Monday, September 26, 2011

Harvest in Aroostook County

Harvest in Aroostook County has a long-standing tradition of making honest young men out of gangly, pimply-faced boys and strong, hard-working young women out of teenaged girls. Harvest in Aroostook County can be a turning point for many young people, a serious of pivotal moments, usually occurring just as the sun rises above the foggy river to the East, when they learn exactly how much Mother Earth will demand of their time and bodies. They may greet the prospect of a potato harvest job with enthusiasm as joyful thoughts of spending their own money parade in their heads. Or perhaps they revel in the break from school, imagining how much better their time spent outside the class room will be, not solving algebraic equations or deciphering dangling participles, instead kickin’ around a few potatoes.

The rude and often bleary-eyed 5:00 A.M. awakening is that nobody really prepares them for the reality of working the potato harvest in Aroostook County. You can warn your eager teenager about how terribly their back is going to ache and throb after awkwardly leaning at a 60° angle for nine hours as a moving harvester belt rushes by, although they may not heed your experienced caution. You can scold them to bed by 8:00 P.M., encouraging them to “get some good sleep” as they roll their eyes at you and unwillingly plod to their bedroom, mumbling about not being tired. You want to remind them of how the darkest hours of morning always arrive too soon, but you don’t. You will tell them to dress warmly and to always keep a spare chap stick in their pocket and an extra box of band-aids in their cooler, but the invaluable minutiae of potato harvest experience will come to them much the same it came to you; the hard way.

There is no time to flat iron your morning bed-head hair or apply perfect mascara and make-up at 5:00 in the morning. The discomfort of reluctantly crawling out from under the warm blankets and fumbling in the dark for flannel layers and long warm socks is frigidly humbling as you barely find time to wipe the crusty sleep from your eyes and pass a toothbrush through your mouth; hopefully with toothpaste. A warm woolen hat pulled down to your ears proves difficult for a good hair-do, even if your hair normally falls in just the right places when you toss your head. Your usual routine of careful wardrobe selection and meticulous grooming is suddenly exchanged for grabbing ratty, mismatched tops and bottoms and reaching for whichever pair of gloves smells the least like a dead animal. And after just one day of cold mud and the chill of rotten potatoes seeping through your very pores, you learn the valuable potato harvest lesson #612: clothing choice based on warmth and practicality is far more important than wearing the jeans that make your butt look good.

Even when you’ve learned to dress warmly and in layers, you still greet the early morning with a thread of hope that you’ll see raindrops against your bedroom window pane as you open the blinds. You flip on the TV to The Potato Picker’s Special on WAGM-8, squinting at the bright screen in the dark living room, waiting, hoping to see your farmer’s name scroll across the bottom of the screen followed by “not digging today” or at least “late start 10:00AM.” Seven days a week, all hours the sun shines and so many hours it doesn’t, you sort, dig, pick and handle potatoes.

And despite it all, the dust in your eyes from the harvester fan, the dull ache in your lower back and the seemingly never-ending sea of un-dug potato rows, you accept and complete your job. This is harvest and there’s work to be done, but also there’s fun to be had. You never have quite heard a whoop of joy until you tell a tired bunch of teenagers in the potato house that the harvester has “broke down.” Those are the moments we reveled in, flipping open our lunch pails, eager to see what special foods our mothers had packed us that day. Our hands were dirty as we reached into those small tin cans of Vienna Sausages, wiping the salty gel onto our pants and feeling around for the dish of mustard we hoped she didn’t forget to pack. We wallowed in all the Twinkies, Nutty Bars, Pringles, Potato Stix and cans of soda our hearts desired, loving every bite of our harvest lunches and knowing our usual healthy diets would return along with our usual sleep and school schedules all too soon.

We learned a few life lessons no class room could ever teach us and we heard jokes our mothers would have definitely disapproved of. But we were growing up and a stretch of the bridge that took us from kid to adult was on a potato farm.

We met and bonded with new friends from surrounding towns, our less-than-glamorous working conditions setting the stage for loyal friendships to grow and remain, even when we would face one another on the basketball court five months later.

There was something about working the potato harvest that set us kids apart from the rest of the state. We had the inside scoop on what sustained our local economy and we lent a hand, albeit a muddy, blistered hand, in helping to bring another local Aroostook County tradition to completion and we were stronger, healthier, wiser and richer kids because of it.

I’m the mother now and I’m the one packing the lunch pail for my 14 year old son. I now understand how my mother must have felt when her grocery list included the junk food mine currently does. And the dial on my washing machine will stay on “2nd rinse” for a few more weeks. I somehow forgot exactly how many pair of gloves a 12 hour shift requires and I also forgot that one pair of harvest work boots can stink up an entire garage. I smile when he complains about being tired and I just hold my breath when the stench of rotten potatoes follows him through my front door. But mostly, I’m proud to see that despite so many differences between his generation and mine, some things really do stay the same and I’m thankful my kid is part, truly part of Harvest in Aroostook County.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Yes, cupcakes again.

I’ve only got them for a short, fleeting few years before college acceptance letters begin arriving in the mail and they’re chucking their packed bags into the back seat of a beat up Volkswagen bus with a bunch of floppy-haired college freshman and I’m left with empty bedrooms, walls of old Johnny Depp posters, small fingerprints and no idea how I even got there. He’s almost 15 and for the love of Pete if you think three years is a long way off, you’ve never had children. It’s about as long as one of those extra-long blinks you have in your 3PM afternoon budget meeting. The one where a 3rd cup of coffee would keep you up all night but if you don’t close your eyes for just a few minutes you’re likely to slide under your desk. Your eyes are closed just long enough to exhale and it’s over. I’m almost on the exhale. I’ve almost mothered them to that safe place where they’re expected to make good choices without me hovering over them singing “remember your good choices.” I’ll exhale a both a sigh of relief that I helped them reach adulthood relatively unscathed and a sigh of regret that I didn’t have them longer.

She asked for cupcakes on her 13th birthday, which also happened to be her first day of the fabulous 7th grade and a home soccer game. Then she asked for cupcakes for the rest of her soccer team. Then those adorable little punks asked for more cupcakes at the next game. Then, of course, they wanted more. Who wouldn’t want more cupcakes when you’re 13 and already covered in sprinkles? Isn’t sugar and spice and everything nice part of what makes being a middle school aged girl fun, sweet and not-yet a full blown teenaged catastrophe? I love her and I adore the gaggle of girls who keep asking me for more cupcakes.

“My god why do you keep bringing them cupcakes?” “That’s a bit much, isn’t it?” “Are you going to do this all the time?”

They’re not for you.

They’re for the sweet daughter of mine who is growing, changing and crossing over into her own world full of battles, decisions and conflicts that sometimes pull her in the opposite direction of me. It may be temporary, but it’s a rough few years and if bringing her special cupcakes at every game is what brings us close together that day, I’m all over it in that checkered apron my grandmother made for me.

My intentions always come from a place of love. If you’d like to treat my child to brownies or ice cream sundaes, please do; I don’t think there can ever be enough loving adults in a kid’s life. Anyway, I’m under qualified for the Best Mommy Award because I sold my mom jeans in my last garage sale and I don’t even own a pair of Keds.

Besides all that, a good portion of my days are spent scrubbing toilets, sorting laundry, taxiing to swimming or music lessons and reading Frog & Toad books with a six year old. Being able to bring a heaping pile of frosted joy to some hot, tired, soccered-out kids is a welcomed highlight to my otherwise wonderful, but very routine life.

I don’t mind if my cupcakes annoy you.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I can't forget.

I don’t need to re-watch footage of terrified people falling hundreds of stories to their horrific deaths. I don’t want to see the Boeing 767 planes heading straight for the World Trade Center towers, holding my breath that they’ll somehow miss, even though I know they won’t. I don’t want to watch the backs of those brave first responders as they unknowingly run towards their death. I can’t listen to the desperate screams of emergency phone calls for help, as phone operators tried to keep the victims calm, not knowing they would be the last person to ever speak to them.

I don’t want to look at the mug shots of the al qaeda terrorists, their dark, sinister eyes reminding me that not everybody is capable of love.

I didn’t lose my husband, child, parent or friend to the rubble, but somebody else did and I wonder how it feels to have an entire country reminding you.

I remember what happened on September 11, 2001. I remember where I was, exactly what I was doing and how I felt the moment I heard the breaking news. I remember my curly-headed toddler in the red wagon with me that morning. I remember the confused McDonald’s workers, staring blankly at the television monitor instead of making breakfast sandwiches and pouring hot coffees. I remember my boyfriend’s frantic phone call to me, his voice crackling with panic as if the dreadfulness was somehow also in our town.

Respectfully, silently and with less blustery patriotism, we can show those who lost that we still remember. This is not the time to whoop and holler. This is the time to turn off your television and hug your kids. This is not the time to damn the terrorists to hell. This is the time to shake a soldier’s hand and make a donation to your local food pantry. This is not the time to commemorate the ten year ‘anniversary’ of the attacks by spreading virtual flags and flowers around Facebook. This is the time to exercise your right to vote and send a care package to a soldier. This is the time to say more by saying less.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

lunch money

I am suddenly stuck with the notion that perhaps they are becoming something more than just my children. They are growing into themselves, soaring above my expectations. They are running past my outstretched arms towards their own visions of the good life.

He was just five when I met him, still excited about nightly bubble baths, sword fighting and smitten with my homemade pancakes. She was the dimpled shining star who took hold of my soul and breathed new life into my family, coming into my world the exact moment she was needed. And him, the smallest one of them all, is the child who reminds me there will be no more. He is my last child. He is the last to learn to tie his shoes, the last to stop believing in Santa Claus, the last to let me rock his small sleepy body. I can never kiss or smell the top of his head just once, as if the scent of “last baby” is somehow more bewitching than any other.

The years pass as if I’ve wished them away. He goes off to college in less than four years and she is a teenager tomorrow.

And him? He’s still happy to hold my hand.

Another back-to-school morning awaits my teenagers; the backpacks are stocked, the lunch money checks are written and they’re eager to find their way. I never thought I’d find my way to mothering teenagers but somehow, some way, here I am. And there they go.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I knew this day was coming.

Like a freight train rolling down the tracks it crept closer one square calendar day at a time. I kept looking ahead to the dwindling days of summer as though they would never actually have an end. There couldn’t possibly be anything more to this familiar life than baseball, ice cream and home. Could there? This brown-eyed boy and I would continue on our regularly scheduled agenda as nothing monumental was waiting just around the corner. Right?

It’s just pre-k I kept telling myself. It’s a playgroup for four year olds and we need the quiet time, I affirmed to my reflection as I curled my hair and powdered my nose. He needs to spread his wings and be taught another way to fly, I repeated, not quite believing myself but not disbelieving either. I need to give my Boy and Girl the kind of attention that an energetic four year old boy can only hinder, I reminded myself, all the while second-guessing my intentions and plans for the school year.

But no matter how firmly I planted my feet at the starting line, my knees were undoubtedly weak when the gun sounded. I listened this morning as his father quietly explained what the word “nervous” meant and whether or not he was feeling that way. I listened as he chatted on about every early morning thought he could think of. I filled his new backpack with all the things I thought he might need while reminding myself that goldfish pretzels and a juice box would be enough and that adding a photo album of us might be overdoing it. It’s only three hours, I reminded myself with a bit of embarrassment at the knot looming in the back of my throat.

He slurped his honey nut Cheerios and talked with his mouth full.

I slowly sipped my coffee and blinked my eyes often.

I made slow, deliberate moves in a subconscious effort to delay the inevitable while he couldn’t move his small feet fast enough. It must have been the new sneakers.

You talked incessantly on the ride to your new school. I listened as though I was bringing you to boot camp and wouldn’t be seeing you again for six weeks. Honestly, I sometimes wonder how I muddle through life being such a sentimental slop.

You took big steps; again those new sneakers seemed really something. You let me kiss your cheek and didn’t look back as you took your teacher’s hand, which was probably for the best because watching your Mama snivel while wiping her nose on her sleeve is never a good way to start your morning.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Waffle night

We’ve all got family traditions and memories from our childhood, things our parents always made sure to do with us and for us. We remember things like pizza night or movie night, silly made up songs that were only sung at bedtime, private handshakes or speaking in secret code when out in public just because it’s entertaining (well, my Girl and Boy hardly think that one’s much fun but I still use my own version of Pig Latin in the grocery store just to see exactly how much embarrassment I can cause them. It’s the small things in life.). It’s what every parent strives for: giving their children happy memories to carry them into adulthood. Life is just one set of memories after another and we’re all just hoping they’re good ones.

On Friday nights I like to make a colossal stack of pancakes for Saturday morning breakfasts. And the reason I don’t make them in the mornings is because I don’t like mornings. I don’t like doing anything other than getting caffeinated before 7:00 AM and I’d never get around to making the batter if I didn’t do it the night before. I think it’s nice that I know myself so well.

But on Sunday nights I make waffles. Waffles are so different than pancakes because they require more preparation and always seem to taste more special. I don’t know why this is, but the reaction I get from making a batch of waffles always has loads of cheering and “I LOVE YOU MAMA” ‘s.

Because I’m a really good friend and blogger who likes to please, I’m going to share my waffle making with you. You’ll never be the same, I promise. You might even cheer and tell me that you love me too.

It all starts with a good recipe doesn’t it? I tried tons of them too before I found The One. You know that feeling when you find a good recipe and everything just works together in harmony and it’s beautiful? I found that waffle recipe.

It’s really old, wrinkled and covered in dry batter. But I don’t care because I love it. I fantasize about this piece of paper being passed from my daughter to her daughter in a deeply special family tradition.

Shall we move on to dry ingredients? This blog entry is going to be incredibly stimulating – I know you’re gripping the sides of your chair in anticipation right now. But, sadly, this is the most boring part of the process because everything is white and powdery, not much excitement happening. Although every once and a while I’ll use one less quarter teaspoon of salt just to arouse my wild side. I get so nervous when I do that! And then I have a shot of pineapple rum.

Things really start getting electrifying from here on out. Do you like eggs? Do you even realize how much fun eggs can be? Unless you have yourself a super fancy egg white separator from Pampered Chef you’re not actually living. I force Mother Nature to do something completely against her will: physically removing an egg yolk from its slimy cytoplasm! And yes, I had to Wiki that one, so did you.

It looks so slippery and gooey! I always gag a little while listening to the sounds of slimy cytoplasm dripping all over itself into a big steel bowl. It looks eerily similar to a big bowl of boogers, doesn’t it?

Aw! Look! A little bowl full of baby chicks! Hi baby chicks.

Why aren’t they peeping and chirping? Are they sleeping? I just want to scratch behind their fluffy yellow ears. Do chickens even have ears? Give me a minute – I need to research this…..



Yes! According to an extremely reliable Wiki Answers article, chickens do indeed have ears.

Okay I need to focus and get myself back on task.

Aw! Look! A bowl full of baby chicks swimming in milk!

I wisk those baby chicks until they become one with the milk. It’s always a good baking and cooking practice to prepare your dry and wet ingredients separately. It’s not always more convenient but it sure makes the batter yummier and more consistent. And when it comes to waffles, baby I know what I’m talking about.

Wisk it! Wisk it Good! (Do you remember that cheesetastic “Whip It” music video by Devo? No, me either.)

It’s time to make those wet and dry ingredients settle down and start a family. It’s all about creating the memories right? They’ve put it off long enough and neither of them are getting any younger. I don’t care if they go kicking and screaming – they’re making baby waffles.

Next is the completely unglamorous addition of canola oil. It does nothing for your waffles other than keep them from getting stuck to the iron and ending up completely torn, ruined and ugly. I tried omitting the oil once and ending up sobbing and banging my head against the garbage can for hours. Learn from my mistakes.

Let’s turn our attention once again to that big steel bowl of slimy cytoplasm! It’s time to make the egg whites work for you. They have the ability to make your waffles fluffier than anything from your wildest dreams. My recipes tells me to “beat them stiffly” but whenever I see the worlds “beat” and “stiffly” together my mind tends to wander and since I keep a CLEAN KITCHEN I just whip ‘em until they beg for mercy. Then I tie them up and call them bad names.

I continue to abuse them about three minutes before they turn into meringue. Meringue, tasty in its own right, has no place in waffle batter but is divine atop my Mum’s coconut cream pie. Mmmmm….pie.

Now we begin the most delicate part of the recipe. It’s time to blend our batter with our STIFFLY BEATEN egg whites (I assume you’ve had enough of me calling them slimy cytoplasm?).

I can’t perfectly stress the importance of being gentle here. You must treat the egg whites as though she were a delicate flower, likely to wilt and die if handled too roughly. You can do nothing but take your sweet, unhurried time when combining the batter with the egg whites. Turn and fold tenderly. Use your wisk like an artist uses a paint brush. Tell your batter how pretty she is today. Ask your egg whites if she’s lost weight. Don’t let the whites lose their fluffiness because that’s the secret to the most magical, most scrumptious waffles on Earth. IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO CHEER WHEN YOU BRING OUT THE WAFFLES THEN YOU NEED TO FOLD GENTLY.

It’s Go Time baby. Give that hot iron a good ladle full of your hard work. Start in the middle and drizzle outward. Too much and you’ll have goo cascading down over the sides of your iron. Too little and you’ll end up with crispy-edged waffles. Practice and eat the imperfect ones – nobody will notice.

Set your timer FOR TWO MINUTES AND FORTY SECONDS. You’re probably wondering why I’m yelling at you? Because I’ve been doing this every Sunday night since my Boy and Girl were ages three and five, which means I’ve perfected this recipe approximately….wait….5 times 9…carry the 2….THREE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY NINE TIMES. There aren’t many things in life I have full confidence about, but making delicious waffles is definitely one of them. So set your timers.

Oh my goodness the suspense is killing me! Do you even know what is happening under there?? Magic. That’s what. Open the lid of your iron slowly and take a deep breath of hot waffle air. “Hot Waffle Air.” If I could bottle that smell and sell it I’d be rich and famous. It’s the smell of always being loved.

I need to take a minute and discuss the other wonderful characters that make this Sunday night meal so complete and good for you. Real Maple Syrup should be taken for granted, implied and always assumed. If you are living in Maine and do not use Real Maple Syrup then shame on you! And it’s August. If you are not using freshly picked blueberries then you should be dragged out into the street and shot. Or just go to the school farm and get yourself some fresh blueberries and forget my last sentence. Butter. We don’t have to actually talk about the butter. It can just an unspoken, sinful agreement.

All that’s left is to live your life in TWO MINUTES AND FORTY SECONDS intervals. Turn that batter into pure love. You may find that you have extra time while the waffles cook. I like to let my mind wander towards images of Benicio Del Toro's sweaty chest. Or maybe you could think about whether or not you’re doing enough for the environment? Endangered animals? Global warming? Or you could just take pictures of your newly manicured toes. Which I did, by the way, but I’ve already accosted you with too many pictures as it is. You don’t really want to see my cute toe polish. Oh. You do?? Okay, if you insist….

When all is said and done, you’ll have a steaming stack of devotion to give to the people you love the most. It’s one of my favorite things about being their Mum. In all reality, I like nothing more than making them good food and watching them feel full and happy.

Every Sunday night I bank on my perfect waffles canceling out all the neurotic tirades that will inevitably begin on Monday morning.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Sometimes you just need three green buckets.

And filling up your three green buckets early in the morning (as Mama stumbles around the yard, drinking her coffee and complaining about getting sprayed with the hose) so the water will be a perfectly warmed temperature by suppertime is a really wonderful idea. There’s something so refreshing about dipping your toes into water that’s been kissed by the sun for six hours. It can cool you and warm you all at once.

The water begs for your toes, knees and elbows to wade deeper. Just a few inches deeper. You reach for the bottom and wiggle your fingers on the way up. You pause to scratch for a booger.

It wants you to make yourself as small as possible and dive in. Don’t be shy. The water’s fine. If you can’t fit in this bucket, try another one. This is all very fun and makes you extraordinarily happy.

That feels nice doesn’t it? You tell your Mama how you wish to be as small as a grasshopper so you can swim in the green bucket. You can even put your face into the water and blow bubbles. You make her laugh with your funny grasshopper jokes. She's actually laughing at how your butt crack is showing but you don't know this.

You try and use your big muscles and pick it up, but there needs to be less water. You look to see if Mama notices how big your muscles are. As you pour, you listen and watch as it trickles over your toes, across the pavement and down the hill. "We are watering the neighbor’s apple tree with our bucket water!" you say. You ask to go visit the neighbors but I remind you how you’ve already been to see them twice today.

You get excited because water is cascading over your feet. You know exactly how much to leave in the green bucket. Just enough. Big muscles don’t grow on just anybody you know. But when a person is four years old, their muscles grow to epic proportions.

With your strong arms you pick up the emptied bucket and give yourself the happiest of showers, which is exactly what you’ve been waiting for. It doesn’t matter that you’re wearing clothes. It doesn’t matter that somebody might be watching. You feel good. Three green buckets and strong muscles.