Nasturtiums askance

Nasturtiums are my favorite annuals.  Their orange blooms make the mornings brighter, the evenings glow.

This year my nasturtiums have performed as never before. They make beautiful color combinations as they twine through the weathered gray fence, romp around the beruffled hot pink rose, lollop under the rusty birdbath. Any day now they’ll insinuate themselves into the fuzzy, soft green sage.  They are brazen hussies. I love that about them.

At dusk, their brilliant orange fluoresces — they look as if they’re lit from within.  Not all nasturtiums are orange, of course.  There’s a creamy yellow, a vivid Crayola yellow/orange, a deep red, and sometimes, a wussy melted sherbet shade.  Generally those “other” colors don’t last a full season, at least not in my garden.

Nasturtiums are more than jeweled bouquets on my kitchen table from early summer to first frost though.  They’re edibles that can brighten a salad with their color and peppery taste.  Their scent is similar to that of peaches cooking down for jam.  And as the flowers die away the seeds can be pickled to make “poor man’s capers.”

A few nights ago I wanted to perk up the “look” of our dinner — predictable green peas, bland white baked potato, and broiled salmon. I garnished our plates with one orange and one yellow nasturtium each.  “They’re edible you know,” I said to Peter.

He looked at me askance.  My husband does askance better than anyone I know.

“Just try one.” I munched on a flower head. “Mm-mmmm!

Again with the askance.

“C’mon, if you can eat eel sushi you can try nasturtium,” I ragged.

He nibbled, but was not convinced.

The meal tasted exceptionally good to me, and Peter cleaned his plate saying, as he does when I’ve fixed something he especially likes, “Thank you, ‘Mum.’”

“You liked the salmon then?” He always likes salmon, or just about any fish.

“Must’ve been good,” he said, tipping up his plate. It was as clean as if the dog had licked it.

I chuckled.  “Know why it tasted so good, what the difference was?”

He was wary.

“I rolled the fillets in minced nasturtium blossoms,” I said.  “That’s what gave them the spiky bite.”

He eyebrows went up, but his lips didn’t move.

The next day our friends Shelia and Jerry were here. I told them the nasturtium-encrusted salmon story while we ate lunch outside. Jerry wrinkled his nose, but Shelia was interested, so I ran to the herb garden the nasturtiums had claimed, picked several each of the different colors, and encouraged a tasting.

Shelia decided she’d plant nasturtiums next year, Jerry didn’t say no, and Peter? The phrase “you can lead a mule to water but you can’t make him drink” comes to mind.

How do we wash our clothes?

We wash our clothes expensively, that’s how!  At the moment I’m ready to try beating my clothes against a rock in the river.

It was still as dark outside as my six o’clock mug of coffee when I heard an annoying high pitched beep.  Every three minutes the sound interrupted my morning solitude.  None of the usual culprits was guilty, not my tinnitus-affected ears, nor cell phone, dishwasher, or microwave. The beep came from the laundry room.  My washer’s control panel was lit up like the instrument panel on an airplane. The machine was frozen on “Express,” a setting I’d never used in 15 years, and I hadn’t done any laundry in three days. The darn thing wouldn’t run, nor would “stop” make the lights go off.

I pulled the plug.

When the rest of the world woke up I placed a mayday call to Dan, the repair superman I found several years ago. Dan can fix any major home appliance. He came as soon as he could, carefully performed a number of tests, then shook his head sadly. My washer had spun out for the last time. A new printed circuit board and power supply would cost more than three hundred dollars, labor not included. I could buy a new washer for that. The dryer still worked, though barely. The rational me said, “No new dryer” — I hang most things outside to dry in the sun or, during bad weather, in the basement — but the fussy me whispered, “Matchy, matchy.”

After a quick recce to “kick the tires” on what I thought would be my pick, I came home and logged in to Consumer Reports. Should have done that first of course.

Oh my.

I spent hours comparing features and benefits.  No, I do not want to communicate with my laundry while I’m playing canasta with my friends.  No, I do not want a dryer with steam option that would necessitate a water line to an appliance that is supposed to be drying my clothes.  Maybe that’s a good thing, but it seems counterintuitive to me.  I’m just sayin’.

Some of the newest washday appliances will let you link to the manufacturer via an app on your smart phone. You can select your equipment’s symptoms and get a diagnosis before the repairman comes.  Not only that, you can phone your washer to check on the status of your delicates while you’re visiting the in-laws.

Just what I need! Another set of commands to learn, more passwords to forget, oh, and a smart phone to buy. Note to Maytag, GE, Whirlpool, Samsung et al:  I’m doing laundry here, not launching a submarine! When someone invents a machine that moves the washed clothes into the dryer, and a dryer that matches socks, folds towels, and puts everything away…then we’ll talk.

Satisfied with my choice at last, I clicked on “user comments.”  Some were enthusiastic, but most were not suitable for a G-rated blog!  I’d spent a gorgeous autumn weekend researching laundry appliances, and I was no further ahead than when I’d started.

And the laundry hamper overflowed.

Oh yes! Cost!  That printed circuit board/power supply replacement suddenly seemed a bargain.  Some of the highest end appliances cost more than six thousand dollars for a washer/dryer combo.  My first car didn’t cost even half that much.

Who needs a “smart” washer?  I’m a smart washer.

I’ll get my DublHandi washboard out. These primitive “appliances,” first manufactured in 1938, are “ideal for silks, hosiery and lingerie or handkerchiefs.”  Plus, at 8.5″ x 18″ they’re “just the right size to fit a bucket, pail or lavatory.” They “pack easily into suitcase or traveling bag” too. What’s not to love?

FYI, DublHandi washboards are still manufactured in Logan, Ohio. They sell for about twenty-three bucks.  If you’re interested in a cost effective option to a smart washer, here’s some nitty gritty info:


Take the bitter with the sweet.

[Today’s post is a shortened version of an essay in That’s all she wrote. It just seems to fit right now, right here. If you wonder who “Mother Tough” is, she’s my alter persona, the voice in my two books.] 

Autumn is a bittersweet time.  Autumn is also bittersweet time.  Read those two sentences again.  There is a difference.

Most people regard the season as an ending.  Me?  I think of autumn as a beginning, a prelude, a brilliantly hued lead-in to my favorite time of year, a monochromatic, sparkly-white winter.

There’s nothing like the smell of autumn leaves unless, of course, it’s the smell of impending snow.  Mother Tough’s nose always knows when snow’s on the way.

Still, autumn also brings melancholy memories of school starting, another year ticked off the calendar more definitively than the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve, the familiar smell of white paste and Goldenrod writing tablets and the thrill of new puppy-loves that won’t last as long as Halloween’s pumpkins.

… I love bittersweet, the twisty vine studded with bright red, orange-jacketed berries that festoons trees and fence posts.  I had a lone source in the woods where we used to live.

After we moved [from way up north to southwest Virginia] —a bittersweet experience—I discovered the vine grows so profusely here that I’m spoiled for choice.

Who knew the very trail I walk almost every morning would be swathed in sweeping, trailing bittersweet?  Who knew trees, poles, even rocks would be ensnared in bittersweet’s stranglehold?

Who could predict that having such an abundance of a woody vine would help tip Mother Tough’s emotional scales, balancing out the lack of really good, fresh apple cider, for example?

Cider.  Another reason to love autumn.  Even though Virginia is “apple country”—Winchester, in northern Virginia, hosts the famous annual Apple Blossom Festival each spring, for heavens sakes—local cider lacks substance.  At least it is unpasteurized so it will ferment, but it’s rather insipid and smacks of too much cloying Golden Delicious and not enough of tart Winesap for balance.

So the very bittersweet that drapes our town like brightly beaded cobwebs makes up for the lackluster cider!

… [For] years I thought bittersweet was a parasitic plant like mistletoe that mooched off the nutrients of the tree it climbed.  Some references say bittersweet is also called deadly nightshade—certainly not something you’d want in your back yard!  Imagine my surprise when I read a question in Country Living Gardener (August, 1998):  “I would love to grow bittersweet in [our] woods,” the reader wrote, “as it is so expensive and difficult to find [for dried arrangements].  Is it difficult to grow?”  The editor replied, “Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.) grows as a robust woody vine.  The Chinese species (C. orbiculatus) is most widespread.  In parts of the Northeast it has become an invasive exotic, swallowing up farm walls, fences, hedges, and shrubs with abandon.  Similar, but not seen as often, our native C. scandens has been pushed out by its Oriental cousin in many areas. Best started as plants, both species are available from mail-order nurseries…”

All these years I wouldn’t have had to skulk around, secateurs in hand, clipping bittersweet and sneaking it home under my jacket!  I could’ve grown my own!

Once I learned the Latin name, my further research told me bittersweet, in the Solanaceae family, is kin to belladonna a.k.a. deadly nightshade, as well as to henbane, mandrake, tobacco, capsicum pepper, tomato, and petunia.  What a family!  You can use it to poison, smoke, cook, or plant in your window box!

Mother Nature and Mother Tough must be cut out of the same bolt of cloth.  Every year, I ooh and ah at the brilliant fall colors, as if I’d never seen them before, while Peter’s attitude is, “You’ve seen one red leaf, you’ve seen ‘em all.”

By the first autumn in our new locale, after we’d settled in a bit, we hiked some trails nearby, five miles from home if you fly with crows, 20 miles if you drive.  One perfect fall day the sky was so blue it looked as if you could scrape the color off with a palette knife and see through to the heavens above.  The leaves glowed.  I gazed at the valleys at every overlook. “Isn’t this as pretty as anything you’d see in the Adirondacks?” Peter asked.

I had to admit, the views were actually more breathtaking, with vistas stretching northwest to West Virginia and southeast across the valley to the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Though I will always miss the inky Adirondack lakes edged with scrims of balsams, our convenient access to the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge keep me in balance.

Ya’ gotta balance the bitter and the sweet!


She always went for the laugh.

About eighteen months ago my friend Beth started having trouble swallowing so her doctor referred her to a physical therapist.  It wasn’t long before she knew it was something more serious than “a throat thing.”

She prayed it was multiple sclerosis. She figured she could live reasonably normally with MS. But the diagnosis, when it came, wasn’t entirely unexpected.  She’d been researching her symptoms. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has no cure. There is help from the ALS organization in the form of making life as bearable as possible.  Better than nothing, I suppose.  Beth rationalized that the “good” thing about ALS was that it was a gradual illness; it didn’t hit all at once.

Beth went from using a cane, then a walker, to being unable to walk at all. She had the Cadillac of electric wheelchairs in her favorite blue. Never a confident car driver, she was an even worse wheelchair driver.  She laughed when she told me about running over the cat’s tail and dinging the walls and furniture.

She went from being able to eat some soft foods early on, to puddings and yogurt, to a feeding tube. She was very upset at Easter when she couldn’t even eat a deviled egg!  She went from being the life of the party always with a story to tell, often a naughty one, to being unable to speak at all. She was a technology-hater, who had to become a smart phone and iPad user.  Her spirit was strong though, and she kept the twinkle in her eyes.

With each passing week, it seemed, she had to have what she called “a new piece of equipment,” another something to help her move, sit, breathe.  A stair-climber was installed not long into her illness, then a bed downstairs in the living room became necessary.  An oxygen tank was a new companion.

And yet, for all that, when I visited for what turned out to be almost the last time the only she thing complained about was her hair“My hair is driving me crazy,” she said.

“I can help with that,” I told her.  “I’ll bet my hairdresser Lourie will make a house call.”

So the next week Lourie tamed and shortened Beth’s wavy locks into a cap that cradled her head.  You’d have thought she gave her the moon.  While Lourie snipped, Beth pulled up her pant leg to show me that the annoying brace she’d been wearing for months was gone.  She smiled.  “The doctor told me that since I can’t stand or walk anymore, I don’t need it.” Funny how such small pleasures could make her worsening days seem better.

Sadly, Beth’s struggles to swallow, to breathe, ended on September 19.

Wherever you are today, Beth, I know you’ll keep ‘em laughing.