By Micki Cottle
Fall arrives as always, chasing closely behind August. When I was a child in Virginia, its warning chill nudged in before the last crops of summer were harvested; and the leaves began turning gold and russet: In their encore, the flowers of late summer, bowed and bloomed with desperate brightness. The sky would turn ever so swiftly from blue to gray: and then as now, there was a gentle touch of sadness or nostalgia, in those early fall days.
What it really meant in those days, long passed, was “Company!” And that made the dread of going back to school, tight shoes and dresses with starched collars and giant hair bows, tolerable. It was the last of our respite before hot, muggy classrooms stole our freedom, after over three months of summer bliss.
Around the first of those long-ago summer-fall days the visiting frenzy began in earnest. “Relatives.” They came from North Carolina, Florida and points north. And I remember they were so young. Though I thought they were ancient! “Husbands hunting” Daddy said. (Actually three of the cousins and two aunts did zero in on the marriage season at our house).
They usually came by train. And no matter what I was doing it paled beside that endless, wait at the train-station. They, the “Aunts” were so alive in a time smothered with sadness that their cheery smiles, and latest fashions, made us all feel great! And for a time we could forget there was a war and for a time, we could pretend the world was right again.
After their arrival Mama’s kitchen was bursting with secrets.
Real stuff that legends were made of. I endured their lipstick kisses and perfumed hugs.” (How sweet it was.) Mama, with her gracious smile, hustled to get everyone settled. She loved it…!
So the fall beauties were my favorites: Aunt Daisy usually arrived first. Majestic as a queen, she was my daddy’s middle sister and almost as tall as he was. She played with life like a spinning top; Daddy treated Daisy like a delicate flower. Although truth be known; at 5’10”, she was able to take care of herself. A fact she easily proved over the years. She had this unique way of weaving herself into the fabric of our days. Daisy relied on humor as others rely on air. And over the course of our lives we would take many trips together. She was the one who kicked me out of the nest. “Stick out your elbows and hold yourself up; smile,” she would say; “study everything, throw your shoulders back and pick up that pace.”
I can see them now, nonchalantly lounging around the breakfast table, hair freshly waved and curled; eyes snapping, waiting patiently for yet another cup of coffee; (another kiss, another compliment.) Smiles; Hints of wistfulness, perhaps for all those precious days and nights of youth; they realized were quickly fading.
One aunt was called “Sister” another “Laura.” Once when an old familiar tale took a new turn. Laura spoke right up. “No, no, Sister,” she corrected, “You are the delicate one. Daisy, is the smart one; actually, I am the beautiful one,” she’d say this with a sly grin. At that they’d all giggled until they had to pull their lacy handkerchiefs out of the sleeves of their rayon dresses and wipe their eyes.
They each had this way of laughing when they cried, and so close was the laughter and tears that it was hard to tell when anyone of them was really happy or sad. But, they were happy. Carefree, young, and so full of mischief the air seemed to shimmer around them.
Sister, (Kathleen) smoked like a chimney. She wore 3” heels so that she could claim to be 5’ 8. Her lips glowed with fire-engine-red lipstick, and her hair had been coached along with a henna rinse, giving her glorious red highlights. Mama and Grandmother disapproved of the smoking. I knew they felt she was a shade too flamboyant. Sister compromised by putting her cigarettes in a long-gold holder. I thought the effect was stunning. To me she was Ingrid Bergman and Ava Gardner rolled into one compact package.
Aunt Laura, who called herself beautiful, really was. She had naturally curly, chestnut brown hair, dark eyes and a flawless complexion. She was the kind of beautiful woman, who, with no effort on her part, collected admirers in droves.
When her husband was courting her he became jealous and demanded his ring back. Laura rose grandly and left the room. When she came back, she had a small cardboard box. It was full of fraternity pins and rings. “Here” she said calmly, “pick yours.” They were married that Christmas. He always called her “Baby,” though he was a few years younger, and probably had his pick of college beauties. “A marriage made in heaven,” the family always declared. Laura Virginia was his baby until the day she died.
Somehow, the sisters managed to live long, useful lives. Their paths in life would eventually scatter them in different directions, across many shores: Still, the chain was never broken and they remained as close to one another (and to me) as when the world was young and so were they.
Nowadays, my own grandchildren, as did my children, endure my old endless combats with ghost stories. Not that they listen as attentively. Whatever precious, intangible caution that kept me silent in the presence of my mother, and the “Aunts,” they don’t pretend to have. But, they do listen. Of course I can never really give justice to the sisters, and the mystery of the way that time really was. Yet, they ask for the same old stories over and over. And occasionally I throw in a little something about myself, and they shake their heads in wonder and laugh indulgently as we flip through the pages of yesterday. And I know they’re thinking “how could she ever have been so young?”