In honor of my sister Gerarda on her birthday.
(This piece was written in 2015 and is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy — a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
My sister Gerarda (Aunt Gerarda to you guys, G-Thang to her kids) is one of those people who lights up a room with her stories. She’s the perfect party guest because she’s not afraid to hold the floor for a few minutes entertaining everyone with an amusing anecdote (or two or three). You can always tell when Aunt Gerarda is about to go into storytelling mode. Her lips begin to form an almost imperceptible smile, and her big blue eyes gleam with a hint of mischief. Once she has your attention and begins speaking, she becomes fully animated, acting out the various parts of the story with a full range of facial expressions, voices, body movements, and hand gestures.
Aunt Gerarda is a natural-born storyteller. I know because I’ve witnessed her gift for telling stories as far back as I can remember, when she was eight years old and I was her four-year old little sister following her around our Chicago neighborhood. Sometimes I couldn’t actually see Aunt Gerarda entertaining family and friends when they came to the house, because I was known to run and hide under the bed every time the doorbell rang. And there I would stay, until whomever it was who had come to visit (friends, neighbors, and even some relatives I wasn’t completely familiar with) would leave. (Those who know me now would find it hard to believe I was terminally shy as a child — but more on that in a minute.)
Whether I was hiding under the bed or watching from the sidelines, I always marveled at Gerarda’s ability to be at ease in front of people. As a child she had reddish-brown hair (like our dad’s before he turned gray), a freckled nose, the aforementioned big blue eyes, and a 1,000-megawatt smile that could charm even the stodgiest adults. When our parents had parties, Gerarda often warmed up the crowd with a skit or a goofy costume or a joke before we kids were banished to the basement to play amongst ourselves, where Gerarda would continue providing entertainment.
As the years progressed, Gerarda became known as “the friendly” Johnson girl while I was viewed by some (mostly those who didn’t know me well enough to understand the extent of my introversion) as the “standoffish” one. As a youngster I was more than happy to hang in the background where I felt the most comfortable. I had an active inner life and, when I wasn’t tagging along with Gerarda and her friends, I spent a lot of time by myself, living in imaginary worlds talking to my imaginary friends. (Okay yeah, I was kind of a weirdo.)
What Gerarda may not have realized though is how much I idolized her back then (and still do today, even in our fifties). As I reached adolescence, watching my sister navigate high school, I couldn’t help but envy Gerarda’s ability to connect with people. She always had a multitude of girlfriends (still does) and could strike up a conversation with pretty much anybody — anytime, anywhere. I eventually grew tired of people’s misperceptions of me and decided I wanted to try being more open and friendly like my big sister. She was a role model for me as I cultivated my sense of who I was and how I wanted to relate to the world. With Gerarda as my guide, over the years I learned to smile more, strike up conversations with strangers, let my silly side show, and not be afraid to share a funny story on occasion. (Though I still prefer telling my stories on paper rather than in person, where writing in solitude is not unlike hiding under the bed.)
Getting back to Gerarda, her knack for storytelling has transformed itself in my mind over the years. As kids, her storytelling skills were simply a natural-born gift we all enjoyed and appreciated, but as adults, her continued ability to entertain and connect with people through her stories is a testament to her strength, courage, and determination. In 1993, when she was just 36 years old and a mom to three young kids, Aunt Gerarda was knocked flat by an intense headache and severe nausea. She, Uncle Dave, Grandma Helen, and cousins Faith, Luke, and Joy were driving back to Illinois from our house in Denver where we had been celebrating Coleman’s recent birth. After they reached home it was discovered Gerarda had a brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma. Long story short, Gerarda had brain surgery to remove the tumor followed by a long rehabilitation and recovery period. Among other things, she lost the hearing in her left ear and suffered some nerve damage which affected the facial muscles on the left side of her face.
Given such circumstances, some people might react by limiting their encounters with new people and new situations. But not my sister. After her recovery from the brain tumor, Gerarda didn’t just go back to living life the way she was — she became more of who she was. More outgoing, more friendly, more funny than ever. I like to think of who she is now as Full Metal Gerarda. She had always been one to stay busy, but after her brain tumor she embraced life with a vengeance, not only being a great mom to three young kids, a devoted wife to her supportive husband, but also working at various outside jobs, serving as president of the school board for many years, and, on top of all that, keeping the fullest social engagement calendar of anyone I know. If I happened to ask Gerarda about her plans for the weekend, it was (and still is) an extensive list of social gatherings, community events, road trips, parties, and service to others.
Speaking of service to others, Gerarda is a fabulous cook and one of the things she’s known for among friends and family is her Gooey Butter Cake, a confection that originated in St. Louis and is well-known throughout the Midwest.
Aunt Gerarda’s Gooey Butter Cake
Combine 1 box yellow cake mix with 1 stick butter. Add 1 egg, mix, and press into a buttered 9 x 13 pan. While pressing the bottom layer into the pan tell some funny stories to any number of people sure to be visiting and gathered around the kitchen. Beat 1 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese with 2 eggs, 1 lb. powdered sugar, and 1 tsp. vanilla. Pour over bottom layer. Bake 40 minutes at 325°. While cake is in the oven tell a few more funny stories, including some that allow humorous impersonations of husband Dave. (Embellishment and exaggeration always welcome. Indulging in a few cocktails tends to make the stories even funnier.) Sprinkle with more powdered sugar while hot. Serve Gooey Butter Cake at birthday parties, church functions, and all major and minor holidays. Bring Gooey Butter Cake on road trips to visit Faith, Luke, and Joy and nieces and nephews away at college.
Aunt Gerarda is also one of the bravest people I know, and not just because of how she overcame her brain tumor. A few years ago she stood up in front of a huge crowd in a bar in Chicago at a Moth event (“The Moth: True Stories Told Live”) to tell a story about Uncle Dave falling off the roof of their house (the theme was “falling,” and luckily Dave is fine). She’s given cooking classes at various venues in her town (the fact that she can cook, talk, teach, and be entertaining all at the same time is a feat unto itself). She’s given library presentations, radio interviews, and written stories for publication. (Gerarda’s storytelling skills span both oral and written entertainment.) I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the things Gerarda has accomplished with her stories, but you get the idea.
As sisters, our relationship hasn’t always been easy. Growing up under the circumstances that we did, each of us had to work hard over the years to shed some of the unhealthy dynamics we learned as children of alcoholics. There were times we needed to take a break from each other, to find our way in the world, to figure out who we were apart from our family history. And I’m happy to say we’ve come back from those difficult times stronger than ever. Both individually and as sisters.
And this is where I’d like to speak directly to you, Ben and Coleman. You may have times in your lives when you feel you don’t have a lot in common with each other, and staying close is more of a challenge than a pleasure. You might even have to take a breather from one another now and then. But always keep each other close in your hearts. Do your best to stay connected. No one knows you like a sibling. No one knows your history, no one watched you struggle to become the person you are today like the person who knew you growing up. And having witnessed your struggles, no one will love you and appreciate you and admire you in quite the same way a sibling does.
Gerarda was my role model growing up, and she still inspires me today. Her Gooey Butter Cake is made with love, like everything she does. And, as people who know and love Gerarda have come to expect that she’ll bring her Gooey Butter Cake wherever she goes, it’s also expected she’ll have a funny story to share. It’s who she is.