The Gray of November

In New England, November is gray.  The lemon skies of last summer are now streaked with gray clouds that  threaten to wash rain and sleet over the granite curbs, across pavements and into the churning gray waters of the Amoskeag River.  The trees that a few short weeks ago were afire with crimson and gold now stand naked and trembling in the cold November wind.  Pastel blouses are packed away, replaced by wooly sweaters, and windows are latched to keep the frigid nights from creeping into my bedroom to steal the warm air from under my thick comforter.

You might  think that I would dread the eleventh month of the year, but I embrace November.  I love the chilly breezes that promise to coat the wooded area behind my house in sparkling blankets of white snow.  I love the scent of wood smoke that curls from rooftops and wafts across the crisp evening sky.  I love the snaking lines of squirming children, who impatiently wait to sit on Santa’s knee, and the decorated wreathes and trees that overnight appear in store windows.

November brings Thanksgiving- a time for all good families and friends to bond together over food and football.  When I was growing up, Thanksgiving meant waking to the spicy aroma of turkey that was already roasting in the oven.  We would drag out the cut glass and crystal dishes from the back of the china closet, and fill them with stuffed celery and black olives- delicacies that in our home were served only on holidays.  The windows in my mother’s kitchen would cloud with steam as we brought bowl after plate of turkey, stuffing, and vegetables to our crowded table.  And there would be pies- big sloppy pies, smelling of clove and cinnamon, overflowing with apple and pumpkin.  Before dinner, we would crowd together around our mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He had graced our family.

After my children were born, we often joined my mother, my sister Martha-Jean and her husband Robert for Thanksgiving dinner.  Their old farmhouse teemed with kids- cousins who banded together to play board games, trade baseball cards, and commiserate over teenage acne.  Tables would groan from the weight of plates filled with homemade bread, cheese, vegetables and dip.  The turkey sputtered from the bulging oven and pies lined the counter. Finally, at dinner time we would crowd together around mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He had graced our family.

Last Thanksgiving, my mother had just received a diagnosis of leukemia. She was already weakened, preferring the comfort of her bedroom to joining the family for dinner.  I ran back and forth from the kitchen to her room, bringing her snacks, filling her coffee cup, and sitting with her. Robert brought her a big box of chocolates and we indulged together, giggling like two naughty little girls who were sneaking treats.  I treasure that last holiday with her.  The memory is a gift I pull out of a soft velvet case every now and then.  I close my eyes and the world stops.  I hear my mother’s laughter, feel her soft cheek, smell her soft curls.  But mostly I see her kind gray eyes.

This year Thanksgiving is different.  Gabriel will spend it with friends in Florida.  Abby will split the holiday between our family and her future in-laws.  Elizabeth will be preparing for Black Friday sales.  And for the first time, my mother will not be here.

The cold gray November skies will remind me of her warm gray eyes- eyes that lovingly watched her children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren gather around a Thanksgiving table.  I will lift a toast to her and then we will once again gather around mismatched tables and chairs, hold hands, and thank God for the bounty with which He has graced our family.

Breakfast of Champions

I recently read that several classic breakfast cereals are in danger of being discontinued.  The list included such old favorites as Special K and Cheerios, and got me thinking about the breakfast foods I ate as a kid.

I grew up at a time when parents fed their children the caloric equivalent of a five course dinner before school every morning.  Much like the breakfast scene in “Pleasantville,” my mother’s idea of a morning meal included hot cereal, eggs, toast, hot cocoa and juice, and we were expected to eat them all.  Every morning, there was a large pot of oatmeal, Ralston, or cream of wheat on the stove, sometimes served with raisins, and often sprinkled with brown sugar.  Eggs were scrambled in a cast iron fry pan, and toast was sliced from huge loaves of homemade bread, and dripping in butter.  Prepackaged toaster pastry and instant breakfast were anathema in our home.

During the dog days of summer, we were allowed to eat cold cereal.  Corn flakes, Shredded Wheat and Cheerios were staples in our pantry, punctuated by special times when my mother brought home Wheat Honeys and Rice Honeys.  And on very rare occasions, we were given the breakfast treat of all treats- the Variety Pack-little single serving boxes of cereal, mostly presweetened, with perforations to cut open so that (gasp!) after pouring in the milk, you could eat right out of the box.  We kids thought we died and went to Heaven.  We demolished a ten- pack in one sitting.

But in New England cold mornings outnumbered warm ones, and as soon as school started in September, my mother insisted on more substantial breakfasts.  To add variety to our menus, she often made dried beef gravy, a concoction of evaporated milk, dried beef and egg, served on toast.  We kids giggled at the Army’s name for this dish*, but we loved it.  Years later, I tried serving it to my own children, who sat at the table with tear-filled eyes, begging, “Do we have to eat this stuff?”

Probably my mother’s most creative breakfast idea came after I was out of high school. She decided to offer my younger brothers and sisters grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup for breakfast.  Her reasoning was sound- the meal contained all the major food groups.  It was hot.  It filled bellies.  They loved it.  I don’t think any of us still eat it for breakfast, but it remains a family favorite for lunch or supper.

When I had my own family, I didn’t share my mother’s dedication to cooking huge breakfasts.  Abby had a habit of fainting if she didn’t eat right away in the morning, so waiting for eggs or a pot of hot cereal wasn’t an option. Instead, I made my kids “teddy bear toast”- a slice of toast slathered with peanut butter and a sprinkling of raisins to form eyes, nose and a smile.  I bought instant oatmeal.  And yes, I confess, sometimes I bought presweetened cereal.   I tried to limit it to snack time- I figured it was no worse than eating cookies.  All three kids would sit on the living room floor to watch an hour of Sesame Street, while munching on dry Cocoa Puffs from a plastic Tupperware bowl.  Then I realized if I stored the cereal and bowls on the bottom shelf in the kitchen, the children could get their own breakfast and I could sleep an extra hour on Saturday mornings.  It was one of my smartest decisions.

Now my kids are grown.  When they are home with me, we stumble around the kitchen in an awkward morning ballet, stirring coffee and toasting bread.  I breakfast on Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts.  It’s healthier for me.  It’s quick and easy.  It’s low in cholesterol and high in calcium.

But every once in a while, on dark New England mornings, I stir in my bed and long for the smell of oatmeal, bacon and coffee wafting from the kitchen.  Mmmm… Breakfast of Champions!

*If you do not know the Armed Forces’ name for this culinary masterpiece, ask any soldier.  Momma G does not write swear words in her blog.

Growing at 30 Green Street

My mother could make anything grow.  I was reminded of this yesterday when I drove to western Massachusetts to see my sister Teri. Teri still lives in the town where we grew up.  I arrived early, so instead of going straight to her apartment, I took a short detour and drove by the house my family occupied during my childhood.  I parked my car across the street and surveyed the outside of 30 Green Street.

I was struck by what a small house it is.  Certainly, when I was a child, it did not seem small, but it is around fifteen hundred square feet, with three bedrooms and one bath; hardly a palace for a family of ten.  When we first owned the house, it was painted gray, and then brown, and then, for many years, it was green. 

The little house is a delicate shade of yellow now, with lavender and white gingerbread trim, and the front garden is lined with a black plastic border and solar lights.  My mother and I planted flowers in that garden- holly hocks and snap dragons along the porch wall, portulaka, petunias and marigolds in the middle, and dusty miller and hens and chickens along the brick path.  In the back yard, there were vegetables- peas, tomatoes and beans, squash and cucumbers.  My mother’s gardens were robust and prolific, bursting with color and ripe with fruit.  The first year she turned up the earth, my father stood on the porch and declared, “Nothing will grow in that dirt.”  But my mother believed that she could plant a garden and let it grow.  A few months later, she had vegetables to feed her family and flowers to line the side walk.

When I was young, the north side of the house was shaded by a large catalpa tree that dropped its flowers and beans on the ebony earth where grass refused to grow.    We called it the side yard, and used the patches of bare dirt to play tic-tac-toe, scratching our marks with sticks.  My mother planted coleus that turned the barren areas to lush Persian rugs.  The catalpa tree was taken down and we planted a blue spruce seedling in its place. When my children were in elementary school, we paid a visit and I took a snap shot of the three of them, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of its huge trunk.  Yesterday, I was crushed to see that the blue spruce had been cut down.  Only its stump remained as a reminder of what was once a magnificent conifer.

I slowly drove down Dye House Hill, peering through wooded areas to see the river.  During the springs of my childhood, the river fervently rushed across its bed, bubbling and cresting around the rocks and along the banks. Down by the river was where my sister and I played Tarzan and made “medicine” for mosquito bites out of stem sap.  Down by the river was where we went to think, and explore, and push each other into skunk cabbage.  Down by the river is where our cats, Perfidia, Tuti-Fruity, Inky and Horatio hunted for mice and moles to triumphantly bring home and lay on the porch as gifts for their family.

But now, the river is gone.  The water is dried up, the banks overgrown with trees and shrubs. 

I drove slowly down the hill, past the bridge where I waited for the bus on rainy April mornings, past the church steps I climbed every afternoon on my way home from school.  The mill was abandoned.  The stores had new owners and new signs.  The pharmacy with its lunch counter was gone.  The Post Office had moved.  Nothing was the same.  

“Everything has changed,” I thought sadly.  “Everything has changed.”

I was sad for most of the ride back to New Hampshire.  Then it occurred to me.  The little yellow house is a building.  It is not the people who were in it.   Down by the river is a place.  It is not the people who played there.  It is not the granite retainer walls or the tree, or the flowers that I miss.  What I miss is the children who jumped off the porch steps two at a time, and played hopscotch in the driveway.  I miss the adventure of exploring down by the river, the contentment of snuggling close to a new baby brother or sister, and the delight of crowding all eight of us into the way back of the station wagon to go for ice cream on a hot summer night.  My soul does not ache for the walls of the house on 30 Green Street.  It aches for the people inside those walls, who filled it with laughter, who filled it with love.

So today, I am going to touch base with those people who lived with me at 30 Green Street.  I will tell my siblings that I love them.  I will whisper a prayer for our Mom and Dad and with a lump in my throat, remind myself that we will someday be together again.  I will make sure that my children know that it is not so important where you live as it is with whom you live.  Like my mother did, I will plant my garden and watch it grow.

Squash it!

When I was a little girl, I detested squash of all kinds.  My mother would put one small slice of zucchini or one dollop of mashed butternut on my plate, instructing me to “try just one bite.”  I would wait until only that one lonely bit of vegetable remained on my plate, and then try to gulp it down without tasting it.  I tried salt, ketchup, and even washing it down with milk but it always made me gag, threatening an encore performance of the other, more palatable foods I had swallowed. 

When visiting my aunt and uncle in Maryland, I found that dinner one evening consisted solely of squash casserole.  I still remember my uncle smacking his lips, declaring, “That squash is delicious-sweet as a nut!”

“You’re the nut” I grumbled under my breath, trying to ignore my belly’s rumbling.  At fifteen, I dared not tell him I hated squash.  I went hungry that night.

Lots of people don’t like squash.  In fact, lots of people don’t like vegetables.  I know people who don’t eat anything green or yellow. I think it is maybe because they were forced to eat stuff that made them gag when they were kids.

When Abby was a baby, I was determined that she would not be a picky eater.  I made most of her baby food for her in a grinder.  She loved unusual foods and would gobble down things like bits of bleu cheese and slices of apricot.  One day, however, I bought jarred baby food, thinking it would simplify my life.  I warmed the vegetables and beef dinner, trying to ignore the fact that it closely resembled dog food both in smell and appearance.  Abby took one whiff and turned her head. 

“How can someone who eats bleu cheese scoff and good old American Gerber’s?” I asked.  I decided I could be as stubborn as she was and insisted she eat the full amount.  She gagged and protested, but she ate it.  Smugly satisfied, I commended myself on not being outdone by a one-year-old.  Then she calmly and quietly barfed the entire jar onto the tray of her high chair.  So much for force feeding.  So much for Gerber. 

I decided that the kids should try a little of every food, but not be forced to eat things they hated.  This worked to some extent, but sometimes they decided they didn’t like things before they even tried them.  I remember Gabe staring for the first time at a steaming bowl of pea soup, declaring, I don’t like this stuff.”  Try as I might, I could not get him to taste it.  I even thought of blind-folding him, but decided doing that bordered on child abuse even more than making a three-year-old eat pea soup.

Shortly thereafter, I was grinding homemade beef and vegetable soup in the blender for Elizabeth’s baby food when I realized that once blended, vegetables were no longer recognizable. Ureka! I thought. I could add a plethora of vegetables to the broth, grind them to a silky consistency, and nobody would look into the bowl and declare “Eeeew! It has celery in it!”  Added to this discovery was the advantage that the soup had the consistency of gravy and was far easier and less messy for young children to eat.  Needless to say, I rode that wave for years.

Hard to believe, my kids grew up to love vegetables.  The girls, now grown women, are vegetarians.  Gabe, although still a carnivore, eats all kinds of veggies.  When they are all home, half of my grocery budget goes to fruits and vegetables.

As for me, for some strange reason, the summer before I left for college I tried a bite of garden fresh yellow squash, steamed, swimming in butter, with a sprinkling of salt and pepper.  To my astonishment, I liked it.  I tried other squashes- zucchini, butternut, acorn, spaghetti- and found that I liked them too.  I even have concocted my own recipe for butternut soup.  Now, if I could just find a way to like exercise…

Momma G’s Butternut Soup

1 large butternut squash, peeled and cut up into cubes

1-2 large yellow onions, peeled, sliced and sautéed in olive oil till soft and caramelized

1 clove garlic, peeled, mashed, and sautéed with onions in olive oil

1 can of chicken or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Cook squash in boiling water until soft.  Run squash, onion and garlic through food processor or blender in small batches until smooth.  Add lemon juice and enough broth to thin to preferred consistency.  Add salt and pepper to taste.

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