Let me tell you a story

This is a true story and very painful to write. I’m changing the names of the individuals to maintain some of their privacy. There’s no right or wrong answer to the dilemma the story poses and, indeed, no answer necessary to the rhetorical questions it asks.

We live in a really lovely complex in a high-end residential neighborhood. The landscaping is gorgeous and this week there has been a red-shirted crew of elves installing thousands and thousands of Christmas lights, simply to delight residents and visitors. It will look like fairyland – it always does. And I suspect this year will be even better because more trees than usual have wires wrapping around their trunks and along their branches. Again, this is simply to give us joy.

A resident, who I have not met, has a daughter in her 20s. Let’s call her Michelle. Michelle has a 2-year-old daughter. Let’s call her Rosie. I’d seen Michelle occasionally pushing Rosie in a stroller up the driveway from the main road. Without being unkind (which always means I’m being unkind), her appearance and attire were different from mine and from that of other residents. Yes, she looks different. And she also seemed unfriendly, not greeting anyone en route – again, not typical of other residents, who usually at least nod. Over the last few weeks, there have been occasions where I’ve heard and seen Michelle yelling at Rosie outside and it bothered me enough to mention it to other neighbors. Then we heard a story about a neighbor having a shouting match with Michelle about keeping Rosie from running around outside with the abundant traffic. We raised our eyebrows. And we had all seen Michelle making her way on foot from the grocery store, which is at least a mile away, with grocery bags hanging off the stroller handles. Yes, we raised our eyebrows higher. And one day, it was pouring with rain and she didn’t even have an umbrella and little Rosie was getting soaked. Our eyebrows couldn’t go any higher.

But you just never know what’s going on in a person’s life. A few weeks ago, I rounded a corner with Savannah and came face-to-face with Michelle and Rosie. I stopped and said hello and we exchanged names. And I started seeing her regularly and she started smiling when she saw me. One day, she was sitting outside without Rosie, who she said was inside watching a movie. We started chatting and she told me her story. She is homeless. When she can’t get a bed at the women’s shelter, she stays with her father. There are obviously a lot of issues here and her relationship with her father cannot be easy on either side. I’m not taking sides either. Apart from having a 2-year-old, it’s easy to see that medical and emotional challenges would make it difficult for Michelle to get a job and earn enough to pay rent herself. She thanked me for listening and I realized that I’m probably one of the few neighbors who has talked to her. Her homelessness helps explain her appearance and I felt ashamed for questioning her clothing choices. It also explains why Rosie is never clipped into the stroller – a discarded stroller probably doesn’t have straps. She tells me about the system and how hard it is to be homeless. She doesn’t blame anyone but seems resigned to her fate. I hurt for her – it seems so hopeless. She tells me she sometimes begs on the street. I think I even told her to be careful doing that – but what options does she have?

Earlier this week, I went for my regular walk with a friend. On the way home, crossing the bridge over the Chattahoochee River (it still gives me pleasure to say that word and to know that I live on its banks), I saw Michelle in the distance pushing the stroller. I waved and held out my arms. Rosie jumped out and ran towards me hugging my legs like I was part of her family. My heart melted as I picked her up. So now I’m feeling warm and fuzzy because I acknowledge Michelle when I see her and don’t turn up my nose; and Rosie knows me. All is well with the world. Until this morning when I decided to pop out to buy some flowers for a neighbor who has been ill and is coming home today. As I turned out of our campus, I saw Michelle and Rosie waiting for the lights to change on the main road. I realize now she was crossing to wait for the bus. She evidently decided not to walk to the grocery story today because the temperature had dropped significantly and with the wind chill from the edge of a huge storm, it is actually almost freezing. I kept driving. Well, I can’t have a child in a car without a car seat; I don’t know if they are even going the same way I’m going; it’s too dangerous to stop right here and do a u-turn; I’m only getting one bunch of flowers and don’t have time to wait for someone to do grocery shopping – you get it!

Less than 10 minutes later, I’m heading out to my Jeep clutching the flowers … and there they are. The bus must have come immediately. At least Rosie is covered by a blanket. Michelle comes up to me and says, “My dad is out of town and didn’t leave us any money for food.” My heart sank. I thought quick and made a decision – the bottom line is I’m not getting involved or starting. I muttered that I was just grabbing some flowers and had to run and she said that was OK. I started up my Jeep and started driving toward the exit. As I did so, I saw Michelle approach a man and he quickly turned away. She then walked over to the store entrance and stood there in her flip-flops and shorts and spoke to another shopper who ignored her. I pulled into a parking spot. I don’t carry a lot of cash at any time, but I pulled $5 out of my wallet, got out and walked back to the store entrance. I handed her the money. She said, “Thank you, sweetie. God bless you.”

I don’t feel warm and fuzzy any more. Life is very unfair even when choices bring consequences. But I know I will enjoy the Christmas lights and I’m sure Rosie will be as enchanted as I am.

Kwaheri, farewell to a very dear lady

My grandfather was married three times which made for a rather complicated family tree. My half-aunt, Sally, is a year younger than I am so we were raised more like sisters and I certainly love her as a sister. Her step-mother, who was my step-grandmother (I said it was complicated), passed away on the day of the total eclipse, August 21, just four days short of her 97th birthday. It wasn’t eclipsing in the U.K. where Sally lives, or in Nairobi where Denise Babette died, but it’s a date I will always remember. She lived in a lovely retirement community very close to my childhood home and they held a celebration of her life last Sunday. Sally and I wrote this remembrance, which was read at the celebration. I wanted to include it as part of my blog. Kwaheri is the Swahili word for goodbye.

Denise Babette married Tom White when Sally was 6 years old and Amanda was 7, and was suddenly thrust into the role of our stepmother and step-grandmother respectively. She referred to us collectively as “Salamanda” and to herself as WSM (wicked stepmother) and WSGM (wicked step-grandmother). For a woman then in her late 30s, she embraced both roles with passion and energy. We suddenly had this larger-than-life family member in our midst, who loved us unconditionally from day one. For two children in the 1950s whose lives could be somewhat erratic and who sensed a certain family drama playing out even when the adults attempted to shield us from the details, it was magical.

Denise embraced us and made us feel that we were important. She was so much fun! She had a huge laugh that could be heard across the street; she was never quiet but shrieked with joy every few minutes because her capacity for finding joy in every little thing was bottomless; she could sing (loudly and often!); she played the piano; she was an actress; she was a marvelous cook and baker; she was an artist; and she was a wonderful seamstress. She made us dresses with matching handbags and even made Tom an elegant black smoking jacket. This was the 1950s and 1960s when lives were more elegant than casual; when entertaining at home was routine; and when telling shaggy dog stories and jokes were what people did naturally – no smartphones to keep one occupied in those days. She regaled us with tales of driving an ambulance in the Fire Service during World War II and with stories of theatrical productions – and we believed every word.

Tom and Denise initially had a house at Bamburi and Denise spent endless hours on the verandah making paper dolls for us. We loved those paper dolls and she would draw entire wardrobes leaving little tabs to fold over the dolls’ shoulders, which we cut out and coloured in. Even hair washing became an event – she always added a spoon of lemon juice to the last rinse water for Sally’s hair (she was fair) and a spoon of vinegar for Amanda’s (she was brunette). It was those little things that WSM and WSGM had time for. She was never too busy to help with homework or play with dolls.

But it was Tom who gave meaning to her life. She made the last 16 years of his life comfortable and fun. His face would light up when she walked in the room and she loved him with abandon, leaning on the grand piano and singing with gusto while he played brilliantly; cooking his favourite creme caramel and rice pudding; finding his cigarette lighter (everyone smoked in those days); and filling his days with laughter.

After he had died in 1974, although she missed him enormously, she continued to embrace life. She was always ready to help and her home seemed to be shared with many exciting friends. She had a great thirst for knowledge, remembering huge tracts of poetry she had learnt as a child and knowing everything there was to know about medicine (or so we thought). She loved crosswords and scrabble. One thing she HATED though was writing letters so keeping in contact was very one-sided until … she got an iPad at the age of 90 and taught herself how to use it, so at last we had two-way conversations! Even when she was not able to write she loved hearing about our lives as we wrote to each other and copied her in.

Denise was always stalwart. Although often in pain she was very rarely down and was always so interested in other people. She lived every moment and yet was always able to give two little girls a special gift – the gift of her time and attention. Kwaheri, dear WSM and WSGM, we loved you and will miss you always.

Sally Naish – Tisbury, England

Amanda Marie – Atlanta, USA

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Rabbits!

Did you remember to say, “Rabbits, rabbits,” this morning? I did, which is amazing because after the Big R, I don’t know what day of the week it is, let alone the date. But you should say the word “rabbits” on the first of every month because … well, because my mother said so and I’ve never actually questioned it. All my life, I’ve tried to say the word on waking on the first day of the month and if I ever forget I feel exceptionally disappointed and inexplicably out of sorts. Wikipedia (which I trust and rely on – I know, I know!) explains the habit as follows:

“Rabbits rabbits rabbits” is one variant of a superstition found in Britain and North America that states that a person should say or repeat the word “rabbit” or “rabbits” or “white rabbits” or some combination of these elements, out loud upon waking on the first day of the month, because doing so will ensure good luck for the duration of that month.

My mother also recommended saying the word only on the first of the months ending with “r” otherwise she said all the rabbits would be running round not knowing what to do, and I believed her. But I think she confused it with the adage that seafood should be eaten only in months ending with “r” and everyone ignores that one. I like the following quote that Wikipedia includes: “When I was a very little boy I was advised to always murmur ‘White rabbits’ on the first of every month if I wanted to be lucky. From sheer force of unreasoning habit I do it still—when I think of it. I know it to be preposterously ludicrous, but that does not deter me.” – Sir Herbert Russell, 1925.

This explains why I still say “rabbits” on the first. In fact, this morning I woke up soon after 2 a.m. and said “rabbits” out loud just in case!

Farewell O Hummers!

They’ve gone – without a by-your-leave or a text message, the hummingbirds have flown south to Mexico. My book says the Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer found east of the Mississippi. And although one of the smallest, it stores up enough fat to successfully make a non-stop, 500-mile migration across the Gulf of Mexico. I’m happy I helped. Last weekend was evidently the gala banquet – we had dozens and dozens and I refreshed each feeder more than once. By Tuesday, there were noticeably fewer and by Friday, one solitary hummer had obviously decided to take a later flight. Today, there are none, although I keep looking hopefully out of the window. The feeders are still full with just some pesky wasps enjoying the nectar. I’ll leave one out in case a hummer doesn’t like Mexican food or decides to come back early. Godspeed, dear friends. Gosh, we’ll miss you.

The Christmas cake is in the oven

Yes, I know it’s only September but an English Christmas cake takes time to mature. It’s not just your regular fruit cake much ridiculed by families who, in urban legends re-gift the cake every December. No, no. An English Christmas cake is serious business. Perish from your thoughts a shiny round brick studded with green pineapple segments and fluorescent scarlet cherries. That type of cake deserves every rude comment. No, no again. Let’s start with the ingredients. That’s the first challenge – procuring the correct ingredients in a foreign land is not easy. In past years, I have even ordered them from England at enormous cost – dried fruit is very heavy. But I soon decided that by the time Christmas rolls around, not having the exact proportions of sultanas to currants won’t make much difference. The cake uses butter, sugar, flour and eggs and I typically buy organic ingredients the week I decide to make it, so they are as fresh as can be. Candied peel and glace cherries won’t be in the U.S. shops until November, so I buy next year’s later and then the only challenge is remembering where I stashed them. The dried fruit and nuts, along with black treacle, RUM, spices and lemon rind are added at the end and it takes two hands to stir the huge batch of batter. Cedric usually joins me to do the final stir and make a wish. My wish is usually that the cake turns out OK! The cake bakes slowly and for a long time – four and a half hours. The delicious smell starts permeating the halls after the first hour so all my neighbors know I’m baking again.

After the cake has cooled, it gets poked all over with a knitting needle and gets its first slosh of rum. Then for the next three months, every Sunday I feed it more rum. That’s the next challenge. Since the Big R, every day is Sunday, so I might have to get a working friend to text me each Sunday morning, saying, “Wakey, wakey, it’s Sunday and your cake is thirsty!” Christmas week, there’s specific action. By this time, the cake is so soaked with rum it has a hangover and deserves a layer of marzipan all over like a yellow blanket. But first I sieve some apricot jam, warm it slightly and brush it over the surface – that helps the marzipan stick. I try and do a professional job of marzipaning the cake just out of a sense of pride, rolling and measuring carefully to ensure a smooth finish especially along the sides. In reality, no one will ever see it and often I have to patch pieces where I’ve miscalculated the width so it looks like a badly sewn quilt. The best thing about the marzipan is putting little pieces aside for us to enjoy as treats. The marzipan is left to dry for two or three days.

A couple of days before Christmas, it’s time to ice the cake with royal icing, made with icing or confectioner’s sugar mixed with egg whites. I typically add a teaspoon of glycerine if I can find it. It makes the icing a little less brittle. Royal icing can set as hard as concrete. I remember one year going into a pharmacy and asking for glycerine. Oh my goodness, I still recall the consternation on the pharmacist’s face. It was just at the time when several homemade bombs had been detonated and one major ingredient apparently is glycerine. Who knew? The pharmacist called the senior manager and they asked me very seriously what I wanted glycerine for. When I explained it was for royal icing on the Christmas cake, they visibly relaxed. The icing covers the patchwork marzipan and I tap a flat spatula all over to make it look like snow. On Christmas Eve, the grand cake-cutting takes place and we anxiously await the decision on whether it’s a good vintage or not.

I’ve been making the cake for as long as we’ve been married and use the same trusted recipe that I tore out of a cookbook that evidently didn’t make the cut on one of our international moves. After the flurry of hurricane activity last week when we prepared a suitcase in case we evacuated, I realize now that I forgot a very important item … the Christmas cake recipe. Next time, that will definitely be included. Merry Christmas!

Hummers rule!

You’ve got to hand it to these ferocious firecrackers! Hurricane-force winds and a state of emergency in every county in Georgia, didn’t stop our hummingbirds from swooping, fighting, defending territory and perching, albeit gripping on by their toenails. In defiance of the Georgia governor’s declaration to hunker down, our hummers continued life as normal. With Hurricane Irma moving north from Florida and even though it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, we brought all our porch paraphernalia inside. A sturdy patio chair could do major damage to a window and the wind gusts were strong enough to lift flower pots over railings. So, Sunday night after dark, the three feeders came inside. Early Monday morning, with the wind roaring and the rain already pounding, I heard the chatter of annoyed hummers looking for their breakfast. I felt so sorry for them. I grabbed the feeders, opened the patio door and carefully hung them back up. I got soaked but it was the right thing to do. If they could brave the pouring rain, it was the least I could do.

All day they drank nectar. All day I felt happy. I still don’t understand how such a tiny creature functions but I know it’s a miracle. We have so many hummingbirds that neighbors can see them from the street and enjoy watching them. Either the hummers are getting braver, or we are getting really good at remaining motionless when the sound of an electric toothbrush whirrs two inches away from our noses. This morning, I remembered I had forgotten to replenish one of the feeders last night, so out I padded as soon as I woke up and filled it. Heaven forbid a hummer had to wait for breakfast.

Too busy to blog

It’s true, it’s true. Everything you hear about retirees being far busier than they were before is totally true. I got a form letter from Social Security this week asking me if I anticipated earning any wages for the balance of the year. That made me laugh out loud. You have got to be kidding – I don’t have time to go out to work! There’s ginger to be candied, okra to be roasted, hummingbird feeders to be filled, seeds to be watered. And coming up there’ll be the Christmas cake to be made and that’s a whole-day production. More of that in a later blog.

Back to the ginger – what fun! It was in my week’s basket from Fresh Harvest. Who knew that fresh ginger is soft and almost pink? The stuff in the grocery store is probably three months old. I sliced it thinly and simmered it in sugar and water; lay the slices on a rack to dry; and then coated them in more sugar. It left me with a delicious syrup for ice cream or yogurt. A huge success and I have more coming in this week’s basket. The okra was interesting. I roasted it with olive oil and thyme. I wasn’t sure if I liked okra or not. Cedric pronounced it absolutely revolting, on a par with Brussels sprouts, which he has disliked since he was a child. My Southern belle neighbor said it was delicious so I’m going with her verdict.

The hummingbirds are going crazy fueling up before they migrate. I have two feeders and the hummers bicker and dive-bomb each other, squabbling like children. I wish they would learn that there’s plenty for all and they waste a lot of energy trying to prevent each other feeding. When there are two hummers at one feeder, they must be a married couple or maybe mother and baby. There are so many swooping on our porch that the other day I covered my eyes with my hand and peeped through the cracks between my fingers because one was hovering so close and staring at me that I thought it might poke me in the eye. What a marvel of engineering and a miracle of creation.

My garden plot is full of seeds in neat little rows. But there’s one problem. I carefully drew out a diagram of what I planted according to the stakes I measured out. But when I stepped back and said “ta-da” I had more rows of seeds than indicated on my diagram so something went awry somewhere and I will be getting a surprise in the fall. Within two days of planting, some seeds were already sprouting and I felt I had given birth. I know I have cabbage, kale, spinach, beets and carrots. Plus, one butternut squash that is already two inches high. And I inherited a blackberry vine that looks very healthy and hopefully will fruit soon.

And then there’s a quilt top I’m making. It’s called Gypsy Wife – you can look it up. I have a self-imposed challenge of using only scraps and fabric that I already have. For a quilter, that’s almost being mean! It’s like a jigsaw puzzle finding enough pieces to make each block. A quilt is made up of blocks that are sewn together to make the quilt top. The Gypsy Wife has 73 blocks that range from 2.5 inches to 10 inches square and 55 strips running vertically. I’ve made all the blocks and now am trying to get my head round the strips that have to continue down the quilt in consecutive rows even when there’s a block in the way. Now you understand why my blogging has taken a backseat. Gotta run – lots to do!

Three-month check-in

It’s been three months since the Big R. Three months is my metaphoric line in the sand so let’s see how I’m doing in terms of successes and failures. Failures first. NONE – just a few delays. I have not investigated piano teachers yet so learning to play the piano has moved down the list. Dress code and personal style: not exactly a failure but wearing anything except shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops and applying lipstick and mascara every day has totally fallen off the priority list. I’ve always advocated getting rid of any item of clothing that I haven’t worn for a season. That would mean discarding my entire summer wardrobe, so I’ll give that a reprieve this year.

As for successes: many, many. When I look at my to-do list, I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’ve sorted, pruned and purged. I live in fear of being overtaken by stuff but it’s so hard to get rid of hundreds of useful plastic carrier bags. I was exceptionally brave, however, and now just have one bag of bags. One of my favorite books is My Brother’s Keeper by Marcia Davenport. It’s based on one of those sad stories that hits the news stands every so often – people, very often siblings, accumulate so much stuff that it takes over. They live in rooms filled from floor to ceiling with stuff, sometimes with tunnels giving the only access between rooms. This was another of my mother’s favorite books and I read it first when I was young and now have two copies at home (yes, I need both copies) and have reread it many times. I devour and save news articles on these incidences, which is strangely ironic as I’m just keeping hold of more stuff, albeit it newspaper cuttings. In my heart of hearts, I dread ending up like one of those sad individuals but whenever I get rid of something, I need it often 24 hours later – honest!

I’ve posted already about knitting egg cozies. I’ve also made preserved lemons. Scrub lemons (Meyer are best), quarter them but not all the way, stuff with salt and place in a jar; squeeze more lemons to cover with juice and leave for several weeks. I’ve been using them to perk up salads and they are delicious with roasted vegetables. Just use the rind after rinsing off the salt. I have homemade vanilla extract maturing. Take vanilla pods, cut them lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Place those and the pods in a jar of vodka. When I bought the vodka, I made sure everyone heard I was using it for cooking … I could see their expressions: Yeah, right!! That will be ready in another week or so. I’m making another quilt, but this time just out of scraps and fabric that I have. It’s harder than I thought it would be as often there’s not quite enough of one fabric for the block I planned to make. I’ve also used up almost all of my bobbin thread – quilters will understand this. When you sew, you wind a bobbin with the same thread you plan to use in the sewing machine, meaning you end up with many, many bobbins of assorted thread that just sit there over the years. What a sense of accomplishment to see all those empty bobbins in the box!

I’ve always enjoyed baking and it’s lovely to be able to bake bread any day of the week and not just at the weekend. I bought a beautiful cast iron shortbread pan so each piece has a different pattern, including a flower, hummingbird, thistle and beehive. Shortbread is easy – 2 sticks of butter creamed with 1 cup confectioner’s sugar; add 2 cups plain flour. Bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes or so. I’m turning into a cooking blogger!

Another success is my weekly farm produce delivery. I didn’t have to wait for retirement as they will leave the box at the door, but I wanted to be home to take delivery each Thursday if possible. The box comes from Fresh Harvest and I love what they are doing for the farming community. They have a lot of different box options and it’s very flexible. You can put a hold on delivery for a few weeks, or skip a week. And each week when they tell you what will be in your box, you have the option to customize and swap products. The produce is so fresh that it lasts much longer than supermarket produce. Even after a week, the lettuce is still crisp, although we usually finish everything within a week. I’m especially enjoying the fairy eggplant, tomatoes and mini watermelon this week. I got a bag of hot peppers and those are pickling in the fridge as I wasn’t sure what else to do with them. It’s fun to open the box because when Thursday rolls around, I’ve forgotten what’s coming, so every Thursday is like Christmas morning. The best part is Willis, who delivers. He’s 6 foot 9 inches of Georgia farm boy with tousled red hair drawn up in a man bun. He has to duck to get in the door and I think he finds me and my accent as fascinating as I find him. He knows I’ll be waiting on the porch and he waves when he gets out of his delivery truck. My heart melts!

Overall ranking for the Big R: A PLUS! The one question that people ask me when I tell them I recently retired is: What’s the best thing about retirement? My answer remains: Not having to wake up with the alarm each morning. It was definitely worth waiting for and I’m still reveling in the luxury of coffee in bed each morning, reading my latest book, and with Savannah snuggled up against my knees. If it was up to her, we’d stay in bed until noon. Now, that’s a plan – who’s gonna stop me?

Where’s a juicy dead bug when I need one?

I’m sharing the porch with a porch mate – he (she?) is a a handsome lizard with a fluorescent blue tail. He’s not very long – maybe three inches nose to tail tip. You know that if you grab the tail, it will come off, don’t you. And grow again. I spent a lot of time as a child trying, and sometimes succeeding, in stepping on a lizard’s tail. That and chasing crabs on the beach – the secret to crab catching is to remember that they run sideways, not forwards or backwards. The lizard lives in the bricks and comes out through the cracks. This morning, I noticed him running along the window ledge when I was drinking my coffee on the porch. When he ran back to his lair, I’m sure he had a bug in his mouth. I was disappointed that I must have looked away the moment he caught the bug. So, now was my chance to do some scientific research. I could see his nose and flickering tongue in the crack. So I interrupt myself, tear myself away from coffee and newspaper and search the porch for a bug, preferably dead, so that I can pick it up. I find a bug and it is dead as can be – so dead it is practically desiccated and the only way I know it’s some sort of beetle is because it has little legs, poor thing. I place it on the window sill and sit back down to wait. And I wait. I see the flickering tongue. I push the bug a little closer to the crack. No deal. Hmmm, maybe he’s a smart lizard. I see him coming out of another crack closer to the floor. So I flick the bug onto the floor. Then I go back inside to do something domestic – transfer the laundry into the drier or something. When I come out, THE BUG HAS GONE! Now, I know it could have been blown over the railing by the wind, but I don’t think so – it’s still with no wind. I’ve missed the action again. So I go back to hunting for another bug – moving flower pots and watering cans. I guess the porch is cleaner than I thought, but eventually I find something that looks like a bug and I start over. I place the bug near the first crack and stare for a long time and don’t dare blink. Nothing. He must be sleeping off the meal. I’ll try again tomorrow – yep, I obviously have too much time on my hands.