Friday, November 17, 2017

Heavy Wash or Normal Wash?

Whenever I see anyone pulled off to the side of the road with car troubles, I feel great sympathy for them. My sister and brother and I experienced our share of automotive adventures as we grew up. Fortunately, our father contributed a wealth of knowledge concerning how to keep a car operating under tricky circumstances. He showed us how to solve car problems creatively, and this has certainly helped me out over the years.

One of these adventures always makes me laugh when I think about it, and so I'll share it with you.

In the mid-1970s, my father owned a white VW van. This was the successor to his VW Microbus, and he drove it everywhere. As it happened, one day the ignition switch quit working. Daddy couldn't get a replacement VW switch right away, and he needed to use the bus, so he jury-rigged a substitute switch. He always had parts to various machines stored in his garage. This time he dipped into his appliance parts box and retrieved part of the control system for a washing machine. Since he could fix anything, he hooked this up to the VW and solved the ignition problem.

We just had to make sure the switch was in the "heavy wash" position.

My brother and sister were driving the VW home from the Peninsula one evening in 1975. They reached Jefferson Avenue in Newport News and all was going well. Then the bus died, and they couldn't restart it. Somehow they managed to get it off the road and into a large parking lot. My brother opened the engine compartment in the rear of the bus and then scooted under the bus to check things out. My sister sat up front in the driver's seat and followed instructions. They were concentrating on the task at hand when they noticed a police car pulling up beside them. This wasn't surprising at that time, really. A VW bus, two teenagers (one a boy with long curly hair), in an empty parking lot, doing something to the car. The officer inquired whether they needed help and my brother explained that the car wouldn't start. He said they were working on the situation. The officer stood and watched. My brother called out for my sister to try and start the car. It didn't work. Then he called: "Is it on heavy wash or normal wash?" She switched it, and the car started. Hurray!

The officer, whose eyebrows I imagine had shot up off his forehead, looked at them and said, "They're not going to believe this at the station!"

With everything closed up and ready to roll again, my sister and brother headed on back to Portsmouth. Daddy installed a proper VW ignition switch soon after, but I was a bit sorry to see 'heavy wash/normal wash' go. It still makes me laugh all these years later.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Santa's Logs

We had a fireplace in our home but we never really used it. I remember only two or three fires in it when I was growing up. If we did have a fire, we first had to remove Santa's logs and then add the wood we actually planned to burn.

What do I mean by Santa's logs?

At some point during their yearly visits to my mother's family in Western North Carolina, my father brought home three beautiful logs. I think they were white oak. They fit perfectly in my parents' fireplace. My parents never built fires in this fireplace, but the logs looked lovely.

Once we children began to arrive, so did Santa Claus. I don't remember my first Christmas, but I do remember from later ones that Santa always left evidence of his visit down our chimney. Every single year, those fireplace logs were in disarray on Christmas morning. My father had to point them out to me my first few times, but once I understood the drill, I would always point this out to my sister and then to her and my brother. We had absolute proof that Santa had been at our house!

In 1962 we moved to our new house in Churchland. The logs came with us and went straight to their position of honor in our new fireplace. The fireplace hardware was fancier, and there was now a screen for the fireplace, but the logs settled right in. Sure enough, on our first Christmas in the new house, Santa kicked those logs around during his visit.

No matter how old we grew, we checked to see if those logs were out of position on Christmas morning. Several times my husband and I were lucky enough to bring our children to celebrate Christmas with my parents. Each of those times, I carefully pointed out how Santa had landed on those logs when he brought the presents. My father never forgot that detail!

My parents are gone now, but my sister lives in their house. I am glad to report that Santa's logs still lie proudly in the fireplace there. I hope Santa still lands on them when Christmas comes.

Biscuits and Gravy and Giblets

Most conversations this time of year concern food, so  I want to add to that already overwhelming number.

I've been thinking of my mother during the past week because five years have passed since her death. I remember so many things about her and think of her every day, but when I think about Thanksgiving or Christmas or any other feast days, I inevitably recall her biscuits and her gravy. Mother was not a fancy cook, and she didn't really care for cooking per se. She fed us good, wholesome meals and stretched my father's paychecks to cover a surprisingly varied menu. Nothing complicated or exotic ever appeared in her kitchen.

I prepare a far greater variety of dishes and inhabit a culinary world that my mother never entered. But I cannot, for the life of me, make biscuits and gravy the way she could.

I gave up trying to match her skill years ago. First to go was making gravy. I watched her make gravy every week as far back as I can remember. Just plain white gravy, made either for chicken/turkey dinners or hamburgers and gravy dinners. I watched her put the fat in the cast iron pan, add a little flour, and stir it up into a roux. She wouldn't have known what a roux was at all, but she made them perfectly. Then she added the appropriate liquid and the remaining flour and boom! There was the gravy. I stirred the final mixture many, many times so that it wouldn't burn, and I always believed that gravy was just that simple to make.  Ha! My first solo Thanksgiving went very well except for the gravy. I could not get rid of the lumps to save my life. A gravy fiasco. I kept trying in subsequent years with no better luck, and then finally succumbed to the use of cornstarch. The last Thanksgiving we spent together, in 2009, she gave us all one final taste of perfect turkey gravy.

Biscuits seemed to appear with equal magic. Once again, I watched her all the time and figured I could do this, too. Could I have asked her for her recipe? Nope. She made biscuits from scratch and used Pillsbury's Self-Rising Flour and milk. I, of course, in my newly-married state, used King Arthur flour and wouldn't touch self-rising. I tried a long succession of recipes for biscuits, never finding a satisfactory, easy one. Biscuits almost completely disappeared from my dinner offerings. Now I use the frozen Pillsbury Grands, which don't even come close to mother's. And really, I should just buy some self-rising flour and have at it. I might achieve success now!

Giblets pertain more to my children than to my mother. Regardless of what gravy fiasco I was dealing with, my gravy always contained giblets. Apparently my oldest son thought that "giblets" was a word I had made up. Just another one of mom's quirks. Imagine my surprise one year when he came running into the kitchen on Thanksgiving, yelling out that giblets were a real thing. I didn't understand at first. He had just heard John Madden on the television, talking about how he was looking forward to getting home and having his giblets and gravy. "Mom! He said giblets!"  We all had a good laugh that day, and, of course, as any good family does, we tell that story every year.

This year will mark a first for our family. We are gathering on the Outer Banks with my sister, brother, and a large number of our Harrison cousins.  No one is making dinner. We are going to Mako Mike's for their full course Thanksgiving dinner. I'm perfectly happy to have someone else prepare it and then adjourn to the beach to digest it while watching the ocean.

Nevertheless, I know both the biscuits and the gravy won't measure up to mother's.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Respect or Disrespect for the Flag?

I am not writing about pre-game ceremonies at athletic events.

I am, however, writing about how we as ordinary citizens use and display and respect the U.S. flag. In general, I have observed that many, many citizens disrespect the flag even when these same patriotic citizens believe they are showing superior respect.

How can this be, you might ask? In so many ways. I've noticed to a disheartening degree the pathetic lack of respect for the flag ever since the events of September 11, 2001. You might remember that suddenly American flags sprang up all over our country, like an overwhelming crop of red-white-and-blue mushrooms. Folks put flags on every conceivable item and in every conceivable place.

I completely understand this as an act of defiance against those who would destroy us. But when I saw how most of these flags were left outside day and night in the rain and snow, and allowed to droop into the dirt and mud, I recognized that citizens have no clue about the proper display and care of the flag.

If you wish to honor America by displaying our flag, please don't let it become dirty and bedraggled, with frayed or torn ends. Please.

Here are a few guidelines for displaying our flag, from the Flag Code:

The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as ground, floor, water, or merchandise.

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.

The flag should never be fastened, displayed, used, or stored in such a manner as to permit it to be easily torn, soiled, or damaged in any way.

The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.

No part of the flag shall ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. A flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.

The flag should not be displayed on days when the weather is inclement, except when an all-weather flag is displayed.

The flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle or of a railroad train or a boat. When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be affixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.

The flag should only be displayed from sunrise to sunset. If properly illuminated during the hours of darkness, the flag may fly for 24 hours.

When a flag is no longer a fitting emblem for display, it should be destroyed in a dignified way.  You could contact an American Legion post or a VFW post for assistance.

As you can tell, seeing ragged, dirty, bedraggled, disrespectfully displayed American flags really bothers me. I've been known to point out to well-intentioned medical groups that the flags flying outside their buildings have torn and ragged edges. People mean well, but they don't know.

I'll have my flag flying for Veterans' Day, but only if the weather is fair. Check your flags for wear and tear and damage before then. Let's show true respect for this flag.

[I am now stepping down from my soapbox...]

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Return and A Farewell

I have not posted here in 2017. During these months away, I have been fighting cancer, including two surgeries, months of chemotherapy, and five weeks of radiation therapy. This year has challenged me and my family. Nevertheless, the treatments have been effective, and now I rejoice that there is no evidence of disease. I'm working on regaining my strength and stamina and returning to most of my favorite activities.

This post marks my return to the blog.

Tomorrow is All Souls' Day. With that in mind I would like to reflect once more on my dear Aunt Grace, about whom I wrote in my first blog post.

We said farewell to Aunt Grace in mid-September of this year. She had fallen and broken her hip, and just never regained her mobility. Many of you have watched this happen with your own family members, as they gradually fade away.

 Aunt Grace blessed us all in those final weeks and days, true to her name and nature. My sister and one of my cousins met in Annandale to visit Aunt Grace in mid-August. By this time, she was receiving in-home hospice care and her bed was in the living room, where she could participate in daily life. We arrived at her front door and called out to her that the party was coming in. I could hear her unmistakable and infectious laugh, though it was more feeble than usual. We climbed the stairs up to the main level and there she was, sitting up in bed and watching television. The three of us sat down and enjoyed nearly two hours of conversation and reminiscing with her before she tired and we left. She took particular interest in hearing about how my sister and I were going to South Carolina to watch the total eclipse with my daughter and son. In 1970, our families had watched another total eclipse together at her house in Portsmouth, and Aunt Grace remembered it vividly.

We knew that when we said goodbye it would most likely be the last time. Yet we did not part in tears. Aunt Grace's body had nearly finished its race, leaving her gaunt and nearly helpless, but the sparkle of her personality and the grace of her spirit never deserted her. She was Aunt Grace right through to the end. She died three weeks later, peacefully, at home, with her husband and her two sons beside her.

I will miss her the rest of my life, but I am confident that she is rejoicing in her reunion with all those whom she has loved and missed. What grace she brought to all of us.

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Y2K New Year's Eve

Although we laugh about it now, New Year's Eve 1999 found millions around the world anxious about what would happen to computer systems if their internal clocks failed to roll over to 2000. People withdrew cash from their banks in case ATM's wouldn't work. People were concerned about public utilities failing. People feared communications networks would break down. Most of us didn't really understand what the issues were, but everything sounded pretty serious if it actually happened. I imagine that the change from the year 999 to the year 1000 also brought its own apocalyptic fears.

At any rate, my husband and I were far away from home and family on that fateful New Year's Eve. Yes, if any catastrophes had occurred, our children were on their own! My husband and I were in Italy, as a matter of fact, doing some preliminary reconnaissance for the spring academic quarter when we would be leading a group of students for two months around Italy.

New Year's Eve found us in the compact and wonderful hill town of Todi.

As the evening rolled on, and the new year arrived in Japan and Australia and India, it became obvious that the world's infrastructure had made the leap into 2000. Everyone relaxed and began to enjoy the festivities.

My husband and I first dined in a subterranean restaurant near the town's main square. A memorable, set dinner, boasting several delicious courses and the type of Italian table wine that makes you want to have wine with every single meal.

After eating, we walked back up to the main piazza and mingled with the crowd. The weather was crisp but not Chicago-cold, so walking and mingling was popular. As we meandered around the piazza, city workers passed through the crowd and passed out plastic flutes of champagne! (Perhaps it was Prosecco, but equally lovely.) I personally considered this the nicest touch of the whole evening. Sipping and strolling, we absorbed the magical atmosphere in Todi as the clock approached midnight.

At one end of the piazza, a stage had been erected, and the tech crew were putting the finishing touches on the band's equipment. Soon the minutes had dwindled down to five. More champagne/Prosecco circulated through the crowd. More folks gathered in the piazza. Finally, the countdown! Midnight arrived, kisses were shared, greetings were spoken, and the fireworks began!

Todi is really a very small Italian hill town. It's quite vertical, so the main piazza truly is the focus of the public life of the town. That night, it seemed that the entire population had gathered in the piazza, yet the feeling was open and festive rather than jam-packed and claustrophobic. Once the fireworks finished, the band began to play, and everyone just danced around in their own free-spirited way whilst sipping on their drinks. Suddenly it struck me that this was a town party, in the very best way. No concerns about crowd violence or other threats. Just friends and neighbors and a scattering of tourists, laughing, dancing, drinking, and celebrating together.

New Year's Eve 1999 remains my ideal of a good public celebration. We could never have something like that here, but it cheers me every year to think that the budget for the town of Todi includes free Prosecco in the piazza at the New Year. Buon anno! Auguri!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Wrong Little Town of Bethlehem

I spent the Christmas season of 1973 in Great Britain, splitting my time between Scotland and London.The Scots didn't tend toward elaborate Christmas decorations and displays then, although things may have livened up in the intervening years. London displayed a more Dickensian spirit toward the holiday, but the combination of a coal strike and the first oil embargo meant that all the colorful Christmas lighting couldn't be turned on for lack of electricity. Christmas, therefore, seemed different to me in many ways.

Scotland did not, however, let me down completely. Our residence hall at the University of St. Andrews partook of a delightful and delicious Christmas feast before everyone went home for the break. We didn't have a boar's head brought in, but we had some tasty dishes that were new to me and I enjoyed everything.  The final dish to appear was the Christmas pudding. Each table had its own pudding, and these were delivered flaming!! That seemed rather spectacular to me. I was enjoying myself immensely. I dug into my serving of pudding with enthusiasm. Suddenly I bit down on something hard. Uh oh. That's not a surprise that I welcomed. I reached into my mouth and retrieved a silver coin. What on earth? I'm muttering to myself when the friend sitting next to me said "Oh, you've got the sixpence!" Apparently, whoever found the silver sixpence in her portion of pudding would have good luck in the coming year. I laughed and put the coin in my pocket. I still have that silver sixpence!

I spent another pleasant evening before Christmas attending the St. Mary's College Ball. St. Mary's was the divinity school portion of the University of St. Andrews and was where I was taking all my classes. An older student named Iain invited me to the Ball, so I rustled up a formal dress and off I went. We had a grand time, and I felt like I was celebrating Christmas quite well.

All of this is to say that when I read notices of the University's Christmas Carol Service, I made sure to be in attendance. I looked forward very much to singing the old familiar carols.

The service took place in St. Salvator's Chapel, a beautiful Gothic-style building in St. Salvator's College (the undergraduate liberal arts division). Many, many people packed the chapel and sat ready to sing. The program listed a satisfying number of familiar carols. Interestingly, only the words were provided in the program, accompanied by the name of the tune we were to sing for each carol. In Great Britain, folks don't always need the music because they know the tune of Duke Street, for example, or Kingsfold, or Diademata. I was a little at sea here, but enough of the hymn tunes were familiar that I managed. I continued to hope for a familiar match-up of words and music. Finally, the title "O Little Town of Bethlehem" appeared next on the list. I was so happy! I even knew harmony on this one. I could sing with 'full heart and voice'.

Not so, not so. The carol began and the rest of the congregation burst forth into song. I had no clue what this tune was. None. I had never heard it. I couldn't sing a note. Whose idea was it to substitute the 'wrong' tune for such a beloved carol?

It's difficult enough to be thousands of miles away from one's family at Christmas, but to have even the most cherished and familiar carols sung to different tunes shook me up a little. I rallied, however, and vowed to learn the new music I'd just heard. I still can't automatically sing a hymn tune simply from its name, although I do know a few. But over the years, the "new" tune used for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" has become my favorite. Yet another souvenir of that unusual Christmas.