My Aunt Mabel was a very rare and special person. Known for her bread and butter pickles and her gift for making pastry, she was just the epitome of love and caring. A small woman with a sweet and gentle face. Wavy, constantly blond hair that was forever perfectly in place. She always had a smile and her cornflower blue eyes were very bright and alert.
When Aunt Mabel talked, she had the sweetest southern drawl, like she was from southern Oklahoma or something, but she wasn’t, she was a Swedish, Iowa farm girl permanently from Pilot Mound, Iowa, who loved and married my sweet and gentle Uncle Cliff. Two gentler souls were hard to imagine.
The main difference between them was that folks in my Uncle Cliff’s family showed their love with teasing and practical jokes. It seemed to have its very own brand. I was introduced to it at the tender age of 5 when I went to Aunt Thelma and Uncle Ralph’s farm for a week visit. My older cousin, Billy had posted insults like “Bumble Bee is Stupid” alI over the house. I retaliated with insults to Billy Goat and I was called Bumble Bee the whole week. Hard to get homesick when you’re engaged in such intense battle.
I’ve always had trouble conveying to outsiders the special flavor of this family humor, kind of a gotta-be-there thing. But I miss it terribly and only can find it now with my brother and the Christmas letter I cherish every year from Aunt Mabel’s son, Cousin Chuck.
As a child observing her, I often saw jokes and teasing go right over Aunt Mabel’s head and Uncle Cliff would just smile like he was saying, “That’s my girl.” I remember wondering if Aunt Mabel even had the capacity to have a negative or sarcastic thought, it seemed like heaven would shake and open up if she ever did.
Aunt Mabel always greeted me exactly the same, no matter my age. Her smile would get big and her eyes light up, then she’d reach out and stroke my chin before the big hug, and exclaim in her drawl, “Oooohhhh liiiittttle Cheerrrie!”
There was a time in my adolescence that I actually believed I would soon outgrow this treatment. But when I experienced it again at age 40 after the world had knocked me around some, it was such a wonderful gift to be transported to be an 8 year old again.
After Uncle Cliff passed, Aunt Mabel moved to town and lived in a simple modular home she found quite sufficient. It was a very small town (population never got over 200) and folks knew each other. There can be a lot of comfort in knowing your senior family members are surrounded by caring folks who will help to look out for them.
Chuck made himself available to give her rides and help her take care of her needs. Chuck, with the drawl he inherited from his mother, told me the following story, much better than I can, but here goes.
Chuck picked his Mom up and took her to the town’s grocery store. From the car, Aunt Mabel walked with a bit of a shuffle, keeping her head down to watch for hazards on the pavement but once safely inside the store – different story. Aunt Mabel stood straight and her bright eyes were darting around taking inventory of who she knew and who she needed to swap news with.
Chuck was also looking around as he knew the importance of these news swaps and didn’t want for Aunt Mabel to miss anyone. While he was doing his own span of the store, an unfamiliar woman distracted him. She was young and just seemed dirty and disheveled – greasy hair, dirt smudges on her face, greasy, dirty clothes, baggy sweatshirt. Chuck was at a loss, while not an affluent town, folks had pride.
As Chuck was trying to put all of this in perspective, Bam! The young woman and Aunt Mabel had embraced and were chattering away like old friends. Chuck was a little dumbfounded and started looking around the store to see if anyone else found this as strange as he did, or if they even noticed. Nobody.
Aunt Mabel and the young woman wrapped up their gabfest, embraced again and the young woman went on her way. Chuck, a bit taken aback and trying to decide if he just saw what he thought he saw, asked, “Mom, who was that?” The anticipated answers were – “Oh, she’s been doing some gardening for folks in town.” Or “She cleans homes for folks.” Maybe even, “Her grandparents passed and she’s had to put the farm in order.” Then Aunt Mabel replied, sweet drawl and all, “Oh you know honey, she lives in that blue house across the street. The one where they had the Meth raid last week.”