Friday, January 29, 2010

Letter to My Brother

You asked what it was like when you were little and Daddy was still alive. Here’s what I’ve pieced together from what I remember and others have told me. I hope it helps you gather a sense of those happy years.

Mom discovered she was pregnant with you when we were still living on East Crescent Avenue. She had taken me to the doctor’s for something and I overheard her discussion with Dr. Botta. They probably figured I wasn’t paying attention. The doctor said something about the fact that when women get older they may ovulate at a different time than normal. Giggling as if she were a teenager, Mom’s reply was, “That explains it.” The “it” was the suspicion of you.

Though we were still living on East Crescent Avenue, Mom and Daddy planned to move to a bigger, brand new house on Beatrice Street. Of course, none of us girls wanted to move. We loved our home and were secretly overjoyed that our house had not sold. In fact, I remember moments in the old stone church when I would pray that we would never, ever move. I remember regular sessions, I think after weekly catechism class, where I whispered my urgent prayers and breathed back in whiffs of the holy water, the cool scent of the stone floor, the warm, melting smell of the candles and hoped. For months the house did not sell.

One evening after dinner we were called to the living room and Mom and Daddy announced that they were expecting a baby. From the first moments, they were overjoyed and excited. Gloria burst into tears and revealed that she had been praying for a little brother. At that moment, I knew that bigger plans than mine were unfolding and that we would indeed move to the bigger house where that would accommodate you and the riches you were about to bring to our family. Together, the five of us anticipated your arrival with increasing joy.

Mom was happy in her pregnancy and during it we moved and got settled on Beatrice Street. We three girls decided to rotate rooms so that each of us could have her own room for a year, then switch. So I was rooming with Gloria across the hall from Stefy and the ready nursery. One night in October I was awakened from a sound sleep. It was dark in the shadowy way that it is when there is some light coming from the hall and from outside the window. Daddy stood beside Gloria’s bed and she was propped up on one elbow. “It’s a boy,” he murmured, his voice astonished and full of awe. “We had a boy.” Gloria started screaming and crying for joy. I was happy too, and went back to sleep, having no idea how your terrific little brown-eyed presence would change my own dreams, for as you know, once I met you, I wanted most of all to have my own little brown-eyed boy.

Though Daddy never made us girls feel as if we were unwanted because of our gender, we knew he was especially delighted to be blessed with you – a son. And, why not? You were his namesake, a special and unexpected gift. He spent time rocking and feeding you, read to you and walked around with you. Not that you were fussy, because you weren’t. You were wide-eyed and delighted with the world and were an interesting and lovable child that both your parents and your three adoring sisters loved.

During the time at Beatrice Street, you were christened, learned to walk and began to talk. Stefy gave you rudimentary piano lessons, we fed you wonderful food, delighted in every new thing you did and saw and said; you were the brightest spot in everyone’s day. I remember that Daddy was protective of you around older, visiting children. He suspected that you were intelligent and liked to read to you. He was always concerned with people telling the truth, behaving decently and honorably and with courtesy. He tried to instill these qualities in you through his example and through dinner table discussions and talks in the evening of what was right and wrong, good and logical. Though you were too young to understand these, Daddy was trying to set the standard for how he wished you to behave and we were to all see to it that this happened. I particularly remember the care he took to give me a list of logical and scientific evidence that proved the existence of God and the truth of the Scripture. In the arrogance of my thirteenth year, I told him that I didn’t need proof. His response was that he thought it was important to use your mind as well as your heart in matters of faith and that he had needed some proof. I understood then that his faith was somewhat hard won. He had struggled with his father’s alcoholism, with his own individual way of thinking about things and had come to profound conclusions. This is your heritage, too, Dave, one he purposed to pass on to you.

One summer in Allendale before you were born, we went to a party at the Job’s house. I think they lived near the fire house but you know how I am with directions. I think it was an after-the-fireworks 4th of July party, but it may have been the Allendale’s Centennial party. Anyway, it seemed as if the entire town was there and the kids played outside until well past midnight. I remember finally going home and being in bed; sometime toward dawn I heard a horrible thud. I must have gone into Mom and Daddy’s room and there he was flat on his back on the floor – eyes closed, arms slack beside him. The next day we were called into the living room. Daddy explained that he had too much to drink the night before at the party and had passed out on the bedroom floor. He was not emotional or crying; his demeanor was serious and determined. He said, “I was wrong to drink that much and I want to apologize to you girls. It will never happen again.” Later, I understood that his grief over his own childhood where he had to carry his drunken father home to bed was the force that inspired him to change the world with his own little family. Before that incident he was never drunk and after the apology he kept his promise, making this memory one of my most cherished. His apology and his honesty about his own fault took me from terror and confusion to acceptance of him as a human being I could trust and emulate.

Daddy was a friendly, loyal and intelligent man. His IQ was reported to be over 140. He was, however, a terrible student. He was restless in school and liked to have fun. Though in life he had a wide variety of interests, in school he could not bear to study things that did not interest him. Therefore he would approach a class with the attitude that he’d devour every bit of knowledge about the aspects of the subject that interested him and to hell with the rest—even if it was to be on the exam. For this type of student, school is confining and so it is no wonder that he chose to go into the Army after high school and delay college.

All of his life, Daddy had armfuls of friends. He loved parties, community gatherings and talking to people. He was a respected volunteer, a hearty participator and welcome member of every community in which we lived. How often I have wished to have his friendly face at one of my gatherings! And now as I write this, I can picture his happy, interested face – there was an eagerness to be with people that was calm and steady and ready to enjoy. I think that you (and Stefy) have inherited this genuine ability to make people feel comfortable, the great love and thoughtfulness to keep connections with people alive and the kind of fun personality that makes any event enjoyable. Grandpa was different because he was charming—like a rainbow. Daddy wasn’t charming; he was dependable as the sun.

As you grew into a toddler, you became even more fun. I remember that Daddy did a lot of things with you, showing you things, taking you with him when he worked on projects in the house. You had a special, joyful relationship with him where you learned constantly and had fun doing it. You identified with him and I can still picture you walking with him, Daddy leaning over slightly to hold the hand you held up for his. After he died, I kept a picture in my mind of one of your favorite activities. When Daddy was sitting on the sofa, you liked to climb on his lap and play with him. One of your favorite things to do was to stand on his legs while he kept you steady. You would grab his ears in both your hands, put your forehead against his, press your nose onto his nose while your eyes stared into his. Then you would growl or yelp or scream. I think you were trying to scare him but it was all so funny everyone laughed.

But now that I think about it, I know that you were testing him. He stayed steady despite your fiercest antics. That’s essentially who he was and one of the most tragic things about his death is that it was so unlike him to be ephemeral. It was against his nature to be short-lived. But I also know that you were memorizing him. He was your example, your best buddy and you wanted to align yourself with him, to be his mirror. In your unknowing but earnest way, you meant to grasp the standard he had set for you in his own life, in his cherished hopes and in all he loved and believed. And somehow I think it worked. Were he with us in the body today, he would still be delighted with you.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

One Winter's Hour Finds Summertime

When waiting for my first grandchild, I wanted a rocking chair for when the child came to visit. Even before I started looking, I could see in my mind the chair I wanted. It had to have arms and a soft, upholstered set and back.

Some mean, dull part of my thinking argued that grandparents don’t really need rocking chairs—especially now with the invention of the infant bucket ,carry-all seats, really great swings and bouncy chairs. True, I had none of these at my house, but I knew I had to get the right kind of rocking chair.

I started looking. Craig’s List, e-bay and the usual furniture stores offered nothing that approached the vision in my mind. It had to be roomy—the arms had to be just so. My family members asked me why? It seemed obvious to me so I declined to explain, but as I searched the shops, I remembered why.

I think it is my earliest memory. When I was young, my parents lived in the first floor apartment of my grandparents row house in Brooklyn, NY. My grandparents lived in the apartment upstairs. The flats were connected by a lovely wooden staircase; they shared a front door, foyer, basement, back porch and back yard.

My grandfather worked for the US Post Office and he worked on the mail trains. He loved trains and could imitate their sounds which as you can see, still impresses me. His work schedule meant that he was away for a few days and then home for a few. But when he was home, he was present during the daytime hours and he played with us.

my grandfather
But what I remember was not so much strictly playing. My grandfather was rocking my little sister to sleep and singing popular songs in his beautiful voice. She was a a baby, wrapped in a blanket cuddled on his shoulder. My sister is less than a year younger than me, so I must have been between fourteen and eighteen months old. My older sister would have been two and a half or three.My older sister and I did not want to be left out of anything to do with Grandpa, so we, too, climbed on the chair. He had us sit astride the arm posts and hold onto the arm of the chair. We pretended we were riding our horses while he sang.

That’s my memory: Grandpa rocking while Gloria and I rode our “horses” and he patted Stefanie’s back in rhythm to the songs he sang. How Much Is That Doggie In the Window, followed by Sweetest Little Fellow and then my favorite, Gershwin’s Summertime. (The link lets you hear Ella Fitzgerald sing it!)


And the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin'
And the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich
And your mamma's good lookin'
So hush little baby
Don't you cry

One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky

But till that morning
There's a'nothing can harm you
With daddy and mamma standing by
So hush little baby
Don't you cry

The stanza that begins "One of these mornings" creates a picture of the child leaving. It seems an impossibility that this could be the future, when the child is so close and so dear, rocking in your arms. But separations come as they must and acknowledging that makes the moment of the song, the moment of treasuring togetherness so powerful and memorable.

Deep in my mind and heart I knew this was a worthy scene to recreate; I was beginning to understand the lyrics my grandfather sang. So the rocking chair had to be right. My dreaming led me to one of the “junk shops” I frequent where quality furniture is available for affordable prices. I saw this one and though the upholstery was stained and torn, I knew it would be perfect. Karl and I re-upholstered it.

This week when Jack came to see me, he was just a bit grumpy.  However, he rallied, played with his cars and dinosaurs and Clare’s teapot . When it was time for his rest, we followed our usual routine. Joey took a book to read on my bed while I sat with Jack in the rocking chair and read Jack his favorite book, Sam’s Cookie and sang a few songs. We do this every week.

not too happy

But this week, Jack felt tired, so he put his head on my shoulder and rested there while I rocked him and talked to him and patted his back making the hollow thumping noise he likes. Joey looked forlorn and let his book droop in listless hands. “Can I— can I fit, too?” he said.

Feeding the big dinosaur is serious business

“Sure!” I made room and Joey climbed on the chair. His legs are now too long to really use the arm for a horse, but he tried and finally settled on my lap. This amused Jack (thankfully because it might have gone the other way). And Jack said, “I hide behind you, Grannie.”

This was totally his funny, creative idea. He wiggled around and stood behind me in the rocking chair. This gave Joey more room and avoided a fight. Jack put his arms around my neck and pressed his cheek to mine. I could tell he was smiling. I glanced back to see his lovely, light-filled smile, his big blue eyes happy and amused. He said, “Sing Twinkle, Twinkle.”

So we did. I have no picture of the moment, but I hope you can imagine it. Joey giggling, singing with all his might as he’s curled on my lap. Jack peeking down at him, hugging me tightly, smiling as he sang, mispronouncing a few words as a two-year old does. We went on to sing Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and then an old praise song in ¾ time that my friend Teresa wrote, “My whole heart, I give to You, O Lord, my whole heart…”

Jack has a little bed in my guest room and he trotted to it still smiling and saying “laugh at you.”. Our routine includes a little game to make parting sweet but not so sorrowful. That means that when I’ve tucked him in, as Joey and I are backing out, I say to Jack, “Are you going to laugh?” He squeals, “Yes!” We back to the door, shut it and then peek around it at him. He laughs and laughs. I guess we keep this up—peeking and laughing—for a few minutes. and most of the time, Jack goes to his nap smiling.

I don’t have the voice to sing Summertime with the pathos that my grandfather did, but I’ll never forget him or the song. I know the lyrics have influenced my life but moreso, his open-armed way of spending time with me. And I’m grateful to Joey and Jack for making a new version of a treasured memory.

He liked it (mildly as you can see) because it plays music

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Green With It

William Shakespeare's Sonnet 29

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

It’s best to read Shakespeare aloud. The senses join hands to make the meaning clearer. This poem is fairly easy, though, and speaks to a state of mind easy to understand in the dark of January.

If one is a dreamer like me, or ambitious, like we all are in one way or the other, it’s easy to value what someone else does, is doing or has done. The poem’s speaker lists the ways others are more prosperous than he is. Others have a future as indicated in the words, “rich in hope,” and connections, expressed in “featured like him, like him with friends possessed.” There is no way of knowing what his true situation is, but the restless discontent in his heart is palpable.

Yes, those are thorns where the leaves should be.
He envies “this man’s art” and “that man’s scope.” I find this funny and poignant coming from Shakespeare because no one can touch him in art or scope. But there is a correct distinction between poet and the speaker of the poem. And if Shakespeare was writing a personal, confessional blog-like poem, it should give everyone else hope to know he struggled with envying others’ position and success. He may have been writing to speak to this aspect of being human. Or both.

The poem shows that Shakespeare understood the frustrating bitterness of envy. The solution that the poem proposes is that the one who "beweeps his outcast state"  to remember who loves him when he says,
"For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings/ That then I scorn to change my state with kings." His envy of others' success is cooled by recalling what is most important- love.

Is it enough to know love? Is it enough to value people and relationships? Why then must we always be called back to remember that it is the most important?  Because the other things dazzle as mirrors in the sun. The tension unspoken in the poem is that love inspires art and love is the first, most essential part of each person's calling. It must be the center, the inspiration; lesser goals must make lesser results as they also drain the soul of life.

To grasp the importance of love and thereby become comfortable with one’s gift and calling is indeed a state most enviable.

If you look closely, you can see a bird perched on the thistles.

Monday, January 25, 2010

What We Love

Do you ever wonder why you love what you love?
 In James Barrie’s novel, The Little Minister (which I love), one character claims that to love something because you can’t help it—just because you do—is the “nicest sort of way to love.”

One of the joys of being a grandparent is finding out what the child will love. Right now, Joey loves GI-Joes. This is something that he and his dad share. His father created the most amazing GI-Joe fort for his Christmas present.

 It comes with trap doors and ropes for the soldiers to climb on. It’s a work of art and Joey LOVES playing with it. It’s a joy to play with him and experience his gratefulness for the gift and his enthusiasm. He has the most tremendous capacity to enjoy - a trait that shines in both his parents.

the Gi-Joes can climb up the ropes and push open the trap doors!
Love comes easily to little Jack. He loves his parents, his brother and his dog. He loves to play with animals and toy trains.

Jack trying to hug all the characters from "Rudolph" while Joey cheers him on.

Recently at my house, he came up to me and said, “Hold you, Grannie,” which translated means, “Please pick me up.” I promptly did this. I would have tossed away a winning lottery ticket to do so—you know what I mean. We walked around the house, looking at things, while I told him stories. He loves this. While thus wandering, I kissed Jack’s forehead and he said, very quietly as if it were precious, “I love you, too Grannie.” I'm sure I'll never forget that moment, not only does he love, but he can read people.

Jack admiring my favorite childhood ornament -- a sparkly blue bird

 It’s so fascinating when babies wake up to the world and I love watching Clare as her eyes light up with joy and interest. She looks at her parents with adoring eyes and seems to love her Uncle Karl’s scratchy beard(who wouldn’t?). Recently she discovered fabric.

She was thrilled to play with her mother’s scarf! I’m not surprised because her mother has become a wonderful seamstress and designer, both of Clare’s grandmother’s love to sew and her great grandmother (my mother) was a most accomplished seamstress and fashion designer.

Is what we love woven with care and color into our souls as they are formed or is it written on our hearts with the indelible and bonding touch of the people we love?

Friday, January 22, 2010

What Makes A Good Poem

After last week’s posting of Li Young Lee’s The Gift several people asked what makes a good poem.

This is a wonderful question.
There are several ways to answer it and doing so might take a few posts.I thought I’d start by reflecting on the first poem I loved.  It was written by W.B. Yeats.

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awakened in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.

A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!

I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily, and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

. At first reading, I had no idea what this poem meant, but I liked it. The rhythm and rhyme are appealing, are they not? This observation led me to ask why I liked the rhythm and rhyme. For one thing, it seems to hold the poem together, English teachers call this cohesion. In fact, after I read the again, it almost seems as if they rhythm of the poem suggests the rocking of the sea waves, the rhyme their graceful curving ends. And so, after all, the form, part of which is rhythm and rhyme, help create the poem’s setting and meaning.

I also liked the images created. To me the best are: “flame of the meteor” and “the flame of the blue star that lingers,” the “fall of the dew," the “wandering foam,” the “rim of the sky”—what a lovely way to say what I’d stared at in wonder so often. I guess I like all the images! Why? They leapt up as pictures in my senses. I had seen birds on the crests of waves, I’d touched the seafoam, I always thought the morning star looked blue. So I my mind and heart connected to the images— they were familiar enough and yet expressed in a way that awakened me to seeing them better. This makes a good and loveable poem.

For a poem to be good, it must be loved, admired and understood. The language and rhythm alone made me love it. If I could understand how it was put together and what it meant, I might admire it.

Just reading it, I could identify certain reoccurring ideas in the poem. This is, of course, shown in the poem's refrain-like request that he and his "beloved" become white birds "on the foam of the sea." It seems a precarious place to be-- nothing definite and that idea is original and compelling.  The poem’s speaker ached with desire to be away from life, from the dangerous or elusive things in life “meteor,” “blue star at twilight” and most poignantly tedious things in life, perhaps the unfulfilled dreams. I see this in the idea, “A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose.”  I had always liked dreaming, but I can see from this poem's perspective that the pull of dreams, when unfulfilled can feel like chains.

But what was meant by lily and rose? It didn’t make sense that the actual flowers were dreamers, though they were dew-dabbled. I looked them both up (remember I was a very young student of literature at this point and was not confident of the references or allusions). Now I ask students, what comes to mind when you read, lily, or rose? What did the lily stand for in church or literature or history? What I discovered in research, many people can name just by thinking about it. The lily was used as the symbol of the French royalty, in Spring we have Easter lilies to celebrate the resurrection, and our culture uses the clichĂ© “lily white” to suggest purity. Can one flower, one image mean all this in one poem?


The rose suggests love, maybe also, if one thinks of the War of the Roses (I know there was more than one), it could suggest heritage or family honor and duty. All these things, royalty, resurrection which is the basis of the Christian religion, purity, history, love the poet suggests are found in dreams perhaps including ambitions. The dreams weary him, I think, because he cannot grasp and experience them.

The flames in the first two stanzas, first “the flame of the blue star at twilight,” then the “flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew” (the dew falls in morning, so the morning star), suggest the daily cares of life. Of these the speaker “tires,” finds them tedious as daily tasks can be. And in the end of the poem, the speaker finds the flames to be fretful. His frustration with the realities and the ideals of his culture make him want to flee.

Where will he flee? He mentions the islands… in fact, he’s haunted by them. Of course I had to look up “Danaan Shore” and found that in Irish lore (Yeats was Irish and proud of it), there is a myth of an island of “young people” where mortals do not grow old.  This place "Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more," these numberless islands where he might find this magical eternity are not quite the desired destination. So the poem could mean that the weight of his culture's myths, the threat of eternity is also what creates the desire for escape.

It seems as if the poem’s speaker wishes to flee with his beloved, not to an alternate life, but to a weightless freedom.  It seems life and the details of society-- mundane and grand--are what binds him. It is freedom and companionship in freedom that he desires. This idea is created by the lines that echo the last, “were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea.”

The poem is good because its form helps create the meaning. And the meaning is important, universal, difficult and touching.

The images are beautiful, imaginative, sensory and complex. The references to culture and meaning fit—without titillating offense—the poem’s dissatisfaction with human life and society. No chopping off of body parts in this work of art! The things that dissatisfy are beautiful, they are noble, even dew-dabbled (morning dew—morning is the start of a new day, suggesting renewal, new life… dew suggests the magical sustenance of life that the Earth gives), but the speaker’s longing for escape, for eternal peace and freedom surpasses even these achingly lovely, treasured things of Earth.

So, I love and admire this good poem. What do you think, dear reader?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sisterhood of Tea

I saw my sisters this weekend. We had a wonderful visit despite the tea. You see, tea is important to us. We have high standards for it -- none of the bland blends, not ever the burnt Starbucks kind, not a drop of the herbal.  We want strong, clear, brisk English style tea with cream and sugar.  We were weaned from Gerber’s iron-fortified formula straight to hot tea and all three of us are still devoted to it.

Tea must be made a certain way. Cold water must be drawn from the tap and put on to boil. To me, the sound of cold, fresh water splashing from the faucet into the kettle is the sound of coming home, because when I return home, making tea is the first thing I do.

While the water is boiling, rinse clean the teapot and fill it with hot water to heat it up. The hotter the water is, the more brisk and flavorful the tea will be. So, if the teapot itself is hot, when you pour the boiling water in, the teapot will not “take” heat needed for steeping the tea.

While the teapot is heating, ready the tea. I use Lipton and nothing else. I use one teabag per cup and one extra teabag “for the teapot.” This same measure should be used for loose tea, using one teaspoon loose tea per cup and one extra “for the pot.” PG Tips is also good, but much stronger, and if I'm desperate meaning in an area of the country where no Lipton can be found, Red Rose will do for a day or two. 

Though both my grandmothers' parents immigrated from different European countries, they both served tea in the afternoon with the same homey ceremony, inviting the same opportunity for friendly connection.  When my son travelled to India recently he described their affinity for tea as a cultural similarity. It's universal!  Tea has just the right amount of flavor and spark for an afternoon respite. 

Heather and Val doing their comedy act over tea -- to the delight of all.
The best tea is made with just boiled water. This means that the water must be brought to a full, rolling boil, but not left to boil longer—allowing the water to boil even seconds longer flattens the flavor of the tea. Really. I’m serious. (You can trust me because truthfully without bragging, I make the best tea in town).

Just boiled means also that as soon as the water boils, you pour it into the teapot. Don’t wait. Don’t let the boiled water sit on the stove for a while. Use it immediately!

The water must be poured over the teabags. Don’t pour the water and then stick the teabags in. Pouring the just boiled water over the tea releases the flavor.

What is forbidden is to heat the water in the microwave, then dunk in the teabag.  This process makes a faintly colored liquid that tastes nothing like real, good tea.

Now that the tea has begun to steep, cover the teapot with a tea cosy or clean towels. Let the tea steep for 3 to five minutes.

You can't see the teapot because it is hiding cosily under the lovely tea cosy my friend Teresa made for me.

If you want to share my affinity for tea culture, you should also know that tea invites the use and contemplation of beautiful things.  My friend Anne served tea to our faculty in the library on Wednesdays after school.  This generous act brought tired teachers together for refreshment of soul and body. She made sure to include a bowl of fresh flowers --or if there were none available, fresh greens.  Softly in the background played music of the sort that invited camaraderie.  Often she had prepared a poem to read to us. Tea is the time for a snack of beauty. Therefore, serve your tea in porcelain mugs or china cups.  It tastes better this way. 

Real English style tea is served with milk or half and half and sugar.  The "mother" or hostess pours the tea into each guest's cup.  Some tea-lovers like to put the milk in the cup and then pour the steeped tea over the milk.  The flavor is slightly different and you’ll have to decide which you like better.

Tea is a meeting place in my family.  We gather over tea and talk.  Good hot tea, its fragrance delicately bracing invites conversation, provides comfort.  Tea is best when you've been away from home for awhile, or even outside in the Spring working hard on the garden.  When it is time to stop, to pause, tea warms the soul, so when we went out to lunch this weekend to visit and catch up, we all, one by one, ordered tea.

Me and my siblings ... my brother likes tea, too.
The waitress brought the tea with lemon wedges.  We asked for milk or cream and once fixed, for restaurant tea, it wasn’t too awful.  Translated this means it wasn't good, but as long as it was hot, it was drinkable.  We talked and sipped and enjoyed a delicious lunch. But that’s when it happened. The waitress came to check on us and poured luke warm water into our half-filled tea cups! The mixture was as murky and appealing as the water used to clean your paint brush. Our eyes met in horror and we burst out laughing.

at lunch before our mugs of tea were ruined
My sister gave my granddaughter a little teapot. It doesn't hold water, but when you turn it over, it makes a glugging sound like water pouring! Clare was facinated as you can see from the picture.

The tradition continues.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Woodland Windows: Color Feels Like Hope in January

Woodland Windows

My friend Jo-Ann designed this quilt! Made from precut five inch squares, she arranged them together, and then decided to border each set of four squares with a coordinating smaller print. I saw the quilt and loved it and made one myself. It is easy, beautiful and the design lends itself to different color combinations.

This is a terrific pattern to use with your scraps. Simply cut these into 5 inch strips, cut the strips into squares. Or if your scraps are small, cut 5 inch squares.
 You could create a scrappy look or a more sophisticated, coordinated look depending on your scraps.

Another friend never folds her scraps or stuffs them away. Instead she cuts them into strips, or into 5 inch squares. She files these and uses them in all the patterns now available for precuts

The second time I used the pattern, I used a brighter group of colors.  I grouped the squares together simply by what prints I liked together.

Woodland Windows – an easy quilt made with 5 inch squares
Designed by Jo-Ann Intlekofer, written by Loris Nebbia
Choose 48… 5-inch squares.

These can be taken from 2 charm packs or cut from your own fabric collection.

All these prints have the same basic intensity of color.  I liked the diagonal opposite coordination in this version.
Lay out the blocks in groups of 4 so that each group of 4 forms a bigger square. Match the colors as you like – random, contrasting or coordinating. These will form the main blocks of the quilt.

For each 4 block square, sew pairs together, without breaking the seam between pairs for the same 4 block square.

This pix shows the way I sewed the blocks together.  When sewing the initial pairs of 5 " blocks, I did not cut the thread between pairs, thus keeping the block togehter.  This keeps me from having to re-arrange or remember.  Another idea is that once you are happy with the layout of the squares, take a picture, print it and use it as your guide.

the back of the block
Without cutting thread, press the seams to one side, then flip one pair onto the other right sides together and sew the two pairs together to form the larger 4 block square. Press seams flat.

Here is the block with the coordinating border -- I tried different fabrics until I found a match I liked.  A general rule is that the color of the border will bring out the color in the block that is its opposite on the color wheel. Above the blue comes forward in the orange border.

Repeat for the 12 4-block squares. It is a good idea to sew one row at a time and that way you will be able to keep the order that you selected. However, it’s fine to change the order, once the blocks are sewn.

Try out the solid or near solid colors for the border around each block. Stand back and look at the overall blend of color. Cut 1 ½ inch strips of coordinating fabric in a solid or a near-solid print to make the windows. Sew alternate sides first. Trim seams so that they are straight. Sew strips on the top and bottom.

Sew the blocks together. Square the blocks with ruler and rotary cutter. Sew the rows together. Add a border. Press before putting the quilt batting , backing and top together. Quilt as desired and finish with binding.

I numbered my rows with Post-it notes
The pattern is free if you'd like to copy and use it.  Let us know how your quilt turns out!

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Startling Revelation of Why I Don’t Wish to Re-read These Books I LOVE

When I love a book, I read it and re-read it until I think I understand how it was put together. Some books I read and re-read because I want to live in that world again. Not so for the books below.

1. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I taught The Scarlet Letter three or four times per day for 12 Februaries in a row. I love the book’s organization, especially the use of the scaffold. I love the way the Transcendental philosophy is examined and flouted in Reverend Dimmesdale (he’s not a Christian pastor really because he thinks he can save himself), and I love, admire and esteem Hester Prynne. However, February is a dark month and Hawthorne does tend to go on a bit…

2. Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s prose is a bit purple but it is also beautiful. It was fun to read and study and I am fascinated by the fact that the book’s plot and characterization resist the author’s proclaimed intent. However, I can’t read one more time that “Dorian flung himself on the sofa” and “cried hot tears.” Could you?

3. Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter
I love this story, but it’s for adults, not children and whenever I read it to a child, I feel stricken by conscience. The children are appalled by the temper that the mice display; they wreck the dollhouse – which is pretty awesome, but I don’t really want them to imitate this, do I?

4. The World According to Garp by John Irving
John Irving is a brilliant novelist and his books are almost as cohesive as Shakespeare’s plays, but the action of the plot in this one is so appalling, I can’t live through it again. NO WAY!

5. 1984 by George Orwell
One of the most beautiful and tragic books ever and teaching it was a wonderful experience. The perfectly executed, apt last line breaks the heart. Mine is broken. I’m not reading it again. Remembering is painful enough.

6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This book should be read by everyone at least once. Some people are prejudiced against it because the immoral preacher “leaves” Christianity (he wasn’t living as a Christian anyway so maybe he just got honest) to preach a socialist gospel. Also, there is cussing in the book. For these reasons, I was told I couldn’t continue to teach it. This was a loss to students and to those parents who only read some of it or only on a surface level. It’s a worthy book.

7. Fields of Fire by James Webb
This book shows a devastating understanding of the Vietnam War and reading it was an important experience for me. I think everyone should read it, but it is difficult to sleep for awhile after you understand the suffering.

8. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – Everyone in my family of origin loves and adores this book, so I’m jealous of it. I want them to love me instead.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Gift by Li-Young Lee

The Gift
To pull the metal splinter from my palm

my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.

I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.
Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.

I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

Li-Young Lee

This beautiful poem does something seldom seen in literature: it dramatizes a vital moment between a careful, loving father and his open-hearted son. That's why I love it.
It's rare, complex and lovely.
The son has learned the important things from his father whom he treasures. The poem's language is succinct, clear, astounding and poignant. My favorite lines, other than the last which always brings tears, "...his hands,/ two measures of tenderness/ he laid against my face, the flames of discipline/ he raised above my head."
 I love the courage in these lines - the courage to say how careful and important his father's way of parenting was.  The poem shows a man who has learned from his father to be careful, who has learned how to heal, how to relieve pain. Caring for his son taught him how to love. Words like dark, well, silver, tear, flame, palm, splinter, metal, thumbnail,and shave bring the scene to mind, words like prayer, tenderness, christen give more to think about.  I can see the father, then the grown son, leaning over the outstretched palm of the wounded. 

But I can also see the poet bending over his poem in concentration and yearning. But the poem's cohesion and power show a poet who writes with careful attention to the idea he wishes to bring out. The words and images are placed as carefully as the hands were placed when they removed the splinter and planted skill. The parallel structure of the lines and of the time periods, the beauty of the images, the suggestion of deeper life, create a picture vivid and true - a picture that says something meaningful and important.  Poems like this can heal as surely as hands that remove a splinter.  The truth, aptly spoken, can lift a human being's heart, comfort fears, give hope. We need more poems as true, as carefully made, and original as this.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Love Light

MIL. That’s me a Mother In Law. This is something I never really envisioned, dreamed about or planned for, but here I am in the middle of it. I’ve written a lot about my two beautiful daughters-in-law, but have I mentioned my son-in-law?

An oldies song “Mother In Law” is stuck in my head. You can click on the link and listen. It’s a scary song and rehearses the stereotypes of women in my position. It's sung from the son-in-law's perspective; one line sums up the strife: "If she leaves us alone/ we would have a happy home." Ugh.  I hope no one ever says that about me.

I can see that there is a tendency to adversity between son in law and mother in law because the mother is used to being her daughter’s confidante, protector, greatest fan, etc. And suddenly she’s displaced. I can understand mothers of daughters feeling friction or jealous or annoyed or even bereft. Her daughter no longer twirls through the kitchen or sings while vacuuming.  There's a terrible void when a daughter leaves home for good.

Everything is different. She asks his opinion first, shares her dreams and goals with him, and in every way prefers him. That’s how it should be and no one who really thought about it would want her daughter’s marriage to be any less.  I mean, they did promise. It seems it should be the mother-in-law's duty and privilege to support that promise cost her what it may.

But change is difficult. Though I can see why the stereotypes have come to be, I'm going to try with all my might not to be a witch (spell that any way you want). I'm going to try because I've seen the "love light."

Sir James M. Barrie writes about this mysterious phenomenom in his novel The Little Minister. The quote below introduces the book's main idea. The setting and dialect need a bit of introduction: Thrums is a village in Scotland where weavers work on looms in their humble homes to make the tartan wool cloth made famous there. The Scots dialect makes contractions by adding the syllable "na" so the American "didn't" in Scots is "didna." And the word "een" can be understood as "eyes."

"Long ago... a minister of Thrums was to be married, but something happened, and he remained a bachelor. Then, when he was old, he passed in our square the lady who was to have been his wife, and her hair was white, but she, too, was still unmarried. The meeting had only one witness, a weaver, and he said solemnly afterwards, 'They didna speak, but they just gave one another a look, and I saw the love-light in their een.' No more is remembered of these two, no being now living ever saw them, but the poetry that was in the soul of a battered weaver makes them human to us for ever."

I know what Barrie is talking about.  I've seen the love light and it is not something to be ignored.  It's magical, rare and truthful.

Here's how it happened: one Sunday evening, Andrew and Valerie had a date. When she answered his knock at our front door wearing her beautiful, eager smile and a new dress, he stepped in and his eyes met hers. I saw “the love light” in Andrew’s eyes.

I know you’ve seen "the love light" before in someone’s eyes. The eyes are brighter as if lit from the depths and their expression is soft and awakened at the same time. I knew then, that Andrew loved Valerie.
The next weekend they were hanging out in our back yard. I was in the kitchen (as usual) at the sink looking out the window. They had chosen to sit at the little cafĂ© table right under the kitchen window, so I wasn’t spying – just cooking and cleaning up (as usual). Valerie sat with her back to the window, but I could see Andrew’s face. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I knew they were talking about plans. The “love light” let me see how serious Andrew’s love for Valerie was.

This has proven true in his actions. Andrew has won my heart and respect just by being himself.  I will never forget Andrew’s strength and kindness when Valerie crashed her car one month before Clare was born. He could have been irritated, could have been disappointed, but as soon as he got to the scene of the accident, he took her in his arms and said something like, “the only thing that matters is that you’re okay.” He had already arranged to take Valerie to her doctor, and did so. The love light has proven steady and bright.

The accident was difficult for Valerie, but Andrew saw her through the emotions it raised. He listened, reassured her, found her a new car and helped her regain the courage to drive it. I told him then that I’d never forget his kindness to her and I won’t. It's almost as if that love light has begun to pervade his being. He was all I could have asked for her. He knows how to be her dearest friend.

Did I mention that Andrew can build anything? He helped me refinish the rocking chair for the baby’s room, build shelves for all sorts of oddly shaped things in our basement, put a gorgeous new door on their home and now he’s remodeling their kitchen. He can make anything he builds look like a work of art!  I'm grateful that they are working together to build a home. I know it will be a home filled with love.

When their baby was born, Andrew stood like a mountain beside my daughter. He wasn’t squeamish or selfish; if he was nervous, he didn’t show it. A deep and original thinker, he was well-prepared from all the reading he did and had, in his mind, a well of helpful information. He helped her give birth and welcomed their little daughter with love, joy and his steady, cheerful, imaginative dedication.
  When a glimpse of the love light is seen by a bystander (or mother), a bit of the person's dreams and joy have been witnessed.  This capacity to love is something precious- a glimmer of the person's most noble humanity.  It is the reflection of God's image shining from the deepest heart's core.  That makes it something to be sheltered, protected and celebrated.  Rather than try to blow it out, or smother it, I hope this MIL I can break all the stereotypes and give this man the support, respect and affection that the love light has inspired within me.
may their love light continue to shine

You know I love poetry so I've included the lyrics to "Mother In Law." The poetry's not truly "ungood" but based on the importance of nurturing that love-light, it is the scariest song I know and therefore worth reading.
 "Mother In Law"
by Ernie K-Doe
The worst person I know Mother-In-Law Mother-In-Law
She worries me so Mother-In-Law Mother-In-Law

If she leaves us alone we would have a happy home
Sent from down below Mother-In-Law, Mother-In-Law
Mother-In-Law, Mother-In-Law
I come home with my pay
She asks me what I make
She thinks her advice is a contribution but
if she will leave that will be the solution
Mother-In-Law Mother-In-Law
Mother-In-Law Mother-In-Law
Every time I open my mouth
She steps in and tries to put me out
How could she stoop so low Mother-In-Law Mother-In-Law
Mother-In-Law Mother-In-Law

Monday, January 11, 2010

Recipe Request: Beef Stew for a Cold Day

The secrets that make beef stew savory, elegant and delicious are disclosed here! Early in the day:
(It helps to start or plan dinner in the morning before you begin work)
You’ll need:
A big soup pot or a crock pot
Beef stew meat or
Roast – you can use a pot roast or any kind that is on sale. I prefer a chuck roast as they are more flavorful. If the piece of meat has a bone, that’s fine! (It's usually less expensive to use a roast. You are paying for the butcher to cut the roast into stew meat and as you'll see later in the recipe, that's not needed).
2-4 T olive oil
4 T flour
1 onion, chopped
3- 5 carrots, peeled and sliced on a diagonal
3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced. (more potatoes if you have a surprise, bigger crowd)
Beef stock or water
Salt, pepper, fresh dill
1 T tomato paste
1 T apple cider (or you can use cognac or wine)

Heat the olive oil on medium high in a big soup pot or if you are using a crock pot, in a frying pan. Pat the meat dry and brown it on both sides, keeping the heat fairly high.
Secret # 1: Browning meat requires patience and is a step that cannot be skipped!
When the meat has browned, remove it and set it aside in a bowl. Brown the chopped onion, but don’t burn it.
Add the flour and mix it well into the oil remaining in the pan. Cook this flour, stirring constantly. If it is too thick, add a bit more olive oil.

Secret #2: While stirring, scrape up the bits of brown flavor from the meat and the onion that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add salt and pepper.

Add 1 T of tomato paste to this mixture and cook it also. This adds complexity to the flavor of the stew.
When the flour is bubbly and fragrant and brown, slowly pour in beef stock, chicken stock, or if you have neither, water. Stir this until it is a smooth, thick gravy. Return the meat to this gravy. Add 1 T apple cider, salt and pepper to taste and ½ teaspoon fresh dill cut as small as you can get it. The dill adds a freshness and spark.

At this point, you may transfer the stew to your crock pot. Cover and simmer for 5-8 hours. If you are using a crock pot, start it on high and set it down to low after about an hour or before you leave the house.

Choose fresh ingredients if possible 

Before Dinner:
When you return from work, the house will be filled with the inviting savory scent of the stew!
You know that the stew is done because the meat will be so tender that it can be cut into smaller pieces using a spoon. Now it is time to finish it and the finishing steps are important.

Bring a quart of water to a boil. Into this add the potatoes and cook them until they are tender. Drain the potatoes, saving the hot water. Cook the carrots until they are bright orange and just fork tender. Not too much. Set these aside. Save the water in case the stew is too thick, you can use this nutrient rich water to thin it. I usually cook the root vegetables while I am finishing the stew according to directions belo

Using a slotted spoon, remove all the meat from the stew pot and set the meat aside to cool a little.

Secret # 3: Smooth and refine the gravy

There are 3 ways to do this:
For all methods: first, using a spoon, skim off the fat that has gathered at the top of the stew and discard, then remove any visible pieces of fat or bone from the stew gravy.

1. Use an immersion blender by inserting it into the gravy and blending in several spots. This breaks up the pieces of onion etc. and results in a thicker, slightly lighter colored gravy.

2. Use a standard blender to make the gravy one smooth consistency. After removing the meat, the bones and small pieces of fat, spoon the gravy into the blender. Let it cool for a minute. When you blend it, make sure the top is open a bit in a direction away from you to allow steam to escape. Blend to smooth.

3. If you own neither an immersion blender or a standard blender, put a big bowl beneath a wire sieve and pour the gravy through this. Mash the bits of onion through the sieve with a wooden spoon or discard them.

Secret # 4 Clean the meat

Whether you used stew meat or a roast, the meat needs refining at this point. Using a knife, fork and cutting board, cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and while doing so scrape away the grizzle, fat and membrane that is in the meat.

This is an important step that should not be skipped. It saves you and your guests from spitting unchewable bits of grizzle into their napkins and keeps your kids from gagging on the same. I only know this from watching my own children struggle at the table.


Return the meat to the crock pot, add the cooked, drained carrots and the cooked, drained potatoes. I cook these vegetables separately because I found that if I cook the carrots all day with the meat, the stew is very sweet and the carrots are mush. One of my children cannot swallow mush.  Potatoes cook in unpredictable ways in a crock pot. Typically, while I am cleaning the meat and finishing the gravy, I cook the root vegetables. Doing it this way gives the stew a bright look and the vegetables retain their flavor.

Reheat and correct the seasonings. Maybe add a little chili powder or red pepper? In the last five minutes before serving, add cut green beans or shelled edamame for bright green color.

Serve in bowls, or over pasta or rice and with crusty bread.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Granola and Yogurt

This week I made homemade granola and yogurt. They’re easy to do and delicious. Granola can be expensive but making it at home means you can be sure your ingredients are fresh and wholesome.  You can add the sort of grains and nuts and oil that you want. You can avoid high fructose corn syrup and use local honey which is good for fighting allergies.

Homemade yogurt tastes wonderful.  By making it at home you have the satisfaction of having done so, but you can also choose the sort of milk you want to use.  You can add a variety of GOOD bacteria (though their names all sound like a hex from Harry Potter, they are good for your digestive health and your general cheerfulness).

Granola (recipe adapted from More With Less a cookbook from the 80’s that I recommend with enthusiasm)
Makes 2 quarts
325 for 30 minutes watched carefully
Preheat oven
Mix together
1 cup coconut (I used unsweetened, organic)
4 cups rolled oats
1 cup sunflower seeds or other nuts ground. (I’ve used pecans, walnuts, pistachios, cashews)
1 cup wheat germ
¼ to ½ cup ground flax seed
¼ to ½ cup wheat bran¼ cup high protein flour such as soy, whole wheat or a blend

Bring to a  boil:
1 cup honey
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup oil
½ teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons water

Remove from heat and add:
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 T cinnamon
Mix dry ingredients. Pour honey mixture over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Spread on 2 greased cookie sheets. Bake about 30 minutes stirring often (every 5—7 minutes). The granola burns easily. Try to allow it to cool undisturbed but it is nearly impossible not to sneak a few tastes!

If you want to add dried fruit such as raisins or dried apples, do this after you bake the granola as the fruit tends to burn.


Homemade yogurt is easy to make and delicious. It does taste better than store bought and making it is rewarding and a good “science” experiment to do with children. The idea is that you must kill the stray bacteria in the milk and then introduce the wholesome, specific bacteria you want in your yogurt. (You can add a variety of good yogurt bacteria to make the healthiest yogurt anywhere!) Cooking the yogurt for 8 hours allows the good yogurt bacteria to spread through the milk, turning it to yogurt.

You don’t need a “yogurt maker.”

You do need:
Clean, sterilized glass jars with lids
A heating source such as a heating pad that can be turned to low—this is the way my roommate and I made yogurt when we were in college.
A radiator
A gas oven with a pilot light
Milk- you can use nonfat milk or any mixture of nonfat and whole milk.
¼ cup Plain, non-fat yogurt with live cultures
1 bottle probiotic drink
After cleaning and sterilizing the jars, set them aside.
Measure the milk according to the number and size of your jars. I usually make six or seven half pints (1 cup = half pint)

Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium high heat until the milk steams, is fragrant and tiny bubbles form at the edges of the pan.

Allow the milk to cool to blood temperature.

Mix the yogurt and probiotic drink into the scalded milk.

Pour the mixture into the clean glasses. Do not put the lids on yet.

  • If using a heating pad, set it on the lowest heat and place a thick, folded towel over it. Stand the jars on this towel. Cover the jars with another towel. Leave this undisturbed overnight or for 8 hours.

  • If you are using your oven, stand the jars on a cookie sheet and cover also with a tea towel. Leave undisturbed as above.

  • If you are making the yogurt on your radiator, place a towel on the radiator and then balance a cookie sheet on it. Make sure it is level and won’t tip. Place the jars on top and cover as above.

When the yogurt is done, it will look firm and have a tart, creamy scent. Put the lids on the jars and chill before eating.


1.If you want to make cream top yogurt, don’t add the cream until you pour the mixture into the glass as heating the cream can ruin it.

2. You can flavor the yogurt by placing honey or jam on the bottom of the jar before adding the milk/yogurt mixture. This is then stirred into the yogurt when it is time to eat it.