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Archive for the ‘family’ Category

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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Nothing makes my hair stand on end like the words “I can’t.” In my years of conducting lessons, I’ve encountered more than a few children who, when faced with a simple task, too quickly drop it in frustration and say, “I can’t do it.”

I also have a three-year old who’s learning how to put on her own clothes. I hear “I can’t” a lot. Usually the words “I can’t” are tinged with a whine. Sigh.

She’s only three. I get that there are truly some things she isn’t yet capable of doing. As a parent, it’s my job to help her find the line between “I can’t” and “I can” and keep moving it forward. Take socks, for example. It’s much faster to simply put a toddler’s socks on for her and call it good. Some days, that’s all I have the time or patience for. But every time I do it is one less opportunity for her to develop the skill and confidence to do it herself.

Naya shoes

Shoes and pants are complicated for 3-year-olds to put on. Our rule is to say “I can try” instead of “I can’t.”

So when we have time, we talk it through. “Here’s the heel of your sock. Where’s your heel? Here’s the toe of your sock. Where are your toes? Okay, so when you put your sock on, your toes need to end up in the toe of the sock, and your heel in the heel of the sock. Remember, ALL of your toes have to go into the sock, otherwise it’s not going to work. Yay, Naya! You did it!” And she’ll do it again, and again, proving she can.

Invariably, a few days later, she will halfheartedly try to put on one sock, snag a toe in the opening, then whine, “I can’t do it!” And no amount of “Yes, you can,” and “Remember, you showed me you could do it yesterday” will overcome her self-defeat.

Recently, I found inspiration to try a fresh tactic. It was a Facebook meme of the words “I can’t” written in crayon, then transformed with a different color to read “I can try.” A lightbulb popped on in my brain. I decided to try something new.

I first tried my new approach at bedtime. Naya got frustrated while trying to put on her nightgown and wailed, “I can’t do it!” “Wait,” I said. “It bothers me when you say you can’t do something. Let’s try this. Instead of saying, ‘I can’t,’ I want you to say, ‘I can try.’ If you try and still need help, say, ‘Mommy, will you please help me?’”

By golly, it works! (Some of the time.) Now, when she says “I can’t,” I give her my “Oh, really?” look and she’ll correct herself, saying, “I can try.” She knows that “I can try” means she has to actually try. Quite often, she succeeds on her own or with just a little help. Parenting win!

Sometimes, though, “I can’t” really means “I don’t want to.” This is a harder nut to crack. I’ve noticed this is as true for adults as it is for toddlers. But adults are savvier. To avoid saying, “I can’t” or “I don’t want to,” they invent reasons why they don’t need to learn new skills, new technology, or new information. They attack the thing itself, as in, “We all got along just fine before smartphones and they don’t work as well as regular phones.” Some go further yet, disparaging users of new tools as lazy or stupid. “In my day, we didn’t need GPS because we knew how to read maps.” It’s a bit like if my toddler threw down her sock and said, “Socks are silly, and people who wear them are, too.”

naya strider

My daughter had her balance bike for a year before she finally said, “I can try” and ventured to ride it.

I’m not arguing that we all must learn every new thing that comes along. But I believe we should recognize and admit whether we can’t or don’t want to learn something, and not disparage the thing or those who do learn it. Figure out, for example, if you find social media frustrating because you struggle to learn it (can’t), or because you simply would rather not deal with it (don’t want to). If you realize you can’t, you recognize your limitations. If you acknowledge you don’t want to, you choose to limit yourself. Either is okay. Just don’t try and disguise those limitations by expressing disdain towards the thing or the people who use it.

Besides, whether you can’t or don’t want to do, there’s no harm in saying “I can try,” and “Can you help me, please?” You might surprise yourself.

 


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

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Years after my grandparents got out of the egg business, the area just inside the back door of their farmhouse still smelled faintly of chickens.

That’s where they hung their “chicken clothes”—the overalls, coats, and hats they would wear when doing chores like collecting, cleaning, grading, and packing eggs.

It wasn’t an offensive odor, unlike the chicken houses themselves which smelled strongly enough to make my eyes water on the rare occasion I stepped into them. No, the smell of that small passageway was always a welcoming reminder that I had arrived at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Throughout my childhood, their farm was place I loved to be. I played outside. I sang along to Grandma’s records. I followed Grandpa around. And I learned a whole lot about eggs.

In the summers, I often stayed the night. Many a morning would find Grandpa and me in the kitchen, he standing at the stove making breakfast, me at my usual spot at the table as sunlight streamed through the screen door. Naturally, breakfast was usually eggs. Grandpa liked to experiment with spices, and would often make each of us a uniquely-seasoned one-egg omelet.

While we ate, we would talk. It was over those breakfasts when I learned that very young hens were most likely to lay odd-sized eggs or eggs with a membrane but no shell. Grandpa taught me how to divide a Julian date by 30 to figure out approximately when a carton of eggs was packed. If he happened to have recently collected particularly tiny egg, known as a “peewee,” it was at breakfast time when he or Grandma would wrap it in a paper towel and place it in an empty margarine container for me to take home.

 

After breakfast it would be time to head out to work. To me, the most interesting activity took place in the small egg packing room located on one end of one of the long, low chicken houses. Here, Grandpa dunked wire baskets of eggs into cleaning solution, Grandma perched on a metal stool candling eggs, and an automatic egg grader clattered rhythmically as it sorted eggs by weight. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Grandma carefully rotating eggs in front of the bright bulb on the end of the grading machine, looking for cracks in each shell or blood spots on each yolk.

 

Grandma and Grandpa’s egg delivery route included restaurants, bakeries, and other businesses, mostly in the Rochelle area but also in Rockford. One of my favorite childhood memories is of the day their blue “egg van” pulled up to the rear entrance of Kings School while I was outside at recess. I streaked across the playground in excitement to see them, bursting with pride. MY grandparents provided all the eggs we ate at MY school!

A year or so before he died, Grandpa told me about Pearl Valley Eggs, a modern Illinois egg farm he had recently visited. He was very impressed by it, and said he would like to take me there sometime for a tour. By then, I was working here at Farm Bureau and intrigued by any new farm experiences I could take in. But it wasn’t until some years after he passed that I finally got a chance to visit that farm.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I took groups of teachers to Pearl Valley Eggs during our Summer Ag Institute. Each time, I could imagine Grandpa being there with me, taking in the sheer size of the hen houses, the freshness of the air within them, and the clean, healthy birds in their cages. I could picture him shaking his head in bemused amazement at how many tasks are now automated, including collecting, cleaning, and candling the eggs. I could especially envision him marveling at the robotic egg packing process.

I’ve been told that Grandpa was known by many as “the Egg Man.” I wish he was still here, so we could talk some more about eggs.

Note: Julian date = day of the year. A Julian date of 094 on an egg carton means the eggs were packed on the 94th day of the year, or around April 4, because 94 ÷ 30 = 3 months plus 4 days (where an average month is 30 days long).

 


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

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“Okay, sweetie. Grab ahold of the handle and we’ll go.” I hadn’t seen the routine before, but it was obvious the participants had it down pat. The “sweetie” was my almost-3 year-old daughter. The “handle” was the hammer loop on my husband Mark’s jeans. Naya navigated readily to my husband’s side, grabbed the sturdy loop sewn to his left pants leg, and off they went through the store aisles.

hammer loop croppedAs I strolled along with them, I marveled at the simple ingenuity of their system and how well it suited both of their needs. Naya had a way to stay connected with her daddy, her security. Mark had a way of knowing—without even looking—if our daughter was still close by. Whenever they stopped to examine an item, she could let go if she wanted. But when it was time to move on, they reconnected so they wouldn’t lose each other.

From my vantage point behind them, I snapped a quick photo of the intrepid pair, these two loves of my life. Since then, I’ve found myself drawn to the image over and over again. It’s cute, and resourceful, and sweet. But as I’ve looked at it longer, I’ve found deeper symbolism, too.

We all need something or someone to hang on to. Our loved ones. Our friends. Our faith. Our knowledge, and our beliefs. We have a very human need for a sense of security: emotionally as well as physically. We need to know someone cares, and we need to know certain things matter. For a toddler, his or her parents are that security. Naya needs to know that when she is with us, she can trust us to guard her spirit and her safety.

We don’t just need something to hang on to, though. I believe our lives are meaningful when we know someone is depending on us, too. I’m not just speaking of the kind of dependence children have on their parents. No, we need to know that what we do as we move through life matters to someone beyond us. We need to feel our work—whether it is paid or unpaid—matters. We need to know someone cares that we are here, cares about what we do, and is thankful and appreciative that we do it.

My husband’s hammer loop is a symbol of this vital two-way connection. In the enormous, bustling department store of life, my daughter has a strong, reliable handle to hang on to. While she’s hanging on, Mark can feel the steady tug that reminds him someone is depending on him. It’s okay if Naya lets go now and then, but she needs to know the handle is always there. Likewise, Mark thrives on the certainty that she needs him.

Who or what is your hammer loop? And who is hanging onto yours?

 


 

This post also appeared as the “Stray Kernels” column in the December 2015 issue of DeKalb County Farm Bureau’s Connections magazine.

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