Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas By the Book



For all my love of reading, I did not receive a book as a Christmas present until 1965 (4th grade) and then only as a reward for refraining from biting my fingernails. That a child would crave books over toys was unfathomable to my young parents and I think they were taken aback when I would ask for them. Betting against my daily nibbling of my nails, my parents indeed rewarded me that year. While I no longer own the books, I still remember them well: Marguerite Henry's An Album of Horses and The Golden Stallion by Rutherford  Montgomery.

That is the only thing I remember about that Christmas: I finally received books that belonged to me and me alone. By sheer fate, that Christmas turned into a hat trick of sorts when it came to books as I also received a children's abridged and illustrated Little Women. (I still own that book.)

With Christmas just hours away, I have been recently revisiting my memories of Christmas stories and tales. My earliest are oral: singing "Away in the Manger" in church toddler class or listening to Grandma Skatzes recite the nursery rhyme beginning "Christmas is coming."

Once I learned to read, I discovered Christmas in books and learned I could experience the holiday anytime I felt like it. I heard and read the lilt of Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas" and set about memorizing it, starting with the names of the reindeers.

There was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (Dr. Seuss) and the wonders of Whoville and Mr. Willoughby's Christmas Tree (Robert Barry) and my satisfaction over the mouse family getting the last tip of the too big tree. There was Laura cuddling Charlotte in Little House in the Big Woods, the first book of the series I had yet to discover. When I did discover and devour the series, I found that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a Christmas scene into every single book in the series. My favorite was and remains the time that Mr. Edwards swam the Verdigris River to bring Christmas to Laura and Mary way out on the big prairie.

Wilder had a knack for Christmas scenes: the rag doll, Mr. Edwards, the church gift trees in Plum Creek (the muff) and De Smet (the secret gift from Almanzo), the store bought cap Almanzo received as a boy, the hard winter where the Ingalls family read stories until the kerosene lamp went out.

As my world of books expanded, so did the Christmases I experienced. I joined Sam Gribley and Bando for Christmas day in My Side of the Mountain. I followed the fate of the Christmas tree in Hans Christian Andersen's story"The Fir Tree."

I can never think of Little Women without hearing Jo grumble "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." And even having read that book hundreds of times, I still thrill when during a later Christmas when Laurie  "popped his head in very quietly. He might just as well have turned a somersault and uttered an Indian war whoop, for his face was so full of suppressed excitement and his voice so treacherously joyful that everyone jumped up, though he only said, in a queer, breathless voice, Here's another Christmas present for the March family."

By the time I was in junior high, I'd added the Christmas chapter from Sally Benson's Junior Miss, Abby Deal's Christmas efforts in A Lantern in Her Hand (which introduced me to the writings of Bess Streeter Aldrich, who was no slouch herself when it came to Christmas stories), and the Christmas celebrations woven though the Betsy-Tacy novels of Maude Hart Lovelace. At about the same time, I first read Dylan Thomas's "Conversation About Christmas"and Truman Capote's evocative story, "A Christmas Memory."

Interestingly enough, there are no celebrations of Christmas in any of the Oz books. Santa Claus makes a cameo appearance at Ozma's birthday party in The Road to Oz.

In my children's young years, I added a few more Christmas tales to the list: Jingle Bugs, a marvelous pop-up book by David Carter, Carl's Christmas by Alexandra Day, and, a little later, Beverly Cleary's Ramona and Her Father, in which she plays a sheep in the church pageant.

There are two other books I would be remiss to skip. The first is Gregory Maguire's Matchless, a retelling and reworking of Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl." Told simply and starkly, it contains a favorite line of mine: "The family was still hard-pressed for money, and dreamed of savory treats to eat, but they had the warmth of one another, and enough on which to live, and in most parts of the world that is called plenty."

The second is, of course, my beloved A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I confess: I do not remember reading it as a child, learning my Dickens from the early broadcasts of "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" instead. I have long since made up for my lapse by reading the book some fifty or more times as an adult.

It is the afternoon of Christmas Eve as I finish this. Somewhere Jo is grumbling about the lack of presents, somewhere a lonely boy is searching the sky for a "lost pair of kites hurrying towards heaven." Somewhere Ramona is wiggling her bottom to make her tail wag, and somewhere Sam and Bando are trying out Christmas tunes on the willow reed whistles.

Somewhere it is always Christmas.




Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Muddling Through

Some of you may remember that back at the start of this year, I became a monthly columnist for The Myeloma Beacon, an online myeloma site. I love writing for the Beacon; I have found a community of friends and supporters there.

I am reprinting my December column, which just ran on Monday the 16th. I have another December blog post in the works on an entirely different topic, but after you read this, you will understand when I say I don't yet have the energy to finish it off.


I had to do a lot of driving earlier this month. I had four days of mediation training packaged in two-day blocks with a weekend in between. That took me up to northwest Ohio and back twice in a short period of time. To keep myself company, I turned on the car radio and let it serenade me down the road.
It’s the holiday season and the airwaves are saturated with Christmas music. The sacred songs, the secular songs, and the gimmicky songs play in an ever flowing, unstoppable stream.
One often played holiday song is rarely played in its original form. That’s too bad, because the original version is my Myeloma Holiday Song 2013.
In 1944, Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to a distraught Margaret O’Brien in the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis.” One particularly poignant verse goes like this:
Someday soon we all will be together,
If the Fates allow;
Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t recognize those lyrics, there’s a reason for that. In 1957, Frank Sinatra asked lyricist Hugh Martin to “jolly up” the line about muddling through. Martin obliged and substituted “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Never mind that the line is a non sequitur to the preceding line. It stuck.
Almost every artist recording “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” since Sinatra sings the revised lyrics. A welcome exception is James Taylor, who resurrected the original lyrics in his version.
I’m glad James Taylor bucked the trend. When he came on the car radio, I turned it up extra loud. James recognizes that sometimes we get to this time of year and the best we can do is muddle through somehow.
I’m muddling through right now, with some extra help from my myeloma.
I saw my oncologist just before Thanksgiving. My lab numbers continue their slow, steady drift in the wrong directions. I’m tired all the time, way beyond “57+ years old tired” or “busy day tired.” And my wedding ring is now several sizes too big, causing my oncologist to speculate there is catabolic muscle loss going on.
What a muddle.
I have a lot of labs scheduled for late December, along with a skeletal survey. I meet my oncologist in mid-January, and we will map out where I go from here. According to my doctor, it is highly likely I will go back into treatment.
I’m definitely muddling right now. Even before my oncologist put his stamp on the situation, I knew my energy levels did not begin to meet my holiday plans. And as we draw deeper into December and I assess the upcoming holidays, I am acutely aware that my energy levels continue to drop like our current temperatures.
That’s a whole other muddle to deal with this month.
So back to my song. I love the original lyrics. I don’t find them bleak. They actually buoy me with the message that I can and will muddle through somehow. Despite the uncertainty of this disease, despite my children and grandchild being impossibly far away, despite my husband’s hectic December performance schedule, despite my huddling on the sofa every night reading because I have no energy to do anything else, I am muddling through.
I plan on having a merry little Christmas, myeloma and all.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Grandma's Tree

Grandma's tree without the lights turned on

I have written before about my Grandma Skatzes and her love of Christmas. This year I heard a story about Grandma that gave me a little more insight into Grandma and Christmas.

One of my vivid Christmas memories is that no matter what the size, the Christmas tree in Grandma's house was always heavily hung with lights, ornaments, and tinsel. For several years in the 60s, her house tree was a small aluminum pom pom tree, so the shininess factor was even greater.

I always thought the brightness factor was because of my grandmother's very dim eyesight. I just assumed Grandma made her tree extra bright so she could see it better.

Maybe so. Maybe not.

My grandmother was born in 1893, long before electric Christmas light were readily available for home use. In those days, the Christmas trees were lit by candles in most homes. Candlelit trees must have been beautiful, but must have posed huge safety hazards as well.

When Grandma was a little girl, probably before the century turned, her family lit their annual tree with candles, just like everyone else. Grandma's mother, my great grandmother Strickler, was deathly afraid of fire. One Christmas, despite her diligence, the tree caught fire.

Great grandmother Strickler was not a very tall woman and she was terrified of fire. All the same, she picked up the burning tree, hurried to the door, and threw it out into the yard.

Great grandmother Strickler saved the house and her family from a fire that day. But she never allowed another Christmas tree, candles or no, in the house.

When my Aunt Ginger told me that story earlier this year, I stopped her. "Grandma never had another Christmas tree all the years she was growing up?"

We looked at each other and both reacted that same way. "So that was why Grandma always had a Christmas tree with every ornament and light she could fit on it."

We probably won't bring a tree into this house until just before Christmas, given Warren's performance schedule this month. We may get it on December 21, which would be fitting as that is Grandma's 120th birthday.

Whenever we get it, I will make sure it is ablaze with lights and shiny ornaments. Grandma would have wanted it that way.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Belly Flop

When I was a kid taking swimming lessons, it took me a long time to learn how to dive. I would stand at the side of the pools, toes curled down on the edge, my arms over my heart with my hands in a prayerful position. I would start to lean over, willing my hands and arms towards the water. But invariably, when I got to the critical "about to go in" phase, I would lift my head up and smack belly first into the pool.

Belly flops, we called them. Young boys thoughts they were great fun and would spend long summer afternoons trying to outdo one another in making the loudest, most painful smacking sound.

I belly flopped recently. No, not in water, but in real life.

I have been intrigued by the rise of massive online open courses (MOOCs). The more I read about them, the more I wanted to sign up for a MOOC. This fall I finally jumped in (so to speak) and signed up for a MOOC on early New England poets, taught by Harvard professor Elisa New.

Four weeks of classes, with new video lectures, readings, and online discussions coming out every Thursday.

Easy peasy, no?

It would have been, in a perfect world. It would have been, if I had been more driven and more focused. It would have been if I could have shut out everyone and everything once a week for, oh, 4-5 hours.

I made it through week 1 and 2, then fled.

When I signed up for the course, I wrote enthusiastically to friends about how much I was looking forward to being in a poetry class again. Now I am scuffing my toe in the dust and mumbling how it didn't go as I had hoped.

When my boys were little, they watched a children's puppet show, Eureeka's Castle. One character was a bat named Batley, who always smacked face first into a wall or door in every episode. Batley would fall to the ground, then rise up, spread his wings, and declare "I meant to do that!"

Well, I didn't. I meant to do all the readings, listen to all the lectures, and engage in discussion with my fellow online students. I meant to gain more insight and understanding into the world of the early immigrants to this country. I meant to dive right into the waters of poetry and come up refreshed and revitalized.

Instead, start to go in, lift up the head, and splat!

Belly flop.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A Taste of the Past

There is a small half geode with a dime in its open mouth that sits on my desk. I am not a betting person, but I won that dime fair and square in a bet over a line of poetry.

A few years ago, my friend Marianne and I were having coffee at our local bookstore. Somewhere in our conversation Marianne referred to "This Is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams, only she misquoted the fruit as a dish of peaches.

"Plums," I immediately said.

Marianne was insistent. It was peaches, not plums. "I'll bet you a dime it's peaches," she declared.

I walked over to the poetry section, found an anthology, and showed her the poem:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox 


and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast 


Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold 


Marianne paid up, laughing.

I knew without looking that it was plums for three reasons. First, I have read a lot of William Carlos Williams's work and I know some of the poems well enough to pull out details. Second, I can pull details out because I am a trivia geek, poetry or otherwise.

Finally, even if my first two reasons were invalid, I would remember the plums because chilled canned plums are an indelible part of my childhood food memories.

Grandma Skatzes always (or so it seemed) kept a dish of plums in her refrigerator. These were canned plums, bathed in a heavy purple syrup. As a child, as a youth, I loved to eat them when I was in her kitchen. Sometimes I would walk into the kitchen quietly and hastily drink off some of the syrup.

You grow up, you get older. Tastes change and you forget the special flavors of your childhood.

A few months ago, out of nowhere, canned plums came to mind. I had not eaten them in years, but I suddenly longed for them. But time, as well as taste, moves on. I could not find canned plums in any of the groceries. I finally concluded that they had faded from the American canned fruit scene and gave up on ever eating canned plums again.

Yesterday morning, I ran several errands, one of which was to our local Aldi store. Having found the three items on my list, I turned down the "specials" aisle just in case something caught my eye en route to checkout.

The purple can caught my eye.

Plums.

Canned plums.

I stopped, I stared, I bought one can. When I got home, I promptly placed the can in the refrigerator for later.

Last night, I opened the can with trembling fingers and tenuous hopes. What if my food memory was flawed? What if canned plums were utterly disgusting? What then of this wisp from my childhood?

The lid came off. The plums were smooth, immersed in the red purple syrup. I tasted the syrup as I dished up a serving. It was cold, it was sweet, it was a draught from the past. I carried the bowl to the sofa, sat, and lifted the first plum to my mouth.

I was 12, I was 10, I was seven years old and sitting at the laminate/chrome kitchen table spooning the plums into my mouth while Grandma Skatzes puttered around.

It was every memory of canned plums I ever had.

I don't know if I will go back and buy more plums. One can alone is a powerful tonic, pulling me swiftly into the past. For now, while they last, I will savor them.

They are delicious, so sweet, and so cold.



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pie Memories


Let me make one thing clear before we start. I am not talking about my pie memories.

I don't have a lot of pie memories. My strongest memories of homemade pie are of the pumpkin pies that graced every Thanksgiving meal. My grandmothers did not bake many pies that I recall. Grandma Nelson, who was an amazing cook, had a serious fondness for those frozen cream pies that were a novelty back in the 1960s. Grandma Skatzes did not bake pies that I knew of, although two of her daughters did. My mom baked some pies during my youth, but that was not her dessert of first resort. I know at one point she made her own crusts, because I remember that when pre-made and frozen crusts came on the market, she was in seventh heaven. I don't think I made my first pie until I was in high school.

Memories of cakes and cookies, yes. But pies? Not really.

"Pie memories" is a revelation I had Saturday morning while baking a pie and prepping apples for the freezer.  We were having supper with our good friends Margo and Gerald that evening, and I had promised a pie. Apple was my initial choice and I was ready to peel and slice the apples. But as we were having a typical early November day with sunshine alternating with gray skies and the air flipping between brisk and raw, something said "pumpkin."

I make my pumpkin pies dense and dark, loaded with spices, and while I rolled out and pinched the crust, I thought of pies in literature. There is the Deeper'n Ever pie in the Redwall series and the hot turnovers that Meg and Jo called their "muffs" in Little Women. Dorothy found a "small custard pie" in her dinner bucket that she picked from the tree in Ozma of Oz. Jamie and Claudia, the children who ran away to the Metropolitan Art Museum in E. L. Konigsberg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, surely spent some of their nickels on pie at the automat they frequented.

And let's face it: you cannot read The Little House series without being immersed in pies, including Ma's green pumpkin pie (The Long Winter) and the dried apple pie shared between the Boasts and the Ingalls (On the Shores of Silver Lake). Farmer Boy, the story of Almanzo Wilder's childhood, is one long paean to pie, including this wonderful passage after Almannzo had eaten most of his dinner at the county fair:

Then he drew a long breath, and he ate pie.

When he began to eat pie, he wished he had eaten nothing else. He ate a piece of pumpkin pie and a piece of custard pie, and he almost ate a piece of vinegar pie. He tried a piece of mince pie, but could not finish it. He just couldn't do it. There were berry pies and cream pies and vinegar pies and raisin pies, but he could not eat any more. 

While the pumpkin pie baked, I turned to peeling and slice apples for a future pie. It was while my hands were busy at that task that I had my pie epiphany: When I bake a pie, I want to bake the pie that we know and remember deep in our hearts.

I want to reach in and bring out those pie memories, even for those of us who may not have them.

What does memory taste like? What does that memory taste like when we have no distinct memory of pie from our youth?

How do I bake a memory?

I don't know, but I finally realized that thoughts like these are what guide my hands as I roll the crust and fill it. I fill it with apples, or pumpkin, or sauteed vegetables, but what I am really filling it with is memories.

I have a card about pie. I keep it on the bookshelf (having not gotten around to framing it yet) so I can see it constantly. It reads: There are many types of food, some of which are pies and the rest of which should be pies. 

It is a sentiment I share.

Saturday night, Margo, Gerald, Warren and I all ate a slice of pumpkin pie, thick and dense, topped with whipped cream laced with cinnamon. We had just finished a good and savory meal, then, like Almanzo, drew deep breaths and began to eat pie.

Friday, October 25, 2013

First Frost

We had our first hard frost last night.

Sitting at breakfast, I could see that the mums on the back deck were frosted. Grabbing the camera, I went outside to inspect.

Indeed, the mums had been etched in frost.


So had the marigolds that have stood guard over the garden all summer.


As well as the blanket flowers that the bees were still hovering in just last weekend.


I just finished reading The Outermost House by Henry Beston. Beston wrote about living in a small, primitive cottage on the easternmost portion of Cape Cod before roads or any development had come to that part of the cape. The book, published in 1929, captures his full year of observations about the landscape, the weather, the oceans, and the seasons. He gently encourages the reader to honor and love the earth and to take part in the "tremendous ritual" of the seasons.

As I glance out the window at the morning sun, I understand what he meant. The frost is melting, the sky is brightening, and the tremendous ritual of autumn is well underway.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Shorts

A few posts ago, I mentioned that I had pending posts that I hoped to bring to the light of day soon. Well, several weeks later, they are still in my head and not down on paper. Recently I realized the best thing to do would put these thoughts down in the form of shorts and clear my mental mailbox for more writing.

Short #1: Blown Away (Again) To Oz
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the MGM "The Wizard of Oz." You know, that one. As part of the 75th anniversary observances, MGM released a 3D/IMAX version of the film to be shown in IMAX theatres for one week only in mid-September.

Of course I bought tickets. While not a huge fan of 3D films (they are a pain to watch when you wear glasses), I was not about to miss out on seeing my all-time favorite film on a really big, BIG screen.

I was not disappointed. Watching the film in 3D and that big, I saw details I had never seen before. (I didn't know the Scarecrow carried a gun when they went hunting the Wicked Witch.)  Warren, for his part, finally got the full impact of the "Over the Rainbow" sequence with Judy Garland.

It was "The Wizard of Oz" as I have never seen it before and will never see it again.

As we drove home that night and hashed over the film, I was hit with a sudden pang remembering a high school classmate, Geoff. Geoff and I shared a fascination with "The Wizard of Oz" back when you only saw it on television once a year and before videos came along (in short, a long, long time ago). We would write each other letters with new observations about the movie; I particularly remember my calling attention to the shoe polish glossy hair on the male citizens of the Emerald City.

Geoff died in a plane crash over seventeen years ago, so he wasn't around for this 75th anniversary release. I thought of him that night: how he would have enjoyed the film, how he would have loved all the new details that popped to life in the 3D/IMAX format.

I am quite sure Geoff would have been blown away to Oz, just like I was.

Short #2: A Wedding
Stephanie got married in mid-September.

I have known Stephanie since she was in second grade. She has always been one of my special girls. And now she was getting married.

When Ben and Alise got married, I had a brief teary moment at the start of the wedding, then finished the occasion dry-eyed. It was not for lack of love or emotion; I think I was so happy to see them together that the joy I was feeling crowded out any further tears.

Seeing Stephanie marry was an entirely different event. I had a lump in my throat from the moment I walked into the church, and the tears spilled when I saw Stephanie—beautiful, glowing Stephanie—float down the aisle on the arm of her father.

I wore the same outfit to Stephanie's wedding that I was married in five years ago. For the record, the skirt of the ensemble also saw duty at Ben's wedding, so it is my official wedding skirt. I hope my wearing it is a good omen for Stephanie and Jason's wedding: I certainly feel that way about Ben and Alise's wedding and my own. 

All brides are beautiful on their wedding day. This one certainly was. 

Short #3: Sourdough
As of late, I have been living in the land of sourdough. As I had surmised, the glop of "Amish Friendship Bread" turned out to be a decent starter. Over the past four weeks, I have been experimenting and getting comfortable with making bread from a starter instead of yeast.

No surprise, there was (still is, for that matter) a learning curve. No surprise, it turns out working with starter is far easier and less exacting than I had feared. It was about the second week of baking when a basic truth hit me. This method has been around for centuries. It has to be simple to have survived so long. Stop hyperventilating over the process.

It was not unlike my learning experience with growing a garden. The first year I fussed and worried over my plants, even while I knew in my head that the seeds would grow without my overanxious ministrations. Four years later, I am considerably more unwound and relaxed.

So it has become with baking with starter, albeit in a much shorter time frame. Recently I accidentally reversed the order of the steps in preparing the dough. I did not panic; I did not throw out the dough and resume feeding the starter for a new batch. I instead shrugged and told Warren that it would probably turn out fine. And it did.

I have had a lot of other obligations and concerns on my plate as of late, from far-flung children to nearby elderly relatives to my own handful of issues. Making bread from starter is a long process, but very little of that time actively involves me. There is something peaceful in that rhythm, knowing that the starter and, eventually, the dough, can work away independent of me.

The act of baking bread is timeless. And with my newfound pastime, I step even deeper into that timelessness. Like Thoreau, I am "a-fishing" in the stream, ever conscious of the current sliding away, but away that eternity remains.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Bees Are Still Lingering


Fall is deepening around here. Most days are crisp, most nights are chill. We may have a frost this week, there may even be a little snow. Yesterday it rained for several hours, a cold, chilling autumnal rain.

Today, however, is bright and sunny. This morning I pulled up the tomato stakes in the garden and started the pre-winter cleanup. I managed to snag a few tomatoes; I picked half a dozen peppers that will be turned into relish shortly.

And I watched the bees.

I have started planting native perennials and the blanket flowers (Gaillardia) did amazingly well in the back of the garden. We may move them in the spring, but I have enjoyed their bright colors against the white wall of the garage this year.

Apparently the bees have enjoyed them also. While I worked nearby on the tomatoes, several of them plied their trade in pollen.

I wrote about the bees earlier this summer, when the zucchini blossoms and rudbeckia drew them to our yard. It is good to see them, knowing that they will soon be gone.

E. B. White, in his introduction to his wife Katherine's work, Onward and Upward in the Garden, wrote of watching her plan and direct the planting of her spring garden in the late fall. He captured her as "oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in the dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection."

I feel the same way about the bees as I watch them wrap up the season. I am already planning on the spring, already anticipating the resurrection.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Long-Distance Grandmother

The Symphony opened its 35th season last night in a most spectacular fashion, but that is not what this post is about. Saturday was also the semi-annual book sale at our local library. Warren had dropped me off there on his way to open up the concert hall for the soloist to practice. After picking up a reserved book, I wandered back to the bookmobile garage, which was serving as the bookstore for the sale.
The Amazing Ramona

I bought three children's books with Ramona in mind, adding to the collection at home. As I sat in the sun and waited to Warren to swing back around for me, I wondered about the books I had just purchased and when to send them out west. If I bought all the children's books that caught my eye, I would be bankrupt. If I shipped all of the children's books I already have, Ben and Alise would have to jettison furniture to make room for them.

It has been eight months since we have held Ramona: that baby is long gone. We have been Skyping regularly as of late, and I marvel at the child Ramona has become. She blows kisses (smacking her hand to her lips and shouting "mmm-WAH!"), flails a hand (sometimes two) in hello or goodbye, and occasionally leans in startlingly close ("My, what BIG eyes you have, Ramona!") while bustling in and out of the camera range. It is always highly entertaining.

It's not the same as being there, wonderful as modern technology is. I hope that when we are finally all together again, Ramona will recognize our voices and make the connection between Grandma April and Grandpa Warren on the computer screen and Grandma April and Grandpa Warren in real life.

Alise's mother Mona (aka Grandma Mona) is a frequent visitor to Portland and is headed back there for Halloween. I'm grateful Mona is in Portland so often. She provides parenting (and mothering) to Ben and Alise and deeply devoted grandmothering (i.e., adoration) to Ramona. But I'd be less than honest if I said I wasn't a wee bit envious of her frequent trips.

It's hard to be a long-distance grandmother. As I pick books to send out, I sigh, wishing I could settle Ramona on my lap and we could turn the pages together. I just sent out a footed sleeper printed with dinosaurs and I want to be the one tucking her toes into the footies and zipping it up to her chin.

The last time we Skyped, Ben and I talked about the blocks. These are the wooden building blocks Ben and Sam played with, including the same ones my brothers and I played with and some of the same ones that my  mother played with when she was little. Ramona will be the fourth generation to play with these blocks and I know it is time to pack some up and ship them out. But it's hard: I want to see Ramona play with the blocks at my house.

In the spring or early summer, my Portland three will be coming east for a visit. There is a lot of family here who have not met Ramona, and many who have not seen Ben and Alise for many years (seven come this Christmas, but who's counting?). Do I need to add that I am looking forward eagerly to that visit?

Between now and then, it is a long, slow walk to the future. I know there will be more books; there is already a growing stack in the closet for Christmas. And the candy corn socks at the grocery today? (I went in for fruit and dish soap, really.) Well, they are already in a sealed envelope with Ramona's name and address on it.

And I will be living on furious waves and a big "mmm-WAH!" tossed to the sky, waiting for the future.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Trust Me, They Are Pulling Our Leg

My friend Cecelia, whom I absolutely love (and who blogs here and is one of the bravest bloggers I know) put the bag on my desk a little over two weeks ago. It was a gallon size plastic bag with some pale glop in it. Alongside the bag of glop was a sheet of instructions to make "Amish Friendship Bread."

You know what I am talking about. These recipes have been circulating for decades. My beloved late mother-in-law, Ellen, had one tucked away in her cookbook with a note that it came from Betty Meyers next door. Somewhere in my long ago past, I was even on the receiving end of one of these recipes. I was unsuccessful back then: my glop turned rancid and moldy.

The whole friendship glop thing is not unlike a chain letter. You feed the batter, you nurture the batter, then you beef it up and pour off cup portions of it to give to friends.

It never stops.

All the same, I was intrigued. What Cecelia gave me was about a cup of potential sourdough starter. I have always been interested in baking with starters, but never went beyond envying people who baked with them. Given my extremely limited and highly unsuccessful experience with glop in the past, I never tried my hand at a starter.

So here I was, with glop from someone I truly, truly like, which meant I couldn't just toss it away. And it was starter. So I squeezed it and fed it and nurtured it just like the instructions called for. By the miracle of fermentation, the glop actually did what it was supposed to do. It developed bubbles and froth and had a nice tangy odor when I opened the bag.

Today was "make more glop to give to people and bake the bread with the remaining glop" day. I just popped the "bread" into the oven. I have a large bowl of starter, which I may just be selfish and keep for myself.  We'll see.

But here's my take on the "Amish Friendship Bread" recipe. Somewhere there are a group of Amish women laughing their heads off.

I don't know why the recipe calls for starter, except to make middle class white women (who I imagine are the only ones who ever, ever make this stuff) feel they are baking something authentic and earthy. They may be communing with their Little House on the Prairie alter egos (and who among us doesn't do that?) but trust me, this is not a recipe that needs starter. There are more than enough ingredients (eggs, baking powder, baking soda) to make it rise on its own without the starter.  

But I digress. The real reason this recipe is still making the rounds is that "Amish Friendship Bread" is a sugar fest from the word go. Even cutting back on the sugar, there is more than enough in the dough (especially after you add one LARGE box on instant pudding) to stun a horse. And that was before I sprinkled the cinnamon sugar combo on the top. As it bakes, I can smell the sugar rising through the house. While traditional Amish baked goods do call for a lot of sugar (because this is a community that does everything manually and they need the calories), I doubt there is an Amish woman anywhere in this country who ran to the general store in her little community and popped a large box of instant pudding into her basket so she could make this little treat.

I won't be making "Amish Friendship Bread" again. But I DO have a lot of starter now and see no reason it cannot be used for real bread. And I'm willing to be the butt of the joke in the meantime. Because I know darn well that somewhere out there is a whole bunch of Amish women laughing their heads off at us all. "Oh, ja, that's what we bake all the time," they assure us, waiting until we turn the corner before clutching one another in gales of laughter.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The 400th Post

I knew I was approaching this milestone in blogging and had been turning over topics in my head. I wanted my 400th post to be something truly worthy of the status. So here it is:

I walked home today from work.

I know, I know. You are reading this thinking "that's it? That's April's 400th post? She walked home today from work?"

Let me explain.

It's been a long time since I have walked home from work. More than a month. Almost two months. First I had a blood vessel behind the knee cap break, which caused great pain and made walking impossible. Just as I was recovering from that, the whole Aunt Ginger crisis started. Five days walking and sitting at the hospital set my knee recovery back almost to the beginning, making walking painful and walking almost any distance impossible again.

But finally we are on more solid ground. Ginger has been home for a week and is making good progress. My schedule (daily/work/home/community) is starting to fit again. And my knee has finally (I think, I hope) healed.

So I walked home late morning, under a brilliantly blue autumn sky. All the way home I thought about how wonderful it felt to walk again, how much I had missed walking, how grateful I am that I am able to walk.

I have two posts in the wings: one on weddings, one on "The Wizard of Oz." They will appear (all in due time, of course).

After all, I walked home today from work. And that has made all the difference.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Getting Away

Back in August, I started the following post:

Canning is a messy business. Over the weekend I canned a batch of salsa, only seven pints, and by the time I finished, there were dirty dishtowels everywhere. Everywhere. In the sink, on the table, on the stove. By the time I had washed and dried bowls and cutting board and knives, there were even more towels.

How did Ma Ingalls do it?

We know Ma canned, because Laura refers to her doing so in The Long Winter. So if Ma was canning at the homestead shanty at De Smet, we are not talking a big room. We are not talking about a family that had a lot of towels either.

My good friend Margo and I often dissect the Little House saga with painstaking precision. Where did Ma go the bathroom? And now this all consuming question: how did Ma can?

I am not planning on a lot of canning this year. My heart is not in it and, other than the salsa, I am not sure I want to lay up treasures in my earthly pantry.

That's as far as I got.

My writing got set aside for lots of reasons. A concert cancellation lead to Warren being able to leave town for a week and we made tentative plans for a long overdue break. Aunt Ginger unexpectedly went into the hospital for the better part of the last week of August, an adventure that started at 8 p.m.on Monday and segued into rehab at a nursing facility at 4:00 p.m. the following Friday. Our vacation plans tottered and threatened to all with the medical crisis, but once Ginger was safely ensconced in the nursing home, I felt I could leave town with impunity.

So we fled. Fled to Cape Hatteras and the gift of a cottage at the ocean. Fled to a week of no office, no Symphony, no hospital, no much of anything. Oh, we did a little bit of going out and looking: Monticello on the way to the cape, the Wright Brothers National Monument when we got there, but for the most part we kept quiet and stayed home. The ocean was a short walk over a dune and we both spent time walking or just sitting and listening.

The cape is two weeks behind us and I am still playing catchup. (But I'm closer, really I am.) The great news is that Aunt Ginger was released today from the nursing home and is now back home in her own comfort zone. She lives a block away from me, so now she is a short stroll away instead of driving across town.

It's good to be writing again. I did write some while I was gone, but not blogging posts. It's good to be back, but because I am still catching up, I am finishing this post with my September Myeloma Beacon column:



I once read an article in which the author described her habit of working herself into an illness requiring hospitalization about every two years. She did this routinely until a doctor finally pointed out to her that scheduling a vacation every so often would be a more cost-effective, healthier practice. The author, who had been eschewing vacations as a waste of time, became a convert.
I read that article decades ago. I read it back in the pre-computer, pre-cell phone, pre-tablet, pre-plugged in 24/7/365 era. Today, a similar article would have to start with the precept, “disconnect.” While I agreed with the author’s conclusion, I too have been guilty of not taking time for myself but instead pushing myself to the point of dropping.
Not this year. The first week of September, I took an unplugged, “health first” vacation. It was made possible by the generous loan of an ocean cottage by a very good friend and an unexpected opening in my hus­band’s too tight schedule. A last-minute medical crisis of a family member managed to resolve to the point I felt I could leave town without worrying too much. So the first day of September, we were on the road to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
Living with myeloma, I never forget the reality of having a chronic, terminal cancer. Every time something new and different emerges (the latest being veins that spontaneously break), I flinch. I try to spend my days not dwelling on it, but the truth is that myeloma is never far from my mind.
But for the vacation, it was, at least much of the time. There is a timeless quality to the ocean, an eternal pattern in the waves. Sitting on the beach and watching them roll in, I could shove myeloma to the far corner of my mind.
To my surprise, my awareness of the cancer was strongest the first time we walked up over the dune and dropped down onto the shore. I stood for the longest time just watching the waves, closing my eyes to listen to the surf. Then I turned to my husband.
“I didn’t realize until just now how much I was afraid I would never see the ocean again,” I told him, my voice hoarse with emotion. I sensed a weight lifting from me as I took in the sounds, the smells, the sights. I stored them up greedily, hoarding them for when the surf is too faint and distant to sense.
Prior to our leaving on the trip, my husband asked me what I wanted to do while we were on vacation. My answer came quickly.
“Sit on the beach, listen to the waves, and do nothing.”
Okay, we did a little more than that. We toured Monticello en route to the ocean, and we ventured away from the cottage a few other times as well. And we did watch some old movies (old, old movies: “Giant” (1956) was the newest of the lot) on television. But a lot of the vacation was spent reading and resting and watching the waves.
The great naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote, “[a] man may stand [at the shore] and put all America behind him.” He was writing of Cape Cod, which he walked the length of more than once in his lifetime. I was considerably farther south, but my sentiments were one with Thoreau’s.
On Cape Hatteras, I could stand facing the ocean and put all America, as well as all of my myeloma, behind me.
And I did.




Monday, August 12, 2013

The View (A Guest Post)

The following post was written by a coworker and close friend, Debby Merritt. She had shared it with me recently, having come across it in her papers, and I asked if I could use it as a guest post in my blog. I am honored that Debby said yes.

We differed on whether the third word from the end of the second paragraph should be "furried" (her choice) or "furred" (my choice). In a nod to Humpty Dumpty admonishing Alice in Through the Looking Glass ("When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.") and a salute to Lewis Carroll, who made up words when no others fit ('Twas brillig and the slithy toves...), I'm using her preferred choice.

I love this piece because it evokes strong memories in me of my childhood, especially on the farm my grandparents had when I was a child.

Debby wrote this piece some years ago, and there continue to be many changes in the immediate vicinity of her house. While Debby and I differ on many (oh heck, most) issues politically, I agree with her observations about the price of "progress."

Enjoy. And thank you, Debby.  

*********************************************************************************

The View

Since the late 1880s, there have been only three houses on our road. Every day from inside his old henhouse, my rooster signals morning. It is reminiscent of a time when sleep was determined by daylight and dark, and not by "Good Morning America" and the late night news.

In the afternoon, anticipating their late day milking, neighboring cows begin to wind their way from the woods toward the barn. Watching them is like looking at a centuries old painting. At night, they are our sentinels, mooing at interlopers both furried and not.

In the heat of the summer, my attic bedrooms smell like the hams and bacon that years ago hung from the rafters. That aroma reminds me of waking in my grandma's farmhouse to the sounds of corn cobs and sticks poured into a clanking wood stove, fresh eggs popping and bacon curling in a big iron skillet.

Each spring, groaning beneath layers of sweet black fruit, mulberry trees play host to opossums, raccoons, and other critters gorging themselves. Sometimes at night, caught in my headlights, baby raccoons scramble for safe branches to continue their feast. Their little bandit faces make it impossible for me to interrupt their banquet.

Later than most farmers, crops across the road are planted in fields fertilized by friendly cows. The farmer's old, lumbering tractor often hesitates and then stops dead. After a few adjustments, the engine backfires and percolates as it struggles down the row. These are sounds long forgotten in many parts of Delaware County.

Other modern, sprayed, and debugged fields seem more affected by drought and heat. Our farmer's corn is as high as an elephant's eye and as dense as a forest. Franklin Park Conservatory spent a fortune creating its corn maze. Our road has one every year.

I feel at home here. It is how things used to be. It is the solitude that Merton described in his essays. Thoughts are incoming and outgoing, not forced or contrived. There is no need to feel time is short and become harried consumers rushing to give our children happiness underneath the golden arches.

This road could outlast the politicians and the projected growth patterns, but every day places like it with their lands and heritage die. They pass into a fast paced abyss, a place where a road is measured only by how many cars it can carry and how much shopping can line its sides.

With malls and a commute faster than the speed of sound becoming eminent domain issues, I doubt that roads like ours will endure. So for as long as I have it, I will enjoy it, and when they come with their bulldozers and blacktop, I will mourn it, for we all will have lost something worth everything: our past, our present, and our future. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Music To My Ears

It is raining.

After a pretty wet June and early July, the skies turned dry. Oh, the temperatures stayed pleasantly cool for the most part, but it was dry, dry, dry. As I sit here writing this, we are on the backside of a good, solid, drenching rain.

If you had come upon me in my kitchen five minutes ago, you would have seen me standing at the open casement windows, facing the rain, my hands cupped behind my ears.

There's a reason for that.

Like many aging Boomers, I am showing some hearing loss. Mine was accelerated a few years ago by a head cold that left me temporarily deaf in one ear and partially deaf in the other. My hearing slowly came back in both ears, but it was forever changed. I hear endless white noise, just enough to wash out the softer sounds in the world. It is impossible for me to follow a conversation in a noisy restaurant. Add the normal loss that comes with age, and you get the picture.

I recently read Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise by David Rothenberg. Close on the heels of that, I read several chunks of The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause. (Bernie Krause and Warren are discussing a possible Symphony project, so the book is presently on the coffee table. I needed something to read.) Krause wrote about making faux leopard ears out of paper, clipping them to his glasses, and then listening. "The difference between what I heard with my ears alone and with the faux cat's ears was impressive," Krause said.

Rothenberg wrote about cicadas, katydids, crickets, and the other rhythm makers of the insect world. Around here, the cicadas (just the annual ones, not the periodic ones) started up in early June and the katydids arrived in mid-July. The former dominates the afternoons, especially the lazy, sultry ones; the latter rules the night. For me, they are an irreplaceable sound of summer.

A few nights ago, when the katydids were good and loud in the trees, I thought about Krause's cat ears. I cupped my hands behind my own ears to increase the gathering range of the pinna (the part of the ear outside the head).

I was staggered by the roar of the night.

Not only did the sound of the katydids increase several times over, but the first time in forever (Since my childhood? My young adult years?), I heard the whole noisy chorus of insects underneath the katydids. I tried to describe it to Warren, finally hitting upon "it sounds like a coursing river of bugs out there."

And it did.

Just now, listening to the rain with my improved range, I had a similar revelation. I heard the rain, yes, but this was rain amplified, rain magnified. This was rain with the volume dial cranked up. This was rain with a hundred nuances of splash.

It was RAIN, not just rain. Just as the other night it was BUGS and not just bugs.

I'm already pretty far up in the geek stratosphere in some circles. Walking around town with my hands cupped behind my ears should propel me even higher.

And I can just see myself questioning that future audiologist. "Will this hearing aid  give me the full bug chorus on a hot summer night? Will they enable me to hear a million raindrops hit the deck? Because if it can't, I have (dramatic pause) these!" And putting my hands behind my ears, I will walk back into the world.






Sunday, August 4, 2013

Meanwhile, in the kitchen....


I have worn out the beaters to my mixer. Oh, it's just a little sturdy hand mixer, but one that has carried me through 11 years of baking. I can't begin to count the number of eggs, syrups, custards, meringues, icings, and cakes I have whipped up with that mixer.

And now due to some colossal metal fatigue issue, one beater is on its last two tines.

I had noticed the first tine had failed some months ago. The second failure was brand new; I noticed it yesterday when I went to beat the eggs for the next round of zucchini bread.

Usually one wears out a mixer by burning up the motor. I wasn't that lucky.

The mixer model (a Black & Decker) is "obsolete," and replacement beaters are not to be found easily. or at all, I concluded after a thorough internet search. It is possible that other (newer) B & D beaters may fit this model, but unless I take my beater to a store and surreptitiously try the fit on a new mixer, I am rolling the dice in ordering beaters.

I may break down and treat myself to a brand new mixer. Heck, I may even splurge and go for the Kitchenaid hand mixer (the low end one, not the high end one) if only because I can get it in red (fire engine) or flamingo pink (loud).

How cool is the thought of making a lemon tart using a fire engine red or loud flamingo pink mixer?

I thought I was being clever when I posted the photos on my Facebook page yesterday and said there had to be a moral to this story. Apparently I was tempting the gods of Baking by my lighthearted approach. About the time I slid the second batch (four loaves to a batch) into the oven, I called Warren from the shop and asked him, "Do you smell something electrical?"

Yes, he did. And so did I. But there was no smoke, no lights going out, and nothing seemingly amiss, so he went back to work and I went on with cleanup while the bread baked.

The first two loaves (smaller) finished on time. Five minutes later the third loaf finished. But the fourth loaf (the largest of the batch) was taking forever. Truly forever. I would set the timer for 5 more minutes, check the loaf when the timer went off, and set it for 5 more. After some 15 minutes of this, I scrabbled around for an oven thermometer and stuck it in alongside the loaf. When the timer went off again, I checked the thermometer.

250º.  75 degrees cooler than the 325º that loaf should have been baking at. And that was when the terrible truth hit me. That little electrical smell from an hour ago? That was the smell of the baking element breathing its last.

A word about the oven. Warren's parents bought that oven around 1970 (by his best recollection). It is a 40" GE model with a small bake oven next to the regular oven. The stovetop has the conventional four burner arrangement, with extra workspace on top thanks to the width. In the almost five years I have lived in this house, I have baked hundreds of breads, cake, pies, quiches, tarts, and cookies, to name a few, in that oven. I have roasted chickens and turkeys galore. I have baked thousands of pieces of biscotti.

I love this oven. I would be bereft without this oven. And I was terrified that due to its age, parts would be impossible to procure.
The little oven is to the left in this photo. 

When I posted the newest disaster news on Facebook, friends quickly responded with links for parts. Three hours later, we had a new baking element ordered. In fact, we had two new baking elements ordered, the second being for the little side oven, which has not been available for baking all this time because of a faulty element.

The parts ship out tomorrow from Tennessee, so we should be up and operational by the end of the week. I am giddy at the thought of having two (Two!—Count 'em!—TWO!) ovens.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, "I cannot live without my books." My variation would be, "I cannot live without my books or my oven."

Fortunately, I don't have to live without either.





Saturday, July 27, 2013

This Other Time, This Other Self 2*

We have had a run of cool weather here, balmy days and crisp mornings. Today's temperature at 7:00 a.m. was 50°.

I went outside early to string the clothesline and breathe deeply of the chill morning air. If I didn't think of the calendar proclaiming itself to be July, I would have easily have said it was September or even October.

The brisk morning air triggered memories of other times, other Aprils.

First Glimpse

Back in my childhood, for a span of several summers, I went away for a week to a summer camp in a nearby county. The camp was run under the auspices of the Lutheran church (LCA, I believe, back in the days when the designation mattered). It had a two strings of log cabins, one for the boys, one for the  girls. I think there were eight of us to a cabin, in bunks of two. The cabins had the names of biblical women—Deborah, Sarah, Rachel. Our counselors were all college students from Capital University, a Lutheran institution in nearby Columbus.

There was a large dining hall and a small arts building. There was an outdoor "theatre" (a stage and rows of log seats), and a snack shack/post office opened only at certain hours. A trail past the dining hall would take you to an outdoor chapel and, on down the hill, the campfire circle. There was a small swimming pool and a vast open field that dropped down to a creek before rising up again.

I am sure there were hot, muggy days at camp. After all, this was Ohio in July we are talking about. But I remember the crisp
Th outdoor chapel, 1969
mornings, much like this morning, where eight girls would squeal "it's cold!" and burrow in our suitcases for sweatshirts before heading to the dining hall for breakfast. We would walk quickly against the chill, all the more delicious for it being the height of summer.

Fireflies, spirited games of "Capture the Flag," which the college boys dominated fiercely, dining hall songs while we all snaked around the walls waiting to reach the head of the line. "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder" around the campfire, watching the sparks soar heavenward, and seeing the Milky Way spilled across the sky over our heads.

And those delicious, crisp mornings, just like this morning.

Second Glimpse

Paint me a summer weekend in the mid 1970s, somewhere in a small Wisconsin town close to the Illinois border.  It was a village really, a cluster of summer cottages strung around a small lake.

There was a get-together there that weekend, hosted by the parents of a college acquaintance. A dozen or so of us drove north from Chicago, converging on the cottage with our sleeping bags and frisbees and swimsuits. There was a large, quasi-potluck meal, there was singing around the bonfire late into the night. Someone had a guitar and played and sang a passably good "Rocky Raccoon."

The next morning was crisp and chill, much like the mornings here right now, much like those long ago camp mornings. Three or four of us rose early while the sun was just lighting the sky, donned our suits, and headed to the lake, a short, unpaved block away. We willed ourselves into the water, flinching at its cool kiss before submitting to the water once and for all. We swam our way to morning and to breakfast.

It seems strange now to be sitting here at the kitchen table, peering back almost 40 years (the lake) and on beyond some 45 years ago (the camp). It is today's chill air that pulls me back, rushing me headlong into those other times, those other selves.

****
*My first This Other Time, This Other Self post can be found here.




Friday, July 26, 2013

Changing Landscape

I just this week had a medical tremor rattle my landscape. A routine test lead to a second still fairly routine test. That one avalanched into a decidedly not routine interlude with two technicians and the head of radiology all studying a screen while I lay still, trying to remember how to breathe.

Finally the doctor spoke. "I think everything is fine. I'll write a report after I study the pictures and send it to your doctor." The head of radiology has a slight stutter and I thought apropos of nothing how perfect for him to practice in the one part of the hospital where he would have the least daily contact with patients.

The whole episode shook me more than I want to admit. Even though I live in Cancerland, where I know the terrain is as prone to quakes and collapse as anywhere in California, I still jump when the ground starts swaying. My morning calm had crumbled with the "you're probably okay" prognosis, a comment to which I kept adding a silent "but" to complete the pronouncement.

Complete it? No, open it wide to the "what if?" scenarios.

I am trying hard not to go down the road of "what if?" because lately my energy levels have started rebounding, thanks to Dr. Pat and her recommending I take large doses of Vitamin D. In fact, I am feeling so much better that I am starting to wonder what to do with my time.

Okay, I confess. I am not back 100% yet. There are still days when I will suddenly drop for a nap, including in the middle of writing this post. But overall I have regained enough ground I am starting to have both time and energy, instead of just time.

It is time to turn my hands to something, but what?

As I have noted before, I don't do crafts. I famously don't sew. I have no artistic skills (as in painting, sculpting, and fiber arts). I don't sing, play a musical instrument, or dance. (Recently, Warren and I observed—for the Symphony—a gathering of amateurs who come together monthly to group dance to traditional English music. What a gentle group of people. I have no desire to join them, but I admired their focus and pleasure.)

Should I learn a language (I am noticeably inept in that area)? Learn the names of the birds that fill our yard and trees? Maybe I should study bees?

Maybe I should become a gourmet baker? Maybe just become a master pie maker?

Maybe I will return to the monthly Legal Clinic in some capacity, ending my self-imposed medical sabbatical. Or I may figure out other ways in which to serve the Clinic.

And maybe I will write more.

Recently I sat in one of our downtown coffee shops with my friend Mel, who also writes, albeit not as much as she wants. We talked about how difficult it is for either of us to value ourselves enough to set aside time for writing. We agreed it was a matter of respecting the writing and respecting our desire to write.

So maybe I head into the rest of summer balancing writing and pie making.

The tremor I opened this post with is likely just that: a tremor and not a portent of some larger problem. But while the walls were swaying, I could think only of time, as in time remaining. It reminded me that the sand in my hourglass runs swifter than many and that I want to live deliberately during the time that remains.

And now that my energy is rebounding, I might just be able to do that.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Bees Are Back


The bees are back.

The rudbeckia (rudbeckia nitida) is in full bloom finally, and it is once again Bee Central. Given the devastating collapse of commercial bee colonies nationwide and the greatly diminished number of wild colonies, I was afraid they would not return this year. The later we went into July and the scant number of bees that appeared, the lower my hopes and expectations fell.

But I came home late afternoon today to find the bees crawling and buzzing, working the flowers over furiously.

Making hay while the sun shines, so to speak.

I hope the bees fertilize my zucchini plants while they are at, as the zucchini have been sending up blossoms that open, linger hopelessly, and then drop off for lack of pollination. When I saw the bees in the rudbeckia, I promptly moved all three pots of zucchini plants next to the flowers.

I all but cheered when I saw several bees drop down to the zucchini and start mining the blossoms.

In an increasingly fragile world, where economies, nations, and environments are as shaky as the commercial bee colonies, the return of the bees bolsters my hope for the future. Maybe it is silly to stake my hopes on such a small thing, but I have appeared silly before.

Emily Dickinson wrote "'Hope' is the thing with feathers." Not in my world. In my world, "Hope" is the thing with wings. And right now Hope is having a fine time in my flowers.



Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tasteless

Rubbery. Lot of chewing. Some hints of spice, but even that was flat.

Supper last night was a last minute what-can-we-make-from-what-we-have kind of arrangement, neither of us (read: I, April) having made plans for something better. The main course, ringed by leftovers, was bratwurst excavated from the freezer. Clearly, the bratwurst had resided there way too long.

Tasteless.

It was the first meal in the hotdog/sausage family that I'd had since the June road trip. An onslaught of general GI disorder had finished off that meal spectacularly and my enthusiasm for tubed meat has been in remission ever since. Now I was shoving pieces of it around my plate.

Tasteless.

This morning we ran to Home Depot early, before breakfast. At the head of the contractors' checkout was a soft drink cold case. These were not just any old soft drinks, but rather certain Coca-Cola products. The case signage read "Heche en Mexico. Un sabor de casa" (Made in Mexico. A taste of home"). Inside were glass bottles of Sprite and Fanta Orange (the Coke being sold out), presumably made with cane sugar and not high fructose corn syrup. Given the scant handful of bottles remaining in the case, clearly someone was buying, even though there was a larger cold case of American bottled, substantially less costly plastic liters of Coke products not more than ten feet away at the end of the checkout.

Homesick laborers from Central America, perhaps?  Clearly someone looking for a taste of home.

That phrase has stuck with me all morning. Even though I am home (figuratively as well as literally), I am wondering what home tastes like. Certainly not the bratwurst from last night. The zucchini bread I have been baking and stacking in the freezer? The tomatoes ripening in the garden?

I don't know.

It is a cool morning as I pen these words to type out shortly. A week of high temperatures was broken by a line of storms that moved through yesterday and wiped away the hot air. The cicadas are just starting to keen in the morning sun.

I mentioned to Warren yesterday that the summer insect triumvirate was here: cicadas, fireflies, katydids, the katydids having just took up their raspy night duty this week. They sketch in my summer, with sights and sounds, in ways that my palate is currently missing.

Looking for the taste of home, accompanied by the chatter of the cicadas.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Faith in the Future


It has been another one of those days, when the blend of weather and personal schedule have come together perfectly. After days (weeks) of rain, we are now experiencing a string of cool, sunny days. The house is wide open with breezes blowing through, the laundry is hanging outside, and I have a stretch of afternoon where my immediate chores are done and I can now sit back and let time flow through my fingers.

Among the many recent reads was an excellent collection of essays about women friends, She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg. I culled this quote from her: "When I leave the house, I prepare unconsciously for the pleasant social exhaustion of an intimate city."

That quote was my morning today.

I met my dear friend Margo downtown for coffee midmorning. I had laced my errands around our time together. From the first errand to the last, I was immersed in that pleasant social exhaustion of which Sonnenberg writes. To wit: the security guards at the county courthouse ("Hi, April, how's it going?"), the clerk in the Clerk's office ("Hey! Haven't seen you for awhile! How are you feeling?"), a farewell chorus from the security guards as I left ("Have a great weekend, April!"), a stop at the Symphony office en route to the library (and a kiss for Warren), and city staff in the Utilities office where I paid the water bill (another wish for a great weekend). As Margo and I sat at the long coffee bar that faces the street, I waved at a coworker walking by. Heading back to my car post-coffee, I passed a secretary from a downtown insurance office that I have been in and out of often ("How are you feeling? You look great!"). At the grocery, the greeter was a longtime fixture in our community, working post-retirement to help a family member through a medical crisis. We talked about the family member (doing better), about me, about the community.

All of the morning was interconnected, all of it was shot through with community and that pleasant social intimacy.

I'm home now. At the library, although I was there only to pick up one book on hold, I could not resist and came away with an armful (to add to the armful already at home). At the grocery, the school supplies caught my eye (school starts mid-August this year in this area). Single subject, college ruled, 70 sheets wirebound notebooks were 17¢ apiece.

17 cents.
Miss Ramona Dawn, age 10 months old! 

I bought five. These are what I use for my writing.

Earlier Margo and I had talked about grandchildren. Margo and her husband Gerald became grandparents twice over this spring when their two daughters had their first babies within weeks of one another. Of course, we also talked about Ramona, now ten months old (ten months!) and poised on the edge of toddlerhood. I spoke of the distance from here to her; Margo's grandchildren are within a half hour of here. Margo voiced an idea, "Well, when Ramona is 8, she can fly unaccompanied and come visit you every summer!"

That is a delicious thought and one I had never had. Briefly my mind flitted to whether I would still be around when Ramona turns 8. That thought returned as I walked to my car after the grocery store, but in an entirely different way. As I unloaded the five notebooks, I suddenly saw them for what they really were.

Yes, obviously, they are a bargain. I may even buy more. But they are also an act of faith in myself—that I will continue to write after a long fallow stretch, that I will fill up these five notebooks and five more after that, and five more after that, and so on into the future until Ramona is indeed 8 and on her way to visit Grandma April in Ohio.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Water and Sky

Saturday night was the second of two holiday concerts for the Symphony, this one up at Put In Bay on South Bass Island in Lake Erie.

It rained on the 4th of July here in Delaware. Yesterday it rained up at the lake as well, forcing the concert inside. We loaded and unloaded equipment and instruments in the rain. But by the time we were on the ferry back to the mainland, the rain was more or less over.


The sky was dramatic, full of low clouds changing colors as the evening faded. I found myself at the side of the ferry watching the waves and the clouds go by. I found deep solace in staring across the lake, scanning the sky, and watching the backwash churn away from the ferry. My thoughts spun away as effortlessly as the waves.


I needed to be alone. In the midst of community, as Symphony volunteers mingled and chatted and laughed, I needed solitude. I wanted the sky and the lake and nothing else. I let my thoughts spin out, no patterns in any of them, all of them scudding away with the clouds.


It is about 30 minutes from dock to dock by ferry. Soon enough the lights of Catawba rose into view. Soon enough I could make out the dock lights. Soon enough we would be back on land and headed home.

The dock lights grew brighter and came into sharp focus. My thoughts wound down into a quiet murmur as the ferry slowed and came into harbor.


It was a quiet drive back to Delaware. The three of us in the truck were tired and ready to end the day. Fireworks from rural communities kept lighting the horizon; we grew too silent to point them out. We all wanted to get home, we all wanted to come into the harbor of our own lives.

Sooner or later, we all need a place to dock.