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Archive for November, 2011

Kudos

I always knew I wanted to write, but whenever anyone would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always give the same answer of “a teacher or a nurse”.  What I really wanted to do was to write an award-winning winning piece of investigative journalism.  I wanted to write The Great American Novel or a book of poetry.  I just wanted to write and have no idea why I couldn’t say it out loud.  I do write that Great American Novel in my head every night before I fall asleep. I have probably written it five times over the last 30 years or so. During times of stress or if I am trying to clear my mind, I write little bits of inane, Dr. Seuss-type rhyming poetry. The rhymes must be said aloud to make sure they have just the right sound but are mostly done in my head because muttering little rhymes aloud is not necessarily seen as a good thing.   I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class in my small-town high school, taught by a fresh-out-of-college  enthusiastic teacher who could bring out the writer in anyone. He corrected with a red pencil and had an eagle eye for grammatical errors.  Both the constructive criticism and the kudos would be written with that red pencil, and I would file each one carefully in a manilla folder. He encouraged each one of us to live our dreams and I know that I was not the only one to listen.  I remember him being angry only once, and that was over us being disrespectful of another teacher.  I hope we listened then, too.  I took a journalism class from him the next year, and although I didn’t win any awards, I learned how to write for a newspaper.  We listened and we wrote.  We wrote and we learned. My teacher was a very good writer, and I often wondered why he didn’t take up the craft himself rather than teach a bunch of noisy high school kids who didn’t always want to listen. When I graduated, he wrote a note in my yearbook, telling me to keep writing.  Every so often I still page through that old yearbook and read his note, a paragraph squeezed between good luck wishes and silly notes from classmates, and I smile.  I wasn’t the most intelligent one in my class and I was definitely not the most athletic, but I could write, and somebody noticed. I have an old trunk that we have dragged from state to state that is  filled with photo albums, yearbooks and memories.  In it you will find an old manilla envelope filled with a high-school girl’s poems and prose, some of which have red pencil marks across the top. You see, I saved every one of them. I started out in college to be a teacher, but changed my mind halfway through and became a nurse.  That’s not all that I do, though. I am a nurse AND a writer. I write a newspaper column, an internet blog and a Great American Novel in my head every night before I go to sleep. Nursing has been a fulfilling career and pays the bills. Writing is what I do for me.  My former teacher retired a few years ago and still lives in the area.  You might think that with his talent he is spending his retirement years writing his own Great American Novel, but I don’t think he has the time. I hear that he is back at the high school doing some substitute teaching. I think we are both doing exactly what we were meant to do all along. Stand up and take a bow, Mike Nynas. The kudos are for you this time. Thank you.

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Light My Fire

My husband was going out-of-town last week and left me a pile of kindling “just in case you want to have a fire.” I love a warm crackling fire and we do try to heat with wood as much as possible, but if we heated solely with wood and it was left up to me, we would most certainly freeze to death.  I don’t know why I can’t start a decent fire.  I crumple the paper. I put a few pieces of kindling on top and light a match, or two or three. The flame sputters and goes out. I add bark and more kindling. It sputters and smokes, and the smoke always manages to come in the house rather than up the chimney. I finally get a weak little flame, and spend the next 15 minutes crumpling up balls of paper and tossing them in until it finally catches. I add a small log, smothering  the fire which promptly goes out, and I have to start all over again. HE can start with a piece of paper the size of an envelope, two damp twigs and one match and have a roaring fire within minutes. Our first year here after moving back from Florida we upgraded the furnace in our house. We put a lot of money and thought into this furnace, and it wasn’t working right. It needed a part, which of course was on back order from Saudi Arabia or from somebody somewhere that  didn’t much care how cold or dark  it gets in Minnesota in November.   My husband was heading down south to visit his family, and I was to keep  the home fires burning, so to speak.  When I got home from work one day the house was freezing and the temperatures were plummeting.  Twenty years in Florida had thinned my blood and made me feel the cold even more.  Luckily, we still had the wood furnace hooked up, so I headed down the basement to give it a try. I burned the whole stack of  newspapers, used up all the kindling and made three trips down the basement and got nothing but a weak puny little flame that couldn’t even be called a fire. My hands and feet were stiff with cold.  The pipes in the laundry room froze.  I was huddled in the living room wrapped in a blanket with the oven on when the phone rang. You guessed it. It was my loving husband calling from a warm and toasty southern state. I opened my mouth to say something, but promptly burst into tears instead, which surprisingly didn’t freeze on my cheeks. Needless to say, he phoned the furnace people the next day, and whatever he told them worked, because they suddenly came up with the needed part.  I suspected but didn’t  even care that the words “hysterical female” were probably included in the conversation.  I stopped at the hardware store the next day after work and bought a big electric heater, one that oscillates and warms up a whole room quickly.  We also put in a fireplace upstairs that keeps us toasty warm.  If he’s not home to start the fire, though, I turn up the thermostat and crawl under the electric blanket. I hate to admit it, but there’s still a little bit of Florida in this Minnesota Farm Woman.

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Thanksgiving Blessings

I never knew my grandmother, but I like to think that she helps me make our Thanksgiving dinner every year.  Somehow, I ended up with her large roasting pan.  It is full of dents and dings, and I’m surprised that someone didn’t throw it out years ago.  Despite or perhaps because of these dents, a turkey always turns out moist and golden brown.  My grandmother was an immigrant from Finland with three small children when my grandfather drowned in Lake Superior.  It was the depression, and times were tough.  There was no public assistance or food stamps and she spoke only a little English.  To feed her children, she scrubbed floors and took in laundry.  To ask anyone who knew her, my grandmother counted her blessings every day.  She lived with a smile on her face, a cheerful attitude and was always singing songs.  She had courage and spirit and an unyielding faith in God.  That faith gave her the understanding that the hardships in life somehow help us to appreciate the blessings even more.  Her courage and faith never wavered even when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Although I never knew my grandmother, I see her faith in my mother and her spirit in my daughter.  We sing her songs in our hearts every day.  Our circle of life is of grandmothers and mothers and daughters who become grandmothers and mothers and daughters.  There are a few hardships and many blessings along the way.  The riches that we have are not found in money, but in each other and beat-up old roasting pans that cook to perfection.

In memory of Anna Sofia Anderson Holm 1890-1952

*Originally published in the St. Augustine Record, St. Augustine, Florida

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Rutabaga Stew

I often think about my ancestors, most of them real Farm Women, and how they managed to survive on what they grew in this cold climate with such a short growing season.  If the weeds took over the garden, they wouldn’t have beans to can. If the potatoes got blight, their children’s’ stomachs would growl. They always had rutabagas, though, to get them through the tough times.  I even have a letter written by my great-grandmother who was worrying about the rutabaga crop one cold and cloudy summer.  Rutabagas are the most versatile vegetable I know. You can boil them, roast them with olive oil and garlic, fry them,  eat them raw or pickle them.  Although I’ve never tried it, I’ve heard you can even eat the greens.  They are easy to grow and are great keepers. I don’t think there is anyone in northern Minnesota who doesn’t know what a rutabaga is.  For my other readers, a rutabaga is kind of like a turnip, but larger and sweeter.  When I lived in the south, I could only occasionally find them in the grocery store.  They didn’t taste as good, either.  I think it had to do with the weather, since their strong flavor changes to a sweet mildness if left in the ground until after a good hard frost. In Great Britain, they call them  “Swedes”. In Sweden, they called them kalrot. In northern Michigan,  Auntie Olive called them “beggies” and made the most wonderful pasties with finely diced pieces of rutabaga and potato. Those of Scandinavian heritage often boil them, mash them with butter and sprinkle with grated nutmeg.  I prefer them mashed with potatoes and butter, about a 50/50 ratio of rutabaga and potato with salt and lots of pepper.  When I married my southern-born husband, I made this for dinner one evening and was surprised when he didn’t like it. He didn’t like pasties, either.  I wondered for a moment if I should have the marriage anulled, but decided in the interest of marital harmony to use fewer rutabagas in my cooking.   There is one recipe that I must have my beloved rutabaga in, and that is beef stew. I always use my mom’s recipe. She calls it “Brown Stew”, but I changed the name to “Rutabaga Stew”.  It  sounds much more interesting, don’t you think?  I guarantee it will make a rutabaga lover out of you.  When I made this a couple of weeks ago, I saw my husband serve himself a bowl  without picking out the rutabagas.  Maybe he didn’t notice, but maybe, just maybe, he’s beginning to like them.

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Rutabaga Stew

2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes

2 T. Oil

2 t. Worcestershire sauce

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 medium onion, diced

2 bay leaves

2 t. salt, 2 t. pepper

1/2 t. paprika

1/2 t. allspice or cloves

1 T. dried or 2 T. fresh parsley

4-6 cups water

6 carrots, quartered

4 potatoes, quartered

1 rutabega, cut into cubes the same size as the potatoes

1/4 c. flour

1/2 c. water

1 T. lemon juice

Thoroughly brown meat on all sides, add Worcestershire, onion, garlic and seasonings and water, simmer for two hours, stirring occasionally. Add vegetables and continue cooking until vegetables are tender, about 45 minutes to one hour. Remove meat and vegetables. Bring the liquid to a boil. Mix 1/4 c. flour and 1/2 c. water together until no lumps remain, add to boiling liquid to thicken. Return meat and vegetables, heat through. Add lemon juice last. Remove bay leaves before serving.

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