This one’s for you, Aunt Helen

IMG_0933_optThe holidays are a natural time for looking back, but I was struck today by how the unremarkable objects of everyday life can stir a flood of memories any day of the year.

Whenever I make a cup of tea and drop in an ice cube to bring it to drinkable temperature, I think of my husband’s Aunt Helen. For years I either scalded my throat with too-hot tea, or downed disgustingly tepid brews I’d set aside to cool, and then forgot. Until one day when I made a cup for Aunt Helen, and she asked me to put an ice cube in it. Sad, but true, that simple remedy had never occurred to me. But now whenever I use it, I think of Aunt Helen and remember not just her advice on tea, but her warmth, her laugh and the pleasure of her company.

The same holds true when I see a piece of chunky jewelry, particularly a bracelet with lots of beads and bangles. I immediately see my Aunt Barb, who liked to relax around the house in her night-time wear well into the afternoon, but always with her hair carefully coiffed, clip-on earrings in place and big, chunky jewelry on her wrist. And that leads me to remember not just her at-home fashion wear, but her extroverted personality, her wonderful cooking and her salty take on life.

The smell of paint and varnish takes me to my Dad’s garage, sitting on an overturned five gallon paint can, watching him refinish a piece of furniture, or repair a broken chair, or repurpose a discarded household object. He listened to me chatter, all the while working with large but gentle hands, preserving what was straight and true, smoothing out the rough spots, filling in the holes, creating something good that would be of use in the world. He did the same thing for all of his children, raising us with strength and kindness, helping us to see the value in things and in people, even when their surfaces are battered and broken. To me, paint and varnish still smell like love. 

On Christmas this year I ate a Santa Claus cookie made by my sister Barb, who bakes and decorates them just the way our mother used to. And of course I thought of Mom. How she painstakingly frosted the finely detailed cookie with an artist’s hand — dots of blue for the eyes, a smiling red mouth and bright spots of red for cheeks and nose, a white beard with a sprinkling of coconut. I remember how she always held back a few with plain frosting for my sister Tricia, who hated coconut, and in later years for my nephew Jake who dislikes it also. And I think of all the times Mom took the trouble to make things just right for each of us, in all kinds of ways and situations.

When I’m cooking, I never mince a clove of garlic without remembering my  friend Irene and how she cultivated everything — her vegetable garden, her flowers, her friendships, her family — with joy. I think of her gentle nature and her loving heart and I miss her. But I am so thankful that I had the happiness of knowing her.   

I hope this year to spend more time year building good memories for the people that I love. I hope you do, too. 



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1 Comment

  1. Mary

    I enjoyed reading about items that engage memories of people important to you, Susan. I love the smell of sawdust… it reminds me of my dad and the lumberyard business he was in for a while with my Uncle Ray. Your blog entries are so nurturing for us readers. Thanks.

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