Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”

My mother had a tradition. Whenever we visited, when it came time to leave, Mom put together food for us to take along for the drive. It didn’t matter if we’d just eaten and the trip only a couple of hours long, she sent food along for the drive.

As a result, I was charmed – and not a little homesick – when I heard that Nan Johnson’s family named this common tradition. As we enjoy this holiday season and associated travels, I invite you to take a little “Perkins Corner” love along.

A to-go bag makes that hug last longer.

A to-go bag makes that hug last longer.

Perkins Corner – love and comfort in a package “to go”

by Nan Johnson

Recently, as our daughter packed her car to leave after a visit home, my husband stepped out of our pantry holding a package of Mint Milano cookies. “These will be good for Perkins Corner – Kathryn likes these.” My husband caught me by surprise, because in that simple, off-hand comment, he connected generations of my family, paid a loving tribute to my late mother, and demonstrated that he pays more attention than he lets on.

A “Perkins Corner,” in my family, is a bag of treats assembled for the person leaving. It is an assortment of fruit and snacks, and may include a coupon for an oil change or a free smoothie. Practically speaking, of course, they are road trip provisions. Symbolically, they are a loving gesture to the family member who is leaving that says “we are reluctant to let you go; here’s a small part of us to take with you.”

While the practice is undoubtedly common among families, the name for it is not. It comes from my great-grandparents, Dutch immigrants who arrived two years before Ellis Island opened and settled in a community of fellow Frisians in northwest Iowa farm country.

Pakka was a stone mason and Beppa supplemented their income by making and selling cheese. Every summer in their childhood, my mother and her sister took the train from Rochester, Minnesota, to Rock Valley, Iowa, to visit their grandparents. These days, it is a three and a half hour trip by car; back then, the trip by rail probably took the better part of a day.

My mom and aunt spent the long summer days fishing with their grandpa, weeding the garden with grandma, and playing in the hayloft with cousins – children of their father’s siblings who had married other first generation Dutch Americans­­.

When it was time to leave the idyllic life of loving attention only grandparents can give, the tears began. To soften the sting of good-bye, Beppa handed her granddaughters a brown paper sack as they boarded the train with instructions not to open it until they reached Perkins Corner, the first train stop down the track. During that eight-mile journey, as Mom would tell the story, the sniffling subsided, cheeks wiped dry, and curiosity peaked as to the contents of that mysterious brown bag. When the conductor announced the Perkins stop, the sisters peeked inside and pulled out apples and cookies – one last figurative hug from their loving grandparents.

I grew up hearing the story, but never experienced my own Perkins Corner since my own grandparents lived in town. But after I married, had children and we visited my parents, who now lived in faraway Tucson, the tradition began again.

“Just a little Perkins Corner,” Mom would say tearfully as she thrust a brown paper lunch bag into my hands as we pulled up to curbside check-in at the airport. I wasn’t always as appreciative as I should have been; flying with three young children, our hands were already full of toddlers, strollers, diaper bags and luggage. What do I do with this extra sack? But I accepted the gift anyway, dutifully nodding at the updated instructions to not open until the airplane’s wheels retracted after lift-off.

Moments after we left the ground and felt the rumble of the wheel doors close underneath us, our kids would turn in unison toward me, and I would pull the slightly squashed bag from my carry-on. Mom got pretty creative over the years. She included candy made from prickly pear cactus, chocolates shaped like cowboy boots, decks of playing cards with colorful photos of Arizona. Whatever minor irritation I felt from being forced to hold on to an additional package faded at the sight of our kids’ smiles. After all, it was one last hug from loving grandparents.

So, when our grown-up daughter, with car packed and ready to go, came back inside to grab her travel coffee mug, she saw a brown paper sack waiting for her on the kitchen counter. Her eyes lit up and she said with delight, “Perkins Corner!” I felt three generations smiling with me.

Do you have quirky names for common traditions? Take a moment to share. And Happy Holidays.

Nan Johnson is a former reference and rare-book librarian. She lives in Missouri where she writes and where she and her husband maintain a tallgrass prairie. Her first book “The Open Road” will be available in April 2017.

What traditions make the holiday for you? – A Thanksgiving story

Thanksgiving is a time laden with tradition as family and friends gather to share food, fellowship, and fond memories. As I texted my nieces this year, sharing our plans for turkey and all the fixings, I couldn’t help but remember one particular Thanksgiving. I share this story written a decade ago and published in The Iowan magazine as my Thanksgiving gift to you.

A Holiday Story

I have always believed that Thanksgiving dinner is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult meal to make. Easiest because there is no wondering what will be on the menu. At least at our house, the meal is always exactly the same, from homemade pumpkin and mincemeat pies to cranberry sauce cooked up and cooled in an aluminum mold used only for that purpose to the dinner rolls my aunt bakes on Thanksgiving morning. A turkey with sage dressing is the centerpiece.

A new, young cook takes to the kitchen, continuing old traditions and creating new.

A new, young cook takes to the kitchen, continuing old traditions and creating new.

At the same time, the meal is difficult because of the high level of expectation attached to all holiday family gatherings. For me, sage dressing is the food I desire most. I can pass on potatoes and gravy, forgo cranberries, even skip the turkey. Fill my plate with the sage dressing that I wait all year to taste.

So it was with more than casual interest that I listened to the phone conversation my mom was having with her granddaughter in Pennsylvania about Thanksgiving dressing.

“Say, Clorinda,” Mom said. “Your mom says you do a great job making dressing. If you want to make it when you’re here for Thanksgiving, I’ll get everything around so it’s ready when you are.”

Mom cradled the telephone between her shoulder and ear as she reached for a pencil and paper. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said, pencil poised to write. I knew she anticipated a list beginning with dried bread and progressing through sage seasoning.

Watching from across the table, I could see the list as Mom wrote down the ingredients Clorinda detailed: Stove … Top … Stuffing. Mom hesitated as she took in the words and glanced up at me. I couldn’t stifle a laugh.

For nearly 60 years, my mother had put three square meals a day on the table, all made from scratch, mostly using produce grown in her own garden. The very idea of making a Thanksgiving dish so basic and so traditional as dressing out of a box nearly made her go into shock.

But she’s quick on her feet, my mother. “How many boxes do you think we need?” she asked Clorinda.

Though Mom takes justifiable pride in the meals she prepares, she has her priorities in order. If her granddaughter wants to help make the meal, and that help comes out of a box, she won’t bat an eye. But don’t underestimate what a mental shift that took.

From the time my sisters and I were 10 years old. Mom taught us not only to grow the food we’d eat but also to cook it. She guided us through the basics of growing and canning peas and beans, tomatoes and corn. From there we explored the complexities of meal planning and cooking. Mom made cooking easy, measuring out ingredients before we knew what we needed, cleaning up every drip and spill as we made it. We knew no failures in her kitchen.

When 15-year-old Clorinda arrived in Iowa that November, Mom swept her granddaughter off into the kitchen as her newest apprentice. Some lessons were a snap. To make eggs over easy without flipping them, for instance, Mom shared the trick of putting a lid on the frying pan, drizzling a few drops of water at the edge, and letting steam cook the egg top. Some lessons were more challenging. Gravy without lumps took two tries. These cooking experiences continued throughout the week up until Thanksgiving Day.

By 5 a.m. the kitchen was a hive of activity directed by Mom and guaranteed to deliver the traditional Thanksgiving meal we all knew and loved. As noon approached, I watched in amusement as Clorinda opened the Stove Top stuffing mix and under Mom’s watchful eye completed a cooking task in five minutes that done in the traditional way would have taken a good two hours.

When the turkey came out of the oven at precisely 11:30 a.m. and a parade of heaping dishes made it to the dining room table at exactly noon, among them was a large bowl of Stove Top Stuffing. We all ate it. And it was good. Grandma agreed.

Would stuffing from a box ever replace homemade sage dressing and become the new tradition at our holiday table? Probably not. But Mom keeps Stove Top stuffing mix on her pantry shelf, ready for the day her granddaughter comes for another holiday visit.

Much has changed since this story was written, but much stays the same. Our tables will be surrounded with love, and I wish the same for you.

The Art of War – The Art of Loving

Movies, reading & walking across Iowa uncover surprising connections.

Art and history, love and war intersect as I continue my virtual trek across Iowa.

There can’t be many who haven’t heard about the movie Monuments Men, George Clooney’s film about the men who set out to save art during WWII. Here in Iowa, we’re getting special insight because the real Monuments Man, the man on whom the movie is based – George Leslie Stout – was born and grew up in Winterset, Iowa, and later graduated from the University of Iowa.

I’ve looked ahead as I continue my walk across Iowa, looking for just the right point to cross Interstate 80. (As though that would be really hard in my virtual world.) Nonetheless, when I realized I could pass through Winterset before heading north to cross the Interstate barrier, I thought why not? 

Now that The Bridges of Madison County (a book and a movie) has been made into a Broadway musical, and received some critical acclaim, I better see the bridges again before the tourists take over!

140px-34th_'Red_Bull'_Infantry_Division_SSI.svgAs I head toward Winterset, I’m enjoying other military history as I walk along the Red Bull Highway. The 34th Infantry Division of the Army National Guard, made up of military primarily from Iowa and Minnesota, served in World War I, World War II, Iraq and Afghanistan. The insignia of the division is a Red Bull designed by Iowa artist Marvin Cone.

As I look back on the titles that have passed through my hands this month, the overriding question is, What does it mean to love? Appropriate, don’t you think, since this is February, the month of love?

Setting the stage is a non-fiction work, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm. A psychologist, Fromm explores love and loving in 120 pages packed with explorations of love in all its forms – parents for children, brotherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God.

Fromm proposes that true love holds four elements in common: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. The other books I read – both fiction and non-fiction – show how difficult it is to find true love,

Fiction

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – This seriously disturbing novel explores the idea that “Marriage can be a real killer.” In alternating chapters, we come to know the husband in real time and the wife through her diary entries. Did he kill her or was she kidnapped and murdered? The tension in this novel is palpable and all of us can only pray we do not encounter a love like theirs.
  • safe keeping sisselSafe Keeping by Barbara Taylor Sissel –  “My son is a murderer,” begins this family drama. Emily tries to say these words about the son who has given their family so much heartache. But she doesn’t believe it. Her mother love could never believe it. They just have to prove it. Sissel draws characters with depth and a plot with complexity. She is a master at dropping clues that inform and confound. Her cliff-hanger chapter endings compel you to keep reading. (I was fortunate to receive an advance review copy. The novel is due out in late March.)

Non Fiction

  • Twelves Years a Slave by Soloman Northrup – I have yet to see the movie and I grabbed  the e-book when it I saw it in a promotion. This first-person account of a free black man who is kidnapped and thrown into slavery causes one to despair of man’s inability to love his fellow man.

Late-breaking news (literally): I end this post abruptly because winter has taken its toll. I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist. As a result, I am reduced to typing with one finger, so my blog will be on hiatus for a few weeks. When I return, I trust spring will be here. In the meantime, happy reading and safe walking!

A waffle iron for Christmas?

The humble gift of long-lasting love.

Making waffles on Christmas Eve.

We still make waffles on Christmas Eve.

As Christmas Eve rolls around, I check to make sure I have all the fixings for our waffle supper.  Waffles mark Christmas Eve in our house as surely as Santa and the Christmas tree.  It’s a tradition that goes back a long ways.

My father was never much of a present buyer. If someone didn’t remind him, he seldom got Mom a Christmas present at all. But occasionally, he would get her something, and Mom always welcomed the gesture.

My memory is dim on the specific year Mom opened her gift and found a waffle iron. My guess is it was sometime in the very early 1960s because I was old enough to know this type of gift was not quite what a woman would hope to get from her husband.

If Mom had any hesitations, you’d never have known it from her reaction. A gift from her husband was a gift to be treasured.

Mom received her new kitchen appliance with enthusiasm, going into the kitchen immediately to mix up a batch of waffles. Since none of us Iowa farm kids had ever seen waffles, we watched her create this exotic food with great interest. 

At our house, pancakes made it into the rotation of breakfast meals with some frequency. Pancakes can be whipped up and thrown on the griddle, creating stacks to feed the whole family in a matter of minutes. Waffles take time. Several minutes to make a waffle to feed one or two people. Then you cook another one. Meanwhile the troops get restless.

Day-to-day life on the farm was practical. The waffle iron proved not to be so. Mom used the waffle iron a few times in the first year. She wanted Dad to know she appreciated his gift. Gradually, the waffle iron came out less and less frequently until finally it only appeared on Christmas Eve. But it appeared every Christmas Eve, and we all came to expect waffles, to relish the uniqueness of the meal, to cherish the tradition.

The waffle iron and Mom’s devotion to Dad and his gift spoke to us all of the love of Christmas.

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Thank you for joining me in 2013 as I shared the challenges and triumphs the year offered.  I wish you all the best in the new year, and I hope to see you here again in 2014.

My son is a good dad, too!

Dad and his girls

My son stopped by recently with his oldest daughter. It was a whirlwind visit, but 3-year-old Hannah ensured we did a little bit of everything. We used the swing and slide. We picked peas and pulled kohlrabi.  We explored the prairie and played with a neighbor’s cat. We checked out the basement because Hannah informed me she’d never seen our basement before. Ever.

While they were here, my son and I had a dozen small pieces of conversation about a dozen different topics. Each time we began to talk, Hannah came up with a new topic to interrupt us. It reminded me very much of when Lance was little and we went to visit my parents. I was still their child, yet I was a mom, too.

Over the years, I’d think about the children my son might have someday. I always imagined he’d be a good dad if he got the chance. And, he is.

Working in the garden

He has spent many Saturday mornings with Hannah running through the exercises in a gymnastics class. They read together daily. They have a dad/daughter craft time on the weekends. He’s teaching her about gardening like his dad and I (and his grandparents) taught him. Because he encourages her to work right along side him, she’s undeterred by dirt. Bugs fascinate her.

When we visited the garden, Hannah picked peas, bit off the stems and spit them on the ground before she ate the pods. Just like her dad! She found her own way into and through the prairie and didn’t even realize she lost a flip-flop on the journey. She loves nature and is ready to explore. Like her dad.

Now my son has another daughter. Eliza took her first steps recently and Dad was there cheering her on. He is a good dad. He’s patient and loving. He teaches and leads. He’s firm and nurturing. He’s involved now.

My son will always be my son, but now he’s a dad, too. And I’m oh, so proud of him. Happy Father’s Day, Lance!

Dad showing love

Love through a breadboard

My dad was not a particularly vocal man. In most cases, he showed us rather than told us what we needed to know.

On our family farm, work came first. Dad definitely showed us about work. Barn chores and house chores were part of my life from my earliest memory. Even before I remember. But he also showed us how to play.

“You have to make your own fun,” he said to me. He meant literally. When my sisters and I were little, Dad made t-shaped handles out of wood slats and fashioned metal hoops for us to play with one summer. This was a toy his dad made for him. Dad demonstrated how to roll the hoop down the wooden handle and keep the hoop rolling. We chased those hoops all over that summer – nudging, guiding, seeing how long we could keep the hoops rolling over grass, gravel and dirt.

Another summer, he showed us how to make kites. Out of newspaper and sticks and string. After we’d tried countless times – and failed – to get the kites to fly, he remembered kites need tails. We went to Mom’s rag drawer and tore up strips of sheet, knotting smaller strips to long strips. Those kites were air born in seconds, feeding my imagination and my desire to fly.

When I got married, he thought I’d need a breadboard. “You can’t make bread without a board to knead it on,” he said. I still use the breadboard he built for me. It serves to knead bread, roll out pie crusts, cool cookies – and it serves to remind me of my dad.

Dad showed his love not just of us kids but of his community and country. He served in WWII and afterwards belonged to the American Legion. Every Memorial Day for as long as he was able, he carried the American flag in the parade. He also belonged to the Salem Lutheran Church, the Lions Club and the Izaak Walton. Never was he a part-time member. He attended every meeting, chopped onions for omelet breakfast fundraisers, baked cookies to sell to bikers on RAGBRAI, served sandwiches at trail rides, signed people up for community blood drives. He showed us how to serve, how to be a good member.

Did Dad say he loved me? Seldom. Did I doubt he loved me? Never.

It dawned on me as I wrote this that my dad showed me one more thing – and that’s how to be a good writer. ‘Show don’t tell’ is advice all writers hear. Show don’t tell. That’s the way my dad lived. I didn’t even realize I was learning about writing from him, too.