My Aunt Vivian was a force of Texas nature to me growing up. She was married to my mother’s brother, Uncle Wilburn. When I was young, Uncle Wilburn and Aunt Vivian’s children had grown up and moved away. My parents and I would go visit them about once a month. Because my siblings had also grown up and moved away, it was just me and the four adults. We drove east from Austin to their home in Smithville, Texas. If you’re not familiar with Texas, Smithville is the quintessential, sleepy small town featured in Sandra Bullock’s movie Hope Floats.
Aunt Vivian was a homemaker from way back. Back when it was not a loaded label. Back when that’s what all women did. But not all women did it the way my Aunt Vivian did. Her home was a very old home on a street with other very old homes with acre-size lots. It was dank, creaky, and smelled like an old home. At least the front rooms did. Those rooms, the parlour and the dining room were usually kept dark and family spent no time in them. But turn the corner into Aunt Vivian’s kitchen and there was bigger than life color, sounds, and smells.
When we went to visit, there was one menu item promised to come out of Aunt Vivian’s kitchen. The crunchiest, yummiest fried catfish you’ve ever tasted. Early in the morning, Aunt Vivian would walk down to the river to meet the men who fished there. She went to one man in particular, the only one that could catch the catfish that lived up to Aunt Vivian’s standards. I would sit on a metal stool in the kitchen and watch Aunt Vivian prepare her catfish. I remember the kitchen as bright yellow, but that might not have been the color at all. I just know it felt like sunshine to be in the kitchen when Aunt Vivian cooked catfish. I’d watch her take a piece from a large pile of catfish flesh. She’d slap it on the counter and salt and pepper it, then she’d pick it up and push it down into a big mound of fluffy white flour. She’d flip it and push it and work it with her fingers. Then it would go into a bowl of egg and milk and then back into the flour. This would happen many times to the same piece of fish. All the while Aunt Vivian would carry on lively conversations with my mother. The more exciting the conversation, the faster and more forceful Aunt Vivian’s hands would work. And as her hands became more coated than any of the catfish with flour and egg and milk, I would watch as her perfectly manicured bright-red fingernails worked that catfish. When a piece was ready, she’d lay it into her very large cast iron skillet bubbling with at least 2 inches of melted lard. As the pile of raw catfish got smaller, another pile of golden brown deep-fried catfish grew on a paper-towel covered plate by the stove.
Aunt Vivian had a huge garden and she canned everything. This was in the 70s when most homemakers, including my mother, happily welcomed all manner of canned goods available in the grocery store. But not Aunt Vivian. I use to go down into Aunt Vivian’s root cellar. It was literally dug into the earth with dirt walls. I will never forget the smell of that wet earth, it was heavenly. I would walk around the edges of the basement and gaze at all the mason jars filled with canned vegetables and fruits. None of which I could recognize since they didn’t resemble the Del Monte version of the same. And then there were the African Violets. I never recall ever seeing Aunt Vivian’s African Violets anywhere in or out of her house other than the root cellar. I always thought they must be her little secret garden. There was a tray of them with their own special buzzing light. I was always scared to go into Aunt Vivian’s dark, wet, underground cellar, but I was drawn to the lighted corner with the African Violets.
When the season was right and the weather had conspired to produce a good crop of pecans, we would all walk down to the elementary school yard a few blocks away. There we would open our brown paper grocery bags and begin collecting pecans from the ground. There were hundreds of pecans. We’d walk home with our bags full and sit on the back porch, a much smaller version of the original back porch. Aunt Vivian would bring out the nut crackers and we’d begin the shellin‘ ritual. Everyone would work to get an unbroken half pecan out of it’s shell. If it broke, you ate it. You ate until you couldn’t eat another pecan. We’d always leave for home with a few bags of shelled pecans for our freezer. Enough to last until the next year.
If I wasn’t with Aunt Vivian in the kitchen while she cooked or down in the root cellar, I would wander into the sewing room. My Aunt Vivian sewed and she was a crafter before there were craft stores. She had a guest bedroom that wasn’t really a guest bedroom because it was really her sewing room. But I guess she didn’t feel that she could take up a whole bedroom for her sewing so she never quite claimed the room. But there was no doubt, this was another room where Aunt Vivian created magic. There was a very large, tall bed in the room. Aunt Vivian had Uncle Wilburn cut a large piece of thick plywood that laid on top of the bed. This was her cutting table. Her sewing machine sat on a small table next to the bed. There were always projects going on and piles of fabric on the bed/board. There was more fabric spilling out of dresser drawers and the closet. I loved looking at everything. I probably touched too, but I knew not to mess with anything. She had lots of different kinds of scissors and there were all kinds of sewing tools and supplies. Things were in disarray and yet organized at the same time.
The holidays were an especially crafty time in Aunt Vivian’s home. After a visit there, my mom would come away with the patterns and ideas for several projects and we would stop at the fabric store and pick up all we needed to recreate the magic that Aunt Vivian had shown us. I have fond memories of creating the three wise men using glass coke bottles, felt, shriveled apple cores (for the faces), and all kinds of lace, trim, buttons, and sequins.
I don’t really remember Aunt Vivian herself. I remember her perfectly-coiffed silver hair and red fingernails, but I don’t know that I ever had my own conversations with her or if we ever hugged. I never really knew her. But, oh, how I remember the world she created and the rooms she inhabited. I cherish these memories. I think of them when I cut the felt for my latest holiday project. I remember the taste of those pecans when I reach to the shelf for my very small plastic bag of pecans that cost me $10. And I usually don’t eat catfish because nothing will ever compare to Aunt Vivian’s catfish. In my own ways, I hope I am creating such memories like my Aunt did for me. Memories of catfish, African Violets, magic, root cellars, pecans, and sunshine.