About Blessed & Grateful, my blog

Blessed & Grateful: Can you be B&G — and a Badass?

At first, the thought of combining these words was a bit frightening.

See, I’m leaping into this new Blessed & Grateful blog project and I want to get it right. That means telling stories about the richness and light I treasure in language that speaks both to my dearest friends, fine people who would not be caught dead in a church, and the lovely new people I know through our church.

I’m not promising all sweetness and vanilla, peeps. I am no polyanna. I’ve been lucky, and tough.

To arrive at this place of contentment I had to be brave and a warrior of sorts. And I know this peace can be shattered in one tragic moment.

This journey taught me. It made me.

A few weeks ago I consulted my brave and wise mother-in-law, a retired pastor. She said the Bible offered plenty of examples of flawed people and tough, kind heroes. She was fine with badass. She promised she wasn’t just being nice.

Onward. Then, I started to notice badasses everywhere.

Gracious, Fierce and Fearless

Badasses are kind, gracious, loving people who are also wicked strong, fierce and fearless.

They go for it. They protect those dear. They rise for those who can’t — but never at someone else’s expense.

They do what needs to be done—sometimes with a roar and sometimes so quietly you hardly notice them. They are brave and bold. They speak their truth.

They are not bullies, nor are they nasty.

The people who embody these qualities have a strength that inspires my own.

They are in public life, often unexpectedly — like those incredibly strong, fearless and articulate students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who survived a horrific mass shooting and one week later stood tall and asked straightforward questions of powerful people. Amazing.

Turns out I’ve been blessed with badasses, drawn to them all along: My mother, my grandmother, my aunts and best friends, my husband and stepsons and plenty of other women and men.

Sweetie Grandma was a Total Badass

One of my favorite pictures of my grandmother is from August 18, 1945. She is wearing her Army-issued dark skirt, light long-sleeve blouse with a pointed collar, round sunglasses, hat and sensible shoes, walking between two other women dressed in identical skirt-blouse-hat-shoes down a sidewalk in Marseilles, France.

She is looking straight ahead, ignoring the camera.

“Don’t ever tell anyone that you know the center character,” she wrote on the back of this black and white snapshot.

I always wanted to know more of her story than she’d tell.

Magdalene grew up in a small railroad and coal town in Northeast Pennsylvania, wedged among the creases of two mountains. She joined the Red Cross to become a nurse, suspecting it would take her far away to war.

She served as an Army nurse in World War II, and met my grandfather. They returned, married and made their home in Cleveland, where they had five children, including one who died before birth, and my mom, then later 10 grandchildren.

As the story goes, when she inquired about joining the local VFW she was offered a membership intended for women. “She would have none of that, and reminded them that she was an officer,” reported our family historian, my uncle. “She became a regular member.”

She was a maternity nurse who worked nights, and when I was little watched me during the days. She was generous and gracious, a woman of strong Catholic faith, hard worker and the wife of a hard-working public servant and politician.

We called her “Sweetie” because she was all warmth and sweetness. Her lap and bosom was for me a place of pure comfort and refuge from whatever was scary and sad.

Now, that little town where she grew up is cute-as-a-button and a quaint haven for tourists. A century ago, however, living there was a tough life. She both loved it — and knew she needed to get away.

My uncle recently found her grandfather’s death certificate. We learned he died on the railroad, the cause of death was “cut in half.” There must have been plenty she wanted to leave behind in that place.

I’ve always loved that image of her walking down a foreign street, before she was a wife, mom and grandmother. She is cool and confident, rising to the mission, fearless, her whole life ahead of her, ready to serve, ready for an adventure.

My Badass Friend Candace

One cold night in early spring, loud shouting and stomping outside our apartment door caught my attention drawing me away from bed, where I was headed, and out into the hall. My boyfriend and I lived in an old three-story house in Maine with an apartment on each floor.

The young, estranged boyfriend of the single mom who lived upstairs was drunk and belligerent, arguing with three other people as his two-year-old daughter slept inside. The young mom’s mother was there along with the boyfriend’s father. All of their efforts to calm him had failed.

I also attempted to reason with him, and got nowhere.

My friend Candace was not there that night, but she had taught me well. I knew exactly what to do.

Calmly, I confirmed with the single mom that she wanted him to leave, and nicely asked him to leave. Once.

Then, ready to zip out of his stumbling reach if need-be, I pointed my index finger right between his eyes in a jabbing motion, looked him directly in the face, got as close as I dared and shouted at him to

GET OUT. RIGHT NOW. GET OUT. RIGHT NOW.

The language was slightly more colorful. I repeated.

He retreated, stumbling, out the front door, off the porch to the sidewalk and away.

I did not have kids. But I did have a mama-bear instinct to protect the people who lived in that house. They would soon be my tenants, as I was buying the building.

After drunk guy had gone that night, I realized I was covered neck-to-ankle with the cutest brown and black kitty-cats all over my flannel pajamas. I had not stopped to think about that, nor to be afraid. Gratefully, he did not have a gun. I knew I’d be OK.

When drunk guy returned around 2 am, I called the police from behind my locked door. As far as I know, he never came back. Soon, we installed a lock on the exterior door to the house, gave keys to our tenants and kept it locked.

Growing up, I did not have to deal with drunk people. But my friend Candace did. One October night when our annual Halloween party was winding down she didn’t like the way a drunk guy was talking to me. He had come to the second-floor of our single-family house, where our overnight guests were already sleeping in the bedrooms and Candace and I were changing out of our costumes.

When Halloween drunk guy started banging on all the doors, my answer was to reason with him. I got nowhere.

When he got more belligerent, Candace snapped. Still wearing her very scary vampire makeup, she burst from around the corner, got right in Halloween drunk guy’s face, pointed and shouted at him to GET DOWNSTAIRS RIGHT NOW.

I can still see Halloween drunk guy scampering down the steps as fast as his feet would take him, his hospital johnny costume barely covering his pasty white backside.

My friend had always been so sweet, kind and gracious. That night I learned that when provoked she could be fearless for a purpose.

Kind & Brave Folks All Around Us

My mom was a single mom who worked full-time, earned her MBA one course at a time and took care of me, making sure we went on vacations no matter how tight the money was.

My badass businesswoman aunt opened and now runs a hugely successful women’s fashion boutique with her business partner, also a smart business woman.

My husband, a school teacher and administrator, doesn’t put up with his students’ bad behavior (nor mine!) He’d never raise his voice to tell you, though, and instead sets an example. (OK, and that letter M his eyebrows make when he pinches them together in that confused look of whattheheckareyoudoing?)

My stepsons show strength, intense discipline toward their goals and compassion for others.

My friend is raising two boys with her husband, works part-time, waking up early to run and carving out time to paint.

My neighbor and friend takes care of her family and five grandchildren and is always asking if we need anything.

A wonderful friend had a baby, and is raising her daughter on her own — on purpose.

Badasses, all of them.

And the so many — too many — dear friends who have faced breast cancer, beat it and then because of lasting effects, must reach for their new normal. Life is never the same.

My friend has beat cancer multiple times, raised two fine sons with her husband, retired as a communications professional, volunteers in her community, speaks her mind and cuts through the BS.

Another dear friend beat breast cancer and is passionate about creating new, gorgeous jewelry, exquisite works of art.

A best friend since college who beat breast cancer, is raising two boys with her husband and is a hugely successful marketing professional.

Candace, too, beat breast cancer and is now re-prioritizing her life. “I am fiercely looking for the next version of myself and the creative pursuits to compliment this new/old person,” she responded (and gave her blessing to share her answer.) “Probably the scariest thing I’ve faced yet — to get out of treatment and not recognize myself anymore.”

Badasses. Incredibly inspiring.

Super-heroes for These Times

I wondered about all this one January Sunday, then settled in to watch the Golden Globe awards.

Oprah’s speech that night said it all, beautifully. These times both require great strength and are giving us great heroes.

Kesha every time she performs “Praying,” Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn who battled terrible injuries and never, ever gave up. All the Olympians with their stories of what they overcame and how they battled to reach the games, maybe even the podium.

We need these people.

Maybe badass isn’t even the right word. Not long ago, it meant to be mean and bully and was negative, a way to pop the big selfish ego of bravado.

The Guardian newspaper out of the U.K., reported at the end of 2015, that badass had become a positive descriptor for women behaving like men, taking on strength and toughness of men, that it stood for feel-good feminism, empowerment. And that its usage had peaked.

It hinted at the evolution of the word’s meaning beyond women acting like men, toward a new dimension of positive description of a woman in her own right, not defined in relationship to men or by men.

Sounds good. Let’s go. These times feel right.

And if badass falls short, let’s find a new word — or re-invent a familiar one. Super-hero?

We can be our truest, very best blessed, grateful and badass selves. Super-heroes for ourselves and each other.

We can be good and strong and fiercely committed to become our best versions, people who demand and support justice, people who protect the vulnerable, people who rise to the occasion, who tell the truth, who use all of our talents — strength, honor, intuition, finesse, communication — for a greater good.

People who serve. But are not so meek and selfless that we are doormats or silent. You gotta have backbone.

I’m ready to be extra fearless.

You?

A little inspiration for a new year

My friend posted this sweet idea on Facebook over the New Year’s holiday weekend. It has stuck with me, so I’m borrowing it.

Every week this year, jot down something for which you are grateful onto a slip of paper and place it in a “gratitude jar.” Then at the end of this year, read through all the messages to re-live a year of wonderful memories.

I’m adding a few twists.

I resolve in 2018 to note my blessings and place them in a big, red glass jar on top of my desk, more than once a week.

I’ll pick one and tell a short, related story here on my Blessed & Grateful blog.

The details differ, but the reasons for a gratitude jar match the idea behind my blog: Practice focusing on the good stuff of life and express genuine gratitude. I’ve found it powerful and helpful.

I say practice because doing so — seeing beyond a disappointment, or sadness or anger — to find the goodness and grace in a situation can be a struggle and takes time.

Some of the biggies have taken me decades. Others I’m still working on. Your mileage may vary.

And I say practice because I’m not interested in preaching or sounding like a know-it-all. I’m just a writer, doing my work and sharing some stories.

~~~~~~

This idea is ancient. Focus on the light. Share the light. Spread the light. The holiday season is full of reminders to do so. Now comes the fresh year ahead, a new level of commitment, the day-to-day work.

Sarah Ban Breathnach put her own twist on this idea with her book, Simple Abundance. Oprah for many years has urged us all to keep a gratitude journal.

I read Sarah’s book a few times in my 20s, an essay a day, year after year. Her beloved book shares a wisdom bookshelf with work from Maya Angelou, Wendell Berry, Mitch Albom, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Marianne Williamson, and the Bible my grandparents gave me when I was confirmed in the 8th grade.

Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Gilbert deserve spots on that shelf full of wisdom. Shonda Rhimes, too.

In my 20s, I did and said many things that now make me wince. There were a few bad decisions on nights I survived, as they say, by the grace of God.

~~~~~~~~~~

As I reflect on that time, I now realize one of the wisest decisions of my life was to reconcile with my dad, starting with realizing and accepting that he’d done the best he could and that he loved me.

He didn’t — or couldn’t — always show it the way I thought “normal” dads did or should. To be clear, he was neither violent nor abusive. My hurt and anger came more from his absences and the strain of trying to connect when we were together.

But a lot can be forgiven of a parent who doesn’t give up and keeps saying “I love you” in his way. We began to heal it and rebuild and made up for lost time.

He is gone now. Five years ago this week, and I still miss him terribly.

I do have those many rich memories, made possible by my conscious choice more than two decades ago to let go of some stuff — and his refusal to let go of me.

So as my gratitude jar for the year ahead, I’m picking a big red glass jar my sister gave me as a Christmas gift several years ago. We have different moms, and the same dad. We both know what it’s like to be strong women, raised by our strong, single moms — and what it’s like to miss our one-of-a-kind Dad.

~~~~~~

This gratitude jar idea also struck me because of the particular friend who posted it. Her cancer is back. I’m afraid for her, and her family, and what this year ahead will bring for them.

Yet, none of us truly know what lies ahead. So, these days, I’m trying to live fully, without fear — and with frequent pauses to be thankful for just how much goodness colors and nourishes my day-to-day life.

Whatever comes our way in 2018, may we help each other face it with strength, gratitude and grace.

 

Blessed & Grateful: Wrong Turns That Lead to the Right Places

Image By Doug Kerr from Albany, NY,

Our leader apologized, as she gently broke the news.

Reviewing her map confirmed the error, and she felt responsible for all of the extra miles ahead before our hiking day would be done and we could relish our climb up Caribou Mountain, a 3,648-foot peak in the wilderness of western Maine.

The parking lot where we now stood sweaty, grimy and ready to relax, was not where we’d parked that morning. As the crisp, October afternoon waned, we realized we were 16 miles away from her car, our way home.

At the summit, we’d looked upon the first scarlet and rust speckling the lush green forest that covered mountain peaks from below us to the horizon. Then we’d descended to a junction, and taken the wrong trail down the mountain, ending up on the opposite side from the car.

We climbed back up about two-thirds to the top until we connected with the right trail. Exhausted, hungry and filthy, we finally reached the car in the deep dark that night.

I felt badly for my friend and colleague who led the trip. Eager to share her love of hiking a favorite Maine peak, she’d invited novices like me on the day-trip, and was now worried our wrong turn had ruined the day and soured us for hiking.

It did not. I still love the peace and rhythm of walking a wooded trail, mile after mile, and in the 20-plus years since then have walked thousands of miles over countless hikes. When she and I connect we share a laugh, remembering that crisp fall day when we hiked Caribou Mountain. Twice.

What I most remember is her kindness.

A wrong turn had led me to Maine.

Two girlfriends and I drove north out of Boston toward Jackson, New Hampshire on a Tuesday in early May.

I’d graduated college just days before and we were celebrating with a road trip.

Jackson is a sweet, little gingerbread town in the White Mountains. On a vacation there with my mom, I’d noticed kids getting off their school bus and had a light-bulb moment: People lived in really beautiful places.

So could I.

Beautiful, to me, meant BIG nature: forests, mountains, streams. My childhood home was in a lovely post-war suburb on Cleveland’s east side, with streets that had been named for all the children in a single family. Most of the brick and aluminum-sided bungalows had front porches where people sat and could talk over the front lawn to their neighbors passing on the sidewalk. The maple trees were so big their branches made green arches high above the asphalt.

But I was eager to find my own place. So I l sought out a big city for college, then studied for a semester each in London and Washington, D.C. By graduation, I’d grown weary of pavement, noise and crime.

We drove north out of the city, stopped in Concord, New Hampshire for lunch, and ambled east through the mountains along the twisty-turny Kangamagus Highway.

Suddenly, a big blue roadside sign: Welcome to Maine, The Way Life Should Be.

Then a little green one: Portland, 100 miles.

What?! $#%&

I pulled over to reverse direction, then look for the left turn I’d missed for Route 16 north to Jackson.

But my friends wanted to see Portland.

First, we passed pretty little ponds and woods and the beautiful, big Sebago Lake.

We pulled into Portland at twilight. We walked along a gritty waterfront area of docks with lines leading to important-looking boats, across a busy avenue from the brick sidewalks and cute shops of Portland’s Old Port district.

We ate ice cream cones at Ben & Jerry’s. We arrived back in Boston well after midnight, thrilled with our adventure.

Three months later, I started a job at a local, daily newspaper and set about making a life as a writer on the Maine coast. I stayed 13 years, and found a niche writing about commercial fishing and the marine environment.

That wrong turn turned out just fine.

I left Maine, certain I’d return five years later. I kept the house.

Call it “magical thinking” but looking back on that bittersweet time, it probably protected me from turning around, and giving in to anxiety that leaving was a mistake. Even, maybe, that the marriage was a mistake, too.

My fiancé had endured years of professional challenges and soul-searching, then was accepted and excited about a Ph.D. program at Penn State. Five years to become a professor, then he wanted to teach at a small college. It seemed like a good time for me to leap from a staff writer to freelance writer.

Five years in Pennsylvania. Then we’d be back. Of course we would be back.

I knew nothing about college football, or Joe Paterno, blue and white, lions, or anything Nittany, until we came to a town about 10 miles from the university in 2005 to house-hunt.

All I knew was what I had seen from I-80 driving with my mom between home in Cleveland and school in Boston: Trees and more trees. On one of those road trips, we spotted a sign for McDonald’s and exited the highway for a pit stop. We never found that McDonald’s, so never got off the interstate around there again.

My fiancé and I found a perfect 100-year-old house in a town just a few miles from that exit. The real estate ad said “cutie-patootie” and it delivered. The petite, folk Victorian had its original siding, painted a deep blue-grey with white trim and a sweet porch on the second floor. I loved the house, and the town was charming.

But the move was not my choice. Love is love. You do your very best.

So on my 35th birthday I worked a final day at a good, stable job, then flew to State College, Pennsylvania, with a sleeping bag in my carry-on. The next day I bought a second house, that cute folk Victorian. Ten days later, we were married at a beach ceremony on Maine’s Schoodic Peninsula.

Truth be told, at first I hated living in central Pennsylvania.

It was hot and humid. I wept for a breeze to deliver cool, salty fresh air off the ocean that never came. I tried to explore, and just felt stuck in loops of highways and cornfields that all looked the same and made no sense to me.

Eventually, I settled in and learned to love central Pennsylvania’s small towns, and the ridge-and-valley topography. Plenty of trails lead into the woods along brooks and trout streams.

There is no place quite like Maine. But there are many down-to-earth, hard-working folks, cute small towns and beautiful natural places in central Pennsylvania. In other words, much of what I loved about Maine I found here, too.

I made writing a full-time business. I made new friends. I made a garden.

We could not make the marriage work. It turned out to be a wrong turn, a mistake. He moved on. I stayed.

I wish correcting that wrong turn was as easy as climbing back up Caribou Mountain or staying on that road to Portland.

It was hard. I’ll never get that time or life-energy back.

A failed marriage requires grieving, and for me, only time, tears and long walks through Spring Creek Canyon would be the way through it.

I hunkered down for a year of work and anything that felt good: Tearing up carpets and painting my studio walls a deep purple, gardening, long walks and talks with good friends, soaking in a hot bath, thinking of having children on my own.

Then, just shy of a year later — 51 weeks to be exact — I got exceptionally lucky and met a man who is the love of my life. Soon, I met his two sons, both good, solid young men. Three years later, we were married. No second thoughts. Not one.

These new relationships could have easily gone off the rails in so many ways. My strong sense of “love at first sight” could have been just more magical thinking. Another mistake. The boys could have resented and hated a rival demand on their dad’s attention. We were careful to show them day-to-day that they came first.

Ever so carefully, I moved into their home and lives.

It was a time of huge life changes. My own dad was soon diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six months later. The stress could have broken me. Yet, my gut was clear. I trusted this new love and leaned into it.

It turned out to be the real deal. Together, we made a new family.

Family had been the one essential element missing from my life in Maine. My friends were wonderful and good, loving people. But for whatever reason I could not make a family of my own.

If not for that leap into the mistake marriage, I would not be here. I would not have found and blended into our family. I would not have been close to my childhood home and dad when he faced illness, cancer treatments and his final days.

So I am grateful for the wrong turns, even the ones that turned out to be really big mistakes, because they led right to where I belong.

 

For me, February means Thanksgiving

A thin, older man dressed in black, with sparse hair and a grey beard walks by our house a few times a week. He walks steadily and with purpose.
If I’m outside and ask how he’s doing, he always says: Blessed and grateful.
His response initially surprised me. Now, when I spot him I hear those words and remember what’s most important.
For me, February brings Thanksgiving, and is all about remembering to be grateful for life’s blessings.

Deep Sleep
For two weeks in November, 2009, my dad slept deeply in a darkened, intensive care room in Akron, Ohio, while the melodies of George Gershwin and George Winston softly played over the quiet whooshing of the ventilator breathing for him.
He fought a life-threatening infection in his lungs and belly. My family and I had made the room as quiet and soothing as possible, so he could devote every ounce of his energy to surviving.
My dad’s longtime girlfriend and my younger sister and I — then 39 and his eldest daughter — took shifts sitting beside him, encouraging him to fight and live. Every day, his hand warmed in mine as I told him stories of good, shared memories.
By Thanksgiving, he had kicked the infection, was breathing on his own and awake — but quite loopy from the medicine and facing a long recovery ahead. He told us how he repeatedly dreamed he had been in a car accident and of a transfer station near the hospital. He spent his favorite holiday there, so we promised him a full turkey dinner a few months later, when he was better.

Memorable Gathering
That turkey dinner in the middle of February was a wonderful evening for our family. The crystal and china sparkled around the antique table in the old, renovated barn my dad shared with his longtime girlfriend. Like most families, ours has been, you could say, somewhat dysfunctional and includes several ex-spouses and steps. My charming Dad was not so easy to be married to.
But we had all put old arguments aside during his illness to help him and each other. Our family had actually functioned and that evening genuine joy and gratitude for his life flowed around the dining table.
So we made it an annual tradition. For the next two years, we gathered in February for a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings.

Loss and a New Home
By February 2013, I was dragging myself through each day. My dad died that January, almost exactly six months after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. I was devastated and exhausted by grief and his illness.
And — gratefully so — I also had a new family to care for. I’d just moved in with my now-husband and stepsons, transplanting myself to a small farm town where I knew almost no one but my new family.
My first marriage had failed. It brought no children, but had brought me here to central Pennsylvania, closer to my parents in Cleveland and to a place where I met and fell in love with an amazing, good, handsome man and his sons.
Mike and I traveled to Cleveland that February for Thanksgiving, when he met my dad before the cancer came. That August, when dad was very sick after a chemo treatment, he traveled here to meet our boys because he knew it would mean the world to me.
To Mike and I, family is paramount. But there would be no big family turkey dinner that February, my first winter in Big Valley. Too much. Too soon. Too tired.

A New Tradition
My husband, as is his gift, followed through the next year. Now, every year he reserves the hunting camp he belongs to in Rothrock State Forest, with the six-burner stove and two ovens, huge tables and a bunk room upstairs. He and his father and uncle are members. Our boys love going to camp. They are all hunters and use it during the season.
In the off-season, which includes February, camp is perfect for family get-aways and hosting a big turkey dinner.
So when the calendar turns to February, the preparations are in full-swing. I finalize the menu, gather the assorted recipes and make the big shopping list. Always turkey and potatoes, pies made from scratch and fresh cranberry-orange-ginger relish — with a chocolate dessert. It is February, after all.
We invite family and friends to stay for a weekend of visiting, playing games, long walks in the woods — and a big turkey dinner.
This year, we hosted 26 people for Thanksgiving dinner Saturday afternoon. Dad’s longtime girlfriend made the long drive. Everyone pitches in for a beautiful meal. Our family played board games deep into Friday and Saturday nights.
Outside was so warm and bright Saturday, that people settled into the chaise lounges and porch swings to chat and laugh — just like a summertime reunion.

Reaching for Grace
In February, as I walk the goofy beagle around town, I am more preoccupied and reflective than usual — making mental lists before the big dinner, then afterward reliving all its moments.
On the morning of Feb. 1, fresh white patches covered the rooftops, ridges and fields, shining in the bright sun and blue sky. Remnants of dried cornstalks poked up through the previous day’s snowfall — about five inches, just enough for a snow day. Snow outlined the sheets of grey bark and deep green up on the ridges.
By February, I am relieved and grateful to have muddled through the January dates of my dad’s birthday and anniversary of his death. Around those days, grief can rise from the shadows and block the sun.
Then it passes. February brings relief, lots to do to prepare for a big family dinner and weekend, and a special reminder to be grateful.
How my dad would love our Thanksgiving in February weekends. He would love our boys. He would love all the food, the joking and teasing, the cheering for them at baseball and football games, our plans as we remake this old house — all of it.
To live is to know loss. It hurts like hell. In time, the sharpness of its bite dulls — though never entirely disappears.
Some believe healing from grief means that gratitude for the gift of that person fills the hole. Perhaps that’s what it means to turn grief to grace.
I get that. I’ve felt that. Sometimes it is fleeting. Other times it sticks around. I’m grateful for all my dad taught me, how he loved me and all of our good memories.
And I still miss him.

Blessed and Grateful
I wish I floated through all of February’s days, on the wisdom that seems to propel our neighbor. Now, as the month wanes, I find myself getting bogged down in the grind of household tasks. Dishes. Laundry. Rinse and repeat. Over and over. Probably just tired and ready for spring.
Yet, at any moment I may look out the window over the kitchen sink and spot the man who is always blessed and grateful — an extra, year-round reminder.
And I remember just how blessed I am by this beautiful family, that our boys and my husband are healthy and happy. That my mom and stepdad are healthy.
That we live in a gorgeous valley. That there is much good work to do, exciting new ideas, things to learn and great stories to discover.
February overflows with blessings: stunning snowy fields, enduring love, a favorite story, a delicious meal, all the laughter and conversation around the big tables that weekend, good memories — and that something so good and wonderful sprouted out of such loss.
Yes, quite grateful.

Fresh, Big Valley Peaches

Country Pleasures: Patience and Peaches

peaches_with_buggy
Three horse-drawn buggies. Two pickup trucks. Three cars. I eyed the gathering in the gravel lot in front of the big white weathered barn at the Amish orchard on Back Mountain Road, and parked carefully.

In the cool morning, we all quietly looked each other over, wondering how long we may have to wait for fresh-picked peaches — or if we would get any at all.

At just after 7, I’d hardly expected to be first. When they say “early” in Big Valley that means around 4 a.m., maybe sooner. By then, our farm town is wide awake. Traffic zips along the main road, slicing through the cornfields that blanket the valley bottom and stretch to the base of the mountain ridges.

Yesterday, the woman at the butcher shop had directed me to another orchard and said she’d heard from a woman who’d arrived before 5 (5 a.m.!) and was sixth in line.

People are crazy for peaches here in the valley this time of year.

Rightly so. Summer’s sweet essence lives in the juicy, delicate flesh of a ripe peach.

So eighth wasn’t so bad.

There were no paper slips with printed numbers and not many words spoken at first. Yet we all knew who among us was already there when we arrived and who had come later.

A chestnut horse pulling an open black wagon emerged from the trees and trotted into view, stopping in front of the barn. At the reins, standing on the buckboard, were two Amish boys, not quite teenagers, one wearing a bachelor’s button blue shirt and the other a pale blue one, and both in black trousers, with straw hats.

Reddish-orange peaches filled 18, wheat-colored half-bushel baskets in the wagon bed.

Hallelujah! A beautiful abundance.

I’d be back by 7:30, and on with the rest of the morning — or so I thought.

Then the next person in line asked for five bushels, 10 baskets. Six more people ahead of me.

Oh. OK. It’s going to be awhile.

The boys unloaded baskets, gently placing them on the gravel drive near the buyer’s buggy or truck, then moved on to the next person — often asking to determine who was next, as we’d parked in a formation more like a sprinkle than a line.

When they’d finished, and the horse had rested a bit and they’d briefly ducked into the house for whatnot, one boy stood before the horse, pushing on his chest to nudge him to step backward and turn back toward the trees. Each boy placed a foot in a broken-in, familiar spot and climbed back to driving position.

The horse’s metal shoes and the steel wheel clattered on the pounded dirt lane as the wagon climbed slightly and disappeared again into the orchard.

As they picked the next wagon-load, a few of us helped the woman with five bushels transfer her treasures from the baskets to boxes.

Peaches cannot be dumped. Each one must be gently moved by hand to avoid bruising.

We waited and chatted about our peachy plans. One woman intended to can them in the next few days and make a first cobbler today.

Dreaming of peaches

I fantasized about opening a glistening crystal-clear jar full of packed, sweet peach slices on a February evening.

Back in real life, I shuddered at what I remembered of canning peaches: a huge, hot mess when the peach pits clung to the flesh and had to be cut away. Their juice ended up washed off my arms and counters and floors, and down the drain.

Ever since, I’ve been careful to come home with a freestone variety, so that the pit releases with just a bit of pressure, and wait for them to ripen, set out in a warm spot of the house.

Mine will be grilled at our annual summer party on Saturday. Our local family and friends, plus a few carloads of out-of-town guests gather at a state park pavilion to celebrate the best of summertime: roasted corn, fresh tomatoes, grilled peaches, a swim in the lake, catching up with each other.

peaches_in_basketThe peach ladies and I chatted about our vegetable gardens and the dry weather as the sun rose higher and the morning warmed.

We chatted with the mother of the Amish family who owns the orchard. She explained that the drought had cut the peach harvest in half, and made them sweeter. The apples would be down, too, she said, but they were thankful for the harvest, whatever the amount. peaches_lot_wagon

The wagon came and went two more times. Five more, then 10 more cars snaked down the lane. People milled and watched. Some napped in their cars.

We waited. So did the dirty breakfast dishes in my sink, the e-mails, the preparations for the party and the guests arriving tomorrow.

No matter. By then I was invested and enjoying the community, cool air and gorgeous scenery. I learned canning and gardening tips and met some of my Amish neighbors.

This year, our party peaches would be from the valley. And extra-sweet.

Peach nectar on the tongue belongs to all that is wonderful about summertime

Finally, I gently emptied two half-bushel baskets — one of Redhaven and another of John Boy — into cardboard boxes and into the car. The are ripening, spread out on brown paper in a warm room. The nicked and bruised handful are set aside for a cobbler — or maybe a pie.

That first bite was a delicious rush of nectar on my tongue. It belongs to all that is wonderful about summertime. A splash of cold water on a hot, humid afternoon. Floating on a river. Mountain pies over the campfire. Fireflies dancing above the cornfield. Cool, soft sheets on tired feet at the end of the day. The crack of a homerun off a wooden bat.

This is August, and we must make time to savor these summertime pleasures — for they are both fleeting and the salve to all of our worries, aches and ordeals, the swift passage of time, the kids growing up too fast. All of it at bay for now. In the fall, my youngest stepson turns 18. November will bring a watershed election, one way or another, and bitter wind will scour the valley.

But for now, we have sweet, fresh peaches from Big Valley to enjoy.