Thursday, December 25, 2014

I Brake for Fruitcakes

A good fruitcake makes my mouth water. Every Christmas our family partook of some pretty decent fruitcakes, and I have been hooked ever since. Although during those "formative" years I never experienced a truly homemade fruitcake, apparently the quality of the "bought" cakes far surpassed what we might find in a supermarket today.

My father set the example of fruitcake appreciation for us. He would always talk about how delicious his mother's homemade fruitcakes had been. Every year. We would be snacking on whatever fruitcake my mother had bought for that Christmas, and my father would always reminisce about Grandmother's fruitcakes. To lay this ghost to rest, I think, my mother decided one year to have Grandmother come over to our new house and recreate that famous fruitcake. Interestingly, Grandmother had never baked fruitcakes in my personal memory!! My father brought Grandmother over one afternoon, supplied her with all the necessary ingredients, and my mother opened up the kitchen for the big event. We gathered at a respectful distance to watch.

Grandmother, of course, came from the generation that didn't really use written recipes. She filled the mixing bowl with an assortment of ingredients, and mixed and stirred and mixed and stirred until the batter met her requirements. I don't remember what size pan she used, but she successfully transferred the batter into the pan and plopped it in the oven.

To complete the process, after the cake baked, it was time to soak it in wine. My family didn't drink, so my father had to buy something suitable at the local grocery store. (No state-controlled liquor stores for that good Baptist deacon!) He had brought home a bottle of Manischewitz grape wine. I know. But Manischewitz would have to do.

We faithfully bathed the fruitcake in the wine over the course of a few weeks and kept it in a covered container. Finally Christmas arrived and Christmas dinner was on the table. Grandmother always ate these feasts with us, too. When the meal had been cleared away, my mother brought out The Fruitcake. My father took up his knife with eager anticipation and sliced the cake. We waited until everyone had a piece of The Fruitcake on our plates. Then we took our first bites.

My reaction? This was a very good fruitcake, lots better than any previous ones we had consumed.

My father's reaction? Alas, another case of something recreated in the present that didn't measure up to what he remembered. He ate the slice, but he was so disappointed. "It doesn't taste like the ones you used to make," he said sadly.

My grandmother's reaction? She just laughed and ate her slice of cake. She never baked another fruitcake.

The remaining Manischewitz wine? We gave it to my Uncle Jeff, since "he drank". (He had an occasional beer--he was my father's brother-in-law. Can't imagine what he thought about the Manischewitz!)

When I moved from Virginia to Chicago with my little family in 1981, I discovered that hardly anyone I met looked forward to having fruitcakes at Christmas. I was alone in a world empty of good fruitcakes. Yet as my circle of friends widened, kindred spirits rose up and I embraced a little circle of fruitcake fans. I even began to make my own fruitcakes! (By this time my dear grandmother had died, so I couldn't compare notes.)

Each year I would produce a batch of cakes in early November and lovingly wrap them in wine-soaked cheesecloth before storing them. I would send a fruitcake or two to my parents, save one for me, and share the rest with my 'fruitcake club' in Chicago. Yummy years! Gradually, however, my parents no longer could eat the fruitcakes and the impetus to put all that effort into the preparation began to dwindle. After we moved to Indiana, I felt like I was back in that desert again.

Monday of this week I set forth on a quest to find a handmade, traditional fruitcake in a town east of here. I needed to find the Next Door Neighbor Bakery in Middlebury, Indiana. Success! After I left the toll road and found the correct country road, I drove along until I spotted a simple sign that said "Bakery 1 Mile Ahead", with a little added sign below promising "Fruitcakes". Aha! This bakery, operated by the family on whose land it sits, offers some tasty baked goods, and also features "Fruitcakes by Deb" (the farmer's wife). I nabbed a lovely traditional fruitcake and headed back to South Bend, promising myself that I wouldn't taste the cake until today.

You may imagine my anticipation at Christmas Dinner this afternoon. Turkey and all the trimmings provided a very filling meal, but The Fruitcake rested in splendor on its serving plate and beckoned us all. Finally, I took out my knife and prepared a slice. This cake overflowed with fruits and nuts, with nary a piece of candied citron or bright green cherry. I was pleasantly impressed with the whole thing. I couldn't detect any soaking in liquor, so that disappointed a bit, but overall this was a very good fruitcake. Was I satisfied? Yes, indeed. Will I buy another next year? Absolutely!

In the course of this quest, I have discovered at least one local friend who also appreciates a good fruitcake. So I just might resume my fruitcake factory next year, too. Things are looking up! Grandmother would get a good chuckle out of all this.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The First Time Ever We Saw Her Face

My son and I share a keen interest in space exploration, which means we frequently talk about both the history  and the future of NASA's programs. A few days ago I was reminiscing with him about the Apollo program and how those flights captured the imagination of our whole country. Then, as I was in the throes of Christmas decorating and present-wrapping, I began to recall the momentous flight of Apollo 8 in late December 1968. You may know that the Apollo 8 mission marked the first successful orbit of the moon by the Apollo program. Astronauts Borman, Anders, and Lovell bear the honor of bringing the moon to us through their observations and photographs.

Apollo 8 gave us yet another, more astonishingly significant, gift. On Christmas Eve in 1968, during their fourth orbit of the moon, the astronauts glimpsed something for the very first time: Earthrise. Borman was maneuvering the spacecraft to a new attitude, which caused the sight lines out the windows to catch the slow "rise" of Earth above the moon's horizon. They hadn't been able to see this on the first three orbits. Now, the three men became the first human beings to see this phenomenon. The experience astonished them and they scrambled to photograph the sight. If you listen to the transcription of their conversation, you can hear their wonder and excitement and awe. Most people have seen this iconic photograph. It even graced a US Postal Service stamp. Billions of people have grown up knowing what Earth looks like rising over the moon's horizon.

Those of us alive in 1968 who saw these photos for the very first time will never forget the thrill, will never forget the beauty of that initial glimpse of Earth. Oh my. It still makes me shake my head in wonder. Earth looked so very beautiful, so wonderful, so exquisite. I think it might be the best photograph ever taken of anything!

As if this weren't enough, the crew of Apollo 8 gave us one more memory that Christmas. While they orbited the moon, they read the first ten verses of the creation story from the book of Genesis. They broadcast this message over live television, and it riveted us in place in front of our set. Looking at Earth as the astronauts took turns reading that ancient story gave me goosebumps, and I'm sure I wasn't alone. Borman, Anders, and Lovell gave all of us such a gift.

You see, 1968 had been a very bad year. The Tet offensive in Vietnam had brutally begun the year, and things grew worse. President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, which opened a rancorous election campaign. In April, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. sent the country into a dreadful period of violence and sadness. In June, an assassin gunned down Robert Kennedy, plunging us further into turmoil. The Democratic Convention, held in Chicago later that summer, produced violent conflicts between protesters and  law enforcement and made us all worry that we were slipping into chaos. By the time the presidential election was over, with Nixon as the president-elect, we entered the Christmas season more or less reeling from all the events of the previous months. We needed help. We needed something to draw us upward.

When we saw Earth's face through the windows of the Apollo 8 spacecraft, we gazed in wonder for the first time at the incomparable beauty of our home. God had made this place for us amidst the dark void of space. God had given us the curiosity and the intelligence and the ability to explore our little portion of space. Even more importantly, God had given us Earth to care for and to dwell in together. I remember thinking that we could change the way things were going, that we could turn our efforts to human well-being, that we could still be good stewards of this planet.

We know all too well that the intervening years have not produced universal peace, freedom from poverty, disease, and hunger, or the complete improvement of relationships between cultures. But I have never lost that hope, and whenever I see the Earthrise photo, it seems to me a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Singing With A Thousand Strangers

Christmas seems incomplete without hearing portions of George Frederick Handel's "Messiah". Some of us put those CDs in the audio system and listen to Handel for weeks. Some of us even sing portions of "Messiah" in our parish choirs. But the most extraordinary presentations of that music occur when masses of singers join together and 'sing along'.

Before I moved  away from Chicago, I participated a few times in the "Do-It-Yourself Messiah" sponsored by La Salle Bank and held in the Civic Opera House. (I think this event still occurs, but now sponsored by different groups and located in the Harris Theater.)  Come with me as I remember this experience!

My friends and I clutched our bright blue copies of the entire "Messiah" score as we crossed Wacker Drive to the entrance of the Civic Opera House. Singers streamed through all the doors, and the lobby was packed with folks bearing those blue books!  A couple of us were altos and a couple sopranos, and I recall once we had a couple of basses with us, too. The doors to the main floor of the opera house opened at the specified time and we pushed through to our designated seating areas. Of course, we weren't quite far enough ahead to get close to the stage, but we found seats together and settled in. Sopranos sat in the far left section, facing stage left. Next came altos, then tenors, and then basses, facing stage right. You can be sure that every seat was filled quickly. The excitement level rose and fell.

Finally, Sir Andrew Davis walked out onto the stage (where the orchestra already waited) and oriented us to the proceedings. He was quite good-humored and apparently prepared to have a jolly good time conducting this huge collection of amateur singers. And, of course, he did have a stable of excellent soloists to carry us through the tricky bits!

Off we went. Most of you will be familiar with the variety of music within the "Messiah", so you will understand that it's a mixture of solos and chorus and instrumental parts. I had never sung with such an enormous group before and didn't quite know what to expect. Sir Andrew gave us our cue to rise when the first chorus approached, and the entire house stood up. Wow! What an overwhelming sound rose from all those voices (and overwhelming in a good, not awful, way!). We sang our hearts out, with great enthusiasm, and I've never felt anything else like that, musically. At least in my portion of the alto section, everyone followed along as if they did this sort of thing every day. It was inspiring and exciting and uplifting all at once.

And all that was just the first chorus. We sang all the way through the whole oratorio, not stopping after the "Hallelujah" chorus. I particularly appreciated that opportunity. There was a very necessary intermission, when we had the chance to chat with our choral neighbors and compare notes. Then back to our seats and the marvelous musical gallop to the end. I was exhausted but exhilarated when everything finished. I was also hooked after that first time, and participated in two more "Messiahs" before we moved away.

Handel's continuing universal appeal means that you, too, might find one of these 'singalongs' in your city or town this year. If you enjoy listening to the "Messiah" and can follow a musical score even a little bit, I encourage you to give such a concert a try. Those of you who sing along to the "Messiah" when selections are played on the radio will be transported by the experience. Even if you are singing with strangers around you at the beginning, by the time the last notes die away you will be singing with comrades and perhaps new friends.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Another Pen Laid Down Forever

The recent death of P.D. James reminded me how hard it is to say goodbye to good authors. As long as a favorite writer continues to publish books, I don't like to think about 'the last one', even though it's inevitable. And even if a favorite hasn't published anything in quite a while, I still cherish the hope that one more volume will emerge.

Some of those whom I've "loved and lost" in recent years besides James are:  Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), Dorothy Gilman, Lilian Jackson Braun, and Elizabeth Peters (Barbara Merz). If you see a theme here, it's good detective fiction writing. I am a glutton for that genre, especially British detective fiction. And of course when the writer dies, the series ends. Oh, how I'd like for Brother Cadfael to tackle another medieval mystery in Shrewsbury or for Amelia Peabody to astonish and overwhelm the archaeological profession in 1920's Egypt. I would love to read just one more adventure featuring Mrs. Pollifax, really I would. Alas, those story lines are done. I re-read the books frequently, but not compulsively. They are old friends. After Christmas, I will organize my P.D. James collection and begin reading her debut novel.

I wish I could have met James. One of my good friends in London actually worked with her in the Home Office for a time. She and he frequently took their "elevenses" together in the same staff room. This was quite early in her writing career, and she had left the Home Office before I met my friend.
I did meet Ellis Peters, at a little bookshop in Winnetka. It was called "Scotland Yard Books", appropriately enough, since it specialized in mystery fiction. Peters was touring the U.S., promoting her latest book, and stopped off for a book signing. Some friends and I zipped up to the North Shore, books in hand, and had the opportunity to meet and greet Peters. If you're at all familiar with her books, they feature lots of different types of murders and Peters gives the reader quite graphic descriptions! So I wasn't exactly prepared for what she looked like in person. Why, there sat a nice little grey-haired English grandmother! Yes, just the sort of person you could sit down with and have a lovely cup of tea whilst discussing lurid plots and hair-raising adventures. It's a delightful memory that I cherish whenever I re-read the Cadfael collection.

A writer whose delay in publishing his final work kept me dangling for years was William Manchester. No detective fiction here, just good, solid historical biography. He began a three-volume biography of Winston Churchill years ago. The series was entitled The Last Lion and I bought volumes I and II as quickly as Manchester published them. He wrote brilliantly and I commend those books to anyone looking for excellent work on Churchill. I waited and waited and waited for volume III. And waited and waited. Now and then a hint emerged that Manchester continued to work on the book. Then even the hints stopped. In 2001 he informed his waiting readers that he wouldn't be able to finish the book, due to his struggle with health issues. He didn't want any collaborators. He had over 100,000 pages of research material already written but he couldn't finish. Oh my goodness. Such a disappointment. Manchester died in 2004. I resigned myself to the loss of that final volume. Then in  2012, volume III appeared! It seems that Manchester did select a collaborator after all, who pulled together those 100,000 pages and gave us the final 20 years of Churchill's life. I don't imagine that any of you were waiting on the edges of your seats for this book to appear, but I considered it a marvelous gift. All three volumes reside on my bookshelves now.

I also confess to waiting hopefully for Dorothy Gilman to give us another Mrs. Pollifax mystery. I checked her website periodically and looked for news of her, but very little emerged. She received a few literary awards, one as late as 2010, but no new novels appeared. I suspected that health concerns also were preventing her from resuming her writing. And then, I came across her obituary in 2012, when she died of complications from Alzheimer's at age 88. Ah well, it was selfish of me to wish she had forced out two or three more books before she left us!

So goodbye, P.D. James. I hope that she and all the others have found each other in eternity and are relishing their 'meeting of the minds'.  I like to think they are.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Your Nose Knows

As I peeled and ate a clementine today, I remembered how the aroma of a fresh tangerine always makes me think of Christmas. Apparently tangerines didn't appear in our grocery stores year-round as I was growing up. And since the fresh clementines have just appeared in the markets here, that seasonal schedule still seems to operate in 2014. I, of course, immediately segued into the way other aromas remind me of particular places or people.

My Grandmother Harrison always kept a tin of peppermints on the chair-side table in her living room. That means whenever I pop a couple of Altoids in my mouth, she instantly comes to mind. What a lovely trigger of memory! She also had a little garden behind her house in downtown Portsmouth, and grew fresh mint in one corner. (How she kept the mint from taking over the entire garden I will never know, because she had died before I became interested in herb gardening!) Sometimes when I visited her, she would let me take a few sprigs of mint from the plants and just crush them and smell them. That was a special treat.

Although I couldn't tell you what contributed to it, the aroma of my Aunt Rachel's house will always be a pleasant part of my olfactory memory. (Do we have an olfactory memory?) Every once in a a great while I will go into a house or room that evokes Aunt Rachel's house, and I remember so many good times there. Family gatherings, Christmas, crab feasts, birthday parties--I grew up there as much as I grew up in our home.

Uncle Henry's house also had a distinct and welcoming aroma which I couldn't possible trace to any one thing. But I would know it in a heartbeat if my nose alerted me. And yes, every now and then over the years I have sniffed a hint of that unique aroma and been carried back over months and years to times filled with fun and memories.

Grandmother's house, Aunt Rachel's house, and Uncle Henry's house are not available for visits any longer, but I am always hoping for an aromatic surprise to take me back there.

The Jergens hand lotion that my mother used always smelled so delicious to me. I don't know what mixture produced that fragrance. I don't run into it often, but when I do, I am changed back into that little girl who loved the smell of her mother's hands.

What other aromas trigger memories for me? The original Old Spice after shave was my father's signature scent (he called it "stinkum" when we were little). When my children were small, and we would visit my parents' house, they loved to wear "Pops' T-shirts" as their pajamas/nightgowns, using my father's oldest T-shirts. We would usually bring some of these back to Chicago with us, and I loved to cuddle with my children when they wore these shirts because it was like having my father right there with us. I wish I still had one of these, now that he's gone.

Colonial Williamsburg's buildings bear a distinctive smell, too. I spent lots of time there! Whenever I smell bayberry candles and eucalyptus (although I'm not sure it's a plant found there in the 18th century), I might as well be in CW. Do you suppose that's why I only have bayberry candles in my house? Even in the Wren building on campus at William and Mary smells like that!

Cigar smoke takes me to Paris, in the spring of 1974. My friends and I were touring the Continent on our spring holidays, and we used the Paris Metro extensively during our days there. Did every male in Paris smoke cigars then? It certainly seemed like they did. And of course, the smoke from those awful French cigarettes permeated the entire city. But Cigars = Paris Metro remains an instant trigger for me, regardless of where I actually am.

Another memorable aroma is the way a spring evening smells in Tidewater Virginia. It's very difficult to describe. Spring in that part of the world is a particularly voluptuous season. Everything blooms with embarrassing enthusiasm, and at night, when the temperature hovers between warm and cool, the smells of the grass and the flowers and just simply the air combine in one unforgettable mixture. I can't really give you a true written picture, but I miss those spring evenings.

With winter knocking at the door, I find it quite pleasant to think of fragrant flowers! And I'll leave you with one final aromatic memory: gardenias in bloom. Outside my parents' bedroom window, my mother planted gardenia bushes. I believe they came as a gift from our neighbor, Mrs. Eastwood, who had famously gorgeous gardenia bushes. In our part of Virginia, gardenias bloom in early June.  My parents didn't have any air conditioning until after I left for college, so on those summer nights we lay in bed with all windows open. The night-time breezes wafted the gardenias' fragrance through our bedroom window, and my sister and I drifted off to sleep, blessed by nature's benediction. No wonder she and I wait eagerly for the first blossoms to appear every year (from that same bush, now grown quite tall but still producing perfect blooms).

Everyone shares these kinds of memories, I know. Thanks for sharing this aromatic trip down memory lane tonight. I think I'll go and peel another clementine!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

When Friends See What You Can't See in Yourself

As I was playing some Advent hymns on the piano today, I thought about the many Decembers I spent singing in parish choirs in Chicago. St. Veronica's, St. Benedict's, St. Mary of Perpetual Help, St. Martha's: many years' worth of music and liturgies. In each of these settings, the choir director was my friend Les. He is one of the most creative and talented musicians I have ever met (perhaps the most) and over the years became one of my closest friends.

I am not even in the same hierarchy of musicians! I belong in an entirely parallel list. But as time passed, I actually became the substitute organist at three of these parishes. And I never would have thought that was possible. Never. Who thought I could meet those challenges without any problem? Les did. In his usual, off-handed way he would mention that he needed me to cover for him on a particular date. Stress!! The worst obstacle was learning the psalm for the day, because Les also composed a marvelous collection of psalm settings and they were always a challenge to me. Some of them only had chord suggestions (!!) accompanying the melody lines, and when I asked him for tips, he would rattle off what I ought to do and move on to another topic. Oh my goodness. Usually the hymns gave me no problems, since I grew up playing the piano for congregational singing in my church in Virginia. But those psalms gave me fits! And of course there were the additional pieces I needed to play during Communion and other moments. My focus intensified as Saturday and Sunday approached.

It's important to note, also, that although I studied the piano for ten years, I only had one year of organ lessons, in high school. I couldn't improvise or transpose and I had no good sense of chord varieties/progressions. What did I think I was doing?

Here's the amazing part: I actually managed to serve as a substitute organist without disaster or mental breakdowns. I learned so much! I mastered the "cues" from the liturgy, so that I didn't break into "Holy, holy, holy" too early; I was ready when it was time for the Memorial Acclamation; I began the Agnus Dei in time to 'call' the priest back to the altar before the sign of peace got too carried away. I learned which combinations of stops on the organ sounded the best for hymns, for psalms, for service music, and for the solo organ pieces during Mass. And I learned all of this pretty darn quickly, because Les assumed I could just do it.

On two different occasions, I literally slid onto the organ bench during Mass as Les slid off, first due to a family emergency and then due to his sudden illness. How in the world did that happen?

My dear friend Alice and I have discussed this many times, she from the vantage point of a professional singer and I from my little corner as an accompanist. (Many times she cantored when I played the organ--the "Alice and Barbara Show", we called ourselves.) We have concluded that we rose to meet these challenges largely because Les thought we could. And perhaps more than thought--because he expected that we could. I became a better musician because somehow Les knew I would be. (Alice was already marvelous.) Isn't that such a gift?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Encyclopedias and Great Books

I devoured books as I grew up. Beginning with the library in my elementary school, followed by the library in my church, then the public library near my home, and ultimately my high school library, I haunted the bookshelves. I read constantly and widely. I always had a book or two to read.

We never owned many books in those years, but when I was eight or nine, my parents purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias on the 'book a month' plan. All the volumes arrived at once, but my parents paid monthly. This represented a sacrifice for them, because budgets were tight before my mother returned to teaching. I hope they knew how entranced I always was with these books. Did any of you, dear readers, ever just sit down and read the encyclopedia? Just curl up with a volume and absorb everything on those pages? I spent so many hours doing exactly that. A World Book volume always began with the history and origin of that particular letter of the alphabet. That in itself was fascinating! And then we were off, rambling through an amazing and enthralling summary of everything in the world (it seemed to me). I loved those encyclopedias. When my daughter was starting school, my parents gave me that set of World Books. I don't know if they impressed my children as much as they did me, but we certainly used them! Much later, my husband surprised me for Valentine's Day with a complete set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. My joy knew no bounds! These volumes rest proudly on shelves in my living room and I still pull them out to ramble through the breadth of human knowledge. (They are so much more satisfying than Google.)

As part of my husband's "trousseau" when we married, he brought along a complete set of The Great Books, in their specially-fitted bookcase, which his parents had purchased early in their own marriage and which had accompanied them across the country. We have this bookcase on the staircase landing between the first and second floor in our home. Every time I walk past these books, I stop and think about the depth and breadth of knowledge they contain, and I say a little 'thank you' to my husband's parents for their example of and respect for intellectual curiosity. I haven't come close to reading all the Great Books yet!

What impresses me about all this? The conviction of my parents and my in-laws that having such resources available in their homes would make a difference for their families. They understood that the search for knowledge could open a multitude of doors for their children (and for themselves), and having the best information, best literature, best philosophy, best history, and best science gave their children something wonderful and precious.

I am embarrassed to tell you how many books fill my house now (and I am always adding to those on my Kindle). I still visit our public library regularly. And I drink daily from the fountain of information flowing on the internet. But I never forget who set my feet upon this path, and I'll always love a good encyclopedia!