Thursday, October 31, 2013

Angels in the Pumpkin Patch

     Halloween is tonight and I am happily anticipating at least two or three trick-or-treaters.  My lane is a quarter mile long and not many parents are willing to waste the time riding down it, if they can go to houses closer to the road and get more treats in less time.  How do I know that's how lots of parents feel?  It's because I was one of those tired parents not too long ago.  I had a love hate relationship with Halloween.
     Things I loved:  I loved how festive my little town looked with pumpkin faces glowing off of every front porch.  Pumpkins were pretty much all we had to decorate with back then.  I loved Ettie Mae's homemade popcorn balls.  We always made sure to get an extra one for Joe.  I loved walking up and down the streets with my kids and chatting with all of the other parents who were out scrunching through leaves under the Halloween moon.  I loved the creativity of costumes,and handing out candy and oohing and aahing about how clever  the kids had been.  I loved dinner with my neighbors before trick or treating and getting our rambunctious foursome of children ready for the night. I loved seeing the smiles on the faces of elderly people who were thrilled to welcome little ones to their doors.
    Things I dreaded:  I had a hard time getting costumes that I felt comfortable with and that the two boys in my household would wear.  Felt was my friend.  Green felt and hot glue for Robin Hood costumes, brown felt for leather-looking vests with cowboy hats, black felt for bat wings.
  But, I was working and finding the time to make these masterpieces was exhausting.  I also dreaded the houses for trick or treating that we had to drive to.  I would not have driven down my quarter mile long driveway. Finally, I dreaded how divided I felt about the whole thing.
    In my evangelistic community, Halloween divides a lot of us.  Some people make their houses dark and hide behind the curtains so they can avoid the appearance of embracing Halloween.  Some people make their houses scary and enjoy the night, but offend some of their neighbors in the process.  I am in the middle.  I love the camaraderie of a community out under the stars with their children.  I love the idea of a night where we can be a little scared and then go home to our safe, warm homes.  Juxtapositions often make things more meaningful.  But I don't want to celebrate evil, and sometimes I worry that Halloween does a little bit of evil permission to show its face and look fun.
   So, this year, I made angel cookies to hand out.  I hope my kind neighbors will bring their little ones to my door.  I will give them an angel cookie made from my grandmother's amazing sugar cookie recipe. Angels are messengers of hope and I want the recipients of my cookies to get a sense of that.  I want them to know that even when the world looks a little bit frightening, God's angels protect his people, watch over us and guard us.  Isn't that a great message for the scariest night of the year?
     How do you feel about it Halloween?  I would love some feedback.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Playing With the Professionals

     I have been a farm-wife for twenty-eight years and in the high pressure sport of livestock relocation I feel like I’m now qualified to play with the professionals.  I can block a bull, I can screen a sheep, and I can double team a determined calf.  I am my husband’s best female rookie, so when Joe was at work the other day and a call came in from a fellow interested in recruiting one of our rams, I volunteered to go down to the other farm and break it to the young buck that he was being traded.
     The ram was hanging out with his friends behind the farmhouse.  With a little help from an assistant, I brought all of the sheep into a huddle.  Game on!  I started shouting encouragement and making hand motions to transmit my intentions, but my star ram was more interested in his wooly female fan club than my frantic coaching.  Finally, we agreed on a fast break, and with a little pressure from the sidelines, the flock trotted down to the loading pens.  Then, I separated the buck out for the trade and asked the wooly cheerleaders to leave.  They departed, demonstrating a few high kicks on the way out.
     The buck showed his displeasure in losing his cheerleaders by intentionally fouling my assistant.   I moved him onto the sidelines, confining him in a narrow chute until he got his temper under control.  The cheerleaders, who were now three fences away, kept calling for him to be put baaaaa-ck in the game.  LeBron the Buck looked through the fences separating him from the girls and, with a six foot vertical leap from a standing position that would make any coach proud, he cleared it.  I shouted something that should have resulted in a technical foul as the buck took two running steps and cleared the second one. One fence remained.  Before I could react, LeBron soared over the last fence without touching the rim, and trotted out to the cheerleaders who welcomed him with a victory song…”Na, na, na, na.   Na, na, na, na.  Hay, hay, hay! Welcome Baaack.”
     The gentleman who was attempting to recruit LeBron promised to come back another day.  I nodded, but secretly thought that he might want to make a different trade.  No coach wants a player he can’t control.  But, the man did return and this time the pros, Joe and Justin, managed to pull off a win, controlling Le Bron the Buck until he was safely loaded.
   The next night, we got a phone call.  As soon as he was unloaded, LeBron demonstrated his vertical jump again, clearing a fence and loping to the goal: his new flock of wooly cheerleaders.  We understand that they were delighted to welcome him and since that’s what the big bucks are for, everyone is happy with the trade.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Tomayto, Tomahto

     The quirky weather had me despairing that I would ever see a ripe tomato in my garden.  Oh what little faith I had.  My tomatoes have produced in abundance.  I have spent the last 4 weeks canning pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, salsa, whole tomatoes, pickled hot peppers and green tomatoes, vegetable soup and tomato soup.  We have also eaten our green tomatoes fried and our big yellow slicers on home-made bread.  The definition of tomato heaven is in my garden.
     What are pickled hot peppers and green tomatoes you ask?  Check out Singing in the Kitchen for a recipe that's sure to please anyone who likes a little jarred heat in the winter.

This bowl full of tomatoes was one of three that I washed and prepped for soup.

This is my recipe for tomato soup.  As you can see, it's been used many times.

I couldn't resist including this picture because the soup is cooking in my shiny new stock pot.  I spent 20 years burning tomatoes and apples on my stove before I realized that maybe I needed a pot with a heavier bottom.  (I'm obviously a slow learner)  Oh what joy to cook in a pot that bubbles without burning.

Not a great photo, but I was rushing because the crackers were dissolving.  Soup anyone?

The chickens get the leftover skins and seeds.

There are still so many tomatoes left, that I am contemplating ring and run tomatoes.  Don't be surprised if you hear a knock and open your door to find a box full lurking on your front porch.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Short Corn Thief

      When I was in elementary school, I spent a few weeks each summer on my grandparents' farm.   My grandfather was a peanut farmer, but he also grew butter beans, cucumbers,strawberries, asparagus, squash and tomatoes. Early each morning, we took our baskets to the garden and picked things.  Then we would move to the shade behind the farmhouse and, while the cicadas sang  in the trees, shell or slice or peel what would soon be lunch. Ten minutes before it was time to eat,  Papa would tell my Nana to get the pot ready, and then we’d head into the garden again and pull just enough corn for one meal.  We would shuck as we picked and then tote it to the house to drop in boiling water for exactly seven minutes.  I loved sopping up the pot likker from the ham and butter beans with Nana's cloverleaf rolls, but I always made sure to leave room for two ears of corn.  Slathered in butter and sprinkled with salt, it was better than dessert.
     That is why I am such a corn snob now.  Corn is best eaten within an hour of picking.  Every year, Joe and I  plant at least three rows in our garden.  We usually choose our varieties based on their days to maturity so we can eat corn all summer long.  The types that take only sixty-three days from seed to table don’t grow very tall, and last summer we noticed these shorter stalks were being pulled down and the ears opened and stripped just as they ripened.  I chalked our corn losses up to groundhogs or raccoons. In previous years our dogs had patrolled the pastures, but our new puppy, Luke, wasn't old enough to chase critters out of the garden.
      This summer, it happened again.  Just as we were ready to pull the ears, our short corn began disappearing, so Joe set a live trap. Apparently our corn thief was slipping under Luke's nose.  For a week, the trap was empty and the stalks continued to topple.  Then one day, I rounded the corner and caught the corn thief in the act.  It was Luke. 
     He’s a beagle, which makes him just tall enough to grab the ears from the short stalks and pull them off, toppling the stalk in the process.  Then he places the corn between his paws and rip, rip, zip… shucks it with his mouth.  When I caught him, he grinned at me and wagged his tail.  He had corn between his teeth and a cob between his paws.  He doesn’t bother the tall corn.  I’m not sure he even realizes it has ears.  And he does a great job of keeping all other varmints besides himself out of the garden.  I often hear him at night barking to warn the deer and coons away. I figure he's so good at guarding because he wants all that corn for himself.   So, next year I think I will plant a row of short corn just for Luke as payment for a job well done. Maybe I’ll even treat him to some melted butter and salt. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Getting My Hair Done

The humidity of this summer has made my wavy hair look like a dust bunny on steroids, so the other day I made an appointment for a cut and color. The addition of chemicals to my locks sometimes tames the frizzies.

My hairdresser lives on the other side of the county, and her little shop is a popular hangout spot, so a haircut is always an opportunity to chat with people I haven’t seen in a while.  Plus, the drive over is gorgeous.  When I pulled up to the gate, Carla’s big brown dog was the first to greet me, wagging his tail and barking hello. The shop was empty for the moment, so we got right to business.  Rather than having my hair completely colored, I opted for highlights.  We settled on gold and red.  Carla tugged a tan highlighting bonnet over my head and tied it tightly between my chins. It resembled an aviator’s cap and with the addition of a set of goggles, I could have been mistaken for a plump Amelia Earhart.  Then she proceeded to jab a dangerous looking hook through each of the dots on the cap and twist until she had fished out a strand or two of my curls.  Within twenty minutes, tufts of my hair were sprouting randomly out of the shiny plastic bonnet and I looked like a balding clown with a bad comb-over.  Although I missed the usual chatter and gossip of other customers, I was glad that Carla and I were the only ones in the shop.

Just as Carla tugged the last strand through, two of my former male students walked in.  One of them was the hairdresser’s son, so maybe he was used to seeing middle-aged women disguised as clowns.  The other was just naturally polite. Neither of them snickered or made me feel the least bit self-conscious about my bonneted head full of bushy tufts or the strap accentuating my two chins.  Instead, we gabbed a bit about farming and karaoke and then they left.

Five minutes later, another former student, Kayla, came in.  She settled into the chair by the sink and watched as Carla applied the caustic chemicals to my hair.  We chatted about weddings and babies until the timer rang for my rinse.   Kayla leaned in to inspect the tufts.  “I don’t think it did anything,” she said.  Carla rinsed and rubbed and patted and agreed.  “Shoot,” she said, “It must have been too dark.”  Then, she disappeared into the back of the shop and when she reappeared she was carrying a large white jar, a bowl and a brush.  She mixed another magic potion and painted it onto my limp locks.

 “Have you ever melted anybody’s hair?” I asked nervously.  Kayla laughed and Carla kept on painting and rubbing.  Then she set the timer again.  I watched my head in the mirror.  Was anything happening up there?  Kayla and Carla studied it, as well.  “I think it’s lifting now,” Kayla finally said.  Apparently lifting is a good thing, because five minutes later I was at the sink for my second rinse.

After the rinse, my hair still looked dark, but Carla pulled out her hair dryer and a big round brush and before long, I could see it, too.  Coppery highlights shimmering in the shop lights.  “Oh my gosh,” Carla gushed, “you look twenty years younger.”  I turned this way and that inspecting my new gingery do.  Carla had brushed it to a silky shine and it slid seductively around my face.  I grinned all the way to my car. 

But, wavy hair is stubborn.  By the time I got home my hair was no longer silky and shiny.  The humidity had conquered the color.  My hair cut was cute and coppery, but now I looked like a fox-colored fuzz ball. 

No matter. Next time I see Kayla she’ll probably ooh and aah and make me feel like a queen.  After all, she had a hand in my transformation.  Besides, around here a haircut and color is just another bonding experience.  I’m sure we’ll be doing it again, soon.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Polishing the Family Jewels

     I have been polishing my jewels today.  First, I buffed my eggs to a pearly shine.  They come from chickens Joe and I picked up together from a hatchery in Harrisonburg.  It is run by an 80 year old man who told us that he will end his poultry production this year.  His children have no interest in continuing the farming tradition and his land is coveted by a developer who is willing to pay a premium for it.   Joe and I have been visiting with him at least once a year for the past eight years.  It makes me sad to think of another family farm disappearing. 
     The eggs also remind me of trips we have taken to the poultry fair.  Hen hawkers of all sizes, shapes and nationalities gather in a large parking lot on the edge of town once every six weeks to talk turkey or duck or chicken and swap and sell their feathered friends.  When we replenish our egg layers, Joe and I often gather the older girls and take them over the mountains to the gravel lot and try to get a couple of dollars for them.  We find that, unless there’s an Indian, Russian or Mexican looking for a good meal, most of them go to backyard producers who seem to have a bit of an avian addiction.  It makes me happy to think of our girls living out the rest of their lives like somebody's family friends.
     After the eggs, I polished the jars of peaches I canned yesterday.  They remind me of the many trips Joe and I have taken to the orchards dotting the northern half of the Shenandoah Valley.  These peaches came from Turkey Knob which is a huge fruit packing operation just past Broadway with warehouses three stories high.  We’ve also bought fruit from a delightful Mennonite family who gave us a taste of the homemade potato chips they were frying in a black iron kettle outside the apple shed and from a small family farm tucked at the foot of North Mountain. Joe and I got lost on the way home and saw some amazing scenery.

     I can’t wear my peaches on my fingers and eggs would look silly dangling from my ears, but  I treasure the memories that they brought as I polished them. What are your jewels?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Just Another Beagle

At first he was just another rabbit beagle.  He hunted with our other beagle on warm winter afternoons and we followed him across ridges and brushy fields.  He had a great nose, but no perseverance so he might  be the first to find a trail, but he lost interest in it long before the other dogs. 
 Then he became the chicken-chasing dog and had to spend a lot of time on the chain-of-shame, tied to his dog house.  He might not have been able to maintain an interest in rabbits, but chickens were easy to catch.  He developed a taste for bloody raw meals coated in feathers, sometimes killing three chickens a week,  and we discussed giving him away.  As a last resort, Justin suggested I try using a shock collar, so the following Saturday, I cinched it onto the dog’s neck and adjusted the charge to high.  I spent the afternoon like a super spy, hiding  behind outbuildings and watching the chicken-chaser ease his way around the barnyard. He was a practiced assassin. First, he walked into the group of hens, wagging his tail , then he would lie down, head between his paws.  Hens are naturally curious and have brains the size of a pea, so eventually one would peck her way over to check him out. When she came close, he sprang up.  For two or three hours, the chickens and dog played tag, but he couldn’t catch one. I never pressed the button, because I had this feeling that the dog needed to actually have a chicken in his mouth when he felt pain.  I wanted him to believe it came directly from the chicken. 

Then, he snuck around the back of the hen house.  I was sitting behind a tree and couldn’t see him, but I heard the unmistakable sound of a chicken in distress.  I pressed the button and held it down for three seconds.  The beagle yelped five or six times and then I saw him tearing, tail between his legs, around the henhouse.  He stopped about fifty yards out and looked back.  I could read his thoughts on his face.  “Holy Crap!  Chickens hurt!”

That was the end of his chicken-chasing days.  He became my faithful companion.  When I lost Gus, I thought I could never love another dog.  I really didn’t want to risk it.  But, Luke has a goofy grin and an ear that flips inside out when he runs.  He yips and sings in a high falsetto whenever he sees me coming.  He catches crackers and popcorn in mid-air, sits when asked and will lie down and roll over to have his belly rubbed.  He has pogo stick legs, jumping as high as my shoulders every night as I walk out to feed him.  He’s never met a stranger: dog, cat or human.  Luke loves life and I love him. 

It’s funny how when one dog leaves our lives, another can come along and bring us joy again.  I loved Ruff and when he died, Gus became my dearest dog friend.  Then Gus disappeared and I grieved for so long, refusing to let Luke charm his way into my heart.  But dogs are meant for humans and we are meant for dogs.  Luke is now my constant companion.  Loyal, happy, goofy, and grand.  I am thankful he ignored my disinterest and reminded me of the joy of a doggy friend.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hay Time

After a month of gloomy weather and gloomy farmers the skies are blue and the sun is hot.  When I took my walk this morning, I could hear it.  Above the warble of red wings and the buzz of dragon flies, there was a faint thunking.  A rumble of wheels, a squeaking of grease-hungry gears.  And I’m sure I heard the farmers laughing as they bumped around their meadows on big tractors cutting swathes through the grass, raking it into thatchy ribbons and gathering it into bales.  Sweaty smiles and dusty grins are back.  It’s hay time in Highland.
My very first summer in the mountains, a young farmer agreed to let me ride on his hay wagon and help with the harvest.  I should have noticed his devilish grin as he advised me to wear shorts and a sleeveless top for the hot work.  I showed up to his fields dressed in my shortest shorts and a white tank top.  I did at least have sense enough to wear tennis shoes instead of flip flops.  When I got to the field, he directed me to a long wagon and handed me a dangerous looking hook.  “Use this to pull the bales out,” he said mysteriously before jumping up on the tractor.  “Saul will show you how.”  The wagon lurched forward and I almost fell on top of my hook as my friend put the baler in gear.  Ka- chunk, ka- thunk, ka -chunk, ka -thunk….square bales started crowding their way up the chute.  Saul showed me how to hook one and drag it over the edge and then grab a string with my other hand before tossing the fifty pound bale back to him.  He stacked the bales, five to a layer, six bales high as we circled the field.
Each bale that I pulled out rubbed against my bare arms and bare legs.  Within an hour I was polka dotted with hay pricks.  Sweat dribbled down my chest into the low cut top I had chosen and every itchy bit of grass that came loose from the bales stuck in a place I couldn’t gracefully reach.  We rode around that field for five hours, filling wagon after wagon.  Every once in a while my friend looked back at me and grinned.  “Having a good time?” he shouted over the roar of the tractor.  I was exhausted, wringing wet, itchy all over, and my hands were raw.  To top it off, my bra and tennis shoes were both overflowing with hay chaff.  “Just dandy!”  I called back. So, we kept on circling what had to be the largest hay field in Highland County.  Finally, the last bale was stacked.

That night, at his mother’s dinner table which was piled high with good food, I fell asleep in my plate.

When Joe and I got married, I started riding the wagons with him.  His dad, who’d had a stroke, could still drive a tractor, so Joe and I stacked hay.  In my long pants, high-necked shirt and gloves, I grew to love hay season. I learned to toss bales without rubbing them against my arms and to stack bales above my head.  I loved watching the swallows dip and dive catching the rising insects and listening to the rhythmic, thumping music of the baler. 
Now, like most farmers in the county, we round-bale most of our hay.  It’s faster and requires less labor, but we still square-bale enough to feed to our sheep, and second cutting is always square-baled.  Although our two grown boys and my husband can handle most of it now every once in a while I get a yen to ride the wagons once again. So, I put on my long pants and gloves and cross the fields.  Joe pulls me up and we bounce around the field stacking, laughing and sweating.  It's hay time in Highland and we are grinning dusty grins once again.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Since I was five years old, my routine has included buying school clothes and supplies in the fall, anticipating Christmas break, praying for snow, and counting the days until school ended.  First as a student and then as a teacher.  Now I am retiring.

What I will miss most is the energy that being with young people generates.  Their complete engagement in the life they are living.  Their smiles, their tears, their laughter, their ah-hahs!  It's been such a privilege to share in my students' whimsical, unpredictable growth.  So, considering whether to retire from something I love so much soaked up much thought and prayer time.
In three days, I will no longer have a classroom.  I’ve always believed that everything has a season and I’ve had this feeling for a while that my season of daily teaching was drawing to a close.  I don’t know what God has in store for me as I move into the next phase of my life.  I know I would like to be a published children’s author.  I don’t want to be self-published, I want an agent and a publishing contract and I am very aware of what a difficult dream that will be to achieve.  There's a greater than average chance that I will fail.  But, I could succeed.   So, I am stepping off of the structured platform of predictable  chunks of time regulated by bells and lessons into the thin air of unstructured time and days marked only by the rising and setting of the sun.   Thank goodness I practiced all of this letting go when I went zip-lining with my sister.  When I talked to her about retirement, she counseled me that whatever I choose to do,  I should do  it with gusto.  She's right, so here I go. Geronimo!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Feeding Time on the Farm

Where are the peepers?  Usually this time of year is “looking forward to spring” time because I’ve heard the peepers and seen the robins and red-winged blackbirds.  But, spring seems to be on vacation.  Perhaps she’s stuck on one of the Carnival Cruise ships.  Instead of peepers and robins, we have sleet and snow.  That means that we are still spending a lot of time feeding cows.
 So what does all this feeding entail?  Well, when Joe is feeding round bales he just lifts them with the tractor forks and loads them onto the truck.  But, when he’s trying to clean some square bales out of the barn, he lifts and loads his wife.
 My age has made getting into the bed of the truck more complicated than it used to be.  I grab my right knee with both hands and lift.  It takes three or four tries before I am successful in planting my foot on the bumper.  I bounce a few times,but  I can’t pull myself up , so Joe helps me by placing a hand under my rear and lifting.  In our early days, I would have considered this move flirty, but now I just consider it necessary. Then, it’s my turn to give him a hand up so he can climb into the mow and begin throwing hay down into the truck bed.  The bales hit the truck with a thud and I make sure I’m out of the way.  Not because I don’t want to be hit, but because this barn sheltered a very large group of cats this winter.  Each bale that bounces down brings a shower of dried cat poop. 
On our second load, I threw the bales down so Joe could dodge cat poop!

There’s an art to placing the bales so that they will stay on as we rattle over the frozen ruts.  This is a time when my age is an advantage.  I’ve done this enough to know the pattern and I’ve also learned how to use the physics of leverage and momentum to get the bales onto the top stack.  Finally, the truck is loaded and I crawl off the back, open the gate, and climb back up into the bed.  Joe puts the truck into low gear and I get ready to cut strings and scatter bales. 
Thirty bales loaded and ready to be fed.
The steers hear the truck and come running.   I love this part.  We inch along and the bales fall with a soft swish to the ground, making a road of hay. 
Dropping hay for hungry cows


 When we finish, we head back to the barn to load up again for the next field, where we keep our cows and calves.  Joe counts heads as he drives along and discovers that a calf is missing, so when all the bales have been dropped, we drive across the river and scan the fields.  The calf is hidden among some brush and dried grass.  Joe positions the truck so the calf can’t see him sneaking up.  With tagger and bander in hand, he captures the little bull baby and gives him a new numbered  earring and a band on his little balls. 
Mama cow, who is two fields away, hears his loud cry and comes running.  Her udders bounce and sway as she gallops across the frozen field.  By the time she reaches us, it’s all over and Joe  has released the calf.  In his hurry to get back to mom, the calf sticks his head through the fence rather than going around, so Joe has to free him and lift him over.  No wonder my husband has some back issues.

     Now that the cows have their supper, it’s time for us to get ours.  We turn and head for home.  As I look back, the baby bull is getting his supper, too.