Monthly Archives: January 2011

Remembering Miss Opal

Remembering Miss Opal

My little home office is not really an office.  It’s a small rectangle on one side of our loft bedroom, and it consists of an old kitchen table and a 1 drawer filing cabinet.  It’s functional, though, and the placement of the kitchen table in front of the southern window offers views that make up for the lack of fancy digs.

Today I was looking out that window, watching the smoke from the neighbor’s chimney float up into the winter trees, and suddenly I could practically taste my grandmother’s cherry pie.

Just as quickly, I started to cry.  Seriously, is there a pill that controls erratic emotional responses?  Someone please send me some.

For as long as I can remember, my parents would take me, and usually my sisters, to Granny’s the weekend after school was dismissed for summer break, and pick me up the weekend before school was to start again.  I thought it was a great reward, but have come to realize that it was my mother’s way of getting a breather.  My summers were spent weeding the vegetable garden, fishing with Grandpa, picking strawberries, watching Days of Our Lives and  wrestling on TV (from the Chase Park Plaza hotel, dontcha know!), and listening to Granny rant about whatever had gotten her dander up.  On real hot days, we’d sit under the big tree in the yard on the aluminum folding chairs with the green and white nylon webbing, drinking lemonade or sometimes even a bottle of Double Cola, and talk about the neighbors.

Her name was Florence Opal, but she must not have liked Florence very much because everyone called her Opal. She was born the second of 10 children in 1904, and her personality was typical of someone who survived The Great Depression.  She saved everything, from scraps of tin foil, to bread bags, to gift wrap and Christmas bows.  She took in ironing for neighbors to bring extra money into the house.  She would stand for hours at that ironing board, sprinkling the shirts and slacks with water from an old Vess soda bottle to make steam.  My job was to be ready with a hanger when each piece was finished, making sure the creases were just right.  She made quilts by hand from children’s clothes long outgrown, grew her own vegetables, and could make one chicken feed 5 people for one supper and 2 dinners.  (If you don’t know the difference between a supper and a dinner, call a friend in the Midwest to explain it to you.)

She most certainly wasn’t a saint.  She was known to throw back shots of whiskey rather early in the day “for my nerves”, and she harbored a temper that would make you run for a hiding spot.  She was the finest grudge holder I’ve ever known, at one point refusing to speak to her own mother for several years.  It’s one of the traits I wish she’d not passed down to me.

Oh, the food.  My grandparents ran a tavern in St. Louis for many years, long before I entered the family, and Granny never lost her ability to put a spread on the table.  She made a mean fried chicken, wilted salad with hot bacon drippings, mashed potatoes with pan dripping gravy, and an unrivaled spaghetti sauce….and the cherry pie.  She made the best cherry pie ever, and once she knew you liked her cherry pie, she’d make sure there was a fresh one anytime she saw you.

Miss Opal left us in 1997, long after the loss of her husband and two of her three children.  I’d like to think that it was a good life, but I’m not sure it was.  She worked hard every day, and had very little to show for it.  I can only remember Granny going to a restaurant once, on a Mother’s Day when they were visiting us in St. Louis.  She never bought herself clothes, wearing housecoats most days, and alternating her 2 church dresses when the need arose.  I never saw her in a pair of pants, ever. She didn’t have jewelry, or fancy dishes, or a big house.  She never took a vacation.  She had no hobbies that I know of, and I only hope she enjoyed the cooking and canning and sewing that she did every day.  The last few months of her life were spent in a nursing home, which provided more medical supervision, but the loss of her familiar surroundings took what was left of her memory and independence.  I remember thinking when she died that she deserved to leave this earth with more dignity than she did, and that was the most painful part.

The tears are still a mystery.  Part melancholy, part guilt over not knowing her more, part realization that someday, my grandchildren will be thinking about something they miss about me.  It certainly won’t be my cherry pie, because of all the things Miss Opal taught me, it wasn’t how to bake a pie or fry a chicken.  I got her temper and her wicked tongue, but not her cooking skill.  God’s funny like that.

I hope Granny is at rest now, reunited with her husband and all her children.  If I had one more day with her, I’d ask her about her happiest days, and regrets she had, and what it was like to live through the Depression….and I’d let her know I don’t even bother eating cherry pie anymore, because it never tastes the way it should.