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“Ruby Begonia, I’ve got a job for you.” The command echoed off the AmesHigh School dull-colored hallway walls as I walked toward the tall, slender biology teacher, Mr. Dunn.

As I heard my nickname, my early morning expression of half-closed, sleepy eyes transformed into raised eyebrows and alertness. Since I worked full-time as the science department teacher’s aid with a salary of $4,000 per year without benefits, my coffers could benefit from additional income. But how would I manage a full-time job and two part-time jobs? In addition to my science position, every Friday and Saturday night, I rode my bike to Golds Veritable Quandry, an upscale restaurant on Main Street in downtown Ames, where I worked as a sou chef and received one important perk: dinner, limited to certain items free to employees. “Our Fine Filet – thick tenderloin wrapped in bacon” at $9.45 was off limits. “The Crepe Dianne – with salad and bread” or “The Golden Quiche – cheese, bacon, egg & green pepper pie, served with salad and bread” were elegant selections to this Iowa farm girl. I’d consumed plenty of steaks from our farm-raised steers, but had never heard of quiche or crepes.

Additionally, I frequently worked during the champagne brunch on Sunday mornings. I was certain my schedule had no space for another job. Still I asked curiously, “What do you have on your mind, Mr. Dunn?”

I anxiously waited for his answer. This energetic man with a scruffy reddish beard and face full of freckles topped the scale of happiness. His long fingers touched on the pulse of every creative activity in our small college town. The high school students adored his positive, fun-loving spirit; I did also.

“Well, we need a Market Master for our local Farmer’s Market,” Mr. Dunn began.

I wondered what a Farmer’s Market was and what were the responsibilities of a Market Master. Instead of seeking clarification, I asked, “What day and hours do they need a Market Master?”

“Every Saturday morning through the spring, summer, and fall. It’s located at the old railroad depot on Main Street.”

Ames Train Station

Ames Train Station

On Friday night, after mopping and cleaning the kitchen, I usually returned home around 1:30 am. That was enough time to catch some sleep and ride my bike back downtown. Still, I paused.

Encouragement flew from Mr. Dunn’s mouth. “Oh, Ruby, it’s a great job for you.  You’ll love it.”

Once I had asked Mr. Dunn, “Who is Ruby Begonia?”

He curtly replied, “Oh, some old time radio character.”

The origin of Ruby Begonia was a mystery. Some say Ruby Begonia was first created as a character for the “Amos & Andy Show” which ran first on radio and then television from 1928 to 1966. Kingfish, when caught in a lie, would say, “Do duh name Ruby Begonia ring a bell?”

For me, another mystery was why Mr. Dunn nicknamed me Ruby Begonia. From his endearing tone, I liked being Ruby and wished I were one of Mr. Dunn’s kids living with him and his wife in their large, yellow two-story home near downtown.

I sought more details. “What does a Market Master do on Saturday mornings?”

His green eyes sparkled, and I realized that he was drawing me into accepting the job. “You’ll need to arrive shortly before eight, collect the rent money from the vendors and show them where to display their produce and goods. The old depot has a large overhang which protects the exhibit tables from rainy weather. You’ll stay until all the vendors depart, which is shortly before noon.”

Starting to piece this information together, I concluded that a Farmer’s Market was what served as a garden for city folk. Little did I know that, like Golds Veritable Quandy’s, this part-time job would help a “poor starving” college graduate. I accepted. Mr. Dunn smiled. “Ruby, good decision. I’ll meet you there on Saturday.”

The Friday night before my new job, the restaurant closed and the wait staff departed. In a quiet restaurant, the fun began. The chef walked to the radio, always tuned to the college station, turned the knob to nearly 100 decibels. I grabbed my mop and danced across the kitchen floor to blues and rock and roll. Once the floor shone as bright as a metal grain bin in full sun light, I rushed out the back door and pedaled through the dark, quiet streets to Pammel Court for a short night of rest.

Much too early, the alarm rang at 7:00 am. Retracing my path to downtown, I arrived to greet a small group of middle aged vendors. Mr. Dunn introduced me, using my “real” nickname, Moni. I assigned a space to each vendor, and they began spreading out their fresh vegetables and fruit, baked goods, jams, and jellies.

In junior high school, Pat Nolte, the mother of my best friend Cindy, had taught me how to bake bread. Pat never purchased bread and the smell of bread baking in her oven set off my salivary glands. I loved homemade bread and frequently baked it throughout my high school years. Our family always ate one loaf with melted butter, and sometimes jam, immediately out of the oven. My bread baking came to a halt during college and I survived on cheap grocery store bread, a poor substitute.

I watched as the vendors unloaded their vehicles and carefully arranged their goods. Some folks carried boxes of vegetables – colorful greens, cucumbers, early tomatoes, radishes with the leaves attached. All the same produce that my family grew in the black, loamy soil of our garden. Then, I noticed a short-plump lady spreading out golden brown loaves of homemade bread. The aroma of the Nolte kitchen seeped into my soul. My salivary glands swelled. “Oh, I want some of that bread. But I can’t afford it.” I whined to myself. How would I make it through the morning staring at those loaves? And this lady signed up for a table throughout the whole season. “Oh dear, this job will be torture.”

I scanned down the tables. Glass jars were shining from dappled light that contained strawberry and raspberry jam and elderberry jelly with handwritten labels. Thoughts of raspberry jam on homemade bread caused my swollen salivary glands to secrete whatever they produce. “I must find a higher paying job so I can afford bread and jam,” my thoughts continued.

I silently drooled over the baked goods while a few shoppers chatted with the vendors and purchased items. However, it wasn’t like the Greensboro Farmer’s Market on Yanceyville Street where, today, I seldom shop because the throngs annoy me. The low attendance of the Ames Farmer’s Market during the mid-1970s suited me perfectly, and proved beneficial.

The relaxed nature of the Market allowed the vendors to chat with each other and with me. We covered all subjects – local gossip, politics, college news, athletics. Even though they were old enough to be my parents or, for that matter, grandparents, I enjoyed conversing with them in the shade of the depot overhang. The slow-paced morning moved toward noon and the vendors began boxing up their unsold goods.

They commented on my mode of transportation and asked how far I had to ride home. Evidently, they also sized up the volume of my backpack. The plump lady was the first to ask, “Would you like a loaf of bread?”

My quick response was, “Does a one-legged duck swim in circles? Yes!”

Within seconds, another lady spoke, “How about some jam?”

“I’d love a jar!”

Each vendor offered me a little some thing; I graciously accepted and thanked them profusely. What a red letter day for me; a young lady struggling to begin her career on low paying jobs while paying back college loans. After the vendors headed home to their farms, I wiggled my shoulders through my backpack straps and could hear Mr. Dunn’s voice, “Ruby Begonia, you made out all right.”

Karli’s Beauty Swells

My niece can’t die, she is only twenty-one. I thought catastrophic events didn’t happen to my family.  Healthy children are born and fulfill Garrison Keillor’s quote about LakeWobegon, “where the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.”  Our family members transition through life stages, then check out in their late golden years except for Aunt Kay who died of ovarian cancer at age sixty and Grandma Nan, cancer also, at age 78. Cancer is a theme in our family.   

My sister from Iowa, Becki, and I talk frequently on the phone.  Through the years of distant communication we shared our experiences with raising our young children.  In August 2005, Karli, her youngest child, was majoring in horticulture at IowaStateUniversity.  Chris, my only child, had just headed off to his freshmen year at North CarolinaStateUniversity.   Life stages were unfolding for both Chris and Karli just as planned, until October.

Typically I started our phone conversations with, “Hi. How are you doing?” or “What have you been up to?”  Next, I moved on to ask about Karli and her brother, Cody.  One day, I forgot to ask about Cody.

“How’s Karli?” I asked.

“She is having some dizziness, balance issues, and vision problems,” my sister answered.

“Has she had this before?”

“No, it might be stress from school.  She gets worried about her classes.”

“I think Chris is going to get a dose of that soon,” I joked.

I was not overly concerned.  However, in subsequent calls, Becki reported that Karli’s symptoms persisted and that new ones developed.

A few weeks later, I asked, “How’s Karli feeling now?”

“She’s still dizzy most of the time and her balance is not right.  Instead of driving, she’s taking the city bus to classes.”

“Gosh, how long is this going to last and what is it?”  I asked.  My sister desperately wanted an answer.

That weekend Becki was scheduled to attend a massage therapy workshop in Minneapolis.  She decided to go, and stay in contact with Karli via phone.  I also decided to check on Karli.

I called on Saturday.  After casual chit chat I asked, “Karli, are you feeling any better?”

From a person who seldom complains, I knew her long pause was a bad sign.  Finally she spoke softly, “Hum, not really.”

Karli heard the concern in my voice, “I’m starting to get worried about you.”  In another month, we learned we had good reason for being worried.

As her symptoms continued, Karli thought she may have contracted a disease while visiting Costa Rica with her horticulture class.  Doctors at the ISU Health Clinic performed tests, but the results detected nothing.  Meanwhile, days passed slowly while Karli tried to concentrate, study, and pass tests.  New symptoms started to develop, including slight hearing loss in her left ear and difficulty reading.  A visit to the eye doctor provided no answers.  She passed up a horticultural trip to Texas, and by Thanksgiving, the holiday of feasting, Karli couldn’t keep food in her stomach.  Her visit to Cody’s house in Ankeny proved difficult because the smell of a new carpet made her feel nauseous and her hearing loss worsened.

After a long Thanksgiving break with little to no food or water, Karli visited a neurologist in Ames.   When the doctor whispered into Karli’s left ear, she heard nothing.  The next stop was a visit to the ER to get re-hydrated through an IV, and then a CAT scan and MRI.  The neurologist read the scan and diagnosed an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor, pressing on the auditory nerve.  Becki and Karli were told that the neuroma could easily be removed and described the extraction as a “bread and butter surgery” for their local ENT clinic.

That was dead wrong.

Becki communicated nearly every day with extended family members.  Our mother, Janet, had learned from Cindy Elsen, our step-sister who is a nurse, that Iowa City had one of the best ENT clinics in the nation.  Even though the Ames doctors encouraged Karli to have surgery locally, she and her parents decided another opinion at Iowa City was worth the effort and time.  Thank goodness.

MRI in hand, they drove to Iowa City.  The doctor viewed the scan and immediately knew he was viewing a tumor on the brain stem.  They were NOT dealing with a bread and butter surgery.  But what type of tumor? 

A biopsy specimen was sent to the pathology lab.  Not until the pathology report became available would the type be known; however, the doctors speculated it might be a lymphoma or a type of blastoma.  For such tumors, surgery was not recommended.  Becki misinterpreted “no surgery” as a good sign, not realizing that no surgery meant little to no chance of survival.

Meanwhile, oblivious to the dangers of searching the web for medical information, I entered “blastoma” into the Google search box and began reading about glioblastoma.  This was a very bad idea.  Glioblastoma is the form of brain tumor that is extremely lethal and years later killed Edward Kennedy.  As I began reading, a watermelon formed in my throat and the blood pulsing through my heart nearly congealed.  If this was the cancer invading Karli’s brain, she will not survive.  We couldn’t lose Karli.

A few days later, the Iowa City doctors informed Becki, Karli, and Karli’s dad and Becki’s ex-husband, Carl, that the tumor was a pediatric type called a medulloblastoma, which is treated with surgery, radiation, and, lastly, chemotherapy. Becki was distraught after the back and forth recommendations:  first a bread and butter surgery, then no surgery, now surgery.   The doctor quickly informed her that a medulloblastoma diagnosis and surgery were good news because they now had a chance of curing Karli.  I never searched the web. 

Karli’s parents divorced in 1995, and, thankfully, maintained a healthy relationship.  Several situations enabled Becki and Carl to transition fairly smoothly from a husband-wife relationship to ex-spouses.  As Iowa hog farmers, they lacked material wealth and, for this reason, minimal disputes erupted over splitting their possessions.  Their wealth was their children, and their children were not game for division. 

I like to think that their sisters, both Becki’s and Carl’s, helped set the stage for their new relationship.  As a young teenager, I had a crush on Carl.  It was one of those infatuations that young girls fabricate in their immature minds.  In reality, Carl was interested in a beautiful cheerleader from Lohrville, not a Plain Jane basketball player from CedarValleyHigh School.  Years later, I suggested to my sister that she introduce herself to Carl.  After further years when they divorced I made a pledge to be supportive of Becki and not criticize Carl; after all, how can one criticize their teenage heart throb?  Likewise, Carl’s sisters remained supportive and loving towards Becki.  The Christensen Family is full of kindness and Becki still celebrates birthdays, holidays, and special occasions with their family. 

Additionally, a person’s spirituality guides one through difficult times.  Both Becki and Carl study and practice Master Path, a pathway for spiritual growth.  The divorce was a minor hurdle compared to Karli’s health issue.   To maintain strength, Becki frequently reminded herself “Thy will, NOT my will,” and then peace filled the void left by the worry and stress.  She trusted that God’s plan for Karli was taking shape and to accept it, and with that freedom Becki and Carl made thoughtful, educated choices on the plethora of medical decisions thrust upon them.

From Karli’s side, the doctors said she had a 60% to 80% chance of beating the cancer.  The pediatric tumor resided in her adult brain, but the medical details overwhelmed her.  Karli decided to respond like a pediatric patient and leave the medical decisions to her parents.  She adopted Alfred E. Newman’s famous line, “What, me worry?” and told herself that worrying wouldn’t cure her or determine whether she lived or died.  Karli confessed to her dad, “When I was younger and struggling with depression, I wanted to die; but now that there is a chance that I might die, I don’t want to.”  With those thoughts and faith in her doctors, Karli focused on restoring her health by following the decisions and advice of her team of doctors and parents.  

I called Becki and Karli nearly every day while waiting for the surgery date of January 5, 2006.  Becki described the tumor, “It’s not a contained unit, but a tumor that originated in the brain stem and exploded outward.” 

That sounded impossible to cure but instead I asked, “How do they perform surgery on an irregular shape?”

“The doctors estimate they can remove about 70% of the tumor and then destroy the rest with radiation.  They will use chemotherapy in case any left over cancer cells remain.” My sister was starting to sound like a medical doctor.

Doctors and nurses prepped Karli for surgery.  Her long brunette hair was shaved from the back of her head where the surgeons made a nine inch long, upside-down “L” incision to access Karli’s brain stem.  The surgery involved placing a suction device within the tumor and carefully targeting and extracting the cancer cells without disrupting normal brain cells.  The brain stem controls one’s motor skills and any mishap would have lasting effects, but so would not removing the cancer.  The surgeon told Becki he would not take any chances, and she trusted the Iowa City doctors. 

Karli 2

During the surgery, Becki thought about how close the tools would be to Karli’s brain and, with all the relatives across the nation, prayed for excellent results.  Becki wondered who she would greet after surgery – her same daughter or a child with a severe handicap.  After six hours in the operating room, the nurses rolled Karli into post-surgical intensive care.  The doctors warned Becki, Carl, and Cody that Karli’s face would be swollen.  The family hesitantly and quietly walked into the recovery room joined by Nicki, Carl’s sister, and Jerry Wilson, a close family friend.  Karli’s dark eyelashes and rich brown eyes appeared like a China doll’s but sunken within a swollen face.  Becki softly spoke, “Hi Karli.  How are you doing?”

In a groggy voice but able to speak with her characteristic personality Karli replied, “I feel like CRAP!”

A mother’s loving smile erupted across Becki’s face and tears seeped from the corners of her blue eyes.  “That’s my Karli,” and she knew surgery was a success.  With the worry at bay, for now, Cody commented, “Karli, it looks like your face is painted on a balloon.”  Laughter erupted as each person in the room savored the glow of Karli’s beauty.

Did Margaret, my mother-in-law, ever favor pastel colors?  My memory holds images of her attired in earth tones except for pajama bottoms.  Pinkish pigs and Carolina blue sheep decorated the cloth with crescent moons and stars scattered throughout the pale yellow background with snooze time, sleepy, let’s go sleep, and Z Z Z written around the animals.   I inherited the pajamas and wear them, even though pastels don’t dominate my wardrobe either.  I’m always hopeful they will offer a restful night of sleep.

Margaret saved pastels for the naked ladies.  In the sultry heat of Southern summers, naked ladies are adorned with a cool, pink color as their fragrant perfume permeates the humid air.  Margaret’s naked ladies stood as sentinels in the partial shade of her pecan trees and near the front door of her home on Holden Road in Greensboro.  Each spring, tightly wrapped leaves emerged from the earth in her brick planter box.  The long leaves unfurled and for a few months captured the sunlight, storing food in the bulb below.  Until one day, the leaves become limp, faded in color, and completely died back.  For several weeks, the plant is dormant and hidden below the earth’s surface.

Gardeners forget about the plant since it’s out-of-sight and out-of-mind until shortly after the fourth of July.  Next, hollow green stems burst through the soil, grow rapidly, and reach for the sky.  A cylindrical flower bud forms on the tip and slowly opens to reveal three petals and three sepals, all the same color, thus called tepals.   The light pink tepals cool the soul on sweltering days.

The leaves and bulbs of naked ladies are similar to an amaryllis whose bulbs are often forced to bloom during the Christmas holiday season.   Naked ladies belong to the Amaryllis Family and are a hybrid between Lycoris straminea and Lycoris incarnata, called Lycoris squamigera.  Other common names are resurrection lily and surprise lily.  However, I prefer naked ladies because I learned that name from Margaret who enjoyed sharing and receiving garden flowers – both horticultural ones and wildflowers.  Zoonomia, Margaret’s mother, who lived on Mendenhall Street near Buffalo Creek in Greensboro, also grew roses and other flowers.  Certainly, Zoonomia and her daughter delighted in sharing old-time southern favorites called “pass-along-plants.”

Naked Ladies and Native Grasses in Moni’s Yard

How did Zoonomia instill the joy of growing flowers to her daughter?  And why did Margaret’s grandmother name her daughter Zoonomia?  In 1789, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, wrote a poem called “The Love of Plants” and the last couple lines introduced the concept of evolution.  Later he published a book titled, “Zoonomia: The Laws of Organic Life.” Was this the derivation? I don’t know but Zoonomia Davant loved plants and I imagine her as a woman full of organic life.

I gifted many plants to my mother-in-law: Soloman’s seal, Lenten roses, May-apples, trout lilies, bloodroot, among others.  The plants passed from my fingers with dirt under the nails to her shaking hands.  With a sparkle in her eyes, she expressed comments like, “These flowers will look nice along the stone walkway by the garage,” but never a thank-you.  With the first plant that Margaret offered me, she taught me an Appalachia superstition:  Never thank a friend when they give you a plant for that will guarantee the plant’s death.

Today, I wonder if Margaret’s naked ladies came from Zoonomia’s garden.  If so, the naked ladies have passed through three or more generations.  When Margaret offered the bulbs to me, I gladly accepted with, “Oh, I’d love to see naked ladies in my yard.”  Of course, they survived and every year John and I, dressed in earth tone shorts and shirts, enjoy the pastel naked ladies scattered about our Burnt Oaks garden with thoughts and memories of a colorful lady.

Margaret and Family Celebrating Her Birthday by Gardening Together

Naked Ladies Flowering in Margaret’s Brick Flower Bed

My grandmothers knew the importance of a tasty homemade cookie. However, only recently have politicians gained this understanding. Who will win the 2012 Family Circle Presidential Cookie Bake-Off: Michelle Obama or Ann Romney? Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to fire up your ovens, and then vote.

Cookies were introduced to America by immigrants from Holland, England, and Scotland. The term cookie is derived from a Dutch word, koekje. Cookies originated as test cakes when a small amount of cake batter was baked to test the oven temperature. Probably young children eagerly volunteered to consume the test cakes, as I loved to lick the batter from the cake and cookie mixing bowls and beaters. Admittedly, I still lick the batter and, at nearly sixty years of age, I have never contracted salmonella from the raw eggs. That may be due to my childhood farm life and the introduction of bacterial diversity to my system.

As a child, I thought all grandmothers baked cookies. At least, both of mine did. I never actually saw them bake cookies, but it’s a safe assumption that the homemade cookies neatly arranged in their cookie jars were covered with Grandma Nan’s and Grandma Edith’s finger prints, not Grandpa Fred’s or Grandpa Cliff’s. Grandma Nan’s cookie jar was a big pig wearing a baker’s cap and apron. It sat proudly on her kitchen counter. Another one was a lovely etched, green, depression-glass biscuit jar. I loved both cookie jars, and not just for the contents. Those cookies were made of sugar and tasty, but, more importantly, made by the hands of those I loved.

Pig cookie jar similar to Grandma Nan’s

Grandma Edith’s specialty was peanut butter cookies. When she married my grandfather in 1925, peanut cookies had only recently been introduced. Around that period, George Washington Carver, an African-American educator, botanist, and scientist, promoted peanut production to replace cotton, which had been destroyed by the boll weevil, as the cash crop of the South. Mr. Carver included three recipes for peanut cookies in his 1916 publication, “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.” The peanuts were crushed or chopped prior to adding to the cookie batter.In 1922, peanut butter was invented by Joseph Rosefield and marketed by Swift & Company as E.K. Pond peanut butter. The name changed to Peter Pan when the children’s novels of the same name were published. During the next decade, peanut butter made its way into cookies as an ingredient in Peanut Butter Balls in a Pillsbury cookbook. This recipe instructed the baker to roll the dough into balls, and then press them down with the tines of a fork.

As a little girl, I noticed parallel lines on the surface of my grandma’s cookies. For a few seconds prior to consumption, I wondered how she made those ridges stretching across the cookie. However, my curiosity quickly faded as the peanut butter cookie continued its path into my salivating mouth. Only years later, when I received her recipe, did I learn the origin of the lines.

Grandma Edith’s Peanut Butter Cookies

Cream together:
½ c. butter
½ c. white sugar
½ c. brown sugar
½ c. peanut butter
Add:     1 beaten egg and ½ t. vanilla
Mix together:    1 ½ c. flour, 1 t. baking soda, and ½ t. salt
Add flour mixture to rest of ingredients and chill. May add chopped peanuts to batter.
Drop on an oiled cookie sheet and press down with a fork that has been dipped in flour.
Bake until set but not hard, approximately 12-14 minutes at 375 degrees.

Returning from a botanical field trip to the North Carolina coastal plain, my colleagues and I stopped in an Amish store in PenderCounty. As I crossed the threshold of the old country store, a sweet smell brought back memories of my past. “What is that smell?” I asked Marj. Soon, we spotted bags of cookies on the check-out counter, and, of course, I purchased a couple bags. Sharing the cookies on the drive home, we all agreed that they topped off an excellent day in the field. But why did those cookies elicit such a strong memory?

That evening, I called my mother. “Mom, today I bought some cookies at an Amish country store. They were like a sugar cookie with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on the top.” The sweetest tone in her reply was filled with love, “Ah, Snickerdoodles, Grandma Nan baked them all the time.” How appropriate that my German Grandmother Fillman (Villman) baked Snickerdoodles, which are thought to be derived from a German cinnamon-dusted pastry called Schneckennudeln.

Grandma Nan’s Betty Crocker Snickerdoodles

Cream together:
1 c. soft shortening
1 ½ c. sugar
2 eggs
Sift together, and then stir into above:
2 ¾ c. flour
2 t. cream of tarter
1 t. soda
½ t. salt
Roll into balls the size of a walnut. Roll balls in mixture of 2 T. sugar & 2 t. cinnamon.
Place about 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake 8-10 minutes in hot oven (400 degrees) until lightly browned but still soft. The cookies puff up at first, and then flatten out with crinkled tops.
Makes 5 dozen 2 inch cookies.

There were no chocolate chip cookies in my grandmother’s cookie jars; they were one of my favorite treats. It was also the favorite cookie for the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street, who gruffly demanded, “Me want cookie!” Cookie Monster would have adored living with Hillary Clinton who baked his favorite cookies, and he probably would have voted for Bill Clinton during the 1992 presidential campaign.

During Bill’s campaign, Hillary Clinton replied to a reporter in Chicago’s Busy Bee Coffee Shop, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in public life.” Ms. Clinton received much grief over her cookie quote, but minor compared to what she faced as first lady.

During the Clinton/Bush campaign, the cookie quote inspired the first Family Circle Presidential Bake-Off. In 1992, Hillary’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies beat Barbara Bush’s classic chocolate chip cookies, 55% to 45%, and Bill Clinton won the election. Since that first bake-off, the Family Circle winner has successfully predicted the presidential winner in all elections except one when Cindy McCain’s oatmeal-butterscotch cookies beat Michelle Obama’s shortbread cookies.

Hillary Clinton’s Chocolate Chip Cookies

1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
1 c. shortening
1 c. packed brown sugar
½ c. white sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 c. rolled oats
2 c. semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush baking sheets lightly with vegetable oil.
Combine flour, salt, and baking soda on waxed paper.
Beat together shortening, sugars, and vanilla in large bowl with electric mixer until creamy. Add eggs and beat until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in rolled oats and then chocolate chips.
Drop batter by rounded teaspoon onto baking sheets. Bake for 8 – 10 minutes or till golden. Cool cookies on sheets for 2 minutes. Remove to wire racks to cool completely.
Yield 7 dozen

This year, 2012, Michelle submitted another Obama family favorite, white and dark chocolate chip cookies and Ann Romney submitted oatmeal M & M’s cookies. Search the web for recipes and vote, but don’t forget to vote in the real election on November 6!

October 18, 2011 started as an uneventful day when Debbie, a friend from New Mexico, and I left my house, drove past the “South Lawn,” and down the gravel driveway to Witty Road, headed to yoga at Sportime. Pele, my Portuguese water dog, sat in the back seat admiring Debbie’s pretty wavy black hair streaked with gray hair just like his. The fall palette framed the Carolina blue sky as we drove past Lake Brandt, one of Pele’s favorite trails where he hoped to stop for a long hike.

However, the “adventure box” passed all Pele’s trails and continued until we arrived at the gym. I slowly steered my compact car into a shady parking space next to an enormous shiny, black SUV.

Pele recognized the parking lot and knew this entailed a long wait. Normally a quiet dog, Pele used his muscular chest and voluminous lungs to bark loudly and express his dissatisfaction. After all, Pele was probably thinking that he does an authentic downward facing dog and could lead the yoga class.

I stepped out of the car while verbally attempting to reassure and calm Pele. With a quick upward glance, I noticed that the SUV was backed into the parking space with all the windows open and four young men watching my every move. “My dog will settle down once I leave,” I told them.

Next I opened the trunk, grabbed my light blue yoga mat, tucked it under my arm, and strolled towards Debbie, who had already looked inside the SUV. After rounding the back of my car, I too, noticed that all the physically fit guys were dressed in black and heavily armed with automatic guns. These fellows were not deer hunters.

Recalling news of President Obama’s scheduled visit to Greensboro to promote his job bill, I leaned slightly to peer into the SUV and asked, “Is Obama in the gym?”

In contrast to Pele, the men remained completely silent. Only Debbie responded. “They can’t say.”

“Well, you certainly are not sitting here because my husband is in the gym,” I joked. Laughter broke the silence, and then Debbie and I continued to the gym entrance. Pele sat in the back seat annoyed.

I watched Moni and Debbie walk away and a curious thing happened. They stood in a short line and quickly reached a civilian dressed man who waved a wand around their torsos, legs, and out-stretched arms; I assumed it was a yoga position. It was difficult to keep a close eye on them because a huge vehicle obscured my view.

I shifted in an attempt to maintain eye contact on Moni because I always keep her in my view until she disappears, and then I focus on that point until she FINALLY reappears. Instead, I glanced inside the SUV. Holy catfish, those dudes had big guns.

Like a cat, risking that my curiosity might kill me, I asked “Hey dudes, who are you? And what is the deal with those guns? Look guys, I promise I won’t bark any more.”

The secret service agents glanced at each other until one finally one submitted, “I guess we can tell a dog, especially one that looks like Bo.”

“We’re from Washington, D.C. and President Obama is working out in the gym.”

“You don’t say. I lived in Alexandria, Virginia the first four and a half years of my life. I’ve seen photos of Malia and Sasha’s dog, Bo.”

“That’s real close to Washington, D.C.”

“Now I live with Moni and John in the woods about ten miles from here.”

“That sounds like a good life for a dog.”

“It’s fun.  I chase deer and squirrel in my yard. I even killed a ground hog recently. Some times I chase the family cat, Socks, but I get scolded for that. What’s the White House South Lawn like?”

“Oh, it is lovely; there is a thick lawn, rose bushes, and a vegetable garden.”

“You should see my South Lawn. It is south of our house with large oak trees, but no grass.”

Debbie and I cleared the wand test and entered Sportime. As Debbie checked in as a visitor, I scanned the treadmills for President Obama. No sign, I figured he was sequestered in a private room. We proceeded upstairs where from the mezzanine Debbie squatted to look through the handrail and, in the weight room, she spotted a tall, slender black man standing alone. “Is that Obama?” she asked.

A millisecond later she answered herself, “Yes, it is!”

Excitedly I exclaimed, “Oh, Debbie, I should tell him how I got the rescue Portuguese water dog that he wanted!”

For a few seconds I hesitated, thinking how this important man probably just wants to be left alone and lift weights. But then I told myself that I had the best story of anybody in this gym to share with President Obama and nothing to do with current events. After all, for years, I joked that I got the rescue Porty that Obama sought and Pele almost ended up in the White House. The man himself should hear the story.

With that thought and enough confidence to fill the world, I bee lined downstairs and straight to the weight room. En route, I told myself to avoid looking around for secret service agents because they would likely prevent me from approaching the President. My timing was exquisite. I entered the weight room with my eyes focused on the back of Obama’s head; he turned to look for his next weight machine and made eye contact. From that second until the end of our encounter, our eyes were locked together.

As I walked toward President Obama, with a smile as broad as the crescent moon across my face, he reached for my hand. During those steps, I was thinking what fun I was about to have and, amazingly, not a bit nervousness. I felt as if I were walking up to an old high school friend. Dressed in long, baggy, brown work-out pants, a cotton T-shirt, and baseball cap bill cropping his sparkling eyes out-lined with long eyelashes, President Obama also had the appearance of an old friend.

“I got the rescue Portuguese water dog that you and your family hoped to acquire,” I started.

For a short second, as expected, he looked confused. I continued, “Not long before you and your family started looking for a rescue Porty, I got one from Alexandria. My Porty could have ended up in the White House, but instead I got him.”

His eyes and face informed me that he now understood.

“Oh, aren’t they the greatest dogs?” President Obama commented.

“They are wonderful,” I agreed.

“What is your dog’s name?”

“Pele.”

“Well, it sounds like Pele ended up in a nice home.”

“He sure did, we adore him.”

My mind continued with thoughts to share with President Obama such as how I’m a botanist and Pele conducts field work with me. But, reality reared up and I felt it was time to let the President continue lifting weights.  He released my hand, our eyes shifted, and he searched for his next machine.

Only after I departed did the amazement that I had just informed the President of the United States that I beat him to a rescue Porty sink in. Back to my more timid, shy self, I returned to the yoga room and began my practice without telling any body except my good friend Debbie.

In the parking lot, Pele concluded his conversation with the secret service agents, “Please tell Malia and Sasha that my only regret is that I never got to play with them. And tell Michelle that I would have enjoyed sneaking out of The White House with her.”

Image

Bo at work in DC

Pele at work in NC

“It’s cold out there, colder than a ticket taker’s smile at the Ivar Theater on a Saturday night.” Emotional Weather Report by Tom Waits

Men writing dress codes for high school girls is about as ridiculous as giraffes telling earthworms how to mate. But in the 1960s Iowa farmers and school officials thought they knew the best attire for the CedarValleyHigh School girls.

Prior to the days of climate change, Iowa winters were cold. Just how cold? The last winter I lived in Iowa, the high never got above zero for over a month. Old timers said it got too cold to snow. That winter proved it. No snow, no ice, and air molecules froze your nostrils if you breathed directly without first passing air through a scarf. Other winters in my youth usually included copious amounts of snow for constructing snowmen and forts used for killer snow ball fights.

As kids heading out the door to play, we heard, “Got your long underwear on? Put on your hat. Zip up your coat. Wear your mittens. Put a scarf over your face.” Without New Age wicking materials like Gore-Tex, our attire included flannel-lined blue jeans, cotton mittens, and wool scarves.

In elementary school, we girls wore jeans under our dresses to keep our skinny legs warm while waiting for the school bus. As we aged into junior high school, knee high socks replaced our jeans. This left a few inches of leg exposed between the top of socks and the bottom of the hemline. The harsh Canadian winds blew across the Iowa prairie, hitting that small exposed area and frost-nipping our legs.  At this age, none of the girls thought to question authority.

When we reached high school, a new material changed our lives. Polyester, the miracle fiber made from petroleum, was first introduced to the American public in 1951.  Still, throughout the fifties and early sixties, Minnesota Woolens supplied most of our winter clothing. Eventually, all fads reached rural Iowa, and about my junior year, along came polyester pant suits. But, we were not allowed to wear this new fashion to school, only dresses and skirts were permitted.

A typical school day started with, “Bye, Mom. See you after basketball practice.” I then exited the front door of our large, pink-sided house for a six block walk to the elementary school where the high school students caught the school bus to Somers, the location of our high school. Unfortunately, the introduction of school backpacks lagged behind pant suits, so I nestled a pile of books in the bend of my left elbow while my right hand gripped the handle of my tenor saxophone case. I left home oblivious to the weather report because it made no difference. Every day, I donned a dress or skirt with a hemline no more than three finger’s width above the knee; any higher and you got sent home to change clothes. Pants were absolutely forbidden. None of the girls wore nylons because knee socks provided more warmth. Every day throughout the winter, I selected a dress and socks to match. The school colors of red and black matched my black knee socks with legs brighter than Marilyn Monroe’s lipstick. Damnation, those winter days were cold!

The Cedar Valley School Board consisted of four men and two women. The superintendent of the school system was male, and so were the principals of the three schools. These officials created the rules for the pupils, including the dress code.

Finally, the girls matured enough to revolt. For the umpteenth time, we approached the high school principal wearing his white dress shirt, suit, tie, and black executive socks and pleaded our case. “Our legs freeze with dresses on. Why can’t we wear pant suits on cold days?” One day, in a moment of weakness, the principal fired back, “If 70% of the parents agree to a change in the dress code, then the school will change it.”

Well hot damn, I thought, certainly 70% of our parents are smart enough to vote for common sense. This sounded easy. The next day, I entered the typing room and hammered away on the keys.

                                     Cedar Valley High School Dress Code

The girls of Cedar Valley High School wish to wear pant suits on cold days and we need 70% of the parents to agree to this change in the dress code. Please mark this ballot and return to the school.

            __________Yes, I agree the girls may wear pant suits to school.

            __________No, girls should only be allowed to wear dresses or skirts.

The next step entailed a trip to the office to make copies on the mimeograph machine. Cleo Wyatt, the principal’s secretary and a friend’s mother, sat at her desk working on office papers, “Hi, Moni, how you doing?”

“Just fine, I need to make a few copies, I won’t be long.”

“Alright, have a nice afternoon.”

Without a care in the world, and oblivious to future trouble, I entered classrooms as the bell rang and handed out the questionnaires to students for their parents’ consideration. I ended the day with a clear conscience, confident that soon the days of red legs would be history.

Wrong.

The next day, shortly after I arrived at school, my home room teacher informed me, “Mr. Hairston would like a word with you.”

“Me?” My mind whizzed around searching for an answer as to why.

“Yes, go ahead to his office now during home room.”

Slowly, I picked up my books and walked up the stairway to the principal’s office wondering if I were in trouble and, if so, what for? Or had I won an award?

I entered the secretary’s office and Cleo announced my presence, “Mr. Hairston, Moni is here.”

For my first visit to the principal’s office, my eyes surveyed the books and papers scattered across his desk and a photo of his family, all neatly dressed.

Mr. Hairston greeted me, “Good morning, Moni. Please take a seat.”

I sat in the chair in front of his desk, being certain to cross my legs daintily and not expose any leg to an adult male. “Good morning,” I replied.

Next, he looked me directly in my eyes and asked, “Yesterday a student passed out a dress code survey. Was that your doings?”

Unaware of any problem and raised to always tell the truth, I answered honestly, “Yes.”

“What was your thinking when you did this?”

“Well, you mentioned that if 70% of the parents agreed to a change in the dress code, then we could wear pants to school. And my legs get pretty darn cold when waiting for the school bus.”

Mr. Hairston slowly explained, “You know there is a process that we must follow to implement a change in the dress code.”

Naïve about policy and regulations, I was unfamiliar with what he meant by “process.” I asked, “Isn’t a survey the only way to figure out if the parents support a change?” Since I upheld a “good girl” reputation, he suppressed anger and an expression of dismay crossed his face.

Next, he proceeded to describe the steps required to initiate change which included the approval of the faculty, staff, and School Board. This encounter introduced me to the “real world” of discussions, meetings, committees, building support, enrolling others and all the necessary processes to elicit change in our world, which to this day can still cause frustration for this weathered older lady.

The students and parents heard nothing until the following winter, my senior year, when girls were allowed to wear pant suits provided the temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.

Rhonda’s pant suit was acceptable with the new dress code. My white jeans would have sent me packing home for a change of attire.

 

Dogs that herd fish?  It hooked me. I wanted a Portuguese Water Dog.  Bred as working dogs for the Algarve fishermen of southern Portugal, the dogs’ muscular chests enabled them to set fishing nets and corral fish into them, haul out buoys, and deliver messages between boats and the shore.  Their loud bark functioned as fog horns.  In the off season, the fishermen leased their dogs for sheep herding. 

Possibly due to their constant contact with the fishermen in small boats, “Portys” prefer to keep their “peeps” close by.  For a botanist, this is an important trait in a companion field dog.  Unfortunately, on my botanical income, my future held no hope for a pure-bred with a high sticker price.  Realizing my dream would require winning the lottery, but impossible without playing. 

On May 4, 2001, an adorable puppy was born to Virgil and Gidget at Navio Portuguese Water Dogs in Chesapeake, Virginia. Chris Gallardo purchased the lively puppy, named him Pelé, and brought the little bundle of wavy hair home. Pelé and Chris enjoyed dog parties with friends and running on the greenway.  Life was good for Pelé, living with a single fellow, even with the same color hair as his, black. 

Puppy Pele (center) with friends

During one of those parties, Chris met a special lady.  Much to Pelé’s chagrin the lady lived with a dachshund named Jake that could run under his white-streaked chest and tummy.  This annoyed Pelé, along with sharing Chris’s attention with a lady and her dog. 

Soon, Chris married complicating Pelé’s life.  Trying to be nice to that long skinny dog proved difficult.  Life became even more interesting when twin boys arrived, and later a baby girl.

Pelé adores little children because they hug and love on him like a teddy bear.  With patience, those babies would walk and play with him.  However, until then, his share of Chris’s attention plummeted.

The last complexity arose when Chris’s travel schedule intensified.  His young wife worked part-time, raised babies, and managed two disagreeable dogs during Chris’s absence.  At age four, Pelé thrived on excessive exercise and attention.  Understandably, neither Chris nor his wife could provide either for Pelé.

Meanwhile, in Summerfield, North Carolina, my household moved in the opposite direction.  On Valentine’s Day and during my only child’s high school senior year, our family dog, Feathers, passed away from cancer at age eleven.  We had adopted Feathers, a stray dog, from the corner of Witty and Lake Brandt Roads on my son’s fifth birthday.  Through the years, Feathers and I ran together on the Lake Brandt trails while Chris and Pelé pounded the greenway pavement in Alexandria. 

Feathers

My son graduated and in August 2005, John, my husband, and I moved him to a dorm on the NC State campus.  We returned home to silence and emptiness – no son, no dog.  Even the chickens had been taken out to dinner by a fox, who partook in a six course meal.

Chris Gallardo struggled with his imminent decision; I struggled with how to afford a Porty: start playing the lottery, a second job, rob a bank.  I searched the web for rescue PWDs to no avail.  One sleepless night, I looked for breeders and found the Navio website http://www.naviopwd.com/.  In a dream world, I completed and submitted Navio’s puppy application which placed my email address in their directory.  The breeder sent email announcements when their bitch became pregnant and photographs after she whelped.  I frequently viewed the puppy photos and “rogues’ gallery” of past puppies and their new owners, which included several of Chris and Pelé. 

Pele and Chris Gallardo

My empty life continued, and thoughts of a PWD usually entered my mind during early morning hours.  John, clueless about my website surfing, wished for no dog, but if we acquired another dog, he suggested one from the animal shelter.  I didn’t like that plan.

One beautiful fall day, I returned home after working at the newly created Elk Knob State Park near Boone, NC.  As typical, I checked my emails and immediately noticed one from Navio with the subject line, “PWD needs good home.”   I clicked the mouse quicker than winning participants on Jeopardy and read the message faster than the top graduate from an Evelyn Wood’s speed reading course.  One of their former clients needed to find a loving home for his active 4 ½-year-old dog.  Here was my only legitimate opportunity to acquire a PWD.

Purposefully avoiding a call to John, I grabbed the phone and dialed Navio’s number. 

“Hello,” answered the lady.

“This is Moni Bates.  I just read your email about a PWD needing a home.”

Fully aware of the activity level of PWDs, I knew my life style was a perfect match.  Attempting to stay cool as a cucumber, I calmly spoke, “Let me explain my life and see if you think my home is appropriate for this dog.  I’m a field botanist.  I work in my home office and spend two to three days a week hiking in the woods.  I’d like a field companion who will stay close to me and come when called.  For recreation, I mountain bike and ride four to five times per week.  I’d like a dog to join me.  About ten months ago our family dog passed away, and this fall my only son went to college.  My husband and I are ready for another dog.”  Well, at least half of the last sentence was correct.

After more conversation, the Navio lady finally said, “I’ll call the owner, give him your phone number, and he’ll give you a ring.”

Shortly after hanging up, John arrived home from work and, thankfully, a lovely dinner waited at the dining room table.  We poured glasses of wine as I internally formulated how to present the PWD idea.  The phone rang.  John waited patiently, viewing the fall color in our “South Lawn” through the living room windows.

John welcomes pets, but with our cats, Socks and Pinot, he was content without the responsibility of a canine.  Cats are easy; they eat, sleep, and purr.  Daily, Pinot walked to greet John at his car when he returned from work and slept on his chest.  Nearly inseparable, that feline was bonded to John.

Sprinting to the telephone, on the second ring my hand clasped the receiver.  “Hello,” I answered out of breath.

“Hi, this is Chris Gallardo, the owner of the PWD who needs a home,” the soft-spoken man began.

I decided to ignore John’s presence in order to win Chris’s acceptance and began a lengthy conversation.  John listened carefully.  I repeated my life situation, this time with a bit of nervousness.  Once in a lifetime opportunity, I had to convince Chris that my life and home met his requirements for his precious and loved Pelé.  The conversation concluded with a date and time to visit Pelé in his Alexandria home, a six hour drive to the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

The disrupted dinner discussion commenced, “Dear, may I pour you another glass of wine?”  Then, a pause, “How would you like to go to Alexandria this weekend?” 

The following Saturday, we drove my small Toyota RAV4 with the backseat removed to make space for Pelé and his crate.  My excitement and John’s hesitation filled the vehicle.  After the long drive, we located Chris’s street and slowly inched along searching for the house number.  John spotted them first, Chris and Pelé sitting on the porch and peering through the handrail.  “Oh, Moni, look at him, he is so cute,” John spoke with a warm heart that instantly fell in love with Pelé.  Just as I hoped.

Pelé sat adjacent to Chris.  My eyes met those beautiful brown eyes with the longest lashes I’d ever seen on a dog.  He looked just like all those photos I’d observed on the web, wavy black hair streaked with gray and a white chest.   As a bonus, Pelé exhibited well-trained behavior.  Still, Chris wanted us to know the good, the bad, and the ugly before accepting him. 

“Pelé has a loud bark” Chris warned. 

Holding the leash, he commanded, “Heel.”  We walked past the neighbor’s fenced yard containing Pelé’s nemesis.  Both dogs commenced wild barking and Pelé, paws down, won the decibel contest. 

I reassured Chris, “We live in the middle of twenty acres of woods.  Pelé’s bark will not be an issue.”   

We continued our walk along the greenway where Chris and Pelé had logged thousands of miles.  I asked, “I need a dog who when off-leash will return to me when called.  How is Pelé with the “come” command?”

Near a stream with forested banks, Chris reached down and released Pelé.  Pelé bounced toward the woods, a city dog’s precious moments of off-leash freedom.  John and I noticed Pelé’s elegant profile as he leapt over logs.  After several minutes, Chris called, “Come, Pe-Boy.”

Pe-Boy bee-lined to Chris’s side.  All humans, silently in agreement, even John, that our home and lifestyle matched Pelé needs.

Sadness replaced my excitement as I watched Chris say goodbye to his “man’s best friend.”  After a long hug and reassuring words, Chris encouraged Pelé to jump into the back of my RAV4.  Chris’s only request to us was an occasional photo and update.  Tears filled my eyes as bittersweet joy filled my heart.

Pelé’s new life in Summerfield fulfilled Chris’s wishes, while Pelé fulfilled my dream of living with a PWD.  My son, botanical colleagues, and mountain biking friends met and adored Pelé.  As my shadow, he and I worked and played as the gray in our hair became more prominent together. 

Moni & Pele Hammocking at Lake Brandt

To some degree, Pelé reduced the void left by our college boy.  Months passed until the presidential race between Barak Obama and John McCain.  President Obama won the election and moved his family to the White House.  Once they settled, the nation learned that Malia and Sasha, the Obama daughters, wanted a dog.  Due to allergies in their family, they shared my dream.  President Obama announced to the nation their interest in acquiring a rescue PWD.

After hearing the news, I called my mother, “Mom, did you hear that the Obama family is looking for a rescue Porty?”

My mother questioned, “You think they’ll find one?”

 “We’ll soon see if I am the only person in the nation to locate a rescue PWD.”

Shortly thereafter, the Obama’s introduced their PWD puppy named Bo.

Again, I rang my mother, “Mom, Edward Kennedy gifted a Porty puppy to the Obama Family.  Even the President of the United States couldn’t find a rescue PWD.  I’m thankful I got Pelé, as he may have wound up in the White House with secret service agents on his tail.”