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It rarely snows this early in the upper south, but it drizzles more days than it doesn’t. If you’re not careful you can vanish into the mist on a Kentucky back road like Heathcliff on the moors of England. My family was luckier than most. We had Aunt Helen and her recipe for cast-iron skillet spaghetti to keep us on course through the gray days of November. Through the tedious weeks of stripping tobacco. Through frigid mornings on a schoolbus as we made the 20-mile trip to school. Or trudging, as she did, day after day, to a typewriter in an office.
I don’t know where she found it, maybe on the back of a Creamette’s box of pasta. More likely she invented it out of necessity. But she whipped up a batch every week, like a repetitive pep talk, from the beginning of November until daffodils bloomed, and the other family cooks followed her lead. I admit that we grew a little tired of it before the weather lifted. Sometimes you’d yearn instead for out-of-season strawberries floating in clotted cream, or an escape to a southern beach to taste the exotic unknown. But Aunt Helen’s recipe never failed us, and we appreciated its constancy.
A one-dish meal cooked on top of the range, its ingredients, in my memory, were standard, onion, hamburger, tomatoes, a plethora of spices. It took a U-turn away from classic Italian spaghetti, however, when you plunged dry, broken pasta into the bubbling mixture. Covered, it simmered then for an hour, presumably to allow the noodles to mush-up and soak-in the sauce. I believe the real reason was to give the tantalizing aroma time enough to float throughout the house, to coax the weariness from our bones and spirits.
Iron skillet spaghetti wouldn’t be trendy with today’s foodies, but Aunt Helen wasn’t trendy, either. She could be opinionated about our make-up and clothes because a proper, neat appearance was important to her. She wasn’t tolerant of vices or low standards, even sleeping in on Sunday morning and skipping church.
But she always had a new joke that made me laugh, and she laughed at mine. She rooted hard for the University of Kentucky basketball team, and she could be ready on short notice to take trip if you had an itch to go someplace. She was the anonymous person who treated all the children to an ice-cream cone on every field trip.
If you needed an elusive do-dad tracked down and purchased, or someone to help Pawpaw Green buy and wrap 50 Christmas gifts for his sprawling family, Aunt Helen did it. When you needed someone to sit beside you in the hospital or someone to keep you going when you thought you couldn’t take another step, Aunt Helen was there. I can’t say enough good things about her.
“Pshaw,” (or some variation of that word) she’d say if she were living. “I haven’t done anything worth talking about.” Her modesty had been shaped in childhood when she (wrongly) concluded she wasn’t as pretty as her sister or as smart as her brainy brothers. Maybe that’s when she decided that the thing she could do better than the others was to prop us up. The youngest of my father’s six siblings, she was the lynchpin that held together my Green relatives.
After her death, we found a 36 x 24 inch scrapbook among her things, a clan memorial stuffed with newspaper clippings about this one of us or another, programs and dried flowers from the events of each of our lives. I fingered the shriveled blossoms. This is what it feels like, I thought, to hold love in your hands.
During World War II, she left rural Kentucky to follow her Navy husband to New York City. She found a place to live, a job in Manhattan, and learned to navigate the subway and winter street corners in a thin wool coat.
In November of 1945, when her daughter was a week old, Aunt Helen hopped a train from New York City, and brought her newborn baby and her exhausted, post-war seaman back to Kentucky. A lifetime later, when I asked how she was physically able to make the trip, she laughed in her familiar way, dismissing my question. When I pressed her, she finally said, “I wanted to get home. You do what you have to do.”
She had the mild misfortune of looking exactly like her father, my Papaw Green. His rangy frame and craggy features made for an effortlessly imposing man, but Aunt Helen, who became a fine-looking woman, had to work to make the best of them. For example, she inherited his unusually large ear lobes so I never saw her, even working in her kitchen, without sizable, clip-on earrings. Clairol talked her dishwater hair into strawberry blonde, and tall and angular to the edge of boney, she had the last laugh on her curvy peers, maintaining her weight, to the pound, from high school to Medicare.
Images of her float through my memory. I reach out to touch her large, boney hands so like my own, and she glides away from me. I thought she’d live to be a hundred as the Greens often do, that I’d visit her three times a week in the nursing home and repay her with new jokes.
Instead, she fell in action, frying chicken to feed our grieving family an hour after she learned of the unexpected death of her young niece. Still as straight and limber as she’d been in high school, she simply dropped. From worry about us, I believe. When family found her on the floor, she ordered someone to fetch her a clean pair of slacks from the closet to wear in the ambulance because appearances matter, you know? Within minutes of struggling into the fresh trousers, she was gone.
It’s November again, time for Aunt Helen’s cast-iron skillet spaghetti, and I realize I’ve misplaced her recipe. I’ve tried guessing at the ingredients, even pulled out the 60-year-old Lodge frying pan I inherited, but my effort fell short. I’m left to muddle through the rainy season and problems leaking through the roof with only the memory of Aunt Helen and her spaghetti. Maybe that’s enough.