THERE'S VERY LITTLE in life that leaves a person with such an empty pit deep in their stomach like losing a loved one. Even more so when that person is a parent.
THERE'S VERY LITTLE in life that leaves a person with such an empty pit deep in their stomach like losing a loved one. Even more so when that person is a parent. Having lost my father 24 years ago to a sudden heart attack was an instant shocker. Eventually, for all my siblings, there was a gradual relief back then when we came to realize we still had our mother.
I can't speak for the others when I write this, but for me, it never crossed my mind at that time that I could ever lose Mom. After all, I could still visit and happily dwell in the memories Dad and she willingly created for all of us.
Since losing my father, each time I'd make a trip back to visit Mom, memories of those early years when we lived on the farm back in the 1950s in southeastern Pennsylvania would flood my memory bank. Some of the best recollections I have are helping her in the garden, singing old favorites and picking berries.
Mom taught us how to grow, harvest, freeze and cold pack or can our own fresh vegetables and fruits instead of buying them at a grocery store. In the evening she'd have one or two of the little ones sit on her lap with the rest of us gathered 'round and she'd sing songs she learned as a young girl. Three of her favorites were the depression era song, "We Three Bums," the "New River Train” – complete with full sound effects – and "The Old Rugged Cross."
During berry-picking season, we'd each grab a quart container and walk along the fence rows. As we came upon the vine-ripened, mouth-watering fruit, we'd fill our pails with deliciously flavored wild strawberries, blackberries, both black and red raspberries or elderberries.
As tempting as they were to eat right there on the spot, we knew if we returned with empty pails and had berry juice on our clothing, hands and tongue, mom would know what had happened. And she would not have been pleased.
Sometimes we'd climb the sour cherry tree that stood like a sentry guarding one of the farm buildings and fill our pails with tree-ripened sour cherries. Mom would turn them into the most delicious pies I have ever tasted. Some had a full dough covering with little fork holes on the top to allow steam to escape while baking.
Others had beautiful lattice work covering them with white powered sugar lightly sprinkled on the top. These were my favorites and Mom knew it. Sometimes she didn't have enough cherries left over for another whole pie. In those cases, and it seems to me there were many, she'd make a small pie designed for one person: Me.
Page 2 of 3 - Beside her pies, Mom had a knack for making some of the most delicious jams, jellies and fruit butter, especially her apple and pear butter. The closest I can compare her jellies and jams, would be to the ones you buy at the store manufactured by Orrville's Smuckers.
With a large family such as the one from which I came, her culinary creations didn't last long. We would spread butter on a slice of warm, homemade bread just out of the oven and then add one of her homemade jams. Couple that with a cup of hot cocoa on a cold winter morning and, well, if that didn't remind you of what heaven could be like, then I'm sad to say your imagination was still left in bed fast asleep.
She also made a signature dish every Sunday for dinner. She called it steak. But let's face it, folks, with a dozen mouths to feed, there's no way my family could afford steak every Sunday. Cuts such as New York strip, T-bones, sirloin or filet mignon were out of the question. But that never stopped her. She'd improvise. Mom would attend early Mass, and when the rest of us left for late Mass, that's when she'd start her Sunday dinner.
If we asked what was for dinner, she'd answer, "You just had your breakfast. It's way too early to worry about what's for dinner. Now hop in the car and be sure to pray good when you get to church." Mom had a way of answering your questions without really having answered them. I never mentioned this to her, but it must've crossed my mind a hundred times that there must've been more than one way of praying.
She'd never say what was on the noon menu, but we knew. Mom would buy a couple of pounds of ground round and a large, thick slice of round steak that was always cheaper than other cuts of meat. That's because there is very little marbling in it and it tends to cook tough.
But Mom had a way of cooking it to the point you could actually cut it with the side of your fork. She'd make patties from the ground round, cut the steak into smaller pieces and then sear it all on top of the stove in a big, old cast iron frying pan, one her mother gave her as a young girl. Then she'd put it in the oven at a low temperature for two to three hours. When it was done, the meat just broke apart.
Along with that she'd make the most delicious gravy no one has ever been able to duplicate. That, with mashed potatoes, various fresh and/or canned, frozen vegetables she had grown in her garden and a cake or fruit pie, was our weekly Sunday dinner. The evening supper meal was merely the warm-ups from the Sunday noon dinner meal.
Page 3 of 3 - And after we all married and were out on our own, each time we'd return she'd always ask what we wanted for Sunday dinner. Naturally we answered, "Steak." Of course she knew before she ever asked what we'd want, but I think she enjoyed hearing us say it because that's one of the topics that always crossed our conversations whenever we'd visit.
Last month, about the middle of June, I returned to southeastern Pennsylvania to see Mom for the last time. Unfortunately, she had passed away. She would've celebrated her 97th Birthday on Aug. 1 and I had planned on being there. Instead, we laid her to rest next to our Father.
Now, with both parents gone, the empty pit in my stomach seems larger than before and reasons to return to the land of my birth seem to make little sense. But with many siblings still in the area, I suppose I will go back for visits and with them dwell in the treasure chest of memories our parents left for us to enjoy and to be sure to pass them on down to our own children.
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