Cataloguing a Life

 

sears 1957
1957

 

When I was a child, the thick Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog was a staple in most homes. It contained sections for just about everything you could ever want to buy, it seemed, and offered another option for families who lived in more rural areas, like ours, with limited choices for shopping.

The large catalog came in handy for other things, too, like a “booster seat” for the tots who had outgrown their high chairs, but couldn’t quite reach the dinner table on their own. I remember a particular “snow day” from school when my sister and I had fun making “paper dolls” out of the previous season’s catalog. We carefully cut out the main figures and then found clothing on other pages that could be trimmed to fit. The joys of a simple childhood.

Years later, as a young mother with a child of my own, I saved “trading stamps,” which were given out by many of the grocery stores according to how much you spent. I pasted them into small booklets and watched the stack grow. Top Value was the main type I saved, and I spent considerable time perusing their mail order catalog to decide on the wonderful “premiums” that would be my goals. One of my older daughter’s first dolls, a sweet Kewpie in one-piece pajamas, came to live with us, thanks to Top Value stamps.

Penney's
1972

 

Around Thanksgiving, the J.C. Penney Christmas catalog was always a welcome sight in the mail. I spent hours poring over the pages to decide which gifts my daughters just couldn’t do without. This was also a great way to get ideas for grandmas and grandpas! Even though we had a few stores in our small town that carried toys, it seemed that the Penney’s catalog offered a much wider selection of brands, such as Playskool and Fisher Price. Playtime was better than ever with the likes of Happy Apple, Milk Wagon, and Chatter Phone. Our small house became a virtual village of Little People homes, schools, and farms. Pleasant memories.

Time marched on, and my children were nearly grown. By then, I’d finally earned my teacher certification and would have the opportunity to help other people’s youngsters learn and develop. I remember the excitement of securing my first teaching position and having the secretary hand me Lakeshore and ReallyGoodStuff catalogs to order materials for my new classroom, since we were located hours away from the nearest teacher supply store. It seemed too good to be true after all those years of study. I did, in fact, order some “really good stuff.”

Over the years, it seemed that I always ended up back in a remote area with very limited shopping. Fall typically brought the new catalogs from L.L. Bean and Lands’ End. Buying that new winter jacket at the END of the season when it was on sale was a much better plan, of course, but it was still great fun to look. The most welcomed catalogs in our part of Upper Michigan were the early spring arrivals from plant and flower companies like Gurney’s, Burpee, and Michigan Bulb. Those indicated that we WOULD, indeed, make it through another winter! I spent a great deal of time sketching ideas for our flower beds based on choices made for the local growing zone. Sometimes we bought through mail order, and other times we visited our local nursery. Either way, having those catalogs for handy visuals and information was priceless.

Life has a strange way of leading where we don’t expect. A few years ago, I found myself living on my own in a more populated area with every type of store you can imagine in close range. One rainy afternoon I was retrieving my umbrella from the floor on the passenger side of the car and noticed some papers under the seat. Pulling them out, I saw a grocery store flyer from my previous life, along with a Plow & Hearth catalog sporting my former husband’s name. I then remembered leaving for what ended up being our last road trip together. We had stopped for the mail on our way out, and I just shoved it under the seat to be forgotten. My only “hearth” nowadays is artificial, and I have no garden to dig in, much less “plow.” Quite the reminder about the changes in the fabric of my days.

The holidays have now passed for another year. Several weeks ago, I was surprised when I visited the bank of mailboxes in my apartment building lobby to find a Burpee spring catalog mixed in with the rest of my mail. It was actually addressed to me and not just to “current resident.” They found me! Guess the nice folks at Burpee don’t know, or care, that I currently have no need for plants and seeds, or any of the related supplies. I’m hanging onto it, though, and won’t admit just how many times I’ve peeked at its pages. Who knows what the future may bring.

chipmunk garden flowers

 

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Cook Your Way to Luck in the New Year!

 

pickled-herring
Pickled Herring

With a few small changes to the previous year’s soup recipe, this is a repost from the end of last December…

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.

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:

Luck in a Soup Pot

soup-potOnion, 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: collard, mustard or turnip greens are traditionally Southern. I used what I had, which this year included cabbage.

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 turnips. 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 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 may be most typical in the South, I plan to try it with pita, this year!

Wishing all of you a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2018!

Windows Open!

open windows pixabay no attribution required

In the Midwest, the invigorating change of the seasons was often marked by melting or returning snows, reappearance or disappearance of greenery and flowers, along with changes in the patterns of wildlife visiting the yard. In Texas, transformations related to precipitation, flora and fauna are much more subtle to the non-scientific eye. For me, the main difference is whether or not I can comfortably open my windows. With a twenty degree drop in the temperature since yesterday, today is one of those marvelous days to open the windows wide.

This may sound like such a simple and even mundane act, but it’s an activity that many Texans, who are accustomed to such high temperatures, often seem to overlook. Indeed, many of the local apartment buildings, including my own, do not include window screens. That presents a choice to be made: leave the windows closed at all times, open them and risk unwanted flying visitors, or add some sort of protection. During my first autumn here, I remembered a type of free-standing window screen from childhood that opened like an accordion to fit various sized apertures. Where was my handy neighborhood hardware store when I needed it? Impatience had a hold on me, and ordering through the internet would have taken too long. Surprisingly, I found several at Wal-Mart, after sifting through a pile where many seemed to be damaged. I was on my way to opening my windows.

The next issue was how to make sure the new screens didn’t fall out onto those passing below, since their fit into the window opening isn’t exactly fool-proof. I found articles posted by individuals on the internet about just this topic, with suggestions that involved carpentry (not for me), Velcro, and removable adhesive putty. I went with a white version of the latter, since I was familiar with its easy and mess-free use from mounting things on my classroom walls as a former teacher. Just one little wad on each wooden end piece, while leaving my window closed a little farther than the height of the screens, and I secured them in place. Depending on the configuration of your windows, this may not be an air-tight fit, and you might still need to be on the lookout for small insects. I would certainly avoid these types of screens if I had a curious pet or young child.

Today’s cool breezes feel glorious. I can hear light traffic noises, occasional bird calls and distant voices. When opening the windows, we also put ourselves out there and share somewhat personal snippets of our lives, such as escaping cooking smells, voices, and the sounds of our favorite music, television program or current audio book.

The act of writing is a bit like opening windows. In sharing memoir and personal essays, we reveal our beliefs, feelings and memories to the world. Even in fiction, we raise the sashes that protect our personal experiences on which plots and characters are often based. We take a chance on rejection, disregard, or disagreement when opening ourselves up to the public, whether we share through a critique group, blog, website, self-publication, or if we publish in a traditional format. The potential rewards are many. Other writers and the public at large often embrace our written ideas and may offer helpful feedback, as well.

As writers, we should try to avoid being fearful of the results, take chances, and open our windows to the world beyond.

Collecting Memories

As a typical kid growing up in the 1950s, I collected the usual sorts of things, like pretty stones, smooth driftwood, multi-colored marbles, favorite books and treasured dolls. I wasn’t really much of a “pack rat,” though, and by the time I moved away from home the only parts of those collections that remained were a set of Trixie Belden mysteries and a few Barbie dolls.

As the years went by, the basis for my taste in collectible books remained much the same: heavy on the mystery and brimming with nostalgia. Most of the books I’ve sought out or have purchased after being pleasantly surprised by their appearance hold a connection to the past. When my life hit a U-turn a few years ago, and I was faced with downsizing from a house to a small apartment, my treasured book collection took a necessary but serious hit.

map backWhat remains is a selection of childhood chapter books, Golden Books related to memories but collected as an adult, author-signed novels, and a few vintage tomes that are too wonderful (and smelly) to ever discard. The largest set in the lot is my Dell Mystery Map Backs. As a child, I loved books that included illustrations of maps. Imagine my delight as an adult to discover these wonderfully “campy” mysteries with the great front cover art (although sometimes a bit lurid) and maps on the backs to match the stories. When moving day arrived, the only map backs I had parted with were a few duplicates.

Luckily my apartment has ample kitchen cupboard space, since my other main collecting activity has turned toward dinnerware, including Luray Pastels, Fiestaware, and Blue Willow. I really can’t bear to part with most of the pieces, since they were handed down to me from my grandmothers, mother, and several aunts.

Luray

The delicate scrollwork and pastel tones of the pink, blue, yellow and green Luray originated in West Virginia, near the Luray Caverns, from 1938-1961 and were made by Taylor, Smith, and Taylor Company. The set I now have once belonged to my mother’s older sister, and they often make me think of our homes in Michigan. The only piece that I use daily is the yellow salt shaker, and my favorite example that’s on display is the blue teapot. For a period of time, light gray additions were also produced, but never caught on in popularity and were then dropped. Pieces in that color are now highly collectible, and I’m happy to say that I hung on to the gray Luray platter that I bought “for a song” some years back.

fiestaware multiAlthough Fiestaware, which is produced by the Homer Laughlin China Company, also of West Virginia, was introduced in 1936, my pieces are not in the realm of vintage, unless that includes a set purchased through the J.C. Penney catalog in the 1990s. I had admired these colorful, sturdy dishes at the homes of friends as a child, and when I had the chance to purchase dinnerware of my own they seemed like the logical choice. Fiestaware is available in a wide range of colors, and my set is composed of deep pastels, including turquoise.  Over time, I’ve also added select pieces in red to be used as serving dishes. I often make use of the small plates and bowls while “cooking for one” and display the reds in my Hoosier-type cabinet in the fall and around the holidays.

Blue WillowWillow is an elaborate design that has been used on kitchen ware for hundreds of years and probably got its start as Spode transferware. Various colors have been used, and mine is all of the popular blue variety. The lovely scenes that are depicted include detailed buildings, gardens, bridges, and figures, which found their inspiration in wares that originated in China. Various companies appear to use these patterns, and my wide assortment came from both grandmothers, my father’s oldest sister and my mother. They all remembered that I had expressed an interest in those dishes as a child, and that fact makes me treasure them even more. I sometimes use the small bowls or plates and regularly display my favorites. The patterns vary and several that really catch my eye are the ones made in Holland that include camels in their designs.

No matter which type of collecting, my favorite objects will always be those that invoke a memory of the past or the air of childhood. If you were to ask my grandchildren about what I collect, they would probably say “roosters,” and I admit that quite a few of them in various incarnations do reside in my kitchen. Although only a few of them are connected to childhood, like my mother’s egg cups, I’ve had most of them for years. If the roosters could talk, they would tell stories about the history of my former life and marriage, including observations on all of the interesting kitchen renovations where they have “lived.”

As far as the Trixie Belden books and Barbie dolls that I took away from my childhood home as a newly minted adult, I still have them. The pages are somewhat discolored and brittle. The words and pictures still carry a type of intrigue and predictable comfort that I hope to instill in my own writing for children. Barbie and Ken make a curious couple, with his right arm missing and her bouffant hair somewhat worn off from the back of her head. They’re still smiling, though, after all these years.Barbie and Ken

 

 

 

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).