The Ecphorizer

Life with my Great Aunt
Paul W. Healy

Issue #70 (September 1987)


I can still see her now, a tall, gaunt, raw-boned woman, bustling about the high-ceilinged kitchen, with its scarred work table and dining table covered with oilcloth, the pressed glass spoon container placed exactly in the center, as she prepared the meal. If ever anyone deserved the appellation of "character", my Aunt Ella certainly did.

I had been taken in by my two great Aunts, both childless widows, after my mother, uncle, and grandfather had died in the [quoteright'/>space of six weeks. They had persuaded my father, of whom they never approved, since he was an immigrant and spoke with a decided German accent, to allow them to adopt me. Since he was in debt, and had no steady employment in this small Ohio town, he reluctantly consented. So I came to live at Islandside, a huge frame house, built before the turn of the century in the best Carpenter Gothic tradition.

Aunt Ella had very fixed ideas about the proper order of things and the way in which the universe ought to behave. She had grown up before the days of Daylight Saving Time, so she preferred to ignore it. One day not long after my marriage, she invited us to have dinner (not lunch) at noon. We arrived a little before 12, and I was surprised to see that the table was not set and the meal was barely started. I inquired, "Aunt Ella, didn't you ask us for dinner at noon?" "Yes, I did," she replied, so why are you here at 11 o'clock?" (This was indeed the time on the kitchen clock.) This was in midsummer and the town was on Daylight Saving Time, at least the rest of the town was. "But Aunt Ella, it is noon," I said. "Not by God's time, it isn't," she snorted. I don't know just when she thought God had decreed that Eastern Standard Time was the only proper time for Ohio, but I did not feel like arguing the matter, so we had dinner at noon Eastern Standard Time (God's Time).

In the mid '20s, the ice companies in our small town were beginning to feel the effects of competition with the electric refrigerators which were coming on the market. Their horse-drawn wagons, whose teams knew exactly where to stop for each ice delivery, and after the proper amount of ice had been removed would dutifully move on to the next stop and wait there for the deliverymen to catch up, left us twice a week, 100 lbs carried in and lowered carefully, with Aunt Ella watching, into the top of the icebox. In an attempt to keep their customers as long as possible, the local ice company made an interesting offer; if anyone bought the top-of-the-line icebox from them, they would guarantee to deliver the 100 lbs of ice to it two or three times a week for the life of the box. Aunt Ella, who knew a bargain when she saw one, promptly accepted the ice company's offer. Twenty years later, Aunt Ella's icebox was still in excellent condition, but the ice company was not. They were still in business, but now only for commercial ice. They begged my aunt to let them stop delivery, since now their truck was forced to make the trip from the center of town with just the single 100 lb delivery. Finally, during World War II, the ice company, in desperation, offered to subsidize the purchase of an electric refrigerator to get out of the contract. Reluctantly, my aunt accepted; the icebox was retired to the pantry, where it remained until her death.

In her kitchen, Aunt Ella was an absolute monarch. Each serving bowl and dish was earmarked for particular contents, and woe unto anyone who violated the unwritten law. One day when we were having supper (at 4:30) in the kitchen, my cousin Mayme, who lived with my aunts, was attempting to assist her while the table was being set. Mayme had removed the gravy from the stove and placed it in a bowl, when Aunt Ella glanced over at her; my wife and I had just entered the kitchen. "Shi*t, Mayme," Aunt Ella stormed, "you put the gravy in the pea bowl." Poor Mayme made no protest but dutifully transferred the gravy to the proper bowl, washed the one it had been in and put the peas in the newly cleaned bowl.

Not only were bowls and platters assigned to special uses; so were spoons and forks. In my earliest memories, the spoon used to stir the gravy had a straight line across the bottom at an acute angle to the handle, the result of years of patient stirring of thick gravy against a cast iron skillet. The bowl was then about 1/3 gone; the last time I saw the spoon, after Aunt Ella's death, only about 1/4 of the bowl remained; the rest had been consumed in the form of iron and silver particles by the members of the family over the intervening years.

Before she had a meal at our house, my wife wondered why I never learned to drink coffee. The ritual that was used for coffee brewing made it quite clear to her. On Sunday morning, Aunt Ella would scour out the huge 2 1/2 gallon enamelware coffee pot which sat on the stove, (it had no other storage place) and put in enough coffee to make the requisite number of cups for the day. Any coffee that remained at the end of the day was simply left in the pot. On Monday, an equal amount of coffee grounds would be added to the pot, an additional quantity of water, the pot brought to a boil, and after that left to simmer. The same procedure would be followed Tuesday, Wednesday, etc, so that by Saturday about a quarter of the pot was coffee grounds, the rest water. My wife remarked that when they poured it out on Saturday, a cup was scarcely needed; the coffee very nearly could retain its shape without one. She tried hard to avoid drinking coffee any later in the week than Wednesday.

I suspect that anyone not from the Midwest, and even some who are, thought that Garrison Keillor was exaggerating when he described the only way in which Lake Wobegon residents would cook their sweet corn. Let me assure one and all that he did not exaggerate one bit. As a boy, it was my task to go down under the river bank to the flat land which reached to the water's edge and pick the sweet corn for the noon meal. I had to learn the exact shade of brown in the tassels which meant that the corn had just barely ripened and woe betide me if the ears would not send forth a 6-inch stream of liquid if one of the kernels at the top of the ear was pressed sharply with the thumb. While I was picking the corn, Aunt Ella would be boiling a large pot of water; there were usually five of us at the table, and 18 ears would be barely sufficient. As soon as I came up the hill to the back porch, someone would come out and help me shuck the corn, carefully removing as much silk as possible and immediately put it into the boiling water, where it was allowed to remain no more than 10 minutes. It was then placed on the table and eaten before the rest of the food, while still piping hot. Actually, a better way is to steam the corn in a double boiler for 8 to 10 minutes. Frankly, it is the only way I consider sweet corn fit to eat, which means that I must grow my own. As for the ears of corn available at any grocery store — well, I wouldn't feed them to a thoroughbred horse, if I owned one.

"Spill (spil) sb.1...2. A thin slip of wood or a folded or twisted piece of paper used for lighting a candle, pipe, etc. "Sir G C Lewis — 'Long thin splinters of wood used in farmhouses for lighting candles are called 'spills'" OED, Compact Edition.

Never one to waste anything, even matches, Aunt Ella kept a coffee can of spills on the top ledge of the gas range in the kitchen and it was my task to fill it each Saturday morning. Our spills were made by cutting a sheet of newspaper into strips the length of the page, resulting in a piece of paper 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide and 23 inches long. One corner about one inch deep was moistened in the maker's mouth and then the paper was rolled tightly, starting at the moistened corner so that a long, nearly cylindrical tube of paper was formed about 11 or 12 inches long. The top end was folded over twice and the spill was ready for use. After one burner on the stove had been lighted with a match, the remaining burners were always lit with a spill, if they were required for any purpose. Since the coffee was kept simmering on one burner all day, there was always flame available to light the spill. It may be noted that the long, ornamental matches (about 11") sold in fancy boxes, and usually presented as gifts at Christmas "for those who have everything" are really spills with a sulphur tip. Now Aunt Ella didn't call them spills; she would not have recognized the word, and would have snorted at it if she had heard it. It was not until my teenage son started collecting Wedgwood and acquired a couple of Spill Vases that I finally found out what I had been making all those years in the huge walnut paneled kitchen at Islandside.

I keep one of my son's spill vases on the mantle of the fireplace, filled with spills made from glossy Christmas wrapping paper, as a reminder of my boyhood chore. 

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Paul Healy




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