Aunt Kate passed away a few hours ago. She was 96.
Aunt Kate was already 53 when I was born*, but she was always a spitfire. She’d grown up on a farm and kept many of the habits; even at the age of 60, she gave the best and fastest wheelbarrow rides in the county. She loved having us kids over for energetic visits and chased us around between chores (and probably because of them). She worked her garden well past retirement, and there were always peas and cherries and green peppers to share. Living at the same house for about seventy years, she was as much an institution of Hibbard Avenue as her neighbor’s grape vines—and her knowledge of everyone there was about as extensive and winding as those vines.
* It never occurred to me until tonight that I was the last-born of her direct nieces and nephews. Although Aunt Kate had grandnieces and grandnephews who are younger than me, my brother Jim and I are the youngest children of her siblings. Dad was the youngest of seven, and he didn’t marry until age 42, so all of our first cousins were born about fifteen to thirty years earlier than me.
Blessed with the metabolism of a small rodent, she ate like a farmhand and dished servings to match, even though no one else could avoid gaining weight at her table like she did. She was famous for baking pies in quantity and quality, giving up lard for Crisco a few decades later than most. There were always at least two sitting around, and every visitor would wind up with at least “just a small piece, Kate,” which is to say a fifth to a third of a pie.
She was also adept at making spaghetti and meatballs from scratch, using tomatoes she’d can herself every year and a recipe that never seemed to turn out right for anyone else (perhaps if we all compare notes, we’ll figure out the whole thing). More than anything else, that was her dish, and no matter the chef or recipe, it’s never as good as I remember hers being.
She loved cooking up a big batch on a Saturday night for family dinner at “the farm,” as Uncle Ed and Uncle Bill’s place was called. Neither of them ever got married, so Aunt Kate took care of her brothers for many years, and that included a lot of cooking along with the cleaning. She was very devoted to family and enjoyed her role, as well as the grief they could playfully give each other. It sometimes seemed she enjoyed nothing as much as a good chance to be outraged, but the saddest part of writing a sentence like that is not that it might be misunderstood by those who didn’t know her but that she won’t be able to live up to it over this occasion of teasing. Heavens to betsy, she loved to laugh and smile.
In like manner, she fully embraced the Heffron family tradition of showering each other with loving profanities, often acknowledging someone’s arrival or sass with the friendliest “you little $%!+” that one could ever hope to hear. I never heard her take the Lord’s name in vain, though; she may have been sassy, but she wasn’t blasphemous. If anyone else’s memory differs, then perhaps she put on an extra effort around me as my godmother.
Her husband, Uncle Harold, passed away in 2000, and for many years, Aunt Kate had a sweet relationship with Stuart, who’d been their friend for many years and who lived in a different town. Although she endured some teasing, we were happy that she had such a kind and gentlemanly beau. His passing a few years ago was sad for all of us, but especially for his gal.
Aunt Kate had a full and long life, and I’m so blessed to have been part of it. It’s heartbreaking to be so far away right now, but I’m glad I had a chance to see her again in September and to chat a few times by phone and even by video call. I’m also grateful that God told me moments before she passed that I should really call my parents, who were at her bedside then. Across 8,000 miles, I was able to tell her again that I love her and appreciate her, and that I’ll be making some spaghetti sauce again soon.
It won’t be the same, but I can always remember.