I came to know "Aunt Florence" when she was an old woman and I was just a child. The road to her home was dirt and gravel and wound through the woods of Vicksburg under a canopy of trees that seemed like tunnels. In a child's eyes, it was a great adventure to travel to the great white plantation that was Aunt Florence's home. In the heat of the summer, we would all sleep on the giant sleigh bed in the downstairs bedroom for it was the coolest place in the house. We kept the windows open, hoping for a breeze to come our way and break the still of the night. The heat was sweltering and there was no such thing as air conditioning unless you stood in front of the freezer door. The adults would sit on the screened porch while the kids stirred inside, jumping on the bed, hoping not to get caught.
My aunt was a firm believer that stirring was the key to life. One should be up early going about the tasks of the day, never sitting idle. Florence Joyce Mallet was the kind of woman who could work all day on the farm before coming home and changing into a proper dress, hat and gloves required of those attending the Vicksburg Garden Club. She lost her husband at a young age to pneumonia and later lost her only son who flew into the unknown somewhere over Italy in WWII. She had no choice but to be fiercely independent. She lived alone in the large plantation home where she kept the front porch light on for thirty seven years in hopes that her son might return one day. As a child, I did not understand this. Didn't she know he was gone? As a mother, I fully appreciate that she kept hope alive and never gave up on her child. I can still see the rose colored lamp that lit the entryway in the darkest of nights.
During one such night, torrential rains were swallowing up the land around Vicksburg and my widowed aunt stayed up all night, in the downpour, moving earth equipment around to save her levee, which in turn, would save her plantation. She was one of the few who did not lose her farm or her cattle because she was not afraid to face a storm, even alone.
When Florence reached her 80's, she left the plantation to be near her sister in another state. An opportunity for a summer job called to me and before I knew what I had agreed to, I was 600 miles away from home and the newly appointed caregiver for my aunt. At the age of sixteen, my one goal was to earn $300 to purchase a stereo that had a magnificent light display on the panel. My aunt's goal was to continue to live independently with a little help from her niece. Together we helped one another and two girls from opposite ends of the century lived together for a short period of time. She bought a white Nova and I learned to strap a wheelchair to the back and sail down Cherry Street while she learned of the great bands of the seventies and eighties who would one day be singing on my future stereo. When she fell and broke her arm, I learned that my job was to sit patiently in the waiting room because sometimes just being there is the best thing you can offer someone.
At the close of the summer, I returned home with cash in hand and she moved on to live with her sister. I earned more than stereo money that summer. I gained the knowledge that just because a body is frail, it does not mean that the mind is. That 80 year old woman was sharp as a tack and did not sugar coat life just to make things easy. She faced every trial head on with sound decisions and courage.
Aunt Florence is long gone now and I received a packet of all of the letters written between her and her son during the war. He wrote of the missions and the cold and assured her all was well. She sent her love and a scarf to keep him warm. The packet of letters contains such love between a mother and son. I like to think of her now sailing down the red dirt road of Vicksburg in her sporty little Nova darting in and out of view through the trees as she gets closer and closer to Heaven where her son waits with his helmet and scarf, simply stirring about until her arrival. With windows down in a summer heat, she'll have "Journey" playing "Open Arms" on her radio as she disappears into the clouds with the boy she waited a lifetime on.
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