Memoir Publication and Garden Update

UP Reader

The U.P. Reader, which includes my memoir piece, “Lonely Road,” is now available in print and e-book! This literary magazine is published by Modern History Press in conjunction with the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (UPPAA). The publication also contains fiction, humor, poetry, history, and more.

When I read the call for submissions, my first instinct was to write a fictional story set in Michigan’s U.P., where I lived for many years. What about my own, personal tales, just waiting to be told? I decided that memoir was the way to go.

As Barbra Streisand sang in one of my favorite movies, “The Way We Were,” memories really can “light the corners” of our minds. But, when too much pain is caused by remembering, we often choose to ignore and wall-off those sections of our brains. Writing memoir can be like taking the partitions down and letting the light shine, once again, onto those remembrances. The act can bring questions, heartache, revelations and healing.

Lonely Road” relates an evocative experience during my wintertime move to the Upper Peninsula, with the purpose of giving a faltering marriage one more try. The story is also a metaphor for the journey of life, with its pleasant surprises, difficult challenges, and safe havens. That “one more try” to stay together spanned several additional decades. Success or failure? Guess it depends on how you look at it. This was a very difficult piece for me to write because of all the emotions to which it gave rise. I would like to say that I felt better once I had it down. Saying it well and true did give me a sense of satisfaction. The sadness over our loss still remains.

I hope that you’ll consider reading about my experience, along with sampling contributions from other writers with connections to the Upper Peninsula, in the beautiful state of Michigan. The book is available from the publisher, through Amazon, and at several retailers in the U.P.  Reviews are welcomed!

                                                                                                                    butterfly-55049__340

GARDEN UPDATE

The Community Garden is looking quite bountiful these days! Cucumbers and zucchini are already producing. Today, I also spotted tiny green peppers and tomatoes. Giant sunflowers provide a lovely backdrop. My little plot contains huge marigolds and abundant basil. I’ve already taken several bags of the herb over to the food pantry. Basil is great in curries and salads. Pesto, anyone?

The rosemary is a bit on the small side, and I’m afraid the watering that’s helping the basil thrive may be somewhat of a negative for those plants, which often prefer drier conditions. They’re growing, though, and I snipped the ends to encourage even more growth. Did my molasses and orange oil concoction succeed in the fight against the fire ants? Yes and no. It worked well enough to drive them over to the other side of the little garden bed. At least they stay off the plants!

Community Gardening: waiting for my “real life” to resume?

 

grape arbor

Meandering garden paths formed the outline of my pleasant childhood. In dreams, I see the grape arbor that separated our manicured yard from the large garden and offered sustenance for the birds. As summers wore on, rows of vegetables and flowers blurred and overran with plenty. Standing out in memory are crisp cucumbers, tart rhubarb and stately iris. I realized later in life that I should have paid more attention to my parents’ gardening techniques. Very little had stuck with me, except a love of that entity called “garden.”

Lack of knowledge, funds and assistance thwarted my early attempts at gardening as an adult. I still loved the idea of growing things, however, and did manage to nurture some healthy annuals, daylilies and rhubarb.

beans cropped

As life unfolded, I had the opportunity to experience gardening in various climates. Azalea and camellia in the south. Daffodils, iris and clematis in the north. Most recently, I accepted the challenge to grow vegetables in northern Michigan, planting tomatoes, bell peppers, leaf lettuce and pole beans. My efforts met varied success. Critters liked the tomatoes, so very few made it to the kitchen. Lettuce was plentiful, and regrowth was almost instantaneous after harvest. The pole beans took a while getting started, but a wooden teepee-like form covered with the slim green darlings was my crowning achievement for several summers until I moved.

When sleep is difficult to find, these nights, I sometimes walk through that northern yard in my mind, smelling the lilacs, touching the rubbery hosta leaves, checking to see if tender plants need water. How is it possible that my life offers no personal outdoor space and only windows to sun my numerous houseplants? Yes, there is natural beauty and plenty all around, but none of it is “mine.”

Of late, a search led me to the nearby community garden where citizens plant and tend crops for donation to the local food pantry. Because I’ve never done much gardening in this hot and dry Texas climate, I decided to ease into it by adopting a small plot. A volunteer had planted my rectangle of earth with herbs, since the season was already in full swing. Enough space remained to add some marigolds, theoretically to inhibit rabbits from stopping by for dinner.

basil-1638474__340                                  

As it turns out, I also “adopted” a nest of fire ants, and I’ve been battling them with a safe mixture of citrus compost tea, orange oil, natural dish soap and molasses. Either I’m winning the fight, or they have burrowed farther into the earth. I certainly won’t dig any deeper to find them! (Please see additional ideas, below.)

Rabbits ignored the marigolds to feast on my rosemary and English thyme. The pungent basil remained intact, however. I purchased an organic mixture to spray around plant bases, which involved some type of animal urine and promised to ward off both rabbits and deer. Last time I watered, I saw some growth, so that may be a success. Larger plots at the community garden boast squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and tomatoes, just to name a few.

butterfly-55049__340

Not sure what the future holds. Will I ever again have my own yard? Should I adopt a larger plot next year to contribute in a more meaningful manner? Could I actually have both? Only time will tell…

Anti-Fire Ant: non-toxic ideas

Compost tea (citrus peels simmered in water)

Molasses

Orange oil (essential oil, not cleaning oil)

Liquid dish soap (natural/non-toxic)

(Use about a cup of the above in a gallon of water, to be poured down into the center of ant hill.)

Add citrus compost tea when watering at any time.

Pour plain boiling water into the center of hill when ants are “at rest.”

Leave citrus peels in/near ant hill and throughout garden.

 

 

 

 

Putting the “I” Back into Cook-I-ng

vintage kitchen

I spent years trying to please others through the act of cooking. As a young newlywed, I collected recipes that I wanted to try out on my husband and promptly struck out. If it didn’t look like something that his mother or grandmother often made, then he wouldn’t even taste it. For example, only “fried chicken” was acceptable, he said, and my attempt at that dish was met with disdain. Come to find out, his mother’s secret for “fried chicken” was really “Shake-n-Bake”! I gave up before I even got started. Over the years, I found quick and inexpensive foods that my daughters would eat. End of story (and marriage).

My second husband was a self-taught gourmet cook. No, I’m not just saying this in case he still reads my blog. He really is that accomplished and taught me a lot about cooking methods and ingredients. We took turns cooking, and I have to admit, that as my skills grew, I began to feel a bit competitive. My dishes started to turn out wonderfully and earned well-deserved praise. When my efforts didn’t work out, there were no polite or pretend compliments from him, either.

Cooking never came naturally to me, however, and I almost always relied on cook books and carefully measured ingredients. If a recipe was successful, I made a note of it on the inside of the book for future reference. Sometimes the pressure of producing acceptable meals was a negative force. Things went downhill when I started having digestive problems and had to give up many of our favorite foods and most wine. I won’t pretend these restrictions caused the end of our marriage, but they certainly did alter the daily dynamic of an already strained relationship.

I currently find myself “cooking for one,” a phrase that I’ve never really liked. I don’t even much care for recipes that say, “Cooking for Two,” as if someone is missing and this is all you have left. I occasionally prepare a meal for others, but more often than not, there’s one plate on my faux-Victorian dining table.

I made the early decision NOT to fall into the trap of watching television while eating. Sometimes I listen to my music, or enjoy tunes that emanate from a local activity in the Square, like the one going on as I write this piece. Other times, I read from a novel or non-fiction of recent interest, such as Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. Weak indirect lighting over my table was an issue for reading. To fix that problem, I recently splurged on an attractive, industrial-style table lamp with a high-powered bulb, in an old-fashioned tone of light green.

Another big change is WHAT I make for dinner.  First of all, I’ve cut way back on meat and more often turn to other forms of protein…eggs, tofu, beans, and occasional seafood. Sometimes just a large salad appeals to me, and I jazz it up with some of my favorites, like olives, capers, and fresh veggies lightly cooked. My go-to cheeses are feta and goat, since they seem easier for me to digest. Olive oil ALWAYS for cooking and salads! I rarely buy according to a recipe, now, but purchase ingredients that look good to me and then just decide what to do with them, later.

I’m starting to have fun with this and don’t think I’ll go back to eating by candlelight any time soon. Following is one of my recent culinary creations:

Egg-cellent Baked Mushrooms

portobello-

One or two extra-large portabella/portobello mushrooms, stems removed, cap side up in baking pan

One egg for each, cracked open into the mushroom cap

Your choice of fresh or dried herbs to taste

Light sprinkling of cheese, if desired

Bake at 350˚-400˚ until egg is set to your liking and mushroom is sufficiently tender (about 20 minutes minimum).         

 

It’s My Party, and I’ll Do What I Want To!

 

 

Baby Becky
Baby Becky, with Parents and Big Sister
childhood home
Childhood Home
Three of Us
The Three of Us
Becky
Cleaned Up Nicely

This is my “birthday week,” which is thought-provoking on so many different levels. More than anything, though, this occurrence evokes a multitude of childhood memories. I feel lucky to have grown up within a loving family in Tawas City, Michigan, with both sets of grandparents living nearby. Although it may not be a new concept, I thought it would be fun to tell you more with a different voice, through an interview with a younger version of myself:

What do you like about your hometown?

All the four seasons are really clear, here. We can have lots of fun outside during the winter, in the snow, like ice skating and building snow forts. In the summer, we go swimming at the beach, in Lake Huron. It’s a small town, but has most of what we need. People called tourists come to visit a lot, too, which makes things different all the time.

Tell me about your hobbies and what you like to do for fun.

I like to play with friends, ride my bike, play softball, roller skate, climb trees, collect rocks, play with dolls, and read.

What do you like to read?

At school, it’s mostly stories like “Dick and Jane,” but at home I read about “Trixie Belden” and “Nancy Drew.” They’re so brave! My favorite book so far, though, is “Mystery of the Golden Horn,” by Phyllis Whitney. My sister, Terri, is the one who got me interested in mysteries.

Who are the friends you enjoying spending time with?

Well, that changes a little over time, but my best friends, so far, have been Andrea, she’s my neighbor, and Marilyn and Jean, who go to school with me.

No boys. Are you only friends with girls?

Course not. I just didn’t want to mention them, so it wouldn’t sound like I was saying they’re my boyfriends!

What about school…what do you like best or least?

I like reading and spelling, I guess, ‘cause I’m good at them. I also like seeing my friends there and playing jump rope at recess. Arithmetic is my least favorite, since I’m not as good at that. I don’t like fire drills, either, because we have to go down the dark, scary back stairs to get out of the school.

Tell me about your family.

I have five people in my family, and I’m the middle one of three kids. My sister is five years older than me, and my brother, Mark, is five years younger. I guess you can see why my favorite number’s five! My dad travels for work a lot, so my mom does most things around the house. He still takes care of the big yard, though, and he’s really good at growing stuff.

Do you have any regrets, or things that you feel sorry about?

Well, I wish that I hadn’t gotten my pony tail cut off when I did, ‘cause now I’m stuck with short hair. My friend, Andrea, got hers cut, and I thought it looked like a good idea.  I’m also sorry that my grandparents…my mom’s parents…just moved away to California. Course, I did get to go to Disneyland when we went to visit! One more thing. I’m sorry that I don’t practice the piano more, since my parents pay for me to take lessons. So, I’m not very good at it, but at least I learned how to read music.

What would you like to do when you’re a grown-up?

I want to be a good mother, like my mom is. I think I’d like to be a teacher, too, since I’ve had some teachers I really liked who made school fun. Also, my sister and I have started writing a book, and we’ll see how that goes. Maybe I could try being a writer someday!

Immigration: a personal “what if”

 

ss_albert_ballin-1923
SS Albert Ballin

 

Unless you are a Native American, you or your family members who came before are immigrants to this great country. Recent events have caused me to reflect upon and feel compelled to share my own family’s story of immigration.

My mother was born in Germany between the two World Wars. By the time she was one and her older sister was six, the economic conditions in that country were so severe that her young parents, my grandparents, decided they must leave their homeland for the chance at a better life. They applied to do so and then waited. Finally, the joyous news came that they would be able to leave Germany for the United States. There was one catch. Because of a quota system that was in place, the four could not travel all at the same time.

My grandfather wanted to go ahead on the ship, with his wife and two children traveling later. His older daughter, my aunt, did not want her “papa” to travel all alone, and she convinced her parents that she should go with him. She allowed her “mama” to cut off her beloved braid because they knew my grandfather would not know how to care for my aunt’s long hair on the voyage.

They set out on their trip, with my mother and grandmother leaving at a later date. That second long voyage was especially rocky, and my grandmother became very ill. Years later, I was enthralled hearing her tell of the wonderful, newly-married couple on the ship that helped to care for my mother when Grandma was too sick to do so.

My grandparents settled in Northern Michigan and formed a good life. My grandfather, originally a farmer, learned the plumbing trade and eventually owned his own successful business. Their three daughters, including my mother, were strong citizens and loved this country.

Although my grandparents rarely talked with the rest of us about this time of their lives, when they did, I was struck by the difficult decisions that were made. First of all, to leave Germany at all. Waving goodbye to beloved family members who may not have supported their decision and whose faces they might never again see. Then, separating to make the long ocean voyages alone, with one child, each.

Until recent events in our country unfolded, there was a different ending to my family’s immigration story that I had never in my wildest imagination considered. What if the American government had gone back on its promise after my grandfather and aunt had already arrived on its shores? Just imagine, if my grandmother and her one-year-old, my mother, had then been refused admittance into the United States…

Eat Your Way to Good Luck for 2017

 

pickled-herring
Pickled Herring

 

I grew up in Michigan, with German heritage on each side of the family. Both of my grandmothers were good cooks and seemed to enjoy the process. I remember the wonderful aromas of “bread-baking day” at the home of my maternal grandma. My paternal grandmother occasionally offered foods that might not appeal to some children. Oyster stew, beef tongue and pickled herring come to mind. I liked two of those dishes, with the chewy beef tongue (no pun intended) being a definite “no.”

Although I enjoyed the stew with curly-edged oysters, I looked forward to herring the most. I remember a heavy crock so large that it barely fit into the refrigerator, where Grandma pickled her magic on those small, silvery fish. If memory serves me right, the end result was a light, creamy sauce, filled with thin rings of sliced onions and luscious, thick chunks of herring. Although I still have a few of her recipe cards tucked away in their hinged, wooden box, unfortunately, I don’t have that one. We ate it cold, on crackers, small rounds of pumpernickel bread, or on full-sized sandwiches.

My grandmother passed away just before Christmas when I was about ten. Every year after, my parents would buy a container of pickled herring at the market and we’d share it on New Year’s Eve. For years, I thought we just did that in memory of Grandma. Eventually, I learned that many people in Germany, along with other countries, often eat this delicacy at midnight as the year turns over, to help ensure a year of good luck and prosperity.

Writing this reminds me to buy mine soon. I can certainly use some of that providence for 2017!

Another food for the holiday, black-eyed peas are displayed prominently on grocery store shelves these days. Although I’ve lived in North Carolina and now Texas, I had never tried this Southern staple that some people believe brings good fortune when eaten as the first meal of the New Year. The peas can be used in many different dishes, research showed, and I devised a recipe that works for me. The Texan variety is often seasoned with chili powder and hot sauce, but I came up with the following milder version in the form of a hearty soup:

soup-pot

Luck in a Soup Pot

Onion, shallot, scallion, leek, garlic, and celery (in any combination), sliced and sautéed in a deep pan.

Meat eaters, add bacon or ham (brown, or use pre-cooked).

Add approximately 4 cups of water and a bouillon cube (veggie or meat-flavored) to the pan. Adjust water for the amount of vegetables eventually used.

While that heats, chop a selection of greens: collards, mustard or turnip greens are traditionally Southern. I used what I had, which included spinach and large, red leaf lettuce.

Throw in the greens and any other soup vegetables you like. For color, I thinly sliced in a few carrots, and I also added several diced potatoes. I seasoned with ground cumin and fenugreek, for my milder version. Bring it all back to a boil, then turn down to simmer until the veggies are tender.

I cooked my dried black-eyed peas ahead of time and added them into the soup pot near the very end to heat through. These “peas” are actually beans, a legume, and double as a protein and a vegetable, nutritionally. They’re also available fresh, canned and frozen.

If you like eggs, you might want to try a trick I learned a few years back with a similar, clear-brothed spinach soup. Near the end of cooking, turn the heat back up and slide one egg at a time from a cup into the boiling mixture, spacing them out, a bit. They cook in place, much like a poached egg. Lift one out with a slotted spoon to check if they’re done.

Salt to taste. Serve with your favorite bread, although cornbread is most typical in the South. I ate a tasty helping and froze the rest for December 31, hoping I will at least be healthy, if not prosperous, in the upcoming days.

What food traditions does your family observe at the beginning of the new year?

 

 

 

A Beginning, or the End?

train tracks vintage

For this child of Michigan, Labor Day formed a bridge from the freedom and contentment of sunlit vacation days to the anticipation and trepidation of a new classroom. The year I stood poised between childhood and adolescence stands out in memory.

A small group of neighborhood friends met outdoors after supper that warm September evening. We wandered the area, dissecting shared summer memories, and exploring our individual hopes for the upcoming weeks. The drama and self-reflection of several older girls in the pack were surely lost on the others my age, as they were on me. Strolling along the well-known back streets, we dared to cross the short train trestle with thumping hearts. Was that an approaching whistle in the distance?

Humid air began to cool, and a chill descended. Everything about that little town, and our protected space within it, offered a sense of safety and familiarity. Yet the impending months loomed ripe with uncertainty. Without voicing the decision, we turned toward home before parents’ voices called into the gathering dusk. An indefinable sadness wrapped around me when we parted ways, so full of certainty that my life would never again be the same.