“Your cousin, Eldred, asked after you,” my mother dutifully reported.
“Oh?” I replied, my interest piqued. I began to search my mental files on information regarding my distant cousins.
“She just said your name out of the blue, recalling the way you loved to visit her mother as a child. Do you remember your Aunt Celestia?”
“Of course I do. How could I forget her?”
It was then I was propelled backwards in time by my mother’s voice saying her lyrical name, through a thousand strands of memory. Everything about my beloved aunt washed over me.
What I remember the most was the ancient woman’s satin gentility. She had been my great-great-Uncle David’s wife for more decades than I hope to occupy this planet. My long dead great-grandmother’s sister-in-law, she was the eldest woman in our old family church, Pilot Baptist.
How delicate and dainty are my recollections of her, this living ghost covered in lace. She always smelled of freshly cut flowers, cold cream, and perfumes evocative of women with white shoulders. Her personality was as intrusive as a pin curl, her voice as lilting as Queen Anne’s Lace whispering in a meadow.
I was five years old and preferred to sit beside her and my Uncle David during the Sunday sermon, as my mother perpetually played the piano for the congregation. They doted on me, offering secret candies placed between the pages of my little lap’s Broadman Hymnal. They are the reason the song, “Amazing Grace,” is a sugar coated lemon drop remembrance.
After the services were over, I delighted in the days I was invited to go home for the afternoon with my aunt and uncle. I knew what magic awaited me there. My own Midsummer Night’s Dream. They would hold Southern court in their shade tree sitting chairs, sipping sweet tea, watching their precocious niece romp with the inevitable kittens under their old porch or pick wild flowers. Uncle David’s hands were too arthritic to follow his inclination to make the daisies into a crown for my hair, so Aunt Celestia happily obliged. They glowed as they laughed together, these beautiful beings whom I now know, were the closest I ever came to being loved by Titania and Oberon.
As the sun began to settle lower into the day, we would retreat inside the old plantation house on Ellison Ridge. The rafters themselves seemed to lament the loss of their confederate fortune. My relatives carefully tended to the slave cemetery, full of the freed who had no where else to go, despite emancipation. As she pulled the taller grasses and gestured for me to do the same, my aunt explained, “Old John was not our slave, oh no, child. He and his descendants are part of our family. No one may own another man or his spirit. That is a privilege reserved only for God.” I had no notion of god at that young age, what it meant to worship him, or if he was good, but I knew my Aunt Celestia was. I smiled at her.
Their home was a museum. It was filled with dark wood, which always appeared freshly polished, curio cabinets encasing crystal and china treasures, every piece of furniture displaying a doily. They were people from another time and place, as was everything within their residence.
My favorite place in the house was Aunt Celestia’s parlor. It was fit to serve high tea and honey biscuits at any given time. Filled with rose colored lamps and a glass menagerie, it was the most beautiful place in the house. In the back of the room, sat the red velvet Victorian settee, where no one was permitted to sit. Well, no one with the exception of me.
I frequently asked to sit on the gauche relic so that I could play princess, and my request was never denied. It was here my aunt threw for me divine soirees, providing me on these enchanted Sundays with my own personal debutante ball. She taught me how to curtsy and drink tea properly utilizing my handkerchief. She would allow me to wear her most beautifully adorned hats.
“A lady always has several freshly pressed handkerchiefs in her pocketbook,” dabbing at the corners of her mouth after each sip. She exists for me a primary imprint of nobility.
All of this came flooding back at the mention of a dead woman’s name. My childhood is a blissful storybook where I often seek refuge.
Aunt Celestia and Uncle David’s house barely remains standing, desperately clinging to the nails holding the rotten wood together. All of the furnishings inside were lost to my family’s propensity for total destruction, except my childhood throne. The old red velvet settee where I reigned supreme was wondrously spared Cousin Eldred’s house fire a few years ago. The piece now sits in my cousin Leland’s home. The wood it is carved from and the moments spent happily upon it are a dusty sort of indestructible.