Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Two pieces of stale bread, a couple of squash and a block of government cheese

My husband's grandmother lived most of her life on scrub land in southeast Alabama where gnats flourished, the summer heat was unbreathable, and where she was related to everyone around by blood, marriage or sharing.  Friendship was not based on social connections, but on sheer survival.

In her life, nothing was wasted, because there was nothing to waste.  She was the queen of recycling before it even had a name.  Everything was used and re-used, and when it was broken or worn out, well, she found another use for it.  There were two freezers side by side in her tiny dining room, one stocked with every imaginable vegetable frozen in reused Colonial bread plastic bags, her summer's work that would get her through the winter.  The other unit was deemed irrepairable twenty five years before, and was used as a cupboard, storing old platters, dishes, and tiny jars of homemade preserves, pear, plum, and whatever fruit a neighbor would leave on her doorstep.  The glass jars had the labels scrubbed off years ago, and were recycled and recycled again.

On the other side of the dining room was an old washing machine that someone had given her at some point.  A dryer was an unthinkable luxury.  Clothes fluttered dry on the outside line beneath the broad-limbed pecan tree, the only source of shade and respite from the blazing summer sun.  Her fingers were permanently scarred from shelling pecans which she picked off the ground by hand well into her 90's. The deep brown nuts were packed and stored in empty wax milk cartons that had been rinsed out and air-dried.

She knew hunger.  She knew hardship as a single mom raising two young daughters.  She fought the mice that invaded every crack in that tiny cottage.  Life was tough.  But she was tougher, a tiny woman who could have commanded an army.  Her fragile frame was deceiving.

She knew how to make something out of nothing, when nothing was all she had.  Which was -- pretty much -- all the time.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong and fear not!"
...For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert...

                         Isaiah 35.  4, 6

Sometimes her hope in the LORD was all she had left.
And that was enough.
There were times she could not sleep for worry, times when she didn't know how to go on, but she personally knew God's faithfulness in a thousand different stories in her life.

I celebrated her creative spirit last Sunday by making her famous Squash Casserole, a blessing that emerged from a place of need.  She could have written three volumes of cookbooks on what she concocted out of her monthly allotment of government cheese, her widow's mite.

When she passed away, we found carefully ironed scraps of cloth ready to be made into yet another quilt, a thousand rubber bands saved for when she might need them, and a ramshackle cottage impossibly held together, full of life, pressed down, shaken together and spilling all over.

And so I salute the day when all she had was two pieces of stale bread, a few old saltines, a couple of squash in her garden out back, and that omnipresent block of government cheese. Because she made a party out of them.  

Oma's "Fear Not" Squash Casserole

2 heaping cups yellow summer squash, sliced into coins, cooked and drained
1 large onion sliced and cooked with the squash (or 2 tablespoons dehydrated onions)
2 eggs, stirred together
20 saltines, crumbled
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Buttered bread crumbs (2 slices of bread and a tablespoon of butter ground together in a food processor)

Cook the squash and onion in boiling water in a saucepan, until tender.  Drain.  Put squash and onions in a casserole dish.  Stir in 2 eggs, saltines, milk, and shredded cheese.  Top with buttered bread crumbs.

Bake uncovered in a 350 degree oven for about 45 minutes.

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