Monthly Archives: January 2019

Jell-O

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[It’s been less than a month since I started working my blogging way through Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away. Already, I feel like I’m getting weary of it. I miss going on and on about all the things I’m behind in doing. I miss whining about all of my struggles. I miss just talking! However, it does seem like this exercise is good for my writing practice. And I hate being a quitter, especially so early on in an endeavor. And, some days, the prompt given is absolutely inspiring. Today, that’s not the case. Jell-O. Really!]

My childhood encompassed the 1950s and 60s. Those were the Jell-O years! Cookbooks had whole sections devoted to the jiggly desserts. Every woman’s magazine offered variations. Housewives passed around their special recipes. Jell-O showed up on every buffet table, sometimes in several different forms.

In the house I grew up in, Jell-O was not saved for dessert. The cherry or strawberry flavored Jell-O, filled with banana slices, halved seedless grapes and cubes of peeled apple, topped with a thin layer of whipped cream, was a cool, fruity accompaniment to many Sunday dinners. Fruit salad! The vegetable salad version was orange or lime Jell-O filled with grated carrots, walnuts and diced celery.

If we were planning Jell-O for dessert, we left out all the fruits and vegetables. Then, we made it up simply in a cake pan, and slathered the surface with whipped cream. Had we come from a higher class home, I thought, this dessert would be served in individual parfait glasses. I promised myself that when I was an adult, that is how I’d do it.

Jell-O without fruit was the most fun to eat. It could be slurped off the spoon almost like magic. There it was, in front of me. Blrrrp! Like magic, the sweetness was inside my mouth. Delicious!

It was when I was in high school that creamy variations were becoming the fashion. Then, the firm Jell-O was beaten right into the whipped cream, to create a pastel masterpiece. Coconut, canned fruit cocktail, miniature marshmallows or maraschino cherries could be added to make it even more decadent and extraordinary.

Though Jell-O certainly does not make the regular mealtime appearances that it did when I was young, I still sometimes like to make it. When summer is so hot that cooking seems unbearable and nothing sounds good anyway, that is when Jell-O hits the spot. The remembered taste and coolness satisfies when nothing else does. Times have changed. Still, “there’s always room for Jell-O!”

Coffee

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My mother loved sweets. She enjoyed the too-sugary jam-filled candies from the box of mixed chocolates. She liked chocolate covered cherries, cake with frosting, and ice cream. The only alcohol my mother indulged in was – on rare, special occasions – sloe gin and coke. She was fond of coca-cola, and always kept it on hand. First thing in the morning, though, she had coffee.

Mom almost always brewed coffee in an old metal coffee pot that sat on the stove top. There was a time, in the 1960s, when she switched it out for a fancy silver electric percolator. In the seventies, she followed the crowd with a “Mister Coffee” drip coffee-maker. There was a short period when she tried out Taster’s Choice instant coffee, for convenience. Mostly, though, she stuck with her stove top brewing method.

While she kept an eye on the clock to make sure the coffee percolated for the right amount of time to produce a finished product of the right strength, Mom cleaned her eyeglasses. Then she wound her wristwatch. Finally, she selected her coffee cup.

When the brewing process was finished, the ritual began. Two heaping teaspoons of sugar went into the bottom of the cup first. Over that, Mom poured hot coffee to the half-way mark. Milk went in then, up to the very rim. Mom would dip her head to sip from the cup first, before lifting it to her lips. Then a sigh, and a smile, a smack of her lips and “Oh, that tastes good!”

We all learned to love coffee by drinking what was left in the bottom of Mom’s cup, when she abandoned her morning indulgence to get on with the day. That half-inch of liquid was the consistency of syrup, milky and sweet, with just a vague hint of coffee. It was a treat to be fought over. It was worth jumping up to clear the table for, and something to bribe the smaller children with. I think every one of Mom’s children grew up to be coffee drinkers.

What I’ll Miss When I Die

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As I continue my plodding ramble through the pages of Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, I encounter this line of thought:

“…let out what you have hidden…go for the jugular, for what makes you nervous…what you mistrust, how you have been hurt, the way you see the world differently…get it out and down on the page.”

She follows that with the directive, “Tell me what you will miss when you die.” Well…

I will miss taking in a big, clean breath of air. The kind of cool air experience you get when standing in front of a large body of clear water. The kind you miss when an illness constricts your breathing, when you know a deep breath will cause a fit of coughing, when you are too weak to take in a big gulp of air. I suppose that no matter what the hereafter brings, breathing will not be a part of it.

I will miss the star-filled night sky. I mourn the many wasted opportunities to appreciate it. Lately, I have made a concerted effort in my nighttime wanderings to pause, and look up. I can’t believe I took that splendor for granted for so long!

I will miss laughter. Not polite laughter. Not even the “that was surprising” titter, or the “that was really funny” chortle. Not the crowing laugh that accompanies having the upper hand, nor the snicker that follows a juicy bit of news. I’ll miss the crazy, uncontrollable, laugh-until-your-belly-hurts, brings-tears-to-your-eyes kind of laughter that is so precious, so surprising when it happens seemingly out of the blue, and such a relief.

I’ll end with Natalie Goldberg’s words:

“In real life, get out of the way when a person with a gun is running down the street. In your writing life step in front of his path, let him shoot you in the heart.”

What you fear, if you turn toward it, will give your writing teeth.”

I Don’t Remember

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Winter Tree

I don’t remember the brand of beer my father drank. Was it Pabst Blue Ribbon? Maybe. Maybe it’s not important, but right now it seems to be. My Dad drank beer every single day for most of his adult life. Except during Lent when, year after year, he gave up beer for the weeks before Easter. During that time, he drank beer only on Sunday. He tried hard to drink enough of it on that day to make up for his six days of abstinence.

I can remember the whistling jingle for Black Label beer, though it hasn’t been around for a long time. Was that my father’s beer of choice? I don’t believe so; it was probably just a catchy tune, back when beer and cigarettes were boldly promoted on television and radio.

What else have I forgotten? I can’t remember the name of my fifth grade teacher, though I think I can list the rest of my grade school teachers. Mrs. Cary taught kindergarten through second grade at Clover School, the one-room schoolhouse where I attended kindergarten. Mrs. Daly was my first grade teacher at Bishop Kelley School. Sister Aquinas Marie, second grade; Mrs. Snoddy, third; Sister Marietta, fourth; Sister Mary Aloysius, sixth. I guess I’m not sure of the seventh grade teacher, either. Sister Mary Michael taught eighth grade.

Mrs. Daly spanked me in front of the class, for wetting my pants. Sister Aquinas taught cursive handwriting. On the day that I broke my foot, Mrs. Snoddy drove me home from school, after she was finished grading papers. Sister Marietta was beautiful, kind, and generous with praise. I loved her! Sister Aloysius seemed cruel. Sister Michael banned pullover sweaters. My best friend stayed after school with me one day to join in questioning the rule. I’ve never forgotten how she stumbled through her explanation of girls developing breasts, and sexual arousal.

It’s possible, I guess, that the other teachers simply weren’t as memorable. More likely, it’s one more thing that – like my father’s choice of beer – just escapes me.

A Meal I Loved

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Any meal is best when it’s shared, so my most memorable meals are the ones where the company and the surroundings contributed to the experience. A few stand out.

There was the chicken and dumplings I made several years ago and shared with my mother and my sister Sheila. It was one of our last meals together, and one of the last meals my Mom truly enjoyed, before medication and pain took her appetite away. Before the month was out, both Mom and Sheila had passed away (no fault of the food!).

The hamburger, from the Dairy Queen, that I purchased with my own money when I was twelve years old was memorable. It had a steamed bun, and was doctored with mustard, pickle and onion because I had just decided that was the only way to dress a burger. I then walked down to the park, accompanied by my best friend, Linda, and we ate our lunches looking down into the Flint River.

Last summer my daughter, her husband, and two of my grandchildren were my dinner companions at a lovely old Italian restaurant near the theater where we would later see Hamilton. From appetizers through dessert, it was a wonderful meal.

I loved the booth tucked in with high-backed seats that gave us the feeling of privacy in a very crowded restaurant. We enjoyed the friendly bow-tied waiters, and the owners who hovered, and peeked in, to make sure everything was going as it should.

Everything sounded wonderful, so we each chose something different. We then passed forkfuls from one plate to the next, saying, “Oh my God, you have to taste this!” I specifically remember cannoli, the crust perfectly crisp, the filling not too sweet. Beyond that, I can’t remember exactly what I ordered, or what many delicious things I tasted. I just know that I loved it all.

A Teacher I Remember

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Grapes Frozen on the Vines

Sister Mary Aloysius was my sixth grade teacher at Bishop Kelley Memorial School in Lapeer, Michigan. I didn’t like her. She seemed very old, and very cranky.

Sister Aloysius wasn’t as young, cheerful and spry as most of the other Dominican Sisters that taught us. She was a bit jowly, but the nun’s habit and wimple would contribute to that. Heavens, I can’t even wear a turtleneck sweater any more, for what it does to the sagging flesh at my jawline! She wore glasses, and had two strong creases between her eyebrows. At the time, I thought she must be at least eighty years old, and senile. Probably, she was forty-five or fifty years old, and completely fed up with impudent children like me!

This teacher’s looks worked against her, no doubt. When you are teaching children, beauty is a definite advantage. Sister Aloysius was not beautiful. She had a longish face, and hollow cheeks. Her jutting chin had a cleft in it. Her long, narrow nose had a bump on top and a slight hook at the bottom. She had one lazy eye that didn’t move when the other one did. There was a raised mole beside her nose, with two long hairs growing out of it. When she waited at her desk for the class to finish an assignment, one of her eyes would droop, her mouth would open slightly, and the tip of her tongue would poke out at one side.

Kindness is the other advantage when teaching children. In fact, to a child, kindness makes a person appear to be beautiful. Sister Aloysius was not kind. She was known to close children in the coat closet for punishment. For chewing gum, the violators were made to stand in the corner with the wad of gum on their noses. She pinched. She pulled hair. Once, when I was caught whispering during class, she stood me in front of the room. With her hand outstretched, she ordered, “Give me your tongue!”

Though I was, by grade six, finding my nerve and testing boundaries, I was still an extremely shy child. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably ten minutes of Sister’s repeated demands that I give her my tongue, I was messily sobbing and gasping for breath. Finally, she looked at the class, said “She’s not going to do it,” told me curtly, “Go sit down,” and returned to her desk to continue the lesson plan.

I have never forgotten that incident. I have never forgotten that teacher. I have, though, in my adult life, been surrounded by classrooms full of cheeky, impertinent children. I have felt helplessly frustrated. That makes me wonder, if I were to meet Sister Aloysius today, with a lifetime of experience behind me, and lines and wrinkles of my own, if I might form a different opinion of her.

Sound

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Darla and Rosa Parks

First, it’s the dogs that I hear: the deep rumbling growl and strong voiced bark from Darla accompanied by the shrill, explosive cry coming from Rosa Parks. Then I hear what they heard.

Usually, it’s the big orange road truck. It plows the road down to my driveway, then turns around right out in front. It arrives at unexpected times; it loiters around the mouth of the driveway. It grumbles through the snow-covered gravel, and beeps when it backs up. It is the mortal enemy of not only the two dogs I have now, but of every dog I have ever had out here on the Fox Lake Road.

Sometimes it’s the young man that brings his truck fitted with a snow plow over to clear my driveway. That truck isn’t loud, either, but the dogs always hear it, and they always protest. The audacity, to pull right in! To change the landscape that way! And, the nerve of him, he sometimes brings his own dog! Then, the ultimate case of adding insult to injury, he comes right to the back door, in order for me to give him a check. Though he does a fine job, and I’m happy with him, he is not appreciated by my four-legged companions!

Now and then, what they hear is simply a car going by, or a person walking up the driveway. Those things happen rarely enough that I have few training opportunities. It’s also the case, though, that their barking is rarely an issue for me, because it so seldom happens. Without the barking dogs letting me know that something is going on outside, with my lesser hearing, I might spend the whole day oblivious to it!