Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Secret to Longevity

          A few weeks ago, my Mom’s family lost its matriarch, my great-aunt Mac, or Macdalena in German. She was the remaining sister of my grandfather— the second oldest of six children, and she managed to outlive them all, at 103 years old. She would have been 104 in July. She was legally blind at this point, due to a hereditary disease where the peripheral vision degenerates, but she was lucid, and for a 103 year old, she was pretty independent. She wasn’t cooped up in a nursing home, but in the condo she and her husband had bought years ago. She had a devoted caretaker, Marie. Aunt Mac’s dignity always being maintained, Marie was never referred to as a caretaker by the family, but first as her “driver” and then as her friend. As her obituary so nicely stated, she retained her sharp wit and accurate memory right up until the end. Several people have remembered the way she left my dad’s 70th birthday party in July. She stood in the doorway and waved saying: “See you next year!” You may recall that when she found out about my engagement, she immediately quipped: “He was supposed to ask me first”. She was so sharp in fact, that just two weeks before she died, she told me a story I had never heard about my great-uncle George getting arrested during prohibition because my great-grandfather, (owner of Rapp’s Restaurant), was making liquor in the bathtub and telling his sons and daughters to serve it to patrons in coffee mugs.

           My family has acknowledged that the death of a 103 year old is not a tragedy. It’s not unexpected. But we really will miss her and it does mark the end of an era. When I was young, my mom’s family, my grandparents and aunts and uncles would all meet at “the dairy”— DiMauro’s Dairy and Diner in Shelton, CT— every Sunday after church. It was a rotating group of extended family. My aunt Betty would do the rounds of calls, and she’d let you know if any cousin in particular were visiting from out of town or home from college. It was one of those places where everybody knows your name. The waitstaff reserved a large table for us in the restaurant’s one room, where the pink and blue country cow d├ęcor never changed, and aside from weekly breakfast specials, the menu never did either. We were loud and we made our frequent patronage known, but no one else ever seemed to mind, and most friends from days gone by knew where to find my great aunts and uncles on Sundays. My great-aunt Betty was the youngest and probably would have lived the longest of her siblings if she hadn’t been in a car accident. After she died, we didn’t get together as much and shortly after, the dairy closed its doors. It’s all very Fried Green Tomatoes.

          Food and humor were of the utmost importance to my great aunts and uncles.  One example was when my great-aunt Josephine lost her sense of smell after a head injury in the 90's.  She greatly lamented her inability to smell chocolate specifically, but I also remember one brunch, when she was saying that she had recently almost forgotten to turn her gas stove off and she obviously couldn't smell it in the air.  "Then", she was reasoning, "it wouldn't be such a bad way to go.  You would be eating your sandwich and your head would just slowly fall to the table."  Her sister, Aunt Mac said; "And when we found you, we'd say 'At least she finished the sandwich...'"

          When you asked my Aunt Mac about the secret to her longevity, she would tell you it was restaurant food. She grew up over a restaurant, took over that restaurant’s management, and later, ate lunch out at restaurants five days a week, even up until the week before she died. This side of my family— the Rapps’, also left a food service legacy in the Housatonic Valley not to be forgotten. There was Rapp’s Restaurant, Rapp’s Paradise Inn, and Rapp’s Grassy Hill Lodge. My German ancestors were tavern owners all the way back to the 1500’s and there must be some kind of gene for it, because I have a few cousins who ended up in the food business even when their parents had other careers. Even though I grew up in a neighboring town, I am still often recognized as “a Rapp” when I run errands in the Valley. When this happens, I am always proud.