Monthly Archives: December 2015

Branch Leigh Arthur Jett

Mother Leigh & Other Dad

Mother Leigh (Leigh Jett) & Other Dad (Rev Starke Jett II)

“I’m your youngest daughter,” time and again I tell my grandmother, whom I am named after and whom I decide to call Mother Leigh. I live with my paternal grandparents (I name our grandfather Other Dad) so much in my single digit years that it feels like that to me. She smiles and pats me on the head, never a word one way or the other crossing her lips.

It is she who teaches me to cook, by example. Mom, a teen bride, becomes a great cook but in her early married life years she is just beginning to hone her skills. Mother Leigh never lets lack of a recipe stop her. Once she chases a dressing that a chef refuses to divulge to her until she gets it to her liking. It’s simple but I can understand the elusiveness of it. It’s a sweet and sour combination dressing for a fruit salad. Donny & I both love it.

In my years with my grandparents (Other Dad is a minister on the Methodist circuit so they move a lot) I collect a plethora of amazing memories. Mother Leigh making me white sugar and butter sandwiches on the new time saver, sliced bread. Or scrapping the burnt topping off of breakfast toast and then convincing me that it is perfect. And she sells me on the chicken back. That piece that no one ever wants has a sweet chunk of hidden meat if you know where to look. Being a child of a successful gentleman farmer Mother Leigh learns this secret and more from her practical upbringing. She calls out a butcher if he offers her less than the prime cut of any animal. She knows where to find the best country hams. Usually in some out of the way gas station. She is onto the marvels of gas station food decades before it becomes popular.

Mother Leigh

Branch Leigh Arthur. She does not like the name Branch and always uses Leigh instead. She tells me that she is named Lee but that she changes it to Leigh when one of her brothers also named Lee keeps opening her mail.

A young wife and mother during the depression, she is never one to waste a thing. She has a continuous ball of saved string that she uses and adds to with such regularity that it hardly ever changes size. She gives me the task of turning plain lard packed in a new novel plastic sleeve into a buttery looking color by squeezing the red dot of food coloring tucked inside back and forth. She takes me with her to downtown Farmville, Virginia to buy real butter by the measure for special occasions. We walk. It is a short distance and ladies of her generation do not drive.

Mother Leigh spends her entire life going everywhere she wants to go, and she is a mover and a shaker, without ever getting behind the wheel of a car. Her oldest daughter, also a Leigh (Florence Leigh aka as IG. Go figure where that came from, no one seems to know. Not from me although I like it.) finally bites the bullet and learns to drive when she turns fifty.

I beg my grandmother to take me on a train ride and so she does, not once but over and over. We get our tickets at the tiny station in Farmville and patiently sit in the waiting room until our train arrives. The conductor helps us board then folds up his steps and with a whistle the train leaves the station. We get off at the first town and catch the next train home. It is all so exciting. I never tire of it. When I am in college she quizzes the young neighbor girls and gets me the new fashion at the time, a wrap around skirt. (How could she know that I am wishing so hard for one.) She has no idea what they are but that doesn’t stop her. She takes the Westhampton bus to LaVogue (a very high fashion store) in downtown Richmond and tells the sales clerk what she needs.

evangeline

B Leigh (as she signs her books) plays the role of Evangeline in a ‘Colonial Tea’ at the local movie theater March 1911. Her note to me written in the flyleaf August 1968 just months before I meet Donny.

When we live in Whaleyville and there is no heat in the house save a wood stove in the living room, she bundles me up in blankets warmed by the stove to make going to bed less chilling. And then rewarms the blankets as many times as I ask her. In Farmville she packs cold buttered rolls and the Sunday comics to entertain me while my grandfather preaches his sermon. No nursery for me. I will attend the service. But my young status is acknowledged. She knows the service will not ramble on. She taps her watch if my grandfather goes over his allotted minutes.

And the cooking, oh the cooking. She’ll gladly give you any recipe but it goes something like this. A lump of butter the size of an egg. About 3 cups of flour. Never an oven temperature or time with any of her recipes. She just knows and so will you after enough trials. She rolls biscuits from a huge ball of dough using a drinking glass to roll and then cut. She doesn’t own a spatula. Her knuckles do a better job of cleaning out a bowl than any tool.

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Our wedding reception at 6416 Three Chopt Road, June 7, 1969

She is her own woman. When she is a young adult, my grandfather is assigned to her family church in Alta Vista Virginia. He pays all of his parishioners a visit. The day he arrives at my grandmother’s house she and her sisters are home. Everyone is in the living room meeting the new minister. When it is her turn to speak, Mother Leigh trying to be charming blurts out, “So nice to meet you Reverend Jett. Perhaps you’ll have the pleasure of marrying one of us some day.” She is teased her entire life about proposing to my grandfather at their first meeting. She gives me her copy of Evangeline that seals the deal for their courtship. She writes their history on the flyleaf. She is the lead in the show and has gone with another but walks home with my grandfather who proposes to her.

And so there will be no other place for our wedding reception than her beautiful Richmond home. Miles from St James Episcopal Church where Donny & I are married makes no difference. I begin my formative years at her knee and I will enter my married life with her southern charm blessing our path.

With this I give you my last post for 2015 dedicated to the woman who set the grandmother bar for me. It’s a high one. I stretch up to reach it with her hand on my shoulder.

 

 

 

 

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Christmas MAGIC

6416 three chopt

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care

“Shhhh…listen. Hear that? It’s the reindeer on the roof!” We believe, my cousins and I. Never mind that we are teens, the closer it gets to Christmas Day the firmer our shaky faith becomes.

Between middle school and college years my family makes the long pre-interstate trek from Whitehall, Ohio (an enclave of Columbus) to our grandmother’s home in Richmond, Virginia for Christmas. Twelve hours by car stopping for gas and maybe one meal at Howard Johnson’s, the only road trip place with reliable food, gets us all dog tired to our destination. Many is the trip when Mom packs lunches to eat along the way. Dad does all the driving. Once we trade the Cumberland Gap Route 40 for the more direct mountain roads of West Virginia. Once.

In Richmond, we join forces with my Dad’s two sisters and their families to celebrate Christmas. It is magical. Everyone around us feels it too and tells us so. We know. We live it. We are in the magic.

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6416 Three Chopt Road Richmond VA

Our grandmother’s home at 6416 Three Chopt Road is the perfect Christmas house. An early twentieth century three story foursquare style home, it has a huge covered front porch. The massive front door with its brass mail slot opens onto an enormous hall. Called a hall, it is really a big open space where folks can unload packages, greet guests, and easily play kid games on the oriental rug.

There is a screened porch to one side, and to the other through a double wide sliding pocket door opening is a cozy living room with fireplace. Straight ahead is the classic plantation flying staircase that stole my grandmother’s heart. She fell in love with its free form and my grandfather had no recourse but to sell his lots on Broad Street and buy the house for her. There has been much family lamentation about how valuable those lots later became but they served their purpose, providing the perfect retirement home for my grandparents to live in. And for us to gather at for Christmas and Easter.

To the side of the living room and through another generous pocket door frame is the family size dining room. You can access the dining room from the hall too through yet another double pocket door framework. Those wide sliding doors with their detailed framing provide an airiness to the entire downstairs. They are always left open but we kids love to close them to make separate rooms for our fashion shows and productions whenever we can get away with it.

Adults eat dinner in the dining room. Kids eat in the huge kitchen which is also where a never ending breakfast complete with seriously strong coffee (long before it is the norm), red eye gravy and fresh biscuits starts everyone’s day. In the dining room there is a working servant button under the carpet near our grandmother’s foot. It is for summoning the kitchen help of which we have none. But Mother Leigh’s foot still presses that button regardless, mostly out of habit from when she did have a maid, but now never to any avail. She is always totally unaware until someone points out, “Mother Leigh, your foot is on the buzzer.” She blushes a bit and moves her foot.

My father is in the Air Force so we move a lot but land in Ohio for those Christmas in Richmond years. One year at Mom’s request we stay in Whitehall for Christmas. She wants to decorate her own tree. It is just not the same. Even Mom has to admit that she misses fretting over crushing the bows on all her pre-wrapped Christmas packages. Mom prefers to arrive in Richmond ready to party. She is all about the bridge games the adults engage in practically non-stop day and night. My aunts take turns playing a hand or two before heading back to wrapping presents. Sometimes they draft me to help with their wrapping. I don’t mind. Being the oldest cousin and betwixt adult & child hood I cherish being included in any adult activity even present wrapping. I am not experienced enough to play bridge but I can cover gift wrapping like a champ.

My cousins and I all bunk in the huge upstairs master bedroom where our grandmother has single metal beds made up in air dried linens ready for each of us. We have our own tiny turf, a bed and a few drawers in a shared dresser.

As much as I love my family and all our Christmas activity, I do have my own social life in Richmond, thanks to a since kindergarten friend (we lived in Richmond then) who always keeps me in the loop. Dad has not put the parking brake on before I am on the phone dialing AT8-7637 to check in with Patsy. It is usually mere days before Cotillion and she always insist that I attend. Far be it that they all have been learning social graces and dances for months, I still need to be included. She gives me her practice nosegay, Mom digs up something dressy for me to wear and off I go into Richmond society.

Patsy too sees that Sally Gabb has a highly sought after invitation for me to her traditional slumber party. Sally also lives in a magical house. Hers is located at the bottom of Old Mill Road, not far from 6416. There are four sisters in her family and one brother, the baby, whom they all fawn over. I love that one of Sally’s sisters gets disgusted living with her closest in age sister and moves into the so tiny (only room for a bed and a door) not in use kitchen maid’s room. The Gabb’s have a free standing phone booth in the kitchen for their real phone. (In summers they put on elaborate plays in their oversized garage.) Mrs. Gabb has beautiful German Christmas candies and she cooks fresh pizza pies for midnight slumber party snacking. We all play games and struggle to not sleep all spread out in every imaginable space in the dining room. This is where I fall in love with the game Mr Ree, a real all nighter.

Our Christmas always has it’s traditional moments. My uncle rounding up everyone for a trip to Miller & Rhoads for shopping and visiting Santa. “Meet me on the balcony,” with its lounge like atmosphere that overlooks the entire first floor of the store is always our battle cry. Adults take turns waiting in the endless Santa line with the kids so others can shop. Sometimes we even score a table in the oh so popular Tea Room for a bite to eat. My uncle bringing home a scruffy but tall enough to reach the 14′ ceiling cedar for us to decorate. My aunt insisting that all tinsel be strung on the tree one piece at a time, the end carefully wrapped around a branch so the long silver strand can shine brightest, that is until someone thankfully calls her away and we all quickly sling the rest onto the tree.  An adult trip at midnight on Christmas Eve to the only all night drug store for batteries with a requisite coffee stop at the Toddle House. My aunt taking over the entire dining room table for her wrapping quarters. Our grandmother making her reluctantly move everything for dinner but once the meal is over back out comes the loot and fixings. She barely finishes before Santa makes his appearance.

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Presents for everyone from everyone

On Christmas morning all kids assemble on the upper stairs while my uncle goes to see if Santa has visited. We truly are never quite sure what report he will bring back. When he tries to trick us we don’t know what to believe. How could Santa skip us? My uncle is quick to assure that he must be mistaken and then he goes to take another look. This time he comes back with a much better report. We all tumble down the stairs to our designated spots. Mine is the piano. Santa never wraps presents. He just tosses them off the sled and somehow they always land in perfect piles for each of us.

Then comes gifting each other. There are so many presents that it takes all morning to unwrap everything. Everyone gives everyone else something and with fourteen people that’s a lot of packages. They are simple gifts but so heartfelt. This is the age when the depression is but a faint memory, the war with all its heartache and rationing over, and the middle class coming into its own. It really is a time of Christmas magic. And we were there.

 

 

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Some Christmas FUN!

I’ve had reason to revisit some of my vlog videos recently and thought it would be fun for y’all too!

Here’s Emily & Lydia doing their mother daughter skating routine for Fairfax Ice Arena’s 2013 Holiday Show. Suzanne brought Harlee from Baltimore so the support group was strong. Yes, you can indeed hear me screaming to excess trying to help Harlee wave to the girls in the finale skate around. Such a docile child I am.

And here they are in 2012. Yes, we are going backwards. What fun is conventionality?

And the entire clip of Lydia in the 2011 Holiday Show. Plus Emily. And Martin showing his board breaking skill.

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The Things You FIND on the Internet

This is a short story of how 2011 me gives 2015 me a cooking lesson.

A fond high school occasion was making pulled butter mints with my good friend Sandy Winfrey. Her mother always did the cooking part and timed it so that when we arrived from school the candy was ready for pulling. We were willing kitchen maids and went after the task with great anticipation. Those mints never disappointed. Even if we were too slow and the entire mass hardened into one giant mint before our eyes we ate it anyway.

Decades later I wanted to make my own batch of mints and so contacted the source. Never mind that we had not talked for years and years. Becky Winfrey was spot on with her recipe and I was a happy cook.

This year I searched for my notes about her process but could not locate them and so did what we all do, turned to google for help. I found a couple of recipes that sounded right. The recipe is easy enough. It’s the execution that’s tricky. These sources were reliable, one even hailing from Winston Salem where Becky was from and probably where she learned her pulled mints secrets.

I cooked a couple of batches but something was not right. They turned out okay but there was too much handling of hot candy and the aging process was not minutes but days. I returned to google and decided to look for a video. I needed to see the process first hand.

Surprisingly I only found a couple of videos (I mean more times than not there are endless videos for any and everything). Even more surprising was leading the tiny pack was my own video I had made the year I decided to make a vlog entry every day of advent reading a page of the advent story the guys created when they were youngsters. I included something Christmasy to round out the short clips.

As I watched myself make the mints I patted myself on the back for such foresight. Mints, you’re mine now.

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