17, Number 96, April/May 2014 Aunt Jessie’s Apron by Shirley Callaghan
It was always soiled, that old, full length apron that had ties at the neck and waist and that she wore seven days a week. Aunt Jessie was in her late fifties, plump with grey streaked hair, and a pink and white complexion. Many men would find my surrogate mother desirable. She had not been able to have children of her own, and loved us four children dearly, always trying to find ways to please us and win our affection and loyalty.
I knew Aunt Jessie and Uncle Joe Shaw the best since I was the oldest of the family, and believed that I was their favourite. Uncle Joe was so quiet I only gave him a hug and hastened on to chat with his warm and loving wife.
Mom worked downtown as a bookkeeper, and Dad was on the road selling insurance while my three siblings were home with a nanny, so I alone was off to the Shaw’s cottage for ginger snaps after school in grade 1. Aunt Jessie was more than a good baker; she was a story teller who related adventures of Molly, the Saint Bernard next door, and of Oscar, the six toed, orange cat who was ornery. I would settle into the rocking chair near the old, worn kitchen table and listen to her with rapt attention while the boiling potatoes sang on the Kemac stove.
When Mom and Dad went away for a weekend, Nanny cared for us all, but Aunt Jessie would invite us all to her cottage for a spaghetti dinner. Baby Joe came out looking like his face had fallen into the served spaghetti plate, and Uncle Joe, thrilled for the moment, rushed for his treasured camera, for a long time dream was to be a fine photographer one day. Aunt Jessie did not fare so well herself, for her apron looked like a surreal painting with strands of spaghetti surrounded by mushrooms and sauce.
As the years passed, I saw my “aunt” less frequently due to school and study commitments, and baby-sitting sessions in the evenings. Even so, as I started high school, I would drop in to hear her stories and watched with intrigue as she made batches of strawberry jam and India relish pickles. She pushed the cucumbers through a grinder and stirred vigorously to keep them from sticking, while bits of the mixture splattered on her gingham apron. There was also time for her to envelop me in an embrace against her ample bosom where her affection and caring warded off problems I was experiencing in school with math, and at home with my parents who allowed me few freedoms.
On Sundays, after church, she would have us over to a dinner of freshly baked beans, homemade bread, lemon pie and oatmeal cookies. Her cottage hummed with happy conversation, and this custom continued after I started university and came home to visit. I returned to the dorm with a “care package” full of brownies and her famous plum puff.
After I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts and went to work in New Brunswick, I came home infrequently, but I returned one fall to visit my family and dropped over to see Aunt Jessie who was in her late seventies. She still wore a now floral, spotted apron which needed to be tied tightly as she had lost weight, and her hair was gray over her milky skin. Uncle Joe had died five years ago, and besides her loneliness for him and our family, her osteoporosis was hard to bear. Macular degeneration ended her car driving so she saw few people and rarely attended events. She would sit by the large window in her cottage and watch for neighbours to go by, calling them in to visit to supply her with her stories and shorten her sixteen hour days. To call them in she would stand and wave her checkered apron - a familiar sign to her close friends.
Her niece, after hearing of fires on the stove in her aunt’s kitchen, persuaded her to go to a community care facility where she did well. I enjoyed many hugs on returning to the Island, and was surprised to see that she still wore an apron, a waist to knee one in gold and white with only an occasional spot from her meals.
Aunt Jessie died from a heart attack in her mid eighties. I am told that she did not suffer, but I regret I was not there to see her just before she died. When I attended the wake, she looked more peaceful and younger than when I had last visited her. I knew I would forever miss her embrace. Asking her niece if I could have her aunt’s paisley apron, I made it into two pillow covers, and still rest my head on the pillows peacefully each night in remembrance of the comfort and love Aunt Jessie gave me.