Archive for the ‘Places’ Category

“How many languages can you speak? Do you wish that number were higher?”

This is another Plinky prompt, from way back in October.  I hang onto these things if they look interesting, and then, if I don’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt, I have a few spares to choose from.  Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt was something about “talk about a time when you ran out of energy and were exhausted,” and that requires too much thinking – there were so many of them.

Languages.  First of all, define “speak.”  Fluently, conversationally, basic, “kitchen [fill in the blank]”?  “Kitchen” speech refers to the kind of thing you would use around the house, by the way, but not necessarily at work, or in a formal situation.  A perfect example of “kitchen speech” is the story I heard from a girl whose mother was Russian and her father Russian-American.  The father had learned Russian first from his grandmother and then from his wife, so “household Russian” was all he knew – and “household Russian” uses a lot of diminutives.  You would never say you were taking the bus, for example, you would say you were taking the “bussy” to work, or that you had seen a cute little kitty-cat on the way to work.  Well, whatever this guy said at work one day – probably something about making some itty-bitty copies – he got some strange looks from his colleagues, until one of them took pity on him and said, “We don’t talk that way here.”

So you might surmise from this anecdote that I actually speak Russian.  Put it this way:  If I can summon up the vocabulary, I can express myself grammatically, and if I listen in on the conversation of Russians, I might understand one word in a hundred.  But hey, I understand that word.

And come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I learned German, which I do speak fluently, to such an extent that one day, I was having a conversation with a member of the German Consulate staff in Boston, who asked me where I was from.  When I told him, “New York,” I thought his eyes would fall out of his head.  Apparently, he had been listening for regional clues in my speech, and not being able to pick up where exactly I was from in Germany, decided to ask.  Sorry, this is not a regional accent you ever heard im Vaterland.

Anyway, when I lived in Germany I had a neighbor who wanted to be able to practice her English, so we got to be friendly.  The only problem was, she soon cottoned to the idea that I knew a few words in German – I was taking college-level courses at night – and that took care of the English lessons; it was simply easier for her to express herself in her own language.  And I understood maybe one word in a hundred.  Until the day, maybe about a year after I’d landed at Rhein/Main Airport, when I was sitting in a German laundromat, waiting for my laundry to get done (the base laundromat being on the fritz yet again), and, bored out of my mind, picked up a German ladies’ magazine.  And I understood enough of it that when I got out of the laundromat, I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought my first foreign-language publication.  Once I could understand about half of what I was reading, the other half came easily.  And of course, being able to converse daily in that language was a great help, as well as the fact that we only listened to German radio (we liked the music better than Armed Forces Network).

So if I could do the same thing with Russian, I guess I’d get fairly fluent in time.  However, there really aren’t enough people to speak it with; I get to see my church family maybe twice a month, and they all want to improve their English (and who can blame them?).  As for reading…well…I can, if I take the time to sound out the letters.  But I don’t usually have the time to put into reading that alphabet.  Yes, I know, if I really wanted to, I’d make the time.  I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that if I wanted to, I could, which is dangerous for actually learning anything.

This post is already long enough that I can only give a passing nod to my first foreign language, which was French.  I could speak that fairly fluently, when I was fresh out of high school, and if France had had the sense to stay in NATO, and we had been posted there, I would have been a  huge hit with the French:  As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.”  And thanks to my musician’s ear, I can get foreign words out with near native fluency, in any language.  I may not actually understand them, but I sound as if I do.

So…what’s the Girl Thing?  Think about it.  Don’t women have a reputation for talking people’s heads off?  Of course we do, and it’s not undeserved:  This post is already at about nine hundred words.  Now:  Imagine being able to do that in four languages.  Yeeeeaaaahhhhh.  /beatific smile/

Read Full Post »

Where the Faeries Swam

“What was the best thing you ever saw on a trip?”

Goodness!  I’ve seen so many unforgettable sights!  The earliest of them that sticks in my mind, nearly 50 years after I saw it, was when I was visiting relatives in Kansas, and we rode down the first arrow-straight road I had ever seen in my life.  On either side of us were corn fields, endless rows of corn, and it was exactly like driving in a tunnel of corn, with a blue overhead.  Except – the blue overhead was sky, and the road was so straight, for so long, that up ahead we could see black thunderclouds – and beyond them, more blue sky.  Sure enough, we drove right into a downpour, and half an hour later, right back out of it again.  To a “city slicker” like me, accustomed as I was to the jagged skyline of buildings both tall and small, this was remarkable.

A few short years later, living in Germany, every day was full of exotic sights.  Oriel windows, those excrescences on the corners of buildings that look like mini-turrets, were everywhere.  I still like oriel windows.  An entire town that appeared to be fast asleep, not a crack of light to be seen in the dark – in Germany, shutters aren’t for decoration.  People, at least at that time,  opened their windows and pulled the shutters across the window frame, and even with air slats (Germans being great believers in sleeping with open windows), those windows were as tight as a drum.  Newer houses had roll-down shutters that operated like Venetian blinds; sometimes you could see little pinpricks of light through them, but for me, accustomed as I was to the glow of lamplight through Venetian blinds or lace curtains or even shades, those closed-up-tight houses were disconcerting.

Then there was my first glimpse of a New England autumn.  Not even a German autumn can compare with New England for the sheer intensity of color.  All my life I had heard about Autumn Color, but in my New York experience, what happened was that the leaves in our part of town turned brown – then fell off.  Nothing to write home about there.  And in Germany, while there was color, it was decidedly muted, a softer version of the yellows and oranges portrayed on picture post cards from New England.  I really thought those were paintings – until my first trip through Connecticut, at the height of autumn color.  OH – MY – GOODNESS.  Now, living in New Hampshire, I relish every second of autumn, and I often wonder if the kids I see lounging towards the school bus are even aware of how very blessed they are.  Probably not.  We don’t see everyday things as blessings, until we go somewhere away from home and obtain a different perspective.

But the best thing – the very best thing – that would have to be a trip we took when our daughter was two.  We were driving all around Upstate New York, considering a move to that area; if we had found a town that was irresistible, I think my husband would have put in for a transfer to the nearest OSHA office, since that was where he was working at the time.  We had bought a picnic lunch, and my husband tracked down a state park that had a picnic area.  And after lunch, we went for a walk in the woods.

I had been for many walks through many forests at that point.  In Germany, even the big cities have forest parks, with clearly-marked trails that are even labeled:  You follow the blue marker, for example, if you want a 15-minute walk, and the yellow marker for a 30-minute walk, and the red marker – well, you get the idea.  You get a great walk through the woods, and it’s impossible to get lost.  I like that, since I hate getting lost.  This state park wasn’t nearly as organized as all that, but the trail was reasonably well marked, anyway – at least it wasn’t a tramp-out-your-own-trail-through-the-brush – and we really needed a walk.

The woods were so still.   All you could hear were birds singing.  The scent of pine and cedar and all the varieties of deciduous trees was so soothing.  None of us said a word, which is quite something for a chatty two-year-old.  And then we heard the unmistakable sound of a waterfall.

It was a gentle little stream, plashing into a gentle little brook that wended its way through the forest, off the path.  The woods were so dense that even the sunlight was muted (thank goodness it was sunny, or I don’t know if we’d have been able to see anything), but that little waterfall just kept streaming down the rocks, into a small pool that flowed away to points unknown.  I wished I could build a log home next to that waterfall.  It was so peaceful.  It looked like a place where, if you sat very still for long enough, you could see fairies coming out to swim in their special little watering hole.

In later years, I developed the habit of reading from the Book of Psalms during my prayer time.  In the Orthodox Church, Vespers always begins with Psalm 103 (in the Septuagint – Psalm 104 in the Masoretic text):  “Bless the Lord, O my soul.  O Lord my God, Thou hast been magnified exceedingly…”  And as you read down, you realize why this Psalm was chosen for Vespers:  It talks about the ending of the day for all creatures, and about how all creatures rely on God for their food and shelter:  “He sendeth forth springs in the valleys; between the mountains will the waters run. / They shall give drink to all the beasts of the field; the wild asses will wait to quench their thirst. / Beside them will the birds of the heaven lodge, from the midst of the rocks will they give voice. / He watereth the mountains from His chambers; the earth shall be satisfied with the fruit of His works.”

And whenever I read those verses, I think of that little mountain waterfall, and the stream that still makes its way to points unknown.

Read Full Post »

Question:  ”How much of the world have you seen?”

Answer:  Not as much as most people.  I mean, one of my brothers has been to both Germany and Ireland – his wife has relatives in Germany, and his son was doing an internship in Ireland, so both visits weren’t as expensive for him as they would be for us, since he had family to stay with.  Another brother was in the Navy, so he did get to see a lot of port cities.  My daughter travels regularly to Israel, now that she works for a company based there, and trust me, the Middle East will never be on my bucket list, so I don’t envy her.  My father was also in the Navy, but that was during the Second World War, so I don’t imagine he got to see much of anything, and my stepfather was in England and France during that same event.

But my third brother, my sister, and my son have never been outside this country, and although my mother lived in San Francisco for a time, she never left these shores, either.  Whereas I, as most people know by now, lived in Germany for three years, along with my husband, and I must say that although we never travelled outside that country, we did cover it top to bottom, and in retrospect, I’m glad we didn’t do the Tourist Thing.  There’s nothing like actually living in a foreign country to broaden your horizons; not only do you have to learn to get around foreign streets, which is true any time you set foot outside your hometown, but if you’re going to live there for any length of time, it’s a good idea to learn the language and the social customs; and once you do that, you’re never the same person you were.

It’s true that I would have liked to see Amsterdam.  And, since I spoke French at the time, it could have been fun to travel at least to Alsace-Lorraine, where some of my ancestors came from.  Someday I would dearly love to see Russia, and that part of Germany that was behind the Iron Curtain when I lived there, especially Eisenach, the birthplace of my bud, J. S. Bach.  And I’ve always wanted to see Japan; I love Japanese culture.  Here’s the thing about Someday, though:  Your world does necessarily shrink as you grow older.  You just don’t have the stamina you did at 30 or 40.  So the likelihood of my going anywhere outside the country dwindles with every passing year, and frankly, at this point, I’m just as glad to skip the horrors of the TSA.  Domestic travel is tough enough.

Domestically, my life has been pretty much limited to the East Coast, although I did spend three unforgettable years (hard though I’ve tried to forget them) in West Virginia.  New York is on most people’s bucket lists; I was fortunate to have been born and brought up there, so I spent nearly thirty years “wak[ing] up in the city that never sleeps.”  There actually are portions that do sleep, by the way.  Some people claim that Queens County, where I grew up, never woke up.

But we’ve lived in New England for over thirty years, now – first Boston and now New Hampshire – and although it will never be Home in the sense that New York is, I’ve been happy here (especially in Autumn).  However, the most interesting aspect of living here has been the cultural differences; despite its still being on the East Coast, and only 300 miles from New York City, some of the cultural norms are frankly bizarre, by New York standards.  One idea that floored me when I came across it was the notion that it’s somehow “racist” to ask people where their ancestors came from; in New York, everybody wants to know where you’re From, and I know people who can recite every iota of their ancestry (me being one of them).  Another one I’ll never get used to is this Tailgating thing; apparently, according to my aunt who was a native Mainer, people actually get on your bumper for a reason:  They’re  hinting that you should speed up.  In New York, tailgating is rude, and I’m considering a bumper sticker that would read:  ”WARNING:  I brake for tailgaters.”  (Not to mention the other, and apparently more common, meaning of tailgating, partying out of your car at a sporting event.  I’ll never get used to that one.)

And the ubiquitous bumper stickers/car decals, “Yankees Suck.”  Um, I think the problem with the Yankees is that they don’t “suck” – there’s a reason they keep defeating the Red Sox.  Nevertheless, I do understand the sentiment, and even sympathize with it, being a Mets fan.  New Englanders have been without a National League team ever since the Boston Braves pulled up stakes and moved to…where was it, anyway?  I know they were the Atlanta Braves for a time, but they moved from someplace in the upper Midwest, then moved back there after Atlanta.  Anyway, somehow, it’s inconceivable for New Englanders that you can be from New York and not be a Yankee fan, and I have a lot of fun with that.

Bottom line:  No, I haven’t seen that much of the world.  But I’velived every place I’ve been.

Read Full Post »

It’s pouring rain this evening, the good kind that signals Summer’s end, a real downpour of several hours’ duration.  Surprisingly, there hasn’t been too much thunder; it was certainly hot enough for it all day, but regardless, it’s been raining steadily for awhile now, and after this exceptionally hot and dry Summer, much needed, and therefore, greatly welcome.

As a rule, I like rain.  I mean, after three or four weeks of nothing but rain, I do get a bit tired of it, but generally speaking, I do like rain.  When I was younger, I even liked walking in it; a good raincoat, a good umbrella, and good footwear, and I would walk for hours in it.  The only reason I don’t still like walking in it is that walking in any kind of weather has become extremely painful.  Old age has its drawbacks.

But one of its advantages is the memories.  I have my share of unhappy memories – most of us do – but much more than my fair share of happy memories, and when it rains, especially when it rains heavily, I am reminded of the first time I discovered the joys of walking in the rain.

It was our first wedding anniversary.  Both classical-music geeks, and living n the land of Beethoven, we had promised ourselves a trip to Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn – the house is a museum, located on a tiny street right in the center of town.  We found a bed-and-breakfast right on the street, about a block away from The House, and booked a room.  Our first anniversary, one of our favorite composers – and this in the 200th anniversary-year of his birth – what could go wrong?

Well, of course.   The rain.  It was relentless.  The drive took most of the day, since we took the scenic Rhein River route (it’s only “Rhine” if you spell it the French way), and all of it in the pouring rain.  We got to our destination wet, cold, and hungry; fortunately, there was also a restaurant just a couple of doors up, on the opposite side of the street:  “Zum Stiefel,” “At the Boot.”  How appropriate.  I forget what we had to eat, but, as befit two newlyweds, it came at a modest cost, and we hit the sack early.

It rained all night, and all the next day.  We woke up, had breakfast, went to church a couple of blocks away – in the church where Beethoven had been christened – came back, and ate a picnic lunch in our hotel room.  We had missed one important calculation:  It was Pentecost, and in Germany, not only is nothing open on Sunday, but for major feasts like Pentecost, everything is shut tight the next day, too.  A visit to Beethoven’s house was out of the question, since we had to head for home on the Monday.  And if we weren’t visiting Beethoven’s house – there was nothing else to do.

Cooped up in a tiny hotel room, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, on a day that should have been purely wonderful, with our major plan for the day shot to blazes.  Finally, my husband said, “Let’s go for a walk!”  “In the pouring rain?!” I shot back.  “It’s better than hanging around here.  Just a short walk,” he wheedled, and because there was literally nothing else to do, I gave in.  “A short one.”

So we got out the raincoats and umbrella – being newlyweds, we shared an umbrella – and made our way to the town square, just up the street from our hotel.  When we got to the corner, we stopped and stared:  It looked like half of Bonn was out for a Sunday-afternoon stroll, good burghers and hausfraus strolling arm-in-arm under umbrellas, round and round the square.  We looked at each other, astonished smiles on our faces, and joined in the apparently national pastime.

After that day, we took many strolls in the rain.  Sometimes there were others on the street, other times not, especially if it was a weekday evening, and we were just out for the sheer pleasure of it.  Nowadays, when it rains, I am reminded of all those times when we were young and in love, and gradually making ourselves at home in a land and culture that has never really felt foreign since then.  I don’t think I have ever felt so at home, before or since.  Certainly I lost my feeling of being a foreigner in a foreign land that day; I turned more than the corner into the square on that rainy Sunday afternoon, as my husband’s ancestral culture finally “clicked” with me.  Everything that has made my life more than mere existence – my ever-deepening interest in classical music, my needlework, my knitting, my complete fluency in a foreign language, my habit of shopping daily for the freshest groceries, my firm and absolute belief in train and bicycle travel as the most efficient means of transportation ever devised – all that, and so much more – dates back that afternoon, when my husband refused to let his actions be dictated by the weather.

Read Full Post »

What is the coolest thing you ever saw?”

I had to think about this one.  I am about as far from “cool” as it’s possible to get, in the sense of “hip” or “with it” (are these terms even still around?!  The fact that I can both use such terms and ask if they are still around should give you some idea of just how un-cool I am).  Then I thought about “cool” in terms of temperature – and I had it.  Both in terms of temperature and in terms of culturally cool.

It was a frosty December evening when  my husband and I went out to dinner in the small German town where we were living.  We had been living in Germany for nearly three years at this point, both of us were fluent in the language, and had adopted many of the cultural norms of our neighbors; so we walked the mile or so to the restaurant, had a pleasant, quiet meal, then headed out for a stroll home along the main street of the town.  As I said, it was frosty, but not unpleasant; the stars were out, the railway station across the street was bathed in light.

Suddenly we heard a piping voice:  “Nikolaus!  Nikolaus!”  “Look!” said my husband, and pointed to the railway station, in front of which stood an old woman, bent with age, and…St. Nicholas.  As we watched, the two greeted each other affectionately.  “Bist du ein gutes Maedchen gewesen?”  asked St. Nicholas.  “Have you been a good girl this year?”

The old woman giggled.  “O, ja, ja!  Yes, yes!” she replied.

“Also, dann,” said St. Nicholas.  “Well, then.”  And he reached into his sack, pulled out a small gift, and gave it to the old woman, who responded with another giggle and high, thin cries of, “Danke!  Danke!  Thank you!”  And the two parted ways.

Of course.  It was December 6, the feast of St. Nicholas.  Children all over Europe were being visited in person to find out if they had been “naughty or nice”; the nice ones, and I’m sure they were all nice, got small presents, cookies, and fruit.  But for us, the unseen witnesses, the exchange between the old woman and whoever had dressed as the saint was pure magic.  I’m sure we both had stars in our eyes as we made our way home.

In later years, our children would leave their shoes in the kitchen on December 5, and wake up on December 6 to find them full of cookies and fruit.  St. Nicholas, we would tell our kids, had to visit all the German children personally, so he only had time for a quick overnight stop on his way to Germany.  “And we actually saw him when we lived there!” we’d tell the kids, “so he’s a real person, not like Santa Claus!”

Was it a stretch?  Yeah, well.

Maybe not.  After all, it was his feast.  And saints can do whatever they please. How do we know it wasn’t St. Nicholas?

Read Full Post »

Given the state of the federal budget, many are the cries for reductions and taxations.  But where to slash?  Push Granny off the cliff?  Where to raise?  Those lucre-loving denizens of Wall Street?  On only one target can both sides comfortably settle:  those blood-sucking federal employees, those lard-butts who sit around Washington all day doing crossword puzzles and pulling in twice what the average American wage-earner earns.  Let’s face it, nobody likes paying taxes; why not dun the tax-takers?

So I thought I’d introduce you to your Friendly Neighborhood Fed so you could get an idea of where at least some of your tax dollars really go.

Well, yes, some of them do go to Washington to support Congressional Representatives and Senators, not to mention whoever currently inhabits 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  (Yes, I know who currently inhabits it, but not even he can live there forever.  At least, not as things stand at the moment, though I wouldn’t put it past him to have himself declared President for Life or something.)  Some tax dollars do go for farm subsidies, transportation subsidies, medical research, defense, education, student loans, etc., etc., etc.  In fact, so much goes out on all of this that I’m wondering why people fixate on federal civil-service employees as the Source of All Our Ills.

Oh, wait, I forgot, they don’t do nuttin’.  Well…almost nuttin’.  They do the medical research.  They process Social-Security claims and income-tax returns, and those nightmarish FAFSA forms so well-known to college-loan applicants.  Not a few of them put their lives on the line for you and me (and earn peanuts doing it, incidentally) – we call them soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines.  But there are also the people who guard the president, ensure that smugglers are caught, try their level best (with sometimes outright hostility from Congress and the administration) to keep our borders safe and minimize the effects of illegal drugs.  And there are the people who, since 1971, have been making sure that you get home in one piece at night (OSHA, to be specific).

They don’t all work in Washington.  Most of them, in fact, work ten or twenty miles from where you live.  They pay taxes the same as you do, not only state and local and property taxes, but federal income taxes – which means they pay a portion of their own salaries.  When they drive to work, they buy their gas at the same gas station you do; when they take mass transit, they pay the same fare you do.  The health insurance they get isn’t the same razzle-dazzle cover-everything plan that the Congress gets; it’s the same Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan as yours, with, possibly, one exception:  They pay a portion of their insurance coverage, something I never had to do when working in private industry.  They make co-payments on their medical care, too.

When they go out to eat, they eat at local restaurants.  Their kids go to school with your kids, unless they attend a parochial school – and maybe yours do, too.  The houses on which they pay property taxes look like yours, to a greater or lesser extent; some have larger homes, but some have smaller homes, too.  If they live in one state and work in another, they pay state income taxes to both states, same as you do.  They shop at the same supermarkets you do, and get their hair cut by the same barber or hair stylist that you use.

Strikes me that an awful lot of your tax dollars are being plowed back into your community, via federal civil-service workers.  Naive idealism?  Not really – I’ve been married to one for over forty years.

Read Full Post »

Talk about a memory tied to a certain candy, especially if it involves another person or a place.”

Oops, looks like I pre-empted today’s prompt yesterday.  I guess that’s what happens when you take things day to day, as I tend to do now that I’m retired.

But, especially now that I’m halfway through my seventh decade of life (did I just write that?!), I do enjoy sharing memories of a time increasingly distant, and since part of this prompt mentions memories tied to another person or a place, I’d like to run with that.  It does mean getting off the Sweet topic, but sweets really never were a big part of my life.

It’s August now, hot and humid, and every year around this time the memory of my grandmother’s yard surfaces.  As I’ve mentioned, my stepfather was Polish, and his mother was a farm girl from the Old Country; she never did learn to read or write, but there wasn’t much she didn’t know about growing things.  The part of her yard that fronted the street was a riot of flowers, a plot at least 10 x 20, and things grew there all summer long.  I don’t know what they were; I doubt she knew their names in English, and since she was the only gardener I knew, there wasn’t a hope of my knowing what they were, either.  Nor was her garden laid out in tidy beds, so that you could point to a flower and ask, “What’s that?”  Grandma’s flower garden looked like she had taken packets of seeds and broadcast them into fresh-dug earth, and then she tended whatever came up.  It certainly flourished.

In the back of the yard (which was really the size of a house plot) was where she kept her vegetable garden.  Those beds were tidier, and it was easier to recognize what she was growing there.  She had peppers, onions, beets, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, peas, green beans, and she must have grown her own horseradish, too, because she certainly made her own horseradish every Easter.  I don’t know how she did it.  It was the best stuff to eat, but grating it must have cleared out her throat and lungs for the rest of the year.

Early in my childhood, she also kept chickens, but two of her sons lived in the same house as she did, and as their families grew, I guess she felt that the chickens weren’t safe among so many little savages, because they disappeared by the time I was ten.  One of my uncles had six kids, the other had nine, and then there were the grandchildren who didn’t live there but visited regularly; we probably terrified the chickens by our sheer numbers.  The rest of the yard, and this is why I refer to it as a “yard” and not a “garden,” was given over to play equipment for the hordes of savages:  swing sets, slides, eventually a huge above-ground pool where my cousins disported themselves all summer long.

I guess I was 20 or 21 when I paid my grandmother a visit one hot August afternoon.  I’m not sure where the cousins were, but I do remember that it was uncharacteristically quiet that day.  My grandmother was watching soap operas, but she turned the TV off so we could visit, and we spent a bit of time chatting in the cool of her basement apartment.

“Come out into the backyard,” she said suddenly, and rose, shuffling the length of the house from front to back; she had terrible arthritis.  She made her way up the steps from the cellar into the yard with a pot in her hand; I assumed she was planning to dig up some vegetables for her supper.  Instead, she began pulling up grass by the handful, long stalks that grew next to the fence that bordered her vegetable garden.  I offered to help, but she was content with her grass-pulling, so I just sat and watched her.

When she had filled the pot in her hand, she hobbled back into the kitchen of her apartment, rinsed off the grass, chopped it, filled the pot with water, and began to cook it.  To say I was floored is an understatement.  It would never have occurred to me that my grandmother might be senile, especially since we had just been conversing lucidly, but – cooking grass?!  Where was she going with that one?!  After half an hour or so, she turned the flame off and ladled the grass soup into two bowls, and set one before me.  Yikes.  But what could I do?  She was the only grandmother I had, and I loved her and didn’t want to offend her.  So I picked up my spoon and ate.

It was delicious.  I’ve never tasted anything like it, before or since.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Dad about this wonderful stuff his mother had made.  “Oh, yeah, schav,” he said, when I told him.  “Do you make it from just any grass?” I asked.  “No, you need sorrel grass,” he said.

I’ve never eaten it since that summer.  Never found sorrel grass to grow, and frankly, I’m not sure it would grow for me; I have the blackest thumb in the neighborhood, if not in the entire Northeast.  Once I looked it up online and found that a couple of Jewish food companies actually sell it prepared, as they do borscht; but it doesn’t appear to be for sale anywhere but in the New York City area, and even though I’m from there, I haven’t been back home in over twenty years.  I’ve long since lost my taste for city living.

My grandmother has been on my mind a lot lately, probably because lately I find myself hobbling more and more the way she did, as her arthritis progressed.  It’s a little strange to think of myself as being as old as my grandmother, especially since she had so many skills I’ll never acquire.  Like making schav from scratch.

Read Full Post »

“What candy did you eat once that you wish you could get again?” is the prompt from NaBloPoMo, and in the meantime, WordPress’s Daily Post has issued a challenge:  Going from Mundane to Meaningful.  Goodness, two tasks.

As strange as it sounds to me – I can’t think of a single candy I would wish to eat again.  Not even the handmade chocolate bunnies that my mother used to buy at Easter, from a candy shop owned by an in-law of her father’s.  I’m sure it was excellent candy, but like pearls cast before swine, we little piglets just wolfed it down (so to speak), and I can’t even remember what it tasted like anymore.

Not even the fruit bonbons that my grandmother kept in a dish on her coffee table, desirably mainly because if we had touched them, we would probably have lost a hand – my mother somehow had this idea that Other People’s Candy was out for show only.  Maybe it was.  But over the decades, the appeal of hardened sugar water, or whatever candy consists of, has waned.

No, wait a minute.  Come to think of it…I actually do have a good candidate.  The year I was fifteen, my grandfather came to New Hampshire to visit his son, and I was spending the summer with that same son, who happened to be my godfather.  My grandfather, a great lover of walks, invited me for a walk with him, and as I also loved a good long walk (before arthritis caught up with me, anyway), I accepted gladly.  We ambled down Central Avenue together until we came to a candy shop – not one of those places where they sold candy like Snickers and Three Musketeers, but the kind of place just like where my mother used to get those Easter bunnies.  All their candy was home-made.  He bought a couple of pounds of good milk chocolate, then said to me, “How about some white barque?”  I expressed my ignorance on the subject, and was I surprised to learn that it was white chocolate.  White chocolate?!  Who ever heard of such a thing?  But he bought a pound, and I had a sample, and – yeah, I was hooked.  It was really good.  It had almonds in it, and even though it was high summer, that chocolate hardly melted at all.

For years and years afterward, I lusted after the memory of that chocolate.  Shortly after that visit, the candy shop closed for good; it’s now a bar.  How things change…I mean, the juxtaposition of the innocence of candy versus the kinds of things that go on in bars just seems to smack me in the face, as I’m thinking about it.  And to top it all off, the Food Police have us all convinced that Candy is Bad, and they’re strangely silent on the subject of booze.  The FPI – Food Police Investigators – do give a grudging nod to dark chocolate for its reputed Health Benefits, but I think they’d be just as happy if it too disappeared off the planet.  People tend to feel too darn good after chocolate.

Recently, I’ve discovered that there are producers of candy who offer white chocolate.  These tend to be either smaller manufacturers of “organic chocolate,” or manufacturers of high-end chocolates, like Lindt; in any case, the chocolate is mass-produced, and it doesn’t include almonds (from what I can tell, nuts are what set barque apart from plain ol’ white chocolate).  I’ve tried it; it’s good.  But it’s not homemade.

And it’s not the gift of a grandfather who wasn’t all that affectionate and not at all good with words, but who understood very well what children, even teenagers, like.

Read Full Post »

Really, when you look at the strange twists and turns that life takes, I don’t know how people can conclude that there is no God.  If, for example, my godfather and uncle hadn’t met and married a woman from New Hampshire when they were both in the Army, my family would never have dreamed of visiting them here.  I would never have concluded that New Hampshire was an infinitely better place to raise a family than New York City, where my family is from.  If my husband and I hadn’t moved here, I would never have gotten a job at one of those firms that develops and scores standardized educational exams.  And neither would my daughter.  And if she hadn’t worked there, she would never have met the man who became her husband, and they would never have had their two sons.  Two people now exist in this world who would never have come into being, if my uncle had not met and married this woman – who subsequently divorced him, anyway.  I have no idea why; I only know my family’s side of the story.

That’s about to change, I think.  This past April, my uncle’s son killed himself.  We weren’t close, but since he was family, I went to his wake, and there met his mother, whom I have not seen in over fifty years, this same native New Hampshirite whose brief marriage to my uncle brought us all here.  She was ecstatic, after so many years – and to be honest, I was happy to see her at last, too.  I really, really liked her when I knew her, and always grieved for the breakup.

Today, I took myself out to lunch.  I take myself out to lunch as often as I can, actually, mostly because I really hate making lunch.  I mean, once you’ve exhausted cold cuts, tuna salad, and peanut-butter-and-jelly (which I can’t eat anyway – I’m allergic to peanuts), what else is there?!  Not last night’s leftovers, not with my husband home all day and routinely saying, “What happened to…?”

(We once had a conversation about my odd lunch-out habit.  When he learned that I had always eaten lunch out, he was floored:  “Didn’t you ever pack a lunch?”  I thought about that for a bit – it isn’t as if my family was as rich as, say, the Kennedys, but then, who is – before I realized why:  Anything I had brought into the house to pack for lunch the next day would have disappeared overnight, down the gullets of any or all of my three younger brothers.  Nothing was safe in that house.)

So, I take myself out to lunch as often as I can.  I bring a book, and enjoy my own company and somebody else’s sandwich-making skills.  I had just sat myself down and was reaching for my book, when an older woman came up to my table and addressed me by my first name.  Now, not too many people in this town know me by my first name, which I loathe; many more know me by my middle name, and that’s how I like it.  So there was only one way a woman of a Certain Age could have known me by my first name.

It was her, my long-lost aunt.  I probably would have invited her to have lunch with me, but she was already engaged with one of her daughters, so she contented herself with giving me her telephone number and exclamations of Let’s-get-together-soon.  I said we would – I really would like to – she went back to her daughter, and I returned to my book.

And then I went to pay my check.

And the waitress told me that the Ladies Behind Me had paid it for me.

“What is the sweetest thing someone did for you today?” is today’s prompt.  I know I covered this in the post I wrote this morning, but – that was yesterday.  This is today.  I am still floored, that getting together with me means so much to this woman.  After all, she’s from here, she has family here and a long, long history in this town.  She could have lunch with any one of a couple dozen people.  But she has just ensured that I will be getting together with her.

Don’t tell me there is no God.  He keeps breaking into my life in the most unexpected ways.

Read Full Post »

I think I’ve always had knitting in my bones.  It’s the only reason I can think of for the fact that essentially, I taught myself how to knit.

Living in Germany was a great help in that regard.  When I was living there, I think every woman in the entire country knitted.  You’d see them everywhere:  in the train station, on the train, in the park, sitting at picnic benches in the forest, at the laundromat, knitting, knitting, knitting.  I knew how to crochet; crocheted granny-afghan squares became very popular when I was a young teenager, and even my mother, who hated needlework of any kind, learned to knit those.  I made my first afghan when I was twenty.  But nobody in Germany crocheted, that I could tell; everyone knitted, and as I had always considered crochet a poor substitute for knitting, I wanted to knit, too.

On one of my rare forays to the Base Exchange (the Air Force equivalent of a department store), I spotted a magazine, Somebody-Or-Other’s Fall Knits.  (I don’t think it was Vogue.)  The front-cover pattern was exactly what I was looking for, a matching cape and skirt in a rich autumnal brown color.  And it looked like a fairly easy pattern…if only I knew how.  I picked up the magazine and browsed through it, and there in the front were…instructions.  Oh, heaven.  I bought that magazine on the spot, and the next day, went to the yarn shop in town and bought several hanks of rich brown yarn and a pair of suitable knitting needles.  And when I got home, I taught myself to cast on.

Now – knitting takes patience.  Lots of patience.  Casting on, the means by which you get the foundation row of knitting on needles, is especially tough to learn.  I didn’t even know how to make a slip knot.  And of course, what I cast on was so tight that there was no way to get another needle into the loops to form a second row of knitting.  I must have ripped that thing out a dozen times before I got a selvedge I could work with.

Then there was purling.  Knitting was pretty easy, once you got that first row onto the needles; you stuck the working needle into the stitch from front to back, wrapped the yarn around it, and pulled through.  It was just a question of getting the yarn to stay on the needle until it pulled through.  Did I mention that knitting takes patience?  But eventually, there was a fairly tidy second row of knitting on my needle.  And then came real hell, because I had to stick the working needle into the stitch from back to front, wrap the yarn around it, and pull it through again, and this time, that yarn would not stay on that needle!  This is where an experienced knitter would be jumping up and down, saying, “Garter stitch!  Garter stitch!” meaning, you knit every row.  I thought about it.  I think I actually did it.  But need I point out that garter stitch looks nothing like stockinette stitch?  I wanted stockinette stitch.

So I persevered, and after probably about two weeks, I finally had a row of purl stitches on my needle.  Turn it around, knit another row, yay, I get to knit.  Turn it around, phooey, I have to purl another row.

Believe it or not, I actually did finish my skirt and cape in time for winter, and wore them with great pride.  I’m sure they looked as if they had been knit by an amateur; after all, they were.  But I did it.

That taken care of, I returned to my first and favorite needlework, cross stitch, and didn’t pick up knitting needles until five years later, when my daughter turned two.  Just the thought of little fingers and eyes around sharp scissors and needles was unbearable, and there was this cute jacket pattern I had seen in yet another magazine, so I packed away the cross-stitch stuff, bought gorgeous pink yarn, and cast on again – much more smoothly this time.  And this time, I didn’t stop knitting for 25 years.  Sweaters, dresses, socks, I made ’em all.

It was in 1982 that my knitting life really took off.  That was the year when, living in Massachusetts, I walked into a yarn shop in Lexington and found Knitter’s Almanac, by the doyenne of the knitting world, Elizabeth Zimmermann.  I wasn’t really sure I wanted to buy this book; it looked so Advanced, with no real patterns in it, not like anything I could do.  And we really couldn’t afford it.  But there was a chapter on Nether Garments (September), for knitted leggings.  “I first saw this practical garment in Germany,” wrote the Master (Mistress?), and I was hooked; that’s where I first saw it, too.

I never did make the Nether Garments, but – well, have you ever read anything by Elizabeth Zimmermann?  The woman is impossible to resist.  She charms you into thinking you can actually do this stuff, design your own patterns and make things without magazine patterns, knit in the round instead of flat pieces that you have to sew up, actually do math.  The scary part is – you can.  I did.  Fair Isle vests, Aran pullovers – argyle socks! – Icelandic pullovers, you name it, I did it.  Despite what people have been led to believe, federal civil-service workers actually don’t make megabucks, as I know from personal experience, and one of the ways I stretched a buck was to purchase one skein of sock yarn, cut the worn-out feet off my husband’s socks, and knit new feet onto them.  I still have some of those socks.  The yarn was pretty horrible – it pilled like crazy – but they are still wearable.  I wear them now.

My crowning achievement was my daughter’s wedding veil.  This was not without struggle.  I knew what I wanted to make; I had the pattern for it; I was able to purchase lace-weight wool; but never, repeat never, try to tell a non-knitter that you are knitting a wedding veil.  They can’t conceive of such a thing.  Both my mother (the needlework-hater) and my daughter’s future mother-in-law thought I was knitting a granny afghan!!  And it took me a year to knit the Shetland shawl I had envisioned; but she looked lovely in it, and it made a wonderful christening blanket for her two sons.

After that, I put my needles away and got back into cross stitch.  Until my son, who had only ever seen me knit, suggested to his then-girlfriend that something knitting related might make a good Christmas gift.  The girl bought me the Never Not Knitting calendar by Stephanie Pearl McPhee, who should seriously consider changing her middle name to “Purl” – it was like the rebirth of Elizabeth Zimmermann.  The woman literally laughed me into picking up the ol’ needles again.

I still cross stitch, in the daytime, when the light is good.  At night, with nothing but artificial light at my disposal, I take out my knitting.  In the past two years, I have knitted two Aran sweaters and a hat (and I swear I will never make another Aran again), and am currently engaged in a pair of socks for my husband.   The next pair of socks is for me.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »