Sunday, December 29, 2013

Childhood Christmas carols, cookies and church

12/18/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

“How dear to my heart are the scenes of my childhood
That now in memory I sadly review:
The old meeting house at the edge of the wildwood,
The rail fence and horses all tethered thereto…”
James Whitcomb Riley

I was a city girl so I have no stories to tell about tethering horses to hitching posts at the neighborhood church like James Riley’s poem. Our church, Vermont Ave. Presbyterian, was located in the heart of Los Angeles. We rode to church in cars from around the city to sing, read the scriptures, worship and socialize.

Some of the most vivid scenes of my childhood revolve around Christmas activities at church. Although I certainly waited with great anticipation for Santa Claus to come and drop down the chimney with presents, the activities prior to that day were equally exciting.

Each Sunday evening in December youth meetings were cancelled. Instead, we kids donned our coats and mittens and went Christmas caroling. The area around our inner city church could be dangerous after dark. So we all jumped in cars (driven by parents) and headed out to nearby neighborhoods where we sang traditional carols and hymns for the elderly or shut-ins.

I still remember the delight and joy the recipients expressed as we sang, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing;” “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful;” Silent Night” and other requested favorites. After the last notes were sung we drove back to the church to warm up with hot cocoa and homemade Christmas goodies. (See recipes below.)

The highlight of the season was the Christmas pageant. Every year we kids re-enacted the birth of Jesus. It was a big deal. Altogether the church seated about 2,500 people and they came from all over the city to rejoice in the good news. Messiah had come! The large church interior was transformed for this event into a cozy theatre. The auditorium was darkened, and readers used flashlights to follow the script as children’s sweet voices filled the stage.

I was 14 years old when I was chosen to play Mary in the annual pageant. Oh, my. This was a huge honor. Over the years I had worked my way up through the ranks of shepherds and choirs of angels. As a seasoned performer, playing Mary was a piece of cake. While everyone else was running around in the fields of Bethlehem, I sat, head covered, dressed as a peasant girl with Joseph and the baby Jesus. We were under a spotlight in a tower above the stage that had been transformed—complete with hay— into a stable.

It was a memorable evening. A reporter and photographer from the Los Angeles Times covered the event. The next weekend, much to my surprise, my picture graced the front page of the newspaper. Unfortunately, my family’s copy was lost long ago or I would still be reveling in my (very) brief claim to fame.

Again, this being a church, refreshments were served after the pageant. Women from all over L.A. brought their best offerings. Coffee was black and strong; hot chocolate was made with real milk and melted chocolate. Cookies and cakes were all made from scratch. No store-bought or box mixes allowed!

As I recall, everything was simple but delicious. The pride was in the experience of the baker not in the complicated recipe. The different pastries represented the ethnicity of the providers. Sugar cookies took many forms and would melt in your mouth.  A gingerbread boy was a real treat. Spice cake was relished by young and old.

In the spirit of Christmas’ past, it seems only right to share a couple of those recipes. The first is a replica of a favorite in Chuck’s German family: Butterhorn Cookies. His mother and grandmother were wonderful bakers. In fact, his grandmother owned a bakery in Wisconsin during he early 20th century. The second recipe is from my mother’s recipe book written in about 1932.

Note: Since this will be my last column of the year I wish each of you a blessed holiday. Remember the reason for the season is love. So, as a wise man once said, “Little children, love one another.” Enjoy!

Grandma Sautner

2 c. sifted flour
1 egg yolk
1/2 lb. butter
3/4 c. sour cream
3/4 c. sugar
1 tbsp. cinnamon
1 sm. pkg. chopped walnuts (chop nuts really fine)

Sift flour into mixing bowl. Add butter, mix with fingertips until it looks like meal, then add egg yolk and sour cream. Mix until well blended. Shape into 4 balls on floured wax paper.

Store in refrigerator several hours or overnight. When ready, roll out like a pie. Sprinkle with the filling and cut into wedges, 8 to 1 crust. Roll up, starting at wide side. Bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and roll in sugar mixed with cinnamon or when cool, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

LaVaughn Varner

3/4 cup soft shortening
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2-1/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger

Mix shortening, sugar, egg and molasses thoroughly. Measure flour and sift with dry ingredients; mix all together. Chill. 

To cook: Heat oven to 375° F.
Roll dough into balls the size of large walnuts. Dip tops in sugar. Place, sugared-side-up, 3" apart on greased baking sheet. Sprinkle each with 2 or 3 drops of water. Bake 10-12 min. Makes 4 dozen.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

Lessons learned from a sweet kitty

R.I.P. Gracie
12/4/13 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Lessons learned from Gracie

I didn’t know that Gracie was dying. I knew something was wrong with my sweet, 11-year-old, gray kitty but I didn’t know what. And while I was busy observing her symptoms and analyzing the possible causes—something was killing her.

We pet parents try to take good care of our animals. But sometimes their sneaky symptoms are sneaky. Cats are especially good at hiding their illnesses. Lesson: their life spans are short and we should not be cavalier and ignore on-going problems. Let me tell you Gracie’s story and maybe we can all learn something from it.

Graceful Gracie didn’t walk—she danced. She didn’t jump—she leaped ballerina style landing on her toes. She didn’t MEOW—she softly mewed. Summer days would find her and George scampering through the vegetable garden, hiding under trees, playing chase and yes, squabbling. Sometimes he would bat her around and she would go looking for her favorite dog to protect her. 

Lesson: Tread lightly and have friends you can trust.

By nature, cats are hunters. In fact, during warm weather they get kind of wild. They constantly stalk and pounce on a variety of bugs, mice and flying creatures that invade their space. And it’s not because they’re hungry. During the day ours free-feed on a quality kibble with lots of clean, cool water available. Still, hunting is the nature of the feline personality.

All of our animals sleep inside at night. In the summer our cats rebelled against being corralled. They thrive on sunny days and balmy evenings. Getting them inside was an ordeal. Fortunately, they love to be groomed. Brush in hand we are able to coax them in to be groomed and then rewarded with a nice dish of tuna.

When the weather is cold, there are not too many arguments about coming in early. They spend the evening cuddled in front of the fireplace or on our laps and then head out to their comfy beds in the heated garage. Although there are four beds, the two dogs burrowed together in layered cushions and the two cats slept together in a bed off the floor. It’s a good life!

Unfortunately, cats are notorious for coughing up hairballs and it’s difficult to know which of them is having the problem when they sleep together. It’s even more difficult when one of them is bringing up an entire meal. Recently, we thought it was George.

Over the last couple of years Gracie had several serious spells of illness. Each time, we assumed she had gotten a bad bird. She spent some time at the hospital on fluids and at home on antibiotics. She bounced back. Sort of. She never really regained that happy spark that set her constantly in motion on little fairy feet. She spent much of her days sleeping outside on the wicker settee.

Sadie, her favorite Dachshund, died last month and all of the animals went into mourning. Sammy’s pain is still palpable. Every time someone drives in the driveway he practically jumps in the car looking for her. He turns over beds and cushions and checks out her favorite corners. He is bewildered. Where is she?

At the same time, the cats took to sleeping in separate beds. In hindsight, a sure sign that something else was wrong. George would sleep for several hours in the morning on Sadie’s favorite cushion. Gracie curled up in a ball in her bed, upchucked almost every meal and lost weight—a shell of her former self. What was wrong?

We thought it was grief but it was more. Last week, relaxed on my lap, Gracie cried, wretched and brought up her now bleached kibble dinner. The next morning she had a high fever and was breathing erratically. At the vet’s office this very sick kitty PURRED during the exam. The hope was that the root of the problem could be found, meds given and she could come home at the end of the day.

Instead, her condition worsened as specialists consulted. There was an obstruction. Cancer? Her options were few and expensive—an ultrasound, exploratory surgery, more pain. She never came home.

I have beaten myself up and cried copious tears wondering how I could have missed the severity of her condition. Lesson: I thought her illness would be easily solved. I should have stopped analyzing and listened to that intuitive voice that said, “Something is very wrong. Take her to the vet—again!”

We pet parents sometimes neglect getting professional care and “pet medicate” because of the cost. Why do we hope that the problem will magically go away? Why do we think that animals, are not suffering and will shrug off an illness? That may be thrifty, wishful thinking but it is not wise or humane.

So what have I learned with the death of two furry children in the space of a month? 

Lesson one: I need to act on my first instincts when I am aware that something is wrong. 

Lesson two: Sometimes, despite our best efforts there is not a positive outcome. Only God knows why things happen. 

Lesson three: Eventually we have to say goodbye.

R.I.P. Gracie. You were my sweet girl and I miss you.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart