Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Redoubtable Aunt

re·doubt·a·ble (r-dout-bl)
1. Arousing fear or awe; formidable.
2. Worthy of respect or honor.

[Middle English redoubtabel, from Old French redoutable, from redouter, to dread : re-, re- + douter, to doubt, fear; see doubt.]

My mother was one of eleven children (nine surviving to adulthood.) Mama was the oldest girl; she had 4 sisters, and 4 surviving brothers.

Aunt "M.," the youngest girl in the family, would have been about 14 when I was born, and it is about her that I tell the following story. Oh, let me say, in beginning, that definition 1. above is the one I apply to her for the purposes of this story, although she actually was eligible for definition 2. In later years, she was a dedicated mother to her only child, a son who was severely brain-injured at age 16, and consequently never able to live an independent life.

The date was about 1944. I know that V-E day (June, 1945) had not yet occurred, because my daddy was still with the U.S. Army at Ft. Lewis, WA. during Aunt M.'s visit to our home in Albuquerque. Aunt M. was a member of, and an officer in, the Women's Army Corp (W.A.C.) , and at the time was stationed at a base in Big Spring, Texas. What possessed her to drive to Albuquerque to see us, I don't know. I can't bring myself to believe that our mother actually invited her, but of course, she very likely did so.

We four children, 10, 8, 6, and 4, must have been a rowdy lot, having been under the care of paid babysitters or left pretty much to fend for ourselves, since our mother, from financial necessity, worked 5-1/2 days each week. As blood relatives, Aunt M. found us absolutely unacceptable, as we were (in her eyes) undisciplined and, even worse, uncivilized, especially when it came to our table manners!

Aside: Perhaps Aunt M. was not an officer; perhaps she was a drill sergeant, at least she had the voice and attitude I associate with drill sergeants!

"Patty! (that's me). Sit up straight! Elbows off the table! Napkin and left hand in lap! No, no, no -- that's not the way you hold a fork! Ye gods!"

"Meg! No slouching! Napkin and left hand in lap! Close your mouth completely when you chew!"

"Carol! Get a cushion to sit on; you can not rake the food off your plate into your mouth! No talking with food in your mouth! Napkin and left hand in lap!"

"All of you act like heathens!"

As you can see, Aunt M. was fixated on napkins and left hands.

At age 4, my brother might have been the only one to escape her sharp tongue, but perhaps not. I just don't remember any thing specific directed toward him.

I well recall her saying, "Pat" (my mother's nickname), "have you taught these children no manners at all?"

I don't remember exactly how long Aunt M. stayed with us on that visit, but it was too long! * The drill in table manners (which I don't dispute were needed) occurred at every meal, whether or not my mother was present. We were completely cowed but, admittedly, had slightly better table manners when she left.

How my mother felt about having her children constantly corrected (and I'm sure Aunt M.'s corrections didn't stop at the table) I have no idea, but we girls all breathed a sigh of relief when the dust settled behind her car as she made her departure.

* As I've thought about this story and the following years, I don't remember that Aunt M. ever came to visit us again, although we saw her at family reunions. We must have traumatized her as much as she traumatized us.


Diana said...

What a memory Pat. It had me wondering if your mother said anything after your aunt would leave?
And did she actually help to instill any manners in all of you?

Arkansas Patti said...

Love that word and it does fit her. Wonderful story and it really made an impression on you.
My mother was a benign version of your aunt. Table manners were important to her.
She would be horrified to see how far I have fallen from grace.

Jeannelle said...

Great post, Pat! A special memory well-spun into a story. Very sad about your aunt's only son.

Just the other day, in the Miss Manners column in the newspaper, a foreign-born person asked why we Americans tend to keep our left hands in our laps during meals. Your story gives a clear explanation of why! Evidently, in Europe, both hands are kept up by the plate with utensils used by both.

Pat - Arkansas said...

Jeannelle: Two of my children are directly connected to the U.S. military and have lived abroad (England, Italy and Greece) for extensive periods. They quickly adopted the European style of using eating utensils, which is (pardon the pun) very foreign to me. Gardening daughter says it's a much more efficient way to eat; fork in left hand, knife in right.My Aunt M. must have made a great impression on me, because it still causes me some consternation to see both hands above the table.

Betsy from Tennessee said...

Cute story about your Aunt M, Pat...Is she still alive? Wonder what she would say to you now ---since you 'cleaned up very nicely'????? ha

That word, Redoubt, is an interesting word... The two meanings almost contradict each other... Maybe--if you put them together, you would come out with someone you are scared to death of, yet in awe of also... Interesting, isn't it???


Snap said...


Wonderful story. Hope this means you are feeling better!!! I wonder if we all had a redoubtable aunt? !!!

NitWit1 said...

My mother was raised by two old maid aunts.

We spent summmers with them in Stephenville, TX. One aunt was Sunday school teacher in the 1st Baptist church and was less
disciplinary with us 3 kids.

The other Aunt, who worked in a mercantile dry goods store, was more austere and administered more discipline (I'm sure with my parents permission.)

I'm sure you can guess which aunt we favored and which aunt reminded me of Aunt M.

Anonymous said...

Good story Pat...Aunt M must have scared your mum too, fraid I would have sent her packing.

Patty said...

What memories. Now my Father was the one always telling us to sit up straight, elbows off the table and etc. When Dad was around, I don't believe we ever had too many meals without someone getting scolded or yelled at, and someone always ending up crying. No wonder we all doctor for our stomachs. LOL

Anonymous said...

Pat....what a writer you are. I followed every word...trembling for you. It is interesting to learn of the different 'manners' in other parts of the world, too....I would love to know more.
Thanks for a well-written post.
Smiles from Jackie

Louise said...

What a difference in Aunt M and Aunt Jewel!!

I had a grandmother and aunt like Aunt M. Sure didn't grow up with any affection for them! Aunts are supposed to be FUN!

Rose said...

Maybe your mom didn't like her being constanty critical of you and didn't invite her back...but I agree...what memories! It is so much fun to hear them.

Hilary said...

Wonderful story. I could feel my spine straighten up as I read those words. Your mother must have been a very polite host to accept that criticism in her home.. in her presence.

The 4th Sister said...

I just made a trip back to Kansas to see my life long friend. She has 6 Grandkids...They were at her house a lot. One morning my friend was getting all of the kids ready, she was going to take them to Bible School. My friend was very busy in the bedroom with one of the children (Ages 4-10) and several were in the living room with me. I was trying to keep them all under controll and I had that thought, 'Oh, they will be glad to see me go!'