New Year’s Eve 1969

Richard M. Nixon was about to be inaugurated 37th President of the US.

The Stonewall riot in New York City marked the beginning of the gay rights movement (June 28).

Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr., —took the first walk on the Moon.

But frankly, none of that had mattered much to me, a new bride. By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around, I was full of romantic ideas of how my husband of three months and I should spend our first December 31 as a couple.

I imagined us lying on the floor of our one bedroom apartment, feeding to each other  freshly baked loaves of Mrs. Rhodes Bread which we would slather  with butter and jam. There wouldn’t be an inch our apartment that wasn’t filled with the exquisite aroma of fresh bread.

A restaurant dinner was not part of our plan that evening; we’d beunknownen married only three months and money was tight. Besides, we hardly got a chance to be together what with Dean’s working nights and me working days.

Champagne? Probably not. I dislike anything
bubbly. Most likely scotch…money may have been tight but we still hadn’t spend all our wedding gift money.

Our sparsely decorated tree was still up though dried needles were tumbling down as fast as the snow outside our sheet-draped window. Still, it was lovely to sit near the branches and look up at the two strings lights we could afford, a glass of scotch in one hand and a slice of bread in the other.

But it wasn’t long before too much freshly baked bread and a couple of shots of scotch let me know that my “dinner” plan was not very wise.

I turned hot, then sweaty, then….OMG! Let me in the bathroom…NOW!

Not one of our more elegant evenings.

I haven’t been able to face a glass of scotch since. On the other hand I may try Mrs. Rhodes again. After all, it’s been 47+ years.



Christmas Memories

Our first Christmas was 47 years ago. We drove our SkiDoo into the woods near our cabin to choose a tree. Dean brought his chain saw and I brought my ideas of a 12 foot forest denizen. Even the roar of the snowmobile’s engine and the smell of its exhaust couldn’t muffle the holiday songs in my head. “Oh the weather outside is frightful….”

Memories of Christmases past flood my head. They lead me to thoughts of how much my life has changed and how those changes can be measured by a Christmas tree and decorations I chose.

Our first Christmas was 47 years ago. We drove our SkiDoo into the woods near our cabin to choose a tree. Dean brought his chain saw and I brought my ideas of a 12 foot forest denizen. Even the roar of the snowmobile’s engine and the smell of its exhaust couldn’t muffle the holiday songs in my head. “Oh the weather outside is frightful….”

And frightful was the look on the face of my husband of three months.

“Honey,” he said slowly and with insistent patience, “we have a two-seater car. How do you expect me to get that tree back to Minneapolis?”

After 30 minutes of crying, I acceded. “You just don’t want me to have a beautiful tree,” I whined.

“I’m more interested in a safe trip home,” he answered.

And of course, he was right. Besides, the two dozen red balls I’d bought would have looked sparse on that monster of a tree.

So, we sledded on and found something much more suitable and much more portable.

Two years later we celebrated Christmas with our two-month-old daughter. As a first grandchild, she was showered with pink dresses, pink socks, pink bows. But from a high school friend came a cherished present: a bright red onesie with matching booties. Those little foot warmers were the first ornaments to hang on our tree.

That was the same year we discovered the The Spouse’s severe allergies were triggered by fir tree mold. Time for an artificial tree. (Oh joy. But one does what one does, and a paper towel dipped in Pine Sol comes close to replicating the aroma of a real tree. Kind of.)

Jump ahead seven years when I became enamored of whole-house decorating. Even our loo had holiday decor and, of course, a pine scented candle.

My need for—and love of—over the top decorating continued well into my teaching years. I hung ornaments from my junior high students on our tree and on the wreath above the fireplace, the wreath in the kitchen, and the wreath in the living room. And always, that little red sock from our daughter’s first Christmas took place of honor.

Now I bake only three dozen cookies, most of which I bring to the baristas as our favorite coffee shop; we don’t need and shouldn’t eat all those calories. The house remains decor-free with the exception of a painting I did a few years ago.

We’ve had several artificial trees since then. Our current tree, and no doubt our last, is a three-foot, pre-lit lovely. I no long put ornaments on it, not even that little red sock. It’s made its way to our daughter’s tree…a live, tall, beauty. May it be as happy in its new home as I and The Spouse are in our old one. I’ve learned that I no longer have a desire to compete with Martha Stewart, and that memories of Christmases past are more than enough to fulfill my need to decorate.


Don’t Lick the Metal Railing!

It wasn’t easy being the smallest in my first grade class. Was it my size that at six I felt the pressure to prove…what? that I was fearless? gutsy? spunky? not short?

Yes, all of the above. But mostly I wanted to show that I was willing to take a serious dare. I had no idea what a doubled dare meant other than one did not back down if one was to save face.

But first some back-story.

Mrs. Morris had warned us earlier on the very cold day that under no circumstances should we put our tongues on the iron railings that rimmed the school house steps. “It’s dangerous, children. Your tongues would freeze to the metal.”

Part of me was intrigued; I imagined what it would be like to be attached to the handrail under the admiring gaze of my classmates. But I was an obedient child, especially since I loved Mrs. Morris. If Mrs.Morris said, “Jump,” I would respond, “How high?”

Recess came. We sat on the still wet floor of the cloak room, tugged our overshoes on over our oxfords, and struggled with the  buckles. Wool coats, mufflers, and hats came next. Finally mittens, still smelly and wet and from the morning’s snow ball fights, finished our ensembles.

These were the days of the segregated playground: the girls on the west side of the building, boys on the east. After 30 minutes of pom pom pullaway (not easy with all those layers of clothes), the first recess bell rang and we lined up to go inside.

I don’t remember who first issued the dare, but suddenly, there it was: a whispered “I double dog dare you to put your tongue on the railing.”

Mrs. Morris’ admonition faded as the image of adulation from my peers invaded my imagination.

Yup…I did it. And yup…I was stuck.

dd7d25d8-1c89-4b8c-b38f-79fa117ed597_300_389The second recess bell rang, the one that warned us we’d be marked tardy if we didn’t get inside. One by one my friends filed past me, looking at me with fear mixed with admiration. I heard their whispered advice. “Pull!”

“No, don’t!” I mumbled incoherently. “Get Mittuth Mowith!”

The look on that dear lady’s face told me I was in trouble. Big time.

“Mary Ellen, get the coffee cup from my desk and fill it with warm water.”

Five minutes later a cascade of water released me from my frozen bondage but not without considerable pain. Tiny spots of blood dotted my tongue. It was apparent that I’d not be taking part in the afternoon’s classroom Christmas party.
I gazed longingly at the trays of cookies and the pitcher of hot chocolate that awaited everyone except me.

I dragged myself home that afternoon…a painful 12 blocks…only to find once I got there that the school nurse had already phone my mom.

She didn’t have to say anything. I knew from the look in her eyes that she thought I was about the dumbest cluck on the block.

When we returned to school after Christmas vacation–and my the pain on my torn up tongue  was long forgotten–I basked in the admiration of my classmates. Nonetheless, admiration was not enough incentive to take any more double-dog-dares. Ever.




Anticipation: The Best Part of Christmas

nunThe delicious agony of anticipation wrapped my brother and me in its winter hug.  Christmas started around December 15 at our house…when our teachers at last brought out the red and green tag board. (I was a whiz at cutting and gluing strips and turning them into paper chains. Or at least I thought I was.)

Tommy was five, I was eight. I’m certain we drove Mom to distraction with our nagging: “Did the mail truck come yet? Huh? Did it?” I demanded immediate answers in that whiny voice that a second grader fine tunes.

We were waiting for the arrival of Auntie Rosie’s annual Christmas gifts, sent to us all the way from Montreal. Just think of it! A present from another country!

Tommy and I never knew when the post office would deliver our gifts. UPS and Fed Ex did not yet exist and Jeff Bezos wasn’t even born. And the home with a television was a rarity. Like all the kids in our neighborhood, my brother and I relied on the magic of Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Night after night we paged through the thick catalog with its thin glossy pages, periodically running into the kitchen to announce that we’d changed our minds yet again. “THIS is what I want Santa to bring. Can I change my letter?”betsy-wetsy

I would shove the thumb-worn book at my mother who would sigh. “OK. Mark the page,” she’d say as she handed me yesterday’s copy of the Minneapolis Evening Star whose pages we tore into page-marking strips.

I don’t remember what I’d marked nor do I recall what Auntie Rosie sent me that year–or any other year. But oh, how easy it is to bring back the happy excitement that started mid-December gradually built over the next few weeks.

At last the day came. School vacation, big snow storm, probably no chance of a mail truck pulling up in front of our red brick duplex. I climbed down from the sofa, my preferred lookout spot. I was filled with disappointment (Christmas was only a day away). I lay down on my bed and opened my Pippi Longstocking book. I knew I could count on her to lift my mood.

I was well into chapter three when my mom called me. “Judy! There are packages here for you and Tommy.”

I suspect we almost killed each other as we raced into the front room.

I don’t know if I loved the gift or not. That memory is long gone. But even after all these decades, I remember with crystal clear clarity how happy a Gift from Another Country made me.

A Christmas Story

Sure enough, someone was under the tree setting up a train set. But something was very wrong. The guy under the tree was Dad.

Another rerun, just because I really like it…and because the new stuff I’m working on isn’t ready.

December of my sixth Christmas was filled with whisperings from older neighborhood kids that led me to question the existence of Santa. The night of December 24 put my doubts to rest. But in order to tell this story properly, I need to fill in a couple of details.

For many years my brother and I shared the only bedroom in a house so small that we set up our Christmas tree in the kitchen. My bed was at right angles to the door that looked into the kitchen, an important detail in the telling of this tale. Tommy and I had finally gone to bed with the usual Christmas eve jitters. Would he come? Would I get the bride doll I’d wanted? Would Tommy find a coveted electric train like the one that we had seen in the Dayton window? A train would be particularly special since so many of our family — Dad and Grandpa included — were firemen and engineers for the Soo Line.

Tommy and I talked and giggled late into the night until the final warning came from Mom: “If you kids don’t get to sleep there’ll be no Christmas!” And so we slept.

It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when I awoke to a noise in the kitchen. Now remember, I had a direct line of vision from my bed to that tree.

My memory now fades to shades of gray as I watch him on his knees. His arms are on the floor, his back is hunched. He reaches to place a caboose on a track…and he sobs.

I am six. I am disappointed. I am confused. I roll over and go back to sleep.

I learned the next morning that Soo Line management had called to tell my dad of his father’s sudden death of a heart attack on the steam engine Grandpa was driving that night. And that’s when I learned the truth about Santa. He lived in my dad, a man who would focus on making a little kid’s Christmas morning special despite the huge loss he had just undergone. I never did tell neighborhood kids that they were wro
ng. At six, I wouldn’t have known how. But even at six, it was enough that I knew.


Thoughts While Making Bread

What would (my ancestors) have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?

This is another rerun. I first published it in December of 2008. It seems even more relevant today.

I’d like to open this with the phrase, “I spent the morning making bread from scratch.” The truth of the matter, though, is that the bread making took me all of five minutes. My much-used copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, my Cuisinart® and a well stocked cupboard will yield enough dough for me to bake four one-pound loaves of brioche over the next week or so. This is an excellent cookbook and I use it often. But it’s not where my thoughts roam when my need to create takes me to my kitchen.
Rather, my fantasies wander to those people who came before me…not necessarily my ancestors (although their images are there at the periphery of my imagination), but rather to all the folks who baked bread “back in the day.”
Willa Cather wrote so profoundly of women who endured brutal Midwestern winters in sod huts. What would they have thought if they could see me throwing ingredients into an electric mixer, hitting the “on” button, grabbing a cup of coffee, and 10 minutes later, placing bread dough on the counter to rise?
Let’s take the image further. I’ll be baking Christmas cookies later today. Ground walnuts? I’ll whirl a handful in my electric grinder. Flour on the floor? I’ll suck it up with my vacuum cleaner. Sticky pans and bowls? My dishwasher will take care of that mess.
I didn’t grow my own wheat to be processed into flour. I didn’t spend hours hand-churning butter. The foods I get to make today are the miracles of technological innovation, each new idea the result of a creative problem solver. I think about them and I give a nod of thanks to all those farmers and cooks and bakers and engineers who came before me, all those women and men who over the centuries who turned the creation of a meal into a creative endeavor.
And as I take out another pound of butter for those Christmas cookies I’ll make this afternoon, I think, too, about the growing numbers of people who don’t have access to a brioche or homemade cookies…who don’t even have access to the basics. I’ll make those cookies today, but I’ll forego the other four recipes I was planning. Neither my family nor I need all those calories, and if I forego them, I can place just that much more in the food shelf collection box.
Have I inspired you to do the same? I sure hope so.

Searching for Certainty

While rummaging around in the depths of my computer files, I came across entries to my “old” blog. I published this almost seven years ago and thought it deserved revisiting. Enjoy!

I’ve always loved kits. I still have fond memories of walking the eight blocks to the local craft store with Karen, Mary Jane, Joanie. There was more than enough there for the boys: model cars, planes and boats in shiny boxes. I remember the grown-ups looking at brushes and paints. Kids younger than I begged parents for boxes of pristine Crayolas and untouched coloring books. My girlfriends and I spent a good proportion of our weekly allowances on embroidery floss, cotton dishtowels, and iron-on designs of chickens. But what I really lusted after was the paint-by-number kits.

Boxed sets of these promises of artistic perfection sang a siren’s song so strong that my birthday money didn’t stay long in my pocket. Armed with cash, I purchased a kit. The picture on the box was one I’d been lusting after for several months: a tropical ocean bay surrounded by palm trees, sand, and seabirds. A strange choice for an 11-year-old who’d lived her life in mid-America, nonetheless I knew that I was meant to paint this picture. It held so much more promise than cross-stitched chickens.

Finally at home and in my favorite work space (the kitchen of the unused second floor of my parents’ duplex), I peeled off the cellophane packaging and opened the box. Rows of tiny plastic containers held oil paints, each assigned a number that corresponded to the canvas’ black-and-white outlines. The hairs on the two small brushes reflected the overhead light. All those colors! All that potential! I dipped my brush into the azure blue of Color #3 and went at it.

And that, of course, is when reality hit. After 45 minutes of concentration (15 of which were spent trying to thin overly dried oil paints), I was invariably disappointed with my creation. Why, I’d seen better work in the coloring books of my neighbor’s first-grader!

And yet…and yet…every time I managed to acquire the proper sum of money, I’d buy another kit armed with the conviction that this time my painting would match the one on the box.

The allure of those kits is probably no mystery to anyone reading this, but it took me a long, long while to figure it out: I want certainty. Even when I know it’s not possible, I want, if not a guarantee of success, at least its likelihood.

I feel that way with my art, and I feel that way with this brain tumor. I want certainty. I want guarantees. I want to know that what I start will have a successful ending. But just like with my paintings (which often don’t come close to what I’d envisioned when I dip my brush into the colors), my brain tumor isn’t predictable, either. And while uncertainty — both in my painting and with my tumor — is sometimes uncomfortable, it’s taking me down some interesting paths.