Doom was always lurking around corners. Ma tended toward old wives’ tales. If I read too much, my eyes would cross. If I washed my hair too often, it would fall out before I reached the age of 30. Pantyhose and tampons would render me sterile. Nail polish would brand me a hussy. Shaving my armpits, well, you don’t want to know that one. Plucking my eyebrows could cause any number of vision problems, which, perhaps, is probably why I fell and hurt myself running, and . . .
. . . I was never, ever, under any circumstances to turn the oven on!
The sturdy Tappan Gas Range of my two previous posts, followed our family from the west side of Chicago to the suburb of Maywood. Both houses were across from what would become I-290, locally dubbed the Congress Expressway and then the Eisenhower. For more than 50 years, I lived either on the north or the south side of the Ike, but, those are stories for other days. Today’s is the story of my home, the range, and Hershey’s Cocoa.
My mother, with all her superstitions and worry, was the best at making hot cocoa. Cold days, after walking home from school, we would often find a cup of hot chocolate waiting. Ma would make a cup for Daddy sometimes, late at night. I know. How do I know? I know because I was reading a book, under my bed covers, when I was supposed to be fast asleep.
I have a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon. They are letters written to my mother during WWII. They are from her brothers and brothers-in-law, cousins and boys from the neighborhood who had gone off to war. They are from many theaters of battle, some with words sliced out by a censor’s razor. They speak of the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox, others asking after the other boys who hung out on the street corner. They talk of weather and of missing loved ones and of the things in between the lines that speak of war without words. They are the sorts of letters that arrived in countless homes. In almost every letter my mother kept, however, there was a common theme;
Vi, I can’t wait to come home and have a cup of your hot cocoa.
I did not know of these letters until I was a young mother when my mom gave them to, saying she thought I would appreciate having them – and I did. Still do. All I knew as a girl of thirteen, however, was that Ma made good cocoa, with Hershey’s cocoa. The same Hershey’s cocoa that my cousin Mary Jane made each morning, as a young teen, after she had warmed up the old coal stove.
The conversation with my cousin, and the photograph of the new stove reminded me of the letter, my mother, and of a small act of defiance when I was about thirteen years old.
My mother, father and Yia Yia had all gone out somewhere. So had my Aunt Christina and Uncle Joe, who lived next door. For all of them to be gone at the same time, including my grandmother, who hardly ever left the house, leads me to believe that someone must have died and they all went to the wake. They NEVER all went somewhere together, unless it was a wake or a wedding.
I finished my homework then decided I would make some cocoa. Just like that! Out came the Hershey’s container, a half gallon glass jar of milk, and a small pan. I read the directions and proceeded to turn on the burner and warm the milk. I was warned to never turn on the oven. No one said anything about a burner. I managed to make the hot cocoa without setting the pan, a towel, or anything else on fire. It was very good. I cleaned everything up, but, you know, there is a unique aroma that comes with hot Hershey’s cocoa that permeates the air and is subtly detectable when coming in from the cold – that, and the pang of guilt that arises after doing something you are not supposed to do.
When my parents and grandmother came home, I spilled the beans faster than a nervous coffee grinder. Yia Yia slipped quietly to her room. My father looked at me; she who never disobeyed. My mother: well, hysterical would probably describe her mien, as the woulda, shoulda, couldas spewed forth. Finally, Daddy interceded on my behalf. “Violet, she should have asked, but, nothing bad happened, she was careful, she cleaned up after herself and she really IS old enough to start cooking.”
Thus began my warm and sweet love affair with cooking – one pan of Hershey’s cocoa at a time – and it was on the front right burner of that sturdy Tappan range. It really is amazing what memories come forth when visiting a big box store.
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