Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Urge to Write

As early as age seven my inclination to write was noticeable. I wrote letters to my grandparents as soon as I was able. It seemed natural to sit at the kitchen table with a sheet of paper given to me like a prize and put down something interesting to share with them.

Even though my grandparents lived far away and we saw them rarely I was connected to them the instant I picked up my pencil and later the pen. My letters were included with mom’s weekly mail to them. I like to think there was kindly amusement on their part in the receiving of these faithful missives from me, the oldest granddaughter.

Getting a little older I kept notes of our trips when we traveled West. It was exciting to describe mountain scenery - the precipitous crags and the antelopes that you could see in bounding herds in those days. It was all strange and unfamiliar. There was a need to catch that beauty. I enjoyed recording the details of the sightings and experiences along the way. There was something infinitely satisfying in all of this.

I began to dream of becoming an author. All one has to do to be an author is write a book. It seemed quite simple. Twelve-year-old logic grasps the essentials very quickly. I began writing a story which I suppose was based somewhat on the premise of Nancy Drew the girl detective. It was either a mystery or an action plot based on the adventures of a girl detective.

The name I gave my heroine was Cassandra – Cassie for short. Cassie was such a cool name. I was at an age when you learned there were cool names and not cool names. I didn't think my name was cool. But Cassie was as good as gold. It was neat being able to pick a name, decide a character, give life to her.

Eventually there were several typed pages. The plot was interesting to me. I used my younger sister and brother as my review team. I read them newly written portions. As I read aloud to them I paid attention to the flow of the words with an ear to the "sound" of the conversations I contrived for my heroine.

I could spot the rough places in the text, or unnatural sounding conversations, in a way that doesn't happen when you read your work or scan it quietly on your own. This was a first valuable lesson in writing. It helps to have someone critique or suggest changes even though it can be very painful to eliminate, delete or start over.

It was fun developing the story. It made the summer pass quickly. The typing was done on a manual typewriter. I typed on the screen porch. It was heaven combining two of the things I like most, writing and being in touch with warm nature.

The typed pages, or manuscript as it seemed good enough to be called, had a special place. The cardboard box which held the writings was stored in the lower cabinet of a built-in bookcase. At the end of each writing session I stowed my continuing story on the shelf in the cabinet. It was as good as locking my book away. No one else claimed that particular space of the house.

The story was left behind as I went forward into the teenage years. It was forgotten or perhaps casually deserted as something to get back to some day.

Years later I came upon the box in the cubbyhole. The manuscript looked intact. I thought momentarily about saving it. But I was in clean-up mode that day. It was a time of looking ahead, not behind. The pages were ripped in half and thrown away. I don't even think I looked the story over first. The writings seemed long ago and no longer relevant. Poor Cassie. She didn't have a chance.

I must have figured, at that ripe age of twenty-two or twenty-seven or so, that there wasn't a future for this manuscript. It didn’t dawn on me that I might someday enjoy reviewing my incipient book or admire the youthful ambition it represented.

The story would have served as an example of early writings. It would have let me see the style of expression I favored then. But perhaps it serves better by being lost. It's a reminder that many of our efforts seem to evaporate but are never entirely absent. Each thing done adds to the whole of what we do.

I ditched Cassie but went on to create another work of fiction. Unlike the detective techniques I was trying to master in the first work the next story borrowed much from my own life. Even then I understood I came from an interesting family. The peaceful setting of our summer home, and Italian heritage adding a lively twist, gave many possibilities as a writer.

The summer home was given the fancy name Bella Vista or Bella Pino in the second story. I don't remember which. At some later time the chosen name seemed too made up (which was originally the whole point of course).

This became another lesson. You have to write honestly or what is deemed honest to you. When you fail in that the writing falters. That book too was eventually set aside. But from its imagery, much of it saved, has come inspiration that continues to take me farther down the writing road.

Ro Giencke - May 31, 2011

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Trip to visit Lambs

The pleasant days have led to many short drives. We have coffee where we stop. Yesterday we were on the lake in the boat. It felt wonderful.

An operational farm, part of our excellent park system, was visited the other day. We go to hear the chickens cluck I tell my brother. He understands. We grew up with our neighbors keeping chickens, including a rooster that crowed at the crack of dawn. The big red barn satisfies something within Al and me. Farm buildings with their bright paint are in our pasts.

It was restful on the farm except for the disturbed small rustlings from the chicken coop. The sun had a good sleepy kind of mildness to it. A rock conveniently placed near the grazing sheep became my footstool as we sat awhile and watched. It was so quiet the sheep cropping the succulent blades of grass could be heard. It was pastoral and timeless.

Most of the lambs are somewhat grown. A few are smaller. They're the cute ones we particularly come to see.

Perhaps the smaller lambs were born later in the season. Occasionally one of them baa-ed as it realized its mother had moved away out of sight.

The lambs as a lot seemed content to leave the foraging to their elders. They lay for great periods of time, looking like they were nodding off (surrendering to naptime it occurred to me), at peace in the sun-warm hollows at the bottom of their green hill.

The sheep caused me to think of our old pals Mickey and Pepper. The two sheep were from two different summers in the country. My dad, probably thinking sheep could solve the constant need to mow lawn, "rented" these sheep from a neighbor. We had Mickey first. Pepper came another year.

The experiment with either wasn't wildly successful. I don't think they were super whizzes at what they were borrowed to do. Neither was with us very long. We kids, who liked the sheep very much, adopting them as pets since we didn't have any of our own, parted with them with sadness and pats of affection. They returned to their owner not much fattened up on our grass I'm afraid.

Mickey wasn't a favorite with dad. Mickey outdid the neighbor's rooster in the noise department. He was just as loud and earlier. He woke dad up. This went on each morning of Mickey's rather short time with us. Mickey also bleated and cried if it didn't have company around, as when the bunch of us went swimming.

The two sheep haven't been thought of for ages. My brother says he forgot Mickey and Pepper altogether. It makes him want to walk down the road with his wife where sheep are kept, a road they haven't taken recently.

Meanwhile, spring is in more than sheep folds and the ardent desire to be out and doing. The flowering trees have bloomed all at once making a lovely spectacle. It's what I imagine springtime in England, New England and North Carolina all together would look like.

Al has devoted time to cutting grass and tackling dandelions. He enjoys having a project and the yard gets to be definitely that at this time of year. Everything is looking nice. The bleeding hearts are in bloom. They are beautiful.

Ro Giencke - May 19, 2011

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wacky Cake

I was remembering the old woman who lived across the street from my grandparents. She became my friend the winter of my West Coast stay.

It was an interesting time. I was young. There was so much to do. A hiking club introduced me to some weekend treks along coastal streams and along the bay. It's a very beautiful area there. I also did what I called urban hiking, walking extensively to explore the city on my own. The streets and sidewalks, free of snow, delighted me in my first experience away from the cold.

Some evenings, comfortable at home with grandma, I studied Swedish with her. We used beginner books which were either checked out from the library or were hers. I cherish the memories of our sitting together over the books. She patiently listened as I read aloud and tried to make progress in the language into which her parents were born.

Just as the hiking club introduced me to the wonder of the coastal terrain my grandmother was opening new views for me too. She introduced me to Nellie across the street.

Nellie was aged and crippled and completely housebound as I recall. It was probably not a visit I wanted to make. I accompanied grandma as part of the respectful manners I thought I better display. I knew I was reflecting, by my actions, the job her daughter had done in raising me.

Initially I felt out of place as the two old neighbors visited. I averted my gaze from Nellie's legs. They looked withered as if with disease or simply the aging process. It can be hard to face physical realities of this kind when at the other end of the age spectrum. I made an effort to focus on Nellie instead. It was, as I found, surprisingly easy to do.

She was kind. She had the generous interest of someone who stays linked to life. Her body might have the signs of degeneration but all her youth was in her attitude and the stories she told. Yes, that's where she had me. When she began talking about her past she had me spellbound.

It's regrettable how little we retain when the good stories flow. I listened rapt as she described bits and pieces of growing up as either a rancher's or farmer's daughter near Spokane.

Despite the concentration given to the stores I'm left with only one picture from all she shared. The picture is hazy in its details but the overall impression as as vivid as when she left it with me.

She talked of crouching alongside her father, beside haystacks for cover, under full moon nights in the dry farmlands of eastern Washington. It was rabbits I believe they were hunting. Nellie told how big they were. They were maybe a Western species, not like the cottontails back home.

I could sense the excitement in being out late with her dad. It might have been her first, fifth or fifteenth time. She was surely a self-sufficient little girl.

Maybe she was her dad's right hand, taking the place of a son who might otherwise have joined him as silent hunters of the summer night. Maybe Nellie was the oldest with the expected responsibility to help her father and learn from him. As likely, she was the born tomboy soaking it all in.

The full moon brightened the fields as Nellie peered from the shadow of the haystack, perhaps leaning around her father's shoulder in a quiet moment of taking in the scene.

Nellie gave me an experience of what it was to grow up as she did. Their river valley was filling with farmers and the prospect of irrigation, or the project already operational, was promising them prosperous futures. Her girlhood was one step removed from the pioneer era. Possibly some of that was sprinkled in, too, as she opened her background on those winter visits of long ago.

One visit I took home a recipe from her. It was for Wacky Cake, a favorite of hers. It's super uncomplicated. It doesn't require eggs or a mixing bowl. The recipe has been in my file ever since.

The recipe may have been a lifesaver for Nellie and those of her generation. After all, there's always a reason for cake. In good times and in lean times there's a call for a dessert to bake or bring for a family occasion, school party, church festival or community get-together.

When your chickens weren't laying eggs, or if hard economic times meant eggs weren't in the house at all, there was reliability in this recipe that lists no eggs.

Eggs went on my grocery list today, being nearly in the boat that past cooks have been. But in the meantime I went ahead and made Nellie's cake. No eggs, the top of the recipe card says.

Wacky Cake

In ungreased 8 x 8" pan put 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 cup sugar, 3 Tablespoons cooking cocoa, 1 tsp. baking soda and 1/2 tsp. salt. Mix thoroughly with fork. Make 3 holes in dry ingredients and pour in 6 Tablespoons salad oil, 1 tsp. vanilla and 1 Tablespoon vinegar. Over this pour 1 cup cold water. Mix well with fork and bake at 350 degress about 25 minutes.

Ro Giencke - May 13, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

May Madly Alive

Long daylight, birds singing and flowers starting to pop have us smiling. It’s been a long while coming. But oh wow when it does. May, as it pulls out all the stops, becomes the serene and truly special time of the year.

It’s so nice for one thing, with the sun up early these days, to have sunrise with my coffee instead of the sun poking up seemingly halfway through the day.

The daffodil bulbs bought at the Arboretum last fall and planted on the back banks are cheery in their scattered plantings. It’s good to see the season take sure hold everywhere.

The sage and lavender in the garden were a surprise to find on the first inspection tour after the snow was gone. They weren’t covered for protection in the fall. Our assumption was they were annuals.

The herbs appear to be healthy and growing and no worse the wear for the winter they went though. One can marvel at how plants, and wild creatures too, can tough it out through harsh conditions and come back ready to go.

The rosemary bush, an acquisition from last May – the one purchase at the street art fair on the lake – is flourishing. It’s been set out on the deck after the shelter given it inside over the winter. The sun and rain coax out the fragrance of its needles, an additional pleasure.

A chipmunk on the doorstep is the new king of the hill. I say new but likely it’s the same chippie as claimed the spot last year. Advantageously positioned on the highest point around, it knows it has a marvelous lookout. It scurries off, but barely, at our approach. Its cheeks bulge. It's eating well.

In the country growing up we regarded chipmunks as pets. We fed them, seeing them only as adorable. The handouts are over at this house. You start to realize how potentially destructive cute little animals can be around the place.

Garage sale signs have sprung up like dandelions. I’m not a garage-sale kind of person but today, after errands downtown, I obediently followed the arrows as they pointed different directions in the neighborhood.

The tables were quite bare and picked over. Later-comers like me need to shake a leg if we want the buys. I was told at one of the sales that the crowds were out in force. They showed up well before start time.

It makes sense I suggested to the owner, left with a small collection of Christmas ornaments, sofa pillows and bric-a-brac. No wonder the garage-salers were out en masse. We’re all crazy to get at activities which cool temperatures and wet weather have kept us from.

May, as I see it, is made to slow us down even as the outdoor pace spikes. We need to let restful thoughts breeze through our heads. We need to allow the mild sunshine to work its magic on us. It will if we pause long enough to surrender to it.

No matter how busy in our gardens or briskly pedaling our bikes or limbering up our swings on crowded golf courses the intent this spring – maybe more than ever – is to pause and take May in. May gives freely. Let's live it fully.

Ro Giencke – May 6, 2011