Cousin Minnie and Esperanto
I read a fascinating article this morning about the history of Esperanto, a language invented by Polish doctor L. L. Zamenhof to promote world peace and understanding. It brought to mind one of the most remarkable people I’ve known—Minette Porter, known to our family as Cousin Minnie.
Years ago, when we moved from Nashville to Los Angeles, our only family member in that remote outpost was my mother’s first cousin, who in Nashville had been known as Minnie but as a young woman in L.A. had reinvented herself as Minette.
By the time we arrived, she was a middle-aged high school teacher living in a bungalow court in the Los Feliz district, a few doors down from her close friend, Iva Lou Kellogg. Here’s a photo of her standing next to me on my high school graduation day.
Cousin Minnie taught Spanish and French, but that's a little bit like saying that Madame Curie fooled around in the science lab. Her life was filled to the brim with languages, which she viewed as keys to world cultures and their diverse, enchanting peoples. She was a devoted supporter of the United Nations and a long-time member of the Unitarian Church.
Inevitably, she learned about Esperanto, quickly mastered it, and began to correspond with Esperantists around the world. Each summer she would travel to visit them in Beirut, Istanbul, and other places we didn’t know about and had never dreamed of.
On returning, she would come to see us, bringing gifts from her travels, along with slide shows that, to my siblings and me, seemed endless. We would roll our eyes, not realizing that we were sharing the room with a marvel.
Every month or two, she would pick up my brother, sister, or me to help her with a list of household tasks. Looking back on those afternoons, I recall cleaning windows and dusting shelves, but mostly I remember our conversations, in which she would quiz me on world events and try out Spanish phrases to see if I could decipher them.
By the time I started college, Cousin Minnie had retired to do more traveling. Since she no longer needed her typewriter, she gave it to me. In a previous newsletter, I wrote about that beautiful machine and what it has meant to me.
This morning, reading the Esperanto article, I thought about the war in Ukraine. I pondered the way Beirut was decimated since her visits and now is being rebuilt. I remembered the promise of the United Nations. And the image of Cousin Minnie came rushing back to me—smiling, teaching, reaching out.
When I was young, I didn’t appreciate her. I’m not sure I loved her. Now I do.