Blame it on the times. Blame it on the fact that when recording history, men have long been considered more important than women. Or blame mom’s supposed blue-collar pedigree. Just perhaps her ancestors bearing the Gash name were too busy putting food on the table to write, photograph and document their family history. We only have snippets.
Dad’s side, however, has passed down a trove of memorabilia. We have a diary from our great-grandfather who served as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War. A nephew possesses a stockpile of Bibles used by generations of Thornton ministers, complete with notations and personal commentaries. From numerous aged photo albums we get a glimpse at a well-traveled family. Brittle and yellowing snapshots show ocean steamers docked in exotic ports in early 1900’s—vessels sailed on by my grandparents to the Far East. I prize a picture taken of my father at age three (circa 1906). He’s dressed in white shorts, a Buster Brown shirt and waving a racket on a tennis court near their home in India.
From mom’s family, I have very little. One formal portrait of six heart gorgeous great- aunts with names like Zilpha and Joie and Mattie. We possess a few saved letters and a photo or two. Not many stories. Not much at all.
My husband David is interested in geneology and has spent massive hours studying both his Dutch ancestry and that of my own Irish/Scottish/English background. He’s uncovered a great deal about mom’s background. It seems her roots go way back, farther than my dad’s. And she has connections to royalty. Dad’s ancestor Matthew Thornton evidently signed the Declaration of Independence from the land mama’s line once ruled. I always felt like I should have been a princess.
Mama is the one I most want the world to know. Not because she meant more to me than dad, but because she was, in my eyes, an amazing person who enriched the lives of so many with her music, her laughter, her warmth and her faith.
Her parents, George Herbert and Mattie Elvinia Gash, moved to Missouri from Kentucky at the turn of the 20th century. Grandpa Gash, recognized as a superior woodworker, helped create the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
In 1903, to honor the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, authorities had planned a huge exposition to take place in St. Louis. They decided to postpone the exposition one year to allow more states and foreign countries to participate. The Louisiana Purchase celebration combined with the annual St. Louis World’s Fair– an exhibition that had been around since the 1880’s to the most up to date agricultural, trade and scientific achievements. By combining the two major events, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition/St. Louis World’s Fair would be the largest experience of its kind to date.
The 1,200-acre site was grand. More than 1,500 buildings including several grand “palaces” made it impossible for visitors to take in everything – even with a cursory glance – in less than a week.
During the seven-month long fair, 19,694,855 visitors walked the 75 miles of roads and walkways. And while the attendees were walking, they fell in love with a recent invention — the waffle-style ice cream cone.
Ice cream cones would become one of mom’s favorite foods and, though she developed diabetes as an adult, she would work her diet so she could have a Dairy Queen ice cream cone every Friday.
Other food and drink introduced and/or popularized at the exposition were the hanburger and hot dog, peanut butter, iced tea and cotton candy. The world met Dr Pepper and Puffed Wheat for the first time ever in St. Louis in 1904.
I mention the food because, well, it’s mom I’m writing about. Throughout her life, Mary had a fascination with food. She loved to cook and eat and share it. In every one of her letters to me, she never failed to mention what she (or dad) had for lunch, what they ordered when dining out or what the hostess served at a recent tea.
Years ago, when I was in college, my boyfriend went with me to the post office. As I opened a letter from mom and began to read, he asked, “So what did your mom have to eat last week?”
She used food to feed my hurting. She firmly believed in comfort food. And while it may not be the healthiest way to deal with hurt feelings, a broken heart or deep teen sorrow, Mary added a huge helping of love toeverything she served.
Mondays were bread baking days. We didn’t have to money to buy the white processed bread in the colorful packaging in our local IGA. Wonder Bread cost a whopping 25 cents a loaf–far too rich for our budget. So homemade bread it was.
She’d spend an hour or so mixing the ingredients, kneeding the dough and forming rolls and loaves for the family. By the time she was done, her hair would be falling around her flushed face, her cheeks both rosy and freckled with flour.
Because she was busy with after school piano lessons, my job was to remove the bread from the oven when I got home. I’ll never forget the fragrance that front door to 601 Sycamore Street and catching a whiff of her homemade goodness. I made a beeline for the kitchen. Without fail, mom would have included a tiny pan just for me. I placed her golden brown loaves on racks to cool. Then I indulged in my personal-sized pan of heaven.
Mom nurtured my body with her cooking and she nurtured my soul with her music. Nothing better than sitting in the kitchen with your own loaf of Mary-made bread, melting butter and listening to music being made in the next room.
Life can’t get any better.