Third Day of Christmas: Amazing Aunts

The three wise aunts: next door, Aunt Nellie, across the street Aunt Mary, and catty-corner across the street was Aunt Stella. These were in fact my great-aunts. Mary was sister to my mother's mother, Nellie sister to mom's father, and Stella was married to a brother of mom's father. Mom, bereft of her mother, relied heavily on these women in the early years of her marriage.

Aunt Stella was an exceptional baker. She took over the thrice-weekly bread-baking for the family after my grandmother's death, until enough time had passed that she deemed it acceptable to gently suggest to mom and her sister Betty that perhaps it was time they learn to master this task. Aunt Stella was famed for her cookies and pastries; there was always something delicious in her kitchen. In addition, there was a swing in her backyard. My sister and I would obtain permission from mom to trot across the street, knock on the door, and ask if we could play on the swing. I can still see in my mind's eye the gentle smile on Aunt Stella's face and in her eyes; the answer was always yes. Mom sternly instructed us ahead of time never to ask Aunt Stella for anything to eat, but we nearly always got a cookie. Oftentimes it was a ladylock, and no one made better ladylocks than Aunt Stella. By "no one" I mean no one in the entire universe of cookies. Near the end of her life she did teach a young woman in town how to make them, and hers are nearly as good as Aunt Stella's were. Only nearly as good, because nothing in the world will ever taste like the freshly made ladylocks Aunt Stella placed in our grubby little hands on a warm spring afternoon when we were six and seven years old.

Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella accompanied my father and mother on the epic trip to the hospital late on the wintry January night of my birth. The hospital was a good thirty minutes drive away and mom's water had already broken at home as she was mopping the kitchen floor (as you do, at the end of your ninth month, after 11 pm, when the other four kids are already in bed.) Aunt Nellie stayed with Pappap and the kids, Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella came along to help out mom because I seemed to be, as Pappap later said, "in a hurry to get into this world." In a hurry I was, and just a mile or so out of town, mom said "Ed, you'd better pull the car over, this baby is coming!" To which my frantic father famously replied, "Can't you just cross your legs?" "Ed, pull the car over! The baby's head is coming out!" And so I was born along the side of a road in the back seat of the car, with the aunts presiding.

Aunt Nellie features in many stories about mom learning to cook, as she was right next door. Mom would often run over for advice. The first time mom made Thanksgiving turkey, she asked how is the gravy made? Aunt Nellie told her to take the neck and boil it in some water, and save that water to use for the gravy. Mix with some flour and use to thicken for the gravy. Later she asked mom how the gravy came out. Not so good, mom reported. It was thin and gray and watery and had not much flavor. How did you make it, Aunt Nellie asked. I saved that neck water like you said, and I added flour to it, and it got a little thick, but it didn't have good color and it didn't have much taste. So Aunt Nellie naturally wondered, what had she done with the pan drippings? Oh, I threw those out. And here you have to picture Aunt Nellie's clenched fingertips flying up to her mouth, face scrunched in shock and dismay, as she squeals/screams/cries out oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn! in grief for all that flavor thrown away. Many years later I would cook Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and labor carefully over the making of the gravy, which came out in perfect consistency and astonishing flavor, only to watch in horror after dinner as the friend jumped up from the table to announce: "The dog has been so good all through dinner he deserves a special treat!" He promptly filled a large bowl with kibble and poured three large ladles-full of my gravy over the kibble. Oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn!

The list of amazing aunts is so long, it would take a book chapter to cover them all. There was of course Aunt Betty, mom's older sister and best friend. There were two by name of Anna Marie, one very short and quiet and one very tall and exuberant. Two by name of Rose: the one in Virginia, she of the French-toasted fruit sandwiches, and one in exotic Cleveland, who had insisted on taking shop class rather than home ec in high school, and who had met Albert Einstein while working in Washington, DC. There was an Aunt Mary Ann, whom my mom raised from a young age and my dad had liked to tease; Aunt Margie, throughout her life tireless in caring for her family and the ill and elderly around her; an Aunt Mary Kathryn who was so kind to us over many years of our family tragedy; and an Aunt Catherine, adventurous enough to go off to live in Texas, funny, and smart and beloved, as was Cleveland Rose, of my father.

That's just an intro to their names and a sketch of their ordering in constellations of my family sky. If you had a day or two, oh the stories I could tell! And that's not even touching on the cousin-of-mom-who-functioned-like-aunts, and the more distant great aunts...

The great-aunts are long gone. Seven of my nine aunts still survive, though some are in poor health. For most of these women, their careers were the home and family, though a few did have paying gigs as well. Even so, they were (and are) so different from one another, and collectively they gave me many examples of adult womanhood for examination and inspiration. The best of what I am able to do in nurturing others comes in part I am sure from what I absorbed from being in their presence. Amazing aunts, how sweet they are.

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