Friday, May 13, 2011

State Plates and Plymouths

Yesterday, I was moving items around in my china cabinet, and I came across a blue and white plate with “Lake Tahoe” blazoned across the top.

I chuckled at the fond memory of my aunts, Ava, Eleanor, and Harriett, who loved to take a trip and collect “state” plates from places they had visited. When they returned to their home in Virginia, they labeled each plate by adhering a strip of white bandage adhesive tape to the back and handwriting with blue or black ink the likes of “Yellowstone, 1965” or "Seattle, 1971" and then hanging them high on the walls above the windows in their dining room. Eventually, the collection of plates completely circled the top of their dining room with their festive, lively colored, but souvenir - ish, memories.

They were proud of those plates, and when my parents and siblings spent a week in the spring of 1992 cleaning out their home and preparing for an Estate Sale, we had no idea that those cheesy, hokey, cheaply made decorator grade souvenirs would be a hot seller at the sale.

Sister: If I had known they would be such a hot yard sale item, I’d marked them up.
Me: If I had known, I would have taken them all myself.
Mother: I told you they were chic kitsch.

My sister and I both picked out a plate or two to keep for sentimental reasons. Lake Tahoe was my choice, and it now spends all of its time gathering dust in my china cabinet, but when I picked it up yesterday, I smiled. Big.

When my Aunt Ava died in 1991, we had high hopes that my Aunt Eleanor, who would soon be 81, could live by herself. Unfortunately, with Ava’s demise, Eleanor retreated inside herself and tasks, which she used to be able to do, became insurmountable, and the dementia, perhaps kept in place by the presence of Ava, emerged quickly.

We had two choices. Do we take her to Georgia, away from her home and put her in a facility there or do we find a place here in Lynchburg where she has friends who would come see her? We decided on the latter, and the home Ava and Eleanor shared in Lynchburg, Virginia, sold, possessions and memorabilia packed and dispersed, and my sweet Aunt Eleanor left there with fragments of her mind.

That decision was a hard one for all of us, but especially for my parents, who had made trips every month from their home in Atlanta to Virginia in order to see to and care for Eleanor and Ava, since they had “not been the same” since a car accident in the fall of 1989 had fiercely rattled them. Even though the accident could have been worse, as they came away with a few bumps and bruises and Ava with a broken foot, they seemed nervous and cautious and frankly--- more house bound. Mother and Daddy made this eight- hour trip up and down Interstate 85, a trip that we children worried about -- as they too had their own aging issues. They continued to make that trip monthly for the next two years, as Eleanor faded into a mind that didn’t recognize my mother but remembered her “Papa” and his 1924 Ford. My parents would die in 1995, and Eleanor would live another three years.


I had always admired my aunts who were sprightly and agile, running up and down the steps of their three storied home like children, and who took care of elderly cousins and church friends by preparing home-cooked meals and seeing to their daily needs. They kept a garden, did genealogy, sewed, read, and mowed the grass. They seemed like they would live forever with their indefatigable nature and projects.


One of my aunts favorite past times was travel. Not only had they driven cross country more than once and been to every state except “Hawaii,” they never turned down the opportunity to get free maps from AAA and a Triptik to guide them to some place else they “had always wanted to see.” The three of them, Eleanor, Ava, and Harriett, would gather in Lynchburg on a spring weekend, [Aunt Harriett lived in Falls Church], and chat about the places they would like to see and then plan a week or two to “get away” and “see “ that summer. They once included my sister and me on one of their excursions, but as you might guess…

that’s a post for another blog.

*tee hee*

My aunts drove economical cars --- mostly Plymouths. I remember a blue Plymouth Valiant from the mid 1960s -- which had a gear shift in the floor. My Aunt Ava taught me to shift gears in that car, as she would work the pedals and steering while I grinded my way through getting the timing correct in gear changing.

Aunt Ava also let me drive it “down in the country” [the backwoods gravel and dirt roads of Appomattox County where my mother’s family grew up] when I was old enough to reach the pedals; I might have been 10 or 11. One time while driving “in the country” and changing gears in that blue Plymouth with the four in the floor, a huge black snake fell from an over-hanging tree branch with a thud on to the hood of the car, rolled off, and slithered into a ravine. Aunt Ava and I both screamed like banshees while the even-keeled Aunt Eleanor piped from the back seat: “Hush, and quit being so silly about a harmless snake. I’d be more worried about Harriett Sue’s driving if I were you two.”


The last car my aunt owned was a 1989 Plymouth Reliant, a car that replaced the one totaled in the car accident. When my Aunt Ava died in 1991, my Aunt Eleanor bequeath the car to David and me.

The car had 20,000 miles on it and drove like “the mule” [David named it] it was until I gave it to my nephew Chapman in 1999. Chapman renamed it “El Burro” and he and then his sister Nora drove it until it died a natural death, sometime in 2004.

I know that both of my aunts would have been happy to know that their car had such a legacy.

As I think about my aunts’ collection of state plates from the many places they visited, I can picture their happy faces as they must have packed up their Plymouth au jour with maps, thermoses, snacks, a planned itinerary [reservations made], books, shorts and sleeve-less cotton shirts, and take off for here or there.

Ava and Harriett would take turns driving while Eleanor, who didn’t like to drive, sat placidly in the back seat content to enjoy the ride. I know that they talked and talked and talked as they so enjoyed each other’s company and excitedly looked forward to what was ahead for them on their trip.

Along the route from Virginia to California or Virginia to Vermont, they added to their plate collection and picked up postcards to send to my mother and their nieces and nephews. On these colorful postcards they would write short notes and drop them in mailboxes [in order for them to be stamped from where they came from] across the country.

I was thrilled to receive one of these positive missives from my aunts:

“HS -- stopped by this spot on our way to _____ . Loved the view. Tomorrow, we’re on our way to _____________.Wish you were here! Love, Aunt A. "


*says a little eulogy over the lost art of postcard writing*

*double sigh*

I know, I know. Now, trips can be video taped and sent via email on the I-Have a Better Phone Than You.

*shakes head*

But, but -- in my humble, but accurate, opinion, it’s not as memorable as a postcard or a state plate.



  1. My oldest living aunt died in January at 91, almost 92. Cantankerous to the end, she was the family "character." She never drove, though, always taking the bus, well into her 80s.

    I miss her.

    Good post, Harriet.

  2. My 82 year old mother's last aunt died last month in Annapolis. She was 94 and still knitting blankets for the children's hospital while hospitalized before her death. Thanks for reminding me of how loving women of that generation were to us all. You have certainly honored your aunts' traditions with both the love of sending postcards and your love for your nieces and nephews.

  3. This reminded me so much of my grandparents, who crisscrossed the country in their Bonneville and traveled until they were in their 80s, before my grandfather had a stroke and my grandmother succumbed to dementia. Nana collected silver spoons from all the places she visited. And yes, they sent lots of postcards, although I didn't keep any of them because I am a thrower-outer. *sighs with deep regret*

  4. OH Harriet, this was thoroughly enjoyable to read. I could see your Aunts in a movie! My Aunts too, were and are, very colorful and independent characters, especially my Mom's oldest sister who once drove her two teenaged daughters to Mexico by herself so they could see a different side of life.....Love the car! Lori

  5. i love how you tell a story, friend. such detail and heart. your aunts came alive for me. xo

  6. This was one of my favorite stories. Growing up my family every summer took road trips. We would all get in my parents Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser wagon and my Dad would have his AAA maps all triptik for our adventures up the Northeast coast from Maryland to Vermont or New Hampshire and yes to Maine. The memories from those trips are things we still talk about and such a lost art now with DVDs, video games, etc to keep kids occupied in the car. We even had a travel tape and a CB. Of course we all had handles, but those I think I will keep secret...heh. And I LOVE postcards but somehow I think you know that! As always thanks for sharing!


  7. With my maternal grandmother it's plates.
    With my paternal grandmother it's spoons.
    I think I should take up forks so come death we might all share a meal together properly. I think both of my grandmothers would be most displeased if I should show up in the life hereafter and all we can have is soup and finger foods.

    The bit about the snake and "screaming like banshees" had me falling out of my seat. While I never had a childhood like this your writing makes me nostalgic for one. Can you be nostalgic for something you never had? Well written.