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.
When Katrina sent me this writing prompt, “The Rocket,” my mind went right to “Crotch Rocket.” This vulgar little term was stuck in my head from my few experiences with men and motorcycles, but did I actually know what it meant? I had to ask my friend Daniel, who thoughtfully provided the following information:
- What it’s supposed to be: A high-performance motorcycle, especially sport bikes, often of Japanese make.
- What it usually is: Just some small motorcycle that goes fast.
- What it never is: A Harley.
- Also known as: A Rice Burner. Am I aware that this is a racist term? I am. I believe it was coined by Harley riders.
I don’t like Harleys because they’re loud. Also, since I know/care nothing about bikes, zero zip nada, the photos in this post are simply photos that appealed to me. There may be Harleys here. Please don’t point this out! Because I don’t care!
And now, on to Men and Motorcycles.
Men and Motorcycles – my family
There are motorcycle people, and not-motorcycle people. In general, I would put my family in the not-motorcycle category, with one notable exception.
When it comes to men and motorcycles, I don’t actually know if my dad ever had a bike. He was young and adventurous when he married my mom and took on us kids (also naive, obviously). A motorcycle seems like something he might have tried, maybe while he was in the Air Force, hanging around with Gary and Crazy Charlie. He’s gone, now, so I can’t ask him.
My older brother would sometimes muse about getting a motorcycle. I inwardly cringed at the idea and tried to steer the subject elsewhere. Brother Steve was an artist, writer, and musician. His fine motor skills were exquisite, but his gross motor skills were lacking. He also had terrible vision with poor depth perception. I worried about him driving. He’s gone too, and I’m glad my time with him wasn’t shortened by any ill-conceived motorcycle doings.
Brother Steve’s talk of getting a bike was probably spurred by envy of our younger brother, who was seventeen years younger than Steve and the exception in the family, as far as motorcycles go. Tall, alternately brooding and sardonic, a former water polo goalkeeper, voted “Most Rebellious” in his graduating class—riding a motorcycle suited my younger brother. He had two BMW K75 sport touring models, a K75c and a K75s. He was easy on a bike, and he definitely looked the part wearing leathers.
He lived in Seattle and I live in Portland. Very early one Saturday morning, I heard a symphony of rumbles, and then a knock on my front door. I opened it. There he stood with three or four of his friends. “We’re on our way to (somewhere) on our bikes, and I wondered if you could make us some breakfast.”
Well of course I could make them some breakfast.
That morning, my sleepy daughters tumbled out of their rooms to find their uncle and his handsome, scruffy friends occupying the breakfast bar, while I filled their coffee cups and poured them OJ and heaped their plates with toast and eggs and every last scrap of breakfast meat I could find in my fridge.
This is just one of the mythic memories my daughters have of my younger brother in his motorcycle years. Imagine, a young uncle you don’t see very often, just showing up at the Bainbridge Bakery with his bike and his beard and his deep, booming voice. For a while, he had a girlfriend who rode her own bike, which seemed even more exotic and interesting.
He eventually got married (not to the bike girl) (she was not that interesting, aside from the bike) and had a family. The BMW sat in his garage, not running, for a few years. I’m not sure how long he kept it there on the off chance that he’d be able to ride it again. I’m pretty sure he sold it. He is a family man, after all.
That leaves us womenfolk. I have no idea whether or not my mother ever got on a motorcycle, and as far as I know, my sister hasn’t had too many motorcycle adventures. But me? Well, I have, but just a few. Here are my adventures with motorcycles and men.
In seventh grade I had a boyfriend named James. He was sixteen, and I met him at my older sister’s birthday party. We probably connected during Spin the Bottle or some such game.
His black-rimmed glasses weren’t appealing to me and his face and hair were always oily. But I liked riding behind him on his motorcycle, my arms wrapped around his sweaty young torso, cruising the crumbling streets of Booneville, Arkansas. Neither of us ever wore a helmet.
If this was dangerous, I was oblivious. I was only twelve years old.
James gave me my first kiss. Much like him, it was rather sweaty and damp. I tried to enter into the spirit of the thing, but he told me, “You kiss too hard.” This was excellent feedback, and I have passed it along to various men over the years. Kiss with the lips. Kiss softly.
James was my boyfriend for only a few weeks before my older sister decided she liked him. I like to say, “My older sister helped herself to my first boyfriend,” but that really isn’t true. For one thing, he wasn’t my first boyfriend. And for another, I gratefully handed him over.
French kisses were far…too…much for my young self.
I was a senior in high school when a young man named Richard moved to Yakima. He was tall and nice looking, and wore a green army surplus coat and rode a motorcycle. He spoke with erudition and dsiplayed intellectual curiosity, which were punishable offenses in our school. He suffered instantaneous social rejection. That meant he had to hang out with us weird kids.
In addition to being socially unclassifiable, Richard was funny and surprisingly charming for a teenaged boy. The girls in our group were all a-flutter, except for me. I was taken. I lived with my boyfriend at the time, pretending to be married so the school wouldn’t call Social Services on us. Richard was intrigued that we were married and appalled by our financial situation (we lived on air). It was so different from his own comfortable life. We must have seemed exotic.
He’d ride his motorcycle over, park it on the walkway in front of our one bedroom apartment, settle onto our vinyl-covered couch and question our ability to survive. He sort of couldn’t get enough of it. He might have been my only friend who had the good sense to question how the hell I found myself in this situation.
Once his morbid interest in our poverty was indulged for the day, he would steer the conversation to his other topic of interest—World War II. Richard and my pseudo-teen-husband Phil both knew a lot about WWII, but Phil liked Patton, not Himmler. Three of his four grandparents were Jewish. He wasn’t a fan of the Nazis.
Richard was! He returned over and over to Nazi Germany’s military tactics. One day he said something like, “You can’t help but admire Goring’s strategy…”
I interrupted him. “Oh, I can. I certainly can help but admire his strategy.”
Richard didn’t understand my life, and I couldn’t really understand his. His father was the president of a local bank. His family home was all French doors and urn-filled patios, tucked into a charming neighborhood on the other end of Yakima Avenue. Richard’s room was hung with motorcycle posters, model airplanes—probably Messerschmitts—and his shelves were full of books about WWII. How had such a conventional family produced such an odd son?
He had an older brother who seemed more, well, let’s just say normal. Richard brought him to one of our weird kid parties. He looked like a darker, more attractive version of Richard. He probably didn’t know what to make of Richard’s oddball friends, WWII fixation, and love of motorcycles.
Richard tried again and again to get me on the back of that bike. He took all the other girls in the group out on rides. The experience left them breathless. Occasionally, it left Richard breathless, too, because sometimes they didn’t understand how to lean with the curves (I’ll just say it, Bev made him wreck his bike, I’m sorry Bev, but you’re no longer with us so this can’t embarrass you).
I’d learned how to lean into curves behind James, but I had zero interest in riding on the back of another teenage boy’s motorcycle. I had, well, adult responsibilities: cats, and a fake husband, and I had to finish high school in one piece so we could move somewhere else where he could find a job. Living on air can only work for so long.
Phil finally drove to Portland to work at a brake shop. This left me on my own for my last term at Eisenhower. I didn’t have a phone, and there had been fractures in my friend group, so most of the time it was just me and the cats. I liked it when Richard showed up, which he did more and more after Phil left town. Sometimes, he even took me out for coffee; I drove, he paid.
“It’s too bad you’re married,” he said in a booth at Sambo’s (or maybe it was Denny’s). “Because if you weren’t, we could hang out.”
I was confused. “But we are hanging out.”
He said something halting about how much he liked me, like, really liked me. I said something dismissive and ended that part of the conversation.
I should have recognized the signs.
One Saturday Richard came by, as he so often did. I’d gone into the bathroom (which was off the bedroom) to tend to the cat box. I’m not sure why he decided to press his case while I was sifting turds out of cat litter, but he sauntered into the bedroom, stretched out on my bed with his hands behind his head, and announced, “I wouldn’t be surprised if you and I had an affair one day.”
I stood up, pointed to the door with my litter sifter, and said, “Get out.”
This isn’t the end of the story. A week or two later, I opened my front door and he stood there, helmet in hand, looking absolutely wrecked. “I’m an idiot, I’m sorry,” he said. Of course I forgave him, but things were never the same after that. I’d crushed the hopes of a teenage boy. He had to gather his dignity around him and carry on. That required a certain distance on both our parts.
We graduated and went our separate ways. I have no idea if Richard became more conventional, or if he’s living in Northern Idaho with like-minded admirers of Nazi military strategy. Wherever he is, I hope he has a better motorcycle, instead of that teenage boy’s crotch rocket. Like, say, a BMW.
That’s German, right?
The Gold Wing, Washington
As an adult, I dated one man who had a motorcycle. Just one. I wrote about him (briefly) in Shopping at the Used Man Store.
Some years ago, I went out with a man who lived up in Washington. He rode a Gold Wing, and he was incredibly funny in an entirely inappropriate way. Every weekend, we found somewhere to go. These trips flowed like long shots in movies, smooth and unbroken and entertaining. We saw each other for an entire summer of jaunts, and the ease with which we traveled together disguised the fact that we had almost nothing in common. We were both funny and tall, and that was the sum of what you could call compatibility. In case you think I exaggerate, he ripped the sleeves off his shirts, chain-smoked, enjoyed Larry the Cable Guy, and collected coffee mugs from all the events he attended for his sobriety program. But the travel was fantastic.
This doesn’t give you all the details. Like, how M and I were fixed up by one of my nearest and dearest friends, who lived in Tacoma. She and her then-boyfriend hosted a dinner at their house, and introduced me to their friend, and we really hit it off to the point where our second date was a weekend at the Oregon coast.
Which we would travel to via motorcycle.
On the freeway.
I was really excited about this trip, almost as excited as I was terrified. He must have left his house (160 miles north of me) very early, because he showed up at my house mid-morning, bearing leathers. The leathers were for me.
Yes, I wore the leathers. He sort of strapped me into chaps and zipped me into this enormous black leather coat. Does that sound sexy? It was not. I felt overwhelmed and immobile in all this leather, like Ralphie’s younger brother in A Christmas Story.
We went outside and he stashed my weekend supplies in his luggage compartments, put a helmet on my head (I had terrible hair for the entire time we dated), and steadied the bike while I climbed on. This was, well, managed with as much dignity as possible.
I asked about the route. In my imagination, we would travel some picturesque and nonexistent alternate route that didn’t have any cars on it, or any semi trucks. But he told me we would get on 217 and take it up to the junction with Highway 26, where we would take the long, wide ramp to the west, and continue on to the beach.
I thought this was fine, actually. St. Vincent Hospital is right there at the nexus of 217 and 26, where I’d recently had surgery, so they’d have my medical records and DNR and the like for when I arrived at their emergency room after a fiery crash while merging onto 26.
I braced for it. It had been a fine life. And who needed both legs, anyway?
We took the ramp, joined up with 26, and headed for Seaside. We reached it with no fiery crashes and all limbs attached. The thing about a Gold Wing is, it’s roomy and comfortable and quiet. This is why Harley riders despise Gold Wing riders. But it suited me just fine.
We had a perfectly nice weekend, with time on the bike leading me to mental exploration of Keats’ theory of negative capability: holding in my head the opposing ideas of, “This is so much fun!” and, “I’m going to die!” without seeking resolution.
When I returned home, I was SO GLAD that both my legs came with me! I knew that eventually, if we kept seeing each other, they wouldn’t. But I’d have fun until then!
This trip kicked off a summer of motorcycle jaunts. My knees got a bit stiff on the longer trips, but if I had knees, it meant I still had legs. I liked smelling the vegetation as we rode along, and making the peace sign to the other bikes (that is the one job of the rider and I wasn’t very good at it but I tried). The helmet was wired for sound, so I could hear Paul Simon singing about Graceland, or the acoustic Scorpions, just fine. And after every single trip, I quietly marveled that I hadn’t lost a leg. I hadn’t even lost an arm!
September came. The change of weather brought a change of heart. I could feel him pulling back. I was too, though I’m not sure he understood that. He was getting ready to leave the country on an extended business trip, and I was so ready for him to go. This was fun and all, the bike and his humor and the strange world of recovery culture I’d sampled that summer. But I wanted to get back to my real life.
I suggested we have a conversation.
So, we got on the phone to to have the conversation. I let him talk. He explained that he wanted to keep seeing me when he could, but he also wanted to start seeing people up north, because they could watch TV together during the week. He mentioned that quite specifically. Watching TV during the week (see: Larry the Cable Guy).
I told him it was fine if he wanted to see other people (obviously, he already was), but I just wanted to be done. No continuing to see each other “when we could.” Which was okay, I reassured him, there were no hard feelings. I liked him, but we were too ill-matched for anything serious (see: shirt sleeves torn off). I didn’t say that last part out loud.
My exact words were, “Let’s just call it a summer.”
He started crying. He didn’t want to let me go, blah blah blah, oh the drama (see: in recovery). He asked for a night to think it over. I saw no point, but fine. I slept poorly that night, and of course he called me the next morning, still in tears, to say he couldn’t date only me.
I told him well, that’s that.
So, my summer on the Gold Wing ended. I would miss those trips, and I would miss him (see: funny and tall). But at the back of my mind, despite the anxious grief that always overtook me when a relationship ended, I was relieved. Very relieved.
I still had all my limbs. And still do, to this day.
It was time to leave Edina behind. After an adoption and a bankruptcy, we moved to Arkansas so my new father could start a Forest Service internship. Its office was based in Booneville, a tiny town up in the lush, swampy, humid northwest corner of Arkansas. We arrived in Booneville as a legal family, a strange little family in a strange little town.
Dad went to work in the Ouachita National Forest. The rest of us spent our days in the falling-down farmhouse I’ve written about before. When we arrived, that house had no air conditioner. It was only May, but it was always hot, day and night. One hundred plus degrees, one hundred percent humidity. We went to school during the week, but on the weekend, we lay limp and gasping, dying fish on the battered linoleum of the living room floor.
My pregnant mother was disgusted. She’d hoped to inch us up the social ladder with a better address in Edina. Perhaps she thought we’d do our part and take up tennis and the like. But we were pallid indoor creatures who were no help at all. Still, this was next level torpid. She couldn’t even rouse her daughters for housework. She used all the weapons in her motherly arsenal to motivate us; rage, accusation, guilt, shame. Nothing could budge us.
One afternoon, we finally heard it on the roof. A patter, then a smatter, then a steady thrumming. Could it be? We rose to our feet, weak from inactivity, and emerged from the rotten shell of that rotten little house. We turned our chalky faces to the sky. It was raining.
Thunder rocked the earth, lightning split the sky, and our mother shouted a warning. But thunder and lightning belonged to Thor, and so did we. We were children of the North.
Well, not such children. My brother was sixteen, my sister thirteen, and I was eleven. We had lost the grace of childhood and become ungainly in our bodies. But there we were, leaping and waving, soaking and spinning, and laughing, all three of us, dancing in the southern downpour.
An Arkansas River
As a Northerner, how do you prepare for the South’s summer heat? You can’t. You can’t even describe it, through you try. Deliquescent, you might say, or oppressive. You struggle through the heavy air like one of those dreams where you’re trying to run. You don’t roast in Southern heat. You drown. It was like living in a terrarium.
But we were children, and children adjust. We more or less acclimated in the weeks before summer. In the early mornings, before the heat became unbearable, my sister and I found a pocket of time in which we could explore this strange new landscape.
We made strange Northern noises as we padded down red clay roads under overhanging trees that resonated with the songs of frogs, insects, and unfamiliar birds. We kept to the center, where we could see the telltale SSS of snakes as they crossed the road, the black scuttle of hairy tarantulas as they went about their scary business.
Within walking distance of our house, we came upon a still river, so dark and green that its depths were impossible to perceive. What was it called? We had no idea. It was just there. Was it shallow? Was it deep? Most importantly, were there snakes?
With great trepidation, we tiptoed across a concrete bridge that had no guardrails. We leaned towards each other, too frightened to shriek. It seemed to me that the viscous green water, thick as mud, would rise up over its sides and claim us, suck us down into the Arkansas waters, leaving behind no trace.
Within a few months, we were used to this different world. We made friends with neighbors who had horses and a private lake. We would modulate our voices to be heard over that symphony of flying, hopping, slithering, scuttling life. We would run across that concrete bridge without fear, without even thinking.
We wouldn’t even sweat.
An Arkansas Creek
No one would ever have accused us kids of being athletic, but water tends to be forgiving of that. We could splash and bob and shriek, practice our shitty crawls and pointless breaststrokes. Swimming in Arkansas gave us a break from the heat and boredom of our tiny town, and removed some of the awkwardness of our growing, graceless bodies.
As a forester, Dad had access to key information for water safety, like when a swimming hole had last been sprayed for copperheads. Once he’d decided the chance of poisonous snakebite was low, he’d pack up us three older kids in our family’s VW van and head for Jack Creek. Mom stayed home with the new air conditioner and the even newer baby brother.
Jack Creek was a pretty place. A diagonal upthrust of rock defined the swimming hole, and provided a place for the more daring to jump. Kids would scale the rocks, edge out, and plunge into what must have been the only water deep enough to safely enter.
How did they keep from breaking their necks?
Sister and I stuck to the still green waters. We would have done that without our mother’s warnings not to break our necks. I was cautious by nature, always watching for the S-shaped ripple of a swimming snake. We didn’t break our necks by jumping in, and we never got bit by snakes. Once, when we were sort of wallowing at the edge of the creekbed, a crawfish bit my sister in the butt. That was the extent of our misadventures with wildlife.
I would have lived at Jack Creek if I could. Swimming there gave us some low-key time with just our dad. He understood parts of parenting that our mother didn’t, like the fact that we needed to go outside once in a while. We would never jump off cliffs, but we needed nature, even if we stuck to the shady spots, muddy banks, and shallow waters.
An Arkansas Lake
I remember swimming at a lake in Arkansas. I thought it was called Green Lake, but I can’t find a lake by that name near Booneville out there on the Internet. My sister thinks it was a reservoir, but I remember seeing fish, and going out on a boat with a friend of the family’s who was fishing. Are there a lot of fish in reservoirs? I have no idea.
Anyway, if you’re reading this and you know what lake it was, leave a comment.
Because Arkansas is mild in the winter, and hot all the rest of the year, we went fairly often, but never often enough. We adored this lake. It had a sandy shore and trees nearby, offering shade if the heat became too much. There were picnic tables and a sense of social possibility. I was eleven when we moved to Arkansas and only twelve when we left, but adolescence was bearing down on my sister and me. There were boys at that lake, including those blonde and handsome Daffron/Daphren brothers.
One weekend, Mom and Dad had gone somewhere for the weekend—probably Fort Smith—leaving my sister and I in charge of our baby brother. Our older brother was away at college by this point. I was 12, which means my brother was a year old. Yes, we were all quite young to be left alone for a weekend, but my sister had been babysitting me since she was five and I was three, so we were used to it.
Anne and Tom—friends of my parents—knew we were home alone that weekend. They had possibly been enlisted to check in on us. Anne called and said Tom had the idea to take us to the lake. Would we like go to the lake with them? Oh, we wanted to go! But we couldn’t figure out how to handle a one year-old. Could we bring his playpen? Would it fit in their car? Would he be okay while we swam? Would Mom be mad?
My sister called them back and said we couldn’t go after all.
When my parents came home, we told them all about our almost-trip to the lake and our oh-so-mature decision not to go. We were pretty proud of ourselves, but I watched my mother’s face harden as we talked. Mom was stony and disapproving.
She finally said, “You know why Tom wanted to take you to the lake, don’t you?”
No, I didn’t. To have fun, maybe?
She hissed, “He wanted to see you in your swimsuits.”
The way she said it. I felt soiled and somehow responsible. That’s what happens to girls as we reach maturity milestones that trigger male interest. We blame ourselves for anything creepy.
No more Arkansas waters
As it turns out, that was the last opportunity we had to go to the lake. We moved to Montana soon after. There was nowhere safe to swim out at the Ranger Station. That didn’t stop me from testing the waters.
I would step into the churning, icy flow of the Gallatin River, hoping to make it to a rock before my feet froze. I was young and lonely and bored, and there was nothing else to do. Why not risk my life?
There was no swimming in that river. I missed those Arkansas waters, warm, lazy and green, my sister beside me, my dad watching to keep us safe.
In her pantry, my mother kept three translucent teacups and saucers glazed with navy blue on white, accented with raised golden swags and dots. From these elegant vessels, she claimed to sip tea with her friend Jim while they worked jigsaw puzzles or did the New York Times crossword.
I had my doubts. We weren’t tea drinkers in my family. Mom and Dad started their day with coffee in ceramic mugs bought while touring England. Still, Mom kept her regal teacups, insisting they were objects of utility.
Hardly anyone in America uses the cups and saucers that come with their dishes, and Mom had a dozen in her English transferware pattern (Johnson Brothers, Old Britain). So she had no need of those delicate cups. I think she just admired their unmistakable whiff of extended-pinky snobbery.
Mom came from rural South Dakota, but her parents relocated to North Hollywood when she was a young teen. She made friends with girls from prosperous families and enjoyed beaches, cotillions, and trips to Catalina Island.
These halcyon days came to an end when she married a sailor and became a mother at age seventeen.
Soon after, my grandfather’s business failed. My grandparents retreated to South Dakota. When her marriage failed, so did my mother, but she’d been infected with class awareness.
She never recovered.
Social class had a code, and Mom wanted to crack it. She understood that the more comfortable echelons of society actually used their beautiful objects, so she strove to do this. She glowed with pride over her Johnson Brothers dishes. My parents ate from those pink castles every single day and ran them through the dishwasher.
On her entry table, she kept a huge antique Asian bowl she considered valuable. That was where she threw her mail and keys. Alongside it stood two large white ceramic rabbits with pink eyes; knickknack outliers.
My mother first saw these rabbits in an expensive gift shop in 1977. She spoke of them with longing and bitterness, because she never had enough money to buy anything as costly and wonderful as those big white rabbits.
My brother, sister and I pooled our meager funds and bought them for her birthday. We thought she would be thrilled, but she seemed disappointed that she could no longer complain about that particular deprivation.
Eventually, more white rabbits came her way as gifts. “I don’t want to collect anything,” Mom complained.
Collecting was middle class.
My mother would not suffer the social embarrassment of accumulating fussy objects that had no use. She preferred to pass them along to me with the admonishment, “You should keep this. It will be worth money someday.”
I accepted various knickknacks (including the largest white rabbit), ornate teapots, and flowery teacups, and kept them against that promise of future value right up until Mom died. Then, I quietly donated almost everything she gave me.
But not everything…
I claimed the various large white ceramic rabbits. Each spring, I display the entire fluffle on my dining table. I even added one this last year, so the current count stands at six. My mother would be horrified.
She may have thought it tacky to have knickknacks, but Mom had a stash of extraneous flowered porcelain somewhere. I’d seen it. After Mom died, my father offered up her small accumulation to me and my sister.
My sister reluctantly took “Grandma Lucille’s teapot,” ancient and oval, patterned with pansies. It had been promised to her years before with great solemnity. Somehow her desire to actually own it was never taken into account. She accepted it with duty, not desire.
I took two small bowl and pitcher sets, and a Wedgewood “Windrush” demitasse cup and saucer. Mom had the pitcher sets as for long as I could remember, but where had the demitasse come from? Had she bought it on a trip to Europe? Dad didn’t remember. It held no sentimental value, but was too pretty to let go.
Finally, Dad opened the cabinet and offered up the imperial three, those delicate navy blue and white teacups trimmed with gold, saying, “I’ll never use them.” To his surprise, Cat and I both declined. They meant something to Mom, but nothing to us.
Those swagged and stately teacups reemerged seventeen years later at Dad’s estate sale. They went quickly, I imagine to a person who never uses them. That’s what I like to think, anyway. I hope they sit proudly on a shelf, gathering dust, their potential utility ignored in favor of their regal beauty.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I miss you every single day.
In 1984, my then-husband and I were ready to turn over a new leaf, and upgrade from an old Formica-topped table we’d been using for several years. This table was, of course, a parental castoff.
My parents had used it in their kitchen, then on their deck. When they bought some beautiful wrought iron furniture at a Meier & Frank warehouse sale, they passed it along with two wooden chairs, Nichols & Stone beauties marred by a strange, sticky finish. Mom let me know that they were “really good” chairs.
Yes, but they were sticky.
It was a temporary solution, but as my mother had explained to me, “Temporary solutions have a way of becoming permanent.” Her example was a crate used as an end table, something you do in college. Ten years later, you look up and that crate is still there, being used as an end table.
Mom had a point. Our entire apartment was furnished in temporary solutions, castoffs and loaners and curbside finds. We’d been using that patio table for at least three years. I used my dad’s staple gun to staple on a new vinyl tablecloth every now and then, but still. I decided to take a look at the “World’s Largest Rummage Sale.”
A heck of a sale
This secondhand extravaganza was held each year in the Memorial Coliseum by Catlin Gabel, a private school in Northwest Portland. The donation drive went on for months, resulting in an astonishing assemblage of upper-crust castoffs. I knew I could find something at the Catlin Gabel sale.
Boy, did I. A square pine table with a dark finish set me back all of $25.00. Such a bargain, for a “really good” table. It was solid, with a pieced top, braced corners and sturdy turned legs. At one time it had a leaf, because it had a central join with pegs on one side, holes on the other, and levered closures (like the ones you find on windows) underneath to hold the two halves tight.
I think someone built this table in a home workshop. Mom was a furniture snob—she’d worked selling furniture at one point in her life—and she approved of the quality. So did I. My husband didn’t understand why we liked it so much, but it fit in our apartment’s dining space, nicely accommodating our family of four.
It made the move from apartment to our first home, where we grew to a family of five. I thought we were fine. Each side could hold two chairs, especially when two were occupied by little girls. But my husband decided that we no longer fit.
A new leaf
He unscrewed the legs, carted the tabletop somewhere for measuring, then carted it back home and put it back together. “We need a new leaf.” I asked him who was making this new leaf. “I know a guy,” was the most he would tell me.
That’s all he would tell me about, well, anything. He followed his father’s advice to “Never tell a woman where you’re going, or how much money you have.” Fine, then. I retaliated by refusing to be curious (can you see how well this marriage was going? but that is not the point of this blog post. well, not really.).
He brought the new leaf home and unveiled it with pride. I was appalled. It had cost $85.00 to have it made for our $25.00 table, and it wasn’t even finished. He said he’d finish it himself, but I knew him. I covered the raw wood with a large tablecloth and got on with life.
The five of us ate dinner together at the elongated table for a few more years. The girls perched on rickety wooden kitchen chairs my husband found secondhand. Us adults continued to sit in the chairs with the sticky finishes.
But he made it home for dinner less and less. Shift work, most of the time. Other times? Who knew. I was resolutely incurious. It was my only defense.
His sticky chair wasn’t usually empty, though. We had dinner almost nightly with my friend Lauren, whose own marriage had ended. Her two kids came to my house after school, and it was easy to feed them dinner on weeknights. She reciprocated on weekends. That filled up the table very nicely.
When my husband finally moved out, the nightly dinners with Lauren and her kids continued. She was right there, every single day, helping me find (and keep) my footing. We formed our own little Kate and Allie situation.
But times change. I went back to work myself, and worked strange hours. My kids were with their father and his new girlfriend part of the time. One of my girls needed extensive surgery, so my family came down to help a lot that next year.
Eventually, Lauren remarried, and I began my single life adventures. But I believe she kind of, you know, saved my life. And I mean that.
Turning over a new leaf
Destruction brings opportunity.
That’s a realization you have after undergoing fundamental devastation. I was grieving the end of my marriage, terrified by the disruption of my children’s security, and just plain furious. But I had to move on. I needed to recognize the opportunity for change.
On the level of personal identity, this meant reclaiming parts of myself I’d set aside. I’d been told by my husband that for the marriage to work, I simply could not be me. I’d given away half of myself (or more, if I’m honest) to be part of that marriage. I wanted it all back and then some.
On the mundane level, that included making decisions about the house and how it was furnished. I looked at every part of my home to make sure it was exactly how I wanted it. Those creaking, rickety kitchen chairs had to go. I laid away four solid oak chairs at an antique mall in Newberg. They were early American in style, and very sturdy. I can’t remember what I paid, maybe $35.00 each? They’d been consigned by a Catholic monk who had finished them himself.
Once I got those home, I felt exalted. No more crappy chairs around my table! I took the table outside, painted the skirt and legs, and refinished the wood top. This included (finally) finishing the leaf, which I had considered taking out. We were back down to a family of four. We didn’t technically need it.
But I’d grown used to the sweep of a larger table. Plus there were kids’ birthday parties to consider. And family dinners on holidays. And all those freaking piles of laundry to fold.
More destruction brings more opportunity
The 2006 house fire allowed me to make more changes, not just in my home’s layout as it was being rebuilt, but in furnishings, because so many were lost. I have a new table now, a sweeping eight-footer. It took some years and some shopping, but it is now flanked by six sturdy modern chairs my daughter found for me on Marketplace.
All on my own, I found two bow back Nichols & Stone chairs for the head and foot of the table (thank you Goodwill, for pricing these beauties at $9.99 each). I like the blend of modern and traditional. And I love a bargain.
The remaining sticky chair is in the bedroom. That’s where I set my purse, and where I heap garments when I can’t decide what to wear.
The oak chairs made it through the fire, and I used them as a temporary solution around the new table. That temporary solution lasted fifteen years before they went to Goodwill. I was glad to see them go. They were sturdy, and gave me good service, but they were also tall and pale and dated. One of them had a little green paint on it. That’s how I identified it when I saw it at my local Goodwill, priced at $14.99.
So long, old oak chairs. It was good to know you.
I kept the old table, which also made it through the fire just fine. I’ve loaned it out twice, once to a friend who used it as a desk, then to a daughter until her boyfriend surprised her with a new dining set. Currently, it leans against a wall in the garage, legs detached, solid and square as ever, waiting to be called into service. The new leaf is there, too, minus a skirting board, but still usable.
I like that table. It would work nicely if I ever call it up as a desk, maybe for the office I plan to create in one of the spare rooms. I’m not sure.
Like I said, it’s a really good table. It was always a really good table.
That’s why I’ll never let it go.