Sunday, August 26, 2012

A day at the beach

I stepped over the crest of the sand dune and scanned the horizon.  So big. So far.  We're here, at the ocean - we've been excited about this ever since the inkling manifested itself into a concrete plan.

It doesn't take long for the sand to slough off the stress on my skin, in my cells.  Little bits of finely crushed shells smash against my calves as the current pulls the ground from under my feet and I feel myself sinking.  I keep my feet planted as the water spills to shore and races back repeatedly, each time trying to best her last furthest reached point.  I actually heard the song line in my head, "to the oceans white with foam," as I watched the sea foam, abandoned on the shore by its wave, seep into the ground.  I scanned the saturated surface for shells.  Timing the retrieval of my selection was a fine balance between eyeing the spread available and snatching it up, clutched tight in my fist, before the attack of the next wave.  Over and over we played this game. 

For long stretches of time I would simply face the horizon thinking about the greatness of the sea.  I pictured the globes of my elementary school classroom.  I pictured the words Atlantic Ocean in an italicized font on the deep turquoise portion of the sphere.  It was just a hand's span from the green United States to the pink Africa.  I looked out at the line where the sky meets the ocean, and thought about people on the other side standing on the shore peering at the same line.  It is awesome that the beach has expertise in freeing the mind of stressful thoughts and reoccupying that space with ideas of a more global nature.  My to-do list back home doesn't seem as urgent anymore.

Playing House

About a year ago, it occurred to me that before Abby left for college I wanted our family to take a vacation to the ocean.  I wanted the whole deal: beach house on the ocean front, stay for a week, long days on the beach.  Bill started researching beach houses for rent and found one in Avon, NC.  In the Outer Banks area, it was an ocean front property with all the amenities imaginable: inground private pool, hot tub, spacious living, ocean view.  So we booked it.  And this is where I am typing this entry from.
 The first five hours of the trip were exciting because we were finally on our way and the energy in the car was uplifting.  We drove through Washington, D.C. and saw the White House and the Washington Monument.  It was very cool and the kids were rubbernecking and chattering enthusiastically about it.  Once we hit Virginia, the novelty of the drive wore off and we were spent.  Bill was driving, and I was supposed to be sleeping so I could take the next shift.  But I couldn't sleep in the car.  Every stop would awaken me and it was wicked uncomfortable sleeping as it was.  Around 4:30 AM I took a turn at the wheel.  It took all of the consciousness of my being to keep my eyes open.  I was tapping my foot, slapping my knee in rhythm with the music, singing out loud.  I only lasted an hour before I told Bill I had to pull over.  I recommended we just take an hour to take a nap.  After that much needed rest, Bill took the wheel again.  And then it started raining.
I have never seen rain drops that big and that full of force.  It actually started coming in the windows.  We had a cargo carrier on the roof and the straps were held in by the doors.  The kids woke up to drops on their heads and sleepily tried holding napkins up to the roof to stop the streams of water coming in.  The right lane of the two-lane highway was flooded so everyone was crawling in the left lane.  Many people pulled over to the emergency late to wait out.  We later found out that a tornado had touched down in Virginia at that time.
We arrived at the realty office around 11 AM Saturday, and despite our lack of sleep felt invigorated by the arrival to our destination.  The kids played tennis while we were waiting for our house to be ready for check in.  When we got the keys and pulled up to the house, we were chattering wildly.  This was our first experience renting a house.  We had been to the ocean in Maine seven years ago, but stayed in a hotel a couple miles from the ocean.  Getting ready to explore our house reminded me of Extreme Makeover home edition when Ty says, "Go check out your house!"  We opened the front door and all four of us darted around inspecting all the rooms. 

This place is absolutely gorgeous.  It has four levels and surely was intended for a huge party to stay as opposed to a little family of four and their pooch.  We are not used to having this much space.  Our home is a small three-bedroom ranch with about 1200 square feet.  This beach house is so big that it is an aerobic experience to walk from the bottom level all the way to the top level.  We are settled in nicely and are enjoying playing house here.  For just a week we can indulge, relax, and waste time together in this beautiful getaway. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Swap Success

Today I traded my food with strangers' food.  It was my first time.  I am already imagining and anticipating the next time.

I joined a Food Swap event put on by a local organization known as the From Scratch Club.  It was all very foreign to me when I saw my friend's facebook post sharing the link to register.  The phrase "from scratch" got my attention, because, well....I cook from scratch.  It is kind of a funny phrase, from scratch.  Someday I will research its origin.  After luring me in with the club name, I started delving into the concept of the food swap.  Each participant brings a homemade something to the swap, participants go around the room perusing and sampling the items, and then people start swapping as desired.  What if no one wants my grape jelly? I posted on my friend's facebook status after my initial inquiry of interest.  Oh, someone will, she assured me.
As a special treat, the author of the book Food in Jars, Marisa McClellan, would be at the event to discuss canning and do a book signing.  So I bought my free ticket and started thinking about what I would bring.  I should reveal that I enjoy preserving, or canning.  My mom did it when I was a girl, and I loved to hear the lids popping in the kitchen as they cooled.  I happen to have a concord grapevine minding its own business on a section of my chain link fence in the back yard.  For years I just kind of ignored it, sad to say.  Then one day I decided I was going to learn how to make grape jelly.  It is kind of an arduous process: picking, stemming, washing, boiling, squashing, straining, heating, mixing, pouring, capping, and boiling.  But at the end of a good canning day I have a counter full of homegrown grape jelly and I feel satisfied.  Well, last year I got a little overzealous and I made 25 pints of it.  I was concerned it would not be enough to last the winter.  I tried to calculate one jar per week times at least 8 months and I got some hoarder tendencies creeping in my thoughts.  I did gift several jars for Christmas to my loved ones, though.  And shortly into the winter season my family got sick of PB&J and the jars didn't move off the shelf too quickly.  My grapevine is just about ready to harvest, and this morning I still had seven jars of jelly left. 

I decided to bring five to the swap.  I showed up with my basket of jelly and proclaimed my newbie status.  I was greeting with an enthusiastic welcome and directed to a table.  The whole process was very friendly and cooperative, and I felt like a part of a cool club of healthy people who were eating off the land.  Participants prepared their presentations as I scoped out the spreads.  Organic veggies, lots of jellies, salsa, breads, nut butters, pickled cucumbers, pickled cherries, pickled watermelon rinds...  We each kept a list of our faves as we walked around.  When the time came for participants to walk around and indicate written interest on the product cards, I moved about the room with polite hesitation choosing my favorite items.  After the initial interest was declared, it was time to walk around and start suggesting swaps.  All swaps were to be conducted face-to-face.  And even though someone put her name on your card, it does not constitute commitment.  The hostesses demonstrated a faux no-go-swap where the inquiree frankly smiles a "no, thank you" and I was wondering how many of those I would get.  I walked past my own card several times and was relieved to see names on my card. People want my jelly!  I would be lying if I said I would not have had hurt feelings if no one expressed interest.  I'm grateful I did not have to experience that because I am quite sensitive, especially when it comes to something I've made.  So I checked out my card, and sadly there were no names that coincided with my wish list other than my facebook friend whom I knew we were going to swap amongst ourselves anyway.  The first person on the list had eggs.  I like eggs.  But I haven't made the switch to grain fed, free range, organic, healthy, better for you, expensive eggs yet.  I knew I had an 18-pack in the fridge so I wasn't too gung ho on that one.  But when I went to her table, she also had rhubarb jelly.  Yes, please!  So I asked her if she'd like to swap and she said yes and I was the proud new owner of a jar of rhubarb jelly and had just experienced my first successful food swap.  Sweet!  Further down on my expressed interest card was the apply basil jelly.  More jelly: different jelly.  I wanted to swap with her.  I approached her, asked to swap, and she declined.  Ouch.  Okay, its alright.  Moving on.  The lady with the smores kit approached me.  It wasn't on my list, but at second glance it looked like the graham crackers and the marshmallows were homemade.  I don't know if you've ever had homemade marshmallows, but seriously they are freaking amazing.  One time my neighbor made us an entire plateful and my family sat around our table devouring them.  "Sure!" I exclaimed.  She said her daughter loved grape jelly.  Now it was getting personal and I was picturing this momma making her girl a PB&J with my jelly.  Definitely a warm fuzzy.  Next I approached my friend, laughed through the formality of suggesting and agreeing to swap, and was down to two jars.  So I walked around the room with my jelly, wondering what to ask for.  A lot of stuff was already gone.  I lingered by the almond butter station - her card was full front and back so I knew she had a lot of options.  I slowed by the radish relish and saw one jar left, but shriveled in shyness not wanting to experience the rejection.  Then the peach salsa lady approached me!  Would you still like to swap?  Yes, please!  I actually had taken three samples of her salsa during my perusing time and it was one of my original faves.  She revealed that this was her first time and it felt funny and we laughed at our mutual swapping inadequacies.  One more jar.  Well, I could go home with it.  That wouldn't be that bad.  So I was loading my loot into my basket when the radish relish lady came over and asked if she had missed the jelly.  No, I have one more jar!  I would love the radish relish!  Her recipe was taken from the book, Food in Jars, written by the guest speaker at the event. 

I was so pleased with the outcome of my first swapping experience.  A host snapped my pic with my friend as I was walking out the door and I'm hoping to see it on their blog.  I'm also anxious to see the next food swap date posted.  Because I have a gravevine that is minding its own business on the chain link fence in my back yard and it is almost harvest time.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sandy Lake

Marilyn is my mother-in-law. I met her when I was 18 years old. She is eccentric, opinionated, and old-fashioned. She appreciates my love of the lost arts of quilting, knitting and baking from scratch. I appreciate the fact that she has always accepted me with open arms and an open mind. The open mind bit is key - after all, her son and I did make her a grandma shortly after I met her.
Marilyn graduated from Sandy Lake High School in 1952. I had always known her to speak fondly of this small town west of Pittsburgh all the years I've known her. I learned about the gas station that her father owned and the small school she attended. I often tried to rummage up a visual in my mind's eye as she was telling me about her hometown. It was always a cross between Leave it to Beaver's street and Walnut Grove. She got an invitation to her 60th high school reunion. Sandy Lake is 450 miles away and Marilyn no longer has a driver's license.
"I can take you." I suggested. At first, she refused. It was too far. She couldn't ask me to do that. Well, she didn't ask - I offered. Perhaps I am just as opinionated as she because I won the argument. So on Friday we embarked on our trek - Marilyn, my kids, and I - to grandma's hometown.
When we arrived in Sandy Lake, Marilyn started pointing out landmarks and reclaiming her childhood memories. "That is the house I lived in from the age of five to 13. Oh, look! The elephant vine is still crawling up the side of the house! There's Dad's old gas station. That building was the Village Inn. Oh, my - they've gone and moved the post office! That's the street where my good friend Jessie lived..." This is why I wanted to take this trip.
We entered the reunion hall and were greeted enthusiastically by a lot of white-haired ladies. "How lovely of you to bring Marilyn - we are so glad you're here!" It was amusing to watch everyone milling around and taking hard glances at one another before unashamedly requiring to read each other's name tags in order to identify each other! There is no shame in aging in this crowd! They joked about their false teeth and orthopedic supports. We sat with Susie, Bob, Willa, and Mary. The evening was full of laughter and old stories. We heard about Leroy rolling the '29 Ford in the creek. Susie offered to have them all walk back to her house, the closest. At the sight of the muddy crew, her mom cussed, which she never did before! We heard about the time Miss Luft, their teacher, tucked her skirt into her bloomers. They said Henry, being punished in the front row, got the best view. We heard about Bill's brother Bob daring him to jump in the shallow creek and that when he did it they didn't know if he'd survived, but he did, though he was skinned chin to toe. We heard about the country road races and their senior trip to the nation's capitol where no one stayed in their rooms as they were told. It made me think differently about the older generation - hearing all the stories of teenage angst, rebellion, and recklessness. It made me realize that just because someone is old-fashioned doesn't mean they're conservative. They knew how to raise a ruckus back then! They also spoke freely of their classmates that were gone now, like they had simply gone to the store. "Oh, she's gone. Last year. Her husband, too. How about him? Oh, he's still around, up at Hillside Nursing Home. Lost his wife, though." You might think that this conversation would be depressing, but surprisingly it was not. It was real and honest and, for lack of a better word - friendly. What better way to honor their classmates memory than to remember them with roll call at the high school reunion?
My kids listened intently the whole evening. Evan, being used to working the coffee hour crowd at our church each Sunday, courteously offered to serve all the ladies tea. They all fell in love with him, of course! He loves old ladies and will tell you so. Sandy Lake is a lot like my town:  small, rural, full of lore. My daughter will be a senior in high school in September. We left the reunion and I asked her what she thought. "I loved it. I loved the stories. It makes me wonder what stories we'll tell at my high school reunion." This is why I wanted to take this trip.
We visited Marilyn's parents grave. My kids saw their great-grandparents' names on the stone. We felt connected. We felt like we had a pull in this town. We had roots here. My kids are the great-grandkids of the guy who owned the gas station at the traffic light. It felt good. This is why I wanted to take this trip.
On the drive home the next day, I used many of the early hours of the eight-hour car ride to interview Marilyn about her life. We had just visited where it began and we know her presently - but there was a long stretch in between that I was curious about. She told me about her life after high school and before becoming a wife and mother - a full ten years of living single! She became an independent, career woman working at a steel mill as an accounts secretary. She enjoyed going out with coworkers to movies and restaurants. One day she met a man who asked her out and they started courting. Yes, she said courting. That man eventually became her husband and my husband's dad. They moved to New York and started a family when she was 36 years old. It was atypical in her era to delay starting a family. But then again, why would I expect anything different? She is eccentric, opinionated and old-fashioned.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Community Garden

I don't remember exactly when the idea of a community garden was born, but I know I was immediately interested.  I have always loved to garden - I grew up enjoying the toils of weeding around the green bean plants and harvesting the summer squash.  Mom would make the best zucchini bread and the loaf would be gone in one sitting.  As an adult and homeowner, I have had differing levels of success with my own backyard garden.  Every year I have it in my head to get started, and it doesn't always work out the way I plan.  Some years are better than others and I have successfuly grown many things: squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, herbs, radishes, beans, peppers, lettuce...  But the idea of a community garden at church was very appealing to me because of many reasons.  Cultivating new earth has the draw of the fresh and untouched canvas to work on.  A gentleman kindly tilled a large section for the six women who expressed interest in participation.  We met after service one Sunday and chatted about the promise of this new venture.  Should we get a fence? How will we regulate watering?  What will you plant?  Standing there in our Sunday best beside the newly-tilled earth was a new way to communicate with other.  We are like-minded in that we have an interest in growing vegetables and we could be as individually invested and creative as we wanted.  Over the next several weeks each of us would go and fuss with our plot.  I planted 33 tomato plants.  Barb, across from me, planted a variety of sunflowers, squash, tomatoes, and marigolds.  She and her son showed up one day while I was there and to him I pointed out a cricket here and a toad there.  Sandy showed up one day while I was planting and she put in lettuce plants while we talked about Christian education.  Tracy came one evening and weeded with me - I had just run the sprinkler to hydrate the soil and loosen the weeds so we got pretty muddy.  It was late and the bugs were starting to come out.  I haven't seen Suzanne, but she has a cute little birdhouse erected in one corner of her plot.

After the initial planting and weeding visits came the daily watering errands.  The first one was a chore: find enough hose to reach the far yard behind the church, locate the missing spigot handle, figure out the sprinkler... 

The hose I brought was about 20 feet short to reach the garden. I was so frustrated.  I called my sister from my cell: "Please come help me - there are so many toads and I'm all by myself I am strapped for time and...." I'll be right there,  she said.  She showed up in her work clothes.  We ended up filling a bucket dozens of times and watering each plant individually.  She started talking to my tomato plants in a British accent telling each one, "You're lovely!" and now whenever we see each other we use the same tone and words to greet each other. 

One time I picked up my mom and brought her to the church to water with me.  We sat in the columbarium garden and prayed for my hospitalized father-in-law.  I pray anywhere: in my car, in the market, in bed...  but praying in the church garden has a sacred essence that soothes.

I have found a new nightly ritual that has become the highlight of my day.  Each night for the last week or so, my daughter has accompanied me to the garden to set up the sprinkler.  While it feeds the plants, we walk.  We set our phones to map our walk and we walk fast, talk fast, laugh, sweat, and pump our arms like serious walkers.  We track our progress, hoping to best our time each night.  All the while strengthening our relationship.  "This is fun" she said, "we should do it every night."  My 17 year old daughter said that.  I can't think of a strong enough word to express my delight in her sentiment.

From this endeavor I intended to reap the benefit of fresh garden tomatoes.  They are just starting to form fruit from the delicate yellow blooms. I didn't anticipate the other benefits I've enjoyed along the way.  Fellowship with women: all sisters in Christ - the women at church, my mom, my sister, my daughter... 

This is a story about what it was like growing up
with the knowledge that my father was gone
and the comfort that pictures brought me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Me versus June

Each spring I have great intentions.  I will sow garden plants from seed.  I will transfer all of the seasonal clothing and purge the unwanted items.  I will complete a thorough spring cleaning.  I will handcraft meaningful end-of-year teacher gifts.  I will be so awesome.

And then it is May.  Forget the clever seed starting newspaper pots on Pinterest, just stop by the local nursery and drop 75 bucks on plants and dirt.  Unload the 50 pound bags of soil from the car via wheelbarrow and drop it by the raised beds in the backyard.  I can’t see the summer tote at first glance when I pop my head up in the attic, so we’re stuck with the few t-shirts on hand that never made it to the summer box last season.  Notice during laundry that teenaged daughter is chopping last fall’s must have jeans into too-short shorts anyway.  Forget spring cleaning.  The dog is shedding.  No sense in that.  Teacher gifts?  Oh, I have plenty of time for that.
June.  June arrives with arrogance.  June doesn’t just challenge the busy mom, she raises the ante to “I bet I can kick you so hard you can’t get up.”  Bring it, my old friend.  I know your M.O.  I will not go down without a fight.  My plight is often laughable.  Planting my tomato plants in the community garden after church in my skirt, barefoot and sinking in the sludge.  Plants.  In.  Done, June!  Summer tote: check.  Yes, it’s in the middle of the dining room and the kids are charged to dig in to find clothes daily, but that counts.  Spring cleaning…well, that may have to wait.  Teacher gifts?  I have plenty of time until the last day of school.

I may have gotten cocky with the glow of my early battle win.  She is gaining on me and I’m starting to weaken.  Yes, I can produce the slide show of the 5th grade class memories for the last day of school.  How hard can that be?  You take 1,000 submitted digital photos, edit and sort them, couple them with meaningful music, and put it in a slideshow.  I am taking a class in that anyway, it shouldn’t be hard. 

Is June kicking me when I’m down again?  I will not let that happen.  Crazy hair day at school?  I got this.  Some supergel and 10 minutes of twisting spikes.  Strawberry picking season is almost over?  Kids, get in the car…now.  We have to go to the fields.  Children’s day program at church is the same day as the annual boy scout trip to Six Flags?  Of course it is.  Bring it.  We’ll do both.  I got this!  Father’s Day: crap.  Quicky add text and a cute quote to a three-generation image and print one hour at Rite Aid: done.  Fifth grade concert.  Wipe son’s tears from disappointment over not having a solo.  High school concert.  Wipe own tears in realization that this may be her last.  Birthday snack at school.  Flag Day Celebration.  Field Day.  Call Gram on her 86th birthday.  Chat a while.  She forgets my kids’ names and cries because of it.   

Make it to god-son's tball game.  He sits in the outfield and picks at his shoelaces.  Yells to me in the stands, "Hi, Aunt Amy!"  Make it to god-daughter’s softball play off game.  It’s pouring.  Six of us eat cheese fries huddled under one umbrella.  She feels our eyes on her.  She loves having a cheering section.  I love that she loves having us.

Kids are sick of me saying I really have to do my homework tonight.  I’m sick of saying hurry up or we’re going to be late.  It is the 11th hour and I’m pulling all-nighters to complete daily tasks.  Perhaps I should take a vitamin.  I can’t find them.  Add “clean out medicine cabinet” to spring cleaning to-do list.  I eat one of son’s gummi vitamins.
Driving son to school, thoughts are like trapped fireflies in a mason jar, so many lighting at once and then going out.  I can’t wait for this school year to be over, I burst out.  Really, mom?  Cause I’m kinda sad about it.  It’s my last year of elementary school.  I’m three-fourths bitter and one-fourth sweet.  Sigh.  She did it.  June got me.

It is June 24th.  School is out.  I tucked my 10-year-old in and fell asleep beside him.  Daughter got dropped at sleepaway camp this morning.  I hugged her a dozen times at dropoff.  And she let me.  The dirt still sits in bags next to the raised beds.  The teachers all received homemade origami lotus flowers handmade by my son.  Perfect.
I’m just not going to keep score with June anymore.