Some family traditions come with a tail

The mice are back.

No, not that kind, the chocolate shortbread kind. You roll a small ball of dough, shape it like the body of a teeny tiny mouse, pinch out two teeny tiny ears on each side, place two teeny tiny miniature chocolate chips for eyes, bake them, remove them from the oven and carefully insert teeny tiny strings of licorice for tails.

And then you lose your teeny tiny mind.

I’ve made them for years. Then, a few years ago, someone said she never really cared for them. That was essentially a declaration of war in my book, but I got over it because we are related by blood.

I quit making the mice. Hey, the mice and I don’t need a rat trap to know when we’re not wanted.
This morning I had an email asking if I would be making the mice. It was from one of the kids (and yes, she’s my favorite right now) who enjoyed the mice and wants her little ones to enjoy them, too.

I hereby sanction the chocolate mice as official family tradition.

It has occurred to me that many family traditions are born of accident as much as they are of intentionality.

I can’t let go of the story about a woman whose husband asked why she always cut the end of the ham off before she baked it. She retorted, “Because that’s how my mother did it!”

One day she asked her mother why she always cut the end of the ham off and her mother said, “Because I never had a pan large enough for the whole ham.”

The one unnegotiable tradition of Thanksgiving is the turkey because it was what the pilgrims ate. Of course, they had fish, too. Fish and fowl. Some holidays, when I’m wrestling the big bird, I dream of whipping up to the corner Fish and Chicken and returning with a big bucket—fish and fowl, just like the Pilgrims. The gesture would not be warmly received, so I continue a second round with the big bird.

A friend had a tradition of making Sloppy Joes every Halloween using a recipe her mother had used. There’s no tie between Sloppy Joes and Halloween, but it was a tradition that became part of their family.

My mother-in-law had a holiday tradition of making sweet potatoes in her electric skillet. A stick of butter, mountains of brown sugar—it was decadent. And delicious. I would continue her tradition, but who has an electric skillet?

My mother, her mother and all my mother’s sisters always made Waldorf salad for holiday dinners. If I asked our brood if they’d like Waldorf salad, they would answer in unison, “Huh?”

I suppose that’s my fault. I let the tradition slip.

Family traditions are reminders of who we are, the tables we came from and ties to those who have gone before.

I’m suddenly hungry for Waldorf salad.

The Sock Slider should have been mine

I’ve come up with a fair number of inventions in my time, but most of the things I’ve wanted to invent have already been invented by someone else.

The antibacterial wipes you pull out of a canister one at a time to wipe down countertops and door handles? My idea. Clorox beat me to it. By about three years.

Frozen yogurt? That was mine, too. I was freezing yogurt in high school and pretending it was ice cream. But it froze like granite and was nearly impossible to chip off a bite to eat. Eventually scientists invented a process to keep frozen yogurt smooth and creamy. I like to think I was in on the ground floor.

Press’n Seal was mine, too. I remember standing in the kitchen one day thinking, “What if you crossed wax paper with plastic wrap?” Then I went to the store and there it was.

When Facebook dawned, our son registered his dog, Max, for an account. Max immediately got 20 furry friends. I toyed with launching Pawbook. I never got around to it. Just as well. I’d be tangled in lawsuits with Mark Zuckerberg and defending Marmaduke from accusations of fake news posts.

All of which brings me to the Sock Slider. Have you seen it? Oh my.

The Sock Slider is one of those As Seen on TV wonders. It is a small, blue plastic contraption that you stretch a sock over and then slide in your foot.

I’ve been beating myself up for days over the Sock Slider.  It so should have been mine.

“Why?” you ask.

Because anyone who has ever engaged in battle with a pair of tights or pantyhose should have envisioned the Sock Slider.

What woman can’t count the number of near-death experiences she’s had trying to put on pantyhose? There you are, stretching an elastic waistband made with incredible built-in resistance, holding it taut, while attempting to scrunch up the legs of tights or pantyhose, standing on one leg, poising the other leg for insertion when ZAP! You lose control of the waistband. It zings back on you and catapults you onto your backside.

If someone already patented a Sock Slider, you can be sure the Pantyhose Slider isn’t far behind.

I’m not happy with my invention record to date, but I’m not out of the game yet. I have more ideas in the works.

How about a purse that lights up on the inside when you open it? Genius, right? No more digging in the dark. You can see to the bottom of your handbag.

OK, one more. The outdoor mat that cleans the bottom of your shoes. It’s like a wet jet Swiffer or an upside down Bona mop. You step on the mat; your weight triggers a mist beneath your shoes. Then you wipe your shoes dry on the textured (machine washable) upper half of the mat and enter the house with clean shoes.

Call me, Shark Tank.

I know, I know. I’m keeping my day job.



Open-concept kitchen can cost a cook big-time

I find myself wanting to shout at the television these days. Not at the news shows—they do their own shouting—but at the home and garden shows.

These open concept kitchen floor plans are a huge mistake. You see the homeowner running about chattering how wonderful it will be to have friends and family in her new open kitchen while she prepares a meal. What you don’t see is the homeowner running about looking for bandages because she sliced her thumb along with the carrots because friends and family are gathered in the kitchen while she prepares a meal.

Surely, I’m not the only one who can’t talk and cook at the same time. I listen to someone tell a riveting story, lose focus and overdo the paprika. By a half a cup.

I try to be a polite listener, making occasional eye contact while I cook, and shave two knuckles in the cheese grater.

Thankfully, we only have a semi-open kitchen. There are two doors to the kitchen, one of which can be closed completely. The other is a large open doorway, but I can barricade it with a piano bench and two chairs if the need arises.

Since it’s only a matter of time before I injure myself with a carving knife or zester, I’ve dictated that anybody who isn’t actively involved in food prep must stay on the other side of the peninsula. Nobody gets in my Bermuda Triangle (the triangle of workspace between the ‘fridge, stove and sink).

To those of you considering knocking down a wall to open up a kitchen that has been separate from the rest of the house, think twice about the benefits of working in seclusion:

When you have a kitchen that is somewhat set off from the rest of the house, the rest of the house doesn’t smell like garlic. Or stir-fry.

When you have a kitchen set off from the rest of the house, you can still sweetly say to your spouse, “May I have a word with you in the kitchen?” When your kitchen is a major gathering space you have to say, “May I have a word with you in the garage?” Trust me, this raises eyebrows.

When you have privacy in the kitchen, you can lick the spatula, test taste all you want and let the dirty dishes tower in the sink.

When you have privacy in the kitchen, you don’t have to dive below a counter or into a cabinet so the kids don’t see you popping a cookie or a cracker into your mouth.

You can even pretend to knock your head against the counter to relieve frustration and no one will call a family meeting because no one will see you do it.

One final word for those of you still uncertain of the value of a semi-closed kitchen.

Your own stash of chocolate.

Cloudy with a chance of s’mores

There is an underlying assumption that you will have good weather whenever you plan a trip. The good weather assumption is right up there with other ridiculous underlying assumptions, like nobody will get sick, you won’t have car trouble and the kids will get along beautifully.

We planned a weekend trip with 12 family members to enjoy the loveliness of fall at a rented lake house based on the aforementioned assumptions with good weather chief among them.

A month out, the long-range forecast said 65 for the high and 52 for the low. Perfect sweater weather.

Three weeks out, the temperature forecast began warming to the mid-70s. Ditch the sweaters.

Fifteen days out, the forecast on my weather app replaced all the sun icons with clouds and raindrops. Find the rain parkas.

Two days out and there was a 90 percent chance of rain. Seven small children in a house in the woods with nothing but rain. Whose idea was this, anyway?

I ripped open my suitcase, began pulling out clothes and throwing in construction paper, scissors, pipe cleaners, glue sticks and washable markers.

The day before we took off, the forecast changed from a 90 percent chance of rain.

To 100 percent.

I ripped open my suitcase again. If the hair dryer and cosmetics went, I could wedge in a hot glue gun, ball of twine, wood slabs and a wood burner. We were going to have fun even if Grandma’s hair looked scary and she didn’t smell so great.

We arrived at our destination with threatening clouds but no rain.

“To the beach! Run, kids, run!” someone yelled.

Everyone sprinted. Kids jumped in small waves, threw sticks and rocks and got their shoes and pants soaking wet.

Then the rain came. “To the house! Run!” someone yelled.

So it went. “To the beach!” “To the house!” “To the beach!”

During the Saturday afternoon lull in the rain, we sprinted to the beach, lit a fire, roasted marshmallows, squished them between graham crackers with squares of chocolates and gulped down s’mores as the sky turned a threatening steel blue. The wind kicked up, the rain commenced and it was back to the house.

The storm raged, bending trees and whipping branches. The lights in the house began to flicker, the wind lashed and the waves from the lake roared. We all pasted our noses to the windows and agreed it was way better than watching the Weather Channel. We would have stayed with our noses to the windows, but it is hard to eat lasagna standing up.

We played board games, tinkered on musical instruments, sang off-key and slept that night to the sound of rain pelting the house and waves roaring along the shore.

Morning came softly with the moon high in the sky and a swatch of pink low on the horizon. Day broke and, as if on cue, two bald eagles soared overhead. We loaded the cars and pulled away leaving blue skies without a cloud in sight behind.

We don’t always get what we want, but sometimes that is entirely enjoyable, too.


We share toothpaste and kids, but not a suitcase

I used to routinely pack for the husband whenever we went out of town, but a few years back I stopped. I can’t remember the exact circumstances. I suspect it was a combination of time shortage on my part and a preference for waiting until the last minute to pack on his part.

In any case, since we initiated the “Everybody Count Out Your Own Socks Policy,” it has become increasingly apparent that we have very different approaches when it comes to packing.

When we first started packing separately, I wondered what sort of random, haphazard packing method he might use. When I witnessed him packing methodically, carefully and neatly, I wondered if perhaps I was indispensable. And then he tossed in hard cover books, newspapers and heavy dress shoes on top of his neatly folded clothes. So maybe I was still indispensable.

Mathematically, our split packing should have meant going from one suitcase to two. It did not. I take two bags for his every one. I long to be one of those people who “travel light,” packing only three articles of clothing and turning them into 15 different outfits, but it is not in the stars. Or the luggage.

I tend to pack for every conceivable weather condition (heat wave, torrential rain, drought, hail, hard freeze, blizzard), while he packs like an optimist who assumes the weather will be sunny and 72 regardless of the destination or season.

His modus operandi for packing is “Have khakis, will travel.”

Let it also be noted, the man doesn’t do “outfits.” He is of the mindset that everything he has goes with everything else he has. Why argue at this stage of the game?

I’d be concerned if I saw him laying out shirts and pants on the bed, seeing what goes together for hours at a time the way I have been known to do. He appears to put little thought into packing, but always looks put together.

The greatest difference in our packing revolves around shoes, which is currently running at a 4:1 ratio in my favor. What can I say? I have needy feet.

We also differ in that I will start packing days before we leave, while he often packs the morning of, based on the motto: “What’s the big deal?”

It turns out I come with a lot of baggage. Literally. Meanwhile, he has successfully become the minimalist that I always wanted to be. He’s gone from packing one medium suitcase to a carry-on bag, to a business overnight bag that wouldn’t even hold my hair appliances.

We recently returned from a weekend trip and I asked if he had unpacked, as I was going to start laundry.

“I brought in the clothes I took on hangers,” he said. “I just need to unpack a few things I stuffed in my camera bag.”

Is there anything more annoying than someone else’s success?



Lives of trees intertwine with family

It took seven strong men in four big trucks little more than three hours to take down 30 years of history.

Two 80-foot white pines bit the dust. Or the grass in the backyard in this case.

Bark beetles had taken their toll on our once-lovely towering pines. The beetles leave pinholes in the bark and mounds of sawdust at the base of the tree to let you know they’re hard at work. If you’re ever driving along and see a row of pines looking deep fried, extra crisp, or an entire mountainside with trees that look like they have been painted with rust, say hello to the bark beetles. They are dastardly little things.

Personal history and memories often intertwine with trees. There was a stately row of poplars in my first childhood home. I never picture the house without the trees.

Out on the farm, our grandparents always cut a Christmas tree from the fields. It was short and squat, had stiff needles that left scratch marks on your arms and smelled wonderful. That tree was a family tradition.

The pines in our backyard were only 5-feet tall when we moved in. They grew right alongside our kids and in the same manner—silently and quickly, but without the orthodontia and pizza.

Those pines once stretched a hammock between the two of them. They watched over swimming pools, campouts, rounds of hide and seek, snowfalls, one unauthorized bonfire and countless family gatherings.

A huge willow tree once stood in the backyard as well. The kids had a treehouse in it for a long time. Neighbor kids enjoyed it, too. The old willow rotted from the inside out and had to be taken down. The kids are in their 30s now and they’re still mad about the willow.

There’s a sadness to a fallen tree, a hollow thud that echoes death when it hits the ground.

My husband and I were working as newspaper photographers in the Pacific Northwest when Mt. St. Helens exploded. Forests were annihilated. Sprawling stands of evergreens stripped bare and splayed like bristles from a hairbrush on the charred and barren mountainside.

It was jaw-dropping, not unlike the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes. The loss of trees somehow compounds the even greater losses of lives and homes.

Trees tend to be symbols of strength and beauty. The death of a tree is a reminder of our own vulnerability.

The trees returned to Mt. St. Helens —and they returned faster than the experts predicted. To all who had witnessed the devastation, the regrowth was invigorating.  Those small seedlings cradled the beauty of new beginnings.

We’ve filled in the empty holes where the pines stood and dug a new hole that waits delivery of a Norway spruce.

One of the grands asked how tall the new tree is.

“Not much taller than I am,” I said.

“Can we decorate it for Christmas?” she asked, eyes twinkling.

New growth and new memories.

Getting a lock on your true friends

I heard a man say that your true friends are the ones you can call at 2 a.m. to bail you out of jail.

Why I’d be out at 2 a.m., arrested and in jail, paled next to the question of who my true friends are.

I immediately thought of a friend of 30 years. Definitely. She’s the one I’d call.  Plus, she lives in the neighborhood, so I’d be an easy drop-off. But the more I thought about it, I realized she’s not the sort you want to rouse out of a deep sleep. I’d need to wait until around 9:30 a.m. when she’s fully functioning. That would mean nearly eight hours in the slammer. I scratch her off the list. I guess we aren’t as close as I thought.

Another friend sprang to mind but she’s one who thinks the best of everyone, myself included. If I called at 2 a.m. to say I needed her to post bail she’d come unhinged and wouldn’t be in any condition to drive. Another one off the list. Maybe it’s time to run with a tougher crowd.

I realized a number of my friends are at that age where they’re tooling around the country visiting grandkids or taking grandkids on trips. Some friends. Never home when you need them.

A few others came to mind, but being in a police station could be unsettling for them. Then I thought, well I imagine it would be unsettling for me, too. I scratched them off the list and was miffed at their attitudes.

Striking out with friends, I moved on to family.

My first thought was the husband, but he has a way of tuning his cell phone completely out at night unless it’s dinging with a breaking news alert. Those he hears. He’d bail me out, but to get his attention I’d need coverage from a cable news network. More than 35 years of marriage and he’s a maybe.

I could call my brother if he lived closer. He’d come. Then again, he can be a tough love sort of guy when it comes to these situations. I could hear him telling me maybe I should sit there and think things over. I scratch through his name and make a note to give him a piece of my mind later.

I could call our youngest. We once picked her up at 1 a.m. when she was out with friends and her car was towed. She had parked in a drugstore parking lot—right in front of a sign that said “Customers Only, All Others Will Be Towed.” It would be like a payback. Nah, she’s married and has babies now. I couldn’t do that.

I have decided it is best not to go out at 2 a.m. or run afoul of the law. The hypothetical question may not have told me who my true friends are, but it was certainly a good deterrent to crime.

Straight talk about bad posture

Stand up. Stand up straight.

When was the last time you heard that? You were probably a kid.

Many of us don’t pay much attention to posture today.

I slump, you slump, we all slump.

As a nation, we have become a chiropractor’s dream.

We see somebody slouching and we don’t say, “Stand up straight,” we ask, “Who are you texting?”

The good news is that I now know where you can go to learn good posture. I was looking at photos of a recent wedding and one of the women commented on the bride’s  good posture. Another woman agreed and at the same time they both said, “Show choir!”

You may have thought high school show choir was where young people danced and sang and moved their arms in the same direction at the same time, but it is actually one of the last vestiges on earth where you can still learn good posture.

And you thought there wasn’t any good news in the world.

True, if you’re reading this, you’re probably too old for show choir, so maybe it’s not good news for you, but at least there’s hope for others.

And the ladies were right. The ladies are always right. The young woman’s posture was excellent. Her neck was extended, her shoulders were square and her back was straight. Her posture was so excellent that she towered two feet above everyone else in the photo. Not really. But good posture does give you additional height.

Good posture also helps combat chronic fatigue and neck and back pain, gives you a more powerful personal presentation, a better memory, a better mood and more testosterone. Oops. That was on a website about good posture for men.

A diagram for good posture for men and women who run says to keep your head up and your back straight, lean forward slightly, not raise your knees higher than your waist (as if), step from the middle of the front of your foot and, above all, do what comes naturally.

What comes naturally is walking. And slouching.

I’m one who needs to tune in to my posture more. And not just because I’m short. I wear heels to fix that.

I need to tune into my posture because I tend to slump in my computer chair. Ergonomic nothing. Sometimes I jump up to make sure I’m not prematurely aging and that my poor posture is from being at the computer too long.

How will any of us know if our backs are rounding or if we’ve simply spent too much of our lives hunched over mobile devices?

Personally, I pity those who have poor posture and slump due to sports —sprawling on the couch for days on end watching football, that is. Concussions aren’t the only risk that come with the game.

One last question: If I improve my posture, does that mean I stand corrected?

The husband just shouted, “Yes!”

Not known for quick goodbyes

The husband’s side of the family has never been known for quick goodbyes.

Whenever we were ready to leave my in-laws after a visit, phase one of our departure was to find my mother-in-law and father-in-law in the kitchen and tell them we were getting ready to go.

My mother-in-law would turn from the kitchen sink (she was always at the sink or the counter), my father-in-law would put down his newspaper, and they’d ask if we really had to leave.

We’d say yes and then we would all exchange hugs. They’d say what a good time they had and we’d say what a good time we had and then we’d promise to come back real soon.

Once we finally had our luggage in hand and the kids rounded up, there’d be another gathering at the door and everybody would hug once again. They’d say what a good time they had and we’d say what a good time we had and then all the kids would give hugs and kisses and we’d file out the door and they’d follow us.

Once we were actually standing by the car and the luggage was loaded, it was their custom to hug everybody once more and tell us what a good time they had. Naturally, we’d hug them once more and we’d tell them what a good time we had and the kids would all give another round of hugs and kisses because they knew that the third round of goodbyes was when Grandpa took dollar bills out of his wallet and began distributing them.

Once we were certifiably loaded in the car and instructed Grandma and Grandpa to please step back, they’d motion for us to roll down the windows. We’d roll the windows down and everybody would shout things like, “Drive safely!” “Goodbye,” “We love you!” “We love you, too!” “Call us when you get home.”

They’d stand there waving and we’d wave back and honk the horn as we rolled out of sight.

Once, it was so long between the time we first gathered in the kitchen to announce we were leaving and then gathered again at the car to say goodbye, that I ran back inside and made sandwiches for the kids because it was dinner time.

So what if we started to leave shortly after noon and didn’t pull out of the driveway until sunset?

Sometimes saying goodbye took an entire day of a two-day visit.

My in-laws were simply people who were never in a hurry and especially never in a hurry to say goodbye.

Today, when our son and his family announce they are leaving, our two sons-in-law start the stopwatches on their smart phones to time how long it takes them to get in the car.

Our son’s family once made it out of the house and into the car in under 50 minutes.

The sons-in-laws, both extremely efficient, shake their heads in disbelief.

“What you have witnessed are mere amateurs,” I tell the sons-in-law as we all stand outside once again waving goodbye. “They’ll never come close to our record.”

Super Woman to the stroller rescue!

Not to overstate things, but I’m pretty sure I was a hero last week.

There are some times when you just know you’re in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, and you step up to the plate. It’s your moment to shine.

My moment to shine was in a mall parking lot. No, nothing was on fire, no one was choking, no one was in danger, but there were women on the verge of losing it.

I was backing out of my parking spot when I noticed two women of grandma-ish age behind a car with the trunk lid popped open. I continued backing out, took a second look and realized they were in trouble—big trouble. They were hovering over a collapsed double stroller on the ground and clearly neither of them had a clue how to open it.

I slammed on the brakes, threw the gearshift into park, jumped out and began yelling, “I’ve got this one, ladies! I’ve got it!”

Like riding a bike or driving a stick-shift, there are some things you never forget. Although, riding a bike and driving a stick-shift are a lot easier than opening a deluxe double stroller, which is more like wrestling an alligator.

Double strollers are the bad boys in the world of strollers. They are hulking SUVs rumbling at full throttle next to tiny quivering electric cars in need of a battery charge.

As I walked toward the women, I made eye contact and saw fear in their eyes. It wasn’t the stroller they were afraid of, it was me. They’d never seen a woman so crazy excited over a collapsed stroller.

Little did they know this very stroller model had humiliated me in four states. Finally, it all came to a head one cold, windy day in a small town in New Jersey. I’d been left in charge of twin grandbabies. Our mission? To get to the store four blocks away and bring something back for dinner. I was alone with that beast of a stroller. The babies were no help whatsoever. The doorman was dumbfounded. Several strong men tried to help, but walked away in defeat. I don’t remember how long I did battle. I do remember the babies were crying and I was perspiring, but I was determined the stroller would not prevail.

And then it happened – I discovered the secret—push, twist, jerk. You push the sliding bar all the way to the left, twist it all the way forward and then flick that 60-pound contraption with all your might. Sure, you’ll probably throw out your back, dislocate your shoulder and do permanent damage to your elbow, but this is family we’re talking about.

I did the push, twist, jerk move in the parking lot and opened the stroller for the ladies.

They were still offering me their profuse thanks as I flicked my superhero cape and soared away.