Maple taffy memories of Grandma Cheney

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, May 5, 2004

She called herself a firecracker, because she was born in the U.S.A. on the Fourth of July. My wife, Mary Anna, called her simply Grandma.

Were she alive today, Bertha Ella Cheney would be 103. A couple of years ago, as a present for the rest of the family, Mary Anna published a booklet full of delightful tidbits about her grandmother. Maple Taffy Memories celebrates the wit and wisdom of this beautiful woman, who spent most of her life in a tiny village of 300 souls nestled in the rolling foothills of western New York state.

As a child, Mary Anna had a special relationship with Grandma Cheney – the time, for instance, when the two of them sat side by side, crunching apples as loudly as possible. ("Apples taste so much better when you crunch them real loud," Grandma told her.)

Grandma always did have fun with food. She was renowned for her down-home country cooking, and I sure enjoyed my share in the days soon after entering the family.

The story is told of the time Grandma's oldest son, Don, came home for a visit and complained about the apple pie she served him: It wasn't nearly as good as the ones she used to make, he commented. The family had a good chuckle; unbeknownst to Don, Grandma had substituted Ritz crackers for apples.

Speaking of sweet things, Mary Anna based the title of her book on her grandparents' springtime tradition of collecting and boiling sap from their tall, arching maple trees. One occasion in particular stands out vividly in Mary Anna's memories:

"It was early spring and several inches of newly fallen snow lay on the ground, but already the sap was running in the maple trees in front of the house," Mary Anna wrote. "The sweet aroma from the bubbling pot filled the house. As the syrup neared the hard crack stage, Grandma gave each of us cake pans to take outside and fill with clean, fresh snow. We brought them in and set them on the table. Then Grandma brought the hot pot to the table. She dipped her spoon into the hot liquid and drizzled it over the snow. The syrup quickly hardened into a taffy-like substance. We eagerly wound the 'snow candy' around our forks and placed the wonderful confection in our mouths."

Grandma had a gift for understanding her granddaughters' complexities.

Among her treasured papers was this snippet: "Little girls are the nicest things that happen to people. They are born with a little bit of angel-shine about them and though it wears thin sometimes, there is always enough left to lasso your heart. . . .

"Who else can cause you more grief, joy, irritation, satisfaction, embarrassment, and genuine delight than this combination of Eve, Salome, and Florence Nightingale? She can muss up your house, your hair, and your dignity . . . then, just when your patience is ready to crack. . . she climbs on your knee and whispers, 'I love you best of all!'"

It was out of a kind and gentle concern for her granddaughters – and for daughters and granddaughters everywhere, I think – that she loved to share this prayer:

I wash the dirt from little feet, and as I wash I pray,
"Lord, keep them ever pure and true, to walk the narrow way."
I wash the dirt from little hands, and earnestly I ask,
"Lord, may they ever yielded be to do the humblest task."
I wash the dirt from little knees, and pray,
"Lord, may they be the place where victories are won, and orders sought from Thee."
I scrub the clothes that soil so soon, and pray,
"Lord, may her dress throughout eternal ages be the robe of righteousness."
E'er many hours shall pass, I know I'll wash these hands again;
And there'll be dirt upon her dress before the day shall end;
But as she journeys on thru life and learns of want and pain,
Lord, keep her precious little heart cleansed from all sin and stain.
For soap and water cannot reach where Thou alone canst see;
Her hands and feet, these I can wash,
I trust her heart to Thee.

So, on this Mother's Day, I raise my cup in a toast: Thank you, Grandma Cheney.

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page