She and Ollie moved in next door when I was about ten or eleven in the summer after fourth grade. All of us kids called her Aunt Elvie. I don’t think she was kin to any of us, and I know not to me. But she laughed at how our tongues got twisted up when we tried to call her Mrs. Higginbotham, and said, “Just call me Elvie.” I knew what would happen at my house if I called a grown up by their first name. We couldn’t call her Miss Elvie either, because only teachers were called Miss, so she told one of us, “Okay, Aunt Elvie then.” And we all did from then on.
On the day they moved in, several of the ladies did their usual with new neighbors. Mom took over a big old hamburger/green bean casserole and others brought a pie for dessert and a green jello salad. Aunt Elvie was all flustered, I guess. Anyway, according to the story that got told, she said, “Ollie would love the pie, but we are vegetarians. Could you give the casserole dish to someone else who would enjoy it?”
I didn’t know what a vegetarian was, but Dad told me it’s someone who doesn’t eat meat and real food. Mom wouldn’t let me have the phone that night. “I’m using it!,” was all she said. All the kids said the same thing at their houses. Mom’s were busy on the phone.
Aunt Elvie was a little bitty thing, not much taller than me getting ready for fifth grade, and she was about half as wide as any of the moms on our block. I heard my dad say once to Mom, “She isn’t really very pretty, but she’s kinda cute.” Mom’s face froze up in a frown like it did once when I spilled cocoa on my shirt before church one Sunday. She muttered something, I think, about dirty old men that slobber around after cute young things. But when she saw me listening, said, “She does have a way about her. Stays home and paints her toenails on the front porch every day.” Mom and most of the other women on our street worked to earn money.
Things stayed kind of cool for Aunt Elvie with the grown-ups, but us kids enjoyed having her at home. She always had a fresh batch of cookies, or a glass of lemonade to share with us. And she always took the time to talk to us, not pat-on-the-head talk, but like she wanted to know what we thought. Just made matters worse, I guess, among the women. She was doing what some of them would have liked to be doing instead of clerking at the A&P or the bank, or wherever they all went in the mornings.
The dads seemed to get along okay with Ollie, but I heard one say that he was a funny duck. They never looked at Aunt Elvie when they saw her in the yard, and if she waved at them, they waved back real quick like they’re surprised she’s even there. I saw my dad once, just watching her out of the corner of his eyes, when Mom was close. One time Mom said, “A woman shouldn’t wear short shorts and sleeveless tank tops in the front yard, where any of the children could see.” Dad agreed real quick.
Things really changed, I think, for the men on the Saturday morning when Ollie was spotted on the front porch painting Aunt Elvie’s toenails. We all saw it, me and Mom and Dad. I almost threw up when he blew on her toes to dry the polish. She stood up and took his hand and kissed it, right there where we could all see! And they both laughed like, “Isn’t this fun!” Mom looked at Dad with a funny gleam in her eye, and got on the phone again.
There was other stuff, too. Whenever she and Ollie went to the car together, Aunt Elvie always stood beside her car door just waiting, and Ollie opened the door and helped her in. He did the same thing when they would come to the door at the bank, even their own front door. If Ollie was around when Aunt Elvie came back from grocery shopping, she waited for him to help with those heavy parcels. I had seen her hoist twenty-five pound bags of fertilizer around like they were nothing when she was doing her basket plantings. But when Ollie carried in a ten pound bag of potatoes, she acted like he had just saved her from a dragon or something. And he strutted like it had been a tough battle.
I remember how the funny changes began at my house and others on our block. I never saw any of the men painting toes on the front porch, but my mom started showing up with polish on her toes, and I never saw her doing any toe painting. And Dad came out
one morning with the smell of nail polish remover on his hands as they walked to the car. When he held the door open for her, she patted him on the cheek.
The Higginbotham’s moved away after that one summer but they never quite left, I guess. I went on my first boy-girl party that Halloween with Tina from down the street, with Dad driving. He sent me to her door to walk her down to the car. She just stood by the car till I held the door for her. She smiled at me real pretty.
That summer was almost twenty five years ago. I went to Mom’s for dinner last week. She fixed a Tofu and green bean casserole. Dad asked for seconds and told her how good it was. I guess it tasted okay, but I had to laugh inside when Dad held her hand a bit long when she passed him his napkin.