When I was a kid I thought little of it.
And as a teenager I rarely thought beyond myself. But, as the years have gone by, I enjoy crediting my parents for gifts they gave me that have shaped the better part of me--for the experiences, dreams and loves they shared with me.
Dad gave me eccentric aunts and uncles- -sometimes weirder than dirt, sometimes just plain nuts, yet woven into my life nonetheless and I wouldn’t change a stitch. With them came a family tie to wealth (mostly long gone by the time I was old enough to collect a kid’s weekly allowance), tons of stories, a love of music, a passion for swimming, and my bay, Mobile Bay, which was introduced to me by Dad and his bayside family. I also seem to have inherited his poor temper and the inability to let go of the things that yank at that temper. But he loved me and that took a lot of tempered patience on his part.
And poor Mom, she must have swallowed patience like Prozac; I was told over and over how I could drive even a saint crazy. Oh, I am sure my sister was a sassy, strong-willed handful too, but Mom managed to let us know that we would never be kicked to the curb—we were hers and she was ours. In the world of Nature some eat their young—we were not eaten.
One of the things I loved (still do) the most about Momma were her girl friends, her gang. To put it in New Orleans’ speak: if my Mom was a Mardi Gras Indian, her friends would have been ‘pretty’ in their dresses and heels, with ice clinking loudly from their highball glasses of bourbon as they waved their Camel cigarettes with flare. But, they were just some white ladies from Mobile that knew how to pass a good time, hence their name: The Jolly Girls. And they were my gift from her.
The Jolly Girls’ friendships taught me early on that women should be, could be, and in their case, damn well better be connected to each other. There was a sense of independence about them--they were not defined simply as wives or mothers. Back then just going on vacation with your friends (no husbands, no kids) was rather radical. Yet, making a political or social statement was the furthest thing from their minds. And despite their apolitical leanings, strict Catholic beliefs, and the prejudices that then were instilled in otherwise good people, these ladies stood tall—and had fun doing that.
To my Dad’s credit he respected that and them. This was a space in time when some wives still asked “permission”. Mom would not think to use that word and Dad would have fallen out flat if she had.
For the most part these friendships took root back in their high school days and grew, never going to seed until death. They were there for each other. One friend in particular, Lois, (their were two Loises—“Nurse Lois” and “Chicken Salad Lois”) was there visiting both Mom and Dad in the nursing home nearly everyday until their passing. Long retired as a nurse, Lois brought to my parents her expertise as a friend in those last months and she and the rest of Mom’s gang were there, as family, for my sister and me.
Food. Both of my folks gave me a love for food and also for eating out. Going out-to-eat was so much more than merely entering a restaurant; it was the ritual, the experience of enjoying food as an outing. A getaway from the kitchen and from the routine. Cafeterias, church dinners, school bazaars, hot dog stands and diners. Oh they had no pretensions when it came to food. But they certainly did not abstain from the fancy-smancy restaurants. In fact their passion for a good meal found us driving from Mobile to New Orleans just to eat at Galatoire’s. This ultimately led to my moving here…another gift.
Momma knew good food. Her fried chicken sent you straight to Heaven and was rivaled only by her onion rings; she could work some kind of magic with Wesson oil and a cast iron skillet. Mom simply had a knack for cooking. Every Sunday afternoon she would make something with homemade whipped cream or meringue. Although, she’d always lament that her pie or parfait just didn’t look right, that the filling ran. You could never convince her that it was five-star fabulous.
She and her girl friends contributed to my memory’s recipe file by seasoning my summers with gumbo and fresh peach handcranked ice cream. Sometimes Mom and one or two friends would go crabbing after work. They’d find a spot on the causeway where the delta waters merge with the bay. Eating or foraging alfresco was fine with them; but rarely ever barbecuing or grilling—I suspect the smoky smell would just ruin their weekly beauty parlor coifs.
Dad’s family and friends certainly knew how to eat—just not very well. Sometimes there’s no accounting for taste, or lack of. For instance, Aunt Ethel loved to cook and feed folks but she’d just get stuck on the same thing. Ham. God this woman loved ham. Every Sunday dinner was ham. Cold cuts were always ham. She’d even send Dad home with a canned ham when in between fresh hams. For a change in menu, there was Aunt Sissy who took a liking to baked chicken—and served that at every dinner party, each year.
There is a fine line between repetition and tradition and that line is defined by “damn good food”. And the tradition of Christmas at “Chicken Salad Lois’s” house still makes my taste buds twitch at the memory. The divinity, outdone only by the fudge, bordered on a religious experience. But even more important, were the little white Sunbeam bread (crust ALWAYS trimmed off) finger sandwiches filled with…well of course, her chicken salad. When I die and see that bright white light, I can only hope it will be the glare off a tray of those perfectly sliced sandwiches.
My parents gave me my life and with it the many gifts that soften its imperfections and smooth out the wrinkles. Mom’s friends taught me that the best thing about myself are my friends, for which I never feel I truly deserve, but am forever grateful.
Last night I threw a little soirée in honor of my sister Susan and her best friend Judy. There in the mix, as has become tradition, was my friend Donna’s little man—William. I can only hope that somehow he will remember (and love as I did) these gatherings of crazy women; my trays of finger sandwiches— crust trimmed of course; and loud raucous laughter. Next time I’ll have to introduce him to some divinity and fudge and then maybe I might become his “Lois”.