This Week, Squared Away

“Today feels like a different day, a new one. Our troubles are far from over, but hope and joy no longer seem ridiculous.”

Critic Craig Morgan Teicher on npr.org

The week begins; I am reading an interesting book. Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal is a culinary history of the Great Depression. I started reading it when I decided to explore how our food tastes were shaped. Since Mark’s parents and mine grew up during the 1930’s, we know that the Depression shaped how they ate then and how they shopped and ate moving forward.

I read the book, and I remember stories my father told about his big family—fourteen kids, when the count was completed—, the challenges of feeding all those mouths,  and the humiliation of standing in relief lines. My father, who had a fierce work ethic, called the supplies they received ‘hand-outs,’ and the shame of that childhood necessity shadowed his face. One of the highest compliments he ever paid another was this: “He (or she) is a damned hard worker.”

Mom told stories about the food adaptations her frugal family made. They raised chickens in the city, and they used every part of a cow or pig. She talked about visiting one of the dour old aunts, opening the front door and being assailed by the smell of hot urine. Kidneys were simmering on the stove; pot after pot of simmered water was dumped down the drain until the organ meat no longer smelled like its original function. She didn’t like the resulting dish—steak and kidney pie, maybe, or just kidney and potatoes,—but, being hungry and well-disciplined, she cleaned her plate.

My mother told us about ‘Depression cookies’—a recipe that involved cutting stale bread into cubes, soaking the cubes in sweetened condensed milk, dipping them in coconut flakes, and baking them. That sounded good to me; in my world, both sweetened condensed milk and coconut were luxuries, not staples. I wanted to try making those cookies, but my mother shuddered and said, ‘No.’

It was a long time before I realized the truth: that my parents and so many others grew up hungry in those Depression years. They never starved, but during those tenuous years, they never had quite enough to eat, either.

My father went off to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps. He didn’t talk much about it; he just said, “At least we got three square meals.”

The book echoes that, too, and suddenly I think, “Why a SQUARE meal?”

I go online to look that up, and I find a legend that the term comes from the British Navy,…from the trenchers, wooden and square, on which, historically, sailors were served their meals. The food must have been ample for this myth to have arisen.

But phrases.org.uk tells me the myth is wrong. ‘Square’ doesn’t just mean the shape; it also means honest, forthright, dependable. So we had square deals; we squared things up; problems were squared away. A trusted person might be described as a square shooter.

And it is that definition that’s applied to food. A square meal is satisfying, nutritious, and known.

As this week begins, thinking about things that are honest, forthright, and dependable is comforting.

It’s comforting, too, to read about hard times that were surmounted.

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The week starts with a commemorative day; Mark and I are both off on Monday, remembering the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We spent the weekend clearing out the little room upstairs.

On Monday, James and I paint the little room’s ceiling. We mask up and head off to Office Depot, where James picks the paint color—a deeply vibrant green—for the walls.

We’ll freshen the woodwork with white semi-gloss. I’m thinking we’ll buy insulated white curtains to add bright splashes against the dark green.

We clean and sort the clutter the little room had attracted; it became kind of a box room, and objects that had no particular port landed there. We consider each one, now; we recycle and donate and repurpose. We stop one day and buy painter’s tape, and today we will tape edges and touch up the ceiling, so that tomorrow we can paint the first coat on the walls.

It feels good to be freshening up and renewing a room.

It feels a little bit like hope.

********************************

On Tuesday, James starts a class he’s very excited about—a lit course that covers drama and poetry. He attends by going to his desk in the basement and clicking into Microsoft Teams…maybe not the best way to attend a class, but he’s enthusiastic. And he’s in the company, however virtually, of an impassioned professor and other enthusiastic students.

“Class was great,” he says when I get home from work.

And work was great, too; I feel a sense of renewal, and I talk to people committed to their projects and causes. I organize projects into binders; I read up on things as diverse as reverse scholarships, mobile shower units, and organizations that offer support to non-profit managers. And these efforts, too, speak of hope and possibility.

**********************************

On Wednesday, Mark and Jim come to the office at lunchtime. We turn on the big screen TV in the conference room, connect to the internet, and live stream the inauguration. President Biden delivers a message of hope and unity, and an impossibly young woman, our poet laureate, recites a poem with poise and passion.

And then Mark and I go back to work, and Jim studies poetry, and the day surges forward.

Later, though, Mark comes home from work and says, “I can’t believe how physically relieved I feel.”

I know just what he means. I feel it, too: lightened, loosened. There was no violence, only a decorous beginning. And a tension carried for many long years begins to un-knot.

**********************************

The week winds down; we eat homemade chicken soup and have sour cream bundt cake for a treat. Those seem like honest, forthright foods. I am delighted that the supermarket is accepting plastic bags for recycling again. James and I make several runs: to Kroger with bags of bags; to Goodwill with boxes of stuff gleaned from the little room. We recycle cardboard packing cases, and I feel better and better about the emerging uncluttered space.

*****************************

And the term “a square deal” keeps thrumming through my mind, so I go online to look it up. I discover it was a term not coined by, but often used by, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt used it to mean fairness and equity for all; he applied it when he treated bosses and workers equally at the end of a coal strike in 1902.

Roosevelt used the term to apply to race relations. He talked about the people of color he’d fought beside in the Spanish-American war. “If a man is good enough to have him shot at while fighting beside me under the same flag, he is good enough for me to try to give him a square deal in civil life,” said the President in 1903. He advocated for voters’ rights and for judging people as individuals, not by ethnicity or race.

Roosevelt extended the concept of the square deal to his policies, saying his administration stood for “a square deal all around.” The term became so closely connected to TR that historians have capitalized it and made it into a program, according to the theodorerooseveltcenter.org; the concept is most closely linked with Roosevelt’s anti-trust measures.

Roosevelt served years before women would get the vote; racial inequities, and other inequities, weren’t defeated during his presidency. His leadership was not perfect. But a square deal for all is something we could all embrace today.

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A square deal: a measure built in honesty, forthrightness, and dependability. That sounds like a deal I can live with right now; it sounds like a deal that will let me relax and look forward.

It’s an interesting concept to keep in mind as a new administration begins its leadership.

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This is one of those weeks where the present, the past, and the future have collided. It’s a week where unacknowledged anxiety, mixed with an undercurrent of dread, drained off, replaced by relief.

Our past, good AND bad, informs us, but the present has its comforts and blessings. And the future seems opened up: there are challenges to be met, but the possibility of successfully meeting them looms large.

***************************************

Maybe, just maybe, a time has begun when we can square things away.

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https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/square-meal.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_(slang)

https://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/TR-Encyclopedia/Politics%20and%20Government/The%20Square%20Deal

6 thoughts on “This Week, Squared Away

  1. Kimberly A. Allen

    Thank you for your column. Perhaps, unlike the 60’s square is now “cool.” On Wednesday I was glued to the television to see this new say unfold from early morning to late at night. In the morning there was a slit screen, which was apt I thought. I saw what felt like a sad, contrived, and the final revealing (again) ending to a modern day version of the story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes. Juxtaposed to that was like an opening meditation to a new day of possibility filled with ritual, promise, tears, jubilation, thought filling, heart-filled words and uplifting music, the blessings of 3 past presidents passing their our torches, and then a evening celebration. It was one of the most usual inaugurations, but for me, one of the best. It was everything you would want it to be, including the “every person” in his Vermont and special gifted warmth. I awoke feeling demonstrably lighter, relieved, optimistic, and calm. I could finally take a breath. I could breathe again. It is amazing how much we have all held so much in, just handing on……. I embrace square! I embrace Bernie cool! I love being greeted on Saturday mornings by your thought-filled column. And thank you for the room inspiration. Funny, I have wanted to paint a room green too! What will you use it for?

    1. I relate to every single thing you write about here, Kim! The Bernie memes are a message that it’s okay to laugh again, and I love the fact that he has okayed marketing T-shirts to support Vermont charities. What a good sport.

      The little room is going to be a kind of study which can transform into guest space…with the firm belief that yes, once again, we will be visiting and having visitors!

      I hope you have a wonderful weekend!

  2. Kim Allen

    Pam, Thank you for reading through my phone’s auto checks, as if I don’t know what I am saying. You have a good point. How wonderful we can all collectively share a laugh., and as you say, feel we can laugh again. So perfect, fun and unifying . I saw an interview with Bernie. He has seen them and is smiling too! And his goodness flows. Take good care!

  3. My parents grew up in the depression but were rural folks so I don’t think they went hungry as there was usually meat and some sort of vegetables. My dad’s family had more money and probably did better during the dirty 30’s but I do recall my mom talking about having hot water, lard and old bread chunks as lunch. Doesn’t sound very appetizing. Both my parents were very meat, potatoes and vegetable kind of people. Nothing fancy or tasty!
    Yes a fresh coat of paint is a wonderful way to have a new start. Seems like both your house and your country have the paint can and brushes out. In your case the room will be done and being used soon. Hopefully the change in the oval office can make some changes to the country.
    Always appreciate how you tie in these divergent topics under your main thread. Very well written.

    1. bernieLynn, when we moved here and I was searching for work I did a fun stint as a historic interpreter…a school marm. We shared with the kids that, pre-peanut butter, they’d probably have a lard sandwich in their lunches. Your mom’s Depression lunch brings that to mind…and I think how spoiled I am!

      Yes, cleaning, new paint—fresh new changes are welcomed!!!

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