Year ’round, family flowed in and out of our house. Older siblings and cousins off to university returned with hungry fellow students. Married brothers and sisters brought their beautiful blue-eyes babies for the weekend or for the big holidays. They littered the two upstairs bedrooms with suitcases spilling over with tee shirts, mix-matched socks, diapers and an assortment of pajama bottoms.
“Mom, I can’t find my pajama top!” some child would inevitably cry each night. “Just sleep in what you’ve got on,” was the response.
A crazy kind of love-infused chaos ruled when everyone landed at home at the same time. Rooms filled with cackles and wheezes, snorts and guffaws. (A few years ago I learned the nieces and nephews referred to my sisters and me as the “wheezers.” Why? Because we laughed so hard we wheezed.)
Children dashed in and out of rooms, around the table and up and down the steps, not once listening to their distracted parents shout, “Slow down!” “Go outside.” “This is the last time….”
And mom cooked. Man, did she cook. For a woman who couldn’t make a boiled egg when she married, she became quite proficient at whipping up comfort food on her tiny four-burner gas stove.
Homemade rolls were a sure bet for the entire tribe. Mounds of butter-rich mashed potatoes with rivers of white or brown gravy filled the plates. When meat was scarce, potatoes was plentiful. But it seldom was on holidays or family gatherings. Platters of crispy fried chicken or not-so-thin slices of roast beef made at least clockwise rounds at the table. Plenty for everyone.
And everyone had their chores.
Dad was the meat carver. He pulled out his silver carving knife and sharpener and proceeded to rub the two together to hone a razor-sharp blade. He sliced the roast or ham or turkey and didn’t waste a bit. Brothers John and Sam would be recruited in the kitchen to help mash the potatoes. John used sound effects to enhance his efforts in whip up the perfect dish. The noise level in the kitchen increased considerably.
The sisters and other women folk moved between kitchen and the dining room, the swinging oak door seldom still. Freshly picked green beans were cooked with bacon. Steaming ears of corn weighed down each end of the table. Jiggly gelatin salad with fruit cocktail was served on a leaf of iceberg lettuce and topped with a dollop of Miracle Whip.
I had charge of plates of pickled beets and crudités and I took my task very seriously. Gherkins and dill pickles were well-balanced and properly placed with green olives, carrot and celery sticks.
Mom cared little about social rankings. So she sat the prosperous bank president next to the town drunk. When my closest cousin and his oh-so-smart friends from medical school drove up from St. Louis for dinner, mom would place our friend Joe Gemp in the middle of them. Joe was a 40-something, mentally challenged man who had become part of our family. People from the wrong side of the tracks found themselves right next to some of the community leaders. And everyone did just fine. Mom saw to it that everybody joined in the conversation.
Most of the family got up to help clear the table for dessert. Mom would bring out her homemade cake with penuche icing, berry pies and homemade cookies. Coffee was poured and guests lingered around the table until mid afternoon.
My sister Cathy (now Kate) and I headed for the kitchen. Someone had to clean the dishes. Grandma and her maiden sister, Aunt Effe, would usually join in. Joe Gemp grabbed a dish towel and set to work drying the dozens of dirty dishes. The conversations continued and laughter prevailed. My memories of Sunday dinners are as rich as the desserts that mom served.
By this time in her life, mom had morphed from a slip of a 21-year old girl who married without any knowledge of homemaking skills into a middle-aged woman with greying strands that fell around her face as she whipped up magic in the kitchen.
We weren’t rich by any means. Dad pastored a small church and supplemented his income by working as a guidance counselor in the local high school. We’d run short of cash by the end of the month and eat our fair share of macaroni and cheese, but mom and dad always plenty of food for guests.
I didn’t realize at the time how rare it was to have so many people eat with us until much later when I learned some of my friends never had guests. Dad and Mom took their roles as host and hostess seriously. In part they felt it was their duty as Christians to have people into their home. Mostly it was because they just loved people. They made call to serve a delight for hundreds of men and women who dined at 601 Sycamore Street.