My first memory of Aunt Francesca took place in a crowded shopping mall when I was only six years old. I was hardly old enough to understand grit then, but I knew that day that Aunt Francesca had it … in spades. Her gaunt face played ironically off of her hulking shoulders as she threateningly thrust her half pointer finger in the face of a terrified Bath and Body Works cashier. She had lost the point of her pointer finger years before my birth while eviscerating a particularly stubborn cabbage. Her people were snake-handling people, and snake-handling people didn’t let fancy doctors sew severed fingertips back on.
The cashier trembled under Francesca’s heavy stare and the relentless gaze of her finger nub. Every tiny hair on her thin upper lip quivered with seething rage. Her skin was darker than most women in their 60s, indicative of years of picking cotton for clothing she would never wear. All five feet and 100 pounds of her had been set off-which was no difficult task-by a misleading coupon. Francesca never was a woman who read the fine print, or much print at all for that matter. But she pulsed with passion for every emotion that entered her, which was why she got mall security called on her and her six-year-old grandnephew that sweltering day in Mississippi.
Francesca had raised my father, and she saw it her duty to raise me, too. She had always been tough-she once beat my father with a hot frying pan for cussing in the kitchen-but I remember feeling her paper-skin hands holding me and realizing that her iron exterior was only a thin veil over her femininity. She’d been married three times, but she never subscribed to a bridal magazine and only once wore a dress to her father’s funeral, where, as far as anyone in the family knew, she cried for the first and only time in her life. Where even the toughest strongman would blubber and wail, Aunt Francesca would lash out with physical violence, oftentimes creatively utilizing household objects as makeshift weaponry. For my great aunt, an umbrella was a spear, a lamp was a club, and, on at least one occasion, a banjo was a baseball bat.
She was often violent, but she raised not only her four children, but her absent brother’s five children as well. All my aunts and uncles who grew up under the threat of her legendary whippings said they always felt loved in spite of them. Her love carried over to me; though she struck at others like a venomous snake, I received nothing but tenderness and a piercing, loving gaze from her in my early childhood. Francesca was not the picture of femininity, but her peach scent permeated my nose and memory when she hugged and kissed me, and suggested a gentle womanhood wasted on hard times. I never knew her scent was cheap perfume until a gathering at her house after her funeral, when I overheard some of my uncles joking about how she bought it from a corner convenience store. I always assumed she smelled like peaches because they were her favorite food.
Those who knew her closely knew she had her tender side, but to others Francesca was as rough as the skin of her worn, leathered palms. She slept with a loaded shotgun under her Spartan mattress every night of her adult life-and used it twice. Once to put a slug in the shoulder of her schizophrenic neighbor siphoning gas from her 1981 F-150, and once to ward off her belligerently drunk ex-husband, Frank. She blasted five times through the front door Frank was banging on-once for every time he threatened to break it down. The recoil covered her wispy arms and shoulders with purple and jade bruises that matched her electric green eyes. Following a trail of blood two miles down her country road, she called an ambulance for Frank, and the police for herself.
For Francesca, everything she’d been through up to the moment she saw the security guards scampering towards her culminated in an adrenaline rush that, never failing, turned her blood to fire. Her pointed shoulder jabbed into my ribcage as she raced through the food court with me in hand. I held her squirrel-brown wig to her head as if it were a treasured toy. In rollercoaster ecstasy, I watched the brightly colored shop fronts blur like trees along a highway. The air around me was infused with rapid cigarette and peach breaths, and the bloated mall security guards became winded and faded into the crowds. I knew then what grit was. Francesca sucked grit through her teeth like cigarette smoke, and let it permeate her soul.