When we turn onto the dirt road, we’re almost there. I see the side of the white clapboard farm house in the distance with its upstairs sleeping porch. I know Dee Dee is up there on the lookout for our black Ford station wagon. She’s probably waving right now even though I can’t see her yet. Our car rumbles over the green strip of switchgrass between red clay tire tracks. A fiery plume of dust rises behind us as we pass the Miller’s small farm on the right with its tin roof glinting in the sun. On the left, we pass a field of Granddaddy’s red Herefords, their white faces browsing amidst clumps of chicory, thistle, and young cedars. I see the pig pond, the chicken coop, Memaw’s vegetable garden, the swing on the front porch, and then, finally, my dad turns into the gravel driveway. He parks in the usual spot behind the cinder block washhouse alongside Uncle Henry’s green fish tail Chevy, Uncle Pete’s aqua Rambler, Uncle Earl’s wood paneled station wagon, and Uncle Ray’s brand new mustang.
Bruce and I pile out of the sweltering car and Dee Dee and Petey, her older brother, come running down the cement walk. Dee Dee squeals and we hug and jump up and down. Aunts, uncles and little cousins spill out of the house. My Dad shepherds us towards the back door by the spidery cedar where Memaw waits to catch us up in a big aproned hug. Granddaddy pulls packets of Planters peanuts out of his denim overalls and hands one to me and one to Bruce before we enter the first floor screened in porch.
We’ve driven ten hours to get here before supper. In no time flat, Memaw and the aunts have the meal on the table in the dining room for the grownups. A long table with benches is set up on the porch for all the cousins who aren’t babies. We eat sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, and lima beans from Memaw’s garden. There’s a big bowl of cottage cheese and a smaller one of apple butter in the middle of the green plastic table cloth printed with cherries. A splat of butter from granddaddy’s dairy cow sits beside a stack of white bread. A platter of fried chicken comes down the table to where I sit opposite the post where Granddaddy nailed a weather station shaped like a gingerbread house. If it’s good weather Hansel and Gretel come out the door. If a storm is coming, a scary witch appears.
By Sunday afternoon all the aunts and uncles and cousins have gone home except Aunt Naomi, Dee Dee and Petey. Uncle Pete goes home for work on Monday, but Aunt Naomi stays behind to help Memaw sweep, scrub and pull the sheets off the old mattresses on the sleeping porch where we cousins slept all weekend like a pile of puppies. Tonight Dee Dee and I get to sleep in Aunt Elouise’s old room in a double bed with a high oak headboard. Petey and Bruce get to sleep in Uncle Pete and Uncle Henry’s old room in twin beds facing the sheep pasture.
Dee Dee and I stay up late laughing at the hairstyles in my mom’s college yearbooks. Some have pageboys, their hair curled under in big rolls. Others roll it off their foreheads into poofy pompadours. Some look like a poodle that stuck its paw in a socket.
At breakfast, Dee Dee asks Memaw, “Where is the lady I saw last night when I woke up to go to the bathroom?
Memaw turns from the griddle. “What did she look like?”
“She had big lips, a dark bun, a long dress, and old fashioned shoes.”
Memaw looks at Aunt Naomi. “I believe she’s seen the family ghost.”
Dee Dee’s spoon drops into her cornflakes. I shiver, my appetite for scrapple and scrambled eggs gone.
Aunt Naomi, puts her hands on our shoulders. “Don’t be spooked. I’ve never seen her.”
Memaw’s eyes widen. “Well, I have. First time gave me the heebie geebies. Then I recognized her. She’s the second cousin who took care of me when I was sick in bed after Aunt Viola was born in the downstairs bedroom. Nobody to be afraid of.”
Even though Memaw knows this ghost, I’m glad I’ll be sleeping at Dee Dee’s unhaunted ranch house for the first week of vacation while Bruce and Petey stay at the farm.
After lunch, I kiss my mom and dad good-bye and hop into the backseat of the Rambler. It’s only an hour ride to Dee Dee’s, but it’s so hot, Aunt Naomi stops half way at the Tastee-Freeze for soft ice cream. Dee Dee and I order chocolate/vanilla swirls. Aunt Naomi makes us finish our drippy cones before we get back in the car.
When we pull onto Dee Dee’s street, I see a pack of kids playing in a backyard with a rusty swing set. From a distance, one of them waves. After we get my blue suitcase out of the trunk, Dee Dee and I push open the screen door to the kitchen and race down the hall to her pink bedroom.
The phone rings.
Aunt Naomi answers at the tidy desk in the living room and extends the receiver to Dee Dee, “It’s Sally Dean.”
Dee Dee takes the heavy black phone, listens, then asks, “Can we go over to play?”
Aunt Naomi bites her lip. “Okay. But come home if you need to.”
Need to? For what? A popsicle?
We walk down Dee Dee’s steep driveway, cross the road, and push through a tangle of walnut trees, choke cherries, and bittersweet vines. On the other side is a family of sweaty, tow-headed kids playing tag in nothing but dingy underpants.
The oldest girl turns, “Hi, Dee Dee!”
Is this Sally Dean? A girl our age, no, probably older. I can’t take my eyes off the flesh mounded on her chest like twin scoops of peach ice cream, each topped with a pale chocolate chip.
The youngest boy touches his sister’s bare bosom and rolls away in laughter. “Ha, ha. You’re it!”
She swats at his behind, “Get out of here you horny brat,” then looks up at us. “You all wanna play tag?”
I don’t know what I want. Maybe for somebody to put some clothes on.
“You all want some ice tea?” Sally runs towards a carport containing a Chevy Impala with an open hood, surrounded by a jumble of junk. She returns in seconds splashing the contents of two glasses made from Flintstone jelly jars.
“Thanks,” Dee Dee takes both teas and hands one to me. “Sally, this is my cousin, Ann.”
I nod. Sally leads us to three metal lawn chairs parked in the shade on the edge of the yard. She leans her bare back against the cool scalloped metal and bounces. “Isn’t this jim-dandy?”
Dee Dee and I gulp our drinks. Dee Dee rises. “Well, we need to go home now.” We hand back our Flintstone glasses, push back through the thicket, and climb Dee Dee’s drive way.
For the rest of the week Sally Dean calls daily. “You all wanna play hop scotch, jump rope, hide and seek? You all want Yoo-hoo, potato chips, ding dongs?”
We don’t go over again. Instead Aunt Naomi teaches us the Heart and Soul duet on the piano in the cool basement that smells like fresh concrete. She takes us swimming at Uncle Pete’s golf club. We go shopping for Dee Dee’s new school clothes and a red plaid pencil case.
When a week is up, it’s our turn at the farm. Dee Dee and I are back in Aunt Elouise’s bed. I listen for a squeak on the stair, the creak of an opening door, but all I hear is the murmur of cicadas, the growl of distant thunder. I never see the family ghost. Only the flicker of heat lightening that reminds me of the girl without a blouse, without shorts, without an Aunt Naomi to tell her she’s too old to run topless with her brothers like a litter of puppies. Even without the weather witch I know a storm is coming for Sally Dean.
Maybe every family has ghosts. Only some you can see.