Aunt Mary, One Year Later

My Aunt Mary would have been 90 years old today. Exactly one year after her death and would-have-been 89th birthday I miss her terribly, for many, many reasons.

Holiday seasons. You may remember how torn up I was around the holidays last year because they were my first without Dad. They were also my first without Aunt Mary, and she was a major holiday presence. As soon as I got my license and a car my parents made sure to send me down to her house in Toms River as often as possible, especially to bake Christmas cookies. We had a tradition of making batches upon batches of chocolate chip and sour cream cookies from scratch to hand out to everyone, and they were always a big hit. She did the bulk of the work, eventually I just showed up to her house and shoved the dough in the oven, but told people I made them. We had another tradition of me picking her up on Christmas morning when it got to be too much for her to drive and I never minded cruising the parkway (for once with zero traffic) listening to the smarmiest of smarmy Christmas music. When I woke up on Christmas morning last year I immediately thought of how much time I had to open presents and shower before leaving to get her, and I fear I’ll feel that way for many Christmas mornings to come.

Mary was also a major Thanksgiving presence. Instead of me picking her up she spent the day with family friend but the next day we would go to her house for our 2nd (although usually my 3rd or 4th) Thanksgiving meal. Thanksgiving Day at my house was just me, my mom, my dad and my other aunt, and that always made me feel a little sad, whereas Black Friday at Aunt Mary’s was me, my mom, my dad, my sister, her husband and eventually Zoe, so the second celebration always felt like the real one.

Food. You’d think such an old-school Italian woman from New Jersey would be quite the culinary master, but she wasn’t. At least not until very late in life after her sisters (my Aunts Phil and Jessie) passed away and she had no choice but to learn or starve. She soon became the expert in stuffed shells, London broil, pancakes, chocolate ends and, best of all, cheesecake. Her cheesecake was incomparable, the crust so perfectly crumbly—I can’t even look at another cheesecake without thinking of her.

We often celebrated my parents’ birthdays at Mary’s house and my mom likes to tell people how although it was her or my dad’s birthday, Aunt Mary cooked my favorite meal (which would be the London broil). Recently I had to point out dear old Mom that while she did make the London broil for me, she made the special potatoes for my sister, the candied carrots and/or corn on the cob for my dad, and the endless amounts of green vegetables for my mom. And the fridge was always stocked with ginger ale for me and my dad and diet Coke for my mom. There was something for everyone at Aunt Mary’s house.

Cleanliness. One of my favorite things Aunt Mary ever did (besides asking me what I thought about “that Snooki person” one day several years ago) was cleaning the house top to bottom before people from a hired cleaning service arrived to, wouldn’t you know it, clean the house. She climbed on ladders to do the windows, curtains and blinds and strained her back to sweep, mop and vacuum the floors because she didn’t want it to be dirty for them. She also cleaned out her very large and very full china cabinet (the contents of which I am now the proud owner) several times a year for absolutely no reason at all, and she used her microwave as a cookie storage facility. Most importantly, she didn’t listen to a word my mom or dad ever said about NOT climbing all over the house. “Bah, I can do it!”

It-lee. Aunt Mary traveled to Italy (which she pronounced “It-lee”) many decades ago to visit family. By herself. The woman I knew never would have gone on such an adventure, but apparently that’s what she was like back in the day. After my mom finished cleaning out Mary’s house last month (I am still baffled by the fact that I will never walk into that house again) she gave me a bunch of guide books and artifacts from this tour d’Italia. Much like when I found the photo albums of my dad’s trips to Europe, when I looked at this stuff I became overwhelmingly sad and nostalgic but connected to Aunt Mary in a way I don’t think could have been possible when she was alive.

Family values. I had the misfortune of being born into a pretty old family. Not to be completely morbid but about 70% of my relatives were gone by the time I was 14, so Mary sort of became all the relatives, at least on my mom’s side, combined into one hilariously cranky person. She became an endless source of stories about the ones I never really knew, particularly her brother/my mom’s dad, and for that I am eternally grateful.

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