Margaret Ellen Wilson: Redefining Herself – 52 Ancestors (Ancestor 3)

This is the fifth installment of a series about my mother. The previous post is here.

Grief is in two parts. The first is loss. The second is the remaking of life.
~Anne Roiphe

Fall in love with yourself and everything will fall into place.
~Autumn Kohler

If I were not living somewhat of a parallel life to my mother’s, I would not be able to understand what it was like for her. If she hadn’t shared or I hadn’t listened, I would not be able to write this series. My mother had wrapped herself around my heart, and even though the surgery-abandonment in 1972 shut me down on the outside, on the inside, I yearned for her. I yearned for her to not let me push her away. But she did, because that’s either just who she was or who she had become. She never pushed me away, but she didn’t have the energy to fight me. Parenting is hard.

She had lost not everything, but a lot. She had her children, though, and the roof over her head, the former which were most important, and the latter which was also most important. She was still Margaret, and although she had become pretty isolated, and had no family to speak of, she began finding a network of support.

Being disabled, she was able to get SSDI, a meager amount, and Food Stamps, also a meager amount. Both of those subsidies came in the mail around the 3rd of each month. By the 4th, I would say they were probably gone. I don’t know how long the poverty lasted, but I have vivid memories of bare cupboards, no heat, a broken oven, a leaking roof, an unmowed lawn, and nobody helping.

Having seen her go the opposite direction from her family’s values after her mother died, one of her brothers chose judgment and shame over love and support as the way to relate to her. He and his family lived less than a mile away, and I didn’t know this then, but visiting him or asking for help from him would have caused her more grief than not doing it, so she did not. Family judgments can be brutal.

The other brother lived 150 miles away.

She had free medical care (probably Medicaid), but she would not apply for general Welfare because the government would have pursued my dad for child support which would then mean the secret would get out. They had not been married, and she continued to maintain that secret, even from her children.

Sometimes she would come home with U.S.D.A. surplus dairy and flour. I learned that the only good uses for nasty powdered milk were over cereal and in cooking. I also learned that real American cheese was much better than “cheese food” or “cheese product,” and that real butter topped margarine any day. I saw what Mom could do with very little food, and how far she could make it last. Of course, feeding two very hungry, sugar addicted kids was not easy. So by the end of the month, the cupboards would be bare again.

My mother’s biscuits are, to this day, the best biscuits in the world. She made them for us. She made them for restaurants. I don’t know how many people she taught how to make them, but she did love to teach. I have to say that my brother inherited the biscuit gene (I think that’s on Chromosome 2). I suppose if I were inclined, I could do it, too.

This is the making process as given to me by my brother in a Facebook text in 2011, with his humor and tweaks included, used with his permission.

I am sorry to say that our mother’s genetic biscuit mojo passed on to me, en toto. I am sorry. I got so much baking powder magic that there is none left for you.

At least you got good looks.

OK, I’ll give you the recipe and talk thru the technique, but honestly it is ALL in the feel. You HAVE to just know what texture/consistency you are dealing with. The recipe I am giving you is the one Mom dictated to me. I am doing it from memory. This is technically a doubled batch, but it makes between 12-15 big puffy biscuits.

4 cups flour (I sometimes use half whole wheat)
8 tsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
1/2 c of COOL butter or butter flavored shortening (use butter, honestly; the nutritional info is not any different, and I trust cows more than chemists)
1 1/2 cup milk (or buttermilk)


Sift all dry ingredients together into a large bowl (I do half of all ingredients at a time to get it all blended well).

Take COOL butter (not super cold, not melted or even soft) and CUT it into the dry ingredients. (Not to treat you like you are dumb, but honestly, explanation of the cutting technique is necessary.) You can use forks and draw them across each other. I use a pastry blender like this one that Mom gave me .

Use either technique to chop your butter up into small beads/flakes — probably about quarter inch. Make sure it is spread evenly thru the dry ingredients. It should look like maybe you have oatmeal spread thru it.

Once the butter is cut into the dry stuff, you add the milk/buttermilk. I mix with a wooden spatula, in a circular motion, pulling the dry goods from the inside of the bowl and mixing in. At this point, the mixture should be doughy, not pasty.

Turn the mixture out onto a floured surface for kneading. Kneading biscuit dough is a delicate act. You are making love to the dough, not beating the f— out of it like you do bread. I use a pastry knife to essentially flip it and fold it, but you can use a flat end spatula to do the same thing.

The trick is to slide the pastry knife underneath your pile of dough and fold it over. Then press it down firmly, but gently, with your hands (I do NOT use a rolling pin — Mom didn’t either I think). Essentially repeat this process 6-8 times until your dough all seems blended and a nice consistency. Note that the folding process will make layers in the biscuits. Sprinkle flour, pat out, fold, repeat, eventually making your dough build up till it is about 1-1 1/2 inches thick.

Cut your biscuits with a glass/cup/can/whatever…. Mom used to use a Clabber Girl baking powder can.

I bake them for about 15 mins at 350F-375F (depending on my whim and the thickness of the biscuits).

If you find your biscuits are too dry and crumbly, try using a smudge more milk or butter.

It’s a heck of a lot easier to SHOW it, but essentially this is the technique that Mom showed me…. I have probably tweaked it a little bit over the years.

I make kick ass sausage gravy like she used to, too.

Mom's biscuits, as made by my brother. Photo used with permission.

Mom’s biscuits, as made by my brother. Photo used with his permission.

Her sausage gravy was wonderful – not like the gloppy, snotty stuff you get in restaurants these days, but the real thing. Thick, creamy, flavorful. Apparently my brother got that mojo, too. I used to do it up well, but I’m way out of practice. I expect I’d have to mess up about 4-6 batches of gravy before I would get it right again.

Her pie crusts were fantastic. Her mother taught her how to make pie crusts.

Mother’s Pie Crusts 3 c. flour 1 c. shortening 1/2 t. salt Cut in shortening in not too small pieces. Add cold water, as Mother showed me, just enough to hold together. Bake in hot oven. Makes 2 double crusts.

My mom’s recipe for pie crusts. I suspect you could use lard instead of shortening. I would.

She made baked beans in her “bean pot.” I’m pretty sure they consisted of Great Northern beans or pinto beans, brown sugar, and catsup.

My mother's Bean Pot. This is a Hull Mirror Brown bean pot. I now collect Mirror Brown.

My mother’s Bean Pot. This is a Hull Mirror Brown bean pot. I now collect Mirror Brown.

She improvised and cooked biscuits in the electric skillet after the oven quit working. She would make “cinnamon pies,” rolling out leftover biscuit dough and globbing the inside with butter, sugar, and cinnamon, then folding it over and baking. It would get all sugary and crispy on the bottom where the filling would leak out. It was so good.

She’d deep fry dough and make doughnuts. She knew how to cut a chicken. Nobody knows how to cut a chicken anymore.

We’d make Whacky Cakes and instant pudding and eat a box of 12 ice cream sandwiches in about a day.

Sift together the following into an eight inch baking pan: 1-1/2 cup flour (if using self-rising flour, omit salt), 1 c. white or brown sugar, 3 T. cocoa, 1 t. baking soda, 1/2 t. salt; Mix well. Into this mixture make two holes. In one hole, pour 5 T. melted shortening (butter, margarine). In the other hole, pour 1 t. vinegar. Over this, pour 1 cup of warm water. Mix well. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes.

The Whacky Cake recipe, the way we’d make it.

She made “Oatmeal Crispies,” no-bake “Hershel’s Cookies” and criss-cross peanut butter cookies. It just occurred to me that she probably didn’t make chocolate chip cookies because chocolate chips were expensive.

Oatmeal Crispies Recipe

Oatmeal Crispies Recipe

No-bake Hershel's Cookies

No-bake Hershel’s Cookies

Criss-cross Peanut Butter Cookies

Criss-cross Peanut Butter Cookies

We loved chicken and dumplings. We just had to watch out for the little bones.

This recipe card has two recipes on it. I don't remember her making the second one. The top one could be used for chicken and dumplings. Yum.

This recipe card has two recipes on it. I don’t remember her making the second one. The top one could be used for chicken and dumplings. Yum.

There were good things about her not being able to work. She had time to make us food, and she was physically in the house.

She started to come out of some of her emotional pain in either late 1972 or early 1973. She pursued and received Vocational Rehabilitation, which allowed her to go back to school for a second bachelor’s degree, fully paid. So that’s what she did. She majored in Social Work because she believed in giving back what she had been given. (I guess the lowest paid profession with a college degree was higher than what she was making at the time, which was zero.) In 1975, she obtained her B.S.W. She once thought of moving to Arizona for the warmth that would help her pain. She put the house on the market, but at some point, she changed her mind. I don’t remember what year that was. She took graduate courses after the B.S.W., for a master’s degree in counseling, but did not complete her thesis.

One of her favorite experiences, perhaps the favorite experience, of her studies was the trip she made with a group of people to Middlesboro, Kentucky. They went to learn about and help with a poverty-stricken area. This was poor Appalachia, and she had never seen such a thing. Deep mountain accents, children with no shoes, no clean water. Our poverty was nothing compared to this. She fell in love with the people and the mountains. She bought a pair of red sneakers for one little girl. That little girl loved those red sneakers.

Middlesboro, Kentucky. Summer 1973. The little girl with the red sneakers, and her mama and younger sibling.

Middlesboro, Kentucky. Summer 1973. The little girl with the red sneakers, and her mama and younger sibling.

We would listen to her “old” country music 45s and LPs, like Jim Reeves, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash. She learned to love John Denver, and so did we. The Carpenters were a favorite, too. She bought a piano so she could learn to play “Für Elise” and so my brother and I could take piano lessons. Later, when I wanted to play violin, she got me a violin. Musical ability runs in the family, as does artistic ability, but nobody in our house had the discipline to practice for very long.

She could sew. Wow, could she sew! She made me Barbie clothes and Baby Tender Love clothes. She made clothes for my Chrissy and Mia dolls, and clothes for me sometimes. When I was a girl scout, I was too big for even the biggest sizes, so she bought two uniforms and expanded one for me.

She was reinventing herself. She put her parenting theory into practice. She had become what she always wanted to be – a mother. And nobody else was bringing her down. She had turned her insides around and was strong again. Most of all, she was learning to love herself.

There was just one little problem, though. She could not get a job. When she was through with college and had her B.S.W., she could only find local temporary jobs. Or she would get laid off. Indiana is not known for being social services friendly.

She was reaching the point where she soon would not be able to pay the mortgage.

Then the blizzards hit. Two years in a row – 1977 and 1978. And this was the last straw.

It was time to move south. Appalachia was calling.

To be continued…

This entry was posted in 52 Ancestors, Mom's Side and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Margaret Ellen Wilson: Redefining Herself – 52 Ancestors (Ancestor 3)

  1. Pingback: Margaret Ellen Wilson: Her Babies – 52 Ancestors | Diggin' Up Graves

  2. Pingback: Margaret Ellen Wilson: North Carolina and Onward – 52 Ancestors | Diggin' Up Graves

  3. Pingback: Ancestors for Week 7 – 52 Ancestors (2015 #7) | Diggin' Up Graves

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.