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Theresa Patterson's Lemons

Theresa Patterson’s Lemons

Lemonade cake was one of Theresa Patterson’s favorite recipes to make as a Chef before she lost her vision seven years ago. It’s made with “lots of lemons” and has a light whipped cream topping, but don’t ask her for the recipe. Not that she wouldn’t oblige your request, but it’s very possible that your lemonade cake won’t turn out quite as refreshing as hers. “I do have a bad habit,” Theresa commented with an impish grin and a giggle. “When someone asks me for a recipe,” she admitted sheepishly, “I kind of leave an ingredient out.”

Theresa Patterson is one among nine percent of undergraduate students classed as nontraditional at the University of Iowa. Many factors can qualify a student as nontraditional, and these can vary depending on the college or university’s interpretation of “nontraditional student.” Age 25 or older at time of enrollment is a primary component. Other common elements include working full-time while attending college part-time and having dependents. The main ingredient that blends Theresa into the nontraditional compote is age – she falls into the University of Iowa demographic category of 51+, which makes up less than 1% of the student population.

She attended high school in the small town of Shenandoah, Iowa in the mid to late 70’s, and was involved in everything from marching band to student government. As a student, she was studious but average. Her attitude toward learning typifies that of most students even today. “If I liked [a subject] I was great. If I didn’t like it, there was trouble.” After graduating in 1978, she found herself pregnant, got married, and then started working in the restaurant of a local bar. The years that followed took her across the United States, holding a variety of positions where she learned to cook and bake from chefs she worked with. Eventually, she was able to travel to New York for training as a professional chef. At one point she was even offered a job by Bobby Flay, himself, but turned that position down because she didn’t want to live in New York.

Adding lemon juice or zest to a dish, sweet or savory, changes its whole flavor profile.

Theresa thoroughly enjoyed her 25-year-long career as a Chef, but that ended abruptly one afternoon when she was driving home from her job as a private chef in Tennessee. In the middle of the highway, everything suddenly went dark. “It was like I hit a giant fog cloud,” she explained. Fortunately, she was able to safely pull over to the side of the road and call her husband for a ride. Doctors soon discovered that her vision loss was due to untreated high blood pressure that occurred gradually over several years, damaging the blood vessels in the back of her eyes. In Theresa’s lemony-zest for life, she viewed herself as lucky, knowing that consequences of untreated high blood pressure could have affected her heart or kidneys, more severely impacting her quality of life than losing her eyesight.

During the four years that followed she was unable to work, drive, watch TV, or even be on the computer. Her vision was very limited, and she needed to hold things close to her eyes in order to see. This enabled her to occasionally use an iPad to connect with family and friends on Facebook, but even that had its limits. Dependence on family and friends was crucial to get to doctor’s appointments or go to the store for food. Though her life was brimming with complexity, she tried to stay positive, not knowing if her vision would ever come back. “I had good doctors and they never told me to start learning brail, so….” she shrugged and smiled.

Lemon juice can change a food’s texture to fit a variety of needs.

Since losing her vision seven years ago, she’s had seven surgeries, her corneas replaced, and requires monthly eye injections to maintain an ability to see. Not knowing what the future might hold, she decided it was time to go to college. In Fall 2016 Theresa enrolled at Marshalltown Community College where a teacher from her required gen-ed Composition class recommended that she take creative writing. She took his creative writing class the following semester and fell in love with writing.

Theresa graduated from Marshalltown Community College with honors in May of 2018, receiving her Associate Degree in English. She promptly enrolled at the University of Iowa for the Fall 2018 semester, majoring in English and Creative Writing. While the idea of writing the “next great American novel” exists in the back of her mind, her dream is to have the opportunity to travel to Italy where she can “write their stories.” She is fascinated by the long-time family owned bakeries in Italy and wants to immerse herself into their lives and tell their stories. “I might be able to turn it into my Master’s Thesis” she added gleefully. (Also, while in Italy, she plans to visit a cobbler who can custom-make shoes for her “Barney-Rubble-Feet.”)

College life has been both enriching and challenging. “I do it like it’s my job,” she said. At Marshalltown Community College, she was involved in the student senate and served as President of Student Activities. When coming to the University of Iowa, she found it to be a very different world. Having had experience in student government, Theresa applied to and was selected and sworn-in as a member of the U of I Student Senate. She explained that a percentage of everybody’s student activities fees goes into a fund managed by the student government. Students who are members of a club that needs funding for an activity can request access to these funds. In addition, these 50 student senators can make recommendations to the board regarding issues that directly impact the student body.

Lemons are as crucial a flavor-enhancer as salt.

Making friends hasn’t been very easy because all she has in common with her fellow students is the classes that she takes with them. Nobody’s been rude to her, but she added that “the University of Iowa isn’t exactly designed for nontraditional students.” There aren’t activities that are geared toward her age-group, and she’s struggled with building a workable schedule. “I wish there were more guidance as far as what things to take next,” she commented.

Her favorite class this semester is a Nonfiction Writer’s Workshop, and she is hoping to get into the nonfiction honors seminar next semester. In her limited free time, she talks to her granddaughters who live in Seattle, Washington, and takes care of her beta fish – whose names I must add are Stephen King and Truman Capote. Every year she reads Gone with the Wind (the same copy she’s had since sixth grade), and she also enjoys reading Stephen King and anything else she can get her hands on. Cooking and baking are still a part of her life, but writing is her new passion.

The lemon remains one of the most widely used ingredients – yet few people take full advantage of their seasoning potential.

Lemonade cake is still a favored recipe which requires a lot a lemons. Squeeze out the juice, grate the rind, and combine that mixture with sugar to make a consecrate that can be poured over the top of the cake that you’ve already poked holes into. Let the mixture absorb into the cake. Finally, top it with whipped cream. Chill.

In 2012 when Theresa Patterson was handed an abundance of sour lemons, she made lemonade cake. She turned something typically tart into a decadent, delicious dessert. With the lemons that remained, she searched her potential and realized she had more to learn, more to give. In May of 2020, she will graduate from The University of Iowa with her Bachelor of English and Creative Writing. Much like the lemon does for food, Theresa contributes to life that glorious savor you can’t quite put your finger on. You just know that she makes a difference and you’re better off for knowing her.