I was raised, in many ways, by five women. My mother, of course, but her three sisters and her mother were strong influences throughout my childhood and beyond. We all lived near each other and large, boisterous family events occurred regularly.
My mother’s mother, Grandma, was a force of nature. She died 10 days into her 95th year when I was 18, but as I age, some of the things she taught me have become clearer and more relevant. She was a no nonsense woman who worked outside the home during a period of time when that was unusual for many (think 1950s). She taught me to take risks in cooking, as she never used a recipe, to be grateful for the little things, and how to make a simple quilt.
The other four women from my childhood are now aging. And the first of them has died. As I waited for the news that she is gone, I’ve been thinking a lot about her and her influence on my life. My Aunt Shirley was a travel agent when I was young and I have strong memories of visiting her at the office, where she complained about hearing the word cheap all day, as she said, “all they want is cheap, cheap, cheap.”
Shirley died her hair red most of her adult life and she loved to bowl and smoke. She made the smoothest mashed potatoes I had in my childhood, the key being using an electric beater. And she loved to laugh and have a good time. After she retired, and my uncle died, she traveled with friends and throughout my twenties I hung out with her and my mom a lot; we were all single.
But I’ll admit, with all five of these women, my strongest memory is being at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in a shelter on a weekend morning as a young child. There were thermoses of coffee and jugs of orange juice, electric skillets are plugged in with scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bacon cooking. My grandma and my aunts are manning the food and putting out sweet rolls. My cousins and I are running all over the place and sneaking food when we can. And finally we all get plates, fill them full, and sit down at picnic tables to eat before walking amongst the gardens.
I’m traveling this week for her funeral, to see cousins, to see the remaining 3 women, to remember the boisterous times of food and play with my extended family from my childhood. And to honor one of the women who shaped who I am today.