Every year when Christmas time rolls around, I think about my Aunt Bobbs’ story. This year things are a little different, but it doesn’t matter what my brother says. I still like to remember the way Bobbs told a story from our family history.
The story starts back in the previous century—1994 or close to it—when I made a quick trip to visit Aunt Bobbs and Uncle Ray in northwest Colorado. I was returning home from a work trip back East. What “quick trip” involved, then, was interrupting what would have been a nonstop flight to Washington state to fly into Grand Junction, rent a car, and drive several hours north to Bobbs and Ray’s place outside the little town of Meeker.
My last day there, a Sunday morning, I was in the kitchen fighting off the drowsiness induced by a second stack of Bobbs’ flapjacks. Ray had taken off after breakfast to do chores around the ranch, while Bobbs did the dishes. Now she’d gone to get something to show me, and I waited by myself in the breakfast nook.
Lifelong Missourians, Bobbs and Ray had found paradise in Colorado the previous year, hiring on as caretakers of a 6,000-acre ranch owned by a wealthy oil family. I pass that fact along not to regale but give you a notion of what lay outside the window: meadows and pine forests stretched off into a range of mountains called the Flap Tops. The kitchen’s buttercream cupboards and amber yellow walls were cozy and warm what with the morning sun beaming in the window. I was taking in the view and sipping coffee when Bobbs came back into the kitchen.
“Found it,” she said.
She smiled and gave me a wink. “You’ll see,” Bobbs said and lifted up a cigar box for me to see. Instead of sitting down across the nook where she had been, she slipped in beside me and set the cigar box on the table between us. She covered the lid with her hands at first, then let them slide away. Lettering on the lid said Thompson’s Tampa cigars, custom made “for the man who knows.” A blue paper seal pasted over the corner stated the box held 25 cigars.
I looked at her. “Are we going to have an after-breakfast stogie?”
Bobbs’ laughter always made her sound delighted and she sounded delighted now. When she smiled though, I saw her eyes were moist, then she looked away,
She was the youngest of my dad’s four siblings. In birth order, they were Raelene, my dad Vaughn, Burl, Rocky and Bobbs. She and Ray had been at my dad’s funeral in Iowa two years before this. Before that I’d only seen them once or twice in 10 or 15 years. Although Bobbs was my all-time favorite aunt, visiting her became a long-distance problem when I moved to Washington state in the late 1970s.
Bobbs was still full of fun and energy at the time of this Colorado visit. Among her other talents, she was known as a raconteur in and around Spickard, the tiny town in Missouri where our family is from. The way she rendered stories made them closer to tales sometimes, embellished here and embroidered there, but they were a sort of historical record, too, both for her and her siblings, and for generations of our family going back a hundred years.
Now Bobbs waved away her moment of emotion, swirling dust motes in the golden air. She turned back to me.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
I closed my eyes and covered them with my hands. “How’s this?”
“Keep them closed, now,” Bobbs said.
“This isn’t going to take long, is it?” I said, thinking about the drive to Grand Junction that was coming up soon. The cigar box’s balsa wood top squeaked open and Bobbs rustled around inside. I peeked through my fingers and got a glimpse of her lifting something out. Then she turned to me and I squeezed my fingers shut.
“Sneak,” she said. She laid something on the table and her hands brushed mine as she pulled away. I opened my eyes to find a dark leather glove in front of me.
“When we heard you were coming, I thought it was finally time to pass this on,” Bobbs said. “It was your Grandma Sadie’s.”
I’d only ever seen my grandmother in two or three old photographs. She died long before I was born and I hardly knew anything about her.
“Sadie and Mercer,” Bobbs said, shaking her head, maybe at the memory of them. “Mama and Daddy”
“My god,” I said, lifting the glove in both hands. It was soft with dark brown stitching and incredibly tiny. I imagined how small Sadie’s hands must have been.
“I want you to have it,” Bobbs said.
I looked at her. “Why not Vernon?”
“He’d just lose it somewhere,” Bobbs said. She lifted a finger of the glove, pressed it between her fingers, let it fall. “These were Sadie’s, too,” she said, pointing at what looked like a pair of brass cuff links and a tiny metal shoehorn. Then she touched a small stuffed bunny tucked to the side of the box. It was pink and had a tattered blue scarf pinned around its neck. Both ears drooped and one arm hung by a thread. “This old thing was really a Christmas ornament,” Bobbs said. “Used to drag it to school but keep her here now so she won’t fall apart.”
I turned the glove over in my hand. “What about the other one?”
“Don’t know where it got to,” Bobbs said. “Sadie had to have both of them, though. She wore them the day she went away to the sanitarium.”
I was stunned. I don’t know how else to describe it. The only thing my dad had ever told me about his mother was that she died of tuberculosis in 1933. I didn’t know anything about a sanitarium. If the visit I’m telling you about was indeed in 1994, then I was 45 years old and hearing this for the very first time.
“Did the whole family take her there?” I said. “Where was the sanitarium? Did you all go to visit her? Grandpa Mercer must have. How long was she there?”
Bobbs patted my hand as I talked, waiting for the questions to slow down. When I was done, she said she only knew the sanitarium was somewhere in southern Missouri.
“We didn’t take her there,” she said. “But we all went when she left on the bus.”
My eyes stretched wide as they could go. “She had to go by herself?”
“I know, I know,” Bobbs said, nodding at my alarm. “Maybe Mercer had to work”
“But Grandma was sick—couldn’t Grandpa have got time off?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t very old,” Bobbs said. “Maybe Sadie told Merce to stay home with us kids. She could have thought she’d get well soon.”
“It would’ve taken a day to drive to that sanitarium. All that gas,” Bobbs frowned. “I don’t know. All I know is we were poor.”
“Still,” I said. “’I’m sorry, but… I mean, help me understand.”
“I’ll try,” Bobbs said. She looked out the window on a journey to the past. Then she turned to me.
* * *
I remember it was in early December when Mama got on the bus. It was a Sunday and the sky was gray and it was very cold. Main Street was deserted, the stores all closed up what with folks in church or at home. The wind was just vicious. It barreled through town and on down the hill. It was snowing, but the snow did not fall so much as flurry out of nowhere. They wasn’t flakes, but little white ice pellets that stung my cheeks.
I was wrapped in a blanket that was thick and pink, so only a little cold could reach me. My whole memory of waiting for the bus is rose-colored, like that blanket over my face. It was a wonder I could see anything bundled up like that, but I was warm.
We were standing by the old post office on Main Street, that brick building on the corner. Everyone had their backs turned and made a circle with their arms to keep out the wind. Daddy had his arms around Mama on his one side and Raelene on the other side, and Raelene was holding me in that blanket because Mama was so frail. Rocky was in the middle of the circle. He was only six years older than me and I can still hear the little squirt whining in the cold. Vaughn and Burl were thumping Rocky on the head to shut him up and Daddy said, ‘not now godammit’. But Rocky might have been crying only because all the big ol’ bodies circled around him were smothering—he couldn’t get out.
I remember peeking from under the blanket at all the fuss going on and seeing Mama on the other side of Daddy. He was holding her close to him and she had a handkerchief over her nose and mouth. Then there was a roar and a bus rolled to a stop right beside us with a horrible screech of brakes and I curled down in the dark away from all the noise.
The next thing I knew, Raelene was shaking me awake. Daddy was walking Mama to the bus. He handed her purple and brown bag to the driver and Mama climbed up the steps one at a time. She turned around and said something to Daddy. He said something bqck but all I heard was ‘come home’. Mama made her way to an open seat and sat down and coughed into the handkerchief that was bright red now. Then Daddy went up on the bus and walked back to Mama and put his arm around her. They hugged, then let go and turned to the window and us kids all stared at them. Daddy leaned down by Mama’s pale face and they both waved.
Daddy left Mama to herself then and got off the bus. There was a whoosh and the bus rolled away from us and on down the hill and disappeared. Raelene closed her coat around me so tight I could hardly breathe. I heard Daddy say ‘come on now’ and we all started walking, Daddy and his brood, marching on down past the filling station toward home, and I snuggled down in the dark again.
* * *
“My memory just gets clearer over the years,” Bobbs said. “That’s what I remember of that day, even though people don’t always believe me.”
“I want to hear more, Bobbs,” I said, pushing up my sleeve to check the time, “but it’s starting to get late.”
“You have to go,” Bobbs said.
“I’m sorry. I have to get to Grand Junction and catch my flight.”
We slid out of the breakfast nook and gave each other a good-bye hug. I grabbed my bag and Bobbs walked me outside. Ray showed up as I was climbing in the rental car. I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out to wave. Bobbs came up and put her hand on my arm. She had the bunny in her other hand and held it up for me.
“My friend wanted to tell you good-bye,” she said and laughed. “Raelene told me I got it that Christmas Sadie went away. She said I hugged her to me right off, wouldn’t let go.”
Bobbs looked at me. Over her shoulder, Ray was looking at me, too. Then he turned to look out over the pasture.
“I remember that Sunday morning pretty good for an old lady, but I don’t have any recollection of Christmas that year. We couldn’t have had hardly anything,” Bobbs said. “I named my bunny Pinky. Carried her around for years.”
I saw Bobbs two more times before she passed—once more in Colorado and then at Ray’s funeral after they had moved back to Missouri. Both times the subject came up of Sadie getting on the bus that Sunday morning in a long-ago December, but really we just talked about how things were now, her garden and if there’d be good weather to make it grow.
Aunt Bobbs died in 2011 at age 78. She was the last one living of my dad’s siblings. As it will, time slipped by after that, a decade, then another year, then presto, it was Christmas time last year, and I was on the phone with my brother Jay back in Iowa.
Jay’s younger than me. He did okay with investing during his working life so that he was able to retire early two years ago. With no worries and time on his hands, he cast about for something to fill the hours between rounds of golf, then fell headlong into genealogy. He’s usually the talker on our calls and this time was no different, except that he hesitated several times. We were about to hang up when Jay got around to it.
“You know that story about Grandma Sadie that Aunt Bobbs passed along to you? You know, the one you’ve been telling Julie and me ever since.”
“Of course,” I said. “With Christmas coming on, I’ve been mulling it over, like I do every year. It just gets me—how Grandma Sadie got TB and had to go into a sanitarium and died there.” I stopped, remembering what it felt like to imagine that. “It’s hard to believe, what Aunt Bobbs and all of them—Dad and the others—went through. The whole family out there in the cold and snow to see Sadie off and she’s covering her cough with a bloody handkerchief. Then she gets on that bus and never comes back.”
“That’s the one. Bobbs told you this story back in the ‘90s—right? When you were out in Colorado?” Jay said. “I’ve always wondered about it. We never heard that story from Dad and he was old enough to remember.”
“Maybe he didn’t remember; maybe he didn’t want to. Bobbs was there. She told me,” I said. “She must’ve been young, but she remembered.”
“Well, Aunt Bobbs may have believed what she told you, but…”
“I think it’s unlikely she could have been there to know,” Jay said. “I’m not at all happy about it, but I’m sitting here with Grandma Sadie’s death certificate, having finally figured out the Missouri’s records system. This certificate says Sadie entered the State Sanitarium in Mount Vernon, Missouri, on December 4th, 1932.”
“Okay, good,” I said. “It’s such a frigging cold story. And she never came back.”
“Right, but do you know when Aunt Bobbs was born?
“Not really—1930? 1931?—tell me. You’re the official record keeper now.”
“Bobbs was born on August 30, 1932.”
The calculator in my mind ground to a halt, but Jay was ready. “When Sadie got on that bus,” he said, “Bobbs would have been three months old.”
Jay let me think about it. As I told you before, Bobbs was a storyteller and known to “embellish” and could “embroider” to her heart’s content. I considered that over the passing years the members of her family—her sister and brothers and her daddy Mercer—would have told her details of when they all were there to say good-bye to Sadie. It wasn’t hard to imagine that she could have absorbed the story of waiting to see Sadie off on the bus and made it her own.
“In theory,” I said, “if Bobbs was with the rest of the family that Sunday, Jay, she might well have had sensory recollections, even if she was only three months old.”
“In theory,” Jay said.
My brother wants more than a theory. I think he wants to believe, but Jay’s a guy who goes by the numbers.
I still like to remember the way Bobbs told it. I want to believe her one more December, at least. I do.
Cover photo: Marion Post Wolcott -Center of Town after Blizzard, Woodstock, Vermont – Museum of Modern Art Collection
Mark, thanks for this little jewel and a peek into your family history. Would love to read more about Bobbs, the bunny and why there are mysteries of timing that leave us wondering “why”…perhaps there is a work of fiction hiding at the end of “December Story”?
I love this Mark! Thank you for this wonderful Christmas Day read.