Five foot two, eyes of blue, but oh what those five foot could do, has anyone seen my gal. Ray Henderson
Every time I slip into my three-inch heels, I blow a kiss to the memory of my Great Aunt Alfreda Blanks Gates McGee Franklin. I’ll trust that everyone has the good fortune to embrace such a model of style and fortitude in their family tree.
As identical twin sister to my father’s mother, Freda softened the blow availed at Edwina’s early departure. “I was the strong one,” Freda said, always with the story of my grandmother’s more tender nature.
As fate decreeded during our early years together, Dalton and I bought a house around the corner from the Redwing Circle home that she and second husband Howard built.
We arrived in time for small talk with Jim, husband number three. He did his best to keep up with her nimble mind, taking poker breaks at the country club and zipping up and down Interstate 55 long after good sense prevailed.
One day he gave up the ghost. “Honey, don’t worry about me. I’ve done this before,” she said when her last friend left the cemetery. I never would have had such concerns; she was a feisty but diminutive woman who absorbed life with a vengeance, armed with a late conversion to Catholicism, a daily pack of cigarettes and two highballs each evening.
Astonishingly, she did a lot of living within the confines of her residence. I observed that there was no need to leave home, because the world called on her in homage every day and she, adorned in a hostess gown and feathered mules, was ready to receive them.
The day she told me about the death of her first beloved, Red Gates, I mentioned the possibility of another companion. She peered at me over her pearl tipped cat eye glasses and said, “Listen here, I’ve poured my last glass of juice for an old man.”
A longtime neighbor once commented that, no doubt about it, Freda was ready to receive the president any day, any time. She was separate from others, solid in self awareness and spanking new seasonal wardrobes, impromptu appetizers and an immaculate home to substantiate.
I was forever rewriting my rule book to incorporate her version of womanhood. I did, however; draw a line when she tipped me with a favorite pointer – “fix your face, get dressed and ready for your husband before he wakes up.” Good try.
She dearly loved her son Howard, forming the strongest of bonds with him over a tough cookie of a dad. Her work at Mrs. Blanks’s Frame Shop, a entrepreneurial enterprise of her mother, separated her from the society dames of the day. Her commitment to her mother was long lasting as they huddled together in the Redwing cottage until Mrs. Blanks died.
An ever present inner drive to hold small dinner parties and keep the house up to date and desirable was always swirling in her conversation. Manned alone by Freda, every closet and drawer revealed spacious order. Holidays were a wrap after she customized a small hall closet to house a fully bedecked Christmas tree. She could grab it by its plastic trunk, whip it out and plug it in with a flourish.
By the time I got to spend regular time with her, she had slowed her routine and hired a Millsaps College student to drive her new car on a weekly basis to the grocery, liquor store and Frances Pepper, a women’s boutique. She was bothered by old age insomnia but made up for it by inhaling a library of romance novels.
She was challenged when speaking of my grandmother “Wee” (Edwina). We cried together when she told about laying on top of her sister to warm her as she shivered with malaria when they were tiny girls. Freda was the strong one.
Whenever I walked over to her house for a chat in the late evening, we would sit in her cozy library where golf tournaments reigned. With that she never set foot on a green.
One day I requested that our cocktails and appetizer be served on the screen porch that flowed from her bedroom; she said no; and thank you very much, but I’ve done that.
Many mornings in 1982, I prepped for the birth of Quinn by lapping Redwing Circle with two year old Mary Ann in tow a la red wagon. Freda rang me up one morning and asked that I stop by her driveway so she could take a turn with us.
Arriving I found her to be “sitting on ready” dressed for the day with high heels, skirt and bow blouse. She took a long draw off her cigarette to indicate all was well, and we launched though her uncertain gait prompted concern.
She said that her doctor advised exercise and she explained a necessary evil were the heels she was wearing. “My tendons are too short for flats,” she snapped. When we looped back to her driveway, she leaned in and broke the news – “Enough of that.”
With affection, I watched her sashay back up the driveway to her kitchen door. She would live another 12 years with herself in the comfort of her romance library.
After graduate school at Ole Miss, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi for my first self-sustaining job. Freda invited me over for lunch in the dining room which I remembered visiting as a little girl. We barely knew each other.
I was already endeared to her as she matched my grandmother physically, but Freda was the strong one.
The following two items were served up on fine china that day. I remember them because I took the recipes down on the notepaper from her telephone table in the hall. The details likely originated from my grandmother as she was the one who could cook.
Fresh mushrooms, sliced
Wash spinach three times. Place leaves in salad spinner to spin water away.
Place mushrooms slices and spinach in serving bowl.
1 1/2 tablespoon dried onion
3 tablespoons yellow mustard
1 1/2 Tablespoon salt
1/3 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup warm water
6 teaspoon sugar
Mix all ingredients in a blender
Turn off blender and add:
1 teaspoon Worcestershire
Dash of tabasco
Blend on low and then slowly add 2 1/2 cup oil
1 jar old English cheese
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/4 cup flour
1 cup pecans, finely chopped
red pepper to taste
Cream cheese and butter.
Gradually add in flour.
Add pecans and red pepper.
Make into long roll and roll up in wax paper.
Refrigerate for 24 hours.
Cut into 1/4 inch slices.
Bake at 350 degrees until lightly toasted, about 20 minutes.