My Aunt Shirley was 4 or 5 when my grandma broke her arm. They'd fashioned their own see-saw out of a plank a farmer had abandoned, and when my grandma jumped off, Aunt Shirley sailed down. Makeshift teeter-totters were the only kind of playground equipment that sharecroppers' daughters got then, but my aunt loved every malfunctioning slice of fun she got. Her best dress was a flour sack. She rolled her hair with strips cut from tobacco cans, and she turned sweet gum balls into Christmas tree ornaments. "We didn’t miss a thing in life," she told me a few years ago. "We didn’t need all the fancys people have today."
When my grandma died three years ago, the only object Aunt Shirley wanted was an old palette my grandma used to use to wipe her brushes clean of paint. Everyone else could have all the fancys; Aunt Shirley just wanted the creative remnants her favorite person had left behind.
Aunt Shirley stayed country her entire life. She lived somewhere called Dry Creek, a wooded place between bayous, on a patch of land that felt endless when I was a kid. She could be foul-mouthed and sweet in the same sentence, and she said the kind of surprising things that still knock around my brain most weeks, even though it's been decades since she said them. Once, at a Thanksgiving dinner, someone asked everyone in the room to say the grossest thing they'd ever had in their mouth. When it was her turn, she said, without hesitation, "a man's balls." Another time, after she lost her breasts to cancer, she whispered to me in the hallway, "Wanna see what an old lady's flat chest looks like?"
When I was a teenager, she told me my first-ever favorite family story. She'd been married to a thrifty man before she'd found the George I knew as my uncle. Salt went on sale once, and her first husband stockpiled so many boxes that she inherited several dozen in the divorce. She'd been married to my uncle two decades when he came out of the pantry one afternoon and said, "Well, Shirley, I guess we're out of salt."
Every time I've talked to her this year, she told me she longed to go, so I guess it's unfair to be mad that she died this week. But, damn, I hate losing all my people. I grew up with such vivid storytellers, all bullshitting around two space heaters they kept forever-on in the carport attached to my grandma's house. They spun yarns in circles I somehow thought were infinite, but she was the last in my trifecta of tall-tellers.
Here's hoping Heaven is high cotton, that they've found two space heaters with never-ending glow.