Simone curled up under Aunt Milis as if Aunt Milis blocked the direct burn of the sun. When Aunt Milis braided her hair, her strong, elderly fingers would pull the three sections of Simone’s hair together into a stiff grasp and begin to braid it in sets of two. She affectionately called them “cowhorns.” Each braiding motion tugged slightly on Simone’s roots. As Aunt Milis would go section by section she would light up with stories and short songs from a time that only seemed to exist on her fingertips, and in the lightness of her speech when she braided hair. In a working, middle class Prince George’s county neighborhood in the mid-90s, the back woods of old Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, seemed like a barren land of wasted dreams. It was a place that was left, a place of ancestors, or a place descendants visited just to pay homage to a past that seemed incompatible with the present.
But, with Aunt Milis that past was tangible for Simone. She loved her even more for her bearing of the past. She read her softness as sensitivity to the supernatural, a manifestation of what was. To Simone, she was packed with spirits, not haunted, but influenced. Her brown face naturally tucked round plums on the seat of her cheekbones. So, Simone always imagined that those plums were where the most benevolent spirits sat. They always kept Aunt Milis permanently smiling, even when there was no reason to, like, when her older sister died in arms, or when the root doctor could not create anything to save Aunt Milis’ brother from a quick, but devastating bout of cancer that took him in less than two months. The plums on her cheeks remained there.
When Simone and her mother had to move from their upper class neighborhood back into the family house with Aunt Milis, Simone secretly cheered while her mother begrudgingly adapted to changes in lifestyle. Simone, found herself caught between the southern, rural mystique of her Aunt Milis, who took care of her as a child and the modern, professionalism of her pretty mother who exuded perfection in dress, and speech. To Simone, her mother seemed to live in a way that was unattainable to the slightly chubby, buck-toothed, style-challenged Simone. Simone craved the years gone by in Aunt Milis’ stories, the monkey-woman, the glasses of water that caught spirits, and the salt and pepper in pockets that kept balance. The modernization laid by concrete could never blanche out the rugged earthiness of North Carolina clay.
Copyright © 2012 Nichelle Calhoun