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Frigging Frigons Part Deux

In my first posting I talked about the eighteen kids my maternal grandparents produced. At that time I didn't know the exact number of children that their eighteen children produced but after talking with my mom we determined through careful examination that there were fifty grandchildren born which means I had forty-seven cousins.

Sadly, I don't know all of them (cousins) and even more embarrassingly I wouldn't recognize many of them if I bumped into them in a supermarket and likewise I am sure. However, of the ones that I do know and see once every couple of years at a family reunion, their company is enjoyable and familiar and together we all share in a collective memory of Mémére and Pépére that is warm and satisfying for all of us I am sure.

The family lived in a small town north of Edmonton for a time called Legal (pronounced Le - gal, not legal like the law) and during the war years (WW II - The Big One) they moved back to The City (Edmonton) into a large home, namely 10513-124 Street. This is the house of memories for my mom.

Think about this for a moment.  Because of the differences in ages of the children all eighteen were not living in the home at the same time, but there were times that as many as eleven children were in the home at one time. Again. Repeat with me again --- AT ONE TIME!!!

At one point adding to the eleven younger children were one of the older sons living there with his wife and young son and to help make ends meet they also took in boarders (usually cousins) from out of town to care for. That could bring the total of children, cousins, grandchildren, kids-in-laws to around sixteen or seventeen people plus my grandparents. Nineteen people!!!  Maybe more for shorter times!!! In one house!!!

Mémére had her hands full raising that many kids in one house for sure and no doubt she had to be a world class organizer to keep the wheels of the family rolling.  There was also a shared responsibility to cook, clean and maintain law and order that fell to the children as well.  Everyone had their chores to do and they had to be done regardless of the childs age.

I can't imagine the horror that my family would face were we in the same situation today.  "What? No housekeeper?" "Really?" "Wash dishes by hand?" "You're kidding right?" "No going out for pizza?"  "This is so unfair!" "Okay, really now, you are joking about the housekeeper right?"  We can't imagine the workload that would be faced in caring for that many people from our vantage point today.

The house was a large three story building with seven bedrooms and one bathroom.  Yes you read that right, one bathroom. ONE!!!  ONE BATHROOM for nineteen people!!!  The mind reels.  I could not survive without having an en-suite off my bedroom for my personal use let alone only having one for the entire house, I tremble at the thought. In my home we have four people living here and have four bathrooms and sometime that isn't enough, especially the day after taco night.

There was a huge kitchen and living room to accommodate the many people living there and the home was updated and kept in good repair by Pépére and the older sons. Given that Pépére worked as a carpenter and was out of the house during the day, the household duties and discipline fell to Mémére and she could be a real taskmaster to be sure; in fact I was told a number of times by my mom and some aunties that the mother that raised them was not the same woman that showered us grandchildren with love and love-filled cookies. Not even close!

Mémére wasn't a tall woman, standing about five feet tall, or as some describe her, five-foot-frig-all, but she had the strength of ten women and she could strike fear into the hearts of her kids and boarders alike. So the rules were - don't piss Mémére off or break any of her rules. Ever. To do so was a very bad thing.

One of the methods of discipline was for each child to go out and cut their own switch. Now for those of you young'uns that don't know what a switch is let me tell you. It is not the thing on the wall that turns the lights off and on. Yes that is a switch, but not the switch to which I am referring.

A switch such as I am talking about is one that you had to cut from a bush or small tree, like a willow bush or a poplar tree; a thin, flexible limb stripped of its leaves, about two to three feet long. Not too big but not too small. Once acquired, they carried their switch back home and handed it to Mémére and she in turn would whip their ass with it. Yup! They manufactured their own implement of doom.

The added twist to this form of discipline was, when one of them broke the rules and were to receive an ass whooping, the rest of the kids in the house received one too!  Hahahahahaha!!!!  Yes children, EVERYONE got it!

Why would everyone get an ass whooping you ask? Well, simply because when the Maternal Inquisitor (Mémére) investigated some transgression that had occurred and caused a disturbance in the harmony of the home (pissed Mémére off) all the kids, guilty and non, would protest their innocence to the investigator (Mémére) and all the kids were very convincing of their innocence, both guilty and non, which made it difficult for the judge, jury and executioner (Mémére) to determine who should get an ass whooping. So she whooped them all, guilty and non!

All of them had to go out and cut a switch, bring their personal switch back to Mémére, and then stand in line to wait until she got to each child to whip his or her ass. All the other children standing in watch, no doubt fearing what was to come as the event unfolded.

The selection of their very own switch was fraught with indecision borne of peril because if they returned back home with what Mémére deemed an inadequate switch, she would go and select her own to whoop them with.  So they had to pick one big enough to satisfy the warden but small enough to not render them grievously injured or dead, hence - indecision borne of peril.

It was during one of these days of infamy that a great family classic was born. Mémére had ordered the children out, to go and get a switch as one of them (Laurie) had done something that demanded swift and decisive action - what happened is now forgotten, but the fact that switches were being demanded is in the historical record.

My sweet Aunty Laurie was but a wee young thing of seven or eight when the order to collect a switch was issued and knowing what was to come, no doubt having been on a switch hunt before, she searched for one that would deliver a lesser form of punishment and in a small Popsicle stick did she find such a switch, or "licken stick" as some called their switch. A Popsicle stick. Not a willow or poplar, not even a birch limb, nope - a Popsicle stick. You can see where this ended up don't you? In todays vernacular that switch would be called A FAIL!

Laurie headed for home with the Popsicle stick in hand and as she walked toward her fate she was told by her brothers and sisters that taking a Popsicle stick back home was a very, very, very bad idea. Some went so far as to plead with her to rethink her smart ass gesture and fetch a proper licken stick, but she would have no part of the common sense suggestions.  She was a bit of a maverick I have been told, well, the truth be told, Aunty Laurie is still a maverick, always will be and we are thankful for that.

So she trundled toward home, the gaggle of siblings following her, knowing that Laurie's bad idea was going to have repercussions for all of them no doubt. Laurie laughed and continued on her path of no-good-ending that day.

Finally, facing Mémére, she handed the Popsicle stick to her and waited for the expected light punishment that only a Popsicle stick would allow. No doubt smirking as she did, Laurie that is, not Mémére. According to those that were there, Mémére was not amused. In fact she was substantially pissed off. Nothing good ever came from a pissed off Mémére is also written into the historical record.

Gathering up all the strength that her five-foot-frig-all frame could muster Mémére told Laurie in no uncertain terms that she had to go back outside and find a stick suitable for an ass whooping because if she came back with an inferior offering Mémére would go and find one and it likely would have been a limb off an Mountain Ash tree. A big Mountain Ash tree.

The story goes that she went back outside and found a stick worthy of being called a switch and was given lessons by Mémére on the use, control and effectiveness of switches in corporal punishment. Aunty Laurie never brought back a Popsicle stick to the home again I have been told.  I do wonder if she ever ate a Popsicle after that? I doubt I would have.

When you think about it now, the "everyone gets an ass whooping" was elegant in its simplicity really. Imagine you're a teenage boy in your room, reading about Ubangi tribeswomen and their breasts in the National Geographic (only naked women magazine available in the early 1950's) and suddenly the call from your mother is made that demands you go fetch a switch to come and get your butt whooped. How would you feel? - Joy? Rapture? Kindness towards the transgressor or miscreant? Me thinks not. Tabarnac...

After a couple of butt whoopings by Mémére all the children were very vigilant and truly became their brothers (or sisters) keeper. In fact, it created a police state atmosphere the envy of the East German Stasi whereby no act of lawlessness went unnoticed or unpunished by the rank and file. The walls had eyes...

The punishment meted out by the siblings to any child who would be so irresponsible as to break one of Mémére's laws was severe and far and away more painful than anything that kindly five-foot-frig-all woman could dish out I have been told, so the fear of having their brothers and sisters giving them an ass whooping en mass kept everyone in line for the most part. Tabarouette!

So having this devious plan in play was definitely elegant in its simplicity by any measure and it allowed Mémére to concentrate on other important matters of running a large household when the policing of the residents was done by the residents themselves. Yes indeed, Mémére did have a dark side to her - her kids knew it, the boarders knew it, even Pépére knew it and they were all active participants in it

The house of my moms childhood on 124th street was sold around 1958 at which point Mémére and Pépére moved into a new house that Pépére had built and it is in that new house that my memories of  Mémére and Pépére were built. A house filled with joy for a child, and cookies! There were always lots of cookies!!!

One of the joys for us kids was playing bingo in that house during family celebrations.  It was a wonderful time for a child. All us kids would get a BINGO and receive some sort of toy or prize. The toys were not expensive and often times they did not survive but a few moments in the chaos that was dozens of kids screaming, crying BINGO, pushing, shoving and just being kids. The noise! The pandemonium!! The adults disappeared, no doubt in search of nerve numbing alcohol - I would too were I in their place now.

Card games also figured prominently into any family gathering and for Mémére, playing cribbage was a blood sport and no one was exempt from her go-for-the-throat competition. I learned cribbage from her and I still have a love for the game. I will put up another post soon about her cribbage playing, along with her peanut butter cookie recipe, so stay tuned.
The memories of those childhood times with Mémére are limitless and all of them are fond ones. The memories of the cookies are the most ingrained in me however.  So I took up the challenge that is to replicate the cookies and called on my mom for the recipe. I knew she had it because she always made cookies when I was a lad and stuffed them in the freezer in the basement for safekeeping.  Hahahahahaha!  Safekeeping my ass! I could smell those cookies through a bank vault door!

My friends and I would raid the freezer and eat the frozen cookies in scenes that would be reminiscent of a lion pride feasting on a water buffalo kill; teeth gnashing, growling and mumbling for more cookies through stuffed mouths. A full weekend of Mom's work devoured in a frenzied few minutes. They were delicious frozen, you should try them sometime.

Mom would go to the freezer at some point to retrieve some cookies to share with friends and visitors and all there was left in the tubs was crumbs. Not a single cookie remained and the crumbs were tiny since the big crumbs did have value to the raiding party.

She would track me down and ask if I had anything to do with the missing cookies. My reply, in as honest and sincere a reply as possible was, "Not me! But I saw your rotten daughters eating them yesterday!" The deflection worked for a short time, then finally through further investigation she concluded that it was me and my friends after all that raided the cookie tubs in the deep freezer. I had to go cut a switch...

So armed with the recipe from Mom I made two batches of cookies, one following the recipe to the letter and one where I added walnuts and sunflower seeds.  The smells wafting through the house as they baked were magical and I traveled back in time to my youth as they did. Batch after batch was removed from the oven and the cookies placed on cooling racks, the stacks of cookies growing larger with every batch.

On one batch of the original recipe oatmeal cookies, as soon as they were removed from the oven I pushed down on the center of the hot cookie with my thumb to make an indent and then filled the indent with strawberry jam, and old Mémére technique.

My cookie indent wasn't as big as hers would have been because I didn't have her specially designed cookie pressing thumb. Her left thumb was missing the top part of it due to it being removed as she chopped firewood earlier in her life. The thumb, now merely a knuckle-less digit was broad enough to make the consummate cookie-indent-jam-receptacle and it enabled her to deal cards like a Vegas card shark. My thumb? Not so much...

Once the jam topped cookies cooled they were sampled by Susan and the kids and were pronounced PERFECT!  The non-jam original recipe cookies received similar accolades and the nutty ones the same. It was a success and gave proof to the greatness of  Mémére's cookies that I had been going on about for the last thirty years. Awesome! Sublime! Splendiferous! Frikken delicious they were!

BUT! They were delicious and everything I imagined but not EXACTLY the cookies of my childhood. They still lacked that special something that only a Mémére can provide - Mémére Love.  I put a lot of love into mine and they were good, great even, but a little Mémére Love was required so I called her up from my memory to assist.

Standing in my kitchen, enjoying the heck out of one of her original recipe cookies, I closed my eyes and I called back some memories of her, and then there she was, standing in front of me, smiling at me as I ate. 

As I stood leaning against the counter top, eyes closed, slowly chewing on the wonderful oatmeal cookie I stared at Mémére with my minds eye, enjoying my time with her once again, and then it hit me! The cookie I was eating was exactly the one of my childhood, it had the Mémére Love! She put it in the cookie as she stood in front of me, smiling as she did. It was there all along! It never went away...

The warmth of her love is still with me today and I can call it up at will if only by cooking up a few pantry ingredients. My wife and kids now know what a Mémére's Love is and how it can improve your life when you get it through a cookie. I'm going to make another few big batches of cookies very soon because I need another visit with Mémére. 

I wish I could leave a legacy such as she did, a multi-generational memory of love, kindness and caring that had an effect on all those she touched, its effect on those lucky people still lingers as they themselves grow older. Sadly, I am just too mean and miserable I suppose to leave that kind of legacy behind, so I will just leave debt...

Mémére was much more than her cookie recipe and I could go on and on about her other wonderful traits, and I will at some point in postings to come, however the cookies are what are under discussion at this time and they can still bring tears of joy to my eyes and that's a very good thing...

In the few days since I made the cookies they have been disappearing at an alarming rate, whether singly or in containers of frozen cookies offered up to friends.  In particular, on Saturday night we had company over, Chris and Melinda whom I have written about previously and a long time friend Ray who was in town for a couple of days and paid us a delightful surprise visit. Cookies were served after dinner.

As we sat at the dinner table talking, our conversations ranging far and wide, one of the topics that came up was traveling abroad and visiting open air markets and such in those travels. As many of you know, in countries where open air markets are common, when meats are offered for sale there are always flies, lots of flies. Not particularly appetizing to our western sensibilities, but common throughout the world.

As we discussed the meat markets and the flies, Melinda, God love her, pointed to a cookie on the plate in front of her then said, "It just grosses me out when a fly lands on my cookie! Flies are so disgusting!"  Not able to contain myself I replied to her, "If your cookie is attracting flies you should shower more often my dear!" I can't repeat what she told me but it was really offensive, but funny. I digress...

So as promised previously somewhere in this rambling diatribe, the recipe for her marvelous cookies follows on another posting. Please make up a batch and if you have a Mémére, Oma, Granny, Gran, Noni or Nan pass it to her for a love infusion before you eat it, you will then realize what I mean.  If for whatever reason you don't have one of those in your life, just close your eyes and imagine, that will work too!!!


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