First Snow for the Chickens

Today it snowed! It doesn’t always snow when they say it will, but today the weather forecasters were right. We have at least six inches and it’s still coming down, which negated our plans to go see the Russian Ballet perform the Nutcracker on stage in Charlottesville this evening. I’m not sure I ever had to forfeit theater tickets before because of weather. But Samuel made his homemade pizza instead and that was quite a consolation.

Even if it wrecks your theater plans, snow is so beautiful.When it first started to blanket the cedar tree in the middle of the circle, I could see from inside the house the white Christmas lights through the light frosting of powder – it was magical. Outside it was very pretty too, but you could hardly see the lights.

I headed for the garden shed to get the snow shovels and realized that this was the first time my chickens have seen snow! They hatched at the beginning of this past March and were indoors for their first 6-8 weeks. How would they like it? What would they do?

What would you do if you were a chicken? Do you see any chickens?? I didn’t!

Oh, there they are! Underneath! I did not expect a snowy day to turn into an I-feel-proud-of-my-chickens day, but it did. I have Smart Chickens! My chickens stayed out of the snow!

The stuff is cold and wet! What did you expect??

Anyway where did all the bugs go?

I somehow expected the Sewing Circle to be this sensible. They are the bigger hens (which does not make them smarter, I know!), and their sheltered area leads directly into their coop. I’ve marked their little door leading inside, or where it starts anyway – it’s behind that post. I watched them and wondered if they would go inside or continue to tramp around in their very small un-snowed-upon area not wanting to get their cold feet. All they have to do is go up a small ramp from where they are and they will be fully sheltered inside the coop.

In no time they went in on their own, not quite sure what to do in there in the daytime. Normally they come in here only to sleep and to lay eggs. Hey, ‘scuse me, pardon me, looking for something to eat here!

To my delight the Bridge Club was also trying to stay dry! There they were, all huddled up in an even smaller un-snowed-upon area.

It’s cold, lady!

And there’s no way inside from here!

We’re stuck!

It’s true. The configuration of the new coop and run is different than the old one. To get inside, these chickens would have to venture into the white, wet stuff and then make their way up a much bigger, possibly slippery ramp. See it in this next photo?

Poor little silkies! You can tell from how fluffy their heads are that they did not get wet first and then seek shelter. Good little silkies! Why is it that I don’t feel as sorry for their coop-mates? Oh, right, that group includes the one that thinks she’s a rooster, croaking out a sickly sounding half-crow now and then, and the one that won’t let you catch her easily, even when you need to, and the one that insists on bullying the silkies every single morning when I let them out! (She still does, yes, and the silkies endure it…)

But one and all were cold and getting colder, so we picked them up (though none seemed the least bit happy about it), and put them inside their coop and shut the door against the wind. None of them had to get their feet wet or brave the ramp. When it gets warm again we should perhaps build them an easier way in, like a wheelchair ramp, long and gradual, nice and wide (well, maybe not wheelchair-wide!) so they don’t worry on their way up or down. Is this necessary? Would you do this for them?

Pug Meets Pig

You have to wonder about dogs sometimes: what matters to them, why they get excited about this but not that, how they process our interactions with them. For the moment, this is the dog I’m talking about. Coco, what’s going on inside that funny-looking head of yours?

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Samuel presents her with various challenges such as putting her in a closet…

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… putting her in a box…

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…and standing her on a bookshelf.

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Does she care? Is she saying to herself (in whatever way pugs and other dogs say to themselves) What’s up with these humans? I was just trying to have a nice nap. Is there any good reason to be bothering me right now?

The questioning goes two ways. Much as I expect she is clueless about our behavior sometimes, about why or how she ends up in a closet or in a box or on a shelf, we are equally clueless about her behavior. Let’s go for a walk with her.

At this time of year my gravel road has lots and lots of fallen leaves along the sides. The cars going by, few as they are, must provide enough air movement in the right direction for the leaves to land everywhere except in the road itself. For whatever reason, these leaves are really interesting to Coco. There’s a treasure of a smell every few steps it seems.

But okay, let’s keep going because down the road a piece there are, right now, two very large and amusing pigs to visit.

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My neighbor Tracy’s very well cared for and fortunate pigs wander around their exceptionally spacious (for pigs) fenced-in area all day looking for acorns they missed or taking a snooze in a patch of sunshine. They seem to love visitors. You approach and they come. You are something to do, an attraction, a point of interest.

Hello! (I love this picture!)

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A few days ago Samuel and I took Coco with us on a walk. We were curious what would happen when the pug would meet the pig(s). Initially, what happened was exactly what you would expect to happen.

Uh, hello, what on earth are you?

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The pig approached, and they sized one another up. You have to assume more olfactory activity than we could ever imagine (especially with a nose like that!), and who knows what, besides the intense and new smells of each other, they notice. Curiosity lingered a moment, then they both decided to get a little closer and the other pig joined the party.  Hmmm, similar nose, different color, different size, different ears!

Pig 1: Hey, sister, what’s happening?…. What IS that??

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Pig 2: I don’t know. Looks like an alien. Vaguely familiar nose though.

Coco: I beg your pardon!

Pig 1: Why is it here? What does it want?

Pig 2: Doesn’t look edible.

Pig 1: What good is it if it’s not edible?

Coco: Hey, watch what you say about edible!

Pig 2: Gotta admire that nose though, smooshed flat the way a nose should be.

Pig 1: It has the nose going for it, I agree. Maybe it wants to play?

Coco: Oh, look, these leaves smell so marvelous!!

And off she went! No longer interested in pigs! Practically perfect pig pals, no less!

Pig 2: Was it something we said?

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Really, Coco?

Coco: If you knew how amazing these leaves smell, you would be on your hands and knees with me! I know that’s a pain for you, bending those ridiculous long legs so you can get to a reasonable height off the earth. The human design is so unhelpful when it comes to smelling leaves and other super important things. By the way, this is super important and I don’t mean to be rude but… busy here!

The preoccupied, party-pooping (possibly pampered) pug pursued personal priorities while these pleasingly plump, perfectly peaceful, pleasantly personable pigs at the pinnacle of their porcine pudginess pondered a plan to play! Positively perplexing!

Isn’t it the same among family and friends though? We get why the people we know or encounter do some things, many things even, but sometimes their behavior is incredible, bizarre, mysterious, absurd. Why, for example, do some people choose vanilla when chocolate is available? I will never understand!

I recently came across a marvelous, short Alain de Botton video about marriage and partnership that makes a similar point about confusing-behavior reciprocity, a.k.a. tolerating each other’s quirks. Why does my husband/ wife/ partner/ girlfriend/ boyfriend/ friend/ colleague/ neighbor/ dog (!) do [….X….]? Weird! Maddening! Crazy! Or maybe just Confusing. Inexplicable. Bizarre. Absurd…

The fact is: You see the other person’s issues much more plainly than you see your own. You have things to tolerate which do indeed get under your skin, and you forget that you (most likely) get under their skin sometimes too.

Why does Coco care more about the leaves than about the pretty pigs? Whoever knows! But she does, and from that moment forth, the pigs didn’t exist for her. Eh. Pigs. Smelled one, you’ve smelled ‘em all. So what. But these leaves!!

 

 

My Wood Stove Reminded Me of Bats in a Cave

Something bad almost happened this past weekend. It didn’t, but it might have. Perhaps an unseen mechanism, a force I cannot put my finger on, came into play, like the one that keeps thousands of bats from bumping into each other in a pitch-black cave. Perhaps the confluence of circumstances simply sum-totaled into not-a-disaster, so instead of the standard butterfly effect, where small, seemingly insignificant things having a surprising effect on a complex system, small, seemingly insignificant things actually saved the day. Perhaps divine intervention, the hand of God, moved the pieces on the playing board.

I’m going with the hand of God, but the bats always intrigued me. My children had a wonderful book called Animals Do the Strangest Things.* It includes the lion who “lets his noble wife do most of the work,” the platypus that may be “left over from a long, long time ago” and the “dear, long-nosed, gentle giant [elephant] one of man’s best friends in the animal world.” In the very short chapter on bats, we read about the squeaking sound bats make and how it “bounces right back” when it hits anything in its way (including other bats), so that he “knows there is something there” and can avoid bumping into it.

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The bats not bumping into each other in the cave always make me think of how many collisions/accidents/mishaps don’t happen, how many we somehow avoid, how much more pain, loss and heartache there could be, but isn’t.

Cottage guests here this past weekend came in separate cars and parked them in the driveway circle in such a way as to block my car and prevent other cars from getting close to my house. I understand. It had been late when they arrived the night before, and they probably didn’t even see that it was a circle. Were I a visitor, I would have parked where they did too. But Lynn and Billy, my sister and her husband, were going to pick up Mom and Jerry on their way here for a visit, and they would need to get close to the house – the less walking across my driveway stones, especially in bad weather, the better.

I needed to go ask my guests to move their cars. You can’t do this too early in the morning on a Saturday. You don’t want to disturb guests. But it was getting on toward 11:00 and I expected Lynn and Billy soon. I did what I had to do. I knocked on the cottage door. One of the lovely women staying here for a girls’ getaway weekend opened the door in a friendly way, invited me in and was completely understanding when I explained my request. She couldn’t have been nicer. I had hardly finished asking when I noticed some of the others gathering their keys to go move cars. All good so far.

That’s when I glanced over at the wood stove. I was actually quite pleased to see live coals through the glass, and remarked happily, “Oh, look, you were able to keep the fire going.” I said this because when one of the women had checked in the day before, she had seemed skeptical about the wood stove and her/their abilities in regard to it. In fact, she had said, “There’s no way we can screw that up, right?” She was by herself at that point, having arrived ahead of her friends.

I had explained its simple operation, in particular the lever that adjusts the amount of air allowed into the inner space. The more air, the hotter it burns, I explained. To the right is more air,

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to the left is less.

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With a bit more instruction and caution, the same instruction and caution I give all my guests during wood stove season, I had left her to it. I tell people what to do, not what not to do. Namely, I have not made a habit of telling them how get a lot of air into the stove and therefore create a super-hot fire. I don’t want anyone making super-hot fires. I don’t want to plant ideas about super-hot fires.

When I glanced over, all I saw was the glow of hot, live coals in the bed of the stove through the blackened glass. I surmised that someone in the group was familiar with wood stoves and had overseen the loading and tending. Many of my guests love the wood stove. For some it’s the highlight of their stay. “I spent hours in front of the fire. It’s so relaxing,” one of them wrote recently. Controlled fire is good, warm, comforting. And clearly, on this cold Saturday morning, it was low and could use more wood.

“While I’m here,” I said after some of them went out to move cars, “how about if I load the stove up again for you?” I saw that the inside supply of wood was also low and I could load that up too.

“That would be great,” she said.

I got an armful of wood from the outside pile, brought it in and filled the stove. I went out again for more, and again for more – filling both the stove and the inside hopper. This took five minutes at most. When I came in with the last armful, I saw a blazing – and I mean blazing – fire going in the stove. The only way for it to get going that well that fast is if the lower ash box door is open, such as in this photo.

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The ash box is useful and necessary, but not for guests. As wood burns, it creates ash that falls through the slits in the bottom of the stove and into a removable box. Every few days, if wood is continually burned in the stove, you need to empty the ashes or they will build up and block the air flow. The door, which has a very tight seal, opens with the wood-handled lever you see in the photo (wood because otherwise it’s too hot to touch). You open it, pull out the ash box, empty it in the garden where the ash helps the next generation of plants, put it back in and close the door up tight. The guest should never have to worry about this bit of maintenance. I had not said anything about opening the ash box door.

You can’t even see this door unless you get down on the floor. You have to know it’s there, and you have to have some experience to know that besides being an ash-collection system, opening it even ever so slightly (and leaving it that way) will result in more air – too much air – getting into the stove and causing the fire to burn very hot. Untended and left open, very quickly there could be a fire in the stovepipe. Or worse.

Thank God they left too many cars in the circle. Thank God I had a reason to go over there and came in when I did. Thank God I glanced over at the stove. They were shortly going to leave to go out wine-tasting at some of the local vineyards and then out to dinner. I closed the door up tight, explained why it needs to be left that way and carried on.

Bad things happen sometimes, it’s true. Sometimes it’s beyond bad – it’s horrible, tragic, devastating. Sometimes it veers into the unthinkable. We all can bring to mind examples of how bad bad can be. On Sunday night we watched another: Loving Pablo, a film about Pablo Escobar’s reign of horror in Columbia in the 1980s. My fire-that-didn’t-happen, even if it had happened, doesn’t even compare. No question though, stress happened and fear of what might have happened happened. Rethinking how to explain the wood stove operation happened. But bad fire did not happen. Thank God.

But tell me what you think: Should I tell my guests about the ash box? Should I tell them what it’s for, what it does and to leave it alone? Should I take the chance that people will do things because you tell them not to, or trust that they will leave alone what you tell them to leave alone, or take the chance that they will not see or open the ash box door (or worse, leave it ajar)? I know there are no guarantees in this world, that accidents happen. We all know you can take every precaution, and accidents will still sometimes happen. No matter what you do, bad things will still sometimes happen. But I do not want to live in fear or be straight-jacketed by it. Humans have been responsibly tending fires for untold numbers of years, and I do not want to get in the way of my guests doing the same and gaining warmth and pleasure from it. The question is: How to present the information.

 

* Animals Do the Strangest Things by Leonora and Arthur Hornblow, illustrations by Michael K. Frith, Scholastic Step-Up Books, Random House, New York, 1964

A Smart Phone at 88

Last week Jerry decided to get a smartphone. I give him a lot of credit. His jitterbug served him well. It made and received calls the way a landline can’t – he could take it with him when he left his house and it would work. But he wanted a smartphone, so we went to Verizon and got him a smartphone. Jerry will be 89 in January.

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Going through this process with him, helping him choose one and then, most importantly, figure out how to make a call, has opened my eyes (yet again) to the things we take for granted, the things we have learned but don’t remember we actually had to learn, the things that are not as self-evident as they might appear. For example:

Your smartphone can be “on” but not “on” and “off” but not “off.” The power being on and the home screen being visible are two different things. Another way to look at this is that the phone can be on but the screen can be off. Problem is, when the screen is off, it looks like the phone is not “on” (though it might be and probably is, but it depends on whether the power is on). The little button on the side (or the back, or the bottom, depending on where it is on yours) turns the power entirely on or off only if you hold it down/in long enough, but once the power is on, you have to press that same button – but not for as long! – to get a visible screen and for your phone, which was “on” before, to appear “on.”

The amount of touch, the very weight of the tip of your finger on an icon so that you can get from one screen to another, is not intuitive. Those of us who graduated from one cell phone to the next don’t realize how we have adapted to the incremental changes in technology. Somewhere around here I have my first cell phone, a gold-tone Nokia that I could not find to take a picture of (but I did find some scarves I was missing!!). I got that Nokia in 2001, and all the buttons were physical – you pressed them and heard a click and that made something happen. My next phone was a flip phone – how cool was that!? – physical buttons still, and with three letters of the alphabet on each of the number pads, you could even text. (You may remember that you had to hit the 1 once to get A, twice (fast) to get B and three times (fast) to get C, but hey, we could text!!) From there I went to a flat screen where there are no physical buttons. That was a bit of a learning curve, but I needed it for work and everyone around me seemed to manage it, so sooner or later I got comfortable with that too.

But you have to get-to-know and practice-til-perfect how much pressure to place on a given icon. On my phone, if I hit the green phone icon in the bottom left corner lightly (see the green phone icon with the little 1 showing one missed call?),

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I get to my phone list. Touching that icon with just the right amount of pressure takes me to the screen that can toggle between RECENTS (a reverse-chronological list of calls made and received) and CONTACTS (my full phone directory including all numbers I have saved in alphabetical order).

If I hold the tip of my finger on that same icon too long, I don’t get to my phone list. It gives me other options:

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These other options have their place , and I might even use them someday, but if all I want to do is make a call, and I get these other options instead because I didn’t judge the amount of finger-pressure right, I might (rightly) get frustrated. And it’s not just the phone icon that gives you other options when you hold it down longer.

Randomly hitting buttons will affect your phone’s operation. When Jerry first got his phone, I spent an hour or so with him going over HOW TO MAKE A CALL. I wrote it down step by step, which thing to press and what you will find when you get there. Repetition, repetition, repetition is the name of this game. I came back the next day and found numerous screenshots in his gallery. He does not know what a screenshot is, let alone how to make one. But clearly he hit the home button and the power button at the same time – numerous times – and inadvertently made numerous screenshots.

This morning Mom called me to say that the two of them were “practicing” making calls, but his phone wasn’t ringing. It was just buzzing. Sounds to me like he turned the volume off, Mom. And I walked her through finding the Volume Up button and pressing it until she saw the horizontal blue volume bar that appears at the top get increasingly longer. Oh, that works. Clearly he hit the Volume Down button enough times to inadvertently turn off the volume.

When to swipe and when to touch is not intuitive. When your phone rings, swiping (starting at the larger green phone icon that appears on the lower part of the screen) is the way to answer it when it is not currently in use – i.e. when your phone is either not “on” in the visible screen sense or is not currently occupied with a different app(lication). Touching (the smaller green phone icon that appears on the upper part of the screen) is the way to answer it when the phone IS currently in use – i.e. when your phone is “on” (in the visible screen sense) and is currently occupied with a different app(lication) such as you are in the middle of texting someone or you are reading a restaurant review.

But who thinks this through and realizes the difference? Again, those of us who have been incrementally learning this stuff have learned to swipe when the green phone icon is big and there are arrows moving in the direction of the needed swipe and to touch when the green phone icon is small and the tiny word ANSWER is underneath it. If you are new at this, if you have never used a touch screen before, you don’t necessarily, intuitively, know when to swipe and when to touch. As Jerry puts it, you just want to answer the damn phone.

The challenging nuances of making a call seem unnecessarily cumbersome until you are familiar with the process and have begun to appreciate the value of the many options you have regarding each and every call. But think about it, a four-year-old can learn a foreign language much more easily than an adult of almost any age. Likewise, making the switch in one leap from a mechanical device that serves simply to make and receive calls to an electronic device that can also turn your lights on when you are not at home, track your children’s precise whereabouts and translate a piece of foreign text in a flash is a very big leap.

My Aunt Judy put it well in an email to me this morning:

It’s tough “teaching” us “oldies but goodies” stuff that’s technical, but what goes around comes around. I remember trying to tell my aunt how to operate the “stereo” (young ones probably don’t even know what that word is ??????). Anyway I kept thinking, “But it’s so simple!”  Oh well, now it’s me – you tell me, and it sounds good, but will I remember it tomorrow????   Hey, we oldies are happy to have our feet hit the floor every morning.  

Amen to that. Let us ALL be happy to have our feet hit the floor every morning!

A Saint Barbara Day Cake!

Last week Mom told me she was invited to a “tiny tea party” on December 4, St. Barbara’s Day, a party that included all the Barbaras who live in her community. The host is a Barbara who has been hosting Barbara tea parties since starting the tradition in Park City, Utah, in 1999. What a lovely idea!

I asked the host if I could come and take a few pictures. Here they are posing with a cutout of Marilyn Monroe, whose real name was Norma Jeane, not Barbara. Whatever. You don’t get to pose with Marilyn every day.

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And again the Barbaras at the table with Norma Jeane looking on – see her in the mirror? (Another Barbara came later and another had the date mixed up.) During the party, Host Barbara (in red) showed them various St. Barbara items she has collected over the years and even gave them a crossword puzzle entitled “Barbaras We Have Known.”

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“St. Barbara was quite a lady,” Mom’s invitation had said. Indeed she was. Virtuous, beautiful, locked in a tower by her self-serving father, Barbara of the legend lived in the third century, converted to Christianity (when that was not the thing to do) and was publicly humiliated and finally beheaded, thus the head she holds in her hand.

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For many years I have had a recipe in my cookbook for Barbara-kuchen, or Barbara cake. The handwriting is my friend Anett’s, who lives in Germany, where St. Barbara is more widely celebrated. It’s really quite a simple cake, even if it looks unintelligible. The main thing is to see that it says Barbara-kuchen at the top.

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As a way to thank the host for allowing me to come take pictures at her tiny tea party (and a wonderful excuse to bake), I decided to make the cake. Ingredients are:

14 Tablespoons butter, softened
the grated rind of one lemon
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1/3 cup corn starch
1 cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder

You soften the butter (in my microwave this took 1 minute 20 seconds on defrost), add the sugar and eggs, and whisk it till creamy. A hand mixer would have been handy at this time – for such a small amount of batter I didn’t want to get out my big, wonderful stand mixer, but I had to beat the ingredients with a good bit of wrist action to get the fluffiness I wanted. If you have an electric hand mixer, or your stand mixer on the counter, it’s better to use it.

I added the lemon rind after that. You can see the teeny bits of butter still in the batter (my wrist is only so strong). I decided it didn’t matter and kept going.

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By the time I added and stirred in the rest of the ingredients, it looked like this.

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Those amazing eggs of mine made the batter so golden! I chose a small springform pan to bake this cake in because, Claudia tells me, traditionally in Germany the cake is baked in a “Kastenform” resembling the tower in which St. Barbara was imprisoned. I reasoned that a larger pan would make a flatter cake and a smaller pan would make a taller cake, so I went with small. My pan is 7 inches (18cm) across and 3 inches (8cm) high. I baked mine for 35 minutes at 375F (a toothpick inserted came out clean). I see now that the recipe says 350F. I missed that earlier.

But it came out okay. See? Bit of a tower, no? (Use your imagination now…)

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I made the frosting with the juice of the same lemon I grated plus enough confectioner’s sugar added little by little until it seemed stiff enough. I can’t tell you how much sugar. I was in a hurry trying to get to this party in time!

After I put the frosting on, I realized it was not stiff enough, in fact was beginning to sag a bit down the sides, so I decided to remedy this by adding a lot of coconut all over it. Anyway you can’t go wrong putting a whole lot of coconut on top of lemon frosting that is covering a lemony cake. You just can’t. Then I thinly sliced another lemon and twisted them to make the cake pretty on top (as if loads of coconut is not inviting enough). Here’s the cake on Mom’s table before we went over to the party.

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See those leaves in the jar behind the cake? I brought them too because of another part of the legend. It is said that on her way to prison, St. Barbara got her robe caught on a small cherry branch and it broke. Somehow the branch was put in water and then a new blossom opened on that branch on the day of her execution – the stuff of legends to be sure! I cannot imagine she was allowed to bring her broken cherry branch into the 3rd century prison with her and that someone gave her a jar with water in it, which she then used for her branch until they took her away. But what do I know — maybe this happened!

There is a lot I don’t know about 3rd century prisons. It is not useful to be sticklers about unknowable information like this. Just know that if you cut a branch (cherry or apple traditionally) on December 4, it is supposed to bloom by Christmas. I don’t have a cherry or apple tree, and neither does the community where Mom lives, so I brought branches from my lemon tree (thinking there’s lemon in the cake, so why not lemon?).

I want you to see how droopy my frosting was.

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Time was not on my side, as I said, so I let it go. Anyway, I decided, it would taste the same (delicious I hoped!) and I am not trying to win any pretty-cake contests. Things that are made with love don’t have to be perfect.

To all the Barbaras, but especially to my mom (the best Barbara ever!), I wish a Happy Saint Barbara Day!