A Taste of Italian Honey

Do you ever have one of those fits where you have to have something sweet, and there’s nothing in the house?  I try to keep temptation at bay by not buying cookies, candy, ice cream or other treats.  But every once in a while I get desperate, and that means a frantic search through the kitchen for something to satisfy the urge.

A couple of months ago I was rummaging in the cabinet and found a jar of honey which Imonte_oliveto_maggiore had forgotten about.  The label read, “Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore, Monaci Benedettini Olivetani, Miele, Fioritura Prevalente.”  All of a sudden it came back to me.  I bought this jar of honey during a trip to Italy in the summer of 2001.  It had never been opened.  So I opened it and spread some on a piece of bread.  It had darkened a bit, but was not crystallized at all.  I took a bite.

I tasted flowers, and I saw the landscape–rugged, dry, ridges topped with cypress trees.  We were in the “badlands” south of Siena, and I remember feeling we were at a high elevation, even though it wasn’t that high above sea level.  The abbey was completed in the early 16th century, and it is still a monastery to this day.  There were beautiful, richly-colored frescoes which looked as if they had recently been restored.  Despite a few busloads of tourists, the cloisters were peaceful and calm.

A good-natured monk in a white habit was on duty in the gift shop.  They sold a a few things which they produced, like the honey, and I think I remember a few tacky religious souvenirs.    I bought the honey and carried it safely home in my carry-on bag, in those innocent days before 9/11.  When I tasted it 14 years later, I saw wildflowers blowing on those dry ridges and felt the peace of the place again.

Now if I can just stop eating the honey!  Nearly half the jar is gone.  And when it’s gone, the memory may go, too.

The Dog Days of Summer

These hot August days remind me of Chico, the dog we had when I was in college and for several years after.  Chico was a German shepherd mix that I brought home from Knoxville as a tiny puppy.  He lived in a shoe box under my bed in the dorm for a few days, until I

Best friend in college!  Ok, Sallie was too.
Best friend in college! Ok, Sallie was too.

could get him home to the farm.  Despite being so young he didn’t know how to eat food yet, he persevered and grew into a 100-pound dog (with much care from Mother and Daddy).

Although I was away most of the time at school, he seemed to never forget that I was the one who rescued him, and he was devoted to me.  That devotion was tested to the extreme when I tried to get a tan during the summer break.

Tanning was a bad idea from the word go.  I had dark hair, but was very pale and had light hazel eyes, sure signs of a skin cancer magnet.  However, nobody knew about those things back in the day, and every teenage girl had to have a tan.  I would “lay out” on a collapsible chaise lounge on the concrete walkway in front of our house on a hot day, covering myself in SPF8 Coppertone (the highest strength then!) and shaking water on from Mother’s sprinkle bottle to cool off.

Chico was determined to be as close to me as possible, so he would lie in the sun next to my chair, panting.  This made him miserable, so his next move was to get underneath the chair in the small patch of shade.  That made me miserable, having a big, hot dog sweating under the chair, so I made him move.  He retreated to the shade at the side of the house, panting until he cooled down some.  Then the cycle repeated until we were both too hot to bear it, and I went in the air-conditioned house.

To this day, when I hear the drone of cidadas (dry flies, we called them) and the hum of unit air conditioners, I’m carried back to the young, skinny me, resolutely turning pink in pursuit of fashion, and that oversized, black-and-tan German shepherd panting in the sun.  All he ever got out of it besides my company was Nehi Orange, which he learned to drink from the bottle.

The Name on the Diet Coke Bottle

For the second summer in a row, Coca-Cola is putting first names on bottles and cans of Diet Coke, Coke, the boy’s version of Diet Coke whose name I forget (black label), and that odd one with the green label (anybody remember New Coke?)  I’ve been amused by this ed-cc-sq 750xx900-506-0-26and noticing which names I get when I buy a bottle at my local pizza places.  I have yet to see my name, although shareacoke.com says it is in circulation, so to speak.

Most of the names I’ve seen are very millenial or younger, Ashleys and Justins and Maxes and Courtneys, etc.  But last week I saw one that really surprised me.  Everything old–really old–is new again, and I knew Jesse has been a popular name for a while.  Emma is back, Charlotte is back (as a baby princess), and I’m wondering if George will make a comeback now that little Prince George is on the scene.  The name that stopped me was Preston.

My uncle Preston was my dad’s youngest brother.  If he were living he would be over 90 now.   Uncle Preston didn’t farm, unlike most of his family, but owned a garage and worked as a mechanic.  Back in the day, the men would come and hang out at the garage, smoking cigarettes and drinking Cokes.  They had nicknames for each other and told stories about what they’d done and seen.

Beetle was named after Beetle Bailey because he had been in the Army.  A cousin was called Goat for reasons that weren’t clear to me as a child.  My aunt Eunice’s husband was called Tip.  Several went by their initials, a grand old Southern tradition, so I had cousins known as W. P. and W. C.  I have to look them up in another cousin’s geneaology book to find out what their full names were.

It was at Uncle Preston’s garage that Daddy fell off a truck he was working on, and broke his arm.  In the winter it was a cozy hangout despite its concrete walls and floor and tin roof because the wood-burning stove was always fired up.  Winters could be lonely in the country, so the men were happy to have somewhere they could go and gossip besides the country store.

I can see Uncle Preston now and hear Aunt Mary Emma shrieking out the kitchen door, “PRESTOOOON!  DINNER!”  So, thanks, Coca-Cola, for bringing that memory back!

A White Rose on Mother’s Day

I’m sharing this again for Mother’s Day. Happy Mother’s Day to all, also remembering the mothers we have lost!

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My mother

When I was growing up, Mother’s Day was a big event at the First Baptist Church in Clarksville. Brother Laida always preached about Biblical mothers (with not too much emphasis on Mary, mother of Jesus) and sometimes a segue into Ruth and her loyalty to her mother-in-law Naomi.

The most interesting thing to me about the church service, however, was that everyone wore a rose or a carnation to church that day. I asked Mother about it when I was
small. “You wear a red rose or carnation if your mother is alive, and a white one if she’s not,” she said. Mother and Daddy each wore a white carnation and I wore a red one, all bought at the grocery store on Saturday. In later years when we lived on the farm Iwore a red rose pinned to my dress from the old-fashioned rosebush that spilled over…

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Dogwood Winter

The other day I was talking to a young woman in my company’s North Carolina office.  I mentioned something about “redbud winter,” and she had no idea what I meant.  She’s not from North Carolina but settled there after going to college in the state.  So I explainedDSCN0102 about the “winters” that come during spring in the South, and she was enchanted.  I’ll share with my friends in case you don’t know.

I learned from my mother that in the South there are always cold snaps in the spring that coincide with when various trees and bushes bloom.  Redbud winter is the first one, when the redbud trees show their pinkish-purple blossoms.  They look like purple flames by the side of the road or in the underbrush of the woods.  A few weeks later comes dogwood winter, when the dogwoods open their lateral drifts of ivory flowers. They are my favorites, as elegant and spare as a Japanese ink drawing.  The last one is blackberry winter, when the blackberry bushes bloom in late spring.  When you see the blooms, you know there will be a few days of chilly weather.

One of the adjustments I’ve had to make to life in New York is that the whole spring season is very much compressed.  Instead of six to eight weeks, commencing with forsythia and the blooming bulbs, and ending with wisteria and the trees fully leaved, there is a hectic period of about a month.  This year everything was two weeks late due to the late snows we had.  So now the ornamental trees are blooming at the same time as the forsythia and the tulips and buttercups.  The willow trees are leafing.  And the dogwoods have not yet appeared.

Perhaps the cold spell this week will be dogwood winter, and my favorite trees will bloom.  No matter what may go wrong in the world, spring always manages to come somehow.  And the patterns in nature don’t change.  I can imagine my grandmother or great-grandmother looking out the kitchen window at the dogwoods blooming under the taller trees, and saying to herself, “It’ll be cold tomorrow.”

How I Learned to Drive, and My Dad

I want to apologize to my faithful followers (you know who you are) for taking such a long hiatus.  It’s been a very long, cold winter, and I just lost the energy to write somehow.  I meant to get this one out in February in memory of my father.  Better late than never, I65-dart-charger suppose.  And now that the snow is receding, maybe my juices will start rising, too.

February is the month when Daddy died, many years ago, not long after I graduated from college.  I think my love of cars comes from him.  He was a good mechanic and worked on all our cars, mostly at my uncle Preston’s garage.  Over the years our cars ranged from a turquoise Studebaker to a pale yellow Dodge Dart with pushbuttons to change gears, and a red Plymouth Sport Fury with bucket seats in between those two.  I also recall a battered station wagon of indeterminate breed at some point, and any number of beat-up old trucks for use on the farm.

Daddy was not a good driving teacher, however.  He tried to teach Mother, long before I was born.  She said he made her nervous, and words were exchanged.  She left the car in a huff, and never learned to drive.  Mother was dependent her whole life on other people to drive her to do errands, buy groceries, or go to church. This was not uncommon in country women of her age, but it surely was an inconvenience and limited her freedom.

I was determined to get my learner’s permit and my license as soon as it was legal for me to drive.  I couldn’t take a driver’s course because I couldn’t get to the classes, since Daddy was at work, Mother couldn’t drive, and I didn’t have a license.  So I got the booklet to study and got ready for the written test on my own.  Once my permit arrived, I was ready to go!

I had a lot of theory about driving, but very little practice other than steering a tractor.  So I asked Daddy to help me practice.  He showed me how to brake and hit the gas.  Then he turned me loose to practice in a field in back of the house.  My brother had abandoned a scarred-up Volkswagen Beetle at our house on the farm at some point, which didn’t have a license plate and was scarcely capable of moving.  So Daddy put some gas in it from a can and left me to practice driving around the field.

Everything went well at first, although I didn’t know how to change gears with a stick shift.  I just went around and around the field in first gear, steering and practicing turn signals.  Then I decided I was bored and wanted to stop for a while, so I hit the brake.  No response!  Granted, the car was going very slow, but it didn’t have any brakes left.  Well, I thought, how long before it runs out of gas?  I knew there wasn’t much left in the tank.

So I went around and around and around until it started slowing down even more.  This was my chance.  I steered it into the back bumper of Daddy’s latest battered truck.  There was a little bump, and then the engine died.  I hopped out and abandoned it.

Daddy never asked me what happened.  And my next practice session was in the yellow Dodge Dart with him.

 

Homegrown vs. Store-bought

I was shopping the other day, looking at whole chickens in the grocery store.  The prices ranged from $2.99/lb. for factory-farmed, on-special chickens to $14.99/lb. for organic,

Photo by Niall Kennedy
Photo by Niall Kennedy

free-range, kosher chickens.  I gasped at the price, and then I remembered my mother’s reaction to free-range chickens.

Mother grew up on a small farm before the Great Depression, and they raised their own chickens and hogs, churned their own butter, grew vegetables, and mostly bought staples like flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt.  They canned and preserved everything they could for the coming winter.

People think of this now as healthy, organic and being close to nature.  It actually was due to poverty and lack of other alternatives!  If the garden did poorly or the winter supplies ran out, there were days when dinner was biscuits and gravy made from bacon grease.  You didn’t kill a chicken until its laying capability was past.  Then it was killed and cooked, and often it was stringy and tough.

By the time I was a teenager we were living on a farm again, after some years living in a small town and a brief sojourn in Texas due to Daddy’s job.  Money was an issue again, so we had a vegetable garden, and Mother and I canned and froze quarts and quarts of vegetables.  We did not raise chickens, but Aunt Lou, Mother’s sister, did, and we bought eggs from her when she had them to spare.  Otherwise we shopped at the store for eggs and for chicken to cook.

Aunt Lou’s chickens were truly free-range, brown hens pecking around the yard, but they did get chicken feed to eat and had a coop to roost in.  They laid lovely brown eggs with rich yellow yolks.  Occasionally Aunt Lou would offer Mother a freshly killed chicken.  Mother always accepted it and thanked her, but her private reaction was different.  “These things are tough and gamey,” she said.  “I’d rather have a nice clean one from the store!”  Not to mention that she had to pluck and clean the homegrown, free-range chicken.  And she was right, the flavor was stronger, and they were not tender.

I think of Mother whenever I see the high prices on those in the store.  There should be a middle way between factory farming and having hens in your back yard, and it shouldn’t cost $14.99 per pound!

Blue Christmas

Last week we had a holiday potluck lunch at work.  People brought the usual assortment of fatty, salty and sweet treats, and the department sat around and ate together.  Some of the folks really don’t know each other all that well, and others really don’t like some of the 800px-Christmas_tree_bauble[1]others.  To get the conversation started, a well-meaning person said, “Let’s go around the table and tell what we’re doing for the holidays.”

This is a gambit loaded with pitfalls, and sure enough, they happened.  Not everybody has the perfect family, or a family, and many people don’t have anywhere to go.  One divorced woman was waiting on her infuriating sister to decide if she was hosting Christmas or not.  A single gay guy said he plans to sleep through it, since he will be singing in choirs or as a soloist (his side job) through Christmas Eve.  Our head of technology (a woman) sat at the table with tears sliding down her face.  She’s married, but they have always spent Christmas with her sister, who died a few months ago.

Christmas is a time of joy for many, of irritation for others, and of sadness for others still.  My father was always melancholy at Christmas because his mother died in December.  Mother would hiss at him, “George, cheer up, for the children!”

Perhaps the bluest Christmas I’ve ever had was the year after Daddy died.  Mother and I went through the motions, even traipsing out into the fields to cut down a cedar tree and dragging it back to the house to decorate.  It was too tall, and Uncle Floyd had to come over and cut the trunk shorter so we could get it in the living room.  We spent many a sad Christmas Day alone together after he died because Mother would not “intrude on someone else’s Christmas,” even though we were invited for dinner many times.

I learned my lesson from that.  If someone cares enough about me to invite me on a holiday, I’ll go.  If I can invite someone else who doesn’t want to be alone, I will.  And I admire the guy at work who just wants to sleep–sometimes you’ve had enough celebrating!  I’d like to thank the friends who give me a reason to celebrate Easter and Thanksgiving, and to thank my sister who makes Christmas happen each year.  And I’m grateful for the friends who help me celebrate throughout the year.

So, a happy Christmas to all, and let’s be sensitive to those who don’t have a picture-perfect holiday.  You may be showing kindness to an “angel, unawares.”

Small Pleasures, Part 3

This is a topic I’ve used before, and undoubtedly I’ll recommend some of the same small pleasures.  But it was on my mind after this week.  We had several dreary days of rain and DSCN0162cold.  I was averaging two and a half hours per day driving in traffic for my commute.  And now that Daylight Savings Time is over, I come home in the dark every day.

I find the change depressing.  So I started making a mental note of anything that lifted the grey fog a bit.  Here are a few small things that are a pleasure.

  1. The color of the last remaining leaves is especially brilliant this year.  The orange and yellow leaves are gone now, but the deep red ones are still here.
  2. Observed in traffic on the Long Island Expressway:  A Maine license tag with a lobster on it.  Gotta love it!
  3. Going to the last weekend of the Great Jack o’Lantern Blaze at Van Cortlandt Manor, even though it was quite cold.  It gets more spectacular every year, and the sound effects really add to the spookiness.
  4. The smell of clean sheets.
  5. My favorite sweater, an Esprit (yes!) which I bought more than 20 years ago and refuse to give up.  It’s warmer than anything else and has the coolest ethnic pattern.
  6. The new pair of ankle booties I bought at DSW.  Okay, I don’t look like the young’uns do, but they are pretty cute.  A girl and her shoes are not to be trifled with.
  7.  The word, “gallivant,” as in “gallivanting around.”  Used by my mother as a term of disparagement sometimes, and others as a description.  It means “running around from one place to another in the pursuit of pleasure.”  Sounds like fun to me!
  8. Being told that something I did was “excellent.”  No, it was not at my job, I’m sorry to say!
  9. Waking up in the night with a weight on my head, and realizing it’s the cat resting his chin on my head, and purring.
  10. Leftover food from any good restaurant for dinner the next day.  No or less cooking, and something good that I wouldn’t ordinarily have!

If you have some small pleasures of your own, feel free to share!

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Today is my birthday.  My friends gave a surprise birthday party for me, something I’ve never had before!  It was so much fun and truly a surprise.  My sisters have another celebration waiting for me, which will happen next weekend.  And I’m going out with friends tonight, so the party keeps going.

I’ve been thinking about this birthday because it’s older than I ever thought I would be, in my smug youth, and because I realized I’m not much younger than my mother was in thisMother and Me Daytona 1981 picture.  I thought she was so old then!  And now it seems just another stage to me.

I think the big difference may be health.  Mother had a couple of heart attacks which were not diagnosed at the time, and when this photo was taken she was in the early stages of heart failure.  We didn’t know, of course.  I had driven to Tennessee from Atlanta to get her, and we drove down to St. Augustine and Daytona Beach.  Mother had never been to Florida and never seen the ocean.  This was after Labor Day, in early September, 1981, so the summer crowds were gone, and she enjoyed sitting on the beach at Daytona talking to “snowbirds” who were around her age.

I took her to Sea World, and she could barely walk from one show or exhibit to the next.  She was exhausted all the time.  When I got her back home, I called one of my sisters and said, “Something’s wrong with Mother.”  Glenda took her to a different doctor, and the damage was diagnosed.  I’ve been conscious of how heart disease affects women, particularly women in my family, ever since.  Heaven knows I don’t do as much as I could to stay healthy, but I do try.  And I think I’ve had much better medical care than she did.

Another difference from my mother is purely cosmetic–thanks to every colorist I’ve gone to for years, my gray goes away!  I have to keep working, and I want to keep working, so I can’t afford to go gray.  Sad, but true.

Mother thought of herself as “old” from a relatively young age.  I remember her telling me she was old when I was about 12, so she would have been 50!  Standards were different in her day.

I do think we all pursue continued youth too hard sometimes in this day and age.  Things do change, we do slow down a bit, we do get tired more easily.  But we don’t have to stop.  As long as our health holds up, my friends are active and interested and still engaged with the world.  I plan to be, too.