Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Cooking with Aunt Sue

This past weekend, we attended the Memorial Service for my Aunt Susanne. Although I didn't see her as much as I would have liked as an adult, I have sweet memories of her as a quiet, permanent fixture in my childhood. I remember snuggling with her in the old hammock at Nana's house at Two Tulip. On one occasion, in which I felt very grown-up indeed, she took me on a trip to New York City. Having lived there for a large portion of her life, the smells and sounds and busyness were probably just like breathing to her. But to a ten-year-old, (very) sheltered little girl, it was a head-buzzing adventure that left me wide-eyed for two weeks afterward.

The details of her Memorial Service were thoughtfully and personally planned, just how I would like my eventual send-off to be. Her niece and nephew sang an old family song, her relatives and friends remembered her quiet gentleness that often belied an amazingly sharp mind. Her grandchildren crafted dozens and dozens of peace cranes, reflecting on how Grammy Sue had an earnest and long-standing hope for peace on earth. A larger crane, on which we all penned a single word in remembrance of Aunt Sue, was set sail on the river beside the church... a river that Sue had explored with her grandchildren, whose rhythmic cadence could be heard as she rested in the backyard hammock in the months that she was sick. Sue's crane slowly and gently circled for a few minutes before disembarking. Her son Max was beside me, and remarked something like, "How just like my mom. Gentle and un-rushed even in the end."

After the service, we descended on Max and Denise's house. It's worth mentioning that the way that Denise served her mother-in-law in her illness was a thing of beauty. She slept for months with a baby monitor beside her bed, and snuck over to Sue's adjoining apartment if there was any sign of trouble in the night. Max and Denise graciously opened Aunt Sue's home, and invited guests to pick a few books from her vast library. Admittedly, most of the literature was beyond my college-dropout intellect, but it was stunning to see the vast array of topics that interested Sue... everything from politics to Buddha to oil drilling to Jesus. It was calming to walk through her little domain, and the great loves of her life were obvious as I did so: books...and her family. Paintings by her grandchildren and candid photos of them laughing in the woods papered the walls and were wedged in among her stacks of books.

I was delighted to find Moosewood Cookbook among the stacks, a recipe collection that I had long coveted but could never justify buying. I am not sure if it was one of her favorites, or if it was a gift given just before she got ill... maybe she had hopeful culinary aspirations as she leafed through it, only to become so sick that she depended on charity casseroles and cans of Campbell's soup. There were no tell-tale grease spatterings or finger smudges that are so prevalent in my own cookbooks. But as I cooked my first recipe from the book last night, an (amazing!) Swiss and Mushroom Quiche, I liked to imagine Aunt Sue in her little kitchen.

I could see her chopping the onions, pausing and removing her glasses for a moment as she wiped her tearing eyes. She would lean back to the fridge, so close she probably didn't have to leave her spot at the stove, and grab the butter, and plop a bit into the pan. It would sizzle and foam. She would stand at the counter and grate the cheese, possibly with a small grandchild at her side, begging for a sample. She would cut the butter into the flour with two forks crisscrossing each other, and add a little more water so it would stick together. As she rolled it out on the floured counter, maybe she would upset her glass of water and it would run down the side of the sink and onto her skirt. Possibly she cursed under her breath softly, before catching herself and quickly glancing over to see if her small grandson, who was busy creating animals out of colored duct tape at the table, had noticed. He hadn't (or didn't care), so she would mop up the spill with the corner of her sleeve and refill her glass. After sliding the glass pie plate into the oven, perhaps she would sit with Stephen and read a book. Or, as she was by all accounts a "play-slave", maybe they would mold something out of clay or create a fort on the living room floor.

Of course I don't know all these things. As I mentioned, I didn't often see Aunt Sue after I became an adult. Was she a cook? I don't know. Possibly her busy metropolitan life had left her more apt to phone in a take-out order or stop by the local delicatessen on her way home from work. But I had fun imagining. And as my hands rolled out the dough on the counter, I felt a kinship with her... really, with all the women in my family who have gone before me. An age old-ritual... flour, butter, a little water... we women have been doing it for centuries-- the rote, mechanical, mundane chores-- all with the end purpose of nourishing our families and creating a home. We are a calvary of mothers, of aunts, of Nanas, of sisters, of daughters (and daughters-in-law)... with flour smudged on our cheeks and a sink full of dishes. And though Aunt Sue has set sail down the river... across the Jordan, really... we carry on the rhythm of her days. Cooking, reading, learning, loving, playing.

My Moosewood Cookbook sits wedged among a stack of others on the counter in my kitchen. And I have a feeling that every time I reach for it (which will be often), I will pause and think of Aunt Sue, with her quiet and gentle presence, and invite her memory to come and cook with me.