(by Gelene M. Beverly)
My great-grandmother, Vida Iantha Iiames, had 18 children—yes, with the same man. She learned her cooking during the Great Depression, and her potato salad recipe has been handed down to each generation.
Let me be clear: Not all the women in my lineage had a gift for cooking. My grandmother, Lois Bise, pretty much burned every dish she made, but still faithfully cooked every single day for my grandfather. (Knowing that the women in the family are very fertile, my grandfather had a vasectomy after they had my mom and my uncle, saving my Gran the more involved and not very foolproof versions of birth control available at the time.) My mother can cook intricate dishes just by taste and smell, and had beautiful gardens. I, however, am cursed. If I don’t have a recipe to follow, the kitchen is my hazard zone. Everything I’ve ever tried to grow, other than a cactus or an air fern, dies. And although that potato salad recipe has been handed down, memorized, and built upon, I failed the family tradition.
My mom was a military brat, born in Germany when my grandfather was stationed there in the Air Force, but she chose U.S. citizenship at age 18. Our entire family line is made up of blue- and green-eyed kids. I was born with brown eyes, and my great-grandmother treasured that difference in me, but she died when I was eight years old. (I can only imagine what she’d think if she saw the mess I create every time I try to make her precious potato salad.)
My mother kept my birth father’s surname, which made her Beverly Beverly—"B Squared.” She was young and irresponsible when I was born; we moved to Florida, North Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but ultimately I was raised by my Gran in Ohio. I saw my mother once a year if she wanted to see me, but only for a week.
(My great-grandmother, Vida; my gran, Lois; my mom, Beverly; and me)
I joined the Air Force at age 19. I wanted to be an engineer on a ship, and the Air Force could get me into basic training, whereas the Navy wanted me to wait a year. I was on active duty for almost four years. An event in combat changed the trajectory of my career, and I was put on the “Temporary Duty Retirement List,” with a final medical retirement after about seven years.
When I left the service, I tried to forge a relationship with my mother. That was the time she wanted, at last, to be my mom. (It’s a work in progress.) She figured if I could succeed at learning the family potato salad, it might help me regain the confidence I lost in the military. It was a really bad idea. I’m excellent at memorization, but the recipe calls for what I’d call the “genetic touch.” My Gran was successful with it even though all other dishes were doomed, so I figured I should be too. But even copying my mom as she tried teaching me didn’t work.
I once told my mother that when I grew up, I wanted to be a nurse just like her. Her response was “No, you don’t.” Three years ago, when I was desperate for work, I took a job at an assisted living facility. I loved it a lot, so I took classes to become a nursing assistant and began nursing school, but had to quit due to a recurrence of a back injury that required surgery. It seems that the only things I inherited from my mom are her sense of humor and attitude. (Not a bad thing...sometimes.) My mom stepped into leadership roles all the time and stuck with supervision and management positions most of her life and career. She is more organized all around than I am, and far more patient. I prefer to be a follower but often find myself in leadership roles. I tend to have small areas of chaos (like a table or a counter)—my retaliation for the strict military life I was trained for. But my mom has every single thing in place at all times. I need order but always leave myself an opening for a hasty retreat. (Example: My husband became abusive in 2020, one week after my back surgery. I had him arrested and felt like I needed to get out of the town I was in, so I got rid of almost everything I owned and took off in my truck, living in hotels until I could buy a travel trailer. I plan to continue seeing America while I can and decide where I want to settle.)
Years later, I’m coming to terms with my time in the military. Our family’s potato salad is an actual life lesson: Don’t be a perfectionist. Learning to get around your weaknesses and admit where and when you fall short takes guts and shows a depth of character. Few can face their limitations and work through or around them.
Mom and I both live now in New Mexico, while my travel trailer is being repaired. Mom now has more bad days than good. She has primary progressive multiple sclerosis, and her diagnosis is terminal. My grandmother had relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis, and it turns out I inherited one other thing from the women in my family: I too have been diagnosed with it. In 1991, Mom married my stepfather, a great man and husband. When Mom is doing well, she still gardens vegetables, fruit, flowers, and a household full of plants. When she’s struggling, my stepfather and I try to keep them alive—he more than me, since I’m still the one that can kill a plant just by looking at it.
I’m proud to say that today, I can make that potato salad perfectly and apply how I do it in my everyday life. Guess you’d call that a true “recipe to life.” This simple recipe has taught me to allow myself the opportunity to learn, grow, and improve. It has allowed me to forgive myself when I make mistakes, and to know that there are some things you just have to do by instinct.
Vida's Potato Salad
4 medium russet potatoes, peeled, cooked and diced
2 medium onions, diced
6 sweet pickles, diced
1/2 green pepper, diced
1/2 c. celery, diced
6 hard-boiled eggs,diced
4 T. mayonnaise
1/4 c. vinegar
1/4 c. water
2 T. sugar, or to taste
1 T. flour
1 t. mustard
1 raw egg
Combine cooked potatoes, onions, pickles, green peppers, celery, hard-boiled eggs, and mayonnaise.
Combine ingredients for dressing in a pot and bring to a boil.
Stir vigorously until dressing thickens.
Taste and add more sugar if desired.
Pour over potato mixture.