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where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Month: June, 2007

shortcake season

it must be the sunlight. or something in the air. or somewhere deep inside of me where there is the trigger. the little cord that yanks when i walk into the grocery store these days and see a peach.
not just any peach. a peach nearly garnet red, and just soft enough so when i pick it up to give a gentle squeeze, the evidence is left behind. little indents that match precisely the tips of my fat fingers. little indents that would mark me guilty, should the produce man ever haul me in a line-up to determine who’s been doing all the groping of the soft-fleshed summer fruit.
or better yet, weeks ago, when i sauntered by the stand at the farmer’s market, and eyed the little balsa-wood baskets of field-picked ruby berries. strawberries. lined up all in a row, offering their very seeds and souls to the cause.
the cause, of course, is shortcake. ‘tis the season for the shortest cakes i know.
those bumpy golden squats of cloud-like dough. cumulus, a whole sky full, lined up on baking sheet, if i’ve been lazy and not used a biscuit cutter. or scalloped round, and uniform, the effervescence coming in the puffy tops, if i’ve not been lazy, if i followed shortcake etiquette and unearthed the cutter from the bottom of the baking drawer.
i learned these things, the easy way, the proper way, to form a shortcake, at the sturdy elbow of lucille.
lucille we call her now, now that she is gone, and her name alone captures just a glint of who she was, her not-lucy, no-nickname, just-lucille-thank-you solid german spirit.
but, then, when she was here and would have boxed us in the ears for such informality, she was grandma, or oma, my mother’s mother and the only one i ever got to cook beside in the steamy cincinnati kitchen where she was undisputed queen, down there in what the locals call the queen city.
i was merely sous, pure underling. i was, probably, just in the way. but she never really said so, so i learned a thing or two.
cutout “basic cookies” would be one (she called them basic; we call them classic, what with their stick of butter and inter-racial sugars, dark brown and white). pineapple upside down cake, in cast-iron skillet, again with stick (or two) of butter, would be two. and, doing the arithmetic, i suppose the shortcake that my papa loved (and, thus, she loved him back) would be no. 3 in the baking department. cooking, well that’s a whole ‘nother thing, for a whole ‘nother day.
and so it was, when just the other afternoon that peach called out to me, so perfect with the little leaf still attached to the quarter-inch of stem, i beckoned lucille.
i marched straight to where i hold what might as well be her ashes, it is so much the essence of her being, only instead it is the banged-up, slightly rusty tin marked, simply, straight-forwardly, “recipes.”
as i cracked the lid and tiptoed my finger tops through the alphabet of “what’s cookin’?” index cards, one after another a whole parade of the best of lucille–baked alaska pie, bourbon balls, gooey bars (not to be confused with gooey butter cake), right on to yumyum cookies–i heard her whispering over my shoulder. at the start, that is. but then i swear she might as well have pulled up a stool and perched beside me, she was so clearly there.
it was as if the search for shortcake was some sort of seance that brought her to me, and suddenly i was muttering, “darn it, lucille, where are those shortcakes? they must be in here. you made them every blessed steamy cincinnati night. which, by the way, would be the entire summer.”
hmm. no shortcakes. not scribbled in her proud secretarial shorthand, the one that forever marked her as a woman with a career under her belt, a schoolgirl smart enough to have moved on to learn to type and take dictation in what now might be dismissed as vocational school, but then, when few were chosen, set her apart, made her a girl with smarts to match her aspirations.
on my second futile spin through my grandma’s alphabet, where i noticed a marked expansion at the Ds–dessert, her downfall, her pride and joy, her way of heaping love onto a plate–it dawned on me that there was no shortcake scribble because this one she could do in her sleep.
i can see her now, sifting flour, cutting butter, making pea-sized grains of flour-butter doughbits. but, darn it, i cannot see closely enough to know if it’s one stick or two of butter, and a cup or a cup and a half of sifted flour. i have no clue what else might be in her mix, her magic potion.
so there i was, fully hearing the call of the shortcake, but having no clear route to get there.
i thought about winging it, but, nah, that might just lead to leaden clouds. a cirrus when what i want, surely, is cumulus.
so i did the next best thing. i left lucille and her tin of well-worn, butter-smeared, “what’s cookin’?” cards, and i wandered over to where the silver palate girls were waiting, twiddling their buttered thumbs, wondering why i’d not come calling sooner.
heck, they’ve been on my shelf for 25 years, a whole quarter century i spell out for elongated emphasis. heck, they’re the ones who taught me much, much, much about how to cook and how to, simply, abundantly, take it up a notch.
sure enough, they do not leave me without a path to puffy clouds. right there, spilling across pages 276 and 277, complete with signature black-on-white line drawing, they told me just what i needed to do to catch me a shortcake cloud, on short notice.
lest i leave you high and dry, i’ll be sure to leave instructions just down below. in case, you too, are looking skyward, and you need some clouds to go with all your celestial summer fruit.
fear not, lucille, i’ll be back for something soon. perhaps my boys would love a little morsel from your gooey-gooey repertoire. why don’t you give some thought to what might set them to drooling, just the way i used to do?

strawberry shortcake, ala silver palate cookbook
makes 6 shortcakes

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
4 tablespoons sweet butter, chilled
1/2 cup light cream
6 cups strawberries, sliced and sugared to taste (here, lucille would slice her peaches and bathe them in a brown sugar bath. just so you know; it’s what i did)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
12 perfect (their descriptive, not mine) strawberries (the garnish, thank you)

1. preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. sift flour, sugar, salt and baking powder together in a mixing bowl.
3. cut in 4 tablespoons butter until mixture resembles oats. pour in cream and mix gently until just blended.
4. roll dough onto floured work surface to a thickness of 5/8
inch. (for heaven’s sake, they expect a ruler, here.) cut into 3-inch circles with cookie cutter (or upside-down juice glass, if you are lucille). gather scraps, roll again and cut more rounds; you should have 6 rounds.
5. bake shortcakes on greased baking sheet for about 10 minutes, or until puffed and lightly browned.
6. cool the biscuits slightly, split them, and spread softened butter lightly over the cut surfaces. set the bottoms on dessert plates; spoon on sliced strawberries, and crown with the tops of the biscuits. whip chilled cream, and spoon a dollop onto each shortcake, then garnish with a single perfect strawberry. serve immediately.

note: to make drop (or lazy) biscuits, use an additional 1/4 cup cream and drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. bake as directed.

please, step right up, if you can top the shortcakes up above. do tell your secrets. or the story of the summer sweet that brings someone you loved back into the holy communion of the cookstove, where the two of you, joined by numbered steps, once again heat up the kitchen together.

delicious air

when it comes, comes rushing in on sound of leaves quaking with unbridled twitterpation, shaking with the shimmy that is the north wind dance, it is pure hallelujah.
you go to bed at night, hot, sticky, like one buttery popcorn kernel to another. you go to bed, if you are my boys, half naked, as little cloth against the skin as you can get away with without your mother clucking tongue and rolling eyeballs. you go to sleep upside down, head down where feet most often are, because you have turned your self around, positioning as if on military mission, to get the most possible breeze on a night when the air is not moving, is saturating, is maybe one dew point away from pure precipitation.
you finally fall asleep because the molten air just makes you throw up your hands and surrender. so you surrender to your sweaty dreams.
but then, some unmarked moment in the night, the rushing comes. the hot still soup that is the air is stirred. cool winds blow in. as if a cube of ice was plunked into the bowl of too-hot soup, before you burned your tongue. just before you choked on your own hot breathing.
it is the holy blessed cold front. it is delicious air.
air and delicious have sat side-by-side in my vocabulary since i was just a wee little girl, and my mother would lift her arms, and her blouse would flutter–finally–and she would proclaim the air, “delicious!”
and so i learned. air, like biscuits and fudge and buttercream frosting on your birthday, can be delicious.
it might just be a phenomenon particular to these parts, here along the western shore of lake michigan, that great good lake, down close enough to where it turns and heads back up to the fruit side of the lake, over there in michigan, the place for which it’s named.
it might just be that here, nestled all around chicago, the city that loves its lake, the winds blow long and easy over all those miles of icy water and by the time they come to my house, by the time they swoop in unannounced through the screens, well, heck, it’s as if the winds had taken a cool bath. and, generous after all their travels, they share what they’ve acquired, they share the cold-lake souvenir.
they swirl and twirl and fill our rooms, our every pore, with what can only be winds worthy of rejoicing.
God bless the wind. God bless the puffy cheeks that blow the wind from up where cool is king, that knock the southern winds back from whence they came, where they can spend the summer baking cotton fields and making huckleberries ripen on the vine.
thank God for delectable delicious might-i-have-another-helping air.
growing up–and still–my mother, who studies clouds and reads the signals of the tree leaves, would announce, as if the house were catching fire, “cold front! get the windows.” which was clue to us, us who had been schooled at the foot of a cold-front watcher, to race around to every blessed window on the north side of the house, and usher in the almighty refrigerated winds that would finally break the heat that had us grumpy, maybe, and wishing we could perhaps strip off our skin. if that would cool us even one degree.
now, you might by now be shaking your tousled head. you might be saying, fools, why not crank the air conditioner?
well, for the most part, we were raised to think that all such artificial coolants were for the birds. or the weak. we toughed it out, with fans and windows letting in or keeping out the air that had been handed to us. as if God was up there shuffling the weather deck, and we got the ace of hearts, or a lowly two of clubs. and then we did what needed to be done until the shout went out, “cold front! get the windows.”
i’d have to say, in my blessed mother’s defense, it is not such a bad thing–it might even be a fine thing–to grow up paying attention to the wind. to grow up understanding that the air comes in flavors, and one of them, at least, is called delicious.
it is as if the wind, and the air that fills your lungs, is there quite boldly to remind you that just when you think you are at the end of your hot sweaty slithery rope, something mighty might be stirred, might come rushing in.
and in a flash, a flash that has no blinking lights, no blaring siren, but simply a sound like water over rocks, a quivering of the white underbelly of the leaves, you are delivered. from hot to cool. from barely breathing to sweetly taking in the lung perfume.
once again, the world reminds us, there is hope, and it’s coming in off the lake. crack the windows. crank the fans. it is ours to suck right in, into our rooms, our lungs, our soul.
the air’s delicious, and it always comes.

is there anywhere else out there where, without much notice, the winds can change, the hot-baked air can stir and suddenly you find yourself standing in an air bath? anyone else keep the windows cracked, even on the hottest nights, in hopes that while you sleep the wind gods will blow your way, and you’ll wake up needing to wrap yourself in at least a sheet, if not a blanket, like both my boys seem to have done during the sweetness of last night?

p.s. happy blessed birthday sweet andrea, a soulmate i bumped into on a cold and windy corner, and knew right away, would be a friend for life. how lonely would it be without another old mother down the block? although of course, to me, you are a young’n’. you’ll always be.

peep hole

if only i had a periscope. i would take you right into the nursery, right into the apparently messy little chamber where mama and the babies keep up their ruckus all through the day, and into the night.
oh, dear, it is a sound so sweet, a chorus of baby peeps, lullabies perhaps, ’tis music to my flighted soul.
it is soft, just slightly louder than leaves rustling in the wind, more like mice playing with mice-like chopsticks. just the barest rubbing together of air and vocal cords. bird breath, with a message.
and now that the sci-fi cicada song is no longer, is barely, i am all ears taking in the sounds we hadn’t heard.
funny, i was busy missing the cicada chorus, that otherworldly whirring that spoke to me, it did, when i stepped out the front door and heard the barest brush of peeps.
i looked up. i cocked my ear. sure enough, the baby birds, the ones whose every move–at least all those on this side of the hole–i’ve kept close eye on, from here in the little room where i birth words.
back in february, it seems, i watched mama and papa sparrow darting here and there, trying out the hole and several others, trying to find just the finest place in which to upholster their obstetrical ambitions.
they must have liked the way it nestled in to the corner of the house. a safe cove, indeed. not like other nests i have watched empty one-by-one, because poor mama robin did not have the sense to move her babies out of striking distance of some harsh and hungry critter who did them in, one sadistic heartbreak at a time.
once the hole was theirs, once the “under contract” sign was posted, i watched them flitting in and out, for weeks and weeks, with straw and grass and cellophane strips, for heaven’s sake. and fluff, must be a whole pillow’s stuff of fluff in there. somehow.
you don’t know how much i wish i had a periscope. as is, i look like mrs. cratchett, up there on tippy-toes atop my ladder that isn’t tall enough, trying to get a teeny tiny peek inside what shall be called the peep hole, now that it’s alive and animated and very much a place of non-stop peeping, except of course when it’s naptime, which must come right after story hour, and milk-and-worm time.
yet again, i leap too quickly.
remember how one fertile day in may, right out my window, in the boughs of the serviceberry and the rhododendron (both lovely spots for mating, don’t you think), i watched, could not help but notice, as mama and papa did their baby-making all day long, right before my eyes, so long i wanted to go lift the weary mama, set her up in comfy armchair, give her icepack for her head, or other parts, as well?
it appears, from the peep of things, the deed was duly done, and we’ve a whole brood out there, just above the door, where one wall meets another, where it’s gotten rather messy, but i don’t mind, because i too have been a new mother, have been overwhelmed, have wondered how in the world i would ever get through the summer when i could barely manage to get through a day, stuck in my pajamas.
so i cut her slack. i sweep away the bits she drops flitting in and out with all those big cicadas dangling from her beak. no wonder those baby birds are making such a fuss. they, like all the other baby birds of the summer of ‘007, are spoiled little feathered things. they’ve all been richly fed on whole cicadas. and they are, most likely, expecting a whole life long of such unencumbered feasting.
well, baby birds, that party’s almost over. so, hush your crying, it’s back to worms, and simple spiders.
any day now, i am hoping, flying lessons will begin. then, i think, i will haul out my lawn chair and a lemonade. i will set up shop, and spend the days marveling at the miracles that chose to peep above the very door where i go in and out.
they remind me, with every blessed peep, that sometimes you must turn up your ears, to grasp the trumpet glory of all creation. sometimes the finest trumpet song comes on notes as soft as grass bending in the breeze.
it just might be the sound of God whispering.

is anyone else being serenaded by the baby birds? what other gentle notes lull you into holy contemplation? anyone else already miss the cicada whirring? isn’t it uncanny the way one joy fades away and another comes rushing in?

and by the way, the chair committee on all things technologic is attempting to record the bird peeps so you too can swoon along. only problem is the recorder has yet to be unearthed up there in the room that looks like kansas during twister season. a cyclone seems to have blown in and set all sorts of things aflying. stay tuned for peeps.

scarecrow dreams

the story goes that when i was little i’d stay up all night during a road trip, just to see the cows.
in fact, i remember: nose pressed against the glass, crawling along the back seat of whatever was the family sedan, climbing helter-skelter over one brother or another. excuse me, i need to see the cows. i would moo at the window, hoping the cows might moo me back. my papa, i’m told, mooed right along.
now what in the world i was doing searching for nocturnal cows, i do not know. commonsense is not often a thread in family legend.
as i grew older it was a silo that became the object of my affection. though i don’t recall mooing at the window for a silo.
no, no, for the silo i had other plans. the silo i wanted to climb from the inside, to carry up my typewriter, to make a window, hang a simple curtain, and spend my whole life on a farm, typing and watching the world down below.
farms call me. farms are in my blood. one kentucky farm i never got to see. and a horse farm that wasn’t ours but that my papa knew; my papa grew up there. but, since my papa was not a raconteur, not about his boyhood, anyway, i do not have volumes of horse farm stories. only one or two.
when i plant my foot on farm soil, i feel something. it is rather like a vein is opened up, and something of the earth courses through me. i see the hard, back-breaking work, but i feel the poetry.
a farm is elemental. it is pure. it is loamy soil teeming with lessons worth sinking your hands into, getting muddy. it’s earth and sky, and hard-won curriculum in between.
it’s ancient. it’s eternal.
you cannot speed up the germination of a seedling. you cannot make it rain. but you can sow seed. and you can hope. and you can, God willing, make it on your own. feed yourself, your children, the good folk down the road. at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. that’s the beauty and the tragedy all at once.
it is you and God, down on the farm.
you have entered, i do believe, into a holy equation that depends on sun and rain and soil. too much, too little, and all is lost. days and weeks and months of labor, of getting up at dawn, of sweat rolling down your nose and muscles aching. of praying. on your knees begging for the rain clouds to come on, to bring the benediction that just might be a quarter inch of rain.
it is, i do believe, a hands-on PhD in all the truths of life. you name it, it’s in the book. birth and death and resurrection, sometimes. anticipation. heartbreak. hallelujahs.
just last week, on a day i was blessed to turn my car down a gravel lane, where the corn gave way to a place called beauregards farm, i was out walking with a woman who is now a farmer and there, right before us where the queen anne’s lace was trampled, lay the head and the feathers of what had been one of her 23 “stepford chickens,” she calls them.
just like that, a weasel, she figured, came and snatched a bronze-feathered hen. she crouched down, the farmer woman did, stroked the feathers, cursed the weasel and then walked on. said she’d be back to bury the dear thing. it was just another moment on a farm.
heartache comes in spoonfuls all day long. you get used to heartache, i suppose, because you know there just might be a hallelujah around the next bend.
i worry that it’s what we’re missing, here in our saran-wrapped urban and suburban worlds. by the time the lessons come to us they’ve been rinsed, flash-frozen and packed in little boxes.
we don’t even know any more what a tomato is supposed to taste like. let alone the goosebumps when a weasel takes your hen.
my farmer friend took me ’round the corn crib, walked me up to ike, introduced me. ike is what you’d call a scarecrow, only she doesn’t, because ike is not there to scare the birds. not so much anyway.
“when i’m not cursin’ them, i’m blessin’ them”, she tells me, of the tug and pull that underscores so much of life, especially on a farm.
ike is there for the chickens. ike is dressed the way my farmer friend usually is. in bib overalls. only ike’s are 10 sizes bigger. and ike is there so the nosey chickens think the farmer’s there, where the broccoli and the pole beans and the eggplant grow.
were it not for ike and his too-big bibs, the chickens would poke around, pull out whatever just got planted, drive the farmer crazy. ike is there, not for scaring purposes, but to make the hens think they’re not alone.
i took a shining to big ol’ ike.
now, when i drift off to farmland in my sleep, i seem to dream of droopy-bottomed ike keeping company with the nosey hens.
i wish my backyard had room for ike. i wish my backyard rolled on and on, in tidy rows of whatever sun and rain and soil had set to reaching for the sky. i wish the world in which i lived was not saran-wrapped, but more earth-stained. i wish i knew the aching arms and legs at the long end of an even longer day. i wish, most of all, i lived the poetry that is the farm.
and i kinda wonder, too, what would happen if you mooed at ike.

anyone else out there yearn to sink your toes in farm dirt? anyone else believe in the poetry of the farm? ever notice how the farmers might know a thing or two that we’ve not even bothered to realize is mighty important? anyone else moo at a cow or a silo or a chap named ike, out standing in his field?

farm cookin’

some mornings at the farmer’s market i get so hungry sifting through the dew-soaked bins of what’s just been picked, packed, bounced up the highway, i could sit right down and feast.

so far, seeing as i never bring a fork, i haven’t done so.

oh, i might nibble at a tip of asparagus, or pop a blueberry. but mostly i start dreaming. i concoct huge farm menus in my head. come up with ways to use every single green, and every single root, all at one sitting sometimes.

it is all so fresh, so spilling with what the good Lord intended, it feels like there should be some addendum commandment. a little asterisk. a footnote. thou shalt eat what is of the earth, as is.

taste the holy goodness that is the alchemy of soil and rain and sunshine. fill your every corpuscle. do honor to the creation that is you, and the creation that is earth.

silly as it sounds, that’s the way it feels to me. closest thing to communion i’ve ever slipped between my lips not at the altar rail.

it does feel sacred, what my farmer henry coddles from the earth down in congerville, in the mackinaw river valley where the land rolls in hills, and country roads make way for century-old oaks, not the way they do it here in the cities, where trees are felled willy-nilly, in the name of someone’s idea of progress. or just the easy way out.

down where henry grows, i suspect there are no easy ways out. and if there are, henry doesn’t take them. henry seems to me the noblest farmer. henry seems a farmer other farmers might learn from. the way cezanne learned from pissarro. the way those two dabbed paint on canvas and critics called it impressionism, and a whole new art was born.

yep, when i eat what henry grows it all feels holy. and for someone who has known her share of struggles with what i put between my lips, that, people, is nothing short of a praise-the-Lord, first-order miracle. a healing. not quite a dunking in the river, maybe. not a quaking in the aisles.

just a simple saturday supper, made of henry’s offerings, that goes down easy. that goes down with almighty joy.

i could eat henry’s mounds of earth-rich bounty 365 days a year, and snatch a bonus day, too, in leap years. if i had the knack and the time and the extra freezer to do so, i’d figure out a way to make that happen. as is, i make the most of henry’s growing months. and then i’ll pine all winter.

every saturday, when he pulls up his truck to the parking lot behind a chain hotel, wedged in by train tracks to the west and a research park to the north, not a mile-and-a-half from where i sleep, i am not yet rolling out of bed. it is 4 a.m., and he, like all the other farmers, is keeping farmer hours, is laying out his weekly harvest before the rooster crows good morning.

crate upon crate is hoisted, lifted, stacked. a veritable green grocer takes the slot that, come monday morning, will merely hold a chevy or a honda, key turned counter-clockwise, slipped into park.

i won’t be long. even though it’s the one morning i could sleep to, well, nine, i won’t. not even close.

henry’s amazing wall of lettuces, that’s what he calls the stretch that takes up as much room as probably five honda civics, henry’s wall is calling me.

oh, people, i wish and pray you too could taste what henry grows. i hope and pray there is a farmer close to you who grows like henry grows.

i never knew, not until henry, that a mesclun mix could taste just like a symphony sounds: full of varied notes, some spicy, some sweet. all with crunch and texture. some buttery soft. some ruffly, melt-in-your-mouthable. some sturdy little leaves, leaves with a backbone, i tell you. leaves with heft. oh, and charming little flowers too. right in with all the leaves. it is art in a bag, believe me.

i take home my bags of greens i’ve never cooked before. heck, sometimes not seen before. shiso leaves. baby choi. pea sprouts. greens with japanese names i couldn’t spell. not without a dictionary, anyway.

i take home scallions so fat and bulbous and pristine white, once you rinse the mud off, you’d swear they were an onion on a leash. nothing like the anemic skinny scallions in the grocery store, the ones that barely have a bump down where the green fades to white and the bulb is supposed to be.

on a really fine saturday night, like the one i had this weekend, i settle in the kitchen a good hour before i’m hungry. just to get my hands on all the goods that henry grew. just to invent ways to stir-fry this, grill that.

this week, it was the ruby-veined chard that got me going. i sliced a big fat onion, set it sizzling. rinsed, rough-chopped the chard, tossed it on the sizzled onions. poured a stream of fine balsamic vinegar, a syrupy blood-red drizzle from a bottle brought home from italy back before the aftermath of shoe bombs meant you couldn’t carry on a plane a balsamic vinegar that you couldn’t bear to leave behind.

i made such a mess of garden things–grilled asparagus, grilled onions, grilled portabello mushrooms. roasted baby beets, drizzled, again, with balsamic vinegar. sprinkled with thyme from henry’s sister, and sea salt, like my brother david taught me. i made a heaping salad. a heaping skillet of chard, and then, because it was there, chinese cabbage, too.

to pull it all together, i opened up a carton of farm-plucked eggs, duck and chicken and bantam, too, the hand-lettered carton label tells me. i scrambled them all up with the scallions.

and then i called the boys. oh, i wish i’d had a clanging dinner bell, the kind you find just outside a farmhouse door. instead, i used my lungs. they got the message. they came loping down for supper.

i cannot tell you they were quite as tickled by my grilled-wilted-scrambled feast. but i didn’t much notice. i was busy reaching for my fork.

as we all bowed heads, joined hands to say our grace, i thanked the Lord almighty for the miracle of henry and his fields, for the old truck that makes the trip, and for my great good fortune being fed, at last, at long last, through and through.

if only i’d known henry long, long ago. i do believe i’ve been hungry for what henry grows for years and years and years. and now, finally, i am sated.

how do you like to eat in summer time? do you find your produce bin spilling with things you can’t help but buy, and can’t eat fast enough? do you have a henry who harvests just for you? who fills your soul as much as your tummy?
by the way, if i had a recipe for my farm-scramble-heap-o-roots-and-greens, i’d share it. but i pretty much cook by heart when it comes to saturday farm suppers….

the birthday fairy

like that whole parade of the enchanted–santa, the easter bunny, the tooth fairy–she comes when you are sleeping.
she walks on her tippy toes. she tries, hard, not to get tangled in her web, the web of her own making. and the balloons, the blowing of balloons grows more breathless every year–she reports.
i mean i wouldn’t know. i just get these little scribbled notes, progress reports, in the morning, twice a year, june 22 and august 8, the days my boys were born, the days the fairy comes. in the night, of course. always in the night. while they are sleeping, dreaming birthday dreams.
when they awake–kaboom! kapow!–their whole chamber is awash in crepe paper and balloons (some blown fully, some not) and signs. oh, the signs. there are poster boards everywhere they look, in the closet, beside the bed. taped to lamps (beware the fire hazard), on the ceiling.
placards, signs, whole billboards, really. telling who was sleeping how very, very much he is loved.
by the birthday fairy, of course. it is all about the fairy leaving wisps of magic in her trail.
funny thing this year, perplexing thing, is that the birthday boy is often turning out his light well past his mama’s bedtime. not that his mama has anything to do with the birthday fairy or anything,
but, sheesh, one of us was really needing toothpicks to keep the eyelids propped last night, and the nearly 14-year-old just carried on as nearly 14-year-olds are wont to do these days. had some IM’ing to do. and a little browsing on the web.
while one of us was nearly stalking the door. just happened to have the annual load of crepe paper rolls stuffed in pockets, poster boards spilling down the stairs. balloons making that ol’ tattered robe look as if, well, anna nicole smith had moved in for the night. if you catch my drift there. (psst, in case anyone is counting, that there was a.n.s.’ second-ever mention here at the table; not bad considering the avalanche we are up against out there in the world of magazine rack culture.)
at last, when even toothpicks to the lids were failing, one of us had to knock at that teenage door, inquire insistently, “sweetheart, are you tired? do you think perhaps you would like to go to sleep?”
perhaps the dear thing had heard me pawing at the door, like some pathetic mouse. or perhaps my balloons had let out a telltale squeak.
whatever, as they like to say. he caught my drift, no thick-head birthday boy is he. he threw off the t-shirt, dove between the sheets. he feigned sleep quite nicely. accommodating fellow. always has been.
so while the teen pretended to be in dreamland, the one who does the draping and the taping on the eve of all the birthdays found herself oddly thinking how rather sort of sweet it was to finally wink and let him in on all the years of rustling in the dark.
you see, the birthday fairy first tapped on one of our bedroom windows long, long ago. when the big one, the one whose chin is now inches above the tippy-top of my head, was but a baby. a two-year-old, i am fairly certain.
for the life of me, though, i cannot quite recall exactly how it was that he awoke that first second birthday with his room a criss-crossed twisted web of crepe paper in every color, and balloons galore. hmm. perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, for years and years, that little curly-headed boy slept in my grandma’s nearly 100-year-old bed, a four-poster bed, a bed whose posts called out to be a crucial part of the birthday fairy’s twisted plot.
maybe it was the posts that called out for birthday decoration.
or maybe it was something deeper. a sense of blessing that exploded out of me like a birthday popper filled to bursting with confetti.
or maybe it was my from-the-get-go, hard-wired determination and desire to wrap that little boy in a love so thick and undeniable, the crepe paper and balloons and all the silly posters (nearly every one of which, a whole lifetime of mama-made naive art, are saved, tucked up high in the closet and the attic) just couldn’t help but pop from my ever-poppin’ head.
i do know this: the joy of watching little eyes awake, take in the wholeness, the all-enveloping sense that this morn was something special, and thus anointed, a day unlike any other day, well, that sold me on what will probably be a lifelong assignment stringing crinkly paper and increasingly-less-blown-up balloons on the eves of the days my babies were first cradled in my arms.
it is what a mother does. it is what this mother does. as i type, i wipe away the tears, the overwhelming birthday gift that never leaves me, no matter how many times it’s been unwrapped: all my life i prayed to be a mother. it wasn’t easy, not for me at least, getting to that delivery room. the whole time i was there i pinched myself, i checked to see if it was real, or just a taunting dream from which i would awake.
if it’s a dream, i never did wake up. so every year, i celebrate my gift, my extraordinary blessing, by climbing up the stairs, fully armed, equipped with all the makings of the birthday fairy who is more than thrilled to spend her wee wee hours stringing joy and hallelujahs from bedpost to closet door, from doorknob to window sill, and back again.
on and on i will string, no matter how big that log in bed grows to be. no matter how unconvincingly he pretends to be deeply sawing zzzzzs.
i will always be his mother. i will always be, don’t tell, his birthday fairy. on my hands and knees i drop, i say amen, amen, amen. and hallelujah.

funny thing, some times these words take turns i did not expect. that whole last bit came pouring out. i’ll let it be. that is the beauty of a meander. it’s fresh and raw. it is what it is. and i suppose it’s what it needed to be today.
how do you bless the days on which those you love were born? you tell me that, while i go grab a hankie…

longest light

it feels like a day for genuflection, yes it does. down on your knees, outa bed. bowing to the sun.
of course, to the sun. to the rising, shining, barely-inching-anywhere-today sun. the sun that, dang, seems stuck up there.
hello, hello, someone check the sun. perhaps it’s broken. it is barely moving, i am certain. it’s in the exact same spot it was in yesterday, i swear. it is standing still up there, yes it is.
the ancients thought so too. thought the sun was stuck on the today of long, long ago. so much so that they named today after the sun that would not budge.
called it the summer solstice. which, like many old things, is a word with latin roots. sol, of course means sun. and sistere, means to cause to stand still.
i am not the first to think the sun has gone on strike. is standing still. and will not move. it has found the highest perch it ever gets the whole year long, and apparently, it does not want to give it up.
yes, at 1:06 p.m., chicago time, today, the great red ball, the one we draw as yellow but really it is fiery fiercely red, will reach its apex for the year, the tip-top spot, the northernmost way station, from which it shines.
which makes today, the day of longest light, a day for celebration all around the northern half of this ol’ ball we call the globe.
today’s the day we here in the middle of america get a whole 15 hours, 13 minutes of sun, pure sun. unless of course it decides to rain, and then the clouds will block our solar-powered fun.
today, my friends, is a day to bask in summer sunbeams. play shadow games. count your freckles. scatter sunflower seeds to the wind. watch the sun make them grow. watch them turn their heads as if to nod their thank yous.
for heaven’s sake, put a plain old ice block out to pasture. watch the sunshine do its tricks. watch it turn the ice to water. it is, from sun-up to sun-down, a day to frolic. a day to marvel at all the things the mighty sun can do for little us.
indeed, as long as there have been human folk keeping eyes on the sky, there have been worshippers of the sun, and frolickers of this very sunny day.
stonehenge, of course, got this party rockin’. those ancient souls, some 5,000 years ago, set their stones in a fine circle on a broad and barren plane, so they could track the sun. so they could whoop and holler on the day of summer solstice.
they weren’t the only ones, though, who set stones according to the sun. in ancient egypt, the thinkers there built two pyramids not far from the great sphinx. if today you stood at the great sphinx, you would see that the sun will set smack dab in the middle of those two pyramids. a perfect measure of the solstice. probably done without a compass.
in the first century of the common era, the essenes, the only jewish group who used a solar calendar, built a large room at qumran (the site where the dead sea scrolls were found) with windows precisely placed so that on the summer solstice, the slant of the setting sun through those windows completely illuminated the eastern wall.
sun worship, apparently, is nothing new. and all around the globe, in fact, this day of days has been the high point, the peak, the pinnacle, of sunlight celebration.
the ancient swedes put up midsummer trees in every little town. they decorated its boughs, and then all the maidens, fair and otherwise, took the plunge. they bathed in the nearest river, a rite thought to bring on the rains, once they’d bowed to summer’s sun.
the celts, never missing a good excuse for a party, celebrated the apex of sun light by crowning the oak king, who was considered the god of the waxing year.
in ancient china, the summer solstice was a day for honoring earth, the feminine and the yin, whereas the winter solstice was the day they honored the masculine, the heavens and yang.
the ancient germanic, slav and celtic tribes were big on bonfires for the summer solstice. pairs of lovers leapt through what were thought to be luck-bringing flames. apparently, the higher you jumped, the higher the crops would grow. good thing, no one asked me to leap through fire. we might wind up a little hungry by end of summer.
so whoop it up, people, invent a sunny thing to do. the solstice will begin its sweep across the country any hour now.
and while you’re at it, bow your head, and raise your arms. good thing the God who made the world thought to utter, let there be light. thought to add a sunshine to the picture.
today, the day of longest light, is surely time to revel in the glory and the power of the brightest light there is.

and how will you mark the epitome of sunlight? the longest light, the shortest shadow of the whole year long?

p.s. i snatched the sunset up above, as i drove through the cornfields of downstate illinois last night. i was down on the farm for the day because i am blessed to have a dayjob that takes me amazing places, into amazing hearts and souls. soon as i can i will tell you all about my new farmer friend. but the tribune gets first dibs on the story, so i have to let them go first. trust me, i am bursting to tell. in a word, “heaven,” is what i witnessed yesterday. you’re not surprised, i’m sure, i am the closest thing to a wanna-be farm girl that there might possibly be. i wanted you to see the longest light as the sun set at nearly half past eight, just to the west of the highway they call the double nickel, I-55, that is…..
p.s.s. it’s also why this post is a little later than usual. i could pretend i was waiting for it to be the exact hour of the summer solstice (i’m actually an hour early for that), but really it’s because early this morning i was getting our little world back in order after being gone for the day….

blink. blink.

the jar i keep at the ready. it is my firefly jar, and like any bug collector worth her wings, i equip it with essentials. it is full-service, my firefly catcher is. there’s grass and leaves and holes for air, poked into the lid.
i always let the critter go; all i ask for is one good blink from there inside his glass-walled confinement. then he’s out, no bail, scot free. he’s out to blink in cool night air.
i have long been a collector of the firefly, the lightning bug, the glow worm. take your pick, the name that is; the blinking-bellied beetle is, for me, the very definition of a busy summer’s night. and any hour now, summer is the thing that will be upon us.
so let us start the summer rumble with a romp for blinking things that light up the night. in short staccato bursts of golden yellow glow.
when the softlight of the evening goes to violet-gray, the blink-blink bugs begin their nightly show. one minute all is as is. the next, there is a flash, a blink, a flying thing with belly all like a lantern.
is it not the darnedest thing that, when sitting at the drawing board, God thought to make a bug with taillights? a gentle nudge if you’re out in darkness that just like that a burst of light, of hope, will come. a promise blinking in the distance. don’t give up. hope is here, the taillight tells you, even when you cannot see it. and then, the flash. the chase for light is on.
just the other night, not thinking anything at all of the summer’s blinking business, i caught that telltale flash out of the corner of my eye. oh my goodness, i hollered to my boys, the lightning bugs are back. quick, go get a jar.
i stalked the here-one-minute-gone-the-next Photuris pyralis, p. pyralis for short, the only insect known to humankind capable of turning off and on that beacon.
that night i came up short. never did fill my jar. but just last night, out of the violet-blue, i caught a blink right over my shoulder, cupped my hand, swooped, trapped me a momentary prisoner for my ball jar jail. darn thing never did let out a blink.
most likely, i was not his type.
the blink, you know, is all about romance. yup, it’s true. or as much as romance traipses on the scene when we are talking flying bugs.
the blink is more or less morse code for come on baby, light my fire. hmm. wonder if ol’ jimmy morrison was thinking firefly back in ’66 when he penned those blinkin’ words? who knew the doors were putting words to mr. p pyralis?
here’s how the blinking goes: boy bug blinks. girl bug, crouched down near the ground, waits the pre-determined pause (5.5 seconds in one species). she blinks back. he blinks and blinks and blinks. he has, as it were, found what he’s looking for. a girl with which to do the blinking thing. and then the blank-ing thing.
here’s how you can tell if your firefly is a he or a she: if he flies and blinks, chances are he’s a he. she, proper lady, perches, waits. stays low to ground, sometimes blinks. he flies and blinks like a fool for love, which in fact he is.
so here’s your he/she quiz: if it’s an airborne off-on beetle, it is a _______(fill in the blink).
there are, i’ll have you know, some 136 species of fireflies. each one blinks in its own way. if we studied fireflies, you and i, we could tell which species by the way he blinks and she blinks back.
some firefly he’s flash what looks like the letter J. some flash in rapid-fire flashes. in the former, she flashes back but one flash. in the latter, she deigns to give him double flash. sort of, one if it’s me, two if it’s not. it’s as if paul revere, too, studied the lightning bug.
oh by the way, not only is it the he’s who do most of the blinking, there are, jiminy cricket, 50 he’s for every she. the she’s are vastly outnumbered. which is why she can sometimes be so blinkingly evil.
say she’s hungry. say she sees a blinking thing who is not her kind. sly devil, she; she might blink in pure downright imitation, and make him think she is another. so, when in he swoops, she lets him have it. she zaps him with anesthetizing juice and then sucks his insides out. egad. the bug world is so nasty.
all because of a blink gone blooey.
i have no clue if you, like me, have ever wondered how the blinking works, but just in case, i did a little digging. it’s really rather simple. and quite astonishing.
seems the firefly has a light-emitting organ just below its belly. in a simple chemical soup stirred inside that very pot, a chemical called luciferin, is triggered by an enzyme called luciferase. plain old oxygen provides the fuel, and a blast of energy found in every living cell, something called atp, creates the flash.
kaboom, it’s flying bioluminescence. which, by the way, is a big fancy word that basically means inner glow.
because the flying things are not willing to divulge their little secrets, no one’s sure if the on-off switch is due to the firefly controlling the oxygen supply, or if there is some little nerve cell that triggers all the blinking.
seems i am not the only one mesmerized by the night lights.
the ancient chinese caught piles of them and stuffed them in nearly see-through lanterns so they could see where they were walking in what otherwise would have been the dark.
the aztecs, enchanted and enlightened, are said to have used the term metaphorically, meaning “spark of knowledge in a world of ignorance or darkness.”
europeans, superstitious lot, thought that if a firefly flew in a window, it meant that someone in the house would die.
native americans, meanwhile, smeared the glowy goo on their faces and chests for decoration.
it is, you see, a most versatile bug. and not one bit dangerous, not unless of course you happen to be a male p. pylaris. then you’d best beware of blinking lights low to the ground. be careful, buster, upon whom you pounce.
there is much, so much, more to say, about the little blinking lights of summer nights.
did you know, for instance, that there is rarely seen a lightning bug west of the middle of kansas, making the firefly a purely eastern entertainment?
and can you imagine that the two rare chemicals, aka the lightning juices, luciferin and luciferase, are highly sought-after (a st. louis chemical company will pay a penny per lightning bug, with a $30 bonus if you get up to 75,000 bugs) and they’re being used in cutting-edge research for cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease?
it is all too much, it makes me woozy. this little bug is so amazing. and you just thought it blinked and blinked like some old roadside sign.
good thing my jar is always at the ready.

firefly collectors unite. anyone else keep a jar with holes poked in the lid, always at the ready? any little people care to come join me for a firefly romp? what better way to start the real true summer? i’m thinkin’ there’s at least one firefly/lightning bug tale tucked up in a jar somewhere, high up on a shelf in the hall closet. and while we’re at it, can anyone west of the middle of kansas tell us if it’s true, the blinking things go dark once they get near the rockies or beyond? dang, if true, i am so sorry. i cannot imagine a summer that doesn’t blink.

starter clothesline

pssst, over here in the backyard. quick before they catch me. this here is a secret meeting of the clothesline inclined. er, well, the conceptually clothesline inclined.

can’t say that i’ve got much practice here under my belt. but i do know how to string a rope, and i do know how to work a clothespin (do not laugh, i have seen a human stymied by what to do with the little springy wooden thing).

as evidenced by the pathetic excuse for hanging out the wash, (yes, yes, up above, that is the wash, it is not a bad example of a pup tent without the pup) this here is a class for the starter-outer.

but what the heck, the countdown to summer solstice is on, the great white clothes dryer in the sky was high, was burnin’ the other afternoon, and i’d just dunked a few years’ dirt off an heirloom that started out its life under the hot aegean sun in a little greek village, long long ago.

that ol’ cloth was yelping to be laid out where it belonged, where it could bask once again in the noonday sun. never mind that the bright light around here is a paltry shadow of its big fat greek cousin, that cloth was yearning to be sunned. i know it was. i heard it with my own wholly un-greek ears. some things you understand in any language.

that cloth, given to me by my landlady maria who started out handing me a set of keys to the upstairs of her little worker’s cottage and went on to become a mother/sister/best friend before she died too, too young, was made of cotton picked by her mama back in greece. her mama pulled and twisted the cotton into threads, set it on a loom, made the long smooth swath that is its middle and, then, crocheted the ends.

it’s been mine since the day maria cracked open the trunk she brought with her when she came to america, and carefully lifted out her mama’s blessed handwork. you would have thought she was handing me a newborn baby, the way she lifted, cradled, laid it in my open arms.

it was not about to be tumbled in the orphan-maker dryer in my basement. i say orphan maker because my dryer has a way of eating socks, and thus, piled atop the dryer now there is a little pile of socks who’ve lost their mate or who have had a hole bitten out of their big or little toe. my dryer is not picky; it gets hungry sometimes and takes a bite out of whatever it is tumbling.

i was not about to feed maria’s mama’s tablecloth to my dryer. clothesline 101 was in session.

now, i am enough of a clothesline girl to have my very own bucket of clothespins and what was once a respectable coil of rope. seems the rope’s been snipped over the years, for this backyard tent and that emergency suspension bridge. but there was enough for me to tie two girl-scout knots on the backs of two lawn chairs, and tug.

besides being just long enough to fit maria’s mama’s tablecloth, my clothesline had one other big thing going for it: it was deliciously inconspicuous, which here on the leafy shore where they might fine for such backyard nuisances, was a very good thing.

i could hang out to dry without the neighbors even noticing. and for a starter-outer that’s a wise beginning.

don’t tell the neighbors, but i could get hooked on hooking drippy clothes over droopy lines (note to self: work on those girl-scout slip knots; mine were rather, well, slippy, too slippy, indeed).

i could feel that old cotton soaking up its long-overdue doses of vitamin D with every passing hour. i watched that cloth transform right before my eyes, from limp, wet could-be-bedsheet to stiff, white heirloom soldier, ready once again to take on my table.

imagine what the sun could do for my undies.

oh, speaking of undies, in the olden days, the ladies taught their clothesline tutorees not to hang them out where all could see. they instructed that a girl who “hangs a proper line,” always pins her undergarments to a private line, one strung just beside the furnace where they’d be free to drip and dry unexposed, with a proper dab of dignity, puh-leez.

i am sure such a code exists today for those who’d dare to dry their undies here on the leafy edge of lake michigan. although just the other day, here in leafy land, i saw a woman, yes i did, strip off her undies, stand buck naked at the corner, while i hurried my little fellow quite quickly to the other side of the street, my hand over his eyes, as he asked and asked, as one then two squad cars screeched around the corner, racing to the scene, are they taking her to jail?

oh goodness, it gets rather shocking here on the leafy shore. i finally had to tell him that, yes, they might be slipping handcuffs on her naked wrists. for you are not allowed to take off your undies in the middle of the street. and not just because it’s leafy land. which gives me pause when thinking what could happen around here if you thought to string your thong on some taut rope. an outdoor rope, i mean.

oy. back to clothesline class. did you know that until the 1800s there was no such official thing? oh, sure, whoever did the wash might have draped it over bush or tree, perhaps a covered wagon.

but those who know these things, suspect it was a sailor’s wife, or at least his lady friend, who thought to yank a cord between two poles and hang her sheets like sails.

the first clothespin was patented in 1832. and, according to the u.s. patent office, more than 150 clothespins were patented between 1840 and 1887. imagine all those laundry ladies believing they’d dreamed up a better clothespin. drawing pictures, making mockups, sending letters off to washington, waiting for reply. oh, i just love a good invention. makes me want to whistle yankee doodle dandy. or something.

the clothespin itself was made into art, which you can see if you too take a trip to the nation’s capital and stroll through that wonder of wonders the smithsonian institute. before the days of cellphones and headsets, people took the time to carve birds and flowers into the knob tops of their clothespins. you know, the little clothespins without the springs, the original ones, actually, the ones that look like a head, slumped shoulders and two long legs.

it is worth reclaiming, at least on a breezy sunny day, the tranquilizing act of plucking freshly laundered soggy clothes from a wicker basket, giving them a shake, reaching for a clothespin, pressing the back-up between your lips, pausing to watch the passing clouds, then hanging up your jeans, your bedsheets, heck, your all-cotton, waist-high briefs (no tantalizing the neighbors there, i assure you).

after that, step back. let the sun and breeze do their thing.

who needs prozac when there is laundry to be hung?

who cares, anyway, what the neighbors say.

ladies and gentlemen, rev your laundry engines. i know my blessed mother-in-law is an ardent believer in the power of the clothesline. heck, i think she’ll even take a sunny day in winter. anyone else with a clothesline tale to tell? or a story of spotting someone strip down beyond her undies? all’s game in clothesline 101.

well, that was quick

just three minutes ago, i swear, it was me with my feets up, lemonade in hand. a whole long freeform summer swirling in my view finder.
that was then.
this is today:
lunch packed, check. camp form signed, ditto. emergency contact assigned, oops. (note to self: do that. let so-and-so know she’s on the line should the little one crack a bone while playing summer camp).
and it’s not yet 6 o’clock. in the morning, people!
oh my gracious goodness. that was quick, that week of summer. oh, we did it to the hilt. lemonade by the gallon. library books guzzled, too. one of us even took a stab at catching fireflies, that archetypal joy of summer.
but now it’s time for camp. dang. it is with no small degree of butterflies and dragging summer sandals that i, the mama, lead this march toward structured days and all-new counselors and whistles.
i am perhaps the least eager camper that there is. i, like throngs and throngs, long for days when summertime meant sliding out of bed, slurping cereal and being off for the day. through the sliding screen. into whatever the woods, the basement offered.
we might slide home for lunch, but better yet it was cold raw hotdogs eaten out of the fridge in martha hackney’s kitchen. everything tasted better at martha’s because we could get away with things at martha’s that we could not do at home.
we’d roll in, a little muddy, a little scratched-up from the woods, freckles popping like fireflies in the night on our sun-brushed little cheeks.
but not until my mama rang the dinner bell, and our day of fun need pause. long enough for chops and greens and starch, then back ’til dark for kick-the-can, ghosts in the graveyard, and all those summer games that pitted the big kids against the littles.
(and taught me lifelong lessons on how it is when you’re not cool, and the big boys down the block, the ones who ruled the street on souped-up sting-ray bikes, could make you feel like such a loser.)
my personal summer joyfest, summer after summer, was what might be called my cardboard box period. again, martha hackney in a co-starring role. we would take a box, me and martha dear, and we would spend every single day of a whole long summer, building, decorating, making homes for little dolls. i do not remember the dolls. but i do remember making teeny tiny tubes of toothpaste from rolled up bits of tinfoil.
even now, give me a box. give me cardboard and scissors and a pile of many fabric swatches and i am lost, would be lost, ’til i heard the dinner bell, and my mama calling round the bend and through the woods, for me to come home for something sensible, something other than the things we snuck out of martha hackney’s fridge.
it’s a different world now. it’s a world where if i kept my little one home from camp he would be whining all day long, because there is no one, far as the eye can see, for him to play with. and his mama spends three days a week chasing, typing stories.
i swear there’s something lost. and it pains me to say so, to know so.
all night last night, i had visions of just plain calling it quits, pulling the plug on summer camp, letting the little guy stay home, fend for his little self, backed up by his fine imagination.
but an imagination, at 5, can only go so long without a playmate. and thus, the trouble here.
so the lunch is packed, the suit and towel tucked in the backpack. and the sunscreen (phew, i remembered) is at the ready. we’ll be out the door by half past eight, and driving to the other side of town, a town away, a leafy lovely town where we hardly ever go. we know no one. it will all be new.
oh, boy, how fun. God help me as he clings on tight. God help me if he cries. the tears of summer should not be a boy, a mama, dragging heels to camp.

okay campers, line up here. weigh in on how you feel about the finest ways to spend your days in summer. the pros, the cons of all-day camp. i know at least one camp hold-out, who has all sorts of plans for how to while away the languid days. any other takers?

lazily, the lazy susan will get restocked later on today. i think. that’s the plan. but this is summer, so it’ll be whenever the day gives me a little breather. which, geez, might not be ’til late tonight. go summer….