On Sunday I made strawberry-rhubarb crisp. I’m not much into cooking these days because cooking causes dirty dishes. And I’m not into washing dishes. But I had three reasons for making the strawberry-rhubarb crisp.
One: Rhubarb is plentiful. If you have any growing in your garden, you know what I’m talking about. You ask people, “Say, could you use some rhubarb?” If they say no, you ask, “Are you sure? I’ve got plenty.” You bring bags of rhubarb stalks and set them on the lunch table in the breakroom or the coffee table in the church hall. I don’t grow rhubarb, but I never have to buy it in the grocery store (where I recently saw a tiny package of it for two dollars and change). I have connections. I know people desperate to share their abundance of rhubarb.
Two: I found a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb crisp in Southern Living that I could make in my Le Creuset Heritage Tart Tatin Dish. (I had no idea the dish had such a fancy name until I looked it up to get the name right.) I bought my Heritage Tart Tatin Dish because it was orange and sexy. These are, by the way, two good reasons to buy a kitchen implement. Another rule for buying a kitchen implement is that it should serve two purposes. (I’ve been known to break this rule, but only if the single-use implement will get lots of use, like my garlic press, lemon squeezer, or mango slicer.) Until last Sunday, I had only used the orange, sexy Heritage Tart Tatin a few times in the last ten years to make jalapeño corn bread. So, making the strawberry rhubarb crisp gave my dish dual-use status. It’s not just another pretty tart dish.
Three: My grandmother Olive made the best strawberry-rhubarb pie or any other kind of pie. I haven’t had a good piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie since I lived with her. I don’t bake pies. I cheat and make crisps because I don’t know how to make crusts. Grandma Olive made pie crusts from scratch, and they were as a pie crust should be–flakey, tender, and golden brown. She also knew her way around the fillings. She never made a pie with canned fruit filling. Baking a strawberry-rhubarb crisp was the closest I was going to get to Grandma Olive’s pie version.
The crisp turned out well. I served it with whipped cream or ice cream. The filling is equal parts strawberry and rhubarb, so it’s tart, even with the cup of added sugar. You have to like tart if you’re going to eat something made with rhubarb.
If you have your very own Le Creuset Heritage Tart Tatin Dish and you want to make the recipe from Southern Living, you’ll need to adjust the quantity of rhubarb and strawberries. I used three cups of each, instead of four because I was worried my tart dish wasn’t deep enough. (Please, no jokes about my shallow tart dish.) I didn’t reduce the amount of sugar or any other ingredient. Also, I didn’t have any chopped roasted salted Marcona almonds, so I used some chopped unsalted roasted almonds. That makes this a healthy recipe. (As long as we don’t mention the brown sugar in the oat topping and the cup of sugar mixed in with the fruit.)
When I served the strawberry-rhubarb crisp, I thought of Grandma Olive. I miss her. She and Grandpa had a big garden with their own patch of rhubarb and strawberries. I wonder how much rhubarb they tried to foist off on friends.
I saved this recipe, and I’ll make it once a year in the early summer. I don’t want to strain my rhubarb supplier.
In March 1971, I turned twelve. That spring and summer I spent a lot of time singing the Coca-Cola jingle, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” a song about love and harmony. And in May of that same year, while I sat in a chorus of dandelions on a sunny day, I was in harmony with hundreds of them growing on the hillside in front of our weathered barn. Warmed by sunshine, surrounded by velvety yellow, and sitting with my best friend, I was in love with the world. As a child, dandelions were my favorite flower.
ButI didn’t know their name was derived from the French phrase dent de lion meaning tooth of the lion, most likely because their serrated leaves look like teeth. I thought dandelions were named after lions because their round, shaggy, golden flowers resembled a lion’s head with a fluffy mane.
On that May afternoon, with my strawberry blonde hair topped by a crown of braided dandelions and a face freckled by the kisses of sunbeams, I watched butterflies and bees flit from golden bloom to golden bloom. I was fairy princess meets flower child.
But I didn’t know that dandelions were flowers—like asters, daisies, and sunflowers, all belonging to the same family, Asteraceae. That by the 1800s people could buy different varieties of dandelion seeds from catalogs to plant in their gardens. That Emily Dickenson wrote a poem about them and made mention of them in three other poems. I’d been told they were weeds.
My friend, wearing her own crown of dandelions, had brown hair, hazel eyes, and just a sprinkle of freckles across her nose. We plucked the flowers from the ground, choosing tall ones, and braided their thick, flexible stems, making necklaces to match our crowns. She, too, was fairy princess meets flower child.
But I didn’t know that a dandelion’s thick, hollow, supple stem had evolved to withstand strong winds. That our plucking the tall flowers would cause the next dandelions to grow shorter, hoping to avoid being picked. That when a lawn mower lopped off their flowers before they could seed, dandelions countered by sending new blooms to squat closer to the ground, hoping to keep their heads below a mower’s blades. I didn’t know dandelions had the survival skills of a toothy lion on an African plain.
As I plaited dandelion stems, a white, milky sap stained my fingers, making them sticky. I knew it wasn’t poisonous, and that it would wash away with soap and water.
But I didn’t know the substance was latex, a bitter tasting compound that protects dandelion roots from insects. I didn’t know dandelions were edible. That their leaves could be eaten in a salad and had more nutrients and vitamins than the spinach that gave Popeye the strength to defeat Brutus. That their roots could be dried, roasted, and made into a coffee-like drink. That their flowers could be made into tea or wine. That dandelions had been used for medicine, alleviating diseases caused by deficiencies in calcium, iron, and vitamins A and C.
I’m not sure what my friend and I chatted about that day. But I was crazy about the boy next door, and she was crazy about a boy she would eventually marry. We probably gossiped about those boys, our friends, and summer plans. And talked about the latest fashions and hairstyles because each of us wanted to fit in at the middle school.
But I didn’t know dandelions were considered a blight upon lawns because my parents never treated our yard with herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. I didn’t know that in the 1800s wealthy Americans would admire the expansive green manicured lawns of wealthy Europeans and would copy their style. That with the invention of the first mowers in the 1830s, middle-class Americans would soon covet green manicured lawns, a nod to status and belonging. The dandelion slid from grace and became a weed.
My friend and I rubbed dandelions under each other’s chins to see who liked butter, a childish game for a pair of twelve-year-old girls who talked of boys and love.
But I didn’t know twelve was the cusp between youth and young adulthood. That the buttery-colored powder was pollen, a delicacy for bees, butterflies, and insects. That dandelion blooms were masses of tubular florets, an early spring smorgasbord for hungry pollinators while they waited for other flowers to open for business.
Dandelions didn’t grow in our next-door neighbor’s yard. They treated their lawn every year with a powdered chemical. If someone had asked my twelve-year-old self to explain why my parents didn’t do the same, I would’ve chalked it up to money and time. The neighbors had more income, so they could afford weed killer. They had less than an acre of land, and my parents had two point two acres. It would’ve taken more money and time to kill the dandelions in our yard.
But I didn’t know my parents weren’t conforming to a neighborhood standard of weed-free lawns. That the neighbors had to keep treating their lawn every year. That dead shriveled leaves of poisoned dandelions left small barren spaces where new dandelion seeds, blowing in on a wind like Mary Poppins, could settle and thrive. That dandelions could regenerate from parts of their surviving roots. That if the neighbors stopped treating their yard, dandelions would once again crowd their lawn.
On the day I sat in the dandelions, I knew my great-grandfather had immigrated to America from Sweden in 1869. That other relatives had emigrated from Ireland, England, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, and Hungary.
But I didn’t know that dandelions were immigrants too. That the first wave of dandelion ancestors came over the Bering land bridge and settled as far east as the Great Plains. That the second wave arrived in the 1600s, carried across the Atlantic by European settlers as an herb used for medicine and food.
Later in the spring the dandelions would go to seed, and I would fill my lungs with air, hold the seed head in front of my mouth, and blow as hard as I could. If I dispersed every seed, I would earn a wish, and I always wished the boy next door would be my beau.
But I didn’t know the feathery seeds I blew into the air in the service of love would fall to earth at an angle, and the barbs along their edges would hook into the soil. The seeds, like me, would wait to see if their wishes would come true.
My friend and I watched my orange-and-white cat, Napoleon, hopelessly swat at butterflies as he lazed nearby in a layer of gold. At best he was an indifferent hunter, preferring to take his meals from a can and to leave nature’s creatures unharmed.
But I didn’t know that Napoleon had the good fortune to lie on an untreated lawn. That people, pets, birds, and insects could be harmed by chemicals. That a woman named Rachel Carson had written a book called Silent Spring. That as an adult I would be pressured into treating my lawn. That I would use my children and pets as excuses to avoid having herbicides and pesticides sprayed on my lawn. That I would dig hundreds of dandelions by hand to avoid chemical treatments. That after decades, I would learn that dandelions are early pollinators and that I would stop digging them.
The sea of dandelions that flooded the sunniest part of our lawn every spring, made my young heart zing. From that sea I picked buckets of bouquets, braided countless crowns and necklaces, buttered scads of chins with pollen, and blew thousands of fuzzy seeds into the air. But I remember best that day in May 1971 when I was twelve, and my friend and I sat among the waves of gold and talked of love while plaiting crowns and necklaces. While the butterflies and bees gathered pollen in harmony. And I wanted to teach the world to sing.
Today is Cabela’s birthday. She’s 14 years old. In dog years that’s about 83—if I calculate it based on the new formula. When I was young, I would’ve multiplied her age by 7, and she would’ve been 98. But today Cabela’s age is calculated using new math. She likes that.
Her full name is Cabela Grace. She was named after Cabela’s, the outdoor and sporting goods store, because we bought her near the store. Once, when she was a puppy— and having the crazies—she ran into the wall instead of down the hall. I added Grace to her name. She has many nicknames: Snickerdoodle, Range Rover, Ichabod, Sneaky Pete, Kadiddlehopper, and Our Bell or Bell, but never Bella.
When my son comes to visit, she likes to have a silent moment with him. He puts his face near hers, and she looks at him intently. Sometimes my son speaks to her, and sometimes it’s just a wordless exchange. He was the one who picked her up out of a small pen and held her. She nuzzled under his chin. He asked us to take her home. So, we did because who can resist an eighteen-year-old boy who adores a chocolate standard poodle puppy. I believe Cabela remembers her first snuggle with him. I will argue with any animal psychologist who says this couldn’t be possible.
Cabela was born on a farm an hour west of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. The couple who owned the farm raised dogs. Emmet raised Labradors, and Ruth raised standard poodles. They did not raise labradoodles. Hunters often bought Emmet’s Labradors. But sometimes a hunter bought one of Ruth’s poodles. Some hunters are smarter than others. Cabela would’ve made a good hunting dog. As a puppy she pointed at birds, had a soft mouth, and loved being outside in any kind of weather.
If Cabela were a literary character, she would be Bartleby the Scrivener. She’s stubborn and if she could speak, her catch phrase would be “I would prefer not to.” She prefers not to enter the vet’s examination room, but she does and she’s good and the vet loves her. She prefers not to stop eating her sister’s dog food, but she’ll stop if I take the dish away. She prefers not to move if she’s settled into a spot, but if I pick her up, she’ll go along with it.
The vet once told me that Cabela had the heart rate of an athlete. “That’s because she is an athlete,” I said. Cabela used to do hot laps around the house when she got excited about a dog, a car, or a delivery truck that passed by. She’d run like a greyhound, circling the house four or five times. Or she would approach our pine tree and launch herself six feet into the air along the tree’s trunk. When she played fetch, we had to lob the ball up into the air, so it would bounce off the ground because she liked to leap up and catch it in her mouth. But like all athletes, the laps became fewer and slower and the leaps up the side of the tree become shorter and shorter. And last summer my husband and I decided we had to toss the ball low to the ground. Her old hips have sidelined her. She likes her walks short and her naps long.
Cabela has a signature look. She’ll give us the puppiest puppy eyes, raising one eyebrow, then the other, alternating them up and down, slowly, melting our hearts. This is how she asks to go outside or for a walk or a ride or for supper or a treat.
She’s a daddy’s girl. She’s a loving girl. She kind to her sister, Ziva, and she loves our grandchildren. She’s a good dog. And that’s what we should all hope to be at our best.
If you’re not familiar with the concept of No Mow May, the idea is to let your grass grow in May so early-blooming plants—like dandelions, common violets, buttercups, and wild strawberries—can flower and provide appetizers for bees, butterflies, and other insects until the main-course flowers bloom in June. My husband agreed to keep his lawn mower idled for May.
We live in northern Wisconsin at the western tip of Lake Superior, and we’ve had a cold May, so it’s taken a while for the flowers to spring from the ground. But last Tuesday small wild violets bloomed on the hill in our front yard. I used one of those nature apps where I snap a picture of a plant that I want to identify then submit the picture. A second or two later the app usually tells me that it doesn’t have enough information to make a conclusive identification, but it offers me a likely suggestion. The app suggested the violets in our yard were “most likely common violets.”
Some humans label the sweet, beautiful, delicate violet—that looks like it could be worn as a hat by fairies—a weed when it grows in lawns. But bees, butterflies, and other insects consider violets a food source and collect pollen and nectar from them. And dandelions weren’t always considered weeds: They were once prized for their beauty and medicinal benefits.
I wonder what the bees, butterflies, and insects would call the herbicides and pesticides humans spray on their food. I bet they’d liken it to the tale about the Romans sowing salt in the fields of Carthage after the Third Punic War so nothing would grow. Bees are dying off and while it’s not certain, it’s most likely connected to the use of pesticides. Unfortunately, studies have also found wild birds are profoundly impacted by the use of pesticides.
When the weather is cloudy or rainy most violets close their flowers and tilt them toward the ground to protect their pollen and nectar from being washed away, saving it for the pollinators that need its nourishment. Nature has designed an amazing ecosystem. Humans need to understand how it works, so we can appreciate and preserve it. Because while the violet can defend itself against rain that wants to wash its pollen and nectar away, it has no defense against being assaulted by pesticides.
Today I found wild strawberry flowers and two small, brave dandelions blooming in our front yard. Impressive because it was a cold weekend. I didn’t get down on my hands and knees to look for butterfly larvae on the leaves of the flowers, and I haven’t seen any bees yet. It’s probably too cold for them. I can’t do anything about the frigid winds blowing off Lake Superior, but when the pollinators wake up hungry, their food is growing in our No Mow May lawn.
Remember how you always said, “The early bird gets the worm.” And I would answer back, “I don’t like worms” because I wanted to sleep until noon. I thought you’d like to know that now I rarely sleep past 6:00 a.m.
Remember how you always said, “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” And I would answer back, “I don’t care” because I wanted to watch the late movie on TV. I thought you’d like to know that now I usually fall asleep before 10:00 p.m.
Remember how you always said, “You can win more flies with honey than vinegar” when I was spitting mad and wanted to tell someone off. And I would answer back, “Vinegar is what she deserves” because I desired payback. I thought you’d like to know that now I believe honey is a better tonic.
Remember how you always said, “Turn the other cheek.” And I would answer back, “If I do, someone will just slap the other one” because I was hurt and didn’t want to forgive. I thought you’d like to know that now I try to practice the other-cheek philosophy.
Remember how you always said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” You were a widow scrapping by on a waitress’s earnings. But I wanted things, so once I badgered you into buying me a troll doll and another time a delivery pizza that you couldn’t afford. I thought you’d like to know I’m sorry, and that fifty years later I still have the doll. And the pizza didn’t taste good that night because I regretted my behavior before it was delivered. Best of all, I became good at saving money. You’d be proud.
Remember how you always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That was good advice. And I thought you’d like to know that after years of practice, I’ve gotten better. I could be such a wiseass when I was a teenager.
Remember how you always said, “Never trust a man who doesn’t like animals.” I embraced that advice. Some of the men I dated weren’t the best, but they all loved animals. My husband loves dogs. We have two. And he is the best.
Remember how you always said, “Silence speaks volumes.” I didn’t understand what that meant, but I never asked you to explain because I wanted you to think I was smart. I thought you’d like to know that now I get it. But I also know you didn’t mean that I should always be silent because you spoke up when it mattered.
Remember how you always said, “Wear clean underwear every day in case you get in an accident.” I never answered back because it made sense. As I got older, I discovered that piece of wisdom was a great source of comedic mockery. But I thought you’d like to know that it’s still stellar advice. And I bet the mocking comedians change their underwear every day because their mother or nana told them to.
Your granddaughter who is wiser because you always took the time to say . . .
I’ve been taking my five- and three-year-old grandsons to the library because it’s spring, which means it’s too cold, wet, and windy to play at the park.
Evan, the five-year-old, is into making friends. Last week he made a friend at the library and they played and played. They also ran around. I told them not to run, the other boy’s mother told them not to run, and the librarian told them not to run. So, yes, they had a good time. After we left the library, he told me all about his new friend. Numerous times during the afternoon he mentioned his new friend. When his dad came to pick him up, he told him about his new friend.
Today we went back to the library because it was cold, wet, and windy because it’s still spring. On our way into the children’s library, we picked up the craft project then sat at a table to color the paper Easter eggs. Evan hashed a couple streaks of color on one of his eggs and said, “I’ll do these at home. I’m going to make some new friends.”
And that’s what he did. He made friends with a boy, and they played for almost an hour until the boy had to leave with his mom. Then Evan made friends with a girl, and they played until we had to leave. Evan looked like Droopy, the cartoon basset hound. I told him we’d come back to the library tomorrow, and he could make more friends. He grinned.
That’s how it is when you’re five. You go to the park or the library and meet other kids. You play, then you’re friends. No one cares about your resume, your politics, your religion, your economic class, your ethnic background, your orientation, or any other element that grownups use to drive wedges between people.
The kids have it nailed: show up, smile, introduce yourself, play nice, have fun.
On March 29, I dug Three Guy’s nose out of the icy snow. It took me awhile because I worked like an archaeologist on a dinosaur dig, gently, slowly, never getting too close to the nose with my excavating tool. I’ve never wanted to be an archaeologist because it’s hot, dusty work, at least according to all the pictures and documentaries I’ve seen that depict archaeologists laboring in the field. I don’t even want to take a vacation and sit on a beach, in the sun, in the heat.
In high school, I read a book on zodiac signs. After reading that a Pisces was more likely to be found perusing a book on a park bench rather than at the beach tanning in the sun–which totally described me–I embraced astrology as science and read my horoscope daily.
Next, I read about Cancer, the sign of the boy I’d fell in love with when I was twelve. In high school I wrote his name, surrounded with hearts, all over the inside of my folders. We were supposed to be highly compatible water signs, but our upbringings gave us different views of the world, and neither of us budged. After high school I fell in love with a Scorpion, also a highly compatible match for a Pisces, but that romance failed because he fell in love with every pretty girl he saw. I kicked astrology to the curb.
Scraping ice pellets, layer by layer, away from Tree Guy’s nose, gave me time to think about random stuff, free-floating thoughts cobbled together by tenuous threads. I stopped periodically to check if I could lift the nose from its icy clutch. Nope, nope, nope. I kept scraping because a storm was coming and because small bits from the top of Tree Guy’s nose had already crumbled into the snow.
After I freed the nose, I placed it on my husband’s workbench, so it could dry out. It would need the coat of paint he’d suggested. Later that night the winds carried in rain, which morphed into ice, then converted to snow, enough for some area schools to cancel classes on Wednesday. After work my husband asked if I’d picked up the nose before the storm came. I gave him the update.
I don’t need to check for Tree Guy’s nose anymore—it’s safe. But every night before I go to bed and every morning after I wake up, I’ve been checking my phone for news about Ukraine. I want to read that Putin has called off his war. I imagine him waking up and finding his nose is missing. He’s dashing around the streets, looking for it, eager to repair his visage. I imagine he promises to be a good despot, if only someone will return his nose.
But life isn’t a story. Dictators don’t change or learn their lessons. Because sociopaths brood and lie and plot, then seek vengeance for perceived slights. Winning and power are their only divinities.
And in case you’re wondering, Putin is a Libra and Volodymyr Zelenskyy is an Aquarius, making them highly compatible air signs. But life ignores astrology.
This morning I went outside to retrieve Tree Guy’s schnoz. I tried to pick it up but discovered it was frozen into the icy snow. I shouldn’t have been surprised. When I got out of bed at 6:30 this morning, it was 9° with a 9-mph wind. And if that were a mathematical story problem, the answer would be a windchill of -4°. (Don’t ask how this would change if one train was leaving Grand Central Station at 9:00 a.m., traveling at 60 mph, and another train was leaving Union Station at 10 a.m., traveling at 55 mph. I didn’t care when I was in school, and I still don’t care.)
I didn’t try to muscle the nose out of the snow. Increased force is usually the wrong answer to most problems. I found a stick and scrapped snow away from the sides of the nose. I tried to lift it again, but it wouldn’t budge. The nose appeared to be intact, so I decided against digging underneath it because it might break. Impatience is usually the wrong option for most situations.
I hoped the space I created along the sides of the nose would allow the sun’s warm rays to melt the snow from under it. On Tuesday the temperature is supposed to reach 41°. If the icy snow hasn’t released the nose by that evening, I’ll cover it with a bucket because it’s supposed to snow on Wednesday and Thursday.
Tree Guy doesn’t want his nose to be buried again. At this point in his life, he doesn’t appreciate history repeating itself.
This evening my husband walked into the house from the back yard, tapped his finger on the side of his nose and said, “I saw the nose. I saw the nose.”
I wanted to ask, “You saw Kovalyov’s nose?” But I didn’t. My husband doesn’t read Russian short stories.
So I said, “What?”
He grinned, a very big grin. “I saw the nose.” He used his silly voice. “I saw the nose.” He kept tapping the side of his nose.
Because I reread Gogol’s “The Nose” a few days ago, I pictured a gigantic schnoz dressed in uniform. But I knew my husband didn’t see Kovalyov’s nose because you couldn’t pay him to read Russian short stories.
So again I said, “What?” because I still didn’t know what he was talking about.
“The tree’s nose,” he said. “I can see it in the snow now.”
Turns out, I haven’t been the only one walking to the edge of our deck and looking over the side. I should’ve known. After all Tree Guy was my husband’s idea.
I couldn’t believe I thought about Kovalyov’s nose before thinking about Tree Guy’s nose. And I’d forgotten to look for it the last couple of days. I’ve been distracted, and it’s been cold.
But neither of us went outside to retrieve the nose this evening. The wind was whipping, the temperature was below freezing, and the windchill was a single digit. I was sitting on my couch with a wool scarf wrapped around my neck. Neither of us wanted to climb on the unstable snow pile. Two days ago our grandson climbed that pile and got his foot stuck. When he yanked his foot up, his boot stayed–buried six inches down. I rescued the boot by digging it out of the snow with my bare hands.
Tomorrow I’ll save Tree Guy’s nose because more cold and snow are predicted next week. March wants to go out like a lion.
My husband will give the nose a fresh coat of paint if needed. Then he’ll reattach it to Tree Guy’s face. Like it had never been missing.