Flowers in the Wrong Place?

Someone, I don’t know who, said that weeds are simply flowers in the wrong place.  I beg to differ.

Yes, I will concede that some weeds have lovely blossoms, but when they rear up in spots that overwhelm my poor tomatoes, or peek surreptitiously between the fronds of hostas and ferns, I will classify them as invaders.  Unwelcome invaders.

Most of the time, I blame the birds.  They feast on all sorts of field flowers, where those “flowers” are where they belong, and thus can rightly be called flowers, rather than weeds.  But then the birds head for my garden and lawn.  Like B-26 bombers, they home in on the target and then let loose of their bombs.  I’m convinced that they hold everything in until they reach the zone that will sustain the most damage, and then relieve themselves.  Any seeds that can survive a bird’s digestive system will certainly be able to land and thrive, seeing their chance to sprout and root amid my carefully tended flowers and vegetables.

That part of the cycle is beyond my meager control.  I say “meager” because I have little control in any phase of this scenario.  I am left with only the seek-and-destroy part.  This involves several levels of approach.

1.  The Morning Coffee Approach.  This is the most simple, and the one that should be repeated on a daily basis.  It allows you to survey your domain at the same time as purporting to conquer the weeds.  In reality, there is no conquering.  Only monitor and manage.  Step outside the door in the morning, mug in hand, and look down.  There will always be one or two…or ten…plants (to be generous) out of place.  Pluck them out!  Throw them in the garbage, or in the woods, if you are fortunate to live on such a piece of land.  Done on a daily basis, this ensures the illusion that you’ve conquered the weeds.

2.  The Knee Pad I-Almost-Waited-Too-Long Approach.  As the title implies, this involves actually getting down on your knees to pluck out the offending plants.  Best done shortly after a rainstorm when those little buggers can’t protest by leaving roots behind.  Or even during a rainstorm.  As long as there’s no lightning, of course.  That would be Mom Nature plucking out her weed–you!  The soil is soft and offending plants will slip right out of the ground, probably screaming all the way.  But luckily, their decibel level is far above human hearing, so it will not bother you in the least as you dispose of them.

3.  The I-Did-Wait-Too-Long Approach.  This approach resembles warfare, in that the weeds have grown to perhaps epic proportions, either crawling along the ground where they can hide for many feet before you spot their migrations, or rising up like Audrey in The Little Shop of Horrors.  Neither of the earlier plans will be sufficient.  Here, you must first procure some brand of plant killer, making sure you read the directions from top to bottom.  Then, dress accordingly.  Long pants, long sleeves, long rubber gloves, high garden boots, goggles, hat.  Go the extra step and use a face mask.  You know you have plenty left over from the two or three years of Covid.  Here’s a chance to use them, before they expire.  Oh, never mind that they won’t expire.  You are now outfitted for battle.  Get out there and spray away.  Quit when you discover that, in your madness, you’ve accidently sprayed that $100 rose bush.

Clearly, the best approach is to attack early, when you only need one hand and a bucket.  For me, I’ve used most of these approaches.  My summer starts out with the best of intentions, and I can feel a sense of triumph that nature is not winning, that all of my flowers are actual flowers, my veggies actual vegetables.  Early on, I have no “flowers in the wrong place.”  Usually, the second approach crops up (excuse the pun) sometime in August.  I forestall the third approach entirely by simply ripping out the entire garden right after the first frost.

I hope none of those weeds dropped seeds that are hunkering down for the winter.  Because that means, between the bird-sowers and the hidden seeds, I’ll be in the garden come spring, getting flowers in the wrong place out of there again.

Reunion Musings

A while back, I was asked to put together a bit of a family tree for my husband’s direct lineage, so the younger members of the family could see from whence they came.

Before we got married in 1971, I wanted to know about my husband’s family so I could recognize people at our wedding.  My own family did a lot of genealogical research, so that line was secured…sort of.  Of course, there are lots of holes, such as who was the father of that one ancestor?  A secret taken to the woman’s grave.  Well, that meant I didn’t have to dig around on that line!  Sometimes we were sure we made a connection with another family, but then discovered the timing was a little off, or the name wasn’t recorded at the right place.  Such is trying to trace family tree branches.

When I began on the Noe side, I was directed to the matriarch, Hattie, who would sure to be a font of information.  I can still see her standing in her garden when I went to meet her.  She had on her floral housedress, protected by a full apron. You know the kind, the ones that slip over the head, cover the skirt and chest, and tie in the back.  She had on her big straw garden hat, its wide brim protecting neck and face from sunburn.  When she stepped out of the garden to greet me, I was delighted to see old-fashioned white sandals coupled with white anklets, a sure sign of grandmas of that era.  She strode…yes, strode…though in her 80s at the time, I think, or close to it, she radiated energy.  As she came across the lawn, she stripped off her gardening gloves and set them on a bench by the garage.  Propping her hoe alongside, she said, “Let’s go!  The cemetery is where I can tell you everything you want to know.”  And off we went.  She took me to two cemeteries and pointed out the Who’s Who of the family, adding stories about all the people, most of whom she’d known.  We had a great time.  By the time the wedding came around, I knew where everyone was slotted into the tree.  I shall ever be grateful for her taking me under her wing.

I was lucky to be absorbed wholeheartedly into that family.  Most of my blood relatives on my mom’s side were either dead by the time I was born, or had children so much older than I was, that I had few close relatives.  Because my father was from Germany, all of his family were still there, which meant I met my grandparents only once, when I was a child.  A dear friend of my mom’s “adopted” us for holiday celebrations and such, and I was always considered one of the grandchildren.  I loved the years with those cousins, some of whom I’ve written about before.

But when I married, I became a Noe, and the extended family treated me as one of their own.  I would be in it for the duration, attached thoroughly and forever.  Which every once in a while, leads to a flurry of “We should get together more often,” and “Why do we see each other only at weddings and funerals?”  Then, someone puts themselves in gear and organizes a reunion.  Recently, this led to a Gathering of Our People in Oshkosh.  Bring lawn chairs, a dish to pass, and something to drink.  One woman (thanks, Mary!)  rented a park pavilion, emailed everyone, and designated a rough idea of what to bring.  (Personally, all desserts might not have been a bad thing…)

I looked around and felt a deep satisfaction.  Four generations.  Some needing help settling, others zooming off to the wading pool or playground equipment.  Some clustered, chairs pulled close, laughing over some past foible, or catching up with others’ lives since the last time they were together.  Some off by themselves, immersed in sketching, writing, recharging.  But all with the same ancestors.

Sharing food and stories is so much a part of who we are as a culture, no matter what our color, political leanings, religious views.  We all yearn for a good today and a better tomorrow.  Looking around, the support we have for each other was evident.  From marveling over a recipe (“Make sure you email that to me!”) to the satisfaction of hearing stories of success (“They really turned out marvelous, didn’t they?”), the bonds of family are sticky enough to keep us coming back again and again.

Musing over the diversity of the many family types, family stories, or family rifts in the world, I can’t help but give thanks that the family I am a part of is tolerant, loving, understanding.  The ebbs and flows of all our lives, individuals as well as family groups, pull and push us.  Sometimes all we can do is wave at each other as we move along.  But we’re all in this together.  So, as long as someone is within reach, we’ll be okay.

Ah, July!

It’s finally summer.  Time for early morning walks to beat the heat.  Time for hikes through the woods at Lapham Peak State Park.  Time for languid afternoons on the patio with a good book.  Time to reap the fruits of labor as the garden plants and flowers become more robust.  Time for crackling summer storms…

And power outages.

I’m sitting here writing this in the semi-dark.  The sun is just about to come up.  Mom Nature is laughing at us pitiful human beings who think we’re in control.  So, the sunrise is a bit of a spit-in-your-eye.  See?  Nature doesn’t get power outages.  Yeah, yeah, we get it.  Patience is a virtue, we’re told.  Annie says the sun’ll come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar.  But until then, we stew in the dark.

How tied we are to our creative and very useful inventions and discoveries!  Electricity was out there in the wild all the time.  All we had to do was tame it.  Thank you, Thomas Edison and Ben Franklin and…  Well, I could look it up, but, guess what?  The power is still out.

Looking it up used to mean hotfooting it to the library, or to the shelves in the den (remember dens?) where the encyclopedia volumes rested.  Wow!  What a concept!  Just as when using the internet, we could go down a rabbit hole while looking up, say, who else is credited with taming electricity.  Volume E could divert us with fascinating facts about elephants or ears or Einstein or…  See?  There it happened again!  Can’t look up more, because the power’s out.  And my parents’ encyclopedia bit the dust decades ago.

No power?  No lights.  That is a real grind if the power goes out early in the evening.  Of course, that takes out the television and sundry other items of entertainment.  It’s actually not that bad to play Clue by candlelight.  Monopoly becomes atmospheric when those dastardly players take all your money because they’ve gone on a real estate rampage after finally acquiring Park Place and…is it Broadway?  I’ll look…  No, I won’t.  Anyway, they load ‘em up with hotels and houses, and everybody else goes broke.  Board games work under lantern light.  So do ghost stories.  Reading?  Not so much.  Lincoln may have read by firelight, but for me, that only increases the chances that my ophthalmologist will be able to send her children to an Ivy League college.  (See that ophthalmologist there?  I spelled it wrong three times, and each time Spell Check caught it.  But how to look it up without power?  I went to the only dictionary in the house: my English-German dictionary.  I now know how to spell it in German as well: Augenarzt, literally, “eye doctor.”  Of course, I could now also choose Ophthalmologe.  Which one would you choose?)

No power?  No clothes washer or dryer.  Those poor pioneer women, down by the creek at first.  That probably graduated to a big copper basin (Is that what they were called?  I’ll look it… Oh, never mind.), such as my grandmother had.  Heat the water on the wood stove, dump into the wash tub (Aha! There’s the word!), then do it again and again.  Then do the same with rinse water.  If they lived in a town that had electricity (Thank you Edison? And others.), they could graduate to a wringer washer.  We had one of those when I was a kid.  The agitator did all the work, although we had a long stick to poke the clothes down when they rose too much to the surface, or got tangled.  Then hand feed them through a wringer…which often caught fingers and squeezed them out too.  Ouch!  But the best part was hanging the clothes outside to dry.  Well, the hanging part wasn’t the best.  But the reward was that the fragrance of the sun and the breeze imbued everything.  I still love to hang the sheets outside.  Making the bed is a frolic with sun-kissed sheets.  I just wish the aroma lasted longer.

I guess power outages aren’t all bad.  Unless you have to worry about sump pumps not working and basements flooding as a result (heaven forbid the power’s out that long!), or medical equipment that needs power to operate (that’s a real heaven-forbid, although I suspect that generators are close at hand, ready to fill the gap).

Power outages spur folks to campfires with food in foil packets and s’mores to round out the meal.  Maybe a bit of hauling out the old camping songs.  Or, to go up one rung on the civilization ladder, cook on the grill.  If it’s winter, maybe sleeping bags in the living room in front of the fireplace.  Maybe star-gazing if the storm is gone and the skies pristine.

That all sounds fine and good.  But I still want my power back on reasonably quickly.  I want to brush my teeth and flush the toilets!

It’s still off, by the way.  Heading towards six hours now…  Excuse me, while I go call the electric company again.  

Update:  Power was out 11 hours!  But now I’d be happy for a summer storm.  It’s as dry as the Sahara out there, with no rain for far too long!


I vacuumed today.  This was an unscheduled foray, and the carpets really didn’t need it yet.  But still, the windows were open, thank God for that, and that meant the dusty detritus of outdoors was swirling around out there, looking for a way in, just to irritate me.  So, I figured I’d get ahead of it.

But now, I have one eye cocked on the windowsills.  Because, as we all know, one thing leads to another, especially when it comes to chores like cleaning.  So far, the dominoes are still standing, all but that initial one.  But who knows for how long?

I try to rank my chores, but while I’m in the middle of one, something else springs forth as one that deserves higher ranking.  For instance, I really don’t care much for dusting, so I tend to elevate vacuuming up a step or two above dusting.  Those neat soft herringbone marks on the carpet make it feel like I’m really accomplishing something, maybe even something artistic.  However, by the time I’m halfway down the hall, headed for the living room with my trusty Dyson, I’m ready to cash in.  To combat that, I spread it out over two days.  That means no looking back to see where footprints now leave a spoor on my abstract floor art.  Of course, I could do what one of our neighbors did years ago in a different neighborhood.  She chased the kids outside with instructions not to reenter the house until supper.  Then she sat back with a drink and admired her handiwork.  I preferred watching the size of said footprints grow exponentially over the years.  Yet another way of marking a metaphorical notch on the doorframe.

Now, even though dusting is way down the line on my list, there is one part of the chore that is quite fulfilling:  the windowsills.  Even in winter, the sills actually thirst for me to come hither and relieve them of their burden.  What I’m saying is that, when I oil my rag and slide it along those sills, I can actually see improvement.  Voila!  What was dull is now gratefully glowing.  Dusting when you’ve procrastinated long enough means that the chore is doing something visible.  Not like vacuuming, where the satisfaction in getting something clean only shows when you dump out the dust container.  Well, okay, the art on the carpet works too.  But nothing quite measures up like dusting when it really needs it.  That’s when I could sit down with a glass of lemonade and admire my work.  No one’s gonna mess up my shiny windowsills.  I’m lucky if they even notice.  Of course, the other side of the coin on that issue is that if they don’t notice when it’s sparkling clean, they probably don’t notice when things are dusty either.  Win-win.

I told my mother that, until someone says they’re going to put in my obituary that I was a lousy housekeeper, I’m not going to worry about it.  Her response?  You’re not going to be around to read it anyway, so…  Absolutely right, Mom, absolutely right.  (If you think you’re going to mention that at my funeral, well…  Go ahead.  I’m not going to be around to hear that either!)

Clothing Shifts

Do you have a winter closet and a summer closet?  I really don’t, other than for coats.  All seasons reside in my one double closet.  Yes, it’s pretty tight, but that reminds me that if I want something new, I need to swap out something old.  Works pretty well, most of the time,  considering I still have a few things I wore when I was still teaching.  And that was 16-plus years ago.  If I keep it long enough, the style should come back, right?  No, no, no.  I’ve pretty much gotten past that one.  I do want to look in tune with the times, as it were.

But now, I’m in the midst of shifting from cold weather duds to warm weather clothes.

Then again, perhaps not…

A while back, I went through five iterations of pants in one day.  Or trousers, if you prefer.  It all began at 7 a.m. with the donning of athletic leggings, when the temperature was 35º outside.  That meant that, after venturing out to do my usual two and a half miles walking, I needed to add wind pants.  There’s always a breeze around here.

Once home and showered, I upgraded to jeans.  Those worked all the way through the morning, when I was raking and putzing around in the woods.  By lunchtime, when I was ready to come in and shower, the temperatures were up to the mid-70s.  And I had built up a lively sweat.  Which meant that the jeans were sweaty too.  Time to upgrade again.

By the time I got out of the shower, the temps were up to 80º, and a bit more.  Jeans, even clean ones, just wouldn’t do it.  Switch to shorts.  Ah, so much better.  Supper rolled around, and the temperature dropped just a tad.  But my crazy brain fired off a missive to the body: “Danger!  It’s getting cold again!  Time to bundle up!”  I ignored it as long as I could, considering I was not getting cold, not by a long shot.  The temperature was maintaining a very nice mid-70s.  I don’t know what my brain was doing up there, but I ignored it as long as I could.  It got pretty steamed.  Well, not literally, of course.  It’s not a cauliflower.  Although steamed cauliflower is pretty tasty.

But I digress.

Did I give in?  Yes, I did.  When the temperature dropped to around 50º, I figured I’d stood my ground long enough.  No need to be stubborn to the point of stupidity.  That took me to the next upgrade.  Or do lightweight flannel lounge pants count as a downgrade?  You know what?  I don’t care.  I wear them every evening, and they are one of my most cherished possessions.  Well, okay, not one of the most.  But comfort is worth something, isn’t it?  Anyway, I completed my day on the couch, stretched out, in my lounge pants.

Five clothing shifts in one day.  I could be a runway model.

Well, maybe not.  Not with these old lounge pants.

Practical or Practically?

We made it through another April Fool’s Day!  (Or should that be a plural Fools’?)  “April is the cruelest month…” as T.S. Eliot said.  It certainly is for those on the receiving end of an April Fool’s practical joke.

Somehow, whoever translated from Sumarian or Greek or Indo-European or whatever, they got the word wrong.  Should “practical” really have been translated as “practically”?  As in a “practically joke,” rather than a “practical joke”?

Let me explain.  If the translation really meant practical jokes, then some jokes had practical value, right?  When my mom threw a surprise party for my dad, that was both fun/funny and practical.  Unfortunately, I was upset that we kept it a secret from him.  So, I set off down the road, determined to waylay him and spill the whole story.  So, okay, I was three.  Don’t hold it against me.  (I only got to the front sidewalk.)

When I threw my mom a surprise 80th birthday party, that too was a practical joke.  Especially as it involved gifts such as 80 M&Ms, 80 sheet of toilet paper, 80 pretty paper napkins, 80…you get the picture.  We all had fun with those jokes.  Harmless, and a great deal of laughter to go with.

However, when the big boy pushed me, as a practical joke, into the swimming pool on purpose, before I could really swim–I was three–then I did indeed learn something practical.  I could automatically hold my breath underwater, I could open my eyes underwater, I could, like a dog, paddle my way to the ladder before either someone scooped my out or before I ran out of air.  Good practical lesson.  Not a good practical joke, however.  Not even a good practically a joke.  Just so you know, I was scooped out by a lifeguard, but my folks were outside the fence and I remember the frantic looks on their faces when I surfaced.  They were with me in person in a flash, but that one moment is burned in my brain.

I think I developed an aversion for practical jokes at that moment.  When a friend hosted a Halloween party years late, her mother set up a wonderful story, complete with props designed to chill the blood:  peeled grapes for eyes, cold spaghetti for blood vessels, whole peeled tomato for heart, dried fruit for ears, piece of cooked cauliflower for brain…  You can find the whole list, and the story to go with it, online, of course.  Anyway, by the time the party came around, I was so averse to such things that I wouldn’t play at all.  I stood aside and laughed as everyone else shivered and screamed.  Sigh.  What a party-pooper I was.

A good practical joke came about when I turned 50 years old.  My bonus sister (read sis-in-law) drove 45 minutes after confabbing with my principal in order to festoon my classroom with banners, garlands, and signs.  The students were delighted, of course.  She went even further by putting a beautiful cake in the faculty lounge, so every single staff member knew it was my birthday.  I had no trouble rolling over into a new decade, so that day was great fun.  She’s very good at those kinds of practical jokes.  Far beyond practically.

With permission from a fellow teacher, I stole her thunder about teaching Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience” to my high school juniors.  I burst into the classroom, snarling and hollering.  “Put all your books on the floor!  Put your feet flat on the floor!  Fold those hands on top, and sit up straight!”  I ranted and raved about the trouble that teens make, and on and on.  The kids got more and more restless, and exchanged glances that said, “What’s with her today?”  Someone asked me if I was okay.  “Of course,” I snapped back.  Finally, one of the boys stood up and said, “I’m gonna get the principal.  You’re not usually like this.”  (So glad they noticed!)  My response was, “Who’s she gonna believe?  You, a student?  Or me, who’s worked with her for eight years?”  I waved at him and added, “Fine, go ahead.”  He sat down.  I was devastated!  This whole thing took about ten minutes.  It was time to debrief.  They always said they would step in to help someone in trouble, or stand up strong in any situation.  However, my little demonstration showed them that many times people don’t, which makes Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax, so much that he was put in jail, so much more dramatic.  That was very definitely a joke that was quite practical.

But my favorite isn’t really a joke at all, but it usually ends up being one anyway.  I’m often asked to spell my name.  That’s when the fun starts.  My response is, “Mary Ann, two words, no E.”  Because there is no E on the end of Ann.  “Okay,” they say, “What’s your last name.”  When I answer, “Noe [pronounced NO-EE],” they say, “Yes, that’s what I wrote: two separate words with no letter E on Ann. ”  “No, that’s my last name,” and I say it again.  “N-O-E.”  That gets one of two reactions:  Either they send me a blank look, or they burst into hysterical laughter. Some get it, some don’t.  For some, a practically joke that falls flat.  For others, great fun.

Practical jokes really don’t have to be strictly practical.  But at least they should avoid the trap of being practically a joke. Good luck with that one!

What’s In the Freezer?

March 2023

The gardening catalogs are out, and my blood is stirring.  Actually, we have one small clump of daffodils that have already sent up a reconnaissance force of about a half-dozen leaves to test the weather.  Of course, those bulbs are planted right under the pipe laying on the ground that expels water from the sump pump; hence, ground water, which is warmer than surface water.  Poor daffodils got fooled, I think, by that warmth.  Never mind, I don’t care, it’s a sign.

But if I’m going to garden, that means I should think about cleaning out the freezer from last year’s produce.

First off, way back there is a bag full of rhubarb, all cut up and ready to go into a pie.  Or I could make sauce.  Naw.  Pie. This year, maybe in two months, I’ll start seeing those fat nubs poking out of the ground, looking a bit like the red nose of an animal that’s decided it’s time to un-hibernate.  Is that even a word?  Then come those ruffled leaves, all curled up together, tight as twins sharing a womb.  Then the stalks shoot up, almost overnight, firm red and green with big umbrellas for leaves.  Suddenly, it’s rhubarb!  Okay, enough rhapsodizing.

What else is in there?

What looks like an apple pie.  It’s not the whole pie, but only the filling.  Those are Ginger Gold apples in there, which brings another memory floating up.  My bonus sister (read sister-in-law) and I make time for apple picking at Apple Holler early every fall, in order to catch the varieties we love.  The orchard trucks us out to the trees, circling around through all the labeled rows.  By the time we get to where we want to pick, we’re salivating.  From the Ginger Golds, we can wander at will and sample.  Yes, they encourage sampling while we pick!  I’ve tried some unusually named fruit that I never see in the stores.  A few years ago, I bought one of those fancy-schmancy apple peeler/corer/slicers.  I could rhapsodize over that, and the apples, but, moving on…

What else is there?

Two pounds of butter.  Okay, those aren’t produce from the garden.  When butter prices started going sky-high before Christmas, I stocked up.  Earlier pounds are already part of cookies, cakes, stollen, to say nothing of being used in the honorable practice of buttered popcorn, and, yes, to top off baked potatoes and hot veggies.  Time to bake Dutch almond bars, maybe.  Stuffed baked potatoes for dinner tonight?  Oh, yes!  Does anybody else remember when margarine was forbidden in Wisconsin?  My uncle, a trucker and overall good guy, would bring back oleo, as it was known then, back from Illinois.  The oleo came in sealed plastic bags with a little button of orange dye in the middle.  It was my job to massage the dye into the oleo, kneading it into every little corner, to turn the white stuff yellow, so it would at least look like butter.  How times change!  I took out one of the pounds of butter and gave it a little pat (pun intended), thanking it for its willingness to sacrifice itself for flavor in my baking and cooking.

Anything else in there?

Besides the bucket of ice cream, of course.  (Though I prefer Culver’s frozen custard, butter pecan especially.)  Yup, several of those frozen slabs of…something blue…to stick in a cooler.  Those can stay, seeing as how they’re not edible, thank God.  We’ve packed plenty of coolers with food and drink to haul off somewhere.  Tailgating at baseball games is lots of fun.  If we go with our son’s family, he brings a little grill, and we can go all out.  But my favorite cooler trip is to Madison’s farmers market on a summer Saturday morning.  Arrayed around the capitol building, the stands are stuffed. We can find anything and everything.  The cheese display is dangerous, because there are so many different kinds to try.  Amish pies and cookies and bread.  Buffalo meat and fish fillets.  A dozen types of mushrooms, subtly colored in pastel shades, reach up from their little boxes,.  Bunches of beets, carrots, flowers, more.  We make one round, just to see what’s there, then go back around to purchase.

My mind spools off to my mom’s big chest freezer in the basement.  My dad used to tease her about the amount of stuff she froze, and how long it resided down there.  She got him good, however, by labeling things as two or three years older than they really were.  Blueberries picked in 1967 were labeled as 1965, or earlier.  He eventually caught on, and they had a good laugh over it.  Unfortunately, the freezer died without anyone noticing, and I was in charge of removing all that thawed fruit, fish, meat…. Yuck!  Buckets and buckets of slushy food went out to the garbage.  One ugly memory for all those other good ones.

Nothing else in my freezer that needs to be used?

I look out the window as I am writing this, and can hardly wait to see grass and sunshine instead of snow!  Wishing won’t make it happen.  However, baking a pie might help alleviate the pain of waiting, as well as begin to make space for new stuff.  Excuse me while I go pull out that package of rhubarb.

Sports Conudrums

“Offsides!” I holler.  We’re watching an especially exciting football game.  Thus, the vocalization.

“No,” my husband says, “that’s not offsides.”

“Oh, okay.  Then it’s encroachment, right?”

“Nope, it was a false start.”

Wait. What?

It took more than one explanation, but I finally got it.  (Not that I’ll remember the differences…)  In case you too are wondering, offsides is a player in the neutral zone between the teams at the same time the ball is snapped.  Okay.  That takes a quick eye on the part of the officials, right?

“Encroachment,” he goes on, “is when a defensive player makes contact with an offensive player before the ball is snapped.  You do know the difference between the offense and the defense?  Offen–”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.  That I do know.”  I secretly think, Sometimes all the players are offensive.  But that’s another story.

“Then what’s a false start?”  I’m beginning to think I’ll regret asking that question.

“Okay, ready?”  When I nod, he goes on.  “A false start is when an offensive line player makes any movement before the ball snaps.”

“I thought that was offsides?”

“Nope.  That happens At. The. Same. Time. The ball is snapped.”

Wait. What?

“Okay.  I’ll remember that.”  No, I won’t.  But I’m not going through it all again.

That sets me thinking about soccer.  I love watching soccer, especially when I can watch the grandson in person.  Soccer has offsides too, doesn’t it?

Wait. What?

So, I looked it up.  Mainly because my husband is a whiz with some sports, but neither of us has a clue when it comes to soccer.  Here’s what I found: An attacking player is offside if any part of their body, other than their hands and arms, is in the half of the opposing team and there isn’t another player from the opposing team between them and the goalkeeper before the ball is played forward.

Yowza!  How on earth can an official see if anything “other than hands and arms” is over the line?  How can the players keep track?

Okay.  I can do this.  So, a player with the ball can’t move forward into the opponent’s half of the field, toward the goal, unless there’s an opponent plus the goalkeeper between the player and the goal.

Um.  Sounds good on paper.  Now, we’ll see if I can transfer that to the pitch.  (See?  I do get some soccer terms right.)  Either way, I still love watching the fast action.

But I’ve stifled my enthusiasm to holler “Shoot it!” when my team gets close to the goal.  Does this mean I have to stop and count the players between the shooter and the goal?  Yes.

Now I’m going to look up the difference between a penalty kick and a penalty shoot-out…

How about the scoring in tennis?  15, 30, 40?  Crazy.  Supposedly, score was originally kept on a clock, using the hand moving a quarter of the way around each time.  Yeah?  Then 45 got shortened to 40 ‘cause 45 took too long to say.  Wait.  What?  And Love?  What’s that all about?  Love represents zero, because, according to one source, the O is like an egg, and O kinda sounds like the French word for egg, oeuf…  Right.  I’d tell you more, but it’s all too confusing!

The baseball season is starting soon, and I’ll be right back at ground zero.  I have to bite my tongue when a batter gets a hit and starts ambling towards first base, rather than taking off like a streak.  One year–and not that long ago either, as you can guess–I shouted out, “Run!  For Pete’s sake, run!”

“He can’t,” my husband informed me.

Wait.  What?

“He has to wait until the outfield catches the ball.  If it bounces, then he can run.  Which he won’t, because he’d be too close and they’d tag him out.”

Okay.  That one was easy to remember.  But I know there’s a rule out there I’m a bit fuzzy on.  Only a bit.  Well, all right, more than a bit.  The ground rule double.

All runners can advance only two bases (okay, there’s the double) if the ball goes out of play, like hitting a wall or getting lodged in the ivy at Wrigley, or…, even if the player could have scored if the ball hadn’t gone out of play.  Um…

Wait. What?

Cities of the Mind

When I visited my mom in the nursing home, occasionally she’d be sitting in the sun with her eyes closed and a smile on her face.  I knew what she was doing.  I’d ask, “Where are you, Mom?”  She’d answer without opening her eyes, “Paris, 1956.”

Considering I was with her in Paris in 1956–albeit, only nine years old–I could mentally join her at the Eiffel Tower, or stand on the sidewalk in front of the Hôtel Scribe.  Subsequent trips gave me more memories to layer on that first one, but the first one was also my mother’s, and thus gave me special pleasure.  From there, my mind would spool off into Munich, London, Kleinschmalkalden (my dad’s hometown), and on and on.

Every once in a while, a startling memory surfaces.  Like the sunny day in Salzburg when I was striding through the palace gardens singing “The hills are alive…!” under my breath.  I’m over 4,000 miles from home, and I hear, “Mrs. Noe?” coming from over my shoulder.  One of my former students.  Anyone in a service profession understands that a person is not “safe” anywhere.  Connections come out of the woodwork!  That’s not really a bad thing, to be recognized many years later.  And not only that, to be acknowledged in public yet!  It also happened when we were at John Lennon’s memorial to Strawberry Fields in Central Park.  Come to think of it, I was singing that time too.  “Strawberry Fields forever,” of course.  Maybe I need to stop vocalizing in public.

Like my mother, I am a deeply visual person.  Once I can conjure up an image of a person or a place, I’ve got the hook to the experience that goes with it.  I can easily deny never having been at so-and-so’s wedding…until my husband reminds me of the plumeria blossom behind the bride’s ear.  Yes!  I do remember that wedding!  We talked to…and they told us…and…  The visual hook did it.

I love being able to scroll through the wonderful people and places I’ve met.  I call it my “Interior Photo Album for the Nursing Home.”  Don’t even need a scrapbook.  I know my mother would approve.

I have Paris in my head, right down to the heat vent in the road right outside the Moulin Rouge, where we pretended we were Marilyn Monroe in that diaphanous dress she could hardly control.  I don’t think any of us had dresses on, but it sure was fun to watch scarves swoop up and dance around in the blast of warm air.

Far, far away from the real thing, I can climb the hill across from my grandparents’ house in Germany.  At the top, from a memorial that looks like a beer stein, I can see the house far below.  I holler and holler, but no one appears.  Too far away, I guess, though it’s worked in the past.  When we get back to the house, my aunt says, “I heard you up there!  Did you see me?  I waved a dishtowel at you, and you hollered.”  Um.  That was the group that was coming down the hill as we were going up.  And commenting on “some woman out shaking her dustcloth.”  Sigh.  I take that walk over and over when I need a smile.

I can walk down Sandy Row in Belfast, Northern Ireland, hearing my penpal and his aunt reminding my friends and me to tell people we were headed for the park, not to the Catholic church across town.  The family we visited were Protestant, and this was August, 1968.  The Troubles broke out with a vengeance in September.  But City Hall, the Crown pub with its snugs, and Sandy Row were all peaceful places when we were there.  We had only inklings of the rumblings beneath our feet, callow youth that we were.  The row houses on Sandy Row are all torn down now, but I can still walk it anytime I wish, conjuring up the hospitality and warmth from the people who lived there.

From what I hear, the main pyramid at Chichen Itza is no longer open for climbing.  But I can climb it.  The stair risers are almost impossibly tall, requiring the high-step of the best band major.  Luckily, I have fairly small feet, so could plant my foot face-on, not have to turn it sideways to climb.  I’m not a great one for heights, but if I’m there…well, I’ll take the challenge, figuring I’ll never get the chance again.  I can see the jungle spreading out at my feet, like a huge broccoli farm.  Getting down took more guts than going up.  More butt than foot.  That brings up the bus that broke down in the jungle, in the dark.  When we saw our driver take off his belt, in the hope of replacing the bus’s fanbelt, I was delegated to bargain with the driver of the bus that stopped to help, because I knew about 10 words of Spanish.  “Get us back to Cancun!” my companions hissed.  So, I did.  It was clear why people put coins in front of the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe back in the bus station in town.  Ask for a safe trip, and you just might get it.

I often traipse down Siskiyou Boulevard in Ashland, Oregon, heading from the college campus down to the theater complex in the heart of the small town.  Thirty teachers from all over the country were studying Shakespeare at the Festival.  After spending a month, I have the route embedded in my memory, from the front door of the dorm, where we shared the cafeteria with wrestlers and cheerleaders one week, and Elder Hostel folk another…although one of us called the latter the Elder Hostile, because they were always pushing into line for food.  Entitled, I suppose.  But the walk usually takes me to the outdoor theater where we watched Midsummer Night’s Dream under a full moon and a warm breeze, where the backdrop was black velvet speckled with tiny lights for stars, and where the fairy king swept his cloak around the fairy queen and, because of lights on his cloak, they disappeared into the night.  Poof!  Real magic.

The mental vacations are many and varied.  Everyone needs an escape once in a while, especially if it can be somewhere filled with pleasant memories.  Whether it conjures up laughs, nostalgia, or just a restful feeling, that inner eye is a gift.  Have fun creating your own Interior Photo Album!

Plucking at Memory’s Strings

Here I am, nestled between two wonderful holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  I pick the word “nestled” on purpose.  Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I’m determined to enjoy the next few weeks, not go crazy as time get closer.  I have to keep in mind the past holidays, and what makes them memorable, even today.  Simple things, yes, and people, mostly.

When I was a kid, we were “adopted” by my mother’s best friend and her extended family.  One set of my grandparents was dead before I was born, and the other set was behind the Iron Curtain in Germany.  For all intents and purposes, I had no grandparents, nor much in the line of blood relatives in town.  The few that were around were much older than I was.

Thanksgiving and Christmas found our extended “family” spread all over one house, with the dining room table–every single leaf installed–packed with adults.  We kids occupied card tables in the living room, sitting on anything that looked sturdy enough to hold us.  The least desirable was the piano bench, which left both parties with duffs hanging over the outer edges, and elbows that needed a traffic controller for smooth operation.  From there, it was traditional to repair to the oldest girl’s bedroom, where we played “Go Fish,” with her behind a screen in front of her closet, and us lined up with “pole” and “line” to capture prizes she attached to our fishing line.  How ingenious was that?  Get rid of the stuff you don’t want anymore while thrilling all the little kids panting for prizes.  

Christmas was even more fun.  My parents belonged to Eat Club, a group of three couples that met once a month to…eat.  What else!  Close to Christmas, they drew names for gifts, and the production line at each house went into action.  The men were all handy, and could create these crazy Rube Goldberg machines to make something simple into something vastly more complicated.  But my favorite “gift” involved Balm Barr hand cream.  Balm Barr was the favorite of one of the women, so the woman who drew her name bought a large jar of Balm Barr.  She scooped out the cream and replaced it with…you got it, shortening!  Then she slathered a layer of Balm Barr on top, just to throw her off.  Months and months later, the recipient of the “hand cream,” having used up the ENTIRE jar, said, “That hand cream was the best!  But I couldn’t get it to work into my hands, so I put it on at night and just wore gloves to bed.”  She showed off her hands, smooth and pristine.  “Where did you get it?”  The secret came out at last and we all howled.  I still get a kick out of telling that story.

This Christmas will be just as jolly, maybe even more so.  The granddaughter is a newly-minted teenager, and she wants to bake with me.  Not only that, she want to learn how to make my German Oma’s stollen.  My dad and mom spent endless hours working on translating and testing the German recipe before it met my dad’s high standards.  My mom, in turn, taught me how to make it.  Both our son and our daughter learned how to make it from me.  And now, as requested, mind you, I can pass it on to the next generation, along with a few tricks discovered along the way.  As in, don’t try to do a full recipe in one mixing bowl; split the ingredients in half.  My Oma certainly mixed it all up with her hands, not having a mixer.  We don’t have to do that, thank heavens, as the dough is thick and heavy.  Remember, the rum is for the stollen, not for drinking!  Buy candied citrus early, because it sells out quickly, although that’s eased over the last few years.  When my dad was a kid, they got one orange apiece in their stockings.  My relatives lived through two world wars, and that meant very few luxuries, like oranges.  If that recipe goes back even further, and I’m sure it does, that probably meant that citrus, nuts, raisins only showed up at Christmas.  It always does us good to remember the past.  Not just the struggles, but also the small delights we now take for granted.

I know it’s still early, but I already am dreaming of not only stollen, but German pound cake for breakfast, cut-out sugar cookies built into a tree, maybe some of my mom’s fudge, my mom-in-law’s bachelor buttons (which always go flatter than hers, sigh), Hirschhorn kuchen strewn with coarse sugar…   The list could go on and on.  Food is a ready excuse to get together and share hospitality and warmth.  We’re at an age where those are far more important than gifts.  As the old saying goes, the gift of your presence is the only present we need.

May you and yours share the memories of the past–the laughter, the tastes, the smells, the sights of those gone before us–even as you build memories for the future.