This piece was published in the Padadena Star News on September 24, 2000.
The first time I tried, I failed. I wanted to make fried chicken and it ended up looking like chicken dumplings. Gommy had always prepared everything perfectly in the pressure cooker. I failed miserably. I wanted to give up.
Gommy was my adopted grandmother. She was my husband’s grandmother so I did not have the privilege of knowing her from the moment I was born. My biological grandmothers were notable by their absence; one by an early death and one by indifference.
Once Gommy came into my life, she became my grandma and I loved her dearly. After the chicken fiasco, I decided not to give up. I remembered a hot summer night when I stood on Gommy’s screened-in porch and watched her try to light cherries jubilee as assorted relatives looked on.
I was a young mother with the greatest admiration for her fabulous desserts. She had a culinary reputation to uphold. A legend in her own time, she stood, with her white hair silhouetted in the soft summer light, as she tried, again and again, to ignite the booze that was supposed to lightly char the cherries.
Despite her efforts, the alcohol did not ignite and the grand finale was not to be. She got mad, really mad, and uttered a stunning curse that no one expected from an 80-something great-grandmother of four. We caught our breath before we let out a sign and then a laugh.
I knew then why I loved this grand old lady and wanted to follow in her footsteps. As grandchildren do, I idolized Gommy. Even though I was an adult, I sat at her knee and soaked up her crusty charm. I relaxed in her leather easy chair by dim lamplight and listened to her tall tales as her beloved Gompy sat by her side. I had a second chance at having a grandma and I wanted to make the most of it.
When Gommy and I met, we hit if off. As a child who grew up with an extended family divided by geography and dissension, I craved a wise elder who could guide me in the ways of cooking, homemaking and gardening. I loved Gommy’s garden, her well-scrubbed kitchen and her screened-in porch with lush potted plants. In my neophyte stage, I saw the fully formed butterfly and I flew toward the light.
She prepared all her vegetables in the pressure cooker. An organic gardener myself, I gravitated to the idea of cooking vegetables in less water, retaining more nutritional value. The day she gifted me a pressure cooker of my own remains among my favorite moments.
My precious pressure cooker is among my most prized possessions. It is my heirloom. Other people may point with pride to a quilt, antique dresser, crystal or china. Those fine and fragile pieces represent a time gone by, tradition followed carefully with reverence and devotion. I, too, treat my battered old pressure cooker with care, reverence and respect.
As I put a batch of asparagus in the 25-year-old pot and attach the top, I remember Gommy. As I listen to the hiss and watch the back-and-forth motion of the top piece, I see Gommy. I see her, in all her glory, making fancy desserts, taking car of her grandchildren, watching over Gompy, tending to her home.
I hold that image close and try to capture if for myself. I didn’t live in the same house for 50 years as she did. I didn’t attain the perfection she achieved in her garden. I never even tried to light cherries on fire. In my quite moments of remembrance, it doesn’t matter.
I hope, in the deepest part of my heart, to be a grandma to a tiny child one day who will see my best. He or she will not see my faults, dashed dreams or failures. Perhaps the biggest disappointment that child will see is a failed desert.
When frustrated, I may utter a grandmotherly curse. The crusty part of me will give her strength, the generous part will teach him to give. I hope the fun of being with me will be remembered with love.
I hope that small soul will recognize and emulate the best part of me. I don’t know what name I shall receive from the early vocabulary of my first grandchild. I don’t think it will be “Gommy.” If not in fact, it will be in spirit and I hope I will live up to the name.
This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on May 8, 2010.
Every mom, whether she is good, bad or indifferent, leaves two permanent reminders of herself to her children. First, the navel. We all bear the little scar that looks like the tied end of a balloon, smack dab in the middle of our tummy, always reminding us that we emerged from our mother’s womb, at the end of nine long months of gestation.
The second reminder is our mother’s maiden name. We use it to identify ourselves when conducting important matters, usually related to money. I wonder who decided to select everyone’s mother’s maiden name to be a unique identifier. It must have been back when we called unmarried women “maidens.”
I was helping my daughter buy her first stock on an Internet site for first- time investors. She had a small amount of money to invest, but it was a start. She wanted to buy two shares of Starbuck's stock.
I scrolled down and read the fine print to make sure she wasn’t getting scammed. The site seemed legit so I began to enter the pertinent information. Then came the security question: mother’s maiden name. When I started to type in my mother’s maiden name, my daughter stopped me.
“Mom,” she said with a funny look on her face, “my mother’s maiden name is Vallee.”
“But I’m still using that name,” I told her, somewhat defensively. My own mother’s maiden name was rather exotic to me – a name I never spoke, or thought about, except when I called the bank for a credit card balance or when I made out my will. Mom stopped using her maiden name when she married, as did most women of her generation.
Like many women, I didn’t think of my name as one that I used as a maiden and then abandoned when I took my husband’s name. I took my name along with me into my marriage. It didn’t seem exotic or even secret because I was using it every day.
I never knew my grandmother because she died at age thirty-six, when my mother was just seven-years-old. My mother’s maiden name was attached to a ghost, long dead and living only in my mother’s memory. I never attached it to a living human being, a loving grandmother that linked me to the generation before.
In spite of my own personal reasons for reacting to the mother’s-maiden-name request, its use as a unique identifier seems quaint these days. Use of the word “maiden,” recalls the days when women surrendered a large part of their identity when they married. These days, women marry later in life, and many are well beyond maidenhood when they tie the knot.
I never realized how important it was to me that my mother’s surname served an important purpose, even after she married my dad and became Mrs. Vallee. She pretty much gave up all her previous identity to become a wife and mother, for better or worse.
My generation has struggled with that dilemma. We originated “Ms.” and went through a to-hyphen-or-not-to-hyphen phase, yet we all consider our mother’s name, whether she quit using it or not, to be a special link to our maternal side of the family.
We are never asked for our father’s “young knave” name because he never surrendered it. Had I been a father helping his son buy stock on the Internet, the request for “mother’s maiden name” would not have given either of us pause. I certainly paused to consider my reaction, as I deleted my mother’s maiden name and replaced it with “Vallee.”
Deep in the affairs of life, at times when we reveal a secret code word to access our bank account or open a safety deposit box, our moms are there – giving their girlhood name to indicate our lineage, ever reminding us that she existed long before we did. She had a girlhood and a life all her own, her maidenhood. Then we came along, and she gave us life, our bellybutton and her maiden name.
Kathleen Vallee Stein