We loved to insult my Aunt Harriet, especially when she wasn’t expecting it. Behind her back and occasionally, very occasionally, to her face, we called her Aunt ‘Biff-The-Bean.’ She was ‘‘Aunt Elegant’s’’ younger sister but she looked older than Aunt Olive. The two of them, though both maiden aunts, couldn’t have been less alike. We weren’t really mean about the insults. We just couldn’t help it. It was like pushing a glowing, red button: One good insult and then ‘Bingo!’ out would come, ‘‘I’ll BIFF YOU ON THE BEAN!’’ And although she really meant it, it made us giggle.
She hated to be called ‘‘Aunt Hattie.’’ That epithet always rated the ‘‘BIFF’’ retort, sometimes accompanied by a vigorous demonstration of what it meant. She was taller that Aunt Olive, more stiff and wiry in every way and much more formal. She called it being ‘‘PROPAH.’’
She was a lawyer. She must have been fairly rich since she had loaned my father the money to get started in building houses. She wore rimless spectacles, which rested lightly on her nose and a rather large diamond ring on her fourth finger. I always marveled at the lightning flashes of its opalescent sparkle, stealing little glances at it whenever I thought she wasn’t looking. When she was looking I practiced my peripheral vision but seeing it that way wasn’t nearly as pleasing as looking at it ‘head on.’ When I wondered why other diamonds I would see from time to time, didn’t have the same kind of breathtaking, ‘electric crack’ that Aunt Hattie’s ring had, the explanation came in one word. ‘‘Quality.’’ It was a ‘‘blue diamond’’ of the highest quality. I hadn’t known that diamonds came in different colors. Aunt Olive gently explained that it was rude to call too much attention to it so we only snuck stealthy, little, quick glances at it when we thought Aunt Harriet wouldn’t notice.
She had dark, slightly graying, wavy hair, very grey in later years, whitish-pink skin and very focused eyes that always seemed to have a distant look in them. I wasn’t old enough to know how to penetrate her privacy but that ‘far away’ look always made me wonder where she was. There must have been a ‘lost love’ somewhere, but if there were, I never heard about it and I doubt if she’d have told a single soul.
‘‘Integrity’’ was a by-word in the Elder clan and she had it through and through. Southern Integrity. She gave me a little example of it by telling me a story about her grandmother, my great-grandmother, one time when I once made a surprise visit to their house on Dillon Street when she and Aunt Olive were in their eighties. I can’t remember why I was in Los Angles but at a point I realized that I was close to the house that I had lived in till I was nearly four. It had been my Grandmother’s large house, it must be full of memories, and my old, maiden aunts still lived there. Why not drop in? Even though I was supposed to be the family black sheep and didn’t have much use for their religion, I had loved my aunts a lot.
So, here goes. Let’s see what happens.
The bell doesn’t seem to be working so I knock on the door. ‘‘MAH-KUL! Well, I’ll be!’’ says Aunt Olive, ‘‘Harriet, come here! Look who’s here!’’ ‘‘As I live and breathe!’’ says Aunt Harriet, with an amused glint of disbelief. ‘‘Don’t just stand there lookin’ foolish. Come on in!’’ She had mellowed quite a bit and, while my sweet, mellow but usually lively Aunt Olive now seemed a little intermittently dreamy, Aunt Harriet seemed more animated and conversant than I had ever known her to be. I relaxed. I felt happy. Pleased to be there. Already feeling sad in the knowledge that sooner or later I would be leaving, perhaps never to see them again.
We talked of many things. Among them, how their youngest brother, my father, had always thought that one day, he would be rich. I thumbed through a scrap-book of pictures of him when he was in his late twenties and exploring a gold mine he had invested in that later on went ‘belly-up.’ He looked like a refugee from a 1920’s fashion ad. Knickers with high, argyle socks, horizontally stripped sweater with wide bands, slightly wavy hair and a very sophisticated look of confident determination. Years later, he would take a shot at “black gold” with even worse results, but that’s another story. I asked Aunt Harriet to tell me about the background on some worthless Louisiana land I had inherited from him, which apparently, once had some oil wells on it. If I remembered the story correctly, it had originally belonged to Aunt Harriet. The taxes on it were minimal but they irritated her frugal temperament, so knowing how much he loved ‘‘oil lands,’’ she gave it to my father with the provision that he pay the taxes and keep the land in the family. ‘‘Who knows,’’ my father had said, ‘‘Maybe some day someone will be willing to drill really deep down and discover a giant oil reserve underneath the old used-up oil deposit which had been closer to the surface.’’ ‘‘You never know,’’ Aunt Harriet had said, as she handed him the deed.
‘‘It’s quite a story Michael,’’ she went on. It was now some thirty years since she had transferred the deed, ‘‘do you have time enough to hear it?’’ I settled into the overstuffed cushions and stretched a little as I prepared for a new, little piece of family history. As Aunt Harriet was about to tell her story, Aunt Olive returned with three glistening glasses of iced-tea on a delicate, little pewter tray. The sprigs of mint, being optional at this time of day, were in a small white dish placed at the edge of the tray. Aunt Harriet twisted a mint sprig with the thumb and forefinger of both hands, dropped it in the glass, and began to speak:
‘‘YO-AH GRAY-AND MOTHAH...NO! MAH GRAY-AND MOTHAH, YO-AH GRAY-AT, GRAY-AND MOTHAH WAS WIDOWED AT AN EARLY AGE......’’
The rest I’m going to write in ‘Northern’ English so you’ll just have to hear the Southern accent in your mind:
‘‘She wasn’t used to handling business matters, she’d been brought up to be a fine Southern ‘Lady’ and ladies always left that sort of thing for the gentlemen to deal with. So she put all her wealth in the hands of a trustworthy, young lawyer who was the son of a dear old family friend, and can you believe that that young scoundrel swindled your great-grandmother out of half her holdings?
‘‘He had leased that land to Shell Oil Company and they were pumping a devilish lot of oil out of it. Well, he pocketed all the royalties and then had the audacity to actually sell that land to Shell. Eventually your great-grandmother found out about that rascal’s chicanery, and since the change of title wasn’t legal, the formal ownership automatically reverted back to her. But in order to get back all those royalties that she had been swindled out of, they told her that she would have to institute a lawsuit against that young rapscallion. Michael, do you know what your great-grandmother said when Judge Clemens told her that a lawsuit was the only way for her to get back her stolen money from that dastardly young thief? She said, in a most indignant fashion, ‘WHY, WE CAINT DO THA-AT, HE’S JEB BROWN’S BOY!’
“Isn’t that something! So that’s one story about your worthless Louisiana ‘ex-oil’ land. Those old, aristocratic Southerners really took the cake! They were so genteel that if a highwayman dropped his gun, they’d probably hand it back to him!’’
But we both knew that she too, was also one of them, and that somehow, so was I.