Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Worst Week of the Year

We came to Chicago after my husband graduated from architecture school so that he could begin his career. We had spent three years in Virginia, enjoying Charlottesville and the opportunity to live near my family when our daughter was small. Chicago represented a complete change of environment and plenty of challenges, but we started settling in.

Two months after we moved to Chicago, our second daughter was born. She lived only two days. Suddenly everything was different. I had no family here. My good friend Peg (from my St. Andrews days) was the only person I already knew in town, although we had discovered a lovely next door neighbor and were beginning to meet folks at church. My sister flew in right after our daughter's birth and was with me from then on, which meant that our older daughter had her 'second mother' to comfort her, but I had to stay in the hospital for a week before I could come home. My husband, daughter, and sister took our baby to downstate Illinois for her burial in the Bess family plot in Fairbury.

Some of you may have had a similar tragedy and will understand the dark, dark place that results. I won't dwell on those weeks and months after I came home from the hospital. All the bright hopes and promise of moving to a new city and starting an exciting new chapter in our lives dimmed and diminished. That winter seemed endless and sad.

Over thirty years have passed since her birth, short life, and death. Many blessings have come to me in that time, and much happiness. Yet, my daughter has never left me. I talk with her every now and then, in good times and bad, and I know she would love her niece and nephew. I taught girls her age when I was at Mother Guerin High in Chicago, and I have never been surprised that the class of 1999 is as dear to me as if they were my own daughters, because she would have been their age. Generally, I do okay.

The week of September 16th, however, is the worst week of the year for me. Regardless of where I am or what I am doing, the events of those three days are constantly playing in my heart and mind. I relive every moment. I welcome her and sit beside her in the NICU and hold her hand as I watch her die. This is just a very hard week for me. It's especially tough if I am at home by myself.

So this year, since my husband was out of town with his students, I decided to drive home to Virginia and spend these days with my sister and brother. As I walked into my sister's kitchen, I glanced at her calendar and saw that she already had written down my daughter's birthday. She never forgets, either.

I had a good visit, saw some dear friends, hung out with my sister and brother, and if I had sad moments, well, I was not alone.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Curry Powder

My mother cooked simple, straightforward, nourishing food. She didn't particularly like cooking, but she faithfully insured that we had meat/fish, veggies, and a starch at most evening meals. I believe that in the early days of her marriage, she studied her Good Housekeeping cookbook religiously. We certainly benefited from her care and her ability to provide variety in our food over the years. Thanks to her studies of that cookbook, we learned to love spare ribs, liver, and all kinds of seafood. Slices of her meatloaf appeared as a staple in my early school lunch sandwiches. I still hold her potato salad as the exemplar of all potato salads, and I despair of ever making gravy as expertly as she did. (How did she learn to make such a perfect roux so effortlessly?? And without knowing what in the world a roux was?) She and her oldest sister, Willie, seem to have intuited the same spaghetti sauce recipe, which I discovered decades after I had married, moved to the Midwest, and had dinner at my aunt's house in Michigan. Mother's vegetable soup will always remain in my family's 'food memory' as another delicious classic. She could also stir up a batch of biscuits in the blink of an eye and never needed to follow a recipe. (I asked her to make biscuits a couple of years before she died, just one more time, but she said she'd forgotten how. Alas.) For someone who regarded cooking as more chore than creative pleasure, Mother was a pretty good cook.

But she never cooked anything with curry powder.

I'm thinking of Mother's cooking today for two reasons. One because last night, while my husband (who doesn't like this meal) was in Chicago, I fixed a lovely batch of liver and onions just for myself. Total indulgence for less than $3.00. It reminded me of so many meals at home. The second reason is that today I am making a crockpot recipe for curried chicken, which has made my house smell mouth-wateringly scrumptious. These aromas never appeared in my mother's kitchen.

Nothing really spicy ever did appear in our kitchen. I remember introducing various seasonings after I had married and would visit my parents and cook for them, but I don't recall my mother ever following recipes that required more than salt, pepper, ham or bacon for greens, and mustard. (Now that I think of it, there must have been a little extra zip in the sauce for those spare ribs so long ago.)

My gastronomic experiences in college truly flung open the door to the delights of different foods, and, though you may not believe it, spending a year in Scotland broadened my food horizon even farther. I lived in a residence hall at the University of St. Andrews, and we all ate together in the dining room every day. I loved cauliflower and cheese. I had never eaten cauliflower at all, so this was a new veggie. I loved 'tatties and neaps', AKA potatoes and turnips. While I had eaten turnip greens quite often, I had never actually had turnips. I had never eaten lamb. My fellow residents, all from the UK, groaned at what they considered pedestrian fare, but I gobbled it up. Who knew that you could put cold peas in a green salad? I mean, really. At breakfast I could eat blood pudding and scrambled eggs and porridge. I even love haggis. (True.)

I first discovered curries in that dining hall. Not adventurous, super spicy, eye-wateringly hot curries, but curries nonetheless, matching up ingredients that I had never imagined. Wow. I looked forward to the meals that featured curry. So exotic to someone raised in southeastern Virginia and so very delicious. (I visited London on several occasions and we ate Indian food several times there, too.)

Of course, when I returned home, I wanted all my favorite homey foods and put curries out of my mind for awhile. I then spent a year working at Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions, and was delighted to meet several scholars and their families from India. They plied me with an even broader array of wonderful food. When we moved to Chicago, I lived near the area heavily populated by folks from South Asia. Curries again! And I began to use curry powder in my own cooking. My culminating experience occurred in the summer of 2001, when I actually spent six weeks in India, enjoying just about every new dish I ate.

I never tried to introduce either of my parents to curries. I never sneaked curry powder into any dish just to see 'how they liked it'. I'm not sure my mother had ever even heard of curry, as a matter of fact. But she is responsible for the breadth of my culinary tastes.

Mother's cooking demonstrated how delicious good, plain, wholesome food could be, and that formed the foundation of my own cooking skills. More importantly, Mother's determination not only to send me to college but also to send me off to Europe for a year, to open windows to a world that she knew would enrich me, provided me with experiences and adventures that shape who I am to this very day.

That means Mother introduced me to curry powder after all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How Did Halloween Become So Popular?

Reading email today, I saw advertising from a children's clothing site touting Halloween costumes. The basic message told me that I needed these costumes so that my grandchildren would sport the most memorable and cutest costumes for Halloween. How did Halloween become such a major holiday that I am already supposed to be thinking about costumes for 2-year-olds who don't attend school?

I am not a Halloween Grinch by any means. (My high school's colors were orange and black, so I am predisposed to enjoy the color themes.) My sister and brother and I went trick-or-treating every year and always wore costumes. But we generally put our costumes together the day before, and certainly no earlier than the week before. We have been known to raid the linen closet for the oldest sheets in order to be ghosts (an always-reliable idea). In fact, I recall re-using one or two costumes for several successive years. And, of course, all that ended when we finished eighth grade.

With my own children, I kept things very low-key for Halloween. Before my oldest started kindergarten, I solved her need for costumes plus the need for very warm outer garments by cutting head and arm  holes in a black plastic garbage bag to wear over winter coats and putting a black witch's hat on her head. Nice enough. Generally, every other costume somehow fell together in the hours before we headed out for candy.

I do confess that I spent extra effort on two special costumes. Once, I sewed Star Trek officers' shirts, and once I fabricated an outstanding Tin Man costume for my youngest to wear to kindergarten. In fact, I think that was for the same Halloween, probably spurred on by my friend's (and landlord's) exquisitely-crafted furry bear costume for her son (my godson).

I don't, however, remember Halloween parties everywhere I looked, whether as a child or an adult, or seasonal stores dedicated solely to Halloween costumes and paraphernalia. Halloween was just a little blip on the radar between the beginning of school and Thanksgiving. Hardly a multi-million-dollar industry.

Isn't it just all about the candy, anyway?

That was our motive. We knew we had to wear some kind of costume or the homeowners wouldn't give us any candy. So we dressed up. And we carried brown paper bags to hold the candy. Nothing fancy or complicated that we would have to store somewhere until next year. Who stored decorations for Halloween? The pumpkin didn't last more than a week or two after carving.

During the last few years that my sons were eligible for trick-or-treating, we even ditched costumes and trick-or-treating altogether. Both of them, contemplating an especially cold, wet, and miserable Halloween evening, told me that if I would just go out and buy some bags of their favorite candy the next day, we could all stay inside and relax. That's what we did, and that's how Halloween finished up for us a couple of years later.

My sister has a dear friend whose favorite 'holiday' is Halloween. I think it's an endearing quirk, but I don't understand the appeal. There's not really anything substantial to Halloween. Really. Why has it become such a compelling celebration in the US? And, honestly, what are we celebrating?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Perseids

Have you ever watched the Perseids? Sometimes called the "tears of St. Lawrence" because they occur near his feast day, these meteors provide a splendid sky show every August, marking the end of summer vacation days with an exciting spectacle.

Watching the Perseids in South Bend frustrates me, because I don't live in a spot with a clear view of the entire evening sky. At present, I don't have friends who live out in the countryside whom I could pester to let me set up my viewing station in their farm fields. Last night was pretty hazy/cloudy, too, so no luck for me. I have, nonetheless, spent two magical evenings in my life watching this meteor show.

When my youngest child was around 4 years old, he and my daughter and I were spending our annual vacation with my parents in Virginia. We had been enjoying our usual pursuits and didn't expect anything different from our typical summer fun. One day, my father surprised us with the suggestion that we go to a campground at Oregon Inlet on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and watch the Perseids. I gave that idea a thumbs up at once. We packed up all the necessary things and set out. Most remarkably, my parents were in their late 60's and hadn't been camping in decades. I was quite impressed. Things proceeded fairly smoothly and we reached out destination uneventfully. We set up camp, ate supper, and tried to protect ourselves from the diabolical Dare County mosquitoes. Night fell and we found comfortable positions to watch for the meteors. The flat, sandy ground blended unbroken into the vast ocean, and we could see the entire dome of the sky without interruption. The Perseids began to appear very soon. Oh my goodness, what a sight. My children sat in fascinated silence. Meteor after meteor after meteor flashed overhead. We saw so, so many. What a magical time for all of us, adults and children alike.

My second treasured sight of the Perseids occurred a couple of years before my father died, on our last summer trip to Kill Devil Hills. Once again my youngest son (now in college) was with us, although the other two children had adult careers by then and couldn't be with us that week. My father had trouble climbing up and down the stairs to our cottage, so we didn't make too many forays each day. This particular night he insisted that we try to watch the Perseids. After supper, my son and I helped Daddy down the stairs and established him in a comfortable chair behind the cottage. We placed our chairs on either side of him and waited patiently for the neighbors' lights to go out and the Dairy Queen across the street to close for the night. The night temperature remained gently warm, stirred by lovely sea breezes, and we could hear the rolling surf from the ocean, only two blocks away across the beach road. Sitting there in the dark, talking with him and with his namesake grandson, made me exquisitely happy. For me, the Perseids would be the icing on the cake. And they were. After a time, my son spotted the first meteor. Soon they were appearing at a steady pace, and we watched shooting star after shooting star arc across the sky. Daddy's face lit up like a star itself as he relished this spectacle. We three sat there for an hour, I think, and only reluctantly turned away when Daddy tired. That final visit together on the Outer Banks couldn't have been any more wonderful.

That is why I love the Perseids and try to see them every year. I hope you can find a good, clear place to watch them this week. I hope you can watch them with folks who will appreciate the blazing wonder of these shooting stars. Now I am looking forward to sharing the Perseids someday with my own grandchildren, and I expect to feel my father's presence with me when I do.

A New Box of Crayons

It's that time of year. Time to buy new school supplies. Time to get ready for that first day of classes. A time that has passed me by, after so many years of being both a student and a teacher. Watching my husband prepare for teaching his graduate students just isn't the same. Supporting our local Pack-A-Backpack campaign helps children with much-needed school supplies and is fun, but that just isn't the same, either.

I would like to buy some brand-new crayons.

Is there anything comparable to an untouched box of 24 Crayola crayons? Those sharp points. That excellent variety of colors. The smell of those waxy little wands of creation. The box of 64 crayons always seemed excessive, even though it had that very cool crayon sharpener in the front. (Just to place me in the Crayola timeline, I remember when the box of 64 first came on the market. We were stunned by the available colors.)

I was always excited when my mother took us shopping for school supplies. There were no lists of required supplies in those days, so we just bought what everyone knew they needed for school. Packages of new pencils. New crayons. A new ruler (no centimeter markings then). A compass and a protractor, perhaps. A fat stack of looseleaf paper. A three-ring binder. Spiral notebooks if you were in a grade that needed them. A thick rubber book strap in later years (backpacks were for soldiers then, not students). Perhaps some fancy bookcovers, but generally we used brown paper bags to cover our books. A Shaeffer cartridge pen with ink cartridges of washable blue. That covered everything, I think.

When I was teaching, I still had the pleasure of buying supplies: new pens, packages of pencils which I could lend (!) my students, new grade books, new lesson plan books, markers, cellophane tape, paper clips, staples, thumb tacks, and folders. I loved office supply stores.

Unfortunately, I still have stocks of these 'teacher' supplies in my basement office. I seldom use up all the ink in my Zebra pens. No possible way to justify a rampage through Office Depot or Staples this year. But I have a plan.

Recently, I have read that artists are publishing coloring books for adults. These books look fairly elaborate and complicated and deserve being labeled as art. But they are coloring books. And I could color in them. Granted, they seem to require extensive palettes of markers or colored pencils, which I don't yearn for in the same way as crayons. I don't see why I couldn't use some good old Crayolas if I wanted to.

My secret is out now. I am going to order one of these high-end coloring books and buy a new box of crayons. This means I can consider myself a patron of the arts for supporting the business ventures of actual artists, and I can satisfy my inner second grader with those new Crayolas. Sounds good to me.

[Oh, yes: I am also going to begin stockpiling crayons for my grandchildren. And coloring books. The fun is going to begin again.]

Friday, July 24, 2015

Remembering Marilyn, Ten Years On

As the academic year of 2005-2006 began, I found myself out of teaching and living in South Bend. All my buddies were resuming their classes at Mother Guerin High School, and I missed our camaraderie very much. I sent volumes of emails to everyone, and kept in touch with 'current events' at the school. Everyone expected the usual adjustments with incoming freshmen and new administrative leaders, but none of us expected the bombshell fate dropped on us just as school was starting.

Cancer struck our dear colleague Marilyn.

The diagnosis was dire: stage four ovarian cancer. Surgery first, then massive chemotherapy, possibly followed by radiation. You can imagine the consternation, pain, and sorrow all Marilyn's friends experienced, and can perhaps imagine the devastation and fear she felt. We all know how deadly ovarian cancer is. It was just a horrible August.

I have been thinking about Marilyn this month (her birthday was in July), and tonight I re-read the emails she sent me while undergoing her first chemo that autumn. I'm glad that this occurred to me, because I felt like Marilyn was present to me again in all her old delightful insouciance and humor and energy and love of life.

She and our friend Cheryl and I managed to get together for meals in Chicago several times during those months, and savored every moment of those meetings. Marilyn handled the chemo very well, with a few ups and downs, and by Christmas, the tumor markers had dropped from very high to very low. Although her hair had disappeared, she had a very flattering wig and loved wearing it. Her oncologist believed that the treatments had greatly benefited Marilyn, and we all began 2006 in an optimistic mood.

Since I wasn't working at that point either, Marilyn and I exchanged movie reviews (we wore out Netflix, I think, and the public library and Blockbuster in our respective cities) and gardening tips (how to foil those aggravating squirrels when planting spring bulbs) and comments on everything under the sun. I rejoiced with her and her husband Joe when the White Sox won the World Series in October, and was truly glad for them, because they were life-long fans. (I know that when the Cubs win, Marilyn and Joe will be happy for me in Heaven.) All told, except for the fact that Marilyn was in the fight of her life, the autumn of 2005 passed quite pleasantly, and she and Cheryl and I rejoiced in our opportunities for 'messing around'.

The first months of 2006 also progressed well. Marilyn responded so positively to the treatments that, to the best of my memory, no second surgery was needed. Her prognosis seemed so much better than we had dared to hope. I tried to go in to Chicago as often as possible to meet up with her and Cheryl, and we kept up our emailing and phone calling. Marilyn's hair grew back, and she was just as cute as a little puppy! (I can see her face now as I make that observation.) All of her friends rejoiced, not only that she was still with us but also that she felt so well.

I began working at Notre Dame that summer, and my visits to Chicago tapered off somewhat. Everyone remained in close touch by email and phone, however, and I think we did get together for Marilyn's birthday. My last lunch with her and Cheryl was in August, I think.

As that comment reveals, Marilyn did not survive the cancer. Her condition suddenly began to deteriorate in late August,  and while she fought valiantly, by Christmas we all knew that very little time remained. I went to Mobile, Alabama for a business trip and brought her back a Mardi Gras scarf for Christmas, but had to mail it as I couldn't get to town to deliver it in person. Our emails had diminished as Marilyn struggled with each day's challenges. Cheryl relayed updates to me from Joe, and by early January, it seemed that only a few weeks remained for Marilyn. The weekend prior to MLK Day in January of 2007, Cheryl called me and urged me to get to Loyola Medical Center because time was running out. I drove in, collected Cheryl and our dear friend, Sister Kay, and the three of us went to Marilyn's bedside. Marilyn didn't know us and was struggling. Her parents sat by her side, and I will never forget the heartbreak of watching her mother smooth Marilyn's hair. Marilyn died in the early hours of the next day.

Although I said goodbye to her later that week in Chicago, I haven't really lost her. I often look through my photos from our trips with students to France and Spain (with Cheryl along as the Third Musketeer!) and smile at the places we visited and the things we did. Every time I'm in Paris I think of her and remember how she could just chatter away in French with anyone (she was the French teacher at our school). When my daughter and I were following the Tour de France two years ago, I wished that I could send Marilyn emails about all those adventures in France. Silly though it might be, whenever I have a crepe or pain au chocolat, I think of Marilyn! Cheryl and I never tire of sharing our memories of this dear, dear friend.

Marilyn taught many, many 'Guerin girls' during her career and cared about each one. I admired her teaching skills so much! Few people have had as much fun living as Marilyn did. Although she hated to fly, she took trip after trip to Europe with her students, and even went island-hopping in the South Pacific with her father, a World War II Marine veteran. She and Cheryl travelled all over the US by train! She loved cooking and decorating and hosting her family and friends. I could never match her for energy, even though I was younger! She was a fount of creativity, always discovering something new to make or do. Her sense of humor and dry wit were legendary. She was so very, very alive.

Though her diagnosis filled us with apprehension and sorrow, Marilyn inspired us all with her courage and refusal to abandon hope. I can hardly believe that ten years have passed since cancer struck her. Writing about her tonight has inspired me to rise up and get back to our kinds of adventures and shenanigans, so that I might leave behind such memories, too. (And I'll continue to wear that Mardi Gras scarf, which Joe gave me after the funeral, to celebrate Marilyn's joie de vivre.)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Don't Expect Me to Answer the Phone

My cousin Charles tells us not to call him while "Jeopardy" is on the television in the evenings. He will not answer the phone. If we need to call him, we always look at the time, just in case. He has trained us well.

During the first three weeks of July every year, I pay no attention to any communications until that day's stage of the Tour de France ends. NBC Sports covers the entire race, and my daughter has given me the live feed package over the internet, so from 8 AM until noon each day I am riveted to the screens.

Those of you who know how leisurely my days usually begin will chuckle at my setting an alarm every day for 7:50 so I can be set and ready for the broadcasts to start. Granted, I might still be wearing my PJ's, but I'm up! I carry my Chromebook around with me and put it safely on the counter while I fix breakfast. I make no appointments in the mornings, run no errands, do no chores. It's much worse than my cousin's 30 minute blackout.

Why don't I just check the sports news around noon each day? Why on earth do I watch hours and hours of a bike race? Who in the world am I watching, anyway?

I first began to follow the TDF during the last years of Lance Armstrong's dominance. Those were thrilling races indeed. Of course everyone's attention focused on him, but I also began to learn the stories and strengths of the other riders who were vying for the yellow jersey. The TDF began to fascinate me as an athletic event, beyond what Lance was doing. I looked forward to seeing what the others would accomplish each year. I also found myself looking at cycling results throughout the year, learning about the Grand Tour races that fill up the racing schedule. There's so much more to professional cycling than just the TDF, but that's the epic race that the pros want to win.

After the fall of Armstrong, I wasn't angry or bitter, but I resented the way he had lied to all of us who rejoiced in his victories. Those will remain memorable races, but they mean nothing to me now. I hope he stays on the margins permanently. The current generation of cyclists generate so much interest and excitement that I don't miss Lance at all!

What do I like about the Tour? The skill and endurance of all the racers astonish me. These men ride for three weeks, all around France (and a little bit of Holland and Belgium this year), over hill and down dale and across beastly high mountains. It's an incredible feat. The strategy of each cycling team also captivates me. Who tries to take the lead? How do they protect their big stars? Why does a particular rider dash off on a breakaway and punish himself to stay far in front of the main group? How can they handle their bikes under all the variety of weather conditions? Every day is fascinating and no day is routine, even the stages that are supposed to be ordinary! Add to all these attractions is the fact that at any given moment, riders could tangle up their bikes in crashes and suffer painful injuries. There is never a dull moment.

I watch it all. If I could get my hands on "L'Equipe", the French sports daily that covers the Tour in extensive detail, I would buy it! I can figure out enough French to follow most of those kinds of reports. But that's not possible, so I glue my eyes to the computer screen and television and imagine I'm roaming around France with the Tour. I have a ball.

The Tour ends Sunday, so my yearly extravaganza will be over. If you want to come over for coffee some morning, I'll be open for business!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Looking Back at the Tour De France

In July 2013, my daughter and I fulfilled one of our dreams: we followed the Tour de France through the final five stages of the race. She and my husband and sons arranged this as my 60th birthday present. Since I am currently absorbed in watching this year's tour on television,  I thought I would re-read some of my blog posts from 2013.  This made me so happy that I decided to share one of those posts with you here. 
We arrived in Geneva on a Saturday, travelled to Grenoble on the Sunday, rented our car, and spent the Monday (which was a rest day for the Tour de France) exploring Grenoble and its environs. The next day, Tuesday, we watched our very first stage of the Tour. At last. It was a very memorable day for us, and what follows is my description of the whole experience.
The first day that Jennifer and I drove out of Grenoble, to find Stage 16 of the Tour, we had no idea what we would discover. We were heading to the small town of Veynes, where there was to be a sprint point for that stage. Stage 16 was going to end with an HC climb in the alpine town of Gap (which means that the climb was so steep and challenging that it was “beyond category”–most difficult of all). We knew that finding places along the road leading into Gap would be well-nigh impossible, and our host in Grenoble suggested an intermediate town where we could ease into the whole tour experience. The drive to Veynes was not my introduction to French roads because we had done some exploring in Grenoble the previous day, but it was deeper into the steep Alps and little villages that dot the area. Jennifer’s navigation proved superb, and suddenly we looked up, saw a roundabout bedecked with the yellow pennants of the Tour and knew that we had found The Route for Stage 16.
Since the road wouldn’t be closed for another few hours, I boldly drove onto the actual route of the Tour. I cannot describe the delight on both our faces as we realized that at long last we were truly ON the road that the cyclists would be following only hours later. I mean, ON the road. We drove along through Veynes and passed through the sprint point, under the green sprint banner that we’ve seen so often on the TV coverage over the years. Now we were certain that our dream was coming true. After continuing on out of town, we turned around and headed back to a supermarket for refreshments and bathroom breaks. Success on both counts! Back into the car and then past the sprint point once again, to a roadside vantage point only about 50 yards from the banner. We figured that the only riders going really fast at that point would be those contesting the sprint, and that the others would be coming through a little less quickly.
I drove the car well off the road, facing the direction from which the riders would be appearing. We opened the hatchback, got out lunch, and generally relaxed in the sun. A few RVs (called ‘caravans’ in Europe) parked behind us and the owners set up their viewing stations. We watched everything like little kids at the fair! Just down the hill across the road, trains frequently passed at a level crossing, preceded by alarm bells. The sky was a limitless blue and all around us were the fields and meadows and peaks of the French Alps. It was thrilling, and we hadn’t even seen a bicycle yet! Jennifer took out her knitting and I settled in to decipher that day’s sporting news in French.
About one hour before the riders were estimated to arrive in Veynes, the advertising caravan passed through. This is as well-known as the actual stage races of the Tour. There were roughly 35 different official sponsors for the TDF this year, and each sponsor provides a car or truck or special vehicle that comprises the caravan of loot which covers that day’s stage about one to two hours before the race arrives. What a circus! As each vehicle drives past, folks throw advertising goodies into the crowd. We collected hats, little sausages, wrist bands, candy, cakes, laundry detergent, key chains, luggage tags, daily newspapers, magnets, inflatable pillows, Bic pens, rain ponchos, and cold drink sleeves. It was a consumerism deluge! Jennifer and I just laughed as the swag rained down upon us.  Once the caravan sped on down the road, we spent a few minutes cataloging the loot and shaking our heads. Then we settled down to wait for the Tour to arrive.
How can you tell when they are approaching? If we could have understood French, we could have listened to Race Radio, which was blaring from the loudspeakers. Alas, no language skills there. BUT we could hear the helicopters as they approached, filming for French TV, and we were ecstatic that a gendarme was positioned just about 15 yards away from us to wave a yellow pennant and blow his whistle to warn the riders of some ‘traffic furniture’ in the road just there. When we saw him step into position, we knew the Tour was imminent. Cameras ready. We could hear the cheering and see the advance cars streaming through. The real clue is the gendarmes on motorcycles with flashing blue lights. Riders always follow immediately. Here came the blue lights, and there! there is the lead rider! Our cameras worked perfectly, both video and still, and we saw our favorites flash by. We were about 2 feet away from the riders. Really. I could hardly snap photos for the excitement of it all! These were the men whose exploits we have watched on TV for years, and now we were watching them race by. They passed us in groups, several small ones and then the large main body of the race, known as the peloton. Following close behind the cyclists were the individual team cars, sporting spare bikes on roof racks and carrying mechanics and team managers, watching alertly for any signs of trouble from their team members.  Interspersed with the team cars were the ubiquitous motorcycles, carrying the official photographers in and out of the line of traffic. It’s all really quite a traffic jam both in front of and behind the actual cyclists. The last few vehicles are the medical vans, equipment vans, and the “Fin de Course” van, which alerts everyone that there are no riders further up the road.
So. That was our first glimpse of the 2013 Tour de France. Absolute satisfaction and delight for both of us. We lingered for a little while to be sure that the road back out of town was truly open to regular vehicular traffic, and then retraced our route to Grenoble. A stop at our neighborhood supermarket provided us with food for supper, and we dined on our host’s terrace overlooking sunset in the Alps. Both of us felt that such a successful debut boded well for the following five days!
Hope you've enjoyed this little trip down memory lane. I might post one or two more over the next couple of weeks while this year's Tour de France rides around the Pyrenees and the French Alps. My daughter and I want to do this all again in the very near future, too, and we're going to rent a caravan ourselves next time!

Friday, July 10, 2015

What's In YOUR Kitchen?

I updated my little 1926-sized kitchen this spring. The budget stretched to include a Pergo laminate floor, an improved countertop surface, a new sink, new buffet cabinets, new shelves, a ceiling fan, and a dishwasher (finally). Our contractor was a young man with his own business who is just super, and I contributed my own sweat equity by painting the whole kitchen all by myself (which convinced me that I don't need to paint rooms myself any longer). The results of this project transformed my little kitchen and I am delighted with all the improvements.

The contents of my kitchen spent a good six weeks hanging out in my dining room and part of my living room. Fortunately the spring weather allowed us to eat out on our screened porch, because not a square foot of the dining room table was unoccupied. What a lot of things I had accumulated in the ten years since we moved here! Before I moved everything back into the "new" kitchen, I ruthlessly pruned all my gadgets and leftover devices from previous years. I truly was heartless as I culled out all manner of kitchen detritus. (My sister and brother and I have been developing this skill in the past couple of years as we sift through our parents' possessions.) My husband cheerfully toted boxes of still-usable equipment to the Salvation Army. I'm still finding places for the remainder of my kitchen stuff, but by and large there's a place for everything, with everything pretty much in its place.

My grand rummage through all of this brought some nostalgic reflection as I remembered where certain pieces came from or who gave them to me. One piece of cast iron cookware has special significance that I'll share with you. I have three pieces of cast iron: two excellent frying pans and one circular flat griddle pan. The two frying pans came from my husband's Uncle Chuck and Aunt Eula Mae, many years ago when we were first married. The flat griddle is my favorite, though. It belonged to my Grandmother Harrison.

Grandma Harrison wasn't overly fond of cooking, having prepared meals for her big family most of her life. One of her famous sayings was "Eating wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't so regular". Nevertheless, she had a deft touch with a few specialties. One such tasty tidbit was her flat cornbread, made from white cornmeal. She cooked this on her flat griddle, just mixing water and cornmeal, flattening it out by hand, and frying it up in "cooking grease".  I have no idea what fat she used, but by golly that cornbread was delicious: thin and crusty and hot. I've never had anything to match it. She always served it alongside her vegetable soup, another memorable dish. All her grandchildren loved to be at her house when Grandma was making that soup!

When Grandma moved to live with my Aunt Rachel, of course she had to distribute nearly all of her furniture and other material possessions. I latched onto that flat griddle pan as my memento. I have had it for over 35 years now, and won't ever part with it. I even use it occasionally, but I've never been able to duplicate Grandma's cornbread. (I blame it on the fact that I moved north long ago and things just don't taste the same up here!)

I thought often of Grandma while my kitchen was undergoing its transformation. Her kitchen was in the back of her 1860's three-story English basement house in Portsmouth. It was roughly the same size as my kitchen here. Her kitchen contained a big stove, which I think was gas-fired, a simple dinette set, a wonderful "Hoosier" type kitchen cabinet, a wringer washer, a sink with cabinet, a refrigerator, and a wood-burning stove. She kept that stove lit all the time, and kept a kettle of water on it. Whenever she needed a cup of coffee, the water was ready! I remember the fascination of watching her feed kindling and old paper into the stove.

But what kinds of kitchen 'gadgets' did my grandmother use to prepare those meals? I never saw an electric mixer of any kind, and I am pretty certain that her kitchen equipment only included basic hand tools, a few pots and pans, plain but sturdy dishes and cutlery, and not much more. Nothing fancy. Yet her meals were so good and so memorable!

I look around at my kitchen and marvel at how many gadgets I have to help me with food preparation. A microwave, a toaster oven, a food processor, a stand mixer, a hand mixer, a slow cooker, a coffee maker, an amazing number of dishes and glassware, two sets of cutlery, bake ware for anything you could possibly want to bake, baking sheets, baking pans, casserole dishes, pots and pans, and a myriad of assorted helpful hand tools that fill up their own separate drawer! Yesterday I even added another new gadget: a spiralizer that can slice vegetables into ribbons for faux 'noodles'.

We all have these kinds of kitchen gadgets, and many of you will have much more. It is so easy to get swept away in Bed, Bath, and Beyond!  I am now trying to keep only those things I actually use, and have been successful so far. I hope to persevere. But regardless of my collection of helpful kitchen devices and equipment, I don't think I'll ever duplicate my grandmother's cooking.

Thursday, July 9, 2015


Occasionally I indulge in a culinary treat that not everyone appreciates: liver. Last night, my husband wasn't home for dinner and I took the opportunity to fix myself a lovely batch of sauteed beef liver and onions. Oh my, that was good!

My husband and two of my children did not exactly rise up and call me blessed when I would suggest liver as a meal option. I confess I was surprised at first, because I grew up in a liver-loving family. (Can there be such an entity, you ask?) Yes, years of my life passed before I realized that most people do not like liver. My mother, however, cooked liver quite frequently, probably two or three times a month. All five of us, parents and children, looked forward to it and cheerfully ate it. We didn't smother it in ketchup (which is my husband's way of enduring the dish), but simply piled lots of carmelized onions on top. We were known to choose liver and onions when we were at restaurants that served it. I still rejoice when I see liver and onions listed on a menu!

This taste for liver also means that I gravitate toward pates at buffets or parties, and cheerfully consume fried chicken livers when the opportunity arises. When my colleagues Cheryl and Marilyn and I found ourselves in a restaurant in Madrid that served foie gras, I had to try it. Yummers! You won't be surprised to learn that I also love German liver sausage, as well as liver dumpling soup.

Apparently I inhabit a liver-loving universe!

Imagine my delight when I discovered that four of my friends in Chicago also enjoyed liver. I could hardly believe my good fortune. One of our memorable dinners together was a 'liver fest', featuring delicious calves liver, carmelized onions, and astonishingly tasty fresh green beans drizzled with olive oil, all consumed on the backyard deck of Les and Dan in Rogers Park. Such a pleasant feast.

When I prepared the food for our annual Christmas Carol Party in Chicago, I always included a batch of homemade liver pate. I confess that I knew there would be plenty left over for me! My friend Alice always headed straight for this dish, too.

Last year, when my sister, niece, and I found ourselves eating at the Carnegie Deli in New York City, I ordered the chopped liver meal. Wow! Enough for me and my friends from Chicago, too! And it was very good.

My favorite liver story, however, involves celebrating my youngest son's fifth birthday. He and I share a fondness for liver, and would occasionally have 'liver lunches' together before he started school, so that his siblings wouldn't have to endure the sight and smell of the meal. These lunches will always be a highlight memory for me. When he turned 5, our family travelled to Virginia to celebrate both his fifth birthday and my father's 70th birthday, which were three days apart. We decided to eat at the Morrison's Cafeteria in the nearby mall so that everyone could have lots of choices. Guess what one of the specials was that night? Liver and onions! Guess how many of us chose that entree? My father, my mother, my sister, my brother, and I, plus the birthday boy! We cleaned out the entire supply of liver and onions for the moment. It was a stunning meal! I can't imagine another five-year-old boy choosing liver and onions for his birthday treat, can you? Amazing. We all still smile at that one.

And, of course, if you add a little bacon to the mix, you can't go wrong.

Rest assured, however, I will never serve a liver-related dish to anyone who finds it repulsive, nor invite you to a liver-themed dinner. My guests are safe.

I will, nonetheless, continue to enjoy my solo feasts here and my gastronomic celebrations in Chicago with my son or my friends!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Hearing the National Anthem

I spent my junior year of college in Scotland, at the University of Saint Andrews. (Yes, Prince William, Duchess Katherine, and I are fellow alums.) In those years, we didn't have the luxury of the internet, cell phones, Skype, Facebook, and so forth. I made exactly two phone calls back to my parents during the entire year. It was quite an involved process, requiring me to book a time for the call with the overseas operator and then to wait patiently in the call box (phone booth) at the appointed time until the call was put through. I always felt rather like I was Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic.

Suffice it to say that when we were overseas in Europe, we were far away and quite cut off from home.

In those days, the United States was not any better loved abroad than today. We were still trying to disengage from Vietnam, and the Cold War was still in full force. The Watergate scandal dominated news from home. I remember well that we never walked around wearing any clothing that sported USA or the Stars and Stripes or anything that identified us with the US. With our new friends in Scotland, we were comfortable talking about our differences, but it just seemed prudent when out in large public places not to draw attention to ourselves.

It was a time of terrorism, too, but this came from the IRA, not IS. For example, at Christmas, the day after my sister and I had visited the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, the IRA detonated a bomb in that exact area. Too close for comfort.

I felt indeed like a stranger in a strange land. But the year passed wonderfully, and I enjoyed submerging myself in Scottish and English culture and later in the adventures of travel on the Continent. Home, nevertheless, remained very far away.

One time, though, I received a surprise that made me stand up straight and brought unexpected tears to my eyes. I can't, unfortunately, remember the exact place or reason for this after so many years. I do remember what I felt. I was in London, I think, somewhere that a public ceremony was occurring. It must have been a joint British-American moment, featuring a military band, because suddenly I heard the opening notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner".

I have played that song dozens and dozens of times in marching band, I learned all the verses in my 7th grade history class, and I have never reacted so viscerally as at that moment. I stopped in my tracks, and stood still. If I had been wearing a hat, I would have removed it! Every note resonated around me. As the anthem drew to a close (the "Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave" part), tears welled up in my eyes. My goodness, I was proud of my country and proud to hear our anthem and not ashamed to show it.

In the intervening years, I've sung the national anthem repeatedly at Cubs games in Chicago without succumbing to a weepy patriotism. Generally I can be trusted not to over-react to "The Star-Spangled Banner"! Yet I had one memorable experience even there. One Fourth of July I was at Wrigley and before the game four Medal of Honor winners from World War II were honored. After they were introduced and we cheered for them, they stood at attention at home plate while we sang the national anthem. As I looked at these heroes and sang that song, once again I felt the tears well up. Because of their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their comrades, I was free to stand and sing our anthem without fear.

I know that we sing the anthem at so many sporting events, and I hear it butchered so frequently (but that's another topic!!), and I observe folks starting to whoop and cheer before the final words are sung. Yet there is a power in that music when heard in a foreign land after many months away, or when in the presence of those who have risked their lives for what that music represents. It's never routine for me.

Happy Fourth of July!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Outliving A Student

Last week brought sad, sad news from Chicago. One of my former students, only 28, died unexpectedly in her sleep. Word swept quickly through Facebook, and I sat stunned as I read the posts.

It is not right that teachers (especially those my age) should outlive their students.

Of course, I know this happens all the time and has certainly been painfully true during wartime. Imagine what high school teachers felt when they watched the young men march off to World War II. And of course, tragic accidents often take the youngest from us.

But I didn't imagine that Laura would leave us so soon, even though she had fought a valiant fight against juvenile diabetes for a long, long time. The disease won.

Laura and her two sisters were all students of mine at Mother Guerin High School. All three brought their own individual, creative contributions to my classes and I looked forward to the 'arrival' of the next one in line. Only a few complete families hold special places in my heart from all those years at Guerin, and Laura's family was one of them. I am so grateful that Laura and her sisters came into my life. I am richer for their presence.

It's an interesting phenomenon that I think of my students as "my girls" to this day. They taught me so much, and I cherish the years I spent at Guerin, good times and bad. They might be surprised that I never, ever forget them.

Laura leaves a truly loving legacy to her family and friends. I know they ache with sadness and heartbreak, and I mourn with them. We are all so fortunate to have known and loved her.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My Brief Career as a Dog Whisperer

My daughter recently visited us here in South Bend, bringing with her the newest member of the family: Killian, a Scotty-Yorkshire mix. He is such a little cutie, and a bundle of energy. They drove 13 hours to get here, so Killian was a speed demon as he dashed around our backyard. He had lots of new sensations and smells and sights to keep him busy. It was fun to see him explore and enjoy our house.

All was going well and Killian and our daughter were just about ready to get some rest when some nearby firecrackers erupted. Killian was not happy. By the time the short pops finished, the poor little fellow was trembling. I have never felt a dog vibrate in terror, but Killian did. He was so frightened. My daughter scooped him up and wrapped her arms around him, but he couldn't settle down. We wrapped him in a blanket but that didn't work either. Eventually they went upstairs to their bedroom and settled down. At some point, though, the after-game fireworks from the South Bend Cubs began and there were some distant rumblings to deal with, too.

Morning dawned and a very calm and happy pup came bounding down the stairs. The day went very well, and no firecrackers appeared. The next day, Killian also was quite happy and wasn't assaulted by unexpected explosions. But in the late afternoon, after I had run an errand and while my daughter and husband were playing golf, I was the only human around to amuse and care for the dog. Things were going so well, and then some firecrackers popped in the alley across the street.

Killian began to tremble. I felt so bad for him. I took him in my arms and petted him and tried to soothe him. Nothing was working. I tried to think about what soothed my grandchildren when they were infants, and remembered one technique. I began to make little "shooshing" noises, just little whispery sounds. That seemed fruitless for a few moments and then, suddenly, I felt a pause, a gap in Killian's trembling. Soon there were more pauses. I kept whispering and holding and petting him, and in just a few more minutes, he was calm. I couldn't believe it. I am not a notable dog 'caregiver', although I love dogs, so this was a wonderful surprise. By the time my daughter returned, Killian was calm and happy again. Success.

I had one more opportunity to be a dog whisperer before they left. The next day, as they were preparing to get on the road again, something upset Killian again. It might have been a truck backfiring or something. At any rate, he began to tremble while my daughter was packing things up on the bed. I just reached my arms around him and cuddled him and began to shoosh him again. Bingo! In a very few minutes, he settled down and the trembling ceased. Wow.

My career has finished, at least for this visit. But I am so pleased that I was able to calm down the wee doggie. And my daughter has learned yet another strategy to help him out in times of stress. I'm looking forward to his next visit!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

It's My Name

Many different things have occupied my thoughts over the past month, and I have not been inclined to post anything here on this blog.

Another of my mother's brothers died, leaving only one of the five remaining.

I spent time with my own siblings in Virginia, sorting through more of our parents' possessions and reliving all our years together.

Mother's Day this year was also our father's birthday, and the three of us were able to be together for a meal remembering our parents.

My sister and I took our first ocean-going cruise, sailing from Norfolk to the Bahamas and back.

The event which most affected me, though, was the sudden, unexpected death of my dear friend Dan. Reflecting on our long years of friendship has kept me in a place not conducive to blog posts. Dealing with his death has been difficult.

But celebrating my grandchildren's birthday yesterday has brought me the final few steps toward looking forward not backward, toward joy and not sorrow.

And so, I recommence my blog ponderings!

I grew up in southeastern Virginia, and my family's background is in North Carolina. Names in the South are beautiful and sometimes even mellifluous. At least where I come from, they frequently are double. (That is, relatives use one's first AND middle names all the time, not just in anger!)

This means that I never had a nickname. Never. Neither did my sister or brother. Nor did any of my cousins. In fact, when I am with my family members, I am still called Barbara Anne. None of the neighbors or friends with whom I grew up called me anything other than Barbara. None. No school nicknames, no goofy college labels. I have always been Barbara.

This all changed when I moved to Chicago with my husband and daughter. Almost from the very beginning, once I was introduced as Barbara, folks began shortening it to "Barb". I didn't understand. I always identified myself as Barbara. Never "Barb". In fact, I absolutely cannot stand "Barb". Absolutely. Things got worse when I began teaching at Guerin. There happened to be four other Barbaras teaching or on staff there at the time. And apparently everyone was going to be called "Barb", regardless.  No matter how often I referred to myself as Barbara, I was always tagged as "Barb Bess".

I ask you, doesn't "Barb Bess" just sound awful? I do not like it.

Most (but not all) of my closest friends have never, ever called me "Barb". Most casual friends do. I still don't understand the automatic shortening/nicknaming process out here in the Midwest. However, now I am not shy about correcting new acquaintances if they begin to use the detested "Barb".

I suppose it's too much to hope that this disagreeable Midwestern custom will disappear, but I just want to let everyone know I like my name the way it is. And I would dearly love not to be referred to as "Barb" ever again.

I am Barbara and I love my name.

Thanks! End of complaints!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Not Ready to be the Older Generation

Over the past few years, my cousins and I have said goodbye to most of our parents and aunts and uncles. My mother had five brothers--one still lives. She had five sisters--two are living. My father had three brothers--all have died. He had two sisters--one remains. My parents died within two years of each other. Out of eight uncles and seven aunts, I now count only one uncle and three aunts. Also part of the families were the spouses of all those aunts and uncles, because every single one married and had children. Only three spouses remain.

None of this is surprising, none of this is actually tragic, because most of these dear people lived long and interesting lives. (We lost a couple of them too soon.) But our goodbyes grow increasingly frequent (one last autumn and two since the new year) and the day is coming when my cousins and I will be the "elders". That is going to be a very lonesome day.

I am not ready to be the "older generation".  I don't suppose anyone every really is.

But I have an on-going project that is helping me work through these sad moments, and I highly recommend it. My father filmed many, many family gatherings over the decades from the 1940's through the early 2000's. Along the way, he switched from movie film to videotape, and we have an amazing archive of our family's celebrations and vacations. My project involves converting videotapes to DVDs, using a device my father bought about 10 years ago when he intended to do this very thing. Isn't it fitting that I'm able to convert his videos through a device he purchased? I think so.

As I work through the stacks of videotapes (all clearly labeled in my father's beautiful printing), I can look once again at the beloved faces of my family members, watching them smile and laugh and "carry on" as they so obviously enjoy being together. When I finalize the DVD and then watch it to check its quality, I can also hear the voices of these dear people. This is actually quite wonderful, and although I miss them all so very much, these DVDs bring me such comfort when I feel blue.

Just being able to hear my father's and mother's voices again, whenever I want, is solace beyond compare.

I am making copies of these DVDs for my cousins, for my sister and brother, and for my own children, so that we all can cherish the glimpses of people and days gone by. In that sense, I suppose, I am already one of the "elders", preserving our family history and trying to pass it on to those in the next generations.

Perhaps I am more ready than I thought!

I would encourage you to start projects like this one while you still have most of your families together. Those films and videotapes will eventually degrade and will be lost forever. You will enjoy your trips down memory lane so much, and so will the rest of your families. Then, when you become the 'older generation' in your family, your sorrow will be lessened a bit.

Monday, May 4, 2015

My Brush With Everest

The recent tragic events in Nepal reminded me of my own little connection with Mount Everest. Those of you who know me can't even imagine any association between that mountain and me, but one actually exists. Remote, but true.

Two summers ago, my daughter and I went to France to follow the Tour de France for a week in the French Alps stages of the race. She and the rest of my family gave me this holiday to celebrate my 60th birthday, and she had arranged everything so that all I needed to do was enjoy. We stayed in Grenoble for a week, using it as our headquarters.

This was our first experience using AirBnB, and our host proved to be interesting beyond our wildest imaginings. His name was Jack (pronounced as though it was Jacques) and he worked in HR for a well-known computer firm in Grenoble. We listened to his stories with amazement. (He had lots and lots of stories!)

The most amazing stories concerned his preparation for and climb to the top of Mount Everest the year before. Yes, one day he apparently just up and decided that the next challenging adventure of his life was going to be the ascent of Everest. And by golly, he did it. (He said the whole experience cost him $50,000. Wow!) We saw his photos and heard the nearly step-by-step description of the trek and climb. Who could have imagined that we would ever meet someone who had stood at the top of the world?

But that's not the connection I wanted to tell you about. The day after our arrival was not a race stage, so my daughter and I planned to spend the day exploring Grenoble and its environs. I wanted to try using walking poles, thinking they would be handy when we were hiking around the alpine roads, so we asked Jack if he had any I could borrow. He was delighted to lend me a set, and as he handed me the poles he casually remarked that these were the poles he had used on Everest. Really. I was going to hike around using poles that had been used on Everest. That qualified as pretty cool.

Off we went, as I clutched the poles tightly. We headed for the center of Grenoble (we had a rental car and I was having a very intense practical immersion experience in driving in France), parked, and took the cable car up to the fortress (La Bastille) which had protected Grenoble for many previous centuries. We toured around and had a little snack, and then it was time to descend. Instead of returning via the cable car, we decided to walk down, because there seemed to be several good routes and it was a beautiful day.

Thank goodness I had those poles! The descent nearly ended my plans to hike all over the route of the bicycle race. The vertical distance was roughly 250 meters (750 feet), and the paths zig-zagged down the face of the mountain. My daughter and I think we might even have made a couple of wrong turns! At any rate, my poor old knees would never, ever have survived the hike without my Everest poles.

We finally reached the bottom and restored our energy with a tasty lunch along the banks of the Isere. As we sat at our outside table, I looked back up at the fortress. I just couldn't believe that I had hiked down from that height! Must have been some 'Everest magic' in the poles, because I didn't experience any problems the rest of our time in the French Alps.

Considering how ill-prepared I was for the physical demands of this particular outing, I think my successful descent from La Bastille in Grenoble qualifies as my hiking/climbing achievement of the decade. Not an Everest ascent, but as close as I'm going to get!

I took those poles with me every day as we followed the bike race.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Wonders of the Night Sky

While we were talking about the partial lunar eclipse that will occur in a  few hours, my son and I reminisced about other lunar eclipses we have seen. He reminded me that a lunar eclipse occurred the night the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004. A fitting celestial salute, we both thought. As he mentioned a few other memorable lunar eclipses he had seen, I took a little trip down memory lane in the night sky.

The first lunar eclipse I remember happened one chilly autumn night when I was in first or second grade. We three children were already in bed (and most likely asleep) when my father gently awakened us and told us to put on our coats and come with him. I can still see him wrapping my little brother up in a warm quilt to carry him outside. We stood on our front steps in wonder at being out so late at night, and then my father pointed out what was happening to the moon. If we were amazed before, we were speechless then (at least for a little while--we were very young and this was a completely new adventure, so comments abounded shortly!). I imagine my father didn't keep us out on the steps for the entire duration of the eclipse, but we were there long enough to see significant changes in the moon's light.  It was just magical.

Over the years, we frequently hung out in the back yard to watch lunar eclipses. I confess that I don't know if I was ever able to marshal my own children like my father did us and show them a lunar eclipse in Chicago. It's always hard to see anything clearly in the Chicago night sky because there is so much ambient light from the city. I hope to see some lunar eclipses with my grandchildren!

That first eclipse experience opened the door for a love of things astronomical and celestial. And there is a practical family connection to astronomy. My Uncle Bob, who learned sophisticated optics while making bomb sights at the Washington Navy Yard during World War II, later used his skills to help supervise the polishing of the mirror of the telescope at Mount Palomar Observatory in southern California. We always thought of telescopes in a proprietary way as a result!

My mother took a course in astronomy when she was in college, and could rattle off the names of distant stars and constellations with great ease. I'm not sure she could pick them all out in the night sky by the time we were old enough to  be interested, but she liked to star gaze with us, too. And she aced the course.

In the last decade of my father's life, he bought a telescope which he would take to the Outer Banks each August when we rented a cottage there. He and my youngest son had some wonderful times setting up the telescope, using its electronics to search out objects to view, and summoning us outside to see Jupiter or whatever other exciting tidbit the universe had on display that night. Usually our visits coincided with the Perseid meteor shower, too, so we had both the telescopic views of distant planets and the meteors seen with the naked eye.

During what turned out to be my father's last visit to the cottage, he and my son and I sat out in the little yard behind the house and watched the Perseids. What a treat! Warm breezes, the sound of the ocean nearby, and a clear night sky across which flashed meteor after meteor in wonderful display. I treasure the memory.

My older son has introduced me to the delights of Google Sky in recent years, and I do confess a great fondness for that. It's rather staggering to take my phone, use Google Sky, and hold the phone up to identify exactly what I'm seeing in the night sky above me. My father would have loved it! And sometimes doing this is the only way I can actually "see" what's in the sky here at night.

I wish there wasn't so much ambient light from cities and towns now. It's difficult even here in South Bend to think of a place where the night sky would be particularly clear for using a telescope. There is a park with bright street lights behind my house and a very large, well-lit traffic roundabout near it, which means an overabundance of light. So I don't enjoy the wonders of the night sky as much as I could in other times and places. But isn't it astoundingly beautiful when you do find yourself in remote places where the heavens are ablaze with stars and planets? And my father's telescope is in a closet upstairs!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Did She Do That?

My mother taught me many things, as mothers do, and I use that knowledge all the time. But there are a few little skills that I wish I had asked her to teach me, and now those are lost forever.

One of these involves a man's handkerchief.

My mother could take one of my father's handkerchiefs and turn it into a little rabbit or a frog. I am not dreaming this. Somehow, she rolled and folded and tucked that handkerchief until it became that rabbit or frog. I vividly remember her doing this transformation but I never asked her to teach me. Never. I would give anything now to be able to do this trick.

Apparently my mother kept me entirely amused by this handkerchief manipulation on a long bus trip from Washington, DC to Norfolk when I was very young. I only vaguely remember that, although she told the story often. She would pop out a handkerchief and dazzle us every now and then when I was small. Then a long dry spell set in. Once in a long while I would ask her to make that little rabbit, just for fun. But I never asked her how she did it.

When my brother graduated from college, my parents and my daughter and I went to the graduation ceremonies. Of course, the university-wide graduation proceedings occurred in the stadium, and there were many things to distract and interest my three-year-old. Then we adjourned to a smaller venue, where the actual diplomas were given to the engineering graduates.

There were many engineering graduates.

Time dragged on. We were excited when my brother walked across the stage and received his diploma. But for a three-year-old, that was all she wanted to see. We were sitting very high up in the auditorium and it would have been too difficult to leave right after my brother's moment. So my mother reached into her grandmother bag of tricks and brought out the handkerchief. She mesmerized my daughter with those handkerchief animals. Mesmerized her. In fact, my mother mesmerized everyone within a couple of rows in the auditorium. I remember people sitting behind me, beside me, and in front of me, leaning in to get a better look and asking how in the world my mother could do that. Mother created quite a sensation that day!

And I never asked her to teach me how to do it. Wouldn't I have dazzled my students if I could have produced such an amazing transformation? I had so many opportunities to learn the secret! And I let time pass me by. The further mystery, of course, is where in the world she learned this trick! What a mother.

Oh, Go Fly A Kite

Ideas of things to do with my grandchildren frequently appear in my mind, which is not a surprising condition for a grandmother. As the March winds blow through Indiana, my thoughts have turned to kites. This doesn't seem to be a very kite-conscious area, however. Conditions might be more propitious nearer Lake Michigan. I will have to check that out. But kite flying with the babies is just a tad premature, since they're only 21 months. I have plenty of time to collect my materials and plan my designs.

You see, I will be making the kites my little ones fly.

Why on earth would I make a kite? I could choose from such an amazing variety of pre-made kites. Based on what I have seen just in the kite shops on the Outer Banks, the choice is nearly infinite. Nevertheless, in my mind, the very best kites are ones that are homemade. I have the memories to prove it.

My parents built their dream house in the early 1960's, and when we moved in, there were large areas in that part of Norfolk County, Virginia that remained undeveloped, often still farmland. The first spring after we moved to our new house, my father came home one Saturday after a trip to Churchland Hardware, laden with brown paper and dowels and string. We stood, goggle-eyed, watching him spread out the paper. He proceeded to lay out a variety of rectangles on the paper and then cut them out. He built a frame from the wooden dowels and then attached the paper rectangles. After securing everything, he tied string to appropriate points on the structure. My mother brought some old sheets to contribute to the project, and we tore them into strips. Suddenly there was a box kite in our living room!

My father bundled us into the car and drove a short distance to an area of vacant land (the Greenfield Farms and Belvedere neighborhoods now cover this). We hopped out and followed him to a flat, open portion of ground. He told us exactly what to do and how to do it, and before we knew it, our kite was flying. And it was really flying. Up and up and up and up it went. What a glorious day! The kite pulled against our grips, tugging sharply and strongly. We took turns flying it, and ran around in glee when we weren't in charge. My father convinced us that making a kite was the best treat ever.

Fast forward to late April of 1990. My father was making one of his visits to our home in Chicago. He had never been there in the springtime and he had never even mentioned making kites with my children. But as luck would have it, this particular stretch of April provided absolutely beautiful, warm, sunny days, with strong winds. Off went my father to the hardware store. Back he came with brown paper, wooden dowels, and string. I dug out an old sheet. As my children watched, goggle-eyed, he cut out the kite shape, attached the dowels and string, and there was our kite!

Horner Park in Chicago boasts a nice hill, right along Montrose Avenue. It made a perfect spot for our kite flying. We brought all our paraphernalia to the top of the hill and prepared to fly the kite. My father assigned places and roles to everyone, even the smallest. My sister and my daughter trotted away from us, carrying the kite, and then let it go. Up it went. But it looped around and around and didn't climb very high. It needed a longer tail. We tied more strips to the kite and then let it go again. Now we had a climber! Up and up and up and up it climbed. I thought it might hit the airplanes headed in to O'Hare on their final approach! Oh my, what an excellent kite! To use my father's expression, we "set it back". My children were enthralled and amazed. They took turns holding the kite (with a little help), and could hardly take their eyes off it. My father rigged up a system so that we could sit on the ground but control the kite string through a stick of thick dowel driven into the ground. One of my most-loved photos shows him sitting beside this with my youngest son, both of them completely focused on the kite.

That day was magic. And I know the construction of the kite provided much of that magic. I will try my best to follow in my father's footsteps when it's time to fly kites with my little ones. Won't we have fun?

In fact, maybe I should practice a little this spring so we can fly kites next year!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

Today the Congregation of Holy Cross and the University of Notre Dame said farewell to Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, who served as Notre Dame's president for 35 years and is regarded as the 'second founder' of the university. As you might imagine, his funeral Mass inspired and moved those who attended as well as those of us who watched the live broadcast on television. We have been thinking quite a bit about Father Ted around here this past week.

At the end of the funeral, his brother Holy Cross priests filed out past his casket. Each of them, as far as I could tell, laid a hand on the casket as he passed it. They led him out of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and then in the procession from the church to the cemetery of the Holy Cross community about half a mile away. Hundreds of students and faculty and staff and local citizens lined the road which winds around the lake  to the cemetery.

Not every visitor to Notre Dame discovers the Holy Cross Community Cemetery. In a secluded area of the campus, it sits well away from the 'beaten path' that most visitors and students tread. I found the cemetery during the first weeks of my move here, and frequently make excuses to enter or leave campus by that route. I find it a place of great peace and serenity. Row upon row of small, white, stone crosses cover the ground, barely protruding above the snow that blankets the cemetery today. This is the final resting place of members of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the group of priests and brothers who founded Notre Dame. And you cannot distinguish one grave from another, save by reading the name on each cross. I find this a bit breathtaking.

Father Ted's grave will be just one of hundreds. Oh, I imagine that it will now be a 'must see' place for visitors henceforward, but other graves will soon surround it. Father Ted will lie with his brothers forever.

As I watched the procession and then the committal, I thought about the sacrifices of the Holy Cross priests who came here from France and carved a university out of the raw wilderness of northern Indiana. They first stopped in Vincennes, far south of South Bend, thinking their mission would be established there. A few years before, the Sisters of Providence had arrived, also from France, and were trying to start schools and missions in that part of Indiana. They encountered some challenges from the resident bishop, and Father Sorin and his Holy Cross brothers also found some obstacles in their way in Vincennes. When word came that there was land available for the Holy Cross mission in northern Indiana, practical wisdom indicated a change of scene might be good. Mother Theodore Guerin (canonized in 2006) lent Father Sorin an oxcart for the journey north. Off he went with his brothers, and the rest is history.

Both Father Sorin and Mother Guerin labored in the Lord's vineyard here in Indiana. Both were buried with their brothers and sisters in their communities' burial grounds.

I taught with Sisters of Providence at Guerin High School in Chicago, and made dear friends among them. Once, I had the privilege of attending a Sister's funeral at St. Mary of the Woods near Terre Haute. I thought about that funeral today as well. Sister Jean Margaret did not have the international stature of Father Ted, but she shaped and influenced the lives of hundreds and hundreds of students and colleagues. Her funeral, while held in a beautiful, stately church, didn't draw television coverage or thousands of mourners. Her photo didn't grace banners flying across the campus of the college. And yet, when the funeral ended, her sisters led her out of the church and stood at the doorway before her casket was borne away. We joined the group gathered there, and listened as the sisters sang their community's hymn, "Our Lady of Providence", as a final goodbye.

Sister Jean Margaret now lies beneath one of the hundreds of small, white, stone crosses in the Sisters of Providence Cemetery at St. Mary of the Woods. This cemetery also fills a quiet, secluded, serene spot in Indiana's countryside. Row upon row of white crosses stretch into the distance. Some of them now mark the graves of my own colleagues. One can trace the history of the Sisters of Providence in the names on these crosses. Benches sit in convenient places so that visitors may stop awhile and think and pray. It is a beautiful and humbling place. It is a powerful witness to faith and love and community.

That is what knits Father Ted and Sister Jean Margaret together in my thoughts today. That is what marked Father Sorin and his brother missionaries and Mother Guerin and her sisters. Whatever they accomplished, whatever accolades they received, whatever good came to others through them, they drew strength from their lives as professed members of religious communities, and they rested within those communities when their lives ended.

I will visit Father Ted's grave when spring arrives. When I do, I think I will walk around and read the names of some of his Holy Cross brothers and say thank you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Her Mother Can't Help With This

My children grew up in Chicago, and I tried to give them many, many opportunities to explore the city and its environs. They lived in urban neighborhoods of streets and blocks and two-flats; they played sports in Welles Park, two blocks from home; they walked to our parish school, one block away. They became adroit at taking the CTA; they learned to ice skate; and Wrigley Field was a second home. I feel completely confident that any one of them could navigate safely in any place they might live. We haunted the museums. Each child plays at least one musical instrument and each has a good singing voice. Our parishes were blessed with good pastors and talented liturgical musicians, so the religious foundations grew strong, too. All three of my children are excellent travellers and we have many travel experiences that we would love to share with anyone who will listen. I tried to prepare them for their adult lives in as many ways as I could imagine.

But I failed in one area.

We never had pets.

Now my daughter has adopted an adorable little terrier mix (who looks rather like Toto) and has plunged into the world of pet ownership with no previous experience. Being a resourceful woman, she checked out a stack of books from the library, seeks advice and help from family and friends, and Googles whatever else she needs.  I know she's going to love having the little fellow around. Yet when she talks about some of the tricky bits of adjusting to this new creature in her house, I don't have any good, practical advice to give. Nothing. She laughs and teases me that I forgot about the fact she and her brothers might own pets one day. I did.

Here's the reason.

As a child, I had some serious allergies that triggered asthma attacks. Dogs and cats could not live in our house. When we visited my Aunt Rachel, whose dog and cat both lived inside, we could stay until my eyes began to water and then I had to go. (In the summer, of course, I just played outside with my cousins and siblings and had no problems.) My husband and I had friends in Malden, Massachusetts who owned two fine, furry cats, and I couldn't even get past the entry hall to their apartment if the cats weren't locked up in another room. I avoided cats and dogs in close spaces. I never considered having an indoor pet once we started our family.

Yet my allergies didn't fully blossom until I was around 8, and my parents kept a dog from the time I was around 6. The first was a beautiful, small, white puppy we chose ourselves and named Buck. I can remember bringing him home when he was just old enough to leave his mother, and I remember my mother making him a little nest in our front vestibule. She wrapped up an alarm clock so he could have a comforting, rhythmic beat while he slept. I remember house training him, and how he would play with us. Then one day I came home from school and found my sister and brother inconsolable. A neighbor had left our gate open and Buck had run out into the road and been hit by a car. The driver couldn't stop in time and was so sad. My father came home from his job and took little Buck away to the vet (to be cremated, as I now understand). We shed many tears that day.

Before too much longer, our neighbors' dog had puppies, and they gave us a fine little fellow whom we named King. He proved to be a faithful and lively member of the family. My parents had a new house built around that time and we moved out to Churchland, where there was an acre of space in which to roam. By then, my allergies were pronounced and King wouldn't be allowed to live inside. My father built him an excellent doghouse in our back yard. It still stands, under an enormous pin oak with branches that shelter the house from the heat and the weather. In the first years, King just ran free. We had some adventures with him in those days. He would follow us to school or to the grocery store. Once he even followed our school bus around the neighborhood and hopped on at a different stop. King was great. But as the neighborhood grew denser, we had to keep him chained up. I know this makes many folks very angry nowadays. But King was perfectly happy and we were with him all the time. I grew up in Tidewater Virginia, so the weather generally wasn't a problem. If things were bad, we brought him inside to our family room. We cared for King very lovingly. But he lived outside. I loved him at a distance.

My natural proclivities, therefore, are to keep animals at arm's length. If one is allergic to an animal that triggers an asthma attack, one quickly learns that this animal needs to be avoided. I will pet your dog but not your cat, and I will sit as far away from them in your house as possible. I will cheerfully play with them outside! But I don't 'click' with dogs and cats. And I really don't know the first thing about training and living with a dog!

Fortunately for my daughter and sons, my sister and brother are pet lovers and owners par excellence. They have dogs living in their houses (no cats) and they have raised dogs from puppyhood. So even if I can't provide the personal expertise to help my daughter with her puppy, she has the next best thing: a loving aunt and uncle who can help her every step of the way. Another reason to be thankful for families!

And I will cheerfully take the little doggie for a walk.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Special Intentions and Lent

I miss many things about teaching high school girls. The 12 years I taught at Mother Guerin High School in Chicago brought joys and sorrows, easy days and challenging days, wonderfully inspiring colleagues, and the opportunity to teach and to learn from an amazing parade of young women. Those students enriched my life far more than they'll ever know, and I have tried to keep in contact with as many as I can, watching them blossom into teachers and mothers and lawyers and doctors and artists and performers and accountants and business owners and so much more. I thank God for every single one of them.

Of course, there was drama every day in classes full of girls. A lot of drama. Some of it manufactured by the nature of adolescence, some of it produced by situations in life outside school. Every day was different; every day carried the possibility of emotional turmoil.

I taught theology: church history, church doctrine, morality, social justice, and world history. Many aspects of my students' lives connected with the range of topics we would cover. Actually, as far as I was concerned, every aspect of their lives and mine connected with what we were studying. I frequently got to know a different side of my students' personalities precisely because we touched the essential, basic questions that every person asks herself or himself.

The first few minutes of class allowed each student to give a little hint of what was on her mind each day. We always began our classes with prayer and students took turns leading those prayers. While that student chose what to say in a more formal prayer, I would ask all her classmates, one by one, to tell us some particular thing they would like us to pray for. We called these "special intentions". If I had a prayer request, I would add mine, too. After each student had mentioned her intention (if she wanted to or had one), the prayer leader gathered all those up in the opening prayer.

I think that "special intentions" remain one of the most enduring memories of my former students. Some were more sincere and serious than others! (I have prayed for countless boyfriends over the years, with the result that I could probably still tell you names of long-since-dumped fellows.) Sometimes the girls would pray for one of their classmates with no specific reason given. If this happened repeatedly, I took it as a warning that something was going wrong in that student's life, and I looked for ways to help her. Students would ask for prayers for family members, which would give me clues that on-going worried or sad expressions might mean some serious news on the horizon. On the whole, I think "special intentions" gave each class deeper connections that helped us all to get through the days and weeks.

Teaching five or six classes each day meant that I paused for prayer every hour of the school day. I thought about this recently while gathering my spiritual resources and planning my Lenten observances. I prayed every hour of the school day. How have I missed the significance of that? Granted, these prayers were short and I certainly couldn't block out the distractions of managing a classroom full of teenage girls, but we prayed together and we lifted up our concerns together to God. Now that I'm no longer in the classroom, I certainly don't stop for prayer at the beginning of every hour. And I have only just realized how much I am missing.

So here is my Lenten plan. I am stopping to pray every hour during "working hours". (I have no excuse not to, because I don't have the outside distraction of work to hinder me!) I have a little list of my own "special intentions" that I want to lift up, and, as a connection to all those beloved students over the years, I am using Facebook to discover what joys and sorrows and challenges some of them are facing every day. I add specific intentions for them, too.

May I say that this has already proved a great blessing to me? I know that I am going to try to continue after Lent is over. There are so many "special intentions" needing an extra prayer.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Family Remedies

A few days ago I was watching a re-run of "The Golden Girls". (Yes, we are snowbound here, and the episode just caught my fancy!) It featured a character who was a pharmacist in a small drugstore, and it highlighted very briefly his wider role in helping his customers with health care. That started my thinking about how rare small, independent pharmacies are nowadays. We all take our prescriptions to CVS or Osco or Walgreens or Rite Aid or Walmart, and, while the pharmacists are always helpful, we don't have any kind of on-going relationship with them. They don't know us. I usually even go to the drive-through outside.

 How do the 'little guys' stay in business? I imagine some have ventured into the specialized prescriptions markets, where they make customized, specific medications for particular, rare cases. Some probably hang on by providing just that high-quality, personal service they always have, even in changing neighborhoods.

I am pleased to report that the neighborhood pharmacy my parents used while we were growing up still occupies the same spot and still provides high-quality personal service to its customers.How do I know this? I visit at least once a year when I am in Portsmouth.

The pharmacy is called Suburban Pharmacy and sits on Rodman Avenue in the Westhaven area. (This was once suburban Portsmouth!) When I was a child, there was also a soda fountain in the store, complete with the real Coca-Cola served up in a glass by a soda jerk. (There might have been other things available, but Cokes were all we ever bought there!) My mother would put my baby brother and my sister in our beautiful red Radio Flyer wagon and I would walk beside her as we made our exciting pilgrimage several blocks to Suburban. We were usually pretty warm by the time we arrived, and I well remember how cool and shady the air conditioned pharmacy felt. We would leave the wagon outside and hop up on the stools at the fountain counter. For 20 cents all four of us could have our own icy, delicious Co-Cola. What a treat!!

At other, less happy times, of course, my parents filled all those prescriptions so necessary to fight our childhood illnesses. We kept the pharmacists busy for quite a few years. Even when we moved across the river to Churchland, we still filled prescriptions at Suburban, although there came a time when we switched to our nearby independent Churchland Pharmacy. (Interestingly, this also had a soda fountain, well into the 1970s.)

But I haven't filled prescriptions at Suburban in 40 years. Why in the world do I visit it when I'm in town?

S.T. 37.

This is not a code or a password. I have not been abducted by aliens. S.T. 37 is the brand name of a genuine liquid antiseptic that the Harrison family has used for more than 100 years. It is our family's tried and true healing agent, good for all sorts of scrapes and burns and wounds and sore throats. It really is good in any situation where you want to prevent infections. My Grandmother Harrison used it on everyone in her family, including the goats! (More on that in a moment.) I keep a bottle in my medicine cabinet all the time. When each of my children went off to college, I sent along a bottle of S.T. 37 and some Band Aids. Now that each child is established and living independently, I try to make sure there is S.T. 37 in the house. (That reminds me--I need to be sure there is a bottle nearby for the twins.) I took along a bottle when we went to Princeton last year for our sabbatical. S.T. 37 is a colorless, liquid antiseptic that doesn't stain, isn't greasy, and has a pleasant taste if you need to use it for mouth care. We used it for every injury or infection, and it's a blessed relief to sunburn. I swear by it.

And that's why I visit Suburban Pharmacy. It's the only place we can still find S.T. 37 on the shelves. Usually there are two bottles, and I buy them both! My sister still does the same, and my brother as well. Although it is now possible to order S.T. 37 from Amazon (!), I try to patronize Suburban Pharmacy as often as I can to encourage their stock of S.T. 37. Since I grew up with the owner and pharmacist, I also like to say hello when I'm clearing out their supply of S.T. 37. I'm due to replenish my supply the next time I'm in Portsmouth.

Now, the goat story. My father's family owned two goats when living in the Oakwood area of Raleigh. They were named Nanny and Billy. My grandfather had made a wonderful see-saw/merry-go-round device for his children in the backyard of the property, and this fascinated the goats. Once, Nanny walked too far up one arm of the see-saw, and when it began to tilt in the opposite direction, her hoof was caught between a metal washer and the wood. She suffered a nasty cut on her little hoof. My grandmother scooped her up and took her in the house, where she bathed the cut, dried it, poured S.T.37 on it, and bandaged it.  She repeated this for several days. My father told us that after a week, the cut healed completely. You can see why we children were so impressed with S.T. 37 and why we wanted it applied to every hurt we had! (Nanny stayed away from the see-saw from thence forward.)

When I need to use S.T. 37, I like to think that my grandmother used it for her family the same way that my parents used it for our family the same way I used it for my family. And if you ever nick yourself or scrape your knee when you're visiting me, I will use S.T. 37 on you! Guaranteed cure.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Good Box

My brother and sister and I recently spent two weeks winnowing out our parents' possessions. This process has been sporadic over the five years since our father died and the two years since our mother's death. We have made progress but have much, much more to do.

The "Greatest Generation" left behind lots of stuff. Probably everyone who grew up during the Great Depression saved everything they could. At least it seems that way to us. You can imagine the sorts of things we're sifting through, but I want to tell you about a wonderful remnant of our father's organizational system.

Our father loved a good box. This stretched all the way back to his boyhood, according to stories he told us. Of course, in the 20's and 30's, shipping boxes were wooden crates. My father and his brothers would get boxes/crates from the neighborhood groceries and then use the wood for all sorts of treehouses and carts and scooters and whatever they could imagine. (I think it would be a similar passion to that of folks who make incredible things out of wooden pallets today.) When the family had to move to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in the early 30's, my father stockpiled wooden boxes in the back yard of their house. He remembered it as a giant pile of boxes. Alas, when the family moved back south, the boxes remained behind. I think Daddy regretted that the rest of his life!

The boxes that his children remember best still fill part of the garage in our parents' home. These are cigar boxes.

 We have an incredible number of cigar boxes left over.

Daddy had a deal with the snack bar/canteen near the Main Gate of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, where he worked for 35 years. The proprietor saved the empty cigar boxes and my father would bring home a fresh batch every few weeks.

We always had lots of cigar boxes. Lots. Daddy didn't part with his boxes easily, however. Only a few times in my elementary school career did he actually let me have a box to put in my lift-top desk for my pencils and crayons. I took very good care of those boxes.

The beauty of it all is that Daddy used these boxes to put all kinds of tools, parts, and accessories at his finger tips. He labeled each cigar box according to its contents. It was a brilliantly simple system.

When my sister or I load the washing machine at our parents' home (now hers), we can look up at shelf after shelf of cigar boxes on the wall above, clearly labeled by our father. There must be 75 boxes on those shelves. The labels include random parts for every automobile he every owned, repair kits for household items, glues--just an incredible assortment of necessary items. Boxes also sit on the shelves above my father's workbench. One day recently my brother needed some particular screws for a project at that house. He looked at me and said, "I know where I can find a screw like that." Off to the garage he went. In a few short minutes, he returned, carrying a cigar box neatly labeled "small metric screws". Of course, what he needed lay inside, stored decades ago by Daddy.

As our father grew older, he spent less and less time in his garage workshop. There was quite a stockpile of cigar boxes still unused, which would probably remain unused. I began to lobby for a gift of a few cigar boxes to take back to Chicago each summer. This proved challenging. Finally, when my son and I were preparing to return to Chicago after our visit one summer just a year or two before my father died, I succeeded in 'liberating' a stash of cigar boxes. Daddy told me I could have them, but as my son and I were carrying them from the garage to load into the car, my father jumped up from his chair in the living room, grabbed his walker, and shot out onto the front porch to see how many we were taking away! He hated to see them go. I understood.

I like a good box, too. I especially like a good cigar box. When I lived in Chicago, I found a cigar store that sold wooden cigar boxes for $1 (I think). I occasionally treated myself. I am my father's daughter, without a doubt.

You see, cigar boxes are such a brilliantly useful storage system. I use those really nice wooden boxes to keep some of my embroidery projects tidy. The boxes look quite interesting, stacked on a table. And my on-going project in our basement here in South Bend is to use those cigar boxes that I 'liberated' from my father's stash as a storage system for all those bits and bobs that I need to put where I can find them. I have built three shelves over my craft table, and on these shelves the cigar box organization system is slowly emerging.

 Imagine needing staples for your heavy duty staple gun and being able to find a cigar box labeled "staple gun staples". Or some similar item that you need occasionally but that is awkward to store. My solution? A cigar box.

It's brilliantly simple.