I was in ninth grade when my English teacher asked us to write a three page paper on someone we respected. We were to choose someone who had influenced our thinking and whose character we admired. After groans from the class that the paper must go on for three long pages, we each set about choosing our person. Once we had decided, we were each to walk to the front of the class and write our choice on the blackboard. Since the person could be someone from any point in time, many chose religious, historical, or political figures. After we each wrote our person’s name on the blackboard, the teacher read them aloud.
I remember she went slowly down the list as she read names like George Washington, Mahatma Gandhi, and Neil Armstrong. Soon, she reached my chalk written choice.
“Margaret P. Lankey?” she asked, as she frowned and turned to the class, puzzled.
I raised my hand. “That’s Noody” I said. “She’s my aunt.”
I was never sure why we called her Noody. I probably asked but don’t recall an answer. It didn’t matter really. I come from a large family and almost everyone had a nickname. That’s just how it was done at home. Extended family lived all around me but I was lucky that Noody lived right next door. She and my uncle were as much a part of my everyday life as my parents and sisters.
Noody had an old redwood picnic table in her yard under the trees where she did everything from shelling butter beans to cleaning fish to cutting a watermelon for whoever happened to be in the yard that evening. When I saw her at the picnic table I’d walk over to visit. She was a great conversationalist and always seemed interested to hear what I had been up to. If she said “Let’s go sit in the swing.” I knew I was in for a treat. I loved to hear old family stories and she loved to tell them. She taught me the importance of remembering where you came from while not forgetting where you wanted to go. That’s Noody.
She could do things like drive a pickup truck, haul firewood, feed hogs and chickens, work hard in her garden, and slap on a baseball cap to cut grass, all while holding a handful of cookies to snack on now and then. She and Nannie, her mother and my grandmother, once cornered a snake near the barn. Noody, thinking she was lined up just right for a good decapitation, raised a hoe over her head and came down with all due force towards the snake. She missed, leaving a hole in the ground so deep that Nannie asked me to bring a shovel full of dirt to fill it. Noody belly laughed. Do your best to get the job done and if it doesn’t work as you’d hoped, so what, have a good laugh. That’s Noody.
Many winters if there was enough snow, we cousins took our sleds to a nearby hill. Noody would come along to be part of the fun. On other occasions we all went roller skating. Noody came along for that too, strapping on her skates to head into the rink like a pro. She even joined in the Hokey Pokey dance in the center of the rink a few times. At the family place on the Chesapeake Bay, while other adults sat on the beach or in the shade, Noody put on her bathing suit and plunged into the water with us kids. She taught me how to float on my back, and also taught me that hard work may be necessary, but playing hard is just as beneficial.
One time I stayed with out of town relatives for a few days. When I returned home I met Noody at the picnic table to tell her about it. When I finished relating my adventures she asked if I had yet sent them a “bread and butter note”. I told her not yet, but didn’t tell her that I had no idea what one was. She went inside and brought back some of her own stationery. There at the picnic table she helped me write a proper thank you note to the relatives I had visited. She taught me many lessons over the years. That’s Noody.
She was not just a mentor, but also an ally. Just before my thirteenth birthday I saw an ad in the back of Southern Living magazine for a tiny incubator and six quail eggs. Mama, not thrilled by my idea to add more animals to the ones I already had, gave me an instant “No”. I took the next logical step and met Noody at the picnic table. I showed her the ad and told her I really wanted to try hatching some eggs but Mama said “No”. Noody read the ad, put her hand on her hip and said, “Run bring me my checkbook.” With help from her, my uncle built a huge enclosure and the quail I hatched were part of my life for the next few years. If you want something that badly, why not go ahead and try. That’s Noody.
Many of my relatives are buried at the church near home that most of my extended family attended, and many still do. A couple years ago I took my kids for a walk around the cemetery there. As they read names from each of the family tombstones I would say, “That’s your great grandfather.” or “That’s your great great grandmother.” or “That’s your great uncle.” From a spot just a little further down than some of the older tombstones I heard one of the kids read a name. “Margaret P. Lankey” they called out.
“That’s Noody.” I said.
As soon as I heard her name I thought of the many good times with my fine aunt.
I also thought about the note my ninth grade teacher wrote in the upper right hand corner of my paper once she read it. “Please show this writing to Noody.” it said.
I still wish I had.
Stuart M. Perkins