Thanksgiving is over, but Old Home Week lingers on in my mind, that fine Southern tradition of searching for links between people not previously acquainted, and between pastimes and present events. My family said goodbye to my Aunt Bell this week, laid to rest in far west Tennessee, at the age of 92. She was a true flower of the South, the youngest of 8 children, the sixth girl born to a father who longed for more sons.

Perhaps that is why she and my grandmother, her closest sister in age and orneriness, borrowed a friend’s car, covered it with purple and green banners and flower chains, and drove it all over their county in their finest dresses and hats:  GIVE WOMEN THE VOTE! They were not old enough to vote had women been allowed, nor were they old enough to drive by modern standards. Their parents would have killed them had they known.

Bell was the alto to my grandmother’s clear soprano. They played whatever instrument they felt like carrying, in their family band – long before the days of the Carters. They were in much demand to play at weddings, funerals, and other celebrations, including dances, which generated a little money. Bell’s parents, however, did not hold with dancing as a scripturally endorsed activity.

Aunt Bell told me that got her to wondering why church folks were hypocritical about things like dancing and drinking, and spent so much time preaching against what nonchurched people did that was wrong, instead of considering what the church folks needed to be doing. And that, she said, was helping people out and otherwise keeping their noses out of other people’s business. Somewhere along the line she learned to dance a little, drink a little, and she passed on some outrageous cocktail dresses to my mother when my sister and I were little girls.

Racial prejudice was not a comfortable issue for her. In the town she grew up in, few Black persons were ever seen, and much harsh talk and teaching against Black people was everywhere. No wonder. Her own aunts married men whose fathers rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the KKK. There were two stores in town, next to each other, her grandfather’s and his second cousin’s. The cousin’s store was the long-time hangout of the Klan. Bell’s other grandfather had fought for the union, and lived out his adult years between two of his wife’s first cousins who also rode with Forrest’s unit. I can’t imagine what that must have been like, for Bell’s parents and grandparents. Where a person stood on the issue of the Confederacy and slavery and the rights of Black people had a direct economic effect:  Bell’s father and grandfathers were perpetually poor.

She visited us during the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker’s strike, and as she and my parents watched the news, she commented on the signs the men carried:  ” `I Am A Man.’ How could anyone read that and keep treating people so bad? I just don’t understand it. They’re paid less than dirt!” I can imagine her blood pressure rising and her sharp tongue lashing out as she watched the Katrina disaster unfold in her final months of life.

My Aunt was never comfortable with persons who were not white, by her own admission. However, she didn’t think segregation was right. When the Republican party, her beloved party of Lincoln, began to become the party of the Other Side, she became a Democrat, to the horror of many in her family. (They were only slightly less chagrined when she transferred her baseball allegiance from the Cardinals to the Cubs after she moved to Chicago.) She became the strongest Democratic voice in my family, a welcome relief at times. She loved Jimmy Carter, and adored Bill Clinton. She wanted to live to see Gore in the Whitehouse, his father being a long-time favorite pol of hers from Tennessee, and she cried when he did not make it. She was delighted to see Obama in the Senate. “Never thought I’d live to see the day,” she said, “I’m so happy he won. He is just a fine young man and will be a great Senator.” Emphasis on the word fine, as Southerners will say it.

She was a fine woman herself, and I will miss her.

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