My beloved Aunt May, storyteller, homemaker extraordinaire and life’s cheerleader, has passed away.
She was the first of my dad’s sisters to go, although she still lived to the fine, old age 94. May was the firstborn in their family, although her sister, Ethel, was born just 11 months after her — and they were so close that I wasn’t sure for years which one was older.
May and Ethel got along so famously that they were like twins. It didn’t matter that Ethel is tiny and fine-boned while May had her father’s sturdier build. Their prematurely silver hair, wide smiles, outgoing personalities and distinctive giggles instantly marked them as kin.
I was sad to say goodbye to Auntie May — a “character,” in the best sense of the word. To this day, there are few pleasures in life that rival Dad and his sisters gathered around the kitchen table, exchanging deliciously detailed memories of their rough-and-tumble childhood growing up on a ranch in western North Dakota.
I always found the two oldest sisters, especially, to be such an interesting hybrid of my hardworking, no-nonsense, brusquely funny grandpa and my genteel, immaculate schoolmarm grandma. May had very definite conservative opinions about household roles and politics, but she glowed with pride when talking about the business savvy of her daughter, Jill.
She labored like any other farmhand on my grandfather’s farm and even worked as a Rosie the Riveter in the West Coast shipyards during World War II, yet she also had a college diploma in home economics and set an impeccable table.
Like all of her siblings, May had a way with words. She wrote long, detail-filled, newsy letters to my parents, filling up the margins with her careful schoolteacher script so as not to waste paper. She rarely left anyone’s company without finding something encouraging or complimentary to say to them. “You’re such a devoted mother,” she would say to my oldest sister. Or: “Your writing shows such an eye for detail,” she would tell me.
At the same time, she had a disciplined and formal aspect to her personality that intimidated me. I remembered worrying inordinately when we visited their home, because their house was so clean that it almost looked like they didn’t have three children. Once, I foolishly placed a wet glass on one of her end tables and received a patient but firm explanation as to the evils of water rings on fine wood.
Although her biggest role in life was as a wife, mother and housewife, in more enlightened times, she might have been an architect or interior designer. She designed two of the houses her family lived in, and often sketched out plans for grander homes which her frugal husband would have never deigned to build. She designed my mother’s kitchen with a spatial awareness, practicality and efficiency that impressed all of us. It is not a big kitchen, but the fact that it holds enormous storage and can easily accommodate three to four people working at once is testament to May’s smart design.
May’s husband, Jack, was the first person I ever met who was really into nutrition. He preached against the evils of white flour, white sugar and partially hydrogenated oils decades before it became mainstream information.
Always the good wife, May cooked accordingly — with home-ground, whole-wheat flour and as many whole foods as possible. Our family received many lectures on nutrition when the Smiths visited, and my mom even adopted some of their principles — although she still bought Tab and Nutter Butters on occasion.
Certain foods lend themselves exceptionally well to wholesome ingredients. May’s carrot cake was so laden with coconut, nuts, pineapple and carrots that it weighed as much as an anvil. She also made the BEST chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies. Our family still makes these regularly, even if we don’t always opt for the whole-wheat flour or the old-fashioned oatmeal.
During Aunt May’s prayer service, her granddaughter told of how May used to allow her to perch on the counter while she made these cookies. But, with that typical blend of Grandpa Swift grit and Grandma Swift softness, she didn’t allow her to eat cookie dough, but let her snack only on chocolate chips that fell on the counter.
I still envision little Sheena squirming on the counter, watching eagle-eyed for the chips to fall where they may. Or maybe for the chips to fall from Aunt May.
Aunt May’s Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies
2 sticks butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large, fresh eggs
2 tablespoons whole milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (can substitute 1 cup white flour + 3/4 cup whole-wheat flour, if you’re trying to feel less guilty)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups organic, old-fashioned oats, crushed in food processor
2 cups chocolate chips
1 cup organic chopped walnuts (optional)
In large mixing bowl, cream together butter and sugars. Beat in eggs, milk and vanilla.
In separate bowl, use wire whisk to whisk together flour with baking soda and salt. Stir into the butter-sugar mixture. Fold in oats, then chocolate chips and walnuts. Chill dough for at least 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drop rounded spoonfuls onto parchment-lined cookie sheets and bake 10-12 minutes. Let cool on cookie sheet for a couple of minutes before moving to baking racks to cool completely.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.