Mother’s Brown Sugar Brownies

In 1945, I was 13 years old, in the 8th grade at old Highland School in Cincinnati’s East End.

I especially loved my home economics cooking class and our teacher, Mrs. Geoghan.  We spent a lot of time chatting together and she would show me a few vintage (even at that time) cookbooks she had on her desk.  I especially coveted one called All About Home Baking published by General Foods in 1933.  There were a few pages in color that I really enjoyed…

….and loads of black and white how-to photographs along with their great recipes.

I wasn’t in the habit of asking for things, even of my parents, but for some reason felt comfortable in asking Mrs. Geoghan if I could have this book – and she gave it to me!

It was an absolute treasure to me – I read and reread the recipes and gazed at the pictures, imagining myself making all of these wonderful baked goods.

My mother didn’t own a cookbook and normally didn’t keep recipes, but she did write a favorite brownie and frosting recipe on a back page in the book.

These brownies were in her repertoire of brunch-type foods to make in the summertime when my sister and I would sleep until almost noon and come downstairs to a baked treat of some kind.  She didn’t include instructions for the brownies, but I made some recently to see if they were as good as I remembered them.  They are.  I omitted the frosting this time but it’s also delicious and easy to make.

I baked mine the way Mother always made hers – in a 9×13 pan which results in a very thin bar.  We only had butter in the house for Thanksgiving, so I’m sure she used margarine (oleo) for her frosted brownies.


  • Servings: 12-16, depending on size
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  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1-½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ cup chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

Grease and flour a 9×13 baking pan

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and brown sugar, add the egg.

In a separate small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt.  Stir into the butter mixture just until blended.  Stir in vanilla and nuts.  Spread and pat into a greased and floured 9×13 pan.

Bake @ 350 degrees for approximately 12-15 minutes.  Bars should be slightly soft when removed from oven.  Place on a rack to cool.

Serve plain or with Mother’s Quick Caramel Frosting.  Cut into bars to serve.


1 cup light brown sugar (packed)
2 Tblsp. butter
2 Tblsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla
1-½ cups confectioners’ sugar

Put brown sugar, butter and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Cool slightly.  Add vanilla and confectioners’ sugar.  Beat well and spread on brownies. 

This wonderful cookbook often turns up in antique malls and in various versions on a lot of websites such as Amazon and eBay.

My Mother, 1945

Mother Went Dancing

From the time my little sister and I  were toddlers sitting with Mother on a daybed in a one-room flat on Elm Street in downtown Cincinnati, we heard her tell about her days as a teenager and how much she loved to dance.  She gloried in the days when she would go to local grange dances with her friend, Ruby, and they would dance together all night long – never mind trying to meet a boy.

Mother sat with us in her plain cotton house dress and talked about the joys of getting dressed up and going out for a night of dancing.  I remember she owned one tiny sample of Tangee lipstick in a natural tone, a small disc of rouge, and a sample bottle of Jergen’s lotion.  These were her cosmetics and she had to use those sparingly, both to save money and to keep her young husband from noticing and denouncing her as a floozie.

I remember Mother listening to my Great-Aunt Anne talking about the wonderful barn dances they used to have when she was a young girl in the early 1900s as she described in detail the fiddlers, the girls in their best dresses, the noise and fun of everybody kicking up their heels with great gusto.  In the 1970s after my father was gone, my sister talked her into taking square dance lessons.  Since she didn’t have a partner, she danced with other club members and practiced the calls in her mind constantly.  Finally, she got to the point where she was out of class and could go to easy level dances.  It was there that she met a refined, soft-spoken gentleman named Norton and they set off on a whirlwind of dances, both round and square, all over the area.

Mother loved sewing the square dance dresses and then finding matching petticoats, pettipants, shoes and even earrings.  When my youngest daughter was three years old, Mother made matching square dance skirts for them.

She absolutely glowed when she was dressed up to go dancing.  She and Norton were a close and loving couple until he died of cancer in 1983.

Mother continued to dance whenever she could, going often with her friend, Edna, and never being shy about taking the man’s part.  She survived breast cancer for five years and continued to dance three or four times a week.

When she was 72 (1989), Mother made a tape of old family stories and reminiscences:

As long as I can remember I’ve always loved to dance.  My father died of the flu during World War I and I always wondered where I got my love of dancing and Aunt Mabel said I got it from him.  He loved to dance and he would dance as long as anybody would play music.

My girlfriend and her mother liked to go to dances and she’d take us and we’d get out there on that floor – I was only about 10 years old – and we’d Charleston and we would dance and I’d go home and I’d wind up that old Victrola and put on records and I taught everybody around how to dance.  I taught Alice Mae (her older sister) and her girl friends, they’d come in and get me to teach them how to dance.  Alice Mae never could dance and she’d get so mad because I could teach them how to dance.  I guess I still love to dance to this day – I guess you never lose that.”

Mother died on July 31, 1991, and I sat under a clear blue sky in the back yard and wrote in my journal:

Mother went dancing today with her skirts swirling and petticoats flouncing, her golden red hair in perfect order and wearing her matching shoes and earrings.  She was smiling and light on her feet, happy at last to be able to promenade and do-si-do and twirl and swing.  She barely glanced back at the rest of us still struggling with our affairs.  She was going dancing!

On the 20th anniversary – RIP, Mother.

Christmas Fudge

During the rationing of World War II, we children craved sugar

As we watched Mother sprinkle carefully measured spoonsful over our oatmeal.

We wanted more sweetness in our hot chocolate, in our pudding;

We longed for a bottomless sugar bowl.

But in the fall Mother stood in long lines that coiled around the city tenements

To get an extra bag of sugar allotted for canning and preserving.

She squirreled this away until Christmas

When it was transformed into the most glorious pecan studded fudge,

Sweet enough to make up for a whole year of rationing.

“Christmas Fudge”, by Lillian – 1997

My mother was famous in our family for her homemade fudge, made without benefit of a candy thermometer and cooked and beaten until it was perfect.  Then, it was placed in a special rose-bedecked tin to be brought out on Christmas Eve, opened and squares of never-to-be-forgotten goodness placed on her fancy Christmas plate.

I was never able to duplicate her fudge and have had to rely on the easier candy since she passed away in 1991.  I have several good recipes but my oldest daughter asked for some fudge made with marshmallows rather than marshmallow creme, so this is the version I made for her.


  • Servings: Depends on size of squares
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  • 2 cups mini-marshmallows*
  • 1 cup chocolate chips (I like Ghiradelli)
  • 1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup undiluted evaporated milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

*20 large marshmallows = 2 cups mini-marshmallows.  Cut large marshmallows into 8 pieces using kitchen shears that are dipped in water to prevent sticking.

Butter a large plate or platter

In a medium bowl, combine the marshmallows, chips and walnuts.  Have ready and at hand before starting the fudge.

In a large, heavy bottomed pan, combine the sugar and milk.  Cook over medium high heat (#6 on my gauge) until the mixture comes to a boil, stirring occasionally.  When there are bubbles across the entire top surface of the mixture, set a timer for 5 minutes and cook at the same heat setting, stirring occasionally.

After 5 minutes, remove pan from heat and stir in the marshmallows, chips and nuts, stirring quickly until the marshmallows and chips are melted.  Stir in the vanilla.

Immediately pour onto the buttered plate and let cool at room temperature.

This is a batch made with milk chocolate chips.  I also made a batch with semi-sweet chips, resting on Mother’s World War II era platter.

Mother always cut her fudge in big squares.

The fudge does not need to be refrigerated.  Should be stored in a container with a tight lid.   My mother’s old rose tin is just the right size for a batch of fudge.

This is not even close to my Mother’s fudge, but brings back the memories of all the Christmas Eves when I enjoyed her wonderful candy.

Johnny and Martha – 1933

Johnny and Martha

They stand in sepia tone, his arm around her waist,

An inscription penciled on the border – “Johnny and Martha, 1933”

The grandchildren laugh and say they look like Bonnie and Clyde,

Reminiscent of depression-era robbers from an old movie.

They’re right – his darkly handsome face glowers at the camera,

She looks stern with her ash blonde hair tucked under a cloche.

They didn’t have the adventures of their look-alikes,

They only struggled to raise their family in hard times

And one day showed old snapshots to their grandchildren.

Honorable mention, 1997 Ohio Poetry Day Contest

Today, March 9, 2010, would have been the 78th wedding anniversary of my parents, Johnny and Martha.

They were married in 1932 in the middle of the Great Depression by a justice of the peace with only their parents in attendance – Mother was 15 and Daddy was 19.  In spite of their young age, they were always loving, strict, conscientious parents to my little sister and me.

Daddy passed away in 1978 and Mother, in 1991.

In Praise of Buttermilk

Growing up in the years of the Great Depression, we didn’t have milk except from a can.  My mother loved buttermilk but there wasn’t any available in those hungry years.  When my mother was 73, she made an audio tape of family stories and her personal memories.  She said, “It was depression time and we all lived together – one big happy family!  And when you went to the table to eat you had better fill your plate up because it was never going to be passed around again – that was the only chance you were going to get.  But John (her step-father) would not take any kind of welfare or anything, he insisted on working.  And then we moved to Cincinnati where he got a job shoeing mules and the house went with us and the two boys, Frank and my husband, drove John around with blacksmith tools in the back of the car and he would go around and tell the farmers that their horses needed shoeing whether they did or not – even just a re-setting, that was $1.00 a shoe – and he would always come home with some groceries.”

The “house” consisted of the grandparents, my parents and their two children, two teenage boys, two teenage girls and an infant, all living together and trying to survive on the meager earnings of the traveling blacksmith and his two young sons.

In 1935, my father was able to get on the WPA as a laborer and he moved his little family to a one-room flat in downtown Cincinnati.  My mother always said the happiest day of her life was the day she moved into that little room and was finally able to have a place of her own.

My little sister and I continued to have our evaporated milk diluted with water and heavily sugared.  When I went to the first grade at old Raschig School on Central Parkway, imagine my delight at seeing a table wheeled into the room with apple butter sandwiches and huge metal pitchers of honest-to-goodness milk.  My father, remembering the farm-fresh milk of his childhood, straight from the cow, said this was just surplus skim milk provided by the government.  No matter, nothing ever tasted so good to me.

I always loved milk and as I grew older, I learned to appreciate my mother’s favorite, buttermilk.  Whenever we went to a county fair, Mother and I had the treat of a fish sandwich and ice cold buttermilk.  My father was sure we were going to get violently ill from such a combination but we never did.  We both loved that little half-pint carton of milk with big flakes of butter floating around in it.

When I have a cup of buttermilk left over, I like to make these yeast rolls – very simple – very quick – and very good.


  • 5 to 5-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 3 Tblsp. granulated sugar
  • 2-1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 package fast rising yeast
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1/3 cup vegetable or canola oil

In a large mixer bowl place 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, soda, and yeast.

Heat the buttermilk and water to 130 degrees F.  Add to the flour mixture.  Add the oil.  Beat with mixer paddle at medium speed for 3 minutes.  Insert dough hook and beat for 6:30 minutes longer, adding flour as needed until dough is elastic and no longer sticky.

Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes.

Punch down dough, form into rolls and place on greased cookie sheets.  Cover and let rise in a warm place for another 30 minutes.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Bake rolls in a preheated oven for approximately 12 minutes until golden brown.  Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Makes approximately 18 rolls, depending on size.

Last-Day-of-School Dresses

When I was going to school in the 1930s and 40s, the last day of school was in mid-June.  I always associate the day in Cincinnati with very hot weather, tiger lilies blooming, and my mother making me a “last-day-of-school dress”.   In the first grade (above), the dress was yellow silk with accordion pleated skirt and brown bows.  It was a beautiful dress and all the little girls in my class gathered around me to touch and admire the silky smoothness – before World War II when silk was a common commodity in dress-up clothes.

In 1942, Mother made a more grown-up dress of a beautiful light blue fabric.  She often made a dress of the same fabric for my little sister and we’re shown here with my cousin, Dixie, just after her First Communion.


In the sixth grade, my sister and I had dresses of a lovely blue voile.  We had just moved from downtown Cincinnati to the East End area where there were small well-kept houses with Victory Gardens.

I graduated from the 8th grade in 1945 and Mother made a beautiful white outfit with a flared skirt and eyelet top.  It was the fashion in our school that year to wear white socks with white sandals.


In 1946, I was finishing up my freshman year at Withrow High School, a prestigious school at that time where my classmates were way higher economically than I was.  As you can see, I was very unhappy with my dress that year.  This was very unusual for me – I normally wore anything Mother lay out for me with no complaints, but this dress was of a matronly rayon-type fabric and all the girls in my upscale school were wearing sleeveless pastel shirtwaist dresses to class.  I knew I was going to look completely out of style in my grandma-goes-to-church dress.  In spite of my scowl, I wore the dress to pick up my report card and found that the stylish girls were all in shorts and casual clothes, ready to take off for swimming pools and tennis courts, and paid no attention to me at all.


Mother always talked about her favorite last-day-of-school dress which she described as being so beautiful.  After she passed away, I found this picture of her and understood better why she made me such a matronly, out-of-style dress.  It looked a lot like her favorite.

I felt bad that I had disappointed Mother by not liking the dress, but apparently I made an impression  because she never made another one like that for me.  For my senior class day at Withrow, she made my sister and me these beautiful light blue dotted Swiss dresses which we both loved.

I don’t believe the tradition of last-day-of-school dresses was active in my era (except for my mother) and it certainly wasn’t alive for my daughters or now for my granddaughters and great-granddaughter.  Pity.

Happy Day, Mothers and Grandmothers

I’m looking forward to enjoying Mother’s Day with my two daughters and two grandchildren, and expecting phone calls from my two sons.   I’m so lucky that I was able to celebrate many Mother’s Days with my own mother and her mother …..


…and my father’s mother, Grandma-up-Dayton.

I wasn’t able to know my great-grandmothers, but I’m fortunate to have pictures, history and stories on three of them.  Minerva Alice is shown here with my Grandma Helen…..

I have a picture of Great-Grandma Emily, ca 1869…

…and Granny when she was in her 80s.

As I enjoy the day with my own children and grandchildren, I think about the women who came before me and especially the teenage girl who had me in the middle of the Depression and was an amazing mother and grandmother for the rest of her life.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone, and happy memories.


My Mother’s Birthday


My mother died in 1991 – she would have been 91 years old on this November 28th.  When she was 72, she made a tape, telling all of the family stories she could recall.  She gave this accounting of the day she was born in  Morrow, a small railroad town in Ohio.

“On Thanksgiving Day my father came downstairs and he told my mother, he said, ‘I dreamed we had a little girl and we named her Martha’ and she said, ‘Well, you better go get the doctor because I think your dream’s going to come true’ and he went for the doctor and I was born before the doctor got there.  He went running down and said, ‘Hurry up, hurry up, doctor, the baby’s already here’ and old Doc said, ‘There’s no use hurrying if your baby’s already here.'”


So, we always associated Mother’s birthday with Thanksgiving and occasionally it even fell on the exact day.  In 1952, her birthday was on the day after Thanksgiving.  I had been away from home for the first time, living with my new sailor husband in Portsmouth, Virginia.  As it turned out, my husband got an early discharge from the Navy and was due to go home the first week of December.  I wanted to surprise my mother by walking in on her birthday and we decided I would go home alone and my husband would follow when his discharge came through, so we spent our first Thanksgiving together just waiting around for time for me to get on the train and never did get a Thanksgiving meal.

I rode on the clackety train all night and arrived home on a chilly November morning.  I walked out of Union Terminal in downtown Cincinnati, hailed a cab and watched the familiar landscape go by the window with complete joy, vowing to never leave Cincinnati again.  We pulled up to the front of my parents’ little house and I got out of the cab to pay the driver.

My father was just coming through the gate and he stopped short.  He didn’t say anything to me, but turned and called back to Mother, “Lil’s home.”  My favorite image of heaven is that I will pass to the other side and will see my father in the distance, wearing his twill pants and plaid shirt.  He won’t speak to me or raise a hand in greeting – he’ll just turn to the others and say, “Lil’s home.”


I had the supreme pleasure of walking through the side door into the dining room and completely surprising Mother on her birthday.


I know that Mother’s best gift that year was having her daughter back home and since we rented the upstairs apartment from my parents for 8 years (at the astounding fee of $12.00 a month) before our family got too large, we had a lot of wonderful times together.

I always think of Mother on Thanksgiving and all the great dinners we had together, but I remember especially the year that I was one day late for Thanksgiving but right on time for a special birthday.

Mother and “Making Things Over”

My mother was an expert at “making things over”, as she called it.  She was born in 1916, raised by a widowed mother with three other children and married with children herself during the depression.  She had to make do and make over and she loved it.  She had some well-to-do relatives who visited occasionally and brought big boxes of their castoff clothing.  My father was indignant but Mother was thrilled.  This is one of our more affluent cousins who brought her old clothes to us.


Nothing went to waste – Mother made some of the clothes over for herself and used the material from others to make things for my sister and me.  It wasn’t only a matter of saving money, but of being able to remodel clothing and have something different to wear.

Her “making over” extended to the house, too.  For most of her life she had dreary flats and river houses to make into comfortable homes, and very little money to work with.  She cut up old items to make skirts to hide ugly sink pipes in the kitchen, cheerful covers for a daybed, bright curtains and bedspreads.  Our living quarters were always attractive, neat and clean from a one-room flat of my earliest memories to a two-room flat and then upgrading to a four-room apartment, a little red brick house on the river bank and an 1895 stucco house on the avenue. 

Up until she was 37 years old in 1953, Mother had never had a new coat.  She had remodeled castoff coats through the years, including one old fur coat which was transformed into a modern 1950s cape and worn by my grandmother in this Easter picture.


Mother wore her made-over coats with pride but what she really wanted was a brand-new, fresh coat and she bought one in 1953 with her earnings from her first job at Shillito’s department store in downtown Cincinnati.  It didn’t cost very much, but it was new and after that she bought more coats than she really needed, provided they were on sale, of course.


As Mother grew older with her kids grown and more money to spend, she continued to sew most of her own clothes such as this one, described as the first dress sewn on her new White sewing machine (1957).  I remember the dress as being a pretty shade of green and we thought the matching ruffles on the white gloves were a wonderful touch.


When Mother passed away in 1991, one of the things I brought home was a big bag of scraps from dresses she had been working on, right up to the end.