Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bountiful Biscotti

I used to bake lots and lots and lots of cookies at Christmas. Cutout cookies, kisses cookies, macaroons, apricot jam crescents, crinkle cookies, snickerdoodles, cream cheese twists, peppermint sandwiches - cookies, cookies, cookies. Besides eating them "in house," I also gave away plates of cookies to friends and family.

I still bake lots of cookies at Christmas, but over the years I have reduced the types of cookies I make. Some of that is a function of age: it was a lot easier and more fun to make dozens of different types when I was younger and had more stamina. Some of it is a function of time passing: I'm not baking for my boys anymore, and they were a huge part of the fun of baking different types.

Some of it is the realization that I bake some types of cookies better than others.

What I bake now, almost but not quite exclusively, is biscotti. I always bake the same type: a plain pecan type spiced with cinnamon. I bake biscotti by the dozens and distribute it widely, leaving a trail of biscotti crumbs as I go. This year, I baked six or seven batches, or some 500 plus biscotti. They went out from coast to coast, with the heaviest concentration of them of them being sprinkled through the Midwest.

Over the years, friends and family have asked me for the recipe. I never hesitate to hand it out: it is not a secret family recipe, but rather one I probably found in either Family Circle or Woman's Day many years ago. This year, blogger friends Sharon and Ellen both asked for the recipe. In responding to Ellen, I wrote: I don't have a great story like the peanut brittle story to go along, other than one of friendship and good flavors (well, I guess that IS a great story!).

So here is the biscotti recipe. It is full of flavor and helps fortify friendships. Make some yourself, pass it around, and see if you agree.

1½ cups pecans*
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon**
5 eggs
2 cups sugar
½ cup melted butter***                   
1 ½ tablespoons grated orange rind****

Notes on ingredients
 *This recipe originally called for almonds. I prefer pecans; I have made it both ways.
**At a minimum. If I am using what I call OTC cinnamon (the regular, widely available stuff as opposed to more pungent specialty cinnamons), I usually use 3 to 4 teaspoons.
***Original recipes calls for unsalted. Salted will not kill the recipes. I have never made this with margarine or any other substitute, so I have no experience with using something else.
****Use it if you have it. Will not make or break the recipe. (I often omit this step because I rarely have grated orange rind available.)

  1. Preheat over to 350°. Prepare 2 baking sheets: I use parchment paper, but you may coat lightly with vegetable spray or Crisco.
  2. Chop (by hand or with food processor) ½ cup of pecans fine (like flour); set aside.
  3. Coarse chop the remainder of the pecans and place in small bowl with flour, baking powder and cinnamon.
  4. In large bowl, beat eggs on medium speed until fluffy. Add finely ground pecans (the ½ cup), sugar, butter, and orange peel. Beat until blended. Note: I use a mixer through this step. Stir in flour/pecan mixture to form dough. The dough should be fairly stiff and heavy, but not dry.
  5. Divide dough into quarters. On well-floured work surface, roll and shape each quarter into a log approximately 12 inches long and 1-2 inches wide. It is like rolling "snakes" from clay; dust your hands with flour. Place 2 logs on each baking sheet and bake 25-30 minutes, until "firm in center" per the original recipe. There is no magic to this: 25 to 30 minutes in a stove at 350° will get the desired results. Note: you can bake both sheets (all 4 logs) at the same time, rotating top/bottom, front/back at 15 minutes. I used to do this, but now bake one sheet of logs at a time.
  6. Let logs cool slightly: 10-15 minutes. While still warm, cut each log diagonally into ½ inch thick slices (or whatever other thickness you desire). Place slices face down on baking sheets (as opposed to on edge). Bake 7-8 minutes; turn slices and repeat on other side. Again, you can bake two sheets of biscotti at the same time; rotating top/bottom, front/back. Depending on your cutting and layout skills, you may get all biscotti cooked at the same time. They can be crowded together, as they do not spread. Cool on wire rack.
  7. Makes up to 80 cookies, depending on how thick you cut the slices. I tend to get 20 cookies to a log.
This is a pretty sturdy recipe and allows for imprecision in the kitchen. The baking time on the slices is as much a function of personal preference as to crispiness of biscotti as it is the clock. In a pinch, you can even get away with not turning the biscotti over for the final baking, but just bake them longer on the same side. It all depends on your patience and tolerance for handling hot cookies.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Christmas That Fits

It is the day after Christmas. There are some occasional snowflakes coming down outside - more fretful than anything serious. The house is warm. Warren was on the couch, tapping away on his laptop, but now he is down in the basement, sorting out music. Xylophone music - a recording of virtuoso George Hamilton Green - rattles its way back up the steps to the kitchen. I was folding laundry; now I am baking biscotti. There is a quiet to the house and a peacefulness.

My thoughts have been all over the board today. I had an email this morning in which a good friend wrote: Yesterday was a total bust!  Spent most of the day on the couch.  Wasn't sick, just couldn't make myself do anything!  Mom & I wanted to go shopping but of course nothing was open!  With our family doing Christmas on Christmas Eve, and no other family to go to any more, Christmas Day is nothing!

I laughingly replied that one major way in which she and I differ greatly is any day of the year, no matter what, I would NOT want to go shopping. I then tried to answer her in a more serious vein, giving up for fear of sounding preach or goofy or both.

But a thread of thought about Christmas has tugged at my fingers and at my conscience all morning, so much so that I am sitting down to write it.

It has been a different Christmas for us this year. Let me start out by noting that for the five Christmases Warren and I have celebrated together, the hallmark of them all has been low key celebration, not free-for-all shopping sprees and wild extravaganzas of consumerism. Neither our budgets nor our personal tastes lean in those directions. But even by our standards, this year was very quiet.

The blogger at I am the working poor honored me by linking to an earlier post of mine in her Christmas Day post. I commented back that economic conditions are still grim (and in my opinion grimmer) than when I wrote the post a month ago. Our biggest holiday outlays this year were for family members whose budgets are way past tight. Some are struggling to keep food on the table or a roof overhead. Some have lost that roof; some are getting their groceries from food pantries. In those situations, even a "small" gift - $25, say - is enormous.

When faced with that kind of need, Christmas is simple.

I guess the real question for all of us to answer is "why do we celebrate Christmas and what do we expect it to be or feel like?" Your answer will differ from mine, and that's fine. It is when your answer differs from your celebration that you run into difficulties (or at least I do).

My answers have changed several times in my lifetime. As I look back, I seem to be constantly removing layers of expectations from my thoughts about Christmas, not unlike peeling an onion.

Christmas 2010 was very low key in terms of commercial consumption, yet rich in all the ways that count, starting with family. We breakfasted on vegan cinnamon rolls that Warren and his children had baked the night before. We then opened presents together, laughing and teasing. Warren's children moved on to Christmas with their grandmother and a small wave of my family moved in for lunch. It was a simple meal, a good one, and the flavor of the food was matched and exceeded only by the talk and the laughter around the table. Our "daughter" Amy showed up in the evening with her fiancé; I talked by phone with both of my sons. After everyone was gone, Warren and I cuddled together on the couch and watched "A Christmas Carol" with George C. Scott, one of my favorite holiday films.

And that was Christmas 2010. Other than wishing that Ben, Alise, and Sam were also joining us at the table, it was one of the better Christmases I have spent when it came to how I felt about the day. I have often found Christmas hard to deal with both from an emotional standpoint and also in terms the rampant consumerism. By choice and design, our Christmas was quiet and personal and frugal. It fit.

I hope yours did too.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Grandma's Voice

The first time I saw the movie "Peggy Sue Got Married," a 1986 film with Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage, I cried at one scene. I have seen the movie once or twice since then, and that same scene still gets me.

For those of you who are not familiar with the movie, Peggy Sue faints at her 25th high school reunion and reawakens in her high school past with all of the knowledge of her adult life. The scene that never fails to get me takes place in the family kitchen. The phone rings, Peggy Sue answers it, and it is her grandmother. In Peggy Sue's adult world, her grandmother, who she adored, had died several years earlier.

Kathleen Turner plays the scene exquisitely. You see the love and pain cross her face as she realizes she is hearing her grandmother's voice again. She fights tears, her voice catches, and then she thrusts the phone at her mother because she is so overcome she cannot talk.

My grandmother Skatzes, "grandma Skatzes," was that beloved grandmother in my life. She had been dead some eight years when I first saw the scene in the movie. More than once, I have wished I could hear grandma's voice again.

Yesterday my mom came over for tea and talk. Halfway through the conversation, she asked me if I knew any way to convert cassette tapes to CD. She has no cassette player, none of the my brothers has a cassette player. Did I know what could be done? Sure, Warren can take them to OWU when the audio/visual department reopens after break and they'll do it.

I asked mom what was on the tapes, assuming it was music. She said "well, it's two full cassettes your uncle Buster did of Mom talking and telling stories. I've had them in a drawer for years."

I stared at my mom, dumbfounded. She's had two cassettes of grandma Skatzes "for years" and I am just now finding out? (I had previously known of the tapes, but had heard they had long disappeared.)

"Mom, I have a cassette player. Do you have the tapes with you?"

She did. A few minutes later we were listening to grandma telling a story about her grandfather. I couldn't understand all the words because she was so soft spoken, but I knew immediately the rise and fall of grandma's voice - an almost musical lilt she had that I remembered so well even all these years later.

My eyes filled with tears.

That evening, when Warren and I were out running errands, I started to tell him about the incident. I related the movie scene that had moved me so much so many years ago, and my voice choked up as if on cue. I then told him the wonder of hearing my grandma's voice again after so very many years, and my voice caught again.

The tapes are now on my desk, waiting to be converted. Mom and I listened for about five minutes yesterday. The longer I listened, the more I could understand grandma's words. I haven't turned them back on; I don't know if I am able yet to handle them except in the tiniest of doses. Even something as pure as joy occasionally needs to be meted out.

I have written before about grandma's love of Christmas. I find it somewhat more than coincidence that these tapes should appear at this time of year. It is a seasonal touch from her that I am blessed to receive, grateful to hear her voice one more time.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Nothing Says "Christmas" Like…

Nothing says "Christmas" like...

…a dead mouse.

Well, to be accurate, an ornament with a dead mouse as an integral part of it.

Yesterday was the annual Shade & Shade Ornament Exchange and Luncheon. Shade & Shade is the law firm I worked at for almost a decade when I moved back home in late 1990. I don't remember when it happened, but somewhere along the way, someone, probably my dear friend Laurie, one of the secretaries there, organized an ornament exchange among the staff. We'd gather for lunch at the office, each bringing a wrapped ornament, eat together, and then draw numbers and pick an ornament from the wrapped pile. Over the years, some of the faces have changed, but the tradition rolls on. I left the firm in January, 2000, but have continued to participate in the Exchange every December.

While I don't remember every ornament I have received over the years, there are many I look at as I am decorating the tree and instantly think "ah, Shade & Shade."

This year's ornament will forever be first on that list.

Yesterday was fun. It always is. Of the eight of us in the room, most had worked together for over a decade, over two decades or more in some cases. (Laurie, who is a few years younger than I, started as a secretary there when she was 17; it is the only job she has ever held.) Dave Shade, who founded the firm and was a big influence on my becoming a lawyer, joined us for lunch and wry editorial commentary, at which he is excellent.While we ate, we talked and then got to telling stories from past years. Laughter and good feelings filled the room.

The big moment arrived: the Exchange began. We drew our numbers from a coffee cup. Laurie arranged the gift bags and boxes on the center of the conference table. I was six out of seven, so I watched while One through Five chose various bags. By the time my turn came, one of the two bags left came from the other remaining participant, so I chose that bag so Seven could get someone else's ornament.

A note about Number Seven: Matt was number Seven. Matt is an associate attorney who started there several years after I left. Matt has an excellent sense of humor, especially when it comes to quick comments with a deadpan look.

I thought Matt looked a little uncomfortable that I got "stuck" (his words) with his ornament. I soon found out why.

We opened our bags. "Oohs" and "ahhs" filled the room. There were glass ornaments, there were delicate metal ornaments, there were shimmering, gossamer ornaments. On either side of me and all around me,  Carly, Kelsey, Lindsay, Eileen, Laurie, and Matt were pulling these light, airy wonders out of their wrappings.

Mine came out of the bag with a tug. I looked at it and burst into loud laughter. Matt now looked extremely uncomfortable and started to turn red.

"April, what did you get?"

That was Laurie, who is one of the world's sweetest people.

"I got a dead mouse," I promptly replied and held it up for all to see.

Matt had bought a cat ornament. The cat is curled around a candy cane and looks very happy. Small wonder. It has a spring dangling off one paw, and at the end of the spring is a mouse. The mouse does not look happy. The mouse looks doomed. The cat is clearly toying with it, ready for the kill. The mouse, if not dead already, will soon be lunch.

Matt tried to explain. Of the seven of us exchanging ornaments, four are huge cat lovers. So Matt bought the cat ornament, assuming one of them would pick his. "What are the odds? What are the odds?" he kept asking.

Apparently not good enough.

Dave made the final dry comment. "Well, it looks like six of you got great ornaments…"

The Exchange ended with laughter and hugs and best holiday wishes. I came home and hung the cat ornament high on the tree, the mouse dangling in dread.

My friend Cindy and I exchanged emails this morning. Knowing I was at the Exchange yesterday, she wrote "Glad you got to do your ornament exchange. I remembered you do that every year. Tradition!  That is what helps make Christmas CHRISTMAS! Traditions!"

Cindy is right. Traditions are what makes our family and community life so rich. That's one of the reasons I continue to attend the Shade & Shade Ornament Exchange: it is a deeply embedded part of my holiday traditions.

And apparently those traditions now include one cat ornament, complete with dead mouse.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Little "c" Christmas

I think I finally have it right - have me right. I am celebrating christmas this year, but it is a low case, little "c" christmas.

And that's all right.

The typical trappings and trimming are a bit absent. Christmas cards? In a box in the closet, where they've sat since last December. They probably won't make it out the door. Baking? Yes for the Legal Clinic last night, and yes for some friends and family both far and near, but otherwise not really. Presents? I don't really want anything.

I just want a little "c"  - not a big "C" - christmas.

Warren drew the line at my suggestion to skip a tree this year, and I'm glad he did. We bought one last Thursday after work, and only Sunday evening did we start to hang a few ornaments on it. Until last night, the ornaments were in the percussion room, scattered on the floor by the timpani. I found it peaceful to hang only a few at a time. I have ornaments dating back to the early 1900s, ornaments that mark my children's lives, ornaments that Warren and I have purchased together to mark our years, and carrying from one room to the next one or two at a time gives me a chance to reflect on what they mean to me.

There is a hand-blown glass icicle, with the original hook, made by a cousin of my grandmother's back in the early 1900s. He was a glassblower who died young as a result of his trade and my grandma Skatzes, then in her teens, nursed him in his final days of his life. As a little girl, I had several "special" ornaments that I always wanted to hang (The sparkly bluebird! The pink angel!), but this was the most special of all. (I also still have the sparkly bluebird and the pink angel, considerably worse for wear than the icicle, but beloved all the same.)

Pluto is one of Ben's ornaments.  

That is because when he was a little boy and we would go to Disneyland, he loved Pluto and didn't want to leave his side.

Sam, on the other hand, felt that way about Bert and Ernie, which is why those two ornaments belong to Sam.

And Warren and I will never, ever forget our trip to Montana this summer, including stopping at the incredible Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

One of these days, my sons will get "their" ornaments, and they can start their own holiday traditions. For at least this year, though, they still hang on my tree.

Warren and I talked about Christmas this past weekend and again this morning. He said he isn't "feeling" it. Things are just too rushed and too crammed up against each other. There are family members who are struggling due to the Great Recession and finances are tight at the Symphony as well as at home.

I think Warren could use a little "c" christmas.

I recently wrote my friend Katrina, "Well, I know ''tis the season,' but I am not very seasonal this year." But the more I think about it, I don't think that is true at all. I think I am very seasonal, just not in the ways our consumer culture recognizes. I want to take the malls and the dollar signs out of my christmas and turn it instead to reflection and quiet celebration.

I am not feeling "Bah, humbug!" at all. Instead, the hope - the prayer - I seem to be uttering this year is "let christmas come quietly, please."

A little "c" christmas.

 Warren played his last holiday concert Saturday night in Mansfield, an hour's drive from here. The concert included excerpts from Handel's "Messiah," sung by the chorus. The part that moved me the most was not the "Hallelujah" chorus," which I most definitely do not enjoy when sitting in the front row of the balcony, but the "For Unto Us" chorus. Listening to the cascade of voices, I felt my spirits soar. The next afternoon we went to a concert given by our local community chorus. I liked sitting there in the packed church and having a sense of it truly being this community come together to listen and share.

After the concert and after we ran some errands, Warren's children, David and Elizabeth, came over and helped him make Hyer peanut brittle. They spent several hours, working alongside their dad and sharing the evening with us.

That was a little "c" christmas moment too. I saw the lines in Warren's face relax and his smile reappear.

Packages went out yesterday to Montana and Oregon, Utah and Virginia. Some deliveries I'll make right here in person. Mostly it is baked goods and Hyer brittle, made and given with love.

It feels right. It fits right. 

Let christmas come quietly, please.

I am realizing that what I like best this season - and what is so hard to hold onto - is indeed the thought of christmas with a small "c." It is making it happen that takes thought and effort. It is reminding myself that More and Bigger and Expensive will not make my holidays any brighter or more meaningful. It is reminding myself that it is family, and support, and love that will carry us through this season.

It is keeping my eyes on the events - the miracle of birth, the promise of hope - that bring us together in these dark, bleaks days of the dying year.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Irdy's Christmas Brittle

Although I have often written about my dear, late mother-in-law, Ellen, I have not written about my father-in-law, Arthur. The slight is not intentional: I never met the man during his lifetime. I knew of him - knew of him, in fact, long before I knew Ellen or even Warren - but was never introduced to him.

Warren has passed along to me some of Arthur's story. A veteran of World War II, he was one of our town's optometrists for 41 years before finally retiring when he was 80. Older than his wife by a decade, he was a quiet, no-nonsense man who early on shelved his love of drawing and art for the more practical and necessary problem of making a living: first to help out his family while growing up, then to support himself, then to support his wife and three children. A handsome man, he had a wide, bright smile in his younger days that dimmed to a muted but still pleasant hint of one as he aged.

Arthur Irvin Hyer, known in his family as "Irdy" until he enlisted in the Army, didn't have it easy growing up. The oldest son in a working class family, he worked during high school to help the household. He graduated from high school just months before the Great Depression hit, causing him to shelve his art studies and find paying jobs wherever he could. Joining the Army in the late 1930s to support himself, he was set to muster out in January 1942 before Pearl Harbor put an end to that plan. Art, as he was now known, spent the next three years in the Pacific as part of the Signal Corps of the 37th Division, taking part in the Solomon Islands campaign, until the physical and mental toll sent him stateside to recover in a military hospital in Virginia. It was there that he met a vivacious and striking Red Cross volunteer, Ellen Wilson, who was visiting recovering soldiers before she shipped to England. Four years later, after a courtship in Chicago, they were married, and two years after that, they moved to this town, establishing a practice and a family. Over fifty years later, he and Ellen died five weeks apart at home.

That's a snapshot of Art Hyer. That is the bare bones frame on which I hang whatever I have come to know about him. But there is another side to him that does not come through that lean retelling of his life and it is this: Arthur Irvin Hyer loved Christmas.

Absolutely loved it. Per Warren, Art loved the lights, the decorations, the songs, the spirit. He loved A Christmas Carol and often listened to a recorded retelling of it with Basil Rathbone playing Scrooge. I have seen family photographs and movies spanning many Christmases: there were wreaths, there were evergreen swags everywhere, including draped over paintings, there were the children, sequentially older, trooping to open their Christmas stockings.

Yes, Art Hyer loved Christmas. Our first year here, I filled a small wicker sleigh with an assortment of bulbs and set it on the chest in the front hallway, so you would see it first thing when you entered the house. Warren paused a moment and said, quietly, "Dad would have liked that."

An annual Christmas ritual in this household was the making of Hyer peanut brittle. Warren makes it yet; his brother also makes it. The recipe is set out at the end of this post, but I will tell you right now that you won't have quite the same experience, although you will have excellent brittle if you make it. It is not merely that you will lack the large waiter's tray from the Edgewater Beach Hotel on which to pour out the molten mixture for cooling - any buttered surface will do. No, you will catch a taste of a Hyer Christmas if you make this brittle, but you will miss the ineffable flavor that comes of making the brittle down through the generations, of knowing when you make it that you are carrying out traditions laid down long before your birth.  

I started this post by saying I never met Arthur Hyer during his lifetime, but that is not to say I never met him at all. Over four years after Arthur and Ellen's deaths at home - this home, after years of increasing tension and discord in this home as Warren's marriage crumbled and broke, after over two years of Warren being barred from here and kept from contact with his children, we married, moved back in, and made our first Christmas.

Warren commented often how comforting and sheltering the house was now that we were in it. I often felt the presence of Ellen as I worked in the home that she had loved and raised her family in, especially when I was baking in the kitchen. All during our first Christmas season in this home, Warren would get tears in his eyes at the restoration of peace and love.

One evening, after dusk had deepened but not yet turned to night, I stepped into the family room to retrieve something. The Christmas tree was not yet lit, but the lighted Chicago buildings that Warren placed on the window seat were. Warren was sitting in the recliner, rocking gently and looking at the lighted buildings. In the shadows, I could not see his face, but I could feel his contentment. Turning around to get the item I had come for, I asked him some small question. Warren didn't reply, so I turned back to ask him again, thinking he had not heard me.

The recliner was empty.

"Warren?" I quavered.

Warren was in another part of the house, had been in another part of the house the whole time. As I told him what had happened, I realized - we realized - who had been rocking in the recliner, enjoying the quiet and the lights and the peace.

It was Arthur, it was Irdy, come home one more time for Christmas.

Arthur Hyer's Peanut Brittle

1 ½ cups sugar
1 ¼ cups corn syrup
1 pint (2 cups) of water
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
1 ½ lb. raw peanuts (note: raw peanuts, not roasted)

Cook sugar, water and corn syrup to hard ball stage (use candy thermometer or drop small sample in cold water to test).
Add butter and peanuts.
Cook slowly, stirring often, until peanuts roast. You will smell them roasting and they will change from the pale, almost white of a raw peanut to brown.
When peanuts are roasted, add vanilla and soda, stirring in quickly.
Immediately pour mixture onto a buttered tray, spreading it out to as even a layer as possible.
Break into pieces when cool.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Giving It Up & Getting It Back

The first thing I heard Sunday morning was the rain. Not heavy, but steady.

It was very early. It was very dark.

Warren was playing two morning church services in Columbus before dashing back to Delaware for the Symphony's two holiday concerts in the afternoon. We got up, showered, dressed, ate, and were out the door before the sun was up.

My heart was not into it. Nether was my mind or my body. I was going through the motions, but even those were clumsy and forced.

Warren knew I was struggling. "You don't have to go with me, you know," he gently offered. "I can do this on my own."

I knew he could. He did it for years on his own - he and his then spouse often going their separate ways to their separate activities, so much so that by the time the serious marital problems began, there were few common ways left to build upon. So I wasn't terribly enamored of Warren's offer to go alone. We do as many rehearsals and performances jointly as much for the opportunity to spend time together and stay connected as anything.

We left the house. I commented briefly that it would be dark again before we got back home.

The drive to Columbus was silent but for the windshield wipers shuusssshing out a rhythm. Warren was quiet. I was quiet.

It was early. It was dark.

After several miles, I reached over and touched Warren's hand on the car seat. We didn't clasp hands, but linked our fingers.

A little touch. A warm touch.


As we drove, the dark lightened and the landscape started to take shape. Inside, my dark lightened and my internal landscape started to take shape. Slowly, I started to give up my negative feelings: that I was tired, that this weekend was all Symphony and nothing else, that I felt - oh, not sick, but achy and out of sorts, that Monday was almost upon us and nothing was done.

I let them go, gently tugging free the little claws they'd sunk into me. I loosened them, one by one, until they were gone. And then I sat there: empty of the negative but also empty of anything else.

It was early. The day was coming into view, but it was still gray. I watched the lights go by, watched the rain kiss the road.

I silently reflected on what was left when the negative was gone. The car is warm, my health is good, I have a wonderful husband whom I love dearly, I…

Warren broke the silence.  "I'm so grateful for you," he said, squeezing my fingers. "It's so wonderful to have you here with me."

A little touch. A warm touch.


Postscript: I penned most of the above post sitting in the sanctuary of the church while the musicians tuned. Earlier, I'd listened to the choir warm up, lifting their voices to the soaring ceiling of the beautiful modern structure. My spirits and my heart rose with them.

As I predicted when we left the house early Sunday, it was dark long before we returned home. The rain turned to snow early on, adding a new dimension to the day. It was late when everyone finished breaking down the stage and hauling the equipment off, later still when we finally got the first hot meal of our day as we joined Dave and Kermit for a late night, snowy night supper downtown.

Having emptied out the negative feelings, I had ample room to let the good of the day - the music, our good friends, the snow, the community, sharing the fun (and the work) of concert day, Elizabeth with me at the concerts, coming back to the quiet of our home after it was all over - fill me anew.

They were little moments, warm moments.

Connected moments.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Flaming Christmas Robins

In Blogville, when another blogger leaves a comment on one of your posts, it is good form, if you have not yet "met" the blogger, to visit her blog and leave a comment of your own. I have met some wonderful friends that way. That is how I recently met Stacey, a young mother in England, who blogs at Stay at Home Mummy.

Yesterday, Stacey wrote about holiday traditions, listing some of her favorites. As I was skimming over her list this morning, one in particular caught my eye: "Hide the robin - buy a Christmas robin with wire feet and he hides around the room, children have to come into the dark room with a torch and find him - a tradition when we were little!" [Emphasis added.]

I thought about that for several minutes. A torch? Children in dark rooms with torches? I was thinking of a stick with cloth wrapped on the end and set on fire. It took me more than a few moments to realize Stacey was talking about the children using flashlights, not firebrands.

While I am now convinced that England is not at risk to go up in smoke from robin-seeking children (although the riots over tuition hikes may indicate that other problems are smoldering), the image of entering a dark room with a flaming stick to look for an ornament has stuck with me all morning.

When my boys were young, they regularly played a self-invented game, called, I believe, "Dark." It was a simple game: players gathered in Sam's room (which was big) at night, all the blinds were closed, all the stuffed animals in the house were heaped in piles in the room, Ben or Sam shut the door and turned off the lights, and everyone started firing pillows and animals while running around the room, leaping onto the beds (if the player was lucky enough to know the room layout) and crashing into furniture (if one was not so lucky). The game was played at breakneck speed, with lots of screaming and shouting. It went on until either (a) someone got hurt enough to call for a parent or (b) everyone agreed to a mutual truce and turned the lights back on.

[Note: For those of you who are wondering what I was thinking allowing them to play this game, realize I grew up with only brothers and had only sons. So this game made perfect sense to me. When they got much older, Ben and Sam played a variation of it, using air pellet guns instead of stuffed animals, in the empty second floor space in the downtown building in which we lived.]

So the notion of seeking robins with lit torches holds a peculiar charm and fascination for me. It is a tradition (my version, that is) that Ben and Sam would have wholeheartedly embraced when they were little. They probably still would, for that matter. It lends a whole new meaning to the French carol, "Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle - Un flambeau!" 

I can see my boys now, torches in hand, running through the house, looking for the robin in the dark, calling out for Christmas. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

What's the Christmas You Remember Best?

'The Drum Goes Dead" is a Depression-era Christmas story by Nebraskan author Bess Streeter Aldrich. Set in a small rural town in the late 1930s, the story follows bank cashier Richard Lanning throughout his (and his town's) Christmas Eve.

Aldrich sketches the era well. As Lanning walk to work, he notices the "houses and garages that needed painting," the neglected yard work. He is disturbed in his heart this Christmas Eve. The depression, "the one with a capital D," has hung on in the town. The community is in the midst of a three-year drought, and farmers and businesses alike are hurting. In the wider world, "nations were at other nations' throats." The "general rundown appearance of the little town" weighs on him, as does the plight of his friends and neighbors.

Aldrich paints a quiet portrait of Lanning and the "ruts into which a small-town man" slips, including playing Santa Claus at the annual Christmas pageant. He decides that it would be hypocritical to celebrate Christmas, with its promise of "good cheer and tranquility," when so much is wrong in the world. Lanning has lost his Christmas spirit, and "the death of the spirit is a grievous thing."

Aldrich carefully steers Richard Lanning through his day. She was a master at capturing the small moments, and she does not waste her mood or her story on a Big Revelation. Lanning does not suddenly "find" his Christmas spirit. Instead, it comes to him in small drops of daily life.

Following a curbside conversation with the town's remaining Civil War veteran about his Christmas memories, Lanning begins asking his bank customers "what's the best Christmas you ever had?" All day long, "these common, ordinary small-town folk" tell him stories of family, stories of grandchildren, stories of hard times softened by the holiday.

It is a retired professor who provides the title of the story, quoting from his study of medieval English celebrations: The maskers and the mummers make the merry spirit/ But if they lost their money, their drum goes dead. The professor reflects that in modern times, where friends and neighbors had lost their money and the world was uneasy, it "it takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened."

It is not until Lanning is walking home that evening that he starts to turn over the day's conversations in his head. He realizes that the common thread to all of the stories he heard that day was home. It is a small realization, a small drop, but one that nudges Lanning towards seeing the hope and the promise of the season.

Many of my friends speak of a muted Christmas spirit this year. Some have been dealing with prolonged financial problems, others struggle to find employment. Others, because of family difficulties or other issues, have said they are not feeling much Christmas spirit this year. I often struggle with it myself. Christmas for me often has a fine deft edge of melancholy which can widen into a band of sadness if I am not careful.

It takes a great deal of spirit and courage to beat away as though nothing had happened.

In rereading Aldrich's story before writing this post, I reflected on Richard Lanning, her "everyman" who started Christmas Eve feeling disconsolate and burdened, and ended it feeling "mentally strengthened, emotionally comforted." He found his way back by stepping outside of  himself and his emotional stew, asking others about their best Christmas memories.

What I would say if Richard Lanning asked me?

I have a handful of favorite memories, most of which involve my two boys, some of which involve Warren, and the rest of which reach back into my childhood. Maybe my "best" memory was the year Ben and Sam received a Playstation 2, hidden away upstairs as they unwrapped other presents downstairs. Sam unwrapped a PS2 game and immediately said, almost in tears, "this is the wrong game. We don't have a PS2." Ben then unwrapped a PS2 game, started to repeat Sam's comment, then stopped mid-sentence to stare first at his parents, then at his little brother. The boys both screamed at the same moment as they realized a PS2 was somewhere in the house. One of them, and I don't remember which, shook from his excitement. Seconds later, they were pelting up the stairs to find their gift. Their shrieks when they discovered it soon bounced back down the steps. It was a grand and glorious day for two little boys.

What Christmas do you remember best?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Further Note on Writers and Writing

My blog post yesterday prompted a bedtime discussion with Warren. As we settled in for the night, my dear husband asked "what do you want to write?" My response was immediate: I reeled off a blog post I want to do about a specific Bess Streeter Aldrich story.

Warren said, "I didn't ask that question. I asked what do you want to write?"

I made another attempt at an answer, listing several blog topics I have scrawled on a piece of paper on my desk.

Nope, same question. Another try by me to answer it and yet another repetition of the question.

If Warren had been cross-examining me in court, my counsel would have been on his or her feet at that point, claiming "asked and answered," and the objection would have been sustained. I didn't raise the objection there in the dark, but I did point out that if we were in court, I would be asking him to rephrase the question because I didn't understand what he was asking.

Warren thought a moment, then asked whether I had some project out there - "something else" besides blogs. He sees my blogging as musical etudes, short studies. Not that there is anything wrong with etudes, he hastily added, unless I was writing only etudes when I wanted to be writing a concerto or symphony.

Oh! Now I got the question. And my answer was: I. Don't. Know.

I like writing etudes. I love writing etudes. I don't know if I have a concerto or a symphony or a sonata inside me. (I do have a box full of letters written by my late mother-in-law from Europe in 1944 when she was there as a Red Cross volunteer and there may be a book in there, but I don't know that and I haven't even read my way through them yet. And that would be Ellen's book perhaps more than my book.)

But regardless of whether I have something "bigger" inside me, I'm not even writing my etudes right now. And that is what I was writing about yesterday.

I'm not even writing my etudes.

A comment on yesterday's post from my good friend Jackie at Embracing My Blessings reinforced my feeling that I need to learn to respect my writing and the time it takes. She said "it always seems like you write about things I've been thinking about. This very topic of making time to write has been in the forefront of my mind lately. I say I want to write (other than my blog) yet I find myself writing about how I decorate my house on my blog instead of putting pen to paper and writing about what I really want to focus on…Thanks for the food for thought." I emailed her this morning my observations above, ending by saying "I think I have just written have a blog post here!"

And apparently I did.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Writers and Writing

Bess Streeter Aldrich was a Nebraska writer in the first half of the twentieth century. I have mentioned her before in connection with Christmas: her Depression-era Christmas works remain among my favorite for both holiday and Depression-era short stories.

Bess supposedly sold every short story she ever wrote, as well as numerous articles and several novels. That's an impressive record. All the same, she was far better known in her community as a wife, mother, and active volunteer, rather than as a writer. Her husband died in 1925, only 18 years into their marriage, leaving her with four children and her pen as her primary means of support. College educated herself, Bess put all four children through school on the strength of her writing.

Recently I read two collections of her short stories, the first from 1907 to 1919, the second from 1920 to 1954. I soon learned that she had several stock formulas that she rotated through for many of her stories. Others, however, were one of a kind gems that still sparkle all these years later.

Included in the collection was an interview with Bess, in which she spoke humorously of writing out sentences with one hand while ironing with the other. Whatever privations her widowhood may have thrust upon her, she focused on the positive qualities of life not only in the interview but also in her works.

In the same interview, Bess spoke about people who claimed they wanted to be writers but somehow "just couldn't find the time" in which to write. She felt strongly that no matter how busy  a person was, that person always managed to make time for what was important to him or her. If you said you wanted to be a writer and weren't writing because you were "too busy," then in her opinion you didn't really want to be a writer.

So what does it say about me that I go far too long without writing? (Or at least writing for this blog, because in many ways I indeed make my living through writing.) Do I not want it enough? Or, to rely on a later Nebraskan I also admire, therapist/author Mary Pipher, do I not write because our modern world has changed our daily rhythms and lifestyle so much that I often struggle merely to cut through the mental noise and clutter of the world, let alone write?

Bess would laugh at that, I am sure, and remind me that she wrote while rocking a cradle or darning a sock. True, but she didn't write while juggling emails or cell phones along with darning the sock or rocking the cradle. Pipher speaks of Aldrich's era as a time when lives "were busy, but not hurried." Too many times my life is busy and hurried, which is a fundamental step in the wrong way.

I often write about my schedule and busyness and my frustration when I let the bustle and rush of the world take over my personal space. It is so hard sometimes to let the email rest until the morning, to set aside the pressing but not urgent folder from the court. I need to respect my time and learn to set aside the time in which to write. I need to learn and relearn that respect until it is engrained in my fingers and my heart.

As a way of teaching myself, I have lately taken to writing from prompts. My favorite source (and I dearly wish Elizabeth would post a new one!) has been those at quotesnack. Like drumming, writing prompts jumpstart my heart and my soul. They are writing snacks: quick, light, easy.

I think Bess, who once wrote of a character that "earth held no sorrow that food could not heal," would approve.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


We all think about change and improvement: changing ourselves, improving our communities, changing our attitudes, improving our spouses. We change our hairstyles, we change our beliefs, we change what we do or what we eat or what we read or what we listen to, trying to better our lives or the lives of those around us. 

Some of us even think about changing the world. Few of us ever try, though, because it is so daunting a task. How can someone just plain Jane ordinary little old me really help change the world?

Sometimes the first step in changing the world is as simple as refusing to give up your seat.

Thank you, Rosa Parks, who 55 years ago today chose to stay seated.