pink peony

pink peony
old-fashioned peony

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.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Walk on the Wild Side ...

After a couple of good melting days, we got another sprinkling of fresh snow last night. It was so pretty, with every branch and twig highlighted with beautiful white ... I just had to get out in it.
My nandina berries were frosted, just so...

and the deciduous holly berries were a sight to behold!

There were no vehicle tracks marring the county road, so I thought no one had traveled it ...

until I began noticing signs of others who had come before me.This one I recognized ...

and this one ...

and this one ...

but I wonder who this belonged to? Hmmm, anyone?

There were tracks all along the way, sometimes with several kinds together in some spots. The gravel road must have been a popular gathering place early this morning.

As I climbed the steep hill, off to my right a group of calves that we've recently weaned were checking out the fresh snow, too.

I went to the highest point, where I took a photo earlier in the fall, looking down toward our house in the valley.

Even the weeds were dressed for the weather, including the foxtails...

and the Queen Anne's lace buds...

and especially the cedars.

As I came back down the long, steep hill, I could see that someone (you can guess who!) was checking on those calves (now on my left), making sure none of them are sick. This is not the best weather for livestock. Those dark blue-gray hills in the far distance are part of the Caney Mountain Refuge.

Those are persimmons left on that tree -- wonder why they hung on so long? And why did some hungry critter not eat them?

As I got down toward the bottom of the hill, I climbed through the fence and went down to the lake, thinking I'd see some ducks. The lake is often covered with several kinds of waterfowl. But the entire surface was ducks today. Wonder where they are staying during this icy stretch of time?

The going down was lots easier than the going up. This fall has been such a pretty season, in all its wardrobe changes. I wonder what Winter, now only a week away, has in store for us????


Friday, December 13, 2013

Would anyone care to venture a guess as to what I’m making on this cold, wintry, icy morning?
If you guessed cobbler, then you’d be very close because my piecrusts are why they call it cobbler – all patched and pieced together, messy and uneven and irregular. Decidedly imperfect. But no, I’m not making anything with fruit today. Instead, I’m making something that is absolutely suffused with memories for me. I had cooked some chicken for another purpose and had extra, and as I looked through my recipe file of casseroles, I came across one I hadn't seen in a while. I remember exactly how I got this recipe. I begged for it. And for good reason.
Back in the 1970s and 80s, we were living on our farm in Mississippi, and every single Wednesday night we had a covered-dish supper at church, in conjunction with children’s activities and Bible study for grownups. And every single Wednesday night, Mrs. Helen Hunter, sweet-faced and smiling with four hungry kids in tow, came bearing one of these pies for supper. Oh, my. Oh, my goodness!
To a girl who had grown up thinking Swanson’s invented chicken pot pies (and that they were pretty darn good!), the revelation of HOMEMADE CHICKEN PIE was a culinary epiphany. I truly thought it was the best thing I’d ever eaten. I knew this was something I had to master, even with my limited cooking skills. So I read recipes and I tried – and failed. My pies were too dry. The crust was soggy. The filling ran out and burned in the bottom of my oven. My worst Chicken Pie Moment was when I pulled what I thought was going to be a fair success from the oven and placed it on the stovetop – on top of a hot burner. Shall I just say the dish exploded and leave it at that? I probably said a bad word or two, right about then.
In the meantime, I kept enjoying weekly servings of Miss Helen’s wonderful chicken pie, knowing those Wednesday night services would never be the same if she decided she’d made enough chicken pies to last her a lifetime. Fortunately for me, I finally had a brilliant stroke of inspiration and asked Miss Helen for her recipe. As with so many wonderful southern cooks, she didn’t have one and just scoffed at the idea that I would even need a recipe to make this simple dish. But I asked again, armed with recipe card and pen, and she told me how she did it, guessing at amounts.
Since then, for about the last 30 years, I’ve been practicing, using her directions.

As you can see, I don’t have this thing perfected yet. My chicken pies are homely (I really can't believe I took a picture of that!), and sometimes I still get them too dry. Or don’t roll out the crust thin enough. Or make any number of mistakes in my quest to make a Really Good Chicken Pie. But I do know that this recipe is a good one, and if I keep trying, one day I’ll get it all to come together just right.
BONUS MATERIAL: If you decide to try a chicken pie (or any kind of pie) this holiday season, here’s a special treat that cooks who make their crust from scratch get to enjoy. Roll out the trimmings (make sure it isn’t enough for a whole pie crust or you’ll feel guilty for using it this way) and fit them into a Sister Shubert foil pan. Yes, I buy frozen rolls. I justify this sacreligious action by thinking that if I make pie crust from scratch, I’m allowed to buy frozen rolls. I do have a great recipe for refrigerator rolls from Marion Ogletree that is fabulous and brings up a whole slew of other wonderful Mississippi memories, but that’s a story for another day. Back to the treat: prick the pieces of pastry all over, dot with butter bits, sprinkle with white sugar and cinnamon, and bake at 400 for about 10 minutes or till lightly browned.

Eat it all yourself, if you’re lucky enough to be the only one in the house at the time. In fact, plan your baking so that you are the only one.

So, I’ve just had my lunch (guess what it was?? ) and now I must tackle my tornado-stricken kitchen. Hope you are finding time to do a little Christmas cooking. I’m trying to get ahead because I will wake up one morning soon and realize I’m WAY behind and will get in a panic. What’s your favorite Christmas recipe? Chicken pie isn’t my favorite Christmas recipe; it just happened to bring up memories. Wonderful memories! And memories are usually what make a recipe special.



Wednesday, December 11, 2013

“Happiness is a journey, not a destination.”

This is the message on a birthday card from my daughter, and I’m glad I opened it a day early. She left it here at the end of the Thanksgiving weekend, along with a softly-scented candle packaged in a pretty box, on the dresser in her bedroom. Of course, I found it while I was tidying up, but I left it there, untouched. I’m pretty good at waiting until The Day, because anticipation is half the fun, you know. But this time I broke my own rule; today I treated myself to her birthday-eve gift.

I love the candle, but I think the card is going to burn longer, as I think about its message and how it applies to me.

Only yesterday I was thinking about the different stages in a woman’s life and how each one offers a different sort of happiness. The simple, innocent happiness of childhood is so pure and uncomplicated. All too soon it is replaced by the growing awareness in adolescence that life really is not all that simple. Still, the happiness that one experiences in that topsy-turvy, turbulent   time of life is so intense and sharp that it can take your breath away – a first taste of love, a first taste of freedom, a sense of standing on the brink of life with the whole world at your feet – all the accompanying disappointments, inadequacies and fears aren’t enough to dull those brilliant glimpses of a future filled with promise.

How does it happen so quickly? You wake up one morning and find that your life has become almost unrecognizable, turned into a virtual whirlwind. Instead of a vast future unfolding before you, now all you can do is try to hang on in the spin. With a husband, a family, a community   and perhaps a job, each making incredible demands upon you, it is hard to slow the spin down long enough to savor the moments. Perhaps it comes late at night, when all the house is sleeping, and you are still awake. Your children in a happy dreamland of their own, your husband’s sleeping brow finally relaxed and untroubled by the cares of his own responsibilities, your home quiet and calm for the first time all day – and you realize your happiness is drawn from theirs. Shh, don’t wake anyone up!

Before long, though, there comes a time when you can take a deep breath, look up from your busyness, and it gradually dawns on you that the whirlwind has begun to slow. You look at your children with eyes that seem suddenly cleared of fog, and you realize that they are adults, perhaps with families of their own now. When did it happen? And what is this new feeling you are experiencing? It’s a new kind of happiness, born of feelings of accomplishment, of satisfaction, of a job well done – well, mostly. There are challenges in those new families you’ve spawned; but for the most part they aren’t yours for the bearing. It is someone else’s turn.

And, you? You now have time for some new things – trying your hand at something you’ve always wanted to do, realizing that failure isn’t the issue, and that the fun and satisfaction are in the trying. The standards are ones YOU set for yourself, not based on someone else’s expectations. And there is a deep, soul-pervading happiness in that! You may not write the next great American novel, but you can spin a story your great-grandchildren will love someday. You accept that you’re never going to be thin and rich, so you make friends with yourself, as you are. You admit that you’re not going to take a trip around the world and visit all the exotic places you’ve dreamed about, but you find new avenues for exploration that are within your scope, and you find they’re delightful, perhaps right in your own backyard.

You look at your husband and realize there is a new ease about him, too, and you discover that you can freely enjoy each other – just each other – for perhaps the first time since you can remember. If he brings you a perfect hornet’s nest for your birthday, it’s priceless, because you know he thought you’d love it. If you ignore the laundry and dirty floors and spend half a day with him in a jarring, rough-riding truck going to the back of nowhere, just because he wants to be with you, the happiness is truly sweet.

And, maybe best of all, you finally have the time to do something for someone else, other than your own family. It isn’t necessarily in a third-world country and it doesn’t demand a major life change, but there are vast opportunities for giving to others, a whole mission field in your backyard. Finding your niche and really investing in it yields a solid return of happiness like no other venture. This is joy in the deepest sense of the word, to know you’ve somehow made a difference.

This is where I am today, as I stand on the brink of adding yet another number to the tally of my years. None of us knows where our happiness journey will take us tomorrow, but I’m not worried about it. Lots of bad things happen, and lots of good things happen to all of us along the way. I know I’ll wake up one day and find myself in a different place in life and it will hold a new promise of happiness. I hope it will include wisdom, contentment, peace and the love of others. Let the journey continue…

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I am not a fan of hornets. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid them, no matter what! What a powerful punch one sting can hold! Ouch! But even though there is no love lost between hornets and me, that doesn't keep me from admiring their work.

Here is a superb example of what these little stingers can do with a little paper and glue. Not that they had these simple tools to start with -- they had to create them first, before they could create what they were made to create.
When I look at this, I see whorls and swirls, overlapping gracefully, and shades of gray, moving delicately and subtly from light to dark. I don't think their home had to be this pretty to give the insects protection and a place to reproduce. But it is pretty. Beautiful, actually.
It all started with that skinny little twig that is at the center, and then layer upon layer is added, to create a whole that is strong enough to endure through thundering storms of rain and wind. Think how large this home must seem to the tiny creatures that built it. A huge apartment house of sorts, filled with places for hundreds of their kind.
I never fail to be amazed at the gifts of nature we find, if we just look. In this case, someone looked up to find it. It's just a hornet's nest -- but it's truly a natural work of art.