I think a lot about Great Aunt Martha at this time of year.
Diminutive, round, mild-mannered, white-haired, partial to sweets, beloved by all neighborhood children, an amazing baker, she lived for years with her sister - my Grandmother Katherine.
The week before Christmas always brought Aunt Martha to our house with a large number of tin cookie cutters and baking gear. Sand tarts and gingerbread dough were mixed, chilled, rolled out, cut, studded with raisins, sprinkled with sugar and baked by the score.
Cup of the Day #54
Gingerbread Cup by Gwyneth Leech, 2010
Colored ink, Sumi ink and white-out pen
on brown printed paper cup
My sister surprised me last year with a framed painting of the cookie baking scene done by my mother in the 1960s. It perfectly captures the warm kitchen, Aunt Martha and me working diligently at the table, snow falling past the window beyond. I still remember the pots of tea we drank when the cookies were done.
In our minds, Aunt Martha was put on earth just for us children and she was always a dependable source of exceptional treats. If she had a life that didn't involve spoiling first her nieces and nephews, then her great-nieces and great-nephews we didn't know about it.
But there is always a story. Three sisters, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Their father (my great-grandfather) was a Scottish inventor, something to do with mechanical looms and rug-weaving mills. Fortune smiles. There is a big house, servants, fine furniture, monogrammed china, linens, silverware and lovely jewelry. Elizabeth, the eldest becomes a teacher. Katherine, the youngest, goes to art school in Philadelphia in the 1920s and marries Mike Gallagher, fellow art student.
And Martha, the middle daughter, runs off with the chauffeur.
She what? I couldn't believe my grown-up ears when this story was finally told to me. Sweet little Aunt Martha - a woman with a past?!
He promised to make her a chef in a fine restaurant.
They went to Florida.
But there was no restaurant.
And there was no marriage - the chauffer was married already.
An uncle went down to Florida and found her working as a short order cook and brought her home.
The family money and the large house didn't survive the 1930's. Aunt Martha and her sister Elizabeth went into domestic service and worked for the Underwood (typewriter) family as cook and housekeeper in Brooklyn Heights, then moved with them to Lincoln Nebraska where they stayed until Elizabeth died.
Neither of them ever married.
Aunt Martha's final years were spent with my grandmother in Philadelphia, where she made us very happy. My sister and I inherited some of the jewelry - necklaces of amethyst and rose quartz, crystal and jet - along with more fine linen, damask and chinaware than we will ever use.
And just this week my sister presented me with a box containing all the cookie cutters.
Aunt Martha and Gwyneth Baking Cookies
By Louise Leech, 1965
Pen, ink and watercolor wash
10" x 14"