Somewhere in your youth or childhood there are glimpses or vignettes that just seem to stay burned in your brain, aren’t there? They don’t necessarily make sense as particularly pivotal moments, and yet there they are, sticking in the corners of your mind like honey on a plate.
One of mine is a palpable memory of standing on the edge of our Aunt Blanche’s koi pond, watching the goldfish swim leisurely about.
We visited Aunt Blanche fairly often, more than you might expect to see a great aunt. Great aunt visits are usually reserved for reunions, holidays and church homecomings, but Aunt Blanche was the grand dame of my father’s family and commanded attention, in a sense.
Commanding is different from demanding, but I think you could claim a bit of both when it came to Aunt Blanche. I remember her as a prim Southern matriarch, complete with neat dresses and outfits with a brooch always pinned at her neck. Her hair was tightly curled to her head, with not a strand out of place. I wouldn’t call her uptight, but her hair most certainly always was.
She was a true character and you could count on her to have an opinion on everything.
Blanche was married to my dad’s uncle, Charlie Sheppard, whom everyone called Tot, because I guess “Charlie” wasn’t nickname enough.
Dad recalls that when he was young, Uncle Tot would occasionally end up at their house for the night after coming home a bit tipsy. Aunt Blanche would refuse to let him in the house, sending him down the road to stay with Tom and Prince until he could sober up.
It makes me giggle to imagine the fire in her eyes when Uncle Tot tried to come in the house after a night of rabble-rousing. You didn’t want to cross Aunt Blanche, she wouldn’t mince words in letting you know what you’d done wrong, and she never suffered tomfoolery.
Of course, I never knew Tot to be a drunken man. I think she trained that out of him fairly early in their marriage, but it makes me laugh to think of his journey through it.
As I was gathering information for my recent stories about Tom and Prince’s courtship, I asked Dad several questions that he couldn’t answer and he finally replied, “Ask Aunt Blanche.”
It was an ironic suggestion, of course. Aunt Blanche has been gone for years, but as soon as he said it I knew what he meant. If anyone would know the answer to a question about anything in the family, it was Aunt Blanche.
Funny thing, though, I was also immediately transported to that shady yard on the hill, with the concrete and field rock wall of the koi pond under my feet, watching those fish swim lazily about while the grownups chatted in the house.
Aunt Blanche was the keeper of the family stories and the keeper of the family ethics, if you will. She held my dad in high regard, thankfully, respecting the way that he came home to care for his mother after his father’s early passing. But no matter her opinion of you, you were sure to hear it, for better or worse.
Mom remembers that she once mentioned that she had always had skinny arms and Blanche chided her, “Well, I don’t think they’re skinny now!” How do you respond to that kind of frankness? Thank you?
Everyone had always talked about how rail-thin my mother was, but Blanche clearly had a different perspective since Mom had birthed her first child, and she didn’t want her getting the big head, thinking her arms were still thin.
Uncle Tot was equally opinionated and told Mom after I pitched a particularly vocal tantrum as a baby that, “No Sheppard that I know has ever acted like that.” It sure is good to have family to keep you clearly cognizant of your failings.
Aunt Blanche and Uncle Tot never had children and once he passed on she lived alone in that house on the hill with the koi pond in the side yard. It doesn’t take much to impress a little girl, but, while I very much admired Aunt Blanche, I might have found our visits to her home boring were it not for that pond.
When the Beverly Hillbillies hit my radar in the mid-’70s (thank you, TBS reruns) I laughed about the idea of the “cement pond” out back and the Granny character who was like a silly spitfire caricature of our Aunt Blanche.
Aunt Blanche wasn’t Appalachian, she was more the Georgia cracker variety of redneck, and she was much more refined than crazy ol’ Granny, but her opinionated management of the family was certainly on par.
It cracks me up to this day to think that we had a bonafide cement pond in our family, owned by the real-life outspoken family matriarch.
This sweet story of mine doesn’t really have a particular moral this time, other than how dearly those corner-stuck memories can take you back in time. Perhaps my ramblings will remind you of some delicious memory from your own youth and transport you back to a simpler time.
I wish I’d been wise enough to listen to Aunt Blanche’s stories a bit more while we had her around to teach us, but I guess that recalling her place is a way of honoring her importance just the same. If I could go back in time I am certain that I would take a recorder with me, but I’d also surely spend a few moments in that cool and mesmerizing place, and hope to watch the memories swim by like goldfish in a cement pond.