Monthly Archives: December 2009

Too much Julie and Julia

It’s funny how books can influence my activities. Not funny ha ha, but funny strange….but that’s a whole other blog topic. Anyway, Anne gave me Julie and Julia for Christmas, so I’m determined to finish the book before I watch the movie. Besides, Lindsay says the book is much better than the movie, so I figure I’ll enjoy the best first.

Anyway, as is often the case, this book is inspiring me to try new recipes. I remember my mom watching The French Chef with Julia Child and while I sometimes joined her, I never had an interest in learning to pull the pig skin off a pork shoulder or extracting marrow from a bone. In fact, that might be what sent me into a 30-year tendency toward vegetarianism.

Reading the book though, has convinced me that I should try some new recipes or at least, something I haven’t made in a long time. Yesterday I made cabbage rolls for the first time in about 20 years. I combined parts of two separate recipes because I couldn’t find one that used the combination of ingredients I wanted to use — ground turkey breast and brown rice. Then, of course, I didn’t have enough marinara sauce so combined that with a can of chopped tomatoes. Turned out perfectly. Or they would have been perfect had we not gone for a walk while they baked about 15 minutes longer than they should have. But my husband — ever easy to please — pronounced them terrific.

So what shall I cook today? I woke up with a hankering for lentil soup. I know — most people wake up with a hankering for doughnuts or Cocoa Puffs, but not me. I wake up thinking about what to have for supper. The cookbook of choice today is an old favorite — More-with-Less Cookbook — which has the easiest, most basic lentil soup recipe I know of. Lentils, onions, parsley, basil, thyme, or whatever I can unearth (or unsnow, as the case may be) in my herb garden.

Though we rarely have “dessert”, if I get really ambitious, I might make a pie for Fred. Unlike Julia and more like Julie, I’ll use a purchased pie crust. Long ago, my husband judged a pie contest. The winning pie maker had used a purchased frozen crust, and since I don’t like pie anyway, why bother wasting much time on something I’m not going to eat?

However, we have some pears that are looking more and more like they need to be eaten and since I don’t like pears I may as well make a pear pie. The husband will be ecstatic and if he’s happy, I might be able to talk him into giving me a foot massage. It is true that food is the way to a man’s heart, or hands, in this case.

Thus begins my “day of cooking dangerously.” Thank you Julie and Julia.

Just call me grace

I am the klutziest person I know. I can’t blame this on age, because I’ve been this way all my life. Just ask my mom. At 5, I insisted on standing behind my brother who was up to bat. Swing, whack, smack. She’s down for the count. Stiches #1. The I stepped on a rusty tent post stake after my dad told me to put some shoes on. I ignored him. Stitches #2. 

In fifth grade, I dived into the quarry with my glasses on. Oops. Lucky for me my parents had a good sense of humor. In fact, I got a new pair of glasses about three years in a row thanks to playing artillery during lunch hour at Beaverdam.

In high school, while living in Florida, I was a member of a large touring choir. We were preparing to take off on a bus tour. I decided to take a running jump through the (open) emergency door at the back of the bus. It was a good example of why I was not a hurdler. I landed on the floor of the bus, but had nasty bruises on each shin for a long time.

About 15 years ago, we had not yet repaired our badly rotting front porch. I stepped on the wrong board, and my leg went right through. The girls had to call their dad to come home and pull me out. I’m sure anyone driving by would have though it kind of strange to see a woman’s upper body sticking out of the porch. Needless to say, the porch was quickly repaired. My leg wasn’t so quick to recover. No break but a bad bruise on the thigh.

A couple of weeks ago, I was — as usual — carrying too much at once. My foot hit a bamboo rug that was in the wrong place and my legs slid one way. I pitched forward and smacked my chin on a side table. Thought for sure it was broken. Fred thought I was knocked out. Maybe that would have been better. As it was, I felt it for about two weeks.

A few weeks ago, we moved our bed. So…last night in my return from a bathroom run, I forgot the bed move. Went to lie down on my side of the bed but the bed wasn’t there. Somehow I hit the side of the bed, flipped over and smacked my shoulder on the wall. Yes, that shoulder. Lucky for me, the docs say I can’t make it any worse. That sent me into a sobbing jag for about 15 minutes. Poor Fred couldn’t calm me down.

Like I say, I’m a klutz. Always have been and probably always will be.  My parents missed their chance to prevent some of this — should have named me Grace.

Reading my life away

Christmas isn’t Christmas if I don’t get a book from someone. As a kid, it was often my dad who was the gifter of books, most often a new mystery by a favorite author such as Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. One year, my brother gave me a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” I think that was what got me started on true literature and steered me toward my chosen major of English.

After we got married, my husband began giving me cookbooks for Christmas — sometimes one I’d requested but more often something that simply caught his eye. He knows I read cookbooks like some people read “chick lit”, a term I actually despise. My feeling is that people should be allowed to read whatever they like and not feel put down because they enjoy reading something light rather than, say, some philosophical tome.

In more recent years, my daughters have taken over the task of book giving. They never fail me — I’ve never disliked any book they’ve chosen. The fact that one daughter is a shift manager at a bookstore simply ensures that I’ll be adding to my ever-burgeoning book stock.

This year was no different as three more books found their way to my stack of gifts. For some people this might present a problem, i.e., which one to read first. In my case, that’s not a problem. I never read only one book at a time. I’ve always got at least two or three going at one time. Someone once asked me how I do that, but it’s really no different than when one is in an academic track and reading texts for multiple courses. Well, it is different, I guess. No one’s testing me on what I’ve been reading.

At the moment, I’m starting Geoff Nicholson’s “The Lost Art of Walking,” a non-fiction book about the history, science, philosophy and literature of pedestrianism. Just as the author has been awarded a contract to write a book about walking, he falls while walking and suffers an injury. Having just taken a long walk/run in the snow, I decided this would be a good choice for this morning. Besides, Lindsay, who gave me the book, has been quizzing me on the content so I have to be ready to answer with some semblance of knowledge. She is, after all, the on-site professional rhetorician and I refuse to let a 27-year-old get the best of me.

Anne, the bookstore expert, based her choices on my interest in cooking…or maybe my interest in food. She’s probably remembering our games of “where did this food item come from?” Our source was always my well-thumbed 30-year-old copy of Larousse Gastronomique, a fascinating encyclopedia of gastronomy. Anyway, Anne’s gifts were “Julie and Julia”, which I now have to finish before I may watch the movie, and “A Cook’s Bible: Seasonal Food,” which I’ve read through once already. It influenced my grocery list this week, and placed the suggestion of cabbage rolls in the cooking section of my brain.

Lucky me. The snow has fallen, I’m on vacation for another week, and my favorite chair is empty. No question about what to do today.

Retiring mama

I have a lot of heroes, but the one that ranks right up at the top is my mother. She’ll probably snort with laughter when she sees that, but it’s true. After all, how many 87-year-olds still work at two different retail stores several times a month, teach piano lessons, walk a half mile or ride a stationary bike most days, drive themselves most places, act as chauffeur to their non-driving friends, serve as an officer in her quilt club,  make quilts for their grandchildren, take courses through ILR, sing in the Messiah every year and sing in the church choir?

Seems like a lot to me, or as my daughter puts it, “Grandma has a busier social calendar than I do.”  So it came as a bit of a surprise when Mother announced recently that she was “retiring” from the church choir. At first, I didn’t believe her because she’s threatened this before. But when she declared her intentions to the choir director, I began to think she was serious. Her reason was simple enough… she just “doesn’t like going out at night anymore…in the dark…cold.”

Still, I waited for her to change her mind. Instead, she repeated this to my daughter no. 2, her partner in musical pursuits. Anne returned from an afternoon chat with Grandma, announcing somewhat dubiously that Grandma plans to drop out of choir. For many, this may not seem like a big thing. But you have to understand my mother. She’s been singing since the day she was born.

She’s sung in choirs her whole life, including primary and high school, college, and post college. Despite having five children at home, she found time to direct our youth church choirs. She’s sung in the Messiah so many times, she’s lost track of the years.

So daughter number 2 suggested this called for a corsage for Grandma to wear in her last performance with the church choir on Christmas Eve. I delivered it to her a bit unceremoniously as she was preparing dinner for her older sister, sister-in-law, and nephew. I could tell from the look in her eyes that she thought it was a nice gesture, but unnecessary.

Even as I wondered whether some choral protocol would prevent her from wearing it on the outside of her robe, I watched her walk in to the sanctuary. There was the corsage. Apparently, the director, Mark Suderman didn’t share one of my former choir director’s belief that nothing could sully the sanctity of a choral robe, or he simply didn’t have the nerve to tell an 87-year-old musician what she could or couldn’t do.

She told us later that Mark had announced to the choir that this was to be her last choir performance. Dick Boehr, another long-time choir member and probably her successor to the “longest standing throne”, added that she’d directed his own junior high church choir.

And so she sang with her usual serious gusto. I watched, but didn’t see any tears. Of course, the sanctuary was a bit dark and she was really too far away for me to see. My guess is that she felt some relief knowing that she can actually stay for her entire Sunday school hour and stay at home on Wednesday nights.

Of course, if you remember from the beginning of this blog, choir is only one of her current obligations. There is still a hefty list, and I don’t imagine she’ll be dropping many of them in the immediate future. But if she does? Fine. She’ll still be my hero. After all, who else will bring me whatever food I’m hungry for when I’m under the weather?

Going to the dogs

Our house is (literally) going to the dogs. At the moment, one tiny Schnauzer is curled up in what he thinks is his chair — the recliner — pretending to be asleep because he thinks he’s so cute that no one will bother him. He’s right. He’s cute.

In the living room, Harvey, a large black lab-dachschund-Bassett hound blend has taken over the couch. One sleepy eye opens slowly whenever someone approaches. He too is convinced that he so cute no one would dream of making him share his perch. He too is probably correct in his assumptions.

So for the moment, all is quiet. For the moment. It is, by all human expectations, the lull before the storm of Penny hits town. Penny, another Heinz 57, is at the moment, sleeping in the backseat of daughter number two’s black Matrix. Little does she know what she’ll encounter when she walks in the front door. She is known to love smaller dogs. Bigger dogs? Not so much.

We know this experiment is a gamble. My father would have said we needed a hypothesis for this to be an official experiment, so here’s the hypothesis: Dog number 3 (Penny) will enter the house in her usual eagerness. Dogs number 1 (Ike) and 2 (Harvey) will rush the door in their eagerness to greet the newcomers. There will be silence…for about two seconds. Then all hell will break loose. Fur will fly. Yelps will be heard.

Lindsay, the Cesar Millan wannabe, will offer some psychological comment on letting them find their own ground. Anne will look at her sister, roll her eyes, and pronounce “That’s a dumb thing.” Nick will stand guard, planning to grab the first dog that bares his teeth. Fred will watch anxiously, hoping the cat, queen of the basement, doesn’t choose this moment to ascend to the upper regions.

The only things missing from this happy family portrait is one boyfriend and one dog, Luna, whose name rightly suggests a personality that might add extra noise and flying fur.  Oh yes, one other cat, who is doubtless better off at home.

Me? I’m going to be happily ensconced in my recliner that Ike has abandoned. For this Christmas, I am happy to have most of my kids — human, canine and feline, back in the fold — if only for 24 hours.

So it’s not a perfect experiment. But as Dad would have said, there is no such thing as a perfect experiment. It is, however, one that I’d not miss for the world.

The very best Christmas gift

Over the past 53 (ulp) Christmases, many gifts have appeared under my tree. In fact, looking back, there have been far too many gifts — many more than any one person deserves. There have probably been some duds along the way, but quite honestly, I can’t name one.

But the best Christmas gift? I thought that would be easy to name, but after carefully combing the cobwebby recessess of my brain, it simply is impossible to name the best. So okay, I’ll go with “some” of the best ones, or at least those I remember. You probably have your own list. In fact, sit down and try to assemble a list. I’d like to read yours.

Let’s go way back to the beginning. I don’t know when this gift first made it to my house — you’d have to ask my mom. The gift was a Ruthie doll, or at least that’s what I called her. Ruthie was a pretty straightforward doll, fairly small, did nothing other than look blankly at me and listen to my darkest secrets. She didn’t walk, talk, pee, skate, or do flips. She just sat there, waiting patiently for me to change her clothes — none of which came from a store. All were handmade by my mother. But she had one very unusual characteristic. Every year for about four years, she reappeared under the tree with a new head of hair. I never understood how this happened, but that doll — once a dark brunette — became a blonde, raven-haired, maybe even a redhead. I’ve forgotten all the colors. Sometimes she had short curly hair, other times long and straight. Oddly, though I gave up playing with her, I never disposed of her. Somewhere in our attic, she reclines, shorn of most of her hair. Poor Ruthie.

I must have had a thing for dolls because somewhere along the way I insisted on an upgrade to a Chatty Cathy. You pulled a string at the back of her neck and she spoke stunning phrases like “Hi, I’m Chatty Cathy”. My parents finally broke down and got me one. I was ecstatic. She talked all day long. For one day. Then she became mute. We returned her to the store, and received a replacement who, like her predecessor, joined the family conversations for a day before losing her voice. Disgusted, I suggested we trade her in on a good pair of ice skates. They didn’t speak but they did glide smoothly over the ice…for a very long time.

Then there was the year my brother, Tom, had scarlet fever. He was housebound for weeks and unable to do any Christmas shopping. He was just two years older than me, and we often did our shopping together at Crow’s Five and Dime. That year, I didn’t expect anything from him. But there, under the Christmas tree, was a pair of red barrettes that I had coveted on one of our Saturday forays to Crow’s. He must have finagled Mother into doing some shopping for him.

Oddly, I always worried that someone would give me something I didn’t like. What would I do? How should I react? One year I was so concerned that my parents hadn’t gotten me the particular item I’d specified. Early Christmas morning, while the rest of the household was in slumberland, I sneaked to the living room, unwrapped the gift I thought was the right one, took a peek and rewrapped it. Whew. It was the right one. I’ve kept that secret for a very long time.

Along the way, there were many gifts that provoke an odd, nostalgic feeling. The hand-made green gingham bikini — my first — the year we opened gifts early before heading to Florida for a visit with our grandparents; a blue knit nightshirt that my dad ordered from LLBean — a few years before he died — and which I insist on keeping despite the fact that it is falling apart; homemade books of “gift certificates” from my daughters — promising to clean the bathroom, give me a big hug, or wash the dishes. Wonder if I could still cash in on those? There are no expiration dates. Up in the attic is a Raggedy Ann that my grandmother made when I was a child. That year she made four of them for me and my three youngest cousins. She ran out of time and embroidered a red heart only on Claire’s. Years later, she added a heart to mine.

As I write this, I lcan see one of the most amazing surprises my husband has come up with as a Christmas gift — an antique bread-rising box with the original finish, scratches and all. It came from his great-grandfather’s bakery. Like the antique rolling pin in our kitchen — from the same bakery — it reminds me of what really matters to me at Christmas.

Sure, gifts are great. The best ones are those from the heart — those inexpensive items that took time to find or make and were chosen by someone who loves me enough to know what I really like.

My Margaret

Back in the dark ages, when my husband and I got engaged, I was at the receiving end of well-meaning comments from those who felt it was important to prepare me for the “evil mother-in-law” syndrome. I’ve got to say that in the 30 years she was my mother-in-law, Margaret Steiner was never anything but a gracious, caring, fun-filled woman who showed me nothing  but love.

Never once was she critical of me; in fact, she was my most devoted fan from the days I worked as a feature writer for the Lima News, to the days that we started the Icon. It was she, not me, who clipped one story after another, often posting it on the door of the fridge, along with the pictures her grandchildren had drawn — an honored location.

When our oldest daughter was born, Margaret announced that she had decided to retire from her position as charge nurse at the Mennonite Memorial Home. She was needed — she told her boss — to babysit so that her son and daughter-in-law could continue working without worrying about their child. From the moment we dropped off Lindsay to the moment we picked her up, nothing interfered with the attention she received from her grandmother.

We would return home at the end of the day to find a happy kid…along with carefully written notes that documented her every activity. We knew exactly how many ounces of milk she’d drunk, how many naps — to the minute — that she’d taken, her activities (including smiles, gurgles, cries, etc.), which books she had been read and which pages she paid most attention to, as well as what every diaper had contained when changed. I am not making this up.

As Lindsay began to scoot, then crawl, then walk and talk — it was all there on the note at the end of the day. If we couldn’t be with her, Margaret was determined we’d know exactly how our daughter had spent her day. This was not intended to make us guilty about leaving her; indeed, it was simply Margaret’s way of making sure we didn’t miss anything or feel left out. If Fred’s dad went outside with Lindsay, there was Margaret, walking right behind him to make sure he didn’t drop her or to take photos of her as she learned to climb ladders and pick flowers in the garden.

When our youngest daughter was born, Fred’s mom decreed that his dad would watch over Lindsay, because only she was capable of caring for the baby. Only she could keep careful notes about this child’s daily movements (no pun intended). As the girls grew older and entered grade school, Grandma was always waiting at the door to make sure they made it to her house safely.

Never once in their years of growing up did she tell me that I was doing something wrong or that I should have done something differently. She didn’t interfere with our decisions about punishment or lack thereof. I suspect, though, that she always had a sympathetic ear for the child who had been in the wrong, because that’s where they wanted to go if they were mad at us.

Over the years, I got to know her as a determined, independent woman with a penchant for criticizing anyone who suggested that women were less important than men. I’ll never forget the day that the girls announced that Grandma was boycotting a pizza chain, which had a local store, because it was in support of pro-lifers. She was clear in her belief that women should be able to decide for themselves in abortion was acceptable. That statement contributed to their early belief in women’s rights and their understanding of “feminism”.

Quite honestly, I don’t remember ever having an argument with her. If our spouses argued with each other — we watched and laughed together over their silliness. I shared her opinion that my husband didn’t always listen to either of us and we liked to remind him of that. I think he sensed the fact that we were simply bonding in a way few in-laws do, and he was not going to do anything to interfere with our relationship.

During one of my last visits with her, I told her something I’d never been able to say out loud. I thanked her for being the best mother-in-law I could have asked for. She just turned her head and looked at me. She didn’t respond verbally, but I like to think that she understood.

The last 24 hours have been long and exhausting, and in the darker moments, I think I’ve lost a wonderful friend. But in my heart, she’s still here. Always. When I need someone to laugh with about my husband’s ability to ruin a pair of shoes, I’ll remember her whispering in my ear. “He always did wear out shoes faster than anyone else.”

Search for simplicity

Okay, I’m the first to admit that I like nice things, and that I probably spend more money on a single pair of shoes that some people would spend on three or four pairs.  But when you have feet built like mine, you learn that a $30 pair of flats just won’t cut it. I recently walked into my favorite sewing machine store and walked out with a computerized, digital sewing machine. We also own (and use) four computers — two Macs, a Dell, and an HP.

But take a quick walk through my house and you’ll notice that a few major appliances are missing because (a) we don’t have them or (b) they’re so small you missed them. (A) is a dishwasher; we don’t have one. Well, actually, we have one and he never breaks down and has no interest in being replaced. (B) is a television. Technically we have one but we don’t watch tv shows on it, because (a) it is at least five years old and is your plain old, basic tv (not digital), and (b) we ditched our cable. Hulu gets a lot of our business.

 One day, long ago, we decided to buy a larger tv as a surprise Christmas present for all of us. We put it in the back of the car and covered it with a blanket. The girls got in the car, looked at the large lump and said, “New tv, huh?” So much for that surprise. It had all the usual bells and whistles, and could be seen from outside the front window. But it annoyed us. It did exactly what we didn’t want it to do — it took over our lives. It became the focal point of the proverbial “family room”. So much for “family” life.

As often happens, the children grew up, went off to college and embarked on their own adventures, leaving us with a giant tv that sat unused. We returned to our own favorite evening activities of reading, writing, and talking, and agreed it was time to downsize the tv. We sold it to the highest bidder, and replaced it with our current model with DVD and 15-inch screen. Most of the time it sits silent, hidden behind a hanging ivy plant.

Thanks to Hulu, we now watch free movies and old 80s tv series like Simon and Simon, It Takes a Thief, Moonlighting, and a bunch of great old cartoons. Our DVD collection is filled with more of the same. And somewhere up in the attic, is a huge collection of old movies on VHS. Problem is, our VCR died.

So in a discussion about what to  buy ourselves for Christmas, we settled on a VCR or VCP, thinking it would be a simple purchase. As is often the case, we were wrong. It has not been easy. We’ve combed the usual online sources only to find that the only VCRs available are reconditioned or refurbished and most of the reviews are capital thumbs down. There are plenty of DVD/VCR combos, but we have a DVD. Why get another one? This is my parents’ fault — they instilled in me the belief that one does not buy what one does not need.

Hours of fruitless searching later, I reached the conclusion that I would have to come up with an alternate plan. What’s the best way to find something with the minimum time spent? Facebook. Of course. Put my search in my status box and wait for someone out there in FB land to locate my VCR at a price I’m willing to pay.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a friend responded that her daughter has a small tv with VCR/DVD that she might be willing to sell. Okay, so it’s not exactly what I wanted, and it will require more space but heck, I’ve got plenty of hanging ivy plants just longing for a tv to dangle over.

The only problem now is which movie to watch first.


     This morning, as little Ben Hartzler walked carefully down the aisle with his mom, Laura, carrying an unlit candle in his hand, my mind was suddenly jolted back to a long-ago Advent season. Ben – his hand steadied by his mother’s – carefully lit his own candle from the flame of last week’s candle, then used it to light the next pillar. Whew – the wick caught the flame. I suddenly realized I was holding my breath, remembering the year that the candle wouldn’t light.

     It was probably about 13 years ago, and my youngest daughter, Anne, was excited to be lighting the first Advent    candle of the season. She and her mentor, Sue, had practiced their routine several times. Anne easily lit her own candle and they moved to the first pillar. It would not light. No matter how hard they tried – no go. They scraped wax from the wick, but still it wouldn’t light.

     Quite honestly, I don’t remember exactly how the problem was resolved. I knew only that Anne was devastated, holding back the tears that came later. I think even Sue was near tears. I sure was. Later on, a friend who was on the Advent committee apologized, explaining that the wick had been completely covered in wax and they ended up replacing the candle. Anne vowed she’d NEVER light (or fail to light) a candle in public again.

     Back to today’s service: the children were gathering at the front for the children’s sermon. The subject was “changes,” and a retired teacher was sharing the lesson. After asking the children to help her spell “changes” with some blocks, she asked the children to define changes. My stomach no longer clenches as it once did – back when my daughter, Lindsay, was a willing participant in the children’s sermons. Always extremely vocal, she never hesitated to talk and we never knew what she might say. As if to remind me of those days, Lindsay’s little cousin, Seth, responded to today’s question with his usual aplomb. “A house is just a building made of wood until a family moves in to make it a home.” Okay, it might not have been exactly like that, but he was close and his meaning was clear.

     Later in today’s service, as one of the scripture readers struggled with her microphone, my mind wandered again to another Advent in which Anne had a part. This time I think she was in sixth grade and had practiced over and over for weeks, making sure she knew every word of her scripture reading. We’d worked together to design and make her black velvet Christmas dress – and yes, I know clothes don’t make the person but they sure give a little girl some needed confidence. This time, all went perfectly. Her reading teacher from the previous year told her afterward that she’d give her an A.

     Back to today’s service, and the message about changes. It’s been a year of many changes – some wonderful, some not so. But each has had a lesson of its own and I’ve learned something good from each one. A wedding produced not only a terrific son-in-law, but a new friend in his mom. A graduation – Lindsay’s master’s degree – proved to her that pursuing a PhD is the right choice.

     A winter of stress fractures and a shoulder injury resulting in chronic pain – not a welcome change, but one that has changed how I view life and what is important to me. It also made me much more cognizant of how others with pain and illness struggle and how important it is that I empathize with them.

     My mind wanderered back to the present, and as the pastor asked for prayers for a couple mourning the death of a close relative, I thought of my own mother-in-law. At 95 and widowed, now living in a retirement home where everyone knows her because of her cheerful, caring nature, Margaret has suddenly been silenced by a body undergoing changes. Days go by with barely a response.

     Then a granddaughter arrives for a visit, her eyes open wide, and together the two of them sing a perfect rendition of Amazing Grace. And in that moment, Margaret Grace Hahn Steiner is the pastor and she is delivering a sermon of her own, a lesson on living with changes.

     “…‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.”