“Stella-Rondo is exactly twelve months to the day younger than I am
and for that reason she’s spoiled.”
DooDaddy’s mother was one of six Southern sisters. Say that three times fast. She died tragically young of consumption, as pulmonary tuberculosis was called in the day. My father was raised by his grandparents among his doting aunts in Middle Tennessee during the Great Depression. That much you already know.
Growing up, I was endlessly entertained by DooDaddy’s epic stories of the histrionics of his bickering aunts, three of whom had relocated to Knoxville and were part of our daily lives. I remember reading Eudora Welty’s classic short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” and writing a paper for AP English about my aunts, drawing parallels between the two stories of squabbling siblings. Welty’s wonderful Stella-Rondo and Sister had nothing on the Kirby girls: Louise, Josephine, Helen, Lillian, Edith and Laura.
While I was still a teenager, Aunt Helen, an “old maid schoolteacher” died and left all her money to my father, who had always been kind to her, and to one of her remaining sisters, DooDaddy’s Aunt Edie. Helen had lived frugally and saved every penny. She intentionally wrote her sister Laura out of her will, because Laura had always been ugly to her.
Aunt Helen died peacefully in her sleep, alone at her Sequoyah Village apartment. Before the undertakers could cart her away, Edie and Laura were fighting over the powder blue ultrasuede suit in Helen’s closet and the silver sherbets hidden under her bed.
Ultrasuede was a thing in the late ’70s and early ‘80s. Gentlemen wore jackets made of the expensive microfiber to cocktail parties with their plaid pants. Ladies who lunched and blue hairs who bridged were fond of monochromatic ultrasuede suits in pastel shades. Helen didn’t lunch, but she was a staunch churchgoer, having landed at Sequoyah Presbyterian after being shunned by Edie and Laura at Second Pres. Well, “the aunts” figured there was no reason to waste a perfectly good Sunday suit by burying Helen in it. This still makes my blood boil.
The aforementioned “sherbets” were sterling silver family heirlooms used for serving dainty dollops of ice cream, or, if you will, sherbet. Aunt Helen had been given them by her mother’s sister and kept them in a pillowcase under the bed. She never “entertained,” but they were hers by right. I think Edie and Laura cut the baby in half and split them up like pirates looting a ship.
Later, while the red clay was still moist on Aunt Helen’s grave back in Fayetteville, where we made the pilgrimage to bury her, Aunt Laura famously said, “I’ll have what’s mine,” in reference to what she saw as her share of Aunt Helen’s estate. I always picture Scarlett O’Hara waving her fist in the air and swearing she’ll never go hungry again, when I think of Aunt Laura at this moment.
To keep the peace, Aunt Edie and DooDaddy (who had three children in college by then and could certainly have used the cash infusion) gave Aunt Laura a third of the money. I was outraged, infuriated by what I saw as the flagrant disregard for Aunt Helen’s last wishes. To DooDaddy, the money didn’t matter as much as mollifying his angry aunt. To Aunt Laura, who ultimately outlived two wealthy husbands, no money was ever enough for feeling slighted growing up, when the money ran out, and she was the only sister of the six not to get to go to college.
I bring all of this up, because when our geezers die off, as they will, we must remember what is sacred and what matters, which is love, and that love is not a zero-sum concept, like money. The affection parents have for their children is boundless and infinite, even if it sometimes seems grudgingly given or unfairly distributed. After our parents are gone, all we have of our family of origin is each other, those of us lucky enough to have siblings.
A friend of mine recently told me her brother and nephew have not spoken to her since her mother died, and her family has fallen apart. It was as though the tiny invalid matriarch, bedridden with round-the-clock nurses, was the Gorilla Glue that held the fragile family unit together. And when she died, it fractured and collapsed like a stale gingerbread house.
So, at the end of the day, I choose love. Over ultrasuede and sterling silver. Or whatever stuff feels more important in the moment. Because I know my parents love(d) me. And that’s enough.