My mother, myself and Jane Abell Coon, who gave me the gift of couscous

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Tiny White Box newToday is Sunday so I’ve written two other pieces based loosely on religion.

The first was about the similarity of the narrative arcs of the typical recovery story and that of the Passion Play (things were good at first, then went slowly downhill, then crashed violently and then . . . Easter morning or, errrrr, the day recovery began.)

Because I made a graph to illustrate the arc, I’ll eventually publish that. The second was a comparison between Jesus and Paul, with Jesus as the miracle drug and Paul as the tiny-print warnings on the side of the bottle. That may go into the Dumpster.

Just now, though, over a dinner of couscous, roasted vegetables and chicken, I remembered it was Mother’s Day.

My mother, Bev, was a saint for putting up with me, a brilliant and insightful reader and an ardent first-wave feminist. Going back to work when I was in fifth grade, she became the first female officer of the Durham Bank—RIP to the bank and to my mom, who died in early 2001, before it became 2001.

Bev Howard was a great woman and mother, but – and I know this is heresy – she was not a good cook. She wasn’t flamboyantly awful, with burned pans and inedible concoctions. She was plainly and boringly bad—except for one saving grace, and that resulted from her being a much better friend than she was a cook. Let me explain.

My mom grew up in two different towns. Until she was 10 or so, she lived in Weare, NH, where my grandfather was the superintendent of schools. Until her last day, she remained close with the childhood friends she made, talking at least monthly with them, getting together in the fall for a huge fish fry, keeping up on all their comings and goings and sharing the brilliant disappointment that was me.

At 10, she moved to Durham when my grandfather was asked to start and be the first president of the Thompson School at UNH. In Durham she made new friends, who were also lifelong, including a girl named Jane Abell. Jane was whip-saw smart and she and Bev were inseparable until Jane left town for boarding school.

Fast forward 16 or 17 years and Bev and my dad had adopted me. Jane was a career foreign service officer, serving first in Pakistan, then in India. Because Jane was single when I was little, a visit from her was like spending time with a favorite aunt. Each time she visited, she’d bring delightful books and pictures and toys for me and my sister.

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In 1966, though, she brought my mom a present that saved her from being the most boring cook in our town. From her travels, Jane brought a large bag of couscous and some suggestions on what to serve it with. For those who aren’t familiar, couscous is small balls of durum wheat semolina typically covered with some kind of vegetables and protein. What made couscous transformational is that it can have anything on top of it: asparagus, tomatoes, pickles and ground beef, turnip, potatoes, green peppers and chicken, literally any imaginable combination. Suddenly, Bev didn’t have to go to the Betty Crocker Cookbook for inspiration—couscous was a palette that would accept any color or texture. Jane Abell saved me from culinary blandosity.

Oh, yes. Jane went on to marry another career foreign service officer in 1968, with my mom as matron of honor. Carl Coon was a widower with six (!) minor children, so Jane became stepmother to a half-dozen kids. By the early 1980s, Carl Coon and Jane Abell Coon were both named ambassadors, but to two different countries. While Jane was ambassador to Bangladesh, Carl served as ambassador to Nepal, the two of them traveling back and forth one weekend a month. You could look it up.

So . . . a belated Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers and, especially, Jane Abell Coon, who just turned 94 a few days ago.


About this Author

Keith Howard

Keith Howard is former Executive Director of Hope for NH Recovery and author of Tiny White Box