One of my favorite possessions is a brass Betsy Ross piggy bank that belonged to my great aunt Emma. It’s a replica of the Betsy Ross house in Philadelphia, very heavy, probably a pound and a half at least, and yet it will fit in the palm of your hand. When Aunt Emma died my brother and sister and I were taken to her house and told we could pick out one of her possessions to remember her by. I chose the piggy bank because I knew she loved it. The bank sat on Aunt Emma’s bureau in her house in Abbeville, Alabama where I spent every Sunday afternoon when I was a little girl.
Aunt Emma was always old to me. She was short and thin with gray hair, wire rimmed glasses and lots of freckles. She walked fast and hurried at whatever she was doing. She liked canning vegetables and going to her social club. She was always happy and smiling. Her favorite TV show was Saturday Night Wrestling. She never missed it.
She was one of three sisters and the prettiest (I was told). She had been engaged once I found out years later, but she became very ill and he married someone else. She never married and lived her whole life in that house taking care of my great grandmother and great grandfather until they died.
Her house had eight foot ceilings and was very dark with huge mahogany furniture, brown and tan rugs, and upholstered green furniture; no one ever pulled the curtains, and it always smelled liked lemon oil. The floors were dark lacquered wood that squeaked when you walked on them. The best part of the house to me was the backyard, which was about an acre in size. It had a big pear tree that you could see out of the kitchen window, a barn with a few cows, a flower and vegetable garden, and a hen house full of chickens. As a child, it was the closest I came to a farm, and I loved it.
Every Sunday after church we would drive to Aunt Emma’s house in Abbeville, about ten miles away. All my family sat down to eat at a very long wooden table, with my great grandparents at the two ends. Dinner was usually golden fried chicken with mashed potatoes, turnip greens, sliced pears with cheese, and cornbread, a typical southern meal. After dinner, the adults gathered on the front porch swinging, rocking, and drinking sweet iced tea. It was usually hot and humid (as it is in the deep South) so they fanned themselves with paper fans with a picture of Jesus on the front and a wooden stick for a handle and talked to whoever walked by. While the adults talked Aunt Emma would play with me.
“So what would you like to do this afternoon, my sweet?” she usually asked.
My answer was always, “Let’s go in the back yard.”
First we would pick delicious, green, ripe pears from the tree, piling them high in a basket. Then we picked flowers from her garden - daffodils, sweet peas, daisies, and roses, to make a flower bouquet for the kitchen table. We picked whatever vegetable was ripe, usually tomatoes, beans, and radishes. Then we would head for the barn to feed the tiny newborn yellow chicks, tumbling on top of each other and peeping while the cows mooed in the background. Sometimes I was allowed to hold a newborn chick, laughing all the while. The hen house was our last stop, where she let me gather the eggs, a real treat for a city girl like me, whose mother bought eggs in a cardboard carton at the market.
Once we headed inside, my favorite activity was making paper dolls and paper doll houses using nothing but scissors and huge, thick Sears and Roebuck catalogs. I would sit and watch in amazement as she folded the pages and expertly maneuvered the scissors to make chain after chain of paper dolls holding hands and then folded and crimped more pages to make elaborate paper houses for them. Then she would fashion pieces of furniture for the rooms---beds, tables, chairs, all from the same catalog. We sat at the table for hours inventing names for the dolls, like Lucinda and Phoebe and inventing life situations for them to engage in, such as shopping or cooking dinner.
Aunt Emma also ignited my life-long love for tea sets and tea parties. We would have parties with one of my many tiny tea sets. I asked for a new set every Christmas. My favorite was one Aunt Emma gave me made out of real China with tiny roses on it. We ate sugar cookies, which Aunt Emma made, and drank cokes (in tea cups) while I asked her lots and lots of questions about chicks (When they step on each other does it hurt?); cows (Do they sleep standing up?); or chickens (How many eggs can one chicken lay at the time?). She always treated me with respect. She listened to me and answered my questions thoughtfully and patiently.
While looking at the piggy bank now I am flooded with warm memories. It serves as a time machine for me. I am instantly transported back to that time when I spent so many wonderful hours with Aunt Emma, not playing with expensive toys or games, but learning to listen and appreciate the wonders of the natural world around me and the importance of treating a child as an important person, lessons that have stayed with me all these years. To this day, I would rather be outside than in, and I have a garden where I grow flowers and whatever vegetable is in season. And best of all, I still have tea parties.