Multi-tasking through a pandemic

The hummingbirds are greedy little suckers this year.


The smell of Scorched Something drew me downstairs.

Dad-gummit! I had just started getting into the focus and flow of writing when, in a panic, I remembered the pan of water I had put on to boil for hummingbird nectar.

Yes, it burned dry, but it didn’t set off a smoke alarm. We don’t have one of those. We have dogs.

But this is not the first time my multi-tasking has almost resulted in disaster. That pan got put on the stove before I mopped the floor… before I went to take a shower…before I ran downstairs to put a few more things in the laundry. And before I dried my hair and woke up this computer.

No wonder my mother always punished me for daydreaming my way through life. If I didn’t have my nose in a book to avoid chores, I had my head in the clouds pretending I was a stand-in for Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel (multi-tasking by listening to The Overture of 1812 on my stereo.) Sometimes I even re-read that favorite childhood book at night, under the bed sheets, with the aid of a flashlight. Could this explain why I needed glasses by fifth grade?

Like many of my writing friends, I’m cursed with a multi-tasking brain. I’d rather be writing or thinking about writing while I’m doing mundane chores. It’s no fun doing all the things required for daily living or playing nice with others, like husbands.

Yesterday, while picking grapes, my mind wanted to occupy itself with grape metaphors instead of what was in front of me. Boy are there a ton of those cute little metaphors, beginning with the ones in the Bible. And whether I’m picking grapes or doing any other dull chore, my head fills with future book titles, blog topics and things to add to my Type A to-do lists.

Cursed also by my perpetual Virgo tendencies, I also considered, there in the grapevines, how to be better organized at picking and at life. Should I pick grapes one-by-one, leaving the green ones to ripen on the vines? Or would it be better to pick an entire cluster and discard the green ones as I washed and sorted them? Now there’s a metaphor worth developing…perhaps while stirring the grape jelly.

Doesn’t everyone talk to the grapes?

Do all multi-taskers also have the habit of talking to themselves and inanimate objects? Or is that just an older woman like me? Because I swear, I began to talk to the grapes.

“Why don’t you guys ripen all at the same time?”

“How in the world have you survived not being attacked by the racoons and birds this year?”

“Is my late cousin Linda guarding you at night from the coon foodfests? Does she want to make sure I get jelly made for her mom and brother Larry?”

“Why aren’t you bigger, plumper? Do I need to prune you all better in March?”

“Why don’t I just let the rest of you ripen a little more? Who cares if the birds or the coons find you before I get back for a second picking?”

Sounds nutty, doesn’t it? I talk to the green beans too. And the tomato cutworms. But hey, that’s the privilege of being old and wearing purple if you want to. But here’s the warning label: We know advancing age can show us how multi-tasking and forgetfulness can lead to danger.

My husband doesn’t know (and please, don’t tell him) that I talk to the grapes and build mental metaphors to help me zoom through the drudgery of things I have to do so I can hurry and get to the things I want to do. Just like I did when I was a kid.

I’m not so old that I can’t recognize my own faults. I know that if I had ever been allowed to write as much as I wanted or endlessly metaphorize (is that even a word?) my way through life I’d no doubt have morphed into a mystic or a hermit. Or just a total nutcase.

The pandemic of 2020 has accelerated creative output for me and many of my friends. We’ve finally been able to get to some of the fun tasks we’ve been putting on the back burner. I just hope my fellow multi-taskers do not let their pans boil dry.

Trying on old recipes for nostalgia and posterity

Burnt Sugar Cake earned my Aunt Gene several blue ribbons at local fairs. This was in the 1950s when cooking and gardening skills could give you bragging rights and a covey of green-eyed-jealous enemies. Some of her recipes were family secrets for years. Until they weren’t. Until they appeared in a church cookbook.

The courage to try new-old skillsets

My dearest departed cousin-sister Linda collected cookbooks. When I came into her house as the beneficiary of her husband and a mountain of knick-knacks and what-nots, it became my job to sort through that collection and disperse them to her daughters and step-daughters. I kept a few for myself, especially a spattered old blue thing called Community Favorites II: Compiled by Wakarusa Presbyterian Church, Wakarusa, Kansas.

If you’ve ever served on a church fundraising committee, you will recognize the old staple Church Cookbook.

The best way to come into these church cookbooks is through inheritance. I have my mother’s cookbook from one of the Lutheran churches she attended. Also have one from the Hamilton, Mo Federated Church.

If you are not a veteran church-goer, you might not recognize the value of these tomes, or the wonderful hidden culture they represent. These little spiral-bound books are THE CHURCH. Open their pages and you’ll smell the wonderful aromas of a church supper. You’ll see a bunch of crazy women in aprons rushing around to serve up their very best to their own and the community at large. You’ll hear the gossip and the expressions of concern for a sick or dying member. You’ll feel the expressions of love and creativity in the beauty of the bounty spread out in those pages.

But I did not fully appreciate that plastic spiral-bound treasure that stood on my cookbook stand. Not until I looked all the way through it last week. Sure, I knew it would feature recipes by many of my relatives and new friends that I’ve come to know since joining Wakarusa Presbyterian. I just had no idea that my cousin had written some recipes into some of the blank margins at the ends of sections.

Even more surprising? The emotion that one of those hand-written recipes could invoke. Sure, I appreciated seeing her much-loved donut recipe and her prolific search for the ultimate sugar cookie and cinnamon rolls. But what brought me to tears was seeing the label: Anne’s Corn Chowder.

It wasn’t even my corn chowder. It came from an old issue of Midwest Living Magazine. But that was the dish I served one cold March day when she and her husband (now my hand-me-down husband) came to our house in Cameron, MO for a visit. I served a big pot of sausage-corn chowder seasoned with marjoram and rosemary and carbed-up with diced potatoes and a serving of blueberry muffins that day. Poor Wayne! He didn’t eat any of it because, as I later learned, he is just a meat and potatoes guy who stoutly refuses to veer from the tried-and-true.

It’s not the food, it’s the company

Memories gushed out when I saw that recipe. Memories of all the good times, the laughs, the common interests we shared as cousins and sister-friends. And that’s probably the chief benefit of cookbooks and their individual recipes. It’s not about the delicious food, but the people who cook them and share them.

In addition to seeing Linda’s handwritten recipes, I can open this little blue cookbook and immediately spot Helen Ramshaw’s Strawberry Parfait Pie, or Beverly Nicholson’s Strawberry-Pretzel Dessert (can you tell I’m hungry for homegrown berries?) I know these women, so feel I can trust these recipes to be tried and true, as well as delicious. I’ve seen photos on Facebook of Evelyn Davis’s molasses wheat bread and my mouth waters just reading Linda Combes’ recipe for banana split cake. My late Aunt Neva’s cornbread dressing is in this book, as well as Aunt DeLora’s barbecue sauce (actually her late mother-in-law’s concoction…it contains a pound of candy red hots!).

My real reason for starting this blog today was to share one of those recipes. When I gathered the courage to burn sugar to make my Aunt Gene’s Best Burnt Sugar Cake in the World, I posted a photo of the resulting three-layer miracle. That led to a few Facebook friends asking for the recipe. Never one to let a good chance for a blog post go by, here you go. But read the warning label.

Burning sugar is not for the faint-hearted

In the weeks approaching my Aunt Gene’s 95th birthday anniversary, we always aimed to have a cooking lesson on burning sugar. But her health and constant hospice personnel visits seemed to conspire against us. The Friday before her birthday, I mustered enough courage to attempt the recipe that had earned her so many accolades. By myself.

This burning sugar process is one big chemistry lesson, believe me! Here’s how it goes:

In a 4 quart, un-coated Dutch Oven (enamel coated cast iron seems to work best, but don’t use one of those cancer-causing silicone things) sprinkle one cup of sugar evenly over the bottom. Begin to melt the sugar slowly, over medium heat, stirring constantly. But before you even begin to burn the sugar, put a small pan of one cup water on the stove to boil.

As the sugar melts, stir faster, all the while looking for a distinctive caramel or light-brown color. The lighter the color, the lighter-tasting the sugar. Light brown will give you a caramel taste, while a darker brown will provide an almost molasses flavor, which is what Aunt Gene always aimed for. But don’t go too far into the dark side or you will have bitter syrup. (Does that sound like a moral lesson?) Once you reach the preferred color, put on a pair of oven mitts or gloves, pull the boiling mess off the burner, wait a little while, and pour in the cup of boiling water, taking care to stand back and not be burned by the resulting steam. Aunt Gene says to be ready with the lid to cover it immediately. Somewhere in there, plan to stir it again. Once the syrup is cooled, you will be using it for the cake batter and the icing.

A nitty-gritty dirt band of burnt sugar cake

13-1/2 T. Crisco or Butter (the thought of that much Crisco made me gag so butter it was.)

3 egg yolks (save the whites)

2-1/2 cups sugar

Cream the above until fluffy. (This is when I love my KitchenAid stand mixer) Beat the three egg whites and fold into the mixture. (I tried to call Aunt Gene to see if that should be to stiff peak state but she was taking a nap)

Add 3 cups flour and 2 cups water and cream together until dissolved. (Next time I plan to experiment and add cake flour instead of regular flour. This is one heavy puppy of a cake.)

Mix the following ingredients in a small bowl or Pyrex measuring cup:

9 T. burnt sugar

3/4 cup Flour

1-1/2 tsp. vanilla

3 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. salt

Add to the ingredients already in the mixing bowl. Note: the baking powder will possibly foam in true chemistry experiment mode, depending on what order you add everything, but just shrug your shoulders like I did and keep on keeping on.

(And again, I tried to call Aunt Gene, because her recipe did not have salt. I think salt belongs in every recipe, so there you have it. Use your own judgment here.)

Bake that voluminous, heavy batter in three 9″ cake pans lined with parchment or waxed paper and sprayed with Pam, then floured (Sheesh! More flour?).


1 stick butter

6 T burnt sugar

1 box (1 lb.) powdered sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Aunt Gene always cooked the butter and burnt sugar to a boil, then added the powdered sugar, stirred like crazy, then poured it and spread it on a cooled cake immediately. I did the lazy woman version: put the softened butter and other ingredients in the stand mixer bowl, covered it with a splatter shield and mixed the heck out of it, seemingly forever, stopping periodically to use a spatula to scrape the sides.

Better than winning a bake-off

The ultimate reward of gathering enough of my foolhardy wits to make the above recipe was seeing Aunt Gene’s face light up as we placed that cake on her walker seat. And the frosting on the scene? Hearing her say it tasted just like hers.

Aunt Gene’s burnt sugar birthday cake…the first one she didn’t have to make herself.

Thank you, Hobby Lobby, for staying open

The wall plaque I started Sunday in a manic frenzy of creativity. Only slightly ironic, since we can’t “Gather Together” right now.

The words on the Facebook post immediately caused my blood to boil. A social-progressive website smeared the CEO of Hobby Lobby as stupid and irresponsible for deciding to keep his stores open in states where he has not been ordered to shut down.

The blog on this website also ridiculed the Christian-owned company for founder David Green’s letter to employees last week. In addition to citing the measures the stores would implement to keep employees and customers safe, Green said his wife, Barbara, the family’s “prayer warrior,” had three words put on her heart by God during prayer. Those three words: Guide, Guard and Groom. As the letter explained, “We serve a God who will Guide us through this storm, who will Guard us as we travel to places never seen before and who, as a result of this experience, will Groom us to be better than we could have ever thought possible before now.”

Yarn and glitter are good, don’t they know?

Another smarmy comment from Unlike grocery stores, it’s hard to make the case that yarn and glitter are essential products in a time of crisis.

Oh, but they are! Yarn and glitter and scrapbook supplies and paints and sewing supplies are indeed essential during these days of social isolation and anxiety. Just as office supplies are now more important than ever while so many of us work from home.

In fact, art supplies are such a crucial part of so many lives that a local mental health institution has put together client coping kits that contain them. The staff has even put together suggestions for clients to make their own kits. They could include paper, crayons and markers, paints, pre-made design templates for coloring, old magazines or newspapers for cutting out words or phrases for collages, and, of course, household glue. I bet that glitter and yarn would also be good elements for a coping kit.

Beware the manic woman lost in the art aisles, kitchen

Since this worldwide crisis began, and since my scheduling calendar is suddenly bereft of appointments and deadlines, I have behaved like a manic Ever Ready Bunny lost in an art supplies store like Hobby Lobby. These days I have no excuse for putting my arts and crafts projects and unfinished home décor plans on the back burner.

Matter of fact, my husband expressed some mild alarm yesterday at my level of crafty multi-tasking. He watched me start embroidering a little wall plaque with the words “Gather Together,” (ironic now, isn’t it, since we can’t). I put it aside for a bit and hauled out the color-coordinated hoard of neckties left behind by my deceased second husband and began weaving them together to cover the faded cushions of a rocker in the living room. I also wove the red and white gingham ribbon purchased weeks ago into the wire slats of the kitchen pantry shelves, embellishing the kitchen with an additional spot of country décor already present in curtains.

My unfinished necktie chair, put together right now with loose weaving on the bottom and basting stitches on the upright cushion. If I can keep the cat off of it, it might get finished during social isolation productivity.

My excuse? The expired items need clearing out

When the stay-at-home suggestions first blasted from multiple televised news conferences, I went into a frenzy of baking and cooking. My intuition (God, maybe?) told me the freezers needed to be cleared of nearly expired foods so they wouldn’t go to waste. My husband’s reaction to discovering that the meatball package slowly taking on air on the top shelf of the freezer had morphed into barbecue sliders in the crockpot? At first, skepticism, then raised eyebrows, just before the first taste. Then he pronounced them good. Whew!

However, my use of the remaining off-brand Spanish peanuts and the holiday chocolate bark in the pantry (it was starting to take on that expired looking white coating) to make peanut clusters didn’t produce a report card of A; maybe a C+. He only eats them because no other sweets have materialized from the social isolation kitchen…yet. But, oh, the plans I have!

We will discover shortly just how much red and white gingham is overkill.

The hills are alive with the sounds of red gingham

Maybe I should warn him that I have watched Julie Andrews in Sound of Music many times and may find new uses for our curtains during this frenzy of creativity.

Unlike the atheist skeptics, I do believe that God especially touches our hearts during times of crisis…whether we are retirees or company CEOs, housewives or minimum wage retail workers. Even the Wall Street Journal opinion column yesterday noted that this time of fear, anxiety and social isolation could be meant to help us get our priorities straight. Ironically, I see it as a time when we can better connect with each other and our own souls. Now we have the free time to get in touch with our expressive needs through art, writing and music. We can talk to God or the walls or our fellow isolation inmates more often and on a deeper level. We can stay in touch with friends and family. We can pray more often, or perhaps for the first time. We can love ourselves and each other and find imaginative ways to do so, minus the important sense of touch through hugs. We can channel our energies into creative projects while we learn to send healing and hopeful energy waves to our loved ones on FaceTime.

We can do this, my fellow manic, creative bunnies.

Too bad that atheists don’t know it’s all so much easier with God’s help.

Is there a 12-step program for Facebook video suckers?

If you could just affix this mobile microscope to your mobile phone (only after you’ve downloaded the corresponding app) you would be able to tell that instructions and shipping label are in Chinese. Let this be your own warning label BEFORE clicking the BUY button at the end of a Facebook video ad.

The FedX and UPS delivery guys make enough stops at our house that they almost qualify as family. I just wish they delivered a Chinese translator with the packages.

Months before I married my husband, he saw my raised eyebrows and my attempts to hide grins as I watched the packages appear on the front porch swing. He confessed, sheepishly, that he was following the yellow brick road to the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes grand prize. Shortly after his late wife’s death, he had found that the hours passed more quickly when he was marking an X in a box or tearing out a perforated seal to affix to an order, assuring he would win an extra surprise. Like many Publisher’s players, he thought that buying the offered merchandise would improve his chances of hitting the jackpot.

Consequently, when I moved in, the house was full of mysterious white boxes, full of cheap electronics and back scratchers, tiny flashlights and gel pens in assorted colors. This from the man who was embarrassed by his late wife’s “magic closet” in the guest room. It was so full of bargains that she had found on her shopping trips—all planned as future Christmas and birthday gifts—that they filled that closet to the ceiling and came tumbling out on a guest one evening.

So, organizing-freak-of-a-new-wife moves in and tries to banish some of offensive Publisher’s House clutter to the basement. That helped . . . until the day a visitor wanted to tour the basement she remembered playing in as a child. Now that was embarrassing!

But now it’s time for organizing wife to confess to her own horrible addiction. While Hubby wins the Publisher’s Clearinghouse unofficial prize for volume of merchandise orders, I am the queen of Facebook video advertising suckers.

In the last year I have hit the “BUY” button on things that looked so appealing and practical in the videos. And it’s not just Facebook ads. Sometimes the “gotcha” comes from a slick, magazine-ish flyer that arrives in the mail with the PCH junk.

Is there a 12-step group for people like me who think they would actually use that little detachable lens that fits over an iPhone and will allow you to take better, wider-angle selfies?

And when I ordered those supplements that promised to do away with varicose vein pain and the feet that go numb every Monday night while standing for hours on risers with my chorus friends, I did not check with my doctor until after the little capsules arrived. I know she tried not to laugh at me when she said, “You realize that nitrous oxide is basically Viagra, don’t you?” Duh, no, I did not. I cancelled the standing monthly subscription the next day.

I have no excuse for falling victim to these campaigns

I am truly embarrassed by my propensity to be a victim of smooth advertising campaigns. Especially since I spent a career helping put print advertising together for local businesses. Besides falling for those slick ads for hemp gummy bears and Viagra-in-disguise, I am most mortified by my tendency to unwittingly order merchandise from China.

Why is this a problem? Try ordering an article of clothing that looks so cute on the model in the Facebook ad, but when it arrives it will only fit tiny Chinese models. Plus, it takes a month of Sundays to get through our customs, so that when it does arrive, you’ve forgotten you even ordered it.

And then, there is the problem of deciphering instructions. I thought the little detachable enlargement lens that I ordered for a Christmas gift would be a great device for my husband, who is always looking for serial numbers on lawn equipment and tools. The lens was supposed to allow you to do micro-photographs, enlarging things like flower pollen and a gnat’s you-know-what. It did not arrive in time for Christmas. When it did arrive, the lens was accompanied by an instruction booklet printed in Chinese. It also contained two laboratory glass slides. Then I looked at the front of the box and realized I had ordered a mobile microscope . . . for $125. Another OMG moment. Adding insult to injury, you have to download an app to run the dang thing. What a fool I have been!

Guess what will be joining more useless paraphernalia in the basement?

Our kids will kill us when they find this stuff

Our kids are going to jerk us from our graves and kill us again when they find all this stuff. But before that happens, I am swearing off Facebook advertising videos, following the example of my husband in throwing away the Publisher’s Clearinghouse mailings before opening.

Now the only problem we have is what to do with all those cute little, colorful, multiple-page ads that come in thick mail packets once a month. You know, the ones that make you feel obligated to go through each one. Just so you won’t miss out on a practical tool that will defoliate your cooking herbs, then chop them. I just ordered one. Along with a citrus zester. Oh, and a cute little tea set for my granddaughter.

Happy holidays from an old, apron-wearing granny

I never realized how ugly and outdated this apron was until I saw it on an old episode of The Brady Bunch. Housekeeper Alice Nelson was wearing its twin.

I got a rude awakening last night while watching a special ET report on the HGTV show about the makeover of the Brady Bunch house in California. Original cast members reunited to decorate the home for the holidays, in much the same way they did as kids on the hit series. The scenes kept shifting from current day to episodes of the popular sitcom that began airing in 1969. In one of the retro scenes, Housekeeper Alice Nelson was wearing my Christmas apron.

I did a double-take, because that exact same apron is hanging on a hook in the kitchen, next to its twin. I got the fabric for the two aprons on a bolt at Wal-Mart. The ties for the waist and the neck adorned the border of the 45 inch wide fabric. All I had to do was cut the aprons out and hem the sides, then sew the ties onto the apron body.

And that’s when it hit me. I am old and probably a living joke to younger types for all the things I still wear, make and use from the 1970s and 80s . . . Corning Ware, a lighted ceramic Christmas tree, my mother’s sour cream drop cookies and a fudge recipe from a 1981 issue of The Kansas City Star. Time keeps marching away from me and all I do is attempt to adapt. When I make my fudge now, I have to add a few more ounces of semi-sweet chocolate chips to the recipe and subtract about an ounce of marshmallow crème from the concoction to compensate for the trend of food processors to downsize their packages so they can make a bigger profit.

My twin holiday aprons have been with me since the 1980s. The first year I made Christmas cookies with my grandson, I tied one of them around his waist and cinched up the neck so he wouldn’t be wearing sprinkles and frosting. Those aprons are as ingrained a part of my holiday routines as making fudge to a Manheim Steamroller CD. But seeing Alice Nelson wearing one of them in a 1970s flashback was embarrassing. If my grandson was any older than his five years, he’d probably die of embarrassment at having photographic evidence of wearing something so un-cool. Sorta like his dad felt when he had to wear plastic bread sacks on his feet at Grandma’s house when he went out to play in the snow. Sorta like I felt when forced to wear black-on-black saddle oxfords to school. (Pardon me for getting so carried away by the embarrassment thing).

And today, when I sat at the computer to start writing my annual state-of-the-union letter (aka holiday letter) I realized how anachronistic those things are also. The cards that come in the mail these days have slowed to a pathetic trickle, confined largely to ones from our investment broker and insurance agents. Still, there are a few people like me who have this Pavlovian response when the calendar flips over to December. Okay! Time to send the people you communicate with only once a year your “What the Dog Did Today” letter.

We got one of those letters from a friend of my husband’s early in the season. When I saw him put the typed holiday message that came with the card to one side, I raised my eyebrows.

“Aren’t you going to read it?” I asked in surprise. “Later,” he said. Translated: probably never. Wow! How many of the folks at the other end of my holiday letters have had the same response? The possibility that people might be bored reading what our grandkids and our four-legged, furry friends accomplished over the past year had just never occurred to me.

So, in mortification brought on by a pair of anachronistic aprons and the real possibility that a long holiday letter might get a lukewarm reception, this old grandma is herewith retiring. I refuse to be the poster child for OLD. I will still make fudge every December, as long as my arms can stir semi-sweet chocolate chips and marshmallow crème together. I will send out a few Christmas cards to those friends and family who send us one, sans a long, boring letter.

But it’s probably time to retire the threadbare aprons, the exact same pattern that Alice Henderson wore on the Brady Bunch, and resign them to the rag bag.

Wait . . . does anyone still have a rag bag?

Unleashing the beast within: An old lady’s mystical musical memoir

My music muse/monster only came out late in life. Now he’s dancing on my head.

A holiday grinch would likely feel like pasting duct tape over my mouth these days.

No, I’m not counting down shopping days until Christmas. Instead, I’m a melody in motion. Either I have an ear worm singing lyrics, “The most fabulous, most marvelous, most joyously wonderful time, wonderful time… of the year” or I’m belting out that I’ll be home for Christmas.

Much to the chagrin of my husband, I’ve discovered the latent musical beast that has resided in my heart and gut since I was a child. It first came out when I discovered an old piano abandoned in an outbuilding on the 20-acre Kansas farm I lived on while a pre-schooler. I made up music for hours and sang nonsense while the dust in that old boat house swirled around, stirred up by the worn felt hammers striking the soundboard.

The day the music died

The muse got fed a little more when I took piano lessons in the private pre-school my mother put me in when my dad died. But my musical gremlin went to sleep a few years later on a family trip when the front seat occupants screamed at me to stop singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” There was an added postscript about my not being able to sing anyway. My poor music monster sniveled and moped to sleep that day.

Music muse did make a few guest appearances during my adult life. It whispered encouragement to buy that spinet piano for $25 a month and take lessons from a Juliard-trained teacher in Columbia, MO. It sneaked out again just before son Michael was born, when I took piano and organ lessons from my church’s music director. I learned to play easy piano tunes to my precious baby bump on an out-of-tune upright. In a few years I could play enough to get by as a substitute organist at church. But the singing side of the lurking music monster had to be content with hymn singing for decades.

Now I’m a bass/baritone

The “It” came out of hibernation when my second husband died and I funneled energies into a new church family, including signing up for the choir. There I learned the finer points of Gregorian chant and four-part harmony from two gifted teachers. When I remarried last year and moved back to the Kansas I left as a child, it was a given that my voice would join the small church choir. By then I had accepted the fact that my late-life range now fell in the baritone section. When my choir friends kept telling me I had a beautiful voice, I just looked at them in cross-eyed disbelief, figuring they were just glad to have another body in the choir pew. That old music beast must have been smirking all that time. Especially when two friends (they shall remain nameless for now) got me to join the Topeka Acapella Unlimited group. I questioned that decision every Monday night as my legs cramped while standing on risers way too long for the barbershop tune rehearsals.

But the music monster had it planned all along. He finally came alive and rose out of this 70-year-old body last weekend during a Sweet Adeline’s retreat. Actually, he came out shouting “Alleluia!”

About 25 of us mostly-mature-aged-wine barbershop women gathered in the great room of a lodge that normally greets wedding guests to practice music for our December 14 holiday show. Of course, the overriding goal was to improve our technique. Our coach for the weekend was Debra Lynn, a professional singer and voice coach, who uses a technique called Bel Canto. It originated centuries ago in Italian opera and allowed singers to belt out notes for hours without fatiguing their voices.

Debra and Bel Canto turned our former notions of singing upside down. We learned to forget about our vocal chords and forcing air through them. We tossed aside belly breathing, or tried to. We learned that 70-year-old voices can sound like 30 or 40-year old ones if you learn to plaster on a fake smile and thus open up your soft palette. The way I remember to set my face is by recalling the long-lost Sesame Street characters, those outers space dudes that went around going “Woop woop woop, Unh huh, unh huh!”

We also found out that if you alliterate or pop the consonants in the lyrics and think about resonating the sound up through your head and into the ceiling, magic happens.

Instructor Debra Lyn does Reiki as well as teaching the Bel Canto technique. The resident canine wanted her to scratch his belly.

The Bel Canto Technique

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. But as the bass section sat together on the front row Saturday, we tried to incorporate what we were learning in singing our sole melody line in “Some Children See Him.” As we crooned this beautiful lullaby about how little ones in different countries see the baby Jesus according to their own ethnicities, that’s when it suddenly happened. We heard a resonance coming from our vocal cavities that we never dreamed possible. The resulting emoting gave us goosebumps and made our hearts soar. We accomplished, for a brief moment, what my recruiting friends had promised: that instant when you are one sound, one unit. It sounded like the music was coming from angels above our heads.

Members of the Topeka Acapella Unlimited group at last weekend’s retreat.

Our job is to share

Now my danged music monster is skipping around, dancing on my head and the ceiling. He’s telling me, “I told you so.” At the same time he’s reminding me that I’m nothing special. Yes, I may have music in my soul, but so do many other people. Our job is to share it. If music is our thing, if it makes us happy, if it allows us to express joy and other emotions we’ve kept mostly to ourselves, it’s high time to join it with others and spread the love.

And now I no longer have the excuse of being too old to sing. I have found my voice and it ain’t half bad. I can even sing the Star-Spangled Banner in barbershop harmony now, as long as I have other voices to prop me up.

Wakarusa, the Town


This is the town I now call home. Wakarusa was to have been named Kingston. Coincidentally, the place I lived and operated my newspaper in for 27 years has a county seat named Kingston.
I was forced to leave this place called Wakarusa as a child. That meant leaving grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the little church where I attended Bible school just across the street while staying at my cousin Linda’s house. Today, so many years later, I have returned to my early roots, living in a place I always loved. This blog by Evelyn Davis has helped ground me in my love of place.

Evelyn's Musings

Wakarusa, the Town

Nestled in the beautiful Wakarusa Valley lies the little town of the same name. It is situated on the brink of a meander of the Wakarusa River which enfolds the south edge of the town, then curves north cradling the town on two sides.

Wakarusa is now a sleepy little bedroom community, but it wasn’t always so.  Like dozens of other once thriving Kansas communities, it has lost its business base and all that remains is a cluster of houses lining the main street through the town with a few one block side streets and a post office.


Stone sign erected by Raleigh & Liz Trembly about 2000.

Paralleling the main street is the main line of the Burlington Northern Santa Se Railroad tracks. It was the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad that put Wakarusa on the map. Founded in 1858, Wakarusa was originally named…

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To keep, or not to keep, all those Valentines?


My husband and I almost chuckle with glee when we both imagine our children coming across the boxes of greeting cards we’ve collected over the decades. Thank God they won’t be able to throw them at us in disgust when we’re both six feet under, even though they’ll probably want to.

We’re actually doing our best to add to the volume of the collections as we maintain a tradition of buying at least three cards for each occasion. My husband began this tradition with his late wife and I’ve joyfully adopted it. I was already a Hallmark-aholic after my late husband made a habit of picking out the most expensive and most beautiful cards for each special event. Opening the Christmas card that hid in the tree was the crowning touch of that gift-giving day.

And what’s not fun about going on a treasure hunt on Valentine’s Day? It all started last night when I got home from a trip to the city and saw the vase of red roses on the kitchen table and continued when I opened my iPad later to discover a Valentine card inside. I chuckled while brushing my teeth before bed to see a tiny box of chocolates with a miniature balloon on the bathroom ledge. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to find a heart-shaped box of chocolates and another Valentine card on my pillow. But I didn’t discover the box of chocolate turtles in my dressing room until this morning.

I did not do as well on hiding places, but one of the three cards I gave him with a gift of clothing and a cherry pie did have a spontaneous verse of my own creation inside. A fourth one is tucked under his pillow to be discovered tonight.


Though they may be expensive, greeting cards are personal artifacts. If preserved and treasured by the original recipient, they can provide important legacy stories if our descendants are willing to sift through them and uncover their value.

I know, because I’m trying to preserve my grandmother’s scrapbook of Get Well cards from 1950. I have to admit this is the most unusual scrapbook I’ve ever seen due to its subject matter. But as I read the beautiful collection from family and friends I am uncovering a story of a time when neighbors went out of their way to take care of each other, in sickness and in times of other trouble. The cards came from Grandma’s church members, ladies she exchanged recipes with and who worked side-by-side to make ham balls at fund raising luncheons. On the last page I uncovered the reason for the cards. According to the patient bedside slip, Grandma had a thyroidectomy in 1950, a pretty grave operation in those days. Interestingly enough, her daughter, my Aunt Gene, also had her thyroid removed, and Gene’s granddaughter did as well.


So there we have a side story inside the bigger story. Those cards depict an era. They depict a microcosm of caring and a capsule of health DNA. But the scrapbook pages that hold the cards are crumbling and the photo corners that held each one have dislodged. I have a new-old scrapbook where the cards will find a more secure resting place. They will soon find a prominent spot in the living room so they can be shared with visiting family members.


I will also be sharing the crumbling scrapbook that Grandma may have assembled as a child as she cut out colorful advertising labels from flower seeds and medicine bottles. These “snapshots” of the Victorian era are similar to ones that I’ve seen sold in antique shops. To me, they’re all beautiful, artistic treasures that make me want to verify the identity of the child who pasted them in the book, and even more, the things she was feeling and experiencing at the time.

If our own children wonder the same things about us when they discover shoe boxes full of cards, we can rest well in the assurance that our love is reaching out to them after our deaths in the signatures and sentiments expressed on colorful pieces of paper.

I wish I’d been there when Braymer almost became Branson


Over the recent holidays someone picked up an old thread on the Facebook page Braymer, MO Remember When. The discussion way back in 2011 began when I was asking for input on an article I was writing for The Caldwell County News seeking people’s memories of The Country Place. I promised the late-comers who wanted to read the article I wrote back then to reformat it somehow so they could read it now. It has evidently brought back lots of fond memories of a time when Braymer was the 1970s version of Branson. Here’s a little retrospective for a formerly “happenin’ place.” It  originally appeared in a regular insert of the newspaper called Rural Living.

The slogan, “Braymer—the Biggest Little Town in Missouri,” had a special significance in the 1970s. That was when Carl and Shirley Adams owned and operated The Country Place, north of Braymer on Route A, on a hill that spilled down into Shoal Creek.


The late Carl Adams, owner of The Country Place 

All that remains of the hopping country music venue and local entertainment spot is rocks, rattlesnakes, weeds and the shell of the skating rink/music hall that burned down, and the steakhouse that was under construction at the time of the fire. Then there are the ghosts of people that spent their weekends letting their hair down and relaxing, listening to some of the great country stars before they really hit the big time. The ghost of Carl Adams may even roam the hill. He and wife Shirley were the heart and soul of the operation until Carl’s untimely death on the dance floor of a heart attack. But in its heyday, it was a golden time in local history when the likes of Barbara Mandrell, Porter Wagner, LeRoy VanDyke, Ernest Tubb and Billy Crash Craddock climbed the Country Place hill in their big buses to entertain huge crowds.


An ad in the Hamilton Advocate Hamiltonian back in the 1970s

Jerry and Dixie McBee of Braymer had their first date at the Country Place in 1976 (they got married in 1978.) Dixie, who grew up in Polo, had already been a country music groupie, along with her extended family. Jerry was greeted by an entire table of Dixie’s relatives when they met that night. They’ve both been following Nashville stars since then. But in the 1970s, some of the stars were on a first name basis with Dixie and her dad. It almost blew Jerry away the night that Barbara Mandrell was entertaining at the Union Mill Opry in Edgerton and called Dixie by name from the stage, then told her to stick around after the show and she’d bring the baby out (her first child).


Barbara Mandrell appearing at The Country Place

Other Braymer natives have fond recollections of Mandrell’s appearances at The Country Place. Mary Floyd recalls her mother working there for years and one night she stopped at the place and Carl took her with Mandrell on a tour of her bus. Jackie Clevenger Adkison remembers Porter Wagner’s appearance and Ruth Anne Proctor Matthes recalls the dances and the skating rink and an appearance by Cal Smith, who sang “Country Bumpkin.”

Jodie Carpenter recalls having birthday parties at the skating rink when she was little and Teena Britt also recalls a concert by Mandrell. Chris Summerville remembers a later time, after Shirley sold the business, when two area bands, The Chapter Four and Country Sunshine, played for close to a thousand people on Saturday nights. Deana Hughes McCoy remembers the Krazy Kats pulling big crowds too.

Debbie Rankin was fortunate to have a special friendship with Carl and Shirley; she was invited to the skating rink before it opened to get the floor broken in. She owned and operated Rankin’s Cafe in those days and accommodated the Country Place gatherings by opening the restaurant at midnight for people to eat breakfast.

The entertainment venue holds such a special place in the hearts of Dixie and Jerry McBee, not only because that’s where they fell in love, but because it was such a family-centered place.

There wasn’t that much to do in those days in town,” recalls Dixie, adding that the skating rink and movie theaters had closed in Braymer by the mid-1970s. When the Country Place first opened, Jerry was not old enough to get in. But the day he turned 21, he lined up at the door to have his driver’s license checked and was a regular from then on. Jerry and Norman Mallory had formed a rock ‘n’ roll band when they were in their teens, but McBee said they all still had their country music roots. One day he and Norman sat down at Tait Park and wrote a song for Carl, hoping he’d use it as a jingle in his radio ads. He never used it, but the song stuck so well with some Braymer natives, it’s still sung today.

When a bunch of us get together, somebody would always ask us to sing the Carl song,” laughs Jerry. He even had a hard time remembering the words he wrote, but he finally summoned them from his memory banks. Here’s how it went:

Carl built the Country Place for skatin’ and for dancin’

Carl built the Country Place for lovin’ and romancin’.

Carl built the Country Place for you and me and all,

So come on everybody and let’s go have a ball.

There’s two routes that you can take to get to the Country Place.

When you get there don’t be surprised if you see a Nashville face. 

So if you’re tired of hanging around and a good time is what you seek,

Just come out north of Braymer and you’ll find us at Shoal Creek.


Well I’ll bet your heart will come to a still

When you see the lights upon the hill,

But there’s no need for you to fright

Cause Carl and Shirley will make it right.


The Country Place was built on a hill on Route A overlooking Shoal Creek. The building burned several years ago.