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.

 

 

Breathing New Life into the Memory of a Recipe

squid

 

Most of us who enjoy cooking have our favorite go-to formulas that are permanently tattooed on our brains. If you’re like me, you also keep in mind those great dishes you haven’t made in a while, knowing where to find the directions with a flick of your magic wand. Until…something goes awry. Your hard drive crashes, and all your bookmarks have vanished. You experience a fit of housecleaning frenzy, or move, unintentionally throwing out important folders. Maybe you lose half of your beloved cookbooks in a divorce settlement. Whatever. It’s a sad state of affairs, when you reach for the recipe for that squid stew you’ve been craving, and it’s totally beyond your grasp.

 
I recently pointed out to my younger daughter that deep-fried calamari, or squid, isn’t the only, or necessarily best, way to enjoy that particular delicacy of the deep. Now, where was that recipe that I’d made and enjoyed in the past? Nowhere to be found in my new Texas dwelling, over a thousand miles from where I had cooked it last. What to do? After fruitlessly leafing through my remaining cookbooks and anemic folder of saved recipes, I made a list of the ingredients that I believed the stew contained. Certain about the potatoes, clam juice, and squid, they found their way into my shopping cart the next time I visited the market. I then turned to the trusty internet with the help of my new computer. Surely I could find something that sounded similar. Not really.

 
None of the stew or soup offerings seemed even close. I did find directions for something called “squid with potatoes” that helped me along. This jogged my memory, reminding me that white wine played a part in the initial version. Along with additional water, I decided to add vegetable bouillon cubes that I already had, for the stock. Garlic and onions from that list of ingredients also made sense. I wasn’t sure about the basil, though. As I sniffed at the container plucked from my spice shelf, it seemed a little too sweet for what I had in mind. The clam juice bottle actually gave me an idea for the seasoning, since it suggested thyme for use in clam chowder. One whiff of that herb told me it was a “go”. Many of the online recipes involving squid also called for tomatoes. Unsure whether I’d used them in the earlier form, and knowing that I’ve pretty much given those up due to the acid, I decided to incorporate a few carrots for extra fiber and color, instead.

 
The end result was a comforting combination of old and new, and I believe that I like it better than the original! My daughter also enjoyed it, and one of my granddaughters even tried several bites, which is certainly a testament to its appeal. No more worries from me, about absent directions for meals from the past. Sometimes the new way of doing things is even better than the old.

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.

 

All the Right Ingredients: Living, Writing and Cooking in Texas

soup bowl blueFiestaware dishes

After spending the winter in the Lone Star State, spending time with my two daughters and their families, this “Michigander/Michiganian” is ready to take the Texas-sized leap and move back here for good. We lived in this area years ago, while my girls were growing up, which is basically how they found themselves settling in this portion of the U.S.

Now that I’ve picked my spot and found a great apartment, it’s time to resume my writing and my cooking in earnest. Being in Texas got me thinking about making chili, recently, but tomatoes and I haven’t been getting along that well. Although white chili may not be original to this state, its popularity seems to be gaining force. I’ve enjoyed a few versions in the past and have recently done some research about “white vegetables”.

I found that these options sometimes are referred to as the “forgotten vegetables”, partly due to the negativity brought on by the selections with the “starchy” connotation. Granted, a few are rather high in carbs, but in moderation and with careful planning, white vegetables can be important sources of fiber, calcium, potassium, and a wide array of vitamins and other nutrients. I don’t have a “favorite” recipe, yet, so I’m going to present the possibilities for you to consider when designing your own!

“CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN” WHITE CHILI RECIPE

Broths: chicken, vegetable, or water; slug of white wine

Beans: Cannellini, garbanzo/chick peas, Great Northern, and navy (canned or dried; follow the package directions for dried)

Meats: Chicken or turkey (cooked and cubed), or ground chicken/turkey (browned); vegetarian version is great without meat

Vegetables (canned or fresh, cut to bite-sized pieces): Potatoes and white corn (staying aware of the carbs); turnips (lower in carbs and a consistency and flavor very similar to potatoes); parsnips and jicama give a slightly sweet flavor (parsnips cook quickly and jicama stays a bit crunchy for a long time); cauliflower; white asparagus; daikon radish; white mushrooms; peeled zucchini or summer squash; onions, shallots, and garlic

“Zip” (add in moderation and to personal taste): Cumin, white pepper (ground or whole corns), prepared horseradish, ginger, white habanero pepper (extra hot), yellow jalapeño (pale in color and medium heat), Santa Fe Grande (pale yellow pepper with mild heat), and salt

Toppings: Shredded white cheese, sour cream, and the white portions of green onions (sliced)

Accompaniments: White corn chips, bread, or crackers

Throw your choices together in a pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer. Enjoy with your favorite beverage!

Dealing with Personal Issues through Our Characters

 

head

Spring is the season of renewal and new growth. It can also be a time to reflect on pleasant memories or to revisit excruciating challenges that still haunt us. I recently read an intriguing article, “Dangerous Writing: Go to Your Battlefield”, by author and teacher, Tom Spanbauer. (Poets & Writers, January/February 2016). At the risk of being too general, he speaks about digging deeply into ourselves, to address difficult topics that are important to us, in order to shape our fictional works. His words certainly opened my eyes.

Throughout the course of Spanbauer’s piece, I realized some important facts about my own work. As most writers of fiction, I borrow from reality and include snippets of this person and that individual in the characters I attempt to bring alive. What I hadn’t faced is that some of their problems, issues, and challenges are my own, and I may be using the writing to work through them.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that I’ve brought any of these  scenarios full circle to solutions. Guess that I’ve danced on the edge of danger, but haven’t really dived in. I plan to revisit my own “dangerous writing” and push it to the limit, getting everything I can out of the telling. I hope that the resulting characters will appear even more realistic and some personal answers will materialize, as well.

Spring beckons, along with buds erupting on trees, flowers poking through dark earth, and birds singing new songs. We don’t have to “start over” to begin again. Whatever we face might be just a little easier, a touch sweeter, or a bit brighter by giving in to the season and wringing it for all it has to offer. Use it to the extent of its worth. After all, we don’t have forever…do we?

Outdoor Gardening in the Winter: Juxtaposition as a Handy Writing Tool

jasmine
Jasmine

~Hot sun formed a cap for my bare head. Warm, rich earth felt heavenly, flowing between my fingers like coins of gold. As I plucked a catnip plant from the basket, the citrus odor pleasantly tickled my nose. After deciding on its resting place near the brightly blooming yellow jasmine, I turned to my favorite, the mint. Probably my herb of choice because I could usually coax it to grow anywhere, I imagined how its refreshing aroma would deliciously waft in through the open window. As I reached for the next plant, I felt a bead of sweat break free on my back and begin its trickle downward. How many months had it been since I’d experienced that not-unpleasant sensation?

Movement caught my eye, and I worried for a second that Mildred had made a successful escape. In relief, I discovered the merrily blinking pink lights snaking around the stair railing and the sleek tortoiseshell safely perched on the other side of the window screen, happily batting at red and white, heart-shaped decorations.

“How in the heck did I end up here this winter?” I thought for the thousandth time, feeling that familiar, magnetic pull back toward the north.~

 Readers on the west coast or in southern locations wouldn’t see the weather described in February from this opening scene as juxtaposition, but many of us hailing from colder climes certainly would. Setting up this type of contrast is a handy strategy for grabbing the attention of readers from the beginning. Try it, in your next piece! Meanwhile, since this snippet is from my own personal journey, I’ll be adding to the story as my life unfolds…