Iris, pronounced “ear-is,” Aunt Iris that is, pronounced “ain’t,” as she preferred to be called, was from Mississippi. By happenstance, the whims of fate, and a distant relative, after living her long life of over 90 years there in Mississippi, she wound up in the Swansong. One day she had some visitors, the daughter of a second cousin once removed and the new husband. Even though the young lady had met Aunt Iris only once before, she was greeted like long lost royalty. When introduced to the husband, Aunt Iris said, “You come over here and hug my neck, you kin now.” Such was her warmth and kindness.
They sat for a chat, and after basic pleasantries on health and the weather, the new husband – a curious sort – asked Aunt Iris some questions. “ Aunt Iris, you ever do much traveling?”
Aunt Iris looked up as if watching a bird fly across the sky and said, “Well, let me see…” She paused long enough to watch the imaginary bird fly into the trees. “I went to Arkansas one time. Another time I went to Alabama, but that was just for a spell to get a chair from my great uncle’s cousin’s child who wanted to give me that chair. So, we went and got it, but it broke. Once, we were gonna go to Florida, but I don’t think we did.” She paused to watch the imaginary bird fly back in another direction.
Before she could go on, the new husband, one of them native Californians asked, “Aunt Iris, what’s your favorite food?”
“Well,” said Iris, her eyes now looking at the imaginary banquet table before her, “I likes fish. Catfish. Yessir, fried catfish. Mmm’.” As if an after thought, “I could have me some of that right about now.”
The couple stayed for about an hour chatting about this and that, this and that person who was related to such and so. What happened here and there, when and where. Eventually there was more neck hugging, well wishing, and they went on their way.
After they’d left, Jesse came in and said, “Aunt Iris, what can I get you? Do you need anything?”
Aunt Iris said, “Darlin’ I don’t need a thing, but a nice glass of water would be an absolute pleasure.”
When Jesse came back with the water, Iris thanked him profusely, took him by the arm and said, “Jesse honey, I’ve got to tell you something. You know that nice young man who was just here?”
“Yes,” said Jesse as he leaned over Iris’s bed.
“I neglected to tell that boy that I’d been to Louisiana one time. It was to pay a visit to my friend’s cousin’s grammy to fetch another chair, and for the life of me I can’t remember why, but it was delightful. I’ll never forget being in her kitchen,” she paused, “except that I forgot to tell that young man about it so I guess I cain’t say never. Anyway, that woman was just making some gumbo, but she told me something I’ve been realizing was more important than when she said it. But even then I reckoned it was pretty important.”
“What was that?” asked Jesse.
“So she’s cuttin’ an onion there in the kitchen, and she says to me, “sweetie, did you know that if you whistle while you work, whistle while you cut onions, then you won’t cry.”
“That’s some nice advice,” said Jesse.
“But then she said that she don’t whistle, that she likes to cry, that the tears she cries while she’s cuttin’ onions cleansed her soul. She said that onions was sympathy, that peppers was excitement, and that celery was most of the time. She said that what made a good gumbo was the diversity. She said that if all you had was potatoes, you might live, but it’d be borin’. She said ‘flavor ain’t one thing. Spice is nice, but spicy is better and it’s more than one spice, more than one flavor, that makes for good eatin’. An’ most important is that just one tongue can taste it all!’”
“Sounds like a wise woman,” said Jesse.
“Well, she was wise with her pies, but her gumbo philosophy was unreal. She said that some people was like okra, sticky. Some people was like garlic, stinky. And some people was like tomatoes – and there’s lotsa kindsa tomatoes, but the ones that have a hard life taste better. She said some people was like bay leaves and some people – like her – was like sassafras, kinda sassy like. But if she cut some onions she’d be less sassy and more sympathetic. Lotsa folks was like rice or grits, but most important, if you didn’t have ‘em all, if you didn’t have that diversity, you wouldn’t have no good gumbo.”
“Well, as Mississippi people might say, that sounds like it tastes mighty good,” said Jesse with a smile.
“Yessir, she knew a thing or two,” said Iris, happy that Jesse seemed to like her story. “I’ll tell you another funny little thing about that woman. You know I said she was my friend’s cousin’s granny?”
“Yes,” said Jesse.
“Well, that friend of mine was black. Her cousin was black. But that woman, that granny, she kinda looked white. At leastwise, you couldn’t really tell. I mean, I figured she’d be black, but when I saw her, she looked white. When she talked, sometimes she sounded black, sometimes she sounded white.
“Well, ma’am, if you don’t mind my saying, sometimes southern accents confuse me. I think of them as black or white. Is there a difference?” Jesse asked.
“Oh my yes,” said Iris. “There’s a difference betwixt Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and ‘tween city folks and country folks, left of here, right of there, and most definitely between whites and blacks. But,” and she paused, watching that imaginary bird fly once again across the ceiling, “I reckon ya’ll from hereabouts might not know some of all that. I mean some comes from accents, you know, the deflections of voice. And others come from their colloquialisms. Or as Daddy Bob used to say, ‘their localisms.’”
Jesse just nodded.
“Anyway, I reckon that woman was both, black and white, and really lots of us are. Those racist people talk about keeping folks apart, but we weren’t, aren’t, never were. It’s hard to live around that, the bane of my existence really. I just saw people, just people, some’s good, some’s bad, and that ain’t about what they look like, it’s about who they are, how they act, what they do, what they say, or leastwise what they really mean – what they’re about, you know?” The bird flew back across the ceiling. “Folks is folks, and if you’re even just a little bit patient you can tell that. But some of those garlicy people just get up and say this or that all loud. Too much of that spoils the gumbo.”
“Hmm,” said Jesse.
“Maybe that’s why I don’t like my food too spicy,” said Iris. “Maybe that’s why I haven’t gone too far from where I’m from, ’til now that is? Maybe I’m too patient? You know Jesse, I think I’m gonna start writing some letters, you know, to politicians and such. Help ‘em out with all their confusionisms.”
Jesse looked confused, “What do you mean?”
Iris looked at Jesse, then out the window. “Well, it’s too late for me to wander around. It’s too late for me to start eatin’ too much spicy food. But it’s not too late to let these young whippersnappers, what’s runnin’ everything, know what’s important.”
“And what is important,” said Jesse.
“Love,” said Iris. “We all just have to love each other, don’t you know, like how you feel when a good gumbo tastes good.”