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?

Who, me? A Napper?

Dumb luck comes to everyone at some point or other. It came to Harry by way of a bird – an unsuspecting, industrious, blessed bird. First, the backstory of No Roses for Harry.*

Harry was a white dog with black spots. On his birthday, he got a present from Grandma. It was a woolen sweater with roses on it. Harry didn’t like it the moment he saw it. He didn’t like the roses.

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This is a story that packs a punch. In the opening paragraph alone and in the priceless expression on his face, we are all reminded of a time when we opened a gift, feared our inability to hide our shock and thought How ghastly is that!

Poor Harry. No one else seems to think the sweater is ghastly. He does his best to lose it, fails three times, is forced to wear it and finally hangs his head.

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That’s when his luck began.

As he sat wondering what to do, Harry noticed a loose stitch on his sweater. He pulled at the wool—just a little at first – then a bit more – and a little bit more. Harry didn’t know it, but a bird was watching….

Quick as a flash, she took the end of the wool in her beak and flew away with it! It all happened before Harry could even blink.

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To Harry’s great delight, the bird kept flying with the string of wool in her beak until the entire sweater had unraveled and was trailing after the bird high up in the sky like a plane at the beach trails a banner – this was the best banner ever!

No one in the family noticed until they got a note from Grandma that she was coming for a visit. Uh-oh! Where’s the sweater? Of course they couldn’t find it. Only Harry knew why.

This is where I take umbrage.

When Grandma arrived, Harry ran to her with his leash. Then he sat up and begged. “All right, Harry,” said Grandma. After I’ve had my lunch and a nap, we’ll go for a walk.”

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C’mon, Grandma. Really? You just got there. Lunch, okay. But a nap? You need a nap??

I’m pretty good about sticking to the text of a book as I read aloud to children. It seems ingenuine and just plain wrong to change what the author clearly intended the words to be, much as we will interpret them (and, in this case, the hilarious images and fashion of 1958) individually anyway. But this is the one part of this book I might have reworded slightly once or twice over the years, maybe even just omitted the “and a nap” part.

What kind of grandmas need naps, even think of naps, in the late morning having just arrived on a visit to precious grandchildren? Not the kind I wanted my children to form images of. Not me anyway, not the woman who would someday become the grandmother (Oma) of their own children. Best nip this expectation in the bud. No roses for Harry and no naps for me!

For better or worse, I have a lot to do in this one life I’ve been given. It’s always been that way. Whether working full time under someone else’s timetable or ordering every minute of my day myself, I am one of those people whose list is always longer than the time given, who never runs out of things to do, who thinks of the next thing while doing the three things that came before it. I have always lamented that I have to sleep. I like to sleep, don’t get me wrong. Sleep is glorious and needful, but sleep happens at nighttime, the way nature intended.

Napping is a foreign concept – they call it a siesta in some cultures, right? Other cultures. Napping was always, for me, an activity reserved for those days when I am so sick I can’t get off the couch. I always said If I’m asleep during the day, you know I don’t feel well.

C’mon, Grandma. Really?

Gosh, now I get it!

See this darling little fellow? This is Nelson, almost two, with my mom, his great-grandma, about to catch him as he flies downward with all speed and zero fear.

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See this darling little girl? This is Ellie, just turned four, posing with a goat at Yoder’s in Madison, Virginia, looking sweet and angelic, which she (yes, of course, because I love her very much) always is. 😊

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They wear me out! I need a nap!

 

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*No Roses for Harry by Gene Zion, Pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham, Harper Collins Children’s Books, New York, 1958

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Out of Whack

The last time I played tennis, I did – several times – a thing tennis players do. I adjusted the strings of my racket. The impact of the ball at the moment of contact shifts the strings ever so slightly depending on many things like whether the shot has backspin or topspin, how tightly the racket is strung to begin with, the speed of the racket as it heads toward making contact with the ball, the physical strength of the player (mine being not much). Watch those players during the USOpen or Wimbledon and see them do this quite often between points.

Roger Federer likes his racket strung loosely, so the strings easily (considering his spin and strength) shift and get out of their perfect perpendicular formation and into all kinds of wacky, wavy patterns. He often has to adjust the strings that get, one could say, out of whack. Rarely (possibly never) can I use that phrase without remembering when Samuel was five and watching me adjust my strings. I explained what I was doing and he said, “Momma, why can’t the strings just stay in whack?” (Hold that thought.)

federer with strings

See how Roger stands there looking at the racket, fingering the strings?* All us tennis players do this sometimes. (Did you catch that: “All us…” 😊 This is, in fact, one of the only characteristics I have in common with players who really know how to play the game, but I’m darn proud of it!) Besides bringing your strings into correct position (which makes for a better next shot in theory anyway), this activity gives you a moment of focus to (if you are Roger Federer) rethink your strategy for the next point or (if you are me) mentally beat yourself up for the last bonehead shot that was so easy – how could I miss that!!??

Cheryl, Scott, Pat and I play as often as we can on the har-tru hydrocourts at  Keswick Golf Club, a holdover perk from my years as Resident Historian there. Here is an old photo to give you an idea of the lovely setting.

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Cheryl, Scott, Pat and I spend close to as much time talking as playing, but we do play, and we occasionally have great points – deft angles, slamming overheads, forehand alley shots that slip right down the line past the net person. We congratulate each other, go collect the ball(s) that went astray and set up for the next point.

So there I was, mid-game, waiting, feigning focus, fingering strings, when I saw something astounding: DIRT!! Tennis is a clean game, I assure you. Dirt??!! Do you see it?

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In case you don’t, allow me to show you.

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I puzzled. I wondered. I was fully distracted from the next point. Then I remembered Willow.

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Willow was here, beautiful Willow, a dog that will chase a tennis ball all the day long. I’d been out there with her as often as I could, more times per day than I kept track of. Imagine what happens to a tennis ball that gets hit onto a gravel driveway bordered by some grass and a lot of dirt and then mixed with dog slobber? Here she is post-chase taking a quick break under the car with her disgusting prize.

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Ah, that’s where the dirt came from! The thought of her boundless energy warmed my heart as I stared at the dirty racket. She had brought that ball back to me over and over again, and I (with my garden gloves on when I remembered them!) had picked it up and whacked it with my racket yet again and off she would tear in hot pursuit. No wonder my strings were dirty!

As you see though, (and I noticed sadly) my strings are not out of whack. Pathetic, weakling stroke I must have these days. Maybe the workouts at the gym will remedy that, but alas, another conversation.

Now back to the phrase: Charming and adorable as Samuel was at five (still is at 25!), we simply don’t say that the strings of a tennis racket are in whack! What else don’t we usually say?

Lincoln was talking about Sandy the other day, about how he keeps going despite sometimes not feeling well. Lincoln said, It wouldn’t do for him to think he was vinsible.

Why do we say right as rain but not right as sunshine?

Why do we say the kiss of death, not the kiss of life?

Why is it always discombobulated and never combobulated or simply bobulated?

Why do we tell people not to be a wet blanket but we never encourage them to be a dry blanket?

Why do we call a small person (in jest of course) a shrimp and not a plankton?

Why hasn’t the handwriting on the wall morphed to the printout on the wall?

Something  with this system is surely out of whack!

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Thank you, WSJ, for the Federer photo!

Morning Joy

None of us ever knows what we will wake up to, but today for me was doubly amazing. In the early morning dim darkishness, in the murky, fuzzy, just-getting-started light of pre-dawn, I opened my eyes the way I always do first thing — tentatively. You know how it is – your brain is as un-luminous as the day, your eyelids aren’t 100% cooperative in the effort to lift, the rest of your body is solidly at anchor – and time is a mystery.

Try to put yourself in that state of mind for just a moment, in that place of one-degree-past-pitch-blackness, and imagine this image all dim and silhouetted, almost indistinguishable, none of the color, only the shape of the vase against the backdrop of windows and trees. It was quite something to wake up to! Even in my brain-fuzziness, I knew it was a vase filled with beautiful lilies, my favorite. And I had to smile.

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Lovely things give us pause, and lovely things that come from a kind heart, as these did, remind us how much kindness matters. In one corner of my life or another, there’s a mess. I know everybody has a mess somewhere, some minor and almost silly, like unfinished walls and untrimmed windows, and some major and heart-wrenching, like a ravaging disease or a house fire. Lovely things and kind hearts go a long way toward balancing the picture.

One of my current minor messes is a spackling mess. Yesterday was the wet-sponging stage, followed by one last filling in of not quite perfectly flat spaces. The funky triangular windows that came out of the bedroom wall and the living room wall were replaced with sheetrock, but my shoulder issues of earlier this summer put the finishing touches on hold. Now, thankfully, sustained overhead movement is no longer impossible, and I’m tired of unfinished walls.

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Sooner or later there will be paint!

So this morning, following the silhouette of lilies, following a cup of hot tea enjoyed in crisp, early fall morning air on my oddfellow’s bench, I went downstairs to get the cans of paint that I would need to paint these rooms. I then went out to the porch and set them down on the dropcloth Samuel’s got there for the little table he’s refinishing.

That’s when Beauty came to me in another unexpected way.

I looked up, toward the garden for some reason – did movement catch my eye? There she was, a beautiful doe, way out by the far pergola. I live in the woods and deer are all around. More often I see them running than standing still. But I never grow tired of their grace and elegance, even from afar.

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I’m sure she heard me. We had a stare-down, of which she finally got bored. That all you got, lady? You just gonna stare? There must have been some good grass out there. Promptly she went back to it. I wonder if she laments being unable to get into the garden. The eight-foot deer fence has kept her kind out for years. This year they probably gathered out there, shook their heads and said to each other Pathetic attempt at a garden! We sure could help get rid of some of that feast of a weedy jungle! … Nah, forget it. Feast or no feast, that fence is waaaay too risky!

None of us ever knows what we will wake up to but today I got one image of kindness and one glimpse of wildlife. Both reminded me that some things in the world are as they should be, and very good.