Paper is resilient stuff. It may dry and crumble around the edges and give way along its folds. It browns as it ages, to the color of coffee with cream.
And yet, it survives. And with it survive our lives, the little traces we leave every day.
Ephemera, the historians call it: Things that aren’t intended to last. And yet, they do. Clippings and notes, scribbles and jots. Household ledgers and bills that become significant only when enough time has passed to lend them that brown shading of history.
The task stretching before me a few weeks ago was the task that falls to most grown children if we have the luck to outlive our parents. The death of my mother, in November at age 89, left me with the chore of traveling home and spending several long, quiet days sorting through the paper. My brother and sister have other roles, but I’m the one with the sorting gene, the organizing knack.
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So, I sorted and organized. Thumbed through thousands of snapshots in old Whitman Sampler boxes, leafed through the folders of my father’s compulsive record-keeping.
The hospital bills from all of our births, a furniture receipt from the early 1960s, every copy of my high school newspaper.
And the letters: Mom saved them all. I got reacquainted with my grandmother, a prolific note-scribbler. I had forgotten how funny she was, quick with a phrase or droll tale. The writing gene makes its way through my generations, a compulsion we can’t resist.
And then, on the last day of wading through the paper trove, a furry manila envelope: “Mom’s Recipes.”
Not my mom, but her mom. My grandmother’s recipes. All kinds, in all forms. Little notecards with pictures of cast-iron stoves and “Here’s What’s Cookin’,” others written in ink on browned paper in her lovely, looping handwriting.
She fed kids through the Depression and never lost that need to not waste an inch. So she wrote on backs and in margins. A blank “Radiogram” from a telegraph company held three recipes: “Tootie’s Open Face Cheese Sandwiches,” a cross between pimento cheese and egg salad. A green bean and tuna casserole (try not to let that stay in your brain). Chicken and rice from someone named Frances.
Turning brittle pages and peering at faded ink, I found a sour cream poundcake, candied grapefruit peels, Russian Tea, two versions of cinnamon pickles. Black fruitcake. A potato cheese casserole dated 1959, the year I was born.
There’s nothing significant in the recipes, unless you care that my grandmother took the time to write down several cocktails. Dreadful ones, though: Her martini involved dry vermouth and bitters, her Whiskey Sour used gin. But there was a Havana Cocktail, with rum, lemon juice and pineapple juice, topped with a cherry. You go, Gammaw.
I’ll try a few of them. The rest, I’ll keep. Tucked in their envelope, with a little piece of my heart.