Wednesday, August 17, 2005

R.I.P. Mary Vanderheyden

I just learned that my aunt, Mary Vanderheyden, died recently.
I was lucky enough to meet her in January of this year. She was 91 and no longer capable of speech, just barely capable of eating when my parents took us out to lunch at a French restaurant near their house in L.A. So many of my memories of Aunt Mary are about food. I had some wonderful latkes at a Jewish restaurant in Venice (the one in Italy, not California) but they were but one of many wonders in that city. Aunt Mary's potato pancakes were probably the only reason to go to LA at all.
As far back into my childhood as I can remember, Mary and her husband Al (who died in 1966) were people I always looked forward to seeing. And not just for the latkes. I always felt comfortable with them. Visiting them for Christmas in Chicago in 1955 as my family moved from Saskatchewan to LA was such a pleasent memory, whenever I meet someone from Chicago, I think they must be lucky people to have come from such an enchanting city. At least it was to me in 1955, thanks to Aunt Mary.
They moved to LA in 1959, living in an apartment not far from my parents in Van Nuys. It was there I learned the joys of watching the news with Al and Mary- so much more civilized than watching it with my parents who would rant and rave at their TV screens. Mary and Al were cool. The news was a learning as opposed to a debating opportunity. This was a time when science first began to be taught in LA elementary schools, and Al and Mary's continual encouragement of my scientific curiosity did me far more good than any of my teachers, fumbling through their brand new curriculum full of dread of the Russian space programme (these were the days of drop drill, when the school alarm bell rang at 10 AM every Friday morning and we took shelter under our wooden desks, or as much shelter as they'd provide against Russian nukes about to detonate in the schoolyard). Even in those dire days of the cold war, Mary kept smiling.
Talk about Great Jobs, Mary was a "food demonstrator" in supermarkets. The highlight of everyone's shopping has to be the tastes of free food offered there. Not just my curiousity, but the curiousity of multitudes was encouraged by my aunt. It's a better fed world because of her.
No longer capable of speech, Aunt Mary squeezed my hand at our last meeting. Curious to know who I was, in a restaurant full of curious food. Assured it was her nephew, and not a waiter or a chair. I hope good memories flooded her last years, as so many will have good memories of her.

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