09 May 2012

Ninety-one years

Grandmothers seem to instinctively know just how their grandchildren like to be welcomed. Within minutes of our arrival to my paternal grandmother's house, without fail, a tin would be taken from the kitchen cupboard next to the stove and offered to hungry travelers (both young and not-so-young). A sweet, familiar scent wafted out when the lid came off, revealing dozens of little cookies decorated with pastel shades of frostingpink, green, yellowlayered between parchment paper. Composed mostly of butter and sugar, the sensible inclusion of pecans adds a dash of substance to these delightful indulgences.

Making poodons seemed like the perfect way to honor my grandmother's ninety-first birthday, so out came the recipe she had copied down in the cookbook she put together for me when I got married. Her brother-in-law is actually the one credited with finding the recipe, in a magazine; apparently he thought it amusing to emphatically call out "puh don" every time he put his thumb into the little balls of dough (which creates a space for the frosting). And that is how these 'Swedish Tea Cookies' came to be called 'poodons' by our family.

A fondness for sweets is not the only thing my grandmother encouraged; she has surely influenced my love of writing as well. For her, it all began in 1935, when she was fourteen:
I was about to enter high school in the fall. I was what is known today as a "teenager" (the phrase not yet invented), and I felt at loose ends. We in the States were coming through the end of the depression...with lack of jobs, scarce money, many hardships, sometimes not much food to eat. There really wasn't much for young people to do. We did have one radio for entertainment, but no car, no money for movies, or magazines or treats of any kind. Because I was an avid reader even the book supply at the small, local library no longer interested me as I felt I had read all they had to offer. I was just "hanging," looking for somethinganythingto do that would take away the empty feeling I had in my stomach.

A friend her mother worked with subscribed to a magazine that had a back page for young girls (written by children's author Rebecca Caudill), and it was through this that my grandmother came to have her first pen pal.
Besides words of wisdom for girls, and notes of interest, she was willing to pair up girls with each other so they could write to each other. It took a penny post card with your name, address, age and interests.

And so a new passion was born. My grandmother must have written hundreds of thousands of words to people all over the world (many of whom she and my Grandpa were able to meet over the years). One correspondence, with a woman from South Africa, spanned fifty-eight years, and continued for another decade with her daughter. My grandmother's letter-writing habit even drew the attention of the local newspaper, which recorded the fact that she had already collected a suitcase-worth of letters from South Africa during the first thirty-three years of their correspondence.

My grandmother is my first, longest-running and most loyal pen pal. I still remember trying to finish letters to her and my Grandpa in time to make the weekly 'pouch' that would carry letters back and forth between the US and Brazil (where my family lived for five years). For all my good intentions, I have never been the letter-writer she is, but my grandmother saved the letters my sister and I did write during those years and returned them to us when we were older...a precious gift that revives distant memories of our childhood. As email became more popular, my grandmother learned how to negotiate the cyber world as well, but her handwritten, typed or computer-printed letters continued to arrive in our mailbox more often than from anyone else.

At some point, my grandmother also began to record the stories that make up our family history, including many from her childhood (and even some that had been passed down from her mother's own mischievous days as a little girl). Her birthday seemed like the right occasion to pull out the yellow folder of stories that she sent me a few years ago.

So, with a dish of poodons beside me, I lost myself for a little while in times long pastin stories about a favorite apple tree that served as a 'playground and refuge' while she and her sisters were growing up...of playing 'school', which entailed flour-sack towels, their mother's beads and 'all the spare keys from around the house' as the three sisters tried to emulate the nuns who taught at their school (the beads stood in for rosaries and the keys produced the jangling that warned students of a nun's imminent arrival)...of her first peach canning session as a young wife, on a visit to the 'country' relatives...of fragrant yellow violets transplanted from her childhood garden to the home where she and my Grandpa lived until his death sixty years later.

These recollections evoke a sense of nostalgia reminiscent of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which I also love (and still re-read regularly). Many things were simpler in the 'olden days'and others were much more difficultbut in reading the accounts of other young women, no matter the decade, there is a marked commonality that connects us to past generations. How lucky we are that my grandmother's yearning to write has led her to record so many moments from her long life.

My Grandma baked thousands of poodons over the decades, and I wish we could return the favor by sharing ours with her. They are a real treat for us since pecans are hard to come by in Florence. In fact, only a scant half-cup remained from our precious stash—exactly enough for one batch of cookies. I can't think of a better way we could have used them.

Below is the recipe for those of you who might like to give them a try.

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