without-dad-at-christmas-2My youngest sister, Jean, and I were talking recently about our memories.  Although there is 8 years difference in our ages, neither of us has many Christmas memories. And there aren’t many pictures of our Christmases.    So here are a few random Christmas memories:

One Christmas when Judy and I were young, our dolls got baths and new clothes for Christmas!  We were thrilled – they seemed like new dolls to us.  Several years later, I asked for a “Ginny” doll for Christmas – a precursor to Barbie.  One of the cereal companies was offering her as a box-top special.  I ate the cereal, Mom collected the box tops, and Ginny arrived in time for Christmas.  By my sophomore year in high school, Judy and I were making most of our clothes.  My senior year everyone was wearing matching pastel skirt and sweater sets.  It had to have been quite a stretch for Mom’s budget, but I received a light mint green skirt and sweater that year.

I am sure Mom loved all of the Christmas gifts Mom received over the years.  Judy and I would save our money and go to the dime store and buy her Evening in Paris cologne; or we would buy more loops for our looms and make her pot holders.  If Mom got pot holders, Dad got handkerchiefs!

One year, Mom was getting ready for company to join us for Christmas dinner – probably Aunt Marge and Uncle Bob. Anyway, Mom had the vacuum and was cleaning up in the living room.  She lifted the wand to turn around and sucked the tinsel off the tree!

A couple more Mom memories.  One year she drove us into Grayslake and while there decided to get the Christmas tree.  It was close to Christmas and the tree was definitely a “Charlie Brown” tree.  Dad teased her about the pitiful tree she selected.   Another year, Mom dropped the turkey as she took it out of the oven.  I was walking into the kitchen at the time. She picked it up and put it back in the pan and suggested we not tell anyone!

Sometime after we moved to the lake, Tinkerbell became a regular visitor. Somewhere Mom got a small Tinkerbell knick-knack.  She told all of us that Tinkerbell reported our behavior to Santa.  All year long, she would move Tinkerbell around the house to keep an eye on us!  She was way ahead of the Elf on the Shelf!

The highlight of the day was Christmas Dinner.  It was not always the same thing,  usually turkey, ham, or roast beef.  Judy became the family baker and at an early age was making a variety of Christmas cookies.

In the fall, Judy and I would go into the pasture behind the house in Indian Hills and pick up hickory nuts… bags and bags of nuts.  In the evenings, we would shell the nuts.  Mom always made white nut bread with a powdered sugar glaze and a row of maraschino cherries down the top as our gifts to take to our teachers.  Here is her recipe.

White Nut Bread

¾ cup sugar
2 Tlbsp soft shortening
1 egg
1 ½ cups milk
3 cups sifted flour
3 ½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
¾ cup chopped nuts

Mix together thoroughly sugar, shortening and egg.  Stir in the milk.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir into the milk mixture.
Stir in the nuts.
Pour into a well-greased 9×5 loaf pan.
Let stand 20 minutes before baking.
Bake at 350 for 60 – 70 minutes or until pick comes out clean.













Family Faith

first communionJean and I talked about Christmas memories recently.  I want to write about those memories, but felt the need to tell this story first.

Although we went to church every Sunday and took part in all of the activities at church, we never really talked about God or Jesus at home.  We said a blessing before meals, but, otherwise, did not pray or read the Bible together – or see our parents do either.  There were many conversations about church activities and church politics, but not about what we believed or why.  We were often told what “good girls” did or didn’t do, but not in the context of faith.  It is not surprising that we grew up ambivalent about church, and unsure of who we are in Christ.

Now, the back story : Mom was raised Roman Catholic.  Dad was raised in the Lutheran Church.  Both sets of grandparents were against the marriage because of the difference in their beliefs.  Mom and Dad were married – I think by a priest – with only a couple of close friends present as witnesses.  It took time and grandchildren before good relationships were restored with our grandparents.

Mom and Dad both believed in God and in the importance of church, but it took a while for them to find a church where they could both be happy.  Judy and I were both baptized in the Roman Catholic church.  My first church memories are of going to Vacation Bible School at a Lutheran church.  Eventually, they found a small Episcopal church which became our church home until after Judy and I married.  My church memories include:

  • priests and sacraments;
  • always having my head covered in church;
  • catechism class, confirmation, and my first communion;
  • our small youth group;
  • Dad in the kitchen cooking spaghetti or pancake suppers;
  • the stations of the cross around the sanctuary;
  • Midnight mass on Christmas Eve, complete with incense;
  • and a couple we called Grandma and Grandpa Field who became our local, surrogate grandparents.

Later in life Mom and Dad seemed to be more comfortable in their faith and with talking about it. They read their Bible and prayed together.

As I sat with Mom in the hospital a day or two before she was moved to hospice, she had a very other-worldly conversation.  Mom looked up and said, “What are you doing?”  I asked, “Me? I am knitting.” She said “No, that white one up there!”  Then still looking up at the ceiling she blurted our Grandpa’s full name and, a few seconds later said “The Holy Roman Catholic Church.”

After Mom died, we found a drawer full of books and prayer notebooks.  She must have loved those books.  She had clearly read and reread them many times. Their covers were worn soft, and they were filled with underlining, dog-eared pages, and napkin book marks.  I think they were all in the drawer because she was losing her eyesight and could not see well enough to read.  The books were divided among us girls, so I don’t remember all of them, but I know they included: Daily Readings from Your Best Life Now by Joel Osteen, Listen, Beloved by Martha Smock and a Unity Book of Silent Prayer.

In later years, Dad would say, “Jesus taught us the Lord’s prayer; that is all we need.”  After Mom died, as Dad’s own health failed, the Lord’s Prayer became almost a mantra to him.  He repeated it often, especially when he did not feel well or was scared.

One of my last meaningful conversations with Dad occurred the day before he passed away.  I knew something was bothering him, but wasn’t sure what.  I told him that I had heard a song on the way over about what it will be like when we meet Jesus face-to-face.  (“I Can Only Imagine”)   He said, “That is what I am afraid of.”  His past sins were haunting him.  We were able to talk about Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins.  It was hard to tell, but I think he relaxed some.

Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)

 “This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,[a]
but deliver us from the evil one.[b]’”




Chips and Brats

For most of Dad’s career he was a meat-cutter/sausage maker.  He began working for his father in the family meat market.  One day Grandpa told Dad that he had taught Dad all he could.  He encouraged Dad to find a new mentor.

Until he retired, the only break Dad took from meat-cutting was when he and Mom moved with Judy and me to Indian Hills.  For several years, he drove a Blue Star potato chip delivery truck. He delivered potato chips, pretzels, and other snacks to taverns and small grocery stores.  Occasionally we got a treat from the truck – my favorites were the big pretzel sticks and the sardines!  (Mom remembered and many years later when I went off to Northern Illinois University, my first care package was big pretzel sticks!)

During the summer, Dad would take Judy or me along for a day.  I loved riding in the truck with Dad.  There was a hole in the floor.  I remember being both fascinated and a little scared seeing the road go by beneath us.  What I didn’t like was the way taverns smelled!

Dad eventually returned to cutting meat, making sausage and flirting over the counter.  He was a natural at all three, but sausage-making was his favorite.  He tweaked his recipes, adjusted spices until he felt that he had perfected Polish sausage, Italian sausage, and Bratwurst! (Dad loved creating and one of his other passions was wood-burning, but that is a story for another day!)

After we moved to the lake, family picnics became a regular summer occurrence with “brats” headlining the menu!  I don’t know Dad’s recipe for making bratwurst, but I have included his recipe for cooking “brats” below.   As he grew older and spent time reminiscing, he would often remind us, “Now this is how you cook brats…”

Dad’s Brats

Place fresh brats in a pan and cover with water.  Bring water to a boil.  Turn off the heat and let brats sit in water until the grill is ready.

In a separate pan heat beer and add butter and sliced onion. Heat until the butter melts and then keep warm.

Brown the brats evenly on the grill. Remove and place in the beer mixture until you are ready to serve.  When he reminisced, Dad would always say, “brown them until they are pretty all over.”


You don’t choose your family.
They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”
– Desmond Tutu








Sister, Playmate, Best Friend

with-4-young-girlsLet’s begin with the sisters:

Judy is the oldest. I followed her 18 months later.  Then there was a four-year gap before Kaye was born, and another four-year gap before Jean was born. Two years later (I think), our foster-sister Cheryl joined us.  She was one year old, so one year younger than Jean.  Years later, her brother, Rod, joined us as well.  He was one year older than Jean.  The family became Judy and me – the older girls, Kaye in the middle, and the younger kids.

But, I want to go back to my earliest memories.  Although I loved Mom and Dad, the person most important to me throughout our childhoods was my sister Judy.  We were constant companions, playmates, best friends.  All of my childhood memories include Judy.  Our favorite TV shows were “Ramar of the Jungle” and “Sky King.”  We pretended we were on those shows.  We made forts under Kaye’s crib and played with our dolls.  When the weather was nice, we played outside.  We played alone and we played with neighborhood friends – Jeanne, Kathy, Karen and others.  We trick-or-treated hand in hand and sledded down neighborhood hills.  I remember sitting on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder with Judy, watching Howdy Doody for the first time.

without-dad-at-christmas-2The fields that surrounded our subdivision were our playground.  We gathered hickory nuts in the pasture behind our house.  We rolled flat crop-circles in the wheat field and made them our play houses.  We made bologna sandwiches, swiped matches from the kitchen, and hiked through a field to a pond.  At the edge of that pond, we started a campfire, took the bologna off our sandwiches and “cooked” it on sticks.


Our dynamic changed as we moved to the lake, went to high school, got married, had children, and moved away.  (She had the family’s first grandchild, a son; and 10 months later I had the first granddaughter.)  But, Judy will always be my big sister and in my heart.


You don’t choose your family.
They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”
– Desmond Tutu


Sirens and Sewing Machines

As young girls, Judy and I would spend a week during the summer with Grandma and Grandpa Bessler in Chicago.   Grandma Bessler was a tall woman… imposing… a no-nonsense kind of person.  She wasn’t a cuddly kind of grandma; but Grandma could make magic happen with her sewing machine.  When we arrived, she would take the clothes off our dolls, take the clothes apart and make patterns from the pieces.  She would reassemble the clothes and then make new clothes for our dolls.  It’s not surprising that Judy and I both learned to sew and made a lot of our own clothing as well as clothes for our children.

One of the funny things about spending time with Grandma and Grandpa B, was that every morning Grandma would ask if we had a bowel movement.  If we hadn’t, we got a spoonful of Castor Oil.  We soon learned to answer “Yes” automatically!

I can remember sweeping in Grandpa’s meat market and enjoying our aunts and uncles who lived right there in the same building.  I remember walking down to the corner store for special treats.

Although I loved visiting with my city cousins, I always felt out of place in the city.  There was so much noise and so much traffic.  One of my clearest memories of those visits was lying awake at night… listening.  With no air conditioning the windows were open, and all night long there was the sound of traffic and sirens.  By the end of the week I was ready to get back home to the quiet of the country.  It probably didn’t help that there was a cemetery right across the street!

Grandma was a great cook!  My favorite cookie was her lacy oatmeal cookies.

Grandma’s Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 ½ cups flour
1 cup oatmeal
1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350.  Mix all ingredients.  Drop on an un-greased cookie sheet.  Press down with a sugared glass.  Bake for 10 minutes.

You don’t choose your family.
They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”
– Desmond Tutu









It Takes Two

Grandpa LeClercq was not out on the farm by himself.  Grandma kept their home and provided farm-house meals.  Many of my memories from the farm include tables full of food… including a variety of homemade pies.  In the mid-fifties the farm-house did not have indoor plumbing other than a small hand pump in the kitchen… think chamber pots by night and out-house by day!

I have random memories of Grandma LeClercq and the farm…

  • Grandma pulling the chamber pot out from under the bed so that my sister and I could get to it at night.
  • A bowl of old fashioned Christmas candy set out where little hands could reach it.
  • Grandma and Mom with Judy and I in the kitchen with some kind of “curling iron” they heated up on the stove, fussing with our hair.
  • The central room of the house – the room in which Grandpa’s chair sat in the corner – with a long dining table down the center.  Most visiting took place around that table.
    Ok, it was at that table that one of my not-so-fond, but now very funny memories occurred!  I hated green peas, still do!  Back in the day of “you will eat some of everything,” I went to great lengths to figure out what to do about the peas!  One holiday meal at the farm, I left an inch or two of milk in my glass and spit all the peas into that milk.  “Mary, finish your milk!” Busted!  No pie for me!

Grandma was a good cook and great baker. It is interesting that Mom was a more ambivalent cook – she cooked out of necessity but never seemed to really enjoy it.  As soon as Judy was old enough she did much of the cooking and baking.

I will tell you about Grandma and Grandpa Bessler soon.  In contrast, they lived in the city of Chicago.  I loved visiting the farm – I was, and still am, more comfortable out in the country; and, despite the food-rules, it was a fun place to visit.

Here is Grandma’s recipe for Crumb Cake; Mom would make it as well.  We all loved it!

2 cups flour
1 ½ cups sugar
3/4 cup shortening (Grandma always used lard, Crisco works)
Mix into crumbs. Reserve a small cup of crumbs for the top.
To the remainder of the crumbs, add and cream together:
2 eggs
¾ cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 tsp baking powder
Bake in a “slow” oven.



War and Peace

child-with-family(This wonderful picture is my grandfather, mother, Aunt Evelyn, and grandmother.)

My sister recently had the ancestry DNA test – the results based on her DNA were:

52% Great Britain,
28% Eastern European,
7% Western European,
7% Scandinavian.

I don’t know about our Great Britain, Eastern European or Scandinavian ancestry; but that 7% Western European includes my grandparents.

The story I want to tell today is about my maternal grandfather. Grandpa LeClercq was from France and emigrated to the United States during the first World War as a young teenager. After losing her husband and another son in the war, his mother sent him to the United States with a friend.  Grandpa never saw his family or homeland again.

Grandpa was quiet, introspective, perhaps introverted – maybe homesick for France.  Mom was a lot like her father, keeping a lot of her deeply personal feelings inside.  Grandpa had an amazing “green thumb.”  He could grow anything.  During our childhood, Grandpa had a truck farm outside Chicago.  He grew corn, cabbage, tomatoes, and other vegetables… and hollyhocks for Grandma. He grew mountains of pumpkins every fall.

My memories include:

  • Going to visit the farm during the summer and fall. Dad helping in the fields.  Mom helping in the kitchen. Playing in the yard. Grandpa sending us home with bags of whatever veggies were in season.  Sweet corn being my favorite!
  • Getting to pick a pumpkin in the fall.
  • “Helping” whoever was working the roadside stand.
  • Loving the hollyhocks along the sides of the yard.

Grandpa trucked most of the veggies into stores in Chicago.  Grandpa also worked seasonally for the Cook County/Chicago parks as a landscaper.

When Grandpa wasn’t farming, he sat in his chair by the window smoking his pipe, looking out at the farm.  My most favorite memory is climbing up into his lap and sitting there quietly looking out the window with him.  Pipe smoke always makes me think of Grandpa.


I was in the fourth or fifth grade maybe when Grandpa was killed in a freak landscaping accident.  Soon after, the farm was sold and Grandma came to live with us.

Perhaps, Grandpa led me to eventually marry a man with a green-thumb whose idea of a garden is 150 tomato plants!

You don’t choose your family.
They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”
– Desmond Tutu