Julia Child and friends
The familiar voice — an absurd, bird-like trill of enthusiasm — pulled me toward the living room. Irrationally hoping that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead to once again begin unraveling the mysteries of pâte feuilletée or asperges au naturel, I found instead the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming, if slightly overdone true tale of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who determined to prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking within the space of a year.
Watching the clip, I wasn’t inspired to go searching for my pastry cloth, but I did remember how closely Julia Child resembled my beloved Aunt T. My father’s younger sister, she seemed both exotic and mysterious. In the course of her occasional visits, she dropped advice, humor, and an alternative view of the universe into my life like so many bouquets garnis: nudging me to look beyond the bland certainties of a 1950’s childhood.
As America emerged from WWII, the practical, thrifty, and reasonable folk who surrounded me considered it poor form to put on airs, and very few did. The fathers went to work, the mothers cleaned their houses, and the children completed school projects and chores before playing outdoors until suppertime. The sun rose, the sun set, and the days’ comfortable routines were punctuated by comfortable, routine meals.
In those days, chickens — purchased whole and cut up at home — always were fried. Tuna hot dish, as much a staple of midwestern life as Garrison Keillor’s humor suggests, was considered perfectly acceptable, as were salads of lime jello mixed with crushed pineapple and cottage cheese. Celery and carrot sticks served as appetizers, and anything with ice cream on top qualified as a fancy dessert. Pedestrian, it may have been: yet it filled a need, and everyone was satisfied.
In truth, all of my childhood needs were satisfied. If I needed school supplies, we went shopping. When I outgrew my best shoes, they were replaced. A remarkable seamstress, my mother made sure that I had pretty clothes for school, and my father always was available to fix a broken roller skate, or replace a damaged bicycle tire.
On the other hand, if I wanted licorice, water colors, or comic books, I had to save. In those days, everyone had a coin jar for spare change, a little box for pennies, or a serious piggy bank for more serious saving.
Made of metal, with removable plates so tightly screwed down few children could get them undone without assistance, the piggy banks even looked serious. Only a determined child with passionate arguments could persuade ever-so-thrifty parents that it was time to tap the funds, and I rarely was persuasive.
With Aunt T, there was no need to be persuasive. She loved the grand gesture, and the extravagant gift. We may have been tuna hot dish, but T was bouillabaisse. While our roots held us to the cornfields of Iowa, T moved to Manhattan and put down roots on West 16th Street, at the very edge of the dissipation and weirdness we imagined to be Greenwich Village.
In time, she married a man from New Jersey. Tall, slender, and taciturn, my uncle was the very opposite of my aunt, who resembled nothing so much as a plump, perfumed steamroller. They traveled in airplanes and vacationed at the Jersey Shore, and when they abandoned their romantic, East Coast life to sweep back into town for a visit, everyone in four counties knew they’d arrived.
T doted on me. She arrived with hugs, kisses, and wonderful gifts: salt-water taffy from Coney Island, or Drost chocolate in the shape of wooden shoes. One Christmas, there was a wonderful pop-up book filled with jungle animals and princesses; another brought my first bottle of perfume. But no matter what I unwrapped, it always came with a card. The five-dollar bill tucked inside invariably was accompanied by a hand-written note directed to my parents: “Let her spend this on what she wants. Don’t make her stick it into that pig.”
Eventually, I began to amass capital in earnest, picking up fifty cents here or a dollar there by performing small chores. One month I earned ten dollars, and mentioned the fact to my aunt during one of her visits. She asked how I intended to spend the money, and I said I didn’t know.
When Christmas arrived that year, the holiday mail brought a box from New York much larger than usual. I opened it to find another box inside. Beautifully wrapped, it didn’t rattle, or swish, or clunk. In fact, it didn’t make a sound, and it seemed weightless. I couldn’t imagine what it was.
Finally allowed to open my gift on Christmas Eve, I squealed with delight. It was Aunt T’s version of a piggy bank: a delicate, bejeweled, and floral-encrusted elephant with a rubber stopper in the bottom that could be easily removed without adult supervision. This time, the accompanying note was for me. “Put this next to your piggy bank,” she wrote. “When you earn a dollar, put half into your pig for things you’ll need, but put half into your new elephant, for things that will make you happy.”
In time, the toys, the games and the dolls — the traditional pleasures of a young girl’s childhood — slowly dropped away, but the jeweled elephant remained. Today, she sits on my dresser, and travels with me during hurricane evacuations: cosseted and coddled in bubble wrap and towels as befits a true treasure. She’s lost her rubber stopper, and one rhinestone is missing from a back foot, but it hardly matters. Her importance isn’t as a functional bank, but as a reminder of a kind and generous woman.
A serious, somewhat reserved and shy child, I sometimes viewed my aunt with a certain ambivalence: unsure whether she would arrive as a breath of fresh air or as a tornado bent on destruction.
What I never doubted was that she embraced life with eagerness and appreciation, or that other adults sometimes seemed inclined to diminish her influence in my life. “Oh, that’s just T,” they’d say. “That’s just the way she is. Don’t pay any attention to her.”
Of course I did pay attention to her then, just as I attend to her memory today. Living in a world where it can be easy to forget the importance of pleasure, not to mention the pleasure of extravagance, I think of her as I watch friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers become increasingly fearful, living out increasingly constricted and measured lives.
Watching, it occurs to me that we are losing what my aunt possessed in abundance: true, good-natured humor; the willingness to risk foolishness; and an appreciation for the grand and expansive gesture. Fearful of using the wrong phrase, eating the wrong food, supporting the wrong cause – eager to make only correct and useful choices – we’re beginning to look more and more like my pig, and less and less like my elephant.
Auntie T, bejeweled and sparkling with joie de vivre, seemed always to be on the side of expansiveness and life, not to mention the exuberant, uncalculated gesture. Her wisdom, neither dour nor prescriptive, always came with a smile, and never suggested it might have come at a cost.
And yet my aunt hadn’t always been the happy, sparkling woman I knew. Parents, grandparents, and an assortment of other relatives and neighbors — for reasons I only can surmise — concealed part of her story for decades. Every family, it seems, has its secrets.
(to be continued…)
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