I ran to the fence and watched our neighbor across the road waddle barefoot down her sidewalk. She stopped, looked both ways, and then crossed the road to the two mailboxes which were on our side of the highway. It was the main road running through our small rural community in East Tennessee.
The mailboxes were all on one side of the road for the convenience of the mailman who delivered mail over many miles of country roads. As he drove his car, he sat in the middle of the seat with one hand on the steering wheel and the other placing mail into the boxes out the passenger-side window. I found his ability to accomplish this feat quite amazing, and wished I was a boy so that someday I could be a “mailman.”
“H...Hidy, little girl,” our neighbor stammered, smiling at me as I stood at the gate watching her.
“Hidy, Aunt Lily,” I answered.
I reckoned she had forgotten my name, but I remembered hers. I had been carefully instructed by my mother to call her “Aunt Lily,” and her sister with whom she lived, “Aunt Myrtle.” They were not related to me, but respectful children called grown-ups “aunt” or “uncle.”
We had moved to the house across from the two sisters only a week earlier after our other house had caught fire and burnt down. We were only renting the house for a few months while my daddy was having a new house built for us on the land where our old house had been.
The rental house was small and without indoor plumbing, but we were used to it as our house that burnt down didn’t have indoor plumbing either. We had an outhouse and Mama heated water from the rain barrel or the well on the kitchen stove for our baths. We were going to have running water and an indoor bathroom in our new house.
The two sisters’ house seemed like a mansion to me. It was big with two stories and a covered porch supported by columns across the front. There were boxwoods lining the sidewalk and the front of the porch, giving off that pungent odor that I will always associate with fine old houses, even though I know now it wasn’t really a fine house. It was big, but it was old and well-worn, in need of new paint, a new roof, and more, but they had new indoor plumbing. Their old outhouse still stood out back in case the new-fangled plumbing stopped working. Even that outhouse, with its fading red paint and moon cutout in the door to let in light, looked fancy to me.
I found Aunt Myrtle, a tall, severe looking woman, rather scary. Aunt Lily, on the other hand, was soft and plump and smiled a lot. She was unlike anyone I had known in my short life and I found her very interesting. I guessed she was old, maybe forty, but she seemed young like me. I had no one to play with at this new house, so I spent a lot of time spying on Aunt Lily as she puttered around outside in the flowers she grew in pots on the porch or sat in her porch swing breaking green beans or peeling potatoes.
“Do you l...like...to go...bare...foot footed?” Aunt Lily asked as she got their mail from the box and pointed to my bare feet.
“Yes ma’am,” I answered, and added with my six-year-old sauciness, “I like to go barefoot-foot-footed.”
Aunt Lily giggled. “Me too,” she said, pointing down at her bare feet.
I giggled with her and looked at her feet. They were well-worn, dry and dusty, with cracked heels and yellowed nails that were thick and ragged. Then I looked up at her soft, child-like face with round, rosy cheeks and twinkling blue eyes.
“Your feet don’t match your face, Aunt Lily,” I said guilelessly.
She pulled her flowered cotton skirt close to her legs and looked at her feet as if she had never seen them before. She wiggled her toes, and gasped in surprise, “You’re right! They ain’t no...no toes on my face!”
This idea seemed to delight her. She hugged herself as she giggled heartily. Her laughter was contagious. I hugged myself and giggled with her.
My mother, inside the house ironing, had watched through the open window and overheard part of our conversation and saw my mirroring Aunt Lily’s body language. Mama called me inside. When I hesitated, she commanded, “Right now!”
She scolded me when I was inside. “You mustn’t mock Aunt Lily and make fun of her.”
“I wasn’t making fun of Aunt Lily, Mama,” I said as tears began to well in my eyes. “We was just funnin’ together.”
My mother then had a talk with me about Aunt Lily and explained how she was special and different from most folks, more like a child than a grown-up, but I was always to be respectful to her. Mama said Aunt Lily stuttered, but that I should not copy her stuttering as that was not nice. I promised I would always be nice to her and was allowed to go back outside.
I sat on our stoop playing jack rocks by myself. I saw Aunt Lily across the road sitting in her porch swing. She sat fanning herself with a church fan. She looked as lonely as I felt. I thought Mama calling me in when we were talking had made Aunt Lily sad, too.
I ran down to the rusty gate. “Hey, Aunt Lily,” I yelled, “want to play some jack rocks with me?”
Her face lit up with glee as she brought her hands together in a clap and nodded her head. “A...ask your mama if it’s okay to play on our porch, and I’ll come...come help you cross the road.”
I looked back toward our house, wondering if Mama would let me go play with Aunt Lily. I saw her standing inside the screen door. She smiled and nodded her head, and then opened the door and waved to Aunt Lily, yelling it was okay and I could go.
As I held Aunt Lily’s hand and crossed the road that day, little did I know that this was the first of many trips I would make across the road that memorable barefoot summer to spend happy times with my new best friend.
Melanie Harless, from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, retired as a school librarian in June 2006 and began writing. She has been published in three anthologies and has written a monthly travel column for a local news magazine since February 2008. She was recently elected to the Board of Tennessee Mountain Writers.