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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: November 7, 2019

Jane Thibodeau Martin

Gourmet Potatoes

I recently had an extended visit with a lifelong friend, and we spent a lot of time reminiscing about our childhoods. We both come from modest backgrounds, but agree that we had wonderful childhoods, full of the simple things in life that create the best memories.

Of course we talked about our six years of elementary school in a rural four-room schoolhouse, and our twice daily bus rides of 45 minutes each way. We passed this long ride playing cards with our friends Tim and Roger, and I only took off my mittens to deal the cards, because the bus was freezing cold in the winter. One of the best days ever was when our bus slowly and gracefully slid off the icy banked curve on Highway BB right into Marilyn and Al Dudka's front yard. Marilyn was kind enough to let all of us into her house, where she quickly whipped up some baked goods for us. When the relief bus came to get us, it too slid off the curve, much to our delight. Although Marilyn was probably was less thrilled with this development than we were, with a completely unexpected houseful of energetic kids. Her kindness to us is a fond memory of mine to this day.

But while we were talking, my friend asked, "Did your Dad cook potatoes in some kind of underground oven?"

Now I knew immediately what he was referring to, but I was stunned that he remembered such a small detail. He described going to Peshtigo Harbor with us, and some delicious potatoes that Dad produced after building a driftwood fire on the beach.

This small thing is one of my own fondest memories of my father. When Mom wanted to wax floors on the weekend, or just needed a break, Dad would load the kids and dog into the family Volkswagen Beetle. Winter or summer, it didn't matter. He brought along a paper sack with a dozen unwashed potatoes in it, a battered aluminum salt shaker, and a couple of sticks of butter. While the kids played on the drainage ditch ice or the summer beach at the harbor, he'd build a roaring fire and then put the potatoes directly into the embers. After a half-hour or so, he'd use a stick to extract what looked like black lumps of soot.

Those lumps were the potatoes, thoroughly charred on the outside, but baked perfectly on the inside. Once they cooled enough to peel, he'd whip out his jackknife, peel each of us a potato, and hand it to us, speckled with soot and maybe some beach sand. We got to rub the stick of butter over it and liberally apply salt from the shaker. The results, I can assure you, were amazing. Kids get hungry playing hard and some hot food, especially in the winter, really hit the spot. No pre-packaged sterile granola bars or fruit snacks for us " it was about 25 cents worth of potatoes, with the most delicious taste you can imagine. So good that my friend remembered it nearly 55 years later.

I treasured this conversation, and mulled it as I flew home. The best memories of our childhood are usually not the gift we got after wishing for it for months, the vacation trips or the birthday parties. It is simpler things, smaller things, things that may be quirky or unique to who we are, and where we come from.

Visiting my delightful granddaughter right after this trip, I reflected again on this lesson. What will she remember of me? I love buying her things, but she won't remember what I bought her. What she will remember most, and treasure, is memories of time together. So I must take care to play in the sand, encourage her interest in the outdoors, nurture her love and empathy for animals, read lots of books with her, and not worry too much about the things that don't matter.

When we picked up windfall pears from under the tree in her yard during my visit, we rubbed most of the dirt off on my jeans and ate them, unwashed and hardly sanitary. I hope she remembers that, as I will.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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