Dear (Fill in the Blank):

I won’t be home for Christmas, Mother.

Pursuant to my previous post, the last McLaughlin sister, Aunt Betty, died in early December. She was 97. Her four sisters preceded her in death at the ages of 96, 95, 92 and 77. There’s a runt in every litter.

Grandmother was born in 1900 and was the oldest sister. Betty was the youngest, born in 1920. The sticklers out there may question my statement that the girls were all “college graduates by 1925.” Rather than do a detailed accounting of their schooling, I chose a pithy way to emphasize how unusual post high school education was for rural Indiana women in the early 20th Century. It’s what we in the Bullshit Business call poetic license. And I find poetry everywhere. Especially the words “get off my fucking back.”

Despite her inability to graduate from college by the age of five, Aunt Betty was the brainiest of the girls. Grandmother, with her love for Calculus and Trigonometry, came in a close second. After college, Aunt Betty did medical research and planned to pursue med school. Then she succumbed to the country custom of the times and sacrificed it for marriage.

All that intellect was focused on her progeny who were rewiring their house’s electricity by the time they were 11. It would be 50 more years before I could rewire a lamp. When her eldest son studied the french horn, an instrument I’d never heard of, I picked up the gauntlet and played it for the next seven years. And, because my birthday was around Memorial Day, my card always included a list of books to read that summer. Like Ivanhoe or The Hounds of the Baskervilles.

Her children wrote their tickets to college via scholarships. Upon graduation, a couple were swept up by the government to do top-secret work in New Mexico.

97, 92, 95, 96. Not pictured: 77.

Like Grandmother, Aunt Betty would gently challenge us.  When we came up with answers we were expected to justify the how and why of what we’d concluded. We were not trained monkeys robotically spitting out correct responses. We were Socratic simians unraveling the epistemology of the universe.

Grandmother started her family 10 years before her sisters so my Mother’s first decade was spent as the sole beneficiary of all that female power. One weekend when I was home from college, my grandparents took me to visit Aunt Betty’s farm. I hadn’t seen her in some time and had developed an exotic hippie look that Grandmother seemed to be proud of. As we walked into the house she teased her sister, “do you know who this is?” Aunt Betty smiled, “he has all of her expressions.”

Before there was email spam, before there were Ed McMahon’s sweepstakes congratulations, and even before there was xeroxing there were mimeographed Christmas letters. Aunt Betty made the mistake of sending them out a few times. Grandmother was appalled. To her it was the depths of bad taste. Being a dutiful grandson, I concurred.

But the chimp in me fostered a curiosity for people, especially accomplished people, who failed. There’s reasoning for both the good and bad in life, what is it? Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name?

With Aunt Lucille. Don’t even think of calling her Lucy.

The McLaughlin girls created a monster with a life-long fascination for the obtuse. I was thinking this year would be perfect for an impersonal personal Christmas communique: the instantaneous, phantasmagorical swollen lip; the explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting of a campylobacter infection; traveling with 80 cents in my pocket through a major mid-western city; and being named the spiritual mentor to a dog–all seem ripe for a mass mailing.

But why duplicate effort. The blog is a perpetual mimeograph.

2018 will be the year I finally organize my papers, photos, wardrobe and salacious memories to donate to posterity. Fair warning, dear reader, there’s going to be a Dewey Decimal feel in the months to come.

In the meantime, as we celebrate the holidays let’s not forget one of the most important teachings of the Church: Bless-ud are the Blanks for they shall inherit the archives.



Ode to Noreen and Nila Ann

Based on a recipe that revolutionized, and continues to revolutionize, Thanksgiving.

The five McLaughlin girls, my Grandmother and her sisters, were raised on a farm outside of Kokomo one hundred years ago. My Great-Grandfather Otis (whose in-laws are pictured above in the masthead) insisted they all have post high school educations which was unusual for women in the early 20th Century. Especially in rural Indiana where it’s still rare today. He wanted them to be independent and to be able to support themselves. By 1925 two of them graduated from college, two from beauty school, and one from secretarial school.

All of them married and lived on farms in close proximity. They remained a tight-knit group their entire lives, socializing and traveling together. Church-going was de rigueur though they were not hardcore, fundamentalist types. They were intelligent, gentle, fun-loving people who didn’t have a mean bone in them.

Which was what made the prayers at our large family dinners so bizarre. When we gathered to start the buffet, randomly one of the sisters would throw the challenge to another by saying something like: “Myrtle, will you return thanks?” The recipient would dive in without hesitation, improvise a blessing and then say Amen. The exchange was always unpredictable, rapid fire and direct.

It made me uncomfortable because it felt like people were put on the spot. And I was terrified they were going to pick me. It’s the only time I sensed aggressiveness or rivalry among the sisters.  Maybe it was a holdover from their childhood dining rituals: I’ll get her tonight, I’ll make her say the prayer.

When their daughters became adults they joined in the prayer round robin too. My Mother was never called upon probably because she would not have cooperated. She seemed to be exempt.

Mother’s cousin Nila Ann, on the other hand, was often asked to say grace. It was a way to include her. She was slow mentally and stuck in her routine within the family. She finished high school and had a job as a clerk, but otherwise did not venture too far from home.

There was a lot of family humor and teasing in which Nila Ann tried to participate. But she’d always repeat the same joke when making small talk: “you been working hard or hardly working?” It was followed by her self-satisfied chuckles to help sell the quip. Or maybe she was genuinely amused each time she told it.

Another cousin, Noreen, was more like my Mother. She’d graduated from Purdue, was poised, reserved, and loved to laugh. Her worldliness caused her to her commit the blasphemy of blasphemies: she married a Catholic. But what a hunk of a Catholic. Even at 10 I knew he was worth losing your religion for.

These personal detractions and transgressions were never talked about openly. The sisters firmly believed if you can’t say something positive say nothing at all. At family gatherings compliments flowed freely for everyone’s cooking. Nila Ann would be praised for her fruit cocktail and jello mold.

Noreen showed up one year with a dish that had a lasting impact. She received kudos that day and from that Thanksgiving on because, thereafter, someone would always make her version of Cranberry Relish.

Her secret was to include diced celery and toasted pecans. The refreshingly cool taste of the celery against the tartness of the cranberries works perfectly. I’ve played with adding apples, oranges, or pears but the sweetness takes away from the cranberry/celery mojo. Usually celery plays the Thelma Ritter role, the supporting part. Here it shows star quality.

This year Kathy and I visited our friend Linda who is in the hospital. Linda loves Thanksgiving so I prepared a traditional menu to take to her. Kathy implored me to keep it healthy which resulted in making cutbacks–somewhat on the butter, significantly on the sugar. For dessert I got out the ice cream maker and we had the world premiere of Sorbet a la Noreen: a cranberry ice garnished with pecans and celery.

The seismic activity felt last Thursday was the McLaughlin women turning in their graves. That an offspring of theirs would prepare Thanksgiving dinner and not bake a pie was just too much for them.