Southern women like Bur and Boo and Pete aunts who have been the strength of their families for generations have been unsung heroines for too long.

They may come from different backgrounds and lead diverse lifestyles, but they all share some things in common. While being mainstays to their families and to society itself, many are unknown outside those families. They are the glue that binds us together, the first to see a need and do something about it, the first to be called when a family member seeks help.

And it seems to me that many of them have nicknames created by loving children, usually their nieces and nephews, and that we need to declare an Aunt's Day honoring them.

A cherished letter from Beth McAuley, written after the 1993 death of the last of my Fawn Grove aunts, has been on my desk for a long time. Along with comforting words about our loss of Pete, Beth wrote about aunts in her family, and particularly about Burney McAuley Olson.

"Malcolm grew up in the home with one of these aunts, as is the Southern way. She truly helped to mold and enrich his life, and we are eternally indebted to her," Beth wrote of the aunt that Dr. Malcolm McAuley Jr. still calls "Bur."

Bur, or Burney as most call her, after a long professional career of helping others and years as a linchpin in her family, bought a house and moved to Tupelo in 1993 to be near Malcolm and Beth. After a recent stay in NMMC, she's back at home.

After church last Sunday I talked with the McAuleys, who knew I'd been trying to write about aunts so important in our lives, and about a day honoring all such women.

Beth told about Boo, an aunt who was a strong influence in her childhood, and still is today. Then we talked about Pete whose headstone says, "Her duty done, she has gone home" and about how Pete and her sisters mothered my siblings and me, our children and their children, and a whole community.

But today's story is mostly about Burney, a remarkable woman whose influence continues to reach out in ever widening circles.

"She always said I was the son she never had ... that God did not let her have children, but he gave her me and Beth, and we're like a son and daughter to her," Malcolm said.

Of Scottish origin, the McAuleys settled in the Holly Springs and Byhalia area. Malcolm's grandfather and Burney's father, Dr. Angus McAuley, had a general practice there.

In a 1936 wedding at the Presbyterian Church in Holly Springs, Burney became Mrs. Olson, and with her husband worked in Memphis for two decades. Then for 30 years they were in Dallas, where she ran a home for unwed mothers called Hope Cottage, which still exists today. With a master's degree in psychiatric social work, she worked with children and mothers, often helping with adoptions.

Burney kept family ties strong even while living afar, and whether driving from Memphis to Byhalia or flying from Dallas to Byhalia, spent days and weeks with her family, especially in the years before her mother's death in 1979.

"Growing up, I lived with my grandmother as much as with my parents, and Burney was always there, always part of my life," Dr. Malcolm said. "She was the one everyone in the family called ... My grandmother had a housekeeper/companion who lived in the old home until she (the companion) died in 1990."

All that time, Burney kept up the house everyone considered home. Then after the death of her sister, and the deaths of both their husbands, Burney sold the old home place and moved to be near Malcolm and Beth and their four children, two of whom also have medical practices in Tupelo. The family recently celebrated the birth of Alicia McAuley.

And so the circles continue to widen. And the noble and loving influence of the Burs and Boos and Petes and of all such aunts in our world continues to strengthen the fabric of families and of society.

Phyllis Harper's column appears each Sunday in the Daily Journal.

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