Earlier this week I meant to add a post to my blog about making saltwater taffy, and childhood memories of the fun we had making that taffy with a little girl who travelled from Brooklyn NY each summer to spend a few weeks at our rundown little house in Massachusetts. But the constant stories in the news of #BlackLivesMatter, and the protests, riots, and continued and growing threat to people of color in our world today gave me pause.
We need to speak our own stories and listen to others speak theirs
I’ve been hearing for quite a while now from friends, and news stories, and social media about white privilege. And the anger and frustration I see on the news, the justified heartbreak and sheer gut-wrenching furor over the ongoing and growing nightmare that part of our community is dealing with made me stop. Would my story be fair and true? Or would I be telling her story through my filter without even realizing it? I didn’t want to put words in her mouth or imagine what it was like for her, because in truth I don’t really know. We never really talked about it at that depth. But she has said she felt a part of our family (and still does today) and I know I consider her my sister, and would be there for her in a heart beat if she needed me. So I reached out to her. First, I needed to find out if she even remembered the times I would be writing about. And then I asked if she’d like to actually write about those memories, and I could just provide the recipe. Her reply came quickly, “Tell your story from your perspective and I would definitely be okay with it… I think at a time like this it’s a great thing to show the world the love we all have with color, yet not with color, if that makes sense.”
So I hope I do our time together justice Toni. I value the times we shared of our childhood, and I value our connection as women in the world today, living different lives, but respecting and loving each other like family!
The Fresh Air Fund, the 70s, and an opportunity
Today felt like a saltwater taffy day to me. It’s been sunny, warm, and with just a teensy chance of a passing thunderstorm. It made me think about making saltwater taffy as kids, and that got me thinking about a time when I was around 12 or 13, maybe a bit older, and the Fresh Air Fund was mentioned at church. The Fresh Air Fund was an organization that coordinated transportation and housing for children living in the hot, noisy streets of NY to spend a few weeks in the country. The thought was this would give kids, who otherwise may not have the funds to go on a vacation during the summer, an opportunity to spend a week or two in the country or a small town.
Diversity in America, or not
Ours was not a diverse town. In fact, it was a very white town just north of Boston. It was also a time of desegregation and busing, and many people in our area were not happy about it. But my parents didn’t care. They felt we had open fields, woods, streams, and plenty of love to go around. Why not share it with some child who didn’t have that opportunity otherwise? I think they also wanted us to have the experience of having a brother or sister who came from a different background than we did.
Our school (at least the high school) had kids bused in from the city every day. They sat together in the cafeteria, took all the same classes together, and played football. I don’t remember any girls, but I do remember wondering what it must be like to leave your neighborhood just to go to school with a bunch of kids you didn’t know. And I wondered how well the desegregation was going if those kids just stuck together. There was no real attempt to connect us. I played in the marching band, and when we rode the bus to football games in our area, we had to duck down when we arrived at a school. In many towns in our area, busing was not accepted or approved. When our bus pulled onto their school property, kids from the other school would start throwing rocks and soda cans at us. They didn’t want to play against our team because we had “those kids” on our team. So yes, this stuff has been going on for years!
Living on a farm in suburbia
So back to the Fresh Air Fund. We definitely had a lot of fresh air at our house. My family lived on what used to be a 12-acre farm (it was subdivided and we eventually ended up with about 4 acres). It used to be my father’s family’s summer place, as well as containing a few barns and out buildings that were rented out to different families during the ’30s and ’40s. We had an apple orchard, open fields, a meadow, blueberry bushes, a large wild hazelnut stand, and hundreds of acres of woods behind us leading to the Ipswich River.
Our house was small with just 2 bedrooms for six people. Thankfully, when I turned 10 or 11, my parents decided to move their bedroom down to the room adjacent to our kitchen. (Literally, there was a sliding door, and my parent’s bed was perhaps 8 feet from the kitchen table.) So my brothers shared the room at the top of the stairs, and if you walked through their room, you’d be in the room I shared with my sister.
The house was pretty rustic. We had no central heat, no foundation, and ice formed on the inside of the windows in our bedrooms in winter. We had a big tub in the bathroom which again was probably no more than 8 feet or so from the kitchen table. But we also had a lot of love and care for each other. My siblings may look back now and question that, but from my perspective, it was true. No family is perfect, and poverty, depression and the scars of life can make you do and say things you may regret later. But love and a desire to create a great space to grow and discover was definitely the path my parents hoped for. And when Bud and Lillian heard about the Fresh Air Fund at church, they put their name in to be a host family for a child from Brooklyn, NY.
That summer, we drove to Pinkerton Academy in NH to pick up Eric, a little 7-year old boy. I remember wondering how a family could send a child that young on his own to stay with a family they’d never met. He was very shy, and very small and carried his own little suitcase.
We sat in the car while my mother went to pick up paperwork, and the schedule of events arranged for the kids. About 15 or 20 minutes later my mother came walking back to the car with another child in tow. She introduced us to Tony, telling us that his family hadn’t shown up. I remember the shock thinking, it’s one thing to send your child away without knowing who they were staying with, but then for the family to just plain change their mind, and your kid is left waiting to see if someone else can take them?
Tony was very quiet, and had beautifully braided hair and a brilliant smile. But once we were on the road again, and we started talking it became apparent, Tony, was actually Toni, a young girl. My sister and I were thrilled! We were kind of feeling left out when it was just a boy coming to visit.
In fact, we enjoyed our time with Toni so much that first year that she returned summer after summer. And eventually, as promised, stayed for a full month on her own. We had a big party for her that year and invited our friends from school. She was showered with gifts enough for her, her sister back home, and her mom. Unfortunately, the summer before I went off to college, we couldn’t have her come for a visit. And the rule with Fresh Air was that if you skip a year, you can’t have that child back.
A sister lost to the years that pass
My sister Lorraine stayed in touch with Toni through occasional letters and phone calls. We heard that she’d gone to school, that she had a child, that she had a good job and was living on her own. She had definitely grown up to be the competent go-getter we expected. But lives move on and we didn’t get back together for literally decades. About 7 years ago I reached out to Toni on Facebook. It was like we’d never been apart, and we started planning a get-together. We’ve been in touch ever since.
Toni has two daughters, and a beautiful granddaughter now. Her youngest is attending college in CA, and her oldest, Najma, pictured above, lives in the city and is busy being a mom, working, and living her life. And we still refer to each other as Sis.
Toni always called my parents Ma and Pa. It just made sense. I remember once we went to the grocery store and while my mother was checking out, she told us to go ahead out and wait with my father who was sitting on a bench outside. As Toni ran towards my father waving her package of “Now and Laters” and yelling, “Pa! Look what we got!” A man walking into the store looked from her to my father and made a comment about “Someone must have a color TV at home.” My father’s face turned red and he grabbed Toni’s hand, and we walked quickly to the car. I didn’t hear until later what that man had said. But my father relayed the comment to my mother, and they were then on the lookout to avoid a repeat of that situation.
Exploring the world in our own backyard
But don’t let that reaction fool you. We went everywhere when Toni visited. My father loved Chinatown, so we went in for the August Moon Festival. Neighborhood families invited us over for BBQs and to swim in their pool. We went to Maine to visit my aunt and uncle. We went to church every Sunday. We spent hours singing songs together, and fixing each other’s hair, and when we discovered Toni’s love of singing, we built a stage in front of one of our barns to put on a show. I can’t locate the picture right now, but we have one of her in a silk skirt and plenty of sequins. I can still remember her singing, “Feelings… Woah Woah Woah feelings.” Over and over.
The way things were
It was a different and difficult time back then. And we never really talked about color or differences or history. I knew Toni had a mom and a sister. I knew her street address, and that when she called home, sometimes we’d have to wait while she went down to the street to use the phone booth. That’s about all I knew. I didn’t know if she had a father, but she had my father. I didn’t know if she had brothers somewhere, but she had my brothers. And she will always be a part of my family. But why didn’t we talk about it? Toni was our summer sister, but we didn’t ask questions, we just listened when she shared the stories she chose to share… and all these years later, that connection is still there.
I didn’t want to assume I knew what these experiences were for Toni. I hope she does provide me a story or two to share, and I’ll add her piece once she’s done with it. One thing she did remember from her time with us was making Saltwater Taffy. My mother made it when she was younger, and thought it was the perfect thing for us to do together. I don’t remember having any after we made it, so I bet we just ate it all once it was cooled and stretched! It’s one more memory of a childhood shared, and brings so many other funny stories and memories that I want to make sure are written down and shared to do what Toni was hoping for: “show the world the love we all have, with color yet not with color.” I do hope that the protests, the riots, and the hearts and minds that are being opened now, make a difference for all of us.
Orange Coconut Taffy Twists
Note: You will need a candy thermometer for this one. I tried it using the glass of ice water and testing for “hard ball stage” we ended up with a tray of coconut hard candy and a dozen or so pieces of what tasted like stale orange taffy. But if you use the thermometer you should result in taffy that you’ll want to make simply to try all the flavor possibilities!
Make two batches in order to have enough to make the twists!
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1TB cornstarch
- 1 TB unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup light corn syrup
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 3/4 tsp orange extract
- 1 drop yellow food coloring
- 2 drops red food coloring
- Add sugar to large deep saucepan. Sift in the cornstarch and whisk those dry ingredients together. This step avoids getting cornstarch clumps in your mix.
- Clip the thermometer to the side of the pan
- Add the butter, corn syrup, salt, water, and flavorings, whisk to combine over a low flame.
- Once mixed, increase the flame to medium and continue stirring until the taffy reaches 250 degrees F (120 degrees C).
- Turn off the heat and add the food coloring, stirring to combine.
- Pour the taffy into a greased heatproof dish and allow to cool just until you can handle it. Usually 10 – 12 minutes.
NOTE: If you’re going to make the twists, this is the time to get your second batch of taffy started, and instead of orange flavoring, use coconut flavoring.
- Once the taffy is cooled, butter your hands (yes, spread them with butter) and remove the taffy from the pan. Start pulling it and folding it over itself again and again. The taffy will start to go opaque and become lighter and lighter as far as color.
- If you’re doing both flavors, this is when a second person comes in handy!
- When it becomes too hard to pull, roll it into a long log about the thickness you’d want for a bite of taffy! Snip it into bite-size chunks with a buttered pair of scissors.
- Wrap each individual piece in waxed paper, twisting the ends. Parchment paper works, but waxed paper works better.
Some other flavoring ideas:
- chocolate and mint
- apple and lemon
- grape and vanilla
You can even add cupcake sprinkles, or crushed pop rocks to the taffy before cooling for a bit of crunch.