The Sweet Gum Tree
Author:Katherine Allred

I knew they had an older brother, my Uncle Vern, but I’d never met him. He’d moved away a long time before I was born and married a woman the family didn’t approve of. When he was spoken of at all, it was in hushed whispers, by everyone but my mother. She had no problem bringing his name up on a regular basis, to Aunt Darla’s irritation.

“He’s my brother and I’ll talk about him when I want to,” I heard my mother calmly pronounce as I bounced through the kitchen door. She was at the table, putting the finishing touches on a lemon icebox pie. Aunt Darla was at the sink, washing vegetables. Being wise, Aunt Jane had already fled the area.

“Whether you like it or not, Sister,” my mother continued, “Vern is still part of this family. I think it’s a shame we never get to see him and his children.”

“Shame is right,” Aunt Darla retorted. “Vern’s ashamed of that woman he married, as he well should be. Imagine, marrying someone who danced in a bar.” These discussions were nothing new to me. Trying to keep a low profile, I took a glass from the cabinet and edged toward the pitcher of lemonade on the table. I didn’t get far before Aunt Darla paused in her tirade and sniffed suspiciously.

“Is that gasoline I smell?” She leaned closer to me and sniffed again. “It is! Alix, where have you been?”

“I went to the salvage yard with the Judge. He had to get a fuel pump for his car.”

“I swear, the Judge should have better sense than to take a little girl to a place like that. Ellie, are you going to let him keep this up?” Mama smiled at me, her blue-green eyes that were so like my own, sparkling. “It looks like she survived the trip.”

I made it to the lemonade and poured a glass before sitting down. “Mama, I invited Nick Anderson and Lindsey Swanner to the church social. The Judge said I should tell you.”

To her credit, she barely blinked. “That was very kind of you, Alix. We should have thought of inviting them a long time ago.” She shot a glare in Aunt Darla’s direction and I glanced over my shoulder in time to see my aunt’s mouth snap closed.

Not only was Aunt Darla our first line of defense against dirt, she was also the staunch protector of our respectability. Any indication that our position in society might be threatened sent her into a quivering fit of righteous indignation and a lecture on the rules of proper behavior.

While nothing was ever said in my presence, I knew my mother’s divorce and her insistence that both she and I use her maiden name had caused something of a scandal in the family. But although she was the youngest, my mother was the only person alive who could quell Aunt Darla with a single look.

I turned back to my mother. “Is it okay if I give Nick some of my books? His daddy won’t let him buy any.”

From behind me Aunt Darla snorted, but I paid no attention.

12



The Sweet Gum Tree

“They’re your books, Alix. You can do whatever you want with them.”

“Thank you, Mama.” I jumped up. “I’m going to pick some out right now.” As soon as I reached the stairs, I stopped and turned to listen. I’d found out that the really interesting conversations always happened shortly after I left the room. Nor was I to be disappointed this time.

“You’re making a mistake, letting her get involved with that boy.” My aunt’s voice floated through the door. “You know what Frank Anderson is like.”

“Yes, I do.” Mother’s voice was calm. “I also know it’s not the boy’s fault. Would you visit the sins of the father on the son, Sister?” My aunt sniffed. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Give him another year or two and he’ll end up just like his daddy.”

“And if he does, who will be to blame? We’ve known from the beginning that Frank Anderson wasn’t fit to raise a child, but we’ve all looked the other way. So who’s doing the right thing? Us by ignoring that boy, or Alix by caring enough to try and reach him?

If he does show up tomorrow, I fully intend to invite him to this house whenever he wants to come.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“Yes, I would. I’m not turning my head anymore. Maybe we can show that young man there’s more to life than what he’s learning from Frank.” Oh, sweet bliss. I shut my eyes as vindication rolled over me. Mama was on my side. She was going to help me save Nick. Together, how could we fail?

I paused with a guilty jump on the bottom step. Aunt Jane was standing at the top of the stairs, arms crossed over chest as she watched me. Lifting a finger to her lips, she tilted her head toward the bedroom.

Next to Mama and the Judge, Aunt Jane was my favorite person in the whole world. I often wondered where her looks came from. The rest of us all had dark hair and light eyes, but Aunt Jane’s hair was a warm honey color, her expressive eyes dark as night. Mama said she was the spitting image of her great-grandmother, but since there were no pictures of the lady, I had to take her word for it.

I had picked up snippets of conversations that led me to believe Aunt Jane had once been deeply in love, but, through circumstances over which she had no control, had lost the man of her dreams. This made her a tragic figure in my eyes, a Sleeping Beauty waiting for the awakening kiss of her prince.