Category Archives: Cooking

What In the World??

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What is going on? Where are the stars and planets? It seems, according to my life, that something must certainly be out of whack. What in the world?

Usually, my life rolls along on a pretty even keel. I have good days and bad days in a fair balance, in between the majority of days that are just routine. Which is fine with me.

The last couple of days, though, have brought a string of unfortunate events, one on top of another.

First, the weather. Is it wanting to be spring…or fall? Rain turns to snow, then, along with cold weather and whipping winds, it turns back to rain. The weather affects my ability to get a good walk in, which makes it harder to get rid of a sour mood.

It seems like I often come home from work with a poor frame of mind. I get so tired of all the machinations of just getting through a day. But, I’d need much more room than I have here, to do my grumbling about that!

Yesterday, my bathroom ceiling developed a serious leak. Water dripped into the bathtub for hours, as the rain came down outside. The drywall on the ceiling sagged, and felt spongy. Where is that water coming from? My bathroom is on the first floor of a story-and-a-half house, with an inaccessible space above it. The roof is a 12-12 pitch; there is no plumbing up there. It wasn’t raining that hard!

Then, while I was cooking dinner, the panel of indicator lights on the back of the stove started going crazy. There was a humming sound coming from it as the clock flashed on and off, with numbers on display that made no sense. The indicator lights for “Bake,” “Broil,” and “Clean” flashed on and off, too. After several minutes of that, it all went dark. I have no oven, until I get it fixed.

Today, for the first time this month, I didn’t have a blog written ahead. No problem, I was up early enough to write. I had it started, even. The title was “Waking Up.” Then, in helping Blackie Chan get down from the bed, I wrenched my back. Blackie Chan is my smallest, lightest dog! I’ve made that maneuver hundreds of times before. Today, I put my back out! So, the rest of the morning was spent alternating hot compresses and ice packs, so that I could go to work.

And, once again, work was a strain of swallowing my pride, accepting my station, and just continuing to do my job. By the time I got home, the rain was pouring down (and still dripping enthusiastically into the bathtub inside, as well), and the temperature had dropped. No walk. I’d make a nice dinner.

No oven.

Okay. Dinner would be leftovers warmed-up on top of the stove. I decided to treat myself to dessert. I had a box of no-bake cheesecake, and all of the ingredients I needed to put it together. With the crust nicely formed and chilling in the refrigerator, I mixed up the filling. Nice and thick. I pulled the beaters out of the bowl. Then, in a moment of idiocy, I pushed the button that I thought (because that’s how it was on my old mixer) would release the beaters. On this new mixer (that I’ve had, and used, for at least five years, mind you) that button is the “burst of power.” Pushing it sent the beaters madly spinning, coating everything with sweet filling. From the floor to the coffee pot to the entire stove top to the overhead cabinets to last night’s dishes still in the drainer, everything is spattered.

What else could possibly go wrong? What in the world?

Rest

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When my “To-Do” list is long and overwhelming, I have to remind myself to rest.

When deadlines loom, and time seems short, it’s not easy to take time out, but that’s when it is most necessary.

Sometimes a few minutes is enough. I step out the door, breathe in fresh air, and take a moment to admire what’s budding or sprouting or blossoming. Or, I sit down in the comfortable armchair, where I almost never sit, beside whichever small dog has settled there, and open a book. I might make a cup of tea and page through a magazine. Sometimes, I just allow myself a few moments of stillness.

Other days, a longer break is in order. The dogs are always up for a walk, no matter the weather, and it is a welcome break for me, too. Or, I might call a daughter, a sister or a friend for a few minutes of conversation. Or, I gather a book, a beer, my camera and my sketchbook. I load everything – plus three dogs – into the car for a run to Fox Lake. There, I’ll sit at the picnic table while the dogs enjoy the brand new smells, and change of scenery.

Sometimes, simply changing from one activity to another is enough. When I’m struggling with tax documents, writing a blog can seem restful. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a blogging challenge, shaking out the rugs gives me a break. As a master procrastinator, I recognize these things for the diversionary tactics that they are. Still, if something productive is getting done, seriously, what the hell.

Then there are times when the only thing to do is come to a full stop, I can feel the agitation of too much to do and not enough time. Nerves are getting in the way of any progress. I know that panic, or tears, are close. No break, whether long or short, and no alternate activity will cut it. Then, I just have to respect my need for rest. I have to be bravely careless enough to let all forward motion stop. Make soup. Watch a movie. Read something mindless. Take a nap. Save shame and judgment for another day. Just rest.

Potato Soup

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My method for making potato soup has evolved drastically over the years, but it continues to be a favored recipe.

As a young adult with a husband, two young daughters, and an extremely small grocery allowance, potato soup was a weekly dinner. My recipe was simple: Combine 1 diced potato, 1 chopped onion, and 1 hotdog, sliced thin into a saucepan with 1 cup of water. Simmer until everything is tender. In a larger saucepan, make a thin white sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter, melted, 2 tablespoons of flour, salt, pepper, and 3 cups of milk. Cook and stir until the sauce just starts to boil, and thickens slightly. Add the cooked potato, onion and hotdog, as well as enough of the cooking water to give it the right consistency. Serve hot, with homemade bread.

It was simple, cheap, and filling. Not, however, the most popular meal in my household. Once, my daughter Jen, then about four years old, asked what was for dinner. When I told her “Potato Soup,” she burst into tears, cried, “I can’t stand it,” and ran to her room!

By the time my daughters were teen-agers, I was divorced. We were living on campus while I finished a degree, and we were once again on a very tight budget. Luckily, my girls had warmed to the idea of potato soup. Then, we often didn’t have meat to add to the soup, but we usually added tiny egg dumplings. We always called them “glompkies,” though I can find no evidence that this is a real word, or that they are an actual thing. “Golumpki,” though similar-sounding, is stuffed cabbage. My glomkies were more like spaetzl, though rather than pushing the noodle dough through a sieve, we just dropped it by small bits into the soup. They cooked in the milky white sauce. I don’t remember where the word, or the idea came to me from, but the little pillows of noodle dough were a lovely addition to the buttery soup.

Now, being slightly more carb-conscious, I don’t add glompkies when I make potato soup. Now, my recipe has evolved to combine many types of cream soup. I may make potato-broccoli soup or cauliflower-potato soup. Chopped kale or spinach adds interesting flavors. I have added red pepper and fresh corn kernels to my basic recipe. If I have a bit of ham or bacon, I’ll throw it in. Usually, I add cheese to my white sauce for a little extra flavor.

No matter what mixture I put together, and what recipe I end up with, potato soup is still a simple, cheap and filling meal. And it comes wrapped with lots of memories!

Ice Cream

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I never think about ice cream in the wintertime. In my drafty house, when it’s freezing outside, I rarely want something cold. Maybe, if I’m having chocolate cookies or gingersnaps, I’ll drink a glass of cold milk, but that’s it. Usually, after dinner, I’ll sip a cup of hot tea. Now and then, I have popcorn and cocoa. Occasionally, a glass of red wine. Not chilled.

When the weather gets warm, though, I think of ice cream. I picked up a half gallon of it about a month ago. Double-Chocolate Almond. That’s my very favorite. Unless the market has Raspberry Cheesecake Gelato, which is both addictive and expensive…and worth every penny! Plain old Strawberry is fine, if it’s one of the brands that has real bits of berry swirled through, and Butter Pecan is always a satisfactory choice. In the hot, hot days of summer, sometimes a sherbet is refreshing.

For my first ice cream of the season, though, I went for the chocolate. I had to rearrange the freezer to make room for it. I stacked a couple pint-sized freezer containers, pushed a bag of broccoli to the back, and moved a package of meat to the drawer in the refrigerator section. I removed three votive candle holders that were only in there so that I could snap the last of the wax out of them. Then, finally, if I stood it on its side, the ice cream fit just inside the door.

Then, I forgot about it. I didn’t have another reason to open the freezer door and, despite the deceptive sunshine, it wasn’t really all that warm. When I felt like a little dessert, as I often do after dinner, I’d have a dish of cottage cheese topped with a spoonful of crushed pineapple. Or, a bowl of cereal with fruit. Or, just fruit. If I happened to actually have a real dessert, cookies or cake or – for one fortunate week – an apple pie, of course, I’d have that.

The ice cream stood, forgotten, just inside the freezer door. Until last week, when I remembered it there. Eureka! I mixed two tablespoons of sugar, and one tablespoon each of cocoa powder, butter, and water all together in a saucepan; I warmed it over medium heat until it was bubbly. I sliced a whole banana into a bowl. Topped it with three small scoops of delicious Double Chocolate Almond ice cream. Poured the hot chocolate sauce over it. Added a dollop of whipped cream. That was my first ice cream of the season. And it was perfect!

Chocolate

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Today, C is the letter dictating my topic in this A to Z challenge, and Easter is right around the corner, bringing thoughts of all kinds of sweets. So, it’s a good time to write about chocolate.

I’ve always had a weakness for chocolate. I don’t remember ever not liking it. My mother, raising her family in the 1950s, thought dessert should be offered after supper at least a few times each week. Often, because she was busy, it was something simple. Chocolate pudding was my favorite. Brownies were another treat. Chocolate cake was always my choice for my birthday.

In the summertime, we older children were allowed to walk to the store, herding several of the younger ones with us. In the quarter mile between our house and the store, there was a lakeside tavern and a boat launch. That contributed to quite a few beverage bottles tossed on the roadside. We collected the discarded bottles as we walked. The deposit in those days was 2 cents each; by the time we reached the little country grocery, we had enough to buy treats.

The ice cream freezer was favored, despite the dripping mess that would ensue on the way home. Sometimes the “nutty buddy” ice cream cone with the chocolate and nut topping would be my choice. The sugar cone held the melting ice cream, sometimes long enough to finish it. My most frequent pick, though, was the “fudgsicle.” It was a rectangular block of frozen, fudgy chocolate on a stick. Though it was delicious, I never made it all the way home without having chocolate dripping down my arms. Then I, along with all the younger kids, covered with their own sticky choices, would find the garden hose, to clean up before we went inside.

In the fall and winter, my mother attended meetings of the St. Jude Circle at our church. My father was in charge, then. Often, to entertain the children, he’d make fudge. He didn’t use a candy thermometer. I don’t think he even measured the ingredients. He seemed to work by instinct and habit. It always turned out perfectly! He gave us the credit.

Many times, as Dad stood stirring the bubbling mixture in the heavy pan, he’d spoon out a sample onto a saucer. One of us older kids was responsible, then, for carrying it over to share with the rest, making sure it was cooled enough before letting anyone dip their fingers in, seeing that everyone got a taste, and then reporting back to Dad how good it was. He was watching, as he spooned it out, for it to have reached the right temperature. Then, he’d pour it into a buttered cake pan, and we’d wait for it to set. Which it always did.

I’ve tried, over the years, to recreate Dad’s delicious fudge, always without success. Even when carefully measuring ingredients, following instructions, and using a candy thermometer to bring the mixture to precisely the right temperature, I have failed. Sometimes it’s under-done, resulting in a tar-like mixture that refuses to set up and is impossible to cut. Other times it is over-done, crumbly and gray. I finally gave up on it.

When I am craving chocolate, or nostalgic for Dad’s alchemic ritual, I make quick cookies. This is my mother-in-law’s recipe, and – as long as I keep an eye on the clock – it never fails.

In a large saucepan, combine 2 cups of sugar, one-third cup of butter, one-third cup of cocoa, and one-half cup of milk. Mix, and warm over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Boil for exactly one minute. That is crucial. It’s worth having a clock or a watch with a second-hand for timing it. Then, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in about one-quarter cup of peanut butter, and 3 cups of oatmeal. Drop by the spoonful onto parchment paper or foil, and give them a few minutes to set up. That’s it!

P.S. to my brother and sisters: Before adding peanut butter and oatmeal to the mixture, spoon out a small portion onto a saucer. Eat it by licking it off your fingers while you’re waiting for your cookies to set up. It will propel you back more than fifty years, to the long table in Mom and Dad’s red and white kitchen, surrounded by smiling children, with Dad at the stove!

Beans

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My Dad used to recite a little rhyme: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit/ The more you eat, the more you toot/ The more you toot, the better you feel/ So let’s eat beans for every meal!” As children, we giggled over the ditty, and over the predictable side effects of the food. Though canned Pork & Beans was a fairly common side dish when I was growing up, my Mom used dried beans infrequently. Homemade bean soup or, more often, split-pea soup were rare treats reserved for those days when Mom had a good, meaty hambone for flavor.

Bean soup is common in my household. From the first cool days of autumn until late in the spring, I make bean soup every other week, usually on the same day that I bake bread. It’s always different, depending on whim, and what I have on hand. It is mostly vegetarian, though I’m not against adding bits of meat for extra flavor if I happen to have it. Italian sausage, ground beef, chicken, or even a hambone have found their way into my kettle of soup at different times.

My recipe varies, but the strategy remains the same. My method speeds up the process, and eliminates the unfortunate side effects that my Dad sang about. I start with about a cup of dried beans. I buy mine at the Co-op in Petoskey, and store them in jars on my kitchen shelves. Sometimes it’s all one type of bean, but more often, I mix them up: a handful of Great Northern beans; a handful of Lima beans; a scattering of Black-Eyed peas for good luck. A portion of lentils or split peas will break down more readily, and provide a thicker broth.

I put my chosen combination in a pan, cover the legumes with water, and add a pinch of baking soda. When the water boils, reduce the heat and let the pot simmer for about ten minutes, then turn off the burner and let it cool. This eliminates the need for soaking the beans overnight; the baking soda gets rid of the bean’s gas-producing properties. After about an hour, I pour the mixture through a colander, give the beans a quick rinse, and return them to the pan.

Next, I add a quart of stewed tomatoes, two quarts of fresh water, and about two cups of vegetables. This usually consists of diced onion and celery. If I have some green pepper, I add that. I always save the tough stems of broccoli, and the core of cabbage or cauliflower for soup; cut into small pieces, they add a great flavor. After this mixture has simmered for a couple hours, I may add chopped spinach or kale, and carrots. Then, I add a handful of grain. Barley is my favorite, but rice, corn meal, or steel-cut oats will thicken and flavor a soup. too. If I have wild rice on hand, it’s a welcome addition. If I’m going to add cooked meat, now is the time.

This mixture will simmer for another hour or so, until dinnertime. If the broth seems too thin, I remove about a cup of soup, whirl it in the blender, then return it to the kettle. If it’s too thick, I add tomato juice or more water. It’s a cheap meal that provides one hearty dinner and a week of lunches afterward. Inexpensive, easy, and impossible to mess up. And how nice to have a kettle simmering on the stove! That combines to make bean soup a standard in my house!

A Year After “Aloha”

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Last year, when I started the “April A to Z Challenge,” I was in Hawaii, and my title was “Aloha.” I was, in fact, stranded in Hawaii by shut-downs associated with the – then brand new – Corona Virus. What a year it has been! What a time we have all been through! Today, beginning on this first day of April, I feel that this last year has got to take center stage.

First of all, let me remind you what the April A to Z challenge is. Through this month, I’ll post one blog every day except Sunday, based on the letters of the alphabet. I don’t have a particular theme in mind; maybe one will develop as I move through the letters. For now, it’s just the commitment. During this month, I am setting aside the list of blog topics that I’ve been writing about on Sundays, based on David Whyte’s book, Consolations. I plan to take Sundays off from blogging in April; I’ll pick that up again in May. I’m also changing my “Timeout for Art” blog. I’ve been working my way through the alphabet with that, too, and had just gotten to those difficult few letters at the end…I’m happy for the interruption there! Though art will still turn up as a topic, this month it will have to fall in to whatever letters turn up mid-week..

I should clarify that “stranded in Hawaii” sounds a lot more dire than it actually was. My older daughter and I had travelled together for a visit to my younger daughter and her family. Our one week planned vacation was extended to almost a month. Truly, it was quite wonderful! The weather, of course, was fabulous. We always felt safe. We were comfortable and well taken care of in my daughters house. Until last spring, I hadn’t had more than a couple days at a time with my two daughters together in at least thirty years. So, though there were concerns about our jobs and pets, and our lives were put on hold, I feel blessed to have experienced that special time.

By the time I got home, and finished my mandatory self-quarantine, I had been replaced in my job at the hardware store. That was, without a doubt, challenging in many ways. Still, it offered me several weeks OFF, in the spring and summer, on Beaver Island, for the very first time since I moved here in 1978! My vegetable and flower beds were never so well-tended. My lawn got mowed before it looked like a field. My dogs basked in the attention. And I loved it!

Since last year at this time, I started a new, seasonal job at the Beaver Island Golf Course. I began volunteering at the Island Treasures Resale Shop. I worked out the details for an art show next October. I read at least one book each week. I continued and expanded on a rewarding morning routine. I took care of several long-neglected medical procedures. I found and enjoyed quite a few new recipes. I walked almost every day.

It’s not possible, though, to look back on this year without acknowledging the tremendous devastation caused by Covid-19. How many lives have changed? How many jobs have been lost? How many businesses have closed? How many have died? Everyone knows someone lost to the disease. Everyone has been affected by it. This virus has touched all of us, in the entire world, in one way or another. We are experiencing trepidation and fear, trauma, and grief on a scale never experienced in my lifetime. This year has altered our thinking, and our behavior. I think, as humans, we are forever changed.

That’s the crux of it, I guess. This last year has been defined by the ways that the virus has changed our lives. Everything else seems unimportant in comparison. That makes it all the more necessary, I think, to continue to notice all the little pleasures along the way. As long as I’m here to appreciate them, they still matter!

Disappointment

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The more I think about it, the more it seems that disappointment is a pretty common emotion in my household. I’m surprised at how often it comes up!

I was planning to write about a job I recently applied for, and did not get. With help from my sweet daughter, Kate, I updated my resume. I filled out the application form and read through the job description. Then I debated about whether I really wanted the position or not. At the eleventh hour, I turned in the paperwork. An interview was scheduled. I anticipated topics and prepared possible responses. I also wrote out several questions about the job requirements. I had a long conversation via “zoom” with Kate and her family, to make myself comfortable with the on-line meeting format, and to make sure the screen was placed so that I was not looking ghoulish, or like I had a double chin.

The only glitch, on the day of the scheduled meeting, was several inches of fresh snow. While I was waiting for the interview to start, the road truck went down the road, throwing all of my dogs into fits of barking. They had just calmed down when the other participants showed up on screen. I started right out with a warning that, if the young man showed up to plow my driveway, I’d have to interrupt the interview to put at least one dog (Rosa Parks is the instigator) into “time-out.” It’s good that I warned them, because that exact thing happened!

Beyond that, though, the interview went well, in my opinion. I was able to communicate my abilities, voice my concerns, and address their questions confidently. I know all of the other participants, and they were each as friendly, kind and generous as I expected they would be. The next day, I got a call letting me know I did not get the position.

I felt a little twinge of disappointment, sure. It would have been nice to be working at something challenging like that. It would be a chance to use my abilities and education; I’d be learning new skills, increasing my knowledge and stretching my boundaries. The money would be helpful.

If I had gotten the position, though, I’m sure I would have felt an equal amount of disappointment. I’d had so many concerns. Did I really want to take on a third part-time job? The hours to fulfill the requirements of the position would not, I’m sure, include the self-training I’d need to update my computer skills. Would I be a failure? Was I trying to do too much? When would I find time to make art? To walk the dogs?

So, that’s one example, in my life, of “Disappointment-No-Matter-What.” It’s a fairly regular occurrence. I walked, penguin-like, to the end of my icy driveway yesterday, only to find the entire length of Fox Lake Road to be equally as icy. Too slippery to take a long walk. That’s a disappointment. The day before, the road to the north was nearly clear, and the dogs and I went for a good long walk…which eliminated time to get in the studio before dinner. That was disappointing.

It’s kind of a trade-off. I’m always a tiny bit disappointed when I finish a good book, but I’m excited, in equal measure, to begin a new one. Every page that I turn in my journal gives me a wisp of disappointment at the lack of accomplishment and the too-swift passage of time. Yet every new page is a fresh start, with new promise and possibility. Disappointment at not being able to travel means, at the same time, no guilt and turmoil over leaving the dogs at the kennel. Disappointment over not being able to eat out is accompanied by the comfortable pleasure of enjoying my own cooking at home, with book in hand, and three dogs waiting for leftovers.

Disappointments are just little bumps along the road that remind me to take notice. They aren’t devastating; they don’t lead to despair. They are part of the juggling act in my life, where there are many good things that cannot all be acted upon at once. That kind of disappointment, I can live with!

Christmas Past

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In my long life, there have been many good Christmases, and it has always been my favorite holiday. Too often, though, anticipation leads to disappointment, when the holiday falls short of my expectations. Or, there’s a big let-down when it’s over. One Christmas, though, lives in my memory as just about perfect.

That fall, my husband and I had sold our small, drafty, badly-in-need-of-repair house on Lake Pleasant, and moved in to a brand new townhouse just outside of the downtown area of Lapeer. We were in our early 20s, and had been married not quite four years. Our daughter, Jennifer, would turn three in January; our second child was due in December. Loving my beautiful new home, and experiencing the “nesting” instinct often associated with pregnancy, I embraced Christmas decorating.

Over the chair in the living room, I hung a bright green wreath my mother-in-law made for me, of painted and folded computer punch cards. Bells on ribbons were draped over every door knob. I had three ceramic angels, each dressed in gold and each holding a musical instrument, standing on the end of the counter that divided the kitchen from the dining room. On the wall above them, I hung a slab of old barn wood on which I’d fashioned a Christmas tree.

The tree was made of bits of green florist’s foam and scraps of torn tissue paper glued on to the surface. The “ornaments” were buttons, tiny beads, and earrings that had lost their mate. Chains from old jewelry formed the garland, and a folded tin foil star topped it off. I’d fastened everything in place, then given it several coats of shiny varnish.

Our Christmas stockings were hanging on the half wall that faced the entry door, including a small one for the baby, not yet arrived. Our Christmas tree waited outside on the patio, until the holiday got a little closer, but the music of the season played in my house all day long.

My daughter, Katherine, was born on the eleventh of December. She started off with a bit of jaundice, and had to stay longer in the hospital. When we brought her home, just a few days before Christmas, my heart was full, and the holiday spirit was strong.

My sister-in-law, Dena, came over with her new baby, and the two tiny infants napped on the sofa while Jennifer helped us bake cookies. That evening we brought in the tree, set it up and decorated it. The year before, Jennifer and I had made ornaments from baker’s clay: the characters from The Nutcracker, sweet angels, the three kings, and a few cute elves. Homemade Chicken and stars soup simmered on the stove; Christmas songs filled the air.

When my daughters were asleep, I got back to the on-going task of wrapping presents. That’s how the days went by: cooking, baking, making gifts, wrapping presents, and loving my little family.

Christmas Eve was when my husband’s parents celebrated the holiday, so we went to their house for dinner, and gift exchange. It was always a big feast, with lots of appetizers and lots of desserts. Because my in-laws both worked, they relished time off around the holidays. The family gathering was always fun. We then went home for our own preparations.

On Christmas Eve, Jennifer told us, “I know Santa Claus is getting me a train for Christmas! It’s what I want more than everything!” She had neglected to actually mention that train to anyone, even Santa Claus when she went to sit on his lap in the mall, or in the letter she dictated for him. So, her Dad set out late on Christmas Eve night, through a raging snowstorm, to find a train.

He found one, finally, at Perry Drug Store. It was smaller than we’d have liked, but the price was right. Mainly, it was available! Relieved, we set it up under the tree. Jennifer’s face reflected her joy when she saw it, “I knew he’d remember,” she announced happily. I don’t think she ever played with her train after Christmas morning!

On Christmas Eve, all the thoughtful gifts that had been purchased over the previous months were placed under the tree. The stockings were filled. The red-and-white striped “Santa’s wrapping paper” presents were added. The unwrapped balls, stuffed animals and the train were spread around. With a picture of the “ideal” Christmas tree embedded in my mind from my childhood, when gifts for nine children competed for space, I thought, “it’s not enough!”

So, with my baby sleeping in the bassinet beside me, and my little girl asleep in her cozy bed upstairs, with my husband dozing on the sofa while A Christmas Carol played on the TV, I crocheted through the night. A hat for Jennifer, dark blue, with double-thick earmuffs and a multi-color ruffled brim. A foot-long clown for baby Katey, and a bigger one for Jenny. Because I hadn’t planned for this, the only stuffing I had was old nylon stockings. Finally, long after midnight, I relented and got a few hours of sleep.

Christmas morning! I made coffee and baked sweet rolls first. With Katey in my arms, I watched as Jenny investigated the contents of her stocking. She found the unwrapped gifts and toys, and showed Katey the ones that were hers. When my in-laws stopped in, the rest of the presents. Then, there was time to relax for a bit.

Later, after baths and showers, dressed in our best Christmas finery we went to my parents house. There, I showed off my new baby, and helped finish the meal preparation, that my Mom had been working at for days. Dad grinned as he helped his guests to the bar, set up on the side table. We gathered around the long table, with another table in the back room for the overflow. We exchanged gifts, told stories, exchanged news and played games.

Maybe there was tension in the air, at my in-laws house, or at my family home. Sometimes that happened, over the holidays. Maybe my husband drank too much. It’s possible that the children – there were plenty of them – were grouchy or noisy. There could have been disappointments. If so, I don’t remember any of it. This Christmas lives in my memory as the perfect holiday, and that’s exactly how I want to remember it!

Beauty

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I love the topic of “beauty” for the opportunity to tell one of my favorite memories.

It happened a long time ago. I was not yet thirty years old, married, with two children. We were living at Corner #16, in North Branch, in the back apartment of a duplex, in a building that had once been the Deerfield Township Hall.

My husband was on his way home from work; I was getting dinner ready. My daughters, aged four and seven, were playing in the next room. They had their dolls spread out over the carpet, and were dressing them in one fancy gown after another.

Barbie dolls, when I was young, were the -very unrealistic and completely unattainable – ideal of feminine beauty. Though my daughters grew up in a more enlightened age, and were exposed to a much broader definition of what it meant to be a girl, Barbie, unfortunately, still held her place.

When I was a child, and well into my teen years, “playing with Barbie dolls” involved long, continuing, soap-opera style story-lines, and entire sections of the bedroom converted into Barbie doll homes, job sites and town. For my little girls, it was mostly just changing their clothes.

One stunning outfit after another would be put on and stripped off the dolls. Any imaginary dialogue was usually just commentary on the outfits. “Oh, Barbie, that looks really beautiful on you!” “Oh, Ken, thank you!”

I casually listened to the girls chattering back and forth as I diced vegetables and put a casserole together. Suddenly Jennifer, the seven-year-old, let out a big sigh. “Katey,” she addressed her little sister wistfully, “Don’t you wish our Mom was beautiful?”

Little Katey, barely four-years-old, and still unable to pronounce the letter V, was thrilled to be included in such a grown-up discussion. She sat up, and slowly nodded.

“Yeeaaah…” came her thoughtful reply, “eben if she’d wear her wedding dress around, it wouldn’t be sooooo bad!”

I imagined the scene: I, with a body that showed the wear of two pregnancies, and my choppy, DIY haircut, would stand at the kitchen door to call my family in to supper. Just for emphasis, I picture myself scratching, Ma Kettle style, at crotch or armpit.

I’d use the sing-song, stretched-out call that my mother taught us to call our brothers and sisters from the far reaches of the yard, garden, orchard or field: “Cooome and Eeeeeeeaaaaaat!!” My daughters would come around the corner of the house from the back yard. They’d stop in their tracks, mouths falling open in awe and admiration.

Because there I would be…with “the gown” on.

Over forty years have passed, and the image still makes me laugh!