A Legacy of Canned Love

This Tuesday,  Nov. 20th, would have been my Dad’s 98th birthday.  It doesn’t always fall this close to Thanksgiving but it did the year my Mother’s passed away.  That was an especially emotional Thanksgiving for all of us.  My family celebrated the holiday with my Dad at my brother’s home in Kansas just days after my Mother’s funeral and my Dad’s 93rd birthday.

My Dad died two years later.  Although he’s no longer here to eat Thanksgiving dinner with us, we still enjoy the fruits of gardening and cooking with the few remaining jars of canned food that he left us. It’s almost as if he’s still sharing a meal with us.

My Dad loved working in his garden and canned the bounty he harvested.

Canning the tomatoes, beets, green beans and cucumbers harvested from his garden brought him great pleasure.  Often, a jar of tomatoes, green relish, piccalilli or, his favorite, stickles would wind up under the Christmas tree as a holiday gift from my Dad.

My Dad’s gardening hat and his hand sickle along with the jars of canned vegetables he made are touching reminders of his love for growing his own food.

Sadly, I didn’t care for the stickles until  recently when I snapped open a jar sitting on my pantry shelf.  I taste tested a tiny bite to determine if the stickle was still safe to eat.  To my surprise, I found it deliciously sweet, not at all what I had expected.  For those of you unfamiliar with this down home delicacy, stickles are made from cucumbers with white vinegar, some drops of green food coloring, celery seed, sugar, some lime and salt. The cucumbers are cut lengthwise into strips and come out sweet and much different from traditional pickles.  My Dad had tried hard to convince me that I would like them but as I’m not a big fan of cucumbers I never did.

My Dad’s handwritten recipes along with the cookbook he liked to use when cooking.

Another favorite of his was pickalilli, a sort of relish made with tomatoes. I think I have only one jar of this remaining. I can remember my Dad saying “Um, that’s good!” when he’d eat a spoonful.

After adding some spoonfuls of his green relish (foreground jar), my Dad samples the filling for his deviled eggs for Thanksgiving.

He also made sweet green tomato relish that he’d mix into the filling for the deviled eggs that he made to that Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s home.  I’m taking deviled eggs as an appetizer to my friends’ Thanksgiving dinner this year.  There’s a jar of that relish on my refrigerator shelf. I may add some to give the egg filling a little more zip.

Of all his canned creations that we still have, I love the ‘pear honey ‘ the best. I have only one jar left. It’s half empty now. I covet every single spoonful that I spread onto my warm toast, usually for Sunday morning brunch.

I have fond memories of my Dad associated with the pear jam.  It springs from the day that we were driving back to his home after a visit to my brother in Kansas City.  My Dad spotted an aged pear tree growing in a field alongside the highway. The tree obviously had not been pruned or tended for a long time. At my Dad’s request, I pulled over to the shoulder and parked.  He slid out, taking a plastic grocery bag with him as he headed for the tree. “Um boy,” he exclaimed. “Look at all these good pears. These will make some good pear honey.”  I could almost hear him smack his lips.

Spotted growing beside the road, my Dad picks pears from an old tree to take home for cooking and canning.

The few jars left on my shelf are each labeled with the contents in my Dad’s handwriting on a strip of masking tape. I think I’m not going to remove the label when the jar is finally empty because it will still be filled with memories .

 

A Recipe to Remember Made with Pecans and Love

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert,  is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.

My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker.  I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.

My Dad didn't know I'd caught him taking a taste of the filling he'd just stirred up.
My Dad didn’t know I’d caught him taking a taste of the filling he’d just stirred up.

My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving.  I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.

“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one.  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.

He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.

With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.
With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.

My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.pie-man015

For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great.  I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.

After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches.  One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.

The last step--transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.
The last step–transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.

“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack.  It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.

I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.

My Dad's pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was made with love.
My Dad’s pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was handmade with love.

 

A Labor of Love with My Dad

I was 12 years old when I ‘officially’ started working at my Dad’s portrait studio and camera shop in my hometown of Parsons, Kansas. I’d walk with my friends from the junior high on Main Street a couple of days a weeks after school to his shop, ten short blocks away (sometimes stopping at the Peter Pan ice cream store for a little refreshment first), to spend a couple of hours doing whatever my Dad needed me to do that day. On Saturdays, I’d ride with him in the family Chevrolet station wagon to the studio at 8:30 a.m. in order to help straighten up or sweep the front sidewalk before he unlocked the doors for customers at 9 a.m.

At first, my job consisted mainly of dusting the frames and cameras set out on the display shelf that stood in the middle of the store and separated the camera shop side from the reception area of the studio. I’d clean the glass of the rotating display case that contained smaller items available for purchase, such as camera release cords, filters of varying colors, timers, light meters and other camera accessories and essentials for the amateur photographer. I’d straighten the empty boxes for the camera merchandise set out on display and that were stored on the lower shelves of the counter along the wall. As I did, I came to know almost everything we had in stock and exactly where to find the box once the item had been sold.

The Leon Crooks Studio and Camera Shop was a fixture on my hometown's Main Street for 43 years. This exteior view was how the studio appeared after the city's urban renewal project in the 1970s.
The Leon Crooks Studio and Camera Shop was a fixture on my hometown’s Main Street for 43 years. This exteior view was how the studio appeared after the city’s urban renewal project in the 1970s.

I refilled the diagonal cubbie shelves that held boxes of the film available at the time: red Ansco roll film, bright mustard yellow boxes of Kodak 120, 126,127, 220, 620, black and white  or color negative film or 35 mm Kodachrome or Ektachrome slide film, 8mm, Super 8, and 16 mm movie film; white and blue boxes of Polaroid packets; and later the green and white boxes of Fuji film.  There were boxes and boxes of flash bulbs and, later, flash cubes, as well as countless numbers of projector bulbs to keep in order.

In the back area of the studio, my jobs were limited to start. I removed the wet prints washing in the big drum washer at the top of  second floor stairs, wiped off the excess water with a big sponge and carefully laid each print to dry on the big screens stacked liked drawers.  Once the prints had been spotted and trimmed, I’d rubber stamp my father’s studio name on the back side, gather up the wallet sized prints into one of his gray delivery envelopes and gently slip the larger prints into brown folders embossed in gold with his scripted signature.

The studio reception side of my Dad's shop was where he displayed examples of his work. This photo shows the reception counter during the annual January baby contest and probably dates from the early 1960s.
The studio reception side of my Dad’s shop was where he displayed examples of his work. This photo shows the reception counter during the annual January baby contest and probably dates from the early 1960s.

As I grew older, my time and responsibilities at the studio increased. I moved into the studio reception area to set up appointments, take customer portrait orders, assist them in frame selections (one of my favorite assignments) and deliver the final prints. In the print room with the two full-time printers and my Dad, I learned  to turn plain sheets of photographic paper into images of families, babies, high school seniors and weddings. I’d help tone prints in the gold, sepia or selenium trays to change black and white prints into a warm brown or colder blue color. At the big work table upstairs, I’d sit with the other finishing artists using the little art brushes and inks to remove the white dust spots off the stacks of prints.

My Dad with one of  the Century cameras he used in his studio to create thousands of portraits during the 43 years of his career.
My Dad with one of the Century cameras he used in his studio to create thousands of portraits during the 43 years of his career.

Starting in  high school, I was allowed in the camera room to assist my Dad.  I stood behind the big Century camera, changing out the 5×7 film holders at the back of the camera, cocking the shutter and checking the focus. I’d shift the lights into place upon my Dad’s direction. At first we used big Photogenic reflector lights on heavy rolling stands until Dad installed an overhead track strobe lighting system. The system made it easier to move the lights but harder to tell exactly where and how much light would fall onto the subject. You had to be a master at studio lighting to know; my Dad was just that.

He created stunningly beautiful portraits of women–‘Sweet Sixteens’ wearing flouncey prom dresses; glowing brides in satin gowns trimmed in lace; small town business women in tailored suits or striking older matriarchs of prominent area families.

This portrait was one of my Dad's favorites and is an example of a 'light-oil' print. It is the one he has chosen from his portfolio to be given to the International Photography Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.
This portrait was one of my Dad’s favorites and is an example of a ‘light-oil’ print. It is the one he has chosen from his portfolio to be given to the International Photography Hall of Fame, now located in St. Louis.

His portraits of men could be dramatic–the weathered face of a farmer; the big smile of a country auctioneer; the stern brow of a minister, doctor or attorney; or the colorful character study of a local dandy. He loved capturing the bright expressions, the toothless grin, the teary cheeks or pouty mouths of children. And he turned ordinary high school senior pictures into reflective and confident portraits of adolescents on the brink of adulthood.

Then there were the weddings. Hundreds of them. Weekends of them. At lots of different churches all over the southeast Kansas area. During the busy ‘wedding season’–June through August–my Dad would race to two and sometimes three weddings on a weekend. Eventually, I went along with him to help carry cameras, reload film, smooth wedding dresses and round up missing relatives for a group picture.  Later, I was assigned a camera to cover some of the secondary shots needed while he handled the others. By the time I was planning my own wedding years later, I knew exactly how I wanted it, having seen and been to so many with my Dad.

The work was hard but fun for both me and my Dad. His was a profession devoted to making beautiful images of people.  Of capturing them forever at an important juncture in their lives. He did this for 43 years before retiring from the studio when he was 70 but not necessarily, from photography. He continued to take pictures of our family gatherings, vacations and his grandchildren for years afterwards, even learning to use a digital camera in his 80s.

In March, my Dad, shown here, displayed his collection of studio sample and competition prints in one final showing.
In March, my Dad, shown here, displayed his collection of studio sample and competition prints in one final showing.

Learning alongside my Dad was a labor of love. It was a privilege to study with a master, to win his approval, to gain his trust, to receive both his criticisms and compliments, to see the world through a viewfinder as he did and to preserve for perpetuity the important, as well as the smaller, moments of a person’s life.

My own father’s life came to an end on April 12. I was again fortunate enough to be at his side. He was 94-years-young. He never ceased to learn or to love. He taught me, as well as my two brothers and so many others, much about the art of photography, but more importantly, he taught us how to live our lives.  As one friend wrote to me: his was “such a wonderful example of how a simple life can be a great life.”  

I love you, Dad, and thank you. There won’t be a day left in my life that I won’t miss you.

 

 

Celebrating Dad

I was standing before a rack of greeting cards the other day, reading through the selection of Father’s Day cards.  Most of the sentiments were pretty sappy and thoroughly generic.  I had already made a personalized card for my own Dad using one of my images but was curious what the messages of the mass manufactured retail cards said.

The thing is, Father’s aren’t generic, nor are they mass manufactured.  Everyone’s Dad is different. Even siblings with a common father often have different images of their Dad. Celebrating those unique qualities is what Father’s Day is all about.

Bow ties became my Dad's trademark. He began wearing them while still a photographer's apprentice to prevent his ties from being ruined by the darkroom chemicals.
Bow ties became my Dad’s trademark. He began wearing them while still a photographer’s apprentice to prevent his ties from being ruined by the darkroom chemicals.

Reading through the greeting cards made me stop and think about my own Dad. He’s an amazing guy and is someone I greatly admire and love. I’m fortunate to be able to spend this Father’s Day with my 93-year-old father.

All the things my Dad is to me and to my two brothers, can’t be summed up in a simple card written by a copywriter who’s never met him. He has been, first and foremost, a loving, caring, generous parent to three children who I’m sure challenged both his patience and love many times over the years.

My father was married for 66 years to my mother until she died in November, 2012.  He fell in love with her shortly after returning from World War II and married her two weeks after they met.
My father was married for 66 years to my mother until she died in November, 2012. He fell in love with her shortly after returning from World War II and married her two weeks after they met.

He was a devoted husband of 66 years to my mother until she died last November.  He is a decorated World War II veteran who came home and raced greyhounds with his brother-in-law and sister until he decided to become a professional photographer.

My Dad met up with his older brother, Dale, for a day's visit during World War II in Italy.
My Dad met up with his older brother, Dale, for a day’s visit during World War II in Italy.

He was a small business owner for many years until retiring at age 70.  He was, and continues to be an active member in his church.  For many years, he was a member of the local Lions Club and Chamber of Commerce.  He now serves on the board of the local historic museum.

Gardening has always been one of my Dad's joys.  He's shown here with his rose bushes.
Gardening has always been one of my Dad’s joys. He’s shown here with his rose bushes.

He’s a gardener who loves spending time tending to he vegetables he plants. He’s a handyman who can mend fences, rewire a lamp, and stop a leaky pipe.  He’s a carpenter who built the first home I ever lived in (still standing and in good shape today) and who constantly has little projects in progress at home now. (I have the little end table he made in his high school woodworking class.)

He’s also a good cook who enjoys baking pies, canning the vegetables from his garden or serving up a dinner of chicken and homemade dumplings.

He’s an educator who taught photography workshops for professional photographers’ associations and now visits elementary and high school classrooms to tell the students about growing up on the farm during the Depression or fighting in World War II.

He’s an artist who created thousands of memorable portraits of families, brides, babies, high school seniors, and business people to bring beauty into their lives through his creative photography.

My Dad was a professional portrait photographer for nearly 50 years and owned his own studio.
My Dad was a professional portrait photographer for nearly 50 years and owned his own studio.

He’s lover of poetry and can to this day recite his favorite poems learned in school or read in the little book he carried with him as a soldier.  He’s an avid reader, particularly of history and always has a stack of books on the table beside his chair.  He’s also a fan of Westerns, particularly the vintage television shows “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza”.  But he also likes a good comedy; his current being re-runs of Ray Romano’s series, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.”

He worked long days  and often nights weekends as a professional photographer to make certain we had all the things we needed; such as shoes, vaccinations, braces, a college education, piano lessons, swim lessons.  Then there were the things we didn’t really need but wanted that he also gave us–ice cream cones, birthday parties, a camera, that toy rifle for Christmas, my first Beatles album.

As a grandfather to my sons, my Dad was always ready to lend a helping hand or teach them how to do something whenever he was around.
As a grandfather to my sons, my Dad was always ready to lend a helping hand or teach them how to do something whenever he was around.

He imparted to us those things on which you can’t put a price–a strong work ethic, a love of family, a sense of fairness and respect for others, the value of a good education and the encouragement to think for ourselves, even when we differed in opinions.

But most of all, he’s my Dad.  Now how can you put that into a few brief words of a store-bought greeting card?