Dreams of Gardens Future

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(originally published in Dec. 30,2012 edition of The Great Bend Tribune, Great Bend, KS)

The year 2012 was not the most eventful year ever but it definitely made the top ten list.  I have to say, the events were mostly all life-affirming.  They represented finally reaching the light at the end of a tunnel.  I finished phase one of a college experience, married a wonderful man, travelled outside the United States for the first time ever, found a new and better job and moved to my new home.  Of all that I left behind, the things I miss most are some very good neighbors and friends, and a really wonderful garden.  

Going into the new year, it’s time to start planning for 2013. I call it the New Year’s to do list, because it sounds less intimidating than “resolutions.”  Two things on the list include planting a vegetable garden in my new yard, and coming up with something great to make to share with my family next year.

This is the second year that my mom and my brothers and sisters-in-law have impressed and inspired me with their craftiness, creativity, and organizational skills.   Oldest brother and wife had an amazing garden this year, and canned sauce and other goodies.  Not only that, we received some awesome mixes from them this year that I can’t wait to make, except that they look so pretty in the jar, I’m almost afraid to take the lids off unless its really a special occasion.  

Youngest brother has been craft-brewing beer for several years now, and came through with the best of his best for me, and again, I feel like the only time to open one of the fancy ceramic-topped brown bottles is if I have something really special to celebrate.  

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His wife made salsa out of my mother’s excess peppers and tomatoes, and I love to look at the melange of colors just waiting for me to be daring enough to twist the top and empty the insides into a bowl.  I need to get better chips first though.

Isn’t it amazing how something handmade elevates the value of the product above the everyday usual fare you wouldn’t think twice about digging into?  To me, these jars and bottles of food and drink represent spending time with my family, something I simply can’t get enough of throughout the year.  

About the same time Christmas has passed for another year, the gardening catalogues start to appear.  I’m staying put this year, so the garden is my number one priority home improvement project.  Already, the beds are prepared and resting.  Except for the places where faithful Boy-boy has chosen to dig.  More than just my husband has warned me that he’s likely to ruin my garden, but I have a plan, and I’m sure he’s not going to.  But, that’s a topic for another column.

The last time mom came out to visit, she brought home grown Asian pears and Russian tomatoes.  For years, she thought the pears were awful, mealy and bland.  That was, until a friend taught her the way to tell when an Asian pear is at it’s peak.  At that point, it is the most delightful tasting fruit ever.  The ones she brought were perfect, and prompted me to purchase three for my yard, which I intend to espalier into a fence.  

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The tomatoes were such a dark red, they were almost black.  We enjoyed them so much, when I heard mom had saved seed for the next year, I asked if I could have some, and sure enough, mom produced an envelope along with one of my gifts.    I’ve got just the spot along a south facing fence to tuck the future seedlings in, just as soon as I’m sure they can make it.  

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Memories of gardens past, and dreams of gardens future, fueled by the numerous catalogues that begin filling the mailbox, beckoning me to sit down and pour over the pictures and descriptions and decide what will fit (I always over estimate) are the things that sustain me during these days that hover near zero. 

 

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How Two Nuns in Kansas and Stieg Larsson Opened My Eyes

 

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When I was a reporter for The Belleville Telescope in Belleville, Kansas, I often visited with two nuns, Sister Mary and Sister Margaret, who were with the Sisters of St. Joseph.  They were humanitarians, and had helped nuns in the former USSR rebuild their lives and their church and care for orphans after the USSR dissolved.  It consumed their time and energy for over a decade.  They took some time, and determined they were ready for a new area of focus, and felt led to champion the cause of working to end human trafficking.  That is where I first became aware that there is a human slave trade today, and that it is vast, having a presence in every country, including my own, the United States.  I was shocked to learn that women and children are kidnapped and held captive, forced to become sex slaves for black marketers and pimps, and when they are used up, discarded like empty fast food containers.  I was especially disturbed to learn that events like the Super Bowl attract these elements, because they know there are plenty of people willing to pay for a chance to use these slaves.  The nuns took part in an effort to inform and extract pledges from hotel owners and managers to be aware of and report human trafficking happening under their very own noses.  

Then, my mother recommended a series of books to me, which she found incredibly gripping and raw and she couldn’t put down.  The series starts with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  I loved it.  I had to read book two, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and that is the one that really bit and stung me.  Here, suddenly, was a book that brought human trafficking into the spotlight in a raw and unflinching way.  

My first reactions to what the nuns were working on suddenly seemed more tangible, more something that could happen to someone I know, even though we lived in a rural area over an hour from a major city.  Ironically, a short time later, I interviewed a caseworker for DVAC, a domestic violence advocacy organization in the North Central Kansas area.  She described for me what it is like to be an isolated, rural victim of domestic abuse.  I realized how easy it would be for truly bad people to be able to do unmentionable things to women and children and never get caught.   The image of a forgotten warehouse and a farm house set in the countryside of Sweden could so easily be set in the countryside of Kansas.   It makes you wonder how many “abandoned” places really are abandoned.

Ghosts of Christmas trees past

 

 

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(originally published in Dec. 23,2012 edition of The Great Bend Tribune, Great Bend, KS)

“I’ll be home for Christmas,” the song says.  

This is the first Christmas in my new home, and the first one I’ve spent at home in several years.  Since I moved to Kansas almost ten years ago, I’ve gone to visit my family in the Denver area every year, and stayed through New Year’s Eve.  

We’ve travelled in all sorts of weather–including the knuckle-whitening, low-visibility blizzard type, and made it safely to and from every time.

 
This year we have two Christmas trees.  There’s the white artificial tree covered in Nebraska Huskers red ornaments in the basement rec room, lending holiday cheer to the best seats in the house. 

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Upstairs, in the dining room, however, is the first fresh cut tree I’ve had in five years.  

For many years, I always insisted on the fresh-cut tree because I wanted to do my part to encourage tree farms and help the environment, plus I didn’t have a lot of storage space. The branches and trunk were handy in the garden after the holidays were over, protecting the beds where my spring perennials were sleeping.  But, fresh trees need to be watered every day.  One year, we tried it despite the anticipated week away.  I unplugged everything. Still, I worried friends would call to tell me the house burned down in my absence.  When we returned, it looked great from the front door, but quickly began shedding needles as soon as the vibrations from our footsteps made it to the base.   

I ultimately had to perform surgery on the vacuum cleaner because the needles jammed inside the tube, and got mixed up with other debris on the floor until there was a solid, unmoving chunk stuck so bad even a broom stick used as a battering ram couldn’t get through the clog.  

The next year, I thought I’d try a live tree.  Actually, in October I happened to be shopping at a big box home improvement store that was clearing out its nursery stock at outrageously low prices.  I was on a tight budget, and had a eureka moment.  If I bought some evergreens then, and prepared everything right, I could use them for Christmas decorations, and then have new landscaping plants for no additional cost.  Of course, it meant our Christmas tree was more a Christmas bush, and I couldn’t use all the ornaments.  Still, the plan worked great. 

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When I got the bushes home, I dug holes for them in the border garden.  I kept them potted but dropped them in the holes, covering them with straw.  A week before Christmas, I pulled them out and brought them into the house , set them in the shower and watered them thoroughly.  When they were done draining, I moved them into the living room and decorated them.  They were in great shape when we got home, and soon after I put them back in their holes and recovered them with straw until spring.

This year, we bought our tree from the Great Bend Optimists Club.  It’s nice to have the scent of pine in the house again, and to have all the ornaments on display.  We have a collection built over 25 years, and my favorites are the ones with photos of the kids when they were babies and toddlers.  As we receive cards, we put them on the tree, along with an ever-changing assortment of candy-canes.

For many years, my kids have dreamed of sleeping in late and spending the day in pajamas, relaxing in a warm house and enjoying their gifts, watching Christmas movies and having a day long feast.  So far, it looks like this year may be the one where the dream finally comes true.   But forgive me for holding my breath.  I’ve lived through blizzards that needed to be dug out of, power outages, and holiday emergency room trips, so I know even the best laid plans can go awry.  

Our first Christmas season in Great Bend has been uneventful but pleasant.  Our new church home is welcoming, and we’ve enjoyed taking part in some of the annual events the area has to offer.   The lights throughout the city are impressive, and the displays at individual properties have been great fun to drive by and look at.  Every day I feel more and more at home and that is a wonderful gift.  Merry Christmas, Great Bend.

Veronica Coons is a reporter for the Great Bend Tribune. She can be reached at vcoons@gbtribune.com.

Christmas of sadness

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(As printed in the Dec. 16, 2012 edition of The Great Bend Tribune, Great Bend, Kans.)

The saddest Christmas experience I ever had was helping a friend bury her 16-month-old son the day after Christmas. He died on Dec. 22, 1999. I learned about it the next day, late at night, after I finished tucking my youngest daughter, one years old that day, into bed. I went downstairs to check my e-mail, and there it was – he most solemn letter I’ve ever read, from a distraught friend who knew no other way to get the news out to all of us moms in her stay-at-home mom’s group than to send out an e-mail. I wasn’t the only one in shock. Soon the phone calls began. None of us could believe this tragedy had hit so close to home.

Every once in awhile, you receive a Christmas reality check. Instead of lights and presents and opulence, you are confronted with the cold hard truth that Christmas in the true sense is not about all that. It’s about sacrifice and relationships and love. It’s a time to hold loved ones close in our arms and in our hearts, to give of ourselves in some meaningful way, to love one another. That, after all, is the message Jesus ultimately had for us.

At the time of this writing, I just learned there are at least 25 families that will be dealing with the deaths of their immediate family members tonight, and countless others in that community, that state, and around the nation that are personally touched by the tragedy of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. It’s a tragedy to lose, but especially bitter when children are lost. We will never forget the anguish witnessed on the faces of the parents of the children cruelly taken. There’s not a parent out there that doesn’t personally comprehend the depth of that pain.

Somehow, the fact I don’t have all my Christmas shopping done yet seems meaningless now, just as it did so many years ago. The greatest gift of all that I will have this year is my family at home. Yes, we’ll have presents to open and we’ll have a nice meal together, but the fact that we are all together is the biggest blessing of all.

There is a book my kids like to pull out every Christmas and ask me to read. I think they do it to me simply because they know I can’t get through it without crying. The Littlest Angel. I always start out strong, until I get to the part where the little angel gives his box of treasures to Jesus. That’s when I lose it. Heck, I’m losing it right now thinking about that part. Our humblest gifts given in love are the most beloved and precious in God’s eyes.

There will be several new littlest angels this Christmas hovering over Newtown. To their parents, I offer my deepest sympathy and heartfelt prayers for comfort and healing. Take the time you need to heal, and know that however long that is, it is okay. If you have other children, do not forget them. They need you now more than ever, and being there for them is the best memorial you can ever give to your departed sons and daughters. For their friends and acquaintances, and for those of anyone enduring a loss this season, give of yourself with a loving heart, and know your gift will far outshine any you could buy at the local department store.

Veronica Coons is a reporter for the Great Bend Tribune. She can be reached at vcoons@gbtribune.com.

What to wear when -and if- Cliff arrives

images(As printed in the Dec. 9, 2012 edition of The Great Bend Tribune, Great Bend, Kans.)

I won a jackpot on Thanksgiving. I didn’t even have to pay a buck to do it either–who says you have to play to win?  We visited mom, now retired for two years this New Years Eve.  As it turns out, she’s taken to retirement very well, and plans to make a career of it.  Because of this, her wardrobe needs have changed slightly, which is where my jackpot comes in.

“I’m getting ready to go through my closet and clean it out,” she said.  “You’re welcome to go through it and see if there’s anything you want out of there first.  Take it all if you want.”

We’re about the same height, and about the same size.  Also, she dressed very well for her position as an executive assistant.  She’s an awesome shopper.  And, her closet is the size of a small bedroom, lined in cedar with several racks of differing heights, bins of purses and racks of shoes. I crossed off any and all clothing items from my Christmas wishlist by the time I was done.

I learned a few things while I was shopping in mom’s closet.  One, when you retire, it’s a whole lot easier to live within your means.  There’s a lot less daily travel, eating out, and dressing up.  It’s easier to lose weight and you can read all the books you’ve ever wanted to read, grow your own food, and get together with friends.  Many of the items in mom’s closet are a little too big for her now, and I found that pretty encouraging.

Also, the size I am today is the size of today.  The same size from 30 years ago is a whole lot smaller.  Mom had skirts, which by the way never wear out, that were the right size numerically, but held up against a modern size, there was anywhere from 3 to 5 inches difference in the waist.  Squeezing into one during a private moment, I was confronted by one heck of a “muffin top”, and quickly shimmied out of the skirt to take a breath.  Whew!

Four years ago, I worked hard to take off my excess pounds.  I had a period of unemployment, and spent my time doing much of what my mom does now in retirement.  I lost weight and felt wonderful and strong.  But eventually, I found employment again, and slowly the weight crept back on.  Sitting a good part of the day tends to make that happen.

The country, too. has had its ups and downs.  We’ve had high debt, then lost the debt, then it began to creep back on.  Some sounded the alarm years ago, but we chose to ignore them.  But in the past few years, we’ve had a reckoning and when we’ve dared to get on the scale and been confronted with that ever and rapidly growing number, it’s become clear nothing short of hard work is going to erase this debt sitting on our nation like a large gut full of visceral fat.

Fiscal Cliff is coming.  He’s tentatively planning his arrival for New Year’s Day.  I’m not really sure how to dress for his arrival–if he actually does show up. Cliff, I imagine, will come bearing a gift for the country.  A late Christmas gift, purchased on sale the day after Christmas.  It will be a belt.  We’ll try it on just to be polite.

“Oh, that looks great!” he’ll say.  “Come here, it just needs a little adjustment.”

He’ll quickly loosen the buckle, grab the end, and give a mighty tug, and refasten it.  And there we’ll be, staring at our Great American Muffin Top in the mirror.

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It won’t feel better until we lose the debt–but when we do, we’ll feel a whole lot better.  The thing we need to remember, however, while we’re going through this debt loss plan, is to remember its something we’re all going through together.