Bye Bye Pool, Hello School

I’ve been trying to put my finger on the source of my low-level anxiety this week, and I’ve figured it out. School’s starting back! The buses are rolling. It’s time to say good-bye to sweet summer.

school bus

It’s been six years since I started a fall semester as a teacher, fifteen since I sent a teenager to senior year of high school, ten since I packed up a young adult for the final year of college. So what’s up with my school anxiety?

Part of it is due to my DNA. You don’t spend 30 years teaching, plus all those previous years being educated to teach, without it leaving a permanent mark. For me, the new year will always begin in late August, not the beginning of January.

I see back-to-school supplies for sale, and I have to buy something myself. I feel like I need notepads to do lesson plans. Besides, what former educator can resist composition books for 25 cents apiece?

back to school supplies

Another reason for my back-to-school jitters: the grandchildren have returned to the schoolhouse this week. Like a good grandma, I empathize with their uncertainty about the new year–although they look pretty happy in this annual first day of school photo posted to social media.

back to school grandchildren

I don’t have very many first day of school pictures of my children–no Facebook to post to back in the 80’s and 90’s–but I did unearth this photo of my youngest daughter set to depart for day one of kindergarten in 1991.

Yes, that’s a much younger me, kneeling on the floor beside her. I’d need help getting up from that position now!pj kindergarten

She was one of three daughters my husband and I helped through elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. A lot of time, energy, and money went into those years. Packing lunches, carpooling, supervising homework, attending sporting events, paying tuition–the list goes on and on.

There were good years, wonderful years, and quite frankly, some mediocre ones. But we –the girls, their dad (the lunch packer), and I–persevered. Young parents, there is a light at the end of the tunnel: one day they graduate! (Youngest daughter again, seventeen years later)

pj graduation

School is wonderful–I spent a good portion of my life there–but it’s also a little scary, especially at the beginning of a new year.

school zone

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She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain

Remember the North Carolina tourism slogan: Variety Vacationland? Our state reaches from the coast to the mountains. Something for everyone!

Living in the eastern part of the state only two and a half hours from the Atlantic Ocean, my something has always been the beach. Until this summer.

My husband and I sold our Charlotte condo and invested the proceeds in a modest mountain house in Beech Mountain.

mountain house

My daughter has a mountain home just a footpath away, so we decided to ignore the five-hour drive it takes us to get here from our eastern North Carolina home and enjoy the highland experience for a change. And the two young Charlotte grandchildren who walk through the woods to Grandma’s house for ice cream!

As you can see from the picture above, the front yard is full of plants (native ferns and other unidentified stuff), but I think I need a pop of color. Maybe next spring, I’ll put in some of these daisies I see growing all around Banner Elk and Beech Mountain. Evidently these flowers are one of the few plants the abundant deer here don’t eat.

yellow daisies

One of the features that sold us on the house was the nearby mountain stream. We can sit on our back deck and hear the water trickling. There’s even a bedroom in the house where the soundtrack through the open window is this running stream.  I call it the Tranquility Room.

the creek

My favorite indoor feature is the stone fireplace in the living room. I’ve propped a picture with similar colors on the mantle to break up the vast expanse. I’ve also enjoyed arranging my books and knickknacks on the shelves to the right.

stone fireplace

I need a bigger piece of furniture (and my husband says a bigger TV) to the left of the fireplace. I’m thinking some big old oak sideboard repurposed as a television stand would look cool there. I love an excuse to hit the secondhand antique shops. The farm truck bookends below came from such a store in Wilmington, NC.

truck bookends

I’ve done some painting to perk things up. The front door was a dull green that didn’t seem to match the house and did nothing to set off the stained glass insert. I went with a fun yellow, maybe to match next year’s daisies! Three coats later–which I applied myself, I’m proud to say–I have a happy door. Uh oh, is that my reflection in the picture?

yellow door

A rusted weathervane came attached to the front porch. I went even funkier painting it. Hey, it’s a mountain house. Anything goes.

weathervane

Yes, that’s a gravel road in front of the house. I feel like I’m kinda semi-camping in this house with no air conditioning–not really needed at our elevation- and abundant ferns everywhere I look.ferns

Jan Karon wrote the popular Mitford series featuring Father Tim, an Episcopal rector in a small mountain town loosely based on Blowing Rock, which is only a half hour or so from Beech Mountain (http://www.mitfordbooks.com/).

I often think about the lovable Father Tim and his parishioners as I enjoy my simple life in a blue house on a gravel road atop a North Carolina mountain.

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Okra…And More Okra

It’s been called the delicacy of the South, and garden experts say it thrives in the scorching heat of humid summers. My husband would disagree that okra is a delicacy, but I can vouch for the fact that it does indeed flourish in hot, humid weather.

For the second year in a row in these steamy Eastern North Carolina summers, I’ve had a bumper crop of okra from just four seedlings. It’s so fun to grow! Last year’s plants were even taller than these.

okra plants

As noted above, I’m really the only okra lover in my house. My husband will eat it fried, but I don’t fix it that way very often because (a) it’s not the healthiest way to eat it, and (b) I’m lousy at frying it. The batter always falls off in the pan, and I wind up with a great big mess.

So, what to do with all this okra coming off these four plants?

lots of okra

I’ve been looking for recipes and found one submitted by Silvermarigold on allrecipes. Creole Okra calls for sautéing sliced okra with onion, green pepper, and tomatoes in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Spices to add include dried thyme, fresh parsley,  cayenne pepper, and garlic.

I rummaged through my pantry and refrigerator and found enough ingredients to make a modified version of this recipe.

In a large skillet, I sautéed the following in 2 tablespoons of olive oil: 1/2 large chopped onion, 1/2 thinly sliced green pepper, 1 tomato cut into chunks plus half a small carton of cherry tomatoes (again, what I found in the fridge; I put these in whole).

Here are the spices I added: 1 teaspoon of minced garlic (the kind in a jar),  3/8 teaspoon dried thyme, and 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper. I let all this cook for a few minutes until the onion and pepper were close to tender. Then I added 6 okra, sliced into half-inch rounds. I cooked the whole shebang another few minutes until the okra was tender. The final product looked really pretty in the pan.creole-okra.jpg

It tasted good too. I’d planned to use the gravy from the country-style steak I cooked on my rice, but instead poured the Creole Okra on it. That’s sautéed squash as another side dish…and another story.

on-the-plate.jpg

I still had LOTS of okra left over, so I googled “Freezing Okra.” The process was easy. First, I boiled the large pods for 4 minutes and the smaller ones for 3 minutes.

boiling-okra.jpg

Next, I quickly dumped the okra into an ice bath, letting the pods cool for several minutes.

icing-okra.jpg

It’s important to be sure the okra is completely dry before bagging it for the freezer.

drying-okra.jpg

I used quart-size freezer bags. The instructions said the okra will be good for 6 to 8 months, so I  need to cook it sometime before next summer. Maybe try my hand at a gumbo in January or whip up another pan of Creole Okra?

ready for the freezer.JPG

My mother used to can and freeze vegetables all summer. Our family had a huge garden behind our house out in the country. I have only a small plot in my suburban backyard, but I bet Mama would’ve been proud of me for “putting up” okra.

And, not to be bragging, but I do think my Creole Okra recipe beats just steaming the stuff the way she used to do. My husband ate his entire serving!

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Mountains and So Much More

A person can travel far and wide but to see sheer geographical beauty and awesome sites, it’s hard to beat the good ol’ USA. I’ve just returned from a week-long swing through parts of South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah–with a corner of Iowa thrown in–and I’m still gushing.

My husband and I signed on for Caravan’s bus tour called “Mount Rushmore, Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone.” On the first day then, no surprise, I checked off Mount Rushmore, an item on my travel bucket list. The sculptured faces of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln are absolutely magnificent, indeed, an engineering and artistic feat.

My husband, always the official trip photographer, took a ton of pictures during our visit to Mount Rushmore. But here’s one I snapped of our view as we ate a bison burger lunch there. I don’t think I’ve ever had such an extraordinary background for a meal.

lunch view

After touring Mount Rushmore, our group stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Once it’s completed, this sculpture will be a match for Mount Rushmore. Right now, all that’s discernible is the famous warrior’s face.

crazy horse

Get this: The memorial, a monument to the great Sioux Lakota Indian leader Crazy Horse–the one who wiped out Custer and his men at the battle of Little Big Horn–is the world’s largest sculpture in progress. The carving was started over 50 years ago by  Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. He’s now deceased, but his children and grandchildren are carrying on the work.

Below is a model of what the completed monument will look like. As you can see, Crazy Horse is on a steed, his left arm outstretched, pointing. At what? Maybe the future, a sad one for Native Americans as they eventually surrendered a way of life they’d known for centuries.

crazy horse model

Yellowstone National Park was another highlight of this trip. Old Faithful, the geyser that erupts approximately every 90 minutes, is probably the most recognized feature of this first national park, established in 1872.

But there are other fascinating elements as well. My husband and I had our picture taken at Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon, location of Yellowstone Falls, which is twice the height of Niagara Falls. The scenery here is so perfect it almost looks like one of those cheesy backdrops sometimes used in photography studios, doesn’t it?

Yellowstone

We saw beautiful mountains in South Dakota and Montana, but the third headliner of this trip, Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, was the most majestic. Oh my word. Snow-capped, jagged, soaring: adjectives fail me. I promise you the picture below is one I took; again it looks too pristine to be real.

Tetons

The tour ended in Salt Lake City, where the main attraction was Temple Square, the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, aka the Mormons. The temple there is lovely, but I was equally amazed by the beautiful grounds.

Flowers galore! The bed below is just one of many. I was especially jealous of the luscious petunias; mine at home died of thirst when I was away one weekend while temperatures soared to the 90s.

Mormon flowers

There’s so much natural beauty in South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. Even the view at the gas station was worth photographing!

Gas station view

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The Blooms of June

I love my backyard this June. With the recent rain and milder temps, the grass is green, the flowers are blooming, and the “garden” is growing. I enjoy the view as I sit on my back porch with my early morning coffee and listen to the birds sing. Come along with me for a virtual tour.

view from the back porchI see cardinals, wrens, and doves, but my favorite to watch are the tiny hummingbirds. They’re attracted not only to a feeder I fill with sugar water but also to the blooms of the blue and black salvia (pictured in the bottom left corner above) and the flowers of the larger hosta.

hostasThis year my hosta on the left in front of the gazebo is so much bigger than the other one in front of the gazebo on the right. I don’t think the smaller one intends to bloom either. Last year, both were about the same size, and both had flowers. Mother Nature can be moody.

But I can’t complain. The hydrangea that always has lovely foliage but never has flowers? Drum roll, please: It’s blooming!!

True, these flowers aren’t huge and there aren’t tons of them, but to finally see some color on this hydrangea that I’ve had for more than a decade is a triumph. Until this year, I’d had one, yes, just one bloom. I feel like celebrating!

hydrangea blooms As I mentioned, the garden, if I may call it that, is growing. I have four hills of cucumbers and four of squash, planted along the edge of the shrubbery. I don’t think the landscaping looks bad with the addition of the vegetables, do you? I’ve already picked my first cucumber. Sooo much tastier than what’s in the grocery store.

the cropsThe rest of the garden is behind a wire fence to prevent the resident rascally rabbit from helping himself (or herself?). For some reason, this critter doesn’t eat squash and cucumbers, but I have to protect my okra, tomatoes, and the couple of zinnas I throw in for fun.

rabbit proofI also try to deter my rabbit by providing it with scattered bird seed. It’s quite entertaining watching the bunny eat. It’s pretty brave and doesn’t hop away as long as I stay on my porch.

rabbit eatingI’m not sure where the rabbit lives–maybe in this bed of liriope (monkey grass) that’s growing like crazy. Yes, those are deer antlers (I’m married to a hunter) gracing my planters. I also went wild this year with a can of bright pink spray paint, adding color to a pair of rusty yard-art birds.

monkey grassI used the same paint on a brown decorative bird cage that had seen better days. The pillows on the bench and the blue chair pads were bought last summer at Walmart for only $5.00 each. They spent the winter in the garage and are now good for a second season.

pink birdcageMost of the time, I’m not sitting on my back porch looking at the yard by myself. My husband of 42 years is there as well. I was thinking of him the other year when I bought this plaque in a garden shop in Wilmington, NC.

grow old

The next two lines are nice, too: “The last of life, for which the first was made.” Pleasant thoughts as we look out over a June backyard. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking too.

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Cuba: Part Two, the Expected and the Unexpected

Cigars, classic cars, and mojitos? I went to Cuba expecting to find these, and I wasn’t disappointed.

In fact, I was quite impressed at the production I saw in an un-air-conditioned cigar factory where workers sat rolling cigars by hand. They worked with leaves of dried tobacco quickly but methodically, aiming to meet a daily quota.

We people-to-people visitors weren’t allowed to take photos inside the factory, so I had to settle instead for a picture of the finished products for sale in a nearby cigar shop.

cigars

I’m not a smoker and Cuban cigars aren’t cheap (unlike a lot of things such as restaurant meals and souvenirs), so I didn’t purchase any cigars to take home. I was given a couple, however, by the young man who taxied my husband and me to dinner in a 1954 Dodge convertible the last night we were in Havana.

Classic 1940s and 50s cars are everywhere in Cuba, but especially in the larger cities such as Havana. Here’s a fleet of brightly painted convertibles, waiting, I suspect, for tourists interested in tooling around in retro-style.

cuban cars

Cuba produces a lot of rum–and a lot of rum drinks. At almost every lunch and dinner sponsored by our tour group, we were greeted with a virgin mojito. A waiter came around with rum for those who wanted the alcohol added. Make mine a double!

mint drink

Along with cigars, classic cars, and rum drinks, I saw famous sites such as Hemingway’s Cuban home, Finca Vigia (Lookout House) outside of Havana. The official line is that Hemingway donated the house and its contents to Cuba when he was urged by the American government to return to the United States after the revolution.

According to Mary Welsh, Hemingway’s wife at the time, the Cuban socialist government confiscated the property. Looking at the fully furnished rooms filled with personal items, I tend to believe Hemingway left quickly, perhaps believing he would be able to return to Finca Vigia. He never did, committing suicide in Idaho in 1961.

Hemingway houseAnother famous landmark I visited in Cuba doesn’t look like anything special, just an expanse of sandy beach on the south coast. It was here, however, at the Playa Giron that the Bay of Pigs invasion took place. Nearby is a museum, which, as you can imagine, gives a definite pro-Castro slant to the events surrounding the CIA-backed, failed military invasion to oust the new communist government.

Bay of pigsSpeaking of Castro, I expected to see his picture in government buildings and perhaps on billboards. In fact, he was all over the place along with his buddy Che Guevara. It was a little unexpected, though, to find his picture nestled with the pottery at the King Ranch, a 35,000-acre cattle spread seized by the government in 1959 in the Camaguey Province.

CastroAt the ranch, our American group was invited to see a few rodeo acts, where I encountered another surprise: the display of the American flag alongside the Cuban flag before the show began.

rodeo

Since 1959 Cuba has been a socialist country which, under Castro, declared itself an atheist state. But all which hearkens back to a Catholic past has not been lost. I was surprised to find a church as magnificent as the Cathedral of San Cristobal with its baroque façade in Havana’s Cathedral Square.

An interesting fact I learned: the cathedral held the remains of Christopher Columbus from 1796 until 1898, when they were taken to Seville Cathedral in Spain.

cathedral square

Cuba, a country of contradictions, where I saw the expected and the unexpected.

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Cuba: Part One, The Contradiction

I’m home from Cuba and people are asking, “What was it like?”

I hardly know where to begin. I found Cuba backward but lively, poor but happy, decaying but beautiful. It’s a country of contrasts.

Cuba still struggles under a socialist government. Even our Cuban tour guide, whose company is government-affiliated, admitted the flaws in state-run establishments. For example, he pointed out this sleeping employee in an empty government-owned bar.

sleeping girl bar

Wouldn’t anyone rather have a cocktail in the lounge of this privately-owned restaurant (called a paladar)? I was told the bar has been restored to look as it did in pre-Castro days.

fully stocked bar

Incidentally, my husband and I, along with our travel buddies, ate dinner at this establishment, called Restaurante 1800, in Camaguey. We enjoyed excellent paella, shrimp pasta, and lobster entrees, which ranged in price from only six to eight dollars. I kid you not.

Even with generous wine drinking and tip, our bill was less than thirty dollars per couple, probably a third of what we’d pay for that kind of restaurant meal at home.

Paladars are not the only sign of private industry trying to make a go of it in socialist Cuba. This flea market in Havana had plenty of trinkets and vendors who were just as eager to sell as any I’ve seen in the Caribbean.

flea market

A potter in Camaguey showed us his technique before we visited his salesroom. (To his left is our Cuban guide for the duration of our people-to-people trip.) I couldn’t resist buying some of this beautiful handmade earthenware, especially when it was so reasonably priced. I paid only two and three dollars for a couple of nice pots.

potter

Life appears hard for many in Cuba, a country that seems to have missed the progress and prosperity of modern times. For instance, horse-drawn transportation was common everywhere. In cities, horse and buggy outfits were used as taxis. This fellow here seems to be a farmer.

horse and buggy

Another sign that Cuba lives in the past is the method of drying rice–spreading it on the highway. Yes, that’s rice in the picture, not sand. Our tour bus stopped so we could get out for a closer look. I would think the rice would get dirty from traffic rolling over it but evidently not.

rice on the road

The average Cuban makes about thirty pesos a month, which translates into thirty American dollars. Of course, many supplement their paltry salaries by working in the tourist industry, picking up tips as waiters in paladars or employees in hotels. Some Cubans have relatives living abroad (think Florida), who send money.

It sounds like a hard life to me, yet the Cubans I saw in various cities as well as the countryside seem like a happy lot for the most part. They’ll certainly burst into song or dance in restaurants, on the streets, or anywhere they think a tourist may tip.

singers

For more about the contrast that is Cuba, check out my column in the Rocky Mount Telegram: http://www.rockymounttelegram.com/Patsy-Pridgen/2019/05/19/Cuba-Is-a-Country-of-Contradictions.html

Stay tuned for the next blog, Cuba, Part II, where I’ll share more photos of this fascinating country.

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