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A Rite of Spring
By Joy Swartley Sawatzky
Last week I experienced one of those first rites of spring – for my mother’s generation, that is. I ate dandelion gravy over mashed potatoes. My mother had not made it for more years then she cared to remember. With caring for my father who was ill and then supporting him his last two years in a nursing home, some things just slipped by the wayside. Dad died nine months ago and gradually Mom is picking up and doing those things that were comforting to her all the years of her life. Her eyes were bright with excitement as she welcomed me and my aunts into her tiny apartment. It had also been years since she had done any entertaining.
Time has not dulled her ability to get the ingredients of the dandelion gravy just right. The smoky flavor of the bacon, the sweet and sour flavor of the creamed gravy, the tender greens and the silky mashed potatoes. Mom was concerned that it didn’t taste quite right because the vinegar was not Musselman’s vinegar. She couldn’t find Musselman’s and had to substitute another brand, but to my limited taste buds it tasted just right. My two aunts that joined in the feast agreed that different vinegars give food a different taste. The worst substitution would have been to use distilled vinegar instead of apple cider vinegar. They all agreed that white vinegar just wasn’t as good. That was worth a good ten minute discussion, as it also included comparisons of vanilla flavorings (pure or imitation) and the flavor and texture of freezing mashed potatoes.
After lunch there was more conversation about what foods they ate at what seasons of the year as children. My mother remembered participating in the annual harvesting of the youngest shoots of the dandelion weeds. I wonder how much dandelion gravy it took to feed ten hungry children, plus parents? One aunt remembered being assigned to pick the yellow flowers from the more mature weed to make dandelion wine. Stained her hands every time, she said. I tasted that dandelion wine one time and it truly seemed more medicinal than recreational. Not exactly something I’d get a longing for.
The Detweiler Sisters in December, 2002. Standing, left to right: Dorothy Swartley (my mother), Lydia Yoder and Lovina Atkinson. Seated, from left to right: Rachel Godshall, Edith Ott, and Grace Detweiler.
The three sisters laughed with each other and agreed that in those days, you ate what came from the garden or yard or butchering, as the case may be, at any particular time of the year. They figured that their mother had done a good job of feeding them given the limitations of raising a family of twelve on a farmers’ income, whether it was warm cabbage slaw or something made with potatoes that they were given to eat. Meals were good times, and they were never hungry.
As I looked around the small circle I realized just how amazing these three women are. Last year alone, my mother and her one sister each lost husbands of over 50 years, plus they lost three sisters. Five deaths in seven months, and the remaining sister who still has her husband living visits him daily in the nursing home. He stopped recognizing her years ago as dementia slowly took over his mind and body, leaving him a stranger in their midst.
Not a negative word was spoken that afternoon, not one hint of ‘woe is me’. The two new widows talked about missing the life that they had for so many years with their mates, but then chose to focus on all they still have. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, they chose to celebrate the comfort that was theirs from familiar food and the company of each other. I learned something about who I am that afternoon. It looks like I come from good stock, as they say in farm language. It is something I have always known but saw in a new way, a clearer way, as I watched the truly gentle, positive and supportive way these three women related to each other in the face of all they have been through in the past year. Humor and love were certainly the predominant emotions of the afternoon.
The next food event for them to look forward to is new lettuce dressing over potatoes, with sausage. The first lettuce harvest from the garden brings them together each year. The group will be much smaller this time, a haunting reminder of the stage of life they are in. I’ll have to see if I can wrangle another invitation to their usual ‘sisters and spouses only’ gathering. See if I can guess which brand of vinegar my aunt used for the dressing this time!
Making a Personal Connection with the Story
Do you have a food that links you to your past like Dandelion Gravy? What did you eat as a child that would be unique to your family or was seasonal and plentiful at that time of the year (not like the year round availability we have now)? What positive things have you learned from watching people gone before you (aunts, uncles, teachers, etc.) For younger audiences, when was the last time you sat around with your aging family members. What do you want to remember about them?
Explore the story while doing a hands-on project
Copyright April 8, 2004 by Joy Swartley Sawatzky. All Rights Reserved.
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