My mother loved to read to me. She
thumbed through the pages of Mother Goose, the many volumes of Raggedy
Ann and Andy, the children's classics from Heidi to the marooned Swiss
Family Robinson. While I loved them all, the book I begged my mother
to read was a cookbook. Not the work of a superstar chef, not a glossy
coffee table book with photos of beautifully decorated food, this was
an old ledger with handwritten recipes, and every recipe evoked a story.
In time I outgrew the books of my childhood, but the ledger stayed with
me for life, its significance changing as I matured.
In the pages of the ledger were
my grandmother's recipes collected in the early 1900's when waves of
immigrants were buoyantly settling America. The ledger contained the
recipes for the food I ate, but was also a kind of map to my grandparents'
day to day life in Newark, New Jersey. Of Irish and English background,
my grandfather was a policeman while my grandmother stayed home to pound
carpets in the sun, boil laundry in large tubs, and struggle, in ways
I would never experience, to put nourishing food on the table. My mother
had proudly added to this book when she herself learned to cook.
My mother kept the book wrapped
in wax paper, stuffed between neatly folded sweaters in the bottom drawer
of her bedroom bureau. When she pulled the book from its special place,
she did not read, she cooked, but as she moved around the kitchen she
told stories. When she finished cooking, she'd wrap the book back in
its paper and return it to the bureau. But I loved those stories more
than any in a printed book, and when I learned its hiding place, I would
open the drawer and bring the book to her, begging her to read.
Before she opened the book, she
would pat the cover and say "the beginning of it all.". Then
she'd open to the very first page and run her fingers under the script.
"This says Mrs. James J. Farrell. She was
my mother and your grandmother. They were married and had many children.
One of them was Mary Eileen Farrell. Do you know who Mary Eileen is?"
"You," I would shout,
giddy to possess such intimate knowledge. She'd circle one arm around
me, and draw me to her so tightly I felt I was part of her. The stories
began, and when they did my mother's voice softened, and her eyes grew
dreamy Sometimes she laughed as she told me the stories, and sometimes
her face would grow sad. I learned from her face that life was a mixture
of happy and sad.
One story became my favorite and
I would beg to hear it. "Tell me about the gold and silver cake,"
I would cry.
She flicked through pages until
she came to one that had a butter spot on the upper right corner. At
first I recognized the page by the spot, then I learned to read the
"This was the first recipe
written in this book, and it was all because of a sugar bowl. Now, let's
see . . . the year was about 1910 and James Farrell wanted a job and
a family . . . "
I loved the stories so much that
when my mother was busy, I'd tiptoe into her room, pull out the ledger,
and plop cross-legged on the floor. With the book in my lap, I pretended
to read, telling stories out loud that had everything and nothing to
do with recipes.
Though Mom said this was the beginning
of it all, at the age of three I did not spend much of my day analyzing
my origins. The ledger was then a vehicle for romance, excitement and
danger. When Mom told me that Grandma had learned to cook on a coal
stove, I flinched away from the flames that flared when bricks of coal
stoked the fire; when she told me how Grandpa and Grandma met and fell
in love, the cookbook was a romantic novel. Drama was scattered though
these pages, and this drama was real. The adventures of rag dolls or
marooned Swiss families were tepid by comparison.
As I grew, I lost interest in the
ledger, thinking it nothing more than an artifact in my mother's bureau.
But after I left home to make a life of my own, the ledger acquired
a new significance: it became a symbol of stability and permanence.
When I returned for a weekend visit pretending self-sufficiency, but
longing for the security of home, I would go to my mother's room, kneel
in front of the bureau, open the drawer, and move the stack of neatly
folded sweaters. What mattered to me then was that the book was there.
Sometimes I opened the ledger just to affirm that nothing on the inside
had changed, sometimes I read a recipe. In one recipe I saw Grandma
tie on an apron; in another I watched my mother when she was not Mom,
but just Mary Eileen Farrell. The recipes cooked from the ledger were
not ordinary recipes, but, then, the ledger was not an ordinary cookbook.
Today its binding is frayed. I touch it carefully. The ledger was a
fragile reminder of the way things were and how they shaped us.