“Forever on Thanksgiving Day, the heart will find the pathway home.” ~ Wilbur D. Nesbit
photo by midstatemagazine.
The one thing I am thankful for above all this year is that I got to see my aunt when we were in Hawai’i last month.
Almost two weeks ago, I learned she had passed away. She fell at home and never regained consciousness. She had dementia and didn’t know who I was, but seemed happy in the little world she had created for herself.
photo by KellyLWatson.
In addition to giving thanks for family, friends, and good health, I will be celebrating my aunt’s life and reflecting on good times. Auntie Ella was my godmother, my mother’s younger sister, and since she lived just 10 minutes away, we saw each other often while I was growing up.
When I was 7 or 8, I tried to make a rag doll from a kit. I slaved for hours, stuffing it with cotton batting, weaving yarn for hair, trying to stitch a suitable face to make her look real. But no matter how many times I stabbed my finger or re-stitched, I just couldn’t make that doll look like the beautiful one in the picture. My doll was ugly, and I hated her. I cried as I threw her in the wastebasket.
Auntie Ella sitting behind me at my 2nd birthday party.
That evening, when Auntie Ella came for dinner, she asked about my doll. I didn’t want to talk about it, or look at it ever again. But she rescued it from the trash and said, “No, you can’t throw this away, it’s so cute.” She seemed impressed that I actually made it, but couldn’t get me to say anything. “I like it,” she said, “Do you mind if I keep it?” No, of course not. Take that thing out of my sight! So she gave my ugly doll a home, and a small part of me felt saved.
Auntie Ella talked fast and was always up to something. You just never knew quite what to expect when you walked into her house. Would she be in the middle of an intense sewing project, with scraps of material strewn around the family room? Would she be standing over the stove sterilizing mason jars for canning guava or passion fruit jelly? Or would she be languishing on her blue sofa, in the throes of yet another reading jag?
“Oh, you have to read this, Jade!” (She was the only aunt with her own special nickname for me.) At age nine, I had no idea who William Faulkner was, and the titles didn’t interest me at all: Absalom, Absalom, Light in August, As I Lay Dying. I remember she was especially passionate about As I Lay Dying, and especially good at laying around, asking people to wait on her. I could go for that!
At her house, the names W. Somerset Maugham, Leon Uris, James Michener, Irving Stone, and Grace Metalious became familiar to me. This was quite a novelty, as my mother never lay around the house reading, especially novels. So I began to think that I, too, would like to start reading big, fat boring books. Surely there must be something magical about them — in their presence, dishes piled up in the sink, dirty laundry accumulated exponentially, phone calls and doorbells went unanswered. In a dreamy, far away voice, Auntie Ella would say, “All I want to do is read all day and all night. Do you ever get like that?”
And then there was the baking! Auntie Ella was ardent about baking and collecting new recipes. Again, this was something my mother rarely did — homemade cookies or pies every week, fruit cakes in the freezer a month ahead of Christmas, gingerbread men, brandy balls, cheesecake, birthday cakes. Her triumphs were just as tasty as her disasters: the Mississippi Mud Cake that was really mud because she forgot the flour, the rock-hard “prison” cookies, the highly suspicious cereal bars.
She introduced us to rhubarb pie, Uncle John’s favorite. He loved it so much he could eat the whole pie in one sitting. Of all the things she baked, I think cakes were her pièce de résistance. She mastered the light, moist, delicate crumb early on, and it was always a treat when she called us over to reap the spoils. I can still hear her say, “Sometimes you just feel like a good chocolate cake.” And then she’d whip one up, in seconds flat.
She gave me this recipe, but left out the sugar..
We still like to laugh at our favorite Auntie Ella stories, and I think everyone in our family will agree: Ella was never boring. Who else would waltz into church on Easter Sunday with one nylon knee-high draped across her shoulder? Or drive around town with her wallet perched on the hood of the car? Who else would fiercely insist that the green roundish thing she brought home from the grocery was a Chinese squash, only to discover, when she sliced it open to add to her soup, that it was a small watermelon?
I do not exaggerate, when I say that my short life flashed before my eyes when I once rode in the suicide seat of a car she was driving. It seemed like a perfectly harmless thing, sitting up front so we could talk on the way to her friend’s house. We approached a stoplight where she needed to turn left against four lanes of oncoming traffic.
Front: Auntie Ellen, my mom. Rear: Auntie Inez, Auntie Kyung Sin, Auntie Ella.
Yes, the light had turned yellow, but should we stop and just wait for the next cycle? No, not Auntie Ella. She was determined to make it. As the car careened left, we clipped by speeding cars to within inches. On the way home, my cousins and I quickly jumped in the back seat. No how, no way, was anyone going to sit up front with that demon driver. She thought we were silly, of course. I’m just grateful I wasn’t riding with her when she tried to enter the freeway via an off-ramp.
In recent years, she had already started her final journey home, gradually leaving our world for hers. Ironic, she seemed closer, in my thoughts, than she did when I actually saw her in Hawai’i. Last month, there was one notable difference in her behavior. She substituted many words with nonsense syllables: chukka chukka chukka. Her short term memory had been gone awhile, but not her ability to express whatever it was she wanted to say. And I thought, selfishly, please don’t ever let me lose my words.
Me and Auntie Ella at a Dumpling Soup booksigning in Hawai’i.
As it turns out, I read Faulkner in college as an English major and loved him, and baking has always been one of my passions. I still have many of the recipes Auntie Ella passed on to me with her handwritten notes. She was the model for Auntie Ruth in my book, Dumpling Soup, the first of the famous Yang sisters to pass away. She liked to say, “Jama, you’re just like me,” and I would adamantly deny it. Today I’m realizing how much she influenced me in ways too numerous to mention.
We did spend many Thanksgivings at her home, in the Yang family tradition of a rotating potluck. Usually the host family made the turkey, and everyone else was assigned a side dish to bring. The Yangs are known for their healthy appetites and loud banter. Perhaps, wherever she is now, Auntie Ella is eating some pie or baking a cake and proudly proclaiming, “I’m the prettiest of the sisters. Jadie, bring me some tea.”
Thanksgiving is a coming home. As everyone gathers at the table, we express gratitude for all we have, including the memories of those who are absent. Enjoy your bountiful feasts. No matter how much your relatives drive you crazy, treat them as though it’s the last time you’ll ever see them. You just never know.
FRESH RHUBARB PIE
(from Auntie Ella)
photo by kindred threads.
*You will need enough pie dough for a 2-crust pie. Cover fruit as shown above, or make strips to form a lattice.
4 cups rhubarb
1 egg slightly beaten
1 T lemon juice
1/2 tsp. grated lemon rind
4 T flour
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
1-1/2 cups sugar
Add dry ingredients to rhubarb mixture. Roll out pie crust dough for bottom crust, put in pan and gently price with fork to let out air.
Put rhubard mixture in crust, then roll out remaining dough. Cut in 1/2″ strips, and place in lattice pattern on top of filling. Seal ends to bottom and flute edges.
Bake at 450°F for 10 minutes, then at 350°F for 50 minutes.
*Thanksgiving table illustration by whimsy studios.
Copyright © 2009 Jama Rattigan of jama rattigan’s alphabet soup. All rights reserved.