visit one. Like everyone, Grandfather treated Aunt Annie with respect and unquestioning inclusion. She was just Aunt Annie, a member of the family, and beyond that, nobody cared.
Maybe it’s still true, but that was an era, certainly in the south, when unmarried sisters lived with their siblings, odd grown men lived with their mothers, elderly parents often had a room in their children’s house, and there was no shortage of “bachelors.” What strikes me today as I think about it is that these situations were not noted as unusual. Clear categories for what today we would doom with a name, as well as assisted living facilities, were absent. And without categories, usual is just what there is, and nobody thinks about it. Maybe it was my innocent perspective, but I’m not aware of having absorbed anything judgmental from the culture either—though Amanda Wingfield’s evocation of the spinster “stuck in some little mousetrap of a room” has persisted in my head all these years since my first reading of The Glass Menagerie in the seventh or eighth grade when I was hardly a literary man and it wasn’t a great play or great writing or anything southern, it just whacked me.
Someone should have warned Adam—the mischief starts when you start naming things.
Let us arise and go now, and live without categories.
October 28, 2018