I still remember the first time I met her, emerging from the shadow of her garage to meet us at the car. Her eyes were the same piercing blue as his; or rather, I suppose, his, hers. I think I told her so right then.
I don’t know if he and I were in love yet but we were headed in that direction; he brought me home to meet his parents, after all. Obviously, something was simmering.
Three decades are sandwiched between then and now but I can still recall two things about that weekend: initial introductions and Sunday lunch.
A college sophomore subsisting on starchy dining hall fare, I had come to deeply appreciate home cooking. It was a thing a kid takes for granted if they’re fortunate enough to have a family that gathers for dinner more often than not (I was one of the lucky ones). Sarah’s table was beautiful, set with Haviland china, sterling, and crystal. Platters and bowls full of comfort covered every square inch. Everything looked – and smelled – delicious. It wouldn’t take long to find out every dish delivered what it promised.
I wasn’t shy about helping myself to seconds, and Sarah declared how glad she was for her son to bring home a girl who would eat. I was a little embarrassed at her observation, but I took it as the sincere compliment she intended.
That was the first of dozens (hundreds?) of meals I’d enjoy around my in-law’s table. Sarah’s recipes account for a substantial portion of my own culinary arsenal. Her fried chicken is magical, her sour cream pound cake might well be the best in the world, and Thanksgiving isn’t the same without her dressing. Her hand-pressed butter mints melt in your mouth.Sarah’s life has preached hospitality without her ever needing to say a word; she’s a There you are! person from the moment you step through her door. Around her table, there’s always room for one more. Her whole life has been an offering poured out in service to others, often through her oven.
She has always understood that something special happens when family and friends gather ’round a table. Frequently using her china taught me not to wait to use my own.
Sarah recognized that extraordinary moments are found within our ordinary days.
With Thanksgiving next week and Christmas just around the corner, I’m acutely aware how life has changed. As well as I can remember that first meal prepared by the loving hands of my mother-in-law, I cannot remember the last. Though she is still here in body, dementia is whittling away her mind; somewhere along the way she stopped cooking. It hasn’t been an overnight thing, and since we’ve all been bringing dishes to relieve the sole burden on her, it wasn’t obvious when she stopped cooking altogether.
Despite failing health, Sarah continued to create an atmosphere of warm welcome by giving of herself however she could, love poured out without condition.
I visited my in-laws recently. While out running errands for them, I ended up at the grocery story, a woman on a mission. I returned to their house and started cooking like my life depended on it. Since we live several hours apart, I can’t just pop over anytime, and I wanted my all-too-brief visit to be helpful. In only a few hours I was able to prepare dinner for them that night, and make batches of Noni’s Chicken Stew and chili for them to have and/or freeze.
After I told Sarah good-bye, my father-in-law and I had this moment, the kind where the sadness seeps through the cracks of broken hearts. He thanked me as if I had done something extraordinary, and only then did it hit me that half of what I cooked had been learned at the side of his wife.
I doubt she ever would have imagined that all those years of investing in my life would yield such a beautiful return.
One of my favorite dishes of Sarah’s is her squash casserole. She made it that first Sunday dinner, and it was then I learned I do, indeed, love squash. Because I’ll often forego dessert in order to have a third helping of squash, I thought it would be a great recipe to share here at Grace Table. Do tell me about your favorite side dishes during the holidays! If you have a link, include it in comments, or if you don’t have a blog or Facebook share, just jot it down here. I’ll let you know if I try your recipe, and you do the same, deal?
Sarah’s Squash Casserole
- 6 yellow crook-necked squash, washed and sliced (about 4 cups)
- 1 onion, diced
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
- ½ cup milk
- Crushed Ritz Crackers (enough to cover top of casserole)
- 1 Tablespoon butter
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Place sliced squash and onion in pot, sprinkle with salt and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then simmer over medium until tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Drain.
Whisk together egg and milk. Layer half of the squash in greased casserole; sprinkle with half the cheese and pour ½ of the egg/milk mixture over it. Add remaining squash, cover in remaining cheese, and pour remainder of milk mixture evenly over top.
Cover top of casserole with crushed Ritz Crackers; cut up pat of butter and distribute evenly across top. Bake uncovered in preheated 400°F oven, about 30-40 minutes (until crackers are browned and casserole is bubbly).