As the first summer in Woolmarket began to draw to a close, we received news in the form of a letter that we would be having a visitor from a faraway land. That far away land was a place called “California” (which might as well been the dark side of the moon as far as we were concerned). The visitor was our Great-Aunt Gladys, our grandmother’s oldest sister. Aunt Gladys was a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, tough as nails woman who wouldn’t take anything off anyone. That includes my father, who was the unannounced reason she was coming to pay us a visit. Aunt Gladys made up for her lack of stature (she was maybe 5’2 and 110lbs…depending upon how much whiskey she had drunk that day) with a bare-fisted approach to life. If you were a phony, a “put-on” or just one who liked “putting on airs,” you were a target rich environment for Aunt Gladys. With Aunt Gladys, what you saw is what you got. She expected the same in return from others. She once clobbered a full grown man at a drugstore for pushing in front of her in line to get prescriptions. I know that was true because I was there. He pushed her and she landed a right hay-maker to his jaw. That guy dropped like a falling tree. Then she went to the Pharmacist to drop off her prescription and we left. Don’t know what happened to the line pusher.
Aunt Gladys would rather go fishing than eat. She arrived at our house on a late afternoon and she told us we still had about three hours of daylight left. Go get your fishing poles and I’ll look for worms out back. By the time we got our fishing poles from under the house (it was up on concrete blocks due to occasional flooding in that area), Aunt Gladys had already dug up about a full coffee pot of worms. I don’t know how she did it. She just had an “ear” for worms in the ground. Off to the local fishing hole we went. In about three hours (one hour in darkness), we caught about two dozen bream that day. Aunt Gladys had to be the greatest fisher…fisher-woman in the world! She claimed that it was our being there that brought her luck. Aunt Gladys loved children, having none of her own since her only child was killed in an car accident at age six. She had adopted us in a way because of our family’s poor financial condition and an alcoholic father. Aunt Gladys had brought us all kinds of candy, toys and give each of us a check for a whopping $10.00!!! Remember, this was in 1958…ten bucks went a long way. She loved us and we dearly loved her. My youngest brother was her favorite though. He reminded her of the son she had lost many years before.
As I said earlier, the unannounced reason Aunt Gladys had paid us a visit was my father. This was probably the only woman on earth he was genuinely fearful of getting angry. He was too late for that. Aunt Gladys had already heard from her sister (our grandmother) how abusive our father had been toward our mother and to us. After we skinned and gutted the fish for dinner, she told us she needed us to do something for her. Aunt Gladys had me and my brother and sister follow her to the room she would be occupying for the next three weeks. From one suitcase, she took out a huge ball of cotton. She tore out six medium sized pieces and rolled them up. Aunt Gladys told us to put one in each ear when she said to do so. And then go outside in the back yard and that the back porch light would be on. She told us to stay until either she or our mother told us to come inside.
About twenty minutes later, our beloved father drove up in his new 1957 Oldsmobile. Aunt Gladys was waiting for him at the front steps. Of course, we took the balls of cotton out of ears as soon as our father drove up. What we heard for the next hour would have made any sailor blush. Aunt Gladys cussed him “for everything she could stick on him” as our mother told us. I mean she lit him up…good. He even got a few good finger pushes in the chest from Aunt Gladys. She basically read him the riot act. Either he straightened his ass up or the next time his father and two brothers would pay him a visit. And she was going to come back to join in on the fun.
As soon as things quieted down, we put the cotton balls back in our ears. Aunt Gladys came and got us. We ate a very quiet dinner that night (but the bream were excellent!). My father didn’t even eat. My sister, who frequently was a target of verbal abuse from our father, asked Aunt Gladys if she sent daddy to his room without supper. Aunt Gladys was almost hysterical with laughter and said, “Yes, sweetheart, that’s exactly what we did.” We richly enjoyed the next three weeks with Aunt Gladys.
Aunt Gladys treated us like royalty. My father came home on time and was a model citizen during the entire time of Aunt Gladys visit. I’d like to say to you he was cured of his abusive nature toward his family. I really would. But, that’s for another story. I’ll say this to you; my father never again laid a hand on my mother or verbally abused my sister again. He was still an alcoholic, sarcastic lout and only occasionally abusive to us. But, this visit by Aunt Gladys did bring a change in him.
Three years later, as we were preparing to leave Woolmarket (as my mother had all she could take of his alcoholism), we learned that Aunt Gladys had lung cancer. She came back home to Mobile, Alabama to die, her hometown. I remember going to see her in the nursing home…she couldn’t have weighed over 70lbs. She still managed to smile at all three of her “adopted children.” She said, “Just you wait, as soon as I get to feeling better, we’re going fishing again, boys.” That was never to be. Aunt Gladys died a week later. Aunt Gladys was a shining light in a dark and dangerous tunnel during our time in Woolmarket. She brought some stability to a household that desperately needed it. Most of all, she showed that maybe the “toughest broad in the world” can still show love and compassion to innocent children. And, when you get right down to it, that was enough.