Monday, May 25, 2009

Where are they today?

So long as we are loved by others I should say that we are almost indispensable; and no man is useless while he has a friend. --Robert Louis Stevenson

This weekend, families all across the country drove to cemeteries to decorate the graves of loved ones with a spray of red silk roses, or maybe a handful of fragrant peonies from the bush in the backyard; some left notes with touching words like “I miss you, Papa” tied to a bright balloon or tucked under a ceramic angel.

We were among them. Kneeling beside the marble slab, I trimmed down the bunch of yellow button daisies, arranged them in the bronze vase, and emptied our water bottles into it. It had been a year since I had visited Mom and Dad’s grave, and the grass has grown in thick and green, and the new trees have gotten bigger.

I stood there long enough to say a couple of prayers for them. It makes sense to do that now that I am returning to Catholicism. Catholics believe, as did the Jews and the early Christians, that those who die in friendship with God go to a place for purification before entering heaven. While there, the prayers sent up by those they left behind can shorten their time in that place called purgatory, if God wishes to grant them.

It feels good to be able to do something for my mother now that I can no longer read to her or bring her a piece of Thanksgiving pie or hug her. Of course, the doctrine of purgatory is not there to just make us feel better but is both scriptural and deeply traditional. A good explanation can be found at Catholic Answers:

But wherever the visitors to the cemetery that day believed their loved one’s soul had gone, each in her way took a little time to honor a memory and dust off a plaque and reaffirm that life. Some spent longer, like the white-haired man we passed sitting very still in a lawn chair beside a grave, looking like, in all the world, this was where he most wanted to sit, as close as he could get for now to one who had left early.

May God bless all those who grieve. And may Memorial Day remind us to each do what good we can, while we can, for as William Penn said, “I will not pass this way again.”

Monday, May 18, 2009

Meet me on the midway

Last night I watched a musical I’d never seen, State Fair from 1945. The Frake family sang the opening song as they got ready to ride off to the fair. Mother was putting her finishing touches on the huge crock of mincemeat she was entering in the pickle-and-mincemeat category. I started wondering: what’s in mincemeat? I had neither made it nor tasted it.

So I pulled out my tried-and-true 1973 Crisco Favorite Foods cook book, a slim volume that has served me since my first days of cooking for the family. The mincemeat pie recipe called for a jar of mincemeat. What? So I pulled out the big book: Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, which the salesman had generously thrown in when I bought the 1990 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. Like those esteemed volumes, that cook book had everything in it—until now. Again, I was told to add a jar of mincemeat.

Naturally, I went to the web. I found out that mincemeat goes way, way back, starting as a good way to preserve meat by cooking it into a concoction of fruit, sugar, and spices to preserve it. Basically, mincemeat involves meat, suet, apples, currents, raisins, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, cider and brandy, all chopped and boiled up and then baked (usually) between pie crusts. I might start with a jar of the stuff and see what I think.

But one genuine thing I do want to try is a state fair. The musical left me longing to see exceptionally large hogs beside their proud owners, pie contests, blue-ribbon tomatoes, ring-toss games with cheesy prizes, and Ferris wheels against the night sky. It occurred to me that in the chaos of my earlier life I never took my children to a state fair, although I believe we made it to a county fair. We never entered our special apple pie in the cook-off and had no domesticated animals to groom and show. We only grew produce once, a small patch of green beans next to the garage, which we happily picked and ate up quickly. Despite that success, though, we never grew another crop.

As of 11 o'clock last night, we’re planning on driving three hours southwest this September to the Kansas fair to catch up a little. Maybe we’ll bring a pie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Everything just perfect

My Mother’s Day treat was to tour the Alexander Majors historic house in Kansas City, just 11 feet inside the Missouri state line. The front yard is in Kansas. But no matter. I love touring old houses to be reminded of how people—usually wealthy people—lived. But even in a monied home, certain rooms were kept strictly functional, such as the kitchen and the bathroom, when those were added. Let’s take for example the kitchen in the Majors mansion. First of all, the walls were plain white. The windows that had curtains had plain white ones. The walls were decorated with drying herbs and cooking utensils that they actually used. Shelves displayed mason jars and plates and baking pans. And it was beautiful.

Now, I like my living areas to look just so—warm and welcoming and attractive. But these days a great fuss is made over kitchens and bathrooms as well, with perfectly coordinated towels and tile, with decorative (not-to-be-used) plates and pitchers on kitchen shelves, with gleaming granite countertops that cost as much as a driveway. Retailers and home magazines encourage us to keep several sets of dishes on hand, one for each season—as the quote shows, House Beautiful can point us to something in blue and yellow for summer.

All I know is that’s a lot to keep up with, a lot to buy, and a lot to think about. One writer I read recently encouraged us to get back to a focus on being rather than having. Good advice. Let our houses be tidy and bright. Display things that matter to you. Throw in some colors that make you feel good. These things make a house beautiful.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Are you working?

Mothers all over the country will be celebrated this Sunday, May 10, and what a fine thing that is. For the world's hardest job pays no salary, knows no schedule, issues no commendations, and lasts your entire life; so, well it should be honored once a year.

Still, while millions of people will be taking Mom to dinner or hurriedly buying her the last bouquet at the Stop 'n Go, so many still do not acknowledge the demands of being a mother--that it is every bit as much a calling and a job as any other profession that might earn a woman a paycheck and get her recognized as "working." Indeed, an acquaintance--a perfectly bright gentleman--just last night asked me if I was working. How does a mother answer that question without sounding peevish but remaining honest? Yes, I work. All the time. Am I getting a paycheck, you mean? No, nothing like that.

It would have been very nice if the women's liberation movement had, instead of pushing ladies into employment as the only way to fulfill one's abilities, raised the nation's understanding of the invaluable work that women do in the home and in society as mothers, wives, and volunteers. Wouldn't that have been something?

As it is, let's enjoy our day and politely spread the word that yes, we are working.

P.S. As an interesting aside, the woman who championed Mother's Day into being recognized as a national holiday, Anna M. Jarvis, became very distraught over the commercialization of the day. She actually fought to halt the selling of greeting cards and flowers and even came to regret what she had put in motion. Nevertheless, she did a good thing, and hopefully she knows that now. She died in 1948 without ever becoming a mother herself.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Time to feed the hummingbirds

Strands of spider’s web are employed to attach the [ruby-throated hummingbird’s] nest to the upper side of a horizontal limb, generally in hickory, oak, pine, or tulip-poplar trees.

--Marcus Schneck, Creating a Hummingbird Garden

First of all, this column is late--about two weeks late. The note I had stuffed away with my hummingbird feeder in a box in the basement tells me that I was supposed to put elixir out for these thirsty migrant birds back in mid-April. But, since these tiny travelers will be flying north until early June, you still have a good month of feeding available.

I use a simple glass feeder with four red, blossom-like openings that does a good job of attracting the little fellows. I boil one cup of water and add 1/4 cup of regular, granulated sugar, then stir it well until all the sugar is dissolved. Once it's cool I pour it into the feeder and hang it up on a shepherd's hook in the garden. Keep in mind that where there is sugar water, there shall the ants be. So I don't hang the feeder from the house because our kitchen attracts enough ants already. Change the solution a couple of times a week.

By mid-June the hummers disappear from our area (the Midwest), and I take the feeder down. But they'll be back in mid- to late July, flying south this time, and will visit the feeder until September.

Of course, you can also plant flowers that attract these intriguing birds. The lists of these are very long and include some for each season. Common ones are petunias, begonias, lantana, Japanese honeysuckle, fuschia, and trumpet vine. However you lure hummers, children and adults love to watch the hovering birds feed, and this provides a good way to teach about bird migration and the never-ending wonders of creation.