Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sundial Days

Sundial at Monticello
Festina lente. (Make haste, but slowly.)
Once upon a time, not that long ago, there was a little boy who was waiting, waiting, and watching, watching from his bedroom window for something big.  This little boy loves big things...especially those with wheels...school buses, firetrucks, garbage trucks, and such. A little boy like this has no problem with multi syllable words like 'excavator' and 'bulldozer' and asks the whereabouts of every pickup on the farm when he visits as if they were beloved relatives he hadn't heard from in awhile.

Dum tempus habemus operemur bonum. (While we have time, let us do good.)
Finally, after a few false alarms...like the rumbling of the school bus at 4:30, his mommy called him to the front door to see the long awaited arrival of his uncles in the big yellow semi truck growling its way up the hill and, with a hiss of the air brakes, parking right in front of his house.

Amicis qualibet hora. (Any hour for my friends.)
A day of picking up, setting down, lifting, sweating, and probably more than a little shoving, and his house was empty of furniture and boxes, lawnmower and garden tools.  Everything left was stashed somehow into the back of two Subarus.  With a blast or two of the air horn and a little time behind the wheel (not long enough for the little boy, I'll bet!), the uncles pulled away slowly.  Next stop....Missouri.

Lente hora, celeriter anni. (An hour passes slowly, but the years go by quickly.)
2016...it happens this week.  All the days of this year: the jolly birthdays, the family travels, the sports cycle of basketballdancebaseballcountyfairfootballvolleyball, the celebrations with cakes, bbq, fireworks, the graduations, the anniversaries, are memories vividly recorded by multiple digital devices and shared over a web of tightly woven family ties.  Like the garden dial, we have measured our sunny hours.  What is past has passed.  It is time to open the New Year and speak truth to another sundial motto, "Use the Hours, Don't Count Them."
Vita in motu. (Life is in motion.)
Not every New Year holds such a new beginning.  Not every family celebrates with a housewarming.  Just a day or two after the parades are over, Levi's favorite semi will hit the road again, pulling out from Hurst Greenery on its way to Kansas City and followed by a caravan of cars loaded to the gills with helpful family members and luggage.  We can't wait to welcome these Hursts back to Missouri, to reduce the hours of "FaceTime" and increase the amount of "face time" at ballgames or birthday parties or cookouts.  Josh tells me he is going to spend the night with Levi, go bowling and play miniature golf...well, maybe not in January!
Altera pars otio, pars ista labori. (Devote this hour to work, another to leisure.)
While Ben and Kenzie put their house in order, the rest of us will celebrate this year ending in six with a long anticipated pilgrimage to Disney World...even Blake!

 Abbie used her most irresistible smile and pleading puppy dog eyes to cajole her grandfather into accompanying her despite his deeply rooted antipathy to theme parks of all stripes.  Never fear, Grandpa!  There is a Florida room facing south with patio chairs and a heated pool in your future...a cup of coffee in the morning...a glass of wine in the evening...and the splashing of your happy kids?  That should compensate for any amount of Disney....
Vivere memento. (Remember to live.)
Who knows what this new year will bring?  No, I'm not going to hazard a guess on the 2016 elections.  I don't believe the National Weather Service has a clue either. Crop prices? Forget it! Not my strong suit. But I'll bet there will be celebrations........and hard work.........thanksgiving and heartfelt prayer........that we will both cheer.... and cuss the Cardinals .....and record every moment of it to hold close to our hearts when the calendar page turns again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Twelve Days of Christmas.. Spruce Style

On the first day of Christmas, the postman brought to me...
A 4# wheel of Baby Swiss Cheese....
On the second day of Christmas, my true love brought to me..
Two slabs of ribs
and a 4# wheel of Baby Swiss Cheese....
On the third day of Christmas, the FFA sent to me...
Three bricks of Cheddar
Two slabs of ribs, 
and a 4# wheel of Baby Swiss Cheese.
On the fourth day of Christmas, Chriscakes threw at me...
Four flying flapjacks...
Three chunks of cheddar,
Two slabs of ribs
 and a 4# wheel of Baby Swiss Cheese
On the fifth day of Christmas, the UPS man saved for me, 
Five wines from Napa...
Four flying flapjacks,
Three chunks of cheddar,

Two slabs from Jack Stack,
..and a 4# wheel of Baby Swiss Cheese...

I'm not going to carry this parody to its logical conclusion.  But...let there be no doubt that I could! Experimentation and tradition summed year by year yield a food pyramid of ever increasing height and girth, the limiting resource being that of time.  There are only so many days on the holiday calendar and one must needs spend one's time in pursuits other than cooking...or eating.  

Forget the sparkle of jewelry...forget red bows on luxury cars...even forget i-thises and android-thats...the most personal gift one can give is food, and whether it be homemade or handcrafted, a luxurious treat from afar, or the essence of a favorite memory, like Proust's madeleines, it is the one present that can be tailored expressly for the giftee from the gifter.

Tradition.  Tradition is the ribbon tying Christmas pasts to Christmas presents.  Tradition leads me to stock up on butter and powdered sugar for the frosted sugar cookies we will decorate after the children are out for Christmas vacation ; some of the cookies will be Christmas stars...and flowers...and moons...cut with the soft tin cookie cutters my mother used and then passed along for generations of cookie sprinklers to come.  Cookie day is a tradition eagerly awaited as much for the general gaiety and camaraderie as for the resulting sugar high.  For the sixth day of Christmas, let's sing about children a-frosting... 

I'm not a fancy baker, but what I bake, I bake often.  The winter apples in storage are still firm though beginning to wrinkle.  Vast heaps of peels fill the sink and chopped apples become loaves, each batch a pyramid unto itself: four cups of apples, three cups of flour, 2 cups of sugar, 1 cup of oil. The loaves used to line up two by two like animals in the ark...Sunday school teachers, school teachers, mailman, busdriver, choir director, neighbors, open houses.... a dozen or two stacked like bricks for a Farm Bureau hospitality room.  I can't see the bottom of the fruit crisper yet, but I will before New Year's.  Every day of our holiday song will find apple loaves a'baking.
So much sweetness, so much nostalgia, so much candy wrapped up in our Christmas.  Way back when, Santa Claus would leave Laura and me a bag of Russell Stover candy straws in our stockings every year at Grandma and Grandpa Froerer's on Greenberry Road.  Orange, yellow, green, and pink...the pink cinnamon sticks were carefully rationed and savored. Alas, Honeysuckle Straws are extinct..not even an image available on Google! At Granny's, homemade candies: sticky divinity, peanut brittle, cubes of butterscotch and chocolate fudge waited to be picked over with molasses cookies and lebkuchen. Alas! My sporadic efforts at candy making result in pans abandoned in the snow, contents fused to the steel and glass. Instead the candy dish on the dining table sparkles with shiny Snickers and peppermint puffs, dark chocolate Treasures and York Peppermint Patties in holiday red and green. The candy dish was a present from Ann and Matt soon after we moved to this house. One way I fulfill my role as grandma is to make sure this candy dish reflects the bounty of the season, just in case Josh asks if he may have a piece of candy five minutes after he comes to our house.  
On this eighth day of Christmas there's a candy dish a 'shining.
 Trips to the airport and trips to Target; anniversary celebrations and last minute props for Christmas parties and programs; all that windshield time surely earns a stop at Starbucks.  What'll be today?  Gingerbread Latte'? Peppermint Mocha? A Spicy Flat White? Or hard core caffeine with a Cranberry Bliss bar on the side?  Just three more days to go...and I've got  12 stars! Make mine a Caramel Brulee' a steamin'. 

Christmas Eve day, one of my favorites of the year. We eagerly anticipate the joy of Christmas morning.  The lights of the tree, the lights of the town warm and brighten as the culmination of Advent looms.  I have three coffeecakes to prepare for Christmas morning: a dozen eggs, 5 sticks of oleo and 40 oz. of cream cheese. The dough for each cake must be kneaded and mixed by hand, chilled for two hours, then rolled and raised on the radiator in the kitchen before it is baked.  This hands on, hands in baking is perfect for the quiet reflection appropriate to Christmas Eve. Often, these cakes are what I bake last, after the last package is wrapped and the house is quieted....Three cakes a'bakin  and two mugs of eggnog on Christmas Eve.

On the last day of Christmas, the postman should bring me....
A Thank You from the 
Tarkio HyVee

Monday, December 14, 2015

Merry and Bright....

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
John 8:12
Our Christmas celebrations are awash in light, from simple paper bags and candles stuck in sand to the kind of Brobdingnagian displays of illuminated, animated, and inflated nylon characters that elicit gasps of amazement and delight from children of all ages. The world indeed seems a better place when every street is bathed in LED or fairy lights and the smallest Main Street bears a star or wreath on every lamp standard.
All this light is a pretty recent development.  When our kids were young, they counted the first Christmas light displays they saw on our trip home after Thanksgiving, losing track after a while and quarreling about the tally. That was the '80s and folks were celebrating the end of the long dark Scrooge like malaise that frowned on energy consumption of a celebratory and frivolous nature.  Personal displays of happy strings of multi colored mini lights popped up after Thanksgiving like mushrooms after a rain.
The mini lights were inexpensive and easy to hang; even people living miles from nowhere, like us, enjoyed the luxury of a bright and welcoming homecoming in the deep dark of winter.

The Christmas lights of my childhood were not tiny and twinkly; they were heavy, hot and temperamental.  Hanging the ornaments on the tree was preceded by that hold your breath moment when the light strand was plugged in....which was followed by a systematic dismantling of each strand searching for the bad connection or broken bulb. The combination of incandescent bulbs and red cedar could be a fiery one.  We watered our fresh tree diligently and followed the lead of our German forebears, lighting it but briefly.
These instances were magical.  The cardboard village with sponge and bottle brush landscaping and cellophane windows glowed like a campfire; the town church with its tilted and Scotch taped steeple; the blown glass ornaments glittered with stained glass hues; the only sound the rattling tin fins of the spinner ornaments fueled by the warmth of the light bulbs.
Each year, my sister and I would choose our favorite little houses under the tree. The subdivision we lived in was barren, flat, and treeless, but the homes in this village were quaint, stuccoed, with trellises and fireplace chimneys.  
They reminded me of the homes on Greenberry Road in Jefferson City, Missouri, where my parents grew up and my grandparents lived.

In my childish experience, Greenberry Road had the very best Christmas decorations and lights of anywhere.  Entire homes were hung with lights; one house sported a lighted old fashioned sleigh, and one spotlighted Santa Claus standing way up above the second floor by the chimney.

In December, Dixon Drive became Christmas Card Lane, where the front yard of every ranch house was devoted to giant greeting cards and Christmas lights. (And still is, by the way.)
But the very best display, the one looked for every time we drove down the street, was in front of an enormous Spanish Revival home replete with tile and Moorish arches. There was the Christmas stable with the entire Nativity assembled inside and around it.  Mary and Joseph knelt over the Baby's manger bed while shepherds kept watch and the angel seemed to hover above.  There were at least a dozen sheep scattered as if the shepherds were so busy worshiping that they lost track of their flock.  The Wise Men, perched on the backs of full sized camels, approached from the edge of the lights...perhaps it was even from the East? It was a stupendous achievement and has been bright in my memory all these years.  Every creche', every Live Nativity tableau, every Star hung on a roof, or a grain bin, or mysteriously shining above the trees from an old windmill tower wordlessly expresses the truth of the Christmas season:

"And the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
John 1:5

Let your Christmas lights shine....

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Fun for the Whole Family

"There is no such thing as fun for the whole family." Jerry Seinfeld

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.
 'Tis the season to be jolly....

'Tis the season indeed...the lovely season of steamy kitchens and the smell of home made goodies...the season for merry carols and blinking lights.....the season for quiet reflection on the blessings we have and the gift of our Lord Jesus. It's the time for board games and card games, reading books wrapped in afghans in front of a fire, and other toasty indoor pursuits.  

'Tis the season....
....for watching the weather forecast the night before and waking in the gray chill before sunrise to check the wind.  For early morning texts and climbing out of a warm bed to a cold floor.  For putting on that extra layer.....and wrapping your hands around that first cup of coffee hoping some of the warmth soaks in.  
Because it's December and these weeks before Christmas, before the New Year, are not only the season of Advent, but....the season to cover greenhouses.

October is for harvest but, if the weather holds, the early weeks of November are no time to rest.  The combines may be shedded but the tractors and tillage implements barely cool down before fertilizer is being knifed in and conservation structures repaired of the damage suffered in summer storms.  Only November rains, or heaven forbid, November snows put paid to fieldwork and send farmers to their shops and computers.

Greenhouses suffer from summer storms, but greenhouse coverings are temporary even without wind or hail. For greenhouses like ours, growing a relatively low value short season crop, then standing idle for the rest of the year, the only economical roof for all those flowers and vegetables is plastic.   Plastic is light and bright...but only for three or four years. Plastic is strong and flexible...but only for three or four years.  Plastic resists the damaging rays of the sun....but..., well, you get the drift.

July is too hot; January is too cold, but there are days in December that are, as Goldilocks says, just right.  Mornings when the frost lies heavy on the grass as the late winter sun peeks over the hills; mornings when the smoke rises from people's chimneys in a unwavering column.  When the forecast from NOAA says "winds calm to light", that's the time for the skid loader to rumble to life, to find the insert tool, a screwdriver, a hammer and the scissors, and to postpone that second cup of coffee until the plastic is all fastened down.

The greenhouses range from 100 to 150 ft. long.  The ground to ground greenhouses require two separate pieces of plastic so we pull and unfold one at a time. That means a surface area from 4000 sq.ft. to 7200 sq.ft. is just laying there, vulnerable to the slightest wisp of air movement.  If an errant breeze curls under the south end of a greenhouse, pretty soon the whole structure looks like a silver cloud or a surfer's wave.  Once the air is underneath, you can never really get it out again. This situation occurs so frequently, Blake coined a phrase to describe the phenomenon, calling it a polyethylene induced microburst". A child's first task in the family greenhouse business is to sit on a corner of plastic until someone tells you to move.
 One of our family myths concerns a day we might have been pushing the envelope weather wise. That day was so windy that Lee and Ann insist they were lifted into the  air like Dorothy's house, still holding on to their corner of plastic.

 Every family needs its legends.While their college friends headed home for Christmas break to relaxation, home cooked meals, and perhaps a ski trip to Colorado, our kids came home to perch on a precipice, backs against a frigid wind, helping cover the newest greenhouse construction.  They can be forgiven for believing their parents saved at least one naked greenhouse to cover every Christmas Eve.

The gutter connect greenhouse pieces are tubes 24 ft. wide.  The good news is that's  a much smaller piece of plastic to maneuver and maintain.
The bad news is all the work has to be done in an 8 inch gutter 10 ft. off the ground. The plastic is lifted high in the air on a homemade platform contraption, ropes tied to what we hope is an outside corner of the tube.  The manufacturers fold their tube plastic different ways, so this part of the process tends to be a crapshoot.  With a person in each gutter pulling the plastic and another on the platform attempting to keep it tracked to the center, this part of the process is both physically challenging and nerve wracking, especially if the plastic has been formed in a way that it stubbornly refuses to unfold without being forced apart inch by sticky inch by hand.
The view from the gutters is a pretty one: distant fields turned gold by the slanted winter sunlight, the patches of trees filigreed black. From the apex of a greenhouse on the hill, Hurst Greenery is adrift in a silvery sea.
Silhouetted against the winter sky, the guy held up in the air by the skid loader weaving wirelock at the other peak of the greenhouse looks the size of a Lego man.
We count down the greenhouses we cover like a child counts down the days to Santa Claus.  When the last insert is snapped down and the new plastic inflates like the blimp, we straighten our frozen knees and shed our sodden and snagged work gloves.  We roll up the ropes and haul off the plastic trimmings.  The skid loader is parked by the pyramid of new plastic rolls and the golf cart/tool cart is parked out of the weather.  Time for that second cup of coffee.  Our mantra is: If you cover a greenhouse (or two!) in the morning, you have already accomplished enough for the day.
 Every family has Christmas traditions.  Some bake cookies together; some shop Black Friday together; some gather to cut their Christmas trees together.

Our family covers greenhouses.....