Monday, April 9, 2012

Aunt Sestus

Every childhood should be blessed with at least one colorful relative. I was lucky enough to have several from both sides of the family tree. But for now I will focus only on my mother’s side of the family and her favorite and only auntie (by blood) in particular. Sestus Oriole Tucker was my grandmother’s only sister. I’m not sure how close they were in age but as sisters they loved one another dearly but argued like there was no tomorrow. My grandmother’s patience was often tested but never broken in part because of her little sister’s tragic near death experience.

In 1920 Aunt Sestus became a mother at the age of twenty-one. One day she was dressing her small son in front of an open flame heater. As she bent forward to adjust his clothing the hem of her gown flew into the open fire and her clothes immediately went up in a blaze. She was wearing a floor length housedress as was stylish for the time. Fortunately her hair was covered by a dust bonnet and was spared from the ravaging flames.

Aunt Sestus ran screaming from the house fully engulfed by the fire. As she ran across the street toward her mother’s house she pulled at her flaming clothes with her fingers. By the time she reached her mother’s porch her clothes had been completely burned from her body. A well-meaning neighbor covered her with a gunnysack to hide her nakedness, which later was determined to be a source of infection. Unable to be moved to a hospital she was carried into her mother’s house where she was cared for by relatives and friends for several months. She sustained 3rd degree burns over 70 percent of her body and her fingers were completed burned away leaving only the thumbs on each of her hands. Her face and hair were spared from the affects of the flames. Mercifully she remained in a coma for many weeks. With nothing other than Unguentine to treat her burns family members poured it over her body and one-by-one they would pass out from the smell of her burnt flesh. The town doctor gave her what pain medication was available but told her family they should not expect her to survive. But live she did, defying all the odds.

At one point in her recovery a surgery was performed to snip the ligaments that remained in her fingers. As the burns healed the skin became tight, pulling what was left of her fingers down into the palms of her hands cutting into the flesh. I believe this was the only surgery she had since skin grafts and plastic surgery weren’t available at that time.

So her family was right, she truly was a living miracle and any allowances they may have extended her were understandable. So Aunt Sestos developed her tell it like it is style of communication. She didn’t hold anything back. By some accounts she was considered spoiled but rightfully so.

My mother was crazy about her auntie and had been named for her aunt receiving her middle name Oriole. As I grew up I was just as enamored with my feisty great aunt. She was always dressed to perfection. In the 50’s it was stylish to wear gloves and I never saw her without a bright white pair either on her hands or carried in one hand. She was so adept at hiding her disfigured hands that no one ever noticed unless they were told. Her scars were isolated to her torso and stopped short just above her knees. She was always impeccably dressed wearing stockings and heals at all times. The only visible outer sign of her horrible ordeal were her hands, which she so deftly kept from view.

By the time I was born Aunt Sestus had lived with her scars for over forty years and had been able to learn to do most everything in spite of her missing fingers. She had the most beautiful penmanship and as a girl I was intrigued as I watched her hold a pen between her thumb and the stub of her index finger. Her handwriting easily challenged the best calligrapher with its intricate curly Q’s and fancy swirls. The only thing I remember that she wasn’t able to do was hold a paintbrush or roller and paint her walls. Whenever the mood would strike her she would call the family to come and paint her house, which we happily obliged.

Aunt Sestus lost her husband to a heart attack long before my birth. Since she had no formal education she made her living as a housemother in a fraternity at the University of Kansas. She preferred spending her time with boys (as she had a son of her own) and was an avid KU basketball fan. Her summers were free and she would take advantage of her time off by visiting her favorite niece.

Aunt Sestus loved to shop and she and my mother would go on shopping trips to John A Brown’s Department store in Oklahoma City. I loved to tag along but even I couldn’t keep up with my Aunt Sestus. She had more energy than three eight year-olds. Even my mom couldn’t keep up with her.

The one trait that set my great aunt apart from the rest of the family was her fear of the so-called “boogers”. She always thought there were “boogers” waiting to assault and rob her of her worldly possessions. She was constantly looking over her shoulder and after dark would lock the house up like a fortress. Every noise she heard would make her yell out loud causing us all to jump out of our skins. We’d all jump and then burst into giggles followed by my Aunt’s favorite expletive, “Well, Ding Dong”. She could make “Ding Dong” sound like the cursing of a crusty old sailor on leave.

One time when my brother and I were in grade school Aunt Sestus came to visit. Aunt Sestus was sleeping on the hide-away bed in the living room when she heard a noise in the middle of the night. Apparently our mother heard the same noise. Mother came through the dining room with a bat in her hand while Aunt Sestus came from the opposite end of the house with a bat of her own. Both women met somewhere in the middle and miraculously in the midst of all the screaming neither were struck by the other’s weapon.

We all enjoyed teasing our auntie just so we could hear her holler and see her jump. She had a good sense of humor and took it all in stride. In spite of the fact that doctor’s had predicted she would have a short life due to what they called damage inflicted by the fire. She lived to be just shy of 100 years old. passing away peacefully one week before my father's death in 1992.  She had outlived both her husband and son and all her siblings. I think it was due to her feisty personality and her never give up attitude.

I come from a long line of strong, independent women.  This was a story of just one of them.  I give thanks to all of them and hope to do as well.

1 comment:

Muffy's Marks said...

I can certainly see why she was your favorite aunt. I'll bet you have lots more stories to share, and I would love to read about them.