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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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Burnt Toast Madeleine

Nov 03 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

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

Sep 06 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

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

Jun 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

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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It's Like They Wrote It Just For Me

Aug 01 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

So thanks, guys. It's a blessing.

"What story is beginning? if this one is no more?"

Lyrics here.

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