Brief and Indelible Season

My favorite Girls Scout cookie

I can’t remember selling Girl Scout cookies in fourth grade. Most of the brief season with my Brownie troop remains a mystery.
Martha Bradley comes to mind. Her mother led our meetings at their home. Mrs. Bradley dressed like a Girl Scout and smiled a lot. She led us in the Brownie Pledge.
            “On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.”
            Brownie meetings were fun like Friday night Pioneer Girls at church. We learned a lesson, sang songs, and ate a snack. I was amazed that mothers led Brownie troops throughout Michigan, the United States, and the world!
            I remember the day Mrs. Bradley demonstrated how to assemble potatoes, carrots, and beef chunks on aluminum foil to make a hobo pie. We shook on salt and pepper then folded the foil over and sealed it around the edges.
            We carried our hobo pies into her backyard to a pile of wood. There our leader taught us a fire safety lesson. Then she placed a grill above the flames where we cooked our food. We sang camp songs new to me. One was a verse about a smile in our pocket. No wonder Mrs. Bradley smiled so much.
            Another we sang in rounds. “Make new friends but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”
            At first taste, that one hobo pie of my lifetime fixed a steadfast hobo pie molecule in my food DNA. Just when I thought Brownie meetings and food couldn’t get any better, Mrs. Bradley doled out the fixings for S’mores.

           You mean graham crackers, a Hershey bar, and roasted marshmallows make something so delicious you want “some more?” The S’more molecule entwined the hobo pie’s.
            My second Brownie memory is a fine, delicate vision inside the former Ford Auditorium filled with hundreds of red cushioned seats. My troop sat in a row toward the back. An empty stage lay in front.
            The lights dimmed. Slow, beautiful music began and swelled in volume from some invisible place until it filled the spacious high ceiling. My skin tingled.
            Magically, ballerinas appeared in fluffy short skirts. One after another, they danced onto the stage in a straight line. On their toes! Their arms and legs moved the same way like someone pulled a cord attached to them. I could’ve cried when the lights went on and Mrs. Bradley said, “Time to go.”
            Dear Reader, come March, when I have several boxes of Girl Scout cookies stashed in our freezer, I pour hot cups of tea and melt Thin Mints in my mouth. I celebrate my indelible Brownie lessons and adventures. The hobo pie and S’more. A blazing bonfire and beautiful ballet.
            I hum the silver and gold song, take to heart the good advice for friendships fallen upon stony ground. On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.    

Cabin Fever Cures

Cuddles birdwatching

Cuddles, our tortoiseshell kitten, lifts a paw to the kitchen’s sliding glass door. Her ears twitch. She extends her neck as starlings gather in our bare maple tree. Her jaw trembles in cat chatter.
“I know what you mean, Cudds,” I say with my hands in dishwater. “It’s been a long winter.”
P.J. and Mo, our previous mousers, spoke the same language when bird sighting. I find this instinctive predatory muttering quite amusing.
          Mittens, our Siamese, doesn’t yet talk to birds. She’d rather make mischief, play catch and release with tomato vine stems, sometimes for hours. Mitts is interested in practicing her snaring skills—pouncing on Cudds or anything that moves.
That’s one reason why I stopped feeding birds when P.J. lived with us. The other reason? Deer, of course. One winter a doe walked away with a feeder clenched between her teeth. What talent.
          A year ago today, my husband and I drove in a snowstorm to Ann Arbor and back for lunch with old friends. “March is still winter in Michigan,” Mel repeats.
          Right on schedule, after months of ice and snow, hunger for my homegrown honey catches in my throat. I remember the few golden, sticky summers I drew off, extracted, and bottled over fifty pounds of pure goodness.
I haven’t since seen comparable traffic of honeybees, legs laden with saddlebags of amber pollen while the chickens scratched under the white pines nearby.
The 2019 Bee Order Form sits on my desk. For all my failures as a beekeeper, I may as well throw away the cost of a package of bees and a queen. However, we sometimes spend more than the bee cost on a week’s groceries. Our farm needs bees like it needs our hens, I reason. Mel and I need them too. We hope for another golden and sticky summer.

Bees love lavender

Indeed, our kittens have these and many other outdoor attractions awaiting them come spring. Great escape artists, I anticipate they won’t be rushing into the house come sundown.
Yet, they are attached to Mel and his siesta after lunch. We’ll see what happens with that habit.
Mel and I discuss what to grow in our vegetable garden. Again, he says, “We don’t need all that squash. It takes up too much space.”
Again, I say, “I love butternut squash soup.”
“We need more beets, and red and yellow onions,” he says.
“You’re right.”

I ordered Fedco organic seeds some months ago—lettuce and beets new to my raised bed and vegetable garden. I do appreciate a healthy harvest.
If the weather doesn’t foil our herb group meeting for the third month, I’ll pick up my seed order from Seven Ponds Nature Center March 13. Meanwhile, absence makes my heart grow fonder for my Earth-loving friends.
Dear Reader, I rest in our chicken chair with Cuddles and watch the starlings gather in the maple tree. At this moment, we’re entirely cured of cabin fever.
Mittens is another story.

Mitty's Message

Mitty at home with Mary & Dave
The morning before I left for Dave and Mary’s home in Traverse City, she emailed a video from her cat. “Hi, Auntie Iris,” said Mitty’s headshot in a cartoonish voice. “I’m so glad to hear you’re not allergic to me. I’m really looking forward to your visit. It’s going to be so much fun. Will you play with me?”
           I laughed at Mary’s hilarious sense of humor, and marveled at the technological savvy of some septuagenarians.
Well, Mary’s not yet celebrated her seventieth. Age is the only advantage, if indeed it claims one, I hold above my friend. Mary’s gifted with enormous creativity and hospitality.
The moment I stepped into the house that Dave built on a lake, Mary greeted me with a glass pot of tulip stems on her kitchen’s island. “Just keep the bulbs covered with water and they should bloom,” she said.
Mitty, twice as wide since my trip nine years prior, hovered over his food bowl without a glance my way.
“Auntie Iris is here to play with you, Mitty,” I said.
He padded his polydactyl paws into Dave’s den.
Mary led my suitcase and me to her guest room. She’d hung a collage of our much younger selves on the door. “You think of everything, Mary.”
“You know, I like you in short hair,” she said.
“It’s my youthful face, Mary.”
I remembered the room with the timbered lake view, grandbaby’s bed, and guestbook on the nightstand. Two chocolate bars sat next to the book.
“For the drive home,” Mary said.
What a life. What a friend.
After a delicious lamb chop, garlic mashed potato, and salad dinner, Dave fetched from the garage a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Oh my, what a beauty!
“It’s Dave’s favorite,” Mary said.
“I appreciate that, Dave,” I replied.

Mary & Dave with my birthday cake
They lit candles and sang Happy Birthday. Mary served generous slices with vanilla ice cream. Mitty returned to his bowl without a meow.
Next morning Dave made his famous Grampy’s Pancakes while Mary sliced fresh fruit and baked slabs of thick bacon. We relaxed with a cup of good, strong coffee. “You know, this royal treatment is enough to last until my eightieth birthday,” I said.
Dave offered a wry smile.
Later, in precious sunshine, Mary drove us into Traverse City and up the Peninsula to a few wineries. “I’ll buy you a glass, Mary. It’s the least I can do for all the effort and expense you’ve devoted to my birthday.”

Dear Reader, it is in moments such as those—alone with a dear friend who’s survived ovarian cancer to pour out her heart and soul into every good deed she does—I know the sacredness of life. 
There, overlooking the frozen bay, Mary and I played as two wives and mothers. We laughed. Pondered our remaining years, children, grandchildren—our hope for the future, wherever it leads us.
That last night I found Mitty curled up on my bed. He slept at my feet till morning.

Aunt Beulah's Birds

Aunt Beulah and Uncle Charlie, 1972

Aunt Beulah kept birds. Chickens. Rooted in Appalachia, she could snare a hen and serve it fried within the hour to her husband and five children.
            Back in the 1950’s, Uncle Charlie fenced in a spacious poultry yard when they lived in Oceana, West Virginia. He painted the henhouse the color of their timbered hillside.
My father, Uncle Charlie’s youngest brother by nineteen years, once perceived the farmyard the ideal set to direct his niece to model her new dress and heels before his camera.   
            The baby of nine children, Dad’s siblings obliged his self-appointed role as the family’s Cecil B. DeMille. The only child of Alonzo and Laura O’Brien to turn his back on Kentucky and settle in Michigan, Dad usually got his way. And when it came to his home movies, I’m glad of it.
            Otherwise, I’d have little record of my father’s family. For the O’Brien clan could be nomadic and forget to preserve genealogy and story.
However, Dad captured countless moving moments and images on hundreds of three-minute reels. Now over sixty years old, that film is rich with kinfolk and their settlements.
I remember with old fear the swinging footbridge that spanned a creek and led to the front porch of Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beulah’s house. Yet, there’s joy in my aunt’s voice as she sits upon the steps. She honked a birdlike laugh.
Seven years later in the summer of 1963, Dad announced Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beulah had moved to Kansas City. Mom packed his 1959 two-tone green Dodge for our vacation. Like a dope, I put my 45 of Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips in the back window and pouted all the way to Kansas. Why did we have to go to a boring ole city instead of Peter Creek? I couldn’t imagine summer vacation without my McCoy cousins.

My father and Uncle Charlie, Christmas 1967

Dad didn’t say his brother and sister-in-law lived in a house perched on a hill in the middle of a graveyard. My uncle had enough of the coalmines and found a job as caretaker of Mt. Hope Cemetery in Kansas City. The work above ground suited Uncle Charlie, a kind and physically strong man. He traded his pickaxe for a shovel.
            Aunt Beulah kept a myna bird instead of chickens. In effort to awake her teenage son for work in the morning, she taught the bird to say, “Kyle! Wake up!” and, “Kyle! You’ll be late for work!” The bird called Kyle’s name all morning until he appeared for breakfast, or Aunt Beulah capitulated and covered the cage with a towel.
Oddly enough, Dad didn’t take one reel of film during our vacation in Mt. Hope Cemetery.  There are no movies of the hours my sisters and I played tag with our cute cousin Kyle around gravestones under mature shade trees.
No matter. I can still see Dad standing before Aunt Beulah’s myna bird, the loyal creature that refused to repeat one word my father said, no matter his effort. 

           Dear Reader, it took a talking bird to show the O’Brien baby who’s boss. 

What Isaiah Says

French toast, one of my favorite comfort foods 

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint. Isaiah 40:11

I wake with no commitments. No emergencies. Our rather new furnace holds up in the midst of another cold snap. I hope the homeless have found refuge—a habit from years of our firstborn’s disappearances.
                  For a long while now, the voices inside this house call me by name. Except the kittens. I’m “Meow.” Everything is.
                  I’ve not stepped a toe outside the door in two days, other than to plug in and out the Christmas lights on the redbud tree. They’ll come down after my birthday this month. Need some bling for the Big One, you know.
                  Downstairs by 6:30 to brew his coffee, I hear the kittens scamper up the basement stairs into the kitchen. They whine until Mel feeds them. Then they'll commence another game of hide-and-seek under the throw rugs. Never do they say, “Mom, we’re bored.”
                  Last night after pot roast, carrots, and potatoes, Mel and I confessed we couldn’t imagine our home without the Rascals. I promised him French toast for breakfast—his reward for fetching frozen eggs from the henhouse and plowing snow all day long while I scribbled inside.
                  With joy I submit to winter’s exile. For thirty years a blizzard has never foiled my morning walks on our country roads, no matter how deep the drifts.
                  Until this winter.
                  Upstairs in soft lamplight, I listen to the wind and read the book of Isaiah. Since Christmas, his words in Handel’s Messiah sing in my head as I progress through the chapters.
                  Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
                  After our greatest loss, I couldn’t find comfort, no matter where I ran and walked. My Bible gathered dust. Yes, God’s grace carried moments of peace and purpose in blessed relief; yet, there is no shortcut through the valley of the shadow of death.
                  Now on the other side, I’m learning to rest and renew my strength. I’ll never mount up on eagle’s wings as I did as a youth, and I hope to never run a mile again in my life.
                  Yet, after a set of stretches to rid myself of sciatica pain, I walk downstairs into the kitchen. “Are you hungry for French toast?” I ask Mel.
                  He's incredulous.
                  “You thought I forgot, didn’t you?”
                  “I’d better not say.”
                  He watches while I crack several eggs into a shallow baking pan and stir in buttermilk, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, lavender buds, and a double portion of vanilla extract. The buttered griddle browns eight slices of sourdough bread sopped with batter. The scent is reminiscent of my childhood. My children's childhood.
                  We finish them off with warm maple syrup and wipe off the counter by 10 a.m.
                  “Nothing like comfort food for breakfast, is there?” I ask.
                  “Sure isn’t.”
                  He goes his way. I go mine.
                  Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, Isaiah says.

Nothing to do but stay

My maternal grandmother, posed on her piano bench in front of her Kentucky home

Friday I picked up Joyce for a drive south to Three Cats Café in Clawson. She pointed to a book on her kitchen table. “Before we go, that’s for you. I think you’ll like it. Carrie Young was an excellent writer.”
            The book’s title, Nothing to Do but Stay, hit me between the eyes. Can’t tell you how often I’ve resented that difficult place to later praise its value.
I parked along Fourteen Mile Road. “Let’s stroll Leon & Lulu first,” I said.
Our eyes lit up when we walked into Clawson’s transformed roller rink—a “lifestyle retail store” aimed to pamper and inspire domestic creativity. Decorated for the Easter season, shelves of fluffy bunnies and sheep of all sizes greeted us at the door.
In the vast showroom, a workbench turned dining table caught Joyce’s eye.
The price was out of reach. Besides, she’s gained what she needs and wants. We admired a display of Motawi clocks before we walked next door to dine in the charming café, once the Clawson Theater.
In the heart of quietude, we confided our hardships, hopes, and writing projects—encouraged one another as fellow pilgrims on our earthly journey.
When I returned home, I took over the sofa with Nothing to Do but Stay.
“Don’t read too late,” my husband said.
I wrapped my mother-in-law’s lavender and white afghan around me. “My pioneer mother was wild for education,” the book began.
While the wind blew below zero outside my door, I lay cocooned in warmth. Yet, there I was in 1904 with Carrine Gafkjen, the author’s mother and young Norwegian immigrant, boarding a train for North Dakota to claim her homestead.
I heard echoes of my mother’s stories of Great-granny Hunt, once a young Irish woman who sought the Appalachian frontier and “knew exactly what she was getting into.” As the author’s mother did her, Great-granny wrapped quilts around my mother for wagon rides to school in deep snow. She, too, was wild for education.
But women who married husbands without the pioneer spirit often dealt with shock. “Where was water? Drawn from the creek, miles away. Where was the outhouse? There was none. Fortunately, for their husbands, there was nothing for them to do but stay.”
With that on my mind, I turned in for the night.
Today, I decided not to brave the cold for exercise. Rather, I sat in our sunny kitchen window with two kittens on my lap and finished Nothing to Do but Stay.
Past midnight, the following passage will not let me go. “My mother recounted how a disgruntled high school student in a nearby town had burned down the school. At first she bristled with outrage at the mindlessness of a youth who could put a match to a temple of learning, but as her anger spent itself the real tragedy of the situation began to engulf her.
‘I don’t suppose,’ she concluded sadly, ‘he will be going to school anymore now.’”
Dear Reader, it’s a test of character and will to stay and learn to become a good neighbor. If we resent, destroy, or abandon our place, we forfeit the adventure of building a loving community.
I'm thankful my Great-granny Hunt and Granny McCoy stayed and built their homesteads. They imparted onto me their pioneer spirit, taught me to be wild about education.

Snow Day & Chocolate Chip Cookies

Snow day comfort food: Hot Cocoa with Lavender Whipping Cream & Chocolate Chip Cookies

The sky is thick as buttermilk. This is January, after all. Forecasters predict two to four inches of snowfall tomorrow. I hope so. Our dusty dirt roads need a snow day.
           Ah…what history and memories those two words signify. The expression meant exactly that when I was a youngster in the 1950’s and 60’s. “Snow day” wasn’t yet connected to school closings. I can’t remember one time Van Dyke Public Schools canceled classes due to a blizzard.
I do remember bitter, windy days ill dressed for walking almost a mile in a snowstorm. My sisters and I wished we were home in our pajamas. We passed winters well enough with occasional absences to nurse earaches and colds—a price we paid for our outstanding public education.  
Busses came to our rescue when we graduated to Lincoln High. I seldom hiked the 2.8 miles to and from Lincoln. Yet, with two cars in our household of seven, at times my feet were the most reliable transportation available.
This exercise trained me for brisk walks across Central Michigan’s wide-open campus the winters of 1968 and 69. Young women wore short dresses and skirts in those days, decades before skinny jeans, high boots, and down jackets became popular fashion.
Much later, a mother of three girls, I had no experience with snow days when we enrolled them in a private school. Since we carpooled our children, the principal prided himself in never canceling school for inclement weather.
“Only when the snow covers my bedroom window on the second floor,” he said.
Well, that never happened.
This school policy changed for our family when we moved north to Addison Township in 1989. We learned Romeo Public Schools didn’t risk bussing students on icy roads. What a relief.
So, what did my daughters do when they at last woke to a cancelled school day?
In snow knee deep, our youngest daughter darted next door and asked if our neighbor’s little girls could come out and play. For hours they pretended “Survival & Rescue” along our lot line and hills. They built forts, tunnels, and mountains. They escaped avalanches.
“Think positive and stay alive,” Ruthie coached.
Meanwhile, her older sister chose to sleep in and study the morning away. Eventually, Kelly pulled on her ski clothes and joined the fun outdoors.
And what did I do on our first snow day?
I opened the door and listened to the laughter of fort builders and champions over the elements—baked chocolate chip cookies and stirred hot cocoa for my courageous make-believers. I invited their joy and imagination inside while I may, warmed them with the scent and flavor of chocolate.
Consequently, dear Reader, there’s a bag of Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips in my kitchen’s Lazy Susan, reserved to celebrate bygone times of play, cookies, and hot cocoa.

If the weathermen are incorrect, I’ll pretend there’s a blizzard outside and bake a batch of cookies regardless. Either way, I will pay tribute to another “snow day.”