Mom would have shrugged off any significance of her 94th birthday, which would have been today.
She would have been thrilled by the turnout for her celebration, no matter who was there or who couldn’t make it. She would have cooed about the food, the setting, the children on hand (endlessly) and especially about the cake. She might have had an extra slice and rolled her eyes with pleasure.
Marion Baldwin Catlin Yetter exuded love, warmth, acceptance and kindness. She could have taught world leaders volumes about how to get along. She was the most positive person I have yet to encounter.
She was also a realist.
“Everyone in the world is screwed up except for me and you, and you are a little,” she would say with a twinkle in her eye, deploying a classically self-deprecating and sarcastic wit that she dispensed with homespun reserve. Mom was about doing, not just talking about doing.
Someone die? Casserole or cookies were in the oven, and Marion would lead the brigade of deliveries to help feed the family and mourners. Cushions in the church need replacing (by Mom’s own assessment)? She’d start a fundraising drive to get it done.
Mom seemed to have an ability to squeeze a hundred or so hours’ worth of effort into a day. She’d roll out of bed and hit the ground at full speed. Every day. Mom’s transmission had no neutral, and her engine didn’t know idle.
This was a woman who made every holiday special. Despite working long hours in our family’s florist shop, feeding a family of six and helping run the gift shop at her beloved Franklin Medical Center, she somehow had time to serve as den mother for my Cub Scout troop. There was always time for extra effort, always room for one more at her table.
Easter meant a baked ham dinner (decorated by pineapple slices pinned to the ham using cloves and bathed in cherry glaze) with baked potatoes. One year dessert was a version of baked Alaska, with lady fingers stuffed into clay flower pots and topped with ice cream and topping. A life flower was stuck into the top, adding her signature flair for the dramatic.
Thanksgiving was a “pull out the stops” feast, with a bird big enough to feed the entire Salvation Army population, along with all the predictable side dishes. I still make her version of stuffing, slightly amended, as it’s to my palate the best around.
Christmas was the MacDaddy of all celebrations, and we four kids would awaken to an explosion of carefully wrapped gifts that would begin under the tree and threaten to head out the door onto Warner Street. Stockings were indeed hung by chimney with care, each jammed with trinkets and candy with an orange tucked into the toe for good health, a tradition I continued with my own kids.
So, too, did I pick up the magic tradition of making vast amounts of Christmas cookies. I use my mom’s sugar cookie recipe and sister Betsey’s gingerbread recipe as the cornerstone of an important family ritual. Kirsty and Emme would invite their friends to join in the fun well into their teens, and they’d decorate dozens and dozens of cookies with brightly colored icing – just like Mom’s – to deliver to family, friends and neighbors.
One year she joined in the fun at our home in Marblehead, and the memories of her sitting at our dining room table, designing away and singing along to “White Christmas” are as fresh in my mind as is the taste of her cookie pudding.
She was relentlessly devoted to my Dad, combining her nursing training at Hartford Hospital with unshakable resolve to provide for his every need, including hauling him in and out of the station wagon to his thrice-a-week stints in the local YMCA. When he passed away in 2004, she seemed to pick up the pace of her activities to fill the enormous void in her life.
I would call her every morning on my way to work, and if I didn’t get to her by 8 she was often out the door on one of her three or four daily trips to Stop & Shop. These trips often would include acquiring a jar of pickles, which Mom loved to no end. When she died, we removed about a dozen half-eaten jars of the things tucked away in her refrigerator.
The pickle jars served an important function, as her family and friends will attest. Come strawberry season, the kitchen would be transformed into a strawberry jam factory, and Mom would churn out dozens of jars of the yummy stuff. Years ago she discovered an uncooked version that called for freezing the mixture, and it was amazing. Her jam retained the deep red color and sun-ripened strawberry taste despite months in the freezer. Faced with the final prospect of cleaning out her supply when she was gone, we carefully divvied up the supply and departed with our fair share.
I hoarded my own for months, lamenting the permanent loss when the last tablespoon was consumed shortly before Gabi and I moved from the US.
Mom was about celebrations. She’d have loved spending time with the great-grandchildren – now numbering eight. She would have been the first on the dance floor, the hostess at the bingo night, and the shining star of the Senior Follies of 2014.
“Same as the year,” she would remind me if I would become foggy on just how old she was. “Oh, 98?” I quipped in 1998, drawing a good hearted swat to the shoulder.
The night after she died, Gabi and I sat in a restaurant in my hometown of Greenfield. We toasted her with a martini, ate a sullen and tasteless meal, but brightened when the waitress asked if we wanted dessert.
Mom would have said, “Absolutely! Let’s get one for the table and pass it around.”
So we got one for the table and asked for three spoons, a tradition we continue today. One for each of us, and one for the Grande Dame of the Ball.
Happy birthday, Mom. Love you as always, and keeping you close forever.