What’s a Quaker anyway?

Over many years, and in many conversations about childhood and religion, I’ve been pelted with questions about Quakerism. Although I fomally abandoned my ties with Quakerism in middle adulthood, no longer able to accept even its dogma-free tenets, its echoes stay with me. Unlike the many lapsed Catholics I know, who feel burdened for life by their abandoned faith, I’m grateful for the worldview Quakerism granted me. Indeed, it still forms the basis of my own.

I recently stumbled on this ongoing series of short videos that, at first glance, seem to do a good job of introducing people to the history, beliefs, and practices of the Society of Friends, otherwise known as Quakers.

http://quakerspeak.com

Here’s a snippet from an essay-in-progress, “A Quaker Childhood”.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

I am twelve. I am sitting beside Cathy in Meeting for Worship, which is an hour of silent worship after First Day School. When I was small, I had to sit with Mom and Dad, but for the last couple of years I can sit wherever I want.

I don’t go to meeting every week, and I don’t have to stay the whole time. I know I can quietly get up and leave whenever I want to. Or I can read the book I have with me. The room is silent except for the muted sound of traffic on the street in front and the occasional throat-clearing of the adult worshippers. Mom and Dad are sitting in one of the facing benches at the front and Mom sometimes glances over at me. Some women come to meeting in slacks, and some come with their blouses sloppily tucked in their skirts. But Mom always get a little dressed up. Not too much, because people here aren’t fancy. Only one woman ever wears a hat — the same one who wears purple dresses. Today Mom’s wearing a light green dress with buttons up the front. Dad, of course, is wearing a suit. He always wears a suit.

Cathy is a year older than me with long blond hair. Like her mother, she often looks dishevelled. Just last week, on our way home from Meeting, Mom said “Not that it matters, of course, but I don’t know where Helen gets those clothes.” I am busily counting the slats on the Meeting Room ceiling when she pokes me in the side. You are not to whisper in Meeting, but she leans over and says, quiet as a breath in my ear, “I have to speak.”

We know, of course, that people speak in meeting when they feel moved to do so by the still small voice of God that is in every man. And woman. We have been led to believe that when God wants to speak through you, you will know it is God and the urge to share his wisdom will be irresistible. That’s when the early Quakers quaked. I do not believe God is speaking to Cathy. I am right beside her, and she seems quite her usual self. I shake my head at her: Don’t do it.

She starts to do a little quivery thing with her hands and feet. None of the bowed heads or pensive gazes into space seem to notice. I want is to leave. I can already feel my face getting hot with embarrassment. I open my book and pretend to read.

Everybody is looking at Cathy now. Some people smile. She just stands there looking vaguely angelic. I stare straight ahead.

“God is Love” she says in a loud voice. Then she sits down.

Some years later I watched the movie A Friendly Persuasion,in which a young Quaker boy in Meeting for Worship leaps to his feet and makes the same startling observation.

It was too late to ask Cathy where she saw the movie.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

“When old men plant trees…”

Every day I brace myself for more evidence that the world is slipping into an abyss of natural catastrophe and political/cultural disintegration. I’m rarely disappointed. I try not to fear for my grandchildren, but how can I not?

The Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing much faster than predicted. I live in a province that has just elected a blow-hard with a very shady past to lead it for the next four years, echoing that megalomaniac south of the border. And who knows where that will end? I watch in horror as the world order that began to take shape about when I was born hangs by a more and more fragile thread. I won’t go on. You get the idea.

Back at the farm…Jack is being treated for a metastasis of the kidney cancer that left him with a single kidney a year ago. Now the rogue cells have decided to take up residence in his lungs. He’s begun a medication that—if it works—he will continue with indefinitely. He’s tolerating it amazingly well for now, and life goes on as usual. Still, it’s cancer…an elephant that moves with you from room to room.

And so, it does feel somewhat inappropriate that what I’m mourning today is not western civilization or my spouse’s good health, but a tree.

When we first arrived here in 1972, most of the trees in open areas were elms, and most were dying. Dead and dying elms lined the river; the shade groves in the pastures were clumps of elms—no longer offering shade, as the sun poured between naked branches. A large stand of elms created a grey belt just at the bottom of the green hill. During our first year or two, the government paid landowners a stumpage fee for every dead elm they cut down. We were heating with wood then, and appreciated the government’s largesse.

For the next decade, volunteer elms began showing themselves. I’m not sure when we first noticed this one. It was obviously just beginning in this very embarrassing photo (from the early 1980s, I’d guess, from Robin’s age).

Here’s a quote from Shifting Currrents that I feel the need to share along with the photo:

“I tried to filter out what I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deal with—the messy basement, the muddy barnyard cluttered with equipment, the stack of firewood that refused to line up with the geometric precision of the neighbours’…”  

Oh dear. Several of those failings are pretty evident here. There must have been a lot of filtering going on!

 

familyslidescan185.jpg

Dutch elm disease, carried by the Dutch elm beetle, was on the wane for many years after the scourge of the 1970s. Long enough, in fact, for that little tree to become an elegant source of shade as well as a reminder of our long tenure in this place. When the disease reappeared about ten years ago, we contacted an arborist about saving the specimen we’d come to love. We’ve been having it inoculated every year since. Two years ago, we began to see some yellowing branches. Our arborist hit it with a double dose. Last year, a few more, another double dose. This year…I’m afraid we’ve lost the battle. The arborist is coming back in two weeks to give it another treatment, but I think it may be too late. The leaves are shriveling over much of the tree. The ground beneath is littered with leaves. It’s June.

 

IMG_0394It won’t break my heart to lose a tree. Over the years, we became so enthusiastic about planting trees that our yard is now heavily in shade. I’d be happy for a bit more light to break through. But this particular tree has become a symbol of survival against odds. At a time when I’d like to be reassured about survival on various levels, I hate to lose it.

In keeping with the Greek proverb, though, we’ll no doubt fill the hole it leaves.

“Society grows great when old men [yes, and old women too] plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit under.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

“When old men plant trees…”

Every day I brace myself for more evidence that the world is slipping into an abyss of natural catastrophe and political/cultural disintegration. I’m rarely disappointed. I try not to fear for my grandchildren, but how can I not?

The Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing much faster than predicted. I live in a province that has just elected a blow-hard with a very shady past to lead it for the next four years, echoing that megalomaniac south of the border. And who knows where that will end? I watch in horror as the world order that began to take shape about when I was born hangs by a more and more fragile thread. I won’t go on. You get the idea.

Back at the farm…Jack is being treated for a metastasis of the kidney cancer that left him with a single kidney a year ago. Now the rogue cells have decided to take up residence in his lungs. He’s begun a medication that—if it works—he will continue with indefinitely. He’s tolerating it amazingly well for now, and life goes on as usual. Still, it’s cancer…an elephant that moves with you from room to room.

And so, it does feel somewhat inappropriate that what I’m mourning today is not western civilization or my spouse’s good health, but a tree.

When we first arrived here in 1972, most of the trees in open areas were elms, and most were dying. Dead and dying elms lined the river; the shade groves in the pastures were clumps of elms—no longer offering shade, as the sun poured between naked branches. A large stand of elms created a grey belt just at the bottom of the green hill. During our first year or two, the government paid landowners a stumpage fee for every dead elm they cut down. We were heating with wood then, and appreciated the government’s largesse.

For the next decade, volunteer elms began showing themselves. I’m not sure when we first noticed this one. It was obviously just beginning in this very embarrassing photo (from the early 1980s, I’d guess, from Robin’s age).

Here’s a quote from Shifting Currrents that I feel the need to share along with the photo:

“I tried to filter out what I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deal with—the messy basement, the muddy barnyard cluttered with equipment, the stack of firewood that refused to line up with the geometric precision of the neighbours’…”  

Oh dear. Several of those failings are pretty evident here. There must have been a lot of filtering going on!

 

familyslidescan185.jpg

Dutch elm disease, carried by the Dutch elm beetle, was on the wane for many years after the scourge of the 1970s. Long enough, in fact, for that little tree to become an elegant source of shade as well as a reminder of our long tenure in this place. When the disease reappeared about ten years ago, we contacted an arborist about saving the specimen we’d come to love. We’ve been having it inoculated every year since. Two years ago, we began to see some yellowing branches. Our arborist hit it with a double dose. Last year, a few more, another double dose. This year…I’m afraid we’ve lost the battle. The arborist is coming back in two weeks to give it another treatment, but I think it may be too late. The leaves are shriveling over much of the tree. The ground beneath is littered with leaves. It’s June.

 

IMG_0394It won’t break my heart to lose a tree. Over the years, we became so enthusiastic about planting trees that our yard is now heavily in shade. I’d be happy for a bit more light to break through. But this particular tree has become a symbol of survival against odds. At a time when I’d like to be reassured about survival on various levels, I hate to lose it.

In keeping with the Greek proverb, though, we’ll no doubt fill the hole it leaves.

“Society grows great when old men [yes, and old women too] plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit under.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Not That it Matters

 

Over my first cup of coffee this morning, I said “I’m going to write a blog post today.” And so I am. I’ve had any number of fantastic ideas to build on lately, but of course they’ve evaporated.

It’s been a month (exactly) since I posted photos from that mavellous Mexican garden. Two weeks since we packed up our Mexican home. I’m still in the process of settling back into this one, and having to come to terms with the fact that my compressed nerves/disc problem is not going to be resolved quickly. I am simply going to have to try to enjoy a life of limited mobility for awhile yet. It’s getting old—as the young would say.

Which means, of course, there’s no reason not to get a lot of writing done.

IMG_5276

In fact, I have another writing project on the go, and I’ve been sharing bits of it now and then with fellow writers. I don’t know exactly what form it will take. “A collection of short memoir and essays triggered by childhood memories.” I thought of that last night before I fell asleep. It works for now.

Here’s a segment from a one of those essays, “Not That It Matters”.

“Look at Rose. Can you imagine wearing a plaid blouse with that striped skirt? Not that it matters.”

That was my mom, and it mattered.

Mom studied to be a secretary and married her high school English teacher at eighteen. He was an “older man” of thirty-one. She was a mother at twenty. He was a college professor at thirty-three. She was Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins.

The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.

It matters.

The embryonic cells that were to be my mother were already madly multiplying by the time my sixteen-year-old grandma married my not-much-older grandpa at the point of the proverbial shotgun. It was 1924 in the small, eastern Pennsylvania town of Bangor. The teen parents settled in with her mother, who ruled the roost with an iron, Methodist hand and cared for one, then two baby girls. The second was born less than a year after the first, prematurely; “small enough to fit in a mason jar” my grandma said, forever etching the image of a home-canned infant in the family’s collective consciousness.

Her dad worked in the rail yards and on a wrecking crew. Her mom moved from one textile mill to another, sewing the sleeves on blouses or the ears on toy bunnies. Neither ever went to high school. Her mom stumbled over the words in Disney Golden Books. The only reading material in their home was a Bible—and much later, the TV Guide.

Not that it matters.

Until…your husband is a university professor and you’re thrust into the world of PhDs and their 1950s wives—who are the grown daughters of foreign diplomats, or bankers, or school principals. Graduates of Home Economics programs or liberal arts majors from Radcliffe. Who don’t know what a wrecking crew is and never stop to wonder how the sleeves became attached to their blouses.

Until…the conversation begins over cocktails, and you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do with the olive on a toothpick, and the liquid between you and the olive is caustic. Then, the woman on your left says, “Where did you go to school?”

And you know it shouldn’t matter. Really. It shouldn’t.

So you blush, and look down. At least your clothes are so glad that your clothes are just right. And you say “Well, actually, I was just a secretary.”

Everybody nods and takes a sip of caustic liquid from their funnel-shaped glass. You try to see what they’re doing with the olive so you can do the same thing. And hopefully, get to eat it.

“No ordinary secretary,” says Dad with a twinkle, whenever the subject arises. “Smart as a whip.” Which he is, of course, too kind to say in the presence of an ordinary secretary. “She could have done anything, but she married me.”

You smile at him sweetly in those moments, but you know you couldn’t have. You’d have been a secretary. An ordinary one. You stir your drink with the olive.

The woman in the red dress has a teenaged daughter who made the cheerleading team, and the one with the navy-blue high heels thinks her two-year-old son is coming down with chicken pox. You wonder if they’re really all smarter than you, because you can talk about your kids, too.

Then the older woman—the one with the henna-red hair—carefully extracts the toothpick from the glass and plops the olive into her mouth, chewing slowly as though the morsel were a fine chocolate.

The library board is looking for volunteers, she says.

Is she looking at you? You look at your olive. Is it ready to be harvested? Is your toothpick far enough above the liquid to allow for a drip-free capture? You take another sip to be sure, careful not to wince.

You glance up and see a latecomer enter the room: a stout woman with cropped grey hair, wearing an orange blouse that is coming un-tucked from her too-tight lavender skirt. She speaks in a voice that is too loud.

You look down again at your smart grey suit with the black blouse and the pearls. Real pearls that were your grandmother’s.

Not that it matters, you say to yourself, carefully extracting the olive from the glass, sliding it off the toothpick with your front teeth, and chewing it like a fine chocolate.

Of course, it might not have been like that. You were a smart cookie, as Dad used to say before such language was considered demeaning. You probably figured out the olive on your own. And you never pretended to like gin. So I am taking liberties with your younger self in my attempt to understand you, long past the time when I could ask.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Notes from a garden

It hasn’t been a winter for blog posts, somehow. Not for lack of things to think about and write about, certainly not for lack of time, but rather for lack of energy and focus. Our stay in Mexico has been dominated this year by the search for an explanation and relief for my ongoing hip and leg pain which began long before we left home in December and continued to worsen during our first months here. After a couple of false starts, the explanation finally came a month or so ago with an MRI showing a badly herniated disc. The relief? I’m still working on that. The resolution won’t really come before I get home.

And so I have spent an inordinate amount of time this winter sitting. Sitting at my desk, but writing less than usual. Sitting in the comfy chair beside my desk, but reading less than usual. Somehow allowing the months here to pass without engaging in much, and learning to get around the city by car instead of on foot.

Today I am sitting in the sunshine (yes, I do know what’s going on at home), on the patio of a beautiful home on the hillside outside Guanajuato. We have come for the first time to the home of a friend who’s asked Jack to help her learn to use photoshop. I’m here to lounge in the sunshine and enjoy the views and gardens. I think there’s a meal in the offing as well.

I’m always in awe of such garden creations…thinking of my annual angst over where to put this year’s twelve tulip bulbs or how close together to plant the new shrubs beside the house. I just don’t have the spatial skill to imagine such a creation, and without a doubt I lack the commitment to bring it to fruition. So I’ll just enjoy the work of others. The thing about this particular garden that amazes me most is that it’s just a six-year old project–building of course on much existing vegetation.

There’s a soft breeze—cliche, I know, but it’s true—blunting the heat of the sun. I’m looking from one hilltop to another, with the city in between. Lately, my mind has been shifting homeward, but at this moment I could stay on this patio forever.

I won’t of course. In ten days, I’ll be winging my way home, glad to see kids and grandkids, looking forward to spring in northern Ontario, whenever it arrives. Perhaps it’s waiting for us to get home!

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

A Rosy Glow

A few days ago, I glanced up at the kitchen window here in our Mexican home, and I felt a sudden sense of rosy optimism. This is so unlike me that I looked again. Yup. Rosy.

“Jack. Look at the light.”

“It must be the sun.”

“But the sun has never been there before.”

Shrug. Who knows? The world is stranger and stranger…

But again–in the upstairs bedroom window. The same odd glow.

The windows looking out into the callejon, the very narrow alley that is our “street”–are textured glass, a nod to privacy in this densely inhabited neighbourhood. I slid the pane aside and gasped. There, on the house opposite, almost close enough to reach out and touch, was the source of that aura.

The underlying structure of all the houses here is a rough brick. For many families, that’s as far as it goes. Covering the brick with a smooth finish is costly and adds nothing structural. Until a few days ago, many houses in this barrio—including the one reflecting in our window—had a surface like this:

But it seems the city has a beautification program that involves free paint for the front facades of anyone who is willing to do the painting themselves. We’ve been noticing a general sprucing-up in this area of the city. Now it’s moved even closer to home.

 

 

The crews come in with ropes, pulleys, sprayers and brushes, and the work is done in no time flat, swinging among the overhead wires! The view from our upstairs window:

The view from street level:

I have a hunch the free paint is limited to colours on sale at the local Comex–but I don’t really know.

 

 

 

It’s a colourful city, up close and from a distance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Little Details…A photo show

Facebook reminds me that one year ago we were at home in Echo Bay, Ontario, experiencing late winter in the north for the first time in many years. We’d left our Mexican home in a frenzy, having just learned that Jack had a large, malignant tumor on one kidney.

The memory of the long two months, watching winter turn to spring and waiting for a surgery date, has faded a bit. But at that point, we didn’t know when—or even if—we’d be back here in our second home. Which makes last week’s successful event all the more satisfying.

It was last January when Foro Cultural, a small gallery here in Guanajuato, agreed to mount an exhibit of Jack’s photography—a coming-out of sorts for him. He’s been taking photos for as long as I’ve known him, and he’s shown some along with his pottery in local, northern Ontario craft sales. But this would be something altogether different: a one-man show, something of a dream-come-true. He’d selected the photos, printed them, had a local carpenter make wooden frames.

The show was scheduled for early March. We flew home in mid February. Mounting photos was far from Jack’s mind.

Last Thursday, the exhibit opened. Exactly one year late.

It was a grand success. Jack had decided to donate any proceeds to a local organization that provides scholarships for bright students who could otherwise not afford post-secondary education. Members of that group turned out in spades, along with quite a few others who’d seen announcement. To Jack’s delight, many bought photos.

Here’s a quick partial tour of little things around Guanajuato that we don’t notice: Detalles no Percibidos. The photos will be on display at least until the end of March.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Musical City

This year’s been off to a slow start for me–since I’ve been laying a bit low (and feeling sorry for myself) in with a bum hip. But spending last evening in el centro, first eating a scrumptious meal at Valadez and then wandering across the street for Strauss, Dvorak, and Mahler…I felt it was finally beginning. Not because I’m such a discerning consumer of music. I’m not. But because these weekly orchestral events are such a regular part of our lives here.

But they’re hardly unique. This place is awash in musical events. If we’d wanted to, we could have gone to smaller concerts, on Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday, and the preceding Sunday. Those are just the ones I know about,, and odds are all were quite good. There’s one this afternoon–flute, oboe, and piano–a fund-raiser for earthquake victims. And tomorrow, a local soprano who’s made a name for herself in Europe will be singing Handel with a string and flute ensemble from the orchestra. We may go to that one. It’s at a wonderful ex-Hacienda where the short Sunday concerts are followed by mingling, wine, and nibbles in the lush garden.

Something showed up in my in-box a couple of days ago informing me of several weeks of tributes to Leonard Bernstein on successive Tuesday nights in one of the small theatre venues in town. There’s no way you could do it all. Honestly, no way I’d want to.

But I didn’t want to miss last night’s season opening at the Teatro Juarez. That’s it, sparkling in the night. Built around the turn of the last century, it’s an architectural marvel. Apparently a lot of people didn’t want to miss it–it was a sell-out, as orchestra performances here often are.

 

Of course, music isn’t limited to concerts! Outside, between the restaurant and the theatre, wandering minstrels competed with wandering mariachis while we waited for the doors to open. The former, pictured below, were gathering their followers before beginning their tour of the city’s callejones. (I took a video–but wordpress won’t let me post it.)

It’s not limited to public spaces, Much of the time, if I’m so inclined, I can open my windows and listen to whatever is wafting–sometimes blaring–from the neighbours’ houses. I’m rarely so inclined.

 

Most weeks, the symphony plays in the city’s secondary theatre which—I’m told—has better acoustics. Even if that’s the case, as a fairly uncritical consumer of music, I’d go for the ambience of Juarez every time. (But I’d remember to take a pillow! Muchas gracias to our friend who left early last evening and offered me her seat-softener for the second half!)

The first of 4 balconies

 

 

 

 

 

Look up…way up!

 

 

 

 

All four balconies visible here.

There’s no concert next week–the orchestra is on tour. The week after it will be back in the Teatro Principal–where I guess the acoustics are better and I know the seats are softer, but there’s no real incentive to snap photos of the ceiling!

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Time…and Time Again

From Guanajuato, where we’re settled for the winter.

For quite a few years I’ve been receiving a “a-word-a-day” in my inbox—an unusual English word with a definition and etymology, some examples of its usage, etc. Sometimes I pay attention, but lately I’ve been deleting it without even looking. For some reason, a few days ago, I paused and clicked.

Senectitude: noun: Old age. From Latin senectus (old age), from senex (old). Ultimately from the Indo-European root sen- (old), which is also the ancestor of senior, sir, sire, senate, senile, Spanish señor, and surly (which is an alteration of sirly, as in sir-ly). Earliest documented use: 1796.

A friend of mine here in Guanajuato who’s been having some health problems told me that 2017 was, for her, the year to learn how to be old. As I look around at my friends, I guess that’s something we’re all working on. I hope we’re getting it right.

I’m happy to report that Jack is back to his old (read that how you will) self—energetic, enthusiastic, following doctor’s orders to “enjoy his good health while he has it.” He’s happily walking up and down the streets and callejones of Guanajuato.

Alone.

Because I’m a hobbling mess. I fear I have unwisely ignored my own senecitude, assuming that the persistent pain in my hip and leg that began sometime in late September would pass. Such things always do. Did. Not this time. It came and went, but it’s back with a vengeance. So, I’m not my usual Guanajuato self. Hardly walking at all. Learning to use Uber. I’m seeing a doctor here — a “traumatologist” (candidate for a-word-a-day?). I’m now taking anti-inflammatory medication and trying to avoid going up and down stairs, as instructed. Laughable, as those of you who’ve been here know. I’m also walking with a walking stick–hoping that its resemblance to a ski pole makes it appear that I’m suffering from some sort of athletic injury.

In my repose, I’ve been reading the science fiction novel Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, the January selection for a book club here in Guanajuato. About every third chapter I am reminded that I don’t understand time. I know it’s passing too fast of course. But you know that thing about time slowing down as you approach the speed of light? I just don’t get it. My son, Galen, who majored in physics, tried to explain it to me once. Something about two trains passing, going in opposite directions, looking at people through the windows. I think he was trying to make it simple, but it wasn’t simple enough for me and he gave up.

In Sparrow, I’m being challenged to understand how a generation can pass on Earth while inter-galactic travelers age only a few years. I don’t think I have to grasp the physics of it to grasp the novel’s gist, but I pause often to acknowledge my puzzlement.

I find myself remembering a podcast I listened to several times a decade ago, a 2008 TEDTalk by Richard Dawkins called The Strangeness of Science. In this 20-minute talk, Dawkins claims that humans have evolved to live in a middle sphere and therefore struggle to understand both the molecular and the cosmic. Understanding those domains contributes nothing to our survival as a species, he says. Indeed, acting on the understanding that solid objects are mostly empty space would only result in a lot of bruised bodies and sprained backs. That’s somewhat reassuring.

Of course, some humans have overcome that struggle, which is why I accept as fact that time slows down as we approach the speed of light. But I don’t understand it. Light. Time. Unrelated concepts in my stuck-here-on-earth brain.

I’d like to believe that if I tried hard enough I would get it. Maybe there’s still time. Maybe next time I see him Galen would like to try again…

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Grandpa Smith’s Cookie Cutters

I’m sure you recognize these cookie cutters: a faux-festive leaf, a doomed turkey, a stunted evergreen. At one time there was a Santa whose pack protruded from his back, giving him a distinctly hunch-back profile. I don’t know what became of him.

IMG_0324

Not to detract from their utility; they and an assortment of stars and bells and snowflakes did yeoman’s service, Christmas after Christmas, until I inherited the cookie cutters crafted by my Grandpa Smith for his wife, Grammy Smith, a century or more ago.  There must have been a dozen or so in all. Four have come to me: the tree, the Santa, the bird, and the outline of a wreath.

 

IMG_0321

I never knew Grandpa Smith. He died years before I was born. But I felt I knew him from the stories my dad told and wrote about his “pop”, a small-town grocer in eastern Pennsylvania in the early years of the the twentieth century. One of my most cherished possessions is a little book my dad wrote, called My Pop the Grocer, a collection of his memories of childhood during the years leading up to the Great Depression. In it, we learn that, in addition to being an astute businessman who fought the good fight against the reviled Chain Stores, Grandpa was an inventor and a putterer. If the cookie cutters are any indication, his imagination and joy of creating outstripped his grasp of function. Re-mastering the cookie cutters has become a December tradition.

For the past few years the cutters have been in the care of my daughter, Erica, so I’m a bit out of practice. But this year I have them back, and yesterday morning I spent an hour making Grammy Smith’s sugar cookies and Grammy Smith’s molasses cookies, using Grandpa Smith’s cutters. Oh yes–and I rolled them out on the slate rolling surface that was my mom’s. Even when I’m alone in the kitchen, Christmas baking is a family affair.

 

The trick in using these cookie cutters is to make a dough soft enough to roll thin but strong enough to keep the delicate figures intact. (Hence, Grammy Smith’s recipes; all those years ago she must have struggled to get it right.) Separating the cookies from the dough, after they’re cut, is an exercise in precision. It’s easier to peel the dough away from the cookie than to lift the cookie out–which is almost sure to separate Santa’s tassel from his hat, if not his entire head from his shoulders. By carefully extracting the dough that gets stuck in the cutter, he can often be stuck back together. The tree hangs together pretty well at the dough stage, but is likely to break at the trunk after it’s baked and if it’s baked too crisp, the lower branches break off. The bird’s tail and beak are always at risk. The wreath is no problem.

IMG_0315

 

IMG_0312

But they are a joy to behold, especially the jolly old elf. Whenever I use them, I think about the grandfather I never knew. They remind me that, despite our insane preoccupation with the accumulation and subsequent dispersal of “stuff”, the stuff that ties us to our roots is worth hanging on to…and passing on.

IMG_0323

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments