All posts by Laurie Graves

I write about nature, food, the environment, home, family, community, and people.

A Sweet but Frugal Valentine’s Day

Keebler, eat your heart out
Keebler, eat your heart out

At the little house in the big woods, we love holidays. While it would be inaccurate to assert that we celebrate every single one, Clif and I certainly do what we can to bring mirth and merriment into our lives on many of those special days.

However, because of our green-bean ways and our modest budget, our celebrations are always frugal. With Valentine’s Day, it is no different.

To get us in the mood for this sweet holiday, I made some chocolate-covered graham crackers.  Yes, I know that I can buy  packaged chocolate-covered graham crackers at the store, but mine are so much better that all I can say is, Keebler, eat your heart out. (I use Ghiradelli chocolate and a name brand graham cracker.)

Tomorrow, before the blizzard—but let’s not talk about that—I’ll go to the store for smoked cheddar from Pineland Farms for a quiche I’m planning to make. I’ll also pick up  some kind of special nut, probably cashews, to go with drinks ahead of time. We’ll have homemade brownies for dessert.

While the blizzard swirls outside, I’ll set the table and light the candles. We’ll listen to music—probably some kind of alternative rock. When it comes to music, Clif and I are surprisingly and uncharacteristically hip. Afterwards, we’ll settle in the living room and watch either Strictly Ballroom or Room with a View or Enchanted April.

The whole meal, from drinks and nibbles to dessert will cost the two of us no more than $15. That comes to $7.50 each, about the price of a fast-food meal, but ever so much tastier. Not too bad, as my Yankee husband might say. In the end, holidays don’t have to be expensive to be fun. With every fête, Clif and I prove this point.

While Valentine’s Day has traditionally been for couples and school children, I like to extend it by sending a few cards to family and friends. There are many kinds of love, and all should be celebrated.

A very happy Valentine’s Day to all, and if you’re single, be sure to do something sweet (but frugal!) for yourself.

The photo I used for this years Valentine’s card. I froze my little fingers making that bird-seed heart in the backyard.
The photo I used for this years Valentine’s card. I froze my little fingers making that bird-seed heart in the backyard.

 

 

Book Review: Mrs. Appleyard’s Year

IMG_7685I follow a blog called Letters from a Hill Farm, and Nan, the author, writes a lot about the books she reads. Our tastes are fairly similar—we both love Miss Read—and when Nan suggests a book, I take note. Recently she recommended Mrs. Appleyard’s Year by Louise Andrews Kent, and as the title suggests, the book follows Mrs. Appleyard through the seasons—in  Massachusetts and on a farm in Vermont. I love books that do this, and immediately requested it through interlibrary loan, not paying much attention to when the book was written or anything else about it.

This inattention, along with the book’s unique voice, led to some merry confusion. In short, I thought I was reading a novel. Published in 1941, the book begins in January, and lists some of Mrs. Appleyard’s faults—impulsively buying antiques, “a fondness for looking up things in the dictionary during meals,” and telling the same story over and over.  But Mrs. Appleyard is philosophical about her faults. “Since she has had most of her defects for over half a century, she is well acquainted with them. Some of them, indeed, have become enjoyable simply because she has had them so long.”

With nary a plot in sight, next comes February, where Mrs. Appleyard notes she likes the month’s “uncertain temper.” The month brings illnesses that give the young Appleyards time to make homemade Valentines. In February, it is Mrs. Appleyard’s turn to host the Pinball and Scissors club. For this event, so much food is prepared that Mr. Appleyard compares the leftovers to the seven years of plenty in Biblical Egypt. Fortunately, Mr. Appleyard likes leftovers.

By now, I think I’ve made it quite clear that the book meanders, and this is true not only for the months but for time as well. Mrs. Appleyard’s Year moves between the present, when Mrs. Appleyard is in her fifties, and back to when her children were young. This book is so gently paced that it makes a Miss Read novel seem like a John le Carré story.

I almost gave up on Mrs. Appleyard’s Year, but then I came to March and “No matter how often she encounters this month, she doesn’t think she’ll live through it. Sometimes she doesn’t care whether she does.” And I was hooked. Anybody who felt that way about March—surely the longest and dreariest month of the year—deserved more of my time.

I also decided to do a little research about this book, and I discovered that Mrs. Appleyard’s Year really isn’t a novel at all. It’s more like a memoir, or semi-autobiographical fiction, told in third person and written in a wry, humorous tone that reminded me of James Thurber. Some of Kent’s descriptions were so funny that I laughed out loud, and when I read to Clif the episode of the revolving door at Christmas time, he laughed out loud, too.

I also found out that Kent’s pen name was Mrs. Appleyard, and she wrote cookbooks and food pieces for Vermont Life. Through interlibrary loan, I’ve already requested The Summer Kitchen. (Whatever would I do without interlibrary loan?)

Mrs. Appleyard’s Year is not great literature. There is no sex, violence, alcoholism, abuse, or dysfunction. The book is gentle and funny, yet well written and wise in its own way. While I certainly wouldn’t want to turn my back on darker literature—we need writers who examine humanity’s shadow side—I do wish there were contemporary writers like Louise Andrews Kent.

Readers, if you know of any, then please let me know.

A Creative Life

Lately I’ve been thinking about creativity and how it enriches and enhances everyday life. We can’t all become great artists. To do so requires a combination of talent, hard work, persistence, and—something we might hate to acknowledge—good luck. While chance might only favor the prepared mind, there is something to be said for being in the right place at the right time and having the right people pulling for you.

But I truly believe that most of us can live a creative life and that this is not the sole province of the enormously talented. As with many things, there is no one path to living a creative life, and vive la difference!

I feel extraordinarily lucky in knowing many, many people who live creative lives. In fact, I know so many that I really can’t list them all, but here are a few: John, a scrounge extraordinaire and a librarian who supplements his library’s tiny budget by scouring book sales and his town’s transfer station for books that he not only adds to the collection but also sells for additional income. There is Shari, who is so accomplished with knitting and needlework and who makes the loveliest pieces, often from scraps. There is Diane, a true green bean, who has made her old house snug and energy efficient. She also makes snappy jewelry from found objects.

I must add my son-in-law Mike who draws, paints, and takes pictures; my daughter Shannon who cooks the most wonderful meals; my daughter Dee and her keen intellect, which gives a creative edge to everything she does. My engineer friend Jim who can fix pretty much anything. My own husband, Clif, and his photographer’s eye, and  Farmer Kev, who grows food for so many people.

All right, I’ll stop. Apologies to friends and acquaintances who were left out. Kudos to all of you, especially those who do volunteer work. This, too, is a form of creativity that uses one of our most precious resources—time.

In my own life, I bake and cook, making pretty much all the bread that we eat.

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I’ve learned how to take pictures, something I never thought I’d be able to do. I’ve come late to photography, thus proving that even as you age, you can learn new things and expand what you do.

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And, of course, I write, five days a week, sometimes more, depending on what is happening. Writing is the center of my day, and without it, my life would feel out of whack. Words and story are definitely the thing for me.

By weaving creativity in with everyday life, we bring a spark that adds meaning to all that we do.  Creativity can also bring a much-needed attention to how we live. Can we create from things that would ordinarily be thrown out? Cook from scratch and thereby use less packaging? Scrounge useful items from the transfer station? Fix things when they are broken? In the end, a creative life is often a green life, and if there’s one thing we need people to do more, then it is to be as green as possible.

I’m going to end with a quotation from one of my favorite writers, Miss Read, who wrote stories about English village life. Here is her description of one of the characters—Mrs. Willet: “She can salt pork or beef, make jams, jellies, wines, and chutneys and pickles; she can bake pies…She makes rugs, curtains, and her own clothes. She can help a neighbour in childbirth…She is [a] good… gardener and sings in the choir…It is a creative life. There is something worthwhile to show for energy expended which engenders the desire to accomplish more. Small wonder that the Mrs. Willets of this world are happy, and deserve to be so.”

Small wonder, indeed.

Scenes from a Clean-Up

This is what the end of our driveway looked like yesterday afternoon.

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Naturally, it had to be cleared. Clif fetched Little Green and got to work.

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While Clif took care of the wall o’snow, I shoveled the various paths out back—much to the delight of the dog—as well as the steps and walkway out front. I also tackled the wall o’snow by the mailbox and cleared a space so that the mail carrier could deliver mail.

When we were done, I could appreciate all the beauty of this white stuff.

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Yet again, after the clean-up, we felt we had earned our snack of buttered popcorn. Clif and I settled on the couch in the living room, and the dog, of course, settled beside us. After the snack, I took a short nap and woke up refreshed, ready to go to a library meeting.

Oh, the goings-on at the little house in the big woods.

And the Snow it Snoweth Every Day

Our tunnel of a driveway
Our tunnel of a driveway

I might be exaggerating. It hasn’t snowed every day, but it’s starting to feel that way. Clif and I are beginning to wonder where in the world we are going to put more snow. Our driveway is a tunnel, and backing out, I’m more than likely to hit a snow bank.  Fortunately, snow is soft, which means no damage is done.

We did have a break on Friday, when friends came over for minestrone soup, cornbread, and strawberry bars. We had many things to discuss, but we did manage to slide in some book talk, which always perks me up.

We had another break on Saturday, and Clif and I just piled on the activities while the weather was good. In the morning, we went to Railroad Square for Cinema Explorations, a winter film series. (Clif and I are on the planning committee.) We saw On the Way to School, a delightful but thought-provoking film about the long journey some children must make to get to school. Children from Kenya, Argentina, Morocco, and India were featured, and they traveled many, many miles, some by foot, some by horse, and one boy was even pushed several miles in a wheel chair. Sometimes the way was dangerous—elephants in Kenya, treacherous terrain in Morocco—and these children received blessings from their parents to get to school safely. The French director Pascal Plisson has worked for National Geographic, and the film’s gorgeous cinematography reflects this.

My friend Margy Burns Knight—an author, teacher, and former Peace Corps volunteer—led a discussion after the film, and when the official discussion was over, it spilled into the parking lot and then to Grand Central Café, where we had pizza. Even though the subject is serious, the tone of On the Way to School is as light as a Mozart aria. Nevertheless, we spent as much time talking about the film as we did watching it. Despite the film’s light tone, it means business.

After the movie, Clif and I came home to celebrate Mike’s birthday. We are of the firm conviction that every birthday, anniversary, holiday—you name it—should be celebrated. Celebrations add spice to life, and they don’t have to be elaborate or expensive to be fun. Our celebrations are always simple and at home, with meals cooked from scratch and small presents. There’s nothing big or showy about our celebrations, and we thoroughly enjoy them.

Mike’s birthday celebration was no different, and we stretched it out as we always do with appetizers—roasted pistachios and chickpeas as well as popcorn; followed by the main meal, homemade pizza—I did cheat and buy the dough; and dessert—ice cream cake.

It was a good thing we celebrated Mike’s birthday on Saturday because on Sunday, more snow came, and here it is on Monday, snowing yet again.

It just doesn’t have enough sense to stop.

Busy Day, Busy Weekend

IMG_7626Today, friends are coming over for lunch, and yesterday I made a big batch of minestrone soup using lots of Farmer Kev’s vegetables: yellow and green beans, yellow summer squash, garlic, and carrots.  The soup is warming in my trusty Crock-Pot as I write. I’ll be making corn bread to go with it.

This Saturday, we will be going to Cinema Explorations, the winter film series Clif and I helped organise for Railroad Square Cinema. In the afternoon, Mike, Shannon, and the dogs will be coming over to the little house in the big woods to celebrate Mike’s birthday.

A busy but fun weekend that will certainly perk up this housebound family.

Sherlock and Ms. Watson

Dear little Ms. Watson
Dear little Ms. Watson

Yesterday’s post was rather heavy, so today I thought I would turn to a lighter subject: our cats—Sherlock and Ms. Watson. A few days ago it occurred to me that while I frequently write about the dog and include many photos of him, I seldom write about the cats. It seemed only fair, then, to devote some time to them.

I suppose I should just come clean and admit I am more of a dog person than a cat person. I don’t dislike cats—far from it—but somehow I’m just more attuned to dogs. However, because we feed the birds, we have a mouse house. Several years ago, we tried going without cats, and we had a mouse invasion. Oh, the little creatures were all over the place—even in my office—and while I have nothing against mice, I do want them to stay outside. So we have cats, and they are a very effective mouse deterrent.

Sherlock and Ms. Watson are litter mates. (Clif, a fan of the quirky detective, named them.) I got Sherlock and Ms. Watson as kittens from the Humane Society in Augusta. Neither has a tail, and, yes, the cats were born that way. We get a surprising number of questions about this. I hope we don’t look like the kind of people who would chop off the tails of two kittens. Because we most certainly are not.  Sherlock has the stubbiest tail, and with its puff of fur it looks almost  like a rabbit’s tail. Ms. Watson’s tail is a little longer, and she is able to twitch it when she is irritated.

Unfortunately, she has ample cause to be irritated because Sherlock is not what you would call a nice cat. You might even call him a punk. Sherlock drives Ms. Watson away from choice spots, say, on top of the buffet, so that he can have the spot for himself. He bites her back hard enough to leave small marks. He periodically chases her through the house, and she hisses as she runs.

Since Ms. Watson is a timid cat, Sherlock’s aggression is a trial for her, and we intervene when we can. Fortunately, Sherlock is also rather lazy, content to nap much of the time and leave Ms. Watson alone.  However, when Sherlock gets too feisty, we put him on the porch, and especially when it’s cold, this calms him right down. Five minutes later we let Sherlock in, and he has lost the desire to pick on Ms. Watson.

Despite his bullying personality, I am fond of Sherlock. And Ms. Watson is a dear little cat who would like nothing better than to be in my lap when I’m on the couch.

But guess who has that spot?

Sherlock, the bruiser
Sherlock, the bruiser