Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Ballad of Bessie Brown

Aunt Bessie’s death stunned the family when she died at age 79, 3 weeks short of her 80th birthday. Not that she wasn’t old—she had always seemed old to me—but she insisted she would live until the Rapture. “Jesus is going to come back while I’m alive,” I must have heard Aunt Bessie say so a hundred times. But He didn’t, and the house where she lived in East Texas, where she had perched herself high on the pillared porch to look down on passersby, that house burned down. Only the slab sits to recollect the years of her life––so exalted, settled and secure.

 A Woman of Influence

My mother's Aunt Bessie in Galveston
Aunt Bessie––the eldest of eight children, the progeny of Ma and Papa, who had until she died lived the longest––weaved a tangling web of influence on all her siblings and demanded strict adherence to standards she herself did not keep. 
My mother's mother, Prudie, died from a ruptured appendix at age 26, when my mom was 7-years-old, her younger sister, Joyce, was 5, and "the baby"––as they called her until she died at age 43––Syble was 16-months-old.
Aunt Bessie's funeral in Marshall marked the last time my mother and her sisters would ever spend together. They all got drunk.
Aunt Bessie, despite multiple marriages had no children, so instead she manipulated and shaped her nieces to fit her own design. 

A Bundle of Inconsistencies

Aunt Bessie smelled of talcum and splashed rosewater on her neck before putting on her pearls. She stuffed her bulging body into a corset with drawstrings in back, her bosom inflated but soft like a roasted marshmallow. I might never have known how she managed such a shape but for seeing her get ready for bed the times I slept on a pallet in her bedroom. 
It surprised me every time I saw her let down her hair—thin, silver-gray tresses that reached to her waist got bound and pinned each day in a bun, her crowning glory. Before bed, Bessie would sit on a bench facing the dresser mirror, count aloud 100 strokes using a tarnished silver brush. A rigorous routine. Religious.
Sitting down at the dining table, Aunt Bessie prayed, her eyes closed but her left hand raised, sputtering unintelligible words sprinkled with "Thank you, Jesus," words that passed her lips before the food got passed to eat. And when the noon meal was over, Aunt Bessie put a cloth over the table, covering the leftovers that would serve as supper. 
After the last meal I ever ate at Aunt Bessie's, I slept in the small room off of her bedroom––suffocating without a fan or windows––and I had nightmares that night, visions that danced on the ceiling, made me afraid to be in that place, afraid that demons had in this house found a host. 
Aunt Bessie's religious beliefs allowed her to impose a self-righteous pietism that “’llowed a little” for her indiscretions but drew sharp distinctions around the sins of others. My mother baulked at the incongruities. My mother's experiences colored my own impressions of Aunt Bessie.
When my mother was a young girl, she got to sew stitches in a quilt stretched over a frame suspended from the ceiling in Aunt Bessie’s parlor. The frame hung ready for the weekly quilting circle where other women encouraged my mother to learn to quilt and imparted a lifelong love for handmade quilts. But Aunt Bessie removed Loretta's stitches right after she got sent to bed. 
This is me with my great-aunt Bessie and Aunt Syble's Yorkie, Cindy

Marriages not made in heaven

Aunt Bessie reigned over three husbands; all died leaving her more property than she had had before they married—a farm, a grocery store and a house in town. Except her second husband, 20-years younger than she, married her for her money and they divorced in 1946. Divorce was a scandal for everyone except Aunt Bessie.
A ledger would fail to account for the difficulty I have imagining Bessie as the object of anyone’s passion, her breasts heaving beneath any man’s head, let alone three or four or more different men. I knew her only when she was old, wearing print dresses she had made for herself where she ‘llowed a little on account of the “little dab of leftovers, not enough to keep,” which Aunt Bessie would rather eat than save.    
 Aunt Bessie sewed dresses and skirts for me, too, ones that she 'llowed a little too much fabric––ill-fitting, so that I felt tacky wearing these creations that she boasted about making without a pattern. As they say in East Texas, I looked like something the cat dragged in. 
But in deference to my mother's Aunt Bessie, who made an annual trek from East Texas by train or bus to visit us in Las Vegas, I wore these dresses to school and to church. Like it or not.

A Marriage Annulled

At age 18, Aunt Bessie married DeWitt Brown who took her by train to live in California. The couple got as far as Dallas and Aunt Bessie turned back, went home to Marshall where that marriage was annulled. A record of this scandal––for it truly was scandalous at the time––might not have survived but for the letter the second Mrs. Brown wrote to Aunt Bessie. 
A gloating letter––thank you very much for breaking his heart but now he has me and we’re rich. The new Mrs. Brown enclosed a picture of Dewitt and herself wearing a mink coat and a wide-brimmed hat like those worn by First Class passengers on the Titanic. She also wrote a poem capturing in curly cursive, rhyming stanzas this romantic saga which she titled “The Cord That Bound Three Hearts––The Will That Severed Two.” I call it “The Ballad of Bessie Brown.” 
I also call it an act of vengeance. But that Aunt Bessie kept the letter that told the tale tells me that she did, after all, have a heart. 

Next time, excerpts from the letter.

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