Were you raised in a barn? I was.

ranch before
See that barn behind the baby? The baby is me and the barn became my house.

My younger brother and I often laugh at the fact that we were indeed raised in a barn. Or what used to be a chicken shed at the edge of an orange grove and next to the railroad tracks. No brag. Just fact.

You see, in the late 1940s, my grandparents purchased the remnants of the Valencia Dale Ranch on East North Street in Anaheim, California. The ranch included a few orange trees, a rundown farmhouse, and a large, albeit even more rundown chicken shed. My Irish grandmother always noted, even when viewing the most derelict and dilapidated of buildings, “Well, it’s got possibilities.” And she was stubborn enough to set about proving her point.

When I was born in 1950, my dad joined the Marine Corps Reserves for the little extra monthly income it provided. Little did he know that a few months later, war would break out in Korea. He was called up to serve for a year, until the regulars arrived. In preparation for that year of separation, my mom and I moved into a recently finished little room beside the barn, just across the driveway from my grandparents’ farmhouse.

ranch 1
Mom and I lived in the room on the right while Dad was in Korea. When he returned, the conversion of the chicken shed began.

A year later, when my dad came home, my grandparents offered my parents what they could–that barn. And over the next decade, that sad shed became a warm and cozy home for me and my little brother, born nine months after Daddy’s return.

Both my parents and grandparents exhibited resourcefulness and inventiveness, converting what they had into what they wanted.

So, no. I don’t consider being raised in a barn an insult.

ranch 3
That’s me, at the front door a few years later. That bird on top of the porch lives in my kitchen now.
Christmas card 1953
One of many Christmas card photos taken at the Dutch door my dad and grandpa installed. The door later became a perfect stage for our puppet shows.

 

 

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We are always the same age inside

VHSThree weeks ago, I attended my fiftieth high school reunion and it was amazing. Simply amazing. Amazing that it’s been fifty years since graduation. Amazing to reconnect with those friends. Most amazing though, was that despite my advanced age, the friends I made at Valencia High School are still teaching me things or at least reinforcing lessons I’ve learned along the way.

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For over forty years, I have lived in Northern Nevada (near Tahoe, not Vegas) and 500 miles from my home town of Placentia, California just east of Los Angeles. However, because of the internet, I could serve as part of the “virtual” planning committee. I helped with social media posts, emails, and some cyber-sleuthing. I learned to search county assessors’ records for addresses, proving that you can indeed teach an old dog a new trick.

 

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Our kindergarten class in 1955. At least seven of these adorable little ones attended the reunion. Three of us even helped plan the reunion. Below is our committee enjoying a pre-reunion picnic.

43088532_10215165656848206_7160829016469929984_nAs plans progressed we were excited to reconnect with long-lost friends and enjoyed many virtual reunions on Facebook and via email. You see, some of us had started kindergarten together when our little town was a sleepy place in the heart of Orange County, surrounded by orange groves. Our downtown boasted a packing house next to the train tracks and a Rexall drugstore with a soda fountain. The population was less than 2K in 1950. By 1968 it had grown ten times to over 20K. Much of that growth was due to the burgeoning aerospace industry for which Placentia became a bedroom community. Today the population of Placentia is about 52K.

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Placentia’s iconic water tower.

And while I’ve been gone from Southern California for decades, others never left. They are still friends with and see each other in real life—not just on Facebook. A few married their high school sweethearts.

Over one hundred attended the party. Some flew in from across the country. One flew in from his home in Denmark. I’m sure there were many bionic hips and knees, and some spinal fusions and cataract surgeries, and surely a few heart attacks, strokes, and cancer scares. Still, it was surprising–given we are all the same age–the range of how old we looked. Some were still rockin’ on the dance floor–and playing in the band!–until midnight. Others used a cane or a scooter to get around. Some had changed so much that I could have passed them on the street and not known them. Others retained so much of their youthful selves that aside from wearing glasses and a few extra pounds, I would have known them anywhere. A few looked 45 at most. (I’m looking at you, Theresa, Judy, and Gail!) Some looked 80. Happily, I think I was somewhere in the middle.

I’ve learned that how we age is not only the choices we make. It’s not all about sunscreen, exercise, and low-carbs. It’s a matter of our genetics, what life throws our way, and how we weather those challenges. Illness, family tragedies, financial stresses, and access to healthcare all work to age us and make us look and feel older than we are. I know I’ve been lucky and am grateful.

I have to admit some trepidation about how we’d get along for an evening, consdering the horrific, hateful state of American politics–and the presence of alcohol. This was Orange County, after all. Reagan Country and the home of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. But I shouldn’t have worried. No one talked politics, at least not in my presence and I hopped from group to group all night. We were simply so happy to see one another that potential bones of contention just didn’t come up. Go figure.

Happily, I discovered that I would choose many of these people as friends again. They are still smart, kind, compassionate, and funny—the same qualities I look for in new friends. I had good taste, even in high school. A prime example is my long-time, long-distance friendship with Bruce who was one of my two handsome and charming “dates” for the evening. The other was my brother, one of my favorite people in the world.

I also learned that reminders of our mortality are everywhere. Of the nearly 400 members of the class of 1968, thirty had passed—that we know of. They had succumbed to the Vietnam War, suicide, AIDs, cancer, heart attacks, and accidents. Given our age, this will become much more common. In fact, three classmates have passed just since the reunion. I know there are more goodbyes in our future.

My biggest regret however, was that the reunion was simply too short. There wasn’t enough time to sit and visit with more than a few people. The cancer researcher who was in my wedding. Two retired nurses who moved across the country to live near their children. The she who used to be he. The surfer girl who settled in Idaho. And a dozen more…

Sadly, this reunion will likely be the last for many of us. Maybe we shouldn’t wait ten years to get together again at our 60th. At our age, just being alive is something worth celebrating, right? I think 55 years sounds good. Or maybe 51.

Book report: It ain’t over till it’s over

Reposting this one in light of the recent Charlottesville tragedy. The book offers some insight into why that particular war is not yet over. Why the fascination with and glorification of the losers of two wars–Nazis and the Confederacy?

Lorie Schaefer

confedsConfederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Think you understand the Civil War? Think you understand its causes and the influence it still holds on America? This book may cause you to think again, especially about why some folks can’t let it go, 150 years later.

As a boy, the prize-winning war correspondent Tony Horwitzwas fascinated by the Civil War, particularly the books of old photos he studied with his Jewish immigrant grandfather. That passion is rekindled when, after returning from assignments in Bosnia and the Middle East, he is awakened one morning by the musket fire of Civil War re-enactors just outside his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Those shots signaled the beginning of a quest.

Throughout his travels, Horwitz demonstrates his curiosity and courage, his sense of humor and of history as he introduces readers to a host of characters…

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Love is why I carry a hanky

My Irish grandmother always carried a hanky. She’d stuff it up her sleeve or down her decolletage, what she called her “bosoms.” I thought it was her hay-fever, but now I think I’ve discovered the real reason.

You see, I’ll turn sixty-seven this week, and while I am healthy, I am reminded daily that I am no longer young. Chores and walks take a bit longer. When I look down, it’s my mother’s hands I see. I relish the hour or so I spend stretched out on the couch each afternoon, not sleeping, but simply resting and reading.

Furthermore, I’ve had time to reflect on what this aging business means. You see, I plan to be a very old lady one day. My goal is still to live until my 100th birthday. However, I’m beginning to realize that many of my friends and loved ones won’t be there to celebrate with me. I must learn to balance the contentment I feel each morning with the sadness that yet another dear one has passed. It’s also why my mother advised me to keep making new friends, because the old ones will keep dying.

Last week was rough. Two long-time friends passed away. Two. Both big, strong, active guys–both close to my age–who were simply and quite suddenly gone. Upon hearing the news, I was incredulous, but tried to go about my usual routine. Yoga class. A walk in the neighborhood. I cried during both.

So that’s why my grandmother always carried a hanky!

Still, I know this isn’t about me. The wives and children these men left behind are devastated and heart-broken. They will face each day, diminished is some way, slightly less than they were before. I hope they also know the profoundly positive influences their men had on those lucky enough to call them husband, dad, grandpa, or friend. These were good guys who should have had many more years to go on being good guys. We who loved them are grateful for the gift.missing-you-honest-quotes-about-grief-winnie-the-pooh

Still, the tears come. I have to tell myself that this grief is the price we pay for living and loving each other. For being human.

Throughout my life, I’ve gone through cycles of birthday parties, bridal and baby showers. Now is the time for goodbyes.  Now, whenever I buy a sympathy card, I buy two. Just in case. And that’s why you see me standing at the Hallmark display, sniffing quietly and reaching for my hanky.

Novel Tamale Pie

Why novel? Because the cornmeal is mixed in, not made into cornbread batter and spread on top. Well, that and the fact that this food memory comes from one of the characters in my novel.

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Tamale Pie

From the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper

While this wasn’t necessarily my favorite thing when I was growing, it now definitely qualifies as comfort food. I’ve adapted it a bit here–using Rotele tomatoes makes up for other seasoning–but it’s still pretty much as my mom made it. We like it topped with a little sour cream and served on a bed of shredded lettuce. Mom served it with a wedge of iceberg lettuce topped with a dollop of mayo that she called a “salad.” Times and food tastes have changed.

1 pound ground beef or turkey

1 small yellow or white onion, chopped

1 large can of diced tomatoes, with liquid

1 regular can of Rotele tomatoes with the added chilies, with liquid

1 regular can of corn, with liquid

1 regular can of whole or sliced large black olives, drained

yellow cornmeal (approximately ¾ to 1 cup)

1 cup or more shredded cheddar

  1. Brown the meat with onion. Drain.
  2. Add the contents of all the cans. Simmer for about 10 minutes.
  3. Start sprinkling corn meal in the while stirring. Just add in small amounts until the mixture thickens and the boil bubbles make a very distinctive pfff sound.  There is no exact measurement for this. Sorry. As soon as it pfffs, remove from heat.
  4. Grease or spray a 9×13 baking pan. Scoop the mixture in and smooth it. Or if you are using an ovenproof skillet, you can save washing up an extra pan.
  5. Sprinkle top generously with cheese.
  6. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes. It does not have to bake long because it is already hot.

 

 

Legendary Scones

 

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, another scrapbook page from Annie.

 Scones
from the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper

These are so easy to make, especially if you have a stand mixer. I made them every year for St. Patrick’s Day at school. With only half a stick of butter for a big batch, they are pretty low in fat, if you worry about such things. And people tell me they have magical healing qualities so are the perfect gift to take to an ailing friend.


4 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
3 tsp baking powder
1 egg
1/4 tsp salt
4 Tbsp. butter
1 cup raisins
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or milk soured with 2 Tbsp. vinegar or lemon juice)

  1. Preheat oven to 400.
  2. Mix dry ingredients. Cut in butter. Add raisins. Add milk and egg. Mix until dough forms.
  3. Knead 2-3 minutes on floured board. Divide dough in half. Pat each half into a flat circle, about 12 inches across.
  4. Cut each circle into 12-16 wedges. This is the shape my grandmother made her scones. At this point you can sprinkle them with course sugar, such as Demerara, if you like.
  5. Bake 10 minutes on lightly greased or sprayed cookie sheet. As soon as they are cool, place them in a zippered plastic bag. Serve with marmalade, raspberry jam or lemon curd.

Variations: Raisins can be replaced with currents, dried cranberries, or other fruit. The cranberries work especially well if you substitute a little orange juice for some of the liquid and add a bit of grated orange peel. I’ve also added nuts or chocolate chips from time to time.

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Novel cookies from childhood

 

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Quick Fudge Cookies
From the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper
Aunt Ellie made these for family picnics, but I think every Home Ec class in the 1950s and 60s made them too. They are great to make in the summer because you don’t have to turn on the oven and heat up the house. And who doesn’t like peanut butter and chocolate? You can even call them “healthy” because of the oatmeal, right? I think they’re gluten-free, too. Who knew?!

Mixture #1: 2 cups sugar
3 Tablespoons cocoa
¼ cup margarine or butter
½ cup milk

Mixture #2: 1 tsp vanilla
Pinch salt
½ cup crunchy peanut butter
3 cups quick oatmeal

Cook Mixture #1 at rolling boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Add Mixture #2. Mix well and drop by spoonful (or use that scoop again) onto wax paper. Let set until firm and cool.

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This novel recipe is icing on the cake. Literally.

Another page from Annie Cooper’s Recipe Scrapbook. You might begin to see why Libby struggles with her weight.

Fluffy White Icing
From the kitchens of Fran McCormack & Libby McCormack Cooper
I’m not sure where my mom got this unusual frosting recipe, but it was always a hit, especially when piled high on chocolate cake. Unlike regular buttercream, it stays soft and fluffy instead of developing a crust.  And since I don’t keep Crisco around (does anyone?), I just use more butter.

3 heaping Tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
1 stick butter (1/2 cup)
¼ cup Crisco (I substitute more butter here, another half stick)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Bring flour and milk to soft boil in saucepan and cook until thickened. Cool completely. Transfer to mixing bowl and add remaining ingredients. Beat until fluffy.

Soft Ginger Cookies are a snap

 A second helping from Annie Cooper’s Recipe Scrapbook. ginger cookieSoft Ginger Cookies
From the kitchen of Libby McCormack Cooper
My mom adapted this recipe from my Grandmother McCormack’s original that made
crispy gingersnaps. My mom preferred softer, chewier cookies. So do I. These were always the first cookies she made once the weather cooled off in the fall. They make the house smell wonderful. As long as you’re in the mess, you might as make a double batch and put half in the freezer.

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp. ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp baking soda 1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses

  1. Preheat oven to 350.
  2. Measure flour, ginger, cinnamon, soda, and salt into a medium bowl.
  3. Cream butter until soft, gradually adding sugar, creaming until light and fluffy.
  4. Beat in egg and molasses. Add dry ingredients to creamed mixture a bit at a time to prevent flour from flying everywhere. Blend well.
  5. Form rounded tablespoonfuls of dough into balls. Or do what I do, use that little cookie scoop that’s just the right size.  Roll balls in granulated or fancier Demerara sugar. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheet. GingerMolassesFifteenSpatulas-640x424
  6. Bake in 350 oven for 12-15 minutes or until tops are slightly rounded, crackly and lightly browned.
  7. Remove from cookie sheet. Cool completely on wire rack or waxed paper. Store in airtight container.