Frequently these days, my sister and I are brought together for a funeral or funeral home visitation of yet another family member, mostly those from Mama and Daddy’s generation, although our cousins have begun dying off.
On one of the most recent visitations, we stopped for an early dinner and encountered the great-granddaughters of my beloved Aunt Ozelle, Mama’s oldest sister. I stopped at their table to chat.
“It’s so funny that we should run into you today,” said the pretty Mary Beth who was with her pretty sister, Hannah. “I just went by Nanna’s house today. I know how close you were to her.”
Mama used to say that of all the cousins, I loved Aunt Ozelle the best. I was devoted. And not because she was warm, cuddly, and soft. She wasn’t. She was a product of a hard raising and a hard beginning of her own family life in the desperately poor mountains.
She once told me it was the winter of 1937 that had forced her and Uncle Tom out of the mountains and into a town to make a living. Their baby had died. Their cow, their reliable source of milk and butter, had choked to death when she got her head stuck between slabs in the stall. And their beloved dog had died, too.
“If we’d stayed, we’d probably’ve died, too,” she recounted in a non-sentimental tone. That was Aunt Ozelle. She was stoic, somber, and smart as they come. She knew the Bible up one side and down the other. She did not suffer fools well, believing as the King James Bible teaches that a “fool” is the worst thing you can call someone.
When I was 5 and 6, then the summer between my first and second grades, I stayed with Aunt Ozelle while Mama labored in a sewing plant. Aunt Ozelle took no money for this child care. She was doing what mountain people always do – watching out after one of their own.
There are many things I remember about those days: the musty root cellar in which I loved to play; Aunt Ozelle’s devotion to “Days of Our Lives” which we watched faithfully; the bed with the handmade quilt on which I took a nap; how she mixed grape and orange soda together for my refreshment after nap time; and how her little house was always neat, dusted, and perfect. They didn’t have a lot but they took mighty good care of what they had.
Every day at noon on the dot, she called me for lunch to her kitchen, so tiny that her small table, covered with a red checkered oil cloth, was pressed against a wall. She always delivered a delicious lunch. As we ate, a rich baritone voice filled the room, coming from the little radio she kept above the stove.
“Hello, America, this is Paul Harvey.” His melodic sounds would fill the air as we both listened and ate.
In front of the little shotgun house that Aunt Ozelle and Uncle Tom bought brand new in 1945 was a joyous magnolia tree. I played for many hours under that majestic tree. I loved it. In later years, I would realize that it was truly the mostly beautifully shaped and enormous magnolia I’d ever seen.
Shortly before Aunt Ozelle died at 91, I was visiting. We sat on the screened-in front porch, rocking and talking.
“Did you plant that tree?”
She nodded. “Just a seedling when I put it in almost 70 years ago.”
After her death, the house sold. I have intentionally not been by it there, fearful of one thing.
“I hate to ask you this because I hate to know this answer but …” I paused, reaching for nerve, “Did the new owner cut that magnolia down?”
Slowly, Mary Beth nodded “yes.”
There is nothing more I can say. The sadness is too great.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]