Wednesday, 30 May 2018



I invited my mother to stay with me for a short visit. I will make sure she eats, drinks, washes her hands, and doesn’t stash perishable food in my car. Bless her, she’s ninety-three years old and can’t live alone anymore. 

My mother’s name is Florence. Her memory of the past is fairly accurate but she forgets to turn off the stove or wash the dishes before returning them to the cupboard. Glaucoma is robbing her of the ability to read and sew the way it did her ability to drive but she is hooked on the Dr. Phil show. Kleenex is her obsession and grosses me out. She coughs or spits into them, and then stuffs the soiled ones between the couch’s cushions, her pockets, her purse, and into the cuffs of her sweaters. They shake out like crusty clouds when I change her sheets or take her clothes out from the dryer. Gag.

My mother isn't always gracious about the help she receives. When I put the laundry away or organize her cupboards and drawers, she complains, "I don't need help! I can do this myself!" She grumbles, "You took my car keys away when I could drive perfectly fine!" She mixes up the kitchen towels from the ones used for her bath and stuffs her panties into her socks. She ran down the poor mailbox and didn't pass her driver's test. 

Her eccentricities and grumpiness aren't always easy to forgive. I remember how she failed to shield me from my father's abuse, the control of our misogynistic church, and ignored the bruises my first husband inflicted on my face and arms. At the lowest part of my life, she scoffed at my pain when I cried out to her for help. 

Before I give up on helping her,  I recall my mother’s kindness and unconditional acceptance of my severely disabled child. Adam was born with one arm, a severe hearing loss, developmental delays, and the distinctive facial characteristics of Cornelia de Lange Syndrome. Before he died, she was the only grandparent of four who loved him, accepted him exactly as he was, and felt deep grief when he died.  

My mother has a pearly set of teeth she uses for smiling, a spare set she keeps in a jar, and a third she uses to chew. She pops that set into her mouth when she sits down at the table. Her doctor says she’s too skinny but if food needs too much gnawing, she doesn’t like the taste or texture, she pushes her food away. Frozen pizzas, pot pies and fish fillets won’t do for her when she stays with me. She needs whole grains, cooked vegetables, and lots of tender protein.

I knew what to cook. I flexed my arms and set my old cast iron Dutch oven on the counter. It must weigh ten pounds. There’s a faint crack in the lid and it needs oiling, but no modern appliance will ever replace it.

(My great-grandparents, Margaret and Herman with my grandmother Ether in the middle.)

My great-grandmother Margaret layered meat and vegetables harvested from the farm into the Dutch oven, and then suspended it over a low fire or buried it in coals. She was a blond, blue-eyed new immigrant from Germany when she married Herman, a striking black haired and dark eyed half Native American. Hermann was the youngest child of twelve surviving children born to his Cherokee Native American mother. He became my great-grandfather.

Margaret gave her pot and recipe to her daughter, my Grandmother Ethel. Grandma baked her family’s meals in the pot by placing it inside her wood stove. Before she died, the pot and family recipe was passed to my mother. My mother used it inside her electric oven and used it on our camping trips. She fed her six kids out of it.

Several years ago, my mother entrusted the pot to me. When my children were little, I taught them how to cut and peel vegetables and layer them over ground beef or leftover Thanksgiving turkey. I adjusted the recipe to fit our needs. I plan to pass the cast iron oven on to my oldest daughter with the hope she will pass it on to her daughter, and continue the tradition.

I needed to make a few phone calls, coordinate schedules, and send out some invitations. When I pick up my mother, I will take her grocery shopping. She can choose the type of soup to buy, which vegetables she would like to include, and if she wants beef or turkey. 
Grandma Margaret’s Dutch Oven Supper

Part one: meat and vegetables

1-2 lbs. lean (or ground) beef or turkey: evenly pack the bottom of the pot
3-4 small peeled and chopped potatoes: Yukon, red, sweet or yams
2-4 peeled and chopped carrots
3-4 stalks chopped celery
1 small peeled and chopped onion, red, yellow, or sweet
If desired, chop and peel a beet, a turnip, parsnips, ½ a red or green cabbage or whatever vegetable is in season.
1 cup cut up white, portobella, or shiitake mushrooms
1 can or jar of condensed soup: cream of onion or mushroom, or tomato bisque 
2-3 bay leaves
1-2 tsp. rosemary
1-2 tsp. thyme
Garlic or parsley salt to taste
A few shakes of Tabasco sauce 

Part two: Baking powder biscuits to be dropped over the vegetables and meat or baked alone

1½ cup of flour, white or whole wheat. 
If you like the taste of buckwheat, ¼ cup buckwheat flour can be substituted for ¼ cup regular flour.
1 tablespoon baking powder
About ½ teaspoon table or sea salt
½ cup shortening or butter – mash it into the dry ingredients.
Add enough milk to the mash until the dough can roll between your hands – about ¾ cup.
Roll a small ball of dough into sesame or poppy seeds then drop the ball on top of the layers in the pot. Leave room for the dough to rise and not push off the lid or run down the sides.

*Don’t overstuff. The lid must fit snug.

Bake at about 350 - 375 degrees for however long it takes to thoroughly cook the layers – about 1 ½ hr.
Remove the lid for about 15 minutes before eating so the biscuits can brown.


After everyone is assembled and the kitchen fills with the taste of home, I will set out places for Alex and Abby, my two granddaughters, Anne and Ashley, my two daughters, Devon, my step-daughter, myself, and my mother.

Then I will cut two white roses from my garden, fill a vase with water, and place the roses in the center of the table in honor of my grandmother Ethel, and my great-grandmother Margaret. They passed on the pot, the recipe, our heritage, and this memoir of joy.


True Crime Memoir – Survivor: As Long As I Breathe
is dedicated to:
survivors of emotional, physical, spiritual, or sexual abuse,
those who have had to bury a murdered child,
former members of a religious cult based on misogyny,
children born with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome,
and anyone who was falsely accused of a crime.

Joyce A Lefler is a true crime survivor and the author of
From Miracle to Murder: Justice For Adam.
She is a facilitator for Parents of Murdered Children,
a bereavement counselor, registered nurse,
and an advocate against abuse.

Connect with her:
Advocacy project: