Ice cream and chlorine: These marked the birthdays of my childhood.
I had one traditional birthday party, complete with party favors and cake and a circle of little girls in frilly dresses singing “Happy Birthday,” when I turned six. I don’t know why I didn’t have another, although it might have had something to do with the fact that I had few friends.
Our family moved to a little town in upstate South Carolina when I was a baby, but we never quite fit in. We didn’t meet either of the basic requirements for complete acceptance: Deep ancestral roots---at least Civil War-deep---in the community or owning a business in town. Maybe things would have gone better for us if we had been Baptist, but I don’t think even that would have helped much.
But don’t feel sorry for me. I had my family, I had my books, I had “Star Trek,” and I had Emily.
Emily lived out in the country and her family had a swimming pool. No one else I knew had such a thing, but the pool wasn’t the basis for our friendship because I couldn’t swim. However we had plenty of non-pool activities to enjoy: Sitting on the top step of the wooden stairs in her family’s old farmhouse and slipping down to the bottom, one step at a time, giggling all the way. Covering ourselves with a quilt and listening for ghosts making their way up those creaky stairs toward her room. Helping her mother in the kitchen---my mother’s kitchen was her kingdom and I entered only for mealtime. Selling Girl Scout cookies and earning merit badges. I think I appreciated the sweetness of those times even as I was living them.
I called Emily’s parents Aunt Duffie and Uncle Tom. My parents taught my sister and me to address family friends as “Aunt” or “Uncle”---perhaps that was their way of making up for the lack of extended family nearby. Their sisters and mothers lived five hours away in North Carolina; how long that journey seemed!
I’m not sure when the tradition started, but for several years Emily and her parents would celebrate my July birthday by inviting my parents and me to their home for swimming (or, in my case, splashing) and homemade ice cream. That ice cream lives in my memory as being perfect in its simplicity, much like the chocolate cake with chocolate frosting my mother would bake for me each year. I wish I could taste that cake one more time, especially the frosting---grainy with sugar, like fudge that hasn’t quite hardened.
So I am thankful I can revisit my childhood each summer when I retrieve the card titled “Eagle Ice Cream” from my rusting “Land ‘O Lakes” recipe box. Aunt Duffie shared it with me when Mr. Pettit and I got married 35 years ago. Her penciled letters are fading now but I’m not sure I even need the directions anymore. Still, it’s not my compulsive nature alone that compels me to pull out that folded over 3” x 5” card---it’s the need to see that writing and let those memories wash over me.
It’s the same feeling I get each Christmas when I pull out Mama’s recipe for sausage balls recorded in her beautiful script. Mama didn’t really use recipes, not like I do. I didn’t know how to create anything other than cookies when I married so I followed the instructions in my Betty Crocker cookbook with an attention to detail that would impress an accountant. All of Mama’s recipes were in her head, although she did read cookbooks as others read novels.
Most of Mama’s recipes went something like this one for pimento cheese---I wrote it down on a card after pinning her down for details one day.
Grate 1 pound cheese. (Let it get soft.)
Add: Big jar pimentos
Blend with mixer.
What kind of cheese? Cheddar, of course. How much sugar, vinegar, and mayonnaise? Until it tastes and looks right. How long do I blend it? Until it looks right. Daddy always had the last word on the “rightness” of the pimento cheese. I can still see Mama spreading a bit on a slice of white bread and handing it over for judgment.
The sausage ball recipe is precious to me because it was written down by Mama herself. (It even includes detailed directions!) I like to think that 50 years from now a young lady or young man with a bit of Estelle Segroves Finch’s blood in their veins will be making that recipe, although they might have to find substitutes for
the sausage and cheese. Soy? Tofu? Yogurt pellets?
the sausage and cheese. Soy? Tofu? Yogurt pellets?
When I hear news stories about wildfires bearing down on neighborhoods, causing people to grab what they can and jump in their cars, I think about what I’d save from the flames. Photo albums and family videos always come to mind first, followed by my little jewelry box containing Mama’s wedding rings.
I’ve decided to add that little rusted recipe box to the list. It contains more than directions for Rhonda’s cranberry cider, my sister’s "Banana Split Cake" and Nanny’s peach cobbler. It tells my history in tablespoons of vanilla and cups of flour. Each card is a note from the past, a gentle nudge to my memory. I’m reminded of the cooks behind the recipes, women who understood that sustenance involves more than food.