Wednesday, May 27, 2015

WALTER


This morning I babysat Walter and Ruby at their house while Ashley chaperoned a field trip with Parker’s third grade class. Ruby was still sleeping when I arrived.  One-year-old Walt was sitting at the end of the granite kitchen island in his little clamp-on seat, eating bits of strawberries.  I stood beside him and watched.  What is it that makes us adult humans so compelled by little chubby fingers clamping onto objects?  He lifted his hand with every fourth piece of strawberry and offered it to me.  I thought it was beautiful, the way he satisfied himself, and then turned to me, wanting me to enjoy the same satisfaction. When he refused his Sippy cup of milk and scattered his Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal all over the floor, I decided he was ready to be done and lifted him out of his seat   Ash told me that they had Walt-proofed the playroom, just off of the kitchen, so I scooted him out there to play.  I watched him from the window that separates the family room and play room.  I pulled out my computer to do some work and sat under the window. Within minutes Walt was in trouble, nothing to panic about, but enough to make me pause.  I could tell by the raised pitch of his grunts, the sound emitting from his belly and up past the Binky planted between his lips. Walt was frustrated. He had waddled over to the soft baseball he had thrown into the corner, crawled under a chair to retrieve it, and found himself stuck between the wall and the chair.  I watched and listened, waiting for the spirit to tell me when I should go rescue him, but aware of the value of letting him figure it out himself.  Eventually he found his way out.  Not less than five minutes later the same muffled moaning indicated that he was stuck again, this time in Ruby’s American Girl Doll car.  Again I watched as he tried to liberate himself, the car refusing to let go of his leg.  Just as I started moving toward the door to help him, he shook off that pink plastic SUV and went on playing. 

It’s a marvelous and interesting thing to be a grandmother.  Perspective changes things. I was a na├»ve young mother once upon a time, one prone to rescuing. Now I realize as I sit here watching this little boy, that the bump on his forehead from that unfortunate spill yesterday will soon be gone, not even a memory.  And so will his unsteady toddling steps, and the rhythmic click-click-click of his tongue caressing his pacifier. If confidence is remembered success, then he will confidently figure out how to get himself out of frustrating circumstances by himself, not recalling at all that the ability to maneuver out of sticky situations began with his sister’s hot pink doll car.

I am amazed, in this society of over regulating, that people are not required to learn a bit about parenting before we have kids. We would never be permitted to drive a car without adequate training, and showing proof that we have learned what we were taught.  And yet they hand us our babies at the hospital doors and send us out into the world completely unprepared.  What are we thinking!  And yet I marvel at the instinctive ability of the human spirit to figure things out. Thank goodness, because my poor children would be messes!  Yet somehow they have turned into responsible, intelligent, functional, loving adults, with a beautiful portion of imperfection to keep them on their toes. It must be that eternal parenting that happened before they were mine, when their spirits were trained by pre-mortal angels and heavenly parents. 


So here you go, Walt!  It’s your turn on earth.  Lucky you that your parents are pretty skilled at this parenting business.  Lucky you that you have two parents who work together to raise you.  Lucky too, that you have four grandparents who adore you, and a whole bushel full of other friends and relatives with whom you will be able to get into sticky situations.  Fortunately for all of you, you are also getting skilled at figuring out how to get out of them. Whatever the future brings, remember your old Gummy is on the other side of the family room window cheering you on.

Monday, April 6, 2015

42. VESSELS (Easter 2015)

There are few things in my daily life that are more regularly used, more faithful and dependable, than my pots and pans.  I've taken note, especially during this Lent period, of my daily routine as far as my kitchen is concerned.  More often than not I come home from a gig or a class or shopping and walk straight into the kitchen, open the doors to the cupboard under the stove top, and pull out one of my pots, even before I've taken off my shoes.  My vessels of cooking are old friends. Some of them came into my life before my husband did.  Good old faithful stainless Farberware.  Nothing fancy.  Everlastingly true. 
As our family grew, and the guest bedroom was filled over and over again with kindred humans who needed a bed and a meal, my favorite pots grew in size.  I asked Dave, 30 years ago, for a certain large pot for Mother's Day.  He misunderstood, and instead bought me an over sized skillet.  Turns out that my cooking angels must have talked to his buying angels, because through the years that large flat bottomed skillet has facilitated many batches of sweet and sour pork, marinara sauce, chicken piccata and so much more. Not to mention that it turns out the best hashed browns because it has that heavy copper base that holds a good even heat. 
If you are not a cook you may not understand the spiritual relationship I have with my cookware.  These vessels are faithful and true.  They are made to take heat, repeatedly.  They are beaten with my steel scrubbers almost daily.  They exist only to nurture my family, and to be pounded on once a year in the parade up our driveway at midnight New Year's Eve. 
Days like today, when we prepare for the gathering of people we cherish, every burner of my stove top has a pot working on it.  Both my ovens are also working steadily, roasting turkey and ham. I ponder my grandmothers, generations layering back in time, gathering fuel and stoking their fires to cook their  meals. No thermometers.  No timers. No convection heating.  I have sent more prayers of gratitude heavenward from my kitchen than from the side of my bed.  Probably because I spend more time there. Many a song has been written and rewritten while stirring at my stove.  My kitchen is a microcosm of my life. 
Joe Bennion, Horseshoe Mountain Pottery
My friend Joe Bennion, who throws the pottery that becomes my favorite pie plates and sauce pitchers, understands the divine role of vessels in our existence.  He gathers clay from earthy places, digging it himself.  Some of my favorite pieces of Bennion pottery come from the tragic massive mud spill that occurred when the Thistle Dam broke years ago, burying homes and farms.  Thistle Slip pottery, bearing the fingerprints of a master potter, stamped with an emblem representing devotion to God, these are perfect things for a gal who sees everything as symbolic. I feel a connection with the earth and heaven every time I use Bennion pottery. 
Joe's kiln
This afternoon, before the crowd came for the Easter egg hunt and Easter dinner, my sisters, Dave, and I paused from our preparation to visit the grave of our mother.  She was the vessel that carried us, nourished us, took responsibility for us and bore us into this earthly realm.  She sealed her place in our stories, each of us individually, and collectively as a family, when she released us from her womb. 
my mom
So, too, were we sealed in similar fashion roughly two thousand years ago, when the doorway that would shut us out from our heavenly home was sealed open, allowing us access when we could never merit it on our own.That holy vessel, the holder of hope for a fallen people, is Jesus Christ, whose divine calling was fulfilled in Gethsemane and on Calvary.  He is true and dependable.  He is empowered by his role to  harness the heat and misuse from us unskilled and immature humans and rise victoriously in the end.
We are wise to feast at his table.
my Shepherd
A blessed Easter Sunday to all. And a grateful end to Lent 2015.   
The Bennion platter that hangs
 above the mantle in our family room.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

41. APRICOT PORK (my brother, John)



“You really shouldn’t play your G like that.”  My brother John sat across from me in the family room at the old house.  He had just listened to me sing one of my songs and suggested I play the G Chord with my pinky on string number 1 instead of my ring finger. "You’re good enough that you really shouldn’t be playing it the way you do."  Though playing it that way felt completely unnatural to me, I was honored to think that he thought I might be “good enough”. 
I was a mother of four who stayed up into the wee hours of the night to write songs. He was a professional musician, the godfather of flat picking in the state of Idaho.  He was a guitar string's worst nightmare.  I lightly tickled the strings on my instrument. I think it was one of the first times he had come to visit us from his home in Idaho, before I knew him by heart, like I do now. I had just recorded an album of original songs, one most people now don’t know I even have.  A producer had heard me somewhere and paid for the recording. Mostly, for me, it was a learning experience.  I was naive, and rather raw as a player, singer and songwriter.  So I was a little intimidated and nervous to even let my brother hear it.  He was kind and complimentary, and most encouraging about my songwriting.  You have to know a little about the dynamics of our relationship to understand what that meant to me.
My brother John is eight years older than I.  He was the youngest child of my mom and her first husband, Cy Davis.  When my mom married Lewis Hansen,  John acquired a new set of house rules and an unhealthy dose of disinterest at best, and tragic abuse at worst. When he was in third grade he wanted so badly to belong that he started writing his last name as Hansen instead of Davis.  He still goes by John Hansen, not that his stepfather deserved any credit John has brought to his name. John was child #3 of Afton Hansen, and I was child #6. 

When I was 5 and John was wading into the waters of teenagehood, we moved from our small town in Idaho to Pittsburgh, PA. This was the early 1960’s, a tumultuous time in America.  An equally uneasy time in our home as well.  My dad, for whatever reason, was full of discontent and booze.  That’s a bad combination.  John was a lanky, long legged fellow who found a voice for his angst in the songs of Bob Dylan.  He saved up his hard earned money working at Isaley’s Ice Cream and Deli so he could purchase his first guitar.  I remember tiptoeing downstairs in my pajamas, my hair wet from my evening bath. I peeked through the rungs on the banister while John and his friends held band practice. John was hip, and handsome, and quiet and kind, though he had to have been confused by life.  The music that floated from his portable turntable became the soundtrack to the scenes of my childhood: the Beatles, and Dylan, and others whose songs I know but whose names escape me. By the time John was a senior in high school, having moved six times during his high school years, he had had enough and moved back to Idaho.  He carried a sort of mystery with him, and by the time I had grown into my own personality, he was far away.
John, front middle, with an early band, circa 1971
It was music, especially the creation of a song, that brought us together as adults.  He would end up producing my first real album, in Boise and Nashville.  He has played on most of my albums, and he is one of my finest cheerleaders.  Because of his renown, especially among musicians, I have many friends who have changed me for the better.  But mostly it is John who changed me as a musician. For years Merlyn and I journeyed to Boise to perform and record.  I felt at home in his place, and  secure in his love and respect for me and my little family.
When my son John was swirling in his own teenage angst, I remember one particularly vocal interchange in the kitchen.  We argued about something or other.  Johnny stormed up the back stairs and I followed after him, grabbing him by the leg before he hit the top stair.  We both fell in an emotional heap on the steps.  Somewhere in the conversation that followed Johnny told me we just didn’t understand him.  I asked him what he wanted in life, and he replied that he just wanted to be like Uncle John. I listened and thought a minute, then replied that he would do well to be like his Uncle John, noting some of the fine character traits of my brother.  We sat there a minute.  I told him I had spent a lot of time with his Uncle John, and he had shared with me the person he most admired. “Who’s that?” Johnny asked, sure he would find the secret of life in such a person.
“Your dad.”

My son John, to his credit, knows when to be still and absorb.  That bit of full-circle information has settled into his soul at this point, and I believe he himself would speak the name of his father in the short list of people he would like to emulate.
At that time, though, it was my brother.  And truth be known, it still is.


My brother, John is uber-talented, and his fingers are like lightening on the neck of his guitar. He has the gift of being able to sincerely feel the spirit that each song carries.  Songs are almost human, having souls of their own that yearn to be understood.  Good songs, at least. Both my John’s know how to access those personalities and stories in each song.


As our mother aged, John travelled from Boise regularly to sing to her, to kiss her soft cheeks,  to hang hooks in her garage or dig up a tree stump, or just sit with her. John, however, never just sits.  His hands need to hold a guitar.  Mom was curled into her red leather recliner, her snowy white hair like a cloud against a crimson sky. John would plant himself comfortably on the couch next to her, his guitar gently throbbing against his chest.  The words and comfortable melody of Tom Waits floated from his lips: “Time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly out to my old 55….” Harmony rose up from her throat, our beloved mother, and if I was lucky enough to be there I could pull up a third, or listen as Kate did.  It makes me weep to think of it, to think of her voice harmonizing with all of us, allowing us to sing our own songs but supporting with her own harmonious sweetness.  Her pitch was dead on, even when she didn’t know the lyric. And her sense of timing was impeccable. There is a sweetness in family harmony that is rare in non-bloodline music.

Even though our mother has gone the way of all living things, John still works his way down south toward us. Each August, when the fruits of the apricot trees are soft and warm, when the hot August sun awakens the sugary juices so that the apricots nearly jump into the palms of your hands as you pick them, John drives down with his granddaughter Brooklyn for Pappy week.  (His treasures call him Pappy.) We pile into the van and continue south one town to Centerville, to the corner lot with the ancient gnarled trees that bend toward the ground with the weight of their bounty.  For 40 cents a pound we drag the tall wooden ladders up into the orchard, through the rutty soil, and plant them firmly under the branches where the most fruit has fallen to the ground, an indicator that the fruit there is happy to be ripe.  We usually pick between 50 and 80 pounds each year.  Only ripe ones.  No green.  The riper, the better for apricot jam.  At home we wash, pit and remove blighted portions of the fruit.  The rest we cut into little orange pieces, adding a fair amount of granulated sugar and some corn syrup.  We do not mash the fruit.  If it is truly ripe it will mash itself in the process. All day my brother will stand over the stove, stirring the fruit as it bubbles down into liquid gold. Brooklyn or one of my sisters will spell him off.  By the end of the day we have a couple dozen quart bottles sitting on the counter, their lids popping as they cool.  We do not add pectin to our apricot jam.  Our mom liked it a little runny, so that you had to hold your plate under your chin when you ate a crunchy piece of toast slathered with butter and a nice spoonful of apricot jam. 
One of our favorite family Sunday meals is a tender pork roast browned in olive oil and butter, roasted while we are at church and all the way through a Sunday nap, if we are lucky enough to get one. About an hour before serving we pour one of those quarts of home made apricot jam over the roast, basting it occasionally as the jam mixes with the juices of the roast.  The skin of the roast becomes caramelized with the fruits of those apricot trees.  Served with roasted yams or sweet potatoes, or a baked potato and asparagus, it is a sweet reminder even in the bitterest part of February that August repeatedly gives us her bounty, as long as the blossoms in the spring have survived a late frost, as long as the heat of the summer days dances with the chill of northern Utah nights, and as long as my brother John makes his way south toward his family.

So much of the music that comes from me is influenced by my brothers, John and George, from the life searching lyric of Dylan to the deep harmonies of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I cannot separate my past from my present.  I am reminded repeatedly that we tend to love the things that the people who mean the most to us love. It’s a darn good thing my brothers have good taste.

There are a few men whose lives are inseparably connected to my heart, and two of them are named John.
John and me.


APRICOT PORK ROAST

Pork roast, boneless or pork tenderloin.
Apricot jam (if using commercial jam, dilute slightly with water or broth.
Onion (optional)
Olive oil and butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a heavy skillet heat about ¼ cup oil to very hot.  Add a dab of butter.
Generously coat pork roast with salt and pepper and garlic salt.
Put roast in hot oil and sear until the color of the roast changes.  Sear all sides of the roast.
Put roast in a covered casserole or cover your pan with foil and place in hot oven for 15 minutes.  Afterwards lower heat to 300 and cook covered 3-6 hours depending on size of roast.
If you choose to add onion, brown the onion whole (peeled) in oil and add it to the roasting pan.
About one hour before eating test roast for doneness. Remove lid and pour apricot jam over roast.  Baste every 20 minutes or so.
When ready to serve, remove roast from pan and cut or chunk it on a platter.    Spoon some of the juices over top.  Pour the rest of the juices into a small pitcher and allow guests to add more juicy sweetness to their servings.



(it is nearly 3 am Easter morning and I am weary to the bone.  I will post this and proof it later when I have more of my wits about me.  These late night postings are doing me in!)

Saturday, April 4, 2015

40. TOFFEE SQUARES (My sister, Libby)


Today I sang at another funeral.  There is something in the water around here, I swear, because I have sung for roughly one funeral a week since January. I thought of putting a sign over my front door:
“FUNERALS R US”
I love being able to praise and comfort through song, and I am grateful for the spirit that is always present at these sacred gatherings.
Today we buried our old friend Maureen Johnson. The service was lovely, filled with memories and funny stories, many of which reminded me of my mom.  Maureen’s granddaughter talked about her Grandma’s quirky practices, like salting her watermelon and putting a scoop of vanilla ice cream in half a cantaloupe, and wrapping green leaf lettuce around a spoonful of sugar and eating it. Oh my goodness, these were some of the quirky habits of my own childhood!
“QUIRKS R US”
While I was sitting near the front in the congregation, with my guitar, I heard a familiar sound from the lack of the chapel.  I immediately recognized the sound: the pitch, and the timing…all of it.  It was my sister, clearing her throat.  I looked back, searching for her. She was on the back row, where the handful of angel Relief Society sisters who were handling the family luncheon were sitting.  It was curious to me how badly I wanted to be sitting with her.  Maybe it was the emotion of a funeral, the sorrow of separation hovering over everything, but I had an almost desperate need to be sitting next to her. If we are in the same room, we are usually together.

Libby has been by my side most of my life; physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  She is the one human in this world with whom I am most comfortable.  She knows me in all my various versions; the me that shines in certain settings, the me that doubts herself, the pitifully sad hormonally driven monster me that appears a little too often for my liking.  Dave knows all of these versions as well, he just doesn’t quite know what to do with them.  I guess Lib has been dealing with them her whole life, and she has a way of letting me own my own struggles, while not removing herself from me in the process.  I guess it’s a sister thing.

There have been portions of our lives when Lib and I have not shared everything. Looking back, there really were some pretty big chunks of independence. I married at 19 and lived in Provo, while she stayed in Pittsburgh and worked for the airlines.  She worked her way up in TWA, transferring to Kansas City, then California.  Dave and I moved to New York, then back to Pittsburgh, then to Utah.  Eventually Libby was promoted to Regional Sales Manager for TWA and relocated to Salt Lake City.  She was a real career gal, being the youngest sales manager TWA ever had.  She was dynamic at what she did.  She traveled the world.  She hosted impressive clients, while never losing her down-to-earthness.  She earned the Alfred E Packard award for Eating the Competition Alive, but everyone, even her competitors, loved her.  She was busy making TWA the go-to airline for business travel, and I was busy churning out babies one after the other.  Still, she knew me and I knew her.  My kids were her kids.  And her God was my God. 
Libby, Mom and I were like the 3 Amigas. I remember one Easter weekend, years ago, walking around this very neighborhood wearing our Easter bonnets – straw hats to which we had glues tacky silk flowers, fake feathered birds and plastic eggs. Lib and I always did enjoy playing dress up. She was the world’s best playmate.  Seriously!  She owns half my creativity, because my whole life she went along with whatever crazy idea I had, and she owned the role she was assigned wholeheartedly, with gusto and imagination.

Last Sunday, in Primary, we role-played together with great ease.  She is Primary President, and I am Primary Chorister.  Dave and our sister Sherry are Primary teachers.  It’s a family affair, I tell you, on Sunday afternoons.  Primary is basically Sunday School for children in our church. We wanted to teach the kids about he Holy Week, in preparation for Easter.  So Dave wore his judge’s robe, and Libby was an attorney calling witnesses from back in time to testify that they had seen Jesus.  I had written the script, and it played out pretty sweetly. We had extra time in the end, and instead of Libby getting all nervous with what to do with an extra 15 minutes, I turned back to her and said “I’ve got this.” She nodded, and sat down, letting me wing it, trusting me completely. If I ever lost her trust I think I would cease to exist.
Libby and I are not completely alike.  She is more organized, and likes things more tidy than I do.  And yet she does not make me feel guilty for my propensity for making messes. She goes to the gym regularly, and rides her bike, and drinks lots of water and works in her yard.  I sit like a bump on a log.  But she still likes me, and I like her. She understands me, can sense when I need encouragement, compliments when everyone else assumes I feel successful enough to not need reassurance. Everybody needs a Libby!
Lib left her TWA job and moved to Boston back when my kids were all under my wing, but were also attached to hers.  I remember the night she told our kids she would be moving across the country.  Kate, who was maybe 5 years old, sat at the end of the dinner table and completely ignored her after she told us. Kate had spent so much time with Gram and Libby that I went through a period of mourning, thinking she had forgotten who her mother was. Her indifference to Libby’s announcement stung.  Twenty minutes later, when the other kids had finished their dinner and had asked to be excused, I looked down at the end of the table and there was Kate, her head hovering over her dinner plate.  I watched as a stream of tears fell onto her peas.  I looked at Libby, who had noticed her in silence, tears streaming down her own face.  She whispered Kate’s name. Kate looked up, clutched her fists to her chest and moaned, “It hurts right here.”
I imagine with great reverence the courage it had to take for Libby to move so far away.  Career-wise, it as a good move.  She was Director of Reservations and Marketing for Sheraton International, and she oversaw all their international reservations centers.  She has seen more of the world than the most wanderlusty dreamer could dream of.  After Boston, she moved to Chicago.  She loved every place she lived, mostly because she just tends to see the good around her wherever she goes. But at some point the Spirit whispered to her that this was not enough.  So she left a career as a well respected executive and came home.  Home,; where the arms of that little Kate was in need of unconditional acceptance, where her aging mother needed a graceful way to turn the page in her book of life, where her other nieces and nephews needed an ally in multi-generational mischief-making. Home, where her mother’s Real Estate expertise was needing to be shared and taught, where Primary kids and Young Women needed her influence, and where this old tag-along sister of hers needed her oldest companion to help her raise her kids. She sacrificed a lot to come home.  But she will not agree.  She will say it was an uneven trade, where the benefits far outweighed the sacrifice.
Libby and I have shared so much of our lives that it’s hard to tell who’s who.  In many ways I am her, and she is me. I wrote in a song about sisters:
“What is so clear now, I couldn’t see back then.
If you were not you, I would not be who I am.”

The poet, Christina Rosetti, wrote a wonderful epic poem called The Goblin Market.  It is a beautiful Christian allegory about the love of two sisters.  It’s a family favorite.  If I close my eyes and sit very still, I can almost hear my mother’s voice reading it aloud to us.  The last stanza of the poem reads:

On this blessed Good Friday I am reminded of the great gift of eternity that is promised to us after we die.  Maureen Johnson’s family is holding fast to that tonight, having left the body of their mother in the ground at Farmington Cemetery, not far from where our own mother is buried. I am grateful that my heart naturally leads my head in matters of faith.  And I have unwavering trust that my existence in that eternity includes my greatest treasures, not the least of which is my oldest and truest friend, my compadre, and partner in crime, my sounding wall and mentor, and gift from the start…my sister, Libby.

Here’s the recipe of our childhood, made at Christmastime by our mother, and repeated by all of us in her absence.

TOFFEE SQUARES
Gram

2 cup butter, softened
2 cups packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 egg yolks
4 cups Gold Medal® all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
2 cups milk chocolate chips or two large Hersheys milk choc bars
1 cup finely chopped walnuts