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Best Wintertime Eating

What’s better than a bowl of hot soup for supper on a cold, winter day? I’m not a soup snob. I’ll eat almost anything that’s served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon, but I have favorites.

My go-to canned soup has been around since 1897. Talk about standing the test of time! Campbell’s condensed tomato soup was first marketed 121 years ago. Campbell’s first produced ready-to-eat soup in 1872, but its condensed soup wasn’t introduced until years later. Tomato soup was one of the few canned foods Mom bought when I was a kid, and it was a cure for whatever ailed me. Mom added about half a can of milk and heated it on the stove in a pan. I’d crumbled soda crackers on top and practically lick the bowl.

Now one of my Grands acts as if she’s getting a treat when offered tomato soup. At age 10, she makes her own. She dumps the thick, red mixture in a bowl, adds a little water, and heats it the in microwave. As far as Lou and I are concerned, only Campbell’s makes tomato soup.

My go-to soup recipe is White Chili. I discovered more than twenty years ago on the side of a can of Bush’s beans. I figure a recipe written on a can label in size 9 font, so small I get out my magnifying glass, must be good. Why would a company print a recipe for their product that wasn’t good? I open a few cans, dice cooked chicken, and heat everything in a pan, bake a skillet of cornbread, and it’s supper. I’ve tried other and more complicated white chili recipes, but always come back to this one. (https://susanrray.com/recipes   It’s listed at the bottom of the recipe page.)

My all-time favorite soup isn’t canned or printed as a recipe.   Mom’s vegetable soup. She had everything needed on hand, but the ingredients were never exactly the same. She opened a jar or two of her home canned tomatoes and added whatever vegetables she’d saved from leftovers. Maybe a spoonful of lima beans, a serving or two of corn, a cup of green beans, some black-eyed peas. Vegetables that she and Dad had grown in their backyard garden, harvested, preserved, and Mom cooked. Then she froze leftovers, no matter how small the amount, in a plastic container that was labeled vegetable soup leftovers.

After all the leftovers were in the soup pot, Mom added cubed white potatoes, a chopped onion, and sliced carrots, if there were any in the refrigerator. And then she’d reach in the cabinet for her secret ingredient: two bay leaves. A dash of salt and black pepper, and an hour later, Mom served the most delicious soup I’ve ever eaten.

I do my best to make Mom’s vegetable soup. Freeze leftover veggies. Can summer tomatoes, specifically for soup. Add everything to the soup pot that she did, even bay leaves, and it tastes almost the same.

Yes, cold weather calls for hot soup. Don’t you agree?

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Hold Hands

 “Choose a hand,” my Grand’s mother said.

Three-year-old Dean stopped walking, looked back, and waited for me to catch up. He reached his hand toward mine. “I got Gran!” he shouted. So that windy March day three years ago Dean and I were partners as we walked through the Denver Zoo with his family and Husband. Dean reached up, I reached down, holding hands and watching camels and giraffes and hippos and all the zoo animals.

Choose a hand. All my Grands’ parents say and it sounds much better than what I told my children: you have to hold somebody’s hand. To cross the street. To explore the zoo. To walk a treacherous trail. To stay together in a crowd. To walk up steps.

When I was about nine years old, I held my Granny’s hand and sat beside her on her green chenille couch while she watched As the World Turns. Granny’s hands, strong and slim, had probably dug potatoes and stitched quilt pieces together that day. She focused on the troubles of the people who lived in Oakdale and I pinched the skin on the back of her hand forming a little ridge. I counted the seconds until the ridge flattened.

I held Jo’s hands as I sat beside her and she lay in bed recuperating from a broken hip. My friend’s hands had changed her children’s cloth diapers more than sixty years ago. Washed more dishes in her kitchen sink than have ever been inside my dishwasher. Smoothed many broken hearts during the years that she and her husband owned a funeral home. “Oh, you’ve made my day. Tell me about your family. How are all those little grandchildren?” Jo asked.

“Everybody come in here and hold hands,” Husband’s mother said to call us into her living room before Thanksgiving dinner was served. After her children, grandchildren, and great-grands juggled into place and took a hand, a thankful blessing was offered. Hands dropped quickly as children rushed to their plates. But some hands held, just a moment longer. “Oh, your hand feels so warm,” Grandmother told me.

Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios on the north coast of Jamaica, is 1,000 feet high, and the rocks lining the bottom are terraced like steps. I watched as twenty people, in one long line, climbed the falls. The river guides had said, “Hold hands, and everyone goes up, linked together.”

We’ve all heard the wedding officiant say, “And now I pronounce you husband and wife.” The newlyweds clasp hands, turn toward their friends and family, and practically skip down the aisle to begin life together. They begin their marriage holding hands. Gripping. Loving. Declaring.

Among the many gems that Robert Fulghum wrote in his book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, are these words: And it is still true, no matter how old you are — when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.

How very true. Choose a hand.

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Do I Have to?

If parents had a nickel for every time one of our children have said, “Do I have to?” we would be rich. Or at least, have put enough aside to begin retirement.

Parents say, “Eat your green beans.” “Brush your teeth.” “It’s time to go to bed.” “We’ll get up early tomorrow.” Can you hear a chorus of children responding, “Do I have to?” Those four words must be embedded at birth. We teach children to say please and thank you and may I and I’m sorry. Yet, every child, I’ve ever known, from my own to the hundreds that where my students to my Grands have said, “Do I have to?” With the same exact whiny inflection.

And we have identical answers. “Yes, you have to.” After we’ve worn out those words, we switch to nodding our heads and raising our eyebrows. And then comes the stare. The cold still stare that screams, “Yes and now!”

But it’s not just children who seemingly rebel about doing something. So many times we adults utter those same words. I have to go to the grocery store.   (Oh, for a nickel every time I’ve said this!) I have to do laundry. I have to pay bills. I have to get my car serviced. I have to pick up the Grands after their dance classes. I have to. I have to. I have to.

I’m guilty. When I’ve said what I plan to do, I’ve used the word have. But now I’m trying out something different. I read a Guidepost devotional that suggested replacing have with get. “Change one word and you change your attitude,” the Guidepost writer suggested and she elaborated. “Instead of saying ‘I have to do the laundry,’ try ‘I get to do the laundry because I have clothes.’ ”

So I’m trying. Replace have with get.

I get to go to the grocery story because I can choose what I eat.

I get to pay bills because my house has electricity and cable service and I have the money to pay.

I get to have my car serviced because I own a car.

I get to pick up the Grands from classes because I have grandchildren and I want to be with them.

I shared this idea with Husband. He grinned and nodded, and then surprised me the next day when he held our checkbook and his car keys in hand and said, “I get to go to the bank and then to the post office to mail a package.” I laughed and admitted that I wasn’t sure he’d heard me the day before.

Saying that I’m allowed, that I’m not obliged to do something, does make a difference in attitude. I like changing the negative have to the positive get.

Now I wonder if my young Grands will accept this change. I’m going to suggest they say get, instead of have, and I predict their answers in unison. “Do I have to?” But they, too, may surprise me.

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In Between Week

What are you doing this last week of 2017? I threw out this question to Facebook friends.

I see these days as Mondays, kick-start days for tasks and chores. But I thought some people might say the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is down time, a time to kick back and do nothing. Daughter said she’d take a big nap on the 26th and then get back to me. Amy works a demanding job and is taking life easy until the end of this year and then start out strong in 2018. Peggy is resting up for an upcoming adventure in January.

Some people travel. “Get out of town,” Sherry said. Mary is travelling to NYC for shows, museums, the Downton Abby exhibit, and taking in Saks’ windows displays on Fifth Avenue. After a few days with family, Chuck will fly to Buenos Aires, and Mikey is fishing in Costa Rica where life is easy and warm.

Some hit the exercise mode and take on new classes. Michael gets back on his walking program this week with the goal of 500 miles in 2018. Jan is ready for the gym and workouts. Crystal rides her bike. Together Cousin Mike and his thirteen-year-old daughter start a beginner’s tap-dancing class that runs for four months.

Some people take on tasks. Marilyn is going through Christmas decorations and sorting them. Linda begins the decluttering that lasts through February. “It is a tradition,” she says. Crystal and her husband who are in the process of downsizing will begin to declutter. (I’ve done that. They have my sympathy.)

Some set goals. Kristy, the mother of a toddler and newborn twin babies, will make a game plan for simplifying her life and said, “So I can better take care of my now family of 5!” Alexandra will write her vision of Thrive with Hope’s Growth in 2018.

Some spoke of looking forward. I appreciate their optimism. Move toward 2018 with hope, love, faith. Look forward to new friendships, new opportunities for self-development, spiritual growth and personal well-being.

Almost all planned to spend some of this week with others. Time with family and friends tops most people’s list. Grandparents are enjoying grandbabies. Parents treasure having grown-up kids home. Out-of-towners are visiting everyone they can.

Many friends inspire me. They remind me to be in the present and count my blessings. Reminisce about the past year, the good times and the hard times, thanking God for seeing us through.

This week is like no other and I like it. I’ll do a few tasks. I’ll pack away most Christmas decorations. But not the carolers, one for each of our children and Grands, which will decorate the china hutch until Valentine’s Day and the nativity so the Wise Men can join the celebration sometime in January.

And I’ll get out my 2018 calendar and jot down planned events. And I have a new jigsaw puzzle to complete. But I’m convinced this week is a time to rest and enjoy being with those we love. I hope you do the same.

The More I Love Christmas

Every December I reread a Christmas card Husband and I received in 2009 from Aunt Doris and Uncle Hugh. The front reads ‘The older I get, the more I love Christmas’ and inside a poem begins with these words: The older I get the simpler my holiday preparations become, the closer I feel to old friends as I write my Christmas cards, the more fondly I remember Christmases past.

To give credit to the poet I googled the beginning lines and found that same card is available from Walter Drake, but no credit is given to the writer. The words inspire me to step back, away from the hustle and bustle of Christmas, to appreciate Christmas moments, past and present.

Our Christmas tree is a memory tree. Each ornament tells a story. I love the plastic Santa astride a white horse that hung on my family’s tree in the 1950s. I cherish a plastic lantern, with a sprig of plastic holly, that was tied with a red bow onto a big white box Husband gave me in 1968. Inside that big box were smaller boxes and inside the smallest box was my engagement ring. I treasure the paper ornaments that Son and Daughter made in kindergarten. I hang many teacher ornaments that students gave me through the years. I remember a 6th grade girl handing me a wrapped box and saying, “Mom said you better like these. They cost a lot of money.” Now, thirty something years later, I love those birds more than the day I opened her gift.

Last week two Grands, ages 6 and 8, wore their mother’s red dresses and sang in their school Christmas program. As Elaine and Ruth sang Away in a Manger with their classmates, half my heart was in the past when Daughter wore those dresses. She was seven and a second grader when she wore one and sang Silver Bells at a Northeast Elementary School program.

As I drove Ruth and ten-year-old Lou across town a few days ago, they laughed at the music on my Christmas CD. “That’s sounds so old-timey,” one said and burst into a jazzed up version of Joy to World. I turned off the recorded music and we sang. I joined them in White Christmas and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. And my Grands laughed because I sang off key.

There’s no other time of the year that friends and acquaintances greet each other with such enthusiasm. We hold hugs a little longer. Shout Merry Christmas. Smile bigger. And there’s no other time that I enjoy opening mail more. I love Christmas cards. Greetings from friends and family, from across town and across oceans.

I look forward to Christmas Eve candlelight service. The tradition of worshipping and hearing the birth story from the book of Luke and holding a single lit candle while singing Silent Night. Celebrating the miracle of Christmas.

The older I get, the more I realize Christmas is a matter of the heart.

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What’s inside that Prince Albert Can?

When Granny tucked things into a Prince Albert tobacco can, I’m sure she didn’t think I’d look in that tin can 76 years later and find gifts.  But I did.

The four-inch tall, flat can is wrapped in thick grocery bag brown paper and penciled on the paper is Property Ett Rich Sept 25 -1941. I chuckle when I read Ett. Named Juda Etta Rich, her friends called her Ett, but she signed Etta Rich on checks. I never knew she referred to herself as Ett.

The red on the front and back of the can is worn off, imprinted on the backside of the brown paper wrapper. The can’s top and bottom are rusty. As I carefully force the lid open, I see fabric. A woman’s silk handkerchief, wadded into a ball, with black embroidered edges. The fabric so delicate, I fear I’ll tear it. It’s like others that Granny carried – stuffed in her bosom or sometimes she knotted a few coins tightly in the handkerchief corner and then stuck it in her apron pocket.

And a small, crocheted bag. Only about three inches across the bottom, a semi-circle shape with a one-inch handle. Surely it was white or cream colored at one time; not the dingy beige it is now. Was this someone’s change purse? Who made these treasures? Not Granny. She quilted, but never held a crochet hook. Maybe her mother, Elizabeth Huddleston Rich who died in 1921? Or one of Granny’s two sisters?

Tucked in the bottom of the can is a folded paper. Using tweezers I ease it out. A 5” x 8” blue-lined tan school paper. It’s a letter penciled in cursive in the traditional friendly letter format: heading, greeting, body, closing, and signature. Granny’s sister, Mary, signed it.

This family document is headed with Caddo, Oklahoma, dated June 28, 1922, and addressed Dear Sir. With no corrections, the one sentence body of the letter reads as follows: Please permit Ett Rich to take my part of Father Bank account To Pay expencies. Signed: Yours Truly, Mrs. Mary Pierce.

As I hold this crinkled old paper, I can see Granny at Pickett County Bank in Byrdstown, Tennessee, as she signed forms to transfer her father’s money from her sister’s name to hers. David Rich died March 1922, just months after his wife’s death. Granny and her sister Dona lived in Byrdstown; Mary and her husband had moved west.

So Granny was the executor of her father’s estate. I knew she continued to live on the family farm, the home place, for a many years. Where did Granny keep this document for almost twenty years before she stored it in the Prince Albert can? Why were that handkerchief and small bag inside?

I have to think Granny valued these items as family keepsakes. And reading the letter and handling the crocheted bag and handkerchief connects me with great-grandparents and a great aunt I never knew. Thank you for this gift, Granny.

Two Day Gift

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 8.03.09 AMNot all gifts are wrapped in shiny red paper. Not stuffed inside a gift bag. In September, I called Son and offered that he and Daughter 2 (some say daughter-in-law) take a mini-vacation while Husband and I stayed at his house. An offer of two nights away from home, from their three children, ages six, four, and two, and their dog, Baxter. A time to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

So in November on a Saturday afternoon, Son and Daughter 2 kissed and hugged Dean, Neil, and Ann and said, “Bye and be good. Do what Pop and Gran tell you and we’ll see you Monday.”

As Son and Daughter 2 drove out of their driveway, two-year-old Ann wailed for thirty seconds and said repeatedly, “Bye, bye, Mommy.” Husband, Dean, and Neil were having a snowball fight, throwing baseball size white balls of yarn at each other. I hugged Ann. She wiped her arm across her wet nose, and then said, “Let’s play, Gran!”

These three Grands were all ours. Time to play and read and take walks and build wooden cars. To giggle and sing silly songs and tell Purple Cow bedtime stories. To wrap small clean, wet bodies in towels and help wiggle into pajamas. To rub backs at bedtime and cuddle in bed early mornings. To bend the house rules a bit and bribe with Skittles.

Dean, a first grader, repeated my plan to his younger siblings. “Gran said she’d put Skittles in a jar when we did what we’re ‘posed to and we can eat ‘em after supper. I’ll count ‘em and give ‘em out.”

Co-commander Dean asked, “So how many Skittles is that?” after all 60 of the yarn snowballs had been picked up. And he followed me to the kitchen to be sure I put five in the jar.

The Skittle jar sat beside the list of suggestions and advice Son and Daughter 2 had written. Schedules. Neighbors’ phone numbers. Bedtimes. Meal menus. Favorite play activities. TV cable channels. Baxter’s feeding directions. How to cook a hot dog so Dean would eat it. Snacks Ann likes, but Neil hates. What to pack in Dean’s school lunch bag.

Every moment with our Grands wasn’t perfect. When Ann and Neil had breakdowns, Husband and I fumbled for reassuring words, but we knew hugs smooth toddlers. And we struggled through Monday morning to get Neil to preschool and Dean to the school bus stop.

After her brothers had left for school, Ann held a play phone to her ear and said, “Hi Mommy. Uh, huh. Yes. Yes. No. Pop and Gran. Yes. Bye, Mommy.” She ran to me, threw her arms around my neck, and said, “Love you Gran.”

I cherish the time that Husband and I had with Dean, Neil, and Ann. That’s the gift. Our Grands’ parents gave us their children for two days and nights. They trusted us. And they left another gift: detailed lists so we didn’t have to call them, not even once.

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