Monday, May 22, 2017

Nineteen Chickens and Counting

When I first sat down to write this post, I thought I was going to finally deliver a story that didn't deal with death. But no, this one does too. Death 19 times to be exact. This time however, it was intentional. It was planned. And it should be tasty.

In the past, Ghon had tried to raise chickens for meat, not just egg laying. Tried meaning limited success not at any fault really of his, but of the constant predator threat. Well, not just threat, but the dang critters would kill our birds before we could raise them for slaughter. He was successful one round and we were able to to put 6 or 7 fryers in the freezer.

I'm not sure why I felt compelled to do it this year myself. Maybe it was to see if I could. To try some farm "thing" in his spirit and honor. Or, we like chicken and it felt like the right thing to do.

When Ghon did process the chickens, it was part of a learning experience. He met a couple online via a Facebook farming group. Sharon and Greg were nice enough to let Ghon come out and show him how they handled the slaughter.  Ghon was even more energized by the idea of raising chickens as a protein source for profit. He'd made plans to buy the plucker, talked about where to do the deed itself. He hadn't gotten that far, and in one way, that left me at a disadvantage if I was going to raise and slaughter our own chickens.

Fortunately I was able find Sharon on Facebook, sent a friend request and started messaging. I'd asked if Greg would be willing to help me process if I raised my own hens.  As we discussed options, she offered a few of their large order from the hatchery so I didn't have to order my own.

A few weeks later, the kids and I headed to their farm to purchase fifteen chicks. The hatchery they use also threw in some "bonus birds" which were all roosters. We took five of those too.

What little girl doesn't love a chick?

Transferring the chicks to our box.

We brought the chicks home where the had a short stay in my utility sink. Much happy peeping kept the cats interested and my nerves slightly frazzled. At this point, it's still to cold to put the chicks outside and I didn't have good space set up for them inside. Fortunately, our friends Jason and Rachel agreed to raise them at their house for a few weeks. Again, what kid doesn't love chicks, and with three at their house, it was a fun adventure for them to have around.

Makeshift coop until the transition!

A few weeks pass and it was time to move the birds back to the farm.  Six years ago, Ghon had built a 12x12 chicken coop and later, sectioned off a space that we could finish raising chicks in and keep them safe from the older, larger birds. I put my boots on, my big girl farm panties, grabbed a screw gun and put the plywood walls back up so I could use the pen. I AM FARMGIRL HEAR ME ROAR!

OK, hear me, but don't give me too much credit. I had a problem getting the screw in on one post, but it was secure enough that I rolled with it. Baby steps farm girl, baby steps.

Jason delivered the the chicks and got them settled in their new home. They spent a few more weeks inside until I felt the old flight pen was secure from predators and the weather nice enough. The flight pen has a wire roof, but nothing to protect the birds from rain. We had an old piece of plywood close by, so I was able to repurpose it as a roof. Yep, got a little She-Ra action on to lift it over my head and up onto the pen roof.  The grass in the pen was at least a foot high, but I knew that wasn't likely to last!

Since we'd had such issues with predators in the past, I was really nervous that I'd lose some or all the birds. Every morning, I'd look out my bedroom window and see a little white flock pecking around in the pen and felt happy to know that they'd made it another night!

Seven weeks into the adventure, it was time to slaughter. Technically, the roosters, being a different variety as well, should have been held off a few more weeks. Not knowing how I'd handle this whole processing business, I figured I'd better get it done all at one time, and they could be my little single serve almost cornish hens.

Fortunately from the get-go, Jonathan and Genevieve understood that these were not egg laying hens and would not be staying at the farm. That these birds did not get names other than tender, baked, fried, pot pie, soup, and grilled. Their sole purpose was to eat and be eaten!!

Since they were accepting of this idea, they had no issues helping me load them into a cage so I could take them off to Greg and Sharon's farm. Can't say I blame them for not wanting to be there for the slaughter.

Bucket of chicken!

My dad came to watch the kids while I was gone, so he manned the cage door for us.

Squeezing through

I can still remember the first night she caught a chicken!

Excited about the prospect of fried chicken

Bye bye roo-boy!

How Momma does it! Bam!

The last three to load in. Jonathan can't wait for a fried chicken leg, again.
Chickens loaded, cooler and ice loaded - off we go!

About this time last year, we took our VA tags off the truck and put farm tags on it. This restricted our ability to drive the truck, but with over 285k miles on it, it needed a ton of work to pass inspection. I haven't driven it much since Ghon died. This was the longest drive - and appropriate farm use.

As part of the deal for Greg to process the chickens, there were a few expectations set for me. I was asked to watch, learn and help, or at least provide entertainment. I assured Sharon I would watch what I could and whatever I couldn't - well, that in of it's self would be the entertainment.

Once I arrived, I recognized all the equipment from when Ghon shared his experience with me. Now for those of you that are squeamish or wondering if I have pictures of dead or dying chickens, the partial answer is yes. But not to worry, the dead chickens look no different here than they do at your grocery store. If your curious to the process, keep reading.

To get started, Greg already had a pot of soapy water starting to boil. This is to scald the birds, which helps get the feathers off. But, before you can do that, the first step is the actual slaughter.

We loaded six birds into the yellow cage seen above. One at a time (up to three), Greg would put the chicken in the cone, head first, get it snug, hold tight, and very quickly, cut the head off. Before the first, he was kind enough to ask if I was going to be OK with this part. I gave the honest answer - that I had no idea, but felt I needed to see at least one and then we'd go from there. Fortunately, I did just fine. I didn't watch intently every single time, but I also didn't get squeamish or running off crying.

After the birds rest a few minutes, the next step is scalding. The water has to be a a magic number and holding the bird by the legs, Greg dunked, dunked, and dunked the bird to help pull out oils from the feathers and make them easier to pluck. Then, enter the wizbang plucker. A contraption Ghon thought about getting many times before.

Making quick work of plucking feathers!

The bird is dropped into the blue barrel. At the bottom is a metal plate that spins around. The chicken bounces around and the black rubber fingers pull the feathers off. A little water is added from the top. Quite an interesting little machine and it did an amazing job.

Once all 6 birds were slaughtered, it was off the butchering table. Once again, Greg did a great job teaching me about the process, the steps he takes to clean out and do the final prep on the bird. My job was to perform quality control. I checked over the birds and pulled any feathers left behind and rinsed the inside cavities out, pulling out anything that didn't look like it belonged. Once that was done, it was off to the ice bath to chill. We repeated the process until all 19 birds I brought were complete.

19 birdies all ready to go!
If you're a math person, you probably realize we are one bird short from our pickup. One hen did die as a chick before making it back to the farm. It happens.

Once we were done, I helped clean up the butchering area and anything else I could figure out. Greg was super patient with me, taught me a lot, and may be able to help me out with some other farm needs - or need nots. I'm thankful and grateful for his time, talent and the conversation we had Sunday.

As I drove away, with a now flat crate and a full cooler, I asked Ghon what he thought of that. Even I was a bit stunned at what happened. It was truly a team effort and I had a lot of support along the way - but I had just raised chickens for the family, took and sorta helped with the processing, and was carrying them around like it was nothing. Not to bad for a city girl from Baltimore.

The next step is to vacuum pack the 16 birds and toss them in the freezer. Yes, math folks, I dropped three more. One of the cool things I get to do as a pseudo-farmer is barter. I gave my dad a hen for watching the kids. Our neighbor and friend Daniel helped me get air in the truck tires so I could actually drive it to a shop to get new tires put on - I gave him dinner and a jar of honey. My friend and co-worker Joey gave me the tires that I needed to get on the truck so I could take this little adventure - and he got 2 chickens in return. And they've already been turned into soup! Barter all the things, all the time!!

Chicken not yet noodled soup!
So there it is - finally, a farming story. A farming story that required the death of 19 chickens, but gave so much more. I did a farm thing. (yes, that's technical farmspeak). I did a farm thing almost on my own; something Ghon would have loved to have done and I imagine is proud of me for doing. It's something he wanted to do more of and sell. And while I don't think I'm going commercial, it is pretty neat to say I will be cooking and eating chickens I raised. A farming story that proved once again there are a lot of good people out there, good people willing to lend a hand when needed with just about anything (thank you friends!!). Hopefully, I can be just as good and helpful when someone else needs a hand. Or a chicken. Or eggs.

If you've made it this far - a hint was dropped in this post about another farming adventure Ghon started and I'm completing. Hopefully, I'll have that one written soon. In the meantime, anyone have any good chicken recipes? And Eric - slop does not count.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hallelujah: Closing in on one year

I think I’ve figured it out.

Then the time for being sad is over
 And you miss 'em like you miss no other
 And being blue is better than being over it (over it)
"Hallelujah" Panic! at the Disco

OK, so this song is technically about a guy who finally decides to stop his cheating ways after being caught. Regardless, those lines make sense for me from a grief perspective.

The first year. The first year is supposed to be hard. Moving through the twelve months following a death, you live those first holidays or milestones without your loved one. Your life doesn’t stop. You have to keep moving; or at least I, I have to keep moving. Anniversaries, birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, more birthdays, weddings, chili cookoffs, Easter and even Mother’s Day. They’ve all come and gone. We are facing our second Father’s Day. Another year of school complete. More chili cookoffs. Another wedding. Jonathan’s Tae Kwon Do black belt testing. Genevieve’s dance recital. Some of these events will keep coming, year after year. Year after year, Ghon will not be there.

I think I’ve made it clear that I do believe Ghon is here. His spirit was to big to just fade away when his body stopped working. Last week, the kids (the lot of them, Jonathan, Genevieve, Eric and his wife Caryn) and I all went to a concert together. The kids first real concert and it went down stadium style. Ghon knew the concert lineup last year. Volbeat, Avenged Sevenfold, and Metallica. He was so excited to go and for me to see Metallica for the first time. The kids (littles at least) love Volbeat, and we’d long wanted to take them to a show. In my typical fashion, I made it happen. After Metallica took the stage, I could feel Ghon’s presence. Genevieve sat on my lap and I just closed my eyes. I could see, clearer than anything, Ghon rocking out and singing along. How else can I explain knowing lyrics to old songs that I never cared to listen to or tried to ignore if he played them? The show was amazing and I know he’s probably delighted that the kids are now Metallica fans. It was a bittersweet evening. I can’t imagine how much better it would have been with him there; yet it was almost perfect as is.

But back to that year of firsts. Year two is approaching. I’ve read, I’ve been told, and I suspect there are parts of year two that are going to be even harder than year one. The hardest work is supposed to be over. Congratulations widow, you’ve made it to year two! You’ve got this! Been there done that! Hardly. In the first weeks, months, support is strong. Everyone wants to help you through. Checks on you. Then, it starts to slow. I’ve covered how hardheaded I can be about asking for help. That I don’t want to burden others when I need a hug, a break from the kids, company in general or an ear to listen. When people start asking less and less if you need them – you ask for help less and less. Then suddenly, it’s year two. You couldn’t possibly still need help. It’s time to face those milestones and events all on your own. Year two, just might suck.

But, I’m ready. I got this. I went to a Hospice counseling session two weeks ago. The kids and I are all going next week. Time for an outlet and a little grounding. I’m enrolling them in a grief camp in September. We got this. We have family coming to support them on their big testing and recital day. All together, we got this.

So you’re probably reading this and wondering, what then? What did you figure out? What has you in this weird emotional state now?

I took a walk today during work and it hit me. I’m reliving his last weeks. It’s not just that the anniversary is coming; I’m reliving his last everything. Sure, I could have labored over all of these things with each passing holiday, but it’s not the same as his last days. I looked over at the field by my office and realized I’d been waiting for a couple weeks for all the wildflowers to show up. When they did last year, I suggested it would be great to take pictures at. Eventually, as in two days before he died, he took pictures of me there. I keep waiting for them. I almost cried last summer when the field was mowed and “our” flowers were cut and an ugly field was left behind. All winter, I saw brownish green weeds and plenty of trash. It was sad. Today, the flowers are starting to bloom.

I look at the pictures on his Facebook account.  The last pictures – are now a year and almost a year old. His last pictures.

At the chili cook-off the kids and I went to last week, a friend mentioned how she was cooking at a different event, and how she thought about Ghon. It was at the same event last year that she saw him last. As we get closer to those series of lasts…the last of everything, I think that is what is making it all harder. His last cook-off was the first weekend of June. That on June 17, he had breakfast with the kids at Bojangles after taking me to work; that was his last breakfast. His last meal was linguine fra diavlo at a little Italian joint in Strasburg that we’d never been to before and I will never go to again. Our last picture together was the day of his surgery, June 13. The last time he drove, he tossed his keys on the kitchen counter. I moved them the day after he died – and haven’t seen them since.

The lasts are becoming a countdown to the anniversary. Knowing now that they were the last makes them harder to remember than knowing he isn’t going to be here for Christmas. If you knew going into a day or event, or were taking a step for the last time, would you do it differently?

Then the time for being sad is over
And you miss 'em like you miss no other
And being blue is better than being over it (over it)

There’s no good use for being sad. After yesterday’s funk, I had a really good  morning until sitting at a traffic light, a totally different song lyric hit me differently and I started crying in the car. Chillin’ at the traffic light, singing along with tears running down my face. Thank God for waterproof mascara.

He was a royal pain in the ass. He was less than perfect. But he was also adorable, funny, giving, talented, driven, and mine. I miss him like I miss no other.

Dealing with a blue day here and there, well, it is being better than being over it. I don’t know if I can ever be truly over it. How do you get over your only true love? Someone you spent over half your life with? I don’t know if I ever will be over it, and frankly don’t care if I ever am over it. I’ll take my blue days and deal with them. Does it mean I’ll never love someone again? Probably not, but the love will not be the same. This love was ours.

I could end this with some cheery message like, “live life to the fullest!” or “live each day like it’s your last!”  But why? Does that make any sense? Live your life. It shouldn’t matter if it’s the first or last day.

Just over a month to go. Just over a month and I’ll be moving on to year two and beyond the first year of last memories. I got this. We got this. Just keep a tissue handy for me though OK? I have a feeling the next month is going to be hard. No way to avoid it – I just have to get through it.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Love Always Wins

Hang tight folks, I have no real good idea where this is going. I generally have a good idea what I need to say or what the point is. This time, I have a lot in my head so I'm not so sure where this will end.  I just know that I got this feeling earlier and decided that I had to write.

The problem is, that feeling wasn't such a good one. It also wasn't such a bad one. And that; that is what has me so conflicted right now.

I don't know if I've ever felt so loved and so alone at the exact same time before. 

I was able to sleep in a little bit today. I woke up before my alarm, watched the sunrise through my bedroom window and may have just laid there for an hour before actually getting out of bed. OK, I didn't just lay there, I shopped on Amazon. But that's beside the point. It was a relaxing morning. As I got a shower, the lights went off. The kids were now up.

Last night, Genevieve wanted to make breakfast for me, I told her I'd compromise since she'd never made eggs at home alone. She could do the work and I'd supervise, just like at a chili cook-off. She agreed, yet when it was time to make it this morning, she said no. She wasn't interested. Off I went to make breakfast for everyone.

We almost made it to church on time. Almost.

Today is Mother's Day. It's hard to say why, but I seem to be bothered by it this year. My mom has been gone for 13 years. I certainly think about her, but we weren't extremely close, so I don't think it's that. Ghon never really did anything for me for Mother's Day. He was usually too busy working or missing his own Mom to be bothered by the Hallmark holiday. I did get a hat a couple years ago...

Thanks to my wonderful friend Laurie, the kids were excited on Wednesday when our mail came and they could declare that they pranked me. Laurie bought them each a card, had them sign in while we were in Connecticut without me knowing, and dropped them in the mail. They thought it was hilarious. I found it incredibly touching and thoughtful. Thank you, Laurie.

The rest of the week through today at church, more homemade cards and notes arrived. Jonathan called me a star and asked to sit in our hammocks, Genevieve said I was the niceist in the world and could I please take them to Texas Roadhouse for dinner. Two roses from our church. Paper plate signs made while I cleaned the porch and they continually avoided cleaning their rooms. A message from Eric. Things don't mean anything - I don't need more things. I'm constantly giving away things. The notes, the messages, the drawings, the words from their little heads - those are priceless.

My friend Heather and I met as a result of our widowhood. Following the sudden loss of her husband in January, I reached out to her offering my support. Strength in numbers. Months before, she lost her mom. I checked in on her Saturday, knowing today might be a double whammy hard day. In the end, she saved me. As we do, she wanted to make sure I was OK today too.

Facebook bothered me today. It was full of love and happiness for sure, but, it just made me feel lost. I don't have a lot of pictures in general of my Mom and I, and those I have aren't handy. My kids aren't posting. I almost felt like I was watching everyone else live their happy memories through a window. On the wrong side of a door where I didn't belong.

After days of rain, the sun felt amazing today. Once I finished the porch, I decided to just sit. Sit on my porch, listen to the birds, watch the cars, and be still. I thought about how lucky I was to have great friends and wonderful kids. That I may feel alone, but I never truly was. And no sooner then I had these thoughts, a car slowed down, and turned into my driveway.

Carrying a card and flowers, two beautiful young ladies and their beautiful and amazing Mom came to say hello, Happy Mother's Day, and check on me. To make sure I knew that I was loved. I don't think I knew how much I needed that. And Heather, you don't know how much that meant to me. Your friendship is such a blessing; a wonderful light that shines through the darkest times. I love you and your girls!!

My wonderful Mother's Day cards, flowers and...paper plate signs.

After our quick visit and relocation of our chickens, our friends left and the kids went back inside to continue to pretend to clean their rooms. I settled down on our stone walkway, determined to pull as many weeds and grass from it as possible.

And as I sat, I suddenly felt so alone. I know I have a few people that truly mean it when they say they will listen when I need to talk. That really will be there when I need them. But today, it just doesn't seem like the day to call and say, I'm lonely. That I'm nearly in tears while pulling weeds. I just felt alone. Yet at the same time, I know how loved I am. I have wonderful kids that love me. I have some amazing friends, as witnessed above, that have gone out of their way to show me that I am loved. I know it, I feel it, I believe it. But I couldn't shake the feeling of being so alone.

Normally, I'd have music pumping into my ears as I worked. But today, I worked in silence. Scratch that. I worked to the sound of road noise, chickens and a guinea hen, and the wild birds. I'm writing this after dinner, back on the porch to the same sounds, plus the sound of a steady current from the creek beside me, full from all the recent rain. I hear the crickets; an owl in the distance. The hummingbird feeders are out. A cardinal flies by. Jonathan comes out to give me a status report on his room and tries to pee off the front porch. This, this is my life.

My life is incredibly full. I stay positive, I work hard, and I try not to burden others with my struggles. I give thanks and I pray. Yet there are moments that are harder than others. Times I feel more alone than others. Perhaps it's because of Mother's Day. Perhaps it's because I am days away from the 11-month anniversary of Ghon's death and am planning a one year memorial service at request of the kids. Perhaps it's because this morning, I asked our friend to help clear the lower road on our mountain and show me the spot I know of but do not know well. The spot that will become the resting ground for the majority of Ghon's cremains. Perhaps, it's because I opened the door to his truck and decided it was time to clean out the junk.

Right now, all I know is I'm still on the verge of tears. That moments like this, when I can't control my own emotion, my patience wears thin. My hands ache from digging in rocks and pulling weeds without gloves, but I was determined to finish. I start too much without finishing, a behavior of Ghon's that drove me crazy. I filled several bags of trash and moved bigger items to my trash pile. I pile I will later pay someone else to haul for me. I feel accomplished and content with what I was able to get done at the house. Heck, I even cleaned the mudroom floor! Yet I can't quite shake the empty feeling.

Despite this odd, conflicted feeling, it really was a great day. How can you complain when you can sleep in, watch the sunrise, receive flowers and a wonderful message at worship, get the sweetest gifts from your kids, a couple nice text messages, surprise visits from friends, a promise to visit from another, and the chance to be outside all day - and get stuff done? I know I can't. I'm so looking forward to the rest of the sunshine this week. The warm air. So many exciting things coming up for us this week. Just like any other time, this feeling will work it's way out.  My chin is up. My heart is open. Love always wins.

Monday, May 8, 2017

NERCC 2017

Flying to Reno, NV with multiple connecting flights with two children is one thing.

Riding in a car for over eight hours is another. But, there is a first time for everything and our mission was accomplished. Friday, we set out for a weekend trip to Connecticut so the kids could compete in the New England Regional Chili Cook-off (NERCC).

In typical Eckley chili cooking fashion, we had to have some drama before we could go. Without fail, if Ghon and I were planning to overnight an event we’d have an issue. Heck, most cook-offs that we competed in, we had some kind of issue. Busted car windows, stoves catching fire, dogs eating freshly cut cubed meat, missing spices, missing recipes, staying up too late in general, or anything else that could cause a big argument. After years of dealing with this phenomenon with Ghon, I was ready for it with the kids.

A week beforehand, I bought their canned goods. Three days before, I checked and packed their chili gear. Thankfully, a table was being provided for us and our friends George and Laurie were bringing us a canopy. Two days before, I checked the weather and packed clothes. Enter obstacle #1 – Jonathan presented dirty clothes. The specific pants he wanted were dirty. He didn’t want to wear pants on the ride home. So I was given dirty laundry to pack. Sorry child, but I know I don’t fold your clean clothes with one leg inside out and I certainly recognize the second pair as being on your body yesterday. Now, I had to wash a load of laundry before I could finish packing. No big deal, right? Nope, got it done, no problem.

I wanted to leave Friday morning by 730, which means I would have been happy with 8:00. Yet, this was not meant to be. It was raining. Hard. And while that shouldn’t stop me, it made everyone drag their feet in getting ready. Please get out of bed, please go brush your teeth and give me your toothbrush. Why didn’t you pack your in-car-entertainment bag last night when you were supposed to? Yes, you need to bring your charger. No, I am not downloading a new movie right now. All this while I’m trying to get the cooler bag packed and assemble a snack bag for them and one for me, which shouldn’t be hard considering everything was already put together in the refrigerator.

Finally, I feel like I’m in a position to load the car. Donning Ghon’s raincoat, which is huge on me, I run out to back the car up closer to the shed so maybe I don’t get too wet. I stop and there is a horrendous noise from the brakes. Seriously? I had the car inspected last week. It made no noises last night. And now, as I’m hoping to leave in 15 minutes I get brake noises. I thought for a few moments that perhaps I just wasn’t supposed to go. I don’t have a second vehicle. Do I rent one? A friend offered to loan me one. But no, these are not truly realistic options. Maybe the noise will go away if I back up and down the drive way and keep braking.   Tried that for a minute or two with no success. Next option: phone a friend who is also a neighbor and mechanic. It’s close to 8am and he can check it out at 9:30. I hem, I haw, I can’t decide what to do then just say yes. Better safe than to have an accident. The kids are getting restless and we haven’t even left. I shoo them off to watch a movie and decide that I now have time for breakfast, and finish loading the car. I surrender. My lists (because I have at least 2, maybe 3 related to this trip) appear complete. Perhaps there is some reason I’m not supposed to leave now, and I have to leave and arrive later. I remind myself that if I forgot something it can probably be borrowed or bought while I’m there. I take a few deep breaths and it’s time to go.

The brakes scream at me at the end of my driveway. They give a little yell as I pull into my friend Jamie’s. Then, as I stop outside his shop bay door, there is nothing. No noise. The man is magic. He still throws the car on the lift for me and take a look. No bad brakes or rotors, no rocks stuck in inappropriate places. I have the all clear and we are off, finally, at 10am.

To survive the ride, we each have our own allotment of snacks and drinks. Call me mean, but I did limit the kid’s drinks. If not, I’d be stopping every 30 minutes for Genevieve to go to the bathroom. They each had books, a Nintendo DS, their tablets loaded with movies and headphones. I had my iPod and headphones. Headphones are key. No arguments about her movie being too loud or his game being annoying or heaven forbid if I just played music, that to have it anywhere near a volume I could appreciate would ultimately be too loud for them to hear over their noise pumping into their ears. So while we did do a little noise sharing, we each had our own. And to help with communication, I let them know that if they ever needed me and I didn’t answer right away – to wave. I’d catch it in the rearview mirror. There’s your parenting tip for this blog. Plug your ears and wait for the wave.

Roughly two-thirds of the way there and two stops in, it hit me. Jonathan didn’t have any pants. That’s just how my mind works. BAM random thought. Yep, we washed an entire load of laundry and never went back to get the pants he wanted to pack. No big deal. We’d just have to buy some there. Along with shoes. Because the day before at school, the sole of his left shoe ripped off the shoe and was taped together by the school nurse. His back up sneakers were donated to a shoe drive at school the week before. So now, we just have to buy shoes and pants. No problem.  We keep motoring.

The state motto of Connecticut is “he who is transplanted still sustains.” However, we have given it a new motto. It is now, “Connecticut, the state that squeezes farts out.” Not every moment of our drive was consumed by electronics and this was an interesting conversation. We hit traffic in Connecticut and trying to explain that we STILL had two hours to go despite me saying that 30 minutes ago is a little challenging. Yes, it’s been 30 minutes but we barely moved; there are new backups ahead of us, yes we will get there tonight… And somewhere in the beginning of the back- Jonathan, then Genevieve got a little gassy. Being the observant ones they are, they wondered why it wasn’t until they were in Connecticut that it happened. We’d been through West Virginia, Maryland, hours of Pennsylvania, a clip of New Jersey and New York, and now, in Connecticut, they start getting gassy. When they weren’t so sure of my explanation that perhaps it was the banana and honey bun that made them gassy, since sometimes too many carbs can do that, I changed the reasoning. It was Connecticut. It just squeezed them out. And just like that, giggles replace the moans about traffic and when will we be there. For at least 15 minutes. And until they decide to tell everyone the next day that this state pushes their farts out. Proud momma moment.

We survived the ride! Hotel at last!
Chili Bitch!

Saturday: time to cook. This is Jonathan’s 5th competition and Genevieve’s 2nd. Just like his Daddy, Jonathan asked me a few days prior if I knew of any weaknesses he had going into the event. He was a little concerned by his competition, knowing that winners of previous years and other events he’d cooked in would be there.  We all had a quick reminder discussion on a topic we’d reviewed on the drive: it’s just a cook-off. Have fun. Don’t get upset if you don’t win. Be humble if you do. Always congratulate the winner if it isn’t you. We were ready.

The other concept I’d covered with them is one of family. Our chili friends are our chili family. We help each other. We are always there for each other. When Ghon died, it’s hard to put into words the support we were given from our chili family. Go back a few posts and you can read about some of it yourself. As an example though, we knew our friend and event Chairman, “Mad” Mike Freedman would provide a table and chairs for us. Our friend Laurie had the canopy. We never would have fit these things in our little car. We were asked in advance if we needed stoves, pots, pans or anything else to lighten our load. We take care of each other - despite it being a competition. Most of the cooks we hadn’t seen since Reno. Some, I hadn’t seen in a year, others, a few years. Cook-offs are the best family reunions. We swap stories. We make plans for the future. We teach each other new tricks. We don’t always share recipes. Some things are sacred.  I love seeing cooks that didn’t always do well in their early competitions succeed. I get so proud of them! It’s amazing to me that I started competing at age 15, and now, I’m helping my two kids at 8 and 6 compete. Watching the kids all play together before cook time, during little breaks, after turn in and after awards – it makes my heart happy. That at the end of the event, they are friends, they are family, and it doesn’t matter who won or what they won; they are in it together.

Of course, going to cook-offs without Ghon is still odd and at times, a little difficult. Still not a year out, we haven’t gone through a full chili calendar of events where he would have been. Some friends were afraid to make me cry; some, I made cry. Many were concerned about how I was doing. Others needed to share a story or how they felt about him not being here. And it was all just right. Of course I threw a little loop in for everyone. Ghon had a lucky shirt that he wore every cook-off for probably close to 10 years. Just two days before the cook-off, my daughter in law found the same saying but different print on a shirt. I bought 3 and the kids wore them to cook in, and I put mine on later in the day. A little emotional for a few folks when they saw the kids in Dad's shirt. Of course, I had the lucky chicken, although it doesn't sound quite the same when I say I have a cock that hangs below my knee. However, those in the know knew why I was wearing it.

We don't give a rat's ass!

I brought several bottles from Ghon’s bourbon collection with me. One to our friend and Chief Judge Dave, for continuing to step in and help where we may have been running events and because I knew he’d appreciate the bottle and would need it after a long day. A bottle to our friend Matt, who has assumed a role as my financial advisor, and from whom Ghon won the bottle from in a bet. It was fitting for it to return to his purchaser, and ironically, presented moments after he commented he had done at the event! And the final bottles to our friend Scott, whom Ghon shared a bottle with many times in the past and considered a great friend, who built our beehives and helped me shop for the other supplies we needed, who video chatted Ghon through introducing bees to the hive, and who was just a phone call away  for me through a few incredibly difficult nights for me last year, and gives some of the best hugs when we are lucky enough to see each other. I know Ghon is happy with the choices I’m making in the great bourbon cleanout. A few more bottles to go…

Speaking of hugs, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Nathan for being another awesome hug provider. I’m not sure how or why I decided they needed to have my legs wrapped around you, but thank you for bearing with me – and teaching me another meaning to lick it and stick it – to fix Jonathan’s stove. Just tell me to get down in July when I go for it again. Side note; I’m really proud of you too.

Through the cooking period, I admit, I was a little edgy. I had to manage two kids with fire, hot pans, a close call with fire and a pot holder, and fight the urge to help them a little more than allowed. They both made their own recipes; not mine, not Ghon’s, not one new one. They had their own. They mixed and prepped them on their own. The end result – was amazing. Their chili turned out so good (unbiased mom opinion). I was so proud of them and told them a million times and a million more after announcements. There were eleven youth competitors and Genevieve came in 4th! I saw a few signs of Jonathan getting upset, and again, true to his dad’s fashion, he wanted to see his scores and comments. Once we determined he had finished in a tie for 6th and had a first place vote and great comments, he was happy as a lark. No whining, no crying and no “I’m not cooking ever again.” It was perfect. Even more perfect, yet slightly odd, they denied the chance to eat out. We went back to the hotel and they ate their own chili, straight from the judging cup, for dinner. I even saw them take a taste of each other’s chili. Incredible.

Youth Cooks Meeting with Judge Jerry Buma

Listening attentively!
Signing for their cups

Cooking time

Mr. Impatient's turn to cook

Filling their judging cups

The line of youth, headed to turn-in

The nervous and the proud parents, guard the kids and take photos of the turn-in parade. We also yell at spectators to make room so none of them have to dodge people or trip and spill their entries.

Handing out samples

They drive me crazy - but I love them so much!!

Waiting - together. Isn't that perfect??

Youth Cooks

My 4th place finisher!

With our buddy Connor.

The first way to make my kids happy while staying at a hotel is to go swimming. After a chili dinner in our room, we were off to the pool and hot tub, then the pool and hot tub again. The second is letting them eat just about whatever they want off the continental breakfast line.  

Sunday morning comes and we meet several of our friends at breakfast. Mad Mike joins us and gives the kiddos a stove to share! How amazingly cool? They were excited for sure, but also excited that mom let them take a mini donut and some cereal in a cup for snacks on the ride. Kids and their priorities.

G and her banana phone, which is a direct line to Mad Mike.

 We drive, we drive, and we drive some more. One missed turn because I saw it too late while jamming to my music, 3 bathroom stops, a lunch break and a stop to see Eric's new house - and we made it home. Quickly unpack and throw the kids in bed.  What a whirlwind trip. 

Trips like these - they are priceless. They teach us patience. Resilience. Flexibility. Sportsmanship. Friendship. The time it takes to get there and the time it takes to get home seems like forever. But the memories created, lessons learned in that blink of time spent with fr-amily makes it totally worth it. I'm so thankful that over 26 years ago, I was introduced to this crazy world of competitive chili cooking. I'm thankful that it forced my parents to get to know Ghon, since a 10x10 space doesn't leave much room to avoid someone. I'm thankful for the friendships we made together as adults. I'm thankful for those that help me and the kids remember their Daddy. I'm thankful for those that help create these experiences for the kids, as they are the future of this crazy hobby. I'm thankful for the other parents that bring their kids to compete and help look after all the kids as if they were their own (Lisa, you are a real MVP!). 

I'm thankful for Cindy and Laurie sharing some amazing photos with me too.

Until the next cookoff; I know something you don't know.