Fifth Day of Christmas: Terrific Teachers

(by Zuska) Dec 30 2017

Kindergarten was for the most part a pleasant time, though my most vivid memory of that year is of a sour disappointment.

We were required to demonstrate competence in tying our shoes, with a promised reward of a large gold star on our report card. I begged my mother to instruct me in the art of shoe-tying. Not understanding the high stakes, she did not feel a sense of urgency. There's no rush. Entering kindergarten at age 4 1/2, my motor skills were a bit behind those of my classmates. But like Elizabeth Warren, I persisted, and did learn to tie my shoelaces - only to discover on test day that we were not allowed to demonstrate competence on our own shoes. Presented with an outsized fake boot-shoe mounted on a platform, sitting on the teacher's desk facing us - wrong place, wrong height, pointing the wrong direction - I struggled to produce a bow. I was pleased with my result in this backwards formation, but my kindergarten teacher was not. It's too droopy. No gold star for droopy bows! Bitterly disappointed and angry, I felt I had been cheated. I had tied the laces on both my shoes at home that morning.  Years later, this teacher, who went to the same church as my grandparents, would remark upon The Droopy Bow every time she saw me. "You were such a bright kid, but you just couldn't tie your shoelace! It was too droopy! I couldn't give you a gold star!" Well into my college years, I dreaded seeing her at my grandparents' church.

Most of my grade school teachers loom as frightening or at best oddly disconcerting presences in my memory - teachers who carried wooden paddles and used them on our small bodies, teachers tightly focused on discipline, teachers who weren't shy about letting us know who among us was hopelessly stupid and undeserving of their precious teaching time. Here I do not exaggerate. I had a third-grade teacher who divided us into five reading groups based on how well we could read and announced one day that she did not have time to waste teaching the "slow readers" in group five - from now on, the group one readers would instruct the group five readers while she dealt with the rest of the class. I still remember the shy boy D. who was assigned me as his "reading teacher" and often wondered how his life turned out. Did he learn somehow to love books and reading? Did he ever find encouragement for anything he was interested in?

Among this sea of misery, there were a few terrific teachers. Two beloved teachers in grade school were Miss Phillips and Miss Pekar.

Miss Phillips was our music teacher. The precious time spent in her classroom was a gift. She had small percussion instruments for us to play - a triangle, a tambourine, maracas, bells, and the like - and she led us in singing. We watched filmstrips in her classroom about music and with musical accompaniment. I vividly remember one about folk music. It was the first time I heard the song "Blowin' In The Wind," the Peter, Paul, and Mary version, and I was so overwhelmed by the music and lyrics that I memorized it as I was listening to it. Miss Phillips vanished from our school one day, and the adults in our lives began to whisper about her, and then we learned a new word, leukemia, and a new sadness.

Miss Pekar was my fifth grade teacher and the one who brought the book The Witch of Blackbird Pond into my life. We read it together as a class, and we also read Charlotte's Web. When I think of Miss Pekar, I see her walking slowly around our classroom, reading a passage from one of these books, before turning the reading over to us. We each read a paragraph aloud in turn - no Group One readers "teaching" neglected and shamed Group Five readers in her class, we were all one group reading together. Miss Pekar also memorably one day brought into class a large box of books and said anyone could have any book in the box that they wanted. Oh joy! Free books! I was first to the box and what did I find? The collected plays of William Shakespeare! I recognized the name as important, also, there was just more book per book in that book than any of the other kid books in the box. A better deal! "I want this book," I said. She took the book from me and turned it over in her hands, looking doubtful. "How did this book get into the box?" I can still hear her saying that, almost to herself. "You said any book!" I said, with a child's clear sense of justice. "I'll tell you what. You can borrow it for awhile and read it if you like but then you have to return it to me." And that is how I came to read - or skim read - many of Shakespeare's plays in the fifth grade. Except for excerpts of two plays read in senior English class, that is the only time I read Shakespeare in my schooling, and the source of my (garbled) understanding of the Bard.

Three high school teachers belong in this narrative.

Mrs. Miller, my high school algebra and trig teacher was not popular with students, but by golly she taught me algebra and trig. I had no deficiencies there. If our school had actually offered calculus I have no doubt she would have been as thorough in her instruction of that subject. I still have the TI-30 scientific calculator she made us all buy in senior year - it cost my parents $30, in 1979 - because calculators were the way of the future and we needed to learn how to use them.

Mrs. Long, my typing teacher was fierce. She was as rigorous and as hard on errors as my trig teacher. She gave me a skill I have used throughout my life, one that carried me through typing my term papers on an old manual typewriter using onion skin and carbon paper, to typing on an electric typewriter with wite-out, to typing on a keyboard at a mainframe using LaTex to format my master's thesis, to typing on a PC to write my PhD thesis, to typing this blog post on a laptop. I don't know what she'd make of thumb typing emoji texters today. Maybe she'd just consider it another form of shorthand, which she also taught, back in the day.

Lastly, Mrs. Shuttlesworth, my freshman year French and English teacher, did teach me French, and did teach me some song lyrics could be analyzed just like poetry (reminding me of my beloved Miss Phillips and that encounter with Blowin' In The Wind - hey, didn't the Nobel Committee have something to say about that?!?) Even more than that, she gave me a sense that I should value my intellect, and that I should strive for something beyond the confines of my known world.

It is not possible to overestimate the importance of this in a sea of schooling that was often anti-intellectual or just downright incompetent. Some teachers meant well, but some didn't care, or had given up, or were in over their heads. Nobody - and by nobody I mean nobody in Harrisburg - cared if coal miner's and farmer's kids in Greene County, PA weren't getting a world class education, or didn't have adequate resources in their schools, or didn't have access to enrichment programs. The odds were against us students. But: The teachers who did do a good job, who sang to and with us, who read to and with us, who taught us cosine secant tangent sine! 3.14159! , who taught us a useful skill while embodying competence, confidence, and intelligence - these teachers were terrific when all the odds were against them, too.


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Fourth Day of Christmas: Lunch Ladies

(by Zuska) Dec 28 2017

Not ladies who lunch, but the lunch ladies, are today's topic.

Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?

In grade school, sometimes I did both. We lived down the street from the elementary school. Bus rides didn't happen for me until sixth grade, though there were plenty of kids who did ride the bus up into Bobtown for grade school. (And I do mean up - Bobtown Hill was quite a trip on a school bus, especially in winter, especially with snow chains on the tires. Do they still do that? Oh the poor bus drivers, eternally having to repair the broken chains en route to or from school. But I digress.)

Kids who rode the bus either had to carry their lunch or eat in the cafeteria. I could choose either option, but also on occasion could walk home for lunch. Sometimes I'd go to the home of my second cousin, who lived even closer to the school house, as this savings of walking time might allow for a bit of play time.

Every weekend we would study the school lunch menu as published in the local newspaper - they did that back then! they published the weekly lunch menus for all the grade schools and high schools in the county! in our local paper! we had a local paper! two of them, actually! morning and evening! delivered daily! to our front doorstep! by a local guy! who walked the route! - anyway, we would study the lunch menus to see what days were desirable eat-in-school days.

In my grade school days, the lunch ladies were women of the town who knew how to cook, and who prepared the lunches more or less from scratch. Those lunches were good, tasty food, nutritious and filling. I still have the recipe for Pizzaburgers a la Bobtown Elementary School (see below). Pizzaburgers were definitely a eat-in-school lunch.

In grade school, there was a lot of stern discipline. We were all the kids of immigrant families whose fathers worked the coal mines. The teachers at that time, for the most part, were not drawn from the ranks of the townspeople. Some of our teachers seemed to think what we needed was not so much the fundamentals of readin', ritin', and 'rithmatic as the fundamentals of discipline and punish. One teacher lined us up in alphabetical order to march from the classroom to lunchroom and back, and maintained a strict no-talking rule during the transit process. All teachers carried wooden paddles and it was common for at least one child to be paddled during the lunch hour for some transgression or other. (Keep in mind these are children from kindergarten to fifth grade.) Children who were paddled were commonly made to sign their names to the teacher's paddle. I was an extremely well-behaved child and I was hit with the paddle once each year of my grade school career - for example, once in second grade, for jumping out of my seat and running to the window in excitement at the sight of the first snow of the season.

With this as background, imagine a young child going through the lunch line with the cheerful lunch ladies - who were not so very different from our own mothers and bubbas - serving up trays of warm food along with a smile and an encouraging word or two. I have many bad and frightening memories of grade school but none of them have to do with the lunch ladies.

Even at high school, the food was real food, cooked by women you knew because your family socialized with them. Every high school lunch came with a bun, a small freshly baked yeasty mini-loaf of bread accompanied by a pat of butter. With homemade meatloaf or spaghetti with meat sauce, this was really quite filling.

I remember one particular day taking my tray up to discard my lunch leftovers at a time when I had grown oddly picky about food. The pickiness was perhaps made worse by peer pressure. It had become common to indulge in mocking the lunch offerings; as teenagers newly aware of our importance and centrality to the universe, we mocked everything. M., the lunch lady who was my brother's mother-in-law saw that I was discarding an entirely untouched bun, and she chided me, kind and stern at once. Why did I take the bun if I would not eat it? Did I not know that they made those fresh, from scratch, each morning? Did I not know how good they tasted? Did I not like bread? Did I not know that if nothing else on the menu appealed to me, I could make a meal out of the bun and butter and a carton of milk? Did I not know my mother would be ashamed of me for wasting good food?????

I could not argue with any of M.'s logic, and I definitely could not argue with that last statement. And I knew if I were ever again caught throwing an uneaten bun in the trash, my mom would hear about it, and I would hear about it from mom. I did like the buns, and M.'s chiding gave me courage to eat them in the face of my friends' lunch food mockery. Henceforth, I ate my bun and drank my milk, even if nothing else on the lunch menu appealed to me.

Later in life I watched Jamie Oliver attempt to revamp public school lunch programs in the U.S. and was dismayed to find out how little control lunch ladies have over the meals they produce for schoolchildren now. They care just as much as the women who fed and nourished (and chided) me but their hands are often tied by harmful policies designed more to help mega-food corporations than to nourish children.

What can you do to help improve school lunches for your kid, and support your local lunch ladies? The NRDC has some advice here.

And now, the recipe for Pizzaburgers!! (Obviously scaled down from production for a lunchroom of undisciplined talking youngsters who just will not stay in an alphabetized straight line, but still sizeable enough for a family of nine. Recommend serving with a side of green beans. And a carton - not plastic bottle - of chocolate milk, if you can get your hands on one.)


2 lb ground beef
3 cans tomato paste
2 cans tomato sauce
1 c. grated cheese (cheddar or Longhorn)
2 1/2 T parsley flakes
2 T brown sugar
1/2 T. garlic powder
1 T oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
1 large onion, chopped
Brown meat and onion with salt and pepper. Add paste, sauce, brown sugar, garlic powder, oregano, grated cheese, parsley. Mix well. Spoon on open buns. Sprinkle some cheese on top. Brown under broiler till melted.

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Third Day of Christmas: Amazing Aunts

(by Zuska) Dec 27 2017

The three wise aunts: next door, Aunt Nellie, across the street Aunt Mary, and catty-corner across the street was Aunt Stella. These were in fact my great-aunts. Mary was sister to my mother's mother, Nellie sister to mom's father, and Stella was married to a brother of mom's father. Mom, bereft of her mother, relied heavily on these women in the early years of her marriage.

Aunt Stella was an exceptional baker. She took over the thrice-weekly bread-baking for the family after my grandmother's death, until enough time had passed that she deemed it acceptable to gently suggest to mom and her sister Betty that perhaps it was time they learn to master this task. Aunt Stella was famed for her cookies and pastries; there was always something delicious in her kitchen. In addition, there was a swing in her backyard. My sister and I would obtain permission from mom to trot across the street, knock on the door, and ask if we could play on the swing. I can still see in my mind's eye the gentle smile on Aunt Stella's face and in her eyes; the answer was always yes. Mom sternly instructed us ahead of time never to ask Aunt Stella for anything to eat, but we nearly always got a cookie. Oftentimes it was a ladylock, and no one made better ladylocks than Aunt Stella. By "no one" I mean no one in the entire universe of cookies. Near the end of her life she did teach a young woman in town how to make them, and hers are nearly as good as Aunt Stella's were. Only nearly as good, because nothing in the world will ever taste like the freshly made ladylocks Aunt Stella placed in our grubby little hands on a warm spring afternoon when we were six and seven years old.

Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella accompanied my father and mother on the epic trip to the hospital late on the wintry January night of my birth. The hospital was a good thirty minutes drive away and mom's water had already broken at home as she was mopping the kitchen floor (as you do, at the end of your ninth month, after 11 pm, when the other four kids are already in bed.) Aunt Nellie stayed with Pappap and the kids, Aunt Mary and Aunt Stella came along to help out mom because I seemed to be, as Pappap later said, "in a hurry to get into this world." In a hurry I was, and just a mile or so out of town, mom said "Ed, you'd better pull the car over, this baby is coming!" To which my frantic father famously replied, "Can't you just cross your legs?" "Ed, pull the car over! The baby's head is coming out!" And so I was born along the side of a road in the back seat of the car, with the aunts presiding.

Aunt Nellie features in many stories about mom learning to cook, as she was right next door. Mom would often run over for advice. The first time mom made Thanksgiving turkey, she asked how is the gravy made? Aunt Nellie told her to take the neck and boil it in some water, and save that water to use for the gravy. Mix with some flour and use to thicken for the gravy. Later she asked mom how the gravy came out. Not so good, mom reported. It was thin and gray and watery and had not much flavor. How did you make it, Aunt Nellie asked. I saved that neck water like you said, and I added flour to it, and it got a little thick, but it didn't have good color and it didn't have much taste. So Aunt Nellie naturally wondered, what had she done with the pan drippings? Oh, I threw those out. And here you have to picture Aunt Nellie's clenched fingertips flying up to her mouth, face scrunched in shock and dismay, as she squeals/screams/cries out oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn! in grief for all that flavor thrown away. Many years later I would cook Thanksgiving dinner at a friend's house, and labor carefully over the making of the gravy, which came out in perfect consistency and astonishing flavor, only to watch in horror after dinner as the friend jumped up from the table to announce: "The dog has been so good all through dinner he deserves a special treat!" He promptly filled a large bowl with kibble and poured three large ladles-full of my gravy over the kibble. Oooooooooooohhhhhhhmmmmmnnnn!

The list of amazing aunts is so long, it would take a book chapter to cover them all. There was of course Aunt Betty, mom's older sister and best friend. There were two by name of Anna Marie, one very short and quiet and one very tall and exuberant. Two by name of Rose: the one in Virginia, she of the French-toasted fruit sandwiches, and one in exotic Cleveland, who had insisted on taking shop class rather than home ec in high school, and who had met Albert Einstein while working in Washington, DC. There was an Aunt Mary Ann, whom my mom raised from a young age and my dad had liked to tease; Aunt Margie, throughout her life tireless in caring for her family and the ill and elderly around her; an Aunt Mary Kathryn who was so kind to us over many years of our family tragedy; and an Aunt Catherine, adventurous enough to go off to live in Texas, funny, and smart and beloved, as was Cleveland Rose, of my father.

That's just an intro to their names and a sketch of their ordering in constellations of my family sky. If you had a day or two, oh the stories I could tell! And that's not even touching on the cousin-of-mom-who-functioned-like-aunts, and the more distant great aunts...

The great-aunts are long gone. Seven of my nine aunts still survive, though some are in poor health. For most of these women, their careers were the home and family, though a few did have paying gigs as well. Even so, they were (and are) so different from one another, and collectively they gave me many examples of adult womanhood for examination and inspiration. The best of what I am able to do in nurturing others comes in part I am sure from what I absorbed from being in their presence. Amazing aunts, how sweet they are.

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Things My Mother Liked

(by Zuska) Dec 27 2017

This was originally a Storify, tweeted out in 2013 shortly after my mother passed away.  I've rescued it to here because, as Christina Pikas reminds us, Storify is going away this spring. 

Sometimes I feel I understood little and lived as an overgrown adolescent most of my life. Maybe 6 or 7 years ago, I began to attend more closely to my mother's life - her life not just as my mother, but as a person. Too late smart, as they say.


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Second Day of Christmas: Sisters and Cousins

(by Zuska) Dec 27 2017

Sisters and cousins - I was surrounded by, embedded in a web of these, growing up.

I grew up with two sisters, one a year-and-a-half younger, one four years older. Down the street from us lived our second cousins, also a family of three girls and three boys, the girls approximately the same ages as we were. My sisters and I were all in the marching band, as were the second cousins down the street. We had first cousins "across town" (a five minute walk). They too were in the marching band. J was the same age as my older sister, D a year older; and I was just a year younger than P.

Seven miles away in the town where my father grew up lived my Aunt Betty's family. Her three children were more the age my two oldest brothers. B, the youngest, worked summers at the concession stand of the public swimming pool. Clutching a precious nickel and dime or perhaps a quarter, making our way in dripping wet suits from poolside to the concession stand in the middle of the park under shade trees, it was always more special to get our candy bar or slice of pizza when B was behind the sliding screen window. Also, sometimes B gave us an extra slice of pizza (to share) on the house, which made us feel enormously privileged and fortunate. B's father was Italian - Italian! - and B had inherited his coloring and handsome features. In my Slovak world of studda bubbas, she was a bella stella.

There were a slew of other cousins we saw only on holidays or at family reunions - from Ohio and Virginia and Maryland, eighteen of them first cousins, as well as uncounted second cousins whose names and connections to ourselves we often had to relearn each year at reunion time. These were just the relatives on my mother's side. Cousins did not sprout quite like weeds on dad's side of the family but there was still a good crop - eight first cousins in Pittsburgh, Ohio, and by god, Texas! It boggled the mind to think we were related to someone who lived in Texas. It almost made it a real place.

We had a second cousin in Michigan, too. She always arrived with a full complement of Barbie dolls and exotic Barbie doll clothes whenever her family came back to visit (coming back to visit was what a lot of people who had gone "away" did, and did frequently, in lieu of more exciting travel options.) This is the cousin with whom we played Our Barbies Are Witches Who Can Make Their Boyfriends Clean House.

Photos of birthday parties from my young years are full of sisters, cousins, and a few non-relative friends. Weddings, which were a major form of social entertainment in the summers, were always large affairs because everyone was related to everyone else, and so everyone had to be invited. One cousin managed to marry a man with an equally large and mostly non-overlapping extended family-and-friends network, and their wedding list topped out at around 500 souls. The usual two sittings of family-style dinner service at the fire hall were not enough - it took three sittings to feed everyone, and some people had not eaten until well after the dancing had begun.

I moved away from, out of my web of sisters and cousins when I went off to college. I missed family reunions, weddings, births, First Communions, school plays - shared events and rituals of daily life that bonded us all together. I built a different kind of life for myself and it has been a satisfying one but I often miss that sense of connection and shared life experiences that made life growing up a cozy and comfortable (if often stifling as well) existence.

In recent years I have reconnected with some of my cousins. Much as we sometimes had to re-learn our names and relationships to each other at family reunions, in our adult life we have begun relearning what we can mean to each other. Sharing elder care experiences, in some cases, has been a trigger for a deeper bonding with a few.

All these cousins were in our lives because sisters in the generation(s) preceding ours had lived near one another and/or made the effort to stay in touch with extended family through reunions and visits back to "the old home place". For the third day of Christmas, I'll be mediating on those wonderful women - the aunts and the great-aunts.

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On The First Day Of Christmas: Memories of Mom

(by Zuska) Dec 25 2017

I wrapped a package of two books for a little nine-year-old girl yesterday: The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Island of the Blue Dolphins, two favorites from my younger days. There was always a book under the tree for me at Christmas time, and it was nice to pass along that memory and tradition. It was a treat to spend part of Christmas Eve with the enthusiastic young recipient of the books. She was quite absorbed with tracking Santa's progress on her iPad, dialing up his voicemail message, and checking and rechecking her naughty or nice level using a "finger scan" app. All of this brought to mind the letter to Santa I had written when I was nine, and that my mother so faithfully saved for so many years.

The little girl last night got an American Girl doll, much fancier than any doll I had ever known as a child. But the thrill and joy and wrap-around hugs lavished on the doll, and worries about what to name her, were all familiar. I remember the Christmas that Santa brought my "big baby doll", after mom and I had carefully looked her over in a toy store. I had not dared to hope for such a lovely baby doll but there she was on Christmas morning, wrapped in a soft pink blanket with a big pink satin bow. How I cried when I could not retie the bow properly, and how happy I was when mom made it all nice again for me!

My big baby doll (saved for me by mom, too), sans the long-gone pink satin ribbon.

There was another Christmas when my very best gift came in a black plastic garbage bag, because it was too big and bulky for mom to wrap properly. It was a brand new coat! In those days, I rarely got a new coat. There was an older sister ahead of me whose hand-me-downs were readily available. And if her wardrobe did not suffice, there were always the frequent donations from a better-off branch of cousins. They seemed to get new clothes every other day, and to stop wearing them when they got bored with them, rather than when they were torn, stained, or worn beyond repair. But this Christmas I got a brand new coat of my own. A "fur" coat, spotted like a leopard, with a hood trimmed in more brown "fur". I remember opening the bag, peering inside, shrieking with delight and immediately shutting the bag again - I could not believe it was true. I peeked in again and it was! it was true! If I had that coat in my possession still I would make a pillow out of it.

When I think of the book under the tree each year, and the amazing fur coat in a trash bag, I think that my mother saw me - saw me, her fifth of six children, the middle of three daughters, as a unique person with individual preferences and desires and needs. She was often overwhelmed, always overworked and tired and stressed, always trying to stretch an inadequate budget to feed and clothe her large brood of often ungrateful kids. She was not in any way a perfect mother - is there such a thing? - and she was not my friend, in the way that it seems to me the ideal of modern motherhood is often portrayed. But she loved each of us fiercely, loved each of us as her own and for our own selves. I was lucky to be so loved.


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Burnt Toast Madeleine

(by Zuska) Nov 03 2017

I burnt my toast preparing this morning’s breakfast. I am fond of lightly toasted bread. Gazing mournfully at the blackened slice of multigrain in my hand, I heard my father’s voice as if he were standing right beside me. “You can scrape it any color you like.”  Camp toast, made by my father on a Coleman stove with a folding wire-rack four-slice toaster, inevitably came burned. His burnt camp toast management advice was a friendlier version of his standard response at home to incipient grumbling at mealtime: “You’ll eat what your mother puts on the table and you’ll like it, or I’ll know the reason why, and I’m telling you right now, there’s no good reason.” I scraped my toast into the sink until it reached an acceptable color, buttered and jammed it, and it ate just fine.  

My dad died over thirty years ago, but I think of him and our camping vacations every time I burn my toast. Coal miner’s vacation was an annual event of my growing up – an official annual event. Read more about it here and here. In my hometown, many families chose to stay at home during those two weeks. Perhaps the extra vacation pay was used for home repairs or to buy a car or for other needs. But in our family, vacation was vacation, and vacation meant camping. We spent all winter planning where we might go, looking through the Rand McNally campground guide for the perfect two-week home away from home – swimming pool, a rec hall, and flush toilets please!

Generally, we chose destinations that allowed a visit to a historical site, a visit to something fun, and a visit with relatives. This was easier to coordinate than you might think. We lived in southwestern PA but we had many relatives in faraway exotic locales such as Cleveland. Our most epic trip was the year we went to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens, and visited mom’s younger brother and his family.  Our aunt was named Rose, which was a bit exotic (a fairy tale name), and a bit confusing, because there was another Aunt Rose, in exotic Cleveland.

Virginia Rose enticed us with strange new foods during our visit, as fairy-tale characters often do. She produced a brunch extravaganza for our combined families that seemed possible only because we were in such a charmed setting (Hampton, VA) and which compelled my mother to bestow upon her that highest of honors, Asking For The Recipe. It was inconceivable that our mother would ever concoct French Toasted Fruit Sandwiches (sprinkled, at the end, with confectioner’s sugar) for our rowdy family back home in our coal town. But we would carry the recipe home with us as a token that the meal had indeed occurred. We would talk about the French toasted fruit sandwiches, and copy and share the recipe.

My mom was something of a second mother to her younger brother, having raised him from age seven when their mother died. He went to college and studied mechanical engineering. There were times he wanted to drop out – his high school buddies were working in the coal mine, making good money, driving new cars. He was “dating” the very beautiful Rose, meaning sometimes all he could afford to do (time and money-wise) was take his engineering books to see her on a weekend night and sit in the same room with her while he studied. But my parents encouraged him to stay in school. My dad, working in the mines, told him again and again that the life of his buddies looked good now but in the long run the better bet was school. Eventually my uncle finished his engineering degree, married his Rose, and went to work at NASA where he had a very distinguished career. Hence the move to Virginia, far away from our family and my mother. But every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, every family reunion, they traveled back to southwestern PA to visit.

When my Pappap died they of course drove up from Virginia for the funeral. The car pulled up outside our house. Eight years old myself, I watched my uncle get out of the car, walk up the sidewalk, in the front door of the house, come straight to the chair where my mother sat crying, and without a word kneel before her and lay his head in her lap and sob like a lost boy. Laying her hands on him, she consoled and at the same time gestured me to leave – it was not for me to watch this moment between them.

It seems like a lifetime between then and the camping trip to Virginia, but it was probably only five or six years. I visited Hampton once more with my parents, six or seven years later, in the year of my first marriage. The time span between these visits seemed somewhat long, but not a lifetime. In a flash twenty years sped by. My father died, I got divorced, I got remarried; I finished grad school, I moved to Europe, I moved back to the U.S.; I worked in industry, I worked in academia, I went back to industry; I had a stroke, my mother had strokes, my uncle had a stroke. My uncle died, from complications of his stroke. He was only 64.

I went to Hampton for a third time, for his funeral. My mother was heartbroken. Also very worried, because he had chosen cremation. I tried to reassure her that God, being all-powerful, was perfectly capable of reassembling his body from his ashes at the Resurrection but she was not mollified. It's been nearly five years since mom died, and Virginia Rose too is gone even longer.

I burned my breakfast toast this morning, and I heard my father’s voice.  I was a child in a campground again. I was an eight-year-old looking upon grief. I was a teen entranced by good cooking. I lost my career, and the certainty of good health, and many people I loved dearly. I do not believe in the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting, but I do believe in the communion of saints. I believe we can often approach that communion through food. 

And I still have that recipe for French Toasted Fruit Sandwiches.


6 medium slices French bread
1/3 c butter
2 c sliced fresh fruit
2 T lemon juice
¼ c sugar
2 eggs
½ tsp vanilla
½ c milk
2 tsp sugar
dash of salt

Spread both sides of break with butter. Top one side with fruit which has been sprinkled with lemon juice and sugar, crushing lightly with fork. Top with other slice, press together firmly. Beat eggs with vanilla, milk, sugar, salt. Dip sandwiches in egg mixture on both sides and brown slowly in butter. Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.


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Ein HungerTechniker

(by Zuska) Sep 06 2017

In my teen years, I read a YA novel whose protagonist embarked upon a crash “steak and water diet” to lose weight for an upcoming rendezvous with a dreamy pen pal. One day nothing but steak, the next day nothing but water. Not satisfied with her progress, she upped the ante to one day steak, two days water. She did lose weight, but also became frantic, dizzy, and emotionally volatile, and developed a sallow complexion. And the dreamy pen pal turned out to be a jerk. (Later she adopts more normal eating habits and a healthier relationship with food, and gains more self-respect.)

In our modern world, this crazee teen girl diet-to-get-a-guy behavior is now called “biohacking” by wealthy Silicon Valley techdudes who insist that fasting is manly and techno and productive. There is euphoria! There is energy! There is weight loss! N.B.: weight loss is not dieting. Energy is not dizziness. Euphoria is not emotional volatility.

I used to donate money to my local food bank but now I am going to forward this article to them and suggest that they share with their patrons the Good News that what they thought was hunger is in fact On Trend! They are biohacking! If your young child complains about going to bed without dinner, tell him or her that brave Silicon Valley CEOs are voluntarily going SEVEN DAYS with only water, coffee, and black tea as sustenance! To be sure, they are breaking their fast (get it? break-fast? So THAT’s where that word comes from, lol!) only at upscale sushi restaurants, and your child should be sure to do the same. Don’t let your child put anything boring in its mouth anymore. If your child wants a bagel, take it to NYC for a bagel. Bagels in San Francisco just suck. Ramen? Off you go to Tokyo!

In fact, you may think, why not make a business out of your hunger? You have biohacking expertise galore! Some of these CEOs have been “inundated with requests from people seeking advice…on how to get started.” Lord knows the poor CEOs are busy enough already making the world better through technology and biohacking their own bodies; do they have time to instruct their fellow men in the art of not eating?  No doubt their noble natures would compel them to make time to share the Good News but “no one makes money when people don’t eat.”

There are, however, plenty of people who want to be seen not eating. In this America becoming great again of ours, the techno elites have discovered true hunger artistry, as it were, and as they succeed, they are brought only the food they like to eat, when they want to eat it. The rest of us can only gaze at the spectacle in astonishment.

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Interpreting Texts: Recipes From Mom

(by Zuska) Jun 18 2017

It was always difficult to get my mother to talk about herself. She was not inclined to introspection. Her profession was tending the needs of others, undertaken when she was barely out of her teen years. No doubt she had well apprenticed for the work growing up in a house with six siblings, two of whom she raised to adulthood while beginning her own family.

One technique that often evoked longer story-telling from her was to ask questions about food. What things did she like eating when she was young? How did she learn to cook this or that item? What things did she remember her mother making that she particularly liked?

In response to this last question, she once told me about her mother making "potatoes, peas and onions". She remembered it being so delicious. It was made with little green onions (scallions) from the garden in the spring. The memory of this dish would have been from the late 1930s or early 1940s. I later asked her to write down a recipe and send it to me. She said she'd have to talk to her sister Betty to make sure she got it right. This is what she sent me:

Potatoes, Peas, Green Onions recipe

Potatoes, Peas, Green Onions

Cut potatoes in small pieces. Green onions in 1 inch strips.
Peas* --- frozen
Rinse in colander Shake water off
In black Iron Skillet
Olive oil - to cover bottom of skillet - may add a little if needed.
Mid high heat until potatoes start to become soft - stirring with egg turner - turn heat down and cover. Continue to stir to keep from sticking. May add a little water if too dry.
*Betty said don't use those tiny peas

When I got the recipe, I glanced at it quickly (it came with a long letter) and filed it away. I did not ask her any more questions about it. Because I am a fool.

At the farmer's market today I bought new potatoes, fresh English peas, scallions. I shall make this dish my mother spoke of with such fondness, I said. I pulled out the above recipe and pondered. I am quite certain her mother did not cook with olive oil. Lard, bacon grease, butter, margarine were most likely the fats available. Frozen foods first became popular in the 1930s but I have to wonder if they had "arrived" in the coal mining towns of southwestern PA so soon. I remember my mother using mostly canned vegetables in my own childhood.

Aside from the unlikely ingredient sourcing, the actual cooking instructions, such as they are, seem to revolve around the potatoes. But why would you add water to potatoes that are being fried? What does "green onions in one inch strips" mean? And then what? Presumably the peas are what get rinsed in colander and shaken off, but after that, it's anybody's guess what to do with them.

I can't call mom to ask about this, or anything, anymore so I googled a few recipes and consulted Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Then I just sort of winged it. My Iron Skillet needs to be re-seasoned so I used a non-stick pan (sorry, mom).

Potatoes, Peas, Green Onions a la Zuska

Cut potatoes in small pieces - four medium ones plus one smallish one. Four green onions (with fat-ish bulbs) sliced with some of the green parts - just use all the parts that look good. Try not to worry about 1 inch strips. Peas ---- not frozen, fresh, about 1 cup shelled. Rinse in colander. Shake water off.

In non-stick pan. Olive oil - three tablespoons. May add more if desired but that should be plenty. Grind some pepper in there. Mid high heat until potatoes start to soften and brown and get a little crispy - stirring with non-stick-pan-safe big spoon. Salt a little while cooking. Turn heat down and don't cover because you forgot. Continue to stir to keep from sticking. Potatoes are sticking to non-stick pan. Maybe non-stick pan is done for. Do not add water because potatoes are very nice right now.

In separate pan - add about 1 tablespoon butter. Okay, 2 tablespoons. Sauté scallions for about a minute or two. Add peas to skillet and stir for another minute or two till peas are bright green. Remove from heat, salt and pepper to taste.

Portion potatoes in two bowls. If you have nice fresh parsley from market or garden, and managed to get some chopped before all this is done, go ahead and sprinkle some over the potatoes. Divide the peas and onions over top of this. Run outside and pluck a few basil leaves from the herb garden, run back in to the kitchen and rinse them off and hurriedly tear them into shreds and sprinkle over the peas.

In this as in all things, defer to the wisdom of Aunt Betty, and do not use those tiny peas.



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The Games Aetna Plays

(by Zuska) Jun 09 2017

I'm going to start by saying what I have to be thankful for. Thanks to the much-vilified ACA, my annual mammogram and my post-50 colonoscopy are provided at no cost to me, even if my spouse and I have not met his employer-provided insurance coverage deductible. Who knows how long that will last, thanks to the GOP-controlled Congress working day and night to repeal everything President Obama touched. But lucky for me I got to use these wonderful preventive care benefits as long as I did. My first colonoscopy found a few polyps, so I thank all who brought me the ACA, and all who have brought attention to the need for colon cancer screening, for possibly preventing and/or delaying the day when I may have ended up with colon cancer.

In the crazy world that is the U.S. health insurance system, I am probably better off than most people. Our employer-provided health insurance is a high deductible plan, but, oh well, chronic migraines go a long way in a short time to helping one meet that deductible. We are fortunate to be able to pay the deductible, so we can actually afford health care itself, beyond paying the premiums for health insurance. We have an HSA through Mr. Z's employer and that helps a bit as well - again, because we have enough money to spare to put into the HSA to begin with.

So I feel grateful for these things.

I also feel grateful for the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act provisions, which means that treatment for mental health has been covered the same as medical and surgical treatment. This is still not perfect, because most mental health providers one wants to see are not "in network" with any insurance company. So one must pay upfront, out of pocket, and submit a claim for reimbursement.

The parity provision has meant, in theory, that instead of being assessed a variety of coinsurances and copays separate from my regular coverage and then offered a reimbursement rate that works out to something like 15% of what I paid out of pocket, I get reimbursed for everything, if I have met my deductible.

In practice - only if I'm paying attention.

Because I receive SSDI, I am also automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A, which provides only hospitalization coverage. When I submit a claim to Aetna for out-of-network provider reimbursement, Aetna wants to know if I am covered by any other insurance. I always fill in the information on the form - Medicare Part A only. I always include a cover letter, stating that while I have Medicare, it is Part A only, and does not provide any coverage or reimbursement for the claims submitted.

Nine times out of ten, Aetna either refuses to process the claim because they are "waiting for [my] Medicare EOB" or because "member did not supply information on Medicare portion of this claim". I then call Aetna and say "see that form I sent with the claim? and the cover letter? where it says I have Medicare Part A only? so there is no Medicare portion of this claim?" And they say, oh, yes, just a processing mistake, we'll send this back for reprocessing, it will just be two to four weeks to reprocess.

Sometimes Aetna just flat out refuses to deal with it. I submitted one claim and heard nothing for weeks. I called Aetna: no, they never received it! Why did I submit the claim through the mail? Nobody sends claims through the mail! (Instructions on the form and on the back of the member card tell you to send the claim by mail, and give you the address where to send it.) I should have faxed my claim! Fax it to this number! I faxed it. Which cost me money, because I don't have a fax machine at home. And got...crickets. Called again. No, they never received anything. They don't know who gave me that fax number but it's not the right one to use. I should have submitted it online. I balked. They allowed as how maybe it could be mailed in, and promised to process it in two to four weeks... I said I felt harassed. I mailed it in again. This time miraculously it was received and processed.

Earlier this year, I submitted a claim in the usual way. Aetna received it - somehow, the mailroom does work! And they processed it, really rapidly, and sent me a check right quick. I was so happy I didn't realize the check was only 60% of what it should be. Today I was going over my records and trying to reconcile the check received with the documents I had submitted. (Pro-tip: keep copies of everything you ever send to a health insurance company, and keep an organized file system.) I studied the EOB for the claim, a multi-columned table studded with footnotes.

Here's the trick Aetna pulled. They separated the multiple dates of service, all submitted in one claim, into two groups, and listed them as two separate claims on one EOB. Then they sent me a check for one of the "two claims". They flagged the other as "member did not submit Medicare EOB information for this claim" and dumped it in the "do not pay" file.

Just like that, they wrote off 40% of a bill they owed me. Let us say there were ten dates of service from the same provider submitted together in one claim. Aetna grouped the first six dates of service together and said "these, we will pay". Aetna grouped the last four and said "these, identical services from same provider that we should also pay, tick this flag and don't pay."

I have to give them credit. It took me awhile to notice what they did and if I didn't keep good records and obsessively look them over every so often I might not have noticed it. If I were sicker, or more preoccupied with other things in life right now (like elder care) it might have slipped by me. And Aetna would have saved 40% of a bill they legit owed me with a simple trick that on the surface looks like human error. "Well, she does have Medicare, so one of our employees was just overcautious in not processing those claims in case the Medicare was outstanding." Never mind the six other identical services that went through just fine, and never mind they were all submitted on the same form.

After I called Aetna to "correct" this "processing error" (15 minutes on the phone, and was told "two to four weeks to reprocess") I said I wanted to submit a complaint. I got sent to a voice menu that asked me a bunch of questions about the person I interacted with, who was perfectly nice and helpful. At the end I was asked if I wanted to leave a comment. Did I ever.

I said that my spouse pays good money for our insurance premiums, that these premiums are supposed to purchase coverage for us; that every time I submit claims from this out of network provider, I get the same run around about "waiting for Medicare EOB" information, even though I have informed them there is no Medicare coverage; that I feel harassed by my insurance provider; that having to deal with this red tape and stalling and refusal to pay makes me sicker; that my health insurance company should be helping me with my health, not making me feel worse; that if we pay for coverage we should expect that it should be there when we use it.

I am grateful to the ACA for my having access to coverage for mental health providers at all, and I am aware that this coverage is precarious and about to be taken away from me and others. I am grateful that I have the resources to expend for mental health care while waiting months for my health insurance company to get around to deciding to pay what they owe me for coverage my spouse and his employer have already purchased. I am aware this is probably the best coverage for mental health care I've ever had in my life. With all its problems, my situation is no doubt enviable to many.

I grieve thinking that the GOP-controlled Congress doesn't see what I have as just barely adequate, as something worth building on, making better. I grieve that they don't see the problem as lying with insurance companies who use accounting tricks to withhold 40% on the dollar from disabled, chronically ill customers who paid for coverage. I grieve that they think the solution is just to take away what little we do have and give us "access" to high-risk pools. If insurance companies are playing dirty tricks to get out of providing coverage to people like me now, what will they do when unfettered by the ACA?

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