I grew up in a great place – the rural South. There are so many wonderful things about a country Southern upbringing. One of the best parts is the large extended family you grow up in. As a small boy I had a multitude of great grandparents, grandparents, great uncles and aunts galore, cousins, and every other kin folk in the world.
And on top of that I grew up with something else special – a whole host of older adults who filled the roles of surrogate grandparents. Most of these were addressed by the time-honored southern title of “uncle” or “aunt.” I’d probably started school before I realized most of them weren’t really blood kin.
I’ve never quit figured out at what age, and how it was decided when and who, would be known in Dry Creek community as “Uncle Johnny” or “Aunt Alice.” Not every older person received this honorific title; instead, it was reserved for those kind souls that seemed to exist everywhere in our community.
It was a title of endearment and most of all a term of respect. To me, those we addressed as uncles and aunts were always given much honor by the younger people of our community.
I’ve found that this term of respect is not just limited to our Southern culture. Years ago I was on a backpacking trip in China. As I studied the language books on Mandarin, the main Chinese dialect, I found that a word, Ayi, (pronounced “eye-e,”) is used toward an older woman of grandmotherly age. It means “respected aunt.”
Traveling through this rural area of SE China, we would encounter rural natives whom I suspect hadn’t seen a non- Oriental face in their life. Some of the older women would stand up and quickly leave at the sight of a tall white backpacker coming around the corner of their yard.
However, I quickly found that one simple word with a smile and nod was all the introduction needed. I would simply say “eye e” in my mangled Chinese to these women. A wide often toothless smile, set off by eyes full of wonder, was always be returned. Just like my Southern home half a world away, a term of respect was understood and accepted. A term of respect that I suspect wherever you would travel in the rural world, there would be an equivalent term for older men and women.
Here is a section from The Mandarin Phrasebook by Lonely Planet (4th edition):
“China’s efforts to limit its vast population through their ‘one child’ policy is rendering several kin terms obsolete. Most Chinese no longer have uncles or aunts in the People’s Republic, so the array of words for ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ are on the endangered list.”
How sad that, due to most families now having only one child, young people will not have brothers, sisters, uncles, or aunts. An important layer of society is being ripped out by these short-sighted policies.
While walking in China, I thought back to all of the ladies who had been respectfully called “Aunt” in Dry Creek…
Of all of them, one still stands out in my mind: Aunt Mary Jane Lindsey. Aunt Mary Jane was one of those who trans- cended the Dry Creek area of the 19th century as well as the 20th century. Born in 1874, she lived until 1972. In
my childhood, she was Dry Creek’s most well known senior citizen. She lived, until age 98, in her old dogtrot home on the north side of the Longville gravel pit road.
As you can tell from her picture taken at age 90, she was a spicy lady with her own mind and unique way of doing things. Even in her old age she still lived alone and drove her car throughout the community.
There is one tale concerning her that may be Dry Creek community’s most beloved story. In the days before paved roads in Dry Creek, travel and traffic was much slower. Due to this, many older people drove long past when they should have. Taking the car or truck keys from an older person was and still is a difficult task.
Well, no one in Dry Creek had been brave enough to take Aunt Mary Jane Lindsey’s car keys, even though her driving skills had become weak at their best.
I remember my mom telling me as a boy, “Curt, if you’re riding your bike along the road and see your great grand ‘Pa,’ or Mrs. Leila Heard, get in the ditch as fast as possible!”
Aunt Mary Jane either didn’t have good brakes, or chose not to use them much. Dry Creekers told of her no holds barred driving style. Even though her driving days had ended by the time I knew her, I could imagine her unique personality behind the wheel of a car and it was not a pretty sight. In my preteen mind, I saw her just as this story goes:
Each day Aunt Mary Jane would drive to the post office to get her mail and go by the store. Evidently she would simply shift down to second at the stop sign before she barreled out onto the Dry Creek highway, which was not paved at the time of this story.
On this fateful day, she was making her arcing turn off Gravel Pit Road onto the main road. She didn’t see the large loaded gravel truck barreling along northward toward her.
The dump truck driver was evidently a good driver. He didn’t have much time or room to react when he saw the old car pull into his lane. But he did the best he could under the circumstances. He whipped his truck to the left trying to get around the slow car… and he nearly made it.
He clipped the side of the car and saw it spin round as it tumbled off into the ditch. His last view was of the old lady driver, hands glued to the wheel, eyes staring straight ahead.
As quick as he could, he got his loaded truck stopped. He sprinted back toward the car which was lying on its side in the far ditch. He was sure the old woman had been killed. It took him just long enough running back to the accident site for Aunt Mary Jane Lindsey to do two things: One, climb out of the overturned car, and secondly, figure out what in the world had happened. By the time the truck driver neared her, she was ready.
He was just glad to see her standing there alive and apparently uninjured. Aunt Mary Jane was waiting for him with her hands on her hips.
When he got close enough, she put her spindly finger right in his face and said, “Young man, every person in Dry Creek knows that I come out of this road every day at this same time going to the post office. You need to be more careful when you’re driving in the future, especially when you come through Dry Creek!”
I wish I knew who the unlucky truck driver was. I’m sure he didn’t have much to say after his tongue lashing.
What could you say to a lady old enough to be your great grandmother who is airing you out?
Yes, I’m glad I grew up in Dry Creek. A place where a young person still has plenty of adopted aunts, uncles, and grandparents, and none more memorable than “Aunt Mary Jane” Lindsey.