Friday, November 12, 2010

A PASSING

Last year before we departed from New Iberia, Louisiana for Sewanee, Tennessee, we drove over to Franklinton, Louisiana, my birthplace, and visited with my Aunt Eleanor and Uncle George. I came away from that visit feeling that I might not see my beloved aunt again. Three days ago, she died. I am deeply saddened at her passing, but I have some wonderful childhood memories of her that give me solace and feel the satisfaction of having enjoyed an “authentic” aunt, the kind you read about in novels who take over when mothers sometimes fall short in their maternal role or when they need a break from mothering during the summers or during family crises.

Aunt Eleanor Ruth Brown (and I always referred to her using all four words instead of two) lived in a small southern town in which I spent seven short years of my life, between the ages of 11-18. The town of 3500 people, about 60 miles north of New Orleans , was established in 1819. My great-grandfather, Lawrence Dade Greenlaw, built a Victorian home with a cupola on its roof on 10th Avenue in Franklinton during the early 20th century. The old home is now on the National Register of Historic Places and remains a handsome middle class residence that my Grandfather Paul inherited after Lawrence Dade died. It is the place to which my family migrated after my father uprooted us for a summer-long journey called “Going to Diddy Wah Diddy,” a camping trip to California that he announced would last the rest of our lives because we were going to become gypsies. At 11, I felt vast relief when he turned around in Los Angeles and took us back to Franklinton where he bought a small home. Before we moved into it, I spent a lot of time with Aunt Eleanor, sleeping in her bedroom at night and learning about the art of applying make-up, getting the skinny on the boys in Franklinton who would be eligible as boyfriends, and learning how to feel secure in the bosom of a family that was free of wanderlust and my father’s “craziness,” as my Grandmother Nell called his yen for adventure.

My first curls were coaxed into being by my Aunt Eleanor who painstakingly pinned up my straight hair with bobbie pins, rolling the curls so tightly that my scalp burned for hours after she twisted the hair around pins. She was devoted to this process for years, attempting to make me feminine looking to match the sash-tied dresses my Grandmother Nell made for me on an old pedal-operated Singer in a back bedroom. Aunt Eleanor and my Aunt Kathryn spent hours worrying about my lank hair, and in many photographs of me between the ages of 7 – 13, I appear with my hair pinned down with black bobbie pins, a frown creasing my forehead because I had been subjected to this hair-curling operation.

Aunt Eleanor was the Santa Claus for all of us on Christmas mornings when we spent the holidays at my grandparents’ home. She always had a book of some kind for me under the tree and became one of my coaches in literature, although her first books to me were penned by Johnny Gruelle, author of the famous Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy series. Later, she gave me used volumes of the Outdoor Girls series. She loved history and was the family genealogist, providing, with pride, many of the stories about the Greenlaw family and collecting photographs dating back to the days when my Grandfather Paul and Great-Uncle Ed Greenlaw owned a lumber business, then entered the transportation business. She told me about the time my grandfather, a civic leader in Franklinton, established the first fire department in town and about the famous radio room in the old Greenlaw home that was destroyed by lightning (Grandfather was registered as owning radio Station KFLD back in 1924).

One of Aunt Eleanor’s failures with me involved an attempt to convert me to the Baptist religion. I am a cradle Episcopalian, and I think that my Grandmother Nell and my aunts felt that I belonged to a heathen religion, so Aunt Eleanor took on the project of bringing me into a real Christian fold. She’d roll my hair extra tight on Saturday nights, dress me in a white dress on Sunday morning and take me down to the First Baptist Church where we sat on leather-bottomed seats that resembled those in a movie theatre.  After two or three hellfire and damnation sermons delivered by Brother Albritton (who had two boys Aunt Eleanor deemed worthy of my attention), I began to decline her invitations to attend and only my mother’s intervention saved me from a second night of revival where I was urged to go down the aisle to be saved. I kept glancing at the mural of a river behind the baptismal bath and was terrified about the idea of immersion. I ran from the church following the first night of preaching at this revival and haven’t attended a southern Baptist service more than twice after that experience. Aunt Eleanor was disappointed but when I became archdeacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, she was one of the first in the family to tell me, “I am so proud of you.” She could have added, “although you do belong to a heathen church,” but she didn’t.

Aunt Eleanor always bought or asked for copies of my books and wrote letters to me in which she said I was the latter day literary figure in the family, declaring each of my books “the best one yet.” When CHANT OF DEATH, my latest mystery, came out in August, she was one of the first to order a copy from Pinyon Publishing. Usually, several months after she purchased or received a copy, she ‘d pen a glowing letter of appraisal, and some of those letters were good enough to use as a blurb on the back cover of the book. I never received her appraisal of CHANT. She had begun to complain of not being able to use a pen very well, so I know that this prevented her from giving me one of her well-written literary reviews. She was actually the most literary of the Greenlaws of her generation (several Greenlaws have written textbooks about literature) and knew the classics better than I, but she also liked a good “read,” of the contemporary ilk. During my last visit with her, she asked me to take away any of the books in her house I wanted. This threw up a red flag for me, as if she had some prescience about her death. I told her that my own bookshelves in both New Iberia and Sewanee were filled and overflowing, thinking that if I took them, I might not see her again.

This blog is just the tip of the iceburg, and perhaps readers will get a better glimpse of Aunt Eleanor through the poem I wrote in GRANDMA’S GOOD WAR, A VERSE RETROSPECTIVE OF THE FORTIES, the only book of rhyming verse I have written:

AUNT ELEANOR RUTH
In 1940 she returned from Blue Mt., riding the Southern railway,
snow had forced her home from school in her fashionable array –
short brown coat, matching hat, gloves, stepping into my heart again,
beloved Aunt Eleanor Ruth with signature southern double name,
the aunt who snipped out paper dolls, Sears catalog photos configured
and of the myriad furnishings – beds, chairs –she transfigured
for my delight, entire houses she kept folded away
to entertain me on an icy winter day.
The first application of mascara I watched as she
lined her pale eyelids in black so perfectly.
At Christmas she presented me with a new edition
of Raggedy Ann and Andy, issuing an admonition:
“Don’t ever turn down a page in a sloppy dog ear,
always regard your books as friends to hold dear.”
She married a Navy man after WWII,
took me to New Orleans to buy new white shoes,
white dress with mint green trim,
insisted I remain fit and slim
until the wedding, and rolled my hair on bobbie pin,
dismayed by lank locks, said it was tantamount to sin
that my mother allowed me to wear it straight,
yanked my hair in anger that would quickly dissipate.

Now at 86, she sometimes sends a letter,
spidery handwriting but much better
than my own broken-lettered handwriting,
asks for a book or two, something exciting,
lamenting she can no longer type messages of love,
and I respond by dispatching a treasure trove
of mysteries, classics, even unrhymed poetry,
to my Aunt Eleanor Ruth, idolized since infancy,
her letters evoking old feelings of expectancy,
waiting for the old Southern to bring her home to me.

P.S.  As I was writing this, the telephone rang, and Uncle George asked me to deliver her eulogy tomorrow, and much of what I will say is herewith contained.
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