Out in the Cold

The boy keeps coming back to my mind these past few days. I want to do something, but I don’t know what.

My sister does what she can, when she can. He lives next door to her. His mom is dead and he lives with his half-sister. I guess she’s his legal guardian now. And his situation has been the same for at least the three years my sister has lived in her house. I’ve been aware of it. I think it just only really hit me when I was there to watch it happen.

My sister and I have started having movie nights. We pick out a chick-flick and put comfy clothes on and get together to watch. We were at her house on Thursday evening and the DVD hadn’t progressed past the previews when the doorbell rang. I assumed it was one of my nephews’ friends. And when my sister opened the door, I was only vaguely paying attention to her conversation with the visitor until I heard her ask him if he was hungry. He said he was.

As she came up the stairs from her entryway, I saw a tall young man of about 14 or 15 years coming up behind her. She introduced him to me and I recognized his name. I knew immediately that he was the boy from next door.

“How long have you been outside,” she asked him.

“Only about an hour,” he said.

“What happened this time,” my sister asked?

“She told me I had to get out because they were leaving,” he said.

“Did the rest of them have dinner?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “There wasn’t any when I came home and then she told me I had to go outside. I did my homework, but I was getting cold and they’re not back yet.”

It was long dark outside by this time. And it’s been warm-jacket weather for a couple of weeks, especially after the sun goes down. As I understand it, this is a regular occurrence. Before a year or so ago, the boy’s sister lived there too and my sister often opened her home and her kitchen to both of the kids. Their guardian would lock them out of the house for hours and leave them to fend for themselves, without food, or money, or anyone to look over them. The boy’s sister lives somewhere else now, but for some reason, he still lives with his guardian, her significant other and their young children.

My sister pulled her leftover homemade chicken pot pie out of the refrigerator and dished up a plate for the boy. After it had been reheated, he gladly accepted it and ate it all. When he was finished, he went down to the lower level of the house to hang out with my nephews for a while. Not long afterwards, he called up the stairs to my sister to thank her and to let her know he was leaving.

“Do you know if they’re back home so you can go inside again,” she asked?

“I think they probably are,” he said. He thanked her again and went out the door. He didn’t come back.

A year or so ago, during the winter months, another neighbor called Child Protective Services after noticing that the boy and his sister had been locked out of their home, multiple times, for hours at a time while their guardian was gone off to who-knows-where. The authorities said that as long as the temperature was above freezing, they couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) take any action.

I don’t know how the boy’s guardian continues to get away with locking the boy out of the house and leaving him for indefinite periods of time. Maybe he’s not in any real danger, but who locks their kid out of the house, without food, in the cold and makes him wait, not knowing for how long? They live in a nice middle-class neighborhood. Somehow that makes it seem worse.

The day after our movie night, I couldn’t stop thinking about the boy. It made me angry and sad that he is treated as an outcast by his own family. My sister does her best to do what she can for him, but it’s just not possible for her to be there for him at all times. I texted her on Friday and told her that I was so very bothered by the boy’s situation.

“Join the club,” was her reply. “I’m afraid to call Social Services  in case the guardian finds out and then forbids him to come here, and then he is truly out in the cold.”

I asked if there was anything I could do for him.

“What would you do… honestly,” she asked?

I knew what she was getting at. There was nothing I could think to do for him without his guardian knowing, without her getting angry because someone else was butting in to her business.

It’s not right. And I wish I knew what to do.

Messin’ Up the Kitchen

You know what I’m really bad at? Keeping a regular schedule. Life would probably be so much easier if I just scheduled regular times in the week to do household chores, plan a menu and go to the grocery store, or check in with my parents. I don’t check in on my parents often enough. And how hard could this possibly be? They live on the next block! But I think there’s some flaw in my genetic makeup that contributes to my habit of flying by the seat of my pants. I can’t tell you how many times there will be a thought in the back of my mind to get something taken care of , but I simply choose to ignore it because … I don’t know … because I’m either mentally or physically exhausted or maybe because I’m just that lazy. The flip side of this problem, though, is that I work well under pressure. I get things done best when there’s a sense of urgency.

I have the best of intentions to change my ways. It just hasn’t happened yet. There’s always that sense of guilt that accompanies the knowledge that I’ve sort of dropped the ball again. And I always vow to do better from that point forward. There just don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to accomplish all the things that I wish I could.

And so what happened on Friday is so very typical for me.  I was at work when I received a text message from my sister saying that we should probably talk soon, and seriously about our parents. My mom’s ongoing health problems are simply not going to get better. She has bad days and not so bad days, but she never has really good days anymore. Getting a full breath of air is a thing of the past for her. And as a result, she is often dizzy, sick, and utterly fatigued. Running errands, keeping house and cooking can seem like such daunting tasks for her.

My sis and I made a quick agreement to get over to our parents’ house this weekend to help take some of the weight off Mom’s shoulders. I had a quiet weekend ahead anyway, what with the kids back to school again and Lucy Pie healing from her hip surgery. Normally Friday nights are my lazy nights. I usually read or watch a movie and then do chores over the weekend. But since I had just agreed to squeeze in extra activities, I tackled as much housework as I could so as to free up some hours on Saturday.

I was up early on Saturday morning with the Girly Pies. I took them out in the backyard first thing, then passed out meds and treats and filled their food dishes. I did a few more of my own chores then before showering and heading over to Mom and Dad’s house to do whatever was needed there. My sister arrived not long after me and we were able to pare down Mom’s to-do list pretty quickly.

When Mom asked Dad what he wanted for lunch, he asked what the options were. She informed him that there weren’t many. The cupboards were getting bare. I remembered then that I had really been slacking off on my resolution to cook more and make enough to share with my parents. Even cooking on a regular basis is sometimes just too much for my mom.

I ended up running to the local McDonald’s and picking up sandwiches for everyone. Yech! That was motivation for me. As soon as I got back home, I started planning a menu and making a grocery list. It was a dreary, rainy weekend anyway. If I was going to be stuck in the house because of the weather and a recuperating dog, I might as well cook. My parents were my main motivation, but this would benefit my own family as well. Try as I might, I just cannot seem to get into a good routine of cooking. If I manage a home-cooked meal two or three times a week, I’m lucky. So while I doubted I would soon turn over a new leaf and start cooking every night, (I’ve proven myself incapable time and again,) I knew I could do a whole buncha cooking all at once.

I broke out the favorite cookbooks, checked the freezer to see what I already had on hand (lots of ground beef and lots of chicken,) paged through the cookbooks to find the tried and true favorites and whipped out a list. (Go figure. Having a grocery lists makes the shopping so much easier and cheaper!)

I started last evening with the family favorite Sloppy Joe recipe. I made four pounds of this – some for Mom and Dad, some for us, and some for the freezer (at Kacey’s request.) Next I made a big pot of White Chicken Chili, again dividing it into three portions. This morning I made a couple of meat loaves and a big pot of traditional chili and some cornbread muffins. And if my enthusiasm holds out, later on today I’ll make a big pan of lasagna to split with Mom and Dad.

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Yeah, so these aren’t the healthiest of meals, but they’re home-cooked and can be frozen for later use, so that’s half the battle right there. I may have bad habits, but at least I’ve figured out how to capitalize on at least one of them. And we’ll be eating happy this week!

Trees and Roots and Colors

My sister is deeply drawn to our family roots. Not much has been formally recorded about our family history before now, and so she has taken it upon herself to reach back in time and uncover our story, little by little. She has been diligently working at it for many years now, tracking down details and dates, preserving photographs, making sure that those who come after us will know from where and from whom we come.

Every so often, my sister feels the need to touch base with our ancestry again. And sometimes she takes me along for the ride. Today was one of those days … a beautiful, golden fall day, perfect for traipsing around the old family stomping grounds just about an hour east in Wisconsin.

We stopped to see my mom’s childhood home…

Deer Park, Wisconsin

… and we swung by the place where Grandma and Grandpa lived a few years later. The house looks so different from the one in my childhood mind. There were people out in the yard, so we went a little further down the road and stood on the bridge that crosses over the Willow River just where Grandma and Grandpa’s yard came down to meet it.


Aunt Elaine still lives in the area. I asked Cori to swing by. I hadn’t been to Aunt Elaine’s house in years. When we found her place, it looked like someone was home. So we knocked on the door. Aunt Elaine was surprised to see us, and we apologized for popping in unannounced. She said we should feel free to do so anytime we liked. In fact, she’d prefer we come unannounced and then she wouldn’t feel obligated to clean house before we come! We talked a while and she told us about all the deer that come to her back yard and eat the apples that have fallen from the tree. She told us about the pheasants and their babies that wander through and the feral cats that come sit on her railing each morning and meow at the window, calling her to come feed them. We stayed a little while and then hugged goodbye and went on our way again.

Aunt Elaine’s barn in the distance…

Next, we wandered around, looking for a good spot to capture the fall colors. Small town Wisconsin offers beautiful scenery, but the rural highways don’t provide a lot of options for pulling over and snapping photos. But then… I saw a sign for a local lake with a picnic area. There had to be a place to park and wander around there, right?

There was!

Helloooo, Mr. Grass Hoppa!



Fall days like this are such a treat. As we headed back home again, my sis and I talked about the fact that we’d captured the window for beautiful fall days. First they tend to be too warm and too soon, they become to chilly. Today was just perfect!

Grandma’s Recipes

My sister and I were hanging out at her house Sunday evening, just gabbing, making fun, laughing and all that good kind of stuff that sisters do. She fed me a homemade ice cream sandwich, made with homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with not-so homemade ice cream and a good sprinkling of extra chocolate chips.

And I felt no guilt whatsoever eating all of that sugar and deliciousness, because it was delicious, and I had been to the gym two days in a row!

After I enjoyed my ice cream cookie sandwich, we sat at her table. Suddenly, she got up and walked away and just as quickly returned with a recipe box which she plopped in front of me. I opened it up and found…

Grandma’s recipes.

A big smile spread across my face and I dug in. And my grandma came flooding back in my mind. See, my grandma had a way with recipes. She didn’t just have recipes, she collected them. She clipped them and she copied them. She made notes on them where she made adjustments to the measurements or process. Many of the recipes had a handwritten note to remind Grandma that she’d made a particular dish or dessert for a birthday party or an open house.

Wherever possible, Grandma would make note of who the recipe had originated with and she would often write whether it was good, or VERY good. She was also sure to document if a recipe was similar to another recipe she already had in her possession, as I realized when I came across the recipe for Scotcheroos which included a note stating, “O’Henry Bars,” which were one of Grandma’s standards!

I remember the Sundays we’d spend at my grandparents’ house and I remember looking at her recipes back then too. Sometimes Grandma would ask me to copy a recipe or two for her. Obviously, she asked my cousins to do the same when they visited too. So many of the recipes were neatly printed in a child’s writing. I loved to look through Grandma’s recipes even when I was a kid. The cards held the names of people in my grandma’s life, people I didn’t know. I tried to picture them based on their names. What kind of cakes were made by a woman named Agnes? Just how good was Beulah’s white bread? Just how short was Shorty Neumann and where did he learn to make dill pickles?

My grandma was green before being green was the thing to be. She wrote her recipes on scraps of paper, recycled index cards that my aunt brought home from her office job, and even… bank deposit slips.

My sister had just one small box of Grandma’s recipes. It was just one of the many Grandma left behind when she died. By the time my grandma passed away, she had box upon box of recipes she’d transcribed and collected over the years. And when Grandma’s children divided her possessions among them, my mom was either lucky enough or smart enough to find herself in possession of the collection.

There wasn’t anything my grandma couldn’t cook or bake. We loved her stewed chicken and a particular salad she made just for us kids, with lettuce, apple slices and mandarin oranges. But if you take a look through all of those recipes, you’re not likely to find most of Grandma’s standards documented on an index card. And all of those boxes mostly contained recipes for desserts anyway!

Looking through Grandma’s recipes brought her back to me and brought me back to her kitchen, where I’d kneel on a chair and watch her knead bread dough or prepare her delectable cake doughnuts. Sometimes she’d be mixing up a batch of our favorite no-bake peanut butter balls, letting us kids help measure, mix and stir and then roll out the balls on a cookie sheet. Many times, she’d be cooking up a banana or chocolate pudding to pour in graham cracker pie crust. Grandma knew how much we loved her goodies and there was never a shortage when we went to visit; never a shortage of treats accompanying us on our ride back home again either. Grandma loved us well and in many ways, but we sure liked how she loved us up with her home-baked treats.

A Very T.V. Special Gift

Growing up, my siblings and I lived for television specials. You know the ones. Specials were television programs such as The Wizard of Oz and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. We were especially excited for the Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and A Charlie Brown Christmas.

They were called television specials because they were just that. Special. Before the VCR came along, you couldn’t watch a program any old time you wanted. You had to wait for a television network to decide to run a particular program and this typically happened once a year!

My siblings and I were giddy with excitement over the opportunity to see a t.v. special. We’d discuss it with great anticipation with our neighborhood friends. No one would be outside playing in the neighborhood on the night a special was on t.v. Everyone was inside, stationed solidly in front of a television.

Mom would time dinner to be sure we could finish eating before the special began. She might even allow us to skip kitchen clean-up duties in honor of the once-a-year program. Sometimes she would pop a batch of popcorn in the electric popper and pour it into her big stainless mixing bowl. The popcorn would have a nice un-healthy dose of butter and plenty of salt sprinkled over. We’d all gather around the popcorn bowl on the living room floor and hush each other in anticipation of the program beginning. We didn’t want to miss one word of dialogue or one song of a soundtrack. We always knew when Charlie Brown was about to begin. That’s when the Dolly Madison commercials would come on. It seems like the only time I saw those commercials was when there was a Charlie Brown special on t.v.

Once a special had begun, we glued ourselves to the television. We found the commercials to be an annoying interruption. (Some things never change.) And when the program was over, I always found myself feeling a heavy sense of disappointment that it would be another whole year before I could spend time with the movie characters again. I got lost in those specials and relived them over and over in my mind.

Some of my favorites from long ago are still around and can be easily found in the DVD section at many stores. Some of them are pretty much relegated to the past, being too politically incorrect for the general public these days. The Little Drummer Boy was one of these, although, with a little effort, I did find it on VHS years ago for my own kids.

One of my sister’s favorite specials was one that was run annually between 1972 and 1977. It was called The House Without a Christmas Tree. I had only a vague recollection of this movie when Cori began to reminisce about it one year when we were in the early parenthood stage of our lives. I remembered watching and enjoying the movie whenever it aired, but it didn’t have a lasting effect on me. For Cori, though, it was clearly one of those programs that was dear to her heart.

The movie centered on a young girl, Addie, whose father never quite recovered from the death of his wife at the time of Addie’s birth. A Christmas tree was a painful reminder of his wife, and so he never allowed one in the house, much to Addie’s despair. One December, Addie won a contest at school, the prize being a Christmas tree which she hauled home and erected in the living room with the hopes that her father would soften and allow the tree to stay. He did not, but eventually found it in his heart to allow Christmas back in his home that year.

My sister talked about this movie and how much she loved it. She talked about how sad she was that it never aired on television anymore. It wasn’t one of the selections available in any of the retail holiday movie sections and she lamented how much she wished she could see it again.

An idea began to form in my head. Online shopping was still a fairly new concept, at least to me, but it occurred to me that I might be able to find a copy of the movie online for Cori. It didn’t take long and I was ecstatic when I found it. I knew she was going to love it.

That Christmas Eve, while celebrating and unwrapping gifts with my extended family, it was Cori’s turn to open a gift. She selected the one I had bought for her. Tearing off the wrapping carefully, the movie she remembered so fondly appeared.

My sister is rarely speechless, but at that moment, she couldn’t seem to find words. She held the movie in one hand, the torn wrapping paper in the other. Her mouth fell open with disbelief as she looked at me, trying to form a complete sentence.

“How…. where … I can’t believe …,” she stammered, looking at me with wide eyes.

Finally, the words came. “Where did you find this? I’ve looked everywhere and have never seen a copy of it available for sale!”

I explained how I had searched for it online and had ordered a copy just for her. She seemed truly astounded that I had listened to her when she spoke of it, and that I had cared enough about her love for an old, low-budget movie to search for and purchase a copy for her. She absolutely, completely and totally loved it and over the years, it became tradition for Cori to watch the movie each Christmas season with her own daughter.

It wasn’t an expensive gift. It didn’t require a lot of effort. But it was something my sister never expected to receive in a million years. The   surprise and joy on her face was priceless and it was the first time I really knew what it felt like to give a gift truly from the heart. It was one of the best gifts I ever gave.

*Inspired by today’s NaBloPoMo prompt: What is your favorite gift you ever gave someone?

Life is Good – December 11, 2011

Best part of the past week?

Christmas shopping with my sister. Hands down.

My sister and I haven’t always liked each other as much as we do now. Growing up, we carried a healthy amount of sibling rivalry. When she moved out of the house to go to college, the ice finally started to melt. We grew closer when she got married, and even closer when she moved away and lived in Chicago for six years. Now she’s back home and I am happy to have her nearby again.

Cori and I went Christmas shopping together on Saturday. It’s not often that we manage to spend time together without kids, husbands and other family around. When we do, we have such fun!

I was planning to shop alone, but on a whim, called to see if she was free to join me. She has young boys and her life is very scheduled and busy, so I wasn’t getting my hopes up. I was thrilled when she said she could make it work!

The first stop on our shopping excursion was Fleet Farm. If you’re not familiar with Fleet Farm, it is a large store that sells hunting and fishing equipment, appliances, housewares, automotive goods, apparel, hardware, lawn and garden supplies, paint, pet supplies, sporting goods, tools and farm supplies.

Did you get that? Farm supplies! Fleet Farm is Mark’s kind of store, not mine. And certainly not my sister’s. But we had things to buy that could be purchased there, so we ventured in.

I actually find myself at Fleet Farm several times a year, when I get stuck going there with Mark. My sister? Apparently has not been in a Fleet Farm in years. And to be truthful, for anyone who loves to shop, there are things to be found at Fleet Farm. You just have to put up with some things. Let’s just say there is often good people-watching at Fleet Farm.

We wandered all over, through housewares and pet supplies, clothing and exercise equipment. Of course, we had to make our way through the holiday section that is erected in the middle of the store every year. While in the holiday section, we stumbled across a display of Christmas music and movies.

“Hey,” Cori exclaimed! “I wonder if they have Fred Claus. My boys love that movie!”

Fred Claus,” I asked?

“Yes, it’s hysterical! Haven’t you ever seen it,” she asked?

“No,” I laughed. I had a vague awareness of the movie but had never been motivated to see it. “Hey, isn’t Vince Vaughn in that?”

“Yes,” she said. “Hey, here it is! My boys are going to be so excited!”

“I love Vince Vaughn,” I said. But I wasn’t about to add the movie to my collection. Only certain movies make the holiday library in my house. A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, The Santa Clause (one and two!), Elf, The Polar Express, A Charlie Brown Christmas,  It’s a Wonderful Life and White Christmas. Fred Claus did not sound like it fit with my collection.

My sister had other ideas though.

“Here,” she stated, taking charge and tucking a copy of the movie in my shopping cart. You’re gonna love it.

Now, I didn’t remember saying I wanted the movie. I didn’t remember asking my sister to add to my purchases. But I looked at the price tag – $9.99. What the heck. And we were having fun and being silly. I could buy a little something for myself.

My sister is such a goofball. She does things like this. Doesn’t even ask if I want the movie. Just assumes I do because she says I will like it. Of course I could have taken the movie back out of my cart and put it back on the shelf, but she was so excited about it she was calling her husband to tell him she’d found the movie. I figured I’d just go with it.

We shopped for hours, picking out just the perfect this and just the cutest that. We contemplated potential gifts and talked and laughed and the time passed quickly. We finished our excursion at a pet store where we had to pick up some dog food for my mom’s dog. (Not a gift. Just a favor for Mom.) The store was packed with shoppers and their animals. There were so many people with puppies, all more than happy to let us pet their dogs and get all mushy over their cuteness. Oh it’s a good thing I have a small house and yard and limited patience or I’d have a house full of cuteness!

My sister and I parted ways in the late afternoon. I hadn’t finished my shopping by a long shot, but I’d put a good dent in it and had fun doing it. This morning, I sent Cori a text message thanking her for shopping with me and telling her I’d had such fun. She replied, saying she had just been expressing that same sentiment to her husband and she thanked me for asking her.

Today, I did chores around the house, and just when I was feeling ready to take a break, I found Jake flipping channels on the t.v.

“Why aren’t there any good Christmas movies on,” he asked?

“Hey,” I said. “Just wait a sec!”

I ran to find my new copy of Fred Claus and brought it to the living room where Jake was waiting expectantly. I held the movie up for him to see.

Fred Claus,” he asked?

“Yep. Fred Claus.

And so we watched it together. And you know what? It was funny! I have a new Christmas favorite in my collection.

Life is good!