Between the Lines / A toast to old Aunt Jo
Charlene recently bought a new toaster after our not-so-old one broke down. I had high hopes for this new toaster, and looked forward to spreading real butter and some homemade jam over golden slices of sourdough bread once again.
But that isn't the case. The UPS man delivered a jazzed-up computerized model. It has all kinds of bells and whistles and more buttons than an air traffic control panel. The problem is that neither of us can operate the thing, and I haven't had a decent piece of toast in almost two months.
Why is life so darn complicated today? I just need a toaster that I can drop two slices of bread into, push the lever, and then wait for toast to pop up. All this brings me to Aunt Jo and her special brand of hospitality. Life was simple and good when you were at Jo's house. There was no such thing as an outcast or an enemy. Everyone was embraced and loved. In our Irish-American family where a kind word could sometimes be hard to find, Jo was a real saint.
Jo was actually my great aunt, but she was "Aunt" Jo to the world. I remember her as a stout, gray-haired lady, who always wore a full-length apron. Anyone who crossed her threshold was welcomed into the small, old-fashioned kitchen for a steaming cup of tea. The gas heating stove was against the near wall and a long sink on legs was against the back wall. The kitchen had two sunny windows, one of which looked out onto a lilac bush. A dinette table and chairs sat between the windows on the red and white linoleum squares. A built-in cabinet with glass doors held all of Jo's dishes and crockery.
The kitchen was home to all manner of savory aromas because Uncle Bill, her husband, was an excellent cook. He was a retired conductor and still liked to carry his big gold railroad pocket watch. The "old Dutchman," as Jo called him, could roast any kind of meat to perfection. That little kitchen had a legacy of great lunches and delectable suppers, and Jo kept it as clean as a whistle. A white GE ice box always had a fresh quart of milk and a new carton of butter in it.
Jo kept her toaster on the table plugged into a socket in the wainscoted wall. Joining her for toast was like a sacred ritual in our family -- it was at once nurturing and comforting. About the only thing that would annoy my aunt was if you rejected her hospitality. Our father was always in a hurry to leave and would usually say, "No thanks, Jo, we have to get home." Jo would answer brusquely, "Like hell you do, Bob. Sit down while I butter up some toast for the boys." I loved it when she nailed Dad like that. And he would sit right down with a sheepish laugh because he loved Jo like a mother.
Jo always kept Pepperidge Farm white bread in the house. You couldn't get a better bread back then, and Jo was nothing less than an artist with toast. She hovered over the toaster positioning the slices as if she were putting a baby in a crib. Jo even talked to the slices, wishing them well. A solid stick of butter came out of the icebox, which she shaved a bit with a knife to soften up. The tea kettle was already heating over the blue flame of the gas stove. She plunked a jar of grape jelly next to the butter and poured some milk into a little ceramic creamer. The milk was cold, creamy and thick. No skim milk in those days!
The chrome toaster took its time, ticking and clicking its way through the operation. Jo never had to check it, though. She had complete faith in her toast, each slice browned to perfection, decade after decade. While the toaster worked, there were a few minutes to catch up and ask how everyone was. Jo was always interested in the details of everything we did, no matter how small. She had no kids of her own but we were all treated like Jo's children, and that included every youngster on the block, black and white alike.
She was delighted when the toast finally popped up. She went right over and lifted each slice between two fingers inspecting it like a work of art. They were put on a plate and promptly buttered -- just the right amount to retain the crispness of the bread. Getting toast from Jo was like taking communion at the altar rail. Heaven and earth came together, and you were nourished and elevated at the same time. These were moments of simple pleasure preserved in memory for me. Our conversations were neither long nor deep. Jo's only credo was goodness and kindness, and it put all my fancy ideas to shame. As we finished our tea and pushed away from the table, Jo raised her index finger in the air. "Now, wait a minute."
She got up from her chair and then hustled across the kitchen to the little pantry by the back door. She returned with a huge glass canister filled with cookies -- Oreos, lady fingers, ginger snaps, vanilla wafers, chocolate chips -- and unscrewed the metal lid. No matter how old you were you had to reach in and take a handful for the road.
I'm certain that no one on earth can replace someone as dear as old Aunt Jo. And now I've also come to find out that I can't even replace my old toaster, either.