Home is Where the Soup Is

IMG_2705When I dream about home, it’s my childhood home. I can walk around furniture and look at rooms from different angles. I can see out the windows, as if I’ve been dropped in a museum diorama of my youth and allowed to walk around in it. This is the correct color of the kitchen cabinet, this is the quality of light in this room in the afternoon. I can zoom in to see the texture of an upholstered chair. These are details I may have noticed once, but after so much time, it’s startling have them laid in front of me.

My childhood home was sold, but I sometimes drive by, only to see toys on the front porch, and new trees planted in the yard. Inside, it would be understandable to find they had remodeled the kitchen. I remember it with everything we needed close at hand. A cutting board that pulled out from under the counter. The mobile dishwasher, a charming artifact of the days before everything was built in. The big ceramic sink. The Spice Islands spice racks. The cold floor in the winter. The view out over the back yard. The separate breakfast nook with hanging copper pots.

This weekend I’m visiting my mom. She’s been in her beautiful home for nearly 25 years, and while it is not where I grew up, I’ve been here often enough to make memories. Christmases and Thanksgivings with young kids, summer nights with cool breezes pulled in by the attic fan, poring over old photos, shoveling the long long driveway one winter when there was so much snow. But the core of those memories is always food. Some people buy a flower arrangement to welcome guests. My mom cooks a pot of soup. And roasts a chicken. And makes Benedictine. There is always something wonderful to enjoy. A mug of tea, buttered toast and a really good scrambled egg.

When I woke up this morning, I shifted to get out of bed and bumped into the wall instead. That’s when I remembered where I was and that I’ll be heading back tomorrow. It will be a few hours on the highway, and my own soup pot beckons.

Advertisements

Shorty

IMG_2683I’ve always thought I was a normal height. As some comedian once said, my legs go all the way down to the floor. But occasionally I’m reminded that many things are made with bigger people in mind.

At the grocery, many of the items I want are on the top shelf, so I look around for a tall grocery employee, or any tall shopper and ask if they can reach it for me. I think they should have an attached, movable ladder like you see in book stores or libraries to help shoppers reach the items they put up so high. It would be less of a risk than having me attempt to scale the shelves on my own.

Clothing stores maximize their displays by hanging clothes at least 6 feet off the ground. This means that you have to ask for help to pluck anything you’d like to see off the wall. The store employee has a pole with a hook on it that allows them to lift the hanger and bring down the item. Recently faced with that type of display in a discount store, instead of looking for someone to help me, I decided to try to get an item down by using a nearby supply of full-sized umbrellas with hooked handles. I stretched up and thought I’d snag the hanger when all I managed to do was tangle the umbrella around the display pole until it was completely stuck. Embarrassed, I left the umbrella hanging there between two shirts that I no longer wanted to examine up close.

Growing up, my mom used to tell me I was a perfect size. I take after my dad’s short side of the family, while mom is tall. Even though I thought she looked glamorous like Laura Petrie on the Dick Van Dyke Show, she says that being a tall girl in school was uncomfortable; she was always in the back row of class pictures, and would often slouch to appear shorter. Until at some point she surely recognized that being able to reach the top shelf was a valuable skill.

Being short has some advantages. I usually have plenty of leg room in a car or on a plane. Visiting a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the docent cautioned us to watch our heads going through doorways, but I sailed through without a care. Even buying clothes has become less difficult with petite sizing, the 29” inseam, and three quarter length sleeves. When I look at old school pictures, I was never on the back row, but I was trying to stand out by sitting up especially tall.

 

Resolved

hyn.jpgFlipping the calendar over to a new year causes us to review the past and consider the future. Do we want to keep things the same or do we want a radical change? I have a modest list that I hope won’t be too hard to achieve, but hidden in each are lots of little behaviors I’ll have to change.

Lose weight.
This really means reducing my portion size for each meal (even if it’s delicious and I want seconds), drinking lots of water everyday, and putting down that bowl of chocolate candy while I watch TV.

Have firm upper arms to look great in that special sleeveless dress.
Even though I’m barely awake most mornings at the gym, I need to do lots more lifts and curls and dips. My pushup form needs improvement, and I really have to learn how to do an unassisted pull-up.

Reduce the clutter in the house.
My normal strategy of straightening up and putting things away is only dealing with the symptom. Reducing clutter really means having less, purging and not replacing. Reconsidering things I have but don’t actually use (am I really going to wear that blazer again?). Our collection of empty boxes arises from my instinct to save things I think have a future use. Sure, I’ve found a way to fashion them into drawer organizers that is quite effective, but, I think it’s really a mania.

Try new recipes.
If I’m honest, there are probably only ten meals that I make, over and over. They’re yummy, family favorites, and most times, not too heavy. I can make them quickly without a recipe, and usually have the ingredients on hand. New recipes require time to study the instructions and buy special ingredients. The outcome isn’t assured, but I should stretch myself. There may be a new family favorite in those cookbooks.

Consume varied sources of news.
I think this may be the hardest. I currently depend on a group of podcasts, the Chicago Tribune, and news I’ve selected on a phone app. I’m aware that when we can pick our news we are likely to select points of view like our own. It’s comforting to think that other people agree with my world view, but I know I should seek out opposing thoughts. What good are my opinions if they can’t sustain a challenge? And there’s surely something there I can learn.

A theme in my resolutions is trying to change small things within my control. In a crazy, scary world, it’s a good start.

Dickens of a Cake

IMG_2630We’re putting together a fun menu for Christmas, each of us contributing ideas and labor. The finale is planned to be a plum pudding, straight out of A Christmas Carol. As the Cratchit’s observed, the pudding would be “like a speckled cannon-ball…blazing in …ignited brandy…with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Sounds easy enough. Little did we know how confusing this would be.

Researching recipes for plum pudding, we found that the primary divider is whether you want to make it with or without suet. Yuck, suet? No thank you. The next thing we discovered is that some recipes start by saying how much better the plum pudding will be if you make it ahead – like a year ahead. During which time, I think one is to pour brandy over it repeatedly. It’s starting to sound a lot like fruitcake if you ask me. Some of the recipes didn’t even call for plums. Just all those dried fruits in fruitcake. Finally we found recipes asking for either fresh plums or canned plums. This seemed like the right direction to go in.

The produce departments of five grocery stores served up disappointment. Even though we can buy every fruit you can think of, there were no plums anywhere. Apricots? Yes. Nectarines? Yes. Dragonfruit, kiwis, and blueberries? Yes. But no plums. We looked for frozen plums. We found peaches, avocado, and mango, but no plums. The baking aisle finally offered something we thought would work. Not canned plums, but canned sweetened reconstituted prunes. Close, but if this didn’t pass muster, maybe we could make prune Danish instead.

I haven’t opened the cans yet. I figure it can be a Christmas morning surprise, and we’ll make the best cake we can. Besides, any cake you can light on fire will make for a thrilling finale to a good day.

Till then, I’ll sleep with visions of …well, you know.

Christmas Story

Tall ChristmasFor some reason, I’ve never taken much to the Christmas Story movie with the BB gun, tongue stuck to a pole, and the outrageous leg-lamp. Instead, I watched the stop-action Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with the elf whose wish was to become a dentist, and A Charlie Brown Christmas with the poor sad tree and the fabulous jazzy dancing. But just as fundamental to the season as these shows was The Tall Book of Christmas, a collection of stories that appeared to be set in Germany or Switzerland or Russia where all of the characters were blond with pink cheeks.

I pored over this book every year, loving the unusual tales and the colorful illustrations. There was the mean giant who was placated when given limburger cheese; the granny who used candies in a pinch to dye all her white yarn, rendering the mittens she knitted deliciously edible; the tale of the mysterious babushka who wandered from house to house in the snow looking for a family to let her in; and the kind man who spent Christmas in jail and carved wooden figures small enough to push out of a knothole in his cell wall for the kind children who brought him food. There were also Christmas stories like Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, but these unusual stories stuck with me, probably because I’d never heard them anywhere else.

Eventually the book fell apart from use and disappeared. When I would remember it, I’d ask friends if they knew about the book, but was usually met with blank stares. Sometime after college, I was touring Victorian homes in Old Louisville that were decorated for the holidays. In the living room of one home, along with the Christmas tree, wreaths, and candles, I saw The Tall Book of Christmas displayed on a table. And they had copies for sale.

When our kids were small, I started bringing this book out for the holidays. As the name implies, it has a distinctive shape – only 5 inches wide, but 14 inches tall. It’s slim enough to read all in one sitting, but each story could be dwelt over as we examined the illustrations and talked about the characters. They’d giggle at the same things I had, and ask for multiple readings. Now, even as adults, they’ll surreptitiously pluck the book off the coffee table to look through the pages.

Of course the holidays have many stories, and books have a lot of competition. Kids’ programs (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), feature films (Love Actually), made-for-TV movies (Hallmark and, seemingly every cable channel). We will partake of all of them, dabbing our weepy eyes, happy to be home and warm. Then I’ll be on the watch for lemon-flavored mittens, and small packets of limburger.

Ornaments

IMG_2604Boxes have been hauled out of storage, a tree purchased and bolted into the new tree stand. We eye the tree to determine whether it’s straight, and rotate it so the fullest side faces front. The ornaments seem to be an impossible quantity for the size of the tree, and a jumble of styles. Some people have themed trees, a limited color palette and ornaments selected for an overall look. Not us. Our tree will look like a kid’s toy box, with a collection of everything gathered over the last 30+ years.

With the ornaments strewn over the dining table, it’s easy to see that they fall into a few categories:

  • homemade: flour dough cut outs of our children’s hands, paper ornaments made at school with their pictures
  • fabric: mittens, a quilted stocking, a felt skater
  • college: proudly acquired when our kids were still in school
  • museum gift shop finds: plums, miniature windmills and angels
  • flea market treasures (trying to evoke the ornaments from my youth)
  • recent acquisitions: a pickle, a rabbit, a hedgehog, a set of Christmas Carol characters
  • wooden: reindeer, Santas, houses
  • glass: balls in all sizes
  • funky items we added to our tree in jest, but now they’ve become traditional:  Yoda, a plastic toilet key chain, a bride and groom from a cake top

Among all these ornaments is a small tissue-filled box cradling the remnants of a delicate glass house. This is an ornament from my childhood tree, one of a few that I think were also on my dad’s childhood tree. I don’t remember exactly when I got to keep it, but I’ve always placed this little house up high where I could admire it. A few years ago, our tree fell over – twice – onto our hard wood floor. Among the casualties was the little glass house. It was such a thin bubble of glass, I’m surprised it didn’t turn to dust. Instead, the back was crushed. I can’t hang it anymore, but it still looks pretty propped up in the tissue paper on the mantle.

There’s a lovely frosted glass ballerina, a gift for our daughter when she danced. She takes charge of it each year to ensure it’s hung in a prominent place and mounted in front of a light so it glows. Our son likes a glass Buddha and a beautiful painted Earth globe. For our kids, the jumble of crazy ornaments have become their childhood memories. Somewhere on this tree is the one thing that will mean “Christmas” to them, maybe the precious item they’ll take to decorate their own tree one day. The purple plum? The glass pear? Harry Potter on a broomstick? It’ll probably be the plastic Yoda.

Is it Winter?

img_2570.jpg
The first snowfall, the morning there is frost on the window, when you decide to pull out your down coat. These are all indications of winter, but the universal signal in Chicago is when the heat lamps begin working at the L stop. There may be a cold snap in October and you can press the button all you want, but nothing will happen because it’s not really cold enough until November 1.

Usually train riders spread out across the platform according to the laws of normal distribution – gravitating to where the middle train cars will stop. However, once the temperature drops, people cluster around the heat lamps, in one small area of the platform. We look like a penguin colony. Bundled in coats and hats, I wonder if the heat even penetrates, or if it’s just a shared delusion, a distracting game we play when it’s 17 degrees below zero with windchill and there’s no train in sight.

A few of the busiest L stops in the Loop have large areas of the platform devoted to heat lamps. Though meant for big rush hour crowds, in winter, people have competition from pigeons for the prime heated spots. Approaching the pool of warm golden light, I see a dozen fat, puffed out birds, holding their ground. As people edge in around them, there’s a bit of cooing and shuffling, but the pigeons aren’t leaving. They know with the next train, we’ll be gone and they can resume their spa-like experience.

Of course, in Chicago, seasons are rarely just one thing. Temperatures spike and plunge year round – thank you, global climate change. This winter we’re having 50 degree days paired with 30 degree nights. But with a weather system from Canada, we could go back into the deep freeze. Mother Nature may not cooperate, but after March 31, the CTA says it’s spring. That’s when the heat lamps are switched off and the pigeons have to find a new way to survive.

Food Olympiad

IMG_2568Like good athletes, we’ve trained. Grocery bag lifts, squats to the bottom shelves of the fridge, stretches to the highest cabinet shelves. After work dinner preparation speed trials. Our muscles are toned from the repetitive motion of chopping, stirring, kneading, mixing, chewing, washing, and drying. We are ready for the biggest food day of the year: Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is our favorite holiday. No expectation of gifts, just food, football, and family time. There is literally nothing planned for the day except the creation and enjoyment of the big meal. There are occasional surrounding activities like running a local Turkey Trot 5K, watching the Macy’s Day Parade, and the professional football match-ups, but mostly we hover around the kitchen working out when to get the turkey in the oven and how to get all the sides baked as well.

Our menu is usually traditional, the most memorable update for a couple of years being stuffing made from White Castle hamburgers (delicious). Our kids love to cook and we let them take the lead this year: oyster stuffing with bread cubes from a homemade loaf, green bean casserole made with a garlicky white sauce and shallots, shaved Brussels sprouts and noodle salad with an Asian dressing. Of course there’s still a turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy.

When the kids were small, the feast was met with selective enthusiasm. Carving the turkey was exciting, making gravy pools in the potatoes was especially fun, and then there was dessert. Sitting in the formal dining room was a novelty, but odd, and after a few attempts at “trying everything on your plate”, they’d slither out of their seats and run off to play.

Now they’re as invested in the meal as we are, and skilled cooks too. We’re all vying for position in the kitchen, prepping the sides in the last hour before we eat. Every pot and pan is in use, all surfaces are covered, and our eyes are on the clock. I’m clearing counter space at the appropriate moment, washing and rewashing mixing bowls and pots, and pulling china from the cabinet.

Somehow it all comes together, like an elongated episode of Chopped. We are at the table, our plates mounded high, and everything is delicious. While proud of how well it all turned out, this is about the time that we realize we can barely finish our food, and there will not be room for the pies for a while. But we’ve also achieved an equally important aspect of the Thanksgiving meal – having leftovers! I see a turkey tetrazzini casserole, veggie plates, and pie for days. Yum!

X Marks the Spot

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 12.03.20 PMIn the rush hour crowd I try to maintain my distance so I don’t run into anyone. Rather than admiring the magnificent sights of the city, I’m usually focused on the back of the person in front of me. That’s when I see the occasional odd mark; an X, sometimes faint, sometimes bright white, on the bottom of the coat in front of me.

Chicago is a town of serious winter coats. Canada Goose or NorthFace down coats, or full-length mink coats. But some people still wear cloth coats. A lovely wool or cashmere coat is the right choice over a business suit, but the wearer doesn’t always notice the X stitched on the back. Maybe it’s the first time they’ve worn the coat, and they’ve overlooked this, like leaving the price tag on, or worse, they think it’s some sort of decoration. It’s actually a basting stitch meant to keep the vent of the coat closed and unwrinkled during shipping and while hanging in the store. The first thing you should do is snip those threads so the vent can work the way it is supposed to: it allows you to move.

Most of us buy clothes off the rack and expect them to be ready to wear. For women, especially, there are enough sizing options that post-purchase tailoring is less and less necessary. Petite sizing and pants in custom lengths make it a lot easier for me, but I’ll still have jackets tailored to ensure it doesn’t look like I’m a 10-year-old dressing up in grown-up clothes. But usually we are many steps removed from the garment construction process, and may even turn to a dry cleaner to fix a hem.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that, once indoors, there are other X’s to be found. I’ve stopped co-workers before to free them of the stitches on the vents of their suit jackets and the slits of skirts. Not everyone grew up sewing, so I guess I can’t fault them for their ignorance. I’ll bet these same people think their clothes don’t have working pockets because they arrive sewn shut. Perhaps it’s a massive practical joke played on us by the garment industry. Maybe women’s pants really do have pockets, or deeper ones, if we only knew which stitches to snip.

 

Communal Living

Slide1Recently, I was surprised to see a youth hostel in the Loop. I guess I thought they only existed in Europe – like rail passes – but apparently not. I imagined the rows of bunk beds and shared dining tables for student travelers. Nothing fancy, but safe and clean with room to store a big backpack. Maybe the guests are US students coming for a music festival, or frugal international travelers who want to see the entire country in two weeks.

Hostels appeal to a very specific niche – adventuresome folks with limited funds. Before Airbnb existed, this was the low-cost option, unless you could find a friend’s couch. I spent one college semester in France and our group was on a budget, so we stayed in a hostel part of the time. I don’t remember where we slept, but there was a large common room filled with a jumble of couches, tables and chairs where we would meet each morning before venturing out to find breakfast. There was an evening curfew, so whatever else the day held, we had to be back by 10pm or the doors would be locked. I never missed the curfew, but I’d like to believe that there was a bell to ring after hours so tardy students weren’t left on the doorstep all night.

For a post-college trip across Great Britain, lodging was all bed and breakfast places. I don’t know if we even considered hostels at the time, or if those were only options in big cities. Most of the places were small, meals were in a common dining room, and we shared a bathroom with other guests. The least appealing place was in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was more like a dormitory with a kitchen; other guests cooked and watched TV, and every surface seemed to be greasy. The highlight was staying in Wales with Ian and Beryl who hired out a room, cooked for us in their kitchen, and made us feel like members of the family.

More recently we tried Airbnb in Brooklyn as an alternative to a pricey hotel. We ended up sharing a small apartment with a young couple – their rental offering was a single bedroom, not their entire apartment, but we didn’t figure that out till we showed up. At first we thought it would be awkward, but they were friendly. Our beds were only separated by a bit of drywall that didn’t even go up to the ceiling, but they never complained about my snoring,

Back home after a trip, we’re relieved to have our own space back, but it’s a temporary illusion as the city is mostly a communal place. It’s comforting to have people close by, but it also requires patience and civility.