The morning my father died, I drove from Jamestown, NY, to Elmira, NY, as quickly as I could to be with my mother. By the evening, other siblings had arrived and we were eating dinner when I realized that someone had to tell Lottie that Dad had died before it hit the papers. She had cared for him since he was ten. I remember it being around 7 pm when I called Lottie to see if I could drop by. I think she was getting ready for bed but she said to come on over. I drove to her senior housing apartment that was simply adorned with many of the same photos that had been there for decades. Sisters, nieces and nephews and their children, Monroe grandchildren…all tucked under the glass of her coffee table or framed and on the end tables.
By then Lottie was in her mid-90’s and I wasn’t sure how much she was understanding but we sat down after hugging and I told her Dad had died that morning. I remember her saying, as distinctly as I can remember anyone’s voice: “Judge Monroe was a good man.”
We didn’t visit for long and when I got ready to leave she fussed a bit and said that she had something to give me. She rummaged through the drawers of her tiny kitchen and came up with this tea bag holder. She could not, even with age and failing brain, let me leave without taking something with me. Turns out that it was one of a set. I don’t know if she ever had the whole set or if she had given other bits away. But this was a gift beyond measure to me.
“I will hold your tea bag.” Maybe it also meant: “I will hold your grief. I will hold your love. I will hold you.” It’s little handle had broken who knows how many years ago. It was attached by glue. I love that about it. Words are not needed. For 25 years and through 5 moves, I have kept that little porcelain reminder of Lottie’s love for our family and her love for my father. When I ponder what I might take from our house should it ever catch fire, I do not think of things of monetary value. I think of this little tea bag holder and the love it represents.
Every day it sits on our Corning Countersaver where it holds either a tea bag or a tea spoon, as photographed here, as I prepare to drink my morning tea. Lottie is there. The Countersaver is also something Lottie gave me 40 years ago as a wedding shower gift. She was ever the practical woman. There is one more practical gift she one gave me. As I headed off to college in 1974, she gave me a foldable travel iron! And, yes, I still have that as well. I seldom actually used it as an iron because what college kid does? But it was a reminder to keep my clothes clean and neat, in principle if not reality. Now I use that iron to adhere laminate to the edges of plywood for desktops and shelving. I think she would approve of that as well!
A special recipe doesn’t have to be something unique to the baker. It may be a recipe as basic and well-known as the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe that most of us grew up on. But sometimes that recipe can be transformed by an ingredient as simple as love: Lottie’s unconditional love, in this case.
Lottie Johnson became a member of the Monroe family in 1924. It was then that she started working as a housekeeper for my father’s family in Elmira, NY. My father was ten. Though she was known to say that she didn’t want to work for a family with children, she worked for them until my father married my mother and then she added our family to her work list. Then she added my maternal grandparents to her work sometime after their live-in housekeeper, Daisy, was no longer able to work for them.
No one has been able to successfully recreate Lottie’s cookies even though I believe that her recipe was the one on the back of the Nestle’s package. My niece Rachel has come the closest and she says it has to do with the amount of whipping she did. Maybe…or maybe it is just the secret ingredient!
Lottie’s cookies where thin and crispy, yet had a bit of a chew, with the chocolate chips rising above the crispiness. I have tried multiple ways to recreate them but I cannot. Even the ones I made for this blog post are too thick. You can see that in the photo. I just can’t do it. This is why I believe that she had a secret ingredient, and I believe that ingredient was her special brand of love.
Lottie was magic for our families. I know that my father, and subsequently my mother and my siblings, would not be who we are today if Lottie had not be part of the family. My dad loved her until the day he died, about 8 years before Lottie died at age 103. Dad used to joke that we must be related by blood because her maiden name was Williams and my paternal grandmother was also a Williams. It was not really a joke. Lottie is the only non-blood family member to have known me from the day I was born…or at least the day I came home with my mother at 5 days old. And she was, therefore, the first to help me understand that family is far more about love than blood.
Lottie was an essence and she infused that essence in everything and everyone around her. I realize as I write this short story that I did not ever know a great deal about Lottie’s personal life. I think that she kept a professional boundary in some ways. And I think perhaps, looking back on those years, that I wanted to believe that we were Lottie’s family and that that was all I needed to know. A bit selfish, yes, but I was a child.
There was a story that wasn’t ours, though. At least one of her parents was born into slavery in Georgia where she was born on the 4th of July. Such a close link to slavery and being born on Independence Day are strong images in my memory. Lottie was a young widow and never had children. I wonder if that is why she was known to have said that she never wanted to work for a family with children. How would her life have been different if she was not widowed, having to depend on what work she could get? Besides my father, his sister, my three siblings and myself, Lottie did have one other “child” that we heard of. She raised or shared the raising of her nephew Butch. She lived, sometimes with Butch, in a simple apartment on the East Side of Elmira reserved for immigrants and African Americans or, basically, anyone without much money. I stayed, at least once, in her apartment but I don’t remember why. Did I ask to go to her house? Did my parents need me somewhere else for a night? Later Lottie moved to her own little house on the west side that was part of public housing that was formerly post-WWII housing, and she stayed there until she moved into the senior “high rise” apartments.
I was able to interact with Lottie in ways that I could not with others. Once, with the ignorance of a child, I asked her why her face was dirty. I don’t remember the answer but I do remember that she did not in any way make me feel bad for asking. And she was the one to teach me how to wear my first garter belt, an embarrassing thing in the best of situations!
In our home, Lottie ate in the kitchen when she was there to help my mother with a party. Yet at any family rituals like weddings and funerals she sat with our family though I think sometimes it made her uncomfortable. She was often the solitary black face amount white ones. At her funeral, my sister and I were the only white faces among the black ones. Yet in both cases those who were present did not wonder as even our friends knew that Lottie was family.
Lottie had beautiful dark skin and hair that became so thin over the years that she wore a wig for many of her later years. She parked her car on the road in front of our house and came around to the back door instead of the front. That never seemed right to me but she was very proper in her role. She wore the same shoes each time she came to work as well as a basic dress and an apron that she donned in the house.
When Lottie came to our house, I would, on occasion, find her and my mother sitting at the kitchen table together, confiding in each other over a cup of coffee and sometimes a cigarette. She loved my father and had watched him grow from a ten year old to a county judge who served for 30 years on the bench. She always, until the day I went to tell her that he had died, called him The Judge. Their bond was strong. I don’t think he could have achieved what he did without Lottie because she loved and cared for him in ways far deeper than his parents could. She was not an ordinary housekeeper by any stretch of the imagination even though two days a week she showed up at our home for the day, doing the mundane tasks of housekeeping, and cleaning up after four children.
And four times a year when she showed up at the door she had an old tin Louis Sherry candy box in which was a small batch of chocolate chip cookies wrapped in wax paper. She would deliver these for each of our birthdays. Mine came without the walnuts because she knew I liked them that way.
It was perhaps the most simple of all the gifts we received but one that we anticipated much more than other wrapped gifts. It was like magic when she would get out of her car holding that box. Without fail, we knew she had not forgotten and that meant the world to each of us. As well as the gift of sweets, this small box was a lesson in patience and generosity. Three times a year, we had to deal with the fact that it was someone else’s birthday and we had to wait our turn. And when it was our turn, we had to practice the gift of generosity. While we really didn’t want to share our stash, we were obliged to let the other three children have at least one! I guess she must have stopped when we went to college but I don’t remember.
My first birthday after she died I went to the mailbox and there was a package from my sister. To my utter surprise, it was a tin box, not the same but like the box Lottie had, and in it was a small batch of chocolate chip cookies, as close to the original as any I had had.
Through these cookies Lottie lives on, as does her patience, unending love, generosity, and humility.
Lottie’s Chocolate Chip Cookies
Rough Date of Recipe: 1956 for me- Place of Origin: Elmira, NY, for me – Related Person: Lottie Johnson, family housekeeper for decades
For a story about the Original Toll House Cookie click here.
1 cup chopped walnuts or nuts of your choice (optional and I always leave them out as I didn’t like the walnuts as a child but if you omit the nuts add 1-2 tbsp more of flour.)
Preheat over to 375 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract until creamy. This may be the key- My niece Rachel seems to have gotten closest to the right texture of Lottie’s cookies and she beats the butter and sugar til fluffy! To the butter and sugar, add one egg at a time and beat well. Then beat in flour mixture a bit at a time. Finally stir in morsels and nuts.
Drop onto ungreased baking pan by rounded tablespoon. Bake for 9-11 minutes or until golden but not burned. I found that if I baked only one pan at a time in the middle of the over they came out closest in texture to Lottie’s. Remove from oven and let cool for a couple of minutes before transferring to wire racks.