My Aunt Grace

        I knew of my Aunt Grace years before I actually met her. Whenever I left toys scattered on the floor or put something strange on my dresser, my mother would inevitably say: “What would your Aunt Grace say if she saw that?” Or “What would Aunt Grace think if she heard you say that?” As a small boy growing up in Oregon, I failed to grasp the significance of an unknown lady from a place as far away as Washington, D.C., but she seemed to matter a lot to my mother. And why did we call her “Aunt” Grace, when I knew my mother was an only child? There were lots of questions about Aunt Grace, and it took a while in my life to find answers, and I would like to share some of those answers with you.

        Sometime back in the 1920’s a man from Metter, Georgia, named George Clayton Coleman disappeared without a trace. Nobody knows to this day what happened. What we do know is that George Coleman’s wife and children had to survive as best they could, which meant that a daughter, Grace, went to live in my grandparents’ house in Metter, where she became a Big Sister to my mother, Doris. And for the rest of their lives, my mother and her cousin, Grace, along with the rest of the Coleman children, had a special bond, and Aunt Grace, unknowingly, became my standard of Correct Behavior and Proper Taste.

        Then in the late 1950’s my mother took my brother and I on a long journey across America. We rode on big, powerful trains all the way from Portland, Oregon, to the nation’s capital in Washington, and when we got off, there was a small, pretty woman with smiling eyes and a quick laugh, and I was introduced to my famous Aunt Grace. I was totally surprised. I had expected a stern Southern Lady who would stare down at me and make me feel guilty, but what I found was a woman who immediately brought her face down to mine and let me know right away that she was most happy to make my acquaintance.

        My Aunt Grace was such a lively person in those days, and I will always remember her moving quickly around her house, often with a tinkling glass and a cigarette in hand. She let us sleep on her porch on summer nights, helped us catch our first fireflies and always introduced me as her favorite nephew.

        As the years went by I didn’t often see Aunt Grace, although my parents and grandparents spoke of her continually. Even as my wife and I were setting up our first apartment, I remember my mother using the what-would-Grace-think line on a piece of our artwork, but by then I thought enough of Aunt Grace to know not to be bothered by this argument. I knew that Aunt Grace loved her favorite nieces and nephews regardless of our décor choices, living arrangements and political parties. Aunt Grace just loved.

        More decades passed. Grace’s husband, John, died, and we worried how Grace would change without the calming influence of a man who always seemed to be unruffled and delighted by his sprightly wife. Fortunately, we didn’t notice any change in our Aunt Grace. We moved to Georgia, and eventually I found myself traveling past Aunt Grace’s house for visits, much as my father had done back in the Fifties and Sixties. She kept me informed of the other Favorite Nephews and Nieces, and together we visited places around Washington, although in ever-shrinking distances from her house.

        Finally as my own parents became infirmed, the trips had to cease, except that now our eldest daughter, Maraiah, could visit her Aunt Grace and discover for herself the privilege of Favorite Niece status. She could also discover the pride that comes from having a Southern relative who is so cheerful and charming, so loving and friendly. It helped her to understand a bit of what drew us to bring her to the South in the first place.

        Now Aunt Grace has left us, at least for a while. There could be theological discussions as to her whereabouts, but I personally don’t care. I only want to think that when my own time comes to “Step Across” I will be greeted by a sprightly little woman with a twinkle in her eye who will be very glad to see me … and I will be most overjoyed to see her, too.