Category Archives: family

A convocation of birds and Glad people.

Meeting my great-grandaughter Lori for the first time was surely a highlight of this Christmas. Her family drove in two days from Washington state, and stayed a week. I had been to her parents’ wedding in 2017, but this was also my first chance to spend much time with her dear mother Izzy, and that too was a highlight.

Truly, it has been ten days of countless overlapping highs and lights such that at this stage the brightness confuses me, and there don’t seem to be points of focus. Also, several of our party were not feeling well in one way or another; I caught one of their bugs that is making me dull. But there are pictures!

Many weeks ago I had told my contractor that if we could just get the “floors and doors” on the new rooms, I would be content to receive my guests. That was barely accomplished by Friday evening the 20th. Primer and/or paint had been applied in some rooms; the painters worked till 11:00 p.m. Then I spent hours moving stuff around to accommodate the thirteen extra sleepers, and made multiple rounds with dust cloths, but the dust was settling for days after the drywallers had left, so that effort was disappointing.

Soldier and family had come from Colorado and were staying with Joy’s parents’ nearby. He and Laddie and Brodie came over on Saturday to put up my tree and decorate it with me. Sunday and Monday the rest of the family arrived.

In addition to Colorado and Washington, family traveled from Washington D.C., Wisconsin, Oregon, and two towns in California. Fourteen of us spread out among six rooms including the living room; 28 total were feasting together and catching up over two days. Two older grandsons didn’t make it down from the north, but a cousin joined us for a few hours. We had four children under two among us, two of whom were just six and seven months old. Several of the children were jet-lagged and a bit distressed by the noisy crowd, but a dozen aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents were on hand to rock and comfort them.

I myself started sleeping better as soon as we crossed from “Before Christmas” into “When the children arrive.” Pearl organized us all into cooking teams, and before that I’d done most of the shopping. Everyone pitched in with everything, including whatever I hadn’t done, and overlooked the dust.

I made the future sewing room into a wrapping room, for all those people who had shipped packages here unwrapped. The crib had been re-assembled Sunday afternoon and it went back and forth from that room into the new guest bedroom, along with a Pack-n-Play. Those rooms had no real window coverings, and there was ample sunshine for more than a week. What a blessing that was. In various groupings people went to the park, on a hike, on a creek walk. The conversations were compelling, and I had to force myself to go to bed while all my favorite people were still talking and laughing, and showing their wonderfulness.

On Christmas Eve Day Pippin made a list for me of all the birds we had seen that day, several of which she had identified for me.

Mourning Dove
Towhee
Scrub Jay
Tufted Titmouse
Anna’s Hummingbird
Townsend’s Warbler
Red-Breasted Nuthatch
Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
Lesser Goldfinch
Pine Siskin
Black-Capped Chickadee
Junco
White-Crowned Sparrow
Field ? Sparrow
Song Sparrow
English Sparrow
Fox Sparrow
House Finch
Bushtit
Nuttall’s Woodpecker

I was thrilled at the abundance of birds! Once I was carrying Raj around in the garden trying to calm him down. It was cool and sunny, and we looked at plants and flowers, and he had become quiet. I was talking in a low voice as we walked on to the patio, and suddenly realized that a song sparrow was busy at the feeder not two feet away. When we got yet closer it moved to the other side of the feeder but didn’t fly away. Close as I was, my picture is blurry, I suppose because I was holding a 30-lb child in my arms while shooting it.

On Christmas Day Kate and I took Raj and Rigo to church. The boys were surprisingly attentive and well-behaved… until they weren’t. So we had to go home a little early. In my neighborhood I scowled into my camera to get this shot, not realizing I was in the picture with the shepherds.

The last seven guests departed today, including three of the littlest ones. As far as my house is concerned, we are mostly now in the “After Christmas” period, when remodeling work is supposed to start up again. But I have a feeling things will be pretty quiet until 2020 arrives, and that’s okay, because I have lots of debriefing to do with myself, and processing of all the love and good deeds and good wishes that flowed into the house and all over the place. And a few more Days of Christmas during which I will make some plates of cookies for the neighbors, and watch the Iceland Poppies bloom.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Gingerbread Philosophy

“The great gingerbread war has heated up in San Francisco, and it all comes down to one eternal question: Is it a gingerbread house if you can’t eat it?” So asked an article in the Chronicle newspaper a few years ago. Just as I also wondered this morning, when I heard from two young women who for years have used a hot glue gun to put theirs together. I had never heard of such a thing. Their children have started asking when they can eat the house, and the mothers remind them that they always only eat loose candy while they are assembling it.

At our house, we’ve had two gingerbread construction events that I can remember. I wasn’t the instigator. I prefer to provide background support in the form of dishwashing and photography, because cake and icing have always seemed like the most unlikely media for art or architecture, and near certain failure doesn’t sound like fun.

These first photos are from 25 + years ago, when young people could do things solely for fun without having to spend time on their phones taking pictures to share worldwide. My kids and their friends were making two houses, and one never would stay standing. I think the siding was hopelessly warped from being baked on a thin cookie sheet.

In San Francisco, it’s been traditional for the chefs at the Fairmont Hotel to make their large Christmas gingerbread house (top picture) out of completely edible components. Because a gingerbread house is the last thing that should be purely symbolic, right? When my friends and I had a tradition for a few years, of a trip to San Francisco at Christmastime, we appreciated being able to break off pieces of the house to eat. Nibbling was discouraged, true, but every day the house was quietly repaired, and sometimes a repairman chef would hand a child a piece of candy from his kit in hopes that it might mean one less candy cane broken off.

“Go ahead, have a piece,” said Tom Klein, Fairmont hotel’s regional vice president and general manager. He was handing out gingerbread shingles to startled hotel guests in the lobby. Technically, eating the Fairmont’s walk-through gingerbread house is not allowed, but Klein had a point to make about the edibility of the building materials, and the kids he was handing the gingerbread to were not complaining.

“Meanwhile, at the St. Francis, its fanciful baked house was more of a medieval castle, lavishly and intricately decorated by chefs with tweezers. It’s a smaller, more intricate creation, exhibited behind a sturdy metal fence designed to keep grubby little fingers at bay.”

I have seen the St. Francis castle, too, but I don’t  think I knew that it was gingerbread. I read that they recycle the gingerbread from previous houses to make it; that would seem to make it inedible right there. On the other hand, I liked getting a whiff of the Fairmont gingerbread:

I’m not saying that the mothers mentioned above were aiming for Instagram perfection. Probably they just feel the way I do about my Christmas cookies; I enjoy the creative project and like doing it alone. And if a recipe calls for a really messy or difficult ingredient, I just won’t use it. That’s why I don’t make gingerbread houses. Even the most precise and well thought out ones, with slabs of sturdy cake baked on unwarped cookie sheets, must be accepted as “the best we could do with the materials.” Here are my pictures of the more recent one built in my house, spearheaded by Pippin and the Professor.

This year the gingerbread house at the Fairmont is bigger than ever, and you may rent it for “private” dining. Up to ten people can sit at table inside, starting at $300 for two hours. I’m really curious about who will be enjoying that luxury. (It doesn’t sound appealing to me, to be on display to every holiday gawker passing through the opulent lobby, while partaking of such a gimmick.) The population of San Francisco is notoriously low on children, but maybe some well-to-do ladies will stop by with their grandchildren on the way back from seeing “The Nutcracker.”

I do love everything about edible gingerbread houses — their colorful and aromatic, candy-laden selves, and their fairy-tale connections — as long as other people are building them. How unlikely! How extravagant and wild. My style is to let the people get old enough to want to try culinary architecture on their own, and to have the patience to see the project through to the end; until then, I’m happy to make a mess in the kitchen with children of any age, baking gingerbread cookies. And when they’ve had enough of that, and run off after a while, I will also love finishing up on my own!

From this house, what I’d like is a few puffs of malt-ball smoke. ❤

The balm of thistles and a mighty tree.

tarweed

“Mmm-mmm, star thistle and tarweed — the scents of fall!” That’s what my daughter Pippin said as we started out from the trailhead on our latest outing together. Every time I am outdoors with her I learn something new. I should say, I don’t remember being introduced to tarweed  before, and that feels as exciting as brand new.

Pippin and the Professor had come from their home in more northern California for the weekend. Saturday we hung around my neighborhood in the morning, and went afield in the afternoon.

Ivy adopted the doll Madeleine for the day and took her out to gather strawberry tree fruit. Scout dissected the ripest-looking dwarf pomegranate, and we decided it was almost sweet enough to be worth the bother. We walked along the creek path to the playground at the park, but probably the “playground” on the way was the most fun. In two places kids had hung rigging from big trees, from which you could swing out into the space where the ground fell away steeply toward the creek channel. Pippin was the only one with the strength and length to hoist herself up on to what seemed to be a launching platform. Jamie tried to be patient, but reminded us, “Let’s go, to the park!”

Our destination in the afternoon was a giant California bay laurel tree that may be the largest of its species. I had visited this particular tree at least twice before, but probably not since the 80’s.

Our short walk up the hill stretched out, as we stopped to observe lichens and poison oak, the tarweed and star thistle. Two of us had painful feet that slowed us down. We saw a wild buckwheat, Eriogonum, taller and bushier than the species we were familiar with. From my reading today I think it might be California Buckwheat. But as you can probably guess, the first photos below are of star thistle, a plant you never want to have to break a trail through.

Eventually we came out of the woods onto the grassy hilltop where lots of cows were grazing with their calves, and bellowing almost without stopping. There was The Tree on the horizon, and a smaller companion alongside.

Umbellularia californica is the only species in its genus, in Oregon known as the Oregon myrtle. It’s been called by several other names including pepperwood and balm of heaven. The flavor of its leaves is similar to the true bay leaves from Laurus nobilis, only stronger, and most of my life I’ve used leaves from the abundant local “bay” trees in cooking. For a long time I didn’t know they were not the real thing. The map shows its natural range.

Umbellularia californica range map.png

I hadn’t read that nickname “balm of heaven” before our outing, but standing under the massive canopy with thousands and thousands of leaves exuding their aromatic oil, I definitely felt the olfactory presence as a balm, its scent filling my nostrils as hugely as its image filled my vision.

The children right away began to climb, and to stake out their “houses” in the several neighborhoods that have been formed under branches as thick as big tree trunks, some of them weighing themselves down horizontal with the ground. The adults took pictures of the wide views of the landscape below. Pippin and I studied the tree’s flowers, trying to figure out where they are in their bloom cycle. If it hadn’t been late in the day it would have been the perfect place to have a picnic and linger a while.

In the last few years I’ve been buying the few bay leaves I need. But I brought home a handful of the mega-flavored, special California-and-Oregon pepperwood/balm of heaven leaves, and will simmer them in a winter soup. When I get a whiff of their essence in the steam that rises from my bowl, it will keep me connected to that magnificent tree until I can get back for a longer visit.

Laddie and the cats.

People who try to help out the butterflies by “raising” them in a protected location call the caterpillars cats. It took me a while to get used to this when I would browse the extensive Monarch Butterfly Garden website. After my experience last fall of losing the one caterpillar that I know hatched out on one of my milkweed plants, I had thought that if I found another this year, I’d try to feed it indoors.

But why not collect the eggs and protect even them from the beginning? The website tells you how to do that, too, and I did. Again, the Monarchs seem to prefer the Narrowleaf Milkweed; I found most, if not all, of the white oval eggs on those narrow leaves that had been ravaged by aphids. I cut pieces of leaf with eggs stuck on them and let them incubate in a plastic storage container. (I did remove the aphid that can be seen in the picture.) The first ones hatched in about four days, just about the time that my grandson Laddie arrived with his father from Colorado.

We had to use a magnifying glass to be able to see the caterpillars at first. Once I thought they had all died, because they were so small it was hard to see that they had any color, or that they were chewing. But within a couple of days they were big enough to see without the glass; by that time I had moved them into a mesh cage I’d hastily ordered, and I arranged a stem from the showy milkweed in a bowl with a florist’s frog so that the leaves I was feeding them wouldn’t dry out so fast. From the first I encouraged them to leave the narrow half-dead leaves and move on to the fat and nutritious ones I brought in.

How do you encourage a teensy caterpillar? I carefully laid each drying leaf upside down on a fresh leaf, and the next morning they were making holes in the showy milkweed leaves. Well, two or three of them were. I haven’t been able to keep track of these microscopic specimens and it appears that most of them didn’t make it. Even now, I think the active ones are mostly hidden on the undersides of the leaves, but if I look hard I can see a head on the edge of a ragged hole and a mouth making the hole bigger.

I will feel lucky if one or more of them gets to the stage where it spins a chrysalis. That almost happened with two other caterpillars I found on my Italian parsley. They didn’t look like Monarch cats, and I checked online to find that they weren’t the other butterfly I see around here, Painted Lady. I put them in a jar with more parsley and one of them did attach to a thick parsley stem I put in there for that purpose, but then he dried up. The other one kept trying out one or another place to hang, but he eventually lay on the bottom in the dead bug position. So.

Nearly invisible caterpillars aren’t very exciting to a five-year-old, so Laddie didn’t pay too much attention to the lives of insects; Soldier and Laddie and I, and some other friends and in-laws had many kinds of fun over a long weekend. They helped me pick beans, fix a toilet, wash the dirt and spiderwebs off my collection of outdoor trucks, and replace a taillight on my car. Bowling and hiking didn’t get photographed.

Meanwhile more caterpillars were busy in the garden; a very few newly-hatched green ones were sticking their heads out of beans, and one was found on a basil leaf — but Soldier and I studied the bean leaves a long time trying hard to discover what is turning many into skeletons. Eventually I saw one cucumber beetle, and one tiny insect I’d never seen before.

The bean crop is not affected so far; my second picking was 8 1/2 pounds, much of which I gave to neighbors. When Soldier and Laddie arrived, I was able to feed them quite a bit: first, steamed green beans slathered with basil pesto; then Turkish Green Beans. Laddie eats like a teenager, and his father said all the boys are like that. He had three helpings of everything, breakfast and dinner. I made a peach cobbler for them, too.

Maybe some of you recognized the parsley-eating caterpillar; finally tonight I caught my breath and looked it up online, to find that it is the caterpillar of the Black Swallowtail, a butterfly I don’t think I’ve ever seen. What do you know, they eat umbellifers! I hope that more than two of that butterfly’s cats were there in the vegetable box, and are now in the chrysalis stage. I’ll hope to see one next year.