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IMG_6517A sea of pink flowers,  artfully arranged by the ladies of the garden club. A simple set of instructions: clear vase, pink, white, green and black flowers and adornments.

A historical presentation of The Little Black Dress, modeled in vintage dresses covering the nine decades our garden club has been celebrating this year, in the grandeur of the magnificent Medinah Country Club.

More than 130 women, elegantly attired in black and pink, green and white, tailored and flowing, long and short, sipping drinks and chatting with friends as they perused more than twenty artistically adorned raffle baskets.

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A delectably plated luncheon of tomato bisque soup, salad topped with warm chicken, and this pièce de résistance.

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It was a remarkably memorable afternoon. Two wonderful women, my friends,  were honored as Women of the Year. Our garden club members and their guests forgot their worries and troubles for a few hours, or, at least felt those burdens lift.  They were, hopefully, feeling as special as they are in this all-too- brief  but very special moment in time

A few glimpses into the Elmhurst Garden Club’s annual luncheon – A Little Black Dress.

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IMG_5896When I think of orchids, I think of my mother-in-law, who always wore an orchid on Mother’s Day. She requested a cymbidium orchid for our wedding. I had heard of orchids, but never cymbidiums before. I mentioned it to our florist, who was also a cousin. Irene jotted it down as if it were no big thing. Little did I know then that cymbidiums are commonly used for corsages.

Over the years, I observed her carefully take her orchid off and put it in a little plastic bag that held a moistened paper towel. She would place it in the refrigerator. When I asked her why she did this, she said it would keep the orchid fresh and she would be able to wear it again, which she did, pinning it on her lapel for work the next day, and sometimes even the Sunday following Mother’s Day.

I thought about my mother-in-law last week as I passed a row of cymbidium orchids during an outing of our garden club to Orchids by Hausermann in Villa Park. As soon as I saw the sign naming this orchid, my mother-in-law came to mind. I was busy talking and now sorry I didn’t get a photo of one.

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IMG_5907Hausermann’s, as most folks around here refer to this business, is the oldest and largest orchid producer in the Midwest, with clients around the world. It was started in 1920 and today is run by 4th and 5th generation family. Come February and March, Hausermann’s holds an open house on two weekends, inviting the public in to their growing spaces.  While Hausermann’s is open to the public during business hours, this is a yearly opportunity to see the entire operations, including a peek through the glassed-in room where orchids are propagated.

We were able to walk the many connected greenhouses, taking in exotic scents and colors and features of hundreds of orchid varieties. Staff wheeled out more orchids as bare spots started to appear on tables.  A holding station for selected orchids was available, allowing shoppers to continue to browse before purchasing their plants. There was even a room for refreshments, replete with coffee, tea, strudel, muffins, etc.

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IMG_5876About ten of us managed to work our way to a long table where we rested and chatted and put the world to right on a cold and cloudy winter day. It was a casual gathering as members wandered about, left purchases with one of us while they ran back for another treasure. While my friends walked out with well-wrapped packages, I managed to leave without making a purchase.  I did, however,manage to capture a few photos to share with you.

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Perhaps I’ll venture back one day soon and buy a cymbidium. IMG_5879IMG_5845IMG_5917

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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

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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.)

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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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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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IMG_5117A darkened sky with heavy clouds and frosty air are wavering without, the soft glow of candlelight, tree lights and table lamps are glowing within. It is very still here. But for the click of the furnace kicking on, the creaks and the groans of our old house, or an occassional branch brushing against the roof,  my simple life here is remarkably still; a silent night on this, the seventh day of Christmas.

My Antler Man is down for the count on the sofa, quite under-the-weather with a bit of a stomach bug. Chicken broth is simmering on the back burner; nourishment for his sore tummy.

Our northernmost family left hours ago for their long, winding trek home. The local contingency, who graced us often this Christmastide, are hopefully headed out for an enjoyable evening. All is as it should be in my little corner of the world.

As you may know, I am not one for resolutions, nor do I harbor regrets, but, I do wish for a healthy and peaceable year to come. For you, each and every one, I wish you a healthy and good 2016. Thank you all for visiting here; for reading, for commenting, and for being exactly who you are. So, as the minutes tick by, wherever you are, please take this as  “a cup of kindness” for all time.

Happy New Year.  Penny

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Juliet Batten

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