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DSCN4406I could not have asked for a more pleasant Easter, full of all its hopes and promise. The air warmed as the day rose. We opened windows and doors, inviting the outside in. We were surrounded by the gift of family as greetings of Happy Easter, Christos Anesti, and Shalom went from lip to cheek through the portal of celebration; each bringing different belief systems and varied customs, each carrying a plate or platter, box or bag, filled with sustenance to nourish our bodies in this season of nourishing our souls.

I am always my most content, as you, dear reader, surely know, when folks are gathered around our long, worn wooden table. This Easter, we  also used the table in our cozy dining room as we served our meal buffet-style. This glass table came from our dear friend Marilyn, who wondered to me several years ago if one of our daughters might want it? I jumped at the chance and said “No, me. Pick me! I need it” and she did. It has been with grateful delight that we sit around this airy orb in our little glass room on $59 upholstered chairs from T.J. Maxx.

We ate and talked and reminisced, as families tend to do. We laughed and commiserated over pastichio and turkey, salad and ann array of vegetables, Italian sweet bread, Greek Easter Bread and potato rolls. Our meal was followed by every type of sweet, from diples and baklava, to karidopeta, lemon pound cake and shortbread. Can you see my waist expanding?

Those who could not be with us were with us just the same. Ted pulled down my framed photo of the “club girls”, and we pointed and named and recalled the years these women gathered to play cards. We ate on Tom’s mother Carolyn’s Brown Eyed Susan plates using her Coronation flatware. A bouquet of iris from Tom sat in a treasured Crate and Barrel ribbon vase, as Heather arranged a spray of roses she brought that seemed to be tailor made to sit atop a well much-used tablecloth.

Sitting, rather contentedly I thought, in Tom’s grandmother’s (or was it his great grandmother’s?) rocking chair, was the bunny Kezzie gave us to take home before we left her house in Minnesota last Sunday. I have picked it up for a cuddle or two and nuzzled in to its soft cloth belly to catch a scent of our Kezzie-kins, reminded me of The Velveteen Rabbit. Isn’t it sweet when children give us their treasures to take with us?

Here is hoping you had a pleasant weekend with all the hope and promise of this season.

 

Iris from Tom and Keizzie's bunnyDSCN4402DSCN4396DSCN4413

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Steaming cup of teaHave you ever tried to explain steam to a four year old, or listened in rapt attention as a toddler valiantly tried to tell you he wanted Thomas the Train as he pointed to there?

Dear reader, my head was swimming, pleasantly, of course, for three days as our little darlings chatted and hugged and otherwise charmed the socks off of us.

Such a long spell had passed since Christmastime, with post-operative recuperation here, childhood maladies amongst the grandchildren and their parents there, and the winter-that-would-not end blocking our tire-worn path. At long last Tom and I headed up to Minnesota on a balmy April day, with the wind mostly at our backs, the sun rising to meet us, and our souls filled with the sweet anticipation of embracing our northern kin.

It is hard to believe that our Kezzie turned four a few weeks ago. Where did the time go? We cuddled and read books, colored and opened birthday presents, bargained for banana bread and wore strategically placed stickers on our chests. Badges of honor, these sticker are, though some got stuck on the floor (please don’t tell her parents). All was accomplished while engaged in the most enlightened conversations between kindred spirits separated by six decades.

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Our Ezra is rapidly advancing in age. He is now 19 months old and toddling about with a crop of boyish curls, a sailor’s gait, and a rapidly expanding vocabulary. Car. Truck. Tractor. Train. Book (with the emphasis on the k). These the current most oft-repeated words, especially since cousins Scott and Jake mailed up a box of trains a few weeks earlier, sharing their outgrown wheels. We chug-a-chugged up and down the hallway with smiles to beat the band and Ez and his Papa explored construction tv, opting for Bob the Builder in lieu of HGTV.

I’ll be back to writing and reading and gardening in a snap – or as soon as I find those overly charmed socks.

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DSCN4326DSCN4311Come April, our garden club hosts its annual luncheon. We get all “gussied” up, meet somewhere different from our monthly venue, and have a floral related presenter who awakens us to all the possibilities of flower arranging. We take time to thank our retiring officers, dutifully swear in our newly elected ones, and enjoy each other’s company. A member is honored as “woman of the year” (congratulations Jan).  Among a bevy baskets, filled with wonderful raffle items, lively conversations ensue -and we all feel a little lighter for a few hours.

This year, the luncheon’s theme was Stepping Out. It was one of our very best, due in large part to the efforts of the event’s chairwomen and the committees that worked to make it enjoyable. It was topped off with tablescapes that were a phenomenal potpourri of the creative juices of our members.

The centerpieces are usually constructed by our Designs and Exhibits committee. Sometimes, however, they are made by the members at large. Several months ago, we were given the challenge of individually crafting centerpieces – using shoes! You can, I am sure, imagine women and their shoes, but, can you visualize round tables, adorned in white tablecloths with black burlap runners and every possible make and model of shoes on top? From the small Mary Janes of a grandchild and seaside “flip flops” of a sand lover, to golf shoes and sequined high heels, the soles of our members tripped fantastically across the tabletops, giving way to the young girls hidden in all of us.

Here are but a few of the shoes that were allowed, for an afternoon, to dance atop our tables.

Do click on for a better look.

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Tree:Morton Arboretum:Shadows #2I am fortunate. I was raised in a family overflowing with love. Although they were strict, I appreciate having grown up with parameters in a home whose occupants were loving and loyal to each other, beyond measure, and who held a respect for education. Mine was a childhood full of colorful characters, on both sides of my family, who added to the recipe that became my life story.

I am unfortunate in that my parents died at fairly young ages. Daddy died when I was 19, Ma when I was 38. Both died after brief illnesses. He died in mid-April, she mid-March. Spring brings hope here on the Cutoff, along with a mini-dose of melancholy.

I am fortunate. I was raised in a family with a good sense of humor. It comes mostly from my father’s side, as my cousins from that arm of the tree can attest to, but, Ma, well, Ma had a special part in the family humor. She was the Gracie Allen to Daddy’s George Burns. She was the constant foil. My dad would set her up for the punch line, and she would fall for it, hook, line and sinker. Like Gracie, my mom took it in good stead.

I think of them both as spring comes around the bend. I make mental notes, sometimes paper ones, to stop by the cemetery and say hello. The first time I mentioned to Tom, the young man I was dating way-back-when, that I stopped to say hi to  my father, he looked at me, puzzled.“I thought your dad died”. “He did, but, I sometimes go to talk to him.” Eventually, Tom got used to me and my humor, though he’s careful not to trip in front of me, but, those are references to stories for other times.

With spring slowly emerging, and a wistful feeling in my heart, I once again made a mental note to visit my parents at Elmwood Cemetery. Then, I picked up Billy Collins’ “Nine Horses”, letting the small volume of poems open where it chose to, which ended up being page 101, with a simple poem that brought a fortunate smile.

No Time, by Billy Collins

In a rush this weekday morning,
I tap the horn as I speed past the cemetery
where my parents are buried
side by side beneath a slab of smooth granite.

Then, all day, I think of him rising up
to give me that look
of knowing disapproval
while my mother calmly tells him to lie back down.

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DSCN4267It was a rather spontaneous decision. Leaving our house on Sunday morning, I mentioned to Tom that we should take a quick ride after church, Chatting with my dear friend Pat after church, I said we were thinking of driving over and she said maybe she and Rick would follow us. Before long, there we were, exiting our cars and walking up to the doors of the historic Oak Park Conservatory.

Sometimes, we don’t realize how much we have missed until it rises to greet us.

So it was on Sunday morn as we opened the glass door to the historic greenhouse, a mecca amid concrete, bordered by traffic. We inhaled all the scents that winter had robbed us of. Ah, the blissful joy of fragrance and chlorophyl and peat, basking in windowpane sunshine.

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It was good. Very good, indeed!

Visit the Oak Park Conservatory here.

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DSCN4104Good things really do come in small packages.

Case in point. As I motored down our long drive driveway, which currently looks like a luge, I  thought to check the mailbox before turning onto our road. Skidding to a stop, I bounded out the door, up a mini-mound of packed snow left by municipal street plows, leaned down into the mailbox (for the mound is currently higher than the regulation mailbox height) and burrowed in to see what the postman left. There I was, Queen of the Mountain, balancing on two of the only remaining petite portions of my physique, discovering a box, addressed to me. “Oh, goody” says I. I love, Love, LOVE getting packages in the mail.

Tumbling back into my mochamobile, I noticed the name on the return address, Michael Maher, and wondered what my friend’s husband could possibly be sending me. Showing uncharacteristic self control, I set the box and mail on the car seat, and went on my errand packed way.

Home again, I set about seeing what was in the box, still pondering what Michael sent. As soon as the box opened, I  chuckled with childish glee, realizing that the package was from a different Michael Maher, which I would have known first off had I looked at the Charleston address. The box was from the ever-delightful author, Andra Watkins, and she had used a return address of her talented architect husband, more commonly known to readers of Andra’s blog, The Accidental Coochie Mama, as MTM.

My childish glee, however, was over the contents of the box. Penguin sock #2 copy

Some time ago, Andra did a  post displaying a pair of penguin slippers, which I commented on, mentioning my own pair of Mary Jane slippers which are, sad to say, a mismatched set of two left feet.

Yep. That’s me. Two left feet; fitting for someone who is always taking a tumble, like that ill-fated day we went cross-country skiing and I landed in someone’s cup of Campbell’s tomato soup!

Back to the box. There, snuggled inside the box sat none other than the pair of penguin slippers!

But, wait . . . also in the box was the official announcement of the upcoming release of Andra’s novel, which is about to be released in paperback and e-reader, “To Live Forever: An Afterlife Journey of Meriwether Lewis”, which I am most anxious to read.

Friends, I have a stone in my slippers, those of the two left feet, that I mean to rectify asap. While I await deliverance of Meriwether Lewis, which I have just ordered from Amazon, I would like to spend time highlighting a few of you who have also written books, some of which I have sitting right at my elbow and have not yet gotten to. I blame my two left feet and I mean to rectify this as soon as I get my toes sorted out.

In-the-meantime, said toes are cold,  so off I go, to put Nick and Nora (the brand on the soles) on my feet, and to think happy feet thoughts of my friend Andra.

Thanks, Andra – and best of luck as your launch your book and as you soon set out on your trek, walking the 444 mile Natchez Trace, following Meriwether’s footsteps.

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WLS_Silver_Beatle_SurveyIt was a wintry Saturday afternoon; sunny and just warm enough to walk the six or seven blocks to  the bustling business district in Broadview. My friend, Nancy, walked the two blocks to our house on Harrison Street in Maywood and we started out, eastward,  past the corner store, Fred & Ed’s, over the low bridge spanning the Eisenhower Expressway, past Zanoni’s, another corner store, down blocks of mid-century brick bungalows to the shops on Roosevelt Road. We swirled on stools at the the soda fountain in Woolworth’s and ordered cokes and fries, went into the Ben Franklin, where anything and everything could be found, checked out what was “cool” at the clothing store, then crossed over Roosevelt to look in the window of the local record store.

“Those are the Beatles” said Nancy, pointing to a poster.

“Who?”  I queried.

“The Beatles. They’re the new singing group from England.” I stared at the poster of the four cute boys from across the pond, wondering. We went inside and picked up a copy of the WLS Silver Dollar Survey, browsed, giggling, then headed home, chatting away in the silly, companionable way of eighth grade girls with nothing else to do on a Saturday afternoon.

Sunday night, February 9, 1964, my family sat in front of our black and white Zenith television set, just months before it exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces, Daddy and Yia Yia sat on the plastic covered chairs (the plastic covered the slip covers which covered the French Provincial furniture, whose actual being I would not actual witness for several more years).  Ma flitted back and forth from the kitchen. My dad’s cousin, George, and his wife, Athena, were visiting. They were sitting on the couch (also enshrined in plastic). My sister and I sat on hassocks. It’s funny sometimes what we remember, isn’t it?

We were all waiting for Ed Sullivan and yet another “really big show” to begin - and it did, with what became known as the British invasion. Paul and John, George and Ringo;  the boys on the poster in the record store window in Broadview. There they were,  singing  “All My Loving” with all that hair, and all those girls screaming, and grownups wondering aloud what was happening that memorable night, 50 years ago.

I sure wish I had kept that Silver Dollar Survey, and I sure am grateful I still have this picture of the 5th Beatle, also known as Pete, whose story can be found here.

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It rained on the January day we closed the deal, buying this rambling old house on the Cutoff. We finished packing and cleaning up our old house during a snowfall, then moved in on a Saturday. Remarkably, moving in day brought just enough warmth to melt most of the snow and allowed us and the movers to haul all our possessions without trudging through sludge and slosh and snow. It was nine years ago now. Funny how time goes by in a whisper.

My friend Sue helped us move in, bringing a big container of chocolate chip cookies along. She unpacked boxes in DSCN3980our big kitchen, and started putting pots and pans in cabinets, silverware in just the right drawer, and the cheerful Brown Eyed Susan dishes I inherited from Tom’s mother in the glassed in cabinet across from the sink, which is where they still rest when not in use. In fact,  I have not moved anything from where Sue put it.

I had packed food from the freezer into a few big ice chests, thinking about what I might make for dinner in the new house on our first night.  So, out came some chicken, a can of tomato paste, a bag of square Greek noodles and a big pot to make some Greek chicken stew;  a simple dish with a distinct aroma that ushered one home into another as it bubbled in our homey kitchen.

The stove was big and functional.  We decided not to replace it. It was certainly used, but, serviceable, although one of the knobs looked just a bit distorted. I wondered about it as I turned on a burner and made that first meal, but, I knew the stove had been used to feed the very large family of the precious owners

As the years wore on, I discovered what had happened to the knob. It seemed that every-so-often the oven door wouldn’t quite close, except if I had a cake in the oven, which was when it would not quite open.  A little squirt of cooking spray seemed to do the trick when it wouldn’t open, and I learned to check the door to see how it hinged before putting in a cake – or turkey. One or two squirts meant a door that opened easily. It also meant a door that didn’t quite close.

As the years wore on, the knobs on the stove slowly morphed into peculiar shapes. Cooking heat was escaping the oven with increasing regularity. I could only hazard a guess at where 350° was – only because it was where the knob was most deformed.  Then, with a very hot oven near the holidays, I burnt my fingertips turning on a burner forgetting the oven door was ajar.

DSCN3999The time had most definitely come to replace the stove, commencing with appliance shopping that brought about memories of stoves in lifetimes past earlier this month. This shopping was done in between snowstorms, a purchase made and a date for delivery was set, and then reset because of dangerous weather conditions. These frigid temperatures have wreaked havoc on so many activities, including deliveries of all sorts of things.

Finally, on a Saturday,  when much of the snow had melted and delivery men could travel safely, our new stove arrived, complete with an oven door that opens, and closes properly, knobs that are well-marked and don’t resemble wontons, and a myriad of other culinary uses that I didn’t even know I missed – until I had them back.

As the temperatures and snow continued to batter our area, I have been as content as a pig on the 4th of July, baking and cooking with my efficient new stove, including a batch of chocolate chip cookies, which I made this afternoon, thinking of my friend Sue and her help on that moving day, nine years ago.

What have you been cooking or baking lately? Have you ever had a stove that had seen better days?

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Doom was always lurking around corners. Ma tended toward old wives’ tales. If I read too much, my eyes would cross. If I cropped-dscn39801.jpgwashed my hair too often, it would fall out before I reached the age of 30. Pantyhose and tampons would render me sterile. Nail polish would brand me a hussy. Shaving my armpits, well, you don’t want to know that one. Plucking my eyebrows could cause any number of vision problems, which, perhaps, is probably why I fell and hurt myself running, and . . .

. . . I was never, ever, under any circumstances to turn the oven on!

The sturdy Tappan Gas Range of my two previous posts, followed our family from the west side of Chicago to the suburb of Maywood. Both houses were across from what would become I-290,  locally dubbed the Congress Expressway and then the Eisenhower. For more than 50 years, I lived either on the north or the south side of the Ike, but, those are stories for other days. Today’s is the story of my home, the range, and Hershey’s Cocoa.

My mother, with all her superstitions and worry, was the best at making hot cocoa. Cold days, after walking home from school, we would often find a cup of hot chocolate waiting. Ma would make a cup for Daddy sometimes, late at night. I know. How do I know? I know because I was reading a book, under my bed covers, when I was supposed to be fast asleep.

I digress.

I have a bundle of letters tied with a ribbon. They are letters written to my mother during WWII. They are from her brothers and brothers-in-law, cousins and boys from the neighborhood who had gone off to war. They are from many theaters of battle, some with words sliced out by a censor’s razor. They speak of the Chicago Cubs or the White Sox, others asking after the other boys who hung out on the street corner. They talk of weather and of missing loved ones and of the things in between the lines that speak of war without words. They are the sorts of letters that arrived in countless homes. In almost every letter my mother kept, however, there was a common theme;

Vi, I can’t wait to come home and have a cup of your hot cocoa.

I did not know of these letters until I was a young mother when my mom gave them to, saying she thought I would appreciate having them – and I did. Still do. All I knew as a girl of thirteen, however, was that Ma made good cocoa, with Hershey’s cocoa. The same Hershey’s cocoa that my cousin Mary Jane made each morning, as a young teen, after she had warmed up the old coal stove.

The conversation with my cousin, and the photograph of the new stove reminded me of the letter, my mother, and of a small act of defiance when I was about thirteen years old.

My mother, father and Yia Yia had all gone out somewhere. So had my Aunt Christina and Uncle Joe, who lived next door. For all of them to be gone at the same time, including my grandmother, who hardly ever left the house, leads me to believe that someone must have died and they all went to the wake. They NEVER all went somewhere together, unless it was a wake or a wedding.

I finished my homework then decided I would make some cocoa. Just like that! Out came the Hershey’s container, a half gallon glass jar of milk, and a small pan. I read the directions and proceeded to turn on the burner and warm the milk. I was warned to never turn on the oven. No one said anything about a burner. I managed to make the hot cocoa without setting the pan, a towel, or anything else on fire. It was very good. I cleaned everything up, but,  you know, there is a unique aroma that comes with hot Hershey’s cocoa that permeates the air and is subtly detectable when coming in from the cold –  that, and the pang of guilt that arises after doing something you are not supposed to do.

When my parents and grandmother came home, I spilled the beans faster than a nervous coffee grinder. Yia Yia slipped quietly to her room. My father looked at me; she who never disobeyed. My mother: well, hysterical would probably describe her mien, as the woulda, shoulda, couldas spewed forth. Finally, Daddy interceded on my behalf.  “Violet, she should have asked, but, nothing bad happened, she was careful, she cleaned up after herself and she really  IS old enough to start cooking.”

Thus began my warm and sweet love affair with cooking – one pan of Hershey’s cocoa at a time – and it was on the front right burner of that sturdy Tappan range. It really is amazing what memories come forth when visiting a big box store.

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DSCN3980Returning home from our New Year’s Day adventure in a big box store, Tom and I continued to reminisce about the big, white stoves that took up so much space in the small, suburban kitchens of our childhoods. Both Tom’s parents and my multi-generation family eventually hauled these large ovens to other houses; Tom’s to a newer, bigger home, mine to a suburban house, then, after another move, to the basement of my Aunt Christina’s house; the stove’s final resting place.

As we chattered away, I recalled an old black and white photo of Aunt Christina and my grandmother, Yia Yia, posing in front of the stove in the kitchen of the family home on Congress Street in Chicago. It was in this house, the first floor of a two flat, that the picture was taken in. There, we all lived together; a multi-generational mix of aunts and uncles, cousins and grandmother,  until I was four and one half years old.

DSCN3943It set me to wondering about the story of the stove, a Tappan,  and a bit of a rummage-around for the photo.  I found it,  and I knew who to call for its story; my cousin Mary Jane.

After saying hello and a bit of catching up, I asked Mary Jane if she remembered the stove and when it was brought to the family house on Congress Street. Mary Jane is the oldest of the cousins, with fourteen or so years between her and I. She spent a good part of her childhood  in my grandmother’s house, the only child living among several sets of aunts and uncles and other relatives who at different times found shelter in Yia Yia’s house.

Mary Jane said that she did, indeed, remember the stove. Our Uncle John bought it for the family when he secured a good job after returning from serving in World War II. He sent money home to Chicago for a new stove and a new furnace.

I can only imagine the joy and relief of my uncle returning safely from war, as well as the appreciation when the stove and the furnace arrived. The story warmed my heart as much as the stove must have warmed their meals and the furnace the entire building. In our family, as in many of yours, the kitchen and its stove represent the heart of family. I knew the stove from our suburban house Maywood, though, and needed to learn a bit of its history.

My cousin surmised that my mother, her Aunt Violet, took the picture. I supposed she took two or three, with one to mail to Uncle John.

I asked Mary Jane what kind of stove the new Tappan Gas Range replaced. Ah, a little chuckle preceded what I heard as I memory of her own. She said the old stove was a coal stove. When she started high school, she was the first one up in the morning. Her job was to start the stove. Oh, it was cold in the morning when she entered the kitchen. she vividly recalled. She would get the stove warming with coal from a nearby bucket, then dress for school. By the time she was dressed and ready, so was the stove, upon which she then made a cup of Hershey’s Cocoa, which she had with a slice of bread and butter.

While the old coal stove stayed evenly warm for a long time, the new gas range must have been a remarkable improvement for the women in my family, and for my cousin’s early morning routine. I was glad I called my cousin and appreciative that she took time talking with me,  recalling those memories and family history.

We said our good-byes, then I found a cozy spot and looked anew the picture – and I thought about the first time I made cocoa on that same Tappan range.

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