Everyone gets lost in worries. The IRS sends you a letter making your heart skip a beat; a friend has a terrifying surgery so you can’t sleep, your refrigerator starts to sound like a Amelia Earhart’s airplane and your turkey who has a Napoleon complex gets in a fight with your emotionally unstable donkey, it happens to all of us. Then something shifts and like a kaleidoscope the whole world looks different.
For me it was Phoebe’s 10th birthday. My sister called and said Pheebzilla wanted to have her friends out to the farm for her birthday. I was honored and immediately the hamster in my brain jumped on it’s wheel and started spinning. I called Phoebe.
“How about we make your party a colonial party? We could press cider and stuff like that,” I suggested excitedly.
“Yeah! That sounds great! Can we churn butter Tante (aunt)?” Phoebe begged.
“Of course,” I said as I started jotting down ideas and supplies we’d need: cider pressing, candle making, quill and ink, caramel apple dipping, and hay rides.
I called Tom. “Um, what are you doing the weekend of the 25th?”
“Why?” He asked suspiciously. “I’m out of vacation days.”
“Oh, forget about it then. It’s no big deal. Phoebe just wants to have a colonial farm party for her birthday,” I dangled slyly. “I thought you might want to be here that’s all.”
“Hmm. I can fly up after work and be there by midnight on Friday and then fly home at 5:00AM on Monday. All my stuff is there.” I knew it. He’s worse than a Weight Watcher in a doughnut shop.
Franklin supplied the quills and we had plenty of ink and parchment from numerous projects, Hay wasn’t a problem, but I didn’t feel ready to hook up Abe and Andy with 10 year-old girls so we opted for the ye ole tractor. I wished I had the money to get the rest of the cannon parts here so we could shoot them off. I imagined the girls marching around and Henry lighting up the cannons but alas we’d have to make do without them.
Lately I’d been stressed over bills, drama, family emergencies and the honey business. So I decided to make Phoebe’s birthday cake and bake my way to mental health. There is nothing so therapeutic as immersing yourself in lemon icing and preparing for a party. In times of deep emotional duress while other people might go shopping I turn to fondant.
I needed to focus. So after Phoebe's real birthday, where we witnessed the ear-piercing-rite of passage into womanhood I left Henry at my sister’s for a couple of days coinciding with Awesomez and Lindsey’s departure for Tahoe. They were going to a family wedding leaving me all alone to find my inner Abigail Adams. Thursday I cleaned the house, did about 16 loads of laundry and baked three layers of cake, lemon per Phoebe’s request.
Thursday night, I chatted on the phone with Toby as I nervously began the icing portion of the project. Before going to bed I locked the cake up tighter than Jack Benny’s vault.
Friday, I began getting ready for the idea that the party might have to be moved indoors indoors. Rain is always a possibility. I found my purple dress, a pitcher for the heavy cream, made more fondant for the cake and washed Franklin’s feathers to make quills. I knew colonial cakes were usually heavily spiced treats with alcohol and currants usually iced with a bunch of feathers, but I wasn’t going authentic with the tractor so I didn’t feel particularly guilty about using my new Wilton ribbon embossing tool.
After picking Henry up from school I scrambled to get everything finished before I had to run to the airport and get Tom. Henry lounged in the family room surrounded by dogs and cats watching a rerun of “Bones” coming in at commercials to both praise and critique my culinary efforts. After squinting at the mound of sugar for some time Henry decided he thought the cake looked a little too serious. “It looks kinda like a wedding cake,” he said with admiration, “but Phoebe’s only 10,” he reminded me gently. Suggesting I add yellow food coloring to the daisies and “paint” the embossed ribbon alternating colors. “That’ll jazz it up as Grandpa Horn would say,” he said taking a spoonful of icing back to the family room as the “Bones” theme song blared rhythmically signaling the end of Henry’s interest in my cake for another 12 minutes.
(I decided to scatter different sized daisy all over the cake like garden wrapping paper)
Alone in the kitchen I stared at the cake. It was my best work. And I knew, I had intended to make the centers of the daisies yellow, but now I was a little scared to wreck everything I’d done. “No Guts No Glory” my philosophy for life, gained from a Boynton coffee mug illustrating a giant smiling dragon and a teeny tiny knight flashed in my head, I took a deep breath and dipped my paintbrush.
Saturday morning, we woke up to a 6:30 AM alarm and found a spectacularly warm sunny day on the way. Henry, Tom and I sprang into action. Henry scrubbed the cider press with a water and bleach combination, hosed off the porch and began dipping wicks to form the core for the candles while Tom hooked up the trailer hitch to the tractor so he could give hay rides. I busied myself with how to keep the caramel warm, sticks for the apples, tablecloths, chairs and our costumes.
Unfortunately, Henry had outgrown all his clothes, so we had to make do with a pair of wool Union issue infantry pants a hand-me-down shirt and a extra Confederate jacket we had laying around. His scruffy hair worked perfectly with Tom’s tri-corn hat and we were in business. I donned my dress and decided colonial although my passion is not in fact my best look. I closely resembled an overripe plum. Tom only had colonial dress shoes so he opted for inauthentic farm boots instead.
I was a little nervous, that the kids might thing all of this was a bunch of corny hooey. I hoped we could pull it off. Creating Fort Flashback had been our dream and I hoped this opportunity to share even a little bit of it with some 5th graders would go well.
I needn’t have worried. The girls had a great time, they were enchanted with all the farm animals especially Norton and Midge, they couldn’t get enough of the hay rides, wrote their names endlessly with quills, dipped enormous candles and listened intently as Tom or I told them about the historical significance of some of the things there were doing. Party or not we had snuck some learning in and they didn’t seem to mind a bit. They were fascinated by what life was like in the past, they enthusiastically pressed cider and gobbled up their caramel apples. In a twist I didn’t expect the girls started doing butter churning chants. I suppose a little like girls do jump roping chants today. I’d never thought about it, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if colonial girls passed the time in just that way.
After all the guests had left Tom and I made our way to the living room and sank back in the deep red leather chairs which had once decorated my grandfather’s psychiatric office. Happy and exhausted we reflected on all the day’s events. Pleased with everything, Tom remarked, “I really wouldn’t have changed anything except I would have loved to have fired off those cannons. It was so great to dust off the old stuff after so long. I think the kids learned a lot and didn’t even know it, but when their teacher starts telling them stuff about the colonies they’ll remember and start to make the connections. It makes me remember how good an idea this is and if we ever can get it off the ground it would be successful”.
A couple of days later, it was Back-to-school night and I sat crammed in a library full of 8th grade parents. I listened carefully as the social studies instructor went on about the year’s activities planned for teacher American History. “Well, we’re racing through the 13 colonies hoping we can instill in the kids what makes us Americans. We will skip to the Boston Massacre and do a mock trial and then we plan at the end of the year to go out to Hovander Park where those crazy people from the county will get into costume and get out their Civil War cannons. They love to blow things up. They’re nuts out there, I don’t know where those people go the rest of the year but they sure can teach history.” Knowing laughter filled the room as the people around me agreed with him. My hair straight and sleek, dressed in black almost entirely lint free I felt like I was undercover. No one around me realized I was one of those crazy people from the county. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted. As I watched and listened to the cookie cutter parents around me talk about their worries I decided I liked being a crazy from the county who could teach history. I just wished the people were coming to our place, Phoebe’s party had reminded Tom and I just how much our dream of Fort Flashback means to us. Giving kids and adults the opportunity to see what life was like during our early history and why people did the things they did. Seeing the past helps us know who we are as a country. Learning about our founders and their imperfections and their lives gives us understanding of real leaders that overcame real obstacles. Our founders were not comic book heroes they were men and women who simply did not shirk from the challenges in front of them. They valued hard work, education, responsibility, honesty and community. By teaching American History we teach children to stay in touch with the things we value most to be good citizens. Freedom is every American’s responsibility. It’s something you fight for everyday whether it’s a playground bully or an unjust law.
Now if only we had the money to get the wheels for those cannons so we could blow things up.