Mrs. McLoughin’s Shrimp Salad

Mrs. McLoughin always arrived before Mom left for work. Smaller than her by inches, putting her somewhere near five feet, and ancient but probably in her mid-sixties, she hustled Mom out the door, excited to begin cleaning our already clean house.

Few people intimidated Mom. Clever, street smart, sassy, she stood her ground. She held strong opinions, never backed off from truths no one else was willing to speak or hear. It’s not clear at all that she minded what people thought of her. They invariably gravitated toward her anyway, even in the destructive last years of her life.

But she deeply cared what Mrs. McLoughlin thought and treated her with a rare diffidence. It took the form of scrubbing the entire house the weekend before Mrs. McLoughlin was due. Floorboards wiped, furniture polished, kitchen appliances scoured. While she was constitutionally unable to ignore disarray, her labor was ratcheted above normal, best to run the other way. She worked long days at a bank, especially on Friday, and Mrs. McLoughlin was hired to help the house remain within her standards. Dad might leave his socks in the TV room or a beer bottle on a side table. But her daughters had moved out into their own lives, leaving the son who rarely made a visible mess. The main rooms remained tidy showcases, inviting but spotless. Still, in her eyes, not up to snuff.

She doubtlessly lobbied Dad with a forceful case that she couldn’t go on living in such a mess and that they could afford a cleaning woman. Mrs. McLoughlin was recommended by a trustful friend, although her main attraction would’ve been her Irish accent and pragmatic cheerfulness. Her adult sons were adamantly against her taking on more work considering her advance age. But Mrs. McLoughlin remained strong enough to shove furniture about and fearless when climbing ladders. The first day she arrived, with a housecoat turned work uniform tucked into a paper bag, she told Mom about her foolish sons. What was she supposed to do–sit at home alone? And besides, she loved to clean.

Mom adored and respected her but all her preparations belied a lingering insecurity from growing up poor, afraid of being considered shabby. She was nine when her father died, leaving six children and a permanently scarred widow. Mom, the middle child, took over the running of the house. Ideals forged by cousins working as maids for wealthy families out along Philadelphia’s Main Line, her own stint as a nanny in a similar mansion, instilled critical household rules–summer chintz slipcovers; tailored drapes and fine lace curtains; well-appointed furniture; wool carpets; fancy wallpaper; correctly hung artwork–that her family home could ill afford. Dad’s social worker salary would barely cover these necessary expenses without Mom’s capable financial management.

Gleaming windows, shining furniture, a kitchen floor so thoroughly clean you really could eat off it. Mom made sure all of this was done before Mrs. McLoughlin arrived. Mrs. McLoughlin’s down on her knees with a toothbrush and pot of homemade polish paste made the house all the more proper.

Mom always hurried home around noon to serve Mrs. McLoughlin her favorite dish, shrimp salad. They sat at the kitchen table together and shared gossips and pointed judgments (my brother a saint; feminist unwomanly; Pope John XII discombobulating the holy church). Afterwards they drank a cup of strong tea and decided ways to tidy up the rest of the world

My brother (who really is a saint) drove Mrs. McLoughlin home when she was satisfied her work was completed. A few hours later Mom stepped inside her house and stood still for a breath, taking the measure of her private landscape. These were the years when the strains of her childhood began to catch up to her, when she became less assured, rarely sassy, her opinions hardening into hurtful truths. But surrounded by immaculate order, she allowed a moment of satisfied relief and pride flow inside her, a chore Mrs. McLoughlin might not have known she accomplished but probably did.

Shrimp Salad

This is the simple recipe I found on one of those newspaper scraps Mom tucked into her cookbook. She would have done her usual doctoring up and I added my own (in parenthesis). You should do the same.

Serves 2

2 cans of small shrimp (I used fresh medium shrimp, chopped)

1 tablespoon’s garlic powder (Mom’s go to. I used 2 finely chopped large cloves)

2 small celery stalks, diced

1 small onion, diced

1 bell pepper (I use a fancy orange one because it added color)

About 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard (Mom’s addition. I used coarsely ground Dijon mustard just because I like it)

lemon cut in half

1 teaspoon chopped dill (totally my addition–fresh herbs were jut not available back in the day)

about 3/4 cup mayonnaise (I thought about making aioli but got lazy–it’d be good, though)

salt and pepper to taste

Drain water from canned shrimp. If using fresh shrimp, cook and roughly chopped. In a medium size bowl, mix the shrimp with the celery, onion, and bell peppers, then let it chill in the refrigerator while making the dressing.

Mix the rest of the ingredients together, using half of the lemon (of course, not the lettuce). Taste to adjust the seasonings to your liking. Some suggestions: paprika; cayenne or a dash of hot sauce; a gentle curry; thyme, tarragon or herbs de provence. Olive oil instead of mayonnaise.

To serve:

I think Mom made Mrs. McLoughlin a sandwich on toasted white bread, usually with lettuce and maybe a thin slice of New Jersey tomato if they were in season.

I made a salad: When ready to serve spread the greens over a plate. Squeeze the other half of the lemon with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar over the leaves.