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.

six weeks

Six weeks. That’s what the hospice nurse told my dad yesterday. SIX. WEEKS. I mean… what do you do with that? That’s clearly not enough time, but it never is, is it? Not too long ago, it was four to six months. And where did that time go?? Now, six weeks. *Sigh.*

My mind is so scattered with all of these random thoughts, hundreds of memories bubbling to the surface, threatening to purge themselves through my watery eyes. And I can’t think straight. But everything else outside of me is perfectly, startlingly clear… The fact that my mom remains as lucid as ever… That I can have normal, everyday conversations with her… That her mind is sharp, her laughter easy, her kisses and hugs still lovingly present… That she still maintains some semblance of a social calendar at all… Although the outward appearance gives away her condition, she doesn’t seem like she’s dying. But above all else, this: the immediacy of the situation.

I will be forever grateful for the last two weeks, the time I took off from work to “vacation” with just Mom. Oh, I did some other stuff – GREAT and happy stuff with the fam. But mainly, it was to spend time at home. To just BE with her. And I am sooooooooooooo glad I did, because it was perfect. Are you allowed to say a vacation was perfect in that manner? As in, utterly therapeutic, taking care of your sick mom? I don’t care if it sounds strange; it was. As an added bonus, I of course made LOTS of good food. That was the other goal attached to the vacation: 1) be with Mom, and 2) COOK, BAKE, whip up a FRENZY in the kitchen. And I frenzied. Too many recipes for this one post. You’ll find one of my favorites at the end.

I’m ashamed to admit I subscribe to a website that sends daily Bible verses to cheer you up. I know – corny, right? Especially since the Christian faith and I aren’t the best of buddies. It’s not so much that I’m unwilling to find inspiration in the Bible. I know it’s there; I’ve read quite a chunk of it (mostly the inspirational stuff – forget that fire and brimstone crap). No, I’m embarrassed to tell you the website whence I’m getting these little morsels of sage advice… Are you ready for this? Joel Osteen.

I can already hear a thousand cries of protest, disgust, and general dismay. I know. I KNOW. Don’t judge me. I said I was ashamed (here’s where I’m hoping I don’t have too many readers of this blog yet). Allow me to explain. I watch this man in fascination – not because I believe every word that comes out of his mouth – no, I watch him because I’m mesmerized by his message delivery and general charisma. He knows how to command a room. Or a stadium, as it were. Maybe even the Galactic Empire. Who knows. The man is nothing but ultra-positive, to the point of brainwashing. Which I realize is why others find him so wholly offensive. If you have half a brain, you must surely see the dollar signs illuminated in his beady eyes. Regardless, Emperor Palpatine, er… uh, Joel Osteen, I mean, is a study in motivational speaking if ever there was one. He simultaneously fascinates and repulses me. This must have been what Hitler was like.

But this is not the point. When times are tough, you seek solace, in whatever form you can find it. And some of the simple verses sent by his website (called “Today’s Word”) do resonate with me. I delete well over half of the ones I get, rolling my eyes to the heavens, as I think how susceptible people are to this kind of “reality tv.” I signed up over a year ago when Mom got sick again as a way to find inspiration, comfort, SOMETHING to help me deal with it all. I choose the verses I like, and look them up in the Bible myself. I proceed to read the chapter and passages associated with it, to understand the greater meaning. Or something like that. I’m still not convinced to actually attend church on a regular basis or anything, but these do make me stop and ponder.

Anyway, today’s verse was this:

“As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you…”(Isaiah 66:13, NIV)

How weird is that?? Especially with this recent heartbreaking news. Things like this make me honestly believe there is SOMETHING out there. I have no idea what – I don’t think any of us really do – wouldn’t that be awfully arrogant of ourselves to do so? But I have to believe there is a purpose to all of this… to my mom’s life and her time here on Earth and why she has to leave us so soon. And that’s enough for me, I guess – for now, at least. If I continue to question the WHY of it, I’ll go crazy. Maybe that’s what faith really is… I don’t know. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass. Probably the latter.

As promised, a recipe for you. :) I’ve made this TWICE in the last week, because Mom and Dad inhaled it. Mom even had two pieces (albeit small ones) in one day. I ask you this, in sadness and in happiness: what am I gonna do without her?

German Chocolate Pie
1 four-ounce German sweet chocolate bar (in the baking aisle)
1/3 cup milk
1 three-ounce package cream cheese (softened)
2 tablespoons sugar
8 -12 ounces Cool Whip topping (thawed)
1 graham cracker pie crust

Break up the chocolate bar into squares. Heat the chocolate and 1 tablespoon of the milk in a small sauce pan over low heat. Stir until completely melted. Set aside. Beat cream cheese and sugar in a bowl until blended. Add the rest of the milk and melted chocolate and beat until smooth. Gently fold in the whipped topping. The original recipe called for 8 ounces, but Mom being Mom, she added more because it makes the pie filling EXTRA light and fluffy. I agree. :) Place the whole mixture into the pie crust. Freeze for at least 4 hours. Keep in freezer until you need it. Guaranteed to be gone in a week. Deeeee-licious.


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. :)