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Holiday was juicy with Aunt Mary

| Thursday, Dec. 24, 2009

Though my parents both came from large, rural families, neither my brother, sister nor I have children. None of us regrets this, but during the holidays we have, in our middle age, noticed how the small circle of friends and relatives at the family table gets smaller each year.

Although other folks might wish there were a few little crumb-snatchers crawling around every Christmas, the absence I feel most is that of my Aunt Mary, who passed away four years ago at Christmas. In a family blessed with more than its share of drunks, junkies, eccentrics, artists, con men and I'll-steal-your-tree felons, Aunt Mary was the wildest.

The annual announcement of her potential arrival -- I say "potential" because she often forgot or outright ignored obligations she made -- caused the sort of panic that Afghans feel when hearing the buzz of a Predator drone.

Aunt Mary came unarmed, but her presence could be frightful for altogether different reasons.

Big, bawdy and resembling an aged Queen Latifah, Aunt Mary had a wit that could have caused Redd Foxx to lose sleep. Upon meeting my white wife for the first time, she held her hand and purred: "Well, you might as well make yourself to home -- no white man will ever have you again."

On other occasions, she accused us of slipping grapefruit juice into her bottle of grapefruit juice that everyone knew contained 90 percent gin. At age 70, she would light up huge, Bob Marley-sized joints at the dinner table -- much to the consternation of my teetotaling mother.

Aunt Mary was proudly the family black sheep, having run away from her family's North Carolina home at 14. She did so reportedly to go on tour with R&B musicians Wynonie Harris and Bill Doggett, before the word "groupie" became common vernacular.

As kids, we found her kind of scary, but by the time my siblings and I became teenagers, we found her Christmas visits a yearly highlight -- like watching reality TV, decades before it was invented. She could dress down our self-righteous relatives with her sharp memory of just when any of them had been caught drunk, compromised -- or both.

Any relative naive enough to brag at Christmas dinner about a job promotion or new house could count on a reminder about the time he lost a barroom brawl, wet his pants in grade school or attended a formal dance in high-water, hand-me-down pants.

Ah, good times.

Unfortunately, Aunt Mary's fast living caught up with her. Sure, she could still drink me and half the hard-core bikers I partied with under the table at 75, but her body began breaking down and her appearances at Christmas dinner stopped.

These days, holiday gatherings are much quieter affairs. What I don't miss with Aunt Mary's absence are the crying, threats and shoving matches that usually materialized when she visited.

But if I had my choice, she'd still be sitting at the end of the table -- "grapefruit juice" in hand.

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