Thursday, April 24, 2014


A special interest of mine is the backgrounds of each of us that make us who we are.

Our backgrounds include the many factors that shape us from birth and even before. 

Circumstances in the world or in our family life can have defining influence over us from the moment we draw breath.

The role of backgrounds on personality comes to mind as news of the passing of two old friends from my home area reached me this spring. 

The women lived within a few miles of each other. They probably didn't know each other although my family knew both of them.

The first woman was a member of our church. She was a mother of a family like ours in that it was a big family. Ages of the children were in a range comparable to ours. 

It was a country church. Families know each other when the household count in a church, as it was with us, is small.

This was pre-Facebook and so it was a different social era altogether. Without social media, as used today, there was quite limited knowledge of the other church families.

Much of what we knew about each each other came from the weekly times in the pews and the activities that laced church life together between the Sundays, such as picnics, women’s circle meetings or baseball games.

Summer field season and long isolating winters could reduce chances for socializing. And by habit rural folks kept their lives as private as much as possible.

There were always happenings in families learned through visits and phone visits. News circulates as it will where families are close-knit through a sharing of religion or common livelihood or way of life.

Snippets of gossip made the rounds as well. We're a curious lot, most of us, with an avidity for the juicy morsel. A bit of gossip makes our own life more interesting as the spotlight is shone, for good or for gain, on someone else.

Mom liked the church woman remembered here. She 
probably didn't say it in so many words but in the way she waited to have a word with this woman after church or something in her voice when she said her name. 

This was good enough for me. I adopted as likable those who Mom liked, and she was one who saw likable traits in most people, finding the decent and the admirable in them.

As my discernment grew I began making assessments from my own observations. This was about the time I realized I could read weariness in this woman. 

It wasn’t the weary aspect of languor or boredom but of stamina pushed to the limit. It was as if the urgency of work, whether of the farm life or her large family, taxed her strength. 

Sunday after Sunday there was about her, in her face and in her clasped hands, a demeanor I could never give words to. It struck me she came to church using it as a reservoir from which to draw for the week ahead. 

Along with the tired strain detected in her it was her long red hair I noticed next. 

There were redheads among us so the red hair alone didn’t distinguish her from the rest. It was its length that set her apart. 

The long hair looked old fashioned to my eyes becoming aware of fashions and tends.

Always ready to approve the modern I wondered that she didn't care to update her appearance. With the confidence of youth the opinion I held was strong. A new hairdo was an easy thing she could do.

It could show us she was more than the farm woman who arrived with husband and kids each week to church.

It took her recent obituary to let me see her fully as if for the first time. 

Her mother's maiden name was given in the write-up. It was an Irish-sounding name. It suggested that our old friend from church had an Irish heritage. 

The woman's Irish background was there all along in her bright long hair. It framed her life as it framed her slender form and was part of her. Backgrounds are our stories. Sometimes they wait a lifetime to be shared.

The second woman wasn’t a fellow church member. She was our neighbor. She lived across the road.

As with the first woman, this woman was more or less noted by me when young. 

As you get older you start paying attention to some women and men. You come to admire them for the strengths or other values they show as you yourself get tested as you go through life. 

In particular I’m drawn to those who have depth of authenticity. There’s an absolute lack of pretension about them. They have humility in their nature. 

It makes them very open and real about matters concerning them and others. It keeps them faithful to the core as they live out their life experiences. 

These are the qualities I came to note in our former neighbor. She had courage that bucked her up through her difficulties which, for a period in her life, were many. 

She had a beaming countenance. She never seemed to remove it. It wasn't wiped off when the moment passed or turned into a frown.  

This outward expression of a happy spirit may have hid personal hurts but it also put the misfortunes in their place. It certainly disarmed those of us treated to the warmth of her smile.

She was the family breadwinner. Her job kept her on her feet. She must have come home from her shift tired and aching to sit awhile and rest.

She was never too tired or forgetful, on any occasion, to light up when she saw you. 

She was sunshine to me. This was the effect she had on people. She was the relaxed presence of an unperturbed soul.

She moved away when I was in my teens. She somewhat slipped from my mind. I married and moved away and there were many busy years raising our family.

When my dad died a few years ago she wrote a thoughtful sympathy note. With her address on the envelope to work with I wrote and then visited her. 

Her new home was the farm where she grew up. It was her parents' farm and she had returned to live out her years in this old place. 

I learned this on the first visit. She was so happy to be back home with its fondly remembered times. There were more visits. I enjoyed seeing my old but new-found friend. 

She told about growing up, an only child, surrounded by the love of her parents and aunts, uncles and cousins who farmed adjacent farms.

A secure start to life, through this early showering of love upon her by extended family, was the background against which she grew up and matured. 

She used it as a gift to make others feel secure in the exposure of her expansive response to life.

In the ease of familiar surroundings her retirement years were like a reward for her constancy. The constancy was the childlike simplicity which informed her first years and kept her step light all through life.

These two women may be thought unexceptional. They lived quiet country lives.They didn’t make the news. It didn't trouble them that they weren't at the center of things.

They didn’t win trophies or run for office. They didn’t ask for attention or demand respect or think to be popular at the cost of principle. Their way was the course they hewed from the truth of who they were.

They were good people, enduring friends and exceptional mentors. Their backgrounds colored their lives and invested their personalities with meaning. 

These two, with little in common, had in common the positive effect of their lives on their rural neighborhood. Without emphasis or hubbub they put all that made them up into the building of their community. 

Providing backgrounds to their local scene during their lifetimes they shine as the heroes they are.  

Ro Giencke - April 24, 2014


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Hot Cross Buns

There are certain foods which are the very essence of childhood.

As adults we associate these foods with first memories of home and home life. 

They often carry with them a sense of great happiness.

I believe this is because they contain some of our earliest understandings of belonging to a group, which is the family unit, and being nurtured through it.

When I was young these special foods were most apt to be prepared by our mothers or grandmothers. 

The kitchen was the hub and heart of family life. In my family we were accustomed to good eating. Home cooked meals, homemade breads and sweet treats always had hungry appetites to do justice to them. 

Cooking and baking filled the house with delicious aromas. 

The good smells brought us hungry to the kitchen to check how soon done, or made us come with alacrity to the table when particularly-favored dishes were served.

I think of this with Easter this weekend. Hot Cross Buns, which Mom made for Easter Sunday dinner through all the years we (and then our children with us) sat together at the Easter table, left as much an imprint on us as the cross she etched on top of each sweet bun.

She took the time to check over the raisins before she added the measured amount to the dough. She looked for stems which she removed when found. 

She never would have thought to skip the step of looking through the raisins in making Hot Cross Buns. It's her care with the food she prepared that makes me sort through the raisins I use when baking too.

The buns were drizzled with icing after they baked. The shiny glaze made the buns as pretty as dessert on their plate as it was passed around with the other sides and the Easter ham.

Hot Cross Buns is a tradition that hasn't continued in our family. 
The buns will be remembered by my generation and then its part will be forgotten in the family story.

This is why Hot Cross Buns and other special family foods have been gathered into a family heritage cookbook. 

Along with recipes are stories, individually told, of the food of our childhood and growing up years, and the family times at the table down through the generations. 

Traditions evolve as do families. Traditions are meant to be tweaked, undergo change and even be left behind for new traditions. 

Still, there's value in remembering what has been good and what has connected us. 

I have the Easter bun recipe but have never made the buns. The recipe was written down from my mom many years ago. At the top left of the index card is noted: "Made by Mom each year for Easter."  

The original recipe is in The Good Housekeeping Cook Book, a gift from Dad to Mom somewhat early in their marriage. 

The cookbook was well broken in by the time we younger kids came along. 

The cookbook recipes described a previous era as I studied the pages. Even then I was interested in food and the making of food through a well laid-out set of directions. 

Next to the recipe in the cookbook Mom has written: "400 or even 375 and only 20 minutes."  

My cooking isn't exactly that of my mom's but my tendency to add pertinent notes to my recipes obviously comes from her. 

 Hot Cross Buns

1 c. warm milk, 1/4 c. shortening, 1/3 c. granulated sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt} to this add 1 pkg. yeast softened in 1/4 c. warm water. Add 1 tsp. granulated sugar. Add 1 egg (first removing 1 tblsp. egg white for glazing), 1/2 c. raisins, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. allspice and 3 1/2 - 4 c. flour.

Place in a greased bowl, cover and let rise in warm place (80-85 degrees) until double in bulk - about 1½ hours. Knead, shape into 2" balls and arrange in greased 9 x 9 x 2" pan. Brush each bun with egg white; cover and let rise until double in bulk - about 45 minutes.

Snip a deep cross in the top of each bun with scissors. Bake in hot oven (400 degrees) for 25 minutes; cool. Fill the cross on top of each with powdered sugar icing. Makes 2 dozen buns. 

Ro Giencke - April 17, 2014



Sunday, April 13, 2014

Learning after the Latin is gone

Two years of high school Latin was helpful for all the roots to English words that the study of Latin taught us.

The time when sum, es, est, sumus, estis and sunt fairly tripped off my tongue is long gone but many other facts of learning remain.

Our studies went far beyond reading about the Roman senators in their togas, seeing pictures of murals found in excavations of the destroyed city of Pompeii, or learning of the sanctity of home life at the height of the Roman empire.

It was more than, but also included, translating the words of Julius Caesar’s famous victory speech, Veni, vidi, vici – “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Latin made me aware of the ancient world and made it relevant. It invested me with a special regard for the Roman genius.

The Roman empire at its peak, like the Greek civilization before it with its philosophers, scholars, scientists, merchants and playwrights, shaped and changed the world.

If the Greeks were the visionaries of the Western World, the Romans were its pioneers and foot soldiers. 

Brilliant builders, the Romans forged stone by stone, and brick by brick, through such international roads as the Appian Way, the footpaths that made possible the expansion of their empire.

These soldiers, when retirement came, often chose to settle in the lands through which they marched.

In the end the Roman legions, sent out to conquer the world, were conquered by the beauty of the places they passed through. They came back to claim their foothold as pensions of their service to the Emperor.

Studying the ancient world through its language makes those times pertinent. 

A people and their culture can never be dead, or without something to teach, when they can speak to you, in their own language, across the millenniums.

In this way I learned, my first year of Latin, that life is more interesting when you appreciate the longevity of connections.

As you study an ancient language you gain insight into forgotten times. The past is kept alive through the power of the words that steered the lives of these ancient ones.

It was likely in Latin class that I learned our modern calendar is derived from the Roman calendar, and that our months get their names from that same calendar.

My Latin recently proved helpful again. We’d come to April at last. The first day brought a tidy accumulation of snowfall. The calendar had its small laugh on us.

We were taking the snow in stride but with rueful mention of the white landscape all around. Spring is April's promise to us but sometimes it tardily delivers.

"April comes from “aperire,” to open," I said. The thought was a way to balance the presence of new snow with the ardent desire for greening and blooming. 

It's what we learned in Latin," I added, picturing the budding that would have enveloped the Roman countryside by April. Springtime vigor resonates in "aperirie," the word borrowed to name the 4th month. 

From this I was led to recall the origins for the names of the other months. 

         The months and how they got their names

January - from Janus, god of beginnings and endings. Janus is shown with two faces, one looking forward, the other looking back 

February - named for a feast of purification

March - named for Mars, Roman god of war

April - its origin, as learned, is from "aperire," to open, as in the opening of buds and flowers.

A perhaps more widely held theory is that April comes from Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love, beauty and pleasure. 

Gods and goddesses had their stamp on the ancient world. It's highly conceivable that April, a time of beauty in nature, was given its name to honor the fair Aphrodite.

My instinct is to stick with “aperire” as the source for April. The preference is largely because the information has stayed with me so long. 

It's also because it fits as a name the practical Romans would have given the fourth month. In "aperire," meaning "to open," they had a name that reflects nature's order within the calendar year.

Establishing order - with their calendar, as with their empire - was a particular Roman ability. 

The Romans noted the seasonal rotation of the months as it applied to farming, astrology and other areas of impact on them. It would have been clear to them that April is the portal to the season of flowering.

The sweep and swelling of life at this surging time of the year would have influenced them. The full-on opening toward life that is April resonates in the word "aperire." It's pleasant to think it echoes in the name we use today.

May - from Maia, an earth goddess. Maia was patron of blossoming and fruitfulness, of springtime and growth

June - from Juno, Queen of the gods and patron of marriage and weddings

July - for Julius Caesar 

August - for Augustus Caesar 

September - from the Latin, the 7th month, as it was in the Roman calendar

October - from the Latin, the 8th month in the Roman calendar

November - from the Latin, the 9th month in the Roman calendar

December - from the Latin, the 10th month in the Roman calendar

This roster was put together after doing some online research. The web sites verified my calendar name recall except with February. 

I credited February to a Scandinavian goddess. This would have scandalized the Romans.

They considered as barbarians those of the cold northern lands whose shores lay untouched by the gentle wash of the Mediterranean Sea. 

The languages of the northerners registered on Roman ears as grating. Romans also considered their manners lacking, placing them far outside the pale of civilization.

If only the Romans could have used their calendars to foretell time. It might have saved them, or maybe it’d have only staved off the inevitable. 

Progression of time brought those very barbarians to the gates of Rome. It brought the age of classical Rome, already in steep decline, to an end.

Latin, the tongue of vanquished Rome, had its own reversal of fortune. Luckily, the Latin language was never entirely lost.

Modern languages including Italian, French and Spanish draw from Latin. 

It continues to be a studied language in its own right. It maintains its value in the fields of science and medicine. And until the 1960s it was the universal language of Mass in the Catholic Church.

From conjugation to calendar to continuity Latin class taught fundamentals which keep proving rewarding.

If my home could be redesigned to accommodate an atrium this would be laid at the door of Latin class as well.

Atrium, like “aperire,” is remembered from Latin studies. 

The idea of an atrium as a feature in your house, as the Romans had in their homes, appealed to me then. 

It stays with me as a feature that would be nice to have in our home someday.

Ro Giencke – April 13, 2014




Friday, April 4, 2014

Ode to April Dressed in White

"Ode to April Dressed in White" is the title running through my mind for any such poetry I'm inspired to write today.

A fresh nine inches of snow coats our neighborhood. 
It comes in the wake of Tuesday snow which whitened our lawns (emerging from the deep blanket laid down over the winter). 

We were game about the April Fool’s Day snow. We  conceded it was a good joke on us. It'll melt soon the weather people said. And sure enough traces of it were soon gone.

April sun is as strong as it is in early to mid-September. The April 1 snow didn’t have a chance against it. But before the winter snow pack was fully gone from our yards it was topped with the new snowfall. 

It started last night as rain. Surfaces froze overnight, putting streets in washboard condition for the morning commute.

A friend facetiously suggested a few swear words in the poem to April. I said I could understand. The point was well taken. We’re sick of snow. It’s April after all.

With that said and out of our systems we (in the end) adjusted to the day at hand. We blew out our driveways one more time. We watched as winds shook the snow from the trees.

Fortitude has to be the defining virtue of the Midwest. Fortitude is the virtue that stands alone as the symbol of what it is to be from here. 

This comes to me as I survey the wintry scene. I can think of no virtue as critical to our survivor skills here than fortitude.

A stout heart, strong will and goodwill are our definite assets. Fortitude is what we lean into when no solid gain toward spring is made after many weeks of pecking away at winter.

In view of the snow late into our season the strength which is fortitude has its own bright light.

A sense of humor is the jolly side of fortitude. Humor probably qualifies as a separate virtue for the lift it gives as we roll with the weather punches.

Midwestern humor tends to be droll. It might be missed by those who don’t pick up on it right away. 

It’s not a ha-ha sort of humor. It is instead shrewd and observational.

It perhaps developed as a defense mechanism, a way to ease life as it tests us and plucks at our heart strings.

Although this is changing it's been ingrained in the northern culture to not show emotions too openly. Perhaps it’s this inherent caution which crafts our brand of humor.

We couch our sentiments in jests that establish pleasant contact with others while not requiring us to loosen our intrinsic reserve.

We generally reveal ourselves not all at once but slowly over time. Humor is a door with the key in the lock. Keys are for opening. They also can keep something shut.

“Know me through my humor and you’ll come to know me in other ways” might be the first truth anyone new over our borders would be well to put their thoughts around.

It reminds me of the old days, as the past is recounted, when male customers with free time idled away winter hours in the relative comfort of the country store.

In these rural areas it was the farm customers who had some spare time in winter. Harvest was over. Their lives were less ordered. They were less in a hurry. 

They could visit and rag each other. Until fields dried in the spring for planting they could sometimes indulge in a bit of relaxation.

They leaned back in chairs or stood chatting at leisure as grocery orders were filled. They swapped stories, heard (and spread) the local gossip, opined on matters, solved the world's problems and joshed. 

The store was blue with smoke curling from pipes and the endless lighting of cigarettes. It was a man’s haven, well earned in an age of hard physical labor. 

They went home refreshed. There was important interaction from their time shared. It was a place to rest  and a chance to throw their voices into the mix.

Winter treats us similarly through the years. Winter also got long for the farmers. They used the country store to use up winter. The itch came upon them to sit awhile and jaw and let the season have its time.

And they grew restless by April as we do now. Like us, they yearned to be active outside and separate from households pent in by winter's long nights and cold weather. 

They waited to come back to life as April puts it in all of us to do.

I was reminded of this by a fellow passenger. We were on the elevator. It was hauling us to different destinations on the same floor. 

The day was deplorable. We remarked on it in polite conversational exchange on the short ride up.

“Minnesota is eleven months winter and one month tough sledding" is what I remember him saying. 

He may have worded it a bit differently but it sounds about right. I chuckled when he said this.

It's how we joke here, and how we handle miserable springtimes when they arrive tardy or recalcitrant.

Especially those of this older man’s generation know how to take the seasonal cycles in stride. They’ve lived through harsh winters, easy winters and certainly through winters as difficult as 2013-14 has been.

I tell my helpful friend there'll be no swear words in the ode to April. The poetry will be in the grace of how we meet the unwelcome setback that has been April so far.

April this year, paraphrasing my friend of the elevator, wants to be among the eleven months of winter. 

So let it be. We’ll work around it and get through it as has always been done here. And I expect a break is coming soon. Warmer days are ahead.

I pick up the pen, cross out a few words, add others. Here's being ready for the next poem. 

"Ode to April Dressed in Green" is a title set to go. It only needs the context - nature's elements to inspire - to take the words to paper and make it poetry.

Ro Giencke – April 4, 2014