Wednesday 17 May 2017

Mothers' Day and Mother's Birthday

This is a special week for our family, with both Mother’s Day and our Mother’s birthday being remembered. In honour of these occasions I am presenting a piece written by my sister that so wonderfully illustrates our feelings about our late Mom.

Mom’s Cook Book
by Janice Ellen Jensen

On May 18, 2017 my mother would have been 100 years old. If we, her family, were to have the good fortune of still having her with us, we would no doubt be planning a celebration to honour such a milestone birthday. But even without the cake and the balloons I will still commemorate the day simply by remembering her and what she meant to me. I don’t really need a landmark occasion to remember her because I think of my Mom often, if not every day.

Today I am looking through her cook book – the Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book. The book was published in 1942 and I can’t help but wonder how she acquired it. Was it a gift from a friend or a family member or did she treat herself and purchase it? The book purports to have “useful information” on everything from table-settings to preserving and indeed it does. It was Mom’s go-to recipe book for most of her baking and family meals. The copy I have is well thumbed and stained from decades of use, but it is not just the recipes in the book that are memorable. It is all the recipes and notes tucked between the pages and written in the margins.
The cover of Mom's Woman's Home Companion Cook Book
There is her expired library card, certainly used to mark a page – most likely for “Hazel’s Pastry” which was written on a blank page. There were two significant Hazels in her life and I wonder which Hazel gave her this great recipe for pie dough.
Hazel's Pastry recipe with Mom's library card used as a page marker
The library card reminds me of the Saturday mornings we went to the Centre Street Library together and how she gave me my love of reading. It was there that she introduced me to Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables and A Girl of the Limberlost, to mention a few notable books. Some of these books remain on my bookshelf today. Over the years we continued to share our love of books and frequently exchanged our latest read.

There are many recipes from Ellen Smith written in the margins of the book – or even on the backs of envelopes – and stored between the pages. Ellen was a close friend of Mom and loved to cook. Mom chose Ellen as my middle name as she was the first to send flowers when I was born. I still have the locket Ellen gave to me when I was born. No doubt Mom made all of Ellen’s recipes at one time or another and tutted that she “just couldn’t make it as well as Ellen.” Along with Ellen’s Buns, Ellen’s Carrot Cake and Ellen’s Light Fruit Cake are recipes from Ada and Dot and Hilda. All were members of the “bridge club.”
Recipe for Ellen's Buns handwritten on the inside cover of Mom's Cook Book
My Mom loved to socialize. The bridge club met every two weeks, at a different member’s home each time; I loved it when they met at our house. Special treats were prepared: finger sandwiches, squares and cookies. Out came the good china and the pretty pickle trays. I was allowed to stay up until all the ladies had arrived. The club was more than a get-together to play cards; it was an evening of special companionship between good friends, filled with laughter and support for each other. I can still remember these ladies and how they each touched my life in some small ways. It was also how I learned from my mother about the value of friendship.

Recipes are not the only things tucked between the pages of this special book; it also has other items that are reminders of my Mom and her life. There is the to-do list of everything she needed to get ready for my trousseau tea and my wedding: what she had to pick up, who to call and what the “schedule” was to get all of these things done. There is a list of friends she could count on to help her get through her tasks – Kay and Elsie and Mrs. Olafson – the mothers of my bridesmaids. Mrs. Pollard was bringing the coffee (4 pounds), the cream (4 pints) and the sugar (5 pounds) and Mom was picking up the flour (92 cents), the nutmeg (23 cents) and the cloves (49 cents). Who knows why she had the prices on the list?

A picture of my Grandma Miller (Mom’s Mom) with a big smile on her face is in the book. According to the note on the back of the picture, it was given to Mom by John Oberg who married Minnie McDaniel who was the daughter of Ike McDaniel. Ike was one of Grandma’s brothers. The picture is dated July 1955 and was likely taken when John and Minnie visited Calgary. (Just a bit of family history information that I found in the cook book!)

There is also a grainy picture of Mom and Dad standing on our front porch ready for winter in their overcoats. Mom’s was green with a Persian lamb collar – I remember it well. It was her “good” coat for many years and most likely purchased at Bay Day – a sale she went to twice a year to take advantage of the bargains. She once bought me a quilted housecoat with matching slippers at one of the sales. It was one of the few ready-made articles of clothing I had as a child and I was thrilled.
Left - Grandma Miller in front of her Calgary home (1955); Right - Mom and Dad in front of their home (about 1957)
Mom was a seamstress; she also knitted, crocheted, tatted and smocked. From her I learned to sew, something which I still love to do today. Often we tag-teamed sewing a dress for a special event – one of us would run the sewing machine, the other would press open the seams and together we could put something together in an afternoon. More important than the garment was the time we spent together.

Aside from the lists, the recipes and the pictures used to mark special recipes in the cookbook (not to mention the recipes cut from newspapers and magazines), there are also a few mystery items. One is an invitation to receive the Research Summary from Faulkner Dawkins and Sullivan, Members of the New York Stock Exchange, Inc. Mom and the stock exchange? That’s hard to imagine. Also a brochure on how to buy a fridge – which seems a little strange since my Dad was an appliance repairman and would have been the more likely expert on the subject.

My copy of the Woman’s Home Companion Cook Book is a treasure itself, not only for its recipes, cooking and hosting tips but because it has survived for 75 years. There is still apparently a demand for used copies in good condition which can be had for from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars. Some new copies of the original edition are advertised on for up to US$1,445! Like many of its contemporaries this book was an essential addition to any kitchen in its day. Several editions were published during the 40s and 50s. Mom’s copy is special to me because it contains so many memories of her. There are the recipes for family meals that I recall – the ones where a pound of hamburger could be stretched to feed a family of six, as well as the ones for “special occasions.”

There were many lean years in the 50s and 60s when dollars had to be stretched as far as they could go. Mom was a master economist when it came to putting good food on the table for a minimal amount of cost. She was never afraid to do what needed to be done. Unlike many of my friends’ stay-at-home mothers, Mom went to work when she needed to. There were years when she had a part-time or full-time job, four kids to look after and one or two boarders. She made bagged lunches for everyone; she even made the bread until she discovered she could buy 10 loaves of day-old bread at McGavins for $1. On laundry day, the kitchen was always full of freshly-ironed clothes – no such thing as perma-press in the 50s. Still she made time to bake, sew and take care of her family. She never complained and was always cheerful.

In the few years I spent with her as an adult, I came to appreciate that there had been many tough times she had to go through. We had some heart-to-heart talks about how she coped. She was truly a woman of her times that believed you didn’t burden others with your problems. She “cried her tears into the wash bucket while she scrubbed the floor” – an expression that I think she might actually have meant literally.

As a child, I was blissfully unaware of how hard she worked and how often times must have been difficult for her. She made being a Mom look effortless. I can’t remember a time when she wasn’t there for me as a parent, a mentor and a friend. I asked her once how she got through some of the bad times and she told me that she held the belief that “everything would always turn out all right” and most often it did. I believe that was her version of “everything happens for a reason.”

My Mom taught me a lot of things. From her I learned to cook, to sew, to economize and to share. She also taught me to be a strong woman, to cope with adversity, to “accept the good with the bad” and to be accountable for what takes place in my own life. “You reap what you sow!” Most importantly, she taught me how to be a Mom which in my mind is my, and her greatest accomplishment.

"Mom" - Norma Mabel (Miller) Shepheard (1917-1974)