Left in Andover: After my father’s death, Mom became Young@Heart

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

My mother became a widow at age 69. It has taken my reaching that same age to appreciate the energy and creativity she then summoned, making her the last chapter in her life one of her best.

By the time my father died in 1988, he had been an invalid for several years. Mom was exhausted caring for him. I feared she would not survive him for long.

Instead, Mom experienced a complete revival. Whatever avenues for self-fulfillment she had neglected in her younger life, she crammed in over the remaining two decades of her life. She lived until 2012, becoming an inspiring role model for my whole family.

With downtown Northampton, Mass., and Smith College at her doorstep, Mom lived within bicycling distance of a dizzying array of sociable, creative opportunities.

Playing violin in a half dozen bands, rehearsing and touring with Dance Generators and Young@Heart Chorus, writing poetry and developing photos in her darkroom, this is just a sample of the activities that kept her engaged night and day. (Susan’s mother can be seen in the video clip of the documentary “Young@Heart” singing and playing violin.)

Babysitting grandchildren, cooking and housekeeping were nowhere on her radar. Mom felt she had fulfilled all such domestic obligations during the course of her marriage. This last chapter of her life was to be hers alone, lived on her own terms.

So what kind of fuel did it take to run my mother’s engine? In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I made the trip down from Andover to visit, her refrigerator was mostly empty.

The quick and fortifying ‘Forever Young’ salad with tofu.

One shelf was filled with vitamin pills. The rest of the space seemed mostly devoted to ingredients for making her famous tofu salad. Whole wheat bread, lentil soup, chèvre and bananas rounded out her diet.

Mom’s delicious packable tofu salad was the ultimate vegetarian fast food. Instead of taking all day to prepare like her Mock Chicken Salad, made of whole cooked soybeans, tofu salad can be whipped up in minutes. For a nutritious, on-the-go vegetarian sandwich, it is hard to beat.

Mom depended on tofu salad sandwiches to sustain her through long afternoons of Young @Heart Chorus rehearsals held in an old factory building in Florence, a suburb of Northampton.

Y@H director Bob Cilman was a stern taskmaster as he drilled his cadre of oldsters in the rock ‘n’ roll anthems of their children’s generation. For an intense rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” a bite of tofu sandwich offered fortitude. Of course, Mom was not above snacking on the baked goods that made it to the common snack table as well.

I offer Mom’s “Forever Young” Tofu Salad recipe for you to try. Disregard all snarky comments and tofu jokes, it is that good:

The movie poster from ‘Young @ Heart.’ Susan’s mother Miriam can be seen in the inset in the first row far left. Click photo to enlarge.

Crumble a block of tofu with a potato masher. Add finely chopped veggies of your choice. Garlic, onions, chives, celery, peppers, parsley, dill, even kale, all work. Truly you can’t go wrong. Grated carrots add bulk and color.

Sunflower seeds and/or chopped almonds or walnuts add texture. Dump in tons of nutritional yeast, don’t be shy!

Be generous with the apple cider vinegar. Mustard, prepared horseradish, pepper, a tad of salt or Bragg, raisins, even olive oil add flavor.

Then the big decision, how much mayonnaise to use. Enough to hold it all together. Beyond that, this is a matter of personal preference. If the concoction is too juicy, add more nutritional yeast to soak up the liquid. And remember, sunflower seeds, nuts and raisins all absorb liquid as well.

For those who avoid eggs, vegan mayonnaise is now a widely available option. Even Hellman’s makes a version of it. If you prefer, fill a container with the prepared tofu salad and skip the sandwich part.

Variation: Add a significant proportion of grated or chopped green cabbage to the tofu salad and voilà — a novel twist on coleslaw is born. Tofu being the same color as cabbage, it may even go unnoticed, helpful in case you are dealing with the tofu-phobic. Although you may not be able to pull off this trick more than once, it‘s still worth a try. You may just bust out singing.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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