In honor of my mother in-law Caryl McCarthy (1930-1992), who was born on Christmas Eve.
(This piece is from the collection Recipes for My Sons: Instructions on Cooking & Life by Nan McCarthy—a work-in-progress of letters to my sons about family, life, and food.)
Other than having a tendency to talk too much on occasion, Grandma Caryl was a wonderful mother in-law to me. Apart from her dedication to family, she was also a Renaissance Woman, and I admired her for that. She was not only a fantastic cook, she was ahead of her time when it came to popular trends and culture. The first time I ever tasted Cajun/Creole food was at Grandma and Grandpa’s house when your dad and I were dating in the early 1980s, and Grandma served blackened fish, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. This was well before all the trendy restaurants (back then at least) began serving blackened fish (or “blackened” anything for that matter).
Grandma was also the one who introduced me to Zydeco music in the mid-1980s. After we were married and back home from dad’s Marine Corps tours of duty in Okinawa and Virginia, your dad and I enjoyed going to dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s house in South Holland. We’d arrive at the house on a late afternoon in the summer to find Grandma floating on a lounge chair in the above-ground swimming pool out back while drinking a lemon shandy, or standing at the kitchen sink preparing dinner (still wearing her wet swimsuit of course)—but always with music cranked up to eleven on the stereo in the living room, usually Claude Bolling, Johnny Cash, Prokofiev, or Zydeco. After she got sick she’d lie on the living room couch with her eyes closed, the sounds of Enya drifting throughout the house. (You might also remember Nana listening to Enya before she died. It took a long while after both of their deaths before I could listen to any of my Enya CDs.)
How to Make Grandma Caryl’s Lemon Shandy
Grab a cold can of Stroh’s or a bottle of St. Pauli Girl. Pour half the beer into a chilled Welch’s jelly jar glass (preferably Flintstones or Archies special edition), then fill the rest of the glass with lemonade. Add a slice of lemon and some ice. Don swimsuit, turn up the stereo loud enough to be heard in Holy Ghost parking lot, commence relaxing in pool. When lemon shandy is finished, return dripping wet to kitchen, check jambalaya cooking on stove, pour another shandy using remaining beer/lemonade. Get back in pool and repeat process until Pat & Nancy arrive for dinner or Bob comes home from work asking for a boilermaker (more on that in another letter).
Of course, nowadays you can take the easier route and just buy the seasonal Summer Shandy beer made by Leinenkugel. (Which reminds me of our vacation to Sleeping Bear Dunes the summer of 2010, searching for Petoskey Stones, watching the sun set over Lake Michigan, a cooler of Summer Shandies always within reach. That was fun, wasn’t it?) But the point is Grandma Caryl, being of German descent and always on the cutting edge of popular culture, was drinking her homemade lemon shandies decades before they became a thing here in the U.S.
Grandma Caryl was also a fabulous knitter, crocheter, and all-around seamstress. Well, some of the handmade sweater vests dad wore in college were a little goofy, but I liked her knitted slippers, baby blankets, and Christmas stockings. (Coleman I’m sorry you never got your own Christmas stocking made by Grandma Caryl—she died the year before you were born, which explains why Dad, Ben, and me all have better stockings than you.)
Grandma Caryl was also an avid reader. She liked all the old Agatha Christie mysteries as well as the newer Sue Grafton “alphabet series.” Unfortunately, she only got as far as “’H’ Is for Homicide” before she died in 1992 (Grandma Caryl that is, not Sue Grafton). She also read biographies and all kinds of other non-fiction including the dictionary and encyclopedias. Yes, it’s true. Grandma read the dictionary and an entire set of World Book encyclopedias from first page to last. (She inspired me to try reading the dictionary once myself, but I only got as far as “apathetic.”)
My own enchantment with classic movies was originally fueled by Grandma Caryl, who would sometimes get up at four in the morning to finish one of her knitting projects while watching an old movie on AMC or TNT (this was before the days of TCM). Grandma got me hooked on all the Alfred Hitchcock movies besides “Psycho” and “The Birds” (which I had previously watched on network TV with Nana), including “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest,” “Notorious,” and “Dial M for Murder.” She and Grandpa also introduced me to a lot of holiday classics. The first time I ever saw “It’s A Wonderful Life” (one of your dad’s favorite movies—he still cries every time he watches it) was at the McCarthy house in South Holland when your dad and I were dating. Grandpa built a fire in the fireplace and we all settled in under one of Grandma’s homemade zigzag afghans to drink hot toddies and watch the movie, Christmas lights twinkling and Paine’s Balsam Fir incense swirling from the miniature log cabin chimney on the fireplace mantel. I had already fallen in love with your father; it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with his family too.
Grandma’s penmanship was illegible (which is why she typed all her recipes) and she wasn’t the greatest housekeeper. But she had other fish to fry—like being a dedicated hockey mom (never missing a chance to ring her cow bell at her sons’ hockey games), Holy Ghost Church choir member and volunteer (cleaning the rectory, among other things), election day poll worker and Democratic Party activist (serving as an Illinois delegate when George McGovern ran for president in 1972), and even working part-time at Dominick’s handing out promotional samples of cheese and crackers and cordials like Midori melon liqueur. All this while raising seven children, in addition to her many other pursuits. I forgot to mention she was also a pretty good oil paint artist, although most of her paintings were done before the kids came along. (Ben you must have inherited Grandma’s artistic leanings in addition to her manner of housekeeping.) It’s hard to imagine she had time left over to lounge in the swimming pool, but if nothing else, Grandma had her shit straight when it came to priority setting.
When I was offered a better-paying job in Denver in 1991, no one was more supportive of dad and me making the move from Chicago to Colorado than Grandma and Grandpa. Which is pretty remarkable, since by then Grandma had been diagnosed with a rare and deadly form of melanoma. Ben, you were only about a year old at the time, so a move to Colorado meant Grandma and Grandpa would get to see their grandson even less. But when I told Grandma the news of my job offer, she didn’t skip a beat in encouraging me to go for it. I appreciated her unselfishness at the time, but my respect for her has deepened over the years as I’ve watched the two of you fly the coop, pursue your passions, and strive for independence.
Before she died I wrote a letter to Grandma thanking her for raising a son like Dad. I told her he was the light of my life, and that I believed he was the man he had become in large part because of her. There’s a certain confidence and stability in people who grow up knowing they are loved unconditionally by their parents, and Dad is one of those people. He was well-loved by both his parents of course, but most especially by Grandma. Here’s to you, Grandma Caryl. Long live summer shandies, goofy sweater vests, and well-loved sons.