What I remember most about Aunt Izzy, my mother’s twin sister, is eating dinner at her table.
Our family, the city slickers from Chicago, would visit her family, the farm folk, at least twice a year. Izzy had seven children with husband Ray, and Mom and Dad added five to make an even dozen. Not that there’d be 12 kids at a meal. By the time the younger ones arrived, the older ones had moved out, but there might be eight or more sitting knee to knee, stomachs growling. Somehow she managed to fit us all in and make everyone feel welcome to eat to their heart’s content.
Izzy would produce mountains of food, all of it cooked with love and care. Beans soaked the day before and then baked to perfection was a staple. There were also bowls of mashed potatoes, vats of gravy, great platters of meat, and basins of vegetables, fresh in the summer and canned in the winter.
My brothers and I especially appreciated the fresh bread she made almost daily, and the cousins coveted the loaves of Wonder Bread our family brought with us from the city. It was a lesson about the grass seeming greener, one of many I learned in Wisconsin, along with never eat your fill of green apples or pee on an electrified fence.
It was a happy table. After saying grace, we’d come alive with stories of our day, jokes and chatter about current events as we passed the dishes and ate heartily. We were admonished to be polite (always say please and thank you) and show good manners (no elbows on the table) but the atmosphere was also loving and easy going. Once, a brother at one end of the table asked a cousin at the other end to pass the bread, please. In a moment of poor judgment, said cousin picked up a slice and tossed it Frisbee style across the table to the requester. We all went dead silent. Would this be a transgression of etiquette too blatant for even sweet Aunt Izzy to turn a blind eye? “Nice catch,” she said stifling a chuckle, but let’s pass the entire basket next time, she added in a try-to-be stern voice.
And then there were the pickles.
I’ve written about this in the past. My Grandmother Edna made the best pickles in the world, the gold standard of gherkins if you will. When she moved off the farm and into town, Grandma handed the crown to Aunt Izzy. Mom– a great cook in her own right– had the recipe and followed it to the tee but could never get the same result. It was something to do with the water, the soil, or the constant cool temperature of a Wisconsin farmhouse cellar; but whatever the reason Izzy’s pickles were salty/vinegary slices of crispy perfection.
In her prime she’d put up more than 100 quarts a year, but even with this seemingly inexhaustible supply she’d sometimes feel the need to ration. “That’s all the pickles for tonight,” she’d announce, but then later sneak me an extra spear because she knew how much I loved them. When I grew older and didn’t visit as often, she’d make sure to send a jar home with Mom to be forwarded to me. I even got a quart while I was stationed in Germany. I always thought she did this just for me, but later found out that she did it for others as well.
Uncle Ray passed on last year, but Izzy remained in her farmhouse despite her fading health with devoted help of family. A few weeks back she suffered a heart attack, but managed to convalesce enough to return home. One night she called Mom out of the blue just to talk. During this conversation she mentioned that she was looking forward to pork roast a son was bringing over for dinner.
Then, a few days latter she suffered a stroke in her sleep. She was revived but returned to this world unable to speak or, outwardly, recognize her children.
Mom was called and put on the phone with her. She seemed oblivious to even her twin sister’s voice. But then Mom asked her if the pork roast was good, Izzy opened her eyes and seemed to smile.
Isabelle Anna passed away soon after.
Somewhere in heaven they are eating a little better. When my time comes, I’ll know if I made it there if I smell dill.