For me, Aunt Dot was a very special person. As we were discussing what to name this specific Catholic Worker House we are hoping to establish, we threw around some different ideas, some with a reference to Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Movement. While brainstorming, I considered how Dot is a common diminutive form of Dorothy, much like my Nana’s sister’s name, my own Aunt Dot. Nana and Aunt Dot were very close and so Aunt Dot was also close to my nuclear family as I was growing up. I have so many wonderful memories of time spent with her at family gatherings.
Dorothy DePalma was indeed an exceptional lady. She married Uncle Boots (his real name was Donald, but that’s another story entirely) and together they raised four wonderful children: Donny, Diane, Doreen, and Danny. Not to mention their dog, Denny. When Boots returned from his tour with the merchant marine (I believe during WWII), he supported his family in various jobs, including garbage collector. He moved up the ladder and eventually became the guy who drove the truck. I can remember once hearing my Aunt Dot tell the story of a raffle – I think it was a raffle – they entered and later won. The lady called Aunt Dot to give her the happy news and said, “But I have one question. In the space for occupation, you wrote, ‘used food dealer.’ What exactly is that?” Aunt Dot had such a great sense of humor.
She worked too, in an era when many women stayed at home. She was the secretary at the local high school. As such, she was instrumental in the lives of many families, helping them make sure they had what the students needed to be successful at school. I have no doubt she also worked to make sure that the most needy had what they required to be successful at life as well. I was surprised at her funeral, though I probably shouldn’t have been, by how many conversations I overheard which began, “I remember from high school…” She had clearly touched many hearts in that role.
And she knew how to have fun, too. She and Nana were both members of the same card group: Monday Night Therapy On Wednesday (or was it Wednesday Night Therapy on Monday?). I never did quite understand it, but I remember the matching T-shirts they all wore with the group’s name on them. They played for a penny a point and they used the winnings to subsidize the annual vacations they would all take together. Whenever this group was gathered, there was always a lot of laughter involved.
But my best memories of Aunt Dot came from the time I spent at her house, usually on the Fourth of July. Every Fourth, she opened her home to friends and family and put out such a spread! My mom was in charge of the sausage and burger rolls – Uncle Boots liked them very flat so you could fit more stuff in them – and Mom made them to order for him. Once we arrived, one of the aunts or older cousins would bring us kids to the local park for the afternoon, where they had all kinds of rides set up and popsicles; Aunt Dot had made sure well in advance that there were enough admission tickets for everyone. We’d come back to Aunt Dot’s place for dinner tired and sweaty and with colorful tongues. Then, after dinner, we’d relax for awhile. Perhaps we kids would go in the living room and play around on the piano while the grown-ups socialized outside in the backyard. That piano now proudly graces my own living room. Later in the evening, my parents would bring my sisters and me over to the football field and spread a blanket so we could sit and watch the amazing fireworks. I have to say, to this day, I cannot remember many firework displays as impressive as the ones there in Milburn, NJ. After the show was finished, we’d walk back to say our goodbyes to Aunt Dot and Uncle Boots and sleep all the way home in the back seat of the car.
As wonderful as she was, Aunt Dot was only human, of course. She and Uncle Boots used to have a doormat that read, “One nice person and one grumpy person live here.” It was perfect for them, because Uncle Boots loved to play the irascible old curmudgeon, but those who knew him best knew he was really a softie deep down. So in the family, the joke was that you never really knew who was the nice person and who was the grumpy one. I have to say, I cannot remember a time when she was ever grumpy with me, but I do remember stories of her legendary wooden spoon that was not used solely for cooking while her kids were growing up.
Grumpy or not (I vote not), Aunt Dot lived life fully. She worked hard, raised a family, and spent fun times with friends. She did it all with joy, and in doing so she brought joy to all those she knew and loved. And I am grateful and lucky that she was my Aunt Dot.