Family

Yarn Yoda and the Force

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I don’t know whether my grandson Henry, at age five, can quote Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back. Chances are he can.

I assume this because long, long ago, in a theatre far, far away, I remember watching Henry’s father watching the original Star Wars movie when he was about a year younger than Henry is now. He didn’t fidget; he didn’t talk; he didn’t get drowsy even though he had just finished a huge Thanksgiving dinner. He sat enraptured through the whole film, meanwhile munching his way steadily through a big bag of popcorn that he should not possibly have had room for.

Here and now, in this galaxy, Star Wars has come around again. This means a whole new universe of toy light sabers, action figures, and other galactic merchandise.

Including Yarn Yoda. Continue reading

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The Perfect Christmas Tree

Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)

But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)

These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Continue reading

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Leaving the Lights On

Even by the standards of an early-morning person like me, 8:30 p.m. isn’t really late. But in the short days of late November, when you’ve just staggered off of an airplane at the end of a day that started 20 hours earlier on a different continent, 8:30 p.m. can feel like the deep, dark middle of a very long night.

But the plane landed promptly, my friends were at the airport to pick me up, and when we turned from the dark street into the dark driveway of what I expected to be our dark house—there was light. My daughter had stopped by to turn up the thermostat, and she had left the porch light on for me. Plus the light inside the entryway, plus a lamp shining warmly through the front window.

The impact of this simple gesture went far beyond the practical kindness of making it easier to lug my bag up the steps and unlock the door. The light allowed me to walk into a warm, bright haven instead of a cold, dark house. It made me feel safe and welcomed me home.

And I was reminded of one of the stories my father told. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 4 Comments

Hollyhock Dolls

Hollyhocks are weeds. Or so I’ve been told by several “real” gardeners. The kind of gardeners who know the proper temperature for compost, whose tomatoes flourish, and whose gladiolus (gladioluses? gladioli?) win awards at county fairs. The kind of gardener that I definitely am not.

Maybe feeling intimidated by those experts is the reason I never got around to planting hollyhocks, even though I always wanted some in my yard. Even though I carried a secret stash of hollyhock seeds in a little plastic bag through six moves. Both their identity and their provenance were definite, because in the bag with them was a scrap of cardboard torn from the top of a cereal box. Written on it, in my Uncle Ernie’s careful handwriting, was “Hollyhock seeds from the Smith place, 1983.”

Three years ago, I finally planted those seeds, along with some others scavenged with permission from the garden of an old mansion-turned-museum in Trinidad, Colorado. Amazingly, some of them sprouted. Some of them grew. Some of them even thrived.

This year, despite drought and heat, they and their descendants have taken over half of one bed in our flower garden and are blooming vigorously. I have to admit that they have spread like, well, weeds. And that with their huge leaves and tall stems they do look a bit, well, weedy. I might even acknowledge that I would be wise to cut some of them back this fall before all those seeds mature.

But in the meantime, I can show my grandkids how to make hollyhock dolls the way my sisters and I used to do.

Here’s how: You pick a few blossoms that are fully open, plus a matching number of half-open buds or smaller blossoms. You strip the stem off of the buds, along with the green leaves that support the bottom of the flower. (A real gardener, no doubt, would know what those are called.) This reveals a little eye-shaped opening between each partially furled petal. Carefully slide the stem of one of the open flowers into one of those openings as far as it will go. The larger open blossom, upside down, becomes the long, full skirt of a gown. The white bottom part of the half-open bud becomes the doll’s face, adorned with a frilly hat.

 

Okay, maybe the faces are a little rabbity, the hats a bit crooked, and the gowns a trifle uneven. But they’re fun. And, given the generous abundance of hollyhocks, nobody cares that you pick them.

The other day, as we passed on our daily walks, one of my neighbors said, “I just love your hollyhocks. They remind me of my grandmother.” She asked if she could harvest some seeds, which I’ll be happy to share.

So it isn’t just me who understands what’s going on here. It doesn’t matter that, to some gardeners, hollyhocks look like weeds. To some of us, they look like memories.

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Cool Dudes and Cooler Dads

A quiet summer evening, the Safeway parking lot, a family heading to their car with a few groceries. Mom was walking beside a child who looked about five, holding the hand of another little one who might have been two or three. Dad, behind them, had an even littler kid up on his shoulders.

And Dad was skipping. The toddler, held safely on top of the world in his father’s firm hands, with his own fists full of Dad’s hair by way of insurance, bounced high with every skip and giggled with glee. No one, seeing this, could help but smile.

Well, almost no one. Coming after this happy pair was one more child, a boy of around ten. He was slouching along several steps behind, looking down, with his cap pulled down over his face. Everything about his posture said he was doing his best to pretend the rest of the family had nothing to do with him. You could practically hear him thinking, “I can’t believe this. My dad is skipping. In the parking lot at Safeway, in front of everybody in the whole wide world. Please, please, please, don’t let any of my friends see this.”

Back when Dad was 19 or 20, he might have felt the same way. He probably couldn’t imagine his future self doing something so undignified and so uncool.

Several children later, he knows better. It will be a while yet before the embarrassed older brother appreciates the value of the lesson his dad was demonstrating there in the parking lot. That good fathers care more about getting shrieks of delight from their children than about whether they look cool to strangers.

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Just Don’t Call Me Late for Dinner

“You were born just in time for supper, and you haven’t missed a meal since.”

My mother told me that once, when we were talking about the births of our children and I asked her what time I had arrived.

I assumed the “haven’t missed a meal” part referred to my appetite. I am neither a glutton nor a gourmand, but I do like to know where my next meal is coming from. I much prefer my meals to show up reliably and regularly, even when I provide them myself. The people around me prefer this, too, since I tend to get just a teeny, tiny bit irritable if it’s 15 minutes or so past mealtime and I haven’t been fed yet. By 30 minutes or so past mealtime, I develop a headache and get shaky, and the people around me tend to get nervous. I would blame this on hypoglycemia if I were more sure of how to spell it.

It makes no sense to me that some people routinely skip breakfast or get so busy that they forget to eat. I never miss a meal myself except in extreme circumstances, such as serious illness or the unreasonable demands of medical professionals.

I was not happy this morning, for instance, that my blood work—my fasting blood work—for a routine checkup was scheduled at the outrageous hour of 8:30 a.m. When you regularly wake up at 5:00 or 5:30, that’s practically the middle of the morning. By the time I got out of the clinic at 8:52, I had a serious headache. My hand was shaking so much that I had trouble peeling the banana I had stashed in my purse. On the bright side, at least I had neither passed out nor been actively rude to anybody.

Back in my own kitchen a few minutes later, savoring the aroma of brewing coffee and waiting for the toast to pop up, I summoned up enough grace for gratitude. Gratitude that, in my world, hunger is an occasional inconvenience and not a chronic condition. Gratitude that I consistently know where my next meal is coming from. Gratitude that I have the means not only to feed myself but to give to those who can’t.

And gratitude for my mother, whose teasing about my “never missing a meal” I suddenly understood in a different way. Members of my family didn’t miss meals. We didn’t have to, because of her. She put nutritious, tasty food on the table three times a day, every day. Even though she didn’t especially enjoy cooking. Even when there wasn’t much to cook with. Even though cooking “from scratch” often included canning or freezing the vegetables, gathering the eggs (after raising the hens who laid them), and butchering the chickens. She did this, day in and day out, for decades.

No wonder I developed the habit of relying on regular meals. It’s the way I was raised.

Categories: Family, Food and Drink | 1 Comment

The Unlocked Room Mystery

All I meant to do was change my clothes. Really. I didn’t mean it to turn into a big drama.

First, a little background. The family was gathered at my youngest sister’s house the day before our father’s funeral. Now, any time you have a houseful of a couple of dozen people who are sad, stressed, and exhausted, there’s potential for plenty of drama. Especially when it’s right before lunch.

I took the slacks I had just pressed into the guest room, closed the door, changed my clothes, and started to leave the room. The door wouldn’t open.

At first I assumed I had simply locked it by mistake. But no matter which position the lock was in, or which way I turned the knob, or how much I jiggled and pushed and pulled on it, the door stayed shut. The knob turned in my hand, but the latch didn’t move. Apparently, something was wrong with the mechanism.

I was acutely embarrassed. Here we were, in the middle of a sorrowful family occasion, with everyone grieving, and I had to divert people’s attention from taking care of difficult and important things because I couldn’t, for God’s sake, get myself out of a room that I didn’t mean to lock myself into?

But finally I had to admit it was time to summon help. The next time I heard someone out in the hallway, I knocked on the door, got the attention of a passing niece, and explained my predicament.

And the family, in our own particular way, sprang into action. Warning: here comes the drama.

My niece went and told my sister the homeowner, “Your sister is locked in the guest room.” Her response was “Which sister?” I guess I should consider myself lucky that, when she found out which sister it was, she didn’t opt to just leave me in there.

A self-appointed committee of problem-solvers gathered outside the door. Now, you’d expect these first-line rescuers to work together in a helpful, courteous, and cheerful manner—after all, one was an Eagle Scout and three were civil engineers.

But other family members chimed in, as well, helpfully and just a trifle too cheerfully. Here is a sample of their advice and support:

• “Should we make some pancakes to slide under the door?”
• “It’s a good thing somebody brought that thin-sliced ham; it would fit under the door.”
• “Don’t panic in there: heavy breathing will just use up the oxygen.”
• “We could get one of those chocolate brownies under the door if somebody stepped on it first to mash it flat.”

While the problem-solvers pondered outside the door, I explored inside the room. Where I discovered:

• If this turned into a long siege, quilting magazines were the only available reading material. However, there were board games in the closet.
• The piece of plastic that someone slipped under the door didn’t work to budge the latch. Too bad it wasn’t a credit card; while I was waiting for rescue, I could have done some online shopping. Oh, but I didn’t have my phone. Never mind.
• Despite all the mysteries and thrillers I’ve read, I don’t know how to pick a lock with a nail file, a bobby pin, or a knitting needle.

After due pondering, the rescue committee came up with a solution. My brother-in-law slid a screwdriver under the door and told me to take off the doorknob.

It takes a long time to remove a couple of two-inch screws which are threaded along their entire length, too stiff to turn with one’s fingers, and close enough to the doorknob that you have to reposition the screwdriver every half-turn. Especially when there’s way too much laughing going on outside the door, interspersed with moments of silence when you begin to wonder if everyone has forgotten about you and gone off to have lunch.

Which, of course, they didn’t. Once I got the screws out and took the doorknob off on my side, they were right there to remove the lockset on the outside.

The door still wouldn’t open. One of the engineers figured out the problem: a broken or jammed thingamabob inside the mechanism that kept the latch from moving. He popped loose the offending part, the latch shifted, the door opened, and I was free. Just in time for lunch.

Of course, the meal was garnished with more good-natured smart remarks. But as one of my sisters said, “We needed that laughter.” It certainly was better than yelling, blaming, and hysterics. Some families may do drama with more, well, drama—but this method works for us.

I do think, though, that somebody could have slipped me a squashed chocolate brownie.

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A Life Well Lived “In the Middle of Nowhere”

I recently met a woman who lived not far from where I grew up in south-central South Dakota, and she asked me where my family’s farm was. When I told her, “Fifteen miles north and west of Gregory,” she said, “But that’s in the middle of nowhere!”

Well, we didn’t think so. We were only six miles from the highway, after all. To qualify as “the middle of nowhere,” surely you’d have to be at least 20 or 25 miles from the nearest pavement.

I will admit, though, that when it rained those six miles turned into a formidable obstacle of slippery, sticky gumbo. Even in later years, after the roads were graded and graveled, driving on them after a rain required a judicious amount of care and respect.

I remember one visit to my parents back when I was a single mom with two young children. It rained heavily the night before I needed to head home, and I was a little nervous about those six miles of gravel-over-gumbo between the highway and me. I loaded the kids and our stuff into my little Datsun station wagon, braced myself, and took off. We slipped and slid a few times, but made it with no real problems. After those first six miles, the rest of the 250-mile trip was a breeze.

After I got home, I made the usual “We’re home safe” phone call to my parents. My dad happened to answer the phone. I said I hadn’t had any trouble getting through the mud. He chuckled and said, “You didn’t know you had a guardian angel following you, did you?”

After I left, he had gotten into the pickup and driven a half mile behind me all the way to the highway, just in case I slid off the road and needed some help. I never even knew he was there.

My father almost never said, “I love you.” What he did instead was do “I love you.” That day, his actions said “I love you,” as clearly as if he had shouted it.

More clearly, in fact. He could have told us goodbye with big hugs and said, “I love you so much”—and then stayed comfortably in the warm house and had another cup of coffee. Instead, he put on his coveralls, went out to the pickup, and drove six miles through the mud to the highway and six miles back. He was there behind me just in case I needed him.

Ten years ago, my parents drove out to Rapid City because my father had an appointment with the cardiologist. They stayed at my house for a couple of days. Since my dad, at age 82, wasn’t comfortable driving in city traffic, I served as the driver while they were here. But the morning they were to leave, I drove my car to the clinic and they followed me. When my dad had seen the doctor, they started for home.

As I watched them pull out of the clinic parking lot onto Fifth Street and head north, I knew they shouldn’t have any trouble. All they needed to do was stay on that street all the way through town to I-90.

Still, after waiting a minute, I pulled out onto Fifth Street and headed north myself. Staying back far enough so they wouldn’t notice me, I followed them through town until I saw them turn onto the Interstate. It really wasn’t necessary, but I was there behind them just in case they needed me. It was my turn to be the guardian angel—to do “I love you.” Just the way I learned it from my father.

In the years since, as our parents have aged and needed more help, saying “I love you” has become much more common. But my sisters and I have also had plenty of opportunities to do “I love you,” especially in the past few months. Our father spent most of the month of July in the hospital. On July 23 he had a heart attack, and on July 27 he died.

In the days after his death, as we wrote his obituary and made arrangements and supported our mother, I found a great deal of comfort in two things. One was the stories and memories we shared, with plenty of laughter as well as tears. Another was realizing the great respect and love that so many friends and members of the extended family had for our father. I always knew that he was a man of integrity who could be relied on. I always knew I was proud to be his daughter. I hadn’t fully understood how much, in his own quiet way, he touched and influenced so many people. Even in a place some people might see as “the middle of nowhere,” his life made a difference.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 8 Comments

What Mother’s Day Cards Don’t Say

(I wrote this several years ago. It’s still true.)

I hate picking out Mother’s Day cards. Oh, not because I don’t love my mother. I do. I also like my mother, respect her, admire her, and enjoy her company (except maybe for all those times when she beat me by more than 50 points at Scrabble). I’m deeply grateful that she’s a part of my life. But it’s still hard to find a card that suits her.

Mother’s Day cards are generally divided into two styles. First there are the neutral ones, those with the carefully worded, noncommittal greetings. They’re generic enough for almost anyone. You might send them to your mother-in-law, or your neighbor, or your aunt—or your mother, if the two of you didn’t get along very well. Those don’t exactly convey the loving message I’d like to send.

Then there are the other cards—the soppy, sentimental ones. These must be produced by writers who are trained by attending a boot camp for greeting card writers. They spend six weeks locked in windowless rooms, where they are required for 15 hours a day to read and reread Little Women and the more sentimental novels of Charles Dickens. Only then are they considered qualified to write Mother’s Day verses.

The problem with these cards is that they aren’t written to or about real people. They try to invoke an idealized version of “Mother” who is endlessly patient, kind, understanding, loving, dedicated, noble, and self-sacrificing. This mythical creature is a mishmash of June Cleaver, Ma Ingalls, and the Virgin Mary, with touches of Florence Nightingale and Lassie thrown in for good measure.

Real mothers aren’t like that. Nor, in my opinion, should they be. Still, I love my mother, and I’d like to send her a suitable card. If I could find one, these are some of the things it might say:

For my mother—
• Whose walls are decorated, not only with her own beautiful quilted creations, but also with antlers of her own deer.
• Who patiently spent long-ago summer evenings helping small daughters fish when she surely would rather have been left in peace to tend her own line.
• Who taught me that preparing a meal for 25 or 30 people doesn’t have to be a big deal.
• Who took loving care of her own elderly mother and mother-in-law.
• Who taught me that, in times of crisis, sentiment might be noble but practical action is a lot more help.
• Who taught me that half the fun of playing Scrabble comes from knowing the meaning of the words you use—but there’s still nothing quite like using the “Q” on a triple word score.

And who taught me that being an adult—whether you’re a parent or not—means showing up, day in and day out, and doing what needs to be done. And if, in return, someone gives you a little chocolate once in a while, that’s not a bad deal.

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Read-Fried Potatoes

According to our father, one of my sisters, as a teenager, made the best fried potatoes he’d ever eaten. The secret? She would let the potatoes brown until they were just thiiiis close to burning, which meant they came out perfectly, deliciously crisp. Here’s how she—and perhaps others of us in the family, who are certainly not going to admit who I am—does it:

Peel and slice however many potatoes seems about right for the number of people you’re feeding. Go ahead, toss in one more—these will be so good, people are going to take second helpings.

Chop an onion, or two, or half of one, depending on your taste.

Heat oil in an iron skillet.

Toss the potatoes and onions into the skillet, spread them around, turn the heat down to medium.

Sit down at the kitchen table with whatever book you are currently reading. Resume reading until you begin to smell potatoes on the verge of burning. Finish paragraph, mark place in book, put it down, stir potatoes.

Repeat as needed, until chapter is finished and potatoes are brown and crisp on both sides. Salt to taste (the potatoes, not the book) and serve.

See? So simple anyone can do it. There are, however, a couple of important secrets to success.

One is careful selection of the main ingredient. Oh, don’t worry about the potatoes. Red, russet, large, small, peeled, unpeeled—it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you have on hand will work just fine.

No, what you have to choose wisely is the book. One with especially long paragraphs can be a problem. Even worse is a gripping mystery or thriller, especially if you’re near the end, and in just two or three more pages you’ll uncover the murderer or the hero will escape and succeed in saving the free world, and you just can’t put it down. Right and justice may prevail, but that’s small consolation in exchange for a skillet full of charred potatoes.

A deeply emotional story has its pitfalls, as well. Say the long-lost lovers have just been reunited, or the almost-villain has just redeemed himself with a noble self-sacrifice and is breathing his last, and you are reading as fast as you can, with a lump in your throat and a damp wad of tissues clutched in your hand. Even if you manage to come up for air and another tissue in time to keep the potatoes from burning, there’s a serious risk of them turning out soggy and oversalted as a result of overflowing tears.

The second secret is, no matter how exciting a scene you’re in the middle of, put the book down while you attend to the potatoes. Continuing to read while you stir might seem like a good idea, but like so many other methods of multi-tasking, it is less efficient than it seems. For one thing, you risk spattering hot oil all over your book or e-reader. Too many little blobs of grease on the screen, and not only is it hard to make out the words, but the device might not respond to your finger-swipes when you want to turn a page. (Please don’t ask me how I know this.) And you don’t want to be that library patron—the one who returns books splattered with yellow spots and smelling like the kitchen of a fast-food restaurant that barely passed its last inspection.

Besides, with your attention on your reading, there’s a good chance of serious stirring errors. Either you’ll miss half of the potatoes and burn the others—in which case you might just as well have sat at the table and finished the chapter. Or you’ll stir too forcefully and risk knocking the hot skillet completely off the stove. Then you’ll not only have a mess to clean up, but you might get a serious burn. Even worse, if the iron skillet falls on your foot you’ll end up with broken bones and have to be taken off to the emergency room.

If that happens, you’ll get no potatoes. Although, while you wait for the doctor, you will have plenty of time to finish your book.

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