Our mother was a wonderful cook. Everybody said so. She had a great sense of humor too. However, she wasn’t nearly as good a story teller as she was a good cook of very special soups. She could never quite get the punch-line right, laughing out loud at her own jokes before she could get to their endings. But she could sure make good soup. Why, she could make a delicious soup out of almost anything.
When I was still a young lad, she made ox tail vegetable soup with Danish dumplings. It was based on a recipe handed down from her mother’s mother, Grandma Anderson, a second-generation Mormon pioneer. Mom made it in a huge pot, much more of it at a time than the family could eat on the first day of its creation. The next day, with the dumplings all gone, she added stewed tomato and pickling spice rendering it something entirely different. This was best served with soda crackers and a cold glass of milk.
I remember too a variation of mom’s vegetable soup that used mutton for the stock, and a beef noodle soup that had very tender, hand-made noodles. Rolling out the dough for these noodles, without making them too tough in the process, was truly an art. But these soups both go way back, even before my brothers and sister will probably be able to remember. What we had most often, because mom liked it so well, was Great Northern bean soup flavored with a ham hock. Nothing else would do for mom but ham hock in her beans. This was best served with homemade bread ‘n butter with raw onion slices on the side sprinkled with salt. The leftover bean soup eventually became baked beans. Nothing out of a can, mind you. We all remember her homemade tomato soup too. But what we remember best now was mom’s beef lentil soup. We refer to it today as Uncle Paul soup.
Our Uncle Paul was mom’s younger half-brother. He used to visit often, sitting at the kitchen table in mom’s house, which was in West Valley, Utah, part of the Great Salt Lake Valley. The two of them commiserated over Coke and Canadian Club high balls almost every weekend. They did this for several years. Uncle Paul had gone through two divorces, mom through three or four of her own. Of course, while they drank, they also ate… homemade bread, homemade soup, other homemade family traditional dishes like bolder dose (a potato and onion stew flavored with salt pork), roast beef hash, spaghetti with meat and mushroom sauce, Chinese food, homemade jams, homemade pickles, and all manner of fruit preserves. A gourmet’s heaven on earth, nobody could blame Uncle Paul for choosing to do his drinking at mom’s place. But Uncle Paul had a few too many one day. He was driving an old International pickup truck that he had borrowed from his dad when he flipped it over on his way home after a day in mom’s kitchen. His two young sons were asleep in the camper carried in the truck’s bed when it happened. Fortunately, his little girl was with his ex-wife at the time. The boy’s were hurt – badly, but they recovered in time. Uncle Paul never did. He died after fourteen years of lying in bed, paralyzed from the shoulders down.
In his will, Uncle Paul made it clear that he wanted to be cremated. And so he was. There was no funeral. Instead, his daughter, Paula, brought family members each a share of his ashes to dispense in memory of him in their own unique and special ways. Those given to me were spread out with a simple prayer said on a snow-covered slope of Mount Majestic in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. This is where Uncle Paul had introduced me to skiing when I was maybe eleven or twelve years old. Paul was like an older brother to me back then.
A year before my own farewell to Uncle Paul, Paula had visited mom’s house to give her a share of Uncle Paul’s ashes. But mom wasn’t home. My second oldest son, Tom was there though. He was visiting mom with his new wife, Stephanie. Paula, Tom and Stephanie visited for awhile waiting for mom to return. But after a time, when mom had not yet returned, Paula had to leave. She and Tom decided to put mom’s share of Uncle Paul’s ashes in a small Tupperware bowl which they left on the kitchen table. But Tom forgot to tell mom about Paula’s visit. The ashes got set on top of the refrigerator later that day to make room for all to enjoy a special, send-off meal for Tom and Stephanie, who were to board a plane later that evening for their return to Virginia. Uncle Paul’s ashes were forgotten for the time being.
I first learned of all this at my home in Missouri several months later when mom called to tell me about it. She was laughing so hard over the phone that she made me laugh too before she even finished telling me what was so funny. The story, as she told it to me, was that she got hungry for some beef barley soup one day, which she never made by measuring this in proportion to that. Sometimes she would use different spices and different additives to thicken the broth. On this particular occasion, perhaps she’d had one too-many Coke and Canadian Club highballs, who knows? But she finally discovered Uncle Paul’s ashes in the Tupperware bowl on top of the refrigerator. You guessed it. Into the soup went Uncle Paul.
Over dinner that night, my younger brother, Jack, my younger bother, Ed, my younger sister, Dawnie, Jack’s wife and their daughter, Taijh, all said that the soup was especially good this time. After dinner, they all sat around the kitchen table drinking their favorite libations and playing the moose/elk game. Oh? You say you’re not familiar with the game. Well, it’s a drinking game where one person at a table with a group other drinking players passes a spoon or some such object in one direction saying, “This is moose.” Another person passes a different object in the opposite direction saying, “This is an elk.” The idea is that everybody is supposed to continue passing the objects in the same direction in which they originated while repeating the same thing, this is a moose, or this is an elk. until somebody says, “Reverse.” It doesn’t take too long before everyone’s laughing.
Such was the scene around mom’s kitchen table after dinner that evening when in walks Paula to join the fun. After a bowl of mom’s good beef barley soup, while nursing a drink of her own, Paula asked, “Jeanne, what did you do with your share of my dad’s ashes?”
Sitting here writing this today, I wish that I had been at the table with my family that night. Gross as it may sound for me to say, I wish too that I’d had a bowl of Uncle Paul soup. Quite by accident, that evening turned out to be a most suitable wake for Uncle Paul, whose laugh when it happened must have really been something for others to hear — wherever it was that Uncle Paul happened to be at the time.
Two years later, as mom lay in her bed suffering her last few days on earth with cirrhosis of the liver and an advanced case of type-two diabetes, my brother Jack and I were sitting at mom’s table eating some of her fine, homemade tomato soup and talking. I had come to spend a few days with mom, ministering to her as best I could. Jack said, “Y’ know, Bub – my siblings all call me that – mom wants to be cremated and she doesn’t want us to have a funeral for her. But don’t you think we should all get together somehow after she’s gone.”
Before I could respond to Jack, we heard mom’s weak voice coming from the bedroom. This time she got the punch line out just fine. “I don’t care what you do,” she said, “just don’t make soup out of me.”
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