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Huddled around the table were men close to my mother-in-law’s heart — my husband, two sons and Janice’s husband Ray —  with Amy and I making six.  It was our first dinner without her.  So I kept numbers small — in hope of making conversation easier.

The dinner menu was less important that the diners, though I did spend hours in the kitchen trying to make the most mouth-watering meal I could.  Not only did I make Ray’s favorite Zucchini Squash Casserole but I made sure to avoid any dish that would remind too much of Janice.  It was way too early to serve any of Janice’s favorite foods, like the chicken-fried steak she heavily favored.

Our dinner conversation wasn’t memorable.  Just the usual mish-mash of words spoken in response to questions about how work was going or something or other about the weather or how Kyle’s truck Betsy was running.  Followed up, of course, by the standard fare of favorite topics like how the Pokes were doing or how the Sooners were doing or how the Thunder was doing.

We failed to talk of how we were doing.

After dinner, conversation was much the same.  Until Ray began talking about new routines at home.  Until I responded by saying something about Janice.

Wait.  Did I just say ‘Janice’ aloud?

Yes. And though I said it as natural as breathing, I don’t recall what words preceded Janice’s name and what words followed after.  I only remember saying, “Janice.”  And then the silence that swallowed up her name.

But I also remember what happened after the silence: I remember how Ray’s surprise softened into something like relief, and that he began to share a few stories about Janice that were important to him.

It was good, I think, for Ray to talk of Janice.  And it felt good to hear Ray’s talk of Janice.  To speak and hear of her was the best we could do.  Why it out-shined everything else about the evening — even that squash casserole I troubled myself over.

Ray’s Zucchini Squash Casserole

Total baking time:   9o minutes at 350.

2 large tomatoes or a 14.5 oz can of petite diced tomatoes (if canned, drain well)
1/4 cup brown sugar
Salt (to taste)
2/3 cup of chopped onion
2 medium zucchini squash – sliced
Grated Velveeta Cheese — 2 cups
Home-made croutons (see recipe below)
Grated Parmesan Cheese

Slice tomatoes over bottom of an ungreased 9×9 casserole dish.  Sprinkle brown sugar and salt over tomatoes.  Add 1/2 of onion and 1/2 of zucchini.  Cover with 1/2 of grated Velveeta cheese.  Repeat layers.  Cover with foil or casserole lid and cook for 1 hour at 350.  After one hour of baking, remove foil, drain off excess water in casserole (leaving some liquid), add croutons and Parmesan cheese to top of casserole.  Return to oven (uncovered) for final 1/2 hour of baking.

Home-made Croutons:

4 slices of bread, cubed
Approx. 1/3 cup butter
garlic salt to taste

Sauté bread cubes in butter and garlic salt in a skillet over medium heat until toasted.