Holiday Traditions from the Time Before

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, many of us are isolated in our bunkers and sharing holidays in the ether. One virtual party I was invited to solicited holiday traditions and memories from guests. Fortunately there were so many responses that I did not need to venture past just thinking about it, but think about it I did.

In mentioning this to my husband and fellow shelter-in-place inmate, his response surprised me. The first memory that came to his mind was of my daughter on one Christmas Day. Suffering from pre-adolesence and out of sorts, she was not keen on going to the extended family Christmas gathering that day. Every year she had shared Christmas Day with extended family and returned well fed and laden with gifts, some more welcome than others. There had been a multiple year run with some version of a make-up kit. Sitting reluctantly in the backseat, arms tightly crossed, eyebrows furrowed and pre-pubescent pout in place, she muttered, “Let’s just pick up my make-up kit and go.” She had a point; there was one post-Christmas where I spent an inordinate amount of time scrubbing smeared Strawberry Shortcake lip gloss out of a bathroom sink, smelling of artificial strawberry while its pink goo persistently clung to the porcelain and withstood a series of cleaning products. I was not terribly fond of makeup kits myself. No matter how funny what has been said seems at the time, the hardest lesson to learn as a parent of pre-teens is to not laugh when they have said something that is earnestly spoken but absolutely hilarious. We did our best to swallow our chuckles and redirect her thoughts to the joys of Christmas. In my memory, she had as good a time as any that year—complete with make-up kit beneath the tree—and was in good cheer on the return home.

I would have thought that my fellow inmate’s first thought would have been a certain Christmas artifact, a Fitz and Floyd Santa Claus that I had victoriously found marked down at a post-Christmas sale. It was both a gorgeous Santa and a gorgeous a teapot. I proudly displayed my find at the next Christmas and, on the face of it, it was truly a treasure. Unfortunately, everyone else focused on the reverse side and comments ensued about the emerging bunny in the back. I—and only I—insist that the bunny is coming from a log that Santa is sitting on while everyone else insists that bunny is emerging from Santa. This debate has been repeated annually and, when pulling it out with the other Christmas decor, my Christmas treasure is usually referred to as the bunny-butt.

My memory, though, goes back a bit further. On Christmas Eve my father always recited a poem about Christmas Eve in the workhouse. My siblings and I have been able to remember a line or two, but none of us can recite it in full using the Cockney accent my father put on (or at least it sounded Cockney to our California-raised ears). Inspired by the request to relate traditions, I decided to research it a bit. My initial theory was that it was from Britain and was something my father might have picked up while he was stationed there during WWII. He went to Britain before Canada entered the war to enlist in the RAF. He wanted to be a pilot, and had learned to fly, but the RAF did not send him up because of his eyesight. Instead, he worked on early radar and was stationed in Cornwall and Northern Ireland for the duration of the war. This was such an impactful time; on his 70th birthday one of my brothers asked what was the most important time in his life. We all awaited a response such as “meeting your mother” or “becoming a father to you wonderful children.” Instead he responded that his time in the war was his most memorable. It would follow that he would have experienced much in his time there, including discovering and bringing back an amusing Christmas poem.

There was a poem I found, Christmas Day in the Workhouse by George R. Sims (1903). It is a rather serious poem calling out wealthy patrons for feeding paupers in the workhouse on Christmas while harboring no good will or compassion beyond this public show of charity. My guess is that versions of my dad’s poem grew out of this, and there are many versions. I found a discussion thread that mentioned a version that was in the 1977 movie, “The Gathering” as well as in a book by Anthony Hopkins, Songs of the Front and Rear: Canadian Servicemen’s Songs of the Second World War.” Perhaps this was not an English iteration but a Canadian one. Sadly, it never occurred to ask my father about the origin of his poem, we were all too busy groaning as he launched into it every Christmas Eve.

Between all the versions I found, and my fuzzy wuzzy memory, I think I have been able to reconstruct the poem as my father had recited it.

Christmas Eve in the Workhouse, Dad Version

It was Christmas Eve in the workhouse
The one day of the year
The paupers all were merry and
Their bellies full of beer
In strode the Workhouse Master
Within those grimy walls
He cried out: ‘Merry Christmas’
The paupers answered ‘Balls’
This enraged the Workhouse Master
Who swore by all his gods
You’ll have no Christmas pudding
You dirty rotten sods
Then up stood one old pauper
His face as bold as brass
‘We don’t want your Christmas pudding
Shove it up your…oven’.

As with any good limerick, the rhyme in the versions I found online led to the expected off-color conclusion. My father’s version was suitable for all ages. Part of the fun was that all of us knew where we were being led—that pudding was not directed to an oven—but my dad implying a naughty word was much funnier than him saying a naughty word. We laughed inwardly and groaned aloud every year.

Long after I moved from home, my father would phone on Christmas Eve and recite his poem and I would groan on cue. My Dad has been gone for some years now, but never does a Christmas Eve pass without me thinking of his silly poem. In this year when people are separated and traditions are harder to observe, memories of those who have been in our lives and the traditions we shared are ours to recall, embrace, and perhaps share in our virtual, socially distanced communities. While there are many memories and traditions that I remember fondly, this is what comes first to my mind like a jolly ghost of Christmas past that visits the eve before Christmas.

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate the day, and a joyous and safe day to everyone near and far.


Pussyhat, Pussyhat, Where Have You Been?

Pussyhat, Pussyhat where have you been?
     I’ve been to Washington in hopes to be seen.

Pussyhat, Pussyhat what did you there?
    I gave brave marchers a warm symbol to wear.

This post includes information for recipients of my hats followed by a bit about my involvement with The Pussyhat Project.

Information for Hat Recipients

Dear Pussyhat Recipient,

More than a thousand knitters from all over the nation participated in this project, what are the chances you would end up with one of mine? I hope it will keep you warm during the Woman’s March on Washington, and I hope that you will enjoy its warmth long after or donate it to help keep someone else warm through the long cold winter. Although we do not know each other, know that your hat was knit with great care, warm wishes, and good intentions.

All hats were based on the basic Pussyhat Project Pattern and are made with wool. Your hat is tagged with a number for identification, care instructions are listed below by hat number. Please read on for more about your hat.

General Care Instructions


Hand Washing Instructions

Hand washing is appropriate for all hats. Soak in cool water using a gentle wool wash, such as Kookaburra or Eucalan. Some knitters use a touch of a very mild liquid hand soap or a few drops of Dawn Liquid rather than wool wash. Drain. If using soap, re-soak in plain water to remove soap residue but do not agitate. Saturated wool is very delicate, carefully wrap in towel and squeeze out excessive moisture. To dry, lay flat and pat into shape on a towel.

Machine Washing Instructions

If your hat is machine washable, use cold water and select gentle cycle. You may want to enclose it in a lingerie bag to keep it from snagging and stretching. Use a mild detergent, such as The Laundress Wool and Cashmere Shampoo. To dry, lay flat and pat it into shape on a towel or rack.

Washing Tips

img_7495If the wool gets really stretched out in the washing process (shhhh, don’t tell anyone I said this) a couple of minutes in a dryer can tighten those stitches back up…but be very careful! The hat should still be damp enough to pat into shape and air dry.

I put hand knits in my top-loading washing machine on the spin cycle wrapped inside a towel to remove excess moisture; this leaves the piece damp and firm rather than sopping wet, soggy, and easily damaged. Hand washing is gentler on hand knits, and when wool is spun dry it dries quickly. Generally I hand wash knit garments, even those made with machine washable fibers.

Hats 1-3

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Rowan Pure Wool Superwash (100% wool)


img_7484Hat 4

Care: Hand Wash (sorry)

Contents: Stonehedge Fiber Mill Shepherd’s Wool (100% merino wool)



img_7486Hat 5

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Cascade 220 Superwash (100% wool) and Claudia Hand Painted Yarn (100% Merino wool).

Notes: Brim was trimmed with double strand of the Hand Painted Yarn.


img_7487Hat 6

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Sock (wool and nylon)

Notes: Yarn held in double strands to give more thickness, hat is still warm but lighter weight than the others.


img_7488Hat 7

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Fibreworks Fingering (100% hand dyed wool from Australia)

Notes: Knit hat with double strands. Made a very thick hat, should be extra cozy!


img_7489Hat 8

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Fibreworks Fingering (100% wool from Australia) and Claudia Hand Painted Yarn (100% Merino wool).

Notes: Knit with both yarns combined to give hat more thickness.


img_7490Hat 9

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Fibreworks Fingering (100% wool from Australia) and Lorna’s Laces Shepherd Sock (wool and nylon).

Notes: Knit with both yarns combined to give hat more thickness.


img_7491Hat 10

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Cascade 220 Superwash (100% wool) and Fibreworks Fingering (100% hand dyed wool from Australia)

Notes: Brim striped with the hand dyed yarn


img_7492Hat 11

Care: Machine Wash

Contents: Cascade 220 Superwash (100% wool) and Fibreworks Fingering (100% hand dyed wool from Australia)

Notes: Brim striped and body of hat slip-stitched with hand dyed yarn

Hats S1-S20-something: The Sister March Hats

img_7528Edited January 12 to add hats made for sister marches.

After mailing my hats for to Washington, DC I continued to knit hats for sister marches with whatever pink yarn I could find, beg, borrow, or steal. Some of the yarns did not have labels, some of the hats are constructed with two or three yarns held together, and all are a mix of yarns. I cannot be certain of the washing instructions, most are probably okay to machine wash and line dry, but to be on the safe side I would recommend washing by hand, wrap in towel to spin or squeeze dry, lay flat to dry, and gently reshape.

Pussyhat, Pussyhat where have you been?
     I’ve been from the Atlantic, to the Pacific, and in between.

Pussyhat, Pussyhat what did you there?
    I sprinkled marches with pink from here to there.

My Involvement with The PussyHat Project

I first heard about The PussyHat Project in an email from Klose Knit, our local yarn store (LYS in knitter’s terms). I was overseas at the time but with the miracle of the Internet was able to see what type of yarn the pattern called for and placed an order so that it would be there when I arrived home. My intention was to knit 3 or 4 hats, but once I got started I changed my goal to 10 hats. For anyone who has seen Spinal Tap, you will understand that once I made a goal of 10 that I just had to go to 11.

Many knitters have something called “stash” and I am a big time offender. However, when it came to pinks it was something of a challenge to find enough yarn for so many hats. I had yarn that was pink but it was the wrong thickness, but with a little creativity–such as holding two yarns together as I knit–I was able to use up my supply of pink yarns. In spite of a wealth of yarn on hand, I still found myself ordering more online and stopping in at the LYS for just one more skein. It is the curse of stash that, no matter how large it is, the right yarn is seldom there for any given project. It is also a blessing (or a curse) that knitters seldom mind shopping for more yarn.

What people wearing these hats may not know about this project is the camaraderie and cooperation that was shared among the participants. There is a website for knitters and crocheters called Ravelry. The group thread for the PussyHat Project has been very active. People posted details about modifications they made for knitting the hats more quickly. It is thanks to those generous people that I was able to knit my hats faster “in the round” rather than knitting flat and seaming them afterwards. I did have to seam the top, but I used the oft-dreaded Kitchener stitch over and over, and now know it so well I will never have to look up instructions for it again. Thank you for that. I also picked up the hint to add bows to accentuate and define each ear.

While crafters shared their tips, experiences, and thoughts, many designers offered their cat-inspired hat patterns free to project participants. Some of the small independent yarn companies and individual shops offered discounts on pink yarns. Whatever effort I put into this was well worth it for the graciousness and sense of community I experienced while participating in this project.

There were threads about the Woman’s March on Washington as well as sister marches located elsewhere across the country and abroad. I found options for buses to Washington from my home state as well as options for marches closer to home. I checked the Facebook groups for the different options and decided upon the march in Chicago. The group has been very active and informative about the march and other events. The idea of marches occurring in cities across the country and abroad as well as in Washington really appealed to me. It will be a long day but in the end I booked Amtrak tickets for a very early morning train ride to Chicago and a late afternoon train ride home. And yes, now I need to knit another pussyhat.

There are many reasons why I wholeheartedly joined in on this project. Of all the reasons why I chose to participate, perhaps the most important one is to have the sense of unity. With all the divisiveness—the us-versus-them rhetoric—I am so fortunate to be able to participate in a project that emphasizes cooperation, common purpose, and good will. We all have our individual reasons for joining in (or abstaining from) this movement, but I think a sense of unity is something we can all believe in. I hope to share my experiences in Chicago in a future post, but in the meantime I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this project. To those of you wearing one of these hats, thank you for caring enough to stand up and be counted as one hoping to keep the “United” in the United States.

Journey of Sorrows

It was very early Wednesday, the morning after the presidential election, when I journeyed to California. I awoke to news of the surprising and, to me, extremely upsetting election results. Joining that news was an email from someone close to us saying that his health had suddenly declined and he will not be with us much longer. My trip to California was to attend a family wedding, now it was also to be a journey to say goodbye to someone who is dear. I was shocked by an overwhelming sadness, and in the 90 minute drive to the airport tuned out the news and inattentively listened to an audiobook for distraction.

Checking in at the Midwestern regional airport seemed surreal, TSA-Pre was not operating so I had to unexpectedly submit to the unpack-the-bags-and-strip-down process while feeling the numbness of grief. The row of televisions in the terminal were all tuned to Fox News. I huddled by myself in a quiet corner, not knowing who about me was celebrating and who was mourning the results. The awaiting passengers were unusually quiet; I thought this must be how it was to be in an occupied territory, everyone trying to remain unobtrusive and saying nothing, not knowing who is with you and who is against you.

As we were called to board, Hillary Clinton was about to appear and make an address. img_7057All the televisions went black. Coincidence? As I settled into my seat, I overheard the woman behind me say, “It has started. I am over 60 and never been patted down before, they pulled me out of line and frisked me. It’s already started.” The woman was Hispanic. Who knows why someone is targeted for extra screening, I have been targeted more than once, but on this day her suspicion was not that she was randomly selected but that it was racial profiling. At the airport in Chicago it was quite the opposite, people were chattering everywhere, and everywhere people were expressing shock and surprise at the election results. When I took my seat on my connecting flight, the woman next to me was speaking Spanish on her cell phone. She hung up and said to me, “Guess I will have to stop speaking that language now.”

By the time I had landed, my phone was filled with text messages and my in-box with emails from friends and relatives expressing anguish with the results. People I met with on my trip all expressed shock, grief, and yes, even fear. In the days following I passed through what might be described as the stages of grief. I still cannot quite bring myself to resignation and certainly have not reached an understanding. I have to believe that most people share common values and hopes–that except for the extreme fringe–this electoral college win was brought about by a frustration with middle- and working-class stagnation and the notion that the peoples’ voices were not being heard. It is too much for me to believe that the bulk of these voters condone–let alone believe–the divisive and angry rhetoric that dominated this campaign. The only resolution I have reached is to do what I can do: support organizations that share my values, show kindness to those in my community, write letters to my elected representatives to express my views, and VOTE.

Joined by my friend Jamie, one of the first stops on my trip was to visit with my dear friend’s surviving sister. She had set aside yarn for me to pick up, she also had boxes full of crafts supplies and was looking for an organization to take it. We volunteered to take all of it, loading up Jamie’s car with boxes and bags to be donated. Before traveling to California I had identified 3 local groups that could use yarn, thanks to people who responded to inquiries on social media knitting boards. That evening, two days after the election, we found comfort in sorting the boxes and bags into appropriate piles for the donations. We sorted basic natural fiber yarns in heavier weights along with knitting supplies for students learning to knit in a local school district. We separated out the finest natural fibers for a senior center, thinking perhaps that seniors on fixed incomes would appreciate fine yarns–yarns they might not usually be able to afford–for their knitting project: knitting gifts to accompany Meals on Wheels holiday dinners. Finally, we sorted out all the textural and interesting yarns for an arts center for people with disabilities, thinking they would be perfect for weaving and crafting. The following day we made two deliveries and worked on arranging the third. It was healing to be able to do something for others, this was something positive that we could do and something that honored my generous friend’s memory.

The wedding was beautiful. It was also bittersweet given that my brother was no longer here to see his lovely daughter happily wed but, with the void filled by so many other family members, it was impossible to remain sad. I have never before seen a mother-of-the-bride and bride dance, but it was touching and seemed so very appropriate. There is nothing like family coming together to celebrate and share a happy event, no matter what else is happening outside the circle of loving joy.

Before returning home, I visited my friend with the declining health for what may be my last visit. We parted with a hug and an, “I will see you on your next visit.” I can only hope. As if there was not enough loss in the world, on the final day of the trip a friend received news that her brother had passed away. It was all and all, a journey filled with the sense of recent loss, old loss, new loss, and loss to come.

Awaiting my final connecting flight, I felt the full weight of sadness and sat silently in the waiting area unsuccessfully fighting off the cold virus that was overtaking me. After boarding, I dropped into my seat on the tiny commuter jet in the exit row across from a late middle-aged man. The flight attendant came by and, anticipating she would ask if we were ready and able to help in case of emergency, I looked up and said, “Hi, how are you doing?” She replied, “Not good, but do you know what makes me feel better?” I responded, “Visiting the exit row?” The man pointed to the empty seat next to him and said, “Have a seat.” She laughed and sat down, saying she would only feel better if we joined her in a song. And we did. The worst rendition of Let it Be ever sung, but the mood of the passengers shifted from sullen fatigue to relieved cheer. Waiting for our bags on the other end, I asked a young woman about the cute dog she was carrying and soon a large group of people were talking about dogs and this and that.

Perhaps it was a vivacious flight attendant, perhaps it was a cute little dog, but the journey that began at this airport days earlier in stunned silence ended in convivial conversation. In kindness given and in kindness shown, perhaps there can be something found amidst loss, a growing flicker of flame in the darkness.


A Samba in the Stars

My dear friend, all that is brightness, exuberance, kindness, and joy will forever remind me of you. When I look into the skies tonight, I would not be surprised to see a new star twinkling and shining bright, reflecting the light you left behind in my heart.  FB post in memory of my friend, October 3, 2016

How the passing of a friend with cancer could catch me by surprise is understandable only to those who knew her. Even burdened with a terminal cancer, she was so positive in attitude and so effervescent with life that it seemed a long term possibility, not a short term sentence. I am certain I am not alone in thinking that we all had so much more time, at least many more months if not years. But anyone who has read When Life Becomes Air knows that lung cancer reaches out and extinguishes even the most positive, engaged, and vibrant of individuals. Life’s breath becoming elusive air, indistinguishable from the billions of air molecules around us, is a powerful metaphor for life and death. But as I think of Camille, I think not of ephemeral air but of light. A twinkling of memories; of people touched, of words spoken, of moments shared.

My story of Camille is just that, my story. There are as many stories as there are people in her life, each having their own amusing recollections of things she said, things she did, and ways that she demonstrated her open heart. I think we share one thing, a knowledge of how much she loved and cared about her friends and family, and how often showed it.

I first met Camille decades ago professionally. She was bright, enthusiastic, and an energetic force impossible to ignore. One of my first impressions was of her intelligence as a challenge. She could see so many different approaches to any given problem that it was almost like a diver staring down into the deep from the high board; knowing that committing to any one action could result in anything from a graceful dive to a belly flop, and everything in between. Rather than running impetuously full speed ahead and leaping towards an impending deadline, she paused and considered. To me, the type of diver who runs down the board and unceremoniously executes a cannonball, this hesitation in face of a deadline was an enigma. Admittedly short sighted, all I could see before me was the looming deadline and the fastest route to reach it. A little patience on my part, and we eventually arrived–rushed in the end–but unscathed and usually the better for it.

Camille was intensely interested in everyone and herself intensely interesting. At work we chatted: during work, after work, between work. Soon her coworkers were friends, and many not just friends in the hallways and at the lunch table, but lifelong friends in all aspects of their lives. Friends who relied upon her advice, her compassion, and her understanding, friends who relished her enthusiasm with life and shared their leisure time going places, doing things together, and always, always finding laughter. Being out with Camille was an adventure, one never knew what to expect–what she would do, what she would say–but did expect it would be memorable. My response was typically an eyebrow raised, a jaw dropped, or an untimely burst of laughter, followed by either an incredulous or a chuckling, or a simultaneously incredulous and laughing, “Camille!”

The old-as-the-hills joke we often shared was our almost-sisters story. Sadly, my brother’s wife passed away and after a couple of months she said she would like to meet him for a casual date. My response was, “Camille! It is too soon!” In the months that followed, she casually mentioned it now and again; I repeated my response. Finally I said, “Okay, I will pass on the invitation,” but when I did, I discovered that my brother was already in a committed relationship that eventually resulted in my having a new sister-in-law. Our short-handed route to the punchline was simply her saying, “We should have been sisters” and my saying, “It is too soon, it is too soon, it is too late,” and both of us would dissolve in laughter.

Camille had a love of life and the people in it. Her FB posts were filled with righting social wrongs, helping the helpless, and hope for a better world. She never married or had children, but she shared her love with those who surrounded her and had a family larger than few can claim. Camille officially became a Big Sister to a young women in challenging circumstances; she unofficially became to Big Sister to the other siblings in the family, coworkers in distress, and friends in need. As much as she loved to chatter, there was no better listener when it came to talking about life’s harsher moments. Not only did her friends feel listened to, but understood, cared about, and embraced with all the support she had to offer.

Camille was fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese, and she completely embraced and experienced the cultures of Spain and Brazil. An exchange student to Spain in her younger years, she returned when she could and often spoke of her experiences there. Her love of Spain paled in comparison to her love of Brazil, visiting often, befriending Brazilian friends in the States, and attending any and all Brazilian cultural and sporting events. Yes, she loved “the beautiful game” and the only time I have known her to cheer for the opposing side was when US played Brazil (and I suspect she just told me she was rooting for the red, white, and blue while secretly cheering on the other side). I watched the Brazil Olympics while constantly thinking of Camille, knowing how proud she would have been of all the pomp and circumstances they were able to muster. Sadly, I later found out she was hospitalized and had not seen the games, but she was surely with me when Brazil won the gold metal against Germany as she was when Brazil stumbled against Germany in the last World Cup final. In fact, I do not think I ever have or ever will see a game with the Brazilian side without thinking of Camille. As Brazilian as “the beautiful game” is the annual Carnival in Brazil. Camille did not merely see Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, she was in it as a member of a samba school in the Carnival parade. Twice.

She loved so much in life, I would be hard pressed to say what Camille loved most. Opera was near the top of the list, and her knowledge of opera plots, opera performers, and opera productions was astonishing. Days after my father had died, Camille invited me to join a group to see Madam Butterly. Camille and the clock were not always in synch, the clock always seemed to be well ahead of her. That night she drove, and she drove with no time to spare. I was in a massive boot after weeks in a wheel chair and I will never forget clunking as quickly as I could clunk, round and round the spiral of stairs in the opera house to our balcony seats. It was a miracle that I and my massively encased leg settled into the tight seats before the lights went down. At the time I was probably exasperated but what I remember now is how cathartic it was to let Puccini wash over me in my grief, and how glad I was that Camille made it possible.

Not sure I forgive her for a Wagner performance though. The production was monochrome, ranging from white to black with mostly gray in between. The music was about as colorful as the costumes and sets and soon we both had our heads lolling with drool threatening to escape our near snoring mouths. The only color was a greenish character that periodically peeked out from beneath the stage that I dubbed, “the lizard king.” We were laughing about our nodding off and the weird creature at the first intermission. By the second intermission we were hearing people chuckling about “the lizard king” in rows above and below us. Camille could turn even the most somber events into a party, and those around us joined in.

Camille and I started knitting about the same time. We had a group at work who started to bring their projects to work on at the lunch table, and sometimes sneaking them into meetings. I went to my first Stitches West with her, an overwhelming convention hall filled with fibers, yarns, fiber related merchandise, and knitting events. The first time we went, we went dumpster diving in bargain bins and came home with rather questionable purchases. In subsequent years, we egged each other on to the reverse course and come home with dearly priced treasures. One thing we did not come back with was sweater yarn. That was my fault.

I talked Camille and my sister-in-law into joining me for a “teddy bear sweater knitting class,” where the idea was to knit a complete sweater in a teddy bear size. Well unfortunately making a small sweater is conceptually no less difficult than making a full-sized one, and it was a disaster. I sensed my sister-in-law was actually annoyed at me for dragging her into this, but Camille as usual found the humor in it. We had not been knitting that long, and for some reason I became the poster child for how not to do it; every time the teacher wanted to to demonstrate a “do not do this,” for a given step, she stopped by my chair, picked up my work, held it up for the class to see, and pointed out what not to do. Camille thought this was hilarious; she not only found it funny during the class, but we had laughs about for a long time after. One time I mentioned I had a bit of a misunderstanding with a knitting pattern and she said, “You?” in an incredulous voice and we both burst out laughing. Like with many things in my relationship with Camille, this became an oft shared joke and the punchline never got old.

The memories of Camille are swiftly running through my fingers like grains of sand, but in writing this I take solace in grabbing a few grains and saving them, treasuring them. This is my personal story of Camille, but much of it is shared by everyone who knew her: her joy of life, her sense of humor, her laugh, her generosity, her concern for others, her energy, her vivaciousness, her love of family and friends, and all that made her the unique and amazing person she was. I think not of breath becoming air but life becoming light, a new star in the heavens. A star that jiggles, giggles, and twinkles, dancing a brilliant samba in the sky. A light that forever shines.


Above and Below the Bottom Line

The parties on either side of my pocketbook are at cross purposes, me wanting to get the most value for what leaves my wallet and companies on the other side trying to extract as much as possible while protecting their bottom line. I get over a hundred emails a day with last chance, today only, buy now, hurry, hurry, hurry last chance big savings; I attempt to press delete-delete-delete faster than my eye can register and consider any of the alluring offers. There is a reason for all those emails appearing in my in-box, I can get lured in when my eyes are faster than my deleting fingers and must be on every list from here to Katmandu.

The conclusion of these impulse transactions can end happily for both parties, or they can end with the oft repeated you-get-what-you-pay for lesson. Beyond the value of saving money is the value of establishing a trusting relationship with a company. This week when I had mixed customer service experiences, it got me to thinking about the good will that I carry forward from a positive experience and how important that good will is for encouraging future transactions. It is surprising how little it can take to engender that good will. I am naming names, but only the names I want to remember not the names I want to forget.

I am a repeat customer with Loopy Ewe and Miss Babs. Loopy Ewe calls the people in their shipping department “elves” and it is indeed like a mini-Christmas morning when a package arrives. They, like many other merchants, have tried to save shipping costs by using plastic shipping sleeves, but the inside the purchased is securely wrapped in tissue paper and enclosed in an internal plastic bag. If peeling back the tissue does not make you feel special enough, they also enclose a little packet with red swizzled paper and Tootsie Rolls. I do not eat Tootsie Rolls but it is such a–pardon the pun–sweet touch. Miss Babs also encloses packages in tissue paper inside an internal plastic bag, including a card with a very nice stitch marker attached and sometimes some other little goodies, like a baby skein of yarn to sample. Such little things show respect for their product, care in their packaging, and a little thank you to their customers.

Another well known yarn vendor recently sent a skein of sock yarn tossed unwrapped into a shipping sleeve. The bag arrived torn and the yarn subjected to the grit and grime of the shipping journey. I could have, and perhaps should have, asked for a prepaid shipping label and an exchange, but it is time and trouble for me to drive 10 miles to a UPS facility and an expense for them to process a return and new shipment. I examined the yarn and it seemed okay, but I did write to their customer service to report the problem and to suggest that they do more to protect their products for the journey. I got an email back saying they would let their shipping department know and, in fairness, did say to contact them if I discovered that the yarn was wonky when I started using it. A few weeks later I ordered from them again, white silk merino lace weight. It too was tossed into the shipping bag unwrapped and unprotected. Do I write them again or just not shop with them in future? Their customers probably should not be asking themselves these kind of questions.

I purchased a few Signature Needle Arts fixed circulars when they first came out, and loved them, but the early cords were inflexible and stiff in comparison to their later models. When adding to my collection, someone contacted me to say I already had a cord in that size. I wrote back to thank her–having forgotten that cord was on a time-out project–and while I was at it asked about the possibility of replacing the old cords on my early adopted needles. She sent me a pre-paid shipping label and instructions for me to return them. They did not replace the cord on the old needles but completely replaced the needles and cords with the latest interchangeable option, arriving in lovely tissue wrapped storage sleeves. I loved my Stilettos before this, now I have the highest regard for the company too.

Craftsy offers classes, kits, and supplies in all levels of splurge to budget options, with many sales to boot. They have recently added their own line of yarn, Cloudborn Fibers, which I was curious to try as a low cost alternative to some of the finer and more costly fibers from name brand companies. One of the specials was a on-sale-now sweater Kit using their Highland DK yarn and I thought, why not? I have satisfactorily purchased other Cloudborn yarns that were quite nice so it was with little contemplation that I hit the buy button. When it arrived, the yarn felt harsh to my hands and, worse, my hands felt a bit itchy as I handled it. The thought of knitting an entire sweater with a yarn that felt uncomfortable was too much to consider, sale price or no. Thinking I would have a hefty restocking charge, I initiated a return request. Not only did I get a nice personal note in response but a prepaid return shipping label as well. It was such a feel-good moment that I knew I would have no hesitation to shop with them in the future. What a relief, when expecting the worst, it was no problem whatsoever. This came on the heels of a less positive experience with an online shoe vender that publicized free shipping and exchanges but failed to mention that they charged for returns. To get the “free” exchange I was required to purchase an exchange item at the current day’s no-longer-on-sale price and would not receive credit for the original purchase until they received and processed the returned item. One return they will never receive is me as a customer.

It is by no means a single vendor, made up of so many retailers and crafts people, but for the most part I have had wonderful experiences on Etsy. Particularly for handmade items, I have found the crafts people to really be proud of their handmade stitch markers, hand-dyed and/or spun yarns, knitting bags, needle cases, quilts, and such. They generally seem to be so happy that someone shows their appreciation of their crafts enough to purchase from them and email exchanges are often warm and friendly. Although I rely on ratings as a guideline, I have had far more really positive experiences than indifferent ones on Etsy.

Bag from FrontRangeBags, stitch markers from WineMakersSister, and needle case from Quincepie on Etsy


It is a leap of faith to buy a product unseen, save for a picture on a monitor, from a shop I have never visited and whose staff I have never met. But it occurred to me how little things can make me feel valued and give me confidence that care is given to their products. Although it would be easy to write a very l…o…n…g post about the bad experiences I have had with various companies, I wanted to take a moment to be thankful for the those that, by dong just a little, make it a positive experience for both sides of the equation.

A Sunday Overstuffed with Stuff

Market Stuff

Once a month there is a grand gathering of goods at the Third Sunday Market, loads and loads of stuff. In the winter there is a smaller indoor market in this location, but in the warmer months the Third Sunday Market is both indoors and out. The scale of this event is huge, sellers crowd 120 acres of event center which includes two cavernous indoor spaces, permanent outdoor pavilions, temporary pavilions, and open space for an overflow of vendors with pop-up tents, trailers, tables, or just a claimed space to strew their array of goods on the ground. I have never made it all the way through, there is just way too much ground to cover and far too many goods to see. Rain or snow or shine, this place is stuffed with stuff.

Sunday was a sun day, also a wind day and a cool temperature day, but a good day for putting on some woolens and taking a drive. At the farmer’s market one of the vendors had mentioned that she would be at the Third Sunday Market the following day, fortuitous because I never manage to remember both that there is a market and that it is the third Sunday at the same time. To be honest, I had already forgotten all about it the next day when the spouse mentioned it. By the time we had breakfasted, bundled, and readied ourselves to go it was not an early start and cars were parked out in the supplemental to the supplemental parking lot when we arrived. Knowing people always come and go, we optimistically ventured into the closer parking areas and luckily found one spot hidden in the sea of cars. We hoped our luck would hold as we embarked on our treasure hunt.

We paid our $6 admission and were treated to a new temporary pavilion along the border fence. After walking past the first pavilion we rounded a corner to a view of permanent pavilions, trailers, and pop-up shelters as far as the eye can see. I tried to take a few pictures to show the size and scale but would need a camera drone to do it justice. For anyone interested in tracking their number of steps, this is the place. Hours and discoveries stretched before us.

Regional Differences: What “Mid” adds to “West”

When I lived in California I went to many flea markets, antique fairs, and antique shops and collectives but I see things at Midwest antique shows that I never saw in the West. My theory is that stuff has been lying about in family’s attics and barns longer here than there. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say different stuff has been in the attics and barns.

Originally inhabited by indigenous tribes, California was settled in the 18th century by the Spanish. Father Junipero Serra helped establish Spanish settlements along the coast as his order built missions from San Diego to Sonoma, each approximately 30 miles, or a day’s journey, apart. Haciendas were established, which were large but sparsely populated land grants. Later Russians arrived in small numbers in the northernmost part of the state and were joined by larger groups of Americans arriving via ship and wagon trains and by Asians and Europeans arriving via sea routes; arrivals from everywhere increased dramatically after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. After briefly becoming a self-proclaimed republic in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, Alta California was occupied by US forces during the war with Mexico and was admitted into the Union in 1850. Earlier on, American settlers began populating the Midwest in the late 1700s and Midwest states entered the Union late in the eighteenth and early in the nineteenth century.

It was not until the Transcontinental Railroad connected the continent in 1869 that the transportation of people and their stuff to the west became less long and arduous. With more modern methods of shipping, stuff arrived to California from all over the world but back in the day–before railroads, trucks, container ships, UPS, Amazon, and eBay–things came by wagon train or ship; there was not much room forfrivolities and favorites in creaking wagons scaling mountain passes or storm tossed ships rounding the Horn; only the most necessary and the most treasured items made those journeys. Meanwhile, Illinois became a state in 1818 and a lot of everyday and utilitarian stuff people had back then is the same stuff we are finding now: old crockery, cooking utensils, farm implements, quilts, battered toys, and all manner of functional things have been discovered in attics and barns. Collectables from the 1900’s and beyond are probably pretty much the same in both locations, although California has the Asian influences, the Gold Rush era, the Barbary Coast era, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the age of tech to contribute to its sources of stuff, the earlier everyday homespun Americana is definitely easier to find in the Midwest than it is in the West.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Stuff Indoors and Stuff Outdoors

Each of the open-sided pavilions had two long aisles of vendors and each pavilion had outdoor vendors extending from both ends and beyond. Pathways separated impromptu shelters and booths in the open areas. There were two enclosed indoor areas, one large auxiliary building and one huge main building. We decided to do the outdoor areas first and wander the more comfortable indoor areas at the end of our visit.

In the wide open expanse of the market, the wind indiscriminately blows dust on everything. The elements, and the often helter-skelter arrangement of too many goods for too small a space, make the outdoor shopping a bit of an adventure. Dusty collectables laying in the dirt or jumbled on tables are definitely diamonds in the rough; it takes a patient eye and a little imagination to recognize treasures buried in dingy clutter. It can be a bit of a gamble, often I have had an idea of an item’s potential but will not really know what condition something is in until I have had a chance to take it home and clean it. Even if it is not in as good a condition as I had hoped, just about anything looks better in an orderly home environment than it does when left outside like detritus in the dirt. There is a risk but the payoff could be a great find for a lot less money than can be found elsewhere, often for less than in the indoor area and a lot less than in other shops and collectives.

The indoor area, particularly the huge main building, is more orderly and usually the place to find the more valuable and rare items. The indoor market runs year round and the open air market only during the warmer months; the indoor vendors may be more established in that location. Still, it is best not to assume anything and it is time well spent to look inside as well as out. Bargains are found in both locations–I have found some great things in the indoor area–but I think it is more of a challenge to be out in the cold winds and swirling dust–or in the humid heat, the pouring rain, or whatever weather is served up that Sunday–trudging up and down aisles and paths enduring nature’s whims while looking for hidden treasures.

Prepare for Stuff

There are so many different types of things, so many areas to explore, such a quantity of stuff, it is all overwhelming. I have never made it all the way through the market, and that is with doing just a quick walk through; I do not stop and pour over every table, booth, and display but pause only at the ones that catch my eye. Even with strolling at a steady pace, my senses quickly become overstimulated and my eyes become like a cartoon character’s pin-wheeled spinning orbs. After my first visit I learned to go with a mission, to search for something specific. My advice would be to have one or two items in mind–an art glass vase, a bedside table, a pastel quilt, a toy truck, a garden ornament, an Elvis painting–anything that will provide some focus for your eyes.

Sunday was an impromptu journey and I was ill prepared. Few vendors, if any, will take credit cards. Some will take checks, but cash is the currency. I had some cash in my wallet left over from the farmers’ market the day before but did not have much and did not have my checkbook. Worse, I broke my own rules and did not get something in mind until after we had passed by many displays. With nothing in mind I quickly lost my mind. It all became a blur.

Stuff You Can Find

The question should not be what stuff you will find but what you will not find. This is the perfect place to find quirky, unusual, or rare treasured items for house and garden.
There are things to be found that I did not even know to look for. When we were walking down an aisle in the auxiliary building I saw a very large covered basket. Thinking I was talking to the spouse I murmured, “Yikes, that basket looks like a imagecoffin.” A woman walking nearby overheard and, rather than being offended by myoffhand remark not meant to be heard by others, laughed and agreed with me. Together we got closer to examine it. Sure enough, it was a wicker coffin. I replied, “Now we know you can find anything at this market.” The vendor joined us and offered a deal on the slightly used coffin. I have heard of used car salesmen, but used coffin salesmen? He had acquired it from someone who had found it in his barn. The original owner was the third generation on his land and did not know much about it other than it had been used by those who had come before him. Obviously it was not used for burials but for laying out the dearly departeds for visitations. As unique a find as it was, I could not think of a good place or purpose in my home for a lightly used wicker coffin. However it did bring one thought to life; so many of these items had their own story. Sadly, most of the stories are lost; all that remains are artifacts lost in a sea of dust covered stuff.

What can be found? There are toys.


Collections such as salt and pepper shakers, clocks, steins, and of course corn.

Knickknacks and knackknicks.


Garden Gagaws

Repurposed items

Stuff I Found

Wall-eyed as I was, I did find stuff. We walked the perimeter of the outdoor pavilions and started with the furthest one. At the end of the first aisle I saw a table full of baskets and thought of the clutter of knitting accessories that seem to gather around the chairs I sit in. My mission, from that point, was to find some container to corral the clutter. Surely I should know by now that buying an organizer will not make me imageorganized, but this was a quest for focus not a quest for self realization. The baskets were handcrafted in the USA by Longaberger, they are viewed by some as a collectable but by me as an organizer. Most of them were less than $20 but I did not want a collectable basket so much as I wanted a clutter corral to collect my clutter; there could be other options–less collectable perhaps–but for less money. A bit further on I found another Longaberger basket and would have been happy to stop right there had it not been for the extra zero on the end of the price tag, $60 when I would have happily paid $6 or even $16.

At one of the indoor vendors, I found a little chest of drawers that had probably been a jewelry box. The bottom drawer was smaller than the the top two and I asked if the space behind the drawer was supposed to be a hiding place. We later discovered a little hole in the back of the chest and figured it must have been the place for a little music box. The woman asked her father, who looked to have been on this earth far longer than the little chest, about the empty space. He said he did not know why there was a space but offered it to me for much less than the marked price. Big enough for knitting stitch markers and darning needles but small enough for a chair side table, without a second thought I bought that little clutter corral without bothering to make a counter offer.

Thinking back on the baskets and realizing they were a good price after having seen them marked much higher elsewhere, I made the spouse hoof it back to the furthest outdoor pavilion for a second look. I found two fabric lined baskets with lids and asked how much if I bought them both. He dropped the price a bit, giving me a price for the two that he said was less than I would be likely to find elsewhere for a single one half the size of either. He was probably right, but once again I accepted the price without a counter offer.

There is much to be learned about bartering, but not from me. The only thing I can say in my defense is that I did not pay sticker price for any of it. Admittedly I have a long way to go before I have any credibility for advising about bargaining, but I have at least learned to have a comment or question for the vendor to open the door for negotiations and give them an opportunity to offer a just-for-you lower price. For some reason it is awkward for me to hold a marked item and ask, “Can you do better on this?” but not uncomfortable to ask, “How much for both of these?” or “Can you tell me a little bit about this?”

Happily my purchases cleaned up nicely, a little dusting and polishing and I am pleased with my new stuff. And in spite of my subpar bartering abilities, I think they

were good bargains. Now the hard part: to use the organizers to get organized, round up that clutter, and herd it into my little clutter corrals. Hmm, sounds like something I would do in the West, not the Midwest. Perhaps I need to find something bigger to corral my new clutter corrals, my next stuff quest for the upcoming third Sunday. Yippie yi yo kayah.

Note: Whilst I was doing all this shopping, the spouse had a look see with his video camera. He did not come home with any stuff, although he was very interested in finding the nearest restaurant for lunch after all that walking. We found one with 4 stars on Google Maps, Cousins Restaurant and Lounge. I would not recommend it. Not all Midwestern food is bad but sadly some of it is heavy with an emphasis on quantity at the expense of quality. I had a chicken soup that was so thick and gloppy it could hold my spoon upright and a salmon sandwich, listed as a salmon BLT but with no B unless it was B for burnt patty. More research is needed for restaurants in this area. Could be another reason to return for more stuff…

Third Sunday Market Stuff In Moving Pictures

Green Garlic and Purple Asparagus

Eating seasonably is a bit challenging in a colder climate. Even in the coldest months, it seemed some part of California was always growing something when I lived there. Here, the earth sleeps and our few and far between (indoor) farmers markets go back to our roots: carrots, potatoes, beets, and turnips. The indoor markets are an enjoyable winter outing, but they are nothing like the outdoor summer markets for quantity and variety. Rain or shine, frost or sun, wind or calm, our outdoor farmers markets start in May no matter the weather. March and April shyly introduce the spring, the joy of bright yellow daffodils is followed by the bursting forth of multi-colored tulips and the gradual greening of the trees as the earth awakens. Those early months of growth produce some lovely blooms but very little in the way of food. May is not a month of abundance, not yet.

The first few weeks of the farmers’ market in the spring is a promise of food. Stalls are filled with little vegetable seedlings and tiny herb plants in small pots and packs. Farmers who travel a distance from further south, or farmers with green houses and covers for their plants in the field, have a few early greens. More often than not, vendors tables are loaded with nothing but baby plants that will be something one day but not this day. But there is one thing that shows up early and trumpets spring as loudly as the daffodils: asparagus. Like daffodils, asparagus just appears one day and disappears just as quickly. From one week to the next, just when I am chiding myself for being in an asparagus rut, it vanishes. Early risers might find the last little bit in that week of disappearing, but by the time I come along there is not a stalk to be found anywhere. And there will not be a stalk to be found for the remainder of the year, not until the seasons turn and spring begins again will we once again see that precious spring asparagus. Last week, opening day, I picked up most of my herb plants and discovered some asparagus as I was paying for the herbs. When cooked, it was unlike anything that had been showing up at grocery stores, young and tender and such a mild fresh flavor. I knew I would return for more, and keep returning until it vanishes.

Saturday the temperatures dropped, the wind blew in grand gusts, and dark clouds gathered but I had a mission and would not be deterred. With wool socks, sweater, woolly shawl wrapped about the neck, and jacket over it all I braved the graduation weekend traffic and the Midwest so-you-thought-it-was-spring weather for my quest: asparagus and three types of herb plants still missing from my garden, oregano, marjoram, and tarragon. We needed more of that spring asparagus and the market is the only place to get it. There was no choice but to bundle up and to market, to market, jiggidy jig.

Thankfully the vendor still had plenty of asparagus when I arrived, and this week he had beautiful purple ones. Although he had none of the herbs I was looking for, he did
have some bright green, fresh sprigs of green garlic that found their way into my imagemarket basket.

My herb quest required a bit more effort. I had simply forgotten to get oregano last week and fortunately it was not difficult to find, but for some reason tarragon and marjoram are not common in these here parts. We walked up and down every aisle at a brisk pace to keep warm, witnessing one pop-up tent get picked up by the wind, fly over the market, and landing with a crash into the street. Vendors shivered, bundled up in whatever they could find, and if the little pots of herbs, vegetables, and bedding plants could speak I am sure they would have been saying, “You have got to be kidding me.” Those baby plants wanted to get out of the cold wind and back to the cozy greenhouse from whence they came. At the last table in the last aisle we saw a small display of seedling pots, a little cluster of marjoram and a little sprig of tarragon were waiting for a new home.

The outdoor farmers’ market in the first few weeks is exciting because–although it lacks the abundance of produce, number of vendors, and large crowds of the summer and early fall–it is one of the early signs of a world awakening. Soon, very soon, fresh food grown locally will be available once again. Herb plants will shoot up and fill out into great globes, little fresh leaves ready to clip when needed in the kitchen. The long dark winter of dried herbs, aging root vegetables, hothouse greens, and under-ripened produce brought from thousands of miles away is coming to an end. Eating seasonably will become not just easier but desirable as well.

What We Cooked

Saturday night we simply steamed the asparagus. Interestingly, the purple asparagus when cooked looks a bit darker than the green but loses most of the purple color.

Tonight the plan is to roughly follow a green garlic pasta recipe from a site that the Google search turned up, Serious Eats. Apparently the recipe is based on an Alice Waters recipe using regular globe garlic. I plan to add some pan seared asparagus and sautéed shrimp. The recipe calls for parsley, hope there is enough parsley in my newly planted herb garden in spite of recent torrential thunderstorms followed by high winds and a cold snap. In other words, our typical Midwest spring weather.

Spaghetti and Green Garlic


Brownies Up Our Way

Late Victorian and early Edwardian mannerisms found fertile soil and took root in my ever so proper Grandmother. When I see pictures of an erect Queen Elizabeth at a public occasion with hat, handbag, and white gloves I cannot help but think of my grandmother. In her day, she could have told the queen a thing or two about social duties and deportment; lessons my mother and aunt learned but did not always trouble to follow. The lessons that did stick came from the kitchen. Some of my mother’s core recipes that were passed on to me hark back to my grandmother, how to make gravy, how to make stuffing for turkey, how to make pie crust, how to make a proper cup of tea, and the one that has ruined me for anything else going by this name, how to to make brownies. As my grandmother epitomized proper, so did her recipes.

We are not alone in inheriting this-is-the-way-it-is-done convictions. As my generation married into families with their own perceptions of the right and proper way to do things, I witnessed the sometimes bumpy merging of family traditions at holidays; other families inherited a grandmother’s proper way around the kitchen. One Thanksgiving a sister-in-law jumped into the midst of the last minute kitchen to table melee to make the gravy. One of my brothers exclaimed in horror, “What are you doing!? But you are not making a roux!” She insisted with equal conviction that what she was doing was how one made gravy. The only way for one to make gravy.

While Grandma was very definite about the right and proper way to go about things, she was unfortunately blessed with boisterous and–in her estimation–barely civilized heathen for grandchildren; no doubt the result of the questionable genes introduced to the line by her son-in-laws. One or the other of us was always falling short of following Grandma’s code of conduct. She could put the full weight of a harrumph into the word “well” and that “well” was often followed by “…up our way”. If we had not met them, we would have thought ourselves a wild and uncivilized tribe in the untamed remote reaches of the continent in comparison to our prim and proper Canadian cousins to the north. It helped us to know that when she returned from visiting us in California she would take umbrage at something one of my cousins did or said and remark, “Well, down our way…” Prim and proper is not the way of a child or adolescent, we little hooligans were doomed to be a shy of perfection in Grandma’s eyes.

Grandma had a short fuse, not a short fuse to anger but a short fuse to indignation. Some of us tried to tread cautiously while others gleefully had a match at the ready. My dad had some good rounds with his mother-in-law but my uncle, her son-in-law, always knew exactly what to say to ignite her. When that fuse was lit, one could see a physical transformation as she tightened up from tip to toe at the impropriety of it all followed by a resounding “well…” Others prepared to duck and cover when, like an expert fly fisherman, he wound up and threw out a line. She would snap that bait and get reeled in, time after time after time.

My younger brother also was adroit in the sport of grandma baiting. On one particularly long trip, when he was old enough to be a cheeky high schooler but too young to drive, I was recruited to drive my younger brother and grandmother to visit my eldest brother in Santa Barbara. Grandma wanted to visit Hearst Castle along the way, and wouldn’t it be so lovely to drive down the coast. It was lovely idea, and it would have been a lovely drive were it not for the epic battle taking place in the car. Before we had even reached the coast they were in full swing, grandma–hackles at full rise–giving as good as she got. The coastal highway is breathtaking, it certainly took my breath away as I negotiated switch back turns above high cliffs plummeting from road to the sea. I silently drove white knuckled through the dramatic scenery while barbs and retorts and “wells”s bounced back and forth between front and back seats, neither of them noticing the deep green coastal forests, sparkling seas, and narrow gray road snaking precipitously along the edge of rocky cliffs.

With every nerve spent trying to tune out the din and get the combatants to safety, I finally pulled the car to a halt at San Simeon. We walked up to the kiosk to get our tickets and found, without reservations, that the only tour available was of the ground floor and outer buildings. Grandma had seen the ground floor and outer buildings, years earlier, and they were of no interest to her. Her heart was set on seeing the upstairs rooms but–in spite of the ticket clerk being treated to the sight of my grandmother drawing herself up from tip to toe in a full display of indignant disappointment–that was not an option. I suggested we go ahead and enjoy the tour that was available and in return got one of her “well” responses, “Well, I will just wait in the car.” We did not see Hearst Castle that day. I got back behind the wheel and the others returned to their seats and, as if we had not stopped, continued with their snarling and hissing like dogs and cats, miles behind us and miles to go.

We finally arrived safely in Santa Barbara. To my consternation, that night my younger brother got to stay with my elder brother and attend a college party. I got to stay in a motel room with Grandma and watch Lawrence Welk. Given a choice between a college party or Lawrence Welk with Grandma, there is no contest as to where I D749would have chosen to be at that moment. Bless her heart, looking back at it now I think she meant it as a special and rare one-on-one time. Truth be told, we did get on quite well that night and had a proper chat. I was too tired to show my disappointment in missing out on a college party and–given that her goat had been captured and penned quite enough for one day–there were no “well” moments that evening. And in retrospect it was a pleasant night I can look back upon fondly.

This is not to imply I was a favorite by any means, I often lit Grandma’s indignation fuse and was the frequent target of “well”s delivered in my direction. Among my cousins and brothers, only one was up to her standards and that one, in my opinion, was the one least likely to wear that badge. But wear it he did, and nothing that little hooligan did or said put a tarnish on it. I thought the gig was up when we took Grandma to visit him at his college apartment. He was in the midst of his hippie phase, a phase that put a lot of emphasis on free spirited personal freedoms but none on bathing, cleanliness, and housekeeping. Grandma was about to get an eyeful. Surely she would come face to face with reality and finally see him for the unkempt, disappointingly short of standards grandson he was. I waited for it, and sure enough we did get a “well” moment, but it was not the “well” moment I expected when she said, “Well, our Michael’s roommates certainly are slobs.”

Aside from “Our Michael,” each of her grandchildren were cause for consternation and each of us have our own deep well of memories about our encounters with our grandmother. Ever so proper Grandma had her strong opinions, expectations, and disappointments triggering many a “well” moment, but she did love us dearly and she did succeed in instilling some sense of propriety in me. I learned enough to have great shame when I lazily pour boiling water over a teabag in a mug rather than brewing it in a preheated teapot, but to this day I maintain the proper way to drink tea is in fine porcelain as she always did “up her way.” I am offended and tighten up from tip to toe when offered a cup of tea in a clunky chunky coffee mug. It is just not proper. And to this day, the only proper way to bake brownies is to bake them like Grandma’s: rich, moist, and chewy.


Grandma’s Proper Recipes

Brownies Up Our Way

Preheat oven to 325 F

2 squares of chocolate*
1 cube of margarine*

1 Cup of sugar

Beat in:
2 eggs, one at a time until glossy
1/2 Tsp vanilla
1 Cup Flour

Add: Nuts (optional)

Pour into greased square pan and bake 20-25 minutes

*This was the old Baker’s brand squares of unsweetened chocolate. 1 square is roughly an ounce. Gourmet chocolate was not a thing back then, and I am not inclined to stick with tradition for the sake of sticking with tradition.

** Yuck margarine. My mother always cooked with it unless she was making buttery shortbread. A cube of margarine is how they referred to a stick of margarine back in the day. I relished saying “I told you so” to my mother when science proved me right, that hydrogenated margarine was bad for you. Replace with a stick of butter, roughly 1/2 cup or 8 Tbsp.

Pie crust Up Our Way

3 Cups flour
1/2 Tsp salt
Pinch of baking powder
1/2 Cup shortening or margarine
1/2 Cup cold water

Sift first 3 ingredients. Cut in shortening until fairly fine. Add water in hole in center, stir with fork. (DO NOT OVER HANDLE)
Roll and cut as needed.

I hate to think what Grandma would say if she saw me reaching for a package of pre-made crust in the grocery store. It would be “well” worthy.

Stuffing Up Our Way

Brown bulk sausage and set aside. Sauté celery and onion. Mix sausage, celery, onion, and sage with bread cubes. Salt and pepper to taste.

Grandma cooked the stuffing in the bird, she did not cook the stuffing on the side, and somehow we all lived to tell.

A Proper Cup of Tea Up Our Way

Put tea kettle on to boil, before water reaches boiling point, pour hot water into teapot. When tea kettle just reaches a boil, empty teapot, add tea, and pour boiling water over tea. Let seep 4-5 minutes and give the pot a few back and forth twists. Grandma was fine with teabags.

Grandma would undoubtably have had her tea in an elegant Aynsley cup and saucer poured from a proper tea service. Well, I have sunk to the depths in using a mug but it at least it must be a porcelain mug.  

Gravy Up Our Way
Heat drippings over high heat on stove, whisk in flour to make a roux. Cook until thickened. Add water slowly and whisk vigorously to avoid lumps. Add pepper and lots of salt (gravy needs a lot of salt) to taste.

In a New Orleans cooking class, the instructor swore that the best implement for making a roux is a flat whisk. My mother always used a spiral whisk that could smash the flour lumps while she whisked the liquid into the roux. I use a flat whisk for other sauces but always the spiral whisk for gravy.


Spiral whisk and flat whisk

Reminded of the BABES

You remind me of the babe
What babe? the babe with the power
What power? power of voodoo
Who do? you do
Do what? remind me of the babe
Dance Magic Dance, by David Bowie from the movie Labyrinth

Books are often the topic of discussion at social events. As someone who listens to audiobooks and reads myself to sleep every night, I am always eager to hear about a good one and avidly join in any discussion about books. Reading is a lone wolf activity, but talking about reading is a social mainstay. Social discourse about books can be a random event, when discussion wanders to recent reads, or it can be a formalized and scheduled group event, typically The Book Club. Having just finished a book club selection–and having suffered a bit of impatience to have it read and racked–I was reminded of the BABES. Book clubs come in all shapes and sizes with all manner of rules and expectations, and as a result a club can fit well or fit poorly, but there will never be another one-size-fits-all book club like the BABES.

Origin of the BABES

To find the origin of the BABES, I suppose one really must go back many years, decades if truth be told. As I remember it, two little girls were walking down the street with their dad when they were spied by a woman peering out from her veranda. It must have been summer, and the woman’s girls must have been terribly bored, because she needed playmates for her girls and she needed them now. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Jamie burst forth from the house and halted the little group in their tracks, proposing her girls as their new best friends. Fortunately all the little girls took to each other, the moms subsequently met with equally positive results, and soon Jamie and Priscilla became friends through play dates. Not much later Priscilla’s daughter and mine landed in the same Kindergarten class, Daisy Girl Scout troop, and daisy-picking little girl soccer team. About this time Jame and Priscilla had the idea to start a book club, and I was one of the fortunate mothers-by-loose-association who they thought of to invite.

Memory is a tricky thing at my age, so many years on, but this is what I recall. The first meeting included Jamie (who it turns out is not really a stalker, desperate mothers just do desperate things), Jamie’s Mom (and who does not love a mother and daughter dynamic in the group, unless you are the mother or the daughter), Priscilla (the strolling little girls’ mom met by happenstance), Carol (Jamie’s neighbor and also a mother of a little girl), Joan (Priscilla’s neighbor and mother of an older boy), Krista (Priscilla’s friend recently moved from Chicago), Margot (friend and former real estate agent of Jamie’s, mother of an older boy and a younger daughter) and me (mother of fellow bunch-ball soccer playing, Daisy Scout Kindergartener). We were a gathering of assorted women with different backgrounds, careers, and interests all having one thing in common, a love of books. The first order of business was to select a book–I think it was one Jamie had in mind–and read it for our next meeting.

It was a rather long book as I recall, but I read it cover to cover, marked pages, and made mental notes for discussion. I arrived at the meeting, thoughts in mind and annotated book in hand. I was the only one who had read it. Make no mistake, this was a group of book lovers and everyone had read at least one book since the last meeting, just not that book. They may have been the wiser for avoiding it, I cannot even remember the title so it could not have been that memorable. I think it may have been something fluffy by Colleen McCullough, but would not swear by it. We drank some wine, nibbled some nibbles, and chatted some chats. Thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we decided to give it another try and allow everyone another month to finish the book.

At the next meeting, I was a bit fuzzier about the contents of the book and not quite so ready to discuss it as I had been the month before, but I need not have worried. No one had read it. Clearly what we had was a group of readers who loved reading, but only when that reading was to the beat of their own drum. Our second order of business was to find an alternative for those readers–pretty much everyone in the group–who do not like to be told what they must read. We came up with a brilliant solution, we would collectively select a theme, individually select a book, and discuss how our individual book reflected the theme. All was not lost, we drank some wine, nibbled some nibbles, and chatted some chats and had a marvelous time.

Our first theme was pretty broad, something like a book about American history. I read a fascinating non-fiction book that documented the journey west by wagon train. It was an illuminating read, the narrative relied heavily on source letters and diaries written by travelers on their dangerous and demanding trek. Again I returned with mental notes in mind and annotated book in hand. Everyone had read at least one book–and most had read more than one–but none of those books were related to American history. Well, clearly our theme was too restrictive, so we opened the door even wider. For the next meeting, we would read a historical book about women. It could be fiction, biography, non-fiction, any genre, any historical period, any culture, any anything, it just had to be about women. Here was a theme broad enough to allow every book loving member to find something worth reading. That decided, we moved to the important business of wine, nibble, and chat.

There was loads of fluff and fun to be had with this theme but, not wanting to be caught out as an airhead so soon after meeting this group, I found an interesting non-fiction account of the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts. We gathered once more, everyone looking forward to wines, nibbles and chats. Once again my mental notes and annotated book were as useful as hot chocolate and a down jacket in a heat wave, everyone had done a lot of reading but no one had read a book about the theme. By now, all I had managed to do is get an unearned reputation as being the intellectual in the group when in reality all I was guilty of was being the compliant one.

An interesting thing happened over the course of these meetings. While we drank our wine, nibbled our nibbles, and chatted our chats, we found that many of the chats were about books that each of us had read. And in between meetings, when we were supposed to be reading a certain type of book, many people had read books that others had mentioned. In fact, some people had even begun to bring and loan copies of the books that they had read. Our third order of business, and the thing that really stuck, was to shamelessly keep our designation as a book club but to admit that in reality we were more of a book exchange.

Over time, individuals learned who had similar tastes and grew to trust their recommendations. We could easily have devolved to a social club–wine, nibbles, and chats certainly were a big part of it–but we did devote a good portion of every meeting to discussing and exchanging books. Sometimes, but not often, a single book would make the rounds and eventually we could discuss it. Very few books were enjoyed by everyone, preferences varied, and we were pretty selective as to which books went home with us. Usually only one or two of us would circulate a book based on another’s recommendation, but every now and then a book caught our collective attention; Loneseome Dove by Larry McMurtry and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner come to mind as books enjoyed by all.

Becoming the BABES

A few years passed and, although we were quite comfortable with who and what we were, someone thought we should have a name. We decided that we would give it some thought and return to the next meeting with suggestions. I came up with a name to propose, the GLIB club, for Gossip, Literature, Issues, and Books. Being a working mother of a young child, at this point in my life it would take a high fever, flat tire, and a flash flood to keep me from a night out with the group, but something did happen to keep me from going that night. GLIB was not proposed and in my absence someone proposed BABES, Bay Area Book Enclave and Society.

Having said one size fits all perhaps is a bit too inclusive. When she moved from Chicago, Etta joined us a couple years later and, fitting right in, has been with us these many years. Other people came and went, some moved away and some just did not appreciate the lack of focus and never returned. We had no rules about joining save the one Jamie insisted upon, you had to have read at least one book in your lifetime. There was one person, not with us for long, who did not understood what we were about. I think she had read at least one book in her lifetime but when she hosted the book club it was not evident. We arrived to a table set all round with little pink mirrors and mini-tubes and tubs. Everyone looked as if this was exactly what they expected, sat down, painted their faces, and filled out order forms in triplicate with stubby little pencils. I thought that everyone knew about this in advance except me but I was wrong. No one did, and no one betrayed their surprise and confusion, each one of us thinking that everyone else was aware of the agenda. It was only later when this person drifted away from the BABES did we all realize that each of us was doing our best to go along with the others, but each of us was bitterly disappointed to be subjected to facials and face paint when all we wanted to do was to wine, nibble, and chat about our (different) books.

Nothing Like a BABE

Jamie, who herself has since joined other book clubs, called me a book club slut when I ventured out to another club. I was invited by someone who is quite easy going, or shall we say not at all detail oriented, to go with her to her book club. After being with the BABES, I knew I would like a book club that served wine and spread out tables laden with food, so I went. It was different, everyone had read the book and the discussion went methodically one person at a time around the circle. Only after everyone had spoken their thoughts was discussion allowed. Although it was not quite as social as the BABES, and had far more rules, I did enjoy the insights and discussions about a single book that had been read by everyone in the group. About 5 or 6 meetings into it, someone mentioned that they needed to schedule hosts for the upcoming meetings. I immediately volunteered; after all those times of being the guest and enjoying the hospitality, it was my turn to cook, clean, and burden a table with the weight of floral arrangements, bottles of wine, and piles of food. One woman turned to me as if I had volunteered to serve warm Gatorade and chilled dog food and said coldly, “You are not a member of this group.” She then went on to say, as my face burned with mortification, that I would not be a member of this group, that it would not be fair to other people who had wanted to join this group before me to even consider such a thing, and leaving off just short of telling me it would be a cold day in Hell before I was invited to join. This, in front of the entire group sitting who sat silently as my face grew redder and redder with shame. I did not know what to say, and being speechless was probably the best response as afterwards all I could think was, what a [insert your favorite term for such a person here]. Had the initial invitation come from a person who paid more attention to details, or had the group made it clear that it was exclusive and I a tolerated once or twice guest, I would have not kept coming back like a bad penny. I could have saved them the trouble of telling me, and avoided the humiliation of being told, that I was not welcome.

Currently I am in a short story discussion group, and generally I do not like short stories, but I was specifically invited to this group and so far they have not kicked me to the curb. For a writer to get in and get out, developing character, plot, and setting in just a few words is brilliant. However, so many of the stories we have read are just grim and grimmer. But I love the people in the group and, if I keep my mouth firmly in the shut position–not killing the discussion by being the first to blurt out, “That one was the worst EVER!”–often the discussion uncovers value and interest in the story. Not so I want to read it again, but at least forcing me to reevaluate the “worst ever” and restate it as “a miserable read” with some merit. There are chats and cups of tea, but never wine and seldom nibbles.

My current book club–also by exclusive invitation by virtue of it starting at work and I was working there at the time–is a rotate the book choice through each member format. My experience with the BABES, knowing which person’s recommendations align with my preferences, is reflected here. I look forward to the recommendations of some members and almost always enjoy reading their selection. With others, let us just say I hold my breath and furrow my brow a bit before the book is announced. Sometimes I am pleasantly surprised, sometimes I just slog through it, broadening my horizons but not enjoying the ride. The unique thing about this group is that, not everyone is on site and much of it is conducted remotely via conference calling. There are really good chats, both chats about the book and the many tangents leading from that book discussion, but as to the wine and nibbles it falls short. Even if it were not too early in the day for wine, I would be drinking alone. I could nibble, but in deference to others on the speaker phones and extensions it is probably for the best that I avoid crunching, chomping, and smacking my lips. Other than reading, it is surprising it reminded me of the BABES. But, with or without wine and nibbles, a shared love of reading is a common thread and the basis of a potentially wonderful group.

Lifelong BABES

This loosey goosey group has survived for decades. Over the many years, we have watched our children grow, leave home, and find their own way in the world. Life moved forward between the times that we periodically got together to eat, drink, and be merry. Among us we have lived our lives, spun our stories, suffered our losses, experienced our joys, endured our heartaches, and found our laughter. We grew older together, our life passages passed into collective memory. We begun to meet sporadically rather than regularly and there was much to catch up with and share each time we did. Another rule came into being without anyone ever stating it specifically; each person had an uninterrupted turn to update the others on the twists and turns of her life since last we met. If someone was in need of a pity party, a congratulations, understanding and undivided attention, or just a good laugh for her story, she got it.

Getting together is now a rare event as most of us have moved further and further away from each other, but we still get together when we can. We are people with a shared history, our pasts are in the past but remembered in the present. Months and even years  go by, and we are as comfortable with each other as we were when were young mothers escaping for a night out with the BABES. Time and distance do not erode those bonds. To a person, we will always love drinking our wine, nibbling our nibbles, and chatting our chats. Together.

Vote for (none)

We live in a small town a bit outside the fray. Still, close enough to the fray to have some of the voter diversity that a college community typically offers. Yet with the lines that are drawn by the powers that be, our district is distinctly a bright brilliant shade of red without so much as a tinge of purplish cast. For local and regional elections, my vote is a whistle in the wind in a district scarlet with moderate to love-my-God-love-my-guns (not necessarily in that order) Republicans.

We first realized we might be in an exclusively red area when a candidate at the farmers’ market in town asked for our support. Upon learning that we were not in his district, he said something along the lines of, “You will get no attention from Democrats out there. If you need anything, just contact our office in town.” In our first election cycle here we discovered what he meant. There may be registered Democrats in our town but there are no Democrats in the running for the local or regional offices in our district. Our representation is strictly Republican, and unfortunately so as far as I can tell, of the God-and-guns and not the moderate variety.

In California, with countless propositions and candidates of all stripes, we were provided with a giant sample ballot and a voter booklet that described both the pros and cons of each proposition and statements from the candidates, not to mention the a barrage of mailings, television ads, phone calls, and ringing doorbells. It is a bit quieter around here, a couple of mailings from the better backed (i.e, funded) candidates and that is about it. I did not even know what was on my ballot and had to look it up online to see what decisions were mine to make. In California we had a system whereby if you opted to vote by mail, and–if you did not miss an election cycle–you were automatically mailed a vote-by-mail ballot. No such system here, but having once voted by mail I get an email inviting me to apply for a vote-by-mail ballot. This is a great thing, because often it is the only way I find out there is going to be an election. But we do have early voting.

Early voting is the opportunity to go to the polls anytime from early morning to early evening in the week before the official Election Day. A couple of nights ago I did an online search for my primary ballot, looked at my few choices, and made my decisions in preparation for voting. Yesterday I donned a livin’ on the prairie flannel shirt, the appropriate blend-right-in attire for entering a den of redder than red voters. Sure enough, the two people in front of me were Republican: one a dour and silent man who quietly collected his ballot and bee lined to his voter kiosk with eyes front and expression firmly set, and the other a recently coiffed, immaculately dressed, mostly grey-haired lady with the friendliness and easy chatter so common to many Midwesterners. When asked if she was Republican or Democrat she said, “Republican, but really Independent.” That launched us all into a yes, who-likes-either-party-we-are-all-independent exchange of remarks as the election official printed out her two page ballot. I exhaled, knowing this well dressed and carefully coiffed lady was not likely to be a pushing, shoving, belligerent Donald supporter. Or, if a Donald supporter, certainly not of that ilk. As she walked away to fill out her multi-page ballot, I stepped up, signed in, and with less fear of scowls and Donald-worthy sneers, declared “Democrat” in response to the which party question. One partially covered single-sided page printed out.

I took my little ballot to the private kiosk, with instructions to insert my ballot into the privacy cover before bringing it to the voting machine. There I selected from my limited primary options for national and state level positions. Office after office listed “no candidate filed,” leaving me little to do. My Republican friend swiftly filled out her ballot, carried it to the machine snug in the privacy cover, fed it in the machine, and turned to leave as I followed behind with my covered ballot. My ballot would not go in. The official stood by as I tried to feed it to the machine a few times then stepped in and flipped it this way and that, naked of its cover, and attempted to get the machine to swallow it whole. Finally, removing the feeder cover, we discovered an accordion shaped two-page ballot obstructing my one-pager. Our friend was just stepping through the door but heard the commotion and returned. Heedless of my naked ballot with its few marks, I quickly averted my eyes from the naked accordianed mult-page ballot lest I break all codes of voter secrecy or, worse, be disillusioned by the discovery of which Republican Presidential candidate she had marked. Mine, all this time, was hanging out in all its naked glory. Cleared of the obstruction, we jointly fed my scantily clad and scantily marked page into the machine successfully, my secrets revealed to all who gathered there. After an exchange of a few pleasantries, my eyes still averted from the other ballot, I left everyone to their task of solving the accordian ballot puzzle.

Safe at last, no dirty looks or sneers in my wake for all that exposure. As the door was closing behind me, I heard, “Oh no, she forgot her voting sticker!” The official raced to and reached the door just as I was reopening it to return for my well-earned sticker. “You cannot leave without your sticker,” she said. So there it was, I was still A-OK in spite of my vie en rose; they wanted me to have and proudly wear my “I voted” sticker. Maybe we can all get along.

I do not know if the votes I have cast have ever made a difference. I proudly registered to vote the moment I turned the legal age of 18, my first real step into adulthood and citizenship. Since that time, I have made it my mission to vote in every election. It is true that so many have put their efforts and even their lives and safety in peril for the simple right to vote, and that alone should inspire me. But the real reason I vote? I believe exercising the right to vote gives me the right to share my opinions and voice my complaints. Because–in spite of the many vote for none options–I vote in the hopes that we will one day elect people who, regardless of party affiliation, can get along and work together to solve problems as cordially as we the voters, from different parties and different backgrounds, were able to do in our little polling place. That, and that one day they will draw some reasonable district lines.