Just Like Aunt Agnes (OS Archives 2011)

It was the clink of the door's closing that woke me that early school day morning, one of the double doors to the outside. The brass bar lifted and returned; the door latch was disturbed and found home again. In the silence of the near-dawn hour, the sound echoed through the high-ceilinged chamber of that older building, bouncing off polished surfaces:  the marble floor, the wood paneling, windows, throughout the sparsely appointed lobby, until it reached my slumbering ears. 

I was sprawled on the solid wooden bench, almost the length of it, having climbed on the pointed-to surface over an hour before, bleary-eyed from sleeping on the car ride there. I'd tucked my jacket under my head, had a sudden stomach-lurching thought, then immediately fallen back to  sleep.

I barely heard my mother's assurances that I'd be fine there, she'd be back soon. 

 My last thought before sleep had been of the not-quite-finished homework I'd forgotten to grab in our rush to leave the house.  It still sat on the kitchen counter, right where I'd carefully placed it the night before, determined to remember to bring it.

 I was in trouble if I didn't have that work finished, I'd have to make up a good excuse this time. This far into the  school year, with my patchy assignment completion? My fourth grade teacher's patience had grown thin:

"I don't know why you won't apply yourself. You're so bright..." 

I'm just like Aunt Agnes, I'd think to myself. I didn't know Aunt Agnes, she died before I was born, but I knew I was like her, Mom told me so all the time.

Now, as my mind slowly woke to consciousness, I closed my mouth and turned my head toward the wall, away from the door.  It took me a minute to remember where I was -- what was that noise?  The room was dark, gloom filled the corners -- wasn't I in bed?  The hard surface under my head, my jacket having slipped to the floor, the unforgiving spot under my hip, my feet still encased in shoes, reminded me that I was not, in fact, at home in my own bed.

A shuffling sound brought my mind to complete attention; someone had come in with that clink of the door. He? She? was there in the lobby, with me.  

Where was Mom? 

Now I heard rustling closer by, a jacket or coat was leaving someone's arms. I heard it thrown over another bench.  I didn't move. 

A few seconds later the soft drip drip of water pinging onto the floor caught my attention...it was still raining. The wood creaked, then the sounds grew louder with shiftings of bench leg on marble, as whoever that was sat down heavily and settled.

The sounds changed, a fumbling, crinkling noise, the strike and flame of a match against wood. This is a man -- the forms of these sounds whispered together, wove their image for me. Soon, telltale smoke smell filled the air, accompanied by the inhale and exhale of practiced lungs, while the sounds of the bench shifting and creaking echoed again throughout the space.

Is this a homeless man getting warm?  

Are we downtown?

 My body froze as my mind continued to race. My eyelids fluttered and clamped shut. I was used to waiting for my mother, I had waited in many places, but we hadn't been here before.

Mom was trying Something New again. I was growing up as youngest child to a parent who'd begun motherhood over twenty-five years before, a parent who was now ready to be anywhere but home....with me, I often added silently.

Whatever the business that occupied my mother's time:  errands, friends, her varied volunteer obligations, it inevitably lasted much longer than she expected. Time was a current that carried my mother, more than a pliable force that she controlled. While she was busy, I waited.

That I might be in danger, in any of these places she left me vulnerable, didn't seem to occur to her.

This particular morning, after coming to high alert without moving, I opened my eyes slightly, still pointed toward the wall, and stared for a time through the fading dark at the worn wooden slats at the back of the bench, the would-be-beige wallpaper behind it. My head began to ache from keeping so still.  My ears were still tuned to any noise that might be coming from the person behind my back, but the tension was causing my muscles to cramp.

I rolled over as if still asleep and put my back against the wall. My eyes were resolutely closed - lightly - imitating slumber as best I could. I mumbled convincingly, I hoped, and rearranged my limbs into a more comfortable position. After a time, I heard a soft "zip."  

I cracked my eyes open to a slit.  What was that?

It was still dark enough, my eyes were almost-closed enough, that I couldn't see much, but something was moving in the slowly lightening dawn.

I shut my eyes fully. I stayed very still. The room grew lighter behind my eyelids.

Suddenly, a woman's heels were clicking, reverberating briskly down an unseen hall. Simultaneously, I heard the "zip" sound again. 

"Yes, I'll see you next week then..." I heard my mother's voice ring out.

"Oh! (laughter) ...you know that's..."

 "Reeaal-ly. But I thought..."

The heel clicking slowed, the mumbling of quieter conversation began. A high heel duet came more slowly down the hall.  


I shifted -- maybe I should pretend to wake up now -- when I felt the man get up. I heard him grab his coat, walk away from his bench, push on the bar latch, and slip out the door, all in one, very quiet, surge. 

My mother strode into the lobby, I opened my eyes. The dark shapes were banished by her vitality, by the morning light's slow rising. She was stringing along sentences filled with news of her just-finished "reading for the blind" and seeing Miss So-and-So, "...and just like that she..."

"I thought they had..."

She stopped short.  "Why does it smell like cigarettes in here?"  

She sternly eyed the tall ashtray and then me. I tried to think of an answer.   

"Next time, can I just stay home?"

But she was already striding toward the double doors.

"Oh you, you always want to stay home...there's just a strong smell in here... Let's get going, we'd better get on the road before the traffic is stop-and-go...."

Her sentences trailed through the door after her.

I grabbed my jacket and followed.

Miles later, while wending our way down traffic-clogged Atlanta roads, I was busy pushing away thoughts:  Was that real? Was he real?  

I distracted myself by plotting the minutes I had left, once we got home, to make an Instant Breakfast and grab the homework off the counter. I'd sneak upstairs to finish it before Mom noticed and got mad.  I might even catch the bus for once...

My mother's voice broke in, "Where shall we go to breakfast? ...IHOP?  Jesus, I could use a cup of coffee. You don't want to go home, do you? You look fine for school..."

The car had already turned onto an exit ramp while I wasn't looking, heading straight for the pancake restaurant's sign up ahead.

"But -- I need to go home !" I wailed in panic.

My short, one-syllable name burst from my mother's lips: staccato, accompanied by crescendo.  

"Honestly, you are just like your Aunt Agnes. Such a curmudgeon. Why in the world do you always want to be at home? I offer a nice treat like IHOP...what is wrong with you?"

We pulled into the restaurant lot, Mom parked in a spot, turned off the car, and hopped out.

I didn't answer. Change of plans.  

Now I wouldn't have my homework at all. I began dreaming up a lie for my teacher.

Did Aunt Agnes lie too?





After my last post, celebrating my mother's St. Patrick's Day birthday and her zest for life, other specific days came clamoring, demanding their voices be heard as well.  

This is one that can rest now.


RATE: 31

MARCH 22, 2011 3:14PM

I loved this.. This series would make a great book. two chapters down..:)
rated with hugs
better get aunt Agnes to dust off your rating button hahaha.. Had a heck of a time.
Thanks, Linda...I was nervous about writing all this down. It's more real written...
Those darned rate buttons : )
Wow! Did you read Glass Castle? Talk about neglect...I am sure you were put through similar circumstances. How horrible for you to be compared to your aunt like that. You should include this in a memoir!!
Was Aunt Agnes an enigma as you seem to be, JT. This was really interesting. I read it twice.
Susie: I haven't read The Glass Castle...do I want to? : ) I tend towards history, far removed from emotional remembrances....
I appreciate your kind support!
Sarah: It's been a life all over the map -- I haven't figure myself out yet : ) but writing is really helping.
It's as hard to speak them aloud as it is to remember but it's the only way I've found to make them leave. 

Maybe Aunt Agnes spoke too much truth. Thank you for the post.
Well done, Just Thinking...it's so good you're putting this down...xox
I loved how you wrote this, as if it were yesterday and I thought it was a ghost or some evil person.
Those of us who had difficult mother/daughter relationships feel the chill of this. Sorry... and well done.
I'm glad you gave voice to this clamouring ghost, JT. That's how I moved on. Excellent writing. 

wooooww. I don't know why, I really just don't get why it is that I am still spectacularly amazed at the stuff that goes on in other people's lives. Mine has been so humdrum by comparison, and that's not a complaint, just a fact. 

You've taken an decidedly ignoble moment and crafted a winsome story through the eyes of a child, weaving in the needed details, adding no unnecessary ones. The slats on the bench...the clicking, reverberating heels that turned into a heel duet. I particularly like the part where "she was stringing along sentences...", punctuation and all. So many morsels! 

One thing I intuitively 'get', though, is that pain in life begets art. It has to be fueled by something other than puppies and flowers. I comfort myself sometimes with the thought that there is a reason for it.
You know in my mind this is something terrible, you were abandoned while your mom 'frolicked' around and I think it was not a good volunteer kind of thing. Is that obvious, or am I reading into this? I guess in my mind that was no way to treat a child. I am sorry that this was your life.
Very interesting, especially considering your last post. It's true that so many lives have multiple sides and difficult elements. What you recount here is so vivid, it's easy to see this was a very troubling memory. My own mom, much as I love her, is very unpredictable as well. Reading your experience made me feel that old tension come back, and I sympathize more than you can know. On the other hand, what may or may not have happened when you were there on the bench - that's some very difficult stuff to process for anyone, at any age. If you've felt the need, I hope you've been able to speak about this to a therapist. R, with appreciation of your writerly skills, and commiseration.
wow ..........
you slay me.
JT..I can sooo identify with this, the love-hate feel that we keep trying to fix. I hope to write about my Mother too. I cant say too much bad, when I went to college I was vocal about their strictness, blamed them nd felt guilt forever..:) As I got much older, I had to face that they do the best that they can, with what they have(emotionaly) to work with. I felt put aside, lot, I let that insecurity run my life and stay alive to let me make alot of bad decisions in my life...it doesnt have to be about therapy, it is about forgiving (FOR YOU) and letting go, as best we can.xxoo
"The dark shapes were banished by her vitality, by the morning light's slow rising. She was stringing along sentences filled with news of her just-finished "reading for the blind" and seeing Miss So-and-So, "...and just like that she..."
Deft strokes describing your mother, your child-intuition. Gripping retell of your memory. (r)
I was on pins and needles with this one. Well written. Very difficult story though. Being neglected by self-involved parents who don't understand what your problem is can be excrutiating. 

Well done.
This is Dickensian. Your attention to just those details available to a child's eye and ear and understanding, is masterful. This is such a contrast from your St. Paddy's Day post that it's hard to reconcile the two mothers. What makes it possible is that the previous post was by you while this was by you as a child.
I really enjoyed this..the writing, the way it came to life. The experience itself I 'm sure haunts you, which is why it's here. I chilled with that first "zip"..what would have changed in this story had your mother not returned? Excellent!
l'heure: Thanks : ) It's a good pinning down process, all the writing...
Healing Mom and I were lucky to have while she lived.

Jonathon: Really? I'm honored you two think so. She gave me lots of stories to write about : )

I appreciate that, Robin, I think so too.

scanner: oooh. I like how you described that : ) He was like a ghost..but real.
Lea: There are so many complicated mother-child tales, thank you for your kind words : )

Fusun: I firmly believe in processing and moving on...this new aspect of writing has been enlightening, hopefully interesting : )

Gabby Abby: What a cool comment! I appreciate your specific thoughts... Thanks : ) 
I do appreciate that my whole family offered me an unusual upbringing -- there were really cool sides to Mom, really odd and downright unfathomable sides to her as well...

Sheila: It was a strange mix growing up with Mom, she did have a large need to be the attention, and she really confused me with her roughshod mothering, I too confused her with my social awkwardness as a child...she was not a good mother in some ways at all.
But...she was involved in some very interesting times in Atlanta in the seventies. She was on the Atlanta Council of International 
Visitors, also The League of Women Voters where she got very involved with Maynard Jackson's campaign for mayor. As I say in this post, she read to the blind (I never knew specifically what that meant : )), she "fed the poor" as she put it, she was generous with her time to her friends and causes...and yes, she was neglectful of me in shocking ways. This post was just one day, but hopefully it gives a glimpse of more...
Alysa: Unpredictable is a good choice of words..a child learns to assess and negotiate situations when a parent is unpredictable I think.
There has been much healing for this relationship with Mom and I, now I (mostly : )) think of her with a smile, I appreciate her inspirational qualities...

dianaani: I'm verklempt by your words... and honored. : )
cindy: I like how you put it, the love-hate feel we keep trying to fix. While Mom and her powerful personality was alive, I was much like that...I was fortunate that she was willing to grow throughout her life, and that we had a close relationship with lots of healing chats at the end of her life.

Flower Child: Ahh, your insightful ways. That brusque way was a dynamic with many women in the family, but Mom's self-centeredness didn't work well with motherhood, you're right. Her drive and joie de vivre did take her far from the farm and poverty to an urbane, varied and interesting life though. They make good tales : )
dirndl: As a writer, you're giving me a thrill with your supportive words : ) 
I haven't remembered too many childhood memories, I guess the ones that stuck around left many details in my mind...especially the ones that didn't match even slightly with other kids' families. Do we all do that?

Rei Momo: It sounds as if you might know a thing or two about self-involved parents your self. Thanks for coming by... : )

Matt: You Wise Man Matt : ) I love your insightful words, here and everywhere I see them. It was hard to reconcile the different aspects of my mother as a child, I had to be aware and at the ready with her, for days were hard to anticipate, complete lack of guidance had bad consequences... We had a much better adult relationship, she was full of respect and praise for my mothering, my gifts, then another round of difficulty reconciling her strange contradictions after she died and I learned some more things...but at safe distance, I consider myself lucky to have had the inspiration of this woman as Mom. She went out and grabbed life, and danced. 
I did get nurturing elsewhere...sometimes...

satori: I'm glad I pulled it together! It is almost more chilling to me now, having the perspective of a mom and adult... her neglect and dismissal of me then is hard to write about. 
She was so thoughtless sometimes... 

Naomi de Plume: Thanks, exorcism complete : ) or at least the balm of time and forgiveness have soothed. It's good to be clear about the past, isn't it? ...secrets and slights excised. Thanks for coming by.
Oh dear God! The account of piecing together the sounds surrounding you while facing the wall...Parsing the situation, analyzing the danger...

Nightmarish to me.
Morning Linnnn: Yes, I agree. This and other episodes literally were nightmare-producing...but that you felt that way from my writing of it makes me hope I pieced this together well ! Thanks for coming by...
Sometimes earlier memories serve to aid in our own psyche spring cleaning (and that's also another OC!) Great accounting and memory purge. Very enjoyed.
Cathy: It is a bit like spring cleaning...throw the 'sheet' on the line to air out, then it's pinned down and can be folded away and forgotten, instead of flapping around in my brain...
I read it twice, just like Sarah C. 

I may have to read it again.

I'm still thinking, Just.
I see how it is tough to read a post like this one when my last post is so celebratory. I have had the benefit of being used to these memories, you all have not.
I can only say that Mom and I had a great relationship before she died, and I do celebrate her exuberant zest for life -- I love that I have visible reminders of how interesting a human she was.

I also know she was telling the truth when she kept telling me she wasn't the best mother, and I only need think of this, and many other memories of feeling this alone and exposed while in her care to agree with her, but I qualify her statement by saying: sometimes she wasn't a good Mom. 

Sometimes she was, and sometimes Life just hits hard.

She was sorry for her flaws in mothering in her elder years...I will be sorry for mine too, I'm sure.

Thank you for reading !

I'm sorry for the shock of such opposing seeming posts, she was charming, wasn't she? : )
So beautifully written, the words break my heart as I see into the world of this child not understanding why she has to wait and worried about being like someone she never knew.
Beautiful work for a memoir.
rated with love
Would love to read more stuff like this. Sounds like you have things in fine order too.
Wow, there's so much here to think about. I can't help wondering what kind of building you were left in. Sounds like a bus depot?
cinco: She was in some public building, in midtown or downtown Atlanta, doing readings for the blind over public radio -- this would be pre-audio books era -- I have no idea beyond that, which is true about many childhood memories: I don't know where I was. : )
One thing that draws me to writing is knowing that I've said what I needed to hear. Sometimes it's joy, and sometimes it's pain, but once I've given it a voice, It no longer has power over me. It seems you've done that again. 
Keep it up. There are great powers in words.
Compelling read. You should write for fictionique (www.fictionique.com)
Thank you Nikki, how nice a compliment! I appreciate that very much. 
I will say that I've not written fiction to this point...but I'd love to go check out the site, thanks.
mhold: I appreciate your thoughtful answer...
Romantic: Your words are much appreciated, I've been practicing a different style of writing...
Algis: It's nice to hear you say that, thanks for coming by : )
Sheba: Thanks !
Bonnie: It's been good to get it out of my head, thanks for that...and what's 'swirly' !? 
bob: Thanks for that, it means a lot of hear that from you .
How do the Auntie Mame's of this world manage to raise responsibility freaks? It must be a puzzlement as well as a frustration to them both. Well told.
What a spin. The very way you worded the refrain you had to hear so often, "You're just like your Aunt Agnes..", is so negative. A simple twist of surprise elation would be so much more encouraging, "Oh! You're like Auntie Agnes!" What ever demon Agnes presented to your Mom, she seemed to do battle with her through you. Unfortuante. And the menace of the cognizance of the ghost-man, apparition or appearance? That made a real bile arise in me, for I believe if this is a real snippet of remembrance, you were, indeed, in mortal danger of rape. The fact that you choked that down once back in the "blithe spirit" of your Mom, says that she was, obviously, never harbor for you. I myself was the last of the children, and the only girl, and I reveled in the story of Pops coming home to find Ma teaching me how to put my legs through the bars of my crib, kick the gate down, and crawl out. Pops was all -- "You never taught the boys that!!" I think the same is true of you. What you gained was by your own intution, and that produces an inner strength that is more solid than that of the dependent, molly-coddled child. You obviously have all your chickens in a line, and I love that you wove this into SUCH an intriguing and spell-binding tale. 

Ya done good. R
Sounds like a type A narcissist. Awful being compared to a relative, especially one that's a curmudgeon. So many of us grew up with parents who always had to be the star. 
Coming back much, much later....
geezerchick: Who knows? I know she meant well....but she sucked at parenting.
Songbird: thanks so much for your comment - incredibly kind and helpful, thanks : )
Erica: only in adulthood did I have a clue of what really mattered to my mother, until then, well, I just thought I didn't measure up. I was like Aunt Agnes you know : )
Now I've learned Aunt Agnes was my mother's 4th cousin. 
Who knows their 4th cousin???? 
I have kept a couple of Aunt Agnes's belongings and now at 52, by what she treasured, I think I'd have liked her quite a it. 
We could've sat at family gatherings and whispered gossip about my mother together : )
I remember writing this post after reading a comment from Surazeus about 'cinematic' writing -- thought I'd try -- hopefully not bad how it turned out.


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