Even though my dad is still with us, I noticed some of the letters in my mother's heart-shaped Valentine's Day box did not have that familiar blue and red airmail border, so I peeked.
Yea, I said I wasn't going to, but I love old stuff. The envelope had a printed return address and a three-cent stamp – purple, canceled and dated June 7, 1944. Inside was a ledger-sized typed letter written two days earlier. The periods poked through the paper from the backside, so I think these letters were typed individually by Mr. Ed. Doerr's secretary.
Who, might you ask, is Mr. Ed Doerr? Well, Mr. Doerr was the county superintendent of schools in Ashley. My mother's letter was addressed in the care of her father, Albert C. Meidinger, Zeeland, N.D., congratulating her on graduating the eighth grade.
A copy of a certificate of completion torn from a book that I can only imagine looks like a cashier's duplicate sales book with three subjects:
The transcript continues, but the grades end there. The letter begins with congratulations and a diploma for the eighth-grade students (I went back and looked, but I couldn't find it). The second paragraph included this, "Because of the war conditions; tire and gas shortages, we will not hold rural graduation exercises this year. With the European invasion started now, we hope that this terrible war will be over by next year so that all of us can again live normal lives once more."
You know what I am thinking. What is a normal life? Even my parents didn't have the privilege of "normal" lives when they were young. Let's not bring war into this story yet.
Mr. Doerr encouraged the seventh graders not to become discouraged about their grades and return to complete their education in the fall. He suggested the eighth-grade graduates find a high school to attend. My mother, however, must have moved on.
After marrying and having five children, my mother never underestimated the importance of education. My oldest brother graduated from Kulm High School, joined ROTC at NDSU, and served in the air force until he retired. The rest of us were told we HAD to attend one year of college before making decisions on careers, marriage, etc.
I wanted so badly to be an artist like my mom. It's all I ever thought about. It wasn't an option at that time as there was no good to come from a "job" that didn't produce food or children. I tried. I loved photography and did most of the photos for the high school books. It would have changed my life to have had the means and courage to attend the Brooks School of Photography in Ventura, Calif. Like that school and the program I did attend at NDSSS (now NDSCS), it's no longer available. That's maybe a story for next week.
Even after I graduated and left home, my mother never gave up on her education and completed her high school GED somewhere between work and raising my twin brothers, who were eight years younger than me.
Some years back, I wrote a column about my mom and said she only had an eighth-grade education. Well, I got reprimanded heartily for that faux pax. Following in her footsteps, if I don't learn something new each day, I feel I have not accomplished much. Currently, I am working on learning tapestry weaving techniques. Think of that what you may. It's still learning. I suggest you find something to learn until winter melts in spring when we can learn to garden together.
A gifting economy
My friend Larry said to me, “why would you spend time crocheting a scarf when you could buy one for a few dollars at the store?”
It was Christmas, and I was home from college. Larry had rented a little house just a few blocks from my parent’s home, and I walked over to see him, the gift in hand. I realize it’s not that he didn’t appreciate the scarf, but out of curiosity could not comprehend why anyone would spend time “making things” they could easily purchase. Many people feel the same way.
I have been crocheting since I was in grade school. Mostly it keeps my hands busy, and I learn new techniques all the time. I’m still learning today. Even though I have been weaving since the early 80s, I’m currently learning tapestry techniques. The time it takes to weave a miniature work of art is incredible, and there is no way I could sell any of these for adequate compensation. So why do we do these things?
It’s one of my gifts. I take nothing and make something out of it. A juror at a Fargo art show said I have spirit and imagination. He loved my woven clothing so much they had to pull him out of my booth. At that time of my life, I felt like I was doing exactly what God put me on earth to do. Create and sell my art. But I had two children. And there came a time I had to put them first, so I did.
As you know, I didn’t have the heart to throw out any of my art supplies during my January cleaning phase but instead made a list of all the things I could make. Now that I am retiring from the workforce at the end of March, I can’t stop thinking about all the beautiful days I can spend making things. Of course, it’s almost time to start my seedlings, and that will take precedence over any artistic endeavors. Gardening falls right into this line of thinking.
Do you have items in your homemade by hand? If you have an artist’s ceramic mug for your coffee, do you think of the person that made it every time you use it?
I am currently reading a book in which the author mentions gifting instead of buying things. If we knew who made things in our house and grew our food, would we not appreciate these things more? Instead of filling our homes with tons of stuff made by people we will never meet, we would own fewer cherished items. If we accepted these handmade goods as gifts in exchange for money to keep artists in business, would we all appreciate each other more as well?
It’s a little far-fetched, I know, an economy that thrives on local, but it has been done before. I guess if we readjust our thinking a little to acknowledge the hands of everyone who makes, bakes, grows, stocks shelves, work cash registers and brews our designer coffees, would we be more appreciative of what we have. If we look to everything as a “gift” and we reciprocate with gratitude and see the people behind those things, would we not all be a bit more grateful and thoughtful about our purchases?
Ah, just strolling down memory lane as I recover from a bit of a cold. I remembered the small communities that held everything we needed for day-to-day life. No more, no less. A time never to return, except in our hearts and minds. Or maybe?
Mom, I hope you survive
Long ago and not so far away, people in North Dakota relied on their instincts regarding winter weather. Sure, there were weather reports, but rural folks became familiar with the land they farm, microclimates, and, most importantly, the sky. I am a "sky watcher."
To this day, I still get teased about my watchful weather eye relying on folklore and my eyesight to determine the weather. My husband is one of those nonbelievers.
My first job out of college was a year or so, at Dierk's Printing in Moorhead, Minn. Art Dierk Sr. used to greet me in the morning singing, "Oh, the hens in Gackle will cackle tonight." (That should give you some indication of where I graduated from high school.)
Then, he would ask me about the weather having the utmost respect for my instincts, whether right or wrong. If you took today's weather reports and matched them to mine, I would say I was correct more often than they.
Of course, weather reports back then did not necessarily predict the weather days in advance. I prefer that to the long-winded usually never happens weather reports of today. Don't get me started on things like wind chill and naming blizzards. Sometimes it is best not to know these things keeping in mind you must dress for winter when it's winter and use some common sense.
This story happened before the age of cell phones. That's correct; if you were stranded in the middle of winter, alone, in a car, without proper clothing, you were most certainly in trouble. So, like the boy scouts when I traveled for my on-the-road art job, I always carried "a winter survival kit."
Adam traveled to many places as my sidekick in his middle school years. When planning one such journey, my son became concerned about my well-being in the winter. He was a great traveler that required only a Subway sandwich once a day to remain content. Before I left, he put a brown-colored Gourmet Supreme Folger's coffee can in my van. PLEASE NOTE, youngsters, that not only did we not have cell phones back then, but Folger's came in metal cans requiring a can opener. There was a plastic lid included to keep those grounds fresh after opening. Oh, the best part of waking up.
Inside this can were several mini-Snickers bars, stick matches, small pieces of notepaper, pencils, two candles and a note. If you read this column regularly, you guessed it – I still have that note. I also have that can with its contents.
The note reads (in middle-school cursive pencil): "Mom, I hope you survive. I "heart" you a lot. Draw me a picture."
The note, the can, the candles all form memories for a mom-turned-grandmother. My days of traveling as an artist, the young children I raised during quiet trips without cell phones, and the superb winter storms of my youth are lovely memories. My "heart" aches for those days.
Yes, we still have winter weather, and people continue to venture out when they shouldn't drive on icy roads with wind chills well below zero, but not as often I remember.
Maybe I should not have tried to drive that week to my appointed destination. But a commitment is a commitment, and I have faith that my precious can with that "heart" warming note would have saved my life. Stay safe out there. The January thaw more than likely ends this weekend.
The vocabulary of a pandemic
“Adam has rona.”
“He tested positive.”
“He has corona virus.”
Okay, I do live in an isolated area of Morton County, but not so isolated that I haven’t heard we are experiencing a resurgence of the pandemic, but apparently my vocabulary has not caught up to the times. That started me thinking.
“We need some 12x18 coated paper,” I said to my favorite print shop. “Is it possible to get a couple hundred sheets?”
“Sure thing.” Until an hour later when Miss Kelsey calls me back and said, “We don’t have any 12x18 paper. There’s a paper supply chain shortage.”
“I can cut you some from 13x19-inch stock, but I have to charge you for the cutting,” she said.
“Do it,” I said not ever expecting anyone to say that to me. Sure, I have heard it on the news, but.
Working for a time before this time on local food systems, I have heard about supply chains. We have been trying to connect local producers to schools and restaurants. That requires breaking into chains that have dominated the market for years.
I never expected to be affected by these words in any other context. Within the next week, I’m on the phone for 30 minutes to acquire some toner so I can print the newsletter – half of which is laying in the tray and the other half not somewhere in limbo land because… you guessed it, “a supply chain shortage.”
Other new words that have popped up in the last two years include “social distancing” and “quarantine.” Of course, we have maybe come across the quarantine word in history books but being asked to quarantine was a difficult experience for most people. I, myself, rather like to be out here alone with no social obligations so I can spend time creating and planting things.
Upon Googling new words used during the pandemic I found many takes on social activities like such as drinking a “quarantine” or “coronarita” during “walktail.”
We have entered a new year. For more years than I can remember, the first day of the new year creates the need to clean out my house. Perhaps straighten up my surroundings while on hiatus from our busy summers and throw things away.
So, here I go. My studio contains a workspace for writing and designing documents. There’s a printer, computer, file cabinet, bookcase, and several trays for holding papers. From across the half wall separating the fiber design area from the office space, I can see bins of yarn, stacks of fabric, my sewing machines, cutting table and loom, among other things.
As I grew wiser in years, my mantra has become “simplify.” And, I try. When the ball drops, I become annually determined to clean out my studio and closets to reduce my possessions. I also would like to get rid of all the things I have been saving for projects I will never get to in my lifetime. Hello Pinterest. Just what the creative thinkers and makers of the world like me needed. It wasn’t enough to have ideas of my own trying to escape my brain; now, I also have everyone else’s up there.
Throughout my career as a “maker,” I collected ideas that stimulated other ideas, so I collected the things I needed to create those things at will—time being the biggest roadblock. I had to have a job to buy all those supplies, kits and yarn. I have been doing this for years, looking forward to retirement, which I recently put off for another three months.
When I was a young stay-at-home mom, I read a book about how we should always have a store of threads, fabrics, elastic zippers, etc. etc. on hand so, at a whim, we could walk into our sewing room and 1.5 hours later leave with a new shirt, skirt or stuffed animal in hand.
Thus began my shelf-stocking for all the projects I will never have time to complete. Therefore, every year, I say to myself, “let it go. You will never have enough time in your life to make all the dolls, stuffed animals, crocheted mittens, woven dishtowels, skirts and shirts you would like.”
Not surprisingly, I have loads of things an average person would consider junk, such as old tins, corks, blocks of bee’s wax, unique buttons, broken jewelry – you know, the components of some fabulous piece of artwork.
(Insert laughter here).
So, I begin each year with a notebook (a bullet journal deconstructed) and a nice pen (I collect those kinds of art supplies also) to clean out my house. To expedite finding something for a particular project, I inventory my collection of yarn and fabric and throw those things out, which I cannot even fathom getting to soon.
Well, that’s a problem. As I kneel on the floor sorting the brown kraft paper I save from all the boxes of stuff delivered by our great UPS, FedEx and mailmen and women, I’m muttering to myself, “well, I will need this for pattern drafting, winding warp or wrapping packages.” I smooth it out, sometimes iron it, and put it back on a different shelf.
That opens up a new shelf, and I rearrange my stacks of linen and cotton fabrics and take note of all the beautiful things I have yet to make from it. Currently, I have three looms with projects, one scarf to finish, a batch of soap to wrap, and an art doll to make out of old quilt squares from my grandmother. Like dominos, this continues, for I cannot find the strength to let go of any of my treasures.
The moral of this story – there is no cleaning out or throwing away; it’s just a re-newed year with a desire to create. Happy New Year.
Back to the books
A few weeks ago, I was going to share my reading list. My thoughts were interrupted by the passing of my aunt, followed shortly by the transfer of my father from his apartment in assisted living to the nursing home. It's like heartbreak after heartbreak – but we remember the circle of life and eventually accept it.
Our almost-blizzard was a blessing. The outdoor gardens were covered with snow protecting the soil from erosion and adding subsoil moisture for a spring jumpstart. And speaking of spring, I have visions of seeds and soil blocks dancing in my head as it's almost time to begin gardening again.
Somewhere along life's timeline, I decided to make time to read every day. What I would lose in sleep each night reading would not be missed. Sometimes, the only difficulty in this practice is finding good books to read.
And then finishing them.
I currently have about four books in the queue – half-finished at that. I'm debating if I should find a book less than interesting at my age should I toss it aside rather than spend precious moments finishing it? The jury's still out.
One of my goals is to read some classic old novels. After reading the invisible man, which is nothing like any movie of the same name, I downloaded Siddhartha. That classic was a fascinating read, but I was interrupted by the latest Stephen King novel, "Billy Summers." I feel it was the best book King wrote since his accident. It was a love story, and I almost couldn't put it down.
Because I admire and wish to support local writers, I opted to try Clay Jenkinson's book, "The Language of Cottonwoods." I agree with his love of North Dakota and its treasures worth preserving, but somehow, I couldn't get more than halfway through until it became about him. I will finish it someday when I wait for a few more books from my favorite authors, but I am sorry, for now.
Then, my friend Sarah Vogel wrote a book. She is talented and a great writer. I put that book on my hard pile (along with Jenkinson's) and opted for a book from the soft pile. It wasn't a difficult choice because Louise Erdrich had just published her latest work, "The Sentence." I love Louise. The terms hard and soft piles came from that read. Until then, my dresser and end table contained only piles of books.
I may very well have read everything that Ms. Erdrich has written. It all began with "Tales of Burning Love." Erdrich's stories are based on North Dakota places. She recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, "The Night Watchman," a story about her grandfather. Someday I would love to visit her independent bookstore in the Twin City's area or online at: https://birchbarkbooks.com. Until I read this book, I was unaware the staff did mail orders. I am remiss that I didn't order a signed copy of "The Sentence" directly. My apologies.
"The Sentance" is about a haunted bookstore, among other timely topics, but the very best part of Erdrich's latest book is a list of the main character's favorite books behind the final chapter. BONUS.
Let it blizzard all it wants, with this list in hand; I shall not run out of books (both hard pile and soft pile) for a long, long time. After my December Sun magazine, I will begin "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants" by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I can't wait
Read on, my friends.
Thursday, August 6 episode of Main Street Eats is all about pie. Listen on Prairie Public Radio between 3:30 and 4 p.m.
Yes, we love pie. It's the time of year that the peaches and cherries and blueberries and soon local apples will be picked right off the tree. If we don't grow it here, trucks are pulling through offering fresh fruits for the asking. Since COVID-19, many people are doing more baking and cooking at home – and watching movies.I love pie, and I love movies, and three of my favorite films reinforce the beauty of a well-baked pie. So if you love movies and you love pie, you should try and find these gems.
1. "Labor Day," with Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin
2. "Michael," with John Travolta, Andie MacDowell and William Hurt.
3. "Waitress," with Keri Russel and Andy Griffith
Of course, these are love stories topped with pie. You have never experienced sexy until you see Josh Brolin make a fresh peach pie. Whoooeeeee.
While we are on the subject, here are a few tips to make a great pie.
CRUST is everything in my book. Some people eat pie for the filling. I love crust. Making good pastry is an art. In high school, I made and sold apple pies to my mom's boss for $2.50 each, because he loved my crust.
I have perfected my crust recipe over many years of making apple pie, but I also love rhubarb, blueberry and fresh peach pie.
If you do not have a family crust recipe or have never made a pie before, I would highly recommend Ken Haedrich, the dean of the Pie Academy's videos and live broadcasts. You can find him at http://thepieacademy.com. Ken demonstrates and sells cookbooks and makes excellent savory pies, hand pies, slab pies and yes, even wide-mouth canning jar lid pies.
Here are my tips for making a great pie crust.
My mom used a fork around the outside and made little lines. You can get as fancy as you wish. Create a woven lattice crust, etc. Remember, your pie might run over, especially if it finds a weak spot around the edge.
Don't forget your pie needs to breathe, so cut some slits, poke holes with a fork, whatever you wish design-wise to create steam holes in the top crust. Sprinkle with sugar and
1. Freeze it till later
2. Bake it immediately.
HOW YOU ASK? Place on a drip disc (find them at Amazon) in a 425° oven for about 15 minutes. Then reduce the heat to 350° and continue to bake until you see that filling bubbling for at least 30 minutes. Remove, cool before cutting and eating. Last tip: Do not allow a frozen pie to thaw before placing in a hot oven.
So have a piece of pie and watch a great movie about pie. Like my Grandpa always said, "Eat it now, 'cause when you get older, they start taking it away from you."
We looked like tramps?
There's a lot of stuff that reaches our young ears that we never understand until many years later. It's amazing how some comments really stick with you. If you are fortunate enough to be able to ask your parents what was happening in their lives at the time, you have to be prepared for the answers. Sometimes it's not what you thought.
When looking at old photo albums, my mom always said, "You guys looked like tramps." I know that sometimes our situation in life was not always pleasant for her. But, we didn't know we looked any different than anyone else. We didn't care. Maybe everyone else dressed like we did. No designer outfits for us.
I remember receiving a hand-me-down shirt and pair of cut off jeans from one of my cousins, a boy cousin. I wore that outfit to death. It was perfect for climbing trees. It was probably a nice store-bought hand-me-down. All our dress up outfits for the holidays were sewed by my other. With no patterns.
When I look at this photo, I can see that we could have been mistaken for tramps.
In the summer of 2019, we celebrated my Aunt Alivina and Uncle Herman's wedding anniversary. I think it was their 60th. Prior to the big event, the family hunted for photos for the photo board at the party. My cousin Julie was kind enough to send me a shot of this photo she found in her mom's collection. I LOVE IT and I had never seen it before.
This old black and white photo of my mother holding my cousin, Robin, with me smiling by her side, was priceless. I do not know what the occasion or place was. It could have been a picnic. We are sitting on a bench probably manufactured just for the day from a 2x6 or 8-inch board and what looks like Standard Oil-branded buckets.
My face is very sober in most of the photos I've seen, but today I am smiling. It must have been a happy day. There were, not looking like tramps, but like every other little girl and her mom in the 1960s. If I had to guess, it would be about 1962-3ish. (I'm sure if one of my cousins reads this post, they will correct me if I am wrong.)
I love this photo. It's the only one I have from that decade with my mom and myself - no one else from my immediate family. And, she looks so beautiful with a slightly dreamy look on her face. Like she is thinking deeply about something. Check out her shoes. And, both of us in polka dots.
I interviewed my mom for one of my books. The answers to some of the questions I asked about those days were not the easiest to hear. As much as our memories weed out the worst of the days, life was sometimes complicated. Unbeknownst to us, we had to make do with what we had. It wasn't much for such a large family.
But we lived an adventure. We ran wild in our small community, my dad having moved off the farm before I was born. We butchered chickens, inspected bugs and animals, and played games with imagination only. It was a great life and one that my grandchildren will NEVER experience. As for this photo, it makes me happy and brings memories of my mom to closer to my heart.
No, I don't recall my grandmother ever serving cranberries. My mother, of course, slid them from a can. As children, we loved those wiggly slices of semi-sweet fruit called cranberry.
'Tis the season of cranberry and harvest time ends in November. Most cranberries grow in the bogs of Cape Cod (Massachusetts), New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. After harvest cranberries are bagged, juiced, or as aforementioned cooked with sugar and stuffed into a can.
Oh yeah, those little tart berries, like our North Dakota's chokecherries, need to have sugar added to make them palatable. Of course, the native population used them in combo with dried venison and fat to ma,e pemmican. The Pequot Indians of Cape Cod called them ibimi, meaning bitter berry.
Cranberries were wild until about 1816 when the pilgrims and the rest of us began grooming them as a crop. Cranberries were used to prevent scurvy (remember scurvy from history class?) and have since been proclaimed a superfood with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant compounds.
Sure, your children might enjoy them more from a can, but you can make your version of superfood cranberry sauce by following the directions on the back of the bag.
Basic sauce merely is sugar and water and cranberries and a wee bit of time. You can add to your "relish" with other in-season fruit like oranges, lemons or apples. Here is another simple recipe.
Cranberry orange relish
1 pound cranberries
2 small unpeeled oranges, quartered and seeds removed
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup Triple Sec or other orange-flavored liqueur (this is optional, as I do not have a stocked liquor cabinet.)
Yield: Makes about 5 cups
Southern Living's website had not one, but 19 recipes for cranberries including this one making use of dried cranberries, or as we call them craisins.
6 large Granny Smith apples, peeled and diced
1 (12-ounce) package fresh cranberries
1 small lemon, sliced and seeded
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup sweetened dried cranberries
NOTE: Dried cranberries can be sourced year-round; a great addition to any salad or cookie or scone recipe you might be cooking up in your kitchen. Be sure and grab a few bags to throw in your freezer to brighten up your entire year with those tasty red berries.
To hear the rest of the story. CLICK here, and you will find the link to the PPB Main Street podcast on the topic of cranberries.
Sue B. Balcom
Writing, or maybe talking, comes naturally to me and under the guidance of a great newspaper editor I have acquired skills that led me to author four books.