Text and pics by Rosalie Tirella
Yesterday was a sheltering-in-place kind of Thanksgiving. Made all the veggies and sides – but ate no turkey, for love of the bird❤. …
Then, I found this culinary talisman, a can of fruit cocktail and burst into tears:
I called the old beau and sobbed to him: “I MISS MY MOM”! He knew Cecelia, too, and loved her, too – more than me at the end. When Ma was dying, he raced from a work site to the nursing home to say goodbye to her. He was in his painters pants and covered in white paint strokes. He looked exhausted – but went to my mom’s bedside to “just visit.” Not a huggy guy, he said, formally: “How are you?”
Ma said: “Fine! You’re looking good, ‘John’!
Both lousy liars. Ma died several hours later. John went back to his worksite, then helped me remove Ma’s stuff from her half of the nursing home bedroom the next day.
But I digress. Back to the can of fruit cocktail. …
When I was a little girl growing up in Green Island, fruit cocktail – the sweetened kind – was a staple in our Lafayette Street flat. Ma loved it, used it almost every day: as an appetizer served in a little bowl, for all of our father’s steak dinners – when Daddy was around. She poured it over her Corn Flakes for breakfast. She urged us to eat it too – over our Corn Flakes or as a stand alone dinner staple, to be savored before supper. Or for dessert.
Right before our birthdays – Ma would walk to Supreme Market on Millbury Street and buy her Cecelia Kiddie Birthday Party Bonanza for me, my sisters and our party guests, Uncle Mark, Aunt Mary and their three kids, our cousins: three big cans of fruit cocktail, a box of Duncan Hines Cherry Supreme cake, eggs, Betty Crocker canned chocolate frosting and a jar of red cherries.
Then she’d go to White’s Five and Ten across the street for paper cups and plates, a plastic table cloth, paper party hats, party favors, a small box of pink candles and a Pin the Tail on the Donkey wall game – and Scotch Tape to keep it all together.
Ma would bake her instant cake – and give me the bowl to lick (never got sick!). When the two pink layers were baked, Ma frosted them and then cracked open her little jar of red maraschino cherries, cut all of them in half and decorated her cake with them. I hung out with Ma at the kitchen table, watching her, admiring her artistry, hoping she’d hand me a few sweet cherries. She did.
But for Ma, the big event was pouring all those cans of fruit cocktail into a special, BEAUTIFUL, glass punch bowl, gingerly placing a clear plastic ladle in it, then pulling the tiny glass bowls out of the china closet and setting it all up on our big laundry wash tubs in our kitchen – now covered with a lid and a plastic table cloth. Cake and fruit cocktail front and center; sandwich meat from Buehler Brothers Meat Market on Millbury Street, State Line potato chips, Cheetos and Wonder Bread flanking the heart of the spread. Ma made a ritual of serving everyone their fruit cocktail, ladling it in the tiny bowls…serving us kids from the left. Very classy. Very Eisenhower 1950s wife and mom.
Ma had learned all this in Springfield during the Great Depression, when she was a maid/assistant cook to her sister for the Bishop of Springfield. The pious bishop ate like a hog: roast beef, steak, salmon, shrimp cocktail, homemade desserts every night. And fruit cocktail.
… working away from home, Worcester, to send money home to her Polish immigrant parents, was proud to be working for the CATHOLIC CHURCH. Almost Royalty! Practically Presidential! Beautiful china. The best cuts of meat! Linen napkins. Silver tableware. Cream for your coffee. And FRUIT COCKTAIL!!! … Thirty years later available at Supreme Market on Millbury Street! For cheap!
Holding that tiny fruit cocktail tin yesterday, I realized the fruit cocktail we were swimming in at Lafayette Street when I was a little girl, was, for our sweet mother, a reminder of holy, halcyon days: days sans a face-slapping, screaming, red-faced Daddy; a big, cold tenement to heat with just a gas stove, with gas log, in the kitchen in winter time, and two small electric heaters in the kids’ bedrooms. Poverty 24/7: 60-hour work weeks at the dry cleaners, walking all over our gritty neighborhood to work, shop, work, work, work … Spring, summer, autumn, winter …
Putting can opener to a big can of fruit cocktail brought Ma to a better place: memories of the Bishop’s big Victorian House, with radiators for warmth, her two big sisters for company, mass and Holy Communion every morning – and her two beloved Doberman pinschers, Rocky and Bridgette. And their cat who had adorable kittens twice a year.
Then here in Worcester the sweetened bits of pears, peaches and grapes conjured up beautiful kiddie birthday parties with pin the tail on the donkey games! And dressing up her three little girls wicked cute!:
Beef loaf from Bueller Brothers, maybe a jar of pigs knuckles, too (not bad)! Singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY!! …a sweetener for Corn Flakes, meals, snacks … her hardscrabble life.
That’s why I cried yesterday.