The champion of our family neighborhood died last week. I’ve written before about how I grew up in a family neighborhood that included seven families. My grandparents, Tom and Effie Williams, lived next door to my parents. All the other families in the neighborhood were made up of my aunts, uncles, and cousins. While all the women in the neighborhood were generous, loving, hardworking Catholic women who did a magnificent job of managing their households and raising their children, there was one woman who stood out among all of them. To me, she was the champion of the neighborhood.
The champion I’m referring to was one of my dad’s sisters, Marlene Miller. All her nieces and nephews called her Aunt Honeybee. She was given that nickname when she was a young girl because she always had a cheerful disposition and stayed as busy as a honeybee. Aunt Honeybee treated all the children in the neighborhood as though they were her own children. Regardless of our ages, she had a genuine respect for our opinions and individual dreams, and she had a way of encouraging us to grow as unique, independent individuals.
I grew up and lived in the neighborhood for the first 18 years of my life. When I turned 18, I left home for college and returned during the summers. During the time I lived in the neighborhood, I never saw Aunt Honeybee lose her temper. There’s a difference between becoming angry and losing your temper. When someone loses their temper, their negative emotions limit their ability to be rational and logical, and they are likely to lash out or become abusive toward the person they are dealing with. Aunt Honeybee never allowed her emotions to control her behavior. She always kept her cool and was somehow able to always refrain from overreacting to difficult situations.
On the rare occasion when she became angry, it was usually because some of the children in the neighborhood were fighting about something. When that happened, she would immediately intervene and hold court by asking all the right questions. She would then resolve the dispute in a rational and logical way. It was easy for her to do this because she was highly intelligent and had the ability to stay calm while quickly analyzing difficult problems and identifying quick solutions.
When she got upset with one of us, she would let us know what we needed to do to change our behavior. The next time she saw us, she would act as though nothing had happened. It was as though she had forgotten about what had happened. Regardless of what we did, she never held a grudge. She was very forgiving and had a way of letting go of infractions to such an extent that they were never mentioned again.
Like any good mother, Aunt Honeybee had clear guidelines and expectations that she made known to her children and the children in the neighborhood. She had four children — Mark, Marty, Mary, and Matt. She never attempted to exercise control over her children by trying to fit them into a preconceived mold. She always showed respect toward their opinions and desires and encouraged them to grow as individuals. The one thing she did insist on was that they clean their rooms and finish all their homework before they went outside to play. She was a strong advocate of higher education and was determined to see to it that all her children did well in school.
I was at her house a lot because I was good friends with her oldest son, Mark, who was a year younger than me. Most of the time, Aunt Honeybee was tolerant and flexible in allowing us to play games, experiment, and do whatever we wanted to do. But like the Garden of Eden, there was a tree of forbidden fruit that we were not allowed to overindulge in. The “tree” was the TV that was in the living room of her house. She called it the “boob tube.”
We all knew what it meant to be a “boob.” If someone called you a boob, it meant that you were a stupid fool. My aunt’s name for the TV implied that if we watched too much TV, we would turn into stupid fools.
She ordinarily allowed us to watch one show, then she would kick us out of her house. I can hear her voice right now in my mind, “Turn off that boob tube and go outside and play!” If we didn’t do what she said, she would walk into the living room, turn off the TV, and order us to go outside.
In addition to being a champion mother and aunt, Aunt Honeybee was also a champion baker of desserts, which included her delicious homemade cookies, pies, caramel candy, and peanut brittle. Of all the desserts she baked, my two favorites were her lemon meringue pie and her peanut brittle.
During the summer of 1969, when I was 12 years old, I asked her if she would teach me how to make lemon meringue pie from scratch. The month before, my Grandma Effie had taught me how to make Lebanese bread from scratch. That’s a story for another day, but suffice it to say that it took more than six hours on a Saturday for me to set up, make the dough, knead and stretch the dough into 18-inch round flat discs, bake it, and then clean up. The bread turned out pretty good, which gave me the confidence to attempt to conquer my next goal, which was to make a lemon meringue pie from scratch.
When I asked Aunt Honeybee if she would teach me how to make the pie, her response was enthusiastic and positive. She acted as though she would like nothing more than to teach me how to make the pie. We scheduled a date and time and when we met in her kitchen, she handed me a pen and a pad of paper and I wrote down detailed notes of everything she told me. She made sure that I did most of the work, so I would get a feel for how it was done. She was a strong proponent of hands-on experience. She was also the type of person who genuinely enjoyed helping the members of her extended family who were willing to learn.
A couple of weeks after Aunt Honeybee showed me how to make her lemon meringue pie, I set up shop in my mom’s kitchen — again on a Saturday morning — and made the pie from scratch. It didn’t look as good as hers, but it tasted almost as good as hers. There was no way anyone could ever compete with her baking skills. Everything she baked looked like a masterpiece. She was a gifted artist and I was blessed to have the opportunity to be her student for a day.
Everyone loved Aunt Honeybee’s baked goods, old and young alike. Her sister, Pat Schelp, lived next door to her. When Aunt Pat’s oldest daughter, Kathleen, was four years old, she would frequently walk over to Aunt Honeybee’s house to visit with her. Kathleen knew which car her aunt drove, so she was always able to figure out when Aunt Honeybee was home. Kathleen was very smart and knew that she could ask her aunt for one treat each visit. When she asked for a treat, she would receive a no-resistance, guilt-free homemade cookie, Hostess Ho-Ho, or whatever other treat she asked for.
It didn’t matter whether it was her 12-year-old nephew, her 4-year-old niece, or any of her other nieces and nephews, Aunt Honeybee loved all of us and always made a special effort to treat us as though we were her own children.
As I said earlier, I was at her house a lot, and I never saw Aunt Honeybee argue with or disrespect her husband, Bill Miller. Not once. Unlike most other people, she did not feel personally threatened by conflict or criticism. She had the ability to handle conflicts in a rational and logical fashion, without letting her emotions get in the way. She had a pure, childlike love for her husband and children, which is a quality that we don’t see very often in people.
One more quality that I want to mention about Aunt Honeybee was her honesty and trustworthiness. While I was growing up, she worked part time as a bookkeeper for the Stafford’s Dairy convenience store that was located on Farmington Road, about six blocks from her house. There were three Stafford’s Dairy stores in Peoria that were owned by three brothers. The Farmington Road store was managed by one of the brothers, Art Stafford. I was familiar with Art because when I delivered newspapers for the Peoria Journal Star, I walked to Stafford’s Dairy every afternoon to pick up the bundle of papers that had been dropped off for me in the parking lot.
I got to know Art because every day before I picked up my newspapers, I stopped inside the store to purchase candy or beef jerky. Art was a hands-on owner who spent a lot of time in the store, making sure that everything was in order and that the customers were being properly served. He loved having Aunt Honeybee as an employee because he knew he could trust her completely with his money and records. He allowed her to take the company records home with her whenever she wanted, so she could do some of her work at home. She was the type of employee every small business owner dreams of — loyal, honest, trustworthy, smart, dependable, and enthusiastic about her job.
Later in life, during the years that most people are retired, Aunt Honeybee worked as a receptionist for the main office of the Catholic Diocese of Peoria. Monsignor Steven Rohlfs, who was one of the priests who worked with her on a daily basis, once told me that she was a master at efficiently addressing the complaints and needs of callers and visitors, and then quickly determining the correct person to forward the caller or visitor to.
The champion of our family neighborhood died on Thursday, May 20, 2021. She was 87. The day she died happened to also be my 64th birthday, which was an indication to me that God wanted the fact that she died on my birthday to be an annual reminder to me that I was blessed with and should forever be grateful for the gift of this special aunt who always treated me, my brothers and sisters, and all of our neighborhood cousins with great love, respect, and compassion.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her…