In honor of National Aunt and Uncle’s Day (Wednesday, July 26), some memories of my many aunts and uncles.
First up, the Kingstons. Grandpa and Grandma Kingston had 12 children. One of them was my dad, of course. I was fortunate to interact with all his brothers and sisters when I was growing up, some more than others. They were spread out from Kuttawa and Eddyville, to Louisville and Indianapolis. In later years some “came home” to Kuttawa, where I was fortunate enough to get to know them better, even though by then I was living in Virginia and only saw them during visits home. Beginning with the oldest, here are some memories. Pardon me if I get the birth order wrong, and forgive me also for including only the “blood” relatives. If I included all the aunts and uncles by marriage I would still be writing this.
Edna–The first of the 12 Kingston children, Edna was for me a beacon for what was possible. When I was just a child she showed an interest in me, always asking about my grades and complimenting me every chance she got. Edna is a person who likes to see all of her family and friends do well. Always attractively dressed, makeup and hair intact, she would chew gum and crack jokes. Edna loves to laugh. She had one of the first Ford Mustangs, which we kids gawked at in awe. When I was still a teen, Edna invited me to come to Louisville for a visit. I made the drive up and right away Edna wanted to take me to the mall and buy me some clothes. We went in one shop, but we couldn’t find a shirt with sleeves to fit my gangly long arms. Apparently Edna didn’t like the snooty look of the salesperson, for she looked at her and said, “We usually have all his clothes tailor-made.” And putting her arm around me she steered me away with a wink. She had my back and it felt good. The next summer Edna and I piled into my VW bug and drove to Clearwater, Florida, to visit some wealthy friends she had made during her successful real estate career. We spent days out on the Gulf of Mexico in their cruiser. What a fantastic time it was. We never had a harsh word or argument. On the way back through Georgia we stopped near Macon at a fruit stand. A little old black man wearing a straw hat was selling peaches. Edna asked him if the peaches were grown in Georgia, and I’ll never forget the way he looked at her and answered, “Yassum, these here peaches wuz raised in Gawja, they wuz picked in Gawja, and iffen you buy ’em they’s gonna be sold in Gawja.” We still laugh about that today. Edna began calling me “Wadie” when I was very young, and still does so today. Always cheerful, always fun, her arms and fingers covered in jewelry, Edna is one in a million.
J.B.–J.B. Kingston, whom Grandma often referred to as “Jake,” lived on a small farm down the road from us on Panther Creek. It was J.B. who hung a goat from a branch one 4th of July weekend, slitting its throat, which drained into a bucket below. That memory, plus another one of Grandpa Kingston and I herding a cow down to meet J.B.’s bull are two of my earliest (and pervasive) memories. From my youngest years I recall J.B. driving by our house on the way to church, which they seldom missed. Later that afternoon we would sometimes join him and his family for lunch at Grandma’s. Always shaved and smartly dressed, his hair slicked back and combed, he and Grandpa would talk farm as they ate. I remember J.B. as a good father and a decent man. He is missed.
Tony–Tony was a big guy with a thick head of dark hair and a beautiful smile. I saw him only at holidays during my younger years, then when I was a teen he moved back to Kuttawa, settling onto a small farm. Tony seemed to me to be an authoritative type of person–decisive, direct and business-minded. He bought and sold property all over and enjoyed doing it. He was living in the Orlando area when Edna and I visited him during our Clearwater vacation. I was impressed with his house and especially that he had a pool. In his later years I saw Tony far too seldom. I lived here and there, as did he, and our paths just didn’t cross. I’m sorry for that.
Ginny–I cannot recall my Aunt Ginny without immediately remembering her laugh. She was perhaps the most joyful of them all. She loved telling jokes almost as much as hearing one. Ginny was one of those “life of the party” types. You couldn’t help but enjoy yourself around her, but a more down-to-earth person never existed. She never put on airs, didn’t give a hoot about being fashionable, and in general believed in letting her hair down. Ginny was the type of person who, when you saw her pull in your driveway, immediately made your day better. Once she came down to our house and we got up a game of baseball. She got so excited when she got a hit and ran “the bases,” which were pieces of cardboard that slid dangerously underfoot on the grass. Another time we all piled in the car and went to Opryland and had a glorious time. I think it’s telling that I don’t have a single picture of Ginny when she didn’t have the biggest grin on her face. What a wonderful legacy to leave.
Holly Jane–Holly was perhaps the most glamorous woman I knew the entire time I was growing up. It is impossible to describe her appearance without using terms like “blue eye shadow,” “gold and silver lame,” “platinum bouffant hairdo,” “clanging bracelets, high heels and sunglasses.” When she breezed in, Hollywood was in the house. (Think Jayne Mansfield.) Like Ginny, Holly liked to cut up and have a good time, but was a bit more reserved. I always liked when the aunts and uncles visited from Indiana, especially Holly. The way she interacted with her brothers and sisters showed the love and closeness the family had growing up. It was always there with her. To her, family was so important.
Billy–Billy was to handsome what Holly was to glamorous. It’s just my opinion, but either one of them could have been in movies. Billy was blessed with the hair, skin, eyes, teeth, bone structure–you name it. I was envious as hell of his looks (still am). Billy also has lived here, there and everywhere. I can’t keep up with all his moves. Like Tony, he has bought and sold properties all over. In the early years Billy lived behind us on Panther Creek. Then he took the family and left. The cousins became acclimated to far-off places, so that I don’t see them anymore. But Billy is back in west Kentucky and loving it. He’s active. He and I like to talk gardening whenever we see each other. (He’s still handsome, too. Some guys have all the luck.)
Lena–Lena lived close enough to us that we saw a lot of her when I was growing up. Before we moved to Panther Creek we lived in “Old” Kuttawa. I remember when I was five and Lena visited at Christmas. I have this vivid mental image of her standing in our kitchen, with a Pepsi bottle in one hand, cigarette in another, laughing uproariously. My next memory is on Panther Creek, me sitting on the edge of a plant bed near her home. Lena showed me how to gently pull the tobacco seedlings out, so as not to break them. Then she put me on a setter and sat beside me, patiently showing me how to put the plants into the machine. Another jokester who liked to cut up, Lena loved being social. I wish I had a dollar for every game she has bowled in her life. When I was staying at Mom and Dad’s in the 90’s, she loved to visit on cold winter nights and play games. During the summer she always stopped to admire my landscaping efforts, on the way up the road to see her “grandbabies.” Mom has told me when she and Dad were struggling to make ends meet in Indianapolis, in the early years, of the times Lena was there to be with her and comfort her. I was just a baby then, and don’t remember, but my own memories of Lena are enough. One in a million? More like one in a billion.
Eddy–Eddy was another handsome Kingston boy. He was a young 20-something when he stayed with our family for a spell. Then he joined the army and we didn’t see much of him for years, though we did visit him in North Carolina. I recall how he sat for hours at a time on furlough, spit-shining those black boots until you could see yourself in them. With a buzz cut and perfect grooming, he could have been a G.I. poster boy. Eddie was a steady man, not given to extremes. I remember how he would help me with my homework in high school. Once we had an argument about the meaning of “bum steer.” (He was right, I was wrong.) Eddie bought a brand spanking new GTO, the reddest of reds with white leather interior, bucket seats, stick shift, just a dream car. The day he bought it he told me to get in and we flew around “the loop.” What a thrill. Eddy moved away to North Carolina and I visited him once on my way through the state. Other than that I didn’t seem him much before he passed. I hope I thanked him for helping me with my homework, and for that ride in the GTO.
Johnny–When I think of Johnny (Margie’s twin), my first thought is how much he loves kids. Even today it’s practically all he talks about. Whenever I see him he wants to tell me how well his are doing. When I was little Johnny was always eager to take me along wherever he went. I remember he had an old car with push-button gears. He and dad were going out with a flashlight, hunting possums or something. It was pitch black outside, but he said, “Come go with us, Wade.” So I got in the back and we hit some back roads and it was storming to beat all get out. We got on one old back road and was soon stuck in the mud. Johnny pushed the “reverse” button, then the “drive” button, then reverse, then drive, and rocked back and forth trying to get us out of the mud. In the end Dad had to get out and push until we got out of that hole. Johnny is one of those people who always knows you when he sees you and wants to catch up. When I picture him, to this day I see him in a blue uniform shirt with the white patch with his name on it, from the time he worked at the bread company in Paducah. I think of all her children, Johnny looked the most like Grandma.
Margie–When I was five I started first grade. Mom was pregnant and about to give birth to my sister, and Margie came to stay with us. She was still a teenager. She dressed me and fed me when Mom wasn’t up to it, and on that first day of school she did something else. I left school because it was hot and I couldn’t reach the water fountain. (Or so I said.) I came home and went directly into the kitchen, where we always kept a pitcher of cold water. I was standing in the door of the fridge when I heard Margie behind me. “What are you doing home! Don’t you know the whole school is calling here looking for you! Your momma can’t be upset right now!” And she picked up a stick and switched the back of my legs all the way back to school. We laughed about that for years. When we moved to Panther Creek Margie was staying at Grandma’s. Sometimes when I visited she would be sitting at her dressing table, makeup and perfume spread out. She had beautiful light brown hair and a petite figure. Sort of a young Jodie Foster. And fortunately for many of us, she inherited Grandma’s baking skills. Man, oh man. Most of my aunts (and uncles) are good cooks, but Margie never met a cake or pie she couldn’t master. Invariably, at holidays, if someone asked, “Who made this wonderful dessert?”, the answer would be “Margie.” Sweet, gentle Margie. I miss her.
Kinny–Kinny was the youngest of Grandma’s brood, and still living at home when we moved in near them on Panther Creek. Skinny, with blonde hair, my earliest memories are of him riding past our house on the tractor. He helped Grandpa with the tobacco, hay, corn or whatever else was growing. I moved away to Virginia in 1978. A couple of years later I got a phone call from Kinny. He had become a truck driver and was in Roanoke. Would I meet him for breakfast? He was sitting in a Waffle House less than a mile from me. I met him and we had breakfast together. He may have been lonely and missing home. I know it certainly meant a lot to me that he took the time to call and visit, the only aunt or uncle to ever do so. Kinny is another of the kids with a good sense of humor, which he is still blessed with.
And now, for Mom’s brothers and sisters, my Hammons aunts and uncles:
Maggie–Maggie was the eldest of Grandma Hammons’ children (Mom was the youngest). A deeply spiritual woman, Maggie was pastor of her own church for years. It was Maggie who drew us along with her to visit churches all over west Kentucky and southern Illinois. I remember visiting Maggie before she left Between the Rivers. She kept such a neat house, with shiny pine walls and little nick-knacks that would never survive our rowdy household. After she was forced to leave BTR she settled near “old” Eddyville, making a lovely home in a hollow that was like a little Eden to me. On the one side of a creek was her home, then you could walk across a wooden bridge to a small frame house under big shade trees. It was like something out of a fairy tale. She always had some kind of wild animal she had rescued, and there were ducks, chickens, or a goose or two, as well as other farm animals. She would sit for hours and help her husband string his trout lines, and could quote the gospel like no other. She had a Bible passage ready for any situation. Gentle, sweet, but fiery in her spiritual rhetoric, she had a tendency to make short, clipped, emphatic pronouncements when speaking. Maggie also had a vitality about her. When she had heart bypass surgery we visited her in a Nashville hospital. It was the day after surgery. Maggie was sitting up in the hospital bed asking when she could go home. Hearty stock. An amazing woman.
Louie–For all the years I knew him Louie lived with his family in Alton, Illinois. They visited us, we visited them. Louie was another of that generation who believed in good grooming. The man’s reddish-blonde hair was always in place; he was neatly shaved and smelling of cologne. His clothes were clean, pressed, and his shoes held an added surprise. He almost always carried a large amount of cash in them. Once he was visiting us and sent someone to the store to get something. I laughed when he took off a shoe and extracted a wad of 100-dollar bills. (Louie hid money in other places. After he died his family found several thousand dollars in an old, inoperable riding mower, in a shed back of their house.) It was always a pleasure when Louie visited because he would be driving the latest model of car. We would each get to take a ride in it and check it out. He was always asking us kids to come and stay the summer with them in St. Louis. One year I took him up on it, though I only spent a week. He was a kind and generous host. I was in the hospital room with Louie when he died, and that was a hard thing.
Dewie–I don’t remember Dewie, though Mom has a few photos of him. He drowned in Alabama while working on a barge in 1956. Some say he fell off, others insist he was pushed. We will never know. I tell the story in my book about my grandmothers, so I won’t retell it here. I know that his untimely passing grieved my grandparents for the rest of their lives.
Willie–Willie, with his thinning reddish hair, blue eyes and rakish sense of humor, was perhaps the most likable of all Mom’s brothers. Willie was lean, with whipcord muscles from chopping firewood. And I cannot to this day picture him without rolled up sleeves into which cigarettes had been tucked. He, like me, was a voracious reader. Whenever I visited him he would have stacks and stacks of paperback books (some of them risqué) and he would let me borrow them. It was through Willie (don’t tell Mom) that I first read about actual sex, though it was probably tame by today’s standards. He had a guitar, which he would strum and play, and he was pretty good at it, too. I could listen for hours. And when he wasn’t singing you could hear him whistling somewhere.
George–George was perhaps the most sensitive of Mom’s brothers. Though mostly upbeat, he could be moody at times. Like Willie, he also sang and played guitar, but he was a self-taught artist as well. He could sit and draw a deer or bunny for us kids, or anything else we asked for. He was the best gardener–with gigantic tomatoes. How he got anything to grow in those rocks of Pea Ridge I’ll never understand, but he drew forth squash, melons, and many other vegetables. He tended the chickens and always had a dog or two around. I always felt that had George gotten a better education he would have been very successful. He had that type of inquisitive mind and varied interests.
Bedford–Bedford always went by his nickname, “Rabbit.” Rabbit was the brother nearest to Mom in age, so they grew up as the closest. In his later years he visited her often, driving some old jalopy with his little white terrier in the seat beside him. He was a small man who probably never weighed more than 120 pounds his entire life. Rabbit liked people but preferred living alone with his dog. He had a terrific sense of humor, and could be very funny. I still imitate the way he said “shit” when irritated, which came out like “shee-yut”. I can hear him say it as I write this. He loved us kids. I almost never called home what Mom didn’t say “Rabbit was asking about you.” He would even get angry and rail at any perceived slight or hardship we kids had endured. But in his heart, Rabbit was a gentle soul, much-loved by us all and sorely missed.
What a blessing to have had so many wonderful aunts and uncles. I love them all.
© Wade Kingston