Humble, Rooted, Sustaining

I met the woman who would become my mother-in-law in 1978.  I was 17, it was early December, the weather was cold. As I approached the Ward’s house up the incline of the driveway, I lost my footing on a patch of black ice and landed hard on my bottom. I soon discovered the mishap hadn’t gone unnoticed. At the front picture window stood my one-day husband’s mother and his younger siblings watching my arrival, their eyes wide with astonishment at my spill.

Being a self-conscious 17, I was mortified. For a split second I considered turning and fleeing but instead I forged on – wounded pride, bottom, and all – and found myself welcomed so warmly and fully that I never looked back.

I can’t count the number of times in the last 33 years since then that Theresa displayed that same generosity of spirit. A mother of six children, she knew about helping when needed, she knew what mothers had to do: give, give, give without ever expecting anything in return. She carried this same credo into grandmotherhood. If you had to start a new job and your husband had to attend law school classes but your three year old came down with a case of chicken pox, she thought nothing of flying 1000 miles at a moment’s notice to spend the week with her recuperating granddaughter. Privately I called her Mary Poppins; she would turn up wherever needed.

Around our house, she was also known as “The Source.” Although she traveled a bit and volunteered later in her life, most of her life was lived within the walls of her home. But that didn’t mean her life was limited. She read widely – novels, non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines – and through these activities her mind and heart soared far and wide even if her physical self didn’t. As a result, there was nothing she didn’t know. Nothing. If you needed directions to some place, or to settle a nagging question about a fact of history, or were looking for recommendations of things to do at home or abroad, she had the information, she was a font of knowledge.

In December 2010, my daughter and I took Theresa into Boston to have a ladies’ tea at the Four Seasons in celebration of my mother-in-law’s 83rd birthday. The waitstaff attended to Theresa with care, something she may have been more used to giving than receiving, but she enjoyed the pampering, the tea, the treats, the visit with her granddaughter, Emma. Only a couple of weeks later, she was in the hospital struggling to survive. A heart valve had given out and she had surgery to repair it.

The past year brought more struggle: to rehab and regain strength and independence. She moved in with her oldest son and his wife, and made many strides. Another birthday passed and she graduated from a walker to a cane. This past Saturday, though, when my husband and daughter visited them all, Theresa expressed some anxiety that her progress had stalled, that certain health issues stilled plagued her, were holding her back. Even so, she spoke of all the knitting projects she wished to complete and the book group she hoped to join once she was able to move to an assisted living community. She reviewed a knitting project Emma was close to finishing and gave her good advice about it. She told them how happy she was that they visited. Physical limitations aside, she had much to look forward to. And so did we all, many more visits, some more years of her company and her knowledge and her generosity.

Either late Saturday night or early Sunday morning, a mere 36 hours after this visit with her son and granddaughter, Theresa slipped from sleep into death, gone when her body was ready perhaps, but so much sooner than any of us was ready to let her leave.

Today, I’m sharing one of Theresa’s recipes that I have shared with you before, and I hope you won’t mind the repetition. I’m finding the beets so appropriate today, the vegetable a real tribute to the essence of the woman I came to know as humble and selfless, thoroughly rooted in her family, and truly sustaining in both good times and bad.

Theresa Ward’s Pickled Beets

I have always loved beets and ate a lot of them growing up, but I grew inordinately fond of them later in life, when pregnant with my son.  Our family spent a stretch of time living with my in-laws between moving homes from Champaign, Illinois to Poulsbo, Washington.  Several nights at suppertime, my mother-in-law would set out a glass dish of home-pickled beets to go along with whatever she served.  The beets weren’t usually the starring vegetable, but neither were they an afterthought.  Instead, Theresa’s pickled beets enhanced every other dish on the table, brightened flavors, added depth to the meal.

Maybe my fondness was due to a pregnancy craving; if so, it is one craving that has stayed with me.  But I suspect it has more to do with the care and attention expressed by my mother-in-law through adding something both delicious and glisteningly bright purple to the table.  Now I too think of these beets as the condiment or relish of a meal, that simple gesture you can make that will somehow transform everything.

These beets are a snap to make and, as they are meant to eat right away and over the course of only a few days, require no canning equipment.  I have pickled every kind of beet – golden, the standard purply red, and Chioggia (or as I like to call them, candy striped) – and all are tasty and pretty.  If you care to make several types at once, make separate batches.  Purple beets have the habit of turning everything they touch purple, which includes your golden beet or the pretty white circles running through the dark pink Chioggia.

To cook the beets, my mother-in-law roasts them, unpeeled, in foil.  Roasted beets won’t be as messy as boiled, and they seem to retain more color this way.  When cooled, the beets are ready for peeling.  Wear gloves to keep your skin stain-free.

  • 1 pound of beets, any variety
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ½ cup water
  • 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/8 tsp. pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1 small to medium red onion, thinly sliced (optional)*

Wash beets well.

Place washed beets, unpeeled, on a large sheet of aluminum foil.  Fold the foil over the beets and seal all edges well.  Place the foil packet on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 30-45 minutes, depending on the size of the beets.  Small beets may be done in as little as 30 minutes while larger beets will take longer, up to 45 minutes.

To test for doneness, remove foil from oven, carefully unseal, and poke through the center of a beet with a sharp knife.  The knife should go in and come out easily.

When the beets are done, let them cool slightly then peel them and slice them to about 1/8-inch thickness.

Place in a quart-size glass dish and set aside.

Bring vinegar, water, and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan just until sugar dissolves.  Add salt and pepper and remove immediately from the heat.  Pour this over the beets, shake lightly to distribute, and cover.

Refrigerate until serving time.  Strain with a slotted spoon to serve.

*I sometimes add a sliced onion to the glass dish to pickle along with the standard purple beets.  The onion adds another layer of flavor and looks very pretty.  The beets with their vibrantly dyed pickled onions make a great addition to a salad.

©2012  Jane A. Ward