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where i’m from….

September 28th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

I’m from the heartland, midwestern stoicism, the strong and silent types that never talk about their problems, much less admit they even have them. I’m from the large green house on the creek, the body pulled from the water that has never left my memory, from the moaning of pine trees outside and the wind-whipped leaves, verdant green playgrounds with twisted dirt paths and hiding places. I’m from the idyllic childhood that fractured at the seams and poured forth to disappear forever; I’m from the fresh and innocent turned empty and aching, from the heart that sought refuge for too many years to count, or get back. I’m from the pick yourself up and dust yourself off and start all over again side that finally, finally got it right.

I’m from a land of four seasons, the blistering summers, burnished autumns, icy winters and fragrant springs. I’m from summer vacations of cabins and sandy beaches, swimsuits and fishing poles, boat rides with thick lifejackets and sunburned noses. I’m from shortie pajamas, crisp cotton sheets and bedtimes before the sun went down. I’m from backyard picnics, Mom’s potato salad and jello in the colors of a rainbow. I’m from hotdish and baked chicken, mock chow mein, meatloaf, homemade cookies and bars and bundt cakes. I’m from smudged peanut butter fingers, graham crackers with butter and cinnamon sugar, and waffles on Sunday, Dairy Queen treats, pails of ice cream, the old green water jug in the fridge and gallons of milk.  I’m from the coffee percolator on the stove and the dishwasher that connected to the kitchen faucet. I’m from the accident-prone tomboy with skinned knees and stubbed toes, torn fingernails and broken front teeth, the wild tangle of sun-bleached hair that my mother could never tame. I’m from constant moving around, never feeling settled; a written note of promises dropped on the sidewalk that I tried desperately to catch before being borne away in a stiff wind. I’m from the eyes that watched the promises disappear, never to return.

I’m from the college educated parents, the fifth child in a family that was supposed to stop at four. I’m from sleepovers and birthday parties, bicycles, neighbor girls and their brothers who teased. I’m from shag carpeting and plaid sofas, a console TV in a wooden cabinet with four stout legs, the grand piano in the corner, a record player that sometimes caught on fire and burned fingers from the hot iron. I’m from Ennis and Jane, and influenced by Roger and Elaine and Carol and Jan. I’m from Kris and Karen and Mark and Mike. I’m from Karen, full of suffering who gave up and stopped her own story, breaking us in a way that both stunned and saved us. I’m from Mike who was, and still is my hero. I’m from Jane who left me far too soon. I’m from Jesse who dealt me pain I didn’t deserve, and Griffin who smoothed it all over. I’m from the husband who tempered my heart, who showed me unconditional love again, who held me up when the world wanted to rend me from his hands. I’m from a little part of every soul and smile that’s crossed my life. I’m from every friend who led me through a season, those that faded and reappeared, from the lives that touched mine in the most unexpected and perfect ways.

I’m from ambition and depression. I’m from high expectations and the infertility that turned my dreams into an eternally empty and painful reality. I’m from that which never seems to settle, from a desire to always better my life, from the need to be heard and appreciated, from a tumbleweed of emotions that catches on a stray branch only to be yanked free once again. I’m from coffee and cooking, laundry, gardening, reading, writing, evolving, seeking and reaching. I’m from the admission of imperfection so I can truly stop striving for the impossible; I’m from brokenness and redemption, from the Holy Trinity that saved my life, from the desire for internal peace, from forgiveness and moving on, from stretching and never ceasing. I’m from every moment of a lifetime that’s tattooed on my mind, still constantly shaping, directing, influencing and spurring me onward.

{{this post was inspired by the ever thought-provoking Heather of The Extraordinary Ordinary, fueled by Amy of The Never True Tales and this writing exercise}}
{photo credits to ‘Oh Eliza Jane’; The Christian Meditator; The Bostonist}

it’s fall

September 23rd, 2010 | 11 Comments »

And not like ‘The calendar says it’s September’ kind of Fall, which seems appropriate even though the first few weeks are still Summer; no, this is the real deal now as the sun has passed into the appropriate spot in the sky that says ‘Hey everyone, here I am in all my red gold glory and yes, Summer is really over.’

Fall is transition. It’s new things like school years, shoes, clothing and meals. It’s a warmer blanket or longer sleeves but it’s still full of sunshine, ample blue sky and a mosquito bite or two. We still can feel too warm during the day, but just watch out for that sunset because whoa now, the temperature drop is precipitous and it helps to have a comfy sweater on hand. And slippers too.

Fall for me is a time of melancholy, and this goes way way back in my life to being very young and watching, probably for the first time, how the light changes from August to September, the way the sky darkens so much earlier and how life just swiftly grinds to a halt from carefree summer to the routine of another school year. So it seems appropriate that I always yearn to be learning in the Fall, that I wish to be back in school, with empty notepads and fresh books full of promise and mystery. I admit to being a lifetime learner, and heaven help me if I ever decide that I can stop getting better at this thing called life. Please make sure you knock me on the forehead if I do, ok?

The food of Fall, for me anyway, is highly anticipated. The richness of a bowl of soup, the scent of apples baking in the oven and the comfort of something steaming in your hands keeps the thought of winter at bay. At least, it can if you close your eyes and think really hard. Like the seamless steps from Summer to Fall, that sneaks up on us too, and often Fall seems like the shortest season around. But I love this time of year for multitudes of reasons. Maybe because it’s so fleeting that we need to grab it tight and enjoy it. It could be the colors, because oh those colors are spectacular, aren’t they? It might be due to soup too.

This is one of my favorite recipes, dug out from my cookbook cupboard when I recently felt brave enough to go in there and conquer the mess it had become. One drawback of being focused so much on the foods that we eat is that I collect a great deal of recipes culled from every conceivable source available. Which, I’m sure we all know, is astronomical. It’s endless, for certain. And I’ve been known to go ‘Hmm, THAT looks wonderful!’ on many, many occasions, print out a sheet and then somehow lose track of it. And either I make it and swoon, or I just don’t get around to it. This recipe for Zuppa Arcidossana was in a large and jumbled ‘To Keep” pile that was stuffed between a few good books in the cupboard, but ultimately, and sadly, forgotten. As soon as I pulled it out, I had that lightbulb moment of ‘Oh my word, I loved this soup!’ and was so glad it felt cool and temperate enough to embark on another pot of it. Because people, THIS is soup. This is that hearty, steaming, chock full of veggies soup that we dream of when the sun makes that inevitable turn and we finally tuck away our shorts and tank tops. This is what soup should be; it’s warming but it isn’t too heavy. It’s simple to make – like wayyyyy simple folks – but tastes complex and full of depth. It’s versatile beyond imagination. It’s delicious far past any normal words, unless you count ‘Oooh’ ‘Mmmmm’ and deep contented sighs to be normal. Which, around my house is completely fine if you do. In fact, it’s expected.

Zuppa Arcidossana (Italian Bread Soup)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound sweet Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 cup 1/2-inch-diced carrots
1 large onion, chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt and black pepper
1 cup stale bread (use coarse, country-style bread), cut in 1/2-inch cubes
1/2 pound spinach, trimmed, washed and roughly chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup ricotta salata, cut in 1/2-inch cubes (feta may be substituted)
1/4 cup freshly chopped parsley, optional.

Put oil in a large pot or deep skillet and brown sausage over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally. When sausage is cooked through and leaving brown bits in pan, add carrots, onion and garlic, and continue to cook until vegetables begin to soften and brown, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Add bread to pan and stir for a minute or 2; add spinach and continue cooking just until it wilts, a couple of minutes.

Add about 2 cups water and stir to loosen any remaining brown bits from pan. This is more of a stew than a soup, but there should be some broth, so add another cup of water if necessary. When broth is consistency of thin gravy, ladle stew into serving bowls and top with cheese and some freshly chopped parsley if you have it. Serve immediately.

Mark Bittman, NY Times, 4/29/09

I reversed the order of cooking and browned the carrot, garlic and onion first for quite some time before adding in the sausage and giving it a good searing as well. Since you are only adding water, the fond on the pan will add an immense depth to the pot. You can, however, use any good stock on hand. Fresh bread actually works fine in this soup too, if you don’t have any stale on hand. You can toast or broil fresh bread to stiffen it before adding to the pot.

I had some leftover green beans from a previous dinner that ended up in the soup as well. I used shaved parmesan instead of ricotta because I love the rustic edge it gives soup. Swap up the veggies, adding whatever suits you, or you have on hand. Use a different sausage or skip it altogether. Fresh herbs are a must here; I used rosemary and thyme in ample quantities.

and just like that, it was gone

September 15th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

As I write this, there’s quite a cool, blustery wind outside whipping the treetops around. I’m in fleece, and slippers. This morning after Mike arose at his customary hour of half-past the cat alarm, I pulled a wool throw over the quilt to snuggle under. It was raining, a cool breeze through the crack of the window left open was whispering it’s inevitable words to me: Fall is here.

Sometimes the change in seasons sneaks up on you, and other years it’s as if you awake one day and the very air around you is different. The sun seems to weaken, the air has a certain scent to it that hums of cooler nights and impending frost and you begin pulling open drawers holding clothes you almost forgot you owned. The jump from August to September was quick and precise. August kept showing us her gutsy heat and blazing sunshine, then with a swift turn of a page, September chased August away and said ‘There, there…. I’ll give you some relief.’ Instead of a cool smoothie for breakfast, now I want a cozy bowl of oatmeal. Soup recipes are more appealing. It’s time to bake, a warm oven competing with the breeze through the window. School buses rumble by on the road. There’s homework, earlier bedtimes, earlier sunsets.

I kind of got lost in August, only posting twice here. I’m sorry. It was a hard month for me, and the view from my eyes shrank considerably. I worked a lot, a crazy amount of hours. I slept, or tried to, a lot. It seems like the only thing I did at home was drink coffee and do laundry; I tried to stay cool in the terminal heat of the professional kitchen as the sun and humidity slackened the air outside,  and I tried to keep my sanity through the seemingly never-ending parade of task after task after task. I sweated more than I ever have in my life. I missed my friends. I missed cooking in my own kitchen, the things I wanted to eat. I missed my life, quite frankly. I was caught in a vortex, and it was ugly. Then, like the seasonal change that’s happened outside, September brought it’s own reform to my life. Work slowed down considerably. On a few evenings I was able to leave while the sky was still light, miraculous indeed. I took some much needed time off and within a short weekend, there occurred several transforming events that filled the hollowness that had taken hold. I saw my friends. I became inspired. I met new people. I spent time with my family, splashing in the pool with Nina, snuggling in a hammock with baby Sara and getting that Love Bank filled to the brim. There were plenty of hugs and smiles. Life came back. And I took a hike.

And I spent some time in the kitchen. With apples.

Making Applesauce with maple syrup and cinnamon.

Really, can we be any more “Fall” than fresh Applesauce? Or anything with apples plucked right from an orchard tree? It’s quintessential. It’s perfect. It’s necessary. And this recipe is so, so simple. Any Applesauce recipe is, if you can manage the peeling and coring process required. I use one of those nifty devices that peels, cores and slices your apples all for the crank of a squeaky handle.

(photo courtesy of Nutrition Lifestyles)

I’ll tell you my friends, owning one of these is vital, even if I only pull it out in the Fall during Apple season. It makes any apple dessert almost like an afterthought because it does all the work for you. I placed it on the counter next to the stove, and as each apple came off the device, I simply broke it up right into the pot. In less than 10 minutes I had a 6-quart stockpot full of apple slices. I made an Apple Crisp too, and for almost the time it took to mix together the crumb topping and heat the oven, it was ready to bake. Kids love cranking the handle and watching their apples transform. And no, I’m not pitching anything, you blog-scoping watchdogs. Just telling it like it is.

But back to that Applesauce-

The recipe comes from Eating Well magazine. It’s three ingredients- apples, syrup and cinnamon. It takes about 20 minutes, not counting the time spent prepping your apples. After it was cooled I simply placed it in the fridge because I know we will devour it so there’s no need to think about canning. Does your family love applesauce, with thick chunks of fruit, a hint of maple and a nice warming dose of cinnamon? The markets are bursting with fruit and who doesn’t love a trip to an orchard, a walk among the sagging trees and the delight of plucking your own fruit to take home? This time of year your bag of apples will keep well in the garage, provided we don’t get too cold too early. Really, you have no excuses. Ok. Except time. I’ll give you that.

Maple Cinnamon Applesauce
from Eating Well magazine, Sept/Oct 2009

  • 6 McIntosh or other tart apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 Golden Delicious or other sweet apple, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Combine apple pieces and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring once or twice, until the apples are very soft and falling apart, about 30 minutes. Mash the apples to the desired consistency and stir in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I made a 6-quart stockpot full of applesauce as we love it so much. It will freeze too, if you make a large batch and can’t eat it all within, say, a week. Adjust the syrup and cinnamon to taste when you make a larger quantity. I added some nutmeg too as it’s the BFF to cinnamon in baking recipes. My sweet apple was a PaulaRed, but feel free to swap the balance between tart and sweet to your own personal taste, and mix in the syrup accordingly. To make it ultra-smooth, place the mixture in a food processor or high-powered blender and process in batches until desired consistency.

this face, this life

September 7th, 2010 | 16 Comments »

{this photo makes me weep- it’s my Mom, and Griffin when he was 2 weeks old}

My boy is a Junior in High School this year. I repeat this to myself often, trying to implant it in my head in a way that makes it sound familiar enough, like I’m truly talking about my own child instead of some stranger who hangs around my life.

I only have a few friends with kids the age of my own. We can commiserate on parenting teenagers, watching them grow and evolve and it helps to see another set of eyes grow wide in wonder at the amazing transformation that happens right in front of us. But a lot of my friends are parenting young still; they’re experiencing potty-training, weaning, first days of school and all sorts of other milestones that have already faded to sepia tones in my own mind. They lament the startling rate at which their children are growing, and yearn to keep them young. I want to embrace them because I understand. But I also want to tell them ‘The best is yet to come.’ And I truly mean that.

I’ll never wish for my son to be young again. I won’t. Beyond the fact that he’s just so much of an amazement to me, I look back at our life then, and for us, so much was different. And it wasn’t always fun. I parented single-handedly, with a few dedicated adults that lent solidity to my son’s life. But it was a lonely and empty existence sometimes. There was no one to ease my worries as I sped to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night (twice in one month, people) with a sobbing, anguished child in the backseat. There wasn’t an option of rest at the end of a long and tiring day, someone to make dinner while I tried to push the stress out of my head. No one else was there to assemble the tricycle, teach the proper way to swing a bat or encourage the training wheels to come off. At the same time, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, no one else saw the first bowling strike, the first homerun, the first exclamation of “My tooth came out!!” or the triumphant first circling of the driveway on a two-wheeler. I get to cherish those memories alone. I got to teach the importance of a bike helmet by pointing out the dent that took that first impact. I got to hold the hand of a nervous boy the first time he sat in a dentist’s chair. I got to see his face as he confidently told me that he didn’t need me to walk into his Kindergarten class with him anymore. It is both lovely, and bittersweet. Even as the tone of them fades in my memory with the clang of an ever-changing clock, no one can take them away from me. No one.

There are times my boy comes rolling down the stairs in the morning and I am still shocked at the young man in my house. But I am not sad to see him grow, evolve and become the person he was created to be. This is exciting. This is an adventure. Those firsts are all behind us and his entire life is forming and beginning to unfold now. And I am amazed. I’m humbled. And I’m pleased. When people tell me how polite he is, I barely am able to thank them because I’m too busy thanking myself for never giving up on the constant, day-in and day-out reinforcement of teaching him manners, even when I would have rather torn out my fingernails before reminding him to say ‘Thank You’ or ‘Excuse me’ again. When the girl cousins tell me how nice it is that he puts the toilet seat down, again, I feel better about the thousands of times I hauled him back into the bathroom and made him put the seat down himself until he got it on his own. You put it up, you put it down. You take it out, you put it back. If you open it, you close it. Every day, every month, every year, for years on end thinking I would go mad with the repetition. When it pays off on it’s own, and my friends- IT WILL- you will feel the same that I do. It isn’t pride, really. It’s the inherent satisfaction of a long and difficult task that’s finally- finally!!- shown it’s just rewards.

I may have, at some time felt the urge to keep my boy at a certain age forever, but as he grew I realized that I don’t have to wish for that anymore because it’s already there. It’s just there in memory, but it’s the sweetest memories of all because as he grows, I can look back and see just how far he’s come. I’m excited to see what his life will do in the years ahead. I do have my own wishes where his life is concerned, and they are far more selfish because they’re for me, not for him. I wish to never forget the first time he smiled, or laughed, or said “Ma!” or the sound of his voice before he went through puberty. I wish to never forget the look on his face when he finally got something, when he fully understood for the first time. I wish to never forget how empathetic he was a young boy, the time he sat by my side at the tender age of three, stroking my hair as I lay on the floor crying, trying to ease the pain of a terrible backache. Or the time, stuck in rush hour traffic on a snowy December afternoon and going nowhere, that we talked about how excited he was for Christmas to come, and he says to me- all of five years old- “Mom, it’s too bad that you have to spend Christmas without your Mom.” I wish to never forget, at maybe 2-1/2, when he wanted to call his beloved Uncle Mike, my brother (that’s them above, BFF’s now and forever), and when the answering machine came on he said loudly “Pees call me yater.” I wish to never forget how he loved to help me with everything I did, so I’d put a sponge in his hands or give him a dust cloth and allow him to clean to his hearts desire, even if it took him an hour to do one simple job that would have taken me 5 minutes. And I especially don’t want to forget when I told him that I’d met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, and he smiled and said “That means he’d be my Dad, right?”

I can look at him now and see the person that I envisioned sixteen years ago, as he lay his chubby baby cheeks on my chest and gazed up at me with his perfect love. I can see that I’ve given him a firm foundation to base himself on, that he can speak for himself because I gave him a voice, that he can stand up for what he believes because I first believed in him, that he can laugh himself silly at how ridiculous life can be because I had to show him that even as beautiful as it is, it will never be perfect. I can see how resilient he is because he learned from me that not everyone will be his friend. I can see the good choices he makes because I gave him room to choose for himself. I see how he aptly deflects the pain of life because I never lied to him about how the world will hurt, how life is often unfair and how difficult some days may be. It went against the very instinct of parenting sometimes, but I knew he would never survive if I sheltered him, kept him safe within the circle of my arms or never let him know the truth. It’s better for him to see the world through the filter of my eyes than to be pushed into it with no ability to cope.

I loved him enough to do that for him, and to show him anger, frustration, pain, sorrow, grief and despair. I loved him enough to discipline him, sometimes with severity. Yet I also loved him enough to explain why I felt all those emotions, and why for his entire life he was going to have to follow rules so it was best that he start now, not to mention being strong and humble enough to apologize if my feelings made me into an ogre. I always made sure he was aware that it was his behavior that disappointed me, not him, and while I may not have liked what he did, I still loved him more than anyone else on Earth. As he grew and changed, I learned also to forgive myself for the bad times, for telling myself I was a horrible parent when we had a rotten day and for thinking I was doing irrevocable damage by those punishments. Because, you know what? He doesn’t remember it. He just remembers the love, the lap time, the stories before bed and the talking we would do before he fell asleep.

Two years ago when he entered High School, I knew it would be but a blink and a sigh before we were planning his graduation. I’m OK with that. I’m OK with the young man who roams my house, loves his friends and his music, his video games and God. I’m OK with the young man emerging, spreading his wings and learning to fly. I’m OK if he comes home and heads to his room, covering his ears with his headphones, tuning me out. I give him the space and he’ll come out eventually. I’ll be waiting for him when he does. I’m OK with requests for ice cream, Mavericks roast beef sandwiches, and the occasional steak. I’m OK with our cribbage games, even when he skunks me. And I’m OK with knowing that all too soon he’ll be off on his own and showing the world what he can do, with that amazing smile, his politeness and helpful attitude and the ability to put the seat down.