Thursday, April 24, 2014

Inch Seven: Dandelions

Wednesday, I took a walk.

Not just any old walk, mind you. No, Wednesday I walked home from the office, a distance of about four blocks. It was the first time I'd done that since sometime in 2013.

I'm not even sure when the last time was. There was the behind-the-knee injury in July, then my relapse  started in the fall, limiting my range and energy. Fall was followed by a horrific winter and then a long, chill early spring.

But it is warmer now. And my strength is slowly building as treatment continues. So I walked home.

This wasn't my first walk of 2014. But it was the first walk home, the first walk where I made it to the front door from the office under my own steam. 

I noticed a couple of things right away, walking home. I'm a lot slower, for one thing. And I noticed I was breathing harder on the slight inclines.

It's been a long layoff.

But I noticed some other things too.


And tulips opening.

And of course, daffodils.

Trees in full bloom.

And some not yet opened.

And dandelions.

Lots of dandelions.

Warren and I have very different opinions about dandelions. He sees them as the enemy and strives mightily to eradicate every last one of them every summer.

I love dandelions. I love their bold yellow faces. I love to see them splashed across a yard. For me, dandelions are the signature flower of a child's bouquet, always picked too short and held too tightly in a grubby small hand. Stuck in a juice glass or a jelly jar, they never last the night. My children brought dandelion bouquets to me when they were little; my brothers and I brought them to our mother when we were little.

I shared my sentiment with Warren, exclaiming over the dandelion patches I'd seen walking home and how the sight of dandelions lifted my spirits.

"They're fine in everyone else's yards," he said. "Just not mine."

We'll see. Ramona arrives in about four weeks. I think she needs the inexpressible joy of picking a dandelion bouquet and carrying it tightfisted to those she loves.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Inch Six: Cake

Warren and I have birthdays eight days apart tin April. For the last several years, I have baked Warren a birthday cake from scratch, always the same recipe. The cake of the day is found in my battered 1990 Fannie Farmer Cookbook (13th edition), page 570. In Fannie Farmer, it is called "Lady Baltimore cake,"as its origins may have been in a tearoom of the same name in Charleston, South Carolina. A true Lady Baltimore cake has a center filling of chopped pecans, figs, and dates. I use the recipe only for the creamy white layers of cake it turns out.

When Warren's birthday rolled around earlier this month, I again turned to the Lady Baltimore recipe and soon had two eight inch pans in the oven. I joined them together with the Seven-Minute Frosting (a boiled frosting) found on page 602. Feeling particularly plush, I slathered the cake heavily, finishing off the top with a decorative swirl. Proud of my handiwork, I put a photo of it on Facebook.

A week before Warren's birthday, I had put a photo of a long-ago birthday of my own. (I have written about the scene before in this blog.) A Facebook friend saw the photo and commented: "Your family sure does like cake. Is that the same family recipe you just made for your hubby?"

I burst out laughing when I read that comment. Oh, no, no, no. To my knowledge, my mother has never baked a cake from scratch my entire lifetime. I'm not sure if she ever has during her entire lifetime, even though you would think somewhere growing up she might have tried one. A very young bride in the 1950s, Mom thoroughly embraced modern conveniences in the kitchen, especially boxed mixes of all kinds. Even the icing came out of a box. (You mixed the contents with hot water "until smooth.") She was very much in step with her friends, with many other housewives across the country, and with her era.

It is only in looking back that I finally realize why Mom was no help the year I took 4-H Cooking and had to bake a scratch cake for judging. That morning, I must have baked four or five cakes before one turned out decent enough to take. Mom stood by while I struggled but could offer no insight: this was totally alien territory to her.

I spent a good part of my youth, starting at a very, very early age, rejecting the paths my mother kept pointing out for me. She was a good seamstress and sewed many of my clothes. In contrast, I refused to learn and am still a poor sewer with severely limited skills. After her children were mostly grown, Mom did needlepoint and plastic canvas crafts. I didn't and don't. She wanted desperately for me to pierce my ears in 8th grade; to this day, I still do not have holes in my ears. If she was for it, I was against it, and vice versa.

So small wonder that when my interest in baking awoke, I baked with a vengeance. Lemon tarts, breads, pies, cookies, cakes—all from scratch, all step by step. Baking was something that came easily to me and that I could do without interference or competition from my mother. And to her credit, Mom has never suggested, even when asked, that she taught me anything about baking. Despite the wrangling we have done over the years, baking is one arena she ceded without protest.

One of the treasures in this house is the 1947 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, the forerunner to the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. It was a wedding gift to Warren's parents when they married in 1948. Ellen often made notations in the margin of this cookbook as to the strength and weakness of a recipe. The recipe for what is now the Lady Baltimore cake is called "white or snow cake" in the 1947 volume. There is no marginalia on this recipe and I suspect Ellen never tried this particular recipe, although her notes indicate she tried plenty of other scratch cake recipes.

Ellen died ten years ago on Warren's birthday. She never got to see us as a couple and she and I never had the pleasure of baking together. She would have been very happy with our marriage. And I like to think she would have enjoyed being around when I baked, especially for Warren's birthday. I see her at the table, both Ellen and I holding our breaths as I cut into the cake and serve up the first slice for the birthday boy.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Inch Five: Sycamores

Sycamores along the Olentangy
The sycamores are still with us. Spring is coming on slow this year; the sycamores will hang around until the undergrowth and other deciduous trees turn green and fill in the landscape.

Sycamores don't physically move, of course. They just become part of the general landscape when all the trees are in full leaf, standing alongside the oaks and maples and buckeye trees. Once that happens, I tend to push the sycamores to the edge of my consciousness until the late fall, when they will come to my brain's forefront again.

Sycamores are great, graceful trees that tend to line riverbanks. You see them along the Olentangy River, which splits through Delaware. There are even a few along the banks closest to the downtown, where most sycamores in that area disappeared when the feds brought the high bypass through in the 1950s.

 My very old (1956) Golden Nature Guide on TREES (all caps, all the time) notes that the American Sycamore is characterized by the "cream-colored fresh bark" visible when the outer brown bark peels off naturally. Don't think yellow cream, think white cream. Now picture the Route 23 North onramp at the north edge of town. The onramp, high in the air, shoots straight east towards the Olentangy, then curves north and drops to highway level right along the river. When I get on that ramp before the world turns green again, all I see is sycamore after sycamore, those cream-colored trunks and branches reaching high into the sky.

Sycamore are tall, among the tallest hardwood trees. They do not have the heavy girth of oak trees, but they more than make up for the oak's mass with their slender proportions and that ghostly, other worldly appearance. No state has chosen the sycamore for its state tree, a fact which surprises me. I would have thought some legislator around this part of the country would have recognized the beauty and grace of the sycamore, not to mention its ubiquitous presence.

Robert Frost wrote a poem, "Goodbye and Keep Cold," in which he bids his apple orchard farewell for   a long season. E. B. White wrote "Farewell, My Lovely!," his essay to the Model T as it disappeared from the American scene. I have a fleeting sense of Frost and White's moods as I look at the sycamores, soon to disappear again for a long season. Farewell and see you in November.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Soapbox: Why It Matters

Note: This is not one of my One Square Inch Focus pieces. This is a piece I have been thinking through for a long time and finally wrestled onto paper.

I recently read all four of the Birchbark House books published to date. They are already on my "buy these for Ramona" list, even though she is still a long ways away from being old enough to listen to them, let alone read them to herself.

The Birchbark House books are author Louise Erdrich's contribution to the body of juvenile literature featuring Native American characters and written by Native American authors. The series is a fictionalized retelling of her family history and how her family migrated from the Great Lakes region of Minnesota into the plains of the Dakotas  in the 1800s.

Louise Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. The Chippewa, also known as the Ojibwe and the Ainishaanabe, are among the largest groups of Native Americans and First Nation peoples on this continent. Ramona and Alise belong to the Little Shell tribe in Montana, also a Chippewa tribe.

My good friend Anne and I often discuss the dearth of children's books, starting with picture books, and juvenile fiction featuring indigenous children, children of color, children of ethnicity, and children of any race other than white. In march,  The New York Times ran two editorials, "The Apartheid of Children's Literature" by author/artist Christopher Myers and "Where Are the People of Color?" by author Walter Dean Myers (who is Christopher's father). Both articles address the segregation of children's literature: of 3200 children's books published in 2013, only 93 were about black children. I suspect, although I do not know, that children's books featuring Native American children were even fewer in number. [For a link to both articles, this excellent post on the need for diversity in children's lit has a link to the Walter Dean Myers' editorial, and from his editorial you can link to the one by Christopher Myers.]

So what does it matter? Can't Ramona read through the vast panoply of all children's books, from picture to prose, and find direction and guidance? Can't she identify with Ramona Quimby? Can't Anne's son Sam, who is biracial, do the same in his reading?

Yes, but that's not enough.

Walter Dean Myers had no problem identifying why it matters that our children's literature is so white. "Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?"

I want Ramona to see herself and her family represented in those books, not as savages (sorry, Laura Ingalls Wilder, among others) but realistically and with elements and values from her tribal culture. I want her books to reflect her past, present, and future and not merely my past, present, and future.

It matters that Ramona has good literature with strong Native American characters and Sam with African-American ones so that they know they count too. It matters for the same reason that Little Women mattered so much when it was published in 1868 and 1869. Louisa May Alcott became the world's first true best-seller, wealthy novelist because she knew girls wanted to read books about girls, a salient point that the publishing world in America and England had overlooked. The rest is publishing history.

My son Ben and daughter-in-law Alise will make sure Ramona grows up with a library full of good books of all kinds, as full of those by Louise Erdrich and Cynthis Leitich Smith as those by L. Frank Baum and Madeleine L'Engle. Anne and her husband will do the same with Sam and his soon-to-arrive sibling. All of these children will be immersed in children's literature of rich voices and histories and faces of all kinds.

Because it matters. You bet it matters.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Inch Four: The Rainbow

Rainbows. They are woven into the mythology and stories of peoples all around the world, from north to south, east to west. Rainbows are threaded through American epics as well. Picture John Henry with rainbows around his shoulders as he hammered steel to beat the steam powered hammer.

When did I first hear about rainbows? Oh, probably in Sunday School as a toddler, listening to how God put a rainbow in the sky as a sign to Noah that the world would never again be flooded. I would have been in grade school before I learned that leprechauns hid their pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. And sometime around the same time, I would have seen "The Wizard of Oz" enough times that I knew some of the words to "Over the Rainbow" (although I apparently didn't wonder why the rainbow was in sepia).

As a child, riding in the backseat as my dad drove home from visiting his parents, I would see a rainbow across a farm field and urge my dad to drive towards it. "I want to see where it ends," I would say. I did not understand why we never got any closer to the rainbow, those occasions when dad humored me, and I did not understand why the rainbow would often dissolve when it seemed we were drawing closer.

When I finally learned the science of rainbows in school, my response was not unlike the poet Walt Whitman in "When I Heard the Learned Astronomer." Yes, yes, I understood there was a science to this whole phenomenon, but leave me to wander outside and look at the rainbow. (I feel the same way about stars, incidentally.)

I have never lost my childlike wonder of rainbows. Whenever I spot one, I try to stop whatever I am doing and gaze at the splash of color. If Warren is nearby, I call his attention to it as well. "Look, a rainbow." He does the same for me.

Yet in all these years of rainbows, I have never gotten close to one, never found the end of one, never been bathed in the light of one, never traveled over one. So imagine my surprise when I walked into the study Sunday late afternoon and found a rainbow on the wall. A glowing, vibrant rainbow right there in the house! Right there in the study! Right there where I could touch it!

I was transported back to childhood. At last! The end of the rainbow!

After a minute or two of wonder, I saw what had happened. It wasn't a "real" rainbow, of course. I knew that. There was no raincloud outside or inside the house that would throw a bow on the wall like that. No, the sun was hitting a west facing CD and throwing a rainbow up on the wall.

But I also realized it was as close to a rainbow as I was ever going to get. I reached out and put my hands in it and watched them take on the colors. I ran for the camera and squeezed off a few photos. I called Warren up to see it. And then I just sat in the chair and looked at my little rainbow until it faded away.

58 years old and I was fulfilling a dream that never ever made my "to do" list because there was no "to do" to do here. I knew I would never find a rainbow to Oz. I knew I would never surprise a leprechaun with his pot of gold at rainbow's end. I knew I would never be able to let the light of the rainbow shower down over me, a veritable waterfall of color over my shoulders. Why put something on a list that is not merely wildly improbable, but truly an impossibility?

And yet here it was, my childhood's desire fulfilled. The rainbow came to me. And for several magical moments, I held a rainbow in my hands.