When Dorothy Kantorczyk Jackson died in 2006 in Erie, Pa., she was memorialized in an obituary that my sister, who lives in Erie, clipped and mailed to me. The obit said that Dorothy could best be remembered by the "laughter of loved ones" around her table after a "hearty dinner of Continental Steak, Twice-Baked Potatoes and French Fried Cauliflower."
It concluded by noting that "the measure of a woman is not what she did, but what she leaves behind." In Dorothy's case, what she left behind was the recipe for her Continental Steak — included at the end of the obit. Her children wanted to share her recipe "the way a magician shares the secrets to his tricks when he dies," according to a follow-up story.
My mother (far left) with her parents and brother Raymond in 1922.
My mother, Florence Brazill, who died later that same year at age 87, would have completely understood the Jackson children's motivation. For the women of their era, it was always about the table. They were the personification of the worthy women extolled in the Book of Proverbs: "Like merchant ships, she secures her provisions from afar. She rises while it is still night, and distributes food to her household."
The women of their generation might have worked outside the home — my mom had a B.S. in social work, had jobs in the insurance, medical and retail fields and got her real estate license when she was almost 60 — but they never focused on their careers the way their daughters did.
The home was the center of their world. As my sisters and I noted in our mother's obit in 2006, "Long before Martha Stewart, she taught herself to wallpaper and to make slipcovers . . . always set a beautiful table and her talents in the kitchen were legendary."
My mother on her First Communion in the late 1920s.
Unlike Dorothy Jackson's children, my sisters and I would be hard-pressed to pick a definitive recipe for our mother. Perhaps her cheesecake — easy to make, good for a crowd. It was the dish she brought to church functions, and that was mentioned by friends who kept in touch after she and my father left their longtime hometown of Buffalo, NY for Erie, PA in the 1990s. My sisters and I are all good cooks, but none of us measures up to our mother.
As we noted in her obit, "Florence baked from scratch: bread, pies, coffeecake, eclairs and traditional German Fastnachts Kuechla for Shrove Tuesday. She canned every kind of fruit and vegetable, made mincemeat, jams, jellies and watermelon rind pickles."
We grew up eating "thin pancakes" for supper on meatless Fridays not realizing until years later that they were French crepes. We took it for granted that everyone's mother stood at the stove — deftly controlling two frying pans — while we all sat at the table clamoring for more. I still make her crepes (topped with raspberry jam and powdered sugar — we never gussied them up with fillings) when I want a quick, comforting meal.
And I searched far and wide in the pre-Internet era to find a secondhand copy of the World War II edition of "The Woman's Home Companion Cookbook," virtually the only cookbook I ever saw my mother use. Usually she relied on recipes written out on index cards or yellowed newspaper clippings jumbled together in a three-ring binder. I followed suit and began my own clip file of recipes when I was still in high school.
My mother with three of her four daughters in the 1950s.
The photos that our mother used to mail to us in her cards and letters were not of her or our dad but of his peonies and poppies in the garden. Or an array of fresh produce piled on her old green kitchen scale just before the produce went under her knife. Or, perhaps, a shot of her father's "smoking chair" transformed after she signed up for an upholstery class.
Florence could knit, embroider and sew anything from a pair of lined Bermuda shorts to Halloween costumes and party dresses. In an era before clothing labels loomed large, it was her home sewing talent that gave the Brazill sisters their wardrobe edge. The dress she made for my high school graduation had an inset of antique lace that had belonged to her mother. That dress was both simple and sophisticated, a labor of love that's been a treasured memory all these years.
Our mother expressed her love for her family most often through her hands. And that's how we continue to remember her, through our hands — every time we sew on a button or crimp a pie crust.
This essay appeared under my byline in a slightly different version on Oct. 21, 2006 in The Capital Times newspaper in Madison, WI. Today is the 92nd anniversary of my mother's birth.