Category Archives: Thoughts, Opinions, and Musings

Write It Down!

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Write It Down!

Almost exactly a year ago, my father had a series of strokes that left him physically incapacitated and confined to a hospital bed at home. He had been hard of hearing for years as the result of multiple ear infections and lanced eardrums when he was a child in the 1930s. He lost his sense of taste and smell a few years ago as the result of a virus (at least, that was the doctor’s best guess), and his vision, which had never been fantastic, had deteriorated over the last year or two and worsened rapidly after the strokes. 

In spite of all that, though, his mind was still sharp and remained that way until just before he died last November. He had always been able to answer any question I asked about his family and his childhood, and with his older brother and sister both long dead, it’s only now sinking in that there isn’t anyone left who remembers those stories anymore. I still have so many questions! I wish I’d been able to go sit with Dad sometime in his last few months and just listen to him talk, but that opportunity and all of those memories are gone.

I’ve spent a lot of time on Ancestry.com over the past few years tracing our family history. I’ve learned a lot, like the fact that we had ancestors on every side of the Salem Witch Trials — one great-grandfather (Deacon Edward Putnam) examined and testified to the persecution of his niece, Ann Putnam, and the other girls; another (Benjamin Abbott) accused his neighbor, Martha Carrier, of witchcraft (and saw her hanged); and one great-grandmother (Mary Ireson) was accused herself and found guilty (partially on the testimony of Edward Putnam!), but fortunately her conviction happened so late in the trials that she wasn’t executed before the whole thing was finally brought to a halt.

The “interesting” ancestors are always the ones that exist as more than a name and set of dates in the family tree. They’re the ones who have stories recorded and passed down, whether in the history books or in their own hand. We have a four-page letter written by my great-great-grandfather, Joshua, from Denver back to his son in Maine in 1891. No one knows what Joshua, a sailmaker by trade, was doing in Denver, but he writes about missing his wife and children, about all the happenings out there (where a boy had recently fallen off the roof of a seven-story building and landed on a horse, breaking his leg and fatally injuring the horse), about his opinion of “Western women” (which boils down to the fact that you wouldn’t want to be seen with one of them in polite New England society!), and a tantalizing bit about his resentment towards his cousin, Albert, whose treatment of Joshua was somehow responsible for his move to the West. Joshua wasn’t famous by any standard — I haven’t even been able to find out when he died or if he’s buried in Maine or Denver — but just having that glimpse into his life and personality makes him so fascinating.

So here’s the point: write things down! Write about how you met your spouse. Write about your memories from childhood. Write about your college years and what you most enjoyed studying. Write about funny things your children say and do. Write about your pets and their quirks. Write about your family traditions and your vacations. Write about weddings and funerals and maybe a scandal or two. Write about stories your parents and grandparents told you. If they’re still alive, sit down with them and ask them to tell you all of these things about their own lives, including the stories their grandparents told them! Capture as much as you can in the most permanent form possible. And please, if Cousin Albert does you wrong and permanently alters your life story, for the love of all that’s high and holy, write it down!

My mom remembers riding on a horse-drawn sleigh with her grandfather to retrieve sap buckets from his maple trees in 1940s rural Pennsylvania. My oldest son, meanwhile, can’t conceive of a world in which phones were permanently connected to the wall and Netflix didn’t exist. He’s convinced I’m pulling his leg when I tell him that I didn’t have my first cell phone until I was in college, and that when I did get one, all I could do with it was make phone calls. So much has changed in only two generations.

My paternal grandfather was born in 1893 and died in 1986 when I was five years old. I know that he served in France in World War I, I know he had a sister named Marjory who died young, and I know I inherited my freckles and the reddish tint in my hair from him, but for the most part, his life is a mystery. Again, two generations, and think of how different his world was from mine!

My grandparents and their children. My father is the little boy in the middle.

Two generations from now, life will probably have radically changed again. A few generations after that, you and I could be just another set of flat, impersonal names and dates to our descendants. But there will still be people like me who want to know where they’ve come from and who some of the thousands of people were who had a part in creating them. You could be one of the ones who comes to life for them.

Write things down. They’ll thank you for it.

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Goat Tales

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Goats are becoming increasingly popular as a good livestock choice for small-scale homesteaders. Depending on the breed, they can provide milk, meat, or fiber, and since they reproduce relatively quickly and often have two, three, or even four kids at a time, they’re pretty cost-effective. They’re also hilarious. And annoying. And I miss them.

Goats are escape artists. They like to help prune trees and weed gardens, but unfortunately, they don’t know when to stop. They love nothing better than getting themselves into impossible situations and then standing there and screaming until someone arrives to rescue them. Then they repeat the process multiple times. Basically, they’re troublesome and infuriating. Do not get goats. Ever.

Or, go get a goat. Or two. Because they’re fantastic. I’m serious.

One of our nanny goats and her baby grazing happily down near the stream.

One of our nanny goats and her baby grazing happily down near the stream.

We bought our first goats around the time I was in fifth grade. I thought they were beautiful: a big, brown, Nubian nanny with white dapples and ragged horns, and a rough-coated, calico, crazy-eyed billy. Josephine and Napolean.

I remember that I got to skip part of a school day for the arrival of the imperial couple. The note my mom wrote for me said that I needed to be home to receive some livestock, and I remember feeling very grown up when I handed that note in at the school office. That’s right, ladies, I’m a genuine farmer, and I have livestock to receive.

We wanted the goats to clean out an area of woods at the back of the property, and they were definitely up for the challenge. Within a couple of weeks, the place looked like a park. They started with the poison ivy, which is apparently like candy to them, and then they moved on to the privet, ivy, and who knows what else.

Their willingness to eat just about anything can backfire, of course, sometimes with serious consequences. Josephine found a tiny shrub of mountain laurel which had apparently washed down from the state park upstream and taken root in a cleft of the creek bank. It can be deadly, but being a goat, she scarfed some of it down.

She then spent the next week convalescing in a cozy nest of blankets in our basement, being fed hot oatmeal and hay. I’m pretty sure that she was actually feeling better several days before she showed it.

Her first kid (in her life with us, at least) was born on a Sunday afternoon, in the yard between the pool and the creek. We were having a picnic on the pool deck, so we had front row seats for the delivery, the efforts at standing, and the first, faltering steps. We promptly named the baby Billy the Kid and took about as many photos of him as normal people take of human babies.

There were other goats and other kids over the years, of course. Some were easy keepers, and some seemed determined to wreak as much havoc as possible. Some of the nannies were good mothers, but several weren’t, which meant that we ended up bottle-raising their kids in diapers in the house. There was nothing funnier than the look on a visitor’s face when a diaper-clad baby goat moseyed into the kitchen.

This little pygmy lived indoors for a while B.B.B. (Back Before Babies) And yes, he's standing on top of a computer which is sitting on top of a dresser. And no, we didn't put him there.

This little pygmy lived indoors for a while B.B.B. (Back Before Babies) And yes, he’s standing on top of a computer which is sitting on top of a dresser. And no, we didn’t put him there.

You cannot watch a baby goat (or better yet, a pair of baby goats) frisking around in the grass and not smile. It’s biologically impossible. They run and leap and twist and bounce and climb and play king of the mountain and are just generally adorable. And then, exhausted, they tuck themselves in close beside their mama and sleep. This probably explains why the tops of their heads smell like sunshine and fresh grass.

We sold our last two goats a few years ago after months of trying and failing to keep them in the pasture. They went over, under, or through every fence we put in front of them, and they usually ended up in the garden. They went to a great home with a man we’ve known for years. and at the time, we were relieved to be rid of them. But now somehow we find ourselves talking about when we can get more.

Gluttons for punishment? Maybe. Better than being gluttons for mountain laurel.

Just watching a little TV. What's so strange about that?

Just watching a little TV. What’s so strange about that?

Why I’m Excited about my Grocery List. No, Really.

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You know that feeling when you’re in the grocery store, and you know there’s something important that you’ve left off your list, but you can’t remember what it is? I hate that feeling.

I used to have it just about every time I went to the store. I’d try to keep a current grocery list on the fridge, adding to it as things ran out, but often I would forget and fail to scribble it down when we used the last of the sugar or the cheese or the olive oil. Then on shopping trips, I would roam the store hoping that I would see something along the way to jog my memory.

So about four years ago, I decided to change things. I sat down and made a list of all the things we used on a regular basis, grouped them together by category, and arranged the categories in the general order in which I shop in our usual grocery store.

It might not seem like a huge change, but I find I’m much more likely to maintain the list when I can just circle what we need. And even if I forget to do it at the time, having a prepared list of normal possibilities that I can look over often reminds me of the things I’ve left out.

Of course, our “normal” changes from time to time, especially as we’ve phased out a lot of the processed foods that were on my original list. Keeping the list on the computer allows me to edit and reprint easily to reflect changes in our lifestyle and eating habits.

The list works beautifully with the meal planning that I wrote about in my last post, and together they really streamline our grocery shopping trips. We’re not wandering aimlessly around the store, nor are we buying a bunch of random things that don’t combine into meals. (That’s another feeling I hate: when the pantry is full, but there’s still nothing to eat.)

Some of the things on the list we buy often, and some very rarely, but when we need them, we need them. The list is comprehensive, but we rarely get everything at one place; the local milk we prefer, for example, can’t be bought at the grocery store, and the animal food comes from Petsmart, Tractor Supply, and/or the feed & seed.

Anyway, here’s my list as it stands today.

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Do you have a similar list, or do you have some other time-saving, frustration-preventing organization tip of your own to share?

“So, What’s for Supper?”

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My beloved October flew by too quickly once again. There were trips to the beach and the mountains, pumpkin spice lattes, and one little pirate who was very excited about Halloween.

I dream of these chilly mornings and crisp days all through the heat and humidity that is summer in South Carolina. There are rumors of a long, snowy winter, which would be most welcome in this household. Two weeks ago, I told The Boy that it would be getting cold in a few days, and he promptly announced that he was going to the window to watch for snowflakes. He will be hugely disappointed if we end up having another weak winter!

One of my favorite things about this time of year is the food. Yes, I love a nice, fresh heirloom tomato (especially when it’s chopped up in a big bowl of pico de gallo or sliced with fresh mozzarella and basil in a caprese salad), but the scents and flavors of cold weather foods warm my soul.

Root vegetables and winter squash. Why do we eat anything else? I’m quite sure my family could survive happily for quite some time on turnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and a combination of butternut, acorn, and spaghetti squash.

I made a new chicken stew recipe the other night, and the only thing we didn’t like about it was the chicken. Seriously. I think we’ll be leaving it out the next time. In which case it will cost approximately $3.00 to make a huge pot of stew.

One thing that’s new for us this season is that after years of talking about it, we’ve finally started making a menu plan. I don’t really know why it took so long. I hated the days when I didn’t know how to answer Ben when he’d call and ask, “So, what’s for supper?” But I thought that planning out a week’s worth of suppers ahead of time would lock us into eating food that didn’t actually appeal to us on the day it was “scheduled” to be cooked.

In reality, it’s working well. Ben knows ahead of time what to expect for supper each night, so he can plan his lunch accordingly. And I’m not scrambling around every afternoon to figure out what to make. I’m using my slow cooker a lot more, so I can prep everything and throw it in during The Baby’s morning nap.

I make notes on the menu reminding me of what I need to get out of the freezer for the next few days. And I plan around foods that can be used in several meals, like the twelve ounces of bacon which has so far been used in the chicken stew and tonight’s chili (which smells really good, by the way!) and will still easily stretch into at least one more meal.

Meal planning doesn’t just save me from the late afternoon panic of wondering what I should make for supper each night. We’re eating healthier and saving money by not resorting to takeout, and we can save even more by stocking up on staple food items when they’re on sale. This is big for me, because while I love saving money, I’ve never been able to get into couponing. There just aren’t usually coupons for the types of food I buy.

The best part is that while a menu makes it possible to plan ahead, since I pull several days worth of food out of the freezer at once, it’s still flexible. And of course, there will always be eggs on hand if I get desperate.

I know I’m behind the times in discovering the benefits of meal planning, but just in case anyone else has been thinking about trying it, do! I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.

Happiness is a Warm Slice of Bread.

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I’ve wondered several times recently if it’s worth doing all we’re trying to do to live differently. Life can be so easy if you’re willing to just run down to the grocery store and buy pretty packages of ready-made food that bill themselves proudly as “natural,” “healthy,” and “old-fashioned.” And I will freely admit that for a few weeks (OK, months) after bringing our new baby home, I succumbed to the convenience. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of looking at an ingredient list on something I was about to feed my family for supper. Yeah. Bad idea. Now, I’m trying (read: struggling valiantly while wearing a baby on my chest) to get back into the habit of cooking from scratch.

Fortunately, I’m blessed with a sweet husband who loves to cook, so if the baby needs me around suppertime, Ben is totally capable of stepping in and fixing food for the three of us. Over the past year of pregnancy and babyhood, he’s also been awesome about taking care of the chickens and rabbits whenever necessary. I hope I won’t ever take for granted his willingness to come home after 10+ hours of work and still take an active part around the house. I’m trying to do as much as possible on my own, though, because I hate so much for anything to add to his burden.

But really, at times like this, it does seem so tempting to just let all of that stuff go. Let Ben come home from work and enjoy a well-earned rest. Let me focus on Legos and Golden Books and baby snuggles. Isn’t that all that really matters? Obviously, the answer is yes. And no.

I really do believe that we’re doing what’s best for our family by making the choices we’re making. Even the ones that might make other people think we’re crazy or have our priorities completely out of whack. (I’m pretty sure half of my Facebook friends have gotten sick of my agricultural/anti-GMO/crunchy-ish posts and unsubscribed from me!) And I want to be totally honest about the fact that we cheat sometimes. I don’t ever want to give the impression that we have this whole thing figured out. We don’t. But we’re trying.

For one thing, for reasons I’ll explain soon in another post, this will not be The Year of the Garden. I got a few tomato and pepper plants in the ground last month (didn’t even try to start from seed this year!), but my poor eggplants, okra, and cucumbers never even made it out of the pots. Next year, though, we should have a fantastic start as we work in all of the rabbit and chicken manures, straw, and leaves we piled on the garden plot this past winter.

We’ve also decided to cut down on the number of chickens we have. Our main coop is overcrowded, mostly because we planned to replace our older hens as their laying slowed down, only to find that they continued to produce like champs right alongside the new pullets. And overcrowding has led to feather-picking, so my beautiful girls aren’t so beautiful anymore. I’ve put up portable fencing in front of their coop so that they have more space and fresh ground to work through. But the simple fact is that we have too many.

So we are cutting back where we can and trying to lighten the workload. But in other ways, I want to do more. We’re using cloth diapers about 90% of the time, so laundry has increased somewhat, but it’s hardly overwhelming. (And now when I do have to use them, I realize just how nasty disposable diapers smell!) I have high hopes of doing more canning this summer and fall as well as making our own baby food, even though it looks like most of the produce for all of that will have to come from the farmer’s market. And I’ve been experimenting with new bread recipes, including this super quick and easy whole wheat from Modern Homesteaders. It’s so satisfying and absolutely scrumptious with last fall’s apple butter!

Whole Wheat Loaves

Mostly, though, when I make bread, it’s the same sourdough my mom made when I was a little girl. It takes two days to get from starter to bread, but the plus side is that you only spend a few minutes at a time working on it. Feed the starter, wait 12 hours, make the dough, let it rise 12 hours, knead it and make loaves, let them rise 10 hours, and bake. Given the lengthy time frames, though, it’s not uncommon for me to (finally!) get the boys settled down for the night and realize that I still have to mix up the dough or form the loaves. Funny how long those few minutes of work can seem when I know I could be curling up in my soft bed!

My 3-month-old, while a better sleeper than his brother was, is still waking me up a couple of times a night. So when I’m up late making bread, I do wonder if this (like so many other aspects of the life we’re trying to make) is worth the effort and the loss of rest. But the next day, I pull the finished loaves out of the oven and cut a slice while it’s still almost too warm to handle, but that’s when the butter melts into it the best. And I hand it to The Boy (just like my mom used to give me the first slice when I was little), and he takes a bite and says, “Oh, Mommy, you make the best bread in the whole world.” (Seriously, how did I get such a sweet kid?) And it means so much more than the extra 20 minutes of sleep would have meant. And someday, even if he never understands how much work went into it, he will remember that his mama used to bake the best bread ever.

I think that matters. I think it’s important.  And I think it’s totally worth it.

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