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On Mom’s 90th Birthday and Lemon Raspberry Cake

On Mom’s 90th Birthday and Lemon Raspberry Cake

My mother turned 90 years old last week. Born in 1930 in England, as a teenager she had bombs dropped on her during WW2. She would scurry to the dug-out shelter in the back garden, carrying her quilt with her in the night. The bombs always came at night. The worst ones were the “buzz bombs” that you’d hear buzzing from quite a far distance away, and then the silence when their tiny motor stopped. That’s when you knew they were dropping near you, that silence. My mom still has night terrors from those days, and she won’t talk about the war much, except in snippets. It’s like a view from a fast-moving train. Images from her past slip past in a blur of words filled with vibrant images that vanish when she diverts the conversation to pretty flowers or what’s for lunch.

Taken over time, it’s possible to put her war-torn early life together. Her childhood studying at a Convent school where she was taught useful things like French, sewing, and drawing by the nuns. Not being able to find shoes that fit just as she was growing fast, resulting in painful bunions, and having to cut the toes out of the tops of them. Walking down a street one day that was full of shops, and the next day was rubble. Finding bits of still-warm shrapnel on her doorstep. Happy memories get scattered in too, bursts of sunshine in this speeding landscape. The luxury of getting more than one egg a week per person or the taste of chocolate for the first time in years. It’s always in tiny blinks though. I’ve found it impossible to get long cohesive stories from her. I think she’d just rather not remember.

We got her to talking a little bit over cake. My mom left school at fourteen. Her dad wanted her to work at the family pub, “The Duck in the Pond,” but washing glasses and dumping ash trays wasn’t for her. She lasted as a shop girl for exactly half of a day. Instead, she decided to become an ice skater and took two buses and walked a little over five miles to take lessons every day. She excelled and was hired by the touring company of Holiday on Ice at eighteen. Mom toured the world as a featured skater for over a decade. Here is a clip, she is one of the ensemble skaters in this Sonja Henie TV show:

Mom met Dad when she booked the prestigious American tour, which practiced its new show in a small town in Iowa. He was part of the Chamber of Commerce which threw a reception for the skaters. He fell for her hard, and invited her out to a steak dinner, which was a treat for Mom on skater’s wages. A few months later he proposed over the phone while the show was in Toledo. “These phone calls are getting too damn expensive, why don’t you come marry me?” Mom thought about it, and got off the show train in St Paul, and they got married. Still are.

As we celebrated her birthday, over a lemon raspberry cake I baked (I am sharing that recipe with you below), I asked her what words of wisdom she had on her 90th birthday. She crinkled her nose, and then with a half-smile said, “Don’t count.” She’s hilarious. Her vote for best invention since she’s been born – not the internet, or a television in every home, or even Velcro. The automatic washing machine and dryer were her surprise pick. Another story flashed out as the reason for that choice. As a girl it was her chore to hand-agitate their clothes, and then use a mangle to wring them out. A terrible job, especially in winter, with woolen clothing and freezing temperatures, Mom said it was a hard job turning the crank, and it was done in their dank, grotty basement. Her face clouded, and the memory became visceral — the heaviness of those damp clothes in her hands, the drips of wet down her arms, the smell of the basement. She cut off the memory then, and politely asked if we wouldn’t want more cake. As I looked at my Mom, deflecting as usual, I saw all of it — her as a young girl in the basement, huddling in the bomb shelter, spinning on the ice, getting off the train to go make a life with a man she barely knew in a country not her own — all those moments and adventures all in one person. It’s astonishing what a person can get up to in ninety years. I’m glad I get to call her my beautiful Mom.

The lemon raspberry birthday cake was tangy, rich, and delicious. It’s from bakerbynature.com. Three things about this recipe – the first is that although the author claims to be able to make this in an hour, it took me three and a half. Second, she gave a great tip about making your own cake flour, as finding any sort of flour has been challenging of late. For every cup of flour, simply remove 2 tablespoons of flour, replace them with cornstarch, and mix well. Voila!  Cake Flour. Third, tossing the raspberries in flour before adding them to the batter assured that they did not just sink to the bottom of my pan. I used parchment instead of oiling my pans, and it worked great. I did not use lemon extract, but it was delightfully lemon-y all the same. I’d make this again. Here is the link for you: https://bakerbynature.com/lemon-raspberry-cake/cookbook-print/37660/#

 

On Technology and Inclines (and Bread)

On Technology and Inclines (and Bread)

“You taught them how to eat with a spoon, they can help you with Instagram,” said my husband with his customary dry delivery. He was right, as he often is, and my sons have been very good at helping me understand Instagram’s vibe – happy people doing fun things – and the deeper iterations of the differences between a ‘story’ post and a ‘feed’ post, and what constitutes becoming an annoyance rather than a fun way to keep up with people with no actual engagement, which if I’m understanding correctly is the point. I’m staceyuptonbracey on there if you’d like to follow me. While I quell the desire to call my Instagram name my “handle”, as if I were a trucker on his CB radio in the 70s, “10-4 good buddy, we’re rolling down the I-85, breaker one-nine, catch you on the flip-flop,” I do think it in my head. My boys assure me that I have ‘pretty good’ content and that I haven’t crossed any invisible Insta lines yet. Whew.

I’ve been learning a lot of new technology during this Corona Quarantine besides Instagram. “PicCollage” has been added as an app to my phone. It’s free and intuitive and fun without the mess of glue and no papercuts. I also went pro on my Zoom so I don’t have to bother with the 40-minute rule, and I can control more aspects of the group calls. I’ll take any little bit of control I can get these days. The walkie-talkie thing on Facebook is fun, you can leave voice messages there like we used to on people’s landlines. “FB Lives” are a bit scary as the camera counts down to one and then you’re on, but no one has professionally done your makeup so you’re shiny, and there’s a distinct feeling of not knowing your lines. I’d done a few prior, but now they are becoming a regular occurrence. I’ve accidentally erased a couple and had to do them over. It means I brush my hair, put on a nice shirt. Pants are still optional though. I could get used to that. Living in my stretchy pants and fuzzy socks has been an enjoyable part of our lockdown situation.

These new things have a learning curve, and my brain is extra-tired at the end of the day. I don’t speak technology like a native, it’s got a shaky second language feel to it. Like running up an incline as opposed to running down one. It’s not difficult enough that you chuck it as a bad idea all around, but instead take baby, sloggy steps, but you’re more tired than you expected to be at the end of it. It feels a lot like the jogs I’ve been doing here in Dallas. Dallas is remarkably flat, but it does have inclines. If you were raised in a flat section of our planet, you too have become expert in realizing that while SOME people would call what you’re running on “flat” you darn well know there is an INCLINE and that you’re going up it. An incline is less than a rise, and definitely less than a hill, but you’re working harder, no doubt.

I’ve added a couple of inclines into my jogs, and yes I go up them (early in the outing) as well as down. I always like going up first. A few weeks ago you really couldn’t call the shuffle I did a jog. Now though, I am definitely passing all people who are walking while looking at their phones. Progress. In these past 6 weeks of being forced from my native habitat of the pool to the streets, I’ve gone from 18-minute miles to 15.57 ones, which is of course, basically 16 minutes but I’m taking the 15. And that includes the inclines. Gold Stars.

While I might not be particularly great at jogging or technology, I can say with assurance that I am a good baker when I can find yeast. Last week was garlic-infused thyme and rosemary Focaccia bread, which took two tries, but I got to restaurant quality on the second one, and it could be what you get for a present moving forward. Last week I opted for a couple of loaves of honey-wheat bread but couldn’t find wheat flour so made do with unbleached white flour instead. I haven’t found bread flour in weeks, so this was all done with all-purpose flour, which has one of the best on-the-nose names ever. Below is the recipe. Simple and delicious, the magic is in the 10 minutes of kneading which is its own delightful stress reducer. I double this and make two loaves at a time, so you can eat one warm and slice and freeze the other.

WHOLE WHEAT/HONEY BREAD (1 Loaf)

1 ½ cups warm water

1 packet active dry yeast

¼ cup honey

Gently combine the above in a large bowl (not a metal one) and let sit for 5-10 minutes until you get a nice foam.

Add 3 T of melted butter (make sure it’s cooled down)

Add 2-3 cups of flour and ½ t of salt and mix.

Add an additional 1-2 cups of flour and then turn out and knead on a floured surface for 10 minutes, adding more flour as the dough gets tacky. It usually is at least another cup of flour. Eventually you’ll have a lovely, elastic dough ball.

Grease a large bowl, put dough ball in and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise 45 min to 1 hour, until doubled.

Oil a 9×5 loaf pan, punch dough down and shape into a loaf, let it rise again for 45 minutes in the pan, covered with plastic wrap.

Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes, until top is brown. Let cool for a few minutes before releasing from pan.

On Slag Glass Lamps and Community Theatre

On Slag Glass Lamps and Community Theatre

My jaw dropped when I saw it. My grandmother’s slag glass lamp standing on the corner of the  counter. Well, not the exact lamp of course, that one had perished in The Fire, but the same model. Its uniquely decorated shade is a swirl of browns, yellows and whites, highlighted by brass decorations of exotic palm trees and ornate bridges held up by an art deco brass stand. If you’re curious, slag glass is glass mixed with ore and heated. Mostly brown and white from iron, sometimes other types of metal ore are added to produced different colors of swirly slag. It’s incredibly heavy. If you were to bash a burglar over the head with this lamp, they wouldn’t survive it. My grandmother’s lamp had sat on a crocheted doily atop a massive black-and-white television unit that also housed a record player. It’d been passed on after her death in 1977 to my Aunt Helen who gave to me before she passed away.

My jaw dropped for two reasons. The first was shock that I’d forgotten it. While I remember lots of the items we lost in that fire with painful clarity, I’d not dwelled on losing this lamp. Even though I’d loved it as a child visiting my grandmother, and then later when it sat in our living room, my memory of it had vanished until it came rocketing back in the liquidation store I was browsing. The second reason was realizing how close I’d come to leaving the store without seeing it. I’d only turned back at the exit at the last minute to thank the proprietor for her time, and to let her know I’d be back to borrow some props for a show I’m directing. While waiting for the owner to finish a phone call in the back, I’d looked to the left, and there it was, nonchalantly sitting on the corner, waiting for me to take notice.

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I was embarrassed by the tears that sprang up. It’s just a lamp after all. After texting my husband what I’d found, being the good fella he is, he recommended I buy it. So I did. The owner of the store let me know she’d just put the lamp out an hour before. She’d been taken with it, and had placed it in her own home for a few weeks. Something had nagged at her though, she said, giving her the feeling that as much as she liked it, it didn’t belong to her.

That I was even in this particular liquidation store at all was another stretch of coincidence. While I do like a poke around an antique store, it’s doubtful I’d ever have found “Pickers Paradise” in Garland, TX on my own. I’d been guided to this great place by my Garland Civic Theatre producer to help dress our huge and gorgeous set for “You Can’t Take It With You.” The show is a delightful play with a large, boisterous, diverse cast that’s currently on hold until late May when hopefully we can all start going out again. It’s full of warmth, laughter, acceptance and some pretty timely ideas about the questionable wisdom of working 40 years for a $40 gold watch. My cast, crew and I had gotten all the way up to the last two tech rehearsals before opening weekend when we went into self-quarantine here in Texas. I’m glad everyone is doing their part to stay healthy and help others do the same and I remain hopeful that we get to do this show. If you’re local plan to come and see it – it’s so dear and funny. I am certain the laughs will feel very, very good.

I’ve been acting in and directing shows for a long time now, over 50 years. I love the collaboration of theatre, and there is something about the voluntary nature of community theatre in particular that appeals to me. We are all there because we love it. Ain’t nobody ever, anywhere, that’s gotten rich on community theatre wages. No one cares, either. We’re there to have fun, create some art, and bring joy or at least happy distraction to an audience. Doing community theatre, allows you to say things like, “Pickled pigs feet jar – empty or full?” or “Any luck finding red sparklers or Tom Cats? If we need to we can pop balloons but am hoping to use real fireworks on stage!” I mean, come on.

I dearly love the folks I get to work with in theatre. They are a diverse bunch, and range from pros to newbies trying on a new hobby. We laugh a lot, feel our feelings, and get to disappear into a different world for a few hours every night we rehearse and then put on a show. There’s something about live performance that is unlike anything else – the immediacy of it, the tightrope dance of doing the best you can, with no recourse except onward when a mistake is made, and that ineffable bonding that happens when like-minded people get to sit in the dark, suspend disbelief, and for a short while are transported to another place and another time. Much like the unlikely discovery of a 100-year-old lamp that’s travelled through time on an unknown journey to now sit in my living room, and heal a tiny piece of my heart… there is magic in it.

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Photos and Poetry from a College Senior

Photos and Poetry from a College Senior

I’m proud of my soon-to-be college graduate son, Spencer. He’s doing a great job navigating this odd spring of 2020. He’s currently living alone in his apartment finishing up his last semester at George Washington University without roomates, without celebration, his graduation ceremony cancelled. He’s travelled the globe these past four years as an International Business major and will be graduating summa cum laude. He’s passionate about philosophy (his minor), music and film. I think he’s a wonderful writer too.  Here are his images and reflections from the past two months in Washington DC.

**The featured image above is the Washington Monument taken from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Its usually packed with people. Below is outside Whole Foods on GWU campus — in the distance you can see the arch of the Foggy Bottom metro station.

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Days
Days,
Days like today
Where time slips like coins
Through cracks in the hours.
Ten minutes here, five there.
Never the hours,
No such thing as a sixty-cent coin.
No,
It’s nickels, dimes, quarters through a hole
In an old wooden porch.
Peeling white paint and rusted nails 
Too vivid for days like today.
There goes another
Little silver sliver,
I thought I was saving it for something.

Days,
Days like yesterday
Where it all makes sense.
A train on the tracks,
Going somewhere nice.
Hills roll by, 
Overgrown with the smell of summer.
Yeah,
Slowly pacing- chugging along.
And you, shoveling coal--
Firing the engine.
Getting where you’re going.
It makes it easier,
As it pieces together,
You roll along on your little adventure.

Days,
Who knows what the day is tomorrow. 
Coins through porches or coals in trains?
Maybe both, maybe neither.
Maybe the time won’t be fumbled.
Maybe not thrown to embers.
Maybe it won’t go anywhere at all.
Sitting in a field.
The day will be that:
Shining sun,
Green grass, and a breezy wind.
The day won’t have to be anything,
Except an old quilt and a turkey sandwich.
Ah,
Days like tomorrow.
2/21/20
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Attention
Due to recent
Coronavirus related worries
Your ambitions have been cancelled.

Please note,
This is a difficult situation
And the nervous center
Of your brain
Finds it hard to make this decision.

The administration believes
That due to the lack of restaurants
Open,
The absence of friends
Around,
The majority of rent
Due,

That it is totally ok
To just give up,
For like a few days.

We have laid out
Guidelines as follows
For acceptable behavior
During the course
Of this banal and slow
Moving car crash:

Sleeping until two is encouraged,
As is staying up until three.

Almost doing the dishes
But then sitting down and 
Inevitably staying there for hours
Instead is recommended.

Wandering aimlessly throughout
The rooms in your house.

Frequent and pointless facetimes,
Fun tip: this can be combined with any
Of the previous tips.

Ordering too much food

In other words,
Do what you normally do,
But feel more trapped doing it.

Thank you,
And we hope you have
A hazy and timeless day.

 03/23/20
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Your Hand-Held Hourglass

Today,
Time goes
Nowhere.

Moments are grains
Piled in the palm.

The wind
Will blow away
Your hand-held hourglass.

04.03.20

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These last two photos are of the main square in the heart of GWU campus, and a street off Du Pont circle.

Poetry and photography by Spencer W. Bracey

Spencer and his friend Max at the Great Wall of China, BC (before Corona).

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