In my last blog post, The strange tale of my Grandmother’s origins, I mentioned my mother’s Great Aunt, Nellie Sue Norwood, or “Sweet Auntie,” as she was known. My great grandmother – Maman -- and Sweet Auntie shared a mother. However, while Maman’s father had been a man of some wealth and circumstance, Sweet Auntie’s father was an impoverished itinerant preacher with whom their mother, widowed by the Civil War, “jumped the balcony.” I have no idea what the term “jumped the balcony” was meant to convey; it was what the family always said when describing this clearly regrettable event. As a child, I imagined my great, great grandmother hurling herself from the elegant wrought iron balcony of a Louisiana plantation house into the arms of a Methodist on horseback, but perhaps “jumping the balcony” was just a variant of “jumping ship.” Or shark.
Preacher Norwood was mean and he and my great great grandmother gave birth to a whole host of lowlifes whose interaction, apparently, resembled that of cats in a bag. The exception was Nellie Sue – hence “Sweet Auntie.”
This is the sum of what I know about Sweet Auntie.
When my grandfather took the family to New York the same year as the World’s Fair in that City, Sweet Auntie came along for the ride. It might have been 1939, but Sweet Auntie still wore bloomers and ragged ones at that. She alternated between two pair and, since there was never enough time for them to dry overnight, she would clothes pin the damp pair to the car antenna to dry, utterly mortifying my mother and aunt, 13 and 14 at the time. They cowered in the back seat, praying not to be noticed as, sails unfurled, they blew across the Heartland. During their stay in New York City, Sweet Auntie further distinguished herself by announcing the arrival of a nice Puerto Rican boy come to take my Aunt on a date, by hollering, “Mary Elizabeth! That half-breed’s here!”
Sweet Auntie never married, but she was engaged. For forty years. His name was Homer and he used to call on Sweet Auntie every day at about four o’clock. They would sit on the front porch for a couple of hours and rock and every once in a while one of them would say something to the other. Then he died and that was that.
Sweet Auntie was famous for her long hair; it came down to her knees. Then, one day, when she was in her sixties, the passenger door of a car being driven by her sister Burtie sprang open and Sweet Auntie fell headfirst onto the pavement. It took a few moments for Burtie to notice that all was not well with Sweet Auntie; she was dragged for some distance more or less on her head. At the hospital they had to shave her head in order to stitch her up. She never grew her hair long after that; instead she wore it short and curly. Every one said it suited her, but she was not so sure.
When Sweet Auntie died at an advanced age and my grandmother was going through her things, she found tucked away in her purse a folded up letter – handwritten and signed by her physician. I have that letter, framed. It reads, “This will show to whom it may interest that I have treated Miss Nellie Sue Norwood for dysmenorrhea and, in order to do so successfully, I had to rupture her hymen. It gives me great pleasure to report that I know her to be immaculate.” Sweet Auntie wanted to make sure that, if she were in another car accident, never mind about her bloomers. She wanted to make sure there was an airtight explanation for that hole in her hymen.
I have been thinking a good deal about Maman and Sweet Auntie recently, perhaps because in January 2013, my husband and I made a long road trip with an old female when we brought Poppet, my father’s twelve year old cockapoo, back to live with us in Canada. Like Maman, she has cataracts and watching her navigate the world . . . and bump into things . . . gives me an idea of how Maman must have had to negotiate her world of light and shadow. And like Sweet Auntie, Poppet is feisty, unembarrassed and irrepressible. Whenever another dog approaches her, she bristles and barks and wags her tail all at once – her version of, “Mary Elizabeth! That half-breed’s here!”
And then there’s the whole naming issue.
When Peter and I were growing up, our parents always used to refer to us as the dog’s sister and brother, as in, “Tell Sister it’s time to get up, Lovey!” or “Drop Brother’s socks, Fancy!”
Now there can be no question but that I’m our golden retriever’s mother. It is equally irrefutable that I am Poppet’s sister. This makes Poppet my dog’s aunt, so I’ve taken to calling her Sweet Auntie lately. Nellie (our dog) is called The Big One. When it comes to my husband, however, we had to get creative. After all, Poppet has only one Daddy – our Daddy. We call Ken “Meat Man” instead.