We spent every childhood summer with my “aunts,” who were in fact no relation to any of us. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet were the surviving two of three unmarried career women who had adopted my mother when she was just 18 months old. Aunt Martha and Aunt Harriet spent most of each year in New York City (36 Gramercy Park,) but they returned every summer to the house where Aunt Martha (and later my mother) grew up.
Leda Carpenter (we children called her “Matante” with no clue that was not her name but Canadian-French for “my aunt”) was another summer constant for Devine children. Matante spent her days in the kitchen, although she too had her own bedroom upstairs, in the back of the house. Matante did all the cooking, day after day after day — fresh doughnuts for breakfast and sturdy thick soups at lunch time. Dinners were of course what everyone ate for dinner in my childhood memory… a big slab of meat with potatoes (baked, mashed, or roasted) plus a small pile of some kind of vegetable engulfed by yellow pools of melting butter.
Aunt Harriet and Aunt Martha were sweet ladies of leisure, always ready to read a story or play chess or Mah Jongg with children (children ALWAYS would win.) Matante was not sweet, she was tart. Although happy to see us when we visited her kitchen, she kept the most interesting things there off-limits to children’s fingers. I remember she had a big jar full of chocolate chips that I really wanted to get my hands on. Naively, I asked her how she would know if somebody just happened to eat some when she was not looking.
She fixed me with her fierce bright eyes and said, “I count them, every morning, and every night!” This was all the persuasion I needed to leave them alone!
Leda was in fact my mother’s real aunt. Leda was the reason the leisurely wealthy ladies adopted my mother, brought her up in comfort, and sent her to Smith College when she was old enough. But Leda came from a much darker childhood than my mother knew. On Leda’s 12th birthday, her school attendance ended, because a child 12 years old could get a job in the textile mill, 12 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Of Leda’s earning, her mother let her keep two nickels a week, one for the collection plate at Sunday Mass, and the other to save up for buying presents at Christmas. Daily lunch was one slice of bread, and if Leda was very, very lucky, there might even be a piece of salt pork spread over her bread.
I was reminded of Leda today, when I went looking through all my old recipe collections for a scalloped oyster dish that my mother especially liked. Please don’t be too shocked by the recipe that follows! It is not exactly health food, but it is delicious.
Leda Carpenter’s scalloped oyster casserole
Preheat oven to 350, grease casserole dish
1/2 pint of shucked oysters
1/2 cup of milk or cream
1 cup coarse cracker crumbs (saltines or oyster crackers)
1/4 c butter
1/8 tsp salt
Drain oysters into milk. Melt butter and mix with crumbs.
Put a thin layer of crumbs into casserole dish. Add layers of oysters, crumbs, oysters, and crumbs, so top layer is buttered crumbs.
Pour salted milk mixture over everything. Bake 35 minutes.
Scalloped oysters were a popular 19th century dish (Abraham Lincoln loved them.) Apparently they are also a popular holiday food in the southern US. But this particular recipe makes a very small casserole. I remember that my mother would sometimes make this as a treat when I visited her. A party recipe would need to be quite a few times as large. I am guessing that my mother’s memory of this recipe was also of a small special treat that Matante would make just for the two of them, in the long winter months when the elegant aunts were all away in New York City. But I really don’t know.
Memories remind us how many people we knew that now we would like, when it is much too late, to have known a lot better. Memories remind us, “Pay attention today. All our yesterdays vanish so much too fast.”