Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas Absurdities

At least the tree turned out to be darn near perfect. And Gracie hasn’t pooped under it. Yet. 

“Well,” I mused as we climbed from the car at the Christmas tree farm, “here we are, about to embark on a peaceful and idyllic holiday tradition.”

There were just the four of us - my husband, my full-grown fourth-born, Gracie and me. No teenage temper tantrums to soothe, no diapers  to change, no hotly contested negotiations about which type of tree to buy. Surely, this trupnto the Christmas tree farm would be blissfully serene and darn near perfect. 

As Gracie and I strolled along the widely mown paths, her tail happily wagging as she sniffed the air, I contemplated the photos I would take, posing my photogenic dog among the firs. Scouting the perfect tree, my husband and daughter soon gained a considerable lead on us and I smiled to see them eagerly exploring the far corners of the farm. I happily followed at a distance, knowing that once they agreed upon a tree and I had given my approval, I would then be free to wander about and fill my camera roll with adorable shots of our Christmas bliss. 

At that exact moment, I glanced down at my dog who had suddenly stopped dead in her tracks in the middle of the busy walkway and was now - there is no delicate way to say this - taking a giant poop. 

I froze in horror. 

At the risk of sharing too much information, when wandering in the wilds with my dog, I’m a master at tucking unsightly piles into quickly dug holes or tossing the offending items into deep brush far off the beaten trail. 

But this time, there was no way round it. I needed a doggie bag, and I needed it fast.

In the instant that it took these thoughts to flash through my mind, a family of five came walking along the path. I quickly stepped up to the offending heap, protecting the three small children from any mishaps. The youngest toddler was fascinated with Gracie and in normal circumstances, I would have invited him to pet her while I kept a sharp eye on my dog. But not this time. I couldn’t afford any distractions. 

The toddler eventually wandered off. I watched my husband and daughter surveying trees far beyond earshot. I willed them to see me, to guess my plight, to run to the car and bring me one of the bags I keep in the car for occasions such as this. But they merrily plodded on, examining trees and moving farther and farther away from me. 

In desperation, I pulled out my phone and called my husband. 

He didn’t pick up. 

Now it all came down to my daughter and praise the lord, she answered my call. 

And so a plastic bag was finally delivered to me and my dog’s duty was removed from the path. It’s only fair to mention that the bag had a tiny hole in it so I was treated to the olfactory delights of her work for another fifteen minutes while we paid for the tree and strapped it to the top of the car. 

There was no wastebasket at the tree farm so we had to drive off with the offending load inside the car. At the first gas station, my husband pulled over and disposed of it, once and for all. 

I did not take a single photo at the Christmas tree farm this year. 

Not one. 

Though I suspect I will remember this outing for a long time because i was reminded quite thoroughly of an important lesson 

There is no such thing as a perfect holiday outing. 

And the sooner I get over my disappointment about the inevitability those fantasy-busting imperfections, the more I can laugh at the endless absurdities of a real-life Christmas. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

My Mom's Walnut Dressers

Before I was born, my mom (and dad) bought a pair of walnut dressers. Throughout my childhood, those dressers - or chests, as my mom called them - lived side by side in our living room and played a central role in my life. 

In the left dresser:
  • Mittens and hats - hand-knit by my grandma - were neatly arranged in the second drawer.
  • Extra sheets and pillowcases were stowed in the bottom drawer which seemed to be forever stuck.
  • The old black and white TV perched on top, and we gathered around the base of this dresser to watch our programs. 
On the right:
  • Our old-school black rotary phone sat on the back corner, and the .phone book and my mom's address book were kept in the top drawer.
  • The second drawer was used for place mats and table cloths, and my daily task of setting the table started by pulling out that drawer.
  • Between the TV on the left and the phone on the far right was the space my mom used to display pretty things. Vases of flowers from the yard, a little Christmas tree she made from tiny styrofoam balls and toothpicks, spray painted light lavender (sounds ugly but it was so cute), and our jack-o-lanterns took turns here. 
In all their mid century glory, the dressers formed a strong foundation in my early years and figure heavily into many of my childhood memories. They mean a lot to me.

* * * * *

Time passed. The eighties arrived and my ever contemporary mother got on the country living bandwagon to which her sleek walnut furniture was not invited. I remember helping her brainstorm ways to re-imagine the dressers - we replaced the original sleek brushed-nickel handles for quaint white ceramic knobs, and pulled off the tapered wooden legs. Sitting squarely on the floor, the dressers looked almost like wooden trunks and definitely passed the test for 80s chic.

When my mom moved out of my childhood home and into her airy and light-filled condo, the dressers came along. Continuing in their role as anchor of the living room, they found favor along the main wall and kept up their usual job of giving the TV a home. 

The mitten drawer now housed Sudoku puzzles, crossword books, and endless decks of cards for my mom's bridge parties, but otherwise, the life of the walnut dressers continued on as it had for decades.

* * * * *

After my mom died, the dressers came to live with me. In  the summer of 2017, my husband and I packed them up in a U Haul van with a lot of other family treasures, drove them from Michigan through three time zones, half a dozen mountain passes, and many states to Washington. 

We unloaded them into our garage and left them there under an old blanket to rest while I figured out what to do with them.

* * * * *

A couple weeks ago, a plan suddenly emerged. I refinished the dressers with a few fresh coats of polyurethane, though they were still in wonderful condition.

I scoured the internet to find drawer pulls and wooden legs that, while not identical to the originals,  evoke their fifties' style and sensibility.

And now my mom's walnut dressers live side by side in my elder daughters' old room, leading the charge in transforming that space into something new and beautiful 


^Here' s the dresser that will now be known as the one on the right; the other is tucked inside the closet to the left. So far, the top drawer holds my fourth-born's temporarily disassembled masts from her LEGO model of the sailing ship Zodiac, and the second drawer is the stash for my 2018 Christmas card inventory. I expect the contents will be changing around for years to come. 


^ Hanging above is a poster that I brought home from Seoul, South Korea. My second born and I went to an exhibition about cities around the world; this contribution from Oslo highlights edible plants and animals that can be foraged within the city. I loved it from the moment I saw it, though I doubted that I would ever be able to get it home in suitable condition for framing. 

Ha. Every inch of the way on the train to the airport, through various terminals and security checkpoints, and all the way across the Pacific, I protected that sucker with my life and I feel a sweet satisfaction every time I look at it. 


^ Now say hello to the newly appointed dresser on the left. For years, we kept here a different mid century dresser - this one from my husband's side of the family - but my eldest took it with her when she moved out. So it seems only natural to replace the old birch model with one of the walnut specimens. 


^ Ideally, this dresser is reserved for guests and visiting daughters to stash their clothes away. Same goes for the army of empty hangers above. But I confess that I have already stuffed the bottom drawer full of my elder daughters' Beanie Baby collection and I am surprisingly tickled to have them close at hand. 

Yes, that is a blank canvas propped up against the closet wall. I'm working on a painting to fill in the space where clothes used to be. An empty closet feels lonely and sad, and we can't have that.

* * * * *

So now the dressers' transformation is complete. In the past few days, since I finished this project, I find myself popping into my daughters' old bedroom several times a day just to visit my mom's walnut dressers. They look happy here in their new home, and I think my mom would be pleased. 

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Leftover Turkey


This may look like a plate of mostly unappetizing golden mush to you, or really, 
anyone with standard powers of observation. Which is fair enough.

But to me, this is a tasty memory of my daughters' early childhood years 
and my journey of mothering. 


Our story began this past post-Thanksgiving weekend with a plate full of leftover turkey and a family who was tired of eating it. 

Well, technically, it goes back to a plate of leftover turkey from a Thanksgiving back in the 1990s and an old school Better Homes and Garden recipe. You know, the recipes that were printed side by side and front to back so that the page could be ripped out of the magazine, cut in two, and added to your standard BH&G binder-style cookbook. I tried a lot of those recipes back in the day, and one for a turkey tortilla casserole became a standard device for using up leftover turkey and a part of our family post-Thanksgiving traditions. For a time, anyway.

Note the five hole locations provided along the right margin of the page. 
This way you can properly punch them for ease of loading into your cookbook binder. 

Over the years, this dish fell from favor, and honestly, I forgot all about it. Until yesterday as I was flipping through a treasure trove of old recipes, looking for a different old-time favorite for using up leftover turkey. I never did find that one, which involved spaghetti pasta and a creamy Worcestershire sauce. But my husband looked over my shoulder and asked if I still had the recipe for the leftover turkey recipe with ripped tortillas. Now that is a truly distinctive ingredient and in a flash, I knew the one he meant. An instant later, the nostalgic page was in front of me, and our destiny was cast.

What a classic twentieth century meal. Featuring the aforementioned leftover turkey and ripped corn tortillas, this casserole features just a few bits of vegetables - onion, celery, green chiles - oodles of cheese, and a sauce of Campbell's cream of chicken soup. Such meals have mostly fallen out of favor in the new whole foods millennium but that just adds to the festive feel.

So on Saturday evening, I whipped up a nostalgic batch of this casserole. And with my very first bite, I saw four little blonde girls squeezed in around the table, silverware flashing as they hungrily ate, bites interspersed with squeals and laughter and the usual bedlam. I remember the old blue wallpaper on the dining room walls, their striped dresses and tights and little Mary Janes, crooked pony tails and bright pink cheeks.  

Though these are the kind of memories that often stir up a sense of loss in a mature mother's heart, by no means did they make me sad. 

Tasting this dish again reminds me of the thousands of dinners I've cooked for my family, the hundreds of recipes I've tried, and the dozens of turkeys whose leftovers I have used up. 

Tasting this dish makes me feel like a warrior and a survivor.

Tasting this dish reminds me that I am - and have been for a really long time - a proper mom.

Tasting this dish makes me proud. 

And in the end, I am amazed to think of all that came from a plate of leftover turkey. 

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Close Encounters Of The First Two Kinds 

Gracie quickly recovered from the highs and lows of her doggy encounters; 
now she just wants to have a go at the squirrels. 

Yesterday on our usual walk around the neighborhood, Gracie and I experienced two different kinds of close encounters with other dogs.

* * * * *

Close encounter of the first kind:

The wiggly puppy and her people rounded a bend in the lane behind the baseball field and suddenly popped up in front of Gracie and me. We were both a bit taken aback, but the sight of that curly headed golden pup desperately and rather comically trying to gallop toward us on her taut leash put us both at ease. The two dogs met, their bodies loose and relaxed, tails gently swaying with enthusiasm. Both easily stretched their muzzles toward one another, sniffing in mutual delight.

The doodle’s handlers - two young men - also stood calm and relaxed as I cooed my usual line of sweet talk, designed to lull both my dog and the other into a soothing experience. We all stood together for maybe ten seconds enjoying the peaceful interlude. Then with age-old wisdom applicable for both toddlers and dogs. I decided to leave while it was still a party. The humans exchanged pleasantries, and both dogs joyfully turned toward their owners and happily continued along their way.

* * * * *

Close encounters of the second kind:

Not five minutes later, as the lane passes behind the main building of the high school, Gracie and I were again taken by surprise. This dog was off leash, running ten feet ahead of his master. Three things happened simultaneously:

The dog’s owner demanded, “Bogus, come!” in a booming tone of voice that telegraphed anger and concern.
Bogus did not come. He bolted in our direction.
Gracie and I froze in place and waited to see what would happen next.

Bogus rushed up to us, circling around me to appraise Gracie from all angles. His posture was rigid; his steps were stiff and halting. Looking a bit like an overgrown Jack Russell, Bogus stood about as tall as Gracie but weighed considerably less.

The owner finally caught up to us; he continued to scold Bogus in an angry tone of voice but otherwise seemed uncertain of what to do next. Bogus was leaning in toward Gracie; the hackles rising up on his back. I glanced at my dog to see her pulling her head up, turning her muzzle away from Bogus, and glancing at him with a side eye.

It took less than five seconds for my brain to register this barrage of warning signs. Still sweet talking my dog, I directed Gracie one step back from Bogus and then we veered around him and down at footpath to the right. I assume that Bonus’s owner finally got a hand on him while Gracie and I scurried off; I did not look back to watch.

* * * * *

Thankfully, we did not experience a close encounter of the third kind: a full-blown fight. Poor Ranger was attacked three times during his life; once he suffered serious blood loss and almost died.

I have learned that the biggest danger in these close encounters is that I can never predict exactly what will happen when my dog encounters another. Sure, I like to think that I can quickly assess the difference between a wiggly pup and a feisty bad boy. But things happen quickly in these encounters and quite unpredictably. I’ve learned to be careful and whenever possible, to avoid these close encounters altogether.

But since I walk my dog along the busy streets and walkways of a dog-loving suburban community, we will no doubt meet other dogs from time to time. I can only hope that I can keep my wits about me, so that Gracie and I will experience close encounters of only the first two kinds.

"Mom! The squirrels!! Come on, let's go!"

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Plates 


Another Thanksgiving, another plate of delicious food. 

Yesterday, my family and I sat down to a groaning table full of all our favorite feasting foods. 

But alas, there were only four of us. 

My second-born was tied up with work in Ohio.
And my third-born had her hands full with her class of kindergartners in Gangnam, South Korea. 

And while I am of course a little sad to have them so far away on this sweet holiday, I have enjoyed hearing about their celebrations and seeing their plates of food. 


^ In the heartland city of Columbus, my daughter whipped up a few of her most favorite dishes and served this edited feast to one of her co-workers. Her friend contributed the buffalo wing dip and baguette. They wolfed down their meal and headed off to Black Friday retail madness. 

Across the Pacific in Seoul, my daughter partook of a rudimentary feast at school featuring turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, all topped with gravy, and a slice of pizza. 

She sent me a photo but asked me not to post it. It looked gross, she said. 

But there will be another celebration with her friends from church on Saturday and she promised to send me a better photo. 

And I look forward to seeing her Thanksgiving plate.

* * * * *


Update: My daughter ended up not going to the church feast; her overworked boyfriend got some unexpected time off so she spent the afternoon with him instead. And she graciously agreed to let her post her holiday school lunch plate instead. 

It may be a little basic, but I still think it's a perfectly festive Thanksgiving plate of food. 

What If


On our daily walk, Gracie and I rounded a corner and hit the familiar home stretch of our outing.

BAM. This scene flooded my eyes.

Trees, fences, and homes in dark silhouette.
Skies overhead looming with dark, menacing clouds.
But low on the horizon, framed by the darkness, a vibrant pastel burst of late sunset color.

A voice from deep inside me said, This is what it looks like to die.”

At first, I pushed back at my own macabre thoughts. Where on earth had that horrible idea come from?! I quickened my pace  toward home, trying to shake off the cokd fear that suddenly ran like ice through my veins.

As I passed under the towering trees along the final stretch of sidewalk, I reminded myself that as natural as death may be, it’s also quite natural to fear death.

We all do.

Even those of us who put our faith in a higher power and a life hereafter. Death is just big and powerful and mysterious and scary, and I reminded myself that there was no shame in admitting that.

As Gracie and I ducked under our rose trellis and ambled up the front lawn, another idea hit me.

What if death is amazing?

What if that moment of transcendence, when I will slip from my earthly body and pass over into eternity; what if that is the most brilliant and breathtaking thing I will ever do?

What if dying is as beautiful as the scene I’d just seen?

And what if, instead of spending my life fearing death - or at least feeling vaguely uncomfortable about it - what if I looked forward to it with an eager expectation of profound beauty and joy?

What if?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

My Thanksgiving Shopping List


Like most Americans, our Thanksgiving table is heaped with traditional fare and family favorites. With just a few tweaks and upgrades, we pretty much eat the same meal, year after delightfully satisfying year.

And like most cooks responsible for this celebratory meal, I find myself writing out the same shopping list year after year, trying desperately to remember every last necessary item - from the plastic cooking bags for the turkey to the toothpicks needed to keep the plastic wrap off the top of the cheesecake.

There are a lot of details to manage, and every year as I'm wracking my brain to remember whatever it was that caused me to make last-year's eleventh-hour Wednesday night trip to the grocery store, I find myself asking, "Why don't I just write down one master Thanksgiving shopping list and keep it from year to year?!?"

Ta daaaa. At long last, here it is.


The Main Event

Turkey:
We are all about that white meat and get a manageable level of leftovers from the breast alone.
+ fresh turkey breast
+ roasting bag

Gravy:
Pan drippings are the essential ingredient but I use chicken stock to boost the quantity, and corn starch for thickening. I come from a long line of anti-flour gravy makers.
+chicken stock
+corn starch

Mashed Potatoes
Stalwart traditionalists, we abhor any additives such as garlic, herbs, or cheese that muddy the pure mashed potato waters.
+russet or Yukon gold potatoes
+butter
+milk
+heavy cream

Dressing:
We stuff our dressing into a casserole dish rather than a whole bird, and use a bit of chicken stock to keep it moist. Orowheat 12 Grain and Oatnut are our go-to bread choices.
+two loaves bread
+celery
+two large onions
+sage
+apples
+chicken stock
+optional sausage
+optional walnuts

Cranberry Sauce
Homemade is so easy and a billion times better than the canned stuff.
+fresh cranberries
+sugar

Biscuits or Rolls
I cut corners here by picking up a roll of pre-made dough and tossing it in the oven at the last minute. Please don't tell my grandmother.
+roll of prepared dough
+butter



Side Dishes

Green Bean Casserole
Oh, I know. This dish is a total cliche and a mash-up of oversalted, overprocessed foods. But we love it and that's that.
+8 cans green beans
+2 boxes french friend onions
+1 large can mushroom soup
+milk

Mac and Cheese
My first-born loves this family favorite so much that she offers it a place of honor at the holiday table. Recipes vary from year to year, but the foundational ingredients remain the same.
+pasta
+cheddar cheese
+butter
+flour
+milk
"Parmesan cheese
+Panko bread crumbs

Squash
Holiday feasts can be healthy too. This simple fare brings balance to the table.
+acorn/Danish squash
+olive oil



Desserts

Spongy Trifle
When she was tiny, my eldest daughter fell in love with a picture book about Christmas in England. The protagonists helped their mom make a spongy trifle for dessert and she wanted to try it too. Every since, we've made this pretty dish part of our holiday table and it's a pretty fabulous tradition.
+angel food cake
+jam
+bananas
+mandarin oranges
+fresh raspberries
+cook and serve vanilla pudding
+milk
+shortbread cookies
+heavy cream

Fruit Pies
Apple or pear or blackberry or cherry are all acceptable options. Even pecan. But we don't do pumpkin.
+fruit of choice
+flour
+sugar
+shortening
+butter
+vanilla ice cream

Pumpkin Cheesecake
Hot Fudge Peanut Butter Pie
These two decadent desserts have become standards at our Thanksgiving after party. The former is a favorite of my second born, who often bakes one cheesecake for our family to enjoy and a second to share at work on Black Friday. And my third-born advocates for the chocolate pie and has often whipped up an Asian version of the recipe to share at Vietnamese and Korean Thanksgiving celebrations.
For two cheesecakes:
+2 premade graham cracker crusts
+8 eight-ounce packages cream cheese
+sugar
+flour
+pumpkin puree
+cinnamon
+nutmeg
+vanilla extract
+eggs
For that creamy chocolate pie
+premade Oreo crumb pie crust
+egg white
+peanut butter
+1 package cream cheese
+sugar
+Cool Whip
+heavy cream
+hot fudge
+peanuts

Beverages

Sparkling Cider
Wine
A sparkling sip of crispy apple goodness cleanses the palate and settles the stomach between bites of a long, hearty meal. And a mellow glass of wine helps relax the adrenlaine-charged cooks into relaxation.
+sparkling apple juice or cider
+chardonnay or pinot grigio

Water
Seriously.

* * * * *

Now I'm off to start my shopping for this year's feast. There will be carts to push, bags to drag in to the house, overflow items that won't fit into the fridge (thank goodness for a cold garage), and a billion dishes to wash before these ingredients coalesce into a delicious meal. 

But they will. Just as in so many years past, my family and I will soon sit down to a Thanksgiving table groaning with all our favorite dishes and our plates will look comfortingly familiar.