My great aunt Joan passed away last week. Titles fall short sometimes though, because I considered her more of a grandmother in a lot of ways, especially since my grandmother (her sister) died when I was quite young. She was a zestful person, who had the quickest wit, and a ready smile. I loved her, and I really liked her a lot. She was a warm and affectionate person, who told the most entertaining stories – many about when her and my grandmother were young, which were particularly special to me.
Most all of my memories of Aunt Joan take place at this beautiful speck of crystal clear water in northern Michigan. Torch Lake. My favorite place on earth. A place we spent every summer with Aunt Joan, Uncle Elmer, my grandparents (before they passed), and a slew of other extended family and a rotation of friends. Aunt Joan is so closely tied to that place, that as I’ve spent time remembering her and mourning her, I feel like I’m also grieving Torch Lake, in some ways. That place is still there, and we still vacation there most summers, but things are different. As new family members are added, and schedules become more complicated, and priorities shift, and people move across the country, the last-week-in-July-at-Torch-Lake-with-all-the-cousins tradition has shifted. Those days have passed. And now has Aunt Joan.
The memory I keep coming back to in these days since her passing has been an odd one. It’s a rather goofy exchange her and I shared over two decades ago, but it’s burned in my memory. I was helping her prepare dinner one evening at Torch Lake, and fresh green beans were on the menu. As we were rinsing the beans and preparing to cook them, I confided in her that I didn’t really care for fresh green beans. Canned ones were fine, mind you, but not fresh ones. I found their texture to be off-putting. (Not the actual word I used as an eight-year-old, I’m sure, but you get the point.) This was no insignificant piece of information I was sharing with Aunt Joan, because disliking foods – especially vegetables! – was not really an accepted practice in my household. Being a picky eater was most definitely frowned upon. And the fact that I was willing to eat canned, but not fresh green beans – well, that was just foolishness!
Perhaps it’s no wonder then, that I still recall Aunt Joan’s response to my Green Bean Manifesto: “I could see why you feel that way. Fresh green beans definitely have a different taste about them than the canned ones. I feel the same way about other foods.”
Empathy at its finest, right there. Not only was my dear Aunt Joan giving me permission to have my own vegetable preferences, but she even confided that she had similar particularities about some foods. What makes this exchange even more meaningful is that my Aunt Joan was one of the most frugal people I knew. Literally, she was known for wearing her shirts inside out after having worn them rightside out the day before, to get twice the wear out of them between washings. And her other claim to fame was cemented marshmallows. We had a bonfire most evenings at Torch Lake, with s’mores of course, and you’d better believe that there was absolutely no opening of that new package of marshmallows until the old ones (from the year before!) were used up.
A lack of gratefulness for food on your plate then, or worse: the potential of wasting uneaten food because you didn’t care for it, was a cardinal sin indeed. And yet, in that conversation, nearly two and half decades ago, she offered me some green bean empathy.