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My aunt Martha was a woman of firm character and an itching sense of responsibility. Though she was Father's younger sister, she had always felt competent to advise him in matters financial, marital, or moral. Father was used to her and he would nod gravely at her over his pipe and go on with his thoughts, hardly hearing a word she said. But when Father died, Mother was left pretty much at Aunt Martha's mercy, for Mother had always been sorry for this well-intentioned sister-in-law who had never had a husband or children of her own on whom to exercise her passion for management. Fortunately, a good part of Aunt Martha's improving energies found an outlet in organized charities. Mother felt vastly relieved when she began to take an interest in the Russian émigrés who were arriving on the Pacific Coast in the early twenties. They were some of the refugees from the Russian revolution who had poured into China and Japan and had been among the lucky few to obtain visas for America. But even these charitable interests had a way of backfiring on Mother. I had just come in from school one afternoon when I saw my aunt's high, old-fashioned electric coupé pull up at our door. She felt that an electric was the only really lady-like mode of transportation still available; she would have preferred a carriage and pair if she could have afforded the outlay and upkeep. Though Aunt Martha must have been hardly forty in 1924, in spirit she belonged to an earlier generation. Her clothes, too, were of another period, for at a time when fashions denied the existence of feminine bosoms and merely hinted at a waistline surprisingly located where it must be sat upon, she presented a well-corseted hourglass figure. Whenever she visited our white clapboard house in West Los Angeles, her walk up the garden path provided two fine topics for advice. First, there was the extravagantly large garden which Mother insisted upon keeping up, when in the growing city it could have been sold as a building lot; and second, there was the frankly old-fashioned aspect of the house. Aunt Martha insisted that Mother should follow the prevailing mode for putting a plaster false-front on old houses and dubbing them Spanish Colonial. Not to do so was to allow the value of the property to go down. Los Angeles was indulging in an orgy of pale pink, dull orange, and even lavender stucco bungalows that looked more edible than livable. But today, it was easy to see that our relative had more pressing matters to discuss. She nipped up the garden path without so much as a disapproving glance at the bright flower beds. "I've found just the girl for you, Mary!" she announced breathlessly to Mother the minute she entered the living room. "Girl? What are you talking about, Martha?" "Why, a girl to cook for you, and to help with the housework, of course. You know we were discussing the Swedish girl I found last week and you thought she wouldn't be suitable. Now Katish is different—she was made for you." Katish, Aunt Martha explained, talking very fast so that Mother couldn't interpose any objections, was Ekaterina Pavlovna Belaev; she was a young Russian woman, of good but simple family, widowed in the war. After the revolution, she had made her way with admirable courage and resourcefulness through Russian Turkestan and the wilder outer regions of China to Harbin and then to America. She knew little English, though she had studied diligently during the months that she had waited in Harbin for her American visa. She had not been trained to earn a living, but she was an excellent cook, and naturally as neat and clean as a new pin. She didn't expect a large salary, but she was in urgent need of a good home, and how could Mother, who claimed to be a Christian, turn her away? Mother looked uncomfortable. I thought she was weakening. Bub, my fourteen-year-old brother, who had come in by this time, took up the cudgels in defense of the family. "Aw, Mother, we don't want any old foreign cook," he protested. "I like your cooking. Why don't you get this woman a job with some of your rich friends, Aunt Martha?" Aunt Martha hedged. It was evident that her wealthier friends had been tried and found not wanting an untrained servant. "Well, Mary," Aunt Martha said, nettled into imprudence, "I don't see what you can do but take this poor girl for a time, because I've already promised her that you would." At this barefaced statement Mother rallied and said quite firmly that she not only did not need a cook; she wasn't going to have one, and her sister-in-law could get out of the matter in the best way she could. Bub and I rejoiced in Mother's victory. Aunt Martha's protégés were apt to be peculiar—occasionally they were alarming. The last time Mother had succumbed to her appeal to the Christian spirit, we had found ourselves with a cook who took no pains to disguise her triumphant certainty that the whole family was headed for perdition. This worried us for a week, until we found out that the poor woman was a member of one of those queer religious sects which flourished under the warm Southern California sun. She believed that bodily comfort was a sin and she announced her intention of sleeping on a pallet on her bedroom floor. This was all right with Mother, but it was something of a shock to learn that she had gone so far as to sell the bed which Mother had provided—bedstead, springs, and mattress—and contribute the proceeds to her church. Mother discovered this strange evidence of religious zeal on the same day that the cook discovered that we occasionally used liquor in cooking. The cook departed forthwith, adding the vociferous threat of jail for our liquorous iniquities to her previous threats of damnation. The experience had not left us in a receptive mood toward Aunt Martha's suggestions. Our redoubtable relative seemed to accept Mother's refusal this time. For a week she was sweet and agreeable and appeared to have forgotten all about the needy Russians. But one afternoon Bub and I came in from school to find Katish established in our kitchen! Mother hurried us upstairs to explain and admonish us to civilized behavior. Aunt Martha, it seemed, had brought Katish to see her that morning. They had eleven o'clock coffee in the garden and as they chatted pleasantly it had gradually become clear to Mother that Katish still thought that Mother had sent for her and that her belongings were out in front in the electric automobile! Aunt Martha blandly avoided Mother's eye while these amazing facts were sinking in; she knew that Mother, after breaking bread with Katish and hearing the Russian woman's delight in her beloved rose garden, could never deal her the hurt of sending her away. Katish's English, though odd, had been sufficient to convey her gratitude in being offered this pleasant place to live and work. "Ai, is nice! I like!" Mother was stymied and she knew it. We had to admit that Katish did look jolly. She was a little one side or the other of thirty. Her short, sturdy figure, wide mouth, and snub nose in a round face gave her a look of cheerful reliability. But it was her dancing black eyes that fascinated us. They were large and perfectly round, and resembled the luscious black cherries that the grocer has polished to put in the very front of the window. You couldn't resist them. And that Katish definitely could cook was immediately apparent. "Gosh! I'll bet Aunt Martha didn't know that Katish was such a good cook!" Bub speculated unkindly as he bit into a piece of creamy cheese cake. "She probably thought she'd feed us on raw carrots and such junk." Bub's resentment had been considerably softened by Mother's announcement that he wouldn't have to go to dancing school any longer. Even Katish's small salary would make some adjustments necessary. The cheese cake that Bub munched so contentedly was the first we had ever tasted that did not have the regrettable texture of peanut butter. That cake was later to win Katish a proposal of marriage, much to Aunt Martha's chagrin. Here is the recipe; I have never found one to compare with it.
Katish's Cheese Cake:
Cover the bottom of a spring form mold with 18 pieces of finely crushed zwieback mixed with 11/2 tablespoons each of butter and sugar. Then cream 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons of sugar with 4 packages of Philadelphia cream cheese. Add 2 level tablespoons of flour, a pinch of salt, a 1-inch length of vanilla bean finely cut, and the beaten yolks of 4 eggs. Mix well and add 1 cup of sour cream. Fold in 4 stiffly beaten egg whites and pour into the crumb-lined pan. Bake in a moderate oven (350ƒ) for about one hour. The crumb crust will be thin and crisp and the cake very light and creamy.