More Family Mealtime Memories
Among my favorite family mealtime memories are those meals prepared by my grandfather.
My grandfather was a large, thick girthed, white-haired man with a heart of mush! There are a few memories I have of visits to my grandparents house that always warm my heart, family mealtime is one of them. In my mind’s eye I can see my childhood self, sun bleached hair disheveled and crispy from playing all day in the salty air, skin bronzed from the sun peering through overcast skies and sand under my fingernails. There I am sitting at the small table under the window and near the stove, in a cane backed chair , feet dangling because they do not reach the floor, fork in one hand, spoon in the other, waiting for one of Grandpa Don’s creations.
My grandfather, Donald Mark Defreese, was born in Coos Bay, Oregon in 1912. That is where he met and married my grandmother, and where my mother was born. They later moved to Newport, Oregon, on the Oregon coast, where grandpa supported his wife and 3 daughters’ as a commercial fisherman. My mother recalls him coming home from work many times drenched to the bone, and sometimes overhearing him tell my grandmother about a fellow fisherman that had to be rescued after going overboard into the violent ocean during a storm. Later, when I was older, he shared stories about friends he knew who had tragically lost their lives to the sea. It was not a job for the faint of heart and the fact that he had done it made my grandpa a hero in my eyes!
As you can imagine, my mother and her sisters grew up eating a lot of seafood at family mealtime. Grandmother prepared whatever Grandpa brought home from the docks that wouldn’t do well in the market that day, or was in excess. Grandpa cooked too, and taught his youngest daughter. To this day my own mother makes THE best clam chowder!
By the time I came along my grandfather was no longer working as a fisherman, he was a businessman. My brothers’ and I enjoyed trips into town with him to the bakery, where we each got to choose 6 cookies and take them home in our own little, white paper sack. Grandpa Don knew everyone in that small coastal town. He had worked in local business, served on the city council, was a volunteer firefighter and, of course, had lived there for years. Everywhere we went people knew him!
Our favorite days with Grandpa though, were the ones when he took us down to the bay front and introduced us to old friends, white haired men with thick weathered skin and gruff voices. They would laugh and swear and talk about the past. Grandpa showed us the big fishing boats pulling into the bay and unloading the days catch, and the stacks and stacks of crab rings, sometimes over flowing with pinching claws and sometimes a little sparse. I still recall the smell of the air – the mix of salt and seaweed, fish and fuel. “Stinky” my brothers’ and I would say, but we never refused to go. We loved it there!
Grandpa enjoyed cooking in his retirement years, creating his own recipes-some of them pretty interesting! We had our favorites though. Among them were Sh’ Cakes, pancakes he made us for breakfast one morning using the rest of Grandma’s apple sauce! It was our little secret so my brothers’ and I affectionately referred to them as sh’ cakes, and requested them whenever we visited! I loved his fried clams and fish cakes, and Grandpa is the one who taught me how to eat crab using the pick off the end of a front leg to pick the meat out.
Of all the things Grandpa Don cooked, everyone’s favorite was the barbecued salmon he made for us every 4th of July! My mother’s only living sister and her family of 7 joined with our family at one of their homes and provided all of the sides. Grandpa brought the fish fresh from the bay front. It traveled in an ice-filled cooler for the 96 mile trip inland where the rest of us lived. I recall his eagerness to show off the fish when he arrived, repeating how beautiful it was that year. Honestly, I thought the shiny, lifeless eyes peering up through the ice quite gross, and I only watched granddad behead and clean the fish once! When it came time for eating however, I was all in!
The smell of that salmon wafting through the air made it difficult to do anything else but wait. Our parents would answer our never-ending questioning “when will it be ready?” with “Soon, go play”. But it was tough to do. My cousins and I would sit at the picnic tables; chins resting on folded arms, watching the master lovingly baste that fish over and over. Some of the older cousins would stand alongside Grandpa and listen as he replayed every step of the perfected process and every ingredient in the recipe.
Once that salmon went onto the table the feast began! Grandpa sat at the head of the long row of tables looking ever so pleased as his family devoured his masterpiece, and praised his work with mmm’s and sighs. There was never a flake of fish left over after eating, we even picked at the foil to get every bit of the crispy remains!
Grandpa Don passed away some years ago, after living a full, satisfying life, but his recipes’ live on in us – his posterity. I make Grandpa’s raw apple cake, sh’ cakes from time to time, and I attempt the clam chowder. My mother and her sister have carried on the 4th of July barbecued salmon tradition when there is family in town to enjoy it. Even I make the barbecued salmon now-I don’t know if I do it justice, but it always takes me back to visits with my grandfather, his wonderful stories and giant, passionate heart!