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!

In the motherhood

With what price we pay for the glory of motherhood.

-Isadora Duncan

It is Mother’s Day, the holiday when social media erupts with photos and heartfelt expressions of love and gratitude for mothers. All day I scrolled through my news feed and saw moms celebrating their special day. Some posed at brunches with their perfectly manicured fingers delicately grasping the stems of champagne glasses. Others balanced in fishing boats as they smiled and held up the first walleyes of the season. There were pictures of first-time moms with small, sweet babies in their arms and pictures of moms with decades of experience. There were memorials and tributes from daughters missing moms who’ve passed away.

So many women. Each one beautiful and unique, celebrated today for who she is, or who she was, to the women I know and love.  We do that in real life, too, when we gather. We always end up talking about our moms.

My mother was a teenager when she had me. I was twice her age by the time we adopted our first child.  As such, I was fortunate to have had a whole lot of time to grow up and experience life before I became a mom. It didn’t make any difference. I was just as unprepared to be a mother as she was. She would argue this fact with me, but it’s true.

Nothing can prepare you for motherhood. You think you know what becoming a mother means until you actually become one. It’s nobody’s fault that we don’t have a clue what we’re signing up for. How could anyone ever adequately describe such a heart-bursting love sundae topped with worry and sheer dread sprinkles to someone who hasn’t yet experienced the joys and fears of motherhood?

And if they could, would it matter?

Ask any mother if she would do it again. Love this hard, I mean. Ask the one at the table with the linen napkins, or the one in the boat with the stringer of walleyes. Ask your sister or best friend. Ask your Auntie or the lady next door who raised ten to adulthood without losing a single one. Ask your own mom if you still can.  Would you do it again?

Of course, she will say.

Of course.

Happy Mother’s Day.

 

The pile

It’s amazing, the stuff you uncover, if you just start digging.

Here’s the thing about owning a cabin that’s been in the family for generations. The generations who preceded your own leave, but their stuff doesn’t. Roughly ten percent of what they’ve left behind is stuff you, your siblings, or your cousins actually want. Sometimes, it takes years of moving that musty, dusty, ninety percent pile around from room to room before you suddenly realize that while you may own the cabin, the pile owns you.

I had a sale last weekend. Here’s just some of what I learned:

1. Getting ready for a sale is like opening a store that you only plan to run for two days. You need to collect your inventory. Then, you need to price the items and display them. You need signs. It’s a lot of work.

2. Your customers arrive before you’ve had your coffee or arranged your pile.

3. Most of those customers are retired couples.

4. Retired men are very chatty and always want to look at your “tools” even if they aren’t for sale. When they buy something, they ask if you can break a twenty. Their wives roll their eyes. Retired women come prepared to do business with quarters and dollar bills. They are professionals.

5. If you mistakenly set fishing rods that aren’t for sale against the outside of the garage while you’re looking for something else, a retired man will invariably try to buy them. Every time.

6. It is always better to put a price on an item than a FREE sign, particularly on the first day of a two-day sale, even if what you’re trying to give away is junk. The word “free” makes people suspicious on the first day. By the second day, people realize there’s no catch.

7. A very faded avocado green chair will be just the ticket for someone. Even if it smells a little mousey. As it is loaded into the back of a truck, you’re sure you hear your late grandmother whisper, “what took you so long? Ish!”

8. People will by almost anything for a quarter except a puzzle in a box that has already been opened. I think there’s some profound universal truth in this. I’m still trying to figure out what it is.

9. There are still at least four people in the world who still watch VCR tapes and one who uses an adding machine with a little paper roll attached to it. But the atlas and the encyclopedias on CD’s? I couldn’t give those puppies away.

10. There’s no better feeling than packing up what’s left after a sale and immediately driving to a magical place where an attendant punches your ticket and helps you separate the items for recycling.

I own a cabin.  A pile in the cabin owned me.

And then I had a sale.

 

 

Spring calculations

I am a week away from posting grades for another semester. A final exam usually doesn’t torpedo a student who has done well throughout the semester, nor will it save the G.P.A. of one who did diddly-squat for fifteen weeks.  And so, a week from now, I’ll let my computer do the grade calculations and click “Save” and my students will get what they get. For some, there will be celebration and sighs of relief. For others, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s just how it goes.

In terms of weather in Minnesota, April earned an F in my book. She was a complete no-show. I went looking, and found her in Sacramento. I spent two days there for a conference, and then two more days in San Francisco where the birds sang, the sea lions lounged at the pier, and roses were in full bloom all over the city. After months of looking at nothing but snow and more snow, it felt great to be able to walk around in a sweater and sandals. I highly recommend it.

My daughter was my traveling companion. My legs are at least a foot longer than hers and yet, I sometimes struggled to keep up with her as we went from Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge. She’s a competent, capable, traveler and an incredibly patient soul when it comes to her mother, who isn’t nearly as young as she used to be. Funny how things like that sneak up on a mom. One minute, you’re the one making all the arrangements and packing snacks to take on the airplane so your kids don’t lose their minds, and the next, your twenty-something daughter is asking you if you’d like a granola bar and trying to distract you during turbulence because she knows you are afraid of flying. It appears we’ve come full circle, she and I.

I’m home now. The foot of snow that was in the yard a week ago is gone, and I have only had to put my down jacket on once since I got back. So…progress. Yesterday, I heard the spring peepers in the pond up the road. The fat little sea lion…er….beagle with the floppy ears is sunning herself in the porch. Life is good.

And, to top it off, May is here. I have high hopes for May.

I think May is going to knock it out of the park.

 

Ham bone parenting

 

Lilly the beagle is sleeping next to me on the sofa with her fat, round, bottom wedged against my hip. She is snoring and chasing imaginary bunnies in her sleep, oblivious to parenting worries and troubling world events.  It is good to be a dog.

The veterinarian says we are going to kill her with kindness if we don’t stop feeding her every time she wants a little bit of what we’re having. And so, at least once a month we agree not to feed her any People Food. We make a pact.

Did I mention that she is starting to resemble a tri-colored, floppy-eared beer keg? She waddles. The vet suggested two Cheerios as a treat every time she comes in from outside. She is not only chubby, but smart. She has figured out that the more times she asks to go outside, the more Cheerios she gets per day.

Yesterday, I made soup with the leftover ham from Easter. Guess who got the ham bone?

We are terrible empty nest dog parents, it’s true. If we’d raised our human kids the way we have raised this dog, they’d both be incarcerated by now.

When your nest is empty, you can sleep in on the weekends, and eat cereal for supper if you feel like it. You can drop everything at a moment’s notice and go some place without two kids fighting in the backseat. You no longer have to ask someone else to raise your kids in the event of your untimely death. You can think about retirement. So, yeah..there are definite advantages to being parents of a certain age.  I get that. I do.

Even so, it’s the craziest thing. Your kids do exactly what you’d always hoped they’d do. They grow up, finish school, find jobs, maybe even find someone to love. Someone who’ll take care of them when they’re sick, and hug them when they’re sad, and find them when they’re lost. And you learn the lessons of letting go.

And then, the two of you are back to where you began. Still together, but also alone for the first time in a very long time.

So what do you do? You get a dog and spoil her rotten with things like ham bones. That’s what you do.

And she fills the space that remains in the nest.

And in your hearts.

 

 

No foolin’

I wore long johns to church on Easter. If you live in Minnesota, you may also have been sweating through all four stanzas of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!” on April Fool’s Day.

Uffda.

As a prank, I tried to convince my family members that the white hard-boiled eggs I was serving for breakfast were, in fact, dyed. This may go down in history as one of the worst ideas I have had before my first cup of coffee. As soon as I saw the worried looks of my loved ones, who clearly thought Mom had finally gone ’round the reality bend, I said “April Fools!” so they’d know my marbles were still where they were supposed to be. Women of a certain age, it seems, should never under any circumstances play April Fool’s jokes.

When I was growing up, parents hid Easter eggs in the house for their kids to find on Easter morning. This was a really bad idea since inevitably, an egg or two would stay hidden a little too long. My mother-in-law was a nurse who understood that very bad things could happen when kids found and consumed eggs a couple of weeks after Easter, and so she always hid the baskets instead. I still hide baskets for our big kids. Some day, if I’m lucky, I will hide baskets for grand babies.

We sang the hymns and found the baskets and shared a good meal together as a family. I am still roaming free after the worst April Fool’s joke ever. Our big kids have gone back to their adult lives after one more precious holiday at home. The bouquet of lilies and tulips on the dining room table reminds me that despite all evidence to the contrary, spring is actually a thing.

Tulips are proof that the season exists.

And that, my friends, is no joke.

Just kids

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.
-Jack Layton

 

I still think about who they were back then, and who they might have become if their lives hadn’t been taken from them. They were both sassy, fierce, beautiful girls. Girls nobody messed with. Girls that other girls viewed with a mixture of admiration and fear.

Time stopped for them the autumn of our senior year of high school. The rest of us marched forward into adulthood without them. In the four decades since they’ve been gone, we have grown up, raised families, and made livings. Most of us are grandparents today. Some of us are already retired. We will have our fortieth class reunion this summer. We will say their names.

We were changed as a class because we’d lost two classmates. We became kinder and more aware of how very fast everything can change. It was a brutal lesson to learn at seventeen. It is a lesson that, sadly, too many young people face before they graduate. Sometimes, it’s an accident that takes a life. Other times, it’s a suicide. For this generation, and with increasing frequency, it is a random shooting in a school.

Last weekend, I watched the television coverage of thousands upon thousands of teenagers holding signs, chanting slogans, and marching in cities throughout the U.S. and was struck with the realization that this generation of teenagers is both completely different and exactly the same as every generation that has preceded it when it comes to social protest.  Teenagers are wired to be passionate. They are stubborn and idealistic and hard to get along with, generally. They say what’s on their minds. They are fearless.

And until they face the death of someone their age, they think they’re immortal, too.

I know we were all of those things. I know we thought that, too.

And then we lost friends, and were forever changed.

 

 

 

Mud vacation and marbles

From 2015…

In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt. ~Margaret Atwood

Last week, as I sat in the porch for the first time since October,  I watched the neighbor kids splash through the puddles in the woods and listened to their giggling as they successfully crossed a big log in single file. It was one of those squishy March days that kids love and as I watched them play, I was suddenly transported back to my own March days of puddle splashing and marble trading during Mud Vacation.  The fact that the school buses that brought the kids from the country couldn’t make it through the thick muck of unpaved roads for a week or so every Spring meant a break for all of us once the snow melted.

Our north end neighborhood back then was full to overflowing with kids who burst from doorways every March, feral and free. We could be found waiting to take turns on the rope swing that hung from the tree in the Erickson family’s backyard or riding our bikes from the top of Hospital Hill all the way to King School and back. We walked down the old railroad grade behind the high school and came too close to the river swollen with runoff more often than our parents knew. We played in the shoulder-tall grass behind the Kolu family’s house, constructing mazes until our moms called us in for supper, round burrs stuck to our socks.  We started each day clean and ended it dirty, the way kids should.  We scraped our knees on the Dead-end running for home base and slammed every back door in the neighborhood too loudly and stood in kitchens we knew as well as our own gulping down grape Kool-Aid that someone’s mother had made.

When my own two kids were young, I’d tell them stories about “mud vacation” and they’d look at me like I’d lost my marbles. They did their own growing up on paved city streets in a middle-sized town on the prairie. Their own, much windier, memories are happy ones even though the idea that school would be canceled due to mud and not blizzards is a foreign one.  March blizzards or floods on the prairie, they understood. But mud having that much power over something as important as school?  Really?

Yes, Really.  Lovely, lovely mud.

Those neighbor kids I remember are scattered far and wide these days. A lot of them are grandparents now.  Last week, one of them mentioned a game of marbles on her Facebook page which of course, got us ALL talking about marbles in the way that old friends who don’t see each other very often are prone to do when a topic like marbles comes up.  We are grateful that while our marble bags have been missing for quite some time, that the “marbles” that matter are mostly all still there most days.

It just takes the smell of fresh mud, the happy sound of kids at play in March, or the mention of marbles between old friends who remember it all to remind us what we had before all the different roads we chose to travel in life were paved.