Aunt Bessie's Pickles

Most likely no one else is going to write about Aunt Bessie, so I will.

Bessie was married to one of my dad's brothers, in Texas of course, and she was what she was, a woman without pretense. Some took that as being a little simple, but not me. It brought me closer to her, since I was timid as a kid and intimidated by dad's other two sisters-in-law, one more regal and imposing than the other. No one was intimidated by Aunt Bessie, so I wasn't either.

Bessie's first qualification for placement on my favorites list, therefore, was that unlike other adults she wasn't scary. Next, it was because she made the kind of sour things that I love, Kosher-style dill pickles that are hard to find unless they're homemade (or found on New York City's Lower East Side, where they're probably homemade, too.) Bessie hit a home run by also excelling in cherry pies, with lots of cherries in them, which I also love. My mother was a good cook but never bothered with either of those items. My high school was not far from Aunt Bessie's house, and I would sometimes go by after school for a slice of pie and, if lucky, a jar of pickles to take home.

Who would resist the combination of the two -- and her generosity with both? Not me.

Neither beautiful nor stylish, Bessie seemed to have a good marriage, and she gave birth in the 1920s to two kids, a son and then a daughter, two of my cousins, just older enough than I for us not to be close. My cousin was similarly plain like her mother, and everyone worried that she'd never get married, but guess what, she married a fine guy and had a good marriage herself.

Somewhere along the way Bessie and Izzie added to their household a distant niece, a woman older than their kids, who became like a second daughter. Her adopted daughter married a man who was killed in service in Europe during World War II. They received a telegram from the War Department advising of his death. My parents and I went to pay a condolence call when I was 11 or 12, overwhelmed by a room of tearful ladies and an event too terrible to understand. Bessie helped save that woman.

My father's brothers (all except him) had formed a company that sold wholesale men's goods, and they all went out selling on the road in Texas and nearby states. Izzie decided to break away from his brothers and establish a similar business in Georgia, with the agreement that they would stay to their own territories but join together on buying trips to New York. In less than a decade, the Georgia folks became wealthy, a fact apparent when I was in basic training in the Army in Augusta in 1954 and went to say hello one weekend in Atlanta. They had bought a beautiful home and joined a country club which Aunt Bessie insisted we go to.

She was sporting clothes and jewelry flashier than what she had worn in Texas, clothes that didn't suit her well. She looked older and seemed a little senile. "Aunt Bessie, do you remember the cherry pies you used to make me?" I asked her, saddened by the change. She shook her head and her look said that those days were too far in the past to remember. I wasn't sure she even remembered clearly who I was.

By then her days of pickle and pie making were finished. She was different from that person whom she couldn't recall.

No use holding on to the past, though it's sometimes hard to let go of. Though sad, it seemed right that for that visit to be the last time I saw her.


Stanley Ely writes about many parts of his family in his book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir," in paperback and ebook.