Aunt Barbara, her husband, Uncle Doc, and her sister, Aunt Rose.
Last week, I got a call from a friend of mine who lives Down South. Her voice was hushed and it took me a second or two to figure out that she was trying not to cry. Her aunt had died, her dear venerable old Aunt Mable, 90 years on this Earth, strong, powerful, a force for good in my friend's life, a force for good (and a little fear) in the lives of everyone she knew.
Mable grew up in the Great Depression and went to college at a time when it was unusual for any woman from a poor small town to earn a master's degree, let alone a black woman. But Mable did. Her husband was killed in World War II just nine months after their wedding day, and she never remarried, never had children. She went to Normal School and then the Tuskegee Institute and became an educator, which meant that, in a way, she helped raise every kid in that town.
She was the older sister of my friend's mother, and together those two women kept a sharp eye on my friend, raising her right, teaching her dignity and good manners and the importance of schooling. ("I think I was always a disappointment to my Aunt Mable, because I never got a master's degree," my friend said on the phone, but we both know that's not right; my friend has a great job, a college degree, a happy life, and is the best writer I know. Mable was nothing but proud of her. But Mable being Mable, she was also the kind of person who would look her up and down, press her lips together, and then say something sharp, find something to fix, to make sure my friend didn't get too proud.)
My friend called back the next day to read me the eulogy; she said she wrote it through tears at 3 a.m. and she wanted to know if it was OK. It was more than OK; it was moving and sad and funny, and I teared up halfway through.
I never met Aunt Mable, who lived in Florida, but I have heard dozens and dozens of stories about over the years, and she has always reminded me in many ways of my great aunt Barbara. Both women grew up poor, worked hard, had a few adventures (Barbara ran off to California with a man named Charlie who she might or might not have married, came back, married my Uncle Doc), made something serious out of their lives.
Both women understood the importance of dignity--especially for women. It was their armor. They both wore hats, and carried pocketbooks (never purses), wore elegant suits and sensible heeled shoes. Barbara and Doc had a lilac-colored Cadillac with fins, and they drove out from Los Angeles every autumn to visit us in Duluth and look at the autumn leaves. And for that trip, Barbara brought not sweatpants and capris and sandals, but silk suits with jackets, and big round pearly clip-on earrings, and thick nylon hose.
(I tell this to my friend, who says, "MMMM hmmmm," in recognition; this, too, was Mable.)
Barbara was my grandfather's big sister. She called him "Johnny," and spoke sharply to him and kept him line, even when he was in his 60s, even when he was in his 70s. I would have done anything for her; I looked up to her, pressed against her when she sat in the big chair in the living room, sniffed the inside of her pocketbook, which smelled of old coins and face powder. She loved us kids, but she did not indulge us, much, and it was very clear that she belonged to the world of adult. She was here, really, to see my parents, and we were meant to stay quiet and in the background.
She made being an adult seem serious and important and brisk, and she inspired me; I wanted to make sure I measured up. Tried to tame my hair, quiet my voice, somehow acquire a pocketbook of my own. (The clip-on earrings, which I also experimented with, were impossible; they hurt so much I had to take them off within seconds.)
But she was also on our side. I remember sitting in the back of that lilac Cadillac as Johnny drove us all north to Pigeon River, and somewhere around Split Rock Lighthouse I started getting queasy. In those years I was prone to car-sickness, and I was afraid I was going to be ill. Barbara let me put my head in her lap, and she told Johnny to pull over, but Johnny didn't like to stop. I remember Barbara chuckling, stroking my head: "If you get sick in this car you won't be the first," she said, and Johnny pulled over so I could get out.
Mable went into a nursing home a year or two back, and my friend's mother had the chance to turn the tables and care for her. She visited twice a day, every day, taking her meals with Mable, making sure she ate, and taking home Mable's laundry, which she did not entrust to the staff but did herself, ironing her freshly-washed clothes crisply, with knife-edged pleats. The way Mable wanted it, or, more precisely, the way Mable would have done for her.
It is no wonder my friend was weeping when she talked to me; a powerful anchor is gone from her life. And I am reminded of another friend, who lost his elderly aunt not too long ago. "She knew me before I knew myself," he said.
I'm hoping my Southern friend will write down a few of these Aunt Mable stories for herself, for her family, maybe for me. These strong and brave old ladies are a vanishing breed, and it would be a loss to everyone if we allowed them to be forgotten.