(This article previously appeared in The Pocono Record.)
Two or three years ago, I was ordering bouquets for Mother’s Day and chose identical arrangements of iris and tulips for my mother and my aunt — my mother’s younger sister, who is also my godmother.
Aunts don’t get as much respect as they deserve. The drugstore had only a handful of “aunt” cards to choose from, and the online florist’s pulldown menu for “relation” didn’t even list aunt. Mother was there, of course, along with wife, sibling, cousin, friend, colleague and a few others. But there was no box for aunt. I had to choose “other,” which seemed disloyal, somehow.
Aunt is an important category in my book, even more so now that my mother has died. In these months following her death, I’ve bonded more deeply with my aunt in a kind of love swap made all the easier by the fact that the two of them look so much alike. When friends see photos of me with my aunt, they invariably think it’s my mother.
My mother was just 19 when I was born and my aunt was in high school. We lived in the apartment upstairs from my grandparents in a small town in central Massachusetts, so I enjoyed an Italian extended-family upbringing for the first four years of my life. It’s a great setting for a little kid.
Whenever I see my aunt, I get new nuggets of information about those years — stories of my grandparents, parents, other relatives and family friends. When I visited a couple of weekends ago, she recalled how, as a toddler, I would wait for her to get home from school, running to greet her crying, “Auntie! Auntie!” Then I would demand to be taken for a walk.
The Importance Of Family Connections
Other than looks, there were few similarities between my mother and my aunt. They disagreed about almost everything their entire lives — they were those kinds of sisters. They had different talents and interests. Each could be headstrong and opinionated.
The people in that generation above us are important. They are like a buffer zone between us and — well, let’s say eternity.
Nevertheless, they were family. When Mom lived here in Pennsylvania, we made excursions to see my aunt and other Massachusetts relatives almost every summer. Before Christmas and on Mother’s Day, we would split the geographical difference between us, meeting my aunt and cousin for brunch and shopping in central Connecticut, roughly halfway in between our two towns — a mutually inconvenient location, if you will.
Now I go alone or with my husband, grateful that my aunt is still with us. She’s in her 80s and has had a few health scares. She can’t do as much as she used to. She doesn’t, for example, make homemade pasta anymore — a skill she learned from my grandmother. Nevertheless, she concocted a mean Bolognese sauce on our last visit. (Secret ingredient: a tiny hint of mint.)
She never forgets a birthday or anniversary. Indeed, if you want to feel cherished in this life, there is nothing like a birthday card into which one’s aunt has tucked a greenback. It’s heartening to be spoiled like a child when you are in your 60s.
My aunt has also been a solace in the loss of my mother. She called me on the eve of my mother’s birthday earlier this year, since she knew the day would be a tough one for me, and likewise on Mother’s Day. Again, Aunt Olga’s phone call helped me navigate that difficult first one without my mom.
The people in that generation above us are important. They are like a buffer zone between us and — well, let’s say eternity. I’m grateful that I still have my aunt, that she’s reasonably healthy and active, and that her mind is sound. Besides all those stories, she is a repository of recipes. She’s passed some of them along but they just don’t taste as good when I make them.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes of Aunt Olga’s.
Aunt Olga’s Meat Sauce
Recipe by Olga Grenier
¼ cup olive oil
1 – 1 ½ pounds ground meat (beef, pork, turkey or a combination)
1 large onion, chopped
1 carrot, grated
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 – 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 – 28-ounce can tomato puree
1 small can tomato paste
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped – OR – 1 tablespoon dried basil or oregano
1 teaspoon dried mint leaves
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/8 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
Heat oil in large skillet or saucepan. Add ground meat and brown, stirring with spoon until partly browned. Add onion, garlic and carrot. Continue cooking until the meat is brown. Stir well.
Add tomatoes, puree and paste, along with a 28-ounce can of water. Add spices (parsley or basil/oregano, mint, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper). Mix well, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to very low (simmer). Cook for about two hours, uncovered, stirring now and then and keeping watch over the sauce. When done, if the sauce is too thick add a ladle or two of pasta water and cook an additional 15 minutes.
Serve over pasta or use the sauce as the basis for lasagna, stuffed shells, manicotti, stuffed peppers, etc.