Aunt Rebecca, My First Introduction to the Spirit World
Aunt Rebecca was an unusual character. She stood 5’2” tall and at the time was considered to be stout and big bosomed, descriptions rarely used today. She had wide hips and a protruding rear end typical of many African-American women. She would tell me her straight, fine hair had been bright red as a child, but this was hard for me to imagine, as it was grey by the time I came along, not to mention the fact, that I had never witnessed a black person with bright red hair in my heretofore short life.
She said her red hair came from her mulatto father who was part-Irish. Her skin was light, what would be referred to as “Redbone” in the African-American community today. She had a strong, somewhat wide nose that flared a bit at the end, and high cheekbones inherited from her Cherokee mother which were not so prominent due to the layer of fat covering them.
Growing up in Anniston, AL—Rebecca, a tomboy, wasn’t a child that most people liked, she admittedly revealed. She was more mischievous than precocious, more willful than yielding, and more cruel than kind. My grandfather would say, “She was downright bad!” She enjoyed torturing animals, cats in particular, and was sadistic towards an elderly lame neighbor, rationalizing she stomped on his feet in an effort to get him to walk. She seemed to love her mother, Eliza, but had a strong dislike for her father, Ananias, who was not so quick to put up with her many shenanigans. Having been raised on a farm, she was used to gardening and tending livestock and incorporated this into her daily life when she moved to the city.
I thought women should be sweet and feminine, but Aunt Rebecca was the opposite. She liked to drink and curse, pick fights and watch TV wrestling bouts. People became docile and walked around on eggshells around her, especially when she would threaten to “go upside their head” for some sort of real, minor or imagined infraction against her. The only people safe around her were her family whom she loved dearly.
She never learned to read or write, and would sign her name with an X; as a result, we children had to often read and write for her. I remember witnessing her disappointment once when opening a gift from a young friend. The gift was a beautiful handmade book with blank pages. The gift-giver was proud of his handmade work of art, but it was lost on Aunt Rebecca who had no use of such a gift, being as she was illiterate. She admitted her not being able to read or write was due to the fact that she fooled around in school and had no interest in learning. She preferred to be out and about playing hooky from school where she was apt to get into trouble.
That trouble landed her in a quandary when she said her father, Ananias, got tired of her escapades and married her off at the age of twelve to a man in his forties. (I can only imagine how well that went over with her.) She told my sister and I that, during the short marriage, she gave birth to stillborn twins. Shortly thereafter, she ran away.
Later when we questioned my grandfather about the story, he said he never heard anything about stillborn twins. He said my aunt sometimes told tall tales, and we were to not believe everything she told us. I didn’t have the foresight to ask her then where exactly she ran to, or what happened in the intervening years. She did say she never obtained a divorce from her husband, although she remarried years later to my Uncle Walter. She never bore any more children.
Aunt Rebecca might not have been able to read writing, but she could certainly read tea leaves, coffee grinds and palms, and she was considered to be a psychic with connections to the spirit world. These skills and abilities were passed down to her from her Native American mother. The family would joke about the morning my uncle, Lawrence, stopped by my aunt’s house on his way to work for an impromptu visit and cup of coffee. After drinking his coffee, he asked her to read the grinds to attest to her abilities:
“No, I don’t like to give readings,” she said, “because people don’t always want to hear what I see.”
“Oh come on!” said Uncle Lawrence in his loud, gruff voice.
“Just this once, Aunt Rebecca,” he pleaded.
Back and forth they went, until Aunt Rebecca finally relented. She looked inside his cup and admonished, “Lawrence you’re going to jail today!”
“You’re crazy!” barked Lawrence. “I’ve never been to jail in my life!”
“Well, you’re going today! I’m sorry, I can’t turn back the hands of time, I can only tell you what I see!”
That evening, Lawrence borrowed my father’s car and went out drinking and carousing. He became highly intoxicated and hit a young boy while driving. Thank God the boy recovered okay, but that night, Uncle Lawrence was arrested and went to jail, just as my aunt had predicted. He became enraged with Aunt Rebecca and somehow blamed her for the disastrous chain of events.
“Don’t you tell me anything again!” he shouted at her. She reminded him that he insisted on the reading, and he shouted, “You should have lied!”
Thereafter, no one in the family would allow Aunt Rebecca to give premonitions, so she resorted to giving them to us children instead.
One day, Aunt Rebecca said her right hand was itching, which indicated she would be coming into some money soon. It was a snowy, wintry day and she left her house to run some errands. While out she slipped on a sheet of ice in front of Allegheny Valley Bank and broke her leg. Guess who came into some money?
As a child, I didn’t understand the significance of funerals to the African-American community. All I knew was that Aunt Rebecca talked an awful lot about hers. She kept lists of all the people she wanted to attend. As she was unable to write, these lists would come from the church member’s directory. By the way, Aunt Rebecca would talk about her funeral, you would have thought she was planning a big church wedding.
We would be regaled with every little detail, from the clothing to the food, that would be served at the repast to the procession. She would begin by opening her wooden chifferobe with the mirror to show us the stylish dress she would be laid out in at the funeral home. Then she would open her bureau drawer to gingerly show us the tissue-wrapped pink shroud she’d be buried in.
She called it a shroud, but it just looked like a pink nightgown to us. Next, she would talk about her casket, pull out the deed to her cemetery plot, and tell us how she would be buried next to her deceased husband, Walter, and on and on it went. I cannot begin to tell how many times my sister Gwen and I had to sit through this torturous ordeal throughout the years.
Gwen and I would sit as stiff as little wooden soldiers on the bed, legs dangling over the sides with eyes shifting back and forth in fear, while we listened time and time again to this ritual which we wanted no part of. While it scared us, it appeared to excite Aunt Rebecca, who would always end by preaching, shouting and singing about how she didn’t have long to be in this world, there would be no more trials and tribulations, and Hallelujah! She was going to the Promised Land! Gwen and I in relief and unison would think…AMEN!
Aunt Rebecca had a sense of humor. I remember one day it was time to take down the slop bucket, to empty it into the toilet on the second floor. I hated this chore. The waste water smelled strongly of pee, and the ammonia was stinging my eyes. I wanted to clamp my nose with the fingers of my left hand, but the bucket was heavy and required both hands to hoist and carry it down the two flights of stairs. The thin metal handle bore into the palms of my hands, creasing them with deep red indentations causing me to wince. I reached the landing and tripped over the board I had placed the night before to ward off evil spirits. I began to tumble falling headfirst and lost hold of the bucket, the contents sloshed up and then towards me drenching my face and shoulders, stinging my eyes and disgusting my mouth, before running down the front of my dress. The bucket clanged against the wall, keeled over and the remainder of the pee cascaded down the stairs.
Hearing the commotion, Aunt Rebecca came bounding down the stairs with Gwen traipsing behind her, to see what was going on. I thought my aunt would be angry, but she took one look at me sprawled down the stairs with piss everywhere, and broke out into boisterous laughter before asking me if I was okay. She loved to laugh at foolishness. She had me clean up the mess, bathe and wash my hair before calling my parents to come and get us. We were supposed to stay another day, but she’d had enough of us that weekend.
She liked to drink beer and would almost always have Iron City beer in the house. When it ran out, we would be sent to the corner Beer Garden where she had a tab, to buy us some more. I say us, because whenever we were at her house, we drank beer along with her. This was in the 1950s, and though it sounds suspect, we were permitted to pick up beer for our aunt. I remember liking the taste then, but neither Gwen nor I care for beer today. She would also allow us to drink lots of strong, caffeinated, dark coffee with plenty of sugar and heavy cream that we liked to dip our powdered donuts in. We were forbidden to drink tea, though, she said it wasn’t good for young children.
It is a distinct disadvantage to be illiterate in this world, which is why slaves were denied access to education. To compensate for her being illiterate, it appeared Aunt Rebecca delved into the spirit world and used bullying to gain some control over her circumstances. Despite her lack of education my mother said Aunt Rebecca was the wealthiest Black woman she knew. I guess my mother growing up poor in the early and mid -1900s, did not encounter any African-Americans with real wealth, as Aunt Rebecca was married to my Uncle Walter who was a janitor for the Pittsburgh Port Authority. The company provided the two with a nice, rent-free home on Tioga Street in the Wilkinsburg section of Pittsburgh, as part of his compensation. This freed up a lot of their money, which afforded them quite a few luxuries.
My relatives would tell of my aunt and uncle’s beautifully decorated home, expensive clothing, fine car and the abundance of food they stockpiled throughout the house, concealed under floorboards and within hidden wall passages for safekeeping. The safekeeping I later learned from my father, was safekeeping from the government who were rationing things like sugar during World War 2. He said it was common for people to hide commodities. People hoarded and hid their foodstuffs, because you would be in trouble if someone exposed your hoarding to governmental authorities. Sadly Aunt Rebecca’s so called wealth was lost to her when her husband later died from leukemia, and she was forced to move into my parent’s rental home.
Aunt Rebecca’s most dire prediction came the summer of 1965. I was a teenager at the time. The phone rang sharply and I answered on the second ring, which I always tried to do:
“Hello.” It was Aunt Rebecca.
“I heard Nellie calling your mom and Peter last night!” Nellie was my late grandmother, my mother Dolores, was her daughter and Peter, my grandfather had been her husband.
My automatic reaction was to say, “Aunt Rebecca, grandma’s dead!” My grandmother had died some months before. She was getting old, had she forgotten this?
“I know that!” snapped Aunt Rebecca. She was calling them from the grave.!”
“Now, Aunt Rebecca…”
“I’m telling you, I heard her! She was calling Dolores! — Dolores! Pete! —Pete!”
“Aunt Rebecca…” I said again.
“She’s coming to get them! I prayed Lord! Lord! Please don’t let her take them! When the spirits begin calling like that it means someone is going to die!”
Tring to placate her I said, “Aunt Rebecca, mom and granddad are fine, they’re both in good health. I’m sure they’re going to be okay,” but she wouldn’t be soothed.
“Mark my words, I’m telling you!”
She really sounded distressed. She began pleading with me to believe her. Unable to calm her down, I pretended I had something urgent to attend to in order to get her off the phone. I hung up the receiver thinking, she really needs to get a new hobby.
Later that day, an unfortunate chain of events began to develop making me wish with all my might that I had listened to what my aunt had attempted to tell me; though logically I’m sure nothing I could have said or done would have altered the impending outcome.
Within a few hours of the phone call from Aunt Rebecca, my mother began to hemorrhage profusely from what we learned later were fibroid tumors. She was rushed to the hospital by ambulance, and the attending physician made the decision that a blood transfusion and emergency hysterectomy were both necessary. My mom was rushed into the operating room, and a call was made to my grandfather, Peter, to inform him.
My grandfather was understandably upset, as previously mentioned, he had lost his wife Nellie a number of months before, and was still grieving her death. The hospital was several miles away from where he lived, and he made the decision to walk the distance to be with my mother. The news and the walk were just too much for him, he suffered a heart attack along the way and collapsed in the street. He later died at the hospital.
Before dying, he voiced God would take him but spare my mother. My mother over time fully recovered.