Erin was bored sitting on the stiff floral couch: she sat there imagining what her friends would say to her if they were here. Here was her Great Aunt Pearl’s house, in the northern part of Kentucky. Erin had spent an hour-long drive, sitting in her Grandmother’s light-blue Ford Taurus, traveling along roads she believed the engineers followed an inchworm to build. It was an annual event; every summer Erin and her Grandma would travel from Ohio down to Kentucky and West Virginia to visit relatives.
They would arrive at the small, off-road house after driving down a long dirt lane, banked by lush green trees and hills. On top of one of those hills was the family cemetery, where Erin’s great grandparents were buried. The small white house, with its tin roof, sat at the base of that hill, and on that sunny day it was a bright contrast beside the dried-out-gray withering barn. The sunshine only made Erin want to go outside and lay in the grass, looking at the clouds, instead of listening to the elderly sisters tell stories about the good ol’ days.
Erin never called her Great Aunt Pearl by her full title, she had always called her Aunt Pearl. Aunt Pearl was the oldest of the small Irish family; she was number one out of eleven children. At least, that is how the family joke went when someone was describing the family lineage to somebody outside the family. Aunt Pearl was sitting in her squat, peach recliner, in a short-sleeved, red-checked dress, with her hair up in its usual salt and pepper bun. She and Erin’s grandmother were exchanging stories about when they were growing up, particularly stories about their parents. Erin heard most of the stories about her great grandparents, the one being told, currently, was an old one to her.
“Do you remember that time, when Poppy built that fence around the house?” Aunt Pearl’s slow and soft, southern drawl made the words sound so smooth.
“You mean the time when Mr. Jenkins tore it out, and Poppy made him replace it?” Erin’s grandmother asked.
“Yeeah, that’s the one. Poppy was so furious, but you never would have known it. That is if you didn’t know ‘im, he always had that calm before the storm temper. Anyway, he went down, after suppertime, to Mr. Jenkins’ house with a lantern and a pistol. Poppy knocked on his door an’ plainly said, ‘You’re gonna put my fence back.’ Mr. Jenkins said, ‘No I ain’t, that’s my land and I didn’t want a fence on it, so I took it down.’ So Poppy pulled out the pistol and said, ‘Look here, that is my land, an” that was my fence you took down, an’ you’re gonna put it back.’ An’ you know what, Mr. Jenkins put that fence back while Poppy held both the lantern an’ that pistol. When it was finished, Poppy told Ol’ Mr. Jenkins, ‘Now, I thank ya and I hope we don”t have no more trouble.”
Erin’s grandmother, a short, round, woman laughed, “He went home and shore ‘nough there wasn’t any more trouble,” and then continued to look at her slip-on shoes shaking her head in amusement. She brought her dark-gray short-cropped head up and looked at Erin.
Erin absentmindedly smiled, she was in the presence of two women that grew up during the Depression Era, and children were to be seen and not heard, unless spoken to. Even though, Erin was fifteen, and close enough to being an adult, she still followed the rule. She was lost in her various imaginations when her ears perked up. The tone of the story seemed to have changed from chatty to catty.
“Oh, do you remember Nadine, who lived two doors down from the old house?”
“I think so, was she the snooty one, the one that if she stuck her nose any higher in the air, she’d drown, when it rained?” Erin’s grandmother asked.
“That’s the one. She never did a lick to help out her folks, an’ it’s a shame. Anyway, I was helpin’ Mommy and Poppy out with you kids. An’ one day I was washing cloth diapers on the front porch. I was a scrubbin’ away on the washboard, when she came a walkin’ up, an’ can you guess what she said to me?”
“She said, ‘You know I heard that washin’ cloth diapers was really good for your hands. It makes them nice an’ smooth.’ I turn’d aroun’ an’ told her, ‘Well then my han’s oughtta be really nice an’ smooth then cause I’ve been washin’ shit for years.’ I liked ta died laughin” from the look on her face, she seemed so appawled. But she just walked on home an’ never bothered me a’gain.”
All three of them began to laugh, and Erin could just imagine how Aunt Pearl positioned one hand on her hip and the other in the washbasin as she made this statement to this Nadine. It made Erin smile and admire her Aunt Pearl a little more; after all, it was the first time she had heard Aunt Pearl curse, let alone tell someone off. She also thought of the plaque she had stared at many times before, hanging on Aunt Pearl’s wall that read, “Here’s to strong Irish women. May we know them, may we be them, and may we raise them.”
“Pearl. Peeaarrl. Peeeaaarrll.” It was Erin’s Great Uncle James; he had just recently began to have signs of Alzheimer’s, and was sitting in the kitchen.
“Lourd, I sometimes wish Mommy and Poppy hadn’t named me Pearl.” The eighty-three-year-old woman got up to tend to her eighty-nine-year-old husband. “You gurlz want anythin’ to drink?”
Erin’s grandmother replied, “Just-a bit of water for me. Erin do you need anythin’ to drink?”
“A Pepsi, if you have one, please.”
“Childe you’re a goin’ to rot your teeth out.” Aunt Pearl left through the small doorway, and Erin could hear “”James you done got pie all over you. Come over to the sink an’ get washed up.”
“It’s these plates. They don’ wanna stay still.” Uncle James was referring to the Styrofoam plate his cherry pie was on.
“Well I’ll get you one that does stay still. Did you take your medicine?”
“I’z about to, but I forgot where it was.”
“Alrigh’ I’ll get it for you… Here you go.”
Erin sat there remembering how Uncle James used to be, and she felt a little pang of sadness. Uncle James had been a penny pincher; he bought a brand new 1957 Chevy pickup truck that still to this day only had fifty thousand some miles on it. He never got indoor plumbing while his kids were at home. In fact, he was upset when his kids pitched in, and bought the indoor plumbing for him and Aunt Pearl. He pitched a fit then, and asked, “Why do I need indoor plumbin’, when there is a perfectly good outhouse out back?” Often at family reunions, Erin remembered the tricks he played on people trying to use the indoor outhouse. He would sit next to the bathroom door and say, “”Sumone’s in there,” or “No toilet paper.” A sad, half-smile crossed Erin’s face as she remembered, that time not so long ago.
She jumped, when Aunt Pearl said, “Here’s your Pepsi,” and handed it to her.
“What were ya thinkin’ ’bout, Erin? You looked sad there for a moment,” Erin’s grandmother asked with a concerned look on her face.
“Well I’m just thinking of the way Uncle James used to be. You know how he would hold the bathroom hostage, at the family reunions. He’s never going to be the same, is he?”
“Is that such a bad thing?” Erin’s grandmother jokingly asked to avoid talking about it.
Aunt Pearl changed the subject quickly, “Do you remember the time when you were little, Erin an’ you an’ Ashley were out watchin’ the older kids play ball in the old field? It was just a few years ago I’m sho’ you remember.”
“Where Uncle James yelled at me and Ashley to get off the fence? I heard you tell him to quit yelling at us, and he turned around and told you that there was ‘about a dozen kids hanging on the fence.'””
“That’s the one. It’s also the time he started to show symptoms, but the Good Lord doesn’t give us any more than we can handle. An’ that fence surely could have held ’bout a dozen kids.”
“Yeah, it didn’t look that bad to me when I was out there.”
“Yeah, well it isn’t in that good a shape any more, nothin’ much is. The barn’s been full of critters cause we”re too old to run them out,” she paused as she noticed the percolator stopped, “Oh, my coffee is ready; I hope I have cream, I can’t stand drinkin’ my coffee barefoot.” With that Aunt Pearl turned and went back through the doorway to get her coffee and Erin’s grandmother’s glass of water.
Aunt Pearl returned, followed by Uncle James shuffling slowly in. His palsied hand gently shook, as he made his way to his tan-checked recliner; opposite of Aunt Pearl’s. As he was sitting his six-foot tall body down in his chair, Erin noted how his light tanned skin was even lighter.
“Here’s your water, sorry it took so long.”
“Not a problem Pearl, you’ve got your hands full.””
“Pearl, I think I better go out and chop some wood. It”s getting dark.”
“No, James, ya don’t need to go out an’ get wood. We have a gas stove, remember?”
Erin sat on the couch, next to Uncle James, waiting for her turn to talk again. The conversation between her grandmother and Aunt Pearl turned again to their childhood days, and Erin was starting to tune them out.
Then Uncle James chimed in again, “I think I better go get sum wood before it gets darker out.”
“No, James, we have a gas stove. There’s no need for ya to go out an’ get any wood. Just sit still, we’ll be fine.”
Uncle James then turned to Erin and said, “I don’t know why they want to be cold tonight.”
It was unusual for Uncle James to actually speak to Erin, she was taken aback by his statement. She just smiled, shook her head and shrugged as she said, “I don’t know.”
Apparently that was satisfactory for Uncle James, because he no longer talked of going out to get firewood. When it was time to leave Aunt Pearl”s house, Erin got up off of the stiff floral couch and stretched. Erin and her grandmother said their goodbyes. Then made their way to the light-blue Ford Taurus to start their way back to the house, that used to belong to Erin’s great-grandparents, in West Virginia.
In the car, Erin realized how much that plaque on Aunt Pearl’s paneled wall meant. Aunt Pearl certainly was a strong Irish woman, and she was going to need all the strength she had to take care of Uncle James. Erin was glad to know Aunt Pearl, and certainly grateful to have been partially raised by her.