Thursday, November 26, 2020

Thanksgiving -- Part 1: Memories of Thanksgivings Past


Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I don’t suppose that’s always been true; as a child, Christmas was probably my favorite. Or maybe Easter. But in my adulthood, Christmas’s commercialism finally got to me. And for the past several years, I’ve celebrated Easter quietly, usually with viewing the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean with my beloved little Henry-Dog. Thanksgiving though, that one has always been about family – whatever that family may look like.

My earliest recollection of a Thanksgiving is at my Wallis grandparents’ home in Arcadia. I don’t particularly recall any of the food; what I remember best is the great spectacle my grandfather – “Grandy,” we called him – made of honing his knife prior to carving the turkey. He made that blade sing!

As for the rest of the meal, I’m sure it was pretty fabulous. My “Meemaw” was a great cook … and she believed in making sure everyone was WELL fed. Surely her biscuits were on the table, and maybe my mother’s dressing. I’m betting that dessert was split between Meemaw’s absolutely divine chocolate cake, which I always referred to as her “black cake,” and my mother’s amazing pecan pie. I couldn’t have been very old, maybe eight at the most, because my grandfather died before my ninth Thanksgiving.

And so Thanksgiving changed, somewhat. For a few years, my mother was in charge of Thanksgiving. And man, did she do it up! Appetizers like celery stuffed with cream cheese and olive, and you had to be sure not to get too stuffed on the stuffed celery, mainly because the turkey – a slow-roasted masterpiece that took HOURS and meticulous basting – awaited, as did her beautiful dressing, mashed potatoes and dreamy giblet gravy, green beans, other fresh vegetables … whatever she dreamed up. Plus that amazing pecan pie.

But then Thanksgiving changed again, when we started to get together with local farm families, first, under the shelter of a vegetable stand operated by one of my mother’s friends, later, further away from town in someone’s pasture off of Hog Bay Road. These were no quiet pass-the-plate affairs; they were huge potlucks reminiscent of a church supper, with one large flat-bed trailer holding all manner of scrumptious side dishes and a slightly smaller trailer laden with decadent desserts.

Oh. And a HUGE cauldron of swamp cabbage. Always a prime feature for me: swamp cabbage sure ain’t much to look at, but it is dee-licious. You may know it as “heart of palm” from the menus of fine restaurants or maybe you’ve seen a can on the shelf of a grocery store. But we know and love it as the vegetable that helped many a rural Floridian survive during the hard days of the Great Depression.

Swamp cabbage isn’t the only thing that set those pasture Thanksgivings apart, though! There was no turkey served at these affairs, just an appetizer of pork ribs and the main course of fresh, local Florida beef. On one particularly memorable Thanksgiving, I saw the most magnificent Tom turkey I’d ever seen before or since, parading around the gathering as if he knew that, among these cattlemen and their families, he would never be the hapless guest of honor.

As fun as those times were, they came to an end. I’m not really sure why – whether it was just our family’s participation that ended, or whether some of the key organizers were finding the gatherings more difficult to manage. At any rate, Thanksgiving changed again, and in this next phase I was in charge. I managed the turkey well, selected really wonderful appetizers and side dishes, including making my mother’s dressing for the very first time … but had to use gravy out of the Franco-American bottle, because I have never mastered gravy. And I still depended on my mother for that amazing pecan pie. Sometimes the gathering would be at my house, sometimes at my best friend’s house; and although Thanksgiving had by this time become a sort of blended-families affair, it just seemed right and natural.

As my parents grew older, large gatherings with heaps of food and turkey leftovers that lasted for days and days were no longer attractive to them. And so Thanksgiving changed yet again; once we ordered a complete meal from Publix, and once while visiting in North Carolina we actually had our Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant. After my parents moved away from Florida, Greg and I sometimes had dinner at his sister’s house and once at his niece’s house – and I was introduced to turnip and potato mash and pierogi.

In 2015 Greg passed away and as Thanksgiving approached I realized how very much I loved the holiday and yet how very much I dreaded that day without him. I invited myself to a close friend’s house, and she and I went for Thanksgiving dinner to the Dillard House in the north Georgia mountains. We enjoyed the experience so much that we did it again the following year!

And then Thanksgiving changed again, and I actually spent the day all by myself. I was supposed to have gone to the Thanksgiving Bluegrass Festival at Sertoma Youth Ranch. Had my dish – my mother’s dressing, of course – all picked out and everything. But as much as I love bluegrass music, and as much as I love Sertoma Youth Ranch, at that time I did not expect to see anyone I knew very well … and I realized that I needed to be with family, or with friends who are like family.

Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about? Evidently, it always was for me, even though I did not always truly recognize that fact. The past couple of Thanksgivings have been extremely quiet ones, spent with two very, very dear friends/neighbors, their dog and mine vigilantly waiting for a morsel to hit the floor, hilariously jockeying and maneuvering positions as they sized up which of us might be the messiest eater.

And here we are. Thanksgiving 2020. Where any of the above-described gatherings would not be particularly safe. I’ve been “sheltering” with cousins in North Carolina since the end of March, and so our small gathering, with the Maine Coon, Gwen, yowling for more servings of turkey and the Henry-Dog strategically parked underneath the table, was as safe as can be reasonably expected. The food was prepared by a couple of friends from our small circle, to be distributed among about a dozen of the circle. We all had our own Thanksgivings, enjoying artfully-prepared food in the safety of our respective homes.

If I’m honest, I missed the gathering, the assembly of family and friends who are like family. But this is not the first hard or unusual Thanksgiving of my life, and realistically speaking, it will not be my last. It … changed … is all, and I’m so proud of the friend who came up with the concept of a shared Thanksgiving that – for what is, hopefully, the one and only time – we did not share in each others’ company.

For me, personally, Thanksgiving will change again in 2021. But more on that in a future post …

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Cane Grindin'



“Our human capital stock is ready to get back to work.”

Kevin Hassett, economist, Senior Advisor to the Trump administration
Wow. That's cold.
Puts me in mind of a cane-grindin'. For those who don't know, this is how juice was extracted from sugar cane: Freshly cut and stripped stalks of cane were crushed in a roller mill, and the mill was powered by a mule tethered to a pole, as you see in the picture. The mule would walk in a circle, round and round.
Sometimes they'd tie a stick to the mule's bridle; the stick would have a carrot dangling from it, just out of the mule's reach. The theory was that the mule would keep chasin' that carrot and keep walkin' in that circle, round and round.
The mule would walk in that circle, round and round, until the farmer stopped him. Or until he just dropped dead.
(Cane juice is extracted differently these days. The process is automated, and even those who like doing it the "old-fashioned" way use a tractor or similar vehicle. Nowadays, if you attend an old-timey event and see an actual mule powering the mill, the demonstration is brief -- for what I hope are obvious reasons.)
Kevin Hassett, and plenty of others of his ilk, see the working person like that old farmer saw his mule: as stock. You, like that old mule, are supposed to chase that carrot -- your “carrot” is a vacation, or an end of year bonus, or retirement ... but Kevin Hassett is not going to care much if you just drop dead chasing that “carrot.”
I’d like to think we’re better than that. I was raised to believe that we were worth more than that.
Round and Round.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Teach Your Children Well


"In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught."

Baba Dioum, 1968

Monday, December 16, 2019

Pitt and Sylvan Springs


I love the backroads! If you’ve got a specific destination and a time-sensitive arrival is necessary, the Interstates are great for getting you there fast (until they’re not, but that’s another story for another time). But if I’ve got time to spare, I’m willing to let the road take me. Often there are great discoveries awaiting.

And that’s just how it was on my trip home after the last of my band’s Christmas With The Celts shows in the Florida Panhandle. Rather than heading north to catch boring I-10 for the trip east, and eventually south, I chose to head east on FL-20, a mostly two-lane highway that passes through places you’ve probably never heard of like Bruce, Ebro, and Blountstown.

About 20 miles east of Ebro, I stopped at a place I’d never heard of until quite recently: Pitt and Sylvan Springs. (Our band’s right-hand man Rob had briefly visited this place on his way out to the concerts, and the pictures he took were so beautiful I had to see it for myself.) It’s a small park managed by the Northwest Florida Water Management District; peaceful and mostly very quiet except for the sound of the occasional car speeding along Hwy 20.

My first short walk took me to Sylvan Spring.


Next I walked toward the confluence of Sylvan Spring Run and Ecofina Creek.



The spring run appears a little clearer and a little more blue than the actual creek. I paused here for quite a while, just enjoying the wild Florida beauty and the solitude.




There’s archaeological evidence that people have lived in this area since the Paleoindian Era (about 12,000 – 8000 B.C.). Ecofina Creek, however, got its name more recently. Muskogee people moving into Florida in the late 1700s used this region to cross the creek and thus called it “Ecofina,” which is their word for “natural bridge.”

Someone who’s far more educated as to ecosystems than I can you exactly what sort of ecosystem this is. To me, it just looks like “Florida.”


And this part of Florida got hit pretty hard by Hurricane Michael. Looks to me like Michael barreled right over Pitt and Sylvan Springs, because evidence of destruction is still everywhere … and the recreation area was actually closed for a while, for cleanup and to make the facilities safe for use again.



Still, nature goes on, as evidenced by this very young Sourwood tree.


Making my way back, I crossed the common area of parking lot and picnic shelters to take a look at the swimming hole created by Pitt Spring. I bet on a hot day this is a wonderful place to cool off! – even on this fairly chilly day it looked so inviting!


Again I took a long pause to stare into the mesmerizingly blue-green depths of the pool and to watch the little fish dart to and fro.




Turning toward the canoe dock, I came upon this little bog


before coming back to Ecofina Creek. I’m not a paddler, but a day on these waters sounds pretty appealing!


“Wistful” and “reluctant” are two adjectives that come to mind for describing how I felt as I turned back toward the car to resume the trip home. This was such a worthwhile detour!

Here's to the backroads!






Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Fake "War on Christmas"



Well, here we go. It's not even Hallowe'en yet, but we're skipping right over that one, and Thanksgiving, and Hanukkah, to jump ahead to the season of ... Whining about the "War on Christmas."

Lissen here, friends, if you personally have decided to be one of those "people [who] don't talk about ['that beautiful Christmas season'] any more" that is fine by me. I won't be among you, but I won't judge you.

BUT ... If you have stopped "[using] the word 'Christmas' because it's not politically correct," and for no other reason, then you give me a call. We need to have a talk about how you can stand up for yourself without walking on someone else. It IS possible to celebrate Christmas in all its magic and wonder and beauty, and to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, without apology ... and without trampling all over the rights of another person who wants to celebrate Christmas in their own way, or not at all, or in addition to another holiday.

Let me help you figure out how it's done. I know its' possible, because I do it. There is no War on Christmas Don't let ANYONE tell you otherwise.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Misty Memories of the Moon (and Beyond)


Earlier today I saw an NBC segment done by Tom Brokaw on the historic moon landing of Apollo 11. I cried all the way through it.


I don’t remember the start of NASA’s Project Mercury but do remember the seven astronauts becoming some of my earliest heroes outside of my own family. Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Alan Shepard, and Deke Slayton were an important part of this little girl’s life and imagination.

“As the crow flies” we lived a little over a hundred miles away from Cape Canaveral, the location of the space center. Situated as our house was on “Coon Prairie,” east of Arcadia, Florida, our family was actually able to witness the launches and we thrilled to see Alan Shepard become the first American in space and John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth.

I cried when my hero, Gus Grissom, was killed in a pre-launch test of Apollo 1. But by the time the Apollo project was launched, my early heroes had been sort of pushed aside by The Monkees and The Beatles. I had continued to follow the space program, just … not as enthusiastically.

Still, along with millions of other Americans, I kept one eye on the race to the moon. Seems silly now but I remember being quite fearful when Apollo 8, with Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, first orbited the moon – the moon, you’ll recall, shows us only one face and we’d never seen its “dark side.” “What if … ???” my young mind worried.

In July of 1969, I was eagerly preparing for a trip abroad, to spend a period of time studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music, to be followed by excursions across Germany and into Austria and France. All excitement for my own trip was set aside on July 20, though, as my family and I crowded around our black-and-white TV to witness men, who’d flown farther and higher than I ever expected to, set foot on the moon. "That's one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind." Neil Armstrong’s words stirred tears of pride and still thrill me to this day.

His courage, and the raw courage of all who’ve participated in the space program as astronauts, was and remains inspirational.

Because of my life-long residence in Florida, I feel very connected to the space program. I’ve been an eyewitness to some of its biggest – and its most tragic – moments. At Punta Gorda’s Charlotte High School, I learned of the explosion of space shuttle Challenger and went outside to see the weird vapor trail it had left. Class activities were suspended for the rest of the day as students and teachers grieved its loss.

Two and a half years later it was my good fortune to be visiting the Space Coast’s Palm Bay High School as Discovery launched its “Return to Flight” mission. Palm Bay High is located only 20 miles or so away from the space center’s launch pad and its teachers and students had been traumatized by witnessing Challenger’s explosion at such close range. Everyone seemed to be holding their breath as we convened on the roof to watch Discovery’s launch. Cheers erupted as it safely exited the atmosphere … followed by many tears shed, a mixture of relief for the current mission and grief for the failed one.   

I stayed after the closing bell at Lehigh Senior High School (Lehigh Acres) to watch alone as Discovery took my old hero John Glenn on a journey to become the oldest American in space. And I may have cried.

I may cry again tomorrow, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s “one small step.”  

Thanks for the memories. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

'Ricans


Recent events have brought a years-ago experience to mind.

My husband Greg and I used to be vendors at The Big E, a huge event in Western Massachusetts that I’d describe as the combined state fair of the six New England states (New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island). The fair had all the rides and “fair food” and agricultural exhibits of most state fairs, but there was also a strong cultural emphasis on the unique “character” of each of those six states.

For me personally, my month-long residence in Western Mass was a different type of cultural experience. Not only was I immersed in a New England “lifestyle” that was foreign to this native Southerner, but for the first time in my life I was exposed to strong pockets of immigrant culture -- whole neighborhoods where to varying degrees the “mother” culture and language were preserved. Russia, Ireland, Italy, and Puerto Rico were strongly represented; there were even weekly newspapers in Russian and Spanish. I thought it was pretty cool, and it certainly was very interesting.

One of the many friends I made over the years was Ricky, a young man who worked at the station where UPS and FedEx packages were delivered. Greg met him first, and was very impressed with this hard-working individual who always took vacation time from his principal occupation to work The Big E. Ricky wanted to make extra money for all the reasons that all of us want to make extra money: the dream of marrying “my girl,” one day owning a home, and of course just everyday Life. He always had a smile on his face, it seemed, and as his friendship with Greg developed, he seemed to take extra-special good care of us. After Greg took ill, and was no longer physically capable of picking up the parcels himself, Ricky even took it upon himself to deliver our shipments because he knew how hard it would be for me to leave our booth.

When the shipment station closed down for the day, Ricky would sometimes come by to hang out a little, maybe drink a beer, and we got to know him even better. It was during one of these times that I learned something from him that has stayed with me ... and probably -- hopefully! -- will the rest of my life. Because he appeared to be Hispanic, and knowing that there was a sizable Puerto Rican population in the area, I asked Ricky if he were Puerto Rican. He smiled at me, then emphatically said, “I’m ‘Rican! I’m ‘Amer-rican!” He then went on to explain that, while both of his parents had been born in Puerto Rico (which is, of course, part of the US and has been since 1898), he had been born IN America (one of the 50 states); he was all-American and of Puerto Rican descent.

The pride with which he made this declaration filled my heart with pride as well.

I think back on Ricky today, remembering his ambition and industry, his work ethic, his willingness to go above and beyond, his smile, his friendship ... most of all his pride in his American citizenship. “My” America is richer because of him.