Aunt Commie embodied every quality you could ask for in a grandmother. She spoke Italian as to give you some culture and her love gave you the confidence that helped fuel your eventual first steps on wobbly and chubby baby legs. She was just forgetful enough that she wouldn’t remember which TV shows your mom wouldn’t let you watch and she garnered just a touch of sternness that let you get away with small infractions while letting you know, somehow, that her disciplinary boundaries were there to protect you from the harm of alluring mischief. Aunt Commie, who was my great aunt and the sister of my grandfather, was born Camilla Gozzi in Edson, Kansas in 1919. She frequently and skillfully played softball, bocceball and volleyball. I accompanied her occasionally to a senior fitness class at the Guilford Parks and Recreation Center. A sapling of a girl, I watched those seniors stretch their arms above their heads like sturdy and gnarled old oak trees.
When I frequently slept over her raised ranch ‘70s era house, Aunt Commie gave me baths scented with rose bath capsules that I squished between my fingers until the soap oozed out onto the wash cloth. The smell of her house—a mixture of smoke from the wood stove, bruised fruit, boiled broccoli and talcum powder, was not washed out by the bath and clung to my curly brown hair when my mom picked me up. And once I was old enough to bathe myself, I was sent to the bathroom after Jeopardy was over with an onslaught of old adages like “Use a washcloth–you don’t want to get ring around the collar.” No bodily function or ailment, regardless of its accompanying level of embarrassment, was safe from a set of instructions on how to eliminate it, clean it or prevent it.
Aunt Commie and I slept across from each other in the two twin beds in the master bedroom that I suspect hadn’t changed much since her husband Uncle Whitey died. The master bedroom was directly across the hall from the rooms of Aunt Commie’s grown children; my cousins Nancy and Jimmy. The contents of the rooms stood like a museum collection of a ‘70s era family complete with beds made, dresser drawers full and closets stacked with college textbooks. In those days when your children left home or when your husband died you didn’t repaint or turn someone’s bedroom into a workout room. You didn’t color your hair or take a cruise to cash in decades of unredeemed “me time.” Things stayed exactly as they were. Aunt Commie’s approach to her empty nest was more updated than her mother’s. According to my father, when his grandfather died (Commie’s father and my great grandfather Giovanni), his grandmother lived for little reason other than to mourn her husband, a process that was dramatic and burdensome until she died seven years later in 1975.
Aunt Commie would lie next to me and read stories from a Norse mythology book to help me fall asleep. There was a TV in the bed room with rabbit ears and a rounded glass screen that was only turned on when I was sick in bed. When I was finally sleepy, she got up and slept in the other twin bed across from me. My bed was pressed against a crawl space covered by terrifying shutters that I swore was the stop over for the spirit of Uncle Whitey on his way to heaven, a lunching spot for the family of squirrels that eventually settled in her chimney and a playground for leprechauns, clowns and other assorted scary creatures that I saw on TV. Later in life, I moved into my old boyfriend’s house. It was a majestic, century old farm house in Northampton, Massachusetts with austere charm commingled with an equal sense of something-happened-here spookiness. When we moved up to the finished attic, I discovered that the room was lined with a crawl space covered by those same terrifying shutters. I was too embarrassed to divulge my fear but I did not sleep well for several months.
The ghostly creakiness of Aunt Commie’s house disappeared during the day and my imagination shifted from drafting elaborate horror stories out of shadows and cartoon characters to planning bright outdoor adventures in Aunt Commie’s gardens. Aunt Commie was a committed gardener. She had small plots of vegetable gardens cut into groves of Lily of the Valley and Mountain Laurels. In the back, near an old tin shed, Nono would burn trash for her in a rusty barrel. There were trees–oaks, red maples, dogwoods, azaleas, rhododendrons, forsythia and burning bushes, all over the lawn which made it hard to mow and probably ruined her grass. Jimmy had a dog named Rocky, a pure breed—an Aryan, petite and white-collar version of the industrious Siberian Husky. When Rocky wasn’t ruining the safe leisure of running barefoot through Aunt Commie’s lawn by scaring me with his menacing blue nylon muzzle and his pounce ready hinds, he was attached to a line that spanned two trees in Aunt Commie’s yard. Jimmy would just leave him there and Rocky would zip, zip, zip at the sight of squirrels, chipmunks or frequently, nothing but the wind.
I never heard Aunt Commie yell at any humans—only dogs. She would get frustrated with Rocky’s canine ADHD and yell at him to be quiet and sit still. And before Rocky, an old black retriever would wonder drunkenly into her yard. “Mojo!” –she would yell—“Go home!” Mojo, undeterred, would not go home so she and I recited this in unison for years on sunny days in her cove-like yard. I think I probably went home chanting “Mojo, Go home!” to my confused mother who had no idea that this anthem really summed up what I did at Aunt Commie’s house all day.
The house was rimmed with patches of gardens that she didn’t fuss to manicure. Much of what she cultivated was wildflowers or perennials. You knew it was spring when Aunt Commie would tell you that the “crocuses were up”—they were always the first flowers to ceremoniously break through the New England freeze. Besides leaving Rocky to be babysat, Jimmy left this old busted truck parked garishly in the curve of Aunt Commie’s U-shaped driveway. It was a big banana. The body was yellow and rusted out in huge chunks like ripe spots.
Aunt Commie’s kitchen was papered with a textured wall covering marked with large emblems to our country. There were liberty bells and pilgrim boats all in the then avant-garde avocado and orange color scheme that structured the kitchen’s design aesthetic. That tiny kitchen offered an overwhelming array of smells depending on which drawer or cabinet you opened, whether or not the fridge was opened and if the sink was full. I always had the same snacks at her house; celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese, thick slices of pepperoni, oriental snack mix and tart green grapes all served in seafoam green Pyrex bowls. “You want a little grape?” she would say, raising her hand and pinching together her thumb and pointer finger as if that was the universal sign for grapes. She, unlike Granny, did not have Froot Loops, Pop Tarts or that microwave popcorn that popped up in different colors.
Our trips outside of the house revolved around church, dutiful visits to family friends and the cemeteries. We brushed off the grass trimmings which, if unkempt, can really cake up on someone’s headstone for Uncle Whitey, great Uncle Bill, old country friends and my great grandparents. I regularly poured water over the geraniums that haloed Uncle Whitey’s grave watching them sag with the weight of the droplets and Aunt Commie’s heavy heart for her lost loved ones.
Aunt Commie was always on the spacey side and signs of dementia began to appear before her grandchildren were born. Her kitchen oftentimes smelled like produce that was forgotten and left to nature’s cycle of decay. We’d wake up in the morning to find the stove still on because she had forgotten to turn it off after preparing last night’s dinner of breaded fish and risotto. She once drove my cousin Christopher and I onto an exit ramp of I-95 to get on the highway. Jimmy and Nancy took her car away feigning delays at the repair shop and she eventually forgot to ask where her car was. My cousin Jimmy died tragically while I was in college and the death of her son ultimately undid my dearest aunt.
In the twilight of her life I did not visit her like you visit someone who bathed you, read to you and poured out love in your direction like it was as natural as breathing. People with Alzheimer’s tend to go through a phase of being angry, a result of delusion and confusion. Every time I saw her, which after I reached fifteen or sixteen was really only a handful of times a year, she looked like she was mad at me. I was afraid of her and ashamed at that fear. She died a few months before Granny and it was only then that I realized how a galaxy of childhood experiences had orbited around her love.
But that’s not how I want to remember her. The forgetfulness which ultimately crippled her is not emblematic of her legacy or the imprint she leaves on my character or in my heart. Aunt Commie was a magnificent baker; her radiant warmth, sweetness and tenderness were folded into her cookies right along with the butter, heavy cream and flour. My job during Christmas and Easter was to help her decorate the sugar cut out cookies. I applied a thick layer of colored sugar that clung to the roof of your mouth while the rest of the cookie, so thin and buttery, melted away. She made carmelitas; a bar cookie with oats, chocolate chips, walnuts and caramel ice cream topping that my mother must have eaten when she was pregnant with me because she and I both still crave them. Date pinwheels, about a quarter inch thick, were perfect spirals of molasses cookie and sticky-date nut filling. The cookies were kept in tins in Jimmy’s room for weeks after the holidays and she eagerly offered them to all.
I, too, have grown into an avid baker. I bake for fun, to unwind, to watch people bite into my cookie, pause to look at it then nod their head and say “mmmm this is good.”
I also bake to remember Aunt Commie. I’m excitedly cultivating an updated and urban version of that sweet cookie pushing lady within myself.
Read more about cookie baking at The Cookie Chronicles, my blog devoted to baking classic cookies from around the world, sharing recipes and writing. Coming soon.