Missing Grandma at Muir Woods

Funny what you think about when you’re wandering among the giant trees.

I went to Muir Woods on Saturday, on my way home from whale watching. It was my third or fourth visit ever.

Muir Woods National Monument is a valley just north of San Francisco that’s filled with groves of giant redwood trees along a small creek. It features a boardwalk and paved pathway, several other trails, and signage to help you understand the ecology and history of the woods.

All the other times I’ve been there have been late in the day when the place was mostly deserted. On Saturday, I arrived at 5 PM and although the place was definitely emptying out, it was pretty obvious that it had been packed earlier in the day; there were cars parked along the road for at least two miles leading up to the park entrance with so many people walking back to them that I thought the cars were for some big party at Muir Beach.

In Muir Woods
It was dark down at the base of the tall trees.

Along the creek
There wasn’t much water in Redwood Creek, but it was picturesque, anyway.

Because of the time of day and the angle of the sun and the park geography, the pathways were in dark shadows. But if you looked up toward the tops of the giant trees, you’d see the sun still shining on them. Still, I didn’t take many pictures. Instead, I just walked along the pathways along the creek at my own pace, thinking about what I was seeing and trying to tune out the noise of the tourists all around me.

I remembered my first visit to Muir Woods, years before in January. Back in the 1990s, I was a regular speaker at Macworld Expo in San Francisco. I’d fly out for a few days — usually with my future wasband — see the show, do my speaking thing, and then spend some time in the area. Airfare and hotel costs in the city were a write-off as a business expense. The vacation tacked on afterward was just fun. One year we visited Napa Valley, another year we visited Sonoma Valley, another year we went south to Monterrey and St. Louis Obispo, and another year we headed to Hawaii. Those were great trips in days long gone.

I don’t remember which year we first went to Muir Woods. But I do remember the quiet of the woods and seeing two salmon heading up stream to spawn in water that was barely deep enough to cover them. One male, one female, several hundred feet apart, struggling to move upstream. I wanted so badly to just grab one of them and put it with the other one in the same pool of water so they could go about their business and die.

I don’t remember the park being very crowded or noisy. I just remembered it being dark and kind of hushed.

It was dark on Saturday, but definitely not hushed.

Even when signs asked visitors to “Enter Quietly” — as they do upon entry to the Cathedral Grove — people called back and forth to each other and kids screamed and cried. I could have been at the mall.

I tried hard to tune it all out, focusing on the tall, straight trees. And when I made a turn down a pathway and found myself in a little cul-de-sac with a bench before a huge tree, I found myself thinking about my grandmother.

Born in 1912 as one of eight children, my grandmother was a hardworking woman who never experienced much outside the world of her home in the New York Metro area. In the 1980s, when I had a job that required a lot of business travel, and then later, when I traveled with my future wasband, I’d send her a postcard from everyplace I went. That and television were he exposures to the rest of the country. When she died in 2002, we found a shoebox with all those postcards inside it. She’d kept every single one.

I found myself thinking about the last time I’d gone hiking with her. She was in her late 70s at the time and still very active, working part-time as a hostess in a family restaurant. I’d taken her to the State Line Lookout in Palisades Interstate Parkway and we’d walked one of the trails through the woods. I’d been worried about her when I realized how steep the trail was in parts, but I didn’t need to. At one point, I saw her stabbing a branch she’d picked up as a walking stick into a hole alongside the trail. When I asked her what she was doing, she told he she’d seen a snake go in the hole. Someone else’s grandmother (or mother or girlfriend, for that matter) might have screamed and run the other way. But not my grandmother. She was tough.

As I stood in the clearing at the base of the tree, I realized that the path through the woods was made so that everyone could enjoy the wonder of the trees, no matter how old or young they were. I found myself wishing that I could have brought my grandmother there. I could imagine her awe as she looked up and realized just how tall that tree was. Or when she looked at the base of the tree and realized just how big the trunk was.

“For crimsey’s sake!” she’d say. None of us knew where that came from but we knew that when she said it, it meant she was impressed. It was like me saying “Holy cow!” (or “Holy shit!”)

I wished I could shown her the big trees. Or the Grand Canyon. Or the view from my helicopter on a flight along the Pacific Coast. Or even the giant cactus that grew in my yard in Arizona or the amazing view from my homesite in Washington. The incredible but normal things beyond her limited range of travel and experience.

The things we take for granted as we make our way through life. The things we don’t miss if we never see them at all.

I miss you, Grandma.

Julia’s Thanksgiving Cranberry Recipe

The real recipe; not the lazy-cook knockoff circulating among her family and friends.

My mother-in-law Julia may not have been the best all-around cook, but there were a few things that she made extraordinarily well. One of them was her Thanksgiving cranberries. For a kid who grew up with cranberries served out of a can — still shaped like the can, mind you — this was an amazing revelation that cured me of canned cranberries for good.

Thanksgiving 1996I first made Julia’s cranberry recipe for Thanksgiving dinner in 1996. This was an amazing meal served in my New Jersey home. Our Salvation Army-acquired dining table, expanded to its full length with the help of a homemade leaf fully five feet wide, made it possible for all 15 of us to sit together. Amazing timing with the help of a standard sized oven and the microwave I still own made it possible to serve the entire meal at the same time, fresh and hot. If there is such a thing as miracles, this was one of them. I’ll never be able to top that feat again.

Anyway, Julia gave me her cranberry recipe for that meal and I prepared the cranberries a day or two in advance to her specifications. It came out perfectly.

Recently, I obtained a copy of the recipe that was distributed to family and friends on the back of a card handed out at her funeral. I was shocked to see that it included canned cranberries. The recipe Julia shared with me didn’t have cranberries out of a can. It had fresh cranberries prepared on the stove — the way a real cook would prepare them.

Here, then, is the recipe Julia shared with me back in 1996. I’ll be making this for my friends to enjoy at Thanksgiving this year.

Ingredients:

  • Cranberries
    Julia’s real cranberry recipe started with fresh whole cranberries.

    2 12-oz bags fresh, whole cranberries

  • 2 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 12-oz can crushed pineapple (packed in natural juice; do not drain)
  • 1 10-oz can Mandarin orange pieces (drained), crushed or chopped
  • 3 or 4 figs, fresh or dried, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, diced (optional for crunchiness; I usually omit it)
  • 1 small apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
  • 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or orange juice

Instructions:

  1. Rinse the cranberries and place them in a pot.
  2. Add the water and one cup of the sugar and stir.
  3. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to simmer, stirring occasionally.
  4. Listen for the cranberries to “pop.” When about two thirds of them have popped, remove them from the heat and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
  5. Drain away the cooking water and place the cranberries in a large bowl.
  6. Add the remaining half cup of sugar and still well. Sugar should dissolve.
  7. Cool thoroughly.
  8. Add remaining ingredients and stir well.
  9. Cover and store in the refrigerator at least overnight so the flavors will meld.

Finished Cranberries
Here’s what my cranberries look like this year.

Serve with turkey (for Thanksgiving!) or pork (any time of the year).

If you’re looking for something different with your turkey this year, try homemade mango chutney. That’s also good with pork.

By the way, the other thing Julia made so perfectly was a New York style cheesecake. I dreaded when she made it in my kitchen because she made an enormous mess. But it was worth it: creamy, delicious, and just sweet enough — if you could convince her not to top it off with something silly like cherry pie filling.

I miss you more than I thought I would, Julia. Rest in peace.

My New Old Tools

They just don’t make them like this anymore.

I finally get it. I understand why tools are a big seller at estate sales.

As I wrote earlier this month, my godfather, Jackie, passed away in late October. Although personal business in Washington made it impossible for me to see him before he died, I was able to join my mother and cousin a few days afterward, to help them go through the things he left behind in his house. I came home with the monkey lamp I’d always admired and a never-used Proctor-Silex toaster dating from about 1965 that I now use regularly.

I also came away with some tools. I didn’t expect to, but when I first laid eye on the marvelously shiny, new-looking nail clipper made in Italy, I just couldn’t let it go to Goodwill. You simply can’t buy something like that anymore — hell, everything in this country seems to be cheap crap made in China.

A while later, we stumbled into a drawer filled with more tools. Woodworking tools, garden tools, pipe wrenches, awls, and a manual drill. Every one of these tools were well used but still in great shape. Best of all, they were heavy duty, made in USA, proudly stamped with patent numbers or manufacture locations or both. The kinds of tools you simply can’t find anymore.

Although I was flying home on an airliner and didn’t know quite how I’d get the tools home, I chose a few I knew I’d be able to use — tools that would complement those I already had in my toolbox. (Even though I’m a girl, I have a remarkably complete toolbox that can help me get most jobs done.) I bundled them up in bubble wrap and eventually loaded them into my checked luggage (with the toaster and lamp base). I admit I was amazed when that bag weighed in at 48.5 pounds. (Another pound and a half and I would have paid a premium to get it on the plane.)

My New Old Tools
The tools I brought back from Jackie’s house.

I’ve already used some of the tools to get work done around my place. I like the way they feel in my hands — sturdy and stronger than me. I don’t think any of them will break — unlike numerous made-in-China tools I’ve destroyed in the past. In a way, I wish I’d dug deeper into his collection — perhaps in the garage — to find more old tools I could use. It would have been worth the extra baggage handling fee to get them home.

Now all I need is one of those big red toolboxes…