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Archive for December, 2009

The Clockfarm

Tic toc, tic toc…counting down to the New Year.

This wonderful essay was written by Michael Gartner.  In 1997, he won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, and a favorite of mine.

My father never drove a car.

Well, that’s not quite right.

I should say I never saw him drive a car. He quit driving in 1927, when he was 25 years old, and the last car he drove was a 1926 Whippet.

“In those days,” he told me when he was in his 90s, “to drive a car you had to do things with your hands, and do things with your feet, and look every which way, and I decided you could walk through life and enjoy it or drive through life and miss it.”

At which point my mother, a sometimes salty Irishwoman, chimed in:

“Oh, bull——!” she said. “He hit a horse.”

“Well,” my father said, “there was that, too.”

So my brother and I grew up in a household without a car. The neighbors all had cars — the Kollingses next door had a green 1941 Dodge, the VanLaninghams across the street a gray 1936 Plymouth, the Hopsons two doors down a black 1941 Ford — but we had none. My father, a newspaperman in Des Moines, would take the streetcar to work and, often as not, walk the 3 miles home. If he took the streetcar home, my mother and brother and I would walk the three blocks to the streetcar stop, meet him and walk home together.

Our 1950 Chevy

My brother, David, was born in 1935, and I was born in 1938, and sometimes, at dinner, we’d ask how come all the neighbors had cars but we had none. “No one in the family drives,” my mother would explain, and that was that. But, sometimes, my father would say, “But as soon as one of you boys turns 16, we’ll get one.”

It was as if he wasn’t sure which one of us would turn 16 first.

But, sure enough, my brother turned 16 before I did, so in 1951 my parents bought a used 1950 Chevrolet from a friend who ran the parts department at a Chevy dealership downtown. It was a four-door, white model, stick shift, fender skirts, loaded with everything, and, since my parents didn’t drive, it more or less became my brother’s car.

Having a car but not being able to drive didn’t bother my father, but it didn’t make sense to my mother. So in 1952, when she was 43 years old, she asked a friend to teach her to drive. She learned in a nearby cemetery, the place where I learned to drive the following year and where, a generation later, I took my two sons to practice driving. The cemetery probably was my father’s idea. “Who can your mother hurt in the cemetery?” I remember him saying once.

For the next 45 years or so, until she was 90, my mother was the driver in the family. Neither she nor my father had any sense of direction, but he loaded up on maps — though they seldom left the city limits — and appointed himself navigator. It seemed to work.

The ritual walk to church

Still, they both continued to walk a lot. My mother was a devout Catholic, and my father an equally devout agnostic, an arrangement that didn’t seem to bother either of them through their 75 years of marriage. (Yes, 75 years, and they were deeply in love the entire time.) He retired when he was 70, and nearly every morning for the next 20 years or so, he would walk with her the mile to St. Augustin’s Church. She would walk down and sit in the front pew, and he would wait in the back until he saw which of the parish’s two priests was on duty that morning. If it was the pastor, my father then would go out and take a 2-mile walk, meeting my mother at the end of the service and walking her home. If it was the assistant pastor, he’d take just a 1-mile walk and then head back to the church.

He called the priests “Father Fast” and “Father Slow.”

After he retired, my father almost always accompanied my mother whenever she drove anywhere, even if he had no reason to go along. If she were going to the beauty parlor, he’d sit in the car and read, or go take a stroll or, if it was summer, have her keep the engine running so he could listen to the Cubs game on the radio. (In the evening, then, when I’d stop by, he’d explain: “The Cubs lost again. The millionaire on second base made a bad throw to the millionaire on first base, so the multimillionaire on third base scored.”) If she were going to the grocery store, he would go along to carry the bags out — and to make sure she loaded up on ice cream.

As I said, he was always the navigator, and once, when he was 95 and she was 88 and still driving, he said to me, “Do you want to know the secret of a long life?” “I guess so,” I said, knowing it probably would be something bizarre.

“No left turns,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

“No left turns,” he repeated. “Several years ago, your mother and I read an article that said most accidents that old people are in happen when they turn left in front of oncoming traffic. As you get older, your eyesight worsens, and you can lose your depth perception, it said. So your mother and I decided never again to make a left turn.”

“What?” I said again. “No left turns,” he said. “Think about it. Three rights are the same as a left, and that’s a lot safer. So we always make three rights.”

“You’re kidding!” I said, and I turned to my mother for support. “No,” she said, “your father is right. We make three rights. It works.”

But then she added: “Except when your father loses count.”

I was driving at the time, and I almost drove off the road as I started laughing. “Loses count?” I asked. “Yes,” my father admitted, “that sometimes happens. But it’s not a problem. You just make seven rights, and you’re okay again.”

I couldn’t resist. “Do you ever go for 11?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “If we miss it at seven, we just come home and call it a bad day. Besides, nothing in life is so important it can’t be put off another day or another week.”

My mother was never in an accident, but one evening she handed me her car keys and said she had decided to quit driving. That was in 1999, when she was 90. She lived four more years, until 2003. My father died the next year, at 102. They both died in the bungalow they had moved into in 1937 and bought a few years later for $3,000. (Sixty years later, my brother and I paid $8,000 to have a shower put in the tiny bathroom — the house had never had one. My father would have died then and there if he knew the shower cost nearly three times what he paid for the house.) He continued to walk daily — he had me get him a treadmill when he was 101 because he was afraid he’d fall on the icy sidewalks but wanted to keep exercising — and he was of sound mind and sound body until the moment he died.

A happy life

One September afternoon in 2004, he and my son went with me when I had to give a talk in a neighboring town, and it was clear to all three of us that he was wearing out, though we had the usual wide-ranging conversation about politics and newspapers and things in the news. A few weeks earlier, he had told my son, “You know, Mike, the first hundred years are a lot easier than the second hundred.” At one point in our drive that Saturday, he said, “You know, I’m probably not going to live much longer.” “You’re probably right,” I said. “Why would you say that?” he countered, somewhat irritated. “Because you’re 102 years old,” I said. “Yes,” he said, “you’re right.” He stayed in bed all the next day. That night, I suggested to my son and daughter that we sit up with him through the night. He appreciated it, he said, though at one point, apparently seeing us look gloomy, he said: “I would like to make an announcement. No one in this room is dead yet.” An hour or so later, he spoke his last words:

“I want you to know,” he said, clearly and lucidly, “that I am in no pain. I am very comfortable. And I have had as happy a life as anyone on this earth could ever have.”

A short time later, he died.

I miss him a lot, and I think about him a lot. I’ve wondered now and then how it was that my family and I were so lucky that he lived so long.

I can’t figure out if it was because he walked through life.

Or because he quit taking left turns.

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Jackson

A New Year resolution? Perhaps.. but highly unlikely.  There are plus’s  to winter. The quieter pace of the winter months to come will be a nice respite for many of us.  A time to read a good book, try out some new recipes perhaps.  I have many sitting atop my recipe box just waiting for some free moments.  Before we know it the gardening catalogs will begin to arrive in the mail.. now here’s some food for thought. 😉

But for today, as the snow tumbles down I’m steeping a nice cup of herbal tea and not even thinking of the shoveling that’s ahead of me. LOL  Santa was very good to me this year!  He brought me a new DVD.. Julie & Julia along with a replacement copy of Julia Childs book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, that I once loaned out, never to have it returned. !  I saw the movie earlier this month and just loved it… though I have to say being a Meryl & Tucci fan made it even more enjoyable for me.

“Julie & Julia” is based on the book by the same name, which is based on the true story by Julie Powell about “The Julie & Julia Project”. Julie  is a government employee working in New York City in the year following 9/11. She, her husband Eric and their cat live in an apartment above a pizza parlor. All of her friends are successful in their careers. Julie is not. Of course, we all know who Julia Child is!! Meryl Streep was a fantastic Julia Child, who started out as a bored housewife in Paris looking to fill her time and ended up being a major influence on American cuisine.

One evening, while bemoaning the lack of meaning in her life, Julie picks up Julia Child’s cookbook and decides to cook all 524 recipes in the book in a year, while blogging about her experience. At first, no one is interested, but as time goes by, Julie gets more and more followers of her blog.

I really enjoyed the parallel stories of Julia and Julie. They had similar experiences, yet there were drastic differences.  Seriously, if someone was going to be cooking me delicious food for a year, I would be 100% happy camper!

I enjoyed seeing the delicious meals both Julia and Julie prepared, especially boeuf bourguignon (YUM!!!). One of my favorite scenes in the movie was when Julia’s sister Dorothy comes to Paris to visit her. It was adorable to see two grown women squealing like little girls because they are so excited to see each other. There was quite a bit of passion in this film – passion  for each other and passion for food. A combo that’s hard to beat.

So that’s going to be my afternoon today.. a much slower pace for me, snuggled up in my chair, sipping my tea and thoroughly enjoying a wonderful movie.  Heck, I may not even lift a shovel today! 😉  Hope your weekend is as enjoyable.

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Christmas dreams

May all your Christmas dreams come true

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This is an article submitted to a 1999 Louisville Sentinel contest to find out who had the wildest Christmas dinners. It won first prize!

Woof!

Christmas With Louise

As a joke, my brother Jay used to hang a pair of pantyhose over his fireplace before Christmas. He said all he wanted was for Santa to fill them. Every Christmas morning, although Jay’s kids’ stockings overflowed, his poor pantyhose hung sadly empty.

One year I decided to make his dream come true. I put on sunglasses and headed to an adult bookstore downtown. If you’ve never been in an X-rated store, don’t go. I was there an hour saying things like, “What does this do?” “You’re kidding me!” “Who would buy that?” Finally, I made it to the inflatable doll section. I wanted to buy a standard, uncomplicated doll.

Finding what I wanted was difficult. “Love Dolls” come in many different models. The top of the line, according to the side of the box, could do things I’d only seen in a book on animal husbandry. I settled for “Lovable Louise.” To call Louise a “doll” took a huge leap of imagination. On Christmas Eve, with the help of an old bicycle pump, Louise came to life.

My sister-in-law was in on the plan and let me in during the wee morning hours. Long after Santa had come and gone, I filled the dangling pantyhose with Louise’s pliant legs and bottom. I went home, giggling all the way.

The next morning my brother called all excited to say that Santa had left a present that had made him VERY happy but not the dog. She would bark, walk away, then come back and bark some more. We all agreed that Louise should remain in her pantyhose for the rest of the family to admire when they came over for Christmas dinner.

Grandma noticed Louise the moment she walked in the door. “What the hell is that?” she asked.

My brother quickly explained, “It’s a doll.”

“Who would play with something like that?” Granny snapped. I kept my mouth shut. “Where are her clothes?” Granny continued.

“Boy, that turkey sure smells great, Gran,” Jay said, trying to coax her into the dining room.

But Granny was relentless. “Why doesn’t she have any teeth?” Again, I could have answered, but why would I?

Grandpa, a delightful old man with poor eyesight, sidled up to me and said, “Hey, who’s the naked gal by the fireplace?” I told him she was Jay’s friend. A few minutes later I noticed Grandpa by the mantel, talking to Louise. Not just talking, but actually flirting. It was then that we realized this might be Grandpa’s last Christmas at home.

The dinner went well. We made the usual small talk about who had died, who was dying, and who should be killed, when suddenly Louise made a loud, embarrassing, “bathroom noise”. Then she lurched from the mantel, flew around the room twice, and fell in a heap on the sofa.

The cat screamed. I passed cranberry sauce through my nose, and Grandpa ran across the room, fell to his knees, and began administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. My brother fell back over his chair and wet his pants. Granny threw down her napkin, stomped out of the room, and sat in the car.

It was indeed a Christmas to treasure and remember.

Later in my brother’s garage, we conducted a thorough examination to decide the cause of Louise’s collapse. We discovered that Louise had suffered from a hot ember to the back of her right thigh. Fortunately, thanks to a wonder drug called duct tape, we restored her to perfect health.

I can’t wait until next Christmas. Happy holidays!

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Old St Nick

Finally!  I finished my St. Nick rug.  Two years in the making.. a christmas gift. I hope my sister will love it.  She won’t if I don’t get to the shipping center today! LOL

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Herbs are intricately woven into Christmas tradition. Several are brought to us directly from the biblical Christmas tale itself. Myrrh and Frankincense were of course given to the infant Jesus by the Magi. Other herbs such as Sage, for immortality and happiness, Lavender, a symbol of purity and virtue, horehound, representitive of giving good health,  Thyme, a symbol of bravery, and Costmary, also called bible leaf, represents everlasting life- all have also become associated with the holiday. But perhaps the best known herb associated with Christmas is Rosemary… the herb for remembrance.

It’s beauty is as classic as a Christmas tree.  It’s piney, camphorous fragrance can fill a house as quickly as that of balsam.  And it’s association with Christmas is far older than that of the familiar poinsettia.. rosemary is believed to be one of the herbs in the manger that cradled the baby Jesus.  What better herb to keep on hand during this season when friends and family gather together to celebrate and look back on yet another year together?

Flowering Rosemary

Potted and decorated with tiny twinkly lights becomes a tabletop Christmas tree or deck the halls with sprigs of rosemary entwined in your mantle greenery and wreaths, or flavor Yuletide cordials and wines.  A sprig of rosemary tucked into your holiday christmas card or under a ribbon on a gift box saying, ‘remember me?’.  Those who are clever enough will understand the message.

“Rosemary is to the spirit as lavender is to the soul”, an old saying goes, and I do admit I feel a gardening ‘spirit’ as I brush up against my rosemary pots growing.  Of all the herbs I grow, rosemary blooms in the bleakest of times.. our New England winter.  But as I brush against the foliage, its fragrance reminiscent of pine forests is always uplifting and refreshing to me.

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Molly by Golly

Ms Molly

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