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I was coming down the stairs just as the sun was dancing through the window panes. As cold as it was this morning, at 15 degrees (F), my soul was warmed as angel rays touched upon a photo of two sisters, years ago, displayed in an alcove in the hallway. A few tears slipped out, warmed by sunbeams and sisterly love.

I grabbed my camera, for angel rays are fleeting in December. My heart felt heavy with my loss, but a smile touched my lips; sadness and joy mingled together, gathered in a brief moment, golden moment on this cold December morn.

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“Gratitude can transform common days into
thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change
ordinary opportunities into blessings.”

 William Arthur Ward

I rolled over, checked the clock, and wished for a few more moments of sleep and a dozen or so more degrees in temperature.  At an unseasonably cold 17 degrees (F), I was signed up for a guided walk with a friend that I had not seen in quite a while. A nature enthusiast and photographer extraordinaire, I didn’t want to let Peggy down – nor myself – so, a mantra of “up and at ’em”  pushed me forward and into the frigid early November morn. After a cup of tea, an English muffin and then a shower, I layered warm clothes on: a hooded fleece jacket, my blue winter coat, and a red shawl to brace myself against the wind, and headed out to the Mayslake Peabody Estate.

Peggy greeted me as I got out of my car and we headed in to the mansion where other attendees had gathered. We  met our docent, signed in and chatted while waiting for others to arrive before hearing an overview of our morning’s walk with a focus on gratitude.

I can not say enough good things about our docent. She was knowledgable about the mansion, the property, and the history of the area, while having a calming aura about her, encouraging us to observe what was around us while being mindful of the beauty and sense of place. At several locations, taking from the indigenous people who once lived here, we had moments of instruction and then moments quiet solitude.

As we were guided through the grounds, we were encouraged to feel the pull of the land we stood on and to feel the encouragement of those who may have helped us or lifted us up in our lives. While this wasn’t the intent of my participation, I none-the-less felt the overwhelming sadness of this past year as well as the abiding appreciation of those who helped in the caring of my sister, Dottie, as she entered into the final stages of her journey with pancreatic cancer. There were many who lifted us up and in so many ways eased the load of caring for someone at end-stage cancer. Unintentional in my choice to participate in this walk, I was quite mindful of a cathartic elements this walk afforded me.


We spent some time around the chapel, used by the monks who inhabited the estate after Mr. Peabody suddenly passed away and the property was sold to them. A few walkers remembered the youthful legends of Peabody’s Tomb and the monks who lived there; teenaged adventures of the fearless and those who dared to trespass on the property. We walked around, admiring the chapel and the site, some of us writing thoughts down, others taking photos, talking or just being present in the moment.

 

We walked the restored prairie amid native grasses and plants. My shawl helped keep me warm, however, I may never get all of the seeds I brushed against off of it. I wondered if the owl found me to be a foolish human!

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The oak savanna helped shelter us from the wind and the rustle of leaves was a soothing sound. Soon, we arrived at Mayslake, which is manmade. It glistened in the sunlight and sparkled in its iciness.

 

One of the many gifts of this walk was the flocks of Sandhill cranes that gathered overhead. They were close enough for us to watch as they swooped and floated and joined together for their long migration south. I felt such gratitude for this sighting. These cranes are most often heard but are only seen as specks high up in the sky. The photo (below) does not do the migration justice, I am sorry to say. If you zoom in, you might be able to see the groups circling as they join together. It was only when I downloaded my photos that I noticed the hawk landing on the top of the tree.

Our docent encouraged us to keep a gratitude journal of small things and large that we have to be grateful for. She suggested that just writing a few words down each day is all we need to get started to trigger our memories. There is an action between writing something down that helps the brain remember. Hmmm . . . maybe that is why when I write down a grocery list then forget to bring it with, I do remember most things on the list.

Peggy and I warmed up a bit in the mansion, thanked the docent and decided to grab something warm to drink and lunch – and talk some more.

On my way home, I stopped at a newly opened home furnishings store. As I walked in, this journal caught my eye. I bought it and keep it near my bedside table, where I endeavor to write down words or phrases; things I am grateful for, starting with my very first entry.

 

https://www.dupageforest.org/places-to-go/forest-preserves/mayslake

For an interesting article of the history of Peabody and the tomb, here is an interesting article: http://www.chicagonow.com/chicago-history-cop/2015/08/the-chicago-legend-of-peabody-s-tomb-and-the-masochistic-monks-turns-93-today/

 

 

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I knew I was in for a treat as soon as we opened the door. With a name like Copper Hen Kitchen and Bakery, I was intrigued which did not recede as followed the hostess to a table.. Walking past a bakery case under exposed beams and rough walls, the Copper Hen appeared to be a congenial spot and it was, indeed. The oversized napkins – more dish towel than napkin – added to the allure. That our daughter, Katy, had eaten there before with a friend and they thought I would like it touched me and added to my joy in the experience.

There was much on the menu that tempted me, but, the Farmhouse Salad had my name on it! I have seen many salads in my internet and cookbook wanderings of late with poached eggs atop. Poached eggs are something that you either like – or don’t (I do) and this was a perfect opportunity to try one on salad greens with roasted mushrooms, cashews, ricotta, nuts (I think they were cashews) and a light vinaigrette. I only wished I had ordered a side of toast, but, got along quite nicely as I “licked the platter clean” in this delectable farm-to-table restaurant in Minneapolis.

 

Sated, Katy and I left the Copper Hen and made the short drive to a bookstore I have been wanting to visit. I don’t remember who first suggested Birch Bark Books, but, if you are reading this, thank you, thank you. A sign on the door asked that visitors not take photographs. I will try to paint a picture in words of Birch Bark Books, a cozy, neighborhood independent establishment. Birch Bark is overflowing, in a warm and welcoming way, with a wide offering of books. From cookbooks to mysteries, outstanding children’s selections to poetry and books on nature, there is truly something for everyone at this unique shop, which also sells native artwork, jewelry, baskets, cards and much, much more. The store and is adorned with items that speak to the land and its people.

From Birch Bark’s website:

“We exist to keep real conversations between book lovers alive. We exist to nourish and build a community based on books. We are a neighborhood bookstore, and also an international presence. Our visitors come from Minneapolis-St. Paul, from every U.S. reservation and Canadian reserve, and from all over the world. We are different from all other bookstores on earth!”

Birch Bark Books is ” . . .  a locus for Indigirati — literate Indigenous people who have survived over half a millennium on this continent. We sponsor readings by Native and non-Native writers, journalists, historians.”  It is an amazing local establishment in which I felt both at home and in awe.

Birch Bark Books is owned by author Louise Erdrich. I invite you to explore Birch Bark’s website by clicking the link below to read more about the store, the interesting history of the building, an online shop and photos, which include the birch bark canoe that hangs from the ceiling of the store.

Of course, I could not leave Birch Bark Books without a book.

Have you read anything by Louise Erdrich?

 

https://birchbarkbooks.com/ourstory

http://www.copperhenkitchen.com/menu

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(This is a long story and a bit of rambling. If you just want the recipe for Greek onion stew, please just skip down to the recipe below.”

I don’t remember the first time I climbed onto the seat of a kitchen chair, opened the cabinet above the stove and slowly edged the Imperial coffee grinder from the shelf. I was old enough to know what it was and that I was to be very careful with it. It was a chore I would be asked to do many times in my youth . Each time I reached up for the grinder, I knew what my next chore would be – grinding the spices. I would instantly savor the scent that clung to the aged wooden edges of the grinder’s drawer and anticipate the aromas that would eventually rise from the slow, bubbling pot on the stove. This humble meal of meat and onion stew that would be scooped onto our plates come suppertime. 

The coffee grinder was part of my grandmother’s dowry. It still grinds quite well, however, it is showing its age after more than a century of employment, with nicks and bruises and the signature patina of aged wood. It was, I am told, first used for grinding coffee beans, but, that is family legend to me.

The grinder moved with my grandmother, from the large family two-flat on Congress Street to our small, suburban home in Maywood, then to a north side apartment. When Yia Yia moved in with my aunt, the grinder stayed with my mom who eventually gave it to me when Tom and I bought our first home.

Like many of the dishes and delicacies of my Greek family, there were no written recipes. Yia Yia passed away before I had a chance to gather measurements, though others transcribed many that have been shared. Oddly enough, stefado never made it to a recipe card, a slip of paper, an envelope – those pieces of all of our lives that record our favorite foods.

Stefado was a favorite of mine and I was determined to make it, especially upon discovering a recipe for it in a magazine. “Women’s Day”? “Better Homes and Gardens”? “Family Circle”?   I no longer remember where it appeared, but, find it I did and it used ingredients I remembered. I conferred with my aunt, who said the ingredients were what Yia Yia used and yes, she used pickling spices. Aunt Christina reminded me of the grinder, but, I was miles and miles away and so  – I just threw the pickling spices into the stew!

Have you ever bitten into pepper corns? coriander? mustard seeds?

The stefado tasted right, but, biting into those spices was no fun at all. I called Aunt Christina, frustrated at my results and piqued at the money I’d spent on the meal. She calmly said “It happens. You are just learning. Next time, make a small sack out of cheesecloth, put the spices into it, tie it with twine and put the sack in the pot. ”  As I look back, her advice was invaluable, but it was two words she used –  “Next time” –  that were a gift. Those words gave me license and determination to try again.

TADA!

That worked and I employed that method for several years until Ma came over to our house, carrying the ancient coffee grinder in her signature shopping bag. “Here, Penny. This is now yours. You make stefado and you are your grandmother’s namesake. This is yours now.” – and so, it was and still is, a treasured possession. I still use it, though infrequently, when I make this hearty Greek stew.

A week or so ago, with onions so prevalent and sweet at the markets and a longing for flavors of my youth, I stopped at Penzey’s for a fresh jar of their pickling spice and I picked up some stew meat at the grocery store. Once home, I retrieved the coffee grinder. It sits a shelf where I keep treasured cookbooks. I set the grinder on the counter and slowly, carefully, purposefully opened the little drawer on the bottom, whereupon my childhood rushed out to greet me, as if to say “Penny, what took you so long?”

I put a spoonful of the pickling spices into the top, slowly closed the slot and began turning the grinder, pushing the seeds past the blade and into the drawer below, just as I did as a young girl, helping my Yia Yia in this simple, methodic, fragrant ritual. I ground the spices and then opened the drawer and for a brief, magical moment I was a young girl again.

The onions and meat married in the stew pot with the sprinkling of spices and other ingredients in attendance. I pottered around, monitoring the meal in anxious abeyance, peeking under the lid, stirring my senses along with the stew. A loaf of warm crusty bread – and there we were, my Antler Man and me and this savory meal – and for a brief moment my family of origin was sitting right there beside me.*

Stefado (Greek Onion Stew) 

3 pounds of cubed beef (lamb, venison, or other meat can be used – I prefer beef)

3/4 cup butter (you can substitute oil)

1 1/2 pounds small onions (or larger onions cut into chunks – you want chunks so that the onions will hold up)

Ground pickling spice to taste. I use about 1 Tablespoon ground.  Salt to taste. You can use an electric coffee grinder or even a food processor to grind the spices, or put the unground spices in a cheesecloth sack and put directly into the pot. 

1 small can tomato paste. 

1 cup water plus a little extra water in tomato paste can to scrape any tomato paste left inside.

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

Brown meat and onions in butter, then add rest of ingredients. Stir well, cover, simmer until tender – about  1 1/2 hours

Can be made day before. Flavors meld and mingle and make magic IF you can wait until the next day.  

 

 

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The door opened and there they were!

It seemed like forever since we had been with our Up North family. Late at night from far away, they tumbled in with boxes and bags and suitcases, and with all the pent up energy that had been stowed away during their long car drive. Hugs and kisses and then they, and we, all bedded down for the night and a week of being blissfully busy.

I feel inordinately blessed that our grandchildren feel at home and comfortable with us and that they settle in swiftly while upping the ante of energy, at least as far as this granny is concerned.

Life is grand!

So it was, on that very first day, that breakfasts were eaten, the garden explored, bikes and scooters employed and impending adventures discussed, bringing us all to the Morton Arboretum to track down the infamous trolls guarding the grounds.

Wow! He’s big!

Uh, this one is going to eat Ezra!

Papa rescued Ezra, who found a rather large footrest to settle upon for a bit.

“Yia Yia, do you know that flowers look better in a picture when you show them with your hand?” said Kezzie. Our citizen scientist and budding photographer then proceeded to demonstrate how. .

 

Such a sweet boy, waiting for his treat to arrive.



Kezzie, the afore-mentioned citizen scientist, noticed something moving in the grasses at the pond just outside the large expanse of windows in the Visitors Center. What’s a gal to do when she sees such a thing? She takes her Yia Yia’s hand and leads her around the pond to find it – and we did! All markings lead to a Black Capped Night Heron. Searching for the heron mushroomed into an enjoyable walk, looking at flowers and for turtles, hearing crickets and spotting dragonflies. Eventually, a search party (Papa and Auntie Jenny) were expedited to search for us – and found us!

 

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I have her hands; the small hands of a girl. I can still wear children’s gloves. I tend to fold my hands in my lap as she did.

I have her hands – and I have her name. Penelope.  She never, ever called me Penny. I was always Πηνελόπη . Penelope.

While I have her hands, I do not resemble her, but, her hands, ah, her hands they are always with me. I feel them when I roll dough into balls for Greek powdered sugar cookies (kourambethes) and how I hold a knife when I cut vegetables for briami (vegetable stew). My meatballs are shaped as Yia Yia’s were – she always seems to be with me in my kitchen. I see her hands in my own when I water the flowers in my garden and when I pinch the dried seeds off of spent blooms. How I wish I had her zinnia seeds, which she carefully harvested and placed in different colored tissues, then tied them in little bundles with thread. Yia Yia could neither read nor write, but, she had her own filing system that allowed her to sow her seeds come spring in the colors she chose.

I wish I had the descendants of those seeds.

I am grateful to have this photo. It is one of only a few I have of the two of us. It is the last one taken before she passed away less than wo years later. She held her hands this way because they hurt. Yia Yia never complained from the arthritis she had. She would rub her hands to ease her pain or retreat quietly to her bedroom.

Dottie gave me this picture, about a year ago, before cancer debilitated her. It was among our mother’s things. Dottie thought I might like to have it, which I do, especially since I did not have this particular likeness of the two of us.

This photo was taken in the kitchen, on the day in June, 1968 that I graduated from Proviso East High School. The sleeves of my gown are too long. 50 years later, my sleeves are still almost always way too long. I keep hoping I will grow into them. I did, however, manage the near perfect “flip” under my cap.

Yia Yia looks sad. It is her aching hands that give her that look. I know she was pleased that afternoon. She was pleased that her namesake finished high school, and she was pleased that Πηνελόπη could read and write and would vote when she turned 21. Though she never indicated it to me, I am sure she was also a bit sad that summer’s end would find me traveling away to college. She never told me to stay, nor did she tell me to go.

Our television sat on the counter top , behind me, in the kitchen. Throughout my childhood and into adulthood, my world turned round and round in our kitchen. It was from the chairs around the kitchen table that Yia Yia and I watched the many turbulent events of 1968 unfold. It was at that kitchen table that I would sit, after coming home from school, and read her the news of the day. I would stop and pick up a late afternoon newspaper on my way home from school – back-in-the-day when we still had late afternoon newspapers. “Πηνελόπη, sit, Eat. Read me the news” – and so, I did, my fingers dusted with  newsprint, the tragedies, turbulence, troubles of the times passing from my lips to my Yia Yia’s ears. Sometimes, we would discuss an event or she would ask me to re-read a few lines. Mostly –  I would read and she would listen and we would be together, sharing the moments, me at the beginning of my time, she so close to the end of hers.

I treasure this image. My own world, like the world around us, changed dramatically in less that a year that followed my high school graduation. This image of  us, however, the two Penelopes, is forever frozen in time.

 

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As the knob slowly turned, a voice called out “can you push the door open?“.  I could, I did and was promptly greeted by a stunning woman with a mission at the forefront of her mind.

Deirdre and I chatted at the entryway in that friendly manner of people who have not yet previously met face-to-face, but who know, perhaps, a bit about each other. She asked about my heritage, I about hers, discovering our similarities, our differences, the things people reveal about each other when first they meet. She told me about her name, Deirdre, a figure from Irish folklore, and I told her mine, Penelope, of Homeric legend.

Deirdre invited me further inside. I followed as she maneuvered her wheelchair, pushing buttons as she navigated into her kitchen. She brewed for me a cup of coffee, placed a sheet of cookies into the oven to bake, set the timer, let the dog in, found her tablet, and situated herself next to me at the countertop of the kitchen’s island, which is where we dove into the purpose of our meeting – Deirdre’s website.

Deirdre has Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Her life, and the lives of her family and friends, has been profoundly impacted by MS in ways many of us might imagine, and in so many other ways we likely have not. A woman of faith and compassion, Deirdre’s wit and wisdom, practicality and frustrations, insight and vision are all bundled up in her purposeful mission to invite conversation, comfort, compassion and community to all, but, particularly to those confined to a wheelchair – living one’s life on wheels.

Dear readers, I invite you to visit Deirdre’s website/blog, perhaps leave a comment or pass her link on to someone who is wheelchair confined or who lives with someone who is, knows someone or, of equal importance, to those engaging in this life-long process of extending compassion to others. We are all on this journey in life together and you, my friends, are the best of travelers and of encouraging others. In advance, I thank you.

You can find Deirdre’s posts at https://www.livinglifeonwheels.com/blog/

 

 

 

 

 

Image of Deirdre from Wikipedia  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deirdre

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