The Simple Life of Aunt Annie

After a wonderful 3-week visit, my Aunt Annie went back to her home in North Carolina on Sunday. We will definitely miss her and I know my mom will too. She was a breathe of fresh air and a good reminder of what a truly simple life really is.

Angie and I like to say that we live very simply, and in most respects, we do. We don’t own a lot of stuff and have chosen not to own a home at this time in our life. We have no consumer debt. We prepare 95% of our own meals, take responsibility for our own health, and try our best to fix most things that get broken. We find enjoyment in nature, in growing things, in spending the day with a good book. And while I do work to pay our modest bills, we’ve always valued our time over money.

For us, these things equate to a simple life. Yet, simplicity is still something we actively strive toward – something that gets buried from time to time in own own busyness and effort. But for my aunt, simplicity is life.

My aunt has never had a driver’s license and never held a public job. She has also never had a house payment or rent. Yet, she has always had a place to live, a way to get where she wanted, and a way to get the things she needed.

When I was younger, I never gave much thought to how Aunt Annie lived. I never considered that she was a single mom raising two kids. It never crossed my mind that she didn’t go to work or drive a car. All I knew was that every single day she helped my grandma in the garden and in the kitchen. She hung clothes on the line in the backyard. She walked to church. She hand-rolled the dough on Sundays for chicken and dumplings. She snapped bushels of peas and canned green beans. And she was always there when anyone needed her.

For most of her life, my aunt lived in a small single-wide trailer on my grandparent’s property. I’m not sure how the trailer got there, who paid for it, or how…I just know that’s where she lived, until a few years ago when it burned down. My aunt raised her two children there, along with about half of her nieces and nephews. You see, my aunt “made her living” doing what other people didn’t have time to do. She was the nanny, the cook, the nursemaid, and the housekeeper for her siblings and later, even their children. For forty years, nearly every day, someone would drop off a child for my aunt to watch. As those children grew up and their parents began to age, my aunt would sit with them too. She even lived with two of her sisters to provide full-time care for them in the months preceding their deaths.

There are a lot of folks who are professional nannies or caregivers and I know there’s money to be made in that line of work but here’s the kicker to this story…my aunt never once asked to be paid. She didn’t have a set rate for her time, a client list, or a calendar or appointments. Whether she made $5 or $50 for the day, she made it work. And with that money, she did two things faithfully – she tithed to the church and paid her taxes. Yes, this resourceful lady had the forethought to have her business-minded brother help her file taxes so she would qualify for social security one day. At 72, she receives a modest amount of social security benefits, which is “more than enough”, according to her.

My aunt has also never had debt. Some folks in our family like to make a big deal out of this, as if debt is a status symbol and not having it means you never grew up. I’ve watched those same folks talk around my aunt as if she was “simple-minded” and incapable of understanding what it’s like to “pay bills”. After spending time with her, I can tell you there’s nothing simple-minded about my aunt. She devours books like some people devour cake. She read 6 books in 3 weeks! She can talk about any topic, though she really lights up in conversations about cooking. (Speaking of which, a few years ago, she spearheaded the creation of a cookbook for her church. The book sold for $15 and with the proceeds, she and several other senior ladies went on a mission trip to rural Appalachia, where they set up a free store.)

My aunt sees money in the way I’ve been striving to see it for many years now – as just another means of trade. The folks at the Dept. of Electricity may prefer to be paid in dollars and cents, but not everyone does, and my aunt has built a life around learning to barter and trade. Last summer, she helped my cousin prep vegetables for the Farmer’s Market and in return, he shared part of the harvest with her, and even part of the pig he butchered. She has also found (like we have) that people throw away good stuff all the time. Though her dumpster diving days are over now, my aunt still benefits from other people’s discards. She said that most of her wardrobe and the books she reads are hand-me-downs from friends and fellow church members. “Why buy something when you don’t have to?” she says.

We had the most fun with my aunt going thrift shopping. None of us spent more than $5 but it was fun to look at stuff with someone who appreciates the “game of thrifting”. It was also nice to be with someone who enjoys the smallest of things – like getting a country ham and biscuit at the church bazaar or getting lost in the boonies following signs for a garage sale. No matter what we did with her, my aunt had a great time. Her enthusiasm and happiness were contagious so we couldn’t help but have a good time too. We even found ourselves enjoying things that we would never have done if Annie wasn’t with us – like eating a fast-food sandwich. Like us, my aunt eats at home all the time, making all of her meals from scratch, so it was a treat for her to have something different. And for a moment, I was transported back to my childhood – back to the days before we worried about non-GMO, organic, pasture-raised purity – back when stopping for a chicken sandwich was the treat at the end of a fun morning of yard sale adventures with my Granny and Grandpa.

My aunt also has purity of mind, something so rare, I was in absolute awe of her. She doesn’t gossip. She doesn’t lie. If you tell her something, you don’t even have to say “don’t tell anyone” because you can rest assured that she will never say a word – even when that subject comes up in a conversation later on and you tell on your own self, she will never say that she knew anything about it. She doesn’t watch the news, though she does read the local newspaper when she can. She doesn’t spend hours online, though much to my mom’s dismay, she did tell us many times to take a picture of something and put it on Facebook. She reads histories, biographies, Southern literature, and even Amish romances but never a murder mystery. In fact, when my mom was watching a true-crime show on TV, Annie covered her eyes just before the murder occurred. She doesn’t want those images in her mind, and as someone who still has flashbacks of scenes from Sons of Anarchy, I can completely appreciate that.

I never sat down with my aunt to do a real interview but I didn’t really have to. Her philosophy on life isn’t something she she needed to put into words for me. It was clearly evident in everything that she said or did: Be kind, be grateful, have faith, enjoy each day that you are given, do the best you can with what you have, and don’t sweat the small stuff – or the large stuff either.

Good Times and Garlic

In mid-October, my aunt Annie came to visit from North Carolina. She is my mom’s only living sister and the oldest of the four remaining siblings. She’s 72, has almost died twice, and is the happiest person I think I’ve ever met in my life. She’s also the simplest person I think I’ve ever met in my life – which says a lot coming from someone who considers herself pretty simple. (And by simple, I am in no way referring to intelligence. My aunt has read at least 5 books since she’s been here and when she’s not reading, she’s working a dot-to-dot puzzle!)

Since she arrived, Angie and I have had a new partner in crime. Annie loves garage sales, thrift stores, orchards and farms, and food. My mom likes to tease that she loves food too much because (like us) she might sometimes start talking about plans for dinner while eating breakfast. And she’s a fabulous cook! When we visited her last year, my mom and I were treated to all sorts of good country cooking. This time, we tried returning the favor by making a few of our specialties, like homemade soup and pizzas, but she has still managed to out-cook us. Pasta one night, pork chops another, and a hashbrown casserole last night that even Angie loved (and she doesn’t like hashbrowns). I still contend that her spaghetti sauce is one of the best I’ve ever eaten.

Angie and I are going to miss my aunt when she goes home this weekend. It’s been a real joy to have her here and believe it or not, she showed us places we didn’t even know existed in our own neighborhood – like a new thrift store. We had a delicious lunch at an Amish deli we’d never tried before (which you can read all about here). We even made it to Breeden’s Orchard to get an apple cider doughnut, something that has been on our list of things to do since this time last year.

And that doughnut, led to another check on our “garden bucket list”. While shopping for apples and apple cider doughnuts, Angie stumbled upon a couple of bags of various heirloom garlic bulbs. Though they weren’t actually for sale, the owner parted with a few bulbs when we told him we wanted to plant them. We got a couple of hardneck and softneck varieties, including Inchelium Red and German White, and on Saturday afternoon we planted them in one of our garden beds. In total, we planted 62 bulbs of garlic. If all goes well, we’ll have plenty of garlic next June.

Now, about those apples…

Breeden’s has a variety of apple called Arkansas Black. We had never heard of it (and my aunt was fascinated by it) so that was our primary reason for making the drive to Mount Juliet on Saturday morning. The Arkansas Black is a good apple, but not what I was expecting. It’s somewhat sweet and a bit mellow, not crisp and tart, like it was described. But not to worry, we’ll still eat it.

The best apple that we got though didn’t come from the orchard. It came from the dumpster. Angie found a dozen loose Envy apples in a box, just sitting on top of the dumpster. These apples were sad looking on the outside – kind of withered – but on the inside, they were amazing! We made our 3rd batch of crock pot apple cider with them this morning.

In case you’re interested, crock pot apple cider simply consists of simmering cored and quartered apples of any variety with one quartered orange, 1 cinnamon stick, and any other spices of your choosing in enough water to cover them for 12-15 hours and then mashing and straining the juice. We used pumpkin pie spice on two batches and it was good. I would advise though – go lightly on the cinnamon sticks. We used 3 on the first batch and it was like drinking Fireball Whiskey (or so my niece tells me).

Before my aunt leaves on Sunday, I plan to “interview” her for a post on simple living. I think you’ll be as captivated as I was by her story, so stay tuned.