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Posts Tagged ‘Tradition’

 

Halloween isn’t what it used to be. But then, maybe it never was. When I was a child, we didn’t call it Trick-or-Treat. It was Halloweening. We didn’t dress up and go door to door anonymously collecting loot from strangers. In my neighborhood we had friendlier traditions.

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My family lived in a rural community of small farms and households whose occupants worked in town. The neighborhood encompassed about a square mile, a small school district once served by the one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. After I finished first grade, the school was closed and we were bussed into town. Since we all rode the same school bus, everyone was acquainted.

Halloweening was a ritual. When we knocked on a door, the family invited us in and tried to guess who we were. That was fun. The better the disguise, the more difficult it was to recognize us. Seldom were costumes store-bought. Usually we made our own. Old sheets became ghosts, scarecrows emerged from rags, and dress-up clothes and hand-me-downs outfitted princesses, witches, and anything else our imaginations could conjure. Some clever mothers sewed elaborate, almost professional, costumes for their offspring. Everyone wore masks or makeup to change their appearance. After the family guessed us right, we unmasked and they gave us our treats.

Walking two or three miles was a lot for one night, especially for small children, so we spread Halloweening over three nights. Two days before Halloween, as soon as we got off the school bus, we’d dress up and head out. One evening we’d walk up East Maine Road, down the road another night, and the third night we’d canvass Reynolds Road. The only time our parents drove us was over to Finch Hollow where Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived. Pretending to be neighborhood kids, instead of calling at the kitchen door as usual, we’d go to the front door and make them guess who we were.

Grandma always made popcorn balls for Halloween. In those days, we didn’t worry about razor blades or poison, because we only went to homes of people we knew. Years later, I was appalled when a friend told me she went through her children’s Halloween bags before they were allowed to eat anything, and she threw out all the homemade treats! But she was one of those who took their children to neighborhoods where they didn’t know anyone, prosperous areas where they could get lots of loot. Better than candy were the homemade goodies from our neighbors, and of course Grandma Masters’ popcorn balls.

Only once did anyone question our arrival before Halloween Night. A new family moved into the neighborhood. We went to their house because their kids rode the school bus and we knew them. “But it’s not Halloween yet,” the man said and refused to give us treats. I’m sure someone set him straight by the following year.

Parents sometimes accompanied their children. My mother went Halloweening with us when we were young. Once she dressed as a scarecrow with a straw hat pulled down over her face. “I bet this is Barbara,” a lady said, as she tugged the hat up, and both of them laughed. Another new neighbor brought her children around so she could get acquainted. When my brothers and I were older, we went by ourselves and took our younger siblings with us. It could turn dark before we got home, but no one worried because all children in the neighborhood were out Halloweening.

One year I made a papier-mache Frankenstein mask at school. Somehow, word got around and my mask became the talk of the neighborhood. I was quite proud of it, but come Halloween, I knew if I wore it, everyone would know who I was, so I dressed as something else. That proved to be a disappointment to neighbors who had been looking forward to seeing “Frank.”

There was always a little mischief in the neighborhood, but nothing serious. Although most homes were modern, a few outhouses remained. Grandad had a little rental cottage with no plumbing, only a well pump and an outhouse, which was routinely tipped over every Halloween.

Ancestral Ourhouse

Ancestral Ourhouse

The schoolhouse had two outhouses, one for the girls and one for the boys. Apparently, the boys’ was adequately secured to its foundation, but when I was in first grade, someone tipped over the girls’ outhouse and we had to use the boys’ until it could be set right again. Today the culprits would be hunted down and charged with criminal mischief, but in those days, it was just part of Halloween.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls' outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

This outhouse at Purdue Hill, Alabama, is similar to the girls’ outhouse at Barnum Hill School.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

Ours was a three-seater, too.

When I was older, our school district elected a trustee who let his position go to his head. He began making decisions contrary to the wishes of the parents, who got up in arms. The teenagers, aware of their elders’ discontent but too young to vote, took matters into their own hands. On Halloween night, the trustee found out what is meant by “tricks.” No real damage, only toilet paper, eggs, and garbage thrown at his house. He called the police, but as I remember, nothing much came of it except that the next election saw him voted out.

After we moved away, I was disappointed that other people didn’t practice Halloweening. When we went to neighbor’s houses, they’d just shove candy at us and send us on our way, no guessing or socializing.

Today, Halloween has fallen into disrepute. Some people think it has something to do with devil worship. Actually, the old Celts of the British Isles celebrated Sondheim, a harvest festival. They dressed up in costumes to trick the evil spirits, so they could do no harm. The early Christians adopted the holiday and called it All Hallows Eve, meaning the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, November 1st. What’s ironic is that those who today substitute “Fall Festivals” for Halloween have returned the holiday to its ancient Celtic purpose—a Harvest Festival!

 

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I’ve been trading at Jackson’s Hardware store in Lake Butler off and on for more than twenty five years. I’d rather shop at the locally owned establishments than the big box stores. I may pay a little more, but what I receive in return can be priceless. This trip was no exception.

The double glass doors were plastered with ads for local handymen, notifications of church services, and similar community announcements. Beside the handle on the door to the left was a handwritten sign, “Don’t use this door.” By the handle on the right, “Use THIS door.” I was glad that, for once, I took the time to read.

Once inside, I was overwhelmed by the quantity of items packed into the small building. Where could I find the plumbing supplies, I wondered. Behind the counter sat three old men, jawing with one another. Assuming one to be the proprietor, I began to move in that direction, when a younger gentleman, whom I mistook as a fellow customer, asked if he could help.

Yes, I wanted some PVC fittings. I took a stub of pipe out of my purse to show him what size I required. He led me into the next room where an array of wooden bins held elbows, couplings, and what not. As I ran down my list, he fished the pieces out of the bins and took time to sort misplaced items into their proper places. One connector I desperately needed was sold out. No problem, the man grabbed a bag from a high shelf, tore it open, and restocked the bin. Once my selection was complete, I followed him to the counter.

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On the wall facing me, among more notices, ads, and offers, was a sign, “Hunters, Fishermen, and Other Liars Gather Here.” The three old men sat in a row of chairs beneath the sign. They’d been talking continuously the whole time I was in the store. While the proprietor jotted my purchases on a sales slip, tallied the amount, and figured up the sales tax, I listened to their gossip.

The scene was classic. All that was missing was a potbellied stove (but the day was too warm), and a cracker barrel (if the store had room in for one). As the old fellows chatted about various matters, their conversation eventually led to the virtues of meat loaf sandwiches. One said, “You take your leftover meat loaf and make yourself a sandwich, and there ain’t nothin’ better.” The second agreed, “Yep. Nothin’ wrong with that.” The third seemed to be asleep, his hands resting on his ample belly.

They may have been liars, as the sign suggested, but having partaken of a few meat loaf sandwiches in my day, I guarantee they were telling the truth on this point.

Little has changed over the years at Jackson’s Hardware. In the laid back atmosphere, customer service has always been personal and courteous. If I need some old fashioned item not carried by the big box stores, I’m likely to find it here. I suspect they even restock the old men from time to time.

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This was my first post when I started this weblog four years ago. I thought it was time to rewrite and republish it:

On Christmas night when I was a child, we would go to my grandparents’ house for supper with aunts, uncles, and cousins. Of course there’d be presents for all. I don’t know where she got this idea, but instead of labeling gifts with store-bought stickers, Grandma Masters used old Christmas cards.

When I became an adult and began exchanging Christmas cards, I continued Grandma’s tradition. The front face of a card is ideal for a large package. For small gifts, I use the tiny pictures on the back or cut pieces from cards. It’s nice to coordinate the card with the wrapping paper, such as a poinsettia card for paper with that pattern. A card may be a clue to the gift inside—labeling a box containing a doll with a card showing a little girl holding a doll. If the gift is opened at my house and the card not spoiled, it can be used again next year.

I keep a box of old Christmas cards for this purpose. Like most folks, I display new ones as they come in, but after the season is over, I put them in my box. It’s handy to have plenty of cards to choose from, and every year my collection grows. Some years I’ve had to graduate to a larger box.

I may have to find a bigger box.

I may have to find a bigger box.

My Christmas card collection has yielded an unforeseen delight. It has become a time capsule, going back many years. As I dig to the bottom, it’s like an archeological excavation, refreshing long forgotten memories. Most senders list their children, and I have a record, in reverse order, of the changes in their families. Children who have grown, moved out, and are no longer listed appear in earlier cards. Their names disappear again in cards sent before they were born. Some senders named my children individually and that list also grew and shrank over time, as some of my adult children moved out, and in, and out again.

Here are cards from nieces and nephews before they had children. Afterwards, they get too busy. I have a record of my former boss’ daughter growing up, in the photo cards he gave out every year. Since those are not suitable for labeling gifts, they collect in my box. Here is a card from a family I cannot recall. Perhaps one day something will nudge my memory. One is signed “your paper carrier” with only her first name. And one from my daughter-in-law before she married my son. Some people faithfully send cards every year and some are sporadic. One couple sent cards for seven years after they moved away, then silence. I never found out what became of them.

Like an archaeological record, the collection is incomplete. Many cards no longer exist as they have been used and discarded, and some lack the signature page, so their origin is forgotten. Here is one I will never use, from a dear friend who has passed away. Indeed, the deeper I dig, the more poignant they become. One card from my parents is also signed “Cookie Grandma”, in the last year of her life after my grandfather had passed. Another is signed only “Grandpa Masters” after Grandma Masters was no longer with us. There is one whose picture page was used long ago and only the message page remains, signed, “All our love, Grandma and Grandpa Masters”. I will keep this forever. It was the last I received from them before Grandma died.

Some of my relatives sent home-made cards so special that, although I may use them to label a gift, I will not throw them away even if they become wrinkled or torn. Of course, cards made by my grandchildren are sacred. Deep in the box are some my own children made when they were small. Scattered throughout are annual letters sent with or in lieu of cards. Someday I will go back and read them again.

What will happen to my Christmas Box of Memories after I am no longer able to enjoy it? Before then, I should put the cards into a scrapbook, making a history for succeeding generations. In the meantime, I continue to dig through the box every Christmas, looking for just the right card for a particular gift, being reminded of the past, and surprised by new discoveries.

 

 

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Until I was about ten, my family lived upstairs in my grandparents’ house. When we were little, my brother and I shared a bedroom. On the wall above the bed hung a photograph of a young boy, Dad’s brother Donald, who died many years before I was born. That photo remained on the wall for decades, until my grandparents sold their farm and moved to Florida.
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I could not find that picture, but here is Uncle Donald and his baby brother Russell with their grandfather, George Brown.

In their cellar, hanging on the back wall under a thick layer of dust, was Uncle Donald’s bicycle. No one rode it. Even when my siblings and I were old enough to want bicycles, Donald’s stayed on the wall. No one offered it to us and I doubt any of us asked to ride it.

Who was this young man whose spirit remained a living presence in the lives of those who knew him? Donald was my father’s only brother, about three years older than he. He was a well-behaved child and a good student. By comparison, my dad was the wild one, mischievous, non-compliant. But he loved his brother more than he could express in words. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t talk much about Donald.

Uncle Donald suffered from health problems but no one seemed to know what was wrong with him. We only know that he died in his mother’s arms. Donald was only seventeen and had just graduated from high school. My dad was about fourteen. Losing his brother threw Dad into a tailspin he never seemed to recover from. In the middle of World War II, he quit school, joined the army, and was sent to the Pacific theater. I can only imagine my grandparents’ anguish, their only remaining child fighting in a war half-way around the world.

When my youngest brother was small, he developed a seizure disorder. I remember my father’s panic when Billy had seizures. That was uncharacteristic. Dad was quick to anger but not to panic. I remember him yelling that his brother died of a seizure. This alarmed me no end, so I asked my mother. She said Donald had seizures, but that was not what killed him.

One day I broke the code of secrecy and asked Grandma what Donald’s medical condition had been. She didn’t know its name, but said when he got sick he would have albumin in his blood. His doctor knew what to give him for it, but in his last illness, the doctor was out of town. Under the care of another physician, unfamiliar with Donald’s disorder or its proper treatment, and probably refusing to listen to the patient’s mother, he died.

My grandparents hoarded Donald’s possessions until the end of their lives. After they died, my parents packed up and moved from Scrambletown in the Ocala National Forest, where they lived for over thirty years, to Blackfork, Arkansas, where they’d bought a farm. Dad built a big house on the farm, large enough to store two lifetimes of accumulated treasures. Among them were Donald’s belongings, but I had no idea of their existence until this summer.

At our biennial family reunions, we always have an auction to raise money for the next one. Family heirlooms are in great demand. Before our reunion this summer, Mom and my sisters went through boxes of old pictures, ledgers, letters, knick-knacks, and diaries. None of these has much monetary value, but to us they are precious. They went to the auction block where they garnered high prices. Among them were Uncle Donald’s belongings.

From the handsome but sickly boy who had a bicycle, Uncle Donald emerged as a full human being. His high school class ring was among the auction items, in pristine condition, of course, since he didn’t live long enough to wear it out.

Books, lots of books. Apparently, Donald liked to read. What survived was a collection of popular fiction for boys, among them: Army Boys in France, Working Hard to Win, Young Eagles, and Penrod Jashber by Booth Tarkington. These were gifts from various relatives and even neighbors. The books are not in pristine condition—they have been read, probably by many people.

Perhaps the most interesting relic was Uncle Donald’s baseball. We knew he was a farm boy as well as a scholar, but an athlete? Those were the days when kids used a stick for a bat and anything they could throw, including rocks, for a ball. Uncle Donald must have been fortunate to own a baseball.

He and my father attended a one-room schoolhouse, Barnum Hill School. Dad told a story about Barnum Hill’s undefeated baseball season—they played one game with Deyo Hill School, and won. We surmise this was the game ball from that historic event.

I find it interesting that my father and his family talked freely about other relatives long gone, yet they were almost silent about Uncle Donald. Historically, the Rogers have not handled grief well. Unspoken memories of Donald were gathered in their hearts much as his belongings were stored in boxes. Not until the last person who knew Donald was gone, did these tidbits come into the open. Although Donald’s life was as unremarkable as it was short, he touched deeply the hearts of those who knew him, and he continues to live on in our memories today.

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Grandma Rogers loved flowers. On the south side of her house, where the winter sun warmed the cinder-block wall of the garage, she had a large flower bed. I could not name all she grew there, but I remember roses, and pansies, which she loved because they looked like little faces, and the bright yellow and orange blossoms we called snow flowers. We so named them because one autumn while they were in full bloom, we had an early snow. The snow flowers were undeterred. They did not turn brown and die, but continued to bloom through the snow, subsequent thaw, and past Indian summer, until winter claimed them at last. Later in life, I learned that our snow flowers are called Calendulas.

Last year I came across some Calendula seeds at a store. I remembered Grandma’s snow flowers and thought it would be nice to plant some. They grew and bloomed bravely in the cool weather. Calendulas like full sun and my yard is shady, but when the oak trees shed their leaves, the flowers enjoyed winter sunshine. Then came spring and the oaks’ new foliage cast shadows over the flower bed. With summer, my Calendulas seemed to melt in the Florida heat and humidity.

In the meantime, I learned more about these amazing flowers. Their petals and leaves are edible and Calendula officinalis, has medicinal properties. To my knowledge, my grandmother never used Calendula for food or medicine. This puzzles me. Dandelion greens were an annual spring ritual and, despite limited formal education, Grandma was a skilled practical nurse. I was a recipient of her herbal skills when, as a colicky infant, she soothed me with catnip tea. Catnip is still my favorite medicinal herb. One plant thrives in the same shady bed where the snow flowers melted.

Calendula is related to the marigold and called Pot Marigold because the Germans used the petals in soup. Other European and Asian cultures used them in various dishes, to color butter, for tea, and as a dye. The flowers are also an important nectar and pollen source for bees and other pollinators, including butterflies.

We planted Calendula in a butterfly plot at the local elementary school. The other day, the children and I surveyed the butterfly beds where cassia, fennel, and salvia had succumbed to frost. All that remained were dry brown sticks and a few seed heads. I explained to the children that the plants weren’t dead. Only the tops had frozen, but the roots, safe below the soil, were alive and would send out new growth come spring. I pointed out some leaves that had already emerged on brown stems and said we would wait a little longer to be sure what was dead before we cut them back.

Then, around on the south side of the school, in full sunshine, one Calendula stood against the brown of winter, bright yellow flowers and green leaves belying the season.

My grandmother’s Calendula came to mind and I told the children the story of her snow flowers. I am now resolved to plant more Calendula.

 

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Almost all my life I have been fortunate to live in the country where wild trees are available for Christmas. The area I lived in as a child used to be dairy country. Once there must have been a dozen small dairy farms within a mile of our house. Through the years, one by one, they went out of business. Today, I doubt any remain in operation.

Back in the day when houses were heated with firewood, farmers maintained wood lots to ensure a steady source. My grandparents had more trees on their farm than many – havens for climbing grandchildren and shady places for the cows in summer. Most farmers seemed to begrudge the few square feet under trees where grass and crops would not grow and kept their pastures and hay fields cleared. Hence the importance of wood lots. When my father was a boy, he planted a corner of the farm in trees as a 4-H project. By the time I was old enough to play in the woods, his trees had attained some size, but young trees, just right for Christmas, grew from seeds they dropped.

There was no thought of buying a Christmas tree. We went to the woodlot and cut one of suitable size. A variety were available: pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock. As my brothers and I grew big enough, we would harvest the tree without adult assistance.

One year sticks out in my mind. I must have been twelve or thirteen. Grandma and Grandpa Masters lived over the hill in Finch Hollow. Grandpa hunted in the woods behind their house. That year he spotted several perfect trees on their property and offered us one. We had hiked cross-lots to their place in summer and thought it would be no problem to haul a tree over the hill on a sled.

But this was winter and snow was knee deep. We got over the hill OK and up to Grandpa’s woods where we selected our tree, cut it, and tied it on the sled. We warmed up in Grandma’s kitchen, sipping hot cocoa, before we pulled the sled down through the hollow and tackled the big hill. Wading through grass and brush in summer is one thing. Struggling through snow tangled in grass and brush is another. Cold as we were, asking for help was out of the question as we could not lose face. Besides, we were a good distance from any road and no one had snowmobiles. We made it over the hill and through the fields to our house, tree and all,  frozen to the bone, but proud. And happy once we warmed up and put on dry clothes.

Our first Christmas in Florida, we lived in the Ocala National Forest where sand pines grow. Not as nice as fir or spruce, nevertheless, with their short needles and dense growth, the young ones make suitable Christmas trees.

Then I grew up and moved on. Today I live in pine flatwoods, too wet for sand pines but host to other varieties: long leaf, loblolly, and slash pine. While these grow into beautiful adult trees, they have long needles and their branch whorls are at least a foot apart. The saplings look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees, but when dressed in lights, ornaments, and tinsel, they are as pretty as any store-bought.

A few years when I had the money, I bought fragrant fir trees from a lot at a friend’s church. After they went out of the Christmas trees business, I resumed cutting trees from my woods or a neighbor’s. Occasionally we had cedar trees. They are very pretty with dense foliage to rival any spruce, but the branches are prickly. You almost need gloves to decorate them or your hands end up looking like you’ve been picking blackberries.

This year, my son Joel and his family spent Christmas with me. Did the children want me to buy a tree? No. The Spirit of Christmas Trees Past spoke to them. They remembered previous Christmas times when they accompanied me to find a tree. It was fun. It was tradition. That was what they wanted.

I was so busy with holiday preparations, Joel took the children out to the abandoned pasture behind my house. They were gone a long time, tromping through marsh and blackberry brambles, but fortunately no snow. They brought back the perfect tree. Almost perfect. One side had few branches, so we set it against the wall. The children helped me trim it, and I believe it is the prettiest Christmas tree I’ve ever had.

Is it the commercialization of Christmas that drives us back to old practices that have little place in modern life? What practical purpose does a Christmas tree serve? Besides the time and expense, I’m required to rearrange furniture to make room for a place to pile gifts. A table would do as well. Boxes of ornaments are hauled from the attic and hung on the tree. Not to mention the mess, tinsel and pine needles all over the floor. After Christmas, everything must be undone and put away. And why cut a living tree? A tree-hugger like myself should shun the practice, but I have never been drawn to artificial trees.

If only a fresh tree will do, I can afford to buy a pretty, well shaped fir which was grown for this purpose and whose scent is unequaled. But like my grandchildren, I am drawn to the woods this time of year, to bear the cold and brambles, to harvest a tree and bring it into my home. It has meaning beyond the large decoration crowding my living room. It is a connection with the Earth, with my roots. It keeps me centered and gives life a meaning that cannot be expressed in words.

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When I was a child, Grandma Rogers ran a little dairy with about half dozen milchers. She and my father milked the cows twice a day, morning and evening. When my brothers were old enough, they helped. After each milking, they carried the pails into her creamery where the milk was strained and poured into the separator. This contraption was about four feet tall with a large bowl on top to receive milk. Grandma would wind it up by turning a large crank on its side, and the milk would spiral through the machine, centrifugal force separating the lighter cream from the heavier milk. The liquids would exit through separate spouts to be collected in containers. Grandma always reserved some of the rich whole milk for the family. The skim milk was mostly fed to calves.

Her creamery was located in the cellar of the house, a short walk from the barn. That corner of the cellar was always clean and cool, even in summer. During winter, the furnace put out enough heat to temper the cold. Buckets and separator parts were washed in a double stone sink, and her large chest freezer doubled as a work bench. She had a collection of crocks imbued, I’m sure, with just the right microorganisms to ferment the cream.

When it was ready, Grandma took the cream upstairs to the kitchen. Instead of an upright dash churn such as you see in pictures, hers resembled a section of a barrel turned on its side. I’m sure her barrel churn was more efficient than the upright model. A crank on its side turned a paddle inside the barrel, beating the particles of butterfat together until they coalesced into a golden mass floating in buttermilk.

I used to watch her knead the butter and add salt, unless a customer wanted “sweet” butter for health reasons. She’d take about a pound of butter, form it into a block and weigh it with a spring scale which hung on a hook above the doorway. The scale supported a shallow pan for the butter. If the block was too heavy, she’d remove a little, if too light, add some. Once it was exactly one pound, she’d pat it into shape and wrap it in wax paper. I seldom saw her use a wooden butter mold such as you see in antique stores.

Butter route day fell on Thursdays. Since Grandma didn’t drive, her sister, Aunt Hazel, would take her. She always drove a Plymouth. When her car got too old, Aunt Hazel would get a new one, always a Plymouth. Unless we were in school, my siblings and I took turns accompanying them on the butter route.

Aunt Hazel would take us into Binghamton. Most of the butter customers were elderly ladies from the “Old Country”, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Armenia. The farm fresh butter may have cost more than store bought, but it reminded them of home. They were accustomed to cultured butter such as they had in the Old Country and found commercial butter a disappointment. I could not find Armenia on the map. I was too young to realize it had been swallowed up by the Soviet Union. Sometimes I wondered if all Armenians lived in Binghamton.

One day a customer’s daughter answered the door and hollered, “The butter lady is here!” I thought that was rather rude. My grandmother had a name. Her customers called her Mrs. Rogers. When I mentioned this to Grandma, she dismissed it, saying the young lady just didn’t know better.

These ladies baked delicious food with exotic names, and sometimes they’d offer us some. One was a Czechoslovakian fruit-filled pastry with a name that sounded like “ka-lach-key”.

Occasionally a butter customer would give me a nickel or a dime. After we completed the route, we’d shop at the A&P for groceries. Unless I decided to save my money for something else, I could spend it at the store. Nickels and dimes went a long way then. Back at Grandma’s house, she’d warm up canned soup for lunch. That was always a treat, a change from home cooked meals.

A lifetime later, I went to Texas for a niece’s wedding. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a donut shop advertizing “Kolaches, $1 or $11 a dozen”. How had these Old Country treats traveled from an eastern city to a cattle town half a continent away? Had people from Eastern Europe settled here, too? The girl behind the counter was Asian and she pronounced them “Ka-lat-keys”. I bought a dozen. This version was new to me. Instead of a fruit-filled pastry, it was a sausage wrapped in sweet dough. Texans like their meat. It was still delicious and reminded me of my “old country.”

I forgot to ask how Kolaches came to Texas. Maybe I need to go back and find out.

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