When I wrote about my family’s seeming propensity for violence in the first of my In an Irish Family posts I was a little concerned. I didn’t want people to think that my family is overly aggressive as a first resort. We’re really nice folks. Really. Of course there are more than a few occasions when someone has used forcefulness to make a point. And that brings me to my Aunt Margaret and the Charlotte Russe.
My Aunt Margaret is my favorite relative and I never even got to meet her. You see, my mother was the youngest in her family and I am the youngest in mine. Margaret died of tuberculosis in the 1920’s. It doesn’t matter. She was kept alive through the stories of my mother and aunt and I adore her!
Aunt Margaret was the oldest of her siblings. And she was very protective of them. She had to be. My grandfather was an enthusiastic Irishman. That is to say, he drank like a fish. And he could be a difficult drunk.
For a while my grandmother worked in a bakery in their little Pennsylvania town. This meant she was busy baking when some people in town had barely gotten to bed. By the wee hours of the morning there were fresh loaves of bread, cakes, and pastries ready to sell when her shop opened. But, before the doors were open to her customers, Nana would hurry back home with a box of treats for her kids.
As considerate as Nana was my grandfather was pretty much the opposite. He could be a truly selfish man. Each morning, after Nana dropped off the goodies, my grandfather would sneak into the kitchen and eat the entire box of pastries. My mother, aunts, and uncle were left with an empty box.
Time after time he’d deny that he knew the treats were for his children. He’d claim he believed she’d dropped them off for him. This wasn’t even a bad lie as Nana repeatedly told him not to eat the treats because they were for their children. But, my grandfather continued to pilfer the pastries and continued to lie. This annoyed Margaret.
So one day Margaret decided to drive the lesson home to her father. She stayed up all night, waiting for my grandmother to appear with the box. That day the treat was a Charlotte Russe. This is a cake made of an outer layer of ladyfingers with custard in the middle. Her sisters and brother were going to love it! At least they would if she could keep it from her father’s gaping maw.
Margaret quietly woke her younger siblings and ushered them into the kitchen. She told them they had to be very, very quiet and, as they always did, they listened to her. She sliced each of them a piece of the cake and they were happily consuming it when my grandfather walked in.
Immediately he began blustering and complaining. “The kids shouldn’t be eating cake at this hour!” Margaret deliberately cut a hunk of cake and stared at him. “Your mother would be after ya if she knew you’d given those babies cake in the middle of the night!” Margaret began to smile a little but it was a dangerous smile.
Walking toward her father with the cake in one hand and the very large knife in the other she calmly said, “Well, I’m eatin’ it, see.” And she punctuated the word “eatin’” with a jab of the knife toward my grandfather. He tried calling what he thought was her bluff. “Don’t you be pokin’ that knife at me, Girl!” Margaret moved ever forward, still saying “I’m eatin’ it, see.” and jabbing the knife in the closing distance between them. I often thought Margaret was channeling Edward G. Robinson in that moment.
My grandfather, by this time noticing her smile that was more shark-like than tender, began backing up rapidly. Margaret kept coming, all the while repeating that she was eatin’ it and poking the knife toward his round belly. Eventually my grandfather had backed all the way across the large kitchen and into the walk-in pantry. And Margaret closed the door and locked it. She returned to the table where she gave the youngsters a second piece of cake and then, after having them brush their teeth, she tucked them all back into bed.
When my grandmother arrived home she could hear my grandfather raising a terrible ruckus. But, being a wise woman, she didn’t immediately let him out. She asked Margaret why my grandfather happened to be in the pantry and why the door happened to be locked and, upon hearing the whole story, decided she was going to let him out…right after she had a nice cup of tea.
Image of Charlotte Russe courtesy of: