friday feast: “my mother’s handwriting” by julia wendell

MY MOTHER’S HANDWRITING
by Julia Wendell

Individual as DNA, it spoke to me
from fridge notes, Christmas tags,
and report cards I took back to school,
with her hurried scrawl at the bottom.

Even now, the ache when I find her
half-cursive, half-print,
as unique as her voice was
sonorous and youthful, even as she aged.

But she is nowhere more present
than in her stash of recipe cards marked
Vegetables and Salads, Meat and Poultry,
as if she’d just penned the headings yesterday.

I scan the green cardboard box
for something yummy and familiar,
reading her hand-me-down script,

more alive than the cherry tree blooming
outside my window, more permanent
than my own body
that once slipped out of hers,

my half-breed penmanship reduced,
like anyone’s, to scribble in the end —
the way we sign our names,
caress a cold ankle or pull up a sheet,

the way we say goodbye
or fix a perfect salad.
She returns to me in fading ballpoint pen:

Press the garlic into the sides
of the wooden bowl.
Add tons of garlic and Parmesan cheese.
Toss and serve. I savor
every dash.

~ posted by permission of the author (Take This Spoon, 2014).

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It wasn’t until I moved to Virginia that Margaret started sending me recipes in the mail.

I requested a few local favorites so I could share a taste of Hawai’i with my new neighbors: Hot Shrimp Dip, Sweet Bread Pudding, Butter Mochi, Korean Kalbi, Cucumber Kimchi, Teriyaki Chicken.

Every so often, she’d send me a surprise recipe or two — a curry vegetable dip I just “had to try,” the Waioli Tea Room Fried Chicken recipe making the rounds at work, a new pancake recipe her sister Ella couldn’t stop raving about. Some were typed on her snazzy IBM Selectric, but most were written in her generous speedy script — breezy handwriting that artfully pinned down chopped parsley, dill weed, yogurt and grated red onion before they had a chance to flit away.

These occasional exchanges, short for, you’re too far away for me to cook for you but since I’m your mother I must make sure you don’t starve to death, took the place of actual letters, which were my Dad’s forte. Busy Margaret was more about random notes, lists, a line or two in a greeting card and hastily jotted recipes, some giving rise to good stories about making, eating, sharing.

I was thrilled to find Julia Wendell’s poem at Alimentum. Talk about someone taking the words right out of your mouth! I’ve always loved studying handwriting, delighted with how size, slant, speed, shape and pressure can reveal mood and personality. Now, when I chance upon an old recipe card, Margaret returns to me “in fading ballpoint pen.” I look harder at her scribbles, hoping to hear more.

“My Mother’s Handwriting” is included in Julia’s brand new chapbook, Take This Spoon (Main Street Rag Publishing Co., 2014). I’ve been slowly savoring each and every food poem and yes, there are family recipes. Julia’s a new-to-me poet; I like her intimate conversational style and use of telling detail to reveal hard truths about family dynamics, personal demons, and the complex relationship we have with food. Wholly accessible with startling emotional resonance, these beautifully crafted poems are not to be missed. But I’ll let Julia herself tell you more about them, since she’s agreed to drop by soon for a chat. Stay tuned!

*   *   *

 

♦ CHILI (BEVERLY HILLS RESTAURANT) ♦

This is one of Margaret’s ‘survival recipes’ that I’ve made several times with my own variations. She sometimes whipped up a batch during the week and occasionally served it at beach park picnics. One time she couldn’t figure out why it didn’t taste quite the same. That’s what happens when you forget the beans.😀

  • 1 lb. pinto beans (soak overnight)
  • 5 cups canned tomatoes
  • 1 lb. green (bell) peppers, chopped
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons salad oil
  • 1-1/2 medium onions, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2-1/2 lb. lean ground round
  • 1 lb ground pork or Italian hot sausage
  • 1/2 cup chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seed

1. Wash beans, soak overnight, then cook until tender.

2. Sauté green peppers in oil.

3. Add onions and cook until tender. Add garlic and parsley.

4. Sauté meat in butter 15 minutes; add meat to onion and pepper mixture, stir in chili powder, then cook about 10 minutes. Add beans and rest of spices. Simmer, covered, about an hour.

5. Cook an additional 30 minutes uncovered. Skim fat from top before serving.

Note: Recipe may be halved. Substitute vegetable oil for butter and ground turkey for pork to cut down on fat calories. You can also use canned pinto beans in place of dried.

*   *   *

Julia Wendell grew up in the Allegheny Forest of northwest Pennsylvania. Educated at Cornell University, Boston University, and the University of Iowa, Writer’s Workshop, she left her mid-careers as teacher and editor for the world of horses and three-day eventing. Her children John Logan (a classical sitarist) and Caitlin Saylor (an actor/playwright), grew up with their mother and her husband, poet and critic, Barrett Warner, on their horse farm in northern Baltimore County, where Julia and Barrett still live and work. Julia is enamored of jumping horses over immovable obstacles while galloping cross country.

For more info about Take This Spoon and her other chapbooks, poetry collections, and memoir, visit Julia’s Official Website.

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poetryfriday180Casual poet and serious slurper Diane Mayr is hosting today’s Roundup at Random Noodling. Don your best bibs, polish your chopsticks and feast on all the poetic delights being served up in the blogosphere this week. Bon Appétit!

 

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wkendcookingiconThis post is also being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Drop by for some yummy Coffee Bars and check out what deliciousness the other bloggers are sharing this week!

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Copyright © 2014 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

63 thoughts on “friday feast: “my mother’s handwriting” by julia wendell

  1. I love this . . . I too only have recipe scribbles and notes from my mother, not a single letter. I was the only one who wrote letters, sometimes I’d get a “line or two” back. I love the fact your mother didn’t want you to “to starve.” I think all mothers are afraid their daughters will starve until they learn to cook. I never did learn–dinner was opening cans and boxes. I remember my mother once saying, in exasperation, “Make that boy a pie!” (That boy was my husband, then in his 50s).

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    1. Love “Make that boy a pie!” She’s my kind of person:). It’s comforting to read those recipe cards, having a mother’s voice telling you what to do (never thought I’d say that).😀

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  2. Many of us have our mother’s notes, & I still keep discovering them in certain places, an envelope of old photos sent, a dish she wanted me to know the history of. My son has the recipe box from both grandmothers (he’s the cook!), but I have a few in my own. Special poem, wonderful to read, Jama, and your own memories connected to it. “Margaret returns to me “in fading ballpoint pen.” Glad to hear about this new poetry book too. Thank you!

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    1. It’s wonderful to chance upon a note here and there, isn’t it? That happened while I was going through her papers in Hawai’i, especially in her WAC files. I hope you’ve handwritten some recipes for your children and grandchildren to keep.:)

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  3. This post makes me sad. I have so few things written in my mother’s hand. Ah, well. The poem is wonderful.

    The recipe surprised me with it’s inclusion of Italian hot sausage. It sounds like something I need to try. Have a great weekend, Jama!

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    1. Sorry it made you sad, Diane. Do you still cook some of her dishes? This is a spicy chili — if you’d like to turn down the heat, use mild sausage instead.:)

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  4. food poems–what could be better than this combination of two of my favorite things–poetry and food! and I too have a few of my mother’s recipes, written in her elegant hand. I treasure these, but the funny part of it is that, unlike most mothers, mine was a terrible cook! She only cooked, as she often said, “to keep body and soul together!” But oh I miss her…

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    1. I’m so happy to hear you have those recipes, whether she was a good cook or not. And an “elegant” hand! My Dad still has beautiful penmanship at age 99. Julia’s new book is wonderful — 7 family recipes along with her masterful poems.

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  5. This post was lovely on so many different levels, Jama. The combination of food and personal handwriting and little messages is so potent and alive. Reading my grandmother’s recipes and her notes brings her presence right into the room again. Thank you for sharing these. Aloha!

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    1. Lucky you to have journals too, half empty or not. And you’re also lucky to have stuff from your grandmother! My maternal grandmother could not read or write English.

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  6. I love this post! I have saved many letters from my mother and always was charmed by her penmanship! I have some recipes in her hand, but my sister, who never married, lived with my parents and so she gained her cooking expertise from watching and sharing and doing. My mother is a good cook, too,and I love the recipe cards I got from her over the years. Thanks for introducing me to Julia and her poetry. I look forward to all your posts, Jama, even when I cannot comment!

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    1. Nice to hear from you, Janet! So you have handwritten recipes AND letters. What a treasure trove! The handwritten letter has become an endangered species in this day and age of email. I miss handwriting in general, sigh . . .

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  7. What a poem! I am intrigued by this collection. I don’t have recipe cards from my mom, but a book of cards in a binder from her mother. I cherish it and love that I know what cookies were my grandpa’s favorite. One recipe I’m carrying forward is Granny’s recipe for buttermints — she made them for family weddings, and now we’ve had 3 generations of celebrations that include these mints.

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    1. I love hearing about the passing down of cherished family recipes. And those buttermints! I’ve never had homemade ones before. What a lovely tradition.

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    1. His handwriting is much nicer and neater than mine, for sure. He likes to tell the story of practicing penmanship to Strauss waltzes in school.

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  8. OH. Wow. What a poem – and it does “speak true.”

    My grandmother didn’t write much of anything, but her few scrawls in the margins of her ginormous Bible are a treasure. My paternal grandmother had writing like a printing machine; she prided herself on this gorgeous, almost calligraphic copperplate — but she rarely wrote letters either. Instead, I have my mother’s letters – quick flung loops of ink lassoing some thought before it skittered away…

    I really am grateful that you still have the echo of your mothers hopes for you, hopes that keep cadence with the surge of every mother’s pulse – that we will eat well, stand up straight, pick up after ourselves, keep our noses clean, always wear nice undies, and be well, be well, be well… ♥

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    1. You have me wondering what my grandparents’ handwriting would have looked like if they had written in English. All I ever saw of my maternal grandmother’s writing is the “X” she used for her signature.

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  9. I really connected with Julia Wendell’s poem and your post. For me, I think of my grandparents’ handwritings–one grandmother’s on recipes. I particularly love seeing her notes in a cookbook I have that was once hers. I like knowing which recipes stood out to her. I also think of my other grandparents’ handwriting in books they gifted to me. Your story about your mother forgetting the beans goes right along with the handwriting to me–both those sorts of stories and those little treasures of connection like the recipes get passed on in families. I look forward to your chat with Julia Wendell.

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    1. Those little things mean so much — notes discovered years later or by chance. Food is common currency amongst all of us, as are families. I think we find the truest, most enduring stories there.

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  10. Julia hit the spot with that poem– something so many of us can relate too. We recognize our mother’s handwriting as if it was her own face smiling at us between the lines. I look forward to your upcoming chat.

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    1. Interesting how the essence of the person comes through in handwriting beyond the words that are written — as you say, between the lines:).

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  11. Well, here I am tearing up at your blog again. What a poignant poem, and especially for you, Jama – thanks for sharing it. I’m still fortunate to receive my mom’s notes (and recipes, too, sometimes – though I’m less and less in the kitchen the older I get!). My daughter has commented about how her handwriting and mine look similar… such an interesting connection, and much to ponder!

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    1. That “is” interesting. My handwriting doesn’t look like my mom’s at all. It’s good to hear you’re still receiving notes and recipes. So many people have stopped personal snail mail almost altogether. Good thing you’re designing note cards to encourage people to write!:)

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  12. So true–I would know my mother’s handwriting anywhere.
    A few decades from now, will people only have texts and emails from their parents, without that distinctive touch of handwriting?

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  13. Chili is my go-to winter recipe, but now I feel like I need a large bowl! I too have many notes and recipes written by my mother. It pains me now to see how her handwriting has changed with age. Watching her write I’ve noticed how unsteady her hand is, changing the strokes of her pen.
    One of the things I’ve noticed about women of that generation is that they cling to cursive and many bemoan the fact the we don’t know how to write today. I’ve been a printer my whole life, so I’ve always been a bit envious of my mother’s hand.

    Thanks, Jama, for sharing all these wonderful and poignant stories of your mother. She was one very special lady.

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    1. My mother’s handwriting got smaller near the end of her life, and because of a mini-stroke, her writing hand was weakened, making it harder for her to write and grasp objects. Graphologists claim they can see illness in handwriting even when the dominant hand is not physically impaired.

      People are sometimes surprised when I tell them my mom took chili to the beach. When you don’t have a real winter, anytime is chili time.:)

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  14. So many people I know are saying goodbye to mothers…As I watch you grieve and remember, I am steeling myself for the time when I will join you. But your words serve to remind me how precious these last times are, and to savor them before she’s gone.

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    1. I’ve heard of at least 5 online friends who’ve also lost their mothers recently. I guess we’re just in that age group . . .

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  15. Beautiful poem and beautiful post! I have loved my mother’s handwriting ever since I was a very little girl and treasure all the letters, notes, and recipes in her hand.

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  16. That poem and this post brought precious memories. My mother’s handwriting was always beautiful. She learned from a teacher who insisted on it and she was always proud of it. I have many hand-written recipes and can imagine her sitting down at the dining room table to write them with pen and arm perfectly angled to produce my beautifully written recipe.

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    1. How lucky to have your mother’s beautifully handwritten recipes. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong century, when hearing about a time when penmanship was an art and people took pride in it.

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  17. I can read my Mom’s handwriting (it is slightly, err… GREATLY neater than mine, and I can read my *horrible* handwriting), but I can’t read her signed name (for checks, school notes, etc. – I can only make out the G, the Y (it is the only letter in her name that goes downwards), the W, and the L.😉 Great memorial to your Mom!

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  18. Love the story of the recipes sent to you! I know how you feel seeing your mom’s handwriting, I love seeing my mom’s writing too!

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  19. My mother’s handwriting fills me with all the thoughts this poem describes so well. Thanks for the poetry book suggestion, too – and the recipe, which sounds so delicious and summer picnic-y!

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    1. I’m so glad I chanced upon Julia’s work — just read Take This Spoon for the third time and I’m still saying, “WOW.”

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  20. I LOVE this. I have many recipes in my grandmothers’ hand and also in my mom’s. Even if I never made a single recipe, I’d still cherish the connection to those women. Fortunately, they were all fantastic cooks.

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    1. It’s definitely a very special way to forge a connection. What a delicious heritage you have; no wonder you are such a good cook!

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