Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Our German Christmas Tree

Holidays are about tradition and Christmas time is the time of year our family celebrated with friends and family for 2 weeks during the holiday break, between Christmas and New year. Our family’s tradition was our German Christmas tree. As the story goes…my Mother’s Great Grandfather resided in Leisnig Germany as a Jeweler. It was during the U.S. Civil War era, he became quite patriotic toward the United States. There, he fashioned a traditional German Christmas Tree with an American flair, from materials around his shop and village. The completed tree stands about 6 feet tall, fully assembled when displayed on its wooden packing crate.

Every other year, we would visit my Mother’s Brother and family for Thanksgiving when we would exchange the multiple boxes containing the tree. Being 100 yrs. old by the time I was born, the contents were much too fragile, not to mention valuable, to ship. At first, I remember going to our Gram’s home where she proudly featured her Husband’s family heritage. After that, Gram spent Christmases between my Uncle’s house and ours, following the tree religiously. With antique toys and live candles, we were verboden to go anywhere near the tree.

One year when I was in high school and my older sinister was on break from college, we decided to take it upon ourselves to tackle the assembly which had become a “Rubik’s cube”-like challenge with its warped platforms and bent fan blades. The tree required periodic maintenance and I can picture My Dad and Uncle touching up the red, white and blue paint coating the picket fences and peg-legged farm animals rigged by wooden matchsticks. Many pieces spent the night in the vice so as to fit into its respective place, or the integrity of the entire product would fail. They meticulously numbered and labeled each piece for repacking and reassembling.

I was assigned “Great Expectations” to read over the Christmas break, which is the only reason I got out of church that morning. The otherwise privileged college student & I figured we were now old enough to raise the tree, let alone even touch it. Nonetheless, no one was home to tell us otherwise. We collectively managed to put it together, invoking the precision of a Swiss watchmaker and perhaps, our Great, Great Grandfather. Our parents were thrilled and impressed so we were "permitted” to assist in future years. It was a rite of passage until we all married, had families of our own and were never “responsible” enough to house The Tree ourselves.

The years we were blessed with the German Christmas Tree demanded an open house. Neighbors, family, friends and the local press, approaching 200 in number, would flow in and out of our house all evening. The periodic cold blasts of air from the opening of the front door would temper the heat that built up from the 45 Angel Chime candles illuminating the tree. This reprieve was essential for the tree to function properly. You see, a German Christmas Tree mechanically constructed of merely wood, is an engineering marvel of moving parts. The tilted fan blades topping the tree would catch the rising heat from the candles, causing each tier to turn. The animals were antique German toys originally filled with candy and positioned on each turntable. Wild animals donned the first, birds on the second, domestic farm animals on the third, and a miscellaneous collection (from over the century plus), on the fourth. When the surrounding air became too hot, the tree would come to a halt and when there was too much heat beneath the tree, each turntable would spin wildly out of control causing the animals to literally go flying! We would laugh at the familiar “chunk-ing” sounds from the fallen creatures. It was our cue to notify Dad that some candles needed to be extinguished. We soon understood why so many of the less stable critters had prophylactic limbs.

I mentioned that the impetus for the “spin” (pun intended) on this tree was my GGGrandfather’s patriotism for this country, inspiring him to paint the hand-carved picket fences from wooden jewelry boxes in white with red points. The blue fence posts on each corner supported the metal candle holders from watch cases. The top level featured Uncle Sam painted in the American flag, a now politically incorrect Black Sambo, an elephant, a donkey and a black cat representing superstition. Each blade of the fan alternated red, white and blue, affixed to a bent center support rod pivoting on a pin on the base of the tree, adorned by the Nativity. Old Hummel-like figurines shared the scene with more animals and a handcrafted manger cradling a wax baby Jesus. The wax Jesus was original and feel the true miracle is that it hasn’t melted into oblivion under the extreme heat all these years! When we had our own homes and incorporated our own family traditions, our Mother presented each of us with a table top version of the carved wooden German Christmas Tree. As touching a gesture as that may be, it undoubtedly alleviated her of a little guilt. This tiny tree is much easier to put together, remaining in mostly a single piece where both animals and people are permanently affixed to each layer. I take great pleasure lighting it several times during the season and remembering what it represents. Now my daughter would like it to grace her home for her children. Someday…

Whatever you celebrate or honor or recognize at this time of year, traditions like these are the most cherished and memorable. Our ancestors passed down these traditions from differing cultures to share a little bit of home and themselves, during this special time of year.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

“A” Is For “Apple”

Its apple season and I sure miss the wonderful apples my Dad used to grow in our own back yard. When we first moved to Moreland Hills, I was the youngest of 3, just turning 6 years old. Dad acquired a three acre property complete with fruit trees, most of which being apples of various types. We each claimed a tree from that point on was referred to as “Beth’s tree”, etc. I chose the Jonathan, a sweeter, smaller apple hence a smaller tree of which I was capable of climbing. In addition to my tree, the yard was dotted with a couple of Golden Delicious, twin Granny Smiths, a Cortland and a Baldwin.

Dad soon learned how to care for his orchard. He went to the library to research sprays and pesticides appropriate for our region, when and how to prune, what to assess and maintain the trees he grew to take pride in year ‘round.

On those early autumn days while the weather was still warm and the late season sun cast an amber glow across the lawn, the air was crisp with the sweet fragrance from apples that had fallen to the ground. The yellow jackets buzzed around the decaying fruit the deer had left behind. We each grasped a corner of the durable woolen army blanket beneath Dad who was teetering 12 feet above us on the rickety old wooden ladder, poised to catch either him or the individual handpicked apples with care. The well-choreographed event prevented the precious fruit from bruising, requiring the unexpected phenomenon of teamwork. Wheelbarrows full of fresh multi-colored apples were carefully transported to the garage to be sorted, hand polished and measured into bushel baskets for sale.

I remember being escorted into the bank to open our very own individual savings account. Our first deposits totaled a healthy sum, even for the 1960’s. We continued to follow the same tradition every fall, introducing a different activity each subsequent year. The first year we attempted to squeeze our own cider with an antique cider press, only to find our efforts futile. The following year, we drove our harvest further out to the country to Patterson Fruit Farm, a large yet still old fashion operation. They systematically weighed our vehicle by driving our apple heaped car onto the wooden platform scale, weighing again after unloading the baskets and crates then compensating accordingly for the difference. The disappointment for me was discovering that the cider we brought home was in fact not from our apples with which I had developed a personal relationship. Some cider was enjoyed immediately, some stored to become “hard” and some kept and aged for medicinal purposes like sinusitis and digestive ailments. I got why the old adage “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” originated.

The bushels of freshly picked apples were transformed into pie and applesauce my Mom made in quantity, storing in the freezer for us to enjoy all year long. She taught me how to make the best deep-dish pie, 6 at a time! She showed me how to can applesauce she rigorously put through the ricer then slow-cooked, finally adding cinnamon red hot candies to sweeten, lending its characteristic pink colour. Decades later while living in Wisconsin, Mom sent me a huge box of individually wrapped apples from home. She included a blend of different varieties that carefully formulated a balance of both flavor and texture. It came to be known as the most expensive pie ever, considering the cost of postage by weight and volume. In anticipation of their future visit, I was also determined to make it the best!

The years past and weather took its toll on my tree. The sheer weight of ice following an unseasonable storm split my tree in half, too much of a shock for it to survive. Mom had the foresight to collect the last of the few apples that poor little tree would ever produce, and deliver them to me. Mom and Dad continued their apple ritual, earning a reputation in the community as well as with charities. They sold their now highly regarded apples to friends and neighbors, donating all proceeds to support Heifer Project International. Mom would take her pink applesauce from the freezer and package it with her signature chicken soup for friends who were ill or receiving chemotherapy.

When Dad died in 2004, all I could think to say in memoriam was the experience we had through the life of the apple. I offered an apple on the altar in memory of Dad, our teacher; of growth, harvest, teamwork, economics, sustenance, health, sharing and caring, respect for Mother Nature and the spirituality expressed by the symbology of the apple. Thanks Mom & Dad for the lessons learned and the lifetime of inspiration.

Friday, August 21, 2009

When I went off to college….

Shortly after my 18th birthday, I went off to college for the first time. Like all freshman, I was facing an unknown. I was not only leaving the nest, I was leaving the only lifestyle I had ever known that I had artistically created for myself. My best friend and preferred “big Sister”, once again conjured a spell to remedy that imbalance. You may have heard of “friendship rings” or “friendship bracelets”, well, we are just about everything but cliché…

Without hesitation, she reached up to her ear lobe and unfastened one of her intricately fashioned serpent hoops that were so expressly her! She pressed it into my palm and folded my fingers around it tightly; assuring me of the energy, we now shared. I wore that single earring, sometimes with a different one on my right side, but mostly by itself for my entire first year! I wish I had a nickel for every time someone stopped me to say, “I think you lost an earring”. I always thanked them for their taking notice and replied, “Nope, nothing lost, one is all I need”.

A few years later on my wedding day, there was Beth, my Matron of Honor, wearing the single serpent earring from the pair we shared. She expressed the ultimate display of support, as I was about to embark on a new life. Decades later, I returned the earring so she would once again have the pair. Closer than ever, that jewelry served as a symbolic gesture of love and sharing that was undoubtedly more profound than any level of friendship could compare – just like “magic”!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Mother's Milk

Once upon a time, before the innovation of infant formula, there was only one way to feed your newborn and that was with breast milk; Mother Nature’s invention. My Grandmother told a story of having trouble producing milk with her second child. Her doctor instructed her to go home and ask her husband to make beer in the bathtub. This surprised her, particularly since it was during prohibition. She had heard of bathtub gin but not bathtub beer. Even though she was a “teetotaler”, she followed doctor’s orders without question, succumbing to the home crafted bathtub beer remedy as prescribed. Curious, what could be the rationale behind such professional advice?

Beer has several components that support breastfeeding from the production of milk to the release and let-down. There is a debate over the introduction of alcohol into the bloodstream, which with beer, is minimal once metabolized through the Mother’s system then digested by the baby. Certainly, the consumption of alcohol by a nursing Mother is not promoted, however; the myths are dispelled by LaLeche League International. Home testing kits are available to measure the alcoholic content in breast milk if one subscribes to the “pump and dump” technique.

The grains, barley and hops, in beer have biochemical properties promoting milk production, making non-alcoholic beer an excellent alternative as noted by Berthold Koletzko* and 1Frauke Lehner


Div. Metabolic Diseases and Nutrition, Dr. von Haunersches Kinderspital, University of Munich, Germany


“Traditional wisdom claims that moderate beer consumption may be beneficial for initiation of breastfeeding and enhancement of breastfeeding success. Here we review the question whether or not there-is any scientific basis for this popular belief. There are clear indications that beer can stimulate prolactin secretion which may enhance lactogenesis both in non-lactating humans and in experimental animals. The component in beer responsible for the effect on prolactin secretion is not the alcohol content but apparently a polysaccharide from barley, which explains that the effect on prolactin can also be induced by non-alcoholic beer. No systematic studies are available to evaluate the clinical effects of beer on induction of lactogenesis, and short term studies have shown a reduced breast milk intake by infants after moderate alcohol consumption of their mothers. It is conceivable that relaxing effects of both alcohol and components of hop might also have beneficial effects on lactogenesis is some women, but there is no hard evidence for causal effects. It appears prudent not to generally advocate the regular use of alcoholic drinks during lactation but to rather refer mothers to non-alcoholic beer, even though no adverse effects of an occasional alcoholic drink during lactation have been documented.”


Hops is a grain present in beer that creates a relaxing and slightly sedative effect. From the genus cannibus, hops is an effective nervine, promoting sleep. Hops has been used medicinally for centuries throughout Europe, to treat these as well as several other conditions.


Barley is an ancient grain that has algaecide properties and contains all eight essential amino acids. It is high in other nutrients as well. It has been used for many years to increase production of breast milk. This is why beer, with its’ proposed ingredients, is a natural choice for Mother’s who are breastfeeding.

Monday, July 20, 2009

“The Birthplace of Aviation”

July 20, 1969…It was my 7th Birthday but not like just any other birthday occurring once a year. Today the astronauts would land on the moon, making history. We all huddled around the television for hours, waiting and watching on a black and white monitor of vast nothingness that was our first glimpse of “space”. Being MY birthday, I was irritated at the fact that the attention was diverted from me. The day was dark and the weather was stormy, downright ominous. I couldn’t help but wonder if Mother Nature was upset with people for walking where they shouldn’t have. Somehow, it didn’t seem right. The rains continued to fall and the sky remained dark as night while Dad drove us down the road to the Chagrin River where we watched it rise. We parked on the bridge at the bottom of the street, spanning the feeder creek that ran through our back yard. The water was muddy, moving rocks and boulders with its might and now rushing wildly over the bridge. As it reached the bumper of our 1968 Plymouth Fury III convertible, Dad decided it was time to leave. We returned home with the force of Mother Nature echoing in my ears, scolding us with her powerful wrath only she could conjure. I was convinced “she” was acting as a parent, disapproving of this most unnatural technological event.

I opened my gifts and had cake, Hough bakery cake. I got a tennis racket I still have to this day. Later that evening, when the air cleared enough to catch a fuzzy glow of the moon, I strained my eyes hoping to locate movement of the now heroes who had blasted through time and space. I asked my Dad why we could not see them and he gave me the only answer a Father would give a silly soft 7 year old girl; “Because they’re on the other side” he remarked convincingly.

I have since had a much different perspective of that day in 1969 when the astronauts of Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Every 7 years became a significant birthday to me. For my 14th, I was old enough to spend the day at Geauga Lake Amusement Park with a group of my closest friends. At age 21, I was a newlywed living in Dayton, OH, home of the Wright Brothers, and celebrated my birthday dinner at the top of a tower hanging in the night sky overlooking the lights illuminating the city. In the next room, Wright Patterson Air Force Base was honoring the first girl to walk with muscle stimulated assistance, pioneering a method of overcoming paralysis. At age 28, we relocated to the Outer Banks, NC and lived down the street, just beyond the Wright Brother’s Memorial. “First in Flight” read the license plates. I anxiously took the airborne tour in a single prop plane above the same dune, nearly 100 years later, from the same perspective. I was awarded a certificate in honor of sharing that historic event. In 1997, the summer my Mother died, she had marked in her calendar on my birthday, “Beth walks on the moon”. That July 20th, I found myself in the Science and Technology Museum at the Smithsonian. When I hit the Mall, I immediately made a beeline to see the very space capsule that had become a symbol of pride, adventure and our future. A little more than a year later in early November, I landed on the same spot but this time, behind a velvet rope with a small gathering of people, glued to a monitor where we talked with Astronaut John Glenn from space, as he took his tour once again of the moon (coincidentally he was 77!). They presented a moon rock we lined up to view and touch in person. It was a completely spontaneous trip and event that was an absolute thrill and honor. Now its 40 years later and once again, its my Birthday, my 47th Birthday, and the lunar landing has become personal. I plan to commemorate the day much the same way America and the world did 40 years ago. I will celebrate with family and eat cake, while looking forward to my next “every 7th birthday” in a couple of years when I turn 49. Who knows what surprises await-maybe that will be the year I finally travel space. Happy Birthday to all the aptly named “Moon Children”…Happy Birthday John Glenn!