Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

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(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Grandparents’ Camp, Part II: Lessons Learned

If you read last week’s blog post, you know we sponsor Grandparents’ Camp every year for our grandchildren. Some have told us the name is topsy-turvy—sounds like someone’s sending the Gnome and me to old people’s camp. Hey, maybe when they get older, the grandchildren will actually host a camp for us. That would be totally awesome!

A friend of mine hosted her own grandparents’ camp the same week as ours. She’s a natural born planner with a strong theatrical bent—each year her camp has a different theme. She even engages her grands in planning and preparation. That must be fun. Our camps are more a hodgepodge: a few new activities scattered among a host of old favorites. That works, too, though it can be a challenge finding activities that suit a toddler, a soon-to-be ’tween, and a couple of teenagers all at the same time.

(Hover over picture for caption. Click a second time to see captions in their entirety.)

Here’s a little compilation of things I’ve learned from hosting Grandparents’ Camp. Some I learned long ago; now, with a little one added to the mix, I’m learning a few new things, as well as relearning a few old tricks.

1. Children thrive when they get to explore outdoors, sometimes completely on their own. Children thrive when given the opportunity to be creative. Children thrive when they discover it’s perfectly fine to get dirty. Children thrive when they know it’s okay to use their ‘outside’ voices.

2. Almost-three-year-olds ask a lot of questions, especially ‘why’ questions, often about life’s great unanswerables: why do you have (insert any visible object)? Why do you wear clothes? Why do you have stairs? Why are birds here? Why are we eating (insert any visible food item)? Why is it still light?

3. Almost-three-year-olds also talk about their parents a LOT! Mommy this, Daddy that. It’s only natural—an almost-three-year-old’s world is small and those in it loom large. Our almost-three-year-old has set his parents on such high pedestals they’re in danger of breaking something when they inevitably crash to the floor with the rest of us mere mortals. (They are mighty special—and lucky to have his adoration.)

4. Little girls idolize their older cousins, looking at them with wondrous eyes, mimicking everything they see. The older ones are a little stunned by the awesome responsibility that just dropped in their laps once they notice a younger cousin adopting their hairstyles and clothing tricks.

5. There’s nothing quite so good for one’s self-esteem as having an almost-three-year-old scoot next to you for a cuddle with these words: “I love you. You’re my best friend.” Hundreds of times a day. Literally. Hundreds. (Smiling gramma!)

6. There are a few things you should check out with the parents before they say their goodbyes. If certain routines that have become sacred traditions, you need to know about them, word for word. You need to know the bedtime sequence of events.

7. Planning activities for vastly different ages in a camp-like atmosphere is best done with more than one adult on hand. Occasionally, one set of campers needs a break from the other age group and separate activities are called for. A shopping trip for the older ones, a visit to a playground for the younger ones gives everyone the breather they need to be happy to spend their remaining hours together.

8. Just like at home, campers need to be given some responsibilities, such as helping with the dishes, putting things away when an activity is over. Not too many—they’re not at Basic Training—but enough to build their confidence as able human beings and enough to be reminded we’re all in this thing together.

9. It’s important to refrain from the temptation to overly rely on the older ones. They shouldn’t be made to feel like babysitters or ‘junior counselors.’ Camp is for them, too. Sometimes the balancing act is delicate.

10. When older campers notice that the camp directors have hit a wall and offer their services unbidden, you love them more than you thought possible. (Clearly, they’ve  been raised right.)

Bonus: This year, I also discovered that the almost-three-year-old and his camp director, seventy years his elder, now use the same cautious technique to climb stairs! Oh, my!

Grandparents’ Camp, Part I

The Gnome and I sponsored our annual grandparents’ camp a few weeks ago. Lots of folks do these days, but I’d never heard of such a thing when we opened our first camp seventeen years ago.

A lot has changed in that time. Back then, we had only one camper. Easy peasy. As the years passed, the number of campers has, at times, quadrupled; the camp directors’ ages increased dramatically, along with the number of cranky joints. The age gap between campers grew, too. We’ve had as many as four campers simultaneously, their ages ranging from two to eighteen. That makes planning a little more complex than back in the early days of our camp.

Our pioneer camper is clearly aging out, no doubt soon to be followed by the next eldest—too soon. But they will always be welcome in our home, camp or no camp.

I still look forward to camp and, unsurprisingly, still feel a bit of a letdown when the last camper says goodbye and heads for home. Kind of like that feeling I get as a wonderful vacation is nearing its end or the way I felt as a child as the holiday season wound down.

The first few camp years, I began planning weeks in advance. Now, with nearly two decades of experience, I’ve pared the process down a bit. I keep a notebook with all essential information (menus, recipes, activities), adding new ideas along the way. But planning still begins about three weeks in advance—I just don’t spend so long on it in a given day or week.

For campers of a certain age, I send camp invitations and registration forms, SASE included. I insert a goofy questionnaire asking, for instance, if the camper has ever been bitten by a tsetse fly or suffers from conditions like whinitis or pre-teen angst. I send a checklist of potential activities, including a few goofy options, such as eating worms or picking up rocks. I include a list of common-sense items to bring with them, and I request that they leave some items at home, absurd things like pet crocodiles.

About the same time, I put together a menu and shopping list. It’s fairly standardized because I can count on the same special requests from year to year: fondue, cookout, s’mores, sweet potato casserole, and a baked spaghetti dish.

I break buying trips into two parts. Perishables are purchased only a day or two before the start of camp. But to save myself from too much sticker shock, I buy non-perishables a week or two in advance.

I check the status of our regular supplies: canvases, paper, and acrylics for painting along with glue, food coloring, and liquid starch for that all-time favorite, slime. I collect materials for new projects I’ve discovered over the year.

I make sure bedding is in place, pull out equipment that’s been stored for the last twelve months, and do a last minute clean-up. I don’t know why I do this—it will take about five minutes for the house to explode in suitcase innards, toys, crayons, and more. Still, my illusion (delusion?) is that starting the week organized helps keep things under control.

In addition to the ever-popular painting and slime-making, we blow bubbles, watch fireflies, stargaze, make homemade ice cream—with a different fruit each year, add an item or two to one grandchild’s wooded fairyland, go for walks. I try to stay away from rigid schedules as much as possible. At the risk of hearing those dreaded words, “I’m bored,” I still prefer the freedom from routine that comes with grandparents’ camp.

The best part of making ice cream is getting every last drop from the can and dasher.

Learning to arm knit

Harvesting supper from the garden is great fun.

We include a few field trips. They break up the routine, but too many and the week starts to feel overscheduled. Field trips have included a trip to our favorite local park for picnicking, playground fun, bicycling or strolling, kite flying, and splashing in the icy mountain river that bounds the park. We’ve visited local tourist attractions, we’ve gone gem mining, we’ve toured a cavern. Lately, we’ve included a shopping trip to boutiques for the older kids while the youngest one visits a playground or library story hour. (Shopping bonus: I get surefire gift ideas.) We’ve gone on downtown scavenger hunts, visited a working alpaca farm, attended a street festival, spent long evenings at fireworks displays.

One of our all-time favorite activities was the “spaghetti pool.” It involves playing naked in a kiddie pool full of oily spaghetti sprinkled with food coloring, so it’s only suitable for the youngest campers. But since it’s one of the first camp experiences the grandkids have, they’re sure to anticipate future camps as a wildly fun adventure. (A long, warm, bubbly soak in the tub inevitably follows this activity.)

We’re seventeen years older than we were when we held our first grandparents’ camp. We’re a little slower now, but I love our special week with grandkids every bit as much now as then. It’s a rare opportunity for them to spend time with each other; it’s a different pace than their norm with different freedoms—and different rules; they get to know us one-on-one. Invariably, the kids initiate conversations on subjects that don’t usually come up when the house is filled with mostly adults, so we get to know them better, too. Their conversations are open and free, and they treat us like one of their own.

John McCutcheon, one of my favorite folk artists, sings the song, “Water from Another Time. It tells of childhood summers spent with grandparents, getting water from a rusty pump “primed with water from another time.” The point of the song is that we all need a little from the past to feed our souls—old melding with new to help us make our way in this world.

I hadn’t really thought about it before I heard those words, but that’s what the Gnome and I are trying to give our grandchildren with these precious summer moments. My fervent hope is that one day my grandchildren will utter the words I so often do: “I want to be kind of grandmother my grandmother was.”

Water from another time.

Dressing Gramma’s childhood doll in clothing made by Great-gramma—water from another time.

 

A Mountain of Wildflowers

 

The early July day we drove onto our property for keeps is a day I’ll never forget. The four-acre meadow was white, covered with native oxeye daisies—my favorite. There were enough black-eyed Susans thrown in for variety, but not enough to take away the impression of snowy summer field.

At that time, we had no idea how many different wildflowers would grace us each year. We had to live through a full year to see it all. More, actually—a few, like jack-in-the-pulpit, can be hard for the novice to spot in a wooded landscape.

We didn’t know the following May and June would bring rhododendron blossoms throughout these mountains or that June-blooming flame azaleas dotted our property with mountain laurel following close behind. We’d never heard of fire pinks, which are actually blazing red. Red bee balm and both yellow and orange-spotted touch-me-nots are summer-to-fall natives.

Milkweed, Joe-pye weed, and ironweed (none of which should have the word weed attached to them) add varying hues of purple to the landscape. Open fields turn yellow when wild mustard, common ragwort, and evening primroses bloom.

The list goes on from March’s trillium to October’s purple asters—not to mention the many varieties of ferns, mushrooms, mosses, and lichens that share this land with us. But we all know pictures tell a story much more eloquently than words. Enjoy the two slideshows below.

 

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The Ones Who Show Up

The Ones Who Show Up

As a society we’re often drawn to bigness. Philanthropy is equated to charitable giving in the millions. Grand gestures get attention. But what would we do without the small gestures? All that magnanimity we hail from people who can easily afford it would be meaningless without the little deeds of daily kindness, sacrifice, and responsibility from just plain folks. I refer to:

* the neighbor who brings groceries to the shut-in

* the gardener who grows a little extra to donate to homeless shelters

* the young woman who weekly organizes her mother-in-law’s medications

* the busy teacher who takes a few sacred moments to send a note of encouragement to a former student

* the friend who brings cookies and laughter to her terminally ill neighbor

* the co-worker who offers a much-needed compliment to a beleaguered colleague

* the harried nurse who still finds time to bring a bookmark to a patient who reads

* the child who writes chatty letters to her lonely grandparents

* the boys who shovel the snow-covered walk of someone recuperating from surgery

*the passerby who comes to the rescue of a drowning chipmunk

* the writer who sends nostalgic essays to aging relatives

* the man who cares for an acquaintance’s pets when she’s injured and hospitalized

* the many who give to a stranger’s health-related social media campaign, even when their own resources are scant

* the shopper who hands a dollar to the one in front whose bill was a bit bigger than his pocketbook

* the one who smiles at a stranger

* the young one, tired from a long day of grueling manual labor, who nevertheless offers his seat to the older one

* the teens who bring homemade goody boxes to residents of the nearby nursing home

* the foreign visitor who chases you down to return a dropped scarf in the parking lot

* the kid who carries an injured classmate’s books

* the retailer who takes precious time off from work to visit a stranger in prison

* the club members who de-litter a section of highway

* the customer who holds the door for a daughter and her wheelchair-bound father

* the stranger who catches a runaway shopping cart

* and the building custodians and sanitation workers, the electric line workers and snowplow drivers, the bedpan emptiers and street sweepers who do the dirty work at all hours of the day and night to make getting through each day easier for the rest of us.

Oh, that we would glorify these, the ones who show up, the ones who make a profound difference by changing not the world but what is three feet around them.