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!

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.

 

 

Leftovers

They always say they want pumpkin. I fall for it every year. On Thanksgiving, as I served pie, my sweet sister was the ONLY one who wanted pumpkin. I should have sent the rest of it with her because the rest of the weekend I was a Pumpkin Pie Pusher.

The cookie pie was the first to go. It was delicious. This proves once again that I’m not always right when it comes to pie or much else in life. The pecan and blueberry are gone, too, so all that remains is the pumpkin. I ate a piece for breakfast. It was okay.

The kids went out for dinner on Friday. My partner and I put on our PJ’s and ate a pepperoni pizza. You can only push leftovers so many times before there’s a revolt. I saw the pained expressions when I offered up turkey and stuffing (and pumpkin pie) for meals. I happily ate turkey sandwiches while the others turned up their noses and stared longingly into the fridge hoping for, oh, I don’t know…maybe a Thanksgiving miracle? Someone should really produce a turkey the size of Cornish game hen. Single size turkeys would be just the ticket.

It’s hard to be the only person in the family who truly doesn’t care what she eats.

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. The kids, too. The house is quiet and the turkey carcass is boiling on the stove. If I’m smart, I will get a Christmas tree this week while the weather is still nice. If real trees are your thing and you’re smart, so will you.  I missed having a big one last year more than I thought I would. Our two birds will be home again for Christmas and while they say they don’t care about things like big Christmas trees now that they’re grown, I have a hunch that there are some leftover memories of Christmases past that I can still tease out of them if I hang just the right ornaments and the house smells like cardamom and sugar cookies when they arrive. Maybe, just maybe, they can forget for just a bit that they are Adulting. I understand it is harder than they thought it was going to be. Really? I had no idea.

And so, Christmas is on the list.

Well that, and eating the rest of the pumpkin pie, of course.

 

Making room

So… I have this system. I make lists. Lots of them. You should see my office. Index cards everywhere.

Today, I am in manic list-making mode. Any Mom who has started with a clean kitchen and frozen turkey the weekend before Thanksgiving knows that a bird with all the trimmings doesn’t just magically make it to the table. A turkey is a commitment. It moves in five days in advance. Before the bird shows up, the first thing Moms have to do is make room.

And so, in preparation for Big Bird’s arrival, I am wildly tossing half-empty containers of leftovers and rearranging shelves for the rest of the ingredients I need to make some Thanksgiving magic.

After that, I’m making room for one more chair in the living room so that the cousins can waddle in pain from the dining room and flop down after they have stuffed themselves silly. I am also making room in both adult kids’ bedroom closets for a few extra hangers knowing full well that they will probably go unused all weekend. The trail of belongings will not bother me nearly as much as it used to. Orderly empty nests are highly overrated.

I will expand my great-aunt’s round oak table and add all the leaves for another Thanksgiving around it with the people I love. There will be room for the ones who prefer white meat over dark and the ones who like instant mashed potatoes better than real ones. There will be wine for the wine drinkers and sparkling cider for the others.

And there will be pie. Wild blueberry, for sure. A cream pie of some sort, too. There will be pumpkin and pecan, and a request for something called a “Cookie Pie” from the Girl’s Significant Other whose taste in women may be better than his taste in pies. I’ll be sure to let you know.

All I know for sure is that Moms always make room. In fridges and closets. At the table, in our living rooms, and in our hearts.

Especially there.

Happy Pie Day!

Inventory

“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”

-Willie Nelson

Three bald eagles hovering above a stand of spruce just west of Ball Club. I watched as the majestic birds swooped low to the ground before quickly changing course and gaining altitude like fighter jets. I remember a childhood when seeing even one bald eagle in the Chippewa was a rare treat. Now, they are everywhere. A little closer to Cass Lake, one fed on the carcass of a large, glassy-eyed doe sprawled on the side of road. The eagle kept to his meal without flinching as my car sped past.

Nineteen white tail deer in groups of two or three along a tree line between Lake George and the first entrance to Itasca State Park. That is the number I actually saw. I am wondering how many I missed. They looked unfazed as they pawed at dry tufts of grass, grazing in the November sun.

Eight huge, snow-white swans in a slough surrounded by fields full of corn stubble a few miles south. No skim of ice on the water yet so they will hang out a bit longer before making their way to wherever it is they will spend the winter. Can swans see their reflections, I wonder?

A cloud of geese near Detroit Lakes. Five wild turkeys wandering aimlessly as only wild turkeys can wander. Three rooster escapees with bright red combs who must have decided to take a chance and live a little on Highway 34.

Driving three hours between the woods and the prairie gets a little lonely sometimes.  I have made this trip more times than I can count  and know exactly how many miles it is between one highway and the next.  I know where it is safe to push the speed limit and where I am likely to get a ticket if my foot gets too heavy.  This time of year, I know that there are icy patches where the snow blows across the road from one field to the other  so I slow down and pay attention. I could practically make the trip with my eyes closed in May or even September.

But November trips are different.  November is the time for slowing down and counting things like blessings, certainly. Always blessings.

And in November, all the creatures, too.

So count, I do.

Dormancy

“You’d corner me in your conformity but even in dormancy i’m sleeping with enormity, stretching the belly of the earth & everything i was born to be.”
― Curtis Tyrone Jones

It will be dark by 4:30 this afternoon.  Yay.

There is supposed to be a logical reason for the time change. Personally, I have never heard one that actually made any sense to me. Where does that hour go during the months we curl inward like hedgehogs and put on another layer of clothes? Who decides when we get that hour of sunlight back?

My African violets seem to sense that it’s time to take a little snooze. This morning, when I gave them a drink, only one brave one was still showing off. Too soon, she will give up the ghost and spend her time wintering over with all her relations. The geranium in the dining room is still alive and when I brush past her, her pungent leaves remind me of warm, summer evenings.

The little Norfolk pine I had all but given up on last Spring seems to have a new lease on life after spending the summer outdoors in a planter with purple pansies for neighbors. She grew at least four inches and is putting out soft, light green, needles. My tiny tree will see another Christmas, after all. Thank goodness for evergreens in November.

I will celebrate my 58th birthday this week by counting my blessings. A really good man and the two spectacular people who call me Mom. A large, loving, slightly nuts, extended family that I hope to be able to discuss politics with again eventually. The dear, brave, beautiful friends who have always made me better than I would have been otherwise. Wool socks and down jackets and bifocals and strong coffee. The laugh lines around my eyes and two frown lines between them that my grandmother always warned me I’d get if I didn’t lighten up. The gray hair on my head that makes me appear to have lived long enough to know one or two things. All blessings.

And finally, a fat, sassy, little beagle who eats each meal and lives each day like it’s the last one she’s going to get. Who has the good sense to snuggle up to her humans when she’s cold and go to sleep when it’s dark.

A pup who pays no mind to time changes, wrinkles, or birthdays and just sees every day as a treat to be savored and embraced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muscles and dreams

His spray tan hasn’t worn off yet. The competition was this past week.

I watched him strike poses and stand for pictures with his trophy all afternoon.  He looked to be in his early twenties, but it’s hard to tell with body builders. These are the things I know about him. He has sandy blond hair and a stocky build and a smile that lights up a gymnasium. He has friends of all ages and races, a mother who is quite proud of him,and an athletic trainer who pushes him hard. He also has Down Syndrome. Did I mention that his trophy has “Most Inspirational” engraved on it?

When his trainer, Gabe, isn’t pushing people like Mr. Inspirational to be their very best, he is traveling back and forth to Ghana, the country where he was born. They say it rains daily there. Until a month ago, the children in his late grandmother’s village attended a school with a dirt floor and leaky roof not so very different from the school Gabe attended as a child before coming to the United States with his parents. He graduated from high school and played college football. Then, he graduated from college and became a business owner and father. Along the way, he won more than a few body building trophies of his own. He had big muscles and even bigger dreams. Thanks to him, today there is a new two room schoolhouse in his grandmother’s village. He built it. And when I say he “built” it, I do not mean that he hired other people to build a school. He literally built it. From the ground up. Cement block by cement block.

There aren’t a lot of inspirational stories when you turn on the TV these days. Everybody is either mad about something or mad at someone, it seems. I’m sick of the noise.There are days I want to toss the TV on the fire circle in the woods, pour a little gasoline on it, and strike a big old match. We are sorely in need of a few heroes. At least I know I am.

Today, I was in the presence of two.

One has a shiny new trophy.

The other one built a school.

(For more information, go to http://gabeskids.org/)