Monthly Archives: November 2011

Turkey Day Jumble

By: Clare

A lot of things were different this Thanksgiving.

For one thing, there was absolutely no snow on the  ground.

And crazily enough, I’m kind of ready for it to snow. In fact, I kind of miss the snow we usually have around at about this time. Except I know once it actually starts snowing there aren’t many chances of it stopping, and then the snow will be here to stay for awhile. And I will grow sick of it. Very, very sick of snow and cold. But thats something I can tell you about during winter. For now: Thanksgiving.

If you hadn’t noticed from the above picture, something has changed on our dog too. He no  longer looks like a groomed poodle, instead, he looks like the Australian Shepherd he really is.

Speaking of dogs, did I mention I missed this year’s National Dog Show that airs on Thanksgiving day? Well, I did, and I must say, I was extremely disappointed. Stupid football. You ruin everything.

You might have also noticed the stacked pile of wood in the first photo. We use a small wood stove to heat our entire 3-story farmhouse, which makes everthing all warm and cozy in the winter. It actually got so warm we had to open the windows to cool the kitchen. I love wood heat!

And just because I can, why not throw in another wood pile shot?

Wow, I’ve strayed quite off topic, haven’t I? I suppose I might have to go back to my Thanksgiving theme…

Well, this Thanksgiving we had a much smaller crowd. Only eight people ate with us! Can you believe it? I couldn’t, as I set the table, but it did make it so that everyone had the same matching china dishes, which hasn’t been able to happen in while due to there not being enough of our good china to go around.

The table is set a lot differently on Thanksgiving day than it is at any other normal meal. And the ridiculous thing is, I actually like setting the table for Thanksgiving, and on every other day its one of my least favorite chores. First we put on a pretty lace tablecloth (we never use tablecloths, they’d get absolutely ruined if we used them everyday).

The china that I mentioned before was a wedding gift to my great-grandmother on my mother’s side and has been handed down to us. This makes the china even more special, because I’m all about the history.

So when the table was set to perfection, thanks to yours truly, the food was put on and we all sat down to stuff ourselves.

Ironically, we never eat turkey for Thanksgiving. Instead, we opt for our own homegrown chicken!

And of course, the most delicious stuffing ever.

There was more…cranberries, homemade bread, but I don’t want to overload your taste buds!

Well, I guess that was it. Not a very eventful Thanksgiving, but there is so much to be thankful for my life that that fact was forgotten…until my teenage attitude remembered and went downstairs to complain to Mom and search for some leftover stuffing.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend!

Black Boots on Black Friday

By Mary

For many Americans Black Friday is a day to navigate ones way thru massive crowds and heavy traffic while shopping. I don’t really subscribe to this mentality for 3 reasons. The reasons are:

I am too cheap, too lazy, and I just don’t care!

My 7 year old niece,Claire Slattery and I decided to take a walk instead of fighting the congested shopping traffic. With the especially mild weather, it was refreshing to take in some peaceful time outside.

Of course the dog came along with us. Honestly, I prefer his company to frenzied shoppers (and most people for that matter!).

After coming back into the house, I managed to convince Little Clare to keep me company while going into Lacrosse. Due to the fact that the main purpose of the trip into town was so that I could go to daily mass, it took some true convincing powers. Clare was won over when I mentioned to her that I was going to go to the library.

We pulled on our black cowboy boots and headed into the city.

With silk flowers in our hair and our black boots on, we walked around the downtown area.

My spending budget on Black Friday pretty much consisted of spending time with my niece and buying her junk food. That’s the kind of Black Friday budget I am all about!

Ali: My Iraqui Brother

by Patrick Slattery

Last week while packing cabbage in the root cellar, I entertained two visitors. The first was Jaris, a very polite, well-dressed, 24-year-old Jehovah’s Witness. After pleasant conversation and giving him a bag of free squash, I took Jaris upstairs to share his message with Peter Drake and Terese’s mother, Grandma Cummings. They both received copies of “The Watchtower”, and after my coaching, were supposed to have shown “The Watchtower” to Terese after she came home from school and tell her they had converted (they failed to execute my plan).

But the fellow I wanted to tell you about was the next visitor, Ariat. He is a bald little fellow, aged 53, a member of the very small Arab community that resides nearby in LaCrosse. They all know one another, and hang out at a gas station owned by a Pakistani. Ariat was  looking for onions and garlic, which I gave him along with a package of frozen venison.

“Where’s Ali?”, I asked of him, “haven’t seen him in a long time.”

Ariat replyed: “He’s gone from LaCrosse. Living in Rockford, has a new wife.”

“That’s too bad”, I said, “because I’ll miss seeing him.”

But before he fades from memory, I’d like to tell you about Ali, as a fellow farmer and occasional visitor here at Sweet Ridge Farm. Ali grew up on a farm in Iraq. He was one of twenty-three children (his father had four wives). He didn’t like Sudam, and had spent some time in jail in Iraq. Somehow he got to this country, and after living in Chicago and a number of other big cities, ended up in LaCrosse. Ali is a Halal butcher, meaning that he kills and processes livestock according to Islamic law. He worked in a number of Halal slaughter houses. “Despicable work”, he told me. And although he wasn’t employed in that capacity while in LaCrosse. He none the less continued butchering Arab style, and thus was always on the lookout for sheep to “do in”. I don’t remember how we connected several years ago-Ali just showed up in our driveway one day and asked if I knew of any sheep or goats that were for sale. As a city-dweller, he was always in need of a place to butcher on the farm, which is illegal of course, but that makes it only more fun to say yes when he suggested that he might do so at our place. We didn’t do it often, maybe a half-dozen times, but I do remember his excellence and skill with a knife. I believe his ritual was to face the animal  east, shout “Allah is great!” and then proceed to slit its throat. He could entirely process a sheep in 10 or 15 minutes. I well remember the time he pulled into our driveway, honking the horn of his old Cadillac with three lambs and various fowl in the trunk, yelling out the window, “Hello brother!”.

Ali had the most gravelly voice that I’ve ever heard. A most impressive fact about Ali is that he never spent one day of his life in school, yet somehow he passed a driver’s test in the U.S. and was able to find his way all over the interstate highway system. Ali had lived in some pretty rough neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere, and was grateful for how safe LaCrosse, WI was in comparison. He especially liked being around farmers, as he considered himself a kindred spirit. He like the “Ameesh” (Amish) but they used to haggle ferociously over price. He could tell how old a sheep was by looking a the number of teeth in its mouth. He prepared us a lamb and rice dinner one Sunday, and my son Raphael well recalls it as one of the most delicious meals he ever ate. I also remember him once eating here with his cousin, and they twittered in Arabic and pointed to my wife Terese, who was barefoot at the time and sweeping the floors and had also poured them coffee. “She is just like the women in my country”, Ali pointed out with marvel in his voice. Ali’s wife in LaCrosse was American, and this proved to be his undoing. She was a nurse who worked odd hours and didn’t share his rural interests. I had never met her, and Ali seldom talked about her, but I can only presume that she wasn’t very satisfied with her husbands way of life. He did however bring out his daughter, Alia, a pretty, well behaved little girl. We were all struck by what a fine father he was.

So we can only presume their marriage bond had dissolved and Ali went elsewhere to find a new bride. Ariat said Ali had come back to Lacrosse several times to look for his daughter, but mother and child had disappeared, and there was no tracking them down. Ariat promised to come back next spring and help with the garlic. If the need arises he is welcome to slit a lamb’s throat now and then. I am sure he is good, but no one I suspect will do it with as much grace and style as Ali-my lost Iraqi brother.

This article is part of an occasional series written by Patrick J. Slattery, patriarch of the Slattery clan. Pat was a journalist for over 30 years, writing about faith, farming, and family. For the past few years he has stepped away from the keyboard and into the fields as a full time farmer. The first articles in his series are available here:

Gary Elsen: Son of Middle Ridge Soil


Cute Tractor

Something Borrowed, Something (Navy) Blue…

by Colleen

Hey!  I’m back after a whirling week of papers, reading, tests, and lots and lots of espresso.  You would expect a college student to look sort of ground down by the end of a week like the ones UD throws at students, but for some reason I came out looking pretty good, if I do say so for myself.  Case in point:

Dress:  borrowed from my friend, Katie’s, closet

Coat: Goodwill-$7

Boots: Thanks again, Katie!

Tights: from older sister, Mary

Necklace: 17th birthday gift from little sister, Clare

There is no reason for a college student to look like a slob.  Luckily, at UD, almost no one dresses down.  I think I’ve found the right place for me.

Adoption Interview Project 2011

by Kate

As many of you know, I am a birth mom. I’ve written about my story here. This year, I am honored to participate in the Adoption Bloggers Interview Project.  The Adoption Interview project pairs people involved with adoption from every angle and has them interview each other. I was surprised and happy that all my sisters joined me in the project and answered some great questions about their thoughts about adoption.

Here is how it works. I was paired with the lovely Natalie, who has a beautiful five year old daughter named Hannah. Natalie is a adoptive parent, and she blogs at Adopting the Spectrum. If you head on over to her blog, you can read her interview with all of  the Sweet Ridge Sisters talking about adoption. Here is the interview that I did with Natalie.
Please describe your relationship with Hannah’s birthparents. How often are you in contact? How do you interact when you are communicating? Has it changed significantly over the past several years?

I would say we have an excellent relationship with both of Hannah’s birthparents although they are both very different type relationships.  Mike, Hannah’s birthfather, is less involved by his choice, but we still stay in contact.  He moves frequently and often changes both land line and cell phone numbers so most often we have to wait for him to contact us.  When we lived in Indiana, which is where Hannah was born and he used to live as well, he called us quite a bit and often invited us to his sporting events (he used to play semi pro football and now races dirt bikes). He would also spontaneously call us up when his work brought him into our town and would stop by if we were home.  For some people I think that would be a problem, but for us it was great. We were thankful for all the contact we could get.  Now that we’ve moved twice across the country in the past two and half years we haven’t seen him at all in that time.  I send pictures whenever I’ve heard from him recently and am sure of his address and I always enjoy talking to him on the phone to find out what he is up to.  If Hannah is around or awake when he calls she talks to him too although she’s not as comfortable with him as she is with her birth.  It seems like the majority of our relationship with Mike is simply about keeping the door open and making sure he has a way to contact us since we are more stable as far as address and phone than he is.  He contacts us when he wants and knows that we’ll always stop what we are doing to chat. He recently got a facebook account so occasionally I find him on there and we can chat which is nice. I think this may be a way to contact him more reliably when we’ve found out his phone is disconnected or his address is no longer current. It might take awhile, but eventually he’ll check his page and see that we’ve been trying to contact. At least that’s what I hope will happen!
With Tiffany, Hannah’s birthmother, the relationship is much different. We have much more frequent contact and Hannah is much closer to her as well as her extended family.  She calls occasionally and Hannah calls her often (both with and without my permission to use the phone!). Tiffany and I chat regularly on facebook about her life, her twins’ lives, and of course about us and Hannah. With Tiffany the relationship reminds me more of a sisterly relationship. We care deeply for her and Chase and Kayla (Hannah’s siblings) and like to stay informed as to what they are up to and how they are doing.  When we lived in Indiana we saw them often (several times a year and especially a lot that very first year). We would take the kids to get their pictures taken together every year and attend birthday parties, holiday events, sporting events, etc.  Sometimes we’d go to them and sometimes they’d come to us. Now that we’ve moved so far away, the burden of actual physical visits falls more squarely on our shoulders since Tiffany simply doesn’t have the money to travel.  We try to make at least one trip back to see her and the kids every year and this year we actually got to see them twice!  I think as our lives get busier and busier and as all of the kids get older it may be harder and harder to have frequent visits, but thankfully with facebook it’s pretty easy to keep in touch.  Hannah loves her family on her  birthmom side and I see her interacting with her siblings as typical siblings interact and with Tiffany more of the way she interacts with her aunts and uncles.  Her relationship with Tiffany’s parents and brother are fairly good as well although we really only have contact with them when Tiffany sets something up as a whole family visit.
As far as how we all interact when we communicate, I think in the beginning we were all a little worried (except for maybe Mike who is pretty rough around the edges and ALWAYS just speaks his mind!) about offending the other and kept our interactions quite structured  and censored, but now that the years have passed we just tell it like it is. I speak with Tiffany pretty much like I speak with my own siblings. I’m not afraid to tell her when I think she’s making a mistake in her own life or in parenting of the twins and she’s not afraid to tell me to bug off or to agree with me!  She also doesn’t hesitate to give me parenting advice with Hannah as well. We talk about so many things other than just Hannah that it’s a very developed relationship now and not just  a birthmother/adoptive parent relationship.

What has been the biggest surprise for you about open adoption?

My biggest surprise about open adoption has been other people’s reaction to it when they find out that Hannah is adopted.  So many people who have no business commenting on my family’s personal life feel free to say whatever they want and ask very personal questions simply because our family was created by adoption.  We hear things like, “Oh you are so lucky that she looks just like you. No one will ever know she’s adopted,” like that’s something undesirable! It also never ceases to surprise me when people respond with some variation of, “Aren’t you afraid SHE is going to steal Hannah back from you since she knows where you live?” This comment bothers me for so many reasons. First it paints Tiffany as a villain and since they’ve never met her I don’t know why they think they could possibly pass that judgment. Second it implies that I would do something that would put Hannah in danger. UGH! Another thing that surprised me was that many people painted us as some sort of saints for adopting.  They don’t seem to understand no matter how hard I try to explain that WE were the ones that were blessed, not Hannah. We really wanted to have a family and adoption was the only route to that for us. We didn’t “save” a baby. We were blessed with a baby and a whole lot more in a relationship with all of Hannah’s birth by her adoption. We did nothing heroic.
What is your greatest fear about open adoption?

My greatest fear about open adoption is that at some point we will lose contact with one or both of Hannah’s birthparents and the impact that will have on her.  We chose open adoption so that Hannah would always know her birthfamily. We dreamed about a close extended family relationship with them and we have luckily had exactly that. Naively, we never considered that fact that people change, situations change, and that we might not always have the kind of relationship we want. We never considered that it wasn’t all in our control. Since adopting Hannah we’ve met other open adoption parents who’ve lost contact with their children’s birthparents at some point down the road of their adoptions.  Even though they always kept their relationships open, one or more of the birthparents simply stopped contact/moved and did not leave forwarding information/had a falling out with the adoptive parents/regressed into back into substance abuse or abusive relationships/etc.  I often panic when I think about that possibly happening to us.  Hannah is my baby girl and I’d do anything for her, but I can’t be her birthfamily even though I wish she’d been born from my womb.  As a parent it’s hard to know that there is something so vitally important to your child’s life that you have no control over providing to her.  I simply have to turn Hannah over to the Lord and pray that He will give her all she needs to be at peace with herself whether or not she has contact with her birthfamily.
Hannah has Aspergers Syndrome. How does this impact her perception of adoption? How does it impact yours?

Hannah actually had her Asperger’s diagnosis taken away last year and it was replaced with Disruptive Behavior Disorder-NOS.  I suppose I should change the name of my blog!  She still has MANY, MANY aspie characteristics though, simply not enough of them anymore to qualify for a full diagnosis.  Hannah’s special needs actually don’t impact her perception of adoption much at all, however the other side of the coin that makes Hannah unique is that she is profoundly gifted (IQ higher than 99.7% of the population!).  This actually makes her adoption processing quite difficult.  She has the academic intelligence and reasoning ability of probably a 4th grade child even though she’s only 5 yrs old, but only has the actual life experiences of 5 year old to draw on. She comes up with some pretty wild perceptions of things sometimes because of this!  I often get into trouble with this since I’ve been preparing answers to questions about her adoption that I know will eventually come up geared toward the age that children general want to know about those particular things. However, Hannah tends to ask about them sooner and then I’m stuck because the while the answer I have prepared may be academically appropriate it is NOT age appropriate and may contain things I’d rather not get into at her age!

What made you decide to pursue adopting from foster care in the future?

When we first decided to pursue adoption to build our family we did some research on the various types of adoption and felt a strong pull towards adoption from foster care because there were so many children in our area waiting for homes that had been waiting for YEARS.  However, we were young and not experienced parents at all.  Kyle had basically no kid experience at all and I only felt comfortable with children up to about age 8 since that’s where my experience as a teacher stopped at.  We didn’t feel prepared to parent older children or children with serious trauma at that point since we had little parenting experience and weren’t yet strong disciplinarians.  Most of the waiting children in our area were 10 years old and older and we just didn’t feel like we would be good parents for that age of children yet.  Still we wanted to build a family and felt like we really needed to start out the “normal” way with a baby first and learn as we went.  We were also committed to having some sort of an open adoption and our local state foster care agency at the time didn’t allow a lot of birth family contact after the adoptions were finalized for most adoptions so that pushed us more towards a domestic infant open adoption.
God apparently got a good laugh at our thought that we couldn’t handle a discipline problem however, because he sent us Hannah even though we went the agency adoption route! Now, after parenting Hannah for 5+ years we’ve learned quite a bit about parenting and discipline.  We’ve learned that even though we make mistakes, aren’t perfect, and are clueless much of the time we can still be good parents and we feel ready to add to our family.  After taking all the foster care training classes and reading LOTS of books we feel like we’ve probably already encountered many of the discipline issues and behaviors we’ll encounter with kids from a traumatic background simply from Hannah’s behavior disorder.  We feel like whatever they can dish out we can take and if not us, then who?  There are so many kids who need homes, both temporary and permanent and we feel ready to fill that need.  We absolutely can’t wait to start adding to our family.

Has your family been supportive of your open adoption?

This is an interesting question to answer.  At first Kyle’s family was very much against any type of adoption and extremely against open adoption in particular.  They believed a lot of negative myths about adoption, had preconceived stereotypes about birthparents and children who might be born to them, and were pretty much just prejudiced about the whole situation.  My family on the otherhand is a very blended family to begin with.  There are many divorces, remarriages, adoptions, and pseudo adoptions already so they didn’t seem to think anything would be different.  So, when Hannah was born we were prepared to go to battle with Kyle’s family to accept our little one, but one look at her precious face and they were all over it.  She was completely accepted and adored.  They even occasionally ask about her birthfamily and how they are doing and don’t hassle us at all about having an open relationship with them.  My family on the otherhand totally shocked us and went the other direction once Hannah was born.  While they adore Hannah and treat her like an absolute princess, they are not accepting of Hannah’s birthfamily at all.  There has been much jealously about having to share Hannah with another family and disparaging remarks made both to them and about them to us.  At one point we thought we might have to cut contact with my family if they couldn’t get their acts together it was so bad.  We worried about the message it would send to Hannah to hear (and feel the hostility) negative things said by people she loved about other people she loved.  We weren’t about to allow that to continue and felt we had to nip it in the bud before Hannah got old enough to totally get it.  Things seem to be better now and while there are no longer negative remarks made in our presence, I don’t feel like they accept Hannah’s birthfamily really.  Unfortunately, I can’t make them. I can however make sure they don’t express their opinions in front of Hannah by reminding them that if they want contact with Hannah they have to play by our rules and that includes respecting Hannah’s birthfamily’s place in her life and our decision to maintain a close relationship with them by not expressing negative attitudes in front of Hannah.
Hannah’s birthfather’s family doesn’t know about the adoption. What do you tell Hannah about that? Do you think they will ever find out?

 Well, so far Hannah hasn’t really asked about Mike’s family so we haven’t brought it up either.  I have some answers prepared and ready for when it does come up, but all my adoption parenting books say not to give kids more information than what they ask for. When they are ready to process certain aspects about their adoption they will ask.  Another part about this that makes it tricky is that Mike now has 2 other children with two different women (not Hannah’s birthmother) that also do not know about Hannah and whom we have never met and who it is likely we will never be allowed to meet.  I did manage to pull some pictures of them off of facebook and have saved them on my computer for Hannah for when it comes up.  It just breaks my heart that I will eventually have to tell Hannah she has siblings that she can’t see and that I can’t make it happen no matter how much she may want it because their mommies have the final say. So, I guess at the moment Hannah isn’t curious about Mike’s family so we haven’t told her anyting about it yet. I’m not sure she’s ready to process the fact that some people have negative ideas about adoption or hide pregnancy’s because they are ashamed of them (she still hasn’t asked the big “where do babies come from/how are babies made?” question yet so I’m not going to do anything to hasten that conversation!) because to her adoption is a perfectly normal part of life. She doesn’t feel different because of it yet and I’d like to keep it that way for as long as possible.  She already has so much that makes her different from her peers (giftedness and a behavior disorder) that I don’t want to add more to her plate before she’s ready.  I do think that someday Mike’s family will find out about Hannah since it’s a pretty big seceret to keep and it seems like the bigger the secret the more likely it’ll be blown wide open at some point.  Now that Mike has friended me on facebook I think the likelihood that someone will put two and two together based on our posts and conversations is great.  I’d love to meet them and learn more about them since we know very little about them.  If even to just get a better feel of family health history and pictures I’d love to chat with them even if they don’t want an ongoing relationship.  Unfortunately, it would be disrespectful to go against Mike’s wishes and contact them ourselves. However, when Hannah is old enough we’ll give her all the information on them we have so that she can try to make contact if she wants. 

Thanks so much to Natalie for being a great interview partner and to Heather at Open Adoption Bloggers for hosting this amazing project.

Dancing in the City

by Kate

I’ve got a story for you. This story is the reason I haven’t been around this blog too much lately. It’s a great story, with glitz and glamor and historic preservation, along with a healthy dose of hope. At least I think so.

A few weeks ago I was walking through the Bloomfield neighborhood just up the hill from my house on a beautiful day, hanging flyers for a Gala Bellydance Show. As I’ve mentioned before, I love hanging posters because it gives me a chance to stop in every shop and make discoveries about the world around me. As I hung my poster on the bulletin board at Starbucks, another flyer caught my eye. I pulled it down and headed back out into the street. I’m glad I did.

The flyer was for a brand new studio space set to open at the end of October. A studio space with 5000 square feet of floating dance floor, offering classes in ballroom, ballet, samba, salsa, modern, jazz, west coast swing, hip hop, and tap dance. This mystery studio had everything but bellydance. I was completely intrigued. I made my way home, keeping an eye out for a building in Bloomfield that had 5000 square feet for a dance floor. That evening, I called the number on the website for the Pittsburgh Dance Center and spent an hour on the phone with Holly.

Holly Dayton-Kirby is the dynamic force behind the Pittsburgh Dance Center. A professional ballroom dance teacher and instructor, Holly grew up in the Bloomfield neighborhood. She was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, let alone pay for dance classes. A couple crucial scholarships allowed her to become a professional dancer, performing with Dance Alloy in Pittsburgh and later as a part of the cast of Riverdance. Holly loves the neighborhood where she grew up. She also understands what it is like to be a kid who wants to dance and doesn’t have the money to afford it. She lives outside the city now, in the fancy suburban South Hills. But when she decided to open her own dance studio, she put it right in the midst of Bloomfield. She said she wanted to give back the neighborhood- and that she would never turn a kid who turned up with toe shoes in hand, lacking the five dollars she is charging for every kids dance class.

That’s right, I said five dollars. About the cost of one of those fancy grande lattes you can purchase in the Starbucks downstairs. The 5000 square feet of studio space at the Pittsburgh Dance Center are located directly above the Starbucks in Bloomfield. The building that houses the Starbucks and the dance studio used to be a movie palace called the Plaza Theater. Here is the Plaza Theater in 1937.

And here is the Plaza today.

The glamor has faded a bit, but the detail on that building is still beautiful if you look closely.

It is even more beautiful on the inside. The theater was converted into two floors. Starbucks is downstairs, next to a restaurant. The second floor is where Holly put the dance studio. She took a blank space with a cement block floor and the ornate ceiling of the original movie palace and created a gorgeous warm and welcoming dance studio. It took a whole lot of work.

I was privileged to get a glimpse of the tail end of that process.

Holly, her husband, and their three kids were at the studio day and night in the week leading up to the grand opening. 5000 square feet is a lot of flooring to lay down.

The studio opened on Halloween weekend.

I was thrilled to perform on that dance floor for the opening, along with a great number of amazing dancers who will be teaching at the Pittsburgh Dance Center.

I am teaching a class at the studio in a couple of hours- I’ll be there every Saturday at 3 for a bellydance class, if you are in the area and want to stop by. There is also a show tonight at the studio with local bellyrock band Ishtar- only five bucks, a bellydance lesson, special performances, and an open dance floor. Come on by if you are in the area!

I am thrilled to be a part of this project. I love teaching at the PDC and I am excited to take classes with the other teachers at the studio. There is a complete schedule of classes available here. I think it is a great story of urban renewal, historic preservation, and hope. If you’re around, I hope you can be a part of it.

Want to keep reading about my urban neighborhood adventures?

Caffe Mona

A City Walk

Dear Dad

by Colleen

I “got my run in” today,

And I happened to pass by on the way

A plaque underneath a tree

Proclaiming to all, “This is a Hackberry”.

(Oh, silly Texans, “y’all”,

You do not know your trees or even the fall).

I laughed in my head.

Hackberrys, you’ve taught to me,

Are meant to be hacked, a useless tree,

But down here, they know not

And cherish the ugly thing, giving it it’s own plot.

The trees down here, the weather’s ruined ’em.

They all look like you’ve come and pruned ’em.

All twisted and crumbly and dead.

They don’t know how to grow

Squash or turnips or radicchio.

Fluorescent fruits  fill the stalls

In the farmer’s market, foreign Spanish words call.

Cactus fruit, perish the thought!

What is this seedy thing I just bought?

I am so confused.

The cafeteria’s brussels sprouts, yuck!

Their asparagus, out of season, is muck.

Limply, it dangles, dingy and green,

I turn up my nose at the “green” beans.

It’s crazy down here, Dad, so odd.

The trees are all wrong, the food tastes like sod.

Texas, you have me all bemused.

Snow Memories

By Mary

Just as the meteorologists predicted, the world is covered in the first coat of snow here in Southwestern Wisconsin. Snow is not an element that I welcome with peace. However, I have been musing of favorite snow memories. In the past I have had my share of good times in the flakes: Slating, sledding, the traditional first snowfall ride that I would take on my horse, building forts and jumps, and of course making snow angels. No childhood snow memories are as dear to me as a later favorite snow memory though.

This memory takes me back to Raminika.

Raminika is a poor military village far, far away in a mountainous region of Russia dotted by the shrubbery of trees and little dachas on steep hillsides. When I spent the winter in Russia, there were times when I would make the 4 hour round trip from the city of Vladivostok to the little village of Raminika. I would go with a most  joyful group of Catholic sisters that had originally come over from Spain. The trip would be a vernacular collage of Russian, Spanish, and English. The only background noise that could be understood by all passengers was the emotional booming opera music that the sisters were especially found of playing while navigating the twisting roads on those longs trips into the countryside. The operatic ensemble was a deserved relief to the sisters, some of whom would make the trip up to 5 days a weekly. A children’s center had recently been opened by the order for children to have a safe place to play. In addition to making the trips to the village, the sisters also taught at the University in the city and maintained a very detailed prayer life.

While I viewed these incredible ladies with utmost admiration, it was perfectly evident to me that the children at the center did too. On the days that I rode along, when we would arrive at the little rented building, a flock of children would greet us. Entering into the cramped space, the charismatic Sisters would be right in the midst of the excitement, chasing balls and dancing with the children.  Every child there would get to drink heavily sugared tea from a plastic cup and have a large chunk of donated bread as an early afternoon meal before playing more games and heading home before dark.

I can still remember the taste of the bread, the sweetness of the tea, the hours and hours of volleyball that I would play with the kids, and the painful Russian lessons that a gaggle of school-aged children would capture me to partake in!

One Saturday, a young woman from the University in the city made the trip with the Spanish Sisters, and just before dark she asked the golden question in the golden language (English!) ” would I like to take a walk with her?”

This walk turned into my favorite snow memory ever. The stillness and crispness of the cold after such a long day in the midst of the close quartered commotion greeted me with a special refreshing lure. My breath floating like a white sheet of fog into the cold air calmed me as we set off to view the fallen ruins of an old military officers club at the edge of the village.

After some time of walking, a little girl who looked to be about seven or so and who had been one of my former volleyball buddies throughout the day, ran up from behind us and linked her little arm in mine. How I enjoyed our unspoken friendship on the remote walk in the crisp snow. After some time, we came to a shack with straw spread in front and a rusty clothesline spread with the hanging of frozen laundry.

My new friend waved goodbye to me. I hugged her and watched as her blue coated back darted into the little house. And just for a second everything seemed beautiful.

Even snow.

A Family Friend So Dear to Us

by Clare

This man is crazy. But in a good way.

Peter Drake has been living with us since I was five years old, and I can barely, if at all, remember a time when he wasn’t in our house. At times this makes me angry, feeling that I shouldn’t have to share my family and my home all my life with a man who’s not even related. But I know that Peter has been nothing but a gift to us, and living here has been a giant blessing for him.

Peter is a very eccentric person, truly one of a kind. After leaving the Navy, he spent much of his money buying an encyclopedia set and read the entire thing. And somehow he retained all that knowledge, spouting out things most people will never know. He loves digging into visitor’s family backgrounds, and gets awful excited when he finds something interesting (he loves to tell everyone about how he is 1/32 African American). He often comments on how much he’s enjoyed meeting our family and our family’s friends, and how these people are some of the best he’s ever met. He especially enjoys telling Ole and Lena jokes, which are always a crowd pleaser.

He grew up in what was probably the craziest town with the craziest people who ever lived, and the stories he tells about his younger days are things you’d think only happen with characters from a ridiculous Hollywood film. A lover of all things Norwegian, he often attends Norwegian events in the area, and loves parish lutefisk suppers.

Peter is not a picky person to house. He eats pretty much everything we serve, and loves it, and it very quiet and peaceful. Except for when he is on the phone. I think he think that for the person on the other line to hear you, you have to shout very loudly and distinctly into the phone. It’s kind of amusing. He only complains when his heater is not heating his room well enough, or if, God forbid, the coffee runs out. For Peter, when the coffee runs out, the world stops.

Peter’s a hater of sports, and couldn’t care less about any of it. My dad teases him terribly about it, asking him if he’s been keeping up with the Green Bay Packers, and if he thinks they’re defense is off or not. This disturbs Peter greatly, and makes him raise his voice and shake is head and state , “I don’t know, I don’t know!” There are often a few swear words mixed in too. Swear words are a regular part of Peter’s vocabulary. I think it’s just a habit. He and my dad have kind of a love-hate relationship. They’ve been friends for years, and my Dad’s the reason Peter’s not still stuck in a nursing home.

He’s also extremely generous, and is always giving away Social Security money to a worthy cause. A convert to Catholicism, he sometimes has trouble making it over across the road to church, because he’s often struck with a sudden dizziness that inhibits him from making the long walk. We call it dizzy disease, but we should call it a mental disease, because its all in his head. There’s nothing wrong with him really.

Fact is, I could tell you a million things about Peter Drake, and I’d still have more to say about him. He’s a character alright, and we’re sure glad to know him.

Happy Birthday, Peter Drake!