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Archive for March, 2019

Molasses

(Transcribed from longhand writing scrawled in a journal while meeting with writing circle on March 8, 2019.)

I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an essential ingredient in American independence.  Many great events have proceeded from much smaller causes. John Adams (by then one of the country’s founding fathers, writing to a friend)

“Helen Jo, hurry up!” she’d say.  “You’re as slow as cold molasses flowing uphill.”  That was our mother’s expression when her children would dawdle, and we, her coastal Maine kids, knew that this threat was an idle one.  Our mother loved slow-flowing sweet molasses, and we, her kids, loved it too.  We were a family of the sixties, ate from all the food groups, fish from the cove in the summer, chicken, beef and pork in the winter, potatoes baked or scalloped, a vegetable always, and salad, fresh from the garden until the frost wilted the heads.  And dessert — every night, we ate dessert.  Molasses was a favorite.  We loved our mother’s passion for molasses, the miracles she created by marrying it with spicy ginger.  There was Indian pudding, a New England favorite, corn meal, milk, ginger and molasses, thickened on top of the stove, baked for hours, then topped with ice-cold vanilla ice cream that melted into the steaming pudding.  And gingerbread.  Our mother cheated, bought Dromedary mix.  We loved her Dromedary mix gingerbread topped with a dollop of whipped cream or a slab of real butter, loved her crisp ginger snap cookies, too, and the soft round molasses ones she baked on snowy winter days.

On the lucky mornings when we woke up to the aftermath of a nighttime snow squall to discover that school was cancelled, after hours of inside play, when our raucousness was just too much for her to bear, our mother would hand us our woolen snow pants, our hand knit mittens, our stocking caps and shove us out the door.  It wasn’t a choice; it was a command, a command that led to hours of snow-fort building and toboggan sliding and   wild whooping abandon.  And then there would be the call, the permission to come back in, to the warmth of a humming furnace and radiators that warmed our bottoms and hands.  And there they would be, still piping hot from the oven.  The big round molasses cookies.  I wonder if it relaxed her, to have this time alone, in the quiet of her kitchen, with the ingredients she loved, the butter, the eggs, the flour, the ginger, and the molasses all mixed together in a glorious swirl.

Our mother grew up in Boston, the land of slow-cooked molasses-laden baked beans.  She was a Boston girl, lived just a stone’s throw from the city center, on childhood  Sundays traveling in with her parents and siblings to attend the Boston Swedenborgian Church, knew the Boston of the twenties intimately, and we her Maine-raised kids, each Thanksgiving, would pile into our powder blue 1957 Chevy station wagon, and travel the three hours to her old stomping  ground where we would gather with grandparents, great uncles and aunts, with cousins and their parents for our annual turkey feast.  From infancy on, I took this trip with parents and siblings and I have wondered whether I dreamed it, the story I remember our mother telling us as we would drive through the north end of the city.  I was little, after all, a pre-schooler, and it all seems hazy and improbable. But this is what I remember.  She would roll down the driver’s side window, and say to our dad and to us, “Do you smell it, the molasses?”  And we would sniff the air, and I think we would smell it, a faint sweet dark smell wafting in through the car window.  And then in my dream of a memory, she would plunge into the story, tell us how a giant tank of molasses burst wide open and molasses poured down the streets of Boston.

This dream of a story has stuck with me as molasses tends to do, and our mother’s love of molasses, I’ve taken it in as an offering, a nurturing gift, and dark blackstrap molasses, I love it just as she did.  And gingerbread, mine made from scratch and sweetened with prunes, is my birthday cake of choice.  And this is what I want to tell you, that it was this year, on my birthday, January 15, 2019, that I happened upon it, the article commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the Great Molasses Disaster.  Oh my!  There’s a start, a startle, a gasp, even a whoop when a hazy molasses-laden dream shines bright in the light of day.  And that’s when it happened, in the light of the day, a little after noon, on January 15, 1919, after a week of sub-zero weather, during a melt-down thaw when temperatures sky-rocketed to forty degrees.  And this tank, full of molasses, was ready to transfer for processing and had fermented in the unseasonably warm weather, people surmise, and then it burst.  Our mother was three-and-a-half months old when a torrent of molasses more than fifteen feet high raged down the street in Boston’s north end at thirty-five hours an hour.  This is no sweet and sappy children’s story, no Candyland game of a tale.  This is tragedy.  This is horses and people drowning in a river of molasses, of a train toppling, of houses uprooted.  This is a mess, a messy molasses story in the home of Boston baked beans.

And our mother inhaled it all, I think.  She must have.  How could you not hear the tale over and over during your childhood?  The streets were sticky for years and our mother must have stuck to those streets and the harbor was brown and salty-sweet for months during the summer she learned to crawl and our grandparents must have told her what it was like to hear the first-hand accounts from friends in the north end.  So there its was, tragedy and drama, a river of molasses starting out hot and bubbly, then slowing down as it cooled and trapping whatever was in its path.  Our mother didn’t shy away from tragedy.  In some ways, perhaps she attracted it, sent out a tragic vibe that allowed sorrow to sweep in and stick to her.  In high school, she told me, she had a crush on a guy.  Not exactly her words.  Perhaps she said that she was shy and he was shy too, but there was something there, a spark between them.  And one day, at a football game, as he charged down the field, his heart simply gave out, and he died.  And that’s how her first husband, at thirty-three, died, in an internal explosion of heart, and then my father, he died too.

There was a sticky sorrow in all of this, I’m sure, and yet our mother was a buoyant soul, She didn’t dive down and drown in this sticky mess.  She, like her mother before her, soaked her beans in water overnight, then, pressure-cooked them with sweet onions and tomatoes and a chug chug chug of molasses.  Every Saturday night, we ate Boston Baked Beans.  Our molasses was contained in bottles, and gently slowly flowed in a trickle into the cookies and puddings and cakes.  And when our mother rolled down the window of our 1957 powered blue Chevy station wagon and asked, “Do you smell it?”, as she told us the tale of the Great Molasses Disaster, in my dream of a memory, I don’t remember any sorrow in her voice.  She was chipper and we were too, sniffing the air and smelling the faint whiff of a sweetness that far outlived any tragedy that had occurred decades earlier.

A Yooper Winter

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam.  This crisp winter air is full of it.  John Burroughs

Winter in the country is very white.  There is black grit on all the shoulders of the roads and on the big mounds from the plows, and all the cars are filthy, but the fields are dazzling and untouched and pristine.  Susan Orlean

It is a bold statement for someone like me to make, someone not born here, a transplant from Maine in early adulthood to this Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  But, after thirty-eight years, thirty-eight winters, I’m going for it, proclaiming it out loud and to the world. I am a Yooper.  And we Yoopers are a hardy lot.  And this winter, this winter of weather, our Yooper hardiness has been tested to the max.  The Finns who have lived in this Yooper country for centuries have a word for it, Sisu.  Call upon your Sisu, they say, your tenacity, grit, resilience, hardiness.  And a winter like this will do that to you, Finn or non-Finn, force you to dive deep into your own bones and find that Yooper strength, that resilience, your Sisu.

I come from a family of weather-lovers, New England-born folk living along the coast of Maine, in the mountains of New Hampshire, in the wooded lots of Massachusetts.  My mother, queen of the weather-lovers, from her cottage home at the head of a cove in Maine, had a front row seat to calm blue-sky off-shore breeze days, to the windy ones, too, and the rousing nor’easters of autumn and the snow squalls of winter.  She observed and obsessed about weather and it was a favorite for us, in our frequent phone conversations, to exchange weather reports, mine from the Upper Peninsula, hers from the cove.  And this winter, if she were still living in her body, the phone conversations between the two of us would be filled with the drama of weather and she would be thrilled with vicarious pleasure as I relayed the details to her, not needing to embellish a bit.  First there was the early snow, I would say, feet of it before Christmas, then the cold, the bitter cold, plunging into a two-week sub-zero Polar Vortex, then, the one-day thaw and the rain that pounded down all night long and froze as temperatures once again plummeted into single digits.  And the ice.  I would tell my mother about the ice that clung to the trees in early February and is still clinging to the branches along the high ground a month later, how the trees snapped and broke, how the branches fell and the birches bent down low over the roads, and then, I would say the snow, it kept on falling, all month long, nothing melting as the storms, one after another, piled up.  And then, there was the storm of storms, late in the month, the one that blew the snow with its fifty mile an hour winds into drifts so high we can’t see out onto our deck.  That is the weather report that I would tell my mother, the weather report we Yoopers have been living for the past few months.

Yooper-winter-living isn’t for the faint-hearted and the word hardy contains the word hard and I’m not saying that there hasn’t been hardship in this winter of winters.  Up close and personal my husband Cam and I have felt it along with our Yooper neighbors.  There are the pine branches that have fallen in our backyards and onto our decks, the never-ending shoveling and snow-blowing, the bitter cold biting our faces and stunning our breath, the ice damns clinging to our roofs and the water leaking into our houses, the trails we love to ski and bike along covered with miles of debris, the car rides on icy roads and in blinding white-outs.  Yes, there have been challenges.  But Sisu is a word that also contains joy, the joy of meeting those challenges with a shovel, a chainsaw, an all-wheel drive vehicle, a down coat and a warm hat, the joy of rising above them and finding the fun in it all.

And that’s what I want to tell you, what I would have told my mother, that we have had fun, my husband and I, as we’ve plowed and plodded through this Yooper winter.  And the gifts, there have been gifts to behold.  There are the outside gifts, how every day, every single day, we both have found ways to meet the weather head-on.  In the bitter cold, I remembered the hat my cousin Abby, the milliner in New York made for me years ago, a wonderful faux fur hat with fabrics and buttons that are family heirlooms, and this magnificent hat warmed my head and my heart on the coldest of the cold days as I marched my way through the snowy woods.  And the trees, the trees coated with ice, glistened and sparkled on the days the sun shined and the world became a dazzling fairy-land, a magical kingdom that defies description.  And one night, under a half-moon sky and Orion shining down on us, Cam and I snowshoed on his bike trails, panking them down in preparation for an upcoming race.  As we wound our way along the narrow paths with snow up to our waists on either side, the trees sparkled in the light of Cam’s headlamp and the quiet snow sang to us and the cold nestled into our bones and we felt it, our joyous Sisu.

And the gifts of this winter of weather have crept into the inside of our houses as well.  After the cold and the snow and the vigor of exercise, the warmth of a furnace, a fireplace, brilliantly-painted walls has been as welcoming as the coziest of hugs.  The Finns know how to warm up those cold bones after the outside play.  And I remembered this too, during the Polar Vortex.  How could we have forgotten it, that like our Yooper neighbors, we have a sauna, in our basement, barely used since the boys grew up?  This winter, it has been our saving grace, our nightly ritual, to heat up that cedar-lined room, to fling water onto the Lake Superior stones, to breathe in the heat, the steam and the sizzle, to lie there and relax and let it all seep in, the warmth, the knowing that we are resilient and hardy, that we have grit, that we can sleep well on this night and that tomorrow, we will face it, whatever the weather brings, with Sisu and spunk.  We are Yoopers.

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Wearing hat created by milliner cousin Abigail Aldridge while tromping through the woods during the Polar Vortex: Ishpeming, Michigan, late January, 2019

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Lake Superior during Polar Vortex: Presque Isle, Marquette, Michigan, late January, 2019

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Lake Superior during Polar Vortex: Presque Isle Park, Marquette, Michigan, late January, 2019

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Back Yard Havoc: Day One of Ice Storm, February 4, 2019

 

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After the ice storm and the snow: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, February 16, 2019

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Skiing in a bounty of snow: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Mid-February 2019

 

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A Weekend in Sedona, Day-after Historic Snowstorm: Late February 2019

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The View to Our Deck: Late February, 2019

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Joy Center: Late February, 2019

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