Valentine’s Day in a Shoe Box

It is that time of the year again when the store aisles are bleeding red with Valentine’s paraphernalia. At the local Walmart the other day I almost became a single person fatality when an avalanche of giant stuffed animals wearing Valentine themed shirts fell from the shelves. Rows of heart shaped boxes, perfume, cards, conversation hearts that, when strung together, create sentences more disjointed than a text from a 13 year old, and roses by the dozen all culminate to assault the senses and empty the wallet. The holiday seems to be designed to kill you with candy while providing flowers for the funeral.

All sarcasm aside, when I think of Valentines Day I am transported to Mrs. Grandstrand’s 1st grade classroom. My classmates and I are seated around a long scarred oak table like we are about to hold a séance. In front of each of us is a shoe box and in the middle of the table are stacks of construction paper, glue, old magazines, tissue paper, brightly colored plastic scissors, crayons, markers, and the ever adored pinking shears. With a word from Mrs. Grandstrand we are off like a flash. Art supplies go flying, scissors are snipping, and flakes of tissue paper saturated in glue are melting onto the surface of the table where they will remain forever, a testament to our efforts like the markings of ancient civilizations.

Back in the day (way, way, way before Pinterest, Etsy, and online tutorials) it was a tradition to save the very best shoe box from the whole year and spend a morning at school transforming it into a gaudily decorated receptacle for Valentine’s cards. We, as children, called upon every creative atom in our 6 year old bodies and, with brows furrowed in concentration, set about the task of wowing the teacher and our parents with our crafting prowess.

Then, the big day arrived. The shelf in the back of the classroom would be lined with our finished masterpieces ranging from the delicately decorated creation of my friend Sara who always did everything perfectly, to the giant men’s boot sized box covered in brown paper and a strategically placed ad for women’s bras that the classroom misfit found in one of the magazines. His reasoning behind the ad on his box was “They had lace on them Teacher, you said to decorate with lace!” The type of twisted logic which landed Patrick in the principal’s office in our strict private school on more than one occasion.

Once the commotion died down, Patrick’s “offensive” box was removed from the lineup and replaced with a plain Buster Brown one with Patrick’s name written across the top in the teacher’s precise hand. After a prayer to save Patrick’s soul we were finally allowed to commence with the festivities. We went down the row inserting cards into the slot on the top of each box. The cards ranged in theme from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Snow White and Donald Duck. Some were fancier than the dime store variety I could afford. Incased in ivory envelopes printed like fine lace were cards beautifully illustrated and decorated with velvet and scented with chocolate. These came from the dentist’s daughter who was not afraid to flaunt her wealth and who often times reminded me of Nellie Olson from Little House on the Prairie with her pug nose, blonde hair, intolerable disposition.

Fancy or plain, there was a certain thrill about opening each envelope and waiting to see if that boy in the second row sent a special card just for you. Ahhh, first grade romance. My dabbling in the subject amounted to a hug followed the next day by being pushed off the top of the slide by my beloved and breaking my nose. The next day I returned the favor by giving him a black eye and getting myself sent to the Principal’s office.

Then, suddenly I was not in the first grade anymore but in high school where Valentine’s Day took on a whole different meaning. Hormone driven boys appeared on the bus loaded down with flowers, candy, and wearing enough cologne so that if the gifts didn’t make their girlfriends swoon the Old Spice would!

Middle school and high school were awkward years for me. I was tall and clumsy with glasses and horribly curly hair that was the result of the perm from hell. So, I would sit on the sidelines and gag as my friends exclaimed over how sweet their boyfriends were on Valentine’s Day. I was bitter, I will not lie. Life had dealt me an unfair hand in the form a of a crooked nose caused by my one and only attempt at love, ugly glasses, and hair that made me look like a poodle had overdosed on acid on my head thanks to a beautician who was intoxicated every day by 9am. But, I digress. The fact is that I hated Valentine’s Day with a passion and let the whole world know about it.

Finally, in my 20’s, someone asked me out and saved me from becoming the first Lutheran nun in history. I got roses on Valentine’s Day that first year together and I got to see what the hype was all about. Too practical to ever be a hopeless romantic, I found it to be kind of nice getting wined and dined one day out of the year. (My expectations were pretty low back then)

Years passed and I soon discovered that I was not the only one being wined and dined. In fact, he was filling more shoe boxes than Nike in those 8 years we were together. So, my view on Valentine’s Day darkened to Ebenezer Scrooge-type proportions once again. I cursed the day and scowled at all the cutesy decorations and declarations of love. The holiday was forever ruined for me and I kept a box of goose loads by my side just in case Cupid dared to enter my “no fly” zone.

Then something happened to change my outlook on everything. I was working one particular Valentine’s Day when an elderly gentleman came into my office to pick up his wife’s death certificate. He looked tired and sad, his shirt collar had lost its starch and he had not shaved in days. I asked him how long he had been married and he replied “All my life!” I smiled and he continued “Now don’t go thinking I am some funny old man for saying that. My life began the day I married her.”

I left work that night humbled. Instead of going home to my mint chip ice cream, Hallmark movies, and my cats on the couch I went out and bought bouquets of flowers and took them to the local nursing home to hand out. I was met with love, kindness, and gratitude and I wondered to myself how I could have gotten the meaning of the holiday so wrong in the past.

One particular lady asked me to sit with her as she looked at her bouquet of flowers. She told me a story of how the day after her wedding her groom was sent over seas to fight the war. They kept in touch with letters and each kept a dog eared snapshot of the other close to their hearts. Then the letters stopped. She knew her husband was busy fighting a war but she was not expecting the knock at the door. Instead of her beloved, there stood a stranger. In a matter of seconds she went from being a wife to being a widow. She never remarried, never took off her ring, and never forgot how that once in a lifetime love felt.

That, my friends, is what it is all about. Sharing love with those around us. You do not need to have a romantic relationship to celebrate Valentine’s Day. All you need is a heart and the capacity to share love with others.

Need further motivation? Go home tonight, call upon all of you childhood crafting powers and make a shoe box Valentine container? Yes, I mean take a shoe box, cut a slit in the top and decorate it like crazy. Don’t hold back, make it yours. And then ask friends and family to fill it with paper hearts on which they have written special messages to you. Then write some of your own motivational quotes, Bible verses, prayers, sayings, sentences giving yourself encouragement and love, or plans on how to make the year ahead a good one such as going out and visiting people in nursing homes. Fill the box with enough hearts for the entire year ahead. Every morning open the box and remove one heart. Read it to yourself and let it guide your day. The theme of Valentine’s Day is love. That means to love others and to love yourself!

Hopefully my post gave you all something to think on for this Valentine’s Day. Like I said, all you need is a heart and the willingness to share it and you will never be alone on Valentine’s day or any day for that matter. Go on now! Spread the love!

Knocking on Heaven’s Door

I spent the past week at home attempting to get through a bout of influenza. It began on Saturday night with a heavy headache and by Sunday mid morning I was on my way to the ER with a fever and the stomach turning effects of taking two types of cold medications too close to one another.

There is something to be said about the calming effect that a hospital brings. No, seriously! When you have been in the ER as many times as I have, the plastic crunch of a hospital mattress, the sterile smells, and the incessant beeping of various machines is comforting. You know, for the most part, that you are safe now. You know that you are in capable hands that will make you get better and if things get worse, at least you won’t die alone at home in the bathroom in that raggy robe covered in cat hair.

My first stint in the ER was at the age of 3 when my dad suffered a massive heart attack. Mom put me in an umbrella stroller and rolled me up and down the halls, not so much for my entertainment but to calm her own nerves. I remember the smells of bleach cleaner, hot food that had no flavor, and a slightly metallic smell that I have never been able to place. So fascinated was I by this world of people moving briskly and importantly down shiny halls wearing snow white jackets and speaking in tongues about charts and MRIs, that I failed to realize the seriousness of my dad’s condition; I thought that giant of a man was merely sleeping. Halfway through my dad’s recovery a nurse shot him up with 3 times the amount of morphine he was supposed to have and Dad went up to knock on heaven’s door for the second time that week. The nurse was later caught after a number of patients were killed as a result of her “mercy” Killings. Dad survived and after a bout of pneumonia he was released to go home.

Things changed ever so slightly after Dad came home. The shiny packs of Marlboros disappeared, Mom was cooking out of a book entitled “Don’t Eat Your Heart Out”and Dad seemed humbled in a way. He spent more time playing with me. I was able to convince him to turn a giant box from our new microwave into a boat in which we had many high sea adventures. I am sure that in that hospital bed my dad, like every one else who has ever looked death in the eye, made a bargain with God that he would change his ways if only he was given more time on this earth.

I have been on the sending end of many such prayers in my own life. At age 5 laying on the operating table before tonsil surgery as the doctor asked me if I wanted grape or bubble gum scented knock out gas I remember promising God that I would never get in trouble at school again and that I would not ask for another matchbox car as long as I lived. Then the grape scented gas filled my nostrils like that first whiff of a Mr Sketch purple marker. Oh how I coveted a set of those markers but my Mom viewed fruit scented markers as a gateway drug of sorts so I had to get my fix at friend’s houses and in the waiting room of the dentist office. Waking up from surgery I was an instant celebrity. The doctors and nurses could not stop exclaiming over how large my tonsils had been. They made it sound like I had been born out of nuclear run off and was able to produce monster sized useless organs that wowed the medical world. My hospital bed was covered in new toys, balloons hung from the tray table, and there was a never- ending supply of popsicles and ice cream. I had died inside a Mr Sketch marker and woke up in heaven!!

My subsequent hospital visits were never as lucrative as the day my tonsils were removed but in a way they mirrored each other. There were the prayers, the promises, the feeling of being safe and the belief that when I woke up everything was going to be better. Isn’t that what we all experience when faced with a serious illness or medical event? Laying on that lumpy bed as a haggard nurse attempts to poke us with a dull needle we are blatantly reminded of our mortality. We bargain with God and make promises to be better people and to never ever take our health for granted again. We lay there in a fit of self-pity and illness induced misery cursing all the days we wasted while we were healthy. We frantically write bucket lists in our heads of all the things we are going to do once we bust out of the hospital.

But, as is true almost every time, we arrive home, saved from the brink of death, go to work the next day and forget completely all the plans and promises we made to improve our lives. As with New Year’s resolutions, promises made on one’s near death-bed are quickly forgotten once life kicks in again. Like a bloodthirsty landlord, life is demanding to the point that we feel selfish when we try to work on ourselves and insignificant when we try to make a difference for others.

I too have failed miserably at following through with my grand plans but found other ways to make things happen. So many times I vowed to join a fitness club then look through the windows of a 24 hour fitness facility to see all those other women in their synchronized Fabletics outfits and I turn around, put on my boots and start hiking the hills and woods of my home. I plan to volunteer then run across a child whose family home burned down and I buy her a replacement for the beloved toy she lost in the fire. I take food to those who don’t have family, I help out the instant I see someone in need. Yes volunteer organizations are wonderful and necessary but sometimes you can’t wait for a group to find an area of need to work on. Sometimes you just need to go out into the world and help on your own with no coordinator or committee. Afterall, didn’t those who have made the most difference in this world throughout history start out with a single act of kindness?

The problem with life is we make things too complicated for ourselves so that the simplest of things turn in to major undertakings that require too much of our already depleted energy. We fail to get started and so we set aside our plans all together only to write them down again when some disaster befalls our lives. Hospital beds are a comfort but also that place where we are allowed too much time in which our lives flash before our eyes and we depress ourselves when we see how little we have accomplished. By what measure do we gauge the success of our efforts? A very inaccurate one I would suspect.

The point of all of this is that sometimes life gives us wakeup calls. Sometimes we are thrown against the wall and reminded of our mortality for a moment and then we are returned to our everyday routines. The choice is ours what to do with the extra time we have been blessed with because we all know that it could go either way. Our lives can be snuffed out in an instant with no second chance to make our mark on this world. I was reminded of this recently when someone very dear to me passed away suddenly. He was diagnosed with leukemia and within two weeks we had lost him. For a year he had battled pneumonia and diabetes then the leukemia. I watched him go from making plans to do more in the years he thought he had left to just saying “I cannot fight anymore.”

My plea to all of you is to do everything. Put nothing off until later or tomorrow or next month. Do not wait for a catastrophic event to wake you up to the reality that there is no tomorrow there is just right here and right now. Open that door for the lady with her arms full of groceries, pay for the order of the person in line behind you, make a child smile, cook something and share it with a neighbor who has no one to share a meal with. You do not have to be Mother Teresa to make a difference. Just shut off your mind and all its voices telling you to stay out of it or that you don’t have time or that you won’t make a difference. Wake up and let your heart do what it was designed to do, just love.

Restored by Nature

I spent the afternoon climbing the hills and walking the fields near home amid softly falling snow yesterday. I went out to clear my head from a very long week, to look for deer antler sheds, and because I felt the groggy headache of an impending cold coming on.

The fresh air does wonders. Like the alcohol laced tonic sold a century ago, it takes off the edge that is caused by living in a modern world. To be the only person on hundreds of acres of bluff and farmland has a quieting power upon the madness that exists in over stressed minds. Snow floats in the air like the ivory down of heaven’s eiders creating a blanket to hide the barren ground and casts a hush upon the earth, upon the soul.

Stands of goldenrod bend in the wind. Their stems holding orbs once pregnant with a single larvae laying dormant over winter only to chew its way from a woody womb and become something new entirely in spring. Gilded blades of grass bend beneath the weight of slowly falling snow. Snow that is nothing more than an icy mask to cover the ugliness of winter’s death. The earth is transformed into an alien landscape and the feet of lone creatures mar the surface like man’s first walk upon the moon.

One can never get lost following the tracks of nature’s greatest survivalists. Not man with his GPS and fire starters, but animals whose very bodies have the power to transform and adapt to every extreme in terrain and weather. Dens on sides of hills where bears slumber through the months, oblivious to the world outside their earthen cocoon. Leaves bunched in branches that provide shelter for squirrels who never seem to stop for rest. The very trees themselves, such as the oak, aid in the survival of others by clinging to their leaves far into the winter just in case some creature of the forest needs forage for its frost bit bed.

The hills offer views of the river below. Frozen and still, a misleading field of ice appears barren yet teams with unseen life just below the surface. Currents flow strongly beneath the crystal sheets and back water sloughs fill quickly with species of fish that provide feasts for those who will brave the bite in the cold. Along the main channel areas of water remain unfrozen and attract bald eagles in groups who stand sentinel on the icy edges in wait for a feast of their own.

The view from the cliffs is hypnotic, humbling, and for me a place where I choose to worship in a cathedral built by God not man. From heights that force me to see beyond what is in front of me, to gaze past the horizon and witness all that was created by a hand strong enough to carve stone yet gentle enough to love even the lowliest among us.

My trips to the forest and hills are more of a sabbatical than just a mere walk in nature. They are an escape from the din of a demanding world. They are what I need to get back to myself, to get back to who I am when I take off the mask of necessity and shrug off the cloak of responsibility. A time where I can silently enjoy the company of someone who understands me more than anyone; myself.

Ashes in a Shell Casing

My first experience with cancer was at the age of 6 when 3 of my dad’s former coworkers came down with brain cancer. They had been sign painters in the 1960s in a basement paintroom with no ventilation. It was just a matter of time before breathing in those toxic fumes would catch up with them and it did, with a vengeance.

I remember going with my parents to visit one of the men. He went by the nickname of “Sparrow” a strange name for a tall, strapping, dark haired handsome man. When we arrived at the nursing home in Jordan, it was like something out of a child’s worst nightmare. A huge building of red brick built in the early 1900’s with the look of a horror story sanitorium. The halls were dark, ceilings low and confining, the paint was peeling from iron stair rails, and the smell of bleach, urine, and death filled the air.

Sparrow was in a room on the third floor. A dreary dark and silent room with only the gasp of a respirator to break the silence. The atmosphere was one of waiting. Waiting for this once strong and active man to pass or waiting for him to suddenly wake up from his morphine and cancer induced coma.

His hair was still dark, untouched by the frost of age. His skin was sallow but clear, his hands at his side’s were still massive and bore scars from years of hard work. A hose attached to his trachea took the breaths his lungs could no longer draw on their own. Before us was the ruin of a man I had once though of as a giant when we first met.

After years of lying unconscious, Sparrow died a day after our visit. It was as though he was waiting for that last conversation with my dad. To hear how his old workplace was functioning and to get the latest news about all his former friends before he was ready to give up the fight.

Jump forward 15 years and my junior year in college. I was a happy college student at the top of my class. I spent most of my time studying but had met a young man who became a best friend and someone I could see myself dating. A month after we met I went with my parents to a doctor’s appointment for dad to have his colonoscopy. Sitting in the waiting room I never expected the doctor to call my mother and I into his office to tell us that dad had colon cancer.

A tumor the size of a baseball and 13 inches of his colon were removed a week later and life was thrown drastically into perspective. My college friend was with me through it all in the form of daily phone calls and emails of support and encouragement. I fell in love.

Dad’s cancer was contained to that one tumor by the grace of God and he avoided the misery of chemo and radiation. He wasn’t the same after the surgery either. Fear and his own brush with mortality had aged him.

About the time we were getting the good news about my dad’s prognosis my friend back at college found out his grandmother had lung cancer. I had not met her yet but she had raised my friend practically from infancy to adulthood so this was a particularly hard blow.

The 8 years I spent dating her grandson, we saw Grandma Pat in and out of the hospital. She would get healthy then have to go in for more rounds of Chemo. In the end she was at home unconscious in a hospital bed. I could not leave her side. So I would sit up every night with her, holding her hand while her children squabbled over who would inherit what. I loved Pat with all my heart and even when her grandson and I were getting ready to break up the last thing she ever said to me was ” I don’t care what they say about you, you are a good woman and I love you!”

Those words coming from a woman who once owed 30 Arabian horses, drove all over the country by herself to show her horses, was married to a chronic cheater, and had to help run a resort that was not her dream, meant more to me than any compliment I could ever receive.

Pat took her last breath on new years eve 2008. The funeral was an epic event with people lined up outside to offer condolences well into the night. I gave the eulogy, and while the words I spoke are a distant memory I will never forget how my simple reminders of how great a woman Pat was, forced her family to stop their bickering if only for a moment and remember how blessed they were to have had her as a mother, wife, grandmother, and friend.

Finally, my most recent experience with cancer was the diagnosis of leukemia for the greatest man I ever knew, my “dad” Charlie. Charlie was the kind of man people pray to have as a father. He was selfless, kind, intelligent, understanding, loving, and most of all the kind of man who made me smile every time he walked into the room. From the first day I met him he took me under his wing and accepted me, flaws and all. Charlie believed in me, he believed in me when no one else in my life ever did. He encouraged my art, enjoyed spending time with me, and treated me like an equal. We conversed about everything from tools to guns to my goats of which he got such a kick out of. I loved him with all my heart and in his own gruff way I think he loved me too.

This past fall Charlie was diagnosed with Leukemia. A month later I was sitting with the family by his hospital bed as he took his last breath. Again, someone so strong, so full of life, so incredible, so loved was brought down by something that none of us have the power to stop. I remember praying over and over for God to let me take his place because he had a family, children. Grandchildren who needed him when all I was was a broke receptionist who would never be half the person Charlie was. But life and God don’t work that way as so here I am left behind with Charlie’s memories, some if his ashes in a rifle shell casing hanging from the rearview mirror of the truck that was once is and is now mine to remind me of a man I loved more than any man who has ever entered my life.

Today I went in for a cancer test of my own, I am writing this in the waiting room as a matter of fact. I will have no fear, no anger, no bitterness no matter what the results may be. I am ready for what life throws at me because I have faith on my side, the love of family and of friends, and the determination that nothing will get me down or try to prevent me from living life on my terms. I have been blessed 10 fold in my life and as they say “You only live once but if you do it right, once is enough.”

High Tea on the Farm

Herb and Verna were my mom’s aunt and uncle on her father’s side of the family. They lived on a farm in Brownton, MN and were all but retired from farming by the time I was born. Their farm stood in a grove of trees amid endless acres of crop land. The buildings were ramshackle and a passel of rangy chickens that were more feathers and dirt than meat roamed freely in the yard. Each trip to the farm was like Easter to me because I spent hours searching the yard for brown, white, and blue/green eggs amid rusty farm machinery, old cars, and weathered buildings.

The house was a typical square farmhouse with a large front porch overlooking an overgrown yard. Through the parlor window you could see an old Buick crushed beneath the weight of an elm tree that had already started to crumble with rot. In the entryway between porch and kitchen stood a crate that once housed every generation of chicken to live on that farm. I remember peering into that box in the glow of a heat lamp with my 6 year old fingers just itching to pick up those peeping balls of yellow down, but I was always shooed away into the kitchen by Uncle Herb.

While the rest of the house was a hodgepodge of mismatched furniture and dusty clutter, the kitchen was Verna’s domain. A plump woman with glasses so thick they magnified her rhumy eyes and the gentleness with which they glowed. Verna was a woman of great faith in God and that faith was not displayed through loud professions but through kind deeds and the way she had about her of comforting all those around her. She had a calming aura born of strong faith and a gentle heart and I remember many a time clinging tightly to her while hot tears rolled down my cheeks. Then she would set me on a tall chair that folded out into a step stool and feed me one of her latest desserts with a thick coffee mug full of milk from Polka Dot Dairy.

Every morning at 7am, Verna would sit with pen in hand listening for the recipe of the day on the Hutchinson radio station. All of those recipes were kept in a tattered spiral notebook with pages so browned they looked like ancient parchment. Then, in her gleaming kitchen with white cabinets, a proud Monarch range in the corner, and her line of pink and white canisters, Verna would set to work on “trying out” the newest recipe. The final result was usually 30% recipe and 70% of Verna’s ideas on how to make it better.

Many of Verna’s recipes became favorites of my own mother to serve at family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, funerals, and to give as gifts to friends.

Creamy pistachio bars with a buttery crust and a slight tang of cream cheese, golden pineapple bars that tasted of the tropics with brown sugar that lent a warm Carmel flavor to the crust, ambrosia salad made with vanilla pudding, tapioca, mandarin oranges, pineapple and mini marshmallows, and pumpkin bars spiced to perfection so as to rival any pumpkin pie ever baked.

Rows of oblong aluminum cake pans would line the dining room table. Herb’s clutter of newspapers, magazines, seed catalogs, and the latest Billy Graham book was set aside to make room while I plinked away on an out of tune upright piano. I waited impatiently while desserts were cut into precise squares and placed without a single wayward crumb onto delicate plates decorated with roses. Fragrant Swedish coffee was poured from a chipped enamelware pot into translucent cups to match the dessert plates. A pink Depression Ware bowl held snowy white sugar cubes and the light of late afternoon played off of gleaming silverware. Chicken feathers clung to the upholstery of the padded dining room chairs yet the shabby scene took on the glow of the Queen’s high tea all thanks to one woman and the magic she created from simple ingredients laced with love.

Herb and Verna passed away when I was barely a teenager but every time I see a yard full of chickens I think of Uncle Herb with his striped overalls and squinty stare. And every time I prepare one of Verna’s recipes I am transported to her big bright kitchen where she stands waiting for me by the sink, a smile on her face and a plate heaped with her latest treats that have yet to meet my approval.

So that all of you can enjoy the flavors of my childhood, here is Aunt Verna’s pineapple bars.

Verna Jaekel’s Perfect Pineapple Bars


1/2 cup butter

1 cup flour

1/2 cup brown sugar

Combine and press into a 9×13″ pan and bake at 350° for 15 min

2nd Layer

1 cup brown sugar

2 eggs beaten

3 Tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup chopped nuts

Combine and pour over the already baked crust. Bake 20 minutes at 350°

3rd Layer

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup sugar

1 1/2 Tablespoon butter

2 Tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

Cook in a saucepan over medium heat until thick. Add 1 (14 oz) can of crushed pineapple that has been drained. Pour over the baked crust and refrigerate 4 hours.

Duane (German) Burgers

This past Saturday I went up to visit my parents and when I arrived at their house Dad was in the kitchen in his signature navy blue suspenders, getting ready to fry up a giant batch of his famous Duane Burgers.

Dad has been making these burgers since the beginning of time and they are his variation on the traditional German Burger. Typically served with morel mushroom gravy which is made in the same pan that the burgers were fried in to ensure that every delicious bit is used up. With the savory, comforting flavor of a perfect meatloaf, these burgers bring back fond memories of dinners around the kitchen table and the German traditions that influenced my entire life.

For all of you out there here is the essence of the Duane Burger. The basic ingredients with guesstimations on the amounts because us Germans cook by taste and not by measurements.

Duane Burgers

1 lb ground beef

1 lb ground pork or pork sausage

2 eggs

1/3 cup ketchup

1 sleeve of Ritz Crackers crushed

1 onion minced or run through a good processor

1 teaspoon Pleasoning Seasoning

1/3 cup minced fresh mushrooms

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder or fresh minced garlic

Dash of salt and a pinch of black pepper

Combine all ingredients well. Refrigerate 1 full day to flavor through. The fry into patties.

To Move or not to Move

Have you ever been faced with a decision that involves turning your entire life upsidedown?

My 83 year old father needs me and my family has asked me to move back up to the area where I grew up so Dad could live with me on a hobby farm.

Suddenly all I have been working towards may be right at my fingertips but at the wrong location on the map. My life along the Mississipi may be far from ideal but everything I love is here. Hunting, fishing, the river and bluffs which I lose myself in when I need a moment to myself. Can I find that kind of peace back home?

I have been one who is able to adapt to whatever surroundings I find myself in and some how find something to love about that place. I know I could do the same if I moved but is a move what I need?

I see in my minds eye the farm I always dreamed of owing with a barn, chicken coop, granary, and charming farm house. I see myself holding classes on cheese making using milk from my goats, canning, quilting, making hay with my own equipment, giving Dad the quality of life he deserves and a place for him to putter around.

Then I think about my life here. The backwater marsh where I duck hunt and disappear into when I need a break from the world. Russet sunrises over the water, whistling wings overhead, frost on cat tails, and feathers floating on mirror-like ponds. The deep forests of the bluffs which I climb to hunt deer, turkey, antler sheds, and morel mushrooms. Those moments of awe when oak give way to cedar groves carpeted in rubicund needles and velvety moss the color of emeralds. The view from the cliffs when you can see the sweep of the Mississippi; a seemingly slow, lazy giant whose personality is as attuned to the weather as the tide is to the moon. Long days spent on frozen backwaters pulling dinner from beneath the ice with just the cry of a bald eagle on ice kissed air to let you know you are not entirely alone.

My love for this place is palpable, undeniable, and unending but so too is my love of family. So I asked my dad today during my break what he wanted from me. He said he is overwhelmed by everything but he was thinking of selling his house and getting an apartment by Mom’s nursing home. He didn’t sound convincing, I could hear him giving up by the tone of his voice. For all our differences we are alike in the color of our eyes and the fact that we cannot be confined or contained to a vanilla apartment with no yard to care for, no view to contemplate over morning coffee, and no use for hands that itch for work.

I nervously brought up the subject of moving and he instantly started jabbering away about a Ford 8N he saw for sale and a hay rake and baler. The excitement in his voice was something akin to that of a child discussing a trip to Disney. So now, I am torn. Tomorrow he may change his mind and stubbornly refuse to leave the house he has lived in for 50 years, I never know what to expect from him.

As for me, I will do what I always do and play it by ear. And if there is one thing I have learned since Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is that the disease is more of a rollercoaster for the family than it is for the person with the illness. Mom is happy and content in her new home and she knows she is sick but makes due. As for the rest of us, the fear, uncertainty, expense, loneliness of missing mom as she used to be, and all of the sudden changes are paying a toll. I wish I could just buy a farm, move everyone in and go back to the good old days but life doesn’t work that way. So I guess you can just count the blessings, enjoy that which you do have, and adapt to whatever comes next. Never think that things can’t change because they can and they will whether you are ready or not. As in control as you think you are there are bigger hands that hold your life in their palms and you just have to trust that everything, good or bad, happens for a reason.

A Few of my Favorite Things

After watching segments of one of my most beloved classic movies, The Sound of Music, the song about favorite things got me to thinking.

The holiday season is a distant memory, we are struggling to keep resolutions, we are in that lull before spring strikes bringing with it renewed hope, fair weather, and new life. So many things to be thankful for yet not many can envision hope through frosted windows.

Winter has a way of dampening the spirits of some,making them grumble about the cold, and struggle to find any positives amid the barren late January landscape. For me, winter is my favorite season next to Autumn because it pushes me to be creative in finding ways to keep occupied. The crisp air is invigorating and I have all of my outdoor activities such as ice fishing which I so enjoy. Winter is also a good time to curl up with a good cup of coffee and go over my list of favorite things.

With that being said, here is my list of “Favorite Things” and I hope it inspires you to create and write down your own as a reminder of what is truly important and worth making time for!

-Church early in the morning when sunlight filters through age old glass lending prismatic color to ancient ritual.

– Family. Not just blood but friends near and far who bring joy, love, and unconditional support.

-Pets and their ability to love without question making us better as humans.

– Conversations. Not just awkward small talk about work and the weather but long conversations full of ideas, thoughts, hunting and fishing stories and laughter with people who make me want to stay up all night chatting.

– People who make me laugh so hard that I get the hiccups.

-Nightly calls to Dad. Just to hear his stories.

– My mother’s hands that once cradled my peach fuzz infant head, cooked meals, sewed quilts, brought down and cleaned wild game, and worked until they were raw and bleeding.

-Road trips. Getting in my truck with no destination in mind and just letting my internal compass guide me.

-Small town diners where old men gather to gossip over strong coffee and good food.

-Bakeries that are more long johns and Danish and less cupcakes and boutique.

-Books. The feel of a brand new copy yet to be devoured or the smell of a musty old tome filled with the ghosts of past readers tucked within its leaves in the form of discarded book marks, scribbled notations, and dogeared snapshots.

– People who are so unapoligetically themselves that they make you feel comfortable in being yourself.

-Sunrises and sunsets in my duck hunting marsh.

-Shed antler hunting when the last vestiges of snow provide enough nourishment to paint brown grass green in late winter sunlight.

-Watching old couples, who are still as in love as the day they got martied, blowing drinking straw wrappers at each other in restaurants.

-Being held at night by someone who doesn’t make me question how they feel about me. Safe, warm, loved.

-Wearing a fancy dress for no reason other than to go out to dinner.

– Cooking and sharing a meal with someone over lighthearted conversation.

-Old cookbooks; pages yellowed with age or burnt on the edges from getting too close to the stove. Chapters full of recipes that may not be good for the body but nourish the soul with their simple nostalgia.

– Old houses and barns that tell stories of times and people long gone.

– The sound of duck wings on opening day.

– The smell of REM oil after a day out hunting.

– The smell of horses and leather. The feel of a trusty steed’s heavy head resting on my shoulder as I gaze into his liquid eyes alive with love and understanding.

-Ice fishing in a worn out old portable shack that my dad bought for me at a yard sale.

-Panfish fried in butter because that’show Dad did it.

-Mason jars lining shelves like a colorful timeline of the year’s harvest.

-Fog lifting off the surface of the water, revealing the still beauty of the world as on the very first morning.

-Teaching someone something and then having them teach you even more about yourself.

-Old quilts on clotheslines that represent the subdued artwork of hard working women.

-Classic cars on modern highways. Candy painted steel time capsules on white wall tires.

– Snow falling in the light of a street lamp.

-Leaves that fall in autumn like scattered shards of cathedral glass.

-Black and white photos that force your mind to paint in the colors from distant memories.

-Gifts that are from the heart and not from a store. Time, love, a homemade treasure.

– The laughter and innocent trust of a child with wide eyes as you speak of impossibilities like Santa and the Easter bunny while you wish secretly your faith in legends was half as strong simply for the joy they bring.

– Old farmers, tractors, sunlight on wheatfields, the sound of a steam whistle on a Case Steam engine, the smell of logs burning in winter, holding hands while ice skating, watching movies for hours snowball fights in city parks, living, just living….

I could go on and on with my list of favorite things that involve simply the memories and experiences they evoke. For me, the list of things for which I am grateful is seemingly endless because each and every day presents new blessings to add to that record of my life. So, what is on your list?

Too Late or Just in Time

I was born in the wrong time period.

How many of you say that to yourselves daily as you make your 5 mile 3 hour commute to go sit in a cubicle and stare at a computer screen until it feels like there is an ice pick prodding at your brain while the phone shrills incessantly?

I tell myself daily that someone who is as unhappy as I am with the modern world had to have been meant for a different era in history. By some cosmic fluke, my birth was delayed until the late 20th century and here I am clinging to the old ways while cursing the slowness of my internet connection.

I often pour over images on the web of one room cabins, fires ablaze in the hearth, rag rugs on the floor, a wide front porch with golden domed fruit pies cooling on the rail, a root cellar lined with glass jars filled with delicously colorful contents, a barn with a scattering of animals, and the peace and slight fear that comes with knowing that you are the only person around for miles. The idealized Laura Ingalls Wilder lifestyle complete with calico and maple sugarings calls out to me more and more the older I get.

I wonder about that kind of life, long for it sometimes and wish I could just walk away from everything to lose myself in a deep forest cabin.

I am not the only one, I am certain of that. Many of us want noting more than the serenity of solitude. To have time unspoiled by electronic devices, to be left to our own devices. We want this freedom yet remained chained to the very things that hold us back.

Hours that could be spent acting on our dreams are spent living vicariously through the posts of others. Heads down, fingers flying over a stylized keyboard, we fail to look up and around us to see the world in its entirety because it is easier to view it through a 6 inch screen.

Our concepts of the beauty of the earth and of people has been distorted by built in filters. An instant face lift in the palm of our hands allows us to alter our appearance so as to get more likes on social media. We erase lines, change eye color, add length to our lashes to the point where we are disappointed when we dont see that exact avatar in the mirror looking back at us.

Everything is contrived we feign concern for others, give a crying emoji and keep on scrolling. We get people to fall in love with us through messenger with daily messages, flirtatious, canned compliments at just the right time and then ignore the person for days. We toy with emotions because there are no consequences. We post our stories only to have Keyboard warriors attack like pit bulls in a ring when in real life they are de-nutted poodles in their mom’s basement.

This is why I cling so firmly to the old ways. The practice of going visiting on a Saturday, baking pies for elderly friends, helping out those in need, canning enough each year to share, quilting, raising livestock, hunting, fishing, surviving alone.

I am not ashamed to be politically incorrect by having pride in doing “women’s work” nor am I afraid to show pride in doing things that were formerly called “men’s work.” Yet the before mentioned keyboard warriors are quick to pounce with their verbal warfare and mindless threats.

What have we become? We laugh at how archaic things were in the past while the past laughs at how backwards we have become. We are now fully connected yet people are more isolated than ever, we get through horrific events by blaming things and not people, we have manipulated the system so that everyone is a victim and not at fault for their actions, we lost our funny bone and, as a result our backbone, in that people are offended by everything, we turn our backs on neighbors and open the gates for strangers, our children starve while others feast but no one bats an eye, we just don’t care because we believe that there just is nothing to care about, we have given up, we just want to be left alone.

Yet, as they say, a flower can grow in the tiniest of cracks in a filthy sidewalk. So too can we flourish amid all the bad news, good news, fake news, what have you. How? By being old fashioned, for lack of a better term. Roll up your sleeves. Bake a pie and take it over to that old lady next door who spies on you through her blinds. While you are busy commenting on your Facebook friends dinner in Australia your neighbors Social Security check might not have covered groceries this month.

Go out and teach a kid something that doesn’t involve a smart phone or video game. Engage in real life conversations with people face to face rather than sending them a text from the next room. Take a class, learn to sew or make butter or to make something with your own two hands and your imagination. Build a shelter in the woods and camp out for a week with your phone turned off and your senses turned up to high. Eat food you grew yourself or harvested from the forest and waters. Survive and you will thrive and I am not talking about that patch people wear and shakes they drink. I’m talking the real deal, feeling like you are alive because you did something, created something, gave to others, pushed your limits, burned that box you felt safe in, lived.

So next time you say that you were born 100 years too late ask yourself why you can’t recreate all that was good about the past in your own life. Work hard for your dream as though your life depends on it (because it does), be a good person, simplify, be grateful for the little things, be a good neighbor, slow down, look up, look around, create, build, make memories, establish traditions, and just live. Don’t watch life through a 6 inch screen, go out and live it in real time!

The Power of a Smile

A recent visit to the dentist revealed an abnormality in the X-rays of my jaw. A mass in my upper jaw and another one attached to the jaw bone beneath my tongue. This coming Friday they will get examined and tested for cancer.

Several years ago I was in a car accident that changed my life and took my smile. It took years for me to finally save up and have the kind of insurance that would allow me to get things properly fixed. The accident took more than my smile, it took my self esteem and caused the man I loved to turn away from me. He found someone new and used my problem as one of the many reasons why we didn’t work out. A man can’t love a woman who isn’t “whole.”

I smile all the time now and despite what my recent X-rays have uncovered it is not going to slow me down because I have so much to be grateful for and nothing to fear.

In the past 3 years so many things have happened in my life that I never thought would occur for me. I had some of my writings published in a magazine, I have drawings that I did for people hanging in homes across the country, I have been asked to be a brand ambassador for a new camo clothing company, I met someone who set me on fire and if only for a moment that someone made me feel beautiful for the first time in my life, I got 4 goats who have become my world, started a blog, I have a bright future to look forward to because I am finally cutting all the ties that held me back from moving forward, I am known for my smile, and I have touched lives. Yes me! I touched lives and that is so very important to me.

These may seem like small accomplishments to all of you but had you met me a few years ago you would have seen a woman with her head down stuck in a rut thinking she was never going to know love or happiness simply because she couldn’t smile.

Now I come forward with my story to hopefully inspire others who have similar experiences or who are facing scary health issues. You are not alone. For some of you it was not a car accident that stole your smile but perhaps life events or another person. To all of you I say smile anyway. Despite everything never give others the power to rob you of your happiness or your light. If someone tells you that you are unlovable due to a deformity or scars tell them that you are even more worthy of love because you survived. You made it through something that could have taken your life and even if the image in the mirror still reflects the pain you endured do not let the ghosts of what happened rob you of happiness now.

All too often the things that scare us most are not being loved and death. You know what scares Me? Dying before ever having truly lived but my fears are in vain because I know dang well I will never let that happen. To the fullest every day, every hour, every minute, every second!

I will repeat the age old saying of “never underestimate the power of a smile.” A single smile can change the lives of both the person giving and the person receiving it’s radiance and hope.