It was only after the obituary I wrote for my mother had appeared in the newspaper six years ago that I learned a fascinating detail:
She once baked a cherry pie for Amelia Earhart.
A detail like that is pure obituary gold, but in her 99 years of life, and 64 years of mine, she never mentioned it to me. My niece in Ohio, who did yeoman service taking care of her grandma, told me about it after my mother died. That was in 2015, six months shy of what would have been her 100th birthday, and a shot at a Smucker’s ad on the “Today Show.”
We did a search on the internet and turned up a grainy newspaper photo of a class of home economics students at Purdue University, presenting Earhart with a pie they baked especially for her. We’re pretty sure one of the coeds pictured was my mother.
It was but one detail in a long, eventful life that spanned childhood Christmas mornings in Indiana when a good present was an orange in her stocking, the Depression, World War II, raising three sons, becoming a championship-level archer, caring for ailing parents, surviving ovarian cancer, retiring to Wisconsin.
Sharp as a tack to the end, she read a couple books a week, and kept up on the news. (She was an Indiana Republican – the most ardent kind.)
She and my dad are buried in a beautiful little Moravian cemetery in Wisconsin.
I guess it would be expected that someone who baked a pie for the famous aviatrix would celebrate Christmas with something from the oven. For years she would bake homemade bread, making our house smell like heaven, and it was my job to deliver the warm loaves around the neighborhood. You should have seen the smiles on the faces of our neighbors when the warm loaf from Mary’s kitchen arrived a few days before Christmas.
For years after she and my dad retired and moved to Wisconsin, she received a Christmas card from a former neighbor, telling how much she missed that warm Christmas loaf of bread.
The lesson for a kid growing up: It wasn’t just about the train set, the Tonka Toy, or the “Bulldog 66” I desperately wanted for Christmas. A vital part of Christmas was reconnecting, if only through a slice of delicious toast the next morning, with the folks who made our neighborhood a great place for a kid to grow up. My brothers and I were unbelievably lucky.
You didn’t ever want to say the words “I can’t cook” around my mother. “If you can read, you can cook!” she would proclaim, probably shaking a wooden mixing spoon in your face. She wasn’t about to raise sons who depended on a wife to make a ham sandwich.
When I finished school and came to Wyoming to be a newspaper reporter, I revived the bread baking tradition. It gave me an inexpensive but special gift to give friends and neighbors at Christmas. Later, when I was running a paper in Central Illinois, the list of annual bread recipients grew to over 30 loaves. I still hear from many of those good friends.
My wife’s mom was an excellent cook and baker, too, and in the last couple years, as her health failed, it was my job to take over her role of baking the Christmas “kiflins,” a dangerously delicious cookie similar to Mexican Wedding Cookies. (I dare you to eat just one.) And I’m responsible for the obligatory peanut brittle, and the Hershey’s Kiss peanut butter cookies.
We head to Gillette this week, because it’s just plain wrong to not be around little ones at Christmas. My three-year-old grand daughter will unwrap the Hershey Kisses, and will help measure out the flour for the bread. She’s excited, and so am I. We’re carrying on the tradition. And their house will smell like heaven.
I notice in the videos my daughter sends us that her loving tone of voice with our grand daughters is the exact same tone of my mother when I was little. Takes me right back, after all these years.
Family, bread, kiflins, toddlers – precious memories.
Some still in the making.