This history of my family’s house on Hull Street—a house I saw only once, in a city I visited just a few times—is never going to be as right as I would like. Too much has been lost in the half-century since my family moved away. Perfect is not an option.
My family knows this as well. They’ve been utterly patient and helpful as I ask them to put a shovel into their old memories. After I published my introduction post, their responses shone with appreciation and added details. But one of my aunts did have a gentle change: “I loved it. But the peonies weren’t along the fence in the yard. I don’t remember where they were, but it wasn’t there.”
So much for my opening line about the peonies starring along the sidewalk fence. I took this news back to my dad, who had drawn me a map of the garden with the peonies there. He shrugged in response, saying, “The peonies were everywhere.”
Perhaps they were. Maybe they’re both right. A garden is forever in flux; memories are only correct for a moment. Memoir is where fact is layered on certainty, at right angles with another half-memory. The stories mesh or they don’t. They run in reinforcing parallels—or they cross each other out and leave you standing in between. The best I can do is overlay fact upon conflicting fact, and hope some shadow of truth appears in the crossing.
As it happens, the intersection is where we begin.
How to start with not even a name, and end up at a love story.
Last week my ancestors—probably in cahoots with the algorithm at FamilySearch.com—slid another surprise birth certificate in front of my face. “Let her try this one…” I’m sure they snickered.
Well they should, as it didn’t list a name or even indicate the child’s sex. It granted me only a birthdate from 1881, and the names of my great-great grandparents, at their home address. It was just enough information to get my attention, and not enough to exactly match any established relatives. The ancestors know what they’re doing.
But despite their best efforts, I found it, and fast. And then I discovered an array of records. Piecing those together revealed a life unlike anyone else I’ve researched so far, and unlike anyone else in my family.
This morning began with printing out some recipes. Which led to tidying up my cookbook area and baking pans. Which led to pulling out the recipe boxes I’ve had forever, but mostly have treated like bookends.
I love old recipes, but I’m a modern person, right? I never think to pull out a card when I could pull up something on a screen. So the three boxes have sat, rarely touched, until today.
I first started collecting recipes when I was 10 or 11. My Aunt Ginger sent me a little recipe box, with a few of her own included, as a gift. Her choices, like her, were pragmatic and sensible. Her handwriting is clear. It all makes sense.
With that, I was off and running. I tried to emulate her direct style. It didn’t exactly translate. You may well need a translator for my handwriting.
You can also see I had already isolated the first element of a good recipe box: Overwhelming ambition you will never actually carry out. I don’t know how much cream of broccoli soup or tabouli salad 11-year-old me thought I was going to make. I had never eaten either of those things. No matter!
I gave up on writing out cards pretty quickly, opting instead for taping clipped recipes to them. At some point, I dispensed even with the taping, just cutting whatever looked good from the food section of the paper. Emphasis on WHATEVER.
Clearly, I was not going for a theme. Please note: I have still made none of these things, but I’ve held on to the recipes for 40 years. You never know when you’ll need to make a batch of Polish mushroom soup on short notice. I have always been prepared for such an emergency.
Recognizing that 50-year-old me doesn’t want to cook or even order an anisette souffle, I was able to clean out this whole stack today. I kept my aunt’s recipes, and a few of my childhood ones, but that’s all. Begone, obligations of the past. Out, old clippings. That alone allowed me to pare down from three recipe boxes to two.
With the other recipe box—my mom’s–I kept every single thing. Time capsules take all forms.
In these, I can see her early cards, written as an ambitious young bride. And later ones, where she was less striving and more…herself.
This “macedoine of fruit” has to be one of the early ones. I’m 100% sure she never attempted it, but she clearly gave it a lot of thought.
My favorite part is the notation about “flaming cubes.” For the love of all that is edible, flaming cubes of…WHAT? WHY?
I have to add: The idea that she would consider subbing in cherry pie filling is 100%, center of the target, on-brand for my mother. She once combined orange-flavored coffee beans and coconut-flavored coffee beans to make tropical coffee. She also liked to put mayonnaise in guacamole “to make it creamy.” So of course canned pie filling in her macedoine. Of course.
It’s cousin in the box is “frozen Caribbean salad,” which requests a cup of mayonnaise and a cup of whipped cream. Presumably to make it creamy.
In rereading, I see that she forgot to indicate when you add the pineapple, so that the recipe (as written) is one banana in two cups of white goo. I guess you could put it in any time, really.
Laughs aside, the notes are my favorite part. Who is Fitz? Why does she need to be there by 1:30? Another recipe card notes someone’s flight time from Houston. This was also very her. Wherever she was, my mom’s orbit always included a legal pad or a list jotted on a torn envelope. Underlining and cross-outs were a given.
Just seeing that makes me feel like this box is still hers. But it’s mine now. I patched up its cracked lid and added a recipe card of my own.
Let’s hope that some future finder opts for my scones, and not my grandmother’s corned beef loaf. ☗
One chill February afternoon in 1921, a call rang into the Englewood police station from a Greek restaurant on 63rd Street. Could they please come remove some patrons who wouldn’t leave?
Police arrived to find two reluctant customers: Ruth Townsend (61) and her daughter, Marian (26). The pair had just been evicted from their home a few blocks away, at 57th and Stony Island. It was cold outside. They came to this restaurant, where they’d eaten before, because they had nowhere to go and nothing to go with.
Accustomed to handling sympathetic hard-luck cases, the police took the now-homeless women to the Hackett Stevenson Memorial Lodging House, a women’s shelter on South Prairie Ave. They probably thought that was the end of it.
But a week later, on Valentine’s night, the police had reason to return — and they weren’t bringing valentines. The Townsends’ neighbors had watched their eviction take place, and had seen the furniture piled up in the backyard. They also noticed something that was missing from the scene. Rumors began to spread. Eventually one of the neighbors had approached the police to say: Ruth’s elderly mother was living with them. We haven’t seen her since last summer.
The cops wanted answers. Where was Ruth’s 93-year-old mother, Nancy Chamberlain?
In early February, when All This began pulling its long shadow over our lives, I joked to my husband that I might be particularly well-equipped to handle the situation.
I’m a homebody by nature. All my hobbies are domestic, or can be done at home. I can already make bread or provide a decent chicken soup for the invalid. And I’ve read plenty about the influenza epidemic of 1918. I was made for this, I told him. We both laughed.