Big Red

My mother and father had a very active social life. They were rarely home of a Friday or Saturday evening, and I can recall many Sunday mornings, before I was 5, wandering downstairs amazed at the fall-out from the night before. Over-full ashtrays, glasses with little round green things in them (which I ate, learning much later they were vodka-soaked martini olives), partially filled salvers and small trays with odd-looking (and in some cases, smelling) items on crackers. Only after one such morning when I was caught plucking the olives out of the glasses and eating them did I no longer see the residual from the night before on Sunday mornings. My parents had many, many friends.

One couple they were especially fond of found themselves wanting a more rustic life, away-from-it-all and bought a farm on the outskirts of the city limits. They completely renovated the actual house and it became so lovely Southern Living featured it in a subsequent issue. There was a 17-acre lake nestled beside the house… all in all it was quite a pastoral setting.

There was a share-cropper family still living on this farm and they were asked to stay on as care takers of the property. Their house was not far from the main house, walking distance, and they also kept some chickens. And a very large, reddish pig, named “Big Red”.

Occasionally on one of my family’s Sunday afternoon visits there my mother’s friend asked would I please go to the chicken house and bring her the eggs? I loved animals of all kinds, and especially loved the idea that I might be doing something important rather than being shooed out of their hair which was more likely what the errand was for. So I happily ran out the back door and skipped down the gravel lane to where the chickens were.

The chicken coop was right next to Big Red’s pen. I emerged with my basket of oh, maybe half a dozen fresh eggs and, carefully closing the hen-house door, turned to go on my way and bring the eggs to find myself face to face with a really large Pig. Bigger than I’d remembered. Bigger than his name. He clearly saw himself as guardian of that chicken house and I was an intruder. I carefully edged backward, trying to appear nonchalant. He inched closer. Seeing this strategy would not work I realized there was only one way out- run for it. Holding the small basket tightly to my stomach hoping not to jostle the eggs and break them I took off.

The pig was fast, just not as fast as I. I did make it back (evidently Red stopped just at the turn to the farm house, still standing on the gravel lane), but I do not recall how many of the eggs made it whole. I do recall my mother and her friend laughing till they cried.

My mother told me, much later, that pig made the best, leanest ham and bacon they’d ever eaten.

I don’t remember whether I was sorry or not.

Winter vegetables

We have a lot of luxuries in the South, you know? Long, lazy evenings for nearly 8 months out of the year. We have lightning bugs (nobody but us calls them this, everywhere else they are fireflies), cicadas, locust-like grasshoppers and, oh yes, crickets. We can hear the crickets most all the year especially when they get in the house and keep us up all night in their lonely chirping for their long lost… well, whatever it is that crickets lose. Some say they are good luck. Some people swear you can tell the temperature on a cold night by the number of chirps in a minute. I forget but you can google (or bing) it.

But I digress.

The luxury I indulge in during those short, cold winter days is my winter garden. I just put mine out. Swiss chard, kale, spinach, collards, chives and some parsley. The real luxury? Weeds are mostly dormant. Not so many bugs. The tender plants have a much better chance of survival, especially if you spray “Critter Ridder(r)” on them which is just a glorified pepper spray. Cayenne & black pepper. No self-respecting rabbit or deer would dare eat anything with all that mess on it. So I am hoping for an abundant harvest.

Did you know that you can drizzle olive oil over kale leaves, pop them on a cookie sheet in a hot oven and make kale chips? I will have to try this.

Maybe next year I will put out some winter squash, if I am feeling ambitious.

Great blue heron

This is a bird that has always struck awe in me, drawn my breath away on sight. Until recently I thought they were exclusively coastal with only a few mavericks straying inland to remind those fortunate enough to happen upon one of the majestic diversity and grace in nature. Watching them take flight transports me to an ageless place where only seeing beauty matters. There is nothing awkward about them. They walk gracefully on stilt-like legs, they stand eternally in still waters until just the precise moment when they are assured of capturing prey. They are a perfect creature, to me.

Feeling somewhat an interloper, I have watched web cams of a heron’s nest where they, unsuspecting or uncaring of anyone’s watching, lay two to three eggs, diligently incubate them, then hatch and rear their young painstakingly until they too, gangly legs and all, take their first unerring flight. 

One particular heron I was almost guaranteed to catch sight of by a pond my dog Lily and I frequently walk by. There, suddenly by a copse of cypress knees, would the bird stand, single leg raised, still as a statue, waiting for an unsuspecting fish or some other tasty morsel to forget it is there. In a fluid, single motion its head would disappear beneath the surface of the shallows and emerge a split-second later with a slender fish.

Not long ago we walked by this same pond and I did not see the heron. Not surprising, I thought, there are many ponds in the area being so close to Lake Norman, or even the lake itself or the Maguire Nuclear Station where the dam is. Lots of shallow grasses there, hiding something delicious.

And then a week or so ago I read a brief letter to no one in particular I suppose, in one of those weekly shopper newspapers they throw in people’s driveways. The writer was leaving a parking lot and stopped to watch a group of maybe 4 or 5 herons there when a white pickup truck crashed right through them. Not one of them survived.

The writer wanted to know, why?

So do I.

TV withdrawal (not)

I was around 7 when my parents got our first television. It almost shut down my imagination and creative side. My brother and I would walk home from school (across the street) and plop ourselves in our comfy family den and turn the set on (by the way, why were they called a set? It was only one thing), wait for it to warm up and watch one of 3 channels it could receive. Our favorites were “Amos ‘n Andy”, “Dark Shadows”, and “The Edge of Night” ( what a name for a soap opera). Nobody but us and the housekeeper were home so nobody basically told us no TV till our homework was done. Whoopee! We loved it. The screen was tiny but we sat close up. Some nights, not sure what the circumstances were, I remember seeing the Sign Off- the American flag waving proudly against a bright blue sky and the national anthem playing. Then test pattern. Nobody remembers those things, do they?

And then there was junior high where we had to read George Orwell’s 1984 for summer reading. We learned “Big Brother” would communicate with people, even spy on them, through their televisions! Imagine.

Fast-forward to now. Television screens almost movie theater big. Plasma, not radio tubes. My, my. Movies to order, you can TiVo, almost a tv in every room. No thanks.

So recently, an organization I affiliate with, Intercessors for America, challenged its members to a fast. I don’t eat enough interesting food to drop anything there, so I picked TV watching. This began 9/11/13. It’s almost been 2 weeks and I haven’t missed it. Not one thing about it. Before I could not watch enough Food Network’s “Chopped”, or Hallmark channel movies. No distracting, abstract noise in the background. I feel much more focused, more present. When I play with Murphy and Lily (my 2 rescues) I’m all there, they have all my attention. It’s great. 

This is a timed event, 3 weeks. Not sure what I will do once it’s over. I am enjoying my peace and quiet very much. No, I don’t feel out of the loop, uninformed. I catch snatches logging in to msn for hotmail, or my Sunday newspaper. I just feel better. Cleaner. More whole.

Maybe I will keep it off. Big brother can’t watch anything here. Not that there’s anything much to see anyways.

Food ( ie??)

I remember in my naive and younger days following my mother around the kitchen on the rare occasion (usually a dinner party) she found herself there. Fascinated with various implements- sifters, beaters, scrapers -that she used I asked if she would teach me to cook. Without missing a beat she replied, “If you can read you can cook.” Ok, so I could barely see above the countertop but I could read. So I filed this very important information away.

A few years later I was following the housekeeper around the kitchen as she prepared our fried chicken for that night. She did not seem to mind my being there, so I watched her carefully as she took the chicken pieces, dredged (I did not know this word then, only that she rubbed them around in a plate of flour) the pieces with salted and peppered flour, and gently placed each one in a cast iron frying pan crackling with grease so they fit together in the pan. I watched as she took a fork and turned each piece in the pan with one hand, the other hand placed firmly on her hip, so the pieces browned evenly to a tasty crisp on both sides. After each had cooked she then dropped them one by one on a brown paper bag on a plate to drain.

Well, today I use an obscene amount of paper towels to drain my fried chicken, but that was pretty much my indoctrination to cooking. I noted my mother primarily used Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking, so when I married I bought a copy of this ponderous tome for my own efforts. After a while I got pretty good, mainly realizing you can’t go off for too long from something on the stove without it burning, so I had to stop combining vacuuming or whatever with cooking. Not only did I get fairly good, but I began to really enjoy it. I loved trying new dishes on friends and family, and a huge cocktail party was thrilling, with the array of sumptuous hors d’oeuvre I could assemble. As my son grew up and I was a single, working mom I learned to cook and freeze and casseroles became my new best friends. I could easily drop frozen green beans in to boil while I zapped a container of stew or spaghetti. Desserts were easy. There was always a special on ice cream or Pepperidge Farm cakes and, with a coupon it was a bargain.

Now cooking is a challenge. Who makes spaghetti or tetrazzini or stroganoff for one?? But as I get older I also am more careful about what I eat. So it’s lighter foods, more fruits, vegetables, and I can still freeze stuff- a lentil, barley, wild rice dish is a favorite of mine and  if I add chicken it’s pretty hearty.

Desserts are harder to manage though. Too tempting to bake a whole pound cake and try not to eat it all.

Between seasons

Is there a word for this? A word that properly defines that time that isn’t quite summer anymore but not yet fall? Kind of like that time of day that isn’t night but not day either called crepuscular. There probably is and as much as I love words I’ve probably heard it or been told what it is but at my age no surprise that at this moment I cannot recall it.

I do like this time though. Every morning my dog, Lily and I usually jog about 3 or 4 miles. Some mornings, like today, we give ourselves a day off and just walk. Air conditioners, usually thrumming heartily to give the home occupants refreshing cool air are quiet. If we do hear the occasional one it could just as easily be somebody cranking up their furnace in the 50-odd degrees of the morning. Most windows are thrown open to inhale the cool, dry air.

Just before the sun’s light tinges the edges of sky and clouds comes the first birdsong. Tentative at the beginning, one joins the first, then another, then whole conversations– cardinals, woodthrush, mockingbirds, robins, Carolina wrens… so many voices joyfully singing in the new day.

Our winter-spring walks hold that same anticipation. Just as the cold and brittle sharpness of glinting frost gives way to the soft warmth of spring, instead of a glittering sparkle of icy shards we see a shimmering sheen of dewfall. There is a cacophony of calling, chirping, whistling heralding this day! The anticipation of new life, birth, baby leaves and sprouting vines is palpable in the pulse of sound.

Still, I wish I could remember what the word for it is.

In a garden

No, this isn’t a play on the “Barefoot Contessa”, though I enjoy her way with cooking and the kitchen (and she calls herself ‘Ina Garten’, which may itself be a stage name…). This is nearing the end of the growing season in my area of the sultry South and it’s sad. Saying goodbye to all those lovely plants that nourished me with bountiful goodness through the summer- 3 kinds of tomato, one heirloom; squash which didn’t do so well but gave a herculean effort, zucchini which well made up for what squash lacked, okra which is still actually bearing, as are the eggplants. I miss tending to them, picking off the squash beetles and spraying the white flies. Mostly I miss their sun-kissed sweet juiciness and flavor. I did lose all the collards to the cabbage moths so for winter I have planted 6 more, along with spinach and winterbor kale. I hope to have a few Brussels sprouts and with a little luck some Swiss chard, too.

The best garden I ever had was in a small town in northwest New Mexico, west of the Rockies, Continental Divide and 30 minutes from each of the state lines of Colorado, Utah and Arizona. So the growing season was short, Memorial Day to Labor Day, and when it was over it was with a killing frost. But what an abundance of everything I planted! There’s no humidity so no bugs. People stopped answering their doors I gave them so much squash. They flung them open though when the cantaloupes ripened. I really enjoyed that garden, well into winter because I froze so much of it. But here, despite the warm and longer growing season I did not see so much. And I had to outsmart the deer so I put the tomatoes in planters on the deck. And we had our year’s quota of rain by the end of June. Then just heat, life-sapping humidity. Vegetables don’t respond as well to city water as they do rain.

So now I have the winter vegetables in, some plants, some seeds. We’ll see how it does.

Hearing

We all know listening and hearing are two basically very different things. Hearing is what you do when, as you are going out the back door somebody yells for you to please pick up some things at the grocery store while you’re out. Pretty basic, you don’t have to engage your whole being to get that message. It’s not as if you and someone are trying to sort out a discrepancy or the issue of whether or not to use white lights or multi-colored ones on the tree. That can have some meaning behind it.

No, this is something I have become mildly aware of the past couple of years. This summer I have been trying to get somebody to come take down a dead tree in my front yard. One of my neighbors told me to leave it alone, it would leaf out. Well, she moved and this tree is still dead. No leaves. I had no idea finding someone to take care of this would be so hard. Is there a glut of dead trees? Has some beetle or borer attacked or Dutch elm disease is making a come-back? Well, this week finally I got a company to call back and they said they’d be here Saturday. That same day, around 9:20 p.m. I got a call again and I thought the guy said the same name. Listen, at about 8:30 p.m. most days I start to really fade. By 9 I’m not much use, so I thought well, maybe he got his notes mixed up or something. So he said he’d be by Saturday, he’d call first.

Saturday came. I’d gotten everything done by Friday so I would be sure to be home. By 2:00 in the afternoon nothing happened. Just about to give up, the phone rang at 3. Sounded for all the world like the same one who woke me out of a sound sleep, said he’d be by to look at the tree in 15 minutes and, sure enough, he was. He named a price, said he’d take care of it in the coming week, I didn’t have to be home, then he left.

Well, about 3 hours later I got another call. Sounded just like the first call, sounded like the same name, everything. Said he’d be by in a few minutes. I said I’d thought he’d told me later in the week. He said no, he was working Saturdays and Sundays. So I said I hated for him to come all the way back out here after he’d just been this afternoon. Silence. No, he hadn’t been. I asked if it was the company I thought it was, he said no, did I already give the job to someone else? I said yes, he asked how much, I told him and he said it sounded a fair price. Then we said good-bye after my profuse apologies, the strange error of mis-hearing the names dawning on me. I even checked my caller-i.d. to note the different numbers.

It’s weird getting older. But at least somebody is coming to take the dead tree away.

Red giants

I was reading Steve Forbes’ article in the Sept. 2 issue of his magazine where he illustrates the history of various economies. Since I only skimmed it I won’t even attempt to summarize, but it got me thinking. There have been all these empires in the world. Roman, Greek, Spanish conquerors, Napoleonic France, the English “empire” (won’t be tempted to spin off on a Star Wars tangent there), and the U.S. So, like stars (astronomy, not celebrity), we eventually come into our own, be the pulse of the world, flaunt our power around for a while, burning brightly, generating ideas and creating products on this maddening streak of inventions and cleverness. We get all full of ourselves, begin to relax, lose the sense of fun in discovery and creativity and get lazy. We sit around, reminiscing about our glory days. We puff ourselves up based on what we or, most often, somebody else did that we think made us great. Then we decide it’s not fair, everybody should have some of it, too. So we try to spread it around. But we don’t keep making more, we just use up what there is. Then it gets thinner and thinner. Everybody may have some but it’s not enough to support anybody. 

When you think of astronomy, a star, it starts out as a bunch of bloated gas and atomic chaos slamming into itself until it becomes organized. I’m no scientist, but as I understand it the organization only lasts as long as the star has enough hydrogen. When that gets low the star gets this red tinge. Eventually, if it’s a small star, it dies, collapsing on itself.

We need to stop looking at where we’ve been. We need to stop looking at what everybody else has, or what we think we don’t have. We need to start looking at what we can do, who we can be. Stop sucking up all our hydrogen asking “Who am I?” or, worse, “Why am I?” and just go and be. But not just feeding on ourselves. What’s left after the U.S. to shine as brightly as we have? 

Touchstones

This is an interesting word. For me it’s always meant someone who brings me back to earth, a reality check, someone by whom I can find comfort or place, or peace. The word actually is defined as “a test or criterion for the qualities of a thing”, it’s something- a stone- that was used to determine the purity of a precious metal (read: gold). For me it’s another word for a good friend. Someone who, even if they let you down they are still in your life. It’s not like they drop out of your realm of existence. I have a very few friends like that, well only a couple really, who I may not hear from in oh, maybe a year, but when we reconnect it’s like time never passed. We are essentially the same, whatever we are reconnecting for- a problem, a joy, just to talk. These people do not flatter, they do not lie, they do not manipulate or try to figure out what it is I “want” to hear. That’s why they are so important. They tell the truth and what I need to hear. And they are always right. We want what is best for each other, we have no agendas, no subversive motives.

And if they do let you down, maybe it’s me who needs to look at the disappointment. Maybe it’s something I need to redo, relearn, understand better. We are on the same wavelength, our radars read the same blips. Sometimes those blips are better handled with a friend like this. Sometimes when I do try to handle something on my own I find out the hard way I needed someone with me in it.

Family members can be touchstones. My brother is one. He and I have a history- our entire lives- together. So by virtue of what we lived through we have a basis of understanding we won’t have with anyone else. We lived through the function or dysfunction of our family and learned to use it for strength or how to laugh about it. My son is another. As he has grown into his depths he has learned to temper a lot of what he and I lived through with greater compassion, but we still laugh about things, too.

I guess touchstones, when they are people are not so much a thing that tells you the quality of a precious stone, they are the precious stone itself.