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Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Legacy of Stories


This is a quote; “ The death of a parent means the death of possibility. All the words we thought we had time to say will go unsaid. All the family stories that should have been passed down  will be lost forever.”  Carolyn  McSparren.

I read the above quote just the other day and it made me thoughtful, but also somewhat regretful. I have spent some time trying to remember all I can but there is much I have missed. Also, for a very amateur writer, trying to find words to write about feelings is tough.

My granddaughter has to write a page from a diary, written during WW2. I tried to relate a few actual happenings and feelings, but felt I had failed miserably. I was born the last day of 1933 so when trying to figure my age, it is usually more accurate to use the 1934 number. On December 7, 1941, I was still 6 yrs old but the memory is vivid. We often hear folks say they remember just exactly where they were and what they were doing on important days for our country.

How about this, do you remember where you were or what you wore or what you were doing the first time you met your spouse, your in laws, your college roomie, or in Dee’s case, the first time she laid eyes on her daughter..? I remember well the first time I ever saw Tony. I came close to telling him to kiss my royal, uh, foot!

I was a senior at UGA, in Athens. My roommate and I were home for the weekend so that she could have a birthday party for her boyfriend. She lived in Buckhead and I lived in Midtown. I didn’t have a date for the party but she insisted that I come and meet an older friend of the family who could act as my date. My dad dropped me off at her house and the old family friend was to give me a ride home. Everyone else had arrived before I did. I was told that my old “date” was in the breakfast room visiting with the old parents. Finally the hostess came over and said, “Well, he is not coming out so you have to go back to the breakfast room and meet him.” Thinking, I’ll get her back for this, I strolled to the back of the house and there sat Tony Thompson. He hardly spoke; rose about six inches off his chair, and continued chatting with his host. OK, fine with me, I turned around and walked back toward the living room before noticing that he was right behind me. That was on this day, 54 years ago today. He was pretty much somewhere close around for the next forty years. Oh, what did I wear? I had on a two piece, deep aqua, wool knit dress and black kid, high heel opera pumps.

Why was Tony so unlike himself that first time he met me? He swore he took one look at me and knew this was the girl he was going to marry and it scared him to death! Anyway, that was his story and he stuck to it. The man was 26 years old, had an MBA, and had spent two years in the Army, for heaven’s sake! I was 22 years old. My roomie had neglected to tell me that it was all the parents that were such close old friends.

When my kids and their Thompson cousins were growing up, one of their favorite things to do when we were all together, was to get Tony and his two older brothers to tell stories about growing up. In fact, I believe Dee may have taped some of them. [Note from Dee: nope, I wish…]

When I was growing up, Mother and her sisters had a huge group of stories that my cousins and I loved to hear. In fact, we knew them by heart. My dad had lots of stories too but he didn’t have his brothers around to remind him and fill in the details. Dee has helped me recall various details of stories I used to tell her.


Sometimes things happening to me or my family now remind me of stories I want to tell but have forgotten.

Last Sunday, friends invited our Russian houseguest and my grands to go out to Stone Mountain with them. It seems they have a Season’s Pass. Huh, you have to buy a ticket to climb the mountain? Just unbelievable! I was five or six the first time I walked up the mountain so that would be about 70 years ago. My dad insisted I wear my little rubber soled saddle oxfords because there is one place going up near the top where the granite is slick. No one in my family had tennis shoes and all the fancy ones were not even made back then. Again, it was a Sunday afternoon and out entire family went on the excursion. Now that was absolutely not the kind of walk my mother would take even though she was only about forty years old. She carried the Sunday paper etc and entertained herself, waiting in the car. I have no idea how long our climb took but do remember being tired and thirsty when we returned to the car. Mother may have had a bottle of water and she often carried a soapy washcloth in a Mason jar. Dang, no bottled water for each person, no hand sanitizer wipes, no high energy drinks, etc. I climbed Stone Mountain several times after that, as a teen, but never had to pay.

We didn't have all the water bottles and high tech things available now, but we improvised.

At some point, Dad went to the Army-Navy Store [don’t think that’s the exact name}where military surplus  was sold. He bought several metal canteens, like soldiers carried in WW1. He and Mother gave them a good wash, probably scalded them, knowing my parents and their fear of germs. So at times we really did have water bottles.

Those same canteens were often filled with hot water, wrapped in a towel or cut up blanket, and placed in our beds on cold winter nights. Sometimes, the canteens were carried in the back seat of the car, wrapped, to warm our hands or feet during winter car trips. They did have one drawback though: they were prone to leaks, especially around the screw on caps.

Another thing Dad bought at that same store was solid wool army blankets. They were wonderfully warm and we used them for years. I still had one or two when I moved here but don’t know where they are now. One of those between a sheet and quilt was quite toasty. After I married, I went into one of those stores, in Augusta. They had the same type blankets but in a beautiful navy blue. I regretted not buying a couple for ten dollars each but they were gone when I went back.


I bet a lot of you don't realize that antibiotics were once considered "wonder drugs."

One needs to, perhaps, be reminded that before and during WW2 , we did not have antibiotics. It was toward the end of the forties that our family was treated with the new “wonder drugs”. Before that, we were treating various ailments with aspirin and rubbing alcohol and Vicks and salt water gargles for sore throats. Pneumonia was a killer. I remember when Dee came down with it [at age 7] and scared me badly. Her MD said not to be so frightened because it can be treated effectively now. I remember the story of my grandmother sitting up all night holding her baby daughter, in front of a fire, placing hot cloths on the child’s chest, trying to get the congestion to break up, and it finally did. (Though my grandparents were wealthy by the standards of their times, a good mother still cared for her sick child.)

Kind of funny now,  but there were all kinds of strange stories that made the rounds when the new drugs first came into wide use. One woman was said to have grown black hair on her chest. Another person had hair growing inside his mouth.


Not all families love stories like we do. A few years ago, Dee dated a man whose family I had known for a long time. In the course of their conversations, Dee realized that she knew lots more about Hal’s [not his real name] grandparents than Hal did. They were nice people, perfectly respected and loved in their small community. They owned and ran a coffee shop that normally closed after an early dinner hour. On high school football Friday nights, they reopened after the games so the kids had a place to congregate. They had kids of their own. I’ve always thought that was a good idea and good story. That family had other great stories but I wonder why they didn’t pass them down to their kids.


I know so many stories about my dad, and I can’t always remember if I’ve told them to Dee and Bruce or not.

My dad loved dancing. As a boy, in the north Georgia foothills, my dad played a mean fiddle and had a good time going to square dances. As luck would have it, someone from his little country church heard about it. He was asked to leave the church – or as he expressed it, was “kicked out.” Apparently it did not bother him very much because he always laughed when he told the story. Later, he taught school in the one room schoolhouse so guess the people were not much bothered by it either if they sent their children to him to teach. It was well known that he did not smoke or drink. When Dad first went to Philadelphia to pitch baseball for the Athletics, Connie Mack had him take dancing lessons and boxing. Daddy was 6ft 4inches tall and wore a size 13 D shoe. Mack wanted him to move more easily and gracefully. He did love to dance, especially Tap and kind of a half soft shoe. He taught me to dance by having me stand on his shoes while we twirled around.

I wish I was able to write about the great dogs we have owned. There was one, named Kaiser, that was about 9 months old when Bruce was born. So until the baby came, Kaiser was our baby. We carried him everywhere with us and pampered him royally. Well, when the baby was born, Tony said the dog had to be put outside. Shortly afterwards, I looked out in the back yard and watched Kaiser try to stand --- and he just could not. Alarmed, I called our vet. He asked if we’d put the dog out after the baby came home? Yes, we had. Well, I was told, the dog is having a nervous breakdown and you’ll have to either bring him back inside or give him away! As usual during a crisis, Tony was out of town. So I brought my dog inside, put the baby on the sofa next to him, and told him he had a baby to take care of. He had looked to be a black and white fox terrier when I brought him from the pound but as I gave him all the leftover milk in the baby bottles he continued to grow and grow, probably got to around 75 or 80 pounds. He seemed to understand his new job and adored the kids as long as he lived.

There are so many stories that I love to tell and that I have loved hearing, over and over, during my life. I hope this little blog will, in some way, help explain my feelings about storytelling and preserve my stories for my grandchildren. I also hope those of you reading this will be inspired to write your own family stories for your own grandchildren. With all the computer technology today, even voice-activated typing programs and video cameras being so common, there’s no reason not to leave a legacy of stories.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Entertaining

I am no expert on the subject of entertaining but I do have ideas and suggestions that have worked well for me. I had good teachers -- from my mother and various family members to a very kind caterer who taught me a few tricks of the trade. In some areas I am self-taught simply because I used to read everything I could find on the subject.



In the late 1980’s I wrote an article mostly about Christmas entertaining and submitted it to Southern Living magazine. A couple of the secretaries in the trust department were kind enough to type it for me on their own time. I didn’t type. Well, Southern Living turned me down and I thought that was the end of it. Several months later, one of the secretaries called me and said, check out the new Southern Living. Right there, word for word, was my article. It named a staff writer as author. She had submitted it without changing a word. I’ve never submitted anything else but if I did, I’d surely copyright it.

Maybe I should be flattered that my article was at least published --- but I’m not.

I had sent a copy to my son, a Company Commander, stationed in Germany. He called and asked my permission for him to copy and distribute the piece to his young officers. Now, that really did flatter me!



The bottom line to any entertaining is to help folks feel at ease and comfortable in your home. If you are nervous and uptight, that feeling will spread and infect your guests. Especially, if you are usually uneasy or just new at this, then plan ahead and make lists. Always do as much ahead as possible. Try to think ahead and plan what you would do in case of emergencies.

My husband was a banker, in a fairly small town. That is why I got caught up in so much entertaining. We bought a big, old, white frame house that we loved - just perfect, we thought!


For one of the first parties we had at Christmas, after moving to Augusta, I thought I’d remembered absolutely everything. With two toddlers underfoot, I did lots at night after putting them to bed. On the night before that party, I realized that I had not even thought about what I could wear. I had a pretty loden green and teal pull over sweater but no skirt to wear with it. I did not want women arriving in long dresses to feel over dressed nor ladies in short dresses to feel awkward. So I found a piece of loden green, suede cloth I’d bought at a remnant sale and a tube of fabric glue. I glued together a long skirt to wear with my sweater and it worked out just beautifully. It had overnight for the glue to set up and I just pinned the waist band closed cause I didn’t have time to make a button hole. Essentially, I wore a skirt and sweater but it was to the floor so looked kind of festive. Also, I learned that the long skirt mostly covered up my shoes so I could get by wearing flats. My next door neighbor was a nervous wreck, so afraid my skirt was going to fall apart at any second. You know, I wore that skirt for years and it washed and dried like a dream!


My next door neighbor and close friend used to trade kids with us if we were having a large party, or if they were, we’d keep their child. When Dee was small, maybe two or so, we’d had dinner guests and had moved back to the living room to visit. I heard one of the men say, “Honey, it’s nice to see you but aren’t you getting cold?” There sat my tiny daughter, naked as the day she was born, yellow curls and all, entertaining from the stair steps.


Mother used to say that if you serve good food and plenty of it, then the rest will work itself out. She was under five feet tall and not at all shy. I would love to know what she’d say to guests who announced that they were vegetarian; or couldn’t eat fat; or preferred their food salt free. She was a nutritionist and could surely prepare any of those foods but I’m guessing she would suggest they eat elsewhere because she was not going to ruin good ingredients.


Years ago, my husband was told he could control his cholesterol through diet. I immediately went into action - bought all the books; changed my way of cooking etc. It was a real chore trying to follow that diet to the letter. Well, the cholesterol did not come down so I started questioning him about his lunches down town. It was bar-b-q one day, ribs the next, fried chicken etc. I threw up my hands and started cooking good food again and he went on meds. Once again, we could have people over and not worry about the food tasting awful.

I’ve never had any problem with high cholesterol, then or now.


When thinking of having a party, if you plan it at the time people normally eat a meal, then you should expect that they are most likely going to make a meal on your refreshments. In some ways, this makes it easier. Place a large platter of meat at one end of the table, usually ham. I like Honey Baked because I can cut into the slices while leaving the half ham standing. Sam’s usually has half hams, pre-sliced that are quite good. Have a basket of good, sliced, smallish rolls, next to it. Never place a commercial container of mustard on your elegant tablecloth. It will ruin your cloth, because it won’t wash out.

I like to place something at the opposite end of the table of equal importance. We like seafood, so it would be a mold or something in the chafing dish. Also, we have used a turkey breast. Boiled shrimp is nearly too expensive these days, crab claws the same. I have used thin sliced prime rib or beef tenderloin.

On each side of the table, depending on the size, place one or two other dishes. I like to use a veggie tray made by me. They often don’t eat it so I am all set to make soup the next day. On the other side, have a fruit tray. They will eat more of that but leftovers are welcome.

One dish that our family likes, including our kids, is a molded egg salad with caviar topping. Just boil 6 or 8 eggs and use all to make egg salad, being sure to use about half a stick of melted butter and enough mayo to hold it together. When chilled, the butter will not only taste good but will cause the salad to hold together. This is one of the few times I’ll ever say not to add salt. Line a bowl with plastic wrap – one that fits nicely on a tray or plate you want to use. I like to use a kind of deep, stainless steel bowl that came in a set, years ago. Now, fold the Saran wrap over the top and chill overnight, if possible. Turn out onto a platter, which will be easy since the plastic wrap will help it pop out and kept its shape. Put sour cream on the top, allowing it to drip down an inch or two. Carefully blot red caviar and top the sour cream with it. Serve with melba toast. Caution: do not allow the eggs or caviar to come in touch with anything but glass or stainless steel. It can turn an awful green color so not the place for your silver.


Buy a good size bunch of parsley and rinse it really well, then chill until needed. Garnish everything lavishly. Next, break pretty grapes into small bunches and place them on the parsley for the ham platter. Use washed and patted dry cherry tomatoes on other dishes. The parsley is not expensive and makes a really pretty decoration. If you go ahead and remove the long stems before chilling, you can poke it around everything and it only takes a minute.

In Augusta, we often had to contend with a guest that ate all the garnishes off my platters. I quickly learned to keep plenty on hand to quietly replenish those he sneaked. The same man, one of the wealthiest in town, would station himself at the table and eat for hours, it seemed. That taught me to keep small plates on the table. I would grab a plate and say, “Come on John [not his real name] and let me fill a plate for you. I just know you want to visit with everyone. Let’s see now, I know you want parsley, grapes, and tomatoes, but what else?” That man died shortly after Tony and the first remark made by a member of our family was “…at least we’ll no longer have to guard the food at parties!”

In the spring of 1996, the daughter of our dear, long time friends, was planning her wedding. The rehearsal dinner and of course the wedding were taken care of. The problem was what to do with the crowd who was arriving on Thursday, in preparation for the Saturday wedding. The groom’s family and many friends were arriving from England. We offered to throw a pig pickin’, as they say in east Tennessee, because the weather would probably be about right for a party around the pool in our large back yard. We felt it was a good solution for jet lagged folks who could just throw on shorts, relax, and eat my husband’s delicious bar-b-q he’d had on our large grill since morning.

I knew some of the British folks were vegetarians, and I worried how to include them.

My job was to prepare the rest of the food so I consulted an old and dear friend from London. “Just baked beans,” she said, “-and plenty of them!” OK, I replied “I’ll use canned Bush’s beans but how can I jazz them up?” She was horrified! “Don’t add one thing to them, they want them plain!” I baked a full, 9x13 inch pan, in the oven and they inhaled them almost immediately. So I just heated some on top of the stove to refill the pan. Then, I looked around in time to see another friend, who had come over to help me, just dump beans right from the cans into the serving dish. They ate those too - then I was out of beans. Of course we had plenty of other food but I’ll always have a place in my heart for Bush’s Vegetarian Baked Beans!

Before the wedding plans were complete, we learned that the bride was upset because she didn’t want to pay the outrageous price for the limo to drive the bride and groom two blocks - from the church to the club where the reception was held. My husband offered, so he donned a chauffeur’s cap, wore his black suit, and drove my white Caddy and it looked most elegant as he ran around opening doors, etc. He was a good sport and thoroughly enjoyed that wedding.



A table centerpiece can be most anything .It doesn’t have to be a flower arrangement, candles etc. You can even use the veggie tray or fruit tray in the middle of the table. Or just place three or five pieces of fruit in a pretty container. I love pottery so have often used pottery containers for food plus decorations. We have a few good pieces but fill in with everything from a couple of platters marked down at Kroger to a bowl from the dollar store. I did have some nice washed rocks that were interesting with a couple of flowers from the yard, stuck down in them. My neighbors, before I moved here, and I had an agreement about flowers. They were welcome to cut anything in my yard and I in theirs. Every now and then, I’d look out and see someone snipping a bloom or two and know they were having guests.

We always serve drinks from the breakfast room table so everyone is not in and out of the kitchen. That’s fine with me as it keeps the worst of the mess out of the living room and dining room. I prefer letting folks wait on themselves and never have hired help at parties.


One such night, I heard the wife of the Chairman of the Board saying she’d catch something—someone? - if they’d just slide down real easy. Oh, Lord, my toddler daughter at it again. Ann had walked into the kitchen, happened to glance up, and there sat Miss Dee on top of the refrigerator! During those years, there was nothing that child would not climb on. She spent lots of time sitting on the top crossbar of the huge swing set next door. No, she never fell.


One of the most refreshing fruit punches I’ve ever drunk or served, is likely the easiest. Just start with the 64 oz. size bottles of White Grape Juice and the 64 oz size bottle of Ginger Ale. You can use Fresca in place of ginger ale for lower calorie punch. Try to keep the mix about even as you add it to the punch bowl. It is best to chill the liquids before hand and to make the ice ring from the mixture as well. I usually make two ice rings so I have an emergency one in the freezer, if needed. I just select a stainless steel bowl or a four cup ring mold that will fit into the container I’m using for a punch bowl. Pour some of the mix into the mold; add fruit if desired; and freeze. For fruit, I like to just use washed seedless grapes with stems carefully removed, also pineapple chunks. [I never serve punch with any kind of alcohol in it. Folks are welcome to have a drink at my house but my punch is safe for children and nondrinkers.]


Bruce likes to cook or at least he said he does not like to eat out all the time. He has been a good griller for years but now he has branched out. I get a kick out of watching my children get in the kitchen and cook together. Both enjoy trying different or new (to us at least) recipes or foods. Another good part of this is that our kids are trying new foods also. Michael is learning that real men do whatever needs to be done.

So much is different now. We no longer have the big parties but we still enjoy having people come to our home for visits. They are surely more interesting and we actually get to spend time with our guests. Dee prefers just having folks for very informal dinners where she does all the cooking, or sometimes we have pot lucks when she has her adoption groups. When you think about it, you prepare about the same way. We’ve almost come full circle to the way my parents enjoyed entertaining.