Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Aunt Mary

Today is my Aunt Mary's birthday, her 85th I believe. A couple of weekends back, I drove up to Fort Worth and took her to lunch. She is still much the same as always--older, to be sure, with details of past relationships and events starting to get jumbled in her mind. But she remains a great (though largely deaf) conversationalist, pleasantly outspoken, and still just a bit larger than life.

She and my uncle had what might be called a classic love story. My Uncle Bill was much on his own from the time he was 15. My grandmother's death and the bust-up of their home threw him into the world earlier than most. He stayed with first one relative, then another, and at one point, even hobo-ed a freight train out to California. He joined the Merchant Marines, which turned out to be his salvation. By the time the war began, he was a thorough-going Navy man. And this became his career and his ticket out of Depression-era Texas. The year 1946 found him stationed temporarily in the Northeast. He and a buddy were on a train, somewhere in the Boston-New York corridor, when he first caught sight of Mary--a towering, leggy, buxom brunette--making her way down the aisle. The rest, as they say, is history.

Their backgrounds could hardly be more dissimilar. He came out of the hardscrabble Texas Hill Country. Mary Agnes Lewandowski grew up over her father's bakery in a Polish Catholic neighborhood of Buffalo, New York. Due to my uncle being at sea so much of the time, they were not able to marry until September 1947. Bill and Mary lived all over--stationed in New Orleans, Virginia Beach, Key West, Honolulu, Guam, Corpus Christi, among other locales, before retiring to Texas. She recently told me that she enjoying living in every single location. I asked Mary why this was so. She simply said that she made her mind up to, which, if you think about it, is not a bad approach to life. I have come to realize that my dashing uncle was her ticket out as well.

Visiting with her reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes. Soon after their honeymoon, Bill brought Mary home to Texas to meet some of the family. There is the classic staged photo of her standing in a cotton field, with a cotton sack over her shoulder, holding a cotton boll and grinning, as if to say "what the hell do I do with this?"

But the story I am telling involved her introduction to Bill's grandmother. Nannie stood no higher than 4' 10" and never weighed over 90 lbs, with her most defining characteristic being her large piercing eyes. A young widow, she never remarried and raised 3 daughters alone. The inside family joke was that the daughters petted on their mother and clucked around her as if she was some delicate hothouse flower that would wither upon touch. She did nothing to discourage this attention, while the truth of the matter was that she was as tough as leather.

At that time, Nannie lived with the youngest daughter, my great-aunt Frank. All the way out to their farm, Bill coached Mary on what not to do, the main thing being not to light up a cigarette in front of Nannie, who was shocked by such behavior in women. My great-grandmother was herself a steady user of snuff, but of course, that was not at all sinful.

Uncle Bill forgot one thing. He had been away for 10 to 12 years, and had seen a good bit of the world in the intervening years, giving him a broad view of things, you might say. He had forgotten just how narrowly things could be viewed back home, particularly religious matters. Nannie was staunchly Church of Christ, of the old-fashioned variety. Southerners will know exactly what that implies. A restorationist movement that in its youth proclaimed Not the only Christians, but Christians only, had by Nannie's time come to believe that they were the only Christians. And few were more convinced of this than she. I remember my dad mimicing her inflection in saying THE Church, when speaking of the Church of Christ. Maybe she thought her Baptist son-in-law might somehow slip past Heaven's gate, but I know she entertained no such notions when it came to her lapsed Presbyterian son-in-law (my granddad). And as for Catholics, well, for someone of Nannie's worldview, they were simply beyond the pale.

Having forgotten all this, my uncle proudly ushered in his new Yankee bride into Aunt Frank's old rock house on the hill. The young couple brought along their wedding album to show, unintentionally ensuring that the visit would not end well. After pleasantries were exchanged, Nannie sat down in her rocker to view the wedding pictures. As she leafed through the album, her eyes grew even larger than normal. Finally, she turned to my uncle and inquired, "Billy, what church is this that y'all got married in?" My uncle, still unaware of his peril, readily piped up, "St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church." Nannie didn't say a word, but slammed the album shut and never looked at another picture. Upon witnessing this, Aunt Mary thought to herself, "Oh, what the hell," as she rustled through her purse for a cigarette and light.

She and Bill had one month shy of 50 years together. And while they had their normal amount of bickering, I always knew he was crazy about her. Only in recent years have I realized how crazy she was for him. Mary always said the most outrageous things, and got away with it. She still does. Here's to you, Aunt Mary.


s-p said...

Awesome! Everyone should have and Aunt Mary, or BE one. :)

Kontiki said...

Morning John
That is so romantic & touching story; I like two things about it, first that you still visit your aunt although she is that old lady very good and humanitarian attitude (forgive me for keep on compare between our different societies, communities and cutlers) but here most of people really don’t care for any aged or needy person in family actually most of the people think that family is only about father and mother and after the children grow up and get married they don’t care event for their mom's and dad's any more : ( not all of the people are like that but most :s
The second thing I like, is such wonderful classic love story , wedding dress remind me of the golden times of 40th , 50th , 60th and 70th I believe she was lucky lady , she lived in better time than what we have now.
Because of this post I make a wish now "I wish to find love and good man to live with for the coming 50 years of my life". :).

Ian Climacus said...

How absolutely wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

Becky said...

What a pleasure to read, love the story at the end. Makes me realize how blessed I am with my aunts.

Mimi said...

I agree, it is a wonderful story! And, Many Years to your Aunt Mary

One of my grandmothers was given the middle name of Agnes. As a child, I thought it was awful, now I like it.