I grew up with dachshunds--Weiner, Fritz, Willy and Hans. Although my mother denied this, one of them was usually sleeping with me, tunneling under the covers for maximum warmth. When the time came for us to get a dog for our family, the choice was obvious. We found a little of standard size pups. and traveled to the Quakertown, PA area to check them out. The puppies were in an enclosure in the breeder's living room. As I approached them, all but one ran to the other side. I picked the remaining one up and he nestled in the crook of my neck. Sold. We named him Scrapple, after the breakfast meat popular in the Dutch country around Philadelphia.
The kids were ecstatic and spoiled him rotten. I was in between jobs at first and spent lots of time playing with him on the floor. As Scrapple grew, he enjoyed roaming the back yard and woods, but always showed up for dinner. He discovered a warm spot on the living room floor above the holding tank for our oil heat system and napped there. When we put up the Christmas tree, it was as if we had done it just for him and he curled up underneath. When packages or even birthday cards arrived from my parents, he went nuts sniffing them. One winter he came up the driveway proudly carrying an entire deer spine, head held high to compensate for his short little legs (we got him to drop it be offering a piece of lunch meat). Once, he leaped onto a dining room chair and then the table to nibble a cookie on the roof of a handmade gingerbread house. He was a part of our family for 15 happy years.
Then came Oskar. He looked like Scrapple but had an entirely different personality. Full of energy, he was also very destructive as a puppy, chewing on shoes, neckties, and the cotton dhurrie rug under the kitchen table. He loved to run around and around the center "core" of the house. When we moved to a new home, Oskar would wait until we were getting ready for bed and went to the furthest corner of the house. Then he would run at warp speed into our room and pounce on the end of the bed. Dachshunds generally don't do tricks and he was no different. When one of us threw a tennis ball down the yard, he'd chase it but never bring it back. We were lucky to have him for 15 years.
Now we have Tobler (named after the Swiss candy bar because of his chocolate-colored coat). Toby is a real mama's boy and follows me all over the house and yard. Like all dachshunds, he loves warmth and always seeks out a patch of sun on carpet for his morning nap. Because he has Cushing's disease (a malfunction of the adrenal glands), Toby must take daily medications and is constantly hungry. It's a constant negotiation for treats and snacks like baby carrots or refried beans spread on a lick-pad. He plays with only two toys: a mangy-looking three-legged donkey and an even mangier pink platypus, also missing a leg. I bought him a fluffy white bed that he ignored for months, finally deigning to just sleep next to it. After a long time, he finally got in it. At ten years old, it's an effort for him to jump up on the couch or bed, so we make it easier for Toby by putting a soft wedge Andy bought for me when I was recovering from back surgery next to the couch or ottoman at the end of the bed. Now Toby is able climb up with ease. Sometimes, we wake up with Toby snuggled between us at the head of the bed, happy as can be. It's a dog's life and we love living it with him.
When Andy and I moved to Texas nearly a decade ago, our primary responsibility was taking care of three-month-old Noah Paul. Hannah had a few weeks before she had to return to work at AT&T, so we were able to ease into his routines and get to know him. He was an easy baby and at that fun age where he smiled and laughed but didn't go anywhere by himself. We had temporarily moved in with Hannah, Reagan and Lena Rose, who was three years old. Our days were filled with bottle feedings, baths on the kitchen island, naps and playtimes. We got Lena to preschool and picked her up at the end of the day.
A year-and-a-half later, we bought a house nearby and continued taking care of Noah each day, arriving just as Mom and Dad took off for work. It was great fun to watch him grow and turn into a mischievous toddler. Now he's nine and life has changed dramatically. Several days a week, he's dropped off at our house for breakfast and then to school so his parents can get Lena to her bus and get to work. I pick him up at the end of the school day, give him a snack (or two) and wait for his dad to pick him up for soccer or Tae Kwon Do.
On Wednesday, I pick up Noah and his friend Theo and they have math tutoring at our house. On Thursday night, he usually stays at our house because his mom has an evening obligation and overnight stay. Noah is the perfect houseguest, in bed by nine and up for breakfast (cheese omelet, fruit, toast and juice) at seven. We often pick Lena up from volleyball practice at her school or get her from the bus, as well as getting her to her club volleyball practice. Occasionally, we need to get our oldest grandson Booker to or from his high school when his parent's work schedule is complicated.
Then there's the crowded calendar of soccer matches, orchestra concerts, volleyball games and tournaments, Tae Kwon Do belt tests and most recently, a school play in which Booker played a starring role. We are there for almost all of these events and enjoy every minute. I often get the kids to a dentist or orthodontist appointment which are always scheduled when parents cannot take them.
It's all going by so fast. Next year, Lena will be a freshman in high school, Booker a junior and Noah in his last year of elementary school. We enjoy the time we spend with them, even though the older ones are usually buried in their phones and not in the mood for conversation. Our daughters and sons-in-law often thank us for making it possible for them to fulfill their work and other obligations, something we are happy to do, as it means time with our grandchildren.
During the pandemic, I posted this recipe. Recently, I made it again and changed some of the ingredients, as well as simplifying the process. I think it's a winner and hope you'll try it.
Pork and Poblano Stew
1 1/2 -2 pounds of pork loin, fat and/or silver skin removed and cut into 1" cubes
4 fresh poblano peppers
2-3 T. olive oil
3 large onions
6 cloves of garlic, with papery skins removed
4 Roma tomatoes
1 T. cumin
1 T. chili powder
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1 32-oz. container of chicken or vegetable broth
1 16-oz. can of petite diced tomatoes
1 can of diced mild green chiles
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Coat a large baking sheet with cooking spray. Cut the poblanos in half lengthwise and remove seeds and ribs. Cut top and bottom off each onion, removing the skins. Cut in half and cut each half in thirds. Cut the tomatoes in half lengthwise. Remove papery skins from the tomatillos and remove the small cores. Cut in half. Arrange all the vegetables, including the garlic, cut side down on the baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Bake for 30-40 minutes. This process eliminates having to char the peppers.
When cool enough to handle, slide the skins off the tomatoes and poblanos. Place all the vegetables except the poblanos in a blender and process until smooth, adding a little chicken broth. Pour mixture into a Dutch oven or large pot. Then add the seasonings, rest of the broth, canned tomatoes and green chiles. Add the poblano peppers, which have been cut into 1-inch pieces. Mix together and bring to a simmer. Add the pork cubes.
Simmer covered either on the stovetop or in a 325 degree oven for about two hours, or until the pork is fork-tender. If the stew seems too liquid, remove the top to let the sauce reduce. If it's too thick, add a little more chicken broth. Taste frequently and adjust seasonings.
Serve over rice, steamed new potatoes or a square of cornbread. I like to put a dollop of sour cream on top, especially it it's too spicy for your taste. Serves at least four.
Note: Some poblano peppers can be fairly spicy, but you can't tell from looking at them!
Texas has had record-breaking triple-digit heat for weeks this summer. Too hot to do anything outside, I looked for something to occupy my time and hit upon re-doing our family photo albums. I started by ordering four magnetic-page photo albums from Amazon and bought a small label maker. Taking over one end of the kitchen table, I moved a lamp there for better lighting and assembled tape, scissors, Post-it notes for temporary labels and pens.
I moved the old albums from my office and grabbed a few envelopes of other photos from the file cabinet near my desk. I decided to start with my own personal history, beginning with my birth and ending just before Andy and I became engaged. One thing that has always been precious to me was a telegram announcing my birth that my dad sent his brother Jim, who was serving with the Army in Germany during World War II, so that went into the first album along with my birth certificate. My grandfather and uncle were in the photography business, so there were lots of photos of baby me to sort through, including many duplicates. Some of the older photos had been mounted on cardboard, so it took a few moments in the microwave to loosen the glue and peel away the photo. I trimmed many of them to better fit the pages as I went along. Realizing what lay ahead, I ordered four more albums from Amazon. I kept a trash bag by my side on the floor and tossed old albums as I removed photos, as well as trimmings, duplicates, photos that were no longer meaningful and out-of-focus shots.
Then I delved into the Baehren family history. My Aunt Jean (now 93) had given me a large envelope of family photos years before and I arranged those in chronological order and put them in an album. Then I tackled Andy's family history. Once again, I had a fat envelope of photos dating back to the days before his parents married in Poland. I was helped by some research his niece Monique had done about the family, including photos of places they had lived.
Our wedding album from 1969 had fallen apart, so I removed all the photos, discarding a few that were not especially meaningful and trimming the edges so I could get two on a page. There were a few photos from our early days in Denver, but then it was onto photos of our three kids, who arrived from 1974 to 1977. These included baby pictures, photos of Christmas, Easter and Halloween, trips to the family cottage at Clear Lake, Indiana and to Toledo, where my parents lived. As the kids got older, there were many shots of sports, school photos. vacations, and family events.
I had photos of most of the places we had lived during out 53-year marriage and others from family parties, like my parent's 50th wedding anniversary and my mom's 80th birthday parties. Then I started on photos of our grandchildren. As times changed, most of my photos became digital and I may print some of my favorites out to include. When the albums were mostly complete, I printed out labels to identify people and places that may not be known to people looking at these in the future.
Throughout this project, which has taken many weeks, I found myself wishing I could still talk to some of the people in the photos to ask them questions about their lives. One thing I still need to do it are timelines for the older albums, including information my brother David has entered into Ancestry.com. I also had some letters from my dad (who was a great letter writer) with a lot of family history, which was also helpful. I'm really doing this project for our children and grandchildren, so that they can someday appreciate the lives of those who came before.
Well, it's August in Texas now. Except it's felt like August since June. Each day, I log onto the Weather Channel website to see what misery awaits us. We've been in the mid triple digits for weeks, with almost no rain. What does this mean on a daily basis? I do anything that involves leaving the house first thing in the morning. Otherwise, one could get heatstroke in the few moments it takes to load up the car with groceries, return the cart and get back in the car, which has now reached an extremely high temperature. Then I go home to an oven-like garage and remove said groceries from the trunk and waltz them into the house as quickly as possible.
Our pool looks lovely, but it's much too hot to swim, especially during the day. Even after the sun goes down, the outdoor temps are near one hundred degrees. We must add water to the pool periodically due to evaporation so that the new pump functions properly. The pool deck is incredibly hot and I worry about the kids burning their feet. I must soak my pool planters once a day, either first thing in the morning or after dark. They may not survive the next couple weeks. Sitting on the patio with a book and a cool drink is not happening, as the west-facing side of the house gets the fierce afternoon sun. Same for using the gas grill to cook dinner.
Our dachshund Toby misses his daily walk. He stares at me with sad eyes every evening because he doesn't understand. Toby is very smart and immediately pricks up his ears when he hears the word "go" or "walk". Even if we dared to go out, the sidewalks retain heat and could burn his toe pads. He goes out into the back yard to do his business but doesn't stay long. Occasionally, we take him for a ride in the car so he can see the outside world.
The kids start school next week and I've worried about the state of air conditioning in their schools and buses. It will be way too hot for elementary age children to go out to recess and touch playground equipment. I cringe when I see roofers up on houses, guys doing landscaping or working construction. There seems to be no relief in sight right now, so we'll just have to stay inside in the AC and wait for October.
When we moved to the Philadelphia area many years ago, I was often awakened by the riotous chirping and tweeting of birds in the trees behind our home. Our house backed up to the woods and we would often see a family of deer cross the lawn at dusk. Squirrels were plentiful and they used to torture our dachshund Scrapple by sitting on the deck railing and flicking their tails. One of us would let him out the back door and he would fly down the hill, not realizing that the squirrels had gone up the closest tree.
I didn't really expect to see much wildlife at our home in Texas. An eight-foot surrounds our backyard, so I figured nothing would get in. Boy, was I wrong. First, a squirrel came in through the dog door, resulting in a frantic chase around the house until he left through the front door. A covey of mallards went for a swim in our pool. Andy spotted a possum lurking by the fence one evening (they eat ticks, so that's a plus) and a young bobcat who quickly left the premises. Coyotes are common here and people are warned about the threat to small dogs.
Another squirrel, this one large and clever, chewed an opening in a small metal grate under the eave and got into the attic. It chewed a big hole in the aluminum duct that connects to the dryer. While the contractor was working, the mischievous rodent came down the pull-down attic stairs and waited under our bed. As I was preparing to retire for the night, our dachshund Toby suddenly stood at attention at the end of the bed and focused intently on the floor. The furry intruder ran out from under the bed and ran around the house until we could chase him out with a broom. Not what I needed at 9:30 p.m.
One morning, I got up and peered out the back door to take a look at my perennial garden and saw what I first though was a feral cat. sitting among the plants. Then I took a closer look and saw its pointed ears, a characteristic of bobcats. I opened the door a crack and it took off, letting me see its ringed tail. While it's a little unnerving to see a wild animal so close to the house, I actually think it's more afraid of us than the other way round.
My birdfeeder often attracts a variety of birds, including blue jays, robins and other species I'm unfamiliar with. I often see a mockingbird (the state bird of Texas) perched on the vent of our neighbor's house, singing its little heart out for long periods of time. Recently, a pair of what I think are Rose-breasted Grosbeck have built a nest under our patio cover. If I'm far enough from the nest, I can see them, but if I get too close, they take off and wheel through the sky above our yard, cheeping noisily until I go inside. I'll take birds over anything with fur as a guest in our house and yard!
Growing up in Toledo, OH, I had no exposure to Mexican food. That all changed in my early 20s when I became a member of Roadshow Entertainers, a group made up of two doctors and two or three women. We played public and special events, as well as private parties with a repertoire of pop, folk and foreign language music. It was great fun. Dr. Fidenzio (Phil) insisted that we join him for dinner at Loma Linda, a tiny Mexican joint out by Toledo Express Airport. Phil ordered sampler plates (which back then were glazed pottery) for all of us and circled the table merrily dosing our food with salsa, some of which was green, with a suspicious oily black surface. I was in love.
In the year before Andy and I got married, Loma Linda was one of our crowd's favorite haunts. Prior to getting a table, you were usually packed into the waiting area enjoying margaritas and nachos topped with a slice of jalapeno. As a result of waiting for an hour or so, we would be fairly sloshed by the time we got a table. My family started going there, although my pediatrician father noted that the guacamole looked like something he'd seen in a diaper. My brothers would only order tacos, but we enjoyed exploring the menu.
Andy and I moved from Toledo to Denver, where we found some great Mexican places, including the Chili Pepper, which overlooked Bronco Stadium and the Riviera, kind of a dive with pool tables in the back. Later, it was Philadelphia and Delaware, where the choices were limited, although there were a few places we enjoyed. When we visited family in Toledo, we always made a pilgrimage to Loma's so our kids could try what we had been talking about for years. The owners decided to tear down the original restaurant and build a big new one. We purchased little brass plaques with our names and those of or friends that would be displayed in the lobby of the new place.
In 2014, I retired and we moved to the suburbs of Dallas to be closer to our two daughters and our grandchildren. Voila! There were Mexican restaurants everywhere, including about a dozen (not including Taco Bell) in our small town of Rowlett. We quickly learned where the best ones were, including our favorite, a family-run place called Arborledas. Andy loves the chile relleno, stuffed with meat or cheese, as well as carnitas, pork slow-cooked until it falls apart. We often make Mexican food at home like chicken or beef enchiladas or quesadillas. Our three grandchildren, all born here, were raised on nachos, refried beans and tacos.
Note: My son-in-law Reagan says I'm living in the wrong state because I hate cilantro (Julia Child hated it, too) which is ubiquitous in Mexican dishes. I ask for no cilantro on my food, but usually end up picking it out of the pico de gallo (a mix of chopped tomatoes, onion, cilanto and jalapeno).
I grew up on a quiet street in Ottawa Hills, a village surrounded by the City of Toledo, Ohio. Orchard Road was mainly populated by families, so there were always kids riding their bikes and playing jacks on the sidewalk. Our two-story home had a neighbor on each side. On the corner was a single mom with two teenage boys named Ellen (I always thought that's where my middle name came from until my other advised me otherwise). To the right of our house lived an older couple whose last name was Fisher.
Mrs. Fisher (I don't think we ever knew her first name) had glow-in-the-dark bleached blond hair and wore cotton house dresses and slippers all day long, usually with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. They didn't have children or grandchildren and I never saw any visitors there. Once in a while, she would invite us kids over to her kitchen and give us Tom Collins mix (without alcohol) in paper cups. Mother put a stop to that, deeming it kind of suspicious.
Frank was a balding man who was consumed by attaining perfection on his back and front lawns. He would appear on the front lawn wearing a pith helmet, sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts, as well as dark socks and sandals. Us kids would laugh hysterically when we spotted him from our window. Frank would survey the lawn and meticulously pull any weeds he might discover. His driveway consisted of two cement strips with grass in the middle. Frank apparently hated it when delivery trucks or visitors parked in the driveway, possibly dripping oil or other fluids on his carefully maintained lawn. He painted a small sawhorse silver, put a small "NO PARKING" plate on it and placed it over the two cement strips, hoping to discourage possible offenders. In our backyard, there was a large tree. In the fall, it would drop its leaves on the ground, including on Frank's yard. He would rake the leaves into a basket and dump them in our yard since they came from our tree. This made my mother crazy.
One night, my mom Barbara, who was a generally quiet and modest person not given to displays of anger, waited until very late and crept over to the Fisher's driveway. She grabbed the aforementioned silver sawhorse, plopped it in her station wagon and drove it to the nearby University of Toledo campus, where she deposited it in a parking lot. The following Halloween, she actually egged Frank's house from a second-story window, amazing us with her throwing arm and daring.
I grew up and left home. As far as I know, my mom never again pulled these pranks on anyone else. The Fishers moved away, never to be heard from again.
A few weeks ago, I saw a notice at the Rowlett library advertising a writing contest with the theme of "Into the Unknown." I thought why not and submitted this short essay. Amazingly, I placed first in the Short Work division and received a cash prize as well as a certificate from the City of Rowlett. It's a somewhat longer than my usual posts, but I hope you'll enjoy it.
Into My Personal Unknown
This is not about space travel, a cure for cancer, driverless vehicles, or artificial intelligence. Instead, it is a very personal essay about the great unknown that lies ahead for every human being. I will be 78 years old in a few short months and nearly every day brings a reminder that I am getting closer to the end. I say this not with sadness or melancholy, but with a sense of curiosity about my future.
Recently I have been reminded of the fragility of human life, especially for those in my wider circle of friends and family. The young father taken from my second cousin and her sons by an incurable brain tumor, the sudden death of my childhood friend’s husband and my brother-in-law’s long, complicated, near-fatal illness in just the last month have all served as a wakeup call that the expected length of our existence on earth is not a given. Grief envelops me as I contemplate these events and the deaths of others precious to me, particularly my younger brother, dead at 54 from pancreatic cancer.
My father and mother passed away at 84 and 91, respectively. Death at their ages was not unusual or unexpected, but I find myself missing them terribly some days. I long to call my mom and fill her in about her three great-grandchildren. I miss conversations with my dad, who was full of wisdom. One day long ago, when I said I wished I could close my eyes and my three children would be out of diapers, he said, “Don’t ever do that, because when you open them, they’ll be getting dressed for the prom.”
My closest friends are scattered around the country. Each of these women are now widows, carving out new lives and navigating their senior years without a spouse. I have been lucky in that respect. My husband and I have been married more than five decades and while I hope with all my heart that he will be with me for a long time, I sometimes find myself wondering if I would cope as well as my widowed friends. I have always been independent and self-sufficient, so there’s that.
That brings up another subject. If I die first, will my husband be able to cope on his own? Neither of us want to burden our children with care responsibilities. We had a taste of that last summer when I was recovering from surgery and my husband suffered from painful back problems at the same time. Thankfully, our son was able to stay with us and take over for a few weeks. But when staying in our home becomes difficult, what will we do next? Both of us are in decent health but we are very much aware that a heart attack, stroke, or bad fall could upend our lives.
I try to stay as active as possible, taking care of the house and our dog. I read voraciously both online and in print and love to garden. Each day, I complete the New York Times crossword puzzle and play Wordle (though not always successfully). We support our busy daughters and their families by being available for school drop off and pick up when needed and transport kids back and forth to sports and other activities. Sometimes, I wonder how much longer driving a car will be a possibility for me. I have already stopped driving at night because oncoming headlights make it hard to see and I have trouble judging curbs and turns in the dark.
Often, I cannot remember a word or name that used to come to mind easily. I think that some of this may have been caused by a major back surgery five years ago with 11 hours under anesthesia, but it happens more frequently than I would like as I age. I had a long career as a writer, so this is fairly upsetting to me.
You might be getting a bit depressed reading my words so far but take heart. I have had a satisfying life, a long and happy marriage, a fulfilling career, and the chance to raise three terrific human beings. My grandchildren are a constant joy and I take every opportunity to connect with them. I bake cupcakes for birthday parties, attend every concert, cheer at each athletic contest, and rejoice in their achievements. The two older ones are buried in their phones, of course, but my youngest still loves to sleep over and play games with grandma. I hope I am around long enough to see each of them graduate from high school and maybe college. I may not get to attend weddings or hold great-grandchildren, but you never know.
I always expected to live a long time. My four grandparents were an important presence in my young life. I treasure what my maternal grandmother taught me about sewing and how my gentle grandfather showed me how things grow. My paternal grandpa and grandma taught me something about business. Two of them nearly made it to their 100th birthday. I hope that I can be that important in the lives of my grandkids as they grow to adulthood.
What will my grandchildren remember about me when I am no longer here? I hope that they will inherit my love of music, words, writing, and reading. Perhaps they will learn to enjoy cooking and baking as much as I do. I want them to honor their parents and remember all they have done on their behalf.
What do I wish for them? I hope they have lifelong friends they can count on. I want them to travel the world and know not everyone is just like them. More importantly, I hope they will be kind to others and generous with their time and money as they grow older. May they fall in love many times, have their hearts broken once or twice, but eventually find their soulmate and have children as wonderful as they are.
No one knows when life’s journey on earth will end and whether there will be a new one in the great beyond, perhaps accompanied by treasured family and friends. I want to be reunited with my three dachshunds and have as much chocolate as I desire--not kidding about this. I have had a rewarding life and continue to treasure each day as it comes, even as the end draws near.
A few weeks ago, I went on a solo trip to St. Louis, Missouri to visit a friend. Our relationship is a little difficult to explain, but here goes. A couple years ago, my son-in-law Reagan, who was adopted, located his birth mother Clarita who lives in St. Louis as do his brother and sister (another sister lives in Chicago.) Last fall, she and her sister-in-law Michele came to Texas for a visit and we had a great time together. Clarita invited me for a visit and off I went.
The two ladies had all kinds of things planned for my visit. First we went to historic Main Steet in St. Charles, MO where there were many shops and restaurants, including Siostra, a Polish pottery store that had everything you could imagine. I bought a cruet for olive oil for my husband. We had lunch outdoors at a barbeque place called Salt + Smoke, where I tried a local favorite, toasted ravioli (which exploded its pimento cheese filling when I took a bite). On other days, we went to Yayas, a European bistro with a delightful menu, and a little Greek place. A visit to the St. Louis Botanical Garden was both a history lesson and a tour of the gorgeous flower beds, with trees in full bloom. We also went to the Butterfly House, a glass-enclosed building with a tropical environment for the 1,000 types of butterflies from many different countries that flew around us.
Another day took us a short distance to Kimmswick, a historic river town that had many shops in the original buildings of the town. We enjoyed a lazy lunch at The Blue Owl, a wood-paneled down-home eatery that served Levee High Apple Pie, a towering dessert with a domed top crust, and had fun shopping at Mississippi Mud, where we each bought something fun.
Clarita and I had a brief visit with Reagan's sister Susie, her husband Deet and their two young daughters. Michele fixed an elegant dinner and I had a chance to meet John, her husband. Dessert was a St. Louis tradition, gooey butter cake we purchased from Gooey Louie's. It's sort like a cross between a brownie and a cake, very rich and decadent. I later got to meet her husband John and we enjoyed a long conversation.
On my final day in St. Louis, we attended a 16th birthday party at the home of Reagan's brother Dan and his partner Monika. The birthday girl was her daughter Sophie. I got to meet her brother Pascal and Dan's daughter Hannah. It was great to put names with the faces Hannah and Reagan had described to me. Then I was off to the airport to fly home. It was a great trip, with lots of time with Clarita and Michele. We vowed to get together again very soon.
I'm Chris Barabasz, retired from a 35-year career managing communications for health care development (that's fundraising for you civilians). I'm a wife, mother, grandmother and freelance writer. My husband Andy and I moved from Delaware to Texas to be closer to our daughters and three adorable grandchildren.