by Catherine Scherer
Our mother didn't like to cook. She blamed it, as she blamed so much else, on having to go out to work and not having time or energy. My brother did like to cook. Every year he insisted we bake Christmas cookies. Since my brother's baby name had been “Bunny” his special cookie cutter was a rabbit. Mine was a little Scottie-shape dog. My brother cut out tree shapes, candy canes, and wreaths. After they were baked, he decorated them with icing and sprinkles. My brother was three years older and guarded this privilege. I stood by as admiring audience. That was my role – audience for my brother. My brother's specialty was spaghetti sauce, which he never made the same way twice. He began with cooked ground beef or ground pork, sometimes sausage, sometimes Canadian bacon (the only kind of bacon our father would buy). Then added onions (sliced), carrots (curlicued by potato peeler), and celery (chopped). My contribution to the sauce was to wield the potato peeler, and when I was older, the paring knife. The sauce base was always a thick tomato paste. The spices varied: pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, sage, basil. My brother never measured – a couple of shakes of paprika, a palmful of whole cloves, half the container of chives. Once my brother added Hershey's cocoa to make a chocolate tomato sauce. When it came to the table my brother dropped in several spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream, soon melted and stirred in – main course and dessert in one, my brother's proud invention. The thick tomato paste took it all in and came up smiling. My brother never cooked a disaster of a spaghetti sauce no matter how he varied the “recipe.”
My brother's other specialty -- communion hosts. These were round shapes cut from white sandwich bread (the only bread we knew existed) and pressed flat under one or both of my mother's thick cookbooks: Woman's Home Companion Cookbook (1942) and The American Woman's Cookbook (same vintage but cover missing). Except for the recipe for “Vanilla Rolled Cookies” at Christmas no one ever cooked from them. My brother played Mass around seven every evening the nights our father worked. Any game my brother played had to be played over -- and over -- and over. It had to be played every day our father was at work. He was the priest and vested himself in a chasuble made of two hand towels pinned together and slipped over his head like a poncho. Rose or green towels, depending on the church season: green for ordinary time, rose or purple for penitential times (Lent and Advent). My brother and I went to parochial school where we had to attend daily Mass, so we knew these things. Besides my brother was an altar boy. At home he was the priest and I was his altar boy. Our mother was the congregation. She sat in a chair facing the “altar” -- our dining room table. In the middle of the table my brother built up the “tabernacle” from telephone books covered with white towels. The Mass was in Latin then, which as an altar boy my brother knew and I could stumble well-enough from the facing pages of the St. Joseph Daily Missal. The missal contained all the “changeable” parts of the daily Masses – Epistles and Gospels -- which my brother read in English.
My brother: In Nomine Patris, et Filii, et
Me: Amen. (with Latin accent)
I was proud of being able to speak an ancient language like Latin – and even a little Greek (Kyrie eleison....Christe eleison). Of course all parochial school kids could, but if I had had someone to boast to, I would have boasted of it.
My brother: Dominus vobiscum.
Me: Et cum spiritu tuo.
At the Offertory my job as altar boy was to wash my brother's hands. I poured water from a cup over his fingers while holding in the other hand a shallow saucer to catch the runoff. This was awkward for me, I spattered a good deal of the “holy water” on the thankfully thirsty carpet. I was supposed to remember to have a towel over my arm so my brother could dry his hands but most of the time he had to dry them on his chasuble. Then came the solemn part of the Mass, the Consecration, when I rang a little bell originally a Christmas decoration. I liked this part and rang with enthusiasm, until my brother, still intoning the sacred words, kicked his foot backwards (he always missed me) to command me to stop.
All of us – priest, altar boy, and congregation – received communion, one of the flattened bread hosts. At school the nuns insisted we were not to chew the sacred Host, but at home we all, including my brother, surreptitiously did. Only my brother as priest received under both forms, drinking the grape-, or cranberry-, or orange-juice “wine” from the “chalice,” a little pedesteled glass saved from the shrimp cocktails my father loved but no one else did. My brother “said” only low Masses because no one, except our mother, could sing. Depending on what was on our recently acquired television that night, Mass was either said in full or hurried through and we were dismissed.
My brother: Ite, Missa est.
Me: Deo gratias
This hurry omitted one of my favorite prayers, said at the end of Mass – a prayer my brother, at more leisurely Masses, read in English, the Latin being too much even for him. John's “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.” Even if I didn't understand the meaning of the words, I felt the deep mystery of them. In church, at this point in the Mass, I liked to slip off my glasses which corrected my near-sightedness. Without my glasses the candles on the altar changed:, their flames becoming rings of sparkling light surrounding dark circles like open mouths of singing. I knew I produced this effect by removing my glasses, but I wanted it to be more, a gift of angelic presence.
I didn't mind playing Mass. I don't know how our mother, who was not Catholic, felt about it, she never said directly. She didn't always have gentle feelings toward the church, feelings she expressed loudly when she and our father argued. Our father called her part in the argument “ranting and raving” while his part was to keep a stoic silence, which probably provoked our mother even more. It couldn't have pleased her to see her children so Catholic. Or maybe, roped into being the congregation, it amused her to see sacred rituals turned into just another pretend children's game.
|Catherine Scherer works for the Chicago Public Library and for lunch every day eats crackers and hummus. Every week she stocks up on frozen dinners but the library's Security Guard Wanda is teaching her to cook with lime juice. Cathy's favorites: lamb with lime and watermelon sprinkled with lime juice.|