Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part I

Julia Child and friends

The familiar voice — an absurd, bird-like trill of enthusiasm — pulled me toward the living room. Irrationally hoping that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead to once again begin unraveling the mysteries of pâte feuilletée or asperges au naturel, I found instead the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming, if slightly overdone true tale of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who determined to prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking within the space of a year.

Watching the clip, I wasn’t inspired to go searching for my pastry cloth, but I did remember how closely Julia Child resembled my beloved Aunt T. My father’s younger sister, she seemed both exotic and mysterious. In the course of her occasional visits, she dropped advice, humor, and an alternative view of the universe into my life like so many bouquets garnis: nudging me to look beyond the bland certainties of a 1950’s childhood. (more…)

This Reaching is Alive Yet

“July Fourth 1934” ~ J.C. Leyendecker

While it’s possible my mother saw J.C. Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the July 7, 1934 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it’s certain that she celebrated that July 4th with her own mother.

It would have been one of the last celebrations they shared. In November of that year, my grandmother died: leaving my sixteen-year-old mother to care for three sisters, cope with the vicissitudes of life during the Great Depression, and bear what she perceived to be the shame of poverty.

She rarely talked about those years unless questioned. When I asked if she remembered anything from that last July 4th with her mother, she laughed and said, “I know there would have been watermelon!” (more…)

Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Comments (112)  
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Class Acts

Some came here as immigrants. Others were born into the newly-arrived families or grew up among later generations, listening to their elders tell mysterious and compelling tales of those early, shadow-riven years.

A tangled knot of humanity, my family uprooted themselves from England’s Staffordshire hills, fled Ireland’s sweet, green County called Down and sailed away from Baltic seaports, searching for a better life, a richer life, a life more suited to an increase in well-being and independence.

Arriving in Virginia, Philadelphia or New York, they worked their way north, west and south by wagon and by boat. A handful paused in Ohio. Others followed the rivers to Kentucky and Tennessee. 

A few sought true adventurer, like my Great-great-grandfather David. He panned for gold in the Colorado Rockies, fought the Civil War from Vicksburg to the Rio Grande and then returned to Iowa, where he took a sweet girl named Annie as his bride and persuaded her back to Texas. They camped here on the prairie, just to the east of a rail town called Melissa, until the lure of familiarity and visions of deep, loamy soils enticed them back to Iowa, to family and to farm. (more…)

Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 3:48 pm  Comments (142)  
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Purple Cows on Parade

It was, as they say, a ritual. Sunday meant church, a change of clothes and a relaxed dinner.  Sometimes it meant football and other times a bit of yard work but always, if the weather allowed, it meant a drive in the country.

Even without a visit to nearby grandparents, there were excuses to be out and about. There was growing corn that needed checking, bittersweet to be cut from the ditches, fresh gravel to be tested. In spring, we looked for the first robin. In autumn, the last leaves swirled and scudded like vast, colorful clouds while we counted the bundles of snow fence waiting along the shoulders of the road. “They’ve got more fence out than usual,” my dad would say. “Must be expecting a hard winter.”

On the rare afternoons when corn, cattails or bittersweet failed to entertain, we’d read the Burma Shave signs or “collect” out-of-state license plates. There went “Minnesota”, a common enough sight. Here came “Illinois”, a reminder of far-away relatives.  “But look!” I squealed from the back seat. “Montana!”  We might as well have discovered a Bedouin galumphing through Iowa on his camel. (more…)