“Oh, you had an Aunt Agnes too?” my friend exclaimed. “Didn’t everybody?” I said. Whether or not her name was Agnes doesn’t matter. She was the aunt you remember most vividly. The one who always remembered your birthday. The two of you shared something special– most likely a birthday, middle name, or red hair.
My Aunt Agnes had been married and divorced by the time I was born; a bit of a scandal in the early 1930s. She had no children and worked full-time at The Boston Store in Milwaukee, and later as a hostess in a hotel restaurant. She had beautiful, fashionable clothes and had her hair done every week at an up-scale salon right there in the hotel where she worked. My dad said she probably got perks because she worked in the hotel. Maybe she did, but I strongly suspect she earned any special treatment by recommending the salon to women she met at the hotel.
Agnes was a strikingly pretty woman, with dark hair, deep-set, violet eyes, and a slender figure. We shared a birthday– almost– just one day apart, and I suppose that’s why she always remembered mine. And it was probably the reason she doted on me– that and the fact that, for a time after her divorce, she lived near my parents and often cared for me on weekends so that my jealous older sister could pretend to still be an only child with all our parents’ attention focused on her.
My husband had an Aunt Agnes too. Everyone called her Aggie and, by the time I knew her, she was no longer the generous, fun-loving mother of two that my husband and his siblings and cousins remembered. Life had beaten a lot of the girlish joy out of her by the time I met her. Rejected by her step-mother and later abandoned by her father, she hadn’t finished high school and had few chances for earning her living. Having married an older man, she was widowed at a young age, with two children. Her son was killed in a farm accident as a young teenager and her daughter deserted her in her late teens. Later in life, Aunt Aggie lived modestly on welfare, and lavished her considerable love on the children of her two sisters. In particular, she enjoyed the company of the quiet, respectful boy who would later become my husband. He enjoyed hearing, over and over, her tales of the adventurous life she had lived as the wife of a fairly-well-off businessman-farmer, and when she had lost her own children, he filled in a little of the void by spending time in her company. She was an excellent cook and, whenever her nephew brought her a pheasant or duck he had shot, she cooked a special meal and the two of them feasted on the results. “No one could cook a duck like my Aunt Aggie,” he often boasted. After hearing that too many times, I wasn’t about to even try.
Like my relationship with Aunt Agnes, my sisters had their own special connections to other aunts and uncles. In the larger families and multi-generation households of the past, children benefited greatly from the attention of adults other than their parents. It is regrettable that, with today’s far-flung families, such connections are less common. Even after I was grown with children of my own, Aunt Agnes continued to send birthday cards and sometimes a check to buy a special treat. The last check she sent me, only a few months before she died, was for twenty-five dollars. I could have just put it in the bank and used it like any other funds, for groceries, new shoes, something for the house or anything else that I might have bought anyway, but I didn’t. Unlike other birthday checks, I wanted to spend it on something special. Something that would remind me of Aunt Agnes every time I used it.
At about that time, I had inherited a few decorative chalk-ware plaques in the shape of fruits and vegetables. Forays to antique and consignment shops had added to the collection and, thinking to follow through with that theme as decorations for my kitchen, I began collecting covered jars, bowls, casserole dishes, salt and pepper shakers and other items in similar shapes. I found dessert plates shaped like giant strawberries, a baking dish that looked like a big head of cabbage, cereal bowls resembling hollowed out grapefruit halves, and a big fruit bowl that looked like half a watermelon. And then, one day, I saw a bright red teapot that looked like a giant tomato. It was a little pricey, I thought, not really as big as I’d like, and with a couple tiny chips. I passed it up until, a couple week later, I had a dream that Aunt Agnes and I were having tea together and pouring from that teapot. If that wasn’t an omen, I don’t know what would be. I rushed out the next day and bought it.