Tag Archives: Illinois

Home, Then and Now

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It is 7:30 pm on Sunday night, and I am in the middle of cooking my mother’s famous lasagna recipe.  It involves making your own bechamel, and it is the best lasagna I’ve ever tasted.  I seem to remember that she found it in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine which seems hard to believe, but you must remember that in the late 1960s and the early 1970s Julia Child was on tv encouraging housewives to venture away from meat loaf and pork chops.  I’m not going to share the lasagna recipe here because lately I’ve found it hard to amaze my dinner guests, which is not surprising when the NYT and Epicurious send us their best recipes on a daily basis.  Better, sometimes, to reach back in time and return to the classics.

Tonight I was so happy chopping onions and garlic and stirring pots and singing along with Florence Welch and then it occurred to me that WHOOPS I’d forgotten about the pasta. Our stove is awful and takes forever for a burner to heat, so now I am in a holding period waiting for the ziti to cook.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  I am making my mother’s famous lasagna recipe using ziti, simply because the lasagna noodles located on the top shelf (way in the back) were so petrified they quite possibly may have been purchased during Obama’s first term.  You see, our cupboards are very deep, and I am short and cannot see to the back.  And I’m lazy to fetch a chair to look into the bowels of my cupboards.  I hope I gain back some of your faith when I tell you I used fresh oregano from our backyard garden in the meat sauce.  That’s about all that’s left growing in this tremendous heat. That and a basil plant that has quadrupled in size during the few months since I bought it at Trader Joe’s.  I completely forgot it was there and am sad thinking about all the days when I could have had Caprese salads.

I’m making this complicated lasagna recipe so Hubby will have comfort food when he comes home to an empty house each night during this coming week.  William and his friends are off camping up north in the cool mountains, and tomorrow I get on plane to see my aunts and uncles and cousins in my hometown in northern Illinois.  I have not been in three years and am so excited to see my family . . . and to see and feel and smell the town where I was born and where I lived until I was ten years old.

In my dreams I ride my bike down the streets of this little old town.  I go through the squeaky screen door to hug my grandmother and then at other times, I have coffee with my Aunt Linda and my cousin Bridget.  In my dreams, memories of my young self get tangled up with the reality of the older self I am now.  Because I am the oldest of three, I keep the childhood memories of this place for all of us.  I tell my brother about driving to Grandpa Koppen’s house when a tornado was coming, our mother shouting at us to roll down the windows, we will be there soon!  Our own basement was mud walls and big spiders, and grandma and grandpa were just up the street with a lovely finished basement complete with pool table and full bar.  I say to my siblings, don’t you remember when we lived on Grover Street and Aunt Linda and Uncle Bill and Matt and Bridget lived just twenty steps from our own front door?  Their dog, Arfrang, was so cute and was always jumping at their screen . . . and their spunky little cats, Amos and Andy, were so fun to chase and pet.  Remember Thanksgiving and Christmas at grandma and grandpa’s when we would sit at a fancy long table in the dining room?  Then after dinner the men would smoke and drink, and the women would do dishes and talk in the kitchen.  So much laughter, and I remember it all so fondly.  I try to keep this place of my youth alive for us because I am the oldest thus have the most stories, and this is the place where we were born.

I could share here many more childhood memories from my small town in Illinois, but a big storm is moving in, and I’d rather watch that through the window than continue driveling on here.  We have lightening and huge storm clouds and a rumbling of thunder in the distance.  We so rarely get weather here in the desert; this storm is a treat.   As always, thank you for reading my words.

Cheers,

Mary

 

Green Thumb

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My winter garden has done very well considering the bed in our side yard had lain fallow for four years and was built in a place that does not get enough light. I’d forgotten how much joy a small vegetable garden can provide!  Every day I announce in a cheerful voice, “Let’s go check the garden!” and the pets who are allowed outside tag happily along.  Cosmo (elderly Siamese) gingerly walks through the rows and I remind him it is NOT a litter box, and Ruby (trusty spaniel) wags her tail so vigorously she threatens to knock over the banana pepper plant growing near the edge.  The mesclun and rainbow chard are beautiful and tasty . . . the pole beans less so.  Did I plant them too late?  I have parsley, oregano, and chives for seasonings, and ten small tomatoes which should be salad worthy in a week.  Does anything smell better than a tomato plant so crisp and fresh?  Perhaps basil, though mine died with the last cold snap.

I’ve always loved plants.  I can name most plants on my desert hikes.   As a young girl in Illinois I was enchanted by the dainty Lily of the Valley which sprung up like magic every Spring by my grandma’s front door, the small patches of wild violets growing by the sidewalk that felt velvety to the touch, and with green moss growing in dark, unexpected places.  My siblings, cousins, and I spent hours in the Yellow Delicious apple trees growing in my grandparents’ back yard, and even though Grandpa Summers was very grumpy, I gladly followed him when he invited me to his large garden across the street, where we’d pick raspberries, asparagus, snap peas, turnips, and carrots.

I do not believe in this myth called “the Green Thumb;” the idea that some of us are born with an innate knowledge of how to grow plants is rubbish.  People who grow lovely gardens have these traits:  they appreciate beauty, they are in awe of nature’s capacity to create new life from a small seed, they have nurturing qualities and can remember to care for their gardens each day, they are patient, they appreciate learning from their mistakes, and they like to experiment.  A true gardener’s eyes will light up as they examine the seed display at the local nursery; their spouses will fuss at them for taking too long in choosing just the right annuals to plant near the front door.  These decisions are of the utmost importance!

This month I am obsessed with everything Beverley Nichols, a British author who wrote in the mid-20th century. I find this quote very appropriate for our times, “We both know, you and I, that if all men were gardeners, the world at last would be at peace.” (From his book Green Grows the City written in 1939.)  I also have this silly old thing from the 1950’s that I must share.  (I fear I may have been born in the wrong era altogether.)Image may contain: text

Cheers,

Mary

All Souls Night

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A few weekends ago, Hubby and I were in Tucson visiting my sister and her family. Our visit was way overdue and when the invitation came to attend the big All Souls Procession, we were so excited!  Since Peg, Dean, and Owen (my nephew who is 11 years old) travel to the Valley several times a year (and often stay with us), we haven’t made the arduous trip to Tucson in probably two years.  And when I say arduous, I’m joking.  It’s about an hour and 45 minutes, door to door.

How strange to see Peg only a few times a year, considering that we shared a room for most of our childhood.  I had a room to myself  until she came along when I was three . . . and from then on, we shared a room–until I was 16 years old and we moved to a new home with FOUR BEDROOMS. Separate rooms for my sister, my brother, and me. It was a huge change, and even though I was happy to have my own space, I missed her (even though she was just across the hall).   I think back to our spacious bedroom on the second story of our Grover Street home in Belvidere, Illinois, where our walls were painted a soft lilac.  Each morning the first thing we’d do was look out the large windows to see what the weather was that day.  This house, built in 1880, was old but quaint, and I will never forget that November morning in 1973 when we looked out our bedroom window to see the first snow of the season had come in the night, transforming our street into a winter wonderland.  I can remember our delight as if it were yesterday!

Back to the present:  We had a relaxing weekend staying at their casa in an older part of Tucson.  Their renovated kitchen is beautiful, and we so enjoyed getting to know their new cats. Saturday night we drank good beer at several cute establishments on historical Congress Street, and the next day had so much fun dressing up for the parade.  We wore black and white clothing, red flowers and sashes for a vibrant contrast, and to our faces applied temporary tattoos to replicate the traditional calacas face painting. Peg and I wore floral headbands, and our guys wore black top hats with chrysanthemums stuck in the band.  We looked mighty fine, if I do say so myself!

The All Souls Procession began at sunset. Bagpipes wailed a mournful tune, while drummers slowly beat a funeral march.  A small group walked along the parade route handing out slips of paper for us to write messages to our deceased loved ones.  Soon after, another group collected our papers which at the end of the night were burned in a huge bonfire.  Many people in the procession carried signs and photos of their loved ones who had passed, while others entertained us by walking on stilts, all with macabre costumes.  Somber, yet joyful, it was a celebration and mourning of the lives of our loved ones and ancestors. Standing in this huge sea of people, who so gracefully and peacefully came together to honor those who had gone before them, moved me to tears.

Even though our busy lives prevent us from spending a lot of time together, I think back to all those years my sister and I shared a room, dreaming side by side in our room with the purple walls.  Now that my three children have flown from the nest and Hubby and I have more freedom, I plan to visit charming Tucson more often to create new memories with my sister and her lovely family.

Cheers,

Mary

 

 

When I Was Young

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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my childhood summer days spent in a small town in Illinois. This girl could not have asked for a better setting in which to grow up. Tall trees bowed over our small streets, and the dirt we dug in was black and rich with worms. I had my little sister and brother, and my cousins Matt and Bridget lived across the street. Besides that we had the Johnson girls, and fun Lisa from up the block. Also there were the Four H’s who lived in the big three-story, gingerbread house five doors down: Honor, Heather, Holly, and Hope. There were the Manley boys on the corner, and even though we ranged in age from 3-12, we were fast friends because this was our street, this was our summer, and this was our World. We knew to be nice to each other. We knew to be polite to neighbors. And we knew when it was time to go home for dinner.

We rode our bikes all over town like demons, the only advice from our parents being “be watchful at the train tracks.” We played tag, we made lightening bug rings, and ate snacks of sweet clover we found in our yards. Using dandelions, we stained our faces with yellow “war paint,” and made crowns out of whatever flower was blooming at the time: violets, pansies, lilacs, or Mrs. B’s hot-pink peonies, “borrowed” from the huge bush at the end of her driveway. When it rained, we played hard in the mud, knowing to hose ourselves off before going inside, lest our mothers yell at us. We played in the sprinklers (the funnest ever), and when we heard the ice cream truck’s circus-like song, we ran indoors finding exactly 15 cents each. Because in 1972, that is how much I handed the ice cream man in exchange for my banana popsicle. We pet toads. We searched for baby bunnies. There was always an abundance of cats, birds, and squirrels, all whom we included in our daily play-dramas. One day we were pirates (thanks to Peter Pan). The next we were outlaws. The movie theater in town had recently re-opened as The Dollarodeon with my friends and I devouring their first movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid . . . which we attended without parents, at the matinee.

The Grover Street that my parents lived on was not the same one where we played. Their’s was a world of houses needing cleaning, kitchen cupboards needing stocking, sidewalks to be swept, and trees to be trimmed. OUR Grover Street was a magical world of haunted houses (we often saw a ghost peek out of the third-story window of the purple house at the end of the street), busy riverways (the frequent rain provided gutters of water in which to float fairy or pirate boats down the street), and a terrifying graveyard (a neighbor’s backyard dog cemetery circled and shaded by three huge pine trees from which we were constantly chased away by the irate elderly woman). We raced up and down the streets on foot and on bicycle, the wind blowing in the streamers we’d placed in the wheels of our bikes. In 1970 the Donut Depot went into business just a few streets over from our house, and when the wind was just right, the scent of frying donuts wafted over us.

The summer storms were legendary. When a tornado warning was announced, we would drive a mile to my grandparents’ house which had a huge, comfortable basement in which to wait out the storm. The basement of my own house was not “finished.” I only went down there once, and the experience left me having nightmares for months: Dirt walls, rolypoly bugs, musty smells, and complete total darkness once my dad turned off the flashlight. Access was through a boring door by the kitchen table, but the message was clear: Do not enter.

As our summer draws to a close, I urge you all to look back at the summers of your childhood. Share them with your friends and family, and smile thinking back on your childhood adventures. If you are in Arizona as I am, be sure to walk out your back door after a storm and breathe in that delicious after-storm desert smell of creosote and dust, mixed with heat and hope for cooler temps to come.

Cheers,
Mary