Silver and Gold

Little gauze drawstring bags.

A larger bag—a carry-all.

Cash in the wallet.  

Comfy walking shoes.

These are the things I need to be ready for Saturday morning’s Farmer’s Market.

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It is nice that, for now, the Market is a lovely walk from my home. Mark and I wander over early, when there’s still a hint of cool in the air. We pass neighbors out walking, or working in their yards, or taking their lolloping dog for a refresher, and we stop to chat. We speculate about what we might buy. We amble.

I think of a doctor I used to see, Doctor Rene, a strong, no-nonsense, no-frills kind of woman. Doctor Rene asked about my exercise routine, and I told her I love to walk.

She cocked an eyebrow at me.

“DO you walk?” she asked. “Really walk? Or do you go out for a stroll?”

On Saturday mornings—sorry, Doctor Rene,–we are strolling. I don’t want to arrive all hot and flustered. I want to wander through the tables, tents, and booths, consider possibilities, flip through recipes in my mind’s databank, and thoughtfully commit to some lovely, locally grown veggies or fruits.

It’s my goal to either try something different, or to use something differently, every week this summer.

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Now, summer entrenched, the farmers are bringing riches to the market. We have a plan, pretty much: we do a walk through, seeing who’s got what. Then we meander back, buying. We try to buy from as many vendors as we can, tasting the wealth of many fields, trading our coin for nourishment with as many growers as possible.

There’s something special about knowing tonight’s dinner was basking in the sun, connected to the dirt, just that morning.

So. We buy tomatoes and red onions and green onions. We buy tiny new potatoes. We buy Swiss chard, something I have never, ever cooked. We buy lettuces and spinach. We buy a summer squash that the clerk, who is not really a farmer, but a good farmer-friend, tells us he thinks is Austrian.

We buy corn and zucchini and yellow squash. We buy summer apples.

One of us might indulge in a little package of cheese curds, or some no-bake cookies, or a tiny peach pie. At each booth, we get a chance to talk with an expert, to ask questions about shelf lives and recipes, to get to know how people who grow the foods fix them.

We pack all our fresh goodies carefully in the carry-all. Walking home is a little heavier than walking to. But ideas buzz in our heads. What can we do with these wonderful things?

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I have decided that we are in a definite food rut, and we need to shake things up. “Our favorite recipes,” I intone portentously, “have not even been discovered yet!”

I pore through Joy of Cooking. I use the chard to make sauteed greens with garlic. There is bacon in there, too. We eat that as a side, with roast pork and baked rice (another recipe from Joy of Cooking; I’d never made baked rice before this past winter. Now, it is a go-to side, almost as good as a more labor-intensive risotto.)

The chard, sauteed and seasoned, is lovely. Mark and I agree that it could be a meal in itself.

(Jim, however, rolls his eyes and takes another slice of pork.)

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We use the Austrian squash, diced, in a skillet dinner, with fresh green and yellow peppers and red onion and coins of spicey smoked sausage. The skillet is great; the squash is innocuous.

Mark and I posit that zucchini probably has a little more flavor.

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I shred three small zucchinis and use that in a zucchini-quiche recipe, the kind I make in greased cupcake tins. We pop out twelve tiny quiches.

We eat four, maybe five, as sides with dinner. I freeze the rest, and we zap them in the microwave for breakfasts. And we think: next time, maybe Swiss instead of parmesan. Next time, maybe add in some crisp-fried pancetta or a little diced ham, hot from the skillet, or some bacon, crumbled…

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One day, I open a mail-package from my thoughtful niece Meg, in South Carolina. It contains a bottle of barbecue potion and a buttermilk biscuit mix. Both are marketed by people whom we have discovered on PBS. Rodney Scott is the barbecue-master in Charleston. Carrie Morey’s show, How She Rolls, is based in my niece’s hometown (although she has since moved), Mount Pleasant.

We talk about getting a ‘mop’ for the barbecue sauce, and debate using it on pork or chicken. Or both.

I decide to make the biscuits that very night, and I flip the little sack of mix to make sure I have the ingredients.

“Well, golleeee,” I realize. “Did you know that you need buttermilk to make buttermilk biscuits?”

We take a ride to the supermarket, where I buy buttermilk for the first time ever.

The biscuits come out nice, although not nearly as high and fluffy as Carrie Morey’s: overhandling, no doubt. We serve them with a chicken dinner, and even I fall off the gluten-free wagon and eat one. There are some left over: I pack them up in a square Rubbermaid container with a wine-colored snap-on lid.

The boyos eat them like cookies. The container is empty in 24 hours.

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We use leftover buttermilk to soak poultry and in a savory sauce.

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I sit down one day and page through my old yellow-and-black cookbook. That book must be about 18 years old. I started it shortly after I began teaching at Zane State College; it’s in a notebook a student handed in as a portfolio and never picked up. I kept it aside for a year, in case she came back for it, and then the statute of limitations on old notebooks passed. I ripped out the scant used pages and started clipping recipes and pasting them in.

Roasted Eggplant Soup.

Oriental Salad.

Potato Chip Cookies.

Tomatillo Salsa.

The recipes came from cookbooks I borrowed from libraries and culled from magazines, from newspapers, and from internet searches. They came from friends’ collections and from family caches.

Some of the recipes we’ve tried and embraced, making them part of our regular family cuisine.

Some of the recipes we’ve tried once and thought, “Meh.” I put a little note next to those recipes, the ones that sounded so good but failed to delight.

A couple of the recipes—the eggplant and pepper salad, the potato chip cookies,–became tried and true dishes to pass.

Now I go through the notebook looking for neglected recipes, ones that have moldered, untested, yea, these many years. What recipes, clipped, perhaps, in 2003, appeal to our 2021 taste buds?

I make a list of things to try:

Beef fajitas

Veggie Risotto

Cole Slaw (no carrots)

Red Beans and Rice

Southwestern Black Bean Soup

Twice Baked Potato Casserole

I add these recipes to a list from other cookbooks—my ‘Check these out’ list. We get serious about trying them.

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We love the beef fajitas, and the rub that we pat onto the steaks, letting them sit a bit, soaking up the flavors. Mark grills the steaks while I chop veggies; he brings them, steaming-fragrant, into the house, and we slice them thin.

The meat is tender and delicious. At other times, we have sliced the meat first, then sauteed it. That loses, we realize now, some essential juiciness.

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Mark decrees that the slaw sauce has too little vinegar. I cross that recipe off the list of keepers.

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We try many new dishes and we cook many familiar dishes using new methods. We marvel at new tastes, new combinations. We get excited about cooking and eating again.

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And yet.

One afternoon, at 3:30 or so, I open the freezer and peer in, willing an evening meal inspiration to pop itself forward. And it does, but it’s not a new recipe.

That night for dinner, we have good, old-fashioned hamburger gravy, on instant mashed potatoes, with corn on the side.

“It’s like,” says Mark, “a classic school lunch.”

I cooked the burger in the old cast-iron skillet, poured in homemade beef broth to serve up the juices, thickened it all with Bob’s Red Mill 1:1 gluten-free AP flour substitute. So it’s a little different, maybe, from hamburger gravies of yesteryear, but it tastes wonderful, this dish we haven’t eaten in so long.

We practically scrape the skillet clean; we even devour all of the corn. The only thing left is a small container of mashed potatoes.

Under my new, no-waste regime, I use those a night or two later in another tried and true favorite: chicken shepherd’s pie. That uses up some just-beginning-to get-limp carrots and celery stalks from the refrigerator, too, and cubed cooked chicken from the freezer. Sauteed and blended, it doesn’t matter when those veggies were born, how long the meat’s been frozen.  The ingredients balance and complement.

“Mmmmmmmm,” Mark and I agree.

“So good,” he says.

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And I am reminded of an old song we sang when I was a fourth grade Girl Scout—maybe even when I was a yet-younger Brownie.

“Make new friends,” we would belt out, earnestly, “but keee-eee-eeep the old;

One is silver, and the other’s gold.”

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We’ve eaten some lovely new things this last month or so: definitely, those good tastes deserve a silver ranking, a silver star, a place in the family recipe pantheon.

And those wonderful old stand-by’s—well, they deserve to be considered the gold standard, the never-to-be-forgotten comfort foods that, as long as we don’t have them TOO often, will always be welcome and wonderful treats. (In a few years, some of these silver friends may even make the change, becoming gold-standard go-to’s, themselves.)

Yum.

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And here I am, once again, living life in a food metaphor, thinking that people—family and friends,—and experiences—jobs, and events, and bursts of creativity, and places—well, they are all subject to the silver and gold rule, too. I need, of course, to find new adventures, meet new people, strike out in bold new directions…but I need also to hang on to the wonderfully meaningful people who’ve bolstered and blessed my past, and to be thankful for all the experiences and geography that have led me to HERE.

Once I cultivate that kind of deep appreciation,—well, then I’ll be truly nourished.

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As on the dinner table, so in the life.

Seeking Endless Summer

Jim suggests watching Mamma Mia one night when Sandee is here. We have had a road-trip-and-big-late-afternoon-meal kind of day, and everyone is happy to sprawl in the family room and let Abba music whoosh us away to buoyant Grecian shores, to problems that shrivel in the tropical sun and resolve in funny ways.

We have two essential summer movies that we watch every year. We discovered Mamma Mia first, falling in love with its silliness, its lilting music, its men of a certain age holed up in the old goat house,…with the awful, charming, rustiness of Pierce Brosnan’s singing.

But what I really love about the film is its sense of meandering summer days, days when people live in their bathing suits and wander, unconcerned, around the island. Sure, there’s a wedding pending, and sure, Donna has lots of work to do. But there’s time to mess about in boats, to dance down rocky pathways to the shore, and to get lost contemplating a view.

It’s a film about endless summer, and that’s a feeling I remember, and one that I, sometimes, miss.

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Once, eons ago, summer days were soaked with lazy promise. Things didn’t often happen—not unexpected, amazing things—but there was every possibility they could. And meanwhile, every day, there was the freedom of being outdoors.

On a summer day, with a broken spoon, I could dig and uncover treasure: a thick piece of a cherry-colored ceramic mug, a cheap brassy brooch with a pasted bit of gold glass and a missing pin, the severed plastic leg of a green Army man. Each item dragged a story along with it.

Summer proffered time to contemplate those stories, to imagine the shard into a mug, to build the mug into a breakfast, at a table with merry, quilted placemats and a heaping plate of bakery store doughnuts. The brooch, I could see, once anchored a high ruffled collar framed by the lapels of a sleek brown velvet jacket, worn by a woman with gathered-up hair, high cheekbones, and carmine lips. She was somehow remarkable, the wearer of that ensemble, striding off to do something important—to work at a bank, maybe, or to conduct a rollicking dance recital: something skilled and completely interesting, and very different from the homely things—housecleaning, teaching—most women and girls I knew then did.

The green Army leg grew, in my mind, into a whole soldier, and he joined a legion of others like himself; they gallantly and dramatically fought back evil, winning every time.

That kind of archaeology could take long, slow hours, the digging and the dreaming, and then it might lead to finding a sheaf of scrap paper inside and the battered tin with its cacophony of crayon nubs, and to trying to draw the vision that backyard dirt had yielded.

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Of course there were chores—making the bed, drying dishes, sweeping the kitchen floor. Chores were like pebbles dropped into the still pool of each day; they ruffled the surface and then disappeared. Then that smooth surface, that endless time, flowed back in on itself.

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Summer was the chance, on Sundays, of going swimming. That meant one lake or the other. The mud-bottomed lake was in Cassadaga. The village (or some benefactor) brought loads of soft, clean sand in to make a beach, and to line the muddy bottom out to where the water reached my chin and my feet threatened to float up and send me off untethered toward the mysterious lake-middle. That water had a brownish tang; it was a quiet, tamed kind of place.

A long, white-painted wooden dock led from beach to the deepish water; little fish liked to swim around the rough metal poles that anchored it. (Family lore has it that my maybe two-year old brother, plagued by the teasing of an older sibling as he climbed the ladder up the side of that dock, said, bitterly, “Yeave me a-yone on the yadder.” For years after, when one of us bothered her while she was reading, my mother would say, absently, “Yeave me a-yone.”)

From the deep end of the dock, good swimmers could dive, cleanly, showing off dashing form, and surface slickly to swim out to the platform—a square, white, sturdy raft that floated, chained to a weight deep below.

The platform was for big kids, strong swimmers, who pulled themselves up onto its wet surface, laughed loudly—the sound carried strong across the water,–and showed off their charms. I never once swam to that platform; we stopped going to that lake before I learned to dive.

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The other lake was Erie, stone-bottomed and infinite, with hard pebbles and rocks in the shallows. Some kids—their parents, too—wore plastic flipflops, or cheap canvas sneakers, right out into the water, to get past the painful, rugged, sometimes sharp attacks of the first six feet of lake-bottom on the soles of tender feet. (We did NOT wear shoes in water; we believed that swimming needed to be done barefoot, and we were a little snooty about the wimpishness such caution revealed. So we suffered, proudly.)

Past the pebbly intro, the lake bottom might be slippery, moss-covered slate, welcome sand, or weathered rock. There were patches of frigid water, patches to float over, staying, as much as possible, on the sun-warmed surface. There was no floating platform, but there was, if we could find it, a boulder whose flat top hid just under the surface, that was climbable and dive-off-able.

That water was green, and, after a storm, seaweed floated thick along the shore. Sometimes, a large, white-bellied, dead fish would float up, almost touching me, making me scream and splash awkwardly toward shore. The lake had its own special fishy-green smell.

We went swimming on Sundays, when my father didn’t have to work. My mother had a Bad Experience at a public pool as a child. She did not swim well, and she was nervous for all of our safety. This required my father’s vigilance; he was a strong swimmer, with a relaxed but nimble personality. He supervised the disbursement of children’s bodies into bodies of water, languidly standing ankle deep in the water, smoking a Camel, yelling when the brothers got too rowdy.

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And then, on the way home, there was ice cream, a sweet, thick, melting counterpoint  to harsh sunburn and dried sand on tender red skin.

(I always burned. Friends recommended things like baby oil and iodine, neither of which we ever had in the house—not even when there was a baby. When I was old enough to babysit, I would walk my hard-earned cash to Neisner’s and I would buy those supplies, and then I would oil myself up and sprawl on a backyard blanket. Often I fell asleep, and woke up, as toasted, greasy, and crisp as fried bacon.

My redhead’s skin was never going to tan, but still, every year, I ignored the peril and taunted the sun and went to bed at night bemoaning my charred shoulders and sunburned scalp.)

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And sleeping on those summer nights! There was no air conditioning; by Memorial Day, my father had taken down the storm windows and replaced them with screens, and we kept the windows open at night, as high as they could go. I’d throw the blankets off the foot of the bed, engage with just that single top sheet. The sheet felt cool at first, just like the pillowcase, but the longer I twisted and turned, the warmer they became.

Flip the pillow. Kick off the twisty, saturated sheet. Move my head to where my feet should be, down at the foot of the bed, down by the window, searching for a puff of breeze, a scent of cool.

My mother was smart to send us out all day, to let us play ourselves exhausted in the water; hot as it was, we were tuckered. We slept despite the heat, and woke up among roiled, tangled sheets.

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Sometimes I took a walk downtown, to the air-conditioned GC Murphy store, to fetch something my mother needed. I stalled in the store, walking up and down the aisle of toys, and finally checked out, to walk back into the heat, to head back home.

Sometimes I went to the library. There was no AC there, but big trees shaded the white brick building, and silent fans whirred, and all was hushed. It seemed cool by its very nature.

I would spend long afternoons at the library, reading, at a table, piles of books, and then, finally, building a stack of books to read at home. I would check them out and pack them in a duffle bag, slide the bag handles over my handlebars, and pedal home, huffing, in the heat. But I had books, then—books to take out into the backyard, books to read in the shade of the lilac bush in the cool corner of the yard back by the old brown barn.

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After dinner most nights, when dishes were done, there was whiffle ball. We were a baseball-crazy family. Girls, of course, did not play organized sport back in the day, but my father coached my brothers on the Firemen’s Little League team, they followed the Yanks faithfully on television, and we all loved a whiffle ball game in the big backyard. It was especially good when Dad came out and played; he was the designated pitcher, which averted many arguments about what was a strike and what was off by a mile, I tell you: a mile.

I liked to bat, and I was a good hitter. The rest I didn’t care about, the fielding, the running. I would be relegated to the far back parts of the backyard field. If a ball ever did happen to dribble into my purview, I would pick it up, slew my arm back like I was in the big leagues, and let loose a feeble effort.

“You’ve got form like a boy,” my brother Dennis’s friend told me once, “and follow-through like a girl.”

I was slightly flattered and deeply insulted, and I had no idea how to respond.

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Summer was hand-me-down t-shirts worn soft, and cheap cotton shorts with elastic waistbands. On Sundays, of course, we had to go to church, and I would pull on my blue dotted dress with the puffed sleeves, ankles socks, and hard shoes. It was scratchy, and it was hot, and I would walk the block to church with poor grace, itching throughout the service, longing to go home and change.

That hour of holy Sunday torture made the t-shirts that much softer, the ease of dressing on un-churched days a blessing.

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Summer started after Memorial Day; it stretched out until after Labor Day, when, my mother always said, we were bored, and glad to go back to school. I didn’t mind school, and I was always happy to see my friends again, but I don’t remember ever being anxious for the summer days to end.

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I like summer now, too…I like the morning walks when the air’s still cool. I like food barbecued outdoors on the grill, and I like the fires Mark makes on balmy darkening nights. We sit and sip, maybe, a little snifter, and listen to the noises of a settling neighborhood. Summer, now, is good.

But always there is the knowledge, the pressure, of the next thing to do, of tomorrow’s duties. The endless realm belongs to childhood, except for those halcyon days when we take a trip, go someplace away from dust and dishes and all the must-do’s, and wake when we want to, and think, “Hmmm. What shall I do today?”

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The other required summer film is Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, a kind of Scrooge-story, with English Max finding redemption on the French estate of his much-loved, departed uncle. There’s the pock of tennis balls on the clay court; there are memories floating in the swimming pool. Lights twinkle on a warm summer evening when Max and his cousin are guests at an outdoor dinner party.

There is a sudden storm that makes a first, romantic date even more romantic.

And there is a gentle, predictable, happy ending served up in lovely, summer-hazy cinematography.

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Maybe I’ll talk Jim and Mark into watching A Good Year tonight, and we can all kick back again, barefoot in front of the TV, savoring the same filmed jokes and faux pas and mistakes that we’ve seen dozens of times, in no hurry and making no demands. And basking–for just the stretch of a much-loved movie,–in memories of those gentle, early days of endless summer.

Elsewhere

She is a tiny person, wiry and energetic, our Airbnb host, with long, curling, honey brown hair that’s pinned back with barrettes. She shows us how to open the back door with the keypad, and then she sprints up the stairs that are revealed.

Burdened with bags, we follow more slowly.

“Steep!” she says. And she chuckles. “Good exercise!”

This home for a weekend is different than any other place where we’ve stayed: it is the two floors above a downtown retail establishment.

The bathroom and the room Jim will sleep in are on the second floor.

Mark’s and my bedroom, the kitchen, and a sitting room are on the third floor.

Everything’s decorated with a European flair, with ceramic tiles and lovely pottery, vintage linens, and colorful, witty artwork.

Our host points out some of the quirks and character of the place, and then she waves herself off, wishing us a good weekend, bidding us let her know when we check out on Monday.

And that’s it: here we are. Not so awfully far from home, but away. Staying in unexplored digs. Taking a break from the everyday.

Sometimes, everyone needs a little getaway. Sometimes, I just need to be elsewhere.

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Most days, I get home after work, and James and I compare notes about the day so far. I kick off my shoes, and I run upstairs to change. I hang up work clothes, or I put them down the laundry chute. I put on jeans and a roomy, comfortable shirt, and I take on other things:

  • I remember there’s laundry in the dryer that needs to be folded.
  • I think about dinner and what prep needs to be done for that.
  • I notice the window on the backdoor is smeared with fingerprints and needs a good Windex session.
  • I realize the oregano plants want desperately to be trimmed and harvested.
  • The lawn has drunk in all the lovely rain and now must be mowed into shape.
  • There are floors to be swept, and shopping lists to compile, and plans to be made.

There is one brief moment on arrival where I put down the work obligations and the ceiling floats away and anything’s possible.

And then the regular-life obligations flutter down, deceptively gossamer; they settle around shoulders and wrap around legs. They solidify, and some of them bounce up and down on my head.

I have to pluck and pull and sort them, decide which are most urgent, which can be peeled off, folded, and set aside, and which can wait for a while, but not for too long.

This happens every day, unless I am elsewhere.

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It’s a holiday weekend, and we have friends who live near where we’re staying. We know that if we called them, they would react with unfeigned delight; they would say, “Come join us!”

They have a goody bag of a weekend stocked and waiting for their specials to open: family coming, and friends invited, meals planned and shopping done. They have trips and games and activities planned.

If we jumped into that goody bag, we’d stretch the seams. There would be an ugly, Mark-Pam-and-Jim shaped bulge on one side.

Our friends are lovely, warm people, and they would deny the ugliness of that bulge, but their vision of the weekend would have to shift and stretch.

We don’t want to stretch the fabric of the holiday to where it well could rip. So this is, for us, a stealth sort of visit.

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We go out walking to explore. Next door, an old building has been repurposed into hip condos for cool young people. Singles and couples walk by, friendly but incurious, bent on the freedom and delight of a long, lazy weekend.

They have dogs, some of them—dogs small enough to nestle in carry-bags on chests; bigger dogs that are red-haired, long-legged, plumey, and excitable.

Some of them carry fragrant food in take-out containers.

They smile vaguely as we pass and hurry on their ways.

This little city’s downtown is revitalized with funky little shops and eateries. There are two brew pubs. There is a whimsical fountain; the water droplets blow dreamily onto bare skin, welcome in this hot, late afternoon. There are places to sit and watch opalescent rainbows form and dissipate.

There is art—statues and murals, and original architecture is highlighted.

There is an old brick building with arches above the windows. The windows in back are bricked in, so someone has painted window-scenes there, cleverly.

In one painted window, an attentive cat watches us walk by.

In others, faces, shadowy, flit in the background, dreamlike and elusive.

On the front of an elegant old building, there is a brass plaque. We lean closer to read it.

“On this site in 1897,” it says proudly, “nothing happened.”

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We let ourselves in the backdoor of our weekend home with the keypad. We flip through the ads for restaurants that our kindly landlady gathered for us. We decide to go to a place, facetiously named—call it “The Ritz,”—out in the country, fifteen miles along a country road.

We have heard that this eatery has no pretensions, and that the food is good.

And what the hell? This is an adventure, right?

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“The Ritz” is the only open establishment at a country crossroads. There are shuttered retail places all around. Cars fill the front lot, though, and we hear music and laughter. We find a parking lot beyond, and we circle round front, and we go in.

The bright, hot air disappears, and we are in the murky depths. Polished wood gleams on the bar, and pool balls clink, that distinctive sound. The billiards boys dance and feint. The air smells like beer and like must. The blackened floor is sticky.

The bartender, a taut woman of a certain age, waves us out the back door, to a fenced in concrete patio.

There are hexagonal picnic tables with shade umbrellas planted down their middles. The first one we sit at rocks threateningly when Jim puts his elbows down.

The second one has a black plastic ashtray full of cigarette butts, something we haven’t seen in a place to eat in decades.

We move the ashtray and take possession of the sturdier table.

Our waitress comes bustling out, smiling. She asks me what my name is, and is disappointed when I tell her Pam.

“A lot of my ladies are Barbara,” she says. “Like me. But I’m Babs! Get it?”

We nod solemnly and she dips her one-inch, caterpillary, lashes down so we can see her eyelids: one-half red, one-half blue, in honor of the patriotic holiday.

We order food: a salad, a bacon cheeseburger, and a fried bologna sandwich. Babs approves the sandwich and the beer Mark orders, and she tells him he should try the deep-fried mac and cheese bites.

What the hell, he says.

Bab grins big and sashays inside to place our orders.

The food does turn out to be good. I take bite after bite of the salad, but it never seems to diminish. The boyos are way ahead of me, progress-wise. Finally, Babs brings me a go-box, and we pack up and pay up and head out the back gate, not interrupting the pool players, or the couple intensely talking at a table nearby.

We might never go back to “The Ritz,” but it was a fun place for a Friday night dinner.

And it’s nice not to have to worry about cooking; I don’t have to cook much when I’m elsewhere.

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The beds are full sized, not queen-sized, but they are comfortable, and there are plenty of pillows to prop up and read on. Both bedrooms face out onto the main street of the town. In the late evening, the early part of night, there are bustle and cries. People are roaming the sidewalk. Birds shout raucously, very close by—maybe in nests right outside our windows. A dog suddenly, vigorously, barks.

The dark falls closer and deeper, and sirens flare in the distance, then come nearer and nearer until they wail by, with flashing lights and whining tires. They fade away, and everything quiets.

Mark comes in from the courtyard where he’s been reading. I turn the pages of my thriller.

Mark turns off the wake-up call on his smart phone. I read into the quiet of the night, not worried about the hour.

I am elsewhere, and I don’t have to get up in the morning.

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Light filters in through the stained-glass transom windows, early, early. It is barely 5:00; I open my eyes briefly and snuggle back in. But the light wakes the birds, too, and yes, they ARE nesting right outside our windows. They are excited by the dayfall; they are full-throated and rarin’ to go.

Mark gets up, eyes half shut, goes over to the window.

“Shaddup!” he says, and he pounds on the wall, hard, just below the windowsill.

There is sudden silence.

Mark smiles sleepily, shuffles back to bed, snuggles in. He is asleep again in seconds.

And the bird chorus re-ignites.

Mark pulls the blanket over his head and begins to snore.

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

I take my journal and my thriller, a Keurig cup of decaf, and one of my very favorite pens, and I creep downstairs, past Jim’s room—he is snoring too,–down to the ground floor level and the courtyard.

I shut the door behind me, careful to lock it so the electronics don’t spin and creak and whir, and I settle in at a pretty little patio table. I spread out my feast of words and my steaming cup of decaf.

I write until my head is emptied of clutter. I sip my coffee and open my book.

Dawn brightens into early morning, and early morning mellows into full day. Mark comes down, freshly showered, and we decide to cook breakfast this morning—eggs and ham, juice, and toast, cooked in the cute little kitchen, served on pretty plates.

We disperse to eat—Jim takes his to his media place, Mark and I settle in the sitting room, where there are straight chairs, an upholstered bench, a wicker settee. We put our feet on the sitting place across from us, and savor our breakfast.

Later, we clean up, a collaboration. Washing someone else’s dishes always feels like fun.

And that day, we get in the car and we just ride.

We drive to a college town where a festival is taking place. We people-watch: there are cuties, there are snooties, there are downright rudies and full-bore patooties. There are plaid Bermudas and slinky barracudas. Families with wee ones jostle among couples and singles and groups of friends.

It is amazing, and a little disconcerting, to see this close-packed crowd.

The engines for amusement rides whir. Fair food smells—cinnamon and boiling fat–scent the humid air. Carved carousel creatures slowly chase each other on an endless loop.

We walk to the car, away from the crowd, and we drive.

When we’re elsewhere, we can stay if we like and leave when we want.

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And we go to two bookstores. We stop for ice cream. We wander ‘home’ to the Airbnb, and we fix light suppers. The boyos watch a movie. I finish my book.

And night falls and the hot concrete world settles in, cools. Jim decides to stay in, and Mark and I walk down the street, find a seat in front of a coffee shop, and watch the fireworks. They are amazing; one even looks just like a lopsided smiley face.

We remember other fireworks, walking kids to parks in wagons, a special nephew who always dove under a blankie when the booms began. We remember winter fireworks, in a different home in a different state, when we walked on the ice of a frozen lake and the spectacle rained down around us, around us and a special group of family and friends. Even though the snow-laden site was crowded with people, we felt, that frigid night, amazed by the beauty and alone in ourselves.

Fireworks are magic, sometimes. And being elsewhere makes that even more true.

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The next morning, we are all up early. We are ready. We sort laundry into bags and pack the rest into our duffles and carry-ons. We clean out the fridge and do dishes, and we put the linens we used into a laundry basket.

We check to make sure we have all of our chargers, and that everything that stays is neatly put away. A light footprint: that’s what we hope to leave behind in the Airbnb world.

We text our amiable host, and we lock up, climb into our packed cars, and we meet at a little breakfast place, where we eat a bracing breakfast. Then we drive home.

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And it is GOOD to be home, to enter the resting house, to drag bags upstairs, to put clothes away, to take the laundry to the basement and start the first load.

Yes, there are things that need to be done—shopping lists to make, a fridge to clean out, beds to change, and more. And tomorrow brings work…but it should be an exciting week, a good week, when we can put many things in place, build the scaffolding for a vision, find the buttons to push that might start the process of realization.

Home is good, and work is good, and life is good; it’s all a grand adventure.

I see that better now. I see it all more clearly, coming home from elsewhere.

Hedging My Bets

It is one of those hot, hot southeastern Ohio Sundays. We walked in the cool of early morning; shortly afterward, we took a road trip to the organic supermarket in Gahanna, where we stocked up on things.

Now, Mark is resting in his gray lounge chair. Jim is up in his office. He must be watching something funny (Monty Python? How I Met Your Mother? the Marx brothers?) on his computer; crazed laughter drifts downstairs.

Now, I was planning to sit with my book in the reading chair, to chill in the air conditioning. But my annoying inner nudge keeps pushing. I sigh, and I gather up my little trimmer tool; it is plugged in, fully charged, and waiting on me. I attach the shrub-trimming teeth and head outside.

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

The little power tool hums into life and I begin at the edge of the hedge closest to the house, and I trim. I do not aim for a strictly manicured look, but I also don’t want the hedge to get so scruffy that people drive by and think, “What a shame. That could be a nice little house if someone lived there.”

I put both hands on the handle—a Chrissie Evert backhand grip–and sweep slowly back and forth. I reach over and swoop under. Wielding this humming, buzzing tool is a little, I think, having watched an episode of Clone Wars with Mark and Jim the night before, light saber-y.

Annoyed bugs buzz away in the breathless heat. A lazy car thrums slowly down the street. Leaves fall as I swoop, and the back part of the bush gentles into neatness.

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Trimming the hedges comes with memories attached. My oldest brother Dennis was the hedge trimmer extraordinaire when we were children. For some reason, he loved the job. He would grab the old, decidedly UN-powered hedge-clippers (who knows how old they were, back in the halcyon 1960’s? My father would take them apart at the beginning of each season, sharpen and oil them, fit them neatly back together) and head out to the front yard to do the trimming.

Dennis was an unrepentant geek, at least then, a time before the word ‘geek’ had even been coined. He wore high-waisted jeans and plaid, short-sleeved shirts. He had thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses.

His hair was thick, too, and it was swoopingly Brylcreem-ed in the front. The side were military-short.

“Dennis,” my mother would say to friends and relatives, “is my worker.”

My other brothers would be someplace with baseballs and mitts, out of hollering range. I would be hiding with a book, hoping not to be discovered: Get your lard-butt outdoors and DO something!

Dennis would be trimming the hedges, without being told, without being asked. He was painstaking; he made corners appear with those manual clippers. At that house, in that time, the front yard was sandwiched by long bushes on either side. Dennis would take his time, humming, and carefully trim both rows.

Then he would get the rake and clean up all the trimmings.

“Dennis does such a nice job,” my mother would sigh.

The rest of us would sigh, too. Thanks a lot, Dennis.

But on a day like this, I get it. There’s a lovely, organic sense of mastery here. The world may be marinated in crazy, but I can, right here, right now, tame these bushes, make them trim and tidy…although corners mine have not.

My light saber flips and glides. Little bush leaves fly.

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Speaking of bushes, my mind says, and I reach in to pluck out the memory it proffers. Oh, yes: the lollipop tree!

The lollipop tree was a big old bush (a lilac, maybe) on the side of the house, up-kitchen from the porch, and sometimes, on some occasions, it sprouted sugary fruit-flavored suckers, conveniently plasticked, from every branch.

It might—but didn’t always—happen for a birthday, and it might (but didn’t always) happen on the Fourth of July. Lollipops might bloom for a First Communion celebration, or when cousins from Buffalo came to visit.

It was a temperamental bush, and couldn’t be coerced into consistency, which made the random discovery of its colorful blossoming all the more magical. I was in kindergarten, I think, when it occurred to me that the suckers were stuck to the branches with scotch tape, not tender green stemmery, and I realized some parental hand had patiently attached the sweets to every kid-accessible branch.

The realization didn’t spoil the magic. The bush still bloomed occasionally.

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The lollipop bush, I think, nostalgic, and I plant my feet firmly and slice and chop.

“I am bush-whacking,” I think, and then I stop to wonder where THAT particular term originated.

The internet, of course, tells me. The term ‘bush-whacker’ might well come from the Dutch. There’s a similar term in that language—bosch-wachter—which means forest-keeper.

‘Bush-whacker’ first showed up in print in the United States in 1809, meaning a “woodsman, one accustomed to life in the bush.”

Later, I learned, northern troops in the Civil War called Confederate soldiers who ran away into the woods, becoming guerrillas, bush-whackers. (https://www.etymonline.com/word/bushwhacker)

There’s a sly and sneaky connotation to being a bush-whacker. I am not one, I decide.

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I have, though, been known to beat around the bush many times, reluctant to come right out and say bluntly what I mean. Instead, I stall, playing for time.

That term comes from the Middle Ages, I discover, when huntsmen hired men to take sticks and quite literally beat AROUND bushes to flush out game. They didn’t hit the bushes straight on, because it could be dangerous. They might flush out something with sharp teeth and glancing claws. They might slam that stick into a hive and unleash a horde of angry bees.

So they danced around the bushes, pounding and drumming, and nervous game  scuttled out to their doom. (https://www.gingersoftware.com/content/phrases/beat-around-the-bush/)

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I’ve also, now that my mind wanders down through this bush-whacking, hedge-clipping pathway, I have to admit, hedged my bets a time or two. Instead of throwing myself whole-heartedly into one course of action, I’ve waited, watching, at a crossroads, curious to see which way the wind would blow before taking the plunge.

Writingexplained.org tells me that “Hedge your bets first appeared in the late-1600s. The first use was by George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, in his play The Rehearsal (1672).” A hedge, the author tells me, was a “fence made of shrubbery”. It protected and enclosed, much like the protective wall I build, waiting, before stepping firmly into a commitment. That wall, I sometimes hope, protects my tender ego. (https://writingexplained.org/idiom-dictionary/hedge-your-bets)

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The afternoon sun is high and hot, and I work my way around to the driveway side of the shrubbery. (“Bring me a shrubbery!” shout the Knights Who Say Nee in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but that, of course, is neither here nor there.) The hedge is looking neater and calmer, even if it does undulate, dipping and ridging, a little like a dragon’s back.

It is good that I am almost done, I think, because I am—wait for it—pretty bushed. And that, in the US, means I’m exhausted and tired out. I need to be careful, though, where and when I say I’m bushed, because in Canada or Britain, that might mean I’m mentally unbalanced from living in an isolated area. In Australia and New Zealand, saying I’m bushed would mean I’m lost and confused, unable to find my way.

(https://www.wordreference.com/definition/bushed)

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I’m finished with the hedge. It isn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s trimmer. My brother Dennis would probably tell me my work is bush league, but I don’t care if it’s not perfect, if some would consider it second rate (https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/). It’s time to put my light saber away, to find that book, and to melt down into the reading chair, air conditioning churning.

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

I carry the little trimming tool into the house, detach the teeth-y things, and plug it in to charge against the next foray. Bushwhacking has earned me a respite.

Vacuum Cleaners and Empty Arms

I’ve been thinking about history lately. And I’ve been thinking that history lives where WE live, where the effects of far-off, maybe, decisions translate into my everyday life and yours.

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We try to take some kind of interesting road trip for Father’s Day. Mark loves history, so Jim and I pore through the Internet, locating sites we can reach within a couple of hours. We present them to Mark, and he chooses.

So we’ve been to the John Rankin Home in Ripley, Ohio. The house overlooks the Ohio River, and Rankin and his family were important ‘conductors’ on the underground railroad. (One of the pivotal scenes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we learned, is set outside the Rankin home.)

We’ve been to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum in Pickerington.

We wandered, at Wilberforce College, through a fascinating display highlighting the evolution of Black comic superheroes.

We’ve been to presidential monuments, military museums, museums that honor astronauts, and museums that showcase all kinds of travel—air, car, water, rail.

After Mark approves the destination, Jim and I go back to the computer and find likely restaurants.

We’ve eaten a lot of good food after touring fascinating displays.

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This year, we went to Canton, Ohio. Timing suggested we eat first, so we had a wonderful meal at a place called Table 6. Then we took a short drive to the Walsh College campus and the Hoover Historical Center.

This Hoover history had nothing to do with the 31st president of the United States, Herbert Hoover. It also had nothing to with the first U.S. FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover. No, THIS Hoover Center highlighted Canton’s Hoovers…industrialists who perfected a vacuum cleaner that worked its way into households around the world.

The museum is in a house the Hoover family built—it was relocated to its current location—and the floors, I must tell you, are immaculate. We were honored to be the first post-pandemic visitors, and our docents gave us a wonderful tour. We learned that the Hoovers first had tanneries, until a local janitor, Mr. James Spangler, had an idea for a cleaning machine. He put some parts together, tinkered and experimented, and made a vacuum cleaner for himself. (http://www.vacuumcleanerhistory.com/vacuum-cleaner-inventors/james-m-spangler/)

“Boss” Hoover learned of this invention; he hired Mr. Spangler, and they began perfecting the design, changing life for housewives and cleaning folks.

We saw that first machine Mr. Spangler put together. We saw the many evolutions of the Hoover vacuum cleaner. (Things got sleeker and more streamlined, more efficient and lighter. But it’s amazing how similar modern designs are to Mr. Spangler’s prototype.)

We thought about how something as simple as a household appliance can have a profound effect on life, and thus, on history.

But the thing that really caught me was the story of the Hoover evacuees.

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There’s a picture of the Hoover evacuees at the Historical center—84 kids taken from their homes in the British Isles, packed with their meager belongings onto the Samalia, an ocean liner, and sent to Canton, Ohio, for the duration of World War II.

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By 1940, the Hoover vacuum cleaner had become so popular, at home and abroad, that Herbert W. Hoover—no relation whatsoever to the former president—had opened a thriving factory outside of London, England. And as the war came home to England, bringing a scourge of night bombings, parents in the British Isles were urged to send their children to safety in the country—to send them where they were nowhere near bombing targets.

Mr. Hoover decided to bring as many children as he could to his hometown of Canton, Ohio. He arranged for the ship and all the necessary details; he connected with the folks in Canton. In 1940, 84 British children set sail, each with two pieces of luggage, a duffel bag, and ten dollars, for the United States. (https://www.cantonrep.com/article/20110829/News/308299891)

Fortunately, their passage was uneventful.  A little later, on September 16, 1940, another ship (The City of Benares) bearing children to the US and safety was torpedoed and sunk. After that, no more ships brought children to the States during World War II.

The children, ages 5-16—although a two-year-old snuck through, too—arrived in New York City, were transported by train to Canton, and spent a week or two in a camp on the very grounds where the Hoover Historical center now stands.

British children arrive by train in Canton, Ohio,–summer 1940. Photo from the CantonRep.com

Then they were disbursed to foster care.

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It’s funny how life tosses themes my way. Sometimes the themes are small, crunchy, things—pebbles in the path. (I’m liable, then, to crunch right past them.) Sometimes they are bigger, big enough to be obstacles; if I’m not aware of them, I’ll trip over the boulders they form or twist my unwary foot atop them.

For some reason, this spring, I have been reading about misplaced children and World War II—sometimes together, sometimes separately.

I read The Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, which made the plight of children in the US, children on the East Coast whose families had disintegrated, very real. Those children were shipped to the Midwest and western US; they were tumbled out of trains onto waiting platforms. People came to look at them, to ponder, to pick.

A couple who couldn’t seem to have kids might take a toddler for their own. A farmer who needed help might take a sturdy looking boy. Girls who could sew and cook and clean might find places.

Their placement might be a good thing or a bad thing, but when they were chosen, the trains rolled away and left the children to whatever fate had decided.

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I read The Last Bookshop in London, a novel which brought the reality of the Blitz home to my awareness. I read This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, a memoir by Jacqueline Winspear. Winspear’s mother was a London kid sent to the country during World War II by parents who tried to protect her. She was, fortunately, with siblings, but the siblings couldn’t completely protect each other from predatory adults.

And right now I am reading Life From Scratch by Sasha Martin, whose mother gave Sasha and her brother Michael to friends to raise. Martin’s father was absent; her mother was dogged by children’s services. She finally decided the children would be better off with others, in a stable home, and she sent them away.

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Imagine.

Imagine the only choices you have are these: keeping your child close, knowing they might be killed, or sending them away, in the care of strangers, in a place beyond reach.

Helen Manfull was a child when the evacuees came to Canton; she wrote a two-part series about the British children for CantonRep.com in 2011. She writes of a British parent chasing the train bearing the children to the shipyards, just wanting to touch a child’s hair one last time.

She writes of a little boy who bought a candy bar on board the ship to America, thinking he would save it and take it to his mommy when the trip was done.

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The Hoover evacuees would be gone from home for five years.  A few returned to Britain in 1944; most went home after VE Day, May 7, 1945. Two boys, whose mother was widowed, never went home at all. Instead, their mama was invited to the US, to become part of their host family.

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I think of the changes in a child in five years. A boy who was ten when he left would be a young man, shaving now and thinking about careers or armed service, about romance, and popular music, and trendy clothes, and books he’d just discovered and talents that were just being revealed, when he came home. That two year old would be seven, and, probably, they would not consciously remember their mama. They’d speak with an American twang. They would talk about baseball instead of cricket. They’d ride in trucks instead of lorries, and wear sneakers instead of plimsolls.

After the joyous reunions, there must have been months and years of readjustment.

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Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-baby-scientist/201807/the-effects-separating-children-their-parents) talks about what happens in long separations. In “The Effects of Separating Children From Their Parents,” Jessica Schrader notes that separation causes distress.

Distress is a form of stress, and long-term stress—the kind that kids who are taken from their homes feel—can actually change the way a growing brain develops. A child may be unable to control their feelings and reactions. Their learning can be interrupted. A child like this may act out.

Schrader notes that distress can be offset by affectionate caregivers who set appropriate boundaries and genuinely care for their charges.

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Imagine the families, back together again after the war. The parents, the older siblings, maybe, who lived (one hopes) through bombings and violence. Who saw unspeakable things on their neighborhood streets.

Imagine the evacuated children returning, five years later, changed, products now of a different culture. Those children didn’t share the same experiences of war. They didn’t, really, know these families they were re-joining.

It can’t have been easy.

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There are many theories of history. One, polished into clarity by Thomas Carlisle, is the “Great Man Theory.” This says that big, strong, and, yes, mostly male personalities decide and shape the course of human history. “Rulers, warriors, and statesmen are the decisive factors in history,” according to this train of thought, “and history is the record of the deeds of great people.” (http://mrsshowler.weebly.com/uploads/5/1/5/9/5159549/theories.pdf#:~:text=Other%20Theories%20There%20are%20a%20number%20of%20other,race%2C%20or%20climate%20determines%20the%20course%20of%20history.)

But I don’t buy that. For sure, decisions made in far-off halls by powerful rules affect everyone. But then those ‘everyones’ live the history future peoples study.

I like the ‘Everyman’ theory of history better—although, I’d like to see it called the “Every Person Theory,” of course. The Weebly site I looked at credited ‘Everyman’ in part to Sir Walter Raleigh. He proposed that history, “was the story of ordinary people’s lives.”

William E.B. DuBois agreed. He turned away from the idea that history was what happened in western Europe’s halls of power. DuBois proposed studying history by examining the lives of ordinary people…and of subject people.

But it’s a blend, isn’t it, really? The movers and the shakers craft the decisions, and the rank and file live them.

History takes place HERE, not in some far off marble monument we’ll never visit.

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So, thousands of children in a nation separate from their parents, and they are both saved and changed by the stress of the separation. They carry that stress forward, and the nation is shaped by the way those people lived.

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And history can be the big things—a war fought to defend the world from unspeakable wrongs—and it can be little things: an invention that gives a person extra time. They use that time to play with their kids or perfect a family recipe, to write a sonnet, or to experiment with watercolors; they take the time to play tennis or hike in the woods or dive sleekly into a pool of turquoise water. They use the time, we hope, to pursue something joyful.

That time, and those pursuits, change the world on a small and personal level…but on a level that can ripple throughout a culture.

And maybe we all need a chance to reflect, to assimilate, to think about the event, the invention, the intention, and the aftermath…the way those swirling things push and prod, knead and give way, to our own individual histories.

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Anyway. Lunch with the boyos at Table Six, a ramble through the Hoover Historical Center, talking with the enthusiastic docents who had personal ties to the Hoover Company, time to reflect: it all added up to a very good day.

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Resources:

Theories of history

http://mrsshowler.weebly.com/uploads/5/1/5/9/5159549/theories.pdf#:~:text=Other%20Theories%20There%20are%20a%20number%20of%20other,race%2C%20or%20climate%20determines%20the%20course%20of%20history.

Evacuees Part I

https://www.cantonrep.com/article/20110829/News/308299891

Evacuees Part II

https://www.cantonrep.com/article/20110830/NEWS/308309896

Effects of separating Kids from parents:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-baby-scientist/201807/the-effects-separating-children-their-parents

Hoover Center:

https://eventseeker.com/venue/917713-hoover-historical-center-north-canton

Parsley, Peas, Rutabagas, and Beans

If you have never tasted a braised vegetable, you’ll find it is a revelation.

James Beard

I pull the bulging plastic bag (I’ll recycle!) from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. Then I unpack its contents, one by one.

There are organic carrots, their wild mop of ferny greens still attached.

There is a sleek purple eggplant.

A parsnip, pale and yellowy, tumbles onto the counter.

I hold the rutabaga in my hand for a minute. It’s pretty, with deep rose coloring fading into cream. It’s lighter than I thought; I was worried about cutting this guy up, thinking it would be dense and difficult.

The rutabaga goes next to the parsnip, and I wrestle a couple of leeks out of the bag. I only need one for my recipe; I’ll look up directions for leek and potato soup to make use of the other.

I have three different kinds of onion, and some robust garlic bulbs. I’ll peel and chop those first and get my tearfulness out of the way.

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I have a new summer ambition: explore the world of veggies.

Finding an amazing cookbook spurred this quest. For a couple of days, it seemed, I saw ads for The Chef’s Garden everywhere. I read about the book in my Ohio Magazine. Barnes and Noble reminded me to look it up. I think there was even a Facebook blurb about it.

I knew Farmer Lee Jones, the author, was an Ohioan. That’s about all I knew.

So I looked him up. I found the story here: https://www.chefs-garden.com/about-the-farm/our-story

Lee Jones comes from a farming family, and we have heard versions of that story: how the family farm became more and more a thing of the past as corporate farms spread throughout the American landscape. How the banks foreclosed, and people left the family land—their legacy—to try to fit themselves into city life.

The Jones family struggled along, making their farm work, eking it out, selling their produce in Cleveland and other Lake Erie towns in Ohio, but they continued to lose ground. Interest rates soared.

And then, a hailstorm in the 1980’s changed the family’s lives forever. Their regular crops were destroyed. Debt was insurmountable, and the Joneses sold off almost everything they had at auction.

With the support of family and friends, they were able, finally, to buy back seven acres of land, which included a falling-down house and some barns and sheds.

“Despite all this loss,” Lee Jones writes in The Chef’s Garden, “we loved to farm.” And the family was creative and willing to try new things, and they were, obviously, the kind of people who hunkered down and persevered for the long haul.

It sounds like their defining moment came about in the form of a persistent chef who wanted to buy squash blossoms.

At first, Jones resisted Iris Bailin’s entreaties to buy the petals that bloom at the end of a zucchini. He told her, he writes, “Ma’am…you don’t eat the flowers. You eat the zucchini.”

But Bailin continued to ask Jones for those blossoms, and finally, when she offered fifty cents for a single flower, he and his family stopped and listened. The chef screamed with joy when she saw that that Jones had harvested the blooms for her.

“At that moment,” Lee Jones writes, “our real education in vegetables began.”

The Jones family began farming for chefs. They grew vegetables they had never heard of. They researched; they changed methods. They explored.

Their family farm came back, and it came back without chemical fertilizers or fancy equipment. They are committed to restoring antique but effective equipment. They grow their veggies, Jones writes in his book, “slowly and gently, in full accord with nature.”

Now, the farm yields crops of incredible, varied, veggies, and it also offers a culinary vegetable institute, a place where chefs and farmers meet and collaborate.

Cookbook review: 'The Chef's Garden' by Farmer Lee Jones

What an amazing story. How could I not buy that book?

It would help me, I figured, on my quest to explore the world of veggies.

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My friend Wendy came to visit last week, our first house-guest since the iron COVID curtain cut us all off from each other. We had a glorious visit, and I wanted to cook something special on Sunday to celebrate.

So I thought I would make a recipe from The Chef’s Garden: Broiled Cornish Hen with Onion Caramel.

It didn’t sound too hard, although there was some prep work. The only game hens I could find were frozen; I defrosted them in the fridge for a few days before Wendy arrived.

On Saturday, I blanched the little birds and made the onion caramel.

The blanching wasn’t tough. I just boiled up a big pot of salty water, turned it off, and immersed the hens for five seconds. When they came out, their smooth skins had shrunk and goose-bumped, as if I’d frosted, rather than scalded, them. The recipe promised that the resulting skin would be crisp and delicious, and the flesh juicy and wonderful.

I covered up the little birds and put them back in the refrigerator downstairs.

The caramel, now—that was trickier.

Along the lines of learning new things about veggies, I learned how to juice onions. That was an intricate, many-step process that started with chopping, had a food processor in the middle, and ended with a heavy cast iron pot pressing the liquid from onion mush plopped into a colander. But it worked: I got the onion juice I needed.

Then it was a matter of making that juice into caramel. There was sugar that melted into the onion juice; there was a lot of bubbling and stirring. There was the heavy cream sluicing into the pot.

Finally, I had a molten brew that smelled both onion-tangy and sugary-sweet.

I let it cool and poured it into a glass jar and put it in the fridge.

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On the day itself, the birds roasted low and slow for many long hours. Then, we cut them along their backbones, flattened them out on a rack and brushed all but one (“I might like mine PLAIN,” said James) with warmed onion caramel. They went back into the oven, underneath the broiler, and the skin blackened and bubbled, crisped and snapped.

The whole thing took longer than expected, and there were steps in the process I didn’t anticipate. (Wendy, who also sports a FitBit, said to me, “You got your steps in just COOKING today!”) But the final result was worth the effort.

The game hens were moist and meaty, and the skin was a treat in itself—everything the recipe promised. The flavor was wonderful. We nestled the hens on our plates next to roasted new potatoes and steamed green beans and, famished after the long wait, we tucked in.

And after dinner, even Jim, while helping to clear the dishes, couldn’t resist. He pulled  crispy caramelly skin from a leftover hen and savored.

“This is really, really good,” he said. And that’s an onion compliment from a confirmed veggie-phobe.

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There’s another recipe in The Chef’s Garden that I want to try: Carrot Pot Roast. It has everything a pot roast should with the minor exception of the meat. I thought we could serve it alongside a juicy beef roast.

The Carrot Post Roast Picture from The Chef’s Garden

Jim, then, wouldn’t have veggies touching his beef, and Mark and I could mix meat and veg together for the full experience.

The carrot pot roast picture shows the roast veggies—carrots, tiny potatoes, pearl onions,—in a heavy skillet. They are nestling in the most wonderful-looking sauce—it appears deep brown and succulent.

That sauce is the Roasted Vegetable Demi-Glace, and it’s that which calls for all the unusual veggies.

So on Monday morning, when we wave Wendy off on her bold, one-woman trip to St. Louis via Terre Haute, I wash and peel veggies. Peeling the onions and garlic streams mascara down my cheeks. I am surprised, though, at how easy it is to peel and quarter a rutabaga.

I peel carrots and the parsnip and the eggplant.

Then I get everything ready for the food processor, which slices all the veggies uniformly thin.

Sliced veggie delight

I toss the onions, leek, and garlic in tomato paste and olive oil. I spread them out on half a baking sheet. I fill the rest of that sheet and another with the other sliced veggies, toss a little more olive oil into the mix, and set it all in the oven to roast, long and slow.

The tomato paste mixture comes out first; it sits and waits while the rest of the veggies aim for caramelization.

I never quite get them to that stage, but when we’ve waited twice the time recommended in the cookbook, I bring them out of the oven. Everything goes into a huge stockpot; it’s all covered with water, and it settles in to simmer most of the afternoon.

The strained result is a beautiful, fragrant sauce. I pack it into three smallish containers—only three! For all that peeling and chopping!—and I carry them downstairs to freeze.

Maybe we’ll roast that beef and bake that carrot ensemble for Mark on Father’s Day.

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The two veggie dishes were more work than I’d expected. But I rolled veggies in my hands that I’d never cooked with before; I experimented with new flavors and new methods. I like that, because I am convinced, as we emerge from the COVID quarantine into a new kind of normal life, of this one thing: life doesn’t have to be what life has always been.

The jury is not yet even out on the Demi-Glace; I’ll let you know when we try that, soon. But the games hen and the onion caramel—I’d make that again, for a special occasion, for a meal where I expect to expend some extra effort.

And there are simpler recipes, too, and there is the promise that new treasures will arrive every week at the Farmers Market.

There are buds turning into blossoms on our rooftop tomatoes.

I walk in the morning and recipe ideas pop into my head, possibilities that keep pace with the tromp of my feet:

Tomato PIE.

Collard GREENS.

Grilled LETTUCE.

Pea and carrot SALAD.

Tromp tromp tromp.

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I am 65 years old. For many many years now, the universe has been telling me, “Woman, eat your veggies.”

I guess I am, finally, ready to listen.

Growth

Planting Terry’s tomato seeds was an act of hope in the dark of winter and the bleakness of the pandemic. The seeds were a year old; planting time had gotten past me in winter of 2020.

This year, I thought, we will try. At least, we’ll try.

So, in January, I put the seeds into a dirt filled egg carton. We put the carton on the dresser in the dining room, inside the sunny bay window. I kept it hydrated, every day.

In five of the dirt-filled egg cups, tiny tomato plants sprouted. We nurtured them carefully, trying not to over-water, but trying not, either, to leave them gasping with thirst.

One little guy gave up and died a few days after emerging.

Damn, I thought, damn. What did I do wrong?

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But the four other little plants kept growing.

James and I went out and bought four planting pots, useful pots of a good size made from recycled plastic culled from the ocean. We bought a big bag of potting soil, too, and we brought those home.

On a miserable February afternoon, when it was cold enough to snow but decided to rain instead, I transplanted the four remaining seedlings.

One of them died. One grew almost immediately, shooting out stalky, branchy, leaf-tipped things. One seemed agreeably willing, and one just stayed small and shy.

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I thought maybe we should move those young plants to the front window, the living room window, where they might get more and better sun. I watered them every morning.

I read that sharing containers was a smart way to grow things—that some symbiotic relationship actually occurred. It was especially good, the article said, to combine tomato plants with basil plants.

I bought basil seeds and carefully put just a few in each pot. Little seedlings popped up. Most of them shriveled up and disappeared, but the basil in the agreeable tomato’s pot, the tomato plant that was neither the biggest nor the smallest, but contentedly healthy and happy, drew in its breath and grew strong.

This planting and this growing, I thought: it’s all a mystery. And I worried that I was doing something awfully wrong, that I was being a bad plant-mom.

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I used the empty pot and planted more basil seeds, putting them in the dining room window.

Every morning, I checked to see if my plants needed water. I talked to them; I told them they were doing great.

Periodically, I sent Terry photos, hoping she would tell me if the plants looked all wrong. Her replies were gentle and encouraging.

Soon the tomato plants were getting tall enough that they threatened to fall over,–six inches, eight inches, a whole foot tall. We took bamboo shiskabob skewers from the cupboard and strategically placed them so they’d hold up those gawky, stalky plants.

I ordered fertilizer sticks. When they arrived, I put one in each pot, talking to the plants like a life coach.

“You can do this!” I would say. “Look how well you’ve done already!”

Suddenly the smallest of the tomato plants took a huge breath, exhaled, and began to grow.

All the plants grew toward the light, reaching out with their jagged-edged leaves, touching the glass of the window.

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I watched them anxiously, and one day, on the tallest of the plants, I noticed the tiniest of buds. I dragged Mark and Jim over to see it.

“Oh, yeah,” they said. “Oh, YEAH.”

And we thought about putting the plants outside, on the roof, high above where the deer could mess with them.

But then, after a week of soaring temps—one day, in Ohio in May, it was 90-plus degrees out,—there were frost warnings. We got rained on and battered.

We kept our tender tomatoes snug inside.

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Of course, though, the weather turned.

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So yesterday we went to Lowes, and we bought five big pots and five tomato cages—five for the three tomatoes that survived from seeds and the two plants Mark bought at the market, a Roma and a grape tomato. We came home and dumped rich dirt into the wheelbarrow, mixed in potting soil, swirled it all around, and filled those new pots almost to the rim.

Then, talking encouragingly, we carefully shook the tomato plants out of their pots and transplanted them. (The little basil plant jumped right in with the genial tomato.) Mark slid the metal tomato cages into the dirt while I gently directed the tomato plants to stand right in the middle. We gave them a quenching drink of water and left them on the patio to settle in.

A double whammy: transplantation and, suddenly, outdoor air. And, oh, my friend, they drooped. They drooped and sagged, and my heart did, too.

By now, of course, I knew that plants could die, quietly, gently, without discernible cause. Please, I thought. We’ve come so far!

We pressed fertilizer into the mix and went inside to have dinner, and to hope.

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The tomatoes were actually perking up a bit by 8:00 p.m., and Mark pulled out the ladder and climbed up next to the carport. I handed him a plant and he placed it carefully on the flat roof, far enough from the edge that it wouldn’t topple, close enough that we can stand on the ladder and water those babies.

I passed him up another and another until those plants stood proudly on the carport roof, reaching their leaves toward the heavens.

And now we let them go, hoping. They are safe from deer; they are securely in a sunny, sunny place. They are nutrient-rich, and we will keep them quenched.

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When I came home from work today, Jim met me at the door, and he gestured toward the carport roof.

“They’re looking GOOD, aren’t they?” he said, like a proud uncle.

And yes; yes, they are, those rooftop tomatoes. They look as though they are embracing their new lives.

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Ah, the act of nurture: investment and risk, loss and renewal. Grow, little tomatoes: grow.

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Meanwhile, we have been redecorating the sun-porch, which enthusiastic and optimistic people might call a “Florida room.” Mark has his office on one end. On the other end, there was a jumble of furniture, things that didn’t fit elsewhere anymore. That was supposed to be a sitting area or a reading nook, but it was always too messy and mismatched to be inviting. So this spring, we made reviving the sun-porch our project, and it’s worked out even more nicely than expected.

Now we have one clean, clear, unified big space, and we can also draw room darkening curtains across half the room in case, say, the occupant of the reading nook wants a little privacy to take a nap. We bought a new reading chair and set up the daybed, and Mark put together wooden shelves for both ends of the room. There are woven black baskets of several sizes on the shelves, and those baskets are perfect for organizing stuff and busting clutter.

And we ordered a new mattress for the daybed. The old one, which came with it, was thin; even with an egg-shell foam topper, a daybed nap was tough on the back.

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The mattress arrived one morning. Mark, home for lunch, sent me a picture of it, all boxed up. It didn’t look like the box was big enough to hold something very substantial.

Then Mark couldn’t stand it. He opened the box and pulled out the mattress, tightly rolled up into close-fitting plastic with all the air sucked out.

“Don’t cut with a blade!” warned stickers all over the wrapping. Mark went and grabbed the everyday scissors and carefully cut the plastic away.

A twin-sized mattress jumped out of the wrapping. Mark set it gently on the living room floor in front of the fireplace.

He sent me a picture. “It says,” he wrote of the instruction manual, “to let it sit overnight.”

I looked at the photo and felt a little deflated. The mattress didn’t look any more substantial than the one we were replacing.

Those mattresses in a box, I thought, are maybe mostly hype.

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By the time I got home, by the time dinner rolled around, that mattress had grown. It was twice the thickness of the old one. I knelt next to it and pushed down on the surface.

Soft, but I could feel the firmness beneath the foam.

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We let it rest for 24 hours, just like the manual recommended, and then we wrapped up the old mattress in the leftover plastic wrapping, stowed it away downstairs, and put the new mattress carefully on the day bed.

We tucked a fitted sheet around it, layered a top sheet over it, and then smoothed the white quilted bed cover over all that. We piled up the new pillows.

We took turns stretching out on the daybed. We agreed it was quite comfy.

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When Jim was little, he used to love these tiny capsules that had treasures inside. He would open the package and put each capsule in a mug of water and the gel would wear away and something would spring into being: a velociraptor or a lion made out of foam, maybe.

How on earth, I would wonder, did they get those sturdy figures inside those tiny spaces?

The mattress seems a lot like that on a lot larger scale. A little bit magic, I think.

Another kind of growing thing; another kind of faith.

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“You should put some decorative things on top of the shelves in the reading nook,” Mark suggested, and so today, on Terri Mercer’s 66th birthday, I cup the planter Ott gave me after she died and carry it out to the sunporch.

Last fall, I filled Terri’s pretty planter-mug with potting soil, and I transplanted a rooted clipping from a plant we’ve had a long, long time. Mark’s colleagues gave him the plant when Jim was four and Mark had kidney surgery. The plant has gone with us everywhere. It has grown so big it had to be cut back many times. Time and again, I have taken cuttings and rooted them.

We have the grandparent plant, which sits atop the big bookshelf.

Mark has an exuberant offspring in his office, and I have one in mine.

The grandchildren are thriving, too, and one of them is in Terri’s mug.

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Not too long from now, in another one of those recovering-from-COVID miraculous events, a dear friend is coming to visit. She will sleep in the reading nook, and she’ll see, from the daybed, Terri’s planter and a stack of books we think she may enjoy.

I talked about plants many times with Terri (she taught me a lot), and, both of us booklovers, we talked a lot about reading, too. It makes me very happy that the planter and some books nestle next to each other in our newly refurbished space.

It makes me happy that the new space will, in a small way, celebrate friendship.

And it seems fitting that the gift that Ott gave us holds a living, thriving, growing thing.

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And I slog out to mow the lawn after a week’s rain, and I think about the different ways that things grow. There are mysteries that elude me, but the tomato plants bob happily at me from their rooftop perch, and there’s a little spark of joy in all of this, joy in the sadness, joy in the uncertainty, joy in the thought that anything might stop and wither, and anyone might too; but somehow the spirit keeps pushing. Someday, I accept, I’ll be stopping. But there’s comfort in knowing that the growing will go on; the growing won’t be stopped.

Welcome the Rain

It’s broody when I wheel out for my Wednesday walk. The sky is pushing, pushing down, gray and sullen, and the air is thick and warm, a damp blanket.

The birds are quiet; the day has an indrawn aura. It’s waiting to exhale.

I don’t encounter anyone on my walk; I hear angry dogs barking behind closed doors, and a few shuttered cars roll slowly by. It’s just that kind of morning, and I am glad to reach home, to munch down my granola, to iron a top, to head off to work.

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The house is quiet when I get home, the work-day done. Mark and Jim have gone off to Newark to meet John, an old friend of Mark’s from law school, for a mid-week treat, a late lunch. I kick off the new, ropy sandals that are aggravating my bunion, put my lunch dishes in the dishwasher, run up to quickly change.

While I’m upstairs, I realize one of the beds needs a sheet; I am tucking up the duvet and fluffing pillows when I realize there’s a pounding at the door.

It’s the ReStore guys, come to pack up the pile of stuff we moved from the sunporch to the carport—the old black, white, and brown swivel chair, the filing cabinets, the rugs, the wooden folding chair. The guys are an hour early; I want to joke with them, to say that I’m just not used to making appointments with people who are early every time. I’m afraid, though, that would sound critical or condescending instead of complimentary, so I just point them to the pile of goodies, thank them profusely, and softly shut the door.

As they make three trips to move the stuff into the truck at the bottom of the driveway, the sky darkens and pushes even closer.

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I sweep and vac and mop the kitchen floor, and the darkness grows. I fill the sink with hot soapy water and scrub up a couple of things—my lovely new Straker Foundation go-mug, a little frying pan left from breakfast. As I rinse the pan, a sudden wind rushes through the backyard.

The little grape and Roma tomato plants Mark the optimist (maybe this year the deer WON’T eat these…) bought were sitting on the edge of our kitchen sink herb garden. They are, in the space of a moment, six feet away, hurled by the fury of that wind.

And the wind calms down, and the rains come, hard and straight and relentless.

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It is not a day to mow lawns or take rambling walks. I pull my new canister vacuum from the hall closet, attach the little brush to the hose, and go through the living room and family room, whisking down cobwebs. I steer the little brush around windowsills and the edges of frames; I suck up the dust along the top of the moldings.

I change the attachment and clean the hard floors and the carpets.

The rain keeps falling.

I break out the furniture polish (it’s been a while; a fine skim of dust rests, ironically, on the bottle). I pull a soft old t-shirt from the rag bag, and I wipe and shine furniture. When I throw the soiled rag downstairs into the laundry, it’s still raining. I find my book, and, righteous with my afternoon house-cleaning, kick off my shoes and slide into the reading chair.

I am still there 45 minutes later, snug in my golden knitted throw and immersed in the world of women from the hill country, when the boyos come home. They tromp in, filling the house with energy and sound, and I go to hear the story of their lunch and the ride home in the rain.

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Rain, I think, gets a bad rap. It has become a metaphor for bad things and hard times. I look up metaphors for rain online, and I find phrases like “God’s tears,” “daggers from the sky,” and “a shroud of misery” (https://symbolismandmetaphor.com/rain-metaphors/).

Save that, we say, for a rainy day, the rainy day being the hard time, the time when there’s nothing left, and when we wish desperately we’d prepared.

I don’t have any doubt we’ll be challenged by hard, relentless times, but I’m thinking a rainy day is not such an apt way of depicting those days.

This day’s rain has ushered in something lovely…cooler temps, greener lawns.

Maybe some other Internet metaphors, “farmer’s gift” and “nature’s bath,” come closer to the truth.

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Rain, its pounding drizzle, filters out distractions. I don’t have to decide between yardwork and indoor work: that choice is made for me. It is not a day to gather up the digging tools and clear out the old garden bed.

Instead, it’s the perfect time to make a batch of cookies.

And rain provides just the right level of concentrated time for reading in the comfy chair.

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Just before dinner, while the pork ribs are still sizzling in the oven, I step out on to the back stoop. The sun is trying, kind of unconvincingly, to master the parting clouds. The world smells wonderful, damp and fresh, a little spicy, a little earthy.

And the temps have dropped, my smart phone tells me, from 90 to 70 degrees.

This afternoon’s outburst leaves coolness in its wake.

Nature exhaled. It’s a relief. Finally, we think.

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We eat pork ribs and peas, and noodles in an Alfredo sauce, savoring and catching up, and then we clean the table and stack the dishes.

“Too wet to mow,” says Mark, and we decide to watch a new show on PBS, to have a lazy, over-the-hump, Wednesday night.

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The next morning I walk in pale sunlight. The world I walk through is lush and green, and there are runners and dog-walkers and other walkers like me out enjoying it. The air is cool, in the low 50’s, and many of us wear jackets. (I debated taking my thin knit gloves, but finally decided I’m not that much of a wimp. At times on this walk, I wish I’d brought them.)

The rain was like the final curtain; while we waited for it, it held the hot muggies in place, and when it tore through town, it revealed beauty and coolness behind it.

The grass seems jubilant; flowers stand tall this morning. I suspect the farmers and those who garden in a real and serious way delight in the aftermath of that wonderful soaking.

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Rain gives us a necessary breather, and a necessary infusion of moisture and growth. It is wind-tearing drama, powerful quenching, welcome respite, necessary replenishment. Gifted by that rainy day, the rest of the week opens up.

Making Granola

I have been tumbling blog topics in my head all week long. Here are some of the things I thought I might write about:

  • Working in retirement (when you get to choose what you WANT to do over what you HAVE to do);
  • Hats. I am wearing a hat to a virtual event tomorrow, and, other than a hood when it’s raining, that will be the first time in two years or more that an actual hat has been on my head. (I think I’ve written about hats before, though…);
  • Things that grow. We are very excited to have a blossom on our indoor tomato plants. The little lemon tree that flanks our tomato flock has new growth, too. And outside, the annuals in the window boxes have not, as yet, been bruised or abused by the deer (who are largely, we think, in the nursery right now with tender young fawns).

I just had a week’s vacation, and vacation’s a topic in itself, and part of it I talked about in my Mother’s Day blog, but also we repurposed the little back stoop into a conversation area and ordered the accoutrements to change the front half of the side porch into guest space.

None of those things seemed like sustainable topics, though…I mean, how much can I say about plants or redecorating, for instance, without getting repetitious or cutesy? (Certainly, I am not an expert in either area.)

So this morning, I got up and walked in the cool sweet morning. Ideas, as I walked, hurtled forth and presented themselves.

I would examine them, filled with hope they’d be just the right thing to write about. Each time, though, there was reason to decline, and the rejected topic would roll dejectedly away…probably lodged firmly, right now, in some godforsaken nook of the bony mind chamber, waiting to tumble down and catch me at a more welcoming, opportune time.

And I came home, to the rich, dark decaf that had been brewing while I was meandering, and to a breakfast of granola. The granola was the last of the batch, and I had to mix in a few pecans so it wasn’t all oatmeal and almonds (the coconut just kind of disappears). When I finished eating the bowl of granola and reading the papers, I put my mug next to the coffee pot, and I got the big old blue recipe binder out. I will make granola, I thought to myself.

The binder opens right to the granola recipe because I use that recipe more often than any other.

I started pulling ingredients from the cupboard and I suddenly decided, “Well, THIS. I will write about granola.”

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Jim came down, freshly showered and looking forward to the day, at right about this point. He was going to tag along when I went into the office at 10:30 a.m., where I was doing a Zoom book club through a family foundation in the Cleveland, Ohio, area. The book we all read is called Farming While Black, it’s by Leah Penniman, and it shares a trove of ideas about how and where and with whom to farm, especially relevant for people of color; and then it talks about WHY to farm, and it ends by discussing, clearly and without flinching, issues of racism and what people can do about them.

I was looking forward to the discussion, and Jim, I think, was looking forward to just getting out of the house and working in a different venue, which is still, in these pandemic days, a treat.

Right now, though, he was more interested in breakfast. And he noticed that I was making granola.

He began singing, “O, Granola!” to the tune of, “O, Canada,” and I responded by singing, “’Nola! Gruh-gruh-gruh-gruh nola!” to the tune of the Kinks’ “Lola,” and I wish I could tell you our voices soared and filled the kitchen with some kind of harmony. Really, though, it was just noisy.

“Do you think Dad would say we were a little unhinged?” Jim asked when the singing stopped.

I pondered as I stirred cinnamon and salt into the dry granola ingredients. It is true that Mark often says to James, “Your mother is strange,” in situations like the granola concert. Mark is, perhaps, a little more restrained than Jim is or I am.

But, “Making granola here,” I said. “And you should eat some breakfast.”

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I’ve been making my own granola for a couple of years now. I was looking for something high in fiber but gluten free to eat for breakfast.  (My favorite breakfast cereals were Grape-Nuts knockoffs and Wheat Chex, both clearly wheat- and gluten-rich.) I wanted something easy to fix and eat on those draggy mornings when my eyes won’t focus and I stumble into the refrigerator, cursing,—foggy, sleep-drenched mornings when I sure wouldn’t want to try to cook an egg or use sharp implements.

So I searched for a couple of days and found a recipe called “Nut and Honey Granola,” from a blog called the Minimalist Baker (https://minimalistbaker.com/).

I tried the recipe and really liked it; I printed it off and put it in the old blue binder, which is where new and promising recipes reside until they are incorporated, somehow, into one of the other family recipe collections. (We’re still refining that process.)

I located a great supplier of almonds and pecans, and I started buying local honey at a local meat shop. I seldom used honey in cooking before this, and the smell of it brought back memories. My father used to put honey on his vanilla ice cream, and, because I adored my father, I would do that too. I didn’t really like it all that much, but every time, I thought I would like it BETTER, because it was such a treat for Dad.

He also made butter and honey sandwiches on soft white bread, and every once in a while, those just tasted great.

Then my mother read that eating local honey lessened allergies to pollen and grasses. She would buy honey in the comb, and try to get people, especially my most allergic brothers, to eat it. That did not always go well.

So honey memories were a mixed bag, and I really never had it in my kitchen until the days of granola dawned. Now I actually use up honey, because I make a batch of granola about each week. Honey has a permanent place on my shopping list.

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For this recipe, after the dry ingredients are stirred together in my huge old Pfaltzgraff bowl, I heat the honey with coconut oil and vanilla. The first time I made granola, I just happened to have coconut oil in the house. Jim’s doctor raised some concerns about his liver counts, and I did a little research, and one of the foods that was recommended for fatty liver control was coconut oil.

Coconut oil, my reading revealed, was a good alternate to use in recipes like stir fries and skillets. The authors I read maintained that it is odorless and tasteless, and much better for the eat-er than, say, vegetable oil.

We thought we’d give it a try, so I bought a jar of coconut oil, which was pricey. It seemed to work well. I stumbled across a recipe for home-made Magic Shell, too, which called for a cup of chocolate chips and a tablespoon or two or three of coconut oil. We melted the chips and the oil (which is solid at room temp) together in the microwave, mixed the resulting molten chocolate well, and poured it onto ice cream, where it solidified quickly and tasted great.

But—whew: pricey. So I found a much cheaper brand of coconut oil at a store known for its bargains, and I brought that home. And that oil DID taste like coconut. It even had coconut texture, and Jim definitely vetoes that.

Some things are worth paying for. Now I buy the pricier coconut oil. It lasts me a long time, though, since the granola only uses a quarter cup, and using it for frying or sautéing or making Magic Shell takes mere tablespoonsful.

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I love the smell that rises up when I pour the honey mixture onto the oatmeal/nuts/coconut mixture. There’s a half tablespoon of cinnamon in there, and the hot stuff wakes that cinnamon up; the scent rears up and chases itself around the kitchen, resting in high corners, and watching as I put the granola-filled cookie sheet into the oven. The oven has to be set at 340 degrees, by the way, which seems an odd number, but I am an obedient baker, especially when a recipe works really well.

Then it takes half an hour, maybe, for the granola to turn a beautiful amber color; I have to stir a time or two in there.

So, after closing the oven door after the tray, I take a brisk stroll around the house and then out into the yard, getting my steps in. And I remember that the fertilizer sticks for my annuals just arrived, so I go back in to get those. I stuff four into the little wagon that’s filled with the leftover flowers from the flats we bought, ambitiously, and I space some fertilizer sticks out in the window boxes.

Flowers we hope the deer won’t eat…

The I make two trips back into the house to get a pitcher filled with water and to water all the flowers.

I hope the deer won’t like the smell of the fertilizer sticks and will leave the flowers alone. Deirdre, our across the street neighbor, says the deer will come right up to her house and graze in the window boxes. They think ‘window boxes’ are really ‘deer feeders.’

She sprinkles deer repellent on the flowers, and she believes deer are deterred.

We will see how things go. We didn’t much care for the smell of the deer repellent, which kind of neutralizes a big part of the appeal of the flowers. We also, of course, don’t much care for the deer eating the flowers, so we’ll watch as the good weather unfolds, as the wobbly-legged fawns emerge with their mamas, and see if the flowers start to disappear. Then we’ll decide what sorts of compromises we have to make with nature.

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By the time I get back inside, the granola needs a stir. Still a little pale looking; I’m guessing 15 more minutes, so I get online to do something very exciting: plan my china purchase.

I am 65 years old, and I’ve never really owned china. Mark and I consolidated households when we married, and we both had plenty of plates. And he worked in the ceramic industry back then, and so we supported ceramic companies that his company supplied with machinery. So we had Pfalzgraff and Hall China dishware.

Later, just because we liked it, we assembled a collection of Fiestaware.

But we’re kind of at the point where our plates are looking weary, and I’m thinking there will come a day very soon when we can actually invite people over for a nice Sunday dinner, say, and I kind of have a hankering to have some REAL china.

So I searched and searched for the pattern that was clear inside my head, and finally I located one very like it. It is simple bone china with a gold rim. At the holidays, I can use some pretty chargers, and the white china will look lovely, I think, on festive tablecloths, and I am excited. China, after all.

And here’s something new to me: china now comes with mugs, if one likes, instead of delicate little teacups in their saucers. Those tiny cups need constant filling, but pretty, shapely mugs, now: they allow the cook to sit and enjoy her decaf.

I consulted with Mark, of course, on the way the china looks, and I also consulted with my China Guru, and they both approve the pattern. So after months of agonized dithering, I am ready, this morning, to put a service for eight in the shopping cart and press ‘submit.’

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Just as I’m about to do that, though, I realize the granola is smelling lovely and DONE. I mitt up and pull it from the oven, and it is just the right shade, sort of like the burnt umber crayon, and I stir it up and turn off the oven. I let it cool while I send my china order off over the miles and get an instantaneous confirmation that it’s been received, and that soon the china will wend its way to me.

How exciting. For a minute here, I feel like a true grown-up.

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And then it is time to tumble the granola into one of those gallon ice cream containers, a plastic one with handles and a snugly fitting top, and then I pack up my bookbag, and Jim gets his shoes on, and we head off to the office. I am secure in the knowledge that tomorrow’s breakfast is set and ready to roll.

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And that is it: my essay on granola. Who knew there was so much to say on the topic?

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I hope you enjoyed whatever graced your breakfast table this morning. And just in case you’re interested, the link to the Minimalist Baker’s granola recipe is below.

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