Excerpt from Grace on the Ledge
January 23, 2016
Our cream-colored three-bedroom pressed brick rancher was built in 1953. It was not one-of-a-kind. I hadn’t been born yet when Mom and Dad knew they needed more space. Two more bedrooms with a connecting bath were added in 1959.
Next big project, the attached garage was sealed up with matching brick. Wide fake wood paneling covered the inside walls.
That space with the green and white checkerboard tile floor was labeled the playroom. And it was. A massive pool table dominated the space. My brothers organized weekend tournaments, to which I was never invited. Added next was a ping-pong table that unfolded overtop the pool table. Great use of space. That game’s first objective was to nab any ball sailing off the table before Mele, the not-so-gently-jawed Shepherd got to it first.Our living room was also named for its purpose, living. I discovered much later in some houses this room was a showcase, set off to the side of an entrance. A few of my closest friends had one. It was always the tidiest room in the house. We never stepped inside. I don’t remember if anyone ever sat there. It was a place reserved for family heirlooms, figurines, and great grandmothers.
Not our house. A solid wood front door opened into a wall-to-wall carpeted living room. This was furnished with a burgundy brocade love seat that left imprints on the backs of our thighs. Two chairs flanked the stone fireplace. Opposite sat a piano to balance out the room. A lot of living happened there.
Mid-July 1969 Dad arrived home from work. With a brand new television set. The plan was to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon. In color! We were charged with excitement. All seven of us huddled close to the hefty Zenith Z4507 resting on a cart with undersized wheels. Silent. We stared at 23 inches of colored horizontal bands on the screen.Dad flipped down the lower apron control door and adjusted both vertical and horizontal knobs. The special news broadcast was preceded by his short lesson on the difference between UHF and VHF frequencies integrated into this state-of-the-art television. And we watched. As best we could.
No one interrupted Walter Cronkite’s commentary. He offered details of every move. He chuckled when the barely visible Neil Armstrong floated off that last rung of the ladder onto the moon’s surface. We were fascinated. History was made. We didn’t want to miss a moment. An hour passed before we realized the pictures would show little color beyond the hazy United States flag being jammed onto the moon’s surface. All cool. We could test out the color features another day.
My brothers and sister and I wheeled and watched that television for years—long after the tubes were nearly impossible to replace. When flu swept through the house it was shoved to sick rooms. One Thanksgiving the Broncos played the Lions. The cart was pushed toward, but not quite into the dining room during the feast. Almost the eighth member of our family, I’m surprised we never named it.
One weekly program called the faithful to the front of the boob tube: “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” This Sunday evening ritual bordered on the religious. Heck, I confess, Walt Disney trumped religion. It was NBC over CCD. We never again knelt at the hearth as a family to recite the rosary. Instead we relied on the TV Guide to manage our less-than-spiritual calendars. Bellowing brass, crashing symbols, and glissing harps beckoned us to dibs the best seat for the show.
You knew you had lost once Tinkerbell’s wand magically struck an invisible bell. After the predictable pushing, shoving and poking, we settled down for the Technicolor movie. Dad set up two TV trays and relaxed into a chair.
Our heavy Sunday dinner was far from digested. A light supper kept us quiet enough. Mom served up cinnamon toast cut on a diagonal and tea in china cups. The only time the menu varied in a decade was when she slipped a greasy misshaped flat pizza pie on an oversized plate. Molded from contents of a Chef Boyardee box, my brothers inhaled food without thought or chew. I hated all cheese. And ate it any way. Food was required, good taste was optional.
Before age ten I recognized Mom’s B.S. in Home Economics did not mean she had earned credentials in cooking. At least twice a year someone at the table would bring up the topic of pie, any fruit flavor. Without hesitation my mother rattled off a complete description of the best method to create a scrumptious filling baked inside the perfect crust.
Soliloquy over, one of us kids always asked, “Why don’t you make that pie?”
Her rapid reply was consistent, “I do. I made that years ago.”
This meant one thing; I was born too late. I would never taste homemade pie.
I looked across the table at my three older brothers and envied their birth order. They had eaten delicious desserts handmade by our mom. There was no hope of another pie in the future for me, let alone my poor little sister.
Home Economics was a respectable academic discipline in the mid 1900s for women in higher education. Both of Mom’s parents had college degrees. My grandfather earned his Master of Arts degree from Western Reserve in Cleveland. He was an industrial arts teacher who specialized in metal spinning. My grandmother was awarded a degree in music education from Bloomsburg Literary Institute and State Normal School.
Education after high school for Mom was presumed. Her mother decided she would major in the broader subjects of the home, family and communities.
This decision may have been influenced by Eleanor Roosevelt. From New York State, her voice of encouragement for women to set and achieve goals to improve the human experience expanded in all directions. It was decided. Mom would attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, over 350 miles away. A delicate peace was reached.
Mom recalled college days as happy. She spoke most about sorority life at the Kappa Delta house on Triphammer Road. Legendary tales of late night parties with brothers from nearby fraternities were shared. She and her Omega Chi sisters devoured photographs of Ava Gardner and Lana Turner in Movie Life magazine, and then tried to shape their lips and eyebrows to match.
The only coursework mentioned specifically was related to the study of nutrition. My Mom’s deep interest in health and medicine piqued as contemporary research linked nutrition to disease. The fortification of foods to feed friends and family members away at war provided motivation. National food assistance programs aimed at children were developed. Mom was keen to make sure all children, anywhere on earth, would receive proper nutrition to grow up healthy.
All five of us kids and my dad survived this kitchen chemist. She read every food label. She evaluated every additive. With cultural support to save time and effort spent in the kitchen, Mom managed our diet-of-the-decade.
Breakfasts varied only by cereal type. The assortment of boxes shifted whenever the door of our old Coldspot opened and closed. Spills happened. Dad’s Nabisco Shredded Wheat was the only staple. We called those oversized dry biscuits “straw bales.” All the other boxes were purchased for the advertised prize inside. Those hidden treasures instigated more fights than any disagreement over shared spaces, or shared toys in my house growing up. Thank you, W. K. Kellogg.
Plastic whistles and flip-top rings were no real prize. Who cared about miniature binoculars or tiny books? Forget the magnifying glass that could be used to torture ants on the flagstones out back. I would eat tasteless soggy Corn Flakes for a week to claim the U. S. Navy Frogman. This toy required a bit of baking soda to power itself the length of a bathtub. Spectacular.
Okay, none of those so-called toys worked quite as pictured on the ads between cartoons. No matter. We fought over unopened boxes every time my mom unpacked groceries.
Breakfast choices expanded as a consequence of our nation’s exploration of space. Food got smaller, dryer, and more portable. We were given the option to drink our vitamins in Carnation Instant breakfast variety packs. My favorite, coffee.
Even snacks changed. We tucked six flavors of Pillsbury Space Food Sticks in our pockets whenever we left the house.
If a food product was labeled “fortified” or “nutritionally balanced” Mom bought it. Looking or tasting like food… not so important.
A typical lunch at home was a can of Campbell’s SpaghettiOs with meatballs and a slice of Wonder Bread coated with sof-spread imperial. “Building our Bodies 12 Ways” was the slogan that sold her. Enriched white flour was another product of the 1940s. My mom lived on the cutting edge of major discoveries.
School lunches were assembled on a production line. Three unmarked brown paper lunch bags were filled for my brothers. Every item was prepackaged except the sandwiches made with Peter Pan, the P-nuttiest, and Welch’s concord grape jelly. Those empty jelly glasses decorated with Dino, Fred and Wilma Flintstone would last forever.
Contents of my lunch tote were predictable and popular. Two slices of white bread glued together with a liberal smear of Goober jelly, a packet of twin Hostess cupcakes (guaranteeing a “Big Delight in Every Bite”), and a single sized bag of Doritos full of good crunches. I used part of my allowance to buy a container of milk every day. Mom’s voice was in my head telling me, “Make good dietary choices.”
Dinner happened at 6:00. Attendance was mandatory for family members and any stragglers. At 5:50 p.m. my mother sounded her household intercom voice, “Patty, come set the table.” No amplification required. I grabbed plastic pink plates from the cupboard and quietly set them unevenly around the table—demonstrating visible, although silent protest. She never acknowledged I had done this on purpose. I am sure she knew.
Consistent with nutritional guidelines she served a meat, a potato or other starch, and a vegetable. Every day. Fruits were to be eaten from a perpetually filled bowl through the day. Meats varied more in name than taste. Vegetables came out of cans. Frozen peas were the exception. Living in Colorado, fish other than fresh caught trout was suspect and avoided.
Potatoes were whipped up on pace with changing technology. No more peeling for Mom, no more lumps for us. She discovered Potato Buds. Mix boiling water, a dash of salt, a hunk of margarine, and freeze dried potatoes. Voila! These were a dietary staple. She purchased them in bulk and knew the proportions by heart. No dinner table lacked the serving bowl holding those potatoes which could have been mistaken for Cream of Wheat. A dollop of oleo and sprinkle of paprika provided positive identification.
Meat was cooked. Completely. No chance of bacteria transmitted for lack of heat in Mom’s kitchen. I can’t broil a T-bone today without reliving the scenes of neglected meat and the cry of “Fire in the Oven!” echoing down the hallway. Oven door slammed, fan switch flipped, back door flung open and crashed into the wall. Routine.
A familiar call from Mom, “Dinner’s ready,” assured us the house was not going to burn down.
Our plates were filled. Steak was identified by the bone. Add a healthy spoonful of spud buds, warmed up canned green beans, and a tall glass of whole milk. We had our fill of nutrients for the day.
Food preparation for a family of seven, including three boys with staggering appetites and jumbo-sized stomachs never seemed to end. Mom applied the information she acquired to make her role in the family efficient and effective. We may have appreciated our rare meals out more than some, but we were never hungry. I don’t remember any of us voicing a question or criticism about the food on our plates. Mom was an educated home economist. And wise.
She understood what was most important in that playroom, that living room, and in that kitchen, had little to do with food.