Columns

With 20/20 clarity, I see change ahead

I don’t remember ever having 20/20 vision. I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade, my first pair of contacts at 15, and my eyesight continues to decline.

That’s why I’m really looking forward to this new year – I can finally see 2020! And every time I glimpse the date in my new calendars and planners, I smile. There’s just something exciting about turning a page.

2019 brought change to our household. In the fall, our third son moved into his own place, and we’re officially down to just one kid at home. That kid will graduate from college in the spring, and while he’ll likely stay with us while pursuing a second degree – our empty nest years are looming.

So far, meal planning has been the most challenging thing about our shrinking household. Because Sam works mainly evenings, I foresaw a lot of cooking for two in my future. As usual, my vision was faulty, because at least once a week there are five at my table.

When Zach moved out, I told him I hoped he’d join us for a weekly family meal. Our oldest son also lives nearby, and if I’m cooking for four, it’s certainly no stretch to make dinner for five.

The result? I now get to have my three in-town sons around my table on a regular basis, and nothing makes this mama’s heart happier. Besides, I haven’t yet mastered the art of cooking for three, let alone two.

The holidays revealed more opportunities for adapting. In recent years, our two youngest sons have been in charge of tree decorating. My penchant for holiday décor seems to grow each year, so it’s nice to leave the Christmas tree in their capable hands. However, this year, varying work schedules proved problematic.

I’m all about problem solving, so for the first time in at least 25 years, Derek and I trimmed the tree by ourselves. What might have been melancholy became delightful. We took a lovely, romantic stroll down memory lane as we hung ornaments and remembered Christmases past.

Then came the cookie-decorating conflict.

In 2011, Sam made us a book featuring his treasured Christmas memories. In it he wrote, “I love making and decorating Christmas cookies with you.”

That was then.

This is now.

As usual, I baked dozens of sugar cookies, and then checked with our sons to see when they’d be available to frost and decorate them. Sam seemed ambivalent and told me to check with Zach.

I’ve never wanted to try to squeeze my sons into traditions that no longer fit, so I texted Zach, “How strongly do you feel about decorating Christmas cookies? I can leave them out for you guys to do when you come over Wednesday, or Dad and I can just do them tonight.”

He replied, “I don’t feel strongly either way.”

So for the first time in our 33-year marriage, Derek got to be part of the Christmas cookie fun. He’s artistically inclined, so our cookies looked fabulous. And honestly, I don’t much miss the Cyclops angels or graphically anatomically correct snowmen that our sons were inclined to include.IMG_20191216_194208217

Derek and I further simplified our holidays by skipping stuffing stockings for each other. Less shopping equaled less stress and more fun.

As someone who cherishes the familiar, and relishes ritual and tradition, I’ve been surprised at how readily I’ve adapted to this new season of our lives, and how eagerly I’m anticipating the unknowns that await.

Because whatever 2020 brings, the one thing I can clearly see ahead is change. And instead of dreading it, I’m choosing to embrace it.

Columns

Sizzling Sisters Sausage Sunday (Go Pig or Go Home)

If you don’t want to know how the sausage gets made, you should stop reading now. Seriously. Recently my sisters-in-law and I had our annual Sizzling Sisters Sausage Sunday.

Forty pounds of pork butt, 6 pounds of ground beef, 5 pounds of pork fat, 6 pounds of potatoes, 6 pounds of onion, assorted spices, a secret ingredient, a fair amount of wine (for us, not the sausage) and many inappropriate jokes later, we have sausage. Lots and lots of sausage.

Each year my sister-in-law Camille Jordalen and her Norwegian husband, Kjell, host our family Christmas Eve gathering, which I call “The Festival of Strange Norwegian Meat.”

While steamed Brussels sprouts, boiled potatoes and my favorite, mashed rutabaga, make an appearance, the real star of the annual feast is meat – specifically pork with a side of lamb.

I’ve never been able to embrace the salty tang of pinnekjøtt (cured lamb ribs) but I look forward to ribbe (pork ribs with a thick layer of fat), Swedish meatballs, Swedish potato sausage and two Scandinavian sausages – medisterpølse and medisterkaker.

I’m not exactly sure how the Swedes got involved in our Norwegian meal, but I suspect my mother-in-law and her Swedish heritage had something to do with it.

For several years we bought the potato sausage from Egger’s, but then my sister-in-law, Susie Hval, got a meat grinder. She wanted to try her hand at making homemade bratwurst, and once she conquered that, she was ready for a new challenge.

“Why don’t we make our own medisterpolse and potato sausage?” she asked.

And thus a tradition was born.

Camille makes the medisterkaker on her own because that sausage is formed into patties and fried. The other two are link sausages, which is where the teamwork, fun, and double entendres come in. We’ve given birth to 11 sons between the three of us. Trust me when I say there isn’t a sausage joke we haven’t made or heard. This is also probably why our spouses vacate the house when Sizzling Sisters Sausage Sunday commences.

I suspect watching their wives grind 40 pounds of pork butt and squeeze it into slippery sausage casing makes them a bit squeamish. By the way, those casings are made from pig intestines. Go pig or go home, that’s what we always say.

With our aprons on and hair pulled back in messy buns, we get down to business Pioneer Woman style.

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Pork and pork fat is sliced and diced and fed into the grinder. Onions and potatoes are added for the potato sausage.

“This always reminds me of the Play-Doh barber shop,” Susie said.

She’s right. The meat coming out of the grinder looks just like the hair coming out of the figures’ heads in the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber Shop of our childhoods.

After two rounds of grinding, we’re ready to squeeze the meat into the casings. The casing is slid on to an attachment on the grinder. It’s a delicate operation because if the sister who is pushing the meat through pushes too fast, sausages can rupture.

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Once we have a long rope, we’re ready make links. This involves a process I call “swinging the sausage” which is Susie’s specialty. Much like jumping rope when we were kids, she swings the sausage till the ends are tight and ready to tie.

Tying the slippery ends is challenging, especially when your hands are coated with pig fat, but we manage to get it done. Actually, Susie manages to get it done. Camille tried tying, but struggled, and I’m a disaster at balloon-tying, so I don’t even attempt it.

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For the potato sausage, the casings are pricked with little holes, so they don’t explode upon cooking. This is my job.

While we work we catch up on life and family – that is when we aren’t talking to ourselves. We’ve discovered that each of us tends to keep a running commentary when we’re concentrating, much like we’re the hosts of our own cooking shows. This works great when working alone, but it does get a bit confusing when cooking with others.

Seven hours flew by and at the end of the day we had freezer bags full of sausage, ready to be browned and served on Christmas Eve.

We sampled the sausage and agreed that each year it tastes better. And that secret ingredient? It really isn’t much of a secret – it’s love with a hefty dash of laughter.

Columns

Christmas Traditions Grow Along With Kids

10363967_808050315900264_1669020257946437512_n[1]When Tevye and the cast belt out “Tradition” in “Fiddler on the Roof,’ they’re singing my song.

I, especially, love the ritual, familiarity and comfort of holiday traditions. For me, it begins on the day after Thanksgiving. While many folks shop til they drop on Black Friday, I decorate til I drop.

My sons unearth the red and green plastic tubs bulging with garlands, angels, Santas and candles, and lug them to the living room. Then I pop a Christmas CD in the stereo and spend the day awash in memories of Christmas past.

Each item from the Play-Doh nativity set, to the Homer Simpson Santa Claus, to the chipped and scratched snowman dishes has a story.

This year I’m making room for new stories by learning to hold less tightly to treasured traditions.

Actually, the process began a couple of years ago with the Christmas tree. Since our boys were tiny, Derek has taken them to Green Bluff to cut down a tree. But our sons are now 21, 19, 17 and 12. Finding a time when everyone has the day off from work to make the trek to the tree farm became impossible.

Derek eyed fake trees, but the younger boys and I rebelled. We reached a compromise: a freshly cut tree from a local tree lot. We also gave up trying to find a night that everyone would be around to trim the tree. I don’t feel too bad about that. Six people, two cats and one tree can create a lot of Christmas chaos.

Other changes have been more difficult to embrace. For 26 years I’ve celebrated a traditional Norwegian Christmas Eve with my in-laws. The feast is a smorgasbord of Norwegian foods and delicacies, but the real flavor comes from the gathering of extended family.

My father-in-law loved Christmas Eve. He was in his element at the head of the table with his wife by his side, surrounded by his four children, their spouses, and his 14 grandchildren. His booming laugh and warm bear hugs made everyone smile.

This was our first Christmas since his death. Instead of ignoring the empty space his absence has left, family members shared their favorite Papa memories. And in the light that shone from his grandchildren’s eyes – in the echoes of their laughter – Papa’s presence was felt once again.

When we got home, no one mentioned leaving cookies out for Santa. That’s OK, Santa’s trying to slim down. Besides, I’m pretty sure our kitty, Thor, would eat them before Santa got a chance.

Christmas morning is different now, too. Santa still leaves filled stockings outside each boys’ bedroom door, but our oldest has to drive over from his apartment to get his.

In years past, four little boys would clamber on our bed at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning and dump their stocking bounty out for us to see.

I don’t miss the crack of dawn part.

And Sam, 12, informed me last year, “You know we all open our stockings while you’re sleeping and then stuff everything back in and take them to your room. You do know that, don’t you?”

Yes, I know that, because my sister and I did the same thing when we were kids.

The six of us still gather around the tree and read the Christmas story from the Bible before the unwrapping begins, but now there’s less unwrapping. I’ve discovered the older the kids – the smaller the presents. Unfortunately, smaller tends to equal more expensive.

Even so, I don’t really miss hundreds of Legos strewn across the floor, or tiny GI Joe guns getting sucked up the vacuum cleaner.

Clinging to traditions no longer current, is like trying to squeeze a squirming toddler into last year’s snowsuit. It won’t fit and someone will end up in tears.

This new year, I’m going to hold on to traditions that fit our family and let go of the ones we’ve outgrown. I don’t want to cling so tightly to the past that my hands are too full to embrace the present.

This column first ran December 29, 2011