Archive for the 'Tales From The Coal Patch' category

Fifth Day of Christmas: Terrific Teachers

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

Dec 28 2017 Published by under How to Grow a Zuska, Tales From The Coal Patch

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

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

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

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

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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The Story of Bread

Apr 29 2016 Published by under Tales From The Coal Patch

My mother was the short-order cook of the Home Breakfast Diner. She made sure we children had a good breakfast before school each day – even if that meant a fried egg for this one, scrambled for that one, soft-boiled on toast for another, oatmeal or cereal for one more. For herself, though, breakfast was always a slice of toast and cup of coffee. On weekends, the diner became more of a self-serve counter, and my sisters and I would often emulate mom’s breakfast in lazy high style. Lounging about in our pajamas, we would toast slice after slice of Stroehmann’s white bread, slather it with Parkay margarine, and sprinkle it heavily with a cinnamon-sugar mix from a glass jar capped with a metal screwcap perforated lid. We sipped Salada tea with our toast, rather than coffee, and read the Tag Lines dangling from our cups to each other.

Our weekday breakfasts nourished our bodies, but those weekend toast-fests with tea and talk were for something else. We described our dreams to each other, talked about tv shows, movies, and books, gossiped and traded complaints about friends, enemies, school, marching band, our church group, and life in general. Verbal agility and wordplay were both practiced and admired in our house; Saturday toast and tea was often a fun time in that regard. “All sorrows are less with bread,” said Cervantes, and as well all conviviality was more with cinnamon toast.

I thought of that breakfast toast the other day, as I popped a slice of Whole Foods artisanal cranberry-walnut bread into my long-slice-accommodating toaster with defrost and bagel settings. My toaster resides in a corner of the countertop, not on the table as did my family’s. (It does, however, have the same propensity to burn on one side and not toast on the other. Little improvement in toaster technology over the ages, in my opinion.) I eat my toast alone, or at least in silence, as the cats are not much for conversational banter.

The bread I toast is upscale, not to say aspirational, and certainly much more expensive than those slices of Stroehmann’s. I buy it because I have learned to think disparagingly of the pre-sliced white loaves of my childhood, and because I have developed a taste for crusty artisanal loaves. Though I note that one can buy “artisanal” white bread loaves at Whole Foods. They will slice them for you, too.

People still say of some new thing “that’s the greatest thing since sliced bread!” Don’t they? They should. When sliced “store-bought” bread appeared on the scene, my mother told us, she and her siblings longed to have it. To them its taste was deliciously novel and desirable. Their mother baked bread three times a week. Rarely did they get to partake of the heavenly delight that was store-bought, sliced white bread. Only at times when the coal miner’s wife and mother of seven ran out of time for one of the thrice-weekly bakings would she send a child down to the company store to purchase the savory goodness. Julia Child’s bread-that-tastes-like-Kleenex was the desiderata for my mother and her siblings.

When our mother described this to us, her longing as a child for store-bought bread, and sadness at “having” to eat her mother’s homemade bread, we hooted and hollered and cried out in disbelief. You should know, dear reader, that this story was told to us many, many times, and each time we would react with the same level of dismay. We were a family that repeated stories as if no written record could exist. The only way to preserve family lore was to repeat the stories. The telling of stories to each other was to say “this is who you are, you belong to this and it belongs to you.”  I belong to the story of bread, and it belongs to me.

We were the eaters of Stroehman’s, who longed for the few times a year when our mother would make homemade bread. At Easter time she made a special kind of bread called paska, which we ate with the other “blessed foods” that went into the Easter basket. This basket of delights was taken to the church on Easter Saturday for the priest’s blessing – kielbasa, Easter eggs, pickled eggs, horseradish & beets, ham, and an egg cheese that my mother called “cedetz” or sirecz. We loved paska, and while a sandwich of ham and egg cheese on paska was divine, just a plain slice of paska with butter was itself an eagerly anticipated treat.

I have baked bread maybe five times in my whole life. I buy flour in a one-pound sack, store it in a small Tupperware canister, use it mostly to make desserts for Mr. Z, and struggle to use it up before it goes bad.  I skip the bread aisle in my regular grocery store and buy bread at Whole Foods, or at the farmer’s market, or at the little bakery in the next town over, because I have learned to be a bread snob, and because I can afford it.

My mother baked bread a few times a year in an electric oven, along with cakes and cookies for our family. She bought flower in five or ten pound sacks and stored it first in a metal canister, later in a large Tupperware canister. Still later she had a bread machine, rarely used. Late in life, she began to favor “Tuscany bread” from her local grocery store, as the artisanal bread craze washed up on her shores.

Her mother, the grandmother I never knew, baked bread three times a week on a coal stove. She bought flower in twenty-five pound sacks and stored it in a compartment of a Hoosier-type cabinet designed especially for that purpose.

My great-grandmother baked bread in an outdoor communal brick oven in the small coal town of Beatty, PA.  I am fairly certain she bought her flour, though I don’t know in what quantities or how it was stored.

Zuska's great-grandma, near Beatty, PA

Zuska's great-grandma, near Beatty, PA

My great-great-grandmother, back in Slovakia, most likely ground her own grain or went to the local mill to get her flour.

I never learned from my mother the skill of baking the breads she knew how to make, the skill she learned from her mother and her aunts who lived next door. I would gladly pay to have the bread my grandmother baked because she could not afford the store-bought sliced stuff.  Even in the ethnic enclaves that survive in urban Philadelphia, I have not found a bakery that makes paska.

Last year at Easter time I assayed an attempt at paska. The results were mixed. It looked alright, had the wonderful aroma I remembered, and the taste was not all that bad. But it was way too dense, not the light, delicate, somewhere-between-bread-and-cake bread of my childhood.

Paska made by Zuska - loaves and burnt rolls

Paska made by Zuska - loaves and burnt rolls

This year I had an opportunity to learn to make paska at my in-laws’ Hungarian church “kitchen club”, but I had a month-long lung plague instead. They sent me the recipe and directions with pictures, so maybe I will give it another try.

Breadmaking is a science and an art – the right mix of dry and wet ingredients, the right amount of kneading, the right rise time, the quality of your yeast and the way you handle it, the evenness of your oven’s heat. My mother swore that her bread, as much as we loved it, never baked as well in her electric stove as it had in her old coal stove. She used to let the bread rise on the back of the coal stove, which always had some residual heat. Not so with an electric stove. She also used cake yeast, which is nearly impossible to find today. The dry yeast packets, to my mind, have a different rise effect and lend a different flavor to the bread. I have one of my mother's old bread pans, and the bread bakes differently in it that dark battered pan that it does in my shiny new one, i.e., better.

I don’t have a large family to bake for. I have my Whole Foods cranberry-walnut bread, and the cats and Mr. Z.  I could probably learn to bake bread, but I tell myself it’s not the best use of my time when it’s so easy to buy good bread (not paska, but good bread nonetheless).  I suspect if my grandmother were here with me today, she would not be sorry to leave off the chore of needing to bake bread three times a week in a coal stove. If she could afford it, she would no doubt be pleased to purchase tasty bread at a nearby store. I don’t have false nostalgia for a past where women’s work was constant and hard, and women’s opportunities were circumscribed by law as well as prejudice. My great-grandmother left Slovakia in part so her descendants could experience a life with cranberry walnut bread they didn’t have to bake for themselves. So all-in-all my story of bread has worked out okay.

It’s much harder today to be in the situation my grandmother had to negotiate, a family to feed and not able to afford the fancy store-bought sliced bread. My grandfather was able to support the family financially, more or less, on his coal miner’s wages even in the days of struggling to establish the union, while my grandmother ran the household, raised the kids, preserved food from the garden, and baked bread. Today’s poor families are unlikely to have someone at home full time, with the energy and time to bake bread. They are unlikely to have the capital to invest in bread-baking supplies and tools, or perhaps even to have a stable home address where said supplies can be stored. (As can happen, for example, when people are subjected to shameful evictions following on the heels of predatory lending practices.)

My good-fortune story of bread gives me an opportunity to lend a hand in other peoples’ stories. I am always happy to support food pantries. One of my favorite programs is Philabundance, and I recently discovered that my county’s community college has a food pantry program for its students, developed by faculty and staff. Maybe there’s something similar at a community college near you, or maybe you could help establish something like it. There is also a program at Community College of Philadelphia, helping students keep their grades up and graduate.

If you’re lucky enough to enjoy artisanal toast in the morning, think about sharing some of your good fortune with people in your area who are not so fortunate. The story of bread should belong to all of us.

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Makeshift Memorial

Feb 18 2015 Published by under (if) Elder (why) Care, Tales From The Coal Patch

When my siblings and I were young, my parents frequently took us to the cemetery to visit the grave of my mother's mother. I never knew her, but I knew how much my mother and Pappap had loved her. I could see how sad it made my mother each time we went. As a small child, I felt bad for my mother, but it had nothing to do with me. I did not imagine myself one day standing there as she did, at the place where we had cast her underground, lost and weeping.

One may visit a cemetery at any time, but certain proper times impel one's presence graveside: the days of a loved one's birth and death; Christmas and Easter; Memorial Day. Unhappily for me, my mother's birth and death dates are in December and February. The six-hour drive to the cemetery at these times is a dicey proposition.

This past Sunday, February 15th, was the second anniversary of my mother's death. We are in the middle of an arctic freeze, with frequent bouts of snow, freezing rain, 40 mph winds, and sub-zero wind chills. With the anniversary occurring on a Sunday, it seemed attendance at Mass would be a good form of remembrance. I would recite the familiar prayers, and at the end of the service, I would light a candle for mom - near a statue of Mary, if possible.

My mother, a devout Catholic, was very devoted to the rosary and the Virgin Mary. She was always "bending Mary's ear" about a cause in need of Mary's succor, whether it be restoration of the health of a sick grandchild or a conversion of non-recyclers to less earth-ruinous ways of living. It grieved my mother deeply that I had fallen away from church-going. For my part I found it simultaneously amusing, annoying, and touching to learn she had taken to lighting three candles whenever she went to a church. Whether at weekly Mass at her home church, or in other churches while traveling or visiting, the votive candles were regularly lit for my father, my brother, and me. My father was dead, so his candle was to help him get out of purgatory and into heaven. My brother was confined to a nursing home ever since a botched surgery at age 17, so his candle was for his health (and a miracle, if God would so please). My candle was to bring me back to the faith.

When I was very young, I believed that the lighting of votive candles had a magic power. The very candle itself sent up a mystic message via flame and smoke straight to God, who would see the burning candle and think favorably upon its associated prayer. You didn't burn a candle for trivial things, like winning a ballgame, or evil things, like causing harm to one's enemy. You burned them to ask for intercession in someone's misery. Heal the sick and suffering. Lift the souls in Purgatory into Heaven. Guide the lost sheep back into the fold. That sort of thing.

I don't know if my mother believed literally in the power of the candles but she did believe that in some way lighting one focused and amplified her prayer. She always, if possible, chose to light her candles on the side of the church where the statue of Mary was. Mary had been a mother. Mary understood the sufferings and special sorrows of a mother's heart. Mary was the right one to chat with, when you wanted something important relayed to God, to make sure He would get it. You know, really get it.

People without religious faith can still benefit from ritual. Since I have not yet managed to create my own set of deeply meaningful memorial rituals, and couldn't make it to the cemetery, I thought it was worth giving the Mass and the votive candle a chance.

I found a local Catholic church that seemed perfect. Catholic churches usually bear a saint's name. My hometown church was St. Ignatius of Antioch. St. Peter, St. Michael the Archangel, St Patrick's are all common; there are a lot of Sacred Hearts and Holy Family parishes, too. But the one I found was called Queen of Peace. It was a church dedicated to Mary! It was a good sign! I planned to go.

Then the butt-chappingly cold weather got even more butt-chapping, and it snowed again, and the dire newscasters warned against going out lest ye be frostbitten and die, and the winds blew a steeple off a church in a town nearby.

I stayed home.

But I didn't feel good about it.

My dear friend and neighbor then suggested, why not burn a Yahrzeit candle at home? Better than trundling off to church to light a candle I wouldn't see again after I left the building anyway! Great idea!

Scrounging around the house, I could not find any nice pillar candles, and for sure nothing that would burn 24 hours. What I did have, though, were "purification candles". These I had found and brought home with me during one of the marathon sessions of cleaning out mom's house. Purification candles are blessed (and sometimes lit) on Candlemas, the 40th day after Christmas. On that day Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple (and to be purified for her birth-giving uncleanliness, bla bla, patriarchal religion, bla bla). All good Catholics keep some blessed purification candles on hand at home for when the priest comes by to bless and anoint a dying person. Blessed candles can be lit when someone is sick, in a sort of bedside vigil  and prayer for returned health. Or, as in olden days, they can be lit as protection against the (literal) wolves in the forest. They are quite versatile.

I had a candle, noow I needed a holder. DIYers on the internet suggested using a small jar filled with sand. No appropriate-sized jar was to be found, but I did have the perfect mug - a plain white mug my father used to drink his coffee. (My younger sister remembers once as she watched him drink it black, before going out on midnight shift at the coal mine, asking him if he didn't want milk. "The first cup's purely medicinal" came the reply from a man who could not truly be called "awake" at that point.)

Candle, mug - but I had no sand.  Searching my cupboard I ran across some years-out-of-date Minute Tapioca. Kinda sandy-like texture. I lit the candle, dripped some wax in the bottom of the mug, and held the candle in the wax till it was steady. Then I filled the cup halfway with Minute Tapioca around the candle, to catch the dripping wax. For some decoration, I taped the remains of a refrigerator magnet (sans magnet) on the side of the mug. It was a miniature straw hat with pink roses I had bought for my mother when we went to a ramp festival in western Pennsylvania. She had liked the little hat, and pink roses were her favorite. It was perfect.

Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle

Makeshift Yahrzeit Candle

It was early afternoon when I lit the candle (not sundown, as one more properly does). The ersatz Yahrzeit burned quite a long time. I carried it around the house with me wherever I went. I felt very happy about it. At one point while walking up the stairs and shielding the flame, I though of my mother very intensely. It felt to my non-spiritual self like her spirit was with me in some sense.

Later on I noticed that the flame was now level with the rim of the cup. What was of course obvious from the beginning of this candle venture now hit me with all the force of a grief born anew: the flame would burn out. Stricken, I turned to Mr. Z with this obvious and tragic observation, and I wept.

We talked for a little while about my mother and her life, how much we loved her, how much we miss her, and the examples of her life we wish to embrace. It was good to have those moments to feel and share the sadness, and to speak affectionately of mom.

The candle lasted awhile longer. I kept it near me. Eventually the little hat fell off the side of the cup, and though I tried once or twice to press it back on its sticky tape, it just wouldn't stay. Soon the flame was down to a mere wisp which licked at the wax that had earlier dripped onto the Minute Tapioca. As this wax burned and flared, some of the tapioca burned, too, giving off a scent of burnt marshmallow, and leaving a burnt-marshmallow-type ring around the guttering flame.



Little flame, with burnt tapioca



The aroma reminded me of family camping trips when we were all young, roasting marshmallows around the campfire, mom at the wooden picnic table laying out the graham crackers and Hershey's squares in readiness for our burnt sugar fluff sagging off our campfire forks.

Even in those last few moments when the little flame was almost nothing to be seen, it gave me something.

And then it just...went out.

I looked at the clock and by pure accident, the flame had gone out at just about the time in early evening when mom drew her last breath.

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Repost: Research Shows Private Schools Are Awesome

Everything "vintage" and "repurposed" is popular these days, so why not some vintage repurposed TSZ? Originally published 8/2/2006 and titled "More From the Journal of Exceedingly Obvious Results", this classic TSZ is, sadly, just as relevant today as it was eight years ago.


This just in from JEOR, as reported in the Chronicle's news blog:

Researchers at Harvard University say private high schools give their students an advantage over those who attend public schools.

I am shocked, shocked! to find that an advantage is going on at private schools! 

Who would have thought that our excellent system for adequately funding our public schools through the lottery of property taxes, and the generally large student-to-teacher ratios in public schools, would not be competitive with private institutions and their smaller student-to-teacher ratios?  Wouldn't you think that property values in southwestern PA would buy you just as good a public education as you could get at, say Phillips Exeter?  Or that a class size of 30 offers just as much opportunity for your child to get excellent individual attention from the teacher as, say, a class size of 10 at the local Roman Catholic high school? I would have too.  That's why we need JEOR to keep us informed. 

So what I say is, stop wasting your breath lobbying your senators and representatives to do a better job of funding a topnotch public education for every child.  Just grab your kid and scurry on over to the nearest private school as fast as you can.  And if you can't afford it or there aren't any in your county, well, that's just too bad, isn't it?  That will teach you to be born into the not-adequately-privileged class. 

There are some who say money isn't the answer.  I remember one Republican who once told me that he thought textbooks weren't necessary to truly teach a child well, that he could teach a child math without a textbook.  I asked him if he would prefer for his child to go to a school with teachers like him but absolutely no textbooks.  He got a sour look and refused to answer me.  Yeah, I thought so, is what I said.  Why is it that money is not the answer only for the poor kids?  

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Competitive Farm Marketing

You cannot sleep in on Saturday and expect the black raspberries to sit around waiting for you to show up at the farmer's market. You just can't. They will have up and left you forlorn and bereft, as they jump quickly, even frantically, into the first reusable cloth bag or colorful wicker basket that strolls by.

The natural habitat of berries at a farmer's market is close to the pay station. It's no good standing around waiting politely for the line to shuffle along the table to the berries. Say "excuse me" if you must, but slip in between and grab some of those jumpy berries NOW, and return to the end of the line, holding on tightly. You will be ever so glad you did once you reach the pay station and survey the scorched landscape that was once a lush berry patch. Remain vigilant until you have paid for the berries and secured them in your reusable cloth bag/colorful wicker basket. Because when you set them down on the table to retrieve your wallet, so as to make an offering to the berry gods, 99% of the time the hand of the person behind you will instantly hover over your berries while they ask, in foolish hope and lust combined: "Are these yours?" Whatever you are in engaged in at the moment, stop and lay a hand possessively somewhere on the berries with a firm "Yes!" that brooks no sharing.

Secure the berries carefully in your vehicle, in a cooler if you can't park in the shade. Then, and only then, return to the market to shop for the more abundant comestibles, the zucchinis and cucumbers, the cabbages and carrots, the peppers and potatoes. These will make the bulk of your meals in the coming week but the berries will make your bliss.

In your childhood you watched cartoons on Saturday morning and then tramped the woods with your friends, collecting the berries in a bucket, eating as you went, returning home with stained hands and a pailful that your mother turned into something delicious. You only had to compete with the birds, and there was enough for everyone anyway. But you washed your hands, and grew up, and went away to college, and then to grad school, and then all over the place, and now you live a cosmopolitan life in a city that offers so much more than you ever could have dreamed of in your little home town. You can have anything you want, really. You can even have your berries and eat them, too.

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