Monday, October 10, 2011

Sweet Magnolia

My aunt Ida Mae was a remarkable woman.  Twelve years older than my mother, her baby sister, she divorced her first husband and outlived two others, all the while maintaining a relatively comfortable life in the town of Trenton, Tennessee.  Trenton is a small city of about 4,300 located in the northwestern part of the state, not far from Humboldt, home of the West Tennessee Strawberry Festival.  It's one of those places where everyone knows at least a little about everyone else, and that's just fine with the locals, many of whom have spent most of, if not all, their lives in Trenton.

When I was a kid, we used to drive up from the metropolis of Memphis to spend weekends with my Aunt Ida and my cousin Marion.  We had a regular routine: Marion and I would break out a game of Monopoly (for which we'd bent the rules to suit us) and listen to the latest albums he had received from the Columbia Record Club.  It was in this way that I was first exposed to the music of Andy Williams, Herb Alpert, and Johnny Horton, among others.  As the night progressed, we'd find an episode of "Twilight Zone" to give us the chills, then after staying up way too late, we would turn in for a good night's sleep.  Marion was about eight years older than I was, but it didn't seem to matter, and he was a very patient surrogate big brother.

I guess the thing that most impressed me about the whole Trenton clan was Aunt Ida's resilience.  When she divorced her first husband, a prominent town mortician, she was suddenly forced to look for some kind of work to sustain herself.  Looking back, I'm sure that breaking ties with a wealthy family and choosing to remain in the same small community was not the easiest route to take, but Ida was determined to make it on her own, and after all, Trenton was her home, too -- she'd lived there her entire married life.  She chose to go to "beauty school" in the neighboring town of Milan (pronounced MY'-LUN, for all you out of towners).  I remember that on some nights, we'd go meet Ida at the school and accompany her home just after dark, and then we'd feast on barbecue and maybe, if it wasn't too late, we'd head over to the Tastee Freeze for a little late night snack.

When Ida graduated from beauty school, it was time to come up with a snappy name for her business, and she chose "Coiffures by Ida".  Ida said that "coiffures" was a French word, and she thought it would give the name some pizzazz.  After we all learned to pronounce it, the name sort of grew on us.  She opened her first shop on Lexington Street and stayed there for a while, then bought a small house on High Street and did it up right.  The High Street house had a million steps up a steep hill, and the front door opened right into the salon.  Within a few months, it became the destination beauty shop in town, and all the people whom she'd known during her years with her ex-husband's family became her customers -- it was as if they'd never missed a beat.

I learned very early on that most information of any consequence pertaining to Trenton and its residents could be found out by listening in on the Saturday morning appointments.  It wasn't that we would be doing this intentionally, but Marion and I would be playing a game of Rook in the next room, and it was impossible to ignore the accounts of how so-and-so's husband was an absolute no-count or how someone else's niece was wearing something totally inappropriate to school.  We started out watching television game shows, but pretty soon, we discovered that the town news being exchanged in the adjacent salon far exceeded anything we could have witnessed on TV in terms of sheer entertainment value.

Ida was a strong woman -- indeed, several years ago, when she passed away, my cousins and I were sitting around the night before her funeral, drinking wine and reminiscing about the way she had carried herself, how she had pulled herself up by the bootstraps and made a good living, all this in a small town where news and gossip are sometimes too readily exchanged, at least for us city folk.  Her eldest son Joe was wondering if there would be a good turnout for the funeral the next day, and I said that I really didn't think there would be anything to worry about.  And indeed, on the following January morning, with a temperature in the teens but illuminated by a brilliant white-gold sunshine, it seemed that half the town appeared to pay their respects.  And on everyone's lips was the notion that Ida Mae was the definition of a "steel magnolia".  Just hearing that made me so proud of her.

Ida was quite successful as a beautician and married two more times, outliving each of her husbands, and through it all, she remained a strong, beautiful woman, full of self-assurance and love for everyone.  She was more than my aunt -- she was someone who for so many of us demonstrated that regardless of the circumstances, it was never too late to pick up the pieces and make something wonderful out of them.

So, Aunt Ida, I hope you know that if you were here tonight, we'd be heading over to Milan for some barbecue.  And if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to ride in the back seat of the Fairlane and look up at the stars on the way back home.