“Mom, I don’t like cass-role.” Five-year-old Ellen pouted, wrinkling up her nose.
“Honey, just try it. It’s good.” Ruth sighed, her back aching from her ten hour shift at the diner.
Ruth called it Poor Man Casserole. There was also Poor Man Stew that Ellen wrinkled her nose at. Ruth smiled as eight-year-old David dug into his helping. He’d always had a healthy appetite and never complained about what was set in front of him.
As a single mom, It was hard to make ends meet. Ruth worked as many hours as she could at the diner, but there was never enough money. Kids needed school supplies, clothes and shoes. And food, of course!
She never threw anything away. Every bit of leftover meats or vegetables got put into an airtight bowl and stored in the freezer. Once she had accumulated enough, she made her Poor Man Stew or Casserole, adding a few things to the leftovers.
“This is good, Mom. Can I have more?” Not waiting for an answer, David pushed his plate across the table. Ruth ruffled his hair before dishing up a generous helping.
“Why can’t we have McDonald’s or Burger King for dinner like my friend Missy. Her mom says she works all day and doesn’t wanna cook.” Ellen stuck out her lower lip as she pushed her food around with her fork. She finally brought a small bite to her mouth and made a big display of chomping her food. With a loud “humph,” she finished her helping.
“That wasn’t bad, now was it, honey?”
“Well,” Ellen drug out the word well, “it was okay, but I still wish we could have McDonald’s or Burger King.”
“Me too, honey, but we can’t afford it.”
“I like your cooking, mom. It’s the best.” David ginned, taking a swallow of milk and another bite of casserole.
Ellen sat quietly on the sofa thumbing through photo albums. “Look at us, David. Weren’t we the cutest kids?”
With a whoosh of breath, David lowered himself onto the recliner next to Ellen. He wearily rubbed his hand over his face. “Can’t believe Mom’s gone.”
“I know!” Ellen’s voice shook with emotion.
“There you are. What’d you two up to?” Their younger brother Ed stepped through the door. He glanced at his siblings before sitting next to Ellen.
The three sat silently for several minutes as the sounds of activity in other parts of the house flowed over them. The after funeral dinner had been lavish, although none of them had felt like eating.
Ellen flipped another page in the album. Exhaling, she tapped a picture. “Mom in that little kitchen. Remember those days, David? Mom was the best cook, wasn’t she?”
David chuckled and shook his head.
“What?” Ellen asked.
“Remember Poor Man Stew and Casserole? You hated them, Ellen. Whined all the time.”
“I don’t remember Mom making that,” Ed interjected.
“That’s because when Mom married your dad and you were born, we weren’t poor anymore.” Ellen took a tissue and wiped at her eyes. “I did complain, didn’t I? I really didn’t mind it. I was just a whiny kid.” She tenderly rubbed her finger over the photo of her mom. “Sometimes I close my eyes and smell that kitchen when Mom was cooking. My taste buds salivate with the memory of those casseroles and stews. I asked Mom for the recipes once. She said there weren’t any recipes.”
Silence descended like a thick cloud as each replayed memories of their mother in their minds.
“So, what was in these stews and casseroles that you two are talking about?” Ed cleared his throat, allowing his hand to caress Ellen’s shoulder.
Ellen and David chuckled at the same time. “Everything that had been leftovers for the past week or two,” David said.
“Chunks of hamburger, chicken, roast, pork chops. It had it all. That and every kind of leftover vegetables. Mom added pasta or potatoes, seasoned it. It was good.” Ellen sniffled. “Mom made it tasty. She worked so hard after our dad died. I’m sorry I ever complained.”
“I’m sure Mom knew you didn’t mean it,” Ed said. “Now we’ve all got grandchildren. Makes me kinda sad I never got any Poor Man dishes,” he mumbled.
David laid his head back against the chair’s cushion. “There’ll be plenty of leftovers from all that food that got brought in. Maybe we could make one of those dishes like Mom did. How ‘bout it, sis?”
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