Happy Independence Day! My summer writing group is going so well. I've written four pieces so far, and I won't be sharing a few (too personal) but here's one I wrote about my spectacular great Aunt Clara, who I've blogged about before, too.
Today I am sipping ice tea, a summer Southern tradition. Made with mint leaves and lemon balm, a gift from my Friend Emily, I am reminded of my great Aunt Clara. I will probably always elongate my vowels and praise Minnesota to the grave, but I am one generation removed from the American south. My heart lies there. The heritage of plantations, red dirt, church bombings, Juneteenth and our Civil War runs fiercely through my veins. I am amazed and proud of my black Southern roots, of women like Clara who came before me.
The one thing about Aunt Clara was her house. Across town, always on the “colored side,” proudly paid off and modest in size and yardage it has fixed itself in my memory and heart forever. Dad and I would dutifully drive down from Savannah every other summer to visit. We’d get off the highway, pull along the dusty roads of her neighborhood. We’d pass small white washed churches with the names Pentecostal, church of god, holy tabernacle on their marquees, convenience stores with faded murals on their cinder block side walls, barefoot children riding bikes and running, older people walking slowly, the evidence of a deteriorating black middle class neighborhood buried by a rising crime rate and the increase of teen mothers. Aunt Clara’s house remained a memory of a better time, a testament to the hope and aspirations many people felt after the Civil Rights movement. We would pull alongside, park next to her curb, undoing the chain link fence gate to walk in.
Inside her house felt dark and cool, a few window units cutting through the hot Alabama heat. Small and well kept the inside was filled to the max with kick knacks and her collectibles, a wide screen TV now in the paneled guest room, a Lifetime movie blaring. “Well, let me fix you a plate!” She’d smile, gesturing us to her kitchen. At Aunt Clara’s my father transformed from the serious businessman he was to a little boy, excited for a taste of Aunt Clara’s famous coconut cake.
Down we’d sit at her small, white table under a fluorescent light. She’d warm up two paper plates of food: ribs, corn bread, collard greens, yellow rice and black eyed peas. I’d eye the peas suspiciously, the only soul food I refused to eat and didn’t love. The expectation was that I eat when visiting her, saying you weren’t hungry was never an option. Aunt Clara lived to cook for those she loved.
Never having any children of her own she and her sweet husband had hosted my dad and his siblings summer after summer. They were the kind of people America used to be full of: modest, smart with their money, generous givers at their tiny church. Aunt Clara worked proudly for years at the local high school, serving up lunch and milk shakes to kids in the Cafeteria. There’s a picture of her turning around at work from the 1960s, her pretty brown eyes framed in cat eye glasses, her hair in a classic bouffant style.
One summer my dad and his sisters came down to visit. They were all in need of a bath and wanted bubbles. Without any children of her own Aunt Clara didn’t have bubble bath in her medicine cabinet and instead decided to substitute with laundry detergent. Suddenly everyone was itching from the harsh soap. It was a hilarious mistake, one my dad, at nearly sixty, still fondly tells. “Most of all I loved the cool room we slept in when we visited. Aunt Clara would set out three cots for us and there were fans in almost every corner, keeping us cool all night long.”
After asking Aunt Clara if she needed anything Dad and I would retire to her guest room and watch TV with her. “This movie is crazy, look at this woman” Aunt Clara would gesture to the screen. She and I may have been more than a few decades apart but we both could connect on Lifetime movies. This would be the one and only time in my life when my father would happily tolerate a Lifetime movie, only for his beloved Aunt Clara. We’d then leave shortly after, determined to make it to the next family visitor on our list.
“Alright, well ya’ll travel safe. Come back and visit me sometime,” Aunt Clara would say, smiling, her eyes bright and energized from the visit. That summer would by my last visit to Aunt Clara, who died that next winter in 2005. Despite my scattered visits and the relatively brief time I got to spend with her, I can’t quite forget that wonderful woman, her white house and those beads on the door.