It’s All About the Gravy

I was watching the semi-finals of a children’s cooking competition show this morning, when a small ten-year-old boy began to make gravy for his roast pheasant.  I realize that the fact that a ten-year-old can roast a pheasant is the real story, but for me the story is always about the gravy.

I saw him pour the drippings directly into the pan and “Oh No,” escaped my lips, “He can’t…” I whispered.

An older boy nearby stepped over and asked him, “Are you starting with a roux?”

“Yes, a roux, say YES,” I willed him as he up-ended a bag of flour straight into the pan of drippings and the older boy backed slowly away.

“NOOOOOOOO!!” I howled alone in my living room causing the cats to both exit to somewhere quieter.  Even they knew this was considered a high crime against the culinary arts to create gravy in this manner.

Growing up my mom made gravy every Sunday to go with our Roast Beef and mashed potatoes.  That was Sunday Dinner, a large chunk of meat, a potato dish and a veggie dish. Sometimes the vegetable was green beans and sometimes carrots.  I always felt cooked carrots were only edible with gravy – most food is.  And if I didn’t want to eat them, I could bury them in the mashed potatoes.

As a child of six my part in the gravy making was a small one.  Being eye level with the stove created a safety issue so I was given what tasks I could do that kept me busy and out of trouble.  It was my job to shake a baby food jar of flour and water.  This was the thickening agent my mother would use–a thoroughly shaken (not stirred) flour and water mixture.

The meat would be removed from the pan and set aside to rest.  Amid the drippings of fat and broth, bits of cooked onion, my mother would add water and stir to remove any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan.  As she deglazed the pan, and I don’t know that she ever even knew this term for what she was doing to flavor our gravy, I shook the baby food jar.  I would shake and shake as I danced around the kitchen.

“Is it enough?” I would ask stopping several times to have her check it before she would finally say, “Yes, now.”  The lid would come off and it would be stirred into the simmering base.  The color would shift from a dark brown to a light tan as the flour-water was fully incorporated and began to heat.

“It’s bubbling!  It’s bubbling!” I would announce indicating that I felt it was nearly done.  My mother would stop stirring it with a fork and turn the heat off.  I would hunt for a ladle in the drawer of utensils while she got a medium sized bowl out of the cupboard.  The gravy boat was for holidays.  On everyday Sundays, a bowl was good enough for the gravy.  

Only then, once the gravy hit the table, was everyone called in to eat. Inevitably, my father would recall the first Sunday dinner my mother made just after they were married in the late 1950’s. Friends were invited and there was an uncomfortable pause prior to eating.

“Which one is the gravy?” my Uncle Tom had asked.  Apparently, it was far from obvious that it was a liquid.  Oh dear!  No worries, she continued to make Sunday dinners and over the years the gravy improved greatly.

I don’t know what my mother’s method of gravy making was called, but when I was in college, I learned to start gravy from a roux: equal parts butter and flour.  I learned to melt a stick of butter (that’s universally a half cup) and then add to it a half cup of flour.  This would be blended together with a fork until a thick paste was created.  It was a beautiful dark caramel colored paste.  Slowly, very slowly broth would be poured into the pan and stirred quickly with a whisk.  The whisk made a scraping sound against the bottom of the pan like a whisper.  “Stir, stir, stir,” it said.

When my roux-based gravy was complete, it had a silky finish and coated a spoon perfectly (the doneness test).  It was not chunky or lumpy and never so solid that it required verbal confirmation to differentiate it from the meat dish.  After making it once at home, I became the official family gravy maker and we never saw the baby food jar again.

When I moved out on my own, my first solo Thanksgiving dinner included my roux and the silky result.  I was impressed that somehow, I had managed to get each dish to complete at the same time.  That my mother could do that always amazed me.

I have never been one to entertain and now, being gluten free, my old friend the flour roux was no longer an option.   Being single at the holidays leads to inevitable invitations from well-meaning people to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with them.  Sometimes you get to help with the cooking, sometimes you don’t.

I used to offer to make the gravy but I don’t anymore.  One woman saw me using an entire stick of butter and seemed to feel that I was attempting to kill her family with fat. I was unaware how afraid of wonderful things like butter and bacon she was.  It’s really very sad.

What was her preferred method of making gravy?  With the giant turkey resting on a platter in the middle of the kitchen island among dishes of cranberry jelly and sweet potatoes and stuffing, she opens a cupboard and pulls out a bag of flour.  She up-ends it into the pan of drippings and starts to stir the dry powder directly in.

I nearly fainted the first time I saw this.  Now my stomach just flip-flops a little as I thank God that I am gluten free and won’t have to eat it.  Yes, it clumps. Yes, it lumps.  After it bubbles and thickens, but never enough to coat a spoon because that would mean patiently waiting for the flavors to develop and the broth to reduce, she pours the watery liquid through a strainer to captures all the lumps whether flavorful or flour.  Into the gravy boat it goes, where it stays until long after the meal is over.  That is one thing that is remarkably different from my home growing up.  We never had leftover gravy.

The gravy the little boy served to the judges on Top Chef Junior had been allowed to thicken, perhaps a little too much.  The camera zoomed in on it being poured from the spout of the gravy boat and it wouldn’t.  It wouldn’t pour.  It was coaxed out onto the plates and the judges very kindly told him what a nice flavor it had.  He went home that episode.  He was a lovely, kind, sweet little boy and one day he will learn that all gravy should start as a roux.

Others will never learn.


#cooking #gravy

Moisturize More

I look at the backs of my hands and wish that I had used more moisturizer.

I noticed in my thirties that the tip of my index finger on my right hand was permanently turned in from years of school work and my own extracurricular writing in spiral notebooks full of stories.  Crayons, pencils and pens. Today the first knuckle on that same finger seems to have a knot on it even though I switched over to typing everything twenty years ago.  I could not write as fast as my mind strung together words, thoughts and images.  I could almost type that fast.

The tall finger on my right hand was stoved twice in one week in failed attempts to learn to catch a football in high school.  The swelling in the first knuckle never completely left that finger, especially after that wasp stung the very same joint on a visit to Notre Dame College in South Bend, Indiana years later. I’d driven over to visit with a man about a magazine project we were trying to get off the ground.  It was a beautiful Spring day to sit outside at the college and chat.  I hadn’t even seen the wasp.  But I felt it.  Poor finger turned to stone and would not bend.  For several weeks it appeared I was flipping people off indiscriminately.

I can still see the scar from the tiniest cut right at the base between the middle and ring fingers on my left hand.  I was putting away a bowl of tuna fish salad.  I had too many things in both my hands and was trying to hold the fridge door open with one foot when the salad bowl began to tip.  I hated to clear the table and I hated to make extra trips.  I was always carrying too many items at the same time.  I flipped my hand to catch the bowl against the door and the slight impact caused the glass to break and one piece sliced my hand.  I didn’t feel it, that is how slight it was.  Suddenly there was just blood mixed in with the mayonnaise, eggs, onions and tuna.  That certainly isn’t appetizing.  The scar is that slight too.  No one would ever notice it, except me and my memory.

There is some arthritis in both hands, I suspect.  When I clench them into fists out of frustration, I feel it, the fluid that builds up in the joint and keeps the fingers from closing into an effective fist.  Not all of them, just the two pointers.

I once had my palms read in a booth at the Renaissance Fair.  It was not what I expected sitting down at her table the wind blowing my hair that I had just had braided at a booth nearby.  The braids were too tight and starting to pull on my scalp, but I loved braids, so the headache later would be worth it.  What had I expected in a palm reading?  I was thinking there would be identification of lines and projections based on them.  That is not what this was.  She took my hands in hers and started to rock back and forth.  She looked at them and began to mutter over and over the same words.

“You never done nobody no harm.  You never done nobody no harm.”

It started to freak me out a little and I wanted my hands back.  I got them back and thanked her, getting up and moving to the other side of the fairgrounds as quickly as possible with her words echoing in my head.  They still do.  I think I feel I have done people harm, but then, my idea of harm could be a negative thought.  Perhaps she was right.

My mother’s hands were soft and caring, but misshapen from decades of hard work. She helped

when my father built our house in the fifties: a two-bedroom cape for a large family to come.  She helped him build the garage the year I was born: 1961.  She worked inside and outside the house nearly every minute that she was awake from before the sun came up until long after it had moved beyond the horizon. She gardened vegetables that her hands cleaned and canned for our table.  Her fingers organized three meals a day, every day, then cleared and washed the pans, dishes, silverware and counter-tops. Her fingers managed all the typing work she did on a used and very heavy old Royal manual typewriter.  Her typing supplemented our family’s income especially when my father was laid off.  There was laundry, sewing, mending, painting, scrubbing floors and walls, weeding the garden, cleaning fish, peeling endless piles of potatoes. The list goes on.

Hers were soft from constantly moisturizing with a heavy though luscious looking hand cream called Pacquins Hand Cream.  “For Dream Hands, Cream Your Hands” read the ad from a late 1940’s magazine I saw on eBay.  It sounds a bit suggestive today, as all old advertisements have a way of sounding.

My mother was very specific in her preference for the original one in the jar with the purple lid– not the Pacquins Plus one or the fancy one with Aloe (both of those had “funny” textures to her).  They just didn’t work the same. She was constantly washing her hands, so the heavier creamy lotion was essential.  It became hard to find as the beauty industry exploded in the eighties and nineties and it wasn’t considered hip enough for the shelf space at local drug stores.  Then it disappeared altogether.  The only product I ever found that was comparable was the Lubriderm with the pink cap.  Well, it was pink at the time, they may have changed it.

My hands do not look like hers, like my mother’s.  I took in typing to make money during college.  I sewed until I realized I would never be as good as she was. I have not done nearly as much work as she had to do to raise a family, keep a house. I don’t do either.  I worked in offices.  I have always lived alone and was never quite as concerned with clean walls and food stores for future as perhaps I should have been.

I look at the backs of my hands and wish I had used more moisturizer.  The cuticles around my nails are always worried into sore spots and callous.  I picked at them with other fingers during classes and presentations and meetings and parties.  I picked and drove hard nails into them to remind myself where I was and that there were specific ways to behave and think. I rubbed them to calm their bloodied tips as assurance that whatever event would soon be over. I hid them embarrassed in my pockets or wrapped around each other so that no one would see.

I have been obsessed with hands for some time now. I have a file on my computer with images of other people’s hands.  I like to capture their hands at work. Hands are creators, engineers, artists, musicians. They are comforting and connecting and they can be angry and defensive.

My work was fear and discomfort and anxiety.  It has shaped my hands the way housework shaped my mother’s hands.

They could all use some Pacquins.

Which Type?

“Can you do one more thing for me before you go?”  I put down my jacket and went to where my client was standing in a small nook off the main reception area in her office.  There was a huge, seriously huge, electric typewriter stationed at a side table.  I think it is safe to call any typewriter vintage at this point in time.  It was vintage IBM.

“Do you think you can put this ribbon in?”  She handed me a box and I look at it and at the ribbon that was installed in the machine.  The box seemed about half the size it should be, I thought, but did not want to say anything.

“Oh, this is the corrective ribbon,” I said, looking at the manual she had already taken out and had turned to the correct page right there waiting for me on the table.  “Not the ink ribbon.”

“Oh dear,” she said, “they said it was the ribbon.  It isn’t working and the lady I spoke with on the phone suggested a new ribbon.”  She didn’t realize there were two ribbons.

“Okay,” I said,  “Let’s see.”  In this case the corrective ribbon was attached to the main ribbon cartridge a lot like a baby in one of those papoose carriers is attached to a mother’s chest.  I took off the combined cartridge and separated the two.  It has been at least twenty years since I’ve touched on of these machines.  To me it appeared that both the ribbon cartridge and the corrective cartridge were full but I put the new one on anyway.  I was able to advance both ribbons with the gear on the side of the housing.

I reinstalled it and tried to type.  It was faint and growing more faint.  Hmmm.  “The ink tape isn’t advancing as I type,” I announced.  “I do think there is enough of it, but it is not moving along.”  I removed it from the typewriter and looked at it.  If you have ever looked inside an electric typewriter, there is a system of gears.  As you type, gears inside the machine begin to rotate and in turn rotate the ink tape so that each letter gets a fresh spot on the ink tape from the cartridge.  “I don’t think the gears are turning or catching on this,” I mumbled out loud.

There were at least four electrical connections with coated wiring running back and forth right there underneath where the ink cartridge rests. I started to reach inside and then realized it was still turned on.  I was very proud of my brain that a voice inside my head said, “hey, let’s shut off the power first.”  I have a history of getting shocked.  I shut off the power, poked at the gears I could see and I pushed each tiny electrical plug into its connection to make sure each was tight.  I did not know what I was doing. I was just doing what seemed to make sense.  At the back of my mind I am thinking she will need to call someone or replace the monster of a machine with something less vintage. I put the ink cartridge back in, closed the top and turned it on.

I typed “how does this look”.  It was perfect.  It worked.  The ribbon was moving along with each letter. The type was dark and definite.

“What did you do?”  She asked.

“I’m not really sure,” I shrugged, “I just made sure all the connections were tight.  Maybe the vibrations when it is on loosened them.  You are good to go.”   I wanted to ask what on earth she used it for, but decided I did not want to be late for my next appointment.  She was thrilled.  It was one less stress for her day.  It was as though I’d performed a miracle that saved her time, money and more.  I was kind of impressed myself, but I didn’t say.

It was great just using a typewriter again.

My mother was a very fast typist.  She would work as a temp during those weeks or months when my Dad was laid off or when his union sent the employees out on strike. In a one paycheck home, an interruption such as a strike was a serious hindrance to paying bills and buying groceries. With five small children, Mom used her skills to help out.  In addition to temping, she took in typing at home as well to do in the evenings for extra money.  She had a Royal Quiet De Luxe manual typewriter.

image from ias Vintage shop on etsy

‘image from ias Vintage shop on etsy’

I suspect it was a prized possession in addition to being a valuable tool. It weighed a ton! It was tricky to wind the ribbon which was a lot like threading a sewing machine since there were no convenient ribbon cartridges then, but it sung as she typed.  We were always fascinated by how fast she could type.  When she earned enough money she got us a used copy of the Gregg Typing Manual and a small portable manual typewriter.  It had a plastic case and was a pretty baby blue color.  When she was working in the evening, to keep us out of her hair, we would take turns sitting at the other end of the table learning the Qwerty system from the Manual which was bound uniquely to stand up on its own like an easel next to the typewriter.


It did not take long for my brothers to lose interest and abandon the pretty blue machine.  I enjoyed it. It was almost like learning a new language understanding which fingers were responsible for which letters of the alphabet.  At some point I got good enough to use Mom’s Royal typewriter.  It felt so much more impressive.  It was heavier, solid.  When you reached up and swung the arm back to advance to the next line of type, it felt like you were doing something with great authority.  And it also rang and clacked, creating a wonderful rhythm and music.

When I reach the end of a line and had more to include, there was that handy Margin Release key:  MAR REL.  I quickly learned how to foresee the need to hyphenate or hit that key and add a few more letters.  It was about looking ahead, being aware. There was no correction tape in the old manual typewriters.  We had white out but it was often dried out and somewhat gummy to use if you put it on too thick.  Later we had small pieces of correction tape that seemed to give a cleaner correction.  They weren’t really lifting off the incorrect letter so much as covering it up in white so that you could type over it and it was not terribly noticeable.

I always wrote my stories in long hand and then would sit at her typewriter to type them out.  When you stop to think on a manual typewriter there is silence, complete silence until you begin to type again.  Later when using an IBM Selectric for the same purpose, there was a nagging, almost taunting hum if you paused to think.  It was waiting.  It was waiting.  Come on, type something, it seemed to demand.  It was not a supportive writing companion like the manual typewriter was, waiting ibm-selectricpatiently in complete respectful silence.  With electricity had come impatience.

I learned the IBM Selectric in high school typing class.  We were first taught the Qwerty keyboard which I’d known for a number of years, but the practice was more formal and I was able to pick up a great deal more speed on the electric.  On Mom’s manual typewriter, each keystroke popped up a single arm with the letter on it and raised the ribbon up for the key to strike against it onto the paper making its mark.  If I were typing too fast, several of these arms would get caught up in each selectric-font-ballother and I would have to stop and pick them apart and restart.  I always ended up with little ink letters on my fingers. The new electric had all the letters on a tiny little ball that popped up, spun and danced like R2D2. The new electrics also did not have the arm for the return.  It was a simple button, automatic upon arrival at the end of the line.

It was less physical, less emphatic.  Still my keys never got stuck together as my fingers sped along adding text to the page. It never slowed me down.  There were two font choices then, two balls of type that you could easily swap in and out of the housing.  Pica and Elite seemed to be the most popular.  Font size was more about the spacing of the letters on the line than the size of type.  Later there were many more choices and built-in corrective tape.  It was a heavy machine, hard to lift and move, so you didn’t.  It always had its own stand, usually on wheels so you could move it somewhere convenient to work.

I avoided using a computer for many years having entered college just before they became widespread in use.  When I did start, I was ahead of the game, having learned the Qwerty keyboard as a child.  The speed potential on the computer was stunning.  I loved it.  I could type as fast as I could think and the keys never stuck.  There was less humming at me during the pauses, but the cursor was always there blinking, waiting, not impatient but a persistent reminder that something comes next.  What is that?

I left my client’s office feeling quite pleased, not that I had fixed her machine, but that I had gotten to type on it.  Even just a few short sentences had reminded me how good that felt.  There is a hum and rhythm to the old typing sessions that people do not get to experience on today’s computer keyboards.  And there was a physicality to writing with a typewriter that I am doubtful can even be described to people who have never experienced a manual or even an older model electric typewriter.  I miss that.  I might have to go find myself a typewriter.

Statute of Limitations on Grief

I moved away from home late in life.  I knew I needed the distance or I would suffocate.  I needed a chance to see who I might be without all of “Them”.  I recall planning it.  I pinpointed three or four places I thought I would apply for jobs and see which came up with the best options.  I interviewed by phone.  I got a job and I moved.  It’s been 16 or 17 years now.

Prior to moving my mother gave me all the genealogy work she had accumulated and boxes of old photos.  Not the immediate family albums, though, those were on a shelf in the living room and she and my father looked at them frequently.  The ones with pictures of me, I did not get even after they passed.  The people who emptied the house either have them or relocated them to dumpsters. While I was not fond of my immediate family a large part of my life was invested in them. They are after all part of the genealogy. We have a connection.

This past weekend I was working on some of the hints at where I put the tree and every couple of years spend time on it.  You hit a wall, you get busy with work, you let it go for a while.  Around the holidays, it always seems to rise up and demand some attention.  So I attend to it.  I added a bunch of scanned images to the profiles at various levels.  Then I started to go through the hints.

There are more divorce and obituary records available now than there were before.  Recent records that while they do not include a lot of specifics and documents, do include dates and some links to memorials on other sites.  This holiday I discovered that some not at all distant relatives had died, a first cousin and his wife.  One in 2010 and one in 2012.  They were only slightly older than I was. I remembered how my cousin used to come to our family picnics. He always made me laugh.  He was a good guy.

It made me sad that I did not know at the time. No one called.  No one emailed.  I did not see it on Facebook. I am not an avid reader of the obituaries back home.  Perhaps I should be.   Would I have made the trip for a funeral?  Probably not.  So what right do I have being sad?  They were related.  I did know them.  I did like them.  I had enjoyed family picnics with them. I had been at their wedding.  I guess it is a sadness slightly removed.  And it was years ago, so why be sad now?  The statue of limitations on some crimes starts only when the crime is remembered by the victim.  I say that it is the same for grief, it is a fresh grief the first time you hear it even if the actual death was years earlier.  Perhaps not as “fresh” as with someone you are with at the time of their death, but still new in the heart regardless of time.

My emotions, my rules.




#grief #sadness #genealogy


I did not go on many sleepovers as a child.

I do remember one sleepover at my Great Aunt Lily’s home.  Aunt Lily lived with her sister and her brother, all unmarried, in a two story home with a covered front porch on a tree lined street with many others just like it.  It was close enough that we visited them every weekend growing up.  On rare occasions that my parents would go out, one of the aunts might babysit us.  My brothers preferred Aunt Helen as she was the fun aunt, always quick with a joke, popping out her false teeth at you when no one was looking, always with a drink in hand.  Aunt Lily was the cautious aunt – never letting us stray too far from our side yard for fear of gypsies kidnapping one of us.

I was one of Aunt Lily’s favorites, if that is possible in an extended family with literally dozens and dozens of nieces and nephews.  Still, I always felt like I was.  I was quiet, not social, polite, not daring or adventurous.  I probably appealed to her sense of caution. I was probably the most manageable.

Aunt Helen wasn’t home that I recall on the night I slept over and it was after Uncle Albert had died. I was about ten.  As sleepovers go with one child and one older adult, it was quiet.  But it was time with her that made me feel special for some reason.  She showed me her room, which we never saw on weekly visits.  her room was the smallest in the house, at the very end of the hall that ran all the way around to the front on the second floor.  I would never have snuck in there, knowing how creaky the floor was, I would surely have been caught.  So when invited in on this special visit, it was like almost like entering some sacred space I still should not enter even escorted.

It was simple unlike Aunt Helen’s room – the largest bedroom at the very top of the stairs.  Aunt Helen’s  room had lush carpet, a large queen sized bed, special vanity and dressers for all her clothing.  Aunt Helen worked outside the home in an office, went out often and traveled a great deal.  She was always dressed up.  Apparently this necessitated her placement in this room.  I think it was more that she was always out late and needed to get up the stairs to her room without disturbing everyone else when she came in.

Aunt Lily’s room was simple, a single bed, a single dresser, an imposing Jesus nailed to a cross over the bed watching over her as she slept.  I knew I couldn’t sleep with him staring at me. On her dresser was a small jewelry box with a few special items.  Next to it was a round box of lightly rose scented powder with a puff that she used to apply it.  That scent still reminds me of her the same way that the scent of scotch reminds me of Aunt Helen.

Aunt Lily had worked outside the house for many years as the cook at the catholic school down the street.  Prior to that she raised all her six brothers and sisters from the time she was sixteen.  Her mother died several months after the youngest was born.  It was from that day on Lily’s responsibility to raise them.  She was twelve years older then her sister Helen.  They seemed decades different in age to me and worlds different in style and temperament.

She let me try the powder puff.  She let me explore the attic where my mother stayed when she lived there after high school.  I didn’t want to sleep in the attic.  It seemed too far away and it was already decided that I would sleep in Uncle Albert’s old room down the hall at the back of the house.  Before bed I had a bath in the claw footed tub and Aunt Lily combed out my hair.  I remember having trouble falling asleep. It was a strange place with strange sounds. I was not terribly brave. Eventually sleep overtook fear.

The next day after breakfast at the tiny table in the sunny kitchen overlooking the small backyard, Aunt Lily asked me if I knew the story of the little boy and girl on the china plate we’d been eating from.  I didn’t.  So she told me of the love story of two children from families that did not get along.  They loved each other and would meet on a little bridge over a river that divided their two properties.  It seems I was picked up shortly after helping dry the breakfast dishes.  All in all an uneventful sleepover.

It was so uneventful, I would have thought that there would be more.  I hadn’t broken anything.  I hadn’t been difficult or emotional.  I hadn’t even been slightly unhappy.   After I grew up my mother told me why there weren’t other sleepovers.   When she was a young girl, she’d been shipped off to this Aunt or that cousin for long periods of time.  She didn’t really say why, if she even knew.  She said that it always made her feel as though she wasn’t wanted.  She therefore never let me sleep over at people’s homes so that I wouldn’t feel that way.

For me it had the exact opposite effect.  It made me feel that something was wrong with me that I was kept at home, isolated.  I missed out on learning those social skills and on opportunities to feel comfortable in the homes of others that to this day would be useful.  All those years I felt there must have been something wrong with me that no one wanted me to sleepover at their house.  Had I only known it was my mother’s discomfort.  I think she realized later in life how her actions had betrayed the results she’d been looking for.