Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman, “Recipes for Life: Paradise”

The title of this blog is misleading. It is not meant to be. It is, actually, meant to be leading, for it is the first in the series of blogs on recipes. Now that, too, is misleading. This series—about a month’s worth— will not simply present a recipe and a tasteful discussion of it, followed by another recipe the next week, and so on. Rather these recipes are going to be stories that happen to involve recipes. For those of you who have read the Curious Autobiography, you know already that from time to time the narrator, Elaine Jakes, introduces a discussion of an item of food in some detail, often offering at least partial cooking instructions. She is eager to share with her reader not simply her recollection of the prepared food but her account of how that food affected an event in her past.

Mickey Musgrove
Mickey Musgrove

The story we will considered today is that of the mildly mendacious mender of musical instruments, Mickey Musgrove, who that day dined at the Jakes home at 414 Rutter Avenue, Kingston, Pa; the second was the guest of honor—though he would have insisted that Mickey was that honored guest—the good Reverend Hugh Griffith, whom, if you have been reading these blogs, you have met in a previous iteration.[1]

Rev. Griffith
Rev. Hugh Griffith

On that evening, the first Saturday evening of December in 1941, Reverend Griffith was no longer the young, robust and enthusiastic evangelist who had served in a Welsh Presbyterian parish in Scranton before taking the call at Gaylord Avenue Welsh Calvinistic Presbyterian (and therefore tautological) Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania. Rather, he was about 70—if not quite old by modern standards—somewhat frail, and wiser, still preserving enthusiasm, yet tempered by wisdom. And that evening this last quality was in full sail. His wisdom, and his very presence on that occasion, is highlighted and explained by the person who sat across from him at table, Mickey Musgrove.

Wyoming Valley
Wyoming Valley

No one had seen Mickey Musgrove in the Wyoming Valley for thirty years until Blanche ran across him when she was shopping in Wilkes-Barre’s Boston Store just after Thanksgiving but a week or so before the evening in question. In the old days, Mickey had been known for his unique capacity to repair musical instruments, specifically violins. Of Blanche and Harry Jakes, whose home he was then visiting for dinner with the good Reverend Griffith, he was sempeternally beloved, in no small part for his having often repaired the violin of Blanche’s father, David Evans, who had once penned award-winning Welsh hymns with Reverend Griffith. So there was a connection, if an indirect one, of vicar and vagrant alike. But the real reason Blanche had invited Mickey for dinner was, of course, because she was worried about him and always had been, even before he left the Wyoming Valley. She had heard rumors, she had said prayers, and she had always kept a place for her father’s old, somewhat strange friend in her heart.

Harry and Blanche Jakes
Harry and Blanche Jakes

“So, tell us about what you’ve been up to these past several years,” said the ever-and-always-interested-in-someone-else reverend.

“Traveling, rambling about at first, until I got to paradise.”

“Paradise?” the reverend queried. “What ever do you mean?”

“Well,” Mickey said, pausing and stroking his plenteous beard, “It all began when I left the Valley”—by this he meant, of course, the Wyoming Valley—“by train for Chicago. I thought I could find good employ there.”

“But you had work here,” Blanche said, briefly forgetting Mickey Musgrove’s well-known penchant for mendacity. Then, realizing her error and seeking to allow him a way out of her quasi-accusation, she swiftly added, “Didn’t you? Or perhaps I’m wrong.”

“My work was running dry. After your father’s passing, I lost some other clients, and well, it was getting pretty thin, lass.” He always called Blanche lass, for he had worked for her father and remembered her as a child.

Elaine as a young girl with her sister Lee Ann
Elaine as a young girl with her sister Lee Ann

“What’s a lass?” the precocious five-year old Elaine Jakes piped in, swinging her legs in syncopated rhythm over the side of her chair under the table.

“It’s you, a girl,” her father Harry responded, and then added, “Well, in Mother’s case, a lady.”

“Finding no good work there, I went on to San Francisco. I had heard that there were a great deal of violinists in San Francisco. They had just founded a symphony there three years or so earlier. So I moved there and found a good job working for the symphony repairing instruments. I loved the conductor, Mr. Hadley, but I failed to garner as much  work from his successor, Mr. Hertz, even though he had an electric personality and was famously on a Time magazine cover. So I decided to move on.”

three bean saladAt this point some good conversation followed, during and about the meal. The salad, though praised by the Reverend, was nothing flashy, just the three-bean style, the ordinary winter salad as lettuce was not in season. No one dared ask Mickey why he had been away, for there were  rumors of an affair with a woman of color and a child born out of wedlock, and his shame alongside her own. The woman, Shandra Braeburn, who eventually became the apple of his eye, had worked in the men’s clothing department of Fowler, Dick and Walker’s Boston Store in Wilkes-Barre, where Mickey was shopping for a new overcoat. They fell in love, but as racially mixed marriages were not permitted in those days, they could see each other only discreetly. Discretion gave way to a tryst; a tryst to pregnancy, and pregnancy to a baby and, for both of them, disgrace. Shandra found a position as an au pair to the wealthy Flødrødgrød family, new to the area having only freshly arrived from Denmark and with little English. Shandra would teach them and their child good English and they, in return, would give her and her child, Sarah, a good home free of racial prejudice. In their household Shandra was raising her lovely daughter alongside the Flødrødgrød child, Katarina, as if sisters. She did so until the influenza epidemic of 1918, when that savage disease took both Shandra and her child—Mickey Musgrove’s child—away from this life forever.

Yet when Shandra became pregnant, Mickey left the Wyoming Valley quietly, with no forwarding address and thus none of this did Mickey Musgrove know when he returned to the Valley or even when he came to dinner that night. Blanche was not sure if he knew it, but she knew that he needed to know and she knew that, even though Mickey had not been a churchgoer in the old days, the good Reverend Griffith was the one who could and should tell him. Blanche and Harry had explained all this to the reverend, of course, before Mickey arrived at dinner that evening. Yet, to their astonishment, as they were in the process of explaining the affair, they soon realized that the reverend already knew all of the salacious details.

What came next in the conversation, however, was the most shocking thing of the evening, for before Mickey Musgrove would explain what he had meant by paradise—and all were still waiting intently to hear about that, even as the main course of Welsh chicken, leek and prune pie was being served, whose recipe is detailed below—he told everyone why he had come home. “I’ve come back,” he said, “I’ve come home …” he broke off for a moment, as he was tearing up, “to find my Shandra, to find my daughter. Father, forgive me, I have sinned.”

This paternal reference was not to God, but to the Reverend Griffith who properly deduced that Mickey must have been Catholic as a child, for he used the ministerial designation “Father” rather than “Reverend.”

“God forgives the repentant heart, Mickey,” the cleric said comfortingly. “Go on lad, tell your story.”

“What’s a lad?” piped in the precocious Elaine, continuing to swing her legs squirmily.

“The opposite of a lass,” said Elaine’s older-by-seven-years sister Lee Ann, adding, “That means the opposite of you!”

“I thought you were the opposite of me. So you’re a lad.”

“Quiet, child!” Blanche said, restoring order among her daughters. “Now, if you’ve both finished eating, Lee Ann, why don’t you take Elaine upstairs to color?” Both girls were all too glad to escape the boring conversation of the adult world.

Adjourning to the adjacent living room for coffee and dessert, the conversation continued after an appropriately timed pause.

“Shandra and I, well, we were a couple, Father, and we had a child out of wedlock. I know it’s a terrible thing. You see, Father, Shandra’s a negro.”

“God forgives,” the good prelate said, and pointing toward Mickey’s likely Catholic heritage, he added, “He has already forgiven you at the cross. You know, that’s why you often see Jesus depicted on a crucifix, suffering. He suffered for your sins and mine, and took them away. But the sin,” he added thoughtfully, “has nothing to do with the color of her skin, Mickey. Nor with the baby born, for God loves all the little children, indeed all people.”

“Not her color?” Mickey asked.

“No, not Shandra’s color, nor your child’s. Rather, the sin is yours for having relations with her, son”—for he reasoned that if Mickey called him Father, he might make Mickey feel more comfortable if, in the Catholic manner he called him son, even though less than ten years separated them—“when you were not married. And it is society’s fault, too, for telling you that you couldn’t marry her.”

“I wanted to marry her—desperately I did—but I could find no way to do that properly.”

“I know, son, and I understand, and God does, too.”

“Do you absolve me, Father?”

Now here Reverend Griffith was going way out on a limb not open to most protestant ministers when he said, “I do,” but, lest he deviate too far from Reformed thought, he quickly added, “for Jesus did that already on the cross.”

Overall, the evening was not as awkward as it sounded. Blanche’s pineapple upside-down cake was a wonderful cap to a delightful meal. But the most difficult part was to follow, just after Harry cleared the dessert plates.

“That was delicious, the prune, leek, and chicken pie, a delight, the pineapple cake, like paradise,” Mickey said, adding after a chorus of affirmations, “You know, there are pineapples galore in paradise.” And at this point Mickey was clearly about to explain how he left San Francisco for Hawaii, how he had taken a small apartment not by the then already famous Waikiki beach but rather not far from the ship depot at Pearl Harbor, and how the view of the Pacific and the natural beauty of the Diamond Head volcano was indescribable. Yet the reverend broke in right after he mentioned the copious amount of pineapples in paradise.

Diamond Head Volcano, Hawaii
Diamond Head Volcano, Hawaii

“Mickey, I have some bad news for you,” Reverend Griffith said, changing the subject.

“What is it, Father?”

“Shandra and Sarah, your daughter, died just a few years after you left. It was the terrible epidemic, the flu.”

There was a pause, a look of loss and bewilderment on Mickey’s face, and on all their faces. Harry and Blanche were tearing up as the Reverend sat next to Mickey on the couch and put his arm around him.

“Where are they buried, Father? Can I see them? Did they have a proper funeral?”

“I did their funeral, son.”

At this last piece of information Blanche and Harry were flabbergasted. Mickey let his emotions out, sobbing what sounded like, “Father, thank you, Father.” Yet now it did seem that he was praying, rather than addressing the prelate.”

The evening ended with no discussion of paradise, merely with the hope of another. It was clear that though Mickey’s earthly paradise lay beyond San Francisco, to find which he had gone to the end of the earth or at least past the edge of the continent, Mickey was on the verge of discovering a further paradise. The promise of that paradise had been at home all along or, rather, beyond the edge of one’s physical home, just beyond the edge of one’s imagination.

“Will I see you in church tomorrow?” the reverend inquired as they were going down the front steps of 414 Rutter Avenue.

“I’ve not been in a house of God for many a year, Father.”

“But you were in a godly house tonight, Mickey. There’s no difference between a godly house and a house of God,” Reverend Griffith quipped, and then added, “You’d be most welcome.”

“See you tomorrow, Father. It will be a day to be remembered, for come I will.”

That next day would be remembered in more ways than one. It would be remembered for the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which was in fact the paradise that Mickey Musgrove had failed to mention. He had found paradise, but needed to come home to find family and peace. Had he stayed in his comfort zone, he might have died there. Instead, he came home to a welcoming Welsh leek stew, through which to find life anew.

Blanche Evans Jakes’ Welsh Chicken, Leek and Prune Pie
(handed down by Elaine Lucille Jakes)

Chicken Leek Prune Pie

 

 

 

 

[1] The view from here.

 

 

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