I'm a mom who lives and writes on the north shore of Massachusetts. I also identify as a cat on Twitter (toastcat4618). I don't care whether I make you laugh or cry--I'm happy either way. You can read my columns or check out my family on the Fam page. Toast, the cat with presidential ambitions, also has her very own page. She urges you to check it out--or else!
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Finding Covid Freedom
June 11, 2021
Freedom means different things to different people. For me, freedom means being able to walk either way down the cereal aisle at Shaws.
Reversing course because I forget the Maple Pecan Crunch, and turning around and walking the other way made me feel like Leo DeCaprio in Titanic with his arms out, exulting "I'm the king of the world!"
Similarly, at the Loft Outlet in Kittery right after Maine lifted its mask mandate, I took a picture of the sign on the door that said "Masks are not required for fully vaccinated customers" because it seemed impossible, too good to be true.
"No mask, really?" I uttered disbelievingly to the sales lady behind the counter. "No mask!" she replied, with a smile that I could actually see. I whipped off my mask and let out a whoop of joy.
In Newburyport the other day I chatted with the owner of a new business. We talked for a good five minutes and we weren't six feet apart. I learned about his other store, how excited he is to be in town, and how warmly the locals have welcomed him. When we parted we introduced ourselves. He stuck his hand out and I took it. It felt revolutionary.
Is this what getting out of prison is like? I've been as Covid-compliant as required. I've faithfully done what was asked. The one time I accidently went into Michael's Crafts without my mask on was like one of those dreams where you're naked in public. I went hot and cold and rushed from the store, clutching my face.
But I am joyfully done, fully vaccinated. I feel like a golden retriever with my head out a car window, mouth open in a happy grin, ears flying. I have no underlying conditions that require me to continue precautions. In fact, I have often wondered why my none-too-sterile face covering, which spends a lot of time rolling around the back seat of my car, was ever enough to gain me entry into public places. Like everyone else, I look like I am heading into surgery. The reality of the hygiene of my mask is probably somewhat different.
There a lot of things out there that can, and ultimately will, kill us. We seem to have forgotten that we can die of things other than Covid. I managed to keep all of my medical appointments over the last year, but that's not true for many. The statistics I have read about the number of missed doctor's visits, cancer screenings, routine childhood vaccinations and the like are sobering.
Recently I calculated that I have about 7300 days until I am 80, barring an early departure. I may well live longer than that, but there are no promises about the quality of life beyond that point-nor any before it, for that matter. To the best of my ability, I intend to make every single one of those days count with my family and friends.
Covid prison didn't change me, but it certainly sharpened my appetite and appreciation for life. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to walk both ways down the cereal aisle just because I can.
Living in the present, visiting the past
How amazing is our memory? It can put up whole city blocks in an instant, and remove them just as fast. It can dismantle a building in the blink of an eye, and reconstruct one that hasn't existed for five decades.
This happens to me often, and especially when I drive along Haverhill Street through Reading, passing the former farms where I learned to ride. The barns are long gone now, and houses and tall trees stand in what used to be open fields. No matter-my brain still shows me the lush grass and the grazing horses. For a moment I see grizzled old Lester "Mac" McDonald, who ran a pony farm on the corner of Franklin Street. I hear Spot the Dalmation barking and see ponies drinking out of the old white bathtub under the barn, their whiskery muzzles dripping when they lift their heads.
Entering North Reading I mentally take down the Heav'nly Donuts and put up Sullivan's, an old-school breakfast place where my father would take us on Sunday mornings 50 years ago. I hear the slam of the screen door and step onto the wooden floor. I smell coffee and cigarettes, taste the butter dripping off the grilled corn muffin I always order.
Heading up Rt. 28 I dismantle the Stop and Shop and put up the Starlite Drive-In, climb into my pajamas and hang out for a moment with my parents while we watch a movie in the car and swat mosquitos. As usual, we pick a spot with a poorly functioning speaker, the kind that hangs over the edge of the driver's window and distorts sound beyond recognition.
I go on to pass two different buildings, still standing, that used to house my father's Wynn oil business. One is now a boxing gym, the other a dog rescue establishment. I mentally recast them and now I am out in the Wynn's warehouse playing hide and seek with my sister and best friend as we climb over the boxes stacked nearly to the ceiling. The pungent smell of motor oil hits my nose sharply in an unpleasant way. I'm not sure so much exposure to petroleum products is good for children, but no one seems to worry about it.
Heading north now, toward Andover, I rebuild the Howard Johnson's where Tokyo Steakhouse now stands. I slide into a booth-my favorite one in the corner- with my mother and order clam strips and the best coffee ice cream that's ever been made. When we leave I successfully petition for one of those round milk and white chocolate lollipops at the counter. It's delicious.
How lucky are we that these moments from times gone by are still with us, even if-like the smell of motor oil, like the taste of chocolate-they are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet. I live my life firmly in the here and now, but I'm grateful that I can get a day pass to visit old places, see old faces, whenever I want. They are never truly gone from me if I can remember them.
The Dessert Years
I have been thinking long and hard about this, and I believe I have come to a conclusion about at least one problem plaguing society these days, which is...
We don't get enough old-fashioned cakes and pies anymore.
Dessert is still with us, of course, but now it's all about tortes and sorbets and tiramisu and crème brulee--not a layer cake in sight.
Pick up any "ladies" magazine from the 1950s-Woman's Day is my favorite--and you'll see what I mean. Glorious illustrations of tall, mouthwatering cakes and towering fruit or cream pies entice you on nearly every page.
Benjamin Darling, in his book Cakes Men Like, calls the 1930s, 40s and 50s "the dessert years;" when companies competed for housewives' loyalty by giving away recipe booklets and commissioning artists to create ads featuring the stunning creations that could be made from their products.
Betty Crocker, of course, is front and center in these ads, helping housewives be both thrifty and successful in their baking. The Betty of the early 1950s is a severe looking gal with Marcel-waved hair sporting touches of grey. This is a woman who takes cake seriously.
An ad for "Easy! Economical! As-You-Like-It Cake" features Betty in 1952 showing off a gorgeous cake with three different frostings. In an early example of cross-marketing, here Betty promotes the use of Gold Medal Flour as a "cake baking secret you should know! From sack to sack, Gold Medal's baking quality never varies...substitute a less uniform flour and you'll waste ingredients, costing more." Cooks in the 1950s were ready for reliability and uniformity in their ingredients, and Betty was there for them.
And don't let that grey hair fool you--she could rock out when needed. Here is the her eye-catching Colorvision Cake from 1955, a gorgeous study in pink on pink, creating by the "glamour trick" of adding "your favorite Gelatin Dessert" to one of her Party Cake mixes. She tops it with her Cherry Fluff Frosting and raves "our mixes give you real home-cooked tasting frosting!"
But baking competitor Pillsbury was not afraid to match wits with Betty. Here they try for a seductive tone, pretty racy for 1953: "His heart will go 'pitty pat' when you bake your man a peach pie like this," promises an ad for pie crust mix that features a juicy and glistening slice of peach pie. "Turn him loose on your pie-and watch the man get moon-eyed when he forks into the flaky, tender crust you're bound to turn out... pamper him, please him, with your homemade pie, tonight." Wait, are we still talking about pie?
Of course, too much pie and cake can lead to problems. "WATCH OUT--abdomen sag is ugly and dangerous!" warns a 1951 ad for Spencer support garments. "A sagging abdomen is a dangerous thing to neglect... the functioning of every organ is impaired and even your personality suffers."
Why did I eat all that cake, '50s ladies must have wondered despondently. But, no worries, Spencer had them covered. "The minute you put on your Spencer, you feel stimulating support! You'll look more alert and feel more alive! Send for your FREE 24-page booklet "
Desserts and girdles--we can relate to those right now. Raise your hand if you've just gone through your own version of a dessert year, and let me know if you want the address for Spencer's 24-page support garment booklet. I've already requested mine.
But while we wait...who wants some nice marble layer cake?
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport
A New Year's Resolution I can live with
New Year's resolutions are usually concerned with losing weight, exercising more, and eating healthier. Most of them last about as long a plate of brownies in a kindergarten class.
I've never been one for New Year's resolutions, but this year seemed to demand something different. So, the other day, when I did what I've been meaning to do for a while--pick up trash around the reservoir near where I live--I had an epiphany.
I realized, as I used my nifty grabbing tool to load bottles and Dunks cups into a bag, that THIS could be my New Years resolution. One bag of trash, large or small, once a week, whenever possible. This was how I could make a immediate and visible difference in my town and community. Plus, it wouldn't involve giving up dessert.
Litter is a problem that will never be solved, only managed, and my personal opinion is that some states manage it better than my own, Massachusetts. Driving up to, around, and home from North Conway, NH last September, my husband and I were struck by how clean the roadsides were. It was notable, and equally notable was how different things were-in a bad way-- as we neared home. We were similarly struck by clean roadsides when we attended a wedding on the outskirts of Chicago a couple years ago. It made a very sad contrast to Massachusetts.
What I don't understand is why this is okay. Our state has natural beauty to match any other state in the country. We have antique homes and buildings to admire everywhere we look. We have quaintness and beauty coming out of our ears. And yet, many of our small roads and highways are strewn with trash.
I'm sad that we accept this, because we deserve better. Sometimes I think it's easier and sexier to focus on overarching global issues and miss the problems that are right underneath our feet, literally.
My town of West Newbury does a wonderful town-wide trash pickup every spring, but I'm ready to make that spirit a part of my everyday life. I'm done with walking past the gross, half-filled Gatorade bottle and waiting for someone else to pick it up. I am now that someone else.
I'm not making this a 24-7 job; I'm not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There will be times when it won't be possible to pick up trash, and there are many places where it isn't safe or feasible to do so. Highways will always be out of our reach. But even picking up one cup or bottle when I can do so is something, and something is better than nothing.
When I posted a short blurb about this on my town's Facebook pages recently I was thrilled at the positive response, and am excited to hear that some folks are already doing this. I salute them and am happpy to join their ranks. I was also introduced to Plogging Newburyport, a local group that combines exercise with trash pickup.
Doing good for our communities and making the world a little more beautiful--without giving up butter cookies? Honestly, I don't know how anyone could resist.
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport
Happy New Year-
now go make your bed
I made my bed this morning.
I made it yesterday too, as well as the day before that. I made it every day last week, last month, last year. Anytime you see me, you can assume that my bed is made. Call me a crazed, bed-making zealot, I don't care. As far an I'm concerned, an unmade bed after 8 or 9 a.m. is the first step to the kind of slovenliness that will eventually have me wearing a stained housecoat and sporting curlers at the supermarket.
My bed-making inspiration came from the sight of my mother putting her bed in order every day. I don't believe there was ever a day when my mother's bed wasn't made, or when her room was a clothes-strewn mess. Her bedroom was a always a soothing, ordered place. My mother never yelled at me to make my bed, she just showed me what life was like when you did.
When I put my bed in order I am accomplishing my first task of the day. Pull back the top sheet, smooth the bottom one on one side, then the other. Pull the top sheet back up and fold it over the now wrinkle-free blanket so that it looks nice, shake out the pillows and fluff them so they stand up and then order the throw pillows. Arrange the plaid blanket over the bottom of the bed, like the cherry on top of a sundae and that's it, I'm done.
How long did it take me? Less than five minutes. It's pleasant and meditative, and never feels like work. But somehow it means everything to my day. It's only 8'o clock in the morning and I have already accomplished something that's important to me.
I had no idea other people felt this way until a few years ago, when former Navy Admiral William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas system, gave a commencement speech in 2014 in which he extolled the virtues of the made bed. "If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed," he told the graduates. "It will give you a small sense of pride and encourage you to do another task, and another...Making your bed will also reinforce the face that little things in life matter...and if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that's made...and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better."
The speech became a social media sensation and McRaven went on to incorporate it into a book called "Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life...and Maybe the World." A SEAL for 37 years and formerly commander of U.S. Special Operations, this man appears to know a thing or two about Getting Stuff Done. So if he believes in the value of fluffing blankets and tucking sheets, that's good enough for me.
Of course, not everyone feels this way, but I'm sorry for those who miss out on the simple joy of climbing into a smooth and ordered bed each night.
Now excuse me, it's 8 a.m. I need to go change the world.
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport
Every so often the world cracks open and shows us life with a beautiful clarity. Sometimes it happens because of the taste of a certain cookie, as Proust found out, or the sight of a newborn baby. Sometimes it happens because of a certain song.
We were in Scotland, on a long driving tour from Edinburgh to Loch Ness--a round trip of over 300 miles in one day. The scenery was spectacular, the boat ride on the Loch was a blast, and lunch was delicious. But once we turned for home it seemed like the ride would never end.
I squirmed in the stuffy darkness of the van and plugged in my earbuds. Shut your eyes by Snow Patrol (a Scottish, band, coincidently) came on. And it hit me-for no reason that I could define, except for the way the music made me feel--that I could just accept this moment, sore bottom and all. I would never be here again, in this place, at this time. Instead of wishing the ride would end, I could embrace the vision of my children, draped over each other like sleeping puppies. I could revel in the richness of my life. And that's what I did, and suddenly the ride didn't seem long enough.
Sometimes it's discomfort that opens-or shuts-our eyes, but sometimes we're lucky enough to go from joy to joy. Walking the white sands of Buck Island off St. Croix, I had such a moment. We snorkeled, swam, and then sailed for home, the trade winds filling the sails of the big catamaran. Music played, rum punch flowed, strangers talked like friends. One Day by Matisyahu, came on, with its stirring beat and lyrics of hope. I looked at the green islands rising out of the blue water, felt the warmth of the sun on my back, and told myself, hold onto this moment. Don't ever let it go.
And then there was the time we were running through Fenway Park, not late for a Red Sox game but actually running around the park during a Spartan Sprint. My husband and I had tried obstacle racing and were now hooked. That day we did pushups in the locker rooms, burpees in the outfield, two-footed jumps up the stairwells. The driving beat of one of my favorite songs "Counting Stars," by OneRepublic sounded as I reached the highest point in the stands. The green of Fenway and the scenery of the city unfolded all around me. The music was like a drug, giving me a great soaring wave of energy and burning that vision of Boston into my mind forever.
We don't get to feel like gods very often. It's rare when we can step outside of ourselves and truly know the exquisite joy of being alive. These stolen moments come unbidden. We can't will them, we can't create them. All we can do is listen for their music and do our best to forge them into the amber of our memories when they come.
A little love for late fall
This is a beautiful time of year.
Go ahead, call me crazy. Late fall doesn't have a lot of defenders. Very few people are likely to cite it as their favorite season. The foliage show is nearly over. The showy reds, the screaming oranges, are done. There is a lot of yellow, rust and brown.
Yes, there are leaves still to fall, but it happens quickly and the trees are increasingly bare. So much energy is spent on fall's gaudy brilliance, like a party months in the planning that is over too soon and leaves a messy house.
But trees don't need leaves to be beautiful. Bare and unadorned, they are stars without makeup, boiled down to their essence and spreading their true selves against the sky. Once the trees are bare it feels to me like nature has heaved a big sigh and leaned back, feet up, content to just let everything go. Without foliage or bushy undergrowth, the tree trunks and branches tell stories. Twisted limbs, holes made by animals, patches of copper-green lichen-all that was hidden is revealed.
The stone walls too come into their own now. Not the new walls lining manicured lawns but the old tumbledown columns of grey roaming the woods and running alongside of roads. Now we can see those walls, so many of them, meandering through the shallow woods, stopping and starting in seemingly random patterns. They too tell a story, of fields and pastures that existed where trees now grow, a story of farmers from the past marshaling the boulders dug out of the New England soil and giving them a job to do.
The wetlands, ponds and lakes stand in starker relief now that the green has gone from their shores. Bittersweet vines, invasive but beautiful, wind around old fence posts and stands of red winterberry and wild holly-- nature's own Christmas decorations put up early--dot the landscape.
Birds are easier to spot at this time of year too. Bright red cardinals and their more sober khaki-colored mates jostle for space at my feeders. Canada geese are so plentiful as to be pests, but a V-shaped wedge of them silhouetted against the sky still gives me chills. Lately I have caught sight of less common birds: colorful wood ducks paddling on the nearby reservoir, and the other day a great blue heron, who lazily unfolded his wings when I approached and took to the sky, soaring regally in a circle and landing a short distance away.
Very soon, all too soon, the snow will come. Some of us will head to Florida and the rest will stick it out here. But right now we are suspended in a moment. Look around, loosen your shoulders, and let out your own big sigh. Enjoy the quiet beauty around you, all the more precious because it will soon disappear beneath a deep blanket of white.
Which will need to be shoveled.
Spirits roaming free
In this upside-down time, when few kids will probably get to trick or treat, when masks are worn every day instead of once a year, I find myself thinking back to the Halloweens of my past.
The holiday was still mostly for kids back in the late sixties and early seventies-it hadn't become the rather bloated thing it is now. Only the smallest children went with a parent, the rest of us paired up with older brothers and younger sisters and groups of friends. We were free spirits roaming the night, unsupervised and giddy with excitement, more than a little scared although we wouldn't admit it. The fear was delicious, far better than the candy we collected.
Costumes were cobbled together from the ragbag or bought from Zayres or Caldors. Decorations consisted of carved pumpkins and homemade scarecrows slumped in lawn chairs or sheet ghosts hung from trees.
It was the first time we truly understood how different the world is in the dark. The familiar streets were black and strange. Shadowed figures, half-seen, vanished in the dark. The neighborhood that we knew so well was strange new territory. The driveways seemed longer and the distance between houses immense. The front steps and porches were welcome pools of light. We hung onto our younger siblings hands and told ourselves it was so they wouldn't be scared.
Everyone talked about the kid who got a razor blade in an apple but no one knew whether the story was true. We gorged on Sugar Babies and Milk Duds while we walked, and no one checked our candy bags when we got home.
One year, right before Halloween, my best friend and I staged a haunted walk in the woods behind her house. We made the neighborhood kids stick their hands in a bowl of Spaghetti-Os, and called it eyeball soup. We concocted a tale of a family buried alive, while we stood over a roughened patch of dirt we had dug up that morning. Everyone was terrified and gratifyingly, one girl cried.
Another time, while trick or treating at the end of our street, a friend and I dared each other to go up the back stairs of a house after no one answered the front door. It was pitch black. The steps were steep and narrow. We got to the top, clinging to each other, and knocked on the storm door. There was a scuffling noise and out of nowhere, a cat screamed down on top of us. We nearly fell down the stairs in terror, the cat plunging through the darkness with us. Candy spilling everywhere, we sprinted away, shrieking with fear and laughter.
But something happened late one Halloween afternoon that I still can't explain, even 45 years later. I had been riding by myself at the old farm where I stabled my horse and the ancient barn was empty when I get back. Everything was quiet, and the only sounds were the horses moving in the paddock. I called out but there were no answering voices.
The sun was low in the sky and the air was cool. I shivered in my thin jacket. Where was everyone? Suddenly panicked, I got on my horse, bareback this time, and rode out again. I had never ridden so late in the day and my heart was hammering. My horse was uneasy, reluctant to leave his stall. Shadows were gathering beneath the trees and the fields were nearly dark. I shouted but still no one answered. It seemed, for one impossible moment, that I was the only person alive.
It was almost dark as I headed back to the barn, trembling. And now there were lights and people--my sister and the barn workers. "We were here, what are you talking about?" they said, when I slide off, crying, demanding to know where everyone was. "We were right here all the time!"
Spirits roaming free, indeed
The headless biker
of Harold Parker
An urban legend
The motorcyclist harassed people. That much everyone agreed on. He rode too fast and followed cars too closely. His bike was loud, too loud.
He wore all black from head to foot and roared around the streets of North Reading and through nearby Harold Parker State Forest almost every night. No one knew who he was, but he was a menace, that was certain.
The biker bothered everyone but he angered one man in particular. Often, just as the man was drifting off to sleep, the biker would thunder by, revving his bike as loudly as he could, and the man would leap terrified from his bed. He's targeting me, the man cursed. He's trying to drive me out of my mind.
Someone has to do something, the man thought.
I have to do something, he decided.
And one moonless night, he did.
The man strung piano wire between two trees on one of Harold Parker's narrow curving roads. He gauged the height carefully. And then he crouched in the woods and waited.
Soon he heard the familiar roar, and then the biker flashed by, going full-throttle. He hit the piano wire at neck height, exactly as the man had planned. The motorcycle skidded and careened off the road and into the trees in an explosive crash. The biker flew through the air. The silence was suddenly deafening.
The man crept out from behind the trees and stood there, his heart pounding. There, in front of him, was the biker's head, severed and bloody. His eyes were open and staring. The man shuddered. He backed away, and started to run. He reached his car and drove home, panting, his hands clenching the wheel.
Lying in bed, he couldn't stop shaking. But it was quiet. There would be no motorcycle tearing through the night, disturbing decent folks' sleep. It would be peaceful again.
But wait, what was that sound? No-it couldn't be! It was the sound of a motorcycle, louder than he had ever heard it. He raced out of house, the door swinging behind him. There in front of him was the biker-and where his head had been was there nothing, only a severed neck, streaming blood.
The cyclist pointed at the man. He pulled the bike into a wheelie and disappeared. But the noise went on. The man fell to the ground, his hands trying to block the roar that was shattering his eardrums and shredding every coherent thought.
The man was found the next morning on his front lawn, dried blood covering the sides of his head, his eyes wide open. His heart had stopped.
And to this day there are people who say that they hear the roar of a motorcycle in Harold Parker, late at night when all decent folks are in bed... and it's loud.
Conquering uncertainty with cake--and love
We need all the comfort we can get these days. That’s why, despite the subtropical conditions we have endured for much of this summer, I’m still baking. Nothing beats the peace I feel when I’m kneading a batch of bread dough and most of me (and half the kitchen) is covered in flour.
I’m just a clumsy but passionate home cook, but I do have one recipe that people beg for, and that’s my mom’s milk chocolate cake. It’s an amazing cake, tall and proud, silky smooth and feathery light. I’m greeted with moans of joy whenever I show up with it.
When I asked my mother where she got the recipe, she said airily, “Oh, from a cousin on my father’s side.” However, later she mentioned that it was Tissie’s favorite cake, and her eyes filled with tears. Tissie, whose real name was Gladys, was her beloved older sister who passed away before I was born. Making this cake is my way of keeping my mom’s memory alive, and feeling connected to the aunt I never knew.
The cake is often requested for birthdays, and has sported a lot of different decorative themes (pirate, zoo, ponies) over the years. One notable version, made for my daughter-in-law’s 23rd, featured a large cartoon bat. Laura and my son Hunt had woken up during a visit to our summer cottage with a bat whipping around their bedroom ceiling. This was my attempt to inject a little humor into what was an unhappy few weeks for them. The cake definitely cheered them up during their rabies vaccination ordeal.
My cake works equally well for graduations, such as the Survivor-themed creation we made for my son’s college graduation. My husband did the decorating and created an amazing Survivor logo surrounded by the words “Outwit, Outdrink, Outspend.” It was a little hard to tell, but the bleary-eyed graduate and his friends seemed to appreciate it.
A super-sized version also decorated by my husband took home top honors in a cake contest celebrating our town’s bicentennial a few years ago. David copied the “Entering W. Newbury” road sign, and it was a dead ringer for the real thing. We won Best Overall Cake, and got a nice certificate, a blue ribbon and an apron. We also ate cake for weeks afterwards, but sometimes your have to suffer for your art
But in the interest of full disclosure I have to reveal a dark moment —the time I SOLD my mother’s cake recipe. It was a episode of madness during the early days of EBay, when it seemed possible to buy and sell anything. Why not a recipe? I called it Miracle Milk Chocolate Cake and I got $10 for it The shame still rankles. How could I? What was I thinking? Why did I only charge $10? These questions remain unanswerable, but I never did it again
I’m still not ready to share the recipe, still shaken by the EBay incident. But that’s okay, because this is MY recipe, the one that connects me to my family and friends, past and present. Many of you have your own touchstone recipe, passed down from your grandmother, cut from a magazine, or created by your own hands.
So, whatever that special recipe is—whether it’s a to-die-for mac and cheese, a truly awesome pot roast, or the best Jell-O salad the world has ever known—it’s time to hit the kitchen and make it. Nothing counters stress and uncertainty like cooking, especially when it’s a batch of your mother-in-law’s famous Snickerdoodles, made with love and shared with whoever it’s possible to share them with at the moment.
Forget the quarantine 15. We’re all (getting chubby) in this together.
This article was originally published in the Lowell Sun.
Hungry for comfort
Breath deeply. What do you smell?
Fresh bread. Ziti with roasted tomato sauce and a thick blanket of cheese. A British-style meat pie. Frosted brownies. AND my favorite new snack, homemade Cheez-its (yes, it's true, and no, I wouldn't kid about something like that).
We all need to take comfort wherever we can find it these days, and for me that means cooking. Lots and lots of cooking. Plump, golden-brown loaves from the oven, a batch of chocolate chip cookies-these things give me great satisfaction at the moment. And though plump and golden brown is probably going to describe ME when this is all over, I make no apologies for going full Martha Stewart right now.
I've been waiting for words to come to me before I write about what we are living through, because up to now they haven't. I've been struck dumb by what is going on. What happens on a Wednesday seems light years away from what happened on the previous Monday-and yet it feels all horribly the same. We're living in an actual zombie apocalypse Groundhog Day and it's not clear when we'll wake up. It feels like we have no control over anything.
But we still have to eat. And when life hands me Corona virus, I head to the kitchen, where I can at least control a batch of brownies. I've never been more grateful that I love to mess around with food. When I cook, my brain switches off and I focus on flour and sugar, which are major food groups as far as I'm concerned.
I feel especially proud that I can make homemade bread without even thinking about it. Bread baking has always been a pleasant diversion for me; now it feels like a mainstay of life. It feels like I'm providing. I use the no-knead method, which allows anyone with a pulse to make fantastic breads without the need to, uh, knead. (A current benefit to this method is that none of us could knead bread anyway, with these over-washed, dried-out, potentially germ-laden nubs that we used to call our hands hanging limply at the end of our arms.)
The gluten free movement has never been anything but an ugly rumor in our household, and we bake a lot, especially cookies. My husband's favorite recipe is for homemade Pecan Sandies, courtesy of Stella Parks' Bravetart.. I'm big on Salted Chocolate Chunk Shortbread, the New York Times version. The latter are what happens when regular chocolate chip cookies leave home, buy a fancy suit and invest in life insurance; chocolate chip cookies for grown-ups, in other words.
Obviously one cannot live by cookies and bread alone (although I'd be willing to give it a try). I've always enjoyed cooking dinner, and now it feels like the most important thing I do all day. We've got an extra member of the household right now (my 21 year old daughter, sadly ousted from college), so I get to feed more people, which I love.
Sometimes I follow recipes, more often I just wing it. The ziti I mentioned was an improvisation on a recipe torn from the newspaper years ago-I changed up the tomato sauce to reflect my current pantry stores, and used the cheeses I had on hand. Same for the meat pie-I subbed bison burger for the beef, and mixed it with fresh carrots, frozen peas and brown gravy courtesy of Heinz. Both were simple, beautiful and delicious.
And the homemade Cheez-its? Well, I am a Cheez-it lover from way back (Extra Toasty for me, White Chedder for hubs). With a lot of cheese in my pantry and too much time on my (nub-like) hands, I tried a version from BrowneyedBaker.com. Wow. Remember what I said about me ending up plump at the end of this? These things will be largely responsible if that happens. (The six boxes of actual Cheez-its that I bought in a shameful fit of hoarding are now gathering dust, and are available for donation if anyone wants them. Some people buy toilet paper, some people buy Cheez-its. Priorities, I guess).
Right now I wish you same kind of the comfort I find when I'm surrounded by bowls, spoons, pans and sifters. We'll go to Weight Watchers together when this is all over, but right now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a batch of brownies to put in the oven.
This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News
Don't you wish you had some right now?
Using the good china
My Aunt Alice covered her furniture with plastic.
Kids today don't even know what I'm talking about, but anyone age 50 or older had at least one relative, perhaps even a parent, who covered their furniture with plastic. When we visited my aunt I would wander slowly around her living room, marveling at how untouched everything was. I sometimes sat down on one of the chairs and always jumped right back up again because I hated how my legs stuck to the plastic.
I never saw my aunt or uncle in that room. They were always seated around the little metal table in the kitchen, my Uncle Lenny in his wheelchair. I don't believe they ever went into the living room, not because Uncle Lenny's chair couldn't fit through the doorway , but because it was the "good room." I always wondered who was special enough to warrant a visit in living room. My aunt and uncle passed away years ago, and I'm not sure that special visitor ever arrived.
There seems to be a strong tendency not to use our "good" things--our mothers whispering in our ears not to ruin our "company" clothes or muddy our "special" sneakers. So we hold back from using them, because we want to preserve them for something even more special. But what are we saving them for?
Years ago, I read an article in which the author talked about people who never use their good china because they are preserving it for the next generation. She wrote "I've got news for you. Your daughter-in-law hates your china and will send it straight to Goodwill the minute you die." She recommended using the good china as often as possible and going to your grave with every last cup and plate broken in the service of a good time.
My mother gave us our good china when we got married. She was a woman who gave phenomenal parties and never cried over a broken dish in her life. So bearing all this in mind, my husband and I make a practice of using it--not every single day because we're lazy, but as often as possible for holidays and random events. We put it all into the dishwasher when we're done, even the Waterford crystal. Everything generally comes out fine.
And when it doesn't?
One less dish for somebody to send to GoodWill.
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport in 2015 and rewritten in January 2020
Chatting with a cowpoke,
thanks to Twitter
Twitter is my social media drug of choice. I have a Facebook account but I find Twitter more interesting for a number of reasons, one of which is that I converse and connect with people from all over the world. I follow people in Oman, Scotland, Mexico, and from around the US (including right here in Newburyport). We share news and jokes and pictures, and I get to learn about their lives and jobs in a way that I never could otherwise.
Recently I made the acquaintance of @Justacowpoke, and quickly became intrigued. He is a real-life cowboy, and I think it's safe to say that very few of us in this part of the world know any cowboys or what their job entails. I asked if I could write about him, and he very kindly agreed to answer some of my questions.
What should we call you?
Just call me Cowpoke, everyone else does. I'm 53 and I work in the feed yards of the Flint Hills of Kansas. I was born in Oklahoma and raised on a ranch. I left when I was 14 and later started working at feed yards. I've basically been doing this my whole life.
My job title is cattle manager. Cattle come to the feed lots after grazing, and then are sent from there for processing. My job duties don't really vary much, they mostly depend on the number of cattle in the feed yard. Late spring through early summer is the slowest time; we generally have around 3000 head in the pens during that time. Late July it starts to pick up, with yearlings coming in off the grass. The number of head will go up to 6500 or so.
Walk us through your day. My day starts at 4 am. I have my own place and ten of my own horses. I get up and feed my horses and the calves at home then I'll head to the feed yard and feed the horses I keep there, saddle them, and then eat breakfast. At first light I'll start riding the pens looking for sick cattle or lame ones, any that have problems.
After I'm done riding pens and gathering the sick cattle I drive them to the barn we use as the cattle hospital. I doctor them myself and make sure they are taken care of. Then I usually work new cattle, giving them their vaccinations and wormers and ear tags so they can be identified.
On days that we're shipping we have to get them down to the load-out and counted. Usually I will start loading them around 2 am.
I don't think of myself as having a job, it's just my life. Everyone I know in this part of Kansas is either a cowboy or a farmer. Most average people couldn't do this. You have to dedicate your life to it, because the cattle industry is 24/7. Cattle don't know what day it is, they get sick on holidays just like any other day. There are no days off, just off days.
What are your horses like? My horses are all cow-bred quarter horses that work for a living. I don't go pleasure riding like other people. My main mounts are named Naked, Afraid, Dirty and Nasty. I ride mares (female horses) exclusively because I find they have more grit than geldings. People who prefer geldings aren't smart enough to ride a mare, in my opinion. As far as a favorite, I don't really have one. They each have their own talents. Whichever one I'm riding that day is my favorite.
What's different about riding the feed lots? Riding the feed yard is a job that not many people want to do. It takes a different kind of cowboy. Most cowboys here are pasture or ranch cowboys. Ranch or pasture cowboys have more downtime. Feed yard cowboys are tied down to their jobs more. It's not easy for family time and that's why most of us are single or divorced. It's also a very physical job and I've been beaten up quite a bit over the years.
Have you seen any change in your industry in recent years? I haven't seen any real effect of attitudes against beef in my job. There's always a great demand for quality beef throughout the world, and beef by-products are used in many other ways and industries.
How does social media and cowboy life intersect? I myself only have Twitter and Instagram, which I don't get on very much. Twitter lets me converse and cut up with people everywhere, it's just something to take a break from life for a few minutes.
What would tell someone who wants to be a cowboy? In my opinion you are either born a cowboy or you're not. A cowboy is someone who's passionate and loyal about what they do. There are people in this world who don't even realize they're cowboys, and plenty more who think they're cowboys--but aren't.
Final question-favorite cut of beef? A good ribeye.
Many thanks to @Justacowpoke for sharing with us. This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News
Photo by David Archibald
Mothers, sons, and the importance of potato chips
By Marilyn and Hunter Archibald
Today we have a guest columnist, the person who gave me my first big break and with whom I am more than happy to share the spotlight-my son, Hunter Archibald. Several years ago he created a blog ("harchieblog"), which covered breaking food news, especially as it concerned Doritos Locos Tacos.
His blog was wonderful, actually, extremely witty and engaging. I read every post, um, hungrily, and remembered the old days when I too wrote engaging things (or at least MY mother thought so. And the circle of life continues).
So like anyone wishing to get published, I sent an exploratory email accompanied by my review of Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips Dipped in Milk Chocolate. And the editor, under the kind of duress only a mother can exert, published my submission. The rest, as they say, is history. Thank you, darling. I still owe you that carton of Doritos Cool Ranch, and I promise, it's coming right along. I thought my three or four faithful fans might be interested in this early writing, so as Hunter says below, without further ado, Harchieblog, featuring mom:
Reader submissions (literally my mom is the only person who reads this blog)
Posted on December 4, 2014 by Hunter Archibald:
I'm in a tough spot here. I received an email from my mom recently with an unsolicited blog post. Not sure how to feel about this. It is very nice to have engaged readers. It also likely means that the majority of my page-views are coming from my mom. Not exactly the lucrative age 20-30 male demographic.
We hear a lot of talk about "brand" these days. So much so that there are several levels of sarcasm built into the word at this point. Over the course of several months we have watched the harchieblog brand grow exponentially--you were with me in the Philadelphia Airport that lonely night and you were there every time I got a Panera 'You Pick Two'. I am hesitant to post reader submissions because I don't want to alienate the loyal harchiebrand I have accumulated.
This brings me back to my mom's email. In it she wrote, "You DO not have to post this if you don't want to, and I'm not going to besiege you with reviews. I just had fun writing this." Um...has a mom ever said something like this and not expected it to happen? I've had a couple other requests for posts--nothing eye-catching--but this is thus far the most compelling submission because of its completeness and mostly because my mom will be sad if I don't post it. My hands are tied. If the blog dies, it dies. Without further ado:
Product Review: Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips Dipped in Milk Chocolate
Imagine the best milk chocolate you've ever had, melting on your tongue. Now add salt, and follow with the crunch of a potato chip. These are Lay's Wavy Original Potato Chips Dipped in Milk Chocolate, certainly one of the best snack foods available today. I don't quite understand how Lay's has pulled this off, because ruffled potato chips are a miserable old-school pretender bringing up the rear in the brave new world of artisan chips. However, enrobing them in chocolate that taste like the chocolate that you pick off of Dove Bars and eat by itself (which never tastes the same as Dove Chocolates, which are always a sad disappointment) brings them to a taste level one would not have though possible. In addition, the chips stay fairly crisp. Someone should win a Nobel Prize for this.
The chips are packaged in rather small bags, which I think makes sense. It would be very easy to devour an entire bag in one sitting, so snackers should be protected from themselves by limiting their access somewhat. My suggestion, if you can manage it, is to enjoy just a few with a glass of moderately good champagne, savoring the entire experience.
Oh heck, what am I thinking? Go ahead and eat the whole bag at once standing in front of the cupboard. We both know you're going to.
Marilyn Archibald, guest columnist
Hunter's review: B. It's not terrible, honestly. It reads too much like an English paper, but there are some bright spots, like the reference to Dove Bars. The choice of topic is solid, (those chips are fire, for the record.) I am also grateful for having a devoted reader. A page-view is a page-view, so thanks mom. Love you.
For the record, Hunter ended this blog post with a graphic of a jumping shark. Marilyn Archibald (firstname.lastname@example.org), his mother, still feels that she only enhanced the harchieblog brand.
This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News, August 2017
Running hot and cold
Baby, it's cold upstairs.
Seriously, I mean it's actually cold. At the risk of being known as a total crank, I am admitting here and now that we don't use the heat on the second floor of our house. We also open the window before we go to sleep. That morning when it got to 12 below? It was a brisk 43 degrees in our room when we woke up. Believe me, you don't linger when it's time to get out of bed in temperatures like that. You move very, very quickly.
It's not that I don't like to be warm. I adore being warm. I keep a heating pad on the couch, and use it when I watch television. There's a corner in the kitchen that we all fight to sit in front of where the heat pours out of the register. I am the queen of hot baths, and in the winter I live for my heated car seats and, lord help me, the heated steering wheel (it came with the car, I swear. I didn't even want it!)
So why the polar temperatures upstairs? I'm going to let our guest speaker Herman Melville explain: "...if the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed...you feel delightfully...warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal." (from Moby Dick)
So, I don't sleep in a cold bed; I sleep in a warm bed in a cold room. Herman also says: "...truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast." Thank you, Herman, that was brilliant (but your books are mad long; have you thought about a little judicious editing? Just sayin').
I blame/credit my mother for this. According to her, as an infant I never slept so well as when I was swaddled warm and tight, napping in my baby carriage. Outside. In the winter. Can you imagine what would happen if you tried this now?
Me (sleeping blissfully): ZZZZZZZZZZ
The police (entering noisily): We've had a report of a baby left outside. Ma'am you're coming with us (hustling my mother out).
Me (woken up and brought inside): WAAAAAAHHHHHHH!
Of course, there are those who aren't completely onboard with the polar express. Among them are certain young people who occasionally live here and share our last name; okay, our kids. My older daughter raved enthusiastically about how warm the dorms were when she went to college. My son had the temerity to turn the heat on upstairs when he visited over Thanksgiving. My youngest grumbles and uses a space heater on her feet when doing her homework. She sleeps underneath a stack of comforters that would crush the average person. Hah, she's nearly eighteen, so the time she can call DCF on me is almost up. It's character building, kids.
I freely admit that my icy sleeping arrangements are not for everyone. And let's all agree right now that street folks should be inside when the weather turns very chill; cold isn't optional for them. However, I think the weather and news people have turned many of us into complete wimps when it comes to cold temperatures. "WE'RE DOOMED, DOOMED!" they roar when the temperatures hit negative territory. "DON'T EVEN CONSIDER LEAVING THE HOUSE! IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY WIPED OUT THE BREAD AND MILK AT MARKET BASKET, IT'S TOO LATE!" Doing a man-on-the-street interview during the recent cold snap, one reporter I heard sounded distinctly miffed that anyone was outside at all, let alone a few people who professed to actually like the weather.
Because, just like Melville said, it is the contrast that makes it enjoyable. Most of us never have to be cold if we don't want to. We can stay inside almost perpetually. The average winter jacket is warmer than what Sir Edmund Hillary wore to climb Everest. But it doesn't get below-zero cold around here very often or for long, and it is a opportunity to see what those temperatures feel like, to see how many layers you have to put on to be the warm spark in the arctic crystal.
I doubt I will convince others to emulate my sleeping habits, and that's not my intention anyway. Because fortunately, my soul mate and life partner, otherwise known as my husband, shares them completely. And so we sleep like rabbits in a burrow, warm and snug, our noses just a little chilled.
This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News
Saving Jersey-and helping NEER
By Marilyn Davis Archibald
I first met Mary Martin in 2010 in the parking lot of the West Newbury Food Mart. She had her rescue pony Boo in a portable corral, and was passing out fliers about a horse rescue she was involved in called NEER, short for New England Equine Rescue. This was a pretty awesome sight to my horse-loving 12 year-old daughter. Soon Tess was volunteering at NEER. The stable was rundown, the fences more a suggestion than a requirement, but there was a feeling of warmth and purpose in the barn.
The volunteers at NEER cared for an assortment of horses, ponies and donkeys, some of which had been neglected or abused. Not long after Tess began volunteering, a scruffy Haflinger pony called Jerseygirl arrived at the farm. Haflingers are small sturdy horses of Austrian origin with a reputation for being headstrong.
Jersey had been rescued from a large horse auction in New Jersey, hence her name. She was not beautiful. She was as fat as a barrel and her tan coat was dull. And yet...there was something about her. A look in her eye. A hint of what she might become. Tess fell hopelessly in love with her.
So, Jersey became ours through adoption, and we quickly learned that the Haflinger reputation for being strong and opinionated was not a myth. Jersey thought nothing of barging through gates, fences, or stall doors. She would refuse jumps or buck just because she felt like it. But over the months, a different pony began to emerge. With Mary as Tess and Jersey's cheerleader, the hours of riding and training, good food and grooming began to pay off. The Jersey who emerged in the spring of 2011 with a dappled golden coat, who was trotting and cantering with at least some reliability (she could still be a devil, just less frequently), was a far cry from the nondescript animal that came to NEER less than a year before.
But for every lesson that Tess taught her, Jersey had just as many lessons of her own to teach. Lessons about persistence and commitment in the face of difficulty, lessons about believing in something when others do not, lessons about hard work and unconditional love.
These are the lessons that Mary Martin, now president of NEER North, lives every day. When the news broke several years ago that NEER would need to find a new location, no one believed that Mary would be able to acquire the farm on Ash Street in West Newbury that had been on the market for several years (myself included). The asking price was too high. A donor who pledged a significant sum had second thoughts. There were too many uncertainties for a bank to commit itself.
And yet, somehow, it happened. Those lessons about persistence and commitment, about believing in something when others do not, paid off. There may have been some actual magic involved too, but however it happened, NEER is now housed at 52 Ash Street in West Newbury. Lovely as it is, the property needs work and the foundation of the barn needs repair. It costs approximately $300 a month to care for each animal. Volunteers do amazing work, but it still costs money to rescue horses.
We no longer have Jersey, but she was re-adopted by someone who also believes the sun rises and sets on her. Before she was rescued, Jersey could easily have gone to slaughter. Instead she came to NEER and transformed several lives in the process. If this sounds worthwhile to you, please consider supporting the work of NEER with your tax-deductible donation. Yes, there are many charities clamoring for your dollars. But Mahatma Gandhi said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. Animals are not more important than people. But treating our animals well makes us better people, and maybe, just maybe, more likely to treat each other with kindness and love.
Jersey watches Mary Martin hanging her ribbons
I ran over a Charleston Chew wrapper the other day when I was biking with my husband, and it seemed both surprising and absolutely appropriate.
Who eats Charleston Chews these days? How do they still exist? They were the worst candy in the Halloween bag, the one you couldn't trade for anything. "Remember how you were supposed to put them in the freezer?" David said over his shoulder.
"I know! So they could ruin your teeth even faster!" I yelled as I crunched over the wrapper. We were both laughing so hard we almost fell off our bikes.
But hold on a minute.
"I LOVED Charleston Chews," stated one of my best friends (her name is being kept secret for protection) when I asked her opinion about them. "They were one of the yummiest candies, and putting them in the freezer only made them better!"
So there you have it. Candy Wars. One person's reject is someone's else's favorite kind. Candy is freighted with meaning and memory; synonymous with enticement, temptation, reward. Are everyone's childhood memories as stuffed with candy as mine? Probably, unless their mother was some kind of carob-eating, sprout-growing Communist. I'm pretty sure mothers back in my day worried less about the candy their kids ate because they just worried less about their kids, period. Too busy drinking Martinis and smoking. Or maybe that was just my mother.
At least once a week during the summer my friends and I would ride our banana seat bikes for miles along narrow streets with no sidewalks to go to Houlihan's, a greengrocer in North Reading with the world's greatest candy selection. The candy was in tall glass cases, and the big draw was the rock candy, because Houlihan's was the only place we could get it. Scarcity made it precious. We loved the clear sugary crystals-it was like edible quartz, even though it was a little sickening when you ate it down to the string.
And speaking of sickening, remember candy buttons? Those multicolor little dabs of candy on the paper strips? Don't confuse them with Dots, the sticky gumdrops that were guaranteed to rip out your fillings. Candy buttons were bad-tasting little things that left your mouth full of paper after you peeled them off the strip and for some reason, ate them. Also sickening but incredibly alluring? Nik-L-Nips (I had to look up the spelling on that one). Nik-L-Nips were tiny wax bottles filled with colorful sugar water that we chugged like jello shots. They tasted awful, and the wax got in your teeth. Good times.
Tootsie rolls were everywhere in my childhood, and I don't know why because I never really liked them. I'm not sure people like them now either, because I certainly step over a lot of them after the West Newbury Memorial Day parade and candy-throwing extravaganza. Kids will hurl themselves in front of a fire engine for a Blow Pop, but for a Tootsie Roll, not so much. Tootsie Pops are better, especially the chocolate ones and the old television ad with the owl and turtle finding out how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop is the GREATEST COMMERCIAL EVER. Just saying.
Herewith, a list of my personal candy winners and losers in no particular order:
Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies: Oh yeah. Delicious, caramel-y goodness that did very bad things to your teeth.
M & Ms: Obviously a yes. I didn't like the peanut kind until I got older; I was a dumb kid.
Milk Duds: Chocolate and caramel, meh (why did I eat so many, then? Ditto for Nestle's Crunch. I didn't even like them, but that never seemed to stop me)
Good & Plenty: Licorice coated in candy--Awk! Phoeey! WHY?
Wax lips: Again, why?
Bit-O-Honey, Squirrel Nut Zippers: The names are fantastic but I wasn't a fan of either
Turkish Taffy: Bad, but I ate plenty
Pixie sticks: YES PLEASE. MORE PLEASE.
Boston Baked Beans: Will someone explain this candy to me?
Candy cigarettes: Gasp. No story about candy from the sixties would be complete without candy cigarettes. They tasted terrible, but were fun to play with and pretend to, you know, smoke. Sorry, we couldn't resist the corporate control of our tiny minds. I read on Wikipedia that "candy cigarettes continue to be manufactured...and are now described as candy sticks, bubble gum, or candy." Candy described as candy... that makes about as much sense as real cigarettes.
These days I am not a huge candy eater. I prefer to invest my calories in homemade cookies or really good bread (no worries about gluten here, baby), and candy isn't a big temptation. The exception is Kit-Kats. I love eating them from the top down, layer by crunchy, chocolatey layer. One strip, I say. I'll just eat one. Okay, maybe two. Well now the whole bar's practically gone, so I might as well eat the third one...and the fourth.
This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News. Stock photo.
Gumballs, meatloaf--and grateful tears
A gumball machine made me cry yesterday.
A bank of gumball machines, actually, in the exit area of Shaw's. I've walked by them a thousand times, but they blend into the scenery. I'm also usually fighting with an overloaded shopping cart.
But yesterday I glanced over and there they were. This time I really looked at them, with their capsules full of colorful goodies, and I was thrown back in time to the days when my kids would jostle around my legs like puppies, and a quarter for the vending machine was everything to them. All parents know the siren song of gumball machines. They take our change and give out trinkets and candy. It's nice that charities get money from some of them but they're still responsible for a lot of supermarket meltdowns.
My kids would probably say I didn't hand out money for the gum machines often enough, but I hope they remember the times that I did. A handful of Sweet-tarts, a little ring, a tiny Pooh-bear eraser--there was once a day when these things were dear to them.
I love having grown-up kids with their own fascinating lives. But sniffling in the vestibule of Shaws, I wanted, just for a moment, to go back to a time when my kids found joy in those gumballs and little rings. I wanted to go back to a time when their warm sweet limbs were always wrapped around some part of me. Caught up in the comedy/drama of raising small children, when life can go from happy smiles to a screamfest in a matter of seconds, I didn't truly believe those days would ever end. But they did. And there I was, years later, blinking back tears next to a gum machine.
I also recently cried over my mother's meatloaf pan. It's a handmade earthenware loaf pan, pale yellow with mushrooms on the side. I bought it for her birthday many years ago when we were on a vacation in Nantucket.
I spent hours in one of the downtown shops picking out exactly the right thing. Nothing seemed good enough until I found the beautiful loaf pan. At the last minute I added a little cookbook called "The Country Art of Blueberry Cookery" because my mother adored blueberries. She loved both gifts and always used that pan for her meatloaf.
She passed away too soon at 78 after suffering a traumatic fall. After the funeral her friend Ruthie and I were numbly sorting through her things. The house felt so lifeless without her. Ruthie picked up the loaf pan and pressed it into my hands.This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News
"You take your mother's meatloaf pan right now. This is yours," Ruthie said firmly. "Nobody will treasure it the way you do." Both of us wiped our eyes, and I hugged the pan to my chest. Whenever I make meatloaf I pull out the pan and my throat tightens as I envision my mother as she looked on that Nantucket vacation, her platinum blond hair windblown and elegant. It didn't seem possible to me then that there would ever be a time that she would no longer be with me.
The blueberry cookbook found its way to my house too but lay unused for a long time. I picked it up recently looking for a muffin recipe. When I saw the inside front cover a small shock ran through me. There in my mother's looping cursive were the words "Nantucket, Mass, July 23, 1975." Coming upon her handwriting was a gift, albeit one that choked me up.
Gumball machines. A pan. A cookbook, and an inscription. Small things like this unlock memories of people we love. And if a few tears fall, it isn't always because we are sad. It's because at those moments we understand so clearly how lucky and blessed we have always beenThis article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News