Category Archives: Holidays

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.

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A goal for 2013: Work toward the common good. Care…love…

Last year as we approached New Year‘s Eve, a friend challenged us to determine what percentage of resolutions we’d managed to meet. I had a hard time with that one since I was pretty sure I hadn’t made any.

Here’s the thing: Why set oneself up for failure? Too many people focus their resolutions on thing like weight loss and we know how that usually ends up.

So instead last year, I decided to play along by listing three goals IF I were one to make resolutions. One was to track my running mileage, which I did successfully through April 15 — about 350 miles (some of that was walking.) After April 15…the journal pages are blank. Since I’m pretty regular in my mileage, I probably hit around 1,000 this year.

The second goal was to eat more dark chocolate. That I did. Oh so successfully. I don’t want to know how much money I spent on Endangered Species 88% cocoa dark chocolate. Just ask the staff at The Food Store in Bluffton, where I stock up on these:panther_pouch__05433_std

 

 

Each pouch contains 10 individually wrapped squares — a good way to control how much you eat.

The third goal was to write real letters. Sadly, this didn’t happen although I did a better job at sending cards.

So…for the record…I was 33.3333333333 percent successful at tracking mileage; 100 percent on eating more chocolate, and a flop at writing letters.

This semi-success did not convince me to make a practice of making  resolutions. Instead, this year I want to focus less on the “me” result of resolutions and more on doing things that impact and encourage others.

With a nod to Jim Wallis, the president and CEO of Sojourners and author of forthcoming book, On God‘s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, it makes sense to focus on the age-old concept of the common good.

To quote Wallis, “Work toward the common good. Care about those around you. Love.”

Re-purpose…again and again

Despite what all the crafters might have you think, the art of re-purposing isn’t new. Surely it dates back to a time when “disposable” was unthinkable. Those with memories of the Great Depression frequently speak — proudly — of how they re-used an item  over and over and just when it seemed destined for the dustbin some ingenious soul would determine a new use for the item.

My mom, who was born in 1922, often reminds me of how she used the wool from an aunt’s coat to make a coat for me. The coat is still in my attic — a gentle reminder that new is not always better.

Several years ago, when we moved my mom from her condo to an independent living center, I discovered some old cotton rice bags among her fabric stash. Back when we were kids, my parents bought large quantities of rice. Today those bags are usually made of some odd kind of fibrous stuff with a plastic feel.

But the “vintage” rice and flour bags were made of sturdy cotton and usually imprinted with the company name, amount and type of rice, etc. During the Depression, flour sacks were often made into clothing.

So when I found these bags, I decided to turn them into a two-layer shopping bag. I added a strap and it was perfect for the farmer’s market. One day, my aunt, who lived in Japan for 30 years or so, saw the bag and offered me her own collection of rice bags.

As Christmas approached, I realized the bags would be a perfect last-minute gift project, and ended up with four re-purposed market bags. This is really simple. All I did was turn one bag inside out so it would become the lining for the outer bag, then made straps from strips cut from an extra bag.

I sewed around the top of the two bags to hold them together, then sewed each end of the strap to the bag.1224121546  1224121545

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Tell me about your re-purposed projects. I’m always up for new ideas!

Of memories lost, remembered and why to be grateful for them

Christmas is all about memories…remembering those from the past and making new memories. Can you imagine not remembering the Christmases of your past?

Jeff Ingram doesn’t have those memories, or at least he can’t easily conjure them up in his mind. Holding an old Christmas ornament in his hand doesn’t quickly transport him to a childhood night of decorating a tree with his family. Ingram suffers from a type of amnesia called dissociative fugue. When he has an attack, his memory is wiped clean. That’s when his wife, Penny steps in. She is his memory. In a recent episode of NPR’s Story Corps, Jeff and Penny explained how she fills in the blanks.

It’s an amazing story. After listening to the podcast, memories just flooded back…from early childhood to my teenage years to college, then marriage and my own children from their early years to present.

Of course, the fact that it is a holiday season, my memories focused on Christmases past. I’ll bet my memories from our childhood years differ from those of my brothers. Thinking about these memories made me sad that Jeff Ingram cannot simply pull out these random thoughts, but his situation also made me grateful that I do have such happy memories as these…

Breakfast on Christmas morning always featured semmel, a simple German roll best slathered with homemade strawberry jam.

My doll, Ruthie, who got a new head every Christmas — over the years, she had brown, black, and blonde hair.

Getting to spend Christmas at my grandparents’ home in Indiana, with cousins we rarely saw because their parents were missionaries in Japan.

The green and white gingham two piece swim suit my mom made for me the year we went to visit our grandparents in Florida over Christmas.xmas girls

Red barrettes from my brother, Tom, who spent most of December in bed because of Scarlet Fever. It amazed me that he somehow managed to get me a present.

Christmas 1972 — we were living in St. Pete, Florida. What I remember is a warm, sun-dappled screened in porch with the ubiquitous Christmas tree.

The first Christmas with our oldest daughter, who was just a month shy of her first birthday. Her grandfather had made her a rocking horse. She spent most of her waking hours on Doodah.IMG_0333[1]

The first Christmas with our youngest daughter, just four months old. She was too young to appreciate the holiday and clearly displeased with Santa. By her second Christmas, she too was entranced with her very own rocking horse.

Over the years, there were the annual elementary school Christmas concerts (third grade recorders were a standout year for each daughter), followed by band and orchestra concerts, and in their senior year, each took a turn lighting the candles during the Christmas Eve service.

Memories. So many memories. Last year’s Christmas was a first for us as we celebrated away from home. One year ago tonight, the four of us attended midnight mass at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, featuring a small orchestra of professional musicians.

We’ll be making more memories in a few hours. I hope Jeff and Penny Ingram are making some of their own.

The REAL pfeffernusse…all others must be faux

Pfeffernusse. Peppernuts. Did the Dutch know what they were doing when they created this tiny cookie that leaves such a powerful impression and incites such passionate arguments among those who love them.

With pepper or without? Anise? Cardamom? Cinnamon? Cloves? Nuts? Seems everyone has his or her own favorite recipe and is equally certain that his or her recipe is the best. But they’re all wrong. And I know this….how?

Because the Pannabecker version is the best. After all, we Pannabeckers are Dutch. We were tile bakers long ago.

Here’s the thing about pfeffernusse. They’re hard. Very hard. And while some claim that they soften over time…this is just not true. If you actually think they soften over time, then you’ve never eaten a one-year-old pfeffernusse. They’re hard….and in my family, harder means better.

For many years, my mother would try to see how long she could keep some in a jar before someone would finally filch the last few. I think they often lasted until late spring.

But at long last, I have beaten her record. Not on purpose, mind you. I just found a tiny baby food jar full of pfeffernusse made in December 2011. And they’re still excellent. And very hard.2012-11-20 12.15.56

Curious enough to try making them? Here’s my recipe…or actually, it’s my Grandma Pannabecker’s recipe. The trick to getting them very small is to roll them into pencil-like rolls and cut into tiny pieces.

Pfeffernusse
5 eggs
3 c. sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. soda
1/2 tsp. cloves
Pinch salt
4 c. flour (or a little more)
Sift flour three times until very light. Sift together sifted flour, cinnamon, soda, cloves, salt. Beat eggs until light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar. The stir in the flour mixture. Using a small amount of dough at a time, roll into long, pencil-thin coils. Cut into tiny pieces and place on greased cookie sheets. Try to separate each piece or they’ll back together into big pieces. Bake approximately 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Watch carefully! Cool and store in airtight containers.

Let me know how long yours last!

Creating a gingerbread village: No kits allowed

We have the Brothers Grimm to thank for the popularity of gingerbread houses. Anyone who has read “Hansel and Gretel” remembers how hungry the two were after wandering for several days without food. When they came upon a gingerbread house in the middle of the forest, they began eating the roof of the house. How could they resist the scrumptious confection?
Making a gingerbread house always seemed daunting, despite the many kits available. But with my 11-year-old niece coming for a visit over Thanksgiving, I decided it was time to give it a try. Since I’ve never been much of a conformist, I passed on the fancy kits.

Instead, our local elementary school cook provided us with empty milk cartons. She even bleached them before dropping them off…yet another advantage of living in a small town. They turned out to be the perfect size.

We stocked up on all the essentials — gumdrops, miniature M&Ms, chocolate chips, colored sprinkles, tiny candy canes, peppermints, graham crackers, red hots, etc.

After the turkey and other Thanksgiving foods had been cleared away, we made a huge bowl of powdered sugar icing sans butter, we set about creating our own little gingerbread village. Perfection? Not at all, but creative and unique. Most importantly, the over-40 artists had as much fun as the 11-year-old. And probably ate as much candy.IMG_0313[1]

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The early bird gets the….blackberries!

One of my brothers lives in the mountains of Virginia where he regularly picks a variety of wild berries on his runs up the mountainside and into the woods.  This never really impressed me because I don’t like blackberries and raspberries so why bother picking them?

Or at least that was my perspective until I heard Hank Shaw talk about hunting, fishing, and foraging your own food. Shaw, the author of “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast”, offers advice to anyone interested in taking a more active role in determining what they feed themselves and their families.

Ironically, during a recent run I was listening to Shaw’s conversation on a Splendid Table podcast. A few minutes later, I stopped near a favorite rock to take a break. There, within an arm’s reach, grew a rambling bush of wild blackberries.

I grabbed a few, shoved them in my shorts pocket for my husband and decided to return later in the week to pick more. The next day, the destructive derecho windstorm swept through our part of Ohio, replacing those visions of blackberries with downed ancient trees, power lines, and a week of struggling back to normality.

But this morning — the Fourth of July — I loaded up my bike basket with containers and pedaled down to my rock and the blackberry bush — all the time wondering whether the winds had swept the berries into the nearby water. But no…there they were, looking as if they were just bursting with flavor.

This was not an easy task — one can’t just lift a branch to grab a bunch of berries unless one enjoys the pain of the thorny brambles. So it was careful picking. Worse, some of the best ones hung over the water, where I could just barely reach them by standing on the ancient flagstone overhang.

But hey, I felt a little like Euell Gibbons in “Stalking the Wild Asparagus”, returning home with a bowlful of berries. It was worth battling the thorny branches. And strangely, freshly picked blackberries actually taste pretty good. Might have to rethink my dislike of berries.

Did you know that long ago, people used blackberry bushes to magically cure  whooping cough? They’d pass the victim under the arching bramble seven times, reciting:

In bramble, out cough
Here I leave the whooping cough.

What I learned from my mama

So…it’s Mother’s Day. I don’t remember much about Mother’s Day when I was little. I don’t think we ever fixed her breakfast in bed or took her out for dinner. The truth is, she probably cooked for us on those days, but I could be wrong. You’d have to ask her.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that most of us don’t come to really appreciate our moms until later in life when we finally realize what all they taught us.

My own mother turns 90 in about five weeks. 90. Wow. That simply amazes me. This is the woman who is still teaching me new things nearly every time I’m with her. She might not realize this, because often these are things that I learn simply from watching her and listening to her.

Yesterday, I called her at 8 a.m. and began to apologize for waking her up. She just laughed and said she’d been up for hours and was out walking “way out here in Birch Court”, which is probably a good half mile from her place.

So there you have it. One of the things I learned from her is the value of exercise — at any age, and despite whatever aches and pains might be nagging at us.

My mom and dad raised five kids on a small college professor‘s salary, supplemented by her earnings as a piano teacher. She sewed, gardened, preserved the produce, and knew how to stretch a dollar. And while I learned to sew and garden, the one thing I regret never really learning is how to budget. It scares me. But I did inherit her tendency toward thriftiness — also known as “cheap”. 

When I reflect on the many things I learned from my mom, the one I value the most is the ability to sew. Because of her, I’ve always made clothing for myself and my daughters. One of the first things I remember making was is the early 60s when wrap-around dresses were popular. These resembled the hospital gowns that have three armholes. She made one for herself and one for me, and I made one for my doll.

And that was how I learned the art of sewing. From doll clothes, I progressed to simple clothing for myself. Of course, this is also where I learned my propensity for perfection. If I made a mistake that had to be ripped out and begged her to fix it, she’d fix me with a look and say, “Nope, you do it.”

That drove me nuts. It often resulted in my throwing the item down and running off to do something else. But eventually, I returned to complete the project. As a result, I can read nearly any pattern, change whatever parts I don’t like, and alter just about any item of clothing to fit me.

Now that I’m thinking about this, I’m pretty sure I’ve never thanked her for teaching me to sew, to look at a ready-made clothing item and instead of buying it, thinking that I could make it for less and know it would fit better.

So Mother, thanks. I love you. For many, many reasons.

Hand-painted eggs recall long-gone grandmother

Coloring eggs at Easter probably ranks up there in popularity with icing sugar cookies around Christmas time. When you color eggs with young children, it can get a little messy. I wonder how many dozen eggs my mom must have prepared when all five of her kids were determined to color an equal number of eggs.

Last year, I pilfered onion skins from the grocery store so I could dye my eggs in them. The woman checking us out looked at me kind of strangely when I she picked up a plastic bag with one onion surrounded by loose skins. I just smiled. She shrugged. Those turned out beautifully, especially when I did brown eggs — they looked like chocolate.

Here it is Saturday, the day before Easter, and we haven’t given much thought to Easter prep. No little girls around to sew new dresses for, no adult children home to color eggs with, no relatives to cook for. So feeling a little sad, I began rooting around for something I knew would brighten up the house.

The painted eggs. These are not just any old painted eggs. These eggs were painted by my husband’s grandmother, Bertha Hahn.

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I should explain that I never knew her well; in fact my only personal conversation with her occurred when I was about eight years old and somehow my older brothers had bribed me to do their newspaper “collecting”. All I remember is that my mom sat in the car while I went to the door to collect Mrs. Hahn’s weekly payment. She came to the door with her dress unbuttoned, revealing a laced-up garment. I grabbed her money and ran to the car, completely perplexed. My mom explained the intricacies of the old-fashioned corset.

So, later in life, when I married my husband, I heard stories about his grandmother — most of which explained the corset. But I also learned that she was an artist. On our first Easter together, he pulled out the most beautifully painted tiny eggs I’d ever seen. These were nothing like the dyed eggs of my childhood.

Apparently, each year, she painted eggs for her grandchildren. She raised Bantams, so some of the eggs are very tiny. How she managed to do this without breaking them is beyond me. It had to have taken much patience. (I know this isn’t easy because one year my husband and daughters attempted this.)

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According to my husband, she first inserted a needle in the egg, broke the yolk and then blew out the egg. She then painted each in a solid color. When they were dry, she used a tiny brush to paint flowers, bunnies, and crosses. Each egg includes the child’s name, the year, and often a Bible verse.

Maybe painting eggs like this was a local Swiss tradition. Whatever….while we may not be coloring eggs this year, we’ve got a bowlful of beautiful eggs that easily rival any Ukrainian pysanky.

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What’s wrong with a little Valentine’s Day fun?

Today a coworker remembered that Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays and speculated on whether as a child, my family had observed it in some special way.

She’s right. I’ve always loved Valentine’s Day, beginning with those early primary school days of decorating shoeboxes with pink and red paper, doilies, cut-out hearts and cupids. We’d make a slot on the top and place it on our desk and each child would go around the room, subtly dropping home-made and purchased Valentine’s in our classmate’s boxes. Every year, at least one classmate stuck a few of the big candy conversation hearts in each card. I lived for those.

Silly, I suppose, but those memories are the ones that fuel my love for the holiday. But that’s not the story I told my coworker. The truth is that my best Valentine memories begin in my college days.

Every year my dad sent flowers to me at the dorm — even though his office was just across campus. And my mom? I’d return to my dorm room to find a package of homemade cookies or chocolate candy. I don’t think they ever realized how much those gifts meant to me.

Later when our girls were old enough to appreciate the holiday, they each decorated a shoebox with whatever scraps of fabric and paper, stickers, etc., that we could find in the craft box. That box sat outside their bedroom door for two weeks before Valentine’s Day. Every morning, they’d squeal with delight at whatever someone had dropped into the box overnight. I’m pretty sure they thought every family did that, but I think they’ve since learned that wasn’t the case.

One year I baked a giant chocolate chip cookie in the shape of a heart for my husband and each of the girls. Another year, we had a heart-healthy dinner than ended with a frozen ice cream pie for which I’d made a meringue crust from egg whites and sugar.

This year my husband, who can be very romantic when he wants to be, surprised me by writing “the Valentine’s Day column that will never be published.” I’m probably going to get in trouble for even revealing this much, but suffice to say that it was a rundown of all the girls he’d dated before he ended up marrying the girl next door. Well, technically, it was the girl who lived down the street, but you get the picture.

I alternately laughed and cried as I read it. It was the ultimate in thoughtful gifts — more meaningful that a dozen roses.

Note: The two antique Valentine cards included above are part of a collection of several hundred that my husband’s grandmother saved between 1890 and the 1930s. Clearly, our love for this often sadly-maligned holiday is genetic.