Great Aunt Mary
By the time I came along Great Aunt Mary was already well into her fifties, but still a “dynamo,” as most family members described her, their affection tinged with awe, and probably a bit of envy too. The latter, however, was never admitted openly.
She came to the United States as an infant. My grandfather, who was just nine at the time Great Grandma made the voyage from Naples to “The Land of Opportunity,” took charge of his baby sister during the difficult crossing, and proudly carried her in his young arms as they departed the ship that took them to Ellis Island and the Hope of attaining a better future.
Aunt Mary was a little person. She’d been afflicted with rickets as a toddler, which stunted her growth and bent her legs, but it never occurred either to her or my Great-Grandmother to let a little thing like that stand in their way. So little Mary grew quickly into a responsible, amazingly resourceful adult, despite not having the benefit of much education. Most didn’t have much schooling in those days –– especially girls, who were expected to begin learning to cook, sew, mend, clean, keep house, and nurse the sick from toddlerhood, then marry young, bear children, and raise them as well as possible to carry on the family traditions.
Like my grandmother, who was imported by Mail-Order from the Old Country to marry my grandfather on Great Grandma’s direct orders soon after Grandpa’s eighteenth birthday, Great Aunt Mary was different. Neither woman had much education, but they were intelligent, ambitious, courageous, –– and most important of all ––, they had Vision and tremendous respect for Learning.
By the time little Aunt Mary married Uncle Frank, and had brought Alice and John into the world she realized that if her children were ever to get ahead, they would have to graduate from college –– an almost unheard of ambition for members of the “lower orders” of that time –– especially recent immigrants whose mastery of English was considered sketchy at best.
Uncle Frank, a dapper, handsome little man whom Great Aunt Mary adored till the end of their days, wasn’t the type “to set the world on fire” to use her own words to describe him. He was employed as a meter reader for the local Water Company, and there he stayed contentedly for nearly fifty years until his retirement. They got by, but Mary knew there would never be enough money to send Alice and John to college, unless she did something on her own to make it happen.
Being a naturally creative, resourceful, highly ambitious person blest with a super-abundance of energy, Aunt Mary come up with a plan to make money in a way that would be both a credit to herself and a benefit to the entire community.
Like many a smart entrepreneur before her, Aunt Mary perceived a need, and had great faith that she had the means to fulfill it with her own two hands.
In those days it was possible to rent a large Victorian-style house with a good-sized garden and wraparound porch in a decent neighborhood for less than ten dollars a month. Always by nature a wonderful housekeeper famed in the family for maintaining a home so clean, “you could eat right off the floor,” Aunt Mary also had a knack for making her surroundings pleasant, comfortable and attractive. She supplemented the family income by renting a spare bedroom on the ground floor, and serving her paying guest breakfast every morning along with the rest of the family.
What today would be described as “poverty,” never seemed to faze Aunt Mary a bit. Always an active churchwoman, she befriended more prosperous parishioners who served with her on the Altar Guild of the Episcopal Church. These women liked and respected Aunt Mary, and often supplied her with beautiful fabrics left over from decorating projects in their big houses on The Hill or from their dressmakers –– “scraps” from which she busily created magic on her treadle sewing machine –– items that brightened her home and helped supply the annual Church Bazaar with handmade tea cozies, pot-holders, small, decorative pillows and the like.
Oh, and did I tell you, she also made all the clothes for herself and her daughter, and even learned enough about the art of tailoring to supplement Uncle Frank’s wardrobe?
As my mother, –– the last of eight children, who was born in 1913 –– shortly after the Titanic, –– during the the Great Influenza Pandemic that killed somewhere between twenty and fifty-million worldwide, and nearly three-quarters-of a million Americans –– and just before the outbreak of the First World War ––, often said, “Nothing can stop Aunt Mary once she’s set her mind on something. She has such talent she could serve you a tuna fish sandwich on a paper doily, and glass of iced tea, and make you believe you were lunching at Peacock Alley or the Palm Court at the Plaza.”
Mother’s opinion partly said in jest was substantially accurate. In addition to the many virtues listed above, Aunt Mary was also an excellent cook and a born hostess. She liked nothing better than to entertain family and friends in her spacious, handsomely-appointed Victorian home. And so it came to pass that she had what-turned out to be a profitable brainstorm, and decided to put her abundant talents as a homemaker to use as a means of making money.
She saved her pennies, went out and bought several sets of card tables and folding chairs, which she was able to store in a large hall closet under the stairs, and let it be known that she would soon be opening her home each day to serve lunch at a modest price to the schoolteachers of the community.
To make a long story short Aunt Mary’s homemade enterprise caught on like wildfire. She was already respected, well-liked, and regarded as a reliable source of aid and comfort by many of the well-to-do. Her home was charming, her food as satisfying as it was appetizing, and true to her word the price she charged for lunch each day –– a repast that would likely include a cup of homemade soup, a sandwich, a cup of tea or coffee, and either a frosted cupcake, several of her homemade cookies, or a piece of her famous applesauce cake, which I remember as the richest, best-tasting spice cake I’ve tasted to this very day –– her prices remained affordable yet still enabled her to turn a tidy profit.
Although lunch was supposed to be for the schoolteachers only, the Mayor soon caught on to a good thing and wanted to be included too, as did several members of the City Council, the Clergy and other influential citizens. So, never one to do things by halves, Aunt Mary set aside time for a second shift to accommodate the overflow. By rights she should have hired assistants, but since her objective ws to earn as much money as she possibly could, she managed to do the whole thing entirely by herself for the better part of twelve years.
Great Aunt Mary was able by dint of her talent, ingenuity, hard work, and a naturally sanguine disposition to make enough to put both of her children through college. Fortunately both Alice and John did their part, were exemplary students throughout their school careers, were each successful in their chosen fields and turned out to be a great credit to their mother.
Now all this happened more than a century ago –– before we were menaced by the Federal Income Tax, the Federal Reserve, State Sales Taxes, and ever-increasing legislation stifling Initiative, restraining Trade, and the many other depredations ushered in during the Progressive Era, which transformed America from the Land of Opportunity to a Land of Ever-Increasing Taxation and Soul-Deadening Regimentation.
Before Progressivism took over, inspiring success stories like my Great Aunt Mary’s numbered in the hundreds of thousands. How many similar tales do you hear about today in a land that now sends Government Officials to shut down Children’s Lemonade Stands, and lay heavy fines against anyone with the unmitigated gall to try to sell homemade food to her neighbors without paying OBEISANCE to Government Agencies that demand long waiting periods for the “privilege” of being ALLOWED just do business. Which permission, IF granted, always demands heavy payment for an annual LICENSE, and an agreement to SUBJECT themselves to noisome Government Inspections at frequent intervals.
Alas and Alack! Great Aunt Mary’s achievement would not be possible today. The bookkeeping imposed on her alone would doubtless use up so much of her time and energy there wouldn’t be anything left to enable her to perform the wonders she did back when these United States were still “The Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave.”
OFF-TOPIC, but an IMPORTANT MILESTONE
that DESERVES RECOGNITION
This was very sad news, but I was not surprised. The McLaughlin Group has been a ritual that defined Sunday morning for me for the past twenty-two years –– ever since I stopped attending church. Can't imagine what life will be like without John McLaughlin, but he'd been looking peeked most of the past year, seemed low on energy, lacked his usual brisk, acerbic tone, and slouched in his host's chair as though exhausted during many of the recent episodes.
Last Sunday –– just three days ago ––, I tuned in with my usual cut of coffee to watch the fur fly, and was genuinely shocked to see the announcement preceding the program telling us in Mclaughlin's own words that he would be absent for the first time in 34 years –– ever since the program began.
Even so, he still managed to announce each change of topic in a series of recorded messages, but his voice sounded weak, his speech slurred, and I sort of knew he wouldn't be with us much longer, though naturally I hoped he'd be able to return for another round or two, and at least see us through the election.
Alas! It was not meant to be.
Luis Rukeyser's untimely death several years ago, left a big hole in PBS's programming. Losing McLaughlin may very well sound the death knell for the organization as we've known and loved it. The quality of programing has been going steadily downhill for several decades Downton Abbey notwithstanding.
To lose Antonin Scalia, Downton Abbey and John McLaughlin all in one year –– especially THIS dreadful election year –– is depressing and discouraging.
The cause of his death was not disclosed, but I think it may be safe to assume he suffered a stroke, but what difference does it take what finished him? He was a doughty old guy –– a lovable curmudgeon, –– an American Original, who had become an institution.
He will be sorely missed, and we are unlikely to see his equal again in our lifetime.
Bye Bye, John. We loved you.