Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The neighborhood my father and I reside in once was populated by hardworking German families who were employed by the meat packing plant. As the plight of river cities go the properties nearest the river, the earliest established homes, fall first into disrepair and become rental properties and subsidized housing as the city expands in the opposite direction.
I encounter sullen looks from minority group members as I drive these streets and there are boarded-up houses that contained busted meth labs. Here in the church parking lot a gang shooting occurred while a bingo game was going on inside the school. Am I racially prejudiced? Of course I am. With my small town upbringing there is no way I could have escaped. I am more liberal than the beer-swigging red necks down at the Moose lodge, but there were few people of color in my earlier years.
Sonny is 86 years old. His reflexes, eyesight and hearing are all compromised. To be confronted by a thug, body already tensed and coiled and ready for the attack, I worry. Experts have estimated the length of time required to pull out a gun for the average citizen can be four to six seconds. An assailant already braced for action can sprint 10 feet in 1.5 seconds and disarm the innocent. He plans to wear a shoulder holster under his little jackets. How will he hide the bulge against the thin linen? What if it snags in the lining of he coat and results in a misfire? What if it jams?
Hand guns are difficult to aim and fire accurately. Our main connection with weapons is demonstrated by the cinema we watch and it just isn't as easy as Clint Eastwood shows it. "Feeling lucky today?," has no place in the rhetoric of a new gun owner. There is one comforting statistic. An uncountable amount of assaults have been aborted by the victim making known the presence of his gun to the assailant. The element of surprise has been reversed.
Thankfully, my father is a calm man and he possesses good reason and judgment and takes time to examine an issue before acting. Impulsive decisions do not define him and I believe he would use a gun as the last of any attempts to subdue the situation. He has owned a cell phone for several years and has only used it once saving the thing for emergency situations. He and my mother were exploring the hills of Wisconsin and the car stalled. Dad makes the cell phone call and . . . he couldn't catch a signal. Gotta laugh at that.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Saturday, December 25, 2010
I cooked the ham last night slicing away, electric knife whirring, saving the bone and scraps for bean soup, Sonny's favorite. I concocted a vegan potato salad with white wine vinegar, Dijon, honey and mint. Another salad needs to be constructed and this will be couscous, a funny sounding word and the pasta feels rolypoly in my mouth, little beads sliding around. Add tomatoes, almonds, purple onion, lemon juice.
Jason will prepare a vegan cheese cake from tofu and organic graham crackers. Cowboy Dave ate lots of it last year, forgetting that it was a healthy version of the original recipe.
I stop at the hospital gift shop looking for a present for my daughter, something pretty as all the gifts I have chosen for her are utilitarian in nature. The shop is too confining and my breathing turns shallow. The last time I was here my mother was dying and I leave hurriedly, my eyes automatically drawn to the third floor window where she had lain.
And so it goes. This afternoon the family comes together and we drink wassail from my mother's amber glass cups. There will be old stories to tell and new stories to speculate on the horizon. We are making a new memory this day, the first Christmas without my mother. And we are doing all right, I think, all right.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Jason in the kitchen resembles a choreographed act. He slices, dices and chops mounds of vegetables. He grates fresh ginger, squeezes real limes and presses garlic cloves with the side of a knife. He opens and closes cupboard doors, sniffing at spices and herbs, pausing and throwing in pinches. He inspires me. I realize the beauty of the process. It is all about the adventure, the experimental nature of the job. At first the curry tastes too hot, he thinks, well, that may be for Midwestern palates. He adds coconut milk and olive oil and now it's good. There is no recipe. He moves entirely on instinct.
The sauce is yams and butternut and acorn squash and Jamaican curry and other things I did not witness. We have an amazing cheese bread from farmer's market and a salad with cucumber and strawberries. Brown rice, yes, and the Merlot flows freely.
And this is what happens. I show Ethan how uncle Jason coats his pans, a shaking motion in midair that causes the butter to be evenly spread on the skillet surface. Ethan is making his phenomenal scrambled eggs. You gotta keep stirring them Grandma, that 's the best way, he says. And I taught him this from my own mother's instruction. She was famous in the nursing home where she cooked for her frequently stirred scrambled eggs. A couple of nurses at the hospital on her last visit remembered those damn eggs.
Monday, December 20, 2010
My own family begrudgingly draws together on the appointed day. We are a family of recluses and we don't apologize for this. We are breaking no laws. At Thanksgiving I emailed my youngest brother asking if he would be joining us. Back came the answer: "Dawn, don't you know what great lengths I go to avoid being with people?" Jeesh, why does he have the luxury of being a Giegerich on a holiday and the rest of us cannot? Spoiled baby.
In all sincerity, I like my family get-togethers and sometimes I don't realize this until after they have left.
My husband's family are social animals. They draw energy from human interaction, that which drains me. I reluctantly attend these parties, grumbling and snapping on the ride over. And this is very childish of me for these are good people. They fund Christmas events for childen with disabilities, sew costumes for high school muscials, and make homemade caramels for church fall festivals. Their children are musicians and athletes and students of Catholic schools. We attend numerous communions and baptisms and the little boys wear white suits with white bow ties. I can remember my own father spraying a brown pair of shoes with white paint for my brother's first communion.
Cowboy Dave's sister serves turkey and dressing sandwiches - a speciality of this small city. In fact at the local Walgreen's I could buy - and I have - a t-shirt that says: Welcome to Dubuque, Iowa. Have a turkey and dressing sandwich." There was green puffy stuff in a bowl that was tinted Cool Whip covering up coconut, walnuts, marshmallows, fruit cocktail. There was cranberry jelly from a can and cheesy hash brown casserole, another Iowa delicacy. One sister gives me a candy dish with a cheese knife that looks like a Christmas tree light and whoa, it lights up! It's not important that she gave me this same gift last year. You cannot have too many light bulb cheese knives.
A second family party has me sitting at a long table with drinking, noisy women all around and this can be a good thing. There were three conservations going that I could hear from my seat. I went into a meditation mode moving into my center and drawing on the god within me for strength and perseverance. I smiled and nodded my head a lot and that worked for about an hour and then we got to eat.
There was a wonderful ham and meatballs in a crock pot swimming in ketchup, brown sugar and beer. All the other dishes were concoctions of cream cheese and sour cream or could be categorized under desserts. It was a great buffet and I had no guilt from not eating veggies because, there wasn't any.
My own event is coming up and there will be ham sandwiches. A couple of years ago I was complaining to Jane how I dreaded the holidays. Everyone came to my house because nobody else volunteered and I spent all the time in my tiny kitchen attempting to do the big dinner in my usual unorganized, floundering style. I could hear laughter from my brother's stories coming from the living room but I never got to hear the stories and I was exhausted and disappointed after it was over. Jane allowed me no time on the pity pot and made it quite clear that it was my choice how I spent the holidays. Damn those sensible friends. So last year I did sloppy joes in a crock pot and I sat next to my brother in the living room and laughed until my belly hurt.
Yes, I (slightly) exaggerate on the personalities and events described above. I am honored to have all these people in my life and my days would be lonely if they were not in the background pulling for me. They ask questions because they are truly interested in how I am and where I am going. I lift my glass of holiday drink and toast all you dear, dear people.
Saturday, December 11, 2010
We visit monuments honoring two young men, gone from us now.
First, a stone bench with a carved inscription,
"Good friends, good books & a sleepy conscience. This is the ideal life." Practical words from our own Mark Twain. This resting place is dedicated to a friend of my son Jason and his name was Tim Miller. He was a gentle sort of fellow, a clever man who was a librarian and a musician. My parents were frequent visitors to the library and they liked Tim. He was witty in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way and he was respectful to this quaint little couple and he charmed my mother. Tim and Jason were rebels in arms, pierced ears and tattoos, lovers of alternative music and alternative lifestyles, torn jeans and Gothic emotions, forced to suffer their teens through the idiotic late 80's and early 90's. They were 18 years of age at the start of the Persian Gulf war and after endless nightly discussions they decided to leave the country should the draft be reinstated. They would not kill.
The bench is next to the Julien Dubuque monument, a small turret-like building constructed in memory of another young adventurer, an 18th-century French Canadian who explored and mined these hills. The Native Americans trusted him, deeded their land to him and burnt his property after his death so scavengers would not benefit. The fair city I now inhabit would be named in his honor.
It is a cold and grey day. a monochrome day, my father says. All is soft and muted, gray and white, the stark black branches, patches of frozen soil upon the snow. It is a dead world now and it is difficult remembering the brilliantly hued Indian summer just a few weeks ago. April's soft song is far, far away. Jason is quiet, somber, difficult memories circling him. This is a magical place with much history and legend. Far below us on the southern side we see the mouth of the Catfish Creek and this was the site of a Mesquaki village during Julien's time. Historians say 500-800 Native Americans lived here and I can hear the drums, smell the cooking fires and imagine voices of young and old. I know if I would dig below the surface of this land I would find arrowheads, beads, piece of crockery.
I am in love with the history of this place. The early miners, the colors and poetry of the Native American nations, the Irish and German families that eventually settled the land. I study the books of Dubuque history and drive past the old elegant homes knowing the stories of the wealthy families that inhabited them. I roam the old cemeteries, study the river from the bluffs, watch the eagles circling above me. Oh, to go back for a day or two and walk the wooden sidewalks, ride the trolley car, walk across the Mississippi when it was shallow and possessed many islands, before the system of lock and dams was introduced.
He is making a Wellington with puff pastry and a bourdelaise sauce that would make you swear you taste beef. Herbs and sea salt are flying and I am watching an artist at work. This boy has the same talent my mother possessed, the ability to make food sing. How do you do this, I ask, I am so self-conscious in the kitchen, fearing the inevitable mistake and then everyone will be disappointed. "Don't think so much," he answers. Probably good advice for a number of situations.
The majority of a bottle of Merlot goes into one of the pots and I am in love with the smells wafting above my stove. This man is a magician of herbs.
Look at this, yes, look at this. Emeril could not have done better. Mashed russets with the skins on, chunky vegetables with zucchini-flavored sauce topped with puff pastry and broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions - oh, and there's rosemary, thyme, sage, parsley. Sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel tune.
And here is the reward - Sonny smiling as he piles high his plate with spinach and chickpea salad. There is warm fruit compote dusted with nutmeg and more red wine. All plates are wiped clean and bellies are taut. Sonny attempts four words at the Scrabble game that are not words as proven by my dictionary. I should call him on this, sneaky boy, but he looks so forlorn when I do.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
Sonny chuckles when I remind him of this story. We talk about Miracle on 34th Street with the elfin Natalie Wood cozying up to the bearded kindly fellow. My father relates the last scene when the old man's cane is found leaning against the fireplace tantalizing the audience to question what they thought was real. It aways made him shiver. There is still a lot of child in Sonny, a solid reason to love him.
Adam has more questions. The Easter Bunny? No way, I tell him, such a fake, those huge plastic eyes that never blink. Tooth Fairy? Another stretch, I say. It can't be Mom, argues Adam, why would she want all those teeth? Well, I have to agree with him.
We grandparents watch and wait as the children grow. We are lucky to be involved in this process a second time around. We're not plagued with those doomsday feelings we had as young parents. We don't worry that we are making gargantuan mistakes, turning the children into cold, soulless psychopaths or serial killers and social deviates.We know childhood days are fleeting and too soon these youngsters will be moody adolescents with guarded looks and you wait for years, sometimes years, until they come up for air and look around them and realize you have always been on their side. And I will tell the future generations that I am blessed to see that like their old grandpa Sonny, I still believe.
Friday, December 3, 2010
My knees creak and grind as I attempt to reach a standing position. I have been on the floor wrapping Christmas gifts. I have decided to buy only toys this year for the grandchildren in my life. Like normal youngsters they groan when they open boxes of polo shirts and sweat pants in their next upcoming size so why should I contribute to any youthful disappointment. Give'em what they want, I say, and I wrap books about fairies and tractor puzzles and pink jewelry boxes with twirling ballerinas. Let their parents worry about wardrobes. I'm in it for the happy factor.
I have purchased toys that make no noise, do not require a battery or computer chip, and involve some reading or assembling by the child. As I gaze around the cluttered floor I realize I have not bought any of the adults a gift as of this date. No branch trimmers or 12" skillets or Target gift cards. I'll buy the boring people their boring gifts later.
Christmas can be magical but try to convince the average American woman of that phenomena. The Powers That Be have declared each of us THE PERSON IN CHARGE OF EVERYTHING and this is not a good thing. To counteract this insanity I keep these rules in mind:
- With 2/3 of the American population obese excessive Christmas baking is not necessary. Make the fantasy fudge on the marshmallow creme jar and some red/green m & m cookies using the toll bridge recipe and call it a day.
- Buy at least one Homer Simpson moving doll decoration. Personally, I like the Santa Homer stuck in the chimney that says (among other things,) darn, the one time I didn't have a pocket full of bacon grease.
- Watch Jimmy Stewart. Takes you back to that simpler time. Black and white flicks aways make you breathe easier.
- Enjoy the snow, one of nature's rare purities.
- Hang out with children. They have the answers. And better yet, they have interesting questions. Children absolutely glow this time of year.
- Stay away from the mall. Don't buy into the scheme. Just how much of this stuff does anybody need? Do it on the net or check those cute little novelty shops with the smiling owner sitting inside the front door. Sometimes there is a jar of candy canes and you can take one with you. If you must do the mall then do it Tuesday morning at 9:00. Take the morning off work - its worth it. Most shoppers clog the stores after office hours. Bringing a list is mandatory - no impulse shopping when you are thinking of those darling grandchildren. It will back fire.
- Egg nog. Rum and egg nog. Tom and Jerry with rum. Or Kessler's and diet coke in one of the holiday glasses the grocer was giving away last year.
- Smile at the old ladies wearing those corny holiday sweatshirts, snowflake earrings and sensible boots.. They know how to have fun. Have you noticed they are always laughing?
- Play Christmas carols. A lot. Especially in the car. Sometimes I play them in the middle of August if I need a little holiday cheer.
- Nix on the huge dinner with the good china and linen napkins that will need to be ironed later. Everybody bring a horsey-derve and you make a crock pot of sloppy joes. No one is allowed in the kitchen unless they are getting a beer. Oh, and get some cheap red and green paper plates at the dollar store.
- I am not a particularly religious person. But I do find peace and wonderment in the story of an infant born on this eve centuries ago who would radically change the course of history and philosophy based on one single concept, love.
- Lastly, it's about family and the friends that still cling to you like barnacles on the old submerged ship. Be good to each other. 'Tis the season - you get to be sentimental and no one will laugh.