Of Tomatoes and Bugs

Thanks to the recent rains that scourge of the late summer/ fall Texas garden, the red spider mite, is gone. They killed my tithonia and came THIS close to killing the tomatoes before the prolonged recent rains gave them the ol’ Wicked Witch of the West treatment and they melted away. So, when it finally DID dry out enough to pull out the tomatoes I actually found a halo of healthy leaves coming in… so they got a haircut instead of being executed.

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He’s only MOSTLY dead… which means that he’s SLIGHTLY alive!

From this… to this!

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Better looking than I was expecting, honestly.

I was quite pleased with them… as well as with the perfectly formed baseball sized green fruit on Bobcat that I hadn’t noticed under all those dead leaves. So for all the folks who rip out their determinate tomatoes and replant in the fall may I suggest that next year you try laziness? Worked for me.

But then, of COURSE on the last bit of cleanup on that first tomato plant I found this guy:

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Dang you!

Here’s the thing- I grow plants for caterpillars! I like them! My husband got me a book on pollinators for my birthday one year! The striped ones for swallowtails I literally smile at and call my buddies:

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My buddies!

But tomato hornworms!? Agh! Their appetite is HUGE! They can decimate a plant! And I found SEVEN more of them as I was cleaning up the rest of the tomatoes! So I had EIGHT of these massive green caterpillars… on my precious tomatoes. I was conflicted. And yet I couldn’t just squish them. Or throw them away. I actually DID put out a call to a friend with chickens to see if she wanted them for chicken snacks- is like the circle of life, right? She didn’t. That might have been too weird of a 7:30 am text honestly, now that I think about it. And so… I left them on the plants. They turn into the hummingbird moth after all… I just straight up couldn’t kill them, especially when they all seemed JUST about maximum sized and therefore should be crawling off to make  chrysalises soon, right?

And even now, after researching for this post when I find out they aren’t in fact tomato hornworms but are, in fact, TOBACCO hornworms (they both feed on both plants but are different species. Differentiated by markings on the caterpillars’ sides- tomato hornworm s have v shaped white markings and tobacco hornworms have diagonal stripes). And so they DON’T turn into these:

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Hummingbird Moth ( from the TOMATO hornworm caterpillar) cool and all if you could just do something about that oversized abdomen…

… but instead, the tobacco hornworms turn into these nightmares:

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Aw hell.

AND yet… I’d already decided to let them stay! Ugh… FINE. And besides, I remember seeing one of those moths on the front of the house… what if it was their mom? (I fully also see how crazy this all is, don’t think I don’t).

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Turns out they eat ACTUAL tomatoes too. Fantastic.

And so now the Sweet 100 cherry tomato has literally zero leaves from this brilliant decision of mine. But at least I am guilt free and happy in the knowledge I won’t have any angry tobacco hornworm moth parents coming after me.

Besides, it’s the Sungold that is still putting up the real numbers these days and still has enough leaves to see it through.

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So pretty!

So, a bit of a soft spot for insects I guess- which along with liking wandering around in graveyards puts me well over the line of quirky and unique and instead into downright odd territory. Whatever. Life is much too short to worry about anyone’s opinions- do what you like while you have the time. Besides, we’re all weird somehow- anyone who tells you they aren’t must be hiding some REALLY crazy shit.

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Did I mention my pet 2″ spider on the Basil? Yeah…

Cough cough… I also might have had a black and white jumping spider as a pet on the kitchen windowsill and have my second wolf spider pet on my desk… so… yeah. At least my weirdness is only for bugs and graves… imagine if I liked scrapbooking or napkin rings? Shudder.

 

 

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Pan de Muertos

I know it’s the stereotype and all, but even though I’m female I really hate baking. The cutesy aprons, adorable flour tins, and rainbow cupcake scene just ain’t my bag. Give me pastas and sauces and gravies and roasted veggies and spices. No precise measurements needed- that’s where I’m at home! But baking? Sheesh, recipes have varied instructions based on elevations, and a cup isn’t just a cup… it has to be a sifted cup, or a perfectly level cup, or better yet weigh the ingredients… bah. Also, since I have a generalized disdain for aprons and wear mostly dark t-shirts that much loose flour can be an issue.

But I had pan de muertos to make for Dia de los Muertos. And the thought that the dead wait for no one really kept me to a pretty tight timeline here. Pan de Muertos means BREAD OF THE DEAD!!!!! (but without the overwrought punctuation and capitalization). With a name like that I’m sure a sweet bread that’s great with coffee is like, not what you were picturing. Anyway, I had an offrenda to put this on and so had to make it and did, in fact, quasi enjoy it. I did also, in fact, get flour god damn everywhere.

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I see now I should have made either one loaf or three… two seems like… yeah…

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…like this scene from The Naked Gun, only in bread.

ANYHOO…

Pan/Bread Ingredients

1/4 cup butter

1/4 cup milk

3 Tbsp orange juice

3 cups all purpose flour (don’t get me started on how many different flours there are…)

1 package (1 1/4 tsp) dry active yeast

1/4 cup water

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp. anise seed

1/4 cup white sugar

3 eggs, beaten

2 Tbsp orange zest

 

Glaze Ingredients

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup orange juice

1 Tbsp orange zest

Turn oven on to 325 degrees. Heat milk and butter over medium/low heat till butter melts. Add warm water and a pinch of sugar to a bowl and sprinkle over the yeast to activate it. (Weird bubbling ensues). Zest off the outer peel of an orange with a zester or by carefully slicing and dicing. Once butter is melted into milk remove from heat and let cool a little. In a large bowl add anise seed, 1 cup flour, 2 Tbsp orange zest, sugar, and salt together and then add eggs, yeast, and milk/butter. This is the part where folks would use a stand mixer, but since they sure as hell didn’t have that in 1932 Guanajato Mexico, I mixed by damn hand with a spoon. Here’s the secret though, get that first cup of flour mixed until smooth before adding the rest of the flour slowly until it’s all incorporated.

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I took the picture so I’ll damn well use it

Once it’s all added together it’s a little sticky and a little shaggy looking. Turn out on a lightly floured counter to knead.

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Turns out that’s an assload too much flour

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Then just knead until stretchy and you’re bored

Once the bread is kneaded (5 minutes or so) put back in a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise for 2 hours.

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I took the picture and I’ll damn well use it

Then once the bread has risen, punch it down and form into loaves. I pulled about 1/4 off and set to the side to do the design on the tops and then divided the remaining dough into two balls. I then made the crossed “bones” and knob on the top (stylized skull? Not sure, but it’s the tradition) by forming it like it was playdough. Then I just pressed them into the top of the balls of dough. (AGAIN, though that’s what I did, maybe form into one big loaf or 3 small ones.) Place on a lightly greased baking sheet, place in the oven, and cook for 20-25 minutes.

While the bread cooks, add the orange juice and sugar to a pot over medium heat and stir to prevent burning. Heat until your glaze is lava.

Once bread is done, remove from oven, drizzle on the glaze, then while still hot sprinkle with white sugar.

It’s tasty, and not too anise-y, which I don’t really like, but this amount isn’t too much. I think Mexicans do anise WAYYYY better than the French do, frankly, so really don’t worry about it- you’ll like it. This bread is great heated up the next day, spread with butter and eaten with coffee. And remember- the dead wait for no one, so like… hurry it up.

 

 

 

Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda… no Offend-a

 

Now when it comes to talking about Dia de los Muertos… as a white, middle aged, blond haired, green eyed guera, I consider myself no entitled-ass expert over here or anything. But know this- while I am not Mexican by birth I married one, we’re raising three, AND I made alters for Dia de los Muertos before the movie Coco came out. To further prove my bit of street cred, I totally love all things to do with the Mexican culture. Also I’m taking Spanish lessons on Rosetta Stone. So like… Yo tengo sandwiches, ya dig?

It does seem to have hit a popularity moment, though, doesn’t it? And why do we, the collective outsiders, want in to this holiday so badly?  Easy answer is that it resonates with everyone I’ve ever run across who knows anything about it. A celebration of our beloved dead? To laugh good naturally in the face of death? Celebrate today for tomorrow you die… but make it festive and joyful while you’re here? Uh yeah, that’s just bitchin’.

Western and European cultures just don’t have a place for our dead outside of grief. Certainly as I’ve accumulated more and more beloved and important dead over the years this has come into sharper and sharper relief. And so, especially after an actually beautifully done Disney movie about it, Dia de los Muertos is EVERYWHERE. When your holiday’s imagery makes it onto a plastic tablecloth at Walmart, you know you’ve made it… but I don’t begrudge it at all if you’re actually not a fan of that in the slightest.

But this right here? This is the very slippery slope of differences between Cultural Appropriation and Appreciation/ Participation. I’ve thought long and hard about this one- because another white colonization of not land this time but traditions is NOT what I’m going for here, but I don’t blame anyone if the handling in the populace at large so far leaves something to be desired. And as a cultural anthropologist who is Irish and doesn’t care who celebrates St. Patrick’s Day… and also actually really identify with the culture after so joyfully throwing myself into it 20 years ago and being welcomed by my husband’s family, you’d think I’d be a little blithe about the whole thing. But rest assured I am not; I tread very lightly here, as is right for me to do.

So, as I see it, here are the differences between doing it right as an outsider… and not. (Also- this is up for interpretation from anyone, and the lines between these are different for everyone and also often blur…)

Cultural Appreciation: Admiring something in another culture while still acknowledging where it comes from- be it dress, fashion, music, art, food, tradition, etc.

Cultural Participation: When you want to join in WITH the other culture. Make the food, sing the songs, celebrate the holidays. When you do it with  sense of respect and learning and with a real acknowledgment of who it’s with, the history involved, or where it comes from.

Cultural Appropriation: When you want to take something from the other culture, strip it of all previous connection, and make it entirely your own. Indian headdress for Halloween, Redskins football, blonde cornrows with a 90’s satin slip dress, or Dia de los Muertos themed plasticware at the grocery store or sugar skull makeup so you can post the picture on Instagram.

It’s subtle differences, and we the outsiders in these scenarios DON’T get to pick where the offensiveness line is. But if you go with good intentions, if you come to learn, to join hands with… if you are not there to replace but to celebrate, you stand a better shot of not stepping on toes. (5 paragraphs of intro… look at that white guilt fly!)

OKAY. So like, that’s an extremely long way to intro into: we built a really elaborate ofrenda (altar) this year, and I spent a TON of time researching it in the really deep down desire to do it right and do right by Mexican culture, and because I have more honored dead than I can safely  keep in my head and heart and I could really use some healing through this. Not to take a sharp turn on ya there on that last one or anything…

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Our Ofrenda

So… I did a lot of online research for this. And here is an extensive but not all encompassing list of things I read were important and that we have on ours. Oh- and one last thing- try to do this right not only by intention, but by where you monetarily support as well. If you ARE going to build your own- try to buy goods from Hispanic/ Mexican sources. Don’t give your money to Party City and Walmart! Check Etsy shops, or go to the Mexican parts of your town. It isn’t required, but I think it’s a really important good will gesture. (Full disclosure, I bought the tablecloth on Amazon and frames from TJ Maxx… this isn’t requiring of perfection, but striving for doing the right thing. Try for the 80/20 rule, right?)

Tablecloth

Kinda a non-negotiable to have. I went with orange, probably the second most recommended color after white. I’ve seen everything from black to purple to patterned used in pictures and they were all lovely. (One thing I found- you’re gonna have a LOT going on up on the altar, so I decided to go with more solid color aside from the runner I put on the front instead of an allover pattern.)

Levels

Multi levels are common but not ubiquitous. There is some symbolism to different levels of reality, the afterlife,  Heaven, Earth, and Hell, or places for specific imagery (top for picture of the Virgin Mary, bottom level for candles…). There is no real consensus on this though, and flat ofrendas are reasonably common. Me, I’m a teacher’s pet type personality on stuff like this, so since I read three levels are traditional, I was going to go with with three levels. (Mine are made with books, boards, and picture boxes and then covered with the tablecloth). I didn’t give each level an assigned place/purpose due to space constraints and not being huge on religious imagery due to our own personal beliefs.

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Various levels and tiers…

 

Arch

The arch, often made from sugar cane, can symbolize crossing over or the transitioning of life to death. I don’t have sugar cane, so we used green bamboo from the garden and decorated it with paper flowers. And I’m going to be honest, it’s a pretty good looking substitute.

Pictures

Pictures are vital to have on the ofrenda of your lost loved ones- but people do also put important figures in history up (sure Frida Kahlo has MILLIONS of spots on ofrendas). I personally shot for pictures of the dead, kinda in a portrait style and especially without someone who was still living in the picture- but I haven’t seen that listed as any kind of rule. My grandparents and my husband’s grandparents are in pictures of the two of them together, but they are all four deceased. I used similar frames for uniformity but again not required.

Here’s one funny thing though- setting up the pictures on an ofrenda when your grandfather and your Meemaw were divorced, and your uncle wasn’t the biggest fan of said grandfather back in the day… it leads to some quite well thought out picture placement, similar to the seating arrangement at a wedding!

Something the Dead Liked

You’re supposed to put something the people in the pictures enjoyed or that evokes good memories from life. A hobby, something they loved, etc. My Meemaw loved gardening and the ocean, so I have shells and a small plant for her. My husband’s grandmother, gardening: another plant. His grandfather: his actual harmonica. My grandmother: one of her blue birds of happiness blown glass figurines. My grandfather: one of the toy cars he collected. My other grandfather: a pad of paper and pen since he was a journalist. My uncle: some bird feathers since he was an avid bird watcher. And my father-in-law: some chile pequin peppers, a deck of cards, and an acorn (the two year old thought Papa would like it- he’d treasure it… I left it up there) as well as a small cross from the “rebel” middle child who identifies as Christian thanks to said grandfather and her grandmother.

I searched EVERYWHERE this year for a chile pequin plant- I wanted to grow these very small, EXTREMELY hot peppers for the sole intention of putting them on the ofrenda for my father in law. He used to eat them like candy and we had a very memorable event when he talked me into eating one. There was snot and tears (mine) and laughter and tears (his)… it was a good one, for sure. I searched high and low to try to buy one for MONTHS, to no avail. And then I’m mowing the back yard and there is one growing by the back fence in July- right when I’d given up hope of finding one! Thanks birds and/or ghosts/ and/or Jesus!

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My husband’s grandfather’s harmonica… he loved music

 

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Water, because the dead are thirsty. I don’t make the rules.

Water

Because the dead are thirsty after their long journey and sometimes it symbolizes one of the four elements of water, earth, air, and fire.

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Papel picado

Papel Picado

Tissue paper flags. Sometimes symbolize air or wind, sometimes the ephemeral nature of life, sometimes just god damn cool and one of my favorite things ever. Do it right (notthatI’mtellingyouwhattodooranything) and get the tissue paper ones and not the plastic ones.

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Calavera… is like a sugar skull but not made of sugar

Calaveras

Brightly decorated skulls. They symbolize that death is waiting so have fun while you are alive/ don’t take death too seriously/ the dead can still have fun. We searched through a LOT of calaveras before we found the right one… I especially like the birds on it. I didn’t want a crappy, no effort paint job and there were LOTS of those unfortunately. I want to see some artistry on things like this, though, so it was worth the dig. We finally found one that passed the bar for us at el mercado in San Antonio this past weekend. There seems to be some ongoing transitioning between sugar skulls (made from sugar) and calaveras- generally pottery skulls. I had a toddler I can’t trust with pressed sugar sculptures so went with a pottery version.

Candles

Important, perhaps related to Catholic beliefs on the lighting of candles and prayer. Also symbolize the element of fire.  Right now I only have two, but often a candle is lit for each person on the ofrenda. I’m waiting on a six pack of small silver and gold mercury glass votives to come from a (latina!) Etsy vendor. Trying to do right, just trying to do right… The purple ones in the picture my friend got for me; they’re heavy soapstone and I think they’re a nice addition. Candles are also used as a light to guide the dead home.

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Salt

Salt

Purifier. Element of Earth. Generally keeps demons away in many other cultures but I didn’t find that written about in my research for Dia de los Muertos or anything but it can’t be a bad secondary use.

Food

Snacks for the dead, often their favorite dish to serve as a reminder of good memories from their life. They don’t eat it but appreciate the smell/essence. I don’t plan on leaving food up nightly, we’ll put it out on the actual holiday. Interestingly enough, the food from the alter doesn’t have to be up long, and isn’t considered tainted from the dead enjoying it’s essence.  (There is a traditional bread, Pan de Muertos I’ll do a separate post on because I’m going to try to make it.)

Los

Probably should have talked about this in that mammoth intro up there- but I use: Dia de los Muertos and not Dia de Muertos when referring to the holiday. Both are correct as far as I can find.

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One of my very favorite pieces of art. Acrylic on tin- we leave it up year round. Mother and child collecting marigolds for the day of the dead. It is, I promise, not intended to be creepy or morbid. It’s in the center of the arch on our ofrenda.

Orange Marigolds (cempasuchil or flor de muertos)

I started growing 3′ Mexican Marigolds back in April from seed for use on the ofrenda in November… this has been a months long plan. Unfortunately all I could find was a mixed bag of seeds, with two colors of orange and bright yellow all mixed together. I had a whole section of the garden dedicated to them… which the dog dug up once it was too late to replant. But ONE plant survived! I coddled it back to health and it finally bloomed this week… and it’s god damn yellow. I’ll buy some orange ones as we get closer to November 1st- for petals to line the front walk to the alter and for flowers on the ofreda itself. They are THE flower of the dead and the pungent smell helps lead the dead home.

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Alebrijes- these are by Innocente Melchor Garcia. I have 3 of his deer.

Alebrijes

NOT an important part of this holiday, regardless of how the movie Coco made it seem! But I collect them and love them and so will put them on our ofrenda. Words cannot describe the research I put into these- alebrijes are like, in the top 3 of my very favorite crafts/arts. I have 5 books (including one that actually has a picture of Innocente Melchor Garcia- the artist who made my deer!) and I DREAM of a trip to Oaxaca to see and learn more about them. I will forever regret not buying a piece from Jacobo y Maria Angeles from the last time we were in Mexico. It was a white and black coyote, and I can still picture it perfectly and feel it’s weight and shape in my hands… Alright sure. It was $1,700 and so it would have been insanity to buy it. But even so… I sent an email to the store months later, just because I couldn’t stop thinking about it… but it was gone. Agh. So yeah, you don’t need these… I guess I’m just testing you? You passed.

Copal

Never having smoked weed I was never a big fan of incense (or black light posters). But the smoke from copal incense is said to purify the souls of the dead during Dia de los Muertos. Copal is the wood alebrijes are made from. Just fyi from an alebrijes nerd. I have the incense stick in the lantern on the right bottom of the ofenda.

Dogs

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That’s a good girl, Jude.

Dogs are important as guides to and from the other side. The very long history on this one is based on the xoloitzcuintle dog breed: a black, nearly hairless dog that dates back to ancient times. Jude here will have to do though, she was a good dog- I’m sure she’ll fulfill her role admirably. Also, odd as it is, there is another dog in the alter since in my uncle’s he’s petting a black poodle that just kinda showed up for the picture. I love the idea it was like “Just here to take the picture so I can be your spirit guide in 20 years- don’t mind me!”

For us we’ve put the ofrenda up for the whole month of October- though the real holiday is November 1st and 2nd. The 1st is for deceased children, the 2nd for deceased adults- thats when the liquor makes it’s way to the ofrenda. You know, question there- if you have a recovered alcoholic, do you put liquor out? Or not? Now we’re asking the real questions…

The entire holiday is cast in a celebratory light. Tears are supposed to make the path back slippery for the dead, so happiness that you had your loved ones, not tears because they are gone is the right mindset to have… it’s what I’m certainly shooting for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I bless the rains down in Baklavaaaa…”

It’s been raining forever down here, it seems.

Remember  literally 3 posts ago where I was talking about the fact that every living thing with roots around here was a mere three days away from sudden death if I forgot to water them? We had some exceedingly close calls with a few Japanese maples, lost some potted plants, and came inches away from losing the spirea. Yeah… that’s changed.

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The aquifer needs it, so I don’t want to be ungrateful, but jesusfuckingchrist.

And now I’m slowly going insane coming up with alternate Toto lyrics because it WILL. NOT. STOP. RAINING.

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The Mexican Olive Tree sure loves it though. You can see the left corner didn’t get weeded or mulched…what a difference, right?

I cut back the triangle bed before the rain started a few weeks ago- almost everything was either dead, struggling with spider mites due to being stressed from lack of water, or just gotten out of hand.  In Texas we prune perennials on a roughly 1/3 in August and 2/3 in February schedule to prevent rank growth and woody stems on many plants such as salvias, mexican oreganos, etc. (they flower on new growth, so old woody stems are undesirable). I was perhaps a bit overzealous and cut the pineapple sage back by 7/8. The fennel was toast so I cut it to the ground, though a few sprigs are popping back up from the bulbs.  I took the dahlias out completely. The pink horsemint was brown and crunchy, so out it came. I was going to try to save seeds but I just popped the whole thing out of the ground and shook the entire 3′ dead plant around the areas I want it next year like some kind of medicine woman. Let it be known I was not shuffle foot dancing through this process, though I was barefoot. Most of the seeds had already dropped onto the concrete at that point, but I figured there had to be some still left in the dried flower heads.

I just about scalped the May Night Salvias… look at these good little things coming back though!

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Mine eyes have never seen finer rosettes!

So the fuchsia May Night salvias were a solid messy mat in this area with some thinning sections in the middle, and now look at those beauties! What some attention, fertilizer, and copious water will do for a plant! What’s that you say? That’s the entirety of the way it works? Oh right…

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A scourge of spurge

I also weeded and mulched most of the triangle bed the same evening I cut everything back. It was a fit of gardening annoyance while the husband was barbecuing and we were hanging out outside. I’m glad I did too because it was perfect timing with all this rain that followed shortly thereafter. Unfortunately I had let the weeds have free reign, and a lot of them set seed… which are now LOVING all the rain as much as the desirable species. There was another kind of rain, this one of seeds, that poured down when I popped a 2′ prostrate spurge out of the ground… and looks like the germination rate was 110% because the picture above is all the spurge seedlings from that spot. Spurge grows in compacted soil, which the front of this bed definitely has- so it’s an indicator that a pitchfork and compost are going to be needed before spring for sure. I also use them as markers for ants- there are ALWAYS ant hills under prostrate spurge plants for some reason. Conditions must be ideal for them both but I’m not sure which comes first in that arrangement. I wasn’t wrong because there were ants under the mother spurge plant, though not fire ants, thankfully.

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Volunteer something

I also found this plant growing under the pineapple sage. I am leaving it in for now, even though it’s MUCH too close to the walkway (as is the pineapple sage, honestly) because I think there might be a distant chance it’s a purple cone flower. Most likely it’s some form of plantain and a weed… but it just doesn’t look quite like other plantains… I have fingers crossed. There is another one in front of the white mist flower too. I was hoping against hope they were rudbeckias (which I love) for a little while, but the leaves are just too smooth in texture for that. The funny thing is- I don’t actually care for purple cone flowers- I doubt I’d ever buy one. But it’s like a stray cat- just because you never actively wanted a black and white cat, doesn’t mean you don’t keep it when it shows up at your door and let the children name it Alabama. I’ll try to get pictures, he’s a cutie.

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These assholes.

We had so much water, so fast, that first week of rain that it caused all the tomatoes to crack as the plants rushed all this newly available moisture to the fruit. I actually had to send the girls out to harvest and toss a bunch of split and wrinkled tomatoes during a break in the rain so the plants didn’t stop producing. (Let me tell you how much they bitched about THAT chore!) The plants have almost no fruit on them right now because of this. In fact, I’ve actually had to buy a box of champagne cherry tomatoes at the store recently and I may have never resented $2.49 more in my life.

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Oh I can’t stay mad at you though!

The plants themselves are UGLY at this point, close to collapsing under there own weight, and too much for even the 6′ t post that is stabilizing them so the cherry vines are leaning precariously. But hope springs eternal and there are a bunch of new blossoms on the top… and a few scattered fruit as well. I even went through and pruned a full armload of dead leaves and unproductive branches off of the bottom of the cherries during that one evening of furious garden activity… not like you can tell or anything.

It’s been so wet, and I didn’t have the collar of pebbles like I should have around their crown, so my thyme plants have both died. Not enough rain will kill plants, too much rain will kill plants…it’s always something. Without thyme, or a ton of parsley like I usually have, I’m down to some spindly basil and an oregano that is right in the path of a regular dog pee route so I’m not real comfortable cooking with it. I LOVE cooking with fresh herbs, so it really sucks honestly. And without the thyme I am SCREWED for making pan gravy. I need a new thyme plant ASAP, but this weather…

Oh, and there is also the large mint patch under the faucet- but I don’t cook with anything that grows in the beds next to the house due to the fact that from 1910 to 1978 this place had at least 4 layers of lead paint that were all STILL flaking off in spots when we had the house painted this winter. There are no huge chips visible lying around or anything, and no one is nibbling on them, but I just have the image of micro-paint chips in the soil so am being a scaredy-but-better-safe-then-sorry-Nelly about the whole thing. So the mint is purely decorative and the one real spot for a larger herb garden is the tomato plot right now… which is full of tomatoes. It is cooling down, so hopefully we can get some of the new larger beds installed this winter and I’ll have more room for herbs soon.

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Plumeria cutting- If you look closely you can see one of the bamboo twigs I cut to use as supports have leafed out at the top because it’s been so wet

And finally, the potted plants haven’t needed a hose dragged back to them in weeks. The picture above is the pot with a cutting of my father-in-law’s plumeria. I took the cutting when we were down there for his one year memorial memorial. My in-laws’ ranch is in zone 9 in the Rio Grande Valley- so his plumeria is an evergreen tree down there that is taller than the roof. We’ll have no such luck this one will reach anywhere close to that size here on the cusp between zone 8B and zone 8A. While some people grow oranges and bougainvilleas in the ground here, their survival is a delicate balance between protected microclimates and luck. This plumeria will be staying in the pot to come inside during the cold weather- hopefully similarly to a new black and white new cat, actually… The flowers are white with yellow centers. Sometimes plumerias can be garish color combos but I do like this one. I can’t recall if it’s fragrant, but I think it is.

I’ve never been much of a fan of tropicals (hibiscus, mandevilla, bananas, plumerias…) But this is a memory plant, you know? It reminds me of my father in law, so in the garden it goes. It was an interesting process taking those cuttings, actually. The plant weeps white sap when cut so the cuttings needs to form a callous or they rot when put directly in soil. The process to do that? Take a one foot cutting, about a broom to shovel handle in diameter, cut all the leaves off, and leave them flat on concrete in the blazing sun for a month and ignore them. I read that on MORE than one website. I though SURELY not, not in South Texas summers… really? But lo and behold it worked like a charm! Roots popped quickly out of the callus and the plants leafed out. I took four cuttings and all four took- I gave two of them to my brother in law to have. Right now I worry that we’re getting so much rain that the soil is over saturated and it risks these plumerias rotting… a sentence I would have never expected to write in Texas, honestly. I may have to bring that pot inside so it can dry out!

 

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Asian Meatballs in Yakiniku Sauce

Yakiniku (Meat Sauce… thanks for generalizing on that one, Japan) is a sweet and sour sauce with fruit juice and sesame seeds used on meat and is tastier than I just made that sound, I promise. So you make the meatballs and brown them, then simmer them in this sauce to finish cooking them and to thicken the sauce to more of a glaze, and then you serve the whole thing over rice and garnish with green onions and oh my god is it really good! PLUS, and here is the kicker and why I like meatballs- I ALWAYS make twice what I need and then freeze the other half (in this case I did the same with half the sauce) and then all I have to do is defrost, simmer, and dinner is le DONE on a school night when I’m dead tired. GEEN-US, mei oui?

I love meatballs a lot, actually, and heck, I even like making them too. I feel like a reflection in an infinity mirror… where you look in and see a million reflections coming to a point in the far distance. I am either the first reflection in this scenario, or the smallest… not sure how the physics work in this analogy honestly, but I am the most recent reflection of all the women, over all the years, who have stood at a counter doing this huge, hours long involved task for their families. There is Sara in ’84 (singing quietly to herself “Cause this is THRILLER, THRILLER night…” as she made her batch), Vi in ’73 (I can’t believe you voted for that asshole twice), Helen in ’56 (check yourself before you wreck yourself with that racism, Helen), Anna, in ’36 (“watch out for that Hitler, he’s a bad egg!”), Adina in ’17 (get a flu shot), and Martha in 1891 (opium’s a hell of a drug)… as well as all the others.

It’s a long winded way of unifying female history through meatballs… because I’m a writer.

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Sara in ’84.               Image by novem a. wahyudi

Ingredients for Meatballs

2 lbs. ground pork
2 eggs
2/3 cup seasoned panko breadcrumbs
Generous fresh ground pepper
1” thumb sized fresh garlic, grated
4 garlic cloves, through a garlic press
Finely minced white part of 4 green onions
½ Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. fish sauce
(This recipe makes a lot- I froze ½ the meatballs and half the sauce for a future meal.)

Ingredients for Sauce
½ cup soy sauce (if using low sodium soy sauce you may need less water)
¼ cup water
1 Asian pear- grated w/ the juice (add the pulpy stuff to the sauce too. I’d never grated fruit before, but it’s easier than cheese. I used the smaller size than what I’d use for cheese on the grater)
4 green tops of green onions, finely diced
1.5 tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. honey
3 Tbsp. sake
2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar
¼ cup Korean BBQ sauce w/ sesame seeds (Kinda a cheat, but I wanted a thicker consistency and more sweetness to the sauce so I added this)
3 garlic cloves, through garlic press

Form meatballs into… balls, roughly bouncy ball sized. Takes longer than you think. Will make one whole cookie sheet worth. Refrigerate for 1 hour- this helps them hold together when browning.

While meatballs are chilling, add all ingredients for sauce to a bowl and mix together, tasting to ensure flavor. Once mixed refrigerate for 1 hour while sauce flavors melds.

Add 2 Tbsp. olive oil to a pan; bring to a medium heat on stove. Brown meatballs in batches, without cooking all the way through. Remove browned meatballs to a plate. Once all meatballs are browned add what you’re cooking that day back to the pan (single layer, but touching is okay) and pour sauce over meatballs. Bring to simmer cover with lid, and stir periodically to coat meatballs in sauce. Remove lid for last few minutes to reduce sauce to thicker consistency. Watch the sauce and don’t let it get too dry.

Serve over rice and top w/ green onions (or cilantro) and sesame seeds.

Die of exhaustion from most complex meal ever.

Questions Unasked

In the refrain of my last few years: the world lost another good one recently. (I am not, in fact, talking about John McCain, mind you. This one’s a little closer to home.)

I am both doing well and extremely sad- it’ll hit at weird times. Watering the plants. Picking tomatoes. Randomly this sense of such loss while I wash dishes. I’m fine though, don’t worry. Grief is the price come due for loving others, I get that. And it makes me think of the others I’ve lost too- which hasn’t happened before; this dredging up of all of them together. I’ll think about how I didn’t ask my uncle enough questions. And then I’ll realize I didn’t ask ANY of them enough questions.

How did my grandmother pick her children’s names? Her oldest son is named David- did she know he was the 7th David with our last name in the family line? Was the family name thing important, or was it just Catholic names are a limited pool to chose from? How’d she get into watching basketball? How’d she raise so many kids in a 3 bedroom house? How’d she ever mentally survive burying two daughters? Was she always so funny?

My uncle- that’s the problem with becoming pen pals with him as a kid- perpetually it seems he appeared in the world fully formed as an adult- springing from Zeus’s head like Athena, I imagine. The thought never actually occurred to me that he was a teenager once- so I never asked him anything about it. What did he do? How’d he get into journalism? Or like… what was his favorite pet when he was a kid? Or did he have any? Or how’d he get into golf. Or did he know how vital it was to an awkward child living so far away from him- who grew up as not the golden child of the family- to have someone who spent time writing her and thought she was great? That said child internalized that and held on to it, and unconsciously used it on the path to successful personhood?  I tried to tell him a few times, but I never asked him if he knew.

My father-in-law. He was a Golden Gloves boxer- and yet I never asked him about it? Why’d he stop and when? Why did he love horses so much? How did he end up so different from his siblings- just because he was the only boy, or what? Why so afraid of the doctor? Why so kind and funny when life hadn’t been to him? How’d he find that sweet spot for so long of “taking no shit but causing no harm?”

Or my grandfather… who I sat with late at night once and watched parliament on C-Span.  I remember how we laughed at the insults and barbs and… was a shoe actually thrown? That doesn’t seem too British, so it may just be the brain playing tricks. But I LOVE Churchill and so did Grandpa… but we never talked about him. We missed that conversation by about 5 years because I came to really like Churchill after grandpa was already gone.  Or his brother… Grandpa had a picture of himself, my grandmother, and his brother on the wall in his TV room… but I never asked him about him. How did his brother die? Why my grandfather left home so young as a teenager… I’ll never know.

I range between “God damn it I never asked enough” and “You can’t ever know someone’s complete life so don’t beat yourself up over it.” Back and forth like ping pong. It’s just… the missed opportunity to know someone better weighs heavy. Or maybe it’s the three volume book about Churchill I’m reading. Minutia and details on someone I never met, and yet I’m over here with just a handful of scraps and facts about the people I actually did.

I don’t know. I do know I am lucky.

When we were in the hospital with our oldest we met a dad of one of the other kids on the floor. Con man obviously pretending to be devoutly Christian. Begged money from us to buy his kid a Christmas gift. We gave him $20. I remember thinking- it isn’t only good people who’s children are sick. It isn’t only good people who are here with their dying children over Christmas. But our child was getting better and so we give $20 to someone who’s child was not because what the hell else could you do?

And so, in a similar vein to what I realized about humanity in that hospital; it isn’t only good people who die. To change the saying a bit- the graveyards are full of replaceable men. But man, how lucky am I that all of mine were good ones? That all of mine are the actual irreplaceable men in those graveyards?

I try to be grateful for the time I had with all of them. It’s a conscious effort to stay on that side of it, and not wallow because they’re gone. But i HAD them, they were there. How lucky to have had so many that were so good.

But god damn it- like, what was their favorite color? I know that for literally none of them… you see what I’m saying?

 

The Texas Garden in August aka Picante’s Inferno

The garden in August is a lesson in survival and non-survival. Miss a day’s watering and your three year old spirea is toast. (Not a hypothetical example). It’s cut to the ground and is starting to leaf back out- that was touch and go though, it was in no way a given that it would survive. But, here’s what is going on out there right now…

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You can’t see all the bees in this picture… there were at least 4. Pickings are slim for pollinators these days so we’re all happy to have the flowers we do.

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Tithonia (the Mexican Sunflower) is over 4′ tall now

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Orange, Red, and Purple… I may pass on recreating that in an ice dyed scarf…

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Mexican Olive Tree- gotta be close to 6′ tall now. The Mexican Redbud is doing great too. If I had Mexican Oregano I’m sure it’d be thriving.

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So the days are past that we sit over here for the aesthetic.

The tomatoes are really struggling. Turns out the curled leaves I was concerned about on the Bobcat and HM 1823 is just the tomato response to extreme heat, so NOT a disease as I originally thought. The cherry tomatoes are still producing- though Sweet 100 is doing better on the volume of crop we’re collecting in the middle of this summer, but the Sungold has set lots of new fruit after a couple of week’s lull.

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I’m already needing a stepladder to harvest- gotta be 12′ these days, but it’s starting to curve back down.

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My buddies- the caterpillars for black swallowtail butterflies. We have 7 right now- how I love them!

Lord it’s so hot. We’re all just hanging in there for fall… which usually hits right around late November ’round these parts…

Carrots Agrodolce with Currants

Like dude, that title amiright? Agrodolce means something about sweet and sour, and I’m 90% sure it’s Italian. You don’t get that kind of half assed explanation outta the Barefoot Contessa, now do you! If you can’t blaze your own path, store bought is fine.

This is the culmination of a long search for a carrot side dish. I don’t know why I made this my thing- the THING- I worked towards for years. But I always knew there had to be more to these orange bastards than I’d run across so far. Roasted baby carrots left me bored. Various other glazed carrot recipes always came out kinda weird or bland or required celery salt.

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The enigmatic jerks!

But this one? Tangy, not cloyingly sweet, and the currants upped the flavor depth. (Upped? Not deepened? Odd choice, brain.) Also, when done in the pan after cooking pork chops or chicken, you also incorporate the fond from the meat and the whole thing then gets served over said cut of meat as a sauce. Bitchin.

Ingredients:

½ smallish yellow onion, chopped
5-7 carrots, cut into rounds about 1/3 of an inch thick. Approximately.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. honey
4 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
4 Tbsp. currants, more or less
Salt and pepper to taste

In a pan over medium heat (after cooking pork or chicken, or can also be done in clean pan if required) add a good glug ( thats 2 Tbsp-ish) olive oil. If you are cooking the carrots after cooking meat make sure you have enough oil and your heat low enough that you don’t burn the fond. Once oil is heated, add the chopped onion and salt and pepper. Stir occasionally, scraping bottom to loosen fond, until onions are softened and starting to turn golden. Add carrots; stir once and then let sit for 2 minutes before continuing to stir and scraping the fond. Once carrots start to soften a little add honey, currants and vinegar, stirring regularly from here on out (another couple of minutes). If the sauce starts to dry you can add a little water. Continue scraping fond until you have a nice glaze that has coated the carrots and a bit of extra sauce. Serve as a side dish or spoon over meat if at all humanly possible.

I had this tonight with pan seared pork chops, sautéed spinach with red pepper flake and garlic, and wild rice. Spooned the carrots half over the pork and half over the rice. Pretty as a picture and tasted like I’d pay $26 for it in a restaurant.

Linking up with Samantha over at Fake Fabulous Here- check it out!

Random Word Generator Prompts

Like a random word post, and it’s been awhile, so figured I’d give it a whirl today. But first- I JUST realized that after I send a post live I often have some editing (misspelled words, etc.) that I correct and update. Those updates do NOT seem to be going to those of yall who get the post emailed to you. I will try to fix that and also be more vigilant with my pre-launch editing moving forward.

Sheep: My brother and I had the odd history of growing up in a city neighborhood with a feral sheep. His name was Stinky, and he supposedly belonged to the young married couple at the end of the street, but he wandered wherever he wanted to. As toddlers my brother and I was terrified of this huge, male, unshaved sheep. One time he trapped us in the garage and we climbed on my Dad’s car to escape him. I prefer Stinky to any religious or political sheep though, boy those are the worst.

Material: Well hmmm, I’m having a hell of a time finding acceptable fabric/material for new curtains in the kitchen. I want something Scandinavian with a white background and multi color print without being too twee or whimsical… or geometric. Hence the “hell of a time.” I did finally find fabric for my slipper chair in our living room. I reversed it so the side showing is actually the back of the fabric, but we like it more like that. I recovered the chair last weekend.

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Wouldn’t have worked for the curtains though…but similar to style I’m looking for.

Warning: Had enough health warnings lately that the husband and I are walking more, drinking less, and cutting back on cheese. Cholesterol. Weight. General weird ailments (plantar fasciitis sucks but is almost cleared up) that it’s time to just commit. Heed the warnings… we’re trying.

Art: I still haven’t finished the 4′ painting I’m doing of my husband… but I hung it on the wall so it didn’t get toddlerized- I better finish it or that will be the picture I’m “almost done with” for the next 40 years. I showed it to my mom and she asked if his hair was supposed to be a bike helmet. Actually its a bandana in the picture I’m working from… but thanks Mom.

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I swear the rule needs to be don’t hang it up until you’re done…

Bullet: At our last house I found a bullet in our hallway once. We don’t have guns. It remains one of the weirdest feelings to bend down and pick that up of the carpet. Someone brought a gun and bullets in my house. Or didn’t and didn’t realize a random bullet fell out of their pocket. Or… I have no idea. It could be from some totally different scenario I haven’t considered. Weird to think you know so much less than you think you do about what goes on around you sometimes.

Advice: I try to stockpile advice for the girls’ use later in life. Like, if a boy doesn’t seem a little nervous around them, they need to realize he’s trying to play them, not love them. Or that washing you’re face with a face cleanser every night really DOES make a difference. Or that starting to moisturize in your 20s is important. Or that there are no princesses waiting to be rescued in this family- they need to be women who are always capable of rescuing themselves. So far there are only two pieces of advice I’ve ever given them that seems to have stuck. First is that they should try to be the hero of their own stories. And the second is that the thinner the eyebrow the crazier the woman. GOD HELP ME why that last one that I just tossed off without thinking after a couple of glasses of wine should be one of the main ones they remember and cleave to, but parenting is weird like that. I bet you anything they mention it in my eulogy. I SAID IT ONE TIME FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!

 

 

 

Of Grave Importance

I was out on a construction site for work today next to the police station in Cibolo, TX… and there was an old cemetery across the street that looked beyond intriguing. I’ve discussed my love of old graveyards before here.

I wrote on that previous post about the peace of graveyards, and how time kinda removes the grief from death… but it wasn’t how I felt this morning. God, there were just so many children… parental loss and it’s screaming anguish was still so upfront in this graveyard.

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Nastasia born 1864, died 1867… “Gone to be an Angel” written on the bottom

The symbolism though… the lamb, the tree cut down too soon…

Or this one, that was excruciating to imagine those parents who lost their 2 and 3 year old daughters two days apart in 1890. What sickness was in the house… what grief those poor people endured. It still hung heavy in the air around this dual grave:

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Olga, just shy of 2 when she died on May 14th 1890, and Bertha, one day past 3 when she died on May 16th, 1890. Ow my fucking heart, History!

The ratio of children to adults was much too high for a normal (I use that phrase loosely), more enjoyable stroll around a graveyard. But there was still the normal interesting things that are what I like. (said the crazy person…)

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Buzzfeed style caption: Tree stump headstones are prevalent in graveyards from Victorian and Edwardian times. Find out why!

I always knew tree trunks were Woodsman of the World headstones… but turns out why there are so many of them is interesting. They were free with W.O.W. life insurance policies! And the Germans would be damned if they were going to pass up a sweet deal like that! Hence SO many tree stump headstones! A tall trunk is for adults, short logs are for children… not sure if the 2 cut logs the larger trunk is astride means they lost two children or just that they sprang for the more expensive policy package.

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She sells seashells down by the sea shore… FOR DEATH!

No one is REALLY sure why there are so many cemented in sea shell covered graves in the South… many of them far away from the ocean. Loose, non cemented in shells (often conch shells like the two closest to the headstone on the picture above) generally mean someone took a pilgrimage and brought it to the grave long after burial. (European symbolism there of a pilgrimage). Slaves often marked graves with shells because the ocean brought them to this place, and so the shells symbolized taking them to their final home. Perhaps these German immigrants used them for the same symbolism? My favorite theory (though I don’t think it’s right) is that shells were used s shingles on grave surfaces as a protective “roof”… so totally utilitarian. And while that DOES sound very 1800s German it doesn’t quite jive because the rest of the graves are so ornate. Shells have generalized Christian symbolism… we may just have to leave it at that and that it was just a Victorian fad.

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The Shrouded Urn… a great name for a mystery, now that I think of it

The urn was a symbol of death long after cremation went out of fashion, and the shroud symbolized variously: the last curtain between life and death, or protection, or that death has fallen over something. I’ve seen shrouded angels (fucking terrifying, lemme tell ya), shrouded fruit baskets, shrouded obelisks and urns… there were some pretty talented stone carvers back in the day. It’s one of my favorite things to look for in cemeteries, the shrouded statuary.

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Oh you!

And then there are the hands. The hand like that is SUPPOSED to be pointing up to heaven and God, but which always look like a shaking finger like “Oh you! You got me! Never saw that one coming, I didn’t!”

Next there are these, my VERY favorite things- enamel pictures from the 1800s. The glimpses of people… generally in the prime of their lives even if they lived to be old… which I LOVE. I HATE modern obituaries that only have the pictures from the very end of life… I love seeing people from another age, in their prime, looking out at the world like this! Now, as much as I love graveyards, I never wanted to be IN one before. Cremate me and cast me in the Frio River in Uvalde… but I’m tempted by the chance to be one of these for the next few centuries…

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Wilhelm Reimann

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Nestine Reimann. Only picture on a grave of a woman in the whole cemetery. Twenty bucks her middle name was Prudence. I bet you.

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Millennials are just the new Progressive Generation. (Do you have ANY idea how long it took me to research that joke? I was committed to it though.)

And inscriptions… There was one that read Asleep In Jesus from 1915 for a 25 year old dude. Which is just weird and I hope just the result of iffy English skills. Or this one:

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Germans are hardcore

It reads, or as damn close as Google Translate can get me, “The silent grave is unafraid of the Devil, because of faith in God and no fear of Judgement.” Well okay then.

I guess I love old cemeteries for the same reason as I like older neighborhoods and not the cookie cutter new developments. Variability! Individuality! Craftmanship! Interesting Things!

Here’s the thing, every once in a while I think like, huh. So THAT’S how I turned out, to be someone who likes old cemeteries. Who would have known when I was younger that I’d grow up to be that? Wonder if quilters or giant pumpkin growers or people who collect typewriters ever wonder the same thing?

Linking up with Samantha at Fake Fabulous HERE- check it out!