nooks and crannies

16 12 2008


Yesterday morning I had a toasted English Muffin for breakfast.  It was right there in the package next to the toaster begging me to warm it up so that the butter I added could make little yellow swimming pools.  Suddenly I was transported back a few dozen years to one of the best Christmas gifts ever.

Living thousands of miles from where I called “home”, I began to crave things that I never bothered to buy on a regular basis.  “Must have root beer,” was the chant going on and on in my head.  I rarely even bought the stuff when I lived in the States.  But now that it wasn’t available anywhere – THAT is what I wanted.

Before ever leaving the States, I had gotten lists of things that were “unavailable”.  It was inconceivable to try to adjust to cultural shock and a new life on foreign soil without certain comfort food.  So in the dark corners of boxes holding our most prized possessions, jars of peanut butter and bags of chocolate chips made their way across the ocean.  I was planning my own little black market trade. 

I remember my first Christmas party in Spain with other missionaries where we were to bring the proverbial white elephant gift.  That game can only be fun if there really is something valuable in the mix of stupid items.  A recently unpacked stash provided me with just the thing – a nice big jar of Jiff.  There was weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth that surrounded that circle till some lucky family suddenly had a jar of golden goodness to take home.

When we first settled in the city of Zaragoza, it felt like we were in the hinterlands. Four hours and a serpentine road away from Madrid, we didn’t have a Burger King, McDonalds or all the other places I came to eventually loath.  At the beginning – it just represented familiar tastes and a huge treat. On a regular basis we had to be in the capital and one of the first orders of business was always a stop at one of these places.  

Suddenly I found myself craving English Muffins.  I don’t ever remember buying them in bulk or having to have one every week but because they were no where to be found – I had to have them.  One of my fondest memories of being separated from the family I loved dearly and uncannily connected to perfect strangers who became my family – someone gave me the a simple gift I will never forget.  Through an arrangement with someone who worked at McDonald’s – he was able to purchase a number of English Muffins just for me.

It wasn’t too many years later that we moved to Madrid and by then Marks & Spencer became a place I’d shop on a frequent basis.  I had all the English Muffins my little heart desired…even if it meant a 30 minute subway ride downtown, crowds of shoppers and lugging my goodies back to the neck of the woods we were living in.  

So yesterday’s muffin just reminded me again – it is the thought that counts. And nooks and crannies are good.

one date…ruined for life

15 12 2008


Best Boy’s voice on the other end of my cell phone, “Can I take Nana on a date to the Symphony?”  With my heart in my throat, I chirped out a response.  It catches me up short when my kids come up with such tender ways of expressing their love.

We brought her up to our place for Thanksgiving week.  It was her first time away from her place in a long long time.  I was a little concerned about the timing since the concert was to be the same evening as we got back up here. Would it be too much?  Would she be too disoriented?  Would she get too tired?

Thinking ahead to the occasion before we left her house,  she was lamenting that she didn’t know what had happened to her “good” winter coat.  Having learned a thing or two from stylist Shop Girl, I went to Marshall’s and brought six coats home for her to try on.  We settled on two – one an everyday sort of deal and another nice Italian wool full length gray. I decided to top off the whole splurge with a cute little jacket she could wear with a blouse and black pants to make an “outfit” appropriate for the occassion.

She is a simple woman.  High school educated – hard working…but was never able to make a priority of the cultural events that she longed for.  I remember one Christmas when the Dr. and I were either still dating or just married, she had arranged for tickets to The Nutcracker in Chicago for the four us.  It was a treat that I’ll never forget – mostly because of how miserable Billy was the whole time.  We were never allowed to affect the family with our personal snits (think: hormonal girls)- but boy, there was a time or two in his life that he sure got away with it!  I can still see him slouched down in that seat like he was at the dentist’s with no novacaine. Poor tortured soul.

Anyway, Best Boy is refined beyond belief.  He can do things up right.  He’d gotten some of the best box seats in the house.  The Dr. was too jealous at hearing that we’d missed out on an opportunity to hear Beethoven’s Ninth and scrambled to get some great floor seats for the two of us.  I didn’t mind being on hand should she have an “incident” and leaving Best Boy trying to figure out what to do.

At the intermission, we stood up to see if we could see where they were sitting.  Sure enough she was grinning down on us and yaking the ears off some strangers about God knows what.  

This weekend, back at home, she was to go to another symphony.  So I called this morning to get an update and it started with, “Well… it wasn’t really a symphony!” Now I realize that Grand Rapids is hardly on par with the New York Philharmonic – but she was comparing Grand Rapids to a county symphony orchestra.  It was a Christmas Pops concert and she enjoyed it…but can’t stop comparing it to the night she was on the arm of a tall, dashing grandson.

But this one did include an incident.  Since she had her walker with her (there is a God in heaven – she remembered!), when things were all over someone showed her small group of friends over to the elevator.  It was an exciting night in LaPorte for the police and firemen to respond to a gaggle of ladies stuck in an elevator at the Civic Auditorium (circa 1930).  She said that when they finally got them all out – it seemed that the entire concert going crowd was gathered ’round for their grand exit.  And a good time was had by all.

Recycle? Freecycle!

14 12 2008

img_38102Of all the home appliances that make me salivate, it would be a new washer/dryer combo of the latest design.  I’ve wanted a front load washer ever since we came back from Spain in 1995.  When we first moved there in 1983, it took a good long time for me to adjust to dealing with front load washers and once I did – I never looked back.

They are almost always located in the kitchen under the counters and in my tiny kitchens would look to take the space where you’d imagine a dishwasher to go.  It is very un-American to wait 45 minutes for the shortest wash cycle to finish.  The drum would go a few turns to the right – stop – and then reverse and go a few turns to the left…and on and on.  But it was a great way to entertain the kids before we got a TV.

They were extremely economical in terms of water use and I always washed in cold water.  IF I had to do something in hot water – that 45 minute time frame suddenly doubled since the washer itself had a water heating element.

When it came into the spin cycle – it felt like we were on a launch pad at NASA.  And I learned in my early appliance investigation stage to look for more RPM’s – since we didn’t have dryers…the more water that got sucked out of the clothes, the less time they would take to line dry.

Here are my observations after years of use.  Number one, our clothes were never cleaner with less “special” cleaners and sprays and hoo haa and number two – clothes done in a front load machine and not dried in a dryer last a million times longer.

So when we came back to the States, I had some reverse culture shock.  It didn’t take three days to dry jeans.  Dryers could be my friend and then I didn’t have to iron the stiffness out of towels in the winter.  When they’d be dried over the radiators (good for indoor humidity during the dry winter months) they’d be like sheets of plywood that would stand up on their own if you’d place them just right.  

We were still in “missionary mode” when we came back which automatically meant that we were the recipients of a good deal of charity of all kinds.  Somehow a gal in the church got wind of the fact that we needed a dryer and told us NOT to buy a new one.  She gave us her “old” Kenmore since she was getting new.  It was probably from the 80’s.  This is one step better than taking someone’s used tea bags.

It had some broken bits and pieces but with a few dollars in repair parts, it was in good working order.  Fast forward almost 14 years and that thing is still running like a charm.  I hope I haven’t just jinxed myself again by calling attention to it.  

But the whole idea of finding homes for “good” appliances that we no longer need or want just struck me yesterday as I was drying load number five of this week’s laundry.  Before it was fashionable or even internet accessible…freecycling happened. Yes, I’ll even admit that Billy may have been ahead of his time using old refrigerators as storage spaces in his basement- it just meant he was keeping them out of the landfills for 30 years.  Maybe when they finally find their final resting places soon, they’ll disintegrate as soon as they touch the ground.

The real issue that I do battle with is wanting something new for the sake of it’s newness.  My old isn’t broken.  I can just find any number of things to complain about so I can rationalize the purchase.  Of course, we are all caught up a tad short these days because of the economy, but it was a good moment of pause to think about my ugly old dryer.

So in the spirit of the season, maybe there is something, anything around your house that you don’t really need any more that can be handed to someone who needs it – no strings attached.  There are freecycle groups all over the internet to join. We don’t need to look too hard to find people that could use a hand. Do yourself, the planet and someone you might know a huge favor and just give something away before Christmas.

Just to keep  you on your toes next time you are out driving around, I thought I’d show you two of Billy’s great finds that took a bit of elbow grease to get cleaned up – but they are nothing to sneeze at. What’s the best thing you ever got for free (dumpster diving counts) that someone else was just throwing away?  



These aren’t the Twelve Days of Christmas, stupid!

13 12 2008

img_3817“…and a partridge in a pear tree.”  

There was an urgent email in my inbox this morning from a famous catalogue company announcing that we were now officially IN the Twelve Days of Christmas.  

Who is getting paid money these days to be so WRONG????  Do you mean to tell me that no one, in any department that all that advertising had to pass through to be approved, knows the difference?   We Americans take traditions that have been around since the Middle Ages and twist them up for our own pleasure.  We can’t even figure out when the Twelve Days of Christmas are. How can the rest of the world respect someone that doesn’t even get THAT right? Morons…it’s no wonder we can’t help broker world peace. 

It is not the twelve days leading up to Christmas.  The count starts with evening of Christmas Day and into the night of the Epiphany (January 5th-6th or Three Kings Day for Spaniards).  Figures that consumeristic-money-grubbing retailers would have us believe otherwise.  Anything to tighten those screws and rush us into throwing good money after bad.  

I loved the fact that in Spain (at least back in the years we lived there), the main focus of Christmas eve was gathering the family for a wonderful meal that didn’t start until 10 p.m.  About the time the last nibbles were on the lips – it was time for Midnight Mass.  

Christmas Day was for sleeping in and left overs.  Most gifts weren’t exchanged until Gaspar, Baltazar and Melchor made their way around town on Three Kings’ Day.  More of that later but I just had to get this rant off my chest.  Happy shopping!

how to restore your soul

12 12 2008


The chandelier above our heads was all dressed up for the Holidays. Nestled in a cozy foyer next to the fireplace, they’d arranged a table.  It was time for the six of us to catch up.  Our lives are busy with international travel, aging parents, kids who are fighting for their lives professionally and personally – just the stuff of life.  We’ve walked through the Sahara desert together both literally and figuratively.



We brought the world to the table – wines from South Africa, Germany and Spain and cheeses to go with.  Wafer thin sliced chorizo, chunks of italian salami, sausage wrapped in herbs of Provence. Olives and hummus. Mandarin oranges and flaky sweet morsels loaded with honey and pistasios from the Middle East.

Sharing laughter and love as warm as the fire.   Thanks, I needed that.


I’m at a loss for words…

11 12 2008

img_3810I was attacking it with great gusto.  An old refrigerator, doors long ago torn off and disposed of – used for storage in that dark, damp space of the basement.  The next day was garbage day – my goal…one more bag.  This was a “special” place of storage for disposable tableware: little plastic coffee cups with handles, knives, forks, spoons, cups – you get the picture.

But what you don’t know is that some of them I am SURE were left overs from my wedding 30 years ago.  Again, the recycler in me had to think twice.  Surely there was a homeless shelter somewhere that could use this stuff but could I live with the news the next day that the crowd that gathered for Christmas dinner was all hospitalized with some mysterious illness from black mold or something?  I had to throw them away.

When I get angry, I can’t fill the bags fast enough.  Nothing is quite as satisfying as a good purge.  Of course, it is much easier to do in someone else’s space.  I turn off my brain and think of the good I’m doing for what remains of my mom’s respiratory health and well being by getting this stuff out of the house.

As has happened before, something takes my breath away (besides the fact that I’m working without a face mask)…I find something so sacred that Billy wrapped it specially and even wrote on the outside to keep predators like me at bay.


I shake my head again at the cruelty of dementia…it took away his letters. This guy who loved crossword puzzles and got them done in the time after dinner and before the end of the news,  lost so many words in the end.  Cooky contaner.  I expected a pretty colored tin and all I found was the cheapest plastic kind that held a bunch of common store bought cookies.  Nothing special.  Except to Billy.  It was kooky!

We were having dinner with friends tonight and got to talking about toddlers (they have one),  brain injuries and dementia.  They all have things in common.  Spending any time at all with anyone in these three categories as a caregiver, you do a lot of repetition.

With the toddler you don’t mind as much because you are introducing them to the wonders of the world around them.  To the one with a brain injury you are re-teaching and anxious with wild hope that they will reconnect. Dementia just leaves sadness and loss.  It is a step into the abyss.

Today I’m OK with walking along side those who didn’t ask for this to be their lot and help them face each day with whatever dignity they still have left.  There are days that are exasperating.  I just have to pretend I’m an speech therapist and get into the zone.  How many times to do we need to look at the calendar to see the date when we are writing ten checks one right after the other?

The answer is 10.  Ten times we go over the date and look at it again. Maybe it was to remind me that I don’t know where I’ll be a year from now.

Tea with the Queen

10 12 2008

img_3828Since  I’ve known her, my mother-in-law has had recurring dreams about having tea with the Queen.  She, of all people, could pull it off.  It’s not like she is a pretentious person by any means – she just knows how to be gracious to lots of different kinds of people in lots of different kinds of settings.

I’d like to think of myself able to do the same thing.  But today – I’m not sure. I had a suspicion about myself and decided to try an experiment.  I went to Walmart.

It was two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and the place was hopping.  I was looking for some kind of curlers my mom needed for her hair.  I figured that there would be more selection at said superstore.

What IS it about that store that bothers me so?  I feel like I have been sucked into black hole and passed into a parallel universe that I know nothing about.  I don’t know my way around and I find myself staring at people. That doesn’t happen at the other store.  I know what I need and I just get it done.  

I am a Target snob.


9 12 2008

sc00058487Cotilla – busybody, nosy, gossiper…

There are places in Spain today where the above method of chatting it up with the neighbor is still the norm.  I used to  wonder what those tiny balconies were good for till I saw how they were really used.  Just big enough to step out and see what’s going on in the street below or whether Fulana’s laundry detergent is living up to expectations or to check on the health of her ailing tía abuela…time to talk, time for chismorreo.

I love the word – cotilla.  It’s a great little word that carries a lot of weight especially if you are accusing someone of being one.  Not with the negative weight of a “rat” or “snitch” but one who is quick to pass on information – true or not.

But I gotta LOVE being in the Chicagoland viewing area today.  Everyone is passing on information as fast as they can get it on the air.  Its all the buzz.  Stations are burning up with all the news from the Governor of Illinois’ office.  

I’m sorry – I’m within five episodes of finishing all 5 seasons of The Wire…and “yes, Virginia, there is…a wire!”  LIFE IMITATES ART!  I knew there were real Lester Freamons out there somewhere.

dings and dents

8 12 2008

img_38012Spinach, pickled beets, sweet sour sauce, red wine vinegar, molasses, mustard, olive oil, black-eyed peas, corn, popcorn, brown rice, barbeque sauce and more.  In case Billy ever ran short of these items in the kitchen, he could be sure that he had a back-up down on the shelves under the stairs.

Tomorrow is garbage day.  My goal is adding a bag or two of “pitchable” things with each week’s pick-up.  This week, I decided to have at that mini-pantry.  It hurts to not be able to donate this stuff to a food pantry but I was staring at enough botulism to shut down the metropolitan Chicago area.

Remember that price per unit lesson I used to get in the toilet paper aisle?  It also came along with a stop at the dings and dents cart.  Billy could NOT pass it up without grabbing something.  After all, he never knew when he’d have a hankering for a can of black-eyed peas…(notice the whopping price of 15 cents but also notice the huge dent in the side)…don’t you wonder what is going on inside that can and how long it has until it explodes?

Now in an effort to get you to leave me more comments – I am wondering if we can get guesses as to what year you might think this “Sassy New Seasoning!” might have been the advertising tag line of the year.  And maybe it would be helpful to compare two different jars – perhaps from two different decades?  What do you think?


img_3809I’m tempted to keep the black-eyed peas to send as a prize.

a Billy bird tree

7 12 2008

img_3879Yesterday I jinxed myself.  I said that I’d go to the farmer’s market for the tree only after making sure I had lights that worked.  Frankly, I’m just relieved that I’d even had that thought because it saved the day.  There were more strings of lights that didn’t work than ones that did.

If I bought a tree, I’d have to buy more lights and I’m not going there this year. It sounded to me like the beginning of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. My heart wasn’t really in the whole rigamarole anyway.  You knew that. Two strings of lights are all that have survived so, one was assigned to the mantel with some greenery and the other – to the Billy Bird Tree.  

Somewhere, sometime at someone’s garage sale Billy got a bag full of tiny, little felt birds and last year I perched them on the Christmas tree.  I never put the tree away, I just moved it to the corner of the dining room.  That is the story of the last 12 months for me.  Mass chaos.

Funny thing though – late in the afternoon my phone rang and seeing her caller ID my heart jumped just a little wondering if something was wrong. No, she was just looking for her camera because the curious little black and white bird was back at the feeder.  We are trying to figure out if it is a chickadee or what.  I say it is the Billy Bird.

On my trip down here today I brought along a bag of moldy rolls to put out with the birdseed tomorrow.  If that bird pecks at that fuzzy stuff I’ll know for sure its him keeping track of whether or not I’m keeping up with my job of making sure that feeder is full.img_38761