(Transcribed from longhand writing scrawled in a journal while meeting with writing circle on March 8, 2019.)
I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes. John Adams (by then one of the country’s founding fathers, writing to a friend)
“Helen Jo, hurry up!” she’d say. “You’re as slow as cold molasses flowing uphill.” That was our mother’s expression when her children would dawdle, and we, her coastal Maine kids, knew that this threat was an idle one. Our mother loved slow-flowing sweet molasses, and we, her kids, loved it too. We were a family of the sixties, ate from all the food groups, fish from the cove in the summer, chicken, beef and pork in the winter, potatoes baked or scalloped, a vegetable always, and salad, fresh from the garden until the frost wilted the heads. And dessert — every night, we ate dessert. Molasses was a favorite. We loved our mother’s passion for molasses, the miracles she created by marrying it with spicy ginger. There was Indian pudding, a New England favorite, corn meal, milk, ginger and molasses, thickened on top of the stove, baked for hours, then topped with ice-cold vanilla ice cream that melted into the steaming pudding. And gingerbread. Our mother cheated, bought Dromedary mix. We loved her Dromedary mix gingerbread topped with a dollop of whipped cream or a slab of real butter, loved her crisp ginger snap cookies, too, and the soft round molasses ones she baked on snowy winter days.
On the lucky mornings when we woke up to the aftermath of a nighttime snow squall to discover that school was cancelled, after hours of inside play, when our raucousness was just too much for her to bear, our mother would hand us our woolen snow pants, our hand knit mittens, our stocking caps and shove us out the door. It wasn’t a choice; it was a command, a command that led to hours of snow-fort building and toboggan sliding and wild whooping abandon. And then there would be the call, the permission to come back in, to the warmth of a humming furnace and radiators that warmed our bottoms and hands. And there they would be, still piping hot from the oven. The big round molasses cookies. I wonder if it relaxed her, to have this time alone, in the quiet of her kitchen, with the ingredients she loved, the butter, the eggs, the flour, the ginger, and the molasses all mixed together in a glorious swirl.
Our mother grew up in Boston, the land of slow-cooked molasses-laden baked beans. She was a Boston girl, lived just a stone’s throw from the city center, on childhood Sundays traveling in with her parents and siblings to attend the Boston Swedenborgian Church, knew the Boston of the twenties intimately, and we her Maine-raised kids, each Thanksgiving, would pile into our powder blue 1957 Chevy station wagon, and travel the three hours to her old stomping ground where we would gather with grandparents, great uncles and aunts, with cousins and their parents for our annual turkey feast. From infancy on, I took this trip with parents and siblings and I have wondered whether I dreamed it, the story I remember our mother telling us as we would drive through the north end of the city. I was little, after all, a pre-schooler, and it all seems hazy and improbable. But this is what I remember. She would roll down the driver’s side window, and say to our dad and to us, “Do you smell it, the molasses?” And we would sniff the air, and I think we would smell it, a faint sweet dark smell wafting in through the car window. And then in my dream of a memory, she would plunge into the story, tell us how a giant tank of molasses burst wide open and molasses poured down the streets of Boston.
This dream of a story has stuck with me as molasses tends to do, and our mother’s love of molasses, I’ve taken it in as an offering, a nurturing gift, and dark blackstrap molasses, I love it just as she did. And gingerbread, mine made from scratch and sweetened with prunes, is my birthday cake of choice. And this is what I want to tell you, that it was this year, on my birthday, January 15, 2019, that I happened upon it, the article commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Great Molasses Disaster. Oh my! There’s a start, a startle, a gasp, even a whoop when a hazy molasses-laden dream shines bright in the light of day. And that’s when it happened, in the light of the day, a little after noon, on January 15, 1919, after a week of sub-zero weather, during a melt-down thaw when temperatures sky-rocketed to forty degrees. And this tank, full of molasses, was ready to transfer for processing and had fermented in the unseasonably warm weather, people surmise, and then it burst. Our mother was three-and-a-half months old when a torrent of molasses more than fifteen feet high raged down the street in Boston’s north end at thirty-five hours an hour. This is no sweet and sappy children’s story, no Candyland game of a tale. This is tragedy. This is horses and people drowning in a river of molasses, of a train toppling, of houses uprooted. This is a mess, a messy molasses story in the home of Boston baked beans.
And our mother inhaled it all, I think. She must have. How could you not hear the tale over and over during your childhood? The streets were sticky for years and our mother must have stuck to those streets and the harbor was brown and salty-sweet for months during the summer she learned to crawl and our grandparents must have told her what it was like to hear the first-hand accounts from friends in the north end. So there its was, tragedy and drama, a river of molasses starting out hot and bubbly, then slowing down as it cooled and trapping whatever was in its path. Our mother didn’t shy away from tragedy. In some ways, perhaps she attracted it, sent out a tragic vibe that allowed sorrow to sweep in and stick to her. In high school, she told me, she had a crush on a guy. Not exactly her words. Perhaps she said that she was shy and he was shy too, but there was something there, a spark between them. And one day, at a football game, as he charged down the field, his heart simply gave out, and he died. And that’s how her first husband, at thirty-three, died, in an internal explosion of heart, and then my father, he died too.
There was a sticky sorrow in all of this, I’m sure, and yet our mother was a buoyant soul, She didn’t dive down and drown in this sticky mess. She, like her mother before her, soaked her beans in water overnight, then, pressure-cooked them with sweet onions and tomatoes and a chug chug chug of molasses. Every Saturday night, we ate Boston Baked Beans. Our molasses was contained in bottles, and gently slowly flowed in a trickle into the cookies and puddings and cakes. And when our mother rolled down the window of our 1957 powered blue Chevy station wagon and asked, “Do you smell it?”, as she told us the tale of the Great Molasses Disaster, in my dream of a memory, I don’t remember any sorrow in her voice. She was chipper and we were too, sniffing the air and smelling the faint whiff of a sweetness that far outlived any tragedy that had occurred decades earlier.