Saturday, November 1, 2014

Elaine and the Soda Fountain

Yom rishon, 9 Cheshvan 5775.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Elaine Porter. My first boss, at the soda fountain in the back of Ephrata Drug. I was 15, so was working "illegally." You were supposed to be 16. She was a big, robust bottle-redhead, must have been in her fifties. Her hands were gnarled from arthritis. My mama said she ate a mayonnaise jar of pain medication -- just plain aspirin -- every week. (I think Mama may have been exaggerating; but she got the point across.) Elaine had the greatest attitude and throw-back-your-head laugh, and could handle any customer. Her famous line: "Ah, ha! Sani-Flush! If that don't work, use a brush!" She would toss that out whenever something worked that had been jammed, or when she had an inspiration, or when one of our regulars made a ridiculous remark designed to embarrass a 15-year-old girl. ("Hey, honey. Please give me a cherry on top. You know you can't recycle those things, right?" Unbridled laughter. How to begin the process of jading a teenager: be the fifth guy to make that crack this month.)

Elaine invented the Olive Nut and Cheese sandwich. If I remember correctly, this overly-rich but addictive concoction consisted of shredded cheddar cheese mixed with minced black olives and... hmmmm... chopped walnuts, maybe? And mayonnaise, of course, to hold it all together. I'll have to make a batch, to see if the taste buds will remember the flavor.

She was a good boss. I always felt that she trusted me and thought well of me, in spite of or because of my youth.

I think Elaine has been coming to mind lately due of her independent attitude and seemingly inexhaustible supply of good cheer, no matter how much her hands hurt her. (And what did I as a self-absorbed teenager know of her other aches and pains and worries?) As my hands remind me of old injuries, now that I'm in my fifties, her courage strengthens my resolve to avoid making a big deal about the increasing discomforts of age. I read that she had been working at another food counter in an Ephrata bakery at least as early as 1962. Somehow, it was comforting to me to think of Elaine as "always there," like a favorite character in a comic strip. I hope she had a good life, and that her aches and pains never became greater than she could bear with her customary good cheer.

It was something to think she may have still been alive in 2012... and perhaps still today!

I decided to try to call her -- and was blessed with success! She is "94-and-a-half years old," and still vital. "I still drive, and raise as much trouble as I can." She worked at the counter for 25 years, but had to give it up when her husband became ill with cancer. He passed away in 1980. She never remarried, because "he was my life partner.

"I live in the same house in Ephrata, where I garden every day. I can't get around without a walker, because my back finally gave out on me."

She still goes to the senior center, and enjoys when they sing the old songs together. One daughter lives near her in Ephrata, and the other in Maui. She has two grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren, most of whom regularly travel through her house. "It's Grand Central Station around here, and I love it!"

We had a pleasant conversation about family and what the young ones have accomplished. She said our conversation was interesting and "neat."

"Elaine, if you had a message for people, what would it be?"

"Just have fun. Look at the good side of things."

That is perhaps what I remember most about her. She saw the best in people, and in situations. It was a great life lesson, and I thanked her for it. She was very pleased. (I think she was a bit blown away when I told her I had converted to Judaism and moved to Israel... but what would one expect? And though she didn't remember me -- that didn't surprise me -- she did seem to enjoy that yet another person on whose life she'd had a good impact had decided to call and tell her so.) "You made my day!"

You made mine, too, Elaine. And you reminded me, as you have reminded me for more than 40 years, of the impact a human being can have on another. You're still one of my most important role models. May I have the same positive impact on others that you had on me. I look forward to checking in on you for long years, in good health.

Yup. It still tastes the same, even with Israeli green olives. (I can't bring myself to use the dyed American black olives any more.) I'm sure it's not particularly good for me. But macaroni and cheese is comfort food for some. Elaine's sandwich filling tastes like high school memories.

Elaine Porter's Olive, Nut and Cheese Sandwich, Israeli-Style

1/2 cup yellow sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 cup pitted olives, minced
1/4 cup walnuts, chopped finely
1 tablespoon mayonnaise

Mix together. Spread on whole wheat bread and serve with a bit of salad, just to convince yourself that you're eating something healthy. Smile a lot. And look at the good side of things.


  1. What type of Israeli cheese did you use for it?
    Wonderful story.

    1. Thank you, Batya. Well... in fairness, the only thing "Israeli style" about this recipe is that it was made in Israel, by an Israeli -- and I couldn't rely on the standard American ingredients. I used English Cheddar, which is easy to find here. But I think one could use many different cheeses successfully. I may try it with one of the local goat cheeses.

  2. I'm not sure I will try that sandwich, but, I loved the story. I had a sixth grade teacher that raised my self esteem quite a bit when I needed it.

    1. It means so much, doesn't it, Sandra? Especially when it could so easily have been the other way, if the teacher were not thoughtful and sensitive to just what a little sixth-grade girl needed. I'm glad you had that influence!

  3. Sorry about that.. Don't know what was that but now I am commenting it as myself.. Ema that was a lovely article and I absolutely loved the recipe and will definitely try it out but I am afraid I would have to use regular Spanish pitted green olives and swiss sharp cheddar cheese..