Wednesday, June 23, 2010

My Family's Sister

Small containers of pimento cheese, sometimes store-bought but often home-made, sitting beside a plate of wheat crackers. Always. A bowl of pineapple chunks with a little silver fork for dishing onto the fancy glass plates. Cloth napkins. Always cloth napkins, never paper. Iced tea, unsweet, and diet-sliced wheat bread, two revisions to keep the diabetes at bay. A small glass bowl with pickles. Fresh tomatoes. Vanilla ice cream.

This food was consumed in the late afternoon of hot Mississippi summers. Everyone had been swimming and come in to the plush carpeted stairs leading up to her apartment. A chandelier hung in the hallway leading to her door.

Everything was fancy at Sister's apartment. Thick wool ru
gs lay on top of wall-t0-wall carpeting so when you walked, it felt like you would sink into the floor. Beautiful avocado green couches beneath gilded mirrors where you could catch a reflection of the David statue in the corner, sitting atop an ivory-colored pedestal, large fig leaf over his unmentionables.

Around the corner was the den, a sitting area with an enormous antiquated television from the '70s and glass bookshelves built into the wall with a large shell at the very top from which light shone down making it all glitter.

After fixing your plate, you'd either sit at the dining room table, always with a towel under your bottom so your swimsuit wouldn't soak the chairs or you'd sit on the balcony's wrought-iron chairs which left patterns on your legs when you stood up.

At some point, we'd all end up in the master bathroom, fingering the bins of nail polish and hoping someone would pai
nt our nails. We'd take a shower in the room with the painting of the naked lady above the toilet. We'd get dressed, go back out, drink a coke.

The lady who owned this glorious apartment, scene of so many rich memories of my childhood, is my grandmother's sister, my great aunt. She is
being buried today.

Her grandchildren called her "Mimi," but the children on my grandmother's side all called her "Sister." Many Southern families seem to have a "Sister." At my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary, Sister told a story about how our grandfather immediately welcomed her as his own sibling, refusing to call her "sister-in-law," but simply, "Sister."

It may sound like a cliche, but Sister was a true Southern lady. She never wore pants. Ever. She only wore tailored suits, all the time, no matter how humid or hot it was. Her nails were also perfectly manicured every single day that I knew her. She had a few wigs but in her later years didn't wear them as often. She was classy. She was fancy. She always had amazing lipstick.

For a while, she lived in Milwaukee, which to me as a child, seemed like the big time just because it was north of Memphis. I would pore over the photographs of my teenaged mother's trip to visit her there. My mom, with her perfectly coiffed beehive, eyeliner, A-line miniskirt, stepping onto a plane seemed like the highest sophistication. It was as if my mother became glamorous simply by being near her aunt, our Sister.

Even Sister's granddaughter, my third cousin who lived in California, seemed like the most beautiful and exotic creature I'd seen. I loved when she came to visit. She had the largest eyes imaginable, with mascara that made them look like stars. When I was a young grade-schooler, she was going to her high school prom, and I simply idolized her. Later, she became an artist who worked for Disney, which carried on my fascination with the glamorous lives of people who lived in places like Burbank and Milwaukee.

It wasn't until I was a young adult that I found out about the difficult and complicated things Sister experienced in her life. The last time I saw her was well over a year ago, and I sat on those green couches with her and my grandmother where she told me a lot of those stories. I was glad I visited her that day. We even had snacks on those small glass plates.

She was saucy. You never knew what she would say. As a kid, I was quite overweight for a few years, and after I lost the weight, Sister never seemed to get over the shock of it. Every single time I saw her, she would hug me, keep a grip on my elbow and size me up and down, telling me how pretty I looked. She'd look right into my eyes and tell me something about my outfit our how my hair was styled. It felt like an inspection, one I miraculously always seemed to pass.

On facebook this week, some of my cousins and I were swapping our favorite stories about Sister. They made me guffaw in laughter, tears running down my face, yelling for Ted to come in the room to hear the latest one (I would share those stories here, but I try to keep this is a pg-rated blog). I am so lucky to have had an aunt like her, one whose glamor and snark kept us all on our toes.

Goodbye, sweet Sister. Give Granny Brown a hug for me. Tell her my life feels jolly, just like she wanted it to. Hug Grandaddy too, for a really long time, giving him a kiss on the cheek from "Number Two." I know he's glad to see you, his Sister. Our Sister. I hope I look so good at my 80th birthday party.


Jill said...

what a beautiful tribute!

Staci said...

A lovely piece about your aunt, Lori. My condolences. She sure looks like a classy lady!

mama becca said...

beautiful post, lori... i love your description of her apartment. sounds so southern that i just love it... i've been in many a house just like that :). (oh, and the leaf over David's parts? classic.)
May she rest in peace... or at least in a really classy, snarky section of heaven :).

Christine said...

I'm sorry you have lost your 'sister.' But thank you for sharing her with us, she sounds like she was a fabulous lady. She did look smashing on her 80th.

Cindy said...

This is a beautiful post Lori. What an amazing woman to have had in your life.

Julie said...

What a lovely tribute. I'm sorry you've lost her.

coffeemom said...

Ah what a set of memories: treasures. And a loving beautiful tribute to your special "Sister"...rare stuff. Prayers for you and your family and for her as well. Sweet rich writing.

Engendo said...

gosh - i feel like im in sister's house. what a nice post about her. you appear blessed in the family department :)

Im really curious about the picture though. Is it her 80th birthday party? and if so, why does the cake have your name on it? lol

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful, honest tribute to one h*ll of a delightful sounding woman. Wish I knew her. Prayers for all of you.

Anonymous said...

I had an Aunt Sister from Texas. My mom said growing up she never knew her aunt had any other name than sister. Beautiful story.