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Archive for May, 2010

Fire up the grill!

Any one else cooking out today?

Honey, wake up, the neighbors are coming over for ribs!

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After reading a compelling review that left me with a tear in my eye about Chocolate Cake With Hitler, which can be found here, I decided to hunt it down. I just finished it and I know the story will haunt me for a long, long time.

Chocolate Cake With Hitler is historical fiction, written by Emma Craigie, and takes place in Hitler’s bunker during the last 10 days of WWII. It is told through the voice of twelve year old Helga Goebbels, the oldest daughter of Josef Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and right hand man to Hitler. Helga speaks of her days in the bunker, with flashbacks to her earlier days as the war machine grinds forward.

Because of her father’s postion, Helga and her brother and sisters are sheltered from the horrors of the war, but, throughout the book there are clues. The sudden disappearance of a young Jewish friend that Helga sneaks off to meet. The “thunder” in the background, that Helga suspects is bombing. The erratic behavior of her father. The hint of affairs of both of her parents.

Then, the bunker, where the children are summoned to, to “be safe” as the Russians advance on Berlin. They are the only children in the Bunker, her parents refusing to send them to safety.

The story is based on fact. We know that Russian soldiers found the six Goebbels children lying abed in their white bedclothes, the girls with ribbons in their hair, all in row, poisoned, as the bunker is stormed. We know that Helga is the only one who had bruises on her face, supposedly because she resisted the crushed cyanide forced into her mouth. We know her mother, Magda, killed them, and that her parents steadfastly refused to send them to safety. We know from their letters and diaries that they felt their children better off dead than in a world without “Uncle Leader”. We know all this, yet the fictionalized story through the perspective of a young girl, on the verge of becoming a woman, is a devastatingly haunting story, sparse and well told.

Helga Goebbels

Knowing all this history and being so moved by Rachel’s poignant review, I was still stunned at the end. I put the book down, face down, and I walked away, feeling grief stricken at the  horror of it all. The clues throughout of Helga’s story; premonitions of her father’s behavior, her grandmother’s stories of an earlier life with a Jewish husband and friends and daughter Magda’s young Jewish love. The propaganda so well contrived by Helga’s father, so well documented on the Nazi control over the arts and the media, that led to the deaths of millions. Millions of innocents, all at the hands of the Nazis, including, in the end, Goebbels’ own children, alone on a bed in a bunker, miles under Berlin.

Emma Craigie tells the story well. It is not easy to tell a story from the prospective of a child. A part of me wishes I had not read the book, Chocolate Cake With Hitler. It will stay with me for a long, long time, like Sophie’s Choice and QBVII and Hiroshima. That stunned feeling I had when I read the short story, “The Lottery”, in high school.

It is good to be stunned by the horrors of war at the end of May, when we honor our soldiers on Memorial Day. Perhaps there was a reason I kept the book  for a while before finally reading it this last week in May. I did not plan it that way – at least not consciously – but it is the way it played out for me a I sat, for just a few days, with this small book on my lap and a lump in my throat as I turned the last pages of Chocolate Cake With Hitler.

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The Birds!

“I thought the birds got up at four!”

We were having one of those conversations sisters tend to have. It was early this morning. She had left a message yesterday that I hadn’t gotten until it was too late to return the call. You know by the tone of your sister’s voice when you have to call back as soon as you hear the message, or when it can wait until the next day. It is just the way it is with sisterhood. I knew I could wait until morning.

I dialed (I still do that), she answered, and so it began. It was okay that I hadn’t called the night before, she had gone to bed early, slept well for a while, until she awoke at 3 am, and couldn’t get back to sleep. “I thought the birds got up at four!” she said with righteous indignation. Maybe it was the relief that tests had come back normal, or my own long slumber that I was wishing I was enjoying. Could it be because I had just uploaded this picture of a feather I found the day before while walking the acreage looking for the newborn fawn we heard was around? Perhaps what I have been called is one with a wicked sense of humor was kicking in, but, no, not that. My sister and I share that gene. Maybe it was just the simplicity of the statement. The audacity that birds would be up and chirping at 3 am instead of 4 when she wanted to get back to sleep.

Maybe it was just what we needed. A good, hearty laugh at something as mundane as birds having an early go on a moonlit night, with something positive to share the day before her birthday.

Have a good birthday tomorrow, Dottie. I’m still your big sister (“the big one”, said Ma) and I’ve got your back, as the saying goes, You can still make me laugh so hard at something so utterly absurd as birds chirping when you want to sleep that it makes my eyes water, my bladder jiggle and makes me feel a little younger again, for just a while.

Xronia polla, Tula, xronia polla!

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Mr. Magoo and the shopping cart

He drove into the parking aisle in the wrong direction and swung his car into the space I was driving to. I could tell he was elderly. The white and balding head and his demeanor in the car was a clue. This was Mr. Curmudgeon.

I went around to another space and could see him getting out of his car. He was moving slow, a little stooped and bow-legged. He was carrying a cane. He wasn’t using the cane, mind you, just carrying it, much the same way as a lady might carry a purse, hooked over his arm.

I walked a little behind Mr. Curmudgeon, deciding to give him some space. Let him win. Besides, I didn’t want to get caught in the revolving door at the grocery store with him. I watched him push the door as he slowly entered, giving him a just little extra space before I took my turn.

I waited while he tried to get a grocery cart. He pulled a cart. Then he pulled again. The carts were jammed together, as they often are in a grocery store. Why is that?

Mr. Curmudgeon tried one more time and then, taking the crook of his cane in his right hand, he grasped the cart’s handle with his left hand and proceeded to push on the second cart firmly with his cane, the tip shoving the cart’s handle. To my surprise, the carts separated, and I audibly exhaled an “aha” to which Mr. Curmudgeon turned slyly around in a slow motion move and looked at me, with a boyish grin, and as he walked away I swear I detected just a little spring to his step.

He reminded me of Mr. Magoo!

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Popped!

What a difference a day makes!

Each morning, rain or shine, winter, spring, summer, fall, I make my window rounds. First the bedroom window, in search of the wandering herd of deer, down the rather steep flight of stairs to the front window, our living painting opening up to me, like the painting at Hogwarts School for Boys and Girls of Potter fame. The dining room, the kitchen, the library. Searching for what has changed overnight; what has past and what is new. There is always something out there to give me pause and be thankful for yet another day.

This morning, my eyes first went to an urn I just planted with caladium and white impatients. The urn is close to the window and I plant it more for us to enjoy from within rather than the passers-by from without. On the bottom of the pedestal something moved. A toad! Timothy Toad! (Okay, I call them all Timothy. It is what it is.) Comfortable in his own skin and unaware of me looking down through panes of glass, Timothy Toad was resting there, soaking in the bright and beautiful morning, probably just as glad for another day as I was.

It was the chipmunk that raised my ire. There was the little dickens rummaging around in my newly planted flower pots, dirt everywhere and plants upended. I rapped on the window and off he flew, onto the ground, a sea of periwinkle sporting the wave as he scurried about, meeting up with his brother, the two of them scampering about like Chip and Dale. My life – one rolling cartoon after another!

It was then, watching a cartoon playing out in the early morning, that I saw it. One lone and garish poppy, orange against all the greens and the purples and pinks, shouting “Hey, I’m here. Anyone notice?” I did, and off I hopped, like all the Timothy Toads, sandals and smile, camera in hand, for you never know how long a poppy will last on a clear and calm day here along the cutoff with chipmunks and deer and who knows what else, my own little kingdom, my own land of Oz.

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But Dorothy did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.

From The Wizard of Oz by Frank Baum


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I love ferns. I love their wispy demeanor and primal posture and their love of shade and I love their seeming ability to resist deer. Fortunately, ferns love it here and have gone forth and multiplied and are starting to fill in our landscape.

They only problem is that sometimes other flowers have to push and shove to get into the picture.

There is so much texture in the ferns and the unopened poppies. I can’t wait for them to POP! These are common field poppies that always open suddenly and whose blooms are fleeting. Click on the pictures to get a closer look.

I always mean to read Where the Red Fern Grows at this time of year. Have you read it?

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Image from Morton Arboretum website. Donald Wyman Crabapple

Local legend has it that a wind surge swept through the cutoff a few years before we moved here, taking down a path of mature trees with its force. Some had to be removed immediately, of course, and there were three or four stumps left behind when we moved in. We had the stumps removed last year as part of a larger plan to eventually reforest our little acreage.

It’s slow going. Besides the resident herd that have left a browse line that evokes an image of badly plucked eyebrows on an aging doyenne, trees of any worthwhile size are costly. We are, however, committed to slowly planting trees as we are able to.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. Greek Proverb

First, there was Harry Lauder. Not a tree, but a rather eccentric bush. Harry was a Mother’s Day gift from Tom that I’ve spoken about before. Harry has kept us entertained for several seasons, until last winter, when a randy buck decided to sharpen his antlers on some of the gnarled branches. Harry Lauder, I am sorry to say, was a tad more dapper last year. I gave him a good clipping this spring, and, except for being a bit embarrassed, I think he will make it and revive his vaudevillian act again in another year or two.

A Royal Frost birch took up residence last year. It was a fairly good-sized tree, dwarfed by the stately oaks and elms and walnuts standing guard. We know that we will be “pushing up daisies” before this tree reaches any appreciable height, but we feel a responsibility to improve the property for the next generation.

We like to mark milestones in our family with living things. Jennifer had a white lilac and Katy a pussy willow. Jennifer and Jason gave me a Clethra bush for Mother’s Day a few years ago and its sweet cinnamon scent makes me want to bake cookies come July. One year, the girls gave their daddy an Austrian Pine. It was barely two feet tall. It eventually grew taller than Jennifer, then Katy, then Tom, who had it moved to another part of the yard when a new garage was needed.

Chicago Botanical Gardens image.

This one is for Kezzie. A Donald Wyman crabapple that will hopefully bloom in the spring, just as she did. It will be covered with fragrant, white blossoms, then tiny red apples to attract the variety birds that hang around on the cutoff, As she grows and comes to visit us now and again, she will see the tree and mark its growth, just as we will mark hers.

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It is difficult not to be sentimental about May. It is like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “I am waylaid by beauty.” After a thunderstorm, it is an opalescent world. Lucent drops fall from the lilacs, the young leaves of the apples look polished. The wet grass smells sweet.  Gladys Taber, The Stillmeadow Road


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Book cover for Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Pictures by Susan Jeffers

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,

By the shining Big-Sea-Water,

From The Song of Hiawatha

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1855

As long as I was writing about Longfellow in yesterday’s post, I thought I would share a book I enjoy  that illustrates a small section of Longfellow’s poem about the boyhood of Hiawatha. The actual poem is quite long, covering 141 pages in my collection of poems and writings of Longfellow. I need to sit down and read the entire poem, aloud. Poems, to me, are so lyrical and I like to read them aloud. How about you?

I always think of The Song of Hiawatha during the autumn months. I suppose this is because of the time of year I first heard about Hiawatha and the shores of Gitche Gumee as a young school girl.

Hiawatha is illustrated by a favorite children’s illustrator of mine, Susan Jeffers, who I wrote about here. It is a lovely book to introduce children to this wonderful, epic poem and Jeffers’s artwork captures the spirit of the words. The front and back end papers of the book evocatively captures the feeling of this long, narrative poem, as well as the dedication page.

I think that this would be a great book to sit and read to a young child or an aging parent or grandparent, perhaps around a campfire, after a long hike in the woods, while camping, or on a visit to a national park.

At the door on summer evenings

Sat the little Hiawatha

Heard the whispering of the pine-trees,

Heard the lapping of the waters,

Sounds of music, words of wonder:

Maybe I’ll just sit in my reading chair and enjoy Susan Jeffers’s Hiawatha myself for a while.


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Wayside Inn

Did I ever tell you that I am a member of the Secret Drawer Society?

On a trip out east to Boston, we spent a few nights at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusettes. It is the very inn that Longfellow visited and was inspired to write his legendary Tales of a Wayside Inn, the most famous tale, The Landlord’s Tale, memorized for years by school children across the land.

Listen my children, and you shall hear

Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,

On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;

Hardly a man is now alive

Who remembers that famous day and year.

The inn was on the post road travelled that historic night of the Landlord’s Tale. We entered the inn and found the main desk in the center, where we signed our names into a large guest book, were handed a door key – a real key, not a key card – and found our way through a warren of hallways to our historically appointed quarters.

We entered, pursued the furnishings, and freshened up before a stroll on the grounds and then dinner. The washroom, thankfully, was not mid-nineteenth century. My delight was complete when I chanced opening the desk to find it FULL of letters, books, and mementos, as were two of the desk’s drawers.  Tom must have wondered what I was into while he was in the bathroom as I was exclaiming, like a child in a toy store, “oh, cool”, “how neat”, and  “the letters really are here” !

More on the letters in a bit.

We walked the long drive out of our bones, strolling the wooded grounds and exploring the inn before being seated for dinner in a dimly lit room just off of the main desk. The ambiance of the inn and the history it held in its walls wrapped me in wonder and awe. I thought of Longfellow, stopping here for nourishment, seeking solace in his grief after his wife’s tragic death in a fire. I thought of the road, long travelled by early settlers, pioneers, militiamen, farmers and literati.

We ate and talked and then retired for the night. There was no television or radio in the room, so, being naturally nosey and thrilled to be in on a secret, I sat down to start reading the “secret” letters. Tom soon followed suit.

A note, written on a long glove. Papers spilling forth from the desk.

The fraternity of penmen and women is called the Secret Drawer Society (SDS) and was started in the 1950’s by someone leaving a clue in a secret drawer in one of the inn’s 10 rooms. The SDS eventually spread, like all infectious obsessions, to the remaining rooms, making for an intriguing way to wile the hours away at this historic retreat.

Every drawer was filled with letters and there was as story written and taped behind two pictures.

Long after Tom gave up and wisely went to bed, I read on, and on. It was well after midnight when I put the letters away and abated my SDS activities . . .  at least for that night.

The letters went back as far as 1983. Staff had apparently cleaned through them from time to time, but, they were interesting finds none-the-less and quite the romantic adventure for someone with my imagination!

One letter was from a woman who was celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary with her husband.  They had been married at the Wayside’s Mary and Martha Chapel.  Her letter was quite beautiful and sweet.  Another letter was written in lipstick  – the chap who wrote it did not have a pen and so used his wife’s lipstick.  I wondered what she must have thought when she went to freshen her lips!  There was a letter from a mother, dated 1985, about her daughter’s wedding about to take place at the chapel and on top was written a note, dated 1995, from the same daughter saying she found her mother’s letter on her tenth anniversary!  A few authors left notes, one even an autographed book. There were a few graduate students who came to the Inn to complete a thesis and, instead, spent the time rustling through the past. There were quite a few guests from England, one even from Sudbury, England, a note in another language, which I believe was Spanish, and several from Canada.  There was even one from a woman who took the time to organize all of the letters by date (can you say obsessive compulsive?).

There were notes written on gloves, corks from wine bottles, napkins, matchbook covers, and even a long, lengthy tale on the back of two of the pictures in the room, a mystery of sorts, part one and part two.

I wrote my own “secret” note, on a page of the inn’s stationary, though I won’t tell you what I said. I folded it and placed it upon one of neat piles, slowly closed the desk, and smiled a smile of secretiveness as I bid farewell to the Wayside Inn in Sudbury town, a newly ordained member of the Secret Drawer Society.

One Autumn night, in Sudbury town,

Across the meadows bare and brown,

The windows of the wayside inn

Gleamed red with fire-light through the leaves

Of woodbine, hanging from the eaves

Their crimson curtains rent and thin.

Prelude, from Part First, The Wayside Inn

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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