Made some apple butter bars Saturday and they were pretty good. Last of the apple butter and on to the cranberries and Brie. It’s been a spell since I wrote, I know, and the reasons I have are all over the map. A granddaughter, who claps when I walk into the room and crawls among piles of books and blows raspberries when she doesn’t like what’s going on. She’s yet to articulate herself with clarity in words, but if you look into her eyes you can see pages of prose waiting to take flight in words. And then there are my two part-time jobs tutoring young folks struggling to read and older folks wanting to write, and what can I teach them? No more than what I know, but it’s something, and it’s time, and what better way to spend a few good hours a week than talking about books and words and the stories of human life? A few friends in challenging situations with their partners, such frustration and despair. A tidal wave of letters from people near and far, secretaries and pastors, teachers and actresses, lunch ladies and doctors and painters, whose lives mirror my own in ways, whose stories are simple and true. How might I respond to all of them, express my gratitude and heartfelt appreciation? Oh, Time. There it is again, that word, teasing in its way, without mercy, without pause. Add all the other reasons a girl might not write – bills, fatigue, the doorbell rung by seven people in a day, an ermine in basement, car trouble, cracked fingers, out of milk – and the woman responds, “Write anyway.”
So here I am. Despite all that. All those. Not excuses, no, but rungs in a life of ladders to the sky.
People, I have learned, will ultimately do what they want to do. Take the other night, for example. It might have been the sky, or the evening air, or the pot of beef stew simmering on the stove, or the freshly washed snowmobile suits laid out by the fire. Might have been the Christmas commercials on TV. Might have been nostalgia, or nothing at all, but I wanted to go caroling. I told Mr. S I’d like him to come along, and he reluctantly agreed. “But only for an hour,” he said. His show starts at 9 so an hour it was.
Of course, he thought we were going with a group, and was chagrined to learn it was just the two of us, and stood there a bit at the end of the Petersens’ drive. “You’ve got to be kidding. I can’t even SING,” he lamented, but there was no turning back. We sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” for the Petersens, who both clapped and gave us each a hug. For the Johnsons, it was “Angels We Have Heard On High” and on the “Glo-OOOO-O-OOOO-O-OOOO-O-RIA” part, Mr. S sang as low as he could and sounded something like an angry gorilla. “Please just hold yourself together,” I said. “This is fun.” “Oh, it’s fun, alright,” he grumbled and I gave him a little punch in the arm and he gave me a little punch back and I gave him a harder punch and he laughed and dipped up some snow and tried to give me a face wash but I’m faster and waited for him on the Sandgrens’ porch. They weren’t home, but we sang “Away in a Manger” anyway, and “Jingle Bells” at the Smiths, who don’t celebrate much of anything, and then it was the Clausens, and “Silent Night.” In no time at all, the whole Clausen family, all 9 of them, were standing out there on the ol’ farm porch, singing verse three. Mrs. Clausen was holding a candle, and the little ones were in their flannel jammies, and I felt my heart might burst on out of my chest.
Glanced over at Mr. S, and there he stood, his eyes closed, his head blocking the yard light out near the barn so it looked as if he might have a halo. It’s a stretch, I know, but whatever it is that makes Christmas CHRISTMAS, I felt it pour on over and through me like warm milk. (Whole milk, not that light stuff a person can see through.) I felt it, and feel it still.
And so did Mr. S, who said on our way home, “Well, that wasn’t so bad after all.” And then he thanked me for dragging him along, and when we got home, while I ran the bathtub water, he made two mugs of the best hot chocolate and handed one to me. He raised his. “To Christmas,” he said. “To Christmas,” I replied, and we took big swigs and before I climbed into the hot tub water, I could hear snores coming from the recliner in the living room.
I’m thinking I may give him a gift early this year. The ice skates. They’ve cleared an area out on the lake, and the man was a fine hockey player in his day. And it’s one of the few activities where I can maintain a semblance of grace. For a while, anyway. The best feelings come and go, but my gosh, they’re worth the effort. Especially when you can share ’em.
Used up the last of the apple butter from the neighbor’s orchard apples, and this has to be the easiest new recipe I’ve tried in a while. Good with whipped cream or ice cream, or simply on its own.
Apple Butter Bars
1 ½ cups flour
2 ½ cups quick oatmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 ½ cups sugar
Add to above 1 cup melted butter or ½ cup each butter and shortening. Press half of mixture in 9×13 pan. Spread 1 ½ cup apple butter over and cover with remaining mixture. Can also add some chopped nuts to topping. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes.
Gluten free flour mix:
2 parts rice
⅔ parts potato starch flour
1 part tapioca flour
Made some crab cakes Saturday and they were not bad. I tend to crave seafood this time of year, when the winds grow blustery on top of the heat. I think of things like the Edmund Fitzgerald, my friends out in New England, the trips Mr. S and I have taken in places where wind is a factor in plans for the day, the way wind whistles and howls in the nights, the sounds of lost pails and flyers left on doorknobs and children’s beach balls blown across lawns to the edge of ponds, where they catch themselves in the rushes and sit there for what may be all of time. I think of the entrance winter makes, so quiet and unassuming, cloaked in swirls of leaves and the waves of prairie grasses. I wonder why – of all the seasons – autumn is rife with nostalgia, and consider how, if memory has a sound, it would be much like that of October winds.
People are talking about the upcoming holidays, about who is hosting and who can’t travel this year and what day would be best. And, soon to come, the sign up lists for who is bringing what, and phone calls where mothers or sisters or daughters or sons insist,” I am doing the turkey this year.” There’s some Christmas shopping happening, a kind of sudden thing, where you find yourself at a fall festival with booths full of handmade soaps and knit caps and embroidered towels and jar upon jar of apple butter and you think how this would make a perfect gift, or this is exactly what she has been looking for and you buy not one but three, just in case, and so the pile in the storage closet begins.
It can be lonely time, all those memories blowing through under gray and cloudy skies. But it is snowing today, look out there and see, and there is much to do. Loneliness will not abide well in one who has something to do and does it. Things feel more like solitude when you have purpose, and the thing to do, my friends, is find some purpose for yourself and go with it. Might be volunteering for some kind of political event. Might be giving time to the local hospital where there are babies needing rocking and people needing someone to read aloud letters from faraway places. People needing, simply, another human being there to listen to words. There are halfway houses and refuge centers and wandering teenagers all needing food and clothing and even books and chocolate. There are food shelves with space in them and neighbors with whom you have yet to share a conversation.
Bind yourself to something, and let it carry you awhile. Not all will be solved, completed, perfect or good, but it doesn’t need to be. We are alive for a while, another season in the wind, and I’m all for a to-do list, and purpose, and where it might take us. Even if it’s only down the street, to find out the name of that man who always waves and smiles, and place in his hands a plate of banana bread, warm, and wish him a good day.
Here’s something fun and spicy and simple, good after a day out in the woods
or cleaning up the garage.
Spicy Crab Cakes
1 lb fresh crab meat
¼ cup mayo
2 T chopped fresh cilantro
1 T Thai chili sauce
½ T cumin
½ cup bread crumbs (fine)
1 cup cornmeal
2 T butter
Pepper to taste
Combine everything but the butter and cornmeal. Form into 12 cakes.
Coat lightly with cornmeal, and sauté in butter until golden brown.
2 cups papaya, seeded and diced
¼ cup diced onion
½ cup diced red pepper
½ cup sugar
1 tsp allspice
1-2 tsp cider vinegar
½ cup water
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan, and
cook until thickened. Serve it up with crab cakes, and something good to drink.
The View from Mrs. Sundberg’s Window
Made some Sangria on Saturday and it was not bad. Never have been a fan of drinking a whole lot of alcohol, but now and then it seems just fine to mix up a batch of something calling for vodka or brandy or rum. Long as “moderation” is a key word, and we’re all in for the day. As I grew up in Wisconsin, beer was always the drink of choice, followed by wine or wine coolers or – on a cold winter’s night – a shot of whiskey. Which is all fine, but a fun summer beverage can be something of an event.
It was my parents who, in my own mind, perfected the celebratory grown-up drink. Grasshoppers were the best (we always got to taste) with a hazelnut or two plopped on top to make it special. Or brandy alexanders. Or glowing green vodka slushes at Christmas time, or sparkly angria in the summer sun. There was always a strange kind of reverence on our part as kids, my brothers and me, when we got to try out these amazing and delicious drinks – only a sip, mind you – and our parents were careful to limit our proximity.
Oh, how I wanted to be grown up. To be privy to the other side of what it meant to “have a drink” in the evening. To be able to actually drive a car wherever I wanted to go. To engage in the late-night discussions at the kitchen table with friends. To play cards, to have enough money to buy whatever groceries we might wish buy, to have friends over for 50s parties and New Year’s Eve parties and dance and gossip and stay up most of the night.
There was so much about being grown up for which I yearned. At the heart of it all, a kind of freedom to do all the things grownups do without someone telling me when I have to be home, without having to account for my whereabouts, without someone saying, “You can have a taste, and that’s all.”
I’m sitting here sipping sangria, laughing to myself. Here I am, all grown up, able to drink five sangrias if I wish, able to drive anywhere in the country on Tuesday afternoon, the freedom to bake and cook and eat anything I like, to shop on the Internet, to have parties every weekend if I wish. Freedom all ‘round to do what I choose, and here I am in the night wishing for my childhood again, for a day, even, for the very freedom of childhood itself. Innocence, maybe. A time when there were no tax issues or carburetor troubles or flight delays or mortgage payments. A time without a bathroom scale or lawsuits or plumbing issues or gray hair (which I happen to like, but that’s for another day).
This is life. All of it. A childhood of longing, and here, some half a century later, longing still. The thing is, then, I think, to see what we have in the here and now and not look to the past or the future but into what IS. That very thing for which we wished; the thing to which we might look back and think, “Yes, I want that. I want to be there.” And to not simply taste it, but drink it down. Not eavesdrop on the steps when everyone is dancing, but to join in the dance itself. Not map out glorious adventures in notebooks but to embark upon them. Not wish for a kind of life, but to live this day. This life. It is, after all, the only one we got. Shame to let it fly on by.
Here’s something cool and refreshing, and I would argue a bit on the healthful side. Something to share with friends in the heat of the day, or sip with your sweetheart on the deck as the sun fades. Something for any moment that finds you where you are.
½ apple, skin-on, crushed into small pieces
½ orange, rind-on, seeds removed, sliced into small pieces (more for garnish)
3-4 T brown sugar
¾ cup orange juice
1/3 cup brandy
1 750 ml bottle dry Spanish wine
Add apples, oranges and sugar to a large pitcher and muddle with a wooden spoon for a good while.
Add orange juice and brandy, and muddle for another good while.
Add red wine and stir. Add more orange juice, brandy or brown sugar to taste. Add some ice and stir. Chill and serve with ice and garnish with orange segments.
Made some cherry bing bars Saturday and they were not bad. I grew up eating cherry bing candy bars and these are so close to ‘em I have to share. Almost as good as the almond roca bars I tried out last week. So good. And the buckeye bars. My gosh, I love candy. Always have, always will. Lemon drops, root beer barrels, Reese’s peanut butter cups, butterscotch, peanut butter M&Ms, toffee, anise candy, fudge and peppermints.
I think we all have favorite candy that takes us back to the day, back when our feet were bare and we searched for tire swings and wide open sandy beaches, and swinging on the porch swing was the thing to do at day’s end. I thought I was going to write about candy, but it occurs to me that it’s the sweetness I’m after, and aren’t we all? The sweetness of life. Because there is so much we get lost in that isn’t sweet, and my gosh, we need it. Even only now and then.
And now I’m thinking I’d like to write about all the sweetness there is in my life, and all there ever was and even will be. But in the interest of time and sanity, the sweetness of this day will do. The thought of rolling down grassy hills. Firelight. Sounds of children playing outside. The flight patterns of barn swallows. How it feels to work hard, and to be done with it for the day. My granddaughter struggling to form her first word. A young woman trying on her wedding dress. The one day in months when there is no back pain. The smell of prime rib on the grill (a couple hours at 250, with a rub of some kind). My mother’s windblown hair in a photo sent a while back. How Mr. S wrote “polenta” and “squid” on my grocery list. Sounds people make when they nap on hot days. My daughter’s voice in a voicemail about how excited she is to go shopping with me whenever I have a bit of time. The last paragraph of a fine, fine book. The first sentence of the next. Someone down the street singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while weeding the garden. The “love” stamp on the Father’s Day card envelope. How children leave their footprints in bath towels. A bouquet of wildflowers. Guitar music at twilight, Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” then “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven.” And ice cream. Butter brickle. One bowl, two spoons, three scoops.
Let not the shadows distract you. They have their own sweetness in the light which brings them to life. It’s today, and we are here, and wouldn’t a pie taste good about now? A cherry pie, perhaps. How ‘bout it.
To sweetness, then, with a bit of salt.
Cherry Bing Bars
2 cups sugar
2/3 cup evaporated milk
12 regular sized marshmallows
1/2 cup butter
10 to 11 ounces cherry chips (1 package)
1 tsp vanilla
11.5 ounces milk chocolate chips
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup salted peanuts (chopped)
Combine sugar, milk, marshmallows and butter in a saucepan.
Cook over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring all the while.
Boil for 5 minutes, and keep on stirring.
Remove from heat and add cherry chips and vanilla.
Pour into a 9 x 13 inch lightly greased pan and let cool.
Melt chocolate chips in a microwave safe bowl and add peanut butter and chopped peanuts.
Mix together well and spread over the cherry mixture and chill in fridge until set.
Made some truffles Saturday and they were not bad. I wanted something sweet, something light, and somehow, this time of year, things like heavy caramels and dense cakes take a back seat to the Light and Fluffy, Fruitful and Gelled. You know? I made so many truffles I loaded up little white cardboard boxes with them and dropped some off everywhere I went this morning. I don’t know why it is, but the truffles were a hit at the post office, the hair salon, the bagel shop, the church office, the bank and the gas station. Not so much at the auto shop where Ron works along with two high school boys. I’m sure they would prefer something of substance like monster cookies or bacon cheeseburgers.
Ritual is good, especially in transition. Only a month and a week ago we were buried ‘neath a blizzard, and now the heat is enough to fry an egg on the hood of the old red truck. Seriously. I think, living where we live, we’re built to switch gears in silent and graceful ways, but it can be rough on one’s spirit to go from a snowmobile suit to a bathing suit in such a short time. It’s tempting to look behind you now and then to see what else might be comin’.
Last night it was a storm. Big one, with thunder and lightning and lovely dark clouds shaped like galloping horses and old abandoned castles. I loved it, and sat out on the porch eating truffles, watching it roll on in, and just before the rain, I got up and wandered down the drive and up the street a ways, face to the sky, feeling how small I really am. There’s that stillness that comes with the darkening, then the winds, then tentative rain, then sheets of it. It went on for a time, and I got a bit wet, and when the clouds broke at the last there was no sun, only twilight, and once again the frogs spoke up, and the birds, and the water dripping from the gutters and the trees kept on into the night.
Today the sun woke me, and there was a breeze lifting the green leaves storm-scattered on the drive. This is how it is. The ritual of nature, to erupt and burst and blow about, then come the sunlight and the healing winds. And we walk into it and through it, and there, behold, the calm.
Wherever you are, whatever your storm, walk. March if it helps. Forward. Not around. No turning and running. Walk right into it. There’s another side, and when you get there, you will know things you wouldn’t have had you chosen to hide yourself away. There is wisdom in all the chaos. Part of it is knowing it will end. Part of it is knowing there is more. Beyond. Keep your eyes there, on the horizon. On the beautiful line where tomorrow begins. I’ll meetcha there. You bring the cheese and the berries; I’ll bring the lemonade and cucumber sandwiches. And the truffles. If there are any left. If not, I’ll make more, perhaps milk chocolate and raspberry this time around.
White Chocolate Lemon Truffles
8 oz white chocolate-chopped
5 T unsalted butter
3 T heavy whipping cream
pinch of salt
1 tsp lemon extract
Over a double boiler melt chocolate, butter and cream, stir until smooth. Mix in salt and lemon extract, and cool slightly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours (or until firm enough to roll the balls).
With a small spoon or a melon baller, scoop out the mixture and roll into 1 inch balls (if it’s too sticky, drop a small amount of white chocolate mixture into powder sugar. Makes it much easier to roll into a ball, then roll it again in the sugar when the ball is formed.)
Roll each ball into powdered sugar to coat well. Store in the fridge in airtight container up to 1 week, freeze for longer storage.