Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Laurie's Thoughts and Reviews: The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward - Excer...

Laurie's Thoughts and Reviews: The Reindeer Keeper by Barbara Briggs Ward - Excer...: ABOUT THE BOOK   Abbey senses something special about the little man tending to the reindeer who, along with a century-old farmhouse, a b...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eves in the House on the Lane

The house where Santa came on Christmas Eve when I was growing up was situated beside a lane on a street with a bit of a hill. It was a great place to live when just a youngster and the place I look back upon fondly when thinking of hanging my Christmas stocking with my brother on the taped-together, heavy cardboard fireplace our parents brought down from the attic a few weeks before Christmas. We loved the fireplace. It looked real once the “fla

mes” were plugged in. The flickering effect for some reason made me feel warm and cozy. Sitting on the black cardboard mantle in the same spot every year were a plastic Santa and Snowman. Once turned on, they’d light up. The snowman became a green or blue or red snowman-depending on the little bulb my mother chose.

We always had a real tree. It always sat in the same corner of the front room. My mother insisted. She was a perfectionist when it came to decorating it after my father strung the lights. The smallest ornaments would be hung at the top. The bigger decorations, most of them bought at a local hardware store or Woolworth’s, filled-in the middle and bottom of the tree. Then each branch would be covered in heavy tinsel making it look like something out of a magazine. The decorating of the tree was a tradition-just like my grandparents and aunt joining us for Christmas Eve dinner.

They always came in through the side porch which sat alongside the lane. My grandfather would nudge his old Ford truck as close to the house as possible. They used that particular door to bring in presents-some my brother and I weren’t supposed to see. Years later I figured out my mother hid those presents on the porch until Santa came down the cardboard chimney long after midnight mass and long after we’d gone to bed-but not to sleep.

It was a sight, seeing my aunt with her long hair and red lipstick bounding into the kitchen loaded down with the gifts that needed to be placed under the tree. My grandfather followed carrying homemade pies and breads. But it was what my grandmother carried that instilled in me a feeling of tradition even though I didn’t know such a word existed or such a feeling had a name. Despite the fact that you couldn’t eat it or play with it or wear it or the fact that it didn’t have bells or whistles, what my grandmother carried into our home was the one thing that never changed. It was a constant. It simply was-a silver ladle wrapped inside a deep-blue velvet bag with strings that you’d pull to keep it secure. It was a custom for my grandmother to bring that sparkling heirloom to Christmas Eve dinner in the house that sat by the lane. My mother would always make oyster broth and it was the silver ladle that served the soup into china bowls sitting on a linen tablecloth that had been in the family for as long as my grandmother could remember.

It isn't the gifts or the parties that are remembered long after the tree is down and thoughts turn to spring. It's the traditions, linking one Christmas to the next and one generation to another, that remain forever in a family’s tapestry. To some it was just a silver ladle. To me it was the silver ladle in the deep-blue velvet bag brought to Christmas Eve dinner year after year after year.

Snowy Country Christmases

Growing up out in the country mounds of snow were as much a part of Christmas as the presents. We never doubted if we'd have snow for Christmas. The question was how much of it would there be.

Those wintery Christmas landscapes were strikingly beautiful day and night. Down in the pine grove, trees with thick, white branches looked like Christmas snow angels; fields and pastures stretching forever appeared tucked under the same blanket. In the evenings when skating on the creek-with the silver stars and dancing moon-sparkling diamonds lit the landscape as my cousin and I would talk Christmas lying atop the ice- wondering who got us what, trying to keep secrets, and fearing it would never arrive!

Looking back we lived and played and waited anxiously for Santa Claus in a Currier & Ives Christmas scene-all part of the splendor of a snowy country Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Santa Claus was a Woodworker

My grandparents worked more than a full day every day no matter the season. There were no vacations; no sick time. From all my grandmother's daily responsibilities in the farmhouse-plus caring for six daughters and preparing the earth for the spring gardens-to my grandfather working the fields and tending to his duties in the barn-that farm defined them and left those of us who loved them a lasting impression of what the word "work" both looks like and means.

When my grandfather came in through the back door of the kitchen in the evening after finishing his nightly chores in the barn, he'd take time to relax before going to bed. Besides being an avid reader he was quite skillful as a woodworker. It was that skill that created my most favorite Christmas present ever-a pine desk with a single drawer and matching stool which he made for me when I was seven.

Leading up to Christmas that year my cousins and I weren't allowed in the kitchen of the old farmhouse during the evenings if we happened to be there when this craftsman was at work. As we'd play in the dining room, sawdust would seep through the cracks around the closed door. The sound of that saw told us it was very busy at the North Pole just feet away. But then, it was the season of surprises and I was thoroughly surprised Christmas morning when I found the desk and stool waiting for me when I came down the front stairs. I thought he'd been making me bunk beds for my dolls.

I remember a feeling coming over me as I touched the wood. I could smell the varnish on the pine and envision my grandfather laboring into the night in an effort to complete his Christmas projects on time. As I sat down, I pulled open the desk drawer and found a pad of lined paper with a #2 yellow pencil. It'd been sharpened just for me. That was the moment I knew I wanted to be a writer. It was only fitting this desk came from my grandfather as he loved relaxing in the front parlor where he'd read his Zane Grey mysteries and Saturday Evening Posts. We'd play all around him and he never seem to be bothered. He never seemed to notice we were even there. Reading a good book does that-even after a hard day's work on the farm-including playing Santa Claus for grandchildren anticipating his Christmas morning surprises.

Funny how a favorite gift never escapes your memory-staying in your heart no matter how old you get. And when that gift had been a labor of love, your heart just keeps singing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Gathering Season

Christmas is the Gathering Season; families coming together; generations connecting around Christmas trees and kitchen tables and oak pedestal tables such as the one pictured here. It was a fixture in my grandparents' dining room in their old farmhouse. Weddings and birthdays; holidays and funerals-whatever the occasion that table served as host to those gathering.

At Christmastime, we gather to celebrate. We gather to remember. We gather to share. We did all of that and more around that oak table. As bowls full of home-cooked favorites were passed from one to the other, conversations flowed and connections renewed. When the mince pies made the rounds, conversation came to a halt while outside the snow kept falling.

As you gather this Christmas take the time to sit back and absorb the moments around the tree-around the table. They slip through our fingers too quickly and become memories. Happy Gathering!

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Christmas Cookie Fun"

I know I've written about our chicken coop clubhouse many times; telling you about all the fun my cousins and I had playing and pretending inside that old place. A favorite thing I liked to do was write little poems.
I still like to do that and I thought it might be fun to share one with you-especially since it's a Christmas poem.

This is for all the Christmas Bakers and Cookie Cutters and Gingerbread Men Makers: CHRISTMAS COOKIE FUN

It's Christmas 'round the kitchen;
We're making cookies by the dozen.
We cut them from the spongy dough;
then put them in the oven-
to bake up warm and tasty;
they're such delicious treats-
We have so many recipes-
some with oats and some with whole-grain wheat-
or little chocolate morsels; topped with a brush of honey;
Some turn out square or very round;
Some look like elves so funny;
or snowmen standing with their brooms or Santa in his sleigh-
Mommy calls me her little helper as we pick up from our day.

She brushes flour off my nose and wipes the table clean.
We laugh and giggle merrily while we scrub our messy scene.

Yes! It's Christmas 'round the kitchen; we're baking Christmas cheer-
We wish this was a recipe that would last throughout the year!

Happy Christmas Baking and Nibbling Everyone!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Christmas Tradition

While family traditions are as varied as snowflakes, they all come wrapped in memories. My grandmother's Christmas bread remains a tradition in our family. Although she is no longer with us, some in the family have continued the laborious process of scalding the milk; folding in the currants and candied fruit and seedless raisins and pineapple; then letting dough rise three times followed with more mixing and pouring and greasing-and then waiting and praying the batch in the oven passes the family taste and smell test. The bread had a certain texture. We all know it. Its aroma is unique and remains in the hearts of all fortunate to have called this woman Giddy-a nickname given to her by her first grandchild. It caught on. Everyone who knew her called her Giddy.

The attached picture shows Giddy in one of her house dresses preparing the bread with greased tins ready to go. She knew that recipe by heart. She knew every recipe by heart if there was a recipe. Most times she just went by instinct.

Giddy was our hub; our heart and soul. As we ready to gather once again at Christmas I know she's near. I can smell the pine as if I was back in that farmhouse with her-and taste that Christmas bread coming out of the oven of her woodstove. Traditions most certainly do come wrapped in memories!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Christmas Cowboy

Pictured here is my older brother showing off his new cowboy outfit Santa brought him "just a few years back" on Christmas. I'm in the rocking chair. With us are two cousins. Brothers are good to have. Maybe one doesn't realize it for they can be pests. Take this cowboy for example. It's not that he was a pest. It's just that he was the first born and in my parents' eyes-especially my mother's-and my grandparents, aunts, uncles,and cousins he could do no wrong.

Growing up, because he was a few years older, he really never hung around with us younger ones. He never played in the clubhouse or skated on the creek with us. Instead, he hung around more with our grandfather-riding the tractor or going to town with our grandfather in his old truck. Aunts and uncles included him in activities and usually he got to sit at the big table during gatherings. We younger ones were never jealous or felt slighted. After all, he was the oldest. With his red hair and freckles and a zest for life that's never gone away he paved the way for the rest of us. It's since growing older that I understand the value of an older brother.

When we hit our late teens he became my protector. Although his friends would hang out at the house he tried separating me and my friends from them-especially when we were all out and having fun. Sometimes that worked but most times, it didn't! When our father died he became the oldest in a different way. When our mother died he stepped into a new role for me and our younger brother and sister.

Roles in families evolve as families grow and change and lose loved ones along the way. It's memories like a little cowboy sitting under a Christmas tree and his sister sitting nearby in a rocking chair that tie the bond as years flow by. The trick is never to lose site of those memories as we go along for they are the foundation from which we go through life.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Wood Stove

I've blogged so much about my grandparent's old farmhouse. I've written about the parlors and the back stairs and front veranda; the dining room with the slanted floor and the bedroom upstairs with a secret passageway. All those memories played a role in my writing of The Reindeer Keeper. The warmth and joy of family felt in that old house has stayed with me through the years and it was those memories that I tapped into when writing about the family in my Christmas story. The barns and fields and pastures and pine grove in the book all stemmed from the surroundings around that old farmhouse. I only wish my grandparents were still alive to read The Reindeer Keeper. My grandfather would especially have enjoyed what happens inside the "majestic old barn" in the book. He was an avid reader; a lover of Christmas.

I'm attaching a photo showing my grandmother cooking at her woodstove. You can see her in one of her house dresses which I've previously blogged about. Her hair is as it always was, pulled up on top of her head and held in place with hair combs. She maneuvered that stove and all her pots and pans like a conductor of an orchestra. She'd cook using pinches of this and dashes of that and the end results were always the same-mouthwatering, delicious meals! Next to the stove-but not shown in this picture-was a woodbox. We'd take turns filling it which was always fun.

To the left you'll see the back door open. You get but a glimpse of the outside which was rolling pastures and hayfields and a bridge down at the creek leading to the back fields. The farmhouse was sold when my grandparents quit farming. The veranda no longer exists. Most of the tall and proud poplar trees lining the cinder driveway have been axed. That barn which plays such a vital role in The Reindeer Keeper was sold; then burned down. All that remains is its lonely silo.

But absolutley nothing can wipe away images of a family living out in the country; working the land and raising six daughters. Nothing can take away this image of my grandmother at her woodstove. I can smell the aromas coming from that kitchen and feel the warmth as we'd gather to enjoy whatever it was she created between doing everything else she had to do. Just as conductors pull together musicians, my grandmother pulled us together time after time around the kitchen table-around the dining room table. She's left us with pricless memori

es and gifts of giving and caring-all something to think about this holiday season.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Just A Kitchen Table

In my previous blog I posted a photo of my grandfather's old barn which played a keyrole in "The Reindeer Keeper." Now I'd like to share another one I found Thanksgiving night when going through old photo albums with my brother. It shows the kitchen table I've talked about several times-the one we'd all gather around as a family at my grandparents. This old table has heard many a great arguement; kept many Christmas secrets; and withstood generations.

I was fortunate to have been given this table by my aunt when she passed away. To say I treasure this heirloom doesn't begin to describe how happy I am to have this table in my home. Tonight my 18-month old granddaughter came for an overnight. As she climbed up onto one of the chairs shown in the picture; then stopped to play with the little ring on the wire near my grandmother in that very picture-before climbing on top of the table and sitting proudly where meals of so many before her had been served-I thought about those who'd sat around this table-especially my grandmother shown here in in her "housecoat" enjoying a cup of coffee in the early morning.

I am certain my grandmother never thought that one day her great-great granddaughter would be sitting smack dab in the middle of where she was quietly spending time. It's sad to think my granddaughter will never know my grandmother. But that's where old photo albums and stories repeated will link their generations. I know they would have had fun together. I know they would have shared conversations around that table for, after all, that's a family tradition.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Grandfather's Old Barn

What a treasure of a picture I discovered Thanksgiving day. Going through family picture albums with my older brother we came across so many pictures we'd never seen before. We had an aunt who organized family pictures by year and by family. Behind many of the photos were the negatives. I can't imagine how long it took her to do this but I am thankful she did.

The first photo I would like to share is this amazing photo of my grandfather's barn. This is the barn I went back to in my memory several times when writing, "The Reindeer Keeper." My cousins and I spent countless hours playing and pretending in this massive structure with two haylofts connected by an old plank bridge and empty stanchios and empty chicken roosts. But empty didn't matter to us. In our imaginations they were sometimes occupied. In our imaginations that old barn was one great adventure after another. Despite the snow and rain creeping in between the cracks, we stayed inside that barn-and waited for the next stagecoach or hid from younger family members or dashed from one haymow to the other in hot pursuit of evil creatures.

That weathered old barn was our Disney World and our Great Adventure and Smithsonian every time we stepped inside. And when I sat down to write "The Reindeer Keeper" that barn with its creaks and smells and fascination became the focal point to a story I felt brewing inside me about bringing adults back to that wondrous feeling of truly believing in the Spirit of Christmas.

Family photo albums are a family's history. They link generations, telling them about those who came before them and about special times and places-like an old barn now gone except for its silo.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Coleslaw in the Yellow Bowl

My one particular aunt who lived with my grandparents really never cooked. Besides oatmeal and chipped beef on toast, she stayed out of the kitchen. She really didn't have to cook when my grandmother was alive for nothing could beat what this woman of French-Canadian descent created with ease; mixing and stirring without a recipe; using a pinch of that and a dash of whatever else she felt was needed. My grandmother mastered the art of cooking long be

fore TV chefs made their way into our homes.

But once on her own, my aunt did master a few recipes including her great version of coleslaw. It became a family favorite. It was always requested for family gatherings including Thanksgiving. I'm not sure if my grandmother gave her some secret tips for making coleslaw but whatever my aunt's secrets, her version of this basic salad was carried out to perfection every single time she made it.

On Thanksgiving Day her yellow bowl with that salad was a sought after item. It always blended in perfectly with the rest of the amazing feast served around a table of cousins and aunts and uncles-all talking at once and all thankful to be together as that yellow bowl made its way around the table again and again until it was empty.

Family traditions come wrapped in many packages. This particular tradition came in a yellow bowl created by a reknowned chef-at least reknowned in her family and missed this day when yellow bowls and serving platters and pie plates are full and appreciated by loved ones gathered once again in Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The China Cupboard in the Corner

Even though we were young, my cousins and I must have realized the china cupboard situtated in a corner of the dining room of the old farmhouse was off limits. I don't remember us talking about it. If we had talked about it I would have remembered because such talks were usually long ones. And I don't remember any adult telling us not to play near the cupboard so it must have been our youthful intuition at work. Oh we played in the dining room all the time. We ran through it, played tag around the oak pedestal table; hid buttons for "Button, Button, Who's Got The Button", laughed and giggled in games of "Red Light-Green Light" and so much more but not once did we venture near that cupboard. Looking back I think it's because we knew it wasn't just any china cupboard. It was our grandmother's china cupboard.

The glass doors were only opened on special occasions-including Thanksgiving. When they were, out came bone china dining sets and serving bowls and silver soup ladles and tall, etched goblets. Underneath the glass doors were two pull-out drawers full of fine linen tablecloths and crocheted, linen napkins and serving pads.The cupboard had its own special smell-a mixture of shellac and green tea. For some reason my grandmother kept her green tea bags near her collection of china tea cups. Throughout the year she'd go to the cupboard; choose a cup, pick out a tea bag, boil some water and enjoy a cup of tea. I don't know exactly how many cups and saucers she had but I remember thinking there were zillions. The cups hung from little hooks. Some were decorated in an old-English flair; others with dainty flowers and swirly designs. Others were void of anything but a gold-like rim. My favorite cup had pretty clovers all over it. The saucers were neatly stacked on the shelf underneath the cups.

When my grandparents moved out of the farmhouse the cupboard was relocated to one of my aunt's.

The tea cups with matching saucers were divided up between the grandchildren. I felt so lucky. I was given the cup with the pretty clovers!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

House Dresses

I only remember one time when I saw my grandmother in anything but a house dress. It was later on in her life. She was going berry picking in a pair of jeans. That image was odd to say the least because growing up, she always wore a house dress; sort of like June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson but more down-to-earth like the Waltons.

My grandmother worked from the minute she got up to the minute she went to bed. I guess you could say when she went downstairs in the morning, she was reporting in to work wearing her uniform. Functional, with pockets, her house dress with its lose fit freed her to move fast, cook fast, mend and sew and knit fast, bake bread and prepare meals and clean-up after fast, tend to six daughters fast, help her husband in the barn and fields and gardens fast and deal with everything else in between through four seasons, seven days a week even faster.

She had a few house dresses. They were always clean and neat and complimented her as she moved about the old farmhouse which would have been comparable to today's woman in the workplace. That rambling home with its front veranda was her office. The kitchen was her board room. The long, pine table was where board members met to enjoy home-cooked meals and partake in conversations on a daily basis. Instead of stocks and bonds and trends, discussions focused on chores and family matters and more chores.

I dare say the work was harder and the hours longer in my grandmother's office. She never closed for holidays. She didn't benefit from paid vacations or sick leave or health insurance. Work as it is defined was real work back then. And even though she never wore pants, everyone knew she "wore the pants" in that office while wearing a house dress with pockets.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

For the love of Tuna Fish

I can remember going to my grandmother's and eating tuna fish sandwiches. She'd cut up celery into little bits and with a dash of pepper, add the bits to the fish and mix it all together with mayonnaise-never a substitute. Then she'd open a jar of pickles and put them on the table. If she'd run out of her own slippery pickles-the best pickles in the world-she'd serve dill pickles bought at the A & P or Loblaws. To me, pickles and tuna fish were made for each other-like peanut butter and jelly-ice cream and cake.

My mother made a great tuna casserole. Served piping hot with bread, the creamy mixture complete with peas and sliced hard-boiled eggs was the perfect meal on a winter's night. It was also good the next day-cold, for lunch.

Still to this day my love affair with tuna fish continues most every single day either for lunch or dinner-or both! I don't know what it is about that can of flaky fish. It's not just a habit because more often than not I crave my tuna. The worst example of this craving came when I was quite pregnant and in the grocery store. I realize now that I should have eaten before going there but I didn't think I'd be that long. But since it wasn't busy I bought more than I'd planned. Suddenly, waddling down the frozen food aisle that tuna craving hit so hard that I hurried to the front of the store and told a teller with a long line that I'd be right back. I parked my cart by the front desk and rushed as much as I could out the front door.

Thinking back and remembering the looks on faces, I bet they thought I was in labor. In a way,I was-

a labor of love started long ago by a grandmother who cut celery up into little bits and with a dash of pepper, added the bits to tuna fish and made sandwiches served with pickles on the side.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Spooky Halloween!

"Run! Run! This Halloween-
Get away from such a scary Scene!
Ghost and Goblins, Witches too-
Are ready to scream a Halloween B-O-O!"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Halloween Storyteller

With Halloween looming I'm reminded of my one particular uncle blessed with the art of storytelling. He was from Indiana; taught biology and coached basketball but it was his wit and smile and that particular gift of his that I remember the most-especially this very spooky time of the year.

There was one particular poem he'd recite and everytime he did we sat breathless, gearing up for that last sentence spoken with such certitude and fear. Although he'd recite it any time we asked, it was this time of the year of witches and ghosts and creepy, dark shadows that the ending of that poem sent shivers through our little spines. Of course it was all in the delivery-and deliver he did every single time.

"Little Orphan Annie" was the poem. It was written by James Whitcomb Riley who was born in the very city in Indiana where my uncle lived with my aunt and four cousins in an amazingly elegant, old Victorian home filled with amazing antiques he and my aunt restored. It was a great place to visit. They were lots of fun and that Victorian fit well with that storyteller. Is it any wonder that when he was about to recite that last line, that our hearts were beating a little faster and a tingling of nerves was setting in? No matter how many times I heard this, I still jumped right out of my skin.

With his eyes fixated and his Hoosier drawl in spooky mode, this uncle turned Halloween storyteller slowly let these words out. As I write them, I can hear him and see him and miss him greatly:

"The Goblins Will Get You-If You Don't Watch Out!"

Happy Halloween Storyteller!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Disaster on the Cinder Driveway!

Running along side my grandparent's farmhouse was a cinder driveway. To the adults it was a driveway; to those of us riding our bikes it could have been the Indianapolis 500. Some days, it was.

After waiting impatiently for the snow and ice of spring to somewhat melt away, we took our Schwinns out of the garage. I loved my bike. It was blue and maneuvered that track like a pro. A long straightaway marked with tall poplar trees led to a left-hand curve we called Dead Man's Curve. The trick was to build up speed when approaching it and just as you'd go into it, you'd slow down, keeping your feet poised to brake-but not abruptly for that could prove fatal. There were times when the course was flawless. This was normally on those hot summer days when the breeze through the poplars fanned us from one race to the next. There were times when it should have been shut down-like the wild October Saturday when wet leaves covered the cinders like a damp, slippery blanket. It didn't stop us.

We'd ridden the track several times at normal speed-kind of like being out on a Sunday afternoon drive. Then my cousins and I decided to go for it. We were just kids. We never thought that rain-drenched leaves on cinders might add-up to real danger and looking back, even if we had realized, it wouldn't have stopped us. It probably would have made us more determined than ever. Kids are like that you know!

So the decision was made. The three of us would start up by the road all clumped together which was what we usually did. I had the inside. First one around the corner and behind the garage would be the winner which was usually how the winner was declared. Of course we'd never stop behind the garage. We'd go past it and down the side hill to the flatrocks. But that was usually. This was no usual race.

Out of the gate, my one particular cousin shot ahead but he always did that. We were all standing up and pumping our pedals for speed. My bike had great pick-up. I'd learned to lean-in a bit. I never understood why but doing that increased my speed. My other cousin and I had about caught up with him when it was time to prepare for that infamous curve. I guess I really wanted to beat him that windy fall day for instead of slowing down I pedalled even faster. I whizzed right by him! I was on my way to victory going into Dead Man's Curve at top speed. I felt a rush of excitement! I kept standing and pumping my pedals. As I looked back to see where my rivals were I felt the bike starting to swerve. Flashing through my mind was the thought, "Slow Down", but I couldn't. The drenched leaves were controlling me and my Schwinn now. I started to skid right towards the farmhouse. The last thing I remember seeing was the big plate glass window in the dining room as cinders flew and leaves scattered and over the handlebars I soared. I scrapped along the driveway, ending up in the middle of my grandmother's peonia bushes which was certainly the better alternative to that window. One of my cousins came rushing to see if I was alive. The boy cousin went on to victory-again.

I had lots of bruises

but nothing was broken except for those bushes. My bike survived. To this day I still have cinders in my left knee which I consider miniature trophies for taking a risk and going for it on that cinder driveway covered in wet, slippery leaves! Victory was so near but that proved to be the last race at the Indy 500 on that blustery day! My mother had alot to do with it!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Small Town Post Offices

When I was older and we moved above my father's funeral home situated in the nearby small town, most every day he'd go to the post office to pick up the mail. More often than not he'd be gone for over an hour-and the post office was just around the corner. That's because he didn't go just to get the mail. He went for the experience. He went for the exchange of conversation. Sometimes the conversations were with business acquaintances; sometimes old friends and sometimes with people he really didn't know but saw every day at that old building with its wall of p.o. boxes and photos of the town so many years ago and the counter where stamps were bought, letters mailed and packages picked-up.

Christmas was his favorite time to go there. Besides the usuals he was certain to run into old friends visiting or locals not normally there but were in need of services only a post office could provide back then.

Sadly I hear some small town post offices might close. You hear various reasons why but I dare say this internet thing-this device that has connected me to you-played into the demise of grand old buildings and small one room buildings and everything in-between we affectionately call Post Offices which are so much more than the apparent.

If post offices close we lose another real, hands-on and in-the-face way of communicating with each other. And that's not only sad-it's scary!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Digging Potatoes and Pulling Pumpkins

This is the time of the year when all the thinking and ordering, cultivating, planting, weeding, watering, picking, cleaning, canning, freezing, and pickling come full circle. You've done all the work starting back in January when the seed catalogs showed up in your mailbox. You've accomplished and crossed off each step on your long list. Now it's October. Time to dig for those potatoes and pull those pumpkins from their straggly old vines.

Digging into the earth in search of potatoes is as exciting to me today as it was back when I was a kid living in the country. My grandparents had massive gardens. They had to. With 6 daughters and farmhands, meals were major productions especially during haying season. When it came time to clearing the gardens in the fall, helping dig for potatoes was like going on a treasure hunt. You never knew what the shovel pushed into the ground might reveal when pulled back out. The hope was for oodles of potatoes but there were no guarantees. Of course even just one potato was well worth a jump up and down. When there were several potatoes of varying sizes a scream of joy would be worthy of the moment. Moving the earth aside with our hands, my cousin and I would scrutinize what the shovel left behind in a mound of vines and soil. We realized that in the excitement we might have missed a few!

I still feel the same way when the shovel goes into the ground around the potato plants and I'm still excited to see what's pulled back out. There's nothing like being able to see what those lumbering potato plants have been doing all summer. With their fruit of the harvest kept under wraps until the very end, potatoes provide the last surprise to many months of hard work and wondering.

Pulling pumpkins from their tired vines is fun too. Unlike potatoes, you've been able to watch them grow. You've nurtured them, making sure they were still attached to the vine. You kept an eye out for little critters trying to nibble away at them. Pumpkins are bright and orange and happy reminders that besides the economical and health benefits that go along with planting and working a garden, just as important is the magical wonder at what started back when it was still a bit cold and wet and windy with tiny seeds has come full circle all because of you-and Mother Nature.

I do think potaotes and pumpkins are meant to be the last of the garden bounty for a reason. They make you very happy. While you clear away vines and roots and leaves and shriveled plants, those beautiful potatoes and pumpkins are testimony to the spirit and soul of what a garden is as you end one garden and start to think of the next after the snow comes and goes and the hint of spring is back in the air.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Adventure at the Bubble

The statistics are amazing! In 2008 Americans bought 34 billion liters of bottled water. Everywhere you go you see people carrying those plastic bottles. Water has become a zillion dollar business!

One of the most favorite things my cousins and I did when growing up in the country was to go down to the flat rocks which spread out between our grandparents' farmhouse and their barn. One by one we'd lay on the rock; clear away the green, stringy moss and drink the fresh, spring bubble of water shooting up and out from between the rocks. That water remains the coldest, the most refreshing

water I've ever drank even in the smothering heat of the summertime. And every time we'd have our fill there were no plastic bottles to redeem. Sometimes simple is best-and more fun!

I admit I do drink the bottled stuff these days but despite all their hype not one of those brands could ever satisfy like that natural bubble-sprouting its way up to the surface for little kids to get on their knees and enjoy. Sometimes we'd get more of that water up our noses than in our mouths but that was part of the adventure at the bubble. And if we became impatient waiting for our turn we'd run to the pumphouse and with a few quick jerks of the pump's handle we'd cup our hands and gather as much of that well water as we could.

There were no soft drinks to drink on the farm. That was fine because you don't miss what you've never had. Water was the beverage of choice-even without realizing the benefits. It just tasted really good!

Saturday, October 1, 2011


There's something about the colors and aromas and crispness of October that, when combined, present a most amazing awareness to one's senses. Add in apples and cider; pumpkins and candy corns and October climbs to the top of my most favorite list.

I wrote a little poem once about leaves which stated exactly how I felt about them: "Falling, tumbling, drifting down-I love the leaves when they cover the ground; Falling, tumbling, drifting down-I love the leaves all around!" I still feel the same about the leaves. I love watching them zipping and skipping and dancing across a field or highway. I imagine them in a giant hurry to get somewhere-all travelling in a clump like a family on a mission.

When I was growing up in the country leaves were meant to be played in. They were more than just leaves. They became giant mounds to jump in and hide in; getting up the nose, in the mouth, and stuck on clothes. None of that mattered when playing and pretending with cousins in leaf piles.

Just as much fun was the making of leaf houses. Painstakingly we'd rake leaves into a giant square or rectangle. Then we'd clear away any leaves from the middle and there we'd have a frame. Then we'd use

the leaves to designate the walls between the various rooms, leaving spaces for doorways. In the leaf bedrooms we'd make leaf beds with leaf pillows; in the leaf living room we'd make a leaf sofa and maybe a few leaf chairs; in the leaf kitchen we'd make a leaf table with a few more leaf chairs. We'd bring apples from home and eat them in our leaf kitchen. Thinking back, we never did make leaf bathrooms!

Most times the wind would sweep through and take our leaf houses away. But that never stopped us. No matter how many times we had to, we'd be back constructing new leaf houses with our rakes; sometimes playing into the evening with a big harvest moon as our guide. How very lucky we were!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gone Fishing

Fishing down at the creek consisted of either a bamboo pole or very long stick with string and at the end of the string a safety pin left wide open in order to hook-something. I don't think we'd ever seen an actual fish in the murky water that flowed behind the four houses in a row but that didn't matter when you are determined fishermen-and we were determined. Either casting our string while surrounded by creek grass standing on the shoreline or casting while standing on the edge of the rickety plank bridge that connected the backfields, we tried with all our might to get that string as far out into the creek as we could. Usually it ended up tangled in weeds or right back next to us.

Determined we remained; excited by the old cans we'd catch or masses of guck and goo. We never did catch a fish but we sure had lots of fun trying and that's what it's all about when your a little kid playing in the country.

Hair Combs

In the evening my grandmother would sit in her rocking chair by the front window surrounded by African Violets and Geraniums and slowly take the combs out of her waist-length hair. As she'd talk she'd pull the combs through her grey locks. There was something reassuring watching my grandmother do this; sitting there surrounded outside by the acres she and my grandfather had farmed for years. She represented tradition. She spoke for those who came before us; sharing their stories so we'd be able to share them with future generations. We'd hear about her days of living in the farmhouse with six daughters, parents, and a hard-working husband who in the evening would chew tobacco as he sat in the front parlor and read. We'd hear about the barn and favorite horses and bringing the hay in from the back fields.

When she was finished combing her hair she would put the combs in her lap and gather the hair together in a ponytail. Then she'd do a few twists, pulling the hair up on her head into a bun,

securing it only with the hair combs. Her hair always stayed in that bun. No matter what she did the combs never fell out. I've tried doing that but it's never worked like it did for my grandmother. She had a magic twist I have yet to master.

To think of the money we spend on our hair. Between coloring and glitzing and streaking and shaping so much money goes into maintaining hair.
My grandmother did it with a few plastic combs. To me she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever known. Her beauty and strength came from within with her hair always gathered in a bun; something I could count on to be a constant despite the world changing around me and despite my growing up from that little girl watching her comb her hair in the evening while she sat in her rocker to the teenager stopping in to see what kinds of cookies she'd baked to the adult bringing my own children to visit this woman with long hair gathered in a bun and arms outstretched to greet us. Priceless!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Carrot Picnics

My grandparents had a few gardens but the one I remember most spread alongside the farmhouse. Being a kid I can't remember who cleared and worked the field in early spring or who planted the field later on but I do remember sitting with my cousin amongst the rows of carrots in that field-and eating as many of them as we could. I have no clue how long we sat there or how many times we sat there. Nothing like that mattered. I just knew every time we did sit in the carrot patch, great fun and a delicious meal were seconds away. If we pulled on a carrot and the top broke lose leaving the carrot in the ground, we'd dig deep into the soil all around it with our fingers and patiently free that carrot for our quick consumption.

There were no hoses to clean the vegetables off back then but even if there had been we wouldn't have taken time to use them. You see, we firmly believed a fresh, vibrant carrot coming out from the soil was about the best tasting experience to be had when young and carefree. Oh we cleaned the dirt off them. We probably wiped them on our shirt or pants but that was it. We sat there in the shade of tall poplar trees and had our own private carrot picnics.

This went on throughout the summer-right up to when the long shadows of Autumn interrupted our parade; straight through the harshness of winter and piles of snow; straight through to the following spring when someone would clear and work the field and someone would plant carrots, squash, corn, beans, beets, onions and so much more-and two little cousins would once again sit in that garden in the summer breeze and eat those carrots right out of the ground!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Yellow School Bus

Despite believing with my whole heart that Summer would never end when growing up in the country, September brought reality with the return of the yellow school bus. After what felt like a century-long time lapse devoted to playing down at the creek-pretending and swinging on the rope with its big knot-going out and around and over the creek and sometimes in it and riding on telephone pole rafts off on great adventures from one bank of that sucker-filled creek to the other; climbing into the hay lofts of our grandfather's old barn and walking across the rickety, wooden planks going from one hayloft to the other; spending hours day after day in our chicken coop clubhouse pretending, creating, reading, writing,and producing great circuses and art shows which the adults, I am sure, loved attending-it happened-that yellow school bus was once again coming around the bend of the road to pick us up and take us back to that other world we'd left behind so very long ago.

Riding daily on a school bus forges unspoken friendships. Watching kids saying good-bye as they'd walk down driveways or wave to moms standing by the side of the road, you felt like you really knew these kids while most times you hardly ever spoke to each other. Usually everyone sat in the same place. Bigger kids seemed to gravitate to the back. No matter where you sat, the bumps felt along the way would pop you right up in your seat and cause uncontrollable laughter.

The bus driver was conveniently a bit deaf so he was oblivious to the chatter going on behind him. Returning home was noisier. Anticipation was usually the cause especially when the creek and the barn and fields and our chicken coop clubhouse were waiting! To this day when I see someone who'd ridden that yellow school bus with me I feel a special bond and remember them as those half-awake little kids climbing aboard a big yellow school bus from that first day in September to the last lazy, hazy summer day in June.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Let's Talk Christmas"

Growing up when Summer gave way to Fall meant it was time to say to the adults, "Let's talk Christmas" as we gathered around our grandmother's kitchen table. One aunt in particular loved to talk Christmas. Most of the time on those Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings she'd do all the talking-telling us of their Christmases in the old farmhouse. We'd hear about the oranges and nuts in their stockings; the meals prepared; the spirit of the Season shared.

With the Holidays less than 16 weeks away I'd like to talk Christmas by sharing a few odd little Christmas bits of trivia-fun to know-especially good for crossword puzzles! Here we go:
. In the poem, "The Night Before Christmas" Donder and Blitzen were originally named Dunder & Blixen.
. The Christmas window displays seen in the original movie, "Miracle on 34th Street", are on display at a bank in Milwaukee every December in the bank's lobby.

Have fun! Enjoy! More to come!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Did you know this about Rudolph?

Through the wonder of the internet my path crossed that of Michelle @ The True Book Addict who is-a true book addict and a lover of Christmas! It is from Michelle that I learned the 25th of every month is-for true lovers of Christmas-"Rudolph Day."

I had the pleasure of doing a Guest Blog 7/28 on her site-The Christmas Spirit. It's a magical site capturing the spirit of the holidays all year long. Besides poems and stories and snippets of old movie scenes and favorite TV specials and a collage of Christmas books and marvelous art including Victorian, the well-designed, well-thought out layout of the site right down to the colors and typestyles used taps into that heartfelt feeling of Home and Christmas. (My blog can be found down the left-hand column-"Guest Post with Author Barbara...").

I'm happy to say Michelle will be reviewing "The Reindeer Keeper" at a later date.

To check out Michelle's sites:
. christmasspirit-truebookaddict.blogspot.com
. thetruebookaddict.blogspot.com
. Historical Fiction Connection (hf-connection.com)
. thestoryinsideme.blogspot.com

Happy Holidays!!

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Sitting amongst the cupboard and tables and chairs in my grandparent's farmhouse kitchen was a small, white free-standing cabinet. On one side of that cabinet there was a door that when opened, you'd find boxes of hot and cold cereal. On the other side there were 3 drawers. One drawer in particular was the most exciting. Not because there were surprises inside. It was just the opposite. There were no surprises at all-just Cookies! We all knew that's where those special cookies were always kept!

Later when the farmhouse was sold and my grandparents and aunt moved into a smaller home nearby-that cabinet went with them and sat in their new kitchen. Nothing had changed but the location for inside that one particular drawer with its top with holes for fresh air that you'd have to pull back with your finger in the right spot were those cookies. They were always the same cookies-Lorna Doones and Fig Newtons.

Unlike today there weren't a zillion varities of those two brands or any brands available. They were simply Lorna Doones and Fig Newtons, shared when sitting around the kitchen table together. My grandmother baked cookies all the time. We especially loved her big, molasses cookies but the cookies she baked never lasted very long. On the other hand, we could always count on that pullout drawer. If the packs had been opened, they'd be neatly secured, waiting for the next little hand to reach in for a familiar treat.

Going down the grocery store cookie aisle these days is confusing. There are too many concoctions to basic cookies from which to choose. Some have added fruits; some have frosting or sprinkles or are stuffed with creme or peanut butter or jelly or raisins or mint or colored frosting or whatever else you might imagine. Most are available in low fat, no fat, diabetic, salt free, sugar free, etc. Just as confusing are the size of packages available made even more confusing by the clever pricing.

Getting a cookie was so much easier when going to that drawer in that cabinet that sat in my grandmother's kitchen.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Little Downtown Bookstore

When Borders closed their bookstores my thoughts took me back to when I was a little girl, going downtown to a small bookstore with my mother. She was a nurse; on duty midnights. Back home in the mornings, she'd read before going to bed. She was an avid reader even when exhausted.

There was something about those stacks of books piled on top of old tables and filling shelves in that bookstore of long ago. That place was

part of the community. It was a place to gather located in a family department store on the main floor tucked off by itself. I remember small window panes protruding out a bit onto the sidewalk; making for great displays especially when it was Christmastime and I was shopping with my mother. I don't think I could even read back then but it didn't matter. Whatever book I picked up I'd pretend to be able to put sentences together-and read.

Bookstores, real bookstores with front doors and people browzing and sitting and sipping coffee-all involved with a book or two, are about so much more than books. They are an oasis in this oversaturated life of ours; this faster than a speeding light society. Bookstores open minds and imaginations; expand horizons-narrow prejudices and induce conversations-hopes and dreams. Bookstores touch all five senses. They can turn a stop at the mall into a memory.

After my mother died I was blessed with most of those books bought years back when we'd go downtown to that little bookstore. When bookstores close, we lose so much more than the obvious.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer Vacation

It seemed summer was forever when growing up in the country. Saying good-bye to friends at the end of the school year was like a sad farewell. But once the school routine was tossed to the wayside not much thought was given to those friends until that routine returned.

We never did day trips or long trips; trips to Disney or parks full of animals or historic sites or beaches. Instead our trips were on the back of an old wagon going over the plank bridge to the hay fields. Our trips were walking down to the pine grove-lying under the pines and talking and listening to the wind sift through the trees. Our trips were waiting for our aunt to get home from work to walk down through the woods to the river for a swim and after the swim, enjoying graham crackers on the walk back home.

Our summers were totally set in the country-on our rafts made out of telephone poles going up and down Sucker Creek on great adventures; up in the haymows or around the stanchions and paddocks that once housed my grandfather's livestock or in the small granary next to the barn. We'd have sleep-outs in the backyard; picnics under my aunt's pine trees; drink freshly squeezed lemons turned to lemonade and stuff ourselves with hotdogs and hamburgers and watermelon and roasted marshmallows.

The majority of our time was spent in and around our Chicken Coop Clubhouse revamped to include the desks, books, and chalkboards of an abandoned one-room schoolhouse. Imaginations were in flight there-every single day-all summer long surrounded by arts/crafts, books, and cousins and siblings.

We were never bored. We never asked to go anywhere because we had everything we needed to turn a summer vacation into one enjoyable, seemingly never-ending adventure-even with chores to do and brothers and sisters to watch. When it was time to return to that routine; time to catch the yellow bus which would take us to see those long, lost friends, our summer matched any other student's summer despite their trips and bells and whistles.

We didn't measure summer fun by miles traveled but if we had, our summer most certainly would have placed first because when you use your imagination-you can go anywhere you'd like to go-over and over again-all summer long.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


There's something about a back stairway that adds comfort to a home. They certainly did in my grandparent's old farmhouse. While the front oak stairway and banister were polished and kept immaculate, the backstairs were quite the opposite. Worn, made from planks of wood, some creaked; some were uneven. But they were such fun. We'd run up and down them-half running and half skipping through the five bedrooms and the bathroom with two doors. Tucked behind my grandmother's wood stove in the kitchen, you'd never know the stairs were there if the door was shut.

My mother used to tell how she and her sisters would run down them in the winter, anxious to seek heat from the woodstove. When we were very young, we'd hurry up those stairs to bed when staying over, especially when the adults told us if we didn't-a man up the road would be stopping by to find out why we were still up. It worked every time. That's when we rushed up those stairs so fast that a few times we tripped over each other.

Proably the best case for that back stairway in the rambling farmhouse was when we'd play hide 'n seek. Those rickety old stairs allowed for a great escape just before capture. Of course they gave us older kids a quick get-away from pesty, younger siblings and faster access if playing upstairs to good things cooking downstairs on the woodstove.

But most likely the fastest anyone came down those backstairs was on Christmas morning when my mother and her five sisters were young and still believed. That was one winter morning when gathering in the kitchen was not about getting warm. It was all about checking their stockings full of oranges and nuts as smells of cinnamon filled that home full of family and excitement.

That back stairway holds so many memories of little feet running up and down for countless reasons through every season over so many years. How lucky we were to be carried to adventures and getaways and hideaways by simple planks of worn wood. Sometimes-Simple is best!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Family Nicknames

I know every family has those unique, in-family nicknames given to one another over the years. Most of the time just family members are aware of them and when you get together years later, those nicknames seem to slip right out. While people obviously mature and grow out of a strange, cute, or sarcastic name attached to them when they were younger, awkward situations can arise when a potentially new member to the family is introduced. That's when th
e fun begins for family insiders!

Our family certainly has had its share of nicknames. The most "famous" of them all continues to be the nickname "Giddy" given to my grandmother by my brother. He was the first grandchild and was unable to say grandmother. It came out Giddy and that stuck like glue to the most amazingly strong and beautiful-in-spirit woman I've ever known. Fact was she was called "Giddy" by most everyone who knew her.

Other nicknames that have sprung up over the years-and I will not connect any of them to anyone in particular for fear of being chastised are: Whell, Sparkle, Mooonbeams, Mooo, Butt Bows, Bart Lib, Fred, Freddie, Hound Dog, Houndie, Hound, Nookie, Pin, Cures, JoeMeDough, Bif, Doo, Dooweenahogboat, Porky, Tubby, Pree, OoooWaaa, Gwim, BiBe, Barns, Bud, Boone, Crow, Deacon, Buzzy, Den, Fuffy, Fluffy, Trish, Beauty, Beauties, Moop, Chief, Nu-Nu, DateMan, Sport, Guy, and probably more that I'll hear about from those inside-the-know once I post this.

Bottom line, family is family. We can pick and moan and groan and rail against one another within the confines of the family unit but it's family we call on when in need; it's family we gather with for holidays, birthdays, weddings, funerals. While we are all unique, we share a heritage-which includes all those cute, scarcastic, funky, strange nicknames

Monday, June 6, 2011

Late Night Movies with my Father

When I was a little older and when summer vacation hit, I'd stay up after the late news and watch the late movie with my father. He'd sit in his chair and would usually fall asleep before it was over. He always said dozing off in that chair was the best sleep ever for him.

There was never a hesitation if I'd be able to watch any of the nightly, feature-length fil ms. They were all decent movies with no overload of special effects or violence or sex. They were good, solid movies with no effects needed. The acting did all of that. I'd either curl up on the couch or on the floor with blankets and a pillow and go off on adventures with Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, William Powell, John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Elizabeth Tayor, Richard Burton, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, Doris Day, James Cagney, Kirk Douglas, Gene Kelley-and so, so many more! All superb and talented actors and actresses who kept me up until after 1 a.m.

I always knew when those two night owls popped up on our TV screen-sitting on a branch with the moon overhead announcing the movie was about to start that it was again time for my special couple of hours with my father-even if he did fall asleep!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Photo of the Chicken Coop Clubhouse

To the right and down a bit on this page you will see a photo added this week of me standing between some neighboring kids in front of the Chicken Coop Clubhouse which I've written about in a few blogs. The photo points out the truth in the adage, "A picture is worth 1,000 words."

Ramshackled with hardly any glass in the windows that small, old building was our DisneyWorld-the hub of our growing up in the country. It was a schoolhouse-a playhouse-a library-a restaurant-a stop along the way for stagecoaches or whatever else our imaginations pretended it to be. It provided us hours of creativity. It allowed us to explore the depths of childhood imagination. It instilled in us an excitement of the possibility. We learned sharing and responsibility; caring for those younger than we were; organizing events and carrying through with those events when the best laid plans hit roadblocks-just as life does when becoming adults. We read books; my favorites always by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. We wrote books.

From that Chicken Coop Clbhouse came plays and fairs; circuses and artshows. We taught the younger ones their ABCs. We read to them. We did projects with them. We even sent worksheets and report cards home with them. We hand-printed 4 copies of a family newspaper and delivered the copies every Sunday morning complete with family news, display ads, and local family sports.

Most kids don't need anything fancy to play with. Imaginations just need to be stimulated-not from TV or electronic games but from the freedom to explore where their very own imaginations can take them. Turn a sofa into a cabin. Throw a blanket between two chairs. If your lucky turn an old chicken coop into a Clubhouse for if you do, those marvelous experiences will stay with that child forever. I know this for certain!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Creative Cooking

When we could-meaning when there were no adults around-my cousin and I conducted experiments in my mother's kitchen. We'd take out my mother's big, yellow bowl and "make recipes." Sometimes we'd add the ingredients-just water and an egg as I remember-to a Jiffy cake mix and then devour the goo like soup. No need to bake it when you're experimenting. After all, it was a small cake mix; like drinking a milk shake!

Before we'd make-up r
ecipes we'd look out all the windows to make sure no one was coming; then we'd rush back into the kitchen and the fun would really begin! We'd start with one of those little cake mixes-most always white or yellow. Then we'd add whatever we could find; mushed-up bananas, cut-up cherries, peanut butter, jam of all sorts, pepper (Yes-Pepper-we were experimenting remember!), coconut, chocolate chips, more sugar-even brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, garlic (Yup-garlic),allspice, plus a dash or two or three of whatever else we could find in the refrigerator or my mother's baking drawer. This may have included mayonnaise, thyme, ketchup, mustard-a cut up pickle-whatever caught our fancy for after all, we were creating and creating means using your imagination and ingredients otherwise foreign to baking a cake.

After we felt the concoction was complete, just like two mad scientists, we'd stir the savory hodge podge and actually bake it, or at least try to. Once in awhile the end result was so good we'd devour any evidence it ever existed but that was once in a great while. Usually what was in the cake pan was impossible to swallow; even worse, impossible to bake. The birds, however, had a great time with their suprise meal discretly discarded behind my mother's rock wall where she grew her snapdragons.

After the kitchen was cleaned up, we'd go back outside to play-certain my mother would never miss the cake mix, eggs, bananas, cherries, peanut butter, jams, pepper, coconut, chocolate chips, more sugar-even brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, garlic, allspice, and whatever else we threw in. Surely she'd never wonder what the strange aromas were coming out of that kitchen or why her big, yellow bowl wasn't where she always kept it!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Cup of Coffee and Conversation

Amazing how coffee is such a phenomenon. So many brands and so many ways to serve it besides the standard hot cup of coffee. Now you have choices with strange names like frappuccino-latte-caffe mocha-macchiato. Then you can choose to stir-whip-steam or shake-and drink and drink some more! Some of these brands are so recognizable that their locations are sought after destinations in metropolitan centers to rural locations and every place in between

When I think of coffee, I think of my aunt who loved to go out for breakfast at local diners or small eateries. She'd savor every bite and enjoy every drop of her brewed coffee served in a thick, milk-white ceramic cup with a saucer. She'd add a bit of milk and sugar and stir it until it was "pretty"-as she called it. The waitress would fill her cup up a few more times as we'd linger and talk and watch people come and go. It was always fun being with her at these places which, to my aunt, were more enjoyable than a five-star restaurant. After leaving a tip on the table she'd put any remaining little paks of jams or jellies in her purse to take home. There was just something about peeling them back and spreading the stuff over toast. My aunt savored the simple things in life.

This aunt also loved it when we'd visit and gather around the kitchen table for conversation and a cup of coffee made in a stainless steel pot void of timers and buttons and bells and whistles. That old pot made the best cup of coffee every single time. Favorite brands were Chuck Full Of Nuts and Eight O'Clock. Watching her make a pot, it was obvious she was as excited to prepare the coffee as drink it. Sometimes during our gathering we'd need more coffee. Up my aunt would jump. Putting the tea kettle back on to boil the water, she'd then clean the old grinds out and add new. Once the kettle whistled, she'd fill the top of the pot with the scalding water. Then we'd wait for it to drip down through the grinds. Sometimes it seemed like it took forever but it wasn't any longer than standing in line for some of today's high tec brands served in plastic cups with lids.

When ready, my aunt would hold the top of the pot with her left hand as she'd make the rounds around the kitchen table, filling empty cups-which were my grandmother's flowered china cups with saucers. We'd wait until everyone had their coffee before we added whatever we felt needed; then we'd sit some more, sipping and talking. There were no earphones blocking our participation. No laptops or Kindles or Nooks grabbing our attention.

I think my aunt had it right-sharing conversation and time together while dipping ginger snaps in our piping hot, freshly dripped coffee. So simple-just so very simple; just how life should be sometimes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Christmas Tree Birthday Cakes

Digging through a kitchen cupboard the other night I came across two cake tins that symbolize the celebration of birthdays out in the country. They're pretty worn but then they were used for every birthday when we were growing up. They're not very deep but they're not supposed to be. Both are shaped like Christmas trees and when stacked on top of each other-with icing in between-they make the perfect sized cake especially when you are young and it is your day on which the Christmas tree cake is made just for you.

It didn't matter in what month a birthday fell. The cake was always the Christmas tree cake. On the morning of a birthday my mother would get the tins ready, coating them with butter and then covering the butter with a layer of flour. It seemed to me the making of the cake was an all-day procedure but I now realize my mother certainly did much more leading up to the celebration after dinner than just bake a cake. But I only cared about the cake-making going on and the licking of the beaters.

My mother would take the same big, yellow bowl out of the cupboard as she always did. There was no box mix. The cake was made from scratch as was the frosting. It was always the same-a white cake with white frosting. Real eggs and real butter and real flour were used. It always smelled the same cooking; always tasted the same when devouring. There were no fancy decorations on top. Just plain, little candles that went out when the birthday kid blew them out. I don't recall any pieces leftover.

By today's standards the Christmas tree cake was pretty simple. There were no licensed characters with multi-colored frosting and fancy script declaring whose birthday it was overpowering the moment baked by someone somewhere other than home. Sometimes simple is best. Sometimes simple tastes better.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Something From Nothing

It was the glitzy box that caught my eye just as it was supposed to do. I'd run in the store for a few things and ended up in the aisle loaded with all sorts of craft kits for kids. I was surprised to see so many kits designed to stir a child's imagination. I was also taken back by memories of doing funstuff when I was growing up in the country and doing projects with my child ren when they were young. But aside from the kits I bought my daughters to make pot holders out of loops on a grid and those bags full of colorful plastic crystals which they used to fill-in wired shapes the best their little fingers could and when ready I'd put them in the oven to bake with the end result being a pretty flower or butterfly or rainbow suncatcher-the rest of whatever was created was purely out of what nature provided-with a little help from crayons and glue made from flour and water when in a pinch. Most of the time imaginations were stirred by what was around.

Rocks were always great fun to paint or glue or use in masterful designs. Adhere some grass for hair and you could make a family with twig feet and arms. Old boards-minus the rusty nails-provided unique surfaces on which to draw or paint. Cutting and folding pieces of paper to make little books was always fun as was cutting construction paper into strips and making paper chains. Sometimes the strips would have an added crayon design; sometimes they didn't. Collecting shells down along the creek and then drying them out in the sun was a favorite thing to do as was painting them and sometimes adding them to a collage on wood or paper of stones and moss and pinecones and stuff.

Probably the most fun for my own children took place at an old camp where we'd spend time during the summer when they were young. There was a perfect spot where the water was shallow; where right under the surface was a huge bed of clay. Walking around in the water-feeling with their feet-once that clay was discovered they'd scoop it up and put it on a board. When satisfied they'd found enough of the gooey mud they'd shape the clay into all sorts of creations and then let the sun be the oven to bake their creations to pefection. Once dried, they'd paint their masterpieces. I did buy ModPodge back then. Decoupaging stones and clay was always fun as was doing the same to little jars which then made cute little flower vases or places to keep secret treasures.

It doesn't take a kit to ignite a child's imagination. Just take a look around and you'll discover how you can make something from nothing and have alot of fun doing so! It's a great way to create memories that last a lifetime.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

May's Approaching-Isn't it?

It doesn't feel like May yet. Where I live we're still getting sprinkles of snow now and then but the anticipation for wildflowers smiling about the fields and a warm breeze and garden planting is the same as when May was approaching out in the country when I was a kid. May's like a gift; a reward for getting through the winter-a pleasant sort of a month before the humid side of June swallows the landscape up in a smothering blanket especially when working in the hayloft during haying season. When that happened, I'd always wish it was winter again. Guess we're never happy with the weather-sort of like our hair. Sometimes all the weather is good for is conversation.

When you're young rooms seem bigger; backyards seem to go forever-the wait for Christmas never-ending. That's how I felt when May was just about here; when one day would be freezing and the next day in the 50s. When would it happen? There never was a magic wand to wave and then-here you go-it's May! It sort of happened while we played. We were so busy playing we didn't notice the fields not so soggy or the stream running alongside the farmhouse slowing down or the need for an extra sweater not there anymore. One day-it was May. We knew the winter boots and heavy coats and mittens would be packed away but not too far away. You just never know about the weather!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Easter Treasure Hunts Out in the Country

We were lucky. We had that uncle who was more child than adult and never was this more apparent than on Easter.

As I've explained before, there were 4 houses full of relatives all sitting in a row on a winding country road. Besides yards, there were back fields and a creek and an old barn and granary and pump house and wood shed and a chicken-coop-turned-clubhouse and on and on and on. There were just so many nooks and crannies tucked here and there and our uncle took advantage of most all of them because back then, every Easter, he plotted and ployed as off on a mission he'd go around the fields and creek and old barn and granary and pump house and wood shed and a chicken-coop-turned clubhouse hiding numbered, folded pieces of paper on which he'd written a clue. Putting all those clues together, this uncle was actually the Mastermind behind Treasure Hunts that could have been possibly the most amazing adventures any child anywhere could ever had wished to be a part of on Easter.

Rain or snow we'd be out there-searching, running, peering, wondering, figuring-scratching our heads; one minute in deep despair unable to find the next clue while maybe seconds later jumping for sheer joy with that clue in hand, ready to figure out where the next clue might be.

You must understand these clues were not hidden haphazardly or obviously. From the first to the last, each clue was cleverly disguised by clever wording and the entire hunt was thought out, mapped out and staked out with every little detail considered. We were taken all over the place-from the hayloft to backseats of parked cars to cracks in siding to cinderblocks and tree twigs. Nothing was off limits.

All in all there were probably about 20 clues. The older kids would haul along the younger ones who'd get tired or crabby but the thought of a brown grocery bag with their name on it full of candy out there somewhere kept them in the race. For the older kids it really wasn't the candy. It was that Mastermind watching from his glassed-in side porch getting as much enjoymnet watching as he had creating the maze. A few times one of us might have run and asked him for a clue about a clue we just couldn't figure out but he never obliged-and looking back I'm glad he didn't. Not once was the treasure not found and we did it all on our own.

When it was over, we all ended up with our brown bags, although a few Hunts were harder than others-like the time the final clue most certainly referred to the creek grass but there was just so much of it. We scoured the bank of the creek-over and over, again and again we'd stomp our feet, move aside the course grass. Eventually we found it but it was almost time for dinner-and now thinking about it, maybe that was part of the ingenious ploy behind those amazing Treasure Hunts. We were out from under foot. The older kids were babysitting and never realized it as the adults gathered peacefully inside.

Very clever! That uncle was more of a Mastermind than I ever realized back then-out in the country, searching for brown grocery bags full of candy hidden by a man with the heart of a child!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Easter Parade at the Clubhouse

Excitement was building. What was quite possibly our biggest event ever scheduled to take place at our Chicken Coop Clubhouse was fast approaching. My cousin and I had spent every spare minute we had getting ready;scrubbing and picking up the Club; practicing and then practicing some more; getting all the little ones prepared to perform the way we expected or at least march in a straight line for a few minutes. This would be our first of what we

hoped would be many more Easter Parades-a new event added to our list which included carnivals, circuses, art exhibits, plays, and Halloween spook houses-and others without official titles. How lucky were all the adults to have so many wonderful happenings to attend! We took pride in being such an active Club.

Hours were spent making decorations from construction paper. Perfect Easter eggs were easy when you folded the paper in half and finished the job with crayons. Decorated strips of paper glued together made simple Easter baskets. Our bulletin board was especially attractive with oodles of paper eggs and paper bunnies and chicks. We'd been to the store. We bought lots of Easter candy. No Easter parade was complete without candy. The front yard-eventually hay that in a few months we'd stomp down with our feet-would be where the audience would sit on whatever we could find in the barn. Sometimes that meant a cinder block at either end of a board.

The last rehersal had been a success. Our parade was to be Saturday. Easter was always busy enough out in the country with four houses full of relatives. We'd start marching up the path that was between the Clubhouse and farmhouse. I wouldn't join them. I was in charge of the window. This was where all the action would be; announcing the goings on; selling the candy. Once we removed the chicken wire and put out our cardboard sign which we'd spent what seemed hours designing, the First Annual Chicken Coop Clubhouse Easter Parade would be underway. All our work was just about to pay off.

Well it never happened. We awoke to an all-day spring downpour. I met my cousin at the clubhouse only to find melted marshmallow chicks distorted so badly that they were just sticky blobs. Jelly beans were inseparable. Chocolate eggs were chocolate soup. Since most of the windows were without glass, paper decorations were destroyed as was that window sign we'd labored over.

We were certain all the adults were as disappointed as we were. We told them not to worry. We'd get to work on a new event just as soon as we could pick up the sticky chicks and lopsided bunnies.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Art of Sewing

Both my grandmother and mother were fine seamstresses. Perfectionists when creating with fabric, every seam had to be straight; every dart even with another. Sitting at her small, black Singer sewing machine with the pedal on the floor and her tape measure around her neck and straight pins pinned to her sleeves or house dress, Giddy as we affectionately called our grandmother would mend, nip, tuck, take in, let out, patch whatever demanded her attention. Most times she never used a pattern when it came to a new project. She'd take the measurements and go from there. When she did use a pattern she'd sometimes combine two into one; taking something from each to obtain her end result. She worked quickly. But then, with six daughters and a farm, there was no time to waste.

The last thing she ever sewed for me she never had time to finish. She'd started basting pieces of fabric together that she'd cut into squares with the plan of making the child I was expecting a quilt. Instead of putting those pieces away in a drawer, I've framed them and keep them out as a reminder of this woman who created right up to her very last breath.

My mother was really the true perfectionist. She not only sewed the basics. She mastered tailored coats and jackets; suits and fine dresses. After a blood clot in her leg forced her to retire from nursing, an addition was built on to our home in the country; giving her the opportunity to open a fabric store. But it was much more than fabric. This was back when women and men wore hats. Not baseball caps but stylish hats; some with jewels and sequins; some with feathers. My mother carried a full line of hat accessories, plus jewelry, Vogue and Butterick patterns, and bolts upon bolts of cottons, wools, corduroy, linen, silk organza, felt, rayon-and if she didn't have something in stock that a customer requested she'd get it.

A couple times of year she went on buying trips to New York and a few times I was lucky enough to go along with my parents into the garment district where we'd hurry from one fabric warehouse to another. It was exhilarating; the crowded streets with racks of clothing zooming by and people shouting and flatbeds of fabric being forklifted off trucks. I think that's when I fell in love with New York City.

I'd also fallen in love with my mother's shop. On Saturdays my grandmother taught sewing. That's when I learned about inseams and back seams and darts and buttons with button holes and zippers. I learned about working with certain types of fabric; how to measure and how to do the basics. While I mastered the basics, I've never risen to the level of perfectionist.

Sometimes I'd take my homework and do it on the large,oblong table which served as the measuring and cutting table in the shop. Being surrounded by fabric and feathers and colors and designs with the smell that only those bolts of material can project made it hard to concentrate on algebra and biology. There was never anything creative to me about those subjects. They were too exact. When I did do what I had to do, the books were closed. Then I'd pull bolts of fabric out and mix and match them to my own patterns I'd create on paper by using Vogue or Butterick as my guide. I was a great designer in that fabric shop in the evenings until it was time to go to bed and back to boring algebra.

I often think about those two women and their sewing abilities. My mother ended up with a computerized sewing machine with all the bells and whistles-but she never used all the fancy options. She might have selected a different type stitch now and then but anything else could have been accomplished on that Singer model of my grandmother's. Sometimes we are given too many options. I am gratful that I was given the option of leaning how to sew or not for sewing is yet another creative outlet for those with fingers and hearts aching to create.

Whether it's a blank canvas or blank sheet of paper; a bolt of fabric or a slap of clay, it takes an artisan with his/her heart soaring to turn those raw materials into illustrations, books, paintings, designer suits and cups and bowls and vases. Sure beats numbers and formulas and strange signs that equal equasions-or something like that!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Aprons and Doilies

I wish I wore aprons but I don't. Actually I don't spend that much time cooking except for the holidays or Sundays. I could use that for an excuse but truthfully, I don't own any aprons. Not a one. Martha Stewart wears aprons but I'm sure they're designer brands.

My grandmother's aprons were basic all-cotton. They went over the head and tied in the back. Some had a pocket-type thing in the front that served like a catch-all as she worked about her farmhouse kitchen while being interrupted by other chores or distracted by children or totally caught off guard by things that needed fixing right then. Those aprons resembled the things carpenters tie around their waistline holding different sized nails. Hers held everything from buttons to pencils and whatever else came her way. Doctors have their white coats. My grand mother had her aprons which were hung on a hook behind a door leading from the kitchen to the dining room. A few were kept for good; a few saved for the holdiays.

I don't have any doilies either. I wonder if anyone these days do. I don't remember them that much in the farmhouse. It was my mother who starched and pressed the knitted table coverings. It was a painstaking, time consuming process just to end up with very stiff coverings that sat on end tables underneath plants or lamps or whatever she chose. I don't know where she found the time to starch her doilies. Looking back I'm glad she did. I always thought they looked nice as did my grandmother in her cotton aprons.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

TV Westerns

When I was growing up there were plenty of Westerns on TV. Guess they could be compared to today's glut of reality shows or CSI series or those singing/dancing talent competitions except the Westerns were in black and white and the actors weren't actors-they were our best friends; part of our family.
I think I was infatuated with every cowboy. When they rode off into the sunset I was right there with them. From Adam Cartright on "Bonanza" to "The Rifleman"-men were men; clearing and defending their land and tipping their hats to the women when in town. When they wore their leather chaps I melted. When they tied their 6-gun on and went after the bad guys I cheered.
As I've mentioned before Saturday night gave us Gunsmoke followed by Paladin. From Matt and Miss Kitty to that "Knight without armor in a savage land" Saturday night was a smorgasbord of boots with spurs and long dresses I wished I could wear.

When we played "Western" in our Chicken Coop Clubhouse I did wear those dresses; I did ride off into the sunset with those cowboys-after my work in our schoolhouse-turned-restaurant was done although some days I just had too much to do. It was really busy when a stagecoach stopped. The horses had to be watered. The people had to be fed and all rather quickly as the driver was in a hurry; had to make it to Dodge by sunset. That meant the stone eggs we scrambled and the twig strips of bacon we grilled and slices of leaf toast we toasted and the mud coffee brewing all had to be prepared and served-before the next stagecoach pulled up or the next Marshall stopped for a cup of mud coffee or the next cowboy in transit asked for the special-cardboard pancakes with homemade mud-maple syrup.

Thanks to those TV Westerns, we spent hours in our clubhouse enacting our own Western sagas. Difference was our scripts weren't written down. There were no lights, camera, action. Our scripts came soaring from imaginations intent on the moment flipping bark french toast or waving good-bye to patrons with full stomachs-on their way to Dodge before sunset.