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by Jillian Van Hefty

She wasn't a particularly pleasant person to be around, my Great Auntie Maude. From behind my mother’s pant leg, I hid from her because if I did something she didn't approve of —  wear the color black or call my dad “Dad” instead of father, or laugh too loud, she'd shake her fist in the air and threaten to give me "What for.” Beneath her deep-set brown eyes sat permanent, eggplant hammocks that suggested she never got enough sleep, which, given her terminal crankiness, made perfect sense to me. She didn't have any kids of her own, which was a good thing because I hated to think of them having such a nasty, bitter parent, meaner than second skimmings, my mom said. She had not a single friend and her husband, my Great Uncle Otis, spent most of his time down at race track, for which I did not blame him one bit. 

The woman hadn’t one ounce of femininity, which was a cardinal sin to a girl like me who favored paisley dresses and patent-leather shoes. She washed her face with a regular bar of soap, not Oil of Olay like my grandma, never mind lipstick or rouge or nail polish. Her hair was kept an inch long and she cut it herself! With kitchen scissors! When she sat at the breakfast table to read the Chicago Tribune her knees were set a good foot apart; her knee-high stockings rolled down around her ankles looked like terra-cotta hula hoops, and revealed legs that were just as hairy as Great Uncle Otis's. At the dinner table, she mindlessly poked a soggy toothpick around her mouth in search of a piece of corned beef wedged in her gums. It was surprising anything could get stuck given the fact that she didn't have but half her teeth. When she was successful in getting the sliver of meat out she intently examined it before slurping it off her crooked index finger. She sounded like migrating Canadian goose when she blew her humongous nose into her hanky, then wadded it up and returned it to the pocket of her house dress. There was always one tucked in there; often, she gently patted it as if a baby’s back.

The handkerchiefs were opaque like vellum paper, on the verge of translucency from hundreds of scrubbings on metal washboards and thousands of hours clipped taut on an outdoor clothesline in sun, rain, sleet or snow. Many had embroidered rosebuds or daffodils in the corners, others were gingham. My favorite one had scalloped edges and showcased a hummingbird stitched with metallic threads. Unlike Auntie, they were exquisite. 

As I got older and braver and came out from the protection of my mother's pant leg, I learned more about Auntie. She desperately wanted a child but never could carry one to term as Great Uncle Otis had a penchant for beating her whenever his horse lost. Eventually, he abandoned her for another woman and left her with all his gambling debts; she worked until age eighty to pay them off. 

The reason she always kept handkerchiefs in her pocket became clear. They held ice cubes to soothe bruised eyelids and bloody gums, nested a miscarried fetus after a kick to the abdomen, muffled hopeless, anguished screams, held her hand like a supportive friend. 

When I think of her now, gone two decades, I like to think of this image instead of her reality: a white handkerchief — not soft and weathered but crisp and strong — is monogrammed with her initials in  bold red font. MBS. Tethered to the clothesline line with a wooden peg, it twists, turns and torques, until at last, it breaks loose. Unbridled. Unburdened. Free. An easy life for her, this time.

About the Author

Jillian was a finalist in the 2020 Erma Bombeck Humorist In Residence program. Her essay “She Spins Like Saturn” won Honorable Mention in the 2018 Erma Bombeck Writing Competition, Global Human Interest Category. Other of her essays have been been published in the Minnesota Women’s Press magazine. In September, 2019, her essay “Must Be Gorgeous” is featured on the Eat, Darling, Eat website. She lives in Minnesota and is currently working on a memoir titled “It Was Shiny When The Snow Collapsed.”

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