Part of what attracted me to Korean and Chinese cultures was that their established hierarchy and obeisance to grown-up relatives resembled my family’s. Relatives older than I, were addressed by their well-earned titles; great grandma, a quartet of grandparents, aunts, uncles and adult cousins. The last group members were called aunts or uncles. My Aunt Jane, wife of mom’s cousin, Uncle Martin was lauded for her exotic cookery skills. In our uber-diverse family, she was the only Sephardic Jew. She brought with her an intoxicating cuisine; entrees of fresh sardines, shimmering in oil until crisp tender in an embrace of paprika, oregano, wine, cinnamon and citrus followed by desserts like Persian cream puffs, swollen with whip cream and robed in rose water and honey.
Aunt Jane, built like a cuddly sofa, was a treasured in-law, not just due to her tasty gastronomy but for her sweet demeanor and ready smile. She was deferential to her elders and kind-hearted to their children. Often, after Grandma’s Sunday dinners, while the dishes and pots dried on threadbare towels and the remaining female relatives played a last hand of Gin Rummy, inevitably someone would mention how well Aunt Jane was raised.
I don’t recall meeting Jane’s parents. I don’t know if they emigrated from faraway Spain or Portugal or wherever Sephardic Jews make fabulous meals and raise wonderful daughters, but I do know, through the countless retellings, the details of her mother’s last moments.
The account of Aunt Jane’s mother’s death was evoked more than the Lord’s death and resurrection in my secular home, yet whenever the topic of illness or old age in our family was raised, the conversation would end with, “Let’s hope So-and-so will die like Jane’s mother.” It was intoned like an Amen and sometimes used to ward off evil, like when Uncle Joey bought a used Indian motorcycle: Grandma Rose opined loud enough to be heard upstairs and down, “How’s he going to live long enough to die like Jane‘s mother?”
On an afternoon leading up to Thanksgiving long ago, Aunt Jane’s mother, took her shopping cart and walked to the local market. She picked the plumpest turkey, no doubt while creating a silken basting recipe in her mind, then carefully scanned the winter squashes, scrutinized the salad greens and prodded the tomatoes and persimmons. I’m sure she bought an extra sack of flour for her renowned date cakes and a bag of pistachios for her crispy mandel bread. With her cart full, she made her way back to her home where she placed her shopping bags on the kitchen table.
Usually, a morning shopper, she noticed the sun low in the autumn sky and realized her precious grandchildren would soon be home from school. She called Aunt Jane. The two talked of recipes and tablecloths, who was coming for the feast and who would be elsewhere. Then one by one her grandchildren came home-each one taking the phone from their mom to share their day with their Grandma.
Aunt Jane offered to drive over and help put away the holiday supplies, but her mother, poo-pooed the idea. “You have enough to do. The turkey’s in the fridge and everything else can stay on the table till later. I’m going to lie down for a little while. Kiss Martin for me. Kiss yourself.” She laughed at her own joke before they hung up.
Aunt Jane’s mother didn’t wake up from her nap.
In the years that followed, I heard of other passings and attended dozens of funerals, but never knew another soul who left us so perfectly; in her own home, doing what she loved, talking and listening to the children she adored and filled with anticipation for an upcoming feast.
This Thanksgiving, after the grace is said, the turkey gobbled up, the pies devoured and the leftovers packed for goodie-bags, I will think of all of you and pray, “May you die like Aunt Jane’s mother. But not for a long, long time.”
Happy Thanksgiving from Alice, Hoon, Chrissy, The Great Pretender, Mudang Kim, Will and me :)