During this time when everything seems topsy-turvy, I am finding myself pulled to activities that are concrete and easy to finish. I planted a small vegetable garden, pulled up the weeds around my perennials and have flowers to plant when this strange cold snap is over.
But this morning as I woke up to our North Georgia “blackberry winter”, I headed to the kitchen for some comfort baking. Perhaps you have felt the same need.
My mother loved to cook and on rainy summer days she would allow me into her kitchen to make a mess. The first thing she taught me to do was to put a piece of wax paper down to catch the crumbs and dribbles and keep the counter clean. We would pull out the pound cake pan, rub it with butter and then dust it with flour. She taught me to always crack the eggs into a separate bowl in case one was bad (in my whole life I think I’ve had one bad egg!) and to use the blunt end of a knife to level out the dry ingredients. If the butter needed melting, we put it in the top part of the double boiler and boiled water on the stove in the bottom part.
When our son Adam was a toddler, Mama gave him a nice Kitchen Aid mixer. I would pull a chair up to the kitchen counter for him to stand on and we made box cakes and chocolate chip cookies. He loved the way the mixer made a vroom sound, sort of like a race car. Almost thirty years later, I’m still using that same mixer and Adam loves to cook.
The three old bananas on the table were screaming to be made into bread. I laid out my piece of wax paper and pulled out the mixer from the pantry. The stove heated up my small kitchen and I listened to NPR on my phone as I measured and stirred.
In this time when the smallest trip out seems like walking into a landmine, the clatter of measuring cups, the lightness of the flour and the simple act of breaking the eggs brought me back to a time when life was predictable and safe. Despite our modern conveniences, baking is still about flour, baking powder, salt and eggs.
I slid the loaf pan with the banana bread into the oven and gathered up the wax paper containing the banana peels and flour dust and tossed it into the trash. The warm water felt good as I washed up and the smell of the bread filled the house.
In my kitchen this morning, I felt close my mother, as well as my grandmothers and aunts, women who found their identity from their signature dishes and desserts. As a child I never appreciated the hours they spent planning, shopping, organizing and cooking the many daily and holiday meals that I ate with gusto. I wondered how many times they felt comforted from the routines of their kitchens during the times of uncertainty in their lives.
As we enter into this “new normal” phase, what is bringing you comfort?
My mother-in-law Bobbie loved to tell the story of the time Keith gave her a Mother’s Day card that said, “To someone who has been like a mother to me.” She would throw back her head and roar with laughter, because it was so like him to run into the store and grab the first card he could find. But it would have been an appropriate card from me.
I loved my mother-in-law and in many ways I was closer to her than to my own mother. From the first time I visited with Keith in her small house in Paducah, Kentucky, she welcomed me with open arms. She treated me with the same exuberant love that she showered on Keith and his brother Alan, and later on Adam. She would literally do anything for one of us.
Bobbie was a character, a small woman who was funny and smart and exasperating. She was obsessively clean and neat and her house was always spotless. She loved Elvis and Neil Diamond, dessert, classic cars, old movies and CNN. She was happiest in her home, and loved to have company visit her there.
She was a talker, and back in the days when I was a stay at home mom, we spent hours sitting around the table drinking coffee or out in the yard while Adam played, and she told me the stories of her life. Growing up as the youngest of three sisters in a house with lots of yelling and strife, she vowed that she would never have that in her life. She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, yet dropped out of school at 16 to marry her boyfriend in order to get away from home. (She later finished her GED and nursing degree.) She moved with him to his parents’ house in the country, where, in the late 1940’s, they had no electricity or running water. When he became abusive, she left him, something that was unheard of for the times. Keith’s father, Lester, was 12 years her senior and had been friends with her older half-brother. The story goes that he saw her out roller skating when she was a little girl and vowed that someday he would marry her. After her divorce, they got together and had a long and loving marriage until his sudden death from a heart attack when she was just 55. A few months before she died was the anniversary of his death and she commented to me, “I never thought I would live 20 years without him.” Although she grieved him every day, she chose to not be down and was always upbeat.
Adam was her only grandchild and literally the light of her life. For the first five years after he was born, she drove the 6 hours from western Kentucky to visit, but hated being away from her house. After a particularly difficult drive back in a snowstorm, and with Keith’s brother Alan moving away, she made the hard decision to leave her snug little home with all her memories and move into a new house overlooking a pond a few miles from us. I was frankly worried about having her so close – now she would see how we really lived! – but she was always careful to allow us our privacy and was never critical of me. Adam loved having Nanny close by to spoil him and they had a special relationship. She loved him totally and unconditonally. She would often say, “My friends think their grandchildren are smart and cute, but Adam really is the smartest!” He was 14 when she died and when he got his license a few years later, he wished he could have taken her for a drive. “Nanny would have loved that.”
She could be frustratingly stubborn and independent. One swelterng summer afternoon after she moved to Resaca, she had some friends from Paducah visiting. I went by to say hello and found them sitting in a thin slice of shade on the back porch. Her air conditioning had gone out and she was sure no one would come out on a Sunday to fix it, so she had just accepted that they would be hot. “We’ve all lived without air conditioning before,” she said. The temperature in her house was about 90, and no way could they sleep there. I got on the phone and had someone out to fix it within the hour. She would have never asked us for help.
Smoking was her biggest weakness. She knew it was bad for her, but chose to smoke. Like my mother, she had always been able to eat whatever she liked and stay thin until she hit her 30’s and 40’s, when she began struggling with her weight. She once quit smoking and gained 10 pounds in a week, and swore never to do that again. As she told her doctor, “I don’t drink and I’m not having sex, so don’t take away my cigarettes.”
She also loved sweets and her motto was, “Eat dessert first in case you run out of room.” She battled her cholesterol, but would sacrifice in order to have a huge slice of pie. In the end she died of a stomach aneurysm, probably caused from the smoking, but I wished she had enjoyed more pie and worried less about her cholesterol.
One of the traits I loved the most about her was her honesty. She didn’t believe in sugar coating the past. Even though she and Les had a strong marriage, she admitted that she remained angry with him over some things even after his death. I grew up in a strait-laced family where appearances were important, and being with Bobbie was a breath of fresh air. She taught me that marriage is work and that no matter how strong our personalities, sometimes we have to give in to keep the peace, and that a wife needs to make her husband feel special.
The key to her positive attitude was her deep faith. She had not had an easy life, yet I never knew her to wallow in self-pity or fall into depression. She had a special place in her house where she read her Bible each morning and I am sure the many prayers she sent up for me and Keith and Adam were what got us through.
She has been gone 12 years now, but it doesn’t seem like it. Instead of sadness, I feel happy when I think of her. I am happy she got to see Adam almost grown, that she died quickly and did not have to go through a long drawn out illness, that she never had to move out of her house or lose her mind. However trite it sounds, she was pure love toward us her family and I was privileged to be included.
We will soon be adding a daughter to our family and I am thrilled. Jess and her mother have a close relationship and she will probably not need me in the way I needed Bobbie, but I am looking forward to the years ahead and all that holds for her and Adam. I hope and pray I can be the support and cheerleader for her that Bobbie was for me.