Everyone in the family called her May–her children’s shortcut for mommy that, over the years, morphed into what became everyone’s nickname for her. She passed away seven years ago after feeling unwell for some time without anyone having a clue. It wasn’t until my grandfather found her collapsed on the bathroom floor one fateful night that her condition was discovered. I had just returned home from my honeymoon, still jet-lagged when I received the news that she wouldn’t last much longer. I flew halfway across the world to be able to see her one last time but while I was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, May passed away.
I don’t really know why she’s been on my mind a lot lately. January is not the month for May’s birthday or her death anniversary. Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about family–how precious each moment is that I still have with them. People around me are suffering losses, highlighting how fortunate I am that my parents are only as far away as the nearest phone. Maybe it’s because I came across one of her house dresses as I cleaned out a couple of drawers last week. When she passed away my aunts, my cousins and I each took home one of her many house dresses as a memento. The rest of her wardrobe was given away but those house dresses were signature May. My petite, stylish May with short curly hair, cheekbones as high as the sky and deep-set eyes never wore pants, always dresses, and she never wore street clothes when she was home. Just a house dress and fluffy slippers.
I remember observing her nightly routine of removing her makeup when I was a child. Dressed in her slip she would sit in front of her vanity table and gently apply Pond’s cold cream on her face. She would then methodically rub off her makeup with a cotton ball, rubbing in circles first on her forehead and working her way down to her neck. Was there a step in between? I don’t remember but she always applied Oil of Olay afterward. I do believe I still have a jar of Pond’s cold cream in my bathroom and on the rare occasion that I find a need for it, it never fails to remind me of her.
May was a mother to more children than she bore from her womb. She and my grandfather took under their wings so many young people that came their way–whether it be to have them live in their home for a time or even to put them through school if necessary. No one who arrived at their doorstep ever left a stranger. They became part of the family.
I feel fortunate for the time I was able to spend with May. She loved food like I do. She remained trim all her life but where my grandfather was ever watchful of his diet, May adored rich food, all kinds of food. When others turned their noses up at the socarrat, the crispy, crusty rice at the bottom of the pot, May deemed it her favorite. She had a habit–one I’ve picked up–of making a sandwich out of the eggs, toast and meat on her breakfast plate instead of eating them with a fork. She didn’t cook but she was an ace at putting together a weekly menu, especially for the traditional post-mass Sunday lunch when everyone in the family was in attendance (these menus, along with notes of every part of her day, are permanently documented in her journals, towers of which we discovered after her passing). In my family I was always the last person at the table, being the slow eater that I was. But when May was around we lingered at the table together, savoring that last bite. She wasn’t the best at doing dishes, though–whenever she came to visit, my mother’s nonstick cookware suffered because she scrubbed them with a scouring pad until the top layer wore off. But she was wonderful about organizing all the kitchen cabinets. So much so that my mother (a neat freak herself) wouldn’t know where anything was by the end of my grandmother’s visit.
Now that I think of it, I probably never engaged in deep, meaningful conversations with May. What I gathered of her character came from observation. And it wasn’t until after her passing that she spoke the most to me. Hundreds of people came to visit during her wake–strangers to most of the family but countless stories of May poured from their lips. My grandfather provided well for her but some family noted that she was always out of money. During her wake we discovered why–she always gave away what she had to people she deemed more in need. And these people never forgot. The entire community came to pay their respects for she so freely gave her time serving others. She was always so anxious to return home after their month-long visits with us. I knew she was involved in many causes but I never understood how deep those commitments were. May spent decades using her resources to help build shelters for children and poor families; really, she was happiest when she was helping those less fortunate. Where I think of the good things I want to do, May actually did them. I’ve been considering returning to volunteer work to make more meaningful use of my free time. Perhaps this is the true reason she’s been on my mind lately. She was a good example and I aim to follow suit. I will close this day thinking about her, about my family. There were many people who were fortunate enough to be able to call her May but I am honored that I was able to also call her my lola, my grandmother.
I made this soup with my husband in mind because he likes butternut squash so much but it was memories of my grandmother that came flooding in after tasting it…sweet, soul satisfying and full of wholesome goodness.
Adding the ground pistachios was an experiment that turned out very well. Butternut squash soup tends to be a bit too sweet for me but the addition of the pistachios helped two ways: the nuts balanced out the sweetness of the roasted squash and added richness and creaminess without the need for cream, something I try to avoid because my husband doesn’t like it. This was a winner–I can just imagine May and me, last to finish at the dinner table, savoring the last spoonfuls of this soup.
- 2 small butternut squash (1½ large), peeled, seeded and cut in cubes
- 1 onion, roughly chopped
- 3 stalks celery, chopped
- 2 teaspoons curry powder (you won’t really taste the curry but it adds depth to the soup)
- 3-4 large fresh sage leaves, chopped
- ¼ – ⅓ cup pistachios, lightly toasted then finely ground (w/ mini processor or coffee grinder)
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- salt and pepper, to taste
- olive oil
- To roast the butternut squash: Preheat your oven to 425°F. Arrange the squash pieces on a large baking tray and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and roast for 30-35 minutes or until tender.
- To prepare the soup: Sauté the celery and onion in olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pan. Cook for about 4-5 minutes. After this time the onion should be slightly caramelized and the celery crisp-tender. Add the sage leaves and cook for another 1-2 minutes.
- Add the roasted squash and the stock and bring to a boil then lower the heat to simmer and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn the heat off.
- Purée the mixture using a blender (in batches) or an immersion blender (right in the pot). Return to the pot and stir in the ground pistachios; simmer for another minute or two. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve.