Canasta

One day when she was visiting, my Aunt Jeanne taught me and my sister how to play canasta. We were in elementary school at the time, probably 4th and 6th grade. We sat around the dining room table at our house on Laurent Street. I’m pretty sure my parents had told us we needed to stick around and spend time with Aunt Jeanne and our grandparents that afternoon and, frankly, learning how to play a card game was a lot more interesting than sitting around while adults talked.

Although my aunt was the youngest of three – my dad was the middle child and Uncle Norm the eldest – Jeanne seemed older in some ways, more aged, more staid, more like a grandparent. She had suffered lifelong health issues, including epilepsy and diabetes, and had therefore remained dependent upon my grandparents. Now that I think of it, I don’t remember seeing her without also seeing them. Because they spent so much time together, Jeanne tended to have similar mannerisms and interests as her parents. She loved to read and wore glasses on her nose with a beaded strap to hold them around her neck. She was often knitting or crocheting or sewing something alongside my grandma.

I can remember Aunt Jeanne’s laugh, a kind of rosy chuckle, but as a kid I couldn’t relate to her sense of humor nor most of what she liked to talk about. She didn’t ask me and my sister much about our lives, didn’t seem too interested. But that day she was interested in teaching us to play canasta. I’ve long since forgotten how to play, but that day we learned it. She must have a been persistent teacher.

When I grew up and left home, Aunt Jeanne was often not well enough to travel, so I didn’t see her much. She lived in southern California in a trailer home with at least one cat, sometimes more. She was good about keeping in touch for holidays. I remember receiving her Christmas cards, addressed very formally, to “The Rev. Mr. & Mrs. Benjamin Broadbent.” While the patriarchal convention rankled me, I think she was honoring me by calling me by the same title as my grandfather and uncle and father.

She once sent me a gift for Christmas that I cherish to this day, a 1922 Silver Liberty Dollar. Also known as a Peace Dollar, it was minted in honor of the peace that followed the Great War. She mounted it inside a box and inscribed these words at the top: “From: Gr. Grandfather John Wm Broadbent, Grandfather C.D. Broadbent + Aunt Jeanne.”

I can’t remember how to play canasta, but when I hold that coin in my hand, I feel its heft, and I appreciate that she passed along to me an heirloom of value to her. In giving me the coin, she made a connection between the generations that succeeded her and the one that followed her. My Aunt Jeanne wasn’t easy to relate to. She suffered a lot throughout her life. But she also had gifts to give and some of them she gave to me.

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