Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Rally Cat and Other Four Legged Friends

A few nights ago, the small grey cat streaked across center field of Busch Stadium like the proverbial “bat out of h***” into...at the very least….its fifteen minutes of fame.  The crowd was riveted to to the big screen struggle between the young groundskeeper and terrified animal, but after those two actors leaped into the stands and vanished into the maw of the stadium, Yadier Molina created an even bigger sensation when he launched a grand slam homer, putting the Cards ahead in a moment that was Roy Hobbs worthy...in the view of ecstatic Cardinal fans, like us!
Wednesday night, #RallyCat shared the spotlight.  Wednesday night, we were all cat people.

But...in general, that has not been the case.  Dogs have been the critters in our family pictures…Nip and Tuck and Skaggs on one side...Frisky and Silver on the other.  Of course, Millie has always had chickens and my dad had cattle as soon as he had pastures for them.  Laura and I were proud owners of Brownie, but even though she was named, it was strictly a business relationship. Nip and Tuck were the Labs that flung themselves, slobbering and barking, upon our Dodge Dart when we pulled into the driveway at Granny’s house. They greeted us in the same way, tackling us with their giant paws and giant jaws as soon as we stepped out the back door of the car. It was always a terrifying experience.


Compared to Nip and Tuck of memory, Juno, our first dog, was as gentle as she was large and calm despite her Doberman/German Shepherd heritage.  She loved Blake and became the consummate farm dog companion when she was transplanted from the duplex we lived in the last year of college to a life of pickup seats, wide open windows, and standing on the tool box in the back with her ears streaming behind her.  As far as I know, she only fell off once and climbed out of the ditch and jumped back into the truck with more damage to her dignity than injury from the tumble.  


Juno’s great doggy friend was Barney, Nancy’s beagle.  He was a wanderer, traveling from farm to farm to visit and staying until Nancy physically hauled him back to their house.  Even after they were both old and gray, Barney would find his way the six or seven miles through the country to our farm to visit his friend. He would stay for weeks while we enjoyed the sight of the two old dogs napping companionably under the shade of the elms.  


When the girls were old enough to be enamored with pets, we tended to acquire puppies in pairs.  Tommy and Holly, two black and white mutts with mirror image personalities: Tommy never knew a stranger and would roll over for a scratching before he was introduced, but Holly, who had been hit by a pickup early in life, was cautious, aloof, with sad black eyes. Tommy and Holly and I had a love hate relationship during their puppyhood.  Every time I planted something in the yard...a tree, a shrub, a rose, a perennial of any kind, they found it and dug it up.  We made our peace, but I spent an intense and angry spring chasing them through the yard, screaming imprecations that they couldn’t understand, and attempting to flail them around the ears with whatever desiccated plant carcass they had literally unearthed.


During these full house years, word evidently went out on the doggie grapevine that we were soft touches when it came to canines.  Every dog dumped heartlessly along our gravel road made its way to our dog dish. And some lovable scamps they were:  Frisky, a beautiful black puppy with a penchant for pulling clothes off the line; Mister, a raggedy long haired black and white critter with a desire to dance; and Bob, an enormous well mannered giant with a passion for fetching fireworks.  All three passed through giving us at one time or another, a population of five dogs on the farmstead along with the unnumbered unnamed cats; no wonder any stranger to our farm tended to wait in the car.


The very last stray appeared, like Mary mother of Jesus, pregnant in the deep of winter.  She was a cautious quiet nervous black dog, that we found hiding in the straw in our old shed very near Christmas time.  And, sure enough, she delivered her puppies in the barn….eight of them...and thus she became Mama Dog for all the rest of her life.  The puppies ranged from cocoa to chocolate to black and were cute as could be.  Ann and Matt fell in love with a chocolate male, and Ike was their faithful, loving, though finicky, family member before Aaron, before Lizzie and before Josh.  Peanut wound up staying at the farm, spooky, gargantuan presence under the front porch; like her siblings, she had personality quirks and a thyroid problem to boot.   Mama Dog was a good friend, following us out to the greenhouses to work, though she was far too nervous to nap inside.  During the summer hours though, she would come down to the mum patches and and rest in the clover nearby, keeping watch over her people as long as we were out of doors.

Like the lyrics from a Lyle Lovett song, these are but a few of the furry friends that spent time with us.  Chickens from Grandma Millie.  Fish that lasted longer than anyone had a right to expect after their people decided cleaning the tank was too gross. Bubbles, the head butting bottle calf. Cats like Magnum, PI, the only pet Blake ever brought home, and Pumpkin, an enormous...yes, you guessed it...orange tabby.  Finally, Baby, the last named and most loving cat ever, who would climb upon my shoulder and curl herself around my neck, giving me both a purring massage and a fur stole.


“And there are more I remember
And more I could mention
Than words I could write in a song..”

Lyle Lovett, Family Reserve

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Comfort Food


Last week at this time I was seated in Amen Street in Charleston sharing a platter of Chincoteague oysters with my dearly beloved under an oyster shell chandelier, surrounded by parti-colored brick and watercolors of jazz musicians.  Our waiter recommended a William Hill chardonnay, but I should have followed my instincts and chosen the Chenin Blanc; nonetheless, if the  wine was pedestrian, it was the only part of the evening that was.

Chunky crabcakes and fried chicken sandwiches; hogfish with pureed cauliflower and omelets with grits; just baked cinnamon rolls dripping with buttery icing and glazed ‘dossants’, a square cross between a croissant and a doughnut with all the glaze and flakiness...and yes, fat of both its parents: this is just a sampling of the overeating we enjoyed during a few days in the Low Country.  Eating Southern seemed only polite after visiting the splendid exhibit “Feast Your Eyes” at the Myrtle Beach Art Museum.  Beginning with porcelain oysters, knives and chandelier, and progressing through the food groups: yams, beans, bacon, BBQ, berries, chicken, Crisco, and finally peach and pecan pie, each artwork is accompanied by a literary reference, so beautifully written, they made my mouth water.




And that brings me around the long way to food and our family.  Long before anyone other than the Sunday paper food editor featured gorgeous spreads of juicy vittles created from exotic ingredients, the eaters in our family memorialized the cooks in writing, for better…..or for worse...but mostly in high praise and appreciation.

My mother and my grandmothers were the cooks I first remember.  Granny knew how to fill a table: meat, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, bread and dessert...much of it home raised from my grandpa’s garden and canned or frozen in the steamy brick oven that was their galley kitchen.  This was workaday food, big pots full to feed a big table...or two.  I know her kids had favorite dishes, but the family cookbook is full of recipes that note, “Mom always made (name the food) and this recipe is almost like it”, so my guess is that Granny cooked by the seat of her pants from the foods in her cellar and freezer and everyone always ate it.

The dishes I remember my Grandma Froerer cooking are fried chicken and mashed potatoes...with gravy for the potatoes, though I was too young and ignorant to appreciate it.  I made a major production out of making the lake for the big hunk of butter to melt in.  Yum!  She also made veal birds, also fried, but I didn’t like those as well as her chicken.  She made yellow cake from scratch and chunky lumps of oatmeal cookies. Both of these she bathed in hand beaten caramel frosting...the nectar of the gods.  As she got older, she always baked pineapple upside down cake, a dish I haven’t had for thirty five years, I’ll bet, ( though Millie used to bake them a long time ago).  The upside down cake was good too-- she had a generous measure with brown sugar--but it couldn’t quite match up to the frosting.

My mom was a marvelous baker and I can attribute my love for coffeecakes and breads to her.  
It’s a pretty good legacy!  Quick breads from apples and cherries and bananas and pumpkin….gooey rolls studded with plump raisins, dripping brown sugar and cinnamon and caramelized sugar as they were tipped carefully from the pan.  That same recipe, titled simply ‘Ma’s Coffeecake’ could be raised in two 9” pans, sprinkled with streusel and topped with pie cherries, apples or peaches. When the kids were young, a visit to Redbarn almost always meant coffeecake for breakfast.

And Grandma Millie is no slouch at baking either, though you’d never know it by talking to her!  The cake is always fallen...or the rolls are burnt...or bubble didn’t turn out right so she had to a) make another bubble...or b) make an entirely new German chocolate cake….or c) start all over again on a hand-beaten-from-scratch angelfood cake!  Despite her protestations, the dinner rolls, the bubbles, and the angelfood cakes are fit for royalty, gifts from hands and heart and no one else can touch them...even though she has generously tutored the next two generations of cooks.


The men may be  the most creative and most particular cooks of the family.  Freed from the challenge of getting something/anything on the table, Mark, Ryan, and Matt do what some of us women never seem to master: plan ahead...even though Matt will resort to chicken patties in the oven every so often as a summer lunch for the Schlueter kids.  Meats in all their aromatic smoked glory are something to anticipate when Matt, Ryan and even Ben take over the menu. In particular, I admire the careful use of herbs, a far cry from my dash of this, some more of that, and liberal dollop of Tabasco when the results aren’t lively enough…..

One of my fondest food memories will be the good-natured ribbing every Thanksgiving between my aunts about baked beans.  Someone would be deputized to bring beans with the caveat that Liz would absolutely bring HER beans because THEY were the best baked beans.  I cannot tell you whether Aunt Anne’s beans or Aunt Liz’s beans were the best, for the simple fact that I wouldn’t waste a square inch on my Thanksgiving plate for baked beans when there was so many other seasonal treats covering every square inch of serving area.  Baked beans?  Heck, we ate those at least nine months out of the year!  But the gentle jesting happened every year and was part of the togetherness and tradition that is the reason we all cook. It’s why Lee makes all the pies, why I overdo it on Ann’s cucumber dip in the summertime and why Millie complains...every Christmas...that the gravy didn’t thicken…....





Friday, July 28, 2017

Hair-do-well




Was I a willing participant in the fads of my childhood?  
Well, I was a latecomer to the Beatles and all of rock 'n roll.  I remember kids talking about the Beatles when I was in grade school,  but until my best friend became obsessed with one of their songs (Come Together?  Hey Jude? After all these years, which song we listened to a thousand times escapes me....), I knew little of the Beatles outside of "She Loves You, Ya, Ya, Ya."
Exhibit A: 
Indeed, I wore bell bottom pants; my mother made me a pair of flowered wide leg pants when I was in junior high...and while I don't know if they made me a fashion plate,  I wore them for my most special occasions...like junior high skating parties...and I loved them.  As far as I know, no photographs exist of this outfit.

Exhibit B: 

Yes, I know the picture above was taken in 1981 when I was not only married, but had two kids.  Never the less, in this shot, I am not yet 25 years old and by modern standards, I would still be on my parents' health insurance, which means I would not be a 'grownup'. 

 So...as I was saying... enter exhibit B: the permanent.  On me.  The baby, girl, teen, and now,  woman, least likely to keep a curl in her hair. And believe me, it wasn't for lack of trying.  I remember waking up one morning as a young girl and finding my hair turned up at the end!  Eureka!  A curl!  The precursor to a pageboy!  Imagine my consternation and disappointment when I looked in the mirror and that upturned tendril turned out to be the result of sleeping too soundly...a truly errant 'wild hair'.   

That ill fated harbinger did not deter me from bucking fate and heredity.  No.  Over time, I used my mother's pink foam curlers, electric rollers, home perms, and finally, the chemically induced frizz produced by hours of stinking saturation under a hair dryer in a beauty parlor.  It was a strange desire for someone born with the uber straight hair featured in any black and white photo of the years I was growing up: whether the ultra individualistic unkempt and unwashed '60s or the 'do your own thing' '70s.  No, it was my fate to faint and pine over the Rococo curls of the 1980s...just as I embarked on the ultimate no frills journey of a housewife and mother....



Ok.  These pictures feature Julianne Moore and Jennifer Gray.  Compare these to the picture of me with two very cute little girls on a North Carolina beach in 1981.  The movie stars showcase the look I visualized.  And the tortured Medusa head in the snapshot is the best attempt man's ingenuity could accomplish with the resistant, recalcitrant pelt that is my hair.  Chalk this attempt up to the rampant hormones of a soon to be mama.  As a triumph of hope over experience...and fashion...my attempts to update my hairstyle...and nature...have to rank up there as exercises in futility.

Hairdo well?  Ne'er do well.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Days...and Nights at the Museum


One of the fun things about having grandchildren is getting reacquainted with all the story books you read as a kid.  What goes around comes around; a good tale does not pale....even after a half century and more. In a curious juxtaposition of coincidences, this past week found me 1) seeing a Facebook post about visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2) reading a piece about "" The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", a book I read in Scholastic paperback that turns fifty years old this year, and 3) spending a couple of sticky hot and humid days in Washington, D.C., a situation that will drive nearly anyone to the cool halls and galleries of a museum.



I have been to New York's  Metropolitan Museum of Art, walking up its stairs and entering its halls in reverent fashion, as befits a temple dedicated to genius and beauty.  I only spent a few hours there, not staying past closing time as did the children in The Mixed Up Files, but we stood amid the Pharaohs..and the knights in shining armor...and the glories of Art Nouveau.  I was too scared of security to try taking pictures anywhere else!  The Metropolitan staged its artworks beautifully, with lighting and backdrops that seemed to reveal the piece like a child would show off a captured firefly...or tree frog. Art is a great mystery...if it weren't, would we spend so much time trying to decipher what it is and is not?  And every gallery should indeed provide a sense of the wonderful.

Years ago, our family visited my aunt and uncle in Detroit.  I can remember two things about the trip: crossing over the river into Canada...a foreign country!  And visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts. There we wandered first into what appeared to be a medieval courtyard, echoing and dark.  Now I wasn't  a fan then...and still won't go out of my way to see the pale faced, two dimensional, heavily symbolic art of the Middle Ages.  But the surroundings of the gallery were so spectacularly reminiscent of what I thought a castle..or a medieval hall..should be that I could hardly bear to travel on to the next exhibit. Whatever it was. I wasn't looking for art; I was looking for magic.

No matter how many people surround me, magic is what I find looking into the eyes of Rembrandt  in a self portrait, the reflections in the water of Monet's garden, the turbulent maelstrom of a Turner sky.  I am speechless in the presence of Catlin's Indian portraits as a priceless recollection of a bygone era. When we stand in a gallery, we have firsthand experience with the artist in a way that we never can with a manuscript or a piece of music, no matter how much we are moved.

A couple of years ago, Blake and I were approached in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. by a man with his little digital camera.   We were strolling through the Dutch galleries when he asked if we would take his picture next to a Rembrandt.  His smile stretched clear across his face as he posed and I clicked the shutter; his delight was palpable, even as the guard chastised him for getting too close to the priceless painting. What was it that brought him such joy?   He didn't strike me as particularly knowledgeable or expert....as a matter of fact, I thought he might have been pretty simple.  But childlike or not, he was looking for genius and chose to find it in art...and not in a sports stadium or a movie theater.  That day, Rembrandt was 'the Man'.

Today Lizzie sat at the dining room table with her pastels and her construction paper.  During the course of the hot afternoon, she created two different designs with a big stylized daisy in the center and colorful tendrils and flourishes trailing toward the margins.  She smudged and mixed the colors until the shading suited her and the pictures resembled Early American stencils in a thoroughly modern palette.  Meanwhile, Abbie fetched one of her watercolors of fields behind a long brick wall and trimmed it until it fit into an 8x10 frame so she could enter and exhibit her artwork at our county fair.  Neither girl was shy about her efforts, nor coy; instead, both had independent and original visions and executed them without artifice.  It was a pleasure to see them take their work so seriously, especially for the lady with sweat stains back and front and pickling lime up to her elbows.
At ten, my vivid imagination made me thrill to the coal mine in the Museum of Science and Industry with its spooky lighting and deep dark elevator.  Or one could walk the streets of old time Chicago with gas lamps and 19th century storefronts; it might look kitschy now, but was as good as time travel to me then.

 The grand daddy of all museums of that ilk is still Harold Warp's Pioneer village way out in central Nebraska near Minden.  Blake and I stopped there on our first vacation with baby Lee; she rode down the dusty streets contentedly while we peered into one or another of the antique businesses, churches, post offices, or schools, a whole community of them!  The air-conditioned museum buildings were just as big a draw: presidential yachts and farm machinery of esoteric purpose that would have been familiar to Blake's grandfather.  It was a grand scavenger hunt and one of my favorite living history destinations: just loads and loads of stuff with note cards affixed....no political or cultural revisionism and barely an attempt to curate. Years and years later, we discovered that the Pioneer Village Warp is the same as Warp Bros. Plastics, still producing products like the polyethylene we use to cover our greenhouses!

I didn't enjoy the visit to the Oriental Institute on the campus of the University of Chicago.  The darkly Gothic buildings didn't invoke grandeur so much as gloom and the exhibit of artifacts from the explosion of Vesuvius was far too realistic to be anything but terrifying.  The twisted agony of someone's pet dog has been imprinted on my mind's eye for lo these many years and the vividly colored murals accompanying the ashy relics seemed to have been created for no other purpose than sensationalism.  Sometimes a museum can do its job too well!  After that experience, I had no desire to peek inside a mummy case.....

If the past at the Oriental Institute was a petrified hand reaching out to grab me from the ashes, the past in Springfield, Illinois on a humid summer night was flickering behind the curtained windows and brick streets in front of Mr. Lincoln's house. I'm certain every facet of the home is preserved and protected now, but years ago when I first visited, the interior wasn't air conditioned or well lit at all; the parlor was dim and stuffy with the unmistakable smell of old wallpaper. It might have been anybody's old house.  That night, I  could easily imagine Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln taking a walk after the sun went down, waiting for their home to cool before heading indoors.  They seemed so alive to me..



That would have been a night at the museum....





Saturday, July 1, 2017

For My Mother

We are waiting.

Three of us are quiet with our thoughts or our books or our phones.  One of us waits alone, drawing breath every once in awhile. Not in pain now….and that makes the waiting as easy as it can be.

I picture my dad waiting too. He’s leaning on a fence post near a big green gate without a speck of rust.  He's wearing work clothes and work gloves and a straw hat.  He’s come to meet my mom.

I’ve comforted myself these last days by looking through their photo albums and the pictures from the slides my dad scanned onto CDs. Here’s my dad planting a shrub on their corner lot….and tending a couple of rather scrawny tomato plants.

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Here’s my dark-headed vivacious mother walking hand in hand with her two little girls…wielding a long handled hoe in what seems to be a gale force prairie wind….in work gloves, flats and a dress skirt and blouse? Looks like a very young me is doing my best to help, wearing a determined expression for the camera.  The background could be Dust Bowl Oklahoma or Ash Can School industrial with naught but bare dirt and power lines far as the eye can see.  In one picture she's as elegant as Jackie Kennedy...in another the camera catches a mama-to-be reading the color coded notes on a toy piano under the Christmas tree.

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I remember that piano….
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My kids tease me about the roomful of photo albums I have accumulated in this digital age, but they would understand were they to measure the albums and scrapbooks my mother created over the sixty years of married life.  Nothing escaped her artistic eye; nothing was too trivial to be wonderful captured in the camera’s lens. Oftentimes the photographs my father took...were of my mother… trimming a tree, hanging out clothes, blowing out candles, walking through the woods, holding her babies.



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 But my mother recorded everything from Mt. Rainier to model planes, the first day of school to the first great grandson, from my dad high on the roof painting their century old barn to showing off a computer desk he had fashioned by hand for their condo by the Lake.







Fireworks, daffodils, gravestones, car shows, band concerts,  daylilies.  Country churches, county courthouses, small town main streets: her camera accompanied her day-to-day tasks on the farm and criss crossing the blue roads of Missouri long before the ubiquity and spontaneity of cell phones made photography universal.


Our family carries a Canon to every event of consequence.  My mother is the reason why.

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She encouraged imagination and creativity in her children.  She supplied scarves and discarded jewelry for dress up and make believe; we never lacked for watercolor paints or chalk or crayons or colored pencils, even if we lacked talent.  As I leaf through the scrapbooks, I see stories I wrote in grade school and Laura’s whimsical drawings of fanciful birds, animals and plants.  We spent many hours at the local libraries and I can thank my mom for pointing me toward Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, Treasure Island and Dr. Doolittle, Nancy Drew and Jules Verne,  the Regency romances of Georgette Heyer, the British mysteries of Dorothy Sayers and the exotic African tales of H. Rider Haggard.  She sewed constantly, making our simple play clothes and our Easter finery, supplying our bedtimes with the entire cast of A.A. Milne characters. The cedar chests and trunks of our home were always chock full of fabrics purchased for future projects...and bargains off the remnant table.  When I worked in Washington, D.C. the summer before Blake and I married, she traveled out to visit, bringing the wedding dress she was making for me to try on, especially the intricate lace jacket with its ruffled cuffs and trim.  I borrowed a car and we drove to Monticello and Civil War battlefields one day and Harpers Ferry another; it was a grand adventure.
One of my Easter dresses got a second life this last week when Abbie wore it as Little Bo Peep in ‘Shrek’.  I’m sorry my mom didn’t know that; it would have pleased her so much.
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One year our family traveled by train to Utah to visit my mom’s family in Ogden.  Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Delore took us up into the Wasatch Mountain canyons and out to visit other relatives near Eden...Utah, that is, as well as all the sights related to the history of the Mormon church.  I was captivated by the monument of Brigham Young and the early pioneers and the story behind “This is the Place” and the Mormons’ endeavors to ‘make the desert bloom.’  Those were my mom’s people, and even though she was married at First Presbyterian in Jefferson City and joined the Lutheran church after her marriage, I think some of that  ‘make the desert bloom’ history was part of her DNA.  Their home in Orland Park was spartan at first..but there were houseplants in the west window of the dining room and a treasured antique Christmas cactus in my parent’s bedroom. The dust clouds of those early photos were transformed to bowers of morning glories and four o’ clocks, marigolds  and moss rose.  She let Laura and me start Dixie cups of marigolds on our window sill.  Besides the apple orchards on their farm, my mother and father grew grapes for jam and juice and wine, strawberries, red and black raspberries, cherries and plums and pears and peaches when the weather cooperated.  A summertime visit meant a bowl of berries at every meal, sprinkled with sugar or drizzled with honey.  In the summer, the house plants moved from the greenhouse to the cool and breezy market; a long raised bed of daylilies welcomed a visitor through the gate; crape myrtle and hardy hibiscus brought bright color to the late summer doldrums and dust of August.  Sometimes mid Missouri felt like the desert, but my mother could make it bloom.
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It’s good to remember those days, not these last days when her spark shone rarely.  It’s sad to know she can’t call me ‘love’ where I can hear her. But I picture my folks in the early cool of a summertime morning walking down through dewy grass...my dad’s headed for his shop and my mom has a wash basket of laundry to hang on the line. The daylilies are abloom and there are berries to pick before it gets too hot.  They are together on their beautiful farm...and one day we will see them there too.  

Virginia Ann Renken
December 25, 1933- June 28, 2017