Her call was couched in typical Aunt Ethel English: "Bobby Lee, I want you to come down here," she announced. "And see what you can do about this water leak." The voice was authoritative, contained no hint of supplication or entreaty, not even one "please," just expectation I'd load up some tools and go to her little house in Clearfield.
Which I did, of course, though I'd rather do most anything than mess with plumbing. For one thing I don't know much about it. For another repairing leaky pipes calls for a body the size of a monkey's, and three hands. There are ways around the three hands business, but I've never figured out what to do about the fact my shoulders are too wide for the crawlspaces under most houses, my hands are over-sized for matching tools to touchy hardware, and my belly too often gets in the way.
Aunt Ethel's "tool kit" consists of four screwdrivers and an under-sized hammer, for driving an endless series of nails in the wall to support photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She has all the gizmos and gadgets that mark a serious gardener, but not much of her kit is applicable to leaking pipes. I collected about fifty pounds of stuff from my garage, tossed it in the truck and headed out.
I left my socket wrenches. I'd never been on a plumbing job where I needed socket wrenches. And of course, I needed them ten minutes after I saw the leak.
This isn't about plumbing tools though. It's about how Ethel reacts when I come in her house: "Well there's my boy!" she says, grinning as I lean over for a hug. Ethel's not much more than four feet tall; sitting or standing it's a serious lean over. I'm one of those fortunates raised and "claimed" by several Appalachian women, who pampered and petted, fed and flattered me so long as they lived. Once there were half a dozen homes in which I heard "There's my boy," or words to that effect. Ethel's little house is the last of them.
When someone calls me "Bobby Lee" it's an indication they've known me since before I could tie my own shoes.
Aunt Ethel's known me since before I wore shoes.
It's foolish for a man over fifty to find comfort in being called "a boy," but I do.
Ethel and my mother were close, as far back as I can remember. When Mom died in April of '98, Ethel told of being present at her birth in 1926, a wide-eyed fifteen year old shocked by an older sister's torment, helping as best she could. "I put the first diaper on your mama that she ever wore," Ethel said, her eyes glistening with immense sadness.
She's the last survivor of a big Appalachian family; her siblings, and the friends of her youth and married life are gone. Aunt Ethel's a widow of fifteen year's standing, and you know without asking she misses Uncle Louie at every moment, with every breath. She's buried two of her children (most recently the son who would have taken care of that plumbing problem) and I don't know how many nieces and nephews, all of whom she rocked to sleep as infants.
Yet her home is a place of laughter, a warm, fun and funny place to spend a few hours.
Ethel closely follows the lives of grandchildren and great grandchildren, and takes great delight in their steady and constant treks to her house to "look in on Granny." Sometimes they find the old woman in "her" chair, but this time of year Ethel's more likely to be busy in her kitchen. Come spring she'll take a hoe worn nearly in half by decades of hard use and turn an immense yard into an Edenic splendor of flowers and shrubs.
Took the better part of three days to get that leak fixed. I'm no plumber, but Ethel knew that when she called.
My wages for time spent were two cakes, two pies still warm from the oven and half a dozen stories, including one about a pint of moonshine Uncle Louie took away from a man at my great grandma's funeral, the year I was born. Aunt Ethel kept that jar of whiskey, says there's still plenty of liquid in it, but I know better than to ask about looking to see how age effects the taste of corn liquor. You don't swear and you don't drink in that little frame house in Clearfield.
I'm not writer enough to make up a character like Aunt Ethel.
I'm just fortunate enough to know her.