It’s Not Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, But . . .

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.)

Grandma Olive with my sister and me (in the foreground)

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.

Happy Birthday, Cabela!

Cabela, December 2020

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.

Ziva, Cabela’s half sister; same father, different mothers; December 2019

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.

Pearls from Nana

Dear Nana,

Nana Kitty, circa 1940

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.

With love,

Your granddaughter who is wiser because you always took the time to say . . .

Being Five and Making Friends

I did some artwork.

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.

Mid April

So far April has been cold and snowy.

But Mr. Goldfinch’s drab gray feathers continue to give way to his yellow courting plumage.

This afternoon it’s 31 degrees with 17 mph winds, and, yes, there’s a windchill.

But Mr. Goldfinch believes summer is coming–his feathers are more yellow today than yesterday.

Two to four inches of snow are predicted for Sunday night.

With her back to Mr. Goldfinch, Mrs. Goldfinch is waiting until he has all his yellow feathers.

Perhaps she’s not sure about summer’s arrival.

Tree Guy’s Nose Is Safe

The rescued schnoz, slightly damaged at the top

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.

The day after the nose’s rescue

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.

Excavating Tree Guy’s Nose

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing, and Another Tree Guy Update.]

Pictures of snow in March look like bad abstract art.

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.

Another Tree Guy Update

Tree Guy

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy, Tree Guy Update, and Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing.]

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.”

The blob in the center is the back side of Tree Guy’s nose.

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.

Tree Guy’s Nose Is Still Missing

[If you missed the earlier blogs: Tree Guy and Tree Guy Update.]

Tree Guy can’t smell a thing.

For the past week, the snow has been disappearing fast. So, for the past week, I’ve been looking for Tree Guy’s nose. Each day I look over the side of the deck, hoping that enough snow has melted to reveal his schnoz, but it’s still missing.

He doesn’t look bad without his nose, but he’d like it back. If I don’t find it, I’ve promised to buy him two hanging baskets of flowers, one for each ear. With colorful blooms gracing the sides of his face, no one will notice his nose is gone. It’s amazing what people will overlook if something glitzy captures their eye.

After work, I looked for his nose again. No luck. It was too cold today for snow to melt. The wind whipped at 38 mph—and that was the sustained number. The gusts were over 40 mph. The air temp was 35° and the windchill was 19°. Freezing rain, snow with blizzard-like conditions, power outages, and hazardous travel are predicted over the next couple days. Or what I like to call, Springtime in the Northland. March is fickle with an attitude, and I’ve lived here long enough to know that the springs of northern Wisconsin are not the springs of Milwaukee.

I’m beginning to think Tree Guy’s nose is a goner, but there is still snow around him, so maybe his nose is buried deeper than I thought. The mystery of it all makes me want to reread “The Nose” by Gogol. I keep imagining Kovalyov’s and Tree Guy’s noses calling an Uber and gallivanting around the city. The frigid air will make the noses run; hopefully, they have hankies.

Cabin fever has set in.

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

Last Monday when I took my nearly twenty-year-old sewing machine to be tuned and cleaned, I looked at a new machine that was the same brand but a step and a half up from the one I own. I’m not sure I would’ve considered buying a newer model if there hadn’t been a pandemic.

The finished quilt top: I will machine quilt it and bind it, then give it to my sister-in-law. My next project will be another T-shirt quilt.

When the lockdowns happened in the spring of 2020, being able to quilt kept me sane. I was home alone during the week because my husband worked in a business that was deemed essential, and I couldn’t see my children and grandchildren because we all stayed in our own bubbles. With all the death and uncertainty, dicing up fabric and sewing it back together was familiar and calmed my nerves. I could quilt without leaving the house because I have a sizable stash of fabric. I made a T-shirt quilt, two lap quilts, and two wall hangings and gave them to family and friends. I made a throw pillow and gave it to my dogs for their stuffed chair. I wanted a second machine because if there’s another lockdown, and something happens to one of them, I would be able to keep quilting.

The new model had features that would make machine quilting and appliquéing easier, helping me expand my quilting skills. But I wanted to sleep on it, so I left my old machine for a tune up and postponed buying the new one. Long ago, I made a rule for myself: All big purchases could only be made after I slept on it for a night. Over the years there were many purchases I never made but very few regrets about the ones I did make.

When I woke up on Tuesday morning, I was still enthusiastic about the new machine, so after lunch I went back to the store and bought it. When I returned home, I unboxed it and put it on my antique dining room table, which I use for sewing. (Don’t shudder. The table isn’t dainty.) The new machine looked especially modern and sleek on the old oak surface. It stood among a cutting mat, rulers, a rotary cutter, and fabric, becoming a part of the quilting landscape. I turned my back on it and did some writing, cleaning, and cooking. I stayed out of the dining room and away from the new machine. My old one sat in a shop, waiting in a queue for service, unaware it had been replaced. Regret seeped into my psyche. My old machine and I had pieced many quilts together: quilts for family and friends; quilts to welcome new babies into the world. By suppertime I stood in the kitchen and cried, wishing I had waited two nights instead of one.

Would I actually do more machine quilting or appliquéing just because I bought a new sewing machine? For the rest of the evening, I left it untouched. I kept picturing my old one sitting on the technician’s workbench. When it came home, I’d have to store it in a closet instead of returning it to the oak table because I knew it would become the spare.

On Wednesday I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and thought about the new machine with deepening regret. I decided to hide it in a dark corner of the closet and shut the door. An absurd idea. So, I set a goal for Wednesday: make friends with the new machine by making a quilt. I have a closet full of fabric and quilt kits that I’ve purchased over the years since I started quilting in 1994. I never had a sleep-on-it rule for buying fabric.

I selected a package of precut strips because I had a simple pattern for a Jelly Roll Race Quilt that would allow me to use all the strips to create a quilt that was quick and easy. (At the speed I sew, I should call it a Jelly Roll Stroll Quilt.)

I sewed a test strip with two short scraps. The new machine sewed a perfect quarter-inch seam. An essential feature. Then I sewed my strips together making one long strip. The new machine has a bigger work surface, making it easier to sew fabric together. A solid improvement. The redesigned quarter-inch foot did a better job of keeping the fabric in place as it passed through the feed dogs, so I didn’t have to keep repositioning it. A welcome timesaver.

Best of all, the new machine sounds like my old one because underneath its modern, sleek exterior, it has the same motor and frame as the old one, which I’d used for almost twenty years. Hopefully, I can use the new one just as long. I’ve got a lot of fabric in the closet.

The first quilt off the new machine will be a gift for my sister-in-law. The package of precut strips was originally purchased by her sister Jen who passed away from cancer in 2018 before she could sew them into a quilt. Jen gave me the strips before she died because she knew I liked to quilt. I’m piecing together the gift from Jen as a gift to her sister, connecting the past to the future while listening to the old familiar rhythm coming from the inside of the new sewing machine.

My new machine and I are going to be friends. But I will keep my old one. Perhaps each one of my grandchildren would like to sew a quilt, and my old machine will make new friends. I know where they can find some fabric.

[To find the instructions for making a Jelly Roll Race Quilt, click here. To read about one of my pandemic quilts, click here.]