“Sis, can I use your phone?”
It seemed like such a simple question.
I don’t remember exactly what year the Thursday of the Asking of the Question happened, but Aunt Doe’s rather innocuous inquiry was posed sometime in the mid-1990s…had to have been…I remember what Aunt Marlene’s cordless handset looked like.
As was customary, I chauffeured (minus a fancy uniform) the annual Latham family jaunt from Maplesville to the house just off Perry Hill Road in Montgomery…not just because I was a dutiful son with a week off, but because of…well…a couple reasons.
Reason 1: Momma didn’t ever learn to drive…at least, not in the driver’s seat. She was, however, unparallelled as a passenger-seat driver. Nobody grabbed a dashboard and stepped on an imaginary brake while inhaling firmly through clenched teeth like Momma did.
Reason 2: Daddy didn’t drive on the interstate…”Son, them trucks just go too fast!!”
My parents were traditionally my only passengers on this yearly trek, but Momma invited Aunt Doe to come along that Thursdaybecause of a recent sisterly reconciliation. Having settled some long-standing issues with Aunt Marlene, Aunt Doe was looking forward to the visit.
She knew Montgomery. She and Uncle Vern had lived there for years before they relocated to Chilton County. I believe what they missed most after their move was their beloved Seibles Road Church of Christ!
So it wasn’t surprising that Aunt Doe offered to drive because she, unlike my parents, could drive anywhere she wanted to…it’s just that…when she was behind the wheel a vehicle would weave continuously from shoulder to center line and vice versa.
Twenty-five years earlier, riding with Aunt Doe had been a thrill ride for Stevie…but that Thursday…I reckoned the better option would be for me to drive.
It was good for everybody to see everybody again and all…but, y’all…Lord have mercy at the meal Aunt Marlene fixed! Chicken casserole…creamed corn…crowder peas…string beans…sliced tomatoes…biscuits…and blueberry congealed salad for dessert
She might’ve been living in the capital city for decades, but Aunt Marlene and her siblings grew up in Pletcher. She could cook…not just cook…COOK.
All the Chandler sisters could: Docie (Doe), Marlene (Sis), my mother Dolly (Dot)…
…and so could the eldest, Altha B, who had died a few years earlier. Her sisters called her OB, but to us kids, she was Bobe.
On that Thursday of the Asking of the Question, David took a break from his state government job to join us for the spread at his momma’s. I have always looked up to my cousin David for his intellect and for his ability to construct anything from lumber, but y’all…David’s the only Latham in our family to wear a suit and tie to work every day. I’m glad David’s about to retire from that state government job…at last he won’t have to wear that suit and tie every day.
Anyway, David walked in, hugged his aunts, and threw that dad-blamed tie over his shoulder…then we got down to it.
After we scraped the last morsel of the blueberry congealed salad off our plates and into our mouths, the table was cleared.
As our family would do after a big eat’n’…we sat…and talked…and reminisced…and laughed…and eventually got quiet.
“Sis, can I use your phone?”
Aunt Doe’s words roused us all from our reverie, focusing us once again.
“Sure, Doe. You need the phone book to look up a number?”
“No, Sis. I got it here.” Aunt Doe opened up her baby blue billfold and took out and uncrumpled a slip of paper.
“Okay, then. Here you go.” Aunt Marlene handed her elder sister the cordless handset and turned back to the stock report in the newspaper…she added as an afterthought, “Who you calling?”
Y’all…Altha B / OB / Bobe had been dead since 1989!
Aunt Doe concentrated on figuring out how to turn on the handset so she could dial the number. I don’t know about the rest of them, but I couldn’t imagine what number could possibly have been on that paper!!
She didn’t pay a hill-of-beans-worth of attention to the rest of us…sitting stock still…stunned…skin crawling, eyes wide open, mouths agape, turning our heads to look from one to the other.
After a heartbeat or two that had seemed an eternity each, David finally broke the silence.
“Aunt Doe…Bobe’s dead! You can’t call her!”
The rest of us breathed again, glad SOMEbody had said it.
Aunt Doe, who had figured out how to turn on the handset and had just punched two numbers, got flustered by David’s distracting comment.
“What are you talking about? I said I’m calling OB! Now I got to start all over!”
She punched the handset’s off button. Before she turned the phone back on, I piped up.
“We heard you, Aunt Doe! How are you going to call Bobe in heaven?!”
She looked confused…but only for a second before she erupted in a belly laugh. That’s something my family knows how to do well…laugh…fully and deep. But right then, though, the rest of us didn’t see what was funny at all! How could we? We reckoned Aunt Doe was going off the deep end right in front of us!
Aunt Doe howled one more huge laugh and hollered, “Y’all crazy thangs! I ain’t calling OB! I’m calling O.B.! …Porterfield!”
We were…to a person…changed in an instant. Our shock and concern departed and here came the smiles and laughter.
Every single one of us had heard her and Uncle Vern talk time and time again about O.B. Porterfield, dear friend and minister of their beloved Seibles Road Church of Christ. She just wanted to talk to O.B. without having to call long distance.
But hey…get this…I’m glad it was O.B. and not OB! Can you imagine what Aunt Marlene’s long distance bill would’ve been that month?
Saint Gabriel or Saint Ernestine or whoever was working the pearly switchboard that Thursday of the Asking of the Question…I betcha they wouldn’t’ve accepted a collect call.
Steve Latham – April 28, 2017