Monday, March 31, 2008

Hospitality - Food Makes the World Go Round

My mother was a remarkable woman. Even with a large family and responsibilities, she always made each of us feel loved and cherished. On the more practical side, there was always an abundance of food and clean clothes. In addition, she sewed our clothes, remodeled rooms, refinished and reupholstered furniture, and wallpapered and painted with abandon. We never had much money to spare, but we had everything we needed.

We lived on a fifty-acre farm just outside a small town in central Illinois. Dad worked long hours as a welder in a factory, plus he farmed corn or beans in his “spare” time. In our younger years, Mom stayed at home and volunteered regularly at church, at school and in the community.

Every year we would have a huge vegetable garden with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green beans, potatoes, sweet corn, cabbage, lettuce and radishes. We also had a large strawberry patch, watermelons and muskmelon cantaloupe. We canned and froze each harvest regularly during the summer, with bushels of tomatoes, green beans and peaches becoming staples for the long winter months. And a bonus in retrospect is that all the food would have been naturally organic.

Sundays were family days that started with morning Mass followed by a big breakfast. Family or friends frequently stopped by to visit later in the afternoon. My mother was a marvel at fixing an excellent meal for however many people were home at the time. She was the consummate hostess and never got flustered by the details. Years later when I had my own home I realized how amazing it was that she had everything on hand that she needed.

Banana Praline Muffins
3 T Brown Sugar 1 T Sour Cream
½ C Broken Pecans 3 small Bananas, mashed
1 Egg, slightly beaten ½ C Sugar
¼ C Vegetable Oil 1 ½ C Complete Pancake Mix
• Line muffin tins with cupcake papers. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
• In small bowl, combine Brown Sugar, Cream and Pecans.
• In medium bowl, combine Egg, Sugar, Oil & Banana.
• Add Pancake Mix, stirring just until blended.
• Fill muffin pans 2/3 full. Drop 1 t Pecan Mixture into each muffin
• Bake for 12 to 15 minutes at 400 degrees.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Stories from Growing Up

Mom held our family together with love and understanding. Being the middle child, I had three older sisters (for lots of hand-me-down clothes) and three younger brothers (for lots of aggravation and practice babysitting). In addition, my great-grandmother lived with us for a few years. So we had quite a car-full of people when we headed into town to Church or school activities. Today it is hard to imagine a family of ten that would be crammed into one car with no complaining and no air conditioning.

As we were growing up, food was an integral part of regular family gatherings. All of us were home for supper at night, with very few exceptions. I remember the comfort of a robust extended family with great-grandparents, grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends for all of life’s major events - birthdays, holidays, christenings, graduations, weddings and funerals. And the center of any get-together was a wonderful meal fresh from the farm. I’d like to share some of my memories about those times and the foods that were such an important part of my growing up.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My French Faux Pas - Part 2

As we continued our travels in Canada in our motorhome, I soon realized just how badly my rusty memory mis-translated phrases into French.

We noticed that most of the patrons in the cafĂ© ordered the daily special (“le plat du jour”) which we also ordered. We thought it would give us a little taste of adventure, as well as a taste of local cooking. In addition, I felt confident that I could actually make myself understood. The special turned out to be two huge slices of ham loaf with a delicious creamy mustard sauce, served with two diced vegetables that were not familiar to us. After much confusion and dictionary searching, the waitress went into the kitchen and returned with samples of the two vegetables prior to preparation. We were finally able to determine that they were parsnips and rutabaga. The whole meal was tasty and satisfying, due in part to our little escapade into unfamiliar territory.

On another day we visited the pretty little church [town?] where my husband’s earliest ancestor was supposedly buried. When we entered the church, we were greeted by four elderly matrons who served as docents to visitors. We were charmed to see each of them dressed up in their Sunday-best clothes from the proper hats on their careful coiffures all the way to their spotless white gloves and their stylish shoes.

Unfortunately, they spoke not a single word of English. So I pulled out my painfully prepared translation which said we were looking for the grave of my husband’s ancestors and bravely spoke in what I thought was relatively good French. They looked at us with blank expressions, then looked at each other and asked “Que?”, which is “What?” So my confidence level in speaking fluent French was shot down a little lower.

After much confusion and skillfully pointing at individual words in my faithful dictionary, we were finally able to understand the location of the oldest part of their cemetery. It was a shame that the oldest headstones had weathered too severely over the years to be read. Apparently they were made of sandstone that did not stand up to the elements. But we were confident that we had indeed found the right cemetery.

Two of the lovely mature ladies insisted on giving us a tour of the old church. It was very obvious that they were exceptionally proud of the architecture and history. Our ancestors had emigrated from here in Canada down to a small section of land in central Illinois, where we saw surprising similarities in both the building structure and ornamentation of our church. We had not previously recognized the correlation between the two towns.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My French Faux Pas

Some of the best stories we need to record are the ones that make fun of ourselves.

A few years ago, my husband Lynn and I traveled up to Canada in our motorhome. We planned to visit the areas of Montreal and Quebec, where our respective ancestors lived. We found the Canadians very friendly and accommodating, but as we got further east of Quebec City, we discovered that fewer and fewer of them spoke any English. However, I was not worried because I had three semesters of college French and two years of high school Spanish under my belt. What I was not prepared for was how my rusty memory mis-translated phrases into French.

After a guided tour of a small winery, we wanted to venture into French-speaking Canada on our own, so we asked for suggestions to a restaurant for lunch that was frequented by “locals” rather than by tourists. We were directed to a charming restaurant off the beaten track that was reminiscent of a French chateau.

Our waitress spoke no English, but how difficult could it be to order a simple lunch? In response to her request for our beverage order, I made my first faux pas by ordering “leche” (milk) for Lynn and “the chaud avec limon” (hot tea with lemon) for myself. The poor young girl was obviously confused by my order, so I pulled out my trusty French-English dictionary. It turns out that I should have used “lait” for milk instead of the Spanish “leche” and although lemonade translates to “limonade”, lemon by itself actually translates to “citron.” So much for trying out my linguistic abilities.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Real Root Beer and Coca Cola

During my childhood in the 1950’s, the consumption of beverages was completely different than it is now. The most common beverages were coffee for the grownups, milk and Kool-Aid for the children. The coffee was just plain old percolated coffee, no decaffeinated or Starbucks, no espresso or cappuccino, no latte or mocha. The milk was good old whole milk, pasteurized but not homogenized, no 2% or skim, no chocolate unless you added Hershey’s chocolate syrup yourself. Of course we drank water, but it was simply water straight from the kitchen tap or well, not bottled unless you poured some into a big glass bottle to keep cool in the refrigerator. Life was much simpler then.

Once in a blue moon, we might be treated to a Coca Cola instead of Kool-Aid on Saturday evening when we had company. Mom would bring home a six-pack of Coke from the store, not in liter bottles or even 16-ounce bottles, but rather in the standard 6-ounce bottles, in glass no less! Each precious bottle had to be shared with at least one sibling (if not two) and poured over ice to make it go further. That one little six-pack would serve all seven of us kids, plus Mom & Dad and perhaps four to six guests.

One Sunday we went to visit some cousins on another farm. In the late afternoon when it was time for “lunch” (which was defined as a snack in mid-morning, mid-afternoon or evening), we kids received the ultimate treat: one whole bottle of Coke (6-ounce, of course) for each of us, with a soda straw! Life was so simple then that I relished experiencing three complete burps instead of the customary single and ineffectual burp from a small glass of Coke with ice.

A staple when I was growing up was Kool-Aid, which was a fruit-flavored beverage powder to which you normally added a cup of sugar and two quarts of water. It was very cheap at five cents or less per packet and easy to have on hand. My favorite was always cherry, but we also had grape, orange, lemon and a few other flavors. Sometimes we would get a bit more creative with the Kool-Aid and add a sliced orange or freeze cherries inside the ice cubes. Once, we even added club soda instead of water to make our own soda. Martha Stewart would have been so proud!

One summer we decided to make our own root beer soda and bottle it ourselves. I don’t remember the exact process, but we carefully blended the root beer syrup extract with water and other ingredients. We washed, scrubbed and sterilized old bottles, then lovingly filled each of them with exactly the right amount of soda. We used a manual capper to seal a bottle cap onto each bottle and stored them neatly in the cool cellar. Now all we had to do was wait until our tasty brew was ready to drink.

Some days [weeks?] later, we heard a muffled noise from the basement. As we ran down the stairs, we heard more popping and crashing. The corner section of the cellar where we had so carefully stored our root beer bottles was now an oozing disarray of glass, bottle caps and syrupy soda. Our much anticipated fizzy root beer had morphed into a fizzled mess instead. Oh well, back to the Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pennies from Heaven

There is an old wives’ tale that when you find a penny it may be a Penny from Heaven. Personally, I had never given it much thought, except that it was silly. However, I had a complete change of heart about it in 2002 when I was going through an especially rough period.

My dear Mother had died suddenly in her sleep and I was devastated by the loss of my best friend, my biggest cheerleader and my confidante. We had always been very close and I found myself crying for hours at a time. In fact, I was afraid I would never stop. For a long time, I was mad at Mom for leaving and I was mad as Hell that God had taken her. It just wasn’t fair that I never had a chance to say good-bye. I felt terribly alone and abandoned.

Then one Sunday morning during Mass, I noticed a single penny sitting on the narrow wooden frame of the upholstered chair in front of me. I would have sworn that penny was not there when we first sat down, but there was no denying its appearance. When I picked up the penny, it felt surprisingly warm in my hand. I immediately felt a powerful sense of peace and comfort. In that split second, I became a believer in Pennies from Heaven. This one told me that Mom was happy in Heaven and that she loved me.

During the years since then, I have frequently found other Pennies from Heaven. Each time a coin appears, it reaffirms that I am not alone. Most often, sighting a penny lets me know that Mom is sending her love. Sometimes she even helps me solve problems. One snowy winter night, I was leaving the office in another state long after most people had already gone home. After tramping through 5 or 6 inches of pristine but rapidly accumulating snow, I had unlocked my car and dumped in my computer bag, my purse and my briefcase.

When I reached for my car keys, they were nowhere to be found and thoroughly searching the car was to no avail. It had been an especially long frustrating day and I was cold and tired, hungry and discouraged. I laid my head on the steering wheel and silently prayed for help. With a little glimmer of hope, I got out of the car and searched again. Repeatedly sweeping my foot back and forth through the snow, I finally heard the distinctive tinkle of keys! As I jumped back into the car to start the engine, I was gratified to spot a shiny penny on the floor mat. Mom was with me once again.

Each of my found pennies is a personal treasure. I may never convince everyone else, but I believe that Pennies from Heaven provide comfort when I need it the most.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Tips on Interviewing - Part 6

Part 6 of a 6-part series on interviewing tips to capture stories from other people.

6. In conclusion…

a. Thank them again - Thank them for taking the time to tell their wonderful stories.

b. Take a picture – Consider taking a photo of your subject. You may want to include the picture in your final story, to share with others or to keep for your own reference. Unfortunately for me, I did not consider doing this when I first started out and one of my favorite subjects passed away shortly afterward.

c. Follow up – In case you have any questions, ask if you can contact them again.

d. The finished product – You may want to ask if they would like to see the final product that you create. In fact, you may offer to give them a copy of what you have written, but that will be up to you. Remember that they may enjoy seeing their own stories in print, too!

Friday, March 14, 2008

Tips on Interviewing - Part 5

Part 5 of a 6-part series on interviewing tips to capture stories from other people.

5. No story to tell?

a. Nobody is interested – Some people don’t think they have a story to tell and that their life is nothing out of the ordinary. In reality, everyone has a story! They just need some encouragement to tell it to you.

b. Questions break the ice – Your list of questions will help the person remember stories to tell you. You can encourage them to think about specific topics, such as where they have lived, what it was like growing up, how they came to this city or what their favorite games were. General topics also help begin a conversation, such as where were they during World War II, what they liked best (or least) about school or what pets they have had.

c. Useful memory joggers – Consider bringing along some memory joggers to the interview, such as old photos, letters of newspaper clippings. If you are looking for stories about a particular period, such as the Great Depression for example, you can bring a book on the subject.

d. Tell me more… - Encourage them by using simple responses: Tell me more about your pet skunk, How did you feel after winning the spelling bee or Have you ever wanted to go back to visit the old homestead.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tips on Interviewing - Part 4

Part 4 of a 6-part series on interviewing tips to capture stories from other people.

4. Impromptu questions

a. Develop good interview skills – Start with a prepared list of questions or topics to discuss, but feel free to expand to other areas on the fly. Impromptu (unplanned) questions may turn out to be the best ones.

b. Lead-ins to other questions – Often times their response will lead you to think of another question that is not on your list. Go for it! Some of the best human interest stories happen because the speaker opened up an unexpected door to another subject. These can be exciting discoveries. For example, as Grandma is telling you about her 3rd Grade experiences, she may say “Oh! That reminds me. Did you ever hear about the time your dad got kicked out of the 3rd Grade for…?”

c. Don’t interrupt - save it for later – While the person is responding to your question, they may trigger other questions in your mind. If they are still talking, do not interrupt them! Let them finish their train of thought first. You can jot down the question to remind yourself to ask it a bit later. If Grandma hasn’t told you as much as you’d like to know, ask her, “What else did my dad do in 3rd Grade that was funny?”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tips on Interviewing - Part 3

Part 3 of a 6-part series on interviewing tips to capture stories from other people.

3. Really listen to the other person

a. Give your undivided attention – Treat this interview as your one and only chance to understand this person’s story. You never know when circumstances may prevent you from having another opportunity.

b. Let the other person talk – Ask your question, then listen to what they say. Don’t interrupt while they answer and don’t argue if your opinion differs. You want to record what they have to say, not so much your own responses and stories

c. Read their body language – Watch for visual clues: Are they reluctant to answer your question? Are they having a hard time forming a response and need some encouragement? Are they getting choked up and need a glass of water?

d. Wait until they finish – As they are speaking, they may think of something else to tell you. If it looks like they are thinking, give them more time to respond. These may be some of the best and most meaningful answers you will get.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tips on Interviewing - Part 2

Part 2 of a 6-part series on interviewing tips to capture stories from other people.

2. Record the conversation

a. Why record? Take some notes during an interview, but remember it is easy to get caught up in the conversation. You might be thinking about your next question instead of giving the conversation your undivided attention. For that reason alone, I recommend using a simple recording device so you can listen to it again at your leisure.

b. Listen first! - Before you start the interview, listen carefully for any noises in the room. Remove or move away from anything that may be distracting or picked up on the recorder. That could be noise from the street, other people who are close by, an electric heater that hums, telephones, chiming clocks or a dozen other things. During one interview I had, we were interrupted by a phone call. Even though someone else took the call in another room, my recording picked up her conversation more clearly than my own. And she was some 10 feet away from us!

c. Interruptions – If there is an interruption, such as a knock on the door, an airplane flying overhead or a baby crying, stop the interview for a few moments. Take care of the disturbance and then continue. If some time has passed, you might want to repeat the last question or remind the interviewee where they were.

d. Recording devices – There are many recording devices available. Select one that you feel comfortable using. It could be a cassette tape recorder, a digital recorder, an MP3, a camcorder, etc. Whichever you choose, make sure you have enough extra batteries and storage for the entire interview. Murphy’s Law says that “Anything that can go wrong will!” And the odds are that the most fascinating part of any interview will occur when you can’t record it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Tips on Interviewing - Part 1

Part 1 of a 6-part series on interviewing tips to capture stories from other people.

Sometimes getting started is the toughest part about a new project. The same is definitely true when you begin to write your family stories. So let's talk about the key points to consider when you want to interview a person, whether they are relatives, friends, neighbors or strangers.

1. Why are you asking questions to interview them?

a. Thank them first – Let them know you appreciate having the chance to hear their stories.

b. Introduce yourself – Particularly when talking to elderly people, you may need to remind them who you are. Tell them a little about yourself. Do you need to remind them of your relationship, such as you are their cousin Ralph’s youngest son from Atlanta? Are you visiting from an unfamiliar neighborhood?

c. Why you want their stories - Let them know you are interested in their stories, and why. Do you want some family history? Are you curious about what life was like before the invention of television? Do you want to know what a typical day was like in a one-room schoolhouse?

d. How you’ll use their stories – Tell them how you plan to use their stories. Will they be part of a class project? Are you combining their stories with a group of others? How many people will see the final results?

e. What if they want to omit some stories? If some stories are sensitive, you have a few options to consider: 1) leave out that specific part of the story for anyone else who may read it, 2) change their names to protect their identity or 3) ask why they are concerned. When in doubt, always respect their wishes to avoid embarrassment.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Why Stories Matter

I decided to start this blog so that other people could learn from the mistakes I made over and over throughout my life. I spent considerable time with my maternal grandparents while I was growing up and again later as a young adult. My regret is that I never asked them questions that really mattered. I have the same regrets regarding my parents as well and now it is too late.

If I can help a single person understand the importance of recording their personal or family stories, or those of their ancestors and loved ones, then my omissions will not have been in vain. Even better, if I can make the process of gathering those stories both fun and painless, then that is icing on the cake.

Everyone has an interesting story to share. Anyone can write their own stories when given some guidance and help. Some people may need friends or family to write for them. Some people may not have stories about family members, but they have close friends who have shared wonderful times. All of these stories are important to record and to share with other people.

And my goal is to make that process fun and fabulous!

Like many people, I didn’t write down stories about my parents and grandparents when I was younger. Now that they are gone, I regret not asking them the questions that really mattered. If I can help a single person understand the importance of recording their personal or family stories, or those of their ancestors and loved ones, then my omissions will not have been in vain. Even better, if I can make the process of gathering those stories both fun and painless, then that is icing on the cake.