Loafing around

Most of us encounter smells and tastes and sounds that immediately transport us back in time. We don’t even realize it, but there we are. If I catch a whiff of Old Spice, I am a 10-year-old girl again, talking with my Papa Bill seated in his fake leather yellow recliner chair and listening to talk shows on his AM radio  If I hear the song Purple Rain, I am with Beth Storey, a high school friend, driving around in her muscle-type car and singing at the top of our lungs. And if I take a bite of my mother’s homemade molasses bread, I am on Prudence Island. Just like that.

My mother’s homemade bread is actually not my mother’s recipe. It came from Kay Sullivan, the wife of my father’s first cousin Bob. Since my father was an only child, Bob and Kay were more like an uncle and aunt to us. The Sullivan family (two parents and eight kids and always a dog and cat, and sometimes a pig) lived next door to us for many years. Kay was one of my mother’s most trusted confidants.

My mother was 34 when she moved to Hingham to help take care of her father-in-law. She didn’t want to move into my father’s childhood home. She had three children under the age of 10, with another almost on the way. And let’s just say the house, built in 1727, needed some work.

Papa Bill in our kitchen. (My mother added the blue burlap wall-covering way before anyone heard of Martha Stewart.) 

My mother tells the story of coming to visit shortly before they moved in and finding Papa Bill seated in the kitchen with bowls and buckets strategically placed around the kitchen floor to catch the rain coming through the roof. “Well, we have a little problem Alice,” he said.

Kay embraced my mother from the very beginning. My mother says Kay was a more easy-going parent than she was and she tried to follow her example and roll with the punches better. What I remember most about Kay is her laugh. She had a hearty laugh, the kind of laugh done with conviction. My mother and Kay used to take walks together. Not so much to improve their physical health, but more their mental one. It is important to have people in your life you can vent to without judgment, especially when you become a mother and feel overwhelmed, which happens on occasion. My mother said she had that with Kay.

Now back to the molasses bread. Kay came to visit my mother on Prudence Island and spotted an old-fashioned bread maker in our shed left by the previous owners.

A bread maker like the one my mom used. (Thanks Google images.)

My mother thought it was an ice cream maker. Kay said she had a recipe that my mother could use to test it out some day. And so she did. Many, many times in fact.

My mother would often enlist our help in kneading the dough before it went into the oven. We were supposed to get out our frustrations as we punched. I can remember pounding the dough with my fists, “Mr. Keating, why did you give us so much homework?” and thinking I was the funniest person to ever walk the planet.

Our kitchen on Prudence Island was tiny. The laminate-covered counter where my mother did all her cooking measured probably 3 feet across; that may be generous. But my mother cooked amazing meals in that tiny space with an antiquated gas oven. She didn’t need high-end stainless steel appliances. Her “can-do” attitude was her secret ingredient. It always has been.

My favorite way to eat the molasses bread was hot out of the oven and covered with my mother’s homemade blackberry jam, made from picked berries growing wild on Prudence Island. You know the scene toward the end of the movie Ratatouille when the dour food critic takes a bite of the vegetable dish referenced in the title? The flavors trigger a flashback to him as a sweet little boy, standing in his mother’s kitchen, soothed and loved. Homemade molasses bread is my ratatouille.

These days my sister Kathleen is the keeper of the recipe, so to speak. She often hands out loaves of molasses bread as Christmas presents to grateful friends and relatives. When she was first married my mother gave her an old-fashioned bread maker for Christmas. She is a talented cook and she  recently agreed to help show me the steps. I would share her recipe, but Kathleen tends to tweak/improvise and I would be afraid I might miss a step. But if you ask nicely, I bet she would make you a loaf.

The most important ingredient.
My niece Clare provided moral support via Facetime from her college in Maine.
Adding the flour to the molasses. BELOW Waiting for the bread to rise and then getting ready to knead (or vent frustrations out on) the dough.
The bread ready to go into the oven.
A beautiful golden brown color. Pay no attention to that dirty oven.
Elizabeth enjoys the delicious finished product for breakfast. We repeated this routine every morning for a full week. (Note our retro kitchen floor and the hand of my husband Paul reading The Boston Globe, delivered every morning. Is that retro now too? Gulp.)

NOTE: My original intent was to spend one year living more like my mother but I have too much left on my original list. I think I might need two years. Maybe three.


12 thoughts on “Loafing around”

  1. Nicely written. Brings back good memories of that small kitchen on Prudence! Your mom could always whip up some kind of treat for us. I remember the rice crispy treats she would make for us. Remember the tents we would make in the back yard using old blankets and the clothes line. That was good old fashioned fun!

    1. Thanks Christine. That kitchen was tiny! The whole house was tiny but I guess we never noticed. So funny about the tents. We would wake up on the dewy grass at the crack of dawn. Hope to see you this summer, or at a track/cc meet. Elizabeth (our freshman) is now running too.

  2. Thank you Susan for the real treat of your authentic writing. I relished reading and sharing in the memories of Prudence. Encourage Kathleen to sell the bread at the Island Market this summer. I’ll buy some! Give my love to all the Flynn’s!!

    1. Thanks so much Sarah. I will tell Kathleen about your good idea. That would be a big hit I am sure. Hope to see you this summer. Hi to your family and your mom. Prudence Island is the source of so many of my happiest memories as this blog has made evident.

  3. Ooh how I enjoyed this post and I am so excited to know that you are going to keep writing! You just cannot keep a good writer down now can we??

    This post touched a special place in my heart because as I was growing up, (the daughter of southern parents and grandparents) one of my fondest memories was being taught by my grandfather how to make a molasses and butter syrup for my mother’s homemade biscuits. My southern family would buy their molasses in a silver can that looked like a paint can – growing up in Indiana, we would buy the same molasses as your recipe for molasses bread.

    So – since I am almost family J I would love to have this recipe – thank you a million times over for sharing!

    Sending much love and best wishes for the New Year!


    Pamela Parker

    Harvest of Barnstable

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    1. Thanks Mary for your nice comment. Your mother and father were very, very good to the Flynns. My mother just told me a few stories I had not heard. Like the time she babysit for your parents when they had to go to a wedding. She was newly married and only had Kathleen. And she said Timmy and Larry got into a fight and were rolling around on the ground and she didn’t know what to do. Funny stories. Take care. xo

  4. Thank you, another wonderful posting. I can attest that the bread is delicious! Memories can sneak up when you least expect. One of mine is Jeanette, not the fragrance but the bottle brings up memories. It was something my mom used and we all give it to her for gifts (my sister, brother, dad)…not sure if she could or did use them all! But I remember a bottle on the bathroom vanity. I just googled the name and learned Jeanette was introduced in 1935 the same year my mother was born.
    As for the “bread” recipe in my family, it is Polish Babka. I remember making it with my Nana. I still have the recipe card written in my grammar school printing (and spelling). I have to pull it out and make a loaf or two.


    1. Jamie. My mother wore Jean Nate too and always got a bottle for Christmas. So funny. Thanks for your lovely comment. And yes please make the Polish babka and share the recipe, or at least the finished product 🙂

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