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  • Writer's pictureK. Arthur

"Meet Me at the Fence"

Updated: Apr 4

The old rotary phone resonated like a bicycle bell on steroids from the dining room, and the race was on to see who could answer it first. But my brother had been reading in his room, his nose between the hardback covers of J.R. Tolkien, and I got there before he did. Phone calls from Aunt Helen mostly came in the summer when we were home alone, sort of. Plenty of kinfolk were nearby to help raise us. Four houses in a row and one across the street were blood relatives, and the rest of the neighbors were considered kin. No one locked their doors, because walking into someone's house before the door was answered amounted to needing a mental evaluation. If the door happened to be open, hollering "yoo-hoo" in a falsetto through the screen door and waiting to hear "Come on in!" was proper protocol.

Aunt Helen lived next door to the left of us and was married to my Daddy's older brother. "Meet me at the fence," she said, and hung up the phone. I hurried out the door to meet her with the theme song to my favorite cartoon, "Speed Racer" playing in my head because I knew whatever goody she had would be straight off the stove eye or hot from the oven. The familiar sweet smell of pound cake, melted butter, and a glass of cold milk to come overpowered the fragrant honeysuckle that clung to the fence between us. It was her love language -- to cook for, and do for, without a conditional bone in her body.

She reached through a gap in the vines and handed me a warm tinfoil crescent, exactly half the size of a tube pan. Every toothsome treat she brought to the fence was covered or wrapped in tinfoil. Even though Saran Wrap was already a thing by then, old Southern habits are hard to break. She used the previous metal like nobody's business, and she had enough of it to reach the Georgia state line. She covered window panes with it to keep a room cool, lined kitchen drawers with it, and wrapped it around rabbit ears to pick up all five channels on the Magnavox, but most importantly the PTL Network with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. She added it to the mulch pile to keep bugs away and placed it in a bowl with baking soda and water to polish heirloom silverware. A folded square of the essential element sufficed as a drink coaster and, if folded once more, a bookmark for her Bible.

I spent the night with her once on a school night, and she sent me to school the next morning with a Sunbeam loaf bag, cut short and tied in a knot. Inside was a peanut butter and fig preserve sandwich, a homemade pickle, and a rice crispy treat, all individually wrapped in tinfoil. I was embarrassed by the practicality and thriftiness of it, and I did not want to be thought of as a hillbilly by my peers who had Scooby-Doo and Holly Hobby lunchboxes. On my way to school, I threw away the glaring packed sack and went without. I still feel bad about that.

Past seven o'clock at night, her face was slathered with Ponds cold cream, thicker than the grease on my bicycle chain. A broad nylon band pulled her white pixie hairdo away from her face. She wore cotton house dresses and support stockings, she said, "to keep from getting very-close veins." She bought ill-fitting loafers and cut slits in the toe box to make them more comfortable.

"You ort to have a hunnerd thousand dollars in the bank by the time you're 30," she said.

"Put lotion on your elbows, and don't go touchin' your face less you're washin' it, or you'll get wrinkles," she told me.

She had a youthful appearance herself, but her mind wandered from time to time, like it was searching for words in a word jumble puzzle. Everyone knew something was not quite right, but still her wisdom shone through the dark recesses of early Alzheimer's Disease. Sometime after World War II -- Aunt Helen was not keeping up with exactly when -- aluminum foil replaced tinfoil, because aluminum was thinner, more manageable, and cheaper to make.

But I get it. There are some things I refuse to let go of. I have an old Panama Jack t-shirt that is worn thin enough to see through, and my first Barbie doll has mold growing in her armpits. I still call aluminum foil tinfoil so that I do not forget where I come from, and because it reminds me of her -- beauty consultant, selfless giver of baked goods, financial advisor. Tinfoil expert.


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