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!

Our stories

There is nothing like a dream to create the future.

-Victor Hugo

They came on ships, across rough seas from Germany, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden. They left cities and villages with names like Koblenz, Armdahl, and Karlanda. They would be buried in places like Mankato and St. Cloud, having spent entire lives without returning to the places where they were born.

They stood in lines at ports of entry to the United States of America. Then, with very little but what the steamer trunks from the old country held, they traveled to cities and villages with names like Alton, St. Paul, Kingston, and Max. They still prayed in Swedish, or counted in German, but they learned English. In a single generation, their native languages would not be spoken in their homes.

They worked as farmers, butchers, merchants, and housekeepers for wealthy families. They staked claims, homesteaded, and opened small businesses. They became U.S. citizens and leaders in their communities. In the years and generations to come, all of their children would attend school. Their grandchildren would graduate from high school. Their great-grandchildren would complete college degrees. Every generation would have an easier, more prosperous, life than the one that preceded it. This has always been the story of immigrant families in the U.S.

I think that we don’t tell these stories often enough. It is easy to forget that the desire to escape famine, war, religious persecution, or poverty is the warp thread that connects  blue-eyed families on ships in one century to brown-eyed families on foot in another. That the desire for a better life in a better place is what drives each immigrant.

I have been following the website of Sean T. Hawkey, a photographer who is documenting the exodus of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico on their way to the U.S. border where they will seek asylum. The images of so many tired women and children walking hundreds of miles toward hope is both compelling and heartbreaking.

For more information, please visit http://www.hawkey.co.uk.

 

 

 

 

A piggle tale

“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, we have this beagle. Our friend, Chuck, calls her, a”piggle” because she is shaped like a bratwurst and will eat anything. The mere sound of kibble landing in her dog dish or a packet of crackers being opened turns her into a howling lunatic. Some mornings, she gets so excited that she wolfs down what’s in her dog dish much too fast, goes outside, and promptly regurgitates it in the yard.

It gets worse.

Sometimes, upon seeing that her breakfast is now in the grass instead of in her belly, she  decides to, well, consume the same breakfast for a second time, because, heck, why not? Her human standing on the steps in the rain screaming, “No! Stop! Get away from that! Ish!” doesn’t even warrant a glance. Apparently, one person’s ISH! is another piggle’s second breakfast.

I was contemplating the piggle’s worst inclinations when I learned that the perpetrators of both the pipe bomb mailings and the murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday had been heavy consumers and participants on social media sites that serve up a vile smorgasbord of fear, hatred, and wild conspiracy theories.

Consume, spew, consume. Consume, spew, consume.

My soul gets weary when I think of all of that poison. My heart hurts for us all.

And then I remember that love is stronger than hate. It is.

It just has to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mice and rice

“October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!”

-Rainbow Rowell, Attachments

In October, the sunlight is different, more brilliant. Thursday, I watched a pair of ducks gliding on a sea of diamonds under a brilliant, turquoise sky. Summer is wonderful,  but it is those perfect, rare, October afternoons with temps in the 70’s and the heady scent of wet oak leaves that I love best.

The dog is nursing her pride and a sore snout because she didn’t listen when I told her to “leave it” and tripped a mousetrap. Beagles do not hear anything where peanut butter is concerned. For the rest of the day, she glared at the spot in the utility room where the indignity occurred. It’s hard to keep one’s nose where it belongs. For beagles, especially, but people, too.

The mystery of the rice piles in beds has been solved. The mice were not importing it, as I had suspected. They just found the neck warmer filled with rice that fell down between the washing machine and the water softener before I did. Lesson learned. When something goes missing, keep looking.

A red squirrel has also found his way inside the cabin. I am finding acorns in places where no acorns should be. Like the left pocket of my bathrobe and between bath towels in the linen closet. The likely suspect is a mean, sneaky little red devil with a fluffy tail who chews me out as I stand on the front steps to shake all the acorns out of my sheets and towels before packing them away.

In October, I always wish a nice, clean, little weasel would move in to take care of the place until spring.  Weasels are good mousers. Maybe they can beat up red squirrels, too, for all I know.

This morning, the temp is in the 30’s, with a strong north wind and horizontal snow. October in Minnesota. Uffda. Tomorrow, we will turn off the water, blow out the pipes,  and call it good for another season.The furry forest critters will celebrate our leave-taking with a dinner party before we make it to town.

On the menu?  White rice and acorn stew.

Battery life

“And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days…”

-Dylan Thomas, Collected Poems

I am writing this on my lap top. Albioni’s “Adagio for Organ and Strings” is streaming on my tablet. Occasionally, my cell phone emits a sweet “ding” to let me know I have a text message. I am working on learning not to text anyone under the age of forty back in ALL CAPS or place periods at the ends of texted sentences unless I’m ACTUALLY ANGRY. Old habits die hard for old English teachers. We need a lot of reminding.

The battery on my computer is draining before my very eyes. I know this because of the tiny battery-shaped icon on the bottom of the screen. I plug the computer in, and suddenly, I can see electrical power working its magic as the icon begins to fill. I never stop being amazed by electricity. You need it, and it’s there, just waiting on the other side of the wall outlet. You just need to plug in.

In other news, I’m getting over the first virus I’ve had in years, and it was a doozy.  Everybody I know seems to be either be catching, or getting over, this bug. I’m a freak about washing my hands after I’ve been anywhere (ask my children) but even fanatics get sick occasionally. When I was a young mom, the only thing worse than having a sick kid or two was being sick at the same time they were. Now, when one of them is sick, they call me for sympathy, but make their own chicken soup and sneeze into their own tissues. And when I’m sick, my only job is to get better.

Today, I’m doing just that. First, I’m watching the golden symphony of maple leaves in the woods floating to the wet earth below. Later, I will bake a ham and some sweet potatoes to fill the house with good smells. Then, before dinner, I will take a nap in front of the fire. The dog will join me. That’s the plan.

I’m plugged in.

My battery is charging, too.

 

Indestructible

The table is ugly mid-century modern fake-wood Formica. It is not much to look at. The vinyl upholstered chairs around it make an unholy screeching sound and scratch the linoleum when a felt pad falls off a leg. How is it that we have created vaccines and the internet but can’t seem to develop a pad that will stay stuck to the bottom of a chair leg? What’s that about? The chairs are currently blue. Before that, they were green. Before that? I don’t remember.

What 1950’s furniture lacked in appearance, it more than made up for in durability. This set is proof. It is indestructible. It has been used to roll out pie crust and for cleaning buckets of blueberries. It has cooled hundreds of oatmeal cookies through the years. Back when grandmothers still sewed sundresses for their granddaughters, it was the ideal surface for pinning and cutting out patterns. More than a few sunfish have been scaled on it through the years, too. Guns have been cleaned and oiled. Grocery lists written. Hundreds of games of gin rummy, cribbage, and solitaire have been played. The New Testament has been read cover-to-cover during breakfast more than once. It has been cut on, spilled on, painted on, and eaten on. In a kitchen with about eight square feet of actual counter space, it also doubles as the perfect meal prep surface. Forget about those big, fancy kitchen islands you see on new home tours. We have a kitchen table for that.

People, thankfully, do not chain-smoke around it any more, though a generation ago they did. There are fewer black coffee drinkers around it than there used to be, too. The older faces I remember around the table in my youth are just sweet memories and stories now. The pudgy baby faces of our children have morphed overnight into adult faces with jobs, worries, and other people who matter to them. They come for visits and then go back to their lives in the city. Some are starting to bring along new baby faces. If we are lucky, there will be more. That is what makes a family indestructible, isn’t it? New faces?

Some families build palatial lake homes with cathedral ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows and call them cabins. Their kitchens feature the finest granite counter tops and largest “islands” money can buy. They plop cute pillows embroidered with the word “Gather” on plaid upholstered benches and wait for company. In places like this, I’m never sure whether this is an invitation, a suggestion, or a command.

We have an island, too.  It’s called my grandmother’s kitchen table. It’s where her people gather. It’s where we always have. It’s where we always will.

And let me tell you, that is a thing of beauty.

Love notes

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

1 Corinthians 13:7

For Peter and Abigale

I think they asked me to read because the Groom could count on me to use my best “project all the way to the back row” teacher voice and the Bride knows that I will make sure that the back of my dress isn’t tucked into my pantyhose before I walk up to the front of the church.

The day you get married, you think you have an inkling of what to expect from marriage. You’ve seen people you love stay together, or not. You’ve been in the weddings of a few friends. You know what “getting married” means.

And then, you get married and find out what marriage really means.

You embark on a journey that will take you to the highest highs and lowest lows of your life. Between those highs and lows there will be days, weeks, years, decades of going to work and mowing the lawn. You’ll have the same five arguments over and over about things that aren’t that important. You will wear out appliances and buy new ones. You’ll forget to pick up milk. You’ll laugh about stupid stuff. If you are very, very, lucky you’ll grow old together.

That is life. That is marriage.

You will maybe make a baby or two. You’ll potty train them and sit through what will feel like a thousand piano recitals. There will be math homework you don’t understand. They will throw parties in your house when you’re not home. You’ll blink, and those babies will be standing next to someone doing exactly what you’re doing today.

Together, you will bury your parents, or a sibling, or God forbid, a child, in the years to come. You will find out what “in sickness and in health” really means. You will find out what you’re made of on a thousand different days in a thousand different ways. You’ll break, and then you’ll mend.

That is life. That is marriage.

You will have joy. So. much. joy.  Your heart will swell to nearly bursting some days because you chose this person who is the best, kindest, most thoughtful human you know. You will have days when you look at the person you chose to spend your life with and wonder if you made a terrible mistake. Nope. You just chose a human with faults and flaws. Forgive each other for being human. Forgive, and forgive, and forgive again.

On your wedding day, look around at the guests you’ve invited. We are your cheering section. We have faith that when the road gets a little bumpy, that you’ll be patient and kind, polite and humble, brave and true to one another.  That’s the promise you’re making to each other. It’s why we’re here.

So get ready. Buckle up, and hold on tight. You’ve got this.

Love.  It’s just the greatest thing, isn’t it?

I think I read that somewhere.

Auntie

A Southern gentleman

We ate, and ate, and then ate some more.

The older I get, the more I’m struck by how much the young eat, as opposed to the not-so-young.  The variety of dining options in a city as vast and diverse as Chicago is one of the reasons my girl loves living there. We ate ravioli in a buttery wine sauce in a tiny Italian restaurant, and savory Indian dishes I couldn’t pronounce at Devon Street. We had Chicago-style pizza in Lincoln Park, and grilled cheese sandwiches sprinkled with truffles in a pretty courtyard restaurant with a fountain.

I boarded the flight home stuffed full of happy memories and good food. The burly, red-bearded, young man seated in my row noticed me struggling to jam my suitcase under the seat and offered to put it between us. I liked him immediately. During the flight, we visited. He’d grown up in Mississippi and was on his way to a conference in Grand Rapids. He’d never been farther north than Chicago. He’d majored in Communications and History in college, had recently adopted a golden retriever pup who went everywhere in his truck with him, and had a mama who worried about things like bed bugs and her boy finding his way to a place like Grand Rapids, Minnesota in the middle of the night. I told him to watch for deer and that bed bugs weren’t generally an issue as far as I knew. He told me that he’d been traveling since 5 a.m. and hadn’t had time to eat dinner during his layover. I gave him my pretzels.

The lights of the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth caught his eye as we began to land. Once the plane was at the gate, he helped me with my bag.  I told him that when he got home, he was to tell his Mama that she’d raised a fine young man. He smiled. Our paths will not cross again.

To travel anywhere is to learn. We visit new places to understand different cultures, and to try new foods. Travel shatters the myths we’ve created in our minds of who people are based on stereotypes and caricatures, ignorance and fear.

Sometimes that happens on the way home when you offer a boy from Mississippi your pretzels.