Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Best of DHTISH: Of Aunt Nan and Puny Chickens

If you missed it last fall, here's a best of DHTISH favorite.  Enjoy!

My father was the youngest of seven, three boys and four girls. In order of birth there was Miriam, Nan, Maury, Betty, Evelyn, Standford and Marvin. My father and Stanford were twins. My father and all of his brothers and sisters are all gone now, my Aunt Lynn being the last to die in December 2008.

While I loved all of my family, I especially loved my Aunt Nan who spent her days exasperating us to no end. Nan never married, but she was the kooky aunt that every family longs to have. Some of us never have such Aunt; we had Nan, in spades.

It was Nan who stayed never married.  It was Nan who stayed with my grandparents well into their old age and took care of them. It was Nan who played the piano and sang. In her youth she sang and danced in an all girl band named Roxy and Her Sailorettes (see below). She also was a pilot flying Curtis biplanes for vacationers out over Lake Erie back in the late 1920s when people from Cleveland would travel to Wickliffe, Willoughby and Mentor for the lake's beaches which, at the time, were pristine.  My grandmother thought that her exploits were unladylike and Nan found herself grounded, the first of many disappointments in life.

By the time I was born, Nan was almost sixty and the ravages of being a heavy smoker and polio as a child, combined with some other fuzzy physical maladies had left her rather withered.  Still, you couldn't say that she wasn't spunky. She cut quite a striking picture with her red hair under a scarf as she tooled around the neighborhood on Kenyon Road in a yellow and white 1958 Chevrolet Impala Convertible.  But she also was physically old beyond her years and had taken to throwing her one arm - made small from polio - about like scarf.  She would pick it up with her good arm and lay it down.  Sometimes she would pick it up and let it fall.  She milked that arm (which was just fine, just smaller than the other from the disease she had had as a child and had overcome with my grandmothers nursing) for all it was worth. She could play piano one moment and then start behaving like Clara, the invalid from Heidi, the next.  She also would keep a tissue tucked in her bra strap, or up her sleeve - making me think that she had some career as a magician at some point in her life and this was a left over habit from those days.  This was our aunt.

She also proved to be a constant source of eye rolling for her niece and nephews who she loved, and pestered. It was Nan who taught me that if I didn't dry my hands powder dry after washing them that I would grow up to have red lobster claws because my hands would be chapped all of the time. To this day, I cringe every time I see a hot air dryer in a restroom because your hands are never as dry as when you have paper towels, according to Nan. In the back of my mind, I am fearful that I will leave the bathroom with the hands right off of Rosemary's baby. 

In 1995, following my fathers death, I started seeing more of Aunt Nan because we had ligation going against my fathers last wife, a woman who we either called "Shark" or the "Vilda Chaia" ("vil-da CHH-yaha" yiddish for “wild beast) depending on how charitable we felt towards her on any given day. Further endearing herself to us, Nan had also had a run in with the Shark the night before we buried Dad. Shark had called my mother a bitch to the Rabbi, Nan signalled that she had had enough from my father's greiving widow.  "Gey kukken afen yam," she said under her breath to Shark just loud enough for Shark to hear, but not so loud that the Rabbi could hear it.  (The translation being roughly "go shit in the ocean.")  Our diminutive Aunt showed her backbone in one glorious encounter by standing up to Shark and not backing down.

All this contact led to what we in the family refer to as the "puny chicken episode", which began when the family tried to quell her kvetching about the food at the home.

By the 1990, when Nan hit her 80's, she was living in Menorah Park, a senior citizens center serving Cleveland's aging east side Jewish community. She had her own apartment, but she ate with the other residents in the dining room for the company saying "I'll be alone when I die, why not enjoy the company while I'm still around."  After eating, she played Pinochle with her friends. But the food was real the sticking point.

“Honey,” she said to me once “for what we are paying for this we should have something better than what you could find at Mawby's,” which was a greasy spoon down on Cedar Road that had the best burgers in the world.

So the family pulled some strings and Nan would start getting something special to eat. We thought we had the problem solved, however all the better food did was raise suspicions among her neighbors and raise our collective blood pressure. She was still complaining, but mostly now because she had no idea what it was that they were putting in front of her.

“The spaghetti they served me was covered, Honey it was covered in this green stuff ...what did they call it Pistachio Sauce?  No that not it...Stu they called it Presto Sauce or something like that...it must be freeze dried and whip it up quick; PRESTO!”

I explained to her that it was "Pesto" and told her what it was made of. 

"Well," she said, "It was good, but you know, Stu, Honey, you shouldn't serve a woman something thing like that in it...and I'm going to tell you why...because Stu, a lady's smile...a lady's smile, like I have...is the key to a man's heart, and with that Presto Pistachio sauce you end up...there is this this green shmutz on your teeth," she said as she waived her hand around the area in front of her mouth, "and no man likes to look at a woman with spinich on her teeth...it ruins the illusion that we call 'beauty'..." and on and on she went.

A couple weeks into this culinary expiriment, my phone rang. It was my brother and he was vexed.  "Your Aunt called...” and evidently she was not happy with the special attention, and he, having had enough of it, was not enjoying Aunt Nan's special attention of needling him.  So he had decided to momentarily disown "our" Aunt over the matter.

Then the call waiting went off: it was Nan. Ah, Serendipity. “Oh Stuey, your brother is upset with me...”

The long and short of it that Nan had been calling and was concerned about the special attention she was getting. Evidently the other residents were thinking she was too good to eat what they ate, and this was causing the "tsores".

“At cards today Minnie Kipperman was so upset with me that when we were partners, she KNOCKED, instead of making the correct bid!”

And back to my brother, “She calls everyday and all I want to do is fix it, and who the Hell is this Minnie Kipperman?” So I clicked back over to the other line and I told Nan there was the reason for special meals, and I asked her who Minnie Kipperman was.

“Special? Feh! The food they serve isn't fresh - a Holiday Inn would serve this drek. Honey, let me tell you that today they served me this sickly little roasted chicken. In all my years I have never seen such a puny chicken.” On and on she went on with the puny chickens. “In the middle of the Depression your grandmother never served anything like this sickly thing.”  And Kipperman?  "Stu, I don't know if you'll remeber Minnie, but she was good friends with your Aunt Betty's best friend who lived on 147th Street when we were growing up."  My Aunt was correct - I did not know my other aunt's best friend during the 1928-1929 school year because it predates my birth by a good 35 years.

And my brother confirmed that after hearing this he called the management company (he knew the President of the firm) who had arranged for Nan to get a better grade of food for her meals - this meal was a Cornish Game Hen for the main course.

SO over I clicked to my Aunt -, who reminded me that it was impolite to keep two conversations going at once -  and told her that it was Cornish Game Hen, not an underfed run of the mill chicken.  This just set Nan off again.

“Game hen, shame hens! Such puny chickens! Look, Honey, your grandma could feed an army on a chicken and a pot of water.  But this! This sickly thing was so puny that even she couldn't make a cup of soup out of the miserable sickly thing...and what did it do to deserve this fate? Tell the cook that the sky was falling? Ich darf es vi a loch in kop! ”

The only way to fix this, was to break it again.  So we stopped the special meals and Nan went back on the regular diet.  This evidently also pleased one Minnie Kipperman, who went back to making her tricks at cards so who was the worse?  Things went back our version of normal. More importantly Nan went back to being Nan and the rest us found some peace in being used to Nan being Nan.

After Nan died my Uncle sent me her photo albums to scan. Included in which was a secret album of Nan in her youth. Always smiling, always having riotous fun. I'm glad she had those days, I wish I would could have known her then before her dotage. Still have I have my memories of the woman so would sing and dance, and Kvetch like nobody's business.

But in her honor, whenever we have Cornish Game Hens, I complain about the puny chicken before me. “Look at that sickly thing,” I'll say tsking all the while. "Such a puny chicken; you couldn't make a cup of soup out of that!" And its almost, but not quite, but almost like having her back with me again.

Aunt Nan, Singer, hoofer extraordinaire, Front & Center, ca. 1930


  1. Stu, darling, this is exactly why you must keep DHTISH alive, at whatever pace you feel comfortable with. I laughed, I cried, I kvetched right along with Aunt Nan.

    And, I must say, you look just adorable at the piano! But was it difficult handling the pedals in those pumps?

  2. ANd you looked lovely, as always with your banjo and Norma with her drums - good times. But Peenee and the Alto Sax never were a good combo. He always preferred to play with his flute...