Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My great-aunt was not the type of lady to smoke
out on the porch. No, she lit up in her living room, and up
and down the stairs, and in her bedroom on hot
Mississippi nights with the windows thrown open.
My great-aunt read faster than other women cooked, cleaned,
baked cookies. One night she read Gone with the Wind cover
to cover while sitting on the toilet. She didn’t have much use
for clocks or schedules: if she wanted to sleep, she slept. She didn’t have much use
either for men who wanted to court her, even if the man
was her ex-husband, a Navy sailor who wanted her back,
a man she’d once loved. What did she need him for?
She had her own money from her government job after the war, and then
from when she started collecting vintage furniture. She opened
an antique store on the first floor of her hilltop Vicksburg house
and sold enough not to have to bother with customers
who rang her doorbell when the day called for a nap instead,
or when she had not yet drunk a cold bottle of Coke
or smoked her first cigarette of the day, or her last.
High cheekbones, big, almond-shaped blue eyes —
my great-aunt was the best kind of beauty: the kind who didn’t care.
Her cantankerous calico cat, Miss Molly, slunk away from me and my sister.
We were desperate to pet her, but the cat let no one near except my great-aunt,
who bought Miss Molly cans of wet food and let her claw at whatever
antique chairs she pleased. My great-aunt made my father promise
that when she died, he would put down Miss Molly, too.
No one’s going to take care of her the way I do.
My great-aunt was long on conversation: sometimes
we’d find our father in her kitchen
and hear her chattering in the living room.
We would ask him, Who’s she talking to? and he would answer:
She was never short on opinions. If we went out to eat,
her steak was always undercooked or overcooked, or the soup
too salty or too cold. She never hesitated
to send anything back. I was a young girl then
and should have paid attention,
for one day I would be given a thing or two
and not have the courage to send them back.
I was only seventeen when my great-aunt Eloise
died. My father flew down to Mississippi and took Miss Molly
to the vet, and into the casket the cat went.
I wonder about all
the other things my great-aunt took with her, things I’ll never
get back, answers to questions I should have asked. I inherited
an opal ring she had crafted in Europe, a ring whose stone
dazzles me with its bright specks
and dares me to stand up straight
and have a damn opinion.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood