Category Archives: Kate

Mother’s Day

I used to feel like I was the only woman who was suffering, on Mother’s Day. For a decade, I sat in a series of pews in churches across the country, surrounded by strangers. I remember them all. I dreaded the moment when they asked the women who were mothers to rise for a blessing and a single stemmed rose. What to do, as a single and apparently childless woman? Should I sit or should I stand? As a birth mother, both choices felt like a wound.

I am married with four more children now. I am older and wiser, I hope. One thing that I have learned is that of course I am not the only one who has suffered. So many of the women in the pews whose judgement I feared in my own grief and awkwardness and confusion and shame are suffering too. On Mother’s Day, women are mourning. Women are bearing the grief of infertility, broken relationships, abortion, stillborn children, grown sons and daughters lost in the opioid epidemic, or in the war that rages on the other side of the world and never seems to end.

We are offered flowers, cards, candy. We are given images of motherhood so idealized they bear no relation to our own lives. In fact, they offer insult to injury, taunting us with images of plastic perfection.

This is not the way this day began.

Mother’s Day was founded by Anna Jarvis, the ninth daughter of Ann Jarvis. Anna wanted to honor her mother, who gave birth to eleven children. Only four of them survived to adulthood. Seven of her babies died as infants, lost to measles, diptheria, and typhoid disease.

Ann Jarvis was a woman of deep faith and dynamic action. She was a force to be reckoned with. When she was pregnant with her sixth child, she founded the Mothers’ Day Work Club to bring women together to improve public health and reduce disease and infant mortality. The clubs raised money to support buy medicine, to hire helpers to work in households where mothers were suffering from tuburculosis and other health problems. They visited women in their homes to educate mothers about how to improve sanitation and health. 

When the Civil War broke out, Ann Jarvis insisted that the Mothers Day Clubs remain neutral. The members of her Clubs fed, clothed, and cared for sick soldiers, Confederate and Union alike. When the War ended, she brought together soldiers from both sides and their families for a “Mothers Friendship Day”. She spoke to those gathered about unity, and reconciliation. They prayed together, they ate together, they sang together, and they cried together.

What an inspiration, and a challenge.

We cannot erase the crass commercialization of Mothers Day- but can we strive to become more like the woman who inspired it? My hope is that instead of suffering alone, we can reach out to each other to support each other in our grief, to strengthen each other, and to improve the health of our families, our communities, and to change the world.

Flightless Birds

By Kate

We are in the midst of a February thaw. The backyard is a sea of mud and ice. This morning, four geese flew fast and low, soaring above the sugar maple. I wondered if they knew which direction they were going. I imagine it’s a confusing week for a goose. A few days ago the world was subzero, frozen solid in an arctic chill, and now a false spring has awoken birdsong and melted the ice into the aforementioned, ever present mud and muck.

Beneath a slate grey sky, my children process through the mud with a blue umbrella and climb upon our chicken coop which stands six feet high, chickenless, strewn about with lumber and fencing. It will be finished this spring, my husband says.

I grew up in the country and I live and raise my children in the city. I never imagined I would do this. When I was growing up and visited towns I pondered how it must feel to grow up hemmed in on every side by concrete and structures and people everywhere. I never really felt I could breathe until we hit city limits on the way out of town. At home, on the roof of our barn, I felt like I could fly.

My mother grew up on a farm in Iowa where the green soybean fields of the former prairie roll out to an infinite horizon. She climbed high into the rafters of the barn and the cottonwood tree. She married my father and they settled on a small farm on a ridge in Wisconsin and she wanted to raise children who were free, and she did, nine of them.

I live on a high ridge in the heart of a city. From our front porch you catch a glimpse of skyscrapers through the trees. Helicopters soar to the hospital on the hill above our home. I am trying to raise children in the city who feel rooted in the land and also free. I do not know how to do this. I do think that having chickens helps.

In Pittsburgh, if you have a bit of a backyard, you can have five chickens or two mini goats. You can have a beehive.  I am so grateful for that fact. The idea that you can live in the city but have your kids doing farm chores warms my heart. We used to have chickens, five of them, and hearing them clucking and scratching in the backyard and hauling hay in the back of the van felt like home. We had a small, stylish, well built coop. Unfortunately, the size of the coop made me feel sorry for the birds, who were trapped in such a small space, not free range at all, definitely caged in and totally miserable. This is where things went wrong.

I felt sorry for my caged birds, and so I set them free. Sadly, I neglected to actually fence the backyard. I optimistically figured the hedge would contain them, which it did, briefly, but soon they had figured out how to squeeze through it and out into the alley, out onto the city streets. “A chicken is wandering Fisk Street!” I read on a neighborhood email, while deeply immersed in writing projects inside my home. My heart dropped, and I raced out to search for my chicken. This happened more times than I would like to admit.

The cold sweat, heart pounding, public humiliation of searching for escaped livestock was actually a familiar one, for the farm I grew up on was somewhat short of fencing, and what fencing there was tended to be rather creative in nature. The children were free, and more often than not the pigs were too. A full grown pig is 7 feet long and weighs 700 lbs and can run surprisingly quickly. Pig chasing was the closest I got to athletics during my bookish childhood.

When my chickens weren’t wandering the city streets, they were roosting on the back porch. They stared balefully through the window at me. Their soft clucks took on a sinister tone. One day, a chicken strolled into kitchen. Right about then, my husband decided it was time to take a break from raising chickens. Send them to your friend on the farm, he said. I’ll build you a real coop, with a fence.

That was three years ago. We hope to finish the fence and get chickens this spring. The new coop has risen slowly, but it is sturdy and solid, strong enough for my children to climb upon the roof and gaze down the ridge, over the valley, across the river. Strong enough to feel like they could fly.

Music in Ordinary Time

By Kate

We are headed into the depths of winter. I will not say the heart, because the glowing heart of winter, the warmth and the beauty and the wonder of it, all are wrapped up in the Christmas season which has recently come to an end, stranding us in Ordinary Time.

This past week has brought us long soaking dreary rains topped with a dusting of slippery snow and a bone chilling arctic blast of cold. This season stretches on, veiled with the dust of dried road salt, a thin harsh grime that covers streets and cars with a corrosive film that eats away at metal and hope. There is ice upon mud. There is mud upon my kitchen floor.

This is the perfect time of year for a house concert.

A house concert brings beauty, conviviality, and magic back into the cold and lonesome stretch of late winter. Hosting a house concert is a fantastic reason to hang the Christmas lights back up, mop the floors clean, bring in some fresh flowers, and pull all the furniture against the walls to open up your home, eat good cheese and drink fine wine and listen to beautiful music in fancy clothing, OR in farm boots and a cut off t shirt if you’d like.

One of the best things about house concerts is that you can make your own rules. For example, babes in arms and/or lap dogs welcome.

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We hosted a house concert a week ago to celebrate a visit from my youngest sister, Clare and to work on the avant-garde Wild West material we will soon be recording and performing at several upcoming house concerts, on a tour to the Blue Ridge mountains.

With Clare’s help, we swept and scrubbed the house, pulled apart the couch, closed the pocket doors, and set up the living room for a house concert. We cut boughs of evergreen from the bushes in the garden and put them on the mantle and the kitchen windowsill. We pulled out the antique candlesticks and hung up twinkling Christmas lights.

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We invited over a dozen friends, asked them to bring a bottle of wine. I baked several loaves of crusty bread, set out cheese and olives and dip.

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In a fortuitous twist, Clare arrived bearing inherited treasures from a past and fantastically stylish generation- fringed sweaters and earrings which we decided were the perfect wardrobe for a house concert on a wintry night.

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A house concert in late winter is a wonderful experience. As a musician, host, and guest of many of these occasions, I can’t recommend them enough. Although the details may change (lemonade and cookies or a potluck instead of wine and cheese, afternoon or evening setting, formal or informal attire) the heart of the experience is a joyful celebration.

So much of life takes place in Ordinary Time. Why not make it more musical? A house concert is a wonderful way to create beauty, to cultivate wonder, to nourish the soul with art, and to gather together joyfully in the dreary depths of winter.

 

 

Taking Stock

By Kate

Once upon a time I was a food writer. I was writing for Freedom Farms magazine and it was a rich and rewarding experience. I was working with a sustainable farming operation that I deeply believed in, I was able to drive out of the city and ride tractors and climb hay bales and get my boots muddy on a regular basis, and my children had the chance to spend time on a farm. Each month I listened to Lisa King, mother of ten children and incredibly talented cook, explain her philosophy of creating simple, nourishing, and unbelievably great tasting meals.

At the same time, I was struggling to balance my writing and my own household. I was regularly hyperventilating over a deadline about a farm fresh meal while tossing cold hot dogs to my own children, who were constantly in the midst of tearing the house to pieces. Eventually I had to take stock of my life, and to step back from writing and shift my focus to doing different work that allowed us to create a different, deeper family rhythm. (Literally, because we started a family band, but that’s a different story.)

It took years for me to begin to put into place the lessons I learned from Lisa King. At the heart of the message was to keep food preparation simple. Farm fresh, seasonal ingredients. One pot meals. Meal plans that please an entire household and automatically yield leftovers that do the same. Like so many seemingly simple things, the simplicity is deceptive in that it is refined by years of hard won experience.

Today I am making chicken stock. The simple recipe flows from the heart of the meal plan I’ve developed over the past few years. Once a week I roast a chicken. After it is carved and served and cooled, I save the entire carcass and the juice by placing it in a gallon size freezer bag, and sticking it into the freezer. I don’t roast chickens or make soup often in the summer, but now that the autumn frost and cold and flu season has arrived, I’m pulling out those frozen bags and turning them into stock.

Sometimes there is a great deal of meat left on it and sometimes it is almost picked bare, which is really the only thing that determines whether I’m technically making stock or broth. Technically, stock is made with roasted and simmered bones, while broth is made with both bones and meat. In either case, the end result is a nutrient rich, immune boosting, culinary staple that can be used as a simple soup or as the base for soups, risotto, pasta, dumplings, and a wide variety of other recipes.

Here is the recipe for my simple chicken stock.

SIMPLE STOCK

You will need:

-Chicken Carcass

-1 Onion

-6 cloves Garlic

-1 Celery Heart

-1 bunch Green Onion

-1 Ginger Root

-1 tsp Apple Cider Vinegar

-1 tsp Salt

-1 tsp Pepper

I use a crock pot because it allows me to simmer the stock slowly and safely without being tied to the stove all day. In the crock pot I place a chicken carcass, generally frozen and straight out of the freezer. (Keep the gallon bag handy, you can use it again to store and freeze stock!)

Roughly chop 1 onion, 6 cloves of garlic, and 1 celery heart.

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Grate 1 knuckle of ginger root and slice green onions.

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Add to crock pot, along with 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp of salt, and 1 tsp of black pepper.

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Add water to 2 inches below top of crock pot. Bring to a boil and stir. Check intermittently for pieces of skin, which will rise to surface. Remove and discard. After boiling mixture for ½ hour, lower heat and simmer for an additional 4-6 hours. At this point, pour the mixture through a metal colander. Discard all of the solids and allow the liquid to cool.

Store in an airtight container. Homemade chicken stock will keep for several days in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the batch, I generally freeze some in freezer bags to use at a later date.

Stock serving suggestions: I like to drink broth for a light midday meal. I add red pepper flakes, thyme from my garden, and garlic powder. Some of my kids really enjoy homemade bread dipped into plain, heated chicken stock- but some of them will only eat chicken soup, which is another recipe for another day.

A Vagabond Song

In October I leave home, headed home. Seven hundred and forty one and a half miles lie between my yellow brick house on a hill in this city and the white farmhouse which still holds my roots and my heart. In October the leaves begin turn to flame and in the dark before the dawn I load my children into the van and set off, bound on a vagabond journey back to where I began.

As we drive across the green rolling hills of Ohio as they begin to turn golden, we read this poem:

There is something in the autumn that is native to my blood-

Touch of manner, hint of mood;

And my heart is like a rhyme,

With the yellow and the crimson and the purple keeping time.

 

The scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry

Of bugles going by.

And my lonely spirit thrills

To see the smoke of asters like a frost upon the hills.

 

There is something in October sets the gypsy blood astir;

We must rise and follow her,

When from every hill of flame

She calls and calls each vagabond by name.

-Carman Bliss 1861-1929

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Where the Wild Things Are

by Kate

Growing up, I was a wild child. All nine of us were fairly savage, often found barefoot in trees with uncombed hair, and it would be fair to say that we were a bit uncouth. My mother often said that her goal was to raise children who were free, and in that she most definitely succeeded. So have her free children, as they make their way into the world. Somehow the time we spent running wild though woods and pastures and the pages of a thousand books formed thoughtful, articulate, and hardworking adults.

I often think about raising free children, ideally with brushed and braided hair and decent table manners. So far, I am excelling at the freedom part, with a pretty spotty hair brushing record and a plan to implement better table manners very, very soon. My husband suggests that I learn some first, and I suspect he may be right.

Of course, unlike my parents, I do not live on a high ridge falling into a woods and a valley, with a huge willow sheltering a junkyard crick. I live in the heart of a city and glimpse skyscrapers through a canopy of branches. But I do live in a city of hills, ravines, and rivers, and when I have trouble breathing remembering the free feeling of running through the back pastures and hills of home, I head out to find the wildness hidden only minutes from my front door.

Outstretched arms and muddy hands and feet are not off limits for city children.

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And a river anywhere is full of wildness and cannot be tamed. Ours is a gift full of mystery and wonder- along with some industrial debris, Canadian geese, and pairs of hungry ducks.

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I am working out a theory that the most important thing is not living in the city or the country, but to open the eyes of your children to the wonder and the wildness of the world around them…

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wherever that might be.

For here we are, and here we shall remain, looking for the wild places and trying to tame the tangles in our hair.

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Frank’s House

by Kate

This is the story of a man named Frank, a man who was generous and gentle and kind and possessed an extraordinary collection of fine ties. This is Frank’s birthday week. Frank’s birthday fell just before St. Patrick’s Day. I always thought this fitting for this man who loved to celebrate life with good food and song and conversation, a man whose blue Polish eyes welled up with tears at the sound of an old ballad. Four years on St. Patrick’s Day I put my tiny baby Olympia in a sling and hauled my harp across the gravel driveway and up the steps into Frank’s home and played a private concert for him as a birthday present. He wasn’t well, had battled heart trouble and cancer and lung problems for years, but he cried at all the ballads and laughed at all my jokes and somehow from his battered leather armchair he made me feel like the much more important artists he had hosted in his early days, when he was a dashing young bachelor managing the Stanley Theater in downtown Pittsburgh, the theater that would later become the Benedum.

Frank and his wife Catherine loved Olympia. They married late in life, well into their 50’s and 60’s.They met when Catherine moved in with her aging mother two doors down from the home Frank had shared with his mother, and somehow Frank the eternal bachelor was finally induced to take the plunge into matrimony. Of course, they had no children of their own. We met Frank and Catherine in a miraculous manner just before Olympia was born. We were living in an apartment above a loud and smoky bar and our baby was due in two and a half months. A chance meeting led us to tour the house they had for rent just behind theirs, with two bedrooms and a washer and dryer and a huge yard with space for a garden and a clothesline. It was a perfect home for newlyweds and a new baby. The new baby was a great source of delight for Frank and Catherine, who were delighted to have the unexpected chance to act as Grandparents after all.

Olympia was a constant presence and joy for Frank in the last year and a half of his life, as his health declined. When he died, I stood with Catherine beside his bed, holding his hand. Olympia slept quietly in the sling while Frank’s wife and I sang Old Man River one more time, told stories, laughed a little and cried a little more as his life slipped away. It was a quiet passing and a peaceful one. A few days later Frank was buried on a high windy hill while a long bagpipe keened a haunting and beautiful lament, but his great generosity has remained a powerful force in our lives.

First of all, there are the ties. The hundreds of designer ties and finely woven, sharply cut collection of dress shirts and suit coats and overcoats too. At six five, my husband couldn’t quite fit into this finery, so at Catherine’s request, the bulk of his collection was delivered to the farmhouse at Sweet Ridge Farm and distributed there to all the men in the family, from my father down to my youngest brother James. These days, weddings, holidays, and formal gatherings of any sort guarantee that Frank’s finery will be sported by one if not all of the Slattery men.

For my family here in Pittsburgh, ties are the tip of the iceberg. Last August, Casey and I bought Frank’s house. For fifty years, Frank lived in a stately yellow brick house high up on a hill, overlooking the hundred year old trees of Arsenal Park and through them the glimmering skyline of downtown Pittsburgh and beyond that Mount Washington, the Incline, and the famous Bayer sign. It’s a beautiful house, but it had been cut up into apartments and after Frank’s devoted (and very business savvy) mother died, it was quite the bachelor pad. Frank lived on the second floor, and his devout and good tempered but untidy hoarder friend occupied the first in a dark, dingy warren full of dusty heaps of books and high unsteady piles of videocassettes, DVDs, and CDs.

Frank always wanted us to have his house. He thought it would be a perfect place to raise a family, something that for one reason or another had never happened in the hundred year history of the house. He loved the idea of Olympia growing up in his home, but when Casey and I stopped in to check the house out we were overwhelmed by the vast size of the place, the filth of the first floor, the pink tiles of the 1950 time capsule kitchen, the amount of money it would take to buy and renovate the house and the amount of work that needed to be done. Once and then twice we looked at Frank’s house, then literally ran down the hill to our safe, solid, 950 square foot apartment and there we stayed, perfectly content until the day suddenly arrived when our cozy little home seemed far too small for a growing family with a legacy of great height and wildly enthusiastic movements. After long months of conversation with Catherine and many requests for aid and counsel sent heavenward to Frank, we took a deep breath and worked out a deal to purchase Frank’s house.

This February in the icy wind and driving snow, exactly four years after moving into the perfect little house behind Frank and Catherine under the same conditions, we moved a block and a half up the street and into a different world. Frank’s house is a strong, sturdy, and stately home. It’s a lifetime kind of home- a place to settle into and live from.

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This house is a comfort and a joy, and I can’t express the gratitude I feel for the fact that we were able to move in here.

Both Casey and I believe that Frank was directly involved. I know that he would be glad that we are here- and in fact, Olympia has inherited his room and the antique bed his mother purchased for him long ago.

This is a hundred year old house, but instead of ghosts I believe it is full of the communion of saints. I am daily reminded that our stories continue long after we are gone, that death is not the end of life, and that love lives on beyond the grave.

Happy birthday, Frank. Thanks for giving us a new beginning.