Monday, May 30, 2005

Bachelor Chefs

My eighty-two year old father talks on the phone with my twenty year old son about the ice crystals in the bag of frozen hashbrowns. They are just two guys cooking for themselves, separated by 576 miles.

I suspect both of them sometimes use the infamous "sniff test" to decide if their clothes are really too gross to wear again. Nobody likes doing the "sniff test" in the refrigerator, though. That's why I was pleased to find this storage safety chart for keeping foods in the refrigerator and the freezer. It comes from the Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education.

I like Mrs. Cookwell. She reminds me of my mom and my grandma. I liked this tip, too, even though it goes against my upbringing. I think Mom used to worry that the hot leftovers would warm up the refrigerator too much, so she let most foods cool before placing them in the fridge. She must have been pretty savvy about bacteria growth, though, since we were never bothered by food poisoning:

Should you cool leftovers before refrigerating?
No, you do not need to cool hot food before you put it in the fridge, but very hot food (e.g. simmering chili) can be left out for 30 minutes before refrigerating. The key is to cool hot food quickly to prevent bacteria growth. Bacteria grow very well in the temperature range of 4ºC - 60ºC. Food should be cooled to 4ºC or lower as quickly as possible.
Fast cooling tips include:
  • Store food in shallow containers (3 inches (8 cm) or less).
  • Stir hot foods occasionally to speed-up cooling.
  • Do not stuff the fridge - allow cool air to circulate around food.

If I had ever studied an instrument, besides the piano, it would have been the sax. Piano lessons provided plenty of evidence that I probably didn't need to study another instrument! That is why I push the buttons on the blender and sing "Born to be Wild" to the revving sounds...
Like a true nature's child
We were born, born to be wild.

We don't like growing wild green fuzzy stuff in the refrigerator, or even purple haze on the leftovers. It's not safe to eat!

Purple haze all in my brain
Lately things just don’t seem the same
Actin’ funny, but I don’t know why
’scuse me while I kiss the sky

'Scuse me while Jimi Hendrix and I go clean out the Frigidaire.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Nearing this first Memorial Day has been difficult, perhaps more than the first Mother's Day. We had not ventured into the tricky discussion of when we could get together to place my mother's ashes in the columbarium, or niche, at the church for some time. Still, the thought that the box containing her ashes might be sitting on a shelf in some closet at the church was nagging me. I knew it had to be bothering my dad. I felt very guilty that I had not been able to fly home at the same time as my sister to meet my brother and help Dad put the ashes in the niche.

I finally brought up the subject last evening, and Dad mentioned that the church might have already placed the ashes in the niche and done the engraving once the temperature rose above freezing. It didn't seem likely to me, but I said I would call the church today.

The kind church secretary who answered my call walked out to the columbarium in the courtyard to visually verify that the engraving had been done and the niche sealed. What a weight lifted off me. I hoped Dad and my siblings would feel the same, but I worried that Dad might be upset that he hadn't been there at the time the niche was sealed. I wondered, too, why the church had not informed any of us that the ashes were placed and the engraving done. Then I realized that there must be many times when no family is left for the church to notify when ashes are placed.

When I called Dad with the news, he wept with relief. My siblings are both feeling lighter now. The columbarium is a lovely place, in fact, it is next to the lovely courtyard where I was married, a place I have always loved.

My brother plans to take Dad to "visit Mom" at the columbarium very soon, then drive him out to the Lee's on Cottingham and West Van Dorn. Lee's has always been our family's restaurant for commemorating significant occasions.

My parents very practically planned ahead, and secured space in the church courtyard columbarium when it was constructed, which was a wonderful gift to their children. It's been a gift, too, that they so realistically prepared their "Five Wishes" a few years back.


The Chapel Courtyard, to the east of the main courtyard, was redesigned as a memorial garden in 1990. The east and south walls contain columbarium niches for urns containing the ashes of those who have been cremated.
The area is intended to be a welcoming place of peace, reflection and remembrance in the midst of a busy city.

My regret now is that I didn't ask enough questions to know the ashes would be placed in the niche by the church, and to request notification when it was done. Many sleepless hours could have been prevented.

In a strange way it helps me to know that the memorials for Mom to the Morrill Hall State Museum contribute to the Museum's programs at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. My mother loved this park and the State Museum's ongoing excavation of mammal fossils buried in a volcanic ashfall ten million years ago.

Our sense of control is an illusion. We are all grazing on a grassland, oblivious to the volcanic rumblings. Mom would have said, "Graze well".

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Dutch door

Fritzi is in the kitchen now. Her kitchen. She is carefully and skillfully mounting our butterfly specimens on corrugated cardboard. She is concentrating, but also relaxed, in the flow.

The kitchen and the butterflies and Fritzi are all in my memory, but how welcome these images are! I just realized that these are the images of my mother that come first to the surface now, replacing the images of her suffering and illness. This is the Fritzi that I casually chat with about little things while I drive to work or the store, just letting her know how the boys are doing, or the nice lunch a student's mother brought for all the teachers on the last day of class. I know Mom would have enjoyed the tortellini salad and croissants.

I've been looking at photos of my mother in happier times for four months now, trying to reset my memory. Writing about fishing and butterflies seemed to help me over the bump.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Take Me Fishing

Did I ever mention how I cried at the end of the "Mary Poppins" movie the afternoon of Easter Sunday 1964 at the Stuart Theater in downtown Lincoln? There are so many things I don't or can't cry about, that I forget the many times I've tried to pretend I wasn't really crying over Hallmark moments, real or commercial.

Usually I cry very quietly. "I've got tears in my ears from lying on my back while I cry over you." I pretend it's allergies, or a nosebleed. By contrast, my sister went on a loud and inconsolable sobbing spree at the conclusion of a play of "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" at the Lincoln Community Theater when she was about three. My youngest had a similar reaction at the same age because a rainbow was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He didn't want to lose the rainbow because he was afraid he would never see anything that beautiful again. How interesting that he finishes high school with plans to study photography.

This experience of grief and loss changes us. Our emotions stay closer to the surface, and express themselves more obviously. The phrase "permeable membrane" always pops into my mind. We are in a state of openness, even when we would rather not be. We are left ajar. We hug more, and say, "I love you."

I spent so many wonderful hours sitting in front of our house with my dad waiting for a storm and counting out "one milk bottle, two milk bottle, three..." after each flash of lightning. We didn't always have to talk. We could just sit in the webbed lawnchairs near the congregation of boxelder bugs by the concrete stoop and watch the sky turn greenish gray. How fortunate I was to have a father to teach me about being still and watching nature!

Dad is greatly touched by ads in the Take Me Fishing campaign in print and tv. The ads get him all choked up, and I can see why. They get to me, too. That PR company should get an award from Kleenex!

Dad did take us fishing. We started off with bamboo poles and red/white bobbers, catching sunfish and crappie. It wasn't important if we caught anything, but it was very important that we were quiet, patient, and observant, and that we were respectful of the fish and other fishermen.

We graduated to fishing with rod and reel, and catching northern pike at the then new reservoirs in southeast Nebraska. It was a moment of enormous pride when I received my very own fishing rod for my tenth birthday. The rod was a beautiful dragonfly blue and delivered the tacit message that I was worthy of this very grown-up gift. I don't think I've ever felt more proud.

My parents also took us butterfly hunting. I used to watch a tv show called "The American Sportsman" narrated by Curt Goudy while my dad dozed on the couch on late Sunday afternoons. Celebrities would hunt for trophy animals, with a soundtrack of heavy breathing and footsteps through tall grasses. Later on Sundays we would watch "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" with Marlin Perkins.

Dad probably crafted the first butterfly nets so I could earn a Campfire Girl bead. Before long we were all learning about butterflies, their host plants and life cycle, patience, and a bit of coordination. I have mixed feelings about hunting, but I know that this butterfly hobby gave me a permanent connection to nature. I hope that I honor the butterflies and moths we collected every time I teach an art project about insects or other animals. I hope that some of my students are entranced by the poetry of plant and animal names--swallowtail, sphinx, milkweed, rainbow, painted lady, question mark, bullhead, red spotted purple, sunfish, red admiral, Queen Anne's lace, cattails.

Dad helped me be a rockhound, too. The rock tumbler was the impetus for many magical father-daughter visits to the lapidary shop.

As I write this I get a bit Mary Poppins-ish. I'm seeing time spent with Dad in the basement at his workbench learning to hammer and saw....the building of the wonderful treehouse where I spent so many hours being creative and enjoying solitude, the screened house for raising praying mantis babies, and time wading in lakes and creeks. Dad doesn't know how inspiring his tales of trying to dam Willow Creek with rocks in his childhood were to me, even though the attempts were futile. The unsuccessful results of his early engineering efforts may have been the most enduring message: Get your bare toes out there in the mud and work with the wonders of nature!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Warm and cold memories

The little grey-green bird flitted through my patio for a few seconds this afternoon. All the birds are agitated. Maybe the weather is changing.

Instead of thinking spring Mother's Day thoughts, I am remembering a favorite event from childhood. Fritzi would be wearing a soft charcoal winter coat that wrapped instead of buttoned.

I wonder if Eastridge Presbyterian Church still sponsors a Boy Scout troop. When I was a kid the troop held an annual pancake feed fundraiser. The Boy Scout Pancake Feed was a red letter, capital letter event on our calendar. It was pretty much guaranteed to be held on the very coldest night of the year, and was a major Eastridge social event. We would all come out of our igloos bundled to the max, drive to the church, have to park so far away that we should have just walked through the snow and ice, to stand in the serving line for the pancakes and sausage. The scout leaders would be whomping up the pancakes, the Boy Scouts would be busing tables or helping carry plates for little kids. Adults would be visiting with neighbors they hadn't seen since lawnmowing season ended, and the kids would be hanging out with their friends from school. It would be so cold in the foyer of the church with all the people coming and going, stamping the snow off their boots, but downstairs in the fellowship hall it would be so steamy warm and filled with the smell of syrup, coffee, and sausage. The hall would be a beehive of voices, and the energy was so good. Excitement would eventually give way to the sleepiness of a tummy full of pancakes, and daddies would have to carry little ones home to bed. Makes me want to tie a neckerchief and get out the Log Cabin.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

My Mommy is a Picture

The first art contest I ever won was sponsored by the Gateway Bank at Lincoln's first shopping mall. Gateway Mall was built at 61st and O Streets in 1959-60. "My Mommy is a Picture" was the name of the contest, which doesn't always translate to meaning one's mom is pretty as a picture. The neighbor kids told me that my painting of my mom was really ugly, but I won. My mom did not have a flip hairdo, or magenta lips in the picture. I hadn't handled the paints very skillfully, and I had a lot of trouble mixing the apricot/peach color of Fritzi's dress. This was the early Sixties, and I was eight years old or younger. The painting was probably done on a piece of shirt cardboard or scrap paper from Dad's office. I know it was covered in Saran Wrap to look more "professional". Presentation is so important in competitions! The big prize was either one dollar or three. Gateway Bank might have hoped I would open an account with my winnings.

My sister and I found the costume jewelry that went with Fritzi's apricot/peach dress in January. The short minutes we spent looking through Mom's jewelry box were a very powerful reconnection for us. We both felt like we were little girls waiting for the bridge club ladies to arrive and eat dessert.

It was so exciting for us to greet those ladies, to stay up past eight although already in our PJs, and to help carry the plates of ice cream pie or blueberry dessert out to the living room. Once we were tucked into bed, the sounds of the ladies visiting and the cards on the folding tables lulled us to sleep against our will.

My elementary art students are making "My Mommy is a Picture" portraits to give their moms next Sunday. The cut and torn construction paper efforts often bear a surprising resemblance to the students' mothers. The portraits don't have magenta princess lips or flip hairdos. They look like moms who drive carpools, get sunburned at t-ball games, deal with the kitty litter, and somehow forget to carry in the last grocery bag from the car trunk, the bag with the pound of ground chuck.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Tote Bag

I convinced Dad to fly home with just a canvas tote shoulder bag for a carry-on. He arrived here ten days ago worn out from hauling a duffel packed to the brim with stuff he didn't need to be dragging all around the Denver terminal just so he would have the Ted Kooser book, Delights and Shadows, snacks, and his prescriptions.

When we got to DFW this morning, I tried to get him checked in curbside so we could get rid of his luggage ASAP. The checker said he couldn't issue Dad bag tags. Fortunately, I decifered the mumbo-jumbo to mean Dad had been pre-selected for full security screening. He's eighty-two years old and looks really menacing. He's been known to rant about Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Sam Walton, the pope, Bolton, Tom DeLay, The Media, Condie Rice, Saddam, and many more since back before Richard Nixon told the nation that sad, sad story about Pat's cloth coat and Julie and Tricia's little dog, Checkers. We went inside to the United counter to check in. I hadn't wanted to do it on-line in case the counter agent could give Dad a better seat than I had purchased for him. That's what happened on his way here. Since I was doing most of the talking to the counter agent, she asked if I would like to accompany Dad to the gate. This is a great thing to remember. I didn't know it could be done, but it made a huge difference. My savvy flyer friend didn't know it could be done, either, so that is why I am posting this. Maybe someone else can ease a departure for a relative. When I told the agent that I would like to accompany Dad to the gate, she checked out my ID and gave me a pass to go through security. That way I was there to interpret for Dad about his full belt buckle security screening, so he wouldn't get worried. I wonder if the baggage x-ray on his flight down here showed his fiendish fingernail clipper, so he was coded as a terrorist instead of a delightful Old Fart with chronic nail fungus. Once through security we went to McD's for coffee. We relaxed, and I figured out the timing for visiting the restroom and going on over to sit at the B30 gate. It's very different flying out from an international airport, than flying from the little airport in Lincoln, Nebraska. The flight boarded at least twenty minutes late, and Dad said he would have been very antsy waiting by himself. Many things have changed in the fifteen years since he last flew.

We chatted about the time my parents won a trip to New York City with some other engineers. This is one of my first major memories. I was in kindergarten in 1960. Mom sewed all the outfits she would wear on the trip. I still have tiny fabric scraps from the purple and gold irridescent weave for her cocktail dress, and for the lovely matching purple stole. I thought the outfits were incredibly glamorous. Just like today, the airline was United. Passengers back then received navy blue canvas bags of flight amenities--peanuts, matchbooks, barf bags, and possibly playing cards. I remember the canvas bags, since they soon ended up in our childhood play "dress-up box".

My parents visited FAO Schwarz in NYC in 1960. They brought back one toy for each of us. My toy was a Hasbro Fizzies Fountain. My brother got a toy airplane. My baby sister got an awesome wooden spinning merry-go-round toy with wooden people similar to later plastic Fisher Price people.

Mrs. Schidler was our babysitter while our parents were off on this amazing trip. Mrs. Schidler was pretty amazing, too, even if I can't scroll up an image of her from my memory data bank. She was a pancake batter artist! She could make any shape of pancake you could imagine.

When my parents returned to Lincoln, Mrs. Schidler and we three kids were watching from the open air observation deck. We could see Howie and Fritz walk down the roll-out stairway and across the concrete to the terminal. Looking back I realize they were two young sweethearts returning from a second honeymoon in the Big Apple.