I just made a batch of raspberry jam. I used the freezer method, which uses two fewer cups of sugar and one additional cup of fruit, but my choice was based on convenience, not just marginal health benefits.
Raspberry freezer jam was a delicacy in my childhood. We brought small margarine tubs of it back from Michigan, where my great-aunt’s housekeeper Leoda made it every year. My great-aunt was my mother’s favorite relative, her father’s brother; Mom and Aunt Lil were close friends due partly to the mere 18 year age gap and partly to their similar personalities. And they both loved raspberry jam.
They were both musicians, both rejected by my mother’s father, who thought music was frivolous, a waste of time and money. Lillian had made a life for herself as a lounge singer, traveling all over the world to play piano and sing in boozy high-end joints. My mother was a brilliant singer whose gift became buried in motherhood and quotidian concerns.
Aunt Lil had lived an exciting life, from what I could tell. My childhood understanding of adult lives was limited, so I only report what I thought I knew. She was married four times, having four children among the marriages, had told of her thrilling adventures around the globe, and rubbed elbows with famous Chicagoans like Mike Royko. She and one (or more?) husband built a house with their own two hands in a beach community on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan. She and my mother in suburban Chicago talked on the phone frequently, and we went to Lil’s house in Michigan often, not quite every summer, but enough that it felt like a reliable escape from the suburbs.
Because I was a pianist, I felt some belonging with Lillian. One summer, she had me up at the beach house for a long stretch; it could have been a month, it could have been two weeks. I like to think it was a month. I thought of it as my own personal Interlochen, the music camp that we could not afford. She gave me daily piano lessons, and listened as I practiced. I slept on the bed out on her sleeping porch, listening to the wind and the birds calling across the ravine in the early hours. Every day, we went to The Sands restaurant in town, where she was friendly with the owners Oli and his wife, and we ate grilled cheese sandwiches and I played PacMan. We went to farmer’s markets and thrift stores, the vinyl seats of her enormous white car hot on the backs of my legs. And we went to the beach, where I grew brown swimming and reading books on her yellow and white striped towels.
Aunt Lil was a stunning woman, even in her later years. Think Dixie Carter as a peroxide blonde. Lil had great legs that she was constantly showing off, which I don’t have, and the McArdle dimples, which I do. She had a great barking laugh, joyous and wicked, and she never made herself quiet or small for anyone. She ruled the room wherever she went. And I adored her.
I kept in touch over the years, not as faithfully as I should have. I gave my daughter her name as a middle name, and I took the kids to visit her a couple of times. She took a special shine to Tim, telling me “You can bring him by anytime!” with her flirtatious twinkle. She was 88 at the time.
When she died, I sat on her porch and cried bitter tears. I took a cutting from one of her landscaping plants and put it in my home garden. She was my last real connection to my mother, the piece that linked me to her in a way that made sense. We were all musicians, pianists, dimpled singers with a great barking laugh.
In one of those strange coincidences, I ran into her granddaughter, my second cousin, on a bus in New York a few years ago. This was the granddaughter that Lillian talked about the most; the famous actress, beautiful and talented, she was doing wonderful things in New York. We’d met as children, but weren’t close. I wasn’t trained in “close.” On the bus, I approached her, who actually recognized me, maybe it was the dimples. We spoke briefly about Lillian. My second-cousin admitted that Lillian had been cruel to her her whole life, and she grew up resenting this woman who had meant so much to my mother. Given what she told me, it made sense; I remembered my aunt’s cutting humor at the expense of other people, and her impatience with my children when we visited. The idea of Lil being cruel was disappointing, but it wasn’t a stretch.
I’ve tried to make these two impressions of Lillian fit together, a difficult task for someone who tends to put people on a pedestal. As I’ve worked my way through my own family questions, I’ve learned that there are no two identical experiences in family relationships. My three brothers each had vastly different relationships with my dad, for instance. My sister and I got different things from our mom, from both parents.
It’s gotten easier to forgive Lillian for not being perfect as I have come into my own complicated adulthood. I’ve integrated the information about her relationship with her granddaughter into the overall picture, matured my understanding of her. She was nothing like the adult I wanted to become; she had a housekeeper, and she sent her children away to boarding school, and she loved martinis. But I loved her anyway.
I still visit the memory of those days at her beach house on Blueberry Hill, learning to play bridge with her friends on the sleeping porch, running through the hot sand to the bed of towels laid out next to where she sat in her floppy hat and enormous white sunglasses, always white. Lillian had her way of doing things, vibrant and defiant and ballsy. She was my Aunt Mame, the center of attention, the wandering performer. I never wanted to become her, but I embrace the thrill I got from knowing her, and revel in the genetic material we share.
Her life was a messy adventure. At her memorial service, one of her neighbors told of the last homeowner’s association meeting, when Lillian, nearly 93, showed up in heels and one of her trademark flippy skirts, which she always played with with so her legs were on display. Ostentatious flirt, independent and adventurous, an honest-to-goodness dame, a broad.
What she gave me I’ve already made mine; a lust for adventure, the belief that I can make my own life, and a love for parties and raspberry jam. And when I smile at a man with a twinkle in my eye, that’s pure Lillian.