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Cooking and Feminine Hygiene

November 14, 2009

            I have never been the kind of person to place bets.  I don’t play the lottery, which I’ve always considered a tax on idiots.  I don’t even enjoy buying raffle tickets, knowing that my chances of actually winning are slim.  While I am not so overly cautious in life as to miss open doors of opportunity, I do relish a strong sense of stability and security in my personal life.  Above all, I cherish creativity and novelty, qualities that renew my spirit and soul.  Having moved frequently in the years since I left Corinth, and often feeling alone in new places, I have gotten good at creating that sense of rock-solidness that I crave.  The resourcefulness and creativity I learned as a child growing up in Yankee territory have saved me more than once.  Home is where I am, wherever that is.  Playing games, though, I always feel like I am just building up my hopes for something that will never materialize.  I simply can’t live with that kind of anxiety.  I just can’t set myself up for that kind of heartache any more than I can go to bed at night knowing the house isn’t clean and that the mess will be waiting there for me come morning.

I am willing, however, to wager right here and right now that I am the first man to write of how television advertisements for feminine hygiene products changed his life forever.  Feminine hygiene products?!  Yes.  I am talking about panty liners with wings.  I’m talking little red dots bouncing across the screen like at a karaoke bar.  I’m even talking super absorbent maxi pads that don’t leak even on heavy days.  I’m talking the kind of Kotex (or was it Stayfree?) that my mother used to call “mouse’s mattresses” because they were so large and unfriendly to the user.  More specifically, this is all about how applicator-free tampons brought me to understand how creativity and love can move the world.

My mom was a stay-at-home mom.  We three kids, and later all of our friends too, were her full-time job, though she rarely got the credit that she deserved for her efforts.  She was a stay-at-home mom not so much out of desire at times, but rather out of necessity.  With the three of us kids, and dad’s carpenter’s salary, the idea of putting us into daycare while mom worked made no sense.  All the money she would have made would have only served to pay for the care that she was perfectly capable of giving at home by herself.  So, stay at home she did.

Mom grew up in the rural farm environment of Corinth’s East Ridge where everyone had a cow and chickens.  Since all of her neighbors had large families to feed, they also grew large gardens.  You could trade a zucchini for a pint of tomatoes, or swap some green beans for horseradish root.  There developed in her small East Ridge neighborhood a sort of interdependence.  “We’d all give Lester Felt the really good pea vines,” she wrote, “as he made pea vine wine.  He’d give Dad a jug full for plowing snow in the winter… strictly medicinal, of course.”  Nothing went to waste.  Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.  That is how we lived.  “Grammy,” mom affirmed, “used to ‘accidentally’ make grape wine from canned grapes, grapes she had harvested from the vines out back of the garage behind the catnip patch–Lord knows the wine making would have never been “intentional” as she was a very religious woman.”  Mom spoke often about how her dad liked these neighborly “medicines” in the winter cold season.  A favor done was always a favor returned.

One year, though, right about when I was heading off to Middle School, the economy must have hit us really hard.  Or perhaps, mom was just so bored that she just couldn’t stand it any longer.  For whatever reason it was, mom took a night job that summer.  She would travel every night to the Eastland Woolen Mill in Guilford where she wove wool blankets.  These were heavy blankets, like the kind Grampy had in his foot locker from the War, only prettier plaids in reds, greens and yellows.  They were the kind of blanket you need for a long Maine winter.  Built to last.

As best as I could tell, mom enjoyed getting out.  She also seemed to enjoy the work, bringing home spindles of remainder yarn with which we could play and from which we could make crafts.  By the grace of God, the macramé craze that had swept my mother and most of the nation up in the 1970s had passed.  Some of the yarn spindles are still in a box up in the attic off my room at the house.

Mom worked all night preparing the wool spools on the looms and would come home in the morning, just about the time we were having our bowl of Fruit Loops, Captain Crunch or Raisin Bran.  Asking first if there were anything that we needed for the day, she would head off to bed to sleep.

Todd was older than Melissa and me by five years.  He always seemed to be engaged in other activities from his job cleaning the Morison Elementary School to hunting and fishing with mom’s Uncle Everett.  He later had a car which he bought with the money he had earned.  He had a level of freedom that Missy and I desired but which we could not achieve.  No matter.

Melissa and I didn’t get ‘home schooling’.  We were in the public schools of Corinth and yet when we were at home, there was always something for us to do, preparation for real life, some would say.  We would play outside most all year round, building large snow forts, rolling around on the wire spool that dad had brought home from the electric company, setting up in one of the old sheds out back of our mobile home a school, a house, or a court depending on the day and our whims.

I also learned how to take advantage of a good situation.  Mom never let us watch an inordinate amount of television.  She was against it and said it would rot our brains.  But if we were quiet enough, we managed to turn on the squawk box, as she called it, and watch ‘our shows’.  Aunt Grace had introduced us to All My Children and General Hospital when she stayed with us that summer dad was working on the Indian reservation in Eastport.  They were never my favorite.  I could relate better, some how, to The Young and the Restless and Guiding Light.  Kim Zimmer[1], who played Reva Shayne, seemed so naughty.  I just knew I shouldn’t be watching her.

When I wasn’t watching daytime soaps, playing outside, or reading in my room, I would sneak away to the kitchen.  There they were on the counter.  Recipes.  Flour.  Sugar.  Crisco.  Everything one needed to make cookies.  Lots and lots of cookies.  I probably shouldn’t have made so many of those either.  Talk about a way to build a bad habit!  It seemed for a while that I made a batch of cookies a day, trying every family recipe out one by one.  Mom, exhausted from working all night, resisted very little.  She would just hand me some money and tell me to take my bike out to the Yankee grocer and buy what I needed.  As long as it was quiet, I don’t think she had the energy to care.

Every so often, on mom’s day off, we would all go to Bangor to go shopping.  Shaws.  Shop n’ Save.  W.A. Beans.  We would hit all the big stores.  Missy and I never stayed the afternoon with Grammy.  Grammy would have none of it.  She had raised her kids and mom was to do the same.  Into the car, then, we would pile and head to the city, twenty-seven miles away.

By that point, I was pretty good about knowing what needed to be on the shopping list to keep the house well fed and content.  How fun it was to get the shopping cart going, step up onto the back of it and ride it through the aisles of the store.  I was musical and was taking piano lessons from Alberta Greatorex then.  Through the aisles I would ride, much to mom’s chagrin, humming the jingles to all of products as they flew by my cart one by one.  “Where did you learn that?” mom would inquire.  “Oh, off the tele”, I would reply.  “Just something I heard on T.V., that’s all.”

It wasn’t long before mom started catching on… James must be watching a LOT of television to learn quite so many jingles.   And why does he always need flour, sugar, and Crisco?  A confluence of seemingly innocent daily events and my own carelessness eventually got the best of me.

Perched atop the lower rail of my shopping cart, whirring my way down the aisles of the Shop N’ Save, the one on the Hogan Road that dad had helped to build, I started to sing a familiar tune:

“O.B.  That’s the way it should be.  Fresh and Simple.  Just try O.B. and you’ll see!”

            Mortified.  My poor mother was simply stunned.

            People stared at us in abject horror.  Like witnesses to a crime, the other patrons sat awe struck, until one of them caught on to the irony.  Perched atop the lower rail of my shopping cart, whizzing my way down the personal care aisle of the Shop N’ Save, the one on the Hogan Road where some of my dad’s friends were still working, I was singing in a voice loud enough to be audible an aisle or two away, “O.B.  That’s the way it should be.  Fresh and Simple.  Just try O.B. and you’ll see!”

            My simply mortified mother grabbed my shopping cart as it flew by, jostling me from my perch.  Yanking her ten or eleven year old son by the arm, she all but jogged us to the front of the store.  “But we’ve hardly gotten anything yet,” I tried to protest.  Fifteen items or less.  Didn’t matter.  We were out of that store so fast and on our way back home to Corinth before we knew it.  I remember hearing her mumble something about getting me a hobby.

            The very next day, I was given that hobby.   No discussion.  If I were so darned interested in learning to bake, then a baker I would become.  It didn’t matter.  I had to become something and quick.  There would be no repeat performances to my freshly minted singing career.  I was farmed out.  Yes, siree, I was sent the very next day to Grammy’s house up the street.

Grammy had been given strict instructions to teach me how to make those peanut butter cookies that she made so well—you know, the kind that you lay out on the cookie tins and flatten with a floured fork so that the traditional criss cross pattern on the top.  While I was there, we poured over grammy’s recipe books written by the various ladies’ groups in town.  We sifted through some of her mother’s collection.  They were the tried and true recipes that I copied on to 3 X 5 cards.  We talked about making white fudge, pop corn balls, molasses donuts, grapenut ice cream, and the society rolls that grampy’s mother used to make.

From her house, mom shipped me off to dad’s mom’s place where I learned how to measure without cups and spoons, to make those molasses cookies that she kept in an old pickle jar and the bread that always smelled so good and which was even better fresh out of the oven with butter layered on top.  I slept a few nights on Grammy’s fold out couch in the living room, a most uncomfortable piece of furniture, if memory serves me.  Aunt Sheila took me one afternoon to show me how to make Snickerdoodles, and banana split cake.

While I learned to bake, I also was schooled in some of the family traditions.  It wasn’t just learning how to make pear salad with Aunt Erma’s help, it was learning about Jim Jam cookies that my grandmother’s mom Susan had tried to send Great Aunt Marguerite in the mail when she was a missionary in the wild of Africa.  It was about learning what foods my great grandparents ate, and often why, as they advanced in age.  In short, it was a fantastic time of communing with the past.

What I learned in those weeks of summer when, thanks to those Calgon moments where one wished openly to be taken away, I was given a hobby to pursue was certainly more than a baker’s intuition.  What I think I got most of all from the experience was the sense that my mom, a stay-at-home mom, really did see her work in the kitchen as a way to show the rest of us that she cared for and loved us.

Whether it was Melissa’s friends wanting to come by the house and talk with my mom about all those things about which they did not feel they could talk to their own mothers, or my friend Stephen Dunning who sought my mom’s friendship while learning to make a fresh strawberry pie because his own family life was so unstable, mom always showed us that she loved us with a bowl of chili, a spaghetti feed, or even those pot roasts that she was known to shove into the oven early in the morning just to heat the place up a bit.

What I learned in those weeks of summer when, thanks to those Massengil moments when you could admit you weren’t feeling so fresh, I was given a hobby was that despite what ever tedium I felt in my work or studies, I could always escape to the kitchen.  Just take a pinch of this and a dash of that cupped in the palm of my hand and put it together and create something wonderful.  I had discovered in those summer days an outlet for creativity, and a way to stretch my eating budget, that I could take with me anywhere, just like the box of recipe cards which have traveled the globe with me over time.

In fact, some would even say that my new-found hobby saved me from a fate worse than death.  American food.  When I was a student in France and sought to wiggle my way into those Norman ladies’ cuisines, I was met with some resistance.  Playing off their better demons though, I just had to say, “But you don’t want to condemn me to a lifetime of hamburgers, do you?”  I had an in, and was good as gold.  I learned how to create soups and potages, make a fish shiver in the pan so it wouldn’t be tough, discover the art of béchamel, court bouillon and herbes de provence.  Taste fifty year old Calvados brandy, sip fine wines, and eat cheeses and pâtés so fine you could cry.

What I learned was that as soon as I entered the kitchen I could be and do anything.  I could be French for the night, or Spanish, or Mexican, or just a plain Downeasterner.  I carried with me in the back of my mind and in that little box of 3 X 5 cards the collective knowledge of my ancestors, the memories of my travels and friends made along the way, the future.

Cooking became for me, thanks to those fresh and simple ladies’ applicator-free aides, a refuge against stressful times in jobs with which I was not in love.  My new hobby would even later help me to mend fences between my brother and me after years of not speaking to one another.  “Do you remember those baked beans mom always makes?  How do I make those again?  And what about yeast rolls, and pumpkin pie and cranberry raisin pie?  What did we make for Christmas that year?”  All those recipes that I stored up in memory helped us bridge some pretty big gaps, though at times I wished he would have asked me how to make some of those things when I had been closer to the kitchen so I could visualize the ingredients better.  There were even times when we would invent a recipe, like the rum raisin apple pie we made that year I was in Florida with him for the holidays, taking what I knew about one ingredient and problem-solving about it until I could think of how it would react in a new situation.  Cooking represents for me the creativity that my jobs often aren’t.  But most of all love.  I was liberated then from wretched television and boredom.  Just point me in the direction of the stove and I am good to go.  Cooking, it’s the way it should be.  Trust me.  Fresh and simple.  Just try and you’ll see.

[1] Who could have guessed that Kim Zimmer’s daughter, Rachel Weary, would be in my first Spanish class when I started teaching in New Jersey at the age of 23.  When Kim showed up for Parent-Teacher Conferences that first term, I had all I could do to contain my internal laughter, knowing what role she had played in my life.  Rachel was good friends with Marissa Martini–her dad, Bill Martini, was a Republican Congressman from 1995-97 and is now a federal judge.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Mindy permalink
    October 23, 2011 12:58 am

    So now I understand how feminine hygiene is your connection to culinary skills!!! Makes sense to me!


  1. Marion’s Raisin-Filled Cookies « Chickadee Ear Muffs

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