When Ruth Casey came to babysit, I hid under the bed. It was nothing personal, really. As the youngest in a large family, I relished being home alone with my mother when all the other children were in school, and Ruth Casey robbed me, the nursery school dropout, of those precious moments. If I stayed under the bed long enough maybe my mother would give up and stay home.
Mom was justifiably annoyed at me for my awful behavior when Mrs. Casey arrived. She was a friend of the family, a well turned out woman with nicely coiffed white hair, rimless glasses and a deep blue suit with pretty buttons down the front of the jacket. She had a throaty voice that squeaked a little when she laughed, which reminded me of the Andy Devine (he did voiceovers in cartoons). She seemed a little scary but in truth I was just reluctant to separate from my mother. I understand that better now, when my youngest scowls at me when his beloved sitter arrives, though she is more fun-loving than I remember Ruth. As I kept company with the dust bunnies beneath the bed, I recall wondering why Ruth would possibly want to look after me. She appeared and acted as though she should have a million other things she could be doing, even as she would read to me and try to coax me into playing games with her, I just couldn’t understand why she was there.
As I got older my admiration for Ruth and my embarrassment at my behavior toward her grew. Ruth Casey was widely loved and respected in Cedar Falls. Her full name was Ruth Livingston Casey, and her brother, John Livingston, was an accomplished test pilot in the early days of aviation. He was said to be the inspiration for the Richard Bach’s 1970 book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and the kitschy movie that followed.
Best and worst of all, Mrs. Casey gave us one of our most treasured family recipes, and I probably wrecked that for her, too. Her crescent rolls are present at every holiday in every household in the our family, where they are known as skunk rolls because as a tiny child I thought the curl of dough over the center of the roll looked like the tail of a sleeping skunk. They don’t deserve the stinky name – guests at the holiday table are always taken aback by it – but some names just stick whether you want them to or not. I can only imagine how my new moniker for her rolls went over with poor beleaguered Mrs. Casey.
With their buttery, yeasty aroma wafting through the house, those rolls, more than any other single thing, mean home and love and happiness to two generations of our family. It took years of watching my mother and then many failed attempts on my own to learn to make them properly (oh, the lost art of proofing yeast!), and now I am teaching my own children to make them. There is nothing quite like working with the dough, which stretches and collapses with a rhythm of its own as it is kneaded and rolled, buttered and cut, then left to rise under tea towels in a warm sunny spot. Baked and brushed with melted butter, skunk rolls are the ultimate comfort food, and they are the only food my family begs me to make that does not contain chocolate.
I suppose part of the irony is that watching my mother roll out Ruth’s rolls was one of my favorite contexts for her. She was such a mix of the traditional and the radical, someone who fought for and railed against tradition; you never knew where she would come out on something but in the end you knew she could make it all sound perfectly rational. Homemade rolls served right next to the potato buds and raspberry Jello-O with cut up banana floating in it.
I hope that, out in the heavens, Ruth Casey understands that I have come out from under the bed and am doing my best to make amends each time I turn out another batch of rolls. When my brother comes for Thanksgiving in a few weeks, the first words out of his mouth as her greets me on the front walk will be, “You DID make Skunk rolls, didn’t you?” Of course.