Sunday Dinners

When I was in college in the late ’70s, one of my friends whose family lived in the town would bribe me to go to his Baptist church’s Sunday school for young adults by promising Sunday dinner at his grandmother’s house.  I wasn’t much of a hard party-er on Saturday nights, so it was no hardship to get up for Sunday school.  And it was worth it for the Sunday dinner.

Ron’s grandmother, Dodi, was a tiny woman somewhere in her late seventies.  She wore thick glasses and was hard of hearing.  She lived alone in a small house in a neighborhood that was on its way down, but still had a number of working-class people living there in rows of identical houses.  Dodi spent her entire week shopping for and preparing Sunday dinner for her family and whatever friends they brought along.  Usually the crowd was at least six people, and sometimes as many as eight or ten.

Dodi’s income was small, so she clipped coupons and watched the grocery store circulars in the paper, and made her plans.  She didn’t drive.  Sometimes one of her grandchildren would take her shopping, but often she took the bus to the grocery store and back.

After Sunday school and church we would go over to her house around noon for dinner.  Her meals always featured several dishes of classic Southern food like fried chicken and mashed potatoes, green beans, biscuits, or ham, or meatloaf, and casseroles from Good Housekeeping or recipes in the newspaper.  Sometimes there was a Jello salad, a favorite treat for women of her generation.  There was always pie or cake for dessert.  It was plain food but always delicious to me.  As I recall, we served ourselves buffet-style and ate in the kitchen if the group was smaller.  I remember a linoleum floor and white metal cabinets.

Her daughter or one of the grandchildren invariably complained about something she’d cooked.  They made fun of her because she couldn’t hear, and because all she talked about was the shopping she’d done and how much she’d saved with her coupons and bargain-hunting.  She just laughed at what they said.  I think it hurt my feelings more than it hurt hers, but maybe she just couldn’t hear what they were saying.

I wondered, why does she go to so much trouble?  She was old and she had to be tired from trudging back and forth with groceries and doing all that cooking.  It’s taken me years to understand why.  She wanted to see her family, pure and simple, and making a meal was a sure way to get them to come.  Cooking for her was how she showed her love.  Planning and making the meal every week gave her something to do and something to look forward to.  It was an event she could count on.

Four or five years later she developed dementia, and the Sunday dinners went away, never to come back.  No one else in the family stepped up to carry them on, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Photo credit:  Caitriana Nicholson

Snow and Spring

We’re feeling a little battered up here by our fourth nor’easter in three weeks.  It adds insult to injury that it’s snowing on the second day of spring.  At least the daffodils and tulips haven’t started to bloom yet, so they aren’t freezing or covered with snow.

This time of year I long for bright colors and warmth.  Too many months of black and white and gray make spring seem even further away.  Maybe it’s time to make an Easter basket and pretend the snow isn’t there.

My mother loved dyeing eggs, in the most vivid shades possible.  She’d dip them until they were deep purple or robin’s egg blue.  No pastels for her!  She also loved to shop for my Easter basket.  She knew I loved stuffed animals, so every year I got one along with the chocolate rabbit and the other candy in my basket.  She still made Easter baskets for me when I was in high school.

Mother was also a fan of the elaborate cakes featured in Good Housekeeping and other “women’s magazines” for holidays.  One year she tried to duplicate one for Easter that used tiered cake pans (like a wedding cake), decorated with coconut nests dyed green and jelly beans for Easter eggs.  I think the cake must have been too “short” (too much butter/shortening) because the layers crumbled as she iced it.  It ended up looking like a mountain with coconut nests clinging to the sides.

My nephew and I told her it was pretty and ate big slices when she cut it.  And it was delicious!  It just didn’t look like the magazine picture.

I wish you and yours the colors of Easter eggs, the sweetness of chocolate, and lots of spring flowers!

Not a Day Goes By

My father has started appearing in my dreams lately.  That hasn’t happened for a long time, and is a sure sign that I’m upset about something and looking for safety and security.  When Daddy is in a dream, he’s usually watching from the sidelines; he doesn’t take action.  I guess even my subconscious knows that he’s been gone a long time.  But

mother-and-daddy[2]
Mother and Daddy at home on the farm
that longing to feel safe and taken care of  will never go away, however old I may get.

I just realized today, Father’s Day, that Daddy died 40 years ago.  Forty years!  And I’m nearly the age that he was when he died of a sudden heart attack, chopping wood in the back yard at the farm.  It was hard to be young in a crazy time without his presence.  Sometimes I wonder how much he would have liked the adult I became.  I’m pretty sure he would have disapproved of many of the choices I made.  But I am sure he would never have stopped loving me.

I want to remember the good things, the tiny jewel-like memories that still remain:  Daddy taking me to the department store (McClellan’s) and buying the doll I had wanted for so long, a small one in a green dress; Daddy standing with a group of uncles and cousins at a relative’s wake (we called it “receiving friends”) and laughing at Uncle Fatty’s jokes; Daddy coming in from the fields for lunch and drinking sweetened iced tea from a giant glass, which I still have.  His khaki work clothes, how hard he had to scrub his hands with Lava soap  to get the dirt and grease off from working in the fields or at Uncle Preston’s garage.  Watching our black and white TV in the dark while he smoked a cigarette.

I miss him every day.  I’m sending out my love to him, and to all the fathers and uncles and brothers and grandpas who are father figures for children everywhere.  Happy Father’s Day!

 

Snow Days

We had a snow day here in New York on Thursday.  The city that never sleeps rarely shuts down, but the kids did get a day off from school.  I took a PTO day from work and avoided a snowy, icy commute.  It was nice to have a day at home, but I don’t have the enthusiasm for snow days that I did as a child.

Snow days were rare where we lived in Tennessee.  We usually got ice storms and just a little snow, maybe twice in the winter.  The state of the roads decided whether the schoolsnow-day buses could run.  Every time the weather forecast called for sleet or snow, I did a “snow dance” in the living room in front of the TV. Waiting for the school bus on a country road in the dark and cold of winter was not my idea of fun, and I was thrilled whenever we didn’t have to go to school.

Snow days were actually cozy as long as the power didn’t go out.  Ice on the trees often meant broken branches and downed power lines.  We had a wood-burning stove in the garage for emergencies like that.  Daddy made sure we always had a stack of wood split before winter came so we were prepared.  Snow days were a little bit of a break for him when he was a school bus driver, although he always had to feed the cows in the winter, no matter what the weather.

I remember one storm where we were out of school for two or three days on account of the ice.  When the roads began to clear, Daddy drove Mother and me up to my aunt and uncle’s house on the main road.  Aunt Eunice had made her version of spaghetti for lunch.  Friends of Italian descent, make sure you’re sitting down when you read this!  It involved ground beef and canned tomatoes, and was cooked in a crock pot.  That was the only spaghetti and meat sauce I ever had before I went to college.  It was a little greasy–I guess that was the ground beef!

After lunch, the adults played Rook, a card game that doesn’t have face cards.  They were brought up that normal playing cards were sinful, so Rook was the game of choice.  They would laugh and joke, and I read a book.

Daddy had an inspiration one snow day when I was in high school.  He took the hood off an old car which was no longer working, turned it upside down, and fixed it to the back of his tractor with a chain.  “Baby doll, you want to ride?” he asked me.  I enthusiastically jumped in, and he hauled me up and down the road on that car hood sled.  My cousins Dale and Don asked to borrow it when we were done, and Daddy unhooked it from the tractor.  They pushed it off a hill in their yard and jumped on board.  It was impossible to steer, so they ran straight into a tree.  One of them broke his arm–I think it was Don.

Share some memories of your snow days!

Where Did the Summer Go?

When I was a child in Tennessee, summer started by Memorial Day and ended around the third week of August when we went back to school.  My elementary school was not air conditioned, and we sweltered in class until at least the middle of September.  In those badPlaid_1950s_Shirtwaist_dress old days girls were not allowed to wear pants or shorts to school.  Some clever retailer invented “dark cotton” dresses, knee-length dresses in plaids and fall colors but made of lightweight cotton so you didn’t faint in the heat.  Those dresses did duty until well into October with a light sweater if needed.  Often it wasn’t, and even Halloween was still warm weather.  Patent leather shoes and white anklets completed a girl’s school wardrobe, which we went shopping for in the dog days of August.

Summer here doesn’t seem to end until mid-September.  The kids are back to school after Labor Day, but the outdoor grill at the boat club on the Hudson hangs on for a few more weekends, weather permitting.  Yet all the free outdoor concerts and Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival are done by Labor Day weekend.  And I can see the days getting shorter as we move toward the autumnal equinox.

Where did the summer go?  Mine seems shorter than usual to me because I started a new job and did not take a vacation.  That said, I did do some of my favorite summer things:  went to the Jazz Forum Arts concerts at Lyndhurst a few times (two more opportunities, weather permitting); had picnics at those concerts with friends, and a lavish French-style picnic with a group of gourmet friends; went to Hudson Valley Shakespeare twice; and saw Justin Peck’s Dance Americana at Kykuit, a truly magical evening.  I also saw a dance performance at the Lincoln Center Festival with a new friend from the new job.  And there were a few dinners and get-togethers with friends, as well as time to collapse on the couch and read a good book (ok, not much time for that!)

I’m going to meet up with my sisters on Labor Day weekend, so the summer will end with a family note.  I’m determined to enjoy these last few weeks, especially when the heat wave breaks.  I hope you are all enjoying the summer and will have a smooth transition into the fall.

 

Mother’s Irises

The iris is the state flower of Tennessee, where I grew up.  The classic color is purple, but my mother planted some unusual, beautiful ones on our farm.  In addition to purple, there Iris from Mother's bulbswere peach-colored, yellow, and white ones.  They were much bigger than the usual irises, almost like the orchid corsages you would wear to church on Easter Sunday.

I don’t remember where she got the starts for them.  Irises grow from roots called rhizomes that spread out as they grow.  When they get too thick, they stop blooming, so you have to thin them out periodically.  Someone gave Mother the starts and she planted them in the yard beside the house.  They grew and grew, blooming copiously every year.  She thinned them and gave some to my sister Sherrie, who planted the starts at her house.

Years later the irises at Sherrie’s house got too thick, so she thinned them and gave starts to our niece Judy.  Judy planted them at her house, and took starts with her again when she moved.  Judy also planted some at her mother’s house.  She sent me a photo last week, the one you see above–the irises are still blooming, still growing, years after my mother passed away.  The sight of that iris took me back to the rows of flowers blooming bravely in the back yard, so top-heavy that the wind or rain would easily beat them to the ground.  They bloomed in April in Tennessee, but are just opening now in cooler northern climes.

Mother loved her flowers, and irises always remind me of her.  Happy Mothers Day to all.

Shall We Dance?

I went to a ballroom dance party last weekend with some friends.  This is not something I would normally do, but the party was sponsored by a local organization and was held by the local Fred Astaire Dance Studio.  It was a Saturday night, and I felt, why not?  Whendance-hustle1 you’re not a kid out clubbing, one gets few opportunities to dance.

The Fred Astaire instructors give these parties for their clients every month or so, so they knew how to accommodate both experienced dancers and people with two left feet.  I learned some new things (the rumba) and remembered some I had forgotten.

It came back to me in a rush that I had taken “social dance” classes before.  When I was in business school, I took free social dance classes to get away from the tension and have some fun.  Back then we did the fox trot (which I forgot completely),waltz, cha cha, Charleston, and the hustle and the Latin hustle.  The hustle stood me in good stead until disco died.  I taught it to my late boyfriend, who was a big fan of the Latin hustle despite his inability to stick to the beat.

After the party I felt really sad.  I had remembered how we used to roll up the rug in the living room of my boyfriend’s apartment and practice the hustle to Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album or the Beegees.  His law school gave a “Sleazy Party” and we showed up dressed as quintessential disco dancers, me in a tight blue disco dress with spaghetti straps and him in flared pants and platform shoes.  He was convinced we were the best dancers on the floor.

It was a time of endless potential and limitless ambition.  We danced with abandon and knew the future was ours.

Some of the dancers at the party Saturday night had been around for the hustle in its heyday, too, and they swung and stepped with enthusiasm.  The ballroom version of the hustle is more complex, but it’s based on the same old steps, as one of the teachers commented.  “Keep your steps small and you can stay with the beat,” he said.  I remember running in high heels on the dance floor to keep up with my partner’s energetic swings in the past.

Wish I could still fit in that disco dress!

 

 

Cowboys in Tuscany

My latest post brought this one to mind. What a great trip that was!

writinghersense

During the summer of 2001, eight of us friends rented a villa outside Panzano, Italy on a working farm.  The owners lived in the other wing of the house and grew grapes and olives.  They also kept a couple of  horses, Oskar and Luna, for riding. Our group enjoyed looking at the rolling hills,  watching the horses graze while we sat on the flagstone terrace as the sun set,  and talking until late at night under the stars.  The villa was our home base for a week while we explored Siena, Florence (Firenze), Montalcino, Montepulciano, and Panzano itself, which had charming restaurants and a renowned shoe-maker.  We also cooked a lot of our meals and went through a ridiculous amount of the local wine.

One day half the group went to San Gimignano to see the sights.  The rest of us decided to have a lazy day at the villa’s pool.  Sally had broken…

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A Taste of Italian Honey

Do you ever have one of those fits where you have to have something sweet, and there’s nothing in the house?  I try to keep temptation at bay by not buying cookies, candy, ice cream or other treats.  But every once in a while I get desperate, and that means a frantic search through the kitchen for something to satisfy the urge.

A couple of months ago I was rummaging in the cabinet and found a jar of honey which Imonte_oliveto_maggiore had forgotten about.  The label read, “Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Monaci Benedettini Olivetani, Miele, Fioritura Prevalente.”  All of a sudden it came back to me.  I bought this jar of honey during a trip to Italy in the summer of 2001.  It had never been opened.  So I opened it and spread some on a piece of bread.  It had darkened a bit, but was not crystallized at all.  I took a bite.

I tasted flowers, and I saw the landscape–rugged, dry, ridges topped with cypress trees.  We were in the “badlands” south of Siena, and I remember feeling we were at a high elevation, even though it wasn’t that high above sea level.  The abbey was completed in the early 16th century, and it is still a monastery to this day.  There were beautiful, richly-colored frescoes which looked as if they had recently been restored.  Despite a few busloads of tourists, the cloisters were peaceful and calm.

A good-natured monk in a white habit was on duty in the gift shop.  They sold a a few things which they produced, like the honey, and I think I remember a few tacky religious souvenirs.    I bought the honey and carried it safely home in my carry-on bag, in those innocent days before 9/11.  When I tasted it 14 years later, I saw wildflowers blowing on those dry ridges and felt the peace of the place again.

Now if I can just stop eating the honey!  Nearly half the jar is gone.  And when it’s gone, the memory may go, too.

The Dog Days of Summer

These hot August days remind me of Chico, the dog we had when I was in college and for several years after.  Chico was a German shepherd mix that I brought home from Knoxville as a tiny puppy.  He lived in a shoe box under my bed in the dorm for a few days, until I

Best friend in college!  Ok, Sallie was too.
Best friend in college! Ok, Sallie was too.

could get him home to the farm.  Despite being so young he didn’t know how to eat food yet, he persevered and grew into a 100-pound dog (with much care from Mother and Daddy).

Although I was away most of the time at school, he seemed to never forget that I was the one who rescued him, and he was devoted to me.  That devotion was tested to the extreme when I tried to get a tan during the summer break.

Tanning was a bad idea from the word go.  I had dark hair, but was very pale and had light hazel eyes, sure signs of a skin cancer magnet.  However, nobody knew about those things back in the day, and every teenage girl had to have a tan.  I would “lay out” on a collapsible chaise lounge on the concrete walkway in front of our house on a hot day, covering myself in SPF8 Coppertone (the highest strength then!) and shaking water on from Mother’s sprinkle bottle to cool off.

Chico was determined to be as close to me as possible, so he would lie in the sun next to my chair, panting.  This made him miserable, so his next move was to get underneath the chair in the small patch of shade.  That made me miserable, having a big, hot dog sweating under the chair, so I made him move.  He retreated to the shade at the side of the house, panting until he cooled down some.  Then the cycle repeated until we were both too hot to bear it, and I went in the air-conditioned house.

To this day, when I hear the drone of cidadas (dry flies, we called them) and the hum of unit air conditioners, I’m carried back to the young, skinny me, resolutely turning pink in pursuit of fashion, and that oversized, black-and-tan German shepherd panting in the sun.  All he ever got out of it besides my company was Nehi Orange, which he learned to drink from the bottle.