Creek in winter

Creek in winter

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Humble desserts


Another winter storm, another morning in the kitchen – at least, that’s what it means for me. In fact, it’s been a recurring theme this winter. Cold, inclement weather just seems to inspire me to cook, bake, read recipes, cook some more and eat. And there is ample evidence to prove it – and that’s all I’m gonna say about that!
Church services were cancelled this morning (a good thing, since the ground and the roads are covered in sleet) so off to the kitchen I sailed. Hmmm, what to make? A cake? Cookies? I opened the refrigerator for inspiration and this is what I took out:



Beautiful, fresh eggs from a friend’s flock! Thank you, Michelle Pointer, for being so generous with your cackleberries. There’s just something about a full tray of fresh eggs that makes one feel as if anything can be endured.
And with just a little fixing up, not only can one endure, one can be transported to the very heights of culinary delight, at least to my way of thinking.



I’m talking about pie, of course … my favorite, custard pie.
I seem to lean toward humble desserts (an earlier post raved about the delights of bread pudding.) And what pie is more humble than old-fashioned custard? Eggs, milk, a bit of sugar, a sprinkle of nutmeg, a pinch of salt, a generous dose of vanilla and you have the makings for the quickest, easiest (an electric mixer is not even needed), healthiest (my personal rating) pie on the planet. Most any old time these items can be found in my cupboard and fridge, so it is my go-to pie.

But the best thing going for custard pie is that it is positively delicious!
I’ve been in love with Dear Custard for the longest time. I remember my great-granny making it with her own fresh eggs and milk when I was a very little girl, sometimes in a pie shell and sometimes bare naked in custard cups, baked in the oven of her wood-fired cookstove.

Granny’s farm was smack-dab in the middle of our little town, but that didn’t stop her from having 300 hens, from which she sold eggs to the local grocery stores, and a milk cow which lived in her barn on the south side of the highway, the busiest east-west thoroughfare in southern Missouri. Granny, in her old-lady way, would trot across the highway morning and evening to milk her Jersey cow, getting the richest, sweetest milk in the world. When it became obvious that Granny was a threat to traffic (or vice versa -- her trot had slowed considerably) my dad had to sell the cow and Granny was forced to resort to grocery-store milk. She wasn’t a happy granny, and she held on to her precious hens as long as she lived in her big, old farmhouse-in-town.

Back to custard: I think I had to cultivate a taste for custard pie. As a little-bitty girl, I wasn’t fond of the texture. But magically, my palate matured, and by the time I was old enough to understand about quality food I realized this was near to perfect. A flaky crust, a tender, slightly-sweet filling giving off the delicate aroma of vanilla and nutmeg, best served when still slightly warm – all the makings of divine delight.

It took me 35 years to learn how to make my favorite pie. If Granny gets the credit for inspiring my affection for custard, Barbara Pettit deserves kudos for indirectly teaching me how to make a good pie pastry. She was the home economics teacher to both my daughters, and they learned from her and came home and taught me how to make a simple yet successful pie crust.


I still have a little piece of paper taped inside my cupboard door with Ms. Pettit’s recipe, written in Susannah’s high-school handwriting: “2 ½ cups all-purp flour, ½ tsp salt, 1 cup shortening, 8-9 tablespoons ice water, 425.” After all these years and after trying a dozen other pastry recipes, some with butter, some with vinegar, or egg or etc., this is the one I go back to for ensured success. Thank you, Barbara Pettit, for teaching my girls and allowing them to teach me.

 

I roll my pastry onto an old-fashioned tea towel (not terry but smoothly woven) which I’ve covered with flour. This method works well because the pastry won’t stick to it AND because you can lift it with the towel to drape over your hand to transfer it to the pie plate.

Ms. Pettit’s recipe makes two generous crusts, one of which I freeze (Hooray! Next time I need dessert in a hurry, I’m halfway home!) and one of which I immediately fill with custard. Here’s how I make the custard:

4 fresh, large eggs

2/3 cup sugar

2 2/3 cups milk (whole, or if you have skim, use 2/3 cup cream and 2 cups milk)

¼ teaspoon (or a little more) ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla (and spilling a little extra into the mix doesn’t hurt one bit)

Mix all with a whisk, carefully pour into unbaked pie shell. Bake for 15 minutes at 425, then another 25-30 minutes at 350 to come out just right. Check for doneness by inserting the tip of a sharp knife into the filling near the center – it should come out clean.

 

Since I’m crediting inspiring women, I should give Betty the credit for the custard recipe. Ms. Crocker has taught me a lot through the years. I’m dreading the day when her tome comes completely apart. My good friend, Sue Ann Luna Jones, gave Betty to me when I got married. Sue Ann claims she has never read Betty, but I don’t believe her. We’ve always liked the same books.

So, I just made a pot of coffee (Southern Pecan, from Ozark Mtn. Coffee Co. in Ozark, Mo.,) and have cut my favorite farmhand a piece. We’re ready to sit back and watch the sleet pile up and contemplate the blessings of our simple life, over our simple dessert, on this simple Sunday.

 
Honestly, I feel pretty rich!

And that’s my sermon for today …

Friday, February 14, 2014

 
 
 

A special memory...


A precious keepsake of mine is this valentine given by my grandfather to my grandmother in the early 1920s. They were in high school together in Gainesville.
After Grandmother died at a much-too-young age (three days before her 60th birthday), Grandad added this notation below the card’s printed message: “This was the first valentine given to my darling Fay.”
It folds down to become three-dimensional.
On the back of the card Grandad also wrote: “This card was handed to Fay one morning behind the old round heater in the old block high school – perhaps 1922 or 1923. I was too backward to give it to her in public.”

Grandad gave me a small wooden box of Grandmother’s things about the time I graduated from high school. I have their high school and college class rings, some diplomas, a couple of their picture albums and other meaningful items that tell me so much about the young couple they were.

 Grandad and Grandmother were school teachers and very career-minded people who loved teaching. I guess it is appropriate that their romance started in the basement of the old school where they also began their life’s work. Their genuine love for each other surely spilled over into their obvious love of life and love of their work, which influenced many young people through the years…including me. My grandmother gave me the gift of good books and a love of reading and encouraged my faith. My grandfather had a delightful sense of humor, loved sports and inspired my interest in genealogy, all wonderful gifts.



Even though Grandad eventually remarried (to a very dear lady), my grandmother was forever "his darling Fay." Lovebirds till the end, a true Valentine’s Day love story…

Saturday, February 8, 2014


I love winter. I love snow. I love cold weather.

 

I love winter clothes, wearing warm sweaters, warm socks and warm boots. I like bundling up in layers, turtlenecks and wool jackets, like my favorite old gray wool peacoat. These things never wear out; they just increase in character, as edges soften and fray.

I love to be cooped up in the house, and I love to knit warm, woolen scarves and to sew warm, cozy quilts. Colorful yarn and bright, printed fabric provide some just-right color on drab days.



My happy heart sings as the sewing machine purrs, stitching up a cozy topper that will warm my granddaughter’s bed.

I love to keep the tea kettle almost whistling on the back burner of the stove, and I love to hear my husband, bundled up like a bear,

 

come in the back door. I love to make him a cup of strong, hot tea and to see him warm up and relax.

I love to make a big pot of warming soup or stew and let it gently bubble on a low burner for a long time, making the house smell so good for hours. How pleasant for someone coming in from the cold, to enter a delicious-smelling kitchen and know that a wonderful treat is in store for them!

I love to put on lots of layers and head outside into a winter wonderland. I love to see the bare branches of trees silhouetted against a brilliant blue sky.



When those branches are tipped with crystalline ice, it’s just the best, the prettiest sight in the world!

I love to see the snow outlining the branches of bare hardwoods
 
and draped across the arms of evergreens. Cedars and pines are prettiest in this winter garb.
 
I love to come across a wild holly,




 
its red berries providing a lovely counterpoint to its pristine setting.
 
 

I love to drive down a dirt road in the snow, making the first tracks along its pure whiteness. When I stop the truck and get out, the quiet of winter penetrates and quiets my busy mind, the only sound that of the birds twittering and chirping in the thickets that line the way. They scold me for invading their bird-place, but they are also curious, asking each other, “Why is she here?” What human likes to be out in winter?” I hope they know I am a friend and that I’m only there to admire them.

 

I love to crunch through the snow down to the creek. I admire the rugged, beautiful bluffs above, dripping with icicles. I love to see the clear, cold water tumbling over the rocks in the creek, and I love to look for all sorts of tracks in the snow or the mud along its banks.

 

If the roads are too bad for me to navigate them alone, I love to be asked to go for a ride with my favorite farmer to deliver bales of hay to the cattle on the backside of beyond.



I love to see the baby calves in their thick, warm coats, frolicking as they follow their mamas eagerly rushing to the breakfast buffet. Their breath comes out in frosty puffs, and the winter seems to make them bolder and braver, as they curiously examine the truck, sniffing and snorting, then romp away when the camera clicks.

 

I love when he has time to explore a little more on this cold, winter’s day. My favorite thing is to come upon the remains of an old homestead, chimney leaning and doors askew on rusty hinges. I like to think about the pioneer woman who made this a home, who stitched quilt blocks by lamplight on a cold winter’s evening, as her husband read aloud to her or carved a toy for the baby in the cradle.

 

I love to tromp around and look into her cellar, now filled with debris but once her pride and joy. Come fall, its shelves lined with crocks and jars filled with good things to see her family through till spring. Baskets of apples and big heads of cabbage would have provided a taste of something fresh when snowflakes swirled.

 
I love an old barn in winter, its sturdy bones still strong, a reminder of when it sheltered precious livestock, milk cows, draft horses, squealing pigs and bleating sheep. It was the first structure built here that long-ago summer; the family camped out while this most-important part of their livelihood took shape. What an adventure they were living out!


I love to ask my farmer-husband about going to the one-room school when he was a little boy, on a day like this. He and his school-mates were the last generation to get to go to the old school. I love to hear him tell about all the children drawing their desks up close to the pot-bellied stove to keep warm, and the teacher who would play with them at recess as if he was just a big kid himself. I love to hear him tell of taking a big knife to school to cut down saplings during recess and build forts in the woods around the old schoolhouse. And I enjoy the stories of the “bus”, a parent’s old station wagon, getting stuck trying to navigate icy, snowy roads. The boys would get out and push the “bus” out of the ditch. A little snow didn’t shut school down in those days!

 
Today we tune in to a sophisticated weather forecast and know days ahead to prepare for a coming winter storm. We have snug, solid, well-built homes to shelter us when it comes, warmth at the touch of a button, resources to keep the power on in case of an outage, and four-wheel-drive vehicles to take us out and about when we really should stay in.

I, for one (and I know I’m in the minority), say, “Let’s enjoy it.” Every season has its beauty, and winter is no exception. We only need to look to see it.
 


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oh, Boy, I B-lieve this is a B kind of day!

As I Busily went about the process of putting dinner together (we call the noon meal dinner Because that's how we grew up, and especially Because it is our main meal and so the evening meal is supper), I noticed a theme developing.

We're having Baked Barbecued country ribs and Baked potatoes,



a pan of speckled Brown Butter Beans is Bubbling away on the Back Burner, and the aroma of Beth's Banana Bread is making my mouth water as it Bakes up Beautifully.

The Bs just Begged to Be noticed.


So Before I lug my vacuum cleaner upstairs to tackle the post-holiday mess, I thought I'd share the recipe for Beth's Banana Bread with you, in case you happen to have any Black-looking Bananas lingering on your counter, as I did. In fact, if you have any non-Black Bananas, you might want to tuck them away in a cupboard somewhere and give them permission to turn Black, just so you can whip up a loaf of this Bonnie Bread. It's that good.

My sister-in-law, Beth, shared this recipe with me many years ago. It's probably no different from a thousand others, except for the manner in which it is Baked. S-l-o-w-l-y, very s-l-o-w-l-y. I'm not sure what that does to this wonderful Bread, but the results speak for themselves.


Beth is not only Beautiful, she is also a great cook; she majored in home economics but she also learned some tricks of the trade from her mom, another great cook. Beth and I rarely have a conversation without the subject of some new recipe she has tried coming up, and she's always eager to share. I love that -- some people are stingy with their favorites. Boo to them! Soups are one of Beth's specialties. She's generous with what she cooks, too, often carrying a casserole, salad and dessert to a new mother or to someone who's Been ill.

I want to Be more like that.

Another of our shared interests is good Books, and we talk about our latest favorties every time we chat. This week she shared that she'd just finished John Grisham's latest and that it was a good one, so I'll Be giving it a go. 

I shared that I have two on order that sound very promising. One is Sue Monk Kidd's latest, The Invention of Wings. The two of us (along with some other friends) read Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees together a few years ago, and the day we got together to talk about it is a fond memory. I'm hoping we'll read this new one together, too.

My other Book on order is The Beekeeper's Apprentice, in which the protagonist meets up with Sherlock Holmes late in his life and they solve a mystery together. The premise sounds delightful -- I'll let Beth ... and you ... know how it turns out.

Beth and I also love GOOD movies, not ordinary, ho-hum ones. She told me that Saving Mrs. Banks is the Best thing she's seen in a LONG time, so now I can hardly wait till it comes to a theater near me.

So ... Baking Beth's Banana Bread, like good recipes often do, led me to fond thoughts of someone, good memories and a Bold B alliteration. I hope it didn't Bore you or drive you Batty but that it has inspired .... no, Beckoned ... you to Bake some for yourself. Here's the Breakdown:

1/2 cup Butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, Beaten
3 ripe Bananas, mashed
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon Baking soda
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped pecans

Combine sugar and Butter; cream until light and fluffy. Add eggs and Bananas, mixing well. Combine dry ingredients and stir into Banana mixture, just until all are mostened. Stir in pecans and vanilla. Bake in 9x5x3 loafpan at 250 degrees for at least 1 1/2 hours, maybe 1 3/4 hours.



I think I need to sample, to Be sure this is okay. Just to Be on the safe side ....

Bye, friends -- hope your day is B-you-tiful!

 

 

 



Thursday, January 9, 2014

Old-fashioned goodness

I love these snowy days for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it makes me want to cook. I keep thinking of all sorts of warming comfort foods, all designed to keep my farmer-husband fueled for the difficult tasks at hand: repairing a jillion broken water lines, pulling feed trucks out of icy, muddy bogs, hauling hay bales to the most remote pastures, replacing motors in silo feeders that balk at the cold, and just, in general, keeping everything alive and well.

When the cold wind blows and the snow flies, it is easy to think of meals to prepare. The oven helps warm the kitchen, and the good smells permeate the whole house. Today it is the delicious scent of nutmeg in the air that keeps pulling me back to the kitchen.

Bread pudding is probably my favorite dessert in the whole wide world. It is easy -- elementary cooking skills are all you need -- and you could probably make the case that it is even good for you. Most of the time I have all the ingredients on hand, so it's handy to make in a pinch. A real go-to choice, in my opinion.

But my opinion is colored by sentiment, so it isn't objective. Bread pudding was one of my grandmother's favorites, too, so it's no surprise it is mine. Oh, how I loved Grandmother's bread pudding! She didn't think it was anything special -- a way to use up leftovers, really. Grandmother was of the generation that wasted not, so when she had leftover biscuits, bread pudding would be on the table the next day. When I asked her how to make it, she just scoffed and said, "There's nothing to it. Just some milk and eggs and a little bit of sugar, all mixed up and poured over the broken biscuits."

How could something so humble taste so magnificent? Divine, really.


My maternal grandmother,
Iola Pitchford Kirkpatrick 1914-2007
So this morning, I was looking through some old files and came across a picture I'd saved of my grandmother, and suddenly I was craving bread pudding. I didn't have any leftover biscuits, but I scrounged in the freezer and found a lonely, slightly-frostbitten hamburger bun, a couple of hoagie rolls in a freezer bag, and from the cupboard pulled two thick slices of French bread.

Yes, I had some good bread, but that would defeat the purpose. I believe 'tis nobler to use up the old stuff.

I unwrapped and laid out on the counter that sad collection of odds and ends, to sit and go stale. You see, bread pudding is better if made with stale bread. It sort of retains its shape, as it soaks up the custard, which is a good thing.

And the custard is what makes it SOOOO good! First, if you've lost your flock of chickens to murder and mayhem like I have, run out and make friends with someone who has some -- big, fresh eggs with dark yellow yolks are the best for this. Then, if you have forgotten a half-pint of whipping cream that you thought you'd use at Christmas but it's hidden way in the back of the fridge, dig it out.

Minnie and her chix; she was the best little hen I had. All my hens were named
after my grandmother's many aunts. Minnie was a good mama. 


You're nearly there.

Measure 3/4 cup (or guess, like I did) of white sugar, mix it with three of those big eggs, the cup of whipping cream and another cup of milk (I always have skim, which makes the cream even more important.) Slosh in a tablespoon-ful of vanilla (guessing continues to work, and more is better), a pinch of salt, and about two tablespoons of melted butter (real is the only way to go.) Mix that up good with a fork or a whisk; never use a mixer -- waaaaay too much trouble.

Cut or break your bread into chunky cubes, about an inch across. Place them in a buttered baking dish and pour your custard over. Take a spoon and push the bread cubes down into the liquid, so that it is absorbed. Let it sit on the counter while your oven preheats to 325 degrees. Sprinkle the top generously -- no light hand here -- with nutmeg, and let it work its magic for about 45-50 minutes. The pudding will puff up (if you had good eggs, like Michelle Pointer's or Jessi Dreckman's) which is a good sign. Take it out when the edges of the bread cubes are nicely brown and it seems set in the center. Let it rest and watch it deflate. Smile, because things are going your way!

Now, Grandmother didn't do this next part, and the pudding is content to stand alone. But company is such a nice thing that I like to give it some, in the form of vanilla sauce. Put a half cup of brown sugar and about a tablespoon of flour in a saucepan; stir in a cup of milk (and a slosh of cream, if you have any left), another slosh of vanilla, another one of those beautiful eggs, a  dash of salt, whisk it all together and let it cook till thickened. Somewhere in there add a couple tablespoons of butter, too. Stir and stir, because it sort of curdles, but it's all good.

Finally, when your cold and hungry crew comes inside, serve up a dish of your bread pudding with warm sauce spooned over and innocently wait for the compliments to come. They will, I promise. Act like it was nothing. Modesty is a desirable trait.

But know that there are places on earth where this would be considered a true delicacy -- probably some fancy-schmancy restaurants in cities across this country. And you just whipped it up in your own little kitchen, with your own basic ingredients -- just like Grandmother did.

Luci Jane loves to gather eggs; she is named for Grandmother's
grandmothers, Lucinda Pitchford and Jane Luna.












Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Fresh off the needles ....

 
My first finish of 2014 is this shawlette created from a pattern called Cadence. I love the name because it felt like I got into a regular rhythm as I knitted along. It was an easy pattern to follow, with just enough variation to give it interest without being so complicated that I'd get lost.
 
The yarn was so much fun to work with -- Odori by Noro, a heavenly blend of silk, wool, angora and kid mohair. It felt so good to my fingers and, as always, the coloration by the artists at Noro lent itself perfectly to make this look like it is made with lots of different yarns, rather than just one self-striping delight. It is a rather chunky yarn so the shawl will feel snuggly and warm, not wispy and airy. I will block it out to be a bit wider at the wingspan -- just the size I love to wear.

 
During this frigid, wintry spell we're having, I've had to discipline myself to not just sit at the kitchen window, watching the many birds. They are so entertaining! I've been surprised the last two winters to see bluebirds at the birdbath. They are very shy and don't venture near the feeders or even browse on the ground for leftovers, but they come often to get water. Yesterday I saw four, two females and two males, drinking at the same time. By the time I grabbed my camera, one pair had flown away, leaving these two. I use a heating element in the birdbath to keep the water thawed, and it is quite an attraction. All the ponds are frozen completely. 

 
This book, published in 1996, is one I found at a second-hand book store several years ago, and it remains one of my favorites. If I were to write a cookbook, this is the book I'd want to write. Inside, on the title page it says, "A Treasury of Old-Fashioned Foods and Fond Memories." Food and recipes are so closely tied to memories for me -- they go hand in hand, intertwined forever. Jane intersperses poetry, personal family recollections, old photos and pencil sketches among her own personal favorite recipes, ones that always seem like something I want to make.
 
The Girl in White
 
We saw her standing on our lawn,
One zero winter-day;
She never stirred, nor said a word,
Nor asked if she might stay.
 
And though it may not seem polite,
Indeed, almost a sin,
We never said a word to her,
Nor asked her to come in.
 
Her gown and cape and hat were white,
And white her feet and toes;
Her mittened hands were just as white,
And white her very nose.
 
She stood out there upon the lawn
All day, and all the night,
And never once lay down to sleep
That stranger girl in white.
 
A dainty little maid she was,
A playmate you all know,
For she was "Jack Frost's little girl,"
Carved from the soft white snow.
 
~Charles Stuart Pratt
 
Jane tells about her Aunt Heta making Chocolate Snow Ice Cream, and of "Good old winter, when kinfolk stop by to talk a spell and break bread," and of her uncle in 1911 getting new red flannel long underwear ordered from the Sears Roebuck when he was just four and of how he loved the "neat trapdoor."
 
Jane, like me, loved winter and celebrated its beauty and coziness. She saw crystals in snowflakes, heard songs in the wintry wind, and loved nothing more than to bundle up her children and take them out into the contryside, to experience nature first-hand, even in the extreme. A wintertime picnic was an adventure, with chili (and hands!) warmed over a fire and hot chocolate and cookies for dessert.
 
 
In addition to feeding the birds, we put out ears of corn on this spinner for the squirrels. It's fun to watch the acrobatic ways they take kernels off the cob. This morning, Mr. Redbird thought he would see if it some corn might be a nice addition to the birdseed he's been getting.
 
On the farm, we spend most of the cold, snowy days taking care of the livestock. They usually do well in cold weather if it isn't too wet. Yesterday, however, we found a month-old calf that had somehow gotten separated from his mama. He was down, dehydrated, hungry and very, very cold. The temperature was not even 5 degrees, and it was dangerous for him. So we brought him into the barn.
 
With no calf milk replacer on hand, I mixed up a concoction of milk, eggs, sugar and calf vitamins, and, since he was too weak to suck from a bottle, he was force-fed (drenched) with this. Later in the evening, the calf was sitting up and holding his head up. This morning, the routine was repeated, and he's looking better all the time. Hopefully, he will soon stand up, and then we'll give the V for victory sign! I think we found him just in the nick of time.
 
Another important job for me during these cold spells is to keep the tea kettle simmering on the stove. Something hot to drink is always welcome when someone comes in to warm up, toes frozen and cheeks red. I think I hear the sound of boots stomping at the back door and the kettle starting to whistle, just in time to make us a cup of tea. And maybe a cookie or two to go with it? Just what Jane Watson Hopping would have ordered!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Remembering Santa's Helpers

It's a question that the more astute kids have been asking for some time now – how, exactly, does Santa do it? How could he make all those appearances in downtown department stores and at shopping malls and office parties and churches and school programs and nursing homes, not to mention the innumerable television commercials and shows and movies, while still finding the time to makes a bazillion toys in response to at least an umptillion letters from a jillion kids, each filled with personal requests for gifts, all written in one month's span of time? Whew! It makes me tired just thinking about it!
So, what's the Super-Big-Guy's secret?

Well, I just happen to know the answer to this, and how I know comes from personal experience. Santa has helpers, and I don't mean the elves. Sure, those funny, pointy-eared little ones are useful -- even necessary -- when it comes to toy fulfillment, but they could not possibly pass for Santa himself. No, I am referring to the untold numbers of good sports around the world who are willing to don chin whiskers, pillows, woolen red suits with short-ish pants and shiny, knee-high boots, all for the sake of kids. These guys are the real heroes.

Personally, I've known a few of them. It all started back in 1960, if I remember correctly. I was a typical nine-year-old with two younger brothers, and we were really excited because THERE WAS SNOW for Christmas that year! Even though we didn't have a fireplace, just having snow surely upped the odds that Santa would make it to our little town that year.
The closest I could come to a photo from that era -- this was a couple of years earlier.
That was also the year that a bit of skepticism began to creep into my attitude about Santa. I had secretly begun to have doubts but kept up a facade for the sake of the younger ones (and because there was a certain doll I really wanted and needed Santa to bring.) Hope springs eternal, and all that ...
Our family always got together on Christmas Eve, and this year was no exception, with grandparents and even some great-grands joining us for dinner in our little house across the street from the school. A couple of days earlier we'd cut a cedar tree off Dad's farm, and he and Mom had wrestled it into an upright position in the unwieldy tree stand. The tree stood in front of our window facing the street, its decorations -- a string of electric lights, a few Shiny Brite colored bulbs, silvery tinsel and garland -- a beacon for Santa. We crossed our fingers that he would recognize this as a home of hopeful children.

Mom and the grandmothers were taking what seemed like an endless amount of time with the supper dishes, as my brothers and I fidgeted and waited. The grandmothers had brought a few presents, and we were going to open them. Suddenly, a booming knock on the door brought us running -- who could it be?

The front door opened, ushering in a swoosh of cold air, and the doorway filled with the frame of a towering, broad-shouldered man dressed in red. "Ho, ho, ho!", his voice boomed, as a tiny woman, also dressed in red, peeked from behind him, "Meeeeeeery Christmas!"
Greg and I were positively awestruck. Kim, only three, was terrified and hid behind Mom. Here was Santa, in our living room, bearing gifts! It was a dream come true! A bouncing horse for Kim, a bike for Greg, and yes, there was my longed-for Pollyanna doll, tall and beautiful and ready to play with me! Mr. and Mrs. Santa's appearance was simply magical and made that Christmas truly memorable.
In time I recognized that the jolly couple who were Santa's helpers that year were generous with the young people of Ozark County in many other ways, as well. Not only did Dr. M.J. Hoermann deliver thousands of healthy babies in his clinic in Gainesville, he and his beloved wife, Judy, who had no children of their own, hosted a spook house in a little outbuilding behind their home each year at Halloween. It wasn't a house of horrors but just some deliciously "scary" things they fixed to give little trick-or-treaters a thrill.

The Hoermanns also built a small wading pool behind their clinic for kids to cool off in during hot Ozarks summers, and when they passed away, there was a bequest of land and some funding for our town's first park. I always remember this fine, generous couple whenever our family visits the park, as it continues to provide a fun place to picnic or play, decades after the Hoermanns have been gone.
After I became a parent myself, I remembered how genuinely thrilling it was to have Santa's helper deliver gifts on Christmas Eve. In 1975, we were living in Mississippi but came back to Missouri with our two young children for Christmas. My childhood friend, Larry Wade, was also home from medical school for the holidays and agreed to help. Somehow we procured a Santa suit (I wonder if it was the one Dr. Hoermann wore?) and managed to pad Larry's beanpole frame (all 6'4" and 160 pounds) with pillows enough to resemble the original Santa.

Sarah and Matt with Uncle Larry as Santa
It was deja vu all over again, as on Christmas Eve a hearty "Ho, ho, ho!" sounded at my folks' front door, and Santa magically appeared again. Our two youngsters were wide-eyed with wonder, as a little red wagon for Matt and a tiny pink doll buggy for Sarah were delivered in person! And this time around I realized that the grown-ups in the house, watching with smiles and cheers for Santa, got as much of a kick from his appearance as the little ones did. Larry might have been an improbable choice as impersonator but he did a convincing job, and a second round of memories were made.
Fast forward three decades to another Christmas Eve, and the magic continued. We were living back in Ozark County, and another generation had been added to our family in the form of three grandchildren of our own. This time I'd found a simple Santa suit in pristine condition at a local flea market and had conspired with our neighbor, Thom Holt, to help out. Dinner had been eaten and the yule log cake was being served, when what to our wondering ears did appear but the sound of sleigh bells outside the dining room window!
Pure joy!
Emma, age seven, eyes wide with wonder, caught on quickly. "It's Santa!" she exclaimed as she ran to the door and welcomed him with open arms. Wyatt and Luci, both just two, were a little more reticent but soon were also enveloped with hugs and sharing in the treats Santa passed around. And I really believe the great-grandmas, Bonnie and Julia, enjoyed the unfolding scene as much as the little ones. We still talk about what a special night it was.
Wyatt and Luci aren't quite sure about this fellow!
As Christmas approaches this year, I send up a little prayer of thanks for all those helpers who make Santa's job a little easier -- the ones who ring bells beside red kettles, those who deliver and serve meals to the homeless and helpless, the ones who become secret Santas to shut-ins and those in institutions, and the generous people who sponsor and support toy drives all across the country -- Santa needs them all.

And I remember those three helpers who made Christmas so wonderful and magical for our family down through the years. There is a special red suit packed away for another day and another generation -- someday we'll need it again, and I hope there will be someone to fill it.