Dreams really do come true. Keep dreaming!
I recently had an opportunity to return to the Catholic grade school where I spent first through sixth grade. Not surprisingly, in the several decades since I last walked the halls, some things have changed. The walls are now painted a much brighter hue and much of the décor has been redone. But let me tell you, as soon as I found myself in the stairwells, I felt a strong urge to immediately get in a line along the railing and stop talking. Keeping quiet, ‘no talking’ and using inside voices were all hard and fast rules in every grade.
Lunch time in the school cafeteria or gym was just one of the many places we were supposed to sit quietly. The gym did double duty as the cafeteria and the lunch times were divided with the lower grades eating first and by the time they headed out to recess, the higher grades were coming down for lunch.
So just a few weeks ago, as I sat at what I recall being the second grade section of tables in the cafeteria, on one of the same cold metal folding chairs I had sat on countless times as a child, surrounded by all my siblings, as well as my daughter and son-in-law, a flood gate opened up and a wave of memories of being in this same place washed over me.
Our hairnet wearing cafeteria cooks who made us hot lunch every day. They were local moms, some who lived in town and some from area farms, but all were great cooks. The only one I remember by name was Molly. She was always kind and it felt like she was everyone’s grandma. I was somewhat of a picky eater back then. Although I know a couple of friends who when reading this post might question, “back then?” Anyway, I lived in dread of lunches that consisted of chili, chili con carne hot dish, strange vegetables, Spanish rice, macaroni and cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
These last two options were only served on Fridays and were basically part of a 3-week rotation. This was back in the day when Catholics could not eat meat on Fridays. One week we’d have macaroni and cheese, the next week would be grilled cheese sandwiches, and the next was my absolute favorite – fish sticks. Fish sticks were always served with two half slices of buttered homemade bread (I’d make a sandwich) and applesauce. I’m not sure what else we got, but I remember always eating everything on my plate on Fish Stick Fridays. Other favorite menu items of mine were fried Spam and buttered homemade bread (I always made a sandwich), turkey and gravy over real honest to goodness mashed potatoes, glorified rice (with crushed pineapple and whipped cream), hot cross buns, and my favorite cake on the planet (at least in grade school), Molly’s Cake. I didn’t know what it was called back then, I only knew it was super moist and had dates, chocolate chips, and nuts on top. I loved that cake. I could usually gauge if I was going to like a meal or not by the distinctive aromas that started making their way into our class rooms shortly before lunch time. To this day, certain food smells can still trigger all sorts of memories for me. Some of them are definitely better than others.
I also remember…
The school had a lady janitor (who I will refrain from naming, although her German last name had about 16 syllables) who doubled as the plate scraper (probably not the official job title) and every single kid lived in fear of her, or maybe just the picky eaters like me, because nothing escaped her. She did not hesitate to send you back to the table to finish what was on your plate. So if you couldn’t eat it or trade it, you had better get creative about how you were going to get rid of it before returning to her table with your tray.
As a first grader, I hadn’t learned all the ropes yet, so either I wasn’t real good about trading food or I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I remember that of all the days in the week, I came to dread Fridays. I quickly learned that a child-sized serving of macaroni and cheese fit almost perfectly in a milk carton. And either I got really good at it or the plate scraper got really busy, but I never got caught hiding my macaroni and cheese in my milk carton.
On grilled cheese sandwich day I had a whole different solution for getting rid of it. I always wore a sweater with pockets and I’d take a couple of extra napkins. I would secretly transport the wrapped sandwich to the girls’ bathroom where I would break it apart and flush it down the toilet. Or at least that was what I did until I realized grilled cheese sandwiches don’t flush well. I only learned this after all the first grade girls had to lineup and one at a time go out into the hallway and answer Sister Marie Antoine’s question of who had flushed a grilled cheese sandwich down the toilet. I lied. I know. Both of those sins (the flushing and the lying about it) were a part of my first heartfelt confession in 2nd grade. They were also part of my second confession, and my third confession, and my fourth confession. That is until the priest assured me God had forgiven me long before. Things get a little foggy after that. I can’t remember if I started trading or giving away my sandwiches, but I’m thinking there is a pretty good chance until that happened, I threw them away. I remember always being really fond of sweaters with pockets…even to this day.
Fast forward to a number of years later, when I was in between my freshmen and sophomore years of college and during the winter lay off from my mobile home factory job; this was the school where I offered to volunteer. The principal jumped at my offer to help and had me there basically full time throughout the 4 – 5 months I was off work. I became the Physical Education teacher for all 8 grades (I’m not making that up), 2nd grade reading tutor, 5th grade math tutor (even that is funny) and noon hour recess supervisor. You might ask what I got out of the bargain. Well, I’ll tell you – I got a free lunch. I also got to eat in the teacher’s lounge (forbidden territory when I was a kid), which was also the school library except at lunch time.
The same plate scraper/janitor was still working there. And so was Molly, my favorite cook. I remember loving the adult freedom of now being able to take what I wanted to eat, instead of automatically being given it. The teachers brought their trays directly back to the kitchen, which means I also avoided the plate scraper. And even after all the years, fish sticks still were a hit and I still made a sandwich with them.
Writing this has made me realize I have a lot more stories to write about from grade school. I could write about the nuns, and first crushes, and school plays, and picture day, and sick days, and sleep overs, and recess, and jumping rope, and riding the bus, and pagan babies and heathens (what my mother called us when we started eating before praying or what she termed people – some Catholics we knew – who ate meat on no-meat Fridays). But, those stories will have to wait for another time.
Like all volunteering, you don’t get paid for your time or services. But for me besides the free lunch, I got to spend some special moments with my nieces who were students at the time, and I also made some great friends with the teachers, school staff, and other volunteers. My experiences there made me realize I wanted to go back to school and get my teaching degree, something I later did. And Molly was tickled to hear how much I had enjoyed her and her cooking talents when I was young. She happily shared her recipes for Westhaven Cake and Hot Cross Buns. And to me, all of that was payment enough.
Recipe Note: I accidentally missed including the back information from the Hot Cross Buns recipe.
Side 2: Should make 4 dozen. Just before baking, you can cut a cross in the top of each bun or just ice the cross. No temperature was given, but I’m guessing 350 would do it.
Note from me: I haven’t made this recipe, but I remember they were WONDERFUL!