She started out a little bit of thing and ended her days definitely rounder around the edges. Giving birth to 11 children in all (one child lived only a matter of days) adds pounds to any woman’s figure. Add to that a fondness for food, a sedentary life and being a great cook and it’s easy to understand why Mary grew to become almost twice the woman she once was.
On a number of occasions, mama talked to me of her days as a young girl. How she played music for a ballet studio. This was the era before CDs, cassette tapes and mp3s. How one or more boys usually walked her home from school. How she was so limber she could bend over backwards and touch her … head? nose? some body part to the floor. Pictures of mom as a child are rare, but the few I’ve seen show a petite, happy girl with a stylish bob and fashionable round glasses.
My very favorite photo of Mary Scott Gash shows her as a young teen, facing the camera with a big smile and lots of confidence, totally unaware that her slip was showing a good two inches on the left.
Of all the things that mom left behind, this is the one thing I miss. Mom promised it to me but in all the moves and busyness of dividing up things and resettling dad, the sepia-toned portrait vanished. That photo captured the essence of mama. Confident, happy Mary boldly facing the world while revealing a fashion faux pas.
Mom’s mother, Mattie, was a large woman. Short and very, very round. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Grandma Gash. She lived in the Wesco house when the oldest kids were young, having moved there after mom and dad returned from Japan.
The Thornton family car was either a Model A or a Model T (I have no clue, but definitely a letter of the alphabet). The tale goes that on one occasion Mattie wanted to go for a ride with the family. Dad (as politely as he could) had to help push up and into the back seat from behind, resulting in significant list to grandma’s side of the car.
For the most part, the Thornton women folk tend to be hefty. Dad would refer to his daughters as corpulent, never fat. Mattie passed on the gene to Mary and she did the same. Many of the Thornton girls have fought the battle of the bulge for decades, some with more success than others.
I believe we’ve used food for a number of reasons. For growth and nutrition, obviously. To soothe troubled feelings no doubt. To stuff negative emotions during trouble times. But first and foremost, food has been a source of fellowship, community building, enjoyment and socialization. Conversations always go better with pie. Biscuits help bridge any generational differences.
One of my nephews, Mark, runs a large camp outside of Chicago. About 20 years ago our family rented his camp for a week and held a reunion. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and in-laws, babies and old-timers from all across the country spent seven days swimming, hiking, boating, laughing and eating. Mark commented at the final meal of the reunion that our family had consumed twice as much food as the camp usually allotted for a week of guests.
Granted that was two decades ago. Most tend to eat much healthier now. But I admit I love to see guests enjoy the food I put before them.
Mom did, too. She served crispy fried chicken with mounds of her fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes. Comfort food like creamed chipped beef or eggs on toast. Of course platters heaped with biscuits that we learned to break open with our hands, never to slice with a knife. Mom visited her niece in California and came back with information on tacos and pizza. These exotic foods had not yet made it to our table in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Mom’s first homemade pizza had cottage cheese as topping not mozzarella. It’s really not bad.
We made doughnuts from scratch and fried them up after Sunday evening church. Mom taught us how to make taffy — how to cook the candy just so then pull it to the right consistency. Rich homemade fudge that must be boiled until a drop formed a ball in a cup of water. Who needs a thermometer when you know that skill?
Gooseberry pie and homemade ice cream. Tapioca pudding — my grandmother made the grape kind. Hot, savory hurry and rice topped with tart pickle juice. Grandma Thornton introduced that to the family from their years in India and mom continued the tradition. Chop Suey by the truckload. In later years, mom and dad added tempura to their offerings.
Food — the making, serving and sharing thereof — was central to the family. I do believe that is one way mom felt most comfortable in demonstrating her love.
I enjoyed heaping servings of everything she offered.