In the wee small hours of the morning of Jan. 12, 1940, Dad woke both me and my older brother from sound sleep and told us to come with him to see what he said was a late Christmas present that had just arrived.
Imagine our disappointment when we followed him into their bedroom and saw a tiny, pink, wiggling, squeaking baby in our mother’s arms; not the bicycle Sonny wanted nor the Sonja Henie skating doll I’d wanted. A baby, and not a very cute one at that point, either.
“Her name is Shirley Jean,” said Mom, but that didn’t last long. By the time she was a few weeks old, we were all calling her “Tootsie,” and she was a lot cuter, with very blonde curly hair, big blue eyes and a dimpled smile. I thought perhaps she’d be OK to have around, once she got housebroken.
When she outgrew her crib, Toots was moved into my room. We shared a large bedroom, a walk-in closet and bunk beds. I had the lower, Toots the upper, but most nights she crawled into my bed so I could read my favorite stories to her, and ended up falling asleep there. When she was about three or so, I decided she needed to read the stories for herself and not bug me to read to her all the time, so I taught her to read. When she went to kindergarten and her teacher learned she could already read, she was moved into first grade, launching what would be the pattern of Shirley Jean’s life … always ahead of the game, whatever it was.
She grew into a scrawny, skinny stick of a girl, with long blonde braids, and we alternately adored or abhorred each other, depending upon what we were up to at the time. But, to keep this short, I’ll briefly tell you that over the years we shared not only a room but our lives, we played dress-up, spent hours roller skating, collaborated on schemes to torment our younger brother, who’d appeared unexpectedly (to us) three years after Toots had shown up, and trying to avoid our mother, who believed in keeping children busy with chores. I taught Toots how to swim and how to catch bullheads and pogies on our weekend excursions out to Hood Canal, and together we dug clams and climbed trees in the woods behind the cabin.
We continued to share a room and many secrets until I got married and left to begin a different life. Toots graduated from high school, left for college and never looked back. She was at one time or another a teacher, activist, feminist, author, speaker, wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister and never failed to give her all in anything she undertook.
And Toots never stopped working on me, bringing me slowly into the feminist fold when I barely knew it existed, much to the discomfort of my then-husband. It was Toots who convinced me I should write, so I did, and do. Over the years, if things got tough, it was Toots I called, Toots I turned to for support and input, and Toots who got me through the death of my son, who adored her.
There is so much more about Toots in my memory banks and in my heart, but I can hear her saying, “Enough, Margy, enough.” This past May, my beloved sister lost her battle against breast cancer, which is why I’m telling you about her now, during Breast Cancer Awareness month. My world has become so much more empty, and I miss her every day, but I will be forever grateful for that, “late Christmas present” and all the years we shared.
Breast cancer: the thief which steals from us that which we most treasure, our loved ones.
RECIPES: Toots was a very good and creative cook and we shared many, many recipes over the years. We were both cheesecake fanatics (I still am) and because right now is high pumpkin season, I’ll pass along to you one of our favorite things to do with pumpkin. We both make (made) at least one of these every October or November. It’s a great alternative to pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, by the way.
PUMPKIN GINGER CHEESECAKE
For the crust: 6 oz. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces; 2 cups sifted flour; 1/8 t. salt; 2 T. sugar; 1 t. grated orange rind; 1 egg; and 1 T. cold water.
Combine all ingredients in a food processor, until dough forms a ball. Remove from processor and chill at least 1 hour. Roll out into at least a 12-inch circle and line a 10 inch springform pan with the dough, patting the dough onto the bottom and up the sides (the further up the side, the better looking the cake will be). Line the pastry with foil and fill with raw beans to prevent sides from falling. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 20 min. Remove foil and beans and bake 10 min. more. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
For the filling: 1 lb. softened cream cheese
1 lb. ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
4 eggs plus 2 egg yolks
1/4 cup melted butter
1 1/2 cups solid pack pumpkin
1 T. minced preserved ginger
3 T. each, flour and cornstarch
1/2 t. each of allspice and cinnamon (more if you prefer)
2 t. grated orange rind
1/4 cup Gran Marnier liqueur
1 1/2 t. vanilla
2 cups sour cream
1. Cream together both cheeses, sugar and maple syrup. Add eggs plus egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add butter, pumpkin, ginger and blend well.
2. Add flour, cornstarch, seasonings and flavorings; combine well. Gently fold in the sour cream, mixing well. Pour the mixture into the springform pan (don’t panic if it overflows the crust a bit). Bake in preheated 325 degree oven for about 1 hr. (it should begin to puff a bit and just begin to color). Reduce heat to 300 degrees and continue baking for 30 to 40 min. The cheesecake should rise to the top of the pan and perhaps even a bit above. It will still be a bit jiggly, especially in the center. Turn off the oven but leave the cheesecake to rest in the oven for another hour. Remove and allow it to set until cool, then refrigerate. Serve chilled, with perhaps a dollop of whipped cream flavored with ginger and nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice.
What? You’d like something not quite so decadent? OK; here’s a recipe I got from Toots years ago when she was “cooking healthy” for her two sons.
1 1/2 cups oat bran
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
2 t. baking powder
1 t. pumpkin pie spice (or use your own favorite blend of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon)
1/2 t. salt
1 cup mashed cooked pumpkin (or canned puree)
1/2 cup milk (yes, you may use skimmed milk, if it makes you feel better)
2 egg whites, beaten (or use 2 whole eggs but increase the flour a bit)
2 T. vegetable oil
1. Combine first 6 ingredients (through salt) in a large bowl, mixing well. Make a hollow in the center of the mixture. Combine pumpkin, milk, egg whites (or eggs) and oil; pour into the hollow and stir just until dry ingredients are moistened. Spoon into lightly oiled (or sprayed) muffin tins, filling about 2/3 full. Bake in a preheated 425 degree oven for 20 min. Remove from pans immediately and serve. Note: Add chopped nuts and/or raisins during last mixing, if desired.