Bound by Tradition

Have I mentioned that I grew up holiday-free? It’s one of the defining aspects of my character — now, as an adult, I love holidays like a kid because they’re all new and exciting, but I’m never sure how important they are to other people or whether I’m celebrating them quite right. Half the time, I only remember after the day has passed. Both this year, in kindergarten, and last year, in preschool,  Niko had no Dr. Seuss-themed shirt on Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and last year he failed to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, because I forgot each time that the holidays were approaching. This year I did manage to purchase some St. Patrick’s Day green for the kids and me, and I did remember to get it out on the day, but only because I set two reminders on my phone.

I grew up as part of a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, and abandoning both secular and religious holidays was a choice we embraced as part of freedom from the chains of tradition, worldly entanglement, and religious law. Of course,  non-celebration then became a religious law…but that’s a topic for another time. Suffice it to say, our abstinence from holidays was a practice that derived from a sincere desire to have lives characterized by simplicity, with our focus on God rather than getting caught up in the frivolity and materialism of celebrations.

However, Easter is a holiday that was embedded in my psyche from a young age, albeit loosely. There were no visible trappings of the celebration in our community; we had no egg hunts, no frilly pastel dresses or spring hats. We did have giant, revival-style church services in the spring near Easter time, forever connected in my mind because of the abundance of seasonal candy for the event, but they had nothing to do with the holiday in reality; they just happened to be scheduled in the spring.  Despite our church’s eschewing of holidays, though,  Easter Sunday generally did feature Resurrection-themed songs and sermons, though the word “Easter” wasn’t necessarily mentioned. After all, unlike Christmas, Easter is celebrated at the historically correct time, just after Passover; and its celebration is much less gift-centered than Christmas, thus contributing less to the corruption of the soul. Occasionally someone would get unusually enthusiastic in the delivery of an Easter Sunday message, with a jubilant cry of “He is risen!” from the pulpit, echoed by a wide array of responses from the congregation — from a few sober  Amen’s, to a rousing Glory hallelujah! or two, to a few rebelliously traditional calls of He is risen indeed!

Anyway, what with the appearance of the best candy of the year, the onslaught of songs featuring imagery of rising from graves, and the occasional Easter sermon, Easter is a holiday that has remained on my radar — in the distance, anyway — from childhood on.

In past years, Aaron and I have let Easter pass with barely a nod — we often had a family dinner with his parents, but we didn’t do much ourselves. When we moved to our current home in Oregon, though, we realized that our move-in date would coincide with Easter. The first night we spent here was the Saturday before Easter. So we celebrated with Easter baskets for the kids (Sofia was just a baby, so hers just had enough in it to satisfy three-year-old Niko’s need to include her), and we had an egg hunt — Niko’s very first.

The next year, Niko discovered the joys of dyeing eggs. And decorating cookies. We did both with friends, which made it just that much more wonderful. Sofia was now big enough to tear into her own little Easter basket and even collect a few eggs, with help. We had a special Easter breakfast — Finnish pancake, a childhood favorite of mine. And Tradition was established.

Last year, we went all out in preparation — Aaron and I found Easter presents for the kids together, we bought them both clothes for the occasion, and I, wanting to continue Tradition but caving to exhaustion and a bad cold, bought a sugar cookie mix for Niko. I even made the kids silly little sock bunnies, which I stuffed with rice and barley scented with an essential oil blend of warm orange and cinnamon. DSC01213 (1)

I loved Niko’s excitement leading up to the big day. “Guess what’s happening NEXT WEEK!” he said to me for an entire week, after Aaron had whispered the surprise to him, and “Guess what’s happening THIS WEEK, Mom! Guess!” for another whole week. He kept asking about the Easter Bunny and what he might bring, and where does he get the eggs, anyway? He knows, intellectually, that the Easter Bunny isn’t real, but his heart isn’t in it. When we read Jan Brett’s new Easter Bunny story, he confided that he really did believe in the Easter Bunny.

Niko flung himself into Easter preparations with delight. He was thrilled beyond words when I showed him the shirt I’d gotten him to wear on Easter. He reveled in the anticipation of the egg hunt and Easter basket. Not in the least disappointed by making cookies from a mix instead of from scratch, he happily stirred, rolled, and cut. When I got out the little tubes of writing icing to decorate them (another shortcut that was so very helpful), he authoritatively instructed Sofia in the correct ways of decorating them. We didn’t decorate eggs, sadly — I ran out of both time and energy.

Then, on that Easter Saturday (Aaron had a business trip for which he had to leave on Sunday),  I followed our year-old tradition and made a batch of Finnish pancake, my own recipe this time, which was so well received we ate almost the entire dish within half an hour. Niko and Sofia got dressed in their new Easter finery, and then we presented the toy-filled baskets. The kids loved their aromatic bunnies and springtime treats. While they explored their baskets and played with their kaleidoscopes, Aaron disappeared outside, as per Tradition, to hide eggs in artistic locations. Niko and Sofia hunted enthusiastically, filling their  baskets with candy-loaded eggs. They ate the decorated cookies. They read Easter stories. In short, they celebrated Easter thoroughly.

And now comes the conundrum. I haven’t just established Tradition. No, it’s worse: I’ve become entrenched in Tradition. My holiday-eschewing self is now trapped in the need to make Easter perfect for the kids — but this need is at odds with the reality of my personality, my history, and my health and general energy level. The obvious solution is to tone it down, little by little, year by year, until the kids are content with a handful of chocolate eggs and a store-bought, pre-decorated sugar cookie.

So, naturally, I’m amping it up this time. This year I started early! I purchased a spring dress for Sofia months ago, and successfully convinced her that it’s a special dress to be worn only on Easter — an endeavor that took more effort than all the cookie decorating and egg coloring of previous years. Finding an appropriate shirt for Niko (one that can be re-worn for school) was harder, as he’s at an awkward in-between size, but after patiently searching for just the right one, I finally found a reasonably suitable one. I have been researching egg decorating, and made an excursion to Goodwill a few weeks ago to find silk ties to dye extra-special eggs with colorful prints. I’m trying to learn how to empty eggs before dyeing so we can decorate eggs ahead of time and enjoy them as decorations, while not getting rotten egg odor. I’ve been eyeing the seasonal toy aisles for the best Easter selections. I’m pondering the virtues of mixing up a big batch of cookie dough and freezing it for later. I’ve halfway decided to sew the kids bunny stuffies from some of their baby pajamas, using a pattern I saw online. I even bought an Easter wreath at 50% off several weeks ago.

In short, I’m finding — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m anticipating the holiday almost as much as the kids are. Instead of the preparations being an energy drain, I find that they’re a bit invigorating. While I acknowledge that I feel somewhat bound by the tradition, I’m realizing that not all bonds and not all traditions have to be negative. As I’ve discovered over the last few years with Christmas celebrations, allowing myself to succumb to these formerly forbidden (or at least discouraged) activities is strangely freeing.  This formerly holiday-free mom is embracing the Easter spirit, and it’s so much fun.


Goodbye, Winter


As spring approaches, I find myself pondering how different Oregon winters and springs are from all the other places I’ve lived. I have a long history with winter — real winter, that is; I grew up in cold places. First my family lived in Northwest Ontario, where temperatures fall to -40° C (which, incidentally, is the same temperature as -40° F… fun fact!) or lower, at least a couple of times each winter. Then we spent seven years in remote northern British Columbia, where winters were less cold but much snowier — the snow routinely accumulated past six feet, and our downstairs windows would be blocked by snow by the end of winter no matter how many times we tried to shift the piles of snow that slid off the roof. We waited with happy anticipation for the snow pile from the eaves of the woodshed to meet the roof, so we could climb to the peak of the roof and slide off in glorious swoops.

We moved back to Ontario when I was eleven, and I discovered afresh the experience of having one’s nostrils freeze together in the frigid air. On the playground (well, parking lot, really) at our tiny church school, the girls’ mandatory long skirts would freeze stiff in the cold wind and chafe our calves during outdoor recess — also mandatory, down to -20ºC.

At the age of eighteen I moved to Alaska. I fell in love with my husband there and ended up staying for fourteen years, mostly in the Anchorage area, which niftily combines the cold of Northwestern Ontario with the snow of British Columbia. It’s not quite as cold as Ontario (or the interior of Alaska) or as snowy as British Columbia, but there’s enough of both to satisfy all but the most demanding winter enthusiast.

All three of these regions have four things in common: long winters, darkness (getting worse as you go farther north), short summers, and agonizingly slow springs.

In Northwestern Ontario, the end of winter generally starts sometime in  March, as the days slowly start to get longer. The snow gets wet and heavy. Roofs drip. Dirt roads gradually appear beneath the ice, and promptly turn to mud. Slowly, so slowly, the giant piles of snow from plowed roads shrink, and driveways turn into small rivers. By the end of March or  beginning of April, roads are often clear of snow. Of course, snow doesn’t stop falling, but the fresh snow gets churned into muddy slush within a few days of falling.

Then comes a day, perhaps sometime in March — around the same time roofs start dripping — when someone gazes out at the scrubby trees that grow in the thin soil atop the bedrock of the Canadian Shield and says, “Is that… green? Do I see green?” Someone else comes to look, and others crowd in. “Nah, you’re imagining things.” But within a couple of days, that optimistic viewer is vindicated, for the bare grey branches now exhibit a faint green tint. It’s barely visible. If you look closely at the tree branches, you won’t see leaves — you’ll see leaf buds just beginning to swell. Despite the faintness of the color, though, this promise of green signals the true end of winter. Several weeks or a couple of months later, probably by mid-May, most of the trees have baby leaves, and by the end of May roses and sometimes lilacs are in bloom. There have been instances of snow in May in Northwestern Ontario, but it doesn’t happen often. Those baby leaves are the beginning of spring.

In the parts of Alaska and British Columbia where I lived, the progression is the same, if a little later and a little slower, with one difference. The winter is so very dark further north that it’s a real occasion when the sun rises as you’re driving to or arriving at work, and when the sun is still up when you leave work. For much of the winter, you literally will not see the sun unless you’re lucky enough to have a day off that coincides with a clear day. So, in Alaska, those glorious first days of sun on your skin, rather than the first green, are the first sign of spring — even though the air is just as cold as before, and the hems of your pants get just as frozen on the way inside, and you have to scrape just as much ice off your windshield, as before.

Our family came to Oregon four years ago, fresh from the long winter and slow spring of Anchorage. We arrived early in June, after leaving our Alaskan home at the end of May. In Anchorage, the trees still had no leaves, and mud abounded. Here, June was full summer. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Grass was a happy green, and lacked that unpleasant sogginess of Alaskan grass after several feet of snow has melted into lawns. We could hardly believe our good fortune. Real summer!

The following spring, we moved from our rental to a permanent home on two acres. We moved in March, just before Easter, and we got to see the onset of spring in a way we’d never experienced before, since our rental home didn’t have a lot in the way of plants. We ooh’d and ahhh’d at each and every new flower, delighting in identifying mystery plants as they each burst into bloom in turn.

The strangest and most wonderful thing to us about an Oregon spring, though, wasn’t the abundance of flowers or the greenness of the winter grass. It was the trees. First of all, Oregon has a lot of evergreens — not just conifers, but broad-leafed shrubs too. Combined with the ivy and moss twining over the massive trunks and branches of trees and the ever-green grass, it’s never really not green here. But even the deciduous trees behave differently here. There’s no gradual onset from bare grey branches, to pale green mist, to buds, to leaves. No, these trees are already making new leaf buds as the old ones fall. You can see that barely-visible green all winter. Then, at some point — as early as mid-to-late February — the early-blossoming trees and shrubs, like plums and forsythia, burst into bloom, along with daffodils and crocuses. Soon after, you notice that the trees look a little more green — and within a short day or two, there are baby leaves everywhere. Here, spring isn’t agonizingly slow — it’s as fast as instant coffee. It lasts long enough to savor it, but its onset is as quick as adding water and stirring.

This year was a bit different than the previous three, and I found myself musing on how much I don’t miss Alaskan winters. We got snow in November this year, and we continued to get occasional snow until… well, until last week. Several times, it accumulated enough for the kids to make snowmen and snow angels. School was closed over and over — we had to readjust the school calendar to make up nine snow and/or ice days. (Do you know how many snow days we had in the Anchorage School District while I was teaching there? Maybe one true snow day over that five-year period, with another one or two days each year for ice.) Niko’s teacher told me, around the middle of January, that between in-service days, holidays, and bad-weather days, there had not been one full five-day week since mid-November.

Niko and Sofia were ecstatic about the snow. Each time flakes appeared in the sky brought a thrill of joy. For me, though, those mornings of begging the kids to slow down on the porch before they slipped on the ice, and scraping windshields, and having to sit and wait while the windows defrosted and defogged, weren’t filled with joy, but with disbelief tinged with resentment.  I’d moan internally (and sometimes not so internally),  We moved here to escape this!  Of course, the fun of seeing the kids go crazy playing in the snow was almost enough to alleviate the snow-induced grouchiness. Almost. That snow was more enticing to the kids than the best toy in the world.

And the snow made everything look so beautiful — winter flower buds peeking through the snow, branches coated with a thick layer of white, fairy lights on the tree in front of our house sparkling through the frost. It was lovely to look at. Like the kids’ delight in the snow, the beauty of the landscape was nearly enough to balance out the resentment. Still, as I chipped piles of icy snow from the porch, it was hard not to feel betrayed by the weather.

The unusually cold and snowy winter delayed the onset of spring, too. Everything is starting at least three to four weeks later than last year. Daffodils just bloomed two days ago; last year they were blooming in February. I saw one single blossom on our plum tree this morning, in the middle of March — last year, the whole tree was in bloom by the second week of February. The cold had one benefit, though — my dwarf irises and pink hyacinths, the first flowers to bloom, had not a single slug-munched petal this year, a far cry from the vicious attacks before buds had even opened in past springs.

But there is one thing — one single thing — about this longer-than-usual winter that is, in fact, awakening nostalgia. The cold winter, now (probably) ended, is finally demonstrating just one redeeming quality. The trees and shrubs have been hoarding their energy, refusing to fatten their leaf buds. Until now. Over the last few weeks of slowly-warming weather, I’ve finally seen that harbinger of spring: a green haze lightly touching all the trees — and not vanishing within days in an explosion of leaves this time. This spring, I’ve watched as the green increases oh-so-gradually. And this time, like all those years in Canada and Alaska, the green haze is true to its word, delivering spring gently and slowly. Every day I see new evidence that winter has released its grip on my little corner of the world. Slowly, slowly, buds are growing, flowers are opening, and tiny leaves are appearing here and there. It’s not (thank God!) the long process it is in colder climes, but this year, for the first time since we moved here, it really is a process. And I’m loving every single slow moment.


Anything For a Year

My dad used to say, “You can survive anything for a year.” While there are obviously some exceptions to this observation, it’s a useful point to keep in mind. If you know a difficult circumstance will have an end point, the hope of a better time can keep you going. It’s especially helpful if you know the time frame; it’s not so easy when you have no way to gauge how long your circumstance will last, or how to move out of it.

I’ve been thinking about milestones, years, enduring, and survival lately. Today, after I loaded photos from Sofia’s second birthday, I began going through our photos, deleting duplicates, unfocused shots, and other unwanted photos. As I was deleting literally hundreds upon hundreds of photos (about 1600 today), I came across two photo shoots I’d forgotten about — in fact, I believed they hadn’t taken place, and for nearly two years I have been regretting their absence. When our daughter Sofia was born, we planned to take photos each month of her first year, posing with a blue-striped lamb. I was so exhausted those first few months, I promptly forgot about these photos after I took them at her one- and two-month birthdays. I was delighted today to discover they existed, but at the same time, I was unprepared for the rush of emotion they brought.

Looking at these photos brings back some fairly traumatic memories. I’m not exaggerating: those first five months were horrific, and in fact Sofia’s whole first year was difficult. She had both colic and a dairy sensitivity, and while eliminating dairy from my diet helped a little, the colic symptoms remained. Those first few months, I averaged two hours of sleep a night. And those hours often consisted of bits and pieces of time: half an hour here, forty-five minutes there. By the time she was a year old, I generally got five hours of sleep at night and considered myself lucky.

It wasn’t just the nights that were difficult. It was nearly impossible to put Sofia down for more than a few minutes at a time. Those photos above were the result of holding Sofia in the Ergo baby carrier for hours until she dropped off to sleep, then gingerly lowering her onto the bed to snatch a few photos, until she awoke once again with screams. Then another quarter hour or so of comforting, then more photos, and so on until the light changed too much for photography. There were far more photos of blurred fists pumping in rage, mouth open in anguished wails, than there are of these peaceful moments. In fact, as I looked at the sweetly resting little girl in the photos, I could hardly believe these pictures were real. My memories of that time consist mainly of tears, rocking, walking, bouncing, and nursing.

As I mentioned, Sofia just celebrated her second birthday. She is now a cheerful little girl, all smiles and giggles. She rarely fusses, and quickly returns to sunshine after a little grouchiness. She runs around after her big brother, who just turned five, doing her best to imitate his every move and word. Her birthday was a simple affair, with just the four of us celebrating at home.  She listened with a big grin while we sang “Happy Birthday,” and then blew out her candles just as if she’d been practicing for the occasion. Later, she proved herself to be a good sport by posing for me with the lamb we got when she was born. Her birthday was as lighthearted, simple, and fun as she herself is.

The juxtaposition of these second-birthday photos with those first- and second-month photos is jarring with the contrast in memories. Those first two months, I knew theoretically that things would get better. Had to get better. No child can scream and demand to be held for eighteen years, right? Surely it would end. But I couldn’t see it, couldn’t even visualize a better time. I occasionally remembered my father’s words — “You can survive anything for a year” — and shuddered. A year of this? I was pretty sure I couldn’t, in fact, survive it.

But around five or six months, things took a turn for the better. Sofia learned to crawl, and began to enjoy real food. She smiled frequently. She was able to lie on the floor or in a playpen for fifteen minutes, half an hour, finally forty-five minutes at a time. She began to nap in a swing instead of only in my arms. I was able to sleep for a solid hour or more at night between waking, then for two hours, and then for an occasional three-hour stretch. Five-hour nights became the norm, then six-hour and even sometimes seven-hour nights, snatching sleep in two- or three-hour increments.

By one year old, she was walking, running, climbing. Trying new words. Smiling more than crying. She rarely needed to be held except to nurse. She mastered a bottle, then a sippy cup, filled with almond milk, as she still couldn’t handle cow’s milk or even gentle formula. Finally, the time came to wean her, and it was like a miracle: she began to fall asleep on her own, without nursing or being held. 

Now, at two years old, she falls asleep readily at nap time and sleeps for two or three hours, twice a day. She goes to sleep at bedtime as soon as I put her to bed, and rests all night long. She rarely cries, and then only for a short time. Smiles are the norm. Words increase daily, as do her adventurous attempts to mimic her brother.

What I’m saying is, This too shall pass. Or, in the words of my father, “You can survive anything for a year.” You really can survive a lot, if you know it will end. I survived five months of constantly holding a distressed baby with next to no sleep nightly. I didn’t think I could do it, but here we are.

I’m thinking of the new parents out there who are enduring the same sleepless nights, the screams that can’t be comforted, the hours of walking the floor. It feels endless. It feels hopeless. But I promise: It will end, and you will survive. One day, you’ll look into your sweet child’s laughing face and shake your head as you remember the distant past, when you believed you couldn’t do it, when you wanted to give up. You’ll wrap your arms around your toddler, whom you love with your whole heart, and you’ll smile as you realized: You did it. It’s over. You made it.

You can survive anything for a year.

A Zombie Pie Thanksgiving

Today, the day before Thanksgiving, has been filled with dinner preparations. With our home already filled with the sparkle and glimmer of Christmas decorations, I’m in the holiday spirit. Fruitcake a la Alton Brown (our family’s kitchen god) rests on the counter, sealed into a bag, awaiting its next soaking with brandy. The turkey is soaking in a salty, herbed brine, Alton Brown’s cranberry jelly is setting up in the fridge, and this year’s pumpkin pie looks perfect.Well, nearly perfect. The blank surface is evidence that I lost track of time and forgot to add a pretty leaf-shaped pastry garnish.

This quiet day of cooking in an empty kitchen is a contrast to the busy Thanksgiving preparations of times past. Having just made a trip home last month to the commune where I grew up for an Ontario Thanksgiving, the difference stands out strongly in my mind. This year was the first time I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving with my Canadian family since I left home at the age of 18 to go to college.

My husband and our two small children and I took a two-leg flight from Portland, Oregon to Minneapolis, Minnesota, then drove up along the coast of Lake Superior to the three-farm commune where I grew up in Northwest Ontario. It was a long trip, especially the 45-minute flight from Portland to Seattle, which culminated in both children throwing up simultaneously as we descended after a turbulent journey through high winds.

By comparison, the four-hour flight to Minneapolis and the nine-hour drive up the coast the following day were blissful. The kids were cooperative and calm, the roads were clear of snow, the iPad fulfilled its role of providing soothing entertainment, and the scenery was breathtaking. Oh, and — no one threw up. The only drawback was that, as usual, we forgot to calculate how much longer everything takes with two small children, so we didn’t arrive at my parents’ house till 9:30 in the evening… their time… which was only 6:30 Portland time, so we weren’t as tired as we should have been.

Anyway, we arrived in the dark, and had a delightful pre-arrival welcome from a friend who was leaving the farm on her way home as we were pulling into the commune’s driveway. She recognized first an unfamiliar vehicle (the commune is part of a small town, the entire population of which — including the three communal farms — is about 300, so an unknown car is notable) and then our faces, and we slowed the vehicles to call a hello between cars. Pleased that she’d achieved the very first viewing of our family, she went on her way and we pulled on up the driveway, already feeling thoroughly welcomed.

As we stepped through the doorway of my parents’ home and into the living room, Niko skidded to a halt as his face lit up with an incandescent glow. “Awe…some!” he breathed. There, covering a good two cubic feet of the living room floor, was a magnificent tower of wooden blocks, consisting of all the blocks in the bin that my dad keeps on hand for just such occasions. Welcome complete.

The following morning was Thanksgiving, celebrated on the second Monday in October in Canada. We took the opportunity to zip over to another of the three farms, to see a cousin and her two children who were there just for the day. They would leave before the early holiday dinner, so we abandoned my mother and the other ladies of my home farm to dinner preparations and skedaddled off for a lightning-fast visit. Niko and Sofia were in seventh heaven, playing with cousins near their age, flinging just-raked leaves at each other, and exploring the brush near my aunt and uncle’s home. Other visits had to wait for another day, but we did manage to get in the essentials before we had to return to Oregon.


As we visited at my aunt and uncle’s home Thanksgiving morning, the phone rang — my mother, asking if I wanted pie crust made ahead for the pie I was planning to make later. Then again, asking how many apples I needed per pie. And one more time, asking if I wanted apples peeled and cut, and if so, should they be sliced or chopped? “At this rate,” I told my aunt, “the pie will be made by the time I get there, and I’ll just take credit for it!” The machinery of a communal kitchen runs smoothly, and with an abundance of cooks bustling about, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if the pie had, in fact, been finished without my lifting a finger. As it turned out, the pie — a recipe I adapted from my mother-in-law’s amazing recipe — turned out to be the very ugliest pie I’ve ever made, so perhaps I should have left it to them.

I arrived in the farm kitchen after lunch and was cheerfully greeted by half a dozen busy women, all intent on one or two tasks, all moving easily around each other without friction. This is one of the things I really, truly miss — a communal kitchen. If you grew up in a large family with a big kitchen, you might know what I’m talking about. Cooking is a social activity, a companionable endeavor. It’s rare to cook alone for any significant amount of time. Someone is always wandering in to get a snack, check the mail, help out, or just say hello. If one person is in charge of dinner, likely someone else will be baking bread for the week, another person making cheese from fresh milk, and a fourth somebody putting on the coffee for everyone else.

Thanksgiving is no exception to this rule. People drifted in and out of the kitchen and dining room, sneaking samples of the feast, sharing stories, reminiscing, and, of course, drinking coffee. Women tossed cooking questions out to the group, each one triggering a rousing discussion as five different people offered opinions. As I helped wash up some of the cooking dishes, I overheard a discussion that is more or less a requisite at a farm Thanksgiving: creamy yam casserole with marshmallows, or without, or roasted? One young woman, a relative newcomer who married into the community, was preparing a marshmallow-free casserole that was traditional in her French-Canadian family, and the women were spiritedly voicing their own favorites, without rancor. “You know,” my mother said, “this kind of thing is really what makes this farm the best place. On other farms, people would argue about which one is best forever, and then they would take a vote and choose one to make, and only about a third of the population would really be happy about it. Here, we just make them all!” Sure enough, one of the other women was cutting large yams into manageable chunks for roasting, and I’m pretty sure I saw a bag of marshmallows somewhere.

Between helping with a few dishes and making my pies, I wandered the main house, taking pictures of items I’ve seen my whole life as well as the festive decorations. Here are a few of my favorites from a nostalgic stroll down memory lane:

And a few images of the autumn decor:


My priority was to make the apple pies. I used my own recipe, which makes delicious pie… that is, it has every other time before this. As I added ingredients, I found myself almost falling into a familiar rhythm. I’ll find spatulas here in this drawer — Hey! What happened to the spatulas? Oh, here they are. When did you change that? And sugar — aha! Right here in this giant bin where it’s always been. (I took a precautionary taste before adding it in. It wouldn’t have been the first time salt and sugar got confused.) A bit of flour — yes, right where I thought it would be. Cinnamon… nutmeg… vanilla? Didn’t the vanilla go here with the spices? “Are you looking for vanilla? I have it over here, sorry!” (The apology made me feel right at home. This is Canada, after all.)  And no,  the vanilla didn’t belong where I was looking for it…  those 15-plus-year-old memories can only do  so much.

It felt good, working with the women who taught me to cook, in the big familiar kitchen. My pleasure was somewhat tainted, however, by my observation that the pies’ filling was a little runny. And there was too much of it.  The pies were full, very full, even though I left out a couple of cups of filling, and they sloshed menacingly when they moved. What had gone wrong? No idea. There was nothing to do but to bake them off anyway. As the ovens were full with turkey and rolls, I carried them out of the big kitchen and down the hill to my parents’ little house, where I prudently placed them each on a flat pizza pan before baking them.

I’d like to pause here to point out that my reputation was on the line here. Did I mention that this was my own recipe? Published here, on this very blog? And that it had been nearly two decades since I had cooked for a farm gathering? Did I mention that everyone knew that I was the one baking these apple pies (no hiding in anonymity)? Have I pointed out that the aforesaid “everyone” also  knew that I was using a recipe I’d published on this blog, an endeavor that has been followed with mild interest by various members of the community? Oh yes, I was very conscious of the vulnerability of my reputation, as I slid the sloshing pies into my mother’s oven.

Forty-five minutes later, I cringingly opened the oven door. My fears had come true. Let me assure you: this was the ugliest pie known to cuisine. Never before have I seen, nor do I wish ever to see again, a pie this ugly. The crumb topping had been displaced by bubbling filling, and patches of it had slid off the pie onto the pizza pans underneath, and some had dripped off the pans and onto the oven floor. The weight of the sliding filling had broken the edges of the crisp and flaky crust, destroying any chance they had of looking like ordinary pies. With the missing patches of topping, the crumbled edges, and the bubbled-over filling, my pies looked like pastries that had died violently and then been returned to a semblance of life by a misguided cook. Undead pies. Zombie pies. They were horrific. I was so ashamed, I didn’t even take a picture. This is what they were supposed to look like, although even this pie’s crust could be prettier:Featured Image -- 823

(They didn’t look like that.)

I was writhing in humiliation as I carried the pies back up to the main house and deposited them with the oher desserts, every one of which was more attractive than my sad apple pies.  I tried to sneak them in, hoping everyone would forget who was responsible for them, but in vain: one of the ladies sitting in the big dining room, working her magic on flower arrangements with preserved leaves, called out as I entered, “Hope! Are those your delicious apple pies? I can’t wait to try them!” I felt like dumping them into the trash, but instead I dutifully thunked them down next to the butter tarts and chocolate roll and cherry pies awaiting dinner.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hated seeing my dilapitated desserts next to everyone else’s lovely food.

But the thing is, this was a family Thansgiving. Nobody cared, really, what those pies looked like. They were there to visit, laugh, fill up on turkey, munch on soft, freshly-baked rolls, and sample as many desserts as possible.  Sure, my pies weren’t the first to disappear. They may even have been the last to be devoured over the next few days of leftover feasting. But nevertheless, they did get eaten, and, despite their imperfect texture, they were delicious, especially eaten alongside the homemade maple ice cream that was served with dessert.

Those pies shredded my reputation, but my sense of belonging and family wasn’t hurt one iota. As I visited with folks I haven’t seen in years, watching them valiantly attack my soggy apple pie, I felt perfectly happy. It was good to be home.

Home: Anticipation

The kids’ shared suitcase has been packed, checked, re-packed, second-guessed, items added, items removed. A bustle of tidying-up in preparation for the journey has swept our home: little boy’s hair has been trimmed despite protests and wiggles; little girl’s tiny nails have been trimmed with surprising cooperation to the accompaniment of chortles and chatter.

For my part, it’s a case of long-forgotten skirts hauled out of the farthest corner of the closet, expressing amazement that they fit once again, and a frantic procession of shirts and skirts to find outfits that coordinate and somewhat flatter. Photo texts sent to best friend, who, like me, grew up in a religious commune: Does this look okay? Can I wear this in the kitchen on the farm? Does it look dumb? Opinion begged of my husband: should I wear a camisole under this dress? Which is more important, modesty or confidence? Or comfort?

I’m going home. Home to the triad of Christian farming communes where I was raised. My parents still live there, as do other family members. I’m excited, but there’s still always an element of anxiety each time I go home. How will it be different? What will be changed? Each time I’ve visited over the last decade and a half, the community is a bit smaller, the property a bit more worn down. Flower beds have overgrown and sunk into the lawn; greenhouses have disappeared; paint has flaked off the porch of the tabernacle, the main gathering place. There just aren’t enough people to maintain those things to a level that matches the rosy glow of my nostalgic memories, though photos on my social network suggest there’ve been recent renovations.

Other things have changed, too. Electricity has crept in; nearly all homes now have lights that can be flicked on with a touch of a finger. Bathrooms have toilets that flush, instead of a wooden seat on a bucket or a port-a-potty. Kitchens have running water and sinks that drain to sewers (no more hauling water in buckets to wash dishes, then throwing the dishwater outside). And there are even a few TVs, those tools of the devil that were banned in my childhood. Television! Movies! Flushing toilets! Such changes. Not all the homes have caught up with the times, but more are modernized than when I lived there.

And with these changes comes another: work. The farms are no longer entirely self-sufficient; they haven’t been for a long time, really, but as time passes, and the community and its families shift toward modernization, and there are fewer families contributing both time and income, more money is required to maintain each family as well as the community. So, more and more, people go to work off the farm to earn money to support their families and the community. People who stay on the farm to maintain buildings and lawns, and care for animals, and plant and harvest, and bring in the hay — all the necessary jobs of living on a communal farm — are fewer and fewer. Communal meals are more sparsely populated than before. And the buildings and superfluous gardens suffer, as does my nostalgia.

This time, though, there will be a welcome change: an increase in population. Part of the increase takes the form of an old friend and her family: her husband plus a trio of daughters I haven’t met. They have just recently moved back from a community in northern Canada. There’s been a new baby born to a young family, bringing that family’s number to four, though this family now lives across the road from my home farm, not strictly part of the community. Another family, a friend I grew up with, has moved back recently to another of the three communes, bringing five little ones to inject new life into the farm that is home to my grandparents. Other families from the village have been frequent visitors, contributing to the vibrancy of the life there. These are good and positive changes, bringing an increase in vitality — but changes are changes nonetheless, and to a person like me, dependent on routine and a certain degree of predictability to maintain my equilibrium, even good differences are a bit scary.

The thoughts of these changes run through my mind as I peer at my reflection in the mirror, wondering just how far the changes have permeated. Should I try to wear skirts every day? I can’t remember — do the women wear pants (anathema in my teen years, but more accepted now) even in the main house these days? Will I be criticized if I wear my comfortable old jeans, or is it worse to wear a skirt that shows a bit of knee? My friend who grew up in a similar community echoes my thoughts in a text responding to my assurance-seeking selfie, her amusement at my anxiety evident: “That skirt should be at least three inches longer. And did you remember to bend over in front of a mirror to check for cleavage?” (I did, in fact, and added a camisole to the outfit. Just in case.)

I sigh. Things really have changed. I know my worry is baseless. It’s unlikely anyone will care what I wear, even less likely I’ll be confronted. And the farm isn’t all that’s changed. I’ve changed too, gaining confidence and self-assurance. While I have no intention of disrespecting the farm’s rules, I do know my own mind, and I can defend my clothing choices if need be. I need to stop worrying. Still, I stash an extra skirt in my luggage… just in case.

Meanwhile, I’m armed with both my favorite apple pie recipe for a Thanksgiving celebration, and my sweet children, who are related in some convoluted way to about half of the three-farm community and thus are garnering a bit of excitement with their arrival. And I’m depending on the love of my family — related by blood and not — to welcome me home. Because it is home, no matter how far I’ve gone and no matter how long it’s been. Philosophies change, choices lead in different directions, but the bond of love doesn’t break.

Things change. The buildings  will look more aged (or perhaps brightly renovated — a change, either way), the gardens won’t be the same, and the new electric lights shine differently than the propane and kerosene lights of long-ago memories. The dress code shifts and even disappears. Children no longer build character through hauling buckets of water for bathing or dishes. Families occasionally rotate from one community to another, moving a few miles or across country, leaving an empty space or bringing new faces. But through the changes, I know I can be assured of love and family.

I’m going home.



Niko is ready to board the plane.
Niko is ready to board the plane.

Note: I wrote this post as we were leaving for our visit, but decided to wait to post it till we got home, so as to not advertise our absence from our home. So this story is nearly two weeks old now.

An Overexplainer’s Guide to Excellent Dill Pickles

I’ve always loved dill pickles. I love them in every incarnation of their existence. I love them from the darling baby cucumbers emerging on the vine, to freshly sliced cucumbers waiting for the jars, to brine-covered cucumbers and dill and garlic waiting bright and fresh in their jars before being lowered into the canner, to the final product of crisp, mouth-puckering bites of deliciousness. As with so much food, it’s as much about the memories as the food itself: remembering the aroma of my mom’s tangy, salty brine as it permeated a house with the unmistakeable scent of late-summer preserving; the memory of my aunt’s voice telling my cousins and me how to fill the jars with cucumbers, skins facing out, so they looked pretty; taking turns with the other girls as we scooped just the right amount of the spices over the filled jars; experiencing the delight of those first tangy bites and the pride of knowing we’d created such goodness ourselves. Every step of the process when I make pickles, every bite of the resulting delicacy, is loaded up with good memories.

This is my third summer in Oregon, my third summer as a stay-at-home mom, and my third summer that I’ve not spent in teacher trainings or doing long-term lesson planning or trying to get in to my classroom early to get it set up before in-service days and an August school year start up — which means my third summer since leaving home over fifteen years ago that I’ve had time to think about doing any canning. It’s our second summer gardening in our new home. And it’s my first summer with a satisfactory pickle recipe. For the last two summers, I’ve been sorely disappointed with my pickles. The first pickles I made, my first summer in Oregon, were fairly good, but that turned out to have been the result of a mistake in my following of my selected recipe — I believed I’d left out the salt, so I ended up doubling it. The next time I used that same recipe, I followed it scrupulously, and the pickles were terribly bland and tasteless. So this summer, giving up on other people’s recipes, I set out to make my own.

After several false starts, including an attempt to make my pickles crisp with grape leaves (major fail), I finally came up with pickles that taste to me like the pickles of my childhood — though my mother, during a weeklong visit in which she rescued me from an avalanche of produce, gently disparaged my pickling spice blend as “fancy yuppie spices.” (Don’t worry: she fully redeemed herself by complimenting my meatloaf.) Her pickles were more simple: cucumbers, dill, and brine. I remember loving those pickles, but I also remember my aunt’s pickles, which did use a few spices, and since those are the ones I was old enough to remember helping to make, that’s what I used as the model for this recipe. So there.

Before I launch into the recipe, some words on canning, if you will. First: despite my background, growing up in a subsistence lifestyle, living alternately on a commune, a trapline, and back on the commune, and spending that time baking and cooking and preserving for all I was worth, I am not an expert on canning and preserving. I was a kid during that time, following other people’s instructions. My memories are a bit foggy, and I don’t have recipes from back then. My knowledge comes from picking my mom’s highly experienced and knowledgeable brain, reading cookbooks like The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, scouring the Internet for ideas, and obsessively reading the FDA and USDA’s online pages and various university-hosted pages on home preserving safety. I’m sharing my newfound knowledge with you because I’m having so much fun learning and making food, and I’m the kind of person who can’t not share. Once a teacher, always a teacher — and combined with a predilection for writing, this is what you get. This blog is a record of my journey in gardening and home preserving, not a declaration of my expertise.

Second: Despite not being an expert, I have done my research. Recipes like this depend on a certain acidity level to be safe for canning. If you wish to modify my recipe, please please please do your own research before altering the vinegar/water proportions in the brine. The salt in this type of recipe — a fresh pack dill pickle recipe (not a traditional fermented pickle, in which the salt quantity does matter enormously) — isn’t as important, and you can alter that to suit your own taste without worrying about safety, but the vinegar balance is essential.

Those of you who have read my recipes, you know the drill: I explain stuff a lot. If you want to skip all that, just scroll. Keep scrolling. A little more… There you go. You’ll find the actual brine recipe and pickling instructions near the bottom. You’re welcome. (But don’t blame me if you miss something essential as you skim downward.)

Before you begin, make sure you have all your tools and materials ready. For this type of canning, you don’t need a real pressure canner. You just need a pot big enough to hold all your jars, with a rack on the bottom to elevate them so they don’t contact the pot, and deep enough that the water can cover the jars by a full inch with plenty of room to boil. I do use a pressure canner, because it’s hard to find another pot that’s big enough to fit the above criteria, and because it makes me feel like I’m doing something exciting, but I have so far never used it for pressure canning  — I just use it as a giant pot for boiling water. I’ll be honest: the idea of actual pressure canning scares me. It would scare you, too, if you’d ever walked into a kitchen covered ceiling to floor in exploded jar and green bean fragments.

You need a few tools besides the large pot or canner, too. You can get most of these together in a set at a farm store like Wilco, at your local grocery store during canning season, or in an online search at many shopping sites. Besides your jars, the most essential tool is a set of canning tongs. These tongs have a curved, rubberized gripper that’s just right for grabbing hot jars and moving them in and out of boiling water, and the positioning of the handle is such that you can pour water out of them after sanitizing without scalding yourself. As I said, essential. Nearly as essential is a wide-bottomed funnel, which will help you fill jars without drips.

A less essential, but still handy, tool is a magnetic lid lifter (useful for lifting flat lids out of hot water when you’ve sanitized them) or — my preference — a lid rack with a long handle, which you can lower into the recently-boiled water in your canner after sanitizing your jars, while you fill them. You also need something with which to release air pockets when you’re making foods like pickles. A canning set comes with a flat plastic tool for this purpose, with one end notched for measuring the space at the top of the jar in case you’re obsessed with perfection. A butter knife works perfectly well if you don’t feel like purchasing a whole set of canning tools.

There is just one more tool you may like to have on hand for pickling: food-grade rubber gloves, similar to those used in hospitals but without the powdery smell. I use a fair amount of garlic in my pickles. If you don’t use gloves for peeling and slicing garlic, you may wish to have a nice lemon-oil salt scrub on hand to neutralize the garlic odor, which permeate your pores and will hang on for days when you prepare garlic in these quantities. I bought some gloves for chopping jalapeños for salsa, and have subsequently forgotten I have them until after I’ve finished chopping garlic every time I’ve cooked since then. My hand scrub supply has become sadly depleted.

Jars, of course, are essential. Since I use small pickling cucumbers, widemouth pint jars are just right. If you use larger cucumbers, you could use quarts — in which case you should double all the per-jar ingredients I give further down. To can safely without risk of bacteria growing in your food, you need to start with sanitized jars. A lot of people recommend sanitizing your jars in the dishwasher, but I don’t like this approach, and here’s why: 1) If your dishwasher is running to sanitize your jars, you can’t use it to hold your dirty dishes while you prep your food. 2) You need to heat your canner full of water anyway so that you can water bath your jars full of food, and you might as well take that energy to sanitize the jars at the same time. 3) Your dishwasher doesn’t get as hot as a boiling pot of water. If your jars aren’t thoroughly sanitized, you need to process the food-filled jars longer — and the less you process the food, the better the flavor and the quality. So I start my canning sessions by placing my clean, lidless, widemouth pint jars into the canner, and filling the jars and canner with water to at least an inch above the top of the jars, making sure there’s room for the water to boil. Then I put the lid on, place the canner on the largest burner, and turn the heat on high. It takes quite awhile, on my elderly cooktop anyway, for the canner to heat — sometimes I’m nearly done prepping the food before it’s done heating. When it does boil, I turn the heat down a bit and make sure it boils for at least ten minutes before I turn the heat off.

I leave the jars in the canner to stay hot, away from dust, and out of drafts until I’m ready to fill them. They need to stay hot because you’ll be filling them with hot food; you don’t want to pour hot food into cool jars, because there’s a chance they could break or become stressed (and break later). Ditto with hot jars sitting in a draft. You want them away from dust because dust can disrupt a good seal. So just leave them in the canner, where they’ll be safe, and you’ll have more counter space for working as well. Win-win.

Unlike the jars, you don’t want to boil the lids — boiling can degrade the rubber seal. If you have a nice lid rack like mine, you can lower the lids into the canner after you take the jars out, or once the canner stops boiling if you have room in the canner. This will sanitize them as much as they need, and will soften the rubber to ensure a good seal. If you don’t have a long-handled rack, put the lids into a shallow dish, pour some of the hot water from the canner over them so they’re all covered, and let them sit while you fill the jars. This is where that magnetic lid lifter comes in handy, so you can lift them out without burning your fingers. Otherwise, of course, you can pour the hot water off right before you’re ready to put them onto the jars.

On the topic of jar lids: I’m a very thrifty person. I reuse whatever I can. The one thing I don’t reuse is flat jar lids for canning. Why? Because I know that the heating process the lids undergo when the food-filled jars have been boiled for canning will begin to degrade the rubber seal. It may not be visible immediately, but it’s happening. Reused jar lids may seem to seal just fine, but might slowly lose their seal over time as the jars sit on the shelf, allowing the food to spoil. If this happens, the best-case scenario is that you lose your hard-won preserved food; the worst-case scenario is that the spoilage doesn’t leave any noticeable signs, and your family gets sick with food poisoning. So, please don’t reuse your jar lids. Additionally, as you’re counting out your brand-new, unused jar lids, check the rubber seal for any damage. If there are scratches or bubbles in the seal, throw them away. And if you, like me, save your used lids for casual food storage, double-check that you don’t have any damaged lids that accidentally got mixed in with your brand-new boxed ones — if the lids are bent or warped in any way, throw them away.

Now comes the fun part: pickling! (This is where you should stop scrolling if you were trying to skip all the pre-recipe explanations.)

You can use this recipe to make fresh-pack dill pickles with cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, and even zucchini. Don’t expect the lemon cucumbers, and especially the zucchini, to turn out with the same crisp texture that you get from cucumbers. My approach was this: I used my nice small pickling cucumbers to fill the bulk of my jars. Then I sliced up a few lemon cucumbers to top off a couple of jars whose cucumbers were too short to reach the top, and filled a jar or two with just lemon cucumbers to finish off my batch so I had a full canner. I did two jars of experimental zucchini pickles, which turned out as I expected — lacking in crispness and possessing a certain squeaky texture, but having a perfectly acceptable flavor. Later I sliced a few large zucchini into rounds for sandwich pickles, reasoning that the texture of a pickle on one’s hamburger doesn’t matter as much as the pickles one uses for munching. I’ll use the zucchini pickles for chopping up for chicken or potato salads because, once again, flavor matters more than texture in that type of thing.

Start by buying or picking as many cucumbers as you want to turn into pickles; I’m leaving the amounts in this recipe up to your discretion, because the only part for which amounts really matter, as far as safety in canning, is the brine, and that’s storable for later batches. I found that about ten small pickling cucumbers filled three pint jars, to give you an idea of what you might need. You can find these small cucumbers at farmer’s markets or grow them yourself; I’ve never seen them for sale at a grocery store. Of course, you can use ordinary large cucumbers, but they won’t turn out quite as crisp as the little cucumbers. If you’re buying your cucumbers rather than growing them, don’t go looking for lemon cucumbers or zucchini for pickles; they really don’t result in pickles with excellent texture. I used them because I had an overabundance of them in my garden, and a limited supply of pickling cucumbers.

Besides cucumbers, you’ll also need to collect a few more ingredients. You need:

  • White vinegar, four cups
  • Pickling salt, 1/4 cup (specially designed to dissolve easily and stay dissolved without leaving any residue)
  • A large amount of garlic, about 3 cloves per pint
  • One large or two small heads of dill, or two or three leaf sprigs, per pint (I just buy a whole bunch of dill and use it for several batches — see below)
  • A blend of pickling spice, such as my own very easy recipe,
  •  Or — if you don’t have enough individual spices on hand to make a whole recipe of the spice blend — you need a bit of mustard seed, coriander, black peppercorn, and red pepper flakes, plus pickle crisp granules. If you do have enough spices, you’ll really save time by just blending them ahead, I promise. You can find pickle spice blends already prepared in the baking section of grocery stores and at farm stores, but it’s more fun to make your own, and then you can adjust it to your own taste.

During the summer, you can often find whole dill plants, root and all, sitting in water at the grocery store or in farmer’s markets. Since I made pickles all summer, I bought dill this way instead of getting the baby dill. The young flower heads or just-developed seed heads have way more flavor than baby dill leaves. I kept it fresh in a jar of water on the counter till I was ready to use it. Then I trimmed off the heads and the freshest leaves, cut them to usable sizes, and sealed the leftovers into freezer bags and put them into the crisper drawer in the fridge. They kept really well there. Of course, it would have been even better had the dill I planted survived so I could have harvested my own as I needed it. Oh well.

A whole dill plant staying fresh in a jar of water.
A whole dill plant staying fresh in a jar of water.
When you’ve brought your cucumbers home, scrub them well to remove any prickles, dirt, pesticides, bug poop, organic fertilizer (organic doesn’t actually mean CLEAN… you know that, right?), or processing wax, trim at least 1/8 inch off both ends of the cucumbers to halt the working of the enzymes that can cause bitterness and softening, and let them sit in cold water in the refrigerator overnight. If you plan to make your pickles immediately the next day, you could get a head start by slicing them into quarters at this point;  if you’re doing this early in the summer, and you’re slowly collecting cucumbers from your garden, leave them whole for now. It’s okay to let them accumulate for up to five or six days in the fridge. Any longer than that, and they’ll start to go bad. Set a plate on top of your bowl of water to weigh down the cucumbers.

Soak the cucumbers in cold water overnight.
Soak the cucumbers in cold water overnight.
The water should be fresh water. Some recipes do call for salt water. My understanding is that this is a holdover from the old days, when pickles were always made by fermentation, and the salt content was essential to maintain the correct balance of bacteria. These days, the salt is for flavor only. I experimented with salt water soak and fresh water soak, and found that the salt did not increase the crispness — in fact, my logic tells me that it ought to have decreased the crispness, since salt dehydrates. So, if you use a salt water soak and then use my brine recipe, which is already more salty than many, your pickles will be unbearably salty — but no more crisp than if you’d used fresh water.

When you’re ready to make your pickles, start your canner and jars heating as described above, and then make your brine.   This is a very simple recipe. It makes enough brine for about a dozen pints of pickles (or about six quarts, if you’re using the larger cucumbers), and it keeps very well. I make the whole large recipe and then save it for subsequent batches, since typically I don’t have enough cucumbers for that many jars of pickles. In a large pot, combine:

  • 12 cups of water
  • 4 cups of white vinegar
  • 1/4 cup pickling salt

Cover the pot and let the brine heat to boiling, then turn it down to medium low to boil gently for about five minutes; then turn it down low or off, depending on how far along in your vegetable prepping process you are. It doesn’t have to be at boiling temperature, just hot, to fill the jars, and if it boils too much, some liquid will boil off and it will taste too salty.

Speaking of too salty, this is a good time to remind you that the salt is a variable that can be safely adjusted to taste. Before I finalized this recipe, I put a few cucumber slices to sit for a couple of days in small containers in the fridge in both this brine and another similar (saltier) one, with some garlic, spices, and dill, to decide what salt level I liked best. To me, this brine — which is saltier than most recipes I found in my quest — is absolutely, 100% perfect, while my husband thinks it could be saltier. Feel free to adjust as desired.

While the brine heats, prep the cucumbers and other vegetables. Start by checking for bitterness; I do this after soaking, rather than before, based on the unproven, highly optimistic hope that soaking will help to remove some already-developed bitterness. Slice a sample off each end of each cucumber — especially the larger ones — and take a taste. If both ends are very bitter, throw the cucumber away. If just one end is bitter, cut an inch or so off that end and taste again. Repeat until you get to a place with good flavor, but discard the cucumber if necessary — an unbearably bitter cucumber will make a yucky pickle. Usually, the smaller cucumbers will be fine. There is a last-ditch trick you could try if you want to save your bitter cucumbers: cut a chunk off the bitterest end and rub it in vigorous circles over the place from which it was just removed. You’ll see foam forming on the sides that are in contact. Wipe the foam off and keep rubbing till no more foam forms, then taste another slice of the cucumber. Sometimes this works to pull out the bitterness. It’s worth a try.

Once you’ve made sure your cucumbers have good flavor, start prepping them for the jars. Out of habit, I slice my cucumbers into quarters, since I grew up using large cucumbers that needed to be sliced to fit into the jars. With small cucumbers, this isn’t entirely necessary, and you may find they maintain crispness better if you leave them whole. Old habits die hard; I can’t bring myself to leave them whole, but if you’re new to this, maybe you’ll be able to give it a try. Something to consider if you’re trying to decide on an approach is that you’ll be able to fit more in if you quarter them, so it’s much more space-efficient both in terms of jar use and shelf space to slice them. Either way, you do need to make sure that your cucumbers are the correct length for the jars. The food in the jars need to be clear of the rims by at least 1/4 inch — here’s where that nifty little plastic tool with notches at the end that comes with your canning kit could come in handy. Trim the ends off to make sure they aren’t too long. Since I don’t like wasting food, I save all the ends up and do a jar of little bite-sized pickles. You could also use these little pieces to fill a small container, along with garlic, spices, dill, and brine, and put it into the fridge, so you can enjoy the pickles within a few days without opening a jar.

Peel your garlic and cut the cloves into quarters in order to allow the full goodness of their flavor to seep out into the jar. And here, because I’ve inherited my father’s need to overexplain (as if you hadn’t noticed), I’d like to discuss averages. The average garlic clove, quartered, is just right for this. But in any given head of garlic there will be a wide range from itty bitty to enormous. So there will be some cloves that you’ll leave whole and count as a quarter, some that you’ll halve, and some that you’ll cut into sixths or eighths. You’ll figure it out, I’m sure. No doubt most of you worry about this sort of precision much less than I do, and you’re already happily chopping away and shaking your heads over my need to explain. You need about eight to twelve quarter-cloves per jar: six in the bottom, and six in the top, unless you start running out, in which case I give you full permission to skimp on the garlic and put just three or four in the top.

If you haven’t already done so, cut your dill heads into manageable pieces. You need one good-sized head or two to three small ones (see above re: averages) for the bottom, and the same for the top of each jar.

Make sure you have your spice blend ready to go, or if you didn’t pre-blend your spices, have your spice jars and your pickle crisp container lined up with a little scoop in each.

Lay a towel out on your counter — remember, it’s not a good idea to put hot jars onto a cool surface — close the window — because hot jars don’t like drafts — and lift the jars out of the canner onto the towel. Keep the water at its original level in the canner by pouring some of the water from the jars back into the canner, and some out into the sink. If you have a long-handled lid rack, lower it into the hot water once the jars are out. If you don’t, pour some of the hot water from a jar over the lids in a shallow pan.

Now you may start packing your jars. Drop a head or two of dill and six garlic quarters into each jar. Then tilt a jar onto its side and begin laying cucumbers onto the glass, skin-side down, like so:

Placing the cucumbers skin-side out matters only for aesthetics. If you don’t care how your jar looks, just jam the cucumbers in however you want. I’ll try not to judge you. If you do care how it looks, keep stacking them up neatly, and each time a cucumber is near or against the glass, turn it skin-side out. Once the jar is fairly full, set it right-side up and work a couple more slices down into the jar. Do one more check that the cucumbers clear the top of the jar with plenty of space, and if there’s not room for the final addition of garlic and dill, do another trim with a sharp knife of scissors.

Once you’ve used all your cucumbers and filled as many jars as possible, add to each jar:

  • One or two heads of dill
  • Six quarter-cloves of garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon of pickling spice blend, or
  • a little pinch each of mustard seed, coriander, black pepper, and red pepper flakes (tiniest pinch yet), plus 1/8 teaspoon of pickle crisp granules; use 1/4 teaspoon of the pickle crisp if you’re using zucchini or lemon cucumbers (but don’t expect them to be as crisp as cucumbers)

After one more check that the addition of garlic and dill leaves 1/4 inch of headspace at the top of each jar, position your funnel over each jar and use a measuring cup with a pour spout, or a large ladle, to pour hot brine into each jar so that it covers cucumbers, dill, and garlic. Slide the long, flat tool that came with a canning set, or a butter knife, down into each jar into a couple of spots, wiggling gently back and forth, to release air bubbles. Add more brine if necessary.

Get a damp paper towel or clean cloth. Carefully wipe the rim of each jar, using a fresh area for each jar, making sure there are no stray bits of dill or spice or splashes of brine remaining on the edge. Anything of this nature could disrupt the seal. Once all the jars have been wiped, place a flat lid onto each jar, checking for flaws as you go and discarding any that have problems (of course, you already did this once, but perhaps you’re as paranoid as I am). Then place the rings and tighten them down. Turn the heat on under the canner, and use the tongs to lower the jars into the water. Replace the lid and bring the canner back to a boil.

Process the pickles for ten minutes. Just to be clear, the timer for water bath processing begins when the water boils, not when you put the jars into the canner. After ten minutes, use the tongs to pull the jars out and place them back onto the towels. Do not touch the tops of the lids. You should hear the gentle, musical pop of lids sealing fairly soon, but some jars could take up to 24 hours. I repeat, do not touch them while you wait. If you push the center down, causing a “forced seal,” it’s impossible to know whether that jar would have sealed on its own or not.  So don’t touch them until they have all sealed and are thoroughly cooled, at which point you should be sure to write the contents and date on stick-on labels for each jar. Home-canned food can easily keep for a year.

If any jars don’t seal after 12 to 24 hours (or if you disregarded my stern command to not touch the jars, thus causing a forced seal), you have two choices. You could reheat the canner to boiling with the jars inside (I would gently unseal the forced-sealed ones first, using thumbs to push the lid off rather than a can opener, then put the lids back on), process for 10 minutes at boiling, and leave them again to see if they’ll seal. Or you could shrug and take what is most likely your single unsealed or force-sealed jar and put it into the fridge, where it will be the first jar of pickles you’ll try out.

Let the pickles steep in their brine for a few days or, for the best flavor, for about a week before you try them. Finally, after the interminable wait of a couple of days (or, if you’re really patient, a week) for the flavors to penetrate the cucumbers, comes the very best part: the crunch and the garlicky salt-and-sour flavor of a perfect pickle.

 God’s Finger

I’ve mentioned it a few times, the Big Hemiplegic Migraine that sent me to the ER in a dramatic sort of full body alert that I’d never before experienced, unable to speak or fully use my right side, barely able to remember how to form words on paper, too weak to walk alone, and very very scared. Those big and obvious symptoms have long faded, and now the extreme versions of other symptoms are starting to recede a bit too, but right now those lesser, non-scary symptoms are still somewhat ramped up and extreme, and a little distracting.

My ADHD brain has taken this distraction and run with it, constantly making analogies to explain and categorize the odd sensations I’ve been experiencing. I’ve cataloged them here for your reading pleasure. I hope you enjoy them more than I do.

Nearly all the time, there’s a gentle vibrating tickle at the back of my neck, trailing down my spine. If you were raised in a church with a leaning toward Pentecostal, Apostolic, Charismatic, or some other such Holy Spirit-led group, or belonged to another fervent religious group, this may be a familiar sensation to you. You’re caught up in the heights of ecstatic praise, and a brother or sister or elder begins shouting out a prophetic message in the exact words of the Scripture you read that morning: there it is, that gentle tickle on the back of your neck. A more mundane setting for this sensation might be a struggling single mom who brings a five-dollar coat for her child to the register at a secondhand store, and happens to slip her hand into the pocket, where she finds…a five-dollar bill. I guarantee she feels a tickle on the back of her neck, a shimmer along her spine. That, dear readers, is the finger of God.

I feel the finger of God a lot these days. It’s a little disconcerting. When I was a teenager, my Aunt Gaye and her sister, my sort-of Aunt Julie, used to run their fingers down our spines (or their knuckles, if they felt like being emphatic) when their daughters and nieces were demonstrating poor posture. I grew to half-expect this from my aunts; one never quite expects God’s finger to hover permanently over one’s spine.

Most days, this tickle intensifies and spreads upwards into my scalp. My hair lifts, and my skin prickles. I can describe this one easily, in terms everyone will understand: spooky stories during a sleepover! Or… that feeling when you know you’re sharing space with a ghost.

About fifteen years ago, when I was a student at a Christian college which was part of a network of communes spread across mostly North America (with a few elsewhere worldwide, too), I was visiting friends at the home of one of the commune’s hosting families (that is, they were commune residents who hosted college students during the school year). It was just us five girls, the high-school-aged daughter of the family and four college girls. We knew we were in the house alone; we’d recently been upstairs, where we were the only ones present, and were now down in the kitchen getting a snack. During a pause in conversation, we heard footsteps. Heavy footsteps, above our heads. Five heads swiveled toward the stairs, then back toward each other. Sherri shook her head; no, she confirmed, no one else was home. We listened in utter silence as the footsteps moved back and forth from room to room. And then. The footsteps came to the top of the stairs. We clearly heard footsteps descending. Vertebrae in five necks crackled as our heads whipped toward the staircase, which was in clear view from the kitchen counter.

No one was there.

Oh yes, our scalps were prickling.

I feel that way a lot these days. I’m pursued by ghosts.

Some days, the gentle tickle and the prickling scalp intensify still more and spreads into my face and hands and sometimes my toes. It becomes a tingle punctuated with numb spots. Usually it’s merely bothersome, though occasionally, rarely, it’s enough to make my hands clumsy or make eating difficult. It concentrates around my eye sockets, temples, nostrils, mouth. Sometimes my lips, tongue, and roof of my mouth become partly numb. Is this sounding a bit familiar? Yes, indeed. It’s like a visit to the dentist.

I’m a redhead, incidentally. In addition to feeling certain types of pain differently than other people, redheads are also, weirdly, resistant to certain types of pain medication, like the lidocaine dentists use. Often this isn’t too much of an issue, but I remember one horrific incident. Really unpleasant. My childhood dentist, the wild-eyebrowed, kind-eyed, bluntly-spoken Dr. LeCoq, to whom all the commune mothers took their children, was preparing me for an extra-deep filling one day in my late teens. I’d had plenty of fillings before, and had often felt a little pain with drilling (though the good Dr. LeCoq didn’t entirely believe me), but this time was different. This time, I never went entirely numb.

Dr. LeCoq gave me a shot, told me I would soon be able to feel pressure but not pain, demonstrated by tapping my thumbnail, and left the room. He returned the appropriate amount of time later, cheerfully tapping my gum with some metal instrument of torture. “Ow,” I said. “Huh,” he said, “that’s odd,” and gave me another shot. This continued as long as was ethically allowable — at some point I’d had as much lidocaine as I could possibly have, and he simply had to either drill or let me go home. I was almost numb, really, so I told him to drill. Oh, yes. There’s a reason anesthesia is widely used in modern times.

Well. Anyway. That’s not really the point. The point is, my face often feels like that. It feels like my dentist — who felt terrible about the whole thing, by the way — has given me the first ineffective shot of lidocaine, and I haven’t gone entirely numb: I can smile with both sides of my mouth, talk clearly, eat without drooling; but it feels…funny. On those days, I’m in a perpetual visit to the dentist. But no one’s giving me free toothbrushes.

Most days, that’s as bad as it gets. I mean, there are a few days when the facial sensations are amped up to electric fly swatter levels, when I’m nearly convinced that should a fly happen to land on my face, it would be zapped to death. It’s mildly painful. Mildly, as in, there are mild electrical shocks running across my face and sometimes through my hands without stopping. It could be worse. It’s nothing like sciatica, which feels more like the sensation of running full bore into an electric livestock fence, concentrated into one area of back and hip. So, really, it’s mild. Fly swatter… electric fence… meh, I’ll take the fly swatter, thanks.

So there you have it. If you’re a family member, and a friend is asking after me, and you REALLY feel you wish to give them all the details, just remember: finger of God, ghost stories, dentist’s office, electric fly swatter.

I’m fine, by the way — energy is returning bit by bit, to the point that daily life is about back to normal; migraines have receded completely, thanks to preventative medication; I’ve recovered nearly all the normal use of my right hand, only noticing issues if I’m trying to thread a needle or write in a small space; I haven’t had trouble walking in nearly a month. The painful electrical sensation in my face is rare, usually lasting just a short time. I’m thankful that, so far, this is affecting me less than it seems to affect other people who experience hemiplegic migraines. Those symptoms I listed above? Weird; strange; distracting; sometimes amusing. Almost never painful. They don’t interfere with daily activities. So yes, really: I’m okay. 

I’ll just be even more happy when the finger of God lifts for awhile, the ghost goes off to haunt someone else, the dentist gives up and sends me away, and the batteries in the fly swatter give out.


Lying to My Son

Before I had children, and even when the older of our two was a baby, I swore I’d never lie to my children. Never. How could I betray their trust, set them up for disillusionment? I would be honest, I promised. At all times. In all situations. Never, I insisted, could there possibly be an excuse for lying to a child.

My husband Aaron agreed, and with the birth of our son, we set out on our adventure of perfect openness and truth telling. We took a policy of plain, simple truth telling, no embroidering or glossing over, and certainly no outright fabrication.

We were honest about the despised food items in his plate –“Yes, those are potatoes. Take one bite,” we’d say. No pretending they were magical unicorn eggs that would turn him into a superhero; they were potatoes, no more, no less.

We were straightforward about the existence of Santa. As our two-year-old son approached his first memorable Christmas, he was fascinated with Santa-themed decorations. We told him that Santa was a nickname for a kind man named Nicholas who had lived long ago, and we remembered him at Christmas time. He was a story, we explained: department store, mall, or bell-ringing Santas were regular people wearing costumes. He appeared to accept this, if grudgingly, and we congratulated ourselves on our honesty.

Our self-congratulation continued as we explained the precise facts about the Easter Bunny: he was a kind person in a costume, we told our three-year-old the next year, leaving candy for children to celebrate spring. How nice! Unfortunately, Niko’s patience with our honesty regarding the world had been wearing thin; he had been indignant that we continued to insist in Santa’s historical accuracy, but at our declaration that the Easter Bunny wasn’t real, he was crushed. “But I want the Easter Bunny! I want him to be real!” he wailed.  But it was too late; we couldn’t backtrack. No, our son would know that Santa Claus is a cultural memory of a historical figure, the Easter Bunny is the funny leftover traditional costumed character of an ancient custom, and his potatoes are just potatoes. We remain relentlessly honest, although, I suspect, we may be able to reach some sort of quiet compromise where we don’t insist quite so firmly in these beloved characters’ nonexistence.

But then, one day, there was a hard question. The kind of question for which honesty just can’t do the job.

We were in the car, where so many of these questions come flying at me. Niko, now four, was asking about love. “Will you always love me, Mom?” he asked. This has been a common theme for him, a source of mild anxiety at times, and once — when he discovered there had been a time I hadn’t been his mom and thus hadn’t known him, therefore hadn’t loved him — well, that had been an interesting conversation.

“I will always love you, for ever and ever,” I declared.

“Will you love me if I die?”

“I will love you if you die. People don’t stop loving  their family who die. They miss them, but they don’t stop loving them.”

“What if you die? Will you still love me if you die?”

And there it was. The question. The one I can’t really answer. The one theologians, church fathers, religionists of all sorts, of all creeds and doctrines, can’t really answer. We just don’t know, do we? Many of us believe our consciousness continues after death. We go on — to heaven, to nirvana, to reincarnation, to a place of waiting, to the clouds.  But do we maintain a connection to those we leave behind, or do we continue without looking back? Do we keep on loving, or do we forget? For every dramatic return-from-beyond-the-veil account that suggests one answer, another contradicts; for each passage from a holy book that points in one direction, another passage points another way.

I was raised on the Bible like most kids are raised on peanut butter and jelly, on meat and potatoes. In the communes in which I was raised, we read the Bible at mealtimes, at church three times a week, at school daily, in private devotions. In school, we were expected to use it as reference to support viewpoints in essays on any subject, from history to science to opinions on skirt length. So it’s with a bit of authority that I say: the Bible has not a whole lot to say on this exact subject, that of love after death. The one thing that echoes uncomfortably in my mind on the subject is a song that ought to be reassuring, a song whose melody was written by my mother’s dear friend — someone I consider a second mother — and whose words come from Revelation 21:4-5:

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, from their eyes/ There shall be no more sorrow/ No more pain/ No more death. For the former things are passed away, are passed away/ Are passed away/ And behold, He has made all things new.

In my mind, I hear her clear voice singing the simple and beautiful melody, her fingers caressing the strings of the guitar in a way that’s as familiar to me as her smile, her eyes calm with the strength and peace that you only see in someone who’s been through more than their fair share of sorrow and tears and has carried a spark of joy throughout. She’s a woman of unshakeable faith, and that’s why I absolutely believe the words of this song. And that’s why I can’t answer my son’s question honestly.

You see, I believe a portion of love is pain and sorrow. A parent can’t see a son’s bewilderment at a friend’s rejection and not share his sorrow. You can’t hold your daughter’s fevered body and not sense her pain. When a loved one suffers, you suffer too. When you’re separated from those you love, that hurts as well. Even in hypothetical perfect, ideal relationships, even if we don’t actively cause pain to those that are closest to us through betrayal or misunderstanding, loving another person involves pain. And so, if God is erasing pain and sorrow from us as we pass through death, the only way that’s possible is if we stop loving those we’ve left behind.

Now, there are still plenty of possibilities. Perhaps we don’t go all the way on at first — other verses in the Bible make reference to clouds of witness watching those still in the daily struggle on Earth, for example. Perhaps this particular description in Revelation is only to the end of times. Perhaps some are even allowed to stay with those they love for a time. That’s what I’d like to believe, even though I don’t actually think it’s true.

When I was fourteen, my protective, almost-seventeen-year-old brother Charles died in a boating accident with a group of other young people and chaperones from our close-knit community. I felt his loss badly, of course, right from the beginning, but it wasn’t till I got older that I began to realize how much we both were missing. He never got to meet my husband, something I regret — they would have appreciated each other, I think. I missed him at my wedding, and he didn’t see me get married. I missed him desperately when my son was born. And I wanted so, so badly to believe what I knew couldn’t be true, that somehow he was still watching over and loving me. That’s why, when Niko protested the Easter Bunny’s status as a pretend creature, I sympathized. And that’s why, when he asked if I’d still love him if I died, I couldn’t tell him what I thought was an honest answer. I couldn’t tell him no. I wanted it to be true. I wanted to believe.

When Niko was born, I had a terribly hard time transitioning him from bassinet to crib, clutching him and sobbing the first time I tried to lay him down in the crib that seemed long miles from the bed. When I finally managed it, the first time I made the trip at night from our room to the nursery to feed him, there was a not-really-there shadow leaning over his crib. As I said, it wasn’t really there. Not visible, not really. But the invisible shadow had (to me) a clear attitude of protective love. After that, for several weeks, each time I staggered sleepily to the nursery for a night feeding, the not-really-there shadow was faithfully stooped over his crib. Not once did I have any sense of anxiety, fear, or spookiness. It wasn’t till the third or fourth time that it occurred to my sleep-hazed mind to think Wait…what? before I dismissed it, deciding I just didn’t need to know. Eventually, it wasn’t there any more, but for the weeks that it leaned over my son’s crib at night, I felt a sense of peace, of watchful protection.

I know that my friends run the gamut of faith. As they’re reading this, some are thinking, How amazing. God is so good! He sent your brother to care for your son! And others are thinking,  Honey, get some rest and tell your doctor you need better pills, because something is not right with your brain. I’m sure my scientist best friend, who currently bends his remarkable brain to the study of regenerative biology, is shaking his head as he reads this and is exercising all his considerable powers of kindness to not tell me I’m cuckoo. And maybe a few in the middle are just thinking that a sleep-deprived mom in a shadowy room shouldn’t be surprised if she imagines a few strange things.

All I know is, when my son asked me if I would love him after I died, I had a split second to balance those two thoughts: my own irrational desire for reassurance of my brother’s love after he died (and the fresh memory of my son’s sorrow at the nonexistence of the Easter Bunny and panic at his realization that I once hadn’t loved him because I hadn’t been his mommy), and the Biblical assurance that we would experience no more sorrow after death. I could have launched into a philosophical discussion about the uncertainty of the afterlife, about the adventure that follows stepping through the mysterious dark door of death. I could have told him that love is full of sorrow and pain, and we’re assured a life without those in the times to come. I could have been honest, I could have told him: I don’t know.  But he’s four. And I chose love.

“I will always love you, sweetie,” I promised him. “Always. No matter what. If I die, or if you die, I will always love you.” I lied. I lied to my son. And I have not a single regret.

In an unusual turn of events, three photographs I chose for this post aren’t my own. The black-and-white photo of my brother twirling in a striped shirt was taken my my Aunt Martha, probably in 1985; the color photos of my son in a plaid shirt and brown vest were taken by Garrett Beatty of Nuro Photography.

Muddy Slush and Robin-Eggs

Easter: a time of candy-coated Robin Eggs, colorful pastel jelly beans, and chocolate bunnies; of melting snow, muddy slush, an influx of visitors from far away, and hours upon hours of church services.

For me, childhood memories of Easter don’t include sunrise services, new bright-colored Sunday hats, or egg dying. No giant bunnies delivering baskets of spring-themed treats, no egg hunts on lawns. No, when I was growing up in a Christian commune in Northwestern Ontario, I knew that the bunnies and eggs of worldly Easter celebrations were a nod to Ishtar, a fertility goddess of long ago, and to be avoided at all costs lest our pure hearts be darkened by the taint of paganism.  Well, except for those egg-shaped candies and chocolate bunnies. After all, it would be wasteful to miss the once-a-year opportunity to savor the best confections the village’s tiny general store had to offer.

My parents are part of the Move, a commune-based Christian movement that started in the early 70s, notable in part by the eschewing of all worldly entanglements. This category most emphatically included paganism-tainted celebrations like Christmas or Easter. Paganism, in this case, was a convenient catch-all description for any and all non-Christian religions, especially (but not limited to) ancient ones. By now, I should mention, Easter hats and shiny plastic eggs most probably abound in  the communes right about this time of year. But when I was a child, they were frowned upon.

Instead of egg hunts on the lawn and brightly-colored baskets of treats, the children of my community looked forward to Convention. Convention was one of the Big Three, three yearly celebrations that were far more important than secular, pagan, or misguided religious holidays like Christmas, Easter, or Halloween. In our close-knit trio of communes, the Big Three were graduation, Thanksgiving, and Convention. Convention was a yearly long-weekend event. The important leaders of our network of communes and churches were known hierarchically as the “Traveling Ministry” (the lesser traveling preachers and teachers) and “Father Ministry” (the ruling class who handed down decisions both religious and practical). They would arrive the first weekend in March, along with other visitors who would come from all directions to attend all-day revival-style services, causing our group to double or triple in size for several days.

We’d cook and shop in a frenzy for a week ahead of time. Zucchini bread, banana bread, poppyseed muffins, blueberry muffins, and hundreds and hundreds of cookies, all were baked off and stored in the big freezers in the cellar below our main building. Someone good at both cooking and shopping, like Aunt Robin, who was in charge of our commune’s bookkeeping and thus preferred to do the shopping herself, would do a huge shopping trip and come home with plenty of supplies for making easy meals for three hundred people: lunch meat (a rare treat), lots of mayonnaise, store-bought bread and kaiser rolls (more rarities), fresh oranges and bananas, and cases of disposable dishes.

The kids would whisper excitedly, sharing overheard gossip about the coming visitors. Did you hear that John and Sarah started their year? That means a wedding soon! Wonder if we’ll go? or,  Guess who’s staying at our house! Nooooo, we wanted them! We’ll probably have someone with five screaming babies! We’d be enlisted for huge cleaning projects and for once wouldn’t try to dodge out, reveling in the excitement as we scrubbed floors, cleaned the tops of cupboards, washed windows, and helped touch up paint.

And then the visitors would start flooding in. We’d share our rooms with kids our age, if we were lucky, or give up our rooms to older visitors while we slept on living room floors or couches. Younger singles (properly chaperoned, of course) would camp out in the big dining room of our main building, the Tabernacle, while the building’s living room was turned into a bedroom for a family. The other two communes in our church were doing the same, stretching their borders and crowding their homes to welcome visitors from hundreds of miles around who’d come for the yearly convention. Freshly mopped floors would be flooded with slush and mud from visitors’ boots, to the consternation of the guilty visitors and silent frustration of the teens who’d been on their knees scrubbing just a day before.

The first meeting was on Friday afternoon. We rented the village’s community hall for the occasion, since none of the three commune’s Tabernacles could hold the swollen congregation. After a flurry of extra hairspray and double-checking of favorite dresses or parentally-inflicted ties in the mirror, we’d traipse through snow, slush, or mud up the long hill to the community hall in clunky boots, dress shoes in hand. There would be a flutter of activity as older children took advantage of the exciting situation to beg permission to sit with their cousins and friends with more permissive parents, and teens claimed the right to sit separately from their families (but always in a row ahead of their parents, to prevent out-of-sight shenanigans). Older teens and young singles found friends and prospective beaus, shyly sitting next to their crushes knowing that it would create a stir of speculation — “Did you see Paul sitting next to Jennifer? Are they an item? I guess we’ll see if they sit together tomorrow too.” One’s choice of seat during convention was of immense importance.

The excited chatter of friends greeting each other after a year or more apart filled the hall, only quieted by the first chords from piano or guitar near the front of the room. With a rustle and hush, people found their Bible-marked seats and prepared to sing with gusto for forty-five minutes or more, three hundred voices raised in exuberant song while feet tapped, hands clapped out rhythms, and bodies swayed. During the more upbeat songs, you could get seasick if you looked out over the undulating crowd of dancing worshipers, hands lifting upward and hips keeping time.

All too soon, the music came to an end, and our reluctant bottoms found the seats that would hold us for the next two or three hours. Out came teacher-mandated notebooks, pens in multiple colors, Bibles, and… rustle rustle rattle crunch — the bags of candy we’d stockpiled for the occasion. Malt-filled, hard-shelled Robin Eggs; pastel jelly beans; sour gummy worms; chocolate eggs; all the best Easter candy. We’d share down the row with our friends, making sure those with sugar-conscious parents got a secretive handful while their moms and dads were absorbed in finding I Thessalonians.

There was more to Convention than the candy, of course. There was the easing of aching toes out of high-heeled shoes after a vigorous song service. The preaching.  The trick of keeping double notebooks, one for dutifully recording the message of the preacher (one message per meeting), one for communicating with friends, doodling, and writing silly poems. The rustle that spread across the room as one hundred women expectantly worked their feet back into the shoes in response to the winding-down tone of Brother Buddy’s voice after a two-hour message; the audible sigh of disappointment as he revved back up for another thirty-minute run. The youth meetings…. oh, the youth meetings, fertile ground for planting seeds of terrible doubt and anxiety with the messages of purity directed at hormonal teenagers.

Yes, there are plenty of Convention memories. But what will always stand out in my mind, and what I always remember when I see stores filling with Easter signs and merchandise, is sitting in a long row of giggling teenagers, passing our favorite spring candies back and forth. The crunch and sweet chocolate malt flavor of Robin Eggs is inextricably entwined in my mind with friendship, with notes passed, with collaboration on goofy rhymes about Brother Joe’s enthusiastic speaking style. Easter candy makes me homesick.

Happy Convention, everyone.