Monday, June 23, 2008

Nothing tastes better than a fond memory

Published June 23, 2008

In a box of old photographs on my mother’s table is a picture of my grandfather.
He’s sitting on an overturned orange bucket holding a slab of bacon over a backyard fire with a tool that looks like a homemade fireplace poker.
It was taken at a Hungarian bacon fry, the main event at all family picnics when I was a kid.
My grandmother would buy a slab of bacon from the butcher shop, and she would cut it into pieces about the size of postcards.
She would score parallel lines with a knife through the meaty side of these smaller pieces so that the meat would fan open — allowing the grease to drip out — when it was held over an open fire.
My grandfather would hold the meaty-side down close to the fire until it started to drip.
Then he would swivel around and hold the dripping bacon over a tray of bread that my grandmother had gotten ready. The tray — a cookie sheet covered with tinfoil — was on a small bench next to him and held more than a dozen slices of rye bread.
My grandfather would let the bacon grease drip on several slices of the bread, dabbing the bacon on them every now and then.
Once a piece of bread was adequately saturated, my grandmother would heap it with cut-up salad vegetables — iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, green peppers — that were in a bowl she held in the crook of her elbow.
Then my grandfather would drip a little more bacon grease over the salad.
There was usually a line at the bench waiting for one of the open-faced salad sandwiches because you couldn’t take one until it was deemed ready by either the chef with the bacon or the chef with the salad.
Every once in a while, my grandfather would take a big knife and slice off the tips of the bacon that had gotten crispy in the fire.
Those little nuggets were sprinkled on top of the salad like croutons.
If you were lucky, you were next in line when the bacon was being trimmed.
Back then no one seemed to care — or even know — about the evils of eating that much bacon grease.
All we knew is that it was delicious.
Once my grandparents got too old to host the family picnics, bacon fries got rarer and rarer.
And, once my generation became of age and started having families of its own, they became even rarer — because we knew about the evils of eating that much bacon grease.
Except, my grandparents were in their mid-90s when they died, so I’m not sure exactly how evil it really is.
Every once in awhile, I think that maybe we should resurrect those old bacon fries. Maybe we should have one at the Fourth of July picnic at my house.
We could do it just like my grandfather used to do in his Elyria Township backyard.
No doubt, it would be good, but it would never be the same.
I don’t have a bucket to sit on; we’d have to use lawn chairs.
And I don’t have one of those homemade spears for the bacon; we’d have to use a store-bought utensil.
My grandma isn’t here to cut up the salad fixings; we’d have to use a bag-o-lettuce.
And most importantly, my grandfather isn’t here to cook.
Well, maybe I won’t plan one of those bacon fries for the Fourth of July.
Because come to think of it, they weren’t about bacon at all.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Half the fun of picnics is getting there

Published June 16, 2008

At least one day of every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we have a family picnic to go to.
First there are the holidays — the three patriotic ones and Mother’s and Father’s Day. Those are given picnic days.
And that would probably be enough family gatherings for most people.
But, in our large extended family, every person was either born in June or July or had a child born in June or July. The birthdays are endless.
It’s hard enough for my husband and me to just haul ourselves out of bed on the weekends and actually leave the house.
The drill is always the same. I wake up and look over at the other side of the bed. Empty.
I go downstairs and look out the patio door.
There is my husband, well, the backside of my husband, who is kneeling on the concrete next to the pool with his arm down in the pool filter.
By the time I go and pour myself a cup of coffee and go out in the backyard, he is upright with the skimmer pole or the pool vacuum in his hand.
I sit down to read the newspapers, and he goes about his pool business.
Until one of us eventually mentions that day’s family gathering.
And the food we have to take.
And the present we have to bring.
And how much time we have to get those two things before the picnic.
We’ve got it down to a science. Most of the time, we’ve had the foresight to have already gone to the grocery and purchase the ingredients for the dish we are making to take with us.
But the present? It’s usually still on a shelf in a store somewhere.
That means one of us has to go present shopping and the other has to cook.
I’m usually the cook because my husband can go to the store and be back before I’m dressed and ready to go — because he is a husband.
Husbands can actually walk into a store and make their way to the item they intend to purchase without getting waylaid by every single piece of merchandise between the door and that item. It’s an amazing feat.
Plus, the gift we were going to buy my dad for Father’s Day — the picnic started at 1 p.m. at my youngest brother’s house — was one that my husband knew much more about than I did.
It was an orchid.
I thought my dad would like to have one. He likes to grow flowers outside, so why not get him the most fussy, finicky — and beautiful — flower on the earth?
And since I have a hard time telling petunias from begonias from geraniums, I thought it was probably best that my husband went to buy one.
And I would stay home and make the coleslaw because I do know my cabbage from my lettuce.
It was only about a half hour after the picnic starting time that we gathered up the beautiful orchid and the bowl full of coleslaw and headed for the party.
We were a little late, but we weren’t the last ones there.
An hour or so later, I asked someone where my sister was.
"She’s in Marc’s, buying the food she was supposed to bring here," her daughter said, laughing.
See? That’s what happens when you send a shopper to do a husband’s job.

Monday, June 9, 2008

They know who's stealing cemetery flowers

Published June 9, 2008

You’ll never guess who’s responsible for stealing flowers off graves around here.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about flowers getting stolen off my grandma’s grave for the third Mother’s Day in a row.
She’s buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery on Lake Avenue in Elyria Township.
I called the local office for the cemetery and the Lorain County Sheriff’s office but neither place said it had gotten complaints about stolen flowers.
But it didn’t matter, I still didn’t believe thieves would zero in on the humble little grave of my dear sweet grandma.
And it seems they didn’t.
I heard from lots of people who were victim to these graveyard robbers – and most of them had put their flowers at St. Mary’s.
One woman said she has been taking flowers there for 21 years to put on her daughter’s grave. And, for 21 years they have been stolen.
She said it didn’t matter if they were live or cut, in a pot or in a vase. They were gone.
Several people said they would put flowers on a grave one day only to have them gone the next.
One couple said they even resorted to putting notes on their baskets asking the thieves to please not steal their parents’ flowers. But that didn’t work, either.
And, know why? Because the thieves can’t read. And the reason they can’t read is because they are DEER.
I know; you are probably having as hard a time believing that as I did but that’s what Joe Smith, director of marketing and family services at the Catholic Cemetery Association Diocese of Cleveland, told me.
I called Joe because St. Mary’s – by far the cemetery most complained about – is one of the 18 cemeteries in four counties that his association oversees.
"It’s a real problem," he told me, "and you’re not the first person who has asked about this.
"It’s the deer."
"Deer?" I repeated, imagining Bambi and his mom carting off the pot of my grandmother’s yellow violas.
"Deer and other wildlife. They eat the flowers," he said.
"I was out there. I saw a herd of deer come out of the south side of the cemetery. There is a thick row of trees there," he said.
OK, now. Joe was very kind – and earnest. I was trying to get my mind around what he was saying.
"So the deer eat the flowers and then the cemetery workers carry the chewed-down pots off the graves?" I asked.
"They take the pot in an effort to keep the cemetery looking pretty," he said.
"caught in a position where we can’t do anything about it. We can’t really hunt deer on cemetery property," he said.
"We know flowers are important to people," he added.
He said the deer situation is even worse at Holy Cross Cemetery on Brookpark Road in Cleveland. One time, he said, there were 47 deer in Holy Cross.
Hmmm. I was prepared to pepper the director of the Catholic Cemetery Association with questions but now, with four-legged gentle creatures -- who do have to eat after all – being named the culprit, I was stymied.
"So is there anything people can do to keep the deer away?" I asked.
"They can try putting a bar of soap in with the flowers," he said. “Sometimes that will keep them away but there’s no guarantee it will work."
If he wasn’t so kind, I would have told him that there’s no guarantee any of us will believe this, either. But I didn’t.
He said people are welcome to call him.
"We do solve problems," he said.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Sunday ride back in time

Published June 2, 2008

A beautiful sunny day like yesterday would have been perfect for one of those Sunday drives our parents used to take us on when we were kids.
The destination - parents always enjoyed the ride, but we kids only cared about the destination - was most often a "custard stand," some ice cream place that we may or may not have been to before.
My father, a connoisseur of soft ice cream, seemed to know every little out-of-the-way custard stand from Indiana to Pennsylvania. We'd pull in, and he'd take our orders. Back then, it was easy. You had two choices - a cone or a sundae. There were no fancy concoctions like they make today with Oreos or Butterfingers swirled in.
So, we'd all order our cones, some with sprinkles, some dipped, and he'd go get them. My mother never ordered, though. She didn't like ice cream. (I know - I can't believe it either.)
Sometimes before the ice cream, our parents would take us to one of those roadside attractions - like the Blue Hole - that people used to flock to but are now just things for Tommy Boy and Clark Griswold to make fun of.
By the way, the Blue Hole is still there, except now it's part of a fish hatchery on land owned by the state. I have a feeling it's not quite as spooky and mysterious as it used to be.
There's a place in Marblehead called the Prehistoric Forest and Mystery Hill. I don't know how prehistoric it is, but it is definitely caught in a time warp. I have a feeling the place isn't a whole lot different than it was 40 years ago.
The Prehistoric Forest is a 10-acre plot with a trail winding though it. Every once in awhile, you'll spot a dinosaur - some of them built in the 1960s - along the way.
Len Tieman, who has owned the park since 1995, is constantly repairing the fiberglass beasts and building new ones.
"The park was not meant to be here this long," he said.
The other half of the attraction, Mystery Hill, was built in 1953, Tieman said. To get there, you walk up a hill and behind a fence. There, you come to a house that is on about a 45-degree slant - or is it you that's on a 45-degree slant? Either way, it makes you lose your equilibrium.
And it's not the only mystery spot in the country. A Web site called Roadside America lists 32 of these places where gravity is defied and balls roll uphill. Included are three Mystery Hills, two Mystery Holes, two Mystery Spots, one Mystery Area and a House of Mystery. There are also 11 Gravity Hills, one of them Ghostly.
I'm not sure how they work, but here's a tip: If you close your eyes, you regain your equilibrium (which I had to do several times to get from one side of the house to the other). Hmmm. I'd guess the mystery might be optical illusion.
I want to take my boys there this summer. I want to know what they think even though I'm pretty sure just about all they'll have to say is: "I bet Tommy Boy slept here."
It'll make me feel old because - unlike my sons - I'll remember a time when you couldn't experience much stranger and spookier things by hitting a few keystrokes on a computer. But it will also make me feel sort of special for being able to remember that.
I guess that means I'm old enough to get nostalgic - and that's the spookiest thing of all.

Gram, did you see who took your flowers?

Published May 26, 2008

"They did it again."
It was my mother on the phone. She called to tell me that my father had just gotten back from the cemetery where my grandmother is buried.
He went to pick up the pot of violas they had put on my grandmother's grave for Mother's Day.
My mom thought the tiny little pansies were a fitting flower because they look so much like the African violets my grandma liked so well.
And my father had gone out to pick them up because the sign in St. Mary's Cemetery in Elyria Township said that all flowers had to be removed by May 19.
Except when he got there, the flowers were gone.
That's what my mom was talking about on the phone. For the third Mother's Day in a row, someone stole the flowers she and my father had put on my grandma's grave.
"Who would do such a thing?" my mom asked me.
Three years ago, the first Mother's Day after my grandma died, they put a pot of geraniums, another of my grandma's favorites, on her grave. It was stolen.
The next Mother's Day, my parents once again put geraniums on the grave, never thinking the plant would get stolen again.
It did.
So this year, my mom decided to try another flower. Maybe it was geraniums the thieves were after.
Enter - and soon exit - the tiny pansies.
I echo my mom's sentiment: Who would do such a thing?
What do people do? Scrounge around graveyards for their yearly landscaping?
The flowers that my parents put on other grandmothers' graves - in St. Joseph Cemetery in Amherst and Calvary Cemetery in Sheffield Township - weren't stolen.
I called the office of Catholic Cemeteries, which owns both Calvary and St. Mary's cemeteries, to see if it got a lot of stolen-flower complaints.
"We don't," a woman named Peggy told me, "but it would be hard to catch people even if we did.
"We don't have patrols there in the evenings. They are there during the day but we really can't approach people who are taking flowers off a grave. We don't know if they are family members or not," she said.
"If we see something suspicious - like people loading flowers into a van - we do check that out," she said.
It was beginning to look as if the situation was hopeless.
My hunch is that thieves aren't singling out my grandma. It's just that others aren't complaining about it.
"So what can my mom do when she wants to put flowers on the grave?" I asked.
"She could get one of those in-ground bouquet holders and put fresh or artificial flowers in it," Peggy told me.
She must have sensed my disappointment because she added, "I'm really sorry that happened."
Still finding it hard to believe there have been no other "grave robbing" complaints, I called the Lorain County sheriff's office, which has jurisdiction over Elyria Township where the cemetery is located.
But, once again, I was told they don't get complaints about stolen flowers. Stolen brass urns, yes, but not stolen flowers.
When I relayed all this to my mom, she said, "That's OK. We learned our lesson. We won't be putting flowers out there again until their anniversary in August, but when we do, they'll be in one of those in-ground holders."
Hopefully, thieves will leave those flowers alone.
Until then, if you see a big beautiful basket of tiny little yellow pansies on someone's porch, think of my grandma.
There's a chance they were meant for her.

Have bike, will travel -- hopefully

Published May 19, 2008

In my never-ending quest for health and thinness, I decided to buy a bike.
I figured it's easy enough to ride the one at the gym that has a TV hooked to it. How much harder can peddling around the neighborhood be?
My brother had given me a bike last summer that his daughters thought too uncool to ride. Well, it was cool enough for me - with its curled-down racing handlebars - but it was too small. My knees hit my elbows when I rode it.
And that's why I needed a new one.
I started at Sears, but The Store-That-Sells-All-Things-Metal no longer carries bikes. It's true. The salesman told me.
Oh, well, it didn't really matter. I couldn't just go into a store and buy the first bike I found anyway.
First I had to do Google research and look on eBay and read some blogs on bicycling.
There's no sense making a major purchase these days unless one is thoroughly ... informed.
But I knew what I wanted - a girl's pink racing bike with a real comfortable seat and gears that didn't let the chain slip.
It became readily apparent that color was the least of my worries. Bikes come in sizes - and I'm not talking just 20- or 26-inch wheels. Oh, no. The frames come in different sizes and the wheels come in different sizes.
So, even after you figure out what size frame you need according to your height and inseam - and most importantly, where the bar hits you when you straddle the bike - you then need to pick a wheel size.
It was all too complicated for me.
I decided to shop for a bike the way I had always done - in department stores.
I found a Schwinn I really liked. It cost a little more (twice as much) than I had planned to spend, but it was on sale.
It wasn't pink. It wasn't even a girl's bike, but it was big enough and it had a really comfortable seat - and some other features the salesman told me about.
"It has a quick-release front wheel," he said.
I must have looked puzzled because he added, "If you take it off, the bike will fit in your trunk."
Hmm. That's handy, I thought.
"And see these tire valves? If you push down on them, you can let some of the air out of your tires when you are racing," he said.
"When I'm racing? Wait, maybe this bike is too elaborate ..."
"Well, you don't have to use them," he said. "Look, you can put these caps on them."
I hope he didn't say anything too important after that because I kind of stopped listening.
I liked this bike. I was going to buy it. I wasn't going to use all of its functions, but what else is new? My younger son and I both have Blackberries. His does everything but the laundry. Mine makes phone calls.
Anyway, I paid for the bike and the salesman walked it out for me. He quick-released the tire but the bike still didn't fit in the trunk. We crammed it in the backseat and I brought it home.
So, if you see a big blonde woman on a big blue men's bike go zipping by, it's probably me.
And, if you see that big blonde woman go sailing over the handlebars of that big blue men's bike, you'll know why.
She probably wasn't paying enough attention when the sales guy showed her how to put that quick-release front wheel back on.