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Merry cupid2

Some fragments of Christmastime cheer to help you stay merry:

I was standing in line at the post office to mail a package to my nephew in Colorado. There was only one customer ahead of me—a woman with two parcels on the counter. A young girl stood next to her with two more brown-paper packages in her arms. On the side of one of the packages, in large green letters, was written: “No socks inside!”

My sister Holli got a large, real tree and set it up in the living room of her house. She filled the tree stand with water, and checked it the next day. She was pleased to find that the tree had sucked up a good bit of the water. “That’s a good sign!” she told her husband Bobby, as she added more. She added more water the next day.

On the day after that, Bobby noticed an unpleasant smell in the room and asked Holli to come smell it with him. They sniffed at the fireplace, thinking a varmint had died in the chimney. They checked under the house, but no, the smell was definitely inside. “Do you think something came in with the Christmas tree?” Holli asked. (I pictured a wee field mouse clinging to the trunk, dying of fright during the ride on top of the car, and then having tinsel and lights draped over its tiny corpse.)

They began a more careful check of the living room and soon found that the quarts of water from the tree stand had leaked out and been sucked up into the area rug. “And there I was bragging about my Christmas tree drinking so much water,” Holli said, sadly.

Well, it’s a simple fact that not everything goes smoothly during the holidays, does it? Our church Christmas program was planned for simplicity so that we could put it together in a short amount of time with a small number of people and not mess it up. The minister’s wife said, “It’s all songs that we know, with a narration of the Christmas story, and we’ll practice twice.” We practiced twice, and found that, unschooled and mostly lacking in talent, we were simply not up to the task of singing “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Those two songs were edited out of the program almost immediately. Anyway, angels and shepherds appeared in the lyrics of some of the other songs, so it hardly mattered. Simplicity—that was the ticket.

It came to pass that on the day of the Christmas program, the music left propped on the organ had been mysteriously scrambled. Instead of following “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” with “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the minister’s wife began playing “We Three Kings,” which should have come nearer the end of the production. Those of us in the choir made that shift successfully, but then had no idea of what we were expected to sing next. After much rustling of song sheets and a stage-whispered consultation with the minister’s wife, we got back on track and limped to the finish in record time. I believe that in at least two cases we finished singing our song before the minister’s wife had quite finished playing it.

Afterwards the minister said, “Well, wasn’t that a lot of fun!” His wife, still seated at her instrument, shook her head no. He didn’t get a single “Amen” from the congregation, either, but with no decrease in enthusiasm he added, “And don’t you know that Jesus enjoyed it!”

Finally, from my friend Elizabeth von Arnim we get a sweet illustration of a German country Christmas, complete with three Christmas trees in the library:

It is the fashion, I believe, to regard Christmas as a bore of rather gross description, and as a time when you are invited to over-eat yourself, and pretend to be merry without just cause. As a matter of fact, it is one of the prettiest and most poetic institutions possible, if observed in the proper manner…. [F]or days beforehand, every time the three babies go into the garden they expect to meet the Christ Child with His arms full of gifts. They firmly believe that it is thus their presents are brought, and it is such a charming idea that Christmas would be worth celebrating for its sake alone.

When the trees are lighted, and stand in their radiance shining down on the happy faces, I forget all the trouble it has been, and the number of times I have had to run up and down stairs, and the various aches in head and feet, and enjoy myself as much as anybody.

(There follows a description of the singing of carols, and the distribution of gifts to all of those who work on the family’s estate, until finally the festivities come to an end.)

When [the babies] came to say good-night, they were all very pale and subdued. The April baby had an exhausted-looked Japanese doll with her, which she said she was taking to bed, not because she liked him, but because she was so sorry for him, he seemed so very tired. They kissed me absently, and went away, only the April baby glancing at the trees as she passed and making them a curtesy.

“Good-bye, trees,” I heard her say; and then she made the Japanese doll bow to them, which he did, in a very languid and blasé fashion. “You’ll never see such trees again,” she told him, giving him a vindictive shake, “for you’ll be brokened long before next time.”

She went out, but came back as though she had forgotten something.

“Thank the Christkind so much, Mummy, won’t you, for all the lovely things He brought us. I suppose you’re writing to Him now, isn’t you?”

I cannot see that there was anything gross about our Christmas, and we were perfectly merry without any need to pretend, and for at least two days it brought us a little nearer together, and made us kind.

So may we all be brought nearer together, and as we are merry we should remember also to be kind. If we chance to over-eat ourselves, let us not forget in our stupor to write our own thank-yous to those who bring us gifts—even if we find upon unwrapping the package that there are, in fact, socks inside.

 

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October 2012 022

A rerun, originally posted in June 2011.

We all knew Daddy wanted an ice cream freezer for Father’s Day. He’d been talking about it since Memorial Day. We heard about how nice it would be to make homemade ice cream like he had growing up. How he loved to help pack the churn with ice and salt and would personally sit on top while my granddaddy turned the hand crank. Couldn’t quite say what his favorite flavor was—peach was good if it had been a good season for peaches, and strawberry was a feast for the senses. Then again, there were times when pure vanilla was all that any man could ask for.

So I was hardly astounded when Mama says at supper on the Friday prior to Father’s Day, “Frank, I’ve got your Father’s Day ice cream freezer if you want to try it out tomorrow.”

Daddy stopped chewing ham, says, “Why are you telling me about my Father’s Day present on a Friday night? Don’t you know Father’s Day is Sunday?”

“Yes, Frank, I know that, but I thought you’d like to try the ice cream freezer before Sunday afternoon.” Mama’s voice rose in pitch until the “noon” in “afternoon” sounded like angels blowing the trumpets for Armageddon. Time for Daddy to retreat, but he couldn’t do it.

“Just one of these Father’s Days I’d like to get a damn surprise,” he grumbled low.

Mama heard him perfectly well. She said, “One of these Father’s Days you’re gonna get a damn surprise,” and they finished supper in cold politeness, with exaggerated good manners and a silent passing of the ham, potato salad, and sliced cantaloupe. They only pretend to get mad, though, and they were chatting in a friendly way as Mama cleared the table and Daddy collected ham scraps for our dog, Sarge.  

On Father’s Day I gave Daddy a card from me and baby Bethany, then Mama gave him his ice cream freezer—a slick electric model she had picked out from Consumer Reports.

You don’t have to make a mess with ice and salt,” she explained. “You freeze the tub for 24 hours, add your ingredients, and let ‘er rip.”

“Well,” Daddy said, and I noticed his upper lip curled as he said it, “then I guess in 24 hours maybe we can enjoy a bowl of ice cream.”

“Suit yourself,” Mama said. “I’m going to enjoy mine in 20 minutes. I’ve had the tub in the freezer since Thursday.”

Daddy explained that he had wanted a White Mountain hand-cranked ice cream freezer like the one from his childhood. “This requires electricity from start to finish,” he said. “And Dixie won’t get to sit on it while I crank.”

“This is the 21st century, Frank. Anyway, this marvel of efficiency was one-third the cost of the four-quart White Mountain hand-cranked freezer with the triple gear action.” She said that so Daddy would know she’d done her research. Mama is a great one for research. She added, “And who was it once said, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has’?”

“I don’t know, but I expect whoever said it is dead,” Daddy replied.

We made a batch of strawberry ice cream and ate it on the back patio with Sarge watching every bite. Daddy says it would be folly to speculate on Sarge’s parentage, but if he had to guess he would say Sarge is either a teacup Doberman or a new strain of pocket beagle.

Mama went inside to get more napkins. “You like this, don’t you, girls?” Daddy said, savoring his ice cream. “So do I. Now, Dixie, don’t tell Mama, but I believe ice cream tastes better when you don’t have to turn a crank forever to get it.”

“You’re welcome,” Mama said through the kitchen window.

Sarge edged closer to Bethany. He knew she was the family member most likely to lose a grip on her food. Sure enough, before long Bethany sent nearly a full scoop tumbling onto the grass. Sarge lapped up that ice cream as quick as he could lick. Then he stopped, went stiff, staggered a few steps sideways, shook his head, and stretched out.

“Brain freeze!” Daddy said. “He’ll be all right, Dixie. Mama, look at your dog.”

Mama approached Sarge to rub his head, but he rolled his eyes and showed her his teeth. “Well, he’s not yet over it,” she said. “Leave him alone.” She and Daddy thought it was funny, and Daddy did an imitation of Sarge getting brain freeze until I thought they’d both pass out from laughing.

We stayed outside until the lightning bugs came out. When Sarge recovered from his brain freeze, I threw a ball for him to chase until both of us were panting. I flopped onto the grass at the far end of the yard, and Sarge climbed in my lap to chew on his ball. In the dim light I could see Mama holding Bethany; she and Daddy talked and laughed softly. They looked like people in a dream.

Daddy called out, “Dixie, what are y’all doing out there in the gloaming?”

I wasn’t sure what gloaming was, but I knew what I was doing so I called back, “I’m rejoicing for the things I have!”

END

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Father's Day 001

I decided to make a mincemeat pie for my dad for Father’s Day. He mentioned a little while back that he would like to have a mincemeat pie, something he hadn’t had in years. I said I’d never had one, ever, as far as I knew, and I forgot all about it.

Then, a week or two ago, I ordered a copy of The Farm, chef Ian Knauer’s cookbook and celebration of his family’s centuries-old farm in Pennsylvania. I forget exactly why I decided I wanted it, except that I had seen his cooking show on PBS once and enjoyed it.

The family farm he writes about (and gardens on) is a beautiful place. There’s a gigantic hydrangea with white blossoms that look good enough to eat, and a small pond and a meandering driveway and a family cemetery where the founding Knauer, Johann Christopher, is buried. He died in 1769, so obviously the white, two-story stucco farmhouse is not the original family home. Ian and his family in general seem to use the place as a getaway. It’s not clear who owns it, but Ian and his sisters have planted a large garden there, and he goes down for weekends and cooks for family and friends.

I was reading through the book and marking the recipes I wanted to try, when I came across a recipe for mincemeat pie. And that’s when I remembered my dad’s wish for one.

You would think that I would be beyond the homemade Father’s Day gift, but evidently I am not.

I am also aware that this is not the season for mincemeat pie. So what? Now that homes are air-conditioned, cooking things for hours on the stove is not that bad.

The pie appeared to be quite a project. Ian’s version had a mile-long list of ingredients and it made enough filling for four pies. He only had a recipe for making one bottom crust, though, so once you filled it you were encouraged to freeze the additional three quarts of filling until time to make another pie.

I decided to cut the recipe in half. I made my grocery list, and added the ingredients that I didn’t already have: suet, pineapple juice, apple cider, raisins and currants, ground beef, molasses, and apple cider vinegar. There. Friday night, and my list was in order.

I woke up on Saturday morning in a mild panic. Ian’s farm was in Pennsylvania, not North Carolina. I didn’t know where to find currants in the store—would they be in produce, or with the dried fruits? Did I have to use beef suet? What if this pie was not at all like the one my dad remembers? Shouldn’t it have a top crust?

I went to the Internet and looked up more recipes for mincemeat pie. Martha Stewart had one, but it was meanly hidden behind some sort of subscription requirement and you could only read bits of the recipe around the “Become a member now!” box, which floated as I tried to peek beneath it. But I saw everything I needed to see. One of the first instructions in the recipe was to “take down two jars of mincemeat filling from the shelf.” Really, Martha?

Alton Brown, I believe—after a while it’s difficult to say where I read what—offered the advice that butter could substitute for suet. Thank you.

Then I pulled down my grandma’s old cookbooks, thinking one of them might contain the recipe that she used for her pie. Her cookbooks are always fun to read through. She used to cut recipes out of the newspaper and tape them inside in open spaces and on the end pages and sometimes on pages with other recipes, like Martha’s floating subscription box. I bet she did that to cover up recipes she hated. I would.

I came across many wonderful things in those old cookbooks, including a recipe called “Do You Like Oyster Stew?” that didn’t have oysters in the list of ingredients, and then sprang them on the cook midway through the instructions, very casually: “Add 2 or 3 pints of oysters.” None of these old cookbooks, most of them church or community collections, seemed to have dependable, thorough instructions. But the recipe titles were priceless. “Granny Bell’s Chicken Slick” was my favorite in The Lizzie Sills Friends Circle cookbook. (In case you’re wondering, the “slick” refers to dumplings. Aren’t you a tiny bit relieved? I was.)

But in all the charming antique cookbooks that I consulted, there was no recipe for mincemeat pie. Perhaps it was already too old-fashioned to make the cut for Lizzie Sills, which included this paragraph on the copyright page (capitalized as in the original):

THIS BOOK includes the finest plastic ring binders available, BUT, like most plastics, the BINDERS CAN BE DAMAGED BY EXCESSIVE HEAT, so AVOID exposing them to the direct rays of the SUN, or excessive heat such as IN A CAR on a hot day, or on the top of the kitchen STOVE. If not exposed to heat, the binders will last indefinitely.

I don’t know why they didn’t put indefinitely in all caps, but maybe by the end of that passage there wasn’t enough oxygen left.

Since I didn’t find a recipe called “The Mincemeat Pie Your Father Fondly Remembers,” I went to the store with my list and bought what I needed to make half a recipe of Ian Knauer’s version. As I collected my ingredients and sent up a desperate prayer that I would find a good substitute for currants, the song “You Can Do Magic” came on over the Food Lion sound system. Excellent. I can do magic. I can make mincemeat pie. I can make it without currants.

And that’s what I did. It was hard to get started, because I was nervous, but I browned the beef in a little bit of butter, then removed it with a slotted spoon to a large, heavy pot. I put a pound and a half of raisins in the pot with enough dried cherries and cranberries to take up the space that currants would have occupied. I peeled and chopped apples, grated orange and lemon zest, decanted varying amounts of fruit juice, cider, cider vinegar, honey, and molasses; I added a half stick of butter. I sprinkled in salt and spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger. With the heat turned up to bring it all to a boil, I took a large wooden spoon and began turning the mixture over.

That’s when the magic happened. Oh, the smell. It was like apple pie and Christmas. It was rich and spicy and dark and wonderful with the citrus zest sending up bright sparks. It simmered for about an hour, getting progressively thicker. I tasted it, and began to think that maybe I had eaten some of my grandmother’s mincemeat pie. An angel sang, softly, and not for very long.

I do hope that my pie comes close to Grandma’s. Because the whole point of making a mincemeat pie in June was to recreate a feeling and maybe provide at least a quick flashback to a yellow kitchen in a white house on a small farm in eastern North Carolina. Unlike Ian’s family, we can’t still visit that farm, and I’m seven miles removed from my parents’ farm, which also overlooks a pond. But Redbud farmlet is chugging along. Our chickens are now 12 weeks old and healthy, the goats are staying inside the corral and haven’t lost their collars, and the kale and squash are growing. When I step under the shelter where the tractor lives, the soft dirt underfoot and the shade and the smell of the old tractor make me feel like I’m back in my grandfather’s barn. In a way, the original Winslow family farm is still thriving—it’s just scattered around the state a little more than it once was.

I delivered the pie this morning right after going to church with my parents, where my dad won a gift certificate for being the father with the oldest child present. I bet I was also the oldest child who had made her father an ugly homemade gift. Best part: I can give him another one in December, because the frozen mincemeat keeps for six months. Boom.

Want a little homemade ice cream with your mincemeat pie on Father’s Day? Read this!

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Three goats 005

If we didn’t live venturously, plucking the wild goat by the beard, and trembling over precipices, we should never be depressed, I’ve no doubt; but already should be faded, fatalistic and aged. – Virginia Woolf

I take this quote to mean that living dangerously and teasing wild goats keeps you young. I have to take issue with that opinion, and would add that clearly V. Woolf has never known an actual goat. Because to pluck a wild goat by the beard would, it seems to me, be one of the more fatalistic moves one could make. I mean, there is living dangerously, and then there is plucking goats’ beards.

My parents’ next-door neighbor has been keeping small goats to eat underbrush at his place. The most recent candidate was a bit wild; he had a genius for escape and enjoyed roaming free between his home and my parents’ farm. The first time Ernesto and I saw him, he was grazing in a small field between the two properties. As we drove slowly past, I made a comment along the lines of, “There’s Bobby’s new goat, isn’t he cute?” The goat raised his head, and we both were both stunned. He was a little fellow, shaggy and white, but he had enormous horns and a black, stringy beard about a yard long. Ernesto said he was such a cartoon-character of a goat that he should be called Capricorn.

Several weeks later we had Easter lunch at the farm. My sister, Holli, and her crew had not yet arrived, but it was 2:00 and folks were getting restless and one nephew had to drive back to Chapel Hill to work, so we sat down at the dining-room table to get started. We sat in front of long windows that look out over the front of the house—the pond, the driveway, the field between the farm and the neighbors.

“Look, there’s a goat,” Robin said. It was Capricorn, heading up the driveway at a determined trot as if he were going home. We all watched and laughed as he trotted along, wondering what had riled him up.

About that time, Holli’s van pulled into the main driveway and began ambling toward the house. As we watched them bump slowly up the drive, the goat cut in front of their van, and veered right.

The van stopped. Then, instead of continuing to the farm, it turned left into the neighbor’s driveway.

“What are they doing?” I asked the table.

“Maybe they want to tell Bobby that his goat’s loose.” We all laughed again—the goat was never anything but loose.

A couple of minutes passed, and then the van came out of Bobby’s driveway and turned back onto the main road toward the house. It followed the winding drive, and just about the time it was in the home stretch, here came Capricorn, galloping toward the house as if racing the van.

He won, too—but of course the goat had taken the short cut across the front yard. He pulled up and stood stiff and trembling, glaring with yellow-eyed hatred at the van as four people and two dogs disembarked.

“Wow, he’s really giving them the stink-eye,” Robin said. He was. He looked as if he might attack the van, the dogs, the people, indiscriminately, but he only stood there, upper lip curled, until they had all disappeared through the garage and were safely inside the house.

We laughed so hard at that goat—but only because we were inside the house. He really didn’t look like a goat to be trifled with.

A week ago, Ernesto went to the livestock auction in Liberty and purchased three nanny goats of our own. He and my dad drove them from the trailer into the corral, where they stood around looking hyper. When approached, they melted through the corral fence like it wasn’t even there.

Catching a goat is no joke, and for some time the three of us tried to herd them gently back through the slats of the fence and into the enclosure. Things were not looking good, especially at the point when they went around to the front of the house and discovered how tasty the rhododendrons were.

Eventually we did get back them into the corral, and then we backed way off so they wouldn’t feel threatened and bolt back out. My dad offered to go back home and get a reel of barbed wire to string between the slats of the fence, and he left.

Ernesto and I stood around in the back yard, looking at the goats from a distance. There is an older white goat with brown spots that looks a bit like Mamie Eisenhower, a young cute goat who looks something like the older goat and may in fact be kin, and a brown goat that from a distance could be mistaken for a small deer. We’ve named them Iris, Lily, and Rose, respectively. They don’t look dangerous, but they aren’t exactly cozy to be with, either.

While my dad was fetching the wire and the goats were corralled, if not exactly secured, we received company. Two neighborhood dogs, Australian shepherds, arrived to help with the herding. They streaked across the back of the property and into the corral, causing the goats to run to Ernesto for protection. Behind the two dogs came three small boys, who somehow collected the dogs, took them back to their own pen, and returned to the corral in about fifteen seconds. The boys gathered at the fence to watch the goats. They were constantly in motion, climbing the fence to sit on top, going between the slats and then back out again, standing on the bottom rail to get a better view.

“You got some new goats,” the 8-year-old told me.

“We did.”

“Can we pet them?” the 6-year-old asked.

“Not today. They’re feeling sort of nervous. Let’s give them time to settle down.”

The boys accepted this and observed the goats quietly for several minutes before scampering back homeward. “We’ll come back tomorrow!” they promised.

Ernesto went into the house to fortify himself with food. I believe he had forgotten to eat lunch in the excitement of buying goats. Meanwhile, I put some cracked corn into a bucket and went into the corral with it. The goats came toward me, and I managed to lure them into a stable and latch the door shut. When my dad came back, he and Ernesto were able to reinforce the fence without fear that the goats would flee again.

Now the goats are feeling a little more at home, I think, and they each have a nice new collar and Ernesto even took Iris, the tamest of the three, for a walk on a leash. Neither of them seemed to enjoy the outing, though. Still, the collars are useful for holding onto the goats when they need medicine to cure their diarrhea (Iris).

I can tell you one thing: We won’t be plucking their beards or messing with them in any such impertinent way. You look at a goat’s eyes—they are amber and glassy as ice, with a disconcerting black slash of a pupil. They do not look at you. They look right through you, and from their expressions what they see is not pretty.

Anyway, I’d like to see Virginia Woolf pluck a goat’s beard. I don’t believe she could do it.

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Key in jar

My favorite jar, with key to grandma’s house.

A day in which I don’t write leaves a taste of ashes. – Simone de Beauvoir

The local news had a story recently about a man in Bessemer City, North Carolina, who loved Duke’s mayonnaise and had eaten nothing but Duke’s for his entire life. He was such a fan that he wanted his mortal remains laid to rest in a Duke’s mayonnaise jar. That would not be newsworthy in and of itself, but the man’s daughter contacted the C. F. Sauer Company and they got to work and prepared two special jars for him. They even printed his name across the little red banner that graces the front of the jar. (On the jars that actually contain mayonnaise, the banner reads, “Smooth and creamy.” I think it’s just as well they decided to replace that with his name.)

I am mocked in my family for liking to put things in jars (as I did last Easter), so of course I was intrigued by this whole idea and began to think seriously about what sort of jar I would like to be buried in. There isn’t any one particular jarred food that I love so much that it would be the obvious candidate, so on my last trip to Food Lion I went up and down the aisles, paying particular attention to anything that was in a glass jar.

Marinated artichokes? No. Sauerkraut? Certainly not. Peanut butter? Well…no. Jelly? That’s a possibility, especially a name brand that includes the words “Naturally sweet” on the label. I do think that it needs to be a name-brand item; nothing against Food Lion, but who wants to be buried in an off-brand jar, especially if it’s called something like Valu-Time?

The Rolls Royce of jelly jars is the white glass crock that holds Dundee Orange Marmalade. But the text is painted onto the jar, and would not be so easy to revise. The Braswell’s Fig Preserves jar is attractive with its gold-colored lid and forest-green and white label. But the prominent location of their slogan, “Full of Tender Figs,” put me off.

The condiment aisle had several options, including mustard (“coarse ground” would be appropriate), salsa, chutneys, barbecue sauce, and olives. If your name happened to be Olive, you could just add the word “remains” beneath “Olives” and you’d be all set. Yes, it lacks the possessive apostrophe, but these days nobody seems to care about punctuation, anyway.

I glanced at the mayonnaise jars, but really had no interest in any of them. I did note that it was a good thing the gentleman in Bessemer City had preferred Duke’s, since the other popular brand down here is called Hellman’s. Don’t want to spend all of eternity in Hellman’s, even though they have a nice tagline: “Bring out the best.”

Then there were the pickles. This is rich territory. Almost anyone could be buried in a pickle jar and still retain his or her unique personality. I would probably choose bread-and-butter pickles, or sweet pickle relish. Yes, sweet pickle relish has a pleasant, positive tone.

I came to a full stop in front of the varieties of spicy pickled products offered by Sims Foods: Wickles. “Wickles” could become “Vickles” on a bespoke jar from Sims Foods—assuming they are as accommodating as C. F. Sauer—and the slogan “wickedly delicious” has strong appeal.

Moving on. Besides the sauerkraut and marinated artichokes, the vegetable aisle offered several brands of mushrooms in jars, chicken gravy, and Aunt Nellie’s Pickled Beets. I wouldn’t want someone else’s name featured so prominently on my jar, which is why I wasn’t interested in the Newman’s Own salsa or marinara. In fact, none of the spaghetti sauces seemed right: Ragu, Prego, Hunt’s. Classico is the only one I would even consider, if I had no other choice.

Like the jams and jellies, the ice cream toppings are tempting—hot fudge, caramel, walnut, butterscotch. Who wouldn’t be happy in one of those?

Among the breakfast foods, I found Grandma’s Molasses, which certainly sounds like me, as the label declares it to be many of the things that I am: Natural, sweet, pure, never bitter, original, unsulphured. Maybe they would print a custom label for my special jar, incorporating a photo of me and changing the name to “Vicki’s Ol’ Ashes.”

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Findings

IMG_1628

I have lost several things recently, beginning with my keys. Next, just as I planned to write a short post about my beloved backscratcher, I lost that, too.

Lost:  Pink wooden backscratcher, approximately 42 years old. Sentimental value.

I bought that backscratcher when I was about 10 years old, from the Shoppe of John Simmons at Thru-Way Plaza in Winston-Salem. Carved wood painted hot pink, it was probably made in India. I never scratched my back when I was 10, but I think I bought it because it was affordable on a 10-year-old’s allowance, and it represented the exotic atmosphere, the bright colors, and the spicy smells of the Shoppe.

I owned that backscratcher for decades. It went with me to Kentucky, to Florida, to Missouri, and came back with me to North Carolina in January. I had it on the shelf of the closet I used at my parents’ house. Then I decided to write about it, so on Labor Day evening after a cookout I fetched it, scratched my back, and then carried it and a pile of other stuff to the car. Ernesto was also carrying things—dishes, and tomatoes, and apples. I believe that my load included the backscratcher, my purse, a bag with leftover chocolate cake inside, an envelope filled with old family slides, and maybe a container of fishing worms, although I’m not clear on that. Anyway, we drove the one-half mile to our house and unloaded our things. The backscratcher was not among them. I searched the car, checked the bag with the cake, walked around in a circle, and called my mom. “Send a posse out to check the yard for my pink backscratcher,” I said. I think it sounded every bit as bossy as it looks in print.

Sadly, the backscratcher was never found. Maybe I left it on the back of the car, when I set my purse down to dig out my keys. If so, perhaps it was flung from the car when we turned onto the road from the driveway. Which means that the Johnson dogs across the way are probably scratching each other’s nasty backs with it right now, or using it as a toothpick deep inside their loathesome den.

Over the years that backscratcher had become a sort of curiosity, or a relic. Certainly it was the oldest thing I had ever purchased and still owned. It had also become more useful as a tool, since I can no longer twist and flex comfortably to scratch my own back. Every time I used it, I thought fondly about the Shoppe of John Simmons. So a year or two ago I decided to concentrate the powers of the Internet on the question of whether the Shoppe still existed. It did not. But I discovered something much, much better.

Found:  John Simmons, author of Dark Angels: How Writing Releases Creativity at Work.

John Simmons’ book has been far more useful than my backscratcher ever was. And  since my backscratcher pointed the way to him with its stiff, curled fingerbones, and thus to The Writer blog and his other books, I should be philosophical about losing the backscratcher itself. I use John Simmons every single day in my work—especially his advice to imagine the lives of your readers (whoever they may be) and show them compassion. I do try. It may not be obvious, but I do.

Two days after losing the backscratcher by motor vehicle, we pulled the exact same trick. Ernesto put his tape measure and utility knife on the back of the car, and later we drove off, apparently flinging them out into the universe, never to be found. Worse, I seem to be unable to find an envelope of important photos. I thought that they would be easily located, because they were IMPORTANT, but so far I haven’t found them. That’s one of the perils of moving. I know they’ll probably turn up eventually, but it is very aggravating in the meantime, and the only thing that keeps me from despair is that for every item lost, there seems to be something found. Like the red feather that Ernesto found over the weekend and presented to me. Or the young pine cones, glossy green as enamel with tiny stars of shining sap found beneath the clothesline. Small treasures that help to fill the gaps of loss.

What have you found?

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House and gardenIt appeared to June Ellis that her Easter vacation was about to be ruined in several different directions and on sundry levels.

“It’s going to be a spectacular Easter,” her daddy declared several weeks in advance. Then he casually delivered Easter’s death-blow: “Your aunt and uncle from up Cincinnati way are coming to spend spring break and Easter weekend. You’ll get to meet your only cousin, Ethan!” He held up his palm for a victory slap, but June ignored it.

Distance had been her only cousin Ethan’s single attractive quality. Four months her senior, throughout the eight years of their nearly consecutive lives he had naturally reached many important milestones before June could. He had talked, walked, and sprouted a tooth first, then he had taken up piano lessons and soccer. June was sick of hearing about his achievements.

Now he was coming here, to her part of the world, and at the season that she most loved. She knew his coming would add nothing and could only diminish the pleasure she took in egg-dyeing, egg-hunting, and having her picture taken in a new dress in front of the lilacs. Sharing these things would turn all her joy sour.

“I don’t want company at Easter,” June said. “I love Easter the way it is, by myself.”

“You’ll love Easter even more with a little company,” Daddy said. “You and Ethan can dye eggs, and have a real egg hunt. Won’t it be nice, having someone to find eggs with? A one-girl egg hunt is a mighty lonesome thing. In fact, it’s pitiful.”

“I thought I might do my egg-dyeing early this year,” June said. “Maybe this weekend.”

‘You’ll wait for your cousin Ethan,” Mama said flatly. “Now finish your supper.” Where Daddy would cajole, employ sweet-talk, and tease, Mama forged iron rules and regulations that came down hard and left a mark.

After supper June climbed up the tier of logs inside the old tobacco barn at the edge of the woods. The barn had not been used in decades except to shelter the lawnmower and garden tools, but it still smelled faintly of sweet golden leaves. At the top of the tall, narrow barn was a tiny window, a fine observation post. Daddy had fastened a sturdy board across two of the upper logs to give June a platform. He knew she loved to look out that window, so it made sense to give her a more secure perch and save her from leaning over to the window from one of the side tiers. Even with this improvement June’s mother was lobbying furiously to have the barn torn down before someone got hurt.

But June relished her view over the house to Weddlesville Road. When she looked to the right, the road ran straight and true for three miles, ending at State Road 79, a mostly rural  byway that meandered from the town of Ark to the south until it reached the more bustling city of Grantham, 75 miles north.

To the east, Weddlesville Road curved into green woodlands and disappeared. Presumably, the road led to Weddlesville. June had never gone in that direction in her entire life. Church, school, commerce—everything of value was located somewhere on or near State Road 79.

State Road 79 also brought Ethan and his parents. June sized him up in a day and a half. He may have been four months older, but he was no taller than June and not one bit bossy or arrogant despite his four months’ advantage. He did not offer to play a tune on the piano, and June got her own way during the egg-dyeing and decorating project. She kept her management low-key so as not to arouse adult displeasure, but Ethan proved agreeably compliant. He had strong lungs and turned red with blowing out the raw eggs—always a difficult task. Besides this, he revealed himself to have excellent taste.

” Now, that’s a real egg,” he said, holding up an egg that June had decorated with glued-on bits of tissue paper and metallic gold pen. “If you’ll let me have that one, I’m going to put it in a jar and keep it.”

Flattered, June said he could have it. Her mother found him a wide-mouthed Ball jar with a two-piece lid. Ethan padded the bottom of the jar with a little grass from an Easter basket and nestled the egg inside.

“But why in a jar?” June asked. “Why not put it in your Easter basket?”

“I always want to preserve things that I like where I can see them.”

Ethan’s voice was husky and low. June imagined that he sounded like the state of Ohio. He seemed exotic, somehow, though he dressed the same as anybody. There was something about the light in his clear gray eyes, the life in his dark bristly hair, that reminded her of Weddlesville Road—a mystery, unknown and unknowable. She found her animosity toward him unsustainable. After their egg-dyeing and a riotous three days of hiding, finding, and sometimes crushing eggs, she had shown him her platform at the top of the tobacco barn. They were there now, having finished Easter dinner and changed into their regular clothes.

“Where do you reckon that road really goes?” Ethan asked. He was crammed uncomfortably into the window with June, but she couldn’t push him out of the way without risking both their lives, since their platform was thin and a slip would take one or both down a good 25 feet into the dirt below. Not that the fall would kill them, but it would surely hurt and Mama would pitch a fit and no doubt have the barn sealed shut.

“Goes to Weddlesville, I guess. That’s why it’s called Weddlesville Road. Stop moving, Ethan. This window is too small for you to be twisting around like that.”

“You ever been?”

“No.”

“Wonder what it’s like.” He turned toward her, and she noticed again that his gray eyes had a strange light in the back, as if stars in a distant galaxy shone there. “Let’s go find it,” he said.

The minute they turned the corner and were out of sight of the house, the air felt cooler and foreign. The abundant greenness of the woods pressed at them from both sides; tendrils crept toward the asphalt and climbed the road sign posts. June chose to walk down the center line of the road.

“We’ll hear a car coming from a mile off,” she promised.

“What if it’s an electric car?” Ethan wondered. June moved toward the shoulder, and they walked on the painted line at its edge.

“We ought to build a summer camp out here,” Ethan said. “Have you ever been to camp? I’d like to run my own place. We’d have nothing but fishing and boats, swimming and horses. You could run the arts and crafts part. We might have to dig a pond.” He spotted something in a thick tangle of deadwood and weeds near the ditch, and down he went to see about it.

“It’s a balloon!” he said. “Who’d be having a birthday party out here in the woods?”

“Probably it just blew here from somewhere else,” June said. “From Weddlesville, I guess. Maybe there’s tons of kids down there that I could be playing with. Maybe I’ll go to the next birthday party they have, if I ever meet them.”

Ethan extracted the balloon from the ditch, a procedure that ate up a bit of time and required careful untangling of the long blue ribbon that was snarled among the deadwood. Finally the balloon popped up into the air, only slightly low on helium, and Ethan’s eyes glowed with triumph. The balloon bobbed and dipped on the ribbon, and then a light gust of air seemed to raise it up, and up it stayed.

June expected Ethan to release the ribbon and let the balloon fly free, as if it were a live wild thing. Instead, he tucked the end of the blue ribbon firmly into his front jeans pocket and let the balloon jerk along beside him.

“You don’t have many neighbors, do you?” he said. “I guess it’s not much fun during the summer, being all alone most days. But I’ll come back when school’s out, and we’ll get started on our camp. Don’t worry. Having a cousin is better than having a next-door neighbor, because we’ll always be kin.”

The road wound up a good-sized hill, and the cousins felt more hope with every step that at the top they would finally see their destination. But when they reached the summit, they saw only more woods and some abandoned fields further ahead.

Ethan began to generate explanations. “Maybe Weddlesville doesn’t really exist,” he said. “Maybe it got swallowed up in a sinkhole, like in Florida, or a tar pit. Maybe it got vacuumed up by a UFO. Maybe all this kudzu and mess covered it up and strangled the life out of all the people. I bet—”

June stopped walking and held up her hand. “Stop rattling, Ethan. Be quiet for two minutes.”

Ethan stood still and was quiet for thirty seconds before the silence ended.

“Good afternoon, sir!”

June and Ethan lifted their heads like bird dogs. They realized that they stood at the corner of a yard. The front lawn was nearly indiscernible for a riot of growth at the corner—periwinkle and creeping phlox; loose-limbed forsythia; thick, wild azaleas; ungroomed beds of past-blooming daffodils and hyacinths—all of it mixed in with an encroaching green-woods growth that blurred the edges and threatened the stability of a small section of driftwood-gray fence. June peeked through a gap in the waving arms of forsythia and discerned the corner of a small white house. She detected movement, heard a creak, and realized that a man must be sitting on a porch swing. 

She looked at Ethan, who stared back at her. They were entirely concealed by the shrubbery and overgrowth—how could he have known they were there?

“Hey!” Ethan said, uncertainly. He hiked up his hand and waved, causing his captive balloon to dip its broad, silvery head in a clumsy bow.

“Where you headed?” the man called.  He sounded grandfatherish and perhaps a bit deaf. “And what you got there on your face? Tattoos?”

He had mistaken the balloon for a passer-by. June sat on the ground and chewed her sleeve to keep from hooting. Ethan grinned but remained composed. June admired him and wondered if there might be a decided advantage to an extra four months of maturity.

“Yes, sir,” Ethan said, in his most gravelly Ohio voice. “I’m working for the circus. We’re… I’m trying to find Weddlesville. Am I about to Weddlesville?”

The porch swing stopped creaking. “Mister, you’re up to your assbone in Weddlesville! The town limits run right through there. Now, the center of town is about two miles further up, but you won’t find no circus there, nor nobody to buy a ticket.”

June snorted wetly into her sleeve, and Ethan coughed, loud and hoarse, to cover it up.

“Well, reckon I’ll head on back, then,” he said. “Thank you, now.”

“Don’t you want to come up here on the porch and have a cold drink before you start?” the man asked. June imagined that the man had to hide and find his own Easter eggs, too.

The sound of a car coming up the road made Ethan and June look back. It was Daddy, with Uncle Scotty. The car slowed as it approached.

“Thank you,” Ethan said, in a hurry. “Best be getting on,” and to June’s wonder and eternal delight he pulled the ribbon from his pocket and loosed the balloon.  It drifted up slowly and bobbed drunkenly below the redbud tree. They heard the man on the porch swing exclaim, “Gah!” before the swing creaked crazily as he thumped into the house.

June and Ethan ran back to meet the car, and jumped in the back.

Daddy tried to look stony. “What in the world are the two of you doing? And why, when you’ve been caught in a flagrant act of truancy, are you grinning like possums?”

“I don’t think we’re grinning like possums,” Ethan said. “How do possums grin? We just wanted to see Weddlesville.”

“Weddlesville, is it?” and Daddy kept straight, finished the two miles, and they saw that Weddlesville was mainly an abandoned country store and a broken-down, decrepit grist mill near a pond of thick oily water. Across the road from these features was a tangle of wild woods. A slice had been carved into the trees, a section of shoulder mowed, and within this alcove a large sign read:  “Rustic Meadows. Home lots from $30,000.”

“Oh, me, I should say it’s rustic,” Daddy remarked. “Nothing but rust and ticks for miles.” He looked at the children in the rearview mirror. “What have you all been doing? Taking laughing gas? You sure do have the sillies today. Too much Easter candy, I expect.”

Up to your assbone in Weddlesville, June mouthed at Ethan, and the two stripes of color in his cheeks turned a deeper red and his eyes closed as he surrendered to the hilarity.

Monday morning, Ethan and his family were to begin their drive back to Cincinnati. Ethan had a jar with June’s egg in it in the backseat with him, and another jar that June hadn’t seen before. “What you got in that one?” she asked, and he held it up for her to see an old Atlas mason jar with a heavy screw-on lid. Inside was a copy of the photo that Mama had taken of the two of them in their Easter clothes in front of the lilacs. June felt something strange inside her lungs, like she needed more air.

“I’m going to go to the barn to watch your car go up Weddlesville Road,” she whispered.

By the time she got up to the window, the car had pulled out of the driveway and turned right toward State Road 79. Ethan had unsnapped his seat belt and leaned out the passenger-side window to wave.

“Bye!” he hollered, leaning out as far as he could to see her. “Didn’t we have a time?”

“Bye!” June yelled back. “We sure did!” She saw Ethan’s mama turned around in the front seat, trying to get him back inside and buckled up. Then all she saw was the back of his dark, bristly head and the gleam of a jar in his right hand.

“Bye,” she said, again. She stood alone at the tobacco barn window, and when she could no longer see the car she looked to the left, toward Weddlesville. She stood there dreaming, wishing that she had a jar that she could keep Ethan in. Maybe she would get a copy of that picture, too. But she wouldn’t put it straight into a jar, as Ethan had. No, she would cut out their figures, letting the lilacs fall. She would get a square of fresh white paper and draw her own background of greenery and flowers, a section of driftwood fence, and put in a silver balloon rising up toward a redbud. Then she would paste the June and Ethan figures in that new setting, place the picture in a jar, and preserve their trip to Weddlesville forever.

June looked toward State Road 79. It was empty now. Her tobacco barn window seemed mighty big. June rattled in it like a loose tooth, grieved and aching, and certain to end up lost.

END

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