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Minnesota Memories

Story ID:315
Written by:Nancy J. Kopp (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Location:Balaton Minnesota USA
Person:Jane Topel
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Minnesota Memories

By Nancy Julien Kopp

In a long narrow pantry, my Great Aunt Jane kept a stone cookie jar, round and squat, filled with big, soft sugar cookies. I think of those delectable treats often as I lift the lid of my own, more contemporary cookie jar. That small, plump farm wife gave me so much more than sugar cookies, but it would take me years to appreciate the gift she’d offered to a child. “Life in this house is not going to be the same as your own,” she warned the summer I lived with her and Great Uncle Charlie.

Jane Topel wore her sand-colored, grey-streaked hair pulled back in a bun. Wisps that escaped throughout the day framed and softened her face. She didn’t give hugs, and her words often seemed harsh. Nevertheless, she gave me a gift of immense value, a gift she never shopped for, nor, sadly, one for which I was able to offer my thanks.

She was right about the difference I would find between her house and my own home. I was a city child of the 1940’s. Home was a sprawling, red brick apartment building surrounded by more concrete than green grass. The sound of cars bumping along the brick street mingled with that of the heavy, rolling freight trains which ran parallel to it.

It was all I had known until my first visit to the Minnesota farm where my mother’s aunt and uncle lived. This new world had not only a farm with fields and animals, but it revolved around a house, a place where only one family lived.

The generations-old farmhouse contrasted sharply with the apartment home I lived in.
I need only close my eyes to revisit the two story wooden frame house. A grove of trees stands guard over the once gleaming white home, which now appears a little tired and in need of paint. The Victorian curlicue trim, like the shingled roof, has been painted an inky black.

A shade tree near the back door harbors dark, juicy berries that turn the mouth and fingers a glorious shade of purple. On one low branch, a cage swings in the summer breeze, home to Old Bill, the parrot. He greets one and all with the few words he’s mastered. Great Aunt Jane sails by ignoring him as she welcomes visitors, but it’s she who makes sure he has food and water each day.

To the right of the back porch a slanted door rises from the ground, shutting away the dark, damp cellar where Great Aunt Jane stores eggs gathered daily. Jars of fruits and vegetables, pickles and jams line the shelves along the cellar walls. It was next to the
cellar door, she tells me, that she killed a rattlesnake with her hoe. I make sure I treat both my aunt and the cellar door with great respect.

The preparation and preservation of food occupy many hours of my aunt’s day. Aunt Jane reigns supreme over an old wooden table in the center of the kitchen as she cleans chickens, rolls out pie crust, sets out meals or creates a welcome spot to enjoy a cool glass of lemonade. On warm summer days, the open windows on two opposite walls allow the homemade curtains to dance gently in the breeze.

Near the table stands Aunt Jane’s prize possession, a large electric stove which boasts two ovens and something called a deep well at the back corner of the cook-top. I am fascinated with this unit where something always steams or simmers and sends out tantalizing aromas. It produces everything from soups to oatmeal and puddings.

The first time I visit the farm, an old and chipped kitchen sink holds a pump on one side. What a delight to watch someone prime the pump by pouring a little water in the top, then raising and lowering the handle until water cascades out. What a wonder! At home we have a boring faucet to release the water, but this pump is fun. How disappointed I am on our next visit to see the pump replaced by running water
Aunt Jane keeps her pantry shelves filled with a rainbow of glass jars, tins, and boxes. The best thing in that pantry is the stone jar, always mysteriously filled with big, soft sugar cookies. How they get there puzzles me for I never see my great aunt make more cookies, even as all kinds of hands reach into the jar every day. Uncle Charlie’s
large and capable farmer’s hands dip into the jar often. An old grandfather’s gnarled and wrinkled hands visit, too, along with Aunt Jane’s work-reddened hands, the hired man’s dirt-creased, stubby hands, and my own small hand.

Aunt Jane teaches me to pour red oil on a dust mop and sweep it back and forth on the hardwood floors until the lingering scent seems to shout “I’m clean!”

Oddly, the front door of the house lies at one end of the dining room. From this door I can step onto a ground level porch rimmed with several posts but no railing. One hot summer day, Aunt Jane sits me down in front of a bushel basket of fresh peas on that porch. My formidable task is to shell them the way she demonstrates. I’ve never seen so many peas and certainly never in the pods. My mother buys them in the grocery store. In a can! From my chair I view green hills and sparkling lakes, grain fields and curving roads, for there are few trees on this side of the house. The contents of the basket don’t seem to go down no matter how hard I work. At last, Aunt Jane joins me muttering that I would never get done before dark. We finish the peas together talking our way to the bottom of the basket, our fair-skinned faces flushed from the heat.

One rainy day Aunt Jane leads me to a small, seldom-used room adjoining the dining room. It’s sparsely furnished but holds the one piece of furniture I grow to love most. “Here Nancy,” she says, “watch and see how the glass doors on the bookshelf open. If you’re careful, you may look at any of the books in here.” It was all I needed to hear. I spend pleasant hours lounging on the soft-hued rag rug looking at individual books in the ancient- looking bookcase, reading parts of some and all of others. It’s here I read the
bible from cover to cover on successive summer days, understanding only bits and pieces. Even now, the memory evokes the scent of red oil used to clean the floor and the steady ticking of the big clock on the dining room wall. Aunt Jane looks in now and then, but she never interrupts my reading.

Days later, Aunt Jane reveals yet another treasure in this house of hers. The guest bedroom next to the living room is bright and cheerful with tall windows on two walls. They are covered with sheer, starched curtains of bridal white, and the little-used room sparkles.. Aunt Jane holds my hand and leads me to the dressing table where we share a seat on a bench. She points out that ladies might sit here to apply perfume or fix their hair. It is, she tells me, where a little girl might pretend to be a lady. As we sit, side by side, she shows me a round musical powder box. It perches on three tiny legs and is topped with a domed lid bearing the picture of a flower garden. Under the lid hides a fluffy powder puff, loose powder, and music. Again and again I lift the lid looking for the music and gently touching the powder puff.

The other bedrooms in the house are reached through a door in the kitchen and up a narrow staircase. At the top of the stairs another door opens onto a large attic storeroom, a place I am forbidden to go alone. How I want to explore that room, but the consequences of invading this off limits territory impress me more than the promise of an adventure. Thinking of the rattler she’d killed, I decide not to test Aunt Jane.

The beds we sleep in are topped with featherbeds this tiny dynamo of a woman keeps aired and fluffed. To lie down is to sink in heavenly softness. Each night I pull up a
handmade quilt to ward off the chill of the cool Minnesota night. I listen to the gentle night sounds until sleep slips quietly over me. The nighttime peace proves a stark contrast to the city sounds at home. There, cars and trains, voices and footsteps either lull me to sleep or keep me from it.

Guinea hens strut and screech below my window to announce the morning. No need for alarm clocks here. I awake greedy for another summer day in this Minnesota farmhouse with my Great Aunt Jane. Many years will pass before I realize it wasn’t the house that loomed so important to me. Great Aunt Jane made the house a memory that has lasted a lifetime. The scented linens, the oiled floors, the bookcase, and the wonderful cookies were all a part of her special gift to me. She taught me well by example alone, and I would thank her now, if only those sixty-plus years that have passed might disappear like the morning mist over a Minnesota lake.