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I’m beginning to feel like I should be on an episode of “Hoarding:  Buried Alive.”  You know the show…through the wonders of “reality” TV, we visit someone who has a house full of garbage and Lord only knows what is buried underneath.  We watch people climb over mountains of stuff and follow narrow pathways through living rooms into kitchens piled with dirty pots and pans. No, my house isn’t anything like that, thank heavens, but I do admit that watching it makes me feel a little better about my housekeeping skills.  Although HE may tell you that I have too much junk, my garage sale finds will be worth something someday and are carefully and artfully stuffed into the closets. You’ll be perfectly safe as long as you don’t open any doors. The buried alive part of my life that I’m talking about is the garden. Once the weeds started coming up faster than I could pull them, I threw in the trowel…and the hoe, for that matter.  I gave up. The weeds won. In reality TV, teams of helpers in hazmat suits clean up the mess and the homeowner always argues about what should stay and what should go. The only drama around here is that I can’t find the rake, and I know it is in there somewhere. The surprising thing is that buried in the waist-high weeds there are tomatoes, and lots of them. The ones I planted are easy to find because they are caged. Due to all the rain and warm temperatures,  there are also dozens of volunteer tomato plants growing tall,  some of which are even  bearing fruit. Getting a ripe tomato from a directly planted seed doesn’t happen very often in northern Minnesota, so I’m thinking that perhaps I’m a better gardener than I thought! The pumpkins and squash are growing like crazy, over and under and around the weeds. I’m not sure exactly what is there, but come first frost, I will either have two or 102 to harvest. There are cabbages, too. I know because I tripped over one, and it is ready to pick any time. I can’t find the celery, there were only a few cucumbers, and the green beans died an early death, but all in all, if there are veggies to pick, the gardening season was a success. Now if I could be just as successful with cleaning out these closets before the people in the hazmat suits arrive….

Flowers

When we bought our little farm nine years ago, the large yard was filled with many weedy perennial beds, and I must admit, it still is.  Flower gardening is not my forte, and from the looks of the weeds in my other garden, neither is vegetable gardening. My colorful array of chickens are like flowers to me, and although I haven’t trained them to pull weeds, they love to scratch up the perennial beds looking for worms and bugs. Despite their digging and my lack of both skill and time, I have a riot of colorful flowers every spring and summer that outshine the weeds by far.  Old Mum, the oldest and my most favorite chicken died today. You knew her too, from the stories that I write, which are true, or at least 90% true. Sometimes the names must be changed to protect the innocent.   I would often find Old Mum peeping out from among the tall hollyhocks, their large leaves and flowers offering a bit of shade from the hot sun.  This summer, slowing down a bit, she stayed pretty close to the coop, watching for me out the window,  and if I didn’t feed her quickly enough, the feisty little banty would fly up on my shoulder and tell me to hurry it up. Due to a malformation in her beak, her food had to be in a dish or in a pile so she could pick it up, so I fed her separately from the others.  Old Mum preferred cracked corn and cottage cheese to layer mash, and the other chickens left her food alone most of the time, seeming to understand her age and disability. Either that, or they were afraid of her, as she tended to get a little feisty with them, too. The purple irises and Asiatic lilies are in full bloom in several beds in the front yard, but can’t compete with the hollyhocks in the back, which at their peak were as tall as the roof. Although slightly past their prime, they are still putting forth huge blooms of white, pink, and red against the back wall of the house and attract dozens of bees. I am so thankful that an old farmer and his wife planted these lovely flowers many years ago,  probably never dreaming that they would still be enjoyed years after they were gone.   The simple task of breaking open the seed pods each fall and spreading them along the south-facing wall ensures a spectacular show each summer, if Mother Nature cooperates. I buried Old Mum under my bedroom window, near the hollyhock garden, and covered her grave with the biggest and pinkest blooms I could find.
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How many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb? What’s black and white and bruised all over? I’ll answer the second riddle first:  Me. For a couple of years, I have raised a few of the Goliaths of the chicken world, the Jersey Giant.  Jersey Giants are the largest of all chickens and were originally cross-bred in the late 1800’s as a replacement for the turkey, and often are used for meat birds. I started  raising them  because they are cold hardy and are known to be good winter layers, both a plus for northern Minnesota chicken farmers.  Everything I read said they were a gentle and docile breed, also. What the chicken literature didn’t add was that they are gentle and docile UNTIL they get broody.  Broody hens want to sit on eggs all the time, often to the exclusion of everything else. They are obsessed with hatching, and for one of my Jersey Giants, it is an obsession to the point of being crazed.  Speaking of crazy, I tried explaining the Biology of the whole baby chick thing using my most soothing voice as I attempted to reach underneath for her precious egg.  If there is no rooster in the equation, there will be eggs but no babies, I told her.  She didn’t care.  She fluffed her feathers out and pecked me hard. I tried to lift this hissing turkey-sized creature from her nest and she pecked me some more. It hurt like the dickens, and I have the bruises to prove it, but I finally had the egg in hand. The next day, she puffed herself up as soon as I walked into the coop. This time, the bruises to my arms and my ego still fresh, I used a metal feeding pan as a shield and managed to get pecked only twice before I got the egg. The third day I was ready. Who’s the boss around here, anyway? I wore HIS heavy winter jacket and a pair of work gloves to the coop. It was 85 degrees in the shade, too, but that didn’t stop me. I picked up my shield and entered the coop, ready for battle. My prizes?  One large brown egg and another Farm Woman adventure story to write. How many writers DOES it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to write most of the story and another to add an exciting twist to the end. As I let all the chickens out today and they rushed outside, I tiptoed to the window and peeked in. The big black chicken slowly turned her head and looked me straight in the eye. I was on the outside looking in, but I swear she cackled. She’s ready for me. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Whatever the answer to the age-old riddle is, the egg is mine.

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.

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