things I said at Peter’s service.

grabie

I will try to keep this short, but I always write too many words. I actually talked to Pete about this quite a number of times. He always claimed that he had no great talent as a writer, but I think that was Peter being self-deprecating. Regardless, through his years in advertising and his classes in journalism at Northwestern, he knew how to put sentences together. He’d tell me that there was a right word for everything, and that there was a great value to being concise.

I hope I can do that for him today, but I’m not sure.

Last week I was in the Czech Republic, working as a journalist at a large sporting event.

About the time that my grandfather Peter passed away, I was collecting my credentials from the media office. I handed over my passport and in return received a laminated name tag with my picture on it. And then a woman approached me with a box. “The gift,” she said.

It’s traditional for organizing committees to offer some item to journalists and athletes at events like these, but I was not expecting a heavy cardboard box. I’ve previously received coffee mugs and backpacks. As I carried it home, the handle cut into my fingers, and I wondered what could possibly be inside. When I opened it, I found six bottles of Czech wine.

Looking back, I think this was perfect. Peter would have been smiling. He knew how to combine hard work with fun, adventure, and mischief, and that attitude towards life is something that we should all aspire to.

As kids, we don’t understand that our grandparents had lives before becoming our grandparents. When we’re little, we see only a pair of old people, who alternately scold us and dote on us. Luckily, as we get older, these relationships become deeper and more complex.

Peter believed that any of us could become anything that we wanted to, and that we should have the opportunities to try to do so. Many of us are still figuring out what that thing is, but Peter has always been supportive of all of us all the way through.

I’m a biologist, and Peter was certainly not a scientist. But because of his love of fishes, of flowers, of the landscapes of the forests and lakes of the upper Midwest or of the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, we could always talk about the things that I was doing, and I find that amazing.

I feel like I am obligated to speak a little bit on behalf of all of my cousins. Abie and Peter both were devoted to the idea that we should be able to have the best educations, and they were proud of us no matter what we did. I don’t know too many other grandparents who attended each and every one of their grandchildren’s graduations, from New Hampshire to Texas. They did.

But it’s not until we are adults that we realize that our grandparents were truly remarkable long before we were even born. In the last few years I was lucky to begin to have some grownup conversations with Peter, even though I’m not a grownup.

After our last visit in particular, I was looking forward to the coming years when I could ask him more about his life, after receiving tantalizing stories about growing up on the Upper Peninsula. I’ve been lucky to travel there, so I feel like I can begin to understand his childhood – but not really, and I wanted to hear more from him. And stories about  traveling in the peacetime navy, which he always described as a plumb gig. Starting in advertising, and traveling around the southeast in train cars. Parties with Abie and their friends that would leave any of us grandchildren reeling if we could time travel back fifty years and try to keep up. Fishing trips to remote and beautiful parts of the world that most of us can only dream of seeing.

But even though I feel a void where those future stories should be, I am left looking back on wonderful times with as sweet and loving a grandfather as anyone could ask for. My cousins and I prospered from Peter’s life twofold. We had him as a grandfather, and we had his sons as fathers and uncles. I look at my father, Geof, and know that he is the best dad. I look at Keith, Chris, and Todd, and know that they were the best uncles – I remember screaming with delight when we would play when I was growing up. Where did they learn all of this, if not from their own father?

So thank you, Peter, for all that we have gained from all five Little boys.

petegarden

Peter, walking off into the garden forever.

Atlanta, again.

I’m all out of sorts and I can’t sleep. What day of the week is it? As I lie in bed at night, physically exhausted to the core, I toss and turn for hours. It’s like going back to he days before I stopped ski racing, when I could never fall asleep. At the time, I thought that was my default mode. For the last two years, I have slept like a baby – until now. Maybe for the first 23 years of my life I had jet lag.

Last Thursday I got up before the crack of dawn and walked through the rain to the train station. By the end of the day I was in Atlanta, Georgia, sitting on my grandfather’s back porch with my family. Last week, my grandmother passed away. The service was scheduled for Friday, and I was lucky to be able to get back to the States on such short notice. My jeans, sweater, and tall leather boots were out of place in Georgia in September – some details get lost in the shuffle when you’re in a hurry.

I don’t know what to write about my time in Atlanta, except that it was very sad to arrive and have my grandmother, who was truly a force of life, not be there. At the service on Friday, tears streamed down my face as my father described some of the outlandishly stubborn and unique things his mother had done as a mother. My uncle Chris and cousin Jessie read a poem and a story that were so well-written, so put-together, and so perfect a reflection on Abie that it stunned me; not just to sit there in the big Presbyterian church thinking about her, but to think of what an amazing family, all sixteen kids and grandkids, Abie and my wonderful grandfather Peter have created. And also, I was glad I hadn’t volunteered to speak because nothing I could have written would have matched the beauty of Chris and Jessie’s words.

After two more days with the family – it was great to see them, and great to see my parents – I had to hop on a plane and go back to Sweden. In some ways it was too short a time; despite flying across the Atlantic, I had not been able to go to my real home, or see the fall foliage that I’m missing so much. In terms of things that I would like to do if a trip home suddenly materialized, well, I didn’t do any of them.

But the time was well spent. I love my family, and we hadn’t had a reunion with the entire crew since before my youngest cousing Pablo, who is five, was born. I left satisfied, and as happy as I could be given the circumstances. Thanks, family, for helping me get home.

Now if only I could get some sleep….

Gardens, flowers…. stigmas, saffron rolls (& tons of pictures)

My trip to Atlanta – which I’m now back from – was excellent for many reasons. I had a great time with my grandparents, who I haven’t seen nearly enough of in the last few years. College was too busy for me and so the last year or so has allowed me to catch up with my family, finally.

But while I would have been happy to sit at their house and simply spend time with them, my grandparents had more in store for me. On Tuesday grandfather Pete and I went to a Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the High Museum. I saw more than 200 amazing black and white photographs – many of Cartier-Bresson’s native France, many set in the U.S., some from India – including from Gandhi’s funeral – and a photo-essay about the Great Leap Forward in China, among many other settings. The photos were beautiful and many showed unusual and artistic composition. It was a huge treat. I miss the days when people made prints in a darkroom.

On Thursday, we went to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

I will never think of a botanical garden the same way again. I pictured, well, just a big garden with lots of plants and signs telling me their names. I love plants and flowers, both because of my scientific interests and because, like anyone else, I appreciate beauty – so I was excited for the trip, but I had no idea what I was about to encounter. I found a happy, dynamic space – which even included a whimsical, educational children’s garden – full of not only flowers but sculptures and statues, ponds and fountains, trellises and plenty of creative landscaping.

I also didn’t expect that the botanical garden would have a large herb, vegetable, and fruit tree section which fed the hungry. Way to go, botanical garden! For some time now I’ve had a dream that more Americans should have small gardens. Maybe incorporating edible plants

We spent a lot of time in the Conservatory and Orchid Center.

Walking into the conservatory was like entering a new world.

Orchids reigned supreme. So did rainforests.

Color. Shape.

And so it was only appropriate that the last thing I cooked for my grandparents came from flowers.

My grandfather had been requesting saffron buns all week, so we finally picked up some saffron at the store and I got cooking. Saffron is frequently touted as being the most expensive spice in the world. Its price tag is thanks to the labor required to produce it: saffron threads are the stigma, or pollen-receving reproductive parts, of a Crocus sativus plant. Each crocus has just three stigma, which must be painstakingly collected.

My grandmother had a recipe for saffron buns, but she said that it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It also had lard in it. The only thing I ever put lard in is pasties, and I wasn’t quite ready for lardy rolls. So I looked elsewhere for inspiration, settling eventually on Scandinavian Santa Lucia buns, even though the season isn’t quite right.

I think that when I was in elementary school and read about the Santa Lucia tradition, it was the first time that I wanted to be Scandinavian. I wanted to be one of those blonde-braided girls dressed all in white with a wreath of candles on my head. Since then, I have accumulated many much better reasons to wish that I was Norwegian or Swedish. (Sidenote: I am ashamed to admit that I learned about Santa Lucia by reading Kirsten’s surprise, an American Girl doll book. Because my parents never got me one of those dolls, they seemed super cool. Thanks, though, mom and dad, way to stay strong. I learned about Swedish immigrants anyway.)

The saffron threads are red, but as soon as I dropped them into hot milk, they began spreading their signature yellow color.

Eventually, I had made up a dough that used not lard, but butter – thank goodness! After a bulk rise, I quickly shaped the buns into their signature scrolls in the eight minutes left before dinner (a shrimp alfredo made by my grandfather – yum!) hit the table.

And then I baked them while we ate dessert. In fact, I forgot about them while we ate dessert. But at some point I remembered them and after being terrified that they would be burnt into blackened lumps, I found that they were unharmed, and shiny with their quick egg glaze (it’s my new favorite way to make sweet breads look fancy). The smell when they came out of the oven was tantalizing. Even though we had just eaten dinner and dessert, we split one of the still-hot rolls between the three of us.

When it’s by itself – which it was in these rolls, which lack any other spices – saffron is noticeable, but subtle. It’s not a flavor that I have often encountered, but I loved these rolls. They are unique. And honestly, even if saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, you can splurge on a packet to make some rolls every once in a while. It’s not going to break the bank.

Definitely submitting this one to YeastSpotting!

Santa Lucia Saffron Rolls

adapted from Lunches Fit For A Kid, a blog loaded with cuteness

1 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp saffron threads
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 egg
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour

glaze: 1 egg, and a bit of water

Start by heating the milk until it’s almost boiling. Add the saffron threads, crushing them with your fingers as you sprinkle them onto the milk. They will immediately dissolve a bit. Stir and let sit for ten or so minutes. The milk should still be fairly warm after this. Add the yeast and let sit another five minutes. I do all of these steps still in whatever vessel I heated the milk in so that it can retain as much of that heat as possible. Then, pour the milk-saffron-yeast mixture into your actual mixing bowl. Add the egg, beating well, and then the melted butter, sugar, salt, and one cup of flour. Stir until you have a lumpy but fairly uniform mixture. Add two more cups of flour and stir again. Add more flour until you have a dough that is cohesive and kneadable without making too much of a mess on your hands. Turn dough out onto a floured counter to rest while you wash out the mixing bowl and smear it with butter. Then, knead the dough for five minutes, place it in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Next, divide the dough into quarters. Divide each quarter into three equal-sized portions and shape each portion into a rope, eight or ten inches long and of a uniform thickness. Shape the rope into the S-shape shown in the pictures above: start wrapping one end into a circle which coils around itself. When you have used a third of the length of the rope, switch and wrap the other end up in the opposite direction. Push the two spirals toward each other and wrap further, if necessary. Transfer all of the rolls – there should be twelve – to a greased baking sheet and let rise for another hour at least.

Finally, brush with an egg glaze made of one well-beaten egg and a glug of water, whisked together. You can brush it on with a pastry brush or just your fingers. You won’t even come close to using up the whole egg, but that’s a problem I haven’t yet figured out how to deal with. Bake the rolls at 400 degrees for 15 to 25 minutes, or until they seem done.