Writing Fiction posted February 15, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
... small deeds really count ...

Two Hours of Tenderness

by Relda Halbert

for My Aunt Lorene - our true story
Minor Language Warning!
in my father's dialog.!

I was ten years old and on the way to spend the best two hours of my year at my Aunt Lorene’s house.  I was riding in the backseat of an old Chevrolet sedan, and my father and mother were having a heated conversation in the front as he drove.  I held my breath, praying he would not bully my mother into getting his way.
“You know I hate this, Ed,” he said in a disgusted tone.  (My mother’s name is Edna, but he called her ‘Ed’ … or ‘Chick’ if he was being romantic.)  He swore under his breath and muttered, “I can’t stand Bible-thumpers, and if Walter starts ragging me about my drinking and smoking …”
“But it’s just once a year, Lawrence,” my mother interrupted.  Her tone wasn’t pleading – more wheedling and beguiling and sexy.  She batted her eyelashes as she slid closer to him on the bench-seat and leaned her head on his shoulder.  She didn’t really want to go to Lorene’s either, and my father knew it.  I knew it, too, because they'd already argued about it. But she and Lorene were sisters even if they were different as midnight and dawn and it wasn’t natural not to get together at least once a year given they lived so close.
“But it’s Easter, Chick!” Lawrence wheedled back.  He could bat his lashes as well as she could, and he did, and his were twice as long as my mother’s.  She was unmoved and he mumbled a few curse words.  “Why the hell do we have to do this on Easter?  You’re not fooling anyone.  Lorene knows we’re not coming from church, so why are you play-acting?  I hate this damned suit!  This tie is choking me!  And you and your daughter  look stupid in those dresses!”
“It’s once a year,” my mother repeated in a very different tone.  It was her ‘this time it’s settled’ tone.  She rarely used it but when she did she meant business.
My father shook his head and swore again.  “Two hours,” he warned her angrily.  “No more!”
Twenty miles of country hard-top flashed by as my father romped on the accelerator.  Sooner there – sooner done.  He’d announced before leaving home that he intended to be back in time to go fishing before dark.
I breathed a hushed sigh of relief as the Chevy slowed and turned down a dirt drive leading to Lorene and Walter’s house.  Billowing dust enveloped the car, but I didn’t care that it was getting in my hair as I strained to see out the open window.  My heart leapt as my aunt burst through the screen door and rushed down the porch steps.  She was at the car before it stopped and pulled my mother’s door open as she slid across the seat.
“I’m-a so glad to see you-a, Sis!” Lorene cried.  “It’s been such a long-a time!”  Mother’s response was muffled by Lorene’s enveloping, sister-starved hug.  Lorene held my mother back at arm’s length and said, “Gracious a-heaven-a, you-a look so wonderful.”  She cast my father a lovely, welcoming smile, and teased, “That-a goes-a for you-a, too-a, Lawrence.”
My father snorted out loud – he believed Lorene appended ‘-a-’s to her words to sound more self-righteous – like a hell-fire and brimstone preacher.  My mother insisted Lorene had talked that way since she was a child.
Of course, Aunt Lorene had heard my father’s disrespectful response, too, but she just smiled, and turned to me, where I stood timidly waiting.  I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.  She was portly and perfect.  She wore a gay, print dress, white patent ‘lady’s’ shoes, and her hair was up in a bun.  She took me by the shoulders and a spell began to fall as Cashmere Bouquet talcum powder (her trademark fragrance) wafted me off the ground.  She held me at arm’s length, gave me a sparkling, blue-eyed wink, and said, “Now who-a is this young-a lady?”  She looked straight into my eyes.  So deeply, I knew I had a soul and she was face-to-face with it.  “Honey, you’re growing up-a so fast-a!”
She turned me away from my parents and never broke eye contact with me as she called back to them, “Sis, you-a and a-Lawrence-a go on inside-a.  Walter’s waiting in the cool-a.  Help yourself to tea-a in the ice box.  Sallygal and I’ll-a be in soon-a.”
My aunt’s speaking anomaly never bothered me.  She could have chattered Chinese and I’d still have understood her.  I’d stood face-to-face with her soul, too.  Like graceful incantations, her special names for me – sometimes Sallygal, sometimes LittleSis, sometimes SweetGirl – made me feel safe and seen and known.

Somehow I knew things about her, too.  She knew I was mortified and tongue-tied over my father's rudeness.  She knew I'd not talk because I'd learned well to be seen and not heard.  She only posed questions to say, 'think about this, LittleSis.'
The yard, like the house, was humble, but Aunt Lorene's special touch was everywhere.  Tall as trees and covered with pink blooms, Rose of Sharon bushes stood sentinel along the path.  Dense banks of white and pastel-blue hydrangea lay siege to the clapboard house.  It seemed a fairy-tale garden and she was my fairy-godmother.
She held my hand now, talking about the plants and letting me enjoy the flowers as we slowly walked.  She led me to a ramshackle shed, nearly invisible beneath Jasmine creepers and lavender hydrangea.  She said, “Just wait-a LittleSis.  I’ll find a treasure for you-a.”  Then she – in her Easter best - squatted down in the dirt, parted the woody boughs of a hydrangea, and plunged in as she caught sight of movement in the shadows.  There were sounds of a scuffle, a hiss and a growl, and then my aunt emerged with a squirming, tiny, week-old, wild kitty in her hands.
It was always the same.  My Aunt Lorene.  A kitten.  Magic. 
Aunt Lorene still knelt beside me where I'd dropped on my knees.  She calmed the spitting kitten and guessed-then-confirmed it was a boy.  While she did, she said … as she always said … “Do you-a know who-a Jesus is, Sallygal?”  I knew that name because Aunt Lorene told me about him every Easter.  “He loves you-a, SweetGirl.  He’s God’s Son and He loves us so a-much-a He gave His life to-a save you-a … and me … from our sins.”  She placed the kitten in my arms and showed me how to unhook its claws from my skin.  “See, he likes a-you-a!  Hold him tight so he’ll not jump-a down but close to-a say you-a love him.   Always stroke with his fur-a.”  She showed me what she meant, then stood up, pulling me to my feet as well.  She took my chin and raised it to look into my soul again.  “Jesus-a loves you-a the same-a way, LittleSis.  Jesus’ll hold you-a safe-a and keep you-a close because He loves you-a.  Just ask Him and He’ll-a save you-a, too-a.  Then we’ll-a be together with Jesus in Heaven for always-a.”

She put her hand on my shoulder and guided me and kitty toward the wash-porch steps, and up and through the kitchen, to the dark, cool parlor.  She settled me in an out-of-the-way corner where I sat in a bubble of happiness, not making a sound, basking in the love of a little wild kitten, while the grown-ups talked.
It was always the same.  A miracle, really.  A snuggling, wonderful, tiny wild kitty, and two hours of tenderness, pondering heaven … for always … with Aunt Lorene and a man called Jesus.


Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry


This is a memoir of my childhood times with my Aunt Lorene. The year of this story is 1960. Lorene was my mother's oldest sister, and she spoke differently - she added 'a's to many words and her sentences rose musically toward the end. She sounded like a Swedish immigrant just learning to speak English - but I only know for sure there is full-blood Seminole on my mother's side of the family. Maybe we descended from a Swedish/Seminole union! At any rate, I loved the way my aunt spoke. And, I loved her. As a point of fact, she played a major part in my birth - she mid-wifed the event. Official godmother? Maybe not. But Fairy-Godmother, for sure. And the most wonderful woman I've ever known.
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