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Out-flanked by Thanksgiving traditions

This Thanksgiving my sister-in-law requested I make Holiday Salad. “What is that?” I queried. One time we brought pie, another she asked us to bring turnip. I love turnip, and love making it. “Amy is making the turnip,” she said. Two years ago Kym cheerfully made pies, but she is in college now, and Liz wisely did not suggest I try my hand at pastry. Vegetable sides, salad, appetizers, sweet little amuse-bouche, these are my forte, these make me seek new flavor combinations, track down recipes, explore new tastes. “Uh, any kind of salad I want for the holiday?” I asked hopefully. This could be fun. I began thinking roasted pear, or maybe root vegetables and stinky cheese, or yes, strips of fig and fennel with a citrus vinaigrette.

“You know, Mom’s holiday salad, “ she said. “It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without it.” My gut had already suspected, and I turned to page 21 in Jane Smith’s cookbook, and there it was. Lemon-lime jello with whipped cream, cream cheese, canned pineapple and Maraschino cherries. “Can’t I make Jane’s cranberry sauce instead?” My mother–in-law wanted to make it this Thanksgiving, but is in a retirement home and cannot use the kitchen. Liz, however, had the cran sauce under control.

No was not an option I choose, though I did protest, “Liz, I have never made a jello salad in my life, I’d prefer to go to the grave proudly saying that.” I don’t think she heard, but perhaps that is because I did not say it aloud. Instead, I contemplated family Thanksgiving traditions.

The beginning of Holiday Salad

For a number of years I hosted our family Thanksgiving every other year, and loved having everyone congregate in this state that has become home. The first year I did this I was in my late twenties. I printed and mailed invitations to family and included friends. My mother called. “We don’t really want your friends at dinner with us do we? Perhaps just dessert.” And so the tradition of a day after Thanksgiving dessert social was started. I won’t say she was right, and this Christmas we are opening the doors to anyone we think of asking, but the day after dessert event was perfect. Who can eat dessert after an excessive turkey dinner? Even if not cooking, there is a sense of stress waiting for that turkey button to pop, or the thermometer to read right. Many people have family obligations on Thanksgiving. Some even have to have turkey twice in one day. But the day after is a decompress day. Our day-after event, which moved from Tremont, to Somesville, to Otter Creek as I rented homes large enough to house us all, became a treasured mingling of family, friends, co-workers. T Day was over, everyone was mellow and relaxed. A few days before the holiday my mom and dad would arrive to help, and we moved tables, set up beds, bought groceries, and prepped for four-five days of meals, hikes, T-day dinner and the new tradition, a dessert social.

Expanding the guest list to include friends for dinner had not worked. My next effort was to change the menu. Ours included sausage and bacon stuffing, creamed cauliflower, asparagus, jellied (ugh) cranberry sauce. I found colonial recipes and native American feasts. “Oyster stuffing” I said to my sisters. Always tolerant they said, “sounds good, as long as you make regular stuffing, too.” Raw cranberries with grated orange rind replaced the jellied, and mom even called for that recipe months later. I made roasted squash with nuts and maple syrup instead of canned sweet potato. I was allowed these minor deviations, but not to change our mom’s admittedly delicious bread and bacon and sausage stuffing. I have made a small bird with oyster stuffing and have to say it is amazing. Better than mom’s stuffing? Well, actually, yes. Or perhaps equally good, just very different. But we have non-seafood eaters, and meat and potato guys, and mom’s stuffing is the consummate universal comfort food. I cannot imagine anyone not loving it, and so I learned how to make it. Rebellion quelled, I honored our family traditions because the holiday is not really about the food, but about us, our family, and the bond shared memories of stuffing or Holiday Salad engenders.

But, back to this Jello thing. My initial resistance was to a tradition that I have no history with and a tradition that includes Jello, which I have never liked and frequently ridiculed. It is, after all, pretty goofy stuff. I recall a Cosmopolitan article suggesting filling the tub with Jello for a romantic environment better than a waterbed. I have never slept on a waterbed, and a tub of Jello at room temp brings visions of crawling insects rather than joyous abandon. And Jello shooters, what are they? Some lethal way to consume alcohol without enjoying it. Other Jello recollections include tonsils out at age ten, and my husband’s oral surgery. And so being asked to make a Jello salad unleashed a torrent of not so appetizing memories.

However, since my sister-in-law is someone I met through marriage but love and respect and is now a friend, I said yes. Yes, I will make a Jello salad. I did not grow up with it, but my husband did, and his children. I have heard his grandchildren clamor for Holiday Salad, This salad is as deeply entrenched in my husband’s family, as sausage-bacon stuffing is in ours. I will not debate taste or nutritional value. On this day they are irrelevant. Holiday Salad and bacon stuffing are deeply satisfying ways to celebrate and share a sense of family.

As the Jello made it’s magic, the man of few words whipped the cream, spooned in the other ingredients, and the Holiday Salad was poured neatly into Jane’s special Holiday Salad mold. Yes, there is such a thing. I had never seen one, but then, I had never made Holiday Salad. It has an opening at top and bottom, is quite clever, but Liz had to show us, you tip the mold upside down, open the other side, and plop, it jiggles onto a plate.

I can still say I have never made a Jello salad, as I played only a small part in it, primarily supervision. But experimental salads and oyster stuffing can wait for another day. Family and tradition are forces to be reckoned with, and I would not have it any other way.

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A Plague of Locusts

It is rainy and dark as I dash to the house, pushing the door shut against the buffeting wind. No, it is not a dark and stormy night, merely rainy and dark. I flick on the light and see dozens of black forms flattened on the freshly cleaned floors. It is October, and the annual battle has begun.

About an inch and a half long, brownish-green oval leaves from the locust trees insist on covering the dining room and kitchen, encroach on the living room, cozy down in front of the fire and the boldest cheekily dot the way up the stairs. Damp, they plaster themselves to the wood, and firmly resist being swept up. Instead, I stoop and pick them up one by one.

Wiping feet outside the door and again on a mat inside makes little difference. I leave in the morning, floor cleared, and upon return find they have invaded again. The door may have been opened for the cat, or someone dropped something off, and those leaves seized the opportunity to scurry in.

Black Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia are not native to Maine. They have moved up from Southern New England. They are widespread now, however, but primarily in areas where they has been a long history of human habitation.

The ones around my house in Otter Creek are over one hundred years old. They seem startlingly out of place, with their dark twisting branches suggestive of exotic rainforests rather than our homely Maine woods. Even more out of place since they surround my house but not the homes nearby, fifteen or more of them, and they tower above the poplar, ash and apple at neighboring houses.

I was not familiar with their habits when I purchased this house fifteen years ago. I had stretched my finances to the limit, and was counting dollars as I replaced rotten windows and had plumbing for a kitchen sink installed. I bought the house in May, and watched in dismay as the neighbor’s trees burst forth with vivid chartreuse baby leaves, and my locusts remained black, stolid and leafless.

Corkscrew branches of the Black Locust

Corkscrew branches of the Black Locust

Daily I would look up, hoping for signs of life. Then resolutely ignore them and work on fixing stairs and laying floors. With each passing day it became more difficult to forget about them. I began to do addition in my head, tree removal at what? 500 dollars a tree? Probably optimistic. It just was not in the budget.

I counted the trees, cursing them, and wondered what to do without. Sheetrock in the bedroom? A sink in the lavatory? There wasn’t much room for budget cuts. And then, well into June, leaves and cottony white blossoms appeared. I blessed those trees, and thanked them. And finally got to know them. It is not an easy relationship.

In late winter I admire their bare, alien, corkscrew branches dark against the sky. And then I spend spring picking up the speckled snake-like branches littering the lawn. After I have cleared the yard, I am rewarded with magnificent creamy white blossoms, and the hum of bees is lovely and loud.

Black Locust blossoms are loud with the buzz of bees

Black Locust blossoms are loud with the buzz of bees

Followed by browning petals falling and sticking to everything and tracking into the house just like their autumn brothers. But soon green leaves unfurl like mimosa fronds, a delight to watch in the breeze, delicate and fine compared to their cruder companions, maple, oak and ash.

Some small green worms thrive on these leaves, and before long tiny black worm droppings are scattered over my white car. If not removed swiftly, moisture causes them to leave small bloodlike spots all over the surface and even a professional car wash is inadequate to remove these tough stains. Bleach and elbow grease are the only remedies– I park across the street at a neighbor’s. Two months after all our other trees have leafed out, the locust has finally stabilized for the summer. By August I gaze up and admire, pretending to have forgotten the spring struggle of sticky petals and bleach and worm droppings.

This peaceful truce does not last long. September, as other leaves turn autumnal shades of orange and gold, the Acacia gets dull and brown. Long before the maple starts to drop its leaves, the locust leaves fall down in a flurry. They lie on the ground and I step over them into the house, aware they quiescent, waiting. I sense their vast numbers, murmuring to each other. With the October winds they arise, and we battle again. They slip in the door and gain as much territory as they can, I stoop over and pad about the house picking them off one-by-one. By November they will be routed. I will have a few months peace to sit outside in a chair in the snow, a bonfire sending sparks up like fireflies through their beautiful branches. Guests frequently look up and admire our grove of trees, and the spiral shapes seventy feet above us.

“How lucky you are,” they say. Yes, I am. I know that. But I cannot help casting a frowning glance at those giants bending over us. Then I toss one of their limbs into the bonfire.

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Hands that see

Biking 100 hundred miles on a golden September Sunday in Ohio was a peaceful entry into the world of organized group biking. The weather was warm and sunny, the roads flat and swept, and while we had not done serious training (I had biked a lot more than Kym, but she is 19 and works at a stable all summer) we felt confident. We had followed good advice regarding diet, carbs, water and chamois butter. And decided to get a pre-ride massage, which a friend who had recently completed her first century suggested.

We walked to a massage center a few blocks from the college, but in spite of the open sign it was closed. Saturday, day before the ride, we spotted a spa next door to the bike shop where we were getting pedals changed. They were booked for the rest of the day, but kindly loaned us their telephone book and gave us a comfortable spot to sit.

Findlay is a small city, and it seemed reasonable there would be plenty of massage therapists to choose from. so I would have expected there to be more than the scant eight listings in the yellow pages. We went through them one by one, with the receptionist giving reviews as we said who we were dialing.

Very last listing I read the name aloud, and she looked at one of her co-workers and shrugged. I turned back to see if Kym had dialed it yet, and heard her say, “Great, two and two-thirty, thanks.“ As we left, and the worker came up and whispered in a voice intended to be reassuring, “I’ve heard he’s very good.”

Later, when we walked to our appointment, Kym said, “I think he may be blind, he mentioned his seeing eye dog would bark when we went in.” And the dog did bark briefly before settling down.

This pre-ride massage was something I had thought about for weeks, imagining Seafoam tinted walls, scented candles, plush robes and a fountain somewhere in the distance.

Instead we were greeted by the pungent odor of old cigar, worn and shredded carpet, and the radio tuned to some football game. Richard greeted us. He was a bit stout, in his sixties, wearing a polyester shirt not quite tucked in, and yes, blind. I agreed to go first.

“Any special problems,” he asked, and I mentioned the weird pain in my hips ever since I got off the plane, making every step just a tiny bit uncomfortable. He stroked down my legs, felt my feet, “We can take care of that,” he said, and began the massage. I tried to zone out the ball game.

I have had a fair number of massages, all different, most good. But never anything like this. His fingers just sank into my back and began to dance. They found little things and smoothed them, they loosened surface tension and went deeper. His connection to me was not both visual and tactile, demanding divided focus, but solely through the sense of touch.

All his attention was there in his hands, and it felt wonderful. At the end, he adjusted my hips and when I walked the discomfort was gone.

I rested while Kym had her massage, and heard him saying his fingers had found some tension in her neck, then heard her startled yelp of laughter as he did something to it.

Blissful post-massage we lazily sipped chais and read until dinner. Over risotto and salad asked, “Was the massage so good because he was blind? Or was his skill unrelated? “

We decided there absolutely was a connection – that the energy from his hands seemed different, more seeking than the energy of a sighted person. Unsubstantiated Google fact: in South Korea only the vision-impaired can be licensed as massage therapists.

True or not, our blind masseuse gave us deep and thorough bodywork. We cruised through our ride, and felt no pain or discomfort after although we cannot know it was because of our pre-ride therapy. We do know that it felt really good, and eliminated the pain in my hips, and soreness in Kym’s neck.

Really wish he had turned off the radio, though.

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Bats, bugs and garlic

A solitary evening in the backyard, very rare, no bonfire, no family or friends just stars, crescent moon and breeze. And bats. The air is still pale enough to show them as dark silhouettes as they fly close overhead. I have seen them a few times over the summer, but now every evening they come by. And I wonder, how was their summer?

We had long glorious days, endless evenings of dinners outside, and mild nights sitting around warm fires without bothering to light citronella sticks. Where were the mosquitoes Maine fondly call the state bird? The no-seeums that annoy with their tiny unexpected because unseen stings? Where the blackflies that silently, painlessly drill into the flesh, leaving drips of blood behind the ear or next to the eye that astonish when you brush hair out of your face and look down to see crimson wet on your fingers?

These are the dinner of choice for bats, so what did they do this long, languid, bugless summer? Has the bat population diminished due to lack of food? The bats flying here this evening may not be the same bats of summers past, but the numbers seem the same. It is comforting to know they are patrolling our air, hunting down to eat the very things we wish eliminated. But how did they survive this peaceful insect-free summer? “Insect-free?” I hear the Man of Few Words query in my mind.

He recalls a different summer, swatting bugs and scratching bites. I smile complacently, “No, really hardly any mosquitoes this year.” I barely got bitten even when we went fishing in the stream by the Deep Hole in Otter Creek, normally swarming with them, buzzing in ears, and finding any inch of exposed flesh.

But then I realize that there were indeed mosquitoes and no-seeums and black flies. Yes, I did see them in the air, and hovering around my companions’ heads. But they stayed away from me. And now I remember Dennis’ grandchildren saying “Please, may we light the lemongrass sticks?” I thought they just liked the sweet smell and curling smoke drifting lazily among us, but maybe they really were being bothered by stinging insects. I wasn’t.

Garlic! In June I started eating a sliver of raw garlic every morning. It took some getting used to, but I tucked it into a bundle of raisins, and came to enjoy the sharp and sweet little mouthful. Why? Just a general “let’s try this” health thing. Garlic is reputed to have many benefits, it can lower blood pressure, improve vision, clear skin, and so on. I also go on occasional apple cider vinegar regimes and Auyervedic cleanses. I enjoy them, they make me feel connected and in control of my health. But an insect repellent for people?

I googled. Yes, garlic is reputed to have insect repelling oils. I asked, “Do I smell like garlic?” and was reassured. But apparently it was enough to send those nasty biters to seek the sweeter skin of my friends and family. I have phased the garlic out, simple laziness, but have every intention of dosing up again next summer.

A bat circles overhead. Guess his summer was every bit as fine as mine.

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Bud Cans and BBs

The Range

The Range

After months without writing, the words and ideas flood my mind, each yammering for attention. “Me! Me“ they shout, and ricochet in my head like BB’s in a Bud can.

“Why a Bud can?” we have been asked, when we have 10-20 empty Budweiser cans lined up on the old 4 x 4 , some in a row and others stacked up to create tall precarious pyramids. This is the target range, and the targets are always Bud cans. No other can will do. Someone did once sneak in a Pabst Blue Ribbon, and while the colors, red, white and blue, blended with the Annheuser-Busch palette, there was something not quite right about it, a cuckoo amidst the warblers, and as soon as it showed signs of age on the range it was cycled out.

Tenacious Man gave me a Daisy Red Ryder for Christmas, oh, maybe eight years ago now. I’d had cap guns as a little girl, and had gone pinging tin cans with my dad up on the hill at grandpas, but I cannot recall that I ever had my own BB gun. Cowhide vest, suede skirt, cowgirl hat and boots, yes. But never a BB gun. Christmas afternoon we put up the little paper target that came with it, but the silent hits and shredded bits of paper did not satisfy. Cans, it had to be cans.

But we do not drink beer or soft drinks. We could of course buy drinks and dump them, but of course not, how silly and wasteful. We could buy them back from a recycle center, but the first one I asked wasn’t sure they were allowed to do that. We could leave nickels in exchange for cans down the road where there is a collection bin for the local high school field trip, but somehow it felt like stealing. And they were pretty beat-up, too. And so our source is the side of the road.

Whether that first can was a Bud can I no longer recall, but the hunt for Buds has now become as much fun (almost) as shooting them. We Bud hunt as we drive, and I will remember locations of roadside deposits as I bike around the island. Like stalking any prey, we have learned its habits and behaviors. A roadside can, if unable to be retrieved at once, can be safely left for a few days before it gets flattened, and therefore useless. I recently discovered a Bud route. At least once a week some regular traveler tosses his or her can out the window near the hill past Seal Harbor, on the right side heading to Northeast. Yes, I am curious about this regular deposit of Bud cans, but mostly am delighted to have a constant supply of virgins. That is what we call a can before the first pellet punctures it. New cans are always given a premiere performance, set up alone, or with a few fellow virgins, as we take aim and fire.

The backyard target range has been used by parents, kids, friends, grandkids. My daughter and her friends took aim before heading out on prom night. Grand nephew Ethan and family friend Jasmine took to the range before ( and after) s’mores. T.M. likes to demonstrate his one-handed over the shoulder shot, and safety buttons, proper handling and “this is not a toy” practices are followed by all.

The ping of a direct hit is gratifying. And since it takes focus, any frustrations or worries are forced out of mind. Just working for that solid thunk of dented metal, concentrating on lining up sights and holding steady. A hit usually puts a small hole in the can, and the more hits the more holes and openings. At some point, BBs will go in and get caught inside, where they spin around, metal tapping on metal, looking for a way out. Just like the words and thoughts in my mind.

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Latte Lawyers

As a latte lover, I appreciate there is skill involved in making a perfect latte, but does it really require a lawyer?

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Christmases Past, Cards Sent, Exhibit Ending

39 years of making home made cards, and I cannot remember them all. There were a few lean years, years I couldn’t afford it, didn’t have the time, should have been working instead. But I never missed a year.

I made have homemade cards for family birthdays and events since I was in kindergarten. When I was sixteen, I decided to mail my own Christmas cards instead of just being a name on the family card my mother sent out. We were making lino cuts and prints in art class, and so my first card was a lino cut, holly berries maybe.

The cards have evolved from those simple one- or two-color linoleum cuts, to hand-colored photocopies of pen and ink art, to printed cards, often with enclosures and usually with a story to tell. They are labor-intensive. Cards have included folding, gluing, stapling and even sewing.

I have gathered tree twigs, donning headlamp to pick a few more samples late one night, and terrified the neighbor, who could not figure what that little light was bobbing away up in the woods.

I mixed and packaged mulling spices, researched the history of riddles and learned about weather lore.

Each year a new idea emerges. Then comes the fun of researching the subject, figuring out how to construct the card, and finally putting it all together. To select colors, create or find art, choose the envelope and make a label takes time. In order to be finished in time to mail the cards in December, I
usually need to start in early November. But I think about next year’s card all year long.

The entire process is done in the spirit of sharing. I think of Christmas cards as little gifts. They give me the pleasure of making them, and I hope they give a moment of happiness to the recipient.

The Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor has a display of cards in their reading room, delightful pen sketches by Jim Grover, and a selection of my cards in a glass case. The exhibit will be up until January 15.

Jesup Memorial Library
34 Mt. Desert Street
Bar Harbor, Maine 04609
Tel: (207)288-4245
Tuesday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Wednesday 10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Thursday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Friday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Closed Sundays and Mondays

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The ol’ shell game

First we harvest them.

Then we cook them.

Then we eat them.

Then we give the shells to the crows and ravens to clean out.

Then we use them again, in the garden or sprayed silver for the Christmas tree.

Kym and Den gathering the worlds best mussels, plump, golden, free of grit and pearls, and the byssus threads easy to remove.

Kym and Den gathering the worlds best mussels, plump, golden, free of grit and pearls, and the byssus threads easy to remove.

Preparing mussels in mustard and garlic for Maine Sea Coast Mission Holiday Open House

Preparing mussels in mustard and garlic for Maine Sea Coast Mission Holiday Open House

A delicious, and large, Damariscotta oyster

A delicious, and large, Damariscotta oyster

Cherrystones B-I-L Kenny gathered. We had them in a white wine, garlic, shredded sage sauce.

Cherrystones B-I-L Kenny gathered. We had them in a white wine, garlic, shredded sage sauce.

Oyster, mussel and clam shells ready to Dremel holes, then hang on tree.

Oyster, mussel and clam shells ready to Dremel holes, then hang on tree.

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Coming clean in Otter Creek

After 42 years of keeping people clean, the hot showers in Otter Creek are gone.

Are we destined to have a lot of dirty campers? Fear not, a new improved model will be built this winter. Those improvements include a faucet for buying Sweet Waters of Acadia, our crisp, minerally, spring-fed water from the Cadillac Mountain aquifer, more solar panels, and a handi-capped and family shower unit.

So, you can still come clean in Otter Creek.

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Watch out for slow dust

That stuff can be dangerous!

and in case anyone was wondering where Pluto had gone…