A Nor’easter arrived…..

…. as predicted. Fancy meteorologists with their latest equipment and unmatched hour-by-hour precision were among the most excited, next to school children! Wet snow fell furiously during the turbulent periods of the storm and changed the landscape with its heaviness on bushes and trees. During lulls in the storm,  children gathered with sleds and mittens to travel the slopes in the neighborhood. Dogs pranced around in the snow among the children and a few brave Dads stood by.

What to do on such a day? Once a teacher, always a teacher. Of course, I checked the school closings early in the morning, cup of coffee in hand.  Then I began to work in the kitchen! Homemade bread was first on the list, my grandmother’s recipe for oatmeal whole wheat bread. Yeast, just enough sugar to help the yeast rise, two kinds of flour, a pat of butter, warm water, a little mixing….and the dough was complete, rising in its safe warm place.

Next came the soup, just waiting to happen with a turkey carcass leftover from Christmas in the freezer. While the yeast dough rose in my slightly warm oven,  simmering turkey remnants, veggies, and herbs filled the house with a light, savory aroma. It was a recipe for coziness.

As the day went on, the soup broth became rich and reduced. I removed the bones and strained the broth. Additional vegetables, including diced carrots, chopped celery and onion, lima beans, and a nice sprinkling of quinoa and cute curly pasta found their way into the soup pot, along with tasty chunks of turkey  from the bones. The soup simmered on.

Back to the bread…..having risen to double in size, it was ready for the next step. I prepared the pastry cloth with ample flour and turned out the dough to be kneaded and shaped. This is a special step of bread-making for me. It’s a hands-on experience, literally; a chance to imagine; a promise of something yummy to come; and an encounter with the magic of transformation (the yeast). This time, I added chopped pecans and dried cranberries, slightly moistened in a cup of water for a few minutes. Two medium bread pans would provide the form today (one to share with a friend and one to enjoy myself). Then another time of waiting followed, aka the 2nd rising.

The beauty of bread-making is that the baker has free time between stages. The down side is that one needs to be home to get the timing right, perfect for a cold snowy day when weather gurus have said “Stay home!”  Before long, the timer went off and the bread was ready for the oven. Aromas filling the house turned to yeast and warmth and all kinds of delicious. How else does one describe freshly baked bread? Not able to resist, I sampled the treasure while still warm. It was just right!

Dusk came, the meteorologists warned of freezing slush and slippery roads, and evening cancellations scrolled across the screen. My soup and bread supper was  delightful!  The day had been somehow festive—watching the outdoor world from a warm perch inside, doing things I love to do, creating something useful and nourishing—and I was grateful.

In case you’d like to bake bread during the next Nor’easter, I share my recipe here. It comes from my grandmother’s kitchen, where she often served it with butter and fig preserves. The bread is best warm from the oven or toasted.

1 pkg yeast dissolved with 1 tsp sugar in 1/2 cup of warm (not hot) water – Let this sit for a few minutes while you complete the next step

Place in bowl: 1 cup quick oats, 2 Tbsp sugar, 2 Tbsp soft butter, 1 scant Tbsp salt

Pour over the above 2 cups hot water. Mix with electric mixer and let cool until warm. Add yeast mixture. Add 1 cup whole wheat flour and then enough white flour to make a firm dough, 3 to 4 cups. (not too sticky but soft)

Let dough rise in warm place covered with a damp clean cloth until double in size. Knead, form, and place in buttered pans or onto baking sheet. Let rise again until double and bake, starting in 450 oven for 10 minutes and then 350 oven for about 30 minutes. I test bread for doneness by tapping. If it sounds hollow and crust is nicely browned it’s ready to remove from oven, cool a few minutes, and turn onto a rack. Enjoy!!!

Evening in Advent

Invitations had been sent for a little soiree after the Christmas concert, to be held at my house. Musicians always like to relax together after a performance. “What a great audience! Did you see the little boy in the elf costume? Santa was especially talkative this year.”

Wassail punch would be warm and festive on a cold December night, along with assorted sandwiches, my usual Polynesian crab dip, and the gorgeous chocolate cake I had been eyeing for months at the local bakery. It would serve at least twenty people, so this was the right occasion. I had never dared to purchase it before, but trusted it to taste delicious.

The house was ready: tree glistening by the fireplace, five stockings hanging from the mantel, and candles in place. Menu items were prepared and arranged on Christmas platters and bowls, with tiny labels on the dining room table to mark where each would be placed.

Then the snow began, just a dusting at first. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed watching birds at the feeder by the kitchen. Performance clothes were laid out and a hot bath waiting, when the email message arrived. “Concert CANCELLED due to inclement weather.”

Of course, this was a good decision for the sake of safety, as two children’s choirs were performing with the orchestra and many people would be driving on treacherous roads. As for the soiree, my house was ready, food in place, and Wassail punch fully prepared, just waiting to be warmed. A final to-do list lay on the kitchen counter—just three simple items. The beautiful chocolate cake sat on a silver platter anticipating hungry guests.

The evening turned out to be quiet and reflective, actually quite enjoyable. I was tired after all that work, and the snow continued to fall in its peaceful loveliness. I decided that getting ready for the post-concert gathering had been a meaningful process. And then it came to mind.

Preparing for a party is like Advent—anticipation of something very special, a time to prepare our hearts to receive the gift of the Christ Child. God’s own son would enter our lives, be a guest at our table, enjoy our company and the humble offerings we have for Him, and turn our lives around. He would impact the world as none other has done.

Fortunately, there was no cancellation of His birth so many years ago. Regardless of weather conditions and over-booking at the inns in Bethlehem, the Baby Jesus arrived safely. And the musicians performed. “Suddenly there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men.’ ” (Luke 2:14)  Now that was a celebration, and it has been going on for more than two thousand years.

On that recent snowy night, one dear friend braved the weather and came by. We made a dinner out of the holiday party foods and cut two slivers from the scrumptious-looking chocolate cake. It was a perfect Advent evening!

Precious Seeds

The sunflower is looking better. This is no ordinary plant. It grew from the seeds my mother gave me one bright summer day a few weeks before she died. She moved precariously that day, but with the stability of a walker we navigated safely through the large automatic door of her nursing village. We both squinted in the bright sunlight. And then began a tour of her outdoor world: raised bed gardens that residents could reach, bird houses and feeders gathered near large windows, neatly mulched beds by the porch filled with colorful zinnias and all kinds of hosta. Bright white-painted rocking chairs moved in the breeze. A pretty wooden bench beckoned to us, so we sat and rested a bit. I loved those times with my mother.
Then we moved along further and found the sunflowers. It was already late summer and several of the plate-like bursts of color had faded and presented seeds. She ceremoniously reached out to pluck off a few and gave them to me. “Here. You take these. You can plant them in your garden.” She was reaching right into my heart but only later did I fully understand. You see, my mother and I shared a love of gardens, beautiful flowers and herbs, and the practice of cultivating something lovely.
I have never forgotten that day. With time, sadness came as she became ill and eventually left us. But I kept those seeds in a little baggie, a few brown pods that she had gently pressed into my hand from hers, for the day when I would plant them. The time came; the seeds found their way into my little “Secret Garden” and one robust leafy sunflower plant emerged weeks later. Before long it produced tiny buds that grew and grew.
Then one morning as I visited the garden the buds were missing! A deer from the woods nearby had likely smelled the scent of those luscious young morsels and had himself a delicious dinner during the night. My first order of the day was a stop at the garden shop. Before long, a fine spray to safely deter deer and other critters became part of the daily garden routine.
Thankfully, the precious plant has produced more buds. This lovely reminder of my dear mother speaks to me of her courage and resilience, her beauty and strength. The sunflower will live on, along with the memories, and I will guard it with greatest affection. She too lives on in her Heavenly home, where she is surely enveloped in the brilliance of a magnificent field of sunflowers.

Learning Curve

Being a digital immigrant, I admit that time, courage, and patience are needed when it comes to trying new technologies. This refers not to using a drone to photograph the family reunion or writing a new computer language. No, by new “technologies” I refer simply to adding color, changing the format, or (when I get really brave) posting pictures or drawings that enhance my writing. So I am experimenting with options. Since the last post ended up mysteriously with no paragraphs  and other unexpected changes, I am committed to working on this, and it will only happen if I play around.
So here we go. Thanks for your patience.

A scam was in process. At least, what I saw and heard pointed in that direction. The man was elderly, wearing old pants with a partially open mid-seam and frayed hem held up by a safety pin. He spoke loudly, probably due to a hearing deficit, and all of us waiting in line could hear. “I just won two million dollars. They told me to send this in by Tuesday.” He seemed to enjoy sharing the news. For sure, he got my attention. The clerk I’ve known for years, a veteran employee at our tiny post office that sits sandwiched between a boutique dress shop and a cozy coffee nook. She calmly followed his instructions. Certified mail. He needed to fill out a form. Did he want to receive notification that his mail had been received? It seemed likely that he was sending money in order to receive his so-called prize. Recent reports of fraud had involved a similar situation. I considered congratulating the gentleman and then asking if his children knew of his good fortune. We could have chatted and maybe, just maybe, I could have helped to prevent ……… At least it was a noble thought. No, it was not my business. I convinced myself that the mail clerk, who has had years of experience, would pick up on the clues and try to do something, if indeed it were a scam. Is she able, by law, to question what someone is sending in the US Mail or why? If I were his daughter wouldn’t I be grateful if a well-intended stranger were to ask a few questions? Could anything I say avert an incident such as loss of money to a scam artist? Probably not. I held my tongue. Perhaps the clerk already knew something and would set his letter aside for investigation. My mind was racing……had I devised my own conspiracy theory? The girl in front of me was fidgeting with her phone the entire time. I don’t think she even noticed the man. The young lady behind me was seven months pregnant and tending a toddler and a stack of boxes at her feet. She had other things on her mind. I decided to quietly wait my turn and then perhaps make a nonchalant comment to the clerk about the lucky lottery winner. “Do you think that gentleman actually won the lottery?” I blurted out. Not so subtle after all. She shook her head in dismay, while counting out my stamps, and replied. It turned out that she and her colleague have been trying to figure this out for some time. His sister died and left him money. Someone knows about it, she said with certainty. The man comes in frequently with the same announcement of having won a large sum of money and needing to send off a letter to confirm it. He lives in his home with a disabled son. Hm…….my concern was not unwarranted. I don’t need to know if this particular elderly man was being taken advantage of, but my Saturday morning jaunt to the post office highlighted an increasing problem. Americans live longer today than in any past age. They may suffer from declining physical or mental health and need assistance, yet they have the right to age in their homes and try to care for themselves. For many, in fact, there is no other option. They live alone or with an elderly spouse or even perhaps with a special needs adult child. They may not see or care that their clothes are ripped or hems are hanging loose, but they manage. They want to remain independent and make their own decisions. They are incredibly vulnerable. The gentleman moved away from the counter and walked slowly toward the door, a bit shaky and cautious with each step. Then he turned and called back to the clerk, “See you next time.” And he left.