My aunts have come to my kitchen into teach me how to make homemade tapioca — that is, if they don’t kill each other first.
Their grandmother taught their mother, their mother taught them, and now that they’re pushing 90, I’ve suddenly developed an interest in family traditions.
“It’s too small,” Foy says, squinting at my pot.
“It’s big enough,” Bertha replies, throwing the pot on the stove.
Actually, the pot looks like a travel trailer next to my aunt Foy, a spritely cotton-topped lady who, with her arms pinned to her sides, could be used to clean one’s ears.
“The most important thing,” Foy says, taking a sip from a spoon, “is to use Mexican vanilla. Of course, you could use Jack Daniels and it would taste just as good.”
“Don’t teach the girl trash,” Bertha mutters. As she leans over the pot, the two whiskers growing out of the mole on her chin almost submerge into the mixture.
Bertha believes the Good Lord put alcohol on this earth for medicinal purposes. This is the only thing the sisters agree on. Foy keeps a pint of whiskey stashed in the clothes hamper and makes herself a toddy whenever her nerves need calming, which has pretty much been every day of her adult life.
“The milk smells old,” Foy says, stirring the mixture with a spatula.
“What’s wrong with you? It’s perfect,” Bertha says, looking over Foy’s shoulder.
While I’m watching the two, I remember when I was a kid and Bertha bought me some cheap French perfume that smelled like roach killer.
“Always wear the same perfume,” Bertha would say, dabbing a little behind my knees and in the bends of my arms, “so that whenever a man smells it, he’ll be flooded with thoughts of you.”
The scent most likely to flood a man’s thoughts of Bertha would be mentholated Vicks VapoRub. Bertha’s dear departed husband used to call her his “vixen.”
“Now, don’t let it come to a boil too quickly,” Foy shrieks like a fire alarm. “The milk will scald!”
“If it’s not hot enough, it’ll NEVER boil,” Bertha retorts, stirring the steaming pot. “We’ll be here all night.”
The air is so warm and moist that the windows are starting to drip. Bertha’s hair and whiskers are beginning to curl, and Mexican vanilla seeps from my pores. I’m pretty sure I could flavor the tapioca by dipping my finger in it.
Foy meticulously swishes the white, lumpy liquid back and forth with the spatula. Bertha and I take turns every so often while we talk about their favorite episodes of the Lawrence Welk Show. Finally, the mixture comes to a rolling boil.
“Done!” they shout in unison.
Poured into small bowls, there’s no doubt that Bertha did the pouring. Each one is exactly the same, identical right up to the fill line, like they were copied on a Xerox.
Bertha might be meticulous, but you just never know what you’ll find in her tapioca. One year, she dropped a diamond earring in a bowl, and Foy nearly choked to death. Bertha gave her the Heimlich maneuver, and Foy coughed it up and across the living room.
I’m thanking my dear aunts for the cooking lesson all the way to the door, hugging them goodbye as the chauffer gets out of their black 1964 Cadillac DeVille.
“Remember, good pudding should be like a good kiss,” Aunt Foy says, squeezing my hand. “It should make your lips pucker and your toes curl.”
“Don’t talk trash!” Aunt Bertha mutters, sliding onto the leather seat.
As the car disappears down the block and around the corner, I remember seeing only ONE whisker on Aunt Bertha’s chin when we hugged goodbye. I examine the dishes of tapioca and decide it’s time to be neighborly and take something sweet to the folks next door.