Tag Archives: Family

Sometimes the experiment fails

My Beloved asked me today if I’d still cook if we win the lottery tonight (yes, we have our ticket for a chance to win three-quarters of a billion dollars in tonight’s Powerball lottery, do you?).

I said yes.

He scoffed.

We’d already discussed hiring a chef. And a butler. And a full-time masseuse. This is what one dreams of when one holds a $2 lottery ticket that has not yet proven worthless.

“I like to cook,” I said. “At least somebody else would clean up the kitchen.”

I am an experimental cook. Just like Mom. We like to tinker with recipes. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Comme ci comme ça.

A few weeks ago, I worked up what I thought was a great idea: Ham & Cheese Manicotti.

Back story: My mother-in-law likes ham and cheese. A lot. I’ve actually seen her eat ham and cheese something-or-other (omelet, sandwich, casserole) three times in one day. For some people, it’s chocolate. For her, it’s ham and cheese. Then not long ago, when I was crawling around in her pantry looking for a box of Zip-locks, I noticed she had not one, not two but three boxes of manicotti hidden in there. So, she likes manicotti a lot, too! What if I created a recipe that married her favorites: Ham & Cheese Manicotti? I’d win her undying affection! I’d be her golden daughter-in-law! (True confession: She’s already quite fond of me. And I, of her. I thought she’d appreciate Ham & Cheese Manicotti; it would be a way to show my love.)

ham and cheese manicotti

Ham & Cheese Manicotti. Experiment with your own recipe.

So I worked up a recipe that included canned ham (no, not deviled ham–canned ham, like canned tuna), swiss and ricotta cheeses, and bottled alfredo sauce. I whipped it up and tested it out on my Beloved, hoping for a good report so I could make it sometime when I entertained my mother-in-law.

My Beloved hated it. Especially the canned ham. He vowed never to eat it again, even if I changed up the recipe to use regular ham, chopped.

Ever hear of the maxim that eternity is defined by a ham and two people? Well, it’s also defined by seven leftover ham & cheese manicotti and one person. I don’t even like pasta all that much. I ate that stuff for a week, and I still threw away two manicotti. (It wasn’t that bad, for the record. Just too much of a good thing. Or, at least, too much of a so-so thing.)

So here’s to experimental cooking. Sometimes it works, and you have dinner. And sometimes it doesn’t, and you have a story.

Here’s hoping I do better with tonight’s lottery numbers. Cheers!

 

 

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Memories of my brother

Not a January 17th can pass without me thinking of my little brother.

Curt died 20 years ago today in a car accident during a blizzard. I suggested to my sister we should do something significant and showy to remember him on this milestone day, and she said, “I don’t want to memorialize his death. I would rather remember his life.”

She made a valid point, so I will not be doing a Facebook fundraiser or lighting a trail of luminaries or visiting his grave (it’s too blasted cold to be visiting graves in Minnesota this time of year anyway).

Instead, I will remember his sweetness and light.

I was six years his senior, and alas, I did not get to know my little brother very well as an adult. I had other priorities at the time. Those other interests now seem dim and self-important, but that pretty much summarizes me at that time in my life—dim and self-important. What can I say? I was 32, and I thought I knew it all. At least now I understand how uninformed I really am.

But other people with better perspective who knew him well offered beautiful eulogies at the time of his passing. There was a newspaper story about his death in the local paper, and one of his friends said, “He was kind.” The copyeditor ended up using that quote as the headline, and it seemed like—still seems like—the best thing anyone would ever want to have said about them once they’re gone: “He was kind.” We should have put it on his headstone. The whole world could use more kindness.

Several months before he died, I found out he spent his last dollar bailing a friend out of jail, and at the time I thought that was just stupid. But really, it was evidence of his kindness. And after he died, my parents found a movie ticket stub on his grave; we learned a friend with whom he shared a love of movies had left it there, and he was missing Curt profoundly. That’s the thing a kind friend does—he makes a bright spot in your week by going to the movies with you and debating their relative quality afterwards when no one else will.

My Beloved would have loved my brother, but he came along too late to have the pleasure. More importantly, my brother would have loved him and his “go big or go home” approach to life. But the truth is, my brother probably would have loved anyone I loved; he and my ex-husband got along famously, and if Curt had anything bad to say about the guy I ended up leaving, he kept it to himself. That’s how Curt was. He looked for the best in people and found it, even if it was a little hard for other people to see.

Curt was built that way, full of compassion for bugs and animals and people, from the very beginning. When he was 9, he made me, his mostly inattentive teenage sister who was only interested in cute boys her own age, a Valentine. I ran across it not long ago in my Judy Blume diary from the time, and it made me laugh because it showed his sweetness and his sense of humor. Who needs rhyme in a “roses are red” verse when you’re getting straight to the heart of the holiday?

curt valentine's card

Isn’t that sweet? (And in pretty good condition for being 40 years old; they don’t make construction paper like that anymore!).

That was Curt. Full of love and laughter and willing to share it. The world is a little bit emptier for not having him in it the past 20 years. I miss him.

Halloween 1978

Minnesota Transplant as an artist, her sister as Raggedy Ann and her brother as Superman at Halloween in 1978. Superman was kind, too.

Throwback Thursday: What baling hay teaches

Going back to school reminds Minnesota Wonderer of her uncle who’s worked in education for the better part of his career. September reminds me of harvest time, too (I no longer have a garden but I drive by those fields of bounty). So today’s Throwback Thursday post, first published Aug. 9, 2012, pays homage to both my uncle and a harvest. It’s one of my favorites. Enjoy.

What a perfect haystack means

Symbols remind us of what’s important. A wedding ring symbolizes a commitment. A lushly green, well-watered lawn symbolizes suburban perfection. A signed baseball symbolizes a brush with fame.

For my uncle, a perfect haystack symbolizes a summer’s work.

stacked hay final

A meaningful stack of North Dakota hay, circa 1965.

I recently found a black-and-white picture of the haystack in my uncle’s collection of personal photos.

“You’ve had this photo for 40-some years,” I said. “There must be a reason you kept it so long.”

“That hay stack represented a finished job,” Uncle Lee said. “I don’t get many ‘finished jobs’ in my line of work now.”

Nowadays, making hay is highly mechanized. Round bales, created by a machine, dot the rural landscape around the little town where I live on the outskirts of Chicago.

But a century ago, hay was cut with scythes and moved with pitchforks, and haystacks shaped like little houses were fixtures of the Midwestern landscape. Square balers mechanized the process in the 1940s. As the farming industry moved to a more corporate operation in recent years, large round bales have become more common.

The biggest advantage of small square bales like those handled by my uncle is that they can be moved by one person without a lot of machinery.

Square hay bales must be stacked in such a way as to shed moisture and prevent rotting. My uncle estimates his haystack probably had 2,000 square bales in it.

“I probably handled those bales six times each,” he said. “That’s why I was in such great shape! The knees wore out of my blue jeans from hiking up those bales. I could throw them like you couldn’t believe.”

As the saying goes, you make hay while the sun shines. One has to cut it, rake it and bale it first. “Dad [my grandfather] had a brand new baler at the time,” Uncle Lee remembers. “Then I’d go out and put ’em in six packs — that’s the first time I handled ’em. Then I’d pick ’em up and throw ’em on the hay wagon (that’s two), then stack ’em again on the wagon (three), bring ’em home, throw ’em down (there’s four, right?), then stack them like you see here in the picture.”

The stack in that picture symbolized a whole summer of work.

“Wait, that’s five times, I think,” I said.

“Then in the winter time, you have to feed the cattle – I had to throw the bales on the ground for the cows.”

Six.

“I like everything about cattle,” said Uncle Lee, who grew up and made hay in the western plains of North Dakota. “I enjoyed that part of farming. I didn’t like seeding or combining, but one of my favorite times of year was when we moved the cattle to summer pasture. All winter, they were cooped up in the barnyards, but in spring we moved them to the open fields. They were like little kids! They’d kick up their heels and hit their heads together, they were so happy.

“I still like cattle.”

Early on, Uncle Lee left farming because there was no money in it and embarked on a career in education. He started out as a social studies teacher. He worked his way into school administrationthe top of the stack, so to speak—favoring smaller school districts.

“That’s probably why I prefer rural districts,” Uncle Lee said. “North Dakota built my foundation. It was a hard place to make a living: It’s got a short growing season. It’s colder than hell. Sometimes it doesn’t rain. It can be a very lonely, lonely place.”

But he learned what hard work can accomplish.

And the picture of his haystack symbolizes it.

The joke, er, goat’s on you

April Fools’ Day is a major holiday on my father’s side of the family. My 102-year-old grandmother used to love playing April Fool’s jokes, and my dad loves to tease people.

I inherited 20-some years of my grandmother’s diaries when she moved into a nursing home two years ago, so I dug through her April 1st entries in search of proof of her foolishness. Among entries about lunch, ironing, quilting and visitors, she rarely failed to note it was April Fools’ Day, though in 1998 when 7 inches of snow fell and 2009 when 11-12 inches fell, the weather trumped all fun.

I should mention that Grandma lives in north central Minnesota, where winter is six months long if it’s a day.

In the ’80s, April Fools’ Day was mentioned frequently with her brother-in-law’s birthday.

1985: “April Fools’ Day and Odin’s birthday. We celebrated his birthday with the neighbors coming, too. It was a very nice afternoon.”

In other years, she only mentioned who she fooled, not how. In 1986, it was my cousin Cheri (Grandma’s oldest grandchild). In 1991 and 1993, it was her friend Clarine. In 1992: “It was quiet although I did fool a few after church when we were having soup.” In 2004, she mentions she fooled her niece, Virginia.

In 1996, the lack of fooling got noted: “Cloudy cool day. I didn’t do any April fooling.”

But when Grandma does bother to go into detail about the day’s foolishness, I just have to chuckle.

1991: “April Fools’ … Was a nice day. The New Horizon had a goat they would deliver for $10. Mary called to have one delivered to both Jim & Wally. They blame me for telling Mary.”

Mary is my Aunt Mary, and Jim and Wally are her brothers, two of Grandma’s three sons. Uncle Wally passed away last year, but this joke reminds me of his sense of humor (and is proof of the foolishness on this side of the family!). He and Grandma exchanged pranks regularly:

1994: “April Fools’. I fooled Wally with a letter. It makes me happy. I did get him!”

1995: “April Fools’. Wally planned to fool me so I locked the garage door. He was here but couldn’t get in.”

1997: “April Fools’ Day. I never fooled anyone. Wally came when I was gone and put the bench on top of the car.”

 

For me, I think April Fool’s jokes are most funny when they’re played on someone else. When someone pulls a joke on me, well, not so much.

Researchers have found apes laugh, dogs laugh and babies laugh before they learn any other language. Laughter is pretty much the same across languages, and it has the same cadence for everyone — if you “ha, ha, ha” too fast or too slow, it’s panting or, er, something else.

So, laughter is like sleep. We all do it instinctively, and no one really knows why. Maybe it’s God’s joke. In any case, a good laugh is good for the soul, which may explain Grandma’s longevity.

May your day be filled with laughter.

Smile because it happened

 

Don’t cry because it’s over.
Smile because it happened.

~ Dr. Seuss

SCAN2784

Obviously, Miami Vice’s influence on fashion trends in the ’80s informed my little brother’s choice of men’s wear. Sharp-dressed man.

Given his boyish looks, he was probably dressed up for his church confirmation here, circa 1986. He was standing in front of his tree house, his pride and joy. When I was growing up, that tree house was only a bench in the crotch of the tree. Over the years, it grew and grew and grew! Look how happy he was! That smile of his was contagious.

In the background, you can see the dirt floor of a very tall pine tree, under which my brother spent many hours putt-putt-puttering with Tonka toys and plastic shovels. Who needed a beach when there was dirt to be had! He was creative and imaginative like that.

To some extent, I am guessing a bit about my brother’s demeanor, his interest in fashion and construction. Six years older than he was, I didn’t know him as well I probably ought to of. When it was important, I was becoming an adult and my selfish growing up crowded out interest in my little brother.

And then he was gone.

But I’m remembering him today, on the 17th anniversary of his untimely death.

And I’m smiling.

~ IN MEMORIAM ~
Curtis R. Wallgren
August 4, 1972~January 17, 1999

Birthday kudos to the woman responsible

Today we celebrate a man and the woman who gave him life. After all, shouldn’t we pay our  due to the person responsible for putting the “birth” in “birthday”?

PhotoFunia-1440787755

My Beloved commemorates another day on this earth today, and that means I get to party with him all day–singing, opening presents, eating–it’s non-stop celebration around here because, well, every day is a gift. I’ve written about why my Beloved is beloved before, so I won’t bother to reprint here, but to be honest, he deserves a whole book, not just a blog post (or 10).

No, today I write about the woman who gave birth to him many long years ago. My mother-in-law is a great mother-in-law, but first, she’s a great mom. When my Beloved’s dad died 30-something years ago, his mom was the only parent he had, and she lived up to the challenge. She’s a tough cookie–have I mentioned she changed careers midlife to become a registered nurse? She perseveres like that. She has loved my husband–and us now–though all kinds of clear sailing and storms. I can’t tell you how many times she’s lent her creativity and elbow grease in acts of service like painting my Adored stepson’s room, making couch pillows and bed shams, sewing my wedding gown (and more than one of my Beloved’s Halloween costumes), making dog coats and rugs, and probably two dozen other projects I’ve taken for granted. Did you know she lived with us for 10 weeks in a 1983 RV one winter? She was fun, a great cook and I loved getting to know her better. And she’s cleaned my refrigerator more than once. That’s love.

My Beloved’s birthday horoscope from Holiday Mathis seems to echo this sentiment, that a good relationship with Mom is worth more than gold:

What you put your money into is the least of your investments in 2016. You’ll attract support from those who understand that relationships are the true wealth in your life. When your time and attention help your personal life grow in satisfying directions, you’ll be on top of the world.

Happy Birthday, my Beloved! And thanks to my mother-in-law for bringing him into the world!

Grandma’s china speaks of gracious hospitality

When Grandma moved from her apartment to her new home in a senior living community earlier this year, she had quite a lot of stuff to shed.

Grandma turned 100 in March. A lifetime of household items still contained in her apartment was distributed among her four children. Thanks to Dad’s keen eye and frugal nature, a set of flatware and a collection of her china were among the pieces passed along to me. Dad rescued the flatware literally from the garbage.

Maybe some readers wouldn’t be so pleased to inherit china, but I couldn’t be more tickled. Grandma’s new china coordinates with and expands my own collection beautifully.

grandmas china

The plate with the flowery pattern on the top is from my original china collection, which I acquired upon my first marriage: Vintage Floral Splendor by Johann Haviland. All the other pieces with the platinum striping (really! platinum!) are Grandma’s: Nora by Harmony House.

The Nora plates are just slightly larger and flatter than my Floral Splendor pieces so they’ll make great charger plates or, when I’m serving a crowd, they’ll mix-and-match much better than my functional-but-not-very-elegant Longaberger pottery. Grandma’s collection includes a gravy boat (oh, joy! to serve gravy properly in a pretty boat instead of a mixing bowl with a spout) and a couple of other serving pieces that will be a treat to use at the next holiday dinner we host.

I distinctly remember eating off of Grandma’s china when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Grandma is a hostess bar none who appreciates a tasty side dish and a beautiful garnish. I can see in my mind that little saucer filled with a canned peach and cottage cheese, and there was always a spoonful of sweet pickles or pickled beets to accompany the ham or turkey.

Coffee with grandma is always an occasion. It’s never just coffee. At the very least, there would some sort of cake or pie and cookies (cookies are always accents, not the main dish), but usually it would also include little sandwiches, mixed nuts and one of those aforementioned pickles. Coffee with Grandma is a meal.

Served, more often than not, on pretty china.

Grandma’s pretty china is now beautifully stacked in my dining room buffet awaiting company. Can’t wait to put it to gracious use.

Again.