Thursday, December 30, 2010

Merry Olde England

Several months ago, my husband and I decided that it would be nice to spend Christmas with our daughter and son-in-law. They are currently living in England, so we began planning. Things began to fall very nicely into place.

After making sure such a trip would fit with their plans, we first secured a place to stay.

We made arrangements to stay at a pub with lodging rooms. The place has only 4 or 5 rooms, and bookings fill up quickly.

When we first walked in the door, we hesitated. The check in desk is...the inside of the pub. A very charming place--and with free Wi-fi!

Our daughter had made various arrangements to make our Christmas trip a festive series of events. Herewith, a quick review.

First, a Christmas concert at Royal Albert Hall.

Then on Christmas Eve day, a performance of The Nutcracker Suite Ballet--a Christmas favorite. The photo below is of the screen curtain before the performance began--no photos permitted once it began.

Afterwards, we walked down to see Parliament buildings, and the mounted guards.

For Christmas Eve service, we went to St. John's Wood C of E church. The service included a performance of Haydn's St. Nicholas Mass--a very small choir of only eight singers, but it was one of the best choral performances I have ever heard.

We had Christmas dinner with our daughter and son-in-law at their flat. Among the foods prepared--gammon. That is fresh ham. Everything was very tasty.

The day after Christmas, Boxing Day in the U.K., we walked first to Primrose Hill, where there is a commanding view of London, then to the Regent's Park. The sun sets quite early in the more northern latitude of London.

Our final treat, on our last full day in London, was a trip to the British Museum to see its current special exhibit on the
Book of the Dead. No photos from us, but you can get a taste of the experience if you visit the museum's website.

Somehow, we were fortunate enough to fly to Heathrow after all the problems that snow had inflicted on the airport, and we returned home after East Coast airports had reopened following the Christmas blizzard. Not sure how we did that, but we are grateful for traveling mercies.

So, it wasn't the twelve days of Christmas, but a lovely five days of Christmas.

Hope your Christmas was as merry and happy as ours.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Christmas Adventure

One of the most vivid of memories that I have, growing up as a child in southern Africa, is how the missionaries celebrated Christmas. It is quite a different thing to celebrate Christmas in the southern hemisphere. So many of our images—reinforced in carols and stories—are of an idyllic kind of Christmas, probably from the Victorian era. But, in a place where Christmas falls in the middle of summer, the images of celebrating Christmas are quite different.

In Southern Rhodesia, where my parents were, missionaries were in the habit of getting together around Christmas to have a Christmas picnic. With Christmas falling in the summer, a picnic was a natural way to celebrate. There was one indelibly memorable Christmas picnic, in 1958. The missionaries had gathered at Matopo Mission, in the heart of the
Matopo Hills (photo above on Matopo Hills taken by my nephew) near Bulawayo, for Christmas. The picnic location was one of the out-station schools, which was about eight miles from the main mission station. (An out-station school might consist of several rough buildings, but not proper enclosed building.)

The missionaries in Southern Rhodesia and their children were gathered, some 50 or 60 people in all. The festivities included a picnic lunch and a program that we missionary children had arranged. In the middle of a baseball game, it began to rain lightly, and then it poured. People dashed for the open buildings at the school to wait out the rain. They proceeded to eat the lunch, have the program and then readied to make their way back to main mission.

The road to reach the school included crossing a dry river bed. When the entourage of cars, vans and pickups reached the river bed, they now found a raging river. The rain that had disrupted the baseball game at the picnic site had dumped massive quantities of rain further upstream. There was no way to cross the river. Consequently, two missionaries men hiked back to the mission through the Matopo Hills. They were able to reach the mission without having to cross the river, as they did not have to follow the road. Once back at the mission, they got the mission tractor to drive back and rescue the stranded missionary party. The tractor had a diesel engine, so even though the water was still high, they were able to drive it across the river. They had attached a flatbed trailer to the tractor, and had brought along chains. The plan was that the missionaries could be loaded on the flatbed trailer. However, on examination, the adults finally decided they could have all their passengers inside the vehicles, and then hook up and tow each vehicle across the swollen river.

And that’s how the picnic ended. Bit by bit, the entire party was rescued. I can still remember how much fun we children had with this most adventuresome picnic. Now, more than 50 years after this event, I can still recall the Christmas picnic where we were flooded!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Long Distance Romance

Even though my parents grew up in the same small church denomination, in many ways, their childhoods were quite different. My father's parents were missionaries. He was born in the U.S., but was a year and a half old when his parents went to southern Africa. Consequently, he lived there until he was ten. (My father, in the middle, pictured with his older brother, and his younger brother who was born in Rhodesia.)

Upon their return to America, for several months, he lived here and there, as his parents traveled around "spreading the word" of mission work. For three years, they lived in Oklahoma, from 1930 until 1933. Then, his father got a job teaching college in California, and the whole family moved there--right in the middle of the Depression as many people were moving from dust bowl states to California.

When my father was eighteen, and finished with high school, his father lost his job. So the family was once again rootless. They returned to Pennsylvania where his father took a temporary year long job. But times were lean, and his parents told him it was time for him to move out. He had no plans of where to go--his hope of going to college was dashed when his father lost his job.

It is around this time that my father saw "the girl in the yellow dress." My mother had grown up on a farm near Martinsburg, PA. Her family were very rooted, and she did not move around at all. Her only time away from home was when she helped at camp meetings--as she did the summer she met my father.

My mother was very hard-working as a teen.
Even though she was the fifth of eight children, all her older siblings had moved out. So, she did the majority of the work helping her parents. She wrote in her diary about all the work she did. She cleaned rooms, did laundry and ironing, stripped wall paper, hung wall paper, and painted. She dug gardens, planted flowers and vegetables, weeded, harvested and canned these foods. She milked cows, helped with hens, took care of peeps. She mowed the lawn, tended flowers and trimmed bushes. When it came time for butchering, she assisted with that task, too. (My mother and her father pictured at right, on the family farm.)

When my parents began courting in earnest, they mostly wrote letters back and forth. My dad worked on a farm, and my mother was either at home, or for a short time in Kentucky working in a home mission capacity. They saw each other only occasionally. In relatively short time of knowing each other, they became engaged, but kept it secret.

My father finally gathered enough funds to be able to attend college. He chose to return to California, a place where he had been very happy. So he traveled to California, while my mother stayed in Pennsylvania. She had not finished high school (because her father opposed education beyond 8th grade for his children). But she was determined to finish. Her brother persuaded their father that they did need to finish high school. So at age 20, she went back to school.

World War II interrupted and changed many plans. While my parents were able to complete their respective educations, they had to alter their wedding plans. Originally, they planned to wait a bit before getting married. However, my father's draft status had been deferred as long as he was in college. If he took a job as a minister, his deferment would be continued. So, they decided to move up their wedding date.

In the summer of 1942, my mother left Pennsylvania to travel to California. When she and her brother were both packing, to leave home as each was leaving home to get married, their mother helped her brother, but not my mother. My mother asked why--and my strict PA Dutch grandmother said gruffly--because he will come home again and you won't. It was true. My parents knew then that they wanted to go into mission work. In fact, before they got engaged, they shared their mutual desire.

So, my mother--who had rarely been further from home on her own than a couple of hundred miles--traveled by train across country. Once in California, she worked in wealthy homes and enrolled in some college courses. My father worked too and was a full-time student.

In October, 1942, they spent the morning decorating the college chapel, and in the evening of October 22, they were married. The reception (pictured at left) was held in his brother's house.

The long distance romance must have worked--they were married for 49 years, and the only thing that separated them was my mother's death.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Home or Castle?

The concept that a man's home is his castle has always been hypothetical, at best, for me. Of course, understandably you feel that when you are in your own home, you should be safe. Generally, this concept is not tested--for most of us.

There is a sense that property crime is on the rise--at least in our area. Our local news reports more and more on robbery, armed robbery, home invasions, and thefts. We live near a modest sized city, and there has been a rash of incidents where people have been accosted by a small group of young men, sometimes with handguns, who rob the victim. Occasionally, someone is caught and charged, but not always.

To tell the truth, while such small time crime troubles me, since we live in the suburbs I did not feel too personally threatened. We also frequently travel into this city--although there are folks in the area who simply NEVER go there--because generally we do feel safe.
But two nights ago, we had a small incident in our neighborhood that brought the city problem to the suburbs. A neighbor of our, three doors away from our house, heard a knock at the front door. The teenage son answered the door, and there stood a young man, clad in jacket and cap and something across his face, with a gun in hand. He demanded cash. The teen's mother took a small amount of cash from a wallet, gave it to the armed man who fled.

As it happened, I walked Ziva--for her last time out before bed walk--around 10:45. This incident had occurred not 30 minutes before--so police cars were still in front of our neighbor's house. When one of the neighbors happened to emerge, I just said--what happened? And quickly learned the news.

Not much to tell, really. But such an incident sends little shock waves through a neighborhood. The next morning, our immediate next door neighbor came over to see us. She is a policewoman in the city, and she wanted to make sure we had heard the news, and would be properly cautious. She then asked what we do to protect ourselves when we walk the dog. Well, the answer is--nothing.

So, she went back to her house and came back with a can of pepper spray, police size and strength, and gave it to us. First, she gave my husband a brief tutorial on how to use it. And--she admonished us to carry it when we walk the dog.

Now, I have never conducted my life with fear as my main companion. I do not say I am foolhardy--of course, I try to use whatever street smarts I might have. I stay aware of my surroundings, and don't take unnecessary risks. But, an armed robber coming into our neighborhood gives me pause.

Then I examine what my real reaction is. Of course, I won't just open the front door after dark without knowing who is outside. But, I plan to keep walking the dog. This is MY neighborhood--no petty robber will drive me inside, clutching a can of pepper spray.

I must not be the only one to feel this way. Two nights before the incident at our neighbor's house, a would-be armed robber (this time with a knife) tried to rob a local mini-mart. This mini-mart is about 10 blocks from our house. The clerk in the store did NOT turn over cash, but instead tried to grab the shirt of the would-be robber, who then fled the store. Deep down, I harbor a suspicion that it's the same robber--who graduated from knife to gun. Yes, such a person as the would-be robber is dangerous. But he doesn't own the neighborhood.

I don't plan to hole up in the house. I will keep on walking the dog. I will look out for my neighbors, as they look out for me. And, since our neighbor gave it to us, I will keep the can of pepper spray at the door

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Girl in the Yellow Dress

Author's note: I mentioned recently that I had submitted an article for publication (in a very small circulation historical journal)--and that when the article was published, I would use a few excerpts here. The article has been published, and the journal distributed. So I am not "scooping" myself.

This is the first of these excerpts adapted from the article--the story of how my parents met.

The story demonstrates several things. First, the church in which they grew up is a small denomination with Anabaptist connections. The Brethren in Christ probably had no more than several thousand members at that time, and members went to camp meetings in the summertime. Camp meetings were, then, a natural place for people to meet.

Second, dating in that time and cultural milieu was constrained and quite different from what people would understand today. Most likely, then dating would be referred to as "courting." My father's first move was to ask permission to write to my mother. When she consented, there ensued some years of writing. They did see each other, but infrequently. In a way, relationships developed slowly but also without much exposure to each other.

“Who is that girl leading the singing?”—that was the question that my father David, then a nineteen year old, asked his brother Joel. The two were standing at the back of the tent where their parents were holding tent meetings near Granville, PA. But it wasn’t really the singing that interested David. It was the pretty young woman in the yellow dress. David thought she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen.

A shy young man who had only passingly entertained thoughts of courting any young woman, David was instantly smitten. But his brother Joel in giving his answer also sought to cool any ardor David might feel. “That’s Dorcas...” But, he added “If you’re getting any ideas about her, forget them... (she’s) all sewed up” referring to another young man.

This auspicious beginning might have given rise to an instant romance, but such was not the case. It was not until some four months later that David began to court Dorcas in earnest, when they began to correspond, the only real way to get to know each other given the miles between them.

David had been working on a farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and had asked off work to help assist his parents in their move. Arriving after the start of the evening service, David slipped in the back of the tent. And that is when he saw the girl in the yellow dress. While he was very bashful, and made no effort to strike up an acquaintance, he made sure he came back the following weekend while the tent meetings concluded.

David's parents were in home mission worked, and were assigned to a mission in Stowe, Pennsylvania. They decided to begin their ministry there with tent meetings, and asked to have the young woman Dorcas assist them. She consented. And David made sure to hitch a ride to visit his parents in their new home, and to see Dorcas. Still, he made no direct contact with her.

It was not until December, 1938 (four months after first seeing her) that he finally worked up the courage to ask her if he could correspond with her. Happily, her answer, when it came, was “yes.”

To be continued...

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Annual Letter

Yes, you know what I mean, don't you?

The annual Christmas letter. This is a tradition that I maintain, and that my husband...perhaps is less enthusiastic about. My contention is that it helps me keep up, ever so briefly admittedly, with family and friends--particularly those who are far away.

And then came blogging--and Facebook. Is it still necessary to keep up with far-away folk? I contend it is, and here's why.

For me.

That's right--you read correctly. The annual Christmas letter has become a kind of year in miniature about our family life. Oh, true, I try not to tell embarrassing things. And I omit those objectionable photos. But, each year I have written a one page letter, and now with computer technology, I can sometimes include a photo or two. I have these letters, still saved on my computer (I even went back in years and imported old letters!), going back to the early 1990s. So, I have almost 20 years of letters.

I can read through these letters and see snippets--my thoughts on our children's graduations from school, my grief on my mother's death, celebrations of marriages of our children, sadness on having pets die, joy at bringing new pets into our lives, fun times with friends, and other passages--retirements, Penn State victories. And on and on the list goes.

I do not keep a daily diary. I am just not disciplined enough to do that. Admittedly, now with blogging, I can also go back and read of some of these same events. But the Christmas letter is our lives for a year written in miniature.

So, I will keep the annual tradition. I will try to be sparing--not just the length of what I write (a page limit helps), but also of not sharing too much. But I will write.

And I will look forward to reading those Christmas letters we receive and that I read. Hearing about your lives in miniature too.

And now, the informal poll--Christmas letter:
yes? or no?
Candy cane stationery available at
I can't help myself--GRRRR--stationEry when it is a letter. Of course, maybe they mean that the North Pole isn't moving, as in stationAry. But with global warming, it might ...

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


I just finished reading a terrific true story of a most amazing man. The book is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, whose own story is most compelling. The book is a kind of biography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic track star who was on a path to be the first to break the four-minute mile record. But, World War II intervened, and Louis went on to adventures that could have broken him, but from which he emerged unbroken.

Hillenbrand is also the author of an earlier book that I just loved--Seabiscuit. That wonderful book told the story of the racing horse Seabiscuit, and the same compelling story-telling talent of Hillenbrand that pulls the reader along in that work is employed in this most recent book.

Hillenbrand is herself an example of someone unbroken. She suffers from such debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome that she has been virtually house-bound for years. To conduct the research on Zamperini, Hillenbrand used telephone interviews over seven years, as well as reading endless accounts in diaries, unpublished memoirs, and the help of many people who were her legs in going to places where material was available.

I won't try to tell the Zamperini story--you can and SHOULD read the book yourself--except to give this briefest of outlines. Zamperini was born in 1917 (and is still living) and was a hellion as a youth. He found salvation in track, and actually went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He hoped to go to the 1940 Olympics, but World War II interrupted that plan. Instead, Zamperini, like many young men in the U.S., entered military service. Eventually, he was a gunner on a B-24 Liberator bomber fighting in the Pacific.

His plane was sent on a rescue flight in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean, and there it crashed. Three crew members survived, and floated on open rubber rafts--for 47 days--without food and water. Two survived, and were captured by the Japanese military. Then began his next survival crisis--he was shuttled to several Japanese POW camps.

Well, read the book.

Zamperini's story is most inspiring, and sent my mind in two directions. Both have to do with my own family stories.

When I first met my husband, as I was getting to know a bit of his family history, he told me that he had an Uncle John who was killed in World War II. John was the brother of my mother-in-law. He (like Zamperini) was a gunner on a bomber. The story that the family had was that John was "
flying over the Hump" when his plane went down and all crew were lost and presumed dead.

I don't know why I got to thinking about John and his fate, but one day when I was looking around the web, out of curiosity, I typed in his full name. Back came a site that finally unravelled his fate. While he may have flown over the Hump at some point, he died because he was captured and executed by the Japanese. His plane took off from one of the island locations that was part of the Pacific theater of World War II. This
account indicates that his B-29 was on a bombing run over Kobe, Japan (which occurred late in the war, in 1945):

The plane's . . . was referred to as the "Hull Crew" plane. It flew its missions out of Tinian Island.

On June 5, 1945, the "Hull Crew" were part of a 473 plane B-29 mission to attack Kobe, Japan. The B-29s carried 3,077 tons of incendiary bombs which they dropped east of Kobe . . .Out of the 11 crew members, four of them were never accounted for or found and were reported as Missing in Action. The remaining seven crew members were captured by the Japanese after being found floating in their life rafts.

The seven were eventually executed by their captors.

One of those seven was
my husband's uncle. I kept thinking of his fate as I read the story of Louis Zamperini. The threat of being executed was a daily reality for Zamperini. While he was a prisoner, Zamperini was very much aware of these bombing runs, and in fact the U.S. prisoners were greatly heartened by the awareness that U.S. bombers had laid waste to Kobe. It gave hope to Zamperini, and his fellow prisoners as it meant the tide of the war was turning.

The other direction in which reading Unbroken sent my mind was the value of first person accounts. Hillenbrand had the luxury of being able to interview Zamperini and other participants in aspects of his story. First person interviews are the life blood for writers who want to tell personal stories.

I have just had published (in a very modest journal) a biography of my parents. I will write some of it here, once the journal has been distributed. But, to write my parents' story, I had access to my father's own personal memoirs as well as to him. I could ask for recollections, and out of it weave a modest biography. It is most gratifying to tell the story of someone's triumphs and trials.

I am no Laura Hillenbrand, however. She is a first class writer, and I heartily recommend Unbroken--maybe you can put it on your wish list for Christmas!

Monday, December 06, 2010

No Shortcuts

Every year, I join the many folk who prepare for the holidays by preparing baked treats. I would venture that most of us have family favorite recipes we are implored (or even ordered) to make.

For me, it's butterscotch pie (from a recipe my mother-in-law gave me) and pumpkin pie made the Pennsylvania Dutch way.

And, it is especially Scottish Shortbread. There are no shortcuts to making shortbread. This simple tasty treat is a hand-mix all the way kind of recipe.

I got the recipe years ago from my Aunt Arlene. I lived with my uncle Arthur (my dad's brother) and his wife Arlene while my parents were on their last term as missionaries. I wrote a bit about her
here--she was the aunt who urged me to buy the practical coat. While she could be abrupt and severe, she could also bake up a storm.

Every Christmas, she made wonderful shortbread. And one year, she taught me how. I have tried to teach various family members who are interested--it really is a teach by doing kind of recipe.

So, here goes.


The ingredients:
5 cups flour-take out 2 heaping tablespoons, replace with 2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 cup white sugar
Pinch of salt
3/4 pound of butter COLD from the frig

Slice butter into flour mix and work with hands until all flour disappears and it begins to stick together. Form a ball of dough in your hand, then break it apart. When it is thoroughly mixed, the dough will crumble into the size of small peas--

Put into a flat pan (I use one about 10 by 14)--

Press in very firmly and evenly--

Prick with a fork--

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 15 minutes--

Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees and bake until it is the color of rich cream--

Remove from oven, sprinkle with sugar --

Cut immediately--

into pieces about an inch wide by three inches long--

Place in an airtight tin.
Now the terminology in the recipe is exactly as my aunt had written out the recipe. I can tell you from years of experience making shortbread that it takes about 10 minutes after reducing the oven heat for the shortbread to become the color of rich cream.
I love that description--the color of rich cream--but it assumes an experience few of us have had. When whole milk was delivered from house to house, the milk bottles would sit at the door, and the milk would slowly settle. By the time the housewife (most likely) brought the milk inside, it would have settled. And the rich cream--a pale yellow--would have been on top. If this ritual happened long ago, the cream would be skimmed off and used for special food preparation.
Sadly, today, our milk is put up in plastic bottles, and most of us are so far removed from its production we have no clue what color rich cream is.
I also like the detail of the dough crumbling into pieces the size of small peas. Maybe that's how you can recognize an authentic recipe--homey little details such as these.
If you are a pie dough whiz, I think you will do well at making shortbread.
But, don't take any shortcuts!
Apologies on the photo orientation--Blogger got very weird and would NOT let me rotate some of the photos for correct view.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The New Kits in Town

This has been a year of saying goodbye to pets. We bid farewell to Tipper, waited a month and then got Ziva.

Then, in mid-November, our senior cat Cassidy finally succumbed to age and a nagging cold he couldn't shake. He had gotten the cold several years ago, and I thought he might not make it then. Knowing that time with pets is always fleeting and precious, I cherished every nuzzle with Cassidy, every purr he sent me way, every time he climbed under the bed covers and kneaded me. I needed him too. But, finally, it was time to let him go. You can see, in the photo below, how he was failing.

Whether we should wait longer between pets, or not, we simply enjoy having furry friends. So within a week or so, we headed off to the local humane society. It is always wrenching to see the poor desperate cats and dogs there. So, to steel myself, I had done my research in advance. I picked out two cats--one a more senior cat, and the other that had been abandoned at the shelter door. But, when we got to the humane society and asked to see THOSE cats, it turned out they had already been adopted.


So, we had to go into the cat rooms--the many many cat rooms. In a room near the back of the facility, we found two cats--in separate cages. One, a vocal male with a handsome "goatee" of orange. And the other, a six month old female kitten in that most ubiquitous cat marking of tabby.

Meet McGee. In keeping with the NCIS theme, he got the name McGee.

He is just gorgeous. His only flaw is a true snaggle tooth--a lower tooth turned sideways in his mouth, and somewhat protruding.

And here's Jennie. Friends asked why we didn't call her Abby (for another NCIS character). But, since we already had an Allie--Abby just seemed like a too confusing name. So, Jennie it is. She is all spunk and spoing. She bounces around, practically bouncing off the walls.

But she is SO cute.

McGee has discovered sitting by the window, watching the bird feeders where birds, squirrels and chipmunks gather. We have recently had the occasional hawk--but McGee seems unfazed by all the commotion.

And yet another cat in our lives thinks sitting on newspapers is a good idea.

Jennie loves (make that LOVES) food. Actually, they both do. But they are clearly very healthy and have been well-fed. Both were found as strays. They are "fixed" and micro-chipped. They have all their claws--a first for us. So, we will monitor clawing at furniture.

Allie, the now senior cat, has staked out her domain, in the study. I try to give her lots of protective space, so she doesn't feel displaced.
So, we are once again a three cat, one dog house. Fun, fun, fun...