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.

 

 

Finding Love in Unimaginable Places

Remember that heart-wrenching sensation when a beloved grandparent died, or that excruciating pain, like a vise around the head, after a parent succumbed to a long illness? We’ve all lost someone important. Time moves on. The sharp sting of that separation surprisingly begins to ease. Unfortunately, some of the good memories may disappear along with the pain. Mementos, such as pictures, or favored objects, like books, furniture, and even recipes, may help to hold a dear one’s essence close. I’ve recently discovered another unexpected avenue.

I’m currently working on a revision of my picture book, “Rhus Juice”. The tale is based on a true story my dad shared with me from his own childhood. It tells of a hot Michigan summer and a little boy’s fears that the lemon-flavored drink his father plans to make with sumac might be poisonous! When I began composing this some years back, I looked through pictures from that time, referred to a list of names and dates in an old family Bible, and even listened to a recording of Dad recounting the events.

“Life” got in the way, work and other writing took precedence, and “Rhus Juice” was set aside. I love the story, though, and it recently pulled me back. Now looking at the book with fresh eyes, the lives portrayed seem much clearer than before. Through it, I revisit my hometown of Tawas City, Michigan, and ride my blue Schwinn on bumpy sidewalks once again. Peeking into my dad’s childhood home, Grandpa’s voice booms and Grandma’s sweet smile lights up the room.

How wonderful, to see Dad’s ten-year-old grin and to anticipate his thoughts. The act of writing has done this for me. The love flows from all of them, bringing me closer than I’ve been in years!

*****

Memorial Day through the Lens of a Small Town Girl

trumpet

From childhood, I remember when adults still called it “Decoration Day” and how I loved the festive parade in my hometown, longing to be brave and join in with my own blue bicycle. I recollect feeling delighted with the day off from the classroom, wondering which members of the high school marching band would faint in the heat and sensing a chill when the lone trumpet played taps.

As a teen, I recall that holiday spent at the lake and how I suffered the sharp sting of summer’s first sunburn, worrying with the knowledge that a pal was leaving soon, to be stationed in Vietnam. I remember the shock, hearing a friend of my family later died in that place and believing we were lucky that many showed enough bravery to serve.