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The Thing Is

DSCN4952 - Version 2 The thing is, be they chance encounters with passersby, chats with long-time friends or are brief interviews by design, conversations can lead us to new and unexpected horizons.

My recent visit with one centenarian led me to moments of contemplative solitude reading the words of another. Stanley Kunitz’s words and my mention of these encounters in turn led to insightful conversations with friends closer to my own age.

 I am nowhere near my own century mark, nor am I a spring chicken. I have a few outward scars from surgeries, accidents, and gravity – and a few inward ones that we all acquire in life, but, the thing is, I am still here.

I have pondered at how quickly the years have passed and how they now seem to speed faster and faster by. The thing is, I AM still here, in relatively good health, with a loving family, wonderful friends, and a consistent flow of possibilities.

I do not know if I will make it to 100 years, or,  if I do, that I will be as lucid and capable as the two centenarians that are roaming around in my thoughts. I do know that they can be a benchmark. My benchmark. A new benchmark.  My own aging expectations have not been that high. You see, my father passed away at 52 and my mother was just turning 67, but, what if 100 is the new goal post? That would mean I’m actually still in my middle ages, and you, perhaps, aren’t even yet middle-aged, and on and on we go.

. . . And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return, we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game . . .   Joni Mitchell

Of Centenarians

We exchanged pleasantries, sitting in a cozy room that was flush with ambiance and age; names, information, insights. The room was more a parlor than a 515bzkkRXyL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_lobby, with a bowed window looking out toward the river and the muted tones of music gathering us in.

After a time of conversation, we gathered in a row, like schoolgirls heading to English class. We walked down the hall to the room of the woman I would be visiting with, a centenarian named Virginia.

I will tell you about Virginia one day. For now, however, I will tell you about where my short conversation with a remarkable woman in her 106th year steered my thoughts as I travelled along the road back home, in a pouring winter rain.

Virginia was a gardener of some renown. She still recalls the lines of poetry she learned as a student some ninety years ago.  Though frail and unable to see, her mind is sharp and her words well spoken. I thought about them as I drove.  Once home, I settled in, wrapped in a blanket against the damp, chilling day, a hot cup of tea in hand, and I spent some time with another centenarian, Stanley Kunitz.

Mr. Kunitz’s book, “The Wild Braid”, is a though-provoking  journey through his gardens, his poetry, his prose. It is a small volume of conversations, thoughts, and a generous sprinkling of his poetry.

The book was a gift to me, some years ago. Debra, who knows my love of gardening and appreciation of poetry, sent it to me. A kind and thoughtful gesture from a special friend. I was not familiar with Stanley Kunitz. The book was an awakening to yet another U. S. Poet Laureate and weaver of words.

As I re-read passages from “The Wild Braid”, I thought of lives well led, and led well. Of men and of women who live life to the fullest, in good times and in bad, who garden and write and do a myriad of other things, throughout their lives.  They take their places here on earth and they make it a better place.

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

From “The Round”,  Stanley Kunitz

When Your Oomph Needs a Charge

IMG_5463Do you ever feel that your core, your inner reserves, your oomph needs a charge?  I just needed an hour or two to reboot; to be in nature.

 Already halfway there, with a pocket of daylight before me, I steered the car westward to one of my places of renewal – the Morton Arboretum. The volunteer attendant cheerfully checked my membership card and we chatted ever-so-briefly; just enough to put a smile on both of our faces, before I rounded the bend into the grounds and veered toward the east side of the grounds.

I was looking for, and I found, strength.

I have written about this bench before. It has become somewhat a totem to me that I reach for in every season. I’m glad I don’t need to wear it around my neck, for the bench is really quite large. There is something about it that makes me smile and fills me with joy.

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Catching the bench at its best through my open car window, something caught my eye, high above, casting a shadow, dancing the dance of nature.

I turned the car off, crossed over the lane and stepped onto the frosty grass. I stopped and stared as this hawk overlooked his kingdom. What did he see? How far did his powerful vision telescope? What unsuspecting rabbit or vole was his prey? He was stolid and still, master of his dominion. Then, suddenly, he swooped and circled again and again before he drifted away on the waves of air until I could see him no more.

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These moments are such rewarding gifts.They remind me of how small I am and how much I have yet to learn. 

I did not stay long in this outdoor stadium of strength. Back in the car, I finished the loop, then I stopped at the Visitor Center where I checked out some displays. As I walked out the door, I looked, as I always do, for my favorite tree, the Copper Beech, and remembered one of you asked to see in it winter.

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I drove around the west side, then headed home, my oomph once more charged.

How do you regain your core, your strength, your groove?

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IMG_5142It had been an exciting, fun, terrifying, heartbreaking school year, and summer had finally arrived. 1968/69 took me away from home for the first time in my life, living in a college dorm, exploring my freedom, making new friends, and then, suddenly, losing my father to a short battle with cancer.

I needed a summer job. An acquaintance of my mom’s worked for an employment agency and found me one, with a small insurance company. By small, I mean very small. It was in an old building, a storefront, across from the El tracks in Oak Park. It was owned and operated by an elderly gentleman, his middle-aged son, and a secretary. I would type, answer phones, file – and I was to tell them I would not be returning to college in the fall.

I am NOT a good liar. I do not lie BUT,  I needed the job. My father had died that spring and if I was to return to school, I needed money. A  “sad sack” story of coed who needs the job to get the education.

They hired me. 9 to 5. I had a few dresses that were way too short, which was pointed out by Madame Secretary. She didn’t like my long hair, either. It was long. Very long, down my back, parted in the middle, straight and full. Did I say it was 1969? Most days, I pulled it back in a long ponytail. A compromise.

Madame Secretary gave me typing and other chores to do; the sort that one would expect for girl #2 in a one girl office. Thankfully, I never had to make the coffee. Mr. Johnson, who was really very nice, was Swedish, with a tiny bit of an accent, and he liked an egg cracked into the coffee grounds. He drank his coffee with a sugar cube (or more ) in his mouth, and I always felt I should bring him a tin of butter cookies, but, this was long before I became a good cook.

His son was looking toward new ventures and buying real-estate and such; the way father/son business relationships can sometimes go. I was tongue-tied and timid around him. I think this was my first realization in life that I related better to the grandparents of the world. Ha. I still do, which is probably just fine as I now am one.

June turned into July, July into August. I rode two busses from our apartment, transferring mid-route. I would go out and walk during my lunch hour, stopping at a drugstore for a treat or to call home on the pay phone, or, more often, call my Aunt Christina. She had a way of making me feel better about my circumstances, and, if that didn’t work, always had some choice comments about the boss (son) or the secretary.

I missed my college friends. Most of them lived several hours away. A few lived in the area, along with high school friends, but, even that was a challenge as I no longer lived in the same towns as they did. It was a lonely summer, but, one often spiced up with letters from friends, phone calls, and a few dates with a really cute guy I met just before classes ended that June.  He lived in the southern suburbs and called me often on the phone. We went on quite a few dates, mostly to the movies, getting to know each other. He played guitar and had performed at his sister’s wedding that summer, which seemed pretty “cool” to me. Did I say he was really cute? and he was really tall.

As the summer wore down, those dog-days of August made the bus rides close to unbearable. I thought of my college chums and getting back to school and started fretting about what I was going to say to Madame Secretary and my bosses. It was mostly Mr. Johnson, the elder, that I felt badly about. He was such a charming gentleman. With only a few weeks left before I needed to pack up my belongings and head back downstate, I needed to come up with something to say; an excuse of why I would be leaving.  They hired me as full-time with the understanding that I would not to be going back to school.

Oh, how I fretted! I don’t remember if it was one of my friends or just my own lame brainstorm, but, on a Monday in mid-August, wearing one of my shockingly short dresses, my hair long, still parted in the middle, and in PIGTAILS, I arrived at work. I sat at my desk, which was on the west side of the room (why do we remember such unnecessary stuff?) I told Madame Secretary, when she came in, that I had something to tell her. “Oh? What?”.

Sigh.

I told her I needed to give notice. I would be leaving in two weeks.

Why couldn’t that just be enough?  She wanted to know why, of course, and that was when I blurted out “I’m getting married.

In two weeks?

Once you start down the road of lies, it doesn’t get shorter, does it? No.  It gets longer, with sharp, snaky turn and unexpected detours.

Yes. I’m getting married.”

In two weeks? Who are you marrying? I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend” “Who is he? What’s his name? Why so fast?”

“His name is Tom”. (I’d had a date with that cute, tall guy that weekend.)

Those two weeks were terrible. Madame Secretary pumped me with more questions than you can imagine, and she was angry, very angry with me for leaving, and the son wasn’t very nice, either.  Mr. Johnson was as pleasant as ever and made a point of talking to me over his cup of coffee with a sugar cube in his mouth, every morning. I think he figured me out. His kindness was charitable and sweet.

As bad as the initial lie was, it grew, like Pinocchio’s nose. Where was the wedding? Would we have a honeymoon? Where? What did TOM do?

Oh, friends, it got worse. I counted the hours of each of those days through those two weeks of deception. I told Madame Secretary that we were having a small wedding in the Greek Orthodox Church (no one has a small wedding in a Greek Orthodox Church) and that we were going someplace in Wisconsin. I couldn’t even come up with a place in Wisconsin. I said that we were moving in with his parents (whom I hadn’t even met).

Madame Secretary wanted to know what the color scheme of our bedroom would be. l said pink, while turning pink!! Really. Could I have said anything else? Pink! Pink? I was evasive in my answers, and can only imagine what they thought of me. Actually, I realized that what they thought of me was probably that I was pregnant and that we would be deposited in his sister’s bedroom. Remember. She had gotten married that summer.

So, on the last day of work in that storefront office, with old wood floors and coffee percolating, Madame Secretary informed me I could leave early (for I was getting married that weekend). Oh, the web we weave . . .

They called me to the back room and we all had coffee and cake, in honor of me and the groom, and engaged in unbearably uncomfortable small talk. Then, they handed me a nicely wrapped wedding gift!

. . . and that, my friends, is how I came to receive a lava lamp!

I did send a thank you card, as Mr. and Mrs., and, to add to my crimes, I spelled the last name wrong.

THE END

(Oh, and yes, four years late I married the cute guy, and four years after that, I had that baby.)

Hedgehogs, Hippies, and Owls

IMG_5223Earlier this month, in our year of celebrating 90 decades, our garden club looked to the 1960’s, which was great fun. A fair share of hippies and flower children were in attendance and ’60s food nourished us, especially this darling porcupine/hedgehog cheese log.

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It was an awakening to look back at the ’60s; not only for the memorabilia that members brought, but, in the video display of the major events of that decade. While there is no doubt that we live in often violent times, definitely turbulent times, make no mistake, the 1960’s was an equally frightening decade. We made it through those years, and I have hopes that we will make it through these.

We just need lava lamps to light the way. :)

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When our luncheon was over and our business meeting adjourned, we wandered into another room in the Wilder Mansion where Mark Spreyer gave an engaging and informative presentation on owls, as well as speaking about the Endangered Species Act, which came out of the 1960’s. Mark is with the Stillman Nature Center in South Barrington. He is an outstanding speaker with a remarkable rapport and respect of these beautiful birds of prey.

The owls Mark works with often come from other nature centers, such as the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, which cares for sick or injured animals. Once recovered, some of these creatures, whose injuries are such that they cannot be released back into the wild, are taken in by the Stillman Nature Center. I was impressed with the respect Mark has for these birds – and they for him. At one point, he made an owlish call as this beautiful Screech Owl recognized him, returning his call (they don’t screech).

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This Barred Owl was magnificent, often spreading his wings. These birds are such glorious creatures and I left both in awe of the birds and grateful for such caretakers as Mark and such places at the Spillman Nature Center. Barred owl

Do you have owls where you live? Did you have a lava lamp? Do you remember the 1960’s?

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Endurance

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

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 It is a often a chore to embrace beauty in winter, especially when it is bitterly cold with a shameless wind that bites through layers of fleece and wool and even  our mere determination to get where we must go.

I remind myself, on these outings, that this winter is nowhere near the challenge of our past two winters. The mud, the patches of snow, the ice – all are mild compared to three feet of  snow to push through or the days upon days of freezing temperatures that the last two winters brought.

On Wednesday, I went out in the early morn to 1 degrees (F) temperatures. On Friday, my day started at 40 degrees.

Here on the Cutoff, we get “lake effect” snow as well as “snow fog”, magnificent sunsets and white-out conditions – sometimes all in the same day. It is what it is, for we ARE in a cold climate, near a large and deep lake, but, there IS beauty to find.

Salt Creek is flowing right now, although there are many sheets of ice. It was frozen the other day. Have you ever seen water frozen on its descent over a dam? It is pretty magnificent. It was from this creek that ice was harvested years upon years past. I’ve always found this an intriguing concept; harvesting ice. We take our ice for granted. Open the door, push a lever, tada! Ice cubes. Open the door, pull out eggs, milk, produce, anything and everything whenever we want. Refrigeration keeps products cold and safe for us to eat. We do not need to go out to the ice/spring house, to the frozen creek, to find get our food, we just have to open the refrigerator, where a magic light goes on.

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I was thinking about his as I drove past Fullersburg Woods. It was too cold and I wasn’t properly dressed for a trek in the woods, but, with no cars behind me, I opened the window and took a few cell phone shots of the old footbridge, which is pictured above. Two hawks were soaring overhead, dancing their primal dance, and a gaggle of the ever-present geese goggled about who knows what?

Later, finally able to navigate the muck and the mud of our own worn acreage, I slogged the distance with a bowl of kitchen peelings, eggs shells and coffee grounds to the haphazard compost pile. There were eyes (and not potato eyes) watching me. This doe was a few yards away. I did not zoom in with the camera. The rest of the clan was rummaging for nourishment in the ravaged lot next door.

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Bowl in hand (I guess I thought it would give me leverage) I made my way further back.

We have a “kill zone” on our property; a spot where we sometimes come upon nature’s leavings. Feathers and bones and remnants of lost life appear. Birds, smaller animals, feathers and such things that were once life here on the Cutoff.

 Earlier, before Christmas, there was a massacre. Tom came across what ended up being two doe. He suggested I not go back there. I could see the amount of blood on the then white snow from the windows, and I heeded his suggestion. Since then, nature has taken its course, and so I wandered back. It was not a pretty sight. It must have been coyote who took these two resting deer and along with other scavenging prey, they pretty much picked the bones clean.

I thought a little prayer and trudged back to the house, retracing my steps in the snow and the mud. As I walked, I silently counted the resident herd, all doe and yearlings, enjoying their late afternoon snacks. I counted. 17. A buck had been strutting about. This fellow is most often seen, the crowned head of the kingdom, though there are at least two more boys who wander these woods. They really are magnificent to watch.

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The trees, the creek, the carnage and the beauty; the endurance of Rachel Carson’s words. Something to contemplate here on the Cutoff.

Potato Soup

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We had been married for a year or two. Like many newlyweds, we were on a tight budget, we both liked to eat, and we came from families of good cooks – and no written recipes. Oh, I had, several cookbooks – still have, an early 1970’s edition of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. It is the one with the checked red and white cover, little tabs on the side for meat, vegetables, soups, etc. Most of the tabs have worn off and a few of the pages are torn or splattered with ingredients. I have a newer version, but, I tend to reach for the well-worn edition, mostly because the back inside cover has quick conversions and my favorites are so used that they just seem to tumble out right when I need them.

This, however, is not a post about cookbooks. It is about my journey in making potato soup, which was one of those comfort foods that my groom loved and for which there was no recipe. Tom’s mother made it, as did her mother before her, and his great-aunt, Ethel. It comes from their family’s kitchen on the old homestead in Ohio. The potatoes were harvested from the kitchen garden behind the barn. The milk would have come from the cow in the barn and the eggs came from the chicken coop just a few steps from the barn. The bacon was from a butchered hog, smoked and cured and oh-so-good.

Potato soup is comfort food. It is inexpensive and something many cultures share, with variations in seasonings and ingredients, but with the common use of potatoes.

In those early years, having had the soup only once, maybe twice, and with no idea whatsoever how to make it, I thought I would give it a try. Tom thought he could guide me through it – and he did.  It is amazing what we can remember from those moments of our youth when we had the opportunities to observe. Color. Texture. Aroma. All part and parcel of our what and how we ate.

Back then, I bought probably more potatoes than needed and a pound of Oscar Meyer bacon. We peeled the potatoes and cubed them into bite sized chunks, then set them to boil with water. I fried up the bacon, cooled enough to handle, and crumbled it into bite-sized pieces that were tossed into the bubbling pot.

When the spuds were tender, Tom said to add milk. This was in the days where we used whole milk. Skim was for when you were sick. I knew enough to not let the milk boil.

All pretty easy so far, don’t you agree?

The “iffy” part was making what Tom called egg curdles, which didn’t sound very appetizing to me then, nor does it today. I call them dumplings.

Cracked an egg into a bowl and scramble. That part really went well. It was when I needed to add the flour that things, shall we say, grew tense. Tom had no idea and I had no frame of reference. We worked together with me adding flour a tablespoon at a time until it looked like Tom thought it should look. I made dough balls and dropped them into the hot milk.

TADA!

It turned out pretty good, though the curdles/dumplings were a bit too big. Practice makes perfect, and so, slowly but surely,  this comforting concoction has gotten better and better over the years.

It was particularly good on Saturday night.

So here, dear reader, is the basic recipe, which some of you asked for. My sister-in-law added minced onions. I think she sautéed them first. Leeks or shallot would also enhance the flavor. I don’t add salt, bacon takes care of that, but, I do add freshly ground pepper. This is based on the approximations that I used the other night. It made enough for several hearty servings the first night and leftovers, which mellow the flavors and taste even better

Tom and Penny’s Potato Soup

Cooked bacon broken into bite-sized pieces

4 large baking potatoes, washed, peeled, and cubed into bite sized pieces

Enough water to cover potatoes in pan

Boil until the potatoes are fork-tender

Dumplings

Add enough milk to be able to add dumplings and simmer until hot

2 eggs, beaten, in medium-sized bowl

Add about one cup of flour, a few tablespoons at a time, until dough forms a soft ball and pulls away from sides of the bowl

Drop by small spoonfuls into soup until done.  (only a few minutes)

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