Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 18, 2009

Edna Shaffer: We can manage the unthinkable


Editor's note: This column was written by Molly Franks, Edna Shaffer's third-born daughter. Edna expects to be back writing next month.

We make the road by walking.

Paulo Freire

Our story begins like this: Our clever mom won our dad by smelling like barbecue.

He was a young soldier in the Air Force and she was a cook at the Pig's Den in Jonesboro, Ark. It helped that she was a beautiful young slip of a thing, quiet with dark soulful eyes. He was tall and handsome -- a curious mix of boxer and musician. They embarked on a love story that would cover six decades and many of life's most difficult changes. They walked and where they walked, they made a road.

My parents, in middle age, with three daughters (one newly married and a fourth hovering for a landing) agreed together to enter new territory. While I was occupied with playing, Dad was studying to become a minister. When most people are planning for a secure retirement, Dad forfeited his job as a well-paid construction superintendent for an unknown future. With Mom's support, we packed our belongings and moved to a rural community 300 miles north of our home. To my sister and me, this was a huge adventure. It is only in looking back that I can fully appreciate the sheer boldness they exhibited! They were not afraid to make a road.

Fifteen years ago, my parents agreed to move closer to my family. It was a big decision as they left the house "that love built" on Grandpa's Mountain. Dad was showing signs of dementia and their home in the woods was too isolated.

As Dad declined, Mom was devoted to his care. It was a fall that sent Dad to the hospital and he would not come home again. From there he entered a nursing home. It was the day before their 58th wedding anniversary. I will never forget the pain of that day nor the meager attempt to make the next day "special" as we celebrated their anniversary in Dad's new, shared room. How on earth, would we do this? We were making a road.

Amazing how the unthinkable becomes the norm. Our mom was faithful beyond belief. When many spouses would have considered their work done, Mom continued. For four years, regardless of the weather, she took care of Dad daily as if he was her baby. She kept him clean, brushed his teeth, fed him and fiercely advocated on his behalf. She put off her own serious health needs. My sisters and I knew she was thoroughly exhausted. When Dad left us on a quiet December morning, we wondered what would become of Mom. While we were wondering, she was making a road by walking.

The last five months have been filled with many difficult days, but the buzzword for May is "restore." As the hillsides and the woodlands come alive with new birth, I witness my mom returning to her new, old self. An appetite starts to emerge, she forgets to use her walker, she washes her own hair, she wanders outside to water her beloved perennials, she makes a grocery list. Her voice is strong, her to-do list grows, her plans for the summer take shape, she laughs on the phone. We are on an upward trajectory without interference from the hard days of setbacks. This amazing woman, who I am fortunate to share Mother's Day with again this May, has not written her final chapter. You can look forward to hearing from her again as she continues to make the road in her incredible life.

Those of you who grew up on potlucks may recognize some variation of the following recipe. This is a dish prepared by one of our mom's dearest friends, Gwen Copeland.

Gwen Copeland's Good Neighbor Casserole

12 slices whole grain bread

4 c. diced chicken (just about a whole chicken)

1 c. chopped celery

1 c. chopped green pepper

1 c. minced onion

1 c. mayonnaise

11/2 t. salt

Black pepper to taste

2 cans cream of mushroom soup

1 c. grated cheddar

4 eggs, beaten

3 c. milk

Butter three slices of bread; cut into 1/2-inch cubes and set aside. Cube the remaining 9 slices and place half of the unbuttered cubes in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish.

Combine chicken, vegetables, mayonnaise and seasonings. Add one can soup and 1/2 cup grated cheddar. Spread over the bread cubes in the dish. Place the remainder of unbuttered bread cubes over the top. Combine the eggs with the milk. Pour over the top of the casserole, cover and refrigerate for one hour or overnight.

Spoon 1 can of soup over the top. Sprinkle with buttered bread cubes. Bake at 325º for 50 minutes. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup cheese over the casserole and bake for 15 minutes more.

This is heavy, so if you have restrictions on how much you may lift, have someone on hand to hoist it for you.

Parting shot: "It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between." -- Diane Ackerman

Edna Shaffer is a local mother, grandmother and great-grandmother who writes about cooking from the perspective of an older adult. She can be reached at For more Grandma's Kitchen columns by Edna Shaffer, log on to