By Chris Hanson, Esq.

As I walked in the door, I was greeted by my 92-year-old mother and the scent of onions and peppers sautéing on the stove. In a large copper-bottomed Revere Ware frying pan Ma is making roast beef hash using last night’s leftovers. “Are you staying for supper?” she asks because there is always room for one more at Ma’s house.

The frying pan was a gift from her 1955 wedding to a Dorchester dentist. He had plans for a big career and an even bigger family, so she put her career as a neurosurgery nurse on hold and helped him launch his dental practice. As a doctor’s wife it was assumed she’d live the life of a suburban princess, but a big family eliminated leisure time. Long before that 1970s Enjoli perfume commercial, Ma proved she could bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and…um…never mind.

Suddenly widowed with 13 kids under the age of 18, her nursing cap proved more valuable than any princess’ tiara. Maybe the frying pan is her royal scepter. At the very least it’s a culinary Swiss Army knife.

Because with 13 kids ordering take-out was cost prohibitive, so Ma cooked dinner almost every night to keep the family finances in check. She cut coupons, shopped sales and used leftovers to make meals in that frying pan. The recipes were frequently improvised originals and we’d think up creative names for the unique dishes. My “smart Alec” brother Frankie dubbed one dish “choke and puke.” He paid dearly for that. I laughed about it then, but looking back I realize that the meals were always nutritious with fresh vegetables and good cuts of meat. I grew to 6’3” so something worked.

The frying pan also played a central role during birthday celebrations. Bakery cakes were too expensive so Ma combined a couple of Duncan Hines cake mixes in the frying pan and baked the cake simultaneously with the main dish. She was so busy working full-time and cooking meals she did not have time to do anything else. Frequently, the cake was burnt on the bottom and she’ll tell us to cut off the burnt part and it would taste fine. It never did, but I got used to my charcoal-flavored birthday cake. Her frugality also helped me to attend a pricey graduate school, so all is forgiven.

Thanksgiving is when the frying pan really shined. The Pilgrims invented Ma’s favorite holiday and she celebrated it in a highly traditional fashion. In a Norman Rockwell-like scene, we put the kitchen and dining room tables together in the living room, because Ma likes the meal served family-style. After devouring a turkey accompanied with homemade fixings, dessert was served. Every year Ma made a large squash pie with homemade pie crust in that frying pan. As challenging as her life has been she was still thankful for everything.

Absolutely nothing was perfect in Ma’s house, how could it be? Is perfection really necessary? We were not impoverished but Ma watched every penny because she had no choice. The saying goes “Watch your pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.” It worked, and Ma has been able to enjoy luxuries. She has walked across the Great Wall of China, visited the Hermitage and frolicked all through Europe. This, and every one of us went to college!

When my friends ask me “How did you mother do it?” I struggle to answer. I was there, and I don’t know all her secrets. I can tell you this; she pinched pennies and made hash out of last night’s roast beef.

Happy Thanksgiving