Category Archives: THINGS I REMEMBER

SEWING CLASS 101

In 1954, I graduated from the 8th grade at St. Leo’s School in North Fairmount in May or June, and then in September was one of more than one hundred and fifty Freshman classmates to start high school at Mother of Mercy, on Werk Road in Cincinnati.

At the time, my parents were still living in Fairmount and it only took two buses to get to school; after we moved to North College Hill when I was fifteen, it took three buses and a lot of walking. Meantime, it was 1954 and one of my majors was domestic science. My freshman class roster included sewing class.

The first thing freshman girls were required to make was an apron. When the teacher introduced us to the sewing machines, she asked if I could gather. “Sure I can gather” I said and proceeded to fold the fabric into the machine.

“That’s NOT how you gather,” said the teacher (annoyed, I think), instructing me to take out all my bad stitches.

“I learned from my grandmother,” I explained. “That was how SHE gathered.”

I had already made a bad impression on the teacher, one of the few women at Mercy who was not a nun.(I redeemed myself later on with all written tests and exercises—I could memorize anything).

Now, the next thing 99% of the students in sewing class made was a wool skirt. It required two pieces of fabric, a front and a back, with a belt-size piece of fabric, a waist band that went around the waist. The most difficult part of the skirt was putting in a zipper. I didn’t want to put in a zipper so I elected to make a pair of pajamas that went to the knees, like Capri pants, in a lavender print fabric that my mother must have had laying around (I don’t remember ever going to buy fabric) The thing about these pajamas is that they had French seams everywhere. If you don’t know what a French seam is, don’t waste your time learning how – it’s like the seam on the outside of a good pair of jeans. To this day, I remember those French seams.

Here’s what happened: I had sewing class two or three days a week. I would work on my French seams for an hour, then squash the pajamas into my sewing box and take them home to my mother, who would tear out my bad seams and re-do the whole thing.

Months later the pajamas were finished and they lasted for years. I once hyperventilated when I saw a piece of that fabric in a quilt that my mother made for my sister, Susanne.

The next thing I made was a dress. The fabric was a lovely pale dotted swiss. The dress went back and forth in the sewing box too—I think it was finally finished at the end of the school year—by then my breast size had increased and the dress was too tight for me to wear. I don’t know what my mother did with that dress, either.

Now here’s the thing—my two best friends from childhood (when we sat on our front porches making doll dresses for little dolls that predated Barbie) – both sew all kinds of things and both of them quilt as well. My friend Patti even has names for her sewing machines – she has two. They are Sweetie One and Sweetie Two.

ALL of my friends sew. My best friend here in California, Mary Jaynne, has been doing all of my mending and took up Bob’s new Dockers whenever he got a new pair of pants—she does all of my mending and alterations; I make soup for them. I freeze the soups, stews, and chowders in 2-quart Glad Lock plastic containers. When frozen solid, the soup or stew pops out and can be put into a zip lock freezer bag—and then labeled with a black Sharpee pen. (Mrs. Cunningham, my cooking teacher, would have been proud)

I think all of my girlfriends quilt as well. I don’t sew; I gave it up when my Freshman year came to an end.

I do have a button box; when I was married my Ex couldn’t understand how someone who didn’t sew could have a button box. “I like buttons”, I explained. He never got it. I played with my mother’s button box when I was a little girl. No sewing onto things was ever required.

Four Years at Mercy
Class of 1958

In 1954, we were the freshman class,
girls from many parishes,
wearing new blue uniforms
with crisp white blouses,
bobby socks and
penny loafers,
blue and white beanie caps;
assigned our lockers,
and a list
of the rooms
of all our classes.
In my dreams
I still lose the slip of paper
with my classes
and have to go to
Sister Emily’s office
to get another.
I may have lost
that list
once or twice
every year.
I may have been
slightly scatterbrained.
Religion, English, General Math,
Science, Domestic Science (Sewing)
I was not very good
at sewing
and spent a year
making a pair
of pajamas
with French seams.
Public Speaking.
I had a class in Public Speaking?
P.E.
I did not like P.E.
(and it did not like me. I think
the teacher took pity
on the girl
with two left feet–I became the coach).

In 1955, we were the Sophomores
No longer the new kids on the block.
We were worldly, experienced,
and knew our way
around the halls
and up and down the stairwells.
I still lost my list of classes
once or twice
until I had them memorized.
Religion, English, Biology
(Sister Joseph, I remember you well–oh
that all the world could have been
as enthusiastic
as you!)
World History, Public Speaking (again?)
Domestic Science (Cooking Class. I love you
Mrs. Cunningham, Where ever you are).
P.E.
How did I ever get a 97.5 average in P.E.?
(Is this really my report card?)

In 1956, we became Juniors.
No longer babies.
“Young Women,”
Sister said.
Religion, English,
U.S. History,
Homemaking II,
Typing!
(I graduate from 2-finger
Typing to using both hands)
Office Practice.
(Sister Joseph again. We practiced
writing checks
for weeks. Sister was a stickler
for getting it right.
To this day,
I write a pretty good check.)
P.E.
(How did I ever get a 92.5 average?)
A in Conduct.
Ok, I could live with that.

In 1957, we became the Senior Class.
Religion, English,
Business Math,
Problems of Democracy,
(Democracy is still having problems
Fifty years later)
Typing, (loved typing class)
P.E.
The Senior Prom.
Getting our class pictures taken.
Final exams.
Graduation Day
in front of the school.

Of all the things–
the documents,
driver’s license,
birth certificates for
four sons,
and bits of paper
that have trailed me through life
(not to mention many moves)
much has been lost
along the way.
But somehow
I have managed
to keep
Four important report cards.
Proof that I was there,
for four years
and graduated
from Mother of Mercy
High School
June 4, 1958.

–Sandra Lee Smith (Schmidt)
Class of ’58

GROWING UP PRACTICALLY GREENLESS

In the midst of a recent exchange with one of my email pals, it crossed my mind that we grew up, in the 30s, 40s. and 50s with a dearth of fresh vegetables. I never tasted fresh spinach before moving to California. Ditto fresh asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels Sprouts or bell peppers. In the Cincinnati of my childhood, bell peppers were called “mangoes” (it’s a long story; I’ll spare you for now). Other fresh vegetables we never had: artichokes, eggplant, cauliflower, Kohlrabi, mushrooms, okra, parsnips, rutabagas, any kind of squash, turnips or zucchini.

As a child of the 40s and 50s in a family of five children, we had carrots and potatoes with stewed chicken on Sunday, served with my mother’s library paste rice that I loathed but not very long ago discovered my brother Bill actually liked it. I didn’t like rice until I was married and began discovering rice pilaf, brown rice and a wealth of other rice dishes. Then I realized that it wasn’t the rice that I loathed; it was the way my mother cooked it. It was the same thing with cabbage. My mother began cooking cabbage around 9 am in the morning, for supper at 6 pm. It was cabbage slime.

The wonder of it all is that I learned how to make corned beef and cabbage on my own—and liked it. (Cut into wedges, cooked gently until just done in a crockpot with the pre-cooked corned beef). Sometimes, such as on a Sunday dinner, we had a simple green lettuce salad with a vinaigrette mixed in, otherwise we didn’t have salads. Cottage cheese was often on the table and considered a salad.

We sometimes had canned asparagus, canned peas, canned beets, canned corn, canned tomatoes and canned string beans—all of which I liked but it took fresh asparagus, peas, beets and corn and beans to awaken my taste buds and make me love those vegetables. I think we might have had corn on the cob once a year but I wouldn’t swear to it.

After being gifted with my maternal grandmother’s cookbook from my cousin Renee on one of my visits to Cincinnati, I had an inkling that my mother’s cooking was largely her mother’s cooking some of which is reflected in Grandma Beckman’s late 1800s cookbook.

The one thing my mother made “from scratch” regularly was bread – two large loaves of it baked in a large black speckled roasting pan twice a week. Oh, how I envied kids with sandwiches made from Wonder Bread! Our sliced bread sandwiches were at least six inches thick. However, that being said – if you happened to be in the kitchen when my mother took a loaf of bread out of the oven and she sliced off an end for you to try with a little margarine—now that was heaven!

One dish I loved was canned peas made with a white cream sauce (like a Bechamel sauce). My mother used evaporated milk in the sauce (mixed in with the liquid from the canned peas) and I loved it. Years later discovered my sister Becky loved peas made this way too. When we had salmon patties (made from canned salmon) on a Friday, it was usually with creamed peas. Growing up, I didn’t know there was any such thing as fresh salmon—not in the Midwest it wasn’t. And I don’t remember ever having any kind of other fish, fresh or otherwise.

And speaking of peas, one of the ladies in my support group says she had peas, usually with pearl onions, almost every Sunday while visiting her grandfather and she became sick of them.

For the life of me I can’t remember my mother ever making fried chicken—the only kind of chicken I remember having was stewed—and once in a blue moon, my mother made French fries, draining them on brown paper bags that were torn open to lay flat. I really learned how to make fried chicken from my mother in law, Bertha Smith, who was from Bluefield West Virginia. I also learned how to make white gravy from her (wonderful with fried chicken when you have all those drippings and bits and pieces from the chicken).

Throughout the years when my sons were growing up, I made fried chicken at least once a week but I cut up two chickens to fry—to have with biscuits and gravy. (There was a good reason for frying at least two chickens at a time; my then-husband and sons often brought strays home for dinner (friends who didn’t have anywhere to go for dinner).

Everyone knew what time we had dinner and many of them just happened to show up at that time—no one was ever turned away. And it was a simple matter to make a double or triple batch of buttermilk biscuits and a vat of white gravy.  We always had a salad and some kind of vegetable—thinking back, I know they all liked corn so that was probably on the table the most often—but not canned! I became an advocate for fresh and frozen veggies.

I just thought of something else I want to add to this – my son Kelly has been on a fairly strict food plan for several years now. He sees a doctor in the San Fernando Valley (that his father recommended to him) because Kelly had so many digestive problems. He went on this “diet” which allows potatoes – he can have them baked or mashed – but no milk in the mashing and only margarine to go on it. He went down 3 pants sizes and the puffiness went out of his face. he can have almost any kind of meat except pork & he can eat a lot of salads, which he does. If they are coming over here to eat I generally make baked potatoes. When Keara makes mashed potatoes for them, she just uses the potato water mashing them.

And I haven’t made chocolate chip cookies since Christmas because he will EAT them even when he SHOULDN’T.

Occasionally my mother made a kidney stew that was served with wide cooked noodles; I liked it well enough until I learned where the kidneys came from and what their purpose was. We also had liver & onions every so often—something I liked and when I was first married, it was a meal you could make for next to nothing. Calves liver was cheap (not so much anymore) and a few brown onions were cheap as well.

However, I just don’t remember many side dishes of vegetables. My mother would ‘pickle’ a can of red beets—which my father liked. I didn’t like beets until I began cooking fresh ones myself, cooking the green tops as well as the beets. Now shoestring red beets are one of my favorite “sides” on a salad. And while checking through some old cookbooks, I have discovered that my mother was making Harvard Beets with those canned red beets
.
Now might be a good time to tell my “mango” story; backing up first – in Cincinnati in the 40s and 50s, bell peppers were called “mangoes” – the how and why of it is something I have written about on my blog before. We had “filled mangoes” probably several times a month when bell peppers were in season. It was something my mother could make using a small amount of ground beef; you hollowed out the bell peppers (mangoes) and filled them with ground beef mixed with uncooked rice and maybe an egg mixed into it. Tomato sauce was poured over it all and cooked in the oven. Voila – stuffed mangoes.

Well, shortly after we moved to California in 1961, my then-husband Jim and I became acquainted with a couple named Jim & Teresa, we often had meals at their apartment. Teresa was from Louisiana and an excellent cook. So – one night when we were there for dinner and I was chatting with Teresa in the kitchen, she asked me what kind of dishes I liked to make. “Well, for one, stuffed mangoes” I replied. (I had never even heard of any other kind of “mango”) – it took a lot of explaining before I understood that what WE called stuffed mangoes—wasn’t made with mangoes at all—they were made with bell peppers. I never referred to stuffed bell peppers as “mangoes” again.

(*I wish I could find Teresa again. I happened to see her and her daughter Connie in the early 1980s at a park when I was working at SAG in the summer and was staying with girlfriend Mary Jaynne at the time. I think Theresa was divorced by then. Well, I digress—people come and go from your life in California, more so than people you know from your childhood elsewhere and who are still living in places like my hometown of Cincinnati). ***

I think, I will make and freeze stuffed peppers when Kelly”s veggie garden goes into overdrive this year. I diced a lot of the bell peppers and froze them like that –and I still have some in the freezer. He has become quite the gardener.

This reminds me of another one of my mother’s frequent vegetable dishes when we were growing up – it was a kind of stewed canned tomato that had bread mixed in with it. The closest thing I can find for that is a Better Homes & Gardens recipe for “scalloped tomatoes” that contained several slices of toasted bread cut into cubes. I think my mother’s version would have contained cut up homemade bread that wasn’t toasted.

I have written about my mother’s one and only cookbook, an Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook but I think my mother only used it for baked things, like cookies; I took over that cookbook years ago—when I was about ten years old.

My mother had a few recipes in a recipe box that I now have. Despite being practically greenless as we grew up, somehow the whole bunch of us (six siblings) managed to grow up without breaking any arms or legs. I had a calcium deficiency that was diagnosed when my teeth kept crumbling until a doctor suggested I have them pulled and dentures made. So, at the age of 25, I acquired dentures. And oddly enough, despite taking four falls last year when I was recuperating from an illness—I didn’t break any bones. My doctors thought it remarkable that I didn’t break anything. (I think I was having problems with balance for about six months last year).

As for my mother, I want to add that when we were growing up in the 30s, 40s and into the 50s, my mother had a grocery allowance of $10.00 a week, which explains the homemade bread and meals made with organ meats such as kidneys and liver. Fresh vegetables had to cost more than canned at that time. She did the best she could with what she had.

I understand how it was—for many years of my marriage and before I went back to work in 1977, I had to make do with very little and do the best I could.

–Sandra Lee Smith

Surely Synchronicity!  Received this from girlfriend Doreen:

EATING IN THE FIFTIES

Pasta had not been invented.  It was macaroni or spaghetti.  Curry was a surname.  A take-away was a mathematical problem.  Pizza? Sounds like a leaning tower somewhere.  Bananas and oranges only appeared at Christmas time.  All chips were plain.

Rice was a milk pudding, and never, ever part of our dinner.

A Big Mac was what we wore when it was raining. Brown bread was something only poor people ate.  Oil was for lubricating, fat was for cooking.  Tea was made in a teapot using tea leaves and never green.  Cubed sugar was regarded as posh.  Chickens didn’t have fingers in those days.

None of us had ever heard of yogurt.  Healthy food consisted of anything edible.  Cooking outside was called camping.  Seaweed was not a recognized food.  ‘Kebab’ was not even a word, never mind a food. Sugar enjoyed a good press in those days, and was regarded as being white gold.  Prunes were medicinal.

Surprisingly muesli was readily available. It was called cattle feed.  Pineapples came in chunks in a tin; we had only ever seen a picture of a real one.  Water came out of the tap. If someone had suggested bottling it and charging more than gasoline for it they would have become a laughing stock.  The one thing that we never ever had on/at our table in the fifties…was elbows or hats!

NEW YEAR’S EVE & DAY MEMORIES REVISITED

My earliest memories of New Year’s Eve are of the parties my parents hosted. On a few occasions, my cousin, Irene (called Renee by the family) and her brothers, along with me and my brothers, had our own little party down in my parents’ basement on Sutter Street. Renee and I were almost the same age – she is six months older than I am – my two brothers (Scott wasn’t born until I was 17) and her three younger brothers, along with our cousin, Chuck, apparently had a good time together, judging from the few photos I have found from these occasions.

I think by the following year, I was babysitting for my sister and the family who lived downstairs from her. I remember babysitting there when my brother Jim brought me a plate of pork and sauerkraut, the traditional German dish we ate at midnight! Midnight! It’s a wonder no one in the family suffered from any stomach problems. I cried when I sat alone eating the sauerkraut. I missed being with my family. I think my parents hosted a lot of New Year’s Eve parties but these are the few that remain outstanding in my memory. I babysat on New Year’s Eve until I got married in 1958.

After Jim & I moved to California IN 1961, he contacted an old friend of his who was living somewhere near Shell Beach in the central coast. We spent our first California new year’s eve with these friends who took us to a party. I thought I was spectacular in my black dress with white gloves! (What did I know about fashion?). New Year’s Day, 1962, found us down by Shell Beach, where we took some photographs. My favorite is myself sitting on a rail fence; my Canadian girlfriend, Doreen, dubbed this photograph “California Girl”. I was twenty-one and the mother of a one year old son. I really didn’t know anything about California at the time but I would certainly learn.

Jim (my then-husband, now ex-) & I spent some New Year’s Eves with friends; the one most memorable was with a group of friends at a Hungarian restaurant where everyone ate traditional Hungarian food that night. We acquired these Hungarian friends in a circuitous way—a man named Alex and his wife Peggy rented an apartment behind our first home in California, a duplex we rented in late 1961. Peggy and Alex arrived from New York at closely the same time. Alex introduced us to some of his Hungarian friends, who in turn became our friends—most notably Neva and Les. Les and his friends were freedom fighters in the short-lived Hungarian revolution in 1956; when they lost their bid for freedom, most of them immigrated to the United States as political refugees. It was through Les and Neva that I began returning to my culinary roots of Hungarian food foods such as goulash and Palascinta, Palascinta layered with poppy seed filling and cut into wedges. Palascinta can be made many different ways—it is a thin crepe-like pancake—it can have sweet fillings or savory. My grandmother made Palascinta with jelly fillings. (We called them German pancakes—what did we know about Palascinta?) I can remember walking back to school after eating lunch at Grandma’s house, eating a rolled up palascinta filled with jelly along the way.

Another year, we hosted a New Year’s Eve party at our house—it had to be 1974 or later, because the house in photographs was the one in Arleta. I imagine if I go through all of my photo albums—over sixty of them dating back to my teenage years—I will find other photographs taken on other New Year’s Eve celebrations.

One of the best adventures I ever had on a New Year’s Eve was celebrated after I was divorced in 1986. A new boyfriend took me to Pasadena on New Year’s Eve – this is a happening event throughout the streets of Pasadena—the streets on which the famous Rose Bowl parade will travel the next morning. People are camped out along those streets, in small tents or sleeping bags, with folding chairs and blankets (it can get quite cold on those streets late at night!). My friend George had a large sleeping bag and a small hibachi that he kept fed with bits of wood; he was a carpenter and had his truck bed (parked near by on a side street) filled with small pieces of wood; it drew people to us throughout the night – and people come to this almost-event from all over the United States. It was one of the most exciting experiences of my life as I was just returning to dating.

The next day, all of us had ring-side views of the floats as they came by on Colorado Boulevard. I have many photos of the floats but none of George and I as we sat along the curb drinking wine out of a coffee cup and talking to people who came up to our fire to get warm. I have never again been to Pasadena on a New Year’s Eve (or even a New Year’s Day for that matter) and my relationship with George was brief – I knew he was too young for me, in his mid thirties to my mid-forties – but it was great fun while it lasted. And I think it was that night that I began to feel like there might be life after divorce. There was.

In more recent years, Bob & I did not really celebrate New Year’s Eve. And New Year’s Day became my day to start dismantling the Christmas decorations, while watching the Rose Bowl Parade – over and over again throughout the day as KTLA, Channel 5 in Los Angeles, televised the parade with my favorite TV personalities, Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards—and repeated the program throughout the day. What I might have missed one time, I could catch the next time around. What great memories!
Happy New Year 2015 to all my Sandychatter friends!

CHRISTMAS WON’T BE CHRISTMAS

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was. – From Little Women.

It was the first book I ever owned, a copy of “Little Women” given to me by my mother when I was about ten or eleven. I read it over and over again, often enough to be able to recite entire paragraphs from memory. Owning a copy of “Little Women” caused something to explode within my heart. It was never enough, after that, just to read a book although I read library books voraciously. I wanted to OWN those favorite books as well. Perhaps a year or two later, my brother Jim gave me FIVE Nancy Drew books for Christmas. FIVE! What riches! What wealth!

Not surprisingly, you will have to agree, my house today is wall to wall bookcases filled with books throughout most of the house (ok, none in the kitchen or bathrooms) although you can often find a little stack of magazines or catalogues on the back of the toilet. And last year, Bob built a library that takes up half of the garage. I was unpacking books to go onto the shelves as fast as he finished a section. Finally, after two years, the rest of our books were unpacked and placed on shelves.(We moved into this house in November of 2008).  The garage library is primarily for fiction although I have a respectable collection of books – biographies and auto biographies about our first ladies and one entire section is devoted to American presidents. (I think I have more about John Fitzgerald and Jackie Kennedy than any other president. I think this is because he was the first American president – and she the first “First Lady” who really captured my attention. Next high on my list are books about President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.  We have made many trips to the Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley. But I also collect biographies and auto biographies about movie stars and this probably started when I began working at the SAG Health Plan in 1977.

I’ve also collected books – stories, biographies and—yes, even cookbooks—about African Americans (or Black Americans if you want to be more politically correct. I have found so many really wonderful stories written by African Americans. I believe this is an untapped resource of Americana fiction.

And yes, it started with an inexpensive copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. (I love Little Women so much that I have every film edition of this wonderful civil war era story. But, I have never figured out what pickled limes were; you may recall that Amy got in trouble at school for having a bag of pickled limes in her desk. The teacher confiscated the bag of pickled limes and threw them all out the school house window. I do a lot of canning  (and yes, I collect  cookbooks about canning, preserving, making jams, jellies and chutneys – but have never come across a recipe for making pickled limes!)

“Little Women” is one of those ageless stories that I enjoy watching during the holiday season – along with “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Elf”, “The Santa Clause” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

I have loved Christmas my entire life; when I was about ten years old I began taking my two younger brothers downtown – in Cincinnati – to do our Christmas shopping at the 5 & 10 cent stores. We did all our shopping in one day, along with visiting the department store Santas to get a peppermint stick – and then happily returned home on the trolley (or buses if they had replaced street cars by then) to surreptitiously slip upstairs to my bedroom and wrap our gifts – with wrapping paper my mother had saved from the year before. We ironed out gift wrap paper and ribbons to look “like new” again.  My two brothers and I have the most precious memories of those trips downtown. If we were able, we’d make another trip downtown to see the life-size nativity on display in Garfield Park.

And I think opening the presents, as wonderful as it was, might have been anti climatic to the trip downtown with my little brothers to buy Christmas presents for everyone in the family, with pennies and nickels we had saved or earned. We didn’t have an allowance and earning a bit of cash was always a challenge. My girlfriend Carol went downtown with us one year and in later years confessed that she was always jealous of us Schmidts, buying all our Christmas presents for about a dollar—total!  Well, there was also the five cent bus fare each way to take into consideration. And sometimes we even shared a grill cheese sandwich at the soda fountain counter in Woolworths.

How did we do it? I have no idea. Our little change purses were something like the loaves and fishes in the bible – there was always JUST enough to get something for everyone in the family – five of us children, our parents and our grandparents.

My love for Christmas rubbed off on Bob, my partner for the past 25 years. He became as enthusiastic as I, putting up trees (yes, plural – one year we had 8 trees up in the house in Arleta) and decorating everything in sight inside and outside of the house, while I baked cookies. One year we made a fantastic gingerbread house.  He was always as excited and pleased as I, when guests would arrive at our house and begin to ooh and ahh over the two trees standing on either side of our fireplace, the lighthouse tree in the dining room and the little kitchen-theme trees in the kitchen.   This will be my first Christmas without Bob to share it with.  Christmas won’t be Christmas without him.

I originally wrote this in November of 2011, two months after Bob passed away from cancer of the esophagus. This year will mark the third Christmas without him.

Sandra Lee Smith

September 7, 2014

 

 

 

OLD FRIENDS AND OLD BOOKS

Let me share with you a few thoughts on old friends and old books.

Years ago—when I was young and cute and the mother of only two little boys instead of four (1965, actually), I was working at Weber Aircraft when I found myself in need of a new babysitter. A friend suggested her neighbor, a woman named Connie, who herself was the mother of three young children, the youngest a boy the same age as my son, Michael.

Those two five year olds could get into more mischief than half a dozen other children their age. Once I came home to find Connie attempting to put together half a dozen bicycles and tricycles. Michael and his buddy Sean had taken apart all the bikes and trikes—to see how they worked, I think—but they were careful to keep all the parts in one pile. What one five year old didn’t think of doing, the other one came up with. Another time I came home to hear they had painted circles on the fences and whatever else they came in contact with.

Connie became my babysitter and more importantly, a close friend. She was godmother to my youngest son, Kelly, when he was born. Connie and I shared so many interests that it’s impossible to say which one was the most important—and we shared a love of books. One of our interests focused on the White House and anything Presidential; one time we bought a “lot” of used White House/Presidential books, sight unseen, from a woman somewhere in the Midwest. I think the books cost us about $50.00 each and when they arrived, we sat on the floor divvying them up.

We shared a love of cookbooks and began collecting them at the same time, in 1965, although Connie was a vegetarian and leaned more towards cookbooks of that genre. She was also “Southern” and shared with me a love of “anything” Southern. We shared a love of diary/journal type books and books about the Mormons, books about the White House, Southern cookbooks and religious groups that formed in the United States in the 1800s. These were just a few of our mutual interests.

It was because of Connie that I started working for the Health Plan where I was employed for 27 years, until I retired in December of 2002.—I only went to work “part time for six weeks IN 1977 to help out”, and there I was all those years later, casting an eye towards retirement and pleased that I had a pension. My job literally saved my sanity when I went through a divorce in 1985.

Our sons started kindergarten together, and Connie’s oldest daughter lived with me for about six months, as a mother’s helper, when she was in high school.

More than a decade ago, on June 29, 1998, Connie died of lung cancer. It seemed incongruous that someone so devoted to eating healthy should die of such a terrible disease. In 1971, Connie and I quit smoking together, at the same time. I never went back to smoking but a year later, Connie began smoking again. It was hard to understand—why would you take up something again that had been so hard to give up in the first place? (I don’t have the answer to this).

One night, Connie’s oldest daughter brought three boxes of books to the house, explaining that it has taken a long time to go through her mother’s collections—many of her books were divided up amongst her children and other friends, but there were some that Dawn thought I would especially like.

After she left, I opened the boxes and began laying books all over the coffee table and chairs. Books about the White House – some I had never heard of before! I wish I could have had them when I was writing “WHAT’S COOKING IN THE WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN”. Intriguing titles such as “DINNER AT THE WHITE HOUSE” by Louis Adamic, memoirs of the Roosevelt years, published in 1946, and “DEAR MR. PRESIDENT; THE STORY OF FIFTY YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE MAIL ROOM” by Ira Smith with Joe Alex Morris, published in 1949.

There was a Congressional Cook Book – #2 – and a very nice copy of “MANY HAPPY RETURNS or How to Cook a G.O.P. Goose”, the Democrats’ Cook Book. There were several books about soups that I had never seen before another subject I have written about previously, first for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange, and again on my blog. One was “THE New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook”, another “The ALL NATURAL SOUP COOKBOOK”.

More books about Southern cooking – a few duplicates but others I was unfamiliar with, “RECIPES FROM THE OLD SOUTH” by Martha Meade, a copy of the “GONE WITH THE WIND COOKBOOK” – actually, a booklet – which was given away free with the purchase of Pebeco Toothpaste which is long gone from the drug store scene while “Gone with the Wind” is as famous as ever. (The first time I saw “Gone with the Wind” was with Connie.

My best friend and I drifted apart some years ago, after a difference of opinion –we remained friends but were not as inseparable as we once had been. She made new friends and so did I. But it was she who urged me to return to work in 1977, for which I remain forever grateful.

But I am deeply touched that some of her treasured books have come into my possession. Running my hands across the covers, I imagine that Connie had done the same thing, many times, dusting them, touching them. For in one aspect, if no other, we were kindred souls. We loved books. I still do.

Old books and old friends have a lot in common. As I have grown older, some of my dearest friends have passed away—but their books, now mine, remain treasures in my collection of books.

–Sandra Lee Smith

MY CHILDHOOD CHRISTMAS MEMORIES

Christmas was the most magical holiday of my childhood; in retrospect many years later, I realize that my mother went to great lengths to make Christmas special, even though there was very little money.

I remember my dolls disappearing around in November and would reappear on Christmas Eve with new dresses that my mother made for them.

We celebrated the Feast of St Nicholas on December 6th, hanging my father’s long white socks (because they were the longest) on nails on the pantry cupboard door.  It was the only time I remember having a tangerine, and there would be hard candies in your stocking too. The Feast of St Nicholas meant that Christmas would soon be here.

My mother waited until Christmas Eve day to buy a tree, because by then whatever was left on the lot was marked down to something like fifty cents. The Christmas trees I remember were beautiful but as I look at an old photograph taken one Christmas when I was about five years old, I see that our Christmas  trees were really spindly and sparse. Bare spaces were filled in with a lot of tinsel.

We didn’t have great expectations, in the 40s and 50s—intuitively knowing that anything expensive would be out of the question.  We would go through the Sears catalog oohing and ahhing over all of the toys—for me it was all the baby dolls. Many of our gifts would be underwear and socks, articles of clothing always needed. I remember one year receiving Days of the Week panties in different colors.

We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve and my mother managed to get all of us out of the house for the day.  Some of those Christmas Eves, I took my younger brothers downtown to do our own Christmas shopping. We probably never had more than a dollar each saved up but somehow we managed to find presents for our parents, grandparents and siblings, at the 5 & 10 cent stores. My brothers and I loved going downtown in Cincinnati, especially during the holidays. We visited all of the major department stores (Shillitoes, Pogues, Mabley & Carew) so we could go see all of the Santa Clauses and get a free peppermint stick. (We knew they weren’t the real Santa Claus – these were just helpers – but my brothers climbed on each  Santa’s knee and told him what they wanted (a Gene Autry cap gun and holster and a authentic cowboy hat for Bill—but I can’t remember what Biff asked for).

How we ever managed to buy gifts for everyone in the family with our meager savings is a mystery. My girlfriend Carol Sue sometimes accompanied us downtown and years later confessed to being jealous of us. Jealous? I was incredulous – how could anyone be jealous of children who might have only a dollar to spend on all of their family members, never mind needing a nickel for the streetcar ride to and from downtown?  Carol said it baffled her that we managed to find gifts for everyone. AND if we had enough money left over, we shared a grilled cheese sandwich from the luncheon counter at Woolworths. I can only liken it to Jesus and the loaves and fishes. Somehow there was always enough. We would tote our treasures home and then wrap them in old gift wrap that we ironed to make it as good as new.

Christmas Eve generally found us children at my grandmother’s waiting for a telephone call. Then my father came to pick us all up in the family car. When the Chevie pulled up in front of our house on Sutter Street, we could see the decorated tree glowing from a living room window. My mother met us at the porch, exclaiming “You just missed him! He just left!” and we’d dash through the house hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus—not worrying too much about missing him when the living room was filled with PRESENTS.

I especially remember the year when the first thing I spotted in the living room was a desk. I had SO wanted a desk of my own. “My desk! My desk!” I cried.

“How do you know it’s for you?” my mother asked.

“Oh, I know!” I exclaimed, running my hands across the top of the desk.  I was about ten at the time and already had my career as a writer planned.

I may have been about the same age when my mother gave me a copy of Little Women for Christmas. It was the very first book of my own (not counting books I had found in my mother’s bookcase and commandeered them for my own). Another Christmas, a  few years later, my brother, Jim, gave me five brand new Nancy Drew mysteries – by then I was off and running. It wasn’t  enough to read the books; I wanted to own them too.

I don’t remember my mother ever doing a lot of holiday baking; my grandmother did, however. What I remember most vividly were butter cut out cookies all cut into diamond shapes; she would dip each cookie into egg white and then into a mixture of granulated sugar and chopped walnuts, before baking them. My sister, however, remembered Grandma making many different  Christmas cookies which were packed into a dress box. I have a lot of cookie cutters today, perhaps three hundred of them – but you know what I treasure the most? Yes, of course – grandma’s diamond shaped cookie cutter and another that is heart shaped.

I became a Christmas maniac  once I got married and began having children of my own—I would shop for bargains throughout the year and hide them in a closet so that my sons would have a lot of great presents to unwrap on Christmas morning. I began collecting Christmas ornaments and started baking cookies and freezing them in September.  I began collecting recipes for fruitcake and trying many different recipes.  You can’t have too many ornaments or too many Christmas cookie cutters; you can’t have too many angels –or, in our case, you can’t have too many trees. Before we moved into a much smaller house in the high desert, we were putting up eight Christmas trees!

This is what I remember about Christmas – not the presents so much as the unity between my younger brothers and myself, those trips downtown, our surreptitious trips upstairs to my bedroom where we wrapped everything, while my mother’s small Crosley radio (on top of the frig) played Christmas music .

If you ask my brothers, I think they will tell you the same thing.

Remembered by Sandra Lee Smith

REFLECTIONS ON CHRISTMAS COOKIES

When did this all begin?  Good question! I don’t remember my mother baking Christmas cookies and my grandmother’s cookies, I recall, were always diamond shaped butter cutout cookies, onto which she brushed egg white and then dusted them with blended sugar and finely chopped walnuts. My sister Becky corrected me and insisted that Grandma made many different kinds of cookies such as Lebkuchen and Spritz, Holiday Fruit cookies, Pfefferneusse (pepper nuts) or Springerle (which requires a special rolling pin or a board with designs imprinted on it). Becky said each family received a dress box full of Grandma’s cookies. Why don’t I remember this?

Grandma was from Germany, Grandpa from Hungary, so her baking was generally European—we grew up on a lot of strudel, often made with apples from her back yard. She also made doughnuts (especially for the Feast of the Three Kings, when we would find a coin in our doughnut)—but for the life of me I can’t remember anything except those diamond shaped cookies. I have her cookie cutter today—that and a small heart shaped cutter.

I got married December 6th in 1958 and don’t have any memory of making cookies that first Christmas, although I did begin to search for recipes. I clipped some holiday baking ideas out of December women’s magazines and searched through a Betty Crocker Picture cookbook that was a wedding present.  I think it highly unlikely that I would have attempted any cut-out cookies that first Christmas as a newlywed (did I even having a rolling pin?) but I might have made drop cookies, such as chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin, cookies I was already familiar with.  In addition to the Becky Crocker Picture Cookbook, I had a Meta Given cookbook that had been my mother’s.  As I think back on that first Christmas, I don’t know if I even had baking equipment – cookie sheets or baking pans. It had been a very small wedding.

My first child was born in September, 1960 and I probably began baking cookies when he was a toddler.  What stands out most in my memory is that we had a wonderful big yellow stove that was popular in the 1920s. What wouldn’t I give to have that old stove today! (it was left behind when we moved to California in 1961).

What I do remember, quite well, is the Christmas of 1963. By this time my son Steve had been born and we drove across country to California a few weeks before Christmas, to avoid a heavy storm heading for the Midwest. We rented an apartment in Toluca Lake and friends came over on Christmas Eve to celebrate with homemade cookies and coffee. We didn’t have any furniture yet so everyone sat on the floor. Guests went home with bags of cookies – so sometime between 1958 and 1963 I did learn something about baking. We bought a small tree and some small toys for our two little boys. You don’t need much to celebrate Christmas. Cookies help!

–Sandra Lee Smith