"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

December 21, 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter

The three deer that we raised from near infancy, before Christmas outside of our home in 2010
(with chicken house behind). Sadly, the deer with the injured leg died on Christmas Day.
The other two are at our neighbor's farm, free to come and go, where the cattle aren't around to scare them.
They have been glimpsed frequently all year and the doe was even seen with twin fauns.
It is warm and balmy here in Kentucky, more mud season, really, and even my original nine chickens, almost three years old, have started to lay eggs again after their long autumnal molt. It hardly feels bleak or even like midwinter! And yet this lovely English carol, by Gustav Holst composed to a poem by Christina Rossetti (1872), is so beautiful that I wanted to share it with you on the Winter Solstice. I have sung it many times in various choirs and it is one of my favorite Christmas carols, its message both simple and profound.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

A happy Christmas and blessed New Year to you all as this will be my last post of 2011 ~ I think.

You come back when you're ready!


December 17, 2011

I Wonder As I Wander

An old barn on our Kentucky farm, now fallen in completely, that is like an Appalachian manger. 
I'm sorry that we were unable to restore it or even keep it standing as I mourn these old structures.

I know I said I would not post again this month but I have a few free moments and wanted to share the story of my favorite American Christmas carol with you––and this one is truly American in every sense.

When I was a child I was fortunate to be privy to, and ultimately share, my father's musical interests. A Music major at the College of Wooster in Ohio, my father was an interim and occasional organist for many churches in the Akron area for over thirty years until the late 1990s. Music was his true and abiding passion. [His vocation was as a bank branch manager for several decades.]

So picture a suburban living room in the 1960s, a bit drab and beige with some gold tones for good measure, with a stereo hi-fi at one end of it. My father would come home from work, put on an LP record (that's "Long Playing" 33rpm record for you youngsters), still in his white shirt and tie, and often conduct along with the music. Sometimes we'd just listen and he'd interject and share with me what he knew about a particular piece of music. Under his tutelage I was exposed to Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Vierne and the more modern strains of Aaron Copland. From an early age, I learned the individual sounds of the instruments and the complexities of the fugue state. I learned about dissonance and harmony and the joys of a simple melody. [Later on the 1970s there would be the pop tunes from Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters and Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass.] I spent my childhood watching him, absorbing the music, begging for favorites to be replayed, and even, when no one was looking, inventing choreography and singing along to popular musicals and the more obscure (Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, anyone?). I may well have missed my true calling!

For about a month at Christmas the house was filled with the dulcet crooning of Andy Williams, the sonorous bass of Ed Ames and the more raucous singing of Mitch Miller––even the folksy warmth of The Kingston Trio, whose "Last Month of the Year" Christmas album is probably my all-time favorite. [In the 1970s this would be rivaled by the quiet and soulful "Rocky Mountain Christmas" by John Denver.] Even when my father was at work, my mother would play Christmas music to fill our days. The music from their collection of Christmas albums is emblazoned on my soul in that sentimental way that music can muster. It formed the essential soundtrack of our holidays. Sometimes, for reasons both bitter and sweet, it can be painful to hear these albums again (and yes, I have several on CD now).

A scene from Eli's award-winning heirloom manger–built of local cedar and manger people made out of clothespins.

One of the most haunting songs for me was Ed Ames' recording of the Appalachian carol, "I Wonder As I Wander." The lyrics read:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God's Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have it, 'cause he was the King.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

I always knew of its "Appalachian" origins from the liner notes, but only recently learned that it was composed from a Kentucky folk balladeer by the name of John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) from Louisville. [And how would I know while spending childhood Christmases in northeastern Ohio that I would one day be living in Kentucky?]

Niles had heard a woman singing the song in Murphy, North Carolina and set about to record it. Here is more about the history of the song. And here is another choral rendition that isn't bad at all [I believe this arrangement may be from Englishman, John Rutter].

It is such a simple and beautiful carol and I love to hear it as much as my favorite Appalachian hymn, "What Wondrous Love Is This?" (which we sung, as a congregation, at our wedding). Both are written in a minor key so there is a natural sense of haunting melancholy and pondering to heighten the wonderment that is felt in the lyrics to these songs. There is likely even an African American Spiritual origin to the melodies.

Merry Christmas to you all and always remember to enjoy the music ~

You come back when you're ready!


PS. In case you are wondering where the many albums are now, they were donated to the Music Department at the College of Wooster in 2008 in loving memory of my father, James Henry Seiberling. He never discussed with me where he would like them to go but after spending seven years in storage at our house in New Hampshire, and prompted by our move South, I decided that he might have liked that his extensive and eclectic collection remain intact and shared with others. The most obvious choice seemed to be the present and future music students at his alma mater where he gave so generously over the years (and where they would have the state-of-the-art equipment, in a CD world, to play them). I hope that Wooster's music students are enjoying them in musical theory and appreciation courses as much as I did all those years ago in our Ohio living room.

December 1, 2011

At the Holidays, Less Is Always More

In recent years, since our move from New Hampshire, I've kept decoration to a minimum.
This is because so much is still in boxes and because we no longer have nine fireplace mantels!
Over the past few years, the holidays have become all about adjusting my formerly high expectations. Things happen: sickness, busy schedules, invariable moves or life changes. The important thing is to remember, first and foremost, what the holidays are all about: reaffirming our spiritual selves and/or being with family or friends in a relaxed, festive setting and celebrating those relationships. Of course, both aspects are easier said than done. What I've been dealing with, however, these past few years is a good old case of the holiday blahs and the overwhelming bittersweetness of Christmas Past (family departed or no longer near, places gone, a new 'familiar'). So it's been time to revise, rethink and reconsider what the holidays mean to us and how much is realistic these days.

This year I have been planning to sing with the Pleasant Hill Shaker Singers on Saturday, a musical group that I've joined in the past year. Unfortunately, I've had a lingering and rather bad case of a bronchial deal which set in hard after Thanksgiving. So I likely will not be able to sing or even attend, even though I've been looking forward to this for months.

Cookie bakes, like getting together with
friends or family to make and give cookies,
are also a lot of fun. I did this in 2008
with some of my Mennonite friends
[for some recipes that I used: click here].
About six months ago I started planning a Cookie Swap for some friends, from near and far, on our farm here in Kentucky. I invited friends on Facebook, I started making lists, I was even getting ready to send out the real invitations, too. Well, since that time we've realized there will be a big basketball tournament for our oldest son on the same weekend. As we've committed to that sports life for the next several months, and not knowing exactly when his games will be that day (and not wanting to miss them), I can't really plan a big event at the farm that weekend. When I suggested the "snow date" of the following weekend, it was understandably not an option for most everyone as they all have prior commitments: some family from Tennessee couldn't even come up the first weekend, after planning on it for months. Things happen.

In the meantime, the day after Thanksgiving––and planned just as the turkey was roasting––we drove six hours to see an old friend in Akron, Ohio. As Robin pointed out, we have known each other almost 45 years! That's since kindergarten in 1967 at Old Trail School, my friends. We've seen each other, and our families, a handful of times since our high school years but each time it is as if we just pick right up where we left off. There is such a comfort and longevity to our friendship and it truly warmed my heart to see her–and the city where I grew up (and one of the most special places there). It was crazy to do as I was starting to feel the effects of the cough, but had just considered it fall allergy-generated at the time.

Santa Claus and my festive husband at Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, just last week.

Stan Hywet was built by my great-grandparents
and will celebrate its centennial in 2015.
The other thing we did in Akron on our 36-hour whirlwind was to tour Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens for their annual "Deck the Hall" Holiday extravaganza. If you are near the Akron, Ohio region this holiday, I highly recommend this for a shot of seasonal joy. We've been to this finely preserved museum home many times over the years, but never at the holidays, and we all dressed up and had a blast. The morning before our trip, while getting the Thanksgiving dinner prepared, I figured we'd be spending a "quiet" weekend at home. But were able to do this because of Hilton Honors points that allowed us a free night's stay, the fact that we had to run up north of Columbus at some point before winter weather for a pick-up of some equipment any way, and because we knew this kind of opportunity is slim-to-none. Also, there was a clear and balmy weather window and we could cover our animals for 48 hours through means of feed delivery and shelter.

So the point of all of this is that I've learned––a lot––as a woman of a certain age, of any age: when you make plans, God laughs. But, most of all, I'm learning to embrace the spontaneous, especially at the holidays. It is often doable and very affordable at the same time.

Here are other sure fire and affordable ways to preserving your sanity and making the holidays special for you and your family:

Henry learns how easy it is to make homemade cocoa.
  • Is it snowing out? Stop what you're doing right now, go outside and run around in it, and then make some hot chocolate (it doesn't even have to be homemade, but that's an easy proposition) and pop in a favorite Christmas movie or classic old television program to watch as a family.
  • Record, or watch as a family, the television premiere of the documentary Becoming Santa on December 7 at 9pm on the OWN Network! My old friend Jack Sanderson, who stars in it and wrote it, promises that you might just believe again or at least find some holiday magic. If concerned about younger children viewing the film he says: "We say that the film is not really for anyone who is expected a visit from Santa. That said, when children that believe in Santa have watched, we have explained that Santa has many regional representatives." We can't wait to watch as a family and I've also ordered a few as gifts on Amazon.com ~
  • A pre-Christmas vacation "snow day" from school (and, ideally, your job) is like a gift in itself: take the time to just enjoy your children and don't worry about gift-wrapping or baking or anything else, unless it is something you can, and want to do, all together: make a gingerbread house, make cookies, or just watch movies in your pajamas!
  • Is Handel's Messiah playing in your area? (Most small towns even have a Messiah-sing these days.) Take your family to hear it and you will be filled with the most beautiful holiday music ever written. Better yet, sing along with it, as many allow. It's usually free.
  • Do you want to make cookies but don't want the fuss? Buy some premade cookie dough or a mix, whip up some cookies, and decorate with sprinkles and canned frosting. (Did I just say this? Really!? Mrs. I-Won't-Use-a-Cake-Mix-Catherine? But seriously, it's not about what kind of cookie, it's about the memories made while making it.) 
  • Find a group of friends and go caroling at a local nursing home: it will warm their hearts and also warm yours, free of charge. 
  • Gather up a box of groceries and take them to your local food pantry. They are especially in need this year. Or drop an anonymous basket of goodies on the door step of a neighbor and mark it "LOVE, SANTA."

Watching movies and being cozy by the fire on a New England winter's day.

It's very hard to commit to not giving gifts at the holidays and I know our holidays will never be like that. However, you can modify your expectations whether for economy or sanity. Here are some ideas for easy, affordable gift-giving:

  • Give fewer gifts and limit your list: do you have to give each child in a family a gift? How about a special book or edible gift for the entire family to enjoy?
  • Buy on sale throughout the year or when you see something affordable and "just perfect" for someone. Make a running list, so you don't forget, and hide items in a secret cupboard, or box, in your house (just remember where you put them!). Throughout the year, I also like to pick up quality, fun items for friends when I see them at yard sales or craft fairs or my very favorite haunt: used bookstores.
  • Make creative coupons for special favors or gifts-in-kind, and either print them off your computer or make simple cards (this is especially good for children to do when they have a gift budget).
  • Mail order can be your friend: look for special bargains around the holidays and the latest enticement, free shipping! You're also saving on gas and the hassle of malls.
  • Do you have a special magazine that you enjoy? Support print media and, when renewing your subscription, give one to a friend. Most magazines that we subscribe to are offering 2-for-1 renewal offers now.
  • Make and give something homemade: baked, sewn, knitted, crocheted, crafted or even preserved in your kitchen earlier that summer. [I am planning on raiding my preserve pantry big time––and my homemade vanilla stores! Here's the blog post on how I made it.]
  • If you don't craft yourself, support those who do! You can often find some great holiday decor, floral arrangements and homemade items at local craft fairs and holiday bazaars. You are also supporting local artisans when you do so.
  • This is a postcript: don't forget that my book, The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses is still available from my website at the affordable price of $16.90, including shipping! I am happy to sign and inscribe (and ship directly) to anyone on your list! It makes a great and affordable gift for the foodie, food historian, or kitchen-lover in your life!

Above all, less is more. Here's an easy step to preserving your time and your mind this December: make a list, or several lists, on a quiet day in November, perhaps even in the afterglow of Thanksgiving, and check them twice. I'm also here to say, from experience, that most of the time as a mother or woman, you just need to give yourself the break that you need at the holidays and unplan. Go ahead. Do it! Take, along the way as my great-grandmother used to say to her children, "the ruthlessness to rest." If you can, take a nap! Above all, get more sleep than you might otherwise take for yourself: whether working or at home with the family. So, above all, don't overschedule. To give yourself chunks of time, first overplan: dream big, then take away. You'll feel liberated when you do.

New Year's Resolution Tea with friends!
Here's how! First, put on the list/calendar those absolutes: meetings, get-togethers, school or church events, and work-related expectations and then add in everything else. Allow yourself the fun of going big–but only at first and only on paper. 

Then ask yourself and consult with your family, especially if there are events that might include them, the following question around each event or activity
  1. Does this event or project enhance the holiday season or add stress to it? 
  2. Is it all family-inclusive and not more individually-based? 
  3. Does it celebrate my family or friends? 
  4. Does it involve a lot of extra planning? 
  5. Is it fun or meaningful, or both? 
  6. Is it something that might wait until January (eg. think New Year's cards/letters or something as simple as an email or Facebook card on-line; even gift-giving and lunch with friends: one of my favorite things to do was a New Year's Resolution Tea with two friends back in New Hampshire–we'd write out our goals, have some goodies, and share gifts)? 
  7. Is it something school or work-related that you really have to be doing? [And believe me, from prior experience, some schools can really pile on the holiday stress with so many extras.]
  8. Above all, if you are completely overwhelmed or have a tight budget (and who doesn't these days?), plan no more than one involved task or event that involves the entire family. 

After going big for a bit––as I'm want to do with any list of goals––cross off those things that don't matter or that perhaps you can do at a later time (or "next year"). Forget about them! Remember this holiday mantra: when in doubt, go small and stay home! Less is always more at the holidays!  

This is one of my favorite Christmas photos of all time: my friend Linda
and her grandson on the Santa Train in Putney, Vermont (and Henry by the window).
This was our annual family holiday event and in 2007 we brought our friends along.

A magical Christmas Eve! (2010)
No one is saying that you have to use all of your holiday decorations, or light up your house like a birthday cake, or get your tree up the day after Thanksgiving after chopping it down at the nearest tree farm, or shop until you drop throughout Black Friday or Cyber Monday or even Shop Local Saturday. You don't even have to make a single Christmas cookie! Your children will find their greatest happiness not by the sweet froth and manic frenzy that we might whip up for them, but by the time we spend with them and by the traditions you make together.

Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are a Christmas day dinner no matter where we are.

In recent years we'd visit Bamma after Christmas.
Something else to keep in mind: in the old English tradition, Christmas has twelve traditional days of feasting and celebration until Epiphany on January 6th. Meanwhile, Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights, has eight. That's a lot of extra time to stretch things out, so use it! In our house we often do things "on the list" after Christmas: maybe that's when we have friends over for an impromptu dinner, or the boys have a few friends in for a slumber party, or when I sit down to write cards while the boys are happily playing with their new Lego sets (well, "happily" doesn't always last as long as I might like). It is sometimes when we plan a dinner at a restaurant and take in a special blockbuster movie. I might try some new recipes or plan special foods for an at-home New Year's Eve family night. It's also a great time to gather extended family together from further away: perhaps everyone wants to have their own Christmas at home with their immediate family. There is nothing wrong with saying, "let's gather this year between Christmas and New Year's" or, "how about Easter instead?"

This will be our first Christmas without Aunt Cynthia and we'll miss her.

I heard something quite profound on a documentary the other day about hyper-parenting. After mentioning the all-true reality of children only being "with us for so long, and then they're gone, like that," this father said "the more time we spend with our children when they are young, the more time they'll want to spend with us as adults." That was like a slap across the face. Yes, it's not about the perfect holiday: it's about the imperfect life, all bound together with the ones we love, and enhanced by the foods, rituals and traditions we love––for one, hopefully relaxed, month at the end of each year. Above all, do what you love to do and be with the people you love.

And on that note I'm going to keep things simple and make December a blog-free month this year. Yes, that's right. There are many old Christmas and holiday chestnuts over at In the Pantry where you can search the archives at your leisure.

Just keep smiling and remember the wonder of Christmas in a child's face!
In the meantime, happy holidays, a very Merry Christmas, and you come back when you're ready! We'll see you in 2012 ~

NOTE: Readers of this blog may remember this list–of my pre-holiday 'to do' list, written way back in January? Well, I haven't looked at it all year until tonight and surprisingly I've accomplished much of it (except for the big February clean-out and inventory of the boxes and boxes of Christmas decor!) And, because of that task, we have yet to start decorating the house...hopefully this weekend. If not, next. I love to make lists and to plan, but it's all in the execution. Sometimes I just absorb what I write: "so it was written, so it shall be done."

Another tidbit? I have not sent Christmas cards in three years. However, I still have the letters and the photos that I printed out for some of them. Best laid plans... So this year, friends and family will receive at least the cards and photos! I'm using things up and why not well-intentioned Christmas cards that never got written or sent when intended? [Yes, I even have the postage...]

Our Kentucky farm Christmases have been quiet, simple and lovely.
Someday I have plans for a major matriarchy with lots of family gatherings
in 'Catherine's Farmhouse of Dreams.' Build it and they will come!

Here is a link to a blog posting 
about our first Kentucky Christmas.
May your days be merry and bright:
And may all your Christmases be white!
I have lived in many special places over the years, or have been a part of them,
but our house in Hancock will always be 'Catherine's Christmas House of Dreams.'

November 23, 2011

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

I am so very thankful for farm-raised food from our fields and pastures–and grown in the fields of other farmers that we know.

I am grateful for a husband who knows how to fill the barns with "the harvest cheer" and likes to fetch the odd thing at the grocery store, too. [Ok, so he likes to shop and fill the pantries and freezers as much as I do: enabler !] 

I am blessed to have three wonderful children, each unique and special, and who love me no matter what I do or say or how un-motherly I can be at times. And who love my cooking so much that they refuse to go anywhere else for Thanksgiving dinner because they don't want to miss a single homemade morsel from their "Mama Goo." [Or who even visit from afar in October just to be here for my birthday and an "early" Thanksgiving celebration! We miss you Addie!]

And I am grateful for my friends and faraway family who, here or there or through the internet, visit when they can in heart and mind or by meeting me to share a laugh or a cup of tea.

Have a blessed, warm, safe and bountiful Thanksgiving ~

You come back when you're ready! 


November 16, 2011

Farmhouse Thanksgiving Stuffing

One of my favorite Thanksgiving decorations, from our son Henry, made many years ago.

Our first Thanksgiving in our Kentucky doublewide in 2008!
I've had a few requests this year for my stuffing and thought I'd blog about it as I do believe in sharing, even the most sacred of family recipes! When home from college one Thanksgiving break, way back in the early 80s [and no, I was not a Madonna fan: definitely a Cure, Morrissey, Kate Bush, U2, English Beat, and general British New Wave kind of gal], I came up with this recipe. It has been minimally tweaked over the years. I first assembled it with various ingredients we had on hand and additions I wanted to try. Whenever I make it, the stuffing reminds me of long-ago Thanksgivings altogether on our New Hampshire farm, many years ago, and how my visiting father especially loved it on the few times he joined us from Ohio.

Thanksgiving for 13: the table set at our old house in Hancock in 2007 (our last in New Hampshire).

Temple and our friend, Peter Sawyer,
at our second Thanksgiving in 2007.
This will easily stuff an 18-25# bird quite nicely, with plenty of leftovers. I usually make this much because then I freeze a bunch for roast chicken throughout the winter and my kids always beg for this stuffing throughout the year. [I've taken out the water chestnuts since I've been married, even though Temple didn't really know what they were until I mentioned them! But they give it a nice crunch. I've tried other nuts, including chestnuts, but the water chestnuts hold up the best.]

The added fruity sweetness pairs well with the savory additions and the crunch of the water chestnuts. And don't forget the gravy!

Catherine's Farmhouse Thanksgiving Stuffing (c. 1985)
  • 2 bags of favorite stuffing mix (I like to include one that is corn meal-based)
  • 1-2 loaves shredded up stale bread (or you can do this a few days before and leave it in a bowl on top of the fridge to dry)
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 1 very large sweet onion (or 2 large), chopped
  • 2 Tbsps minced garlic (fresh or jarred)
  • 5 scallions, chopped fine
  • 1 large bunch of celery, chopped (inc. leafy bits)
  • 1-1.5 pounds of sweet Italian sausage (links or ground)
  • 1-1.5 pounds of hot Italian sausage (" ")
  • 2 cans of sliced water chestnuts (packed in water)
  • 4 Granny Smith apples (or other crisp/tart apples that won't mush upon cooking, like Winesaps)
  • 1 bag of fresh cranberries
  • 1 can of whole cranberry sauce
  • 1 large bunch parsley, chopped fine
  • 1 small bunch fresh sage, chopped fine
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
  • 2 quarts liquid (I combine chicken stock with apple cider, sometimes a bit of wine)

You will need one very large bowl to make this and a big skillet.

Two days before: cube up fresh or stale bread or shred and place in large bowl, uncovered.

Evening before you roast the bird (or very early in morning) esp. if you have a very cold place where you can keep stuffing mix covered up:

1. Add two bags of stuffing mix to prepared bread in bowl.

2. In large skillet, in the two sticks of melted butter, sauté the onion, garlic, scallions and celery together until translucent and nicely brown (but not overly so). Set aside.

3. Chop water chestnuts and Granny Smith apples (those should be small but not diced). Add to large skillet with vegetable mixture and lightly sauté. Add bag of cranberries and cook, on low, until they pop.

4. In another skillet, crumble and brown both kinds of Italian sausage. Drain and set aside.

5. Chop parsley and sage until fine. Add part to each of the above skillet mixtures and toss. Sprinkle, also, with kosher salt and ground black pepper to taste.

6. To large bread bowl, add all of the above skillets full. Toss with hands or large spoons.

7. To the tossed and combined mixture, add 1 can of cranberry sauce (this can be homemade but make sure you use whole berry sauce) and gradually add the 2 quarts liquid, combining as you go. You may not need all two quarts (reserve any unused for your gravy).

8. Make sure you taste and adjust liquids or seasonings! (You will have everyone trying to eat this before you get it in the bird.)

9. Stuff your bird right before roasting and set aside a dish to bake for the table and/or put right into freezer containers! There will be plenty of extra.

You come back when you're ready!


November 14, 2011

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

We have much to be thankful for in our home and on our farm and in our family. I've realized, for many reasons, that I need to take a bit of a blog break so I can better focus on my family, and home, and the coming holidays––and not the Internet.

I've written about the holidays quite a bit on my other blog, In the Pantry. If you go to that blog and enter "Thanksgiving" in the Search box, you will find many posts from the past six years relating to this favorite holiday. As you will also discover, Thanksgiving has always been a special time in our home. Here in Kentucky it is different: quieter, less over-the-top, back to basics. Lovely, simple, just us. As it should be but I do miss larger family gatherings and the friends that we'd have each year in different combinations. Our "farmhouse of dreams" will probably return us to those glory meals and gatherings but for now we relish these more intimate feasts.

I'm catching up with book orders, too, and this is just a reminder that The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses [Gibbs Smith: 2007] makes a great gift for the foodie, domestic or kitchen lover in your life. Go to www.CatherinePond.com for ordering information or email me at info@CatherinePond.com for a special offer ($10 a copy + shipping! Hardbound and photographed!) and mention you saw it on Farmwife at Midlife. I am happy to sign and/or inscribe your books, also.

It is certainly pantry season around here as we have finished filling the cupboards and freezers full of good food and the bounty with which we have been blessed. Which reminds me, also, to donate to our local food pantries: money or food. They are especially low and hard hit in this economy. Every little bit helps.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

And, you come back when you're ready––


November 11, 2011

11:11 on 11-11-11

Veterans' Day is, of course, weighted with its own importance and meaning but 11:11 is a time, and number, of great numeric and spiritual significance for me.

Since early in 2001 I started seeing 11:11 almost daily as I was doing things about our former home. Sometimes I would see it in the car. I'm one of these people who often knows what time it is, give or take a few minutes, just by my internal clock. And, I also don't really look at clocks much unless they happen to catch my eye. And, I suppose the digital clock on the stove or in the car can catch the eye in more of a way than a clockface.

So the persistence of seeing 11:11 started to intrigue me. What did it mean? Why 11:11 and not a daily dose of 2:23 or any other number pattern? This number kept haunting me for the next eighteen months or so.

On the night of October 27, 2002, just a few days short of my fortieth birthday, I realized its significance. My father, who had been in failing health, was pronounced dead (such a cold term) at 2am on Sunday morning, October 27, exactly when the hospital clocks automatically turned back for Daylight Savings. This was its own time irony, as this was a time of year that he loved as it helped justify his inner cave bear. [He also liked Halloween and the excitement of the October playoffs and World Series. He loved astronomy and mathematics, but he especially loved playing the organ, and his devotion to his family. He was also a merry prankster and liked a good practical joke.]

As his three children we had the difficult and weighted prospect of having to let our father go. He knew what was happening and what the alternatives were as his system slowly started to shut down in his last week of earthly life. Late in the night of October 26 we gathered around him one last time and said our goodbyes. He nodded and squeezed our hands. He had accepted what was and although he could not speak he could nod vigorously and even try to write. This is so intensely personal and there is more to say, but not now.

When they took him off of what had been his life support for his last few days, I noticed the time. It was 11:11pm. I didn't really appreciate the significance of that until I returned home a week later, to New Hampshire. The old Art Deco electric clock that he had given me, which had sat on his bedside table as a child, had been playing peculiar games that week. My husband, who was in New Hampshire with our daughter and young boys, had awoken on the morning of October 27, around 2am, and saw that the red, glowing night light portion of the clock was illuminated. The well-worn nightlight feature, with its original small bulb, hadn't worked for many months. He thought it strange and didn't tell me about it. A week later we compared notes and realized what had happened.

This clock was something my father was going "to pitch," as he'd say. And he was good at throwing things out! Not one for sentiment, except in memory or in special objects–or musical works–he kept very little. I was always attached to that clock. I liked its Deco look, its pewter finish, and the red glowing warmth from its clock face. I had spent the night in his old room in the house where he grew up, many times as a child, and for an entire summer before I went to college. My father's bedroom was right next to my grandparents' room, with a shared door. The reassurance of their presence through the wall and the door next to me, and the glowing clock face, were reminders that I was not alone in their big old post-Victorian house that smelled of rosewood and cool plaster.

My father had given me this clock while I was visiting him in his Akron apartment when my daughter was much younger. "You want that old thing? It's wiring is probably shot but, OK, if you want it, take it home with you." He didn't really see the sense in it. The clock was older than he was and probably from the 1920s or early 1930s, still with its original cord.

I couldn't resist this once in a lifetime opportunity. Before it was 11:12am,
I called my traveling husband to say "Happy 11:11, 11-11-11!"
There is more to this story but this is a blog, after all. I couldn't let this day pass by without commenting on 11:11. I've since discovered that this is not a singular phenomenon. There are entire websites about 11:11. Maybe it means something else greater than my own story.

But every time any of my immediate family sees 11:11 we call out from wherever we are and to whomever is listening, "Hi, Grandpa!"

You come back when you're ready!


Postscript. I forgot to mention that approximately six months after my father died, in April 2003, the glowing red light bulb from the clock's night light extinguished again. This happened on the night we set our clocks forward an hour. My father was always the merry prankster. I haven't used the clock since it was packed in a box for our Kentucky move in August 2008. But it's in a box and when I find it, I will plug it in again.

November 5, 2011

A Quilting: Friendship, Harmony, Unity

Two years ago my daughter and I were part of a unique experience. A group of women from the local Old Order Mennonite community in Casey County, Kentucky, led by several of my good friends in this faith, wanted to make a 'Friendship' quilt for my husband's December birthday. That summer I had selected the fabrics, and decided upon the pattern, with my friend Anna. She then pieced the blocks together and took each of thirty-six blocks to different families and individuals that we knew in the community. In late October we gathered at her father's house, a central location, to quilt the sewn back and front together and to bind it off.

All day the women worked at the quilt frame in the late October sunlight that filtered through the southern side of the home. At noon we took a break with a meal my daughter and I had provided–of meatloaf and many sides, if I recall–and then we enjoyed a potluck dessert with a grand (surprise) birthday cake for my 47th birthday. All of that time I'd been trying to keep the quilting a surprise from my husband, which, believe me, was very hard to pull off, and here my friends were also wanting to surprise me. It worked! Anna's daughter Norma made the beautiful birthday cake.

I picked many vintage fabrics and patterns that were semi-neutral 
and not overly feminine (well, a little bit), because it was Temple's gift, after all!

I didn't write about it at the time on my older blog, In the Pantry–except for the initial fabric purchasing–because I had felt like it might be violating a very special, and almost sacred, occurrence in my life. Of course, I took many photographs, being careful not to include faces if I could help it. I wanted to document the occasion, as it's not everyday that one is given a handmade friendship quilt or gets to see part of its creation, and most in attendance understood this. [One of the more conservative church women spoke out about this, however, and got me in a bit of trouble, something which soured me a bit for a time. But, as I explained, while quilting is the women's way of self-expression, photography and writing are mine.]


Our daughter was visiting between resort job seasons and tried her hand at stitching, also.

Friendship quilts are often made before a woman's wedding or as a send off,
or welcome, to someone in the community from the other women (or families).
A beautiful birthday cake from Norma.
I put in a few stitches for luck–
mainly because my cooking
exceeds my sewing ability!

Team work! Two Mennonite girls transport rolled-up quilt 
after the quilting. There were several quilts done at the same time.

Many of these women are the most industrious women I know: they easily run domestic circles around me and, sometimes, I wish I could just turn the ideas and thoughts that clatter around my brain off (A.D.D. much?) and try and work more as they do in and around the house. [To stay on task, and so well, is an enviable attribute.] A quilting provides a necessary pause away from all of that domestic routine and solitude, and a time for more intimate discussions, a chance to share news, some polite well-meaning "gossip" or to share recipes. These women run their houses like well-run machines and I swear they could run the world if we let them! Being a part of that day showed me what women can do when they put their minds to it, in whatever capacity: how, when working together, they can make great things. It was a truly humbling for me. [After four years at a women's college in the early 1980s, and in the workforce, of course I understand that women can work together–I just had never seen this kind of collaborative effort before with such a great number of people. Or, to be honest, I'd not been privy to women working together so well, in any setting. The men in their communities work together the same way on building projects.]

A quilting–like a church-cleaning, auctions and other occasions–is a chance for the women 
of the Old Order Mennonite (or Amish) faith to join together, only in a more intimate way. 
This is also what most farm women did in rural communities, and as far back as early American times. 

What I realized today as I was changing our bed, and still thinking so much on this recent church split, is that the quilt we use and see every day represents these friendships and acquaintances that we hold dear. There is such harmony in its pattern and yet great diversity, too. And there, stitched on each block, are the names and individual embellishments from so many families in the community–from both churches. I can run my fingers over the stitching and think of each one, each gift they that have given us with their participation and handiwork–and many with their friendship.

On Christmas Day in 2009 we assembled at the home of Anna and Melvin Hurst to sing hymns together in the afternoon. The day was dreary and dark but the songs of the many gathered there lifted us up to the place you should be on Christmas. I felt a stark kind of spiritual experience and to be a part of their fellowship made me feel all the more welcome here on a holiday that can be hard so far away from one's familiar. 

After the singing, Anna and I and some other women walked out with the quilt. My husband was very surprised, moved, and, for once in his life, speechless.

Today I look at that quilt and am reminded of how well this community of Old Order Mennonites can and does work together. They are the first to show up for local blood drives and in times of disaster, working for weeks after the Liberty flood of 2010, among other things, including rallying around their own people in need or crisis. They are always the first to help each other, despite their church differences.

A quilt of many colors: here Anna and her daughter Grace hold up the top,
minus the final row at the bottom, a few weeks before the quilting.

The quilt represents beauty, order, benevolence, and individuality amongst unity. We were blessed to receive it and my daughter and I were blessed to be a part of its coming together (even though we only added a few stitches for the sake of doing so–seamstresses we are not!).

And it will be a constant reminder to me that among discord there can always be a quiet, but resonant, harmony, a purposeful mission, a joining together in force despite differences of opinion or ways of worship. A reminder that, as with most things, it is the final outcome or greater glory that is important and not necessarily the details. If only I could take it to each family and remind them of this, too, despite our many differences in lifestyle and worship, and what it means to me: especially now in the clamor of their community's internal upheavals. 

The quilt is like an intricate rosary of fabric and stitches and handmade, heartfelt care. It has warmed our bed and our hearts for the past two years. When I look upon it, at times, I will say prayers of benediction for every one of those who have given it to us and for the healing of the community that has been such a part of our lives here in Kentucky. 

You come back when you're ready!