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Treasured memories of the lunch bunch

Just recently, I’ve noticed I’m slowing down in the kitchen.

It has started me thinking about the “well-seasoned” family members who preceded me. My mom didn’t slow down until her mid-80s, but my late mother-in-law started to slip right around the age I am now.

Our Dorothy was an admirably willful woman, originally from a German farming community near Buffalo. Having grown up doing farm labors, she also excelled in the kitchen. She was hired as the cook for the young Symington family and moved to Rochester with them. Stuart Symington rose through both business and political ranks to become a powerful U.S. Senator and the first Secretary of the Air Force. Dorothy remembered his little family as “easy to please and kind to me.”

It was from the Symington’s kitchen door that she received supplies one morning from a horse-drawn delivery wagon — driven by an attractive Irishman. And thus was the beginning of our small branch of the O’Brien clan. I don’t know if Ted O’Brien fell for Dorothy first or her cooking, but both the fantastic food and the lasting love surpassed 67 years.

With our two children in tow, we visited Ted and Dorothy’s little house in East Rochester two or three times a year. Tom and I slept in the double bed that almost filled the teeny front bedroom, silently missing our California king back home. Our kids slept on the living room floor only wide enough for a love seat, not a sofa. The room grew smaller as the kids grew bigger.

We always arrived for lunch before noon, the appointed hour. Predictably, lunch never changed — and it was wonderful. The table was set with an easy-to-clean vinyl tablecloth for the game of pinochle or euchre that followed the vittles.

Dorothy whistled up either her homemade vegetable beef or chicken rice soup. She filled the soup bowls at the stove and while she alone served everyone else, she left the pan of soup on a high boil, knowing that I liked mine really hot.

In addition to her soup, Dorothy’s table was laden with enough lunch for a baseball team. There was a platter of ham, two cheeses, tomatoes and lettuce, all spread in a spiral for easy pickin’. Bread and rolls, butter, a bowl of tuna salad, her special German sliced cucumbers, cottage cheese and a large Jell-o salad filled the little table.

That orange molded salad was filled with carrot curls, celery, and pineapple. It was years before I learned that neither of my kids ever tried it. Since I knew that Tom never ate it (it sent shivers down his spine), I’d take a small slice to be polite. I think Pop O’Brien took extra to make it look like it was popular. I felt bad. I never could figure out why she kept making the fancy molds, except that its very fussiness showed how much she cared – and she and Pop both liked it. I could get a slice down on a Saturday, but I wouldn’t want to be looking at it Monday. Or Wednesday.

Dessert was always chocolate pudding with homemade whipped cream. I have no idea how we found room for it, but it was a special kind of milk chocolate that Dorothy always claimed was “just out of the packages.” It wasn’t until years later, after she moved to assisted living and was no longer cooking, that she confessed it was half chocolate and half vanilla – yep, right out of the packages. It was her great secret.

When I first knew Tom, he was a Navy pilot. When he was aboard transport ships, he often went to the bow of the ship for a cigarette – to reflect and to dream. He said, “Most guys go up there alone to think about their wives, their sweethearts or the hot babe they just met in San Diego.” I remember how he sheepishly told me, “I went to the bow to feel the ocean breeze, gaze at the moon’s reflection on the waves, and fantasize about my mother’s chocolate cake.”

As we watched Ted and Dorothy age and slow down, we wondered when the lunches and sleepovers would stop. She admitted that she had to start lunch-making the morning before we came – with Pop’s help. Pop did the sleepover laundry when she couldn’t manage the basement stairs.

They wouldn’t hear of our staying in a hotel or going out for lunch. “It wouldn’t be the same,” she said. All these years later, I now understand.

And their tiny home was not crowded with us there — it was chock-a-block with togetherness — delicious family togetherness. I miss them.

Marcy O’Brien lives in Warren with her husband, Richard, and Finian, their lazy Maine Coon cat. Marcy can be reached at Moby.32@hotmail.com.

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