Twanna Barrett Permenter
Aunt Louise, that’s what I called her for as long as I can remember, but she wasn’t really my aunt. Aunt Louise was my babysitter who took care of me when I was an infant. Her name was Mrs. Louise Roebuck, and I can picture her in my mind’s eye as clearly as if I had just seen her yesterday. She was a small-framed, light skin black woman with silver hair, mostly. I say mainly because every so often when she would come home from the beauty parlor, that’s what they called it during the ’60s, her hair would be a soft blue from a rinse that the beautician used. Aunt Louise was an elegant lady from a little girl’s perspective. Unt Louise used to be one of the maids at the White House. Working at the White House in those days was considered a status of honor. Now I understand why she was strict about following specific protocols; the way a lady should carry herself, social etiquette, and how to set a table. Aunt Louise was soft-spoken and led a quiet, structured life.
Aunt Louise had a process for everything; getting dressed, putting on her makeup, cleaning the kitchen, and cooking. At least that’s the way I remember it. I loved to go to her house long after I was too old to require a babysitter. I found all of the formality fascinating and just a little grand. Aunt Louise was always busy doing something. I can’t remember a visit where she was lounging around.
In the backyard, Aunt Louise had a fig tree, and a vegetable garden and a prickly rose bush in the front yard with other flower beds. When the time was right, we would go out to the backyard to pick fruit and vegetables. My job was to follow behind her with a basket to carry everything. I still remember the vibrant burgundy color of the figs when she cut into them, and the tomatoes ripening on the windowsill in her kitchen. The kitchen was tiny, barely fitting the two appliances she had; a stove and a refrigerator. I would sit at the small table for two in front of the window with its red vinyl, checkered tablecloth and watch her cook. When everything was cleaned, peeled, chopped, cooked, and properly placed in the appropriate serving dishes, it was my time to set the table. When it was just her and me, we ate in the kitchen, but at dinner time when her husband was home, we ate in the formal dining room.
Setting the table was my task, and I loved doing it. I knew how to do this well because Aunt Louise had trained me well. She had a formal dining room with a large table to seat eight people. A huge mirrored buffet that stored all of her formal china and table linens sat against one long wall. On the opposite wall was a bank of windows dressed in summer sheers that served as a backdrop for her large birdcage which housed her two canaries. I would put out the placemats, the dishes, the flatware, and the glasses. The flatware had to be laid out around the plates in the appropriate manner. If I recall correctly, I put the fork to the left of the plate, the spoon and knife were set to the right and always on a napkin. There were never any wine glasses, but we always had a tall glass for iced tea, lemonade, or my personal favorite, Kool-Aid. I never deviated from this pattern.
Aunt Louise must have loved animals because she always had birds and a dog or two. I remember that her favorite dog, Lucky, was large with white fur. When Lucky died, she soon got another dog to replace him. I couldn’t help but think this was odd because I knew how much she loved Lucky. She said she was used to having a dog around, so a new one had to be found.
In the early ’60s, when I was around five or six years old, I would walk to Aunt Louise’s house on those summer days when there was little or nothing to do. She lived in a small two-bedroom house that sat behind a junior high school on the edge of an ally. She was so excited that I took the time to visit her. I found our time together educational, and peaceful. I always felt like royalty in her home and enjoyed our time together.
On the days that we weren’t in the kitchen or the garden, we would go visiting. Aunt Louise had one or two friends in the neighborhood. The one that I remember the most I called the “Candy Lady.” She was a nice elderly lady like Aunt Louise. When we would go to her house, she would send me to the ever-present, large cut glass candy dish on the living room coffee table. The candy dish seemed to be an established requirement in every elderly lady’s living room.
I can’t remember the Candy Lady’s name anymore, but I do remember that she lived in an apartment and not a house like Aunt Louise. Her apartment building sat at the top of a very long set of concrete steps. As soon as the salutations were done, she would always let me get as much candy as I wanted. I knew this was to keep me occupied while she and Aunt Louise sat and talked. During those days, children weren’t allowed to sit with adults while they converse. I would choose my pieces of candy carefully. During the summer, the type of candy kept in the candy dish was limited. Chocolate was usually never kept there because it would melt, so you had an assortment of hard candies that stuck together on very hot days. You had the ever-present flat, round, red striped, peppermint candy which I called church candy because little old ladies would always have this in their purses at church. They handed them out as if they were a treat, but actually, they were my least favorite. Then there were the leftover, hard, multi-colored Christmas candies. My personal favorites were the saltwater taffy, the cinnamon-flavored jelly-filled candies, and of course, the rare chocolate Hershey Kisses.
I knew Aunt Louise was watching to make sure that I wouldn’t take too many. I knew that this was one of those times I was to display proper manners. Even though there was plenty of candy, you were never to take too much, that would be greedy and considered rude. Once I completed my candy selection, and I got the approving nod from Aunt Louise, I would go outside to sit on the front steps. The Candy Lady didn’t have a shaded porch like Aunt Louise so the sun would beam down on me and all the sticky candy and we both would start to melt and wilt. I remember getting restless and wondered how much longer before we could leave. Nevertheless, I always looked forward to visiting the candy lady because I appreciated her generosity.
Aunt Louise’s second husband was named Herbert. Of course, I called him Uncle Herbert. Although I didn’t spend as much time with Uncle Herbert, I remember him as a tall, kind, gentle, and soft-spoken man. I remember thinking about how he and Aunt Louise seemed to complement each other very well. He took care of the house and heavy yard work, and she did all of the domestic chores. He didn’t talk much, but I remember him sounding very impressive in his soft, gentle way. Some would say that he sounded “refined.” When he died, Aunt Louise was sad and all alone in their little home.
I wondered if Aunt Louise would visit Uncle Herbert’s grave on Memorial Day as she did for other loved ones passed. She re-married not quite a year later. I remembered the dog Lucky and felt like she had gotten over Uncle Herbert in the same way, a little too quickly. I don’t remember when or how I developed a grieving protocol, but I had one. I asked her why she had to re-marry so soon, what she said left an everlasting impression on me. She told me that she didn’t want to grow old alone. I wasn’t expecting that answer. At sixteen, I had never thought about growing old or growing old alone. Growing old alone was something that struck me hard, so I talked to Momma about it. She could relate to it being in her middle years herself. I never forgot what Aunt Louise and Momma said about growing old alone. It has haunted me throughout the rest of my life. All said and done; it was the right decision for Aunt Louise to make because she got very ill with respiratory issues and diabetes not too long afterward.
Aunt Louise died just a few years after her last marriage when I was sixteen. I still remember her and all the things we did together. I realize now that a lot of the things I like to do around my home is based on what I grew up watching Aunt Louise do. This is just one more example of how impressionable children are. I am grateful for a kind and gentle babysitter who cared enough to take me into her heart and home and share her life with me. In her quiet way, and unbeknownst to her, she was training me to be an elegant and self-sufficient lady. I even keep peppermint candy in every purse, just like a proper ‘Old Lady’ should.