Wildflowers & Creeks

IMG_1270

Elle's first time in a creek

Believe it or not, this photograph shows Elle experiencing the joys of walking barefoot in a creek for the first time in her life. That sounds a little unreal, doesn’t it? You have to remember, though, that she is Florida-born and bred, with the exception of the last eleven months of her life here in Oklahoma, and little girls from the South, at least mine, just can’t walk around barefoot in creeks and ponds for worry of gators and poisonous watersnakes. There was a single reminder of our Florida days, however, when we came across a mound of miniature seashells. Ah, Oklahoma’s Cretaceous Period?

Oklahoma seashells!

The two of us were attempting to make our walk worth at least a couple of miles but I really underestimated the heat and foolishly left my thermos of ice-cold water in the car. After a short stroll around the creek we crossed an old iron bridge and found ourselves near a field of wildflowers. Elle and I snapped a few photographs while getting eaten up by mosquitos and chased by bees the whole time. All those bug bites were worth it, though, at least to me. I am quite enamored of wildflowers, especially the field of Mexican hats I stumbled upon.

IMG_1265

IMG_1277

IMG_1282

mexican hats

mexican hats

Brown Bear

Never before in my life have I been able to identify the symbolism in my dreams with one hundred percent certainty. A brown bear made his way into my dreams over a week ago, just before everything in the atmosphere went horribly wrong. Last night, the brown bear showed up again. Last night was the night before yet another horrendous round of storms and possible tornadoes is expected to come down on us.

I have never encountered a brown bear. Just a few days ago, though, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about the black bears of Virginia and about how a black bear is the bear you would want to run into in the wild – if you had to choose, that is. One of my childhood memories involves being caged indoors for an entire day, maybe two, while a black bear roamed the forest behind the housing area of our Upper Michigan military base. Rumor had it that some teenagers had cut a hole in the fence on a late-night run in the woods and the bear got in that way.

That is why I have always known that my chances of surviving an encounter with a bear* are exponentially greater if that bear is a black bear. You just make a lot of noise and raise your arms above your head to show your size. This simple act can scare off a black bear. Brown bears are not so easily intimidated.

But this brown bear, he is in my dreams. He showed up in my yard two weekends ago and I scrambled to keep the dogs inside, safe from the deadly claws of the bear. Then last night he was right outside my office window, a giant on his two hind legs. He waved his front paws at me while he showed his large teeth. His teeth eventually got one of my dogs but she was somehow, miraculously, released. I managed to wrangle three frantic dogs into the basement.

The basement was the safest space, in my dream, from the brown bear. It wasn’t difficult for me to put those two things together as I woke up to news reports of an increased risk of tornadoes throughout the day.

The month of May is undoubtedly beautiful here in Oklahoma, but these spring days also makes me excessively anxious. Alas, here we go again…

* Check out the tips on how to survive a polar bear attack. My favorite helpful hint is the first one.

Why the Ocean is Blue

Sometimes I am completely blown away by how creative my child is. It was kind of fun to see Matt be blown away, too, and perhaps for the very first time. I like to think he’s experiencing those “proud Dad” moments, such as when I read aloud a story that Elle had written for her class assignment. Matt and I both decided to save this one. It is presented to you exactly as she wrote it.

Why the Ocean is Blue

In one sweltering July, Seaturtle took a cool dip into the pink ocean.

“Why, hello!” Ocean welcomed Seaturtle.

Seaturtle looked around, confused. Nobody was in his view, so who was talking to him?

“Hello? Who is speaking?” Seaturtle asked, right before he dove underwater.

“Me, the Ocean.” Ocean kindly replied.

“Oh.” Seaturtle popped his little head up from the water.

As hours passed, Seaturtle and Ocean chit-chatted away. They noticed how much they had in common with their dislikes, favorites, and lives. Seaturtle and Ocean would’ve talked all day and night, but Seaturtle had children to take care of. As the sky was painted with pink and orange, Seaturtle HAD to go.

“Oh,  I think it’s my time to go!” Seaturtle examined the sky.

“Five more minutes?” Ocean begged.

“Sorry, but I have children to feed. I was already late for lunch.”

Ocean settled down and thought of some other way to convince Seaturtle to stay a little longer. Though, he couldn’t.

“Fine…but before you go, do you wanna be best friends?” Seaturtle swam to shore before he answered.

“Sure. I’ve never had a best friend before…”

Ocean was about to ask Seaturtle something, but Seaturtle was out of sight in a blink of an eye.

“Bye,” Ocean softly said through the thick, black air.

***

The next morning, Ocean woke up with four little seaturtle kids in front of her.

“Oh! Uhhh…hello there! Are you lost?” Ocean asked as nice as possible. She didn’t want to frighten them.

The kids looked at one another, then one of them finally spoke up.

“Have you seen our daddy?” the youngest one asked through her sniffles of sadness.

“Why, no. Well, not this morning, but last night. Didn’t he come back to you?”

“No.” The four of them all said together.

“Oh…um, could you all leave please? I…I…”

“Okay.” All at once, they flippered themselves home.

“Thank you.” Ocean tried her hardest not to cry in front of them. Though it was very difficult.

Then, the tears came, along with the booming sobs. Weeks, months, and years passed by and Ocean became bluer and bluer. Still, Seaturtle has never come back.

THAT’S WHY THE OCEAN IS BLUE.

Returning to the Outdoors

home for the night

My first camping memory is from Italy’s Bibione Beach on the Adriatic Sea, a small town that rests somewhere between Venice and Trieste, according to Google. The actual location of the place didn’t matter to me then. All that mattered was that I was at the beach and we were camping. My parents took my brother and me there a couple of times, along with other Americans who had become family friends over the years my father was stationed in Italy. It was not unusual for us kids to be surrounded by topless European women sunning on the beach or walking up and down the shore. That’s just not a big deal over there.

There was another overnight trip with my American neighbors somewhere in the mountains. I don’t know which ones, but we lived at the foot of the Dolomites (Italy’s Alps) and the girls and boys had separate tents. Led by my friend’s mom Cleo, we were a bit anxious about being so close to the mountain’s ledge so we pitched our tent closer to the rock wall. Sometime during the night, a storm moved in and the gusty winds shook the boys’ tent so violently it made the boys nervous enough to ask to climb inside our tent. The next morning, their tent was lying at the bottom of the canyon and everything that was inside of it was strewn along the lake.

While the boys cleaned up their mess on the mountain floor, my friend and I had breakfast and splashed around in our swimsuits. I remember having a really good time that day.

IMG_0719

My later childhood was practically spent outdoors in Upper Michigan, even in winter. Summers, though, were especially busy with climbing trees with my friends and building forts in the woods (which we would stock with paperback books and blankets to sit on). I knew what to do in case I was ever approached by a black bear and our camping trips were plentiful. What better way to spend the summer than by having a lakeside sleepover with your best friends, our bellies sick from too many pasties and s’mores, all cooked over the campfire. Sometimes, the kids were responsible for catching all the fish for dinner. To capture lightning bugs, pick berries, and scale and gut the fresh-caught trout – those were our jobs as campers’ kids.

Quanah Parker Lake

Later, my father brought home a small RV. I can’t remember it being entirely more comfortable but my parents enjoyed it. That little RV housed our family of five (and a large dog) on a cross-country road trip from Upper Michigan to South Florida. During that trip, I made a day-long friendship with a girl who lived at our overnight camp in Kentucky. I waved goodbye to her the next morning as she waited at her bus stop for her ride to school and my family headed to my cousin’s wedding in Cape Coral, Florida. On our way back home to K.I. Sawyer, Michigan, we parked our RV in the Fort Wilderness campsite in Disney World and spent a few days with the Big Mouse.

When I was twelve, my family received new military orders and we moved to a Washington, DC suburb completely void of wilderness. The nature parks were filled with homeless people vying for bench space and used hypodermic needles and broken beer bottles littered the grounds. To enjoy the outdoors meant driving for at least an hour or two away from the District and having to bump elbows with all the other people clamoring for fresh air away from the I-95 Beltway traffic and crime of the big city. It made going outside a lot of work. I think it was about this time when I stopped trying to make the outside a fun place and instead filled my bedroom with books and shut myself indoors.

I didn’t go camping again until I was 30. Having been charged with the care of dozens of kindergarten-aged Girl Scout Brownies, one of whom was a sleepwalking terror with a sassy little attitude, it probably wasn’t the best of conditions in which to re-introduce me to my once-favorite pastime. Camping with a gaggle of excitable little girls is a whole different kind of wild and I’ll never do it again.

site 60! It's a good place to camp, if you like wind.

sunset at our campsite

I have a lot of camping memories, good ones, all of which I tried to appreciate while waiting for morning to come as I rested next to the St. Johns River last year and this past week in the Wichita Mountains. The hiking was my favorite part of our most recent trip and I think I’d be willing to put money into acquiring better walking gear (and packing gear) for myself to continue enjoying that aspect of outdoor living. Unfortunately, my husband has confessed to me since returning from Southwest Oklahoma that hiking is not his favorite part of being outdoors – camping is his favorite part.

IMG_0698

It seems we are at an impasse.

While I know how much I used to love camping, I don’t know if I can learn to love it again. I prefer the comforts of home and of being in my own space, although I’ll admit the weather has been uncooperative every time I’ve gone camping as an adult (either ridiculously cold or windy, or sometimes both). To plan a trip outdoors with hiking, picnicking, and breathing in fresh air does not intimidate me, probably because I can freely move throughout the day knowing that I’ll end the day in my own bed.  The confines of a camp, though, leave me feeling restless and agitated.

French Lake

I promised my husband one more attempt at warm-weather camping. Knowing my psychological limitations, we’ll be able to better plan activities to soothe us both. And I will desperately try harder to smile more, participate more, and not be such a grumpy pants. I know attitude affects the experience and I have apologized to my husband more than once!

So, campers – got any advice? What are some ways you have been able to take the good and take the bad, to find comforts in being away from your comfortable home? Have you had to re-introduce yourself to the world of camping after living for so many years indoors? My biggest concern is that I am just not cut out for it anymore but that I’ll keep pushing myself to do it for the sake of wanting  to like it and ultimately end up hating it.

Snowman for a Day

After I brought Elle home from school on Tuesday, she immediately ran outside to begin working on a snowman. This time we had more snow than on Christmas day, better snow, with which to pack and build and roll huge mounds of round parts for the snowman’s body. Actually, when I say we, I really mean she. I had no part in this besides watching out the window from my cozy world of indoor heating.

IMG_0498

Elle gave him eyes made from pecan shells, two arms made of sticks, and buttons fashioned out of more shells. He was a happy fellow. He purposely faced the street so that everyone driving by could see her smiling, joyful snowman – his arms wide open as if to welcome everyone who passed.

IMG_0497

By Wednesday morning, the snowman was still smiling but already starting to melt. Thankfully, his melting was happening a lot more slowly than all the other snow. He hung on for dear life and for staggeringly long time, I have to say. However, by the afternoon, with temperatures in the 50s and almost exactly 24 hours after his smiling face started to grace the neighborhood, reality set in.

IMG_0503

One of the dogs had peed on him and his eyes and buttons were nowhere to be found. Can you see how his arms have slumped? it’s like he just gave up, simply quit. Also, the frown. OH, THAT FROWN! Poor guy. He had a good run.

IMG_0504

Hail! Hail!

Another Oklahoma first: taking a shower with the bathroom window open just in case the tornado siren started to go off.

Nothing spectacular today, just an average thunderstorm this morning that pushed the warmer temperatures I’ve enjoyed for the past two days into the Deep South, causing tornado warnings and watches all across the south central plains and making room for a cold front. I guess winter has its right to a cold front now and again.

I was working on some Thomas Jefferson history (please tell me you’ve all noted the irony in Obama being the man sworn to uphold our nation’s ideals in which Thomas Jefferson, one of our most famous forefathers, helped to create while still believing blacks to be mentally and intellectually inferior) when I lost power, then internet connection. It was fairly early in the day but I’d already given up any hope of enjoying another episode of The Tudors on Netflix, my lunchtime ritual. (Civilization was restored – I mean, the internet was restored – and I did get to watch Henry VIII banish poor Catherine of Aragon for not giving him a son. Man, that whole family was nuts.)

Then the pelting started, little by little, until it sounded like someone was throwing rocks at all my windows. Being clueless and still not completely in tune with Oklahoma’s weather, I just assumed it was a heavier kind of rain. Finally I realized what was happening and thought back to that time when I was ten years old in Upper Michigan, running in a sudden hail storm to hide beneath a neighbor’s johnboat with a group of my friends, when one boy’s mother screamed for him to come home right away!

Untitled

The hail that day was much bigger than this morning’s hail, enough to clock that kid square in the face as he ran home. The next time we saw him, he was sporting quite a shiner, a hail-impact-induced black eye. I bet his mother felt silly for calling him home. The rest of us were perfectly fine and safe under that man’s johnboat.

Christmas Snow

Elle has always asked me when she would ever get to see snow. Since she is a born and bred Florida girl who adapted to ocean waves and salt water before she was a year old, snow and all the fun things that go along with it have eluded her for her whole eleven years. Now that we live in Oklahoma where there are actually four full seasons, Elle has been looking forward to seeing snow since Day One. She even told her teacher that her Christmas wish was to see snow.

For a week, the news reports cautiously went back and forth on whether a winter storm would hit us on Christmas day and, when it was officially determined that central Oklahoma would get some of the white stuff, how much would accumulate. Finally, just hours before bedtime on Christmas Eve, we were notified by the National Weather Service that parts of our city would get anywhere between 1-10 inches of snow.

After the first few hours of Christmas morning were spent opening gifts and enjoying breakfast together, the fat flakes started to fall. Heavy snowflakes! There were so many of them, too, as if the sky has just decided to dump the whole lot of them right over our house. Elle dressed herself as quickly as she could and ran outside in true Florida-bred style – in shorts (and I allowed it because, hello…first time she’s ever seen SNOW!).

IMG_0019

IMG_0005

This heavy snowfall went on for hours and hours, with the wind blowing the snow in every direction. We didn’t get the 4-6 inches of accumulation we were hoping for to take Elle sledding or to initiate a snowball fight, but that didn’t matter. There was plenty of it on the ground to make a small snowman and that was good enough for her.

By dinnertime, Elle declared this her best Christmas ever.

snow goblin

Elle's first snowball

consider wind direction...

Childhood Rules

We were living in Italy and my father was working the midnight shift. My older brother and I were still fairly little and would go with my mother to the commissary on base so that our dad could have a quiet house in which to catch up on his sleep. The number one rule when my dad worked mids was NEVER WAKE UP YOUR FATHER! Unless one of us was bleeding, choking, or otherwise on the verge of dying and unable to get our mother’s help, we never woke up our father. Ever.

One afternoon upon returning from the commissary, I dutifully helped my mother bring in the groceries. Brian and I were such good helpers, and very quiet, too. In fact, my mom treated us that afternoon by buying us a six-pack of Hubba Bubba grape bubblegum. After mom and Brian went back out for more bags and I was alone in the kitchen, I discreetly closed the front door and proceeded to quickly eat the gum. All thirty pieces.

Meanwhile, my mother kept trying to get inside the house with the rest of the groceries (and my brother, too) but it turned out the front door had been locked when I closed it in my moment of deceitfulness. My mom continually begged for me (in a whisper, of course – remember the number one rule?) to open the door yet I had to remind the silly woman that I was only four years old and wasn’t allowed to open the door, for anyone. That rule was the number one rule when my father worked a normal daytime shift.  But for the moment, it was the number two rule, right behind that day’s number one rule – never wake up your father.

The mood changed suddenly when, in a moment of crazed frustration (because why else would my mother have suggested such a thing…), she instructed me to go wake up my father. The woman had obviously lost her mind. Again, I reminded her of the number one rule and refused to wake him up.  And, yes…I still refused to open the front door for her, too.

Here is where things get fuzzy: I don’t remember how my mother got back inside the house. A part of me wants to say that she and my brother walked to a neighbor’s house, to ask for help from someone who had a telephone, and she called my father to let him know she was locked out. In the meantime, I sat on the kitchen countertops, swinging my legs back and forth in blissful contentment and my cheeks fat with flavorful gum.

I’m not sure how long this dragged on for but I do know that I got through every single piece of gum in the pack and had one of those most glorious afternoons of my entire life (to this day, even!). It’s probably best that my memory of that afternoon ends there so it is never ruined by the inevitable punishment that was surely handed down to me.

*********

This is, by far, my daughter’s favorite story from my childhood. Oh, I have plenty more but I would hate to give her any ideas about snooping for Christmas gifts or setting anyone’s backyard on fire. The hijacking of a six-pack of bubblegum is both innocent and criminal enough, for now.

Mangia!*

Having spent my earliest years in Italy, it probably explains why I could eat pasta all day, every day, much to my husband’s often unspoken botheration. In fact, just the other night for my birthday dinner, I asked my dinner date Liz if she would like to try a nearby Italian restaurant. I’m so grateful she said yes because the tortellini in mushroom cream sauce I devoured over the course of two days (I love you, leftovers) was pretty flippin’ delicious. But that just goes to show you that even the one night when I had my choice of any restaurant in this entire city, I chose Italian.

Growing up, I never paid attention to my mother’s Italian cooking (she’s Polish and German and grew up in Wisconsin so Italian food was very exotic to her, I’m sure). I know she learned from Italian friends and neighbors how to make spaghetti carbonara and she can still pull together a couple of homemade sauces (for tortellini and rigatoni), but sadly, whenever she tried to teach me how to make these things myself, I backed off.

That was a big mistake. I am now very thankful for cookbooks.

Over the past couple of years, I have made my own pasta and a meatless ravioli filling, as well as my own tomato-based pasta sauces.  Never did I realize how important nutmeg is to a red sauce, probably because I grew up in Northern Italy where the sauces are cream-based and not tomato-based.  But a few weeks ago we had a large jar of leftover chopped tomatoes just sitting in the fridge but instead of rushing another pizza night on ourselves, I decided to make a sauce out of it for some pasta.

Man, it was tasty. I think Mom would’ve been proud!

homemade pasta sauce

homemade pasta sauce

This is super easy to make, just toss all this stuff together:

Homemade pasta sauce (tomato-based):

  • chopped tomatoes
  • Cajun chicken strips (for the people in your life who love meat and/or spice)
  • red & yellow peppers
  • mushrooms
  • onions
  • garlic
  • oregano
  • basil
  • nutmeg – don’t forget the nutmeg!

I was apparently feeling ambitious that night (and possibly theme-driven?) so I threw together some cannolis, too.

homemade cannoli

Ricotta filling:

  • 15 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1/3 cup powdered sugar
  • cinnamon
  • Kahlua
  • mini semi-sweet chocolate chips.

Half of the lot was Kahlua-free, but I must admit the ones with Kahlua tasted much better. If you decide to forgo the Kahlua, use more chocolate chips. The ricotta filling just doesn’t seem to be sweet enough otherwise.

*This word, mangia (eat), was one of the first words I remember learning in Italy. I was probably only 3 years old or so, but Italian women doted on me (props to my cute pigtails and cowgirl boots) and seemed concerned by my tiny frame. Let’s just say I was well fed for the next five years, but I will never appreciate the octopus pizza I was encouraged to eat…

Community Stories

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about a place that most people have never heard of. With that story, I wanted so badly to convey a sense of place (and probably one of belonging, too) seeing as those of us who got a chance to live there were eventually told to leave, at some point. When the barbed-wire fencing came down and the guard gates were left and abandoned, that place fell into the hands of those who were unprepared to care for it or who never quite understood its history, its present, and what all of it meant to us.

Since I posted that story, I have been in contact with former residents, some of whom were only children (as I was) during their years there and others who received orders to be stationed there, either as singles or with families in tow (or who eventually started families while living there). I’ve shared stories with people who attended the same schools as me, during different decades even, but we still laughed about having had the same teachers. I have been contacted by several retired enlisted men who sent me stories about lifelong friendships and how they have returned to the area to visit those friends only to be heartbroken by the sight of its disrepair. Some have taken their spouses there just to share with them what it used to be like, even though it has been left to disorder. Most have thanked me for writing that post.

That little story became a community in itself, albeit a tiny one. We all belong to this place, no matter our age or where we came from or where we were eventually shipped off to. In a way, there is still a piece of us that continues to live there or, at the very least, a piece of us that likes to go back to visit…even if it is just through a humble little blog post (this link includes more comments).

For more on K.I. Sawyer, visit the K.I.Sawyer Heritage Museum and this website.

(As I write this, and other posts about sense of place, I will try not to bombard you all with my nostalgic whims. I think I’m just working through my move to Oklahoma via emotional purging. There is more on the way.)