Hearts and Flowers

It is 8:30 when I leave the clinic, and snow is shredding down in big ragged hunks. I let the car warm up a little—there’s a skim of frost on the windshield—and I roll my shoulders to loosen them up, and I pull out onto the street.

I turn the lights on and veer into the turning lane; I take a left onto Maple Avenue and head off to Donald’s Doughnuts.

The parking lot is full, and there is a line that edges the door open. No matter, I think; I promised Donald’s doughnuts, and I will bring them home.

But when I push past the door and queue up, I see the reality: the shelves are bare. All that’s left is a tray of glazed doughnuts and a few iced, filled, long Johns. And by the time I get to the counter even those will be gone.

I back out sadly, shake my head at the hopefuls who come after me, and, in the warmth of the car, I text the boyos the bad news.

They send back emojis with streaming tears.

At Kroger, I buy a half dozen supermarket bakery doughnuts with white icing and hot pink swirls. I get some ham, too, so we can make a special scramble on this Donald’s-less day.

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The boyos have the coffee churgling for me, and they help me unpack the bags. Mark chops ham; I beat eggs and heat the old black cast iron skillet, a little slick of oil rolling on its surface. Jim gets plates and silverware out and opens the doughnut box, just, as he says, to inspect things.

While I crack eggs into the old ceramic bowl with its one blue stripe, Mark slides the ham into the pan. It sizzles and pops.

I beat the eggs with a dash of onion powder, salt and pepper, and a little parsley, and take them over to meet the ham. And while I stir and scrape and turn that mixture, Jim grates the last of a little bar of extra sharp cheddar.

Just before the eggs get firm, we turn down the heat, sprinkle the cheddar, and put a lid on the pan.  Jim runs to get his dad; by the time they are back in the kitchen, the eggs are ready.

We pour juice and coffee and brew tea.

The eggs are perfect; we sigh, first with satisfaction, and then with regret when we realize we did not make enough for seconds.

The doughnuts are okay, but they are not Donald’s.

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In that moment between the end of eating and the beginning of clean-up, I slide Valentines onto the table.

Identical looks of realization and horror spread across the boyos’ faces.

“I’ll do the dishes,” says Mark, “and then I have to go out and…get a haircut.”

“Yeah,” says Jim. “And I need to go with you.”

“Hey,” I say, as I pull down the box of wood matches so I can light the fire, “you do NOT have to run out and get me a last-minute Valentine.”

“Excuse me,” says Mark haughtily, “but I need to get a haircut. And what I do with my time after that is up to ME.”

I have 90 minutes of reading time, snuggled up by the fire, before the boyos come back home, bearing a pretty posy of flowers and a bag of delicious organic cheddar cheese popcorn.

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The snow stops just before noon, and the sun gradually emerges until it is shining brilliantly. When I go out to sweep the front walk, though, I realize how cold it is.

It realize, too, what Valentines Day always signals: Jim’s birthday is days away. I am ready for an outing, and Mark wants to come along, so we head out to walk and shop.

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We stop first at the coffee shop; I forgot to order my two bags last week, and while they are pending, I need an emergency stash. I find dark roast decaf beans and take them to the counter.

The young barista is just that perfect combination of pleasant and professional; he offers to grind the beans for me (we decline), brews up a medium Earl Gray for Mark, bids us a happy Valentines Day as we wander out.

“What a cute old couple,” I imagine him thinking.

Mark, though, is thinking about The Youngest Granddaughter, who has texted him a Valentine wish. His face softens, and he punches in a fast return message.

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

The mall is crowded, which is a nice thing, because sometimes, when Jim and I go there to walk on rainy days, we see very few people. Today, there are special displays. A wonderful inner city mission organization is having their annual fund-raiser auction. Each of the auction prizes involves some kind of chair—a rocker, a camp chair, a child’s plush seat, a bar stool,—and incentives. There are wreaths and gift certificates, dinner packages, locally made snacks, and books and toys and garden tools.

We stroll and look; the auction organizers bustle, and the crowd shifts and explores. We head off from the chairs and circuit the mall, Mark sipping his tea, noting the changes in storefronts. I see a couple deep in conversation with two men, and I realize the woman is a former colleague. She and her husband both wear red Valentine’s Day sweatshirts.  

I remember her confiding that she is twelve years older than ‘the hubs,’ and that many people advised her the union would not last.

They’ve been together, I think, at least 25 years.

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

We end up at the sporting goods store, where we look for a sturdy backpack for Jim; his has gaping pockets where zippers no longer work. We find a confusing welter: there are backpacks now, specially made, for each sport. We wonder as we browse what would happen if you had, these days, a child playing say, softball and soccer. Would that child have to have separate backpacks for each sport to be athletically correct?

We find a tech-friendly backpack on a back wall. As we head to the register, Mark gets another text from The Youngest Granddaughter.

“I got a Valentine from a BOY,” she tells him.

“WHAT????” Grandpa texts back.

“Is she old enough to be getting Valentines from boys?” he asks me.

“That ‘baby’ is 13,” I remind him. He humphs. We thank the nice lady at the counter; she has registered me for the store’s awards program, which gave me 20 per cent off the price of the backpack.

We wend out way back to the exit, and out into the brisk sunshine.

By the time we reach the car, The Youngest Granddaughter has texted again.

“He gave her a teddy bear and chocolate, too!” says Mark. “And his name is SAM.”

I think he likes me, TYG texts.

He might not like you so much after I get done interviewing him, the Grandpa texts back darkly.

No doubt, she replies, resigned.

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

We stop at the hardware store; this year, a right of passage year for young James, he is getting his own tool kit. Mark has clipped coupons; he picks out a sturdy canvas tool bag, and then he examines and rejects and chooses, finding a hammer, screwdrivers, a wrench and pliers, a measuring tape and a flashlight. For a long while, Jim had little time for learning to use tools, but in the past year, his interest has turned. Mark is touched by this, and he takes great care in putting this gift together.

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

At the supermarket, we see a colleague of Mark at the entrance. She shakes her head.

“It is CRAZY in there,” she says. “Be careful!”

The aisles are crowded, largely with grim-faced men pushing carts loaded with flowers, balloons, and chocolate.

We locate the few things we need, round off the birthday shopping with a gift card, and head back to the car. It’s a good walk; I like to park as far away as I can. It gives me the steps I need, and it removes me from the avid competition for the Best Parking Spot.

“I was going,” Mark remarks slowly, “to say something about those last minute Valentines shoppers. And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’d better just shut up.’ ”

We laugh. At home, we bundle birthday treasures up the stairs while Jim studiously averts his eyes, and I head off for a walk. Rounding the corner for home, I stop to talk with our lovely across the street neighbor. She has her two pups out to exercise. Caesar, a big boxer, gives me an obligatory bark, then takes care of business. When our neighbor calls him, he bounds obediently into the house.

Little Izzy is not quite so easy, though. Still a baby, she badly wants to be obedient. When called, she heads right over to the mama…circles around her and flies around for another run. Izzy bounds toward me, practically runs up my leg to lick my hand, leaps away and heads back to her mama, again.

“She’s a pistol,” our neighbor says, “but I can’t bring myself to be annoyed with her.”

Watching that pup soar through the yard is like seeing the word ‘joy’ kinetically defined.

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In honor of Valentines day, James and I watch an episode of Modern Love on Amazon Prime while Mark does some paperwork. Based on letters to a New York Times column, each episode of the show is a rooted-in-truth story (I am especially interested because my nephew, a gifted writer, had an essay published in this column a while back.)

We watch a show about a gay couple who decide to do an open adoption. The birth mother is an offbeat but lovable young woman who cannot settle down; she knows that her homeless, rootless lifestyle is not right for her baby and she likes the fact that the couple are deeply in love.

Paths to important peaks are never, it seems, without brambles, and there is a blow up when she stays with the parents-to-be, and brings home a man she meets on the street.

But everyone persists, and the baby is born, and the parents—all three of them—work through their stubborn beliefs and their prejudices and preconceptions and they provide a loving, stable home. In the last scene, the two dads are reading their daughter, now three perhaps, to sleep, and telling her the story of what a brave woman her mama is.

The shows wraps up and Jim is silent for a moment.

Then, “I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he says, “but that was pretty good.”

And we realize it is dinner time and head off to pat burger into patties and to air fry shoestring potatoes.

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Later, sock feet toasting by the fire, I think about this Valentines Day. There is the greeting card ideal, and there is reality…there are doughnut disappointments and last-minute shopping trips. There are beautiful young 13-year-olds flushed with the excitement of their first heart-felt chocolates. There are offbeat, unexpected pairings. Little dogs leap and laugh; some people, aching loss, watch the day go by in quiet and alone.

The glitter of commercial diamonds and the perfection of advertising bouquets do not, really, apply. But the day is a reminder in a world that is gritty with deception and dirty-dealing. Love is real, and love is present, in all its guises and manifestations. That’s a truth, I think, that I need always to remember.

I get a bowl and fill it with organic popcorn, and I pad out to the family room to watch TV with my husband and my son.

Loolie Scrumptious

Valentine's Crafts

(A short tale, with recipes at the end.)

Normally I’d just fly to the conference, but then I talked to Loolie.

“You know,” she said, “if you stopped here on the way home, it would be just about halfway.  You could stay overnight on Saturday and we could have breakfast on Sunday. We could get together with TJ ; she’s going to be here for a shower. We could go JUNKING!”

There is a huge second-hand barn in a little wink-and-you’ll-miss-it village near Loolie’s home; it’s always an adventure to explore.

And it’s always an adventure to get together with Loolie, and with TJ, too.  So I drove to the conference.  It was about eight hours from my house, at a college town in central New York; I made a day’s drive of it to get there–stopping at fun little coffee shops, doing a little bookstore visiting, treating myself to a leisurely lunch. I took, all in all, about twelve hours to make that eight hour trip.  The conference was in my hotel; I had a nice night’s sleep and got up raring to confer.

And it was a good conference; I learned a lot, and I was on a panel; we worked really well together and our session drew a nice, receptive crowd.  On Saturday, the after-breakfast meeting broke up early–everyone clearly had already mentally headed out,– so I got on the road well before noon.

I was at my hotel in Loolie-town by 4:30; I grabbed a burger at a nearby pub and was back at my room, ready to settle in for the night, by 6:30.

And then my cell phone rang.  It was Loolie, of course.

“Where ARE you?” she demanded.

When I told her, she said, “Well, come over!”

I demurred; she was hosting us for breakfast the next morning and I didn’t want to impose, but she insisted. “I’m making my Valentines,” she said.  “You can keep me company. And we’ll have cookies and coffee, and you can help me decorate the ones we don’t eat.”

So of course I went.

Loolie was in her kitchen making our breakfast for the next day.  “Breakfast bake!” she crooned.  A variety of ingredients spread out over her counter.  She poured me coffee and assembled as we talked.  Into a greased, vintage Pyrex casserole went two hamburger buns and a slice and a heel of bread, ripped into bite-sized chunks.  Little dimes of cooked, chopped breakfast sausage joined chunks of ham on top of the bread.  Then she took a big glass Corningware measuring cup–the four cup kind–full of grated cheddar and swiss cheese, and she sprinkled it over the other ingredients.

She fluffed and spread–“Everybody should get a taste of sausage!” she said,– and then she poured an egg and milk concoction over the top. (“The secret,” she confided, “is a dash of dry mustard.”) She covered the whole thing  tightly with a sheet of foil and put it in the fridge.

“All I’ll have to do in the morning is put it in the oven and pour juice and coffee,” Loolie said, a little smugly.

She let me do up the few dishes while she mixed up some frosting in her Mixmaster, and we moved into the dining room, where two cookie sheets overflowed with heart-shaped cut-out cookies.

“Hokie smokes!” I said.  “Got a Valentine or two???”

She laughed.  “Kerri’s got a party,” she said.  “But trust me, these are so good, she and I could make a serious dent.  Let’s frost a while, and then we’ll have coffee and try some.”

She spread the icing; I sprinkled rosy tinted sugar on the freshly frosted cookies.  Of course, once frosted, they could not be stacked, so I kept running to the kitchen for more cookie sheets on which to spread the tasty, sticky treats.  Even working like a well-oiled machine, it took us most of an hour to frost all of those cookies.  When we were done, every flat surface in Loolie’s kitchen held a tray of cookies, the frosting drying. The dining room table was a sticky sugary mess.

I scrubbed while Loolie made coffee and kept up a loud running commentary.  Kerri was off with friends, gone to a hockey game in the city and wouldn’t be home till the wee hours.  Loolie’s brother Mick was retiring in two months and thinking of moving back to the area, snow or no snow; he really missed it.  Loolie herself was looking for a dressmaker’s model or mannequin when we junked; she had a cache of full-length aprons someone had made for her.

They were too nice, she said, to get all covered with frosting and sugar, but she’d love to display them, tied nicely onto a dressmaker’s dummy, in a corner of the kitchen.  I could see it; it was just the sort of unique touch Loolie could pull off with aplomb.

While she talked, she bustled, and soon we were ensconced at the table with a plate of cookies and steaming mugs of Italian roast.

I sipped the coffee. Ahhh; robust heaven.

“Try,” said Loolie, and she pushed the cookies my way.

I took one and took a bite.  Oh my.  Oh my.

“That tastes,” I flung downward from my cloud in seventh heaven, “like—”

“It IS!” she crowed. “Shortbread! Your mother’s recipe.”

They were thin and crisp and melt in my mouth buttery with a little glaze of sweetness on top. We ate the whole plate, between us, in about ten minutes.

“See what I mean?” asked Loolie.  “It looks like a lot of cookies, but once you start…”

“Keep them” I said darkly, “away from me!  I don’t think I have the willpower—”

Loolie laughed.  “No problem!” she said.  “Time to make some Valentine’s, anyway.”

She got up—ten minutes is about her resting-state limit–and swiped off the table, then began slapping down card-making materials.  She’d chopped up old file folders, cutting off the worn edges and saving a card-sized folding part.  She got, she said, two cards from each file, which otherwise was going to get recycled or thrown away.  They were from the church office, and they knew her at the church: before they threw anything out, they called Loolie.

She had a stack of envelopes a friend who worked retail had rescued for her.  There was a greeting card section in her store.  When the cards ‘expired’, they had to return the fronts and dispose of everything else.  Brand new envelopes, saved from the landfill! Loolie was practically crowing.

She had magazines from Februaries past; she had scissors, tape and glue.  She had tiny magnets printed with random words. She had scrips and scraps of ribbon and construction paper and paper doilies.  She had some ends of lace. She had the heart-shaped cookie cutters–cleaned, thank you–that she had used to make the cookies. She had markers and Crayolas.

She spread it all out, raised her hands like a conductor, and surveyed her little plot of creativity. She obviously deemed it good.  Lowering her hands, she nodded.

“Let us,” she said, “begin.”

And we did.  We dove into the magazines and cut out pictures and then ripped funny sayings and phrases from the ads.  We mixed and matched.  “You’ll love” went with “…the cook,” and landed on top of a heart-shaped cookie picture with a little, hand-drawn chef’s hat perched perkily atop.  “A TOAST to,” read the cover of one card.  Opened, it finished, “the nuts!” There were whole walnuts and almonds and peanuts, with markered-in stick arms and legs, clutching construction paper hearts and dancing around the card.

I mentioned that I’d seen deer tracks by her drive; the splayed grooves looked to me like splashy heartprints in the snow.  Loolie jumped up and grabbed her phone; she turned on the outdoor lights and ran out to snap some photos.  She bustled in, emailed the photos to herself, printed them out.  Sure enough, those prints looked like deeply engraved hearts.

Loolie snipped around them with pinking shears, and glued them on the cover of a card. “Here’s my heart,” she wrote.  Inside she added, “….you little deer!”

“I LOVE it!” she crowed.  “This is genius!”

We spent five hours making cards that night.  I haven’t had so much fun since I was in second grade, making Valentines for the class party. As I was getting up to leave–it was almost 1 AM,– I said, “You know the only thing we missed making were folders to hang on the front of our desks.”

Loolie Cards

Loolie got a surprised, thoughtful look on her face, and I said quickly, “But it’s too late! And we don’t need them!”

Her face fell a little, but she saw the wisdom, and she bustled me out to my car.  TJ was meeting us at 9:00 in the morning; we needed our rest before junking.

At 8:59 AM I was back at Loolie’s, reveling in the smell of baking eggs and bread and ham and cheese.  The three of us ate the whole casserole–oh, it was good.  We were licking the crumbs off our plates when Kerri wheeled in. TJ and I looked at each other in ashamed panic–we left nothing for that poor child!

But Loolie laughed and put her oven mitt on, and pulled a little, personal pan breakfast bake from the oven for her darlin’ daughter.  Kerri grinned at us.  We sighed and relaxed, and when Loolie asked, “Would you like a cookie or two to top that off?” we answered with one voice: “Yes!”

Urp.  We finally waddled off to the secondhand emporium, and if you’ve never junked with a Loolie,–well. You’ve never junked, that’s all.  But I’ll save that story–and the pictures of the aproned dressmaker’s dummy–for another day.

*****
It was good to get home, and  my guys were happy to see me; they’d had their own adventures, which they shared with me while they devoured a plate of shortbread cutouts, compliments of Loolie. And then, tired and traveled out, I unpacked my bag and soaked in my own tub before…ahhhhh: sleeping between my own sheets in my own sweet bed. Reality was waiting to welcome me back when Monday dawned.

That Wednesday, when I got home from work, I found a large square envelope in the mail; it was addressed to me in Loolie’s scrawl.  There was a note inside.  “Hang this on your fridge to store your Valentines,” it read.

I unfolded a beautifully decorated construction paper folder–just right for storing any Valentines that straggle in.  I hung it on the refrigerator; not much chance of the boys forgetting Valentine’s Day this year, is there?

Thanks, Loolie.  That, too, is truly scrumptious!

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Grandma Jean’s Shortbread Cookies

5 cups flour

1 cup sugar

1 pound butter

Cream butter; add sugar. Blend well. Knead flour into dough a little at a time. (Loolie and I use  our Mixmasters for this step.) Roll out on a floured surface. Cut into shapes. Bake at 350 degrees until edges are golden brown. (These are melt-in-your mouth delicious with or without icing!)

*****

Loolie’s Breakfast Bake

4 slices stale bread and/or  buns

about 1 pound of meat–breakfast sausage, ham, etc. or any combination thereof

1 cup grated cheese–sharp cheddar, definitely; add whatever else you like.  Swiss adds zip; I like a little Asiago grated in, too.

6 eggs

2 cups milk

1 tsp dry mustard

good shake of parsley flakes

salt and pepper to taste

(This can be made ahead and left in fridge overnight. That may actually improve the flavor blends!)

Tear up bread and place in greased 13 x 9 x 2 casserole.

Brown sausage, if uncooked. Chop; sprinkle chopped meat over bread.  Sprinkle cheese over top.

Beat together eggs, milk, mustard, parsley, salt, and pepper. Pour over bread, cheese, and meat. Cover. Refrigerate if eating is far off.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes.  During the last ten minutes, take the cover off so the bake will brown nicely.

Cool slightly; cut into squares and serve.