Advent 2019 – Year End Report of the Ben And Marj Shomshor Family

(Ben writing this year…)

Fortunately, I was unable to see Marj’s expression. Two days before Thanksgiving she stood behind the bed in ER as the priest set out the necessities for the Sacrament of Holy Unction. Perhaps recognizing a certain trepidation on Marj’s face he quickly explained that our Holy Unction sacrament wasn’t quite the same as Extreme Unction in the western church; ours was a healing sacrament and didn’t imply that …. well, you get the idea. There may be something to it. With the grace of God and copious IV antibiotics, and perhaps a bit of whining on my part, I was released on Thanksgiving day. More significantly, within several days I awoke feeling nominally better than the day before. And so again the next day, and the day after. I’ve not been able to say that for over 18 months. 

2019 has been a year of many adventures, many of them fun and exciting while others were just eventful. Marj and I are still one, together and alive after 49 years, 41 of them in marriage. (Hrmph; and my Aunt told my future mother-in-law that she wouldn’t be getting us much for the wedding. ‘These things never last these days.’)

What happens when you get project managers together on a cold January weekend in Des Moines, Iowa?  The bride and mothers made all the plans for the wedding and two receptions. This included names and addresses for the guest lists, decoration ideas, and menus. Finally, the perfect wedding dress was found. They tell me that when a mantilla was placed atop Sasha’s head, the room fell silent as she whispered “It’s actually real isn’t it. Sean loves me. I’m going to be a bride.”

My health forced us to cancel a January trip to San Antonio but we were able to escort a couple of international students to Los Angeles over President’s Day weekend. Normally, I delight in showing off LA  – or anywhere in America – but these girls were unusually independent and preferred to “do their own thing.” Nor were they up for the hostelling experience. Or maybe they just weren’t up for South Central LA. But I certainly enjoyed our time at the Anderson Estate hostel, and my evenings at The Living Room bar on Crenshaw. 

Haven’t heard of The Living Room? Call ahead to see if there is music that night, and if so, get there early. Great jazz. I first went on a night when the stage was dark but had some nice chats. Mentioned to the bartender that “it’s great to be out.” She responded “Hey, good for you. What were you in for?” She was even more sympathetic when  I explained that I was actually in town chaperoning some high school students. A little more context: You can’t get a Manhattan at The Living Room (no bitters or vermouth) but you can get a Hennessy with coke. Just saying.

March 17th found the Murphy and Shomshor families in Las Vegas for an outdoor gazebo wedding hosted by Elvis. I’d long given up hope that Sasha would be married before a priest, and given the stress that goes into wedding planning (particularly mother – daughter tensions) a destination wedding made perfect sense. Just before the wedding Marj tried to convince Sean that he should be the one to change his last name to Shomshor so they could be Sean and Sasha Shomshor (can you say tongue twister), but he declined.  To tell the truth, Sasha was looking forward to filling in fewer bubble dots on test papers. Nevertheless, everyone had a great time and now both of our children are officially out of the nest. Special thanks to cousin Chad and his wife Shauna who hosted a lovely reception at their home.

Since the wedding was only for immediate family we wanted to share our joy with others so in June there was a pig roast reception (special thanks to Jerry and Nancy Low, and classmates Julie and Lorrie)  at the Fremont State Lakes. Later in August we had a taco bar extraordinaire reception here in Olympia. Marj had been working on the garden for months in preparation. For me, catering my daughter’s reception was on par with how other men might anticipate the Father-Daughter dance. Regrettably, I was admitted to the hospital the day prior with raging sepsis (the first, and worst, of several similar events.) Giving Marj instructions from my ER bed at 1:30am (which included pulling the frozen police from the canning kitchen’s freezer and later finding the tequila – God loves spell check as I believe it is his sense of humor) she marshalled our incredibly talented friends and family to set-up,  mix fresh Margaritas, and prepare lime-cilantro rice, blackened fish tacos, turquia con mole, and bitter-orange pork carnitas. (Suzan, Katya, Nadine, Garry, Dani, and Jeremy, we can never thank you enough.) Sasha’s wedding dress and Sean’s new suit received plenty of wear at all three occasions and the leftovers were well received by the staff on the hospital floor. 

I’d never heard of a “bomb cyclone,” but while we were flying off to Las Vegas this “perfect storm” pushed the Platte River out of its banks and spread debris and fine Valentine sand on roughly 80 acres of our farm near Ames. In some areas the sand was up to 3 feet deep. I described it as being given about 30 acres of beach. Not beach front, of course, just beach. While the farmhouse was miraculously spared our beloved remodeled chicken coop/cabin was not.  Marj and a couple of workers spent 40+ hours in April removing all the mud and mopping and sanitizing the floor but it was not until October that we discovered that there was water under the flooring. We are currently dealing with that. The good news is that as we write this letter excavators are in the fields moving the sand and revitalizing the soil so hopefully most of the acres will be in production next summer. As we flew home mid-October looking out our plane window we saw many fields with standing water in them so we are counting our blessings.  The flooding has provided a great learning opportunity for Marj as she learns about managing soil health and the process of recovering from a flood. Who said you can’t teach an old dog’s new tricks?    

The biggest change for me came this spring. While our youngest child went off to University in 2010, it wasn’t until this March that we truly became “empty nesters.” WeI’d kept the house – and the table – full with boarders, students, and the occasional “unhoused” individuals. A sudden convergence of departures (or disasters) prompted us to reconsider our business model. It’s been quite a change, particularly for me. I’ve not cooked meals for two in over thirty years. (Tip: Don’t. Cook for four or six, and schedule and freeze the leftovers. Or eat the same thing two nights in the same week.) Things are starting to settle down now and I’ve had the pleasure of cooking with Marj instead of just for her for the first time in many years.

While planting and harvest on the plains was trying this year, the home garden and orchard need pretty well. No plums this year, nor sweet cherries, but we did manage to score both sweet cherries and apricots on our way back through eastern Washington. Didn’t get kraut done this year, but with Marj’s help did get some fermented pickles in the crock. 

It seems that at a certain age people start considering their “bucket lists.” While I’ve done pretty much anything I ever wanted to accomplish (and maybe I’ll just have to accept that learning Russian, Latin, and Calculus just isn’t going to happen) Marj has postponed some things that matter to her. She managed to mark off a big one this fall. 

When we were growing up we both watched an enormously popular nature show sponsored by Mutual of Omaha, “Wild Kingdom.” The show was not exclusive to a particular area but certainly featured plenty of African mega-fauna. And while I may have been happy with seeing Giraffes and Wildebeests at the Zoos in Kansas City and Omaha (and while she doesn’t remember one of our best all-time dates, sunbears at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo) Marj has always wanted to see them in — well, Africa. (Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for a nature show of comparable quality and longevity covering lichens, liverworts, and slime molds, and I’m quite happy just looking down at my feet.)

After all the wedding activities Marj decided she needed a bit of a break.  Since I was not interested in joining her we called upon the best man from our wedding to step in and escort.  Ric Chantry graciously agreed. First stop was Rome as this was on Ric’s bucket list. Word of advice – don’t do Rome in August, especially not this past August: hot and way too many people.  Nevertheless, together Ric and Marj explored the many sites of Rome, walking 5+ miles each day. After three days the two headed down to Niarobi, Kenya and much cooler weather at 6000+ feet. 

The first few days were spent seeing the sites in and around Nairobi: an elephant orphanage, giraffe center, Karen Blixin’s (aka Isak Dinesen of “Out of Africa” fame) museum and house, making of Kazuri beads and learning how to barter for souvenirs. Ric is an old African hand. After a couple of days Ric and Marj were joined by two other Nebraskans: Don Wesely and Michele Casanova and for the next 9 days they traveled Kenya seeing many animals, fabulous landscapes, a gorgeous sunrise and miles and miles of very bumpy roads.

Don Young, an old college friend and history major, is in the business of providing high-end photographic safaris. Turns out his father used to work for Marj’s father back in the 60’s. This interesting fact everyone learned on the first night of introductions as we explained how we knew each other and where we grew up.  Who said the world is not a small place? If you are interested in hearing more about Marj’s trip she has put together a wonderful photo album that she would love to share or check out her photos on Facebook.

I’ve had my own “adventures.”  In 2015 my daughter looked me in the eye and told me that if I wanted to accomplish something in life besides work, I should consider retiring sooner rather than later. As she was sitting at the end of my hospital bed it was a persuasive argument and so I retired in 2016 due to failing health. I’d imagined getting better and doing the many other things I wanted: writing on food systems and agricultural politics, coaching high school students for ethics competitions, participating in mushroom clubs, garden societies, and world affairs councils. Sitting in on jazz jams. Well, at least I imagined that. Unfortunately, it’s been pretty much a downhill slide. The second half of 2019 has been particularly challenging. It appears that a long term autoimmune condition began to affect my kidneys.  In any event I’ve had at least one hospital stay each month since June. At this time we do not have any real answers as to what is going on nor do I anticipate hard conclusions. In the last few days I’m doing better, responding to some therapies and considering others. Marj asks that you keep your fingers crossed and keep sending prayers this way. I would remind us that ultimately we pray that “[His] will be done.” But I wouldn’t have made it this far were it not for my family and friends, including my siblings that I fail to acknowledge enough. Bill, Mimi, thanks. 

I would be remiss if I failed to share with you a few items I’ve learned from these experiences.

  • Keep a medical thermometer at home. Don’t try to substitute a soil or oven thermometer. Go on in to ER when your fever hits 100.5 F. 
  • When hospitalized, be a good patient. Chat with the staff about their lives. Ask what you can do as a patient to make their job easier. Then do those things.
  • Five years ago, pain management was a major goal in ERs. Now you have to explain to a physician how to diagnose chronic pancreatitis. 
  • If you have a “complex” medical history carry a summary of events, diagnoses, and procedures with you when traveling. 
  • While grilled cheese with tomato soup may be the quintessential American comfort food, NEVER order this in hospital. The same goes for takeout or hotel room service. Any cook or waiter knows this, but sometimes under duress we may forget life’s fundamental truths.

In January our son Anton will complete 12 years of service to the nation. He is currently flying the Marines’ Sea Stallion helicopters out of Marine Corps Air Station New River near North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. In November Anton and his wife Melanie shared their big news with us that God willing we will be grandparents some time next July.  We are all excited for 2020 to welcome in a new little Shomshor. Meanwhile I’ve already begun to plan and purchase gifts for the next 18 years – including CN silver polar bear coins for distribution by the tooth fairy. 

We will end 2019 with a Shomshor-Heyne family get together in December in Nebraska.  Marj’s mother is 97 and everyone wanted to spend at least one more Christmas with her. 

We hope that this letter finds you and your families in good health and cheer.  May all of your days be flood free and your families safe and healthy.  

Seasons Greetings,

Ben & Marj Shomshor



XLV Annual Chili and Apple Pie Feed

So what is this? Chili is not a dish to make in small portions. I make a substantial pot once a year. A lot of it will go downtown to feed people who lack a place to cook their own. Some will go to the firehall. We feed as many people at our home as are able to come, and we hope that you will be one of them. Any leftover is frozen down in family size portions and used over the course of the coming year.

Substantial Pot? The size has increased over years. At this point, it’s #20 South African cast iron Potkie (pronounced pot-gee) which is about 17 gallons. Don’t worry about running out.

Did I get this invitation in error? I’m not sure we even know you. It’s possible that you received it in error. Or maybe it was fate. In any event, stop in.

May we bring guests? Of course. Children, parents, other neighbors. Give me a heads up if you’re bringing a football team. Actually, it would be great to have a rugby team show up.

May we bring anything? Bring your own beverages. We’ll have a washtub of ice to put it in. Sometimes people forget to leave with their unopened alcoholic beverages.

What if I or my child don’t like chili, or are vegetarians? In addition to the regular chili which has beef, pork and beans, I will prepare a small pot without pork. I will also stock some cans of vegetarian chili. If I know to expect kids, I have a pot of homemade chicken noodle soup ready. And the apple pie is vegan.

I wish I could come and see you guys, but I can’t make it that night. No worries. I’ll do this for another five years or until my health gives out. And beginning in January 2019, I hope to host topical Soup Salons at least one Sunday night a month. Let me know if you would be interested and if there is a topic you would like to hear discussed.

Anything else? A few things. We are supposed to be downsizing at our age. You may have to leave with a book. We may do a drawing for a few odds and ends that need to go. There may be some fresh sauerkraut or pickles to take home. Finally, it was a bountiful summer during which I put up more jams, chutneys, compotes, switchels and vinegars than we could ever use. Please take at least one home. If you are so inclined, small donations for them will be forwarded to EGYHOP – downtown Olympia’s outreach to homeless youth.