Life is an Unplanned March…

…but there are companions on the way.

**********

Sometimes, you make a friend in grade school. She, like you, is tall—taller than the other girls, who are cute, tiny people that boys want to protect.

You, Amazon girl, will never need protecting in that particular way, which makes you kind of sad when you’re 11, 12, and 13, but kind of proud when you are 20, 35, and 50.

Your friend doesn’t need protecting either. And she also comes from a sprawling family that isn’t always polite…that, in fact, sometimes screams and yells and slams doors or pounds out to the ten-year-old sedan and drives off, screeching. Neither of your mothers owns pearls or looks like June Cleaver.

But you both prefer your families to the postcard-perfect ones that surely have plaster slathered over their cracks. Our families, you assure each other, are REAL families.

And this friend sticks with you through grade school, through the awful, awkward days of middle school, and through the hormone-driven high school years.

**********

Sometimes, you are really, really lucky, and that friend stays with you beyond that, stays through early marriage and young divorce and the terrible transition, then the choosing of a mate who gets it, who understands what you’ve learned in a tasking school. She’s there when kids are born, when you cry over the challenges of step-parenting…challenges you find yourself failing to meet, time and again.

That friend sends letters in your twenties. When you’re in your thirties, you come home one day and find six perfect quarts of raspberries at your doorstep, gleaming like deep red jewels. Your friend zipped through town; she didn’t have time to visit, but she had time to leave you a wonderful gift.

You freeze berries and make pies all that winter, and those pies taste brightly of lifelong friendship.

She sends you birthday cards when you are 42; she cries with you when your never-like-a-sitcom-mom mother dies.

You help each other, even from a distance, over rough spots and tragedies, and you’re there to help each other NOT to mourn as you slough off childhood veneers—false fronts that may once have been cute, but that now, you realize, have nothing to do with what’s important, or what, ultimately, is beautiful.

When you look at that friend now, you see a young and yearning girl, and you see a wise and weathered woman, and you see the whole continuum between.

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to have a friend like that.

*******

Sometimes, you make friends in grade school and in high school and they are so important. You can’t imagine life without them. And then comes college and there are so many different forks in the road, so many choices. And each choice you make takes you further down a path that leads you away from people who were once integral, and who grow, now, far, far away.

Sometimes, friendships, even the most dear ones, slip away.

*********

Sometimes you make work friends…people with whom you share inside jokes and with whom you complain behind the cranky boss’s back. You weave yourselves into each other’s lives; you’re there for weddings and break-ups, baby births and parent deaths. You offer and accept rides, and you go out after stressful work events and quaff, together, one too many foaming brews.

Often, you spend more time with these work friends than you do with family members—eight intense hours a day, usually: who can say they spend that kind of engaged time with family?

**********

And then life sighs and shifts, and your job changes.

Sometimes, the ties, once so tight, ravel. The threads spin undone; they are fragile, gossamer, like milkweed thistle. Breeze lifts them. And the people who very recently inhabited your every day now live in different realms.

**********

But sometimes, the threads don’t break; they stay strong. And those people you met through work are woven firmly into your big picture tapestry.

**********

Sometimes it happens like that with friends you meet in grad school, or through your husband’s grad work, or through your children’s schools. Sometimes you make friends through church or through clubs or community connections. Sometimes, students become friends. Sometimes, even, you meet people through on-line activities, through blogs and forums and classes, faraway people, but ones who share beliefs and humor and excitement about the same things that compel you.

Sometimes you think those friends are true life-longers, and you’re wrong, and sometimes, people you never suspected might sneak in, do. They sneak in; they fill that one empty, ache-y spot. They surprise you.

And they stay.

**********

And sometimes, after life has done a masterful job of tumbling you, when you are polished and molded in ways you couldn’t have imagined twenty, thirty, FORTY years ago,—sometimes, friends come back.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a class reunion.

They come back because, maybe, there’s a catastrophic or climactic event that circles around someone you both loved dearly.

They come back, maybe, because social media makes it possible.

And you realize then that that friendship didn’t fade. It just stretched, on and on, through years and miles, in silent, transparent threads stronger than the webs that spiders weave.

Waiting threads, pending the right time, the time when all the busy days of career and kids and noisy bustle have settled down—the time when you sit your butt down in front of the fire and think, “What’s really important here?

And you look to your family, of course.

And you define, now, at last, when time and resources allow, what you really mean by ‘work.’

And you think about your friendships.

You thank the good sweet Lord for that steadfast friend who always stayed. And you marvel at the people you met along the way, the exact right people at the exact needing time. When you think about the ones that became permanent parts of your hectic, unpredictable life, you get more than a little misty. You feel more than a little undeserving and more than a little blessed.

And you giving up trying to understand why, and you just accept the lovely, warming truth of the people who return. You get it, now; it’s really true. You’ve got people, wonderfully different, variously gifted, constantly surprising, and always precious people.

They will be there for you when it’s time to celebrate.

They will hold you up when the mourning sinks like a weight too great to bear, lands in the basin of your belly, and knocks you, helpless, to the ground.

And they will be there in the everyday, in the ordinary irritations of dishes left in sink, undone, and snarky acquaintances, and roads that need to have pot-holes patched, and in the tiny joys of new curtains and way-finding and family triumphs.

You didn’t earn this; you didn’t anticipate it, and yet, it’s yours: this amazing team.

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

Life, for many of us, is an unplanned march.

But there are companions on the way.

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Vegetable Healing: A Loolie Tale

Special wishes for healing to Lulu, whose wonderful blog is at http://luluopolis.com/2015/06/06/a-surprise-part-6-good-news-good-pathology/

Beautiful glossy green leaves of spinach; buttery baby romaine; white and red onions, the mud from their earthy erstwhile home still clinging to their hair-like roots.  I gentle them out of their bags and put them on the counter next to rugged, curly-leafed kale, some broccoli, and a burgeoning bunch of red, red radishes.

They make a beautiful still life, the veggies I brought home from the CSA I signed up for this year.  And they challenge me:  what will I do with this bounty?

I am pulling my copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food off the bookshelf when I get a strong sense of deja vu.  This reminds me, I think, of the time Loolie got herself roped into cooking for Thom.

We were staying at the lake for a couple of weeks that year; some friends back home had called and offered us their cottage if we were free when it was vacant. It was the summer after Mark finished law school; we were both exhilarated by his accomplishment and exhausted by the marathon that had led to it.  We were happy to say yes.

The cottage was a charming rickety place on a dirt lane that led to a gravel lane that led to the beach.  The three bedrooms were separated by partitions; the walls didn’t even reach the ceilings.  The wood floors were smooth and blond from years of bare feet and flip flops scrubbing sand into them.  The living room had old saggy furniture with canvas slip covers.  There was an oval 1950’s table, metal with a formica top, in the kitchen, and four chairs with cracking vinyl seats. There was a turquoise apartment-style electric range, an old round-topped refrigerator, a big old sink with runners built into the porcelain. There was no dishwasher and no air conditioning.

But there was an indoor shower and an outdoor shower.   The window screens let beautiful lake breezes flow through the house, and at night the shooshing of the waves lulled everyone off to sleep.  The first full day there, a Saturday, it poured, and I discovered just how pleasant reading on a screened-in porch, rain lashing all around me, could be.

On Sunday morning, at just about ten o’clock, Loolie and Kerri pulled up in their van.  We were lounging at the picnic table; I had been down to the beach for a walk, and the boyos were grilling steak and scrambling a cast-iron panful of  eggs on the charcoal-fired barbecue. The day was fresh-washed after the rain; the sun shone, and the air was cool and sweet.

Loolie hopped out and carefully lifted a brown paper bag from the passenger seat.  The back door slid open, and Kerri lowered herself down on the lift.  She deftly wheeled her chair across the bumpy lawn to where we were gathered, and Loolie followed more slowly.

“What’s in the bag?”  asked Mark, and Loolie grinned.

“What’s on the grill?”  she countered.

I went inside to grab a couple more settings.

We divvied up the steak and eggs and ate every morsel, and then Loolie pulled her offering out of the bag.  It was a strawberry rhubarb pie, and the rich, fruity smell wafted.

“Oh, my,” I said.  “That’s still warm from the oven.”

Mark was already in the cottage, rummaging for dessert plates and a serving spoon.  He came out with those and a half gallon of vanilla ice cream, a little soft from the ancient freezer.  We cut the pie; the juices oozed, the crust exploded flakily, and the ice cream, dolloped on each serving, melted into puddles.  It’s amazing what fresh air can do for one’s appetite–and one’s capacity. We ate, the five of us, the whole darned pie and all the ice cream.

I brought out an old plastic dish rack and piled all the dishes in it, and Jim took them over to the side of the house and hosed the whole lot down.  Loolie looked at me in surprise.

“I’ll wash them later,” I said, “but this way, they’re not so sticky.”

“Were those fresh berries?” Mark asked, and Kerri said they were.  She and her mom, she told him, had signed a Community-Supported Agriculture agreement with a family at the farmers’ market. It was like buying a share in the farm.  Every week, the family brought them a basket with a portion of whatever was ripe.  They had, Kerri said, been trying a lot of new things.

Jim, never one to indulge in veggie talk, slipped inside to find his laptop, and Loolie launched into a paean about the joys of her CSA and the creative challenge the interesting offerings presented.  And just at that moment, another car pulled up, a sparkling black SUV; the door opened and a fashionably shod leg appeared.

“Oh, lord,” muttered Loolie.

It was Weedy,–elegant, tailored Weedy.

She hadn’t always been so put together, our Weedy.  In fact, the etymology of her nickname came from her propensity for a certain substance, slightly illegal, during the aptly shrouded days of our high school careers.  But then she and her sweetheart, Tommie, had gone off to college together, and when they came back, the scruff was gone.  It was replaced by the gleam of ambition.

Tommie became Thom, and Weedy, who could not shed her nickname, began to insist it was derived from a younger sibling’s cute mispronunciation of her given name, Louisa.  Thom was a CPA with political aspirations; he was a city council member, and it was no secret he was biding his time for a mayoral run.  Weedy ran a local foundation and rode herd on their two children.  Nobody ever suggested Thom and Weedy’s son or daughter strayed over the line of legality; they were beautiful young teens, held rigidly in line.

That Sunday morning, Weedy emerged from her sleek machine with a bulging grocery sack and a woeful face.

“I am SO glad to see you girls!” she wailed.  “I need help!”

She came over and air-kissed everyone; after his obligatory buss, Mark decamped,  muttering about dishes and a walk on the beach.  He grabbed the dish rack and scarpered, chinking and clunking.

Weedy sighed and heaved her shoulders, and then she heaved her paper sack onto the picnic table.

“Look at THIS,” she said.

Out tumbled beautiful veggies, onions and spinach, broccoli and kale, tender leaves of lettuce. The greens and reds and pearly whites gleamed in the morning sun. It was beautiful.

We looked at the veggies, then we all turned to Weedy, not seeing the problem.

“My sister’s on vacation,” said Weedy, “and she had me pick up her weekly farm goods; she’s got one of those CSA things. And not only do I not know what to DO with this stuff, but I know Thom won’t eat a bite of it.” She put her hands on her hips; a bracelet jangled.  Her expensive linen shorts suit–what the well dressed matron wears to visit friends at the beach–was charmingly rumpled.

“I guess,” said Weedy, “I’ll just throw it all away.

Loolie choked.  “Throw it OUT!” she said.  “Those beautiful things!  Why, you can make wonderful meals with this.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, Lools,” said Weedy, sadly.  “I don’t have the culinary imagination that you have. And Thom calls all this field greens.  He says he’ll eat the cow but not the cow’s food.”

“I’ll tell you WHAT,” said Loolie, hotly. “I could make a meal out of this that THom would be glad to eat.  He’d eat it and ask for more, Weedy!”

Loolie started pronouncing the ‘h’ in Tommie’s name about the time he, as a young, eager school board member, opposed Loolie’s request for adaptive equipment on the school playground.  He’d made, Loolie’d told me, a pompous speech about understanding her request but having to be a wise steward on behalf of ALL the children.  Before things got too ugly, Weedy stepped in with a foundation grant, and the playground equipment was purchased. But Loolie had never forgiven Thom.

Weedy looked at her now, woebegone.  “I just don’t think you could, Loolie. There is no way Thom would ever eat a meal with these ingredients.”

“MOM,” said Kerri, warningly. But it didn’t help. Within moments, Weedy had left, the veggies had stayed, and Loolie had a commitment to cook a meal for Weedy, Thom, and their kids the next night–a meal, I should add, that would take place in the carport of our borrowed cottage.

It had all happened so fast. Kerri and I looked at each other, and then at the seductive veggies on the table; we avoided looking at Loolie.

A moment passed, and then there was a heavy sigh.

“Played me!” snorted Loolie.  “She played me like a cheap plywood violin!”

I studied my winter white toes, which peeped forlornly from my summer sandals.

“Oh, well,” said Loolie, finally.  “I can still make my point.”

Kerri and I looked up at the same time, met eyes, and grinned.

“I’ll be in charge of decorations, Mom,” said Kerri.  “We’ll wow ’em with food AND ambiance.”

Loolie made me get a pad and pen from the house, and we started making our plan.

*****

The challenge of the project kicked in; by Monday evening, we were ready.  Loolie had organized us, organized the menu, organized the work.  We had shopped and prepped; we had scrubbed and swept; and we had floated like hungry cartoons on the amazing smells emanating from pot and pan and casserole.

At 6:30 precisely, the black SUV smoothed to a stop in the cottage’s driveway, and Weedy and Thom and their children, Lisa and Todd, emerged.  Kerri ushered everyone into the carport. Its walls were draped artistically with drop cloths; an old, dumpster-dove chandelier was wrapped with fairy lights and suspended from the ceiling.  Two banquet tables were draped with old white sheets, and mason jars full of wild flowers served as centerpieces.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” whispered Lisa, and I saw Loolie rigid jaw soften.

“THIS,” she said, “is all Kerri.”

Her daughter bowed her head, graciously.

Then Jim and Mark emerged with trays of appetizers, spinach and cheese in puff pastry triangles, a tray of raw veggies and a hot spinach dip, some cheese and crackers.  People grabbed drinks from the old tin wash tub we’d found in the tall grass; it was scrubbed within an inch of its metallic life and filled with ice.  The sounds of chooching screw tops and fwapping tabs was heard, and people organized themselves into seats.

And the dinner began.  Loolie started us with a salad beautifully presented in her gleaming wooden salad bowl; spinach and kale and tender young lettuce, drenched in a  sweet and sour sauce, augmented with bacon and slices of hard-boiled egg. Thom cleared his plate, scrapingly, and asked for seconds.  Weedy raised an eyebrow at Loolie.

Round two was a savory French onion soup, bubbling cheese covering crusty chunks of baguette from the local bakery.  The fresh, sweet onions all but melted into the homemade broth.  Thom scraped the last of the cheese with his spoon, and picked up the bowl to down every last bit of broth.

And then came the lasagna, layers of kale and spinach sandwiched with mozzarella, ricotta, and fresh Italian sausage and tender pasta, the red sauce made with tomatoes Loolie had canned herself.  Silence descended as people ate. And ate. And ate. The huge casserole emptied in stop-watch motion, and everyone sat back and groaned.

The silence lengthened just a little, and then Thom said, “Loolie.  All of you. THAT was amazing.”

As if at a signal, people started moving and talking.  Weedy grabbed Loolie and asked about recipes.  Todd and Lisa went inside with Jim to play video games. Thom pulled up a chair next to Kerri’s and soon they were deep in conversation, heads bent close together.  Mark and I looked at each other, sighed, and began to gather up the dishes. We needed to move.

We filled a couple of basins with the dirty dishes, gave them the hose routine, and lugged them in the house, filling and refilling the old sink with soapy water.  He washed; I dried. We listened to the kids, who were having a good time; their voices rose and eddied into a kind of happy melody.

We watched the four outside, nervously.

“Everyone seems to be being very civil,” said Mark hopefully.

We stacked the last cleaned dish on the drainer and loaded up the tray with dessert plates.  There was a basket of flaky homemade biscuits, a big bowl of fresh strawberries swimming in their own sugary syrup, and a dish of snowy whipped cream sitting on ice.  We called the kids. They groaned a little, but they saved their game and gamely followed us out.

Loolie and Weedy had joined Thom and Kerri at the table.  They looked up as we emerged.

THom,” said Loolie, “has just invited Kerri to be part of the city’s playground planning committee. He wants to be sure the plans work for kids in wheelchairs.”

“Do you think,” Thom said, quietly, “we could go back to Tommie, Lools?  And you could maybe forget that I was a horse’s ass all those years ago?”

There was a tiny moment where sentiment threatened; I could hear the music begin to swell.  Then Mark said, “STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE!” and slammed his tray down on the table, and serving spoons appeared, and people who claimed they couldn’t eat one more bite not thirty minutes ago were heaping their plates.

The men built a fire; the kids headed down to the beach, Kerri’s wheels crunching on the gravel. Weedy and Thom insisted on taking care of dessert dishes.  And then we sat around the fire, completely replete, and we talked and laughed without any stiffness or reservation.  It was lovely, and Tommie and Weedy stayed until after midnight, when they dragged their sleepy kids home.

Jim excused himself to head to bed, and Mark and Loolie and Kerri and I sat around the fire, sweatshirts on against the cool lake breezes, watching the embers sigh and open, neon against the smoky ash. Oh, it was quiet.  I thought about friendship and rifts and what it takes for healing to take place.

“That was something, wasn’t it?” I said thoughtfully.

“Yeah,” said Loolie. “It really was, wasn’t it?” I saw her grin in the glow of the dying fire.

“Yep,” she said. “He ate every bit of the cow food I served him.  I told Weedy. I told her.”

Kerri grinned and started humming, channeling Marvin Gaye.  Then her sweet voice soared into the night:

When I get that FEELing I need VEGETABLE healing.  Vegetable: whooaah Oh! It’s been GOOD for ME!

Loolie picked it up, and I joined in, too. We three women harmonized, Mark beating rhythm on the washtub, until we heard a nearby window scrape open and a neighbor’s irritated cough.

*****

Healing powers, indeed, I think now. The memories make me grin. And they send me to my recipe notebook, to pull out the ‘Farmer’s Lasagna’ recipe written in Loolie’s bold scrawl. I’m humming as I work, and I bet you can guess the tune.

We will eat well tonight.

Loolie’s Leftovers Challenge

It’s not that she’s vicious or vindictive, Loolie assured us.  It was just that she could never resist a good challenge.

We were sitting with a glass of wine, having enjoyed yet another wonderful pasta meal; we were relaxed and replete and working on a little wine buzz on Loolie’s patio.  It was one of those gift-y April days when the temp soars.  Three days ago, maybe, we’d been shoveling snow; now it was warm enough to take the wine glasses outside and watch the sun sink down into Lake Erie.

TJ mentioned again how good the sauce was, and Loolie said, thoughtfully, that it was really kind of a conglomeration of leftovers.

“Go on,” I said, but Loolie said it was true.  She figured sauce days were good fridge clean-out times; she stowed bits and bites in the freezer, and then she added a snippet of this, a dab of that, from the refrigerator shelves.  She sweated up  onion and a little garlic in some extra virgin olive oil, and then she poured in jars of spaghetti sauce, cans of tomato sauce, and a can of tomato paste.  She sugared it, added basil and oregano and a bay leaf, and let it simmer.

That was her base, Loolie said, but what happened after that depended entirely on the last week’s meals and the contents of her freezer.  So she might add:

–half a cooked boneless chicken breast;
–a pork bone with roasted meat clinging to it;
–two links of grilled hot Italian sausage, sliced into coins;
–a sad looking carrot (It sweetens the sauce, says Loolie)
–the rest of the mini-meatballs, the ones she didn’t use for Italian wedding soup.

Or, Loolie ruminated, she might go a completely different route.

“You know what they say, right?” she said.  “You never step in the same spaghetti sauce twice.”

We contemplated that, sipping our wine, pulling afghans around our shoulders as the April sun slipped into the still-icy lake.

And then Loolie laughed and told us about the first time her in-laws, Mort and Dewey, visited. She and Dan got married in a small ceremony, by a justice of the peace; his family was all on the west coast and the thought of planning a cross country marathon of family and friends and flights and lodging just left them tired and financially frightened.

So they suggested to his parents that they’d take the cash they would have spent on a wedding and fly them out for a good  visit. Mort and Dewey would stay at the Holiday Inn–Loolie appreciated their insistence on a little breathing space–but they’d spend the whole of their five day visit with Dan and Loolie.

And eat their meals with them, too.

“What do they like to eat?” Loolie asked Dan.

“They’ll eat anything,” said Dan.  “Except leftovers. My father refuses to eat leftovers.”

Dan said it like a kind of joke.  Loolie heard it as a kind of challenge.

Mort and Dewey arrived late on a Sunday morning, and Loolie, all a-blush with newlywed domesticity, served up a real Sunday dinner–roast chicken and mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and a crusty loaf of bakery bread.  They had brownie sundaes for dessert, and Mort sprawled in Dan’s new barca lounger and patted his belly.

“You’re a darned good cook, Loolie,” he said.  Loolie thanked him and said she came by it honestly; the oldest of six hungry kids, she grew up helping her mom in the kitchen.

They ate well that week, and most of it was Loolie’s home-cooking.  They had a baked ham; they had chicken shepherd’s pie.  They had a lovely French toast brunch, and they had ham pancakes for breakfast one day.  They had sandwiches Loolie called “Croak, I’m Sure,” and they demolished a big skillet of Loolie’s famous hash.  They enjoyed big bowls of delicious chicken vegetable soup.

It was a great visit, with day trips and card games and the discovery of all they had in common, in addition to their shared love for Dan. The time seemed to fly by.  Suddenly, Dan was shoving Mort and Dewey’s luggage into the trunk of his aging Honda  and Loolie was standing with open arms, waiting to hug her in-laws goodbye.

Mort gave her a big smooch on the cheek. “You’re a lovely girl, Loolie,” he said, “and a great cook.  And you didn’t try to serve me leftovers once.”

Dewey leaned in close for a hug and whispered in Loolie’s ear. “The old fool,” she said.  “You’ve been feeding him leftovers all week!”

They were wonderful in-laws, Loolie told us, for the span of her marriage to Dan.  And they were awesome grandparents to Kerry–Dewey still was the world’s best long-distance grandma, although Mort was long gone.  And Dewey and Loolie stayed close, despite the divorce.

In fact, said Loolie, they liked to exchange recipes.  Dewey was always looking for clever and tasty ways to disguise leftovers.

*****

Before I left Loolie’s that night, I wrote down her Chicken Shepherd’s Pie recipe (maybe method is a better word).  I thought I’d share it with you here:

When you have any combination of these things on hand, the stars are in alignment and the time is ripe for chicken shepherd’s pie:

Leftover mashed potatoes
Cooked chicken
Broth you made from the bones of the cooked chicken (or canned broth)
An onion
Three carrots–any age will do
A cup of frozen peas

Preheat the oven to 350. Chop the onion; cut the carrots into julienne strips, about 1 ” long.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a cast iron skillet on your stove top. Saute the onion until it’s tender and translucent; stir in the carrot and cook until that, too, is tender. (Loolie notes that she often adds garlic powder, too, at this point.)

Add the chopped leftover chicken and stir until it’s heated through.

Sprinkle two tablespoons of flour over the chicken and veggies; stir until you can’t see a single trace of flour. Gradually add one cup of the broth, season with salt and pepper, and bring the contents of the skillet to a slow boil. When the broth is slightly thickened, stir in the peas.  Remove the pan from the heat.

Put the leftover mashed potatoes in a bowl and beat them with a wooden spoon; if they’re very stiff, add milk and whip them by hand until they feel a little fluffier.  Drop the potatoes by large spoonsful on top of the chicken mixture.

You can, says Loolie, add a nice sprinkle of parsley for garnish.

Bake for about thirty minutes–until the potatoes are crusty and golden.  Loolie notes that she sometimes sprinkles a little grated cheddar on top for a savory change of pace about five minutes before serving.  She puts the skillet back in the oven just long enough for the cheese to melt.

*****

I’ve tried this shepherd’s pie recipe many times; it’s very good–good enough, in fact, to serve to company.

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!

*********

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.