Part One, "The Dress"
It developed when my Aunt Beatrice retired from the college, she assumed a status she called “selectively engaged.”
“I’m not out to pasture, just standing at the gate,” she would tell those who asked. Her retirement dinner had been well-attended and speakers there were effusive in their praise of “Miss Cotton and all the fond memories many of us hold here tonight.” It also developed, though no longer a fixture on and about campus, she was becoming such at church. She had already “engaged” a position unofficially.
The minister had become immobile through a bad fall and long convalescence. Parishioners filled in and took on various new duties. Aunt Bea became the Visitation Caller and every Sunday bulletin reminded folks: “Miss Cotton remains available for call and contact should need arise.”
“I find I gain more from these visits than those I call on,” she confided to us once. “Aunt Rae used to say, ‘It suits me right down to the ground,’ and this does,” she said of it, adding the travel around the township dovetailed with her interest in ancestry. Local history and connections, cemetary trekking, and interviewing the community’s oldsters kept full retirement at bay.
“There are so many blanks to fill,” she would often tell me. The church provided a stipend for fuel and any expenses. And I would often ride along.
By this time, I was in my early teens, just a couple years younger than the black 1939 Plymouth Road King coupe Aunt Bea bought from a Mister Lamb and drove during the war years. “It’s been well-cared for,” said Mister Lamb. “Well, I should know,” he laughed, “I’ve done all the maintenance on it. Thought once, we might keep it for Mother, but she said she’s read about these ‘new automatic shifter gears, and I want one of those.’”
And I learned how to shift through 1-2-3 from the lever mounted on the floor. The knob was rubber with a plastic cover displaying a photograph of my brother and me digging out from the blizzard of ’48.
One of our early calls took us to a family we’ll call the Steadman’s. Like many of the neighborhood, they lived rural on remnants of a larger farm broken up to give all the offspring a base of some kind if not a livelihood. They would attend the local church or occasionally, the mother church in town for an annual event or dinner.
We’d no sooner settled in the cluttered Steadman living room, when the daughter came home from high school, burst in the door, brushed past us, and declared: “Mom! I gotta have that dress by Friday.”
Mrs. Flora Steadman tried an introduction but it seemed guests played second-fiddle to this dress crisis.
“We’ll tend to it, hon. I’ll get your Aunt Irene to help. Don’t panic.”
Daughter stormed up the stairs and her mother tried an apology this time. “I’m sorry, but this dress thing has her in a stew. She . . . forgets her manners some times.”
Out in the Plymouth, we pulled down the lane and Aunt Bea had to laugh. “Oh, my. Manners were never a long suit with the Steadmans at best. A rough lot even back in my day, and it doesn’t seem the new generation shows much promise. Blood will tell.
“Nothing like good country manners. Such serve one well.”
I would hear a lot about manners, as she traveled for the church and around the country during those years. And, more about “showing promise” later.