view from the back porch

Decided to share a little thing I wrote about my grandma, more than ten years ago, not long after she passed away. Forgot I even had it. This one’s for you, Dee-dle-dee! Just like your daughter, you were pretty amazing. :)

Growing up in Indiana where cornfields and gravel roads are far more common than buildings three-stories high, I cultivated an early appreciation of simple things: old houses, spacious backyards, playing on dirt hills, ritual Sunday dinners with the family, eating sweet corn and tomatoes with EVERY meal in the summer, and long drives in the car through the countryside that hopefully ended in ice cream somewhere. My childhood is full of memories like these, and most would not be possible without one person in particular: my grandmother, Mary Margaret Redenbarger.

She was a happy soul and just about the sweetest thing in this world or any other. Like her lyrical name suggests, my grandmother loved to hum the old tunes of Guy Lombardo, Billie Holiday, and Rosemary Clooney. She was well read; she hugged me generously; and an unfinished jigsaw puzzle always awaited me on her kitchen table.

We had the most special of relationships. I was the apple of her eye and she was like a heaven-sent angel to me; our time spent together was always splendid. And how I loved visiting her! Her house was just a short bike ride from my own, close enough that my mother entrusted me and my sister to travel the brief journey by ourselves. This delicious freedom granted to us by our mother, combined with the seemingly endless stretch of summer days, made us want to visit often and stay long.

Grandmother’s house quickly became my second home. Although I loved every part of it, perhaps nothing in that house was lovelier to me than the back porch. It was nothing elaborate or fussy or extremely decorative, but it provided an extraordinary view of the world. Its ambiance permeated every corner, crack, and crevice. No matter what time of year, a welcoming atmosphere greeted anyone who passed through its door. On a more poignant level, its inherent plainness taught me many truths about life.

As imperfect as it may have looked, the porch was perfectly square. Two of its walls were screened-in; the other two were brick and contiguous with the house. The floor was smooth, cool, gray concrete – the kind her dog Heidi loved to nap on, as dogs are wont to do during the oppressive days of summer. The studs between the screens were given a fresh coat of bright white paint every few years; but I actually preferred the peeling, weathered look the porch obtained after several thunderstorm beatings so common to the Midwest. It was the most inviting place on earth. Dare I say it was magical??

Because of its location leading into the kitchen, the back porch naturally became the “front door” of her house. For as long as I could remember, friends and family entered that way; no one ever came to the proper front door. It had a glorious view of the neighborhood. Its open screened walls faced, at once, the backyard, sideyard, and street. Looking up the street to the corner, I could see who was headed this way for a visit. Come twilight, the dense canopy of maple trees would be filled with the flashes of fireflies. I could smell the sweet perfume of the magnificent lilac bush not twenty feet from the corner of the porch. Robins sang, cardinals chirped, squirrels chattered; I would be mesmerized.

After my grandfather passed away and I was in my twenties, I moved in with my grandmother and the porch was mine to visit, whenever I wanted, every day. I could now spend time gleefully pondering all the possibilities of a long summer day or perfecting the fine art of simply doing nothing. When I stepped through its threshold, the porch would work its subtle magic. It became a place to reflect on my own path in life. And it taught me to appreciate the natural pace of things, while observing even the smallest detail in my surroundings.

My grandmother and I would spend entire afternoons reading books and flipping through magazines on the porch, silently enjoying each others’ company. Or we would talk about lost boyfriends, all my crazy hopes and dreams, angry fights with my parents, and my very serious (yet probably imagined) bouts of being completely misunderstood by EVERYONE. She would listen sympathetically, with nary a harsh word or judgment, as grandmothers are so wise to do. We would often doze off, in a state of unspoken camaraderie, carried away by the rhythmic sound of cicadas. And when the heat and humidity became almost unbearable, she would ask, “How about a glass of lemonade? Lemonade, made in the shade.” My worries were forgotten; my cares seemed to drift away. Of all places, grandmother’s porch provided me escape and peace.

We would watch the seasons change. In the summertime, the voice of some enthusiastic parent announcing the players at the Little League diamond would drift across the fields. As warm August nights gave way to cool autumn evenings, I would keep score of the high school football game myself, listening to the cheers from the crowd and the music from the band. In the winter, the snow would push its way through the tiny metal squares in the screen and swirl itself into small drifts on the cold floor. Then spring would come and with it, thunder rolling across blue-gray skies. The falling rain would make a pleasant hollow trickling sound as it rushed down the metal drainpipe and splashed over the gutter edge. How I loved when it would rain!

Over the years, the porch became a symbol for our family’s gatherings too. It was here that my Aunt Lynn orchestrated masterful Easter egg hunts. It was here that we spent Memorial Day weekends dining al fresco on grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. We celebrated birthdays, graduations, holidays, new jobs; and it was here that we gathered with friends and relatives to celebrate my grandparents golden 50th wedding anniversary.

And as life goes on in its continuous and sometimes unforgiving cycle, it was there on the same porch that I learned of my beloved grandmother’s passing from this world. It only seemed fitting. When I recall that day, I am lost on the details… but her spirit was thick in that place, as if at any moment, we might hear her yelling at us from the kitchen to come inside for some lemonade.

Of course, that was several years ago. I have since moved on and her house belongs to a new family. When I think of that porch now, I often wonder if it was blessed. It was where I genuinely came to know my grandmother, connecting with her not only as a relative, but also as a true friend. Perhaps that’s what they mean when they speak of sacred places – places we hold near and dear to our hearts for reasons we cannot explain.

I firmly believe there are lessons to be learned in everything we do, in every place we inhabit, in all that we are. Grandmother’s back porch was more than just a room; it was a place symbolic of our special relationship – weathered and timeless, sweet and serene. It was here, in this sacred place, that I learned these lessons: to nurture strength of spirit, to leave my day’s worries and cares on the doorstep, to know the warm comfort of safety, to be accepted no matter what, to be loved unconditionally.

I miss that porch terribly now. But maybe I’m really missing the innocence of youth and angelic grandmothers and days when the biggest worry in the world was whether the tires on my bike were flat. I may be here at the desk in my office now, but in my mind, I’m sitting on that porch wiling away the hours with my grandmother. There, it’s always spring and summer, and I’m a child again. If I close my eyes, I can smell the lilac blooms. I can feel the gentle mist of rain on my cheeks and nose and forehead, as I press my face to the screen. I can taste the sweet lemonade. If I listen carefully, I can even hear my grandmother singing in the kitchen.

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six months

So. Six months to write this post. Six months ago today Mom left this world for another. September 6, 2011. 12:52 pm to be exact. I’ve really struggled with how to blog about this. Or even how to begin. I mean, how do you process all the emotions while also honoring someone you love? How do you wade through all the crap to get to the good stuff? How do you unravel the complicated? I figured the blogging was over – what more could I possibly have to say? Other than, hey, my mom died, and I feel really shitty about it? Who wants to listen to me go on and on and on about it? But time is an amazing thing. And I had too much of it on my hands.

It’s like making noodles. (Um, what?? Bear with me…) I’m talking about THE family noodle recipe. The Redenbarger technique passed down from generation to generation. It’s a delicate, time-consuming, yet fulfilling process. The end result is almost cathartic. Like you can’t believe you just made something so wonderful out of practically nothing. So, for my own sanity, I knew – I KNEW, without a doubt – that I needed to write about this. When you have the time, make noodles.

The funny thing about this post is the ridiculous number of times I tried to start it. At least, the part about missing my Mom. How many random pages did I end up tossing? All those incoherent bits and pieces in my journal? And the lame attempts at expressing my grief? All complete rubbish. BUT… the first time I made noodles? Hell, yeah. They were PERFECT. Didn’t take several million tries; they were outstanding from that very first attempt. Mom was still alive and there to applaud.

So I made the decision to write about the noodles. It’s not an exact science, this making of the noodles. AT ALL. Which makes it doubly difficult to execute. And to explain. No recipe exists. Never has. It’s all been retained in the minds of our family. Maybe that’s why I feel it is so appropriate to share with you, Dear Reader, as I also write to you about my Mom’s passing. Because no matter how much you think you’re prepared for something, life throws you that damn curve-ball.

You start with three simple ingredients: eggs, flour, salt. And from this, you create perfection. You must ask yourself: how many noodles do you want to make? Or, how many people do you want to feed? Not an easy answer, mind you. As much as Mom probably would have hated it, I’ve boiled it down to this simple formula:

x/4 = how many dozen eggs you need
(where x = the number of people you wish to feed)

Scientific, I know. And by scientific, I mean I don’t know what I’m really talking about. This is where having access to someone who knows HOW to make the noodles pays off. The key is: this formula can and will change on any given day due to factors beyond your control. (More on that later.) So, for every dozen, you use 11 yolks and 1 whole egg. To give you some perspective, Mom used to make SIX-DOZEN eggs-worth for Thanksgiving. Holy choline. I made four dozen this year and it fed the entire family. Plus doggies. Plus a small village. With leftovers. Add a heaping tablespoon of flour at a time; I usually make it to 6 or so before I start mixing. A generous pinch of salt.

A moment of digression… You have to appreciate and understand the history of this celebrated recipe. It came from Germany with my great-great-great-grandmother. You see, noodles go with our mashed potatoes. We don’t “do” gravy. It’s noodlesandmashedpotatoes. Said in the same breath. Notice how the noodles even come first, BEFORE mashed potatoes? That’s how superior they are. Every generation since has learned to make them. I watched Mom do it for the first time at Thanksgiving 5 years ago. I paid attention, but soon forgot. After all, Mom would be around forever, right? Then, in November 2010, when she was well into a second year of chemo, I made sure to memorize every detail. I made them for the first time later that summer, specifically for her to taste and critique. I passed with flying colors. :)

Moving on. You mix until the ingredients start to come together nicely. Only through touch and feel can you sense how much more flour is needed. But I caution you. Several arbitrary factors serve to ruin a flawlessly tender noodle, thwarting your brilliant efforts. The weather outside. The humidity inside. The freshness of the eggs. The quality of flour. The warmth of your hands. The surface you roll on. There have been times when I’ve added what seemed like buckets and buckets of flour. But the end goal is the same: a wonderfully pliant, somewhat gummy ball of buttercup-yellow dough – with ENOUGH flour to make for easy rolling, but NOT too much as to turn your hard work into cardboard.

Then you roll it all out. Divide the dough into several smaller workable portions. A wooden rolling pin. A generously floured surface. Methodical swishes, one long roll in each direction, lifting the pin up and starting over again. NOT the rapid back-and-forth motion sure to create mayhem with your dough. Roll as thin as possible – like, a sixteenth of an inch. Be sure to flip the dough over often to prevent sticking. Yes, you may have to re-roll. Roll out all the portions to form what almost looks like a lovely giraffe-spotted pattern on your tables. My entire life is dotted with memories of these uneven yellow discs laid out ceremoniously on the kitchen and dining room tables, signaling the start of any holiday. Mom was quite proud of this tradition; she made noodles often. I feel the same. I am so glad I know how and to be so trusted in carrying on this important piece of our family history.

Now. Sit back and wait patiently. The noodles must have time to relax and dry out. This makes for easier cutting later. So, go read a book. Watch a movie. Do some errands. These noodles have a mind of their own. Also, protect them from the reach of curious pets. (My doggies have snitched their fair share of noodle dough when I wasn’t looking.) In many ways, I had to wait patiently for the words to come together for this post. I would try to force it – and was left with either a lot of nonsense or not much meaningful to say. Patience. Reflection. Timing. Often, timing is everything.

Once dry, the truly dedicated process starts – THE CUTTING. I capitalize here, because this could go on, well, forever. Cut each disc into 1-½-inch wide vertical strips. Some will be uneven around the edges. That’s okay. Stack these strips one on top of each other, 5 or 6 strips high. Then start slicing these stacks horizontally, creating 1-½-inch long noodles of approximately 1/16 or 1/8 inch width. This takes time and precision. You cannot rush the process. You have to slice your way through dozens and dozens of these strips. But what are you left with? Marvelous piles of thin tender noodles. The need to touch them will be overwhelming. A gentle “ruffle” through the pile may be required to separate your cuts. The dough – even in this stage – can still pose a little stickiness. Sprinkle some flour on the pile to help. Rake your fingers through the golden goodness. Inhale the sweet homemade smell.

The second time I made my noodle pile, I felt the closest to Mom that I had since she’d passed away. It was like she was right there in the kitchen, helping me, cheering me on. I miss her. I miss the way she would teach me these things – the intricacies of making something she’d perfected in her own mind a hundred times ago. I will miss that sharing of wisdom more than anything (except maybe her hugs ♥). She always was the teacher – in every single thing she did. And I was the eternal student, ever eager to learn. I can hardly believe six months has passed. For all I know and feel, it was six days ago. But I do know this: noodle-making makes me feel more connected to Mom than just about anything. And in the larger scheme of things, it ties me to her whole family – my grandparents, my aunts, my ancestors, my Redenbarger side.

So, how to serve these yummy morsels? Heat up some homemade chicken stock (see my chicken salad recipe here). Two quarts is a good starting place. Bring to a boil. Add 6 cups of noodles (fresh or frozen). Reduce heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Taste for tenderness. From beginning to end, this entire process can take the larger part of a day. But, man-oh-man, is it worth it. Side note: Noodles freeze very well. Make more than you need. (See that super-scientific formula above.) Save some for later in Ziploc bags. You’ll be glad you have them.

This past Thanksgiving, I still had one bag of noodles Mom had made from the holidays the year before. I had been saving it – for God knows what – not sure if I was even going to use it. It was like some tangible part of her had been frozen here on Earth. Noodles were also one of the last things Mom ever made before she died. I didn’t want to lose that. This is the new challenge before me… to make glorious, delicious noodles without the care and tender touch of my Mom. To move forward with my life, without my Mom, minus perhaps the strongest person I ever knew.

So I have to keep writing – in some form. Just like I have to keep making noodles. The more I looked at that solitary bag in the freezer, I knew I had to do something with it. And so, with as little fanfare as possible, it was mixed into the four-dozen-batch of noodles I made at Thanksgiving – added to the steamy rich broth, stirred together with love and sadness, one noodle indistinguishable from the other.

sunday drives

I really could use a Sunday drive. It’s unbearably hot right now in Indiana, the air oppressive with humidity. We’re deep into summer, and it’s one of my favorite times of year. Each day that passes seems farther and farther behind me now; and the days ahead stretch endlessly to that distant deadline of SCHOOL. Things just seem slow. And I love it. There’s no hurry to anything. Probably because it’s 100-degrees out. But whatever. Everything moves slower in summer across the crackled landscape; the pace suits me just fine. As long as I have a little respite in the AC somewhere, I’m good and ready to slow down. The lazy hazy days of summer are most definitely here.

I drive home every day from work – an hour-long commute each way – through some of the better parts of the state. Other would disagree. But I’m completely serious; I love it. It’s an easy drive, mostly on state and county roads, heading in straight paths most of the way, never veering too far off the four central compass points. I travel through fields of corn, deep green oceans of soy beans, golden patches of wheat – all rippling in the breeze as I fly by. Driving calms me. Sometimes, I get to thinking so deeply about whatever, it’s like I’m in a trance, and the fields whoosh by me in a yellow-greenish blur. Almost like some sort of tunnel vision.

I’ve always liked wide open spaces – seeing as far ahead as possible, and on either side of me – it gives me room to think. Maybe this is why I’ve never minded the commute. A drive through the country reassures me; I like knowing farm fields still populate most of Indiana. It makes me feel safe. Mountains are intimidating; forests seem claustrophobic; oceans threatening. But the open fields sing to my heart in the way no other landscape feature can. It’s simply home.

We’ve always gone on drives as a family. Quick jaunts to get a treat. Peaceful treks through the county. All-afternoon sojourns to God-knows-where. Often, there was no set path – just a destination. The “fun” was seeing how we could get there. As in, let’s find a new way! Or worse, there wasn’t even a destination in mind. These drives were torture as a kid. When I graduated from college, and returned home (and saw my siblings growing up AND out), I didn’t mind them so much. I actually began to appreciate the drives with my parents. Now, I unabashedly enjoy them. They are relaxing. And they almost always end in ice cream. :)

The day I had my dog Heidi put to sleep was one of the most memorable. I was obviously distraught; I didn’t want to move myself from the couch where I was lying in grief. But Mom knew best – as she always does – she simply asked me to come along. In fact, there wasn’t much asking – she just said I should. I didn’t want to, really. But I did. And I was glad. We drove to Brazil (Indiana, that is), as we so often do. Ended up taking the detour through Center Point, along with a stop at the cemetery to say “hi” to my grandparents. About a month later, we would head back to that same cemetery to bury the ashes of my lost doggie alongside her original owners, the grandparents, reuniting them once again.

Anyway, drives are just one more thing that reminds me of Mom. She once told me they took drives all the time when she was a kid, to escape the heat. That was before AC, and it was something many people did in the evenings. Later, when she married my dad, they took drive-dates on the weekends, because they didn’t have any money. It was a tradition that would continue with us too.

My parents owned a huge shit-brown Monte Carlo once (sorry Dad, but it *was*). I have many memories of riding in that ginormous back seat with my sister, both of us sitting atop our “child seats” – mine a wooden box (that had been Mom’s), Katie’s an awful plastic thingy. This was before car seats, seat belts, and vehicle laws in general – somehow, we survived. The windows were rolled down and we could easily peer out to watch the county landscape go whizzing by. It was a summer ritual.

Summer drives are especially enchanting – the sounds of cicadas and tree frogs, the possible sighting of fireworks in the dusky sky, the flickering streaks of lightning bugs along the roadside, the pungent smell of charcoal grills, the thick humidity cloaking our faces, all the people sitting on their front porches as we’d drive through one tiny town after another. I don’t know who was crazier – them, for choosing to sit outside and watch passersby as weekend entertainment, or us, for driving around looking at them.

I still venture out with just Mom and Dad, although it’s been quite awhile since we’ve taken a Sunday drive of any kind. I miss it. It’s one thing I wish we’d do soon; I’m keenly aware that time is running out. I feel like I hurry, hurry, hurry through life – and why? What does that accomplish exactly? Anyway, I like this slowness. I appreciate the days where I have nothing particular to do. And I have two weeks of that coming up. Vacation starts tomorrow. And lots of time with Mom. Maybe we’ll go for a drive. :)

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The recipe below for Broccoli Salad doesn’t have a particular memory associated with it. Like the Strawberry Shortcake before it, it’s just another reminder to me of summertime. I made it for the Fourth of July cookout we had at my sister’s house. Enjoy!

Broccoli Salad
2 large bunches fresh broccoli
1 lb. bacon, fried crisp and crumbled*
1/2 medium red onion, sliced thinly
1 cup sunflower seed kernels
1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup sugar
3 or 4 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

Cut broccoli flowers and tender stalks into bite-size pieces. Discard stems. Place broccoli, bacon, onion, and seeds in large bowl. Whisk together mayo, sugar, and vinegar. Pour over salad. Toss gently. Chill 2 – 4 hours before serving.

*The key to frying perfect bacon: Low and slow. Remember that mantra, folks. LOW AND SLOW. Keep the heat at a low to medium low temp. Take your time. This method renders the fat just right. The bacon becomes more flavorful, light, and delicately crisp. As opposed to the dark, salty piece of jerk you often see in restaurants. Trust me. This is from my Mom and years of perfect bacon at holidays, on Sunday mornings, and every time in between. :)