Climate, Engineers and Dad

“Climate Best by Government Test” is what they say about the town where I was raised. At some point Redwood City had a weather station. Based on a pre-WWI study the claim was its weather was similar to the Canary Islands and tied for best in the world.

It’s pretty good weather, I’ll admit, but the sign should say, “Climate Mostly Best…”.

When weary winter morphs into spring’s mid-90s temps, it feels pretty danged hot but a welcome respite from rain and drear. The heat sets fruit on budding trees, swimming pools beckon, and students revel in the knowledge that the year’s final school bell isn’t far away. But in September and October when the kids of summer have been shoved back into their stuffy classrooms and temps again reach the century mark, climate doesn’t feel best by anyone’s test. It’s a mostly situation.

I’ll come back to the weather in a moment.

Growing up an engineer’s daughter was a mostly proposition as well. Mostly great when a hair dryer blew for the last time before blowing up, or a toaster wouldn’t toast. Especially if one’s old Karmann Ghia suddenly went kaput when heading out for school or work. Being an engineer’s daughter was a downright blessing on those occasions.

4cbdc5fbf25f9d63ead5ef8d01491593--chatty-cathy-doll-toysNot so much on Christmas morning though when at eight years old my new Chatty Cathy was requisitioned for scientific observation. How does she talk?

I don’t know, Dad, but please give her back!

Three things called to my dad’s engineering spirit – curiosity, necessity and whimsy. Chatty Cathy? Curiosity. A two-sided jack-o’-lantern affixed to a BBQ rotisserie motor, rotating fright and fierce on one side, glee and gladness on the other? Novel whimsy! Even better. Hero to neighborhood kids as well as his own. SCORE!  

 It was a long time before we had a new car. My parents waxed poetic about their brand spankin’ new 1950 Plymouth purchased soon after marriage. I found photos in Mom’s albums, Betsy the green Plymouth all shined up with young Dad standing proudly at her side. But after I was born and two boys followed, used cars in varying condition became the norm. The old Plymouth, no longer reliable transportation, was sold to make way for a station wagon, good for carpooling.

In 1964 Dad bought Mom the car of her fancy, the first new one since Betsy. It was ordered in a special color and she impatiently awaited its delivery. A 1965 Pontiac Le Mans coupe in “Iris Mist. ” For the unfamiliar, that’s metallic lavender. She asked for white interior. A real lady’s car, or maybe a lady of the night? Never mind…  We kids perfected a contortion act to first fold ourselves into the back seat and then stay put, fighting about whose turn it was to sit the middle with no room for legs.

This is actually a GTO, same year, same color, same body except for the air scoop

Mom’s pride. Our torture.

Why Dad chose to go rogue with engineering creativity in her car I have no idea, but he did – to the delight of his kids, the annoyance of his wife, and a red light and siren pull-over by law enforcement.

Silly Putty came in different containers, most frequently the Silly Putty egg. At holidays there was novelty packaging. For instance, a skeleton head at Halloween.

A little drilling was all it took to add small red bulbs as eyes and a bit of wiring to connect the plastic head to the brake and turn lights of Mom’s fantastic machine. The skull sat happily on the back deck behind the seat, its luminous eyes beaming, blinking, and braking the driver’s intentions.

1960s-monster-print-putty-loose_1_cbf5ddad86b916cafb46cb65ce3f572fTexas State Police weren’t impressed by Dad’s automotive innovation, but we were ecstatic.  Rear seat crowding was overlooked in order to be closer to his invention.

Did Mom alert law enforcement? A mystery. Also an effective take-down notice.

Definitely Dad whimsy.

Back to the dog days of Redwood City’s long summer turned autumn. I think of scratchy, itchy pleated wool uniform skirts that rubbed against my perspiring, sticky legs while seated at my desk. A hot September school day.

After a roasting afternoon of classes my brothers and I arrived at home (in the city with Climate Mostly Best by Government Test) to find a wooden painting ladder standing in the entry hall. Atop the ladder was the huge aluminum pot my mother and grandmother used for boiling gnocchi. Inside the pot was a block of ice sitting in water. Hanging from the ceiling above the pot was a kitchen tea towel just long enough to touch the icy slurry. The ladder was placed in front of the cold air return of our forced air furnace. The heat was off but the fan was on, sucking cool moist air from the towel into the return and out vents throughout the house. Dad swamp cooled the place with his ladder, ice, a towel and a pasta pot. A bit of whimsy. Mostly necessity.

I live a couple of towns away now, slightly cooler and nearer to the beach. There aren’t as many sweltering days but when they arrive as they did this week, they seem all the warmer because of their rarity. It’s then I remember again the ladder, the towel, the icy pasta pot, and my dad. The man who could fix anything, or violate it depending on point of view.

Climate Best by Government Test? Today there’s some dispute except by those who were raised there like Dad and me, or live there still where the original sign proudly announces your arrival to downtown.

Some would argue, mostly.

But there’s no arguing about Dad, our mostly perfect engineer, whom I miss mostly every day. I miss the usefulness and the whimsy, the imagination and innovation of his engineering mind, his dad jokes and his dad laughs. His dad engineering evaluations of purchases large and small, from can openers to cars.

I mostly miss his dad smiles, and dad smell when collecting dad hugs. There was no mostly about how he loved us, especially Mom. That he did completely.

Thinking of you today, Dad. Happy Father’s Day. I miss everything about you.

Donald Dee Hester 1928 – 2013

 

 

 

 

Olallieberry Memory

Peanut butter sandwiches with Olallieberry jam and a little mac salad on the side. Daily lunch when staying with my grandparents during the hot summers in Santa Rosa.

My grandmother, Vivian, made her jam and pies during the first weeks of June, the only time Olallieberries are available.

Grown almost exclusively in the moderate climate of the northern and central California coast, they came from Corvallis, Oregon. Kissed by morning fog and cooled by the nearby Pacific Ocean, they flourish in California. But when warm weather comes, the berries are done. There’s less than a three week window in which to grab them. Then a long year before another chance arrives.

My dad used to say God must harvest them himself, so beautiful and delicious are they.

Years later when I lived on the coast in Montara with a child of my own, blackberries and raspberries grew wild in the empty lot behind our house. Long pants on to escape their stickery brambles, Mom and I would pick until our colanders were sufficiently full to fashion a pie. But they weren’t Olallieberries, that special cross of a Youngberry and Logan blackberry.

God’s hand for sure, Dad.

My grandmother was raised in an orphanage and I’ve wondered who taught her to cook and bake, and she was good at both. Questions we think of too late, when there’s no one to ask.

She left few recipes, mostly those that belonged to others. No recipe for her Olallieberry pie or jam, or macaroni salad, leaving me free to remember and create on my own.

Just like her. A free spirit and free-thinker in a generation unfamiliar with and unwelcoming to either quality in women, as if it weren’t difficult enough to be Jewish and raised in an orphanage. Or, maybe because of.

I’m sure her flaky crust came by way of lard or Crisco because that was the way of the day. When I first set out to re-create an Olallieberry pie I started with my mother’s recipe for pie dough. I didn’t succeed even with Mom by my side. There was something about that particular dough which wouldn’t come together for me, or even for her if I were around. The dough and I were not friends.

Then came the Silver Palate Cookbook and the one pastry dough recipe that loves me. A good start to my Olallieberry memory.

I combed recipes from here and there; I searched the internet and old cookbooks going back to Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School. Then I found a recipe in a McCall’s cookbook I’d been given in 1975 by my cousin, Eva. “Fresh Berry Pie”.

Can you taste things with your imagination? Read an ingredient list and with each addition have the mouth in your mind follow along, adding flavors until a taste takes shape?

I can.

The recipe read, “Dash ground cloves”.

I knew. I could taste it. Dimension, another layer of flavor, depth without sweetness. Unexpected. In a berry pie, or in the cookbook falling apart high up on the shelf in my kitchen cabinet.

I used Silver Palate dough for my crust, four pints of beautiful Olallieberries snagged during their way-too-compact-early-June season, and from deep in my cluttered baking drawer, Vivian’s  pastry cutter to pink the lattice ribbons for the top.

Did its baking fill the house with a scrumptious fragrance? Did it look to tempt the devil himself? Was it torture waiting for it to cool? Did I remember to slide a little a la mode next to it on the plate? Did I savor every bite?

You don’t really need me to answer, do you?

Right out of a 1950’s diner. Lava-like juices had bubbled through the lattice and cooled around the rim to a shiny, luscious deep purple. Flaky barely sweet pie crust, each bite filled with Olallieberry goodness.

As tasty as it was, delicious as the day was long, it was this memory that filled and warmed me, reminded me of who I am, the people and stories that came before me. The joy wasn’t as much in consuming pie as it had been in pursuit and capture of summers five decades ago. Summers filled with sunshine, and love, and berries “harvested by God’s hand”, then baked by my grandmother into an Olallieberry memory.

Vivian Doris Harris Reilly

 

 

 

Arrivederci, Roma

shoppingHard leather soles make an unmistakable sound scuffling across an old wood floor.  There’s a sharp clunk if the back slides off the heel and a little shuffling sound, because slippers are often extra roomy. My grandfather’s were.images

In the morning he’d wrap himself in a red wool plaid Pendleton bathrobe, his long johns peeking from below the hem and ending to expose his ankles. Then the slippers. Always brown. He would drowsily make his way to the kitchen where my grandmother, cloaked in her housecoat, prepped the aluminum stove top percolator with morning coffee. Black coffee.

Medalgia D'oroMedaligia D’Oro.

Tar.

We didn’t get in Grandpa’s way in the morning. He plodded to the breakfast nook to read the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, drink his café, and smoke a morning, unfiltered Camel. Grandma would bring his breakfast. If we crossed his path we’d hear, “Scappa! camelScappa via!” and we scurried away.

So familiar were those words, frequently the first of Grandpa’s day when my brothers and I spent the night, that over 60 years later the sound of slippers dragging across a floor, scraping and clomping to the kitchen, will elicit from my brother or me, “Scappa! Scappa!”

There was however, on occasion, a different kind of morning. One that began similarly with the robe and the long johns, the slippers and the sleepy trip to the kitchen. Then Grandpa bypassed the coffee and headed for the refrigerator. He removed the textured gray, molded cardboard egg carton from a shelf, grabbed a glass from the nearby cabinet, and proceeded to mix a concoction that was largely raw eggs swished around and slammed down in a single gulp.

Not until much later did a glance in the rear view mirror reveal what we didn’t know then – these mornings followed a late night of stubby, vile smelling Toscano cigars, shots of whiskey and espresso, and too many hands of Pinochle with the paisanos at the Italian toscano-extravecchioAmerican Social Club.

There might also have been flirting with the young women who served them. There were rumors…

Grandma Fanny wasn’t happy. When Fanny wasn’t happy there was no talking. No laughing. No smiling.

There was a stern, fixed expression. The silent treatment raised to an art form.

Grandpa had other plans.

After the raw egg fortification he’d walk up behind her as she stood at the white enamel, three-raw-eggs-in-glassgas stove that still had a cubby for burning wood, and twirl her to him. He’d grab her in dance stance, and lead her around the kitchen floor while singing, Arrivederci, Roma. She resisted every step.

“Stop it, Pe-tah” with her Italian accent, and words in a language we didn’t understand. He did not stop.

“Basta!” she’d call out.

For him it was not enough. Around and around the kitchen floor he waltzed her, his robe flaps flying, scappa shoes scraping against the linoleum floor to the sound of his singing and the smell of perking coffee until she could resist no longer.

To the backdrop of his song came her laughter. The prize. The forgiveness. The real break of day.

Sunrise.

Her steely silence ruptured, she’d smile and laugh with a knowing resignation that married life doesn’t always present exactly the way one might like. She lacked the will to carry on angrily.

16195939_10211991329517540_5100011490949474683_nThough Peter lived into his mid-80s, Fanny did not. By 70 she was gone. Four years older than I am now. Did she know what was to come and committed to using her time wisely, with love? I don’t know.

Around and around they go in her fragrant kitchen, to the sound of his slippers and her sweet laughter, his plea for forgiveness in the notes of Arrivederci, Roma, Fanny and “Pe-tah” dance forever in my memory. In my rearview mirror.

 

Sawbuck in My Pocket

I didn’t date very much in high school. Too nerdy. Spent more time with my best friend, working, shopping, listening to music, going to school. Day dreaming.

But there were occasions.

And on one such my mother stuffed a sawbuck in my pocket.

shopping

She said, “Never go on a date without money. Money means you don’t have to stay where you don’t want to be. Don’t have to rely on someone else. Don’t have to do what you don’t want. Leave.”

All these years later I always have a hidden Ben. And a credit card.

Because. It means I can leave.

Checking the rearview mirror I see Mom so serious about this. Where and how did she come to hold this so dearly? Given her generation and her Italian home with a mama who spoke broken English. Did Grandma Fanny do the same with her?

Gotta wonder.

Did Mom know about #metoo.

Handshake Theory

One night after a new boyfriend offered my father a floppy handshake, Dad had a talk with me about his handshake theory.

“Always offer a firm grip. Not a tight one. You aren’t arm wrestling. Just a firm one.” Then he demonstrated what he meant with a resolute clasp.

“You’re a female so men are apt to offer a softer hand. But you still grip firmly so they know you aren’t a pushover.”

In the rearview mirror this was a pretty enlightened stance for someone of his generation. Then again, his one daughter and two sons all took turns in the household rotation of dishes and lawn mowing. No one spared or given a gender specific task.

But I know he thought I’d be an English teacher, my first brother an engineer and my little brother a professional athlete.

Par for the 1950s course.

After we practiced a couple of solid handshakes Dad sealed his deal.

“A handshake is about character, not gender. Don’t offer a fish-hand even as a woman. Show ‘em what you’re made of.”

And that’s exactly what I do.

How-to-Avoid-Shaking-Hands-with-Men-at-Work-300x180

“If a man’s handshake is no good all the [legal] paper in the world won’t make it good.” ~ Mayor Richard J. Daley

Lessons, Blessings & Anecdotes

In the rearview mirror the road traveled looks different. Bumps seem to disappear in the distance and become merely part of scenery left behind. Funny how in the moment a dip seemed to rattle the car, and me, significantly – only to be left behind as a dusty memory.

I try to stay in the moment, in my lane, eyes fixed on the road ahead. That’s where new experiences on this trip play out. But the truth is, there’s more road behind me than left in front and where I’ve been helps me put the where, whys and hows of my journey in perspective.

Sunday afternoon I remembered a funny thing my dad said years ago and needed to tell my brother. A little bit of nothing that had us laughing together in a shared moment of amusement.

I don’t take giggles for granted. Or the stories that spawn them. Especially not my brother.

Let’s face it, lucky for us some places on the road are worth revisiting. Linger in memory. For their lessons, blessings and anecdotes.

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