Lessons from an Apron

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I may be the worst cook in my bloodline, but it’s not because of the lack of aprons. The womenfolk of my people believe in them religiously. Every sepia picture from our past is proof of this conviction. My grandmother wore an apron for her granddaughter’s birthday photo, and my great-grandmother had one in her hand in the only surviving snapshot of her prairie home.

Aunt Sis made me my first apron, a pink gingham affair with my name cross-stitched on the front. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see how all that needlepoint could form capital letters when I was four. To my preschool mind, all I saw was a superfluous configuration of tiny x’s.

When I married, Mama gave me a wedding apron of pure white linen intertwined with lace along each edge. I didn’t wear it to the ceremony or the honeymoon, but I promptly managed to splatter it with a magenta stain of spaghetti sauce when I finally put it on.

In time, I added other aprons to my growing collection: a Christmas one, a leopard one, and the matching ones Mark and I received for completing a Thai cooking class in Ko Samui. I even have a full-coverage one, handmade by my neighbor, who evidently, has seen me cook.

Recently, a longtime family friend brought me a 1979 article about aprons. Although the newspaper section was yellowed and tattered, I immediately recognized the author as Sue’s mother, Ruth Griffin. Our families lived near one another for years, not only during our childhood but also when our parents were small. Ruth and my mother were lifelong friends.

As I gently unfolded the newspaper, the headline made me smile: “Aprons – Remembrances of Yesteryear.” Memories tumbled back into my mind as I eagerly read the columns describing Ruth’s mother. Like our female ancestors, she described her mother as wearing aprons not only during meal prep but throughout the day.

As my eye devoured the page, I learned that a country apron was multi-purposed. It could wipe drippy noses, crying eyes, and sticky faces, as well as pocket handkerchiefs, flower seeds, and spools of thread. With the lift of the hem, the wearer could gather eggs, vegetables, and even baby chicks. With a quick wrist flick, an apron could shoo flies, mosquitos, and any children who should have been outside.

Sometimes,” Ruth wrote, “(Mother) even used her apron to carry chips in the house at night, to start a fire in the old cast iron stove in the morning.” I’m hesitant to ask what kind of chips because I’m pretty sure I know the answer.

(Mother) used her apron to cover her head or put around her shoulders if the wind was blowing,” Ruth continued. “At canning time, the apron was used to hold the jar while tightening the old zinc lids.

There were calico aprons and feed-sack aprons; Sunday aprons and weekday aprons; cleaning aprons and those specially starched and ironed for drop-in company. Ruth describes how when a prairie woman saw visitors coming, she untied the strings of her dirty apron, donned a clean one from behind the door, and quickly used the dirty one to dust off the table.

As I chewed on this last paragraph, I almost tasted a homemade peach cobbler baked in a deep-dish 9×13 Pyrex. Then, Sue awoke my reverie by placing a small gift bag before me. As I removed the colored tissue paper, I found a rick rack-edged apron with a ruffled hem. “It’s one that Mama made,” Sue offered quietly, and I immediately understood the value of her secondhand gift. Her mother, like mine, had been gone for over fifteen years.

I wear Ruth’s apron occasionally, not so much to shoo flies or gather eggs, but to remember. To remember friends and family no longer in my life but still in my heart. Her apron hasn’t improved my cooking but has enhanced my resolve to make moments count.

The womenfolk in our bloodlines lived amidst uncertainty and shortages. Despite civil war, world wars, and extreme poverty, they daily donned their aprons and made a way when there really wasn’t one. The best of our ancestors faithfully followed the guidance of a Divine Hand.

We can be faithful as well. Since goodness and mercy are behind our every step, we can face both the tears and the grime. And, just for good measure, I think I’ll wear an apron.

The black and white photo above is scanned from the Crosbyton Review article mentioned. Ruth Griffin displays some of her aprons.