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Op-Ed: Quarantine means a Mother’s Day without my family. But I’ll continue this tradition.

Alberta Sims and her sister Rosie Morris.
Alberta Sims, foreground, and her sister Rosie Morris, circa 1970s.
(Susan Straight)

This Mother’s Day, we are more indebted than ever to strangers — all the people who work in hospitals, in grocery stores, in essential public services who keep our communities running and keep us safe during this pandemic.

On Sunday, I will have a photograph of my beloved mother-in-law, Alberta Marie Morris Sims, beside me while I cook. In 1976, when I was 15, Alberta taught me to cook for the stranger.

Alberta and her husband, General Roscoe Conklin Sims II, hosted gatherings in their short cement driveway that ended in a carport, in Riverside. It was Memorial Day, and my boyfriend, Dwayne Sims, brought me to meet his family for the first time.

I thought there might be 10 people; there were about a hundred. I was a too-short, too-thin white girl wearing a halter dress I’d bought at the local swap meet. I knew Dwayne’s brothers from our high school, some of his cousins from my brothers’ Little League teams, but everyone else stared at me.

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Then Alberta opened the screen door and held out her hand, saying, “She’s here! Come and get a plate.” I went into the kitchen with her, and she began to speak, and my life was changed. She was assembling paper plates full of ribs, macaroni and cheese, greens, and ham. I had my plate, but I didn’t want to leave. That’s when she said, “You always have to cook for the stranger. You never know who might stop by hungry.”

Years later, when Dwayne and I had our first daughter, I sat across from Alberta during lunchtime, nursing the baby before going back to work. Alberta told me the story of her mother, Daisy Carter, orphaned after her mother, Mary Belle Ford, was run down on a dirt road in rural Sunflower County, Miss., in the early 1900s. “She went from pillar to post, my mother. She never had a home until she came here to California. Look at that baby. She’ll never want for anything.”

As my first two daughters grew into toddlers, Alberta cooked round steak and pork chops in gravy, then chewed pieces of meat herself and gave them to the girls in her arms.

When I was pregnant with my third daughter, Alberta died suddenly, of a series of strokes. She lasted a few days in the convalescent center a few blocks from our house, and the last thing my husband whispered in her ear was that another baby was coming. My youngest child, with her graceful winged eyebrows, left cheek dimple, and high-set hips, looks like the reincarnation of her grandmother, whom she never met.

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That was 25 years ago, in February. This spring, I miss Alberta even more, I miss the driveway, I miss cooking for 50 people, I miss my family. All this spring, sirens screamed through my neighborhood, as ambulances left that convalescent home and so many other homes, heading to Riverside Community Hospital.

Riverside County is the second hardest hit in California, with more than 4,700 cases and more than 190 deaths. Our county was the first in the nation, on April 5, to require cloth masks when outside anywhere, and to declare “that no gatherings of any number of people may take place outside of family members residing in the same home.”

It’s been a long five weeks, and we will not gather again soon. This spring, I’ve thought of Alberta when I assembled paper plates of food for my neighbors and friends. She taught me that a stranger never stays that way in a community like ours.

Back in 1984, I knew I needed a side dish to bring to those driveway gatherings, and it had better be good. General’s sister Minerva made peach cobbler. Now Minerva’s daughter, Teri, makes peach cobbler and lime Jell-O cake. My sister-in-law makes corn salad, her daughter makes barbecued beans, and cousin Carolanne makes tamale pie and homemade salsa. The first year, I experimented with something similar to Hoppin’ John, a good luck meal that mixes many ingredients. I mixed saffron rice, hot sausage, black-eyed peas and seasonings in a big pot. I carried it, apprehensively, to the driveway.

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I have made this dish now for decades. It is called Your Rice, as in, “Hey, now, you bringing your rice tomorrow?” I cook it for 50 or 60 people, served in large aluminum containers, from Super Bowl Sunday to Memorial Day to Family Reunion, and often now for funerals. In March, Alberta’s beloved niece, Rita Butts, died at 65, of heart disease and sickle cell anemia. It scorched us with sadness to not have a funeral and repast. Rita ate Your Rice at our last family reunion, and took a container home.

This Mother’s Day, I will be without daughters, sons-in-law and mothers. My own mother, Gabrielle Watson, in February moved into assisted living, because of her memory loss. She is two miles away. Every day, we talk and I bring cookies, candy, magazines, but she is bereft because we have to stand six feet apart at the open glass doors. My daughters are grown now, quarantined in Austin, Texas, Albany, Calif., and Los Angeles with their partners and roommates. And because they know Alberta trained me well in this life, they will call on Mother’s Day to ask sternly, “Mama. Who’s on the porch? Are you all six feet apart?”

My front porch is where, normally, my family sits and tells stories with my neighbors, who are family too. There are no strangers here on my corner. If you pass by, we will talk at the fence.

On Mother’s Day, in the spirit of Alberta, I will get out the biggest pot in the kitchen and I will cook Your Rice for all my people. I will deliver a large container to my brother-in-law and sisters-in-law in the driveway. I will hand over the plates at my fence, masked, as we do now. I will keep Alberta’s picture here in the kitchen and hear her voice forever.

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Your Rice (for a gathering):

I’ve made this countless ways, sometimes from scratch with Mahatma jasmine rice, saffron and turmeric and garlic salt and other spices, with homemade sausage from pigs freshly killed by my father-in-law’s friend, with black beans instead of black-eyed peas. I’ve never written down the recipe, because it changes every time. But in these pandemic times, you can make this dish with things easy to find at the store, and add whatever makes it your own family’s taste. This recipe can be adjusted to serve 50 people, but here’s how to make it for 8-10.

2 5 oz. packages of Mahatma Yellow Rice (already seasoned with turmeric, saffron, etc.)

1 tubular package of Jimmy Dean Hot Sausage

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1 can of black-eyed peas, drained.

To your family’s taste: Add Lawry’s Garlic Salt and ground pepper, a splash of Red Rooster, a pinch of brown sugar, and something spicy. My newest family ingredient: a teaspoon of Suya Pepper, the famed spice mix for meat from Nigeria, given to me by my son-in-law’s mother, Bukola Jeje.

In a big pot, brown the sausage and drain all but 1 tablespoon of the drippings. Add 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil for each package of rice to the sausage in the pot. Add 1 2/3 cups of water for each package of rice, and bring to boil. Add rice and seasonings, stir gently, and simmer on low, covered, for 20 minutes, checking a few times to make sure enough moisture remains. During the last five minutes, add black eyed peas and stir gently.

Let sit for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork and serve.

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I’ll be making this recipe for 40, setting aside containers covered with foil to give to a hungry stranger.

Susan Straight’s latest book is the memoir “In the Country of Women.”


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