One of my favorite tales is The Cow-Tail Switch by Harold Courlander and George Herzog. Originally a story told by West African griots, it has many moral lessons. The one that stays with me is the last line of the book, “A man is not truly dead until he is forgotten.” All the people in this blog, except my aunt and I are gone, but on Memorial Day, even the littlest boy isn’t forgotten.
When I was 8, Memorial Day at our house began as it always had-- in controlled chaos. As if by a call of revelry, our downstairs and upstairs doors swung open. Exiting from above was Grandma Rose, a little dumpling shaped woman, carting our picnic supplies down to our shared hallway. Like giant tin soldiers, Guardian-Ware cooking pots were lined up at the wall in size order. The tallest was a soup pot that reached my knees. It’s thick silvery bottom sat on a mat made of ice cubes wrapped in saran wrap and folded into a towel. Inside was potato salad made the night before for today’s picnic. The heaviest was the stew pot; squat, bumpy and chilled the same as its neighbor pots, but with its lid tied down by cotton cord. It made me giggle to see this metal man with his hat-lid and ear-handles wrapped like he had a toothache. Inside were dozens of chicken parts; drumsticks and thighs, breasts and wings all soaking up my Dad’s secret barbeque sauce*.
Outside our door, Mom organized her contributions including circles of smoked hot dogs, fresh from the Jewish deli, their beefy-spicy musk perfuming the hallway. I counted nine pastel Tupperware bowls filled to the brim with pickles and relishes, muenster cheese slices and pungent salami chunks. My mom’s sleeker shinier pots held kitchen towels to nestle the glass mustard jars. There were waxed paper packages of bacon from the German pork store and a huge chocolaty black-out cake all the way from Ebinger’s bakery on Cortelyou Road.
With German precision, the two women worked and talked only of what was needed or missing.
“Jeannie, where did you put the bottle opener?”
“It’s wrapped in a washcloth in the green bowl, Ma.”
“Are you sure?”
“Check it again, darling, for me.” My grandmother’s sweet cooing had us all bending to her will. Had she been born a half-century later, she would have been president.
Under Grandma’s watchful eyes, my father lifted each cauldron and carried them all to our car like a Downton Abbey footman. There were no shared gender responsibilities. This was the time of relegated duties; men drove and were accountable for all car responsibilities; from buying to repairing to selling. Women in my family owned cooking. Just as my father could stare into an opened refrigerator unable to locate the orange juice, mom could lift the hood of our car and never see the dipstick. It was a system that worked for them.
I carried my new transistor radio in hope of practicing the latest dances with my cousin, Mona. “Maybelline, why can’t you be true.” I sang along with Chuck Berry, before the order to shut that off came from upstairs. As I turned the volume down to 3, Dad returned wiping the sweat from his brow with a fresh handkerchief, “Ladies, your chariot awaits!” His strong voice carried through both landings.
Outside, the street buzzed like a hive, as families just like ours, headed out to beaches and parks for the official start of summer. Dad had just opened the car door for his bevy of females, when a gruesome moan wafted through Dotty Parker’s front window. “Oh no, my God, my God!”
We abandoned our car, and with Dad in the lead, ran towards the wailing. My youngest aunt and I were told to keep back, but we trailed anyway. Other fathers and husbands joined the procession, until nearly all of Thatford Avenue was either on the Parker’s porch or at their front gate.
Mr. Parker came out to solemnly address us. Dotty’s sister had put her toddler back in his crib that morning, hoping he’d nap while she made picnic sandwiches. The little boy reached for the cords of the window blinds, when, for reasons only God knows, wrapped them around his neck, choked and died.
One by one, the neighbors, shaken and saddened returned to their Memorial Day plans. Grandma Rose instructed my father to unload our car.
Dad’s famous barbequed chicken was baked in our oven. The cheeses and sausages were made into sandwiches. The cake remained portable in its string-tied box. Grandma and my parents carried the re-purposed bounty to the Parker’s house, where our picnic fare became a memorial meal for the mourners.
*Dad’s secret BBQ sauce was golden not red. I think it was a version of Memphis sauce, but his secret recipe died with him.
**Kalbi-a Korean short rib dish, marinated in soy sauce, garlic, ginger, grated bae (Korean pears) and other heavenly ingredients.