Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Wild Long-Ago Halloween

I don't celebrate Halloween, and never have.  Too dark and evil and full of death for my taste.  I can't even handle a costumed Grim Reaper with a plastic scythe wandering around Costco like I saw today.

However, there was that one Halloween many years ago. . .

I think it was the year I was back home after teaching in Oregon.  My little sister Margaret was probably 14, and I had determined to make it a fun year for her, hopefully undoing some of the damage I inflicted in earlier years [don't ask.]  So we had lots of crazy adventures, like going to see "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at the college I attended and dragging Mom to "The Sound of Music" at Atwater High School for the one and only musical of her life.

One fall day we were all eating supper together and suddenly realized it was Halloween.  Hey!  one of us said, We should do something!

Margaret and I pondered this.  A prank?  A joke of some kind?  Certainly dressing up.  We loved to dress up in costume.  And surprising someone.  Maybe Marcus and Anna, our brother and his wife, who lived just up the road.

Yes, definitely Marcus and Anna.

We thought some more and then at the same time we looked at each other and said, "AMISH!!"

Instantly we were buzzing with plans while Mom chuckled in spite of herself and said, "Ach, girls."

After supper we raided Mom and Dad's closet for the Old Order outfits they kept on hand to wear to Amish funerals.

Margaret dressed up in Mom's Amish dress and her schatz and hals-duch, a mass of pins and polyester.  She wore jet-black hose and Mom's black shoes and bonnet and as I recall an old pair of cat-eye glasses.  She even found an ancient black purse.

She looked an absolute sight.

I wore Dad's white Sunday shirt and his gray mutza suit and his black church shoes and his black hat.  I was also an absolute sight.

Except I looked too girlish.

So I smeared Vaseline all over my jaw and Margaret helped me press coffee grounds onto it and suddenly I was transformed into a young Amishman with a good start on his beard.

Mom was amazed.  "Du gooksht vee's Chonnys' boova," she said.  "You look like Johnny's boys."  Our cousins.

She also said, "Margaret, don't you hold Lenny on your lap, with all those pins."

We drove down the road to Marcus and Anna's and knocked at the door.  Anna opened it.

Margaret in her big black bonnet opened the big black purse, held it out, and said, "Trick or treat!"

Anna made an exclamation of some kind and then she started laughing.  She laughed and laughed and bent over and laughed some more.  Marcus came up behind her to see what was going on and he simply howled.

They managed to invite us inside, where we sat primly on the couch while Marcus and Anna collapsed into chairs and laughed and laughed like I've never seen them laugh before or since.

Marcus played along and asked us questions and we pretended to be an old married couple with eight children.  Margaret said our oldest son just got a job in town, and I hung my head and said, Dad-like, "Ya, mir gleiches net,"  [Yeah, we don't like it...] and Marcus laughed so hard he nearly passed out.

Little Annette stood around looking bewildered and Lenny sat on someone's lap--not Margaret's--and couldn't figure out what was going on.

We rode this horse as far as it could take us, all with straight faces on our part, and then when Marcus and Anna were exhausted from laughing we got up to go home.

Anna offered to find some candy to put in our black purse.

We went home and even Mom and Dad had to laugh at us, and then we carefully returned our clothes to Mom and Dad's closet and washed the beard off my chin.

Every Halloween, we remember.

This morning I got a text from Margaret: Shall we dress up Amish 2nite?
I responded: Ha ha I was just thinking about that!
She said: And I wd love 2 see u in a coffee beard.

When I was in Minnesota in September I got to see one of "Chonny's boova," Truman, who is a bit older than me.  He was a visiting speaker at the church there and came to see Mom.  I'll let you judge whether or not we still look alike.  These days his beard is more ashes than coffee grounds.

A crazy sister memory is worth more than a sackful of Halloween candy any day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

I Am Not a Teenager

Hello Internet world. This is Emily, Dorcas Smucker's middle child, hijacking her mother's blog in order to set the record straight on one important(ish) matter.

While reading the comments on this blog and on my mother's posts on Facebook, I frequently hear myself and my siblings collectively referred to as "teenagers."

Technically, we only have two teenagers in this house. Steven, who will turn 19 in a week, and Jenny, who is 14.

However, Steven is an adult who has finished high school and is making his own life decisions. That makes Jenny the only one still in the "teenager" stage of life. The other five of us are college age or older.

Of course it's not that big of a deal to be misperceived as a teenager when it's only been four years since I was one. But the shift between being a child under parental authority and being a functioning adult is one of the most significant changes a modern youth goes through, and it is slightly irritating to be constantly placed on the other side of that divide.

To set the record straight, let me briefly summarize the differences between 18-year-old Emily and 23-year-old Emily.

When I was eighteen, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had never lived away from my parents. I could drive, but I was uncomfortable behind the wheel. I knew virtually no one outside of my small Mennonite community. I was scared to do "grown up" things like go to the bank and apply for a job.

Now, at 23, I have picked a career goal and am working toward it. Though I currently live with my parents, I've lived away from home quite a bit, and amassed a vast circle of diverse acquaintances. (And by diverse, I mean that one of them ended up being an accomplice to a murder and had to flee the country.) I know who I am and where I am headed in life, unlike the 18-year-old who didn't have a clue.

The sad truth is, this blog is no longer a blog about a houseful of teenagers. It's a blog about a houseful of 20-somethings with one teenager thrown in the mix.

At this stage of live, instead of spouting phrases like "you're grounded!" and "what time are you going to be home?", the author of this blog is more likely to say, "Oh! He's a single man of great fortune, Emily. He MUST be in want of a wife."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Romance: Real and Pretend

Jenny has been reading Francine Rivers's Mark of the Lion series.  Emily and Jenny were discussing the characters and plot lines of the first book.

Jenny: It says Marcus smiled sardonically.
Emily: So you know she'll end up with him.

A few questions for you gentle readers who do not live in a novel:

1. Have you ever seen a real guy smile "sardonically?"

2. Do you even know what "sardonically" means?

3. If you do, and he did, did you immediately know he was The One?

Just f.y.i., Merriam-Webster says that sardonically means "disdainfully or skeptically humorous :  derisively mocking."

The guys I've seen with such a smile were either far too full of themselves to be impressive or trying to be something they weren't, or both.

Francine Rivers is a good writer.  She should know better.

Or is it just the nature of escapist books that you have to have a few cliches?

If a guy strides into the room, you know he'll be important later on.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery's books, the right guy always has curly hair.  And he likes cats, which works in real life I admit.

"His muscular frame filled the doorway."

If both characters are convinced they're not worthy of the other, watch out. 

"He could feel her quickened pulse as her heart pounded violently."

"His eyes bored deep into her soul."

I'm asking my fine daughters for examples here, which you may have guessed.

In our many conversations about courtship and finding The Right One, smiling sardonically never comes up.

Which should tell us all something.

Quote of the Day:
Me: I need some ideas for cliche lines from romance novels.
Emily: Gazing at her intently, he pulled out his hearing aids and laid them aside.
Emily: I just wanted something you could relate to.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


When I was eight years old we got our first car.

It was a very big deal.  I believe it was a brown Pontiac that Dad bought for something like $50.  Seeing Dad behind the wheel of the car for the first time was also a very big deal.

We then had a succession of cars because they kept dying, being old and used when we bought them, and also they kept getting smashed up since they didn't stop when Dad pulled on the steering wheel and shouted "WHOA!"

I'm sort of kidding there--not sure he ever did that, but he didn't have an easy transition from horses and buggies to cars.

I still remember the radios in those old cars.  They had these cool buttons, like a row of Chiclets, that you could push in and pretend you were controlling the car--push the right button and the car eases to the right, and so on.

Kind of like this:

We didn't play the radio because Dad had disconnected it and removed the antenna.  It was ok for us to have a car now (painted black) but the radio was too much.

Some years later Dad got a bit sloppy and only removed the antenna, a little glitch we found easy to overcome, so then he also pulled the fuse out of the little fuse box.

On snowy school mornings my sister and I would go out in the obscene cold and practically stand on our heads in that frigid car and reach way in deep and under the steering column and pop the fuse back in and then sit there and shiver while we tried to get the right news station to tell us whether or not we were having school.  Since we went to a public high school, despite being Beachy Amish.

Then there was also the infamous episode where Rebecca and I decided this radio nonsense is for the BIRDS and we ARE going to find out what's on the news tonight so tomorrow in Current Events we won't sit there like dumb bumps on a log when everyone else earns points for being up on the news.

So we got in the car and drove a safe distance down the road.

It so happened that that night the news was about Hugh Hefner being in trouble for something or other.  We dutifully recorded this and the next day in class we, in our cape dresses and white coverings, shot up our hands and informed the class what had transpired over at the Playboy empire.

[Yes. Just in case you ever found me intimidating or anything.]

I'll bet Mr. Hall told that story at parties for years.

In later years the rules relaxed enough that Mom would keep a small pair of scissors in the glove compartment.  On long trips, she would quietly open her window, slip out the scissors, insert one blade in the antenna crater, and happily be entertained for a while.

Today, I can listen to the radio all I want.  I could, if I wished, push those cool Chiclet buttons and twist those big silver knobs to the right station and the right volume.

Except, in a cruel twist of fate, I can't.  I've figured out just enough to sort of get by in my Kia, but in any of the children's cars I ride in silence.

Because modern car radios look like this:


They consist of a small rectangular area surrounded by tiny silver or black buttons with eensy-weensy lettering.  Some of these tiny buttons have mysterious symbols.  They make absolutely no sense.

The only way I could figure out any of them would be to lie on the seat, eye level with the buttons so I could look at them through my bifocals, and give myself about half an hour to push around and experiment.

I cannot do any of this while I'm driving.  I've tried pushing and poking and feeling around blindly all the way to Albany and then giving up in disgust.

In fact, once I borrowed Amy's car to go to the airport and drove most of the way to Portland listening to a scratchy station because I couldn't figure out how to change it, adjust it, or even turn it off.

It is a conspiracy, I tell you.  When I tell people like Steven my frustrations, they laugh with kind amusement.  They are IN and I am OUT, sweet old person that I am.  There must be a whole universe of wireless information out there that only the under-30s will ever know, because the rest of us can't figure out our radios.

I want that old Pontiac radio with a CD player, installed in my Kia.  For Christmas.  Please??

Quote of the Day:
"My one beef with pork is that it's just so fatty."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Limits of Nostalgia

Over on Pinterest you can find endless ideas for chalkboard paint.  Anything, it seems, can be turned into a black chalkable surface: benches, wine glasses, walls, cupboard doors, trays, and jar lids.  Even little chalkboards.

Some of the ideas are really cute, and I might try a few some day, such as the painted file cabinet.

However.  I have my limits, and my theory is that only a white-board-and-dry-erase-marker generation could go this crazy for black chalkboards.

I went to school and also taught for three years to the tune of clicking and scraping chalk.  I associate chalkboards with white dust on my hands, with erasers that became so loaded with dust they left a white swath behind, with standing on the steps after school like a real pioneer schoolmarm and clapping erasers while the dust blew off in the wind, with that unique chalk-dusty smell that was wonderful on the first day of school but by the end of April, when you were up at the board with a 12-year-old boy who had just come in from a hard game of softball on a hot day and couldn't figure out 3-digit multiplication, the combined smell of chalk and everything else made you want to haul in a pressure washer with soap and bleach, and hose down the board, the boy, yourself, the whole room.

Also, at the crucial moment when you were trying to teach decimal-dividing to fidgety sixth graders, suddenly every piece of chalk in the room would be down to bare nubbins and you wouldn't have any more in your desk drawer.

I say "you."  But maybe it was just "me.

Those of us who have experienced stuff first-hand have our limits on how excited we get about it on Pinterest.  Chalkboards, Amish stuff, manual typewriters, milk buckets, rotary dial phones, and ticking alarm clocks.

I wonder which of our things will be displayed on our grandchildren's mantels and end tables as vintage treasures.  Clear plastic bathroom soap dispensers?  HP Officejet printers?  Tupperware Fix-n-Mix bowls?  Styrofoam drumstick trays?

And: What will they wish I'd saved for them that I toss in the trash now with cavalier disdain?

Quotes of the Day:
Me: So, when they gave that history at the Mennonite Home dinner, did they have it right about Frank and Annie and all that?
Grandma: 'Bertha' said they did NOT get it right!  It wasn't just Frank that did all the work!  Loras Neuschwander would go up there a lot with his cat.
Amy: With. . .his. . .cat??
Me: Caterpillar!  Big earthmoving machine!
Amy: Ah.
*     *     *
Ben: Where's Stevie?
Emily: I wonder.
*     *     *
Me: [getting Sunday dinner ready] Someone put ketchup in something attractive.
Emily: [gets out ketchup bottle] Here, Steven, open wide.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Letter from Harrisburg

Here's today's LFH, which I'm posting here in its entirety since it's getting harder to access the RG website without paying.

Making a big change not exactly a piece of cake

I ran into a relative on a recent Saturday night. He was my late cousin Sylvia’s grandson, Floyd, a congenial Mennonite pastor from Iowa who flew to Oregon to officiate at a wedding we attended. I found him at the reception and caught up on family news from the Midwest.
I was one of 48 grandchildren on the Yoder side. Floyd was one of probably 500 great-great-grandchildren.
While we chatted, a young server came by and set a piece of cake in front of him. Floyd was happy to see he’d gotten a corner piece with lots of swirly white icing.
“Most people don’t like the corner pieces,” he said. “But I love all that frosting.”
He paused.
“I get that love of sweets from the Yoders, you know. I remember visiting Barbara — your grandma, my great-great — and someone served her a banana. She peeled it and then she sprinkled sugar on it before she ate it.”
We laughed. Barbara was unforgettable.
“And how old was she when she died?” Floyd said. “A hundred and … ?”
“Four,” I said. “Or actually two months shy of it.”
We talked some more and then I went home, leaving Floyd to enjoy his cake in peace, and prepared for church the next day and treated myself to a high-protein, low-carb snack of celery sticks and natural peanut butter.
My grandma almost reached 104 years old, and my parents are well into their 90s, on a typical Midwestern-Amish diet.
I was taught to sprinkle sugar on my oatmeal for breakfast and on the sliced tomatoes we ate daily in late summer along with sliced cucumbers mixed with cream and onions and, yes, a dash of sugar. Most meals were followed by cake or pie or pudding. As a teenager, I baked thousands of oatmeal or chocolate chip cookies for the family.
My mom still loves cinnamon rolls for breakfast and a dessert after supper.
I have carried on many of the family traditions — although I prefer salt on tomatoes — and added a few of my own.
I enjoy baking and always felt that the cookie dough in the mixing bowl was much better than the finished cookies, so I would indulge in just one more spoonful as I filled another cookie sheet.
Any combination of peanut butter and chocolate is my idea of heaven on Earth. I make a fresh blueberry pie that, I am proud to say, my brother-in-law Chad from Pennsylvania claimed would be worth driving out to Oregon for. I’ve made three-layer pumpkin cakes for Thanksgiving dinners and innumerable chocolate Crazy Cakes for church potlucks and layered cream-cheese-and-pudding desserts for guests.
My husband’s family wasn’t much different from mine. His great-grandma, Annie, who from pictures and stories seemed to be a plump, cheerful, hearty woman, was known as “Corn Candy Grandma” because she always carried corn candy in the hidden pockets of her full, plain dresses and handed it out to the youngsters.
Last week my husband and I attended a fundraiser dinner at the Mennonite Home in Albany. Since the ambitious patriarch of the clan, Frank Kropf, instigated the nursing home’s beginning, they invited his descendants to contribute to building a new development in the next few years.
Each of our place mats was printed with a brief history and a picture of Frank and Annie, and we were served a delicious dinner from the Kropf Cookbook. In the center of the table, in honor of Annie, corn candy was liberally sprinkled around a basket of mums.
I took some of the corn candy home for the children. It lay on the kitchen counter for two days.
I didn’t eat the candy because I am trying to improve my eating habits, a difficult undertaking for anyone, but for someone of Amish or Mennonite extraction, I’m convinced that it’s three times as hard.
In fact, we like to keep pretty much everything the same as it’s always been. As the old joke says: How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: “Change?”
An alternate answer is: “Eight. One to change the bulb and seven to make the meal.”
This is the trouble with changing. It goes against habit, tradition, custom and what worked for everyone else. It is said that we do the work of changing our ways only when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same.
I had always thought I would live to be as old as Grandma Barbara, having inherited much of her constitution, including her low blood pressure.
Besides, there was so much to get done in life, it would take me at least a hundred years to do half of it.
But I was half her age and feeling old and tired. Too often, I sounded like the letters my aunts used to write, about aches and vitamins and going to the chiropractor.
True, I had enough responsibilities to exhaust anyone, but getting through the day shouldn’t feel like wading knee-deep in peanut butter.
I don’t mind consequences when they happen to other people. In fact, it’s possible that I have looked heavenward and thanked God when one of my teenagers finally got the traffic ticket they richly deserved.
The consequences in my own life were harder to face, but finally I admitted that the traditional Amish-Mennonite diet wasn’t working for me. “Just omit white flour and sugar,” a dieting friend said, as though it were that easy.
My sister-in-law Laura, deep into a slow, sensible weight-loss program, had a different approach.
It was all about waiting a few hours between meals and eating fats and carbohydrates separately, she said.
And, most importantly, it was about replacing the bad stuff with something better — lots of good proteins and plenty of vegetables. And not going hungry.
That was the key information I had needed all those times I indulged in sugary goodies and knew I shouldn’t. I had only seen what I shouldn’t do. I hadn’t looked at something positive I could eat instead.
So I followed her advice. Almost a month in, I do not see dramatic changes, only a gradual sense of things improving.
Someday, I hope to develop the temperance that will let me indulge in a single corn candy without grabbing a handful. For now, I abstain entirely.
Meanwhile, I find this true of necessary changes: I go into it thinking it will mean missing out on everything, sitting out in the cold while everyone else celebrates.
But the reality is quite different. I can still attend the wedding, visit with the cousin, hug the bride and laugh at the groomsmen’s speeches.
The only real difference is eating a bit more fruit instead of that piece of cake, and I discover that I am both proud of my own strength of will and happy for my cousin, who is still young enough to enjoy the corner piece.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Tea and Trouble on Kindle

I'm happy to announce that you can now get Tea and Trouble Brewing in a Kindle edition.

Right here.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Quotes and Banter

These are the years of coming and going.

I thought surely I'd remember, in years to come, which winter it was when Amy first went to EBI and when Matt moved to Corvallis and when Emily went to SMBI and when Ben went to Toronto.  But I'm afraid when I remember these years it'll be like those fast-forwarded YouTube videos of train stations with blurred people randomly rushing in and out.

I think Matt moved out when he was 21, which is six years ago.  This past winter, we were down to three children at home, the least since before Ben was born.

Now, we're back to five.

And they are almost all grownups, which makes for a whole different dynamic than when they're all adolescents, fighting over the last cookie and the front seat.

It still makes for an awful lot of dishes, though.

It also makes for conversation.  Discussions, opinions, and witty repartee.  I think I have the most clever and interesting offspring in the universe.  If this sentiment nauseates you, which wouldn't surprise me, you can go read the Nasdaq reports now instead of this post.


If you're still with us, a few quotes:

Emily: Wait. Hershey's a Mennonite name?
Ben: Yeah! The Hershey chocolate guy's mom was a Mennonite. And I think the Kraft guy was a Mennonite too.
Emily: Wow! And Smuckers! So all the big food companies are Mennonite?!?
Ben: Well, I doubt the people that started ramen noodles were Mennonite.

My children didn't think that was very funny, but I thought it was hilarious.  I posted it on Facebook and 77 people liked it, so I felt vindicated. 

Emily: Did you know Steven and Jenny left Aunt Rosie's one time after choir and went north instead of south on the freeway and didn't figure it out for TEN MINUTES??
Steven: She's a bad guide.
Jenny: HEY!  YOU listened to me!

Ben: That's the problem with having a mom like ours. Sometimes I want to use this word and I'm like, Ok, is this just an obscure English word or is it Dutch? Like vish. Or miskeen.
Emily: Actually, miskeen is Arabic.
Ben: It is??
Me: I learned it from Aunt Rebecca.
Ben: Oh.

Just f.y.i.: "Vish" means a big batch, like I'm going to make a vish of cookies or he got in a vish of trouble.
Miskeen means poor, pathetic, pitiful. Like the miskeen little man in the checkout line counting out his change, or the miskeen high school team getting crushed by the Scio Loggers.

Me: I do enjoy the repartee when you guys are together.
Amy: I do enjoy having a mother who uses words like "repartee."


Emily: People with British accents are taken much more seriously than people with Southern accents.
Jenny: Yes. Unless they're people with Southern accents and a gun.

Steven: [sings cheerfully]
Ben: You should sing on the radio.
Steven: Why?
Ben: So we could change stations.

It seems like some kids are over-represented in these quotes and some are under-quoted.  Hmmm.

Such as Amy, who is away a lot more than any of the others, putting in long days at Grocery Depot and then, when she is home, not talking as much as some others.

Jenny says, "Amy says things that are very relevant but you can't talk about them on your blog."
That is very true.  Too bad for you.

 Amy also writes cool stuff like this:
After working all day at a grocery store, surrounded with plastic-packaged food, I had this lovely moment this evening, picking wild blackberries at the edge of a grass seed field at sunset: I just started thinking about these incredibly delicious morsels of juicy energy, and they just grow, without money or time or effort put into them, and I might pick them and enjoy them, or a passing robin might have one for a snack, but they might just be there, in their shiny purple-black glory...and I may just decide to be a hermit and eat nuts and berries and just BE with the rest of Creation and ponder deep and beautiful things for the rest of my life.

I talked with Matt this evening on Skype.  Thankfully he's survived all the recent craziness in DC--shootings, furloughs, shutdowns--and is back at work for the Navy since he's a civilian.  Recently he bought another car, upgrading from his very old previous car that didn't have an air conditioner until he got to DC and needed one a lot worse than in Oregon, so like a good engineer he rigged up a house-window AC unit and had it sitting in the front seat.

He said he could have gotten into that old car and buckled in and started it and put it in gear blindfolded.  Now, he says, when he gets in his new car it's nice but "I always feel like I'm committing automobile adultery."

I always felt very removed from national politics.  Not any more.  Matt also said, "Whether or not your son comes home for Christmas is directly affected by whether or not Congress passes an appropriation."

Please, Congress??  Would you mind???

We close with a statement from the children's Aunt Lois, on how she gets things done:
 "I'm not organized.  I'm just bossy."

I am surrounded by interesting people.  Lucky me.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Fun with Gunk

Around 10:00 last night Jenny got the sudden notion to make Gunk.

I swallowed all the No's popping out of my mouth and said Ok. Sure.

She measured and stirred.

Soon an alarming liquidy, splatty, burbling sound came from the kitchen.  If you try this with your children, you'll recognize it when you get to that step.

But what a fun result.

 Jenny blew and blew into the straw.  The gunky bubble spread over her hands, the straw, her nose, and Steven's hands.  It stuck to the apple bowl and finally it popped.

If you want to try this yourself, here's the recipe:

[Note: you can get big jugs of Elmers glue at office supply stores.  Borax is in the detergent aisle in a cereal-sized box.]

Stir together well:
2 cups Elmers glue
1 1/2 cups warm water

Add a few drops of food coloring.

Dissolve 2 teaspoons Borax
in 1 cup hot water.

Pour it slowly into the glue and stir quickly.

If not all the liquid congeals, mix another teaspoon of Borax with about 1/4 cup of water.  Dribble it in and stir some more.

Store in the fridge in an airtight container.

To replicate the bubble: Knead the gunk until it's nice and smooth.  Put it on the counter.  Poke a straw part-way underneath.  Get a helper, and both of you hold down the edges of the blob to make it airtight.

Blow into the straw.  If air bubbles out from underneath, push down that section of gunk.

Keep blowing into the straw.

And blowing.

And blowing.

Shriek now and then, and get the rest of the family to come and look.

There's really no experience quite like this one, leading Jenny to say:

Quote of the Day:
"I wonder what would happen if the gunk would come alive.  It would take over the house!"

P.S. Jenny made that zebra-and-teal apron herself as part of the Summer of Skills.