Category Archives: Family

Bring on the (new) bread machine

Well. We’ve managed to destroy yet another bread machine. Here’s the thing. Some people eat cold cereal for breakfast. Some eat eggs. Some eat nothing. I eat cinnamon raisin bread — NOT the store-bought spongy, flaccid stuff — only homemade.

Somewhere in the mid-80s, we purchased our first bread machine. Made by  DAK, it resembled R2D2 and made round loaves. Our two then-preschool-age daughters watched, mesmerized, as the dough mixed, began to rise, and baked. One day, it became off-kilter mid-cycle and walked right off the counter and crashed to the floor. Thus began a long line of bread machines. I forget how many we’ve had because like our toasters and irons — they have short lives.

DakSo…a few months ago, the most recent machine died. Mid-cycle. This was not pleasant. My attempts at completing the baking process were useless. We ended up with a half-baked lump of dough. Still, I loved that particular machine and set about buying another one. I couldn’t find the same model nearby so settled for another. My first clue that it might be a dud was when I noticed the pan didn’t click into place when I set it in the machine. I was sure it was a dud when nothing happened after filling it with flour, cinnamon, oil, honey, salt, water and yeast.

After a few choice words, which my husband appeared to ignore, I kneaded it by hand, let it rise, and baked it in the oven. And…returned the machine to the store.

I know. I should have ordered a new one right away but decided instead that I’d drag out my 30-year-old Cuisinart, mix up the dough, and bake it. That has worked fine when/if time allows, but I’d become accustomed to baking it on the one-hour cycle while I run — thus, having fresh bread whenever we’re out.

photo(17)image(10)So, okay. I give. The trusty Cuisinart didn’t let me down today — odd, when you consider the number of other appliances we’ve seen come and go. Given my tendency toward pessimism, I know it’s not going to last. And yes, I know I can mix it up by hand and bake it. But not while I’m running.

So…that’s it. I give. Bring on the next bread machine. May you live as long as (shhhh…) the Cuisinart and the 30-plus-year-old clothes dryer.

Whether from the Atlantic or Sea of Galilee, shells produce sense of tranquility

Long before cell phones, there was my dad’s conch shell. He knew how to blow through the hole at the end to produce a very loud, distinct sound that would call us home from wherever we were playing.

That shell and Dad’s love for all ocean life instilled in me a similar love for shells and the ocean. But living in Ohio, far from the ocean, it’s often difficult to remember the peacefulness that comes from an early morning stroll on a deserted beach, bag in hand, eyes on the sand, in a search for the perfect shell.

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It helps to surround myself with those shells in various locations around the house and in a small glass jar of sand in my office. photo(14)

 

 

 

 
But my most recent shell acquisitions have a special meaning. While others have come from various vacation spots on the eastern shores of the United States, these come via a friend serving with Christian Peacemaker Teams. He found them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel, located near the Golan Heights. photo(13)
Though every shell looks different, and though some originated in a place of great renown and others on obscure beaches, each has its own beauty and produces the same sense of calm and tranquility.

 

 

 

Letting go: Saying goodbye to an old friend

Two days before Christmas we said a sad goodbye to an old friend. Truthfully, it was really just me who was sad. No one else seemed even mildly perturbed.

But really. She’d been a part of our family since 1997, carried loads of kids to various locations; created peace on long trips with each daughter claiming her own seat; later ferried clothing, furniture, and other items necessary for college apartments; and trucked leaves, branches, and weeds to the local dump.

She was an apple-red Dodge Caravan with seats as comfortable as a favorite recliner. Despite her age and nearly 200,000 miles, she was still as shiny as the day we’d picked her up.

0226121329_0001But with more replacement parts than original ones, she began making noises that suggested she was in need of yet another repair. Around Thanksgiving, she sprung a leak, and left puddles of antifreeze on the driveway.

Our local mechanics who’d babied her along for the last few years finally delivered the bad news. It was, they informed my husband, time to stop putting money into her.

For a few weeks, though, we were in denial, or maybe it was just me who was  me who was in denial. A large jug of antifreeze became a permanent fixture in the car…in case of emergency.

While I dragged my feet, hanging on to Red and my memories, my husband began the search for an appropriate used car. With some wheedling, he convinced me to test drive first a Honda Civic and then a Toyota Camry. In the end, the Civic won out.

On Dec. 23, we took a final drive in the van, ending at its final destination — the auto recycling center. But before we weighed it and let the attendant take over, we had an important task. I needed a memento. Turns out it’s pretty easy to pop off the radio controls.

photo(12)Oddly, black dials conjure up a CD of 16 years of memories. If I turn them just right, those memories keep playing loud and clear.

At 4 to 1, they outnumber me, but they’re still my favorite guys

A friend recently described how her older son teases his little brother. We both remembered our older brothers teasing us — sometimes to the point of tears — but now, years later, we still love them. In fact, we both think of our brothers as friends now and love spending time with them. The teasing? It’s still there, but we’re big girls now and can dish right back. They taught us pretty well.

As the youngest of five children — and the only girl — it was suggested that I was spoiled. This might be true, but if anyone spoiled me, it was the boys.

five kidsApparently, they didn’t object to being dressed in plaid like their baby sister.

They let me climb trees with them, play basketball and baseball with them (except for the time James knocked me out by whacking me in the forehead with a baseball bat), and took me swimming.

Sure, they forced me to take my quarry test despite our mom’s instructions that they wait until Dad was with us. I passed and they were happy that they no longer had to take turns babysitting me in the pool. I, on the other hand, was thrilled to join them on the big slide and to play hide and seek around the rafts.

One of them rescued me from the manure pile and one of them hosed me off. One of them told me stories when he put me to bed when our parents were gone. The two younger ones let me sleep in their trundle bed and taught me to play the cartoon game (our version of “I’m thinking of….”).

Now that we’re older and they live far away — all are at least a nine-hour drive from me — I love staying in touch with them via email, phone and Skype. They make me laugh with funny e-mails and can easily make me feel better when I’m down.

But the hours we spend in each others’ company are the best. Whether we’re walking or running together, fighting over who gets the last cookie, discussing our mom’s health, or cooking together, these are the moments that remind me of what big brothers really mean to me.

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What a beautiful hand

This hand is 91 years old. It’s a beautiful hand, don’t you think? Sure it has wrinkles and age spots, but it has earned those. Those represent character.

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It represents long, hard hours spent working in gardens, pulling lovely orange carrots, feeling through leaves for hidden peas and beans, and yanking out unwanted weeds.

This hand has spent hours teaching piano lessons to hundreds of children and adults, showing proper placement of fingers and demonstrating difficult passages. It has worked with its partner hand to play piano for concerts, to accompany other musicians, and to teach seven grandchildren favorite songs.

It has sewn countless items of clothing, knitted scarves, quilts, sweaters and mittens for five children and those seven grandchildren. It has fashioned suits for a tall, funny, intelligent man who often held the hand in his own.

It has signed hundreds, probably thousands, of Christmas and get well cards. In its 20s, it typed letter after letter for a bigwig at Chicago’s May Company. It has poured coffee and tea for countless family members and friends.

It’s been a busy hand for 91 years. Age has slowed it somewhat, but in the summer, it still plants and cares for a small garden plot. Some days it folds napkins and rolls silverware for the next day’s meal. On Saturdays, it partners up with its mirror companion to play game after game of Rumikub. In its spare time, it writes emails to family, updates a journal on a computer, and plays a favorite computer games. When it tires of that, it turns pages of books for its owner.

The diamond ring has graced the finger for nearly 70 years, although it had to relinquish it briefly when it was reset. The thin wedding band has been there almost as long. The wider band belonged to the tall, funny, intelligent man until he died. The finger wears it proudly in memory of him, to keep him close. Inside the band is an inscription that says WSP TO RFP, JUNE 16,1945.

This is my mother’s left hand. It really is beautiful.

Big families, big turkeys, big memories

Here’s the thing about Thanksgiving. If you grow up with a sizable extended family, you figure it’s just expected to have a huge deal with more food than anyone can eat, lots of kids running underfoot, lots of adults shooing kids outside to play, and too many cooks in the kitchen. You also learn to pretend that you’re busy, because if you’re not, you will quickly be assigned some unwanted job. Like setting the table.

Trust me on this. I grew up in one of those semi-large families, with a set of grandparents, four children and spouses, 20 grandchildren with an age range of at least 20 years. This meant that eventually, the 20 grandchildren expanded to include some significant others.

Thanksgiving rotated between the three homes in our immediate area — my grandparents’ farm, an aunt and uncle’s farm, and our house. But then…as always happens, those 20 kids grow up, get married, and often move out of the vicinity. Sadly, the grandparents die, as do some of the aunts and uncles.

I’d kind of forgotten about this until my husband mentioned something about how many people would be at the Thanksgiving dinner our daughter is attending with her significant other’s family. I felt a momentary pang of sadness for those big childhood gatherings.

That feeling came back briefly today as I drove down the long lane toward my cousin’s farm — the farm on which he grew up and on which still stands the big white two-story house where many of our Thanksgiving dinners took place. photo(9)

 

 

 

 

 

As a kid, I remember my stomach getting that nervous, excited feeling as we turned down that lane….a loooong stretch that seemed to take forever to cover. Excitement at seeing cousins I hadn’t seen in awhile, eagerness to explore rooms in the big house. There was plenty of space to play, to hide from the boys, and the coolest laundry chute. The best smells floated out from the kitchen to the rest of the house, where tables were set up in every available space.

Today when I drove down the lane, there were none of the pigs I remembered. Instead, there were cows and sheep happily grazing on grass.

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And in the red barn at the end of the lane was a much younger version of my cousin — one of his sons — happy to hand me my turkey. At only 10 pounds, it’s tiny in comparison to the ones I remember feeding our big family.

But that’s okay. This turkey technically isn’t for Thanksgiving dinner and there won’t be 30-plus family members to feed. But when it starts roasting and the house begins to absorb that rich, mouth-watering smell, the memories will come roaring back. And that’s okay, too. Because that’s what memories are for.

And this is one time I won’t have to argue over who gets the drumsticks. And the wishbone? That’s mine.

Gordon Lightfoot and a really Wacky Cake

It was 1969 when Gordon Lightfoot wrote “If you could read my mind, love, what a tale my thoughts would tell….” The song may have been about the breakup of his marriage, but the lyrics were solid gold for even the teenyboppin’ crowd. I know this because I was 13 years old and in the 8th grade.

So yesterday when I read in the New York Times that Lightfoot would turn 75 this week, that was the song that immediately came to mind. All through the day as I graded papers, walked the dog, cooked and baked, the song replayed in my head. Over and over.

Maybe it was good luck. Maybe not. Because my success in the kitchen was two for three. The vegetable soup and bread both turned out perfectly.

image (4)Of course, there is no recipe for either one because I pretty much threw both together with whatever was around.

The wacky cake, however, was another story. Actually, the cake itself was perfect as usual. It’s a can’t-miss recipe. But it’s what you decide to do to glitz it up for someone’s birthday that impacts the outcome. Here’s how it looked first:

imagePretty ho hum…unless you can smell it. So just close your eyes and imagine the amazing smell of warm cocoa.

But…it was the hubs’ birthday and I decided to replicate something the girls and I invented long ago. As soon as it comes out of the oven, you cover it with mini-marshmallows and chocolate chips. They quickly melt and you kind of blend them together with a icing spreader. This works well UNLESS, of course, the marshmallows have outlived their shelf life. Apparently, if they’re old and dried out, they won’t melt.

Nothing worked….not putting it back in the warm oven and not a quick zap in the microwave. I was really beginning to feel frustrated. Lucky for me, I don’t have a picky husband. He took one look and knew what I was thinking because he started humming “If you could read my mind, love…”

Just proves at least some of those lyrics can apply to just about every situation.

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Wacky Cake
(Makes one 8X8-in. square cake)

1 c. white sugar
1 1/2 c. flour
3 tbsp. cocoa
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
In the 8X8-in. square pan in which you plan to bake the cake, mix dry ingredients with fork. Make three holes. Pour in 1 tsp. vanilla, 1 tbsp. vinegar, and 6 tbsp. canola oil.
Pour one c. cold water over and mix up with the fork. Bake 25-30 minutes at 350 degrees F.

Note: This can be eaten as is, dusted with powdered sugar, iced with your favorite icing recipe, topped with marshmallows and chocolate chips, or with the following:

1/3 c. butter, melted
2/3 c. brown sugar
1/2 c. nuts
2 tbsp. water
Mix and pour over cake and brown until brown.

Days 3 and 4 of Mary’s Excellent Adventure: Sand, apple orchards and the Mississippi Queen

A beach on the Mississippi in Wisconsin? Who knew? Just when I was getting used to the beauty of the La Crosse bluffs, the kid introduces me to a beach at the edge of the river….a sand beach. With gulls. And shells.

Next up: A tour of apple orchards. Up, up, up through the hills around La Crescent, stopping for an overview at the top….photo (18)

and to buy apples at Southwind Orchards. …typical tourists…photo (16)

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photo (20)Thoroughly pooped by 7 p.m., we retreated to the homestead to rest up for the next day…another typical — but absolutely perfect — tourist attraction…a ride up and down the Mississippi aboard the Mississippi Queen.

The smaller of two riverboat options in LaCrosse, it begins near where the three rivers meet — the Mississippi, the Black, and the La Crosse — and took us through a”swing” bridge — one of the few remaining in the United States. Too bad the family train nut wasn’t along…he’d have wanted to join the guy in the bridge control building.

Along the way, we saw a heron, turtles sunning themselves on branches, and bald eagles soaring overhead.

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Day 2 of Mary’s Excellent Adventure: Eagles, bluffs, and a babbling brook

Today started with an early morning run on the Chaseburg Nature Trail, a one-mile paved path that crisscrosses a field of wildflowers and cattails  and at times borders a babbling brook. Really! I never really understood the term “babbling brook” until seeing — and hearing — this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAPSmdeZlus

Across the water are a bunch of cows who alternated between loud mooing,  grazing. and staring at the crazy woman running in a circle.

Actually, it’s pretty amazing that a tiny town like Chaseburg (pop. 283) can maintain such a path. Donors funded the path in honor of families displaced by a flood in this lowland area. Benches line the brook and miniature street lights were just added along the path.

Four miles passed quickly because I was busy watching for Sand hill cranes, unusual birds like indigo buntings, cows, and wild animals. image (17)

Then it was back to academia — work for my daughter, exploring a new campus for me. Here are some of the sights…instead of the Beaver mascot that surrounds my job, there were signs of the Eagle mascot.photo (14)

Later in the afternoon, we drove up Grandad Bluff — about 600 feet up from the land around it. From there, you can see a panoramic view of La Crosse and the three rivers — Mississippi, Black, and La Crosse.photo (13)

From there we went to the local farmer’s market, lined with vendors selling the usual produce, but also organic cheeses and meats like buffalo and alpaca. Supper was at Kate’s Pizza — pear and Gorgonzola   on one and spinach, yellow squash and garbanzos on the other.

Day 1 of Mary’s Excellent Adventure: Riding the rails

My husband is a ferroequinologist, which basically means that he is a rail fan…AKA, train nut. When he helped our daughter move to Wisconsin, he was thrilled to return home via Amtrak. So when it was my turn to visit her, I thought I would drive. He — tactfully — showed me photos of the train. What finally sold me was the observation car and the promise of reading uninterrupted for eight hours.

So it was that we were on the road at 3:30 a.m., heading to the Toledo Amtrak station, where we found a lot of equally bleary-eyed travelers. Kind of like this…except he was sad not to be joining me.

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Amtrak is notoriously late, but we left only 40 minutes after the scheduled time. The hubs instructed me on the boarding process so I quickly found my seat on the upper level of the car. Lulled by the gentle movement, I conked out almost immediately and woke up two hours later. Two hours later, we reached Chicago, where I was met by my brother- and sister-in-law, who entertained me with a stop at a thrift store and lunch at Whole Foods.

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Boarded a new train at 3:30, but had to wait for a train from New York that had just arrived 6 hours late. Eeeeesh. More reading, but mostly sleeping off and on, with one eye open for the person taking reservations for dinner. My husband had made me promise to experience the dining car despite the fact that I’d be seated with three strangers. This is when my innate snoopy nature pays off — I have NO qualms about making conversation.

Just before 5 p.m. I made my way unsteadily toward the dining car, where I was seated with a 73-year-old divorced man traveling from Cleveland to North Dakota to see the daughter he hadn’t seen in 8 years, and a 50-something woman traveling with four friends, all of whom were seated together across the aisle. They’d been on the road for 10 days, traveling by train from Minneapolis to Buffalo, where they rented a van to drive to Bar Harbor, Maine, and Stowe, VT, then back to the Twin Cities by train.

The fourth seat was taken by a gregarious guy in his mid- to late 40s. The two of us generally monopolized the conversation, mostly because I kept asking him questions and he was game to answer. He’d first attended college in Thailand, where he met and married his first wife, a “spoiled brat,” with whom he has two children now in their early 20s. He owns 10 semis and contracts with auto dealers to transport cars. He was returning from having driven a new Volvo to the new owner in VA. Curious, I asked where he lives…he owns a house in the Philippines, where his pregnant wife and their six-year-old stepson live. He hoped to return in a few months. Neither of the other two seemed at all interested in learning our conversation and they took off as soon as they’d eaten.

As for the food….suffice to say that I’d choose differently next time.

Soon after we ordered dinner, Martin the Talker pointed out the window. We were heading into a DARK storm. My only thought was to wonder what happens to a train in a twister.

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That brought a very quick storm of driving rain before the sun returned. Martin and I shook hands and went our separate ways. Still trying to recover from two hours of sleep the previous night, I conked out again and woke up a few minutes before we reached my final stop — La Crosse, WI.

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