I just finished writing and addressing generic birthday cards for two people I barely know. One is my cousin’s husband, the other is another cousin’s son. It’s part of a fine tradition of correspondence I’m carrying on in the name of my Aunt Leona.
The matriarch of my family, Leona Mildred Henschen, died last month. She was a firm, no-nonsense spinster (a real legal term!) schoolmarm of stern stuff, but with deep belly laugh just like my grandpa’s and a smile that told you she loved you, though she wasn’t putting up with any funny business. We grew up on the same farm a few generations apart. She was tall and sturdily built, of German and French stock. I never saw her shrink from anything and can’t recall her ever making self-conscious comments about food and weight. She brought an angel food cake with pink icing to every birthday party and made fruit salad with marshmallows for every holiday. She was put together until the day she died. Or at least the day before — the last time I saw her. She had just gotten her hair done and was wearing a patterned top and dark pants.
Auntie grew up on a dairy farm in Central Illinois during the Great Depression. One of the trials of this time frame, she said, was the diet. (Food is a big deal in our family. We’re farmers!) Her family — her parents and brother — ate cottage cheese and fried potatoes every night. The potatoes were out of their large garden. The cottage cheese was fresh cow’s milk from their dairy that had been set on the stove in the morning to curdle a bit, then poured into a cloth bag and hung on the clothesline to drain the rest of the day. A little milk was added to the soft curds for dinner. “It’s a wonder we can still eat much of that,” she joked to my grandpa once after a meal.
We went to the same university — Eastern Illinois — though it was a teacher’s college or “normal school” when she attended. She boarded in a house for female students that had a curfew. Her college experience was likely much more straight-laced than my kegger and fake ID days, but I hold that connection dear just the same. She was there on a scholarship, I was on financial aid. Auntie shared once that during her first job in a very rural school district, she lived in a house with several other female teachers. One of them had a girlfriend. They asked that teacher to move out. Small-town 1940s scandal!!
She was a typing teacher in the tiny village of Assumption, Illinois. In one of our heart-to-hearts, which occurred more often and via phone as I became an adult, she told me that she was once offered higher-paying position at a well-respected school. But she decided against it. Because she knew she wouldn’t be able to have the same impact on more privileged children. Because children in the small town needed her more.
Auntie never married because she had been directed to take care of her mother — by her mother — which she did. When my great-grandfather died, Great Grandma moved in with Auntie and later to the nursing home in a nearby small town. I recently speculated that Great Grandma lived to be 100 because Auntie spent so much time with her and brought her homemade, garden-fresh food most days.
Auntie was a fiercely self-sufficient woman, though she did have a notable love affair. His name was Bill and his framed photo sat on her dresser in her bedroom as long as I knew her and as long as she had a bedroom. She told me that once, when they’d visited her parents, Bill went out to start the car and pull it up to the sidewalk. “Do you like him doing that for you?” her mother asked, knowing of her independence.
Auntie told another story nearer to her death. I imagine it happening in the house we both grew up in. Her mother was the teacher at the schoolhouse about a quarter of a mile down the road. Nonetheless, my great grandma puzzled at Auntie’s love of reading. As a girl, Auntie would pore over every edition of the local newspaper cover to cover. “Why do you read all that?” Great Grandma asked her. “Because it’s there to read,” Auntie had replied.
Every Memorial Day that she was able in her 95 years, Auntie took silk flowers to the graves of her relatives, and later, her friends. She pointed out our ancestors. She baked Christmas cookies and fudge for every household in our family. One year, in college, I asked if I could help her make the cookies. I got to see her secret recipes (sour cream in sugar cookies?!), use the hallowed cookie cutters — a star and Santa with a sack on his back — and even got juicy tidbits of historical gossip, some of it shared above.
She had an affected elocution that I always appreciated, kind of like a Mid-Atlantic accent for the southern Midwest. She fully pronounced words like “cooking” where “cookin’” is the parlance of the region, as is “Ah” in place of “I.” She also said things like, “One must…” instead of the more colloquial “you have to.” It was just classy.
She took no shit. Once, I came to visit her in the nursing home wearing a strapless maxi dress. As I wheeled her chair toward the courtyard for a chat, another resident commented on how it looked like we were going to the beach (likely due to my getup). “Well, I guess that’s our business,” Auntie shot back without batting an eyelash. It was expert shade with a comeback I have and will continue to utilize in homage.
One Christmas Day, I was sitting with Auntie and my mother’s Aunt Theresa at a version of the kid’s table that was, in truth, the awesome old ladies’ table. When Aunt Theresa asked her age, Aunt Leona proudly told her matter-of-factly, “I am ninety-two,” pronouncing each syllable distinctly. Then they went on to discuss World War II and what bullshit it was that men got all the credit for victory, as if women had simply sat on their hands the whole time. Theresa was a young nurse during the war. When my grandfather shipped out to the South Pacific, Leona was in charge of her mother and my grandmother, her sister-in-law. I can only imagine the mismatched personality antics that went down during that time. My grandmother was also a teacher, but a bit more on the chatty, feminine side. Plus Great Grandma was there. Sounds like some mid-century Golden Girls action, minus Blanche. Auntie was definitely Dorothy/Bea Arthur.
During one of our marathon gab sessions, which was basically me catching her up on my life, Auntie said, “You’re a self-made woman.” It was finest compliment I believe I will ever receive, particularly because it came from her. At the end of our phone calls during the last year or two of her life, she would end them by thanking me for calling and saying, so sincerely and with such love, “I’m so glad to get to know all about you.” She was in a nursing home. She remembered when she moved there from assisted living and saw the calendar and thinking, “This is the day my life starts to be over.” She eventually lost her eyesight, but she kept up with sports on TV. She had a particular loathing for the squirrels that helped themselves to the bird feeders outside her window.
MyAuntie is gone. But I’m here. So, in honor of her, it’s my responsibility to embody what I love about her. I’ve already inherited her feeling of duty to our family and a no-nonsense approach to communication. Blunt women are often stigmatized, but Auntie knew no other way. I hope I can carry on her fine blend of thoughtfulness and self-preservation. I’ll also be mailing cheap *ahem* frugal birthday cards to our growing family with a few sentences about the weather and my day-to-day life. I’ll be relishing the time I’m privileged to spend with young people I work with through Wisconsin 4-H. I’ll work at being a strong role model and a self-sufficient truster of my intuition. It’s the least I can do to carry on the legacy of someone who made such an impact on me.
Here are some notable Auntie sayings I remember from my youth:
-You may greatly dislike something, but you don’t hate anything except the devil.
-See that you do rather than “You had better…” I use this one now. It feels more effective.
-Moved your bowels, which she would ask me if I had done lately when I told her my stomach hurt. I imagined bowels where two big rocks in my stomach that rolled around each other.