Monday, December 23, 2019

Herb Your Holiday Turkey

It is the day before Christmas, I am trying to wrap presents and bake cookies, but here I am compelled to share this blog. Tomorrow starts the marathon cooking, which leads me to the point of this blog.

I want to share this simple recipe to brine your Christmas turkey, or next year's Thanksgiving turkey, or any bird for that matter. For years I have been buying turkey brine mixes in specialty stores. Brine is known to enhance holiday poultry, making it moist and juice. The defrosted bird should be soaked in the brine for at least 24 hours.

I knew full well this was something I could whip up in my kitchen for a lot less money with fresh, organic ingredients, that for the most part, were growing in my back yard. I am all about being responsible for my own needs and knowing where my food comes from. This was screaming, "Do it yourself!"

To prepare an authentic product, I took a measured amount of commercial brine mix, a series of colanders and strainers to sift out and measure the ingredients, a good pair of reading glasses, and began to calculate the percentages of the individual ingredients. What I discovered was that it was a whole lot of salt and very little seasoning. Thinking there were large quantities of delicious herbs in my garden, I upped the ante with the good things to flavor the brine.

This is only a suggestion for ingredients. If you're growing some delicious herbs in your garden, consider making your own recipe.

Turkey Brine Mix

For birds sixteen pounds or less, combine 2 cups of brine mix with 1 gallon of water. Over sixteen pounds, use 3 cups of brine salt with enough water to cover the bird.  The herb mix is only a suggestion and can be adjusted to taste. In addition, wine or juices such as orange or lemon, can be substituted for part of the water. Sometimes we also add chopped tangerine or orange peels that we collect from the fruit in our yard.

In a large bowl, combine the ingredients and store in an airtight container. Like any other herb mix, try to use it within 6 months to a year.

2 cups kosher or coarse salt
1 tablespoon raisins or chopped dried fruit
2 teaspoons juniper berries (most specialty stores have these)
1 tablespoon dried rosemary
1 tablespoon minced, dehydrated garlic
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried sage

-Combine mix with a quart of water the day before you are planning to prepare the brine to hydrate the dried ingredients and infuse the water. Refrigerate. If you are using fresh herbs, triple the amount of the dried herbs. 
-Twenty-four hours before cooking, add additional water and soak the bird. Make sure the brine covers the entire bird.
-The day of preparation, drain and rinse the bird thoroughly to remove the brine. Prepare as planned.

Two important things to remember: Your defrosted turkey needs to stay cold! No shortcuts here. To avoid food poisoning, keep your bird surrounded by ice or at the very least, temperatures between 40 and 42 degrees. In the past we have been very creative. Quite a few times we had to use a scrubbed-clean laundry sink. We immersed our brine bucket with bird into the ice filled sink, making sure the temperature of the brine stayed cold. We replaced the melting ice as needed. Another time we were in snow country, and determined the space between our exterior cellar door and the basement itself, easily provided a constant temperature below 40 degrees. It was protected from animals and stayed cold.

The second consideration is to make sure the container you brine your turkey in is a food safe container. Picking up a five gallon plastic bucket at the hardware store won't work. Find a container especially for food products. Try your local restaurant supply store. 

                                 Image result for roasted turkey 

And this is your end product--along with many side dishes that will leave your stomach extended and provide enough leftovers to feed the family the rest of the week. From this one bird we make hot turkey sandwiches, turkey pot pie, turkey salad, and finally, turkey soup from the carcass. A moist, juicy bird warrants a repeat performance!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Mother Nature's Big Mistake

I don't often think of Mother Nature as making any mistakes, but when scorpions were allowed to exists on this planet, that was her big one. I would sooner consider that extraterrestrials (yes, I believe in ETs) in the pre-human time of existence, had been experimenting with life forms and during one grave mistake, crossed a demon from hell with an insect and thus, we were blessed with scorpions.

Why Arizona? Who knows. I understand other states and countries harbor them as well as those of us in the desert who seem to have an abundance of these nasty creatures.

So let's think about this from Mother Nature's point of view. What can scorpions do for us? For starters, they eat crickets and other insects. But my chickens can do that. I don't see any benefits yet. In fact, I can't think of anything else a scorpion can do for me except for causing terror, pain, suffering and in some cases, horrific medical expenses.

On this beautiful, spring morning in March, I am starting my day by making my bed and tidying up. Bed made, I grab the satin throw pillows I stacked on the chair next to my bed. When I grab the pillow I see what appears to be a peculiar gold wad of threads on the underside of the pillow.  All the bells and sirens go off in my head and I feel my skin begin to crawl. Can't be, I am thinking. It's only March. I grab my reading glasses trying to deny the horror that is unfolding.

But first, just in case, the pillow is removed from the house.

And yes, it is a scorpion. A healthy adult that chose to take a nap between my satin pillows in my bedroom, next to my bed. I begin my assault by capturing the beast under one of my canning jars. I am so unnerved by these creatures, I can't even step on them. Do you know mother scorpion carries
her babies on her back? Imagine stepping on one of these and having a bazillion more scatter around your feet. Uh, uh. Not me.

So here is my dilemma. We are a pesticide/herbicide free home. We are fighting cancer in this family and toxins are not allowed in the mix. Natural pesticides are used in the gardens with companion planting to avoid an outbreak of insects. Vegetable crops are rotated regularly encouraging plant-specific pests to go elsewhere. This year I am experimenting with growing my own tobacco to use as an insecticide. It kills humans, why not insects?

But I break my own rules this morning. While under glass I saturate the scorpion with a pesticide specifically designed for his/her demise. Two hours later he is still alive. I have doubts that a professional can rid me of this hard-shelled nightmare. My neighbor offers to come over and spray around the perimeter of the house and the baseboards in my bedroom. I can feel my lungs solidify with the thought of poisonous spray in my sleeping quarters. Hmmm, painful scorpion sting, cancer or respiratory failure? So hard to choose.

I take my neighbor up on his offer. My sweet little dogs, sleep on the floor and after all, I have to protect my family. What irritates me the most is that these devils are so sneaky. Bark scorpions, the most poisonous in the world, are nearly invisible when on a neutral colored floor. You could be minding your own business walking barefoot through your house and you get nailed.  They have greeted me at 3 a.m. during a bathroom visit. My neighbor got her sting reaching into her laundry basket. A dear friend thought she was picking up a rubber band near her desk and it turned out to be a scorpion. That doesn't happen with rattlesnakes, Gila monsters or tarantulas. You can see them coming and walk the other way. But a scorpion, well, it's always an alarming surprise.

 My mind wanders to last summer at our farm in Wisconsin. I was eaten alive by mosquitoes, charged by deer flies, startled by giant spiders that came out of nowhere, horrified by ticks, threatened by ground bees that hated me, and I won't even get into the Elder bugs, wasps, hornets, Asian ladybugs, and Japanese beetles. All of them, even the ticks, seem rather tame compared to a scorpion.

Image result for elder box bug
Boxelder Bug
Image result for ground bee
Ground Nesting Bee
Asian Lady Beetles
Asian Ladybugs. Cute but their bite hurts!
This morning the predicted high temperature in Wisconsin today is 8 degrees. I am not sure my country neighbors would agree with me that there is a benefit to their miserable weather.  As they battle ice and snow, our warm, spring sun shines through my bedroom window where I continue to watch the scorpion outside, dying from his poison cocktail. Apparently, scorpions prefer 120 degrees to 8 and thus I am cursed with their presence in Arizona.

Now that my Monday morning threat is contained and my blood pressure has returned to a normal reading, I can think clearly.  This event is telling me that we need to be grateful for whatever we have and wherever we are. If it is snowing in Wisconsin, it's not a welcoming environment for scorpions.  If I'm battling demon life forms in Arizona, I am doing it on a warm, sunny day. If Mother Nature or extraterrestrials had been perfect, we wouldn't know what to appreciate in this life. And that may be my only genuine benefit from an encounter with a scorpion.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Do You Know Your Food's History?

This morning’s sunrise brings the second snow of the season. Thanksgiving is a few days away and today we are invited to a turkey slaughter at the Alexander farm in rural Wisconsin. At first, I am apprehensive. Why would I want to see something so gruesome? Yet I have been immersed in this country community for several months now, learning how country boys, and women, survive. I take a deep breath and agree to attend the event and rationalize that it will be good for me to see where my food comes from.
The frozen snow crunches under our rubber boots as my husband and I make our way to the garage. In the summer the garage door is mostly open while friends and family wander in and out, sometimes stopping to share a beer at the end of the workday. But on this blustery day, it’s all business. The roll-up door to the garage is closed so I follow the blood splatters on the doorstep and go through the side door. I see two men gutting a large turkey. Two more carcasses are on the floor, headless, yet not motionless. 
One man is teaching the other how to slaughter and dress a turkey. It is a skill being passed father to son. It is not a pleasant job.

 A sack at the base of the tail must be removed in one piece to avoid contaminating the meat. The technical name is Poop Sack. Dwayne, the father, and a seasoned farmer is satisfied with the poop sack removal and directs his son, Dale to remove the crop located at the top of the carcass. The crop that grinds the turkey's food sits in the neck cavity where we sometimes cram extra stuffing. Dale again turns his attention to the bottom of the turkey. A few more pulls and yanks and out comes intestines, a gizzard, lungs, heart, and liver. I am thinking, broth for the gravy. Well, everything except the intestines.
It is time to kill the next three birds. This is the part that worries me. I have loved animals all my life. I am a spiritual woman that respects all life forms. I cannot stand to see anything, even an insect suffer. Yet here I stand on a Saturday morning prepared to witness a beautiful brown turkey’s life terminated for the sole purpose of feeding my family in a few days.

Before you start to judge these folks, let me explain how Dwayne found a nest of wild turkey eggs in our pasture last summer and did his best to incubate them and turn them back in the wild. His efforts did not succeed and most of the eggs didn’t hatch or the chicks were too weak to survive. But the point is he tried. He adores his Shepherd, Toby, volunteers at the local cancer center, participates in community fundraisers, always has several grandchildren and their friends running around on the farm, and has been teaching us city folks the fine art of country living.
Dwayne walks into the turkey pen and grabs the first bird within reach. His dark brown feathers  glimmer with a green shine. The bird is surprised and silent as he is dragged to the chopping block to meet his maker.

“He’s a beautiful bird,” my husband notes.

“Yeah, he’s a good one,” Dwayne replies. Dwayne believes you get a better turkey if you let the blood bleed out before removing the head. He holds a knife in his hand and the bird's neck in the other and before I know it he sticks the blade into the bird’s neck. Again, not a noise from the bird. The turkey looks directly at me with his black eye. I feel guilty and wonders if he is asking, why are you doing this to me? Dwayne stabs again and dark red blood spurts from an artery and splashes on the white snow under the bird’s feet.  The turkey stumbles backward as life ebbs away. He sits on the ground going into shock. Soon he cannot sit up and falls over. Wings and legs continue to flop.                                         

He’s dead,” the ten-year-old grandson says. I secretly say a prayer thanking the bird for his sacrifice.

“He’s not dead yet,” Dwayne cautions. “Keep away or he’ll splatter you with blood when he goes to bouncing around." When the bird is motionless and the snow covered in blood, Dwayne picks up the body and with one to two whacks, the head is severed.

 My husband leans close to my ear. “Pretty graphic.” I look at him and turn away, grateful I did not have any breakfast.

Inside the garage, a vessel that appears to be a deep fryer attached to a propane tank is boiling water. Each bird is held by the feet and dunked in the water to immerse the entire carcass. Chad, Dwayne's other son is experienced at this task. "Three to four dips is all you need or you burn the skin." The steaming bird is ready for plucking.

The plucking table is surrounded by four people and each pair work one bird. Joe rolls up his sleeves and jumps in. “It’s not that difficult,” he says over his shoulder. You should try.” The room smells like feathers and humidity. I am wearing my one and only winter jacket and do not want it covered in wet feathers.

“No thanks, I’ll document the event,” I tell him. Remember, this is educational.”

One of Dwayne's grandsons turns around to ask me, “Do you kill your chickens?” He is speaking of my sweet laying hens.

“Well,” I reply, “Hell hasn’t frozen over so no, I don’t kill and eat my chickens. They have a face and a name and are given a proper burial in my backyard at the end of their days.” The farmers laugh out loud. They are often amused at my city girl outbursts.

 In short time all that is left is the tail feathers. Wings are trimmed and the bird is passed on to remove the entrails. The cycle continues until the birds are washed, bag, weighed and labeled.

I wander outside and three greenish, blood covered turkey heads lay on the ground near the chopping block. This bothers me. Of all days to snow it was today, bringing to light what is really going on here. The words of a farmer I met last summer at the Baker Creek Seed Festival ring out in my head. He said, “People need to know where their food comes from. It sure don’t come from a grocery store. You gotta know your food’s history.”

I know the history of these birds. It was a hot June night when I first saw them, they were light brown, still with some yellow down feathers, about three to four inches tall. They grew up on this neighborhood farm with a kind man, who raised them with wholesome feed, didn’t shoot them up with antibiotics and hormones so their breasts would get so big they'd fall over. He gave them a good home and a good life. Now it was the end of their lives and they would go on to sustain ours.

I wonder what other city folks would have taken away from this experience. Gratitude? Fear?  Shock? Perhaps a new respect for life and our food supply?  Would they become vegetarians?  When Saturday Night Lives comes on that evening and they show a celebrity hugging a brown turkey, Joe and I squirm and groan a little, bringing to mind the beginning of our day. Soon I will prepare my bird as I always have, say a blessing over the food, but this year will be different. I will remember the cycle of life and how all beings have something to contribute to life.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Do You Really Want to Know?

A few months ago I attended the national conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago. Always interested in our food supply, I sat in on a panel of experts that are responsible for insuring our food products are safe. 

You know that feeling that you can un-see what you've seen? You can't unlearn what you know. Yeah, it's like that.

For the next hour I learned about the horrific things that are found in our foods. This occurs on a regular basis whether we know it or not.  These governmental watchdogs try to put a stop to it, but the skeptic in me wondered what gets past the pros? This particular session focused on our seafood supply. Even now I shudder to think about the "near misses" I've had when trying to eat. So far it hasn't killed me.
Related image
But I keep thinking, you never know.

Or can you? When I got back I signed up for the Food Safety and Inspection Service produced by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. That's a mouthful, but this site provides regular emails that alert me to recalls and unsafe foods before it hits mass media.  I figure it's my duty as a health professional to protect my family and my community, and trust me, if I thought it was a critical issue, I would be sounding the alarm. 

A lot of it has to do with undeclared allergens or foreign suppliers failing to complete inspections. Our panel of experts said a lot of times it's about passing off an expensive fish fillet for a cheap ones. Sometime the buyers can't even tell and I'm sure consumers can't. I wonder if we ever really know what we are getting.

Today's recall notice: 

Washington, March 1, 2018 - Sensenig Turkey Farm LLC, a Lititz, Pa. establishment, is recalling approximately 1,925 pounds of turkey sausage products due to misbranding and undeclared allergens, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today. The products contain wheat and soy, known allergens, which are not declared on the product label. The raw breakfast turkey sausage items were produced on various dates from Sept. 25, 2017 to Feb 26, 2018. 

Well, first of all I'm wondering why this food is so old? It was made in September? Strike one. Next, I want to know why there is wheat and soy in a meat product? How much grain can go into sausage before it has to be labeled as something other than meat? Strike two. And strike three, it is mislabeled and I'm not getting what I think I am paying for. I hate that.

Here is the link in case you want to stay up nights wondering when you're luck is going to run out with the next mouthful of food: 

 All kidding aside, we live in a country that for the most part, provides a safe environment for consumers. While others struggle to find clean water each and every day, we walk to the nearest faucet for ours. We have access to organic foods if we so desire. Or like me, and many others, we dig up our back yards, shun herbicides and pesticides, and harvest foods knowing exactly where they come from. No middle man, except Mother Nature. 


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Adapt or Die

It is mid-January in Arizona and I have just walked into the kitchen with a handful of tomatoes. That's right, tomatoes. Some will have to ripen indoors, but still, I have fresh tomatoes. Never in all my life has this happened. There was no die-back of the vines; no cold weather to tell the tomato plants another season had passed. There was no fall, there has been no winter. And in two weeks, my new tomato seedlings go into the ground for spring planting. Nothing like jumping from summer to spring.

Returning from my mountain cabin yesterday, I was dealing with a nosebleed. For the lack of rainfall, it is so dry in the mountains that by the third night I wake with a nosebleed, gagging from the dry air. Morning on the deck shows no signs of frost. It is too warm and there is no dew.

On the drive back I tune to a local radio station. The unhappy truth is that scientists have determined this is the longest stretch of drought in Arizona in nearly 700 years. I calculate that the last time this happened was just about the time that the Anasazi Indians disappeared from my state. And who could have blamed them? I think I'm having a rough time adapting? I'm guessing there were no grocery stores to run to when the rains didn't come. The Indians left to survive.

From our farm in Wisconsin, we get regular reports from our tenant, John. Weeks stretched on with temperatures below the zero mark on the thermometer. He talks of ice and cold but little snow. Apparently, these Wisconsin residents love to play in the snow but Mother Nature will not accommodate. Then the rains come. He sends us a picture of the farm across the road that looks like a lake. I wouldn't want to be the one to try to plant that field anytime soon and thank God I sit on higher ground.

Anyone in denial of climate change is clearly out of the loop. Climate change is no stranger to this planet, but during the last serious altercation in 1816, there were not as many hungry people on the planet. Still, there was untold suffering when crops failed.  The Year Without a Summer is a book worth the read if you want a first-hand account of what we may have to face. But instead of just one summer, it could be the rest of our lives.
Image result for starving polar bear

 If one is not connected to the planet, unlike garden-types like me, it is easy to miss the subtle changes. But the big changes, such as entire glaciers melting before our very eyes and animals staved for nourishment, yeah, those are hard to ignore. Greed and power will dictate how we will face our changing climate. This saddens me but I take heart in knowing I can adapt by altering my planting schedule and finding heartier plant varieties to feed my family.  I stress over limited water in Arizona and too much water in Wisconsin; hotter temperatures in Arizona and cooler temperatures in Wisconsin. Nothing seems right and I'm starting to feel like Alice in Wonderland when she is tumbling down the rabbit hole. "What if I should fall right through the center of the earth...oh, and come out the other side where people walk upside down?"

Adapt, Alice. We all have to adapt.

Monday, September 4, 2017

We Bought An Old Farmhouse

It is the first day on our new farm. Actually, it is an old farm originally subdivided in the early 1800s. The farm house was built in 1900 and this will be my first night in a home that has lovingly provided shelter for many hard working farmers. I am not sure how it will take to having an urban farm girl under its roof.

This new adventure in my life is dedicated to all of you with an aching heart to follow your passion. Young or old, it is never too late. Hold the dream close, think about it often, and there will come a time when it is your reality. Destiny brought two people together that longed for farm living since they were small children. Our new journey awaits us.

We arrive eight minutes past my projected ETA for a trip that has brought me 1500 miles across the country.  When we left Arizona it was just under 110 degrees F. When we arrive in Wisconsin, it is in the mid-70s. After three days of driving and pulling a U-Haul trailer, we are anxious to see our first sunset.

"This road doesn't look right," I complain turning down another country road.  "But the sign says McMillen, that's our street."
 Joe continues to argue with me."Google Maps says we're on the right road."  It has been many hours of driving and my bladder longs to try out the plumbing in my old farm house.
"I would have been on time if you knew how to follow directions. Why don't we know where we're going?"

Through a series of wrong turns, we end up at the right house. Our first lesson in this new community is that there are two streets named Mcmillen less than half a mile apart.  The wrong one is spelled, McMillin with an "i". Not only that but McMillen turns into McIntyre. I drive by a farm named McCollough. There must have been a lot of Scottish farmers that settled here.

Our little farm house is a white, two story with green trim and a red brick chimney. It sits on seven acres and is surrounded by several "out buildings" and 72 acres of prime farmland. I have seen it in a dream. I know this sounds ridiculous, but over 15 years ago I dreamed I stood in a grassy yard looking at this very home. I never forgot the dream because I was so happy. It was more than happy, I was content and fulfilled. My eyes welled up with tears as the truck came to a stop. I look at the house and it is the same image that has remained in my mind for over a decade. Was I there before or was the dream a premonition of what was to come? All possibilities were on the table, but I was brought back to reality by my very human need to find a toilet.

The house from my dream
I am scared and eye the toilet with great suspicion.  The toilet looks modern as does the remodeled bathroom. Still, I don't know what will happen when I flush. I take my chances standing back in case something goes terribly wrong. There is a loud gurgle, a large gush, but the outcome, should I say outflow, is successful. Something needs tweaking but that is the plumber's problem. Later I would find out that it wasn't until the 1950s that an indoor bathroom was added to this farm house.  To the farmer's credit, he did have boys and girls outhouses to accommodate his family.

"We're going to miss the sunset," Joe whines. We bolt out the door following the farmer's tractor tracks that lead to the back forty acres. Topping the second hill where the last tree stands we are rewarded with a beautiful view and acres of fuzzy soybeans or just beans, as the farmers say. It has been a day of wonder as the solar eclipse took place earlier today. Astrologers believe eclipses bring change. I have a feeling they are right.

I had been advised that the mosquitos attack 20 minutes before sunset and 20 minutes before dawn.  Obviously, they were aware of this rule as the assault begin immediately. I learned that the rumor was true: Wisconsin mosquitoes are larger and slower than those in Arizona. This made them easier to swat and murder with great joy on my part.

On return, I approach the screen door.  "There's a frog on our door," I state, trying to sound calm like this is an everyday occurrence. He is bright green and adorable. "Is it normal for them to cling sideways like that?" Our Sonoran desert toads do not climb things.  They lay in my garden and snuggle in the mud. Joe does not answer me. His mind is somewhere else and I have grown accustomed to this behavior.

I turn on the faucet to wash my hands. "There isn't any water pressure," I state again, but this time with more anxiety in my voice.  "And no hot water. Didn't you turn on the pump in the barn?"  The well that supplies our little farm has a pump switch in the old dairy barn out back. It is dark and the first time Joe went out there something or someone was not happy at being disturbed. Racoon? Badger? Possum? Wild, rabid farm dog? There are so many choices.

"I can check in the morning but I really don't want to go out there now."
I can't blame him.  Sadly, my hot shower is put on hold. The survivalist in me formulates a new plan.
"You can pee outside.  I just won't flush. We have bottled water from the trip. 'Long as I can make coffee in the morning, we'll be fine." 

Time for sleep. I try to make my "nest" but there are cobwebs, live and dead bugs and spiders everywhere. I hand him a flyswatter.  "Kill everything that moves," I command. So much for live and let live. "And close the bedroom door in case someone wants in. And leave a light on so I can see them coming." My demands have been made. 

Our furniture if you can call it that, is all portable and must be stored in the basement when we leave. It is our hope that we can rent the farm house until our return next summer. For now, we must make a few cosmetic changes and prepare for new occupants. My bed is a twin mattress and a metal trundle frame brought from our cabin. His bed is a futon pad that sits on the floor. This will be home sweet home for the next few weeks.

Things are always better in the daylight. Joe discovers he really didn't turn on the well pump yesterday. He flipped a switch belonging an old light that didn't even exist anymore. Wires and cords wander everywhere from generations of remodeling. The old is never removed, evident by many farms with collapsed out buildings.

My house will be filled with contractors for the next week. The first new visitor is our electrician, Jody and his assistant, Rob. Like all Wisconsin folks, he is so nice. They actually have a name for this behavior, "Wisconsin Nice." Clean air and happy people. It is nice. My peace is short-lived.  I make my way down to the stone basement. Halfway down the stairs I stop and call out, "Joe! Can you come get this dead mouse?" I can't be sure but it looks like he/she has not been there long. Again, I am ignored.  I leave the mouse and back out of the basement.
Old wiring and light fixtures that were replaced.

Later I hear Jody call out to Rob. "Can you come down here and get this snake?" I make eye contact with Rob trying to keep a poker face. "He hates snakes," he explains. I can feel my skin getting thicker. Spiders, dead mice and now a snake.  I may be getting used to this lifestyle but I am not happy about it. No one answers Jody's call. I take pity.

"What kind is it?" I call down, thinking of my friendly rattlesnakes at home in Arizona. I had relocated one last summer, sunning himself on my cabin porch.  I grab a plastic tub and meet Rob in the basement. Jody stands in a corner. I note the dead mouse is only a few feet from the snake. The little, mottled snake is shoveled into the tub and I carry him to daylight.

I must familiarize myself with this new environment. They say there are no dangerous predators in this land. I approach my locksmith, Brandt. "Do you know what this is?" He looks in the tub.  How would I have known that he was a snake afficionado?
"Oh sure, that's called a milk snake, member of the king family, they are constrictors, harmless.  Farmers thought they would milk the cows." I was right, the mouse was a fresh kill and IJody had interrupted the snake's lunch. But how and why was he in my basement?

Before the day is over Jody discovers one of our supporting walls is weakening in our stone basement. "You can actually move the stones," he tells Joe. What else would I expect after 117 years? This explains why the kitchen floor tilts several inches toward the back deck and the refrigerator door closes automatically. 

"Tomorrow the basement contractor comes," Joe tells me. I send out positive thoughts that this is not a serious issue. 

When I wake on my second day I take my coffee outside and sit on the front porch. Around me, the world comes to life. I hear bird calls that are unfamiliar. Down the street, Moose the burro, is singing his morning hee-haw. Dairy cows bellow in the distance and somewhere a train whistle blows. The rumble of a tractor announces its passage as farmers race to collect and bale alfalfa. Trees that have stood for more than a hundred years rustle in the breeze. Our plan to rent this house, build, and live in a new one is on the verge of change. I wander to the back where Joe is standing. "I feel like I'm waking up in a park," I say. 
My Victorian style porch

"I know, if we build on a new plot we won't have these trees."
"And this house has such-- character," I add. Despite yesterday's issues I still feel good energy from this house. "Maybe we can work out the kinks, add our own style." Neither one of us commits either way.

When the realtor calls on the third morning to see how we are doing, I meet his question with honesty and sarcasm, my usual style. "Well, the first day there was the dead rodent and the live snake in the basement and we found a crumbling foundation wall so I wanted to leave." Pete is the epitome of Wisconsin Nice. There is a long pause on the other end and I worry he is feeling guilty for selling us this land. I continue. "But then we killed all the spiders and wasps, Joe figured out how to turn on the well pump so we have running water and I can shower. And then there are these beautiful trees. So now I think I want to stay. But it's early in the morning.  I'll let you know how the third day goes."  I hand the phone to Joe and prepare to meet another day.

When I was in nursing school the instructors warned us about the challenges we would face over the next two years.  They had a special mantra, "Every day, a new beginning, many times." Stepping outside, I repeat the familiar mantra out-loud knowing I can get through this adventure and may even come to enjoy it.

Next: Exploration

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Children and Gardens, How Do They Grow?

It is that time of the year that lingers between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Fall comes late to the Southwest and the leaves are just beginning to turn brown and fall off the trees.  It is predicted to be the first freeze of the year which means I will have to pick all my vegetables and fruit tonight or risk losing them to the frost.  Other plants will need to be covered to protect tender leaves.  After a fast writing tour in Southern Arizona I am scrambling to catch up with my life when the phone rings.  It is my youngest adult child, my son, requesting my precious time.

“Are you sure you can’t come with me to look at the truck? I need moral support.”  I sigh, but not so loud as to let him hear me.  My work as a writer allows me more flexibility than his father who is boxed in a traditional job.

“OK, but you’re gonna owe me,” I reply. “I need help with the gardens. I have pumpkins and squash to bring in; beans, peppers and corn to pick; the new lime tree needs to be protected, and I have to put sheets over all the vegetables.” Negotiations complete, I tell him to pick me up in thirty minutes.  Pulling out of the driveway I note the time at 12:21 pm.

This is the first new vehicle for this young man.  His previous car, a hand-me-down from his Nana, is terminal.  The white, GMC Jimmy, has served him well for many years.  A decade ago he used it to take his Nana to the grocer, and patiently wait for her to pick out just the right tomato paste while she showed off her handsome grandson to the cashiers.  Her spirit clings to the Jimmy and there is a certain sadness to selling an old car, yet it is time to take the next step.

We find the shiny, silver pick-up he has been eyeing positioned in front of the dealership.  It is used, in good condition, and has earned an acceptable amount of miles. Like all of us, this truck shows the marks of life: a stain on the upholstery, tiny scratches by the door, the faint hint of an odor that lingers in the cab. 

Each of us circle the vehicle like a pair of sharks.  I am looking for all the things I have been surprised with when I have made a vehicle purchase in the past.  He has a look of longing on his face.  I have seen this look before with other men wandering through car shows.  The men age, their hair grays, but the look never changes.  The desire and admiration for polished metal and roaring engines remains forever, and I see my son is in love.

On the test drive we push every button we can find to make sure it does what it is designed to do.  He floors the pedal down an empty street and suddenly he has wings!  In a parking lot he switches to four-wheel drive, and I envision him at the family cabin meandering down snowy roads.

Back at the dealership we sit down to level the playing field.  The truck needs to be detailed and taken to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. I ask to see the dealership’s license and the owner complies.  We run a check on the VIN number, discuss interest rates and credit records. Signatures are exchanged with a small cash deposit, and I am assured my son gets his money back if this pretty truck sours into a lemon.

He drives me home and the clock reads 3:30 pm. The sun is low in the sky and the air is already chilled.  My desert bones tell me it will definitely freeze tonight. We head out to the back field and he moves my heavy pumpkins to the porch while I pull beans for drying.  The vegetables that can survive the frost will still need to be nurtured and protected and I race to beat the fading light.  It is quiet for a while as the shadows elongate and then he speaks.

“You know, I don’t know how I would do this stuff without your help.”  I feel my heart slide up to catch in my throat.  My firefighter son that runs toward burning buildings still needs his Mom! I understand what he is says, vaguely remembering feeling the same way about my own parents and how it would be impossible for me to function without them.

“It’s generational,” I reply. “Nana and Grandpa taught me what I needed to know.  You pay attention to the details and do your homework. Then throw in some hard-won life lessons and you figure it out. Someday you will do the same with your children.”

“But what about people like Josh.”  Josh, a childhood friend, has come up the hard way.  He is a self-made man, and has been since his early teen years.  Everything he has learned has been through his own efforts. Joseph continues, “His parents always needed him more than he needed his parents.”

“You’re right,” I said.  “Josh is an old soul. He has always known what to do and how to do it right.  And now he has broken the cycle.  He understands what it takes to be a good parent and will lead his children forward the same way Dad and I have guided you and your sisters.”

He continues to care for my vegetables, deep in thought, undoubtedly about his new truck. Holding a basket full of the fruits of my labor, I watch him from across the yard and recall a comment from a friend with two wonderful sons of her own.

“I don’t get it,” I had said to Margie.  “We were young parents with no experience.  How did we manage to produce three adult children that respect their bodies and minds, assume their own responsibility, love each other, and are as beautiful inside as out?  Hell, I had no idea what I was doing.”

“It’s an investment,” she replies. “You put in the time when they are young and vulnerable and it pays off later.”  I had a “Duh” moment. Why had I not seen this earlier?  She was completely right.  I thought about all the times we had struggled to make it to parent-teacher conferences, holiday recitals, dance classes, drum lessons, soccer games, and heal broken hearts.  We made sure they had the right friends, respected animals, treated the less fortunate with kindness, marveled at nature, learned from history, acknowledged authority, and questioned authority. Instinctively, we spent every ounce of energy protecting and nurturing all three of them, and routinely reminded them they needed to the same for each other. Now, nestled in the autumn of my life, I am amazed we had the energy to get through each daily challenge.

Back in my real world the sun is down, and another day has passed. My baskets of vegetables from the season’s harvest are lined up in the kitchen.  Because I have invested the time to take care of my gardens, the vegetables will take care of me later.

 I am hoping my kids will too.