Southern Gothic Great Aunts

“Forest Sleep” by Kelly Louise Judd

When I was a child, I spent, relatively speaking, a good bit of time with my great aunts on both sides of the family. My mother’s aunts, Pearl and Ruby, were the daughters of a god-fearing Baptist farmer from Orangeburg County, and my father’s aunts were snobbish women who valued table manners above morality. I saw Aunt Ruby the most often because she lived the closest. Here’s a snippet from a earlier post with the fetching title “Fragments from a Southern Gothic Childhood”:

Aunt Ruby lives on Warren Street near Condon’s Department store in a downstairs apartment with her daughter Zilla, who is one of the founders of the New Republican Party in South Carolina. Zilla is a Bircher, claims Lucille Ball is a communist, and entertains us with comic books depicting Khrushchev banging his shoe promising to bury us. Not only has Zilla never married; she’s never been on a date.

The house, which reminds me of a train — one room lined up after another — is Jesus haunted. Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus hangs over the bricked in fireplace in the living room. Arts and crafts from vacation summer Bible abound.

On this particular visit, there’s an inflatable man sitting on the sofa. My brother David and I start smacking him as if he were one of those bottom heavy clowns you punch that falls over but returns to the upright position for more punishment.

We’re told to stop. As it turns out, Zilla is afraid of being raped. If she has to go out at night, she rides with the inflatable man next to her.

Sardonically, my father reassures Zilla that she needs not fear being raped.

Up the road in Sumter, where Aunt Pearl lived, things were a bit more laid back. She and my grandmother, “Mama Blanton,” spent their afternoons shelling beans, watching soap operas, and gossiping. Once, when I was seven or so, I saw Aunt Pearl naked through her cracked open door. It was by no means a pleasant sight, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away as in the clichéd horrible-wreck-on-the-freeway scenario.

Because of their Baptist upbringing Ruby, Pearl, and Hazelwood (aka Mama Blanton) considered alcohol an abomination, though once I witnessed Mama Blanton and Aunt Ruby swapping barbiturates like M&Ms.[1] So, anyway imbibing hooch in the house was banned, so my grandfather was reduced to hiding half pints in shoes stored in his closet.

Kiki, what’s this?” I asked one morning after finding a bottle of Old Crow in his tennis shoe.

“Hey, what you doing in that closet?  Get out of there!  Don’t you tell your grandmama, you hear?”

I found my daddy’s aunts to be much more interesting. Aunt Lou, who resided in Columbia, had married a Canadian shipping executive, and according to her, at one time lived at the Waldorf Astoria where she lent the actress Jean Arthur a mink for an audition and had struck up a friendship with “Tony Fokker,” the founder of the aircraft manufacturer who supplied German in WWI with their fighter planes.

Anthony Fokker

When I was in the 7th grade, David and I rode a Greyhound to Columbia to spend the weekend with her and Uncle Harry. She took us to the revolving restaurant at the top of Capstone dormitory and to a movie called The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

Later in life, Aunt Lou and Uncle Harry would come stay with us in Summerville. Every afternoon, she would get tipsy on sherry and tell us the same stories over and over and over, like time that her in-law Sarah locked herself in a bedroom with a gun threatening to kill herself, then opened the door, put the gun to her temple, and fired. This was very same Sarah, the sister of the wife of my second cousin, who had managed to burn a hole in my sweater with her cigarette one Christmas Eve.

“I don’t think Sarah knew the gun was loaded,” Aunt Lou said with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve never seen a person with a more surprised look on her face when that gun went off.”

Twice-widowed Aunt Lila we saw the least. Like a character out of Flannery O’Connor, she ran a 100-acre cotton and tobacco farm in Marlboro County with the help of her son Alec, who had not only a swimming pool in his backyard, but also a clay tennis court. Alec unfortunately had drinking issues and buried bottles in hades-hot tobacco barns to keep his wife Jenny from tearing into him. Daddy claimed that the only time he refused a drink was from Alec who had disinterred a bottle, unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and extended it to my father.

Aunt Lila lived in a circa-1810 plantation-like house complete with columns (see below). It hadn’t, I don’t think, ever been renovated. I remember a wagon wheel suspended from the ceiling providing light for the kitchen and a giant ship’s wheel in the foyer. Of course the house was haunted by some woman who had died there. Aunt Lila herself had seen the ghost on several occasions. She also claimed to possess the power of prophecy. Whenever she dreamed of diamonds, someone died. On the night before her daughter, Lila Moore Stanton, perished in a car/train crash with two of her friends from Winthrop College, Aunt Lila had, of course, dreamt of diamonds and had warned Lila Moore not to go out.

Mimosa Plantation

Unfortunately, I don’t see my own great nieces often, but two of them, both under seven came to the house after my wife Judy’s memorial service. Emily, the older one, with that wonderful candid openness of children, asked if she could see the bed where “Aunt Judy died.”

So I showed her – actually it was a futon – and told her a little bit about the death, and she listened wide-eyed, fascinated, so maybe I too am keeping the gothic great aunt/uncle tradition going.


[1] In fact, in grad school I actually copped a downer from Mama Blanton to settle my jangled nerves before a presentation.