Aunt Ima

Aunt Ima

My aunt Ima Misenheimer was buried today. I couldn’t be there for the funeral because I am on the way to Cape Town, S. Africa. It’s hard to be away from home at times like this, but I did make the trip to North Carolina last month so I could see her and say good-bye. Her spirits were good. She decided to stop dialysis and face death with dignity in hospice. She was 80 years old and had lived a long and full life. She had lived alone since her husband Joe died 13 years ago, and had been even more alone after her sister (my mom) and brother Randy had died. Randy’s wife Pat took care of Ima during her last years. Pat is one of those saints who doesn’t look like a saint. She’s a tough little woman with a wicked tongue who does what needs to be done – especially when no one else will do it. She was just the friend Ima needed. My brother Keith and his wife Susan also looked in on Ima, as did my nieces Nicole and Jodie. That’s what family is for. I haven’t heard yet who all was with Ima when she died, but Susan told me she lifted her arms to Jesus and asked him to take her. And he did.

Pastor Cheryl Cottingham did the funeral and wrote Ima’s official memoir, but I want to talk about the woman I knew for 56 years and remember some of the things she did for me, my brother, and my sisters. She and my mom were best friends and talked on the phone for an hour or more each day. And I guess I spent more time at Ima’s house as a boy than any place other than my own home.

Ima and Joe couldn’t have children of their own so they adopted a baby they named Kenneth. He was a couple of years younger than me, but we spent a lot of time together. Kenneth was a difficult child. He was extremely robust and didn’t suffer from any of the illnesses I faced. I was asthmatic and had allergies and just never had the same kind of energy he had. I loved to read; he didn’t. I was generally obedient to my parents; Kenneth was constantly challenging his mother and father. He could be destructive and violent. But I was bigger and stronger than Kenneth and most of the time we got along well. He often slept over at each other’s houses, and Ima used to take us to the pool, movies, or anywhere Kenneth wanted to go. She always paid because she knew my dad never gave me money for such things. I didn’t even know to be embarrassed. Of course, for Ima, it was relief to have someone else entertain Kenneth.

The Misenheimers lived about ten miles from us. I know that because sometimes I rode my bicycle to visit them. They had several acres of land that included fields, a creek, a fish pond, and woods. Their neighbors also had similar spreads. Like everybody else in Forsyth County in the 1960s they had large gardens that required a lot of tending in the hot sun, and Ima canned beans and other vegetables. We had even more land and larger gardens, and my father expected me to spend hours each day in the summer weeding and picking. Ima and Joe rarely asked me to do anything other than to play with Kenneth.

I doubt they had any more money than we did, but they seemed rich to me because they bought Kenneth anything he wanted. Sometimes I was jealous, but he shared freely and we sometimes spent all day playing with Hot Wheels or riding his go-cart. There was a huge pile of sand under some pine trees where we could play in the shade in the heat of day, and he had a whole set of Tonka trucks that we used to build cities. We also went fishing, but Kenneth wasn’t very patient, so mainly we hiked through the woods and played in the creek catching crawfish and building damns to make swimming holes. And climbing trees. Always climbing higher and higher as if we were trying to find out if there really was a God up there somewhere.

Ima was a stay at home mom, which was pretty normal in those days. So she was always in the house or sitting on the front porch while Kenneth and I played. She always wore men’s clothes, mainly jeans and a button-up shirt with the sleeves cut off, because they were more comfortable to work in. I don’t remember ever seeing Ima wearing make-up or jewelry other than a Timex wristwatch. So she wasn’t like most of the Southern ladies I knew or like anybody I’d ever seen on TV. Sometimes, though, I thought my mom was a bit like Lucy on TV and Ima was a bit like Ethyl Mertz. She was this tough little lady who loved my mom dearly.

She also helped take care of her mother, Grandma Brown. All of the children came by to see Grandma at least once a week, and Ima usually took her to buy her groceries and medicines. One day they were in the check out line and Grandma kept asking Ima if she had remembered to get her pills. Finally, Ima said real loud, “Yes, mother. I got your birth control pills right here.” The check out girl started to laugh, and Grandma replied “I wish I had had them 40 years ago.” My family is funny, not nice. One time when my mom and Ima were both in their 60s, Momma took a frozen sausage and smacked her on the head laughing.

Ima was a smoker. A lot of people smoked cigarettes in those days, but my dad hated smoking and hated Ima for smoking around us. I always thought that was a little odd since my dad started chewing tobacco when he was eleven or twelve years old. He always had a cup with him that he spat the foulest tobacco juice in and which made the car and our house smell. But somehow that was okay while cigarette smoke was devil’s breath. When I say Ima was a smoker, I mean that it was hard to imagine her without a cigarette in her mouth. I think she smoked Salem, which were named for our hometown Winston-Salem, but maybe it was Kool. I watched a lot of old movies on TV in those days and the women all smoked and looked so languid and sensuous. Ima smoked more like a sailor.

Between the sun, smoking, and worrying about her son, Ima’s face was tanned and wrinkled by the time she was forty. I thought she was beautiful. She had a face like my grandmother whom I loved. It was a face that showed that she had lived, and when she laughed her whole face lit up. I can see her slow clearly sitting on her low ceiling, crumbling front porch on a humid summer day drinking ice tea out of a jelly jar with a cigarette smoldering in her fingers laughing at some story my mom had told. Who needs those pale insipid angels with their harps when you’ve got an Aunt Ima?

I ate many a meal at Ima’s house. Most of them she cooked. Sometimes it was just fried baloney sandwiches or beanie weanies, which were two of my favorites. Other times it was fried fish that we had caught in the pond or fried pork chops. Always there were two or three types of vegetables and mashed potatoes or sweat potatoes. And a slice of white bread. Since I am by nature and vocation an honest man, I cannot say that Ima was a good cook, but she knew that. Momma was the good cook. Ima knew how to feed you. Best of all, she didn’t mind how you ate it so long as you sat at the kitchen table with the family. Elbows on the table, shoveling potatoes in your mouth as fast as you could so you could get back outside before the sun went down. That was fine. Seconds, thirds. Sure. Spilled your Kool Aid? Don’t worry, that’s why we got paper towels. It was so different from eating at other people’s houses, and I loved it. And Ima and Joe never yelled. They didn’t yell at each other or at us kids. Sometimes I could see in their faces just how disappointed they were at one or the other of us, but they never yelled.

I don’t know if I have ever felt freer anywhere in the world than I was at the Misenheimer place. Whenever I did something wrong or stupid, Ima and Joe just made sure I wasn’t too badly hurt and then patch me up and send me back out into the world. I don’t think either one of them ever hugged me or said “I love you” or any of that sissy stuff that made boys squirm. She said “I love you” with every Band Aid or application of mercurochrome. That stuff stang something awful and left you with red streaks that looked like blood, but we just accepted that as the price of healthy living. You never cried because you were cut and scraped and bruised. You saved your tears for the important things in life. You cried alone in the middle of the night because of the evil of the world. I never heard Ima cry, but I’m sure she did.

Kenneth was a wild child and I think Ima hoped that me and Keith could somehow civilize him. I did teach him to play chess and sometimes he would settle down long enough for a game. Occasionally he even beat me. But I did something really bad to Kenneth by accident one night. I never thought Kenneth could be hurt. He seemed indestructible, but he was human like the rest of us. I had a BB gun that I loved. Like many boys in those days I played Army and cowboys and Indians and other games that were mainly about shooting and killing people. I set up a shooting gallery in our basement and did target practice several nights a week. It was an air rifle with a wooden stock and you pumped it up before each shot. One night Kenneth and I were taking turns shooting and he was being his usual hyperactive self. He stood in front of the targets and told me to shoot him. I wasn’t going to do that, but he just kept dancing around daring me. I lift the rifle and told him to move, just like Chuck Connors on TV, but the safety was off and I pulled the trigger. One shot. One little brass round ball. No aim. It should have hit him in the arm or leg or chest and we should have laughed about him and told stories about to this day. But no. In the eye.

My dad rushed him to the emergency room and the surgeons did what they could, but they could not save his eye. I had blinded my cousin, one of my closest companions. I was twelve or thirteen and had done the unthinkable. And what did Ima and Joe do? They told me it was okay. They still loved me. Even Kenneth forgave me even though he still has a glass eye. Even though I ruined any hope he had of playing baseball or football or any sport that requires 3D vision. They forgave me and continued to invite me to their home.

My life and my cousin’s life diverged more and more after that. I would go to college, answer a call to be a minister, and get my doctorate. Kenneth got into drugs. He painted his bedroom dark purple and listened to heavy metal. He started skipping school to do drugs and then started stealing from his parents. He broke or stole anything of value and sometimes even threatened them physically. They had to deal with the police and the courts, and I saw Ima diminish. The wrinkles grew deeper, but not from laughing and smiling. Eventually Kenneth was sent to a reform school where he got his GED. Ima was so happy when Kenneth finally married his girlfriend. I did the wedding under the shade tree with Kenneth and Donna and their three kids.

During those dark years, my sisters Reenea and Lynn got married and had babies. They were poor and lived in a trailer park out in the country. Ima loved her nephews and nieces and did whatever she could to help my sisters. She was like a second grandmother to them. Often my mom, sisters, brother, and the kids would all gather at Ima’s for the afternoon. I still remember sitting underneath the enormous shade tree (Live Oak I think) with kids running loose and Ima taking delight in their laughter while she and Momma talked about the sufferings of this world. So much suffering that women endured in those days. So much pain.

At some point in those years Ima and Joe started coming to our church, Hope Moravian. It was an old country church where we all felt loved and welcomed. The Rev. David Merritt had recently become the pastor. He was a country boy whose family was similar to Ima’s family. And he had the same wicked sense of humor. They hit off. Ima even bought a dress to wear to church, but she was happiest helping Joe mow the church yard. Whenever possible she would take the kids outside so they wouldn’t disturb people. I think she just didn’t care so much about preaching.

After David took a new call, he was replaced by a pastor who had been a classmate of mine in seminary. He was a good kid, but got mixed up with fundamentalists and his preaching became very judgmental. It was all about sex, mainly how bad it is. And about abortion. I remember after one sermon Ima was steaming. She grabbed me in the parking lot and said “I don’t care what that preacher says. I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and it don’t say a thing about abortion.” It took a lot to get her to come back to church. Well, maybe not a lot. It took David Merritt coming back to Hope. David helped her through many years of difficulty, especially as Kenneth’s kids started doing drugs and getting into trouble. One killed a man and is in prison. One died of an overdose. Another went to jail for drugs. But the worse things got, the closer Ima got to David and to Jesus.

Then her health started failing. Years of grief and toil and smoking slowly took their toll. When Joe died she sold the house and land and moved into a little apartment. She loved for people to come and see her, especially my nephew Erik who lived nearby. But then Erik fell prey to his own demons and slipped deeper and deeper into alcoholism until finally he got blood sepsis and died. He was only 40. My mom died later that year, and it was a blow to Ima.

I moved away to Pennsylvania after that to be a professor. Ima told me once that she was much twice as smart as me. She finished school in 12 years, but it took me 24. I didn’t see much of Ima after I moved, but I am glad I got to see her one last time. She was dying and we both knew it. But we didn’t talk about that. We laughed together remembering funny stories from the past. I think I told her I loved her. But I think she knew that anyway. It is so hard to say good-bye.

Ima was ready for heaven, but I don’t know if heaven is ready for her. I do know that God is going to have to answer for a lot when Ima gets a chance to talk to him. She loved Jesus because Jesus knew what it’s like to suffer, but God the Father was more than a mystery to her. I don’t think Ima ever did a cruel or evil thing in her life, but she suffered greatly from others. I’ve got no answers for her. But when I get to heaven, I’ll have a chat with God, too, and thank him for giving me that beautiful woman to ease my own suffering and grief. And I’ll let him know that she don’t like to wear dresses like those other angels. Give her some old jeans and boots. And while harp music is okay, she’d rather hear some banjos. And is it really wrong to have a smoke in heaven?




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  • badiet  On November 11, 2017 at 5:56 pm

    A beautiful tribute, Craig. I’ve got tears in my eyes. Aunt Ima would have laughed and lived this. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Christy  On November 11, 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Beautiful. I feel as though I knew Ima through your stories.

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