Leaving the Farm, Part II – Hilary, 21 Years Later

As I drove up the mountain to have my car serviced early this morning, I noticed some yellow walnut leaves lightly fluttering to the ground. They reminded me that in a few months there will be, instead of dying leaves, large snowflakes gently falling in a hushed early winter snowfall.

I’d been thinking about my cat, Hilary, and her more than two decades of life thus far. At my vet’s office, she’s known as the poster child for wellness chec2010-06-03 22.08.20k-ups. Why, you might wonder? Well, four years ago I took her in, expecting the usual good checkup, and learned she had breast cancer. Stunned, I didn’t even know cats got breast cancer. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she also needed surgery for stones in her urinary tract. I asked the vet my questions: what was her prognosis with and without surgery? With surgery, if the cancer didn’t re-occur in six months, chances were it wouldn’t. Without surgery, her life could last a few months more. What was her general condition aside from her current problems? Her blood work showed she appeared otherwise in good general health for a seventeen year old cat. What was the cost? Both surgeries could be done the same day and would amount to roughly $1,000.00.

I asked for some time to consider. Alone, then, with Hilary, I looked into her eyes as she watched me, almost appearing to understand we were going to have a serious talk. A tabby, she has black lines near her eyes that also give her the appearance of a perpetual frown.

“Okay, little girl, we have a choice: surgery or not,” I said in a low voice, still not knowing the decision.

“Remember when Mom’s cat got so sick and the vet did more than a thousand dollars of testing to determine what was wrong, and then Buster died two days later?”

Hilary, feet tucked under her on the gray Formica exam table, watched me, seeming to get the drift of the conversation, if her eye expression was any indicator. I stared at her quietly then, weighing our options: aged cat, costly surgery, would it give her added life or would it put her through discomfort and she might die soon after?

Was I imagining it, or was Hilary staring at me with obvious trust in her eyes? The options silently swirled around in my head until finally the vet’s words stood at the front of the line of the other choices: she’s otherwise in good general health.

I had my answer and it felt exactly right. “Okay, Hilary. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
She listened attentively, her lime-green eyes fastened on mine. “Let’s do the surgery. What I hope you can do is survive the six months cancer-free, okay? Let’s hope that will happen because we’ll do the breast cancer surgery just this once.”

So that’s what we did. She came through the surgery beautifully, passed the six-month cancer-free marker, and we got to share two more healthy years. When I took her in for a check-up last year, she’d been noticeably losing weight and I braced myself. Her new diagnosis was renal failure, quite common in older cats, I learned. “How much time does she have?” I asked the vet.

“It’s hard to tell,” she said. “She’s lost a lot of weight, but she appears to be doing okay otherwise.” She prescribed some maintenance medications which have brought us to today. Hilary’s a little over five pounds now, tips and totters a lot when she walks, yet still seems comfortable as she maintains her usual patterns. She sticks to her routine of waiting by the door each morning for me to let her out on the front deck where she spends her Virginia retirement in warmth, she begins pacing when around 6pm when it’s time for her wet food, and, otherwise, is a bit snippy with my other cat, my son’s cat when she visits there, and my daughter’s dogs who really want to be her friend.

And so, as golden leaves gently spiral to the ground, I do the one thing I can: I treasure each day, aware that the bitter-cold day will come when she and I will have to say good-bye.

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Sad News from the Breakfast Club

Mary Jo Doig:

How can we, in any conscience, allow our brothers and sisters to live without a home?

Originally posted on Twenty Minutes a Day: A Step Towards a Balanced Life:

Some of you may recall that I wrote a few months back about an eighty-five year old woman – one of our Breakfast Club patrons – who I discovered was living in a West Hollywood park. Her name was Pat and she had come for years to the Breakfast Club, though for most of that time I believe she had lived in low-income housing and had come to the breakfast simply to help lessen her food bill. Alas, something happened along the way and she lost her apartment. As a result, there she was in her mid-80’s sleeping on the grass in a public park. I remember writing about what a disgrace this was for our society that we would allow elderly women to be put in such a vulnerable position. I felt outrage – and still do – that we have not created a better safety net for the…

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Transitioning with Hilary

2010-01-06 23.13.41After twenty-one and a half years together, I begin this day without her physical presence. Shalom, sweet and gentle Hilary.

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John, the Border Collie Puppy

It was early December 1991, when our border collie, Patch, began to deliver her puppies just a few hours before we left the house for a long-planned commitment. Returning with great anticipation about four hours later, my daughter Polly, who could barely contain her excitement, immediately ran to the basement with her sister Susan one step behind. There Patch lay, in the huge straw-filled cardboard box we’d prepared a week ago, in a semi-circle embrace of puppies, looking up at us, her eyes filled with emotions as mixed as her small half black, half white face.

Before I got downstairs, Polly raced up the stairs, her hands gently encircling a tiny black-and-white puppy with classic markings.

“Mom, there’s five puppies now, but this one’s not breathing very good,” she said, gazing down with her brow furrowed, her expression serious. Susan stood anxiously nearby, equally concerned.

“It wasn’t breathing at all when I first picked it up, so I held its nose and started giving it little breaths in his mouth.”

I remembered the First Aid Course she’d taken in Girl Scouts and was awed by her quick response to this puppy’s distress. My heart swelled with pride then quickly contracted with alarm as my eyes watched the newborn take in a deep, shuddering gasp of breath every five to eight seconds.

“It sounds like it has fluid in its lungs,” I said as my mind searched frantically for a possible solution. Oh, the vet would know, I suddenly realized and then just as quickly remembered today was Sunday and the vet was closed. In our rural area it would take significant time to reach emergency medical care, time I didn’t believe we had.

“What can we do to get this stuff out of his lungs,” my daughter asked anxiously, her eyes on the pup, who continued to gasp intermittently.

I reached out to hold the newborn, my thoughts racing until suddenly an idea sprouted. “Let’s try to warm this little one up more—it feels cool to me. Quick, go get a small towel,” I said to my wide-eyed daughter as I strode to the large storage drawer that held the heating pad. The girls raced toward the bathroom and quickly returned to the kitchen with a hand towel, which they wrapped bunting-style around the pup.

I lay the white pad on the huge, distressed pine kitchen table and plugged the pad into the outlet just above the table, then pressed the middle button for heat as Polly lay the pup onto the pad. Transfixed, we watched wordlessly for several minutes. Gradually the puppy’s gasps became less audible, the shudders less intense, and our fears less concerted.

“This little guy seems better,” I whispered to my daughters, wondering silently to myself how long he’d had gone without oxygen and if that would be a future problem.

When the immediate crisis seemed past, Susan began to smile. Polly looked up from the pup to me and I saw her big brown eyes begin to twinkle. She reached out her hand to the heating pad and said, “So are we doing medium rare or well-done?”

Susan and I burst out laughing, the tension broken. “Medium should do it,” I replied.

The pup then made a small cry as if to affirm the decision. The girls and I smiled at each other as we kept watching. Several minutes later I tenderly unwrapped the towel to feel its body.

“Mmm, this puppy feels nice and warm now,” I said to my daughters, “and its breathing has been good and steady for quite awhile. I think we can take it downstairs soon to be with its mama; what do you think?”

After ten more minutes of observation Polly carefully carried the sleeping pup downstairs to Patch’s box, where she looked up from her straw-cushioned box with anxious, dark eyes at the pup. Gently Polly placed the pup near Patch’s soft belly among the now-six other siblings, where the puppy nuzzled her a bit, without eating, then tumbled over and went to sleep.

Several minutes later another pup was born, this one with brown and white markings. Within moments it began to cry as it tottered around searching for food, and was soon happily eating. Then the pup we’d revived began to move around and cry. Polly placed it in the right place for food but it did not begin to suck, despite repeated tries by my daughters. The puppy continued to squirm and wriggle around like the other pups yet, as we watched over the next few hours, it still had not eaten.

Then bedtime beckoned Polly and Susan on this Sunday evening and, knowing we had done the best we knew, we slowly climbed the old wooden circular stairs to their rooms.

At dawn the next morning my daughters hurried down to Patch’s nursery and found the formerly-compromised puppy learning to eat. Because we found it was not as aggressive as its siblings, every few hours one of us went down and made room for it to nurse its fair share among the other eager eaters.

By the end of forty-eight hours, this pup had become the largest puppy in the litter and would clearly survive.

Polly pronounced him a male and named him John.

Then, in the passage of a brief six-weeks, a warm farm family from the Finger Lakes region came to our farm one day, to adopt John and one of his sisters. Several weeks later the pleased new owners sent us pictures, telling us they’d kept John’s name and given the name Mary to his sister. The two pups were clearly thriving, both in each others company, as well as in the environment a Border collie is born for: a working farm with cows to herd.

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Beauty and Aging

“Who would ever want to live beyond age 50?” I said so many times as an adolescent. “There’s nothing to live for when you’re that old.”

The world of youth was mine and when I viewed my grandparents and their friends—the world of wrinkles, gray and balding hair, thick waistlines and potbellies, slowed and tottery paces, out-of-style clothing, and a myriad of other perceived ugliness—I shuddered. Not me! I wanted to be gone before 50.

Fortunately the gods took no action on my immature, arrogant declaration. Today, twenty-three years past my youthful self-imposed deadline for living, I am now what my younger self would definitely call “old.” Lately I have had some interesting conversations with her.

After looking closely at my wrinkles one afternoon, her own soft complexion clear and smooth, she crinkles her nose and asks, “Don’t you hate all those wrinkles?”

I smile at her, aware of the lines that immediately form at my eyes’ outer edges. “I look at my wrinkles often,” I tell her, “and I’ve grown to feel only respect for each and every one. I can tell you stories about each wrinkle, the joys that caused my laugh lines, the sorrows that caused the frown lines. They reflect much of my life’s story and remind me to deeply honor the journey that brought me to this place, this day. I am so grateful for my life—all of it.”

“But, what about those scars on your chin? You must detest them!” she insists, raising one dark, carefully plucked eyebrow.

“Well, that car accident took me as close to dying as I will before I actually do die and I used to feel self-conscious about them. They changed my appearance, but I accept them now because they remind me I was given a second chance at life, enough to learn how much I treasure life. I can never hate them.”

Her brown eyes suddenly become mischievous as she tosses her head, throwing her glistening reddish-brown hair over her shoulder. “Well, then, what about all that gray hair you have? Why on earth don’t you dye it like most other women do?”

“Sure is a lot of gray these days,” I acknowledge, squeezing my soft, permed curls. “Most all my friends color their hair, and I know my hairdresser would love to color mine, but I’ve just never been interested. When silver strands began appearing, at first I’d smile and say I’d earned every one. Now I’m fascinated at how different I look with this frame of gray hair curling down to my shoulders and my lighter eyebrows. Sometimes I think I don’t know the woman I see in the mirror but then I’m reminded that my appearance is simply a reflection of the growth and challenges I’ve been so committed to all my life. I honor that woman for all that has brought her to today.”

“Okay, okay,” she says, tugging at the waistline of her size four jeans. Here’s something I absolutely know you loathe. You’ve battled your weight and waistline all your life. You’re losing the battle, you know!”

“Yes, I am.” I smile with amusement as I recall abhorring the small imperfections of my body. “I wanted fewer inches around my waist, smaller feet, nicer toenails, more shapely legs—so many superficial things that never really mattered. I still don’t have them but these days I focus on all that my body has given me and I can’t possibly think anything negative. These days I care for it lovingly just as it is, including those extra inches.”

She goes to the kitchen, moves lithely and gracefully, returning with tall glasses of water for us. “You don’t run around as fast as you used to,” she tells me. “I see you ease up out of your chair and take those first few steps pretty stiffly.”

“You’re right,” I agree. “Yet, each time I feel stiff, I’m reminded that I want to age with grace and dignity. So I accept and embrace those moments.”

Then I close my eyes and lift my face upward and ponder how richly filled is my life with the hard-won wisdom and work that have transformed me from the sweet but naïve young woman near me to this woman I have become today.

“I feel so joyous and peaceful and more beautiful than I ever did when I was young and attractive by the world’s standards,” I tell her.

She opens her arms to me and we embrace.

(This piece was originally published in May, 2006 in The Senior Voice in Dallas, TX. I was enjoying it again recently.)

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We Don’t Remember Days, We Remember Moments ~ Cesare Pavese

My last two blog posts were about saying hello to my newborn kitten, Hilary, more than twenty years ago and then our present day journey together as she approaches the winter of her life, and I mine, looking more broadly.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my male cat, Button, whom I said first hello to when I discovered him abandoned behind my shed four springtimes ago, has temporarily become my focus. His eyes were not yet open when I found him; the vet said he was about six days old. So I became his mama, giving four hour feedings around the clock and taking him to the vet nearly weekly to keep a close eye on his progress. He thrived, happily, and grew to become what I have long called my uber cat, large and spilling over with good health and singular personality.

A few months ago he developed some breathing problems, diagnosed as asthma; I hoped this would be simply brief springtime and fall events. Last week though, it became clear he was having more than breathing problems. I got up one morning and quickly noticed Button didn’t come in my room to chirp his daily upbeat “good morning” to me, extend his left paw toward me in a huge stretch, open his mouth in an extensive yawn, and lead the way to the bathroom where he hopped on the sink for a long drink of water. Alarmed, I went to the kitchen and found him curled on the soft rug by the sliding door to the deck, where he keeps his bird’s eye view on the nighttime and early morning goings-on out there.

“Button,” I said with concern, rubbing his head, “are you okay?”

He meowed in a cry, stood, growled, and pushed his way into the corner by the bay window. “Something is clearly very wrong,” I said to the vet receptionist a few minutes later. She said, “Bring him right in,” which I did after a brief struggle to get him into his cat carrier.

His temperature was 105.7. Terrifying. For the next two days, the vet gave antibiotics to bring the fever down. It came down one degree the first day, and not quite a degree the second day. She tried broad-spectrum antibiotics when his temp elevated again on day three. Apparently not many conditions cause a cat’s temperature to rise so high, yet Button’s diagnosis remained unclear.

This all happened shortly before the weekend, so by Monday morning, a third vet took on Button’s case. She called me later that morning to tell me Button had Lyme’s Disease. He’d been an outdoor cat until this year; I hadn’t made the change to an indoor cat soon enough, it appeared. I was sick at heart and he was horribly ill and traumatized by being hospitalized for a week. Finally, though, the vet knew the right antibiotic to prescribe: doxycycline.IMG_20150722_115759655

Button came home four days later, still fearful and lethargic and then evidenced a new problem: he couldn’t bear any weight on his left front leg; he limped. The vet advised this was joint pain caused by Lyme’s and prescribed pain medication.

He has slept on my bed each night since he’s been home. Each morning he’s resumed another piece of his usual morning routine. This morning he stood up on the bed, stretched a paw out and widely yawned, then hopped down and led the way to the bathroom sink, putting some weight on his front leg, I noticed, and once again took a long morning drink of water from the faucet.

Caring and concern for my sick animal has been emotionally exhausting. In the aftermath, now that I see him getting a little better each day, I reflect that when he was so sick that I thought he might not live, I treasured every precious second with him. He’s always been my healthy boy and I assumed we’d have long years together, as Hilary and I have. Hopefully, we will. But I’m reminded in this recent visceral way that to assume is to be unwise. My mindfulness principles teach me to live deeply in and treasure each moment, whether with a beloved pet, a family member, a friend, or the IMG_20150812_121335949fleeting moment with the butterfly who stops by the Echinacea plant in the back yard.

Button reminds me, yet again in this year of another critically ill person in our family, to cherish the tiny incredible moments of life for the treasures they are.

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Leaving the Farm – 1994

I trudge from the old farmhouse, my slender arms embracing a worn cardboard box as a light drizzle is misting my bifocals, causing me to look out at a blurred world. On this, my final trip down the hill, I reflect that when Don and I said our vows more than two decades ago, we didn’t know that until death do us part might also mean the death of the relationship.

When I reach the stone wall, I turn sideways and step slowly down the broad stone steps placed more than a century ago by Scotch settlers. As I slide the final box of necessities into my car, I’m startled by a loud imploring meow. There, near my feet stands Harriet, one of the barn cats, whose long hair has, over time, become a massive tangle of burrs and knots. You look like I feel, Harriet, I muse.

The question spills from my mouth before it even forms in my mind. “Do you want to come with me, Harriet?” I say, reaching down to gently scratch her head, She—never in a car in her life to the best of my knowledge—jumps in, meowing loudly.

“Okay,” I say as I slide in the driver’s seat and turn to look at her, “we’ll take this trip together.” As I drive, the car quickly fills with the pungent odor inside the sagging barn behind us. I glance at her wide, apprehensive lime-green eyes, knowing how much she will hate her first bath. Perhaps it’s best that she doesn’t know what lies ahead.

At my new apartment, in tepid bath water, she squirms desperately to escape. Afterward I carefully cut away walnut-sized fur knots. Moments later she vanishes into the apartment and I do not see her again for three days.

A few months later the vet confirms Harriet’s pregnancy. “Just one kitten,” he says, adding, “and that’s unusual.” I smile, noting her bald places are filling with new growth. Her coat is shinier. She’s more peaceful.

I think, Harriet, the courage you gathered to leave all that was familiar is beginning to show good results.

Then, unexpectedly, the night before a painful Mother’s Day, I wake to find Harriet in the circle of my arm. Odd, I muse hazily, she always sleeps at my feet. Then I hear her breathing and suddenly, in awe, I understand she’s in labor.

Wide awake now, I lay still in this darkest of nights, accepting Harriet’s clear invitation to share her miracle. When I hear a soft whimper, I know the new kitten has arrived.

Then I hear Harriet giving the newborn her first bath. With the lightest of touch, I stroke the kitten’s tiny forehead, desiring to communicate a wondrous, warm welcome to the world. I feel the kitten move and intense joy surges into my heart as I whisper, “All is well, Harriet.”

Remembering this, the first story I wrote that was ever published, in the Story Circle Journal in March, 2001. Today Harriet’s kitten, Hilary, is closing out her 20th year of life with me. I’ll post that story in a few days. ~ MJD

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Celebrating Mother Nature: Soil, Seed, Water, Light

High on the list of gifts that retirement has given me is that I have the time to read as long as I want to first thing in the morning. I love to start each day with a book that touches my soul and causes me to reflect on the simple riches in our lives.

This morning I read another chapter of Kayann Short’s “A Bushel’s Worth,” an ecobiography I am cherishing more with each new chapter. She and her husband brought to their relationship a mutual love for the land from varied earlier experiences. Presently they live on a century farm, Stonebridge, which had been operated by many different owners through the years and who left behind clear evidence of their respect and good stewardship of the land. The book is a lovely celebration of our connection to soil, to past traditions, to a community working together on a farm for a healthy, common cause that benefits all, to sharing each season of Mother Nature’s bounty, some years in abundance and other years less so.

I looked up from the book, my heart filled with the richness of Short’s writing and looked over at my bay window. My eyes fastened on the pot with three fragile new seedlings and I remembered the day I found those seeds.

Last winter, I spent some time in Florida with my youngest daughter, Susan. There, one day we went for a lovely walk in the area where she lives, Lake Worth. Later in the day, after she’d gone to work, I walked again by myself and spent time looking particularly at the varied sizes and types of palms. I was sitting near a small lake as I mindfully emptied my head of unimportant thoughts and focused on the palms swaying gently near me, then waited quietly as new words and thoughts entered.

Returning to Susan’s apartment, I strolled on a road divided by a line of palms. Beneath one tree lay an abundance of palm seeds, nuggets about the size of a pecan. They appeared weathered and bruised and I wondered if they’d regenerate as I slipped three into my pocket, hoping at least one would grow into a palm for inside my home.

Palm Tree Seedlings

Palm Tree Seedlings

A few weeks ago, I found the forgotten seeds and planted them in a triangle pattern in a small pot.This morning I smiled yet again as I looked at the three tiny palms that have sprouted. If possible, my heart swelled even further from the earlier riches of my reading, into awe. How wealthy are those who, in their individual ways, treasure Mother Nature’s simple riches. We accept her precious gifts of seed, soil, water, and light and can, with a little care, transform them into yet another generation of new life.

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Breakfast Cheesecake

“Momma,” my daughter, Polly, calls up the staircase, “Can Sue and I eat the cheesecake in the fridge for breakfast?”

I pause as I rinse my face with cool water. Hmm. I wonder: what kind of nutrition does cheesecake give seven- and nine-year-olds with a full day of school ahead?

“Mom?” she calls, a little louder.

“Wait. I’m thinking,” I reply squeezing moisturizer onto my palm, then gently apply the cream as I consider Polly’s question. Eggs are good protein; cream cheese is decent; cheesecake is low in sugar. I think that combination could sustain a whole morning of schoolwork. I walk to the top of the curved wooden staircase in our century-old farmhouse.

“Okay, go ahead,” I say, smiling at the wide, dark eyes that look hopefully up at me. I know she and Sue will be thrilled, though I still feel a bit doubtful.

“Yippee! We can have it, Sue!” Polly shouts happily.

Breakfast is a delight that morning and cheesecake is the main reason. Then, our morning routines complete, we walk down the hill, get into my car, and drive to town, where my daughters hop out to wait with neighbor children for the school bus. When they step up into the bus, I hold up my left hand in the universal sign-language sign for I love you. They grin and return the sign. I begin my twenty-mile drive to work.

Cheesecake for breakfast, I ponder, intrigued. Everyone loves cheesecake, after all; the real problem is fat and I don’t want my girls starting their day with just a lot of fat. Can I create a cheesecake food that would be nutritionally sound for breakfast? I wonder. The late-winter, quiet, Catskill mountain miles pass nearly unnoticed as I continue thinking. I can cut down the fat and still keep good protein but I need to add some healthy carbohydrates.

Hmm, what about granola? I make my own granola each week and quickly tick off the ingredients: old-fashioned oats, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, slivered almonds, and wheat germ, mixed lightly with a little honey and oil, then baked until golden.
Yes! My heart excitedly beats a little faster. I could sprinkle granola on top of the cheesecake mixture and bake it. Or I could make the granola into a crust and bake the cheesecake in it. This idea is starting to come together! I know I’m not quite there though and think of the food pyramid. Of course! It needs fruit… cheesecake with strawberries, blueberries, peaches, and, well, any fruit, when you think about it. Nothing’s in season now, but there are those dozens of Georgia peaches quarts on the sagging wooden shelves in the basement.IMG_20150729_084022377_HDR

Soon we try out an experimental recipe. My daughters watch and help with great interest. I swirl ingredients in the blender then pour the cheesecake batter into four oiled brown earthenware bowls. We arrange peach slices on top and liberally sprinkle granola over each.

Finally, taste time arrives. We love it! The following weekend we change things a little by patting granola into the bottom of the bowl, pouring batter over it, and placing peaches on top. We love that variation, too, and decide it really doesn’t matter if the granola and fruit are on top or bottom. The girls are delighted to eat cheesecake for breakfast and I’m happy because we’re eating a healthy breakfast.

A few months later our daily newspaper advertises their annual cooking contest. Shy though I am, I nevertheless send in my entry and am thrilled when Breakfast Cheesecake is selected a finalist.

On bake-off day Polly comes with me while Susan goes to her basketball game. As Polly unpacks supplies, three of the four bowls I pre-prepared so they can be tasted chilled, fall onto the pavement and shatter. Polly looks up at me with eyes flooded by tears.

“It’s okay, Polly. You are more precious than any bowl of Breakfast Cheesecake,” I say, hugging her. She smiles, wiping away tears with her forefinger knuckle, as I tell her the one remaining bowl will surely be enough.

At day’s end Breakfast Cheesecake places third of twelve places, with a lovely set of Noritake china for eight as my prize. Today, more than three decades later, its value has skyrocketed yet, in my heart, the true gift of the day is the nurturing moment that followed broken earthenware between my daughter and me.

Breakfast Cheesecake – updated 2015IMG_20150729_132333885

Ingredients: 1 pint plain Greek yogurt
2 eggs
1/3-1/2 cup sugar
½ cup milk
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 – ½ cup fruit for each bowl
4 – ¼ cup granola for each bowl

o Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
o Place all ingredients except fruit and granola in blender. Swirl briefly to mix.
o Lightly oil 4 ovenproof cereal bowls or an 8×8-inch baking dish. Pour cheesecake mixture into bowls, then sprinkle ¼ cup granola over peaches.
o Bake for 25-30 minutes until set and golden. Serve with 1/2 cup of fruit.
o Serves 4.

(This story was published in the Kitchen Table Stories anthology, edited by M. Jane Ross and published by the Story Circle Network on their tenth anniversary in 2007. The original recipe used cottage cheese; here I’ve substituted Greek yogurt and like it even better.)

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The Bovina Quilt

In 1973 I married and moved to a tiny farming community tucked well off the two-lane Catskill Mountain highways in Delaware County, New York. There, in my late 20s, I joined a community of endearing, eclectic people, a mere few hundred of us ranging from dairy farmers to the US Ambassador to Russia. I made a stunning discovery in my cherished small town: time there had stood still in many ways and my rural neighbors had never ceased to quilt.

I met a dear and gentle life-long friend there, Marilyn Gallant, who delighted in crafts and creativity as much as I. She taught me how to make friendship quilts, a skill I dove into with relish. In our church, Marilyn and I were the two youngest members of the approximately dozen, mature Missionary Society members who had been lifelong members and always did things in a predictable manner. Marilyn and her family had arrived in town about the same time I did and we soon understood that if we lived to be very old, wrinkly, white-haired ladies, we would never become native Bovinians. Yet, after I’d been a church member for a few years, the Missionary Society surprisingly elected me president.

When Marilyn and I learned our church needed a fundraiser, we brainstormed and thought of an idea we were certain the Missionary Circle would love. Using the concept of a friendship quilt, we proposed at the next meeting, “We could make a town quilt. Everyone in town who wanted to could make a square for it…” we explained enthusiastically, then added finer details of the plan. “We could raffle it off. We’d raise a lot of money for the church.”

Several seconds of dead silence followed our words; my heart dropped lower with each passing second. Uh oh, we’ve said something wrong, I thought, wondering what it was.

Finally, one woman spoke, “Well, I think a town quilt is a good idea…”

“But…,” another began.

“We’ve never had a raffle in this church…,” a third woman cut in firmly.

“We’ve always felt a raffle is not the way a church should raise money,” another affirmed.

“And, just think, if we raffled off a Bovina Quilt, it might leave town on the arm of a complete stranger and we’d never see it again,” last year’s president said sadly.

The conversation was a death blow to the fundraiser idea, but everyone agreed we should make the quilt. Marilyn and I took on the project: we bought yards of muslin, pre-shrunk it, cut it into squares, and gave a square to any Bovinian or former Bovinian who wanted to participate.

The Bovina Quilt turned out to be the longest project either of us had ever been involved in. Cranky at times, I felt like we were pushing an elephant up a mountain. Marilyn’s sweet nature never allowed her once to become discouraged though and finally, more than a year later, we’d received all the squares. We moved the project into the tiny community center in the middle of town. There, on a large folding table, several residents planned where to place each square on the quilt; cut strips to join the squares; gave out a stacked row of squares to each woman who wanted to stitch one together. Soon the quilt top was assembled.

The final step arrived: setting up the quilting frame in the center of the Community Center’s floor. One of the ladies brought in her family’s aged frame, a huge contraption, I thought, and assembled it with others who had done this numerous times. Then I watched Missionary Circle members attach the pinned layered quilt (quilt top, batting, backing) to the frame.

In a timeless ancient custom, community members joined together at a number of quilting bees. With short needles we stitched tiny, neat rows with our white quilting thread to fasten the layers together. It seemed like an endless project when we started, but within weeks the quilt was completely hand-quilted. We bound the edges and it was done.

In later years I reflected on those afternoons when we—a small circle of unsMJQuiltophisticated yet skilled, rural women—sat around that quilting frame, talking with each other about all sorts of things. We shared stories of other quilting bees, we shared some of our own stories as they connected with other quilters’ stories, and sometimes we’d simply sit silently, deeply engrossed in the ancient craft of quilting. In those days and weeks I grew much closer to those women as we stitched in our place around the quilt frame, learning from and about them in a way I would never have otherwise. At the time I did not yet understand the deeper significance of our tender work. I can speak for myself only, of course, for the others may have already known what I did not yet perceive: we were creating a tactile, visceral portrait of our way of life in Bovina Center in the early 1970s.

I also came to understand that the wise elder women of our Missionary Circle were absolutely right in their firm belief that the quilt not be raffled. For the Bovina Quilt, through the decades, has silently hung in display in the tiny Bovina Museum, maintained by the town Historical Society. Still there today in the center of town, it is utterly unimaginable to think of the simple, precious story quilt leaving the town on a stranger’s arm.

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