by Ferris Gilli
On a certain afternoon
in the spring of 1950,
my mother and I sat on a sunlit porch with Aunt Lizzie
and Uncle Ned.
I was with people I loved, and
had just completed second grade, so naturally, I oozed
contentment. Like the adults, I was lulled by the gentleness of
what Aunt Lizzie called “a golden day.” The soft air and the
heady mix of kitchen spices, honeysuckle and crabapple blossoms,
strong soap, coffee beans, and dried tobacco had drugged us.
My mother and I were wearing matching blue-and-white sundresses,
and we had light suntans. The natural color of our hosts was the
warm, rich brown of fresh cinnamon. Aunt Lizzie was wearing a
pink cotton dress, and Uncle Ned was in his familiar faded blue
overalls. He wore a red scarf around his neck.
Their house, its walls and porch, and the handmade porch
furniture were a worn, grayish-brown. The trees and bushes were
bursting with color. The morning glories twining over the gate
had great purple blooms, and wildflower blossoms hovered along
the board fence. Noticing that several bushes were full of
unopened buds, I pointed. “Why are those flowers all closed up?”
Aunt Lizzie smiled. “Honey, those are four o'clocks. They open
late in the day and close again at dark. They'll be opening
soon. We have to wait until they feel like it, I expect.”
Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Ned lived alone in that house next to the
dirt road, on my grandmother's farm in Georgia. They'd lived and
worked on that land all my life and most of theirs. Aunt Lizzie
was famous for her homemade pies, and had a large clientele from
the women in town. My mother sat in a wooden rocker, and I sat
between Aunt Lizzie and Uncle Ned in the old slatted swing.
While Aunt Lizzie and Mama talked, Uncle Ned listened and shook
his grizzled head in approval or disbelief. The swing creaked on
its rusty chains when I wiggled, and a shower of sunlight
through the trees warmed my head and face and bare feet.
Aunt Lizzie removed the rubber bands at the ends of my pigtails
and began to comb her fingers gently through the straight,
whitish-blond hair, saying to my mother, “Miss Jane, do you have
a brush in that purse?”
She began to brush gently, and Uncle Ned said in his deep
rumble, “Lizzie, when you pull the brush in such a way, that
baby's hair is agleamin' with the sun. My, what a precious
“I expect her hair'll turn darker one day,” murmured Mama, her
eyes suddenly shining.
Just then a cloud of dust accompanied by a tinny rattle appeared
up the road from the direction of town, but we paid little
attention. Aunt Lizzie brushed, and I basked.
“My, that's something,” said Uncle Ned, and reached out one
impossibly long forefinger to touch my hair, though he
immediately withdrew his hand.
“Give Uncle Ned the brush,” suggested Mama.
Aunt Lizzie's hand twitched at what may have been a tangle, just
for a moment. Mama smiled and nodded, and Uncle Ned took the
brush. He made a tentative pass with the tips of the bristles,
light as a butterfly.
The car that we'd heard earlier was drawing closer.
“Go ahead, Uncle Ned, brush it
hard. It won't hurt,” I said.
“Humm,” he rumbled, and made another delicate sweep, holding the
brush up and letting my hair fall from it in a thin, sun-shot
The car stopped in a swirl of dust. The driver's door opened,
and Maybelle Swann stepped out. “Good aftuhnoon," she said, her
whine cutting the air. “Wahm today, idn't it?”
That afternoon Maybelle was positively radiant, looking somewhat
like a huge poppy. Her dress was pale yellow, loose-bodiced and
flounce-skirted, and she wore a floppy yellow hat. However
floral she was in outward design, Maybelle was not one of my
favorite people, and I ignored her while Mama and Aunt Lizzie
muttered something in greeting. Uncle Ned seemed to jerk a
little, and I no longer felt the brush against my scalp.
“Jane Merrill,“ Maybelle shrilled. "I don't believe my eyes!
"Did you know that old black man was touching yo' child's
She walked quickly to the gate
and stopped. She opened the gate a little, though no one had
invited her in.
Suddenly uneasy, I looked from
Mama to Aunt Lizzie, and saw that Uncle Ned was slumped into the
corner of the swing. He had clasped his long fingers together in
his lap, his head was bowed, his chin sagged into the red scarf.
Aunt Lizzie, sitting stiff as a porch rail, stared straight
ahead, gazing at some fixed point beyond the plowed fields.
Mama asked, her words shaved from ice, “Have you some business
with Aunt Lizzie today, Maybelle?”
Aunt Lizzie lifted her hand and began to brush my hair. The
bristles trembled against my scalp. I placed one of my hands
over Uncle Ned's prayerful clench. He looked suddenly shrunken,
and his only response to my touch was to shrink even more. I
sent waves of hate toward Maybelle.
Maybelle dropped her voice to a hiss, and it tore the air like
butane gas from an open, flameless valve. “You mean to say you
let him touch hu hayuh?”
I stared wide-eyed at Mama. Aunt Lizzie hesitated as I felt her
eyes lock with Mama's, then she dragged the brush against my
scalp. “Brush it hard, Aunt Lizzie,” I begged, and she did.
Mama rose from the rocking
chair and walked down the steps, approached the gate, and yanked
it from the white-gloved hand. She began to speak, so low I
could hear only fragments of her sentences, but I recognized the
danger in her tone. If I had been Maybelle, I would have been
Mama's tone could have cut through rock. “Who do you think you .
. . Don't you ever . . . these, lovely, dear people, you
narrow-minded, congenitally malicious bitch!”
Mama turned her back on the other woman and returned to the
porch. Fluttering toxic yellow petals, Maybelle stalked to her
car. She slammed into the seat, and tortured the engine for a
few seconds before she rattled off in a whirlwind of dust.
“Loathsome creature!” spat Mama, as we watched the brown dust
settling. “Don't pay one bit of attention to her.”
“Yes'm,” murmured Aunt Lizzie. No other words were uttered while
she plaited my hair and replaced the rubber bands.
I couldn't bear the silence. “Uncle Ned? Uncle Ned?”
I stared at him. I was only a child, and he'd never called me
'ma'am' before. I didn't like him doing it now. “Uncle Ned, I
love you. We don't like that mean old Miz Maybelle. We like you
a hundred times better.”
“The Lord knows that's the truth,” said Mama.
Uncle Ned lifted his head and laid his huge palms on his knees.
“Thank you, ma'am.”
Ferris Gilli is one of the world's best loved poets of
English-language haiku and other related forms, both traditional
and modern. Multi-award winning, she judges, edits, and teaches
internationally. An Associate Editor of
The Heron's Nest,
she was also editor of
Treetops, a column in the on-line journal World Haiku
Review, from 2001-2004.
A series of
her haiku tutorials has been translated into Romanian and is now
being used in high schools and middle schools across Romania and
at the University of Bucharest and the University of Bacau.
Currently living in Florida, she was born and grew up in Georgia
(USA), and though she has lived in different places around the
world, her heart remains in the Deep South.
Ferris Gilli doesn't just write poetry, and she doesn't only
write. She is also an artist and potter, though her bio to me
began: "wife, mother, grandmother".
And though she
could write, teach and
judge to the glory of mummified pendantia, the essence of
is the very opposite — as clear,
as invitingly delvable as an 'undiscovered' creek.
Here's a little
sample of some of her haiku, in this case also translated
Ferris Gilli can be contacted at
hgilli (at) cfl.rr.com