On my mother’s coffee table. A magazine. Always, this magazine. Ever since I can remember.
To her, it was the magazine of all magazines—second only to a Billy Graham newsletter. It sat beside her Bible, between a bowl of potpourri and an ashtray for company.
I have memories of her reading recipes. Hot chicken salad casserole was one such recipe. If you have never had hot chicken salad casserole, I’ll pray for you.
She had hundreds of back issues. They sat in the corner. Over the years, they collected dust bunnies that were roughly the size of Joe Namath.
Sometimes, she used these magazines to balance rickety tables. Other times, she rolled them up tightly to use as disciplinary devices on sass-mouths.
My wife loves this magazine, too. When we first married, we moved into a ratty apartment. She brought a box of hardback cookbooks with her—yearly compilations of the magazine’s recipes.
“Are those all yours?” I asked.
“Yeah, been collecting them since I was a kid, my parents give me a new cookbook every Christmas. It’s tradition.”
That’s when I knew I had married the right woman. The kind of woman who would never wear white after Labor Day because her mother would have strangled her with the cord from a kitchen mixer.
To the women in my life, it was more than a magazine. It was the secret to red velvet cake. It was a collection of house plans they daydreamed about. It was like Emily Post and Dale Earnhardt had given birth to a love child on Mama’s coffee table.
Every church lady revered it. Every elementary school teacher read it on lunch break.
And rumor had it—I shouldn’t be telling you this—that Michael Swanson’s mother, Miss Adeline, tattooed the famous ‘79-issue banana pudding recipe on a hidden region of her body.
You didn’t hear that from me.
But getting back to the Christmas cookbooks. When my wife’s father died, the yearly custom ended, and holidays were not the same.
That year was a bad one, all the way around. I had lost my job, we had no money. We were so poor we had to go to KFC just to lick other peoples’ fingers.
Things had always been tight for us, and it was my fault. I was a flunky. My wife could have married someone successful. Instead, she married a high-school dropout, a construction worker, and a bar musician.
It was a blue Christmas.
“I miss my daddy,” said my wife, sitting cross-legged before the tree.
“I know,” I said.
“I hate this feeling.”
We exchanged only one gift that year. I opened mine first. I shredded the paper to find a portable CD player. It must have set her back a fortune. And it made me feel god-awful.
“I thought we agreed to only spend a few bucks,” I said.
“You love music, though.”
“That’s not the point, you spent more than me.”
“I want you to have it.”
Then, I handed her my cheap gift. She held it and I felt like a fool. She tore the paper. I saw big drops form on her eyes.
“That bad, huh?” I said.
“No, I love it.”
It was a five-and-dime photo album. Only it wasn’t filled with photos. Inside were recipes, cut from my mother’s hundreds of magazines which dated back to the seventies. I pasted each cut-out recipe onto a page. There must have been a million.
On the cover I wrote, “Jamie’s Cookbook.”
For supper that Christmas, my wife made hot chicken salad casserole. Then we fell asleep watching Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye tap dance their pants off. It turned out to be a nice holiday.
We’ve been married for a little while now. I’ve changed jobs nearly fifty times. Somehow, I managed to get my GED, then a college degree. And somehow, call it a divine joke, call it idiot’s luck, I became a writer.
And somehow, my wife is still beside me.
Just yesterday, I heard my wife shouting on the sidewalk. She had just visited the mailbox. She was hollering my name. “Come quick!” she said.
I thought something was wrong. In her hands was a magazine. The magazine.
“You’re never gonna believe it!” she yelled. Then she pointed to a page.
There it was. My name. In print. It was only a few kind words somebody wrote about my podcast. But there was no mistake about it. It was my name. Our name. The one I share with her.
We hugged for almost five minutes, and one of us might have cried a little. But I promise it wasn’t me. Later that night, she made the best hot chicken salad casserole you have ever tasted.
The women in my life mean everything to me.
My mother is going to freak.