My aunt Daneise died last week. While she was 88 and had a grand life filled with family and friends, it still leaves a big void as she was a big part of my life since I was very young. But it wasn’t only me. At her wake, more than 100 people showed up, including a friend she’d had since elementary school when growing up in East Chicago and a very good pal from high school who came to her wake and spoke about their long (some 70-plus years) friendship.
Here’s how my cousin Bill wrote about his mother in her obituary:
"Daneise married the late Robert W. Briska in 1948 and soon joined the ranks of many remarkable young women who parented the baby boom generation. Her school days cohort of friends became a lifelong group of dear companions known as the “Aunties.” Collectively these women raised dozens of children while providing mutual support, laughter and wisdom to one another and creating an informal ‘extended family’ amongst them."
It wasn’t only classmates, neighbors and school chums. My mother and my aunt both rented cottages in Grand Mere on Lake Michigan in Stevensville, Michigan, when I was growing up and so we spent summers at the beach there. My mom was just the opposite of Daneise, she was very quiet, she liked to garden, she worked at a library for 50 years until retiring at 70 and she spent a lot of time reading. Aunt Daneise was a story teller and people collector — though she didn’t have huge piles of New Yorkers and New York Times like you’d find at my parents. Indeed, I’m not sure I ever saw any reading material at my aunt’s except for the Catholic newsletters her church sent out and the TV guide. She didn’t have time. Nevertheless, they were great friends until the day my mother died.
When I’d walk to her cottage next door to ours and then later to her condo located in the same complex where I live and where she was known as the "Mayor," there would always be a large group of people who had stopped by. It seemed like everyone became her friend. My son Evan loved stopping by as did his best friend Aden and sometimes I thought they came over not so much to see me as much as her.
My niece Linda Simon told a story at aunt Daneise’s wake which summed up her appeal to all. When Linda’s son Ben was about 10 and she was visiting here, she sent him over to say hi to aunt Daneise. He protested but she said he had to go but all he had to do was say hi and could then make excuses and leave. An hour later, Linda wondered why Ben hadn’t returned. Walking over Daneise’s, she saw that he was sitting in her living room listening to her stories, obviously enchanted. Go figure, Linda said. How many ten-year-olds want to spend that much time with an elderly great aunt?
Food was a central part of my aunt’s life. Her father had immigrated from Greece and there were always feasts of Greek chicken, moussaka, pastitsio, roast beef with peppers (okay that’s not Greek but more Chicago Italian but there’s always cross-over in ethnic cities) and large bowls of Greek salad
So after the funeral I asked her daughter, my cousin Luann, if I could sort through her recipe box. No problem she said.
It was very lonely and empty when I let myself into her condo and took the box out of the cabinet where she always kept it, wanting to get a representation of the ones I most associated with her so I could share them here.
My aunt was married to my mother’s brother and so when they divorced and she remarried almost 30 years ago I guess she was no longer legally my aunt. But since we remained close and because she lived just a few doors down from me I would always make extra food when I cooked dinner to take down to her. And so tonight when I was cooking, I thought I’d put a few biscuits, slices of fresh beets and an extra pork chop into a containers to carry down to her. But, of course, I couldn’t as she isn’t there anymore.
Here are some of aunt Daneise’s recipes. Cook them and think of her. I know I will.
4 lamb shanks
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
4 cloves garlic, cut into small pieces (can use more or less depending on how much you like garlic)
1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 pound fresh or frozen green beans
Cut small slits into lamb shanks and insert pieces of garlic. Brown lamb shanks and potatoes in olive oil. Place in a roasting pan and cover. Add tomato sauce and diced tomatoes. Cover pan and cook at 325°F. for 2 1/12 hours, checking frequently to make sure there’s enough liquid. Add green beans, cover pan again. Cook for ½ hour more or until meat is fork tender.
1 pound butter
4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons vanilla
½ glass of milk
1 teaspoon orange extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
2 teaspoons baking soda mixed with one-half glass of orange juice
3 tablespoons grated orange peel
5 pounds flour
Melt butter, add sugar and eggs and beat well. Add vanilla, milk, orange and lemon extracts, baking soda mixed with orange juice and orange peels. Add flour. Mix well. Bake at 325 degrees.