No amount of whipped cream can save this pie

It was Thanksgiving 1966 and there were nine of us stuffed into a Wisconsin bungalow that was barely big enough for one blue-haired Nana, her cranky German cuckoo clock and a tall toilet with a mysterious chain.

I was six and praying I didn’t have to go anytime soon.

The day was fading behind the granite studded hills that wave across the land west of Madison all the way to the Mississippi. This was the land of my parents and their parents. Farm land dotted with tiny towns that have one stop light, one block of stores and a cemetery. Towns that can only count on tradition to survive for the next generation.

It was another holiday dinner, long and boring. We scavenged for extra chairs to pull around the dining table. The turkey sat at my Dad’s plate. The big knife with deer antler handles was next to it.

I spent the dinner rearranging acorn squash on my plate and studying the farm scenes on Nana’s blue Currier & Ives plates, the ones she got for free by shopping each week at the A&P.

When the last of the gravy congealed and the turkey looked like it was attacked by hyenas, there were pumpkin and mincemeat pies waiting. I knew pumpkin pie was just more squash, so I chose mincemeat, or mince as some like to say to fool you into thinking it’s tasty. This was not mince pie. This was real mincemeat pie as in real meat cooked in lard and sweetened with candied fruit. That’s fruit that sounds good but isn’t. With my fork I raked through the piece on my plate, looking for evidence of a carcass, some shred of tendon or muscle, not believing the possibility of pie crust and meat could exist together as dessert.

And there it was. A lone strand of beef that belonged in a stew. Clearly Nana had lost her mind. She’s old. It must be a horrible mistake. I looked around at my family eating and wondered what freak show I was part of. Who eats this stuff? No amount of whipped cream could save any of it.

That weekend I learned that when it came to food, Nana made things the old fashioned way. She was not bound to tradition as much as hog-tied to it. You want mincemeat pie? First, slaughter Bessie.

The old farm ways that Nana and her sisters grew up with were passed on to my mother who, in her carefree way, found the traditions amusing and liked to tell us stories of her childhood visits to their farms. You want cookies? Here’s a recipe from great Aunt Florence. First, get some fat. Any kind. Then add a good portion of flour and a handful of sugar. Mix it up, add some chopped prunes and you’ve got cookies. No measuring. You just have to know how much.

After the horror of dessert it was time for bed. My two brothers headed to the front porch that had no heat, but they didn’t seem to mind. While I was in the bathroom trying to figure out the toilet, my three older sisters hopped into the cherrywood four poster in the spare room, Nana’s sewing room, and were settled in like twice-baked potatoes under a mound of blankets by the time I wandered in.

I looked around the dark and drafty room for someplace to sleep. Wedged between Nana’s mahogany sewing table and a looming black dress form was a narrow metal cot draped with one thin blanket. It looked like an army cot from the Civil War. I felt sorry for all those guys and now, I felt sorry for myself as I climbed in.

The cuckoo clock chimed from the hall, the clock that made my Dad swear. Then the ticking oil heater groaned and slowed for the night and the tiny bungalow was at last quiet. My sisters’ breathing soon came in soft waves that told me they were already asleep and I hated them for it, for being warm enough to sleep.

In the dark I explored Nana’s sewing corner. There was a wall of thread to my left, each wooden spool had its own peg and was organized by color. Other pegs held scissors and pinking shears and tiny gold-handled embroidery snips. A round basket on the sewing table was filled with so many fur coat scraps it was as if a black cat had curled up inside to take a nap.

Above my head an old loose window rattled and the beginning of winter seeped through the cracks, grazed my checks and ignited a cloud of dressmaker’s chalk that swirled like a snow globe in the moonlight.

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Nana’s sensible gray oxfords were clicking slowly through the house as she checked the doors and closed the cabinets. Her rounded pear shape appeared in the hallway and I called out to her in a desperate whisper for another blanket. Without a word she appeared at the foot of my cot holding a stack of hand-stitched quilts, bumpy and dimpled from many washings.

With a deft snap a pink and white quilt with little houses on it parachuted into the air and settled on me with a comforting weight.

“Good?” she asked.

“Can I have another?”

A yellow one with red triangle shapes landed and then came another with flowered circles. They floated down like heavy wet snow, weighing me deeper into the cot’s metal springs.

“Enough?” Actually, no.

She smiled and went back to the hall closet for another stack. Now it was a little game, a few moments with a grandmother I never really knew but would always wonder about. We continued in the dark and seven quilts later I was deliciously immobile, bound like Gulliver by thousands of threads and tiny hand stitches.

As I lay in my cocoon I recognized small squares and triangles of fabric from dresses Nana made me over the years. There was the red gingham from the birthday dress when I was five, the one with ribbon woven into its white lace trim. I also found the flowers from a pink shift dress edged in green rick-rack that was like standing in the middle of a little garden surrounded by a green picket fence. Nana, ever prolific, made sure our dolls were well dressed too. I found a swatch of red babycord corduroy that she used to make my Chatty Cathy’s red hat (trimmed in real mink with a matching fur trimmed cape). She even made Cathy a navy blue wool trench coat with real pockets for colder days in the basement play-corner, but I didn’t find any of that.

Even at that young age the mastery of Nana’s sewing was not lost on me. I recognized fine needlework by sight and touch before I learned to sew the summer I turned ten. The hand-smocked fronts of our high-waisted dresses were a feat of style, planning and expertise. There was no machine sewing involved. Years later I tried to hand smock a baby dress for a friend and was stunned at how complicated it was. That project is still in my basement.

Eventually, Nana gave each of us our own quilt. Mine is white with large yellow flowers like summer suns in a hot sky. It suits me and my June birthday and covered my bed all the way through college and until I got married. Now it is worn and frayed, but the design is still good and I stitch it up every now and then.

 

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On a recent trip to my mother’s house I found one of Nana’s quilts in the garage, waiting to be sold in a rummage sale with cast-off gifts and old dishes. My mother is not sentimental about anything and is at the age when everything in the house is either tossed into the garbage, saved for the rummage sale or given away to strangers. Now it’s my habit to check the garage for valuable items. I grabbed the quilt and brought it home. It is not an example of Nana’s best work, most likely made late in life, when her stitches were bigger and farther apart. But it’s something that took weeks, if not months to make. It took planning the colors, doing the math for the design, measuring and cutting with precision. All clues to a grandmother I did not know and a visual reminder of how some women can take almost anything and turn it into something else. A scrap of fabric becomes a quilt. A piece of meat becomes a pie.

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The Reno

I am babysitting the construction guys right now but don’t let my charges know they are under hammers1surveillance. One is painting the upstairs bathroom walls. The other is rebuilding the tub deck with 2×4’s and I don’t want anything to disturb them since they are two months off schedule.

I am sitting downstairs at the kitchen island, my office for the last three months since the bathroom renovation began. It is my center of operation and I can hear every tool drop right above my head. 

They all arrive at 7:30 am. Not my best hour. I make myself appear alert by making the bed and squeezing into some black sporty clothes to give the impression there’s a strong possibility I’ll charge out of the house at any time and go for a run. I have no idea why I care.

This charade continues with a snappy toss of laundry into the washer, always a feeling of pseudo accomplishment, but slamming the lid down does make me feel temporarily efficient as it echoes through the house with a metallic twang.

Then it’s time to clear out the dishwasher and start over with the load that sat in the sink overnight. (I may be called a house WIFE, but I’m not a house KEEPER.)

The guy rebuilding the tub deck traipses downstairs and peeks around the corner into the kitchen and asks what I’m up to today. Ah, well, it’s very important and mysterious, involving money transfers, bills and emitting great heaving sighs while contemplating things that require an impressive fluttering of papers. Then there are letter mailings which involve some envelope licking, an application of stamps for official business and a ceremonial trip to the post office. It’s a big project. 

What is wrong with me?

I deftly turn the conversation back to him. Will you get the tub set today? For the love of god tell me YES! I don’t know how much longer I can sit in this house day after day. He pauses and looks to the ceiling. That’s a no. What he’s really wondering is what does she do all day in this kitchen and is 10:30 too early to go to lunch?

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Secret.

Don’t you remember? That was me you whispered your dark stories to.

Me you held next to your heart all night.

Don’t you remember when you took me onto you in the cold quiet and let me think I was beautiful?

My heart knows you now, but I will not tell my soul how it turned out.canstockphoto46116925

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The Best Seller

Reading the preface to a best-seller is a bore. Writing one must be worse. It’s like trying to keep the attention of the cute guy at the cocktail party by talking about yourself. Your mouth is moving, but you sense he isn’t listening. His eyes are scanning for something, someone—else. 

Seeing this lapse in his attention you speed up a bit. You coyly augment your story with your humble greatness. You make intelligent jokes and drop names. Finally, you throw your hair back with a knowing shake. None of it works. He’s gone. He’s gone directly to Chapter One, that bitch who puts out within the first few paragraphs. She’s not refined. She doesn’t hold back.

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Earth Day in the Garden

Every Earth Day I do something like pick up trash in the neighborhood. We live off a postcard perfect old road that used to be an indian trail. It runs along a small hill and traverses the creeks and in and out a narrow bank of craggy oaks and walnuts. Living in northern Illinois, which is flat, I was drawn to the trees and hills, mini forests really, that still dot the land, although they are dwindling as the population of Chicago 

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The backyard pond

moves further and further west. I used to say we are so far west we’ll be in Iowa soon.

Prairie does not speak to me. It is too quiet. It is too dry. The wildflowers, with their thin petals, are not enough to satisfy this water girl. I prefer lush greens from wide leaves. Huge blossoms that hang heavy on the stem, almost tropical, but in beautiful balance with humidity, light and loam.

Ah humidity, my friend. My gardens in Illinois, once I learned how to amend soil, are soul-satisfying because of it. Each home we’ve had has benefitted from my gardening, however one family who bought my forever house, has planted over one garden with grass. Too much trouble for them. They preferred a fire pit which they planted smack dab in the middle of the shade garden, among the ferns and forget-me-nots, jack-in-the-pulpits and foam flowers. They even tore out the best species of viburnum that I propagated from a 4-inch hardwood twig in the middle of winter, kept under a heated cold frame for months until roots and leaves emerged. I stalk the old house and dream of rescuing plants. Stealing, really, but I don’t think they’d notice.

So today I am going to the corner to clean out the small bog with the cattails that catches plastic bags and pop containers, putting on my version of a cheap Wellie and wading in. Frogs like our latest place and on summer evenings, when the water in the bog goes too low for them to croak about, I see them flopping across the road to our place, where we keep a man-made pond splashing until November. Usually they don’t make it through the winter in our pond, but the other day I found a mud brown frog hiding in the filter, stunned from the cold water and waiting for the sun, like me.   

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Fishing in 1966

On any summer night, bedtime in a child’s room is license to play with magic. Once the cheeks are kissed and the still-damp hair is smoothed bdolly a mother’s tired hand, once the footsteps fade down the hall and little eyes adjust to the dark, the air becomes charged by fireflies and fairies, creatures given permission from eager little souls to sprinkle them with energy for the night, energy not seen since the ice cream man jingled by at 4:10.

In this particular bedroom, two little girls a year apart in birth, who during daytime hours fight over important things like who gets the fancy spoon at supper and who sweeps the floor, are now equal comrades, anxious to burrow deep into a game of Fishing.

In case you don’t recall this game, it requires a wire hanger and a youth bed with so much stuff shoved underneath it that when a hook is made out of the hanger and then swished around underneath the bed all sorts of curious things appear when it’s yanked out again: a crusty gray ankle sock once white, a Golden Book that is too babyish to read anymore, a glow-in-the-dark rosary, a pair of underwear, a Lincoln log and wait….it’s a doll’s leg, no body to it, just a leg.

The younger girl, hanging head first over the side of the bed like a true fisher-girl reaches for the lone leg, brushes some sand off it and tries to identify its owner. It’s not a Barbie leg because Barbie dolls are not allowed. It’s not Susie Sad Eyes because it’s too long. It’s not Skipper or the Elly May Clampett doll. Those dolls are small. It seems to be the leg of an older lady. One who wears high heels because it is up on its tippy toes in a very adult lady way. Through the process of elimination the girl decides the leg must be from the Jackie doll, once belonging to an older sister. Jackie as in Jackie Kennedy. The rest of the doll is gone, ruined by an older brother who stuck it up on the dartboard and threw darts at it.

In the swirling dark of the bedroom, with the teensiest bit of light shining under the door, finding the leg is enough. To a girl sprinkled with magic, it becomes the entire beautiful Jackie doll and the wall next to the bed becomes a fancy apartment and the little girl taps the leg along the wall, walking it from room to room because that’s what you do with dolls. You create life for them.

She imagines a wardrobe and an entire social calendar filled with dates with doll men that look startlingly like Ken. She imagines wearing makeup on her eyes and probably smoking cigarettes and driving a convertible and drinking things with olives in them. She probably lives in a big city and has lots of pretty high heels to match her outfits.

The girl looks over at her sister who is silent across the sea of debris on the floor between them. The gentle summer night softly creaks with crickets. She is tired and drops the leg back to the floor, but for a few minutes more she lies suspended in that magical place of creation right before sleep.

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Tao of the Beater

She will never feel the back of her thighs sizzle on a black vinyl bench seat of a ’68 Suburban station wagon as it sits in the sun on any typical day in July.

She will never know the reassuring churn of a 1970 Plymouth Fury III at 7am on a January Tuesday while it flattens 12 inches of Michigan snow like a Clydesdale in a beer commercial.pinto

She will never sit three abreast in a Chevy pickup, sandwiched so closely between two farm boys that the hair on their arms tickles her legs as one shifts gears and the other slams an Eagles tape into the 8-track.

She will never see asphalt whizzing by under her feet through a hole the size of a football in the floor of her boyfriend’s green Pinto, the one he can’t give up because of the radio that pulls in Canada even during the day.

She will never wait two days in a tiny mountain town for spark plug wires for a Fiat.

She will never flirt with the California Highway Patrol guy when her white Ford EXP blows the head gasket while turning onto the busiest entrance ramp to the busiest highway in America at the busiest time of day.

And she will never know what she is missing, this daughter of mine who drives a reliable Toyota and dreams of a brand new Volkswagon convertible, butter yellow with a tan top. 

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