Monday, September 27, 2010

Great Granny The Amazing

Let me paint a picture of Florzell England Howard, my maternal great-grandmother. (The teapots will make sense in a minute).

I was never able to fully appreciate or even begin to empathize with my mother (or grandmother or great grandmother) until I became a mother myself. I've always known the story of my great grandmother but when I heard the story again recently, at my uncle's funeral, it struck me as simply amazing. Her story, her life, is nothing short of miraculous. And whenever I feel overwhelmed by this job of "mother" and feel like my life is just too exhausting to bear, I think of her. I don't know exhaustion.

Great Granny was born in 1867. As a girl of 12, Florzell was diagnosed with what was probably a minor case of pink eye, to which her doctor prescribed some drops that consequently made her completely blind in both eyes. (If there was ever a time for a malpractice lawyer.) She married my great grandfather, Benjamin Franklin Howard, in 1889, and had 6 children including my grandfather, Augustus Paul. In 1909, my great grandfather died suddenly after 20 years of marriage at the age of 43, leaving Granny to take care of all 6 children, on a working farm in rural Sparta, blind. In case that didn't register with you...she took care of 6 children, on a farm, completely blind. How in the world did she do it? What was a day like in her life? To be able to spend one day with her on that farm, kids running around, mouths to feed, laundry to do...I can't even imagine what kind of tasks she had to do just to keep her family, her home, and her farm running. And she did it all blind. Mind-boggling.

One of the tales often told about Granny was that she collected teapots, over 500 of them, and could pick one up and tell you its color and pattern and where it came from. The picture above are of four of her original teapots that have made it to my collection (inspired by her, I also collect teapots), one of which we randomly stumbled upon in a cupboard at my uncle's house a few months ago. Another story is how she would wake up her children to tell them when it was snowing...she could taste it in the air. And my mom talks of trying to steal cookies from the kitchen—Granny would hear her from the other side of the house, literally catching her with her hand in the cookie jar. I also hear that she dipped snuff. After the death of her husband, she wore black every day until her death in 1955. I would have loved to know her. If only to watch her move through a day in her life.

Great Granny with my grandfather, uncle, and my cousin
I'm sure it's no coincidence that my mother is a self-proclaimed tea-aholic. Must have been some genetic disposition toward tea. She has never had more than a thimble full of booze in her life (she says it tastes like gasoline...), and can't stand coffee (tastes like mud). But iced tea is her one and only vice. When I was growing up she would leave several glasses of tea abandoned throughout the house on any given day, so whatever room in the house whatever type of housework she was doing, there was tea to enjoy. She makes the most perfect glass of tea: just the right mixture of tea, lemon juice, ice, and some form of sweetner...for years it was Sweet n Low, then Equal, and now Splenda. And did I mention ice? The glass has to be completely filled with ice; any less, and she nearly panics. If my glass isn't full of ice, she begs, "Don't you want more ice??!!" Sometimes she just has to give me more ice to make herself feel better. In restaurants, when she first orders her tea, she also orders extra ice and lemon. These days her latest obsession is chai tea frapuccinos from Starbucks. She's evolved.

One special tea concoction she always made for luncheons, baby showers, and tea parties of all kinds was Russian Tea. It can be hot or cold, and it is a bit sweet but not in a Sweet Tea kind of way. It has more layers of, lemon, spices. I made a batch and it was, once again, one of those flavors that brought back memories. No cookbook about my mother's recipes would be complete without some mention of tea. It would be like...a Paula Deen cookbook without butter. A Bobby Flay cookbook without chipotle. You get the idea.

Russian Tea

Boil together 2 cups of sugar, 2 cups of water, 1 tsp Allspice, 12 whole cloves, 1 stick of cinnamon, for 5 minutes. Add 4 rounded tsp of loose tea and steep 10 minutes. Strain tea and add 1 1/2 cups of no pulp orange juice and 3/4 cup of lemon juice. Then add 4 quarts of water. Either reheat to serve hot, or chill. (I'm going to say that a splash of bourbon wouldn't harm this drink one bit! But my mother would strongly disagree.)

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