What I do for love

Tall grass growing wild at Lyme Park. Category...

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My husband and I clamp on our ear muffs, then gloves and safety glasses. We look like we’re headed to work on the tarmac at the local airport, but we’re not. We give each other the thumbs up, then I head off on the riding mower while he picks up the weed-wacker. We’re doing something that we’ve done for the last four summers – cutting the grass at my parent’s home.

As I circle the familiar yard atop the mower, something I never would have been allowed to do when I was growing up there, because everyone knows that riding a mower is much too dangerous for a GIRL, I have plenty of time to think. I slice through the tall grass making a path back to our old woods, where my sister and I spent countless hours tromping through the mud, and were  sure we had at least once seen a bear. (We hadn’t) . I circle the side yard where our greenhouse once stood, reminded of the hours that I toiled there as a girl, tamping seedlings into flats, surrounded by the warm, earthy smell of dirt, and my sister singing along to WLS top 40 radio. I head to the back yard where our barn once was, where we slipped our hands under warm chickens to pull out a fresh egg, and where Cookie the cow lived, until she mysteriously disappeared one day, and we suddenly started eating pot roast  a lot. Then, to the other side of the house, where sheets once flapped on a clothesline every Monday, and bluebirds nested in homemade boxes outside our windows, and where the TV antenna  stood, waiting for someone to come out and give it a turn, so maybe for once we could watch “The Patty Duke Show” or  “American Bandstand” (We couldn’t.) Finally, back to the front, where we’d find fat Blue Racers stretched out to cool on the cement stoop on hot summer days, making us terrified to step out of our own home, no matter how much Daddy reassured us they were harmless.

This job never fails to evoke this flood of memories and most of the time, despite the summer heat, and the dust thrown up from the blades, I don’t mind it. I could hire someone to do this work – after all, I’m in charge now, but it feels right to do it myself. To tend the home and lawn where I once played, where we had cookouts and turtle races; where we posed with our new lunch boxes on the first day of school; where my parents worked hard to makes this place a home. The old expression “You do for family” continually comes to mind. My parents are gone; they wouldn’t know the difference, yet I feel compelled to “do” for them, to mow, trim, and weed for a family that is no longer there, for a house that is no longer a home.

And so I spend a part of each summer Sunday tooling around on a mower, with a perpetual bruise on the inside of my leg where my knee bangs up against the levers on every turn, because I “do” for family.

Soon, the house will be sold. This labor of love will be done. I’ll be free to spend my Sundays at the lake or on my bike, but for now I do this task, to honor the memory of those who made it a home for me so many years ago.

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© Huffygirl 2011


Remembering Daddy



Hardworking man


Remembering my dad this Father’s Day.  Thanks Daddy.

© Huffygirl

Photo notes:

1. Dad, 830th Army Engineer Aviation Battalion, around 1940.

2. Mom and Dad’s wedding day, November 1947.

3. Dad, building our back porch, around 1950

4. Dad and daughters, Huffygirl on the right, around 1959.

(Steve C., 1920-2006)

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I’m spring cleaning – well sort of

Feather duster, dustpan and broom, and upright...

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I enjoy having a clean home. And I used to enjoy housecleaning.  Until now. Maybe it has something to do with getting older, but I’m now at a point in my life where I feel like I should be out seizing the day  instead of doing mundane tasks like dusting. After all, I don’t have that much time left. I figure 30-35 years at the most, and the last 10-20 of those will probably be wasted going to early bird specials and taking bus trips with other old people at some “retirement community.” Depressing. So I feel like I should be getting as much out of life as I can right now, and  that no longer includes dusting.

Yet, the house gets dirty, and I want it clean. What to do? I could hire someone to clean, and I did try that for a while. It seems that the cleaning company’s idea of clean and my idea of clean did not quite mesh. The “cleaning lady” could clean my whole house in three hours, while it takes me six.  Plus, I keep thinking,  “I could be doing something FUN with the money I’m spending to pay someone to sort of clean.” That whole seize the day idea again. Maybe if I hired an illegal alien to clean, instead of an American from a cleaning service, I could get more for my money and get them to clean exactly the way I want it done, but hey, I’m above that.

So, back to cleaning. I’ve resorted to the age-old method of cleaning that college students and a lot of other people use – clean when you’re having company. That works okay, but you either have to have company a lot, or put up with a dirty house. After all, we only have so many friends. I’ve also tried guerilla cleaning, or blitzing. Notice my use of sports and war analogies related to cleaning  – it IS a war on dust after all. My husband and I buzz around the house as a team, picking up, me dusting, he vacuuming. It works, but again, you need some motivation and the time to do it. You can’t be out hiking the Rockies, and say, “Gosh, better stop now, have to go home and clean.”

So today, I’m trying a new tactic that’s called – “hurry up and dust, move furniture and vacuum, because the carpet cleaning guys will be here in an hour” method of cleaning. The principle is this: everything needs to be dusted. And it’s time for the carpets to be cleaned. But I don’t want to be dusting furniture and risk pushing the dirty dust onto the newly cleaned carpets. So I’m dusting the lamps, tabletops, pictures, etc now while I’m also moving the smaller furniture out of the way before the carpet cleaning guys get here. The carpet guys will come, clean the carpets, and when I move all the freshly dusted things back – voila’ – the entire room  will be clean. Brilliant. Except it only works when I’m having the carpets cleaned. And it doesn’t take care of the rooms that don’t have carpeting. And it’s exhausting to be running around like a madwoman, while being tired from all the seizing the day I did yesterday, and trying to get all this done before the carpet guys get …

Sigh. Never mind, they’re here.

House keeping

Mom and Dad, 1947 (© Huffygirl)

My family and I are cleaning out my parents house. It evokes a strange conglomeration of feelings – I’m puzzled, sad, happy, surprised, and mystified all at the same time.

Puzzled: why did Mom have twenty empty shoe boxes, complete with the tissue paper, silica gel, and shopping bag, in her closet? She had more shoe boxes than she had shoes, and most of her shoes were exactly the same – standard-issue senior citizen walkers, with Velcro straps. It couldn’t have been that she was trying to decide if she liked them, because almost every pair was exactly the same as the one before it.  Accompanying the shoes is every coat she’s bought for the last 20 years – all out of style, an array of sizes that no longer fit, yet there they were, lined up, carefully stored in garment bags, for what – the next depression?

Mom, Dad and kids, 1951 (© Huffygirl)

Sad: photos and papers from my parent’s growing-up years. Turns out Dad had  an eighth-grade diploma stating he was entitled to attend high school tuition free, but never went. My sister and I suspect his struggles with learning English at age 6 when he entered school had made school difficult and uncomfortable for him, so opted out. A picture of Dad and his mom at his sister’s wedding. It appears that Dad had walked her down the aisle, as their father had died a few years earlier. Now I understand why he seemed closer to her than he had to his other sisters. 

Dad, World War II, probably 1941. Note cigar in left hand. (© Huffygirl)

Happy: family photos from all sorts of events. Mom arm in arm with girlhood friends. Mom and Dad at what looks like a bridal shower. Their growing-up mementos, from a First Communion veil, holy cards for good behavior, diplomas, pictures of army buddies and unidentified relatives; all of we kid’s school pictures with our homely hair styles and tacky looking glasses, tucked lovingly into the corner of a drawer.

Surprised: workbooks from Mom’s classes for her GED. Looks like she struggled with math, which we never noticed  growing up, but she passed anyway. Mom’s sewing and knitting projects – we were surprised when she crotched little capes for our dolls, but she was more creative than we knew. Dad’s art books – we knew he had he dabbled in art after his retirement but didn’t know he studied sketching.

Dad and kids, around 1959. That's me on the right. (© Huffygirl)

Mystified: what to do with all of it? We don’t want to discard our family memories, but at the same time, don’t want to fill up our own homes with box after box of sentimental “stuff.”  What to do with Dad’s old army uniform and accoutrements? I’ve decided to have an old map detailing his army unit’s travels framed, but what about the rest of it? I’m trying to keep things I might actually use. There’s a ring of Mom’s I think I would wear, but what about the other jewelry that doesn’t suit my taste, but I have too many fond memories of playing with to easily discard? Maybe we should limit ourselves to each keeping what will fit in one box. But what will happen with that box years from now when my kids are forced to sort through it? Will anyone care about Uncle Stan’s obituary, Grandma’s old diploma and Grandpa’s Army engineer pin?

Emptying out a childhood home is a task that many of us will deal with at one time or another in our lives. How we sort it all out is a challenge. Keeping the memories close is a blessing.

A non-recipe recipe for non-recipe cooks: Slow-bake beef and vegetables

Because of food allergies, recipes at my house are pretty simple. A lot of cooking I learned from my mom, who had few recipes but made simple, traditional meals, adding ingredients “until they look right.” I recently came up with this no-fail recipe for beef and vegetables that is easy and can be adapted to one’s tastes. Why no fail? Amounts don’t have to be measured – just

Place meat in the bottom of the pan, cover with vegetables. (Photo: Huffygirl)

estimate and throw in what looks right. You can bake it at a lower temp and longer if you need to be away for the afternoon, or higher and quicker if you’re short on time.


1-2.5 pounds of beef, either sirloin, round steak, chuck or shoulder roast, depending on the size of the group you wish to feed and the time you have available. Sirloin is the quickest cooking time

Frozen, cut green beans about 1 cup

Baby carrots, about 1 to 1  1/2 cups

Celery, about 2-3 stalks, cut into 2-inch pieces

4-6 unpeeled red skin potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes

2-3 cups water (may use part beef broth and/or wine if desired)

2-4 small onions, whole

spices to taste preference : I used 1/2 tsp salt and freshly ground pepper, and

Sprinkle seasonings on top. (Photo: Huffygirl)

a sprinkling of oregano and thyme, about 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon each. Other spices you might like are rosemary, tarragon, garlic, or a splash of dijon mustard.

Secret sauce ingredient – Williams Sonoma Beef Demi-glace, about 2-3 teaspoons

Corn starch for thickening – 1-3 tablespoons depending on amount of liquid

Place the meat in the bottom of a large roasting pan. Cover with the vegetables, potatoes and onions.

Sprinkle seasonings. Pour in 2-3 cups liquid – enough to moisten everything, but does not have to be covered.

The secret ingredient (Photo: Huffygirl)

Add the secret sauce ingredient to the water. Place pan uncovered in oven; bake at 300-325 degrees for half an hour; cover with lid and bake an additional 2-3 hours, depending on the size of the beef, until everything is done. If you want the sauce thickened into gravy, add 1-3 tablespoons of cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup of cold water about 30 minutes before serving. Serves 3-6 people, depending on the amount of meat used.

Add bread and ready to eat! (Photo: Huffygirl)

Variations: For a southwest flare, add 1/2  to 1 cup of salsa. May use sweet potatoes in addition to or instead of white potatoes. May add any kind of vegetable that you like that will tolerate long, slow baking. May vary oven temperature depending upon how much cooking time you have available. If you need to be gone for the afternoon and leave it in the oven unattended, may go as low as 275 to 300 degrees. Or put it in a crock pot for the entire day on low.

  © The author and Huffygirl’s Blog, 2010 to 3010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Huffygirl’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


The Container Store in Schaumburg, Illinois

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I have a new reason to visit my relatives in Indianapolis  – they are opening a Container Store there! What is so exciting about a store that sells containers, you might ask? Well, I love organizing. I get The Container Store catalog and pour over the pictures of perfectly organized closets and cupboards. Every item compartmentalized in a bin, basket, or drawer. Clothes neatly hung up, arranged by length and color, and never on the floor. Having a Container Store closet would be a dream come true. Of course my closet and cupboards never look like the pictures in the catalog and never will, because: a)  I’m not going to invest my life savings in buying containers, and b) I don’t have a personal assistant to come clean up after me to make sure everything actually gets put away into the bins, drawers and cubbies, and c) sometimes it’s just easier to leave things out, because, hey you’re going to wear it again in a few minutes anyway. I do have a few things in bins, baskets and drawers, and I  feel pretty proud of myself when I manage to keep them organized and in their place. In general, although I don’t go for complete organizational perfection, I do find compartmentalizing certain things makes my life feel so more organized. Gym clothes in one bin, T-shirts in another, and some drawers to organize socks by color makes my life a little easier.

January is a great time for organizing. It’s cold and you’re stuck inside anyway, and still feeling the new year’s glow, the proverbial clean slate. Out with the old, in with the new, so why not turn that fresh new year feeling into a newly cleaned and organized closet? Retailers capitalize on this feeling each January by putting storage bins and organizing gear on sale. You don’t have to go to The Container Store – you can find what you need to organize your home, and you perhaps can do it more cheaply at your local big box store or department store (Sorry Container Store, but I still love ya!)

If organization is on your new year’s resolution list, what works for you? My goal right now is to get the socks off my closet floor, get my dresser drawers reorganized, and set aside clothes I no longer need to donate to charity. What are you doing to get that clean slate in your home?

All right already, I’m going to clean it

Sorry to say, this is my desk (Photo credit: Huffygirl)

My desk that is. My new year’s resolution (besides the usual lose ten pounds, bike faster and longer, and write legibly in the check book) is to clean my desk, and here’s the tricky part  – KEEP IT CLEAN. The biggest obstacle for me  is that I secretly like my desk to be messy. Well, I guess it’s not much of a secret now. My theory is that I get more done when my desk is messy, in part because instead of spending time cleaning my desk, I’m taking care of things that are on my desk. I can find everything I need, because it’s all sitting out too. I’ve heard others who have messy desks say the same –  they get more done working at a messy desk. But here’s the secret: the real reason that I get more done with a messy desk, is that the desk serves as a vehicle of natural selection. Survival of the fittest. Say you put something on your desk that you want to take care of: an article you want to read, a sale catalog from which you need to order, the number of someone you need to call, a manual from a new phone. As more things get piled on the desk, these items get covered until…when you finally clean the desk, the  article to read is no longer pertinent; the sale is over; the person you needed to call has

More messy desk (Huffygirl)

 moved or died, and the phone is broken or replaced. Voila! You saved yourself all that work and the problem took care of itself, all because of your efficient messy desk. Now why would I want to give all that up?

What’s your new year’s resolution? Is there a reason that you don’t REALLY want to do it like me?

© The author and Huffygirl’s Blog, 2010 to 3010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the author and Huffygirl’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

You had a good run Grandma

Mom and her friend Rose, about 1944

My 85-year-old mother died this week. She had a long life, most of it healthy despite a robust smoking  habit, some of it good, some not, but overall a life that was varied and interesting.  She was born of immigrant parents and grew up in a working class neighborhood of mostly Polish, Slovenian and others of eastern European descent. Her father worked in a factory, her mother stayed home raising kids, making chicken soup with homemade noodles, and poticca (poppy-seed bread) on special occasions, hanging her laundry on the line to dry while chatting over the fence to neighbors, and shopping at a neighborhood market, where you handed your list to the clerk behind the counter and they filled your order for you. My mother said they were “lucky” during the depression, because her father had a part-time job as a night watchman in a factory, while many other dads had nothing. Her growing up years are portrayed in pictures of her with her friends, sledding down a neighborhood hill, standing sweetly next to boyfriends, almost all dressed in army uniforms, and arm in arm with  girlfriends, walking  down the streets of Chicago or posing with the stone lions in front of the Art Institute. She quit high school in 11th grade to help support her family and worked in a factory making Karo syrup.  Maybe that’s why her hearing became so bad in later years, as there was no OSHA to protect workers then. Later, as an adult, she proudly completed her GED, not because she had to, but because she felt incomplete without that diploma, even though she grew up in a time when many people, especially women, did not complete school past the eight grade.

Mom and her daughters. That's me on the left.

She left her family in Chicago to move with her new husband to a farm in Michigan. Although she grew up a city girl, she traded it all for love, to pick pickles,  gather eggs, and sell tomato seedlings from our little greenhouse. She raised three children without the benefit of disposable diapers, ready-made formula or an automatic clothes washer.  She canned jam, hung clothes outside to dry and spent an entire day each week ironing. Her only phone was a black desk model on a party line. Her TV received  two channels. She styled her hair with pin curls and gave her daughters hideous home perms.

 She was the only mom who taught her daughters how to play hopscotch AND poker. She carried cigarettes in her purse next to pictures of her grandchildren. She could curse like a sailor and sweet-talk the priest, all on the very same day.  One of her fondest memories was the day her grandchildren took her to…the casino.

People describe her as sometimes funny, sometimes fun, but always feisty.  She was not afraid to speak her mind. I always heard about it if she didn’t like my clothes or hair or what I was doing, and not just as a teenager, but as an adult too. Her motto was “don’t go to any trouble,” yet she made sure you went to all kinds of trouble when she wanted you to.  She was too impatient to ever wait in a line, but patient enough to comfort us through our childhood illnesses and boyfriend dramas. She deferred decision-making to her husband, but later as a widow, gained confidence to hire a roofer and plumber, get her car serviced  and learn how to drive through the car wash.

She was determined to stay in her own home until she died and made sure we all felt miserable and abused

Mom at her 85th birthday party.

 when we “made her” move to our local hospice. But in the short time she was there, she was blessed and touched and basked under the loving care of the folks there, who were able to see past her sometime cantankerous exterior to the needs  of a dying woman.

As we all whispered our goodbyes to her this Christmas day night, I think my youngest son said it best. He leaned into her ear and said “You had a good run Grandma, you had a good run.”

What’s in Your Lunch Box?

My granddaughter started preschool this week and her parents reported that she happily carried her new lunch box all the way there. What is it about lunch boxes that make them special? It starts with the trip to the store with mom or dad to pick out the one you want. There’s so much to choose from – Buzz, Woody, Cinderella, Princess Jasmine, Star Wars, Transformers, Mickey. And if you don’t want a “character” lunch box, there’s plenty of great colors and designs. It’s one of the first things we’re allowed to pick out as a child that says “me.” It needs to be special and just what you want because it’s the little part of home you take with you when you venture out into the big scary world of school. Even if you’re not feeling brave, that special shiny piece of home reminds you that you’re going to be okay and mom and dad will be there to hear about the adventures of your day when you arrive home, lunch box in tow.  When you open your box at lunch time, there’s the food lovingly prepared by your mom or dad. In my day it was peanut butter  sandwiches on Wonder Bread. Now a days it’s more likely to be a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, fresh sweet grapes,  a granola bar or cookie. Sometimes there might be a note or picture tucked in by mom or dad. Later the lunch box becomes a repository for crumpled food wrappers, leftovers and errant school notes. Once home, moms and dads look through the lunch box detritus for clues of the day – food not eaten, playground treasures and often that very important note. By the end of the school year the shiny lunch box is scratched, dented, or maybe even lost, but still a sign of a year well done.

Remember your first lunch box? Or the first one you helped your kids pick out? The next time you pack a  lunch for yourself or someone else, don’t just throw in a Hot Pocket and  a pack of cheese and crackers. Put in some food lovingly prepared, somebody’s favorites, and tuck in a note, photo or a little piece of home to help them get bravely through the day.

© Huffygirl  2010