Category Archives: writing

Cabbage

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Cabbage makes rare appearances on my table. Every now and then, in the summertime, a cabbage salad sounds just right. In the winter, diced cabbage will enrich a broth. Once in a while, a sauteed wedge of cabbage, flavored with a little soy sauce will serve as the vegetable for my dinner. Cabbage is cheap, stores well, and has a reasonably mild flavor, but it’s not my favorite.

I love the cousins: Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli and Swiss chard. They seem to have a little more personality than cabbage. It could be just because it was so often on our table when I was growing up, I’ve come to think of cabbage as ordinary.

I can remember at least three variations of cabbage salad that made regular appearances on our table. Dad’s coleslaw was finely grated cabbage and carrots doctored with mayonnaise and a little vinegar. Mom’s coleslaw was thinly shredded cabbage and a little grated carrot in a dressing of Miracle Whip thinned with milk. My favorite, though, was the salad Mom made with roughly chopped cabbage, slices of sweet onion, and diced tomatoes. It was dressed with a mayonnaise, milk and sugar combination.

Boiled dinner made regular appearances during harvest season. Pig hocks or a picnic ham would be the foundation, rounded out with potatoes, onions, carrots and cabbage from out garden. In the winter, we always had several large heads of cabbage in cold storage, and a big crock of sauerkraut fermenting somewhere. Jars of sauerkraut that my mother had canned shared shelf space with stewed tomatoes and other vegetables. They would be pulled out to cook with ribs, kielbasa, or a pork roast.

A couple years ago, when I was visiting family downstate, two sisters and I went to a Farmer’s Market. It was the perfect time of year for finding lots of treasures. Everything seemed plentiful and cheap. We bought a head of cabbage about the size of a bushel basket. I think it cost less than five dollars!

I was staying at my sister Brenda’s house, so she and I started incorporating that cabbage into meals. Shredded and sauteed, topped with cooked chicken pieces and shredded cheddar cheese. Diced and allowed to cook with burgers in the large frying pan. Cut in wedges and cooked with carrots as an accompaniment to meat cooked on the grill.

Everything tasted good. It didn’t seem overly repetitive. We didn’t get sick of the flavor, and were pretty proud of ourselves for working our way through that giant vegetable. The house though, noticeable only when you left and came in again, had picked up the distinct smell of cabbage over those few days!

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The First Time I Was Afraid

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Natalie Goldberg asks, “When was the first time you were afraid?” It seems like an odd question. I remember being afraid when I was quite young, but was that the first time? Probably not. It’s only the first that I remember.

I was told that when I was a baby, my sister Brenda, one year older than me, tried to tip me out of the bouncy chair that was suspended in the doorway. It probably scared me, but I have no memory of it. Mostly, I was probably afraid that she didn’t like me, as I’ve wanted her approval all of my life. Either way, I don’t remember.

I was likely frightened when I was two years old, and my mother went into the hospital to have another baby. I would’ve been too young to understand much beyond the fact that my mama, who was always there, was not home. I’m sure the world was strange and frightening when she came home from the hospital with an infant…that was very demanding of her time and attention. I don’t remember it, though.

Likewise, I have no memory of going to the Detroit Zoo as a small child. I know it happened, because someone brought a movie camera along. I have seen the giraffes, antelope and exotic birds on the resulting film. It had an impact on me, I’m sure, but I don’t remember it.

The reason that I know the zoo made a big impression is because I remember having a nightmare…about being trampled by elephants. I know my parents both showed up at my bedside. I remember being patted and hugged, and told that everything was okay. “There are no elephants here,” my mother said. That is my earliest memory of being afraid.

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.

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.

The Color Red

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Like me (or rather I, like her), Mom’s favorite color was red. From the tomatoes she canned, to the handbags she carried, to the bright autumn hues that she loved best, the color red wound its way through all of her life.

When Dad built a large kitchen onto the side of our house to accommodate the needs of their growing family, Mom chose red for the color scheme. The floor was linoleum, in a pattern of black, red and gray. The counter tops were red bordered with crisp chrome edging. The cupboards were painted pale gray (I was surprised to learn they weren’t white!) and trimmed with deep red enamel.

For most of my childhood, the family car was a red station wagon. When one needed to be retired, it would be replaced with another, almost identical. Though Mom didn’t drive, Dad chose red for her.

For church-going, Mom had a red felt hat. It sat a little off to the side on her head, and had a little bit of matching red netting that could be pulled down in front. Mom had a pair of red high heeled shoes, though I don’t remember her wearing them. Before I grew up, Mom had eschewed most of her heels for more practical, comfortable shoes.

Red roses were Mom’s favorite. The smell of rose still makes me think of her! As children, we’d often call Perkin’s Flower Shop in time for Mom’s birthday, and have a dozen red roses delivered for her. “Would you like that put on the account?” they’d ask, and we’d happily answer, “Yes!” I wonder how many bouquets Mom had to factor into her budget over the years. She never let on, and never complained.

As a young woman, my mother liked lipstick. Not every day, but for church, or any occasion that warranted “dressing up.” She favored bright, intense hues like the movie stars wore. Mom’s smile was one of her best features, and she played it to its best advantage. With her large blue eyes and her wavy, black hair, she could pull it off, too. Those crimson shades looked good on her!

As she got older and her hair went to white, Mom toned down her color choices. Pinks replaced the deeper tones in clothing, accessories and lipstick. It was a good choice; red might have been too strong for her softer features. Still, red is the color I most often associate with her.

Beginning the Year with A, B, and C

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some books on my nightstand

A brand new year. New expectations; new promises to myself. A new journal to keep track of my life…or to keep my life on track, I’m not sure which. It will be filled, soon enough, with resolutions, plans and good intentions, and a number of graphs, lists and charts to record my progress…or lack thereof. I start by noting accomplishments and memorable things from the year just past.

For that, I page through last year’s journal. It is a wealth of information, often discouraging and sad. I can see, for instance, that, though I devoted lines each month in my “Habit and Activity Tracker” to “weights,” “yoga/pilates” and “walk,” I fulfilled those goals only a tiny fraction of the times planned. I did better in other areas. I rarely missed a scheduled work day. I posted a blog twice a week, occasionally more, almost without fail. I read every single day. From the pages I devoted to “Books I Read, 2018,” I see that I completed thirty-three books last year.

With that in mind, I’m going to start this year off on a positive note, focusing on the books I am reading right now. It just happens – coincidentally – that they begin with the first three letters of the alphabet.

Atomic Habits by James Clear is the perfect book to have first on my reading list at the start of a new year. So far, it has given me such confidence that change (improvement) is possible, that I have put off all my usual resolution-making until I finish this book. Clear suggests that it is not helpful to focus on goals; we should, instead, focus on “systems,” the behaviors that will help us get to the results we want. “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” Systems are the steps you take to get the desired outcome. This is a highly technical – i.e.: lots of graphs and studies – but very easy-to-read book. I’m thinking it just might change my life!

Becoming by Michelle Obama. My daughter and I were talking about this book just before Christmas. “Do you have it?” she asked. “No,” I told her, “I’ve seen so many good, in depth interviews with her, I feel kind of like I know how it goes. Maybe I don’t need to read it.” That wasn’t quite true. I had seen many wonderful interviews, and I was telling myself that it was unnecessary to invest in another freshly published hard cover book right now. However, when I received the book on Christmas Eve – a gift from that same wily daughter – I was thrilled! I’ve only just started it, but Michelle Obama is an extremely engaging writer, and I’m thoroughly enjoying her book!

Calypso by David Sedaris is the third book I’m reading right now. My two daughters and I met in Lansing last year, to see Sedaris at the Whiting Auditorium. I’ve loved his books, and his readings on NPR for years, and his talk there did not disappoint. To commemorate that special get-together, I got each of my daughters a David Sedaris book for Christmas. For Jen, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. I own that book, and re-read it whenever I need to improve my mood. I can’t get through the first essay in that book without tears of laughter running down my face! I hope Jen likes it as much as I have. For Kate, Calypso. Because I had not yet read that one, I bought it for myself as well…an early Christmas present for me. Unnecessary, gift-wise, as I was very generously inundated with all kinds of wonderful, thoughtful presents, but I appreciate this book anyway.

So, A, B and C. I’m sure reading – my biggest success – will continue through the year. I can’t say if it will continue to follow the alphabet!