In Praise of Turkey and Tradition

We make pot pie at our house each Thanksgiving—a savory Pennsylvania Dutch meal that features the most perfect blend of onions, potatoes, thick squares of doughy goodness and meaty strands of chicken. Only we use turkey on this festive occasion. Six-and-a-half pounds of succulent dark meat to be exact, bathing in a vat of broth that most would find fairly intoxicating. It’s tradition. Or more correctly, a slight variation on tradition that serves to remind our family of the delectable dish my mother-in-law made not so long ago.

That said, in the four years since Grandma Ella’s been gone, I’ve tried at least three times to marry the flavors of the aforementioned dish as well as she did. And although I doubt I’ve managed to achieve that level of culinary success, I’m guessing I’ve come close—which is saying a lot given my proclivity for food related disasters, making me heady with the notion that my skills are no longer thought to be among the most deplorable on record.

Tomorrow will be yet another attempt at pot pie mastery, and, of course, an opportunity for all of us to close our eyes, to breathe in the deliciousness that will hang heavy in the air and in doing so, to revisit a time when Grandma stood at the stove peering into a steamy pot, summoning her special brand of kitchen wizardry. I’ll wear her rumpled apron for good measure—a speckled and storied bit of fabric flecked with tiny green leaves, now wan and threadbare from decades of use. I’ll wear it because I cannot imagine surviving the ordeal without splattering inordinate quantities of the soupy potage upon myself, but also because it’s tradition—or at least that is what it has become over time. Heaven forbid I disturb the delicate balance of good luck and a great recipe by offending the gods of tradition and/or flawless feasts.

With any further good fortune, I’ll be able to lure my charges away from the colorful swell of parades on television, from their beloved books in the den and from the pervasive yet somehow endearing skies of gray and barren woodlands long enough to enlist their help in the kitchen. Never mind that Child One completely abhors turkey. Or that Child Two will feign interest unless and until I permit her to stand atop a chair to drop wedges of dough into a boiling sea of broth. Grandma would’ve let her do such a thing, mindful to teach her the importance of placing each wedge, carefully and singularly, atop a bubble as it surfaces within an impossibly brief window of time. Just as she taught me—just as I hope and envision all three of my children will one day teach their children. Handing it down from one generation to the next.

Again, with the tangible and treasured notion of tradition—on this Thanksgiving Day and, perhaps more importantly, on perfectly ordinary days—the ones I routinely fill to capacity with obligations of one kind or another, dismissing all too often the mundane slivers of time with my family as opportunities to connect and share that which I value. Of course, I kick myself for doing so, recognizing that it is the harvest of tiny moments that matters most. Like the delicious time I spent with my grandparents, especially my grandfather in his workshop—a place that reeked gloriously of motor oil and sawdust—a place where I became inextricably consumed time and again with saws and sandpaper, two-by-fours and tape measures. A handful of seemingly insignificant pages of childhood that somehow clung to the corners of my mind, filling me with the warmth that comes from having lived them.

I’d like to think that simple traditions (like making pot pie) are like that, too.Planet Mom: It’s where I live (in praise of turkey…and tradition).

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Big Brother

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I have a confession to make. I stalk my children. I stalk my husband, too. I don’t know why I do it, actually. It’s a sickness, I guess—an unhealthy obsession with knowing exactly where my loved ones are at practically every moment of every day. Thanks to the fine people at Apple and my friend, Drew, some time ago I downloaded the Find My Friends app on my iPhone and immediately began tracking the whereabouts of the aforementioned people.

The trouble is, they’re not particularly fond of it. Translation: They despise it.

“Mom, quit stalking us. It’s creepy.”

Creepy or not, however, apparently I get some peace of mind out of knowing what my kids are up to 24/7. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. The same goes for my husband, except that it’s more about convenience to know where he is at a given time. That way, for instance, I can “see” tmarthat he’s in the grocery store and know that it makes perfect sense to call him and tell him that we’re out of Cheetos. I don’t like to be out of Cheetos, ergo I feel compelled to inform him of such a dire situation.

The conversation goes something like this:

Me: “What aisle are you in? We need Cheetos.”

My husband: “What? How’d you know I’m in a store? Oh, that’s right; you have that blasted thing on your phone and you’re watching me like Big Brother. Remind me to SHUT IT OFF so you can’t monitor my every move.”

Me: “Wait. What? No. I like being able to see where you are, then I can call and give you helpful information that you might need—like the fact that WE’RE OUT OF CHEETOS. How would you know otherwise? You’re welcome.”

The conversations we have while he’s in the liquor store are strikingly similar except that they usually involve a dwindling supply of wine.

At any rate, I find the app to be remarkable in that I can even tell in which part of a particular building my kids happen to be situated at any given moment. Rest assured, if they’re supposed to be in chemistry class and they’re in chemistry class, my heart is happy.

Me: “So I noticed you went to Denny’s during the break between finals today. Was it fun? What did you order?”

Child: “Mom, that absolutely weirds me out. Why do you do that? It’s just not normal.”

Me: “I don’t know. I guess I like to see what you’re doing throughout your day and it gives me more stuff to talk about with you.”

Child: “Why not just ask me where I went and I’ll tell you?”

Me: “Yeah, but isn’t it more impressive that I already know where you went and we can skip ahead to other parts of the discussion?”

Child: “No. Not really. It’s just creepy and you should stop doing it.”

Unfortunately, I can’t stop doing it. At this late stage in the game, I have become hopelessly addicted to tracking my people and there is no turning back. There is something strangely comforting about looking at that tiny screen and seeing those familiar icons pop up, reassuring me that the people I care about are where they’re supposed to be—even if they’re worlds away for weeks at a time.

In an instant, I can gather a wealth of information—like which door to pick up someone at school and whether or not my progenies are still on the marching band bus, coming home from a late night competition or football game. Almost instantaneously, I can verify that all is right in my little corner of the world.

Strangely enough, looking at the map and those smiling faces within the teensy, tiny circles on my phone warms my heart—no matter how far apart they happen to be. It’s like holding my family in real time in the palm of my hand.

Of course, they would likely beg to differ, suggesting that they’re all under my thumb. Literally.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live, probably poring over my Find My Friends app.

Copyright 2018 Melinda L. Wentzel

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The Road Less Traveled

I remember it as if I were standing before it this very moment—the dirt road behind my childhood home that snaked through the mossy woods, carving a narrow, road-not-taken-inspired path along the base of a deep ravine, sheltered from the sun and from civilization it seemed. The place where a large and delicious chunk of my youth was spent surrounded by the pungent aroma of pine mixed with the earthy scent of decaying leaves and the ever-present drone of the creek that flowed nearby.

It was my Secret Garden. My sanctuary of sycamores, silver and red maples. My quiet corner of the world where I could commune with nature and collect my thoughts—one blissfully restorative trek at a time. Of course, I whiled away the hours there, exploring every inch of the road’s gritty surface, the rock-strewn banks of the creek and the heavily wooded hillside that was enshrouded with a verdant canopy of foliage in the thick of summer and dappled with patches of sunlight when the wispy green of spring first emerged. Season after season, I was drawn there, swallowed whole by its quiet grandeur, inextricably immersed in the sweet salvation of solitude and unstructured play. Alone but never quite lonely. The Last Child in the Woods, perhaps.

Eventually, though, my brother tagged along, curious to discover what was so special about this half-mile stretch of road and haven of towering trees that lapped at its fringes. He, too, became enthralled with all that it had to offer—untold numbers of fossils to inspect and collect, intriguing salamanders and caterpillars at every turn, ideally secluded spots for building clubhouses and spying on the occasional passerby, and perhaps most notably, an unforgiving and impossibly narrow footpath perched high atop a ridge where the region’s entirety could be viewed with ease. Naturally, there was an abundance of tree hollows, too, perfectly suited for stowing the trappings of childhood (i.e. spare jackknives, cap guns and spears we had fashioned from fallen branches).

On the cusp of spring, when the sun had finally begun to thaw the road and its deep, frozen furrows of mud, we’d barrel down the gully—half running, half sliding through the slushy snow that stubbornly clung to the ground and to the craggy tree trunks—eager to return to our long and winding road of dirt and stone. The summers we spent there—foraging through the woods, hiding out in our ramshackle forts and letting our dog run free—were ravenously consumed, chapters of our lives that I won’t soon forget. Never mind that my brother is no longer here to share such memories.

But if I could somehow turn back the time almost six years—the ones that have felt like six minutes—I’d remind him of a day in late autumn, when he couldn’t have been more than nine. It was an afternoon much like those we’ve experienced of late—a sun-drenched, breezy, balmy Indian summer gift—only the leaves back then had long since burst with color, painting the blue skies with fiery shades of orange and red. Not surprisingly, we were on the dirt road together. Back and forth we raced and chased along our favorite stretch, the tall trees roaring and swaying in the wind, tousling our hair and casting great swirls of leaves into the air for what seemed an eternity. Leaves we desperately tried to catch before they hit the ground. Because, of course, that was the whole point.

Of all the memories I’ve harvested involving my brother and our beloved dirt road, it is among my most cherished.

So as I witness my own children this autumn, completely engrossed in the rapture of chasing, leaping and wildly grabbing fistfuls of sky in an attempt to cleanly snatch the leaves before they fall to the street, drunk with joy and seizing the moment, instantly I return to the place I loved as a child and to the delicious day I spent with my brother.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (remembering well the road less traveled, and recognizing that it has made all the difference).

Copyright 2011 Melinda L. Wentzel

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It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

img_5003I’ve often thought that the art of raising children is a lot like carving a pumpkin. In both instances, I brought home a rotund little bundle of neediness, fumbling and stumbling over myself just to get it out of the car and safely inside. I then set it down, took a step back and stared—marveling at its inherent uniqueness and at its wealth of complexities, most of which I had yet to discover. A “Now what?” comment fell from my lips shortly thereafter as I contemplated my next move. Anxiously I paced the floor, studying this newish thing from every angle imaginable—careful not to overlook so much as a dimple or a distinctive feature upon its ruddy face. I then wrestled endlessly with self-doubt and indecision, fully and completely acknowledging the challenges that lay ahead.

At once, I also considered the endless potential this wonder of wonders possessed, pondering the remarkable role I would undoubtedly play in the days to come. I prayed for insight and wisdom, and for the ability to make its spirit glow and its face shine brighter than bright. I loved and nurtured it unconditionally, shaped and molded it tenderly yet purposefully, pouring forth every single ounce of knowledge, creativity and patience I could muster, in hopes that one day my little pumpkin would stand on my doorstep straight and tall, illuminating my world forevermore—a beacon in the night for all who would pass.

But no one ever told me there would be muck in the middle—a slippery, slimy mass of gloppage with which I have had to contend, time and again, in order to move forward. My hands don’t lie. They’ve been mired deep within this monstrous task for an eternity. And it shows. I am worn and weary, doused with sticky remnants of the chore. There have been a multitude of tricky corners to navigate with precision and grace, and unforeseen lumps and bumps to address along this winding path of growth and development. Countless hours have been spent scooping out and whittling away that which is undesirable and stubbornly rooted—the gunk that would surely detract from inner beauty.

Desperately, I have sought the counsel of others. I’ve searched long and hard for guidance—for some sort of pattern to follow so that I could avoid a minefield of mistakes and make the right impression in the end. Heaven forbid I mismanage so much as a solitary stroke of my efforts.

What I find both completely frustrating and strangely wonderful about the whole process, however, is that despite the planning and the commitment and the intensity with which I have approached it all, the end result is virtually unknown until I lay down my tools, step back from my work and light the flame within. Only then will I learn how well I’ve done my job—when my pumpkinish creation stands before me, glowing on its own amidst a sea of ink. Mere glimpses of what will be are all I have been afforded along the way. But glimpses, nonetheless.

Happy Halloween to all those makers of little jack-o’-lanterns, whose work is truly a labor of love and whose efforts are worthy of high praise—regardless of the outcome.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live.

Copyright 2007 Melinda L. Wentzel

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Eggs, Toast and a Side of Cynicism

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For whatever reason, the gods of morning madness have been smiling upon me these past few weeks. And like any good cynic, I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out. With every ounce of my being, I fully expect my petulant children to return, brimming with an abundance of snarky commentary regarding breakfast cereal choices (or the lack thereof), eager to display the alarm clock-inspired rage to which I’ve grown so accustomed and to bring to the fore their lovely penchant for bickering with one another at dark-thirty. Joy. Likewise, I presume the frenzied packing-of-lunches-and-backpacks thing coupled with shrieks involving the very real possibility of missing the bus will resume shortly as well.

If nothing else, it would feel familiar. Quite frankly, I am suspect of the degree of calm that has befallen my home of late. Mornings are no longer intolerably hectic, which I find fairly disturbing since it’s all I’ve known since the days of kindergarten. There are no shouting matches to speak of, no monumental crises related to bedhead or perceived fashion offenses and, incredibly, no one has become enraged over wrinkles in socks or the gunkiness of toothpaste for days on end. Gasp!

It’s all so alarmingly alien—this death of disorder and dissent. So naturally, I greet it with cool skepticism, assuming that a conspirator has somehow snatched my ill-tempered brood and left me with a delightful pair of third graders who get up on time, dress for school without complaint and exhibit an obscene amount of good cheer all morning long. Imposters, I am sure, are among us.

Or perhaps my fortuitous situation has arisen as a direct result of the plan my husband so shrewdly devised and skillfully implemented. Translation: The man is a genius. That said, he pulled our charges aside one day and explained how our shameless bribe new morning routine would work. The seed was planted thusly.

“If you get up and get dressed as soon as your alarm goes off,” he purred, “and haul your sorry selves to the kitchen by six thirty, I’ll make you WHATEVER HOT BREAKFAST YOUR LITTLE HEARTS DESIRE. And,” he sweetened the pot, “I’ll even let you crack eggs and stir stuff.” To date, the immaculately prepared entrées have included pancakes (with faces!), French toast and waffles (to die for!), eggs (infinitely varied!), bacon (impossibly crisp!) and a vat of drool-worthy, bathed-in-olive-oil fried potatoes I felt compelled to appraise. Again. And again.

In sum, he made a deal with the unwitting pair. A wickedly clever, painfully simple, non-negotiable agreement—one that is likely responsible for the glowing success we’ve experienced thus far on our journey to the Land of Hassle-free School Mornings. Note to self: Cold cereal nourishes the body, but hotcakes (and other breakfasty-type foods with irresistible aromas) inspire action of the bounding-out-of-bed variety.

But perhaps the motivation runs deeper than that. Part of me suspects that under the surface lies a host of benefits aside from the obvious. Like the delicious sliver of time during which we snuggle together before anyone heads to the kitchen. All four of us, looking as much like sardines as anything, burrow beneath a sea of blankets in our big, oak bed—the place where toes are warmed and whispers are shared in the waning moments of still and darkness.

“Here I am, your little alarm clock,” they each announce as they crawl in with us, a different stuffed animal tucked under their arms each morning. To my utter amazement, both kids have already dressed, fulfilling their end of the bargain. I shake my head in disbelief.

The plan is working.

A few minutes later, they clamber downstairs to the kitchen and confirm with the cook their menu choices for the day. Chairs are then shoved against counters, eggs are cracked and batter is stirred—fulfilling the other end of the bargain.

As the sun crests over the hillside and begins pouring into the house, a steaming, hot breakfast is served—as promised. Syrup and cinnamon, juice and jam look on as chatter fills the room. There is talk of disjointed dreams, of library books and of plans for playing with a favorite friend at the bus stop. Everything that follows is sunny side up.

Once again, I shake my head in disbelief. The plan is still working—despite my side of cynicism.

Planet Mom: It’s where I live (wondering when the novelty will wear off and hoping like crazy that’s never).

Copyright 2009 Melinda L. Wentzel

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