The heart of a garden

Sometimes writing a blog post reveals more to me than it does to you. That may be the case here. I started out to write about “Getting my spring on” and how nice it has been to get back outside after a seemingly endless winter. But as I typed I began to see that for me, this year, “Getting my spring on” meant a whole lot more.

Forget lilacs and peonies. One of the sure signs of spring here has always been moving the wicker sofa from the family room (where it “winters”) back out to the porch. Then we bring up the wicker rocker and side tables from the basement and the chairs that fit around the dining table out there, and life is good. This is where we eat most of the summer, have drinks with friends, read the paper, check our email, plan our day over coffee.

But the best way for me to get my spring on is digging in the dirt. It’s creative to coax color and texture from seedlings and soil, to pick the right plants for the right spot, to pair colors and textures for the best effect. But it’s a lot more. Planting, pruning and even weeding has always been therapeutic for me, as I think it is for many others.

The power of digging in the dirt

One of my “renovated beds,” with new lilacs and transplanted daylilies.

Gardening is a nurturing process, caring for the plants while enjoying time outside, being nurtured by nature. This is a lesson I learned from my maternal grandfather, who always had a garden. I’m sure the vegetables began as a depression-era effort to supplant the family budget. Grandpa tended the garden; Grandma canned. This morphed into a larger “victory garden” in World War II; it was one way they could support the war effort and I suspect it kept them busy and managed stress while sons, nephews and friends were scattered around the globe.

In addition to the tomatoes, beets, beans, carrots, and more, there were always flowers: geraniums, dahlias, phlox, marigolds. (Thinking back, I wonder how he squeezed so much into that tiny, 25-foot Chicago lot!) Happily he passed that gene on to me! (This totally skipped my mother, whose garden was limited to whatever Grandpa planted for her and that was totally lost on my father, who efficiently mowed down more than one rose bush without recognizing what it was!)

This year I have found my garden to be especially nurturing.

I wrote a few posts ago about suddenly, unexpectedly, losing a very good friend. Her death left me reeling and I was unable to come to terms with it until I got into the garden. I am sure time itself had something to do with it, but the simple tasks of raking and cleaning up the beds, of digging up the weeds and dividing and transplanting some perennials, of dealing with the life of the garden, brought me some peace. (This would be easily explainable if she was an avid gardener, but it’s actually her husband who has a green thumb and has mentored my gardening efforts. Sherry just loved flowers and and for her the garden was a natural source!)

So, this is the year I discovered that gardens also yield comfort.

Daylillies and coneflowers last summer.

I am, however, still left with lingering weeds, the purple coneflowers gone wild, daylilies desperate for division, herbs that need tending and some ideas to renovate tired beds. After assuming I had finally nailed the basic landscape at our house, the light conditions abruptly changed. The large ash tree that shaded our front yard fell victim to the dreaded ash borer. Not only do we miss the shade, but a bed with a number of shade-loving perennials was totally crisped last summer. In the back yard we had a bank of upright arborvitae along the southern lot line. They threw a lot of shade, but they got way too big, and then damaged by a heavy snow a few winters ago. We had them removed & replanted that area with hydrangeas last year. It looks terrific, but it’s pretty sunny now. (Aha! A new gardening opportunity!)

I’ve now spent some time moving things from sun to shade and shade to sun. (I think of this as the gardener’s version of tweaking bookshelves or furniture arrangements!) I’ve also spent two fun mornings at my favorite nursery, searching out replacement plants. I can’t wait to see how this all works out. And I’m feeling a little more at peace with the world each time I dig in the dirt.

These are the challenges gardeners relish and the rewards they reap!

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

Advertisements

Grief in the Facebook age

One of the best friends I’ll ever have died two weeks ago. Just died.

She had been diagnosed with a serious condition about ten days before, one that would require medication and some lifestyle changes, but it would be manageable. Her death was shocking and hard to wrap my head around.

It still is.

I was unprepared, as were all her family and friends, but I was equally unprepared for this loss to be shared so widely on Facebook. Although we were among the family and friends her husband called, it took only a few more hours for her passing to appear in a Facebook feed (as had her illness earlier).

Of course, social media being what it is, and Facebook being Facebook, many people began expressing their condolences electronically and the family graciously responded. I’m sure they greatly appreciated the emotional support.

I don’t know how I feel about this.

Death is personal and private. I don’t use the same terms to describe Facebook.

Is it good that social media makes it so easy to quickly send a few lines of condolences or do our friends and family deserve something more personal? At least of course with Facebook, the comfort and condolences and even memories are shared. (That may not always be the case with well-intentioned cards and notes.) But it still seems just a little weird to me. I pretty much think of Facebook as the happy place where we post pictures of a new baby, a new graduate, a vacation. And if we have to post something more serious here, is there a way to whisper? Do these people follow up in a more personal way?

In my book, the friend who held my hand after cancer surgery and helped me empty my mother’s apartment after she died deserves more than electronic condolences. There should be hand-written notes recalling her larger-than-life personality, her sense of humor, even her preoccupation with air conditioning and avoiding frizzy hair (I think the two are related.) This is the friend who always, always used cloth napkins and with whom I shared the traveling wine glasses. She loved her iPhone, but it never replaced a hand-written note.

I suppose I should admit to a few disclaimers here. I’m sure many who responded electronically, also did so more traditionally. I’m certainly not accusing anyone of a major breach of etiquette. In fact, I’m blogging about this. 

Is this a generational thing? I think not. Even my daughter, who manages social media for a living, was uncomfortable with the way this worked. (My friend would have thought it just fine. I’m the one with the problem here.)

The real issue is that Facebook, texts, tweets, etc., are the only way some people are now communicating. Is that modern or a just an easy shortcut? Are they hiding? Writing a note, calling on the phone, or (Mercy!) showing up at the door with a cake or a casserole may seem old-fashioned, but is it more thoughtful?

Life is so much better when we reach out, live in the moment, actually shake hands. (And lately I’m all about living in the moment.)

I’m anxious to hear what you think of this. Some people agree with me that it’s awfully impersonal; others concede that it’s efficient in our modern world. Am I just being an old lady? Is Facebook okay for news like this or do we need a more personal approach?

Cooking from the book

If you follow me on Instagram. you already know how excited I was when my copy of The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook arrived. The Cook’s Atelier is the cooking school I attended last spring in Beaune, France. I wrote about the one-day workshop, here, meeting Marjorie, her daughter Kendall and the rest of the class to shop the local market for ingredients, returning to their 15th Century atelier, and preparing and sharing a remarkable French lunch.

Like that day, this cookbook is much more than recipes. It’s a thoughtful treatise on French culture, particularly in the Burgundy wine country. Ex-pat authors and cooks Marjorie Taylor and Kendall Smith Franchini share their love and appreciation of all things French and the challenges of defining a business based on their passions for cooking and wine and then launching that business in their newly adopted country.

Not only is the food scrumptious, so are the full-page photos!

First, this is a lovely book, beautifully printed on heavy paper. (So French, I’m sure.) The photos are stunning, and document every aspect of their life, from the delicious food, to the countryside, the Beaune market, the local vendors they have come to appreciate and depend on, the elegant simplicity of their shop, kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the family at the center of it all. (If you have been to their shop, then you know the integral role played by Kendall’s husband Laurent and how sweetly their two young children occasionally appear in the shop or kitchen).

Butter. So quintessentially French on its own, but then there is clarified butter, compound butter, buerre noisette. So much to learn!

Lots of cooks, restaurants and foodies publish cookbooks. There seem to be at least one or two new ones each week. But few spend time on technique and ingredients (well, maybe the likes of Alice Waters and Julia Child). The Cook’s Atelier Cookbook stands far above these latest publications. Charming sections tackle the French larder, cooking tools, burgundy wine, the French cheese course, and traditional cooking techniques like frenching and tying a rib roast and trussing poultry. Recipes are grouped by season and compiled into menus, something I especially appreciate since I am notoriously uncertain about what really goes with what. In short, this is a cookbook you can truly learn from in addition to finding great recipes.

So, you may ask, what have I made? I’ve been making the French butter cake since I took the class. It’s simple and delicious, two prerequisites for French cooking. I’ve also prepared the grilled veal we made in class (and practiced the sauce technique with a few other cuts of meat).  Now I’m working on the green garlic souffle. (Mine tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work. See below!)

Tasted delicious, but the presentation needs work.
What we made in class, served in these wonderful, individual copper pots. I need more practice!

I have added pastry tips and disposable bags to my kitchen equipment and tested them last week on gougers and madeleines. Next up? Coq au Vin. Marjorie and Kendall use white burgundy instead of red, and I can’t wait to try that.

Gather ingredients first!
Gougeres, dainty pastry puffs flavored with gruyere and served warm with an apperitif. I’m practicing my pastry bag skills for these.
Madeleines, best served slightly warm after dinner.

What have I learned? Quite a lot. Fresh — which means seasonal — ingredients make a difference. Ask the butcher for help. Make sure you understand the recipe before starting. Gather all tools, prepare pans, and measure ingredients before cooking. Have fun. The story in my kitchen and yours is the same as the story in theirs — it’s about the family and friends around the table.

I couldn’t resist showing you a few more pages from the book. The photos are really beautiful. The first is their teaching kitchen and a corner of their shop where they sell their own lovely line of copper pots, along with kitchen tools and a carefully curated selection of wine. Below that is another shot of the book.

 

As I was writing this post I went back to the original from last June after my class there. In it I said I was smitten. Yikes! I am all over again. To learn more about The Cook’s Atelier, you can visit the website at www.thecooksatelier.com. The cookbook is available wherever books are sold, including Amazon.

Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ll see you again next time.

In awe!

I’m temporarily interrupting the looks, books, cooks and occasional travels you normally read about here, for a topic I just can’t overlook.

I’m in awe of the brave, feisty, and very smart students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for fearlessly taking on the NRA, the United States Congress, the President, and the rest of the establishment that has repeatedly turned a deaf ear (at the least) and otherwise stood in the way of sensible gun control. The determination and straightforward message from the Parkland, Florida students has moved students and teachers, parents and grandparents, and so many more across the country to join them.

It would have been much easier to stage a vigil, comfort each other and privately manage their grief. What they experienced should happen to no one. But they chose to dig in and fight back. Hard.

They are focused. They aren’t giving up. And they are moving the needle.

A blog is a unique medium. It’s fun to share books and recipes and travel, but it’s also personal. And some days the elephant in the room is just too big to ignore. How can I talk about a trip to Italy or a book I just read when yet another gunman walked into a school, killing seventeen people and injuring more than a dozen others. I’m angry that it’s happened, and I’m even angrier that it’s happened so often we just pause to light candles, shake our heads and move on.

To those of us who don’t like guns, who view them as war tools and instruments designed for killing (because what else is an automatic weapon for?), time to step up and support them. Have their backs, vote, agree that this is the time. And to gun owners, who are hunters or who have a personal weapon for protection, it’s also time to think about weapons we need and those we don’t need and why registration and licensing may be advantageous. (This is a big concession for me. I’ve always lived in a gun-free home.)

There’s nothing normal about gunmen shooting up a school, or concert-goers, or nightclub patrons or any of the other hundreds of gunfire victims. Is it me or is there a real disconnect when one dog dies on an airplane in inexplicably awful conditions and Congress immediately proposes appropriate legislation, but hundreds die in schools, churches, nightclubs and concerts and the same Congress says “the time is not right”? More to the point, do we care more about guns than our children?

There are no easy answers here. This is a complicated stew of second amendment rights, lobbyists, money, mental health support (more money!), and a polarized public unable to move. I think we all have a part to play.

Whew! I had to share my thoughts. I hope you’ll tell me what you’re thinking.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

Groceries, the books we read, and where we shelve them

The bag may be recycled, but this grocery delivery vehicle is not all that new. Everything old is new again.

Everything old is new again. I was talking back to the television earlier this week and my husband suggested I blog about that particular angst, so here goes…

The Today show featured a story about the growing competition among online grocery shopping and delivery services. First, I think this is awesome and I would have loved this when I had two small children. But, this isn’t new! Ordering online is new, but not delivery.

Long before the chain groceries (and I know I’m dating myself here), Chicago neighborhood grocers delivered. My grandparents lived in a modest city neighborhood. No one owned cars. They walked to the butcher, the bakery, the bank. I remember doing all these errands on foot. (Which city-dwellers like my daughter still do.)

We carried lots of stuff home with us (Grandma took her special cloth shopping bags along for this purpose; that reusable Whole Foods bag isn’t a totally innovative idea either.) But if we bought many things in the grocery, or heavy stuff like flour and sugar, the groceries were delivered later, in a cut-off carton, usually by a schoolboy who worked for tips. I’m not even sure there was a “delivery fee” involved, but I do remember Grandma making sure she had tip money. And her delivery boy knew to come down the gangway to the back door, let himself into what was really the basement, and leave the box there. (A pre-requisite, I’m sure, for getting a good tip.) In fact, my uncle’s first job was an after-school gig delivering groceries.

Instagram on my mind.

Last month while I was languishing on the couch recovering from the flu (and before I started talking back to the television), I spent way too much time on Instagram, Pinterest, and cruising various blogs. Perhaps because I was still trying to put things back in order here after the painters had freshened up the living room and bedrooms or maybe just because I’m always rearranging shelf space to accommodate books and “stuff,” I started saving photos of shelves. I grew up in a house with book-laden shelves and have always had the same in my own home, so I am always amazed at book-less shelves. I think they’re pretty, but they just aren’t me.

Here are a few of the images I’ve saved to inspire my own shelves.

From James T. Farmer, I love the way this includes plates, pictures and books stacked this way and that. Not too busy but not boring either.
Here, more books on the shelves, but still interesting accents. I love the shelf over the door AND the hats on it. Image from India Hicks posted by Blue and White Home.
I really like this book-lined background for a chair and table. From Nell Hills.

 

The books on the shelves, or a few recent reads.

If you have been reading my blog, you know it’s hard for me to mention “book” without commenting on specific titles. You also may have noticed that my reading tastes are all over the place: biography, history, historic fiction, current fiction. Do I lack focus or do I just like to read? I have no idea.

My new favorite book recommendation is Jubilee by Margaret Walker. Walker is a widely known and respected African American writer and scholar who used her own family’s oral history and decades of research to tell the story of Vyry, daughter of a white plantation owner and his black mistress. The book spans the lavish antebellum years in rural Georgia, the ruin of the Civil War, and the empty promises of reconstruction. If you liked The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, I think you might like this too.

After Jubilee, I needed something lighter, so I read Sue Grafton’s first Kinsey Milhone mystery, A is for Alibi. I love Sue Grafton and I mourned her passing here. I discovered this series a little later on in the alphabet, and I wanted to see if this first mystery was as well-crafted as number 25. I was not disappointed. These are all great reads.

Right now I’m reading The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante. It’s the second book in her Neapolitan series. My book club read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series, and many just moved right on. I’m enjoying this book more, but it remains a tough read. This is translated from its original Italian. The language often seems clumsy and wordy, characteristics that I think better editing and translation may have improved. However, I love the story of two smart young women in an impoverished neighborhood making dramatically different choices while trying to hold on to their friendship.

Also on my list: The Other Einstein, Marie Benedict’s story of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric; George Eliot’s Middlemarch, because I’ve never read it (and I was an English major!); and Origin by Dan Brown, because I’m a bit of a sucker for his historic/travelogue romps.

What are you up to as we wait for spring? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for stopping to read. See you next time.

Logical loose ends

“C” was for crosswords in my Instagram Alphabet, though I just as easily could have said Christmas or Charleston or cooking (for starters). Sometimes it was hard to decide!

At first I thought of this is as one of those posts that goes all over, because I had a handful of ideas to share. However, as I was writing I realized they tied together somewhat logically. Read on and you can decide for yourself.

Thanks to all of you who followed my Instagram project, #alphabet2018. (I wrote about it here.) I made it through the alphabet without skipping a day! My posts went from A is for artwork thru Z for zinnia with twenty-four posts in between.

This was fun to envision and fun to finish, and it forced me to think more creatively about my time on Instagram, rather than just scrolling thru (something I do a lot). I think I’ll be approaching at least some of my IG posts more purposefully in the future. And, who knows, perhaps I’ll come up with another challenge.

Maybe not traditional “coffee table books” but certainly something to spark a conversation.

Speaking of Instagram, a number of followers there liked my IG image of Personal History by Katherine Graham and A Good Life by Ben Bradlee. I dug out both books after seeing “The Post,” first because I wanted to re-read what they had written about the Pentagon Papers (and yes their stories mesh with the screenplay), and, second, because the movie and the concept of journalistic freedom are suddenly so very timely.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you do. If you have, I hope you’ll tell me what you thought. Most of the people we know absolutely loved it. The story is worth telling and re-telling. Frankly, I remember Watergate much better than I do the Pentagon Papers (which is probably a function of where I was in my life at the time). Looking back, the Pentagon Papers was a fairly a-political event. The Nixon White House was furious and tried to stop publication, but both republicans and democrats had been signing off on the silence for decades. That’s the point.

Beyond the story, however, is how well Spielberg captured the sixties. There were so many subtle nods to the time: the women were the secretaries; the men were the reporters and editors. Katherine Graham was an anomaly, a Washington hostess who also ran what was becoming an increasingly powerful newspaper. She came before so many others. I found it hard to ignore those subtle messages.

Which is the perfect lead-in for the Women’s March

Heading down Michigan Avenue to the March. This doesn’t  show the crowd, which was much more than expected.

My daughter and I attended the Women’s March in Chicago a few weeks ago. We’re so glad we did! The diverse marchers included little girls and boys as well as great grandmas and grandpas and every age in between. I think that’s one of the key messages of the march. We’re all in this together and we all benefit from the larger message.

Some signs (and marchers) were more strident than others, but I think that’s just the nature of the beast. The freedom to speak out is what makes our democracy special. What a message to participants and bystanders, including those around the world.

There is an inherent sense of camaraderie about events like this. I took the train downtown from my conservative suburb, and the crowd at the station was just a clue of what was to come. There were easily 150 to 200 marchers who boarded at my commuter stop, and the next three stops were the same story. (In fact the train, which already had extra cars, was so full that it skipped the last five stops on its way to Chicago. Another train picked up the riders at those stops.) Although I met a number of friends at my stop, we were all soon friends with everyone in our car.

We loved seeing young girls like this taking part in the March and applauded their parents for giving them a great civics lesson.

Once downtown I caught up with my daughter and another friend and we made our way, with a growing crowd, to the march’s overflowing start point. After a lot of walking and standing, and a few blocks with the march itself, Mag & I broke off for lunch. We were able to reflect on what we had seen and agreed that we loved seeing so many kids at the march, including some elementary school girls enthusiastically leading chants and cheers. They march and we march because others marched before us.

At times like this I think of the suffragettes who marched — and worked — long and hard and at great personal risk to win the vote for women. My grandmother did not have the right to vote until she was well into her twenties. But once she had that right, she never failed to “exercise her franchise” by voting at every opportunity. In fact, one of the last times she voted (in her eighties), she refused to go with my grandfather because they disagreed on the candidates. She went instead with a like-minded lady friend.

Thanks for stopping by. See you next time!

A Christmas story for 2017

A dear friend gave me this adorable mini tree, which I love. If you look closely at the antique glass beads, you see bits of candle wax, left from days of lighting trees with candles.

Every Christmas, I think, has its own story. Some happy, some downright funny, some even occasionally sad. This year, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that you have time for one more holiday story. I couldn’t tell this sooner, because it took until now to unfold.

Christmas 2017 flew by in a rush of excited little boys, lots of legos, snow flakes, champagne corks, and last minute cookies. After the “dust had settled” as my dad would say, and I got over my Christmas cold, disposed of the paper and boxes, and the returns had (mostly) been taken care of, I was thinking about the blessings of the last year, and what I might blog about, when a lightbulb went off in my head.

As has become the custom, my husband, my daughter and I traveled from Chicago to Ohio to spend the holiday with my son, his wife and our grandsons aged 4 and “almost” 7. Jack & Ben’s excitement is palpable and exhausting. It’s also magical. (Has Santa left yet? Where do you think his sleigh is right now? China? Antarctica? Do you think Santa would like a star cookie or a snowman? How many carrots for his reindeer?)

After an early start and a longer than average drive, we pulled into their Ohio driveway. First one and then two boys were bouncing in the window (I love this welcome). By the time we got in the door my daughter-in-law was sweeping up a broken ornament, the casualty of that exuberant welcome.

Since Columbus is my daughter-in-law’s home, we’re also joined on Christmas by her mother (otherwise known as Grandma B), her sister and brother-in-law, her Aunt Rosie and cousin Joe. There are at least three or four conversations going on, along with the beeping, honking or hum of some vehicle Santa has left under the tree. There are more presents to open, toys to show off, toasts to be made and news share. We’ve added extra chairs to the table and the little boys will eat at their own table. Now, this is Christmas.

(I’m just setting the stage here, but the lightbulb is about to click.)

Although I have no siblings, I grew up celebrating Christmas surrounded by an extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends who were family. I miss that. I love, and am so glad, that we have been embraced by Jen’s family. Though I think all of us — in Chicago and Columbus — would find it strange to celebrate any other way, I know not every family does.

In this, we are blessed.

I have to admit that my first few Christmases in Columbus were a challenge. I missed opening packages under our tree. I missed being the hostess. I missed having my family at my table. But then I realized I was just missing the past — my parents, my grandparents and my aunt & uncle. I had lost the last of them before we adopted this new tradition which I now realize we are so lucky to have. This is the shape our family has taken.

I hope your holiday story included time with family and/or friends-who-are-family, on Christmas or another day, because there are no rules in these holiday stories.

Thanks for stopping by to read my Christmas story. I’ll see you in the New Year!