Note: I originally wrote this story when Chicken Soup for the Soul was looking for submissions for its newest book in the series:
My mother was one of the most generous, giving women on the planet. Her sister, however, my Aunt Ann, was one of the most…well, frugal.
I can remember my childhood Christmases when Aunt Ann would gift me with coloring books that already had half their pages colored, or slippers that were three sizes too small and had lint balls on them.
Visiting Aunt Ann also was a unique experience. When she invited my family over for tea one afternoon, she brought out an already used tea bag and had us all pass it around and share it because she said it still had a lot of good tea flavor left in it.
Also, she would buy a large chicken on Monday, and by that Saturday, she still was eating it in some capacity – even using the bones to make broth for soup. Her grocery bill for the entire week was what most people would pay for a morning snack of a cup of coffee and a donut
To save even more money, she often did her own home-canning. As a result, down in her basement was a shelf of jars that contained mystery food items in various stages of decomposition. One day, when my mom was down there, she picked up a canning jar in which all of the contents had turned black.
“This should be tossed out,” my mother said, holding up the jar so Aunt Ann could see it.
“Noooo!” she gasped, grabbing it away from my mother. “Those are mushrooms I canned! They might look terrible, but they’re probably fine. I’m still going to eat them!”
I swear the woman had a stomach made of cast-iron.
And then there was her bathroom. She was very strict about allowing the toilet to be flushed only once per day so she could save money on the water bill. Believe me, there were a lot of times my bladder was on the verge of exploding while I visited her, yet I still wouldn’t set foot in that bathroom.
Aunt Ann walked everywhere because she didn’t want to spend money on gas for her car or pay bus fare. And although she lived only two blocks from a pharmacy, she walked four miles to a pharmacy on the other side of town because it offered free coffee to customers while they waited for their prescriptions to be filled.
During family get-togethers, we enjoyed playing card games for pennies. Usually, each player contributed 10 pennies to the pot before the game began. I can’t count how many times we all sat there, waiting while Aunt Ann counted every penny in the pot, just to make certain it wasn’t short by a penny or two. And heaven forbid if the pot turned out to be missing a penny. She would refuse to start the game until someone replaced it.
So it came as no surprise that my aunt’s siblings often referred to her as “the old penny-pincher” behind her back.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, both my mother and my Aunt Ann became widows in the same year, 1984. Up until that point, my mother always had looked forward to preparing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, but that year, understandably, she had very little holiday spirit. So my husband and I decided to invite both my mother and Aunt Ann out for Thanksgiving dinner. We had heard about a restaurant that served the meal family-style, with bowls of food placed on each table and even a whole turkey to carve, just like having dinner at home. So it sounded like the perfect alternative.
When I invited Aunt Ann, the first thing she said was, “I never eat out. It’s too expensive.”
“It’s our treat,” I said. “It’s a flat rate for each person and you can eat as much as you want.”
“Oh? Fine, then. I’ll go!”
That Thanksgiving Day, we inched our way through sleet and snow to get to the restaurant. Due to the weather, we arrived late for our reservation, so we were seated at the only table still available – on a platform overlooking the other diners, which made us feel as if we were at the head table at a king’s banquet.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” my husband said as he gnawed on one of the rock-hard dinner rolls the server delivered.
The server then asked what we would like to drink. I ordered a glass of orange juice.
“We don’t have any,” she informed me.
When I cast her a look of disappointment, she sighed and said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
She returned with a glass of something that resembled water that had been tinted with orange food-coloring. It tasted like plain water and sugar.
The salads, laden with heavy dressing, were delivered next. Aunt Ann was visibly upset when she saw hers. “I can’t eat this!” she complained to the server. “I have heart trouble and I’m on a strict diet! Just bring me a plain salad and some ketchup.”
“We don’t have ketchup,” the server said. The way she said the word “ketchup,” you would think my aunt had asked her for drain cleaner.
Aunt Ann opened her mouth to protest, but my mother subtly elbowed her and whispered, “Be quiet, or she’ll go back out to the kitchen and stomp on some tomatoes for you!”
At least the nicely browned turkey that was delivered to our table looked delicious. The server handed the carving knife to my husband and then disappeared. When he stabbed the bird, a trickle of blood ran onto the platter. At that same moment, Aunt Ann took a sip of her coffee. It was ice cold. That did it.
“What’s the matter with this place?” she stood and shouted. “Raw turkey and cold coffee? Did you guys forget to pay your gas bill? Are you trying to give me botulism? My niece and her husband are paying good money for this meal – actually, way too much money, in my opinion!”
All heads snapped in our direction. That’s when I discovered that sitting on a platform made it really difficult to slide low enough in my chair to become invisible.
After we suffered through a disappointing meal, Aunt Ann critically eyed my husband and said, “I noticed you had three helpings of mashed potatoes. I don’t think it’s fair that those of us who ate less are being charged the same price.”
There she was, still worrying about money, even when she wasn’t the one who was paying.
“Well,” she finally said, sighing, “I’m going to forget my diet for a moment and indulge in my favorite Thanksgiving dessert – pumpkin pie! I look forward to the holidays every year just for that reason!”
“Sorry,” the server said when we ordered the pie. “There isn’t any. We’ve been having trouble with the ovens since last night – that’s why the turkey didn’t cook right. And the pies came out with burnt crust and raw fillings. Would you like some orange gelatin instead?”
I held my breath, knowing Aunt Ann’s response was not going to be a pleasant one.
“Orange gelatin?!” she fairly exploded, once again causing all of the other guests to stare at our table. “What is this place – a hospital cafeteria? I can tolerate a lot, but not having any pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day is unforgivable – a sacrilege!” She rose to get her coat. “And I hope you know that my niece and her husband are NOT going to pay you for any of this!”
My husband and I just sat there, too embarrassed to move.
As it turned out, the restaurant discounted our bill by 50-percent. I was pleased, but Aunt Ann still complained all the way home, saying what a rip-off the meal had been and how we’d have been better off staying home and eating TV dinners.
My aunt lived to be in her 90s. When she died, it was discovered she had a very substantial bank account – over a million dollars. Actually, I guess it came as no real surprise to anyone, considering she rarely spent any money.
And in her will, she provided every one of her relatives, including my mother, my husband and me, with a nice yearly annuity. She also left me her diamond engagement ring.
Funny, but after that, she never again was referred to as the “old penny pincher” or “the tightwad” by anyone in the family.
Bless you, Aunt Ann.
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