What Blooms in December

“The flower that blooms late is the most rare and beautiful of all.”

– The Emperor, Mulan

If we named this year, we might call it, “The Year of Our Tomato Adventure.” Mark supposes that the tomatoes gently ripening on the upper windowsill above the kitchen sink probably cost around a hundred dollars each.

We started late, for one thing. There were distractions, and so it wasn’t until we were well into May that I realized I hadn’t put in any Cordell tomato seeds. We scrambled—gathering egg cartons and potting soil, creating nursery space for baby ‘maters in sunny windows, remembering to water enough but not too much.

And those little seeds preened and sprouted; they were joyously green, stretching their tiny, tender leaves to that life-giving sunshine.

Soon—well, it was June by then,—they were ready to be transplanted tenderly into little blue pots, pots made of plastic harvested from the ocean and morphed into life-affirming vessels. The tomatoes liked that environment, too, and we cleared off more space—on top of bookshelves, on the daybed-side table in the sunporch (we grandly call that ‘guest space in the Florida room’), on the dresser in the dining room’s bay window.

And I realized I had Roma tomato seeds, too; we broke out more egg cartons and we started those.

So it was July and we were still moving bambino and toddler tomatoes into ever larger pots.

Then the question was this: how do we safely put them outside? How do we protect them from the deer who graciously wait until those fruits begin to blush, and then chomp them off their woody stems? How to avoid the squirrels or raccoons who delight in taking one bite out of seven or eight otherwise perfect plump tomatoes?

“We are not growing tomatoes to feed the freeloading wildlife,” Mark vowed. One day we saw an ad for an enclosed raised bed structure; it had walls about eight feet high with chicken wire stretched tight across them…a barricade against deer and rodents with a taste for tomato.

“It’s a lot of money,” Mark mulled.

“But it’s a long term investment,” I countered.

He was willing to be persuaded; he ordered the kit.

It came in two parts, separately; Mark had to wait for both boxes before he could start, on weekends and evenings, to construct the structure we came to call the Pigpen.

And each phase had its own challenges. Mark built the Pigpen, and he moved the tomatoes into giant vats inside its protective walls. Then he realized climbers and flyers could merrily access the now burgeoning tomato plants through the open ceiling. He bought more chicken wire and enclosed.

This, then, was the end of August, the beginning of September. Cold weather rolled in. Frost warnings descended on the land. The tomatoes were big plants now; even the smallest one, the one we called “Little Guy,” was exuberantly woody and flaunting little golden stars.

“They’re probably fine?” I conjectured in a hopeful tone, because really, what did I know about tomatoes and temps?

Mark, Lowe’s #1 preferred customer, went out and bought heavy duty plastic and enclosed the Pigpen. He started calling it ‘the Green House.’

One day it poured and the plastic roof sagged under the weight of puddled rain. Mark ran out in the morning, poked holes and drained the load. That night he bought more lumber and made ceiling supports.

It grew colder, and Mark was outside with extension cords and a drill, screw drivers, and some squat black little device. When he came in, he was pleased with the project.

“I put a little heater out there,” he said. “And look!” He held up something that looked like a TV remote. “I can control the temperature from inside!”

Those golden stars nestled among fragrant leaves began turning into little hard green tomatoes. The tomatoes basked in their hothouse environment.

The electric company sent me a notice. You’re using significantly more power than you used this time last year, they said.

But we were within striking distance of harvesting. It was November now.

And one day Mark went out, and, through the kitchen window, I saw him careening around inside the Pigpen, and its door opened, and a fat, nicely pink tomato came flying out, landing with a splat in the wet green grass.

“Worms!” yelled Mark. “They get ripe enough to eat, and worms find them!”

There were dozens of hard little tomatoes on the vines, tomatoes the discerning worms were reluctant to eat yet. We picked them all and researched how to ripen tomatoes in the house. The method we went with is this: put them in paper bags with bananas. The bananas release some enzyme or chemical that tomatoes need to ripen.

And by gum, it works. As the tomatoes begin to blush, I take them out and put them on the sill above the sink. There are 16 tomatoes there now, and more softly readying in a bag, waiting to take their places.

On Sunday we made tacos and ceremoniously chopped our first homegrown 2022 Cordell tomato. Tonight we will have BLT’s, and we’ll chop and flash freeze the tomatoes we can’t use right now.

And we’ll dry seeds for next year’s crop, which we WILL plant in a timely way. And we’ll figure out what to do about those dreadful little wormy things, too.

But here is my thought: we’re teetering, as I write this, on the far ledge of November’s rooftop, just about to drop into December’s anteroom—and into deep, dark winter. And our tomatoes are ripening.

It’s the beginning of what we think of as a frozen, fallow time, but some things are blooming, and some things are ripening; some things are just coming in to their own. It feels a little miraculous—hopeful and unexpected.

What else blooms in December?

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Mark’s legal assistant had a Christmas cactus, and she wasn’t happy. The plant seemed healthy enough, but it certainly didn’t bloom at Christmas. It never bloomed, in fact.

She said something about throwing the plant away, and Mark rescued it and brought it home.

That, I think, was at the end of March. We put the Christmas cactus on top of the bookshelf in the living room window, put it there and pretty much forgot about it, except to water it once a week or so.

Then, lo and behold, toward the end of April, it pushed out some blooms. They weren’t huge flowers, but they were definitely blossoms.

Kind of confused, time-wise, that little plant, we thought. Mark took pictures to share with the plant’s former mama.

And the blossoms fell off, and the plant nestled into its home in the living room. Once in a while, I pushed a fertilizer stick into its dirt; I watered it and its companions, viny ivy-type greenery grown from a plant Mark received from co-workers 28 years ago. The cohabitants all seemed to get along just fine.

Two weeks ago, I noticed fat buds on the Christmas cactus.

We had to move the bookshelf to make way for the Christmas tree (put up earlier this year than we have ever put up a tree before). The shelf now nestles into the bay window in the family room, peeking out over the top of the blue loveseat. We moved the plants there, too, so they could bask in the west-facing sunshine. And the Christmas cactus exploded into beautiful, waxy, riotous bloom. These are merely the first flowers; the plant is loaded with buds. There are more to come. The flowers bloomed at the start of Advent; I am hoping there will still be a bloom or two on Christmas Day.

That little plant just needed its own time. The lessons I keep trying to learn after a long and meandering teaching career and something like forty-five years as a stepmom and mama come back: things bloom in their own time. And just because something hasn’t bloomed, that doesn’t doesn’t mean it’s not going to.

I may be teetering on the edge of my own November roof, but it’s not too late to learn.

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This week we stood on a green hillside outside a tiny brick country church; we stood in front of a blue tarp sheltering a freshly dug grave. Judy’s grave: we were there to say a sudden and shocked goodbye.

Judy was an essential member of our retirees’ lunch group; she was quiet, but her thoughtful questions kept the conversation flowing. Did you finish that project? she would ask. How was your trip?

Judy remembered what others talked about. She was always positive, always enthusiastic. She seldom talked about herself, which never registered because she was always so interested in everyone else’s doings.

Judy was tiny and fit; she drove a red sports car. The day before her heart attack, her husband said, she was up on a ladder, cleaning.

How is it possible that Judy is gone?

The officiant read a poem, a poem my mother copied out in her Palmer method handwriting and tucked into my sister Sharon’s scrapbook seventy-odd years ago. I tried to find the words online, but there are many, many variations. I couldn’t locate the exact one, but the meaning was this: the dead person is saying, “I am not gone; I am just…away.”

Judy hasn’t ended, the officiant said. She just lives, now, in another realm.

Judy’s absence leaves a huge vacuum here, a staggering one for her devoted husband. But it comforts to think that she could be blooming somewhere else, somewhere beyond our understanding.

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Someone I know, after long, hard years of grieving, has taken steps that might lead to a new relationship. They are both cautious, in the talking stages, making tentative plans for a face-to-face meet. They don’t know what this will lead to…friendship, companionship,…love? Or maybe just a momentary flare that will extinguish quietly.

They don’t know.

But they are open to taking chances, to finding out.

They are open to waiting, to see if something blooms.

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The tree up, the rest of the house, decked out in oranges, browns, and golds,—autumn finery—looked a little incongruous. So I pulled out bins and separated newspapers and packed away gilded turkeys and ceramic acorns and little plates that read, “Grateful” and “Give thanks.”

In the powder room, a spray of artificial flowers, brassy Crayola orange, sat jauntily in a ceramic moose vase. Next to them was a stack of books with orange covers.   

I bagged up the flowers and shelved the books. I made a small stack of red and green books and slid them onto the powder room shelf.

I thought, “I’ll have to go buy some Christmassy silk flowers.”

And then I went outside, and I realized the holly bushes, the ones we inherited from the wonderful gardeners who inhabited this space before we moved in, are loaded with fat red berries.

I got the clippers out of the black canvas garden tools bag and went out and clipped prickly beautiful sprigs of glossy holly, and I filled the moose vase with those.

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Autumn has left the bathroom. It’s winter in there now, with reds and greens and holly berries.

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But it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, what our losses have been, what we fear, or what we’ve given up: things bloom.

Even in December, things bloom .

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After the Feast: The Pots and Pans

We’re all just bubbles in a boiling pot.

                        Jack Johnson, “Never Know”

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The turkey roasts for four and a half hours.

We put together a green bean casserole and a cast iron skillet full of veggie-studded stuffing.

We flap out the tablecloth, amber and brown and barn-red plaid. We give the glass pumpkin candlestickholders pride of place.

There is the ceremonial setting out of the Christmas plates (let the holiday season begin).

And then, finally, the bustle. The bird is done! The rolls go in! Mark eyes the long gleaming knife, and sharpens it to wield it!

All hands move steaming dishes to the table. All hearts give thanks.

And then, in twenty minutes, the groaning push, the muttered “…shouldn’t…have eaten…all THAT….”

The rush to clear off, to load the dishwasher. The drift to televised football and to video game systems and to comfortable chairs.

And all that are left of the Thanksgiving feast are these: the pots and pans.

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I have been pondering pots and pondering pans all this week, since, in fact, we passed a sign for a company with ‘panhandle’ in its name, and I got a flash of some movie or scene, something from the late ‘60’s or early ‘70’s, something in New York City, something with young people, long-haired and needy, panhandling on corners.

“Why,” I said to Mark and Jim, as we whizzed by that sign, “do we call certain kinds of beggars panhandlers?”

The boyos thought about this.

“I don’t know,” said Mark.

“Nor,” agreed Jim, “do I.”

But then I had a mind-worm. And the week progressed, the days leading to the feast, and I kept noticing how often words and phrases having to do with pots or with pans surface in our funny language.

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So I looked up panhandlers, and I found out, from my old buddy etymonline.com, that the term was first applied to cocky beggars in 1849. It came about, the site proposes, because the beggars’ outstretched arms were like the handles on a pan. And because some beggars used flat metal pans—pans like tin pie plates—-to collect their cash. Those pans didn’t have any handle except the arm attached to the hand thrusting that cash-collector into well-to-do faces.

(There’s a song, by the way, called “Beggar’s Pan,” by Gwyneth Whistlewood, the Feral Flute, from the album Amaltheia’s Lullaby. You can listen to that online here:  https://youtu.be/icIxL3WoXfM)

So, anyway: there we have panhandlers.

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“Hmm,” said each of the boyos when I shared this information, and I couldn’t help thinking that they remained expressionless, that they didn’t resonate to this amazing little ort of language history, that their faces were…well, deadpan.

And where, I wondered, did that use of pan come from?

Merriam-Webster.com tells me that to be deadpan is to be “…deliberately impassive or expressionless.” (My mind immediately conjures comedian Stephen Wright; deadpan can be a good way to deliver humor.)

It’s an interesting word, though: the website tells me ‘deadpan’ can be used as adjective, adverb, noun, and verb, making it a very versatile little construction.  And it may have started out as a way to describe actors—probably not in a complimentary way, I’d guess (…the actor deadpanned his lines???), but it was then applied to boxers, which was maybe more deliberately scary (…his face deadpan, he delivered the final blow…)

This was all, I believe, happening around the beginning of the twentieth century, and back in those days, ‘pan’ was slang for face. (Wipe that smile off your pan????) And so, adding ‘dead’ as a prefix was pretty descriptive—gives rise, indeed, to the image of a face that is fixed and still.

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And I thought of sharing THIS information, too, with the boyos but I didn’t want to get…well, panned, and so I looked that up, too. The Oxford Dictionary online identified that usage as an informal verb, meaning, it told me, “to criticize (someone or something) severely.”

That hearkens back to 1911, says etymonline.com, when a slang expression, “on the pan,” meant “under reprimand or criticism.” A person in such straits was metaphorically standing on the hot surface of a pan heating up, I suppose, and so it wasn’t a great leap to make that into a verb, to say that, when someone is in real trouble for whatever it is they’ve dared to do, they are being ‘panned.’

It’s something, I think, like being roasted, and probably has the same pots-and-pans connected roots, but roasting seems friendlier, like saying affectionately snarky things about a very successful person at an event in their honor.

If a performance gets PANNED, however, the panner is saying, “This ain’t no good.” And probably not in an affectionate kind of a way.

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And all of those pan references turned me toward how pot is used, too, in slang and in phrases, and http://www.dictionary.com obligingly told me that ‘potted’ is British slang for drunken and inebriated. As in, “Sheldon didn’t realize there was alcohol in Long Island Iced Tea, and he got thoroughly potted.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard ‘pot’ used quite that way this side of the pond, but I have heard it used for another kind of mind-altering substance, of course, and that would be marijuana. Pot.  And why, I wonder quite belatedly, is THAT substance so nicknamed?

The answer, I find, is actually kind of romantic: long ago, in Spain, people might mix the buds of the cannabis plant with brandy, let them steep, and then drink that potent brew. The drink was called ‘potacion de guaya,’ which is missing some of its inflection marks, but which means, ‘the drink of grief.’

And the Spanish themselves shortened that lovely, evocative phrase to ‘potiguaya’ or ‘potaguaya,’ and then, somehow, it leapt across the ocean, and landed in the States as ‘pot.’ Which didn’t mean exclusively cannabis steeped in strong wine; it referred to any old kind of cannabis at all.

And users of such, of course, earned the moniker ‘pothead.’

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 And then there’s the potbellied stove, a lovely piece of description, a “…small bulbous-sided wood burning stove,” Oxford Language online tells me. That is named for those of us who, sadly, can be described in a similar way, without the ‘small’ before and ‘wood burning stove’ added after ‘bulbous-sided.’

Reading that led to finding a random discussion of pot-based phrases. For instance, someone who is, their own self, guilty as sin of doing a bad thing, who then accuses another of wickedly doing the same thing, is covered by this saying: “That’s like the pot calling the kettle black.”

Only Oxford Languages Online tells me the original phrase read like THIS: “…the pot calling the kettle black-arse…”

Certainly adds a bit of gritty spice to the utterance.

And here’s a phrase I’d never heard used: to keep the pot boiling. That meant to continue to “…provide the necessities of life.”

And that made me think of literary works called ‘potboilers.’ Again, it isn’t very complimentary, and it shares roots with the keep the pot boiling phrase. Writers sometimes quickly and carelessly slammed together work that might not be weighty, but that they knew would sell. From 1864 on, etymonline.com informs me, these writings were known as potboilers. They were written without literary intentions,—written just to keep food on the table.

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And how about ‘crackpot’? Despite, phrases.uk.org asserts, the fact that there is actually a place in England called Crackpot (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crackpot,_North_Yorkshire)–and despite some folks wanting to insist that people who come from Crackpot are, well, crackpots,–the origins are much simpler.  Crackpot evolved from ‘cracked-heads,’ which simply meant that something was awry with a person’s mental processes.

EB White, by the way, said this: Genius is more often found in a cracked pot than in a whole one.

Maybe there are some benefits to being a crackpot. I certainly look for them.

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I decided to ignore all the references to the art of toileting when discussing the word ‘pot,’ and jumped right to ‘pothole.’ I figured that word’s origins had to be pretty prosaic—-a hole shaped like a pot, right?—but I looked it up anyway.

And what an interesting story I found in a kind of little white paper from the American Public Works Association called “Why Are They Called Potholes?” In the 1400 and 1500’s, APWA tells me, carriages and wagons left deep ruts in mostly mud roads. At the bottom of the deep ruts, clay was revealed. A maker of pots might wait until a muddy road was deserted and go out to dig in the ruts. That artisan, with shovel and buckets, would carry off plenty of free clay to morph into fired pots they’d then sell.

Leaving behind, of course, large holes, dangerous to the wheels of a cart.

Drivers weren’t stupid: they knew what was going on. They called those craters what they knew they were: potholes.

And they drove around ‘em if they could.

Alas, we still have the potholes, but we lack the clay-based reason behind them.

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Anyway, the pots and pans, returned to gleaming, have long since been stashed away, and my mind turns to things like these: when should I take the autumn wreath down? (Tomorrow.) When should I pack away the fake pumpkins and gourds on the mantelpiece and put away the autumn-themed books? (Today.) When does Advent start? (Sunday.)

The holiday season has launched. It’s a time to make lists. It’s a time when actual pots and pans will be pressed into hard service.

I make myself a plate of my favorite Thanksgiving next-day food (turkey and russet potato chips) for breakfast, and I try to reconnect with authentic gratitude. I have a link to work by the Feral Flutist, a yen to explore the work of musician, surfer, and environmental activist, Jack Johnson, and a new appreciation for how the words ‘pots and pans’ inform the way I speak and write.  All of which, tacked on at the end of a long, cherished list of undeserved blessings, adds up to a few more things I can be thankful for.

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The Things We Always Do and Why We Always Do Them

Tradition (n.)

1.a. An inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or social custom)

b.  A belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical, though not verifiable

Merriam-Webster.com

Thanksgiving is next Thursday here in the US of A, and a holiday season rife with traditions is upon us. And I have to tell you, I have always struggled with tradition—a love-hate kind of dilemma. I would like to think that I am not rooted in the past, that I live fully in the present, but that’s not true. And maybe being solely present-focused is not even a good way to live.

“Those who do not learn from the past,” wrote (probably) George Santayana, “are doomed to repeat it.” (Bigthink.com)

So…it’s good to have knowledge of the past, to understand, as well as I can, how I got to be here, in this particular place at this particular time. And some traditions contribute to that.

But aren’t some traditions a kind of doomed repetition of the past?

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Our staff was visiting a high school recently, visiting to see some technology that the Foundation funded for a digital arts class, and we arrived early. We wound up sitting in the principal’s office and chatting for a little bit.

There was a life size cardboard cutout of Elvis leaning back against the Principal’s window, and she told this story:

When she came on board, there were some school traditions that she didn’t think were healthy. So she began to insist those traditions change. Let’s replace them, she said, with new traditions,traditions that are meaningful, that enrich us, that are fun.

Resentment brewed, rebellion simmered, but she persisted.

The day she knew they were heading down the road she had envisioned was the day she found cut-out Elvis sitting in her chair. A new tradition had begun.

Change is hard, she said, but once the students started thinking…

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“It is often small traditions that create happy and lasting memories, holding a special place in our life as we grow older…” writes Kathryn Rose in “Why Traditions Matter” (HuffPost.com).  Rose finds beauty in traditions, which teach us, she maintains, where our people came from. Traditions call us to look beyond ourselves, to the lives and works of other people. Without traditions, we can be alone and disconnected, flawed and weak.

When we observe traditions, Rose maintains, we often connect with a history that’s so much bigger than our individual lives are. I get what she’s saying. It’s why, at Christmas time in this house, we may not bake a ton of cookies…but we always bake Italian chocolate drops and shortbread cutouts. The chocolate cookies honor the Italian tradition of Mark’s father’s family. The shortbread recipe I use is the one my mother wrote out by hand in a personal little cookbook she left me.

Mom may have copied that recipe from a magazine or recipe book, but I like to think it was something passed down from her Scottish mother, my grandmother, who died when my mother was three years old.

I bake those cookies at Christmas time, and I really do feel connected…and I feel like our little family is then uniquely connected through a blending of traditional cookies. When I bake cookies, I can almost feel the companionship of those women who came before, bustling in their kitchens, happily baking holiday cookies with many fewer modern conveniences than I have at my disposal.

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I know a family who carefully considers, each year, where the need is most pressing. They make calls; they read articles; they check with friends in social services. I only know about this because I was at their house one November when a call came through; it was the call that decided them on that year’s particular organization, and the mom felt she couldn’t explain her odd one-sided conversation without letting me into the secret.

I am sworn not to tell who they are. But I can tell you that this family makes a major gift each year in an area of need. Everyone contributes: the parents are the biggest donors, of course, but their kids set aside money each month, maybe a tenth of their allowance or a little chunk of babysitting money, or a part of what Grandma sent for a birthday gift.

Then, around Thanksgiving, they pool the funds and write one check and send it to the project or organization that they have discovered really needs their help.

They never see the recipients or learn how, exactly, their money they send is used; they just get serious joy knowing a need exists, and they stepped up to help fill it.

I love this tradition.

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But Bakari Bosa (“The Dangers of Tradition,” CommLit) warns against mindlessly, slavishly following tradition. He cites the story of the family who always cooked the holiday meat in three pieces, lopping off the ends and baking them in a separate pan. Mom and Grandma explain it thus: We’ve always done it that way.

Great Grandma confides that she only ever did that because she didn’t have a pan big enough to hold the whole roast.  

The roasted ends don’t really HURT anybody, but there’s a lot of work going into an unexamined practice.

“I like the story,” writes Bosa, “because it highlights how, at times, the things we hold dear, that we consider traditions, can be rooted in groundless ideas.”

Bosa cites traditions that are downright harmful, too. The running of the bulls. Hazing. And rites of passage that inflict pain in order to thrust a child into sudden adulthood are probably not worthwhile practices to hang onto. A South American tribe, for example, makes its boys wear gloves into which fire ants are sewn; the ants’ bites, it is said, are more painful than bullets entering flesh. The boys must keep those gloves on for a designated length of time, or their rite of passage is not complete.

This is, in theory, to harden the boys to pain, to ready them for lives in which painful things will surely happen. But the bites can traumatize, sicken, even kill the children subjected to them. Surely this is a tradition that needs re-thinking.

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I was teaching at a new college, and the Thanksgiving holidays were upon us. My students asked me about my family’s holiday traditions, and I asked them about theirs.

We shared many Thanksgiving gotta-haves: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy.

Cranberry sauce, with disagreements on home-made or canned, smooth or chunky.

We all ate pie, though not all the same KINDS of pies: many of my students favored sweet potato, and one or two did lemon meringue. (Pecan, I said; gotta have pecan pie. Many nodded, but,  No, no, no, some responded.)

But then we talked about the where, the when, and the who of our Thanksgiving meals, and I discovered that, in many of the students’ families, the women cooked the meal, and then the men came in from hunting, and the women served them. And after that meal was all eaten and cleared off, THEN the women and the kids ate.

And then the women did the dishes from two sets of dining.

WHAT? I said. WHAT?

And they laughed at me.

City girl, someone said. And someone else chimed in, That’s how we’ve always done it here.

A tradition.

But that’s not one I can get behind.

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And there’s controversy about even what many of us would consider gentle, pleasant traditions.

Is it good for children to believe in Santa, or the EasterBunny, or the Tooth Fairy? (This author says yes: https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/national/queensland/the-scientific-reason-why-believing-in-santa-is-good-for-children-20211222-p59jkq.html)

Is there a lasting sense of betrayal when they realize their parents have lied to them? (This author sees potential problems in letting children believe what they might, someday, consider a ‘lie’: https://www.metroparent.com/parenting/oh-mother/could-believing-in-santa-be-bad-for-kids/ )

But maybe children are enriched by being able to live in that fantasy world for their early years? Maybe it’s a time when they learn to believe, and maybe they outgrow that belief naturally, with no recrimination. The Santa-loving part of me wants to believe this theory.

I remember when Matthew, aged six, confessed to me that he “knew” about Santa. That was okay, he said, “but just don’t tell Dad. It would break his heart.”

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I resent traditions that feel like chains…traditions that anchor me in one spot when a wonderful opportunity to be elsewhere spins into view, for instance. But I love traditions that warm and enrich.

I make yeasty coffee cake for holiday breakfasts—and that can be Easter, Christmas, or Thanksgiving. And I don’t even feel guilt when I buy frozen bread dough and use that instead of laboriously mixing up the dough Mom used to make, from the recipe that calls for 11-3/4 cups of flour. (And calls for almost that many hours of labor, too.) Eating that butter-cream frosted coffee cake, especially when it is dotted with halved maraschino cherries and a walnut or two, takes me back to innocent times…and it gives me great pleasure in the here and now.

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My friend Susan says this about Thanksgiving food traditions: It doesn’t matter so much what’s ON the table. What matters is who is AROUND the table.

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So here’s a debate topic: Traditions: Yea or Nay?

What do you think?

Could it be as simple as these two things: considering the reasons behind the practice, and the potential harm the practice might do?

Cooking the ends of the roast or ham in a separate pan when the cook could fit the whole thing into one big pan is silly. Harmless, but silly: that cook has just not thought through her adherence to tradition.

Drinking lethal amounts of alcohol as an initiation can cause serious harm—or worse–to the drinker and to people the drinker might inadvertently encounter.

The meat tradition could stay or go. The drinking tradition needs to stop because it can hurt people.

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Where do you weigh in? What traditions are important to you? Which traditions could you do without?

And what criteria would you recommend people use when making tradition decisions?

Seasoning

Food may be fuel, but it is also humans’ intellectual and emotional conversation with the world in vastly divergent situations.

—Meredith Lee, “The Activism of Repair,” Taproot Magazine

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It happens just this fast: one week in late October, I think about fixing dinner, and my thoughts twist mutinously. It is 75 degrees out, the sun is shining, leaves are fluttering, and I will gladly go out and rake…but I don’t particularly want to cook.

Scrambled eggs, I think. Frozen pizza.

Better yet, how about take out?

And then, right toward the end of that week, chill air blows in. On Saturday we go to the farmers market, pulling jackets close about us in the brisk wind, and I am seduced by glossy poblano peppers, mixed greens, onions.  I buy a bag of apples.

I think about the smoked sausage in the freezer, about mixing that with chopped peppers, a can of white beans, some chicken broth… I remember the apple pie bar recipe I set aside, just in case I ever felt the urge to bake again.

And I do…I do, now, feel that urge. The calendar has flipped.

It is, once again, a cooking season.

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The new recipe is called “Apple Crisp-Browned Butter Bars,” and it is in the October/November issue of Allrecipes magazine. I leave work on a Tuesday, pick up Jim, drive home. I am ready to indulge the urge to cook.

We’ll have boneless bork chops, I think, boxed scalloped potatoes, green beans (frozen this past summer) with bacon and an oil and vinegar dressing. And, for dessert, the bars, which will scent the house, as they bake, with apple-cinnamon-y goodness.

I get things out of cupboards, heat the oven, and start on the bars. Which, I realize as I measure ingredients, are fussy.

I brown butter and pour it into a plastic container to freeze; at least half an hour in the freezer, says the recipe.

While butter freezes, I peel and cut apples, a new kind of apple recommended at the farmers market: Cameo. I need chopped, not sliced, apples, and I pop a chunk or two of chopped apple into my mouth just to check: the ethical cook always tastes things for her eaters.

A Cameo apple has a very nice taste.

And the act of peeling connects me, opens doors to the past.

A very early memory: my mother, younger brother, and I are standing by the kitchen sink. My mother peels apples, and we try to help. She uses a paring knife; we struggle with some dull and harmless utensils, and our apples are more mangled than denuded.

Mom gets her rhythm going, and long peels puddle onto the counter. She finishes two apples and she says to us,  “Apple peels tell you who you’ll marry.” She gives each of us a long fragrant red strand, turns us around, tells us to flip them over our shoulders.

The peels hit the floor with gentle splats. Mine, I decide, is a ‘C,’ and there is a boy in my nursery school class with a C name. He wouldn’t be too awful to be married to, I decide.

Sean’s peel curls into an S. My mother suggests an S girl he knows, and he knots his eyebrows together and sticks out his lip. He does not like this silly talk.

We sweep up the apple peels, and my mother rolls out pie dough. With the leftover, we make cinnamon sugar pie crust. It’s a treat I really WANT to like, but I cannot quite get there. Too dry and pasty.

I like the apple pie, though.

I melt butter in the cast iron skillet, pour in the apples, layer on cinnamon on and nutmeg, brown sugar, lemon juice, and salt. I stir the mixture, adjust the heat, and pound pork chops flat. I heat water for the potatoes.

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Half an hour has passed, and the butter is not a cooperative block of frozen goodness; it is hard in the top places and liquid in the lower ones. But the taste, I think: the taste of the browned butter will still be there. I cannot grate that butter as the recipe demands, so I chop what I can into little chunks, and pour the rest into a mixture of oats and sugar and spices.  I stir it until, as I am bid, it “resembles coarse meal.” I add an egg yolk and some vanilla, and I press three fourths of the crumbly dough into a pan.

There is a thing about following recipes too slavishly, I think. If the point of the frozen butter is to impart browned butter flavor in a streusel topping, I know this mixture will reach that goal. There would have been a time when I’d have panicked because the butter wasn’t as frozen as predicted; I’d have frozen more butter. I’d have thrown out the first batch of dough.  The pre-dinner prep would have slid into being an all-day job; at 11:00 that night, I’d have still been patting dough into a pan, tumbling caramelized apples on top, getting the treat into the oven.

Making sure it was perfect.

I do not stay up late to cook these days. In fact, I do not stay up late, period. If it isn’t done by 9:00 p.m., it will surely wait until tomorrow.

And changes and surprises in preparation—unless they venture into disaster areas, into scorched meat, mushy onions, or moldy, green bread,—-well, they often lead to adventures in eating, and to methods we incorporate into future fixings.

A recipe, I believe, is like a sidewalk. I use it the first time I go someplace, when I still don’t fully understand where I’m headed. But once I’ve got the direction down, I feel free to meander off the path, to take a shortcut, to enjoy a more scenic route.

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“What do I smell?” Mark demands. Cold air curls into the kitchen as he shuts the back door. He hangs his coat and grabs a spoon and eats hot, caramelized apples right from the pan.

“We could,” he suggests a little hopefully, “just eat them like this.” But he heads up to change, and I pour tender, steaming apples over the dough, crumble the rest of the dough onto the apples, and put the pan into the oven.

I whip the egg white with a little milk and dip the chops, then dredge them. I pour milk and boiling water into the dehydrated potato chips. I add potatoes and pork to the oven.

The green beans are just plain buttered beans; the time for cooking bacon disappeared. But the rest of the meal’s on target.

And the apple bars are very, very good. Cameos are good for baking AND eating.

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Later that week we eat pot roast, braised and lovingly coddled in the oven. The taste reminds me: what a treat roast beef was, growing up, and now I appreciate the financial gymnastics my parents had to perform to make one weekly salary stretch to feed a family of seven.

For many long years, chicken was Sunday dinner.

Then my mother slapped a knife down one Sunday, wiped her hands on her apron,  and said, “I am so SICK of cleaning chickens.”

After that, our Sunday dinner varied—instead of roasted chicken, we would have pork, and sometimes we would have roast beef. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, brown beef gravy made with pan juices, a big dollop of canned peas, cooked almost to paste. That was good eating, I thought. THAT was living.

Later, after launching, it would take me a long time to eye pinkish meat with anything but the greatest of suspicion. Those Depression kids raised us with a fear of trichinosis. Undercooked meat could sicken you!

As a child, I  chopped my well-cooked beef into small, square bites, chewed and chewed.

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I make broth with beef bones stashed in the freezer, with sighing, wilting celery. I chop the fading carrots and throw them in the roasting pan with a quartered onion. I broadcast dried herbs (harvested in our our backyard), drizzle olive oil, roast the whole thing until everything is all caramel-tinged. Then, with mitted hands, I lift the old Dutch oven to the sink, fill it with water, and lug it back to the stovetop. I put it on the middle burner and let the bones and veggies and spices simmer most of one afternoon.

I pour the broth through the old white colander into the old tan Pfatzgraff bowl, and when it cools, I skim the fat off the top.

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In the next week, the highest predicated temperature is 53 degrees.  And that’s tomorrow’s high; the digits will creep downward. The furnace chugs on during the afternoon. And I have the urgent sense that we need to stockpile food for the winter.

I pour beef broth into plastic three-cup containers, snap on the tops, and label them neatly. I carry six containers to the freezer downstairs, making two trips.

When the last container is in the freezer, I step back and survey.

It is good. It is well. Some atavistic urge tells me to get food ready against the coming winter. A thread of COVID concern wriggles in, too: what if we can’t leave the house for weeks on end?

With broth and frozen veggies, I have all the fixings of soup. Some deep, worried part of me is reassured. If the lockdown returns, if twelve feet of snow fall, if some unforeseen disaster strikes…well, at least we’ll have food to get us through.

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I chop leftover beef into cubes, shake them up in a gluten-free flour mixture, dump them into sizzling olive oil. I add one of those containers of broth, some chopped celery, and sliced carrot. I chop up two baked potatoes I froze a while back. I find a container of beef pan drippings in the freezer, too, and I mix this in with the rest of the concoction, and I let it simmer, long and slow.

Big bowls of beef stew. Crusty slices of artisan bread for Mark.

Jim nukes himself a Devour, but even he allows, the beef stew cooking sure smells good.

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And today the rain begins, the cold, persistent rain, and I huddle inside, paging through cookbooks, searching out warming recipes, thinking about making huge batches of soup, spaghetti sauce, about freezing hearty meals.

Today, I think, I’ll make some chili with the leftover spaghetti sauce in the freezer; I’ll add Italian sausage and brown ground beef, chop one of one of those peppers, add red pepper flakes, kidney beans, then ladle in the sauce. It will simmer in the big old pot on the back of the stove; the kitchen window will fog up from the steam. And we will scoop up big spoons-full, sprinkle grated cheddar, crunch some Fritos. We’ll eat steaming hot chili and make dismayed weather remarks.

And then, perhaps, it will be time to bake a batch of snickerdoodles.

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It’s deep fall, when the warm weather suddenly retreats. The leaves fall in heaps and drifts on browning grass. The world, laid bare, tells me to retreat, to warm myself, to stock up against the winter I can now, deep in my marrow, feel coming.

I listen.  I listen, and I turn on the light in my kitchen; I flatten the cookbook out on the countertop, anchor the page corner with my phone, and I open the cupboard.

Saving the Living Daylights Out of These Days

Daylight Savings Time is the practice of setting the clocks forward one hour from standard time during the summer months, and back again in the fall, in order to make better use of natural daylight.

                                                —-timeanddate.com

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This is a shifting-time, when all of the pretty golden leaves are gone from Sandy’s tree next door,–and from our yard,–and the browner, tougher leaves start falling. The oak trees in the backyard think that they are clever; they let loose all the uppermost leaves from their uppermost limbs. Those leaves are tough, and hard, and leathery, and the wind hustles them out of the yard and onto the driveway, where they, overnight, create thick drifts.

The oak trees hang on to the rest of their leaves, though; lower and middle branches are still robustly leaf-ed. Some of THOSE leaves the trees let go of on, say, the day of the first, perfect, pristine snowfall.

Top leaves dropped, the oak tree hangs on to the ones in the middle and on the bottom…

“Oh, are you LIKING that pretty, clean snow?” ask the trees, and they look at each other, bob their branches (One! Two! Three!), and, on the count of four, throw leathery, black-pocked leaves onto the gleaming whiteness.

“Still loving that pretty snow?” they taunt, gloating, even though their newly bared limbs shiver in the ice cold breeze.

And still they wait, those cagey trees, still hanging on tightly to a goodly number of their leaves, until that day in March when I can SMELL spring on the wafting air that rumples my forelocks, the very day that apple-green tiny shoots first pop up.

“Spring!!!???!!!” the trees say then, slyly. “Wait. What happened to FALL?” And all the remaining old leaves plummet to the ground in a dried up, ugly pile.

I wonder what we ever did to those oaks trees to make them so bitter.

But I digress. Those trees do throw a good few upper leaves down in the right-now part of fall.

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And the languid sweet gum tree in the front yard starts its throwdown right about now, too. Here, it says, have a bunch!

And then it stops, tired and lazy. And it waits, until I am done raking, to throw down some more.

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All of this is to say that in Fall, I get a lot of my steps in by raking the driveway and the yard. And I enjoy it, I really do,—being out and stretching legs and arms in that apple-cheeked weather, hustling leaf piles off to the curb where the beloved leaf-sucker chugs along to hoover them up, almost daily, these November weeks.

I like clearing the old brown leaves off Crayola green grass and creating uncluttered open spaces; I like the smell of the damp earth and the loamy leaves, and the crisp clarity of autumn air. And, as limbs are busily working, mind is free, and distractions few. I love the time to let my thoughts roam.

Today I got started thinking about Daylight Savings Time, which ends on Sunday morning, here in Ohio, at 2 A.M.

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At first, with standard time looming, I thought, “Oh, boy. I’ll be able to walk in the morning again!”

I was thinking that because, now, sunrise comes about 8:01. I don’t like walking in the dark, so my walks start later and later as fall progresses, until finally, if I wait to walk until 8:05 or so, I barely have time to get home and unmussed before I have to leave for work. On those days, I might go to the gym early, or I might wait until later to walk, and that changes the shape of the day. A brisk early walk seems to jumpstart all kinds of good thinking, and I miss that feeling when it’s too dark to take that walk outside.

So more morning sunlight would be a boon. But then I think, “Wait a minute.”

If we’re turning the clocks BACK an hour, what WAS 6:00 A.M. will be 5:00 A.M., and sunrise will be later, not sooner, and, until the earth revolves irrevocably around the sun toward spring, it will be even darker and even harder to walk outside early on work days.

DAMN, I think, and my momentary excitement seeps away like stale air from a popped balloon.

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But there ARE good things about ‘falling back.’ There’s an extra hour of sleep, for instance, on Sunday morning. That is nice, even though I am not much of a marathon sleeper these days. I will be up at whatever hour my body says is 6 A.M. regardless of what any clock dictates. But a quiet morning hour will still be a treat.

There were days, though, days in the hazy darkness of my past, when that extra hour of sleep was a jubilation, an hour of reprieve, before, say, having to tromp down to the early Sunday morning supermarket meat room and slap cold clammy chicken leg quarters into five pound bags for five cheerful hours.

And for some folks, that extra hour meant the music abruptly stopping, the lights going out for closing time in a favorite Cheers-type bar, the kind where everybody knew your name; there would be an announcement: “It’s 2. A.M. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t drink it here!”

And then a breath, a pulse, and that same gleeful announcer would say, “It’s 1 A.M.! You CAN drink it here—-for another whole hour!”

The crowd would cheer, the music would recommence, and those who loved to dance would go on back to it. A happy throng would inch, en masse, toward the bar. Another hour to party!

Well, that’s what I HEARD, in those days, from dear friends, about the night when daylight savings time ended. Especially if my grandchildren or children or former students are reading this, I was at home on those fall-back nights, reading Middlemarch and tapping out deep thoughts on my portable Olympia typewriter.

Studying, not partying, for this gal.

Of course.

But still: the time change offered reason, if only for an hour, to celebrate.

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Who invented daylight savings time, anyway? I think about this as I wrassle leathery leaves to the curb. I have a vague idea that its inception had something to do with farming—-more time in the fields in the fall, that kind of thing.

And later, I get on history.com (“Why Do We Have Daylight Savings Time?”) and I find that, yet again, I am wrong, wrong, wrong. Most farmers, I learn, aren’t crazy about the whole daylight saving time (DST) concept; it disrupts the natural rhythms of their work.

It was energy that actually brought DST into the realm of reality. The concept had been bandied about before; Ben Franklin suggested such a scheme in 1784. A New Zealand entomologist pressed his government to adopt a daylight savings program in 1895, but they declined. And a British industrial magnate, in 1905 or so, suggested that clocks in the United Kingdom change by 80 minutes every fall and spring, “…to give people more time to enjoy daytime recreation” (history.com). That idea never even floated all the way through Parliament.

No, war brought the change. Germany and Austria, during World War I, changed their clocks to conserve energy for the war effort. During the long and brutal fighting, Britain and other European countries followed suit.

The United States adopted Daylight Savings Time in 1918, but the next year, the war over, they repealed it.

The first towns to adopt DST as a permanent thing were Canadian.

The United States would not make DST a mandatory part of daily life for many years after World War I.

During the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt once again put it into play. When that war ended, many states went back to standard time while others continued on DST, which must have been confusing if, say, one lived right on the edge of a DST state and worked a mile away in a standard time state.

So Congress decided, in 1966, to make things consistent: they passed the Uniform Time Act, and Daylight Savings Time was the norm across the land, with clocks changing in April and October.

Then in 2007, our legislators changed the changes to occur in March and November, and here we are.

Although two states, Hawaii and Arizona, have opted out; those states are on standard time all year long.

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So, if the farmers don’t like it, and the arguments of once-a-year partiers for extended pub time are not persuasive, why DO we have Daylight Savings Time?

Energy is the most popular argument; if we adjust our days according to natural light, we’ll use less artificial light.

And people will be more active; they’ll go out after dinner, if daylight entices them; they’ll, maybe, enjoy outdoor recreation. The tourist trade will flourish more readily than it would in the early dark.

And the world will be safer; in the light, there are fewer pedestrian auto accidents and fewer robberies.

All of these assertions, timeanddate.com tells me, have data to back them up.

But there are cons to the concept of DST, too. Some places see no energy savings, especially places where sunny days mean more air conditioning.

More worrisome is the thought that we all have to adjust to a change in our circadian rhythms, and for some, that has more dire consequences than for others. Some people get truly sick; their constitutions do not adapt the whole six months. And the lost hour at the beginning of the Daylight Savings season, in March or April, sees people LOSING sleep. Car crashes, industrial accidents, suicides, and miscarriages increase then. The early evening darkness after DST ends contributes to depression.

Also, some nay-sayers contend, DST is costly. Some places have had to pay for ad campaigns to warn people of the dangers of transition tiredness. Computers must be programmed to change the time, and other devices, clocks and such, must be changed by hand.

There are often bills before the US Congress asking for a return to standard time. So far, those bills have not become law, but who knows what may happen?

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For now, though, at least in the great state of Ohio, and in most other states, we live on Daylight Savings Time.

If I look at it in one light, it almost seems like magic by fiat: the government says time will change NOW, and change time does: a stroke of the pen and what was Later becomes Earlier, or vice-y versa. Kind of time-travelly, that.

As I rake, I think about other similar programs I wish we could have, like Faux Pas Savings Time. In that, we would set the clock back to before we said stupid things, like guessing ten years older when someone says, “Well, how old do you THINK I am?” Or not realizing that a person is not still pregnant and saying, “Gosh! You must be so ready for that little one to arrive!” when the baby, in fact, is two months old.

Under Faux Pas Savings Time, we’d go back to those situations and say the RIGHT things, and whole awkward chapters of life could be smoothed out.

Or how about Avoirdupois Savings Time, where we’d turn the clock back to thinness, and then be able to decline the luscious piece of cheesecake, no matter how delicious it looks, and, in general, institute, early on, healthy, nutritious habits. Then when the clock surged forward again, we’d be leaner, meaner, and much more energetic…

In fact, any kind of Undo Stupid Mistakes Savings Time would be a wonderful thing, especially if I could carry the learning from the wretched situation forth into standard time, while erasing the situation itself altogether.

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I suppose, though, we each have our own ways of retrofitting unsatisfactory past happenings. We carry it forward, making sure we never again make such an unnecessary gaffe; we turn the painful time into art; we write about it. And when we write about it, we can change the story, turn the story into say, late nights with classic literature in halcyon, mythic days.

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But, anyway. At 2:00 A.M. on November 6, it will become 1:00 A.M. on November 6, and a few hours later, I will pad softly downstairs in the darkness, brew some lovely decaf, open my book, and steal a luxurious hour in the reading chair. And other people will enjoy the bonus hour for sleeping or working, creating or just enjoying…maybe someone will catch a Christmas movie on the Hallmark channel!  If we live in DST zones, we’ll adapt; we’ll do it because we have to, because if we don’t, we’ll be late for work, we’ll be trying to shop after hours, and we’ll be missing appointments.

I wish I could put my oak trees on Leaf Dropping Savings Time, —-get all those leathery leaves down at once—, but that’s another reality I’ll just continue to learn to live with.

It’s something to think about, though, when I’m raking.

The driveway, which I raked, and Mark cleared with the leaf-blower on, less than 24 hours ago…

What the Door Muse Said

With every doorway, decision.

Accept, deny. Turn.

“The Politics of Doors,” by Robert Okaji

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Amazing, the things I never, ever wonder about. I unroll a spool of satiny, cream-colored ribbon, and it never occurs to me to ask, Who invented ribbon? Or picture frames: whose brilliant idea was it to show off a picture with a mat and a frame?

So many things I use every day, just taking them for granted, not thinking that some genius must have first envisioned them, must have come up with a workable idea to solve a problem…like what to do with all the sweepings. Ah, I know, thought our genius. I’ll invent the dust pan.

And then neighbors see that, maybe, or the child goes to school and tells the teacher, when the teacher is cleaning up after messy kids, that his mama invented a tool so you don’t have to sweep the litter out the door, into the storm and rain.

And the teacher goes over to the student’s house to see.

Nice! says the pedant, turning the thin, sloped, wooden device over and stroking it.

He looks up. What if we put a handle on it? he suggests. And let’s put a hole in the handle so we can hang it next to the broom.

They get some worn out shingles and go to work. From their two new, improved dust pans grows a trend.

And someone says, Yes, great idea, but wouldn’t it be better if we used metal, rather than wood?

And you know what? It IS better. It lasts longer; it doesn’t splinter, it’s thinner and catches more of the debris.

And so it goes, I think: the best ideas, the greatest inventions, spring from times when a homely need meets a questing mind.

Of course, all this is imagined. Maybe I’ll actually do a little research into the history of dustpans.

But not this week. This week, for several reasons, I am thinking about doors.

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First, scrolling through my WordPress reader, I read a poem called “The Politics of Doors,” by Robert Okaji, a poet whose work resonates with me. (https://robertokaji.com/2022/10/23/the-politics-of-doors-5/) Okaji’s verse is pared-down spare, but each well-chosen word contributes essentially.

Doors can be opportunity. Or they can be the portal through which we are rudely, unwillingly expelled.

Each door, a mystery. Each door, a possibility.

It was just a lovely poem, accompanied by a photo of a weathered, colorful door, and it made me think: is a door a way in? A way out? A barrier? A gateway?

Maybe ALL of those, depending…?

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Then I saw an article, online, which—like one of those “If you were an exotic animal, you would be a ….” quizzes that are rampant on Facebook—-tells you what your  attributes are based on the door that calls to you. Do you like a French door, you romantic? Or are you a protector, you who prefers a sturdy steel door? (Check it out:  https://www.smarthomeimprovementdmv.com/blog/what-kind-of-door-are-you-what-your-doors-say-about-your-personality-a18/)

I scrolled through that, thinking, hmmm. I kind of like ALL the doors they showed, which probably means I’m firmly indecisive.

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And then, James and I took Mark to the Heisey Glass Museum in Newark, Ohio, for a rich, long, birthday browse. The museum has a whole history’s worth of glass on display, and upstairs you can see glassware that was used by such luminaries as Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Eleanor Roosevelt, Judy Garland, Liz Taylor, and John and Jackie Kennedy,—used in movies, used with dignitaries, used at weddings…sparkling Heisey glass toasting the world.

In the basement, Mark was fascinated by the equipment—molds and presses and other big, heavy machines I cannot name—used in the making of the glass.

We stayed for a couple of hours, and, in the end, I bought some sweet little pumpkin-shaped candlesticks at the gift shop, and then we left, and on the way out, we said to each other, “Oh my gosh. The DOORS.”

The beautiful doors, which we didn’t fully appreciate on the way in, are glass—glass plates and trays and fragments, all repurposed Heisey glass molded together and glistening in that Saturday’s warm sunshine.

“I want doors like THAT!” I said as we got into the door.

“Right,” said Mark. “What do you think THAT would cost?”

“Nyah, nyah, nyah,” I replied, hands over my ears. Not listening,—and please do not confuse me with the facts.

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So, anyway: there were those three door-focused things within 24 hours of each other, and so I have been thinking of, wondering about, and reading up on doors.

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The first actual doors, I discovered in my reading (please see links at the end of this post) were in ancient Egyptian tombs, placed there at least 4,000 years ago. They were false doors, though, leading mortals to nowhere (leading, perhaps, the spirits of the entombed to some rich afterlife, though).

King Solomon’s doors were crafted of fine olive wood.

Ancient Indians made doors of stone, with stone pivots to open and close them.

The Romans had bronze doors.

And those early peoples were beyond ingenious; they crafted single doors, double doors, sliding doors, and folding doors. In the first century of the Christian Era, there were automatic doors in China, doors operated by foot sensors.

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Doors are two-sided: the outside of the door, the inside of the door, the possibility of haven, and also, the chance of being trapped. Exit the door: is it escape or expulsion?

We stand outside a door and ponder whether to open it, whether it could be Pandora’s door, or a just a pleasant way to go inside… Small wonder that Janus, two-headed Janus, the patron god of January, that month of beginnings and endings, is also the god of doors and archways. At his temple, the Janus Geminus, the double doors at each end were closed during peacetime and open during war.

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In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in Europe, doors were generally oak embellished with copper or bronze. The symbol one hung on one’s door was important; that symbol established the rank and status of the people housed within.

Time marched on and people applied many artistic techniques to their doors and doorways—-they used classical Greek designs; they pounded hundreds of ‘clavos’—iron nails—-into Spanish style entrances; they added carving or reliefs to wooden doors,— figures, wildlife, flora,—and that was a Tuscan style.

Religion was important; religion, in the sixteenth and seventeenth was a mainstay for the majority of folks, and so it is not a surprise that the most beautiful, the most ornate and elaborate doors, were reserved for cathedrals. Basilicas have what are called holy doors; they are only opened during Jubilee years, and when the Jubilee is ended, that special door is closed again.

Image of Pope Francis opening the holy doors at St. Peter’s Basilica from pinterest.com

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We have doors that we, as a society, as a people, hold dear…we wonder what’s behind Elizabeth Arden’s famous red door, for instance, and we are charmed by the sturdy, well-kept round doors of Hobbit holes.

We hang wreaths on our doors, and welcome signs, and doors are, it seems, a symbol of both welcome and safety, and of opportunity and danger, too.

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“Doorways and openings are symbolic structures that have great significance in our daily lives,” I read in psychologycenter.com’s “The Symbolism of Doors.” Doors are transition points; doors lead to change. The author recommends I use doors as reminders to be present, to think, before yanking that knob and flinging myself into whatever is behind it.

Doors can be beginnings. Often we can’t see through the door, through its solid wood or metal, and so we have to think about what we might encounter on the other side.

Doors can symbolize transitions; we step from one known place into a new environment, hoping all will be well.

A doorway is a threshold where two worlds come together. Stepping across the threshold can be a kind of rebirth.

And doors can symbolize endings…we think of people who have died as those who have opened a door we will all come to by and by, but those early travelers are in a place, right now, where we cannot go.

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Books are doorways, I think, to new knowledge. Any kind of learning, really, is a door. How often, in education, we use the word ‘gateway.’ And that makes sense.

We pass through doorways into different eras—the passage from childhood into adolescence, into young adulthood, and into middle age. And then, very suddenly, we stand at the door to old age, thinking, “Oh, no. Much too soon. Surely they can’t mean I should walk in there!”

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We tell stories about doors…stories like, “The Lady and the Tiger.” Choose the right door and you’ll find the love of your life. Choose the OTHER door and a vicious tiger’s hot breath will menace your tender neck in seconds.

And game shows force us to choose: will it be Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three?

We are this close to our good fortune…and that close, too, to our disaster. And it all comes down to which door we choose to open.

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We encounter so many doors, metaphoric and physical, in our lives, and some injure us by being firmly closed to us, and some ensnare us with false promise, but some offer shelter, haven, and warmth. Doors offer mystery, danger, and redemption, too.

No wonder we are fascinated by them. No wonder we obsess about the color we paint our doors, about whether to have a solid door or one with thick, protective glass that lets the sunshine in.

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She hears, in the dark, tiny scrabbling feet; the varmints are allowed in by the soft leather hanging that closes off the night from the inside of the house. She hears them climbing the stone counter, and, in the morning, she finds the flatbread has been nibbled beyond use.

And she has an idea. She goes to talk to her man.

“What if,” she asks, “doors were HARD? And thick? What if you made one from wood?”

He thinks about what she has said; he think about the mangled bread that had to be thrown away, of the distracting noise of scampering feet when he tries to sleep at night. He weighs the idea in his head.

And he thinks, this could work.

They go out to the scrap pile together, and he chooses some solid pieces of wood, and they go to measure the doorframe.

He, skilled woodworker, creates a wooden door that slides seamlessly into that frame, and then they ponder how to attach it.

At first, they opt for leather thongs that allow the door to swing. But the leather loosens and needs to be replaced rapidly, and the door slopes to one side.

And how to keep the door closed?

They try a leather thong on the open side of the door; they tie it to a nail pounded into the doorway.

The door keeps the tiny creatures from invading their nighttime space.

Neighbors come to see. One picks up a flat rock and a smooth piece of stone and sketches out an idea for a more efficient hinge.

Soon the people of the whole settlement have added wooden doors to their homes.

And the doors keep improving.

******************

Maybe. Maybe it happened something like that: a need, an idea, people with both skill and vision, and then with openness to changes and improvements.

For now—sadly, this won’t last—I take a moment, when I unlock a door, to think about what’s behind it, and to be thankful to all those unknown geniuses who made the little innovations that I take so for granted and could not, comfortably, live without.

***********************

Some resources:

https://vatican.com/The-Holy-Door-St-Peters-Basilica/

https://www.britannica.com/place/Janus-Geminus

http://www.psychologycentre.co.nz/the-symbolism-of-doors.html

If You Give a Kid a Steam Shovel…

Not long ago, looking through the shelves for books to use in a mantel decoration scheme, I came across a slender paperback copy of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Mark and Jim were out on a Saturday Boys’ Retail Run, so I slipped the book from the shelf and sat down and read it in the quiet house.

First published in 1939, still a favorite…

And, oh, the memories that well-loved book evoked. I remembered my mother reading a battered library copy of Mike Mulligan to my younger brother and me…that would have been around 62 years ago or so.

Cap’n Kangaroo read Mike on his show, more than once. And it’s the first book Miss Binney, the brand new kindergarten teacher in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest, reads to her first class. (Ramona, of course, quickly pipes up with an inappropriate question: how does Mike go to the bathroom, stuck down there digging the cellar all day? And so Miss Binney’s REAL teacher education begins.)

And I read Mike Mulligan to Matt and to Jim. Mark loves this memory: it is evening; Jim is maybe two years old, in footy pajamas and sweetly sleepy after a bath. We sit in the lounge chair by the fireplace in our long ago home, Jim curled up  on my lap, and I open Mike Mulligan and begin reading. I begin reading carefully—Jim was the kind of kid who memorized the text and called me on deviating or taking shortcuts.

And then there is a soft rustling as Matt, 15, and his friends come in. They settle themselves quietly near the TV set, sprawling on the floor, chins in hands.

“I LOVE this book,” whispers Rob, and Jim shushes him, and I read on, reading a story that captivates toddlers and teens—and tinsel-heads—alike.

Mike is a classic tale, one of the 100 top books teachers read to their classes. Technology aside, the story is timeless.

*********************

Interesting, that timelessness; Virginia Lee Burton wrote the book in 1939, when the country was recovering from the Great Depression. It’s the story of a man looking for work. It’s the story of how technology changes and what happens when your tools become obsolete. It’s a tale of ingenuity and creativity, and it’s a tale about how one person’s ironclad determination can cause real change…even in the hearts of greedy, grasping people.

Reading about Mike and Mary Anne made me nostalgic—it made me miss the unique, piquant pleasure of sharing a book with a child, and having that child love the book I’ve chosen.

Maybe that’s why discovering the little free library in Westview Park was so compelling.

******************

Around the corner and down the block from our house, the Westview School once stood. The building was empty when we moved in here; we watched, a few years later, when its demo took place. We were not the only ones; people thronged to watch the building come down.

They were people who’d gone to school there; they were people whose parents had gone to school there. They were people who worked there, too. It was a beloved place, and as the wrecking ball took out walls, stories circulated, memories were shared.

A year or so after the demo, the County’s Parks Association established Westview Park on the site, with paved paths, lots of green space, and a marble table and benches that cry out for unhurried games of chess. There’s a tunnel to crawl through, and there are stationary canoes that would-be adventurers can paddle.

And most recently, the County’s library system has installed a Little Free Library.

*********************

Little Free Library (littlefreelibrary.org) is a huge, non-profit organization these days; they have inspired the installation of more than 150,000 Little Free Libraries in over 100 countries. The libraries vary in size and decoration, but they are all outdoor, and their motto, their raisin d’être is this: Take a book. Leave a book.

This Little Free Library is carved into a tree… (see more here: https://littlefreelibrary.org/57-jaw-dropping-libraries/)

This movement came about in 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a small wooden schoolhouse in his mother’s memory. She had been a teacher, and she was an inveterate reader.

Bol filled his little schoolhouse with books and mounted it on a pole in his front yard. Passersby were delighted. They took books, and some came back and left books.

People loved Bol’s idea, and he wound up making several more little schoolhouses for other people to mount in THEIR yards, to fill with THEIR books to share.

Then Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin at Madison teamed up with Bol, and they made the “take a book, leave a book” vision into a concrete plan.They were inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who had vowed to fund 2,508 public libraries in English-speaking countries. Brooks and Bol pledged to establish more than 2,508 Little Free Libraries by the end of 2013.

By August, 2012, they had exceeded their goal. That year, with 4,000 Little Free Libraries established, the organization officially became a 501 (c) (3).

When Todd Bol died of pancreatic cancer four years ago, in October 2018, 75,000 Little Free Libraries were thriving.

This year, there are over 150,000 registered Little Free Libraries in more than 115 countries worldwide.

When I walked by the one in Westview Park, with its art on the outside and treasure within, I was instantly charmed.

***************************

A trip to the library is the best kind of treasure hunt; on any given day, I might discover words that lift me up, and I might read words that shake the ground beneath my feet. I might find a voice that speaks clearly and directly just to me, or a book that makes me laugh out loud, or a book that helps me cook the world’s best gluten-free biscuits. The vast, unlimited potential of it! I remind myself every week to be utterly  and completely grateful.

The Little Free Libraries are not nearly so vast, of course, but their tininess, their 24/7 access, their lack of rules or restrictions, enhance the possibility of treasure. Anyone can open the doors of that little wooden box, open the doors and pull out a book and take it home…and keep it forever, if that’s what they want to do. If you need a book, the Little Free Library says, please, please, please take one of mine.

We noticed that the Little Free Library at Westview would be full one day, and the next, the treasure would be halved. Someone was joyfully gathering its riches.

So James and I committed to donating three books each, every month.

*************************

The Little Free Library: a chance to share books we cherish with children we’ll never know.

James and I both order from a used book site, where, every ten books or so, we get rewarded with a free book. We figured we can use the free book for the little libraries, too.

The first month of Westview’s Little Free Library, James ordered three of his favorite Redwall books. He discovered the kingdom of Redwall when he was a young, precocious reader who had trouble fitting in with the kids in his class. But he felt very comfortable with the denizens of Redwall—stouthearted mice and moles and badgers who were threatened and harassed by conniving voles and worm-hearted weasels. Redwall’s creator, Brian Jacques, created a rich, deep fantasy land, full of valor and loyalty, conspiracies and treachery. Mr. Jacques wrote 18 Redwall adventures, I think, before he died. James collected them all.

He has long since traded the gentle fantasies of Redwall for the grittier sagas of JRR Tolkien and Robert Jordan, but James remembers well their allure. His three favorite Redwall stories arrived, and, on my evening walk, I tucked them into the little library.

The next day, the first volume was gone. The day after that, there were no Redwall books left.

“Yes!” said Jim: a childhood passion passed along.

**************************

I pondered long, that first month, over which books to order. Finally, I settled on The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. My sister-in-law, Mary, a children’s lit expert, introduced me to the story of Milo, who was always bored and never content…until he discovered a mysterious tollbooth in his bedroom one day. Milo drove his little car through the turnstile right into another country…one where the land of words was at war with the land of numbers, and Milo, unremarkable, drooping Milo, stepped up and became a hero.

The Phantom Tollbooth is funny. It’s that wonderful kind of book that enthralls child readers and tickles adult readers, and during the ten years I taught middle school, I read it each year to my sixth grade home room.

Mary shared that book with me, and I shared it with my students, and thirty-five or so years later, I put a copy in the little library at Westview.

It too was gone the next day.

I also put Roger Duvoisin’s Petunia in there—subversive, I know; that clear message: Reading is GOOD! Reading is IMPORTANT!

And I added a copy of CDB by William Steig, a book written completely in letters that, when read aloud, make sentences (O U Q-T! U R A B-U-T!) That was a book I found in the children’s section of the Book Nook, the wonderful bookstore I worked in during college and after. I took CDB home and my mother fell in love with it, giggling over its silly sayings and pictures, giving copies to my nieces and nephews.

I walked through the park the next morning. CDB and Petunia were gone, gone, gone.

Art on the outside, books within…

*******************************

James ordered three more Redwall books. I ordered an omnibus of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, Ted Arnold’s No Jumping on the Bed, and Ronald Dahl’s The BFG.

We rushed the books down to the park when they landed on the front steps a few days later. Once again, they disappeared rapidly.

********************************

Tonight I got a notification that the books I ordered for some kid’s Hallowe’en reading (Bunnicula, Dahl’s The Witches, and Allard’s Miss Nelson is Missing) will be here by Friday. When I looked the other night, the Little Free Library was full of grown-up books. I can’t wait to slip some kids’ books, books with a gently scary (but safely resolving) little seasonal edge, back in there.

********************************

Mark says, darkly, “I hope KIDS are taking those books. I hope someone isn’t taking them to Half Price Books and getting cash.”

But I have faith. For one thing, I don’t think HPB is going to fork out a ton of money for those gently used volumes. But for another, I often see a mom and her four kids, one in a stroller, the others running ahead, yelling back to her, sometimes zipping back and forth on small bicycles, doing doughnuts around their stroller-tethered mama, heading for the park. Maybe those kids are reading the books. Or maybe it’s the young dad with the slender, serious, long-limbed daughter who skips at his side…maybe they are opening those Plexiglas doors, examining the books left behind, making important decisions about what to take home.

Kids zip through that park, running, riding, throwing, yelling…and maybe, when they go home, they take a book to illuminate a quieter hour.

The unique, piquant pleasure of sharing a book that a child might love. I’m already thinking Anne of Green Gables, Dr. Seuss, Kate Di Camillo…and I’m awaiting my November books, which include a board book copy of Mike Mulligan. I think that book must STILL be beloved; the regular volumes, hard cover and paperback, are out of stock. But some young mom and some digger-loving kid might enjoy the hard-to-destroy board book copy.

I hope so, anyway; I like to think of that.

*********************************************

What’s your favorite book to share with a kid?

**************************************************************

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mike_Mulligan_and_His_Steam_Shovel

October: Tales to Curl Your Hair

Gather ‘round, children,

And you will hear,

Tales of pain,

Of horror,

Of fear,

Of AWFUL memories—

I cannot fix these!

I’m remembering

Hair curlers

In the Sixties.

***********************************

The people in the house around the corner really do Hallowe’en big. The house is kind of Victorian, with turret-y things, a little gingerbread, and a big, open front porch. On that porch, a skeletal dog leaps, snapping at something we can’t see. An ashen-faced maiden slumps on a settee, eyes vacant; there’s a leering zombie uncomfortably close to her side. And a black-robed witch sticks her striped-stockinged feet off the railing-free edge. Her head is thrown back, and her hair, riotously curly, tumbles down behind her.

The witch has an awful, angry, expression on her face, and I know why: she had to use curlers to get her hair to look like that.

A child of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, I can feel that witch’s pain.

*********************

I grew into that pain gradually. When I was very young, my mother never cut my hair. Instead, she braided it every day, pulling it into tight French braids. My hair grew long, long, long, but the braiding reduced the length. Still, the braids beat pleasantly against my back when I ran outside, playing freeze tag in the backyard.

One of these brothers had a mad scissors-hand…

One day, though, when I was six or so, one of my brothers (if you know my brothers, you probably can guess which one. I, however, will not be mentioning names) came in to the kitchen when I was sitting at the table, coloring.

“Let’s play hairdresser!” he suggested. He had a snickety pair of shears in his hand, and he came nearer and nearer to my head, making me very nervous.

Snick!

Snick!

Snick!

And then he put the scissors down, bored, I guessed, and ambled away. My braids were very tightly braided. I noticed naught amiss.

The next morning, though, my mother undid my hair to brush it out and braid it up again.

“Acccccckkkkkkkkk!” she screamed, and I felt something falling.

On the floor was a thick clump of shiny, strawberry blonde hair. That brother had cut through one hank of a braid,—cut through it so it was disconnected, but wouldn’t go anyplace until the braid was taken apart.

********************

At first, I think my mother thought I might have some horrible, hair-shedding disease. Then she noticed the neat, sharp edges of the one sixth of my hair that had been cut, and she narrowed her eyes. She asked me about yesterday, about where I’d been and whom I’d seen.

She swept up the chopped hair, face set in implacable lines. Then she went to find my brother.

********************

Our neighbor two houses down owned Mar-Val Studio, a hair cutting establishment. Its owner, Mrs. Valone, was always urging my mother to stop in for a hair cut or a shampoo and set; and, a mother of adventurous boys herself, she was understanding when my mother called her and explained the situation. Mrs. Valone had an opening that very afternoon, and so I had my first hair salon adventure.

And when I came home again, my hair was short, above my shoulders, and my mother said we’d have to start to curl it. That night she washed all the hairspray out (we did not cotton to hairspray in that house) and she set my hair on little pink plastic curlers. The curlers had two pieces. The inside part was a mesh tube with tines sticking out of it, like sharp little combs. My mother wound my hair around this part.

Then she took part two, a curved clip kind of thing, and snapped it over the hair wrapped around the comb-y part.

Pink curlers image from Pinterest.com

My mother braided tightly. She curled tightly, too. The curlers were raising my eyebrows and stretching my cheeks. My mother smacked the curler box back into the cabinet and said, okay. I could go to bed now.

The only pinch of hair not encased in plastic was my bangs. Those were too short to curl.

*******************

Thus began a scary adventure: learning to sleep with curlers in. If I lay on my back, which was my normal sleeping pose, the combs dug into the back of my head. If I lay on my side, I could put my head on my  arm, which was better, but as soon as I shifted, the curlers banged on the mattress and my scalp protested.

I got up and complained.

Sleep on your stomach, said my mother.

I balanced on my belly and my forehead and fell into a fitful sleep.

The next morning, as Mom pulled the curlers out, none too gently, I complained again about the painful process of trying to sleep.

“What price beauty?” asked my mother, blithely  and rhetorically. It was a Brownies day. She sent me off to school with short straight bangs and boing-y curls bouncing out beneath my beanie.

Beanie and curls…

That night, she curled my hair again.

Slowly, slowly, I schooled myself in how to sleep in sharp pink plastic rollers.

But I never liked it very much. 

***********************

And then, because I was their victim, I became aware of curlers in the world around me.

I talked about the curling process with friends, who told me THEY had foam curlers, soft foam curlers, with a snap-tight appliance. They wore these to bed, my friends assured me, and their scalps did not complain.

I went home and told my mother about those curlers. She gave me a sour look.

“Your hair is too thick for foam rollers,” she said.

Sigh.

*********************************

Those early days of the sixties were a time when girls and women wore kerchiefs, big squares of brightly colored cloth that we folded in half, making a triangle, and tied beneath our chins. Fashionable women might wear a silky kerchief with a stylish gray overcoat in cold weather. Those of us who attended Catholic school, and thus went to morning Mass, had an intimate relationship with kerchiefs: we wore them to cover our female heads in church.

And SOME people wore their kerchiefs over their curlers.

In my house, the rule was simple: we wore curlers to bed, and we never wore curlers never out of the house. Sometimes we would go to the Nu-Way supermarket, and my mother would see women she knew shopping in their hair curlers. She would stop and talk with them, pleasant and polite, but later, she’d say, kind of sad and chagrined, sort of disappointed, “You should NEVER go shopping with curlers in.”

As I got older, though, I began to question this. It seemed to me that being out at, say, 12:30 P.M. with curlers in your hair meant that you had someplace exciting to be later on that day, and your hair was curling in preparation for the adventure. A date, maybe! Or maybe the curler-ed woman was one of those good 1960’s wives who, freshly coifed and smelling sweet, greeted her husband when he came home from work. So of course, she’d have to put the curlers in so she could take them out about 4:30, say, and be cutely curled for the cocktail hour. That kind of woman had children who didn’t make noise, complain, or get in trouble.

My mother was not that kind of woman.

But the whole dilemma—wear curlers out? Stay home until your hair curls, take out the curlers, and THEN go out?—was enough of an opinion-divider that a commercial was made based on the quandary. This commercial goes so far as to say, “Curlers in your hair? Shame on you!”

Of course, it may be trying to sell some product. Take a look:

Clairol Kindness Commercial – “Curlers In Your Hair, Shame on You!!!”

***************************

The whole point of the commercial, of course, is that there’s more than one way for a women to curl her hair. And that, I find, has been true for a long, long time. According to http://www.vivaglammagazine.com, women have been curling their hair since at least 1500 years BC, when Egyptians wrapped wet hair around sticks, and used the warmth of the sun to set the curls.

The Greeks, too, wanted curly hair, and they invented an early predecessor of the curling iron, the calamistrum. It was a hollow metal tube; Greek fashionistas warmed it in the ashes of a wood fire, then carefully used it to roll their hair into waves or curls. They used beeswax as a kind of hair setting gel. (I’m wondering if that might have something to do with the etymologies of the phrases ‘ash blonde’ and ‘beehive hairdo.’)

In the 1800’s, people used rollers made of metal; the curlers were coated with leather or cloth to provide a little cushion; these too were overnight appendages. (They actually sound a little more comfortable than those pink nightmares.)

In 1872, a French inventor, Marcel Gateau, created the first modern curling iron. Heated over a gas burner, this iron could, if the user was not careful, singe the hair and burn the victim. But it did create lovely curls.

Solomon Harper invented electric rollers in 1930, but it was not until the 1960’s that they really caught on. And steam rollers, invented by Hugh and William MacDonald, emerged in 1923. Steam became a popular way to curl hair much later, though,—not until the ‘70’s and ‘80’s.

And of course, there were permanent waves, which a trained hairdresser could apply to your hair until the home perm option became available, too.

And still, some of us chose to put curlers in our hair and go to bed and try to sleep.

**************************

By the time I was in eighth grade, I was rebelling. I went on a strict diet, aiming to get as skinny as Twiggy. And I was not about to put those horrid pink things in my hair—no way, no sir, no ma’am.

Naturally curly hair was awesome, but artificially curly hair was creepy. I wanted long, long, straight, straight hair.

So I grew my hair long, long; it was heavy enough that all the wave was pulled out by the weight of the hair itself.

I needed no pink rollers.

No. Instead, I wrapped my wet hair around orange juice cans at night, and went to sleep on those, instead.

***********************

And then the ‘80’s rolled around, and hair curling became technological. I owned hot rollers (they worked with steam) and I owned a curling iron. But I kept searching for a hair cut, a hair style, that would just behave the way I wanted it to, all by itself. I did a lot of growing out and cutting off during those years. Sometimes I augmented the frantic search for my authentic look with curling techniques, sometimes not.

But never again did I sleep on rollers.

***************************

Just today—maybe because I have been looking up hair curling techniques on line, and some algorithm is kicking ads into place,—I saw an ad on Facebook for a cordless curling iron. Cordless! There’s progress for you. One could even curl one’s hair on, say, a camping trip!

I long ago let go the thread of what style is fashionable, what look is popular, but it seems to me there’s lots more choice these days. One can be curly, or one can revel in her naturally curl-free locks. Long hair is good, and short hair is good, and a number of options in between look pretty good, too. I am happy to have settled on a carefree cut that requires little more than reliable shampoo and conditioner and a rousing round with a hairdryer.  

Do people still sleep on rollers? Sacrifice for a rollicking headful of boing-y hair?

I don’t know, but I think of that witchy mannequin’s anguished face beneath its curly curls, and I think of trying to sleep on those pinching pink rollers, and then I think of that question, “What price beauty?”

Ha.  Not paying THAT price. Not anymore.

**************************************

History of Hair Rollers

History of Hair Rollers

http://mid2mod.blogspot.com/2011/12/back-in-day-hair-curlers.html

Casseroles, Knuckleheads, and Memories That Call in the Fall

I wear my skinny gloves to walk in the morning, and I crunch through crisp brown leaves on the sidewalk.  The sun is pale and uncertain. Mark has encased the Pig Pen in plastic to keep our tender tomatoes warm…and then he vented the plastic when the temps inside crept up to 110.

At the farmers’ market, we buy squash and onions, potatoes and carrots, and two big bags of apples.

It is autumn, suddenly and decidedly, and, trying to be organized, I have made myself a list of blog topics for the next two months. This week’s topic is ‘Fall Foods,’ and having cooked and baked in a kind of chill-weather frenzy the last ten days or so, I am feeling it.

I will write, I think, about apples, about coming home to the warm, cinnamon-y smell of apple sauce bubbling in the crockpot, about rolling pie dough onto a cookie sheet and covering that with a tasty layer of seasoned apple slices, and then covering THAT with another layer of dough. Once baked, once the apples are tender, the juices sizzling, and the pie crust brown and flaky, I will mix up a vanilla glaze and pour it over the top, then sprinkle nutmeg over all: apple pie bars, a favorite dish to share.

And after writing about the celebration of apples in my kitchen, I will write a little bit about the history of apples. I do my research. Somehow, I had thought that apples were a native North American fruit, imported, then, to Europe, but I learn that apples have been cultivated in other parts of the world since long before the Christian Era began. There are 8,000 varieties of apples worldwide, and that makes me dizzy: I have trouble deciding among, say, twelve varieties at my local apple stand.

Best for baking?

Best for munching?

Oh, no! What if I choose the WRONG apple?

************************************

Then, I think, I’ll segue into writing about Johnny Appleseed—John Chapman—who famously scattered apple seed throughout Ohio and Indiana and Illinois. His first landholdings are in our former hometown, Mount Vernon, about fifty miles north of here. Who knows? Maybe some of the apples I bought on Saturday are from trees that are descendants of trees planted by John Chapman.

There’s a lot to say about apples, I think.

And then, on Monday, I decide to make a tuna casserole.

********************

I make a tuna casserole because we have found a gluten-free pasta that has what we’re looking for in taste and texture, a discovery that broadened our cooking and eating lives. And I boiled up, earlier in the week, a batch of penne pasta to go with a pork ragout recipe my niece had shared (and what a wonderful meal, but that is a story unto itself. Let me just say that we used the remaining pork ragout as a base for a big pot of chili, and my, my, my,—that is good stuff.) And, as always, I made too much pasta, so there was leftover in the fridge.

And I have a crisp new bunch of celery, and carrots, and half an onion in a little plastic bin just waiting to find its purpose, and a stack of tuna in tins I bought at Sam’s Club… All of a sudden it occurs to me: I can make a tuna casserole.

*******************

I have to confess that I live in an anti-tuna household. Mark will not touch a dish or a sandwich with canned tuna in it. That once made me sad, and when James was little, I thought that I would start him off early on tuna and make a lifelong follower of him.

But the first time I gave James a tuna sandwich, “YUCK,” he said. That was before the boy could even form a full sentence, and that was the end of my tuna dream.

Fortunately, though, I have dear ones who like tuna, too, who especially like tuna casserole, and so, homebound derision or not, I always had peeps to indulge with. Those peeps were called The Knuckleheads, and oh, today, remembering, how I miss them.

***********************

The Knuckleheads evolved around pinochle, a game I love to play, grew up playing really; the playing of it is woven into my veins and my memory with the smoke from my parents’ cigarettes. They taught me to play quite young because, I think, they needed a fourth to play partners when my Uncle Bill would drop in. (They could have played three-handed, with a kitty, but that drove my mother to deep flushes of anger: Dad and his baby brother, a wee bit competitive, could not stand to let the other take the bid. And so they would bid up into astronomical ranges, just on the chance that the jack of diamonds would be in the kitty, or two aces, or, just maybe,—-it could happen! And what if you hadn’t bid????— the J, Q, A of hearts. My mother, with a run in her hand, would drop out when the bidding got up over 40, put her head in her hands when it edged over fifty, cry out loud in anguish when one of them finally TOOK the bid, only to throw the hand in.

“Can’t make it,” he would say cheerily. “Didn’t get my card.”

And the brothers would laugh uproariously, and my father, who usually kept score, would subtract 57 from the gambler’s total. And they would go on, my mother white-lipped. (“I had a RUN!” She would wail to my father later, and he would laugh a little nervously. Heh heh heh.

He’d say next time he wouldn’t bid so high.

And we all know how long THAT resolve lasted.)

So they taught me to play, and when Uncle Bill would pop in at night, they would call me out to the kitchen, where my mother would unplug the iron and fold up the ironing board; she would put the percolator on the stove while my dad cleared the table and got the cards. They’d grab a piece of paper—an envelope, maybe, from a piece of junk mail, which my mother cut open and flattened out—for a score sheet, and Uncle Bill would shuffle the cards expertly, showing off a little, and then the cards would fly.

I would pick them up and ponder, at first with a cheat sheet in front of me: these cards in one suit make a run; this is a marriage; this is a pinochle. I learned when to bid and how your partner could help you—when it was reasonable to take a risk, when it was better to recede.

And later I learned about calling trump and counting cards (legal in the pinochle world—smart, even) and how to give your partner a meld bid. In eighth grade, I made a dear friend, Liza, who loved to play pinochle, too, and sometimes, when Uncle Bill wasn’t there, Liza would stop by and we would play fourhanded with my parents.

Pinochle pulsed in my veins, a heady and challenging game, with the promise of magic that sometimes—a double pinochle!!!—-occurred.

And then of course, life spins us out from the original home front, culls our dear ones, changes the landscape. My pinochle buddies scattered.

Until: the Knuckleheads.

*********************

There were four of us at first: Mary (my sister-in-law); Marsha, her sister; and Kathy, my cousin (daughter of Bill). We decided to meet once a month at one another’s houses, meet on a Friday night and play pinochle. We were wild women: we would drink coffee, and throw down fistfuls of M&M’s, and, all having grown up in serious pinochle playing households, we would play some serious cards.

We didn’t become the Knuckleheads until Kathy’s dear friend, Rosemary, found out about the pinochle nights.

“I like pinochle!” she said. “I love it! I’m not very good, but I would love to play.”

(Rosemary’s ‘not very good’ was kind of like my Uncle Bill’s wail, “I gotta hand like a foot!”…not quite accurate. Many’s the time I’ve seen Rosemary lay down a run and a hundred aces,  and look around, slightly perplexed.

“Is that GOOD?” she would ask. “I hope that’s good.”)

So then we were five. We took the nines out of two decks, put the decks together, and played a whole different kind of pinochle, where the person who had the card the bidder asked for became her partner, and the remaining three of us were partners, too. Someone still brought M&M’s, and someone else brought tootsie rolls; the hostess made coffee, and the cards would fly.

But Rosemary brought a whole new element to the group, the element of shared, gut-deep laughter. Intrinsically social, she was a gifted story-teller. In the middle of a hand, she would put her cards down.

“Did I tell you,” she would ask, “that Barney and I drove a semi truck to DC to help my daughter move?”

“No,” someone would say warily, glancing at her cards, “no. I don’t think you mentioned that.”

And the story would begin, slowly at first, drawing us in, until our cards, too, were laying flat in front of us, and we were leaning forward, waiting to hear what happened.

“And there we were,” Rosemary would be saying, “stuck in a cul de sac in a SEMI truck…” and she would have told the story so well, she would have made us see calm Barney, and Rosemary getting fluttery, and their daughter running up and down the sidewalk, wringing her hands, and we would all be hunched up, shaking with laughter.

Finally, Rosemary would finish the tale and, dignified, pick up her cards, and look around.

“What’s trump?” she would ask. And that would set us off laughing again.

One night, no one could remember what trump was, the story’d been so good and so long, and someone,—it may well have been Mary–declared that we were nothing if not a bunch of knuckleheads.

And so we became an Official Club, the Knuckleheads, with an Official Motto: What’s trump?

And once every two or three months, our get-togethers would start early, with dinner. And since we all loved tuna casserole, and our families, not so much, THAT was usually the main course. We often served it with green bean casserole, too, which we also all loved, and who cared whether they went together or not?

Sometimes evening obligations had to be broken—sick kids or car trouble, illness or exhaustion. Not Knuckleheads, though: that commitment was seldom cancelled. And if it had to be broken, we made sure to reschedule.

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Knuckleheads and tuna casserole: bright spots in rich and varied lives. And then: law school, and our move to Ohio.

The Knuckleheads recruited a new member and forged ahead.

I discovered that Ohio is not a pinochle land; it is a euchre land. The time never quite seemed right, for one reason or another, to learn to play euchre.

And we were thoroughly blessed, in each of our Ohio homes, to form lifetime friendships. We still played games around a table, sometimes—Apples to Apples, Wise and Otherwise, fun and sometimes wonderfully  silly games, even some card games.

But we didn’t play pinochle, and we didn’t serve tuna casserole.

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The Knuckleheads came to Ohio to visit once, very shortly after we moved to Zanesville. They piled out of the car and into a nearby hotel room, dropped off their bags, and drove to my house, and together, we explored the area. We ate lunch at a bar called Knuckleheads, where we women of a certain age, some of us plump and matronly, were not the typical customers. They fussed over us a little, the Knuckleheads folks, and made sure our hamburgers and fries were delicious.

It was a hot summer day, so, later, we drove to Granville; we got soft serve ice cream there at a dairy bar called Knuckleheads.

And that night we gathered around my dining room table, and we ate tuna casserole. And then, coffee brewing, we dealt the cards. And a hand or two in, Rosemary set her cards down, cleared her throat, and said, “I don’t know if I told you this.”

We all put our cards down and leaned forward, ready for the rich nourishing sauce of a well-told tale. Laughter flowed till deep in the night; Mark and Jim shook their heads fondly and went back to bed.

Casseroles and Knuckleheads and deep shared memories.

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Fall’s cold winds sweep nostalgia through the doorway, make the preparation of tuna casserole more than a cooking expedition. I stir white sauce, grate cheese, measure out peas, and chop onions, and the actions and the scents and the stirring take me back, thirty years ago, to times of shared laughter.

Rosemary, the storyteller, the one who led us to us call ourselves the Knuckleheads in the first place, is gone now.

Mary has moved far away from our western New York town.

We, all the Knuckleheads, have moved forward into joy and challenge and surprise. We have grown and learned, and we have endured and morphed, becoming, maybe, more than we ever thought we might become.

And we have all formed fast new friendships.

But I know this: that friendships enrich, but do not supplant. There is room in the grand Friendship Hall for ALL of those wonderful relationships.

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So, I sit on a cold Fall day, at my scarred and battered oak table, and I scoop up a forkful of creamy, steaming casserole, and I remember food’s power to both comfort and transport. The apples are sliced and waiting, in two cup containers in the freezer, to be transformed, some winter day, into a pie or a cake or a rich, spiced sauce. And that, of course, will be lovely.

Today, though, I think of Knuckleheads, and of all of us and our friends from before now; of the people we all were at those early times in life; of the dreams, of one sort or another, that we early dreamed.

And I lift a fork: to casseroles, to Knuckleheads, to all that we hold dear.

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Blessed be the friends I made as a child, and blessed be the friends of my youth.

Blessed be the ones who walked with me into adulthood.

Blessed be those who stayed on the hectic and confusing journey.

Blessed, blessed be those who had to leave the path.

And blessed be the ones who walk with me still.

May they all be blessed, as I’ve been blessed, by friends who’ve helped me through.

End of the Season: Taking Stock

Mark calls from Charleston, where he is at a conference, on a September Wednesday. It is hot, he says, ninety degrees and muggy.

Jim and I look at each other. It is ninety degrees and muggy in southeastern Ohio, too.

But by that Wednesday’s end, change comes. Winds whip and then rain pummels, and Thursday’s temps drop by thirty degrees. Mark’s plane lands in Columbus at 10 p.m.; he is home by 11:30. He comes in wearing shorts and a golf shirt and shivering.

“What happened to summer?” He asks plaintively. “It was here when I left.”

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I measured this summer in tomatoes—-tomato plants which I started, from seed, late in spring. They were enthusiastic, those seeds, and they loved up the sun in our windows—peeking out onto the back stoop, looking out front at the occasional traffic passing by. They grew taller and woodier, and we knew, by July, that we’d have to put them outside soon. But first we wanted to build them an enclosure.

The building took, of course, longer than planned, with work pretty much limited to weekends, and with weekends bringing rain or obligations that called us away from home. But the enclosure (the Pig Pen) grew steadily, as we moved plants from egg cartons to small pots to bigger, sturdy ones, and finally, in August, the tomatoes were transplanted one last time into their forever home.

Just a couple fragile plants didn’t make it, but the ones that were left swiveled their stems and shook their leaves in the afternoon wind, and they sang a riotous song to the late summer sun, and they were, we could tell, happy.

More and more yellow blossoms appeared, and then, in September, hard little green tomatoes emerged. Mark nailed mesh over the top of the Pig Pen to keep marauding squirrels away from our bounty.

And warm sun shone down on the now-hearty plants, and we started thinking about all the wonderful things we will be able to do with our backyard tomato explosion. The summer seemed unending.

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This was a summer of roof sounds, too, of pounding and scraping, of the swooshing sound as old tired shingles, loosened by sun-darkened workers, slid off a templed roof. The hailstorm that barreled through in the spring pitted cars and pocked house paint and wreaked true havoc with our roofs.

Suddenly, days after the storm, roofers from as far away as Cincinnati were in town, driving up and down streets, looking for customers. Signs went up in yards: Mel’s Roofing. Family-owned since 1967.

And somewhere, in each neighborhood, every day, the sounds of new roofing began and ended and began again. We’d leave for work in the morning and workers would be swarming over a neighbor’s roof, ripping off the old covering, exposing bare wood.

When we arrived back home, the house would be preening, serenely, new roof sunning, and every trace of the workers who’d wrought the transformation gone.

We felt for the roofers, exposed every day to the bright sunlight of a summer that wasn’t unbearable, but was consistently sunny and hot.

Summer stretched itself, and roof sounds rang throughout September.

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And then, in the time it took Mark to fly from Charleston to Columbus, to drive himself home from the airport, the seasons abruptly changed.

Summer, that flirt, brings with it a little bit of amnesia, a little of the sense that this long lazy season will never end. Relax, says Summer. Let’s have some fun. There’s time.

And then Summer is gone, leaving us bereft and remembering, shivering in a now-brisk wind.

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The summer morphs into autumn, and I have to step back, move off the path for a moment, consider. What do we bring with us into this new season: what do we need right now, what should we save for next year, what do we cast aside?

And so we clean out drawers and pack up clothes to drop off at Eastside Ministry, and we fill a box with electronics that serve us no more. We pull the dry and dying plants from the window boxes and replace them with vibrant little mums in bright jewel tones.

There’s no more spinach at the farmers’ market, but there are apples and potatoes, carrots and onions. I change the menu from Italian wedding soup to beef stew.

I pull out cold weather shoes, put sandals away, air out blazers and jackets, and I start to feel excited about the cooler weather to come. I trade that endless sense of summer freedom for a cozier feeling of autumn closeness, of safety, hunkered down in a house where stew bubbles and apple pie bars bake.

We keep the barbecue grill out, though, and twice this week, Mark grills our dinner meat.

There are some things I’m ready to retire. There are others I can’t quite let go of,–not, anyway, just yet.

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Seasons melt away and morph into others. Years do, too, and I have been thinking, lately, of eight-year spans.

A lot can happen in eight years.

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Eight years ago, in 2014, the Winter Olympics opened in Sochi, Russia, on February 7. A month later, the Paralympics opened there, too.

Eight years ago, in 2014, there were shootings, explosions, and mass kidnappings. Three hundred people died when a ferry capsized off the coast of South Korea; 16 more died in an avalanche on Mount Everest.

The Catholic Church declared itself some saints.  Bombs detonated, and people died. Others died, too, in stampedes, attacks, and mine disasters.

New kings and patriarchs rose to their thrones. Planes crashed.

Games opened. The earth quaked. An orbiter launched into space.

And babies were born, too. In Ohio, little Hazel Grace was born in Cleveland at 10:11 on 12/13/14, one of two wee girls born in the States at that exact, auspicious time.

And some people got married, and some got unmarried; kids went off to college. Drugs swirled like a poison, and people succumbed, while others wrestled with the problem, striving to stem the tide, to turn it.

Some people mourned, and some struggled with physical and mental health issues, and some people turned a corner and found themselves at that perfect, exact place where the pieces come together, and everything, for that shining moment in time, feels RIGHT.

Some things were different in 2014, and some things were not—some things are very much the same today.

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Mark turned 60 in 2014, which was a fact we had to roll around in our hands like a hard, shiny stone, warming it with the heat of our bodies, trying to make that new birthday feel like something familiar and reasonable. Sixty! What exactly did THAT mean? How would life change, melting and morphing into a new and transitional decade?

Matt was in his thirties eight years ago. Jim was 24.

I perched, in 2014, on the very far edge of my fifties, looking down into the roiling, mysterious waters of the future. I was, even knowing I had no choice, a little worried, afraid to plunge.  I was three years away from ‘official’ retirement. I needed some tools to help me navigate this passage.

I started blogging in 2014, hoping I’d build a discipline, and hoping the practice would help me capture errant threads and pull them back into the fabric.

I started a blog because I hoped it really would help me catch my drift, arrest a tendency to float along, instill some mindfulness into a somewhat reactive life. And it did,—through upheaval and reconnections, through losses and celebrations, the act of sitting down and trying to capture the essence of what a week had wrought made me more aware and more grateful.

Blogging gave wheels to pandemic days, and it helped me identify joys and conundrums. I felt, always, through all the quickly passing time, like a new blogger, so it was a shock to see the name on my blog site (Pamkirst.2014) one day, and to realize I had been blogging for eight full years.

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We did some research, last weekend, on how best to protect our tender tomatoes from the cold. I was thinking of heavy canvas drop cloths, but Internet reading advised against them. Four different reputable sites said, “Plastic.”

Plastic lets in the sun, keeps out the chill, gives our vigorous late-bloomers a chance to reach their full potential. Last night Mark and I unrolled a 9×12 foot sheet and draped it over the top of the Pig Pen. I cut duct tape, nature’s perfect tool, into strips, and Mark securely taped the plastic to the wooden supports.

Temperatures dropped to 41 degrees Fahrenheit last night, but we slept soundly, knowing our little tomato friends are covered. Seasons are changing, but we’re bringing the fruits of the summer into this autumn. And with a little care, a little nurturing, they will flourish and nourish us.

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Eight years melted away, a season in a life, maybe, and, as with summer’s end, their closing brings me to a resting point, a kind of meadow, a time to consider. What comes with us? What stays behind?

In those eight years, some dear friends and family members said their last goodbyes, and not one of our cries of “Don’t go! Come with us!” changed that truth.

I stepped out of one career during those eight years and discovered another, unexpected and deeply enriching. Mark retired and went right back to work. We entered the pandemic lockdown, and we learned what we could live without for, at least, a time.

In the last eight years, James went from searching to finding a niche. Matt found a new job; Julie earned a degree. Our granddaughters grew. “There are no BABIES left anymore!” one of us might have wailed, but it was a momentary sorrow, because each instance of these kinds of changes brings its own unique charge of joy.

In the resting spot, I realized that some commitments have run their courses, and a time to embrace new challenges had emerged.

And I thought about blogging—thought that maybe, in some ways, I really had started to catch my own drift.

But there are more connections to make and there is much more to learn, more to spread out in that boney mind cavern and try to make sense of.

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I make a kind of shrine for the people wrenched from us. Then I make a small pile of disposable things to leave behind, cover it safely, nudge it to the side of the road. I hope someone will pass by, rummage through those left-behind items, and maybe find one small thing that they can use.

“Hey!” they’ll say. “This is in perfect condition!” and they’ll walk away carrying it, humming a little.

I picture that pile growing smaller and smaller.

And I lift my pack, resting time over, to head back out, to keep booking right along. But one of the things that comes with me, for the foreseeable future at least, is this blog.

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Eventhistory.com, “What Happened in 2014”

Abcnews.com