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autumn autumn leaves branch color

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The thing Mary enjoyed most since moving into the loft apartment in historic St. Charles was her daily morning strolls along the riverfront, especially now that autumn had arrived. On this particular day, the up-again-down-again temperatures so characteristic of fall in the Midwest caused a thick fog to rise from the water, wrapping her in a cloak of grey mist. Vibrant red, gold, and orange leaves hovered like clouds around the trees and carpeted the ground like so many crunchy area rugs.

It felt magical.

“A steaming mug of mulled cider might chase the chill off your bones, eh, Missy?”

The gruff voice startled Mary. She hadn’t noticed the tall, gaunt man approaching. He wore a heavy wool pea coat and a captain’s hat – strange attire for both the season and the circumstances. The dark, grizzled beard that framed his face contrasted sharply with his pasty complexion.

A reenactor, she thought.

It seemed that St. Charles hosted one festival or another almost every weekend… Scottish Games, Oktoberfest, Legends and Lanterns… No doubt there was some steamboat thing coming up that she hadn’t heard about.

paddlewheel

Mary smiled at the man. “Good morning, Captain.”

He groaned. “Fog’s too thick. Might be a good morning if a man didn’t have to leave his home just to get a glimpse of the river.”

Mary continued her walk, paying no attention to what the man said. It was a conversation in passing, nothing more. After all, she had more important things on her mind.

Mary didn’t know what she would do if she didn’t find a part-time job soon. With rent coming due in a little over a week and barely enough left in her savings to cover it, her immediate future looked rather bleak. She hoped her lunch interview with Donna, the owner of the Mother-in-Law House Restaurant, would go well. It wasn’t easy finding work that didn’t conflict with her class schedule at Lindenwood University. Waitressing at the Victorian-themed restaurant would be a perfect fit and the place was an easy walk from her apartment in the top floor of the historic Odd Fellows Hall.

Mary left the park at Jefferson Street and started the uphill climb to the campus. Two classes before her meeting with Donna would keep her busy. Hopefully she wouldn’t have time to get nervous about the interview.

Three hours later, Mary arrived at the Mother-in-Law House to meet with the owner. A matronly woman dressed in Victorian-style clothing rose from an elegantly arranged table to greet her.

Victorian woman

Mary said, “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting. It took me a little longer to walk here from campus than I thought it would.”

The woman smiled. “Don’t be silly. You’re precisely on time. Please, sit.”

Glancing around the dining room, Mary noticed that all the tables were full. One lone server bustled about trying to see to the patrons’ needs and comfort. A good sign, she thought. Donna certainly needs more help.

As the server approached to fill their water glasses, Mary said, “I really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule for this interview. I hope it’s not too much of an imposition.”

“Actually, I wanted you to see us this busy.”

Before Mary could speak her goblet overturned, spilling water everywhere. “Oh my goodness, I am so sorry,” she exclaimed. “I’m not usually so clumsy. I don’t know how I did that.”

The server arrived with towels and began cleaning up the table.

“My dear, you didn’t turn over the glass,” the woman said with an enigmatic smile. “That’s just Christina’s ghost trying to get your attention.”

“Ghost?” Mary gulped. “You have a ghost?”

“The mother-in-law for whom this restaurant is named felt quite neglected in life, so she stays here demanding to be noticed in the afterlife. I hope the haunting doesn’t deter you from wanting to work here.”

Mary chewed at her lower lip. She didn’t believe in ghosts. Was Donna wacko or just messing with her? It didn’t really matter. She needed this job.

“No, of course not. What’s a little haunting among friends?”  Mary hoped that remark didn’t come off as too flippant.

“It took me a while to get used to the idea, but I promise you the specter haunting this place is not a mean spirit. None of the ghosts of St. Charles are evil.”

“There are others?”

ghosts

The woman nodded. “I saw on your application that you’re a student at Lindenwood.”

“Yes,” Mary answered.

“Have you heard Mrs. Sibley play the piano?”

“No. Who is Mrs. Sibley?”

“They say that the ghost of Mary Sibley, who founded Lindenwood as a girls’ school, remains there. One of her favorite pastimes seems to have been playing the piano. If the tales are to be believed, she still performs on occasion.”

At the risk of blowing the interview, Mary blurted, “Are you teasing me? Ghosts are just a figment of sad people’s imaginations.”

“My dear, I was just as skeptical as you are until I had my own experience.”

Impatient with this turn of the conversation, Mary asked, “So who are these other ghosts?”

“Let’s see, there’s the elegant French couple that likes to visit Winery of the Little Hills and Bradden’s Restaurant; the little girl who plays with the antique toy sewing machine in the quilt shop; the riverboat captain who’s still angry because The Crow’s Nest down the street blocks his view of the river; and the banker who opens and closes the door to the vault in the old Odd Fellows Hall.”

“The Odd Fellows Hall?” Mary gasped. “That’s where I live. Upstairs in the studio apartment, I mean. There’s a dead banker inhabiting that building?”

“He only haunts the main floor. That place has quite a history and has served several different purposes. At one time it was a bank and the safe is still there. People who work in that space see and hear the vault door opening and closing sometimes. It’s quite heavy, so it’s not as if the wind could move it.”

bank vault

The pair sat quietly for a few moments. Mary’s companion watched her face turn pale as she processed this information. Finally the younger woman found her voice.

“I have a question. Is there a festival coming up this week that has to do with steamboats or something?”

“No. Why do you ask?”

“Because I hate to admit it, but I think I met your riverboat captain this morning.”

The woman chuckled. “I’m not surprised. He likes to wander the riverfront on foggy mornings. And now you’ve experienced The Mother-in-Law, Christina. There are more spirits about, but I don’t want to frighten you so much that you won’t take the job.”

“What did you say?”

Smiling, the matronly woman replied, “I offered you the server’s job. As you can see, we really need help. If you can work the supper shifts, someone from the evening staff can be moved to help during the luncheon rush.”

“Evenings are perfect for me,” Mary said.

“Great! Can you start tonight around 5?”

“Yes. Thank you!”

“There is one condition.”

Mary asked, “What’s that?”

“It might sound crazy, but every time you arrive for a shift you must tell Christina hello and every time you leave, you must say, ‘Goodnight, Christina. We love you.’ She doesn’t act out as often when she knows she’s welcome here and that people care about her.”

As Mary rose from the table, she winked and whispered, “See you later, Christina. I love you.”

“I love you, too, my dear.”

What a peculiar thing for Donna to say, Mary thought. Turning to leave, she collided with a dark-haired lady dressed in a flattering black pantsuit, jarring her off balance.

Mary took the woman by the elbow to steady her and apologized. “Pardon me. Are you okay?”

With a kind smile, the lady said, “I’m fine. You must be Mary. I’m sorry I’ve kept you waiting so long. Don’t go before we’ve had a chance to chat.” She extended her hand and continued, “Pardon my bad manners. I’m Donna. Please sit and have some lunch with me while we talk.”

“I’m confused,” said Mary. “I thought it was Donna who offered me the job.”

antique architecture book contemporary

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As she turned to gesture toward the matronly woman with whom she’d been speaking, Mary’s eyes widened in shock. Both chairs at the table were empty. It was as if the woman had vanished. No way could she have left the area without passing by.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “She was sitting right across from me at this table no more than a few seconds ago. She told me I could start work tonight.”

Donna patted Mary’s shoulder and said, “That must have been our resident ghost, the original Mother-in-Law. If she thinks you’re the one for the job, that’s good enough for me. But  if you don’t have to leave right away, please stay and have lunch with me. I suspect you could use a bite to eat…and maybe a nice glass of wine…after meeting Christina.”

 

©2018 Janet Y. Bettag, All rights reserved.

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My husband and I are nature lovers and gardeners. Our education in horticulture, botany, and ornithology was acquired entirely through trial and error and some of our lessons came quite by accident – or perhaps because of divine intervention.

One Saturday afternoon in early May, my husband had finished filling the birdbaths and feeders. For lack of more entertaining yard work to do, he offered to help weed the flower beds. Squatting beside me, he started pulling stray grasses pausing to ask, “Is this a weed?”

yellow petal flowers

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“No, that’s coreopsis,” I replied.  “The ones that get a million tiny yellow flowers and have to be deadheaded all summer.”

“I like those,” he grinned. “Don’t want to pull that. How about this one?”

“Sunflower,” I said. “Pull that. It doesn’t belong here.”

“But it’s a sunflower,” he insisted.

“It doesn’t belong here. It’s a weed.”

Tapping my shoulder he pointed to a nearby stepping stone. “See what it says?”

Annoyed, I read, “A weed is a misplaced wildflower.” I dropped my head, regretting the day I’d placed that piece in the garden.

My husband wrapped himself in smugness like a superhero donning his cape and announced, “The sunflower is a wildflower, not a weed. It gets to stay.”

“Pull it,” I directed through a clenched jaw. Recalling that the tree shading my vegetable plots started as a tiny sapling he’d insisted on saving, my patience was thinner than a crocus leaf.

“It’s a flower.”

“It’s a weed. Do you realize that if you leave it, it’s going to get six feet tall and stand in the middle of our view from the bay window?”

“So?”

“Pull it.”

“What harm will it do to leave it?”

Since he wasn’t going to budge, I made a mental note to pull the sunflower when he wasn’t around to argue. “Leave it if you insist.”

“Why did you plant it if you didn’t want it here?

“I didn’t plant it.”

“How did it get here?”

“I don’t know. Probably a bird dropped a seed here. Maybe a squirrel hid it last fall and forgot about it.”

“Then this is Mother Nature’s work, right?”

How was I to argue with that? “I surrender,” I said. “We have a sunflower in the front flower bed. I’ll leave it alone.”

Aside from the days when that particular bed came up in my weeding schedule, I didn’t think much about the errant sunflower. Each time I worked there, I weeded carefully around our volunteer and smiled as I remembered my husband’s convincing argument. It was a feisty intruder, growing a thick stem and broad leaves, shooting skyward faster than anything else in our gardens.

One Sunday morning, as I lazed over a cup of coffee and a book, my husband patted my leg to get my attention. “What kind of bird is that?”

Glancing out the window I answered, “Goldfinch.”

focal focus photography of perching yellow and blue short beak bird

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“Never saw him around here before,” he replied.

Laying aside my book, I looked again at the little yellow and black bird. “We have goldfinches in this area, but I don’t remember seeing one visit the birdbath.”

“Look,” he practically shouted, pointing at the bowed head of the sunflower. “There’s another one!”

He was right. The finch’s mate perched atop the sunflower picking at seeds. “That’s mama.”

animal avian beak bird

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“Why do you suppose the goldfinches decided to visit?”

“Word must have gotten out in bird world about your free and unlimited buffet.” I resumed reading while my husband continued watching the finches.

Soon he patted my thigh again asking, “What kind is that one?”

Annoyed by the interruption, I looked up. “Where?”

“In the mugho.”

Squinting to find a bird amongst the dark evergreen branches, I finally spotted it. “Oh, my goodness, that’s a purple finch! I’ve never seen one in our yard before.”

“It doesn’t look purple.”

“Well, its markings are sort of reddish, but it’s a purple finch.” I had to pull out the bird book and show him a picture before he believed me.

Over the next hour we watched a veritable mardi gras procession of birds parade pass our bay window. Some paused to shower under the fountain in the birdbath; others flitted to the ash tree and back. Cardinals, goldfinches, purple finches, a pair of blue jays, and flocks of chickadees and sparrows entertained us. An indigo bunting even made a rare appearance.

bird animal beak macro

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As the summer stretched on we continued to be amazed by the variety of birds coming up to our bay window. For days a red-tailed hawk lurked in the ash tree scouting the assemblage of smaller birds. Meanwhile, my husband diligently continued filling the feeders and changing the water in the birdbaths daily. While our avian visitors sometimes made hurried trips to the feeders they continued to congregate around the accidental sunflower. Eventually I realized I had to set something right.

I asked my husband, “Do you know why we have so many new birds this summer?”

“Why?”

“You were right and I was wrong. Remember when we were weeding and you insisted that I leave the sunflower?”

Chuckling, he replied, “I do. What does that have to do with the birds?”

“They like to eat the seeds right off of the sunflower.”

“You think?”

“I know.”

Early the following spring, as is my custom, I started planting impatiens in the shade garden and adding a few annuals in other beds. Remembering the joy we derived from watching birds the previous summer, I seeded the plot in front of the bay window with sunflowers. Oddly, they never sprouted.

Each spring since, I’ve pushed a few seeds into the spot where the accidental sunflower once grew. Every fall I blend some sunflower seeds in with the mixed nuts I put out for the squirrels, hoping they will bury a few in the front bed. Try as I might, I am unable to recreate the summer of the accidental sunflower.

Perhaps that is Mother Nature’s prerogative.

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Let me begin by wishing all the dads, step-dads, and dad-substitutes out there a relaxing, love-filled Fathers’ Day. You deserve it. After all, it isn’t easy being the anchor of a family. Your responsibilities are almost endless.

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We depend on you to teach us positive core values like honesty, integrity, and courage. You’re often called upon to be the disciplinarian. How many of us have heard our mothers warn us to “Just wait until your father gets home.”?  That sentence alone served as punishment – and not just because we dreaded whatever actions you might take to correct our behavior. Worse was the knowledge that we had disappointed you.

Although my Daddy wasn’t one to spare the rod, so to speak, if that’s what it took to avoid spoiling the child, he rarely needed to resort to physical punishment. When he pulled his glasses away from the bridge of his nose to glare over them, that withering look felt more crushing than any blow he might deliver.

Being the youngest of three girls, I often wondered if my parents had been disappointed that I didn’t turn out to be the son that would carry the family name into the following generations.  Sometimes my dad jokingly lamented his fate of being outnumbered in a house full of women; that even our dog was female. More often I heard him declare that he didn’t care how many children he and Mother had as long as they were all girls. He said he didn’t want any child of his to go through what he’d experienced during World War II – the details of which he chose never to elaborate upon.

I don’t know whether I served as his son-substitute or if he thought it the easiest way to keep me out of my mother’s hair, but Daddy often included me as his little helper when he worked around the house. There’s no telling how many nails I handed him when he undertook paneling our basement ratskeller. While he worked, Daddy patiently answered the hundreds of questions I threw at him, many of which began with “why” or “how.”

After his successful hunting trips, I often helped Daddy clean game. To this day I think of skinning a squirrel or a rabbit as “taking his pajamas off.” Thanks, Dad. And thanks for always bringing home the birds so I could have my favorite birthday dinner: fried quail.

That said, I haven’t forgotten the time you put a raccoon on the rotisserie and when I asked what you were barbecuing, you replied, “Have you seen your dog lately?”  Funny, not funny. Okay, maybe a little bit funny.

Most of the time Daddy called me Peewee Johnson, but sometimes my name was Half-Pint. Maybe that’s why I so identified with the Ingalls family when I got old enough to read the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura’s daddy called her Half-Pint, too! In a way I guess I have my father to thank for my love of reading.

Oh, but when I became Janet Yvonne…look out!  I knew I’d done something awful to displease him. But I also knew it wouldn’t take long to get back into his good graces. He forgave easily.

I could list dozens of things my father taught me, but perhaps the most important is that girls can do anything boys can do. And, in his opinion anyway, they usually do it better.

In my teen years, while Mother discouraged me from creative pursuits, Daddy secretly informed me that I could choose any line of work that suited me. In a time when women’s career options were more limited than they are today, that seems revolutionary advice.

“Follow your heart, baby,” he would say. “Work isn’t work if it gives you joy.”

This is the man who left school after completing the eighth grade so he could help provide for his family. He thought it much more important for his sisters to have everything they needed so they could continue their schooling. Yet, with his limited formal education, my father mastered advanced mathematics by studying on his own. I recall a time when I shied away from enrolling in an algebra class. He shamed me into taking it saying, “If I can do trigonometry with my feeble brain, you can figure out algebra. Piece of cake!”

Sadly, my father passed away when he was only 56 years old. Neither of my children enjoyed growing up with the fantastic grandfather he was.  I still – and always will – miss him.

There are other dads I want to pay special tribute to today: my husband, my son, and my son-in-law. They each, in their own way, embody many of my father’s best attributes.

Dear hubby has helped me raise two remarkable adults. Even under the most trying circumstances we have supported each other through the challenges most parents face…and some that were extraordinarily difficult.

Our son’s fondest wish came true when he became father to a son of his own. The love between the two is palpably enormous. The patience this Dada exhibits with his child equals – and probably surpasses – that with which my father blessed me. It is a joy watching the two of them together.  Our grandson is fortunate to have a father so determined to be an integral part of the boy’s life.

3 Bettags

We could not have asked for a better father for our two beautiful, brilliant, and talented granddaughters than our wonderful son-in-law. Like my father, this man has taught his girls that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. He has partnered with our daughter to instill in their children positive core values and in conveying that anything less than one’s best effort is unacceptable.

According to data from the 2010 Census, 24.7 million children in the United States don’t live with their biological fathers. I pray that most of those kids have some kind of father figure in residence.

Yet a 2001 report from the National Center for Education Statistics indicates that 39% of students in grades 1 through 12 are “fatherless.”

That is sad. So, so sad.

What’s that saying?

Any Man

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two people shaking hands

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It all started with a knock on my door one sunny summer afternoon.

There on my front porch stood a young man…hardly more than a boy, really…who shyly stammered, “Can I m-m-m. Excuse me. Can I m-m-mow your yard for $20?”

“Sorry,” I replied. “My husband likes to do the mowing and trimming himself. Says it’s his summer exercise routine.”

The kid looked so crestfallen it almost broke my heart. “Do you do any other kinds of yard work?”

His demeanor brightened immediately. “F-f-f-for $20?”

“I was just thinking that my flower beds really need some attention. If you’ll help me pull weeds for an hour, I’ll pay you $20.”

“D-d-d-deal!” he exclaimed.

Since I didn’t know if he could tell the difference between a dandelion and a daisy, I put the boy to work on the brick mowing path. Everything growing there was a weed.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“M-m-m. Excuse me. Marcus.”

“Marcus, my name is Janet. Do you live nearby?”

“Yes’m. Next to the f-f-f-firehouse.”

He pointed north, in the general direction of Main Street. I knew just where he meant. A string of tiny, low-rent, minimally-maintained apartments that were likely built in the 1940s or 50s lined that section of the road.

We spent the next hour chatting and weeding. Marcus impressed me with his willingness to do whatever it took to earn the money he seemed to desperately need. When I handed him two ten dollar bills and a cold bottle of water, he asked, “C-c-c-can I come back next week?”

“Sure.”

man person school head

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As the summer wore on, I learned a lot about my new friend. Marcus had just turned 16 years old the week before he first knocked on my door. He shared that little apartment with his grandmother. Neither his father nor his mother had stuck around long enough to see baby Marcus take his first steps as a toddler. And Maw, as he called her, was getting pretty old. Marcus worried that she might not live long enough to see him graduate from high school. He said he liked to cook and that he dreamed that someday he could attend culinary school and learn how to be a real chef.

Marcus was like a sponge. He absorbed every bit of knowledge he could about the vegetables, herbs, and flowers I grew in my gardens. I learned that his favorite meal was fried chicken with a mess of slow-cooked greens and mashed potatoes. When he found out that I write, he declared that maybe he would be a writer someday himself.

One day I harvested more turnip greens, tomatoes, and zucchinis than I had the time or patience to deal with right away, so I offered them to Marcus. His smile and the hug he gave me in exchange for the vegetables more than adequately expressed his gratitude.

“Th-th-th-excuse me. Th-thank you. There’s not much f-f-f-food at our house right now.”

His response made me wish I had fried chicken to send home with him, too. How, I wondered, could there be people going hungry in our town?

After that, I made a point of regularly offering produce from our garden and sometimes a few slices of leftover meatloaf or pork roast. I always cooked more than hubby and I could eat. Why shouldn’t Marcus and Maw benefit from our abundance?

agriculture basket beets bokeh

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Looking back, I realize I could have – no, SHOULD have – done more to help them.

By fall, Marcus could do most of the yard work unsupervised, but I had come to cherish the time we spent together so I often joined him at his labors just to enjoy his company. But the days were growing shorter. School and homework often kept him from having time to stop by looking for chores he could do to earn his $20.

When winter dropped several inches of heavy, wet snow during a particularly blustery day, I had suited up in layers of warm clothing and was trying to psych myself up to go out and shovel when Marcus knocked on the door.

“D-d-do you have a snow sh-sh-sh-shovel?”

“In the garage,” I answered. “But I’m short on cash, Marcus. I can’t pay you to shovel today.”

“M-m-m-my treat.” His grin shined whiter than the snow. “You-you-you. Excuse me. You too old to shovel.”

I would have felt insulted at the age comment had I not been so grateful for his help.

Winter turned to spring and spring into summer and Marcus came to help me with chores about once a week – sometimes more frequently. Early one bright summer Saturday, Marcus knocked on my door. When I answered, he pulled a red polo shirt from behind his back and held it in front of him. The logo of a nearby fast food restaurant punctuated his comment, “I-I-I g-g-got a j-j-j-job! A real j-j-j-job!”

“Congratulations, Marcus!” I hugged him. “And you’ll be working with food. That will be good experience when you go to culinary school.”

“C-c-c-costs a lot of money to go to school. C-c-can I still come and work on my days off?”

“Of course!”

Our friendship continued for several years. He invited me to his high school graduation. I couldn’t have been more pleased and honored than to watch him take that walk. Marcus proudly introduced me to his invalid grandmother.  I later learned that my young friend had pushed Maw over three miles in her wheelchair so she could attend the ceremony.

accomplishment ceremony education graduation

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A couple of weeks ago, as we approached the Memorial Day weekend and headed to Kansas City to celebrate a grand-niece’s graduation, it dawned on me that it’s been almost two years since Marcus last knocked on my door. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him walking up Main Street to get to his fast-food job in a very long time, either.

Of the hundreds of questions I’d asked Marcus during dozens of conversations, how is it that I never thought to ask his last name? Or his Maw’s last name? How could I have not paid attention at his graduation to pick up that tidbit of information as the principal called it out while he crossed the stage to collect his diploma?

Short of knocking on every door in the apartment complex looking for Marcus or Maw, I know of no way to check up on my friend. Did Maw pass away, leaving him homeless? Had he flipped enough burgers, mowed enough lawns, pulled enough weeds, and raked enough leaves to pay for his tuition to culinary school?

I may never know.

But I do know this: if I ever win the lottery, I will somehow find a way to locate my young friend and make sure that he has all the money he needs to make his dreams come true. I will pay for a speech therapist to help Marcus overcome his stuttering so he never has to be embarrassed by it again…or say “I-I-I…excuse me.”

Marcus, if you happen to read this, please come knock on my door. I have a ton of yardwork that needs to be done and you know I’m getting too old to do it by myself.

NOTE: This blog post is based on a true story, with some fictional elements added to protect my friend’s identity and privacy. Only stock photos were used and the real Marcus is not depicted in any image.

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My late mother’s birthday fell on July 7. Daddy’s sister, Aunt Celia Ann, also had a birthday around that time, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall the exact date. In any case, these July birthdays prompted the creation of the original Army Green Birthday Cake.

I can’t remember who first had the idea, but my two older sisters and I decided to surprise Mother and Aunt Celia Ann with a memorable treat. Although I can’t recall my exact age at the time, I know I was young and eager to participate in any activity from which I wasn’t banned by my siblings. Happily, the army green birthday cake proved to be such an event.

Together, the three of us set about testing our baking, frosting, and cake decorating skills. The batter may have been chocolate…or maybe yellow…perhaps lemon? I’m not sure. The flavor seemed somewhat immaterial. The icing made this cake special.

I remember there being much discussion regarding how to tint the frosting. All we knew was that none of the options available in that little box of food coloring seemed special enough for our creation. I believe we thought lavender would be nice. Sadly, our version of that purplish hue too closely resembled grey and required adjustment. I don’t suppose any of us were well versed on how blue and red combine to make purple or, conversely, how green results when you mix yellow and blue.

Thus the experimentation began.

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I’m not sure how many combinations we tried before realizing that we’d better settle for that putrid olive drab before our frosting went from hideous to coyote ugly. (So nasty you would chew off your own paw to escape it.)

Certainly I was not the only sister who wanted to cry at that point, but we soldiered onward. We assembled the layers into a towering thing of beauty covered in army green icing. We hid the finished product in Mother’s aluminum cake cover, latched tight so there would be no peeking to ruin the surprise.

The next day, we loaded up the family station wagon and drove from Missouri to Colorado over the long Independence Day weekend to visit Aunt Celia Ann, Uncle Bill, Aunt Helen and all of my first cousins. Together we would celebrate those July birthdays in style. Mother packed a picnic basket and a cooler so we could drive straight through, saving time and money – both of which were no doubt in short supply.

With the whole family gathered, what a shock the unveiling of our masterpiece proved to be. I vaguely remember one of the cousins exclaiming, “It’s green!”

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And I’m pretty sure there was laughter…a lot of it.

But the only memory of the event really worth keeping is Mother’s reaction. Her voice conveyed sheer delight when she exclaimed, “Did you girls bake this cake for us all by yourselves? It looks wonderful!”

Thank you, Mother! In that moment you taught me an invaluable lesson. Even an army green birthday cake is beautiful when viewed through loving eyes.

Today is the 37th Mothers’ Day I’ve spent celebrating only the memory of my mom.  She passed away too young. Way too young.

Happy Mothers Day

Happy Heavenly Mothers’ Day 2018 to the amazing lady who, by her actions, taught me to be strong and independent; to love unconditionally; to be brave and unafraid to try new things…

And to appreciate all the army green birthday cakes life has to offer.

 

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Younger folks might not appreciate the affection some antique people (like me!) hold for good, old-fashioned aprons like our grandmothers wore. These days, aprons tend to be single purpose.

 

garden apron

One can purchase gardening aprons designed to hold essential tools. They are universally capable of withstanding the grime that comes with digging in the dirt. Some are waterproof…just in case the wearer has a close encounter of the sprinkler kind, I suppose. They seem to come in two main types: with bib, and without. The latter version straps around the waist – usually with a webbed belt- and has a short panel with a few pockets to hold just the essentials. As an avid veggie, herb, and flower grower, I don’t see the usefulness of an apron so small one that there’s no place to wipe the mud off of one’s hands. The bib type usually sports an extra pocket or two, but aside from covering one’s sternum (which is often where one of those extra pockets is positioned), it doesn’t seem to me to be of any more value than its bib-less friend. Neither variety has a sufficiently ample skirt for carrying a freshly harvested mess of green beans or peas. Heck, they’d barely hold a couple of tomatoes!

Now there is even such a thing as an egg-gathering apron. Outfitted with a dozen or more little ovum-sized pockets, this garment apparently serves the purpose of eliminating the need for carrying a basket to the hen house. These aprons are all bib-free, which is just as well since egg-gathering activities generally take place below the waistline. Usually sewn up from nostalgic adorable gingham or adorable chicken print fabrics, they certainly make an impressive barnyard fashion statement. But here’s the thing: to me they look like a cracking incident waiting to happen. If the wearer should happen to bump into something or forget herself and crouch down, she could end up with egg all over her cute little apron and whatever she’s wearing under it…to say nothing of the egg on her face when she returns from the chicken coop with no usable fresh eggs.

egg apron

And then there are the kitchen aprons. One website I visited proudly proclaimed that it featured more than 320 varieties from which customers could choose. Seriously? I had to check that out. Aside from color choices, I found that their stock consisted primarily of two types: bib aprons for men and bib aprons for women…although for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what made one gender’s apron distinct from the other’s. They all had a neck loop that held the bib against the chest, a sash that tied at the waist, and two good-sized front pockets. Probably okay for guys and slim, petite girls, but for tall, curvy women like me that little bib wouldn’t cover enough chest area to keep the pasta sauce from splattering all over my blouse.

kitchen apron

Server aprons generally fall into two categories: with and without bib. Both types featured multiple pockets for holding a ticket book, cash, change…and whatever other necessities a waiter or waitress might need to work efficiently. Some seemed fancier than others to match the tone of upscale eateries as opposed to the more utilitarian-looking aprons seen in chain restaurants and coffee houses.

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There’s even been a resurgence of that 1950s favorite, the hostess apron. You know – the kind June Cleaver wore with her heels and pearls when she worked in the kitchen. (Okay, the younger crowd might not even know who June Cleaver was. Google it.)

June Cleaver

It seems to me that the industry now produces just about every single-purpose apron one might imagine. What seems lacking is a good, old-fashioned grandmother’s apron.

I started my online apron research because I spend a lot of time in the kitchen…and I mean a LOT of time. I already own at least half a dozen aprons and while some are more useful than others, none do an adequate job of keeping my clothes clean and stain-free. I thought about ordering a chef’s coat. That should keep the marinara off of my favorite concert t-shirt! But what about the other activities that keep me busy throughout the day? The gardening, the laundry, the housecleaning…? Heck, I would gather eggs if the city where I live didn’t frown on residents keeping live chickens.

chef coat

No, what I really need is wardrobe of aprons wardrobe like my Grandma Creech wore. The primary purpose, of course, was to protect her clothing. And it did so regardless of the task at hand. With a waist-to-neckline bib large enough to cover her ample bosom, nothing would slop on the bodice of her house dress or her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes. The skirt of the apron was gathered and full, wrapping around and almost meeting in the back. It featured two large pockets in the skirt and a smaller pocket in the bib, which held her ever-present handkerchief.

Grandma’s apron was omni-purpose, a feature lacking in modern aprons.

I fondly recall sitting with her while we snapped green beans. The apron stretched across her lap held the newly-harvested produce. As we worked, the snapped off ends went back into her apron and the beans went into the cook pot. When we were finished, she gathered the waste in her apron skirt and transported it to the compost heap where, with one good shake, it was deposited.

On laundry day, she filled those immense pockets with clothespins before she carried a basket of newly washed bed linens to the back yard and hung them to dry in the sunshine. Nothing compared to the fresh scent of those summer-air-dried sheets and pillowcases.

More than once I saw Grandma run a stray dog out of the yard by flapping her apron and yelling “Shoo!” That same fluttering garment served as a signal that the food was on the table and the young’uns had best come and get it while it was hot.

On occasion she even wiped away my childhood tears with that apron when a skinned knee, a broken doll, or some perceived mistreatment by an older sibling threatened to ruin my life forever.

Ah…those were the days.

More to the point, those were the best aprons.

I haven’t abandoned my quest, although it appears I may have to search out a pattern and put my limited sewing skills to work if I want some really useful aprons.

Gosh, I wish I had my Grandma’s apron!

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Every home cook has had some recipe not turn out as expected. At least I hope I’m not alone.

Some dishes that flop can’t be redeemed and it’s best to cut your losses, pitch the burnt chicken that wasn’t supposed to be Cajun-blackened, and order a pizza.

Interlaken, Berner Oberland, Switzerland

But if we get creative…and more than a little lucky…that “oops” can be salvaged or put to some other use. Got a little carried away salting the stew? No problem. Add more potatoes. Potatoes suck up salt. Did the rice stick to the bottom of the saucepan? Just leave about ½ inch layer everywhere it’s stuck. The fluffy white grains tend not to pick up a burned taste if they’re not in direct contact with their less fortunate friends.

There are things that can be done to at least make the product edible. If you can move past the initial upset and frustration, you might even find your kitchen malfunction amusing.

Case in Point:

One sunny Thanksgiving morning I felt excited that my daughter had volunteered to host the family feast. Instead of taking the time and effort to prepare the entire meal, my assignment seemed pretty simple. She only asked that I bake a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie to bring to the dessert table.

My recipe for pumpkin custard fills two 9-inch shells, so the previous day I baked up a couple of them along with my son-in-law’s favorite pecan pie. Although dear daughter hadn’t requested it, I decided it would be a nice touch if I took along some fresh whipped cream to dollop on top. (Because, of course, there weren’t enough calories in those pies already to put us all into a near-terminal food coma, right?)

Joyfully singing my favorite Thanksgiving hymn, We Gather Together, I pulled out my stand mixer, poured in a pint of heavy whipping cream, a teaspoon of vanilla, and a couple of tablespoons of sugar in the bowl and pushed “start.” I watched for a bit until the sugar and vanilla disappeared into the creamy whiteness before deciding I might as well unload the dishwasher while the mighty mixer did its thing.

By the time I finished that little chore and went to check on my mixer, the cream had gone from liquid through whipped and straight into butter.

whipped cream butter.png

Oops.

Well, it was still edible, so this was not an epic fail. I just found myself short on whipped cream and long on butter. I poured a tablespoon of honey and about a teaspoon of cinnamon in to the bowl and started the mixer on low speed. I watched it constantly and hit “STOP!” the instant everything had blended. Removing the soft honey butter from the mixing bowl, I shaped it into a flat oval and pressed a design on top with a cookie stamp. Then off it went to the fridge to chill.

Voilà! A disaster turned into a bonus.

On the way to the feast, hubby and I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a can of store-bought whipped cream. Not as fresh and not as impressive, but still capable of adding unnecessary calories to the pies.

When we arrived at dear daughter and son-in-law’s home bearing pies, whipped cream, and the mystery gift, I announced, “I hope you don’t mind. I knew you planned on baking those yummy yeast rolls, so I took the liberty of making some cinnamon-honey butter to go with them.”

“Oh, Mom!” she exclaimed. “You shouldn’t have gone to all that trouble, but I’m sure the kids will be thrilled.”

“It was literally no trouble at all,” I replied with a Cheshire cat grin.

Cheshire Cat Grin

My kitchen failure might have remained a secret had not sweet hubby found it necessary to announce to all present, “Yep. Your mother tried to make homemade whipped cream, but instead she made butter.”

Oh, well. It got him a good laugh, even if it was at my expense.

All’s well that ends well. The kids (and adults) really did love the “accidental butter” on their dinner rolls. Canned whipped cream served the purpose just fine. And everyone raved about how delicious the pies were.

If it is edible it’s not a failure, right?

Comment below to share your experiences turning kitchen disasters into edible non-failures.

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