Showing posts with label Mom's Macaroni. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mom's Macaroni. Show all posts

Sunday, March 6, 2011

10964 McKean Road, Willis, Michigan --- Kindergarten

I have kept a small, tattered, brown cardboard box for over forty years. Although I have moved many times; sometimes halfway around the world, I have never misplaced it. I know exactly where it is. It is the only tangible evidence I have of living on McKean Road as the label is addressed to my mother. The box had contained an iron that my mother had ordered from a catalog. I think I keep the box so that I will not forget our first address, 10964 McKean Road. Willis, Michigan.

Willis, Michigan was a small town in southeastern Michigan, about thirty miles from Detroit. There was a grocery market with a soda fountain; a hardware store; a barber shop; a convenience story that served as the Greyhound bus station, a farmer’s feedlot, and an oil delivery station, There were a couple of dozen houses and a couple of churches, but that was all. There was a railroad track that you had to cross to get into town. I think that someone was killed there, because they did not hear the train whistle. I cannot say this for certain.

Dad brought home chicks in the springtime. He fixed a box in the basement with a light bulb to keep the chicks warm. I know it bothered me that that in addition to the chicken feed, he fed the chicks chopped eggs. I felt sorry that the chicks were eating their possible sisters and brothers.

I have no memory of anything in my life before I was five years old. There are pictures of my parents and me in front of the big, red brick house. There are pictures taken on my first trip to Wisconsin when I was almost two. My mother told me a story about that trip. Along the way, they told me that they had forgotten my baby bottle at our cousin’s house in Wisconsin and that from then on I would have to drink from a glass, and I did. There are pictures taken at Christmas at my grandmother’s house with my cousins and aunts and uncles. Pictures are the only things I have left of that house at 10964 McKean. Pictures and that box.

My first day at kindergarten; I do not recall getting on the big, yellow, school bus that took us to school. When it was time to come home someone put a tag on my chest that let everyone know which bus I was to take home. They put me on the wrong bus. I was only five—what did I know? I only knew my address: “10964 McKean Road.” Everyone had been delivered safely home. I was the only one left on the bus. The bus driver asked me where did I live? I answered “10964 McKean Road.” “Show me your address!” She said. “You are on the wrong bus!” Makes no difference, I knew my address “10964 McKean Road.” The bus driver headed for McKean Road, I recognized my house and got off. My mother was frantic. I was over an hour late getting home. “What happened? Why are you so late?” I had no idea. I sprawled out on the dining room floor and “read” the comic section of the newspaper. My mother brought me a bowl of chicken soup. I ate it on the floor. I was oblivious to my mother’s questions.

I have only vague memories of my kindergarten teachers. It is only my imagination that I picture one as being tall and thin, the other being short and fat. Both had gray hair. One did have coiled braids wound tightly around her head.

My parents were called in for a conference with my kindergarten teachers. This was unusual. I came with them. I kept my head down and looked at my teachers’ shoes; they had the same shoes—black, lace-ups, tied in a bow. I did not look at the teachers, only at their shoes! I was amazed that they both wore the same shoes.

They told my parents that if their child was to succeed in America, they must never speak Polish to me again. My parents did not challenge teachers—certainly not as some parents do today. Polish was never spoken to me again. I had learned Polish as easily as I had learned English. My neighbor, Mrs. Gerak had babysat me. I had visited my grandmother everyday. They did not speak English—if I was to communicate with them, I had to learn Polish. And I did—what did I know?

My mother always gathered us in the hallway in our house on McKean Road and we said our evening prayers, in Polish, before the crucifix that hung in the hall. After that conference with my kindergarten teachers, we never said our prayers in Polish again—we said them in English. My mother, our extended family, and the neighbors only spoke Polish when there was gossip, gossip they did not want the children to understand. I had learned too much however and I still knew some Polish, so they had to be careful when I was around.

It was coming up to Easter. Our teachers had sent home a note, telling parents to send their child with one hard-boiled egg to decorate. I proudly carried my egg to school. We decorated our eggs with crayons. My egg was so beautiful. We made Easter baskets out of construction paper, colorful strips woven into basket shapes at the direction of our teachers. It was naptime. We were told to close our eyes and not to peek. I peeked. I saw the teachers fill our baskets with Easter grass, candies and our special egg. We were told that the Easter bunny had filled our baskets, but I knew who did it. It was not the Easter bunny at all!

We were on the bus going home. I held my basket triumphantly in my hand. I was carrying an Easter basket for my mother. The bus lurched to a stop. The paste, still wet, which was supposed to hold the basket together, gave way. My egg fell to the floor. I tried to get it, but it rolled right out the school bus door. I had no Easter egg for my mother. I yelled for the bus driver to stop, but the bus continued on. I was inconsolable. The egg was lost—I was being punished because I peeked, when I was told not to. I had nightmares about the egg rolling out the bus door for years afterward.

That was not the only nightmare I had. It was only one of the milder ones. I had nightmares about the Lone Ranger and Superman, except in these nightmares, they were the bad guys and they were coming to get me. The worst nightmare, the one that I feared the most, because after I awoke from it I was afraid to go back to sleep, involved a huge circulating vortex. It whirled and whirled. I was being sucked in, and I knew that when I reached the bottom I would die. I would wake up, shaking, afraid to fall asleep again in case the nightmare would reappear. I never told anyone about my nightmares.

My brother, Thomas, died before I entered kindergarten. Maybe things would have been different if he had not died. It was winter. It was the middle of the night. My father was working. There was a commotion in the house. Mrs. Gerak was there. Someone from the Gerak family was taking my mother and brother to the hospital. Too late, he died on the way. I do not know what caused his death. My mother did not talk much about it. I found out later that it was pneumonia, and it could have been cured. Suddenly my life changed.

This visitation for my brother was at Roberts Brothers funeral home in Belleville, Michigan. I have been there many times since, but this was the first time for me. There were flowers, so many flowers, in fancy arrangements. My brother was there. I asked if he was sleeping. No, they told me, he had gone to heaven, but he looked like he was sleeping.

We went to the cemetery. I was not with my parents. I was kept in the back with my Godmother, my Aunt Pauline. I wanted to see my mother, but Aunt Pauline would not let me. I do not know how I got home, but when I did I found my mother on the bed in my bedroom and the door was closed. I do not know where my father was. I opened the door. She was crying. She screamed at me: “Get out! Get out! Get out!” The last nightmare, the one that still haunts me, even today.

I was never hugged or kissed by mother after that day. It was not until I was an adult that I would hug her again. Then the hugs were different. They were the type of slightly awkward hug that acknowledged that this was my mother who should be hugged, not the hug that says I love you, care for you, and miss you. It was not our way.

Mom’s Macaroni
My ultimate comfort food--Mom's macaroni.
To me, the following recipe is the ultimate comfort food when I am feeling blue. Mom never served this with "real" Parmesan cheese. In fact, I never knew that Parmesan cheese came from anything except the Green Kraft can until I was an adult! But first, a story!

In the early days at the McKean Road house, Mom always hung the laundry out to dry when the weather was good. One early spring, when snow was still on the ground, she realized that she had lost the diamond from her engagement ring. She searched for hours, but finally gave up. Our neighbors, the Geraks, told her they would pray to St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost causes, and a few weeks later, after the snow had melted, Mom noticed a bright, rainbow speck in the grass—it was her diamond!

1 pound ground beef
1 onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 and 1/2 cups macaroni
1  28 ounce can stewed tomatoes (I use the petite cut)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional) or Kraft Parmesan Cheese in the green can
Salt and pepper

Cook macaroni until firm, but done. Drain and rinse with cool water. Sauté onion in olive oil until golden, add ground beef and fry until done. Drain off fat.

Add tomatoes; chop them up if the pieces are too large. Bring to slow boil, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Add macaroni. Salt and pepper to taste. Bring to slow boil and shut off heat. Keep pan covered to let macaroni absorb the liquid.

I like eating this lukewarm with a healthy handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

I am thinking about the night we were coming home from Detroit and as we got closer we saw this huge glow in the sky. Dad instinctively knew it was a fire, a farmer's worst nightmare. It looked like it was coming from our grandparents' farm. He sped up and as we got close to home it wasn't that barn, but old man Blazak's barn a half mile away. Dad parked nearby. There were dozens of cars, but it was too late. You could hear the animals screaming as they burned to death. Blazak had horses and cows inside. I had nightmares for months after that. We went back the next morning. There was nothing left. Just the concrete pad and burning embers. The barn was never rebuilt.

There are more stories. It was probably 1959. My dad's father, and my dad's stepbrother crash into each other at a curve not far from my grandparents' home on McKean Road. Both have to go the hospital. The accident is blamed on a tree at the roads' edge obscuring vision around the curve. My mother is on the phone calling the Washtenaw County Road Commission to cut down the tree. They refuse. She tells them that the tree is going to be cut down blocking the road. It is a dangerous curve. It could have been a school bus. The County officials threaten to send the sheriff. Whoever cuts the tree down will go to jail. Sawhorses are set up at the junctions of McKean Road and Judd and Talladay Roads warning that the road is closed. Neighbors and family gather. Everyone has saws and axes. A newspaper is called. A reporter comes. A sheriff deputy appears. The tree has been felled. Cousins and uncles and neighbors sit on the tree, saws and axes in hand. Everyone claims responsibility. A photo is taken. The deputy doesn't arrest anyone. A couple of days later the county removes the tree. The sawhorses are taken down. I wish I still had that picture from the newspaper.

I think it was 1960, late summer. My dad was testing a kerosene lamp in the garage. I don't know the occasion, but it must have been a huge party. Dozens of aunts and uncles and cousins were there. The party went on forever. As dusk came, the adults were dancing in the garage by the light of the kerosene lamp. The cousins and I were rolling down the swale in front of our house. I was so dizzy from rolling over and over. It will be the last party I recall at 10964 McKean Road.

My grandfather died in 1961. It must have been late winter. My mother sewed a black armband around my winter coat. I was in one of the first cars and looked back at the cortege of cars behind us, as we made our way up from the Roberts Brothers Funeral Home to St. Anthony's Church in Belleville, Michigan. The line of cars stretched forever, purple funeral flags fluttering. It was the end of an era. There would not be such a line of cars again.

There were issues, so many issues. My father bought the headstone for my grandparents. The stonemaker coming to the house with his book of samples. He leafed through the book. I watched as my father picked out the images and text that would go on the tablet.There would be no more parties at the house on McKean Road. The family, on my father’side had been riven. It would only get worse. The decision was made to leave the farm. It would be years before I saw some of my cousins again. Some I would never see. Some I would never know.

It was the Christmas of 1962. We would be moving to Belleville the following summer. My dad had the attic renovated to include two bedrooms and a half bath. I had the big bedroom. It was so lonely up there. I asked if I could have a Christmas tree in my room. “No way. Too expensive,” he said. And then, just before Christmas my dad came home with a tree. He said he was following a truck of Christmas trees and as it went over the railroad tracks in Belleville a tree came loose and fell off and he stopped and picked it up. He couldn't believe it. Here was the tree for my room! I am sure it was a tall tale. But I had my Christmas tree! I couldn't believe he had such heart. And then I demanded a radio. It was too scary and quiet alone by myself in the upstairs room cut off from the family. “No way, too expensive,” I was told by my dad.

We made our annual trek to Florida Street that Christmas Eve. I was depressed. I was twelve and here weren't toys for me anymore, only shirts and socks and other useful things. I watched with sadness as my sisters tore into their toys and games.

When I awoke on Christmas morning, on my desk there was a clock radio! I think it was an RCA. It was white, and big, and had gold trim. And it picked up CKLW from Windsor, Ontario, clear as a bell! I could listen to MoTown songs whenever I wanted to. It was the greatest Christmas gift ever! How did it get there? Dad must have put it there while we were packed in the car, ready for the trip to Detroit. I never noticed it when I got home, because it was so late.

Maybe I didn't appreciate my dad enough.

The Christmas tree.

The radio.

You always have second thoughts about how much your dad loved you until you are too old, and he is gone.

Calves Liver with Coffee Gravy

This is a strange sounding recipe, but oh so good! Absolutely do NOT substitute beef liver for this recipe—it is too tough, and has too strong a flavor. Do not let the coffee in the recipe stop you from making this dish. It will not taste at all like coffee when it is done. Also, don't overcook the liver. Many people do not like liver because they had only eaten dried-out over-cooked beef liver!

1 pound calves’ liver
1 to 2 cups milk
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons brewed coffee
Flour for dredging
Salt and pepper

Cover calf liver with milk and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours. Drain and pat dry.

In large frying pan, sauté onions in butter until golden. Remove with slotted spoon, trying to leave as much butter in the pan as possible. Add vegetable oil.

Slice liver into 1x2 inch strips. Salt and pepper. Dredge lightly in flour.

Place strips in single layer in frying pan. Fry briefly on each side for a couple of minutes until golden brown, but still pink. Combine water and brewed coffee. Pour over liver. Add onions. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer until thickened, not more than 5 minutes, or the liver will turn tough.

Serve over mashed potatoes.