A Monumental Act

Archived | May 28, 2013 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. It was a welcome stretch of time, that show, after all morning and much of the afternoon in the car. The short while in between was spent in a cemetery in a small Wisconsin town where we placed gently into the ground — next to her husband and near her son and her parents — the ashes of my grandmother, Virginia.
It had been one of those mornings when you hear the forecast and think, “Oh, crap, it’s going to rain all day” and second-guess what you’re wearing and look madly for the one umbrella that isn’t broken and know it’s gonna be a bad hair day. But it didn’t rain. Not a drop. It was cloudy, with a peek from the sun now and then, and windy in a lovely way, and there were lilacs and crabapple trees in bloom and a thousand colored bouquets in the cemetery, ribbons fluttering. It was like a spring parade of flowers and wind and light.
The pastor gave a lovely and brief reading and spoke about ashes and dust. We all stood around looking down at the blue-green urn with etched butterflies in which Grandma’s ashes were sealed — my mother and brothers and other family members closer, and a small, pleasant group of Methodist church members and friends of my grandmother from near and far flanking us. They all looked as if they might have a giant tree somewhere where they bake bread and cookies, sweet silver-haired people who knew and loved this woman who loved them back with her friendship, and with organ music with flourishes on Sundays over the years.
I looked up at the sky when I spoke. “Grandma,” I called out. “Without you, I wouldn’t know as much about the importance of tenderness.” I said something about her life, how she was wise and kind and how she helped me become the woman I am, how I am glad she is with Grandpa now after decades of being apart. I don’t recall much; I was trying hard not to cry. But I did cry. I remember saying how she loved pie, and “I love you, Grandma,” and that was all.
To say goodbye to a life is a monumental act. Daily goodbyes and temporary partings seem a whole different thing altogether. It’s healthy, I know, to let go. But it is painful, oh, my. I helped the sexton bury her, watching him shovel soft brown earth — as the children threw dandelions and little purple flowers in with it — making sure there were no pockets of air, helping him press the small circle of sod on top of all that dirt and seal it with extra soil in the crack.
I felt as if we were tucking her in. Same feeling I had long ago when the children were little and I pulled the quilts up to their chins and kissed their foreheads and whispered goodnight, and turned out the light. “Sleep well. See ya in the morning.” Yes. That’s it. Sleep well, Grandma. See ya in the Morning. The Glory Morning.
Virginia had a sweet tooth, and an affinity for bread, and so do I. Here’s a recipe satisfying both, just in time for rhubarb ripe for the pulling. Simple.
Rhubarb Bread Pudding
4 slices of bread
¾ tsp cinnamon
3 T butter
3 cups rhubarb cut into 1″ pieces
½ cup sugar
Spread each slice of bread with 1 tsp butter, and cut buttered bread into ½” cubes. Combine sugar and cinnamon. Arrange half of rhubarb in bottom of greased 8″ baking dish. Top with half of bread cubes and half of sugar mixture. Repeat. Dot with remaining butter. Cover and bake in 375 oven for 20 minutes; uncover and bake 20 to 25 minutes more or till lightly browned. Serve with fresh whipped cream.

Smell the Flowers

Archived | May 22, 2013 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Not bad at all, and I plugged in the radio and opened a window and set the volume to LOUD so I could hear it while I worked out in the yard. Which I did, for a good two hours, rain coming down now and then, but not enough to warrant stopping, or rubber boots, or one of those plastic head covers for women that you unfold and unroll and tie under your chin like a bonnet. My grandmother used to have a whole box of those things, and she slipped one in my pocket now and then on rainy days. I never did open one up. Figured they’d make good parachutes in an emergency.
All I could smell while working out there Saturday evening was lilacs. Every year about this time the air fills with the scent of lilacs, which takes me way back to my grandmother’s backyard where I spent many a warm day of my childhood. I helped her gather grapes from the arbor for wine, and vegetables from her garden (corn, mostly), and I played in the grass with the black lab named “Penny.” Inside her kitchen, we spent hours making lemon shortbread cookies and rhubarb pies and date-filled things. I helped her can vegetables now and then, and prepare fruit for jam. Sometimes I was in charge of the iron skillet full of chicken fat on the stove. And, round this time of year, there was the smell of lilacs, the velvety purple flowers framing one side of the window above the sink.
Carnations are like that for me, too. They bring back the memory of my boyfriend Jerry, back in high school, picking me up for the Prom, trying with some decorum to pin to my dress the monstrous corsage of pink carnations he’d brought for me. The scent was lovely at first, and later on in the evening, quite dizzying. I think of my mother when I smell lilies of the valley, as she surrounded my childhood home with them, and wildflowers remind me of long woodland walks with my dad. And daisies? Well, they bring back a powerful memory, a June day when, after he drowned in a river during a family picnic, we lay my young cousin to rest.
Get on outside, people, and smell the flowers. Breathe ’em in, all you can as you go. Somewhere along the way, years from now, even, you’ll smell them again, and they’ll bring to mind a memory of something you did today, and perhaps it will be amazing. You just never do know.
The best recipes are simple, and, this time of year, have the quality of being refreshing without making you feel you’ve a bowl of concrete in your gut when you’re finished. This is an old one, best served chilled, and made with rhubarb grown in your own backyard.
Scandinavian Rhubarb Pudding
1½ pounds rhubarb
1½ cups water
½ cup sugar
½ tsp vanilla
3 T cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
Trim rhubarb and cut into ½ inch slices. Combine with water and sugar and simmer until soft. Stir in vanilla. Blend cornstarch with a bit of cold water to make a smooth, stiff paste, and stir into rhubarb. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until thickened and clear. Pour rhubarb into glass serving dish and chill. When you’re ready to serve the pudding, whip the cream until frothy; add sugar and vanilla and whip until stiff. Spread over pudding, and serve.

Boredom and Terror, and Sweetness

Archived | May 14, 2013 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. It’s warming up out there and I had the radio going while I did some yard work, mostly cleaning up sticks from the willow tree and putting landscaping rocks in their proper place (snowplows tend to move more than snow) and a bit of raking. I wanted to get all that done before I plant a few geraniums and peonies to brighten up the yard, and that is next on the list.
For now, though, I’m enjoying the lovely bouquet of red mini-carnations in the kitchen. A Mother’s Day gift from my son, who took it upon himself to search through the flowers at the grocery store where he works to find the perfect flowers, for me. It was his idea, Mr. Sundberg told me. And he paid for the flowers himself. Add that to the beautiful letter my older daughter wrote to me, over a page, handwritten, sealed in a pink envelope, and the line in the card from everyone written by my younger daughter, “You are the best woman I know”, and what more could I ask for? Mr. Sundberg did present me with an envelope with a gift card for a massage inside, one hour, and that was pretty much the icing and the nuts on the cake.
I spent Mother’s Day on the road, mostly, with the windows open until I got chilled, good music on the radio, and a cup of gas station coffee to sip. Spent some time with the older daughter packing up her stuff, and I’ll get load number three on Friday, and this time she’ll ride home with me. We did a little shopping for panties (I call them “panties” because it makes her laugh), as someone pilfered the last bag of new underwear I bought her. Seriously. Then we had lunch (fish tacos for me, chicken sandwich for her, and a mother load of onion rings) and I got into the car and drove.
By the time I got home, it was late afternoon, and the kids were out at work and play practice, and I had some time to unload the car and sip some iced tea, and clean up the water leaking from the dishwasher. By mid-evening, we were together, eating ice cream and talking about nothing in particular, but talking, and it was just right. Especially that the ice cream had chunks of brownie in it. And then the kids went to do their schoolwork, and Mr. Sundberg went to his study to work on a speech, and I sat there at the table and just felt what it feels like to be “Mom.” Boredom and terror, and sweetness now and then. Works for me.
When summer rolls around it’s my intention to fill the fridge with fresh fruit and vegetables and yogurt and such, but now and then I get out the cooking gear and whip up something memorable — a layered rainbow cake, or funnel cakes, or fruit pizza. This recipe works well on cool spring nights when everyone is hungry for a little something before bed.
Home-fried Apple Fritters
1 heaping cup flour
⅓ cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
dash salt
2 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp vanilla
1 T butter, melted
1 egg
⅓ cup milk, plus more if needed
1-1½ cups chopped apple, your favorite for eating, peanut sized or smaller
milk and powdered sugar glaze for dipping or just powdered sugar for dusting (about 1 cup pwd sugar + 1 T milk or more)
Mix all dry ingredients together. Slowly add the wet ingredients minus the apple. Carefully mix until well combined, and gently fold in apple pieces. Once the oil is ready (when a drop of water sizzles) then using a soup spoon, place a 4-5 balls of dough into the oil. Be careful not to overcrowd and watch carefully for the underside to turn golden brown. Gently flip over and continue frying until done. A good 30 seconds per side, but adjust cooking times based on size of fritters and temperature of your oil, ideally around 365°.
Cover with glaze or dust with powdered sugar. Serve warm, with milk.

An Exercise in Forgiveness

Archived | May 8, 2013 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. Such a relief to have warmth in the air, and sun, and birds and frogs and one perfect blue dragonfly. Seems the flowers are all going to bloom at once and why not? Everything seems to have been on hold for so long that one can’t help but expect a kind of bursting forth. I read recently a quote by Norman Cousins where he said that life is an exercise in forgiveness. That’s what spring feels like today — an exercise in forgiveness. For a very long, snowy cold stretch of months. For all that shoveling, and for how we’ve all been somewhat cooped up. For a winter that felt merciless.
Forgiveness isn’t an easy thing. Especially when I was young, I had a rough time saying the words, “I forgive you.” It’s gotten easier over the years, mostly because, with experience, I’ve come to understand that not forgiving is much more taxing on one’s spirit. I remember a time, long ago, when Mr. Sundberg and I had a rather awful disagreement, and he got stern and mean and said a few things in a heated moment. Told me I was just a small town girl who doesn’t know which way is north, and that I talk too much and that if I’d stop moving around so much I might get more done. And I told him that he’s a stubborn mule and he ought to loosen up and dance awhile and he might see the light and live a bit longer. Something along those lines. The words silenced us both, and the next words we exchanged, a few days later, were, “I’m sorry,” and “I forgive you.” Felt pretty good. Much better than the silence.
It’s hard to love people, but harder not to have them to love. I know this. I don’t mean to go into motivational speaker mode, but if you’ve got someone in your life who caused you some pain, consider forgiveness. Because if you haven’t, the pain is still there. And that kind of pain can do major damage to your thoughts, and to the ease with which you breathe. Don’t wait for the, “I’m sorry.” Just forgive. The way spring does winter. It simply lets it go, moves forward, blooms.
This recipe is a result of my delight in some bars I had in a café in Ireland. I talked with the baker there, then went searching and tried a few recipes and made some changes, and this is as near to those bars as I can get. And they work just fine.
Caramel Shortbread Bars
Shortbread Layer
2 cups flour
½ cup brown sugar
½ tsp salt
¾ cup butter, chilled
Caramel Layer
½ cup butter
½ cup brown sugar
¼ tsp salt
2 15-oz cans sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp vanilla
Chocolate Layer
10-oz dark or semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
4 T butter, room temperature
Preheat oven to 350. Line a 9×13 inch baking pan with aluminum foil or parchment paper and lightly grease.
Combine flour, sugar, salt and butter with a pastry cutter, until it reaches a sandy consistency and the butter is mixed in. This can also be done by hand, rubbing the butter in with your fingertips.
Transfer mixture to prepared pan, spread evenly and press into a firm layer. Bake for 35 minutes, until light golden brown. Cool.
In a medium saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, salt and sweetened condensed milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly (making sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan), until caramel comes to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 4-5 minutes while stirring until caramel thickens. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Pour caramel onto cooled crust and spread into an even layer. Cool.
Melt together chocolate and butter in a double boiler, or in microwave at 50% power, stirring until mixture is very smooth. Pour onto caramel and spread into an even layer with a spatula.
Cool, slice, and serve. Makes 36 bars.

It’s Time to Get Out There

Archived | May 1, 2013 | By

Listened to the show Saturday and it was not bad. It was time, at last, to put away the apple cinnamon candles and get out the lemon scented candles and the bleach and the old flour sack towels and go to town. I mean really go to town. I did it. I spent two entire days cleaning, and finished up sometime on Monday night, spent. Everything but the outside windows, and good for that, since the rain is coming down doing it for me even now, and will continue much of the week.
I don’t know if it’s the death of winter, or the birth of spring, or the cooped-up feeling a person gets being inside for so many hours and bundling up whenever outside, but I felt a major force of something rising up in me on Saturday night and I unleashed it Sunday morning. It was a sunny day, and I started with the bedding. Washed it all, vacuumed under the beds, and shook out all the rugs. I swept the garage, unloaded and wiped out all the cupboards, and cleaned up the small empty room downstairs and began to fill it up with items for a garage sale later this month. I did the windows, dusted the ceiling fans, scrubbed the tubs and floors and counters. Dusted everything, more stuff into the room downstairs, another bag into the dumpster. Vacuumed, used up what I could in the fridge for a lunch here, a snack there, and buffed with a sponge the few scuffs on the white paint of the wall just inside the front door. I sorted through the kids’ clothes, more stuff for the garage sale, and cleaned out the junk drawers and let go of some junk.
It was glorious. On Monday evening when I folded the last of the cleaning rags, my shoulder hurt and my legs were tired and I felt great. The house feels lighter, and there is more to do, but I got it going. I’ve always felt strongly that it’s no small thing to have nice things, and it is one’s responsibility to take care of them. From the kitchen appliances to the bureaus to dishes and clothes and books and framed photos and birds carved from wood, if it serves a purpose or if it means something to you, use it and maintain it; if it doesn’t, give it away. Or fill your garage on a sunny day in May with things needing purpose or meaning, and sell them. Cheap. And use the money for something a little bit fun. Like a family visit to the pizza farm. Or a day trip to a chocolate factory. Or a new trampoline. Spring is here, and it’s time to get out there and have at it.
Hard to let go of the comfort soups bring during the winter, so lighten it up a bit and use spring vegetables for something perfect on a May afternoon. Serve this one with some homemade bread, and take some to a neighbor who has been outside working all day.
Kale Soup
1 package frozen or 1-2 lbs fresh kale
1 large sweet Vidalia
3 potatoes, peeled
2 links of your favorite sausage
8 cups chicken or pork broth
¼ cup olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 can cannelloni beans
1 bay leaf
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
1 hot pepper, seeded
⅓ teaspoon paprika
Season with salt and pepper to taste
Slice sausage and sauté in ¼ cup of olive oil, onion, and chopped garlic. Add garlic last to avoid browning. Add liquid and simmer for 10 minutes.
Prepare the kale by rinsing thoroughly and tearing the leafy portions from the stems. Tear into bite-size pieces and discard the stems.
Add potatoes, kale, and simmer additional 30 minutes. Add beans.
You could substitute escarole or Napa cabbage for kale, and add one pound peeled baby carrots at the same time as you add the potatoes. Add fresh chopped leeks or scallions. Use fresh carrot juice as part of the broth. Add a few fresh parsley, sage, or oregano leaves if you have them.
Serves 4