My late husband, Paul, came from a big clan. His mother was somewhere in the middle of a span of 12 children, so there were lots of aunts and uncles and cousins. Paul’s favorites were Aunt Elsie and Uncle Stanley, who had a little farmhouse on a broad stretch of acreage, a place where the wood-burning cookstove was warm nearly year-round and the smell of pickling spices and apple pie wafted out into the dooryard. The house was surrounded by the Christmas-tree farm that Uncle Stanley had carefully tended throughout their lives. We often went there for visits (drop-ins welcomed) or Sunday dinner. Elsie could concoct miracles in a kitchen that most of us today would find impossible to work in. Uncle Stanley was a logger. He wasn’t very tall or very big, but he was a strong muscle of a man. Once, when Stanley was into his nineties, son Gary found his father high up in one of the tall pines that surrounded their house. Something about cutting limbs that blocked his view. He didn’t know what all the fuss was about when his feet came safely back to earth.
Aunt Elsie died some years ago, and then Uncle Stanley followed after going it alone for probably as long as he cared to. I don’t know how he managed without Elsie’s cooking. Their children kept the house. Some years passed before we realized that we could all still gather together, even if missing such important members of the clan. So last year, Cousin June called to invite me to join her and her siblings for dinner on Thanksgiving weekend. It had been years since I’d been to visit Stanley and Elsie. Stepping from the porch into the old kitchen, I rocketed back 30 years or more. Nothing had changed. Sometimes the past can live right alongside us in the present. Gary and Curtis and Elwood and Douglas and June were jostling around in the space, each at his or her own task. The smell of roasting pork and apples spiced the air. At this house, you sit down to dinner almost as soon as you get your coat off, which is what we did.
At the same time, the Christmas-tree farm was open for business, and cars were driving into the yard, parking willy-nilly. They seemed to know the rules. June and Gary kept watch from the window. Folks would get out of their car, bow saw in hand, and trudge up into the meadow, selecting the perfect tree; these trees were beautifully conical, pruned yearly by Uncle Stanley’s expert hand. They’d return with their prize, June greeting them at the porch door, depositing the asking price into the jar. It was their father’s best legacy to them: They were reaping benefits from trees they’d never planted. Still working on our big dinner, we’d watch as the visitors placed the tree on top of their car. At least one out of four of them needed Gary to go out and help him strap it to the roof or reposition it, gently explaining the aerodynamics of it all.
We finished our meal and our string of family stories and memories. As always, laughter prevailed. I suddenly realized that this was my opportunity to get Aunt Elsie’s recipe for soft molasses cookies. I’d always regretted that I’d never asked for it. Scraping back their chairs, everyone went rummaging around to find this wonderful recipe that had produced a soft, cake-like cookie, a high dome of ecstasy. I went home with my recipe card, happy, knowing that in their absence, the essence of Uncle Stanley and Aunt Elsie lives on.
Edie Clark’s latest book is What There Was Not to Tell: A Story of Love and War. Order your copy, as well as Edie’s other works, at edieclark.com.