Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Aunt Carole

We have a special post today! We’re celebrating the birthday of my Aunt Carole, who was born this day in 1932. The day after Christmas! (That’s how she got the name Carole!)

I’m scheduling this to go online (and public) during her birthday party at my cousin’s house in Moniteau County, not far from where Aunt Carole and Uncle Richard live. She asked that everyone bring a homemade card for her.

Time to get creative! Okay: Since she has such a delicious love/hate relationship with computers, I thought it would be fitting (and fun) for her to receive a card with a URL on it, and have her own special place (however humble my offering is) on the Internet devoted to her.

You realize that any verbal sketch of a human being always falls short—and for that I apologize. There’s no way I can satisfactorily characterize Aunt Carole—a woman I’ve known all my forty-seven years, so she’s as much a part of my reality as air and water and earth—so we have to make do with some vignettes showing certain aspects of her that (I think) illustrate what a beautiful and engaging woman she is.

Eclectic Carole

One of the reasons I’m glad I moved back to Missouri is that I’ve gotten to know Aunt Carole and Uncle Richard (hereinafter, “Carole” and “Richard,” to save space) from an adult perspective, and having unrushed time to spend with them. More than ever, I’m impressed by their wide range of interests. They live in a small town—actually, the outskirts of a small town—but they both negate the stereotype of the close-minded small-town citizen. The only thing greater than the breadth of their knowledge is the depth of their curiosity. As you’ll see below, Carole is always trying to understand things better, and she doesn’t set limits on what’s “worth knowing.” It’s all grist for her mill!

Agricultural Carole

It’s not a surprise that someone who lives in a rural area would be a gardener, and Carole, the daughter of lifelong gardeners, is right in there with the best of them. Her garden is in a forest clearing, next to the long gravel drive to her and Richard’s “cabin in the woods,” lovingly called “Touch the Earth.”

Last year, the drought, and Carole’s being hampered by a serious elbow injury that kept her out the garden, limited her veggie output, but let me tell you—the whole family has been spoiled, utterly spoiled, by her summertime gifts of squash, tomatoes, basil, cilantro, lettuce, escarole, peppers, cucumbers, and beans, her glorious nanny beans, a completely stringless heirloom variety passed to her from her mom.

In our first years at our house, she brought us humongous, just-picked kale plants just in time for our holiday cooking. Such beautiful veggies, I almost hated to cook them. I asked how she kept bugs from eating the leaves, and she told me she plucked off the insects by hand. How’s that for organic! Also, the system she invented for coping with late frosts is ingenious—so smart she ought to patent it!

Gardening in the woods presents its own set of challenges, particularly in the form of critters—so Carole has been inventive in ways to thwart herbivores from above and below (deer, rabbits, squirrels, voles, squash bugs, etc.). And yet there is a sign along their driveway, as you approach their house, that says, “CRITTERS WELCOME.” There’s a paradox right there! One of Carole’s fun original stories is about “Wendy Weevil,” who is a type of critter reviled by most farmers but championed by Carole for its place in nature. She understands the balance, embraces the paradox, and fights the good fight of gardeners everywhere.

Woodsy Carole

This is a good place to talk about Carole of the woods, Carole who cuts firewood alongside the menfolks and who has never lost her childlike wonder about the woods. She has a true gift for getting children engaged with nature, too. (I speak from personal experience as well as from observing her with younger relatives.)

When they moved into their cabin, with its nice tract of wooded Ozark landscape, she discovered “stump dirt,” the freshly rotted wood turning to soil at the base of a hollow or dying tree. Apparently this is nature’s best-ever potting soil!

She glories at the wildflowers, dogwoods, and redbuds in springtime, and she’s a champion morel hunter. When Sue and I wanted to learn more about morel hunting, she’s the one we approached. And she and Richard were kind enough to take us on a hunt in their woods, even showing us where the shrooms usually pop up. (Anyone who knows anything about morel hunting, and its secrecy about fungal treasure troves, understands how charitable this was!)

I could go on and on about Carole’s love of nature, but anyone of like mind understands how all-embracing such a love is, and how it influences everyone who knows her. That her kids—my cousins—all grew up loving, and not fearing nature, is a testament to her unqualified appreciation of our natural world.

Socratic Carole

When my cousins grew up and left home, Carole went back to school and got an education degree at MU. She taught high school history at Bunceton for some years, and I often wonder about those farm-bred Bunceton kids, who were undoubtedly bewildered, trying to make sense of what had to be, for them, an unknown teaching approach: I’m sure Aunt Carole employed the Socratic method of questioning in order to stimulate her students to develop critical thinking skills, and get them to practice a fruitful system for their own intellectual explorations. Carole has always been a questioner—of others, and, I think, of herself. Which is always the approach of the wise.

I have to say (with a mischievous grin), this quality of Carole makes her great fun at parties. She is not bashful about talking to anyone, and the conversations are always fun. Her intense interest, in a huge range of subjects, at first surprises people who don’t know her, but as she draws people out, they find themselves engaged in what will become a memorable, and possibly enlightening, conversation.

Intellectual Carole

Carole is a bona fide intellectual, yet unlike other incredibly smart people, she doesn’t act like she’s aware of it. She doesn’t lord it over people, she’s not snooty; she’s simply enthusiastic. Take opera, for example. Remember that television commercial in the seventies of the cowboy riding the plains on horseback, listening to the Metropolitan Opera via his transistor radio stuck hanging from the horn of his saddle? That’s kind of like Carole, listening to some of the greatest performance art of Western culture with sheer enjoyment, oblivious to the fact that most people consider opera something that only “ivory tower” types can appreciate.

Seriously—the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts are like candy to her. And yeah, after years of listening to the Saturday NPR opera broadcasts, she knows all the stories and everything! (I betcha she can name the opera this picture’s from right off the bat!)

I’ve mentioned her being a history teacher, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that she and Richard are core members of the Moniteau County Historical Society, have created many of the museum’s displays, were deeply involved in writing and editing volumes of local history, and much more.

Weaver Carole

Carole has a low-key, part-time home business in rug-making. She inherited her antique loom from her mom’s family and has used this massive wooden contraption for years to make high-quality, fancy rag rugs and related items. During the California Ham and Turkey Festival (held in mid-September), you can usually find her in the front lobby of the Moniteau County Historical Society Museum, weaving a rug, and encouraging children to try it.

She takes commissions. Often her rugs are made to order, including the color scheme. She recently completed a big placemat and table-runner project for some Mizzou Tigers fans, using all black and gold colors. She’s really good at it! The weave is tight and the rugs incredibly sturdy. (I have one of her rugs, and I hate to step on it!)

Healthy Carole

At this point, it’s hard for me to remember Aunt Carole’s pies when she made them with (shhh!!!) lard—but I do remember them being exquisite, perfect in every way. Ripe, succulent fruits, and tender, perfectly flaky crusts. Naturally, people oohed and aahed over them. But guess what? Carole remains the whole extended family’s uncontested top pie-maker, even after she switched away from such traditional ingredients in favor of heart-healthy ones.

I guess it was in the eighties when the doctors told Richard he needed to lower his cholesterol, sodium, and what-not, and Carole took those instructions seriously. Embracing the challenge (and her husband), she explored healthy cooking methods, new ingredients, and low-fat recipes. So, toss out another small-town stereotype! Carole knows her way around pestos, low-fat soups, pies without lard, and much more. She’s learned how to make “healthy” taste opulent!

In fact, Carole’s become famous for her own special Christmas stollen recipe. We greedily anticipate our annual loaf! While most stollens are butter-laden, papoose-shaped affairs, drizzled with icing or sprinkled with powdered sugar, Carole’s stollen are made in loaf tins and are more breadlike—yet they’re sweet enough, with the fruits and nuts that are de rigueur in stollen, but more substantial. I like to toast a slice, and put butter on it. (Yeah, sometimes I use real butter!) Goes great with grapefruit or sliced oranges!

Multicultural Carole

Missouri’s recently been an appallingly “red” state, but Carole and Richard remain staunchly, steadfastly “blue,” and for that, I’m personally grateful. When others in the family vote “red” and therefore seem willing to sell me and Sue “down the river” in terms of civil rights, Carole and Richard are two who question the deep character flaws of politicians who inflame homophobia in order to attract votes. It’s nice to know that they accept us as a couple, and that they don’t have to perform mental gymnastics on election day in order to reconcile their feelings for us with the way they intend to vote.

Indeed, Carole and Richard have welcomed diversity into their family for decades, as my cousins have taken spouses who represent diversity in race and religion and whose children reflect racial and religious diversity as well. In fact, I think Carole and Richard are more than just “accepting” of this diversity—I think they see it as a badge of honor—they’re proud that their kids grew up comfortable enough to reach across subcultural borders, follow their hearts, and not worry about expectations and “shoulds.”

Canoeing Carole

Carole’s favorite thing in the world is to go canoeing on the Current River. In July 2007, she and Richard took Sue and me with them for a day on the river, and we got to see why Carole’s so addicted to it.

Truly, it’s beyond description—the sensation of floating in a narrow vessel sliding with the current downstream, the quietness of the river broken only by the sound of paddles dipping in the water and birds singing in the trees, the lush watercress like green garlands waving below, and the beautiful clear water in a pool just right for swimming on a hot July day.

Carole showed us how she likes to float on her back on the water’s surface, arms outstretched, and let the water carry her gently downstream. Her eyes were closed, her face beatific, her fingers gently outstretched in an unconscious gesture of gratitude, of grace. I think that for her, this is pretty close to nirvana. I had not seen her like this before, and I gained new respect and admiration for her that day.

I understand, now, why Uncle Richard claims that the sure way to get Carole out of a cycle of anxiety or grumpiness is to “get her out on the river!” The river is her cathedral, her holy land, the home of her heart and her soul.

My Aunt Carole

In preparing this post, I kept thinking of my earliest memories of Aunt Carole, which were usually from family parties and get-togethers, usually crowded occasions that felt overwhelming to me as a little kid. (I was always the youngest.) I recall all the adults leaning down to talk to me—big adult faces grinning and asking me questions I had no answers for. Carole was one of these people.

She struck me then as brusque—but then most of the adults seemed that way at parties, since they were essentially taking time out from the more interesting adult conversations to pay attention to me. And Carole often seemed more “intellectual” than “warm”—but maybe that’s more of a reflection of my own kid-self than it is of her.

Anyway, as I’ve gotten to know her better, since my return to Missouri, I’ve come to see more of the caring side of her. I’ve come to realize that one of the big ways she shows her love is by doing things—through actions.

In the last few decades, I’ve seen Aunt Carole, and Richard and my parents, all go through the difficult years of caring for their elderly parents and seeing them through to their passing. It’s not for the faint-hearted, and Carole, with the others in her generation, showed a tenacious, loving grace as she cared for her parents and mother-in-law.

One of my favorite stories about her lovingness and charity, however, is about near-strangers: One time, she brought morels to the old folks at the nursing home. It was all carefully planned and premeditated—she preheated her insulated cooler with hot water bottles, picked a bunch of morels, fried them just so, in the beloved traditional way, then wrapped them quickly, loosely, carefully, stashed them in her prewarmed cooler, then sped out to the nursing home.

Is this “allowed”?! No matter. You know these old folks ate morels for years! She snuck up behind some of the oldtimers, then snaked her hand into their view, waving a fresh-fried morel in front of them: “Ohhh! A mushroom!” The gourmet treats were gobbled up by folks who weren’t able to hunt their own morels anymore. What a delicious surprise! . . . And a thoroughly caring gesture.

And that’s Carole—creative, quirky, full of delicious surprises, challenging, clever, and caring. What an amazing woman! And I’m so proud to be her niece. Happy birthday, Aunt Carole, I hope you have a wonderful day!

No comments: