Mary Ann Ellis

My family’s major lesson in patience lived right next door to us. My father’s aunt, Jincey Gaskins, was delightfully eccentric and one reason my sister and I learned to exhibit patience. My parents insisted that we be polite and patient, no matter what she did or said. 

“She’s old,” they told us. “You have to humor her.”

At the end of her sidewalk grew two beautiful old dogwood trees, but she didn’t like children climbing them; she said it was bad for the trees. She made exceptions for Sarah Nell and me. We climbed the trees almost daily in spring and summer. They weren’t tall enough to worry about us falling out of. Among the leaves and tiny white flowers I perched for hours reading books. Quite pleased that I liked to read, Aunt Jincey enjoyed my reading in her tree. She shared her copies of Reader’s Digest with me, reminding me every time to take good care of them and return them promptly. She collected them conscientiously and invited me to peruse them whenever I chose. 

Aunt Jincey gardened meticulously and fervently—not vegetables; they bored her and she had friends enough to supply her with peas, beans, and corn. No, her passion was flowers. As soon as spring arrived, she planted sweet peas and petunias, marigolds and pansies, daisies and pinks (dianthus), among a wide variety of other flowers, which I didn’t recognize at the time. She allowed no weeds to grow among them, rising early every morning to check for intruders of the weed or insect variety. Her roses were the glory of the neighborhood, as were the white clouds of shrubs in her front yard. No yard in town equaled hers, and often she displayed the Garden of the Month sign.

Her immaculate yards did not indicate an immaculate house though. Walking into her house was a bit of a shock after touring her yard. The kitchen was always cluttered with dirty dishes. Frying pans with bits of egg clinging to them, pots with grits still in them, stacks of dirty plates, and assorted bowls and glasses covered the kitchen table. I never saw the kitchen clean in the thirteen years I lived beside her. Stacks of books, magazines, and mysterious boxes sat haphazardly around the rest of the house. Before sitting down in her sitting room, guests had to remove clutter from chairs. 

The strangest of Aunt Jincey’s quirks, the one that required patience on all our parts, was her letter-mailing habits. We thought she corresponded with half the state, writing long letters in a brown ink. The minute she finished a letter, she wanted someone to take it immediately to the post office. That required my walking or riding my bike to town. I was too young to drive, and Sarah Nell was too young to go to town unattended. So I made many treks to town to drop her letters in the mail slots. 

“Aunt Jincey, the postman goes right by here everyday,” Daddy told her one day when she had caught him and handed him a letter to mail for her. “The mail goes off just as fast if you give it to him.”

“I don’t think it really does,” she replied, shaking her gray head. “Besides, I really hate to bother him. He has so much mail to pick up. People really impose on him. It’s a lot easier for me and him if you just run it up to the post office.”

The final straw came one Tuesday when I was too sick to make her mail run. Aunt Jincey called Mama about eleven o’clock.

“Nell, I have a letter to mail. I know Mary Ann’s sick. Ask Luther if he’ll run mail it for me during his lunch. I know he only has forty-five minutes, but he can drive to the post office in ten minutes or less. If you’ll send Sarah Nell over here, I’ll give it to her so he can go as soon as he gets home. I’m sure he won’t mind.”

When Daddy came home, he did mind. He was annoyed at first, then he started laughing. “I have a solution to this problem,” he announced. “I don’t mind bothering the postman. Henceforth, her mail goes in our mailbox.” 

It did, and she never knew the difference.