Then one day, when I was four years old, they became real to me:
Maw Maw George and I are spending the day with them: my great-grandparents, Granny and Pappy and my great-great aunt Hannah.
They greet us warmly. When Granny hugs me, I pick up the scent of something foreign, dark, exotic. But not unpleasant. As she talks, a stick in her mouth rolls from one side of her mouth to the other, and I stand, gazing at it. Why does she have that little stick in her mouth, I wonder.
“You have such pretty curls, Brenda Gail!” she says, smiling at me and patting my head, “Let’s go ahead in here and get you a little something to eat."
She hurries out to the big kitchen and I follow along behind. As she opens a cabinet drawer and rummages around in it, I gaze at her black, lace-up shoes, fragile legs rising toward the hem of her dress like the thin stalks of Maw Maw’s palm plant.
She pulls out a bag of marshmallows. “Get you some, hon.”
She allows me to take as many as I want, so I stuff two in my mouth and put several in the pocket of my green corduroy jumper.
She pushes a tendril of grey hair from her face with one blue-veined hand, the stick rolling back and forth. Suddenly, she turns, sniffing the air. “My beans!”
I follow her into the big country kitchen, where the tongue-in-grove walls are painted a bright blue. In one corner stands a large yellow pie safe; in the opposite corner is a tall cupboard the color of Buttercups. I study the pattern on the linoleum as she settles into the worn spot in front of the iron stove and lifts the lid of a big pot.
The ham-and-beans smell makes my mouth water.
Maw Maw enters the kitchen. “Do you want to go on in the living room, Brenda,” she says, “and play with your doll?”
I’m tired of playing with my doll, but I meander out of the kitchen, still eating marshmallows.
In the living room, Aunt Hannah and Pappy sit in matching rocking chairs in front of a crackling fire. I jump as the big clock on the mantle begins to chime, but the two ancient people seem not to hear it. They just keep rocking back and forth, gazing into the flames.
I slip across the floor toward the bedroom. As I open the door, ice-cold air hits me in the face. A tall, dark dresser and a big iron bed sit in the middle of the room. On the walls are portraits of ancient people.
All staring at me.
I hurry back into the living room, where Aunt Hannah and Pappy are still gazing at the fire. "Come on over here, Brenda, where it’s warm,” Aunt Hannah says.
Her voice startles me. She hasn’t moved, or even looked at me. How does he know I am here?
I hesitate and then walk over and stand between their rockers.
Aunt Hannah places a wrinkled hand on my shoulder, “It’s warm here in front of the fire, ain’t it?”
She wears a starched print dress that smells of soap. A wooden cane lies tilted across her knee, the handle hooked onto the arm of her rocker. Her hair is in a knot on top of her head, like Granny’s, but her face is fuller than her sister’s. She has the same kind blue eyes, though, and they seem to be looking through me.
Aunt Hannah is blind.
I stand between the ancient people for a long time, gazing at the popping fire. Every now and then Pappy turns and smiles at me. His blue eyes are pale and faded. But kind. He wears a blue shirt tucked into loose brown trousers held up by suspenders. A brown cap dangles from the back of his rocker. His back is bent, and I wonder why he doesn’t straighten up.
I return to the kitchen where pots and pans are clattering, ham and beans simmering and Maw Maw and Granny are chattering. Maw Maw is stirring the batter for cornbread and Granny is making pie crust. She rolls the rolling pin over and over the dough, dousing the rolling pin with flour, rolling it over and over again.
“Now, back up, Brenda,” Maw Maw says as she pours the cornbread batter into the sizzling grease of a big iron skillet, “You might get burned.”
As I am heading back to the living room, Granny catches up with me and hands me a Sears & Robuck Catalog. “Sit down and look at them pretty pictures, hon,” she says. She dusts her floury hands on her bib-apron and rushes back to the kitchen.
In the living room, Aunt Hannah and Pappy are still gazing into the fire. I stare at it a moment or two, trying to see what they are seeing, and then I plop on the floor and begin turning the pages of the catalog. The clock ticks; the fire pops. Aunt Hannah rocks every once in a while. Pappy rocks every once in a while, too, although he appears to be asleep.
I begin ripping pages from the catalog and tearing each page into tiny pieces. When I finish, I pick up the handful of the tiny bits of paper and transfer them from one hand to the other.
“Dinner’s ready!” Granny calls from the kitchen.
Pappy leans forward, grasping each arm of his rocker, and pulls his body up. He stands for a minute, body trembling, and then he heads toward the kitchen in short, jerky steps. Aunt Hannah unhooks her cane and places the pads of her hands on the rocker arms. I stand, staring at her. She’s blind! How will she find her way to the kitchen? I jump up, run over, taking her warm, dry hand in mine.
“Well, I’ll be!” she says, “You’re real helpful, Brenda!”
She, too, is shaky, and although we walk at a snail’s pace, we catch up with Pappy. We all arrive at the table at the same time.
Aunt Hannah lowers her body into a chair. “I don’t know if I could-a made it without Brenda,” she says, smiling at me, “I just don’t know what I’d a-done.”
After our dinner of country ham and soup beans, buttery mashed potatoes, green beans flavored with bacon and onions, light, crusty cornbread, coleslaw and peach cobbler for dessert, I am sleepy.
“I’m gonna have to take nap,” Aunt Hannah says, getting up, “Brenda, you did such a good job helping me to the table, could you help me to the couch?”
I take her hand, and we make our way to the bedroom where she drops onto the big Victorian settee. “Do you want to lay down a spell, too, hon?”
I climb up next to Aunt Hannah and she puts her arm around me. As I lay my head on her soft, cushy shoulder, I hear the clattering of dishes from the kitchen, the soft croon of Maw Maw and Granny’s voices. As I drift off to sleep, I see Pappy in the living room, still gazing into the fire.
I wake with a start, not knowing where I am. Suddenly, I am sliding off the couch. Aunt Hannah tries to grab me, but she rolls right off with me.
I jump up, afraid Aunt Hannah is really hurt, but she starts laughing. She sits on the floor beside, her body shaking with giggles. Soon I'm giggling along with her.
Maw Maw and Granny rush in, alarmed looks on their faces. But Aunt Hannah waves them away. “We’re fine,” she laughs, “just fine!”
Maw Maw helps Aunt Hannah up and I lead her into the living room where she lowers herself into her rocking chair alongside Pappy.
I stand for a few minutes, gazing into the fire, and then I grab the cut-up pieces of paper from the catalog, go over to Aunt Hannah, and tap her hand. She opens it, and I place the papers into her hand. She closes her hand and I walk away. After a minute or two, I go back and tap her hand. She opens it, and I take the pieces from her hand and tap Pa Pa’s hand. When he opens it, I place the pieces into his hand. I do this over and over again, stopping every now and then to gaze into the crackling fire, still trying to see what they are seeing.
The next time I place the pieces of paper in Aunt Hannah’s hand, I gather the nerve to ask her a question. “Aunt Hannah, can you see anything?”
“I can tell when it’s daylight,” she says, “And I can tell when it’s dark.”
I close my eyes and try to walk, but I don’t get very far before stumbling on the catalog which I’ve left on the floor. I open my eyes and walk back to her rocker.
“Could you ever see anything?” I ask.
“I used-ta could.”
“Why can’t you now?”
“I got cataracts.”
I turn to Pappy. “Can you see, Pappy?”
He turns to me, his head bent forward, as if it is sprouting from his chest, reminding me of a small tree I had once seen in the Mississippi River bottoms near our house. It was growing straight out of the side of the bluff.
“I can see,” he says, “But I cain’t see as good as I usta could.” He looks back at the fire, chuckling. “Cain’t hear as good, either.”
I spend the rest of the afternoon transferring the pieces of paper from Aunt Hannah’s to Pappy’s hands. I like tapping their warm, dry hands and dropping the paper into them. And I like watching them open them again as I take the paper back. Each time I place the paper in their hands, I keep expecting one or the other not to open their hand the next time around. But they always do.
As the fall sun casts slashes of orange-gold across the living room, Papa arrives to take us home. Although Maw Maw says there is no need for them to see us out, Granny walks us to the door, and Aunt Hannah and Pappy rise slowly, making their way across the room in their short, shaky steps.
“Come back and see us, hear?” says Granny.
Pappy smiles and pats my head.
“Me and Brenda had a big time today,” Aunt Hannah says, “A real big time.”
As Paw Paw starts up the coupe and we drive away, the three ancient people stand at the door, bathed in the golden light of the setting sun, smiling and waving until we are out of sight.
* * *
Although I saw Granny often after she went to live with Maw Maw and Paw Paw, I rarely saw Aunt Hannah and Pappy. They just seemed to fade away. Like the cabbage rose wallpaper on the walls of the living room. But I thought of them often through the years, remembering how I felt on that cold winter afternoon, wondering why I felt so comfortable with them, why they made such an impression on me.
Now that I’m older, I know. I was drawn to the deep quiet that surrounded them, their goodness; peaceful resignation. They were seeing the past as they stared into that crackling fire: the good times, people loved and lost, mistakes made, roads not taken. Nearing the end of their lives, they knew it and accepted it. Maybe even longed for it.
They step back in the shadows, voices quiet now; their story told. But it is comforting to me, just knowing they are there. And they will be there as long as I remember them.