Domestic divas make food for the soul; and maybe just a few mistakes

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The call of a row of Concord grapes and some unexpected wild elderberries that grew up beside Wayne’s barn lured me into burning in the kitchen this week . . . literally and figuratively.

Wayne’s late wife, my dear cousin Linda, had made a business of concocting 56 “shades” of jelly and selling them at the local farmers’ market. Her daughter and I (mostly her daughter) were determined to somehow carry on her legacy and not let those grapes go to waste.

It has been years since I made any jelly. Gave up that activity after many failures. Besides, who needs that much sugar, anyway? But boy, when I re-experienced Sure-Gel in action and tasted a spoonful of hot jelly, the joys of being a domestic diva came flooding back.

I forgot how soul-satisfying it can be to see a row of gleaming, burgundy-colored jars lined up on a counter and knowing that I had created the contents. Well, God and me anyway.

My friend Cheri supplied the recipe for the elderberry jelly and secured from another friend the loan of one of the most exciting kitchen gadgets I’d ever used . . . a steamer/juicer. This three-part thingy goes on the stove with water in the bottom reservoir. Fruit goes in the top and a steamer basket comprises the middle section. As the steam from the bottom pan causes the elderberries in the top to pop open and release their juice, the middle pan collects the juice and siphons it off through a clamped spigot coming out from the side. Ingenious! And so much easier and cleaner than squeezing juice through a cheesecloth by hand.

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Spurred on by a good, easy recipe and the ease of extracting juice, I was soon digging in a basement cabinet for jelly jars and lids. When my first batch flopped due to using liquid pectin instead of the powdered the recipe called for, Cheri came to the rescue with the advice to use that batch for syrup. She supervised the next batch, which was a success. I’m now a new veteran of 24 gleaming jars of grape and elderberry jelly, which could be going to new homes over the holidays. Or, I could save them to provide sustenance and energy when North Korea sends a missile our way. (Not funny, I know.)

Lest you think all this was a breeze, it’s time to confess to lessons learned:

  1. I learned you need a deep pot to cook jelly in. That lesson after a half cup of sticky jelly boiled over and onto the stove.
  2. I learned that pot holders can scorch and almost catch fire.
  3. I learned that pouring seven cups of sugar into a boiling vat of liquid can be tricky, especially when old, flabby arms don’t want to hold up that much weight.
  4. I learned that a quarter-cup of sugar on a hot stove makes for a difficult cleanup; but then so does half a cup of hot jelly. I am learning to live with new, permanent scratches in my stainless steel stovetop.
  5. I learned that an ample bosom can be subject to steam-scorching.

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I had probably already learned the above lessons in my thirties, when I was serious about being a superwoman who could hold down a full time job and make jelly on the side. And maybe next year when jelly time rolls around again, I can retrieve the memory of the missteps made this year and do a better job.

A woman I met at a national storytelling conference this summer is writing a book about the legacies that are carried through generations as found in family recipes and ethnic foods. Jelly making feels like a legacy thing. All canning and food preservation is, actually. I grew up listening for the satisfying pop of metal that signaled the sealing of cans of green beans my mother had just processed. And this week I listened for that again and sighed with satisfaction when comparing the number of pops to the number of jars of jelly pulled out of the canner. They matched!

Activities like canning and jelly-making are marked by love and a legacy of generations of women, many long-departed, who blazed trails with the same mishaps that plagued me this week. As we stir our “soul foods” we can remember the women who went before us and find satisfaction in knowing they’re probably watching us from the beyond and nodding in approval. Or maybe laughing and shaking their heads in disbelief.

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Landscaping by Buffy

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My late husband had a quaint, but critical saying that he occasionally aimed in my direction. When he saw me tackling some project and only doing a half-a**ed job at it, he would look at it and say, “That looks like Buffy did it.”

Well, the ever-incompetent Buffy is alive and well in me and she just spent the last several days sweating through a major landscaping project. The results are less than satisfying.

The precursor to all my incompetence began with an innocent conversation with a neighbor at a holiday gathering. She informed me that those pretty little plants in my back yard—the ones I fought to tame every spring and fall with their enormous overgrowth—was not an innocent haven for birds. Instead, it was an invasive monster that would kill everything in its path. In addition, it would be responsible for the major sin of any city dweller—encroachment.

Invasion of the monster plants

Encroachment may sound like legalistic jargon, which it is. Replace the word with “invasion” and you get a more concrete idea. My Japanese honeysuckle made me a bad neighbor by reaching its ever-expanding tentacles into my neighbors’ yards. It wound itself around and through my chain link fence and began to choke the life out of a massive evergreen in the back yard.

By now, someone surely must have formed a Society for the Prevention of Japanese Honeysuckle Encroachment. I could be a charter member. I have done my duty to God and my neighbors in freeing my own little corner of this beautiful but obnoxious greenery. And Buffy rode into the vacuum created by the honeysuckle eradication efforts.

Wayne, my strong partner in the eradication efforts, (the one with the truck and trailer to haul off the offensive plants), made the mistake of taking me to Home Depot early this spring. There we found the cutest little evergreens for only $4.97 apiece. They came home with me and he obligingly planted them. But they looked lonely where the honeysuckle once roamed, so I made a solo trip to Lowe’s and came home with two pots of ornamental grasses and two pots of I-Forget-Whats. All of them promise to eventually fill in some bare spots.

Fill in the space, said the voice of Buffy

But every day that I looked out the window to the large bare area with eight dots of new plants, a voice cried out,“get busy.” So Last Saturday we returned to Home Depot for 33 bags of mulch.

I had already picked up some black plastic edging and landscape cloth in the action aisle of a discount grocery store. A plan formed in my Buffy brain and it came to fruition only after poor Wayne hauled every single bag of heavy mulch on his shoulders, through the garage, and to the furthest reaches of my back yard. He left me with tips on how best to get the plastic edging lodged into the ground to hold the mulch and the landscape cloth underneath.

For the next four evenings I sweated, cussed, lost a utility knife under a pile of mulch and broke a fingernail way past the quick.

I tried to get a stubborn piece of thick black plastic to unroll and stay flat by stepping on it at regular intervals. All that accomplished was to put permanent kinks in it. I then did my best to get that black plastic to wedge itself into the ground and stay put, using a tiling spade and a monstrous tool that we called our snake killer (picture a heavy, flat-bladed thingamajig). It felt like digging to China, but when the edging was put in place, it threatened to pop right back out if I even looked at it sideways.

That’s when I wished I had called on a professional landscaper.

Good enough for who it’s for

Through the sweat that blurred my vision, I did the best that Buffy could manage, all the while guiltily recalling my mother’s words decades ago, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” But I have preferred the theory always spouted by my ex-mother-in-law, “On a galloping horse, you’ll never tell the difference.” For 40 years I’ve hurried to finish major projects and also unconsciously adopted Wayne’s wisdom, “It’s good enough for who it’s for,” and the ancillary, “Close enough for government work.”

The landscaping project is almost finished . . . only eight bags of mulch to spread. While I struggle to keep the last vestiges of honeysuckle from reappearing by zapping new shoots with brush killer, I have stopped worrying about the kinks in the edging. It doesn’t even bother me when I see the squirrels digging up and dislodging the landscape cloth. Instead, I throw my eyes out of focus in the same manner I use to view myself in the mirror to avoid seeing old age bulges and wrinkles. And what I see is order where chaos once reigned. What I see is, at least superficially, a manicured planting and a new definition to a yard that once grew wild and untamed.

I try not to think about the leisure I could have enjoyed or the book I could have returned to instead of wearing mulch on my sweat-stained arms. Instead I recall a poem by Barbara J. Burrow that a friend gifted me with years ago:

That Woman is a Success . . .

who loves life and lives it to the fullest;

who has discovered and shared

the strengths and talents that are uniquely her own;

who puts her best into each task

and leaves each situation better than she found it;

who seeks and finds that which is beautiful

in all people . . . and all things;

whose heart is full of love and warm with compassion;

who has found joy in living and peace within herself.

While the wisdom of the poem doesn’t address our inner critics, it certainly explains why we try to make places of beauty in our outward and internal landscapes. One day soon I will fully realize that perfection is not my department, or part of my job description, and that my Buffy best is as good as it gets.

Merry Christmas . . . now enjoy this poisonous treat

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In the course of a recent holiday luncheon with friends, and right after I had enjoyed my own ramekin of crème brule (sometimes we share our desserts), one of those so-called amigos remarked that sugar kills brain cells. Like a Grinch who had just spoiled my own Christmas, I snuck home in guilty silence to ponder that revelation.

It did not stop me from following a tradition that goes back through generations on both sides of my family tree: making sweet holiday confections to give as gifts. I can see my Grandma Garrett in her kitchen, flour up to her elbows, rolling out a piecrust or slapping bread dough in a pan. She filled that kitchen with good smells and expressed her love of children and grandchildren by her baked goods.

Then in my early childhood and adolescence I watched my mother roll up a slab of dough that had been filled with brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins, form it into a circle, slit it, bake it (filling our own house with incredible smells), drizzle icing over the end result, decorate it with green and red maraschino cherries, put Saran wrap over it and promptly take it out of our sight. She gave those Swedish tea rings to other people for Christmas, even though her German ancestry actually disqualified her from passing it off as some heritage confection.

When I got my own kitchen and was occasionally bereft of Christmas cash for gifts, I started following suit, baking cookies with a recipe stolen from my mother (who stole it from a church cookbook), making fudge and arranging plates of goodies to hand-deliver like some deranged Santa on a sugar high from taste-testing.

Holiday baking and gifting has to be in my DNA. Otherwise, why would I feel compelled every December to drag out the stained recipe cards and repeat this tradition? And who am I really doing it for . . . family and friends or myself? I mean, Christmas would not come unless I put pieces of fudge, iced sour cream drops, homemade peanut brittle and dipped pretzels in some Currier and Ives decorator tins and then in the freezer for later distribution.

I made fudge and cookies yesterday. Then I wondered why I felt so sluggish this morning. Could it have anything to do with licking the spoon and pan after cooking candy? Or was it because I watched a holiday movie while mindlessly munching on sweetened popcorn?

As I got on my treadmill for the first time in months to try to flush the poison out of my system, my friend’s words began to haunt me. How many brain cells had I killed yesterday? How many brain cells of friends and family will I destroy this holiday season?

Perhaps the bane of our modern life is not, as so many suggest, war and a fragile economy. Maybe sugar is to blame for all the ills in the world. Yet I frantically hold onto the words a friend gave me over the phone yesterday while I was multi-tasking (stirring fudge and talking to her). When I suggested that perhaps the universe is trying to tell me in some pretty direct ways that I should stop trying to say Merry Christmas with poison. She assured me that the universe would never want to do away with fudge.

Perhaps instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of sugar as a brain cell murderer, I should instead focus on ways to build new brain cells. I’m sure that will be rich fodder for a separate blog in the New Year.

Whistling through the graveyard: Some goofy death fears

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We’ve just crossed Halloween and All-Souls Day off the calendar, but that doesn’t stop a Baby Boomer like me from conjuring up new and irrational death fears. But at least I can laugh at myself in a sort of “whistling through the graveyard” manner.

Through the years I’ve borrowed irrational fears from friends and made some up myself to fill a newspaper column. Consider my all-time favorite: Being crushed to death in a mammogram machine. That belonged to a friend and newspaper associate. But my own, which is darned apropos right now: Death by politics.

Here’s a new one I’ll bet you haven’t yet begun to fear: Death by oak tree.

I mean, think about it.

We have a bumper crop of acorns this year. I’m thinking about filing an insurance claim for my roof and home siding because the damage these killer nuts have inflicted are potentially worse than the worst hailstorm. In fact, they make such loud noises when they hit that my dogs start barking and the security alarm thinks an intruder is in the vicinity. They even set off the motion lights outside.

Add to the noise the temptation for the dogs to chase the acorns as they roll down the street, followed by the irresistible urge to eat them. My vet told me last week that eating acorns will cause the dogs to have diarrhea. As I dutifully use a plastic baggie to pick up what one of my 15 pound Llhasas has left behind, I see the vet’s point.

Yet there is an even bigger potential for death by oak tree from something smaller than an acorn. I’m talking about the dreaded killer oak mite.

Twice now I’ve opened the daily paper to read a banner headline about the scourge of the year. . . the microscopic oak leaf mite. I am assuming that local reporters have oak trees in their yards and convinced their editors that this is the story of the year, since they have themselves been suffering the itch that comes from these critters. Well, I’m right there with them.

My first brush with these irritating things came right after a friend with muscles and a Dodge pickup helped me remove an aging and scraggly privet hedge from the front of my house. This process first involved putting a chain around the base of the bushes, attaching the other end to the hitch on the Dodge and then slowly prying the bush from the ground. That process worked twice . . . until the chain began sliding off the branches and stripping the leaves without ejecting said bush from the earth. From that time forward I rode the ledge of a tiling spade to dig while my partner used his back muscles and arms to pull. It wasn’t until a few hours after that grueling work we both began itching, never suspecting until we read the newspaper a few days later, that the red welts we wore as privet-digging souvenirs were courtesy of the ancient oak in the front yard.

Oak mite bites come and they eventually disappear, only to be replaced by a fresh crop. The only upside is that these tiny, invisible pests allow us bragging rights. A few ladies I am in an arthritis swim class with have started sharing bite locations in the locker room after our showers. We have all agreed they are x-rated critters with a penchant for unmentionable bite targets and even worse than seasonal chiggers in that regard.

I saw my sister-in-law Saturday for the first time in a few months and as she dropped me off after lunch at a French cafe she lifted her pant leg to show me where her oak mites had been dining. She won this dubious contest as her bites looked to be morphing into permanent scars.

Then a few days ago I wondered how I had managed a fresh crop of bites on my face, since I had not been working out in the yard lately. But this morning’s newspaper article solved that puzzle. I had taken a nap recently with my window open to a cool fall breeze, but learned that they come in through window screens.

As if fall hay fever was not enough to keep some of us hunkered down inside, we now have further cause to close ourselves away from the hazards that await us in the fearful outside world. Hay fever and oak mites have a common cure: A hard freeze. And that can’t come soon enough for me this year.

While waiting for hell to freeze over I think I’ll contact my insurance agent to see what clause “death by oak tree” might fall under in my homeowner’s policy.

Major widowhood milestone: The one year anniversary of death

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I intended to visit my husband’s grave this morning to mark the exact one-year anniversary of his death. Mother Nature had different plans. Another major summer thunderstorm rages, blowing branches out of trees and sending us thunder claps that cause my dogs to scurry for protection under the desk.

I intended the cemetery visit to be another ritual good-bye; a remembrance of his life that I would mark symbolically by placing flowers on Marshall’s gravestone. Yet I know that he is not really in that grave. His spirit is with me. I sometimes talk to him and even occasionally see him walking down the hallway of our house; just a fleeting impression out of the corner of my eye.

Perhaps it would be better to mark this milestone by doing a personal inventory, asking myself if I have progressed in ways the grief experts say this process should go.

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, one of the nation’s premier experts on grief and founder of The Center for Loss and Life Transitions, explains that the difference between grief and mourning is as follows: Grief is how you think and feel after someone you love dies. Mourning is the outward expression of those feelings.

Dr. Wolfelt also explains that there are six reconciliation needs in the life of every mourner:

  1. Acknowledge the reality of death. To that I would admit that the first thing that popped into my head was the song from the Wizard of Oz when the wicked witch is killed under the falling house. The munchkins sing that she is “really most sincerely dead.” My husband is not coming back to mow the yard, to have a cup of coffee with me every morning, to watch a movie and eat popcorn or to take a trip somewhere that we dreamed of going. He is most sincerely deceased and I sincerely miss him. I have discussed the day and moment of his death a few times with my sister-in-law, who was traumatized by being with us. I have replayed the scene in my head, in my journal and in a book I’m writing to help other surviving spouses. I have shed buckets of tears while praying for the repose of his soul, yet thanking God that Marshall is no longer suffering.

    For months I did not want to face the reality of his death, sometimes choosing to imagine him coming through the door or picking him up at the hospital to return home to recuperate from multiple maladies. But I think I can cross the death reality check off my mourning list. It happened, it’s a road he won’t be returning on and it will be time someday for me to travel that same path.

  2. Embracing the pain. Now this is a number I can’t in good conscience cross off just yet, even though it’s been a year. In fact, I have spent an entire lifetime avoiding pain, numbing out, afraid to be engulfed by emotions I can’t control. What if it kills me? What if it hurts too much? My pain threshold is pathetic, leading me to reach for pain killers at the first twinge, or for something to eat at the first hunger pang. I need to take to heart Dr. Wolfelt’s advice that doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain. Okay, so I let a little of it leak in, in manageable doses, while trying not to be too full of self-pity. But what can one expect of a woman who does not really allow the full impact of a divorce to hit her until a full year after the court date when she hears her ex- introducing his new wife? With that modus operandi, I should be feeling the edge of the widowhood knife real soon now, unless I run the other direction, which I’m good at.
  3. Remembering the person who died. Last week I stumbled across some photos that were stored in my Dropbox file of a vacation that Marshall and I took with his sister out west. There we were, arms around each other, with our backs to Grand Canyon. It was wonderful to see the photos and a great memory. It reminds me of the need to do a more systematic memory voyage through photos as a way to create another memorial of our 21 years together. I planted a living memorial in the back yard and I had already done a written account of our fun and funny times together in a memoir I published in 2014.

In remembering my late husband, I must admit that not all the memories are good ones. We had tough times, we argued, we inflicted and suffered some permanent relationship scars. But there is no longer a need to hold on to the negative. After a death, we can acknowledge the effects of the wounds we bore from each other, but must push them to the back porch of memories. I will now dwell in the front porch good times and focus on his positive traits, on all the things he taught me and how he ultimately made me a better, stronger person.

  1. Developing a new self-identity. Dr. Wolfelt says that our self-identity undergoes a change when someone we love dies, because part of that identity comes from our relationships. I am here to attest that I am a totally different person than a year ago. I no longer have a husband who is ill to provide an excuse for getting out of social engagements or for not maintaining and cultivating friendships. Consequently, my social calendar is now almost too full for my own sanity.

    In addition, prior to becoming a widow, I dreaded regular weekly visits with my husband’s stepmother in a local nursing home, only going out of sense of obligation. Conversations with someone who has dementia are difficult and strained at best. But after Marshall’s death, I took on Rosie’s Power of Attorney, as she has no family members left to do so. In accepting that responsibility, suddenly the visits became less strained and I was able to replace the sense of obligation with a tender mercy and kindness that I hope someone will show to me if I find myself in a similar situation someday. I know that my visits bring her a bright spot in a dull day, even is she asks me five times in five minutes if I got my hair cut again.

  2. Searching for meaning. This is the part where a widow finally confronts her own mortality because her longtime mate has “bought the farm” (his favorite saying for death). This is the mourning stage where we search for new meaning and purpose to life. I am fortunate to have found that new meaning. I jumped into a church community with both feet, signing up to sing in the choir, offering to publish a newsletter and sponsor memoir writing seminars. I became a regular Sunday worshiper, finding an outlet for my emotions in a beautiful liturgy and a social network in my fellow church members. That also led to intense study of my faith beliefs, the beauty and value of its doctrines and to a new regular practice of prayer. That prayer practice forms the fabric of my daily routine. If I can’t have a prayer and meditation hour every morning, something is just off and the day doesn’t go smoothly.

    My husband’s death forced me to find a spirituality that he tried to teach me with his example of generosity and of love for God’s creatures. He always encouraged my connections with extended family members and reminded me to call my mother frequently when she was still alive. These are lessons and examples I will always follow now. They give meaning and form to my new life as a widow.

  3. Receive ongoing support from others. Dr. Wolfelt asserts that the support we receive during our grief journeys will enhance our capacity for healing. That must be why I have done so well because I have friends who have come out of the woodwork to support and encourage me. My brothers and their wives are wonderful and contact me frequently just to check on my well-being. A high school friend has provided his insights and shared his experiences of the grief process and given me hope for coming out the other side in one whole piece. My son is a phone call away and will help at any time. I have new friends and old who know how to divert me and support me. And, while the process of writing does not count for the “others” category, the ability to express my emotions on paper has been a key factor in the mourning process. What would I do without my journal?! I’ve barely missed a day of writing in it since Marshall died and it is so helpful to re-read the entries of the past year to see how far I’ve come and how I’ve handled the moments when loneliness and fear threaten to take over.

    What a year of ups and downs this widowhood process had proven to be! The take-away for me has been a feeling of growth in wisdom and experience, love for others and a new gratitude for the gift of life. I think I’ve finally grown up and learned who and what I am. I can only hope to enjoy the good, if subdued, feelings that come with that before I have to face any more good-byes of people I love.

Supersize me . . . I’m a widow

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I do know how to cook a healthy meal, if only I had the motivation to do so.

After my husband died, eating a meal at home changed from a pleasant occasion to a little house of chagrin and horror. It morphed from being balanced nutrition, with at least one veggie and lots of conversation, into a lonely, tasteless thing you only do because you’re supposed to.

Thanks to that new life change thing, and to a panicked, adrenaline-fueled enrollment in an arthritis swim class at the local YMCA, I lost weight the first six months after the funeral. I’ve gained it all back lately by indulging in all the sweet things my local grocery store bakery entices me to buy. After all, it’s on sale, and cinnamon rolls . . . and chocolate anything . . . fill up that lonely hole in your heart for at least 15 minutes.

I have done nearly everything the grieving books tell you to do in the eating department.

  1. Instead of sitting across the table from the empty chair that once belonged to my husband, I changed places and took away his chair. That failing, I made an even more drastic move, relegating the round oak table to the basement for crafts and sewing and installing a breakfast bar with my seat facing a window on the front of my house. Then I realized that my silhouette behind my metal blinds would make my solitary existence even more obvious to the neighbors who pass by on their dog walking and errand rounds.
  2. I tried cooking for one, but how many times can a person eat warmed over country-style ribs before they begin tasting like sawdust? No amount of barbecue sauce can transform those leftovers into something as good as when the same fare was shared with a spouse. In fact, everything I tried to cook for myself seemed to expand in volume rather than diminish as it was sampled.
  3. I have responded to every invitation to eat out with friends and family and truly relished each morsel in those circumstances. Food always tastes better in a crowd. Plus, every church supper and donut Sunday were always circled on the calendar. Thankfully, some extended family members who live an hour away invited me to spend my first Thanksgiving as a widow sharing in their sumptuous feast. But even if you are alone, you can’t eat every meal with friends or family. You just have to face that solitary breakfast bar, put your lonely little plate on it and catch up with Facebook posts or read a book while eating. Please don’t sue me for unhealthy widow advice but what nutrition cop is going to arrest me for mindless eating and telling others that it is okay? You gotta do what you gotta do and get away from the table as fast as possible.
  4. I have always been the chief cook in the family, which offers an advantage as a surviving spouse. I can go through the motions at the chopping block and the stove, even cleaning messes as I go. So it’s never been a matter of ineptitude, but now more a lack of motivation. Why bother to cook?

    My higher self knows the answer to that hypothetical is, “To stay healthy.” Sadly, grabbing a pizza slice and a Coke at the gas station does not count as healthy. The times I haven’t given in to lazy fast food cravings and fixed a chef salad, I’ve been proud of myself and slept better at night.

  5. Speaking of sleeping better at night, it is true that it’s best not to eat much at all after 8 p.m. so that when you go to bed you won’t be suffering from indigestion. My late husband had a horrible habit of late night snacking . . . one which I merrily adopted, especially when watching a movie always led to one of us saying, “I want something,” and heading to the kitchen while pressing the pause button on the remote. Old habits die hard and I’m still pressing the pause button for a quick trip to the fridge. Not good. Maybe if I gave up television at night and read a book instead, my gut would sing my praises instead of protesting at 10 p.m. I promise to work on that.

    Meanwhile, here are some things that worked for me in the food and cooking department, at least for awhile until I backslide into bad habits:

    Small portions and single serve versions: The food industry knows there are many of us who are flying solo and trying to eat right. They have responded by making single serving sizes of many foods. While I’ve been taught to shy away from food in boxes, there are some relatively healthy processed foods. The pizza that I sometimes crave comes in flatbread, vegetarian single portions. Many brands try to limit the sodium content, thankfully. The same goes for “TV dinners,” which come in low-fat, low-sodium and fairly tasty versions. Even desserts are now packaged in single serve freezer containers. The bakery at my local grocery store will also occasionally offer up a four inch pie, as well as containers of a single slice of pie or cake.

    The deli: The local deli, whether a neighborhood ethnic spot or a section of your grocery store, is a great spot for widows and widowers. Don’t feel like cooking? Go grab a rotisserie chicken and concoct your own take home salad from the fresh food bar. They even serve fruit, already cut up, and you can select just enough for one or two meals.

    The outside aisles of the store: Savvy food shoppers have all heard the mantra about shopping on the outside aisles of a store for healthier purchases. That’s where all the fresh food is, from dairy to produce, from meat to cheeses. I love it that fruit juice companies are selling smaller bottles of the “not from concentrate” products. And you can drink straight from the bottle in your widowhood without worrying about giving cooties to your mate.

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  6. Special food delivery boxes: In my better, more motivated and self-righteous months as a surviving spouse I had boxes of healthy food delivered to my door. It was like Christmas every Saturday when the FedX man brought my pretty green box with its ice-packed and healthy foods. The box contained enough to make two servings of the three meals so leftovers didn’t become too ubiquitous. The best thing was that cooking those meals made me feel like a gourmet chef because the included instructions took me step by step through reductions, pan-searing, homemade dressings and exotic things that I don’t normally cook with, like shallots and fresh herbs. All the vegetables were oven-roasted and my new stainless steel cooktop got quite the workout when those boxes arrived. I was so proud of myself, I even took pictures of my plates.

    The only drawbacks to the food boxes, besides lots of dirty pots and pans and an oil-spattered stove, were the boxes. I now have a tower of them in my basement waiting to be filled with yet another load of stuff for the City Union Mission. And they’re so sturdy and potentially handy I can’t bear to just recycle them. So I’ve put the food boxes on hold and gone back to prowling the bakery specials and loading up on quick and easy.

    Someday soon I will probably hit rock bottom and admit I have a widowhood-induced food problem. But I know I have plenty of company, and not just from fellow widows. All the single people I know fight the same lonely eating battles.

    Perhaps the only long-term solution is to adopt an attitude of gratitude for the ample offerings of tasty fare we have to choose from in this country, no matter if we eat in a crowd or alone. When I am tempted to over-indulge and excuse it as a misguided need to take care of myself, I can recall that in Venezuela right now people are starving and fighting each other as they stand in food lines for eight hours to get their meager weekly rations. And that’s enough to make me instantly food sober and ashamed of my lazy, self-indulgent widowhood.

A widow learns to mow again . . . the hard way

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Sometimes it’s best to leave the hard stuff to those who do it for a living.

In widowhood I am fast becoming the comic relief for the neighborhood. It’s my Craftsman riding lawnmower’s fault.

My late husband always insisted on being the operator of all things with belts, blades and horsepower. The last few years he did hire a man to mow the yard, as his illness and medications made exertion in the sun a no-no. And I’ve kept Randy on this summer too.

But that leaves a fairly new riding mower and a brand new self propelled mower in the shed, forlorn and unused. So when Randy called and said he was down in the back, I almost rubbed my hands in glee because I could once again climb behind the wheel of my own little amusement ride.

But wait! I seem to have forgotten a few things in a several year hiatus from that outdoor chore. In my haste to see if I could even remember how to start it I forgot to check the gas. No wonder it wouldn’t rumble to life. (And don’t tell anybody, but I also forgot the capital rule about picking up downed branches before even climbing on the machine.)

Once filled with petrol, I backed out of the shed and got her going (note the use of the feminine pronoun when referring to machinery). She purred along in second gear until my memory got jump started. So far, so good. I kicked it up into the number three slot and whizzed along a little faster. But then I got to the part of the yard that slopes down into a French drain on one side with a concrete tree ring on the other side, with said mower’s girth a little too much to navigate without making me feel like I was going to fall over sideways. I leaned the opposite way and made plans to jump off if necessary but my own substantial weight kept me in the seat. I only shook a little after that.

Bravely I descended into the lower yard at the foot of the French drain swell and mowed down there. On the way there I noticed slosh-able water standing in the yard and mentally filed that for future fear time.

It did not take long for the reminder of how wet it was to come back to haunt the inexperienced mower person. I did have to get up that hill to mow the front yard and then to put the machine away. Well, that little process took me five or six tries, with the only result being my own personal mudathon. That machine was not going to climb a now muddy hill from any angle.

Operator turns off machine and goes to the garage for two large pieces of cardboard. They do not prove successful in two more tries.

Finally, I back the mower up clear across the yard, put it in sixth gear, pop a wheelie (well, close to one, according to my neck) and pull that sucker up the hill.

When I had dinner this evening with a few neighbors, the only male in our little group said he saw me using the mower in the front yard and noted that my husband used to mow a lot faster than I do.

Well, so what! I am a grandmother, okay? Grandmas use granny gear.

But then I asked this man, who used to be a distributor for a well known line of power equipment, if he could suggest why my brand new self propelled mower would not start he asked, “Did you drain the gas out of it for the winter?”

Now why would I waste gas? Besides, it was in a pretty air tight shed all winter.

“The carburetor is gummed up,” he explained to the clueless female pretend power machine operator.

Randy is coming to mow tomorrow. Maybe he can un-gum the carburetor after he goes over all the spots I missed on the rider. I’ve decided this is not a task for sissy Grandmas. He can have all the fun from now on.