Photographs are fascinating, especially when there are people in them. Those people were real. They lived and breathed. They worked and played. They were someone's parent or grandparent. They had a history that is totally hidden to us as we look at them now, hanging in a vintage shop.
What happened? Was there no one to take these memories after them? What were these lost histories. Who were these people?
In an effort to bring some of these folks back to life, we'd like to present the following story. We know it's not the real life story of these people, but it reminds us just a little of the reality of their lives.
Gussie and Bertie weren’t really our aunts. In fact, they weren’t anyone’s aunts. Folks just got used to seeing them as the town’s maiden aunties, since they seemed to be everywhere and do everything. From the mayor to the pastor to the undertaker, we all called them “Aunt Gussie and Aunt Bertie.”
Now, I came closer than most people to having them as aunts. In a way, they kind of were my aunts, just not by blood. Their older brother Earl married Granny’s sister Dorcas a couple of years after she was widowed when the tobacco barn fell on Uncle Cleve. That made Earl an uncle by marriage, which sort of made his sisters aunts by extension, or something like that.
Gussie and Bertie were as close as two sisters could be. You rarely saw one of them without the other. They did all their shopping together. They worked in the garden together. They cleaned the house together. They went visiting together. They both sang in the church choir. They were nigh on inseparable, best of friends as well as sisters.
But it wasn’t always that way. They had a terrible spat in their younger days and ended up not speaking to each other for over twelve years. Seems they had both taken a shine to a horse trader who passed through town from time to time. His name was Rufus, and he was a right fine looking fellow, if a little shifty. He took to wooing and courting both Gussie and Bertie, without ever giving either of them any clue as to which way his affections really lay.
It wasn’t long before they took to squabbling with each other something fierce. From there, things escalated to dirty tricks. Gussie locked Bertie in the cellar one time when Rufus came to call. Bertie retaliated by pouring syrup all over her sisters hair right before Rufus called the next time. Their mama, Esterline, was at her wits’ end with the two of them and was about to forbid both of them from ever even mentioning his name again when the unthinkable happened.
Rufus left town with Coraline, Gussie and Bertie’s much younger sister. Turns out he’d been using their squabble as a distraction so he could court Coraline on the side, knowing full well that Esterline would not approve of her youngest daughter being wooed by such a scoundrel. The whole town was shocked. Esterline was devastated. And Gussie and Bertie kept right on fighting. Each one blamed the other for Rufus’ betrayal, convinced the Rufus would have never made eyes with Coraline, if there had only been one older sister to court.
Eventually, they stopped speaking to each other. At all. Not one word. They would talk to Earl and Esterline, but not to each other. There was nothing anyone could do to get them to even acknowledge each other’s presence, much less try to patch things up. Earl married his first wife Bessamine and moved out, leaving Esterline stuck at home with her uncommunicative daughters.
The strain was too much for Esterline, who began having hysterical fits. Eventually her health totally broke, leaving her confined to bed. She began to waste away, unable to eat. Finally, she passed away crying for Coraline and begging her remaining daughters to make peace with each other.
Gussie and Bertie inherited the house and settled into a routine of ignoring each other that stretched on for years. They cooked separately. They ate separately. When they sat together in the parlor, each one sat in a chair with the back turned to the other, staring into a corner like a naughty child on punishment. No one in town dared to ask one of them about the other one for fear of the torrent of wrath that would be unleashed. Folks began to talk about the “crazy sisters” who lived in the big house and “sat in the corners.”
They spent so much time and effort ignoring each other that each one convinced herself that her sister did not really exist. The specter floating through the halls of the house was merely a fragment of a memory and nothing more. Gussie and Bertie each existed in her own solitary world. Until one night changed everything.
Bertie was in the kitchen washing her supper dish, when Gussie walked through. All of a sudden, Gussie sneezed. Bertie found herself caught in the grips of all the lessons in manners and decorum that Esterline had drilled into her daughters. Before she even realized what she was doing, force of habit seized her tongue and she heard herself saying: “Bless you.”
No sooner had the words escaped her lips, when she realized what she had done! She spoke to Gussie! Evil, foul, Rufus-stealing Gussie. She had broken her vow of silence and now had not the slightest clue what to do next.
She stood there frozen, the wet dish in her hand suspended above the sink. Her mouth was hanging slightly open, and her eyes were growing wide, as terror began to grip her mind. Whatever was she going to do now?
At last she turned to face her sister, who was standing frozen in the middle of the floor. Her mouth was agape and her eyes were frozen wide with terror in an expression that exactly mimicked her sister. As they stood there silently, mouths open, hardly daring to breathe, the strangest, most unexpected thing began to happen. Gussie and Bertie began to laugh.
|Uncle Earl (right) and Aunt Dorcas|
It started as a silly giggling fit, but soon spread to hearty guffaws, as they fell into each other’s arms. Laughter turned to tears turned to talking turned to yelling turned back to laughter. On and on throughout the night, the cycle repeated itself. Each one would laugh at herself. Then they would laugh at each other. Then they laughed at themselves as a pair, as they bared their souls and let go of all the pent up resentment.
They went through a pot of coffee that night, followed by an entire bottle of Earl’s blackberry brandy. They held hands over the table and begged for forgiveness, which was quickly granted. Finally, as the sun rose, they declared two things. First, they had wasted enough time. Nothing, especially not a man, was ever, ever going to separate them again. Secondly, it was really Coraline and Rufus they were each angry with. They vowed to never speak of her or Rufus again.
Story continues after the break.
From that moment on, they were inseparable. Every day found them in a different part of town, laughing and smiling, walking arm in arm as if nothing had ever happened. For a while, the town thought they had both lost their minds. Eventually, though, we all came to realize that we were watching the miracle of redemption taking place. These two sisters, once so estranged, had found their way back to each other.
Slowly, but surely, they began to make their mark on the life of our town. They opened their home to everyone, sharing meals with anyone who happened by. Every Sunday, a different family was invited to join them for dinner. When someone in town was having a crisis, Gussie was the first one there with a pot of soup or a plate of chicken. If there was a celebration, she would show up with a cake. Slowly but surely, they began transforming themselves into the town’s “Aunties.”
Gussie could cook like no one’s business. Eventually, she stopped entering dishes in the county fair, so that other women could have a chance to win. She even loaned a few of her recipes to the local hotel, so that the guests could sample some of the best the town had to offer. It kind of tickled her to see her name on their menu: “Aunt Gussie’s Fried Chicken.”
Bertie, on the other hand, was a seamstress extraordinaire. Very few brides walked down the aisle in our town in a gown that wasn’t made by Aunt Bertie. And no baby was baptized in anything other than a gown that she made. Somehow, each of them managed to weave her way into the lives of everyone in town, leaving an indelible mark in the process.
They dispensed advice. They cried with others over their losses and cheered with them during their celebrations. They helped with schoolwork and doled out iced tea and lemonade like it was going out of style. After a while, the “crazy sisters” became a distant memory. No one could recall a time that “Aunt Bertie and Aunt Gussie” hadn’t been looking after the town.
We got so used to having them around, that it never occurred to anyone that there would come a time when we wouldn’t. These weren’t just women. They were forces of nature. They were invincible. They did what they wanted, when they wanted to do it. They were Aunt Gussie and Aunt Bertie, and they went at life with such verve that everyone kind of thought they were immortal. They probably came to believe that as well, at least just a little.
Then one day, Aunt Gussie broke her hip in a fall off the henhouse roof. Now, if you have to ask why an 87 year old woman was on the henhouse roof, then you didn’t know Aunt Gussie. It needed to be fixed, so she was fixing it.
Gussie never was one for following doctor’s orders, and she got up and around way too soon. The fracture hadn’t healed all the way, and an infection set in. She was gone in a matter of weeks.
It was like someone let the air out of the whole town. No one could accept or even conceive of the fact that Gussie was gone. And poor Bertie. Overnight, she aged forty years. Truth be told, they had both been getting older and slowing down for years. We just refused to acknowledge it. Bertie had given up sewing years before, when arthritis claimed her fingers. And now, all of a sudden, she was alone.
Bertie had always had a soft spot for me, for some reason, so she started calling Mama and asking if I could come over and do a few chores for her. Pretty soon, I was over at her house just about every day taking care of something or running some errand or another. Whenever I had finished my assigned task, we would sit on the porch swing and drink iced tea. And Bertie would tell me stories.
She told me about Esterline, and how she had raised her children by herself, teaching them to be hardworking, independent, and well-mannered. She told me what she could remember about her father, who died when Coraline was just a baby. She even talked a little bit about Coraline herself, wondering in sad tones whatever had happened to her baby sister. Mostly, though, she talked about Gussie.
I heard stories about their childhood. The games they would play. Their secret dreams and plans. How much she loved and admired her older sister, who was not only her best friend, but also her hero. She told me that Gussie was the true free spirit and strong one in the family. If Bertie had any of those traits in herself, it was because she learned them from Gussie.
After a few weeks of this, it began to dawn on me that Bertie was telling me these things to pass them on to someone. Gussie was gone. Her parents were gone. Earl and Dorcas had both passed from pneumonia a couple of years before Gussie died. None of them had ever had children, so there was no one to pass all the family lore to. Out of a town full of “nieces” and “nephews,” Aunt Bertie had chosen me to be the recipient of her most treasured possessions, her memories.
I bawled like a baby the night I realized that. Mama thought I had lost my mind, but I couldn’t tell her why. I just couldn’t. The next day, I went down to the General Store and bought a stack of little notebooks. From then on, after every visit to Bertie, I would hide away in my room for hours and write down everything she had told me. I took great pains to use as many of her own words as I could.
Bertie passed peacefully one night. I found her the next morning sitting in her parlor, where she had sat down with a cup of coffee, never to rise again. She had a slight smile on her face, like she was ready for whatever was to come. She left the house and property to the town, which decided to tear down the buildings and convert the land into a park. We all gathered around and cried on the day they tore the house down.
She left all of her money and effects to the church. Everything was to be given away to families in need, and it was. In this way, Bertie performed one last little service to her many “nieces” and “nephews.” There was one plain, wooden box that she left for me. I waited until the day after her funeral to open it.
Inside were a few lace doilies that she had made and Gussie’s recipe box. Under these were the only pictures she had of her mother and father, along with a list of all her relatives with the dates of their birth and death. A treasured doll and a couple of childhood diaries came next. And on the very bottom of the box, I found a small picture of Coraline.