On Thanksgiving, I learned that my favorite great aunt had died six weeks earlier.
I'll skip the tempting discussion of how totally dysfunctional it is of my family not to have told me -- or how bizarre it was of Aunt Laura's family not to have held a memorial service for her -- and instead launch straight into a memorial of my own.
Born in South Dakota 94 years ago, she grew up very poor. Her life revolved around the family farm and all the work involved in trying to make it during bleak years in a family with six children. Born to German immigrants, she was the oldest girl, and spoke only German until she went to school. Once she started school (and the wars broke out and anti-German sentiment was rampant), her father insisted that the family only speak English. I've always found our family's loss of German sad though understandable.
She was reportedly very bossy as a child. I can easily believe that because her most distinctive character trait as an adult was a powerful ability to hold her own in ANY argument. She was also distinctive because she was nearly six feet tall, rather ungainly, and not particularly feminine. She must have stood out when she was young, both for her height and for her personality. The best comparison I can make to someone well known is Julia Child, though, heaven knows, Aunt Laura was a terrible cook and quite thin.
Like many poor children, she didn't have a chance to finish her education. After the eighth grade, her family sent her to work in the city (Rapid City) for "rich folk" as a maid, in order to help support them all. She later married Uncle Jim, a man who had never completed formal schooling past second grade.
Even with that minimal education, Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim did well. As young adults, they moved west, to Oregon, as did most of their family members. They worked HARD. They were frugal to a point of insanity, and they were born inventors. I suppose, when you can rely neither on wealth nor education for success, your next best bet is what you can do with your own two hands and your mind.
Uncle Jim invented the first portable saw mill (lumber used to be key to the Oregon economy), and in doing so, he made a whole lotta money. I'll never forget a conversation I once had with Aunt Laura while eating lunch at a mall. I must have been about 9 or 10. I was aware that Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim had put both their kids through college, and their son through dental school, and had helped both their son and daughter buy VERY nice homes, and were helping put three of their grandchildren through very expensive private school. I said, "You and Uncle Jim are rich." Rather than criticize me for my rudeness, she said, "You got that right!" And went right on eating her .99 burrito.
You would have never known, had you met them, that they were rich. They dressed incredibly shabbily. Uncle Jim wore jeans and flannel plaid shirts and Aunt Laura wore polyester trousers and Walmart-quality blouses and shoes. I doubt Aunt Laura ever had a massage, a pedicure, or a manicure. I don't even think she ever colored her hair. She would have thought such things selfish, silly, and a total waste of money (she did, however, buy such "fancy" services for her granddaughters).
Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim lived in a small shack -- literally, a little, white, run-down, one-bedroom house with a galley kitchen and a teeny fridge under the counter -- in a part of Portland that has little to recommend for it. Uncle Jim also built -- BUILT, with his own hands and ingenuity -- what must have been one of the first motor homes. Dark green and ugly as sin, I thought it was the bee's knees when I was a kid. He and Aunt Laura took their kids all over the United States in that thing -- they were nothing if not patriotic -- and it was still running strong in the 70s when I was a little girl.
When we stayed over at their house (always a big treat), they would chauffeur us around town in that big green monster, allowing us to lounge on the bed in the back of the truck and watch TV. (NOBODY else we knew back then had a TV -- let alone a bed -- in their vehicle!) We didn't have to wear seat belts when we were with them, something that I found incredibly extravagant. (The thing was built like a tank and honestly, if Uncle Jim had hit somebody with it, we would have been fine, but I'm not so sure about anybody in another car.)
They'd take us to the mall and buy us junk food; our parents never did that. They'd give us five dollars each and let us buy whatever crap we wanted at the dollar store. They let us jump on the bed. They let us stay up late and watch TV (and they had cable LONG before anybody else did). They'd take us to McDonald's or Taco Bell or wherever we wanted to go to eat. They also built go-carts for us -- old-fashioned, 50's-style go-carts -- and let us race up and down their street without adult supervision. Of course, where they lived, there wasn't really any traffic to speak of anyway.
In other words, when we were with them, we were spoiled rotten. We had amazing freedom when we were with them. Some of the best times I ever had as a kid took place in their big ugly "mobile home," their little shabby house, and later, at their new house on a big hill with a huge farm-like yard.
Aunt Laura's idea of cooking was dumping cut-up hot dogs and baked beans in a dish and baking it until crusty. She did, however, routinely make fruit leather and always fed us (overcooked and/or frozen) vegetables with every meal (that is, when she wasn't taking us to some fast-food place that we begged to go to). She also made a mean chocolate-zucchini cake.
Despite her lack of skill in the kitchen and her willingness to let kids eat fast food, she was quite health-conscious. As her son once said, 'If Mom read somewhere that a 10-year-old kid should have 10 peas a day, then, by golly, every 10-year-old who walked in the house and ate with us got those 10 peas.' When one of her granddaughters (she raised two of them) was having trouble in school, she took her to be tested for food allergies because she had read somewhere that allergies can cause behavioral and/or learning difficulties. Now, this was 25 year ago -- back when such an idea was relatively novel and, well, weird. Sure enough, my cousin was allergic to milk, eggs, and oatmeal -- things she had been eating EVERY day before school -- and Aunt Laura took those things out of her diet and my cousin's school performance improved dramatically.
I have no doubt that were my Aunt alive today and knew of my vegan diet, she'd find it interesting, be willing to talk about it, and to try new dishes. (I doubt, at her age, she would have converted, but she would have found the evidence for the healthiness of a plant-based diet compelling and she would have listened.) When her husband was diagnosed with something (I no longer remember what) and was put on a diet, the poor man was the proverbial hen-pecked husband as Aunt Laura made sure he ate what the doctor said.
Aunt Laura was also a good hostess. By this, I don't mean that she set the table a la Martha Stewart or that she cooked recipes from Gourmet magazine. I mean that she cared whether guests were enjoying themselves. Did they find something to eat that they liked? Could she get them something different? I'll never forget, actually one of the last times I saw her, how she reacted when my then six-year-old son said out loud that he hated her meatloaf. (In his defence, it was horrible.) My mother, who was with us, was about to flip out over his rudeness, but Aunt Laura took a different approach. "Well, son, do you like hot dogs?" He nodded his head. Well, yes, he does. She got up, made him a hot dog -- god only knows how long she'd had that package, but I tried not to think about that. As she handed him his hot dog, she said, "It's important to eat something you like!" Everybody returned to eating their food, the rest of us terribly jealous of my son's ability to get something to eat that was actually tasty. :)
She was also of the generation that believed that kids could, and should, find things to do without a whole lot of adult intervention. One new year's eve, we were visiting her house during a birthday party celebration for her son. Many relatives were there, crowded into the little house. All the kids were pretty much forced to be together in the bedroom. All of sudden, my son (then five) came running over to me, showing me that his hands were full of nails and magnets. Yes, NAILS. Aunt Laura had given the kids a plastic bucket of old nails, a bunch of magnets, a few ancient toys (30+ years old) and a tub of old candy. The children never bothered the adults that entire evening, and everyone left with teeth and eyes intact.
She was fascinated -- fascinated -- by all inventions that saved time and had, I believe, every one imaginable. I suppose, after all those years of hard work on the farm and in the city, the idea that cooking could involve opening a can with an electric can opener and sticking the contents of said can in a microwave was, on some level, very liberating.
Aunt Laura was generous both with time and with money. She and Uncle Jim gave the BEST Christmas presents, and they were almost always something electronic. At the time, I didn't quite understand why Mom and Dad thought that the handheld Merlin game and the air hockey table were "typical" of Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim, but now I do: they were electronic gizmos and Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim found them totally irresistible. So did we.
My Aunt and Uncle lived during years that saw unprecedented social and technological change. Despite their lack of education, she and my Uncle kept up with a surprising amount of it. They recalled, as children, driving the horses across the field or into town. Aunt Laura told me that she loved doing that because "you could really feel the power in your hands." By the time of their deaths -- in 1997 and 2009 -- they had seen the world transform from an era of horses and buggies to an era of mass transportation and cars, cars, cars. They rarely talked of missing the old ways; they were forward-thinking people who joyously embraced technological change.
Aunt Laura loved to videotape and audiotape us -- where those tapes are, I don't know -- but she took lots of home movies and cassette tapes of us, and encouraged us to keep in touch with the family and to know our history. She was the family historian. She knew who your third cousins were, what the South Dakota relatives were doing, whose kid had just left for college, or what year your aunt was born and what the weather was like that day. She plastered her walls with pictures of her children, her grandchildren, their children, nephews, nieces, friends' kids and grandchildren. I always knew when I sent her pictures of my kids that those pictures would be up on her wall, proudly displayed next to the portraits of me and my sister taken when we were three.
I now realize what an invaluable lesson she taught me: to embrace change while remembering the past.
I'll miss you, Aunt Laura.
- My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.