MRS. COL. JACKSON
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- My favorite aunt, Helen Jackson, the female image of her brother, my father, was known in the latter years of her life as Mrs. Colonel Jackson. This was not a mere Southernism: Louis Jackson had in fact been a bird colonel in the army.
Never was there a giddier, gayer, or more whimsical Mrs. Colonel anything.
Helen helped my mother with the chores of my upbringing. She encouraged me to think that, against all the odds, and contrary to the opinion of her elder brother, I was not a complete doofus.
On the wall of her apartment was a picture, probably cut from a magazine, of a baby yawning. It always made me yawn to look at this, so I was routinely exposed to it, probably in the hope that a yawn would be followed by sleep, during which the adults could get on with their lives.
Here is a memory attached to my Aunt Helen only because it took place once when I was on my way to visit her. We were stopped by the police, who were frogwalking a helpless black man, beating him with their sticks, to a squad car. No one thought to shield my infant eyes against an image that was burned into them, with the unintended result of my hating all such violence against blacks or against any human beings.
If I call her my favorite aunt, this is as much a reflection of family folklore as of actual personal affection. She was officially my favorite aunt, but there were certainly times when I preferred Virginia, Vineta, Isabel, Evelyn, Louise, Aurelia, Ruth, Edith, in no particular order.
But none of these had a yawning picture - though several had children, as Helen never did - and none ever engaged me to drive them across the U.S.A, as Helen did, to rejoin Louis at the Army Language School in Monterey, Calif. He was there studying Brazilian Portuguese in preparation for his assignment as military attache in our Rio embassy.
Helen and I studied Brazilian Portuguese from a Berlitz book all the way across the country, only to find, on arriving, that Louis had been reassigned to Managua, Nicaragua, where Portuguese of any kind is regarded as a sign of mental retardation.
But our trip was not a total waste. I was by this time a college student and just over the legal age, in most states, to consume alcohol. At one bar in Winnemucca, Nev., however, I was carded and turned down.
Whereupon my aunt Helen rose in her dignity and ordered me to exit the premises with her.
"They know what they can do with their beer," said I. "Yes, sideways!" boomed my favorite aunt. For a college freshman in those years no remark could have more completely solidified one's affection.
Many years later, Helen wound up in the same old folks' home as my mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's. When I visited them both, Helen made rather a point of her own mental health. "I never sit doing nothing," she said, waving her book of crossword puzzles at me.
But time caught up with her, as it tends to do. I called her in the hospital to ask how she was feeling. "Oh, I'm fine, honey. My shoulder's okay."
"I thought it was your knee," I began.
"Whatever," she said, gaily. "Listen, sugar, why are you calling? Because my program's on."
That was my last contact with my favorite aunt. My last until the next time, when I'll ask her what the program was.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.