Growing up, our kitchen at 701 Sycamore would never grace the cover of Better Homes & Gardens nor be featured in an article unless it was titled Can This Interior Be Saved? And if Greenfield, Illinois ever held an annual tour of homes in the 1950s, the Presbyterian parsonage would certainly never be showcased.
My mom, Mary Scott Gash Thornton, came into this world without a decorating bone in her body. Instead, God saw fit to bestow her with two gifts which in my opinion cover a multitude of design faux pas: music and an amazing ability to make guests feel loved and welcome.
Her Tchaikovsky and Mozart were flawless. And that made the front room — the piano room — the best space to be when she chose to stop what she was doing, walk to her piano and start to play.
The kitchen ran a close second. It was nothing to look at by any sense of the imagination. Far from spacious and well-equipped, it was, at best, functional. Our narrow four-burner gas stove managed to hold enough pots and pans to feed twenty, thirty, sometimes forty at a time. What little counter space was available allowed mom and her kitchen help to work somewhat comfortably, shoulder to shoulder.In my eyes, Mom, with her bun shifted slightly off-center and strands of hair falling loose around her smiling face, looked like a storybook baker. Flushed cheeks and all. Flour dust filling the air, decorating her apron as well as the floor. A neat cook she was not.
Her favorite metal teapot sat on a shelf above the sink. She had torn a photo of one of Van Gogh’s works — big yellow sunflowers — from Woman’s Day and thumbtacked it to the wall above the stove. It looked at home there, grease stains and all.The sunflowers added color to the room. Mom and her cooking sidekicks added the passion.
Brothers John and Sam switched tasks. One mashing the potatoes, often adding tractor sounds to the electric mixer as he whipped the potatoes. The other would serve as sous chef or slice the meat on the occasion dad opted out.
Sisters peeled, diced and stirred, salted to taste and added to the commotion. Their tow-headed kids ran between bodies and underfoot, in and out of the swinging door dividing the quiet and well-set dining room from the rowdy goings-on in the kitchen.
To me, the youngest and the only sibling still living at home, life usually felt quite empty. Bare. Just mom, dad and me with not much to say to each other. They were the age of my friends’ grandparents. They were old. And I felt alone.
That all changed when the hordes descended. Sundays and holidays found our house transformed into controlled chaos. Folks would pour in from farms close by or homes as far away as Southern Illinois, Florida, Colorado , Ohio and points in between. Children tumbled out of Volkswagen vans and Chevy station wagons, blue Pontiacs, and red Chevettes, dashing off to burn their pent-up energy from too much time on the road and too few stops. Mismatched suitcases, brown paper bags, pillows and odds and ends formed piles inside the door. We’d get to that later. Time for hugs and tears of joy.
Mom would shout a hello to the newcomers from the kitchen and keep at her gravy making. I’d pour the water into the ice-filled goblets of iridescent glass (FREE with purchase from our IGA.) Knock-offs of the expensive cut-glass, both pretty and pretty near unbreakable.
We gathered around the big table and sang the blessing. Sopranos, altos, tenors and basses blending beautifully, “Be present at our table Lord, be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we, may live in fellowship with Thee. Amen.”
We’d pride ourselves at our great harmonizing, someone would crack a joke and everyone reached for the dish in front of them. Remember to pass clockwise.
Mountains of creamy mashed potatoes and gravy by the boatloads. Green beans and corn of course. Homemade beets and a pickle tray with gherkins, green olives, bread and butter pickles and crunchy dills. “Take seconds,” mom would always say. “There’s plenty more.”
We always had plenty. Always enough at the Thornton table. Ham and roast and fried chicken — something any meat- eater would love. Fluffy, butter-melting biscuits and soft-in-the-center homemade rolls, hot and fragrant from mom’s oven.
Thickly frosted cakes and fruit-filled pies rounded out the meal. Generous scoops of Neapolitan ice cream from five-gallon plastic buckets stamped IGA. In the summers, homemade ice cream hand cranked by strong arms out in the backyard.
Plain cooking for earthly folks who were on their way to heaven. Laughter and chatter reached to the 10-foot ceilings and flowed through the house. To the tables of kids sitting on the enclosed front porch to the teens crowded around card tables in the piano room to the one or two loners seeking quiet in the TV room.
Those days of laughter, tears, and lively conversation around tables loaded with hearty, calorie-laden foods remain vivid to me almost five decades after leaving that house in central Illinois. Holidays were days of warmth and joy and love and lasting memories.
My 11-year-old knows nothing of the great hullaballoo of large family dinners–celebrations with too many people and not enough chairs. Or stacks of dishes that, without the aid of dishwashers, demand an afternoon of clean up and all the tears of laughter that can bring. Nor has she ever experienced the pure joy of watching rosy-cheeked Mary Scott Gash Thornton overseeing a table filled with loved-ones and hot, home-cooked food.
Easter arrives in four days and all the aunts and uncles, cousins and best friends are a hemisphere away. This year we begin to create new traditions in a strange new land. This Sunday it will be just David, Katherine and I sitting at a table, somewhere here in Cuenca. Without the crowds, without the laughter-filled dining room and the table laden with home-cooked favorites. But we’ll have the love. And I’ll have the memory of Mama in her kitchen with her family all around.
A blessed and happy Easter.