Mondays were really good, because it was Washing Day. On Washing Day we always had soup and some kind of pie, and I loved Mom’s pies so much that I requested them instead of cake for my birthday!” – my mother, regarding her childhood and her mother, my Maw-Maw
I love listening to stories about the way Maw-Maw, my grandmother, planned her weeks, menus, and food budget for her family of 13. Nothing went to waste in those days following the depression. I admit that some of my stories about my grandmother are a bit influenced by a family friend who often shared stories of her post-depression upbringing with the members of a Bible study a few years back. It’s interesting how our experiences interweave with those of others, when time is taken to swap stories and truly listen to the wisdom of elders.
Maw-Maw often relied on her mother to cook the main meals for her growing family, but she definitely knew how to prepare for a crowd as well. Paw-Paw worked as a brick mason and managed the small family farmed they owned. She would travel every Saturday morning to bigger city nearby to purchase groceries not readily supplied by the grocer in their little mining town of Waverly, Kentucky. Her list was long, and the bill was high, but Maw-Maw found a way to make it all work. The family took time to enjoy life. Each Saturday evening, Maw-Maw would get all “gussied up” and go out for dinner and dancing with Paw-Paw at Peak’s Bar-B-Q.
Paw-Paw built my grandmother a laundry room out the back door of her house. I remember opening the bin of dry detergent and dipping out a cup of it for her next load. I loved to listen to Maw-Maw tell stories of how laundry “used to be wrung through a ringer and wrenched out in the sink!” I was always warned of the dangers of getting lye in my eye, but it didn’t stop me from getting pretty close to the soap to take in a whiff when she wasn’t looking. The one time I remember her fussing at me was when she saw me do that!
She worked at J.C. Penney’s part-time mostly when I was young, but for a short while Maw-Maw baby sat me and my younger sister before we were old enough for school. I am comforted when I recall the way Maw-Maw always seemed to have a plan and rhythm to her days and weeks. Grocery shopping was pleasant and always involved a candy bar in the check-out lane “if you are good”. Her Fridays were then and still are, to this day, reserved for going to have her hair “done”. She never minded we girl cousins smearing around in her makeup drawer and doing each others’ nails with her fancy at-home-70’s-do-it-yourself-nail-spa, complete with a nail dryer! Our toys at her house were a plastic spinning poker chip carousel and pots and pans from the kitchen. We learned how to play “slap Jack” and “crazy 8’s” card games from her in the afternoons while waiting for Mom to pick us up.
Maw-Maw taught me many things. I have very distinct memories of her giving me lessons on dusting. To this day, though I don’t mind admitting to the fact that I do not keep house nearly as carefully as Maw-Maw did, I seem to hear her voice in my heart explaining how to “remove all the stuff off the dresser top and put it neatly on the bed and don’t use too much spray and work always from the top down…next do the baseboards…” I learned to rake shag carpet, shake and beat un-washable rugs, clean out air vents, and wipe down kitchen counters.
Maw-Maw must have noticed that my sister and I were absolutely fascinated with her sewing scissors as they snipped out freshly pressed fabric and thin brown paper patterns for a new blazer. One day, we were so thrilled when she surprised us with Barbie doll clothing patterns.
She let us use her good scissors we had drooled over, teaching us how to carefully avoid cutting off vital parts of the pattern. Then, and I so remember the sounds and smells of that day, we were each given a turn at her well-oiled sewing machine. “Put your foot down there and go slow…” Our dolls were very fashionable from that time on!
At Christmastime, we loved to get dressed up and go to the “Children’s Only” party with all the cousins (no parents allowed!) We ate a real, home-cooked, sit-down dinner and opened gifts in order of youngest to oldest. We sang Christmas carols and felt loved. I’m certain it was a chore to set the table and have to turn around and do it all over again later in the evening for the “Grownups Only” party; but we were loved by Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw.
When my grandmother was busy raising her 10 children on their little farm in western Kentucky, she was determined to provide them with a Catholic school education. Tuition was a sacrifice I’m certain, but charity abounded toward the Little Sisters of the Poor who ran St. Vincent Academy. At times, though money was tight, Maw-Maw provided each child with cans of food to roll down the aisles of the classroom floors for “can-roll days” so that the nuns had food to eat. I often smile when our family participates in service projects, thinking about nuns jumping up on desks and shouting “Roll, baby, roll…”
I’m fairly certain that is one of many fictionalized accounts based on what truly happened that were relayed by my uncles through entertaining ballads and tall tales plunked out on banjos, guitars, harmonicas, and home crafted rhythm instruments. On Sundays growing up, Maw-Maw tolerated these musical festivities when everyone “came home” to visit.
No matter how big the crowd, or how tired she was, Maw-Maw always found a way to feed everyone, welcome everyone, forgive everyone, and play another game of cards with everyone. Afternoons filled with Charlie Chips and poker chips, small portions of homemade ice-cream and sliced country ham on white bread…these things and more add up to family life with her at the heart of it all.
During her days of young mothering, Maw-Maw and a few other women tied on their aprons and worked in the school cafeteria. It was there that she learned to make molasses cookies so big a child had to hold them with two hands! Perfectly crunchy and chewy at the same time, these cookies inspired me to enter a Girl Scout bake-off in 4th grade. I advanced to regionals and took third place! My siblings never seemed to grow tired of these cookies, and I’ve continued to bake them for my own children. In recent years, I’ve started adding molasses to some tomato- based sauces and bean recipes (molasses can also be used in pecan pie as a substitute for corn syrup).
If you whip up a batch of these simple yet well-loved cookies, I can imagine Maw-Maw paying you the highest compliment in her book, which points to a skill that certainly comes in handy, “You’re always able to make somethin’ outa nothin’!” Recipe is available on the Kitchen & Craft page of this website. Enjoy!
This article was published in Cay Gibson’s Seasonal Book of Days. Visit her Etsy shop and check out her beautiful seasonal planners soon to be available! https://www.etsy.com/shop/CajunCottagePress?ref=hdr_shop_menu