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  • Writer's pictureSteven Cornelius

Aunt Mary

Aunt Mary


The summer before I turned nine, my aunt came to live with us. Her arrival was sudden and unplanned and gave me an education in kindness and acceptance. As an unexpectedly hot June marched toward an even hotter July, my dad’s half-sister, Aunt Mary lost her mind…literally. A neighbor found her early one morning wandering down the middle of the road in her nightgown. Aunt Mary was one of the few in my family to finish college, earning a degree in education before coming home to teach for more than thirty years. Ten years or so after she retired something inside her head snapped. She probably had a flashback about dealing with students like me. After a few days in hospital and lots of tests, she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and suffering from delusions. There was no money for a nursing home, and the county poor house refused to take her because she wasn’t clear headed and rational enough to see after her own needs. Her two adult children gave a dozen different reasons why they couldn’t help. Momma volunteered to take her in, despite daddy’s expressed doubts. We barely had room enough for us to lay down and rest, but momma just shook her head and put her foot down, and daddy knew better than to argue.

Our house was bursting at the seams with kids, but we found space, putting her on a folding cot in the corner of our living room. Aunt Mary kept her sparse belongings neatly folded in three little stacks under the cot. Each morning, she made her bed, washed and dressed, pulled her long gray hair back into a bun and then began looking for “her students.” As July marched toward a blisteringly hot August, everyone settled into something of a normal routine, except Aunt Mary who was permanently stuck in Elementary School mode. When any of us ran through the house screaming at the top of our lungs, which only happened fifteen or twenty times before noon each day, Aunt Mary was always at the ready to straighten us out. Her favorite phrase was, “Come here you little devil!” We’d see a long, skinny arm snaking toward us out of the corner of our eye, as she dragged us outside for a quick switching with a limber Peachtree branch.

Aunt Mary received a small monthly pension from the state teachers’ fund, but that didn’t go very far. Her kids wasted no time selling off her house and took what little savings she had. Not surprisingly, once the money was all gone, they disappeared. Momma managed Aunt Mary’s money, buying her medicine, clothes and the occasional treat. Aunt Mary loved Brach’s Peppermints, so momma bought her a bag every two weeks. She enjoyed a peppermint in the morning and one after supper, clicking the candy between her teeth until it dissolved. Now and again, she’d toss one of her red and white striped candies to me or one of my siblings and it was gone in a flash. When it was my turn, I quickly unwrapped the quarter sized treat, popped it into my mouth and crunched it up; too impatient to make it last like Aunt Mary.

She kept a running count of how many she’d eaten, planning out when momma needed to bring her a fresh bag, leaving a note asking that a bag of Brach’s candy be added to her shopping list. Mentally, Aunt Mary operated on at least two or three levels. She could be as rational as anyone, but was unpredictable and could suddenly turn violent, becoming a very scary person. We quickly learned to be on our guard around her. Of course, being surrounded by ten or eleven wild kids could have influenced her behavior. In fairness, the level of noise and confusion we created would have gotten to anyone. But back to those peppermints…there was one flaw in her approach to storing the candy bag. Her mental state kept her from seeing that hiding things in plain sight was a bad idea. Aunt Mary persisted in stashing each bag of peppermints under her pillow on the cot. It was sad and comical at the same time. Her pillow was about six inches by six inches and the bag of peppermints was twice that size. That little pillow sat on top of that full bag of peppermints like Stan Laurel’s derby hat on his round head. Aunt Mary watched her stash of candy like a hawk and was quick to whack us if we tried to grab sweets from her bag.

Those mints called to me no matter where I was around our property. Being the little terror that I was, my mind shifted into overtime. How could I get to that candy without getting smacked in the head? I borrowed momma’s pinking shears and cut the corner off the bag that faced the wall. I was sure that my work wouldn’t be discovered anytime soon. I then took one of momma’s crocheting needles and used it to fish peppermints from the bag. This system worked well, and I feasted on sweets until Aunt Mary discovered that her candy was all gone. I screwed up, got greedy and ate the whole bag. Predictably, she didn’t take that surprise too well, and figured out that I was the culprit. She sat on her cot holding the empty candy bag as I walked into the living room. When she stood up, I started running toward the kitchen. My sister Martha saw me running toward her with a look of terror on my face and not knowing what was going on, screamed and started running with me. Aunt Mary chased me and Martha through the kitchen yelling, “Come here you little devil!”

We headed for the closet off the bedroom, intent on climbing into the attic. We made it into the closet, but Aunt Mary caught up to us before we could shinny up the ladder into the attic. She found a stick from God knows where and began to beat the crap out of us. After the first couple of painful whacks, I reached up and grabbed an old beaver pelt overcoat that someone had given momma years earlier. It was a pitiful excuse for a coat, the fur fell out in clumps anytime it was handled. We crouched down, huddling under that thick old coat while Aunt Mary flailed away, causing dust and fur to fly. To satisfy her, we yelled and squalled like she was killing us, even though she wasn’t. After about five minutes she dropped the stick, exhausted and out of breath, gasping, “Don’t ever get into my candy again.” Momma solved the candy problem by putting the bag high up in her Hoosier cabinet. Each morning she placed two or three individual peppermints under Aunt Mary’s small pillow and threatened me with pain worse than death if I touched them.

Summer faded into fall, with things about the same, except that Aunt Mary grew worse by the day. She started wandering around late at night, silent as a ghost, slipping out of the house, walking the roads and fields in her nightgown, bare feet leaving faint prints on the frosty ground. Daddy moved her into the bedroom off the kitchen. Each night she was put to bed and the door bolted. This worked for about two weeks until one morning momma unlatched the bedroom door and discovered her gone. Aunt Mary had very quietly removed the glass from a north facing window, climbed out into a dark, freezing night and took off down the road in her threadbare cotton gown. A neighbor found her at daybreak, shivering and incoherent, five miles from our house. She developed pneumonia and died a week later. Aunt Mary could be funny as the dickens and mean as a snake, almost in the same instant, but momma made sure she was part of our large raucous family, and once she was gone things just weren’t the same around our old place. We all missed her.




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