Memories of those near, ‘fear’ to us

Published 7:21 am Sunday, November 23, 2008

In my child’s mind, there were three places that I did not want to go: Hell, the insane asylum and the reformatory school.

I didn’t figure that I was in much danger of hell. You had to die to go there, and I wasn’t old enough to die. And only old, crazy folks went to the insane asylum. Old folks had it bad. They were living on the fringes of hell and the insane asylum.

But the reformatory school was a possibility for me.

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Not that I was that bad, but my cousin, Jimmy, and my friend, Betty Kay, and I did a lot of fightin’. I don’t know which we loved most, each other or fightin’. Until we got 12 years old, I think it was fightin’.

We learned in Sunday school that when you got to be 12 years old, you were old enough to know right from wrong and were held accountable for your bad deeds.

I made good use of my youthful offender status so the reformatory school loomed large in my life.

One of my favorite things to do was aggravate Aunt Mary Nancy. She was crazy and should have been in the insane asylum, but she wasn’t. Eunice and Amos kept her locked in a room just off the front porch of their house that was right behind ours.

They would let Aunt Mary Nancy sit out on the porch a lot so she could get some fresh air.

Eunice would put Aunt Mary Nancy’s sweater over the back of a straight chair and then put her arms in the sleeves and button the sweater around her. In the summer, she tied her to the chair with a sheet. Either way, if Aunt Mary Nancy got up, she had to drag the chair, so she couldn’t go far before somebody caught her.

My friend Louise and I would sit on the porch far out of crazy Aunt Mary Nancy’s reach and listen to her tales about haints, boogers and the horrors of the reformatory school where we were destined to end up.

At the reformatory school, Aunt Mary Nancy said they pulled your toenails out with pliers and stretched your arms in different directions until they popped out of their sockets and hung limp at your side for the rest of your life. And they’d hang you by your heels down in the well until all the blood rushed to your head and your eyes popped out and your cheeks turned blue and “busted wide open.”

Louise and I were scared to death of crazy ol’ Aunt Mary Nancy and the place she threatened to send us.

Back then, under the house was the coolest place to play in the hot summer.

There was a hole in Aunt Mary Nancy’s floor that she used to communicate with us as we played.

“The ’formatory school is where y’all ought to be,” she’d yell. “I see y’all sneaking around doing ya mischief. I watch y’all out the window. I see what ya do!”

She did watch us out the window. We could see her peeping out from behind the curtain with that crooked grin on face. It was a scary thing.

We were glad she stayed locked up. If she got out, she might kill us or, even worse, send us off to the reformatory school.

Back then, women would work for a week or more getting food cooked up for Thanksgiving.

The Thanksgiving of my ninth year, Eunice had cooked a pile of sweet things and had them out on this big ol’ kitchen table to tempt folks, Amos said.

There was nothing that tempted me more than a jelly roll. Maybe it was because jelly rolls were wrapped in a cloth, kind of like a Christmas present, that you couldn’t wait to open.

On the table was a jelly roll wrapped in a bleached flour sack. Now, I don’t know if Louise and I would have sampled it or not. But just as we got it unwrapped, we heard a screech and looked up to see Aunt Mary Nancy on the other side of that big table waving a butcher knife with a blade three feet long.

Looking back on it, it might have been her walking stick she was waving but, on that day, it looked a whole lot like a sharp butcher knife to me.

She started yelling that she was going to “get cha and take ya to the ’formatory school.”

We ran from one end of the table to the other, and she was back and forth on the other side of the table, swinging at us with the butcher knife.

Our only escape route was down the hall and out the front door. But she kept cutting us off. She was old and crazy, but she was as quick as a rabbit.

And, we ran like scared rabbits when she dropped the “knife” and stooped over to get it.

“I’m gonna put y’all in the ’formatory school!” Aunt Mary Nancy yelled after us.

That Thanksgiving Day I had a lot to be thankful for – that I wasn’t dead, that I wasn’t in the reformatory school and that Eunice had saved me a big slice of jelly roll.

I was crossing the street the other day and a car horn blew. Louise called out the window, “Let’s get together soon!”

We keep planning to get together to talk about the times we shared with the people who were so near, dear and even “fear” to us.

And we’ve got to make time to do that.

As I count my blessings, I’m so thankful for those who share my memories.

Sadly, there aren’t as many of them as there used to be. So life is lonely at times.

But there is nothing that fills your heart with thankfulness like a memory shared with someone you love.

Jaine Treadwell is features editor of The Messenger. She can be reached at