A lesson for everyone from Aunt Minnie

Friday, January 4, 2008

A few weeks ago, my wife's aunt, in her 90s, was the victim of a brutal assault during a home invasion. Aunt Minnie doesn't live in some urban neighborhood known for its crime statistics. She lives in Sedalia, Mo., a quiet town where such events are front-page news.

As related in the newspaper story, Aunt Minnie answered a knock at her front door. A man said he was having car trouble and asked if he could use the phone to call for assistance.

Aunt Minnie is my wife's father's sister. She comes from a long line of Nicholses who don't much cotton to anyone from the U.S. government and only tolerate Republicans. But what do you do when someone in distress is standing at your front door? You invite him in. You show him the phone. You ask if he would like anything to eat or drink. You ask him to sit in the most comfortable chair.

My guess is that Aunt Minnie's front door wasn't locked. She grew up that way. Many of us did. The farmhouse where I grew up on Killough Valley in the Ozark hills over yonder had locks. They could be locked or unlocked with a skeleton key. Every farmhouse had a skeleton key. I presume anyone intent on getting into our house -- or any of the others nearby farmhouses -- probably could have purchased a standard skeleton key at Luna Hardware in town.

Our key, hanging on a nail on the wall by the kitchen door, was rarely used. At night we hooked the screen doors. The one time we took an extended vacation while I was growing up, we may have actually locked the doors. I don't remember.

So the man who showed up at Aunt Minnie's house probably could have just walked in, if he wanted. But he wouldn't have known what to expect inside the house. Would there be big, burly men waiting to throw him out? Would there be a vicious dog inside? No, knocking was a practical move on the would-be intruder's part. It was a matter of gathering crucial information.

When the door opened, there was Aunt Minnie, all 100 pounds of her, and no signs nor sounds that anyone else would get in the way.

Once inside, the man demanded Aunt Minnie's money.

There is something you should know about the Nicholses, if you ever intend to take money from them by force: A Nichols and his -- or her -- money are not easily parted. After 40-plus years of being married to one, I know this well.

It's a wonder Aunt Minnie didn't pick up her broom and thrash the man all the way out into the front yard. That's what Audrey Stubbart did when we lived in Independence, Mo. Audrey was in her 90s and still working at the newspaper. She went home one night and found a man in her kitchen who had broken into her house. The man said he was hungry, and Audrey told him to sit down at the kitchen table and she would fix him some supper. While Audrey was getting out a skillet to fry eggs, the man lit up a cigarette. That did it. Audrey whacked the poor fellow with the skillet and told him in no uncertain terms that smoking in her house would not be tolerated. The man ran into the dark night. Audrey continued working at the newspaper until she was well over 100.

If Aunt Minnie made a move for her broom, it was in vain. The man took the money from her purse. He knocked her down, punched her several times and kicked her. And then he left.

Thanks to a good description provided by Aunt Minnie, the man was apprehended in a day or two and has been a guest of the Pettis County Jail while the machinery of justice grinds away. A Sedalia radio station held a fundraiser for Aunt Minnie and interviewed her on a talk show. Asked if she had forgiven her attacker, she said: "I don't think he deserves it."

There. That's the other thing you need to know about the Nicholses. If you do them wrong, do not expect to be forgiven any time soon.

Sedalia and Cape Girardeau have a lot in common. Home invasions are on the rise. Be cautious and prudent. Keep a skillet handy.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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