When I got married on an April 6th all those decades ago, among the wedding gifts I received was Better Homes & Gardens Cooking for Two. A few years ago, I downsized my obsessive collection of cookbooks. But Cooking for Two was one of the few dozens I kept. Some keepers were chosen for sentimental reasons, others for the frequency of us, some were cherished gifts.
Cooking for Two is only 96 pages, the last ten of which are devoted to The ABCs of Cooking for Two – equipment, shopping lists, food storage, little tips for big successes, substitutions for ingredients, guidelines, herbs, hints on wine, ways with cheese.
My copy has browned pages, torn pages, pages assaulted by spills & splatters, stars indicating favorite recipes, notes in the margins, measurements that have been completely obliterated by use & neglect.
Much like the text of my life.
The other night I made one of my tried & truly delicious recipes from the Easy on the Budget Main Dishes section – Oven Beef Stew.
For decades, I have attempted to duplicate my mother Jean’s beef stew. At times I came close – but almost only counts in horseshoes & hand grenades.
Each attempt was both a failure & a challenge.
Oven Beef Stew answered the challenge. Not because it tasted like my memory of Jean’s stew – but because it became a frequent visitor in my culinary life. It involves red wine & a massive amount of basil.
After tucking the Oven Beef Stew in the oven for its two-hour journey, I picked up Cooking for Two & looked through the pages, trying to remember where, why & with whom I shared the results of the starred & stained recipes over the decades.
And then, in the Remembered Recipes Tailored for Two chapter I spotted a starred recipe in the Meal Plans Just for Two section: Oven Swiss Steak.
And I thought about Willa, my now deceased ex-mother in law.
Willa was a different kind of cook than my mother Jean. She melted processed American cheese slices over plates of spaghetti. She made tuna fish sandwiches with mustard & pecans. She served chipped beef over toast for breakfast. She put giblets in the gravy at Thanksgiving & Christmas.
The giblets totally grossed me out.
But Willa also made some amazing dishes – fried shrimp (I still use her recipe), a fierce roast beef, yellow squash with onions & cheese, a moist turkey with cornbread dressing & three kinds of pies on holidays. And always, two cakes from her favorite bakery – Italian Cream & German Chocolate.
And of course. Swiss Steak – previously unknown to my palate. The other night, I made Oven Swiss Steak from Better Homes & Gardens' Cooking for Two.
And reminisced about Willa.
About all the egregious, unforgivable, toxic moments she brought into my life.
Moments that fueled my need to escape my marriage to her son.
Willa called me Cindy, her son’s previous girlfriend, for months. She made corned beef brisket every Sunday we visited – which was just about every Sunday until we joined South Main Baptist Church.
At the time, I was certain I did not care for corned beef. Once, my father-in-law, in my presence, asked her why she always cooked corned beef when she knew I did not like it.
Her reply was: My son likes it.
(Note: I learned to love corned beef via my friend Susan Foster. I also learned to appreciate dove breasts held together by a toothpick with a slice of jalapeno, fried & served with gravy from Susan.)
Willa & my father-in-law were at least twenty something years older than my parents. My spouse was their youngest son. They married a bit later than others at the time, waited seven years to have their first son & then another seven before they had my spouse.
The family joke was that they only had sex twice.
I remember being astonished at the possibility that a married couple would only have sex every seven years. My parents had four children in thirteen years.
Looking back, the lack of a prolific sex life must have been an inherited trait.
Memory is elusive, written upon by time & perception & growth.
All of Willa’s drama, so egregious at the time, no longer angers or befuddles me.
Calling me by a former girlfriend’s name, repeating a conversation about my appearance (she thought I was beautiful – my father-in-law disagreed & pronounced me pretty but not beautiful), confronting my mother Jean at the wedding because Jean wore a long dress & Willa wore a short dress & Jean should have told Willa to wear a long dress, laughing with my sister-in-law about how I ironed on the wrong side of the ironing board, the dramatic feigned heart attack, admonishing me because I did not prepare her son’s plate or let him win at backgammon, & the accusation that I had searched for & examined the contents of her checkbook.
That one still pisses me off from time to time. In our all too many weekend visits, we took our laundry & I took my school books.
I did the laundry & I studied. (And ironed on the wrong side of the ironing board.) My spouse watched sports with his father or worked in the massive garden he had installed on his parents’ land.
One afternoon, during what proved to be the last weekend visit for months, I set up my books & notebooks on the dining room table. The dining area was a fine, sunny, impressive room outside the kitchen & only used for holiday meals & my weekend studies. An entire wall contained a built-in china cabinet, complete with drawers & storage cabinets.
I no longer remember if I needed a pen or a pencil or a pencil sharpener, but I asked Willa if she had what I needed & she directed me to the far-right drawer on the cabinet wall.
I found what I needed & went back to folding laundry & studying.
It was still afternoon when my spouse came in & asked me if I had rummaged through the far-right drawer & looked into Willa’s check book.
Because, he explained, his mother had witnessed me snooping into her check book.
It was a true What the fuck? moment. But in those days, I had not yet learned to think what the fuck, much less scream it out loud.
He seemed convinced that my snooping into someone’s check book was something less than unthinkable. He kept insisting that his mother insisted that she saw me take out the check book & snoop.
Somewhere in the midst of all his questions – are you sure you didn’t take it out while you were looking for a pen (or pencil or pencil sharpener)? – I drew the first line.
I gathered my things, my clothes, my purse & keys & got into my VW Bug & drove to the house that Jean & Jack built.
Jean listened. She touched my arm & listened as I spoke & ranted & asked what the fuck in different words.
Eventually my spouse found me at the house that Jack & Jean built.
Jean had the look – the one with a raised eyebrow. She listened as he apologized, begged me to come home with him. She listened as he tried to defend Willa’s accusations
And when he was finally done rationalizing, Jean spoke:
In all my daughter’s life, I have never seen her this unhappy. I have never seen this look on her face. If you are unable or unwilling to stand up to your mother, to support your wife, then you need to return my daughter to her father & to me. I don't want to see this look again.
That day, Jean reinforced her unconditional love for & support of me.
Knowingly or unknowingly, Willa gave me the first line. And made it possible for me to leave when the final line was crossed.
My mother-in-law’s story was complicated. It is easier, now that time & experience have written across the text of my memory, to remember that.
Willa grew up in Montalba, Texas & was one of two siblings. Her brother was the favored child wonder. Her father died when she was young – the story goes that he developed pneumonia one winter because he refused to use the chamber pot & insisted on defying the inclement weather to use the outhouse.
Willa’s mother was a talented seamstress & that talent supported the family after her husband died. Single mothers were not the norm in Montalba, Texas. My spouse told me that his grandmother developed a loose reputation – real or imagined or invented by gossips.
Willa never graduated from high school. But she was incredibly articulate. I was blown away by her vocabulary. An avid & ardent reader, she did not follow in her seamstress mother’s craft.
Instead, she developed amazing secretarial skills & was a legend at the typewriter. Willa met my father-in-law at a dance.
My spouse’s father Barney came from a well to do railroad family in Palestine, Texas. He was the youngest of four siblings. It was after he used a fire at home to withdraw from Texas A&M that he met Willa.
Willa always felt she married up - & she married into a family of siblings who welcomed her. Her mother’s heart was firmly focused on Willa’s brother. Long before & long after his death.
Barney’s family absorbed her & gave her equal sibling footing & focus.
Even though Willa’s brother was the favored child, Willa’s mother moved in & was waiting when Willa & Barney returned from their honeymoon.
My spouse’s grandmother left Willa & Barney’s house only twice. Once, when Willa begged her brother to invite their mother for a visit. (Brother sent Mama home after three days.) The next time Willa’s mother left was when she died.
I often think about Willa’s history & how it formed her. Just as her own mother chose a favorite, Willa chose her youngest son.
In spite of all those manipulations, all the guilting, all the drama, Willa was, in her rather strange way, good to me.
She encouraged me in pursuit of my education. More than once, she insisted on paying for my tuition & my books, even when I told her my father was set to do it. Twice a year, she bought me a working wardrobe. (apparently, my Big Smith overalls did not meet her standards.) She spent time with me, sharing her stories, sharing the text of her life.
She loved musicals & she loved that I watched them with her. We talked about books we were reading, about books we both had read.
A long time, almost a year, passed between the incident of the check book allegation & my reappearance into the family fold.
My spouse had continued to visit his parents without me. I continued to stay at home & read, waiting for someone, anyone, to apologize & absolve me of the allegation.
The one thing I missed while staying at home was my niece, with whom I shared a massive mutual admiration.
Willa, always aware of the potential for manipulation, set the scene for my return to the family fold, with her granddaughter as bait.
Telling her favored son that our niece missed me & was asking for me every time she made the trip from Dallas to Houston.
In the end, I succumbed & accompanied my spouse to his parents’ house.
To see that seven-year-old wonder child.
No one apologized, no one absolved me, no one withdrew the accusation. Part of me no longer cared – my niece truly was a wonder child.
But Willa had given me the gift of drawing the line.
And when that line was crossed, I left everything, even her chosen son & that precious wonder child, on the opposite side of the line.
I did not eat any of Cooking for Two’s Oven Swiss Steak tonight. My brother declared it awesome.
It was not, of course, Willa’s recipe. It was my attempt to recall a memory, a taste of what was fine about her.
Perhaps another day, another attempt.
But not today. Some memories are still left on the opposite side of the line Willa made possible.
Willa, Barney, Jaki Jean & Willa’s Favored Son