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A legacy of pickles, pies and pluck

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | April 6, 2023 12:00 AM

The last time I saw Aunt Thelma, on the day before she died, she was sitting in her hospital bed at St. Joe’s, balancing her checkbook. A grandson was dispatched to track down a red pen because a blue one wouldn’t do.

Two of her three kids were on hand, two grandsons, a great granddaughter, and a smattering of nieces and nephews. We told stories, teased each other and our beloved aunt, and in the language of families, said goodbye.

The day before that, she sat at the window so she could wave to her COVID-infected daughter, standing on the pavement below. The night before she died, a granddaughter smuggled in Coby, Aunt Thelma’s beloved and perpetually hungry Corgi, for one last snuggle and treat.

She wanted to go home, she said, thinking of that house in Hot Springs she and Uncle Bill had inhabited since 1953. We suspected a different home was calling.

At 97 and a half, Aunt Thelma had outlived a son, a granddaughter and her husband of 62 years, her six siblings and countless friends. When I saw her a few weeks ago, she told me she was the second oldest Native woman on the Reservation and aspired to live long enough to be the first. One hundred seemed like a good goal.

Still, 97 and a half is no small feat. Especially when you consider all those famous lemon merengue and apple pies, pickles that family wars were waged over, an annual bounty of tomatoes and sweet corn, flowerbeds brimming with iris, trailing petunias and geraniums, and a raucous, loving and very large family. She was equally adept at shooting grouse, reeling in fish and filling buckets with huckleberries.

Aunt Thelma told us once that she was descended from gunfighters and Indians. Those lineages might account for my lifelong fear of crossing her. My siblings, and even my kids, felt the same. “Fierce,” they called her. “A force!”

When a neighbor complained that her windchimes were too loud, she proceeded to procure a forest of chimes that quivered and clanged to the slightest breeze. You were wise not to mess with Aunt Thelma.

To Uncle Bill, she was simply “my sparkplug” – a six-decade source of inspiration and occasional aggravation. Although they seldom agreed on the details of any particular story, they had plenty to share.

Her cucumber patch was huge and harvested at the perfect point each August, its bounty plunged into jars crammed with fresh dill and garlic and capped for winter redistribution. So we tried even harder to behave, in hopes she might bequeath a jar come Christmas. If not, the bidding wars would begin, pitting cousin against cousin in pitched battles that would reshape family alliances.

She was a force! She and Uncle Bill were forever trying to improve their small town, where she served as school clerk for years. They helped found the senior center and worked tirelessly to revive the Hot Springs Bathhouse. She helped bring an ambulance service to town, and served on its crew while tracking down funding for a community health clinic. She gardened, canned her homegrown harvest, and ran her household singlehandedly until the last few years when her kids took turns helping her out.

Which returns me to last Wednesday, when she balanced her checkbook for the last time. A woman who gave so much more than she received left an irreplaceable ledger measured in pickles, pies and pluck.