Thursday, October 27, 2011

Making connections with hankies

The woman sat bent over a card table in the far corner of the room. When Kara Langsdon of the Iowa City Public Library (ICPL) introduced me, the woman never looked up. When I launched into a talk, sharing stories about growing up on a family farm in the 1950s, the woman never acknowledged there was anything else going on in the room. The jigsaw puzzle was everything.

This was the Iowa City Rehab and Health Care Center. The room was lined with wheelchairs. Few of the people who'd come to hear me speak had made it to the room on their own. I wasn't at all certain how much of what I was saying they heard or comprehended. Even by those who watched me attentively.

I was speaking there because my memoir, Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, is used by volunteer readers in a partnership between the ICPL and Iowa City Hospice. Once or twice a month volunteers visit with people who live in or rely on 11 area facilities like Iowa City Rehab and Pathways. The volunteers read, ask questions, engage in conversation. They encourage people to reminisce and share their memories. I wondered what kind of connections they made.

As I talked, answered their occasional questions, and asked questions of them. I moved from story to story, talking about having fried chicken for Sunday dinner, milking the cows and making hay. The everyday stuff of farm life. 

At one point, I asked, "Do you remember how you learned to iron clothes?"

Out of the blue, the woman in the corner put her hand in the air. She turned around, the biggest smile on her face, and responded, "Hankies!" She'd learned to iron on hankies. Just like I did. Just like almost every little girl did in the 1950s. She shared how she'd learned to iron and then she returned to her puzzle. She was delighted to share her memory; I was delighted to hear it.

What we remember, how we remember, when we remember are all uniquely personal experiences. When many other aspects of ourselves have been taken away by accident or age or illness, memories often remain, waiting to be triggered.

I'm honored that the Iowa City Public Library and Iowa City Hospice have found my book useful in helping people to reminisce and connect. And I'm especially grateful to the woman working the jigsaw puzzle for helping me to see so clearly how rewarding making those connections can be.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

October's bright blue weather

"O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather"

In eighth grade, I memorized Helen Hunt Jackson's poem, October's Bright Blue Weather. Though most stanzas have slipped from my memory, this first verse pops into my mind every year.

Iowa is sporting excellent color and weather this fall. Some of the best in recent memory. Even a trip to New England this fall did not deliver more spectacular leaves.

During the month of October, I delay my morning walk until late enough in the day to enjoy the sun's warmth and to see the fall color. The clear blue sky, crisp air, and multi-colored leaves - I store these sensory pleasures to remember as we head into the monochromatic Iowa winter.

What a gift, October's bright blue weather.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Cooking with Julia

Inspired by the movie "Julie and Julia," our dinner group tackled Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon.

The five-hour preparation time encouraged us to cook the day ahead of our dinner. The instructions promised the dish would only get better for having a day to steep in its juices.

We had as much fun attempting to pronounce the name of this signature dish as we did muddling through the dozens of preparation steps. My friend who is traveling to Quebec next week worked on the pronunciation with her instructor.

In true Julie Child fashion, we were assisted in our efforts by glasses of wine. I may have gotten better - but probably worse - with the pronunciation as the afternoon progressed.

As we agonized over whether we were doing things exactly according to Julia's directions, (you will notice there are exactly 24 onions - just as the recipe calls for) my friend shared what her French instructor had said: "Remember, it's really beef stew."

Yes, beef stew. But as with all such things, the experience made it more. Cooking with friends. Sharing a glass of wine. Laughing over our fractured pronunciation. 

When we sat down to eat, we toasted our efforts and enjoyed both the meal and the conversation. In honor of our muse, I wore pearls. Thank you Julia!

Friday, October 21, 2011

An embarrassment of riches

October 16 was Blog Action Day. The topic this year: 'Food.' I wasn't able to blog on the 16th, but I figure it's never too late to talk about food.

I am reminded of the biblical story in which Joseph interprets the Pharaoh's dream about seven fat steers and seven gaunt steers. Joseph says the seven fat steers stand for seven years in which the land will produce far more than the people need. The seven gaunt steers represent seven years of drought and famine. Joseph's advice to the Pharaoh is to preserve as much food as possible in the fat years because the country will need every bit if it in the lean years.

I feel as though we're in one of the fat years. Particularly when it comes to tomatoes. My husband planted eight tomato plants last spring because our fruit cellar shelves were bare. In spite of ridiculously unfavorable weather this summer, our tomatoes came through. And keep coming through.

We canned and filled our fruit cellar shelves. I gave boxes of tomatoes to every friend bold enough to make eye contact. I took 40 pounds of tomatoes to the food pantry. Just before we left the state in early October for a vacation on the east coast, I picked every good looking green tomato and stored all of them in the fruit cellar to ripen over the next months. The average freeze date for our area is October 10. Certainly the plants would be dead when we returned.

But did it freeze? No. And the tomato plants just kept doing their thing. Upon returning, I picked another dishpan of tomatoes. My husband made goulash. I made stew. Both of us using fresh tomatoes. Tomorrow, I'm packing up bags of tomatoes for everyone I'll see on a trip into town.

I hesitate to scream 'enough' because what if next year is one of the lean years? In Iowa we seldom have to worry about missing a crop. But you never know.

As with most biblical stories, the fat and lean cows convey more than their face value. In the face of an embarrassment of garden riches, I know the story is also about planning and sharing and gratitude and so much more. Would that everyone in the world could be so fortunate.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thumbs on the wheel

Texting while driving is a hazard. No exceptions. Texters may say they can text without looking. I don't believe it.

As we put 3,800 miles on our van over the last two weeks, we had plenty of opportunity to observe distracted driving. Cars slowing down, speeding up, slowing down. Cars swerving onto the shoulder and jerking back. Even worse, cars swerving into another lane of traffic. Sometimes a cell phone was the culprit; more often we observed the driver texting.

When we entered the Pennsylvania Turnpike, we saw signs saying the Turnpike was a text-free zone.  Other signs called for 'Thumbs on wheels.' We loved the idea and adopted it, even though we only have one cell phone between us and neither of us knows how to text.

For all the good it did, I yelled 'thumbs on the wheel' to offenders as we passed them. Even if they couldn't hear or understand me, I felt better. Our van has plenty of buttons to push, and since the vehicle is new, we aren't familiar with what they all do. Experimenting with those buttons while driving could be as hazardous as texting. 'Thumbs on the wheel,' we reminded each other from time to time.

Thumbs on the wheel. It's a good idea. I hope it catches on.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Taking its toll

Traveling offers so many new sights and experiences. Most a delight, some a pain.

We've been on the road the past two weeks. Sightseeing at Gettysburg, visiting family in Pennsylvania, attending a wedding in Massachusetts. In addition to all the fun, we've had the opportunity to sample the toll roads and attendant service plazas. Even these have been both delight and pain.

We bestow the best service plaza award on the Ohio Turnpike. A variety of food options, well maintained, easy to access, spacious. The Ohio Turnpike offered the best gas prices of the entire trip - $3.13.

Most annoying award goes to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The system for collecting tolls was inconsistent - pay at the beginning, pay at the end - and the fees were high. Plus the turnpike was under construction most of the way. Shifting lanes, slow downs, high prices. We were more than ready to exit that system.

Massachusetts was the most surprising in a delightful way. The tickets we took from the machine when we entered the turnpike indicated it would cost us $21.70 to cross the state. We gulped, got the money ready, and were delighted when the man in the toll booth took the ticket and asked for only $1.60!

The biggest sticker shock came when we crossed the George Washington Bridge going from New Jersey into New York. $12. Just to cross the bridge. Traffic was bumper to bumper. We figured thousands of cars cross that bridge every day. At $12 each. The plus on this one is the bridge is one impressive structure. And we resigned ourselves to helping New York with their budget crisis.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

BLT's for Christmas?

Great weather. Great garden. And it just keeps coming.

I foist tomatoes and peppers off on anyone who visits. We eat tomatoes at every meal. I'm not kidding. Even breakfast.

I picked two dishpans of green tomatoes and have them stored under newspaper in the fruit cellar. One year we were still eating garden tomatoes in December.

Do you think BLTs with tomatoes from our own garden would be in order at Christmas?

Monday, October 3, 2011

The very best word

I am thinking that 'Grandma' may be the very best word in the English language. My granddaughters came to visit on Sunday. Their parents in tow.  While the youngest is still a baby in arms, the oldest is two years and nine months. Old enough to plink away on the piano, navigate the swing set, know her way to the prairie - and to call me Grandma.

Grandma is delighted to run around after her everywhere. To catch her shooting off the slide a hundred times. To race with her to, and around, the prairie. To be as delighted as she is by every stick stepped over, every dried leaf discovered, every handful of pine needles picked up. To answer every 'why?' or 'what?' question she can pose.

We picked a bouquet of prairie flowers to give to her mama. After they packed up to leave, I found the bouquet still on the kitchen table. I'm delighted to have the bouquet as a reminder of a granddaughter visit. And to still hear the luscious sound of 'grandma' lingering in my ears.