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A few years ago, someone in the U.S. Department of Baloney came up with an idea that food products should be stamped with an expiration date.  These “best when purchased by” or “best when used by” dates are not a law, but merely a suggestion with only a few exceptions to the rule.  My daughter believes these dates to be the Eleventh Commandment:  “Thou shalt toss the cheese to the dogs when  even one hour past the date shown on the package.”  Me? I have been known to cut the moldy part off the cheese and smell the milk no matter what the date.  I don’t believe much from our U.S. government these days, anyway.  Those guys and gals in Congress seem to have no expiration date to their tenure and are enjoying a seven week paid summer vacation as you read this. I really shouldn’t be so catty though. It has been such a long time since their week-long Memorial Day and July Fourth “weekends” as well as  their four week paid Christmas vacation.  You and I both know they must be weary with all the time spent passing the buck, shooting the bull, and tipping the scales in their favor.  I  stopped looking at expiration dates a few years ago when I found a “use by this date” suggestion on a bag of croutons. CROUTONS?  Did someone think they would dry out or get stale or was it something much more menacing?  There is not much that we have around our house that we have to worry about any more.  Gone are the days when I  shopped at the warehouse store to save money on things like huge containers  of lunch-box sized chocolate pudding for my lunch-carrying loved ones. (It was never a cost savings  anyway, as once they knew there was chocolate pudding in the house, they would eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)  We are not preppers, either, so there is no storage room with shelves in the basement holding a year’s supply of food. I  once watched an internet program on prepping, and the homeowner was proud to show off many cans of ravioli  and her 75 two-liter bottles of  diet cola. If  the Zombie Apocalypse came I wondered how she would fend off the Zombies who would be sure to come after her stash, and has anybody else ever wondered if expired diet cola could  be the probable cause of a Zombie Apocalypse in the first place?  In all seriousness, with many thanks to the preppers and diet cola drinkers for allowing me to have a little fun at your expense,  I’m all for growing, preparing, and either canning or freezing one’s own garden goods, foraged foods, and meat. Kudos to those of you who do. With my job(s),  church work, cleaning the house, and the gardening chores that come every summer, there are just not enough hours in the day to get everything done.  Maybe  I could  look for ways to squeeze in more time…or maybe I should just run for  Congress. Some people say I’m really good at shooting the bull.

“If you’re not in the parade, you watch the parade. That’s life.” ~ Mike Ditka

There’s a lot of excitement in the air when it comes to watching a small town parade on a Sunday afternoon. Around here, people start setting up their chairs in the best shady spots two hours early.  Kids carry grocery bags around in anticipation of all the candy that will be thrown.  The Shriners on their shiny motorcycles start things off as the excitement builds.  As the honor guard marches, men remove their hats, some folks clap and cheer for our flag, and some stand quietly, hands over their hearts.  Along comes the hour-long procession of fire trucks and rescue vehicles, ATV’s, antique cars and tractors.  There are colorful floats with people waving and throwing candy. There are always politicians who smile and shake a lot of hands. There is usually a band or two, sometimes marching and sometimes not. Usually the horses and riders are last, and you can probably guess why.  I remember my high school years of many moons ago, marching with my trombone in a scratchy wool uniform while wearing a cap that kept falling down over my eyes.  It was always either ninety degrees or pouring down rain outside, but we played some lively music no matter what the weather.  As it does every year,  today’s parade reminded me of a special parade that happened 14 years ago.  We were spending the weekend at our cabin, and Dad had just had a mishap with the boat, so was soaking wet from his head to his toes. Needless to say, he was a little disgruntled as well as  dripping wet, so he decided to go home, changing into the only dry clothing available, a pair of red thermal hunting pants, held up with red suspenders. His chest was bare. His teenaged granddaughter, having had enough of an afternoon of family fun, decided to go back to town with him.  It was 90 degrees in the shade, and the air conditioning in the truck wasn’t working well, so they drove with the windows down, he in his red suspenders, she in her bikini.  They got into town just as the annual Wild Rice Festival parade was ending. The honor guard had passed. The fire trucks, rescue vehicles, ATV’s, antique cars and tractors were done. The colorful floats, politicians, and marching bands were heading for home.  I wasn’t there to see it, but people told me later that on that special Sunday, with most of our town and half of the next still lining the streets, there was an addition to the scheduled parade lineup.  Right behind the horses and their riders was a dusty brown pickup truck, driven by  old man wearing red suspenders with a beautiful young woman in a bikini in the passenger seat.  Dad was well known and respected in the community, a retired teacher, expert on wild foods, and an elder member of his church. I’m sure people were staring, so he did what anybody with a wicked sense of humor would do. He waved. If he would have had any candy to throw, he would have. Sadly, he died a month later, so we never got to laugh over the “remember whens” as families often do. I suppose that’s why I never leave a parade until that last horse passes by, followed closely by the kid with the pooper scooper. I always have that little bit of hope that I will see the dusty brown pickup truck and that the man in the red suspenders will give me a smile and a wave before I head for home.

I was very excited to spend the weekend watching my  grandson Max and his two brothers Sam and Duke (giant, drooling yellow labs) while his parents ran a marathon race through mud and fire. Racing through mud and fire is a walk in the park compared to juggling full-time jobs, a new house, a three-year-old, and two giant drooling yellow labs.  Max is a typical three-year-old, full of silliness and enough energy to light up the night skies, and to add to the fun, is smack-dab in the middle of potty training. Since I was assured by his mommy that he goes to bed fairly early and sleeps until eight on weekends, I was planning on a quiet evening of watching House Hunters  instead of Thomas the Train and a leisurely morning  thinking about what in the heck I’m going to write for my weekly column. He stayed up way past his bedtime, which was fine with me, and was awake and ready to play at 5 a.m. That was fine with me, also, since I am an early riser. By afternoon, the skies were darkening, and I promised Max some computer time, which in the universal language of grandmothers, means “Grandma needs  a rest.”  Yes, I know he is just three and can’t even use the potty yet, but he could probably program a computer better than I could any day of the week. Mother Nature gave us a spectacular storm with wind and rain and blowing leaves and a few falling branches. I was just checking the weather report to make sure there were no tornado warnings when the lights went out.  I expected nothing less,  as the electric often blinks off and on during summer storms, but this time, there was no off and on to it, just off. Try explaining that to a three year old who wants his computer time…NOW. We opened all the window blinds to let some light in, but it was still too dark to read. Max didn’t want to play in his room, “Too dark!” and kept trying all the light switches. I couldn’t find the flashlights, but it was still light enough outside that it didn’t matter. The lights should be on soon, but we waited and waited some more. I had a lot of suggestions.  Me: “Do you want to color?”  Max: “Nope.”  Me: “Do you want to eat something?”  Max: “Nope.” Me (with a note of desperation in my voice):  “Do you want to go potty?”  Max:  “Nope.” Since I spent every childhood  summer in a cabin without electricity, TV, or computers, I tried to think of SOMETHING to do  that was entertaining. Me:  “Would you like me to tell you a story?” Max:  “Ya!”. (He’s already getting that Minnesota accent.) As we stretched out on the couch together,  I told stories of little boys named Max who went camping without electricity and little trains named Thomas who went to the potty by themselves and only wore diapers at night.  Max told a story, too,  and although his pronunciation skills aren’t quite developed yet, it was also about a potty and a little boy. I used to tell my daughter about princesses and peas, but  if potty stories make this kid happy, so be it. After two hours, the lights finally came back on, along with the TV and computer.  Me: (clapping) “Yay! Max, the lights are back on again!”  Max: “More, stories, Geema,  more stories!”  So Grandma turned the lights out, told more stories, and they all lived happily ever after until one of the dogs threw up in the middle of the new carpet. 

I used to earn a few bucks each summer picking berries and picking wood ticks off the dog. Dad paid a penny for the small ticks and a nickel for the fat ones, plus anywhere between a dime and a quarter for berries, depending on the size of the cup.  I disliked both jobs, but he believed in making us earn some of the our own money to spend on candy at Gram’s Kozy Korner or  on the Tilt-a-Whirl and hot dogs at The World’s Largest Wild Rice Festival. Hopefully, the hot dogs would be eaten AFTER the tilting and the whirling . I saved my allowance for weeks. That, plus my tick money, gave me enough so I wouldn’t have to whine for more money for at least a day. My local readers don’t need an explanation, but my readers from around the country (even as far away as Fargo) need to know that The World’s Largest Wild Rice Festival is probably also the World’s ONLY Wild Rice Festival.  I’m digressing, though, so back to the story of Jack and the wood ticks. My dad and his hunting cronies stayed at our cabin every fall, and every spring, we would find another empty bottle of  Yukon Jack on top of the old Hoosier cabinet. Yukon Jack is a rather sweet liqueur made from Canadian whisky and honey, and is said to warm even the coldest hunter from his lips down to the tips of his toes during an icy cold northern hunt.  One year,  there was a little leftover Jack in the bottom of the bottle. Instead of drinking it, Dad decided to put all the wood ticks he had picked off himself that summer into the bottle.  I know you have two questions here. First, why would there be any leftover whisky after a cold Minnesota winter  and second, why in the HECK would someone put wood ticks in a perfectly good bottle of whisky?  I must admit that I don’t know the answer to either, and I doubt that I ever will.  I do know that my sister and I were in charge of cleaning out that cabin after my parents passed away, and I was in charge of the empties, which I sneaked to the recycling center under cover of darkness, certain that someone would notice me dropping off a large box full of empty whisky bottles and think that I was a closet guzzler.  This is a small town, after all, and you just never know about those Lutheran church council members. We decided to keep the bottle of pickled wood ticks, if for no other reason than we are a couple of sentimental fools and inherited our dad’s rather strange sense of humor.  I still pick a few ticks off the dog each summer, but I don’t make any money doing it. I pick berries only when I have to, and I don’t ride the Tilt-a-Whirl any more.  Gram’s Kozy Korner is long gone, except in the memories of a generation of small-town kids, and believe it or not, The World’s Largest Wild Rice Festival is still going strong and in its 68th year.  Even after all these years, the wood ticks are still in that bottle on the fireplace  mantle of our cabin, floating around in a pool of Yukon Jack and looking almost as good as new. It  makes a good conversation piece, anyway, even though cabin visitors look at us a little strangely when we tell the story.

Life is funny. When I wrote a few weeks ago about my failing, elderly and befuddled chicken, I wasn’t prepared for a revival. When she wasn’t in her corner of the coop, she would wander about the yard looking confused, and each evening, I would have to either point her in the right direction or carry her to her roost. I thought she was near the end, and who wouldn’t? Chickens are not known for their long lives, and after seven years, I figured her days were numbered. Until the babies came. Not her babies, of course, as she is in her henopause years, but eleven fluffy-bottomed baby chicks purchased from the farm store (my favorite place to shop) and raised for the first few weeks under a heat lamp in the laundry room.  I love baby chick time, but HE dislikes the peeping poopy little creatures and for some crazy reason, thinks poultry should be raised out in the coop and not in the house.  I must admit, though, that despite changing their bedding twice a day, they do start to smell after a couple of weeks.  At that point, I moved the babies into cages out in the coop, with a heat lamp on a timer hanging above, since springtime in Minnesota cannot ever be trusted.  The cages are merely to wean the babies into coop life and to keep the others away from their food and water.  Old Mama Hen started to perk up and snoop around the cages once they arrived. By the time the chicks were ready to be let loose, she was not even close to being confused.  She fusses and clucks and gathers those babies under her wings at night. She shoos the others away from their food and water. She is showing them how to scratch in the dirt for bugs and any other delicious morsels they might find.  She has adopted a family, and a rather large one at that. Every afternoon, when I open the door to the outside world,  all the chickens go outside to frolic and forage in the grass. ALMOST all the chickens, that is. Old Mama Hen and one of her helpers stay behind to watch the babies, who are growing fast. Despite the door being open, not one of the well-behaved youngsters ventures out to the grass. I guess Mama’s instincts will decide when the time is right. It just goes to show that we all need a purpose in life to make it worth living. After my own sweet mama turned 88, and with her vision and health deteriorating, she told me she was weary and ready to go. Although I wasn’t ready for her to leave, it was not something in my control. I told her that if she was ready, it was OK with me, but I gave her a gentle reminder that she would have her first great-grandchild born in the spring.  “Oh,” she said, “I guess I’ll stick around for that!”  Call it purpose, determination, or just plain old-fashioned gumption, we’re mighty glad that she did.  I think that Old Mama Hen is planning to stick around for a while, too. She has work to do.

Today I decided to have breakfast in bed.  It is not that I am particularly lazy or consider myself the Queen Bee or anything, (admittedly, I am a little bit of both),  but the morning view from my bedroom of a bright pink flowering crabapple  tree against a backdrop of blue sky and green grass is what drew me back in. That, and fact that the mornings are just a little bit too chilly to be dining outside. “Dining” is not exactly the term that I would use for my simple country breakfast of coffee and juusto.  Juusto, also known as  juustoleipa is a warm Finnish cheese, but when I was growing up in my strongly Scandinavian household, we called it “squeaky cheese”, for the way it squeaked against our teeth when we chewed.  Made from cow, goat, sheep or  even reindeer milk if you happen to own a reindeer,  juusto  is a fairly easy cheese to make, so they say.  It keeps well, and Finnish Farm Women in the old days would even dry it to store in their larders to eat when fresh milk wasn’t available for cheesemaking. (I hope they didn’t store it next to their dried stinky lutefisk.) It is traditionally served with coffee, bread, and jam, and to me, tastes like a buttery grilled cheese sandwich without the bread.  I remember my mother making it only once or twice, and since I recently discovered it in the grocery store, I haven’t bothered with trying it myself, so I won’t infringe on any copyright laws by sharing a recipe that is not my own. There are plenty of recipes available on the internet, if you are so inclined.  I usually warm mine in a pan or on the grill, but the package even gives microwave instructions. (My Finnish Farm Woman ancestors, who even warmed theirs by putting it in a cup and pouring hot coffee over it, are probably rolling over in their graves right about now.)  Barney the Chihuahua was hoping for a bite and was following closely behind me with every step I took, but then again, he would follow closely behind me if I was preparing warmed-over  Finnish shoe leather for breakfast.  I have served juusto as an appetiser, with coffee (on the side,  not in the cup),  or diced in a salad with mixed greens and vinaigrette dressing,  but my favorite way to eat it is just the way I did this morning:  Warmed in a pan and eaten while in bed on a Sunday morning, with the beautiful flowers of late spring right outside the windows,  a cup of coffee and a cute but begging little dog within my reach. I would like to think that my Finnish Farm Woman ancestors would be proud that I am keeping with tradition. Maybe not, though…by this time of the morning, they would have already milked the reindeer, stoked the kitchen fire, gathered the eggs, and scrubbed the
kitchen floor. Never, ever would they have crawled back into the bed unless they were either in active labor during childbirth or dying, but they most certainly would have  had the  limppu bread baked for the company that was sure to come for either.  I like to think that I am making new traditions, however,  so right now I’m going to go and pour myself another cup of coffee before I crawl back into bed.

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Graduation time is here once again, and this year it had been forty years since I graduated from high school. Forty. The big 4-0. Looking back, it is hard to believe that so many years have passed when it just seems like yesterday. 1976 was the year of  our country’s bicentennial and there was a lot of excitement in the air.  Although it was a long time ago, things were eerily similar.  It was an election year, and Gerald Ford was our president. Later that year, Jimmy Carter was elected. The Middle East was in conflict. We worried about the economy, the price of gas, and the jobless rate. We were listening to The Bee Gees, Diana Ross, and Elton John records on our stereos or perhaps the 8-track tape players in our cars. Much to my chagrin, disco music was becoming popular, but I preferred the rock and roll genre and still do. Just like today’s seniors, we could hardly wait to graduate and get out into the big wonderful world.  Although the draft was abolished in  1973 a few classmates joined the military.  Some of us were going right to work, some of us were going to college, some of us were getting married, and some of us  didn’t know what the heck we were going to do. I was madly in love with HIM at the time, and wanted to get married, but my parents thought I was way too young. They were right, as usual.  As that long-ago graduation ceremony ended, there were hugs and photographs, and a few caps thrown into the air. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to some of those friends that I had spent half my life with, but thought I would catch up with them later.  I got married a year later (still too young), and moved halfway across the country.  I would see some on occasion, and we did have a few reunions, but the class was never together again as a whole. I don’t remember which reunion it was, but years later, we were reminiscing and remembering those classmates who had passed away. We had nothing to write on, so the names were written with a borrowed pen on a clean white paper plate. The list was longer than anybody expected and a surprisingly stark reminder of how short life really is. The smiling faces, forever young in those black and white photos in the pages of the yearbook are how we remember many of them. Some of us still mention that paper plate list when we get together.  We are not disrespectful in any way, but we all look at each other and share a humorless laugh, knowing as each year passes, the list will most certainly grow longer.  For any of you 2016 graduates who might be reading an old Farm Woman’s words of advice, I give you these:  Put down your phones and cameras for a moment and look around. Make some real memories and keep them close to your heart. Those memories will be there long after your phone battery goes dead and you upgrade to the latest device. Call your grandparents just to chat because they will be gone sooner than you think. Thank your parents, teachers, and mentors.  Continue to make them proud. Volunteer.  Live within your means.  Better yet, live BELOW your means.  Go to college or trade school, get a job, or join the military, but do SOMETHING. Pay for your own stuff with actual money and not a line of credit. Don’t  drink and drive. Don’t text and drive.  You don’t want to make the paper plate list any sooner than you have to .  Congratulations, Seniors! You did it! 

*Dedicated to  the members of the Deer River High School Class of 1976 who are no longer with us. You are not forgotten.

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