This story is not about Marion’s casserole, but that is where I have to start. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Partially brown a pound of ground beef, then pour off the grease. Scrape the ground beef into a lasagne pan, then pour in a few cups of elbow macaroni. Find the can opener and open two cans of tomato soup. Spoon the concentrated soup in, rinse the cans with a little water, scrape them with a spoon, and add that water, too. Mix it all up with your hands or a spoon, depending on how you feel. Spread a thick layer of cheddar cheese on top. If you’re in an Airbnb with an unknown oven like I was this week, when the smoke alarm goes off, turn up the fan and turn down the oven, say to 200 degrees. Otherwise, leave the casserole in for half an hour or forty-five minutes. When it’s done, eat it.
If you were my mother in early November 1956, you would hand the new baby girl, Barbara, to your husband, so you could get up and answer the door. Marion would thrust a casserole to you, oven mitts and all. “You just return it in a few days. I won’t take your time right now, sweetie,” the next-door neighbor would say.
“That’s the best food I’ve smelled in four days,” my mother would hear from the living room. She knew my father couldn’t get up because his arms would be full and their sons, Roger, aged two, and Charles, aged one, would be standing on his big shoes or sliding alongside Barbara onto his lap.
If you were Charlie or Dad in the 1970s, you would have poured white sauce on the casserole before eating your firsts. Then you would have put your seconds in the white-sauce puddle still on your plate, and poured more white sauce on top. You would have heard Barbara say, “That stuff is gross,” because of its disgusting smell. It was kept in a jar in the refrigerator and was made with a packet of Wishbone Ranch Dressing, buttermilk, and cups of disgusting mayonnaise. Barbara hated mayonnaise, as anyone would who had read in American Girl to massage it into her hair for split ends. Barbara had applied the mayonnaise, and then for extra measure, had covered her head with a plastic shower cap and sat in the tub for an hour to let the mayonnaise sweat in.
If you were Roger in the 1970s, you might have turned aside as the rest of the family ate the bad vibes. You would have eaten the Popeye casserole instead. Mom would have mixed a lump of cooked wild rice with eggs, oregano, spinach, raisins, and walnuts, tamped it into a second lasagna pan, dusted it with nutmeg, and then topped it with cheddar cheese that would have bubbled atop its uneven surface, like our casserole, the real casserole, the mother of all casseroles, the icon of the real home.
If you were Barb in the 1990s, tired of serving Marion’s casserole with a green salad and broccoli to the kids and husband, you might have covered your serving with barbecue sauce. Something different. Anything different.
And if you were one of Barb’s kids coming home from college, you would have said, “Oh, I always remember Marion’s casserole. And can you make a Dutch Baby Pancake for breakfast?”
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Marion Sibley Bracken was a very kind woman. She was a few years older than my parents. I remember the round eyes, the pretty, girlish face, on the woman I considered older, the concerned expression she wore when she listened, and her hair, with its just-out-of-the-curlers loft. Marion made the world change. She insisted that people with disabilities be parts of the lives and communities from which they came. She crusaded at the local and state levels, founded a guild to raise money, and established an association to advocate for, work with, and improve the lives of people with developmental disabilities. The association’s center had day programs, even for pre-schoolers, that gave families previously unavailable opportunities to keep from institutionalizing their mentally disabled children. Mrs. Bracken was a force.
Mom worked at the center for several years. Mom was the onsite nurse.
Marion Bracken’s son, John Wesley Bracken, was my best-friend-who-was-a-boy. I remember playing in their yard and finding a pincher bug (earwig) under my seat cushion and never wanting to sit in their backyard again. We moved away from Carolina Lane when I was seven. John was younger than me, and he was a thin little thing, but I saw him years later, and he was a big hulk like his dad. How things can change.
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If you were my brother Charlie a week ago in Indiana, you would have said, “Gollllly. This reminds me of Carolina Lane. Remember that carpet and the tire swing in the backyard and the albizia tree? This takes me right back.” A few minutes later, you would have said, “And Mom. She always made this when we came home.” And a few minutes later, “Thanks for making it. My house never smelled like this, ever.”
Charlie is not well. I was visiting him to understand his situation, his needs since the symptoms from the cancer came on. To see if there were things I might do to help. But mostly to be with him and his wife.
On the second day of my visit, I made the casserole. Sometime in the night of the next day, the last loose crumbles disappeared from the pan. In the morning, I scrubbed at their clingy remains, let the pan soak, scrubbed some more, and decided to fly to Washington, DC, for a quick visit to my daughter. I would return in some days, after Charlie and his wife had dealt with some of their immediate concerns.
And if you were my daughter in Washington, DC, the night I arrived, you would have said, “You made Marion’s casserole! I love it. It’s perfect this time. There’s enough tomatoey stuff, and you didn’t use gluten-free macaroni. I love it burnt like that. I love this food. It takes me back.”
Yesterday was my birthday. Sometime around now will mark the sixty-second anniversary of Marion knocking on the door. I’m back in Indiana with Charlie and his wife. I’ll leave a casserole in the freezer when I go.