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Tea:front porchI was having a cup of tea, late afternoon in that in between time after lunch and before starting our supper. With a few grapes to tide me over, I settled on the front porch, a worksheet and my journal in hand with the best of intentions to to wisely use my time.

The air was still. The chirping of birds and the sawing sound of cicadas were background noise as I worked my way through some readings for a woman’s study I was participating in via Zoom. Zoom and Skype and other online tools are being employed by many of us, perhaps you, during these times of social distancing in 2020.

As I attempted to stay on task, I felt a presence. It was in that instant when all alone you suddenly sense you are being watched. I slowly turned my head and there, about 12 feet from my perch on the front porch, a doe and her twin fawns were staring at me. I nodded and she dipped her head as if to acknowledge my existence, then, with the grace of her heritage, she strode down the driveway as if she had better places to be, making sure her children were following her.

I took a few sips from my teacup, then heard a humming sound. I looked up and there, just past the tip of my nose, was a hummingbird, hovering quite close, trying, I suppose, to see what was in my cup. As quickly as she appeared, she zoomed over to sip from the fuschia hanging nearby and, I kid you not, just then a chipmunk ran over my foot!

These sweet, small, seemingly insignificant moments are treasures to me. They soothe my soul and are a like a handrail to grasp when it feels like I’m falling. They center me, especially in this pandemic.

We are well and keep busy, the Antler man and me. We miss our Up North family, but are thankful for texting and Skyping and staying in touch. We are thankful as well for summer which affords us the ability to be able to have our Jennifer and Jason here for occasional  “socially distanced” meals and chats. While we miss Sunday services and activities at our church, we can and do live-stream and keep connected, and there are so many other ways and the means to carry on through these days.

So it was this afternoon, once again on the aging front porch, that I watched a pair of Monarchs waltzing around the milkweed to music only they could hear and I made myself a promise that I would try my hardest to return to blogging – and to ask how you all have been.

Lessons

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What I Learned From My Mother

 

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Julia Kasdorf

Dust Motes

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On an early, April day, sitting in the den, I watched the sun dancing with the dust motes, brushing the desk, the door and the wall as it made its way to sunset. I was hunkered down amid the shelves that groan under the weight of books that comfort, inspire, frighten, motivate and entertain me, recalling the months Tom took designing then making them for my biblio-obsession.

As I sat, nestled in the well-worn easy chair – does anyone else use that term anymore? – I watched the journey of the sunlight until it landed on the small, shelved mirror on the wall. The mirror has a small drawer-like shelf that seemed to be crafted just for me to put things, which I have done over the course time.

One of the items slipped into mirror’s shelf is the remains of a chrysalis, found a few years ago when I happened upon a cocoon hidden in the long grasses of our little prairie. After monitoring the little miracle (my neighbors must think me a tad “off”) I missed the emergence. I took the long stem and remains indoors and settled it into the small shelf drawer . You can find that story here.

So it was that the sun kissed the remnants of what was and what would be.  I sighed, grateful for the reminder that out of uncertainty and chaos we can find hope.

There will be no palms this Sunday. No gatherings in churches, temples and other houses of worship. Whether Christian, Jewish, Hindu – our collective tents have their doors shuttered for the time being. They will open again, someday in the future. Until then, we must take care to not shutter our hearts.  It may be a long wait, but, it will happen. Until then, let us open up our hearts to love, to hope, to peace.

Last Prayer on the Page

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Small Wonder

Something new is upon us,
and yet nothing is ever new.

We are alive in a fearsome time,
and we have been given new things to fear.

We’ve been delivered huge blows but also
huge opportunities to reinforce or reinvent our will,
depending on where we look for honor
and how we name our enemies.

The easiest thing is to think of returning the blows.
But there are other things we must think about as well,
other dangers we face.

A careless way of sauntering across the earth
and breaking open its treasures,
a terrible dependency on sucking out the world’s
best juices for ourselves—these may also be our enemies.

Barbara Kingsolver

I read Barbara Kingsolver’s poem late last night, just as March turned to April. It touched me then and I hope it touches you in some way now. This was the last entry for March in a little book I often turn at day’s end. Prayers for Hard Times by Becca Anderson.

Rabbit! Rabbit! – and blessings to you all.

Our Social Selves . . .

. . .  at a prescribed distance.

Six feet, to be precise.

We are in a stay-in-place order here in Illinois. Self-isolation and self-quarantine divine our spaces in ways we never imagined. We are not alone. Many of you who are reading this are hunkered down as well in these days and months of this beastliest of invaders – COVID19.

I hope and pray that you are all safe and well and that you have enough provisions, comfort and faith.

We are doing well, here on the Cutoff. Oh, we have our anxious moments, worry about each other, our family and our friends. We fret and ponder and offer prayers of faith and gratitude while holding, tight-fisted onto hope.

Lest you think we are wallowing, please know we are not. Tom and I try to take a long walk each day together. Even while socially distanced, the fresh air in March is invigorating and the exercise good for our overall health. Our daughter, Jennifer, has joined us on a few walks during fast spreading menace. We meet at a forest preserve equidistant from our homes. While we share no hugs before walking the paths at Fullersburg Woods and maintain a 6 foot distance, I find it amazing that we three wanderers can have such chatty conversations while still keeping our mandated distance.

Social Distance

(Methinks the shortest one should not have been taking this selfie. Trust me, there is 6 feet between the Antler Man and me, and the same between him and Jennifer.)

The other day, I took advantage of the designated shopping hours offered to senior citizens. Both large chain stores and small independents have stepped up to give older shoppers designated, early hours to shop. I needed some, er, feminine products and my B12 vitamins and a few grocery items. I headed out early to my neighborhood Jewel/Osco. The store would be opened from 7- 8 am specifically for the elderly set.

Half way between 7 and 8 am, there was a gaggle of gals looking in the pharmacy section and a bunch of old men who didn’t seem to  know why they were there. Three women of a certain age, myself included, stood 6 feet apart, our shopping carts parked where we were sure to forget them. We stared at a wall of incontinence products. It was lined with sedate wrappers. None of us could find what we needed. It was hilarious. One woman would point and say, “is that the one you want? “No, but, is this the one for you?” We finally just stood there, stranger, laughing, made all the heartier when one said “we’ll probably all wet our pant”s.

We each went on our way, I picked up some canned fruit (so in case we need it) as well as one package of the coveted toilet paper, which I might need since I couldn’t find my feminine product.

It was at the check-out lane that silliness left me. While the lines moved well, the visual of the 6 foot rule was apparent. I was the last one in line. The checker scanned my items as the bagger put them in paper sacks. As I finished my transaction, I looked at the bagger, a woman about my age. She smiled and I said “Thank you for being here.”  That was all I said as she looked into my eyes and burst out crying. “No one ever thanks us”. 

It was a simple thing to do – a reminder that we all need to be kind and remember how precious those two words can be.

Thank you.

 

The Politics of Chicken . . .

IMG_1565. . . or, who gets the thigh and other fowl parts.

 

I’ll get to the chicken parts in a moment – or when I figure out how to use this new layout WordPress changed to when I wasn’t looking. Having used the same format for over 10 years, I was quite comfortable with the way things were. My first few posts were small entries. It took me awhile to figure out how to add photos, change my banner, add favorite blogs and so forth. Eventually, I managed to figure it out, post most days, and found the process enjoyable while making many new friends along the way.

I liked things just as they were.

Lately, my posts have been sporadic. Life’s many distractions and challenges, social media and other activities have stolen much of my time – along with reading and maybe playing too much Tetris. 🙂 This week, I vowed to get back to posting more often and here I am – ready to fire up the keypad and finding a new format for posting just when I had a post to write. Oh, bother, as a certain bear would say.

“It’s th’ unblessed food that makes you fat.” – Puny Bradshaw Guthrie *

On to poultry politics.

My treasured friend, Sharon, who has enjoyed Jan Karon’s Midford books as much as I have, gifted me “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader” for my birthday this past December. We finally met up for lunch a few weeks ago, where I squealed with delight when I received this book. I have been slowly perusing it ever since.

The book contains recipes from the Midford series with related excerpts from the books, kitchen tips, whimsical drawings and short essays from Jan Karon. It was in the pages of this gem that I came to a short piece entitled “Political Chicken” with the lead sentence observing that

         “. . . once it hits the table, friend chicken becomes highly political.”

Every part, it seems, has its target audience. From the drumsticks, which most often go to children, to the breast meat, which Ms. Karon finds tasteless, to the wings and the thighs. Even the back of the bird is considered, often eaten by the cook, so everyone eating gets a more appropriate piece, except for an elderly aunt who might prefer “the part that goes over the fence last“.

As children, my sister and I were always given a drumstick – and made to feel we had the most cherished part, and we could eat it in our hands. Recently, a younger man asked me to help him find chicken thighs while I was picking up chicken at the local grocery. Really. I’m at that point in life where my female mystique is relegated to chicken thighs, but, I digress and you already know that some of my more enlightened conversations are conducted at the grocers.

I’ve rambled and hopefully this will publish and you can tell me what piece of chicken is your favorite, or, if you have a chicken story.

 

 

 

 

 

*  Quote from the inside flap of  “Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader”  edited by Martha McIntosh

 

One book at a time

There is a place for everything. Toothbrush in vanity cabinet, laundry down the chute, clothes in the closet, dishes in the cupboard – and books in piles everywhere!

“Esperanza Rising” sat patiently on a pile next to my side of the bed. “Christmas Jars” was in a basket of Christmas books, which I always intend to read during December but never get to until January. It is all for the better. I seem to enjoy them more in the quiet, post holiday calm. A few select books sit on a stool, waiting for future book discussions, while a staggering stack of histories precariously balance on a wobbly, wooden chair, estate and garage sale “finds” that  begged to be brought home on various excursions.

My reading habits tend to be a bit eclectic, wandering from poetry to cookbooks, short stories to expansive tomes, and there is always time for children and young adult books, which is where one of my most recent “reads” took me.

“Esperanza Rising” is a middle grade book by Pam Muñoz Ryan. The book was a gift my son-in-law thought I might enjoy. He knows me well. I did, even if  it took me a year to finally open it up and read it.

Esperanza in the daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner in the 1930s. She lives being catered to by servants, adored by her father, coddled by her loving grandmother, and loved by her Mama. She is an only child whose privileged life quickly changes when her father is murdered. His stepbrothers, powerful men in the region, leverage their influence and power to take over the estate. When Esperanza’s mother refuses to marry one of the uncles, they awaken to find the house on fire in the middle of the night.

With the help of Esperanza’s grandmother’s sisters in a nearby convent, Esperanza and her mother, Ramona, flee the estate. They are hidden in a wagon by servants, whose lives are also threatened by the uncles. They embark upon the long, treacherous migration to California. Along the way, Esperanza learns to find the goodness in those less fortunate in life than she has been. She learns kindness and humility as well as acceptance of others.

When these migrants finally arrive, they are taken in by relatives of their previous servants – the very servants that save them on the journey to California. Life is hard for Esperanza, sleeping in crowded quarters, their shelter not much more than a horse stall. Her privileged life is replaced by hard work, taking care of the babies and younger children while the men and women work in the fields. Miguel, her friend from Mexico, is the son of the man who transports them to California. He teaches her how to do one of the jobs she is assigned to – sweeping with a broom! She learns how to change a diaper and how to clean it, how to cook beans and how to survive.

When a dust storm whips through the work camp, Esperanza’s mother takes ill with valley fever (dust fever) and is hospitalized for a very long time. Esperanza takes over work her mother did and works hard to earn money to bring her grandmother to California.

“Esperanza Rising” is a story, based on the author’s own grandmother’s migration in the ’30s, from Mexico to California. It is the story of the unrest in Mexico and the migrant experience during the Great Depression, as well as the story of crop production, following the seasons in southern California.

The back pages of my copy provided insight into the author’s own grandmother’s migration. It also gave some recipes of food mentioned in the book (don’t you love the inclusion of recipes in a novel?) Also provided were the steps in making a yarn doll. Yarn dolls and afghan making play an important role in this book. Esperanza’s grandmother, Abuelita, teaches her how to crochet, instructing her to go up and down valleys in her stitches, incorporating strands of her hair that have fallen into the blanket. When they leave under the cloak of darkness, Ambieta gives the unfinished blanket to Esperanza. Mama works on the blanket at times in the story, soothing Esperanza, teaching her, and then Esperanza picks up the blanket when Mama is in the hospital near death.

While on the train (part of the journey to California), Mama takes pieces of yarn and makes a yarn doll for an impoverished little girl they meet.

Here is one of my first attempts at making a yarn doll. Rather pitiful, I admit.  I’ll attempt a few more as I reflect on this exceptional children’s book and attack one of my biblio-piles.

(PS – I’ll do a  post soon on some of the other books I’ve been engaged in.)

Window Treatments

Amaryllis

A flower needs to be this size
to conceal the winter window,
and this color, the red
of a Fiat with the top down,
to impress us, dull as we’ve grown.

Months ago the gigantic onion of a bulb
half above the soil
stuck out its green tongue
and slowly, day by day,
the flower itself entered our world,

closed, like hands that captured a moth,
then open, as eyes open,
and the amaryllis, seeing us,
was somehow undiscouraged.
It stands before us now

as we eat our soup;
you pour a little of your drinking water
into its saucer, and a few crumbs
of fragrant earth fall
onto the tabletop.  – Connie Wanek

 

 

 

Keziah and the Yia Yias

The mixer poised, ready and willing, sat on the counter’s edge. Sifters and spoons, cake flour and powdered sugar – part and parcel to a plan to make kourambethes early the following Christmas Eve morn.

Keziah and I had been chatting away, as we often do, wondering what we would make for supper and what delectable treats we would bake next. I mentioned that I wanted to bake Greek powdered sugar cookies (kourambethes) and that I could use her help. Well . . . that quickly became an action plan to bake them early the next morning, with Kezzie suggesting that we bring some to share at church on Christmas Eve.

Keziah helped me make peppermint kiss cookies for a ladies event I would be attending when our Up North family visited at Thanksgiving. I was impressed over how precise and efficient she had become,  forming dough into cookies, molding them “just so”. in a way remarkably resembling that of my Yia Yia, so many years ago.

So it was that Kezzie sifted flour ( 4 or 5 times, Yia YIa,  really? ). The mixer whirred and blended the butter and egg yolks (Yia Yia, you can’t use just the yolks!). A taste of pinched off dough determined that we needed more sugar (Yia Yia, you can’t eat cookie dough!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I explained to Keziah that my Yia Yia could not read or write (oh, Yia Yia, everyone can do that!) which was why this recipe did not have precise measurements. I told her that this recipe was written down for me by my mother, who I called Ma (like Little House on the Prairie?) but Auntie Jenny and Kezzie’s Mommy called Yia Yia (could she read and write?). I replied that yes, she could, but that she did not finish 8th grade, nor did she read or write or speak Greek.

My sweet granddaughter, perched upon a stool, pinched and rolled with an uncanny ease for one so young. She lined the dough on cookie sheets as we talked and baked and tasted our results. Keziah did the work her Yia Yia couldn’t quite handle this year. We talked, she asked questions and we puzzled out family history. She reminded me to check the cookies in the oven and anticipated “dusting” the cookies with powdered sugar when it was time.

When we were done, 100 cookies were made, tins were filled, and Ezra helped us taste test – just to make sure they were good.

This recipe for kourambethes came to me like taking the long way home.

It begins for me with a young woman, Penelope, for whom I am named. She brought this recipe and others in her mind as she traveled down a mountain, more than a century ago, a donkey employed to carry their possessions. She came down the mountain and boarded one ship, then another and sailed across the ocean to New York, then traveled on to Massachusetts and finally Chicago. Her daughter-in-law, my Ma, wrote down what she saw and in time gave it to me. The measurements in saucers-full and baking until done.

This year, 2020, five generations strong, I will convert my cursive writing to print and provide more accurate measurements*, confident in the knowledge that a new generation is now becoming the keeper of family recipes, especially those that have traveled so very far.

  • My one true test of knowing when the dough is sweet enough to bake is in tasting the dough. Yia Yia would always pinch off a little piece of dough for my sister and a piece for me before she would start forming cookies to bake. This pinch is how I know they are sweet enough. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 

 

 

 

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Christmas Crows


Mr. Crow looks rather dashing, perched atop our Christmas tree, as he governs the woodland creatures below. He wears a red bowtie that he found on his long-ago travels. It ribbons its way through branches where nature inspired ornaments congregate until Epiphany. A raccoon, near wind fallen birds’ nests, sits gnawing upon a branch.  The nests were discovered after heavy winds rumbled through our little acreage as time has gone by. A dove flutters nearby, keeping the peace in this little December kingdom, and a bluebird rests in his favorite spot.

Our nature-inspired Christmas tree faces the front gardens, the road and beyond. It is in the room where we sit to hopefully spot the roaming herd of deer or to watch wintering birds find seeds or squirrels who scamper about looking for walnuts still scattered from Fall. This is where we sometimes see horses trotting past before disappearing into the woods . It is where we read, reflect, chat and dream. This room was christened “the Christmas room” by our granddaughter, Kezzie, when she was very young. It has been forevermore called just that.

Our woodland tree “just happened” our first Christmas here on the Cutoff. A real tree stood twelve feet tall in the family room. It held many family ornaments, lent fragrance and nostalgia to our home. We also had room for a second, artificial tree, which  came about that first winter here as I took out my mother’s collection of birds. The birds fondly reminded me of Ma, who was the person who first brought the tradition of Christmas trees into the big Greek family she married into. I have some of the ornaments that adorned that tree of the 1940’s and I treasure them, but, I digress.

As Ma’s birds took to their places on the woodland tree,  so did other ornaments that reflected on nature. As time went on, other birds appeared, as did other animals. I have several penguins, sheep, deer and  along with a few woodland creatures that had belonged to Tom’s sister, Maura. One-by one, year-by-year, other creatures of nature were hung on our woodland tree – and then I found the crow!

I no longer remember where he appeared, but, I do remember feeling compelled to bring him home. He reminded me of storybook about a crow, a ribbon, and a Christmas surprise.

(cover of Merry Christmas, Merry Crow by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jon Goodell)

Mr. Crow also reminded me of the illustrations, craftwork and lifestyle of Tasha Tudor.

(From Tasha Tudor’s Heirloom Crafts)

I have adored Tasha Tudor’s work for so many years, own many of her books, books she illustrated, prints, etc. and have written about her on the pages of Life on the Cutoff. Her book, “Edgar Allan Crow”, immediately came to mind when Mr. Crow found me, as did photos of her ravens and crows in some of her Christmas illustrations and photos of her craftsmanship in a series of lifestyle books about her some years ago.

There are legends of crows, including the one who overhead animals proclaim the birth of baby Jesus. The crow, it is said, flew across the land spreading the news to other birds. There are other fanciful tales of birds adorning holiday trees, along with poetry, song and on and on. Perhaps you know few.

There are also my own memories of birds and Christmas, starting with the Christmas Yia Yia, my paternal grandmother, was given a parakeet on Christmas. Christos was quite the talker, learned all sorts of phrases, many in Greek, along with some bawdy songs. These are stories for other days and part of family lore. There was also Frannie, my lovebird, a birthday gift. She loved to be out of her cage and was really everyone’s bird. She joined us for supper, perched on Tom’s shoulder and watched the 10 o’clock news, and followed our daughters around the house. Frannie was out other cage on her first Christmas with us, chirping and fluttering and being a bird. Suddenly, she disappeared! We called to her, checked the other rooms, and kept an eye out for her as we opened presents, wondering where she was. As wonderings often reveal, I saw something move, ever-so-slightly, out of the corner of my eye. Aha! There she was, perched like an ornament, watching us all, on a branch of the Christmas tree!

So, it is, that a crow crowns our Christmas tree – and will forever more.

 

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