EDITOR’S NOTE: Welcome to the A to Z Challenge, an exercise in self-flagellation we bloggers inflict upon ourselves to teach us discipline as writers and to build audience. During the month of April, I’ll be posting 26 times, once for every letter in the alphabet. Looking on the bright side, we can each be thankful this is an English language exercise and not Khmer, the language of Cambodia, which sets the world record with a 74-character alphabet! After some misgivings, I’ve decided to proceed with my initial idea of blogging about the special people in my life whose names begin with the appropriate letter. There will be difficulties, like having more than one special person whose names begin with the same letter, forcing me to choose. And then there are those letters — O, Q and X among them — where no name springs readily to mind. What will I do then? We’ll have to wait and see!
B is for Betty
Even as an adult, I never called my mother by her first name, but a writing exercise such as this forces exceptions to the rule. Looking ahead, M is already taken, so for today only, Mama is Betty.
To say I revered my mother would be an understatement, so it’s hardly surprising that this isn’t the first time I’ve written about her. It was Mama — Betty if we must — who taught me the importance of gifts.
There are many kinds of gifts, but the gifts I’m talking about aren’t things you buy because you’re a slave to commercialism, or because you think a loved one wants (or even needs) a particular thing. Gifts — real gifts — are things that may one day take on talismanic importance because of the memories they evoke.
I have several such gifts that have taken on talismanic importance — a clothes brush, a tie tac, a key fob, and pewter shot glasses among them — but as it turns out, I have precious little in the way of physical objects my mother gave to me, but most of what I do have revolves around food and cooking. There are the pink Depression glass dishes that belonged to her, and also a Mexican sombrero she made in ceramics class that is used for serving chips and salsa. Those things still come out on special occasions, but most of what my mother gave me was eaten long ago.
Betty lived her life in service to those she loved, and part of that service was making sure everyone had exactly what they wanted to eat. It was her gift, and she gave lavishly to anyone who entered her house. She wasn’t a fancy cook, or even the best cook, but you could taste the love in everything she served.
Her service didn’t stop when the food came out of the oven. If someone wanted a bit of raw onion, or if the salt shaker somehow hadn’t made it to the table, it was Betty who leaped from her place to fetch it, and it was she who lingered behind to clean up the dishes and to bring the desserts into the family room. It sounds terribly sexist in today’s modern world, but that’s how it was, and I don’t believe she ever felt we were taking advantage of her. It’s how she showed us that she loved us, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I flew to Texas several times to see her. On one such trip, my plane was delayed in Chicago or Dallas, I can’t remember, but it was getting late by the time I finally arrived in San Antonio, rented a car and drove 60 miles west to Kerrville.
I’ve written about lots of food on this blog, but Betty’s potato pancakes are one thing I’ve never mentioned until now. There’s a reason for that, a reason that cuts like a knife.
When you give a gift, you never know which one will strike a chord, which one might become that special talisman, and so Betty surely never knew that the lowly potato pancake would become hers.
Here’s the freeze-frame from my memory: I walk into the living room, suitcase strap digging into my shoulder. Daddy sits while Mama, the terminal cancer patient, stands in the kitchen, her wan and sickly face wreathed in smoke from frying something in the middle of the night — my favorite potato pancakes.
Before she died, she taught us how to make them, but you won’t catch me trying, because I already know something would be missing. You see, Betty’s recipe makes no mention of her three secret ingredients that can no longer be obtained anywhere on this earth: time, sacrifice and love. These were her gifts, and she sprinkled them liberally into all her food, but most especially into those potato pancakes she made while I watched — and watch her still — frying and dying, late into the night, just for me.
Betty’s Potato Pancakes *
My mother was justly famous for her potato pancakes. No one can make them like she could. This is her recipe, but I wish you could have tasted the real thing . . .
4 large potatoes, grated coarsely
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup flour
salt and coarsely ground pepper
dash of Worcestershire sauce
oil for frying
1) Place grated potatoes in bowl. Add remaining ingredients except oil, and mix. Heat oil in skillet. When oil is hot, with your hands, grab a handful of potato mixture and place into oil. Flatten slightly with a turner and fry until crisp. Drain on paper towels.
Source: Betty Redus
*Transcribed by my sister