Today, I Smell Gingerbread…a Holiday Story

Bread

It’s not just the calendar that puts celebrators in the Christmas and Hannuka spirit. It’s a host of sights and sounds that makes these holidays special: the change to wintry weather; the hustle n’ bustle of gift shoppers; colorful decorations and lights illuminating neighborhoods, windows and shops; the gaiety of passersby offering holiday wishes; quiet moments spent in reflection and prayer. All help create a festive mood.

One of my favorites is the aroma of freshly baked desserts and treats filling our home and signaling the start of this special season. Yesterday, it was almond crescent cookies. The day before, I sniffed roasted walnuts and candied bark, white chocolate with craisins. Tomorrow will bring something new that tickles my senses and rewards my taste buds. But, today, I smell gingerbread.

What a pleasure to be awakened on a brisk winter morning with the smell of ‘just from the oven’ cranberry bread or molasses cookies wafting down the hall and finding me stubbornly stirring beneath the cover of a cozy quilt. My wife, an early riser, is eagerly preparing delicate desserts to be shared with friends and enjoyed with our meals. Yes, I know, I’m spoiled.

Walnuts

Later, the chilly air on a new December day welcomes those escaping kitchen aromas that intoxicate me with spices and sugars, as I finish some outside chores. My work can wait, I decide, and hurriedly make my way inside for some hot coffee and a sampling of today’s treats. Ahhh, I smell gingerbread.

These holidays have a ‘baking season’ like no other, where the kitchen is the arena and the clashing of the cookie sheets, muffin tins, bread pans and mixing bowls tells us that it’s ‘game on’, while the cook builds up to the highly anticipated call, ‘Bon Appetit’. It’s a race to blend, stir, beat and mix ahead of the beginning of the Hannukah and Christmas Day deadlines. The desserts and special dinners seemingly roll out of the kitchen and onto the dining table in a tsunami of meats and greens, biscuits and breads, truffles and spritz.Dishes

When the calendar turns to January, the cooking slows, the menus change, and the emphasis is on dietary needs to help our bodies recover and prepare for spring. Is that possible? Yet, through the dark, cold winter months, I still yearn for the smell of gingerbread.

Pumpkin Pie

Spring rains roll into summer heat, and a warm kitchen loses its appeal. Quite unnoticed, the oven begins a period of involuntary hibernation. Delicacies are not a priority and a cold beer on a hot day will suffice. But nature is a wonderful thing. In a matter of time, the baking season will return in all its glory, and, once more, I will savor the smell of gingerbread in our home…

srbottch (11/23/2015)

Dedicated to my wife, who keeps our shelves filled with wonderful desserts during the Christmas holiday, and to cooks in their kitchens, everywhere.

Today, I Touched My Father’s Hand

1951 Dad at Ptown

My father lived an active life of 76 years. There are days when I think of him deeply and feel as though I’ve ‘touched’ him.

His life can be seen in a collection of pictures in a box: a young, single man sporting a shotgun; a stern looking father standing behind his children; a rugged outdoorsman proudly displaying a day’s catch; an adored husband; an aging, pensive man, appearing to be planning his next project or adventure. I shuffle through these pictures and for a moment, ‘touch my father’s hand’.

I’m surrounded by reminders of my father, keeping alive my memory of him and the times we shared. At my workbench, I hold the tools he left behind and sense the touch of his strong, calloused hand, a hand toughened on the instruments of his trade and his handyman skills: a hammer and hand crafted wooden box, still full of his selection of nails; old hand saws in need of sharpening; chisels and broad knives; a duster that outlived its usefulness as a pure bristle paintbrush.

In a storage room, a wallpaper board he gave me warps with age. Always the teacher, I’m sure he was hoping that I was watching and learning some of his decorating skills.  I was. I move my hand slowly across its paste stained surface and ‘touch my father’s hand’.

Under my desk lies his rifle that we sighted at the range each year in preparation for hunting season. I never saw him shoot a deer. Unlucky, a poor shot, or just a man who enjoyed the woods without the gaming, Now, I feel the cold steel of the tarnished barrel, the etched wood of the worn stock, and the smooth, shiny finish of the trigger, and I ‘touch my father’s hand’.

A once classic set of golf clubs stands alone in the corner. We woke early on Saturdays to meet my brothers for a morning of serious, but fun, golf. Good shots were applauded, poor shots were cursed, and loose change went to the winners. Once again, the time together presented him with great teaching moments about golf, life and friendship. Today, I pull a club from the worn golf bag that has stiffened with age, grip it and give it a waggle. Almost seems like Saturday morning.

An array of fishing rods lay against the cellar wall. Old reels, pitted by ocean salt, collect dust and spider webs while looking down at me from an overhead shelf. Homemade lures hang by their treble hooks on a nail. I brush away the webs and give one of the reels a crank or two. For a fleeting moment, I see him casting in the foamy, white surf along a sandy Massachusetts beach or rocky Rhode Island shore, places where we fished, side by side. I feel the stiff wire leader run between my fingers, as I close my eyes to a carefree time, a ‘once upon a time’.

l have many wonderful memories of my father. I have things of his that depict him and his life. Yet, I don’t have him, anymore. It’s the natural progression of life, isn’t it?  But today, when I reached out and held those things that once were his, I ‘touched my father’s hand’…..and it was wonderful, again.

Mother & Dad

srbottch

Dedicated to my father,

November 13, 1905 – November 5, 1981

The Bar Chronicles: #1,  A Night At The Bar 

Guinness

A mild evening in late October found me in a bar with a friend. I don’t frequent bars and haven’t been to one in years. But this night seemed to be a good time to go. And we did, a spur of the moment decision following a public meeting on our town’s master plan for future development.  At first chance, we made a beeline to the local watering hole, a sports bar.

Inconveniently, the only tandem stools available were under two televisions blaring out hockey and football action. Throughout the bar, patrons sat with one hand wrapped around an ale and their heads tilted back and up to see the games. I was expecting to see a chiropractor’s contact information scribbled on the men’s room wall, ‘Sore necks? Call this number…!’

No TV for us. We came to relive a snippet of days gone by when ‘bar nights’ with the boys was a more common occurrence.  A cold one and some ‘BS’ was on our agenda.

“What’ll it be gentlemen?” That would be us, ‘gentlemen’, not ruffians, but a couple of senior citizens on a weeknight escape. The barmaid could see it immediately, this wasn’t our ‘first rodeo’.  “Two Guinness, 12 ounce”, I bellowed, like a bar night neophyte ordering his first drink after turning legal, promising my friend a dark beer with a frothy head, thick enough to leave a sudsy moustache on his lip.  “An import?”, he quipped.  The profundity was beginning already as we debated the virtues of imported Irish stout versus American light.

Here we were, two friends, far from ‘over the hill’ but getting there, done with our careers, wiser than a wise owl and older, neither trying to impress the other, content only to have a night-cap at a bar and talk about the four Ps of life: politics, portfolios, pills and the past.

We briefly gnashed politics around, then abruptly shifted to something slightly less daunting, the economy and our portfolios. The embellishment of our ups and downs surely eclipsed the highs and lows of the ‘big board’, itself. We toasted our own moderate successes and moved on to health issues, always a big topic among Seniors.

“Another round, boys?” What a segue. It’s been reported that a little alcohol each day can be a healthy regiment.  But another round? We’re only 6 ounces into our 12 and it’s been more than an hour. “Check, please.!”

We gulped the last of our beer without getting to the ‘past’, agreeing to do it next time, or the time after that, and headed for the exit. I slid a quarter into the gum ball machine by the door, cranked the handle and watched the purple sphere slowly spiral its way to the bottom. I looked down at it, and left.  Who the hell can bend over that far to retrieve a gum ball after filling up on beer, albeit one 12 ounce Guinness?

srbottch

Dedicated to my wise friend and namesake, a model Senior, Steve P.

To Dance…

To dance is to love… (srbottch)

Dancing Shoes

What is it about men and dancing ? While women flourish on the dance floor and enjoy the spotlight, many men seem reticent to join them.  I was one of them…

It began with the Swing, ‘it’ being pressure. “Change partners”, instructed the instructor. I felt it…palpitations…perspiration… pressure!  I was petrified.

I had agreed to dance lessons with my wife, a natural dancer. Me, I’m a natural wallflower, a slug on the hardwood. And while I was willing to learn, I wasn’t expecting to dance with other women, even if it made me a better dancer. Dancing, not better dancing, was my objective.

Understand, I had never danced with another woman since our marriage more than 25 years ago.  I rarely danced with my wife. This was virgin territory. I wasn’t resisting, but I wasn’t just jumping in feet first, either.

We conquered (my words) the swing and other dances; waltz, foxtrot, cha-cha, and the ‘dance of love’, the rumba.  As our confidence grew, so did our repertoire, we added some samba, a little mambo, and the always exciting and fast paced polka. We only sat out when they played a tango.

Now, we were hooked and looking pretty good on the floor, at least in my mind’s eye. I bought dance shoes and took compliments seriously, while my wife’s ‘eye rolls’ kept me grounded.

But, like anything, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Some fractures, a fall, and some inconvenient surgery interfered just enough to upset our skill sets. Did I forget to mention memory? We just plain forgot stuff, too. But we persevered.

Now we’ve discovered ’round dancing’.  Unlike square dancing, we dance to  traditional ballroom rhythms, moving in a circle, not a square, to a ‘caller’, and we don’t change partners. I’ll repeat, I only have to satisfy one woman, my wife. How hard is that?  Even the ‘caller’ tells me what steps to do. So simple! No sweat!  No pressure!

Of course, I do have to know the intricacies of the steps. After all, it’s dancing, and that can be problematic for me at times. Sometimes, I go left when she goes right, I step back when she goes forward, I turn when she doesn’t.

We’re having fun, laughing, oftentimes at ourselves, enjoying the social mixing, and the challenge of learning something new. We’re getting exercise, physical and mental, both important to us.

And just as the dance moves in a circle, a symbol of eternity, so do we, one couple, in love with the dance, and each other.

Go dancing, men.  Take the ‘lead’…

As entertainer Craig Ferguson quipped,

“If a man doesn’t know how to dance, he doesn’t know how to make love!”

srbottch

Oct 2015

Today, I Played Mah-Jongg…the Thrill of Victory

Play Mah-jongg

“Mahj!”

I announced boldly, with bravado in my voice and an overbearing victory grin that stretched from ear to ear across my face, a proverbial Cheshire cat. The thrill of victory*.

My playing mates, stunned at the sudden end of the game and annoyed at my over-the-top declaration, offered thinly veiled congratulations. The agony of defeat*.

But, to the victor go the spoils. And so they did, starting with high-fives, not once, but twice from our normally staid instructor herself, disregarding all rules of decorum. The air was heavy with envy.

My inner narcissist was soaking up the spotlight, as she unabashedly gloated over her student, me, winning on a ‘closed hand’, with no jokers, a 50 pointer, to boot. Together, we were gitty, sportsmanship be-damned, as the class looked on with slumping shoulders and narrowing eyes. For a moment, I thought we might celebrate with a leaping chest bump, the ultimate alpha male celebratory gesture. But, I doubted either one of us could leap, and why risk cracked ribs at our age?

Finally, the trophy, a reach into the grab bag of prizes. Yummy, Craisinettes! As I raised them overhead, I thought, “this is my Stanley Cup moment”, finishing Mah-jongg class with a stunning win, the teacher’s pet, and a box of Craisinettes. Life is good!

Winning is exhausting. Losing is, well, losing…

Mah-jongg, from the Chinese, is an intricate game that challenges your capacity to remember, identify, strategize and capitalize, in other words, it’s a thinking person’s game. There’s no running, hitting or throwing. Swearing, if at all, is under your breath. Drinking and smoking is tabu. And the stakes are low. But, like any contest, there is tension, anxiety and a bit of stress to keep you alert..

With Bams and Craks, Dots and Soaps, Jokers and Dragons, players pick and place, discard and call, mix and match tiles, thirteen each, in various combinations based on instructions from a ‘master card’. When a match is made to one of the 51 patterns on the card, the game is over and you have a winner.

If you like ‘thinking’ games and victory celebrations, then you’ll like Mah-jongg. And don’t be fooled by the transparent accolades when you win. No one really wants the game to end until they end it with their own shout out …

“MAH-JONGG!”

Mah-jongg Card

srbottch.com/October 2015

Dedicated to a wonderful Mah-jongg instructor with a big sense of humor, Linda Dinino.

“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat”
(Wide World of Sports, ABC)

Welcome Fall…

Front Porch

“I cannot endure to waste anything as precious as autumn sunshine by staying in the house.
So, I spend almost all the daylight hours in the open air.”
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, American poet

What wonderful words to welcome the new Fall season. Today, I did just that, welcomed it, in all its glory; clear skies, early morning dew and a crispness in the air that snaps your lungs to attention.

Earlier this week, our house prepared for the change, as well. The air conditioner was retired, window screens removed, the furnace inspected, and most importantly, the oven reported for duty.

Welcome, Fall!

The much appreciated and long-awaited aromas of baked goods returned with scents of apples, cranberries and pumpkins for cakes, breads and muffins. Spices aroused my sensory receptors like perfume on a delicate nape. My salivary glands stirred from their summer sleep, anticipating the coming feasts. Surely, a measure of discipline will be required to maintain my belt size.

Maples and oaks will treat us to their final burst of fiery red, bright yellow and sparkling orange before laying bare their limbs to the certainty of winter. Blankets of grass will succumb to frosts and begin their seasonal dormancy, a relief to my tired lawnmower.

Welcome, Fall!

Hiking trails will become colorful murals and deer will be forewarned of intruders in their woods by the crunching of dried leaves underfoot.

Local farms will welcome us into their orchards for apple picking and cider tasting. We’ll sample the delicious fruit as we pick from trees, filling our bags with the sweet and tart varieties, intent on eating our daily quota to ‘keep the doctor away’.

Small town farmers markets become destinations for fun excursions. Families will mix and greet amid just picked greens, ripe tomatoes, a plethora of squashes and apples, fresh-baked pies and fall plants, while everyone’s favorite, the pumpkins with their long, twisty stems, wait to be carved and decorated with scary Halloween faces.

Fall, the season to lay gardens to rest and prepare their beds for the harsh winter. And, as Hawthorne opined, we will enjoy the Autumn sunshine with walks in the woods, shopping at outdoor art festivals, or raking leaves. We will breathe the crisp air and succumb to the beauty of the season…at least until kickoff, because, alas, Fall is football season.

Yes, welcome, Fall!

Pumpkins

(photos by Dick Moss)

Blueberries, Strawberries and The End of Summer


Oh, my, have you seen the calendar? The End of Summer is in sight.  Just a few more weeks of long days, brilliant sunshine and warm nights, then Fall ushers in with shorter days, fading sunlight, cooler nights and its lexicon of seasonal ‘F’ words; football, foliage and frost.

The End of Summer also means the end of one of my decadent pleasures, fresh fruit from local farms, especially
sweet, succulent strawberries and big, bold blueberries.  Sliced or whole, drop a handful of these tasty morsels on a bowl of your favorite breakfast cereal (Cheerios, for me) and it’s paradise for your palate.  Your lips will love you and your taste buds will tingle.  How depressing, knowing the ballet in my mouth is about to ‘go dark’ until next year.  End of Summer, please linger longer.

The sliced banana is a wonderful addition to my cereal concoction, and according to Wikipedia (the Internet), botanically it’s a berry.  By adding a sprinkle of crushed walnuts, my bowl overflows with a cornucopia of colors and textures with the patriotic reds, whites and blues of these three fruits.  But, thanks to the End of Summer’s culpable coalition with the calendar, ‘this too shall pass’, at least for the strawberries and blueberries, but not the banana.

What is it with the surviving banana?  The banana seems to escape the same demise of the red and blue berries.  The banana is always available and the price doesn’t fluctuate.  An ‘expert’ proffered that bananas are a fast growing tree so the supply is plentiful and constant.  Bananas are a healthy fruit, too, they just don’t measure up on the juicy and sweet scale, as do the others.

I’ve given up picking my own, but every season I recall the times my dad took my sister and me into the mosquito infested brush where wild blueberries thrived. We ate more than we bucketed, but had plenty for a pie, or two.  My wife and I often took our kids strawberry picking in the hot sun of local fields where we competed with bees for the biggest berries we could find. What lasting memories these ‘pickin’ times made.

At this moment, the bountiful strawberries and blueberries are disappearing from grocers’ shelves and I find it fruitless to complain.  After all, it is a natural change, as the seasons dictate the bounty of the produce we enjoy.  Besides, the End of Summer will reward our patience with the start of the apple season.  And a good apple will push the strawberries and blueberries to the farthest corner of my mind.

For now, I’ll turn to the iron filled shriveled raisin and its lookalike cousin, the craisin, for my cereal topping. And I must make time to travel south into New York’s wine country along the Finger Lakes to enjoy a unique local treat, grape pie.

End of Summer, after all is said and done, you and Mother Nature are treating us quite nicely.