Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Remembering a Beloved Aunt on the Occasion of Her Birthday

Today is the 97th birthday of an aunt about whom I've blogged a number of times here, and I've vacillated all day long about whether to post a remembrance of her here--and this picture.  Those who don't know the folks in the picture will naturally have far less interest than I do in remembering them, and I don't want my own solipsistic musings about long-dead family members to be a bore to others. 

And the picture is from a genre we white Southerners have learned to regard as embarrassing--and perhaps with good reason, since it commemorates racial arrangements and relationships now considered exploitative, which we took for granted and regarded as something else entirely.  Relationships we white Southerners always regarded through our own eyes and not through the eyes of those about whom we spun stories of love, devotion, and familial bonds transcending the color line.

Still.  Still, some of what we remember in this regard is undeniably real, if skewed to our own self-interest and woefully lacking in the testimony of those about whom the stories are told.  And the authentic love that managed to express itself beyond the torture of racial constrictions does deserve to be remembered.  And perhaps even celebrated, in a world in which people different from each other are all too frequently intent on attacking rather than understanding and trying to engage with respect.  And even love.

Here's why I've chosen this particular picture to commemorate the anniversary of my aunt Kat's birth.  Here's what I see in the picture, what most people not intimately acquainted with the people in the picture and their stories would see:

The picture was taken in June 1923.  The smiling woman holding a baby, surrounded by adoring children, is Rosa Dorn.  Rosie.  The baby Rosie is holding is my mother.  The other children clinging to a woman who was, in many respects, a mother to them are (left to right) my mother's siblings Margaret, W.Z. ("Dub," or Brother to family members and family friends), and Kat.  The dancing, preening sibling in the background is my mother's sister Pauline.  This represents my grandparents' family in 1923, seven years before their final surprise daughter, Billie, was born.  

Billie was given a version of her father's name because he was dying at the time she was born.  W.Z. was a junior, named for his father William Zachariah Simpson, who was, as the oldest (and only) son in his family named for his grandfathers in time-honored Southern fashion--William H. Braselton and Zachariah Simms Simpson.  (As the oldest son in my family, I'm named, similarly, for my grandfathers William Z. Simpson and Benjamin Dennis Lindsey.)  Margaret had the names of two aunts--a great-aunt Margaret Ryan and an aunt Frances Batchelor.  Pauline was named for a cousin particularly admired in the Batchelor family, a cousin for whom a tiny town in Arkansas was once named, since her father was postmaster of that town and could choose to name it what he wished.  And her middle name, Elizabeth, was, she often told me, chosen because it was a "far-back" name in the family.  Both of her father's grandmothers, in fact, were named Elizabeth.

My mother was named for her mother, Hattie, since my grandfather insisted at least one child had to have its mother's name, though my grandmother disliked her name, thinking of it as old-fashioned and country.  And since my mother's first name had been dictated by my grandfather, my grandmother insisted on her right to choose the middle name.  She picked the name of a young woman who did housework for her, an African-American woman whose name was Clotine.

My mother had, as well, a half-brother, Carl, who is seldom in family pictures.  And the pictures that have survived of him: he cut his face out of almost all of them, apparently not long before he chose to take his own life following World War II.  Carl was a son of my grandfather by his first wife, who died several days after giving birth to him.  My grandmother, whom my grandfather married four years after Carl's birth, raised Carl following the death of my great-grandmother, who kept house for my grandfather and raised Carl and a granddaughter Ella, whose mother Arabella, my grandfather's sister, had died in 1897 at the age of 30.

Rosie: I myself remember her very well, since very early in my life--but not so early that my memory of this visit is not vivid--my mother and grandmother took me to meet her.  And I remember Rosie taking me and holding me very close to her heart.  I remember the fresh, starched white dress she was wearing when she pressed me to her breast, and the sharp, pleasant smell of the dusting powder that fragranced Rosie and the immaculate dress.  

Above all, I remember the sense of being held in incomparably loving, accepting, enfolding arms.  Arms that had similarly loved and enfolded my mother and all of her siblings--though I didn't know or understand that connection at the time that I first met Rosie.  

As I grew older, I learned that there was a multi-generational bond between my grandparents and Rosie's family.  Her mother Lanie Dorn had also worked for my grandparents, and she and my grandmother developed such a deep affection for each other that when Lanie died, my grandmother was the last person she sent for, to stand by her bed in the final moments of her life.

And the bonds continued with Rosie's own daughter, whom she named Katherine in honor of my aunt Kat, whose full name was Samantha Katherine Simpson.  As the first granddaughter, she had been named for her grandmothers Samantha Jane Braselton Simpson and Catherine Ryan Batchelor.  Rosie's Katherine (her name was pronounced Katharee, to set her apart from the Simpson girl named Katherine) would, in turn, work for my grandmother, and then for my aunt Pauline, who lived near Rosie and Katherine after Pauline's marriage.  When my uncle Dub had a stroke in his 70s, Rosie, who was then in her 90s, called and told Pauline, "You tell my baby to come and stay with me.  I'll take care of him."

These are, I say again, my own family's stories, told and retold from our perspective, and what they do not tell--what needs to be told, as well--is what Lanie, Rosie, and Katherine might wish to say about the bonds we thought they shared with us.  That is the perspective all too often missing from these stories as they're told by white Southerners who presume to know that the relationships we considered loving and close were regarded in the same way by those who lived on the other side of the color line from us.

And yet, there's the undeniable fact that Lanie Dorn did, indeed, send for my grandmother as Lanie lay dying, and told her she needed to see her one last time, so that my grandmother was with her as she approached death.  And that Rosie named her own daughter for one of my grandmother's daughters.  There's the undeniable fact that families, black and white, did, in fact, sometimes manage to form strong, precious, fragile bonds in small Southern communities during the pre-Civil Rights era, even across the rigid lines of color.

And there's the undeniable fact that Margaret, Brother, and Kat are all clinging to Rosie in the picture above.  There's the undeniable fact that they adored her, all through their lives, and that, just as they regarded her as a mother into their old age, she saw them as her children--no matter how old they became.  And one does not want to discard such precious and fragile relationships of love, even as one subjects one's perhaps self-serving memories to the critique they deserve.

As I've thought over the years about how the Dorn family and my grandparents' family came to be so close, I have also developed--and I'm not quite sure why--the impression that there may even have been a pre-existing tie between my grandmother's family, the Batchelors, and the Dorns.  Though my grandmother's father was born in Tennessee of North Carolina-born parents, and I have always understood that the Dorns had South Carolina roots, various documents suggest to me that, when both families moved to Arkansas, they lived close to each other, and began to develop a relationship that continued into my grandmother's lifetime, and then in subsequent generations.  I'm also sure I have read some historical essays indicating that the Dorns came to Arkansas as free people of color and not as slaves, though I'm not sure I could put my fingers on those essays at the moment.

The picture above has always intrigued me, too, because it's almost the only picture I have of my mother as a baby in which her head is not crowned with a huge, frilly bonnet--a bonnet that I suspect was almost always a shade of pink.  When she was carrying my mother, my grandmother prayed not to have another red-haired daughter (Kat, Pauline, and Margaret were all red heads like their mother), because she wanted a little girl that she could dress in pink.  And there was a strict rule in that time and place that one did not dress a red-haired girl in pink.

When my mother was born, she had a full head of very black hair (some of which had thinned out in the months prior to the taking of this picture), dark eyes, a dark complexion.  She looked like no one in either the Simpson or Batchelor family.  Her difference from all other family members--the difference in her coloring--elicited many amused hints in my grandparents' town that an ice man or a traveling salesman who looked like the new Simpson baby had been in town about 9 months before.  (People had forgotten by this point that my grandfather's sister Arabella had precisely my mother's coloring and looks, since 'Bella had been dead a number of years by the time my mother was born.)

My grandmother was Not Amused to be the subject of such indelicate speculation and ribald humor.  A more prim and proper lady, one painfully modest, it would have been hard to have found anyplace.  Her Irish-born mother was so fierce about guarding the purity of her girls that people in the community used to say you could get kisses at some houses, but never at old lady Batchelor's.  The lesson of the non-red-haired daughter taught my grandmother, so she said, that one should always be careful what one prays for, because God may sometimes answer one's prayers.  And one may Not Be Amused at the result.

But she was also deliriously happy to have--at last!--a little girl she could dress in pink, and from the time she was born, my mother became something of a dress-up doll for my grandmother, who sewed pink this, pink that, frocks, bonnets, bibs, until her fingers were worn out from the exertion with the needle and pink thread.  And it's nice to see my mother's real head in this picture, not a head so covered in frills and furbelows that all you can see are a pair of dark eyes peering out from an enswathing batch of ribbons.  And a healthy and happy baby she seems to be in this picture, fat and sassy.

I'm also intrigued by what Kat and Pauline seem to be holding in their hands in the picture.  I feel fairly certain that they're the little toy we always called windmills--plaited circles of shiny ribbon mounted on a stick, circles that would turn in the wind if you waved the stick or blew on the ribbons.  

My grandfather was, from all I've ever heard, an indulgent and good father, who never took a trip anywhere without bringing home some gift for each child in the family.  If he went to Hot Springs to take the waters (as he did often in the final decade of his life, hoping for a cure), or to Little Rock or Pine Bluff to conduct business, he came home with something special for each of his children.  A child-sized rocker for Margaret, who had had scarlet fever as a tiny girl, and who, he thought, needed to be shown extra-solicitous love and indulgence, since the fever had jangled her nerves . . . .  The tiny rocker he bought for her to sit in beside the fireplace enabled her to know she was loved, and was special among the children.

Or colorful Chinese parasols, a gift I know he brought the girls from one trip to town, since I have a picture of all of them parasol in hand, proudly displaying their father's gift on a bright sunny day when the parasols could be put to good use.  And, I suspect, in May or June 1923, he had brought home windmills for the children to play with, and this is why Pauline and Kat are holding these toys in their hands in this particular picture.

And Pauline is, predictably, cavorting with hers.  Posing, as she did in every photograph she ever took in her childhood.  The one child--so she maintained--that my grandfather ever took a switch to, because she was simply awful.  Full of high spirits and wild tales that baldly stretched the truth.  Mean.  Mean enough to take a sweet potato from a bin in front of her father's store and chunk it into the back of the town's doctor, old Dr. Reynolds, after he had passed the store and poked at her with his walking cane, knowing he could get a rise from little Polly Simpson.  The mean little girl who would do or say anything.  The unladylike Simpson girl who sat sprawled on a sofa with her skirt pulled up beyond her knees as she read yet another book and refused to help her mother and sisters with the housework.

Pauline was lazy, too.  And a world of fun.  A fount of stories.  It was at her house, one hot summer day, that I first tasted cherries--a heavenly fruit I had never tasted before, since my mother refused to buy it, because it was so expensive.  Aunt Pauline bought a bulging bag full of fresh cherries just for herself and for me.  And we came home, sat down, and ate the entire bagful of fruit.

Pauline and Kat were both teachers, and there was, in their teaching style, the difference between night and day.  Since she couldn't be bothered to prepare lessons and mark papers, Pauline would go to her classroom each day, sit down at her desk, and let the children come and sit in her lap.  She'd have them comb her hair.  Tell them stories.

And for this, she received awards again and again as the most innovative and successful teacher in her school district, while Kat--who, in addition to teaching, kept house for her mother and Brother--labored far into the night preparing her lesson plans, grading papers.  And though she turned out distinguished students (Wesley Clark was one of whom she was especially proud), she never got a single award.

Life's just not fair, we said as we talked about this.  And laughed about the hilarity of it all.

And Kat.  There she is in the picture, gaze cast down, thinking her own thoughts, refusing to engage the camera.  Just as she was her whole life long.  Belonging only to herself.  Refusing to belong to anyone who thought they had a right to claim her.

Infuriating my grandmother as a result, since my grandmother was the kind of mother who believed that children belong to their mother, and that a mother has a right (and obligation) to make them in her own image.  Something Kat resolutely refused from the time she was a tiny girl, so that my grandmother could switch her legs until they bled, and Kat would not utter a single cry.  Would not give my grandmother the satisfaction of knowing that she had hurt her.  Or cowed her.  Or broken her spirit.

As I've said before on this blog, I loved this aunt to excess.  She was, in many ways, more of a mother to me than my own mother was.  She was invariably--she never wavered, never hesitated for a moment--accepting, even when she felt entirely free to tell you what she would do or think if she were in your shoes.  She was, if not gentle, then fair and patient in a way my mother never managed to be, with her incessant ups, downs, smiles followed by rages, frowns giving way to hugs.

Kat taught me more than I could ever sum up in any essay or book.  I am who I am because of this loving, self-sacrificing aunt.  And I feel an obligation to remember her precisely for that reason, and because--though she gave so freely and for so long to so many family members--she did not marry and have children of her own to remember her.

One of the gifts I treasure from Kat--one of the tangible gifts--is a clock her father bought on the day of her birth, to celebrate the birth of his first child by my grandmother.  A clock purchased today, that is to say, in 1914.

It's a clock in a style that must have been popular in this region in the first decade of the 20th century, since I've seen a number of examples of it in thrift stores and antique shops over the years, always in the Southeast.  It's a mantle clock with a black painted wooden cabinet resting on curved, gilded feet, and adorned with Ionic columns made out of curved horn, on either side of the clock face.  The clock face is round and set off by a gilded circle that opens for one to wind the clock.  Some of the examples of this clock I've seen have faux marbling across the front.  My clock doesn't.  The clock cabinet is crowned with a capital that overhangs the columns and clock face, and on which my grandfather kept the key for the clock, which he wound every evening of his life at 6 P.M.

Kat gave this clock to me before she died.  I knew she was giving me a treasure, because she had carefully explained its history and significance to me many times over the years.  It's one of my greatest treasures.  Mostly because I can never look at it without remembering her and the day she was born, 5 July 1914.

No comments: