Pretty Is, As Pretty Does

I have an Aunt Mercy. She is nearing her one hundredth birthday. She is blind and lives in a nursing facility but she still enjoys her Appalachian folklore, she especially enjoys passing on her little country sayings. "Pretty is, as "Pretty" does, is the one that she gifted to me. From the time I was old enough to toddle over to her chair, she could not stop herself from whispering this into my ear. I was cute and I was prissy, I was the baby, the little darling, and the clown of the family, but, Aunt Mercy never did not find me all that amusing. Every time I did something "cute" Aunt Mercy would curl her finger at me and I would obediently walk over to her chair, where she would place her mouth close to my ear and whisper "Pretty is, as Pretty" does" This was fine for a while, but, there came a time that I was no longer interested in her opinions of my prettiness, or lack of it.
I came up in a very confusing time. One day I was rolling down my white anklets and strapping on my shiny black patent leather Mary Jane's and the next minute, I was slipping my foot into barefoot sandals and whipping off my bra off in favor of mamory freedom! The world was mad and I was a part of it all. Without fail, Aunt Mercy was always around to whisper in my ear, "Pretty is as "Pretty" does" eventually, I began to loathe the old woman and everything she represented.
We lived out in the country when I was little. I had a devastatingly handsome, witty older brother, he was one of those guys that other guys flock to, a leader of the pack sort, a virile, entertaining, masculine, "Man" God., The type that all the other guys had "man crushes" on. He had herds of buddies that regularly invaded our little house. My Mother did not appreciate their antics, not one little bit. My orderly Mother would routinely chase them all outside, waving her pink plastic fly swatter behind them, prettily laughing as she was shewing them. The wire screen door would slam and they were off to the woods for the biggest adventures of their lifetimes. They ran wild in those hills and hollers for hours, wading in creeks, having dirt battles, climbing trees in the sunshine, they even built a cabin back on the hill with bunk beds that had straw mattresses, once Mom and Dad took me back there to see it. When those boys slipped back in and tiptoed up the creaky stairs to my brothers room. At least one of them would grab me up and toss me high into the air or swing me in fast, dizzying, frightening circles by one foot,then set me back down and tousle my hair or tug at my pig tails. I adored them one and all!
Then, the world turned upside down. The Viet Nam War, the draft, the boys leaving one by one until my brother was called. The house grew silent and the air grew thick and tense. Out of the blue, my parents decided to pack me up and move to the suburbs. Looking back, I think my trouble began when the Viet Nam war entered our everyday lives and we left the wild green holler in favor of the freshly poured white concrete streets of "The Springs".
In the new house, we ate on TV trays and not at the kitchen table. We did that because the war was on the news. Screaming bloody boys were being loaded on to whirring helicopters to either die or be patched up and sent back out in the jungles. No one said it, but I was old enough by then to understand that we were really only watching to see if one of those scared, shot up boys was my brother or one of his buddies from the holler. I grew sad and angry, I grew rebellious and nervous. I began to pray although we weren't church people, we were democrats, that's all I knew. Still, I prayed and prayed, everyday in the shower, I prayed on my knees with the water beating down on my skinny back bone, I prayed and prayed that my handsome brother would come home alive. On TV, caskets were being unloaded on the news at the local airport, I always wonderd if someone I knew, some silly hearted country boy that had been smiling as he had tossed me into the air or tugged at my pig tails was lying stiff and bloody in one of those flag draped coffins. We got chilling letters from my brother that left me feeling helpless and sad. My class made candy and collected 45 rpm vinyl records to send him because he told me in one of the letters that they had a record player in a field office over there. My teacher let me stand before the class and read all of the letters my brother sent me, out oud, to the entire class. It made me feel as if I was being loyal to my brother to read those letters out loud and to ask them all to pray for him as I was doing every night in the shower.
On TV, women were marching for liberation and burning their bras in rusty barrels in the middle of the street. Black people with angry faces were holding their fists high into the air, chanting, drumming, and sometimes throwing bottles and rocks into cars down town, they wanted equality too. We didn't get to go down town anymore, my parents were afraid of getting a brick thrown into their Chevrolet. I was so confused, what was everyone so angry about, why were boys dying? What was the problem with bra's for Christs sake, I just wanted to be able to wear one? Why were black people trying to smash up Chevrolet's with bricks?
My stupid Aunt Mercy noticed a change in my behavior one day, when I sassed my Mother in front of her, she called me over and whispered "Pretty Is, as "Pretty" does" Something was different now, I was not embarrassed any longer, I was furious, Inside of my head I remember thinking "Don't worry about it, you ugly old cow" I was becoming vicious and mean and I think that is when I stopped going over to my Aunt when she crooked that wretched finger at me. After that, I ignored her. She was part of a generation and an attitude that I had no respect for. By the time my brother finally came home, something in me was broken. I couldn't cry when he turned out to be somene else, someone I did not know. He talked differently, he walked differently, every other word he spoke was "Gook" and he never stopped lighting and devouring cigarettes. His eyes blinked too often, he coughed constantly, his hands shook, some of his buddies were ghosts.
I went to see my Aunt Mercy in the "home" the other day. She must have smelled me coming, when I placed my fifty year old hand on her frail, bird bone, hundred year old shoulder, she crooked that knarled finger at me, I bent, she whispered "Pretty IS, as "Pretty" does" and softly added, "sweetheart" I don't know why, maybe it was menapause, maybe it was the ghosts of my past, but I began sobbing, I couldn't stop, I kissed her withered cheek and I ran to my car in the rain.
hillbillycrone hillbillycrone
56-60, F
12 Responses Feb 16, 2011

Amazing writing, brought back a lot of those memories for me. I was a suburban kid but raised outdoors with 'Country Values' also remember friends' brothers shipping off to 'Nam or 'goin' north' and while most of my elder relatives have gone on to the next life (hopefully a better one) the stories they would tell were so exciting! Thank you for sharing this!

Thank you so much~

Bless you for your kind compliments, thank you for your time and energy. Blesings and Care~

that was gorgeous! thank you so much for sharing it!

Thank You for reading my story, I am sorry to be so late responding, I missed this post somehow...blessings.

Wonderful story, hillbilly.<br />
I love her name, "Mercy." Was that her given name?<br />
I had an Aunt Hortense. We called her Aunt Tense.

Her real name was Alcie....she passed away this winter, I am so sorry that I missed this comment, I am trying to catch the ones I have missed, I love your Aunts name! Blessings~

Yes...I know. You had to be there didn't you?

Ah, thank you for your response, I feel a kinship with you.

I grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the same era you are speaking of. I feel I know Mercy because she conjures thoughts of my grandmother and great aunts who grew up on a tobacco farm up in the mountains. Very simple and uneducated people, there was, however this dignity the kept about them that was so subtle that I have yet to feel it again since those ladies have been gone.<br />
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I was off to Vietnam as well, and, though lucky enough not to be in the same terrifying situation as was your brother, it does change things. And, when I returned, a girl asked me whether I thought my war experience had warped me. I'm sure my eyes must have gotten very dark when I turned to her and replied, "I really don't know. What do you think did it to you?" Those were, indeed, very confusing times.<br />
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There was chaos and exploration and heartbreak and joy in those turbulent days but there was this spirit in people that gave one hope that things could be better. we are and things don't seem to be better. As a matter of fact.....<br />
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So yes, there are times when I wish I were sitting in a room with my grandmother and her sisters and all my aunts. They make a lot more sense now and were used to the struggle but they were never cynical and always took time to tell their children and graqndchildren: Pretty pretty does.<br />
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Thank you for you superbly written story.

When I was growing up my Momma said the same thing to me, "pretty is as pretty does,' especially when I was acting the Tomboy and climbing trees with the neighbor boys. As most kids would I'd roll my eyes at her and climb that three anyway. But later, when I became a shy teenager who blushed at the drop of a hat, I started practicing the art of being pretty on the inside. Never an unkind word to another person, always ready to help (except when Momma wanted me to help with the dishes). I, too, am now in my 50's (a grand age!) and have passed that wisdom on to my nieces and any youth that happens to cross my path. Why? Because the world is ugly enough as it is. A little internal beauty will go a long way in helping to make it less so. Thank you for sharing!!

The tears were about how true her lovely words were, and about how time takes everything away, and about how everything changes and nothing changes, (because now I am my Aunt Mercy) and because, well. just because, yes, it's a woman thing.

I want to know what the tears were about. Maybe you ladies out there understand, but I'm a mere male.<br />
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Was it about feeling that you'd never, in your fifty years, lived in accordance with your aunt's homily?


Oh that made me cry sister, so do you understand what she was saying about pretty is as pretty does, which I love that saying. The reason I love it is because you can be so pretty on the outside but inside you are so ugly,,,and I have known many like that, I do not think of you in that light, well I mean we all grow up,,and relize sooner or later that we were not as pretty as we should have been, I love old people, because some really do have some good insight,,well again I say I love your stories, you are a great writer, and if you ever publish a book I would buy it. Love and Light Mary