From time to time, growing up, the parents would shove us onto a plane bound for Oklahoma City. Not to panic, Nanna was waiting at the other end (grandparents in our family have a peculiar aversion to being called "grandparents"; Nanna, Meemaw, Pappie, and other bizarre monikers straight out of Lil' Abner are somehow preferable).
Nanna lived in a town called Tuttle, half of which was populated by kin, all of whom were oddly named and resolutely Baptist. The women, invariably, had hairdos dyed in improbable shades, teased to architecturally unstable heights and sprayed into tornado-proof bee-hives. The men wore Roy Clark sideburns and brill-creamed their coifs into oily Conway Twitty pompadours. What a cast of characters.
Cousin Roxie-Lou had the discomfiting habit of shouting "HALLELUJAH!" at inappropriate moments and had a barely-tolerated ability to speak in tongues. Over her plastic-covered sofa, Aunt Ellie Louise had proudly hung an enormous panorama depicting of hundreds of people dying in gruesome ways (car accidents, muggings, train wrecks, fires), as their freshly liberated souls fly up into the waiting bosom of an Elvis-esque Jesus (or a Jesus-esque Elvis, we're not sure which). Cousin Tammy-Sue seemed incapable of saying anything that didn't induce her mother, Aunt Linda-May, to fish a bar of Ivory Soap from her purse and wash out her daughter's mouth. On one occasion, having made a remark about her brother being a butt (not an entirely inaccurate assessment), poor Tammy-Sue (without skipping a beat) actually fetched the soap herself, anticipating the inevitable. Uncle John-Bo once had us take the wheel of his combine so he could take a beer-induced nap. Unable at the age of nine to steer the house-sized vehicle, John-Bo awoke to discover that we'd veered far off course and were well on our way to carving one of those alien-attributed "signs" into his vast wheat field.
But our most fascinating Oklahoma relative lived on the other side of the state, far beyond the Muskogee town limits. We always felt a pang of fear and excitement when Nanna announced we were piling into her emerald green El Dorado and paying a visit to Auntie Magnolia.
Auntie Magnolia's large farmhouse was totally "off the grid," and lacked indoor plumbing. Out back, there was a privy (complete with crescent moon cut-out) and a handle-pump well. She cooked on a wood stove and kept her Cher-length hair in a thick grey braid. Visits to Auntie Magnolia were mostly spent fetching water. This was a terrifying chore, with good reason; Auntie Magnolia's house sat about thirty yards from a bog infested with cottonmouth water moccasins. Understandably, we delayed trips to the privy for as long as physically possible. We were convinced, particularly on one memorable midnight jaunt to the al fresco loo, that we'd sit to answer nature's call and get a potentially fatal bite on the ass (or worse, our tender vittles).
These fears were not unfounded. One morning we awoke to the sound of Auntie Magnolia hacking a cottonmouth to death with a shovel; the unlucky viper had rudely slithered onto the back porch and into the pantry. To her, it was an inconvenience. She was perturbed by the mess. We stared at her, saucer-eyed, and gulped. Before us, mopping up the guts of a deadly snake, was the last remnant of true pioneer stock. She kept a loaded rifle by the door and was not above shooting and skinning a bunny rabbit for dinner. We were in awe of that woman, but secretly believed she could ride a broom.
When time came to take leave of Auntie Magnolia, it was always something of a relief. One afternoon, loading our suitcases into the back of Nanna's El Dorado, Auntie Magnolia looked skyward and said "I reckon you best stay put for a spell." Above our heads, from nowhere, appeared something all plains-state folk recognize with instant dread: a funnel cloud. A half-hour later, huddled in the doorway between the dining room and the parlor, we listened to what sounded like an approaching freight train. As Nanna and Auntie Margaret shouted in reproach, we sprinted from the doorway to the parlor window. We had to see it. And there it was, just beyond the bog, a twister. Churning up all sorts of things (including more than a couple airborne cottonmouths, no doubt).
The storm eventually passed and it was time to disembark. Hugging Auntie Magnolia, we had no way of knowing we'd never see her again. She died well into her nineties while chopping wood.
And no, dear ass-whuppers, the irony isn't lost on us. The only time we saw a real live tornado, we were in the presence of our beloved Auntie M.
Auntie Magnolia sez: "I reckon you best subscribe to this blog's feed"