Cover Photo: A simpler time
A simpler time

Viola's Potatoes

A recipe born from necessity

Viola’s Potatoes


Molly crouched behind the hedge as close to the ground as she could get. It was hard to move in the winter coat and leggings Nana had stuffed her into. She had to get low enough so that the bus driver would pass by her. Molly thought that if she fell she’d be like a turtle on its back and never be able to right herself. The merciless wool of the leggings made it almost impossible to bend her knees and the boots over her tie shoes held her ankles rigid. The kid across the street had polio and wore leg braces that slowed him down almost as much. She wondered why he just didn’t put on boots over his shoes. It was probably easier to walk in the braces, that’s why.

Molly sighed when she thought of her boots. It was almost impossible to grasp that stupid little pull on the zipper with her chubby fingers and if you left the zipper down you were guaranteed to fall on your face and if you fell on your face you’d suffocate in the snow. If the leggings and the boots weren’t enough of an impediment to mobility, Nana added the winter coat which eliminated all flexibility in Molly’s torso and arms. She felt like a giant stick figure. Even if she could overcome all of these restrictions, Molly then came face to face with the next obstacle in her day, the steps on the bus. They were impossible to navigate without bending your ankles or knees. The driver would get so impatient watching her struggle that he would lean over and grab Molly by the collar of her coat and fling her into the front seat. Ordeal number two was getting off the bus. The first few times Molly just stood on the top step and hurled herself off and hoped for the best. Some teacher would always pick her up off the ground. Some days she landed in a puddle, not a good omen for the upcoming day. Molly finally figured out a less destructive method. The older kids always pushed past the little ones to get off the bus first. She would slip in between two big kids as they barreled down the aisle, the center of a kid sandwich, elevated between their equally bizarre winter wardrobes. She would get swept down the stairs and off the bus in a furrow of snowsuits. On a good day she would land on her feet. Winter was hard for Molly.

Not that school was a picnic. Although the journey there was fraught with danger, her anxiety over the return trip dominated her day. Molly dreaded lunch time because that was followed by nap time which gave her twenty uninterrupted minutes to stew over the likelihood of missing the bus home and having to sleep in the cloak closet. Viola had made it clear to Molly that if she missed that school bus in the afternoon she would have to spend the night at school because they had no other way to get her home. Hence, Molly’s terror about the gauntlet of winter clothes she needed to run to catch her bus. All of the clothing and additional paraphernalia that terrorized her morning and movement now had to be done in reverse. Nana was capable of bending her body in unnatural directions in order to get everything buttoned, tied, laced, zipped, and secured. Molly was not. Winter was proving to be too long.

First there was the rabid race with thirty other five year olds to the closet doors. The doors, along the back wall of the classroom, were in a series of panels which swung open on a pivot. She knew she had to get there quickly if she was going to collect her clothing, but get there too soon and she would get walloped in the face by the door as it opened and then flung across the room. Molly would go from first to last with one twist of the door. Then she would never be able to get her stuff off the hooks and she’d be left with three mismatched boots, all lefts, none of which were hers. The teacher wouldn’t allow any child to leave without boots so she would have to squeeze her feet, socks, shoes, leggings, into two left footed ones, and figure out a how to pull up two leftie zippers. Thank god the hat and mittens were attached to the coat. Molly would hobble along with two left feet, unable to bend a single body joint. Then she would stand at the door of the bus and wait for the driver to scream at her before grabbing the front of her coat and hurling her up. She was actually jealous of the kid with polio because he was placed on the bus first. Her humiliation would be complete once they arrived at her stop. She would wait to be the last one off, and then throw herself from the top step. Another awful day had come to an end. All the other kids had walked away and only the boy with polio was left to help her. The irony of this was not lost on Molly.

This entire year of her life was dominated by winter clothes. Molly knew she was never going to survive this much trauma on a daily basis for much longer. She had no idea why she went to school. Was something supposed to happen once she got there? By the time she recovered from the wretched events of getting to school, it was time to start fretting about getting home from school. It was a giant endurance test. Molly figured that the purpose of school was to teach you how to get there and get home alive. If, after one year, you survived, they would promote you to the next grade. That grade would require you to master some additional life skill which she was certain would kill her if this didn’t.

When the solution appeared Molly was pleased with the simplicity of the plan. She was also a little annoyed with herself  for taking so long. She’d wasted weeks wearing two left boots and flying off the top step of the school bus. If she didn’t go to school in the first place, then there would not be any need to catch the bus to come home and that would eliminate all of her anxiety. Come spring, things would be okay. Every morning Molly would hide behind the hedge till the bus pulled away and then she would wander home. The other kids never gave her away because they admired her and frankly, were a little afraid of her. Molly became a little kindergarten legend.

Molly lived with her Nana, Viola, who had grown up on the Watchung Reservation. That is only important because it shaped the way Viola navigated the world. She had a healthy disrespect for convention. Essentially, she didn’t see how rules and laws pertained to her, or Molly. They had never helped her so she was not about to let them hinder her. Viola had been an outsider her whole life and wasn’t interested in fitting in this late in the game. She had to stick around long enough to get this child grown and make sure that Molly had what she needed to survive. Viola wanted Molly to be resilient and independent and strong and more than a little smart. If Molly was going to be a woman in this world she would need everything Viola could teach her and Viola would teach Molly plenty. Each was the only person the other one had in the world and they were devoted to each other. From the time she was three Molly had been with Viola and that is when her memories began. Whatever came before that was long gone and of no importance. Right here, right now, is what counted.

When Molly started kindergarten Viola was eighty years old and had been in a wheel chair for five years. This never caused a problem because she could maneuver that thing with the skill of an air force pilot. Whatever she could not do, Molly could. She grew up thinking that every kid owned someone in a wheelchair who would lift you to counter tops and cabinets. She didn’t remember any other way. This was her normal. They were an impressive team and loved each other with the ease that other people breathe. All of this explains why Molly could figure things out and found nothing odd about throwing herself off the bus. You just do what it takes to get the job done.

Viola accepted the story that Molly had missed the bus and there was nothing to do about it. She would just have to stay home. Viola was pleased that Molly had figured out a plan as quickly as she had because Viola was getting a little concerned about those nose dives off the bus steps. She came up with the hedge plan pretty quickly which confirmed to Viola that Molly was a sharp cookie. There was much to teach Molly in the time remaining to Viola and school was getting in the way. Molly and Viola spent the rest of the winter together just as they always had, with Molly reading to Viola, who had taught Molly a year ago. By the time spring rolled around, when the school people came hunting for her, she had learned to print. But that was not all Molly learned that winter.

Marta lived next door and was Viola’s friend, or at least Marta thought so. It was hard to tell with Viola, she played things close to the vest. Marta felt badly for the old lady, raising such a young child with no help, not that Viola needed help. She never needed assistance with the little girl, who Marta adored. She’d never been blessed with children, at least not yet. There was still time although she wasn’t sure if Emil would be a good father. She couldn’t allow him to be as …rough with a child as he was with her. He wasn’t a bad man; he just wasn’t a good man. That was the price she had paid to get out of Poland during the war; Marta thought of it that way – barter, a transaction. She lived in a little cape cod in New Jersey on a quiet street with a volatile man who went to work every day and paid all the bills. She kept his house, washed his clothes, ironed his shirts and cooked Polish food for him and every time he belted her Marta would think how much worse it would be back in Poland. Barter. What else could she do? She knew very little English and who would care anyway?

Once a week Emil would drive Marta to the grocery store where she would buy their food and whatever the old lady needed. He didn’t understand why she bothered but as long as it didn’t interfere with his life it was okay. What he didn’t know was that Viola was teaching Marta English and keeping an eye on him. Viola recognized the signs and she knew how to take care of him. She’d have to be careful this time because she wasn’t on the reservation anymore. Things were different out here.

Marta looked forward to the afternoon when she would bring over the groceries and while putting them on the shelves Viola would teach her English. Marta learned to read along with Molly and after that the printing was easy as pie. She knew they were fearless people and hoped it would rub off on her. How else could that little girl throw herself off the bus everyday and who else could she have learned it from? Sometimes she would have a little trouble hiding the bruises, but Marta thought she managed it pretty well. The black eye was easy to hide with makeup. Viola never said a word but sometimes Marta would catch Molly looking at her very intently. The child would crawl up onto Viola’s lap and whisper in her ear.

“Today, Nana?”

Sometimes Viola would shake her head “no.” Sometimes she would give Molly the go ahead.

“Yes, today you should use a bit more turnips with the mashed potatoes. Can you fix this while I talk with Marta?”

Molly would race off to the mud room for the potatoes and turnips. She would bring them back and Viola would prepare them for the pot while Marta put the water on to boil. They would cook and the women would talk. When it was time for Marta to leave, Viola would give her a bowl of mashed potatoes that Molly had prepared. Molly knew that an increase in turnips signaled an increase in other ingredients as well. Marta was always amazed at how smoothly Molly could blend the turnips into the potatoes. Viola had taught her well. It did seem, however, that lately Molly was increasing the amount of turnips. No matter, Emil always loved Molly’s mashed potatoes with turnips.

“You are too good to us. You don’t have to make these potatoes for us.” Marta would smile, take the bowl and stroke Molly’s curls before she would leave.

“Oh, but we do,” Viola would say. “And remember what I told you before…”

Marta would laugh and interrupt, “I know, I know.  No potatoes for me. Turnips are not good for a woman wanting to have a baby. But they smell so good. Could you make them once without the turnips?”

“No!” Molly and Viola answered in unison.

“Besides,” Viola continued, “Emil likes the turnips. We’d hate to disappoint him.”

Unfortunately poor Emil had something wrong with his digestive system, a delicate stomach perhaps. Sometimes he vomited after eating, not always but he seemed to have difficulty digesting things. The doctor could find nothing wrong and told him to chew more carefully but his distress seemed to be more and more frequent. When Marta broke her arm Viola sent Molly over with an extra large serving of mashed potatoes. Emil must have eaten in a rush and not chewed carefully because he was sick differently this time. The diarrhea lasted for close to a week. He was not quite himself for almost another week after that.  At least Marta’s arm healed quickly and that was a blessing.

Molly returned to school in the spring and summer arrived just in time to keep her from going stir crazy. So far they hadn’t taught her anything new and she’d rather run in the fields behind the house and collect berries for Nana. Warm weather clothing made it harder for Marta to disguise her clumsiness. With each passing month she grew more and more ungainly. Viola had been right. Eliminating turnips had been the trick to getting pregnant. Viola was now concerned about Marta’s ability to stay pregnant. She needed to be more careful if she was going to bring this baby to term. Viola disagreed with Marta about Emil not being a bad man. She though perhaps Marta was too forgiving for her own good. Viola well remembered her own “awkwardness” and how it had ended her pregnancy.  After she had lost that first baby she wasn’t about to let anything, or anyone, jeopardize her next one.  Just about the same time she perfected her mashed potatoes with turnips recipe. She always told everyone the turnip was the secret ingredient but that wasn’t exactly true.

Viola had invented her recipe by accident, but perfected it by intention. Like Marta she was young and married a not so good man in order to escape. Like Marta she found herself stuck in a world that wasn’t shocked by the bruises her clumsiness caused. One afternoon, after a particularly brutal night, Viola was in the mud room mashing potatoes for dinner. Her anger was so overwhelming that she pulverized that bowl of potatoes. She slammed that masher down and banged it so hard that the counter shook beneath her rage. Her eye was swollen shut and, in all fairness to Viola, she didn’t see the bar of lye soap fall off the shelf and mashed a corner of it in before she realized what she had done. She stopped immediately and pulled out the bar and was going to start over with a new batch of potatoes. Then Viola thought that the addition of a turnip might mask the taste of the lye and also slow down her husband a bit. Of course at dinner that night she deferred to him and the fool put away extra helpings. For the next couple of days he was too sick to raise himself out of bed much less raise a hand to her. God knows he had it coming.

Her life continued like that for awhile. She figured it out for herself because society never gave her a method of recourse. Viola now knew she had a means of restraint and retaliation, she was not powerless. A jury of women would have found her innocent. With every addition of lye, she would increase the number of turnips. Before her pregnancy she only made the potatoes to slow him down, give her a breather. When she became pregnant again she knew too much was at stake. Viola knew what had happened the last time and it would not happen again because there was a simple remedy. So the next batch of mashed potatoes was mixed with an unusually large number of turnips. Everyone thought it sad that she was such a young widow, and pregnant too. They marveled at her strength. Viola would pinch herself so she wouldn’t laugh out loud.  She carried this pregnancy to full term and raised her child in peace. Last winter in between reading and printing, Viola taught Molly the recipe for mashed potatoes and when it was necessary in life to add turnips. Molly knew the difference between right and wrong and now, what was necessary.

Marta came over one afternoon and the makeup around her jaw had smeared in the heat of the day. Now the time was right and necessary to help Marta correct a wrong. The time for merely slowing Emil down had passed. This time Molly mashed all the ingredients on the kitchen table in front of Marta. This time Viola added the full dosage of turnips to keep Marta safe. Not a word was spoken among them because it wasn’t necessary. All three knew that later that night, when Molly brought over the bowl, Emil would eat the potatoes, and he did. All three knew he would never hit Marta again, and he didn’t.

After they buried Emil, but before the baby was born, Marta sold the house and moved in across the street. Her daughter became a little sister to Molly and they all lived together for a long, long time. Viola died when Molly was sixteen because she could. She had taught Molly everything she would ever need to figure things out in her life. Molly in turn taught her sister.

These two women grew up to be good people and fearless mothers. Life came and went with the usual ebb and flow of events. Sometimes they made mistakes, like their mothers and grandmothers before them. When you know the difference between right and wrong and when certain things are necessary, it is possible to lead very ordinary lives in extraordinary ways. They both taught their daughters to figure things out, be brave and dive off the top step when it was necessary to save yourself. They both added turnips to their mashed potatoes and taught their daughter to, also. The flavor of a turnip could cover a world of culinary mishaps. At family gatherings someone, although never the husbands, would always beg for stories of Viola and her legendary turnips because it was such a great family myth.  Molly let them think that.