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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Elusive Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

When today’s kids grow up, what will their Thanksgiving memories be of? I wonder. Probably turkey, hopefully a happy family gathered together, maybe dinner at Grandma’s house. Or maybe not. Maybe the kids will be ignored in favor of football or maybe they’ll play football and love it. I don’t know. Thanks to TV and Hallmark and the world of mass marketing we have an image of what it’s “supposed” to be: an ephemeral swirl of warm pumpkin pie, ruby cranberry sauce, turkey and mashed potatoes covered with gravy, a charming group of congenial relatives in a perfectly clean house decorated with candles, and vases of chrysanthemums. Ah yes… I've had some of those. But how often is it really like that?

I’m not saying the image of the classic Thanksgiving is a fantasy. It must have seemed very real in 1943, when Americans reacted so emotionally to the famous painting by illustrator Norman Rockwell, called “Freedom From Want”. It touched people deeply. Even if you’re young you’ve surely seen it: the view down the dining room table with happy relatives seated on each side, the older parents or grandparents at the head of the table. The hostess is lowering a gigantic platter with a huge turkey on it and her husband, in his Sunday best, looks on in his kindly way, carving tools close at hand. Sixty-five years ago, the Saturday Evening Post magazine published this painting and three others in Rockwell’s series called “The Four Freedoms." The artist was inspired by a speech President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to congress on January 6, 1941, while the Nazi’s dominated western Europe. The government rejected the paintings, when first approached by Rockwell. It wasn’t until they were published in the magazine and became a national sensation, that Uncle Sam decided they were pretty good after all, and made them into war bond posters that became icons of American culture. Like the illustrations of the quintessential 1950’s Santa Claus, these images are burned into my consciousness and the mood of my holidays.

I must say, I’m very lucky. As a kid on Vashon Island, I did have the big happy family, the turkey, and all the trimmings. It wasn’t perfect. I know my mother was sometimes tired and stressed out when she miraculously pulled that dinner together. We lived in an ordinary house, and maybe the silver didn’t get polished in time, or the windows washed. But I do remember wonderful aromas, cutout sugar cookies in the shape of turkeys, massive amounts of food including beautiful pies and special things like real butter and olives. At least they were special back then. Now I have butter all the time and turkey often, and too frequently indulge in olives. I’m old enough to remember when it was a big deal to get oranges in the wintertime. Now foods that used to be a treat, something else to be thankful for, are available all year and have lost their “special” status. In this age of abundant food supplies, as long as you have some money, the exclusive is more elusive. We need to try harder to make a day stand out.

This year our Thanksgiving here in Tacoma will be a very small affair, just the two of us and one good friend. None of our kids can be with us. My Dad will be at my sister’s condo, another party of three. My mother-in-law lives in an adult family home. The other two parents, I'm sad to say, are no longer with us. I lost a dear aunt, just last week. My brothers and sisters are scattered.

I’ll roast a turkey and bake a pie, but won’t go overboard on side dishes and extra sweets. I might light some candles. There won’t be any kids running around, a crowd in the kitchen to get in the way, noisy talk and laughter, and a general commotion. I’ve experienced all that, and yes, I will miss it. But the reality is that over time circumstances change.

Yet I am deeply thankful. I have people in my life to love and be loved by. I’m healthy. I have a home, good food, friends, a great dog, and my writing and music. I’m living Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms and appreciate them and those who have sacrificed for them. Think of people who are spending Thanksgiving sad and alone, with loved ones fighting a war, or those sitting next to the bed of someone dying a hospital, or those are ill and in pain, or homeless. There are families who will drink too much and fight, violent and abusive in front of the kids or even hurting them, and police officers (who are missing dinner with their own families) will come to the door and arrest someone. Not a very pretty picture, is it? Sorry, but those are the realities of Thanksgiving for some people.

We can dream of the ideal version of Thanksgiving if we’ve actually had that, or grieve for what we missed if we haven’t. Or, we can alter our expectations and open ourselves to the possibility of finding new joys and creating new traditions. I see people choosing to spend the day volunteering at a food bank, or inviting someone who is lonely into their homes to share a meal. One friend of mine, whose Thanksgiving will be a quiet and uneventful day, is planning to go to church. She doesn’t expect to see many people there, but it is the way she has chosen to express and experience her own thankfulness. The important thing is to simply BE thankful, for truly, we have so much to be thankful for.

Whatever you are doing, and wherever you’ll be, spend the day with a grateful heart. If you’re grumpy, shape up. If you’re mad, get over it. Call somebody. Share. Remember those who are gone and what is important. Show your love. Laugh. Yours may not be a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving but it could still be the best one yet.

I hope you all, dear readers, have a happy Thanksgiving in your own unique way.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Best Northwest Gardening Book Ever

If you’re a perfectly organized person don’t bother reading this. It’s for the rest of you, the ones (not me, of course) who have experienced things like getting out of the shower fifteen minutes before needing to leave the house, and discovering they had no clean underwear because they forgot to put that laundry in the dryer. Our lives are so busy. We can all use a little help keeping on track now and then, in order to get done the things we really need do. That includes gardening chores. It’s easy to “forget” about, or just not find the time for, all those important seasonal tasks that people with great gardens do. If only a little voice inside us would guide us. In some cases it takes more than the subtle voice of conscience … more like the megaphone yell of no-fail, clear-cut directions.

I think I’ve found just the thing in a great book by local Pacific Northwest gardening experts, Mary Robson and Christina Pfeiffer. It’s called Gardening in Washington & Oregon, subtitled Month by Month-What To Do Each Month To Have a Beautiful Garden All Year, published by Cool Springs Press. This book is one of the best on the market because of the vast amount of information it contains specifically applicable to our region, and especially because of the way it’s organized. After twenty-two pages of great general gardening know-how, the ten chapters begin, each one focused on a single category, everything from Chapter One on annuals & biennials to Chapters Ten on vines and ground covers. In between are chapters on roses, shrubs, trees, lawns, etc., even houseplants. Then it gets better. Each of those chapters is organized month by month. That’s right. No more excuses or confusion. Now you can turn the page on your calendar and then the page in your book, to find out exactly what you should be doing for your plants during that particular month in this particular region.

Believe it or not, there is yet another layer of organization. For each plant group and each month, you’ll find the following headings: Planning, Planting, Care, Watering, Fertilizing, Grooming, and Problems. I suspect that the last topic, “Problems”, is needed the least, if readers actually follow all this customized advice as given. Then there are the final pages listing garden resources on the web, public gardens, a bibliography and more, including a “Meet the Authors” page. (Robson and Pfeiffer have truly impressive credentials.) If you have any gardeners on your Christmas list, including yourself, buy this book. I got mine at the Pacific Northwest Shop in Tacoma's Proctor business district, but it's widely available. Just think how nice it will be to pour a up of coffee on a cold winter day and spend some time looking at all those gorgeous garden pictures, while vowing to keep the yard up perfectly in 2009. Now remember to start the dryer and don’t let any dust gather on your Martha Stewart Living magazine sitting on the coffee table, but do take time to read, enjoy and put to use, this innovative gardening book. You may not have your entire life perfectly organized, but you CAN be a perfectly organized gardener. They made it easy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Confessions of the Scantily Scandinavian

I never claimed to be Norwegian. In fact, when my friend Chris started campaigning to get me to join the Daughters of Norway I protested.

“But Chris,” I said, hating to disappoint her, “ I’m not Norwegian.”

“It doesn’t matter! You’re part Danish and your husband is half Danish, so you’re more than qualified to join” she said. “Look at me. I’m Swedish!” It’s true that being strictly Norwegian isn’t strictly required. Next I heard (again) about all of the organization’s strong points: wonderful people, a century-long legacy, only one meeting per month, great programs, many fun activities, and all of it involving plenty of scrumptious Scandinavian desserts. That did it. Chris doesn’t lie. Now I’m an officer in the largest Daughters of Norway lodge in the United States, Embla No. 2, in Tacoma, Washington, and I love it. How did this happen?

I never claimed to be Norwegian, and to tell the truth, I'm only one-eighth Danish. But now, not only do I feel accepted, it’s scary how much I’m starting to feel Norwegian. Strangely enough, I learned Hardanger Embroidery years ago, and have always knitted Scandinavian patterns. I love snow, fish, and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 16. I bake beautiful butter cookies. I even felt my heart rate quicken when I saw my Danish family name on genealogy websites as being also found in Norway. Those Vikings did get around. Despite my mostly English heritage, with equal parts of German and Danish thrown in, I can tell I’m becoming more Scandinavian all the time. Now I can’t wait to celebrate Christmas Scandinavian style.

Oh I know… it isn’t even Thanksgiving and I’m talking about Christmas. You’re already cringing when you go into stores where the Christmas cards, candy, and commercialism showed up magically the morning after Halloween. That’s not the kind of Christmas I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind with real evergreens, warm wool sweaters, home baked goodies, fiddle music, singing, wheat weavings, gifts carved of wood or crafted from silver: a more natural and simple Christmas. If you’d like to treat yourself to some of that and experience the holidays in a whole new way, take in one of the Puget Sound region’s many delightful Scandinavian festivals. Here are some good choices and remember, EVERYONE is welcome:

Thursday Nov. 13- Scandinavian Night (food demos, shopping) at the Garfield Book Company next to Pacific Lutheran University

Sat. Nov. 15-Scandinavian Fair at the Hampton Inn, Bellingham WA 10 AM-4 PM

Sat. Nov. 22- Yule Boutique, Pacific Lutheran University, Olson Auditorium

Sat. Nov. 22 and Sun. Nov. 23- Yulefest at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle

Lately we’ve had plenty of bad news. Maybe you aren’t in the mood for holidays. Leave that cynicism behind and discover what warm hearts came from cold climates. It’s fun to be Scandinavian, even in scant amounts, or just your imagination.