Peonies help remember and honor

The peonies are slightly behind schedule for Memorial Day. I worry about such things, not because I want to, but because I have to. It’s part of my heritage. For years, women in my family have monitored peonies like Patton monitored the troops, but without the swearing.

My peony bushes came from my mother’s peony bushes, and her bushes came from her mother’s bushes. I remember when my mother dug up some of her peonies, wrapped them in newspaper, and helped cram them in our mini-van so we could drive them 500 miles to our home. It wasn’t, “Would you like some peony bushes?” It was, “Here are your peony bushes.”

In my mother’s eyes, a woman who lived in a house with a yard and didn’t have peony bushes was a mere girl pretending to be a woman. So we brought home the peony bushes and planted them. Now, every May, I engage in the time-honored tradition of monitoring them to see if they will be ready for Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it was once called, just like my mother and grandmother used to do.

If the peonies didn’t look like they would be ready by Memorial Day, a fervor came over my mother. It was not unlike the fervor with which the troops took Normandy. If the peonies weren’t in bloom, she would cut them by the bushels, haul them into the basement, and place them in old coffee cans, buckets and tubs full of warm water, and order them to bloom.

While we often made the cemetery rounds to decorate the graves of loved ones, we never lost site of the fact that Memorial Day was really to honor fallen soldiers. The true observance of the day was never far from my father’s mind, as he lost one of his brothers during World War II.

I always flinched whenever my dad’s brother’s name was spoken. I flinched because I knew the loss caused my father and everyone in his family unspeakable pain.

I still flinch, not just at the memory of one fallen soldier, but at the many. I flinch because each and every day I enjoy a bounty of freedoms made possible by thousands upon thousands I will never know, and can never thank. They gave up the comforts I blithely presume upon: home and family, shelter and safety, and the expectation of more years to come. They lost their claim to such wonderful things when they laid it all down.

They may be gone, but they are not forgotten. They are the knot in the throat when the flag passes by. They are the invisible sentry protecting the media and the flow of information on the web. They stand behind every voting booth and political gathering.They are the gust of wind that helps open the door to every house of worship. They are on the horizon at every rendition of Taps and at every graveside presentation of a folded flag.

We can thank those who sacrificed by remembering. We can honor them by being vigilant to insure that the battles they waged to protect freedom and liberty are never lost.

Stumbling over the Great (taste) Divide

I dread being the bearer of bad news, especially in an uncertain economy, questionable employment gains and high allergen levels, but here it goes: Jell-O salad is dead.

I know, I know. I was as shaken as you are. I only recently realized this myself, which is why I wanted to be the first to tell you.

It all started when I made a Jell-O salad for Easter simply because my mother used to make it and her mother used to make it. It’s a lemon Jell-O with pineapple and bananas. The leftover pineapple juice is used to make a pudding layer for the top, which is then finished with a flourish of grated cheddar.

Our new son-in-law looked at the salad, asked what was in it, then polished off a piece. He said, “You know, that was strange, but good.” It was a smart summary on his part, especially since he is new to the family and has not yet passed his probation period.

I mentioned the strange but good Jell-O salad incident to a walking buddy and she concurred that gelatin salad has fallen from favor. It also reminded her of her favorite Jell-O salad, which she had not made in some time, a strawberry pretzel Jell-O salad. She basically said it is to die for. I cannot imagine dying for Jell-O salad, but she promptly whipped one up, brought it over, and I am reconsidering my previous stance.

There was a time when a Sunday dinner, pitch-in, picnic in the park or holiday gathering wasn’t complete without a Jell-O salad. My mother had an entire cookbook of gelatin salads. Perhaps Jell-O began falling from favor when women began putting stranger and stranger ingredients in it — carrots, cabbage, beets, green olives, Coke, ham, mayonnaise and corn. The yum factor took a nose dive.

I recently read a post by a food blogger who described herself as someone who “hates canned soup and Jell-O.” Yes dear, but you don’t have to get testy about it. Perhaps someone needs a little chocolate? She probably hates that, too.

In any case, meek and wobbly Jell-O may be joining the divisive food group. This is the food group that parts people like the Mason-Dixon line once did and like Barry Manilow still does. These are foods you love or detest with no in between. Mint: love it or hate it. Grapefruit: love it or hate it. Coconut is another that divides. You either love it or it tastes like hair. Sweet potatoes used to be an all-in or all-out, but they’ve been so touted lately that everybody is eating them, even people who used to gag at the sight of them.

Jell-O resurged for a time as jigglers and is still popular in some institutions of higher learning as a drinking game, but it would seem that the Jell-O salad in particular has faded from favor.

Then again, maybe I am wrong. Maybe the Jell-O salad isn’t dead. If it is dead though, this is what they should engrave on the headstone. “Strange, but good.”

Gift sweeps mom off her feet

I received a great Mother’s Day gift last year. We were just about to cut into a beautiful cake topped with mounds of fresh strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, when our son rounded the corner into the kitchen. He looked at me with a straight face, said, “Happy Mother’s Day,” and handed me an old brown dustpan that has to be at least 45 years old.

A gift nothing, it was more like a reunion. I was ecstatic. For years, I wondered whatever happened to that dustpan. I should have known.

When I left home for my first job after college, I took the brown dust pan that had stood alongside a broom in my parents’ basement for years. I think I had permission to take it, but I don’t remember for sure. It could have been a gift, or it could have been a theft.

It was the best dustpan ever. It wasn’t flimsy, thin, breakable plastic. It wasn’t metal, the sort that gets bent in the middle, snarly on the edges and scratches the floor. This dust pan was indestructible, a sturdy thick plastic like professional maintenance workers use.

That dustpan crossed the country with me, from job to job, apartment to apartment, into a marriage followed by three kids, from the Northern Plains to the Pacific Northwest and back to the Midwest.

When our son left home after college, he took the dust pan with him. No one seems to remember if it was a gift or a theft.

From time to time I would look for that old dustpan, cleaning out the garage, sweeping up potting soil or broken glass, and wonder where it went. We bought one of those nifty rechargeable dust busters, and cheap plastic dustpans, but that old dustpan was always my initial go-to. It was an odd piece of personal history, somehow representing the home I came from; sturdy, reliable, organized and clean.

That the dustpan came back to me on Mother’s Day was symbolic of the day itself.

A mother’s heart needs to be like that dustpan — mostly sturdy, pliable but not breakable, willing to serve, sweep up the broken pieces and play a part in starting fresh. A mother offers her heart as a gift, but sometimes it feels more like a theft.

Every mother’s heart longs to see a part of what she gave, or what was taken, take root and bloom. Every mother hopes that at least a few of the things she said or did, the habits she cultivated, and the truths she lived, somehow stuck.

It can be as simple as hearing, “I learned that from you,” or “I always remember you saying.” Sometimes the wait is short; sometimes the wait is long.

Sometimes it flies beneath the radar in a quiet understanding, something as simple as your son knowing you well enough to know that an old dustpan will delight you on Mother’ Day.

That said, a mother does not give her heart waiting for thanks. A mother gives of herself because investing in another human being is a noble act of service, the right thing to do, and a messy but marvelous work of art.