Aunt Florence was one of my favorite relatives. She was almost always happy and smiling and fun to visit with for all us kids as we were growing up. And visiting was easy, too, because she lived just about a quarter mile down the road from us--a quick after-school walk for any of us who wanted to stop in to see how her African violets were doing or how close the recently re-planted flower bed was to exploding with its spring and summer gifts of colorful zinnias, marigolds, daisies, and other delights that Aunt Flo had “put to bed”, as she liked to say.
And in the planter boxes out on her back deck, she always planted something new and different every year--seeds for some unusual flowers she hadn’t tried before, but that she had found in the seed catalogue and wanted to experiment with. “I like to surprise myself!” she would laugh.
She was a great gardener of flowers and a pretty good hand in the kitchen, too. It always seemed to me that most of her kitchen work was geared toward “dishes” that us kids would especially like. By that I mean that mostly she just made desserts--cookies, brownies, chocolate cakes, pecan pies, and jelly-roll cakes. She was the only cook in the community that I ever knew of who actually made “homemade” jelly-roll cakes!
Anybody else that ever served jelly-roll cakes just bought them at the grocery store, slid ‘em out of the package onto a plate, and sliced off pieces for us kids to have at. I think it must have been a pretty cheap store-bought treat, too. Just about everybody always had some jelly-roll cake on hand, even the poor families and even in bad times.
But Aunt Florence made hers by hand right there in the kitchen. More than once, she would be finishing one up when us kids were there to check out her flower garden. She would pull the hot baking pan out of the oven with the thinnest cake in it you’d ever seen. Anybody else would have felt sorry for her for baking such a skinny little flat cake, but us kids knew what she was up to.
After it cooled just a bit, she’d dump it out onto a little rack, let it cool some more, and then do some kind of cutting and shaping trick to it before she slapped and smeared strawberry jelly all over the top surface and then rolled it up along the kitchen counter. Then she’d slice off inch-thick cylinders for us kids, plate ‘em up, and head us outdoors to her deck or flower garden so she could point out the latest developments in the floral world.
One afternoon, when Timmy Fenner, Susie Keeble, and I were taking in Aunt Flo’s flower show extravaganza and dessert party social hour, the host pointed us out onto the back deck with our plates of jelly-roll cake. It was a perfect day, with warm sunshine and a clear blue sky. Light springtime breezes floated through the leaves of the river birch that partly shaded the old faded green wrought iron table and chairs on the deck.
Little garden statues were placed about here and there, both on the deck and on the railings--smiling ceramic frogs, dancing gnomes, playful pottery squirrels, crouching bunnies, and a funny little statue of a barefoot boy who was holding a basket on his shoulder that was actually a flower pot overflowing with English ivy.
To us kids, this was the finest and funnest dining room on the planet!
Down by the woods at the back of the house, a couple of blue jays were loudly squawking and scolding a squirrel that had offended them--probably by stealing the stale light bread that Aunt Florence had tossed out to whatever creatures of the wild happened by and happened to be hungry.
Blue jays are really fussy and noisy, with the very outspoken attitude that everything that’s edible and not nailed down belongs to them. Squirrels, on the other hand, don’t make much noise at all, but they’ll quietly steal anything put out for any creature (ever see a squirrel stand on his head and do all kinds of gymnastics at a bird feeder to get to those seeds intended for the wrens and chickadees?). And if the squirrel has eaten his fill, he’ll scurry off with a peanut, a walnut, an acorn, or some other tidbit, and bury it in a flowerpot or a flower bed, digging up the dirt and scattering it about without regard to good housekeeping or good manners.
As I was happily munching on my serving of jelly-roll cake, the flowers in Aunt Flo's planter boxes caught my eye--the colors of the blooms were fantastically bright and the leaves were so slick and shiny. “Wow,” I said. “Aunt Florence, those are the smartest looking flowers I’ve ever seen; what kind are they?”
“Another grand experiment,” she laughed. “And the results couldn’t be better--have you ever seen anything so amazing--they’re artificial flowers, made of genuine plastic!” Then she let out another loud laugh like she was just about to go crazy, and I wondered what the heck was going on with her.
Here was Aunt Flo, a really great and serious (but fun) gardener and baker, who loved all things homemade, homegrown, and home-baked--who wouldn’t even serve a store-bought jelly-roll cake to us kids--and now she had resorted to putting artificial flowers in her planter boxes. It just didn’t add up.
“Well,” she said, “I got so tired of the squirrels digging up the flowers I had started in the planter boxes that I thought I’d try these artificial ones and see if the squirrels would leave them alone. So far, it’s been working out great, but I do have one concern that keeps me awake at night--I’m just worried that those little artificial squirrels over there are gonna get out of control and start digging up or eating my fantastic artificial flowers!”
Aunt Florence was the funniest, happiest person I ever knew--and her jelly-roll cake sure was good!