Aunt Ethel

Aunt Ethel

February 26, 2009 at 3:45pm

Vinton and Jackson Counties in southeastern Ohio were raw when I was a kid. The Appalachian hills round about Wellston and McArthur and Jackson seemed wild places, full of copper head snakes and stills and strip mines and rusty streams. We went there nearly every weekend because that’s where all our relatives lived. We were considered a bit odd to have moved to Dayton. Mother especially was suspect, a flashy impulsive redhead who had led the likeable Bill by the nose. But Mother and Dad moved for work before WWII and stayed at Wright Patterson Airforce Base after. In the southeast, even cousins my age and much later in time than our move couldn’t find much to do but to labor for the Chung King noodle factory or a short-lived turkey processing plant. We visited lots though and always made the rounds of kin. So I knew everybody well even though raised way over in Beavercreek. We always saw everybody. You couldn’t not see someone when you were in the area because they would know you’d been there and hadn’t come to see them. Everybody talked about everybody. I was often bored by these visits. I spent a lot of time sitting in corners reading the ever fascinating Lives of Saints comic books when with the Catholic side of the family.

It was different after bedtime. When I heard adults talk at night, me half awake, listening through open grates or from the top step of a staircase, it was usually in excited gossipy whispers. It seems “other” people were always having affairs with one another. Or grabbing the treasured objects of the newly departed. Or marrying too soon after a spouse’s death. Or the new spouse compared unfavorably with the old one. Or…there was always something to tsk about. My families were Irish and Welsh and Scots-Irish. My grandparents were second and third generation immigrants: coal miners and coal mine owners; attorneys; doctors; teachers. Some of them lived in the good part of Wellston, in big Victorians with deliciously long staircases and sitting rooms where the dead were laid out and peered at while lemonade and sandwiches were served in the kitchen. I still can’t stand the smell of rooms full of flowers. One Patterson, Aunt Bertha Gundlefinger, still lived in her Scots-Irish parent’s family mansion. I remember her lying in her sick bed, just beyond the crumbling porch of what had been a grand house. She married Mr. Gundlefinger “late in life” and her husband gambled away the property. All but the house and the very land it sat upon. And Uncle Charlie’s little cabin where he lived with his dog and played his fiddle and worked not at all. It was a tease, when I was a child, to be compared to Uncle Charlie. It meant you were lazy and maybe slightly off. The Pattersons of that generation teased themselves a lot. In fact one of them wrote a book about the Pattersons. His idea was that it was always great men and great successes who were described in print. It was time, he thought, that people who made all the wrong decisions in life ought to be told of. Seems the Pattersons always sold too early or moved too soon, missing great boons and windfalls that came to those who occupied their abandoned homesteads and farms.

Aunt Bertha seemed to be in her sick bed for my entire childhood. I dreaded the trips to this dusty house with its moldy, peeling wallpaper and water stained ceilings. In fact, it seemed every house I visited in Wellston was dusty and moldy because I suffered through long nights in lumpy featherbeds and coal heated homes coughing and hacking. I never could lie down all the way lest I choke in my own misery.

Aunt Ethel was a Cox and lived in McArthur not Wellston. McArthur consisted of a courthouse and one and a half blocks of small shops and housing. My Aunt Dorothy lived in a building that was on this main street, across from a bar and grill. Her apartment was upstairs and downstairs was the county switchboard and telephone company, which she was in charge of. Adjoining the switchboard room was Mrs. Mott’s tiny apartment. Mrs. Mott weighed maybe 300 pounds. She moved only from her room to the switchboard. I’m not sure she actually walked. She may have wheeled herself on the office style chair that belonged to the switchboard. It was Mrs. Mott who introduced me to tv wrestling and Tales from the Crypt comic books. To join her for a hot afternoon was to enter what seemed to me to be a den of delight and iniquity. My mother and grandmother would NEVER approve of what we did there in Mrs. Mott’s dark chambers. Chocolate bon bons were popped, comics read, wrestling watched. Until I heard my grandmother or mother in the switchboard room or a call from upstairs or it was Mrs. Mott’s turn at the switchboard. Then she’d lumber or roll out and take her place, head piece strapped across her large curly head, and begin flipping plugs on long springy tethers into holes at what I thought was an amazing pace. Somehow, her actions connected people to one another. Everybody in Vinton County still had crank wall phones with sets of domed bells under the receiver to alert them to a call. Everybody relied on Mrs. Mott and Aunt Dorothy to give them access to the world beyond their little living rooms. Of course Aunt Dorothy and Mrs. Mott listened in on everybody’s calls and they were of course the source of many of the whispered revelations I heard in the night time adult gossip sessions. What I didn’t discover then is that Aunt Dorothy had affairs too, one with a visiting novelist who wrote, “Out of the Red Brush.” Or was it Red Bush. Surely not. It must have been hard to keep this from her husband who was the county sheriff at the time of the affair. It must have been exciting and dangerous for them because I’m sure Uncle Ray would have called out “sic em” to his dogs and shot Aunt Dorothy with his revolver if he’d found out. That’s how raw it all seemed to me down there. I was too young to go to Uncle Ray’s funeral I guess. But I remember him as a tall, handsome man in tan clothes, a big Stetson, and a handtooled belt. I liked how he talked. But I was wary of his hunting dogs.

Aunt Ethel was Aunt Dorothy’s sister in law. She had a general store on the McArthur’s main street. It was a store that seemed not to have electric lights. Or maybe Aunt Ethel just didn’t turn them on. Even with child eye’s, I had to squint and peer closely to see what treasures her big glass cases held. My favorites were paraffin pop bottles, about the size of a paper clip. You bit off the end and sucked the sweet syrup out. She sold candy cigarettes, which I loved and chain “smoked” while I pranced around town in my cowboy boots and hat though no one in my extended family smoked. Probably something I picked up watching wrestling. She had sun pictures for sale too, little bits of paper and negatives you could make into real photos by cooking them in the sun. There were clotheslines strung the whole length of the barn like room that housed the store and on them hung dozens of tatted doilies made by Aunt Ethel’s life long companion. These were for sale but did not seem ever to sell. The women did not live together but always were in each others’ company so far as I could tell. The tatter sat in the store tatting while Ethel gathered the change from sales into her large National Cash Register. Chuuuuuching it said when she opened it. The quarters and nickels were placed in the Chuuuching machine. But all pennies were tossed into a can so that she could study them later. Never know when there might be an Indian head or a 1909 VDB or some other valuable penny. Once my little brother asked to look through her penny cans but she said no way. She could be mean and scary that way. Aunt Ethel made tapestries of hound dogs for Aunt Dorothy’s Christmases. Aunt Dorothy bought knitted sweaters for Aunt Ethel. But the sweaters never suited. Aunt Ethel always added length to the sleeves or pockets to the sides. You could always tell they were added on.

Aunt Ethel picked up stray dogs. All the Coxes raised hunting dogs and Ethel kept on long after there was anyone to hunt. She used all the money she had to buy them meat and feed them. And there they all lived with her behind her vast honey suckle vines, right in town. The town people were so set on edge by their baying, especially at full moon, that an ordinance was passed. But it did little good. Cause Ethel just moved the dogs into the house so that they couldn’t be heard.

She was found ill, completely broke, in her house one day. Dogs and cats were everywhere. But people forgot to go back to do anything about them after she was taken away to die. So they ripped curtains and gave birth in the bath tub and ate wallpaper glue. When people got back in the house to clean it up, they found that every room in the upstairs was filled with unopened merchandise for the store. Shoes, hats, dresses unopened, long out of date, never displayed, never worn, never sold. You couldn’t get into these rooms for all the things there were.