Day B: Mary’s Background and Bread

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.

st.louisIn 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. 

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Most of the structures of the1904 St. Louis World’s Fair were temporary and not meant to last

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.

0014D503Ice 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.

breadMondays 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.


A: It’s All about Mary


Mary, Watson and seven of their nine living children

Mary Scott Gash Thornton left this earth with a deep sigh one Spring evening in 1986.

Dad held on to his faith for support but he so missed her. Never have I seen him look so lost as in the days following her death.

Mary made it past Mother’s Day, so she had recently heard from all of her children. The twins, Alice and Ruth, were the the oldest and each lived just a few blocks from mom and dad’s small rental home on the edge of Cartersville, Illinois.  The other seven kids, spread out from California to Alaska to Georgia had sent their flowery Mother’s Day cards or placed their phone calls.

I called because I loved the way mom sounded when she knew it was one of her children on the line. There was no mistaking the joy in her voice.  “Oh, hi,” she’d say with such warmth. Every time my face would break out in a smile.  She liked me. She really, really liked me.

Mom didn’t need a fabricated holiday to tell her that she was adored by her children and her husband. This five-foot two-inch woman knew she was loved.

Mom had a heart the size of Australia and a personality to boot. My dad’s heart was smaller, more like Texas. He was reserved and severe and very generous. They made a good couple.

Mary and Watson were a study in contrasts. Over the years mom grew to be as round as she was short. Dad remained tall and trim and really quite handsome. She was outgoing to his formality. Mary entertained people while Dad preached, instructed and admonished. She could talk to anyone and engage them in stimulating conversation. He preferred to sit and observe. Talking made him very uncomfortable. He said he was at a loss for words except for when he was teaching or preaching.

Their opposites attracted and even after 55+ years of marriage they remained smitten . I knew without a doubt I wanted a marriage like theirs.

They married in February 1929, the same year her father passed away.  A year later, Mom and Dad sailed for Japan to serve as missionaries.

That move must have been difficult for her but she never complained in her letters. She was a St. Louis girl and they were moving to the outskirts of a city in a foreign country. She had no understanding of Japanese (Dad did, he grew up there). She didn’t cook or clean or sew. She knew nothing about birthing babies.  Mary Scott Gash Thornton only knew how to play the piano.

And she was good. She was very very good.

In fact, at age 8 or so, mom performed a concert in St. Louis to raise money for the WW1 war effort. Her talent was impressive. Professionals encouraged her to pursue a career as a concert pianist. She wrestled with the idea but ultimately chose dad and life with him as a missionary.

Not long after they married in St. Louis, they moved to Japan. She left behind her widowed mother, two brothers and sister. Her twin, Nancy, had died at age 3. Mary also left behind her piano.

Letters from Mom to her mother, Mattie, in St. Louis describe the challenges of her life. Of supervising house help who could not understand her nor her them. Of working with people who wanted her to get herself together and become more serious. To wear longer hair, not her fashionable bob. To be more serious and not so full of laughter. She was to become someone other than who she truly was. And she was to birth babies.

The Thornton family expanded rapidly to include the first five children.  Alice and Ruth (the twins), Charles, Elsie and Martha.  The Japanese family.  The better half of the siblings I’ve always called them.

WWII was about to break out, so Mary and Watson whisked their family back to the States until peace was restored. They had every intention of returning, but that dream was put on hold. Thirty years would pass before they arrived back in Japan to live.

In those intervening years, the Thornton family grew even more.  Mom bore 11 children in all. Sam, John, Mary Catherine, me and Susan.  One little girl died shortly after birth. A few years later, the youngest child, Susan, was hit by a car and died. The nine remaining kids married and did their fair share of multiplying. Mom got her piano back and dad stepped into the pulpit.

My father reveled in his grandchildren. Mom not so much.  She was tired of babies and burping and changing diapers.  She wanted to play her music and  read her books and visit with her children. One day she told me rather apologetically, “I really don’t care for the little ones. I enjoy the grand kids when they are 14 or so, when I can have a conversation.”

She’d earned time for herself.

During the month of April  I will use daily posts to introduce you to my mother, Mary Scott Gash Thornton. A remarkable woman in so many ways.  Few had her gift  and passion for music. Her sense of humor was engaging.  She’d entertain guests around the table, placing bank presidents next to the town drunk and all would be well. She loved her kids. She loved her Watson. She lived her faith. And she brought a world of music to the people around her.

My mother’s name was Mary.


conquistadors, cathedrals & cobblestones

There was no “hail the conquering heroes” coming from the mouths of the Incas when Spanish settler Gil Ramirez Davalos and his conquistador cohorts invaded what is now Cuenca in the early 1550s. Some say that Tometamba—the name the Incas had given to their settlement —may have been the mythical city of El Dorado (the city of gold).

But that’s not what the invaders found.

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 10.47.03Legend has it that the Indians, upon hearing of the Spaniards advances, burned their temples of gold and other wonders, leaving nothing but ruins and a sparsely populated settlement.

Determined to find gold somewhere, the Spanish settlers moved in and established residency— officially founding Santa Ana de Los Cuatro Rios de Cuenca (Cuenca, for short) on April 12, 1557.

Fast forward to April 2016 to contemporary Cuenca. My new city that I’m discovering is  a city of great contrasts. Home to 400,000 or so people from Spanish descent, indigenous tribes as well as a growing number of expats. Continue reading