Remembering Aunt Beulah
I miss you, Auntie B. Especially in Spring when we should be gathering the first tender wild greens together, walking barefoot on the soft new grass….
High Heeled Justice Written July 2, 2008
Aunt Beulah’s porch rails resembled a cross between a shoe store and a botanical garden. Rows and shelves of glitter specked high heels, ragged work boots, sneakers, and the occasional teddy-bear slipper. Add in a few aged wing tips, penny loafers, and dainty Mary Janes, each with an assortment of greenery, flowers, vegetable starts and medicine plants, sprouting forth from the rich soil she had shoved deep into their toes and soles. Beulah wasted nothing, and felt that shoes made the best pots for plants, besides being a colorful display. To be honest she had very little use for shoes otherwise, as I do not ever remember seeing a pair of shoes on her feet except in winter. Then she wore the same pair of tall green rubbers for all the 20 years I knew her. Beulah’s feet, along with the rest of her, remained unbound and unfettered until snow forced various parts of her to seek cover. Consequently her feet happily spread quite wide, just like the rest of her…. hips, breasts and dazzling, albeit toothless, smile.
With that broad foot mark, it was easy to track Aunt Beulah through the woods. Fortunate for me actually, as I often had a hard time keeping up with her when she was out huntin’ for her “Medicines”. Aunt Beulah knew every plant in the woods. She knew all about how to talk to them, where they grew, how and when to harvest them and what they were best used for. Beulah birthed all the babies in our mountain community. She had learned from her teacher Granny Carter who was older than dirt. In those mountains, before there were things like doctors and hospitals, Granny women birthed the babies and took care of the sick, injured and the dead. Aunt Beulah took me on when I was just 9 to be her “helper” as I had “the mark”. “The mark” was something only she could see upon me or perhaps within me, I am not sure….anyway I helped her out until I was 15. Life’s current then swept me down a different river, and into a broader stream, but that is for another story, another time.
Our family was mixed blood, European, Cherokee, and African. In the 50’s , 60’s and 70’s, the tiny southern town we lived in had a very harsh way of dealing with race issues. One part of town was allotted to the pure people of European decent, one part was allotted to the people of mostly African decent, and one area was allotted to us. Crossing those boundaries was to court scorn if not outright danger.
Aunt Beulah was married to my father’s brother Kenneth, a likeable, but extremely lazy, man whom Beulah loved with ardent passion. Her momma, like my father’s mother, was a Cherokee woman come up from the Smoky Mountains.
While my Aunt Beulah was called upon to care for all the pregnant women in town, she was never welcome at the front door of the white ladies homes, and neither was I, despite my blonde hair and blue eyes, inherited from my mother’s folk, most of whom had come over from Scotland and France.
For some reason, that I could never understand, the color of a person’s skin, or who their ancestors were, who they were related to, or who they married, meant more to most folks in that town than a person’s true character
My sweet mother tried all she could to find a way to bridge that gap. She volunteered at the school. She baked cookies for the highschool band bake sales. She volunteered at the VFW hall. She went to the Presbyterian church every Sunday and volunteered at all the church socials. They allowed her to attend their church and work her heart out at their events.
But they turned her down when she volunteered to teach Sunday school. Never gave her a good reason except that they would “let her know” if they ever needed her help.
Mrs. Mary Craig was the Director of the Presbyterian Church Sunday School, she was also my junior high school French teacher.
She did every thing she could to make my life absolutely miserable.
Mrs. Craig was of the firm opinion that Indians were uneducable heathens and that the government should not waste tax dollars sending them to school.
She believed that Indians were unfit to live in a civilized society and should all be removed to reservations and kept under guard. She took every opportunity to expound upon her moral and political opinions during every class, consequently we learned very little about French language and culture. Except, of course, that Indians had fought alongside the French in a war called “The French and Indian War” during the early years of the white invasion of this land and that is probably why the French lost, “Thank God, or we might be a Godless land!” She told me flat out one day, that I did not belong in her classes and that I would never amount to anything, no matter what I did.
Aunt Beulah caught me crying that day after school. I had gone behind the smoke house, cause I never liked to let anyone see me cry. Beulah asked me what was wrong and I told her how Mrs. Craig was so cruel and prejudiced. I told her I was sure that was why the people at the church were mean to Mamma too. Beulah gave me a hug and said not to worry about it. Something in the strength of her hug and the tone of her voice stayed with me, and strengthened me to face Mrs. Craig every day till the end of the school year. I would sit through every one of her classes if it killed me just to make her have to teach a “half-breed heathen”. I never told Mamma what she said about us.
One summer day after school had let out, I was over at Aunt Beulah’s house helping tie up bundles of medicine plants and hanging them on the porch rafters to dry. I was admiring the various plants in the shoes on her front porch and noticed one of Mrs. Craig’s high heel shoes on a sunny shelf with a healthy young briar plant growing out of a hole Beulah had cut in the toe of the shoe.
Now Aunt Beulah was truly committed to her healing practice, but did I mention that she was also very much in demand for her love charms? In fact, for a fee, she could make charms to serve many purposes for good or ill…..People held Beulah in high esteem out of respect ……and fear, for good reason. Not all the shoes on Beulah’s porch got there by accident, some she found in trash and others, people would give to her, but some folks said she could conjure your shoe out from under your bed at night if she wanted to. No one dared reclaim a shoe once it appeared on her porch. If your shoe was growing pretty flowers or healing plants, all well and good…..
But pore old Mrs. Craig…..Aunt Beulah was nursing a Green Briar in the toe of her left high heel. That summer, Mrs. Craig’s left foot started hurtin’ real bad, so bad that she was not able to resume her teaching job when school started again that fall. In fact her foot got so swollen and painful that she had to give up teaching Sunday School at the Presbyterian church too. Momma was only too happy to help out when the Minister asked her if she could step in for Mrs. Craig. That winter Mrs. Craig had to have surgery on her foot as her big toe had begun to curl under her sole but the doctors had no explanation for the cause of the problem. I only know this as I over heard some of the church ladies gossiping one day, when Mamma had sent me to the general store.
She was never able to walk with out a cane from that time on and had to take early retirement from her teaching career. Mother took Mrs. Craig meals after she came home from the hospital for a while . I always wondered if she ate them or put them out for her dog. Beulah made a salve for her foot and asked me to deliver it, but I buried the whole jar out back of the smokehouse. I was afraid Mrs. Craig’s foot would rot off.