My wife, Elizabeth, and I were looking through our cookbooks for new old recipes when we ran across a neat book from years ago.
Her mother, Julia Jindra, had given her "What's Cooking in Canonsburg," a recipe book from the ladies of The Christian Mothers of Canonsburg. In addition to a cookbook, it is an all-around manual for practical living. Everyone should have something like this from a mother.
The book is a slice of life from a time gone by, a time of real people living real lives, before the Internet, voice mail and robocalls. The book has entries for the names and phone numbers of people you might call: Carpenter, Coal Dealer, Dress Altering, Game Warden, Milk Co, Oil Burner Repair, Oil Dealer, Paper Hanger, Piano Tuner, Radio and TV Repair, among others. Do we even know what these people are today?
The book has a section for Christmas cards -- who sent you one, and whether you sent one to them. Today, we send and receive fewer cards each year. There's also a section for a list of friends -- four pages for "Call Your Friends" and two pages for "Write Your Friends."
The book got me thinking about some nice memories from a better time ... like deliveries of coal. A truck backed up to your house and the driver yelled, "Load of coal!"
You opened a small wooden door to the coal cellar. The truck slid a chute up to the door opening and sent coal flying into your basement. A lot of the coal missed. We, as children, would gather to watch and listen to the noise. We picked the stray pieces out of the snow and took them back to the owner. Those old coal furnaces were big and hot, and they needed fed. They kept the entire house and everyone in it warm and happy!
My wife has the same stories. Elizabeth grew up in Canonsburg-Houston and attended St. Patrick's grade school. Nicer people, you won't find anywhere. I came from Clairton and went to St Joseph's. Nicer people, you won't find anywhere. Anyone who went to Catholic school back then remembers the nuns. This was a good thing!
Speaking of Catholic, every family had an Aunt Helen and Aunt Mary. Elizabeth's Aunt Helen would knit anything for anyone. Any size or color. Perfectly. My Aunt Helen made kazary soup (sauerkraut mushroom soup) for everyone who stopped over on Christmas Eve.
Church was more than just a church service. At St. Joseph, Father Rubicky said prayers, in Slovak, at the end of the Mass for all the people behind the Iron Curtain. He named each country. Old men and women held their rosaries and cried.After Mass, we all talked with each other, and usually there would be an invitation to stop over and see someone's garden. The Slovaks and Italians had the best gardens. They still do.
On our street in Clairton was a man from Italy, Mike. He had been in the Italian army in the war and wanted to come to America afterward.
My brother Andrew and I loved to go see his yard. He had chicken coops near the back alley, grape vines growing over his porch and a garden in the side yard. The chickens helped him with his garden. He had "good dirt." He turned it over with a shovel and a garden pitchfork, and when he was done working it, you could turn it over with your hand.
After Mike got settled, he sent for his wife back in Italy. He told her he lived in a palace in America. It was. One evening, his wife called to everyone to come up to the house and try something new -- pizza!
Another neighbor, Alex, came from what later came to be called Yugoslavia. He had a shack in his backyard, like everyone. I could climb a tree and jump onto the roof, from where I could reach his plum trees. He grew dark purple oval-shaped plums, which could be made into wine. One evening, he came back from hunting and invited everyone over for rabbit.
Alex took care of his parents in the same house. The grandfather spent his time smoking a pipe and putting together large jigsaw puzzles, spread out on the kitchen table. His wife, "Grandma Patrick" to everyone, sat on the front porch and made rag rugs out of whatever cloth finally couldn't be used for anything else.
I used to sit on the porch across from her and tell her my kid stories. After the grandfather died, she just sat there, listened and smiled. Now I understand this.
Phil Haines of Scott, a retired pharmaceutical executive, can be reached at email@example.com.