Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Growing Up Amish: It's Berry Time

This is the second article I did for my local paper on the Amish, based on the Old Order way of living and my mom's experiences as a young Amish woman.  Be sure to check out the delicious berry recipe at the end.  There is even an "English" cheater version that tastes almost as good. :)

As the days lengthen into beautiful summer, luscious, ripe strawberries, blueberries and blackberries taunt us with their sweetness, begging us to pick them and taste their marvelous juices, taking us back to summers before when we gave in to their seduction.  The Amish, too, had times of berry picking when whole days revolved around these sweet gems.
Since my mother’s family had no kind of refrigeration (today some of my Amish relatives use a method of placing a large ice block into a deep freezer, not plugged in, to keep food items cold), the berries had to be eaten or preserved the day they were picked or the following day.
My mother remembers the berry season coming around with the ripening of the bright red, sweet strawberries.  Her mother usually planted a patch three or four feet wide that ran the length of their vegetable garden at the edge of their yard.  Also, the advent of the cherry orders marked the season.  
The Amish are a tight knit community where very few of them in my mother’s day had contact with the outside world.  Since there were no local orchards for the Amish to go pick their own cherries, they placed orders as a community to a place that one of the men in the community knew about.  This man would go around on a Sunday and ask the families how many cherries they would like to order, then he would place the order by phone at the English neighbor’s house.  After he got the delivery information, he told each family when the truck would arrive at his house with the cherries.  On the day of delivery, a freezer truck would come with five-gallon metal containers of frozen cherries.  The truck dropped off fairly early.  My mother remembers her father hitching up the buggy and heading off to pick up their order of cherries.  By the time the containers arrived at their house, the cherries were mostly thawed except for a chunk in the middle that were still frozen.  While the rest of the cherries thawed, the women got the quart-sized canning jars up from the basement and washed them.  Then they filled them with the cherries, topped them off with cold water and put them in the pressure cooker just long enough to heat and seal them.  The jars were left to cool on the counter, tantalizing rows of bright red or yellow cherries, ready to use in desserts or eat virgin from the jar.
But cherries and strawberries were not the only berry excitement of summer.  After the “necessary” berry picking came the wild berries, the ones my mother and her sisters picked just because they enjoyed the unique jam flavors these berries made.  These were the blackberries, boysenberries and dewberries that grew deep in the woods.  On berry day the girls rose early in the morning, usually around 5:00am, went out to the barn to do the milking chores, then returned to the house for breakfast.  Their mother had eggs, hashbrowns and oatmeal ready for them.  In my mother’s house the family did not drink coffee.  They had milk or water for breakfast.  If anyone wanted coffee, they had to make their own from instant.
After breakfast, the girls took the younger children with them, each of them taking a container to put the berries in.  Then they headed into the woods to find their treasures.  They found patches of berries, thick with thorns and crawling, vine-like, part way up the trees.  They had fun by daring each other to go into the thick brambles, seeing who could reach farthest into the bushes and the highest up the trees.  They would return to the house with their find to cook the berries down, add sugar and thickener then pour the finished jam into jars.  To seal the jars they melted wax and poured it over the top of the jelly.
Another treasure they enjoyed picking was elderberries which grew along the roadside.  In elderberry season, the women tried to keep boxes on the back of the buggy in case they stumbled onto a patch of elderberries while going out to visit friends.  On their way home, they would stop and cut off the heavy heads that held the clusters of tiny elderberries.  They filled the boxes then took them home to pick them off the severed branches.
After the jams and jellies were made, my grandmother set some berries by for fresh pies and delights or just topping off a piece of cake or tossing into a fresh cobbler.  Below is a recipe that has been passed down to me from my mother’s Amish days that I still make today.  There is a simple “store-bought” version that is quick to make and saves on time.  But if you want to experience the work and reward of flavor that was a daily requirement for the Amish, then follow the recipe below.

Cherry Delight
4 ½ graham crackers, crushed to make 1 cup
2 tbsp melted butter
4-8oz cream cheese, depending on your taste
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups cherries
4 cups water
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup sugar
red food coloring for a more vibrant color (optional)

Before you begin, set the cream cheese out to reach room temperature.  (You could cheat and put it in the microwave for a few seconds, but remember, the Amish wouldn’t have had microwaves.)  You can use half a bar of cream cheese, or the entire thing if you like the flavor more “cheesy”.  Either way, the final result will still be sweet and dessert-like.  Next, cook the cherries in the water.  Bring to a boil and let boil for five minutes.  Then add cornstarch by mixing it into a few tablespoons of cold water in a dish.  Stir cherries while adding the cornstarch mixture.  Next, stir in the sugar and food coloring and let cool completely.  (A can of cherry pie filling also works here.) Mix graham cracker crumbs and melted butter thoroughly, then pat into a 9x9 inch pan and bake at 300° for 10 minutes and let cool completely. (You can use a pre-made graham cracker pie crust here.) Next, beat the whipping cream until it forms soft peaks then carefully fold in the sugar and vanilla and set aside.  (You can use an 8oz. tub of whipped cream here.)  Now, stir the softened cream cheese (make sure it’s not actually warm because it will melt the whipped cream) to get it loosened up, then gently fold in the whipped cream until mixed.  Put dollops onto the cooled graham cracker crust and spread evenly with a spatula.  Lastly, top with the cooled, cooked cherries and enjoy.  The dessert is best eaten the same day.

Growing Up Amish: Preparing for an Amish Summer

Recently I did some articles for my local paper on growing up Amish since my editor has a fascination with them.  My mom is my source.  She was Amish from the day she was born until she was in her early thirties.  I too was born Amish, but my family left that culture when I was only four.  I think like an Amish person, but don't have the experience of living that life.  This article (and the following one) were created off of the information my wonderful mom gave me about the Old Order way of living.

Many people are curious about the Amish and their way of life.  I had the privilege of being born into an Amish family.  Although we left the Amish when I was about four years old, my parents both grew up in an old order Amish community, old order meaning they lived one of the more old-fashioned styles of Amish life.  There are several places in the US where large communities of Amish people live.  One of those places is Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which I have visited often during my fifteen years living in PA.  Some of the Amish in Lancaster have sinks in their kitchens and even carpet in their living rooms.  The Old Order were not allowed to have carpet or sinks.  So the information I am giving you is from a type of lifestyle similar to Little House on the Prairie.
Beginning in March or April when my mom was a young Amish woman, she would be helping her mother put in orders to Burpee’s seed catalog for the seeds they would need for their vegetable garden that year.  They would send out for green beans, peas, corn, lettuce, radishes and spinach.  They also planted lots of potatoes, a vegetable the Amish eat in abundant amounts.  But the seeds for potatoes come in the form of chunks of potatoes that contain an “eye” where a root can grow out of.  They would buy fifty to one hundred pounds of seed potatoes from a tractor supply store called Orfhlin.  If the weather was good that summer, they would harvest a couple hundred pounds of potatoes from this amount of seeds.  For tomatoes, cabbage and bells peppers, they would usually buy small plants that had already been started.  The Amish, like any people, fall on hard times, and some years my grandmother would be worried they wouldn’t have enough money to buy as many potatoes and seedlings as they would need to provide them with food for the following year.
When the weather turned right, usually in the beginning of May unless the cold was lingering on, my grandfather would plough up the garden to get it ready for planting.  He used the Farmer’s Almanac to predict the weather since the Amish are forbidden to have TV or radio.  The almanac was surprisingly accurate.  Sometimes they would get news of a bad frost coming that night by way of a visit from the milkman or some other English person that had access to the news.  Typically they did not interact with the English--what they called any non-Amish person--except for strictly business purposes.  If a frost was coming, it was extra work for my mother and her two sisters.  They had to cover tiny seedlings with overturned buckets or containers and to save the strawberry bed, they covered it with bed sheets or light blankets.  The next day, all the coverings had to be removed so the plants could soak up the sun.  Several nights in a row, sometimes, they had to cover their plants to keep them from being killed by the frost.  “Day by day we had to feel it out,” my mom said.  If they even thought it might frost, they would recover the plants.  If they took a chance and left them uncovered and the weather did turn to frosty temperatures, that meant they had to start all over with their planting.  All the careful plowing, planting, hoeing and caring for the plants would be wasted and they would have to put in that work all over again, and now with a late start due to taking a risk.
Also during this early stage of summer, my mom and her sisters would take count of all the mason jars and canning lids and rings they had.  Since the lids should only be used once, they usually had to buy more lids for this next season’s canning.  A large Amish family will end up with hundreds of jars of canned produce and meat by fall to last them through the winter until they can plant fresh again.
Even in May and June days could get really hot by ten in the morning in Bowling Green, Missouri where my mom grew up.  So to keep cool, they took advantage of the early morning hours to do things like strawberry picking or tending their garden.  If you passed a strawberry field in Amish country, you would see the older women bending from the waist to grasp the red berries.  My mom and the younger women would kneel and pick and sometimes crawl along the patch if the straw was clean enough.
The women would also take their work outside under the shade trees where they might catch a breeze.  they would clean green beans by snipping off the ends or pop shiny, new peas out of their shells or pull the husks off gleaming, golden corn.
To keep their house cool during the day, they would cover the windows with dark curtains that would keep out the heat of the sun.  By afternoon, even the dark curtains did not keep the house cool enough, so my mom would sometimes go for a visit to the dark, cool basement, just to get a small break from the heat.  She remembers my grandmother using a cool rag to wipe down her arms and face to cool off.  In the evenings, after the work was done, the boys would go swimming in the pond while the girls waded in shallow creek water under some shade trees.
Falling asleep was not always so easy.  The windows were open with screens put in them to keep the bugs out.  But there wasn’t always a breeze blowing and the upstairs where the bedrooms usually were was now hot and stuffy from holding the heat all day. 
Mothers hand-fanned their babies to keep them cool long enough for them to fall asleep, or they would lay them on the cool floor just so they could get a bit of relief.  The older children grew immune to the heat as the summer wore on, being able to fall asleep in spite of the heat.  Then early in the morning, before the sun was up, they would get up to start their day over again, hoeing, picking, cleaning the vegetables that would be their food all year long.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Perseverance and Napping Go Hand in Hand

I'm serious about this title.  You think it's sarcasm.  Mm-hm.  I know what you're thinking.  But it's ok.  As you probably read in my first post (Is Writing from the Heart Really Worth It?), people will think what they're gonna think.  So go ahead.  Think it.  It's a free country.  But let me also tell you what I'm thinking.  It may change your life--maybe even your entire world.  

It was 1pm today and I had just about completed the first thing on my list.  Yay, that sounds good, right?  No, it doesn't.  Usually I get all three of my major writing projects for the day finished before noon, often before 10am.  But here it was 1:00 already and I had three short paragraphs to go before I would be done with only the first part of my first project.  (Yeah, don't ask where the time went.  Between laundry, checking on my gay social networks, not literally; I'm just mad at them right now, and deleting worthless emails I was now at 1pm.  Can't cry over spilled milk.  Just have to suck it up the best you can with a straw.  No pun intended.)  

As I pushed myself toward those remaining paragraphs I knew they would take me way longer than the three minutes they should take, so I did the persevering thing…and laid down for a nap.  I promised myself one hour.  

Ok, now say what you want to say.  "You should have just finished then you could have marked one thing off your list and at least felt a little successful, if rather behind on time still."  But my mind doesn't work that way.  I would have been pissed to take 20 minutes on a 3-minute job.  That would have opened the door to The Downward Spiral.  Does anyone know what I mean when I say that?  An hour later you find yourself hating life, hating yourself, hating those you love and hating what you love to do.  So you sit for another hour and analyze what made you start feeling this way.  And you track the whole pile of crap back to one tiny thought you let in, now two hours ago.  Yeah, for me that thought woulda been "You took 20 minutes to do a 3-minute job??'  You could have been taking a nap for Christ's sake!  Literally, for HIS sake because he works through your rest.  He knows your body has limitations so that's why he gave you the ability to SLEEP.  Quickly assessing my situation, I knew the only thing that would help me feel successful was to get an hour's rest then hit my work refreshed and able to work quickly.  

Anyone ever played The Sims?  It's a game on PC and Playstation 2 (and maybe other systems, I don't know).  Sounds funny, but that game taught me something.  It's a game that simulates real life.  You create a character, choose their outfit (they can change outfits too!), choose their hairstyle, skin color, etc.  Then they live in a house and you move them around and have them eat, sleep, hang out with friends, choose a job, get raises.  Even if you're not into game systems anymore, you would still enjoy this one.  I started playing it at age 31 after I already thought game systems were extremely childish.  (Yay younger boyfriends that make you young again!)  Anyhow, your "Sim" has bars that say how low they are on sleep, nourishment, comfort, socializing and so on.  Until this point, life had been difficult for me to figure out.  I thought everything had to be spiritual.  You know, read your Bible when you'd rather be reading the latest bestseller.  Pray when you'd rather be watching a movie.  Don't go to the movies because someone might think you're watching an R-rated one.  (But watch the R-rated ones at home where no one knows you're not forwarding any sex scenes or muting the cuss words?? I know, doesn't make sense.  But I fell for it too, for THIRTY YEARS!  Guess the joke's partially on me.  Lol)  And there's the ever-famous one, DON'T SLEEP, cause lack of sleep is somehow spiritual.  I don't know who came up with this shit but it's pretty hilarious.  Like those random state laws like "No one will hereby carry a duck on top of a refrigerator across the road."  I don't know that this one is actually a law but it's a very close example of ones I've read about.  

So there I was playing with my Sim (sounds kinda perverted, huh?  Haha.  Just kidding.) and I was trying to get her dishes washed, make some phone calls to friends, run her to the toilet before she peed herself, then suddenly, she just crumpled to the floor.  I hadn't been watching my sleep meter.  When it reached zero, my Sim shut down, just like that, snoring loudly.  No matter what I had been doing with her, she could no longer go on.  Her body took over and shut her down.  That's what happens to your real body when you don't get proper sleep and rest (yes, they are two different things).  

I read that 10-minute naps help, 30 helps more, 1 hr is great, 90 minutes lets you complete the sleep cycle and is the most beneficial.  I may not have gotten the medical explanations quite right, but it's what you believe that changes your life, right?  (Placebos anyone?)  So if you believe it the way I wrote it and it improves your life, to heck with correct terminology.  People want words they can understand, not a book they have to read that's joined at the hip with the dictionary. 
After my hour nap, I hit the computer again, got my three paragraphs done and the other stuff on my list.  That nap was the only way I could go on--could persevere and see my projects through.  It gave me the power I needed to get more done in less time.  Sometimes the greatest act of perseverance is lying down and taking a nap so you CAN persevere.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I Want to Get My Hands in There and Change People

Did you ever meet someone who needed help, you talked to them, were understanding with them, encouraged them, but nothing ever changed?  They just kept being the same person.  And you reach a point where you scream and clench your fists and say, "Damn, if I could just get my hands into their life and just change all the stupid things they're doing!"  You see them pitying themselves in their sad situation that they're stuck in, but you see so many ways out for them.  Whenever you mention one of these ways, they gently shut the gate you've slung wide open and remind you with sad eyes that this potential freedom cannot be.  They reinforce their thinking at every chance that they are helpless, that there is no way to change their situation.  But you see the truth!  You know something can be done.  You can plainly see the way to a better life for them.  But they have their eyes half closed as they exist day after day.  Why they do that?!  To heck if I know!  But I remember doing it myself.  I would have to say that it is a mindset they get trapped in.  Whatever the reason, whatever its beginning, it's there.  So, what do you do with it?    

Today I was feeling frustrated as I saw a loved one's life so clearly:  the steps they needed to take to strengthen themselves, the steps to change their stale, restricting situation.  And I wanted to just get my hands in there, to make them do what needed done to bring change and a better life.  But at the very same time, I knew that would never work.  Well, it might work in a temporary, dictatorial type of way, but I knew it was not the right way.  If they were going to change, it would have to be their decision.  The only thing I could change was myself.  

Well, that sounds stupid.  They are the one that needs changing, right?  How is changing one of my flaws ever going to help them see what they need to change in their lives?  The truth of it is, if I try to change them, I will frustrate myself to the point of hating them, being rude to them, definitely not helping them in their situation.  The only way to keep my attitude and perspective about them correct is to just change things I actually have the power to change, such as myself.  And amazingly enough, this has often gotten the ball rolling for someone else to start change in their lives.  Maybe them seeing me happy and unafraid of change gives them the courage they need.  Maybe my complete acceptance of them exactly the way they are gives them that loving comfort zone that makes them dare to step out.  Whatever it is that does it, it works.    

So when I start to get all torqued up, I try to remember that I'm just building a useless frustration if my focus is to try to make them change.  Instead, I remind myself to shift my focus onto something I can do in my own life, a project I've been meaning to finish, a tantalizing story idea to work on.  And before I know it, I'm happier, they're happier and we're both working together to make our lives better.  It works so much better than pointing out their faults in an accusing sort of way, as if I don't have any of my own.  

As I was writing this post, I found a quote on the Facebook page of a writer friend of mine, Liz Hamm.  It says:   "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change toward him….We need not wait to see what others do."  --Mahatma Gandhi  

One of the secrets to helping other people to change is to change yourself.  You are the influence that evokes change in others.  

My friend has a blog as well.  Go check it out at www.bookwetzlhamm.blogspot.com  She writes excellent poetry that will make you feel magic again.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

What Makes Them Change?

Yesterday a woman was telling me how her husband used to make her breakfast when they were still dating. After they were married, he would clean the floors, wash the dishes and help keep things clean. Now he doesn't even close his own chip bag. He throws his things on the floor or jams his ironed shirts in closets undoing all her careful ironing. And in the past he was even blatantly unfaithful to her.

How did that happen? How can a person go from being sweetly in love to cheating on the person he loves--or loved?

This question haunts me. It makes me feel insecure, like the best of men can turn into monsters. But what triggers their actions? Or were they always that way and the truth is finally coming out?

I don't know what causes such a change of heart. I imagine it's different for every relationship and is never wholly due to one party. But there is no need for blame, just analyzing to get to the root of the problems that cause such disarray in the family unit. Perhaps the couple will seek a deeper relationship again one day. Or if they move on to other partners, at least they can have a successful relationship the next time.

I do know that every day we must work on our relationships to keep them special and sweet, respectful and loving, and truly passionate. Nothing must stay in between us and the ones we love for long, or years later in a psychiatrist's office we may find it is that very thing that is the root of our crumbled relationship.

Be on your guard. Welcome God's arms around your relationship. The curse of sin makes misunderstanding so easy. You are opening your heart in the most vulnerable of ways with your partner. Anything can be taken as an intentional hurt. God's love is the only protection. And it is the only way to keep the monster in either of you from being born.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why Do Good Memories Sometimes Feel Sad?

Do you ever think of a good memory and then feel like crying?  I saw a picture of my sister when she was probably 16.  She had a straw hat on a was giving some kind of glamour smile for the picture--something stupid we used to do back in the day.  I remembered messing around with my sister like that and having lots of fun, but every time I think of those memories now, there is some kind of sadness along with it.  

My solution is to not think about them very much.  I want to think about the future and what's going to happen today and tomorrow instead of thinking about even the good times in my past.  

I really don't know yet why good memories make me want to cry.  Maybe it's because I live in NC and most of my family live in PA or Canada.  Perhaps seeing those good memories reminds me how much I miss them right now, something I try not to focus on since I have to make a life here with my new family.  But at times I feel like they will never replace my real family.  I know.  They're not supposed to, but you know what I mean.  I guess I'm afraid I'll never have as good a time as I had with my own brothers and sisters growing up, and it makes me really sad not to be able to keep making daily memories with them now.  

But I wouldn't change my decision.  Starting a new life here in a small town was what I needed.  And I'm overlooking the fights I used to have with my brothers and sisters when we were all growing up, the lack of emotional control I had (lol, well, ok, I guess that one's still with me at times…don't act like you never do that as a grown woman!  PMS week?  Hmmm???).    

What I do get to look forward to everyday is being with my wonderful Jorge (my boyfriend…heck, no, that's not the name of my favorite teddy bear.  I don't have stuffed animals on my bed anymore, not that there's anything wrong with that.  But let me just say, ladies, that if you do, give your man a break about his "childish" video games then alright?).  And I get to work on my dream of writing and publishing.    

So while dwelling on family memories brings me to tears and does not accomplish anything more that calling the day a "no work zone" so I can deal with the depression, I choose to dwell on my future, meet the people of this rinky-dink town and learn how to live as a strong woman with the love of a truly good man, and write!  My goal is to be a best selling author, so keep your eyes on those New York Times lists.  I know, it might seem a long way off.  You might say, "You don't even have your first novel published!"  But that doesn't change anything in my mind.  In the future my books are already on that list and I keep living each day with these thoughts as my focus.  I hold the memories with my family in my pictures and in thoughts I keep locked in a back room of my mind.  The day will come when it's time to pull them out and write a bestseller about growing up in a place so small it couldn't even be called a town, in the Appalachians.  "Some day I may teach you how to sing, Georgie.  But today is not that day."  (For those of you who've seen Rigoletto.)  

Today it's time to focus on the now so when I stand looking at that bestsellers list, I will have a pocketful of good memories about my new life, my new life that is happening today.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Do You Feel Good About Yourself?

This morning I was reading a strengths finder book. There were thirty-five strengths listed, anything from Activator to Wooing. Each strength had a description then three comments from three different people describing themselves with that particular strength. Of course I found several that pertained to me just in browsing through the book. When I had first started reading, I was feeling down. I had started feeling this way very noticeably yesterday but there was no logical reason for it other than being a bit tired. I was starting to feel like no one loved me, like the day was dull and depressing, like I didn't feel like doing anything, not even eating. What an odd feeling to have when your life is going so well. Do any of you know what I mean?

As I browsed the strengths finder this morning I started to feel better. The book was listing some of my quirks as strengths. I started feeling like somebody somewhere who had written this book realized I was a special person. My quirks did not make me crazy. They were my strengths. And they weren't quirks! They were strengths that made me a valuable person.

I put the book down after almost an hour (certainly didn't feel that long) and thought, "All I wanted was to feel good about myself, to be accepted just the way I am." I can't explain why illogical feelings of depression try to haunt me at times. But at those times I do know I just want someone to come hug me and start telling me what a great person I am. My family and boyfriend cannot always do that for me because they may be down and tired too. But that does not mean they do not love me. And that does NOT mean I have to give in to depression. As long as there is a Higher Power, a God in the heavens, or whatever you may call him, there are 1,000 ways in which I can be reminded I'm loved and that I'm a great person with great strengths.

Resource: Strengths Finder 2.0 by bestselling author Tom Rath
This book is an upgraded edition of the online test from The Gallup Organization and is based on more than 40 years of research. Find and develop your natural talents.