My Aunt Wanda was watching us that day. I am not sure why. Momma was either out looking for a job or working at the restaurant where she was a waitress from time to time.
I loved my Aunt Wanda. I was actually named after her; she was Wanda Lee, and I am Linda Lee. She’s gone now. I will forever admire her. She was beautiful and her smile was captivating.
My sister, Sheila was a little baby at the time, so I can’t blame her for any of what happened. Well, a little bit since there wouldn’t have been the temptation had she not even been born. Anyhow, I was always a creative child. Constructing whole cities in the yard, building dams to make lakes from the ditch water. Catching crawdads with a little piece of bacon tied to a string and an old mason jar in that same ditch. I was a bit of a tomboy. I guess I still am. My husband Pete says he fell in love with me when I changed the front shocks on his ’64 1/2 Mustang. But that’s another story for another time.
On this particular day, I had other ideas running through my 5-year-old mind. My aunt was a great cook. I remember sitting around her old oak round table and it being full of food anytime we came over to visit. The sweetest smells filled the air. Candied sweet potatoes, green beans, or buttermilk cornbread. One or all were usually part of supper. We ate there a lot. Looking back on it, I guess she was helping my mom keep us fed. She had three kids – Helen, the oldest, Weldon,(Bo-Bo) the middle child, and Julie near my age. Cousin Bo-Bo loved to eat. Funny thing about Bo-Bo. He would pile every single bit of the food on his plate into a mountain. Then, he proceeded to dig away at that mountain with his spoon. Never understood why he did that, but it sure was entertaining at suppertime. We all waited in earnest to see how tall Bo-Bo’s mountain would get.
I wanted to do something special for my Aunt and my mom; show them I could cook too. I was going to create a beautiful cake from things I found in the yard. I mound the dirt, add some water, and pieces of grass, clover, and wildflowers. The cake was not quite coming out like I pictured in my mind and I needed something else. I slipped in through the screen door on the back porch and went into the kitchen. There was nothing in there I could reach. So, I started going through the other 3 rooms to see if I could find something that might work.
My aunt was in the living room watching her soap opera while she fed my little sister so she wasn’t paying me no mind. I went into my mom’s room and walked over to the crib, looking around for something, anything. And there on the dresser was exactly what I needed! I grabbed it off the dresser, hid it under my shirt and made a beeline for the back yard. Looking back on it now, I guess I knew I was doing something wrong why else would I hide it?
“Linda what are you doin’?”
“Nothin’, Aint Wanda, playing outside. “(Where I grew up in Houston, Texas we pronounced Aunt as Aint, as in I ain’t going to do it.)
“Well, don’t slam that door, your sister is almost asleep.”
And off I went with my precious ingredient to make the best cake ever. Back to my mud cake, I open the precious ingredient. Proceed to try to stir it up with the dirt, the water, the grass, and the flowers. As soon as I made a little progress, I hear “LINDA LEE- what in the Sam Hill are you doing?”
Now let me explain something. If I was getting called in for supper, or because it was getting dark, it was Linda, time to eat, or Linda, time to come inside. Anytime I got called LINDA LEE- I was in T-R-O-U-B-L-E. Even at the tender age of 5 I knew this. And I don’t know who this Sam Hill fella is but when anyone calls out his name folks are usually mad.
Confused, I jump up, and say “Aint Wanda, it’s a surprise for you and Momma! I am baking a cake!” Big grin on my face, thinking she is going to be so proud of me.
There is still that LINDA LEE hanging out there. Silence; not what I expected, considering. I am still trying to work this out in my innocent head.
“Wash yourself off and get over here right now!”
I did as I was told. Fearing the worst, I walked over to my Aunt Wanda, who was still standing on the back porch holding my sister. She was sleeping like a baby. Imagine that. As for me, my knees are weak, and the tears are already rolling and she is sleeping; LIKE A BABY.
“Look at you for heaven’s sake, you are a mess. You see that willow tree over there?”
“Yes, ma’am.”Snot running out my nose, head down, quivering. I am in for it. Not sure what but in for it.
“Get over there and find Aint Wanda a willow switch to use. I am going to tan your hide.” I don’t know what tan your hide means, but considering the situation, I know it can’t be good. “Please no, Aint Wanda! “
“Yes, ma’am- you go on and do that right now.”
Up to that point, my Aunt had never laid a hand on me. It wasn’t in her nature, so let me tell you, I am scared. Do you know anything about Willow switches? In a child’s mind, you think I’ll pick a small skinny switch. If you ever had a whipping with a willow switch, you know that’s a BIG mistake. The smaller and thinner the switch, the mightier the whip.
Crying, I find a willow switch, and make my way to the back porch. My aunt is now standing there with her arms crossed, tapping her foot, with no baby. Tears, snot and dirt running down my face, I look up at my Aunt Wanda. She does not smile.
“Do you know how much baby powder costs?”
“No ma’am.” Truth.
“Do you know your momma is doing everything she can to keep her head above water?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I didn’t.
“Do you know why I am going to spank you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I didn’t. But this was not a good time to say anything but yes, ma’am.
“Turn around, Linda Lee.” I did.
Thwack! One hit, and I started caterwauling. It didn’t hurt that much (she mercifully hit my shorts). I am crying because of the sheer humiliation and this was my Aint Wanda.
“I’m sorry Aint Wanda, I won’t ever do anything like that again! I promise!”
“Alright child, enough. Don’t go messin’ around with stuff that ain’t yours, you hear? Come on in and wash up. Let Aint Wanda get you a glass of sweet tea and a pimento cheese sandwich.”
And like that, it was over. My Aunt showed me the meaning of honest, real love that day. And mercy, yes sweet mercy.
Ten years later during one of the darkest hours of my life, I went to her. She showed me once again the meaning of love and mercy. I was 15, pregnant, terrified, ashamed, and felt isolated from everyone, especially my mom who was so disappointed in me. How did I get here? Me, an honor roll student with a bright future expecting a child. Hell, I was nothing more than a child.
I told Aunt Wanda my story and cried while I did. She listened, and did not judge me, yell at me, make me feel small, or God forbid make me go cut a switch. Instead, she wrapped me in her arms, kissed me, told me she loved me always. Nothing I did was ever gonna change that fact. Things will work out, Linda. God has a plan.
Love and Mercy. She took my hand. Led me into the kitchen pushed me down into a chair, handed me a tissue from her skirt pocket. Told me to dry my eyes, no more tears.
Aunt Wanda with all her beauty, love and southern grace poured me a glass of sweet tea and made me a pimento cheese sandwich. To Southerners, feedin’ somebody fixes about everything except for a toothache. To this day eating a pimento cheese sandwich warms my soul and elicits thoughts of home. Family. Momma. Aunt Wanda.
What she taught me that day has stayed with me through all my challenges.
What she didn’t realize nor did I, she prepared me for an unexpected journey filled with many twists and turns.
I wish I could say and like that, it was over like the willow switch whipping when I was 5. But for me, it was the beginning of an eventful life I never imagined.