Monday, February 9, 2009

Happy Birthday to You

My great-aunt Monnie's 110th birthday was January 17th. There was a small party for her in the morning, and that afternoon, she died.

I had not seen her since Thanksgiving, when my husband and I made a trip down to Fort Smith, Ark., for Thanksgiving with my parents. We went by Aunt Monnie's place to take her some pie, but she was sleeping deeply when we arrived and we just left the sweets: a piece of mincemeat pie and a piece of pumpkin pie. The next day, we dropped by again and she asked about our Thanksgiving dinner and thanked us for the pie, which, she said, brought back memories. She seemed to have to think for quite a time between remarks, but it was really she who did most of the talking. She was looking forward to her birthday.

On Jan. 23rd, we buried her, driving across the wintry landscape of the Arkansas River bottoms to Morrilton, her home town. The parish priest at the church played a somewhat creaky "Danny Boy" on his fiddle, but we all agreed it couldn't have sounded sweeter if he had been blowing bagpipes from glen to glen.

Almost 20  years ago, when I worked for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, I wrote a gardening column twice a month. Here is a piece I wrote about Aunt Monnie, when she was 91:

Springtime and the Perpetuation of the Species

By Marty Ross

My great-aunt Monnie, whose given name is Rosemary, is 91. I called her from work on the evening of her 90th birthday and she had prepared a birthday dinner for herself, fried chicken and peas, mashed potatoes with gravy, a salad, and cake. She told me she had had an old-fashioned before dinner, and explained the choice by saying, "I thought it would be appropriate." She ate dinner alone, because she said that if she had invited one of her friends over she would have had to ask them all, and that would be too much.

She lives in a house she built with her sister Grace Marie when they retired after teaching school for 40 years in Cheyenne, Wyo., and moved home to Arkansas. They had always spent the summers in Arkansas, with their parents, and there are photographs and stories about them that go way back, about the sisters driving a thousand miles every summer across the country in one big Buick or another.

Aunt Monnie and Aunt Godey lived in an apartment house in Cheyenne; the return address on their envelopes from that era said "The Quinn Girls." They taught fourth grade and smoked Camel cigarettes and rode well-bred saddle horses, and, judging from their stories, did their part to maintain the reputation of the "wild" West. I know many of these stories well, including the one about how they arranged to have bootleg liquor flown in to Wyoming during Prohibition. Aunt Monnie is by no means 5 feet tall, and the photographs of her standing by a large steed, her in a snappy riding habit, created quite an impression on a certain little girl.

Aunt Monnie doesn't ride any more, and she gave up smoking a long time ago, but she still tells stories about those days. She knows Gaelic and can recognize and name cattle brands. She and her sister collected silver and turquoise Indian jewelry, and they always wore all of it, in great swaths that rattled as they walked around. She is a Razorbacks fan. Her memory is legendary, if selective.

She knows birds and flowers. Her letters, in a full, formal script, often in green ink, are full of musings about the garden and remarks about politics and sports and things going on around and about, but mostly about the birds and flowers. I received one last week:

"Speaking of birds, I've been busy for the last three mornings putting out string and thin strips of cloth for the mockingbirds," she wrote. "They started pecking and pulling at the string holding the suet holder so I put some out for them. They would take all they could carry in their mouth and come back for more. . . . Right now, I'm being pestered by a few black birds and a few cowbirds among them."

The late freeze this year did a lot of damage in her yard, but she says that right now there are "trilliums and bluebells scattered over the back yard and around the patio, and near it are Stars of Bethlehem. I lost most of my old-fashioned violets, some of the later variety, but my Confederate violets won the Battles of the Freezes - they are still blooming." She enclosed a lovely little bouquet of pretty violets with a yellow center arranged against a violet leaf, pressed tight between two pieces of cellophane. I pulled the plastic apart and propped the flowers up on an index card on my desk along with two bouquets from my garden, and wondered how she got to be so much like me.

Aunt Godey died in 1987, just as the crocuses were coming up. My parents and one of my sisters and I met at the airport in Little Rock, where we picked up a huge rental car that glided like a boat through the rocky landscape. We all wanted it to be spring. Aunt Monnie said that Grace Marie would have wanted it to be spring. All weekend, titmice and chickadees and towhees chattered in the pyracantha and around the bird feeders outside the kitchen window. At the funeral, a huge spray of spring flowers was arranged on Aunt Godey's casket; we sat still and quiet and freezing at the cemetery under the tall, bare trees. After the funeral, we went back to Aunt Monnie's and had a big meal. Stories were told; spring somehow put its foot in the door.

A year or so later, I went to visit Aunt Monnie. She took me to church with her and then we drove over to the cemetery. Our relatives are buried there in three or four plots scattered around, and we parked where my great-grandparents are buried, and Aunt Godey.

"Don't be alarmed, you'll see my headstone, too," Aunt Monnie told me, and there it was, pretty and polished, "Rosemary Quinn". She stood at the big plot, my tiny aunt, and wondered aloud whether there is enough room there for her with her sisters and her parents and the view down the hill to another sister, my grandmother, and my great-great grandparents, names and dates on monuments I had read a hundred times.

"I had some, not many, cedar waxwings," she says in the letter, "probably a dozen, and then only for a couple of days. They didn't begin to eat all the holly berries. Each year there are fewer. When we first came, there were hundreds in one flock and they were here until the last berry was gone. However all species have diminished in number."

--published in The Times-Picayune, 15 April 1990


Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Oh my, what a lovely portrait you've composed! And what an amazing sounding woman. Somehow, I don't think the stories about us will sound the same.

Carol said...

Your aunts sounds like wonderful people to have known and grown up around.