Saturday, January 31, 2009


A time or two, I've told the story here, briefly or at length. Unkie and Helen helped to raise me. At their big anniversary party a few years ago, Unkie introduced me to everyone as his oldest granddaughter. His guests would scratch their heads, probably doing the math and wondering if one of his girls had had a secret baby in her youth. He would laugh at their expressions and explain that when I was born, Mom got sick, so he and Helen took care of me, and I'd been their girl ever since.

Helen embroidered a pretty wallhanging when I was born. She made me beautiful dolls and sewed an activity book for me. Helen made me Christmas tree ornaments, too. When I got my appendix out, she and Unkie gave me a teddy bear that remains one of my favorite toys from childhood.

Unkie and Helen let me stay over a lot. Sometimes, my parents would arrange for my brother and me to come visit. Other times, my parents and I would be stopping at their farm for a moment, and I would beg to stay. Usually, Helen said yes. She would find some spare pajamas for me, and wash my face with cool, thick swipes of Noxema. Cool nights, she would tuck me in with mounds of quilts and cozy electric blankets, and I would fall asleep to the sounds of the hogs' waterers clanking.

Mornings, I would sneak into bed with Unkie and Helen. It must have been indecently early if they were still in bed, because they were early risers. Usually, Unkie would start to tickle me, or give me Tazmanian Devils (twisting my big toes). This often would continue until I screamed out, "Helen! Heleeeeeen! Save MEEEEEEEEEEE!" She always did: "Now, Dad, cut that out."

On summer mornings, Helen would smear my skinny arms and legs with sunscreen and Skin-So-Soft to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Then we would go play in the garden or the creek while Unkie farmed. We would sweep the playhouse and wipe down its surfaces with warm soapy water. There, I would pretend to cook for her, using empty spice tins.

Other days, we cooked for real. Helen let me make "marshmallow salad," which was a mix of mini marshmallows, raisins and chocolate chips in a Tupperware canister. When I was a little older, we started making candy. She would help me melt almond bark and chocolate in the "radar range." We would pour it into moulds in the shapes of bows and bells, or make chocolate peanutbutter cups and pops.

Then Helen began teaching me to bake. First she taught me how to make cinamon rolls. Together we mixed powders and liquids, kneaded it into dough--folding and pressing, lifting, turning and pounding-- and set the bowl of dough in the sun to rise. Once the cheesecloth covering the bowl arched, we uncovered the yeasty mass, punched it down and let it rise again.

She taught me how to flour the heavy rolling pin, roll the dough flat and brush it with butter, cinnamon and sugar. We rolled the pastry and sliced the rounds, which rose in the oven, filling the house with a heady sweet-spice scent. I got a purple ribbon at the county fair with those rolls. Another year, she taught me to make a seven-grain bread, so hearty I had to hold the mixing bowl between my legs and use both of my scrawny arms to stir. I would grunt with the effort, and Helen would laugh.

Helen and I would play dress-up. She had a box of costume jewelry, and she would help me select a necklace, and clip matching earings on my ears. She would put a little cherry chapstick on my lips. Helen would play with my hair and let me play with hers, or Unkie's, for that matter. In fact, once she even let me use her makeup to give him a makeover while he slept (or pretended to be asleep).

Her house was so clean that I was afraid to make a mess. A few times I did, and I was so afraid she would be mad both times. The first time, I threw up goulash on her brand new beige carpet. The second time, we were preparing thousands of strawberries and frosting thousands of pretzels for Karen's wedding when Karen and I got into a frosting fight. In the first case, she just told me, "Oh, that's okay, honey." In the second case, she ran to get a camera, and snapped several candid pictures of Karen and me, streaked with teal icing. I don't remember Helen ever yelling at me. She was amazingly patient and kind.

On a church trip a few years ago, Helen was on a boat that circled Manhattan. She told me afterword that it scared her to see the island, so big with its looming buildings, and imagine me on that island, so small and on my own. I hugged her and kissed her, because nothing I said seemed to make her less concerned.

I hope I'm remembering this story right, because its one that stuck in my head: when Helen traveled to Russia, her hosts had been marinating meat out on a counter all day long. With one bite, Helen knew if she ate it, she would be ill. Rather than hurt her hosts' feelings, she snuck each bite into her purse. It was told as a story of cultural differences, and mishaps abroad. For me, it was a lesson on how to be a lady. A lady is gracious and makes those around her feel at ease. Helen was truly a lady.

Thank you, Helen, for all the love and care you gave me. I will never forget it. I will never forget you.

Love always,

Monday, January 26, 2009

Through tears

Mom called over the weekend. She had to deliver bad news. Mom is the one who generally has to deliver bad news. She’s gotten better at it, though. When I was twelve and my cat died, Mom turned off my alarm clock, left a note and went to work. I woke up in a blind panic, and ran downstairs shouting, “We’re LATE!” The house was empty. My parents were gone, my brother was gone and the cat was gone. Then I found the note: “Sheba died in the night. You can stay home today. Love, Mom.” On the plus side, it was nice to have a day off to grieve.

This time, Mom was calling to tell me Aunt Helen had died. I knew bad news was coming from the long silences, during which all I could do was wonder who had passed away. When Mom finally told me, it took a while for the truth to sink in, even though Helen had been fighting cancer for years.

All I wanted was to go home. I began looking for flights. I have a Delta voucher, but the cheapest Delta flight was $1500. I did some more searching and found one for 1,100. Wow. Just 11% of my yearly pre-tax salary. I looked at buses and trains, which would have taken a day or two of traveling time. I looked into flying to nearby cities and driving into Des Moines. Nothing would take less than a day.

I called to discuss it with my parents. Mom warned me that weather might make my trip take even longer. Could I afford to spend that much and miss that much class and work? With two grandparents in the hospital, would I need to make another trip soon? I certainly hoped not, but what if I did? I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to come home so much, but intellectually I knew I couldn’t. I felt guilty. Mom told me it would be okay for me not to come, which I needed to hear.

Dad suggested that I could come home for Spring Break. Right now, Unkie, Karen, Lynn, Connor and Hannah would have many people around to comfort them and keep them company. During Spring Break, I’d probably be able to spend more time with them. I wanted to call and talk to them, but I told Dad I wanted to wait until I could do it without crying.

“That might take a few years,” he replied, making me chuckle through my tears.

My dad’s funny bone mainly emerges in three situations: 1- when he is interacting with small children, 2- during parties when he tells stories and jokes and 3- when I am crying.

When I was a child, I would be crying, and dad, in a baby-talk voice would croon: “Don’t laugh! Don’t laaa-augh!” or “Uh-oh. Careful with that lip sticking out. Some bird’s gonna poop on that lip!” I would get so mad, but would always crack up. When the tornado wrecked the farm, reporters were amazed at my parents’ good spirits. “Well, it’s either laugh or cry,” Dad replied.

Or, as in this case, both.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who's reading this thing?

Nobody responded to my last post. I began to wonder who actually reads this blog, if anyone at all. I inserted a counter (which I started off with the number of posts I've made since I started the blog). The counter shows how many people visit the blog. If they were referred from other web sites, the counter tells me which ones.

People are visiting, yay! In fact, more people are reading this blog than I had suspected. You all are just really quiet and non-comment-y.

A surprising number of my new visitors are here looking at my recipes, so I'm contemplating making this a cooking blog. I like simple, affordable recipes, so maybe I could call it "Cheap and Easy." Oh, my roommate Todd informs me that readers might get the wrong idea. Hmm. Scrap that, then.

Should I change the blog to attract more readers? I could post more often with shorter posts. I could make all my posts on one topic or gimmick. I could also make comments on more popular blogs to attract readers. Or instead of worrying about the number of readers, I could work on crafting more entertaining entries for the readers I already have.

If you have any suggestions, let me know. Don't be shy!

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Format

I've been wanting to jazz up the format for a while. I combined elements of the old format (the center section) with elements of a new one. What do you think? Should I go back to the old? Go all the way with the new format and get rid of the old entirely? I know most of you are lurkers, but I'd appreciate the feedback. Thanks!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mini flood. Also, when it rains, it pours. Prayers for Family.

I just had my first week of the new semester. My new composition class seems fun. They’re less feisty that the group I had less semester, but more diverse. They range in age from 18 to 25, and are of several majors, races and nationalities. That’s fun, because it adds different perspectives to their papers and class discussions.

This year, my workshops is different. They created a hybrid nonfiction-poetry workshop. Yes, my two specialties in one place! I’m taking a course on the craft of fiction. Except for models for my middle schoolers, I haven’t written fiction since 2002! I find fiction kind of intimidating, because it’s challenging to create a new world that manages to ring true.

My third class was supposed to be Post-Colonial Literature, but that class got cancelled (why do my classes always get cancelled?), so at the last minute I switched to “Imagining the Civil War.” When I got there, I discovered that it’s actually a history department course that counts for English credit. Noooooo! I will have to write a 20-page research paper on some aspect of the Civil War, with Teravian-style notation. I hate learning new forms of notation! For English, it’s MLA. For Education it was APA. Now this? Sigh.

When I was unpacking last week, I noticed that my skirt was wet, but couldn’t figure out why or how. Well, it had been snowing in Detroit…but the suitcase didn’t feel wet inside, only outside. I was puzzled. A few days later, I was walking across the carpet, and my sock felt damp. Had I spilled water? I couldn’t find a spill on the carpet.

Wednesday, my sock was WET. It was raining out, and there was an empty water bottle on the floor. Had the bottle leaked? Was the apartment flooding? I didn’t know. I got a towel and tried to dry the carpet…then a second towel…and a third. After the sixth towel, I called the emergency pager for our maintenance crew.

I realized that the closer I got to my bookshelves and the wall to the laundry closet, the wetter the carpet was. Rakel and Todd helped me carry all my books, my bookshelves and desk into the living room. (The living room looks like Strand!) Verdant mold was climbing more than an inch up the sides of the bookshelves. The leak had apparently been going for a while.

The maintenance guys showed up with a shop vac and drying fan. Over the next few days, they ripped up the carpet and sucked up the worst of the liquid, fixed the leak, opened the wall, and set up the fan to dry it all out. For days, I lived in a wind tunnel (resulting in model hair, Gilda hair, or a resemblance to Cousin It, depending on who you ask). Then, unbeknownst to me, they put up the same square of plaster. I think it was moldy! The guys assure me the plaster is fine, because it dried out, but Virginia is humid! I would prefer not to have deadly black mold growing in my walls. I’m crazy like that.

Oh, and to top it all off, Grandpa Kiley, Grandpa Staker and Aunt Helen are all in the hospital. Grandpa Kiley had to have a heart bypass, which Mom said went well. Grandpa Staker had congestive heart failure, I think? I was kind of in shock when Mom told me. Helen needed fluids. I'm having trouble with everyone being so sick. Funny how I sometimes write least about the things that are most important. Well, if I'm honest, it's harder to write about painful things. I hate being so far away. If I was there, at least I could give people hugs. They are in my prayers.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Nieces and niceties

Sunday, we were going to attempt a do-over Christmas with Dad’s parents. Once again, weather didn’t permit. Sigh. This week, I did get to visit my nieces and Kelly, my college roomie. Monday afternoon I went to visit the girls, bearing presents from my Mom and Aunt Sandy, including kids music and a string of Disney Princess lights.

I was amazed to find that, after all this time, Brooke’s favorite thing to do is STILL to play Peter Pan. The average visit requires at least 8 rounds of Peter Pan. Brooke tries to run the show, so I would occasionally stop to ask what Courtney wanted to do. Brooke would say, “You have to go back to the ship!” “I don’t have to,” I would reply. She would grin, good-naturedly, and I would see the gears turn in Brooke’s head. “You don’t have to, but you could. It would be fun.” Hee.

J.B. came home for supper, and as usual, I enjoyed Erika’s cooking. I meant to get the recipe for the cheesy chicken with flakey pastry(along with her goulash recipe), but I forgot. I stayed until bedtime, when I helped read the girls their stories. I explained to Brooke that the last time I went away, it was for four months, and it would probably be four months until I saw her again. She sighed dramatically and flopped back on her pillows: “I’ll never see you again!” Heh. Courtney not only knows who I am, she was actually clamoring for me to come and read to her. Every time I see them, they’re so much bigger and more mature.

Tuesday, after a day of packing, I drove to Grimes to visit Kelly. Kelly made pizza, and I tried to just have a tiny bit. You see, Mom knows I love her split pea soup, and it was one of the few signature soups she hadn’t made during my visit. She started it that morning , not knowing I was going to see Kelly. Well, I ended up eating several pieces of pizza. It was nice to chat with Kelly, and when I got home, I still managed to find room for soup. That night, I gave my parents hugs goodbye.

The next day, I managed to gather all my belongings together and made my way to the airport, where I took a bump! Yes, I agreed to take a later flight in exchange for $200 off my next Delta flight. The nice fellow at the counter even figured out a flight that would get me home sooner than I was originally getting in. Magic!

The flight into Norfolk was rough. I was actually scared as we landed. I’m a good flyer, but the turbulence was nauseating. I was getting scary plane crash images in my head, but I closed my eyes and prayed. Once we were safely on the ground, I thought perhaps I had been overreacting. However, there were several Air Force pilots on the flight, and they went up to the pilot to shake his hand, compliment him, and thank him for getting us down safely. Eep! I think I should have been MORE scared! That said, I made it home safely, and when I got to the apartment, I hadn’t been burglarized. Who can ask for anything more?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In with the New Year.

It is bitterly cold in Iowa, but the sunsets are gorgeous. I joked with Dad that it's God's way of compensating us: "'I will make is miserable, but gorgeous!'" All I’ve gotten done so far in 2009 is a little painting. I wanted to do something for Unkie and Helen. I adore them, and besides Christmas it was also Helen’s birthday. Helen collects pig decorations, as they used to be pig farmers. (My cousin Connor has revived the operation a bit.)

I painted a small wooden box leftover from last year when I painted boxes for my friends. I took it to Unkie and Helen when dad went to their house to feed sheep. After the tornado, Unkie took in part of the flock. Dad has built a new barn, but it can’t quite house all the sheep right now. Plus, I suspect Dad likes being able to chat with Unkie. Unkie likes to tease Dad about his reticence to sell sheep and his tendency to chore in the dark.

Unkie has gotten a lot of mileage out of a story about the time he heard a strange noise in the middle of the night. What could that possibly be? He warily made his way out to the barn, only to find my dad, chopping a big, round hay bale with a chain saw. Hee!

When I got into Unkie and Helen’s house, it was a bit chaotic because a light had just exploded for some reason! Everyone liked the pig box, though, and it was a nice visit. Helen’s been really sick—facing a tough combination of lung cancer and the flu—but she was starting to get her voice back. Their daughter Carla was still visiting, and while I was there I didn’t get to see the adorable Hannah or Lynn, but Karen and Connor stopped by. Connor was on a mission to detect the short or surge that had taken out the light.

Connor was telling me about his Christmas gifts. When I’d seen him last, his mother said (with a TONE), “Tell Erin what you’re getting for Christmas.” “A potato!” Me: “Baked for supper, or a Mr. Potato or what?” Karen said, “No, a potato. And a carrot. Tell her why, Connor.” He informed me that when giving his Christmas wish list, he’d been unable to come up with anything that cost less than $200 (like many adolescent boys, Connor longs for costly video game systems). Then one day, he mentioned wanting a baked potato. “Well,” Karen replied with a clap, “That we can do.” On Christmas morning, he did receive a potato and a carrot…and a new cell phone. Heh.

Connor shuffled his feet the whole time he described making some kind of hammer with the potato…a tomahawk, perhaps? (Apparently, it didn’t hold up well to impact.) Unkie admonished him to hold still while talking to me. I laughed and told Unkie that my Child Psychology professor (I love you, Sholly!) taught me that adolescent boys concentrate better while moving, and if you really want them to learn something, tell them while playing catch. “Well, I’ll be darned,” Unkie said. “See!” Connor exclaimed, “I’m not crazy!” I laughed, knowing that I’d just given the young man license to fidget like the dickens.

Since then, I’ve finished a red, white and blue box for my Kiley grandparents and another for my Gilbaugh grandparents, yellow with purple accents, proclaiming “Peace, Love and Joy!” Grandma Carol told me once that she tries to live her life for joy. She hopes that’s how she’s remembered. I hope she likes it. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get to see her this visit. Sigh. Well, I’m not visiting as many people as I’d planned to, but at least I’m catching up on my rest and my writing.