Renewed Pleasures

Like other families’ homes in the early fifties, ours was a brightly colored mix of multi-colored lights, some store bought decorations and some handcrafted ornaments from school that adorned the walls and surfaces to make our home festive!

Mom hated fussing with the light strings, so my job as I grew older was to string the lights on the table top tree.  I soon discovered that putting lights on any size tree was the pits!  The stringed wires were normally thick, and red, green or black in color; no matter where you started or how much you tried to twist the string in between the branches, the darn wires showed anyway!

Seven watt glass bulbs could really get hot over a period of time. These were the days when you lit your tree through the Christmas season up to and past New Year’s; if the tree was still fresh, we could enjoy it until January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany.  Normally, we’d slowly stop lighting it for fear that the needles after three weeks were becoming too dry and could easily burn from the bulbs.  By this time, Allstate was advertising that we were in good hands, but Mom didn’t want to take any chances.

Both the tree lights and the ornaments were glass and somewhat fragile.  The bulbs were brightly colored and if carefully handled, didn’t have too many little chipped spots where the paint had flaked off from years’ use.   Our ornaments were a collection of whatever hadn’t broken over the years; some were striped, others were hollowed on one side with a sunburst of color, some were teardrop shape, and some were flocked with “snow” accents.

Tinsel; now THAT was another fun job.  The kids across the street could toss it on the tree when their mother wasn’t looking.  No such luck in our home.  We hung the tinsel “correctly” (per Mom’s direction), making sure that each piece spread evenly over the branches and hung down between the needles “like icicles”.    The tinsel was heavier in the earlier days; the metal helped weigh it down.  But it easily showed its age, especially if you didn’t gently fold it back into its box; the darn stuff could crumple and look really rugged, but would still stay together; I still have an old box of the metal type.  I don’t think the stuff would ever disintegrate even if buried! I relied on the tinsel camouflaging the unsightly strings enough that no eye would be focused on anything but the colorful lights and ornaments. Our gifts were placed in and around the table legs, each package showing off its bow because we could stand several of them on end for the best effect.

Daddy was always happy to come home and see the tree decorated.  He’d catch sight of it as he drove up the drive.  I never remember him walking in the first night’s lighting of our tree and not commenting on how pretty it looked.

If Mom were especially busy, she let us girls decorate the rest of the room. Our stockings were hung by the chimney with care but remained empty always; they were strictly for décor.  Next, we worked on the mantel area.  The little cardboard village pieces and the simply made, wooden stable with its little figurines glued in place were dutifully set up.  A few wire “bottle-brush” green trees on their small wooden disks stood here and there along the length of the little landscape.  The surface was covered with “snow”, made from panels of cotton batting.  If we had an extra string of lights, we could weave it underneath the snow, making sure the stable was properly lit with a yellow bulb that protruded through the stable’s back wall.

On especially cold mornings, Mom or Daddy would make a small fire in the fireplace to take the chill off the rooms.  The house had one floor heater so the fireplace was much used and needed.  Mom turned the tree on in the early mornings for us to enjoy; we could sit and eat breakfast in the adjacent dining room, enjoying the festive silver tip.

While the décor never varied much from year to year, we used what we had and found renewed pleasure in the company of our simple, familiar things. Gratitude trumped creativity, especially at the Christmas season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasonal Attitudes, Winter 2011 Still

Part of the joy of living here in the Midwest is experiencing the simple, pure, patriotism that residents share at the grass roots level here in the heartland of our great country.  As a rule, I have found most of the political discussions to contain respect, a good dose of humor, a bit of self-degradation at being a particular party member or ideology, and last but not least, a deep appreciation for the ties that bind us all when the political discourse has run its course.  After all, for many of us, our generations’ Pearl Harbor was 9-11.

One can imagine my continued disappointment at observing the group mind-think that, on occasion, present-day ideology and devoted, cultural movements attain, using old marketing tricks.  For example:

Democrats don’t wear flag pins or Republicans want to kill Medicare patients

Statements such as these are disingenuous at best, but make great headlines and fodder for 24/7 news coverage which relies heavily on speculative, rather than factual, discourse.  Unfortunately, by using off-the-cuff remarks, presented as creed in casual settings or within professional, web-savvy, political graphics, such simplified statements are magnified and instantly attain significance.  Even more dangerous to me is the acceptance by an energized but historically- ignorant crowd.

If I had uttered anything similar to these sentiments when I was in school, my teacher would have corrected me and asked,

Can you back that statement up with facts, data, or any research?

For sure, a discussion – at the junior high level – would have ensued in that semester about generalizations; the pros and cons of using them in a debate, an essay, a discussion, etc… The accompanying reminder to note our specific research and be prepared to footnote such statements akin to my examples would have been emphasized several times by any of our instructors; very simply:

If you can’t back it up, don’t include it in the final report.

Of course, we would also explore the exaggerated concepts found in advertising campaigns; i.e. testimonials from the manufacturer that “9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest” or some celebrity exhorting his favorite hair product.  Once again, we students would have participated in an open discussion that encouraged us to think and to question from where such statements came; more importantly, were such statements relevant to the topic at hand?  The entire discussion would have been respectful and factual. Personal slurs were off limits; no serious student who had completed his homework would stoop to that low degree in any academic setting and still expect a passing grade.

Again, I’m aging myself.  We were taught to question and think.  One entire unit in social studies warned us to beware of ideas presented in print.  Red flags rose in our young minds when we learned to “read between the lines” as we absorbed our current events in classroom studies.  Was I the only one who wondered just how the next generation was going to absorb any more history?

Call me an optimist, but I believe appearances are deceiving in this politically correct, technologically savvy, holiday season.  Heartfelt wishes for our country’s future in this brave, newer world present themselves often; one has only to ignore the incessant claptrap and irritating buzz, and then focus on the sincere goodwill of their daily encounters.  Actions still speak louder than words here in America’s Heartland; unemployment is high, foreclosed homes are prevalent, yet the locals still find enough change and bills in their pockets to fill the kettle and thank the bell ringers for volunteering to stand in the cold winds.  Smiles and respectful chatter abound; and yes, we still wish strangers and friends alike a Merry Christmas…

 

Pearl Harbor; some 70th Anniversary Reflections

Dear Readers:  This was composed in 2011 for the 70th Anniversary; I felt it appropriate to repeat it once again, as we who came after this day of infamy need to know our country’s history or be condemned to repeat it.

Bless our Veterans and Military Families and remember them year round! May God continue to Bless America and its people, among the most giving and caring on this earth. – Annette

 

Family history in our home was commonly categorized into three eras that everyone from the Greatest Generation on down ultimately understood: “before the war”, “during the war”, and “after the war”.

Like my mother, I always loved reading history.  Her passion for listening to others’ stories became mine also.  Mentors, neighbors and relatives related some tidbits from their personal experiences; other facts below were picked up from history lessons:

A young kid was working as a bag boy at a local market on the East Coast.  The news came over the radio:  Pearl Harbor had been attacked.  The young kid told his boss,

Well, we know one thing for sure: pineapples are going to go up in price!

Once this kid became of age, he joined the military, fulfilling a career in the Air Force.

A little girl came home after school, saw the photo of a man in uniform on the mantle, and began crying… the photo was actually that of her uncle, her daddy’s younger brother, but he looked enough like her daddy to shake her little soul and make her believe: Daddy had gone to war!

Many women went to work in the factories; the iconic poster Rosie the Riveter salutes their contributions during the war years…

Military wives stayed behind, keeping the house and raising their young children…

Some men hunted and brought home extra meat for their own tables and their extended families’ tables as well…

Men too old to enlist left familiar workplace jobs, choosing to work “for the war effort”…

Scrap metal was collected…

Hollywood leading men and women either enlisted and/or made feature releases, using their notoriety to sell War Bonds for the War Department…

In addition to radio and newspaper, newsreels informed the public of the latest war news; Victory At Sea was one such news reel series…

Believing Loose Lips Sink Ships, cryptic messages, codes, and other safeguards were set into place and honored by all military and civilian citizens, including Hollywood’s movie moguls and newspaper journalists.

The neighborhood kid accidentally hit his little friend in the eye.  The eye quickly started to darken; he was obviously going to go home with one good shiner!  The neighborhood kid’s mother used a frozen steak from the freezer as an ice pack on the little friend’s eye and escorted him home.  Using a steak for a poultice! During  wartime?  The little friend’s family was in awe…

When his father was killed in a freak work accident on the docks, the only son was called home from overseas; he arrived home in time to attend his father’s funeral. In his eyes, he was one of the luckier ones, having only suffered some trench foot; but as he remarked, at least he came home alive and in one piece.

Some WWII Widows were fortunate enough to meet men who came home and were willing to raise their fellow brothers-in-arms’ sons and daughters…

A little girl walked out the door one day, telling her widowed mother that she was going to search “for a new daddy”…

Growing up in the late fifties and sixties, I dusted Mom’s mantel space which was often filled with family photos.  Those extras that were older but still cherished were placed inside a dining room sideboard drawer.  We could easily access these so pulled them out on occasion to view.   Professional wedding photographs, twenty-first birthday photos, and yellowed news clippings of friends in uniform were fascinating to read.

There was a particular uncle that we knew only from his wedding photo; he had been killed during the war.  We used to visit his grave and leave flowers.  Daddy was bothered and always uncomfortable about my uncle’s death, even mentioning that he didn’t believe the remains sent home actually belonged to his brother-in-law.

Mom was more pragmatic:  it didn’t matter…they belonged to a soldier. We would leave flowers always.

 

House Hunting in the 90’s

You’re going to buy a house… BY YOURSELF?

Yes, Daddy…women DO own houses by themselves these days!

Well, just make sure you own the land, Honey.  Don’t get involved with any of that condo crap…

Once a father, always a father.  Daddy was still giving his advice, even now at eighty-seven years of age and in failing health.  He still had a keen mind for numbers and understood housing in general, the values, the neighborhoods and the choices I’d have in front of me.  He’d walked through many of the same homes over the years, measuring the kitchen and bath floors to give an estimate on new linoleum.    We were discussing some of the choices and the streets I’d visited with the realtor; I was keeping Daddy apprised of the week to week update of house hunting as a “single” woman.

I’m going to miss this Texan’s company once I finally find a house.  He’s been really nice to work with.

Just be careful, Honey… you gotta watch those guys…you never know……….

I was by now forty-two, divorced for nearly six years, and had been back home long enough to realize that I’d be staying in the area close to the folks and my family.    I had decided it was time for me to once again own a home.  The folks had offered to help with the down payment needed, and a friend had introduced me to a broker acquaintance of his.  I liked the broker very much.  The broker’s part time loan processor had agreed to take me around on evenings and weekends as he still had a valid real estate license.  The latter worked two jobs, packing musical instruments and parts in a warehouse during the day, and then playing loan processor in the evenings and weekends, depending on the workload.

In the first three or four weeks, we had looked at all kinds of houses; many well-kept older homes were now in very sketchy areas; or the neighborhood had declined so much so that the majority of activity was slowly changing over to commercial zoning use.  Some entire streets had bars over the doors and front windows; not exactly your Ozzie and Harriet’s America.  Chances were I’d have to forego the better neighborhoods if I wanted to own anything at all.  As we had already scoured the existing listings on the market in my price range, bank repos were beginning to look like my last resort.  My realtor was running low on properties, but didn’t seem to mind as it gave him something to do besides spending evenings working on paperwork or reading.

Finally, he suggested that I take a look at a home in an older, unincorporated area; so, we two set off that next September Saturday morning to view it.  This particular home had been vacant for over two years.  Surprisingly, there were no signs of vandalism or destruction on the outside; even the inside seemed untouched.  Once I entered and walked on the hardwood flooring, and took sight of the built- in book shelves on either side of the fireplace, I was hooked!  The cottage had a small formal dining room just behind the living room but adjacent to the kitchen door.  The formal dining area was exactly what I had dreamed of, as cooking and setting a pretty table were some of my favorite things to do!

The kitchen was extremely oversize as was typical with homes built just after the Second World War.  Surely a table or banquette had once existed in the far corner from the sink; I could tell by the second ceiling globe’s location just off to the side.

A real, honest to goodness laundry room stood between kitchen, front garage and the backyard door.  I’d finally have walls for the wallpaper that I’d held onto for years!  The two bedrooms were good size, each with a closet; though, typical of the period, the closets were very small.  The home had only one bath; describing it as mid-size would be exaggerating, but it was workable enough for one and would suffice when My Only came down on weekends.

All in all, I kept walking around, smiling and returning time and again to the dining room, the fireplace, the kitchen, then back again.  In only a few short minutes, I had given myself away.

This is the one, isn’t it?

Yes, I think so…  I absolutely love it! It reminds me of the older home my aunts and uncles once lived in in Berkeley years ago.  It has personality…LOOK! The built in room divider!  I could just see my things sitting on the shelves there…

Well then, guess we’d better go back and write up an offer!

We left to do the initial paperwork at the office.  Then, each of us decided it was too early to call it a day; so now what would we have to do?  I mentioned the art and wine festival that was downtown this weekend; if I bought the glasses, would he pay for the wine?  Seemed like a plan.  We spent a really nice Indian summer afternoon in the downtown district, sipping some wine and realizing that we both loved art and artsy stuff.

As luck would have it, the Realtor and I had decided there was something more than first met the eye…somewhat surprising as neither of us was actually looking for anyone at the time.  When I think back, I suppose getting locked out of a patio door at one home for sale and laughing over a cheap liver and onions dinner one evening eventually broke the ice! He didn’t have much money nor did I.  Neither of us was anything more than we presented; there was no pretense. There was also no denying that we were beginning to run out of ways to spend inexpensive, Saturday afternoons…

The house closed about six weeks later.  I took ownership a few days before my last month’s rent was ended, and took a couple days off from work to paint a good portion of the home’s interior.   In between painting, I had begun stripping some of the old wallpaper.  We would eventually find beautiful redwood paneling surrounding the fireplace wall.

I say “we”.  I sent out Christmas cards earlier than usual that year, announcing my remarriage as of November 29th:

I bought a house and

the Realtor came with it!!!

 

Couldn’t have dreamed up that storyline in a million years…

LEFTOVERS

LEFTOVERS

How many frogs does it take to cook a turkey?

Only one; it’s genetic and she’s damn good at it!

Our kitchen was always fragrant with onions, celery, garlic, parsley, thyme… one of the neighbors from around the block would walk up the driveway and comment,

Whatever you are cooking smells wonderful! Even the flies are gathered at your kitchen window screen…

Mom took this remark as it was meant to be; a compliment. She was normally preparing a holiday or family dinner.  Often, the flies had gathered on the days she was preparing the farce, a traditional meat stuffing combination of beef and pork, cooked with the seasonings, then ground very fine with her hand grinder clamped to the side of the chopping board.  Stale French bread soaked in milk and squeezed almost dry, an egg, and some salt and pepper – Voila! Farce; smelled absolutely divine and scented the entire driveway and two doors down in both directions.

On Thanksgiving and Christmas, turkey would be one of two main entrees.  Ham was normally the second, unless Daddy decided to barbeque a leg of lamb. All Daddy had to do was normally clean and ready the old round charcoal barbeque; then wait for Mom to tell him the lamb was prepped.  Daddy’s station was the backyard.  The rest of the meal was in Mom’s kitchen.

Preparing a dinner was always an exhausting effort; no matter the year, the turkey dinner had to be perfect and complete. Thanksgiving might be an American Holiday, but the cuisine had definite French overtones. Nearly every dish took two to three days to complete.  There were no shortcuts in Mom’s kitchen.

At one time, a first course soup with a small amount of pasta was served. Mom made the bouillon from scratch.  End of the first day, she’d place the pot on the dryer to cool down overnight.  Next morning, she’d skim any beef fat that might have congealed so to clarify the broth for serving.  On the holiday, she’d boil the entire pot once again, season with a bit of salt and pepper, and then add the very tiny pieces of vermicelli.  The plates of soup began the meal.

Somewhere between the bouillon and crab salad a bread basket arrived, a bottle each of red and white wines, and the antipasto plates; one plate included salami with prosciutto, and the other was a sectioned glass dish of pickles, black olives, and pepperoncini.

Time to prepare the individual, molded crab salads.  The crab mixture had been made the day before. It included canned crab, finely chopped hardboiled egg, minced celery and parsley, held together with Best Foods Mayonnaise, a bit of lemon and dash of salt and pepper.  Mixture was moist and stored covered the day before. Plates were readied with endive and escarole, and then light vinaigrette was spooned over each.  We watched our aunt don her cobbler apron and team up with Mom; they each knew the others’ actions because they had assisted my grandfather in his kitchen “down the house”.  Our aunt and Mom always enjoyed working together; it was just like old times for them. One was as much a perfectionist as the other, so they got along just fine.

As we grew older, Mom would let us mold the crab mixture in a small demitasse cup, just the right size for a dinner menu this grand.  PLOP! The small little hill would sit in the middle (if all went well) and then one would sprinkle a bit of paprika on the mound for color.  A black olive on top, a lemon wedge on the side. Perfect! The salads were stacked inside the fridge, on tops of jars and other glass containers to remain chilled for serving.

Years later, we convinced Mom to skip the soup; none of us younger generation missed the clarified broth very much; personally, I thought the final dish was not worth the effort. The individual crab salads were so colorful that Mom finally omitted the first course soup and we placed the salads directly on the dinner plates.  They looked so pretty and became one of the last finishing touches before calling everyone to sit down.

Petit Pois (peas) seasoned with green onion, garlic and bacon were prepared; as were Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, yams simply glazed with some brown sugar, and cranberry sauce – both whole berry and jelly (these were the most American recipes on our table; American was defined as anything non-French looking, possibly from a can, sweetened, easily served and didn’t take much fuss.

Cheese, bread, coffee with brandy and a store-bought dessert ended the meal; homemade pies came much later once Bro married a gal who could really bake!

No course or detail was omitted when the aunts and uncles came over.  The entire dinner was served on a linen table cloth, with matching linen napkins that Mom had “done up” herself, another expectation that she fulfilled having inherited the French Curtain Laundry gene too.

What is the ONLY reason to cook a turkey?

Leftovers… of course!

I remember the one Thanksgiving that Mom was rather relaxed in the kitchen.  I wasn’t the only one who noticed this.  She even decided that we girls could help with the hors d’oeuvre plate and whatever we did to make the items look pretty would be okay.

Okay? This from the same mother who told me that the way I chopped carrots made her laugh?

I was starting to be concerned… Mom was smiling,  laughing with us in HER kitchen,  and whatever we did was OKAY???

Then it hit; no aunts or uncles were coming; we’d be just the immediate family this year.

Brat and I told Mom we liked her much better when the relatives weren’t going to have dinner with us; that she was much easier to be around.  She took this all in, and didn’t even get angry.  I think she realized just how much she had worked all those years and wasn’t even sure herself if she needed all the fuss to enjoy the day…that was a nice moment of awakening in Mom’s kitchen for us all.

Must be genetic; in true Rubberneck Avenue fashion, I have exhausted myself cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner.  Mine is updated; no soup,  a crab salad appetizer, some tweaks here and there.  Oh yes; bread dressing a la Americaine.

So, I must console myself this Friday After with only leftovers … it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to keep up the family traditions…

We Were Americans

Mom and Dad brought a common heritage to their first and only new home on Rubberneck Avenue.  Our table had the same four food groups from “down the house” like our grandparents‘ home: wine, French bread, salami, and cheese.  The traditional hospitality of offering a casa croute (sharing of the house bread) continued on Rubberneck as well.

While our table often identified us as French descent, herein lay the distinction:  we were Americans first.  We joined the melting pot of other first and second generation families whereby respect and love for country were inherently as important as the November celebrated reason for gathering.   Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, we ate turkey on Thanksgiving; the main course, however, was followed by the required bit of French bread and blue cheese to enjoy with the last sips of wine, while we listened to the stories that our uncles with accents had to tell.

Talking Turkey

Our most American tradition – celebrating the year’s harvest and blessings – is once again upon us.  Thanksgiving is a holiday that Americans can historically claim as our very own. Does that mean that other peoples before us were ungrateful?  Not by any means.  But IT IS OURS, the one day on the calendar that evokes a melting pot of commonality, culture,  and deep emotions; encouraging a nation of immigrants to give official thanks for the many blessings and bounty we share in our land.

I submit that while holidays can be difficult at times, maintaining some or all of the family traditions can be especially comforting; let these rituals provide the familiar landscape wherein each of you can still participate, even if the role is slightly amended from years before.  If need be, add a new tradition. I suggest:

The “Talk Turkey” Challenge:

  • Give yourself permission to share a story that you’ve never told before; grandparents, this means YOU.
  • Encourage all ages to join in the conversation.  Keep the technology at a minimum (football games excluded)
  • Don’t pull rank; parents often do, then wonder why the kids never talk.  Embrace the ones around you; life is too short to let a minor grievance ruin the holiday camaraderie.
  • Allow a bit of silliness!  (Not necessarily at the expense of table manners, but you be the judge; lots of family stories evolved from dinner tables in past years; try not to shudder.)
  • Fight over the last drumstick; cajoling a sibling into a little childhood skirmish can be fun, especially if one or both parents or an aunt or uncle are still around to watch and laughingly reminisce…
  • Consider each new happenstance a future memory; find the humor in it and laugh together.
  • Look into each face around the table. Observe the personality nuances and mannerisms.  In as brief a span as five years, table personalities will change; children will grow, friends will leave the area; family branches will sprout afar.
  • Can’t travel to be together this Thursday?  Just wait until the next time you can all regroup!  The possibilities are endless!

Growing up, it was easy to take the Thanksgiving holiday for granted; November was a happy month, the start of the Holidays!  Some of us matured rather abruptly once we saw our president assassinated; we all remember where we were, who informed us, and the immediate days after when, as a grieving nation, we gathered that next week to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Many of us remembered only a little boy saluting goodbye to his daddy.

The old adage, Death has no age, was suddenly meaningful; it is this year for some whose  loved one will be missing for the first time this Thanksgiving.  The holiday season can be a particularly painful period.

The coming months present some economic challenges for many; some earners last year are currently unemployed and find themselves in a completely different scenario than the last time they hit the pavement.  Hitting a keyboard can be just as frustrating.

Thanksgiving will arrive just the same. This season, keep our fellow countrymen in prayer.  Choose how to make Thursday one of the sweeter Thanksgiving Days in recent memory.  May we forever feel a depth of gratitude for the lives and goodness He has bestowed upon each of us.

Rejoice! Celebrate! Praise God! Lastly, may God Bless America.