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GOTTA PUT THE ONION ON Kate’s Journal


Episode 15 Alameda, 1945

Of all the aunts and great-aunties who gave us shelter during the period of my growing up, Great-Aunt Helen was surely the most quirky and endearing. She was my paternal grandfather’s sister, a country woman born and bred who circulated comfortably in society without reliquishing her down home persona.

She raised her own two daughters, and a niece and nephew with the same practical yet loving regard. No teenager, myself included, would put anything over on Aunt Helen, who was always two steps ahead of all of us.

Living on the third floor meant having to pass by Aunt Helen’s front door, so while in high school there was no way to hide the fact that I was trying to slip in unnoticed. They had recently stopped using the ferries from Alameda to San Francisco, so now I walked with Uncle Fred to the bus each morning on our way to Matson in the City.

Like so many older women, Aunt Helen’s feet were a constant source of pain, but for her weekly bridge games she reserved her dressy “sitting’ shoes. She would gather up her cronies and cheerfully call out “off we go in a cloud of hen dust!” and away they would go. I’m not sure she was the best of drivers, but her car full of chattering ladies didn’t seem to mind. Comparing in my mind the attire of a roomful of bridge players of today, they were certainly from another age. Everyone wore a hat and dolled up in their best. Today’s women are far less formal.

At the end of the afternoon, she would announce that she needed to go “Put the onion on.” Uncle Fred, whom the family called “Pop”, after walking home from the bus always entered the house through the front door as Aunt Helen entered through the rear. Her first job, even before removing her hat, was to chop up an onion and put it on to cook. She knew the smell of a cooking onion was irresistible to a hungry man, and Uncle Fred would be happily sitting in the front room with his evening newspaper, feeling that his dinner was on the way.

The War was finally over in August, 1945. (I have written about this momentous occasion in the post “V-J DAY, 1945” posted August 14, 2015.) Through the feelings of relief that the war was over, there peeked a wary suspicion of “what happens now?” Rationing was still in force to an extent, and life was carrying on much the same.

I had left the mail room at American Hawaiian behind and was now in the front office. Though I don’t recall a tremendous raise in salary it was a definite boost in prestige.

The glorious feeling that life would somehow be changed, and the boys would come home right away didn’t happen. I remember wondering if it was time for me to quit this nice job and go back to school.

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20 comments on “GOTTA PUT THE ONION ON Kate’s Journal

  1. You had quite a cast of characters involved in raising you, Kate. I think I would have enjoyed your Aunt Helen; she reminds me of the Aunt Beulah who had a hand in raising me.

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    • The aunts Helen and Beulah certainly left their mark. No funny business, but if you needed something they were right there. Aunt Helen often entertained large groups, along with the family and used a code to let family know where they stood regarding the amount of food available; MIK meant More in Kitchen, while FHB meant Family Hold Back.

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  2. “Put the onion on.”–I love that. The scent does indeed tease the palate about the home-cooked dinner that’s to come.

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  3. A great piece again, Kayti. Ah, an onion on the stove was always a way to a man’s heart. A wise Aunt. We all need an Aunt Helen and instead of chucking bridal bouquets at weddings, a bunch of onions should be chucked up in the air instead.

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    • I was the 4th bride to walk down her staircase and toss a wedding bouquet to a waiting maid. Perhaps Aunt Helen herself did the same in her day. I’m sure she never let Uncle Fred get away with much. She definitely held the winning hand with all those onions.

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  4. Fantastic post. What a character Aunt Helen was. The onion, the hen dust. What a laugh. I love her!

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  5. Not the best driver, ha ha! It was easier to get away with that in the days when traffic was lighter. And the dressing up, I remember that. Hat, gloves, stockings. . .it wasn’t all that long ago, was it?

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  6. What a stitch this post is! I am picturing your bridge group (and my mother’s) and their modes of dress–still, they (you) dressed with sweaters, matching scarves, etc. Today…we have bridge players in skin tight yoga pants and sweatshirts. Comfy but revealing!
    The part about getting that onion cooking cracked me up. I need to try that.

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    • Of course there were many bridge games at the Lake, or impromptu sorties where we were a little grubby too. I’ll have to get a pair of yoga pants. We just wore whatever was comfortable.
      There is nothing more hunger inducing than a cooking onion unless it’s something made with chocolate.

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  7. I love the onion trick! So true 🙂

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  8. There’s apparently a parallel to Aunt Helen’s trick being used in real estate circles today. I’m told that a plate of home-baked cookies, or bread fresh from the oven, is guaranteed to make a potential buyer swoon over the homey-ness of your dwelling.

    I remember those bridge parties. Always, there were bowls of salted peanuts, and bridge mix. And the little sandwiches and desserts always were wonderful. When I think of my mother making all those ping-pong ball sized cream puffs, and filling them with shrimp — I don’t know whether to quiver in admiration or horror. Probably both.

    Your mention of walking with your Uncle Fred to the bus to go over to Matson in the city reminds me that you asked what my maiden name was. it was Matson! And I found that photo of me atop the Marin hills. I’ll scan it and add it later.

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    • I dropped out of my old bridge group a year or so ago. They are all widows and like to play late in the afternoon, while I need to come home to Dr. A.
      One of my high school fiends married a Mattson-with 2 ‘t’s. They owned the Mattson creamery in Concord.
      Home buyers used to like the smell of hot apple cider too. It’s all changed today. They like to kick you out of the house for long open houses. After having 4 of them and putting Charlie in the Hotel, we decided to stay right here. It got to be a huge effort. We’re too old for all that.

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      • I understand that feeling of being “too old for all that.” It’s the “all that” that gets me. I hate that everything has to be a production, or that there has to be such a cloud of drama around everything. I’m going to live my last years simply and happily. So there!

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  9. Me too! I would expect that from a Matson!/

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  10. I remember my MIL saying that she was told as a bride that if she didn’t have the dinner on when her husband came home she should fry up some onions.

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