A Memoir of Days Gone By

Tasha's Family 1955010My great Aunt Alice, pictured on the far left,  was a “maiden” aunt. Never having marred, she lived with her mother, and then by herself in the grand home built by her late father. It was set amid the lawns and gardens of an estate on the outskirts of a small seaside town. We lived in a smaller house that had been built for the full-time gardener. A lifelong sportswoman, she had a collection of trophies from horseback riding, as well as her tennis matches. A vigorous woman I remember her saying she always parked her car at a distance from the store she was going to, so she’d get more exercise. I also found her intriguing because she wore socks over her nylons, and never wore trousers.

Aunt Alice also had a beach cottage we went to sometimes on weekends in the summer.  It had once been her Girl Scout camp. She had had a troup once and they still kept in touch. She also for many years had dogs, always small and yappy: Scotties and Sealyhams, and later, Dachshunds. I can also remember as a very young child being held up to pat the nose of a horse she had in a pasture. There was a stable with a horse stall, though I have no memory of ever seeing a horse in it.

Over the fireplace in the hall of her home there were hunting trophies: Fox tails from when she rode to the hunt. There were lots of books, both in her library with the window seat and the plush green velvet sofa and elsewhere. I loved that window seat. Aunt Alice was good enough to pay for two years of wonderful riding lessons for me. She also put me up when my parents went away on business and I had to stay and go to school. That was fun. I enjoyed her company, and she was always kind to me. As I think about her now, I realize that she was a great example of an independent woman. Her sister, my grandmother was also, though she had been married and was now a widow. Aunt Alice worked for various charities and was generous to them.

As we went there often for holiday meals my memories of her home are vivid. Her dining table was always set with beautiful china and silver, together with a flower centerpiece and silver candy dishes, piled with chocolates. When I was small there were cocktails in the large parlor downstairs. I used to enjoy her toy truck with the blocks, and a mechanical rabbit in lettuce that rose up and munched, flicked its ears and sank down again. When I was older, I remember gathering upstairs, where she had a music box like an organ grinder’s that played various tunes when the handle was cranked. The cigarette box was always filled with the brands my parents smoked. Daddy mixed the cocktails, and Ritz crackers with peanut butter were a featured hors d’oeuvre.

Aunt Alice was quieter than my grandmother. She also unlike my grandmother, who gave out checks for Christmas presents, went to the store and bought things. Her choices were notoriously bad. Of course, we never told her that. After I grew up and got married, when I could I’d bring my children to visit her. She enjoyed their antics. By then she was rather absent of mind. Alzheimer’s caused her to fall asleep at odd moments, and make it difficult for her to remember much. The children made her smile and that was reason enough to visit. I will always be grateful for her generosity to me, and of the wonderful example her life provided me.

The Light We See By

Angela's candle for her dad          Were I learning to read today I feel sure my picture books would include children of all skin colors and ethnicity. The closest books about anything outside my everyday experiences of white America that I can remember, was a series about twins of various countries. However, these were not living in my town or even my country. My history lessons were primarily about Europe and even the myths I studied were Greek, Roman or Norse, and all the gods and goddesses had white skin. Black culture or history was not included in my grade school or even High school studies. This in and of itself forms a kind of prejudice against non-whit, non-Europeans.

Prejudice aims at many targets. I remember a comic strip in my youth that featured a white child with a pointed head named Denny Dimwit. As part of the humor he was an object of fun. Today a strip like that would be banned. I also remember there used to be a whole series of jokes about various and sundry ethnic individuals who were portrayed as stupid or in other derogatory ways. Children growing up today may find other targets of prejudice, yet still progress is being made. One thing that may have helped is the integration of all kinds of learners in the classroom.

With the Black lives matter movement in full swing, many of us may be examining our own potential for prejudice, regardless what it may be about. The need for awareness of how it functions today is obvious. The color of a person’s skin is often an occasion for prejudice, usually when we have grown up around those who make derogatory comments about it. However, prejudice comes in many forms and is aimed at many of us. Over time, we have become more aware of this, and now it is more important than ever.

Young children are not naturally prejudiced. They may like or dislike someone, yet their feelings will normally be based on behavior or previous experience than pre judgement. There is a line in a song from South Pacific, a popular musical from 1949 and years afterward, with a line that says: “You’ve got to be taught to hate.” If we really wish to make it real forever that black lives matter, we must begin at an early age to make sure children do not grow up prejudiced about skin color.

The difficulty is that what we believe—black people are…, tints what we perceive. It creates expectations that color what we see and hear. Our perceptions are primarily governed by our beliefs and these are based upon what we have been told as young people. This is a form of “knowledge” we may not be aware we employ to make the decisions that govern our behavior. The light with which we perceive others may distort our view. In addition, the shadows cast by the light may loom large and deceive the eye. If we are mindful, we can often stop the automatic prejudice that may spring to mind. It’s all part of learning and growing. Humanity has an opportunity to take a giant leap forward. May it be so.

How Much Is Enough?

20180829_104856           When I was a young wife in the fifties, my father helped us buy a house in the small town where I had grown up. Just outside my kitchen door was a garbage pail sunk into the ground. I would step on the lid, dump in my orange peels, potato peelings, stale food, etc. and once a week a man would come by with a big truck, pull out the bucket, empty it into his truck, and along with all the other garbage he had collected, take it to feed his pigs.

His piggery was deep in a wooded area and the smell bothered no one because it was quite isolated. I expect that today his pig farm would have been deemed unsanitary and done away with. Then it fitted in with a more appropriate attitude of the time of waste not want not. It made a good thrifty use for what otherwise would go to waste. In those days there was a more sensible attitude toward what we have and what we need, or so it seems to me. The Covid 19 crisis seems to have exacerbated a prevailing need to have more and more.

Not long ago people were treating toilet paper as if it were about to vanish from the earth. One person even spotted a woman loading her SUV with an entire tray of rolls from a Walmart. Other items vanished from shelves as people reacted out of fear of lack. How much I need is one amount. That need springs from a logical, rational approach to having. How much I want may stem from a fear of loss, a desire to own more than I already have, plain greed, or envy driven by a competitive nature.

Need and want are such different conditions. Operating from an awareness of need is different than operating from a feeling of want.   I once read a story told by someone waiting in an airport who overheard a mother and daughter saying goodbye to one another. As they embraced, she overheard one say to the other, “I wish you enough.” The other replied with the same words. At first it seemed a curious thing to say for a farewell. As I reflected, I realized that to have enough is actually an absolutely perfect condition in which to be.

When I have enough, I have the space to put it. When I have more than enough, whether food needing refrigeration or clothing to find room for in our shared closet, I have to become creative about fitting whatever it is in. I may end up shoving things to the back of the refrigerator and losing sight of them, or into the back of the closet and doing the same. Then what I have lost sight of may become either moldy or essentially useless. It is said that much food goes to waste in this country, and no doubt leftovers may be a large part of that food.

Raised in a New England family by a thrifty German mother, I try to be very mindful not only about my leftovers but also my wardrobe. My beloved, however was raised by a mother who enjoyed abundance and showered it on her family. Sometimes we experience minor conflict around our divergent opinions. As the days go by, my refrigerator goes from full to empty and back again. Our closet, too has its moments. What matters to me is that we work out what constitutes enough for each of us, and that we make peace with our different opinions.

 

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Write me at tashahal@gmail.com

The Flowers in the Garden of my Friends

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My father had two British friends, a married couple, who had at some point taken up residence in the small town where we lived. I remember they had a black, cast iron lion and unicorn on either side of the stone doorstep of their home. In addition, for years I had two small china ornaments they had given me. I don’t know how old I was when I visited with them, perhaps four or five. I can recall only their kindly smiles. When they passed on, they were buried in our local cemetery.

Two pink granite headstones marked their resting place. They were large, highly polished stones, and stood out among the simpler monuments. Every Memorial Day my father would purchase flowers and plant them on their graves. Although I don’t recall his telling me anything about them, they must have been special friends to him. He was one who believed in honoring those who had passed on. His own father died in World War I, when he was only eight years old.

For me especially, Memorial Day brings to mind my dear ones who have passed me on the road to the larger life, where they have their next assignment–whatever it may be. I have pictures of them, both in my mind and in reality, where I can catch a glimpse of them as they once were. Occasionally, though especially when I’m engaged in a task in my kitchen, I catch a whisper from someone I loved dearly and still do. They come into my mind and I see them smile as they used to do when we were together. It is as if they are telling me they are happy and well.

There is a smooth stone on my coffee table inscribed with these words: “My friends are the loveliest flowers in the garden of my life.” I treasure it as a memento from someone special who lit up my life for a time a few years ago. We were near neighbors and saw one another almost very day. A brave and valiant woman, she was a wonderful example of positive aging. Though she had many difficulties and illnesses she scarcely ever complained and did the best she could to carry on in a cheerful fashion.

In my mind, while I am fixing dinner, I often hear another of my late friends with whom I had many phone conversations: “What are you having for dinner that’s good?” she would ask. We would chat about cooking and trade ideas. In my recipe collection I have one of hers written out in her own handwriting. When I make a recipe  I was given by a late friend, it is especially tasty because of my recollection of its origin. How precious are the memories of those we have loved and now lost to time.

Memories of loving friends who have pasted on are such a treasure. They are a bouquet fragrant with the perfume blended from our combined experiences, the times we have shared, the gifts we have given one another. Memorial Day brings to mind many memories of my dear ones no longer within reach of the telephone or email. As I turn them over in my mind, I feel again the love we shared. I see again their smiles and welcoming arms and I have no doubt one day we will meet and share again.

Gone but not Forgotten

SimpkinsMy brother and his wife just moved to Illinois, leaving behind the home we both grew up in on the North Shore In the next town, there is a square dedicated to our grandfather who died in World War One. Every year the parade stops in the street by the square. His name is on a pole in front of the fire station there, and they put a wreath on it each year in his memory. When I was a child my grandmother used to bring a big bunch of carnations to place inside the wreath. In later years my brother always attended the ceremony and participated. Now he will no longer be able to do so. Still he will have many years of memories, dating back to his boyhood.

Memories are wonderful things. I take great pleasure in many of mine, and I can open and enjoy them any time I wish. When I was a little girl living in Manchester by the Sea, my family shopped for our groceries in the village, as well as sundries from a small shop that carried a variety of small useful things we used often. For larger purchases my mother drove to Beverly, where there was a large department store called Almy’s, as well as a Woolworth’s and a Grant’s. However, for fancy goods like wedding presents my parents shopped in Salem, the next town over, at a store that glittered with silver and jewelry, called Daniel Lowe’s.

The Daniel Lowe’s building has transformed and Salem has become a tourist mecca for seekers of magical items and New Age accoutrements. Beverly too is much changed. Almy’s is long gone, as are the 5 and 10 cent stores I enjoyed.  Even the bakery that later on I shopped at with my children, who remember it still for its delicious cookies, is no more. Yet the stores of my childhood live on in my memory, ready for me to walk through and gaze again at their counters holding a mixture of the practical and the precious.

People I have known who have vanished from my active life also remain for me to recall. Those who are amongst the living I can send a Christmas card to. Those who no longer walk the earth occupy a kind of photo album available to my memory. I turn the pages sometimes and think with pleasure of the experiences we shared, and how I enjoyed them. I am grateful for these and for the time we spent: my grandmother with her endless card games and trips in her ancient automobile, dear departed neighbors from an earlier place we lived in Grafton, and more.

As Memorial Day approaches, I think not only of the people but also the places and even possessions of the past. They are gone only from the physical part of life. They live on in my memory as in the memories of others who may have known of them. One of the fun experiences to be had in gathering with family or old friends is the memories to be shared and enjoyed together. Memorial Day encourages me to think not only about my dear departed, or even those who gave their lives that I might be free, but of the sweetness of those memories. As in my mind I see these faces and these places, they seem to me to be like flowers I place upon the granite memorials of that and those who have departed.

 

 

The Beauty of Spring

Maple ree flowers and leaves 1

My father was an arborist, and my father’s grandfather was an amateur horticulturist. In my mind I can still see the small orchard of a dozen trees he planted on part of his property. He also designed extensive gardens around the house and scattered over the lawns. Growing up next door to his home, where my Great Aunt Alice still lived, was a very special experience. The property was large in area, and I was able to spend much of my time outdoors. Actually, any time the weather permitted, I was sent outdoors “to play,” as my mother was a firm believer in the importance of fresh air. It is also possible she wanted me out from under her feet.

Some of my fondest memories are of the trees on the property. The apple orchard with many different varieties that blossomed and fruited throughout the spring, summer and fall, was a special place. The big birch tree that stood sentinel over my small garden where I planted flowers I was given by Aunt Alice’s gardener, was a favorite. I loved chewing the bark. The big beech tree whose branches I used for my primitive tree house were my home away from home. Wherever I have lived since, there have been special trees I have enjoyed.

Outside my bedroom is a maple tree. Maple tree blossoms dangle from the tree’s branches and I watch them every day as they grow. I enjoy observing the tree all year round, but especially in the spring when it goes through so much activity. When the sun shines, the little green blossoms make a filigree design that graces the no–longer bare branches. When I go outside, gazing up I see how the trees in the little wood beside our building paint their leaf buds against the blue spring sky. So inspiring!

Though our usual destinations—supermarket, P.O., library, and so forth are not available now, we do need to run the car. We found this out the hard way when we wanted to drive it, and it wouldn’t start. According to our mechanic, letting the car sit and run wasn’t giving the battery enough “juice” to start up after days of idleness in the parking lot. Somehow time had gone by without our notice, and since we weren’t going anywhere, we didn’t think of running the car.

However, this has turned out to be the perfect month to take the car out for some exercise. There are trees everywhere with flowers radiating beauty even when the sun isn’t shining. The yards and streets of our town are filled with blossoming branches. The duty of driving around to exercise the car has become a joyful experience. The lovely gardens in front of people’s houses, as well as our public buildings are another treat to see. I must be extra mindful not to get distracted.

While it is true that I would have enjoyed the trees and gardens regardless, the fact that they are my reason for going out greatly enhances my appreciation of them. Recently, my heart rejoiced to see another maple tree. the tiny fan of brand-new leaves was just emerging beneath the small green flowers. The leaves shone with their newness, reaching for the sunlight like the hands of a little baby. Nature is such a wonderful comforter in these times of stress.

The Blame Game

Roots and light When I was growing up it was my responsibility to care for the chickens. In the winter what that meant was carrying a heavy bucket of water from our house the thirty or more yards to their coop. The spring I was twelve the wetlands near the coop flooded and there was plenty of water right there. I took advantage of it. However, something then happened to the chickens. They began dying. Apparently, they had somehow caught a disease.

My parents called me into the living room. They were sitting on the sofa looking stern. They asked me if I had been doing anything different for the chickens. “No,” I lied. Then they faced me with the evidence. My great aunt’s gardener had seen me getting the water from the swamp. Uh oh! I don’t remember my punishment—probably a suspension of my allowance. Sadly, I didn’t really learn my lesson then, though eventually I did. I was often too fearful of the consequences to tell the truth.

Many if not most of us are. The vase is broken, the favorite toy ruined, the car dented and we hear: “He/she made me…”  or “I couldn’t help it.” Heard that before? This familiar copout is often every child’s first response—except perhaps for, “I didn’t do it.” How do we teach children to take responsibility for their actions? It isn’t easy and every parent has his or her idea how best to accomplish this. Sometimes they manage to make that happen, and the child grows up to be a responsible adult.

However all too often even as adults we are reluctant to take the responsibility we need to for our own actions. We may be afraid of the results when someone finds out. I know often I was, or we may not want someone to think ill of us, as in “how could I be so stupid as to make that mistake?”  There are as many reasons as there are situations. The bottom line is that we do not like to admit to being ill advised, ignorant, or just plain absent of mind.

Blaming is something many do when they want to get out of a situation where they feel trapped or one that will lower their value in another’s eyes and mind. The problem with playing the blame game is that not only is it dishonest, it is also unkind to the person or persons we may be blaming for our mistake.

I learned to own up to my responsibility only as an adult. My husband Stephen was actually the one to help me to do this. He would not allow me to get away with evading it, and he would make sure I was ultimately honest. I’ve learned that honesty really is the best policy when it comes to admitting to wrongdoing. Feelings of guilt are thereby avoided as well as other consequences that may arise when and if the truth emerges—and all too often it will.

 

Something from the Oven

Cooking with heartThere was an advertising phrase that went, “Nothing says loving like something from the oven…” however, I think the advertising agency had it backward. It’s the love in the preparation that does this. The oven only helps, as do the ingredients, preferably as clean and fresh as possible. Love helps us to choose them, as well as to guide the utensils used in the preparation. Furthermore, the focus of the mind is an important ingredient as well. If I am angry or upset when I am preparing food, it could affect the way it tastes as well as the way it is digested. Though I can’t prove it, it’s my belief that thoughts and feelings can be powerful in their effect on food.

A study of this potential would make an interesting experiment for a science project, though it could be difficult to set up. I do really enjoy cooking. Though I’ve never had any courses or training for it and am completely self-taught, I get great praise from those who taste my cooking. I remember one person saying, “This must be Tasha’s kitchen because it smells so good.” Another time, I had prepared a tropical entrée made with bananas with other ingredients, baked inside their skins. When I stopped one guest from cutting into his, he said, “Oh, I thought if you had cooked it, I could eat it.” I laughed and thanked him.

One of the most cherished comfort food desserts is bread pudding. According to the internet, sometime in the 11th or 12th centuries, a frugal cook somewhere in Europe needed to use up their stale bread and began thinking up ways to do it. Perhaps instead the cook needed a dessert and had only stale bread, eggs and milk to go with it. Be that as it may, bread pudding has become a staple food. Once called “Poor Man’s Pudding,” it is said to be served in upscale restaurants as well as homes all over the world. Many of the recipes for it call for some form of fat. My recipe omits this ingredient and I don’t think the calories or the taste of it will be missed. Feel free to experiment, I still do. You can butter the bread first if you wish to include it.

The recipe I have evolved from making it often is simple, and we eat it all the time. You do not have to wait until the bread is stale, though of course that is a good use for any you might have. Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 1 ½ or 2-quart covered casserole. Put a pan of water the casserole will fit in into in the oven. Begin with 2 cups torn up bread—around 4 to 6 slices. I use a raisin bread and it’s on the small side. Sprinkle on ½ cup sugar and ½ to 1 cup raisins if not using raisin bread. Beat up 2 eggs and 2 cups any kind of milk. Add 1 plus teaspoon vanilla and 1 plus teaspoon cinnamon and beat again. Pour over bread and stir to combine well. Place covered casserole in the oven in the pan prepared with water. Bake 1 hour, remove cover and bake to brown for 15 or so minutes. If you can resist diving into it, the pudding tastes best the next day when flavors have developed.

I have no recollection of having been served bread pudding in my childhood; I have evolved this recipe from following one in a cookbook of recipes based on the Cat Who mystery series by Lillian Jackson Braun, both of which which I highly recommend.

 

Be Your Own Valentine

Heart and BellsWhen I was growing up it was the custom for valentine cards and gifts to be sent unsigned. I believe this was a tradition that dated back many years. The custom of celebrating Valentine’s Day goes back even further, to ancient Rome. It originated in a festival of the time called Lupercalia, after Lupercus, a nature god of the Romans who resembled the Greek god Pan. It also has roots relating to Juno Februata, honoring Goddess Juno. Then, young boys and girls drew lots to see who they would be partnered with for the year which began in March. The Christian church opted to keep the holiday and rename it, calling it after a saint who may or may not have existed.

I remember that one year when I was around the age of twelve, I received a lovely red, heart shaped compact. No one in my household would admit to giving it to me, although I suspected it had been given me by my father. He swore up and down that he hadn’t done it, and at the time I believed him. He had a very convincing way about him and made an excellent actor.  I remember seeing him in at least one locally produced play when I was growing up. He had an affinity for the theater.

When I was in the early grades, paper valentines were placed in a red and white crepe paper decorated box.  Someone was chosen to be postman and distributed the cards to the room full or classmates. There was no talk of partnering, nor of love, per se. Rather it was all about who got the most cards. Later on, I had fun making my own valentines and sending or giving them, and I have done this for many years. Many purchase them. Commercial valentines have been in use since 1800, and Worcester claims to be the originator of early ones, though others have made that claim as well.

My first husband and I met on a day early in February long ago. I wanted to send him a valentine, however, I could nothing but find only a humorous one. Although it was not very nice, it was all I could find so I sent it anyway. Fortunately for the five children we later produced, it didn’t ruin the relationship. Perhaps it was meant to be. The arrows of Cupid, a god of love also known by Greeks as Eros, sometimes do hit the mark. The Greeks have six words that express love: Eros: or sexual passion, Philia: family love or deep friendship, Ludus: or playful love like for children, Agape: or spiritual love/love for everyone, Pragma: or longstanding or enduring love, and Philautia: or love of the self.

The average Westerner saying, “I love…” may be expressing affection, or a preference—I love ice cream, or aptitude–I love to exercise. All these fit our definition of it. And they are all conditional upon our personal choices. Yet spiritual or unconditional love, the most difficult form of love is also the most beneficial for both giver and recipient. This is the love that endures. When I give myself the valentine of unconditional love, I can be much more loving to everyone else. In addition, I do not take issue with any faults, but instead regard with compassion the struggles of the one who is loved and express patience without expectation.

 

Competition Versus Cooperation

chickens.jpgI’ve never been a competitive person. Usually a sense of competition kicks in around the age of four, when a child gains a clear understanding of “me” and “mine.” Even then there is often a desire to share unless the child is surrounded by competitors. When I was growing up competition was the rule and the idea of a game that required cooperation instead was unknown. I did not enjoy the competitive world I grew up in.

Even as a child I disliked competition in sports. One reason was that I wasn’t very agile or well-coordinated and thus most often chosen last for any team. Another was that it made me sad that someone had to lose in order for someone to win. I played board games yet not with a keen desire to win. For instance, Parcheesi which was a popular game when I was young was best won by blocking opponents and rendering them helpless. I never enjoyed doing that. For me, that was like punishing someone or hurting them.

My mother was a fierce competitor. She loved games and was good at them. She played Bridge and Mahjong with her friends. With me she played card games and Chinese checkers, which she played without mercy, making no allowances for youth or inexperience. She played to win, regardless. As a result, I did learn to play a good game of Chinese checkers. Fast forward to my adulthood. I still resisted competition when I could. Unfortunately, my children invariably made me enter the tired Mothers Race at the fourth of July games. in the town where they grew up. I came in last no matter how hard I tried.

My children’s father was very competitive. He encouraged the children while they were still quite young to play on teams and to compete. He even started a girls’ softball league in the town where we lived.  My daughters and then my sons all strove to do well in order to make him happy. He cherished their ribbons and trophies and often coached their various teams to victory. As a loyal mom I used to attend their tennis matches and their and baseball and ice hockey games, cheering along with the other parents and trembling for fear they would lose and be sad.

Regardless whether or not they won, I was glad whenever the games or matches were over. Certainly, my children learned much from their years playing tennis, hockey, and baseball. They had fun and met other children they would not have met otherwise. I am not regretful for them, though I do feel there are other ways to have fun that they might have enjoyed as well. I was too busy keeping up with household and child caring duties to do much about that.

Competition is said to be a good learning experience for children. Today even little ones barely out of toddler years are put on teams to play at various sports. For competitive people that’s good. For those like me, not so much. On the other hand, it is possible to play games in the spirit of cooperation. Team efforts in sports are only one way. There is also a cooperative way to play many games, and that is to play to see how high the score can rise. Scrabble can be played that way, and I know that’s how I would prefer to play it.