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Archive for December, 2010

Auld lang syne

May the peace of the holiday season continue to shine on you and your families and may your new year be filled with health, happiness, and good cheer.

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Into the woods

Tom usually awakes before I do. He makes coffee and sets out my teapot and cup and saucer that are waiting for me when I come down the stairs. It is an endearing ritual that starts our days. While the kettle is heating up, I will walk from window to window to see what nature has left during the night. At this time of year, it is looking for deer tracks and damage to trees and shrubs.

It is already a hard winter for the deer herd. Most of December has been snow-covered here and the deer are searching for nourishment, digging in leaves and rearing up on their hind legs to pull tree branches down, and munching on the hydrangea and tree peonies. I doubt that there will be many blooms come spring and tell myself it is what it is on the Cutoff.

We peered outward Wednesday night. In the still of the night, under cloud cover and street lights, Katy and I could see the forms of deer wandering in the vacant land next to us. They moved slowly in the snow, and bent low, digging for plants, munching on leaves.

I began to fret when we first noticed the Christmas buck in the mulch pile for hours on end. At first, as he seemed to struggle to get up, I thought it was just his age. After all, I struggle some days getting up as well, hobbling about, shaking my bones out, slowly descending the stairs to get to my morning cup of tea. His limp, however, has become more and more pronounced and we can see the drag of his right rear leg in the snow. I am certain the shed Tom found is that of the Christmas buck. I saw him hobbling when he had his rack intact. He hobbles still and he is the only buck who has shed his crown.

Coming home Wednesday afternoon, four well-crowned males were out and about. The Christmas buck was resting in the pile of leaves. There was a stand-off between this old king and another. The king still ruled and sat down once again on his throne of leaves.

It was under the dark cloak of night that the real drama unfolded. Kate, ever watchful over our herd, called out that she thought the big buck was out in the leaves once more. We finally saw him after turning out all of the lights, one-by-one, the dimming of day, the acceptance of darkness. The night took on a surreal quality. She and I watched, then the two Toms joined. As we looked from the windows, two more bucks wandered over, one challenging the Christmas buck, who arose, awkwardly, and walked a few feet away, facing the street, his back to his challenger, his head down, his legs splayed unnaturally. To say it was painful to watch would be an understatement. We couldn’t tell if this was a challenge for domination or a respectful tending of a friend.

Our Christmas buck stood, his back to his nemesis, barely moving. One stag wandered off, eating his late night snack, a ghost on the lawn, while the other stood, a few yards behind the king. Would there be a fight in this stand-off? Who would win? Slowly, painfully, the Christmas buck moved toward the road. Slowly, assuredly, the second buck followed, matching steps, until they crossed to the other side. We watched in amazement and wonder and with some trepidation. I had a sense that the king had lost his battle and a new king was leading him home, across the road and into the woods, another of life’s rituals playing out at the end of the day.

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Gifts of the season

Gifts come in many forms during a holiday season.

Gaily wrapped presents tied with a bow or creeping out of a colorful bag. A gift a day as the menorah is lit. The continuing tradition of Boxing Day. It comes in the laughter of children and the smiles of an elderly aunt, glad to have company in the bleakness of midwinter. Like the gifts of the magi, the things we give and receive are far greater than just the colorful wrappings.

The fourth day of Christmas brought such gifts to the Cutoff. There were more presents, indeed, under the tree that we unwrapped with our up north family, visiting, and more sure to follow tomorrow as Jennifer and Jason, as well as extended family,  join us for dinner. I am hoping that other children fill the house as well. The grand niece and nephews, “my grands” as I call them, and our own little Kezzie.

Some of yesterday’s gifts were ethereal; the casting of shadows upon the white lawn and a red tailed hawk soaring just over the peak of the barn as a doe lurked around the corner of the deck. The doe must have been gathering fallen seeds, for she was just under the finch feeder where they flitted about. The hawk was low – a mouse, perhaps, or a squirrel, unaware of his presence. A doe and a buck, still in rut, surprised us as we looked out the kitchen window, back to the far reaches of our property. They were playing – and enjoying some afternoon delight. There will surely be fawn come early summer.

The Christmas buck continues to sit for long periods of time in the mulch pile. He was there on Christmas Eve as we drove in, then disappeared around seven o’clock. I wondered where he went, as he was gone Christmas day. Perhaps he punted as a relief reindeer for Dasher or Dancer or Prancer or Vixen. He was back on the second day of Christmas, his antlers appearing almost before he did. Tom and I watched as he and another locked horns for a short while and we noticed the king of kingdom limping and struggling a bit as he gentled down into the matted leaves.

He left Tom a present yesterday.

Coming back from gathering the day’s mail, my Antler Man looked over at the leaf pile and saw something protruding. With the wonder of a child and the mature experience of past discoveries, he hobbled through the snow, along the deer tracked path, and there, slipping up from the leaves, newly fallen and found before the squirrels or voles discovered its richness, was a coveted antler shed.

A gift of Christmas.

Now, if only I can convince Antler Man that it doesn’t belong on the dining room table.

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Perspectives

It is good to view the world from different perspectives at times, don’t you agree? A different angle of the same room, a snapshot of life through a bus window or the perspective of a low slope – or a high peak. I caught this yesterday through the cutout of a gingko leaf on a chair. We were sitting in the cafe at the Morton Arboretum, sipping on coffee, watching the hearty trudging through the woods on rented snow shoes, their bright red and blue and yellow snow parkas bold highlights against the winter landscape, flitting about like winter birds. It was comfortable sitting along the large expanse of windows, a respite for us on a brisk morning.

We’d been caught off-guard, you see. Lolling about after a filled holiday with family and friends, food and sweets, and a trip to the emergency room, we were enjoying the early Sunday morning when, pop, our electricity went out. Neither of us had showered yet. Tom had been watching a live stream of our church service. I had been dozing off once again while listening to Sunday Morning on CBS. It was the sound going off the stirred me awake. Isn’t if funny how such changes awaken our senses?

ComEd’s recording told us several hours would be needed to restore service.

Let’s go to the arboretum!

So, we did. We bundled up and headed out, our trusty passes in hand, for a cup of coffee and a ride though the grounds.

The scenery was beautiful; the white, glistening snow, the powdery limbs of deciduous trees and the laden branches of pine and fir. A woodpecker tatted in amongst a band of Juncos and I sighted a hawk soaring close through the trees, searching for a meal.

A different perspective than the one we awoke to.

A change in plans.

A detour along life’s way.

 

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Christmas bells

 

Christmas Bells

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


 

 



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Away in a manger

No crib for a bed

The stars in the sky looked down where he laySleep in heavenly peace this  night.

Sleep in heavenly peace.

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A Christmas Stag?

It is quiet now, here on the cutoff. It is just past midnight, a cold night. The snow is blue grey under the spell of the cloud cover, yet, the shadows still move with the ease of forest creatures and the calendar has just turned to Christmas Eve. The magical moments begin.

This past fall, Tom made piles of leaves for compost in the back, hauled tarp loads to the curb for the city to mulch, and laid an enormous pile for the deer off to the side of our property. We noticed them eating there last winter, rummaging through the leaves like a dog searching for a bone. We didn’t mind, it was only leaves, and thought to put another pile there again this year. We hoped they would eat from the decomposing natural matter and leave the garden alone.

I noticed him about 3:30. I was getting ready to roll out the dough for molasses cookies and caught something through the dining room window out of the corner of my eye. I looked out and he looked back at me.

There he was, king of the forest, a comfortable ease in the leaves, a bed of comfort for a buck on such a cold day.  His rack was impressive. He  rose, and ate from the plate below his feet. Another buck, younger, princely, with a smaller rack, wandered over and I watched to see what would happen. The king just reclined and let the prince eat. Three doe rummaged nearby. A peaceable kingdom, the bucks, the doe, and me, baking away, readying for the holiday at hand.

This was all happening right outside the window as I baked.

Roll, cut, pan, oven, check deer, roll, cut, pan, oven, check deer.

Tthe king of the forest was suddenly alone. Thinking the prince had wandered off, I went to turn on the living room tree, which is when I saw

THIS!

Flour flying from my hands, my hair, and my apron, shoes quickly donned, door flying opening . . .

. . . I stood on the front porch, a crazed Christmas elf, seeing my hydrangeas being munched and crunched to the ground, screeching “get off my plants!”.

He looked at me as if to say “what’s your problem, lady?”. I stomped my foot in righteous indignation and off he strolled, a princely attitude, not a care in the world, with the king of the forest, the Christmas stag, watching from his throne of leaves.

He was still there at 9:30 when Tom returned home.

He is still there now, at half past midnight, resting and comfortable, the Cutoff his kingdom.

Or, maybe he’s just waiting . . .

 

Illustration by Tasha Tudor

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Beatrix Potter. The Rabbit's Christmas Party - The Arrival

What better way to spend the shortest day of the year than with longtime friends, enjoying each other’s company, laughing and eating and just being us? Old friends catching up, finding time quite spontaneously to gather.  So it was on this long, long night, this Winter’s Solstice,  as we met for dinner at a family restaurant .

 

Beatrix Potter. The Rabbit's Christmas Party - Roasting Apples.

Darkness had fallen long before we entered the restaurant, a fog cloaking the area.

Saying goodbye, hugging and well-wishing, and secure in years of knowing each other well, we departed, hours later, and I felt the warmth of friendship, long on the vine, and I thought of Beatrix Potter and The Rabbit’s Christmas.

Here’s to you, my friends, may we always find time to rub noses on cold winter nights.

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Toppers

A crow is perched quite handsomely atop one of our Christmas trees. A red satin ribbon he found somewhere, quite regal, wraps around his neck and trails down the tree, which is decorated with all sorts of nature inspired ornaments; birds, fox, a racoon gnawing a branch, nests that were found after heavy winds. A dove flutters nearby, keeping the peace in the kingdom. The tree faces the road, the landscape and beyond. It is where we sit to watch the meandering herd of deer, ghost walkers in the snowy night,  and the birds that visit for seeds and water. It is where we spy horses trotting, only to disappear into the woods. It is where we read and reflect and dream. It is where our nature tree sits, adorned with all manner of ornaments that remind us of nature and it is where our Christmas morn begins.

A more traditional tree, real and fragrant with old fashioned ornaments and bits of memory sits in the back family room. It is smaller this year. It, too is well adorned and crowned with a now ratty raffia angel my sister brought back from Mexico many moons ago. She couldn’t be more beautiful, in spite of her years of topping.

Antler Man hunts for the real tree. I’m a “Charlie Browner” whilst he’s a “Rockefeller Center” when it comes to trees. I don’t mind. He always finds the best, going from tree lot to tree lot, bargaining as he pulls out and twirls each tree. A winter waltz among firs and balsams and pines. He always brings the best dancer home.

There are legends of our Christmas trees; the ones that have fallen needles galore, the ones that have simply fallen, the ones too big for the door and the one that opened so wide one year we couldn’t come in the door. One year, there was a tree so big and round it consumed our tiny apartment as Tom and brother-in-law Mike came in, looking rather sheepish, with grins on their faces and whispers of the really good tree lot where brandy was being served.

We two, the Antler Man and I, are as sappy as the juices flowing from the firs when it comes to our Christmas decorations. Romantics at heart, I sometimes think we try to contrive a Christmas that really wasn’t but we imagined it to be. A Dickens or  Currier and Ives, mixed in with Alcott and Wilder and Rockwell and a little James Taylor ballad. Our marriage brought on a wedding of traditions that morphed into our own. Molly speaks so well about transitions at Christmas here and Corey takes us to her home and environs in France here. She got me to thinking about how we all top our trees. Then there is Rachel. This fine lass from Great Britain, who is interning in NYC,  does more for that city than any tourist board, not to mention her excellent book reviews. Read her here.

Yesterday morn, working here at my desk, I heard a cawing outside the window. I looked, and there, sitting on the barren branches of the snowball bush (absent all snowballs, of course) was a magnificent bluejay. We stared at each other for just a few seconds before he flew off. I kept looking, hoping he would come back and sit for a spell. He was likely looking at his own reflection, rather than me, but, I was enchanted just the same. Bluejays became rare here a few years ago, plagued with the West Nile virus. It is good to see their return. I watched and waited, then sprang from my chair (lest I forget Clement Moore) and went into the livingroom to look at our tree. I guess I wanted to make sure the crow was still there.

He was, but he was slightly atilt. I wonder what mischief he was in when I wasn’t looking?

Who tops your tree?

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“Oh, fudge!”

Image from whatscookingamerica.net

I have made my fudge from the same recipe for about 35 years. It came to me with a batch of fudge one fine Christmas and Jennifer made it with me on Sunday. She actually came to bake cookies. We made candy instead. Two sets of hands make the hour-long stirring of caramel so much easier than just one. We stirred and we talked as the rich confection roiled and boiled and grew up to the top of the pan before it slowly simmered down to the caramel color from whence its name comes. It sits now in the pan, hardened and chewy and sweet. I will cut it into dozens of pieces and wrap them up, individually, for giving and eating.

The fudge sits, as well, in its own pan, waiting to be cut into squares. There is a long strip of it missing already, though. (We did have to taste it, did we not?)

I file both recipes in a special box where I put all my Christmas recipes. Although I use of the recipes other times in the year, most are concoctions come Christmastide. The recipe for fudge sits among splatters and stains on an index card – the second card it has instructed me on. The first was long ago discarded for all the tasty smears finally blurred the instructions. The recipe came to me from another teaching colleague; Sue, the art teacher in my school. I worked with a talented and giving group of women and men back-in-the-day. They fed me with all sorts of knowledge and experiences and food and friendship that I keep with me still. Sue’s recipe card came with fudge, wrapped so artistically, and it read “Oh, Fudge!” on the title.

“Oh, Fudge!”. It took me several newlywed years to finally perfect fudge. I don’t give up easily. I liked to bake and experiment in the kitchen, even then and I loved fudge. I’ll confess. I’m a chocaholic, but candy making was not part of my Greek culinary experience, though we all know the Dove Bar had it start among Chicago Greeks. We had plenty of sweets come Christmas, for certain, but not homemade fudge. The only homemade fudge I remember – and I remember it well – was from my cousin Mary Jane’s mother. Jean would visit from Wisconsin, often bearing the gift of fudge to a complimentary chorus of “Jean makes the best fudge”.  I can taste it still.

I pulled out recipes from cookbooks and tried them, one-by-one, to no avail. This was long before the internet and entire channels devoted to gastronomy. All of the recipes called for a soft-ball stage, which sounded like a sport, and candy thermometers and beating the mixture until one’s arm dislocated. I persevered. My efforts brought forth fudge sauce and brown goo and globs of chocolate only Willy Wonka could use. I would watch masses of chocolate plop forlornly to the bottom of a glass of water, setttling like an ill-spent egg. Plop! Again and again I plopped and flopped until, finally, a form softened roundly and hardened. In fact, hardened so hard that it turned into a rock that could only be broken with a meat tenderizer. Thin, sharp fragments of shale with which to impale this hapless chocolatier. I have always had a self-deprecating nature and what can one do but laugh at oneself when all else fails? I took it to school the very next day and waved it about, challenging my friends to guess what I’d made. No one said fudge. Today I would probably be arrested for bringing such a weapon to school.

Fabulous fudge flowed that year. Sweet gifts from heaven. The chocolate gods smiled upon me. Everyone brought me fudge -”here, taste mine”, they would say, as I gained pound after pound. Today, such a phenomenon would become a reality show. Men and women vying for a coveted fudge globe.  A chocolate orb. A prize to devour. A leader board leader among all fudgekins. “Dancing with Chocolates” or “The World’s Greatest Fudger” scoring world records. Back-in-the-day, however, it was a kind, culinary soul that shared, not only her fudge, but the recipe as well. The road to redemption on an index card, that traveled all the way to the cutoff.

Jennifer and me and candy making, all on a Sunday afternoon.

Does life get any sweeter than that?

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