A few memories of Tante Elayne. We called her “Tante”, which means “aunt” in French and German and Yiddish.
Tante was a proud New Yorker. Her heart never left New York, and neither did her voice. Both Tante and Unc lived her over 50 years and never lost their New York accents. We'd say, “Tante, we saw a hawk in our yard this morning.” “A what?” We'd show her the picture and she'd say “oh, you mean a hawwk. When you said 'hock' I thought you were talking about a piece of ham.”
Tante was a vocal right-winger. When asked about her politics, she'd smile and say “You know Attila the Hun? I'm to the right of him.” “My grandfather was a Republican,” she growled proudly, “he hated FDR even from when he was governor of New York.” Like Archie Bunker, she was blunt and not the least "politically correct", but like Archie, she was a lovable curmudgeon. Sunday night family dinners were always lively, as we knew well how to push each other's buttons. She was often outnumbered, but she always stood her ground.
Tante was not an early adopter of technology. It was ages before she was convinced to get an answering machine (not voicemail, mind you, but the machine with the cassette tape in it), and it was only a couple years ago she finally conceded to allow a microwave oven into her kitchen. “There's no room on my counter.” When the Fresh & Easy market went in down the street, with exclusively self-service check-out, the manager got to know Tante & Unc very well, because they'd always call him over and say “we don't know how to do this machine thing, you have to do it for us.” As inquisitive and interested in the news as Tante was, you would think she would love the Internet, but when we suggested it, she got such a pained, horrified look on her face. “What on earth would I do with the Internet?” She was content enough for us to bring our iPhones to Sunday dinner so we could show her pictures from Facebook of what her grandchildren were up to. And she'd ask us to look things up for her. Mostly about her favorite radio personalities. It's no small irony that we were hampered in sharing the Internet with Tante by the fact that this house is a total dead zone for AT&T, as if there's an anti-technology force field protecting the house.
Tante claimed to be anti-social. She didn't use that word, she had better SAT words. She taught me the word “dour” when I showed her a photo of some 19th century ancestors who looked particularly stern and forbidding. “Look at those dour expressions”, she said approvingly, “my kind of people.” If you asked her if she liked meeting people, she would say “no, dear, I am a misanthrope.” In truth, though, she would talk to anybody, and she loved getting people's stories. When we'd go out to eat, as soon as she finished, she'd excuse herself to go smoke a cigarette out behind the restaurant, and she'd often come back having met someone, and she'd have gotten their whole life story. She would meet friends of mine even just once or twice, and she'd interrogate them, learning things I didn't always know. She wasn't just being polite, she was interested, and she would remember. Not names, so much, but she'd remember stories. Even years after she'd met someone once, she'd ask about them -- whatever happened to your friend the architect, or that one with the young daughter with cataracts, how is she? Some misanthrope.
Tante loved eating. She ate with gusto. And she was a gracious guest. She would always compliment the meal, earnestly and enthusiastically. Even at our very casual Sunday family dinners, she would exclaim with delight about knockwurst and cabbage, as if she were trying the dish for the first time. Of course, my Mom's knockwurst and cabbage is really good. We all love it, but Tante was always the first one to say so. She had a gift for expressing appreciation. “Oh George, you're clearing dishes again, you don't have to do that, you're such a help.” “Oh Thomas, you brought me blueberries, I love blueberries, and so good for you!” A couple years ago, when they needed some extra help, their granddaughter Rachel chose to take her spring break out here helping them. Rachel, you must have heard that appreciation. We sure heard it afterwards. “Oh that Rachel, she's such a help! And such a good cook!” Part of that might have just been a good upbringing by Elayne's mother, who never left the house without her hat and gloves. But Tante always expressed her appreciation so heartily, as if you were the first person to ever clear a dish or bring her an apple. It was a gift, and a good lesson.
Sunday night dinners will never be the same without Tante oleha sholom, v zichronah livrakha (peace be upon her, and may her memory be for a blessing).