I always wanted to go to a summer camp like kids did in the movies. The thought of lacrosse in some New England landscape was alien to every summer I endured. This was southwestern Mississippi in the 2000s; we walked upstream in our creek looking for crawfish, the stream cooling us feet-upward. The sun’s oppressive beams tanned the scalp through our sweaty locks.
The closest I came was the summer my mother and I started to sit with Aunt Laverne. Aunt was a fluid term; she married a distant cousin—Uncle Harold. Growing up, we never put elderly relations in nursing homes. Instead, we would “sit with them.” It’s similar to babysitting—make sure they eat healthily, don’t hurt themselves, and change their diapers.
My sister, Lianne, held the position until she couldn’t bear Laverne anymore. When she resigned, my mother was the next volunteer, which meant my summer dreaming was over.
It was not the “Camp Whatever-you-call-it” I had pined for. Being cooped up with a sour octogenarian was more like boot camp. She was the drill sergeant and I played the maggot. Every day her voice squawked through the sprawling Victorian saying, “Don’t touch that,” and “Stop running through my house.” She had a tongue sharper than razor blades. She called my sister fat and asked why she was still unmarried.
People warned beforehand: Laverne could be “a pistol.” After Lianne’s first day, she told Daddy she learned what pistol meant: an old bitch, but in a nice way. Daddy knew exactly what she meant.
To add to her stress, Uncle Harold became “too much” for any one person to sit with. On top of being delusional, he kept “escaping,” as Laverne put it.
More than once my parents got the call that “Harold is gone!” Not passed away peacefully in your sleep gone, but as Laverne would say shakily over her rotary phone, “I went to the bathroom and when I came back, he was gone! Disappeared!”
When Daddy left work to return Harold, he usually found him in his overgrown field or in the woods, chasing his phantom goats. Once, my mother found him on the edge of the timberline. He seemed amazed the loblolly pines had grown so tall, almost overnight.
He bristled at her concern but agreed to walk back. When they reached the barbwire fence, he climbed it instead of going through the cattle gap. This frail man had the balance of a gymnast. He made it over, and, in a show of chivalry, insisted he open the gate for her. His mind was old and young at the same time.
If Daddy’s Ford Ranger pulled into the yard, Uncle Harold would bolt out of the recliner. He couldn’t wait to “shoot the bull.” Dementia could eat away the best of his memories, but his appetite for conversation remained insatiable. And the sun shone brighter on his foggy memory when he sat on Daddy’s greasy tailgate.
If he stayed too long, Laverne would call for him. “Shit,” he’d say under his breath. “I got to go. Come back by, Cliff.” Daddy would come back by, but each time he killed the engine to talk awhile, Harold remembered less. Sometimes his eyes would get cloudy and he’d stop to ask, “Who are you again?”
“He’s got that ‘All-the-timer’s,” Daddy said. “He ain’t living in the same world as us.”
Uncle Harold became the first elderly relative I knew to go to the nursing home. Around this time, nursing homes were in fashion, in part due to insurance and better government funding. Health insurance providers are now lobbying elderly patients to fill nursing home beds short-term and transition to home care to cut corners. But even when Mama’s great aunt went into a nursing home in the late 1980s, there was still a sitter there to keep her company.
Our first day, we drove over the bumpy gravel road to set out morning pills and cook breakfast before the sun was up. It became routine to leave after dark. The job paid $40 a day.
Aunt Laverne’s mind never got the relief of Harold’s delusions of youth. Her mind soldiered on as a tired void, never regressing to hopefulness or childlike enthusiasm. She grew up in a three-story home in McComb, Mississippi, a skyscraper by her time’s standards. Meals required the use of crystal, silver, and fine china at her mother’s table. Life mandated decorum, didn’t we know that?
When I would come inside from playing, she’d scoff at my grungy appearance.
“Did you wash your hands?” she’d ask as I was sitting down for lunch. I usually hadn’t.
“Don’t put your elbows on the table.”
I would let my hands fall in my lap.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full.”
I’d swallow hard and stop talking at all.
I tried my best to behave. Even though she wasn’t nice I felt an urge to please her. I often wondered where the meanness came from.
I saw Aunt Laverne as more than her age. From the black-and-white photos scattered through her home, I knew she had been beautiful. Dusty wooden frames atop handmade lace doilies encased another woman. She pinned her hair in neat rolls. Her lips were gray and spread into a wide smile. Her eyes were oval pools before fading to hazel.
By the time I came along, what was left of her slight figure was hanging off her frame, shrouded by pastel muumuus. When she got ready for her weekly beauty parlor appointment, she would take the pink and green tube of Maybelline mascara and, after brushing the wand through her lashes, would coat her eyebrows. I watched from the opposite recliner as they turned from silver to the blackest black in two swipes.
I don’t remember how it came up—maybe it was after watching a fuzzy Bob Ross episode on TV—but she asked Mama to help her to the parlor. It was a sitting room no one ever sat in. It smelled like mothballs and church lady perfume. She pulled a stack of dusty canvases from behind her curio cabinet, which looked as if it would burst and spew porcelain at any moment. As she flipped through paintings while hanging onto her walker, my mother gasped.
“I remember that! That little boy was on a stamp,” she said.
I can’t remember if he was oil or acrylic, but this boy wearing overalls and a cornflower blue shirt was laying on the fence like a towel. He was a Rockwell scene. I can still remember the threads of browns and reds in his blonde hair, giving it the depth that made it so real.
I thought for a moment the child belonged to her.
“Oh yes, that was a long time ago, but I loved that photo,” she said. “He was so cute.”
It was news she’d be fond of any child, even if he was on a stamp. I cannot find the postage stamp she painted. My mother can no longer envision the painting itself.
What started as a summer job, ended up lasting more than a year. At times, Aunt Laverne softened toward us. She was nice enough to show us how to play Dominoes, but she never let us win.
Laverne’s nephew Joel, who faithfully made sure she met her weekly hair appointments would stop by our home years afterward to visit.
“Every time we’d load up for town, she would talk about you girls,” he said gesturing to my sister and me. “Boy, her face’d just light up.”
If that was Laverne liking us, I’m glad I never truly pissed her off. There wasn’t a memory of her that didn’t involve some conflict.
She died three years after Harold.
The day her obituary ran in the newspaper, the front page celebrated the town bank robber’s capture—he was on the loose for eighteen months with tens of hundreds. He evaded authorities on a bicycle.
Despite her attitude, she was family and we truly loved her. We dressed in our best blacks and grays. The women wore dresses and the men wore black Wrangler jeans—their equivalent of suits and ties. On the drive to the funeral home, the insults and complaints had somehow melded into memories.
I broke the silence from the back seat: “Remember the time Matthew put his swimming trunks on his head, ran into one of her concrete flowerpots, and knocked himself out? She asked: ‘Did he break my planter?’”
We all laughed and then felt a twinge of guilt. Mama said she was probably that way because material things were all she had.
“Uncle Harold had the Mumps as a teenager, and it left him sterile.”
“How do you know Aunt Laverne even wanted kids?” I pressed.
She said Lianne came home one night upset. Getting Uncle Harold to take his medicine and go to sleep had been a fiasco. He started crying while apologizing to Laverne.
“I’m so sorry,” Harold kept repeating.
“Sorry for what? Harold, go back to bed. Please,” Laverne said.
“I am so sorry I never could give you children,” he said. “I know that was all you ever wanted out of life.”
“That’s okay, Harold. Just go back to bed.”
Forever stoic, Laverne only teared up and shrugged.
It struck me then. I had been misinterpreting her harping. She wasn’t trying to crush my happiness; she was parroting. When she verbally abused my sister, she was refracting the judgments she faced for marrying late. In her own time, any woman past nineteen was an old maid and childlessness was seen as disfavor from God, a sort of punishment. Barrenness was because a woman didn’t pray hard enough or because God saw them as an unfit mother.
Laverne would’ve surely been scorched by this belief. Her crochet skills would never render a blue or pink blanket. All the nudges she got when a pregnancy was announced or a new baby was introduced would rub a sore over her heart. I can see that worn image of her smile begin to fade before my eyes and the smile surrenders to a single taut line.
Even today it’s easy to fall into the trope of the unattached, bitter female. A woman doesn’t choose to be pigeonholed in that way; she’s shoved on holidays. There is nothing like being asked, “Don’t you like men? Do you think you’ll slow down for a family soon? Do you have a boyfriend yet—there’s not something wrong with you, is there?” over turkey and dressing. Then—and sometimes now—I wish to summon Aunt Laverne’s spite.
Aunt Laverne’s funeral was small. We gathered by her casket for a moment to shake hands with my cousins. She looked frail and her skin was the color of copy paper with two dabs of rouge on the apples of her cheeks, giving her the appearance of one of the porcelain dolls she’d collected. The hard look she gave me was forever softened.
Lyndy Berryhill grew up on a dirt road in Franklin County, Mississippi and wound up graduating from Ole Miss’ School of Journalism and New Media. She currently lives in Gulfport and freelances for local newspapers and magazines. She has written and reported on four continents. She has worked as an investigative reporter for CNN’s “Death Row Stories” and BBC’s Channel Four.