Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Time to Bake the Cookies

Cookies. An event wasn't truly celebrated without them. The presentation changed slightly with a different platter or frosting colored to coordinate with the event - weddings, graduations, christenings, and of course Christmas, the high holiday of baking - but the stars of the show remained the same. My grandmother's cookies.

I was a casual observer of my grandmother's baking process. Her kitchen had a small counter top peninsula where the magic happened amidst a stand mixer and cookie sheets. She had banged up pink metal measuring cups, and some odd assortment of measuring spoons that she cast aside preferring to use silverware. The only involvement I really had as a kid with her baking, aside from wandering past the cooling cookies more times than necessary, was getting to use the typewriter or my fancy cursive writing skills to update her recipe cards. There was no "helping" my grandmother bake. My suspicion is that she anticipated the potential mess that likely would have occurred, and did not even entertain extending the invitation.

As an adult, the first cookie recipe of hers that I borrowed was for a simple delight called Italian Cookies. These were the favorite of many and most often requested. I was apprehensive about trying to make the cookies on my own because her reports often detailed the dough giving her trouble by being either too sticky or too dry. The only problem I had was the sizing as I had not accounted for any rising, and I am not sure if cookies being too large even really counts as a cause for alarm.
This year I made them almost too small
One of my grandmother's last Christmases living in her home, I was trying to go through some motions of holidays gone by, so figured we would make some Italian Cookies. I was hoping to get a few pointers as I expected something to click once all of the ingredients were out, or at least once the dough mad been mixed; a sort of muscle memory type of thing. I was mistaken. We got through the task together in a bittersweet fashion. 

It seems like each card I pull out of her recipe box looks simple enough, but I get jammed up every time I try one. My grandmother never struck me as an infinitely patient person, but she must have found some sense of satisfaction and peace in what strike me as the most tedious of tasks. I remember watching her finely chop any number of ingredients. My first swipe at the date bars? I almost bailed at the first step trying to work my knife through the sticky mess I was making. I tried to remember what her process looked like and could only come up with a vision of a much larger knife than I typically allow myself to handle. 

My grandmother's passing left me even more drenched in nostalgia for the holiday season than my fairly saturated base level of the past few years. Cookies, there had to be cookies...more cookies than usual, more of her recipes being made, more people being reached, individual favorites accounted for. 

Walnuts? Did everything she made call for walnuts? Mincemeat? Let's not get crazy! (That being said, I have eyed that big old Nonesuch jar my past two trips to Wegmans. I also nearly put the $16.99 tin of Charles Chips in my cart. The comfort of memories is a dangerous game.)

I was ready for the dates. Big knife, take your time...
...just keep chopping! Maybe a bigger cutting board next time. On to the chocolate crumb bars! Checking things off the list, pretending these were done once out of the oven... no attention to the corner missing on each as I procrastinated actually cutting the bars!
Oh how did she decide how big to cut the cookies, and what knife did she wield so it wasn't a glorious mess?! No point dwelling as there were thumbprints to make!
That's not what hers looked like, and why was the thumb part so difficult? Why on earth did she not want help? (Obviously because she probably had a better system and I only would have been holding her back.) My mom made the nut tarts (more walnuts) and the Mexican wedding cakes snowballs Russian Tea balls (or whatever your family calls those powdered sugar coated walnut balls, yes, MORE walnuts). My daughter then had to weigh in with what have become her own holiday baking traditions of peanut butter blossoms and spritz cookies, and then we do like those chocolate crinkles, and how about some molasses because nobody else here likes gingerbread so I settled. (She also makes herself chocolate chip snowballs, but does not allow those to be given away.) How about some caramel corn to fill in any blanks! We still have cut outs to get through for the one person on our list who would probably turn down a cookie platter without them.

Then what? Well then comes the part where I don't even know how to give away the cookies. I don't know how many to set aside for the four of us to have here because any other year we would just nibble for days on what was left after company departed. This year I am trying to ration and worry I am failing at being generous about it. What if I give away too many cookies? I couldn't possibly just make more in January of whatever I wanted. 

I long to see my grandmother's freezer stacked high with tins filled with cookies waiting to be delivered or picked up. Having a better understanding of what went into that end result is fascinating to me, as once again, this was not a woman who had infinite patience or an affinity for messes. Maybe the key is that for that time she was baking, she put everything else aside. I know her house wasn't a mess to begin with, so that wasn't hanging over her head either. She probably didn't have a daily meltdown over what to make for dinner. I think she took her time. What was that like to feel like you weren't rushing? I need to try harder to remember her lesson to slow down once in awhile, or at least keep my house in better order on a regular basis (literally and figuratively).
Before I end this ramble, I want to update you on the villages from this post! Our cousin posted a photo of her village, that my grandmother contributed to, on the blog's facebook post... cousin posted a picture of hers there as well...
...and then my aunt set up hers!
This filled me with such joy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Just a quick random

The next time you are upright, dressed and feeling relatively reasonable about yourself, I hope my husband doesn't hand you a fanned out display of hair color coupons. So subtle. 
Truth be told, but I am reluctant to say "in his defense", I did end up using one of those coupons, and after turning our bathroom once again into a low budget crime scene, the "washes out in 28 days" color apparently washed out during the rinse process. This was a new and different occurrence, and one I am obviously not pleased about! Let's move on to party tips from Crispix cereal... I am left to dispute whether I would call a gathering successful if I was only offered two snack options. I am not disrespecting snack mix of the Crispix or Chex variety, but I need more than one other bowl of something to make leaving my house worthwhile. (Let's not even get into the fact that right now all I can ponder is trying to sit alone in a corner across the room from my host trying to cram seasoned dry cereal from what I hope is my own personal baggie into my mouth behind a mask.)

And now, a brief moment of silence for the fallen lawn inflatables...
...and perhaps another moment for whatever I am guessing a bird swooped down and carried off?!?!
I have never seen tracks like that before! 

I guess now I should try to finish up the other post I was working on, after thinking about starting it for three days. I am almost positive it will not reflect the effort made.

*After seeing that coupon larger, I just want to confirm that I do own emery boards, and understand how they work.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Home Away From Home

This post is merely a brief summary to help get you caught up on some of what went on around here. There will be other equally scintillating tales to follow.

Sometimes I need a distraction. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that at some point in the last nine months you have needed one (or far beyond double digits) as well? It was June, so three months into bumping into the same four walls and three people. We were one month past my son's bittersweet driveway college graduation and knee deep into his unsuccessful attempts to put that newly minted engineering degree to work. We had become more proficient at the weekly zoom calls with my grandmother, but longed for the simplicity of just sitting next to her. I had tried to restore some order around the house in a Tazmanian Devil type of frenzy. Sewing masks had become disenchanting as the fabric started to lose its charm as the novelty wore off. I panicked. 

My temporary job at an insurance company was drawing to a close, and while I had applied for a permanent position there, I was having a hard time mustering up any enthusiasm about it. I needed to feel more useful in the face of the pandemic, put a different skill set to work maybe. I applied for a position at a nursing home as an activity leader, including a very matter of fact cover letter that explained how my life experiences positioned me as qualified for the job in ways my resume may not have conveyed. I was quickly granted an interview, and offered the job hours after that meeting. It is almost amusing to me now as I look back on just what my state of mind must have been when I accepted the offer...for less money per hour than if I was starting at Dunkin Donuts, that would necessitate being tested for covid once a week, working every other weekend and some holidays, in a germ factory, oftentimes surrounded by a general sense of hopelessness. 

Maybe I thought I was going to save the world, or at the very least, my sanity? In an ironic twist, I was assigned to the dementia unit. I was able to accept that none of the residents were my grandmother, but that did not mean that I was not willing to play the part of their granddaughter. I found people who would tolerate my singing, be content just walking hand in hand with me, comment on my weight/hairdo/outfit with no filter. I gave my best. The rewards were typically small and personal with no gold stars, but I was convinced that I had found something I was good at. I was not blind to the parallels running in my life, and not just because I literally had to drive by my grandmother's facility on my way to work. In some ways it just made me want to run even harder trying to not only find joy for myself, but to bring whatever spark I could think of to my newfound friends. I also kept trying to find the humor, no matter how dark it could be, to bring those stories home to my family since I was the only one leaving the house. I kept wanting to share the stories here, but often worried I wouldn't be able to translate them well to print.

I think I started to get burnt out about four months in. The schedule was not great, the families were growing weary as the virtual visits fell short of filling the void, sundowning started even earlier with the time change and less daylight, and even figurative bright spots in the day were quickly cast over by shadows. As one nurse simply stated, it was sucking the life out of us. I hate cliches, so it bothered me to feel like I was falling into, or becoming one. I tried to rally with some autumn craft ideas, and then tried to keep my game face on when the supplies started to disappear less than an hour after I put them on tables, or the bulletin board was disheveled after one swipe by somebody in a mood. I did not want to give up, and could not fathom how I would walk away.

When my grandmother died, there was a part of me that wanted to march right back into work and make a valiant attempt to do SOMETHING for SOMEONE, but there was also a part of me that wanted to run screaming from the building. One week after my grandmother's funeral, I was on my way to work when I got the phone call that my covid test for that week had come back positive. Maybe some of those mild symptoms the week before that were easily explained away by stress and allergies amounted to something. I had no choice but to turn the car around and go home to hide under my covers in "isolation". I had to stop. I had to sit with the fact that my elderly dementia person was gone, and maybe it was time to close the chapter of my life, at least temporarily, that dealt with that diagnosis.  I did not return to work, and I am strangely okay with that.

*It is my assumption that I contracted covid at work as it had finally entered our facility, and I had spent time with some of those residents, while wearing a mask, before their test results had come. I had been able to overcome most of my fears and felt adequately protected until that phone call came. Having to tell my family, especially my children who I am supposed to protect, that I tested positive was awful. My daughter tested positive as well (she had been home from school a mere twenty-one hours for the funeral). We both had very mild symptoms, and I am grateful every day for that. It was very scary and I did not think I could go back to work and keep that risk factor in my life, as well as attempting to appropriately grieve while doing so.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Draft Day #1-Malted random

I confirmed that it is in fact Tuesday...the eleventy-seventh (or actually eighth) of a 'ber month. No need for specifics. I checked my phone for any questionable items that needed sharing, and didn't come up with anything urgent. I am afraid if I don't at least mark this space, I will fall out of the blogosphere again, and the truth is I rather like it here. I decided that I could still do something a little random today, so I looked at my list of "draft" posts. I guess they serve as sort of placeholders for thoughts I may have that made it farther than others that were far too fleeting. I have seven such drafts, and 1053 actual posts, so apparently these pieces of unfinished business are rare specimens. Please do not mistake that as my suggesting they are fancy or of such magnitude that they could not possibly have been completed. I did not view each one, as that seemed like it would spoil the fun, so let's just bite into this one from October 29, 2016...
...that's it. It was just these two photos hanging out. I remember intending to document my quest for the malted milk balls of my youth, while voicing my disappointment in the ones I was finding. Does anyone else remember when they had more of the malted center? Look at that beauty up there! That was fancy candy store merchandise there. Certainly there was going to be a bounty of powdery goodness in side? But alas, ew. Can you taste the disappointment? What is that layer in between the inside and the outside? I should have never trusted something so shiny. 

Every now and then there is a Whopper in the box that comes close to what I am looking for, but without the carton, the experience falls short right from the beginning. Plus, there is also usually a ball of disappointment in the box and then you have to search for a better one to end the session with. The Robin's Eggs at Easter are the best option in my opinion, but I am not sure they have gone the way of the Cadbury Mini Egg and dressed themselves in other colors to be available at other times of year. Is this a mission I want to sign up for, a trail I want to pick back up? I know, and if you've been here for awhile you know also, that I can get pretty passionate about candy, but I think I am going to put a pin in this one until the new year. It is not just because I have been drained of nearly every last ounce of optimism, but I also just found the bag of Harvest Mini Cadbury Eggs I purchased, which is distracting, as is the fact that I fell of the wagon with regards to peanut m&m's.

Thank you for being here! I'll be back soon!

Sunday, December 6, 2020

It took this village

I gathered some photos and set out to write a post about our history with the Dickens Village. One paragraph in I remembered that I meant to check to see if I had already written such a post, as it seemed fairly familiar. Sure enough, I found it. 

There was a small part of me that did not want to partake in the project this year, but I knew in my heart that was not really an option. Here is my village this year...
...and here is my mother's, as thankfully she followed along...
...and here is the post originally published on December 7, 2015...

In 1992 my grandmother started all of us with Department 56 Dickens' Village pieces for Christmas. Each of her three children got a church, believed to be vital to village functioning, and the grandchildren received a store of some sort. My first acquisition was the Poulterer, as it was part of a set of five stores and their were five grandchildren. I had visions of some day bartering with my cousins to collect the other four vendors. I embraced the start of this tradition, not necessarily because I was an aficionado of porcelain collectibles,  but rather a fan of traditions. I still am. There are plenty of things that I do, taking more pleasure in the comfortable familiarity and predictable expectation than in the event itself. This new holiday happening held a double bonus as I would get to help set up the buildings and look forward to receiving a new one.

My grandmother was so fond of her plan and of the houses themselves that she started a collection for her and my grandfather's house as well. Suddenly these very hard to buy for people were an urban development team looking for growth, and we had so many options to assist them. While my grandmother was focused on the houses themselves, my grandfather's interest had to do with the mechanics of displaying them. He started by electrifying the hutch, like literally put outlets in it with a master switch. Shelves were built, and when the pieces exceeded what could reasonably be displayed on the square footage provided by the hutch, removable wooden side wings were constructed that were screwed in. Some twigs and small blocks of wood were fashioned into bare winter trees to supplement the purchased evergreens.
Never once did I hear the phrase "I think the village is at maximum capacity!" It just magically appeared some time in December, display complete. We were all at our own houses, setting up our own modest towns. Truth be told, I have the makings of a densely populated city, as other people added to my collection for a few years as well.

Eventually, the task of bringing the hutch to life got to be too much for my grandparents, but their desire to have this centerpiece of holiday decor did not fade. I signed up, along with my mother and aunt, to do the heavy lifting so to speak. We had no idea what we were in for that first year, so many cords, so many bulbs, so many accessories. My thoughts quickly went from the nostalgic "aw, I remember when I gave them this and that" to "oh my gosh, did we really give them all of this". We had obviously seen the final product year after year, but had not committed any of it to memory. Our own set ups had more of a "what might look nice this year" approach. We quickly found out that my grandmother's claim that different was not a bad thing actually meant as long as everything is the same. At one point a photo was offered for guidance, but it had been taken before the eastern and western extensions had even been added. My grandmother kept offering "gentle" suggestions and eventually the job was done.

Strategies were discussed with regard to how future endeavors could be streamlined and less maddening. I might have suggested a scenario in which my grandmother was taken out to lunch while the other two elves magically whipped up the scene. Instead we just muddled along, refining our method as we became more familiar with all parts of the operation. Eventually I found peace in doing the job myself, while nodding politely in response to the chatter. My grandfather passed away, and my grandmother was not necessarily in a position for me to ask her for assistance. As I sat on the floor, balancing those side wings on my head, while trying to screw the tiniest of hardware in to the underside of the hutch, I always assumed my grandfather was watching me and smiling...or laughing at me. I was fine with either.

As my grandmother's dementia progresses, it seems there is comfort in the familiar. Considering the very warm temperatures and lack of snowfall, it was almost plausible for her to not be able to keep track of the time of year, despite it being heralded as "the most wonderful time of the year". I made brief mention of getting her houses set up, and thought I saw a vague look of recognition on her face. I looked at my calendar and picked a day to set up her houses. She didn't express much interest at all in what I was up to, even though she was in her usual prime viewing seat on the couch. No opinions were offered. I wasn't sure if I was going to have time to finish the project in one session, so I made sure to keep everything put away as to not look messy. The mayor looked like she needed a nap, so I quit for the afternoon. There was an entire box of people and accessories still in the closet that I had planned to tackle on my next visit. 

When I was discussing my afternoon with my husband, he asked me if my grandmother had asked to have the houses put up. When I responded that she had not, he asked why I did them. I started to sputter and stammer out a response that as long as my grandmother lived in that house, those houses would be up for the holidays, she loves those houses and what if she asked about them at the last minute. Clearly it was my grandmother's best interests I was considering...clearly.

The next day I returned to bring out the heart of the exhibit, the people. My grandmother remarked that the village looked really nice, not "overdone". Not overdone? But that was the theme of Hutchville. I asked if she wanted me to put some more of the accessories out, and her answer was no.
Yes, the village looks nice. In fact, my husband can't really see much difference between the two photos. Meanwhile I was seeing that the schoolyard had no children and merry-go-round. The church had no gate and nuns. (Gads, and those crazy little tombstones my grandmother had made back in the heyday.) The animals weren't on the farm. Where was the hustle and bustle? It was all packed in styrofoam and cardboard. I forced a smile and we sat on the couch to watch the birds at the feeders outside.

I realized I had made this completely about me. My wish to find some sense of familiar in her house that is changing. My wish to cling, not only to traditions, but also the memories that she is ever so quickly losing. 


Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Wrong day random

Is there ever really a wrong day for the random though? As I scrolled through my phone to gather some "substance" for this post, I saw the accompaniments for so many (like at least three) other things I need to tell you about. However, if I am going to get back into this thing, I might be better off just striking whichever iron seems hot. I guess that is to say that doing a random Tuesday post on a Wednesday seems like an accurate representation of where I am.

Remember when I used to go to the Fair to wrap up each summer? Here are one, twothree, four and five reminders. (Take those links or leave them. I don't know what kind of free time you have.) Well, the New York State Fair was cancelled for 2020. In an attempt to ward off severe disappointment, I got up early and assembled the Great New York Fake Fair...
I tried to account for all of the favorites-the animals, fresh squeezed lemonade, chocolate milk, the taffy and the "goldfish" we never usually tried to win. Oh, and of course, the butter sculpture...
...nailed it!
Now that we are all caught up with those festivities, let's move on to a few things I saw once I left the house. Maybe these are not the perfect toys for cooped up folks...
...although that unicorn looks more sleepy than anything. If those don't liven things up enough, why not try some micro-sensations...

...royal jelly AND honey? I mean, I might need a NEW BUTT...
...and yet I still don't know how I feel about this turn for children's literature despite understanding what probably sells...
...tempting just to find out the plots twists. This last one is my own personal problem I realize, but I cannot not read these signs without the first word having a long e sound, making the rest of the advice just silly pandemic humor.