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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 4, 2002
HOMER, Ga. -- Inside the small house on Silver Shoals Road, the talk is not of corporate scandals, the falling stock market or the threat of terrorism. Here, they talk about the important things: the lack of rain that has parched gardens, a local nudist camp, church affairs, prescription drug prices and petty crime. The obituary page is the best read part of the local newspaper. Mention e-mail and you draw blank stares. They have no idea what you are talking about. An afternoon thunderstorm is more frightening than a plunging stock market, a woman preaching at a local church more scandalous than any corporate misconduct.
This is Aunt Thelma's house, and for more than a dozen years she has shared it with my mother. My mother refers to Aunt Thelma, who is 85, as her "baby sister." Aunt Thelma digs Elvis -- at least his gospel music. She drives a Volvo, makes a garden, keeps three large freezers full of food, babysits great nieces and nephews, feeds stray dogs and cats, takes care of her big sister and cooks and cooks and cooks.
I like to hear them fuss at each other, gossip and offer their commentary on events close to home and far away. They trust government but not politicians. They tend to see world events in a biblical context. The Middle East is an easy call. They side with Israel, saying the Jews are God's chosen people. They're not about to go against God. On whether women should be in the pulpit, these Southern Baptists are on the side of the pope.
My mother recently celebrated her 90th birthday, and Aunt Thelma saw it as an opportunity to escalate her personal war on hunger. As usual, there was too much food. The dessert spread was almost obscene. There were dried fruit pies, sweet potato pie, strawberry cake, red velvet cake, pound cake and chocolate cake. She refused to set the sugar-free jello I requested on the dessert table. She kept it out of sight, as if it were a Playboy magazine.
"What you don't eat," she said of the jello, "I'm going to throw out. I don't have room for jello in my refrigerator."
You would have thought I had asked her to make room in her refrigerator for road-kill. I tried to explain that too much sugar was bad for your health. She didn't say so, but I could tell she thought I had lost my mind. But, of course, she concluded that years ago when she learned that I ate sushi.
"If I ate raw fish," she said, "I sure wouldn't tell anybody. You were raised better than that."
As for herself, despite heart problems, Aunt Thelma says, "I am going to eat whatever I want as long as I live. I don't care what the doctors say. What do they know?"
Normally, birthdays are not a big deal around here, and my mother said she didn't want a party. But the 90th anniversary of her birth was an event that we couldn't ignore. It was a time for family, friends and neighbors to celebrate the life of a remarkable woman who bore six children, buried three of them and somehow, after all those years of hard work and heartbreak, still maintains her sense of humor and an upbeat attitude toward life. She doesn't worry about things that are beyond her control, and she is amazingly tolerant of people and things she doesn't understand.
The guests ranged in age from 4 years (great grandchildren) to 95 (my oldest aunt). Another aunt, who is 93 and lives in North Carolina, couldn't make it for a lack of transportation. They are all widows -- my mother and my aunts -- who either worked in textile mills or in cotton fields for much of their lives. They counted themselves lucky, and even now they will tell you they never minded the hard work -- just the meager earnings it brought in. I only wish the men in my family had such spirit and longevity.
During the course of the birthday party, someone mentioned the local nudist camp, and that sent Aunt Thelma's blood pressure soaring. To her, nudity is "an abomination in the sight of God." She says if the sheriff won't close it down, then the governor of Georgia should personally come up from Atlanta and padlock the place. In an election year, it's a litmus-test issue for her.
My mother shrugs and says, "I don't approve of it, but they're not bothering anybody. We have more important things to worry about."
She's right, of course. Her monthly prescription drug bill consumes almost half of her Social Security check, her only income. The way things are going in Washington, she figures that she will not live long enough to see a prescription drug bill become law. But she's not complaining. She remembers what life was like during the Great Depression and before Social Security and Medicare laid down a safety net for seniors like her.
In those hard times, nudist camps and sushi were unheard of around here. People didn't worry about eating too much fat and sugar. They just worried about eating. I wondered if they miss anything about those days.
"Not one thing," said Aunt Thelma. "Not one thing."