My Aunt Bessie was my favorite. When I was born I was a month or so premature–and apparently gave my Mom one heck of a time during my delivery–so Aunt Bessie came to stay with us to help take care of me and my older sister, Tracy, while Mom had some bed rest. Aunt Bessie was my Dad’s sister-in-law. She stood all of 4’7” soaking wet. Her husband, my Uncle Frank, stood about 6’5’ slouching. They were an impressive sight. Aunt Bessie and Uncle Frank moved to Ogden, Utah when I was little, so I only got to see her, Uncle Frank and my cousins on summer vacations.
I can remember driving across that barren desert between California and Utah in our trusty wood-paneled Ford Station Wagon. The morning of the trip, Mom would wake all four of us kids up at like 4:00 a.m. and line us up on the couch. Dad would be out packing up the car, which Mom had turned in to a traveling Motel 6 the day before. Before we could pile in to the car, Mom made us each drink a half can of 7-Up each…to “settle our stomachs” for the road trip. With my amazing oral hygiene, I had brushed my teeth first, and let me tell ya, 7-up mixed with toothpaste-mouth tastes somewhat like bad bourbon.
We’d all wander comatose to the car, one of us with our baby sister Melissa in our arms, to fall in to our spots. Tracy was the queen, so she got the back seat. Mom had packed ice coolers, overnight bags and who knows what else on the floorboards, and then piled blankets on top of those and the back seat so that Tracy had a spacious full bed to spread out on. Coleen, Melissa and I got the back. Mom would lay out all the sleeping bags and our pillows and we would share that back space. I could never sleep. I pretended I could so my parents wouldn’t feel bad, but I was always worried that the back door would fly open and I’d go flailing out onto the night highway. So I made sure to never push my feet too hard against the back door. Sometimes I’d pop my head up until my parents would invite me up to the front seat to sit between them. I’d be sure to step square on Tracy’s back on my way up.
When daylight hit we’d all be awake and bouncing around the inside of that station wagon. Mom would always be prepared with snacks and Car Bingo to keep us occupied. There were no Capri Suns or mobile devices back then, but we were perfectly content with our Styrofoam cup of Tang and little Car Bingo board. For about an hour. God knows how our parents put up with us the rest of the time. My Dad’s foot certainly got heavier on the pedal as the day progressed. I remember one time we were in the middle of the Salt Lake Desert and I looked over at the speedometer…see we were all standing up leaning over the front seat because really, who stayed in their seatbelts back then? Did we even have seatbelts? Anyway we were all leaning over the front seat and I said, “Dad! Slow down!!! You’re doing 90!!!” See, I was the Miss Goody-Two-Shoes of the family. So Dad slowed down to the 55 speed limit. I then said, in unison with my sisters, “Dad, speed up again!” Yeah, we didn’t want to be in that car with each other any longer than we had to.
My parents didn’t want to be in that car either. One time, we were acting up a little too much and my Dad had to pull the car over (like they always threaten. Well, he did it.) Mom opened up that station wagon’s back door and was opening up a can of much-deserved whoop-ass on us. Just then a policeman pulled up. He walked up to my Mom as she was in the throes of spanking us and said, “Ma’am, what’s going on here?” She stopped smacking us for a second to say, “Officer, I’m just disciplining my children.” He paused for a moment then said, “Carry on.” And left. Today, my Mom would be doing 10 to 20 in the state pen for child abuse.
Well, we finally reached our destination of Ogden, Utah and Aunt Bessie’s house. There was all kinds of fun with my cousins Gayle, Sharon and Dwayne, day trips to campgrounds, swimming in someone’s pool, sliding on the Slip and Slide in Aunt Bessie’s back yard and playing poker. Well, the adults played poker and we got to watch.
Aunt Bessie was a baking, sewing fiend. She made the best cookies, pies and pastries and created amazing quilts…all with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. She was so little she had a contractor build her a low countertop in the kitchen so she could roll out her dough with ease. I loved visiting her through the years and staying up late eating cookies and playing cards with her. She treated me like a grown-up. Maybe that’s because even as a kid I was taller than her.
Aunt Bessie had a big heart and a quick wit. The last time I visited her in 2005, she was in her early ‘80s and was up till midnight in her favorite chair, laughing and telling stories, with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
She passed away the following year and Tracy and I flew to Ogden for her memorial. After the service, we were shuffling through the food buffet line when I came across an interesting dish…I could clearly see potatoes, which is always a winner for me. I stuck the big metal spoon into the dish and asked my cousin…”are those corn flakes on top?” Yes, there were corn flakes on top. That intrigued me…a little sweet and savory potato dish would certainly not disappoint, though they were somewhat creepy. So I asked, “What are these?”
“Those are Funeral Potatoes,” my cousin replied. I think I just stood there with my big spoon in the potatoes. Then I said, “Um, what are Funeral Potatoes?” She explained that they are basically a traditional potato casserole dish that someone always brings to the reception after a memorial service. And in Utah, most of those service receptions take place in a church hall, usually a Mormon church. Good thing my Aunt Bessie wasn’t Mormon because I’m guessing as a non-Mormon I wouldn’t have been allowed in to the service and I wouldn’t have discovered those delicious potatoes. I had three servings.
32-ounce bag of frozen hash browns
2 cans cream of chicken soup
2 cups sour cream
1-1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup onion, chopped
2 cups corn flakes, crushed
2 TBS butter, melted
Grease 9×13 baking dish and preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl combine soup, sour cream, cheese, onions and butter. Fold the hash browns into the mixture and pour into the baking dish. Combine crushed corn flakes and 2 tablespoons of melted butter and sprinkle them on top of the potato mixture. Bake for 30 minutes.
Dig in, then kiss your loved ones, and your diet, good-bye.
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