Soul Sisters

It all began with one one person and one simple idea. Let's learn a new craft.

Rachel called me and invited me to join the group. She wanted to teach Swedish Weave. And of course, my response was, "what is Swedish Weave?". (Just Google it, it's awesome.)

And with that, we embarked on a brand new journey -- something each one of us longed for -- to stimulate our creative brains, venture into new territory, connect with like-minded women, and enjoy each other's company along the way.

It was perfect female symbiosis.

So on a lovely May afternoon six of us gathered in Rachel's kitchen, in a huge, homey farmhouse worthy of hosting a hoe-down, a family reunion, or just a cup of coffee between two friends -- the kind of place where it was obvious that both family and friends were welcomed with love and with food. Decorated in a rooster motif and outfitted with an oversized, harvest table, Rachel's kitchen was a perfect venue to learn the art of creating anything -- it was, in modern parlance, ground zero for crafting.

An integral part of learning something new, I found, was learning about the people who shared your quest for knowledge. I am proud to say that as I learned, I made new friends.

Irene, Rachel's best friend, was a person who easily attracted others. Her smile was endless. She always smiled, even though she found the craft challenging and at times frustrating. Her quiet perseverance was a lesson in itself. She set the standard for all those who want to give up when it didn't come easily. I could see that Irene was a friend to be cherished. By the end of the course, Irene had comfortably mastered the fine art of Swedish Weave.

Ownie's smile and kind disposition was like a blanket of warmth. As soon as she was introduced to me, Ownie made me feel like I was not a stranger to her. She never failed to comment on my progress, ask about my granddaughter and include me in the conversation. As it turns out, Ownie is a grandmother herself several times over, and as she worked on her piece, she filled us in on the granddaugher who had requested the colours she was using. One of them liked vibrant reds, greens and yellows, another opted for greens and blues. It was obvious that Ownie's work on her craft was purely a labour of love.

Sheila, Ownie's daughter-in-law, has sparkling eyes and an easy laugh. She was by far the most advanced student of the class, and the work she turned out made a beginner student like me most envious. She had already mastered the craft and had gone on to use other materials, like metallic ribbon and more advanced patterns. Sheila's work made me want to do more. She was an inspiration.

And then there is Helma, a sparkly personality who seemed to be up for any challenge. Helma was energetic, positive and diligent. She said that at home, she leaves her work out on the table and instead of sitting down, she regularly stops what she is doing to work a row on her piece standing up. Incredible! Helma always brings her sweet Bischon Frise "Baron" to class with her, and I have to admit, I was in heaven when Baron decided to "wash" my feet under the table. His rough little tongue made me feel that even I was one of the family!

Our teacher, Rachel, is one of a kind. Absolutely, Rachel is the hardest working person I have ever met. She rises before dawn to bake pies and desserts, cans hundreds of jars full of fresh vegetables and fruits, runs a highway market stand, and helps with garden and crop work on the farm where she lives.

And yet, Rachel has an outlook on life that should be emulated by all. Feisty and opinionated when she needs to be , Rachel is as soft as butter. She is generous with her time for family and friends, is a cook and baker extraordinaire, and I firmly believe she is a person who can master anything she puts her mind to. I thank my lucky stars that by accident, or by design, I met Rachel. And you should see what she serves us for afternoon break! My mouth just waters at the sight of her strawberry custard pie, keeflies, carrot and apple cake and all manner of homemade, oven-fresh delicacies.

If all that is not enough to refresh the soul, the conversation around the table as we stitch is filled with the most useful information. I learned that there is a "flat cabbage" that is invaluable for making cabbage rolls because the leaves don't have tough veins that have to be cut out before rolling. I found out that the supermarket sells a mix that makes a sauce for strawberries and other fresh fruit, so that your shortcake looks really professional. And I find out where all the freshest, most reasonably priced produce can be purchased from local growers and fellow farmers.  Between us, we exchanged views on spouses, family, current events, recipes and bargain-hunting.  No subject was taboo and ideas and opinions flowed freely.

Needless to say that, in the end, I feel I am the luckiest person in the class. These are incredible, accomplished women who give so much to their family and friends, and, I suspect, ask much less in return.

So who is the richer for this experience? Quite likely all of us, but most definitely, me.

The Gator and The Otter

The day began like most spring days in south central Florida, calm and clear, warm and sensuous, sunshine creeping slowly into the lanai, flooding it with a cheerful brightness.

This was the kind of day that begged us to enjoy the outdoors, close to Mother Earth, in tune with the natural elements and with our spectacular environment.

It was a day to spend at Highlands Hammock State Park.

As we parked the car on the main road, just past the entrance gate, we heard a rustling in the brush just off the pavement, so we waited and listened and strained to see what was poking around in the crispy, dead leaves of the forest floor. Within minutes, an inquisitive armadillo snuffled out onto the road, and waddled his way across our path and into the underbrush on the other side of the road, as if he was on a mission, oblivious to the two humans who were quietly snapping photos of his every move.

We chose Fern Garden Trail, one of the many interesting and colourful walks that visitors can take thoughout the park, mainly because it features an elevated boardwalk over swampy waters, perfect conditions for spotting indigenous Florida wildlife.

Within seconds of starting down the trail, we spotted him -- a ten foot long alligator, just five feet away from the boardwalk. His leathery hide glistened in the dappled sunshine filtering through the cypress trees, as he lounged motionless on a grassy bank steps from a swampy waterway. His right eye opened lazily and he gave us the once-over with as much disdain as only an alligator can convey. A few feet away, lying coiled at the bottom of a tree, a water moccasin sunned himself, quite comfortable with his companion in leisure.

Suddenly, with a noisy splash, we saw a river otter sliding through the water around the bank, ducking and diving beneath the surface, frolicking carefree in his paradise. Sleek and supple, the otter swam back and forth, relishing his afternoon swim and the snacks the swamp had to offer. Somehow, though, he did not notice the gator as he crawled up onto the bank and began nosing around under the fallen leaves, coming closer and closer to this awesome predator. With anticipation, we watched what would ultimately play out between these enemies, wondering if the outcome would favour the alligator or the otter.

Slowly, and with engineered precision, the gator lifted its fearsome jaw from his resting place, but only a fraction of an inch and in dead silence. The movement was barely noticeable. In a split second, the otter's head shot up and for the first time he realized how close he was to lethal danger. In one perfect motion, he swung around, bodysurfed into the water and made his escape as quickly as his little legs could paddle.

The gator's jaw slowly moved back down to rest on the grass, and we saw that right eyelid slide closed.

Lunch would have to wait.

A Cracker Cut

Occasionally, and often spontaneously, a total stranger will open a little window on his or her life and let you look inside. Such was the case the day I stopped into a unisex barbershop in Sebring, Florida for a much needed haircut.

The barber's name was Virginia, and as she began to cut, she also began to chat.

Virginia is a 51 year old "Florida Cracker" -- a term used to describe someone born and bred in the heart of ranch country. "Cracker", I am told, refers to the ranchers who cracked their whips to herd cattle across Florida's savannah grasses in search of ideal grazing and watering sites.

One of those ranchers, Virginia said, was her daddy, and to hear her talk about him, it is quite clear that she loved him dearly.

"My daddy was somethin'," she said, as she clipped and snipped. "He owned 18,000 acres and thousands of head of cattle in Okeechobee and Avon Park. My brothers were all cowboys on the ranch. Still are -- always was cowboys, always will be cowboys," she drawled in that distinctively southern accent.

"And he taught me a lot of things, my daddy did. One day I asked my daddy, 'Daddy, why do you let them Mexicans run up a tab for the meat they buy from you? They never pay you!' And he said, 'Virginia, you look out there. How many head of cattle do you see?' And I said, 'I don't know, daddy.' And daddy said, 'That's right Virginia, you don't know. There's a thousand head of cattle out there, so if I want to give someone meat that they can't pay for, I'm gonna give it to 'em because all I have to do is just go out and slaughter another cow. Do you understand me, Virginia?' And I said, 'Yes sir, daddy, I understand you good.' And he said, 'Well don't you ever forget that.'"

By this time, I noticed that Virginia had stopped cutting and was standing in front of me waving her scissors. I had the feeling she was just getting warmed up on her favourite subject.

"When my daddy died, I couldn't get all the people in the funeral home. They come from all over," she continued. "By the time the funeral was over, people had given me almost $30,000!" she exclaimed. When I asked why they did that, Virginia said, "Because they loved my daddy! One man said, 'Your daddy made sure every one of my boys had a job on the ranch, so I owe your daddy. Here's five thousand dollars.' And another man came up to me and said, 'Your daddy gave me enough money and meat to feed my family when I didn't have a dime, so I bought six plots at the cemetery for all your family.' Everyone loved my daddy, " Virginia said, "My daddy was somethin'".

More stories followed the ones about Virginia's daddy and his generosity. Seems Virginia has been barbering since she was 18, has been married and divorced twice, raised three boys and a grandson mostly on her own, and not one of those three boys became a cowboy.

"I told my boys, you ain't never gonna be no cowboy, so you better sit up straight in school and go to college. And I sent them all to college!", she proclaimed triumphantly. They must have paid some attention to their mother, because Virginia said one was a contractor, one was an architect and one was a pharmacist. "And I told 'em all, you can't get married until you're thirty-two because you ain't never gonna find a woman who's gonna love you as much as your momma! And when you do find someone, she ain't gonna be no waitress or work in some convenience store, or be a hairdresser like me. She's gonna graduate from college and have an education and a good job!"

An hour later, Virginia was finished. My hair was cut, moussed, blown and curled. On top of that, she pulled out a hand-held massager and gave me a five minute neck and shoulder massage. I not only looked and felt much better than when I had strolled into the shop, but I had been given this little peek into someone else's world -- a world that reminded me of Southfork and the Ewing family on that old 70's TV series "Dallas".

What a marvellous deal for only ten bucks!

Skype Child -- a.k.a. "The Pea"

There's a sweet little soul, not yet a year old, who lives hundreds of miles away from her Grammie and Grampie, but who isn't letting that stop her from "visiting" them.

That little soul is our granddaughter, Brooklyn.

Every couple of days, Brooklyn's mummy (our daughter Jen) fires up the computer, clicks on our Skype address and watches Brooklyn's face break into a picture of fascination as the characteristic "bing-bong-bong-bing" of Skpe's calling signal begins to ring our computer.

With equal anticipation, we grands click on "answer with video" and wait while the little round icon finishes its rotation and those sweet faces of Brookie, her mummy and her daddy pop onto our screen.

Each time this happens, I marvel at how far modern technology has come in connecting us to each other, and how only decades ago, this would have been only a glimmer in the imaginations of Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek writers.

What really boggles my mind is envisioning how far these technologies will take Brooklyn in her lifetime. Her opportunities in communication will be more than unlimited. They will be beyond anything we could currently imagine.

Thanks to Skype, we don't feel so lonely to see our "Sweet Pea" -- "The Pea" for short. (In our family, we have a long history of pinning nicknames to our children as babies, ones that may or may not linger years into their childhood. Brooklyn's mummy, Jen, was known as "Tweed", our little "Tweedy-pie". Her brother Brad was named "Big Guy" -- B.G. or "Big" for short -- because he looked like a sumo wrestler, weighing ten pounds, four ounces at birth. My nephew was nicknamed "Beaker" when he was born because his daddy is a chemist. It's a family fascination both endearing and annoying, depending on whether you are the namer or the namee!)

The Pea, for certain, lives up to her name on Skype. That sweet little round face, gorgeous brilliant big blue eyes, and a mischievous little grin with only a few "pearly whites" poking through her pink gums is a sight that lights up a grandmother's heart! She lets out a few noises to let us know she's "talking" to us, and she zooms her cherubic face up close to the webcam, giving us a little wave or wagging her index finger so that we will imitate her back. She giggles and shrieks sometimes and stares solemnly at us for long seconds. We can watch her scurry around her playroom on all fours, and launch herself onto the cat with gleeful abandon.

If modern internet inventors set out to enrich our lives with these tools, they have more than succeeded with Skype.

We are hooked, and so is our Skype Child!

Meat Without the Appropriate Gravy

Occasionally in life, some things just don't match.  We can't always be sure that we won't end up wearing a tuxedo with brown shoes, or that our birthday cake isn't dotted with votive candles, or even that sherbet won't replace ice cream with that cake.

What I'm trying to say is, even after our best efforts to make sure everything is perfect, we often wind up with the imperfect.  It's a lesson I tried to teach my kids because substitution, in my book, can be elevated to an art form. 

Jen, a natural baker at heart, took to this notion like a duck to water.  She can whip up any recipe, deleting this, adding that, and generally working around any ingredient that she doesn't have on hand or doesn't have the time to get.   Brad, too, can be persuaded to use something other than what's required.  But, he draws the line at food.

As a baby, Brad was a particularly good eater with a digestive tract like a kitchen drain.  Everything went down and hardly anything came back up.  He loved to dine on all the Gerber favourites -- sweet potatoes, carrots, peas (yes, peas!), all the pureed fruits on the shelf, and even that yucky, pasty meat in a jar.  If he smelled it, he loved it.

As he matured into his teens and twenties, Brad acquired a more finicky palate.   Like a lot of kids, he doesn't like any food on his plate to touch any other food.  Potatoes need to occupy a separate corner of his dinner plate.  Meat has to sit in solitary confinement far away, and vegetables, if he can be persuaded to eat any, exist in a lonely little pile off to the side.  He's a good salad eater, but just make sure the salad is in a separate bowl, not -- I repeat, NOT -- heaped on the plate with the rest of his dinner.  To him, the visual effect is almost as important as the taste.

Being a meat and potatoes type guy, there is one exception to all of this compartmentalizing.  He loves gravy on his meat.  Meat without gravy is like cornflakes without milk to Brad.  There's just no point to eating one without the other.

Every Sunday I usually liked to make sure I whipped up a dinner for my family that I could be proud of -- a truly fine cut of meat  with mashed potatoes, vegetables, gravy and salad.  I did, however, use the powdered gravy mixes found in most grocery stores and available in any flavour simply because it always turned out tasty and didn't give my husband a bad case of heartburn.  What I didn't always consider, in my haste to get in and out of the store, was whether I had remembered to purchased the beef gravy along with the roast of beef, or the chicken flavoured gravy to go with the roasted whole chicken I planned on serving.

More often than not, I admit, I served whatever gravy flavour I had in the cupboard -- pork with beef gravy, or chicken with pork gravy.  It just didn't always come together the way I had intended!

To this day, Brad will ask me what's for dinner, and whether we have the appropriate gravy.  And I just smile and nod my head.

Maybe someday they'll make a one-size-fits-all gravy flavour to cover all kinds of foods.  Not only will that solve my little dilemma, but that will be the day that my son's food will touch!