Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Decline and Fall of the Fluff Salad

Here in central Missouri, November belies its pedigree.  The viburnum remains vibrant; the pastures green; the oaks bronze not brown.  It is 60 degrees by day and the last rose lingers like a Redoubte' painting in the the courtyard of my parents' house.

Yet November can be a cruel month.  More than twenty years ago, we stood around Grandma Eunice's casket in a fierce windblown rain.  It rained three quarters of an inch that day, violent but brief, buffeting the tent and the  family within.  It was a drought year; we memorize our losses, weather included. Grandma would have appreciated the rain.  

Just last week we mourned another grand lady.  A pillar of the community, admired for her many contributions and talents, present and past.  A woman of style and substance, she was blessed to be eulogized by people who knew her very well.  Instead of a snow white dove, she was gathered 'cross the river on the wings of music, heartfelt, soulful, iconoclastic, God's most universal and unexplained blessing poured out on humankind.  When we can't find words, we play..........

If you stay in one place long enough, you bury your ancestors, blood or cultural.  You bury your Sunday school teachers, the ladies your mom played bridge with, the woman who "ran" 4H, the person who handed you library books, the Republican ladies, the Democratic ladies, the election judges, the doyennes of the garden club, the missionary ladies............

According to Herodotus, prince Cadmus brought the alphabet to the Greeks.  In mythology, he slew the dragon guarding the spring of Ares.  The goddess of wisdom, Athena, told him to sow the dragon's teeth and fierce warriors sprang from the ground.  In small town life, our bringers of civilization bear no arms (unless a sharp tongue qualifies!), but they have always seemed to spring up straight from the ground like the dragon teeth warriors of old.  Where are our Athenas for the future?  Will we "look upon (their) like" again?

I don't intend to wax morbid or to imply a failure of community leadership or decomposition of the foundations of civilized society in the hinterlands.  But a recurring theme popped up yet again this past week and there is no good way to answer this question: who will be the church ladies?

Who is going to make the fluff with mandarin oranges and nuts?  Who will perpetuate golden glow salad?  Who will mix pineapple, lime jello, cream cheese and Cool Whip?  (I even had to look this one up!)Who will persist in mixing vegetables, shredded cheese, and orange jello?  I still have the frozen cream cheese and cherry molded salad recipe from my mother, but I have never taken it to a church or funeral dinner.  Nor do I prepare the cherry jello mold I adored when I was young.  But the same women who brought multi-hued salads whipped into peaks with mystery fruits and nuts disguised amid the Miracle whip and marshmallows led every conceivable volunteer organization in our little town and most big towns outside the formerly male bastions of Lions and Kiwanis.  One need not be a statistician to correlate the declining population of our cultural underpinnings with the reduced number of female produced and consumed fluff salads.

I don't know the answer.  The women I know keep the balls of family, vocation, volunteerism, and homemaking in the air to an amazing extent.  They do all this and keep up on Facebook too!  We scale back where we must and double up where we dare.  They fly...........by the seat of their pants when necessary.  It isn't easy to be unselfish with time, our most limited resource.

As I wipe the syrup from the tables of our fellowship hall, or wander the kitchen looking for the right drawer for serving spoons, I will continue to admire the iron and lace, stocking clad standard bearers of our past even as I admit how far my efforts fall short.  As they reap their heavenly reward, I'll raise my spoonful of Snickers salad and think of them partaking in..............ambrosia.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Red Barn

Redbarn has never been my home; my parents lived up Nelson Drive in the late seventies, not far from the State Highway Patrol headquarters.  The house on Nelson was a perfectly pleasant, rock solid red brick ranch built on  an east facing slope like most of the homes in Jefferson City.  The grassy backyard was terraced twice, but that did little to mitigate the struggle of summer mowing.  In wet weather, water ran into the basement like a burbling spring from the base of Missouri bluffs. In the summer, inhabitants of the red brick house baked like loaves in a New Mexican hornos.  Despite these shortcomings, the straw that broke the camel's back was development across the creek below their home, at the bottom of that big back yard.  They had traded the land in Calloway county with its fossil filled creeks and fescue fields for the pastoral landscape of pasture and crop of Moniteau county.  This farm boasted a lovely topography with an upland pasture wending down to a classic limestone creek rimmed with a riparian meadow.  The north field was planted to milo in those days.  Across route T, a gravelly track curved steeply down to the bottom lands of Moreau Creek. A spring did bubble out in the middle of the small field.  The wood at the base of the bluffs was especially lovely in the early spring, before the underbrush and bugs kept interlopers out.  Early spring was the best time to hunt arrowheads as well.  The geology changed across the Missouri; no more brachiopods, no more crinoids.  But a wanderer with her head down could still spy treasures of the past in the ground and I rarely hiked back up the hill without some knapped stone in my hand.

Projects were an integral part of my upbringing.  Whether this situation was a natural result of German frugality or a desire to make everything better than when you started or both is not a question that need to considered.  Suffice it to say my parents always saw diamonds in the rough, and when that didn't pan out, they made the absolute best of what they had to work with.  The farm in Moniteau county certainly met that description. The ponds were surrounded by thickets of impenetrable honey locust; the fields were riddled with ditches; the fencing was in need of repair.  The outbuildings were solid but peeling.  The last owners had attempted to operate a dairy; there was a solid little concrete parlor, a tin pole shed and an immense Dutch barn surrounding a paved lot.  These were all assets in my father's eyes despite their disrepair.

The house was something else. In retrospect, my folks like to say they should have pushed it over while they had the chance.  But that has never been their way.  It was a shotgun house built around the original two room cabin, with high ceilings and tongue and groove cabinets built in for storage.  There was a big bay window facing east in one front room.  Three different front doors opened onto the south facing porch.  The main features of the front yard were two antique cedars posted as sentinels on the west side of the house nearest route T.  The previous owners had cobbled together a bath of sorts and put in some ugly cabinetry surrounding a new kitchen sink.  The back part of the house was a labyrinth of dark little rooms that I assume had originally been the kitchen. The heating system comprised two propane stoves.  It wasn't a very hospitable place, but it rested squarely on limestone blocks. The house wasn't a factor in the purchase of the farm, a not unusual situation.

I was in college then but spent time on the farm during holidays and helped haul brush, paint barns, and weed the garden my folks established with the aid of my grandfather's aged tiller.  The little red and gray Ford tractor from the Calloway farm took up residence and the brush hog was put to use.  I walked the fields with my father to hear of his plans for rebuilding the battered fields, fencing the ponds and designing a cattle handling facility in the lots around the barn.  My parents used every bit of the aged manure in the barn to doctor the garden spot near the house; interestingly enough, it was very nice soil for mid Missouri. There was the requisite percentage of chert chunks, but not the tendency to slab.   I'm spoiled now, of course; when I dig here at home, I may turn up chunks of brick, but I can hardly remember what its like to hit rock!

Over time the old house got a new lease on life.  My folks built an addition with a full basement, a heat pump, a nice big kitchen and a master bedroom with bath.  They tore up floors and poured concrete beneath to keep the outside from taking up residence.  It has been a constant battle to keep coons, mice and other vermin from crawling in the walls, dying, and stinking up the place. The ceilings have all been paneled after one fateful winter night when the entire plaster ceiling of one front room collapsed.  The lovely old furniture from my grandparent's home, much of it built by my grandfather, settled gracefully into the light filled rooms of the old farm house. Stained glass windows in the front door and the guest room door as well as a rose window in the library gave the place a touch of elegance.
 Our family visits were joyful occasions.  An orchard marched in tidy rows in the field south of the house.  North of the house, a well maintained hay field had replaced the milo. Up on the ride beyond the creek grew a new warm season grass pasture.  We would pick walnuts in the fall, hike the creek, or down the road to the bottom, or through the woods to see the big new house the neighbor had built.  We would walk behind my mom's new four wheeler to pick boxes of apples to take home or store in the market.  At Christmas time we'd fill the house with family, Laura and Mark in the library, Blake and I in the big blue guest room, Lee and Ann in the little alleyway bedroom in between. Ben slept in our big room when he was a baby, but graduated to the day bed in Grandpa's ham shack when he was older. The wood stoves would crackle; the propane stoves would glow and our boisterous family would fill every room with laughter and noise.

The orchard is much reduced now: advancing years and the unforgiving humidity of Missouri both contributed.  But the cattle facilities are still used, the pastures maintained and the sprouts and windfalls held at bay.  The milking parlor is now an observatory and the market still serves as a shady spot for a mid morning refreshment and summering houseplants. The basement is a proxy for a life of varied interests: canning jars of fruits, QSL cards from all over the world; a virtual operating museum of old radio equipment, some hand crafted; a library of music and collection of instruments; a full ping pong table sized model train display with my mother's childhood train and the Missouri river bluffs as scenery; a wood stove to keep all dry and cozy in the wintertime.

One Christmas I made a barnboard sign for my folks' farm.  Laura and I pondered long and hard what phrase to paint and finally settled on 'Ruhegarten', German, we hoped, for a place of contentment and bounty.  Years of working land and maintaining gardens has led me to understand better why my father turned that sign over and painted another motto: "Erhalt!"   Conserve!  We will never rest in peace and contentment on this side of Eden; we must be vigilant, with spade and hoe in hand, or clippers, or Roundup, or hammer, or paint, or portable drill with self tapping screws.  Disorder lurks outside the gates like a ravening wolf.  Maintaining the status quo is the daily grind, but making your mark on the land is a life long pilgrimage. 'Erhalt!' is a worthy motto for the folks at Redbarn, who consider stewardship of land and the works of builders past God's own work.