An Unexpected Adventure

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By Saunro

It was a magical trip.

The mid-October drive through Virginia and Tennessee gave us a view of the vivid red and yellow autumn colors, valleys and vintage farm houses. The Fall harvest readied in the Blue Ridge Mountain apple orchards and corn fields as we passed.

The trip was unplanned, as was the urn in the backseat. My mother-in-law, Mary Rose, passed nine days before her 93rd birthday and we were on our way from her home in Maryland to take her to her second memorial and burial service in Miami.

It was a fitting last adventure for Mary Rose.  Her life was full of commitment to her country and to humanitarian causes, as well as some unique connections to history. For the first few years of her life she lived across the street from the United State Capitol, on the current site of the United States Supreme Court. She was a child of the Great Depression and during World War II she served the nation as an aircraft plotter in secret locations around the D.C. area. Along with her mother and sisters, Mary Rose assisted with the USO where she once met Eleanor Roosevelt.

She married and moved to Miami and was a public servant for the Miami-Dade County for 30 years. The County Commission honored her dedication by proclaiming January 31, 1991 as “Mary R. Turner Day.”

Even after retirement, she never stopped having adventures. She and her sister Louise drove cross-country when she was in her 70s. When she was in her 80s and widowed with grand-kids, she reconnected with and married her high school sweetheart, Bill.

During the trip, I spoke to Mary Rose in her beautiful rose colored urn, pointing out some of the sites in Virginia’s Jefferson country. We took her to visit her granddaughter and twin great granddaughters at our Georgia mountain home before the making the final processional to Miami.

I know that she enjoyed the last adventure. It was one that I’ll never forget.

My Veteran

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It is still hard for me to believe that our son is a Veteran.  Veterans are supposed to be fathers or grandfathers or mothers. Never our kids.

But he is, proudly serving and thankfully safe and sound after three years, one deployment and too many miles away from home.

The U.S. Air Force is lucky to have him and also two of his great friends from childhood. These three boys—they’re men now I suppose but will always be boys to me—who in high school staged strategic toilet paper attacks with military precision the likes of which our small town had never seen.  With their own special redneck ingenuity, they engineered a giant slingshot in the back of one’s pickup truck to shoot grapefruit and soda cans across empty fields.  It worked well until they learned about backdraft the hard way, shooting out the truck’s rear window.

Now they have each sworn an oath and volunteered to go into harm’s way.  They’ve dealt with separation from home and family but also the thrill of the adventure.  These hometown boys have even run into each other overseas at “undisclosed locations” and two thankfully have home bases only a few hours away from each other.

This Veteran’s Day we have a new member of the family serving: our wonderful daughter-in-law who is currently away from their home, leading a Army platoon in training.

A lot has happened in the three years since our boy has been on active duty. He married a great girl and created a real home albeit in a place neither of them ever dreamed of living. They have endured months apart with conviction and courage and in that they have become a true military family.

One that, especially on this Veteran’s Day, I could not be more proud of.

They’re Good People

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By Pookie

“They’re good people, babe!” Those are the immortal words of my uncle whenever he encounters good cooks. His logic is simple and sound: good people make good food.

I know it’s basic but cooking for someone is the best way to show that you care—even if it’s something as simple as a thrown together casserole.

Although we’ve all experienced this through dinners with family or friends, my favorite local rib joint demonstrates the “good people rule” daily. Its run by a wonderful couple who take the time to get to know their patrons: they remember that I can’t have butter on my hamburger bun, that my neighbor always drinks diet Coke with her chicken and waffles, and that my Mamaw wants sausage gravy for both her biscuits and grits.

John Currence, the James Beard award-winning chef of Oxford, Mississippi’s famous City Grocery, is a proponent of just taking the time to think about what you’re doing in the kitchen and who you’re doing it for.

“Make a drink or pour a glass of wine before you start cooking,” Currence writes in his 2013 cookbook Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. “Create a joyful working environment. Cooking is work, no question about it, but it doesn’t have to be drudgery. Make it fun.” He also suggests listening to specific music while cooking and there’s even a great Spotify playlist to go with his recipes.

A simple home dish that I love making is an extraordinarily basic but tasty hamburger casserole. It’s far from healthy so it’s a rare treat, but always worth the calories and preservatives.

Share this with some good people, babe.They’ll know you care.

Hamburger Casserole
Listen to: Tall, Tall, Trees by Alan Jackson

• One can of Grands biscuits
• One pound of hamburger
• One can of cream of mushroom soup, or your favorite dairy-free alternative
• One quarter cup of sour cream, again you can use your favorite dairy-free alternative
• As many Frenches fried onions as you want…yes, the ones in the jar.

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Brown the hamburger and drain it on a paper towel. Then transfer the meat to a cast iron skillet or 9 inch square pan, stir in the cream of mushroom soup, the sour cream, and the onions. Once that is thoroughly mixed place the uncooked biscuits on top. Bake for about 25-30 minutes until the meat mixture is bubbly and the biscuits are golden brown on top.

Saturday Traditions

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Game day is an early day for this Old House.  This season Pookie’s Ole Miss Rebels have finally broken through to the next level of college football rankings. The Old Man’s Wisconsin Badgers are giving him the dreaded “Badger Pain”, something that he loudly proclaims as the worst football fandom pain.  Although this season even he concedes that my Florida Gators have given me the most painful season in a very long time.

Our Saturday morning chores are done around ESPN’s College Game Day. Then we text our Florida State son to tease him about his unbeaten team sitting at #2, behind Mississippi State;  eat a light lunch while watching the early afternoon Badger games; hope to be pleasantly surprised by the Gators; and always take the time to cheer against Auburn and Michigan.

Then it’s time to get ready for the Rebel’s game that night.  Although Ole Miss has never won the Southeastern Conference in football, their tailgating traditions translate beautifully even hundreds of miles away.  As the Ole Miss adage goes: we might lose a game but we ain’t never lost a party.

In keeping with that Rebel charm, we break out the good china and silver for some take-out ribs from Tony’s, heat up okra and tomatoes from an old Mississippi recipe, and follow it all with a little Blanton’s bourbon and my grandmother’s easy and delicious blackberry cobbler.

Don’t think that Southern football is all about men watching games while the ladies cook. Early one Fall Friday morning a few years ago, I sat in a Tallahassee hotel restaurant across an aisle from ESPN football analyst Kirk Herbstreit who was in town with College Game Day at Florida State University.

As I sat drinking coffee and waiting for The Old Man to return to the hotel after his business meeting, I watched the parade of people walk over to Herbstreit’s table to shake his hand. The men were pleasant and polite, but the women wanted to talk. Not about being on television or tailgating rituals and recipes. No, they wanted to talk football!

They discussed specifics about college quarterbacks and their NFL potential from schools across the nation.  Even our waitress, a tiny, middle-aged woman, asked Herbstreit a slew of questions like why the New England Patriots were so enamored with drafting Florida Gator players, if running quarterbacks could really make it in the NFL and did he agree that Florida State was just a few years away from a national title? (She was right on the money with that.)

As she poured another round of coffee, Herbstreit told her “Women in the South know more about college football than anyone male or female anywhere else in the country. We should have a feature on that.”

Yes, you should. And we’ll be watching!

My Grandmother’s Blackberry Cobbler

1 unbaked pie crust
1 quart blackberries
1 cup flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup milk

Pre-heat oven to 350. Place pie crust in either round pie plate or preferably a cast iron skillet and top with blackberries. Then mix the flour, sugar and milk in a bowl and pour it over the blackberries. Bake for about 50 minutes, checking at the end to make sure custard of the cobbler is set but not browned.

Enjoy with some good vanilla ice cream and a winning team! It is also exceptionally good the following day cold.

The Old Man’s Car

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It was hardly more than a flash of red steel parked on the street in front of a shop that restores antique cars, but it was enough. I recognized the bug-eye headlamps and black convertible top immediately. A ghost from my youth had stalked me to this small town in Central Florida. I was with two friends coming back from a long business trip, so I just made a note of the restoration shop’s name, and knew I would be back.

When I did come back, the shop owner knew there was no hope for me. I wasn’t there to buy a car; I had come to reclaim a memory.

When I was a sophomore in college, I had seen a sports car advertised in the paper: a ten-year-old Triumph Spitfire. It was rusty and a previous owner had it painted purple. But it was a Spitfire, a little British two-seater with curvy fenders, wire wheels and a throaty exhaust. When the student who owned it showed it to me, I knew more about than she did – I had been obsessing over sports cars in general and British cars in particular in a way that may be unique to nerdy boys of a certain age. My imagination had filled Triumphs, MGs, and Jaguars with dreams and fantasies of long back-road adventures, rally races, and the simple joy of design quirks imported from the other side of the Atlantic. Long before I was licensed to drive, I had memorized articles from magazines like MotorTrend and Car & Driver, and even wrote to automaker British Leyland for specification sheets.

I had to loan the $700 to buy it, but I was determined. I had that Spitfire for most of my college years, only selling it when the rust and repairs were more than I could afford. Thirty years later, here I was standing next to a sibling of that Spitfire. This one was red with a lot less rust and a substantially higher price tag, but when I sat inside it the smells were eerily similar, and so was the growl coming out of the exhaust pipes.

On a brief test drive, during which he discovered what the lack of four-wheel power disc brakes meant, my son pronounced it a “screaming metal death trap.” My wife was a pillar of patience and good humor as I folded down the top, zipped up my jacket, and asked her to honk if she saw any parts fly off. Grinning like a fiend I roared onto Highway 27, the smell of high octane and old canvas in the air.

If you are approaching Oldmandom – or know someone who is – I can tell you that even if you haven’t thought about those old dreams in decades, you’ll remember them easily enough. All it takes is a slight twist of fate, like a turn through a small town, and a flash of something red on the periphery.

Mama-thon

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Four years ago, I made a video to show at my mother’s 90th birthday celebration in which I interviewed her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren about her. During the interviews I asked the family to look into the camera and thank her for something she had done that meant a lot to them and then to describe her in one word. Even though I interviewed dozens of relatives, interestingly they all said something different about our matriarch. While she has different names including Mama, Mammy, Mamaw, and Old Mamaw, the family has a thousand more reasons to be thankful for her.

Today we celebrate her 94th birthday with more even more reasons and several new family members to embrace and thank her.

My mother was born the same year that women got the right to vote in America. She graduated from high school at 16 and was awarded a church scholarship to Rio Grande College in southern Ohio. It was 1936 and times then were still tough. Although the scholarship was generous, it didn’t cover everything. Her father sold the family cow to send my mother to school; a selfless act that enabled her to become the first member of her family to graduate from college.

After she graduated, she met and married my handsome blue-eyed and dark-haired father. She lived in a cabin with two babies (my much older brothers) on Daddy’s parents farm while he was overseas during World War II fighting with the Navy. Mama raised three of us, taught elementary school for 50 years, built one house, renovated a farmhouse, mastered bridge and many other card games and became a Kappa Alpha house mother after she retired from teaching at age 70.

She wasn’t your average teacher. Last year a group of former fourth grade students tracked her down to let her know the impact she had on their lives, even though these students are now in their 70s. It’s no accident that many of us followed her into education and that today one granddaughter is an elementary school principal and another is a state-wide teacher of the year.

What started as a baby-boomer family of two parents and three children has grown to 54 people with two new great-great grandchildren arriving soon. She has spent years watching grandsons progress through little league to college baseball then sometimes on to the minor and major leagues with nothing other than full encouragement and pride. Mama supported with full enthusiasm my short-lived fascination with barrel racing in middle school the same way she is thrilled to hear about my grandniece’s first year on the pro rodeo circuit. She is proud of all of us and when times get tough she is there to both help pick up the pieces or provide a swift kick.

Despite my mother’s still busy daily life she takes time to check up on her friends and read about her grand and great-grandchildren on facebook. What some may call her “snoopy-ness” once led to my biggest scoop as a political reporter in D.C. When my boss asked me how I figured out the pattern of behaviors from a series of leaked political documents, I was forced to admit that it wasn’t all my reporting skills but rather an insight from my mother who had picked up the papers and immediately deciphered the deception.

Mama’s interest and investment in her family’s lives showed through each relative in the birthday video. Many grandchildren thanked her for attended every sporting event, every dance recital, and never failing to remember their birthdays. Pookie thanked her for sharing her love of words. My niece thanked her for being an example of grace when my father died suddenly at 57. A nephew thanked her for their shared sense of fierce competitiveness. In-laws, including my husband, thanked her for raising her children to be original people. My son bluntly thanked her for teaching him not to take crap from anyone.

The best description came from her then-nine-year-old great grandson. When I asked him to describe his Old Mamaw in one word, he paused for a moment, looked right into the camera, and said the one perfect word: “Love.”

Happy Birthday, Mama! We love you!

That’s My Book!

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Talk about a jolt back to the past!

Over 20 years ago, a friend and I collaborated on a book about former members of Congress. It got published, received some nice praise and merited a few articles including one in The Washington Post. It seems like a lifetime ago.

But there I was on Sunday morning, blissfully combing through a wonderful private library at a local estate sale.  Although I fully expected to find rare first editions, I did NOT expect to see my own book!  I confess to pangs of an indistinguishable emotion when I saw the product of two years of hard work suddenly appearing from out of the ether in its bright blue cover. I can best describe it as seeing a high school flame years later; what was once of great importance and is now simply a reminder of a time and place.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this book, it truly changed my life from a stay-at-home mom who occasionally did freelance assignments to a working political journalist. Because of the book I had the opportunity to travel across the country, meeting some of the most interesting and occasionally notorious people who had ever served in the U.S. Congress. And it opened the doors to some unbelievable career opportunities for me.

However, I have not opened it in years since the stories inside the book are still fresh in my memory. What took me back when I did scan the pages were the acknowledgements. That is where I thanked friends who are thankfully still in my life, as well as The Old Man, my mother and the kids who had just started elementary school and have now grown into adults with their own careers.  It took me back to a time before we ever even thought of The Old House.

I eventually snapped back to the present at the estate sale.  I added my book to the others I had picked off the shelf in the dead stranger’s house, and proceeded to the checkout. That is where (if The Old Man is telling you the story) I went little nuts. As the young clerk started to tally up my purchases, I proclaimed that “I wrote this book and I’m not going to pay for it.”

“OK,” he responded. “How much is it?”

Whoops, I hadn’t checked on that. “It’s a dollar,” I told him.

“Well, we can let you have it,” he said with a smile.

As we walked down the driveway my moment of victory was short-lived when The Old Man said: “He didn’t check your ID against the book, did he?”

He knew.

Working at Home: A Simple Lunch Shared

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“What did you do for lunch today?”

When you work at home it’s the one question you never get asked after a long day. When deadlines loom or the kids are fussy, who has the time, the energy or the patience for a meal? So unless we have a meeting at an actual restaurant, we improvise.

One high-powered executive friend of mine friend slams back cans of black-eyed peas between conference calls—it is unclear if they’re heated or not. A stay-at-home Mom friend tried to cut calories by only eating what her children left on their plates (didn’t work).

We also run into the problem of routines. For as long as I can remember, my 93-year-old mother makes her lunch after her daily exercise class then sits to eat in her recliner while watching The Young and The Restless. My own dirty little lunch secret involves watching The Pioneer Woman cook in her fabulous Oklahoma lodge kitchen while I eat mismatched leftovers and check emails during commercials.

But things can change!

I recently got a call from my friend, Cecelia, inviting me to join her for a last minute lunch at her home. Instead of one of the big fabulous luncheons for which she is well-known, it was a simple lunch shared. Cecelia, who also works from home, prepared  grilled sandwiches and heated some store-bought butternut squash soup. We enjoyed a good warm meal, a great conversation and, after pledging to make it a regular lunch date, we were both back at our desks in far less than an hour.

That evening we were both able to offer “I had a wonderful lunch today…”

My Favorite Grilled Sandwich With Arugula, Goat Cheese, Caramelized Onions and Fig Preserves

*Two slices Pepperidge Farm Bread (whatever flavor you like)
*Plain goat cheese crumbled
*Fig Preserves or Trader Joe’s Fig Butter (or whatever fruit preserves you have on hand)
*Handful of arugula or other leafy greens
*Caramelized onions (you should always have some caramelized onions hidden somewhere in your fridge! The next time you need an onion for a recipe, just throw some extra sliced onions into a skillet with butter on low heat stirring occasionally until they turn golden —at least 10 minutes.)

Spread fig preserves on both sides of bread, and stack the rest of the ingredients.Grill in an iron skillet with butter until goat cheese is melted and bread is toasty.

READING FAULKNER

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“So maybe you will enter the literary profession as so many Southern gentlemen and gentlewomen too are doing now and maybe you will remember this and write about it. You will be married then I expect and perhaps your wife will want a new gown or a new chair for the house and you can write this and submit it to the magazines,” Miss Rosa Coldfield, Absalom, Absalom!

I can’t describe this trip without sounding like a lunatic. Or a poser. Or both possibly.

It’s the hottest week of the summer of 2011 and I’m behind the wheel of our Passat wagon barreling North up Mississippi’s U.S. 45. I’ve got the best Mississippi gas station barbeque beef tips balanced on the center console, some sweet tea in a Styrofoam cup and the husband reading to me from Absalom, Absalom!.

It was a scene that would have made William Faulkner proud: his work read aloud while the reader ate barbeque through Mississippi.

We were on our way to the annual Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference hosted by the University of Mississippi that summer after reading about it for years in the New York Times book review. To be truthful, I was a little uncertain about attending this conference as amateurs. We didn’t even belong to a book club, for heaven’s sake.

But we did have ambitious enthusiasm for Faulkner and his world so spending a week studying, eating crisp catfish on the lawn of Rowan Oak and meeting interesting academics for drinks at City Grocery bar sounded like the perfect way to spend some hard-earned vacation time.

What we found was an unlikely group of high school teachers, graduate students, professors and other couples from across the nation who happen to love Faulkner. These were not academics studying the difficult works of a long-dead Southerner. No, this conference is designed to bring his famous, albeit somewhat confusing, writing in focus for us today.

Because behind the walls of every local gated community lives the ambitious heir of Thomas Sutpen, the Tea Party descendant of the Snopes or even the unaware and spoiled grandchildren of Anse Bundren.

Faulkner is simply telling you a story much like my brother does when he’s come across an act of Redneck stupidity too great to be left alone. If you’ve ever picked up As I Lay Dying and promptly sat it back down after a few chapters, find James Franco’s excellent 2013 film and all will become—at times hysterically—clear.

Or do what Faulkner himself advised his own wife after she had problems with The Sound and the Fury…”read it again.” Or, even better, read it aloud.

The Old Man: “I got this”

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With one hand, my nephew scooped the toddler out of her car seat in the World’s Manliest Pickup Truck and slung her onto his hip, whence she proceeded to giggle and admire the world while he asked me what I know about alternators – which is next to nothing.

It seemed that his truck, a snorting diesel beast that is old enough to vote, had a new alternator that he himself installed while in the parking lot of a supermarket two nights before. The new part was not working properly. Investigating the mystery of why would keep us happily engaged for the next hour.

My nephew is not a poor man. Some say he is a cheap man. But I know he prefers to think of himself as a self-reliant man.

I was thinking about this the other day as I was passed on the highway by a far less manly pickup truck, swathed in advertising for a dog poop removal service. Seems that you can pay this company a weekly fee and they will send someone to pick up all of Fido’s landmines from your yard, presumably just before the lawn service arrives. There is apparently nothing we won’t pay somebody else to do.

Cleaning up after your dog doesn’t require any skill (although a subscription to the New York Times is useful, because then you get these convenient blue plastic bags that are perfect for this purpose).

For the household repairs and chores that do require some skill – especially for old homes – if you don’t have an Old Man around to mentor you, and you are bookish like me, I suggest a few old books that I found at yard sales over the years that I think are terrific:

1. Better Homes and Gardens Handyman’s Book. My copy comes from 1951; it’s a red covered three ring binding like the BHGH cookbook. Everything is arranged in tabulated sections with lots of black and white photos showing how to repair practically everything in a house.

2. Manual of Home Repairs, Remodeling & Maintenance. (Fawcett Publications, Inc. 1969) This book adds a lot of depth to various home repair subjects by discussing how they were originally constructed. I think this is so that if you really screw something up, you can rebuild it.

3. House by Tracy Kidder. (Houghton Mifflin 1985). This isn’t a do it yourself instruction book, but it is a great non-fiction account of a young couple having their dream house constructed and of all the drama and tension that naturally arises when you have someone else charged with putting your hopes and aspirations into wood and plaster.