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Not a Typical Quiet Morning

My early morning routine was disrupted last week. Most mornings I awake early, drink a cup of coffee alone, and gather thoughts of inspiration. An hour that’s all mine. And I need it.

But Tuesday morning at 6:05 a.m. as I shuffled from my bedroom to the kitchen past the upstairs stairwell, I hear a soft voice say, “Hi, Gran.” Two Grands, who live an airplane ride away, held hands and stood halfway down the steps. Neil, age 5, wore his Super Hero pajamas and grinned from ear to ear. Three-year-old Ann sucked hard on her pacey (big girl pacifier) and rubbed her eyes. Their big brother and parents were still asleep.

“Good morning, Neil. Good morning, Ann. Come on down,” I whispered.

Neil let go of his sister’s hand and said, “Ann, be careful. Hold the rail.”

My Grands walked slowly. I held my arms wide and they nuzzled their heads on my shoulders. Those few moments froze in my mind, my heart. I hugged until my Grands wiggled from my arms. “Go potty and then we’ll sit on the front porch and drink juice,” I said. Both raced toward the bathroom and it amused me that being first is important.
“I’ll go first Ann. I’m bigger,” Neil said just before he closed bathroom door.

These two Grands didn’t know about my pass-through kitchen window that I wrote a column about a few weeks ago. “Come to the kitchen. I have something to show you,” I said. Two small plastic glasses, 1970s vintage Snoopy and Strawberry Shortcake, and my coffee cup were on a tray.

“Can we take juice outside?” Neil asked looking out the window at the table on the front porch.

I raised the window that didn’t have a screen. “How about we set the tray on the porch stool and not carry anything outside?” My Grands clapped their hands.

Ann started toward the front door. Neil grabbed her arm. “Wait. How about we climb out the window?” he asked and looked up at me with his eyes open wide. I nodded and Neil ducked his head under the window. “Watch me, Ann. You’re next.”

Sitting together on the front porch, Ann, Neil, and I talked about sounds. Trucks on a big highway. Birds chirping. We saw dog shapes and circles in white fluffy clouds. Neil told about the big ugly monster that was in his bad dream. Ann said she just slept.

Son joined us at the table. “Daddy, guess what? Me and Ann didn’t walk out here,” Neil said.

“We climbed!” Ann said. And, my Grands raced into the house, their daddy followed to raise the window, and Ann and Neil climbed out again.

So upon rising that day, I immediately kicked into second gear to pour juice and enjoy two young Grands. Later, I hit high gear and stirred pancake batter. I’d trade my normal quiet morning of solitude for a morning with Grands anytime. Any day.

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There’s More Summer Living

At the end of May, my 11-year-old Grand wrote ‘Summer Schedule’ in big letters on her family’s laundry room chalkboard. Louise had erased her family’s plan of sport practices, music lessons, and dance classes, and she wrote three short sentences.

Stay in bed to your heart’s content.

Swim to Mom’s content.

And read to your brain’s content.

Every time I’ve seen Louise’s schedule I’ve hummed two songs that I first heard as a child. Summertime and In the Good Old Summertime. We weren’t a singing family, but I learned a few lines from Summertime that I’d sing and Dad whistled.

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy
Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’
So hush, little baby, don’t you cry.

It’s the first line that stuck in my head. This lullaby was written in 1935 for Porgy and Bess, a play about troubled people in Charleston who played hard, fell in love, and for whom life wasn’t easy. I didn’t know that story when I was young; I just liked that the livin’ was easy.

I remember only part of the beginning verse, about holding hands, from In the Good Old Summertime. We didn’t sing it as it was written in 1902 and recorded by many artists through the years, up to 1965 by Nat King Cole.

In the good old summertime
In the good old summertime
Strolling through a shady lane
With your baby mine
You hold her hand and she holds yours
And that’s a very good sign
That she’s your tootsey-wootsey

In the good, old summertime.

Mom and Dad sang, or actually chanted, a version that went something like, “I’ll hold your hand and you hold mine and that’s a very good sign. That we’re having fun in the good, ole summertime.” Or sometimes we’d dine in the good ole summertime. Or we wondered what time it was in the good old summertime.

So now that school bells are ringing what happens to Louise’s Summer Schedule? Stay in bed, swim, read. Even though the summer season includes August and most of September, when school begins, summer seems to end. Like many children, my Grand isn’t ready for a school schedule to squelch summer time. And I’m not either.

There’s still a lot of summer living. There are long days for walks in the woods, along a stream, and downtown to the ice cream store. There’s time for more backyard playing and cookouts. More fresh homegrown yellow squash to fry, more juicy red tomatoes to slice, more green beans to snap, more watermelon to slurp. More lake sunsets and boat rides. More front porch rocking.

Although Louise and her siblings are back in school, her Summer Schedule is still on the wall. Her mom said, “I just can’t give it up.”  Who wants to give up good old summertime when the living is easy? Not me. Nor my Grands. Nor their mother.

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Too Old for a Swim Day?

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 2.12.39 PMTowels. Sunscreen. Water bottles. Lunch. Dry clothes. Daughter’s van was loaded for a day at the pool. We had packed as if she and I were taking her five children across country, not an hour’s drive to a pool with slides, fountains, diving boards, and picnic tables.

Riding shotgun while Daughter drove, I thought of my grandmothers. Would they have worn bathing suits and set out on a day’s swimming adventure at my age?

“What’s so funny?” Daughter asked. I didn’t realize I’d chuckled.

“I’m imagining my grandmothers wearing bathing suits. I don’t think I ever saw their legs and they would never have spent a day at a public pool.”

“What about Grannie? Would she?” Daughter referred to my mother.

“Maybe. But she was younger than me when you were the age of your children.” Am I too old for our planned swim day, I wondered?

At the pool, we claimed two lounge chairs to park our belongings. Sunscreen was lathered on bodies, Daughter gave instructions, and my five Grands took off in different directions.

Lou and David, ages 11 and 13, headed to the deeper water beyond the rope that marked “where you can touch bottom and where you can’t.” Elaine and Ruth, ages 7 and 9, climbed steps to a tunnel slide. Four-year-old Jesse ran into shallow water and jumped, splashing water over his head.

Could Daughter and I keep up with them? She heard my unspoken thought. “Mom, they’re good swimmers and Jesse is wearing a life jacket. Lifeguards are all around. One of us will stay close to Jesse. I will now,” she said.

I walked into the water standing where I could see the other four Grands. They separated. Lou swam laps. David on the diving board. Elaine in line to go down the open curved slide. Ruth under a fountain. I glanced at the pool clock. Only 10:30. Then none of my Grands were where I’d last seen them.

Many kids and adults played close to me, closer than I wished. Suddenly, water splashed on my back and head. I turned and saw David. “Gotcha, Gran!” he said and swam away quickly when I splashed him.

Ruth swam to me. “Gran, did you see me go down the slide? Watch. I’m going again!”   Elaine swam close and turned flips for thirty minutes. I counted how many flips she did without stopping and watched as she flipped forward, backwards, sideways. Then my Grand asked, “Will you take me to the deep water?”

Lou swam underwater and brushed my legs, came up smiling, and said, “You never knew I was there.” I scanned the crowd to spot my Grands and was glad they occasionally came near. I marched in place and did straight arm circles, remembering moves from water aerobics classes.

Jesse waved and shouted, “Gran, come play with me.”

At the end of the day, my nerves were frazzled. My body tired. My thoughts happy. Thankful that grandmothers of my generation wear bathing suits and play.

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I Wish I Liked Bananas

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 8.26.33 AMLast week I wrote about Mom’s recipe for pie filling and later as I layered slices of bananas, vanilla wafers, and pie filling to make the best banana pudding ever, I decided it was time to overcome my aversion to eating a plain banana. I like everything about bananas, except their slimy texture. The ripeness doesn’t matter. Green or black-speckled, all bananas feel slimy.

Bananas are perfect snacks to eat quickly and easily and they’re healthy. They provide fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and various antioxidants. They may even help prevent asthmacancerhigh blood pressurediabetes, cardiovascular disease, and digestive problems.

I like a banana’s flavor, its convenience, and its health benefits. But every time I’ve tried to eat one, the slimy, mushy texture triggered my gag reflex. One bite, one chew, and I breathed deeply to avoid spitting it out. I told myself it’s a healthy fruit and its potassium might alleviate night leg cramps. The antioxidants are good for my heart and keep free radicals (whatever those are) from attacking my cells. And it’s cheap and I don’t need a plate or spoon. But in the past, mind over matter has never worked. That bite grows bigger and slimier the more I chew.

Friends have told me I need to pair a banana with something else, and peanut butter and bananas are natural partners because the banana offers quick carbs and peanut butter offers protein. Since a spoonful of peanut butter is my favorite quick hunger solution, it was worth a try. I sliced circles of banana and topped them with peanut butter. The flavors definitely compliment each other, but after one bite, I couldn’t eat another.

I smashed a spoonful of granola into the peanut butter. It was better, but I only managed two more bites. Sunflower seeds are crunchy so they would surely camouflage the banana. How can sliminess overpower crunchiness?

Next, I made fruit salad with apples, peaches, grapes, and small chunks of banana. I won’t notice anything except crispness I told myself. But that was a lie. My tongue rolled over the slimy banana and I chewed quickly and swallowed.

Sweetness could surely make a banana palatable. I cut three banana slices and dipped each into one of three sweeteners: chocolate syrup, honey, and brown sugar. All were delicious, but still slimy. Enough sweetness makes anything go down. I’d kid myself to think the nutritional benefits offset the harmful sugar effects.

So now I’m back to accepting that I don’t eat bananas although I do love Mom’s Banana Pudding and banana splits and banana bread. What’s better that a sliced banana with three scoops of ice cream (one vanilla, two chocolate) topped with chocolate syrup, real whipped cream, and a cherry? And overripe smashed bananas baked in banana bread surely provides some antioxidants and potassium and all that other healthy stuff.

But I still wish I could peel a banana, take a bite, and enjoy it. Suggestions, anyone?

Mom’s Vanilla Pudding

Husband calls it Real Banana Pudding. I call it Mom’s Banana Pudding, but we agree it’s delicious. My stained and frayed 3 x 5 recipe card for the pudding is labeled “Pie Filling” and “from the kitchen of Mother.” The penciled writing is Mom’s and mine.

Recently, I took banana pudding to Husband’s family gathering and the dish was practically licked clean. The best compliment possible. “I bet you cooked it in a double boiler. It’s a lot of trouble,” Husband’s cousin said. I said that Mom taught me how to make pie filling years ago and it’s not trouble, just takes a little time.

Mom used the same basic recipe for all cream pies and banana pudding, and it’s the one I still use. About fifty years ago, Mom and I made a chocolate pie. She recited her recipe and we took turns measuring, stirring, and writing this recipe as we worked.

Mom’s Pie Filling

            1 cup sugar

            2 cups milk

            2 eggs

            3 T. cocoa

            3 T. cornstarch or flour

            1 T. margarine

            2 t. vanilla

            Mix the cocoa, flour, and sugar. Add milk and cook ‘til the pudding is nearly thick.            Add the beaten eggs yolks and cook ‘til thick. Add margarine and flavoring.

            Variations: Vanilla- leave out cocoa. Coconut – no cocoa, add ½ c coconut. Pineapple – drain juice from small can of crushed pineapple and use juice to substitute for some of the milk. For banana pudding, make vanilla pie filling.

Mom and I didn’t write details. I’ve learned to use whole milk, like the milk Mom used from our cow Dad milked every day. Separate the eggs. Beat the yolks in a small bowl; place the whites in a glass bowl to make meringue.

Mix the flour or cornstarch (my choice) and sugar and milk in a heavy saucepan, cook over medium heat and stir often. When the mixture thickens, add a few spoonfuls to the beaten yolks and stir to warm the eggs before adding them to the hot pudding. Pour the egg mixture slowly into the pudding and stir continually. After the mixture thickens, remove from heat. Add margarine, (or butter) and vanilla and stir.

Line the bottom of an 8” x 8” baking dish with vanilla wafers. Top with a layer of sliced bananas and then ½ of the pudding. Repeat the layers.

Beat the egg whites, ¼ cup sugar, and a pinch of cream of tartar at medium speed until the whites are fluffy, and then spread them over the pudding. Brown in a 350 degree oven for 10 – 12 minutes.

There are many recipes for banana pudding and all cooks have their favorites. This is mine. Not just because it’s real banana pudding and Husband’s favorite, but also because every time I pour warm beaten eggs into hot pudding, I see Mom wearing an apron tied around her waist, stirring with a wooden spoon, and standing beside her stove in an un-air-conditioned house. I treasure that memory.

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One Solitary Sundflower

Daughter posted a picture on Facebook of one sunflower plant beside a utility pole. Right in the middle of town. Inches from the sidewalk. A five-foot tall plant growing from a palm-size area of soil surrounded by asphalt. One beautiful bright yellow plate size flower. An unexpected sight.

So unexpected that Daughter’s 9 year-old daughter, Ruth, shouted from the back seat of their van as they drove past it, “Whoa, look at that flower!” A few days later, my Grand pointed it out to me. “Look, Gran, just one flower. It’s pretty, it’s it?”

This flower, this plant, intrigues me in many ways. I think of the huge fields of sunflowers that I saw while driving across Kansas six years ago. Bright yellow blossoms covered the prairie from the interstate highway to the horizon. Such a contrast: millions of blossoms and one single flower.

Sunflowers have been around a long time and are valued for practicality and beauty. Evidence of sunflowers has been uncovered at archeological sites as far back as 3,000 B. C. They were first cultivated by the Southwestern Native Americans and have become valuable as medicine, fiber, seeds, and oils. Early European settlers sent seeds back to Europe where the sunflower became popular in cottage gardens and then Van Gogh’s paintings in the 1880s gave this flower prestige.

Sunflowers adapt to soil from sand to clay and tolerate dry to medium moist soils as long as the soil isn’t waterlogged, which is why the one time I tried to grow sunflowers they drowned and died. They are remarkably tough and grow best in full sun. Yet, this solitary sunflower grows in a low place where rainwater pools, and it stands on a tree-lined street.

Daughter and I talked about this plant. There are many questions we’d like to ask it. Are you lonely being the only one in a sea of asphalt? Were you planted on purpose? Or did a stray seed make its way into that tiny crack of dirt between the utility pole and street? Are you struggling to live? Do you know you preach to us?

Daughter says, “We see you standing there so strong and lovely. You make a difference by bringing beauty into the mundane of driving down our street to get somewhere in life. You remind us to look for lovely. You stand, and sometimes, that is enough.”

I see strength and determination. Against all odds, you survived. You stand proud, but not nearly as tall as the towering utility pole that brushes your petals. You grew where planted: not in a cottage or backyard garden, not among friends in Kansas, but on a small town city street.

Elaine, age 7, was with me in my van when we past this flower and she said, “Gran, have you seen the sunflower? It shouldn’t grow there, but it does.”

“It’s persistent and determined,” I said.

“Per what? What does that mean?”

Sunflower, do you know the lessons you teach? The inspiration you share?

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Happy 4th of July

Screen Shot 2018-07-04 at 6.40.02 AMTo celebrate our independence we wear red, white and blue, gather with friends and family for backyard picnics, light firecrackers, and watch community fireworks shows. Is this the way our country’s birthday has always been celebrated? Why do we shoot fireworks? Who decided hot dogs are eaten at picnics?

While researching, I discovered that maybe we should be celebrating two days earlier since on July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress voted for independence and declared the legal separation of the thirteen colonies from Great Britain. It took two more days of debate for the delegates to agree upon the Declaration of Independence and have paper copies printed to distribute to states for ratification. Because those papers were dated July 4, 1776, the date was adopted as our country’s beginning.

Historians claim that only two people signed on the 4th: Secretary Charles Thompson and John Hancock, who was the president of Congress. About a month later, August 2, all fifty-six congressional delegates had signed their names on the document.

One of our founding fathers, John Adams, wrote, “The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.” He was right that we Americans continue to commemorate this significant event and we can give him credit for the tradition of fireworks. He wrote that America’s birthday should be honored with “games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other.”

The holiday has always been celebrated with loud bangs and fire. On July 4, 1777, the first celebratory fireworks to mark the Declaration of Independence were set off in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Cannons and explosives left over from wars were part of our country’s earliest celebrations. By 1783, fireworks were easily available for public purchase and this year about 14,000 fireworks displays are planned nationwide.

It’s estimated that 150 million hot dogs will be consumed during the 4th of July week. And it’s no surprise that July is National Hot Dog Month. According to urban legend, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island began on July 4, 1916 when four immigrants challenged each other to a hot dog eating contest to prove their loyalty to America. Whoever ate the most hot dogs was the most patriotic.

But there are no records to prove this contest’s origin. The competition continues and now there are separate events for men and women and the contest is televised.

Like many of you, Husband and I will celebrate in all the traditional ways. I’ll eat only one hot dog and sparklers are my choice for backyard fireworks. And maybe we should all take time to include a reading of the Declaration of Independence as was done during the earliest Independence Day celebrations.

A copy is available at http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/ or listen at https://learcenter.org/event/dramatic-reading-of-the-declaration-of-independence. It’s worth fifteen minutes.

Happy Birthday America!

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