A Legacy of Canned Love

This Tuesday,  Nov. 20th, would have been my Dad’s 98th birthday.  It doesn’t always fall this close to Thanksgiving but it did the year my Mother’s passed away.  That was an especially emotional Thanksgiving for all of us.  My family celebrated the holiday with my Dad at my brother’s home in Kansas just days after my Mother’s funeral and my Dad’s 93rd birthday.

My Dad died two years later.  Although he’s no longer here to eat Thanksgiving dinner with us, we still enjoy the fruits of gardening and cooking with the few remaining jars of canned food that he left us. It’s almost as if he’s still sharing a meal with us.

My Dad loved working in his garden and canned the bounty he harvested.

Canning the tomatoes, beets, green beans and cucumbers harvested from his garden brought him great pleasure.  Often, a jar of tomatoes, green relish, piccalilli or, his favorite, stickles would wind up under the Christmas tree as a holiday gift from my Dad.

My Dad’s gardening hat and his hand sickle along with the jars of canned vegetables he made are touching reminders of his love for growing his own food.

Sadly, I didn’t care for the stickles until  recently when I snapped open a jar sitting on my pantry shelf.  I taste tested a tiny bite to determine if the stickle was still safe to eat.  To my surprise, I found it deliciously sweet, not at all what I had expected.  For those of you unfamiliar with this down home delicacy, stickles are made from cucumbers with white vinegar, some drops of green food coloring, celery seed, sugar, some lime and salt. The cucumbers are cut lengthwise into strips and come out sweet and much different from traditional pickles.  My Dad had tried hard to convince me that I would like them but as I’m not a big fan of cucumbers I never did.

My Dad’s handwritten recipes along with the cookbook he liked to use when cooking.

Another favorite of his was pickalilli, a sort of relish made with tomatoes. I think I have only one jar of this remaining. I can remember my Dad saying “Um, that’s good!” when he’d eat a spoonful.

After adding some spoonfuls of his green relish (foreground jar), my Dad samples the filling for his deviled eggs for Thanksgiving.

He also made sweet green tomato relish that he’d mix into the filling for the deviled eggs that he made to that Thanksgiving dinner at my brother’s home.  I’m taking deviled eggs as an appetizer to my friends’ Thanksgiving dinner this year.  There’s a jar of that relish on my refrigerator shelf. I may add some to give the egg filling a little more zip.

Of all his canned creations that we still have, I love the ‘pear honey ‘ the best. I have only one jar left. It’s half empty now. I covet every single spoonful that I spread onto my warm toast, usually for Sunday morning brunch.

I have fond memories of my Dad associated with the pear jam.  It springs from the day that we were driving back to his home after a visit to my brother in Kansas City.  My Dad spotted an aged pear tree growing in a field alongside the highway. The tree obviously had not been pruned or tended for a long time. At my Dad’s request, I pulled over to the shoulder and parked.  He slid out, taking a plastic grocery bag with him as he headed for the tree. “Um boy,” he exclaimed. “Look at all these good pears. These will make some good pear honey.”  I could almost hear him smack his lips.

Spotted growing beside the road, my Dad picks pears from an old tree to take home for cooking and canning.

The few jars left on my shelf are each labeled with the contents in my Dad’s handwriting on a strip of masking tape. I think I’m not going to remove the label when the jar is finally empty because it will still be filled with memories .

 

Halloween Costume Challenges Treated with Homemade Love

I was riding in hired car to the airport yesterday when a young Spider-Man and Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin movie hopped in with their mother. They were on their way to a school Halloween fair.  Sharing the ride with me kept the fare cost low for us both. Spider-Man, whose name I soon learned was Julio, really wanted to dress as Mickey Mouse but as there were no Mickey Mouse costumes at the store, he had settled for Spider-Man until his mother could finish making him a Mickey Mouse suit.

Wearing their homemade turtle shells, my sons pose for a Halloween photo beside the street’s sewer opening, where the cartoon turtles lived.

The costumes were cute, in that commercial sort of way, but I know the one his mother is crafting will be much better simply because it is homemade and is assembled with love.

I recalled to the mother the year that I had created Ninja Turtle costumes for my three sons. The fact that I could stitch up turtle shells from felt was in itself a fabrication feat.  Now I wonder exactly how I managed it given my limited skills as a seamstress.  And yet, year after year, I seemed to pull together my sons’ costume choice for Halloween.

With Matthew dressed as “The President” my sons are ready to depart for trick-or-treating.

Some years were simpler than others, like the time my oldest son, Matthew, then seven, decided to masquerade as ‘the President.’ He wasn’t interested in impersonating any one particular person who had held our country’s highest office but rather as himself, dressed as, well, the President.

That meant pulling from his closet the one and only suit jacket and dress pants he owned–probably bought for another special holiday or celebration–shining up his shoes, putting on a white dress shirt and tie and handing him a trick or treat bag.  As a finishing touch, he also carried with him a copy of the Constitution.

A disposal painter’s suit, snow boots and Dad’s work gloves transformed my son into an astronaut one Halloween.

The year he landed on being an astronaut was a little more complicated.  We borrowed a helmet and had a big pair of snow boots and his Dad’s work gloves to wear, but what to do for the suit itself?  Finally, I figured  it out. I visited a paint store, picked up a disposal painters suit and stitched on the front and sleeve the Space Shuttle patches bought at NASA’s souvenir store at Edwards Air Force Base when I attended a Space Shuttle landing. The adult size even in small, swallowed my nine-year-old son, but hey, spacesuits aren’t skin tight. He was happy and looked very authentic.

That particular costume was much easier than the Halloween my son Tim chose to be a pumpkin. Fortunately, some bright orange shiny polyester fabric stitched pieces together into a rotund shape with openings for his arms and legs did the trick. We stuffed him with inflated balloons to plump him up and fill him out once he had slipped it on.

My son Tim strikes a Halloween pose in his pumpkin costume before leaving to trick-or-treat.

The pumpkin was less of a creative challenge than the Darkwing Duck request that came from my son, Marshall, one year.  That may have been my finest fitting.  Darkwing Duck was a heroic cartoon character that had captured five-year-old Marshall’s attention.  DD has long since faded into hero obscurity but he was a dapper masked defender dressed in a wide-brimmed hat, short, double-breasted purple jacket with big gold buttons and flowing purple cape. (Don’t ask me why a duck that can fly needed a cape.)

Darkwing Duck with his first-grade teacher at school on Halloween. See how my son’s chin is lifted so he can see out the mask?

In one of my most inspired design moments, I constructed a hat from felt that even a milliner could respect, stitched up a cape from purple fabric, cut big round buttons from bright yellow felt and tacked them on to a purple sweatshirt along with a makeshift collar, and tied a purple satin band that kept slipping out-of-place, over my son’s eyes so that he had to keep lifting his chin to look down through the holes.  He was a fine masked marauder that year. I was grateful when, in the years following, he was content to masquerade as a hockey player by wearing his own hockey sweater and carrying his stick.

Whatever happened to those Ninja Turtle shells I don’t know. I suspect they eventually fell apart with so many hours of play in the days after Halloween. So did the astronaut suit.  Darkwing Duck’s cape lasted longer but it too eventually disappeared.  I’m not completely certain but that pumpkin outfit may still be folded in the bottom of the ‘costume’ box waiting for another Halloween opportunity.

One of the few Halloween costumes that we purchased was the buckskins and coonskin hat for Matthew’s Meriwether Lewis outfit.

Certainly, there were Halloweens when we paid for costumes, the year they went as the Ghost Busters for example, or when Matthew required buckskins and a coonskin cap to become Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark).  For most Halloween holidays it took a trip to the fabric store or rummaging through our own closets to come up with what I regard as their most memorable masquerade outfits.

I hope Julio’s mother finishes his Mickey Mouse costume in time for trick or treating this upcoming Tuesday night. If she does, I’ll bet that’s the one both she and her son will remember when Halloween comes around in the years ahead.

Fourths Full of Fireworks, Family and Friends

This morning was quiet when I awoke.  The stillness wouldn’t be that unusual for a holiday morning except for the fact that this was the Fourth of July, the U.S. day to celebrate its independence. When I was a kid, that meant starting the day off with a bang, literally, as my brother and I hopped out of our bed, threw on some clothes and raced outdoors to light what would be the first of many firecrackers that day.

My son, Marshall, ready to celebrate with his string of Black Cats.

Times have changed as setting off individual fireworks have been banned in many communities, such as my own, leaving it to the pro pyrotechnicians to provide a choreographed aerial night display. For the most part, it’s a good thing although I do miss seeing kids faces light up as they swirl the glowing wands of sparklers. And I loved the ground fountains that burst up with sizzling flares of color.

But the silence of the morning made me think of all those wonderful Fourth of July holidays past here in Bellingham.

A fireworks show on the front yard of our house.

I smiled remembering nights when my own middle-school aged sons gathered up their collection of fireworks, call us all out to the street in front of our home and set them off to their own choreographed show, complete with patriotic music blasted from a boom box that had been turned up to full volume.

Then there was the family barbeques at our friends’ home who lived then on a local lake.

The kids line up for hot dogs right off the grill.

Food was plentiful, with everyone bringing baked beans, deviled eggs, hot dogs and hamburgers, salads, pies, cookies and ice cream, all pretty much considered to be ‘traditional’ American Independence Day favorites.  Moms and Dads would talk and drink beer while we watched the kids leap off the end of the dock into the still chilly lake water. A few others would hop into the kayak and paddle a short distance out from the shore where they would still be within sight of parental eyes.

The kids take a break from swimming and kayaking to eat a Fourth of July picnic.

And then, of course, as night began to fall (nearly 10 p.m. here in the Pacific Northwest), the homemade fireworks show would start with the explosions from Roman candles being directed out over the water.  When it was over, we bundled up the leftovers and our sleepy-eyed kids and headed home.

Firing off the Roman candles from the dock.

Later, when our friends moved to a home on the bay, we did the same thing sitting on the beach, watching the sun sink as he dug into the delicious apple and cherry pies that had been baked especially for the occasion. Of course, we always had a fire going so that we could make s’mores–those wonderfully gooey treat of melted chocolate and toasted marshmallow squeezed between two layers of graham crackers. And the fire also kept us warm because Fourth of Julys here can be chilly, if not rainy.

A festive pie for the Fourth of July.

I recalled the more recent holidays when our sons, now grown, were not home to celebrate or, if they were, preferred to head off with friends to watch fireworks than join the ‘old folks.’ One memorable Fourth was spent out on a boat in the bay enjoying the company of friends from the annual summer music festival and viewing that night’s light show from the water. Quite an experience. Still another found us sitting nearly directly beneath the big blast over the harbor as we sat with another couple on the terrace of a shore side restaurant, savoring the food served up for the special evening while overhead the ‘bombs’ were bursting in air.

The Fourth of July on the boat in the bay gave us a spectacular view of the fireworks show that night.

More recently, we’ve headed over to a friend’s home late in the day for a potluck on their deck.  After dessert, we settle into one of their patio chairs, usually with a blanket close at hand, and wait and watch for the big fireworks spectacle, sponsored here for years by one of our local markets. They have an excellent vantage point from which we can see it all, including the show also being staged in nearby Blaine, just up the coast and the individual efforts from the Lummi Nation across the bay.

Happy Fourth of July. Long may our Star Spangled banner wave.

While the colorful aerial pyrotechnics are fun to watch, it’s mostly the company of the friends and family we are with that really make the evenings fun and memorable. It’s that feeling of fellowship, of sharing a special day with people special to you, some who you may only see on this day once a year. And that’s what I remember most about this holiday. I hope your Fourth of July is equally as memorable and as full of family and friends as it is of fireworks.

A Recipe to Remember Made with Pecans and Love

Americans celebrate Thanksgiving holiday this week by gathering with family and friends around tables set for a meal full of family favorites and traditional foods. The menu typically includes a turkey, cranberries and pie. The pie, considered to be the most traditional American dessert,  is usually pumpkin, apple or pecan.

My mother was the principal pie maker at our house: banana cream, lemon meringue, cherry, apple, rhubarb, pecan and, of course, pumpkin at Thanksgiving. When my mother’s dementia became so advanced that she could no longer live at home with my father, she moved to a care home. That left my father at home alone and without her there, he became the pie maker.  I remembered this the other day when I pulled out a package of pecans to chop and add to a batch of pumpkin pancakes.

My Dad didn't know I'd caught him taking a taste of the filling he'd just stirred up.
My Dad didn’t know I’d caught him taking a taste of the filling he’d just stirred up.

My Dad loved to stop on the drive between my hometown and a neighboring town to pick up bags of pecans, freshly picked from the nearby grove. He’d freeze the shelled nuts in plastic storage bags for later keeping out just enough for the pies that he planned to make for Thanksgiving.  I was home one year when he was baking his pecan pies for the upcoming holiday dinner.

“You don’t know how to make a pecan pie?” he said surprised when I admitted that I had never made one.  “Oh, it’s easy,” he said confidently.

He assembled his ingredients from the shelves in my parents small kitchen–corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, eggs, and of course the pecans. One by one he poured each amount into plastic measuring cups then stirred the filling together in the large green Pyrex mixing bowl. He took the two pie shells that I had bought at the store earlier out of their packages and set them next to the bowl of filling.

With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.
With a pile of pecans handy, my Dad begins the process of placing the nuts atop the uncooked pie.

My mother always made her crusts from scratch. She wouldn’t have approved of the pre-made crusts. Her crusts were light and flaky because, as she explained, she avoided handling the dough as much as possible. As a kid, I watched many times as she gathered the crumbly flour and shortening mixture into a small ball wetting it lightly with tablespoons of water so that it would adhere. She’d lift it carefully onto the big wooden cutting board and gently pass her red-handled rolling-pin over and over it until she had flattened it into a circle. Then again, ever so gingerly, she eased it into the waiting glass pie pan that had been greased so it wouldn’t stick when baked.pie-man015

For my Dad, the store-bought crusts were fine. Easier and less mess, he thought. And they came with their own aluminum foil pans which my Dad thought were great.  I found this was funny given how much he took pride in his pies.

After scooping the soupy butterscotch-colored filling into the pie crusts he began putting on the final touches.  One by one, my Dad delicately laid pecan after pecan around the perimeter of the pie top with his thick, aged fingers, until the entire pie was covered with floating pecans. He placed each piece precisely and with love. Now to transfer the unbaked pies onto the cookie sheets, being careful not to slop any of the contents in the process. Mindfully, my Dad slid each sheet into the heated oven.

The last step--transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.
The last step–transferring the pies from the countertop to the oven.

“See, simple,” my Dad said once the pies were safely on the oven rack.  It was a pie-baking lesson I’ve never forgotten. This was more than simple; this was precious time spent with my Dad, in the last years of his life, creating a fond memory that I now think of gratefully especially as Thanksgiving approaches.

I hope that as you sit down with your family and friends that you too will recall memories like my own to bring you joy, laughter, tears, love and most of all gratitude.

My Dad's pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was made with love.
My Dad’s pecan pies sit ready to bake in the hot oven. Each one was handmade with love.

 

A Veteran Who Voted

I only remember seeing my Dad cry twice.  Once was at the funeral of my Mother, to whom he was married 65 years.  The other was when he stood with my son and I at the American cemetery at Anzio, Italy.

When my Dad was 80-years-old, I took him, along my oldest son, Matthew, then 14-years-old, and my cousin, Claudette, on a trip to Italy. It was the first time my Dad had returned to Italy since there as a young, 22-year-old American GI. That trip was no pleasure visit and came right at the height of the Italian campaign of World War II.

We visit the cemetery at Monte Cassino where some of those who fought there, like my Dad, are buried.
We visit the cemetery at Monte Cassino where some of those who fought there, like my Dad, are buried.

My Dad’s first stop was in Sicily when the 5th Army and his 45th Division invaded that large island. Next came Salerno and Paestum.  Soldiers climbed down the sides of the ships carrying the troops into the landing craft that would ferry them to the beaches just south of Salerno. Regarded as the D-Day invasion of Italy, my Dad once recalled how scary it was to climb down the rope nets into the boats bobbing below. He never talked about how terrified he must have been bouncing across the water, knowing what was to come once the gate of the landing craft dropped, exposing him and his men to heavy enemy fire from on shore. The Allies lost 2,009  soldiers at Salerno, another 7,050 were wounded and 3,501 missing.  He would make one more landing after Salerno, at the invasion of Southern France.  I can’t imagine how he did it.

Rows upon rows of white crosses at Anzio mark the graves of Americans who fell during the Italian campaign of World War II.
Rows upon rows of white crosses at Anzio mark the graves of Americans who fell during the Italian campaign of World War II.

During his trip back to Italy, the one thing my Dad wanted to do was to visit the “American cemetery.” After stopping at cemeteries in Salerno and Monte Cassino, we learned that the American fallen were buried at Anzio. We added Anzio to the itinerary.

My Dad explains to my son how the Battle of Anzio took place as they view the giant map on the memorial wall at the Anzio cemetery.
My Dad explains to my son how the Battle of Anzio took place as they view the giant map on the memorial wall at the Anzio cemetery.

We rented a car and drove from Rome to Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, near the beachhead where the Battle of Anzio took place. There are 7,800 buried here, another 3,100 names are listed on the Wall of the Missing.  On the way in, we stopped at the office where a caretaker on duty gave us a pamphlet and told my Dad where he could find the grave of a friend’s uncle who had been killed when parachuting into the battle.

Together, we walked through the rows and rows of white markers. My Dad stood silently and shook his head. “I’ve never understood,” he said, “why I came home and they didn’t.” Tears rolled down his cheek.  He turned away and walked off, my son followed. They paused, long enough for me to capture a photo, in one of the rows while my Dad tried to regain his composure.

My son and my Dad share a quiet moment together in the cemetery at Anzio.
My son and my Dad share a quiet moment together in the cemetery at Anzio.

Veteran’s Day in this country is November 11. This year, it is preceded by Election Day on November 8. My Dad’s birthday is November 21.  My Dad passed away two years ago. If he were still alive, I am sure he would be disgusted by the campaigns being waged this election. But he would vote.  He would vote not only because he deeply believed it was his patriotic duty, just as serving his country in World War II was, but also for all those who didn’t return from the War as he did.

No matter your political persuasions, I hope you’ll vote this Election Day. If not for yourself, for my Dad and all those who gave their lives like those buried at Anzio, who we honor on Veteran’s Day for they are the true ‘silent majority.’

My Dad stands beside one of the graves of the thousands buried at the American cemetery in Anzio.
My Dad stands beside one of the graves of the thousands buried at the American cemetery in Anzio.

Read more about my Dad’s service record here, written by my brother Brad, and create a page for your own service member. I’ve also written about my Dad’s military service in previous blog postings. You can click on the following links to read those in case you missed them: http://bit.ly/2edw57z and http://bit.ly/2eCZyGu.