Family Meals

Recently, when my oldest son and his wife came for a visit, I jokingly inquired which of his favorite dishes he would like me to prepare. Not noting the irony in my tone, he said, doubtfully, “favorite?”, causing me, and Max, to roar with laughter. Cooking is not one of my talents. “Adequate” and “average” are terms that come to mind in describing my meals, although “dreadful” and “awful” often fit, too.

According to my Grandfather Parsons, my Grandmother Hazel [Dee Dee] was a wonderful cook. Her bean soup was great, but I have no other memories of a wonderful meal at her home—and I spent a lot of time with her as a child. My grandfather was a positive and optimistic person; since my memories clash with his statements, I wonder how many of his statements were just PR. Dee Dee’s two daughters were not cooks, either. My mother was a dreadful cook. She prepared pancakes that were burned on the outside and runny on the inside; I have never figured out how she did that. She was also famous for making “cottage cheese” from spoiled milk; of course, no one in the family would eat it. Somehow, we always had a lot of spoiled milk. She could fry steak into hockey pucks. Her worst concoction was something made with asparagus and cheese? and covered with cracker crumbs. It looked like vomit and tasted worse; she served it in the dining room on Sunday meal occasions. But, she was brave. She persisted in providing dreadful meals and inviting friends over to eat, year after year. Once their children were grown, she and my father “ate out” the last thirty years of their lives, to everyone’s relief.

My grandmother and I cooked together when I was a child, mostly treats—cookies, pies, and cakes. I do not have any memories of our fixing vegetables or meat dishes together. When I married at 18 and went off to study at Purdue, I had to learn to cook. We were poor and I ruined a lot of food, which we ate anyway. I only had one small cookbook and I faithfully read and tried the recipes. In my junior year, we both had classes near the Union late in the afternoon and were happy to eat our evening meal there. Unfortunately, my cooking never improved much. It certainly got no better as I had children and juggled college classes with raising babies and small boys. Later, when I started teaching, we had many restaurant meals; I just did not have the energy to cook. The truth is that cooking is something I remember about 5:00 in the evening, if then. Oh…..the-kids-are-hungry-and-what-am-I-going-to-do-now? My mind is on other things. Over the years, I have gathered four shelves of cookbooks, boxes of recipes I clipped from newspapers, as well as boxes of recipes my mother, grandmother, and former mother-in-law clipped from newspapers. Nothing helps. I will never rise above the level of adequate. 

Strangely, though, in spite of the mediocre meals, the dining room table has always been a gathering place for my family. Sitting around the table laughing and telling stories was a tradition that encompassed the three generations I know, as well as the ancestral family groups my grandparents remembered. My grandparent’s home was the gathering place for many meals. With my parents, we had many meals over the years in our homes or at restaurants in which we sat and talked on and on. My sons and I have continued the tradition, sitting for hours around the table in my home, telling the old stories and laughing until we cry. This week, as son Jim and wife Shinobu blew in on an Alberta clipper, we once more enjoyed the pleasures of mediocre food and wonderful talk and laughter. One of the aspects of our talks is that we mostly argue about politics and religion—the forbidden topics of polite conversation. Between my husband and me, and my two sons, and my daughter-in-law, we pretty much hit the ends of several spectrums in politics and religion. We argue and discuss—and we laugh. We tell the old stories and the new stories—and laugh until we cannot breathe and tears run down our cheeks. It is often four-five hours later before we leave the table–refreshed and restored from the food of family love—true comfort food.. Family meals—one of life’s most precious treasures.

Breaking the Rules

My mother loved rules. She would say, “I’m going to make a rule.” and she would. She had all sorts of rules, such as how to properly lay a table for a meal, the selection of music for an event, what should be said in a thank-you letter. Perhaps Miss Manners consulted Mother on various rules; they would have liked each other. When she retired, Mother made a rule to arise at 6:00 a.m., as usual. No slacking off and sleeping until noon for her. Since she was an elementary teacher, making rules fit right into her job description. Rules keep Third Grade in order.

She was also a minister’s wife, and a gracious lady; therefore, she had rules about an orderly house, proper behavior in various rooms, suitable times for meals, proper clothing to be worn, how to behave in church, and such. Being a minister’s family required that the living room always be presentable for callers and guests. In practice, that meant we children could only walk through, not sit there, and walk at a suitable pace, no running. It also meant that the family never used the living room. We lived in large old church manses, so we children had rooms of our own to use; occasionally we had homes with dens or family rooms, which we children could use. The kitchen was the room in which the family most often gathered if the house had no den. When I was a teen, we lived in a smallish house in Knoxville, not as big as the larger manses we were used to. My father used the living room as his place to write and no noisy children were allowed. Later, when we lived in a lovely old house in Salem, he claimed the back parlor as his study and we children, by then two of us rambunctious teens, were relegated to the large, enclosed, side porch. I don’t think my mother thought through the ramifications of this “off limits” living room concept until it was too late. A family that has no place to gather, has no place to be a family. Finally, by the time my parents bought the condo in Columbus where they lived for the last thirty years of their lives, the family was allowed to sit in the living room—a little late, but nice.

I carried on the same silly formal living room concept when I had small children. I say silly, because my husband and I did not entertain formally and had no reason to not use the largest room in our home. But, we were both raised on the formal living room concept—and could not let it go. I did let the boys spread their toys out to play in the living room, but they were not allowed to climb or sit on the furniture. I did not realize how this offended my children until one son retaliated by taking that much-loved [by me] furniture to college, where it was soon trashed. We solved that “no place to be” dilemma by building a large family room where we had room to breathe–and enough recliners and sofas for everyone.

Some rules I broke recently, that I can mention in public, include moving the TV into the living room, putting a recliner in the living room, putting pictures [instead of portraits—who has those now days??] into the living room. Obviously, Mother’s rules about a formal living room were straight out of the Victorian era and British manor houses—and straight out of her mother’s home, where the formal living room concept also prevailed. The formal living room, an unused living room, in our house is gone, replaced by family room casual; now I am just trying to find enough seats for all the big men in the family. The six-footers look extremely uncomfortable in Aunt Francie’s dainty apricot velvet occasional chairs which are basically made for people 5’2”—knees on chin sort of thing. Our living room is rather small, but I am looking for some real men chairs somewhere—what with five six+ footers and two other good-sized men to seat.

Mother-the-rule-maker’s children, an uncooperative lot, resisted all the rules, although all three of us succeeded in rule-dominated occupations–teaching and nursing. Even so, learning to break those rules has been difficult. In countless decisions, some daily, others not, I have to think myself over the hurdle of breaking mother’s rules. It’s sixty years later and I am making some progress.

The Little House with the White Picket Fence

My Grandmother Shafer, Harriet Josephine Doud, called “Hattie,” lived in Thayer, Indiana, from 1928 to 1958. It was the place where my grandfather’s life ended in 1931 and where she remained until about 1958, when she moved to the Home for Presbyterian Ministers and their Wives in Newburgh, Indiana. About 1925, Grandfather Shafer, Rollin Grant Shafer, 1868-1931, who was enduring failing health, became the pastor of the Presbyterian Church near Lowell, in Lake County, Indiana. It was about ten miles from a little town named Belshaw, where the family lived and my father and his sister Helen attended school. Since Grandfather’s family was from Pike County, perhaps this place was chosen because it was nearer to Grandmother’s family in Grundy County, Illinois. His previous churches had been in Southern Indiana and Illinois: Grayville, Illinois; Oakland City and Evansville, Indiana.

In the summer of 1928, the family moved to Thayer, Indiana, in Newton County, where Grandfather became the “supply” preacher of the Thayer Presbyterian Church, a small white-frame church, built in the frame & steeple style so familiar to the Midwest. He was also the mail carrier, a job which required him, morning and evening, to put the outgoing mail in a sack and attach it to the “pickoff frame” to be snatched into the Monon train as it sped by. He carried the sacks of mail thrown off the train to the post office, a room in someone’s home. It was early in the Depression and times were harsh.

The little house in Thayer was purchased for about $1500. This is my father’s description:

“I recall one of our trips to Thayer. The road crossed the Kankakee River about three miles north of Thayer. Going into town from the north, our house was the first one on the right. It was a cute little house with five rooms, a front and rear porch, and a white picket fence. There were five maple trees in the front yard lined up behind the picket fence. In the side yard and back yard there were a cherry tree, a gooseberry bush, a peach tree, and a small patch of raspberries. Off to the side and next to a small garage was the outdoor toilet, the first and last we ever had [ he means they had never lived in homes without indoor plumbing]. For water we had a small pump at the sink in the kitchen. It was after I left for college that a neighbor friend of mine put in an electric pump.” [unpublished memoirs of the Reverend Floyd Doud Shafer].

As I read my father’s recollections of the little house, I was saddened again to read of the decline in family fortunes. Both of my grandparents were well-educated for their time. My grandfather was a graduate of Oakland City College and McCormick Seminary in Chicago; my grandmother, a former teacher, graduated from Bloomington Normal School, now the Illinois State University. My grandfather had successful pastorates at several fairly large churches. Oil had been discovered on his family’s land in Pike and Gibson counties; that lead to speculation, land deals, and who knows what. When the dust settled, he had lost everything, telling my father, who was a small boy, “I’m ruined.” My father was born when Grandfather was 48, so this was probably about 1921-22. To support his family, Grandfather took a position as a circuit minister, traveling to preach at numerous small churches. It was during this time in the early 1920’s that his leg was injured. Then he moved his family to northern Indiana, Lake County, where he had the small church near Lowell and then the small church near Thayer. Clearly, they barely eked out a living. The little white house was not nearly as large or grand as pictures of their previous homes, nor of the homes of their parents—all large two-three story gothic design houses common to the Midwest in the late 1800’s.

My memories of the little white house are fragmented, but vivid. We visited when I was a child—a long drive from Louisville, Kentucky to Northern Indiana on the old highways. The visit when I was 8 -10, around 1952-54, is my clearest recollection. The little house sat near the road in the manner common to horse and buggy days. The living room was on the right as one entered. It seemed dark, full of heavy old furniture. An oil stove, the heat system for the entire house, dominated the living room. The wallpaper was a grayish flower design; the room had a definite Victorian feel—bric-a-brack, lace pieces. There must have been some electricity, but I remember oil lamps in use, too.Two pieces from that room, the Edison phonograph and the oak library table now reside in my sunporch, having journeyed to Louisville, Kentucky; Knoxville, Tennessee; Salem, Indiana; Yale, Michigan; Columbus, Ohio; and finally back to Salem. Everything was neat and organized efficiently.

The bedroom was behind the living room and included the staircase to the two small bedrooms upstairs under the eves. The upstairs bedrooms had slanted walls, linoleum floors, and white iron bedsteads—simple, clean, and neat. The kitchen I remember as light-filled with a number of windows. I was fascinated by the kitchen pump at the large sink, which Grandmother showed me how to use. There was also a pump in the back yard. As my father noted, the house had no indoor plumbing. Chamber pots were used in the bedrooms at night and in cold weather. Grandmother showed me how to use one and then carefully cover the pot, sliding it back under the bed. These had to be carried to the outhouse to be emptied, a trip which required walking down the path in the garden. That visit was in the summer, because I remember the spiders in the outhouse—quite inhibiting. Corn cobs and the Sears catalog were the “toilet” paper. For a city child like me, this cleaning apparatus was indeed a shock, though any child growing up in the Midwest in the mid-20th Century was familiar with outhouses, which were used in parks and rural areas, even today. When I started teaching in Salem in 1977, the view from my classroom windows was east across the football field to the back of a city street, the one I live on, called Water Street. I could see the old outhouses in the backs of the yards from my classroom.

Grandmother, like Grandfather, was a skillful gardener. She showed me her compost. I was astonished that one gathered coffee grounds, egg shells, food scraps, and buried them in the garden. The yard was lush, full of flowers, bushes, and trees, and the large vegetable garden. I do not remember neighboring houses, just fields at the edge of the yard.

I thought the house and yard absolutely delightful. In my mind, it is the ideal, a house where I would want to end my days—a simple white house, surrounded by trees and flowers—warm, cozy, old-fashioned. Of course, I would prefer indoor plumbing and air conditioning. Grandmother lived in Thayer, on and off, for thirty years. After she moved to the Presbyterian Home, the house was sold. Sadly, it burned a few years later.