Straight Seams and a Woobly Wander

Last week I was off my feet a bit. Not so much thrown off. More like tripped up, as when you are engrossed in conversation and don’t see a slight rise in the corner of the sidewalk paving block and find yourself in a wild and awkward dance as you try to right yourself. All you wanted was to walk along and have a nice conversation with no unexpected bumps. That’s all most of us want in life in general too, right? To walk along without bumps? Good luck with that.

The cause of last week’s bumps was twofold – a decision someone made some time ago that I just found out about, which resurfaced old traumas, and a reaction someone had that reversed good feeling. The bumps led to sadness and reflection and finally to what my mother summed up as “You poured out your heart.” I needed to work my way through.

I’m here to say that it’s all well and good to pour out your heart, but in the time that follows the outpouring, you have to actually do something. In times past I did not so much control what activity came next – I went to work or fixed a meal or fell asleep. This time, post-outpouring, I had a full day staring at me with nothing else in it.

Thanksgiving is coming and so are my granddaughters Eppie and Rise, now 5 and 7.

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These are the cuties I’m talking about, smiling on Rise’s first day of school. Eppie walked up to the bus stop with her, having to wait one more day for her own first day of kindergarten. Note it was cold enough in the morning in late August in Vermont for a jacket, but not cold enough for Eppie to wear shoes. Rise probably has them on only because of going to school.

I have quilts in mind for them for Christmas. I’ve had quilts in mind for them ever since my neighbor Tracy told me how she treasures the quilt her grandmother made for her. I’ve made jammies and simple dresses for the girls, but not yet quilts. With their visit coming soon, I figured I had better get going because I like to watch people open the gifts I give them and I don’t want to have to mail anything – and here I am writing about it instead of doing it!

When your heart is greatly stirred up, it helps to use your hands on something that requires focus. It helps to direct energy toward something that will bring good to someone else. I don’t expect Rise and Eppie to oooh and ahhh over these quilts when they open them up next week. But in ten years, or twenty, or thirty, maybe they get a warm feeling inside knowing, remembering (I hope!) how great was Oma’s love for them through every step of their childhood. There has to be Good in these gifts, if not now, then later. I’m banking on that.

Quilts then, on this empty day that needs focus. First, assess inventory. Open the scrap fabric boxes and make a pile of fun fabrics, colorful fabrics, plain fabrics (to balance the fun and colorful). Take out the sewing machine, the ironing board and iron, the scissors big and small, the cutting mat, the rolling blade. Uh-oh. Where’s the rolling blade? You can’t get the precise measurements and straight edges you need without the rolling blade. I can’t find the rolling blade.

Well, that’s unfortunate. Now I have two choices. I can either take (what will feel like) half the morning to drive forty minutes to the store and forty minutes back and buy a new rolling blade. Or I can order one that will arrive tomorrow and make do in the meantime with scissors. I will certainly not be done in a day. Make-do kicks in. This is the new roller that duly arrived the next day, still in its package for reasons yet to come.

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Having a goal to make two quilts but having no roller to precisely cut the fabric nudged me in a new direction. I hemmed, I hawed, for all of three seconds (deadline here, remember) and decided okay, not-so-precise – a.k.a. crazy – the quilts will be. Please understand that I am not a crazy-quilt kind of person. My quilts have taken one of two looks. Either they are orderly and color-coordinated, like these I made when my granddaughter Zoe was born last year (one baby-size for Zoe and one doll-size for her big sister Piper):

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Or they are orderly and slightly-less-color-coordinated, like the two from before Zoe’s, a lap quilt for my dear friend Kim and the larger one for her mom, Lyn’s comfort quilt.

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Can I do crazy? Can I start sewing with practically no idea what this thing will look like when I am done? Can I put pieces randomly together in ways that will affect that section and ultimately the quilt overall? You betcha!

I just started sewing pieces of fabric together, proceeding in hopes that Piece A wouldn’t clash terribly with Piece B (which got tougher when Pieces C, D, E, F, etc came into play) and willing to include odd angles, varying size pieces and some larger squares all in a row from another quilt I had started but never finished. I wanted to use some of the cute, child-like prints, but not too many.

In no time it seemed – mainly because using scissors goes faster than using a roller blade – I had the main part of Rise’s done.

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You have purple funky surfer guy (find him), pink and aqua hedgehogs, funny owls, sleeping sheep, happy watermelons, golden sunflowers and even a piece of the lavender daisy print from Zoe’s quilt. You have some squares made of two perfectly cut (I took my time) 45-degree pieces and some rectangles slashed with a random angle. Some stripes, some plaids, some solids, some dull, some bright, a piece from a dress I made for Rise, several pieces from jammies. You have pattern here and no pattern there, big pieces and small pieces, some deliberate juxtapositioning and some whatever. You have funny ways the pieces came together and predictable ways.

And isn’t that just like life? You have things you can make happen and that you feel happy about or proud of as well as things you can’t explain: What was I thinking when I did that!? You have some rooms/projects/relationships that are a mess and some that are comforting. You have people who make you laugh and people who are just kind of there, filling up space. You have ideas/colors/particulars that appeal to you and ideas/colors/particulars that don’t. You keep going back to certain aspects of a thing because it shaped you or speaks to you or satisfies some part of yourself that you can’t even identify. I like the purple funky surfer guy.

Quilting makes a mess. Samuel came on the second day to make pizza, which we always enjoy in the living room, so I didn’t worry about the table. He took one look at it and said So this is the table of Mrs. CAYGO. His little dig was aimed at my occasional nudges to Clean As You GO in the kitchen. Yes, well you try making a quilt without making a mess. I’ll clean it up. Just maybe not so much As I Go.

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This photo also shows plainly that sometime in the afternoon of the first day, while making do with scissors, I found my roller blade. You see it there, the yellow one on the ironing board, the new one still in its package on the table. I found my old one, of course, exactly where I had left it. The seams of the outer portions of Rise’s quilt are therefore straighter, less woobly, than the inner portions which will not lay as flat. But some roads we walk are straighter too, aren’t they? And some are a woobly wander.

Having a roller blade for Eppie’s quilt from the start meant straighter seams but no less creativity. With the confidence that I can “do crazy,” I began in fact to enjoy the randomness, to let one section suggest the next, to give myself license to use a piece that is not the absolute perfect one. How often do we get what’s absolutely perfect anyway? Is it okay to come close, to do the best you can, to make do with what you have, to hope that the love you put into a thing will shine through your obvious flaws and fears?

I say yes.

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Frosted Sage

I didn’t know if I killed the sage. I didn’t know if the shock of transplant, or the dipping toward freezing temps, or the full moon at the wrong time might kill it. I didn’t know if these splotches of frost, these teeny tiny measures of fluffy ice heaped on the leaves would be lethal. I don’t know enough about plants. But I wanted it in my new garden so I moved it.frosted sage (2)2mp.jpg

Like the sage, I have felt the shock of transplant. After my life turned upside down twenty years ago, I moved from my longstanding home and community in order to protect my children and pay my bills – both as best as I could. Uprooting is hard. One very wise woman (she knows who she is) suggested to me that I had no idea how much I would lose. She was so right.

Like the sage, I was made rather uncomfortable by the whole ordeal. Moving south didn’t involve the challenge of freezing temps but it did involve numerous scary unknowns and a nonstop schedule with insane hours and sure, why not write a book besides all that (because life isn’t crazy enough)! Moving involved new culture, new neighborhood, new relationships – lots of this New woven in with lots of that New woven on top of the old, threadbare-in-places Tapestry of My Life.

Like the sage being affected (or maybe not) by the full moon, I too have been at the mercy of (a lot of) forces I don’t control. The real estate market, for one thing. Its machinations caught me, bit me. Twice. Mainly though, I don’t control other people. Everyone carries on with their own life, and I know they all have burdens to bear. Most don’t know my personal hell, but some of those who do pretended nothing happened, or, geez, it wasn’t that bad. Some “make their peace” with it and land where it seems none of it matters (which is different than pretending nothing happened). Some don’t realize that A affects B in ways you don’t see until twenty years later. Some judge. Some blame. Some withdraw. Some make decisions that have painful, landscape-altering consequences.

But in all fairness to the sage, strength and resilience have played a mighty role. Fine, pluck me up, roots and all. Replant me in a more convenient location. I will stand firm, and the sun will shine here too and the rain will come. In winter I will rest. In spring and summer and fall I will bring beauty and flavor.

Likewise, shock of transplant, discomfort and forces I don’t control have not been all bad for me. My faith is stronger, my perspective broader, my tolerance greater. In a new place, wonderful people have come into my life and the ties I have with some from before have been strengthened. Many have wrapped love and comfort and prayer around me and reminded me intermittently in their personal, special ways about what is important, which helps more than they can ever know. Some bring gifts, some bring humor, some bring advice, hope, joy, fun, inspiration. Some hold me tight, some make me smile or laugh out loud, some help me make things nicer than they were before, some show me reasons to count my blessings. Some do a lot of these things in one beautiful bundle.

Pushing the boundaries of what you thought you could do generally results in You can do more than you thought. Doing more than I planned on, more than I thought possible, more than my imagination could ever have conjured up, changed me. Had things not happened as they did, would I be the person I am? Had unforeseeable pain, calamitous events and inevitable ripples not occurred, would I understand some things I didn’t understand before – even if there is way more yet to understand? Even if pain resurfaces at very inconvenient times? It is not for me to know what the Me Whose Life Didn’t Turn Upside Down would look like. I only know the Me whose life did. I can’t be sure, but I think this Me might be stronger.

I am glad beyond words to be where I am, but forces beyond my control have nothing to do with location. I suspect I would have learned in any case that life throws punches and some of them hurt. I would have learned in other ways, but learned it nonetheless, that Good begets Good. I would have kept the best of my old friends (I hope!) and met some amazing new people and seen glimpses of everyone’s true colors one way or another. I am not sure what will kill me, but so far, by the grace of God, it is none of the above. Nor is it a red pickup truck barreling through an intersection at unsuspecting me and Jerry. If indeed I have been moved to “The Back of the Line,” there are punches yet to meet, marvels yet to witness, joys yet to embrace.

The sage endured the unexpected shock and challenge of a move, but landed in a bed of fresh, good soil. Perhaps so have I. Today’s rain is dripping straight and steady, doing its job, balancing the sunshine like tears that are coupled with hope.

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A Whim and a Limb and Then: Bison Meatloaf!

Do you remember when ground beef was under a dollar a pound? I do. These days I feel lucky to find it under five dollars a pound. Which explains, in part, how I came to make bison meatloaf.

I always had the vague idea that bison* are an undomesticated cousin of the herding animal that accounts for the beef we generally find in stores. Yes, my son, said the domesticated steer to the curious calf, In the grand history of the Bovidae family, we have some… let’s call them… “wilder” relatives. Never listen to Aunt Bessie on this point, son – she calls them renegades and I think that’s rather intolerant of the slight differences between us, and I cannot abide intolerance! …sigh… Back in the Pliocene when our family history began and the forests and mountain areas of Eurasia were our home, all of us had horns that pointed forward and all of us had a straight back. All of us, son.

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As happens, even in the best of families, some of the more adventurous members struck out on their own. They wandered east and crossed a massive land bridge known to humans as the “Bering.” After years of trekking and searching, they found great plains in North America and loved it there and thrived! They had lots and lots and lots of little ones like you who somehow over time got bigger than you will ever be – count it among the mysteries and wonders of the universe! I’m not sure about why their backs humped up like that, but never mind. Ignore Aunt Bessie, son, when she scoffs and mocks and finds fault. Cousins these hairy beasts are, I tell you, even if you have to go around nine corners to trace the roots of our common heritage.

Human that I am, unapologetic red-meat eater that I am, I ordered bison steak a few years back at a fine restaurant on the recommendation from the server. It was for me both a whim and a limb: a whim because I am not as adventurous with food as some people and a limb because this was bison after all – bison! – though, I told myself, this particular hairy beast is not in another genetic zone like, say, kangaroo, which would somehow give me pause. The steak was so good, I had no qualms henceforth.

Some time later, probably at a rare point when I was feeling less budgetly constrained than usual, I bought a package of ground bison at my grocery store. This time it was more like How about if I make burgers using special, expensive cousin-of-beef instead of the normal stuff? At about double the price, it was a treat. But every now and then, a treat is a good thing.

Samuel never had qualms of any sort about meat of any kind. He added a bit of salt and pepper and finely chopped onion to the meat before forming the patties, then grilled them. If you have never had a bison burger and can manage the scruple, try one sometime. The burgers were amazing – more tender than regular beef, remarkably tender, and had a wonderful flavor, though similar enough to beef for non-adventurous sorts like me. I was sold. A few more times in the last couple years, I spent the extra money for a superior burger.

A couple weeks ago, the whole lot of ground bison at the store was marked down to $4.99/lb. None of it was near the expiration date. I’m guessing someone in the ordering department messed up and ordered two cases instead of one, or 15 pounds instead of five, and the store knows its customers’ buying patterns and knew it would never sell that much at the normal price. My lucky day! I bought ten packages and put them in the freezer.

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If it had not been so “cheap,” I would not have had it on hand when (fast forward) Samuel arrived home last week from a week away and Mom was just coming home from the hospital. We would all meet for dinner at Mom’s, and meal prep was on me. In a nod to Samuel (happy to have him home and God bless him forever for not moving far, far away), I asked him what he wanted for dinner.

Meatloaf? he replied.

Hmmm. Okay I said. You know how texting goes: Words on a screen that have no intonation, no body language, few clues as to the meaning of said words. Hmmm. Okay really means a pause while I think this through (I was quite certain I did not have on hand the ground beef-pork-veal combo I usually use to make meatloaf, and I also had too much else on the docket that day and knew I did not have time for a trip to the store), followed by the frozen bison coming to mind (that would be new but could work). Hmmm = pause. Okay = could work.

Don’t want meatloaf? he said, having read only Hmmm. Okay and questioning my hesitancy with no way to understand the mental gymnastics behind it.

No, sounds good. I just have to have the meat. Could make it with bison!

That sounds yummy!

Bison it is then.

Wanting to make sure there was enough to leave leftovers with Mom (she was not supposed to lift anything heavier than a coffee cup the first week, let alone cook) and enough to give Samuel some to take back to his place for a meal another day (I repeat, God bless him forever for not moving far, far away), I used two packages.

BISON MEATLOAF

In a large bowl combine 2/3 cup Italian breadcrumbs, 2/3 cup old-fashioned oats, ¼ cup milk, ¼ cup minced onion, 1 cup grated romano cheese**, 2 tsp salt and 2 Tbsp dried parsley***. Add 4 eggs and 2 pounds ground bison. Mix well.

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Form two loaves. I do mine free form, but you can use loaf pans if you prefer.

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**I happened to have this asiago-parmesan-romano blend, which is more shaved than grated, and I thought What the heck?

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I chopped it fine

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and added it instead of the grated romano I would normally use.

The larger pieces of this oddball cheese choice resulted in large blops of melted cheese on the surface of the cooked meatloaf which, depending on your perspective, looks either appealingly creamy and fantastic or weirdly blotchy and unkempt. It was delicious. I baked it for 45 minutes at 400F. The higher temp gets the outside crispy. Oh yum.

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Alongside baked gold potatoes and acorn squash mixed with butter and a touch of maple syrup, the meatloaf was a hit. Mom and Samuel put ketchup on theirs, I was Plain Jane with mine, and Jerry, hmmm, I don’t remember! We ended the meal with Mom’s Apple Cake and that’s how I say I’m so glad both Mom and Samuel are home! 😊

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*Thanks for the bison photo to modernfarmer.com.

***Fresh would be better but I didn’t have any and remember, no time to go to the store.

Mom’s Apple Cake

If you have used a recipe countless times, if it’s the one you think of when you need something delicious and reliable, if you have many times called it tried-and-true – yes, keep this recipe and pass it along. Let’s hear it for Mom’s Apple Cake!

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You know how old this recipe is because it calls for Spry. I venture to say some of you never heard of Spry. Now for our culinary history lesson (thank you, Wikipedia): “Spry was a brand of vegetable shortening produced by Lever Brothers starting in 1936. It was a competitor for Proctor and Gamble’s Crisco….Though the product is discontinued in most countries, there are anecdotal reports of its being used through the 1970s.”

Back in the day (and Spry had its heyday in the 1950s) you were either a Spry cook or a Crisco cook. Mom was devotedly Spry (I mean, who wouldn’t want to be spry?!). I copied her recipes verbatim, even if by the time I had my own kitchen, the thing I bought was not actually Spry, but a store brand of shortening. I called shortening “Spry” for many years because Mom did.  (I am quite certain I never converted to Crisco because it was always more expensive than the store brand and because Mom would never have used Crisco back then – maybe she does now….)

Note the way the recipe changed. First Spry, then shortening, then (when I smartened up and realized how amazing butter is) butter. Note what appears to be an emphatic obliteration of the Spry or shortening. Really, butter is better.

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Note also that this recipe is titled Cup Cakes. Boxed cake mixes were not so much a thing in the 50s. And mixing these ingredients together does not require an electric mixer and takes very little time. I don’t follow it exactly, having found that presifted flour (is there any other kind now?) eliminates the need for to “sift three times” (good heavens!). In my head, and if I ever rewrite it on a new card, the recipe will be simpler (and it will not have all the asterisks below because that info is in my head). And since I use it for apple cake 95% of the time (only occasionally plums), I will call it Apple Cake and just make a note about the plums. And I will write it the way I do it.

Apple Cake

Mix 1/3 cup softened* butter with 1 cup sugar**. Add one egg; mix well. Add 2 1/2 tsp baking powder, 1 tsp vanilla and 1/2 tsp salt; mix well. Alternately add and mix in ¾ cup milk and 2 cups flour***. Divide batter between two layer cake pans that have been buttered and dusted with flour. Spread batter to edges. Peel and thinly slice 3-4 apples. Arrange on top****. Sprinkle with cinnamon-sugar*****. Bake at 425F until nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in the cake part comes out clean, about half an hour. This cake is also delicious made with plums.

*Soften either by letting it sit out for an hour or so or by using the defrost mode of the microwave for 35 seconds.

**Use a wooden spoon. My spoon has a flat end that has a hole in it. Works perfectly. You could also use a whisk.

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***In other words: Add ¼ cup milk; mix well. Add 1 cup flour; mix well. Add another ¼ cup milk; mix well. Add another cup of flour; mix well. Add a final ¼ cup milk; mix well.

****I go for the bursting star design usually. If you have more time and want to slice the apples thinner, it’s prettier. I was tight on time when I made this yesterday.

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*****It is assumed that you have a jar in your pantry into which you have put about a cup of sugar and about 2 tablespoons of cinnamon and shaken it like mad (the Cinnamon-Sugar Dance!) until well blended. This jar lives in your pantry for when you need to make cinnamon roll-ups from leftover pie crust or for putting into hot farina (aka cream of wheat) on a cold morning or, of course, for this apple cake. The amount of cinnamon-sugar you put on top is up to you. Mine looked like this just before I popped them into the oven.

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You could also top with a streusel crumb topping. Robin’s (Haphazard Homemaker) Oatmeal Streusel Crumb Topping is great and would work perfectly!

When you can, time the baking of this cake such that it comes out of the oven just about the time you serve whatever dinner you are serving so that by the time you are done with dinner, the cake is still warm but not too hot. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream if you like.

Mom and Jerry are smiling, but truth be known they are both saying: Hurry up and take the picture so we can eat this delicious cake!

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The Back of the Line

I’m still here. A little shaken two days later, reeling a bit yet actually, if the truth be known, but I live and breathe and I get to enjoy the beautiful colors of Virginia yet another day.

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Did you ever watch one of those movies where an angel-character intervenes and saves someone from imminent disaster? In one of the beginning scenes of The Bishop’s Wife for example, Cary Grant, designated angel, notices a baby carriage that got away from the distracted mother and he pulls it back just before it rolls in front of an oncoming vehicle. Angel to the rescue!

I’m not sure I ever had such a striking example of this sort of thing in my own life as I had two days ago.

Mom had surgery (doing fine). Jerry and I had been visiting her at the hospital that’s less than a mile from where they live. I was taking him home before heading home myself at about 530pm, heavy traffic time. Easy little back route though. Traveled many times.

This little back road meets the main, four-lane road at a light. There are two lanes as you approach the light – a right-turn lane and a straight-or-left-turn lane. To take Jerry home I should have been in the straight-or-left-turn lane. Only momentarily I forgot I was taking him home and got into the right-turn lane.

“You want to go straight,” he said. Oh, right. Duh.

So I looked behind me – no cars – thinking I’d back up slightly and maneuver my way into the correct lane. It didn’t really matter which lane I was in, especially with no other cars waiting for that light to turn, but you are supposed to be in the straight-or-left-turn lane to go straight and you almost always sit at that light for a while, so why not?

Just then the light turned green.

I was not in a position to accelerate on account of having been in the wrong lane and being momentarily distracted by my finagling, so it took me a second or two longer than it should have to begin the crossing of that main road. The hesitation proved a godsend.

Had I been in the correct lane in the first place and accelerated as soon as the light turned green, I would have, as Jerry put it, predeceased him. A red pickup truck came barreling through that intersection in the right-hand lane of the four lanes of the main road – the cars in the other three lanes being at a dead stop, so their light had to be red, not yellow – and would have rammed smack into the side of my car with me and Jerry in it. He was easily going 50 mph.

It would have been a direct hit with me first in line. Did an angel have a hand in this rescue? I don’t know. Thank God for my dimwitted mistake though, that I was in the wrong lane, that I wasn’t ready. You should always look before you accelerate at a light anyway, just in case someone is barreling through, and I might have looked, and that too might have saved us. Instead I just thank God I didn’t give the car gas in that first moment.

Later when I told Mom, reliving with no small agitation the stress of my almost-demise, she said, “It wasn’t your time.” She then said she’s always seen such things as being bumped “to the back of the line.” Who’s next? Your turn? Nope. Git to the back, you!

I never knew she saw it that way, never heard her use that expression before. I like it! As much as I like being at the back of the line, if indeed that’s where I am, which is what I will choose to think at least for some time yet! I am so happy my mom’s nearby, so happy to still be learning about her, learning from her, enjoying her company. In my circle there are too many people who have already lost their moms. I am so blessed in this way and I know it. I love you, Mom!

Weakness is the Mother of Cajoling

I come to find out that concrete work is a lot like baking. The tools are bigger, the ingredients weigh more, the vessels in which you mix this with that are strictly utilitarian and practically indestructible. No pretty bowls, no hand-carved wooden spoons, no measuring in cups or grams and gently folding ingredients together with a deft wrist action. While standing outside this week, hoe in my hand, tub at my feet and bracing myself to begin combining the contents of an 80-pound bag with the appropriate quantity of fresh water, I thought: Dry ingredients (concrete mix) in the bowl (mixing tub) first, then add liquid (water from the hose) and mix until you reach the desired consistency.

Whose hair-brained idea to build stone steps was it anyway? Oh, right, mine.

Credit where credit is due, Sandy moved most of the heavy bags. My “moving” them is not like his. He lifts and carries.

I cajole. I finagle. I wiggle the bag that’s lying flat on the porch (under cover in case of rain)

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until it is separate from its compatriots and in a clear path.

I then coax it onto its side edge and gently flop it over, and over, and over. This flopping-over is more like a thudding-over, but I keep gaining ground and proceed proudly. The bag will not have power over me, will not sit there heavily, immovably, laughing at my weakness (It’s out of her league! it’s saying haughtily. Out of her league!).

When you are weak, you must be creative in the moving of heavy things. The number of flops/thuds depends on how far the bag is from the edge of the porch, i.e. how many bags were in the neat pile, and where the next victim lies in said pile.

In preparation for this careful coaxing I have strategically placed the mixing tub under the very edge of the porch (about an 18” drop). (There is no more glamorous name for this large, plastic, rectangular, masonry-trade vessel, in case you were wondering – I looked it up.) I wiggle, maneuver, jockey and ultimately outfox that haughty bag until its narrow end rests on the guillotine (over the edge of the porch I mean) by about four or five inches, awaiting its fate.  

The sharp edge of my mixing trowel slices through the skin of the neck (I mean the underside of the bag) and guts begin to spill out into my carefully placed mixing tub. Not willing to go to its rigor mortis without making a show of its doom, the powdery mix explodes in a cloud of concrete dust, coating everything in the vicinity with a layer that boldly proclaims I WAS HERE! The same teenager who fingers CLEAN ME on the rear window of a dirty van could inscribe any words anywhere on my porch. For days afterwards, indeed until you purposefully clean it off, that fine dusting stays behind, refuses to blow away like ordinary dust in the wind. No, no. This dust sticks. I WAS HERE!

It occurs to me that somehow I went from yummy home baking to gruesome public execution. What is happening to me!!?? Perhaps having been immersed this past week in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History 48 – Prophets of Doom and having spent time admiring Sarah Silvey’s #Inktober – Something for the Connoisseurs has something to do with this? I refer specifically to Dan’s telling of the crazy medieval anarchy in the German city of Munster that led to lots of split blood and human cages hanging to this day from the steeple of the city’s church, I kid you not…

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…and Sarah’s excellent drawing of Edgar Allen Poe’s coldblooded, The Cask of Amontillado protagonist using brick and mortar to wall up his victim attached to chains (behind that wall you see) in a catacomb.

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Perhaps it is not only true that Necessity is the Mother of Invention and Weakness is the Mother of Cajoling. Perhaps Immersion is the Mother of Metaphor. We are what we think. We paint mind pictures and make comparisons based on what we look at, what we listen to. We develop opinions and take positions based on what we experienced in the past combined with what we see and touch in the now. Our present thing informs the next thing in our path.

Thank God it’s raining. A good day to bake something!! The concrete, waiting for slate on top and bluestone around the base, can continue curing all by itself.

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The Dog’s Name

I love my Airbnb guests. I love that they bring life to the cottage my son Bradley built. I love that they appreciate the craftsmanship and the view, that they notice the effort that went into my own little personal touches, that they clean up after themselves. I love that they pay money to be here and thereby sustain my simple lifestyle. I love that they amuse me.

One way they amuse me is how they introduce themselves. It’s the Airbnb way that when you book a place, you send the host a note describing who you are and the general purpose of your trip. It’s often something simple like

We are coming into town for parents weekend at UVA.

Or

My husband and I are looking for a quick getaway into the country from our hectic city life.

Or

I’m surprising my fiancé with a night in your cottage to celebrate her birthday.

My guests are happy that I allow pets, but I want to know they’re coming. It says so in the description. People take time to assure me that their dog is a good dog and I will not have to worry. This is all good. I appreciate when guests leave extra for cleaning up after shedding dogs, which I also suggest (but Airbnb’s system does not allow me to impose) and maybe one in ten remembers, but that is another conversation.

The amusing part is how often the person writing the note tells me their dog’s name right up front – to the exclusion of any other name but their own. I don’t ask for the dog’s name and I don’t have to. For example, this one, for two adults:

My wife and I have some friends in the area and will be checking out some of the local wineries with them. We will be bringing our 40-pound Bassett hound Sasha. She doesn’t bark much and will be crated when we are not there.

Or this one, for two adults and two children:

We are excited about staying at your place. It was the first place that caught my eye when we started looking for a place. We will be bringing our sweet golden retriever, Lola.

I love the dogs that come.

Last week I had a 10-month-old Great Pyrenees named Indy (already 70 pounds!), a few days ago a (white) English golden retriever named Lola, right now a 3-year-old French bulldog named Thor. Sierra has been here twice and never wants to leave. Bardo killed a chicken back when the chickens sometimes clucked and scratched around the yard – he thought it was a toy? – and those guests (presumably on account of deep humiliation) never came back. Millie circled the new and improved (read impenetrable) coop a thousand times in two days – surely there’s a way in to those birds!! Here she is: wishing, plotting, hoping, studying.

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This is Lola playing (incessantly) with Sandy’s dog Maggie.

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This is Thor, a French bulldog, who with serious attitude gave Maggie a run for her money. They occasionally rested.

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Point is, people tell me the dog’s name. Often I have to ask for the people names.

I like to know everyone’s first names because I write little welcome cards that start with Dear _____________ and ___________… Everyone loves to see their own name written down, right? (In cursive with real ink on real paper no less – am I wrong?) So I write back telling them how delighted I am that they want to stay at the cottage and then asking for first names of whoever else is coming (now that I know the dog’s name) 😊.

I wonder why the person booking the cottage often tells me the dog’s name but no other names. Is it because they are so familiar with their wife/husband (fiancé/mom/girlfriend/whomever it may be) that it doesn’t occur to them that not everyone knows that name?

Is it because other hosts have never asked for first names because they don’t need or want to know?

Is it because they say the dog’s name so often? As in Thor, No! Thor, Come! (I use Thor for this example even though the wonderful guests who love him did not yell at him like this. I want to use it because I love the name. Best name ever for a French bulldog.) Considering a dog’s limited scope of vocabulary and our human propensity to fill the air with spoken words, maybe they say the name at home over and over and are just used to saying it, including it?

Maybe it’s because they are so attached to their dog and they want everyone to love him/her? The lady who booked the cottage for her family (that includes Lola) told a wonderful story. She said she had, as a young child, watched her sister being attacked by a German shepherd. “She lived,” she said, which tells you the extent of the injuries, but this left a huge fear, a huge NO when it came to having a dog in her own family many years later. Her daughters wanted a dog though and she wanted them to have one but resisted strongly until one day she saw an English cream golden retriever puppy that was “literally the cutest thing I ever saw in my life.”

This is what one of these puppies looks like, in case you are wondering.

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She relented, regretted the decision for the first six months, and now loves this two-year-old dog, who is friendly, gentle, gorgeous and perfect.

I think people tell me the dog’s name because they love the dog so much. I get it. Coco is leaving home soon, as Samuel has found his own place. She won’t be far away, and he says I can go snatch her during the day if I want to, but she will no longer snooze on my lap like this on a regular basis. I will miss her. Yes, even this face I will miss!

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I need a dog of my own sooner or later. What kind, I don’t yet know. And I wonder what her name will be 😊

A Mystery at Royal Orchard

You know how you get invited to an event sometimes that’s outside your normal scope and is either exciting all by itself or exciting because of where it is or who else will be there, and you can hardly wait? And other times you get the invitation and your mouth makes a weird shape – the kind that’s trying to form some variation of Oh, yay! but just can’t because you are at the opposite end of the excitement spectrum? And other times you are smack-dab in the middle and the best you can come up with is Eh or Okay?

I generally veer toward Eh when I am unsure. Combine Vagueness (various aspects of the event are unknown)

with Else (going requires me to switch mental gears)

with Extreme Overall Body Soreness. It has been a week of gung-ho carrying/ placing/ leveling/ finagling 50+ cinder blocks as well as shoveling tons – has to be tons – of dirt and “crusher run.”

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Add an unexpected memorial service to the week and I am ambivalent. But I said I was going so I’m going. I had RSVP’d YES to this thank-you-to-CASA-volunteers event weeks ago. On the upside, it would be a reason to put on something besides overalls, and there would be great food and drink there, and nice people would be commending important work, I was sure of that. And doesn’t it often happen that once you get there, it’s so fun and amazing that you wonder whatever made you hesitate?
But the venue, “Royal Orchard” – never heard of it.

I worked in hospitality for years, a job that requires you to know about local attractions including wineries, breweries, cideries. Royal Orchard kinda sounds like it falls into that general category, don’t you think?

I could have looked it up. I could have asked around. Even if I had, it would not be found in a printed or posted or anyone’s mental listing of local cideries. That’s because Royal Orchard is a private home. They don’t sell apples, they don’t make hard cider, they don’t have a pumpkin patch and they don’t make donuts for tourists, though it turns out they do have a vast network of walking trails open to the public. Who knew?

We turned off the main road onto Royal Orchard Drive and started climbing a single-lane road up, up, up the hillside. Slight curve, serious hairpin, up some more, up, up, up. No mile-markers, but it has to be right. There were no other roads. Suddenly the house appears before you.

This is the Royal Orchard “Big House,” or as much of it as would fit in my camera’s viewfinder. The host of the event, who owns it along with “about a hundred of my cousins,” said his great-grandfather did well (I guess!) in the railroad industry and built the house (or let us more correctly say had the house built) around 1913.

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This is the side driveway. That building way over to the right seemed to be some sort of carriage barn.

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That’s a lot of stone.

The interior is lavishly furnished in period style. This is one of the (I stopped counting at 15) bedrooms.

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This is the view.

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If you adjust the lighting and look carefully at the foreground of the view, you see a curious thing. Four curious things. See them?

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Zooming in doesn’t really help figure out what they are.

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I want to know your guess.

Glorified grain silo? The door has to be around the back.

Primo-natural rock-climbing wall? For the outdoor experience that is not a mountain.

Tomb? The grandfather? But then who are the other three for?

Monument? To those who did all the work? (I can hope!)

Above-ground dungeon? You would not hear the screams from the house.

Newfangled monolith? Who says it has to be just one large, upright stone? These Virginians, they do what they want and call it what they want.

It is a question for the host. It is a question for which, surely, there is a good answer. “I wish I had a better story” is not the answer I was looking for. “We think they just didn’t know what to do with all the leftover stones,” he said.

Huh.

I got to thinking about all the built things I look at and wonder about. Why is it there? Why did they build it like that? Who thought that was a good idea?

Maybe there’s not a good answer.

Maybe there wasn’t a better thing to do. Maybe someone was bored and made the thing absentmindedly. Maybe they goofed. Maybe they were sure it would come out nice and it just didn’t. Maybe they wanted people to wonder in a hundred years: What is it? and be dumbfounded. (Funny little joke – think they’re still laughing??) Maybe they assumed a legend would arise. Maybe not everything is purposeful.

I think someone buried something in there. Not necessarily a corpse, though the Edgar Allen Poe part of my mind has to entertain the possibilities of even gruesomer images. But more like a time capsule. You could argue that the house serves that purpose, and be right, but something more personal maybe.

What would you put in a box and tuck into a stone tower for someone to find in a hundred years?

Just Show Up

Thirteen years ago I began working with a man who in his earlier life was, like Patrick Swayze, a ballet dancer from Texas. By the time I met him, he had made the transition to another form of performance, another way to give the public an outstanding experience that they spend good money for. If you doubt that being a food and beverage director requires a great deal of grace, dramatic flair, improvisation, reading your audience, and endless, creative accommodation of individual whims, you haven’t tried to be successful at this. Nor have you met the master of all such abilities.

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Scott Meynig had no qualms about saying that New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tasted like cat pee. (How he knew what cat pee tastes like is a question I have no answer for.) Richard Hewitt, sommelier at the time, remembers the wine-tasting occasion when the wine/pee comparison was made. He also relates this story:

When Scott was running the banquet department I loved to throw him ‘ringers’ that would challenge him.

Scott: ‘Did you really promise the bride that the groom could ride in on a white horse dressed in armor’?

I would just reply that I was trying to up-sell the event.

Scott: ‘The horse and armor are fine but where are we going to get a lance?’

The 300+ people at Pippin Hill who gathered to celebrate Scott’s life on Tuesday of this week all had their own special admiration for him. Some remembered how he helped his family with their business, Family Ties & Pies, not only in the kitchen but also at the City Market on Saturday mornings (Charlottesville’s outstanding farmer’s market). Some remembered how he mentored them professionally. Some, his taking the time to listen to their personal bemoanings, followed by his ability to dole out wise advice in fifteen words or less. Some remembered his bottomless well of kindness and wit. Some, his get-the-job-done spirit and unbegrudging willingness to pitch in and move chairs and tables or whatever had to be done to make the event perfect for the guests.

I remember him saying that one of the most important things a person can do is just show up. The rest comes, but you have to be there. As much as one person could, Scott showed up. He never seemed in a hurry, but he got to where it mattered. His presence made the difference countless times to countless people. And everyone knew that if Scott was there, whatever was happening would be better. I never saw anyone take charge in such a quiet way. His teams were unfailingly loyal. Is it any wonder? Who wouldn’t want to get on board with this caliber a leader?

I am honored to have known him, to have worked side by side, to have gathered my own nuggets of gold from his masterful performances. I am so grateful he practiced what he preached, grateful that he just showed up, time and again, during the window of time we had, grateful to have watched him do the next thing with seeming ease, with unshakeable commitment, with spot-on humor. Many will miss him, none more than his amazing family.

May we all have a Scott in our lives.

Something Lighter

I needed to listen to something light the other day because my thoughts had been immersed for too long in serial killers. I go for the crime drama shows and had just finished the last episode of Mindhunter on Netflix – two seasons about the early days (1970s) of the FBI’s “Behavioral Science Unit,” a department that studied patterns and traits of the baddest of the bad to help find and identify others of their ilk. The second season concerns the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-81. It’s heavy stuff.

Not yet ready for bed after I turned off the TV, I was curious how much of the show was based on fact so I googled Atlanta Child Murders. Seems the writers of Mindhunter got a lot right.

That led to curiosity about the renamed “Behavioral Analysis Unit” founded in 1972 at Quantico by real-life agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas. That led to a piece on the qualifications for being an FBI agent (what does it take to get that job) which I couldn’t/wouldn’t even consider for various reasons, which then led to an article about the most notorious of the serial killers, the Top Ten, the ones that shaped the initial studies and led to criminal profiling that is still used today.

Ted Bundy, Edmund Kemper, Jeffrey Dahmer and others – these almost alien men committed crimes that have no words strong enough to describe. Ghastly, shocking, horrifying, evil, wicked, despicable, heinous, demonic, atrocious, monstrous, brutal – all these words seem pale to me when examining the crimes. This is not the kind of stuff you should be reading before going to bed if you want good dreams.

So I finally said to myself, Yeah, something lighter maybe.

A gardening podcast perhaps? My gourds had reminded me that the garden was not a complete failure this year.

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My neighbor Jennifer took some that I offered and had fun with her daughter Anna Lane.

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But I didn’t find a gardening podcast. Instead I stumbled on something called The Slow Home. No, it’s not about the homeowner’s intellectual deficiencies. And it’s not about how fast we move (or don’t) when we are exhausted from shoveling too much concrete that is masquerading as dirt. It’s about purposefully, mindfully adjusting your pace, your home, your life to make room for the stuff that matters to you.

It was a lovely alternative to serial killers, I must say.  And an intriguing topic.

Taking our time, enjoying the moments, not in a hurry – do we do this as much as we should?  Thinking about such things reminded of some of the scenes I like best in some of the children’s books I like best. (These are for you, Mona!)

Such as when Frog and Toad stare at the garden plot together and Frog gently suggests that the garden will grow in its own good time.

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Or when Fern and Avery take turns swinging in the barn door in that famous summer of Charlotte’s Web.

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Or when the boy plays in the bracken with The Velveteen Rabbit.

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Or during One Morning in Maine when Sal and her sister Jane have to wait just a bit longer for their ice cream cones because of “Mr. Ferd Clifford and Mr. Oscar Staples, who were sitting in the store talking about trapping lobsters and how the fish were biting.”

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Or in Blueberries for Sal when Little Sal “picked three berries and dropped them in her little tin pail…kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!” (Oh, may we take the time to hear the kuplinks and the kuplanks and the kuplunks in our lives!)

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Or when, “early every morning, Francois, the keeper’s son, stopped on his way to school to say, ‘Bonjour, Happy Lion.’”

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Or when Madeleine is not afraid of mice.

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Or when Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel are peacefully settled in the humble cellar of the new town hall and Mrs. McGillicuddy brings a hot apple pie 😊

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I was just reading to Ellie and Nelson last week, so I’ve got these lovely, peaceful images fresh in my mind.

 

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Frog and Toad and Fern and Avery and the Velveteen Rabbit and Sal and Jane and Francois and the Happy Lion and Madeleine and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel make me wonder about “the company we keep.” For years I read these books and many others to my kids, over and over again, and now I read them to my grandchildren when they come visit. The pages are soft from many, many turnings. The images are familiar old friends that warm my heart and gentle my day.

We all have something, I hope, Something Lighter, Something Balanced, Joyful, Peaceful, Delightful for those times when Something Gruesome or Tragic or Angry wants to win the day and snag every part of us and paint the world all wrong. What’s your Something Lighter? I know some of your answers: fishing, golf, painting, woodworking, writing poems, cooking, playing games, watching the Patriots (!), playing Wordfeud or Rummikub, walking the dog… What else?