I envisioned Uncle Mona’s wiry chin hairs pressed flat against the champagne satin lining of
her casket when I tossed the ball of red clay into her grave.
“She was fearless.” Gertie Hawkins, her Airforce pal with the sandpapered vocal cords, piled
a second slice of catfish pie on her plate. “Best mechanic ever. Better than any
man, I ever saw.” A beady eyed badger in a black crepe frock, she and my aunt had retired
from the military after forty years of duty. “We were war broads!” She snorted at her own
Thin as a ferret, her coral lips bobbing atop the wave of black crashing through the front
door, Mama greeted the mourning gargoyles. Charming in limited doses, she had been the
ideal hostess at the wake two evenings before. However, stripped of her expected
inheritance from Uncle Mona, she was teetering on the verge of ugly.
“Good night, Colonel Bracken,” I said and ushered the boozy Billy goat out the front door.
“Mistletoe!” Mama mooed as I entered the living room. “It’s a
seller’s market.” Kicking her stilettoes under the coffee table, she headed for the bar. “I’ll
get you top dollar. A row house in Georgetown should fetch a fancy price.” She downed the
snifter of brandy in one gulp. “Strike while the iron is hot.”
“Don’t be absurd,” I said in a low pitch that wouldn’t excite her. “Your license is for South
She perched on the rolled arm of the sofa and crossed her toothpick legs. “I don’t
understand. Mona was my flesh and blood. We were sisters.” Once she started chasing her
tail, there’d be little relief until she passed out.
A carnival clown riding a bucking bronco side-saddle on a tight rope, I wrestled with a
circus of emotions concerning the future of Uncle Mona’s estate.
“What about Isabelle,” Mama whispered as she messaged her bunions.
“She’s family,” I stated firmly.
“Some old troll she dragged up here from the big easy.” The spite in her eyes
twinkled like diamond dust on a jewel cutters granite. “She’s a maid. She’ll find work.”
Even though Uncle Mona specifically requested cremation, Mama wore me down until I
agreed to a coffin. She pounded her fist on the mahogany wood sample in the funeral home
showroom. “She’s sinned enough as it is. The silly sow had ‘Uncle Mona’ chiseled on her
tombstone” Mama sneered. “Thanks to you.”
Mama’s responsible for my embarrassing name, but I stand guilty for inventing for ‘Uncle
I vaguely remember my fourth birthday party except for the surprise gift from my aunt.
Thrilled with my cuddly cocker spaniel pup, Traddles, I hugged Aunt Mona’s thick, hairy
legs and yelled with unbridled joy, “Thank you Uncle Mona!”
Aunt Mona cackled. “Did you hear that? Little man called me
Holding her chin high, her aviator sunglasses planted firmly on her
bulbous nose, Uncle Mona didn’t walk into a room, she marched. Parading in her military
uniform or relaxing in her trademark Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, she was the
manliest being in my orbit.
Restless, Mama grabbed a bottle of scotch and followed me upstairs to the third floor
where in my youth, I’d spent every summer vacation. Inhaling the pine scent of the
freshly scrubbed room, I was seven again.
“I need a break from parenting, or I’ll lose my mind,” Mama whined to Uncle Mona every
spring: a reminder of the promise she’d made in the aftermath of tragedy.
Mama, known as “the pretty one” took after their mother. Her lovely face and fine figure
afforded her privilege in a Southern family of social climbers. Uncle Mona had been
relegated to the sad position of wall-hugger. Out of sight, out of mind.
Plagued with guilt that I may be psychologically damaged, Mama never followed
through with her threats to punish me when I rebelled. She’d tap that
hickory switch against her leg, and grumble, “Don’t even think about it Mistletoe Millbank!”
I never itched to be good until Uncle Mona worked her magic. Mama cursed and stamped
her foot. Uncle Mona stared me down and rewarded me with dollars for a job well done.
Daddy, gunned down in Vietnam, was someone I felt nothing for when Mama flashed sepia
toned photos of me sitting on his lap way back in the stone age. “We named you Mistletoe
because you were conceived under the Mistletoe,” she confessed when I was six; old
enough to grasp the concept and young enough to be horrified by the terrifying image
bombarding my brain.
I insist friends and acquaintances call me by my middle name,
Tapping her talon on the wooden door frame of my room, Mama ogled me. “You need
to sell because you need to pay me back because I need the cash. I’ll be forced to file for
I was exhausted and Mama was three sheets to the wind, and I shouldn’t have strayed into
the minefield, but my defenses were down and my ire up. “Owe you money? Owe you
money?” Her glare gored me. “I’m cutting you off. No more money! No handouts! Mama,
you are going to sell that monstrosity Daddy bought you, settle your debts, and get out of
Fragile as a forsythia bloom is a windstorm, Mama collapsed on my bed in tears.
I turned my back to her and gazed down at the garden that I’d toiled in for thirteen seasons.
Cracked and veined from the January cold, the earth, like the ancient palm of a fallen giant, sat silent in the moonlight.
“World needs beauty.” Uncle Mona gingerly dusted her prized winning Francis Meiland tea
roses with beetle repellent and whispered sweet secrets to the chorus of crimson cosmos
and lemon-yellow begonias fighting for her attention. Handing me a sopping-wet
rag, we’d wash each tender leaf of the canna lilies guarding the entrance to the vegetable
Closing my eyes, I returned to her garden…our garden. Milky white yarrow mingled with a
party of shrewd fuchsia fox glove stretching to that sliver of light slicing through the blue
Chinese wisteria, the taste of its scent tattooed on my tongue.
By the time I boarded the Greyhound bound for Charleston in August, the yard chores I
fretted over in June seemed worth the backbreaking labor of July. Toiling side by side,
rarely speaking as we dug, hoed, and raked, transplanted, trimmed, and weeded, Uncle
Mona and I, like the seven dwarfs, whistled while we worked. Irish ditties that her pilot
friend, Aiden Conner, taught her, the familiar tunes she’d sing me to sleep with every night,
we whistled in the blinding sunshine of summer.
“Mama.” I unscrewed the empty tumbler from her grip. “You’re in Uncle Mona’s room
“Oh no!” She squinted to see me in the dim light from the hallway. “Never. She died in that
bed.” Pulling the coverlet over her legs, she turned to face the wall. Curled in the fetal
position, the old baby looked every bit her seventy-five years.
I cannot tell you why I never loved her, but I didn’t. Like my ex, Henry, she never bothered
with affection. She never nurtured hope nor praised my victories. She never took my hand
when I reached for hers.
I clicked my cell phone off and drifted down the backstairs to Isabelle’s room next to the
kitchen. Having dosed off in her easy chair, her string bean fingers clasping a King James
Bible, she looked small and worn. The sweet stink of death, the Grim Reaper’s calling card,
was obvious on her person. I was glad. She and Uncle Mona were rarely separated. Like the
final ticks of a clock in need of winding, her life was simply a matter of time.
I knelt before her and whispered, “Isabelle, time for bed. Go up to your room.” A sloth of a
woman, the short and round “lady friend” of Uncle Mona, gripped the railing and climbed
the stairs to the master suite she’d shared with her true love for decades.
Sterile and masculine, Uncle Mona’s house was a celebration of her military service.
American flags of all shapes and sizes hung throughout. Shadow boxed medals and framed
certificates of valor sat in a regimented procession on the living room mantel. Second-rate
oil paintings and photos of aircraft of every ilk peppered the walls. Everything in its place
and place for everything kept her two worlds in order.
Stacking the last of the Limoges in the China cabinet, I settled into the overstuffed cushions
of the living room sofa. The flame in the hearth rose when a section of log broke away and
fell into ash. Alone for the first time in her house, in Uncle Mona’s refuge from the world of
hard knocks, name calling, finger pointing, glass ceilings, and triumphs, I studied the oak
framed snapshot of her at a crowded bar.
Bigger than life, she was raising her glass to her comrade, Colonel Leland Shepard from
Andrew’s Airforce Base, a man she described as being three shades of lavender. From the
panicked expression on his long, horsey face, she must have been on the verge of one of her
cringe worthy toasts. Her cheeks red as a Lincoln rose, her smile broad and toothy, her eyes
pinched with joy, Colonel Mona Montclair from Mayfield, Alabama was in her element. As
with Mama, Uncle Mona had not been an easy creature to tolerate for more than an
afternoon and yet I loved her.
It wasn’t the loud, boisterous bully that roused me at four, forty-five every
summer morning, nor the closeted, conservative Lesbian with whom I butted heads over
the legalization of gay marriage that I missed. I pined for the caretaker of beauty, the singer
of songs, the woman who taught me to be a man.
If actions speak louder than words, my inheritance from Uncle Mona bellowed volumes of
love. Salty to the taste, my tears flowed freely. “Home,” I whispered to the orange flame tap
dancing on the unsteady kindling. “Home. I am home.”