Monday, September 17, 2018

Yesterday with Yurii

Every so often, the stars just align and everything comes together perfectly.  Eleventy bazillion years ago (ok, twelve, but who's counting) my neighbors mentioned that there were Russian boys coming to town and they would be looking for extra work.  Larry and I had our hands full with this growing property, and Arturo, Ivan and Pavel -all the way from Siberia- would come over to our place after working at the motel where they were housed, and the restaurant where they were working, and fill their days off with painting and pressure washing and planting and mulching and anything else we asked.  It was a tremendous experience for us, to meet these young university students and learn how very different it is in America.  Once I asked Pavel, "What's the biggest difference between here and your home?"  He said, "Life!" And when I asked further, he said, "The process of life.  There on your kitchen counter is an electric mixer.  You decided you wanted a mixer and you bought it."  Perplexed, I said yes.  He went on.  "If I get paid at the end of the week, and I pay my rent and buy my food, if I have $40 left and there is a drill at Lowes for $40, I can get a ride to the store and buy the drill."  Go on, I prodded.  "At my home, I would have to save the $40 and then get on a list to buy the drill, and I would have to provide a good reason to be allowed on the list."  He explained that when you see a line, you get in it.  It might be for shoes or it might be for onions.  It didn't matter.  If there was something for sale, you bought it.  Someone back at your apartment would need the shoes, even if they weren't your size.  Then Pavel laughed and said, "There would be no list for the mixer.  My mother would never use one.  She uses a spoon."  Larry and I referred back to that conversation, often.  Pavel will always have a place in my heart for teaching me so clearly.

The following year, we were asked if we'd like more students.  This group was Ukrainian.  And somehow by some stroke of luck, Yurii and Oleksii stepped into our lives.

Yurii and Oleksii

Are they not just the cutest things?  These boys had energy to spare.  Nothing was too difficult, too heavy, too demanding.  Those smiles were always in place.  We spent the summer working their tails off, too.  They built the benches for the wedding cove (along with Larry, Dick, and Nicholas), they treated the hemlock trees, built in shelves for Larry's office, painted, stained, set stones, built steps, re-engineered the creek (Larry's favorite pass time) to make prettier waterfalls, they worked and worked and worked.


I wish I could tell you how much I loved having these boys here.  Those two summers were such special times.  They really were a part of the family.  And it was hard to see them leave in the fall.  The first time, Larry and I realized we were sending our boys back to Siberia, for heaven's sake!  We just wanted to keep them forever.  When Russia started fooling around in Ukraine, our hearts were in our throats as our boys' safety was at risk.  We embedded ourselves into the 24-hour news cycle until tensions finally broke, but we still worried.

Facebook allowed the occasional peek every year or two into Pavel's life in Russia, and Oleksii in Ukraine.  We routinely posted the annual 'happy birthday'.  We learned of marriages, jobs.  But only tiny bits of random information, a handful of notes over the past decade or so.  And then.  Out of the blue: messages from Oleksii!  How are you, life is good, are you in Florida, Yurii is there - I had to break the news of Larry's passing to this boy who responded, "Larry was the greatest man I ever knew."  They had forged an unbreakable bond, and it grieved me to have to bring sadness into his world.  But he'd brought serendipity to mine.  I was indeed heading to Florida, and soon.

So.  Fast forward to yesterday morning, when a text message came from Miami - it was Yurii!  We began to plan how to meet and before you knew it, I was in my car and heading to Jupiter, Florida, to meet this 30-something year old man for seafood at a waterfront restaurant.  Yes, that's right.  I made a five hour road trip to have lunch, haha!  Worth every moment.  Yurii told me about the work he's doing in Miami, a little about the company he works for, and how he's having to relearn English.  (We always found it vastly amusing that these boys came to the Appalachian mountains to practice English.  Honey, I've lived in Maggie Valley for the past 21 years, and there are times even I can't understand the language.  So.  By all means, let's take folks who use a cyrillic alphabet, give them English classes in college and send them off to the land of yep and y'all.  But they did it!)  These days, Yurii is practicing his English in Miami.  I'd like to point out that precious little English is spoken there, either.  And his coworkers are Russian... which presents a certain tension of its own, given the political landscape.  But there is more news.  Yurii's been married to Olga for seven years.  He was quick to show me a photo - she is lovely!  And if his business progresses the way it seems to be, she may be able to accompany him on a future trip.  I'm imagining meeting her - Larry said "our boys" so often, can she be my daughter-in-law?  I'd like that.

I have this image running around in my head.  I hope you'll enjoy it...  Yurii and Olga, renewing their vows on their 10th wedding anniversary... at Timberwolf Creek... in the wedding cove the boys built.  Love in the air.

Yurii & Sandee at U-Tiki Beach Restaurant, Jupiter Florida





Monday, September 03, 2018

Pasta For One


I thought y'all might appreciate what became of those luscious tomatoes from Stony last week.

Sorry, I don't do measurements unless it's baking.  Baking is chemistry.  Stove-top is art.  That's my theory.  Bearing that in mind, everything here is subject to taste.  Add, subtract, substitute, knock yourself out.  I've always found recipes to be great reading, and excellent suggestions to kick start your meal preparation.  Except for baking.  You have to be really careful how you play with recipes when you're baking.  Wet-to-dry ratios, gluten development, leavening agents, sugars, this has none of that required attention to detail.  This is all about flavors and textures and making your kitchen smell so good you can't wait to dig in.

For my version... much of which was dependent upon the contents of my refrigerator...
Butter
Roasted garlic
Portobello mushrooms
Vidalia onion
Stony Caldwell's san marzano tomatoes*, chopped
Fresh basil, chiffonade (fancy way to say slice into ribbons)
Dried oregano and tarragon
Salt and pepper to taste
Angel hair pasta, cooked al dente (or to death, if that's your preference)
Parmesan cheese to garnish


Melt butter in a cast iron skillet on medium heat.  Mash the roasted garlic, and incorporate into the butter as best you can. (I love the stuff, live alone, and didn't have plans to go out, so I used four cloves.  Color me happy.)  Add chopped mushrooms and stir until they start to lose a bit of their moisture, then add onions and saute until the onions are translucent. Add tomatoes, cover, and let simmer, stirring occasionally.  Go ahead and bring your water to a boil, for the pasta.  Salt the water.  It doesn't make your pasta cook differently, no matter what anybody tells you.  It does, however, make it taste good.  Add the pasta - it won't be long, now!  Stir that tomato sauce.  It's time to add the herbs.  Cook it down, stirring now and then to keep it from sticking, while the pasta cooks.  When the noodles are nearly done, scoop up some of the water and add it to the sauce.  It'll go all creamy on you - that's the magic of pasta water.  Who knew?!

Drain your pasta, twirl a big ladle full and put it in your bowl, top with sauce and a healthy sprinkling of cheese, pour your wine and voila.  Dinner fit for a queen.



*For the curious who noted the other tomato on the earlier post, the Mr Stripy went straight into a tomato sandwich when I got home.  Seriously, people.  Not like there was another choice.  Sourdough bread.  Duke's mayo.  Salt and pepper.  We're done here.

Click.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Apples Amaze Me


Yes, kids.  It's that day.  Barber Orchards!

I was born in Central Florida.  You can make fun of the capital C if you like, but now that I live in Western North Carolina - topping the list for capitalized directions - I'm more comfortable with the Central.  Specifically, I was born in Gainesville and grew up in Orlando.  The street of my early years was a cul-de-sac built in an old citrus grove, so we had fruit trees in abundance: orange, tangerine, grapefruit, even a lemon tree on the lot behind us.  I grew up with these, and it made perfect sense to me, as a child, coloring fat round trees with small orange circles in them.  But apples on a tree?  That seemed mystical and distant, even exotic.  I had only seem them in pictures, and of course my coloring books.  Trees with red circles were 'apple trees' but that really didn't mean anything to me.  Apples came from the grocery store.  It was right up there with mountains.  Mountains were inverted V's and if you added a little white scallop, they were snow-capped mountains.  When my drawings became more sophisticated, I would make a separate row of V's behind the first row, creating distance and perspective.  I recall being awfully proud of that accomplishment.  But there was never any question.  Mountains were straight sided and ended with a point on top and one was absolutely separate from the next.  Remember, folks.  Florida.

In Orlando, where the only fruit on trees is citrus, the nearest thing that qualifies as a hill is the abutment under an overpass on I-4.  It had not occurred to me to feel even remotely deprived.  No, I'd never seen snow.  I was always astonished to hear folks tell me they'd never seen the ocean.  Those were the deprived people, not me.

At 18, I joined the Women's Army Corps (another story!) and shipped off to Denver, Colorado.  Holy moly wow great gadzooks the Rocky Mountains!  Sure, there were a few high peaks with snow on them year-round, but you'd be hard pressed to find the inverted V's of my childhood!  The plains rose gently to the foothills, which rose sharply into the instantly recognizable skyline of Denver, with its skyscrapers against a backdrop of the front range. Jaw dropping, to a flatlander like me.  And while I'm certain there were apple trees in abundance, I didn't know how to recognize one without the little red orbs, so frankly, I've no idea when I first encountered one.  I can tell you, though, that I was in my mid-twenties when I first plucked an apple from a tree.  And it was a moment.  For all the wonder experienced, we could have been standing on a planet in another galaxy.  I was awed.

Just as mountains have never lost their mystery for me, apples are little miracles.  Encountering them attached to a branch (or even with a leaf still attached, at a market) unfailingly elicits the same delight as that late summer afternoon in the Colorado mountains when I pulled that apple down, myself.  I lived in Colorado for eleven years, and still startle at the word 'orchard'.  Apparently, to this Florida girl, fruit trees are in groves.

So, yes.  I live in a magical, mysterious, fascinating world nowadays, with a home in the North Carolina mountains, where apples are an industry.  My crayon colored world of V's and red circles on trees has come to life.  And nothing exemplifies that more than a trip to Barber Orchards.

Two announcements from Barber Orchards trigger a pilgrimage.  The first is opening day, typically the first of August.  The line queued at the baked goods counter is long, and filled with good-natured folks, whiling the time away visiting and scoping out the purchases of those in front of them.  Employees stream by with tray after tray of apple donuts, turnovers, muffins (good heavens, those apple muffins!) cakes and fruit pies, refilling the sales counters which empty as quickly as they're filled.  One does not hesitate.  Get in line.  It doesn't matter if you know what you want, you'll have figured it out by the time you get to the counter, based on the chatter from the queue and those steaming trays of hot baked goods passing under your nose, if you don't faint from pleasure first.  I highly recommend the muffins.  Unless you're in front of me.  Then choose something else.  Just in case, you know.  I've gotten to the front of the line before, only to be met with, 'So sorry! You know you can call and place your order and we'll have it ready for you.'  Do I know this?  I do.  Do I ever -ever- follow through?  I do not.  Don't ask me why.  I think the whole bakery roulette thing appeals to me.

This day, however, was the siren call of the second announcement: the honeycrisp apples are in.  Now, people, honeycrisp are straight from God.  I don't care what religion you are or are not.  Honeycrisp apples are nondenominational.  Even atheists like honeycrisps (although I'm not certain you can eat one of those apples and fail to believe).  When Bernie told me Barber Orchards had announced the honeycrisps, we planned our lunch date around picking up our apples.  Yes, we wanted to go have lunch together, yes we had other errands to run, but these apples were the Plan.


We were in and out in moments.  I told Bernie I was going to take some pictures -the whole place is insanely photogenic, with fruit and veggies and jams and baked goods- and then asked a nice lady to take our photo.  I absolutely stink at selfies, and find them mildly objectionable.  I'd probably like them if I could just figure out how they work.  (Do I digress?  People!  Yes.  Yes, I do.  Every single time.) Ahem.  Pictures.  There were two other ladies shopping there who thought it was so funny that we were going to get our picture taken that they promptly produced a camera and handed it to the same nice lady.  "Take our picture! Take our picture!" and so of course, I took their picture, too.  They thought it was great fun.  So did we.  Everyone at the fruit stand seemed to be having as good a time as we were.  It was a delightful place to be, that afternoon.

Here, you'll find photographic evidence of our bounty.  The two laughing women.  The sign for the bakery counter, and it's surprisingly short line, shows the route we did not take - I think the key to not overbuying baked goods is to go out for lunch first! And when we got back to the car, Bernie pointed out the apple trees, heavy laden with fruit, looking for all the world like my coloring book.

It was a very good day.

Click.



Sunday, August 26, 2018

Fellowship and Fresh Tomatoes


Some time ago, when Larry died, I was searching for some direction, certain that there was a book that might give me some guidance about how to grieve.  Well.  How to survive the initial stages of grief.  Back when I was in college, I had a math professor who taught in a fashion that made it easy to learn.  We've all had teachers like that.  They speak our language.  It's not a universal thing - people learn in different ways - but this man taught in a way that made things clear to me.  So you can imagine how glad and relieved I was to find a book, written by that same professor, about grief.  (If you're searching: It's called When Your Lover Dies, by Dr. Robert C. Brigham.  You're welcome.)

The book was such an easy read for me.  I'd known both Dr. & Mrs.-also-Dr. Brigham, and they'd played instrumental roles in my life, for different reasons.  They both held my deep respect and admiration.  So the book made sense.  The players were known to me.  I didn't have to put a face to the names, they were faces from my own memories.  And Dr. Brigham continued to teach me, through those words.

One admonition he makes in the book - and there are not many!  Mostly, it's reassurance that whatever way you're grieving is the right way to grieve and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.  But there are a few strong suggestions.  Agree to stay alive for five years.  (That may seem odd to those of you who've not lost a spouse.  But for those of us who have, we frequently just want to die and keep being with that one true love.)  Don't let the naysayers get you down.  And accept every invitation.

Accept every invitation.  If you're anything like me at all, you love social events, make lunch plans, dinner plans, plans for outings, get togethers, all the time.  And then as each one rolls around, you have a whole list of reasons for cancelling, staying in pajamas, raiding the fridge and lolling around in front of the TV/PC/book instead.  I'll go next time.  Do I HAVE to go?  I don't feel so good, is that a fever, a tickle in my throat?  Sigh.  I have to put on all those clothes and shoes and I'm just going to be late anyway, I should just cancel.  What's that about, I wonder?  But I do it every single time, whether I'm looking forward to it or not.  And it's not just since I'm a widow, Larry and I did the same thing.  There'd be that glance at the clock, at each other, feet up in recliners sitting around in our pajamas, and the heavy sigh of well ok and then off to get ready.  It's not like we didn't enjoy ourselves once we were out.  We always did.  We were animated and chatty all the way back home about what a great time we had and already making more plans for a repeat, but man, once we were back in pajamas, mmmm sweet ennui.

Meanwhile.  Accept every invitation.  Because Dr. Brigham said it was a good idea, because I understand the allure of pajama-clad cancellations, and because I trust Brigham better than I trust myself in the middle of what one gal called 'hot grief'.

And I was invited, publicly, to attend church this Sunday morning.  And I accepted, publicly, announcing my arrival time.  So there I was.

And don't think I didn't have a whole litany of reasons to cancel when I woke up this morning!  I overslept (and had a mere three hours to prepare).  I was having a bad hair day (what else is new).  I didn't have anything handy for breakfast food (pay no attention to the fact I don't ordinarily eat breakfast).  My favorite pants are in the laundry (the whole closet full of too many pairs of pants, notwithstanding).  I didn't have a purse to match my new outfit (oh for pete's sake yes I actually did think that, even though 1. I don't ever think that, 2. I pick one purse and carry it for months, and 3. it actually matched just fine).  When I got to the purse thing, it was such a pitiful excuse that I gave up, and returned to Dr. Brigham's admonition to accept every invitation.

Checking myself about eight times in the mirror, I texted the folks who invited me and said I was on my way.  I figured no matter what else happened, tomorrow would be Monday, right?

Hopping in my car and realizing oh great now I really AM going to be late, I was coming down off the mountain when I saw my neighbor, Stony, walking his dog down the dirt road.  Stony takes a bit of describing.  So does his dog.  Stony looks for all the world like ZZ Top meets mountain man.  Skinny as a rail, long beard, hat shadowing his eyes, and a bit bent at the shoulders, he epitomizes these Appalachian hills for me.  He's not old, as a matter of fact I think he's younger than me, but he's a figure of the ages, and appears to carry the weight of the world.  He was in his best jeans, and a clean plaid shirt, and held one thumb aloft, in hopes of a ride.

Stony's dog, Cujo, used to terrify me.  He's tried to eat me before.  Like a snack.  I have run from that dog.  I have been petrified by that dog.  I have been rescued from that dog.  I freakin hated that dog.  He scared me to death.  But I have lived here a long time, and the dog with Stony posed no threat this morning.  I haven't seen either of them in years, and while Stony remains timeless and unchanged, that old dog was ancient.  His patchy fur was gray-tipped, his head hung low, and every step was painfully managed.  And, atypically, he was on a leash.  I slowed to a stop and put my window down.

Now this man is a gentleman.  He is unworldly and a little sketchy, mostly unkempt and moves slowly, but he is unfailingly polite and kind.  He would blush and stammer and deny the word gentleman. But it's in there, bone marrow deep.  Maybe it's just the manners born of a kind heart, but it's there.  So when I said, "Good morning, stranger!" to this fellow I haven't seen in a couple of years, and this dog who hasn't aged well, he looked up with a smile, tip-o-the-hat, and called me ma'am and asked if perhaps I could give him and his old dog a ride down to the church.

Well.  If that isn't confirmation that I was heading in the right direction, I don't know what was.  "Of course," said I, and we got poor old Cujo loaded into the car at Stony's feet and off we went.  I explained that I was going to have to hurry when we got there, because I was expected and I was late, and the most awful thing to me was when Stony took that to mean I didn't want to be seen with him.  I did my best to assure him that I wanted him to come sit beside me as soon as he had Cujo unloaded and tied in front of the church where he planned to leave the dog during the service.  And he said, "Oh no ma'am, you probably sit right up front and I'll be all the way in the back."  We left it at that and I left them making their slow way across the parking lot while I tried to gain entry to the church just as the service was beginning.

There are three different doorways from the parking lot.  Good grief.  I wasn't expecting confusion before I even got inside.  This was a challenge.  I went back to Stony (who was maybe ten feet from the car by now) and said, "Which door do you go in?" and he chuckled and said the front door.  I took off in the general direction, but got sidetracked when I spotted a woman inside double doors at a table of bulletins.  That looked promising.  I popped inside and asked her, "This is my first time here, how do I get inside?" and with a wide smile, she pointed up a hallway, and I trotted that way.

Surprise.  I came out via the transept, into a room of filled pews and the immediately visible seats were directly in front of me.  I sat.  In the very front row.  This was not my plan, people.  But there I was.  I couldn't exactly excuse myself and make my way to the back.  But I was supremely enviously of Stony right that moment, surely tucked into the back row, beside a door.  I felt my color rise, spotted the folks who invited me up in the choir seats, and tried to make myself inconspicuous.  I had no bulletin, no knowledge of how the service would proceed, and was thoroughly a fish out of water.

It didn't take long for Ken and Beth to see me there, from their seats in the choir right smack in front of me, and for Beth to see my dilemma and come hand me a bulletin so I could keep up.  And it also didn't take long for me to start realizing that I was quite comfortable in this place, that there was a sense of welcome I don't usually find in new surroundings, and I was enjoying this young pastor and her enthusiasm.  And the choir was quite small, but beautifully balanced and blessedly on key.  I could pick out the individual voices but only with effort.  This is the way a choir should sound.  I was enchanted.  The sermon seemed quite short to me, although it wasn't actually, it was just that the pastor held my interest the entire time.  Folks made a point of greeting me, a stranger, when the time came for that.  And afterward, Ken brought Pastor Ann over to say hello, and introduced me to his mother, and I was able to really feel a sense not only of welcome, but also of belonging.  I am pretty happy about all that.  After a nice visit following the service, I headed back out to my car to make my way home.

And as soon as I turned up my road, there was Stony, inching along with Cujo, bent over his dog in encouragement.  I pulled up and told Stony that we should give that dog a ride home.  We got him into the car again, and as I drove up to Stony's house, he told me he'd already dug a grave for the dog.  He's a serious man, and clearly devoted to this dog.  I got out of the car when we arrived, and we got the dog out, and Stony said, "You like tomaters?" To which I replied I certainly do.  And we walked over to the front of the house where tomatoes climbed twine tied from ground stakes up to the gutters of the house.  Stony carefully chose the ripest most perfect tomatoes for me, and handed them to me with care, and sent me home with my bounty and heartfelt thanks for the ride.

I told him next time, we are going to sit together in the front row, and stir up a little talk in this small town.  I think he liked that.  He shook my hand and thanked me again for the ride.  He told me he wouldn't need a ride for his companion, though, because Cujo wouldn't be going to another church service.  And he turned to help the dog across his threshold. 

Click.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

World Traveler


I've renewed my passport.  Ok, let me just say that again.  I've renewed my passport.

Heady stuff!  I get butterflies just saying it.  Never having imagined I'd even need a passport, and then getting my first one at 50, it just didn't occur to me that I would ever be so worldly as to say, oh so casually, "Yes. I just renewed my passport."

This, people, is a ticket to the world.  The entire world.  And I intend to make good use of it.  Being unworldly, I didn't realize the Department of State would return my old passport (complete with hole punches) so I resisted the temptation to cut out all the pages with my visa stamps, and just took pictures of all of them before sending off for the new documents.  And holy cow.  "Let me just take this precious booklet and entrust it to the United States Postal Service and sit around waiting for a government office to properly handle my passport, my information, and my money.  What could possibly go wrong?"  So yes, it was a big relief to get that envelope back from the civil servant who did indeed perform admirably.

I knew I'd never manage six weeks of pins and needles, so even though I won't need this thing for months, I paid the expedited fee.  It was worth the peace of mind.

Meanwhile, I feel like I ought to dress up and do my hair, fix my lipstick and go out to lunch. "Yes, my new passport came today.  I've just about worn that old one out.  Sigh.  I'm so fashionable and world-weary and well-traveled.  Yes.  It's all so very dull."

HA!  I'm bouncing around the room excited.  I can't stop looking at it.  I can't wait to fill it up.  My next trip (Orlando, by car) requires nothing more than a driver's license. The one after that (California, by plane) would also be possible with that same driver's license, but you can bet I'm handing my passport to that TSA agent at the airport.  Because I can.

Next thing you know, I'll opt for pre-check just so I can be Fancy.

Click.