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!

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

Fair weather

The chickadees are out of hiding after our recent cold snap here in the woods. It’s good to see them filling up on suet and seed in anticipation of the next cold front. They are polite little birds who wait their turns and cause no drama, from what I can see.  An enormous woodpecker arrived to see what was on the menu yesterday, and the tiny birds with black caps took to the balsam a few yards away to wait until he’d had his fill.

I can’t say the same for the rotund gray squirrel who, at the moment, is trying to steal one of the balls of suet. I tap on the window to scare him away from the feeders, and he glares with small piggish eyes, sticks out his tiny pink tongue at me, and keeps working. Humans don’t have the market cornered when it comes to being greedy.

There are deer tracks around the raised garden box we filled with cracked corn, too. They are filling up with whatever they can find during their respite from sub-zero temps that make the snow squeak, the trees crack, and the ice on the lake rumble.

In other news, by the time this goes to print, Minnesotans will either be celebrating with “SKOL!” or uttering a different S word where the Vikings are concerned. I’m the fairest of fair weather Vikings fans. During the regular season, if they win, great. If they lose, I’m always glad I was doing something else on Sunday afternoons. I know a lot of super fans who paint their faces purple and gold and wear jerseys on game days even if they are just watching it on T.V.  Actual humans who can recite statistics about the players on the field. I am not one of those people. I’m okay with that.

I hope they win today, though. It would be nice to see the home team play in our spanking new stadium. I hope it snows a great deal in the Twin Cities right before Super Bowl Sunday, too. I think the rest of the world needs to see how people in a state like Minnesota throw a party in February. The first things they’ll notice is that we have trouble zipper merging on the freeway because we are just too darn nice to budge in line. We say “Uff-da” and play “Duck-duck-gray duck”and eat a lot of hot dish and bars.

We are sensible people who bundle up and never travel without a winter survival kit and jumper cables. We learn to ski, skate, drive snowmobiles, and ice fish when we’re kids so that when our parents tell us to “go outside” we have something to do. As adults, we do a lot of hunkering down in the winter. In fact, we can hunker like nobody’s business. It’s in our D.N.A.

But sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get a January thaw. We peel off a couple of layers of clothing and re-fill the bird feeders. We check the propane tank level in the yard or haul in another armful of wood for the stove. We make wild rice soup and get out the Top the Tater for our potato chips.

And if we’re lucky, on a particular Sunday, even die-hard fair weather fans like me watch the Vikings play for a spot in the Super Bowl.

Because win or lose, it’s nice being a Minnesotan.

SKOL!

Cold hands

I have been grumpy, frumpy, and downright dumpy lately. If you have been, as well, take heart. January is work both physically and mentally for some people. The struggle, as the kids say, is real.

It is hard not to take January in Minnesota personally.

Those were my thoughts this morning when I checked the weather and made the decision to head to town for groceries before the rest of the world stopped for milk and bread on its way home from church. My car hadn’t been out of the garage since last Tuesday. I kicked the frozen slush chunks out of the wheel wells, started it, and made my way (slowly) into town on icy roads.

At the store, I shuffled up and down the aisles in my Sorels, tossing in all the things on my list as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast at all, actually. It is hard to be speedy in Sorels. I began to sweat because of the long underwear and down jacket I was wearing and peeled off my gloves. Everything is more difficult in January, I complained to myself. Everything is harder. Even grocery shopping.

At the check-out, I was behind a pleasant-looking young woman in a fleece jacket. She had longish blonde hair and looked to be in her thirties. Her cart was only about half full. Good, I thought. This won’t take long. I shifted my weight and waited. And then waited some more. Here’s why…

The young woman was unloading her grocery cart. Without hands. Carefully and masterfully. An item at a time. It was not until she got to the full length mirror in the cart and struggled to lift it that the cashier and I both realized that both arms ended at the wrists. I asked if I could help and so did the cashier. She told us she could do it herself. I told her I was amazed at how well she was managing. She smiled and told me she was new at it. I watched as she loaded her bags and walked out of the store. I thought about how pushing a shopping cart across a parking lot full of ice and snow had to be so much more difficult without hands. How managing a key in a car door lock was accomplished without fingers. How hauling grocery bags into the house and putting everything away on a cold January morning would take much longer for her than it was going to take for me.

And so, if you have also been feeling a little grumpy, frumpy, and kind of dumpy this month, I have the perfect cure for what ails you. Look down at your hands right now.  I have been doing it the whole time I’ve been typing this.

Really.  Look at your hands. Notice them. Are they cold? Good.

That’s good.

 

 

 

 

 

In order

It is New Year’s day and what’s left of the Christmas tree is in a snow bank by the back door.

It had a good run. It shed at least half its needles as I removed ornaments mainly because I had a heck of a time getting some of the lights off. A month ago, when I strung them, I carefully wrapped each branch, continuing to add extra strings as I worked my way up and around the crooked balsam. It seemed like a good idea at the time.  This morning, I tried to unwrap the darn things in some logical fashion but ended up simply stripping some of the branches of their needles as I pulling the strings off the ends. It wasn’t pretty. I apologized to the tree’s ghost with each tug.

Putting Christmas away is never as much fun as putting it up. Even so, it feels good and right have things back to whatever “normal” is. New Year’s day is good for getting our literal and figurative houses in order, isn’t it? Maybe that’s why people make resolutions as they wrestle with lights and vacuum up pine needles.

This year, I will strive to drop fewer F-bombs (even the silent ones.)

I will read more books and fewer Twitter feeds (which will, no doubt, help with that pesky F-bomb issue.)

I will watch more sunrises and less morning cable news.

I will sit in the sunshine whenever possible. Even in January in Minnesota. Even it means sitting in my warm car in the Walmart parking lot like a pale, shriveled up junkie and letting the sun hit my face for several precious moments before I go in.

Finally, I will be grateful and present and will give myself a break for being human  which can be a challenge for pale, shriveled, sun-deprived, humans, especially. Especially in January in Minnesota.

That’s what I came up with, anyway. Maybe your goals are loftier than mine.

So here’s to 2018, whatever it brings.

And Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Christmas Story

He didn’t miss the bus. The bus missed him.

That’s what he told the officer.

It was the first day he was supposed to take it, but for whatever reason, the bus had not come. Maybe the driver hadn’t been told, or perhaps there had been a miscommunication between the school and his parents since English was not their first language. Whatever the case, they had left for work believing that the bus would be coming along shortly.  The boy waited. And waited. And waited a little bit more.

Then, fearing he would be late for school, the fifth grader began to walk.  He wasn’t completely sure which direction the school was. He waited at intersections of streets with names like Hamline and Lexington and Snelling until the lights turned green during the morning rush hour. His red backpack full of books began to get heavier with each step. His stomach began to growl. He thought about the lunch his mom had packed for him that morning. Food that didn’t smell or taste like the lunches his friends brought to school. Food that tasted like home to a Somali boy crossing busy streets all alone in a huge, gray, city on a blustery December day.

The yards were bare and it was in the 30’s as he started out. He passed houses strung with bright Christmas lights. A large plastic Santa in a bright red suit smiled at him from one yard. As he walked, he looked for anything that looked familiar.  His tennis shoes made soft smacking sounds on the sidewalk.

He was more alone that he’d ever been before, and more alone than any 5th grader should ever be in the middle of a city. He didn’t have a cell phone.  His mom and dad were at work. The school probably thought he was home with the flu.

Suddenly, he heard a giant clap of thunder that made him jump and it began to rain. He kept walking. The rain turned to sleet, and then to snow. His shoes got wet and he could feel the beginning of a large blister forming on his right heel. His thin Dollar Store gloves were soaked. He pulled them off to blow on his hands and dropped one into a puddle of slush. The boy began to limp because of the blister. He could feel fear creeping in next to the cold.

This is where the story gets a little miraculous…

The half-frozen, very lost boy stopped a burly, red-bearded, young man wearing a green Camo jacket to ask for directions outside my daughter’s apartment. The man had already called the police and explained that he was waiting with the child until help arrived.  The miserable, shivering, boy stood a few feet away stealing glances in our direction as we talked about where the school he was looking for might be.  I walked over to the boy and told him that I was a mom. That everything was going to be okay and that I was going to take him into the building to let him warm up until the police came.  His dark eyes welled up with tears and he nodded, limping behind me up the stairs to the building.

Inside, I took both of his hands in mine to warm them up. He told me his name was Abdullah. I asked him where his gloves were and he told me how he’d lost them. I offered him hot cocoa and a Christmas cookie and he stopped sniffling. After a few minutes, the police officer arrived. She asked the boy a few questions and made a call to the school. Finally, he climbed into the back of the police van. The man with the red beard went back to his life. I went back to mine.

I have thought about Abdullah a lot this week.  How, in the midst of fear and confusion, he reached out to a stranger.  How it was possible for a fifth grader to be lost for over two hours while his parents were at work, unaware. How a kind young man with tattoos and piercings on his way to work stopped to help a child, and then stayed. How a mom who looked nothing like his warmed his very cold hands between her own.  How a police officer called him “Sweetie” as she asked him questions. Years from now, when the boy remembers the day he was lost in a city of strangers, I hope he remembers all of this. All of us.

Because here’s the thing. We are all connected in the most remarkable ways, Abdullah. You, the man with the beard, the police officer, me.

We just are. Trust that. Always.

Merry Christmas.

 

Keeping warm

He got one nearly every Christmas. In our family, this was as predictable as the oyster stew, divinity, and rice mush my grandmother served on Christmas Eve.

It was always wool, with two pockets that buttoned, and it was always, always, plaid.

It is hard to shop for older men. What they really want – their youth…more strength… bones that don’t ache…money can’t buy. This is why they generally end up with Pendleton shirts on Christmas Eve.

A week before Christmas, their wives or daughters (because, let’s be honest, it’s always their wives or daughters) rush to the only clothing store left within sixty miles that still sells quality clothing for men and pick out a shirt. Then, they have it wrapped in heavy, foil paper and a plaid bow, go home, and place it beneath the tree.

The fact that my grandfather received a plaid shirt every Christmas became a running  joke with his grandchildren. Every year, as he opened the box he would look in our direction, eyes twinkling, and yell “Oh! A Pendleton shirt! How did you know? It is JUST what I needed!” then throw his head back and laugh as only he could. But he wore every one, and sometimes until there were holes in the sleeves at the elbows.

I remember my favorites. One was navy and deep forest green. Another was tan and teal. After decades without him, all the rest have faded from my memory but one.

I’m wearing that shirt right now.  It is a rich plaid of brown, gray, black, and red. There are patches on the elbows. I had the shirt tails cut off years ago because there were burn holes left from too many years of too many cigar and pipe ashes.

Each December, I take the shirt out and toss it over a turtleneck on the days when I need a little extra warmth and encouragement to get All the Things done. I remember how the wool scratched my cheek when I hugged him hard and how the smell of Old Spice and pipe tobacco lingered in the wool for at least a year after he wore the shirt for the last time.

The shirt that warmed him decades ago still warms his grand-daughter. Isn’t it amazing how long a good wool shirt can last? How long a memory does? And don’t even get me started on love. We’ll be here all day.

Remarkable, really, when you think about it.

How long some things last.

 

Parchment paper mothers

I had one job. One.

The Girl came home last weekend armed with a caramel recipe. She needed a bigger kitchen, all the ingredients, and possibly even a couple of days with her folks. Or maybe she was just hungry for a good caramel.

She has tried to get a decent one out of me her entire life.  Most of the time when she asks me if I can do something, my answer is, “Yes, I think I can do that.” For example, I learned how to do a ballet bun when she was five years old. And against my better judgment, I let her talk me into painting her bedroom the color of stomach flu medicine when she was ten. When she wanted a custom sewn prom dress, I drew it with colored pencils so the seamstress knew what we were talking about. Her first apartment is decorated with painted thrift store furniture and hand-stitched curtains that I made. She asks. I get to work. That’s how it has always been. That’s what moms do.

But when it comes to cooking, the six most dreaded words out of her mouth during the holidays are “We should try to make caramels.” This year, instead of asking, she took matters into her own hands. First, she bought a fancy candy thermometer. Then, she tested its accuracy. Who knew that testing a candy thermometer was a thing? Not me, obviously. Then, she got after me because I was not measuring the salt correctly and she made me do it over. She melted and dumped and stirred. The goo began to change color and the temperature began to rise. She stirred some more. The molten goo began to bubble dangerously close to the top of the pot. In horror, we watched as it burped once very loudly and began to overflow all over my cook top. At this point, I may have uttered a not very Christmas-y word or two as I transferred it to a larger pot. Grim-faced and resolute, the Girl continued to stir. She was going to get her caramels with or without me.

While she stirred, I prepared the pan in which to cool the goo. The recipe called for buttered parchment paper. I am not a parchment paper type of mother. In my 40 plus years of cooking and baking, not once have I ever looked into my pantry and thought, “Yikes! I am out of parchment paper! Better put it on the list!” If you are a parchment paper mother, good for you. I’ll bet you make great caramels, too, don’t you?

Trying to cool a batch of caramels on waxed paper instead of parchment paper is a really bad idea. When it comes to caramels, the only thing waxed paper is good for is wrapping the darned things. The next hour was spent surgically removing shreds and wisps of waxed paper from the bottom of the cooled slab. The good news is that despite the fact that her dopey, caramel challenged mother very nearly ruined the whole batch because she did not have parchment paper, the candy turned out perfectly.

She got her caramels. My stove top is cleaned up. We have decided that caramel making will be her job from now on. She will bring the parchment paper. I will just watch. Maybe if I’m good, she’ll let me lick the spoon.

Joy to the World.

Cords

I am currently tethered to an electrical outlet in order to write this piece because a week ago, my laptop battery gave up the ghost. This has thrown me into a tizzy because I am used to moving to the sofa in the living room to write.  There’s an outlet behind the sofa, but in order to get to it, I have to contort myself in ways I no longer contort very well. And so, until my new battery arrives, I’m stuck in my office near the closest wall outlet.

I am wondering if my iPad battery is going to be the next one to go because it sure seems to drain down awfully fast.  To charge that little technological time-waster, I need to plug it in.  If I want to use it while it’s charging, I have to dangle the top half of my body over the arm of the love seat because the cord is too darn short. This makes all the blood rush to my head and my eyes all wonky.

My phone battery is fine. However, since things always seem to go to pot in triplicate around here, I give it about a week. That’s just how it goes around here. Don’t ask me why. It’s a mystery.

In other news, I had lunch with a group of old friends today. We shared happy things and a few sad things, too. Mostly, we laughed and filled in the blanks for each other. There seem to be more blanks to fill in all the time. It is good to have friends. It is better to have old ones. Old friends know which blanks to fill.

In the two hours we visited, none of us checked our phones. Nobody wasted a single minute on Facebook. Other restaurant diners may have seen us and thought we were just a group of older women having lunch. They didn’t know that what we were really doing was re-charging. They could not know that when we said our goodbyes, our batteries were full.

The cord of friendship tethers us, one to the other.

It stretches, but never breaks.