Monday, December 21, 2009

Snapshots and Memories

My dad passed away on December 17, 2009. I’m 43 years old, and we had been estranged for almost all of those years, with brief and infrequent interludes of acquaintance.

I’d actually been wondering for years if he was still alive. The last time I saw him was about 10 years ago (maybe even more), when his daughter Jessica, from his second wife Sherry, dragged him on a road trip so she could meet her brother and sister from his previous marriage. I think we tried to make peace with each other, but we were strangers, and broad stretches of awkwardness were filled only briefly by shared memories…. I think we all wanted more, but we just weren’t sure how to make it happen. How do you wash away that awkwardness? We tried scotch, but it really didn’t work all that well. I still feel guilty about that, since my father was an alcoholic (something he admitted, so I’m not really sharing secrets out of school here).

I think I started this post wanting to lecture people about holding on, about not letting things, or people get away from them. It’s too late now; I can never have that relationship with my father. But we’re all adults now. We make choices and we live with the consequences, whether they be regret or relief. There are large chunks of my father’s life of which I know nothing at all. I don’t know the man that Jessica and Elizabeth knew, we aren’t really grieving the same father. I forgave him a long time ago for being gone, I know it wasn’t just him, it was them. Neither of them could make it work. But it remains a fact that I have very little to remember my father by.

But these are my memories, and I hold them dear, and I cherish them.

I remember us driving around the world (okay, it was really just the Southeast) when I was a little kid in our big old tricked out bus. The bus was tricked out like an RV, with bunk beds, a kitchen and even a working bathroom. We stopped at a spring for some spring water, I think it was really early in the morning because Dad woke us up to look out the window at two little bear-cubs playing in the woods near the spring.

I remember Dad laughing, because I turned my sandwich upside down to eat it, just like Mom did. I remember him getting very mad and threatening to spank us because Michael and I were running around while he was working on the bus and almost tipped over the bus battery. And I remember him feeling bad about it, and explaining how dangerous it was to play there, and that he was afraid we’d get hurt. I remember him cooking cabbage soup, which I refused to try because it smelled so bad.

I remember a Christmas; I couldn’t have been more than 3….maybe 4. I remember Mom waking us up and Dad was drinking coffee, and we came into the living room and the tree was so huge, and so fat, and so sparkling with lights and shininess. It was a shimmering tower of golden fairy lights surrounded by a lake of presents. I don’t even remember what the presents were, but of all the Christmases, that’s the one that really means Christmas to me. In that same apartment I remember that Mom had this lovely old rocking chair with woven rattan in the seat, and that I watched Dad re-weaving the seat for her.

I remember when we lived with him for several months at Toad Hall and he had to come home from work to take me to the hospital because I’d stepped on a rusty nail. I remember going to work with him one day, and finding a possum out in a ditch. I remember him coming home drunk one night, and I didn’t understand, I thought he was sick. I suggested he drink some water so he would feel better. He looked sad when he said he didn’t think water would make him feel better. I remember him building a rocking horse without using any nails at all. He used straw for the tail and the mane.

I remember when we lived on Lischey Avenue and he came to visit. He brought Michael a remote controlled airplane and we played with it out in the field. I think he brought me a camera and a watch. I was really sad when I lost that watch. That was the visit when he said he wanted us to come live with him. I packed my stuff in a pillow case and was ready to go, but Mom wouldn’t let me. I think I was 10 that year.

I remember when we lived in that big old Victorian house near Centennial Park and he came for a visit and put new breaks on my bike. I think that might have been the year Mom and Dad officially got divorced.

I remember when we got a letter from him with pictures of him, Sherry, Jessica and Elizabeth.

And I remember the visit with him and Jessica. I remember that we all cooked dinner together, that we laughed, and he told me that yes, despite my mother’s insistence that it did not happen, I actually rode a giant tortoise at the zoo when I was a very (very) small child.

I remember crying with him on the phone when Grandpa died. And we promised each other we’d be better at keeping in touch.

Every now and then we’d write each other, or call. But what do you say? What do you say when you’re so far apart in both space and time? When you feel conversation with an absolute and total stranger might be less awkward because at least there are no expectations on either side. What do you say…?

My advice, and yeah, I can preach a little, I think I’m allowed to right now….my advice…say anything, but just say it. And when the phone rings…..answer it, and say ‘hello, I’m glad to hear your voice’.

Every life, and the passing thereof, deserves a remembrance. I know that Jessica and Elizabeth have other memories, and I hope they share them, because I would really like to hear them. It would make me feel better about everything to think that my father achieved some measure of happiness or joy in life. And I sincerely hope that none of this makes anyone feel bad, I really only wrote this for a little bit of healing for myself.

If anyone has any memories of my father, I sure would love to hear them.

Jim Custer
July 22, 1943 - December 17, 2009
Rest In Peace, Daddy

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How My SmoothiePro 600 ™ Saved Christmas

You know the drill; it’s the same every year. You finally get the tree wrestled into submission and mostly straight, and it’s time to start on the lights. Dig out the box from the back of the closet. Put all the stuff that was covering the Christmas box back into the closet. Wrangle the box to the tree. Return to the closet to remove the cat. Dig the other cat out of the Christmas box. Dig the lights out of the box and start untangling them. Remove the cat toy from the Christmas lights. Remove the cat from the Christmas lights.

Plug in the lights to make sure they work. Swear and stomp around looking for the replacement bulbs that you’ve been saving “in a safe place” for the past three years because you knew you’d need them eventually. Replace the bulb, lights are all plugged in and strewn across the floor, blinking merrily, and now you’re ready to start trimming.

Look at the tree.

Look at the lights strewn across the floor.

Look back at the 9 foot tree.

Look at the lights strewn across the floor, taunting you with their Christmas cheer as you flash back to last year when you almost cancelled Christmas after fighting with the tree and everyone in the house while trying to get those damned lights on.


Okay, I need a tool, right? There has to be something, somewhere. I start rifling through the kitchen drawers.

“What are you looking for?” queries Dave.

“I don’t know!”

“Well,” the ever helpful Dave continues, “what do you need it to do?”

“Make world peace, dammit!” yes, I get testy when frustrated.

“AHA!” I return triumphantly from the kitchen.

“Um, what are you going to do with that??”

Okay I’ll be honest, this looks a little, well, phallic to me, but it’s really just the plunger for the smoothie maker.

Wrap the lights (plug end first) around the plunger and then it’s a simple walk around the tree!

Yeah, yeah, I know there are probably tools you can buy to do this, or even better tools people have laying around the house, but it works.

The tree is all decked out in lights, and the cats weren’t even tempted to help. They mostly just supervised.


(I should point out that Dave and I have a deal. He puts up the tree, I string the lights, we put the ornaments on it together. I do not want help (!!) with stringing the lights! It makes me grumpy lol.)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Someone's Grandma's Recipe, redux - Pancakes from Scratch

It’s really all Cheyenne’s fault, she was bragging about having pancakes one day and I started to crave them. I do feel compelled to note that Cheyenne is allowed to brag; she is a talented, smart, funny, beautiful, graceful and engaging young woman striking out on her own and she can brag about anything she wants. That being said, I was jealous that she had pancakes and I didn’t!

Now, I’ve always been proud of the fact that growing up, my mom really didn’t feed us pre-packaged anything. Food was made from scratch with fresh ingredients. I don’t remember how it came to be that I use pre-packaged foods, but I suspect it happened gradually, over time (like most bad habits form). Lately we’ve been trying to get away from the prepackaged food (I mean really, do you have any idea what is in that stuff??), but I don’t think I’ve ever made pancakes from scratch before.

Normally I use Bisquick, it’s easy, fast, and tastes fine. Unfortunately, I was out of Bisquick, and I kept forgetting to buy it. Not having any idea what went into a pancake batter if it didn’t come from a box, I consulted my good friend, Google, where I came across this little gem:

A quick check of the cupboards revealed that I did indeed have all the ingredients required to make pancakes from scratch, so my adventure began! Because I have a hard time taking orders, you just know I had to change the recipe a little….

First I assembled my wet team, and set them out to achieve room temperature (it’s a really important step, don’t skip it!)

The wet team consists of:
1 ½ cup milk (increased from recipe by ¼ cup, because the batter seemed pretty stiff)
1 Egg (jumbo)
3 Tablespoons butter, melted (yeah, I mean butter, like real butter!)
½ teaspoon REAL vanilla extract (an addition from the recipe, next time I might try almond extract)

While the wet team was getting all cozy and room temperature, I measured out and mixed the dry team:

1 ½ cups flour
3 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt (reduced from recipe by ½)
1 Tablespoon Raw Sugar (recipe calls for white, I like the flavor of raw better)
2 shakes of ground nutmeg
2 shakes of allspice
(these last 2 were not called for in the recipe I found, but I’m a rebel, so I added them anyway)

After I assembled the dry team by putting them all in a large glass mixing bowl and mixing them together, I realized by wet team was still a little chilly. While waiting for them to warm up, I got bored, and I always get into trouble when I’m bored. In the freezer I found some frozen blueberries and though, “hrmmmm, blueberry syrup!”.

So, my Blue Team consisted of:

2 cups frozen blueberries
½ Cup of water
2 Tablespoons of honey
½ cap (perhaps a half teaspoon??) of the vanilla
4 shakes of ginger
1 tablespoon of cornstarch (melted in cold water)
About 2 tablespoons of raw sugar

Toss the blueberries in a saucepan and set to low-medium heat. Add the water, honey, vanilla and ginger. Once the berries begin to bubble a little (low simmer), you need to dissolve the cornstarch in a few tablespoons of cold water (just from the tap). I use my finger to mix it, because then I can tell all the lumps are completely gone. Weird (mostly unpleasant things) happen when you mix un-dissolved cornstarch into a hot mixture. This is the voice of experience, people, ignore at your peril.

Anywho, stir the dissolved cornstarch into the berries and crank up the heat a bit until you get a nice little low boil going.  You really only need for this to be at a low boil/strong simmer for a few minutes (a few, like 2), then you can shut off the heat and let it cool.

By now, your wet team has warmed up and is ready to come to the party (yes, I do watch too much Alton Brown, why do you ask??). So, make a little well in the center of dry ingredient mixture.

Add in the melted butter, milk and the egg (already beaten), then blend in until it is, well…. all wet. If you stir it too much the flour will glutenize and your pancakes will be a bit rubbery, so leave it a little lumpy. The reason I use a glass mixing bowl for this is because I can check the bottom of the bowl visually to make sure there are no large areas of unmixed flour.

You're now ready to commence cooking. I use a butter substitute for cooking pancakes. Butter burns too easily and cooking spray just don’t work as well for pancakes. I used my ½ cup measuring cup and only poured about ¼ cup (perhaps a little more) for each pancake, and came out with a baker’s dozen.

Dave has declared this pancake recipe “great!”, but wishes the blueberry syrup had been a little sweeter (it wasn’t very sweet, but I kind of liked that about it!).  I recommend turning on your favorite radio station and doing a little dancing and singing while you cook. I'm convinced it makes the food taste better.