Cousin Norma and Cousin Gus were not our real cousins, but remote relatives on our paternal grandmother's side. "Kissing cousins," some would call them, though who would want to kiss whiskery Cousin Gus - except maybe his wife, Norma?
Norma and Gus lived near us in Los Angeles. They were like Jack Sprat and his wife - Cousin Gus being lean and Cousin Norma being round as the cream puffs she loved to bake.
All of her friends and neighbors had been the happy recipients of her flaky pies, buttery cakes, and delicious frosted cookies. Even though the Depression was a cloud floating over all our heads, Cousin Norma appeared on special occasions - Thanksgiving, Christmas, and weddings - bearing a gift from her bountiful larder.
Our mother was an excellent baker, but Cousin Norma's pies were special. She made pies of squash, elderberries, and brierberries. She made green-tomato mincemeat pies, Dutch shoofly pies, and black-walnut pies.
Cousin Gus earned the money to supply his wife's endless baking, and to raise a family of three children, as a painting contractor. He labored from early morning until nightfall with his crews.
Their house always smelled of spices and sugar, of fruit bubbling in pastry, of caramel, butterscotch, chocolate. These aromas permeated the walls, the furnishings, the very skin of Gus and Norma.
When we visited Cousin Norma and found her baking, she'd be wearing a clean cotton wrapper, which gave off little floury puffs as she bustled around her kitchen. Smudges of pastry dough and butter decorated her plump, well-muscled forearms as she rolled out a pie crust on a floured dish towel. Then she'd flip the dough into a pie pan, trim it off with a few flicks of a sharp knife, and carefully pinch a perfectly crimped edge.
On one such visit, she set aside her work, put the kettle on to boil, laid ginger cookies out on a plate, and settled down at one end of the long kitchen table to discuss something with Mama. My brother Eddie and I were playing Go Fish at the other end, and, naturally, we were all ears.
"Rebecca," she began, "a sad situation has come to my attention."
"Goodness! What is it?" Mama asked.
Cousin Norma leaned closer. Her eyes flicked toward us and then back to Mama, as if asking, "Do you want them to hear this?" We pretended not to notice.
"Eddie," I said, " 'Go Fish,' so take your turn," I commanded, listening to the grownups all the while. Eddie fished.
"Go ahead, Norma. As long as it's not about you-know-what." My mother had a number of you-know-whats: sex, divorce, death, and "general orneriness."
"No, it's nothing like that," said our cousin. "It's about our neighbors next door. the Renfros. They have two young kids and the dad's out of work. I heard that they were so short of food that...."
"Have you got any kings?" Eddie asked. I slapped down two kings. "I know you've got another one," my brother said.
"For heaven's sake, Eddie, here!" I threw down another, furious at having missed part of the grownups' story.
"No!" exclaimed Mama, who had heard the part we missed. "She ate it raw? An unpeeled potato!"
"It was almost the last edible thing in the house. Her mother was saving it to make soup for dinner, and the child ate it. Dirt and all."
"Oh my!" Mama said.
"Well, I heard a big commotion goin' on there, and I ran over," Norma continued. Eddie and I were openly listening now. "And there were the kids, sobbing, and Mrs. Renfro wringing her hands and saying 'Oh, what are we to do?' "
"I went home and got a loaf of bread, a bottle of milk, and some eggs and came right back. While the kids were eating, I put my arms around Mrs. Renfro, and said, 'Never mind, Amelia. We'll figure something out. You sit down and eat now." Our cousin passed the gingersnaps.
"Oh, the poor thing!" Mama said. "I must take something over to her."
Cousin Norma continued. "After she thanked me, she said, 'But we can't keep accepting charity. If only Joe could find a job!' Then she began to cry.
"I said, 'Amelia, it's not charity. It's a helping hand. You'll have a chance to pay back someday," she went on. "So I spoke to our pastor, Dr. Neff. I told him that we all ought to help one another in these needy times. If each family gave something we could see folks through till they got on their feet."
"What did he say?" Mama asked.
"He said, "I'll put out the word to our members that this is an emergency. Those who have food they can spare can bring it to the rectory. Then you and your friends can distribute the food when needed."
"You can count me in. I'll help," Mama said. "And Norma, there may be other folks around here in a bad fix, too."
"Dr. Neff said the church would help all it could," Norma said. "And I asked Gus to see if he could find work for Joe Renfro."
Well, Cousin Gus did find work for Mr. Renfro, part time, with his painters. It saw the little family through the crisis.
As for the efforts of Cousin Norma, Mama, and a few other women, their work for the needy grew and grew. They started a food bank before the term was ever invented. Eventually it grew too big for them. They had to turn it over to people with more business knowledge. Cousin Norma just kept on baking and giving.