October 17, 2014 Ducks
The police log of our local newspaper is often a source of entertainment. Reported last week: Unruly Ducks Confound Police. Seems that a flock of ducks decided to take up residence in the middle of a country road. Police gave chase. Ducks thought that was hilarious. They refused to be shooed and caused a ruckus. Wish I’d been there. . .
October 17, 2014 Summer came and went
A busy summer of writing meant neglecting this blog. Back now with two books at publishers and life once again a bit more leisurely.
April 26, 2014: Spring is springing
Finally. Our world is coming back to life after the winter’s sleep. First came the crocus; then the daffodils! Suddenly it’s as if every plant and tree is competing to see who can be next to show off: Hyacinths! Magnolia trees! Ornamental Cherries! Forsythia! Tulips! Every morning something new and beautiful greets us.
April 22, 2014: Wildlife
Living in this part of rural New England means sharing with wildlife. Our foundation is home to a groundhog. The barn harbors squirrels and chipmunks, a raccoon and mice. This time of year, ants march through the kitchen and frogs that somehow survived the winter again take up residence in the small pond we created in the back yard. Red foxes trot down the street now and then. And – especially in the fall – we have to take care to look for the occasional black bear that may come wandering through the neighborhood. I love that they haven’t given the territory entirely over to us.
April 21, 2014: Bald eagles!
While reading lakeside, I heard a sudden splash. I quickly turned to see a bald eagle with fish in his talons swooping up to the top branches of a nearby giant pine tree. What a thrill. Throughout the afternoon, the performance was repeated several times. The thrill was never less for the repetition. He (she?) never missed the fish. I never missed taking a moment from my book to watch that magnificent bird soar up and over the lake to the favored tree.
April 10, 2014 : Ostereierbaum (Easter egg tree)
It’s originally a Germanic tradition. During Lent, people decorate outdoor trees with Easter eggs – lots of Easter eggs. I suspect the custom was brought to our valley by the influx of Polish farmers at the beginning of the 20th century. Since then, it’s been adopted by many who have no idea of where the idea came from; who just love the idea of celebrating the arrival of spring with something colorful and surprising. That’s how it started for us. Every April since our kids were very young, we’ve spent a delightful few hours on a Saturday hanging colored eggs on a small pear tree in our yard. At a time when the earth is just waking up, when only crocuses are peeking their heads from the ground, the colorful trees offer relief from winter landscapes and a way to say “welcome spring.”
March 25, 2014 Maple Sugaring Time
Finally. The nights are cold and the days are warm and the sap is running. All over our valley, sugar shacks are in business. When I was a girl, shiny buckets were hung on every tree up and down our street. We kids would open a lid now and then to see how full the buckets were and sometimes to furtively dip a finger in for a quick taste of the sap. It doesn’t taste like much but I’m sure it was made a bit sweeter by the idea we were getting away with something.
These days you’re not likely to see buckets on a residential street. Things have sadly changed in that way. I’m sure many would disappear within days. But out in the woods and around the farms, those buckets still can be seen with the drip, drip, dripping of the sap filling them. Many farms have moved to plastic tubing going from the trees directly to the boiling room. It’s efficient, I know, but my tree-hugger side objects. There is something reverent about touching each tree as we collect the day’s sap.
If you’ve never gone to a sugar shack, let this be the year. It’s the kind of total sensory experience that memories are made of. The whole place is usually surrounded by a cloud of sweet smelling steam from the evaporators that boil day and night. The fires make the shack toasty warm inside. Most serve at least pancakes and maybe some corn fritters that are suitably coated with new, sweet syrup, fresh from the boiling off.
Visiting a sugar shack is an annual ritual. Go at least once to get a mapley taste of spring – and to take home a gallon of new syrup to last until next year.
March 1, 2014: It’s March!
It’s always a relief to get through February. It may be the shortest month but around here it can feel like the longest. With nights in the single degrees and days not much better, it can feel like winter will never end. Then comes March. I love the name. It may still be cold. There may still be snow on the ground. But we’re now “marching” toward the first day of spring. Some confused robins showed up in my yard this morning. They are way too early but it was still good to see them. I threw out extra seed to tide them over and hope they know how to keep themselves warm enough for the next few weeks. March 20 is the official first day of spring. It’s coming.
February 14, 2014 Valentines in the Snow
Forget about the roses. A nor’easter came through, leaving a landscape covered in white, lots of white. It’s begging to be written on. Get out there and stomp out a huge heart shape in your yard for your sweetie. Then hunker down with cocoa and old romantic movies. The world is shut down anyway. Enjoy the day.
February 2, 2014 Groundhog Day
What a strange, quirky little holiday. If a groundhog peaks out of his (or her, I imagine) den and the day is cloudy, spring will come early. If it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow, we’re in for more winter cold. This year, Groundhog Phil in Punxsutawney, Pa. saw his shadow, foretelling 6 more weeks of winter! I don’t know who anointed that particular beast with the ability to tell the future but I’m not happy with him. It’s been so cold this year, I’m more than ready for warm sun and daffodils. We New Englanders are hearty folks so we’ll roll with it. But next year, would someone please make sure that burrow stays in the shade?
December 14, 2013– BIG Snow
First snow dusts the world with sugar. BIG snow dumps two feet of the stuff! It’s one of those bad news – good news kind of days. Bad news: Shoveling, snow-blowing, scary driving. Good news: Reason to stay home, bake cookies, and read by the fire. If we get the bad news part done by noon, we have the rest of the day to enjoy the quiet after the storm. That and a little hot chocolate and life is good.
December 7, 2013 — First Snow
After a week of dreary gray days and rain, we woke this morning to a beautiful surprise: Bright blue sky and a world coated in white. With just enough to be pretty, not a major chore, it’s like a greeting card sent for the holiday season.
November 15, 2013 – Fall Clean up
It was much more fun when the children were small. Raking leaves meant jumping in the piles, tossing leaves at each other, and taking turns getting covered up in a leafy bed. If you’ve never had the chance, be sure to add that to your “bucket list”. The crunch of the leaves, the lovely tangy smell, the contrast of crisp air and warm burrow is not something to miss in a lifetime.
Nowadays, my husband and I rake and rake and rake some more – without the distractions and fun of children’s laughter and leafy games. Sometimes, though, we jump in and emerge with leaves in our hair. No one is too old for a leaf fight!
There is something about being out in the fall air, making piles and chatting now and then that is very satisfying. It’s concrete work. You can see where you’ve been and where you haven’t. The piles grow. The yard takes on that ready-for-winter look. We pile it all on tarps and haul the load down to the road for the pick-up we’ve arranged. Phew. Now we can relax and look forward to the snow.
October 12, 2013 — Leaf Peeping
It’s “peak weekend”! Columbus Day weekend in rural New England is a riot of color. Sugar maples are ablaze with reds, oranges and yellows. Birches are a pale yellow-green. Oaks are bronzed. And here they come! Our roads are filled with cars sporting license plates from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and further South.They are the Leaf Peepers, people who travel miles north every year to see the show. They slow the traffic on winding back roads and fill the scenic rest areas. They meander through antique shops and gift stores, purchasing maple syrup and tea towels and candles to take wherever is home. For maybe a week, our countryside is a destination! When the Peepers leave, we know it’s time to finish stacking the wood and putting the gardens to bed! Winter is coming.
Sept 30, 2013 – Cider Donuts
It’s that time of year again. A local farm stand is featuring their famous cider donuts. For the uninitiated: Cider donuts aren’t filled with jelly, fruit or cream. They aren’t adorned with orange frosting, powdered sugar, sprinkles or chocolate bits. They don’t need to be decorated or “enhanced” or sweetened up to be worth a special trip to the stand. They may be naked but they are anything but plain.
Cider donuts are rich brown circles of deliciousness — a little firm on the outside; flaky and tender on the inside. Warm and fresh out of the kettle, they are a perfect mate for crisp, cold new-pressed apple cider. However hard they try, the donut chain stores can’t get it right. There are some things that just don’t taste the same when mass produced. For that, I’m grateful. They taste even better for being a once a year treat. Pass me another donut, please.
Sept 1, 2013: Eggs by the Roadside
Driving across town today, I saw a cooler beside the road. A handmade sign said, “Fresh organic eggs, $5 a dozen.” A coffee can with a slit in the top was placed strategically next to the cooler. I again thought how wonderful it is that we can still trust in people enough to take only the eggs they need and not to make away with the can — at least most of the time. I pulled over, selected a dozen, deposited my $5 and sang all the way home. Egg-straodinary!
August 22, 2013: Peach Jam
Peach jam is my favorite to eat and my least favorite to make. Give me berries! Prep time is almost non-existent. Then there are peaches: the blanching, the peeling, the pitting, the slicing and chopping, the mess.
As I was fretting, I had one of those moments of insight that can make me both marvel and feel a little ashamed of myself: My grandmother did all this on a big black wood fired kitchen stove! She didn’t have a food processor or powdered pectin or a burner that went on and off with the turn of a button. I remember stirring and stirring and stirring the vat of peach pulp, testing and retesting to see if it had jelled yet. She used hot paraffin to seal, not shiny new rings and lids straight from the hardware store. Her results? Always perfect.
During childhood winters, I remember pushing the paraffin disk aside to get to the peachy sweet and gooey jam. Delicious. So, here I am, doing a modern day version that is easier than Gram ever dreamed would be possible, remembering those times together as being as sweet as the jam.
August 17, 2013: 45 th Anniversary
Today I’ve been married (to the same guy!) for 45 years! Plans are modest: We’re fixing our rowboat this afternoon, having a quiet dinner later, maybe some ice cream and a cuddle while watching a movie. At this point, there is no need for trumpets and parties. We’re comfortable together the way that people can be who have shared a life, raised 4 kids who are all good people, and mostly gotten along — and we still think each other is hot! After 45 years, that’s more than enough.
August. 3, 2013 Crows
I think crows have been given a bad rap. Somehow they’ve been portents of evil and bad luck for centuries. I just don’t see them that way. Four were in my yard today. They may not have the most beautiful voices in the world but they are certainly conversational. One discovered my much-neglected pear tree and let the others know. Soon all 4 were at the top, feasting on pears and having a raucous crow-party. Once they ate their fill, they took off, the sun glinting off their huge blue black wings. Beautiful.
July 28, 2013 Turkey Traffic
I found myself at the rear of a long line of cars backed up on one of our country roads today. A tree limb down? Someone with a flat? No — A family of wild turkeys was wandering around in the middle of the road and taking their own sweet time thinking about whether they were going to move for some multi-ton vehicles. Four adult birds and seven young ones were happily finding something edible on a road damp with recent rain. Or maybe they just liked the yellow line. Hard to know with turkeys.
After taking a few pictures with those ever-present smart phones, folks started to get impatient. Someone honked. The birds gobbled back. Very neighborly. Someone got out to shoo them along. An adult bird took exception to that, puffed up, then decided people aren’t worth the trouble and went back to milling about with the flock. Finally, the turkeys saw something more interesting, at least to turkeys, and made their way off to the roadside and into the woods. 11 cars of people were able to get going after maybe 15 minutes of living on turkey-time.
I love living where we are reminded that human beings are not entirely in charge.
July 20, 2013: Raspberries
Raspberry jam making is my favorite. It is so easy. No hulling the tops like strawberries. No picking out the little black stems from blueberries. Just wash ‘em and crush ‘em and cook ‘em up with a little Pomona’s pectin and sugar and it’s as if the jars fill themselves. 10 lovely glistening jars of jam are now sitting on my counter as if by magic. Well . . Not quite. It’s still hot work on a hot summer morning. But I find the whole process meditative and far more rewarding than a lot of other tasks I can think of – and successfully put off by making jam.
July 1, 2013: Summer Showers
Ten minutes ago, the sun was shining and the family was enjoying a backyard dinner. Now rain is coming down in sheets, flooding the window sills and blowing in the screen doors. We run around madly, bringing in plates of food, shutting windows and mopping up. What happened? Some of the kids run outside, laughing and hollering. Who needs a sprinkler when nature has provided a backyard water park? And then, just as suddenly, it’s gone. Windows get thrown open again. We go back outside to air that is refreshed and a welcome drop in the temperature. Best of all, there’s a double rainbow overhead!
June 20, 2013 Strawberry Picking
It’s June. One of our annual rituals has always been to go to a local field to picks quarts of berries. Now that my own children are grown, I welcome the chance to share the fun with neighbors’ kids. Is there anything as red as a strawberry? Is there anything as juicy as a perfect berry still warm from the sun? As lovely as the perfect ones are, I’ve found that kids always like the odd shaped ones best. “Look. I found a heart,” says one kid. “Looks like someone’s arse”, says an irreverent teen. “But here’s one that’s double.” “I found the biggest one in the field.” The kids call out and show off their finds. The game and the fact that baskets fill quickly makes the hour we spend in the field an event. Soon we have 8 quarts, enough to make jam and to feast on shortcake tonight.
June 14, 2013 Breathe. You’re at the lake now.
There’s something about being next to water that is immediately soothing. Scientists probably explain it as having something to do with ozone or something. I prefer to think that water sprites have something to do with it. Whatever the cause, it’s as if stress immediately drains from me when I get close to the local lake. I don’t need to stay long. I don’t even have to get in a swim. Just a few minutes of solitude, looking at the lake and breathing in the lake air is renewing in a mysterious and wonderful way.
May 4, 2013 Apple Blossoms and Bumble Bees
Most of the year, the crab apple tree in my yard isn’t anything special. It’s just an ordinary tree that provides a little shade on our walk. For a couple of months in the fall, it’s a nuisance. Hard little apples fall and rot and fill the air with the scent of vinegar or hard cider. But in the spring — Ahh. In the spring we get a show. One morning we wake up to find that overnight the buds have burst open and covered the tree with white, white blossoms. Soon the whole tree is vibrating with the buzz of huge bumble bees. I like to imagine the bees were sleeping inside the buds and were waked by the opening of the flowers. I love to stop for just a few minutes whenever entering or leaving the house to just take in the loveliness and smell the sweet, sweet scent of apple blossoms on the breeze. In a day or two, the blossoms will drop and drift like a light snow. And then it’s over for another year.
April 28, 2013 Fiddleheads
In my part of New England, we get to eat a bit of spring for a couple of weeks a year. Fiddleheads, the tightly coiled tips of new growth of ferns, are found in the woods and by streams only in very early spring. Gather a pound or two, rinse well, and quickly saute in a little olive oil and maybe some garlic. Spritz with some fresh lemon. Sprinkle with salt. Then savor the taste of green. They are kind of spinachy-artichoky-asparagusy. Mostly, they are delicious.
March 23, 2013 Crocus
In my hurry to get out the door this morning, I almost missed them. The first crocus are popping their heads through the inch or so of snow still left on the ground from last week’s snowfall. Purple and yellow and white. The small fragile blossoms somehow manage to work their way through the cold stuff to give us the first hint that spring is really on the way. I’m sure there is a metaphor in there but it’s enough to smile back at them and think, “Yeah. It’s time.”
March 17, 2013 Everyone is Irish
I just made a cake with green frosting and shamrocks on it. Why? It’s a stretch to find some Irish heritage in this family. But Irish or not, we’ll have green cake for dinner because in my part of the country everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. There are parades – lots of parades. Folks are wearing the only green item of clothing in their closets. We all eat corned beef and cabbage. Those who drink, drink green beer. Sure. Partly it’s a day for those who are Irish to celebrate it. But for the rest of us, it’s an excuse for a celebration in this cold, strange month of March. There’s nothing like a bit of Irish jigging to Irish music to warm you up and lighten your spirits.
February 7, 2013 Snow Panic
It’s the day before the storm. A Nor-easter is predicted to bring a foot or more of snow to our part of Massachusetts. Go to any hardware, grocery, or big box store and you’ll find long, long lines. People are in “snow panic”, laying in extra milk and bread, flashlight batteries, water, and candles. Some are optimistic. They’re buying DVDs of movies or TV series they haven’t seen, counting on the power to stay on long enough to do a marathon watch of Downton Abbey or all of the Harry Potter films. Others stock up on sand and salt and throw in a new snow shovel to deal with driveways adrift.
Yes, there have been some week-long stretches of no power and no access to the store. But most of the time, even when nature has dumped a foot or two, it’s been possible to get back to normal in a day or two. So why the panic?
I think it’s human nature to have to “do something” when feeling threatened. Even if we already have 2 snow shovels and a week’s worth of canned goods in the pantry, it just doesn’t feel right to hang around waiting to be snowed in.
So, I admit it. I went out and bought some really good tea and a new book. I did “something” and now I feel ready – and hopeful – that work and school will be called off and we’ll get to stay home for a day or two.
After the obligatory shoveling and salting and sanding, we’ll get to play in the snow and come in for cocoa. We’ll get to read and talk and maybe eat by candle-light. As long as there is no emergency like a tree limb hitting the garage or pipes freezing, we can enjoy the pleasures of an unexpected holiday.
January 15, 2013. January Thaw
It’s been over 40 degrees most of the past week. That followed freezing temperatures, snow and ice. We know we’re probably in for more of the same over the next three months. But, for now, we’re enjoying the respite from heavey jackets, gloves,, and hats; from chipping ice on the sidewalks and hauling in wood for the stove. The thaw is a welcome rest in mid-winter. Like catching our breath during a run, a momentary stop lets us appreciate our surroundings and get ready for another difficult stretch.
January 1, 2013
2013! How did that happen? I find I’m never really prepared for the passage of time.
December 18, 2012: Making Christmas
I love the sound of that. Making Christmas. Because surely Christmas is something each of us makes according to the images in our own heads. For me, it is repeating treasured traditions. At least one adult child still wants to be in on picking out a tree with her dad. They haul home the tallest one that will fit in our living room, over my protests that we don’t need the tree that ate Massachusetts; something smaller will certainly do. Not. That good natured argument has become part of the tradition, as surely as my husband cussing as he strings the lights and me putting on the ornaments that each child has been given on each year of their lives. I still make cookies, buy and wrap presents, fill stockings and prepare pretty much the same meals as always for whoever comes for Christmas week dinners. I don’t have to do any of these things. I do them because they mark the rhythm of the year and affirm our sense of family and home.
December 1, 2012 Christmas Cookies
My German grandmother was famous for it. Thanksgiving dinner was barely over when she began making the cookies: Lebkuchen, sugar cookies, gingerbread men, chocolate and vanilla pinwheels, spritz, and peffernuss; shortbread, ginger stars and filled surprises. By the time Christmas week arrived, she’d have at least a dozen kinds. When company came, she’d arrange a selection on a huge tray, bedecked with some small evergreen branches and colorful hard candies. What a treat! So, of course, my mother repeated the whole extravaganza, baking a dozen different kinds each year that were kept carefully in tins until company arrived. Then out would come a big platter or tray of cookies. Fast forward another few decades and it’s my turn. I gave up making over a dozen kinds years ago. Being a working mom does impose some limitations. But I just don’t feel right at this time of year if I con’t fill the house with the warm smells of baking cookies for at least a few evenings. With apologies to Grandma, I only make 6 or 7 kinds and fill in with some store bought confections. But I take a sweet pleasure in inviting company over and presenting a tray of cookies, adorned with evergreen.
November 22, 2012: Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving: It’s the only national feast day in America and we honor it the way we should – by giving thanks and feasting together. At my house, there turkey-lovers, vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free folks to accommodate. So, like other families that are large and complicated, the pot luck buffet looks quite unconventional: Spanokopita, delacotta squashes stuffed with fruited rice, baked tofu, and kale alongside the turkey and corn bread stuffing and mashed potatoes and butternut squash and … Everyone eats and talks and eats some more. Everyone sighs with contentment. We linger at the table for good conversation and rally in time to watch football on TV. Our team won. We had more pie. Everyone went home stuffed and happy. What a good day!
November 4, 2012: School Bus Stop and Friendship Start
Every weekday morning as I drive around a nearby corner, I see a cluster of moms waits for the kindergarten bus with their children. Some are clutching coffee cups. One always has a toddler on her hip. The children all have coats on and backpacks on their backs. One clutches a lunchbox. In the morning rush, it seems that the moms prioritize getting that cup of coffee over grabbing a jacket. So they stand there, shivering, sipping coffee, admonishing kids and getting to know one another.
October 1, 2012: Peak Weekend
In the Northeast of the US, the trees put on an annual show. The forty shades of green of summthe freshness of autumn air. I arrive at my destination refreshed and delighted by the sights and sensations of New England fall.er turn to vivid oranges and reds and yellows. A drive through the countryside is a treat marred only by the dozens of cars that are also driving through the countryside. It’s early October. If there is this much traffic, it must be peak weekend, the weekend when the leaves are at their most spectacular and no one wants to miss the show. The leaf-peepers are out in force. Locals know to save their own viewing for weekdays. Taking a longer route to and from work is a chance to take it all in at our own pace. I roll down my car windows to feel the slight chill and breathe in
August 2012: Home Improvements
I think home improvement projects are like childbirth. If we remembered how uncomfortable they are to go through, we’d never do another one. Hypnotized by the lovely results, the memory of the experience gets dulled and we’re set up to do it again.
The last 6 weeks have been an unpleasant reminder that construction projects never go smoothly in a hundred year old house. They take at least 3 times the original budget and 4 times the estimated timeline to complete. With the primary bathroom the object of our efforts, we’ve also had to deal with major inconvenience. And yet — It’s almost done. The new floor doesn’t sag. The new fixtures work better. It really is pretty. Sigh. I can already tell that the memory of tripping over tradesmen and dealing with a bathroom out of commission will fade over time. But not quite yet. . .
Don’t you just love the 4th of July? A day off that often happens in the middle of the week feels like playing hooky. It’s one of my favorite holidays. No need to visit the malls. No presents to buy, wrap and deliver. No decorations to put up – and take down. Just ask everyone in the family to bring something for a potluck bar-b-que and you’re good to go. My family and friends just spent a lazy afternoon chatting on the bank of a lovely local lake, with an occasional wave to folks in a kayak or canoe that drifted by. Life is sometimes very sweet.
June 15, 2012 Strawberries
Strawberries come right on the heels of the asparagus. All over the valley, churches are sponsoring their annual asparagus and strawberry suppers. Whatever meat is served takes a big back seat to steamed Hadley grass with lemon and strawberry shortcakes built on homemade biscuits and topped with a mountain of whipped cream. Have you noticed? People are quite partisan about their shortcake. In this area, they are made with a buttery biscuit dough, dropped by the spoonful on cookie sheets to bake into small hills of deliciousness that soak up the berry juices. Transplants from elsewhere prefer angel food cake or little sponge cake cups or lady fingers — something the locals can’t at all understand. Might as well eat air. But whatever the base, the stars of the desert are the red, red berries, swimming in juice, sweetened with just a wee bit of sugar. Yum. Let’s have another. . .
May 18, 2012: Asparagus!
I live in the asparagus capital of the world. Really. Back in the summer of 1974 I was in Paris, looking for a place to have lunch. On a charming side street, I spotted a little cafe. Imagine my surprise to see a banner strung across the window that read “Imported from Hadley, Massachusetts. Fresh Asparagus!” Of course I went in for a taste of home and to see what the French might do with our humble Hadley grass. Hmm. What came to my table was a plate of perfection: steamed asparagus with a rich and creamy hollandaise sauce.
Those of us who love this green gift from the gods eat it steamed, grilled and roasted; plain, with sauces, on top of pizza, in our eggs and under cheese. For some of us, a plateful with just a little butter and lemon is a piece of heaven.
The season is as fleeting as spring, short and delicious.
I am again reminded that as much as we’d like to think we’re originals, family trends and history will out. Growing up, my family always had a big garden. In his youth, my grandfather was a dairy farmer. He may have left the farm, but he didn’t leave the soil. He raised his son and his grandkids to value growing our own food. I bless him and curse him for it.
Once the ground thaws, I feel absolutely compelled to get out there and get my hands in the dirt – no matter how busy I am, no matter what other responsibilities have some priority. I love the feel of the warm earth in my hands. I love clearing away the debris of winter and weeding out the new sprung weeds. I love the sun on my back and the breeze in my hair.
I don’t love my creaking knees. I don’t love dealing with compost or fertilizer. I have to rein myself in from my urge to put in a vegetable garden when the truth is that I don’t have the time to tend it. “Sorry, Grampa,” I whisper. “I just can’t till that sunny corner of my yard now only to feel guilty about neglecting it all summer.”
My compromise? I recognize my heritage and honor my grandparents by planting some flowers and remembering to water them occasionally. Mostly I go off to the farmers’ market every week and load my basket with fresh veggies. When I rinse the dirt from the new radishes and lettuces, I let my memory drift back to those late spring and summer days when my grandmother and I took care of the produce that had come fresh from the garden. Somehow the resultant salad is all the sweeter.
April 1, 2012: Rabbits and Springtime
I’m hopeless as an artist. Only three year olds think I’m adept. That’s because I can draw a circle with a smiley face, a snowman with three circles and some dots in appropriate places for a face and buttons, and what passes for a rabbit because it has long ears. That’s it. I often signed off notes to my kids with the face; the snowman reserved for winter and the rabbit for spring. Just a little something to personalize the “don’t forget to . . .” notes tucked in a notebook or left on the kitchen table. Who knew that those scribbles might be important someday?
I was surprised and warmed by my daughter’s complaint on receiving her Easter package of goodies last year. “Where’s my rabbit?” she asked in a call home. In my haste to get the box into the mail, I hadn’t added my annual scribbled rabbit to the address. We both laughed that she felt it as “something” missing.
Of course the “something” wasn’t just my amateur effort at art. The little sketch I’ve always just dashed off as a fun way to welcome spring has come to mean so much more. The annual appearance of the rabbit is an affirmation of something about the rhythm of the year, our sense of family, and a personal message of love from me. Just goes to show again that as parents, we don’t always know which of the things we do take on significance. I certainly won’t forget to add the rabbit to the package this year.
March 25, 2012 Celebrating Early Sping
Springtime has come early to Massachusetts this year. March is usually still a time of snowstorms and shoveling. This year, daffodils are in bloom and robins are frequent visitors to my front lawn. Every day, we pinch ourselves. Is this for real? 80 degrees in March? “In like a lion. Out like a lamb?” This year the lion is a pussycat. Freed of boots and into sandals, even our feet are celebrating. It’s a lesson in just how delicious the unexpected can be when the unexpected is sweet and warm and smells of spring.
Today is my younger son’s birthday! Oh, we’ll cook one of his favorite meals and call in the whole gang. We’ll have the usual cake and ice cream and presents. But I wonder if he (or any kids, for that matter) understands that his birthday is our birthday too. It’s the birth of us as the parents of him. It’s the birth of a new and larger family.
Ask any mom or dad: We remember vividly when labor started; the trip to the hospital or the arrival of the midwife; how labor went and, finally, what it was like when this new little red-faced, squirming, sometimes hollering little person was placed in our arms. However long ago it was, a few moments to remember and it feels like yesterday. He or she had arrived! And we were changed utterly.
So, my son: Happy Birthday to you! It’s been quite a journey. It’s been a gift to see you grow and change and become who you are. It’s also been a gift to grow and change and become who I am because of you.
February 12, 2012 Valentines Day
Valentine’s Day gives us a reason to celebrate the love in our families.. Make or buy cards for everyone. Put a red tablecloth on the table. Serve heart shaped pancakes at breakfast. Slip little notes into lunch boxes. Present a heart shaped cake at dinner. Holidays give us an excuse to do it up in a big way. Show the people you love that you love them on Tuesday. Then make sure to show them every day of the year. That’s what’s meant by “tending the family heart.”
January 23, 2012 New Semester, New Students
I wonder if the students in front of me experience it the same way. I walk into my classroom at UMass Amherst on the first day of the new semester and wonder who these people are and where they put the students I know. “Oh yeah”, I remind myself. “It’s a new group.” The next few weeks are about learning names, figuring out who is going to shine, who is going to need help; who is a willing volunteer and who tries to hide in the back of the room. Didn’t I just do this a little while ago? Yeah. But that was in the fall. In spite of the 20 degree weather, this is called the spring semester – a term that promises warmer days ahead. Ok. Ok. We’ll manage. We always do. By week 3, this group will be comfortable with me and each other and we’ll all be engaged with the material. 12 weeks will fly by. The seniors will graduate. Everyone will scatter to their home towns and states. Come September, I’ll get to do it all over again.
January 13, 2012 The Snowless Winter
You’d think I’d be happy there hasn’t been snow yet this winter. I’m not. Oh, it’s good to not have to shovel the stuff. it’s nice to still go out unencumbered by boots and mittens and scarves. But it generally is leaving me out of sorts. In western Massachusetts, snow is part of the rhythm of the year. I miss waking to mornings when the world has been magically transformed by an overnight snowfall. I find myself longing for the sounds of kids delightedly sliding down hills and skating across our little lake. I miss the random days off when my whole world gets to play hooky at the same time. Snow days: Days to play board games with the kids, to read, to trudge out to make snowmen and angels, then hang out by the woodstove, drinking hot chocolate. Having found ways to love winter, I now feel like a kid who’s been deprived of a favorite toy.
January 2, 2012 Erasing Christmas
( for more pictures of the sad fate of Christmas trees after the holiday, check out this link. http://www.buzzfeed.com/mikehayes/heartbreaking-photos-of-christmas-trees-discarded )
I always find the clean up at the end of the Christmas season kind of sad. Taking down the Christmas tree is never as much fun as putting it up. Ditto for taking down the outside lights, boxing up decorations, and carting those boxes to the attic. There are no jolly songs to accompany the tasks. There are no more holiday events to look forward to. Still — I try to focus on the positives. We did have a wonderful time for the last few weeks. The livingroom looks suddenly bigger without a tree taking up major space. I’ll probably get more rest. But however much I look for a silver lining, I still find the return to plain old normal a let-down. Sigh. Good thing Valentine’s Day is just around the corner!
Here we go a-wasailing. . . While going through an old trunk the other day, I found a stack of little Christmas Carol booklets. Those of us of a certain age will remember them. Put out each year by the John Hancock Insurance Company, I think they were meant to be the company’s Christmas cards. My little collection comes from a few different years so I’ve got covers that feature a sketch of a nativity scene, some choir boys, and a church at nightfall. Finding them evoked memories of a time when a group of us, young and old, would get together and go house to house in the neighborhood, singing those traditional Christmas songs. Most of us knew the first verses so could sing them with gustuo. We’d stumble through the rest of the verses, clumsily shuffling those little books and flashlights with mittened hands. Every now and then, we’d be invited into someone’s home for hot chocolate and Christmas cookies. It was another time. I can’t help feeling a little sad that it’s unlikely that I’ll ever hear a happy group coming up my driveway singing Deck the Halls. But if such a little Christmas miracle were to happen, hot chocolate will be served.
December 6, 2011: Geese
While, walking across campus this morning, I was stopped in my tracks by a fly over of geese. With a rush of wings and a cacophony of sound, they were still in lift off from the campus pond. Whoosh! I momentarily felt swept up in the flock. Then they were in formation, a chevron in the sky headed south.
November 26, 2011 Hmmm. Pie
We’re a famly that generally doesn’t have deserts but Thanksgiving is the big exception. For that feast day of all feast days, we make at least 6 kinds of pie: Apple, Pumpkin, Mincemeat, Cherry, Chocolate Cream, and something new (this year, Peanut Butter thanks to one of the guests). Now, there’s no way we’re going to eat all those pies, having just had a big meal of turkey and fixings. We enjoy slivers of this and that but, oh man, there is so much pie! Yay! That’s the point. All dietary rules are off for the next few days. It’s a tradition in this family to keep inviting people over to share the leftover turkey and pies. We have pie for breakfast with our morning coffee, pie for lunch with our turkey sandwiches, pie for dinner with turkey soup, and pie whenever we feel like having pie. By stretching out the holiday food, we stretch out the holiday with family and friends. Good talk, good fellowship, and good pie is a wonderful combination.
24 lb turkey. Check. 15 lbs of potatoes. Check. 3 mashed butternut squash. Check. Eggplant lasagna for the vegetarians. Check. Baked tofu and gluten-free gravy for the gluten free-folks and vegans. Check. Apple and mince pies for the traditonalists. Check. Pumpkin mousse for those gluten-free folks check. The menu at my house has gotten complicated but the simple joy of lots of good people (family, old friends and new) around the table sharing a meal, conversation, and laughter hasn’t. We are truly grateful for the food, the fellowship, and for the serendipity that brought us all together to make our unique kind of family.
Tending the Family Heart Through the Holidays
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November 11, 2011: Casseroles, Cookies and Care
It’s one of the “rules” I grew up with. If someone brings you a casserole or pie or cookies to comfort you when you’re sick or to celebrate an event, you never, ever, return an empty dish or pie plate or platter. You fill it with something delectable as a thank you. So I do it. I do it faithfully. And what I’ve learned is that it’s about more than cookies. My grandmother’s generation had it right. The exchange of casseroles and plates keep people connected in a special way.
We’re all so busy, busy, busy that we can forget to be grateful. Weeks can go by before we find time for tea and conversation with a friend. But bring by a plate of cookies and time slows down. There’s time for tea. There’s time for talk. Even if it’s only a 10 minute visit, a visit and a real thank you has happened.
I imagine a great stream of cookie -filled plates going from house to house to house in my grandmother’s time; some to cheer the sick, others to celebrate the new baby or a birthday, some to return the plate of a sender. What it meant is that people stopped by and both gave and got some warmth and caring.
November 4, 2011: After the Storm
A record breaking storm in our part of the world last weekend caused extensive tree damage and power outages. For us, that meant no heat, no electricity, no cable, and no Internet for 5 days. It was a window into what 18th century living was like. Bundled up and huddled around our woodstove, we managed to keep warm. Candles lit our way at night and the outdoor grill got heavy use for cooking and heating water. Life slowed way down. With no computers or TV to go to and the only heat in our dining rooom, we sat around the table and talked, played Bananas (a fabulous word game), and lingered. When the whole community seems to agree that the usual pace and demands of modern life are suspended, we all have permission to shift to a different reality. Yes, it was hard. No, I don’t want to live without the convenience of light at a flick of a switch or heat from a furnace or hot water from the tap. But the extended time with young adult children, friends, and neighbors as we shared the warmth of the fire and pooled our food more than balanced out the loss of conveniences for awhile. I hope we can hold onto the reminder that time and talk are also what warm and light our families.
October 25, 2011: Autoharps
I stumbled into autoharp ownership Saturday. Not one but two were listed in the classifieds of our local paper and at a bargain price. I’ve always wanted to own one so I made the call and agreed to go take a look. It was a great day to go on a treasure hunt, sunny and warm and at the peak of leaf peeping season. Driving down long country roads was just the kind of day off I needed. When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by a woman my own age, another aging folky who had grown up as I had listening to Jean Redpath and Woody Guthrie and playing old time music. The autoharps are beautiful; rich honey colored wood, each intact and waiting. She was ready to let go of that part of her young adulthood that made music, but I’m ready to reclaim mine. More than money and harps changed hands: She got to pass the harps to someone who treasures them. I got to add a wonderful new musical distraction to my life. Perfect.
October 23, 2011: Autumn Sounds
Go outside. Close your eyes and just listen. In the north, a seasonal symphony is there for your listening pleasure. Wind blows through the trees, knocking and rustling branches. The swish, swish, swish of lawn rakes adds a gentle rhythm. Children’s laughter and shouts are a joyful melody while feet shuffle and crunch, shuffle and crunch through the dry leaves and twigs. Hammer blows of a sledge splitting logs and the thunk, thunk, thunk of a neighbor stacking wood are our percussion section. And the wind softly whistles it own sad song.
October 16, 2011: Apples!
It’s the season of apple picking in New England. With orchards sprinkled throughout our valley, there are plenty of opportunities to pick our own. It’s a celebration of fall to tromp through the orchard to a tree so heavily laden with apples that most are within easy reach. Best of all, we have varieties to choose from that rarely make it to chain supermarket shelves: Gravensteins. Paula Reds, Galas, Macouns, and Baldwins. Cortlands, Jonathans, Winesaps, and Romes. The names are as interesting and individual as the apples themselves. Each has a distinct flavor and a particular use. Around here we know that the best pies are made from at least two and maybe three varieties. My personal favorite is a mix of Cortland and Baldwin slices sugared, spiced and generously mounded before putting on the top crust. Make a few slits in the top to let out the steam, pop it in the oven, and within an hour the whole house smells like some version of heaven.
October 7, 2011: Our Daughter’s Wedding
“And the seasons they go round and round, And the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captives on the carousel of time.” — Joni Mitchell
The marriage of our youngest a few weeks ago was truly magical. The weather held for the outdoor wedding. The ceremony itself was both solemn and fun. Family and friends laughed and cried and celebrated as siblings quite literally launched the young couple into their new life together. For her dad and I, the day evoked both memories of our own past and hope for the future.
September 10, 2011: My Grandmother’s Hands
I loved my grandmother’s hands. I remember tracing the age spots. “Angels’ kisses”, she called them. Her hands were bent and strong from a life of hard work but were soft, so soft, to the touch. Even when very old, she had skin like silk. I remember those hands stirring pots, rolling out dough, and shining the counters. I remember them traversing piano keys, wielding knitting needles, turning pages, and arranging flowers. Most of all, I remember moments when she’d simply take my hand in hers as a gesture of comfort and care.
I’ve been surprised and pleased lately to see that my own hands are becoming like hers: Kissed by angels, bent and strong from living life, yet somehow still soft. Aging is so much sweeter when it is tied to memories of love.
September 1 , 2o11: Wedding Dress — Ahhh
My youngest daughter is getting married in a month. Organized and confident as she is (she’s an events planner, after all), she hasn’t acted much like a sentimental or anxious bride. The wedding has seemed in many ways like just another party. You line up the place, the decorations and the food, invite the people, buy the clothes, plan some entertainment and you’re good to go.
Every now and then we parents get to have one of those moments. The brain takes a snapshot, both visual and emotional, that a camera can’t possibly replicate and that lasts forever. While fitting her gown last week, the seamstress placed a veil on my daughter’s head. When I looked at her, I was surprised to see my self-assured, matter-of-fact girl with tears in her eyes. I teared up (of course). The seamstress teared up. We all looked in the mirror at the transformation from girl in pretty white dress to bride. “All of a sudden, I really feel bridal”, my daughter said softly. Sentimental sighs all around.
I’m so pleased. I got my mother-of-the-bride-moment. The internal camera got a great shot.
August 26, 2011: Tomatoes
August means tomatoes. It also means doing really hot work during really hot weeks of the year. Canning tomatoes is not for sissies. The rest of the family gets suddenly very busy when they see the bushels of ripe red tomatoes sitting next to the back door. They know that anyone within range will be enlisted. Just like in the children’s story of the little red hen , no one wants to help but, I assure you, everyone wants to eat the wonderful bar-b-que sauce next week and the spaghetti sauces that will be on the table in January. So they find creative ways to opt out. Suddenly people even want to clean out the barn or do yardwork. Fine with me. I get a clean barn, a spruced up yard, and canned tomatoes. My little secret is I thoroughly enjoy the task of making ketchup and sauce. The family may evacuate the house when it’s full of vinegar vapors but I love the smells, the stirring, the filling and processing of jars. After some 50 years doing it (helping as a child, doing now), the rhythm of the work is a kind of meditation. The result? Beautiful jars full of ruby red goodness and a very pleased me.
August 2, 2011: Screen Doors
It’s probably an old joke, but when I was a kid, I really did think they were called “scream doors”. My mother was always screaming, “Don’t slam the door!” — usually after the door had slammed for the five hundredth time that afternoon.
Unlike my mother, I have a fondness for those old wooden screen doors. The sound of them slamming was the sound of my kids going in and out during a summer day, doing the many things that kids do. In for a popsicle. Out for a romp under the sprinkler. In for a towel. Out to the treehouse. In with a complaint. Out with a retort. In chasing a sib. Out being chased. Slam. Bang. Slam. Slam.
For over 30 years those doors have gone up in the spring and down in the fall. Now they’ve fallen apart. Today we replaced them with very nice, insulated, storm doors; the kind you don’t have to take down for winter and never have to paint. They’re attractive. They’re practical. But they don’t slam. I’m really going to miss that sound of summer.
July 29, 2011: Apologies Do Matter
While working on my house the other day, a young worker dropped a hammer on my antique desk, leaving a major gash in the top. Very few things in my house matter that much to me but the desk does. The kid was terrified. He blurted out “sorrys”, and went out to talk to his boss. The boss came in to also express regrets. Although doing my best to hold it together and be gracious, I was teary. So I said the usual things and mostly meant them: Accidents happen. It’s part of the history of objects to be beat up on by life. It could have been worse. No person was hurt. It’s only a thing. Right? Right. But it is still my desk we’re talking about here!
An hour or so later, the young guy comes back in to see me. This time he’s not panicked. This time he has something he really wants to say. I don’t remember his words. What I remember is his heartfelt intention to own his mistake and to express how bad he felt about it. At that moment it wasn’t about words. It was a meeting of feelings, his and mine. It mattered. The desk still is wounded but my heart? Not so much.
July 23, 2011: Coddled Eggs
Finding the jars for coddled eggs in my attic the other day evokes memories of a time when breakfast was an event, not a pop tart or cold cereal and certainly not on the run. Back in the 50s, when I’d visit my grandparents in the summer, I’d wake up to the smell of coffee and bacon. Up since who knows when, my grandmother always set a table for breakfast. Often she’d make coddled eggs.
For those who’ve never had the pleasure: Coddling means breaking eggs into buttered jars, screwing the tops on tight, and submerging them in simmering water until just the right moment. Too long in the water and you’ve got rubber. Too short and you’ve got runny egg whites. Just right and you’ve got a little bit of heaven. It’s an art form my grandmother had down. I remember dreamily studying the scenes of birds and branches that are on the jars as I spooned out the buttery eggy treat.
It’s not that we had any more time in those days. My granddad had to get to work. I had to get off to wherever I had to get off to. But my grandparents felt strongly that getting up early enough to really enjoy breakfast, to read the paper, and have some conversation was worth it.
As a mom, I managed to make sure people had breakfast but there was nothing calm about it. Special breakfasts were reserved for weekends. But maybe as a grandmom I’ll be able to pass on the quieter pleasure of something as lovingly time consuming as coddled eggs. I think I’ll give those jars a try this weekend.
7/23/11: Farmers’ Market
The Farmers’ Market isn’t just about food. It’s a capital “E” Experience. Really. Going from booth to booth slows me down. I think about what tastes the family might like to have that evening. I dare to experiment with other-worldly veggies. I chat with farmers about what on earth one does with that strange looking tomato. An hour buzzing through the local supermaret gets food into the house. But 15 minutes strolling through the market renews me and adds those little extras to the usual family meals that spark culinary adventures and conversation.
July 21, 2011: Green Rain
Some memories are forever attached to the sense of smell. This one is about a special childhood retreat: When I was a little girl, we lived near some woods. Not too deep in was a circle of giant ferns. I liked to think fairies gathered there. On hot days, I’d lie on the cool ground among the ferns, completely hidden from view, breathing in the fresh sweet smell of the leaves I was crushing under me. Being young, I was unaware of the damage I was doing. Iwas just enjoying lying quietly in the coolness, surrounded by green and smelling what I can only call green rain.
I now have a few of those same ferns in my garden; far too few and too precious to lie among with some idea of reliving the experience. But while watering them last evening, that same sweet scent rose from the damp ground. Green rain. Suddenly I was 8 years old again, feeling safe and calm and touched by fairies.
July 19, 2011: Fennel
I admit it. The fennel seeds on my spice rack came with the rack – 43 years ago. I didn’t have a clue what fennel was. Haven’t been curious enough to find out. Didn’t have any idea what it is used for. Until now. New cookbook: The Essential N.Y. Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century is riveting reading. Author Amanda Hesser took on the formidable task of identifying – and testing – recipes featured in the Times from the late 1800′s to the present. It’s fun to read what was “in” eating year to year. Once I hit the 50s, things began to look familiar as I found recipes my mother cooked and I haven’t seen since. From there it was a trip from one food fad to another that I’ve watched be the “latest thing” served at friends’ homes and that I’ve made in my own kitchen. So – Ms. Messer: In appreciation for that trip down culinary lane, I thought it was the least I could do to try something unfamiliar. Fennel had never been stewed in my cooking pots so – why not? I went out and bought a couple of those strange bulbs, cooked them with those old fennel seeds, and served them with a flourish. It was a grand departure from the familiar and it was delicious.
july 12, 2011: Blueberries
Blueberry jam. Blueberry pie. Blueberry muffins. Blueberries in my part of the world are the taste of July. I stained my favorite wooden spoon permanently purple making jam this weekend. In February, it will be a reminder of summer. 18 jars of purple goodness sit on my kitchen counter waiting for the trip down to the basement jelly cupboard. I think I’ll just let them sit for a few days and enjoy the simple art of the purple jars on the white counter top and the promise of winter breakfasts of toast and jam.
July 4, 2011: Fireworks
I’m all for fireworks. When I die, I want to go out with a multi-colored bang in the sky! Got that, kids? Forget about a funeral. Don’t wear any black. Just set off some rockets and remember how we ohhhed and ahhhhed together at every burst in the night sky. Those times when we were all crowded on our picnic blanket, looking skyward and sharing in the wonder are among my fondest memories of being a family. Every 4th for me is a happy combination of past memories and present joy.
June 24, 2011: It’s All In How You Look at It
A young friend of mine explained, “If you believe life is beautiful or if you believe life stinks, you’re right.” Some people just seem to know that truth naturally. It’s not what happens to us that matters so much as how we decide to look at it. Is a tragedy a devastating blow from which we’ll never recover or is it something to grieve and learn from? Is happiness fleeting or is the memory of happy times what keeps us afloat during more challenging ones? It’s up to us.
June 26, 2011: Another Perspective
I was talking with a man who is in his seventies the other day. He still works part time as the estimator for a local landscaping company. I needed their services to undo what happened to the yard when a new sewer line was put in. (Don’t ask.) It was a pleasure to chat with him. He knows his stuff, had some good suggestions, and was sympathetic about the unexpected and unwelcome expense of it all. As he was leaving, I said, “Have a nice day.” He stopped, turned and looked at me with a smile. “No,” he said. “Say – ‘Make it a good day. That’s what I’ve learned about life. A big part of how your day goes is how you make it.’”
June 21, 2011
Local strawberries are in. Brief, wonderful harvest of ruby red fruit that sings, “June. June. June.” They are the reason for the month: Strawberry shortcake. Strawberry-rubarb pie. Strawberries on cereal for breakfast. Strawberries and cream for dessert at dinner. Feast for a few weeks and then they’re gone for a whole long year. Spent the morning making jam, preserving June in a jar.
June 20, 2011: Catching Up
Sign observed in Boston subway station: Father and son sitting ona riverbank with the words, “Catching up doesn’t always mean working late.” I couldn’t say it better. Summer time offers longer days and less stressful evenings. No homework. Fewer kid activities. Hopefully, less work brought home by parents. It’s just plain true that the kids grow up fast. It’s up to us to find ways to sit on riverbanks or stoops or in backyards or just around a table and connect with them to make memories.