Thursday, March 01, 2018

February Sadness

This February, my brother would have been sixty-eight.  Would have been, is the operative phrase since it has been thirty years since he was killed.  Killed is the nice word, murdered is the truth.  The other truth is that one never gets over losing someone unexpectedly, graphically and tragically.  Even now, while the pain has lessened, the memories have not.  The slightest thing will remind me of him. 

I keep the manicure set that he gave me for Christmas one year, in my bathroom drawer.  It is worn, some would say falling apart, but it is one of my most precious possessions; one of the few things that I will probably still have until the day I die.  I never take it out without thinking about him.

He was my baby brother and I cannot say that we were that close. In fact, when we were younger, I always accused my mother of playing favorites with him, but that doesn't mitigate the loss.  My mother always said you never expect to outlive your children and in my case I didn't expect to see one of my siblings gone so many years before me. 

I walk down a street in an old neighborhood and I am reminded of him.  I still can hear his voice.  My mind still wonders what might have been if he was not taken away at such a relatively young age.  When he died, he was younger than my father was when he married my mother.  My father at that age had an entire life ahead of him.  My brother did not.

What I have experienced is playing out in families across this nation, over and over and over again.  Since Columbine, many families, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, have been dragged into this reality.  All kicking and screaming, I would assume.  The pain does not end for them and it never will.  The voices of those affected by the mayhem that is consuming our country are crying out; the voices are being multiplied daily it seems and yet there is no response, no solution. 

In the aftermath of the most recent tragedy in Florida, there have been increased threats against our schools, even here in the backwaters of one of the most rural states, but no response has been formulated as to how to end the madness.  The politicians and people of influence, anyone that should be able to present a solution seem paralyzed, with what I don’t know.  Perhaps it is a fear of the NRA. Or, perhaps it’s just because they have never lost a loved one to violence.

I am not afraid of the NRA.  I am not afraid to say what should be said.  That we should make military assault weapons such as the AR-15 available to our citizenry is absurd. The AR-15 is a high-velocity, lethal weapon designed for combat.  They are meant to assault and kill people, not ducks or deer.  The target used for practice with an AR15 is usually the silhouette of a person. They are made to kill people; therefore, people should not be able to purchase them.  What’s even sadder is that we are losing our children, not hardened criminals to weapons designed for war. 

This should be a no-brainer people.  Outlawing assault weapons and bump stocks does not mean that hunters will not be able to hunt.  It just means that deranged youths and adults will not be able to hunt each other and especially our children.

I will admit that there are other aspects to the problem that need to be addressed as well.  The internet has made violence much more acceptable.  Our youth are becoming increasingly addicted to violent computer games.  Social media has become the center of social interaction, creating individuals who cannot cope with the real world.  Recent studies report that one in five teenagers has experienced depression. We have a generation that is growing up without the parental involvement that ensures that children emerge as healthy adults.  As a result, there are a lot of deranged individuals roaming around that need to be under psychiatric care.  There are many societal issues that need to be addressed, but none of them mitigate the fact that there must be a ban on assault weapons.

My brother was not killed by a gun.  He was beaten by a couple of thugs and then left to drown.  My anger for guns does not proceed from anything more than empathy for those who have lost a family member, with an entire life ahead of them, to senseless violence.  It has to end.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Eating Well

I love to cook, but I have not always felt that way.   I come from a family of great cooks on my mother’s side and as a child was somewhat intimidated, so I chose not to try.  When I graduated from college, I had yet to even boil water.  I was content to subsist on the fruits of everyone’s labor while reading Betty Crocker, the only cookbook my mother possessed.

Not that she and her sisters, or my grandmother needed a cookbook.  For most of the women of their generation, cooking was just something one did.  Especially the old farm girls.  Cooking for them was a necessity, but they were blessed with the freshest fruits, vegetables, dairy, poultry, and meat available, so it was hard to screw up.  The one thing they did not have were the gadgets and appliances that we have today.  There were no Cuisinarts or blenders.  Chopping was done by hand with metal grinders and shredders for grinding meat or shredding vegetables. 

Being German, we ate a lot of sauerkraut.  Canning sauerkraut was a family affair.  One or two kraut cutters might be utilized to shred the cabbage while someone else packed the big pottery crocks and added the salt.  Several weeks later, they would return to put the finished product up in canning jars which would last through the winter. 

The cellars were full of all sorts of canned fruits and vegetables.  There were canned peaches, spiced peaches, spiced crab apples, canned cherries, and plums.  There were also jellies:  grape, strawberry, raspberry, apple, and orange marmalade.  There were canned gooseberries for pie in the winter and jars of homemade mincemeat. 

My grandmother never bought dairy products.  She made her own butter, buttermilk, cream, and cheese. She ground her own cornmeal and had her own bee hives for honey.  The only foods I recall her buying were flour, sugar, coffee, vinegar, peanut butter and the occasional orange or banana.  Oh, did we eat well whenever we visited her.  There was always fresh baked bread, with fresh butter and homemade jelly along with fresh milk.  What more could one want.

We did not grow up eating candy bars and chips or drinking sodas.  Those were occasional treats but were not part of our daily diet.  We ate what was available and that is what the women in my family cooked and baked with.  My mother and her sisters inherited my grandmother’s gardening gene, so we grew up eating anything they grew which included a lot of vegetables and dishes that most city people didn’t know of in those day:  stewed okra, eggplant pancakes, corn fritters, tomato pudding and raspberry custard pie;  dishes you would not find on the table of any of our neighbors were some of my favorites.  We also feasted on pork ribs with sauerkraut and dumplings, homemade chicken and noodles, and all sorts of breads, cakes, cookies and especially pies. 

There was always some kind of fruit or custard pie at my grandmothers and my mother took that skill a bit further.  She became so proficient at baking pies that it wasn’t unusual for her to get up after a meal while the rest of us were still eating and ask us what kind of pie we would like.  She would then whip out the flour and Crisco and within an hour or so, we would have a pie fresh from the oven.  Her apple pies were a masterpiece, but my favorites were her cream pies.  Banana, coconut, chocolate, or lemon, all piled high with meringue that I have yet to master. 

When we lived in New Jersey, I finally mastered the art of making pie crust.  Without my mother for over nine years, I was dependent on my own ability to bake.  For over a year, every Sunday afternoon, I would bake a pie.  There were some disasters at first, but I finally perfected the skill of making a perfect pie crust, something that still serves me well, but which I seldom put into practice anymore.

Like everyone else, I have been taken in by all the gadgets, appliances, and new techniques of cooking to the detriment of really good food.  Our kitchens are filled with Cuisinarts, spiralizers, flash fryers, rice cookers, and hundreds of cookbooks, but we are not very good cooks.  We try to impress people with the look of our food, but most of us are too far from the source for it to be very delicious.  The farm-to-table movement may give us a glimpse of what real eating might look like, but as long as the majority of our produce and meat is grown with pesticides or antibiotics, we will not be eating healthy and our bodies will bear the brunt of what we have available to eat. 


Thursday, January 18, 2018

His Eye Is On the Sparrow

I don’t especially like winters.  The first snowfall is great, but it gets old quickly.  On Monday, I was feeling grumpy and sorry for myself because of the snow and cold.  Another day stuck inside.  I was prepared to wallow in pity all day until I came across a YouTube video of Ethel Waters singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” and the words,  ‘Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav'n and home?’  The words took me back to my grandmother’s house in the little town of Spruce, Missouri.  The town has all but disappeared now and my grandmother’s house has been gone for years, but I can still hear her singing that song as she went about her daily chores.

And chores they were.  Her house had no running water or gas.  She did her laundry in the ‘wash house’ which had a wood stove to heat the water and an old tub and washboard where she spent one day a week washing clothes.  In later years, when the remnants of the depression had passed and her children were settled and earning enough money to help her out, they had the wash house electrified and a modern, hand wringer washing machine was installed.  The clothes still had to be hung on the line, but she was grateful for the modern convenience.

She was grateful for and faithful in everything.  When she was in her seventies, she woke up one morning unable to see.  Her daughters surmised later that she must have had a stroke.  When my aunt asked her what she did, she replied, “I sat on the side of my bed and prayed.”  Her sight came back and she got up and went about her way.  It is no wonder.  She was well aware that the eye of her Lord watching over her.
Her way was not easy.  She had ten children including twin boys that died at birth and another daughter who died in her arms when she was about six months old.  She had one son, my uncle Herbert, who suffered a heat stroke when he was in his late teens and then came back from the war in the Pacific with further mental and emotional damage.  He did not stay around in that little town for long after the war, but on those occasions when he did appear, he would torment the entire family and sometimes even the neighbors.

She lost a daughter, Ruth, to melanoma at an early age and had another daughter who was permanently disabled, unable to walk, after contracting Rheumatic fever as an infant.  Grandmother took care of Lydia her entire life.  She bathed her, she dressed her and doted on her all of her life.  Her one goal in life was to outlive Lydia.  Her prayers were answered.  When she died at the age of 94, she had out lived Lydia by eight months.
Her husband, my grandfather was a taciturn man and quite unemotional.  While he was a breadwinner of sorts, his contribution to the family was limited at best.  Grandmother was the one who kept the garden, who milked the goats and cows, who made the cheese and butter, who fed the chickens, who gathered the eggs, who pickled, canned and preserved their bounty to see them through the winter.  She made dresses, caps and aprons from feed sacks and quilts from the dresses once they had been worn through. Looking back, it is almost magical how she kept the family going on what would be considered nothing today.
“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’.  Those words so aptly apply to my grandmother.  Of all the people I have known, she was the most free.  She was not shackled.  She was not encumbered by a lot of possessions or emotional baggage.  She trusted her God and ask for nothing more than his favor.  It allowed her to spend her time being loving and productive.

On these cold, wintry days, I am fortunate that unlike my grandmother, I don’t have to depend on a wood or coal stove for heat.  I don’t have to be out in sub-zero weather milking the cow or gathering eggs and wood.  I don’t have to run outside to the ‘facilities’.  I don’t have to heat water on the stove in order to bathe.  So, unlike Ethel Waters and my grandmother, who lived under much more difficult circumstances,  I should have even more reason to sing.  

Thursday, January 04, 2018


Four days into the new year and for most of us our New Year's resolutions are already teetering.  There is something about the promise of a new year that makes us try to resolve that we will do better, live better, eat better, be better, but as the saying goes, "the best laid plans..."  
Why is it that our resolutions almost always fail.?  According to the results of my Google search, there are two meanings to the word resolution.  One is a firm decision to do or not do something and the other is the action of solving a problem, dispute, or contentious matter.  The latter definition appears to have  some worth, as in  the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 penned by Thomas Jefferson:

"Resolved, that the several states composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government, but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States an of amendments thereto."

Jefferson's attempt, however, to solve one of the problems imposed by states rights was never completely resolved.  Even today, there are still some who wrestle with the issue.   So, just like the ones we put forth as a new year begins, most resolutions do nothing, clarify nothing, bring about no change.

Our problem for the most part is that we focus on the activities, not the results.  ‘I am going to go on a diet.  I am going to eat right, I am going to exercise more, I am going to.....’  But, without an end result in sight, we lose interest and impetus quickly.  I once had a boss who said, "If you have hazy, fuzzy goals, you will get hazy, fuzzy results”.  He was right.  No one ever got rich by saying “I am going to get rich.”  Many, however, have gotten there by saying, "I am going to save $1000 by the end of the year.”

This year, I am bringing back a New Years practice from years past.  Actually it dates back to when I worked for the aforementioned boss.  For several years I would spend New Years eve making a list of the things I wanted to accomplish, my goals for the coming year.  An amazing thing happened.  After I made my list, I would not purposely look at it until the end of the year, but year after year, I would achieve a major portion of the goals I set at the beginning.  

I remember one specific year when my list included:  shoulder length hair, a piano, a certain weight and a certain salary.  At the end of the year, without even thinking about it, I found myself with a new job at the salary I specified, shoulder length hair, the weight I wanted to be and a piano.  When I looked at the list, I did not remember that a piano or shoulder length hair were included on my list of goals but something in my subconscious must have been aware all along because I achieved what I had written down.

I think that we were all created to be goal oriented, but over the years, we have let others assume the responsibility for what we should be doing until we no longer know where we want to go, just that something needs to change.  We look at others who seem to be getting what they want, who seem to be achieving something and our jealousy increases along with our complacency.  We find ourselves on the outside looking in at those whose lives are moving forward wondering why life is unfair.  

Life is not always fair, but it has to be deliberately lived.  You can’t wait for life to come to you or for someone else to do it for you.  We have so many unhappy, unfulfilled people in our nation right now.  They are waiting for something to change:  for the immigrants to stop taking jobs, for their take home pay to go up, to win the lottery or at least win a new car when the only one who has the power to truly change their life is themselves.  There is no magic, there is no prince charming, there is just us and a land where opportunity abounds.  All that is needed is a vision of what one wants….that and a clear, written down goal.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Simply Christmas

Last week, we had the opportunity to attend the Olpe High School Christmas program.  It was a pleasant program.  The students were not polished musicians, it was not a glitzy production, but it did hearken me back to a simpler time.  If they had worn white choir boy robes instead of their somewhat matching black and white clothing, one might have thought they were part of a Norman Rockwell magazine illustration. 

It started me thinking about how somewhere along the way we have lost the simplicity of Christmases past and the simplicity of the Christmas story.  Christmas was celebrated in simpler ways in years past.  When I was growing up, you didn’t need to have money to celebrate Christ’s birth.  Someone would traipse into the nearby woods to retrieve a tree.  Usually a cedar was all that could be found, they were sticky with sap and had their own fragrance, but they were green.  The decorations were simple as well.  Strings of cranberries and popcorn along with stars cut out of paper and the few ornaments from past years that had not been broken were sufficient.  Gifts were simple as well.  Fruit, some needed article of clothing like gloves and perhaps one toy or game was enough to satisfy.  Surrounded by family and friends, sharing homemade cookies and fudge, someone would read the Christmas story and our celebration would be complete.

With the buying frenzy that currently constitutes the holiday…gifting and giving, celebrating and overindulging, we have left the simple story of Christmas behind.  Christmas was not all tinsel and lights.  It was not a Broadway production or Hollywood movie.  It is a simple story, told in a simple way, of an ordinary but monumental, life changing event.

The first Christmas took place in a little backwater town away from the prosperity of the city lights.  A little town much like Olpe.  The long-awaited Messiah did not come as a conquering king as most of the Jews expected; he came as a baby, the child of an ordinary, unwed teenage girl a long way from home who had been given the opportunity of eternity.  His birth did not take place in one of the country’s best hospitals with a prestigious doctor in attendance. It was in a stable and the only place to lay the new baby was in the feed trough where the cattle ate.  The first people who heard the good news were not the wealthy or influential folks of that day but a bunch of ordinary guys herding sheep, who were very frightened when they saw the angels announcing the birth.  Very few welcomed him and when the wise men, probably astrologers, sought him out after observing a new star, their search caused the king to order the slaughter of infants to prevent the baby Jesus from claiming the kingdom.  This was not an auspicious beginning for a holiday that millions celebrate today in the most lavish way.

A recent Pew poll found that only 46% of Americans view Christmas as a religious holiday.  The rest see it as a cultural celebration.  That’s okay with me.  Through the ages Christians have been a persecuted minority, but it has not changed the story.  Perhaps that is because the message was not presented to or meant for the affluent but for those who are poor and downtrodden.  Society is too sophisticated for such a simple story.

Christmas is almost here, and I haven’t purchased a single present.  Our house is decorated with only a fraction of the ornaments and decorations we have accumulated throughout the years.  My only acknowledgement of the season has been listening to Christmas music.  Not the familiar Holly Jolly Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer White Christmas songs that we are accustomed to, but real Christmas Carols.  Songs that are a few centuries old such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.  “Come”, the song says, “and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here”, and I must admit that the reason for my somewhat subdued attitude to Christmas this year has to do with a feeling of dread that I experience when I consider all the events going on around us.  There is no peace leading up to this season.  There is no joy.

O come, o come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free. Thine own from Satan's tyranny. From depths of Hell Thy people save. And give them victory o'er the grave.”  My sentiments exactly when I look at the world around me.  We need to be freed from the tyranny around us.  Then I hear the words of the chorus, “Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee’ and that is enough to lift my spirits.  Emmanuel, God with us, the promise is here, for those who mourn, for those in exile, for me!  

Thursday, December 07, 2017

You can't have it all

It should be obvious to us, since it is to the rest of the world, that we Americans cannot control our appetites.  This has been borne out recently by all the sexual harassment and abuse claims that have been leveled at so called “pillars” of the media, of the arts and even of our governing bodies.  From the scandalous tales that are coming out now about Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, James Levine, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and John Conyers, one would think that we no longer have the ability to curb our desires.  Apparently, many of those in powerful positions have succumbed to the idea that they can have whatever they want with no consequences.

Lest we be too quick to cast stones we should consider how our our thoughts and actions the past couple of weeks have been dominated by Black Friday bargains and Cyber Monday sales.  We might have to reassess our ability to curtail our own desires.  Overindulgence is not providing the happiness we seek but is killing us instead. 
Our appetites are fueled by an advertising industry that constantly bombards us with suggestions that a 32-oz. coke or a double cheeseburger topped with onion rings and a side of fries is a great bargain.  The fast food chains seem to be trying to outdo each other in creating the most calorie laden offering for their non-satiable customers. The portions at many restaurants are big enough to feed two, possibly three people.  Drinks are becoming more exotic, laced with high calorie ingredients and increased alcohol levels.  Despite these adjustments, our food is not getting better, just bigger.

No one is immune from the sales pitch.  Several years ago, my husband and I were in Memphis for business.  One evening, we went to a restaurant known for “cook your own size” steaks.  My husband, a steak lover, saw a 32 oz. Porterhouse on the menu.  Despite my protests that it was humanly impossible to consume that much steak, he ordered it along with a one-pound baked potato.  When it came, he was determined to prove it was not a mistake.  He could eat it all.  I watched in horror and with some amusement as he proceeded to wolf the entire steak down. At the end he was no longer enjoying what might have been a good dinner, but he was not going to give me a chance to say, “I told you so”.  He proved his point, but it was a hollow victory. By the time we got back to our hotel, he was miserable.  He groaned all night long, but nothing could be done to soothe the pain of overindulgence.

There is no happiness and certainly no contentment in having it all.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Having too much only makes us self-indulgent.  It reassures us that we can have whatever we want.  Do you want to bankrupt yourself by always buying the latest electronic device?  Go ahead, you deserve it.  You want to have a relationship with a sixteen-year-old girl?  That’s OK, you are special.  Live for the moment.  It doesn’t matter if another’s life is ruined as long as we get what we want.
We have lost the ability to find happiness in the simple pleasures:  being satisfied with a job well done even if no one notices, bringing a smile to the face of a child or an elderly person, being happy for someone else’s success, or forgoing something that you want for the sake of another.  These are the things that give us true happiness, the things that bring back warm feelings whenever we remember them.

Something tells me that none of the men accused in the past few weeks have fond memories of the times they used and hurt someone so badly.  Self-indulgence is a lonely pastime.  It may feed our natural desires, but it leaves us unsatisfied and spiritually depleted.
This season we are entering should not be about having it all or giving it all to our children.  When I was young, I was envious of others when they described what they received for Christmas.  In our family the gifts we received were very simple and very few.  I could not see then that they were given with love and were therefore very valuable.  Now, if someone were to tell me I could get whatever I want, I would pass.  I don’t need anything.  I don’t want anything.

There are still those around who cannot say they don’t need anything.  This Christmas, instead of over indulging yourself or your family and friends, look around for those who cannot do so and give to them instead.  In doing so, you will be giving yourself a gift better than anything money can buy.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Being Thankful

It's Thanksgiving week and I have been contemplating how most Americans appear to have lost the ability to be thankful. Currently, thankfulness and gratitude play a very small part in our celebration of what the founders of this country were very aware of, that as a nation, we are truly blessed. We live in a country that has an abundance of natural resources we have yet to deplete. More importantly, we were gifted by our forefathers with a constitution that ensures us life and liberty; a promise that still appeals to those who are impoverished and persecuted throughout the world. 

The very thing we fail to remember is what still draws people to this nation’s shores. They do not come for our black Friday sales or holiday celebrations where we stuff ourselves with unhealthy food while we watch a bunch of ungrateful college athletes try to prove how noble they are by not standing for the national anthem.

Yes, our country has its problems, but they are problems that are out in the open not hidden as in a lot of countries where voices are silenced and the poor and persecuted have no recourse.

We are privileged, yet we act as if we're disadvantaged.  We have been blessed beyond measure. Our lives should be full, yet we think they are empty.  We are a country full of people who feel they are innocent, poorly treated, maligned, and disrespected, yet we have more opportunities to achieve our dreams than any other place on the globe.

What is the solution to all the negative self-centeredness?  It is certainly not something that the politicians can correct.  They are no different than the rest of us.  Most of them are living in the same denial that we are.  They are misunderstood.  It is not their fault.  The world, or in their view, the press, is against them.  The press may be negative, social media may be negative, but the way we feel about the world does not have to be.  We can be the change agent that changes how we view the world and in turn that attitude can change the world.  It begins with us.

It begins with the realization of how full our lives are as Americans.  It begins with being thankful, not just in words, but in deeds.  When was the last time you thanked someone for holding the door open for you at Walmart?  When was the last time you sent a hand written thank you note?  When was the last time you gave back out of gratitude for how much you have been given?  When was the last time you sought our someone less fortunate than yourself to share of the bounty you have been given?  When was the last time you looked around and realized just how blessed you are? 

Our Thanksgiving celebrations have grown smaller through the years.  Many of the older family members, who lived through direr times have passed on, but the memories remain.  I still picture my grandmothers small house; all four rooms.  I can feel the chill in the two bedrooms that were always kept closed to keep the heat from the two wood or coal burning stoves in the parlor and kitchen.  There was no dining room, no dining table, yet the best Thanksgivings of my life were spent in that house, crowded with aunts, uncles, and cousins.  The food was straight from the barn yard or cellar and better than any I’ve had since.  There was no tv, but there was laughter, joking and a lot of love. 

So many of us have abandoned our families.  Not intentionally, but jobs and opportunities have caused us to leave them behind.  We’ve left the comfort that comes from being surrounded by those we love for material wealth and prosperity, when true prosperity comes from being surrounded by those we love and who love us in return.

Two weeks ago, we were blessed to be in Boston with my husband’s family.  One night we celebrated my husband’s birthday with all of the brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews.  It was in a sense an early Thanksgiving.  We ate good food while we laughed and shared stories.  We tried to make up for all the years spent apart.  The night was too short, but the memories remain, and we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to be surrounded by those we love if for only a brief moment in time. 

Very few of us are totally without family, and even fewer are without someone to care for.   This holiday season if you can’t be surrounded by family, paraphrasing an old song, if you can’t be with the ones you love, love the ones you’re with.  Love them and be thankful!