Friday, October 8, 2021

That Moment of Then Now


That table is long gone.

That kitchen is long gone.

Three of the women around that table are long gone.

That moment of then now.  

The kitchen is my Grandma Nelson's kitchen at the farm that she and my Grandpa Nelson owned for all of my childhood into my adolescence. I knew every bit of that kitchen. No running water, only a hand pump at the sink for water. All food prep was done on the table as all of the very limited counter space was filled with containers and canisters, there being little to no pantry area. If you look just past the head of the woman seated at the center of the table, you will see the pots and pans needed for this meal stacked up to be washed later.

The open door beyond the pots and pans was the door to the side yard, the only yard any of us used. Beyond that door is a small wash area (remember, there is no running water) that held a small bath tub (filled with buckets) and perhaps a wringer washer (filled the same way).

The house that held that kitchen has been down for over forty years. 

My grandmother is the woman on the left closest to the woman seated at the end. She is the woman with glasses, her hands to her mouth, possibly removing a chicken bone or a string from a green bean out of her garden. Grandma was not a warm woman, but she could make fried chicken better than anyone in the world. 

The woman at the end of the table, white haired, aproned, looking down? That is Grandma Gullett, my great grandmother, Grandma Nelson's mother. She taught me how to braid hair, using my troll doll. In her younger days, she was a crack shot with a rifle, something my grandmother was also. Grandma Gullett lived to be 94, so I had her in my life for many years. 

Another of her daughters, Aunt Venice (my great aunt) is also at the table, the dark haired woman on the left next to my grandmother, her sister. Aunt Venice could make fried chicken like my grandmother, so perhaps both of them made the best fried chicken in the world.  Where Aunt Venice could beat the whole world was in quilting; she was a master quilter and quilted right up until her final months of life. 

All three women gone. 

The occasion in this photo? Maybe hay bailing, maybe soybean harvest. The men would have eaten first so they could get back out to the field. And, let's acknowledge it, they were the men. In fairness to all, it was a small table. At our noonday Sunday dinners, my grandparents and my family of six made for a tight fit, manageable only because four of the six were children. With adults only at the table, as in this picture, six would fill the table.

My grandparents sold the farm in 1970, when I was 14. They moved to a small ranch outside of a small village, maybe all of eight miles from the farmhouse. The farmhouse had been on the outskirts of an even smaller village, so the move was downright urban. Central heat replaced the coal furnace in the cellar; there was indoor plumbing. There was a larger table to sit down at and eat. 

And that was over a half century ago.

The farmhouse, as I noted, was torn down with the outbuildings sometime after the farm was sold and the land subdivided. Where there was once a lane leading to a small farmhouse and on deeper into the fields there is now a small cluster of homes and a stubbed township road.

But that photo. That moment of then now. I remember. 

I remember. 

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The More Things Stay the Same, the More They Change

 It was Madeleine L'Engle who first enlightened me to the value of turning adages inside out for new insights. Which is why instead of echoing Jean-Baptiste Alphone Karr's pronouncement that the more things change, the more they stay the same, I have come to realize that in my life, it is just the opposite.

I have been silent on this site for months. This will only be my seventh post for 2021, a number that no amount of polishing can make shine. That will likely not change until the fall for many reasons, none of them good, all of them good. Looking back at my last post, an embarrassing 58 days ago, I am already noting what has gone awry, amiss, on the lam, or, frankly, despite the sameness, changed radically.

I indeed went to Mayo in early June, as I noted in that long ago post. It was more than wonderful to see my oncologist in person; I was in tears. And while everything on paper stayed the same, we three (Dr. Leung, Warren, and I) suspect there may be deep-seated changes afoot. We head back to Mayo in mid-August for a long day of testing and then a meeting with my doctor. 

I am still working. That stayed the same. Only it didn't. I'm working through the rest of the calendar year, albeit on different terms.  I will not be mediating come the new school year (which starts in mid-August); I'm already several weeks into other projects. I now know just how Charlie Bucket felt when he found the Golden Ticket. 

My dear, close friends did come in June. We had a wonderful evening of glorious talk and laughter and tears and good food. It was one of those evenings where everything just shimmered. 

And my gardens. They need more than a few sentences, so I will share a few photos down below.

See you down the road.

The very first tomato (yes, there have been more)

The very first zucchini (not a success story, yet)

Broccoli (one of three)

The first (but not last) cabbages

Even a tiny batch of basil for pesto (another ongoing saga)

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Emerging from the Dark Woods

No, I am not talking about the Brood X cicadas, which are emerging and making their presence known in our community. Cicadas are edible, incidentally, and I am somewhat (somewhat) intrigued by that culinary possibility. Cicadas are not kosher, but I don't keep kosher, so that alone is not a bar. 

No, the woods I am emerging from are more along the lines of Dante's opening lines to The Divine Comedy

        Midway through the journey of our life 

        I found myself within a forest dark, 

        For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

My woods were not the woods of midlife (or, truthfully), but the dark forest of a hard, heavy school year and holding attendance mediations in a pandemic school environment. I'm not talking about personal safety. My meetings were held all by Zoom and I have been able to work from home since March 12, 2020. So it's not about me. 

I am talking about the devastation to students and their families that came up in mediation after mediation. Covid-19 illnesses, Covid-19 deaths, job loss, job cuts, hunger, eviction, foreclosure, children sent to other relatives living elsewhere to keep them safe, students working to help pay utilities and rent, students babysitting younger siblings so parents could work, technology barriers, transportation, anxiety, depression...the list is endless. And all true. All of us on our Court school team felt it, lived it, breathed it for weeks on end. There were meetings in which I or my colleagues held back tears. There were meetings after which school staff and I debriefed and cried. Or raged. Or asked "Are you okay?" before exiting the Zoom meeting.  In the end, we held more attendance meetings than in any other school year in the last decade. 

That unusual workload is why I have not written anything—a post, a poem, an article—in weeks. Weeks. I did write letters to friends; those were critical for my mental well-being. But otherwise, nothing. Nothing. By the time I reached the end of a workday, let alone the end of a week, there was nothing left in me. And it wasn't just the writing. It was everything. I bake some, I've read a lot (a lot), and I walk almost daily, but otherwise...yeah. Even my hopeful reengagement with my middle school novel and photography came to a halt in that dark forest. 

All of us on the Court school teamed reached the end of the school year, which officially ended May 27, exhausted. (We were exhausted when we reached Spring Break.) I had the privilege of reaching the year's end exhausted and ill. Not ill ill, as in "Covid-19" or "random virus" or anything that would send me to a clinic. No, cancer ill, as in the night brigade has continued without pause to take down the perimeter defenses. (Thank you, Atul Gawande, for that priceless description, which serves me well.) 

So I am emerging from the dark forest, from the woods, from the hard school year, with that straightforward pathway now very clear. After saying I would be retiring this year (something I think I first mentioned in a post in August 2020), now retirement is real. To borrow from Paul Kalanithi, before this school year, I knew I would be retiring. Now I acutely know it. I love this job. I am no longer well enough to do it. 

My last day will be in mid-August. Between now and then, I will winding up projects, clearing out files, covering for my fellow mediators when they take vacation, and doing whatever the Court calls upon me to do. Warren and I head to Mayo Clinic next Monday, our first time there since January 2020, so that my specialist can see me in person, so I can see him in person, and so we can talk about treatment and other key topics, including what continuing limitations I face because of my myeloma and ongoing treatment. (For the record, I am fully vaccinated, but the myeloma medical community does not have the answers yet as to whether vaccination protects people like me. We don't do restaurants; I don't meet friends for coffee in our local coffee shops. Those things will not change.)

I have a lot to write about. I have been tracking our grocery expenses in 2021; our approach to what we buy and what we eat continues to evolve. My 2021 gardens are either in (the kitchen garden) or in the works (the Hej garden). There may be some personal travel this summer, although I am not allowed on planes or trains. Dear, close friends are coming to Ohio later in June. And the tomatoes have flowers just starting to form.

I can't wait. 

Monday, April 19, 2021

This Year's Newbery

Ever since 2011, when I read all of the Newbery Award winners to date (even the really awful ones), I have made a point of reading each year's winner. I just read the 2021 Newbery Award book: When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller.

I finished it yesterday morning, sitting in the parking lot of the nearby Home Depot while Warren went inside. I started crying soon after the start of the 39th chapter (I had teared up a few times just minutes before that) and my tears did not stop until I finished every last word.

Tears all the way to the end. I'm glad we were parked on the far side near the big doors where contractors load so that no one would see me sitting there crying. Not because I am ashamed to cry but because I didn't want anyone knocking on the window to ask me if I was okay. 

Why did I cry? Because Tae Keller writes beautifully. Because she captures lyrically and authentically the emotions of loss, of love, of change. Because it is about a young girl trying to save her beloved grandmother, who is dying of a brain tumor, and finally realizing that she can't save her from physically dying (the granddaughter's magical wish) but that the stories and secrets she unlocks can provide relief to her  grandmother by letting her know how much she meant to them all. (And yes, I cried because I saw myself and my Ramona in those roles and this book reminded me of how hard it is to leave so much love behind and how I have to continue to keep my hands open to death.)

Back in 2011, I declared the book When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead to be the best of the best when it came to Newbery books. It won those honors in 2010. It too is a stunning beautiful book and I was in tears reading part of it. I still love it. (There are a lot of Newbery books I love.)

But When You Trap a Tiger? Oh, Tae Keller, well done. Stunningly well done. 

Thank you. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Our Daily Bread


Our schools in the area are all on Spring Break. Because the overwhelming bulk of my job from August through May is school attendance meetings, I am on break for most of the week as well.

My written To Do list this week ranges from mundane (clean off my desk) to major (do my dad's 2020 taxes). On the unwritten list are the small tasks—the myriad of things that anyone's day may hold—that get slotted into the leftover bits and pieces of my days, depending on my energy, what else the day holds (or held if it is evening), and how my myeloma and I are dealing with each other that day. These are things that in any day, week, or month often fall to the wayside, only to crop up again and continue to crop up until done or eradicated. 

On my unwritten list today was to make bread; I have been making most of our bread for the last several weeks. (Okay, I've been baking some of our bread for the last several weeks, with my efforts supplemented by the stunning baguettes and other loaves our next door neighbor Adam brings over. His wife Maura is responsible for a flow of baked desserts from their house to ours, with help from their young daughter Alice. Have I mentioned what GREAT neighbors we have?) [Yes, we reciprocate. My sourdough peanut butter/chocolate chip cookies are always a huge hit.] 

I thought I would duplicate the sourdough loaf I made last week in the bread machine, a behemoth Warren bought years ago. I go between using the machine and making bread by hand, depending on my energy levels and my myeloma burden. I tweaked the recipe some, remembering that the first time I had had to add additional liquid, which I did. 

Two hours into the process, Warren and I in our respective upstairs offices said, almost simultaneously, "I smell smoke." I elaborated, "I smell burning bread." We rushed downstairs to find a kitchen full of smoke, a bread machine that belched smoke the moment I lifted the dome, and...yeah. 

In thinking over the tweak, I just now realized I doubled the extra water. Oops.

I carried the still smoking machine outside, where it still is an hour later. Warren went around opening windows. And then I started another batch of bread the old-fashioned way. It is rising (or should be) as I type. I'll check on it shortly. At some point I will start to tackle cleaning the bread machine.

All that has gone through my head is the old Smith Barney ad with John Houseman. Remember that one? "They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it." Only in my case, he is sneering at my efforts: "April, you need to make bread the old-fashioned way. Not burn it."

Thanks, John.

Closeup of the overflow and burn pattern. Sigh.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Long Time Passing

 I knew it had been a long time since I had posted, but I didn't realize it had been that long.

Lots to say, lots to share, but not yet. Not because I am being coy, but because the tsunami of school attendance mediations has not yet finished. The run-up has been extensive due to the devastation the pandemic has wrought on our families. The five of us who make up the Juvenile Court school team are exhausted; after today we are in the 4th quarter for the 2020-2021 year. 

Yes, we are counting weeks (10). And days (48).

I hope to be writing more regularly come later spring. About money, about retirement, about my family out west (no, even with the vaccinations, we cannot travel safely because of my overarching cancer status), about baking, about...everything.

For now, here are some loaves I made last night. The recipe still needs tweaked; it came from King Arthur Flour and you can find it here.

Catch you all later.

Last night's baking

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Jumpstarted by Two Youths

This is not a post about Millennials or Generation Z. When I wrote "Youths" in the title,  I was referring to individuals under the age of 15, and I'm only hedging on that because I can't remember how old Liam is, although he is still in middle school, so I know I am more than safe with that age range. The other young person is Ramona, who is not yet eight and a half years old.

So, jumpstarted by youths. I could say "inspired," but "jumpstarted" is more accurate. I just had my car battery replaced, and Warren had to jumpstart me on two different occasions just before that, so that sound of turning the ignition key and hearing the power surge on is spot on. 

Ramona first. Ramona my oldest grandchild, Ramona the amazing. After months of irregular video chats,  complicated by busy schedules, online schooling, activities, family matters, and time zone differences, to name a few factors, she and I now chat online on Wednesday afternoons (my time) as Wednesday is the weekday her online school classes are the shortest. As has always been the case with Ramona, she hits the conversational ground running and we never know where that talk will lead. It is a blast.

During our most recent talk, we started off talking books. Ramona reads a lot of fantasy, especially if it features dragons. She is enthralled with the Wings of Fire series and sometimes we explore tangential threads to that series, including dragonflies of the genus Pantala, also known as rainpool gliders, which Ramona immediately connected to the Rainwings in the series and drew comparisons between the characteristics of the dragonfly (I read them aloud) and the dragons.

She then segued to a "chapter book" she is writing. She wanted to read some of it to me, but it is packed away in preparation for her family moving (today, in fact). However, she recited (or pulled up on her iPad) a list of the characters and ran through them quickly. I then shared with her that I was writing a novel, but I had not worked on it in months (well, years).

Ramona bounced straight up. "What? You're writing one? What is it about?" I  told her it was a novel about her completing a quest with the help of Aunties Jenna and her little brother. She beamed when I said it was about her. "Read some of it to me," she demanded. 

Well, what could I do with a command request like that? I got my manuscript (which is always, always setting out) and told her I would read her the prologue, after asking her if she knew what a prologue was. Polite eye roll. Yes, she was very familiar with prologues (and correctly explained it to me) as well as epilogues (the same), adding, patiently, "I know all the logues."

So I read it to her. 

There was a split second of silence, then an outburst. "That's good! Read more."

I read a little more, with Ramona asking questions, then told her I haven't finished it and haven't been working on it. 

Ramona cut me no slack.

"You need to finish it."

After we finished talking, I told Warren about reading some of the novel (which he has not read) to Ramona and her response. Then I added, "I want to go back to it and see it through. I thought it was just a discarded idea, but now I feel ready to tackle it again." 

Ramona jumpstarted me. 

The second jumpstart was with Liam, the middle-school aged son of my friend Cecelia. I have known Liam since before he went to kindergarten. Recently, Liam got both a Facebook page and a new camera, and has been posting photos on his page. 

Liam has a good eye. Several of the adults in his Facebook world have said that to him, including me. It's one of those intangible "I know it when I see it" qualities; Liam has it.

I have written before about my love of photography. When I was Liam's age, I started thinking about whether I could be a photographer; National Geographic was my goal. I set that career path aside long ago, but I still love photography and cameras and seeing what others are doing in the field. I have a great camera; I mean to use it more, but, like the writing (all writing, not just the novel), it gets set aside too easily.

Yesterday Liam posted some of his latest work. It was really, really good. I had my same reaction: Liam has a good eye. (And you bet I told him that on Facebook.) I had a second reaction, which I did not post but came naturally: I miss photography.

Which is why when I saw the morning sun lighting up the kitchen, particularly the pot of beans on the stove, I took this photo, then posted it on Facebook with the comment, "Liam, you are totally responsible for this shot."

Just because

Because he was. Like Ramona, his enthusiasm for photography jumpstarted my too often dormant love of it. Because of that surge of energy, I saw the plain pot and the sun and the day entirely different.

Jumpstarted by the young ones. What a gift.