Archive for December, 2016

Ghosts of Christmas past

christmas-1849263_1920Grandma’s Christmas tree was always covered in gold. Gold tinsel, gold ornaments, and gold lights. I don’t know where she and Grandpa found all-gold Christmas lights (deep yellow, really), and I wonder if my memory is playing tricks on me. But I swear they were gold.

It was a fairly large tree, but it wasn’t big enough to shelter all the gifts for over a dozen grandchildren and all my aunts and uncles. In my mind’s eye, once everyone in the family had arrived and added their gifts, it was physically impossible to even reach the tree. The gifts occupied almost half of the living room, in a riot of tantalizing colors, shapes, and sizes.

A nativity scene was always located at the other end of the living room, next to Grandpas’ recliner. Grandma would set it up on a small table—I think maybe it was a TV tray table—so that it was just the right height for us cousins to rearrange baby Jesus and his entourage.

Perhaps even more inviting for us than playing with the crèche, however, was the basket of homemade red and green popcorn balls that Grandma made and placed under the little table. We were told (perhaps to stave off any thoughts of being greedy) that there were enough for every cousin to have just one. I can still remember the exact flavor of those popcorn balls, and the way I’d spend an hour or so undoubtedly making strange faces as I used my tongue to pry the chewy, gooey fragments out of my molars.

The farmhouse would be bursting with people and noise. In her small kitchen, Grandma and my aunts would elbow past one another, arranging dishes on the counter. Every so often, an uncle would appear, carrying another “dish to pass” from the car. His glasses (I think all my uncles wore glasses) would be foggy from the sudden transition from the icy outdoors to indoor warmth, and his coat would be stiff and radiating cold air. “Where would you like this?” he would say, and Grandma would rearrange the counter to make room.

I suppose every family has trademark dishes that are a prerequisite for a complete holiday experience. Two stand out most vividly in my memory. The first is Grandma’s deviled eggs. My grandparents had an egg farm, and deviled eggs were Grandma’s specialty. Hers were sprinkled with paprika, decorated with sliced olives, and contained just a hint of sweetness amidst their savory eggy-ness.

The other dish I remember well is a dessert everyone referred to as “Gap ‘n Swallow.” It was a creamy, pink, fluffy treat served in squares cut from a cake pan. As far as I know, it was simply a chilled mixture of vanilla ice cream and red Jell-o. When it came time for dessert, it was a light and jiggly accompaniment to the cookies, brownies, and Christmas-decorated ice cream squares which were also traditional to our family gatherings.

Although he’s been gone for several years, I can still see Grandpa’s face and hear his voice clearly in my mind. His hair is fluffy and white, he’s wearing a red flannel shirt, and he shakes his head bemusedly as he says “Well, I’ll be darned.” I see him on his hands and knees near the Christmas tree, peering at labels as he passes out gifts.

Grandma is gone, too. But in my mind, her tiny frame is still crowned with brown hair in a “beehive” style. Though her hands shake slightly, she is seated at her piano playing “Willy Claus, Little Son of Santa Claus” for us.

I hope the ghosts of your holidays past are warm and happy memories.

Merry Christmas!

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the December 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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My autumnal paradox

Fall isn’t my favorite season.

There. I said it.

Many people proclaim their fondness for fall. I get it. There is much to appreciate: lower humidity, gorgeous colors, crisp mornings and even crisper apples. Of course autumn also brings the grandeur of harvest. On sunny fall afternoons, golden leaves dance in the air and combines roar across dusty fields. I yearn to stay outside, lifting my face to the sun, breathing deeply, soaking it in.

My perpetual struggle with fall is that no matter how glorious it is, I know how it ends.

It’s impossible to ignore the signs. Just outside my window is a bird’s nest. Last spring, I watched the endeavors of a motherly robin carrying grass and twigs to build it. As the tree’s leaves grew denser, I caught glimpses of Mama Robin as she nestled in, warming her eggs. By the time the eggs presumably hatched, fully-grown leaves obscured my view. Now that it is fall, the tree is nearly naked. There clings the empty nest, ragged and forlorn.

Parenting a young child involves a number of obligatory seasonal traditions to which one must adhere. In fall, that includes visiting a pumpkin patch, playing in leaves, and picking apples. To skip these activities is to ensure a nagging sense of guilt that you are shunning your parental duties.

img_8290Thus, one windy October Saturday found our little family in the midst of a friend’s enormous pumpkin patch. It was a struggle just getting there. Neither my husband nor my daughter felt well and consequently both were crabby. But I knew it was a now-or-never moment: If we didn’t go then, our schedules or the weather would prevent us from going at all. No pumpkin picking would mean no pumpkins, no pumpkins would mean no Jack-o-lantern carving—another skipped tradition. So we went.

It turned into a joyful treasure hunt. Nestled among shriveled vines was an assortment of pumpkin varieties, ranging from adorable orange fruits that fit in the palm of my hand to good-sized pumpkins our 3 year-old could barely move, much less carry. The three of us tramped to and fro, tripping over vines as we carried our treasures. Naya liked the “baby” pumpkins. I picked several medium-sized pumpkins to decorate our front steps. My husband chose some larger ones for carving.

Our next stop was to surprise my parents by scattering decorative pumpkins around their property: on their front porch, near the mailbox, at the base of a tree. After lunch, we checked off another fall ritual by picking apples in the orchard behind their old barn. Later, I would make homemade applesauce.

After 46 years, I’m still trying to come to grips with fall. On one hand, it saddens me because it signifies the end of so many things I love, like listening to katydids through open windows at night or reading on the front porch swing on sultry summer days. It’s the end of relaxing into warmth instead of bracing for cold, the end of wearing t-shirts and flip flops.

On the other hand, fall marks the magnificent culmination of another growing season. It’s the time when fields and forests yield their bountiful crops and beautiful leaves so that they may rest. I’ve often mused that the brightly-colored leaves of fall are God’s way of blasting us with beauty to carry us through the long, dark winter.

Despite the paradox that autumn presents, my heart knows it should be celebrated. Celebrations, after all, make difficult things bearable. Maybe that’s why seasonal traditions matter, even if at first we do them out of guilt. Picking pumpkins was a way of compelling myself to embrace and enjoy this season. Eating homemade applesauce from our freezer will remind me of fall’s bounty for months to come. For all of us, our Thanksgiving gatherings will be celebrations of another growing season, successful harvest, and family.

Besides, if there were no autumn and subsequent winter, there would be no spring.

And when spring returns, my robin will build another nest.

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the November 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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She’s only 3½ years old. But my daughter is at the “why” stage and actively soaking up any and all information we have the patience to share with her. This, coupled with my job in ag literacy, prompted me to think about what I want her to know about agriculture at this age.

So here goes. Here are six things I want my child to learn about food and farming while she’s still young, and how I will explain each (if I haven’t already).

  1. Food doesn’t come from the grocery store. It comes from farms. I’ve explained to Naya that before food gets to the grocery store, farmers grow or raise it on farms. Then some things–like bread, applesauce, and bacon–go to processing plants to be made into the foods we eat. They are then shipped to the grocery store where we buy them to take home and eat.
  2. Farms are places where plants are grown or animals are raised for all of us to eat. It doesn’t make sense to say food comes from farms and not explain what a farm is. We also point out farms as we travel and talk about what might be grown or raised at each one.
  3. Farmers are the people who raise our food. I want my child to know that farmers are essential to our lives. Why? Because without them we would all have to grow our own food. Most of us don’t have the time, knowledge, or space to produce everything we eat.
  4. The fields around us aren’t just scenery; they are our food. I often call my daughter’s attention to the beauty around us. Our rural landscape of corn and soybeans is peaceful, open, and pretty. It’s also where some of our food comes from. I will explain to her that the plants growing in farmers’ fields are called crops.


    My daughter, exploring a cornfield at the age of two. I want her to know that the field around us provide some of our food.

  5. Animals that farmers raise for food are called livestock. They are not pets. I want Naya to understand that pets and livestock serve different purposes. Pets like our two dogs are meant to be our companions, and livestock provide us with food. However, just because farm animals aren’t pets doesn’t mean humans don’t have a responsibility to keep them safe, healthy, and comfortable. Farmers provide their animals with special food, special places to live, and even special doctors–called veterinarians–just like we do for our pets. When the right moments arise, we will help her understand that everything living, people included, relies on other living things to survive. (One such moment recently presented itself when she caught a fish which hours later appeared as a fried filet on a plate. “Daddy,” she questioned, “where’d his head go?”)
  6. Chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows. I don’t know why adults persist in saying this. Some must think it’s funny, and a few apparently think it’s true. Either way, if you tell a little kid that chocolate milk comes from brown cows and don’t quickly explain that you’re just being silly, they will believe you. Unless they live on a dairy farm or someone has already told them otherwise, they don’t know any better. I want my daughter to know better. She doesn’t yet seem interested in chocolate milk, but when she is, we will explain that all cows give white milk, and humans add the chocolate later on.

As Naya continues to grow and ask “Why?” the information we can share with her will obviously become more complex and in-depth. But this seems like a good place to start.

What do YOU think a preschooler should know about agriculture?

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the Sept.-Oct. 2016 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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