In with the new…

The family — that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to. ~Dodie Smith

It is the week for taking personal inventory, isn’t it?

We are the only creatures who do this. Dogs live in the here and now, and while cats appear to hold more grudges, I doubt that they spend a lot of time beating themselves up about it. Only humans make mental checklists of their successes and failures as one year ends and a new one begins.  It’s kind of our thing. I read this week about a festival in Peru called Takanakuy, which translated, means “when the blood is boiling.”  It is an annual ritual that allows residents of the community to solve differences by beating the holy hell out of each other once a year on December 25th.

I read this and was fascinated. You can’t make this stuff up. Well. You could, but I didn’t. Google “takanakuy” if you don’t believe me.

On the day of the festival, men, women, and children gather in bullrings and engage in bare knuckle fist fighting refereed by local officials.  It is an indigenous tradition intended to really clear the air with family and friends before the new year begins.  There are only two important rules. You don’t kick an opponent when he or she is down. And once you’ve fought, you forgive and forget.  You hug it out and move on.

I guess that’s one way to settle scores. I can’t see it catching on here, but you never know.I suppose it depends on how many people you’ve had around at your house for the past week using your towels and eating all of your food and watching football and just generally being in your business.

They will all go home soon.  I promise.  And then, you will miss them. You will.  If you have young adults home visiting, they will have to go back to work. If you have college students, a new semester will begin. If you have kids home on Christmas break, they will eventually go back to school, too. And if you have grandchildren, you will clean up the mess their parents let them make in your house and be sad a week from now that there are no more sticky fingerprints to wipe off of anything.  You will take down the tree and pack Christmas away for another year. Then, you’ll collapse with a cup of tea or something stronger, proud that you didn’t punch anyone for anything.

So take a deep breath this week and count to ten. Or twenty. Or a hundred, if you must.  Count your blessings and love your dear ones.  Step away from the bullring.  You’ll be glad you did when a new year dawns, fresh and bright and full of promise.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Pie

It seemed like a simple enough question.

If you could only have ONE type of pie for Thanksgiving, what kind would you want? 

In asking it,  I hoped to reach a  pie consensus.  Instead, I got the following requests:

Pecan….no wait!   Pecan Fudge!!

Blueberry! Strawberry Rhubarb!

Pumpkin…no wait!  Jameson Pumpkin!

Frozen Peanut Butter! Cherry! Raspberry!

Pumpkin Cheesecake!!

PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE?

I am hosting Thanksgiving dinner for twelve people.  I am pretty sure that if they had it their way, there would be twelve pies cooling in my back porch right now.

Clearly, we are pie zealots.   In fact,  if there was an organized religion we could all  join that had pie as one of its central guiding principles, we’d never miss a Sunday.  Our patron saint would be in an apron holding a rolling-pin.  There would be a smudgy spot of flour right in the middle of his forehead.  On Thanksgiving, we would light a pumpkin spice scented candle in his honor.

Okay, so maybe I’m overstating it.  But I do think that the world would be a kinder, gentler place if people baked more pies.

Cookies are a ridiculous waste of time.   Spending all that time dropping spoonfuls of dough onto cookie sheets and then waiting for each dozen to bake isn’t my idea of how to spend my life. Besides, about fifty percent of the cookies I bake are either too hard or too soft. And cakes are just kind of dumb and fluffy. How hard is it to open a box,  crack a couple of eggs, add oil and water and bake?  If I had a monkey, which I don’t, I could teach IT how to bake a cake.

But pies? From scratch?  Now pies take time, and effort, and creativity.  Every slice of pie is a flaky little fruit-filled wedge of love.

Last summer, I spent one glorious August afternoon picking wild blueberries with a dear friend. She was the perfect picking partner, and we spent hours squatting in an enormous bog picking some of the most beautiful berries I’ve ever seen.  I will remember that day for the rest of my life.  I froze a couple of bags of the berries, and this week when I made my blueberry pies, I thought of her and that day in the bog with the sunshine on our necks and was thankful for her friendship, the memory, and those berries.

On Thursday, once the dinner dishes are cleared, I will sit at the table that first belonged to my great-grandmother with most of  the most important people in my life eating my pies and be thankful for the noise and the laughter and those everyone-talking-at-once-between-bites moments  that never come often enough in any family.

Other Thanksgivings will come to mind, too.  The ones when there was always a custard pie for my grandfather, baked by my grandmother.  Holidays when it was me coming home,  not my grown kids.   I’ll look at the faces around my table and remember the babies that the set of young adult cousins there used to be.  And for another year,  I will be grateful that all five of them are happy, healthy, and whole.

The faces at my table will remind me that time passes.  That chairs left empty by the passing of one generation in a family are filled by the next, and then the next.  That life is a circle.  Like a pie.

It takes some effort to bake a pie, raise a kid, make a marriage last.  When one has been blessed with the gifts of family and health and enough of what’s important in life, it is easy to take all of it for granted.  My prayer today is that I never do.

Some day, hopefully a long time from now, someone will write my eulogy. I hope when the time comes, that I will be remembered for more good things, than bad. But if they can’t think of anything else to say, this would be enough:

“She was grateful for her many blessings.  Oh,  and that woman could bake one helluva pie.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

A little snow

It snowed during the night.

I inhaled its fragrance when I let Lilly out this morning. She was surprised to see her yard covered up again and spent a little extra time nosing around by the fence hoping to find a cold chipmunk or weasel to terrorize before she came in for breakfast.

We don’t have a Christmas tree yet. Yesterday I texted both kids to ask if they’d be disappointed with a small Norfolk pine instead a big tree and since neither of them seemed to care one way or the other, it’s now up to me to decide. One of them said I should “get what I want” and not worry about what they want.

So what DO I want this Christmas?

I want to shop small and put a little extra in more red kettles than I usually do. I want to avoid the big box stores at all costs. I want to bake and decorate some cookies and make a couple of batches of fudge and then hide some so that it isn’t all gone before the kids get home. I want to make a batch of Russian Tea and invite some good friends over for a cup.  I want to hug the ones who are missing family members they lost this year and hope with the ones whose loved ones are struggling with illness, addiction, or hopelessness. I want to light a candle and remember the people I know who didn’t live to see another Christmas.

A little snow would also be nice. Not so much that I have to worry about the kids driving home from the Cities the day before Christmas. I want a few large, fluffy, flakes on Christmas Eve when my daughter and I leave both men at home and go to Midnight Mass to sing “Silent Night” on the one night every year that I still feel a little bit Catholic. I want Christmas morning to dawn bright and full of sunshine and my dear ones to wake up and check their stockings just as they always do. I want ham instead of a messy turkey to deal with on Christmas Day and then an afternoon of doing nothing much with the humans who are most important to me.

I want them healthy and happy and whole. Peace on earth would be nice, too.

But do I want a big Christmas tree?

We shall see.

 

 

For good

All of my good china is stacked on the buffet in the dining room waiting to be put away. If you’re like me, by the time you get the kitchen cleaned up and pull the last load out of the dishwasher on a holiday, the last thing you feel like doing is putting away more dishes. And so it sits there, all shiny and pristine after three decades of being used maybe three times a year for family dinners.

I chose the Noritake pattern as a young woman. It is lovely and sweetly feminine in that way that most dishes in the early 1980’s was considered “pretty” by most young, hopeful, brides. It is  pure white, with pastel pink and blue flowers and a thin, silver rim. After the wedding, my dear mother-in-law, a pragmatic Polish woman who adamantly believed in finishing what one had started even then, filled out my place settings by buying me a piece of china for every birthday and Christmas until I had enough place settings to host a party for twelve people.

As we were cleaning up the kitchen after Thanksgiving, my sister and I talked about our wedding china. How each of us would choose a different pattern now, as older women, and why. My sister and I both have colorful Fiesta Ware for our everyday dishes. She mentioned that every time she opens her cupboards, all the bright, colorful, pottery makes her happy. I feel the same way about mine. Fiesta is solid and sure and nearly indestructible. Kind of like our marriages at this point, I suppose.

I think the women of our mothers’ generation thought we needed “good” dishes because their mothers told them that setting a proper table was part and parcel of what it meant to be a good wife. As brides-to-be, we bought into the myth and registered our patterns at Dayton’s and then sat back and  waited for the large brown cartons to arrive in the mail. We unwrapped each dish carefully and for the first ten years of marriage washed each dish by hand instead of shoving everything into the dishwasher, like we do now. I wonder what our daughters’ generation thinks about the need for good china. I think they are far sturdier and more sure of themselves than we were at the same age. They’re less apt to let other women define for them what’s necessary in order to be good at anything, including hosting dinner parties. So, in terms of dishes, time will tell.

All I know for sure is that at this stage of life, I want both the relationships and objects in my life to be sturdy and dependable and not prone to breakage if they’re handled a little too carelessly. Like my sis, I want to be able to open my cupboard every morning and smile.

At this age, anything else just seems like too much work.

 

Room at the Table

I watched a very chubby, very unhinged, Somali toddler throw the Mother of all Tantrums in a shopping mall last Saturday night while his mother, a lovely dark-eyed woman dressed in a traditional Hijab tried to quiet him and his lanky father looked on, embarrassed by all the attention his son’s screams were drawing. On a scale of 1 to 10, the little guy’s tantrum was around, oh, 75. As I passed by the young father with the empty stroller, I caught his eye and smiled sympathetically.  “Don’t worry…..it gets better,” I told him.  He smiled and sighed loudly.  “Oh, I hope so! He’s really bad right now! And so loud!” he said.

Raising toddlers is no picnic, that’s for sure.  I’ve been thinking about that young family this week as I’ve been planning my Thanksgiving menu and polling family members as to their pie choices.  It has been quite a few years since there were any toddlers at our table and the good Lord willing, it will be a few more years until there are again.  But toddlers have been on my mind ever since I saw that tiny boy with the strong set of lungs in the mall.  And I have been thinking of other little ones, too. In particular, children in Somalia.

Between 2010 and 2012, more than a quarter million people died in that nation as a result of famine.  Over half of those people were children under the age of five.  The hunger was well documented by healthy, well-fed journalists who listened sympathetically as parents spoke of walking for days with malnourished children and of leaving other starving family members behind. One gravely thin,  grieving mother’s words from a particular interview still haunt me. Through an interpreter she told the journalist, “We couldn’t carry the children because we were too hungry. And when my daughter died, we couldn’t bury her body…because we were too tired.”

Too tired to bury a baby’s body?  It’s hard to comprehend, isn’t it?   But then,  who among us has ever been that hungry? That tired? That desperate?

Starvation in places far away is easy to ignore. Actually, hungry people in this country are, too. This amnesia is a luxury for those of us who go to a restaurant and then end up taking home half of what we’re served because the portion sizes are so huge. It’s easy to ignore when we make a grocery list and drive to the store only to walk, trance-like, through aisles of fresh fruit, unspoiled beef, and cereal boxes stacked to the rafters in giant Superstores and take it all for granted. We complain about the rise in prices, and forget that most of the world’s population could be fed on what we throw in the dog’s dish or put down the disposal after dinner. We turn on a water faucet and clean water comes out. If we drink one glass and are still thirsty, we draw another one. And another. We plan for the future not only for ourselves, but for our children because we believe that such a time exists.

Food has its own television channel.  We chastise ourselves for not getting enough exercise, or eating too many carbs, or not drinking enough water in the mindless way that the privileged are privileged to do.  We count calories and drink protein shakes and obsess about our waistlines and “thigh gap” while, a world away,  doctors count bodies and calm shaking souls and waste no energy on grief.

I’m guessing that the toddler in the mall finally stopped raging for his young parents after he’d finally worn himself out.  Most toddlers do.  He will grow tall and strong in his lifetime. He will never be hungry.  Not really.

He is a toddler, so he doesn’t know this yet.  But he is a lucky boy.

A lucky, lucky boy.

(For more information, visit http://www.oxfam.org/en/emergencies/east-africa-food-crisis/famine-somalia-what-needs-be-done)

We gather together

On Wednesday, I pulled white petunias, orange marigolds, and blue lobelia still in full bloom from my planters. It pained me greatly to toss the clumps of flowering plants into the woods where they landed unceremoniously on the brittle, brown, wild tansy and thistles next to the garage. It was sunny and in the low 60’s, but with the first blizzard of the season heading east across the Plains, I knew that it would be my last chance to replace the flowers with spruce tops before the storm hit. On Friday it did hit, too, with a vengeance.We ended up with about seventeen inches here. Northern Minnesota winter enthusiasts are no doubt doing the happy dance and pulling out the skis and snowmobiles. Me? Not so much. I am hunkering down.

For me, for a lot of folks I know, snow isn’t the first reason we’ve had to withdraw from polite society this month. A November yard that looks like it’s covered with mounds of mashed potatoes is just the latest reason to hunker, as far as I’m concerned. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile, there is grocery shopping to do and potatoes to peel. There are bed linens to wash and put back on the childhood beds of grown children.There’s the annual Thanksgiving Family Pie Poll to conduct.

Strong Scandinavian mothers, after all, do not dwell very long on what they can’t control. They deal with lawn gnomes buried in snow much the same way they bury their dead. Quietly, stoically, with furrowed brows and straight mouths. They love their people the best way they know how. Sometimes that’s looking through recipe books for new pie recipes for a new guest at the dinner table. Sometimes it’s doing a very Scandinavian thing and telling their kinsfolk that only happy things will be discussed around their dinner table (thank you very much…or no pie for you…and I mean it.) Sometimes, it’s explaining softly, yet firmly, that there will be a gathering, not a hunkering, on this day set aside to give thanks. That we will continue, in spite of the storm, to love and respect each other no matter what.

Scandinavian mothers. Uffda. We hunker for a bit, and then we tie on our aprons and get to work. Sometimes, our work is prayer or pie baking. Always, it’s by loving our people hard.

It’s what we do. We were built for this, after all.

If you don’t believe me, just look at us, for Heaven’s sake. The straight mouths give us away every time.

Happy Thanksgiving. Or else.

 

 

Manhattan Nice

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” -Emma Lazarus

 

We didn’t see any rats in the subway and the natives were friendly. So friendly, in fact, that each time we stopped to check our phones for directions, someone would walk up to us and ask if they could help. We must have looked like we were three ladies from Minnesota or something.

Don’t believe everything you hear about New York City, folks.

My sister, cousin, and I spent three days there this past week.  We ate in fun places, visited museums and saw the musical “Jersey Boys” at a theater near Times Square. We walked through Central Park in light jackets and spent one morning touring the September 11th Memorial. We ventured into chapels and churches along the way, admiring the stained glass and architecture. We tried to get to Ellis Island but missed the last tour of the day and instead, stood on the shore in Battery Park where we could see Lady Liberty off in the distance, standing tall and beckoning immigrants toward the golden door.

Our room was on the 21st floor of a hotel in Midtown not far from Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. Because we were up so high, the first morning we noticed  huge plumes of inky, black smoke belching from the chimney of a building a couple of blocks from where we were staying. We decided that it must have been coming from a building’s incinerator. Trash, after all, is a fact of life in a big city.

So is noise. Honking horns, constant sirens,and the general rattle and clank in Manhattan greeted us each day as we left the lobby to venture out on our next adventure. We became part of the huddled mass of humanity at intersections, shoulder to shoulder with people of all races, languages, and religions waiting for the same traffic lights to turn green.

One morning in a crowded Starbucks, because something about me just screams “Minnesota” apparently, an older African-American gentleman asked me to watch his shopping bag while he used the restroom.When he returned, we visited for a bit over our lattes. He asked where we were from and told me he had been a writer on Broadway in his younger years for several comedians including Nipsy Russell and Flip Wilson. He left each of us with a joke as we ventured out into the sunshine. I thought about him throughout the rest of the day and smiled each time I did.

I choose to believe that people are basically good wherever you go. That the majority of us trust, and even look after, each other. That the majority of us do it all the time with grace and good humor. It’s really important that we remember this. Let’s remember this, okay?

I choose to believe that there’s room on the corner for us all.

That even with all the garbage, there aren’t as many rats as we’ve been led to believe we should fear.

 

 

 

 

 

Us

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Abraham Lincoln

Like many this November, we are a family divided.

I’ve started to plan Thanksgiving dinner.  On the list is cranberry sauce, of course. But here’s the rub.  Half of the family likes fresh, whole, cranberries simmered to perfection. The other half likes the gelatinous stuff that comes out of can with a loud “glurp” as the seal is broken and it slithers onto the plate. The fresh cranberry sauce eaters do not understand their cousins’ love for the jellied variety in the slightest and vice versa. Despite our differences, we will gather, agreeing to disagree about cranberries while focusing on more important things. Like pie. Lots of pie.

In other news, there will be a new president this week whether we like it or not. As far as presidential campaigns go, it has been a stunningly ugly one, hasn’t it? Of course, ugly is in the eye of the beholder. In every other presidential election in my lifetime, as a people we have pretty much gone to the  polls, cast our votes, waited for the results, and either celebrated or cursed depending on who has ended up with the W. We have agreed to disagree. As a nation, we’ve walked it off and gotten back to business.

Doing anything other than that is beneath us all. When this is over we still have to live together, work together, and figure out a way to move beyond the rhetoric of both major political parties and the pundits. Sadly, this presidential election has changed us. It has not made us kinder or gentler. It has not made us more compassionate or tolerant of those who share views different from ours. It has added nothing of value to our national conversation about what makes our country truly great or even good. There’s more than enough blame to go around for this state of affairs, as far as I’m concerned.

Years ago, I took a middle-aged student of mine to vote for the very first time. He had fought with U.S. soldiers in the jungles of Laos toward the end of the Vietnam War. After escaping into Thailand with his wife and eight children, Xai and his family spent several years in a refugee camp before being sponsored to come to the United States. Once they were settled,  he spent another couple of years learning enough English to support his family and take the test to become a U.S. citizen.  I recall picking him up in front of his house the morning of the election. He was wearing a white dress shirt and tie and was clutching his naturalization papers in his hand. I had never seen anyone so excited about voting. At the polls, after casting his vote, he stopped to greet several elderly folks who were there working the election. He was shaking hands and grinning from ear to ear as he told no one in particular, “Today is my first time to vote. Today I am an American!” I remember wondering whether or not my own ancestors had felt the same sense of wonder and pride the first time they cast ballots as citizens in a new country.

His is the American story, isn’t it?  A story bigger than any candidate or slogan. More powerful than any movement or slick ad campaign.  Because it has never really been about the politicians anyway. It has always been about us. It has been about our families and friends. Our churches and communities. Our stories.

And when we gather in a few weeks around tables laden with turkey and stuffing and cranberries, too, it is those stories that will sustain us and make us thankful.

Kinder and more gentle with ourselves and one another.

At least, that’s my plan.

 

 

Zoomies

She gets a bad case of the “Zoomies” at least once a day.

Twice, if she’s had a bath.

Maybe like me, you share your home with a dog. If so, you know what I mean. Ours can be sitting next to me completely calm one minute and the next, spring off the sofa like she’s just had an electric shock course through her body. When the Zoomies hit, she’s off like a shot. Running as fast as her legs will take her up the flight of stairs, through the dining room and kitchen, down the hall, and back down the stairs to where I’m sitting. Usually, she’ll “ROO!” at me and then repeat this a couple more times before she finally comes back downstairs to resume her spot next to me.

Zoomies, it seems, can strike a dog at any moment and for no apparent reason other than the fact that it’s fun for a dog to act like a nitwit at least once a day. Maybe it’s because dogs don’t have to work for a living or shop for groceries or clean bathrooms or do any of the things humans do. They have more time for Zoomies.

When she isn’t zooming, Lilly does a lot of watching.  For example, I raked the yard yesterday and Lilly watched. She also watches me bring the groceries in from the car. When I’m cooking, she’s right there under foot, watching for something to drop from the counter. Every morning, when I’m in my office working, she is a few feet away, watching and waiting for me to finish so we can take a walk. Watching is not nearly as much fun as zooming.

Her friend, sweet, speckled, Sadie comes to visit occasionally.  She is a lot older than Lil and therefore, less prone to the Zoomies. She mostly sleeps the day away, only coming to bug me when it’s time to go out or get fed. Sadie gives me hope that some day the Zoomies will leave Lilly, too, and we will once again have peace in the kingdom.

But then, I remember that wishing the foolishness that comes with youth away is a bad idea. I know this from experience.  I did it too often with the other small two and four-legged creatures I’ve loved who’ve grown up and grown older and left in one way or another. Time, after all, is fleeting in the lives of dogs and children. It’s good to remember this when the Zoomie spirit moves this small pup of ours, who is joyful and funny and full of herself in the way that young dogs are. In Lilly’s world, there is only now. Right now.

There is joy in the now. Now  is worth celebrating, not wishing away. Lilly knows this.  She reminds me of that daily.

So zoom, zoom, Lilly. You go, Girl.

I’ll just sit here and watch.