Sunday, July 21, 2013

46. Grandma Jean's Famous Soup

My grandmother was 18 when she got married. Unfortunately for her husband, Grandpa Jim, he never asked if she knew how to cook before he proposed. This was back in 1930 and he assumed every woman, including those only 18 years old, knew how to prepare a tasty meal. Of course, it's not really his fault for overlooking this important ability. Jean's mother was a wonderful cook and every time Jim came over for dinner, she let him believe that her unmarried daughter had prepared the delicious meal. At 25, Jim was already working shares with his Dad on almost 500 Illinois acres of planted corn. He was considered quite a catch. And he was a good, church going man who was just plain nice, too.

The first day in the kitchen of Jim's small cabin on his Dad's land, Jean decided to make a special soup for him. Her mother had given her the recipe and stocked the necessary ingredients to make it. She also added her own fragrant, home made bread to the pantry.

Jean brushed back her light brown hair when it fell over her face as she leaned down to read the recipe laid out on the scrubbed wooden work table. Her mother had wonderful penmanship and the directions were easy to read:

Place 1 whole chicken, including neck and giblets in a large pot, cover with water. Well she wasn't sure what giblets were but she just put the whole chicken and everything that came with it in the largest pot she could find. The next two ingredients confused her because they required 3-4 ribs of celery and 3-4 carrots. She though, “Why can't they make up their mind?” She decided they must mean 3 and ½ of each, because that was between 3 and 4. So she cut the 4th rib of celery and 4th carrot in half.

The two bay leaves and two onions were easy. She found them in the pantry and plopped them in, as they were. One teaspoon of salt and one-half teaspoon of pepper were also easy. Her mother had laid out the measuring spoons and explained them to her. Continuing to follow the directions, Jean put all these items into the pot with the chicken, turned up the gas flame under it and waited for the water to boil. She pulled a wooden, spool backed chair up to the stove and waited. She was afraid to go away because it might boil when she wasn't there.

After what seemed like hours but was only about 20 minutes she saw the water bubbling as her mother had described. She turned down the flame to let the water calm itself and just simmer. It was supposed to do that for three hours so she could finally get up and do other things, such as unpacking the clothes she had brought. The little cabin had no closets, but Jim had bought a pine chiffrobe for her from Sears that had a long mirror covering the door to her hanging clothes. The other side had drawers for clothes she could fold up. She was quite proud of it and polished it with the lemon scented oil her mother had given her.

Three hours later Jean went back to the pot, carefully removed the chicken and other pieces that floated out of the chicken. She put them on a large platter until cool enough to touch. She cut them into pieces to drop back into the pot with the vegetables and the water, now turned into rich chicken stock. She let the whole thing simmer softly until Jim was home from the fields, had washed up, given her a very satisfactory kiss and sat down to eat.

Jim said a quick “Thank You, Lord, for my beautiful wife and this wonderful bread and soup.”

He scooped up a big spoonful of the fragrant soup and chicken. He held it in his mouth before swallowing. His eyes got big and he gulped as he swallowed it down.

“Well, what do you think?” Jean asked, “Do you like it?”

Jim coughed and said, “It's absolutely fabulous. I've never eaten a soup like this before in my life.”

Jean went on to become a really great cook. But she and Jim laughed many times over that soup. He waited a while before he told her that he had never eaten a soup with all the chicken's innards in it, including liver and heart. But since they were all thoroughly cooked, he knew they wouldn't hurt him. He also had never eaten soup before with three and a half whole ribs of celery and three and half whole carrots. They usually were cut up into pieces. But as he told her, it wasn't her fault since the recipe didn't say cut them up. Also, it was a little unusual to have a whole onion, including the dry outside, in his soup, but again cooking it for so long made even the skin soft enough to digest.

[If you want to try this recipe, I'm sure you know the correct way to use the ingredients. You could also add some elbow macaroni to the final simmer. When it's cooked, ladle the soup into bowls. And then top each bowl with a generous serving of Parmesan cheese. Oh, be sure to note that the cheese should be grated not dumped in whole.]

Our family still prepares and shares Jean's Famous Soup, with a few necessary corrections. Bon Appetit!
                                                              The End

Sunday, July 7, 2013

45. A Friendly Ghost in the Cotswolds

The pretty, honey colored, stone cottage in England's Cotswold area had been on the market for a “donkey's age” said the realtor who rented us the house. She must have been eager to get the house off her list, because to me that was short hand for the owners are desperate.

I didn't know why it hadn't sold or been rented. The house seemed in good repair and was located within walking distance of the train station and village green. It was surrounded by pink and red roses, yellow daisies, blue bells, and smelled sweet and minty like my idea of an English garden. A fruit heavy apple tree was also in the backyard. Rounding out my impression of a real British home were the chrystalline chimes of the nearby Anglican church striking the hours.

My husband, Ben, had been transferred to the area by his American firm which was trying to bring their gourmet brand of dog food to England. We were promised two wonderful years in a foreign country at no cost to us. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. As time went on, we wondered if heaven was the right word for where we were.

My first visit to the tiny, local grocery explained why the house had stayed vacant for so long.

“Ah, and you'll be the new tenants over at Woodside cottage, I reckon,” asked the owner, John Goodson, whose ruddy face seemed to shine with British honor.

“Yes, we're so lucky to be living in a real Cotswold cottage and this fine village,” I enthused. I decided that 'quaint' was not a PC adjective to those who lived here.

“Well, then, did they not tell you about the ghost?” he asked.

“Ghost?” I didn't know whether to be frightened or thrilled at the prospect of meeting an English ghost.

“Perhap I shouldna be telling you the story, but may needs you be forewarned.”

“I love ghost stories, please tell me.”

His clear blue eyes looked straight at me and he said, “Well, not ta worry, Bartholomew wasn't murdered or a suicide.”


“He's the ghost, you know. A very friendly one. But still and all, he puts some people off.” As he put bread, cheese, and tea into my string carrier bag, he added, “Ya don't seem to me to be put off, though.”

“As long as it's a friendly ghost,” I thought of Casper the friendly ghost I read about as a child. “I wouldn't mind one.” I smiled, accepted my change and walked on home with happy thoughts of meeting a real English ghost. What stories I'd have to tell my friends back home.

I was putting things away when Ben came home. “I think I'll go out and see if any of the apples are ready for harvesting. It'll be a treat to have apples from our own tree.”

A few minutes later, I heard Ben yell and he came stomping into the house.

“I think that tree attacked me,” he sputtered.

“A tree can't attack anyone.” I said.

“Then you tell me why, when I was trying to pick an apple, several others just jumped on my head.”

“Oh, for gosh sakes, apples can't jump on your head. You probably just shook them loose.”

Our phone rang and it was a friend from the states, so the jumping apple conversation was shelved and forgotten.

The next time I went to the grocery, I asked Mr. Goodson to tell me more about Bartholomew, the possibly friendly ghost.

“If he wasn't murdered or a suicide, how did he die?”

Mr. Goodson cleared his throat and then explained. “You understand he was already a fair old age. In fact, he was 101 on the day he died.”

“The poor man died on his birthday?”

“Aye, after all the birthday party guests had gone home, and after he had argued once again with his son about needing to move into a home, the old gent decided he wanted an apple to calm himself down.”

“Did the apples jump on him?” I asked, remembering what Ben had insisted they had done to him.

“Jump on him?” Mr. Goodson looked confused. “Nay, I never heard that. But a branch did break loose and crack him on the head. Doctor said he died immediately.”

“I'm so sorry. Is that why he hangs around as a ghost? Because he's mad at the tree?”

“Missus, I don't know why he hangs around. As far as I know it's all just women's gossip.” And he started talking about the beautiful autumn weather we were having.

That afternoon I made a pie using my grandmother's recipe and the tasty, red apples Ben had gathered without any more attacks from the killer fruit.

However, maybe I ate too much of the pie because that night I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. Faint cries drew me to the bedroom window overlooking the back yard and there I saw Bartholomew for the first time. The moonlight made everything glow with a misty light, but I clearly saw an old man dancing around the apple tree, shaking his fist at it. I jumped back into bed telling myself, I had eaten too many apples and was having a nightmare.

I never told Ben about my dream since I scoffed at his story of attacking apples. However, I did have concerns about eating apples from that tree. I refused, in fact, to make any more pies or applesauce or jelly from that tree's fruit. And I never looked into the back yard if I couldn't sleep at night.

In fact I was relieved when Ben complained all the apples from the tree had disappeared. None were on the tree or even laying on the ground under it. We thought maybe kids had stolen them. Since I was never going to eat another one, it didn't bother me a bit. Although by then I was beginning to doubt Mr. Goodson's story about Bartholomew since no one else ever mentioned him to me.

Another trip to the grocery store may have solved the mystery. The little market had old wooden bushel baskets filled with sweet smelling, red apples that looked a lot like ours. Did helpful Mr. Goodson tell a gullible American woman a ghost story for his own purposes?

The End

Monday, July 1, 2013

44. Her Last Wishes

Some people might call me a thief. I prefer to call myself a re-distributor of assets. What would you call me?

My Great Aunt Claire was the last of three elderly sisters to die. None of them had married or had children, so Claire inherited what few assets her sisters left. Now the question was what to do with Claire's (and her sisters') remaining assets. She named no executor, but since I lived next door to their home and had helped them in many ways, including fighting with the tax assessor to get their ridiculous taxes reduced, my siblings and cousins decided I would be the perfect person to handle all the minutiae that occurs after a death.

I dealt with the funeral home, cemetery officials, death certificates, and I notified social security and her pension plan of her death. Because I was on her checking account I was able to pay all her last bills. Until a person dies you have no idea how much work is involved in ensuring the deceased can lie easy in her grave.

Although I was sad Aunt Claire died, it was true she lived a long and full life, happy I don't know. But she was 101 when she fell into eternal sleep. She and her sisters must have baked a million German chocolate cookies for me and the others who stole them from my cookie tin in the night. I was glad to do whatever I could to help settle her affairs.

Claire and her sisters had one charity they supported as much as they could with their meager earnings, Mercy Childrens' Home. Since she left no will, no provision had been made for any last donation to help children who needed a home. As 'executor' it was my job to make sure all her funds in her bank accounts or from the sale of her house and household goods were divided equally among her heirs—myself, my siblings, and my cousins.

I was able to do all that without problems, and, even more amazing, without any fighting among all of us cousins. I had heard horror stories of families split apart over the tiniest inheritances or even over a worthless coin collection.

The only glitch was when I was doing a final walk through the house before meeting with the buyers to turn over the keys. We showed the house furnished as the realtor thought that would make it easier for potential buyers to envision how furniture would fit in the rooms. But after a sales contract was signed, we had an estate sale and anything that wasn't sold was given to the Salvation Army, after all the heirs had chosen anything they wanted, drawing numbers to determine in what order they would choose. I tell you, it's details, details, details when someone dies.

I was walking through the house, remembering good times our family had shared. None of us would ever forget the Thanksgiving dinner when the aunts told us they had cooked the turkey the day before to save time. No one said a word but it was the driest turkey we ever ate.

I fondly thought of the little odd things people sometimes did as they got older. That brought to mind my own parents and what they told me when I helped them clean out our family home before their move to a warmer climate. It was a very old house and still had hot and cold air registers in the floor.

My father whispered to me, “Don't forget to get the money out of the cold air registers.”

“What?” Did I just hear him say 'money in the registers'?

“You heard me,” he muttered. “Check all the cold air registers.”

I took the grate off the one in the living room. In it were three cigar boxes filled with $20 bills. The same with the dining room and master bedroom. My parents had squirreled away $2,000.

My husband said to my father, “So that's why you were always asking for my empty cigar boxes.”

“My gosh,” I yelled. “If there'd been a fire, all of this would've been lost. Or if you'd died we'd have sold it not knowing about this money.”

That was when the light bulb turned on, so they say. I started checking the cold air registers in Claire's old house. The final tally was $3,500. And no one knew about this except me. What should I do? What would you do? If I told the other heirs they would want a share of it, especially Hilary who just had a darling baby girl.

I had a few qualms about it but I did what I thought was the right thing. I deposited the cash in my checking account. Then I wrote a check for the total amount to Mercy Childrens' Home. Perhaps the other heirs would have agreed but perhaps not. I didn't want to take a chance with fulfilling what I'm sure would have been my great aunts' last wishes.