The Lost Secrets

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Family meals and the food served at them were extremely important to my mother. She was a child of the Great Depression who often proudly noted that she and her siblings never went without a meal. She boasted us that her mother would eat whatever was left after everyone else in the family had a share of the fare on the family menu. She told us of the many times the my grandmother would eat the head of a fish, the neck of a chicken or just suck on the bones of a roast. For my mom, providing food for the family was one of the most important things a good parent might do. 

After my father died Mama had a very small food budget with which to create breakfast, lunch and dinner. She strictly forbade us to eat anything without permission because often the ingredients that we might choose for a snack were intended for one of our meals. She was a wonderfully creative cook who eked every drop out of the food that she purchased. Even bones became the foundation of broth that he used for delicious soups. 

My mom often bragged that she had taken a Home Economics class while she was in high school and that it was probably the most important and useful learning of her lifetime. She credited her teacher with showing her how to create vitamin rich and healthy meals with very little money. She was quite proud of noting that we always had nourishing and tasty meals. 

My friends often commented on the uniqueness of her culinary creations. Best of all they were wonderfully delicious. At bake sales and potluck dinners people would flock to her offerings first because her of her reputation of being a gifted cook. I have to admit that she was masterful in the kitchen without ever having expensive cuts of meat or fish. Somehow she knew exactly what to do to bring out flavors that melded perfectly together. 

The only cookbook that my mother ever used was an old World War II era Good Housekeeping treasure that is unique for its recipes that required very few ingredients that were rationed. There is so little sugar even in the instructions of sweets, that it might almost be designated safe for diabetics. The same is true of eggs. I often felt that the book was a godsend to my mom who was always attempting to find ways of saving money at the grocery store. Nonetheless, she mostly invented recipes of her own, some of which have gone down in the annals of our family lore. 

It was only as Mama grew older and her health began to fail that her cooking lost some of its luster. She’d forget that something was on the stove and it would burn. She would put a bit too much spice or salt and ruin the taste. She’d accidentally leave some important ingredient out. Nonetheless, she was the gravy making queen for thanksgiving and her baked beans were legendary all the way to the end of her life. She holds those titles to this day.

I suppose that I should be a much better cook than I am. Not only was my mother worthy of being a five star chef, but my grandmother Minnie was known far and wide for her cooking. It’s amazing to me that neither lady depended on printed recipes for their dishes. Collectively if they had published a book with the best of their recipes it would have been a sensational success. They actually complemented each other with the favorites from their repertoire.

My grandmother made fluffy biscuits, incredible pies, the best strawberry shortcake ever, melt in your mouth fried chicken, yummy fish, and a variety of vegetables to die for. My mother was a cake and cookie baker extraordinaire. She made delicious soups out of anything that she had. Her meat dishes were always unique and tasty. She created wonderful sauces and gravies and knew how to open a can of something and transform it into a gourmet meal. Sadly neither of them left recipes for posterity. In my grandmother’s case it was because she was illiterate. As for my mother, I suppose that she was so busy creating that she never had time to write things down. 

I tend to repeat the same recipes again and again. I don’t have the same natural feel for cooking and in truth I don’t enjoy it as much as those who came before me. I just want to quickly dash something together and eat mostly to stay alive. The cooking gene appears to have skipped over me somehow but of late, my grandson has shown the same kind of interest in preparing fine meals that his great great grandmother and great grandmother had. In fact, his favorite gifts are cooking tools and certificates to take cooking classes. Perhaps the kitchen genius is still alive and well in him.

If I have one regret it is that I never wrote down the recipes of the best dishes from either my mother or grandmother. It would have been an easy thing to do. We all wish that we knew how to make her famous fudge. I’d give anything to be able to reproduce my grandmother’s biscuits. It’s sad how we don’t seem to think of those things until it is too late. 

My husband’s Aunt Elsie made a flaky Christmas pastry that she called whiskey cakes. None of the recipes we have found are anything like what she made. Nowhere in all of her things did anyone ever find her recipe. The deliciousness of those wonderful delights is gone forever. On cold days we think of her because she had to have a certain cool temperature to create the layers of pastry. It took her hours and hours of rolling paper thin dough and lovingly putting the little cakes together. Sadly she never wrote down exactly how to do it.. 

I have a few recipes that my children and grandchildren enjoy. They’ve already wisely asked me for the recipes. I do a mean seafood gumbo and my arroz con pollo is a winner. I use my mother-in-laws instructions for creating yellow split pea soup and I’m rather well known as the bean queen. Beyond that anything that I cook is easily found in one of my dozens of cookbooks. Still, we’d love to find the secrets of the real chefs who once tantalized our family with their food. Alas the secrets are gone.

It Was A Wonderful Time

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Someone posted a photo of a band playing at one of the Saturday night dances took place at my high school back in the day when I was still a young girl filled with so much energy and idealistic optimism about the future. I faithfully attended those dances every weekend even though I learned the meaning of the term “wallflower” on those long ago nights. I was shy and gawky and a late bloomer, so I probably looked like somebody’s little sister sneaking in to an event where I did not quite belong. Somehow I still managed to have so much fun because I enjoyed the music and the conversations with my fellow wallflowers and some of the boys in my class who were not yet quite ready to commit to asking someone to dance. 

Now and again some young fellow from another school would show up not knowing anyone. They’d see me sitting on the sidelines and ask me to hit the dance floor with them. I rarely even knew any of their names. I simply enjoyed moving to the music  and being freed from my perch on the sidelines for a time. It also provided me with a bit of victory as I glanced at the reluctant warriors from my school who seemed amazed that I actually knew how to dance. Thus it went week after week for four years and my memories of those times are all so very good. 

I was a teen of the sixties when the music was dominated by groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Back then the radio was a conduit to the world with new songs and new artists coming out continually. It was all so wonderful. I liked the bands with innovative styles of playing and creating intricate and meaningful lyrics. Some of those experimenting with music actually played at those Saturday night dances, which was yet another reason that I showed up each week even if I had to sit out the entire night on a metal chairs near the wall. I was entranced with the music of my era. 

I remember going to one of our school football games one fall evening with a group of my girlfriends. We traveled to the stadium in the big Volkswagen bus that my friend Eileen had borrowed from her parents for the occasion. We crowded inside and turned on the radio full blast to accompany our raucous conversation that was filled with the laughter and silliness of teenage girls. All of a sudden the DJ played The House of the Rising Sun by the Animals and we were stunned into total silence. We all thought that it was one of the best songs that we had ever heard and evidently we were not alone because the DJ announced that the telephone lines were lighting up with requests to play it again and again. We sat in the VW bus listening unit a commercial finally broke the trance that had overtaken us. 

That photo of the Saturday night dances at my school stirred my memories of the wonderful moments of my youth, most of which were influenced by music. I remembered seeing Roy Orbison perform live at a fundraiser for our school and going to see the Beach Boys with the same group of friends who discovered The House of the Rising Sun with me on that memorable football night. It felt as though every facet of those days was influenced by the artists of the era. There were so many who touched my very soul and changed me just as the books that I read had also done. 

I never had a great deal of extra change for purchasing records and buying LPs was totally out of my economic reach. When my best friend, Claudia, gave me Revolver by the Beatles for a Christmas gift one year it felt as though I had won the lottery. I must have played that album over and over and over. Luckily my mother liked it as much as I did and my brothers who were younger began to adopt an interest in music as well. Later Claudia would gift me with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and once again I wore the album out from overplaying it. 

I was a sophomore in college when I met my husband. Our relationship really clicked when I learned that he enjoyed music as much as I did. We had the same taste in artists and he was also rather clever in bringing the sounds to us when we went out on dates. Long before tape decks, CD players or streaming was available in cars he carried a tape deck in the backseat that played his favorite songs. Sometimes he actually created themes for the evening with his playlists. 

We launched our longstanding love affair to the sounds of the Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Donovan, the Dave Clark Five, Peter Paul and Mary, the Association and of course the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We’ve been listening to music ever since and once even saw Donovan live in a venue so intimate that we might have been able to reach out and touch him from our table. 

Our tastes have evolved with the times but the classics from the sixties will always be our favorites. They are the songs of our youth, songs that inspired us to be better versions of ourselves. That was the music that pushed us to leave the isolated safety of our childhood homes and go forth in the world to hopefully do good work. Somehow it doesn’t even seem so long ago. When I hear those sounds I’m still that skinny fresh-faced girl whose baby fine hair refused to stay put in a big bouffant. It was a wonderful time.  

It’s the Pleasure It Should Always Have Been

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I had the same teacher for both of my high school history classes. She was a very sweet woman who was quite good to me, but if it had been up to her I would have hated history forever. I did well in her class, even winning the medal for best student twice. Nonetheless it was literally a trial to sit in her classroom each day. She had a systematic routine that I remember with horror to this very moment. 

She gave us a reading assignment each evening and we had to return the next day ready to answer questions. She kept a deck of index cards on which our names were neatly printed. She bound the cards with a thick rubber band which she ceremoniously rolled up her arm as she prepared to quiz us on the required reading. I can still feel the silent tension in the classroom as she took the name cards out of her desk, removed the rubber band, shuffled the stack, selected a card and then named the “lucky” student who had to answer the first question. It felt as though we were engaged in a whole group game of Russian roulette.

I suppose it never really dawned on her that by calling the name of the victim before asking the question, the rest of us were let off the hook for at least the next few minutes while our classmate sat dazed and confused . We only regretted not getting the first call if the question ended up being easy. Otherwise we gleefully sat thinking “better you than me”as the sweating victim attempted to fake his or her way through a response. At least the terror was over once one had a turn because she never returned a card to the pile for a possible second question. I suppose most of us let our minds wander into our own little worlds whenever our interrogation was over. The intensity of the questioning usually lasted for the entire class for the unfortunate souls whose cards remained in the deck.

I may be wrong but I don’t ever recall hearing a lecture from that teacher. We might just as well have gathered at someone’s home with snacks and music playing in the background to teach each other the important events and people of history without her. Instead we were treated to an intimidating cross examination five days a week. It’s a miracle that any of us ever again thought of learning history as something wonderful. 

It was not until I entered college and came across a history professor whose teaching style was 20% acting, 30% storytelling and 50% providing us with truths that we had never before heard. He was so good that we groaned in unison whenever it was time for the class to end. He usually stopped each lecture with a cliffhanger pronouncement that prompted us to disregard spoiler alerts and research the topic before we would see him again. He was masterful at making history our story. Even kings and potentates became so real, so human under his cunning way of presenting information about them. We devoured his every word and then supplemented what we had heard from him by happily reading his assignments with an enthusiasm usually reserved for thriller.

From that moment forward I have been an enthusiastic fan of historical movies, texts and lectures. I have a tendency to become addicted to a particular era or individual before I move on to the next topic. I drown myself in every bit of information that I might find. So a while back I became fascinated with the Romanovs, a family whose ruling dynasty lasted for 300 years. While the early rulers were certainly interesting, it was the final Romanov, Czar Nicholas, who captured my imagination. 

I suppose that he thought that a three hundred year run would never end, even as he struggled to hold together the reins of power. He was a naive and privileged man who had few of the necessary qualities of a great leader. His flaws coupled with tragic world events led to the downfall of a once great and respected family hold on Russia. Ultimately it led to a revolution that would redefine the country for a century and end with the murderous killing of Nicholas and his entire family. 

I’m one of those history students who insists on attempting to understand the psychology and sociology of what separates great leaders from poor ones. I try to determine in hindsight what went wrong and what might have been right. It’s almost a forensic method of looking at history. So in reading about Nicholas I found myself wanting to warn him to be more honest and compassionate with his people. I would have insisted that he understand that forces were moving to take away his power. He was paying attention to all the wrong things and allowing terrible influences to determine his thinking. It was like being part of a horror scene in which I was the only one who knew the tragic ending, but was not able to speak even a tiny bit of advice. 

I’ll be learning even more about the last of the Romanovs in my latest continuing education course at the Glasscock School at Rice University. I am certain that Professor Boyd, a learned man whose way of teaching history is legendary, will pique my interest from the first moment. Perhaps I will understand Nicholas better than ever, but never be able to change the terrible ending. 

Learning history has become my favorite pastime. There is so much of it that I should be able to entertain myself for the rest of my days. Luckily there will be no quizzes or moments of stone cold terror ruining the joy of learning. Instead it will be pleasurable, informative and exciting just the way it always should be.  

I Will Look Up!

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I feel rather certain that if my grandmother and grandfather had stayed in Slovakia rather than coming to the United States, their lives would have been disastrous compared to the freedoms they enjoyed here. My grandmother had a bout with mental illness when she was in her early forties which would not have served her well once Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. The Nazis were prone to eliminating the mentally ill from the ranks of society, so my beloved grandmother may well have ended up in a concentration camp only to be exterminated. Additionally, my DNA profile on ancestry.com indicates that I have a somewhat large percentage of characteristics that indicate that I am a descendant  of Eastern European Jews. That alone might have sent my mother and all of her siblings to a camp as well. I’m thankful that my grandmother and grandfather had the foresight to leave their homeland when they did. 

I think of these kinds of things because I have always wondered when I should speak out against prejudice, injustice and other societal wrongs. I’d like to think that I am courageous enough to stand up and make my beliefs known when there are explicit and implicit evil practices being exhibited. Sadly, like so many, I prefer living quietly and peacefully rather than stirring up trouble. History, however, tells me that simply looking the other way can lead to horrendous acts that might have been prevented if enough people had spoken out against them. The consequences of failing to act have so often been dire. 

Today there is a misconceived notion that every single aspect of history must be given an equal hearing. While this is usually a fair way of including our collective voices, there are some ways of thinking and doing things that can only be thought of as evil. For example, there really is no argument that is capable of finding any form of good in the conception of concentration camps and murder of individuals for no other reason than the color of their skin or on the basis of their religion. Yet today we have people arguing that teachers must be willing to provide the alternative viewpoints of slaveholders and Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan. 

Somehow I can’t find any kind of reasonable way to justify hanging a man from a tree only because he was black or gassing a woman because she was a Jew. What differing points of view might I possibly use to make my discussions of the Jim Crow era or Nazi concentrations camps fair to all parties? Doing such a thing not only seems absurd, but also terribly wrong. Why would we want our children to think that there is anything worthy of even the smallest excuse for such violent and despicable acts? Somehow such a method of presenting the most horrendous episodes of history feels cringe worthy. 

So how do we know when it might be okay to talk about differing sides of a disagreement? Surely there may be some merit in noting that most of the British soldiers who fought the patriots in the American Revolution were simply doing their jobs. Many colonists tread a thin line in remaining loyal to the crown of England while their neighbors fought for freedom. That might indeed be an interesting and enlightening truth for young people to learn, but somehow gassing people to death is not in the same category. To move beyond the despicable nature of some historical events is to give young people the idea that there is nothing that is all bad. 

Knowing what happened in the Holocaust and realizing that it might well have affected members of my family has made me an advocate for justice. It did not make me feel  hatred for the German people in general, but rather disgust for those who committed the acts and for those who knowingly looked the other way. It made me aware of the importance of understanding when to protest. It helped me realize how silence can be as evil as murderous actions. Fear should never be an excuse for allowing horrors to take place. 

While my normal and preferred stance would be to quietly live unnoticed, I also believe that sometimes that is a selfish way to be. I had to speak up when our Black citizens were vying for their civil rights back when I was a high school and college student. I thought it to be morally wrong to be silent. Thus I have inserted myself into many controversial moments in the history of our nation during my lifetime. I feel a duty to support those who are being abused.I know that I would want good minded people to come to my aid if ever I were to become the victim of inequity or suppression. It is important that we teach our children the truth about horrendous events so that they will recognize despots when they misuse their power to hurt innocents. Each of us must know when to screw up our courage and do the right thing. That begins with learning some very difficult truths about those who have come before us. Such revelations are not harmful to our young, but they actually help them to become better thinkers and advocates for fair play. 

While there is an appropriate time and place for revealing the harsh aspects of history to our children, we need not censor all mention of the most horrific truths. It does no good to hide and pretend that everything about our ancestors and our country has always been about apple pie and unicorns. Admitting our mistakes is the best way of assuring that we will not make them again. Awareness that human nature sometimes leads to dark places keeps us watchful for trends that might result in suffering for ourselves or the people around us. It’s important that we slowly teach our children about such things as well as how they might prevent them from happening again. Suggesting that we have to also give excuses for evil acts is absurd. 

I am an advocate for children, teachers, the underserved, those who are shunned because of race, religion, sexual preference. I fight for my democracy and for equal justice for all. I will not be silent about the health and well being of my fellow humans. I want to be able to say that I will always do my best to face down the devils who would harm the people and the government of my beloved country or nations across the world. Admittedly there is still so much work to do.  I will look up. I will see. 

Intangible Rewards

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Teaching is one of the most challenging careers that one might choose to follow. Studies have shown that by the five year mark only the most dedicated educators have decided to stay in the profession. The hours are much longer than the nine to three mark that so many assume is the work day for teachers. In most cases the job continues until well into the night, and the summer vacation time is filled with inservice programs, weeks long courses, and pre-planning for the coming school year. The myths about short days and three month vacations for teachers still persist even though they are far from the truth about the extended efforts that all teachers provide for their students and their schools. 

One would think that members of such an important profession would be some of the most highly paid and honored in the nation, but the reality is that teachers work for abysmally low salaries given their level of education and the number of hours that they labor each year. Those who stay past that five year mark are the ones who continue regardless of the lack of benefits and praise. They are the ones who altruistically simply want to lay the educational foundations for each generation. They are literally devoted to the idea that their work is the bulwark on which the future is born. 

So why would anyone with any special abilities be willing to sacrifice time and salary for a job that is all too often the subject of sneers and misunderstanding? I suppose that it is because teaching offers immeasurable rewards to those who are truly dedicated. It is not in salary or benefits or perks that educators find joy, but in the knowledge that what they have done keeps the engines of innovation and industry moving. There are no engineers without a fleet of teachers beginning when a child is small. There are no business magnates or doctors or scientists without the step by step processes that teachers provide in hopes of unlocking the brilliance and gifts of each child who sits in their classrooms. Teaching is one of the most purpose driven careers that anyone might follow. 

Many times a teacher receives the gift of gratitude from a former student who has achieved great things. Those tokens of appreciation have more value than gold. They convince teachers that their own sacrifices of money and prestige are more than worth it. There is no greater feeling for teachers than realizing that someone is a bit better because of their influence. Teachers literally save the cards, letters and texts that they receive, sometimes reading them over and over again. 

I suppose that I understood why someone becomes an educator when I thought of my own teachers and the enormous impact that some of them had on my life. I can still transport my mind back to their classrooms and realize what I learned from each of them. My first grade teacher opened the world to me by showing me how to read and write and she did so with such patience and love. My sixth grade teacher demonstrated how to be fair and just. My seventh grade teacher widened my vistas by making science fun and interesting. My high school English teacher made me a citizen of the world. One of my college professors showed me how to teach others. Even today I continue to unearth truths about history from a professor who teaches those of us who want to learn just for fun.

Step by small step I learned about the world around me. Most of my teachers were honest and fair. None of them became rich from their work, but I suspect that, like me, they reveled in the knowledge that what they gave to me and my fellow students was so important. My fellow classmates and I took their lessons to heart and have led successful and fulfilling lives because of them. So it has been for generations of students who enjoyed the tutelage of countless teachers whose names will never be known, but whose impact was huge. 

Most students do not know that teachers never forget them. We remember the sad little girl who struggled to learn and always seemed so isolated from her peers. We pray that she is okay. We think of the class troublemaker and smile in knowing that he turned out just fine. We marvel at the accomplishments of our students who outdistance us in their learning and their achievements. We smile when we learn that our students are happy, and cry when we find that they are somehow broken. We wish that there were some way for them to know that we will never stop caring for them. 

If only everyone knew what I know about teachers there would be a rush to honor them and shower them with the prestige they so deserve. For now, I suspect that like me they will simply be content to know that what they have done is truly important. That knowledge seems to have been enough for generations of educators to quietly do their work.