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A Final Peace for Aunt Iola

In LeRoy, Kansas, gossip abounds and scandals never die. My Aunt Iola created a scandal that would be the subject of conversation for the men and women of LeRoy in the years to come. Rumor has it that on the morning of her sixty-sixth birthday, Aunt Iola woke up with the knowledge that that day would be her last. She proceeded to wash her face, comb her hair, and don a worn gray frock that was her best dress, along with an equally worn straw hat that had a faded silk flower hanging off the side. She then left her house and strolled to the tiny cemetery on the outskirts of town. This occurence was not unusual; Aunt Iola was known to visit her husband's grave once a week. The purpose of this visit, however, was atypical and somewhat ponderous. Mr. Breckle, who looks after the cemetery, was the only sure eyewitness. He would later relate how Aunt Iola had removed her underwear from under her long worn-out frock to squat over her husband's grave and urinate. By noon, the entire town knew that Aunt Iola had violated her husband's grave. Aunt Iola died that evening, of what, nobody knows for sure. The following Sunday, Brother Nicher, the pastor of the First Christian Church of LeRoy--the only church in LeRoy--assured his congregation that "Miss Iola was surely senile" and, consequently, could not be held accountable for committing sacrilege upon her husband's grave. Later that Sunday, while helping my cousin sort through our aunt's belongings, I came across some old diaries that my aunt had kept hidden in her dresser drawer. After reading those diaries, I came to the conclusion that my Aunt Iola was not at all senile. I believe she needed to avenge herself: she had allowed her husband to desecrate her when he was alive so she desecrated him before she died. He had gutted her self-respect by humiliating her throughout their marriage. Furthermore, he had abused her, both physically and emotionally. Aunt Iola never retaliated while her husband was alive; she couldn't.

Harmon Vanhorn had sacrificed his wife's self-respect for the sake of his own pride. It was a ritual for him to boast of his sexual conquests to his buddies while his wife silently prepared plates of food for them or replaced their empty beer cans with full ones. Nor was Harmon above criticizing his wife in front of others. On the rare occasions when he allowed her to have visitors, he would ridicule her for her lack of physical endowments; he once compared her breasts to fried eggs. Furthermore, there was an occasion when Harmon suggested that Mrs. Lime, the town librarian, give Aunt Iola a few pointers on how to fulfill her wifely duties in the bedroom. Undoubtedly many nights passed with Aunt Iola desperately holding back her tears because crying would incite Harmon to violence.

Indeed, Harmon had proven procedures for physically punishing Aunt Iola; violence was his forte. Although Harmon had forbidden Aunt Iola to smoke cigarettes, she had been unable to overcome her addiction. It was especially difficult when Harmon would smoke; she could just smell the tobacco. There was one time when Harmon caught Aunt Iola smoking in the bathroom. He turned on the hot water faucet and held Iola's hand underneath it. The burns from the hot water scarred her hand.

Harmon had abused Iola's emotions as well. Once Iola accompanied Harmon on a fishing trip to the coast. While Harmon was fishing, Iola amused herself by throwing pieces of bread into the air for the birds hovering over her. A few minutes later Harmon joined her in throwing the bread up, and for a short time, maybe the only time in their marriage, Iola felt united with her husband. That feeling was shortlived. Shortly after joining his wife in feeding the birds, Harmon decided to pull a prank on his wife. He handed her a piece of bread wadded up in a ball and told her to throw it up. She did so, and a beautiful white seagull swooped down and caught the bread in its mouth before soaring back up again. "He's a goner," she heard her husband mumble behind her. "What do you mean?" she asked. She did not understand. He then informed her that he had put a fishhook in the ball of bread. Iola turned back towards the bird; its wings were flapping frantically; it was no use: the choking bird was falling. Iola turned back to her husband; she couldn't bear to watch the bird.

But the only immediate cause for Iola's desecrating her husband's grave was the knowledge that her time had run out; it was her last chance to avenge herself. Aunt Iola had not sought retribution while her husband was alive. Frankly, there were not many options. Perhaps she should have divorced him. However, not only was divorce against her faith, but it was almost unheard of in LeRoy. To make things worse, she lacked self-confidence, probably as a result of her husband's constant criticism.

Aunt Iola had a final chance to make peace with herself, and she took it. She avenged herself for the destruction of her self-respect and for the years of physical and emotional abuse she endured. It has now been fifteen years since my aunt passed away; yet, the people of LeRoy still talk of "Iola's act of pure craziness." I do not believe my Aunt Iola was crazy. Considering the unkindness, the barbarity, and the sadism that she was exposed to throughout her marriage, it was probably the most rational act she ever committed.

--Katherine Helman

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