Making a Living
(This post is from a Katrina prompt, the ladder).
When I was fifteen and my boyfriend was eighteen, we moved to Yakima, Washington, part of America’s Fruit Basket, where picking fruit is an almost year-round affair. This fertile stretch of Washington valleys produces much of the country’s apples, pears, and stone fruit. Back then, most of this fruit was harvested by migrant workers who followed the harvests. They made enough to live on. Certainly we could do the same.
He had enrolled in an auto mechanic certification program at Yakima Valley College, and I went to high school. That next June, I’d finished tenth grade and his two-year program had let out for the summer. We lived on very small monthly draws from a trust fund his wealthy grandparents had set up for him at birth and whatever else we could patch together; babysitting for me, pumping gas for him. We were young, alone, and very poor.
So we thought it was time to make some real money by picking fruit.
Reporting for Duty
I’m not sure how you signed up or were dispatched for fruit picking, but the boyfriend handled that part of it and we showed up at a farm at 6 AM, ready to pick cherries. We were met by the orchard owners, an older married couple. They were White, and so were we (well, the bf was actually mixed race, but that’s another blog post).
Everyone else was from somewhere south of the US border. The youngest pickers were maybe five years old. Everyone got buckets that hung by straps around our necks and rested against our stomachs. “Don’t fall on those,” we were warned. “You’ll break your back.” Okay, then. We each took a wooden orchard ladder and went to work.
Orchard ladders are wide at the bottom, narrowing at the top, and have one leg. They are also known as tripod ladders or apple ladders. I looked them up on the internet to find the correct terminology, and discovered they are all made of aluminum now. I found a weathered wood version for sale on 1st Dibs for over two thousand dollars. Those orchard owners could have really cleaned up, because their wooden ladders felt antique fifty years ago.
I’m really not much for ladders in general. We decided that I would pick from the ground and the boyfriend would handle the ladder work. He was a young creature of muscle and bone, and clambered up with no problem. When his rickety ladder swayed out from under him, he simply grabbed a tree limb and hung there until I could reposition that wobbly back ladder leg, poking into the soft earth below the tree.
Learning the Ropes
Picking fruit requires skill and stamina, and I basically had neither. We were a source of amusement to our fellow pickers, and they were a source of valuable help to us. After watching me trying and failing to do anything right, a kindly man showed me exactly how to snap the cherries off in bunches.
Later, a kindly woman came over and told me to make sure I was picking in in the shade. Sun made the stems pliant. They snapped better when they were cooler. The children just laughed at us, but I suppose even that was kindly. In its way.
You were supposed to let anything without a stem fall. If you put too many stemless cherries in your bucket, the grower could reject it. I picked thoroughly but slowly, because I didn’t want my bucket to be rejected. I really don’t handle rejection of any kind very well at all.
The boyfriend continued to maneuver the trees like he was born to it, but he didn’t pick much more than I did. Well, he might have, but in my memory, he didn’t. When the lunch break came, I checked my tally. I’d picked half as many buckets as the five year-olds.
Taking a Break, and Making a Break For It.
The bf went to our car to get our lunch, and I asked the wife where the bathroom was. She expressed great embarrassment that I would have to use the worker facilities. I reassured her that was fine. I was a worker, right? But I understood her embarrassment when I saw those facilities. It was all concrete and filth. Asking an animal to use that bathroom would have been an insult to the animal.
I was most insulted by a hand-lettered cardboard sign advising me to “BE CLENE.”
We picked for a week (maybe less) and made very little money compared to our fellow workers. They earned the big bucks, as well as my deep respect for their skill and stamina. Toward the end of that week, I got a letter (we never had a phone in Yakima) from my parents asking if we’d come to Missoula and help them with their business of making and selling miniature furniture. They were way behind with their orders.
The boyfriend could run a saw and I could sew. We could both pack boxes. Best of all, there were no ladders. So, we packed up the cats, drove through passes, and came to Missoula, where we stayed for an entire month (and I learned to ride a bike). I might have been hopeless at picking cherries, but I could stuff a tiny sofa like a pro. And there were absolutely no ladders.
Back to work
(from a Katrina prompt, The Path)
When I was 37, I started working at a business-to-business telemarketing office that has long since gone out of business. Because of that, and because I name no names, I feel I can write honestly about what went on there. Also, the owner got married, closed the business, and moved to a sunny retirement state twenty years ago. I’m out of her reach and she’s out of mine. Mostly.
Anyway, the office was located off Barbur Boulevard/Highway 99 on a sliver of land between 99 and I5 South, overlooking South Terwilliger. This is a hilly area. The building had a tall front entrance, but I would always walk around the building and scramble up a gravel path to the back entrance.
It’s hard to remember why I chose this route. I have a dim memory that this shortcut knocked off a set of stairs. I’m lazy about stairs and always have been, so this is possible. But it’s just as likely that I did this to avoid the smokers who congregated out front.
There was a man and two women who stood out there discussing “politics” and aggressively flirting with each other in ways that were downright graphic. The man liked to share details of his sex life, which was bad enough, but the women (one of them an ex-con, the other an ex-logger) both had unfortunate teeth and eating disorders. They were always angling to get their skinny limbs next to each other for size comparison.
You can see why I might bypass.
My preference for the back entrance prefigured my initial attitude towards working at this office. I quietly did my own thing, so it took some time for me to realize that the owner of this company yelled at her employees, especially one woman with a pronounced lisp. The owner would summon this employee into her office, close the door, and let that person have it over, I don’t know, like seven second pauses between calls, or too-frequent bathroom breaks, or two-minute conversations on company time. Once her bile was expelled, the door would open and disgorge a bile-covered, shuffling, often sniffling employee, who was then expected to go back to a desk and produce, produce, produce.
For some reason, she never yelled at me.
In addition to running her telemarketing business and berating her employees, the owner also offered business consulting services. I sat in on a few of her presentations to small business owners about how to improve their sales. Her answer was always the same: they needed to hire a business-to-business telemarketing agency. She just happened to own one of those.
Once she got the contract, skilled marketers like me (a single mother with a high school diploma who had not worked in an office since she was twenty) would deliver results. Leads. Sales. Signups. You name it, we’d give it the best effort that $8.00 an hour could buy.
It was grift at its finest.
Why I stayed
First on the list was ease. The office itself was close to my home. The hours aligned with my kids’ school schedules. I was paid more than I earned at the mall. I wasn’t on my feet all day.
Second on the list was that I learned how to use a computer here. I had no idea how to do that when I started, none. I started on an old DOS based program. Within months, I almost Windows-literate. I was also learning the intricacies of business-to-business telemarketing—meeting with clients, writing scripts, assigning campaigns, analyzing data and then writing reports that blame the databases for the abject failure of all campaigns to achieve promised results—that stuff. For this, I received trifling raises and unofficial promotions.
Third, and perhaps most important to me, there were good people in this office. We had fun. Sometimes, when the boss was out on a sales call, we frisked and gamboled like giddy lambs, throwing Kush balls at each other and comparing Solitaire scores. Once, I wrote the office manager a check for a million dollars so he would mow my overgrown lawn (he mowed the lawn but never cashed it). One of our seasonal employees was incredibly intelligent (she’s one of two people I know who have been on Jeopardy). I became friends with another woman, enough to have her to my home off and on for a year. You can find her in the Gentry books (hint: she’s an English major).
So I stayed.
I’d been there just over a year when the owner called me into her office, sat me down, and offered me an exciting opportunity. She wanted me to join her in the consulting part of her endeavor. I’d be out there at her side, doing consultations and drumming up business. According to her, I’d be a natural.
In the six weeks between when I left this office and when I started school, I wrote the screenplay that became my first novel, which quickly led to my second, and so on. At the end of the first book, Gentry has failed everyone and God, and he hates himself for it. He would need to be punishing himself in the second book.
I had an idea what that punishment might look like.
I remember jotting down a page of notes about the second book, back when I was still trying to hide the fact that I was writing from everyone. Most new writers do this. You don’t want anyone to know about your new secret addiction, so you hide it and lie about it because what if someone found out that you were writing???
Anyway, as I made notes, I was cackling. It was fun to imagine how terrible an office would be for Gentry. An assault and an affront and a perfect way to punish himself for his self-perceived transgressions in Oregon.
His purgatorial workplace held a sad woman who lisped, a creepy guy who said gross things, and Fanny, of course. Gentry was a beleaguered IT guy who committed small acts of secret rebellion. My characters were constantly berated by the owner of the company, who summoned them one after another for a good cleansing yelling session about how useless they were. My favorite bit was when Gentry summarized the PTO/health insurance benefits offered by his employer.
How can I explain my benefit package to Mike? It’s a complicated arrangement of smoke and mirrors, designed to give the illusion of benefits. I have health leave as long as I never get sick. I lose all accrued personal time off if I ever take any. I’m paid by the hour if I work less than forty hours a week, switching immediately to salary the moment I put in an hour over that. “Mike, I’m told that I have benefits, but I have no retirement, no life insurance, no dental, no vision, and my health insurance covers no prescriptions, no physicals and no illnesses.”
This was absolutely accurate.
Were there parallels? Clearly, yes. But my fictional office was in Oklahoma, not Oregon. I assumed I was safe, even though much of what I used would be familiar to anyone who had worked there. I couldn’t help myself. And this book has been my favorite of all the Gentry books, right up until I finished the fifth one.
I wrote a lot of first drafts while finishing my degree at Portland State. I mistook them for finished novels, but thankfully I graduated with honors and went to work in a different type of business. One that creates products, as opposed to grift. My company offers employee benefits, as opposed to that stuff I described earlier. I’ve worked there for over twenty years.
My office is downtown. When I take the freeway home, I pass the old building where I learned about B2B telemarketing. It’s right there, and perpetually hung with “FOR LEASE” banners. How could I miss it?
But sometimes, I drive right past without a glance. I’m thinking about my day, or singing too loudly, and I don’t even see it. Other times, I look over toward that back entrance and I swear, I can see myself as I was back then. A much younger me, dressed in the office attire of the day. A pastel striped top. A pale pink skirt. White pumps with one-inch heels, and pantyhose, by god, I used to wear pantyhose. I look like Easter Sunday, 1998.
But those one-inch heels dig into the gravel as I scramble up that path, on my way to wherever it is I’m going.
Another Roadside Attraction, and another, and another…
South Dakota is full of roadside attractions, advertised with tempting billboards that tout the wonders of the Prairie Dog Town, Wall Drug, The Dinosaur Park…it goes on. As children, the three of us were whisked past one after another, with a parent issuing the dismissive, “It’s a tourist trap,” whenever one of us begged to stop.
This did not stop us from begging.
Both my mother and my birth father were born in South Dakota in the 1930s. No doubt they were repeating the highway mantras of their own childhoods. I doubt it would ever have occurred to my grandparents to stop at some dusty place on the prairie. The Depression and wartime budgets of the Odlands and the Zwebers didn’t include spending good money to see tunnels full of crop-eating pests. They had neither time nor cash to waste in an old storefront full of cheaply made souvenirs that would fall apart on the way home.
Still, from the backseat of whatever large American car we were riding in, these places looked like meccas of wonder to my sister, my brother and me. Wall Drug, with its endless roadside couplet signs offering free ice water and nickel coffee, especially beckoned. But the parents would roar past, shaking their heads. No time, no patience, no way.
When things change…
Divorce is a strange thing. It might be a source of lifelong trauma in the long run, but in the short run, it can be an enormous liberation. When my mother left an unhappy marriage after nine years, she entered a personal renaissance. She stood prouder, got a little slimmer, raised her hair to beehive heights, and traded in her glasses for something more fashionable. She moved us from Claremont (population 50) to Aberdeen (population 20,000). This was a considerable change. She re-enrolled at Northern and finished her degree. And she decided to take us on a vacation.
She had the best idea.
Mom would rent a trailer large enough to accommodate her, our babysitter Maryanne, and us three kids. We would tow the trailer behind our current car, a tank of a ’57 Buick (sky blue, white top, and chrome trim).
We would stay in a different KOA campground each night, and we would would stop at every single roadside attraction, except one. By group vote, we skipped the Bible park–as good little Christian Scientists, that would have been an overload of graven images, which were verboten to us. Aside from that, we would leave no billboard ignored on our quest to visit every tourist trap in the Dakotas. And each one of us received five dollars spending money.
In 1968, that was a LOT of money.
My impressions of most places are fleeting. The Reptile Gardens? That place smelled terrible. We walked on wooden paths through a swampy enclosure. I found most of the animals repellant and yet…interesting. Snakes and gators have never been my thing, but there were plenty of them. The Prairie Dog Town? With my love of small furred critters, you’d have thought this would have made an impression, but I have none. I don’t even remember seeing the gigantic cement prairie dog that still stands there today.
The biggest let down was the Petrified Forest. In my eight year-old mind, I expected, you know, a forest. We didn’t have those in the part of South Dakota where I lived, so I leaned on children’s literature. I was expecting something like the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, but turned to stone, with stone branches and stone leaves. I didn’t expect them to talk, but I did expect the to be standing. But the “forest” was nothing more than a large expanse of dirt and gravel, upon which were scattered fragments and chunks of petrified wood.
But some attractions were GREAT!
The dinosaur park in Rapid City was fun and free. We have a few photos of us kids there, and we’re smiling. The dinosaurs were smooth and green, like the Sinclair dinosaur, so of course we assumed they were scientifically accurate. I have pictures of us somewhere and might add them, but not today.
In 1968, there was a gravel parking lot, a gift shop with a panoramic view of the memorial, and that was about it. That was plenty for me. I looked out the window for a while, recognizing and admiring three of the four presidents. Then I found a little naked souvenir doll more suited to Hawaii than South Dakota, and took her right up to the cash register.
The big finale!
On the way home, we finally stopped at Wall Drug. Back then, it was just a short stretch of Old West-appearing storefronts. To get your free ice water, you went behind the store to a little pump and helped yourself. I’m not sure where the nickel coffee was dispensed, but it was somewhere. You could smell it. I don’t recall any actual drugstore merchandise, as in home remedies or a pharmacist’s counter, but apparently they have always been there, too.
What I do remember is touristy crap galore. The store was a wonder. I wish I had photos from back in the day, but I took a few in 2015 when I went back. Taxidermy dominated the walls, hung with every dead animal you could imagine and a few you couldn’t, like the jackalope.
It even had animatronic tableau. I stood for too long in front of some weird looking robot cowboys doing rope tricks while their eyes spun. When I went back in 2015, these were still there and operational. Sadly I don’t have a video, but here are some stills.
I also remember putting a nickel in a slot so a robotic cowboy would say “Draw, Pardner!” and fire his gun at me. I couldn’t find him, but here is General George Custer.
Thrilling stuff. But not as thrilling as what I bought with the money that remained to me. I wanted a beaded necklace with a tiny Native American on it, but that was rich, and I’d already spent part of the five so I had to be discriminating. I selected an onyx egg, an onyx “worry stone,” a vial of agate crumbs, and a pure white rabbit pelt. That was the end of my five dollars.
I kept that pelt long after I let the rocks go. I knew it was the skin of some poor rabbit. Somehow that didn’t bother me. I loved how soft it was, how white. And then, in the eighth grade, I made it into a purse that eventually disappeared. But for years, it was my comfort. I would take it out and stroke it, soothing as petting a cat, and remember that trip.
It was our first family vacation, and our last. And it was perfect.
No regrets? Of course I have regrets! Regrets in harmony.
I have a few regrets in this life, and not recording some songs in harmony with my siblings is absolutely one of them. I’m speaking of the original three siblings: myself (youngest), my sister (middle) and my Brother Steve (oldest). At my mother’s parties in Aberdeen, South Dakota, my sister and I used to bring down the house with our childish rendition of “Those Were the Days, My Friend.” The three of us together graduated from car-trip singalongs to rousing a crowd with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1971 at a political rally in Booneville, Arkansas. Despite the heights of our harmonic glory during the refrain, we remained staunchly liberal, like our parents, and we did not become the next Von Trapps, though my sister and brother were in a band together in the 80s (it wasn’t particularly harmonious).
Harmony came easier to my brother and me. We dueted constantly from about 1974 on, at home and at parties. It was our thing. Somehow, we never got a moment of it on tape. I regret that.
The way sibling voices blend moves me. Even when the voices are very different from each other, there’s alchemy in how they come together, constant infinitesimal adjustments to smooth the harmonies. I believe this is done by instinct rather than decision. Here are a few of my favorites, almost all of which fall into the country category. And please note, even though these are sister acts, I sang far more with my older brother than with anyone else. I miss you, Brother Steve.
I’m all for the rename. But in the Dixie days, the harmonies of sisters Martie and Emily provided a soft grounding for Natalie Maines’ forceful lead vocals. This band has been through the wringer both professionally and personally, andthey are still together. Gaslighter is a BRILLIANT record/song/video, but I like these earlier songs. Also, that fiddle, and the banjo. I mean…
Talk about country! I first learned about the Browns while reading Nashville Chrome by Rick Bass. I had no memory of the Browns, and thought I was reading a not-so-good novel with real characters like Elvis Presley dropped in. At some point I began to understand that, yes, this was a not-so-good novel, but the Browns were real. At one time, they were one of the most popular musical acts in the country world. Bass described how they twanged and arced and hung in the air, blending and bending together like the tones of a bandsaw. I wanted to hear their voices. I ordered a CD, which took months to reach me. When it finally arrived, I played it obsessively.
Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne
These sisters have intense, rich voices. Shelby’s is full of emotional punch and power, and Allison’s is low and heartfelt, as big as the sky. I couldn’t prefer one over the other. Each sister has a record that sits on my all-time favorites list (Shelby’s Temptation, Allison’s The Hardest Part). They join each other onstage now and then, and have one joint project, Not Dark Yet. Individually, they are powerhouses. Together, they are sublime. The video below gives me constant shivers from beginning to end.
That’s pretty much perfection, in my book. Lest you think these sisters do not rock, here you go:
I have one CD by SheDAISY, their debut “The Whole SheBang”, and that appears to be enough. I have never bought or even listened to another. I’ve been playing this record on car trips since the year 2000 and still love it. It’s straightforward commercial country done right. I have no idea if they’re still performing together, but the harmonies these three sisters create are grand, swooping, impossible to tease apart. I’m going to post two examples and I hope you listen more than watch.
The first one, “Little Goodbyes” is such a funny song, very country pop, but the video is of the “beautiful women make sultry faces while singing” variety. It distracts, then gets old.
“This Woman Needs” is a HEARTBREAKER ballad and has hair-raising shivery harmonies. It’s also an oddly crappy video with too many jump cuts. But it’s a gorgeous song.
Okay, finally, a sister act that is not country at all. My kids told me about these three sisters long before I actually heard them. “Mom, you’d love Haim.” “Mom, have you ever heard Haim?” “Mom, I think you’d like Haim.” I finally encountered them as actors in Licorice Pizza. This led to watching the video below and while watching it, I fell hard. Este, Danielle, and Alana (who starred in the movie) are so…talented, striking, odd, fascinating. They have quite different voices but listen to them blend into something special! And watch the whole thing because it builds in a wonderfully strange and subtle way. When did they film this, and how did they do it, and could they be any more cool?
I played this for my five year-old grandson and he was transfixed. He remarked, “They all have the same shoes.” He’s right. They sure do.
Did I miss anyone besides the Jacksons (can’t/won’t talk about them, it makes me too sad)? Because I’m sure I missed some people. Let me know in comments.
Our bedroom was an attic, probably 32 feet in length, and seven or eight feet wide. A chimney neatly bisected the space, so our dad installed a plywood panel next to it, just wide enough for the heads of our twin beds. There was no door between us. We each had our own room, but slept with heads only inches apart. I waited for my sister to ask, “Do you want to play?” I always said yes. We would lay in the dark and spin out our fantastical imaginary worlds for hours.
Sometimes I wondered. Would we ever stop our childhood play?
Kids always play.
When we were younger in Claremont and then Aberdeen, we mostly played with toys, but purely imaginative play was on the roster quite early. My brother and sister started by pretending to be the Beatles. I joined in as soon as I was allowed to. I couldn’t wait to be Ringo. My brother was John, my sister was George, and no one wanted to be Paul.
This game was straightforward. While the 45 played, so did we, lip-syncing along to the lyrics and pretending to play instruments. When the song was over, so was the play. This evolved into playing at being The Monkees. I immediately claimed Davy. My sister was Mickey, and my brother was Mike. No one wanted to be Peter.
Then, the summer I was nine, we discovered “Tommy.” When you hand three musical, imaginative, socially awkward kids a record like “Tommy,” it will eventually change everything. First, laying the groundwork I guess, we learned every note of this rock opera, every single note. We even sang all the instruments. The plot was weird as hell, and none of us saw character potential in the deaf, dumb, and blind boy. But we loved the work itself, and it went to work in us.
Getting older, and playing better.
We lived in Rapid City for less than a year. Mom had moved us there to start her teaching career, and to finish it, as it turned out. She met a young Air Force captain and married him six weeks after their first date. We all moved to Edina. There, in our first Edina house, my sister met a charismatic girl named Sue. And did Sue ever have an imagination.
Sue wanted us to play Star Trek. We divvied up the characters and played plots from the show itself, or made up our own. When Sue wasn’t around, we let my brother in on the game. Steve was Spock, my sister was Doctor McCoy, and I kept up my run of short brunette men with accents by playing Ensign Chekhov. No one wanted to be Kirk.
Doesn’t everyone play Dickens?
Then, Sue and my sister saw the movie Oliver! They dragged me to it, and that was that. We entered the seamy London underground of Dickensian London and barely came up for air. We all wanted to be Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger, but there were three of us and only one of him. I didn’t ever get to be him, but there was this other pickpocket kid with reddish hair and a green cap who seemed acceptable. I could handle being him when we played. No one wanted to be Oliver.
I hate to admit it, but a big part of this game was going to the Southdale Mall and shoplifting. We were Fagin’s crew, and we had to steal. Thankfully, before any of us were apprehended, Sue’s family moved to Bellevue and we moved to another neighborhood in Edina.
This was a posh neighborhood, especially for South Dakota kids. My sister made friends, I made frenemies. My brother suffered initially, but he joined a track-car racing club where he made friends with a boy named Dave and a British kid named Chris (who would go on to lead Prince’s Paisley Park studio). My brother had real friends, he didn’t want to play. So it was my sister and I, escaping to Dickensian London and stealing at the mall on the regular.
We were never going to make a go of it in Edina, so it was time to re-invent our lives. My stepdad joined the Forest Service and adopted us so we could all have the same last name, and health benefits. A newly united family, we moved to Arkansas.
Isolation = Creativity
As I’ve written about before, the only rental we could find was a wretched little house on an abandoned farm, miles outside Booneville on red dirt roads. That isolation drove all three of us kids back to “Tommy.” We couldn’t leave that record alone. Inspired by our deep love of music and the intensity of imaginative play we’d experienced with Sue, the three of us morphed our previous endeavors into a game called “Band.”
“Band” was the best. We could literally be any musicians. Cat and I were deeply into our teen idols, and our brother had more mature musical taste. This led to some strange musical bedfellows, like John Lennon and David Cassidy. Disparities of style didn’t matter, because we were always lip-syncing to either Jefferson Airplane or The Who.
I remember one night when my parents had gone out for coffee (quite a trek, in Arkansas), and we were engrossed in our play. My sister was rolling around on the coffee table, mouthing the words to “Somebody to Love” while Steve and I backed her up on our air instruments. My parents came in quietly—or maybe not so quietly, the stereo was loud—and watched us for a moment before I saw them. The looks on their faces. I let my sister continue her bit before I broke out laughing, and then we were all roaring.
I imagine my parents were proud.
Moving to Town
A move into Booneville proper lessened our isolation. In this tiny town, which probably had a sundown law, our young lives were full of friends, school, parties, and more. Our older brother (who had outgrown our play once we left the farm) excelled academically and musically. Despite the weight that had inspired so much mockery when he arrived, he was accepted, even celebrated at Booneville High. The year I started seventh grade, he left for art school in Minneapolis.
My younger brother was a few months old at this time. My sister and I were both in high school, which started in 7th grade in Booneville. I loved changing classes, flirting with senior boys in the hallways, having an actual study hall, and singing in the high school choir. My sister was kind enough to absorb me into her friend group. We were very happy.
Even with all we had going on, my sister and I found time to spin out our worlds.
Glam rock had entered the pop culture consciousness. We might have pinned up photos of David Bowie in drag and Mick Jagger in eyeliner, but we weren’t going to use those men as characters. They were far too combustible.
We stuck to the Partridge Family and (for me) teen Jack Wild, still short with a Cockney accent, but mature. I added a new character based on Rick Springfield—the “Speak to the Sky” Rick, young, brunette, with sky-high hair and (you guessed it) an Aussie accent.
Back to the boonies.
No matter how happy my sister and I were, my parents hated Booneville. I do not blame them. They only had two couples as friends; Anne and Tom, and this extremely cool couple, Wayne and Mag. My parents were liberals, and educated, and they were claustrophobic.
So it was time for the rest of us to move again, this time to Montana. This move, toward the end of my seventh grade year, was wrenching and harsh. I transformed from a happy, active star student to a social outcast on my first day at Gallatin Gateway Elementary, by the simple act of my teacher giving me a more advanced English workbook. It wasn’t just a higher level than the other seventh graders were using. It was a higher level than the eighth graders were using.
That bit of seventh grade was over swiftly. I turned thirteen, school let out, and summer started. We were living on a ranger station, which remains the most isolated place I have ever lived. Aside from Ranger Dick and his wife Jane (who was always after us to babysit), we had no neighbors, no friends, no way to get anywhere to do anything at all. What else was there to do but play?
Since we were older, the games became sneakier. There were times we played during the day on weekends or in the summer, but mostly, we saved our imaginary world for night. There, in the dark, hidden away from the realities of daily life, our peculiar recombinations made sense.
Get on the Peace Train
Rich material arrived in the early 1970s, just begging to be incorporated. Cat Stevens transported us with his tortured, gorgeous voice. We kept the orphan thieves from Oliver! and added Cat Stevens as a grown-up version of the Artful Dodger, valiantly trying to overcome his childhood as a pickpocket.
This play had two versions, because sometimes Dodger was young and still picking pockets, and sometimes, he was a stunning troubadour pouring out his tortured soul in music. We wrote down a lot of it with Susan’s help. She still lived in Bellevue, and she and my sister traded pages all the time in the mail. One summer, Sue came out to visit us, and that was incredible. Sue brought us a present.
She brought us Jesus.
You know, the musical.
Jesus Christ Superstar landed like manna from heaven. It was kind of mature for us, seeing as how it was based on works that were thousands of years old. We were not Jesus and Judas when we played, we were the actors working on the production.
We learned this soundtrack by heart, too, and saw the movie at least a dozen times so we could learn every twitch and scowl of the actors. Neither of us knew a thing about how a movie was made, but this didn’t stop us from imagining ourselves into the Israeli desert in our dusty cotton costumes, being temperamental and difficult while the director raged.
Sadly, no one had an accent in this movie. I was Ted Neely and my sister was Carl Anderson. No one wanted to be Yvonne Elliman.
The Grand Mishmash of PF on ST.
Trying to describe our play at this point starts to sound like trying to recount a dream. It all made perfect sense to us, but you’re going to have to bear with me.
Even with the bearded hippy boys of Superstar, and the rich vein of masculine suffering offered by Cat Stevens, our favored game was called “PF on ST.” This stood for Partridge Family on Star Trek (I cracked up typing that). But we loved Star Trek, and we loved The Partridge Family, so we came up with the idea of the “Teen Academy” boarding school on board the Starship Enterprise.
We spent hours going through magazines, choosing what our characters looked like and what they would wear. Well, my sister did. She was either Keith Partridge or a character named Ceci. Ceci had an amazing teen girl wardrobe culled from the pages of Seventeen. I preferred being a boy, so I was generally either Jack Wild or Rick Springfield.
We both played independently during the day. When I felt insecure or unsafe, I would slip into character in school, as would my sister when she felt alone. I suppose if we’d had cell phones back then, we’d have texted in character, but we were reduced to writing notes.
If we wanted to play together at the dinner table, we used verbal shorthand to suggest the idea to each other. Speaking in code words, we could pick our game, announce our characters, and assign roles to our family members. Our baby brother even had roles to play.
When he came home from art school, our older brother sat at the table and knew we were playing. It drove him nuts, and we risked discovery, or even worse, mockery. So we tried to keep our play in the dark, as in, we played at night.
We would lie there, inventing romances, assigning talents, changing appearances, having long conversations and arguments in the voices of our characters. These were the happiest hours of our troubled young lives.
Embellished to the point of unrecognizable.
I wish I could remember more of the plots we spun, but in truth, they were pretty standard high school plotlines. The students would have trouble with a teacher. The students would have trouble with a Star Fleet officer. The students would have trouble with each other. We liked drama.
We both despised Bobby Sherman (I have no idea why), so once in a while, he’d show up on deck and throw everyone into a dither. Occasionally, a new student would arrive at the academy via shuttlecraft. Then everyone would have trouble with everyone else. It didn’t matter if the new arrival was male or female, because anyone could be problematic to a group of teenagers trapped on the Enterprise.
A concert was often in the works, because of course Keith Partridge had to sing. For the record, Cat Stevens was far too mature to be a student at the Teen Academy of PF on ST, but he might have made a concert appearance now and then. I’m also remembering that the Enterprise transported a movie crew to a dusty planet for the filming of Jesus Christ Superstar more than once.
It’s been fifty years. The specifics are a little misty. But I do remember how absurdly chaste most of these imaginings were. Occasionally there was a romance, but rarely. That was too much for our young psyches to handle.
Why we continued.
Today, there is a vocabulary for activities similar to what we were doing. There is fan fiction, with all its shipping. Also, LARPing (though we never costumed ourselves, we were certainly out and about in character). The problem with naming something is that it creates parameters. We had no parameters. We had no name besides “play,” so our freedom was complete. It was our private world, created from anything and everything, and hidden because we knew how strange it was, and we were way too old for what we were doing.
But we needed to play. We were two girls in our early teens, living on a ranger station in the middle of a national forest. The entire family was jammed into a one-bedroom log cabin, from which we’d carved extra bedrooms from the attic and a storage pantry. There was never any money, and our parents’ marriage was always precarious. We had to babysit our baby brother all the time while they drove off to have coffee and work on it. Everyone in the family was miserable. None of that mattered while we played.
Yes, we lived in a verdant paradise, I recognize that. I climbed the mountain behind our house several times, and explored the riverbanks, and sat on a cold cement bridge over the icy foam of the Gallatin River, and sang my heart out. But when it was winter—and this was Montana, so it was often winter—there was nothing to do and nowhere to go.
So my sister and I made up a different paradise. We invented characters that were nothing like us, and brought them to life in an outer space world. We made up the teenaged lives we longed for, there on the ranger station in western Montana. No wonder we couldn’t leave our play behind.
Time, space, and basic logic were ours to manipulate. We sometimes played all night, only stopping when it was light out. When one of us (usually me) got too tired and began falling asleep, the other would ask, “Should we keep this?” Because that was a key part of playing. We could spin out an extreme plot, with someone getting lost on a planet or even dying, but we didn’t have to keep it. We reserved the right to discard the night’s play. It was a joint decision. We might keep part of the play, all of it, or none of it. It was all up to us.
The end of imagination.
I don’t know how long we would have kept it up, but at some point, our “real lives” began to take shape. We still didn’t have any money, we still lived in a remote and beautiful location, but we had some friends. My sister got her license, and my parents bought a second car (a tiny red slug bug) so we started having misadventures in Bozeman. It was terrifying and exhilarating.
She was sixteen and I was fourteen. We drank, smoked pot, gained boyfriends, lost virginities. Breakups. Pregnancy scares. Car accidents. We had plenty of drama. There was no need to lay there in the dark and imagine more.
Life was complicated when you weren’t allowed to decide whether or not to keep what had happened to you. But I remember one last night when I sheepishly asked my sister to play. We had one last session, one last trip to the galaxies. Then we gave it up forever. Real life had taken over.
Still at it.
When I was thirty-seven, I quit my job and decided to go back to school and finish my degree. A friend showed up at my house with an ancient Mac. “You’ll need this for papers,” she told me, as she and her husband set up the whole hateful thing. I’d never owned a computer, in fact I loathed computers, and had only used one when I worked in a B2B telemarketing agency. But hey, she was probably right. I was going back to school, and I probably needed to have a computer. So I sat down and opened up a document and entered a state of magical creative flow.
I wrote a screenplay first. It was based on a dream I had at age nineteen that had haunted me ever since about a woman with two daughters at the Oregon coast, and a teacher she rented to. It had been the most cinematic dream of my life, and I’d tried and failed to make something out of it all through my twenties and thirties.
At 37, that finally changed. It wasn’t hard to imagine all the conversations and settings and drama. But 115 pages? That wasn’t enough time to spend with these characters who had become so real to me. I wasn’t done with them. I started typing out notes in each character’s voice. And more and more came, and the plot changed, and deepened. It took hold and grew.
I sat up later and later each night, typing in my darkened home. This was my only time to write, because I was a single mother with three kids and two dogs and a house to keep and a divorce to recover from. The demands on my life were constant from before the sun rose to after it went down. During these late night hours of quiet and dark, I found the peace and solitude I needed to get it all out of me.
Before I knew it, I had the draft of a novel. I was so proud of this messy first draft, and absolutely sure it was perfect. Of course it wasn’t even close to finished. But I printed it out and sent it to my sister, who lived in South Dakota at the time. She loved it. How could she not? A tortured, beautiful man. An icy, withholding older woman. And teen drama galore.
She called me to rave. “I can’t believe you did this.” She kept questioning me as to where I’d gotten this idea, “This isn’t you is it? This isn’t me?” I explained to her that this was truly fiction. Everyone was made up. “Well I love it. I’m so proud of you.” And she hung up.
She called me back within the half hour. “I figured it out,” she said. “I figured out how you did it.” I waited. I could hear the smile in her voice. “You’re playing.”
I hope she could hear the smile in mine when I told her she was absolutely right.
The visitor that won’t leave
Catachresis: The use of a word in a way that is not correct — for example, the use of “mitigate” for “militate.”
I describe it like this. I reach for a word and grab the one beside it on the shelf. I want to say “cerebral,” and I say “cereal.” “Mutual” instead of “mutable.” Almost immediately, I catch myself and correct. But we both notice.
“I did it again,” I say to my husband. “You did,” my husband affirms.
I’ll do this like four times over two days. Then it subsides for weeks, even months. But I know it will come back, especially when I’m exhausted. You know how Autocorrect will plug in the wrong word, even when you’ve carefully typed out the word you want to use? That’s what my brain is doing to me right now. It’s AutoIncorrecting.
Sometimes it’s not the word right next to it on the shelf, but more kittycorner to it. I might mean to say the doctor prescribed something, but I say she subscribed something. Almost there but not quite. It reminds me of my grandson, with his “consplosions” and “conspiraments,” his use of “extract” rather than “distract.” Except I don’t find it charming when I do it, because I’m not five.
It’s been a couple of months since I mixed up my words, so I’m probably due for a run of stumbles. It only happens while speaking, never while writing. Since I make my living at the latter, I’m grateful for this, but still embarrassed. I have an expansive vocabulary that can also be a bit cumbersome. I’ve been teased about my wordiness my entire life, but I love words. I’m particular with them. This catachresis overrides my careful choices.
Please don’t come at me with advice about having my brain checked out for early senility, because I know where this came from. This started after I had COVID-19 in January of 2020. I’ve been struggling with this particular piece of neurological fallout ever since.
I believe that most of us who’ve had it are struggling with at least some damage from the virus. Catachresis one of three symptoms of long COVID that I try to ignore. I get a little wheezy some evenings. Occasionally, something will taste completely wrong to where I couldn’t identify what’s in my mouth without visual cues. I deal with these other lingering guests as small inconveniences, but I hate it when the wrong word comes out.
A little hope
I whine about getting sick quite enough on here, but since I had “the birthday flu” this spring, my daughter and five-year-old grandson have moved into our house, where we hope they’ll stay for the school year. My grandson arrived with a cold, so I promptly caught that. It was horrible. We got over it. Then he picked up another cold in swim lessons. I came down with it on a weekend getaway to Yakima with friends.
The bad news is, I’m going to get all his kindergarten colds. The good news is, my immune system seems to be working again. Yes, I had a cold, but my body seems to know what to do with it. I was tired over the weekend, blew my nose now and then, had some cough drops. But I was functional and even able to taste all the fine food we sampled on a weekend of restaurants, antiquing, and talking about our lives.
A week later, I seem to be over it with no secondary infections, sleepless nights, or hacking. I haven’t even had a flare-up of the catachresis.
But I’m still paranoid.
I try to stay calm. I’ve had COVID twice and I can’t do anything about that. I don’t think this is the last time, either. But as I was coming down with the cold on Friday night, I was terrified that it might be COVID again.
Both of my weekend traveling companions are recently retired frontline workers. One has had COVID three times, but the other has not had it, not even once. She worked with the actual virus for years, and she did it on the daily. She’s either the most cautious person in the state, or she’s immune. Maybe both? I did NOT want to be the person who gave it to her.
This friend is a scientist. She has patiently listened to my crackpot theories about the virus, and read the Vanity Fair/ProPublica article at my urging. She might not buy the lab leak theory (and please don’t assume that I do, here’s a rebuttal), but she was the first person to explain to me that Covid is not actually a respiratory virus. It uses the respiratory system to hitch a ride to its actual target; the heart, lungs, or brain. No one knows exactly what it does in there, but she fears what it has done to the population as a whole.
As I told her, “Well, we’re all just going to be a little more stupid from now on.” My stupid is Catachresis. But I don’t say the word out loud. I’m afraid it will come out as “catechism.”
Here we go!
So I’m finally returning to the topic of family recipe boxes after a helluva time, but that’s another blog post. Some friends sent long and detailed stories(which I love), and others dashed off a note to go with their photo (which I also love). Sometimes we even get the recipes (I love that too)! You can right click on any image and open in a new tab to get a clear view of any recipe cards.
I thought I’d kick it off with my Grandma Berry’s recipe box. My grandmother died some time ago, and my dad brought this back from Minnesota with quite a few other keepsakes after Grandpa Berry died, years later.
I think this was one of those subscription recipe boxes popular in the seventies. It has those plastic cards, plus recipes clipped from magazines and newspapers, and standard recipe cards in many different hands.
The tape across the back speaks of constant use. The dust on the top speaks to the fact that I have never opened it until today.
And now, on to the others.
The Box That Started All This
My cousin Amy says: THE recipe box. I went through it – few things in there that I recognize as recipes I would consider saving. Most are 50’s era recipes saved from the back/side/inside label of boxes, cans, and bags of preserved foods. Yum! <—familial sarcasm here
My recipe box, box obtained as a freshman in high school for the debate team.
Karen’s note: The top photos are the recipe box I returned to cousins on my South Dakota side, talked about in this post: Recipe Boxes Part One. I’m glad it found its way home, even though it sounds like the contents are not that inspiring. And I tend to forget all the uses we had for index cards back in the day, including debate notes and indexing term papers.
April says: First, I have nothing from my grandmothers. One only spoke Spanish, the other died when I was five. I only remember her sauerkraut was very good (the Latvian grandmother, obviously). I have two recipe boxes, both given to me from my mom. I’m sure she got the big, ugly orange one free from Betty Crocker.
Most of the recipes I attached were the handwritten ones from mom. She usually sent printed recipes with her notes on the edges. The carrot cake was from Susan, and the cereal one was from Dad.
I don’t know if you knew I won a recipe contest from BH&G one year. You basically sell your recipe to them, and they give you a nice award to frame and several copies of your recipe as shown, as well as a mention in the magazine. I have no idea what prompted me to do it, but was shocked I was one of the winners. It was before pesto was a thing in the US. I thought you’d get a kick out if that one.
Karen’s note: April is a fantastic cook and a vegetarian who modestly omitted that she won a blue ribbon for her pineapple pie at a fair when she lived in Oklahoma. She has never made that pie for me. She also never made her BH&G prize-winning pesto for me. But she’s served me plenty of other delicious dishes, so we’re good.
From Across the Pond
Joni says: What I have is not a family box but recipes written on scraps. I even have some from Peter’s great aunt written on a small piece of paper with an old fruitcake recipe. Others are older books from family. Here’s a Facebook post about my recipes.
I love my cookbooks. It’s not that I see them as the unbendable rules of culinary art but more as the Bob Ross variety of suggestions that maybe this soup needs a happy bit of fennel in that corner of the pot. In fact I can go for months and not pull one out, but so many of them have a memory attached.
I have rather battered books from my late aunts both of whom cooked for a living. One is a small green book held together by black plastic rings. It is from one of the many small church women’s group. This one is from the Martha Circle and is dated 1954. The advertisements carry telephone numbers of only three numbers. The recipes can be challenging to decipher and I would get Mom to explain directions such as ‘take a ten cent bag of marshmallows.’ It is the stuff of ’Prairie Home Companion,’ much of it is white-soup based with only a hint of bell pepper or pimento to accent the purity.
CUSTARD HOT DISH
6 dry bread slices (buttered and cubed) 3 eggs beaten
1 cup grated cheese salt
2 cups scalded milk pepper
Pinch of dry mustard
Bake in a slow oven in a pan of hot water (about 275)
About 1 hour. Heat together:
1 cup cream of mushroom soup 1 can of tuna fish
Serve over custard hot dish
This not to say that the recipes are not good. Some are sturdy farm dishes, others just a bit daring and trendy. But when it comes to breads, cookies, and cakes, nothing-but-nothing can beat Minnesota farm baking. Bars, pies, cakes, and hot dish.
I grew up on ‘Hot Dish.’ Our family recipe was overcooked macaroni with browned hamburger, and a can each of Campbell’s Tomato and Vegetable Soup. Absolutely loathe the stuff to this day.
My then brother-in-law gave me two small paper cookbooks that he found while ripping out a wall when remodeling a kitchen. This little treasures have so many weird and wonderful items. The 1930s cover has stylishly uniformed maids and contains Jellied Prunes as a temptation. I think I’ll pass.
Peter has added his contribution with his copy of Elizabeth Craig’s ‘Cooking in Wartime,’ a lovely little volume produced with the forthcoming rationing in mind.
GREEN PEA LOAF
1 Cup drained, canned green ¾ cup stale breadcrumbs
peas, or sieved, soaked, 1 beaten egg
and boiled dried peas. ¾ cup milk
½ can tomato soup salt and pepper
For 4 persons. Rub peas through sieve. Stir in other ingredients. Mix well, and pack into a small, greased baking tin or fireproof dish. Cover with greased paper. Bake in a slow oven for forty minutes. Turn out on to a hot dish. Cover with half a can of heated tomato soup.
Now my shelf has a wide variety of books some are reprints of old ones like ‘THE FRUGAL COLONIAL HOUSEWIFE’ which has a recipe for humble pie, or a modern printing of medieval recipes with my favorite one beginning ‘First you take a peacock and break its neck, then flay it, feathers and all.’ Most have one or two recipes that I use as a guide because, lets face it, I don‘t like being told what to do.
Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese represented exotic places I wanted to learn about. Others have even more meaning as they are inscribed by the one who gave them to me. My aunts, a cousin, my mothers good friend, Berta and the one that means the world to me is inscribed ’to the sister of my soul’ from Joni Kay. The funny thing is it’s one that has both American and European measurements so it’s a handy guide when trying to convert English recipes to my American brain. Someday, maybe, I will use these books for cooking but if I don’t that’s all right. They give comfort. They connect me with history, transport me to far away lands and they reunite me with people no longer here. They bring me comfort and warmth to my soul and if I never use them to cook again it’s okay; they’ve done their job.
Karen’s note: Joni lives in England now, if you couldn’t tell by her husband’s contribution. The post above was originally a 2013 post on her Facebook page. She advises me that the curry recipe calls for a small piece of ginger, which her friend tells her is the size of a thumb, if you’re going to try to make it.
Carli says: My box is part hand-me-down. The photo of the three cards is Grandma’s writing at top, for a beloved family recipe, a carb nightmare they fed the kids when the adults had to make meat go farther, mom in the middle with a classic that matches that 70s card, me age 10 or so on the bottom with a recipe I think from a kid cooking class. I have no idea who “Diane” is that I got the recipe from, but something makes me think it was a Saturday kids’ cooking class.
Karen’s note: I love a good carb nightmare! And find three generations of recipe writing quite impressive. Also, April’s mom had the same recipe cards.
Deneane says: Flowered box was Mama’s, brown box was Nana’s. Dad pulled his favorite recipe from each. He never uses these boxes, but still keeps them at his home. I’ll be there the 23rd (to watch him skydive).
Karen’s note: Hot sausage and sauce, creamy pralines. Can you tell Deneane is from the South? I’ve known Deneane for decades, and I met Deneane’s dad when they passed through Portland on a train trip through the West, so he could complete his goal to see all 50 states. We had a quick visit in Chinatown during their layover.
Over lunch, Deneane took out her phone and blithely showed me a photo of an enormous golden heap of a bear they’d seen at one of Montana’s national parks. Shaken, I explained this was a grizzly, and they were lucky to be alive. “Well, he was between us and the car,” her dad said. I’m not surprised that a man who calmly walked past a grizzly on his way back to a parking spot would also jump out of an airplane. For her favorite family dessert recipe, visit Deneane’s blog, The Wretched Cook:
Marsha says: This was my mom’s, our family box! I have my husband’s family box too but it’s not as charming. Let me know what else you want?
Karen’s note: This is enough, Marsha, because it’s possibly the most charming vintage recipe box I have ever seen, with the possible exception of my own.
Tiffany says: Very plain, but stuffed with Mom’s faves. My sister has it.
Karen’s note: You call it plain, but I find it beautiful. Look at that foil design. It’s Art Deco. And I am interested in the full recipe for Dark Zuchini Bread, do you have it?
Janet H.M. says: My mom still has a 1950’s Fannie Farmer cookbook. I got this little recipe box when I was in elementary school. The hinged lid came off years ago, and I put new recipes in a computer file or notebook, but I refuse to throw this out.
Karen’s note: Never throw it out, Janet. Trust me. It’s a legacy for your daughter. One day she’s going to crave that Meal-in-One Pot Roast, and there it will be, just waiting for her.
Mari says: Made for me by my daughter when she was still a kid.
Karen’s note: I love anything shaped like a house. What cozy, homey delights reside in there?
(There are two and they are both wonderful)
1. The Green Notebook
The battered green notebook is my mom’s handwritten recipe collection and one of my most prized possessions. It’s probably the thing I’d save in a fire if I’m being honest. Just reading her beautiful handwriting and looking at the stained pages takes me right back to my childhood kitchen. It is filled with an eclectic array of recipes from the homiest of fares to the fanciest of party foods. Snickerdoodles to tea sandwiches.
My parents were children of the Depression who strove to be more while still being humble. They ended up being a fun couple of bohemians who just wanted to taste the world, feed everyone, and take care of people.
Both of my parents were quite experimental in the kitchen so eating was always an adventure. Whatever Julia Child or The Galloping Gourmet were cooking that week we were bound to be eating soon. Of course, we had had our share of S.O.S. and Hungry Man dinners on those nights when mom wanted a break but it was soon back to souffle, filbert cheese stuffed onions, and beef bourguignonne.
I always remember that when I invited my friends for dinner, they thought it was so cool that they were always served wine just like the adults but…the food was weird. The next time they were invited they always asked, “uh…what are you having?” before committing to actually staying for dinner. Squid, it was a no. Tacos, it was a yes!
2. The Haunted Cookbook
After my mom passed away in 1979 one of the things I missed the most was baking with her at Christmas.
Months after her passing, I ran across her old Spritz cookie press in the kitchen cupboard. Feeling nostalgic, I decided I wanted to make Spritz cookies for Christmas that year. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the recipe.
I called my dad at work to ask if he had it. He said it was probably in her Betty Crocker cookbook, it was on the bookshelf in his kitchen, and that I should just use my key to let myself in to get it.
When I got to his house I found her cookbook right where he said on the bookshelf. There was a scrap of paper sticking out of it. Curiously, I opened the book to the marked page, and SURPRISE, it was marking the page for Spritz cookie recipes that I wanted. On that scrap of paper was a note in my mom’s handwriting that read “All recipes on the page will work in the press – please do not take my book – Love Mom”.
My heart almost stopped, I got goose bumps all over and I knew in the moment that she was still looking out for me.
In 2001 my dad passed away. I packed up all the treasures from his house that I wanted to keep, moved them to my house, and then held an estate sale. Many months later I was getting ready to bake some cookies and went to get the Betty Crocker cookbook. It was nowhere to be found. Somehow it must have been left at my dad’s and sold at the estate sale. I was heartbroken.
Close to a year later, I stopped in at my friend’s bookstore, Churchill’s. While visiting I happened to glance up at the case near the cash register and there sat a copy of a Betty Crocker cookbook just like the one I lost. I picked it up and almost fainted. Inside and on the cover were the scribbles that I had made as a child. It was my mom’s cookbook! When I asked my friend where he had gotten the cookbook, he said someone had brought it in and sold it to them that morning.
Once again I could feel my mom’s warm arms around me. She was still looking out for me through her cookbook.
She’s now safe at home with me contained in a shadow box; cookbook, note, her personal measuring spoons (that I’ve kept all these years), and a photo of her.
I bought a replacement cookbook to use.
Karen’s note: Lisa’s parents were restaurateurs in Yakima, including a beautiful place called The Abbey. I never ate at one of her family establishments. I wish I had! Also, we have these same aluminum measuring spoons from my own mom, along with an aluminum biscuit cutter with a bent red handle she used to cut out the best biscuits I’ve ever tasted.
Janet’s Favorite Handed-Down Recipes
Janet L says: Our neighbors in the 1960s were the Mellingers. A least two generations of that family still make these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and call them Marian Happe Cookies. There is a quick & easy take on flourless chocolate torte. It’s not as intensely chocolatey, but it’s tasty. And a few more!
Karen’s note: Janet is another of the vegetarian/incredible cook people. Her baked goods are the stuff of urban legend, but the hilarious thing is, we always went out to lunch when she lived in Portland, so I never had any! When I asked Janet if there were a box to go with these recipes, she replied, “I don’t know what became of mom’s box. I bought my beige plastic filecard box in the 1980s. It is not photogenic.” So she shared her favorite contents, which I understand, but seriously, Janet, ugly recipe boxes are still treasures.
Sue Sends Recipes After All!
Sue says: The box is Norma’s. Norma is Mom. The meatballs and fudge recipes are Norma’s. The potato chocolate cake and peanut butter cookie recipes are from Norma’s mother, Maude.
Karen’s note: Sue is another fantastic cook. If she picked these recipes to share, you can bet they’re delicious. Everything she does with her hands–cooking, quilting, painting–is done with such a sure hand. Exact without being overly exacting. Artful with an innate naturalness. I first became aware of this when I visited her after spending a month making gummy little worked over salt dough Christmas ornaments with my kids. Sue had a couple she’d made in her kitchen, they were smooth and perfect and lovely. I took one look at those unimportant little ornaments and understood that she was an artist through and through.
Carrie’s Card Catalog
Karen’s note: As a woman who specializes in concise communication, Carrie sent no anecdotes, but she inherited this from her mom. It is repurposed drawers from a library card catalog. It reminds me of my own mother’s, an antique dovetailed wooden box used for some aspect of business storage. It held a jumble of recipes on cards written in her own indecipherable hand, recipes given to her by friends, and folded up recipes torn from newspapers and women’s magazines. Like I said in my other post, we used it to hold her ashes, so I know just exactly where it’s buried. I have never known what happened to all the recipes.
To wrap this all up, I thought I’d put in a pic of my own vintage recipe box, the one my mother kept for years (right). Beside it are the other vintage recipe boxes I meant to fill for my own girls. I thought this was something I would never, could never do. I’m feeling inspired by this post to attempt it. Sooner or later, they’re going to want to know how I made my food taste like it does, and only I can tell them.
Thank you again, lovely friends, for playing along.
The Cake with No Recipe
It was the easiest chocolate cake ever, moist, dense, with saucepan frosting poured over the top. Everyone in my family loved this confection, even though the frosting was too sweet and the cake was too heavy. I could barely wash down a piece with a large glass of milk. Diabetes on a plate. And yet somehow this dessert always concluded a special family dinner.
It was my sister’s job to bake it. My mother looked forward to it nervously. “Will you make the cake?” Mom would ask my sister. Once we all lived in our own households, she’d ask me, “Is she going to bring the cake?” My mother had the recipe, she could make it too, but somehow my sister always brought the cake.
She would beat the batter by hand, mixing in the Miracle Whip (yes, sorry, we were a Miracle Whip household), and bake it in an aluminum sheet pan of just the proper depth. We were particular about cake pans in our family. While it cooled, she would melt margarine in a saucepan, adding sugar and spooning in cocoa powder in a special stove top alchemy that ensured the frosting would pour, then set.
The last time she tried to make the cake, my sister couldn’t remember how. The results were disappointing. Actually, inedible. She’d done it from memory but memory is a fragile thing. We all wondered where to find the actual recipe. It was probably in my mother’s recipes, which she kept in an antique wooden box she found at a farm auction in South Dakota.
I know where that box is. My father used it to hold my mother’s ashes when we buried them at Willamette Cemetery. Dad is also buried there now.
None of us remaining kids know where the recipes went.
The World’s Most Expensive Recipe Box
In 1979, a friend of mine’s father taught in the meteorology department at the University of Montana. This whole family was astonishing in their intelligence and artistic talent, just one of those families you meet and you can’t figure out how so many smart, talented people live in one place without causing an implosion of one kind or another.
Anyway, this was the first family I knew to have a home computer. It was about the size of a dorm fridge. I have no idea how much it cost, but I was skeptical. “What is it for?” I wanted to know. My friend explained a few basic things about computing to me, and then remarked that his mother was going to put all her recipes in it. “So it’s for recipes?” I asked. “I have something for recipes. It’s called a recipe box, and it’s a lot smaller than this.”
I don’t have a recipe box anymore, but I do have a computer. I store no recipes on here. If I absolutely need a recipe for something, I just go to allrecipes.com. So in a way, my Montana friend was right, wasn’t he?
Another Recipe Box
In the mid-2010s, I received a distressing phone call about my birth father, who was living in Langford, South Dakota. I hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks. Maybe a month. I’d been traveling, so contact had gotten away from me.
He was drinking quite a bit at that time, and prone to making rambling, repetitive phone calls in which he had harsh things to say about everyone besides himself. The calls were not pleasant. I say this by way of explanation, not to make excuses. I still feel terrible about that month of not contacting him.
So, while I wasn’t calling, the worst thing that can happen had happened. He’d had some kind of medical event, and was trapped in his home for at least a week, maybe more. He was near death when a friend found him.
I called my former stepmom and she put me in touch with the doctors, who told me that my father was destroyed, mentally and physically. But he could talk. He told me to come out there, saying, “Hurry, honey.”
I’m not sure what exactly I accomplished in South Dakota, besides tracking down his wallet and glasses (we didn’t find his teeth). I made sure I was listed as next of kin on every single form that needed to be filled out, with the correct phone number. I felt helpless. Was this really all I could do?
When it seemed that he would not be living independently again, my father wanted me to go to his house and, I don’t know, take things, which implied of course that I had to want things. That’s a difficult position to find yourself in, when you don’t really know your own birth father very well. I wasn’t even sure what to want.
My father was surprised that I wanted a metal recipe box that had belonged to my Aunt Cass, and my Grandma Z before her. “Oh, you want that, do you?” he said. “I don’t know why. None of those recipes make any sense. Both of them wrote a ‘t’ of this and a ‘t’ of that, and you can’t tell whether it’s a tablespoon or a teaspoon.”
I wanted the recipe box, even though my father had always spoken disparagingly of his mother’s cooking, proclaiming, “She could fry bacon and not put any meat in it.” In this grandmother’s defense, she had many kids, and was widowed. She had to stretch that protein.
In spite of the doomsaying of his doctors, my father made a partial recovery. He was able to walk, not well, but he could leave the care home. He had five decent years before he died. We spoke fairly often, especially after he remarried my stepmom, removing that pesky “former”. She was always better about calling than he was.
After his memorial, there was a get-together. There are over seventy first cousins on this side of the family and I knew none of them. About twenty of them showed up for the service (keep in mind that my father was the youngest of quite a brood, and had cousins his age and older).
So, there I sat in a room full of first cousins I didn’t know. Some of them didn’t actually know I existed. I sidled from table to table, saying very little, soaking up all these Midwestern strangers, many of them tall like me. Some even had noses like mine. Eeriest of all, I saw my own eyes all over the room.
Then, I heard it. Someone was talking about Grandma Z’s cooking. At last, I had something to say! I mentioned that I had that metal recipe box. The ears of three sisters in particular pricked up like little foxes. “Recipes? You have Grandma’s recipe box?”
I said I did, but I hadn’t really investigated it. I told them what my father (their uncle) had said about not being able to figure out the ‘t’ measurements.
Well, they knew exactly what it meant. T = Tablespoon and t = teaspoon.
At least two of these sisters cook. One sister’s Facebook feed is an engrossing culinary delight. Another sister doesn’t post much about food, but she and her husband care about it. She prepares Christmas stollens with candied fruit she makes herself after hunting down Buddha’s Hand at the fruit stands. There are two other sisters in this family, and I don’t know if they cook, but they certainly knew this grandmother far better than I ever did.
A few months ago, one of these lovely sisters and her husband stayed at my house for a weekend. They were in town to see kids and grandkids, and they let me provide my favorite kind of hospitality: Fresh sheets, clean towels, here’s your house key, see you when I see you.
They politely ate my not-fantastic-but-perfectly-adequate food. One morning, my cousin was a little pained by my stale sourdough (she bakes her own with starter that she’s carried from state to state over the years). She tried to cover, but you know, I could tell. I found this endearing.
It was a charming visit. I had the recipe box sitting out on my counter when she got there. I wanted to make sure she’d see it and take it, which she did. She packed it reverently back to her home, planning to bring it along on a sister trip the four of them had planned. She said they’d probably read these recipes out loud to each other, remembering the cooking of a grandmother and an aunt I barely knew.
That made me feel just like Christmas.
More Recipe Boxes
So, one of my inherited recipe boxes has gone back to a part of the family where it will be far more meaningful. But I still have one from another grandmother, brought back from Minnesota after she died. It is a HUGE plastic box.
I’ve never much investigated it, though there is a family recipe for Swedish pancakes right up front. I have an adorable first cousin in her twenties on that side of the family. I keep thinking I’ll send it to her, but I should copy out that delicious pancake recipe first.
I also have one of my own. Well, I had one in high school, but Mom loved it so much she just…took it. I didn’t get it back until after she died. And I believe that on the day she died, in the wreckage of my grief, I went into her kitchen and found that (empty) recipe box because 1) I always meant to reclaim it, and 2) I cling to the Midwestern reverence for recipe boxes.
My plan was to give it to my oldest daughter. I actually bought two more, one for each girl. In my mind, I’d be filling these three boxes with hand-lettered cards for all my best recipes. Except in all seriousness I don’t have any best recipes. I cook simply and always have. I moved out at age fifteen and began making a basic dinner every night. I never graduated to making a special dinner each night.
If there is a stove, a fridge, and a pantry, I can look through and assemble a completely edible repast. You might even ask for seconds. But it is never anything special.
My girls would disagree. They would say my zucchini bake is the best, or my smothered pork chops (my ex-husband’s aunt taught me to make those), or my garbage chicken soup (so named as it was a way to clean out the fridge), or my shrimp Caesar salad (not so much prepared as assembled), or my pork roast (which I learned to make from my oldest daughter so I should not get any credit for this at all).
These meals are incredibly basic. Still, my daughters ask for the recipes. I don’t have any! I’ve emailed the steps for making two of the three “greatest hits” to the girls. The third will probably take some hands-on instruction (chicken and dumplings).
Those three vintage recipe boxes stay empty.
But What about Cookbooks?
Back in the nineties when they were visiting us a lot, I bought a copy of The White Trash Cookbook and gave it to my South Dakota father. He read it to my stepmom all the way back home. I still crack up when I imagine his voice saying, “Oh here’s a good one, Jo-anney.” And then I imagine her scolding him, because she’d probably had enough.
Perhaps this is why, when I found a 1983 cookbook titled Best Recipes from the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Jars, I bought it. Because why else would I have bought it? Nostalgia? Kitsch? I brought it home and put it on a shelf with my other cookbooks, which I absolutely never touch because they are specialty cookbooks that appeal to me as objects, not sources of recipes.
But maybe I’ll take this one down and give it a look through. Maybe I’ll find my sister’s chocolate cake recipe, which had to have come from the back of a mayonnaise jar. If I were to find it, I’m sure I’d be repelled. Times and tastes change. Post-menopause, I have a polite but distant relationship with sweets, and I’m once again as queasy as I was a child. The thought of Miracle Whip in a cake upsets my stomach, but the memory of my sister baking it?
Oh, that’s a tonic.
I can see my sister, and she has no recipe card in front of her, no open cookbook. She is eighteen or nineteen, not as tall as me and much too thin. She’s working away in one kitchen or another. She quietly focuses on the task at hand as her chestnut hair falls over her tortoiseshell glasses. Measuring and stirring, heating and pouring, she follows a recipe she knows by heart.
And as we all know, those are the best recipes of all.
A mother’s dismay.
(I’m still stuck in the past, and stuck in the kitchen. This was from a Katrina prompt, “The Napkin”.)
My grown daughters don’t use cloth napkins, or paper napkins, or any napkins. I’ll be served a beautiful, even elegant meal at one of their homes, then handed a small section of paper towel to use as a napkin. I’m not much on formal table settings, but it feels wrong to me, a mistake, as wrong as if I’ve been handed a wad of toilet paper with which to dab my mouth while eating.
Where are the napkins in my daughters’ homes?
I’m not sure, and I want to trot out that old saw, “They weren’t raised like that.” But really, they weren’t. We had a basket of paper napkins on the counter for breakfast and lunch. At dinner, each place was set with a cloth napkin.
I didn’t encounter cloth napkins until I was a nanny, working in the aforementioned Vandor Country Kitchen home where I learned to roast a chicken, bake a fish, and use cloth napkins. I wanted to incorporate them in my own home. It made me feel fancy.
Proof of this is that I only use them now when company is here. So take note. If you come to dinner at my home and I’ve set the table with cloth napkins, I’m being fancy on your behalf.
The history of napkins!
I was considering that idea, the cloth napkin as fancy, so I did a little research, which means I Googled it and clicked on the first promising link that popped up in my results. I found this blog post while trying to find out when paper napkins arrived on America’s tables: The History of Paper Napkins (this is a blog for a store that sells paper napkins). Here is an excerpt:
Paper napkins themselves originate from ancient China, when paper was invented in the 2nd century. Chih Pha, folded paper square napkins, were used for serving tea. The historical accuracy of this is backed up by documents describing the possessions of the Yu family from the city of Hangzhou.
And when did North America start getting in on using paper napkins? They arrived in the late 1800s, but didn’t pick up in popularity until 1948 – because Emily Post proclaimed that “It’s far better form to use paper napkins than linen napkins that were used at breakfast.”
Emily Post approved!
My mother had adopted so many markers of class and taste reminiscent of the 1950s, but for all my mother’s airs, we always used paper napkins. Perhaps Emily Post is why. We still had to use our napkins correctly. She trained me to always keep my napkin in my lap, or if I rose from the table, my chair. A used napkin on the table was a definite manners misstep.
My mother wouldn’t have dreamed of using a paper towel next to a plate. Is that why I’m so horrified by that idea?
Mom liked to imitate how her sister, my aunt Elaine, carefully and firmly pressed a napkin to the edges and corners of her mouth. “It was like she was staunching blood,” Mom explained. I try to imagine handing my Aunt Elaine a scant section of paper towel for this act. What would she say? How would she adjust?
WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO NAPKINS, I ASK YOU?!
More on the history of Napery
(Yes, “napery” is a word I discovered while working on my latest project, which is a novel narrated by a somewhat fussy man. Anyway.)
As I’ve explained before, I’m an inveterate thrifter. I also go to antique stores, which is less satisfying because everything needs to be looked at, and I find it exhausting. Anyway, I think, as a secondhand shopping wizard, that I’ve seen everything. But in this thrifting group I belong to on Facebook, someone posted one of these and I had no idea what the heck it was. It was something like this:
Does this confuse you? Good. It certainly confused me.
This is a serviette lady. A very fancy example, with salt and pepper shakers, and a tray to hold toothpicks, and something (a candle?) sticking out of her head. Less fancy models just have the skirt with all the slots in it. The idea is, you fold your napkins (clearly cocktail napkins for this one, which were a thing) and arrange them in the slots so that they make a bouffant skirt of sorts. Then you put her out with your lady luncheon or bridge club spread, and people take their napkins out of her skirt.
I probably don’t need to explain that my mother would not have had such an item in her home. She was gifted a ceramic frog scrubber holder by a neighbor that she grudgingly used for years, but that was the extent of Mom’s tacky ceramics. The woman had taste (unlike me, who has a full shelf of ceramic honey servers).
But I don’t have any lady serviette holders. That is a bridge too far, even for me.
My husband and I both have big noses that drip constantly as we eat. I have no idea when this started to happen but it’s annoying and makes the use of cloth napkins problematic. So we use paper. Big, fluffy white paper napkins, the costly kind.
He has a whole system where he folds down the top edge of the napkin, creating a demarcation between the part used for his nose and the part used for his mouth. I admire this while also thinking it’s kind of weird. He also sets his napkin on the chair next to him, as opposed to his lap. Whatever works, at least he’s using one.
Over at my plate, I’m working my napkins like someone trying to clean up after a flood. I use more napkins than anyone I know. Sometimes I’m eating in a restaurant with a friend, and I’m on my third while theirs is untouched. How do they do that, I wonder?
Alternately, is there something wrong with me? Even if my nose weren’t drippy, I’m wiping my hands and mouth constantly while I eat. Am I leaky and strange? Unduly repelled by food juice? Why am I such a mess?
Hope for the future.
The last time I ate dinner at my oldest daughter’s home, her in-laws were there. As she set the table, my daughter let me know that her mother-in-law had made this beautiful set of cloth napkins for her. I smiled and complimented her MOL on the beautiful fabric and workmanship. Did I only imagine that we shared a swift but knowing glance?
Acknowledged or not, I’m not the only person who believes in napkins.
The Migration of Geese
They arrived on orange webbed feet, often with blue ribbons tied around their long necks. Waddling and honking, pecking and settling into every kitchen in America. I’m talking about the geese.
But It Didn’t Start With Geese.
In 1981, I was a nanny, and my employer began accumulating the cutest dishes I had ever seen. It started with mugs by a company called Vandor. There were four, each featuring a different farm animal; cow, pig, sheep, and a pair of chickens (no geese, please note).
I know it’s hard to imagine, but at the time, these mugs were unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was awash in admiration.
This was a fairly prosperous household, so the mugs were followed by salad plates, dinner plates, bowls, canisters, and salt and pepper shakers. There were some white ceramic animal heads on the walls, upon which to hang coordinating towels. Eventually, my employer had an entire kitchen full the stuff. It was amazing, this Vandor Country Collection, but it featured no geese.
A Barnyard Of My Own
My admiration was well expressed. So, when I married in 1982, my employer gifted me a huge box of my own Vandor Country farm animal ceramics. I received the original set of four regular-sized mugs, four miniature mugs with baby animals on them (highlighted by the chick), a pitcher that I’d use as a utensil holder, and salt and pepper shakers. She even got me the metal canisters. All country, all mine (but no geese).
My new husband and I moved to a nice two-bedroom town home, where I used cup hooks to display my barnyard wedding gifts. I found some country blue placemats at the thrift store and set them on the eating bar. Then I won a little blue occasional shelf with heart-shaped cutouts at some direct sales party or another. I hung that up over the pantry door and put some thrift store blue and white china on it.
I am telling you, I had that country décor thing going on. But there were still no geese in my kitchen lineup.
Flocks of Geese. FLOCKS, I Tell You.
All around me, the geese were taking over America’s kitchens. Those geese had waddled into the world of 80s décor, usually in a line, followed by a little girl wearing a hat.
This is a charming print, isn’t it? But when I described it, you groaned in recognition before you even saw it. So did I. But look at it! It’s nice! And if I hadn’t seen it hanging on the wall of nearly every home I visited during those years, I might have wanted it on my wall, too.
I had no geese at all.
I considered adding the geese as an accent. There were geese salt and pepper shakers, but I liked my Vandor shakers. Avon sold a set of measuring spoons shaped like little individual geese. They were adorable, but I didn’t want to measure out my salt in geese.
There were entire sets of dishes devoted to geese.
The trouble was, I already had floral ditzy dishes that coordinated well with my gooseless Vandor Country ceramics. Those dishes were a wedding present from my former mother-in-law. In all the years she gave me presents, those dishes were the only time she got it right. I wasn’t about to replace them.
Other Options for the Gooseless
There were geese wallpaper borders, but we lived in an apartment. I wasn’t going to risk the damage deposit by doing anything to the walls. There were geese towels. My kitchen towels came to me from my grandmother, who had this whole system where she bought dishtowels, cut them in half, crocheted a button-through hanger and sent them to me for Christmas. Thanks to her crafty generosity, I never bought kitchen towels.
My then-husband tried to come through. For one occasion or another, he gifted me a ceramic tureen, a white fowl along these lines:
But here’s the deal. I think it was a duck, not a goose. I mean, I don’t have a photo of it, but I think it was a very pretty duck. I tied a blue ribbon around its neck, and it sat on the sewing machine cabinet in the dining room, overlooking over the garage sale table and sticky chairs in a somewhat imperious manner.
My maybe-goose-maybe-duck tureen had pride of place. It deserved it. I mean, a tureen is a somewhat grand item, yes? But it was almost too special. By the time my then-husband broke it, I’d only used it once.
And Then, the Unthinkable Happened.
…I moved on to dusty pink.
Decorating trends come and go. Grey today, gone tomorrow. The stuff of mania is always packed up and donated eventually, and so it was with America’s 1980s geese. For years, they waddled up and down Goodwill’s knickknack aisle, settling bossily among the shelves of plates and bowls, honking and pecking and reminding me of the eighties. You couldn’t give that stuff away.
But everything old is new again, and other such clichés. The geese have migrated back into American homes. Now, when I see a white goose with a blue ribbon around its neck on Etsy or eBay, I groan at the outrageous prices. I groan, but I smile, too. I always knew they’d be back.
But here’s the thing. If you still love your geese from the 80s, or if you have somehow recently fallen under the spell of the geese, just go to the thrift store. They’re still there. I took this yesterday.