I forcefully jammed the blade of my shovel into the pine needles. Ground frozen solid under the light snow cover, stopped the metal tool from going any deeper. Spotting a pine branch that had broken off the tree during a fall storm, I sadly told my daughter Tammie, “Maybe the ground under the branch isn’t frozen.”
My guess was correct. After moving the branch aside, the shovel bit into the earth. This time large tree roots three inches under the surface stopped me from digging any deeper.
A classmate squeezed beside me into the school’s main entrance, chattering excitedly about the big fire the night before. We slowly started up the crowded steps towards our third-grade classroom on the second floor. As I listened to my friend, I looked at the beautiful black and white saddle shoes worn by the little girl ahead of us. They looked pretty and I wanted a pair, too.
The whole school was buzzing. The atmosphere reminded me of when heavy snow was falling and we might be sent home early. The excitement and buzzing today wasn’t about a big snowfall, but about our small town’s largest grocery store burning down during the night. Everyone wanted to tell how they had found out or about seeing the disaster in progress.
I had my own story. Last night my family and I had been enjoying a quiet Sunday evening together. The November night was cold and snow covered the ground outside, but my family and I were warm and cozy in the farmhouse. Unexpectedly, one of my big brothers burst into the house and breathlessly announced that Davel’s store was on fire. I felt shocked and frightened. How could that familiar store burn down? I’d been in it many times with Mom. That store was like my own home!
Mom and Dad agreed they wanted to see the fire. It would be amazing because of how big the store was. Davel’s not only sold groceries, but shoes, hardware and household items. The building housed a theater, the post office, an agricultural office, bar and bowling alley. Several families lived in the top floor apartments.
We hastily bundled up and drove the three miles into Stratford. The whole time I sat in the car’s backseat whining, “I’m scared. Don’t go too close to the fire.”
Mom took the casserole she’d made the night before out of the refrigerator and placed it on the counter. It looked beautifully creamy and was topped with slightly browned, buttery bread crumbs. Half of it had been eaten. She encouraged, “Taste it.”
I reached into the silverware drawer and selected a fork. The mouthful I scooped up contained shrimp and a filet of fish in a thick, white sauce that tasted of lemon and pepper. I spotted bright slices of carrots and celery. The taste was exciting and exotic, probably owing to the plentiful presence of shrimp. “I’ve got to have the recipe for this!” I enthused.
On the following Thursday, I bought the ingredients needed to make the seafood casserole. Friday was my day off. I spent the afternoon painstakingly following the recipe. By the time my husband came home from work, it was ready to come out of the oven. I set the table and placed bread and butter between our plates and a trivet in the center of the small kitchen table in our mobile home. Carefully using oven mitts, I took the hot dish out of the oven and placed it on the trivet. I proudly announced, “Our supper is ready, Arnie. Come and eat.”
My young husband came and stood behind the chair at his place but didn’t sit down. He stared at the dish in the center of the table. Looking grumpy, Arnie questioned, “What did you make for supper?”
Taking a deep breath of shrimp-scented kitchen air, I explained, “Mom made this dish recently. It has shrimp in it and tastes really good. Try some.”
Seething, Arnie pointed out in a tightly controlled voice, “All I want and expect is a decent supper after working all day. I will not eat seafood casserole.” Picking up a slice of bread, he savagely slapped butter on it. Then he stalked angrily into the living room, all of eight feet away, and sank down on the sofa to glare at me as he stuffed the bread into his mouth. Devastated, I cried.
Mom switched on the table lamp next to her upholstered rocking chair and sat down. She said, “Days start getting longer after December 21st, but for the first month each day’s change is only small chicken steps.” Turning to me, she ordered, “Turn on the lamp next to the davenport.” I chuckled. Her description of how slowly days became longer for the first month after the winter solstice always made me laugh.
Outside our warm, well-lit farmhouse, cold winter winds howled as they built snow drifts. I snuggled contentedly against the living room heat register. Mom opened a bag and pulled out a skein of yarn and a crochet hook. I watched with surprise. At fourteen years of age, I’d often seen Mom sew clothing for the family, but this was something new. Curious, I asked, “What are you making?”
Pulling a small, colorful crocheted block from the bag, Mom proudly explained, “This pattern is called a granny square.” I scooted to her side and took the square from her. It was made with four different colors. Mom happily stated, “I’m going to make a lot more like the one you’re holding and then stitch them together to make an afghan.”
Frowning, I repeated the foreign word, “Afghan?” I didn’t know it at the time, but for the rest of Mom’s life, “afghan” was a part of our family’s normal, everyday vocabulary. She made several afghans for each person in the family, as well as baby blankets, lace collars, slippers and more.
This recipe turns out the best when made on a sunny day and the humidity in the house is low.
4 egg whites at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¾ cup of sugar
½ teaspoon almond extract
Grease and flour jelly roll pans or cookie sheets
In a medium bowl beat egg whites on high. Add the cream of tartar. Then slowly add the sugar. As the egg whites thicken, add the almond extract. Beat the egg whites until they are very firm.
Place the whites in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag and cut a small hole in one corner. Pipe the meringue onto the pans. For the caps, squeeze with the bag opening about ½ inch from pan until the cap is the size you want. For the stem, slowly pull back as you squeeze until the stem is as tall as you want.
The number of mushrooms you get from this recipe depends on how large you make the mushroom caps. I get 65 to 80.
To make the mushrooms appear to have toadstool freckles, I sprinkle a little cinnamon and nutmeg on the caps.
Heat oven to 200 degrees. Place pans in oven and leave them there for 1 ¾ hours. Turn off the oven and leave the pans in the oven until they are cool.
Carefully remove the meringues from the pans. If the pans weren’t oiled and floured right, they might be hard to remove/or will break. (One year I heated the bottoms of the pans to get the meringues off!!)
Take a small knife and scrape shiny flour/oil off bottoms of caps. (One year I didn’t and the chocolate ‘gills’ fell off.) As you clean the caps, make a small hole in the middle of the cap underside.
Melt chocolate and spread it on the bottom of the caps, then before it hardens, take a stem and gently push it into the chocolate covered hole. The mushroom candy will stand upright when you set it down.
Carrying my cup of tea into the living room, I sat down to watch birds outside the large window. Small chickadee and dowdy finch were busy eating sunflower seeds at the feeder. Every so often a strong gust of wind made snow sift softly down from the pine branches above. On the ground below, snow swirled, but didn’t bother a female cardinal who continued to scratch and peck the seeds dropped by other birds.
I took a sip of the hot, comforting tea. It was good to be indoors on a day like this. Picking up a candy I’d made the day before, I admired how it looked so very much like a real mushroom. Biting off the stem, the crisp, sugary meringue quickly melted on my tongue. Studying the rest of the candy, I admired its cinnamon and nutmeg toadstool freckles. Chocolate took the place of mushroom gills on the bottom of the meringue.
Remembering how this mushroom candy became a Christmas tradition for my family made me smile nostalgically. When I had found the recipe in a woman’s magazine, I laughed. My big brother Billy hated mushrooms. He said all mushrooms were slimy toadstools, not fit for human consumption. I’d told my daughters, “This Christmas I’m going to give Billy some mushrooms he’ll love eating.” Niki and Tammie were nine and thirteen years of age that year.
A cold, ice-particle-laden gust of wind swirled down the face of the hospital building, pushing so hard against my body I had to lean forward to make headway. Walking at my side was a coworker, Barb. She commented jokingly, “Here we are, walking through the tundra again.” Some of the ice particles melted on my face while others found their way under my neck scarf. I shivered and put my mitten-clad hand to my frosted forehead, wondering if it was possible to experience brain-freeze from a cold wind.
Barb complained, “Why in the world was this hospital built with a north-facing entrance? We always get a big downdraft in our face just as we get close to entering.”
Through gritted teeth I answered, “I don’t know what the engineers were thinking. But, at least on hot summer days, we get a welcome cool breeze.”
As Barb and I silently walked to the unit where we worked, I thought about Christmas, only two weeks away. I still had some Christmas cards to send, presents to wrap and cookies to bake. Our tree, usually put up a few days before Christmas, wasn’t even bought!
Happy excitement coursed through my veins. I couldn’t put a finger on any one thing causing the elevated state of mind, but I knew all the contributing elements. I ticked them off in my mind. One, my family was gathered together in one room, a rare even. This happened only rarely since all my siblings were much older and seldom home together at the same time. Two, they were talking about the upcoming Christmas season. I shivered with delight. Three, we would celebrate the eve of Saint Nicholas in a few days. I looked forward to putting a letter to Saint Nicholas in my cereal bowl at bedtime. In the morning I’d find candy but no letter in it. At school, small brown bags of candy would be left on our desks while we played during the last recess of the day.
The biggest reason for my excitement was the weather. It was snowing. Earlier, I’d heard the grown-ups say this would be the first big storm of winter. My seven-year-old mind could scarcely take in all these wonderful blessings in my life.
Sister Mary Micheline held up the classroom reward jar. I had finally earned a piece of candy. I slid out of my desk and slowly walked to the front of the room. Other second grade students in my class had frequently earned rewards from this jar since school had started this fall. The candy in the jar wasn’t just picked over, it was down to the last treat; one black licorice jelly bean…no one’s favorite candy.
Sister unscrewed the lid and held the jar out for me to reach in. I heard someone in the room snicker. Sister’s face was a map of winkles snuggly wrapper with a white wimple. A large black veil flowed from top of her head and down over her shoulders and back. Grasping the jelly bean, I pulled my arm out of the jar and looked up into the pale blue eyes of my elderly nun. I dutifully recited slowly, “Thank-you Sister Mary Micheline.”
Back at my desk, I looked down at the prize in the palm of my hand and for a second it blurred. In September and October, the jar held many desirable candies. Blinking, I thought, “Daddy loves licorice jelly beans.” Suddenly I felt so much better, I popped the black bean into my mouth. The sweet licorice taste made me feel as if my adored Daddy was sitting right next to me.
I placed a garden stool next to a tomato plant. Although some of its leaves were crisp from recent frosty nights, I spotted a few yellow blossoms deep within the plant. A few big tomatoes on the plant were faintly tinged red. Knowing they would finish ripening in the house, I put them in a box before cutting the plant down to a stump. Methodically, I processed each plant in the row, enjoying the beautiful, earthy scent of my garden.
Finally the only tomatoes I had left in the garden were the cherry tomato plants a few rows away. Less affected by the past few cold nights, each plant bore many clusters of perfect, but still green cherry tomatoes. I knew they would slowly ripen in the house so I put them put in a box, too.
As I worked, my daughter Tammie entered the greenhouse. She excitedly informed me, “The apple tree behind the greenhouse is covered with hundreds of beautiful red apples.”
With a smile I playfully questioned, “Guess who’s going to help me pick them?”
Loving to do things with me after her workhours are finished, Tammie enthusiastically responded, “I’m looking forward to doing that but will the apples be okay? We had a killing frost the other night.”
“They will be fine,” I assured her. “These are late apples and I always pick them after the first frosts in the fall. They’re like these last tomatoes in the garden. All the summer’s warmth turned into plant sugars for us to enjoy after the growing season is over.”