Monday, June 25, 2012

Basswood Blossoms

Expect a hot 4th of July we’re told as, at the moment, we luxuriate in a stretch of low dew points and ideal temperatures.

We can hardly make ourselves turn from our glasses of iced tea, or our garden work or golf game to hear what’s being said. Summer, we like to think, blissfully corrals us off from the shouting mix of what goes on around or above our heads.

We fool ourselves, of course, if we think we can stay in a summer bubble.  Even the resplendent weather of this past week, or all the happiness pressed down upon one, doesn’t alter the fact that we’re attached to everything else, whatever it may be.

We lend weary attention to world news which sounds so full of misunderstandings, meanness and grief. Many situations don’t seem fixable. Moreover, the folks don’t even act as if they’re trying.

On the local scene the news doesn't fare much better. Headlines tend not to leave you upbeat. The bad, ugly and negative make their statements just as they always have. 

None of it is going away or about to change fast. You can bet on that.

You can click off the TV remote, ignore the internet, swear off every form of techno chatter and avoid the newspapers. The essence of global troubles, which can seem to loom bigger than all of humanity, is still somehow able to reach you.

To a very real degree we have to be part of world events. It’s our right and responsibility to know what’s happening. As citizens of the world – and we are all that – there are parts we’re made for to play.

We have our talents where we're put and where we go.  Abilities can be great or scarcely noticeable but we use them in the amounts that vary as we ourselves evolve and grow.

With the world thankfully not going away, and our own participation in its course an important birthright, we require the gift of summer more than ever before.

Summer is the escape our bodies, with all their interrelated makeup, enormously need. As summer comes along we dial back, find affinity with nature and tune in to summer’s pace.

Summer’s pace having a lot to do with rest, recreation and restoration, we get ourselves in a healthier position for the long haul ahead.

With that in mind I’m taking an appreciation course on summer. The sun goes down late tonight and will for awhile. I’m going to doubly enjoy the extended light while it’s here.

Soon enough dusk shortens up. It starts to arrive a little earlier each evening. 

The thought gets set aside to concentrate instead on this dandy June Monday. 

Sunshine, light and warmth will leave with nightfall but manage to linger with me as best moments do.

Basswood trees are blossoming. They’re about my favorite smell. 

Lilacs, lavender, turkey browning in the oven and roasting chiles are favorite aromas as well. But mention basswood and the others queue up behind.

It’s a brief but special time. As the fragrance of basswood flowers drifts on the sometimes mild sometimes sticky air it’s plain and simple pleasure.

A large bunny was in the yard the other day. A smaller version has been around but this is the older cousin. This is one who’s had many banquets of clover on our lawn.

It stays close to the edge of the plantings in the security of the belt of trees. It nibbles the grasses in need of mowing.

You look outside and never know what you’re going see. Often there’s nothing. 

Take a second look. Summer skies, trees and land are creature full.

Ro Giencke - June 25, 2012


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Butterfinger Bars

It's drive season in Minnesota. It's the perfect time of the year for getting out in the car and going anywhere you want. 

You can cover ten miles or a hundred. It all has local flair. 

Lakes sparkle. Small towns welcome with tidy streets, green lawns and kids biking to the parks. The metro is alive with noonday downtown crowds and museums and galleries to wander.

It's easy to manufacture an excuse for getting on the road. You need only two words.  It's summer is the only explanation necessary.

Summer is made for the drive to the lake (or lakes in our case, keeping track of over 10,000 of them). 

Those from outside the Minneapolis-St. Paul beltline (and proportionately that's most of the state) drive into the Twin Cities. They come for a dose of urban culture, baseball games (Twins and Saints) and shopping.

City dwellers head to the country to cool off at resorts or check if corn will be knee high by Fourth of July. We pass each other going in our opposite on the freeways. 

We ramble down lazy rural lanes luxuriating in a stretch of pavement entirely our own. Henry Ford would be proud of us and rightly pleased his magnificent conveyance has brought so much pleasure.

Travel by car is all the more enjoyable because of eat stops along the way. Everyone seems to have a favorite eating place. It becomes a tradition to stop there. No trip would be the same without these stops.

Tobie's is a good midway point if headed to Duluth. For as long as I recall this travel magnet along I-35 has been known for its cinnamon and caramel rolls.

Those pointed up I-94 to the central and western lakes find reason to peel off at Clearwater. That's the Nelson Brothers exit ramp. Nelson Brothers is a travel plaza where you can fuel the car, select a souvenir, treat yourself to an ice cream cone or have a full sit down dinner. 

Some will say the best of all the choices is the Nelson Brothers bakery with the good breads and other delectables. Some folks never make a trip down to the Cities without stopping at the bakery. 

Purchase for the road or let the nibbling begin. At Nelson Brothers taking a car trip means you never get there hungry.

My husband used to travel for work. He remembers the ten cent coffee at Freda's Bord at Willmar. No doubt there were excellent desserts or homemade cookies to go along with the coffee. He doesn't mention these.

The restaurant had Swedish-American favorites like meatballs and mashed potatoes. But Al remembers the dime coffee. Small town eateries with their friendly servers and the coffee pots that gave constant refills aren't soon forgotten.

Every small town, at least in the old days, which I now reckon to be anything twenty five years back or more, used to have a main street bakery.

If you went through a town and saw a main street bakery you could pretty much expect something fresh, chewy and remarkably tasty in the glass display case. 

Maybe there even was a chair or two and a table for consuming your donut with sprinkles or slice of apple fritter bread on the spot.

My hometown had little eating places that had the bakery element in with the restaurant. Businessmen had noon lunch at these restaurants and the farmers who came into town. 

A blue haze hovered over the counter stools. You could cut the thick smoky air with a knife.

Thank goodness for no-smoking legislation which has since ensured, which gives diners an opportunity to both eat and breathe.

Betty Lessard of Betty Pie's at Two Harbors was a pioneer in the no-smoking concept. Her little North Shore pie shop restricted smoking well before it became  state statute. 

Don't, for goodness sake, miss Betty's Pies if you're on the way to the North Shore. The pies and Two Harbors are a double destination in their own right. But if you have  time plan for multiple stops and a longer drive.

For the extra time allotted on Highway 61 you get gorgeous waterfalls, Split Rock Lighthouse, shopping, restaurants, a boggling variety of sports, recreation and excursion opportunities and stunning lake views. 

This includes don't miss places like Duluth, Grand Marais, Boundary Waters and the international border with Canada.

Betty's Pies and Lyle's Restaurant at Winthrop would wind up with hand prints in the cement if there ever was a Minnesota pie walk of fame.

The newspaper writers who went out to sample came back extolling the pies and often the charm and friendliness of these restaurants not ordinarily discovered on one's own.

The personalities of the cooks and excellence of their product were gotten across very well. This impressed me as a younger gal. I admired the travel pieces for their injection of local color. The coverage made every small town a destination spot if you looked at it just right.

If you're anywhere in the vicinity of Wabasha on the Minnesota side of the Mississippi River, or Nelson and Alma on the Wisconsin side, my personal recommendation is Nelson Cheese and Creamery. 

The landmark shop sells cheeses, ice cream, soup, sandwiches and condiments. It has a good wine selection. You can sit on the outdoor patio, look up at the bluffs and wonder if your river drive can't end right here. You've arrived at the perfect spot.

Years ago we went through Osseo, Wisconsin regularly. It was on our way to Al's parents. The signboards along I-94 for Norske Nook looked interesting. 

We were young, we were making time and we didn't stop. Eventually we did, following a story read in the newspaper about the incredible pies.

Thanks to today's web sites you can visit these restaurants online as well as seek them out by car. In fact if you check out Norske Nook now you can order its special pie of the month. 

The pie of the month for June is rhubarb. How tempting can you get. Rhubarb is the accolade of pies for many of us.

A favorite recipe in my dessert file comes from Norske Nook. It's not, however, a pie recipe. 

Our newspaper some time ago ran a recipe for Butterfinger Bars from Norske Nook. I have no idea when the recipe appeared in print. My note says it was first made November 12, 1993. 

Twenty years down the line I'd say the butterfinger bar recipe passes the road test for longevity. Here's the recipe.

Butterfinger Bars
1/2 cup dark corn syrup
2/3 cup butter, melted
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups oatmeal

Mix syrup, butter and brown sugar in large bowl. Add vanilla extract and oatmeal. Mix together. Mixture will be firm.

Press into buttered 9 x 13 inch baking pan. (A spoon dipped in cold water from time to time helps spread the mixture to the corners.) Bake at 350 degrees 15 minutes. Don't overbake. Cool slightly. Spread Peanut Butter Topping onto bars. 

Peanut Butter Topping
1 6-ounce package chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter

Place chocolate chips and peanut butter together in saucepan over very low heat. Stir until melted.

Ro Giencke - June 19, 2012

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rose petals and yellow water lilies

June is reaching the halfway point with a triumphal air of perfection.

A real summertime weekend - two days of bearable but noticeable humidity - has ceded to 70s and 80s again.

Ideal temperatures have been enjoyed from the start of the month. 

Warm sunshine, the freshness of the season, occasionally fluffy clouds and pretty flowers in the yards all refresh the spirit.

Out in the lake today yellow water lilies were a knot of color as they rode their water mattresses in strong northwest winds. This too is June.

The flowers were closed. They were hard knobs fastened in place on the green lilypads.

It would have taken Monet to render them Impressionist in mood. They were too drawn in upon themselves to look ethereal. Shuttered and separate, they would have been a trial for perhaps even his dream-worked interpretation. 

Give them a little time. Because - after all - they're early. They're early based on when we, in the past, were accustomed to see them bloom. Everything seems to be running a little ahead.

Fortunately the sunsets keep to their allotted schedule. June is their jubilee time. The long twilight at this time of year lets the sun linger high in the sky. 

Late sunsets distinguish our northern summer. It's nine at night for catching sundown. Sunsets have a few more minutes to go before the pendulum irrevocably swings back towards fall. We pay attention to things like that here. 

A group of us were on the party deck over the weekend. We watched a golden sunset melt and spread through the screen of trees. 

We commented to our host on two things. First we confessed to being disoriented in our direction. This is what driving country roads with all their curves and angles will do to you. The sun was going down on what seemed to us the wrong side of the house.  

After we got straightened out which way is west (where the light was, of course) our host nodded affably at praise of his glorious sunset. 

He mentioned a favorite sunset viewing spot above the garden. Probably all of us have a particular ritual that makes some part of our day special. It struck me he has found such a ritual in his sunset chair.

Trips to the Arboretum keep me attuned to the crescendo of blooming that June is so much about. I've taken to bringing pen and paper along. The large assortment of plants and interesting layouts are worth making note of. 

Someday this play at virtual gardening may blossom into something more substantial and real. Paying attention and educating myself are good enough starts for now. 

Give me this kind of classroom over any other. Blue sky for ceiling, the spires of evergreens for walls and no ring of the dismissal bell at all.

One closes in on the swirl of mixed colors in a rose petal. You quiet your senses to listen to the heartbeat inherent within nature. If all learning could be this natural! 

Over several visits I've collected the names of many varieties of rose shrubs. I write them down not only because of their beauty but also for the enticing names. 

Violas, delphiniums, white peonies, Ozark sundrops, Virginia mock orange, begonias, sedum, snapdragons, astibe and dianthus add to this list. 

Coral bells are there. So are dahlias, lantana, Texas sage (and Russian sage, meadow sage and culinary sage). Trees are noted. Herbs too and grasses. I see the splendor from afar.

My list rambles like some of the rose bushes. While these rambler roses mass with the weight of their flowers and preen with their prettiness my list has a hasty and overfilled look. 

It'll have to be edited. But for now the entirety of the impression of the artistry of these Chanhassen slopes is contained within the little notebook.

Everything was entered while crouching precariously over flower beds or brushing aside foliage to read the plaques. The word are scrawled, or run into each other, but all has now been figured out.

Visiting with my daughter I suggest we have the makings of a story. The mother with no green thumb but with a desire to create beauty turns to her darling offspring for help. 

She'll furnish the practicality and knowability. That takes care of that gigantic piece of the project, which otherwise could be a big worry. 

Acquisition of garden space and funding are stickier details. They remain to be worked out.

I urge her to picture the heartwarming tale of the joint efforts. The mother / daughter team plan, plant and likely pant with the digging, ditching and watering there is to do. It's a sure sell to any magazine. She laughs pleasantly. She says send the list.

I wasn't so busy with the flowers, grasses and trees that I overlooked something else. Actually I looked up to notice them. They're memorial plaques which hang in some trees.

The plaques are a neat way to honor a loved one. Some plaques come with an additional message that holds a reflection or thought. Here are two reflections I like:

Life is a work of art designed by the person who lives it.

Deep in their roots all flowers keep the light.

Inspiration doesn't just come from deep within gardens. A recent Arboretum trip was followed by a library stop. I came home with a stack of magazine reading - summers are my time to catch up.

An ad covered the back of one of the magazines. The product never clicked - I failed to see what it was. The accompanying words were all that mattered to me. "Be yourself by doing things you love to do."  

This is as near to it as I can get. I didn't copy it down. But the drum roll as I read it had its impact. Its wisdom got across.

Doing things you love to do is intrinsic to recent trips to the Arboretum. This brings to mind a quotation from Rachel Carson inscribed on one of the benches. "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature." 

There was more to the quotation but I stopped writing after that. The few words say it all.

Ro Giencke - June 11, 2012

Monday, June 4, 2012


Shopping downtown with mom when we were kids meant running into lots of her old acquaintances.

We balanced first on one foot then another. We peered into the glass store fronts. It was all something amusing to do while the catching up went on.

These folks who hailed mom with obvious pleasure were mostly strangers by our reckoning. 

They weren't neighbors or people from church or parents of classmates. We were continually amazed at mom's connections beyond our own small ordered world.

The sidewalk visits were largely with rural neighbors from mom's growing up years. They served as clues to her country life before we came along.

The surprised and warm expressions of greeting as they met at the traffic light crossings or in the grocery stores told us good times and friendships were being remembered. 

Most of these former neighbors came regularly into town to shop. It made main street an ongoing reunion center. 

One visit I recall took place at a grocery store which we shopped along with Piggly Wiggly and Red Owl. This time it was I who did the noticing. The person, her back to me, looked familiar. It was Helen. She was a relative.

I was maybe eight or nine at the time. I had moved close to the doors away from mom in the checkout line. I was waiting for the cashier to finish ringing up our groceries.

Helen turned from looking out the big plate glass window with its view of the street. I went  to say hello.

She was a cousin of my grandpa but with an age spread that made her several years younger than him. She was the chief phone operator at the phone company in town. Possibly she was retired or edging to retirement age.

By her stance I took it she was waiting too. Perhaps she had called for a taxi with her Saturday shopping done. She didn't own a car or drive.

I didn't know Helen well but my cordiality towards her was based on my mom's. She was gracious to all and remembered family ties. Family relationships were respected and kept track of as best as busy lives allowed.

Seeing the two of us together mom came over, probably bringing with her the young man who helped carry groceries to the car.

They greeted one another with the pleasure that comes with running into someone you're happy to see without the trouble of making plans to do so.

Helen reenters my memory a few years later. I was in high school. I was researching the Norwegian side of our family to put a family tree together.

Helen provided dates and contacts for her branch of the family. As things often happen we started to stay more in touch.

For some time after that Helen, mom and I met for lunch at Helen's favorite  restaurant. We didn't do it often but there was a nice rhythm to it.

The pie which finished the meal was the highlight for Helen. You could see she waited for the pie. The choosing, ordering and delivery of the slices of pie to our table made the luncheon secondary to the finale.

The restaurant prepared its pies and they were not to be missed. As I recall cream pies were Helen's favorites.

The custard fillings were rich with milk and eggs. Meringue toppings were works of art perfected by the heightening effects of cream of tartar and many beaten egg whites.

Living frugally, dressing impeccably, Helen was the classic unmarried woman of a certain age if you asked me then.

I didn't wonder if she ever had a beau or missed or did not miss being married. When young you mostly accept the person you see. 

Your experience hasn't taken you that far to wonder that widely. You question life at sixteen but not necessarily the workings of individuals.

Some might have described Helen as a reticent soul who slipped quietly across the stage. She performed excellently at her job, kept up her lovely home, was a loyal sister and aunt, was upright, minded her own business and was generous where she gave.

These are all decent ways to be remembered. To it can be added that she had a soft heart for young people including her nephews, nieces and it appears - me.

June 4 is the day Helen was born. The date entered my brain, a bear trap for data like this, when compiling my grandpa's family history. After that birthday cards were sent to Helen on her day.

Growing up I didn't know Helen well but I liked her. The friendliness stemmed partially from family ties. It's also my agreeable ability to like anyone who's friendly to me.

It can't be said Helen is better known for this annual keeping of her birthday. It occurs to me, however, that the years have taught something.

Like the tiered cakes displayed with the other desserts in the glass pie stand (an important fixture in the restaurant scheme of things), I once thought getting through the levels of a person was important for the insight into them.

It can help but isn't necessary I come to realize. My oneness with Helen rests lightly but completely with no further facts or information on her to appear.

In all this time I haven't learned whether she traveled, read for improvement, gardened, sang in the church choir, deplored the hippie movement or what her politics might have been. 

It's water over the dam as far as it concerns me. It wouldn't change an iota the closeness I feel for her who in reality I knew so little.

Originally the friendship was instinctive. Now I recognize the truth is that we were simply lucky. 

One of us starting out, the other not over the finish line but certainly a distance contender, we were put in positions to share some mutually enjoyed time together.

We both took away a lasting impression of liking and acceptance. We bonded over lunch but discovered each other in a polite exchange of grocery store hellos.

Happy June 4, Happy Birthday Helen.

Ro Giencke - June 4, 2012