I thought I knew all my relatives until I heard the grown ups talking about Aunt Mint. They whispered when her name was mentioned, which only served to get my curiosity going full force. This is a story of whispers and sadness, and how even today it makes me smile. This might be a skeleton in my closet.
They thought I couldn't hear when they whispered, but I did. I heard every word they said, and I learned much more by listening between the words. Aunt Mint was my maternal grandmother's younger sister, and I had never known her because she died well before I was born. I had seen her picture, though, so I knew what she looked like as a child. What I didn't know was what had brought about her demise. If it had been left up to them, I would never have known.
Sometimes I felt as if I were on one side of the fence and "they" were on the other, "they" being the grownups. What they didn't know is that I remembered everything and I knew eventually I would have enough stored information to be able to link it all together and then I would understand the whole picture. So I had a plan, I was going to listen to every whisper, and I was going to get to know the story about Aunt Mint and anybody else they whispered about.
I wasn't very sickly as a child, but you would have thought I was dying with every sniffle. One time I swear Aunt Bett covered me from head to foot with some mint smelling salve that brought tears to my eyes, then she put that red flannel rag on my chest and of course it stuck to the salve. Made me sweat, too, and she told me that she was going to sweat that sniffle right out of me. And she did.
Aunt Bett used mint in a lot of things. Along with the salve, she also made a mint tea. She crumbled the dried young mint leaves into water, let it come to a boil, then when it was cool, she gave it to me to drink. Finally I told her that I thought the mint tea would be much better if she dropped a dab of honey in it while it was still hot, and maybe a little lemon if she had some, please. You would have thought I had become a Nobel prize winner she was so proud. "Well, chile, I think you might be learning some good things after all, I do believe you're right." The mint tea was served everytime I had a tummy ache or a head cold, so after that day she always gave it to me warm with honey and lemon. I am not sure now where she got the lemon, because citrus fruit was pretty scarce in the mountains in those days.
At every opportunity in the summer we gathered the leaves of the young mint that grew in the back of her garden. We would dry them for use in the winter for colds and at anytime for tummy aches. She kept mint on hand. Trying to ease into a conversation about Aunt Mint was like trying to ease into the vault at Fort Knox. I would say: "Aunt Bett, was Aunt Mint named after the mint plant?" A nod, maybe or maybe an "uh huh" which could mean anything. "Aunt Bett, do you know what happened to Aunt Mint, I really would like to know."
"Don't be asking 'bout things that don't pertain to you, little miss. When the time's right, you'll be told whatever you need to know." I thought they'd never allow me to grow up. But Aunt Bett did tell me a lot about mint, the plant. Mentha was an old plant that had been used for centuries according to Aunt Bett, for upset stomachs and for mild congestion from colds. Her Native American ancestors also used it for purification ceremonies in which they drank enough to make them not only sweat but to eliminate all the impurities from their bodies. It was a potent diuretic, and still is, according to every herbal medicine source I have read. Another idea Aunt Bett had was that the scent of mint helped clear one's mind so that with purified thoughts; people, especially students, would be open minded to learning. She told me that in olden days in some "high learning places" students would wear wreaths made of mint around their heads or necks so that they could learn more. Today, when reading about mint, I found this in Wikipedia: "In Rome, Pliny recommended students wear a wreath of mint since it was thought to increase thinking and mind ability." I wonder now just how on earth did Aunt Bett know that?
Whenever we were out in the mountains or in Aunt Bett's garden, likely as not, she would crush a bunch of mint leaves and rub them all over my face, neck, hands and arms to keep bugs from biting. I find myself doing the same thing today when my five year old grandson comes to play with me in my garden.
So now all that brings me back to Aunt Mint. I was nearly an adult when finally Aunt Bett told me the story. It seems that Aunt Mint had married a good for nothing man, and had two young sons by him. Back in those days divorce was not an option, particularly in my family. One day when the boys were very young, Aunt Mint had left them in the care of her sister, my grandmother. Aunt Mint had walked into the town where she lived to get some groceries, and was walking home, following the path beside the railroad tracks. Her husband had been gone for a month or two, and she didn't much care since it was a lot easier on her and the boys when he wasn't at home. He returned that day and in an inebriated state, he killed her. She died instantly, he ran away and was not found for several years. All the while Aunt Bett had been telling me this I was shaking my head up and down.
She looked at me straight in the eye and said: "You already know this story, don't you? Who told you, child?" "Aunt Bett," I said, "Do you remember when I asked you to please add lemon and honey to my mint tea? Well, when you thought I was asleep beneath the cover of the red flannel, you and my Ninna talked about Aunt Mint, and you told Ninna that as smart as I was, I would be asking for alcohol in my mint tea next. And Ninna said: Lawdy, don't mention no alcohol in this family. Think about what that alcoholic done to Mint. No granddaughter of mine's going to ever touch no alcohol."
Aunt Bett just shook her head and said: "You musta been wearing that mint around your neck if your memory is that good. Lawdy, chile, that was ten year ago, what's gonna become of you?"
Well. No alcoholism found its way into my life, and I still have mint that I brought from Aunt Bett's garden to mine so many years ago I can't remember. Maybe I should start wearing it around my neck again just to give my memory a jolt every now and then. Every time I pick a leaf of mint, I remember Aunt Bett, Granny Ninna, and the Aunt Mint story. I guess the skeleton is for sure out of this closet.
The images of mint are from my garden, and the picture above left is Aunt Bett taken in 1940. My apologies for the lack of clarity in the photo. The photo above right is Ninna and me on our way down the holler to Aunt Bett's house. It was taken in the mid 1940's, and my camera made a fairly clear copy of it today.
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.