Three Things, Unrelated

The Avon Nativity
  1. At Work, Sometimes They Give You Presents

Jim comes charging out of the library door, head down, backpack strapped to his back, something in his hand. When he looks up to wave, I see that he is grinning. I start the car and turn on the heat and wait while he navigates the walkway inside the walled courtyard, then emerges to take the cement walk that zigs, then zags, toward where I am parked. When he’s twenty feet away, he starts to run.

“I had a GREAT day,” he says, opening the door to shove his backpack into the back seat. “I finished the inventory of the YA books and then I just hung out and socialized. That was OKAY,” he adds quickly, seeing the question on my face. He slams the back door and climbs into the front seat. “They loved their gifts,” he says.

**********

We had seen an idea on Pinterest: someone took nice, smooth glass jars and glued three buttons on their fronts. They filled the jars with white-chocolate-dipped pretzels and tied little scarves around the lids. They looked like jolly snowperson-bellies, whimsical and fun.

We saved some pretty jars; they’d held some special sauces Jim had bought. I bought Gorilla Glue and sorted through Grandma’s button box, coming up with three sets of three, just the right size. We debated what we could dip in white chocolate to fill the jars with tasty white goodness. Tiny pretzels, of course. Jim thought he’d remembered seeing some miniature oreo-type cookies at Kroger. What about, Mark said, double-dipping malted milk balls?

I got a giant bag of white chocolate dipping discs at the bulk food store, and we bought all three—pretzels, tiny cookies, and malted milk balls,—at the supermarket. We experimented. On the first run-through, I melted the discs too hot, and I poured the malted milk balls in. Their chocolate began melting, and I chased them through the steamy, murky depths with a spoon. When I finally scooped them up onto waxed paper to cool, the white chocolate was marbled with milk chocolate fronds. I dumped half a bag of the little sandwich cookies in the melty mess and fished them, too, out to harden.

That was our testing batch, we rationalized, and we discovered they were irresistible. Eating one just made us want to eat a handful. “Cover them up!” we wailed, until the plate was empty, which didn’t take too long.

For the gifting batch, I melted the white fudge half as long, and dipped the malted milk balls, one by one, on the tines of a fork. The whiteness stayed white; the candy had smaller puddles. They were still delicious. We dipped all the candy and the rest of the cookies and handfuls of the pretzels.

The next morning the goodies were fully dry, and we layered them in the buttoned jars right up to their very tops. I had three little striped scarves I had knitted the year before—scarves to go around the necks of wine bottles (the tiny stocking caps are still in the drawer.) We knotted the scarves jauntily around the lids and packaged them up in pretty gift bags.

It was, I realized, Jim’s first experience of a holiday at work. When we had bundled everything into the car, he flumped into the front seat and paused before fishing out his ear buds.

“Do you want to come in with me when we get there?” he asked.

I look at the pile of goodies. It wasn’t too huge.

“We’ll see,” I said. “If you need help carrying.”

But when we got there, it was clear James could manage the load himself. “Okay…” he said, unsure, but I waved him toward the entrance.

“Have a great day, bud,” I said. “Tell the women of the library I said hello!”

“Bye, Mom,” said Jim, and he turned and trudged toward the library door.

*************

“So they liked the snow-bellies?” I ask now, and Jim says, “OH, yeah. I think Janelle was over the moon. And Mom,” he says, reaching in a pocket, bringing out an envelope only slightly crumpled, “they got ME something, too.”

He shows me a handmade card with a note from his boss, thanking him for his detail-oriented work. “Not everyone could do what you do,” she has written.

“And look,” he says. He has a gift-card to a nearby restaurant, close enough that he can walk there from campus. He is beaming.

I don’t think it ever occurred to him that the people he works with might give him a gift.

****************

Ralphie watches Christmas seals…

2. The Names Are All Changed

Daisy used to walk everywhere; I’d see her on the streets of my old hometown. She used a cane, and she wore long patterned skirts that came down to her ankles and a shiny, puffy, blue jacket that was a little too tight. Her eyes were icy blue and lashless; she never wore a spit of makeup. Her hair, though, was long—down almost to where she could sit upon it,–and it was a delightful, unlikely shade of blonde. I wondered aloud to a friend one day about how old Daisy might be.

“Fifty?” I ventured.

The friend snorted. “More like seventy,” she said.

Daisy lived in a dilapidated apartment house right downtown; she’d been there a long time. I saw her at the supper my church served for people in need every other Wednesday. She often brought someone new with her, ushering them in, introducing them, showing them the ropes.

I heard that when her building was too cold,–the heat all controlled by one lone thermostat– it was Daisy who called the landlord and set him straight about how warm people needed the temp to be set at to be comfortable. And at least for a week or so, the landlord would comply. New renters wound up in Daisy’s apartment, where she would advise them.

She was kind of a house-mother, Daisy was.

She held us accountable in the church kitchen too; she often asked about ingredients and where we’d gotten things, and she did not want to eat anything cooked on aluminum. Things leeched out of aluminum, she said; poison things.

Because of Daisy, we didn’t use very much aluminum foil.

One winter we started a book discussion group—all women—and we read memoir-type books by other women involved in church life. Maybe it was discovering a book, the one by the woman who worked at a food pantry in a big city church in California, on the shelf that made me think of Daisy this week. She came to the group the day we discussed that book; she came and sat, listening quietly, while we talked about the California church, and the people who resisted allowing “those people” into the church, who were happy to GIVE to a food pantry, but who didn’t want it in their front yard.

There was a pause in the conversation, and Daisy, suddenly, spoke.

“When I was a child,” she said, “my mother made us stay in bed for all but two hours a day. We had to lay there, every day. Lay there and be quiet. If we didn’t, we got punished. We learned just to be still.”

There was silence around the circle; we all gazed at Daisy.

“Even when we went to school,” she said, “when we came home, she would meet us at the door and march us off to our bedrooms. We were allowed to come out and eat, but that was it. For the rest of the day, we stayed in bed.

“Why,” she asked us, “would a mother do that?”

We stared at Daisy. Dancing behind her crumpled, weathered, shiny-clean face, I could see the face of that little girl, the little blonde girl who wanted to go out and play, or who wanted, maybe, to sit with her mother in the kitchen and talk. I was horrified, and I had not a clue what to do.

But my friend Regan, who was sitting beside Daisy, did.

“Oh, Daisy,” she said, and she reached over and took the woman’s hand. “Daisy. That was BAD.”

Daisy nodded. She was calm and settled, but tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“It WAS bad,” she said. “Those people in California: that was bad, too. Did they ever let the food pantry stay?”

We slowly steered our way back into the book discussion, and Daisy grew quiet once again, nodding when she agreed. We had coffee and brownies afterward and Daisy stayed and chatted, and then she struggled into her blue jacket, gathered up her cane and a cloth bag, said her goodbyes and left.

She went back to her apartment, where she wrangled with the landlord and made it a point to meet the new tenants and help them. She went out every day, Daisy did, walking down to the market for a loaf of bread, visiting friends, stopping, some days, for coffee.

It’s been almost twenty years since the last time I saw Daisy, and I wonder if she’s still in her apartment, or possibly, she’s in a facility. If so, I hope it’s warm and clean, but if it isn’t, I bet that Daisy is letting the management know what she and the people who live there need.

It may be, too, that Daisy is gone, passed into another realm where maybe she’ll finally get the answers she needed, the answers that eluded her, her whole life long.

******************

Who doesn’t love an elephant?

3. Setting Up the Little People

He may be 28 years old, a man with a job and a college career, but Jim still likes to set up the little people at Christmas. I love that he’s unashamed of that, that he’s willing to let his inner kid shine through.

The little people cluster this year on a dresser we’ve repurposed for the living room. There is the irresistible little Avon nativity set—Mary in pink, Joseph in blue, a bright-eyed, brown-haired baby. There are three roly-poly, jewel-toned wise men, and three attentive farm animals: donkey and lamb and cow. They are just the size to fit in a child’s hand and just the thing to distract a toddler bent on playing with the porcelain nativity. One of the wise men, in fact, bears the scars of having been gnawed by an enthusiastic young worshipper.

There’s a Native American nativity, too, with a dark-haired, dark-skinned family; it is ceramic, and candles can slide into slots behind the Holy Family. So much wax has melted onto that little tableau and been scraped off, though, that we just don’t burn the candles anymore.

Jim spends a good thirty minutes digging figures out of the box and setting them up.

“Remember those three little wooden nutcrackers?” he asks. “I made them into wise men by the Native American Christmas, ‘cause one of them is carrying a gift. And I put Arthur there too, because, hey. Who doesn’t love an elephant, and somehow, I don’t think Jesus would mind. Do you?”

Arthur is Babar’s nephew. I pull a Babar book from the shelves and stand it up behind the tableau,–behind Charlie Brown dressed as  a wise man, and a Santa Pez dispenser, behind Snoopy asleep on his dog house, and BB-8, and a sledding penguin and snow-covered Christmas trees that are shorter than many of the figures that surround them.

It is a wonderful, eclectic, bizarre display; each figure has a history and a story. Each piece says something about family and about friends who’ve been important.

And the fact that Jim still wants to set them up, weave a story behind their arrangement, welcome that history into his heart—well, that’s important too. The little people, I think, are my favorite Christmas decoration this year.

*************

I don’t know how these three things mesh; I don’t know if there’s a deeper meaning among the three stories that rang, clear and strong as tolling bells, through my conscious mind this week. But whatever festival of light you celebrate, whatever people you walk with in this time and place, I hope there’s warmth and light and fellowship. And I hope your blessings are many, and your troubles, very, very few.

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Kind of Like a Duck Walk

We sat on the steps of the old farmhouse, Shayne and I, the first ones up at a family gathering, on a soft and sunny summer morning. It was less than a year since her dad, my brother, had died. I was telling her about the butterflies I kept seeing. They hovered. They lighted. They flew, over and over, onto the windshield of my moving car.

“I have decided to take them as a message, as a token,” I said. “I’ve decided they mean that Dennis is all right.”

Shayne sighed in the gentle sun of a sunny summer morning.

“I wish I’d get a message,” she said.

And in that moment, a butterfly: hovering just in front of her, long enough to be seen, to demand her full attention.

And, “One turned to two,” says Shayne,  “and two turned into…dozens.”

*************************

Huh. Probably, you know, just a big year for butterflies.

**************************

As we headed down the hill for our nightly constitutional Mark asked me about a friend who, post-retirement, is not always in town. A story she shared not long ago popped immediately into my head, and so I, in turn, shared it with Mark.

My friend’s daughter and her family live in a southward state; my friend splits her time between that state and this one. One day her daughter was explaining to her toddler twins, a boy and a girl, that Grandmother was at her Ohio home that week.

Little Will considered this news about his grandmother solemnly, my friend said, and then he made a  pronouncement.

“Her,” he stated, “has two houses. Her is a lucky duck.”

Something about that story just tickled me, and it seemed to tickle Mark too.

“A lucky duck, is her?” he said, and we rambled, on a night of cool breezes, down the hill, under a cloud-scudded sky.

We turned at the corner of Normandy and began marching up Englewood.

“Well, hey,” said Mark. “Lookie there.”  On the dashboard of a shiny new Mustang, there was a large mallard duck bobble-head.

“Hey,” I said, “SPEAKING of ducks…”

 **********************************

Just like that our evening stroll became a duck walk. Go figure.

And what are the odds that, wandering through a land-bound neighborhood, we’d come upon a park-like stretch of long green grass, long enough to ripple in the wind, and wide enough that the duck sitting contentedly in the center looked tiny indeed?

“What???!!!” we both said, and I joggled my phone out of my pocket. By the time I pulled up the camera app, the duck was on to me; he was waddling away as fast as his flat webbed feet would take him. I snapped the picture anyway; his back was to me, and his back was far away, but still: documentation of our duck walk.

Duck

*********************

And then, the next night, I took young James to Kohl’s to buy a new vacuum, and on the way out of the parking lot, we had to stop for a family of ducks. The mama didn’t look much older than a teenager herself, slight and still a little downy, and her six fuzzy little charges–well, they were all over the place, on the curb, in the street, veering and waddling. Mama was beside herself. She was back and forth, across the street, up on the curb, flapping and quacking; she was back in the street and herding.

The car approaching us stopped. We stopped. The cars behind both of us stopped. And then the baby ducks disappeared. We peered over and around the hood of the car, but they were just gone. Gone UNDER the car? In front of it? Mama bobbed and weaved and quacked, and there we were, a line of frozen cars, wondering what happened to those fuzzy little ducks.

So James opened up the car door to see if he could spot them for me, gingerly putting one foot down on the blacktop. That was all they needed. An explosion of ducklings ran across the street, little wings flapping, raucously yelling, WOK!WOK!WOK! They clustered around the little mama, and, in a scrum, they headed over the grassy hill to safety.

I imagine them years hence, telling the story: “And then this giant MAN put his foot down on the hard top and we RAN out from under the car…”

What a week it was. What an adventure of ducks. Why did it feel so poignant?

Why did I feel so sad?

*************

An old, old memory came back to me–a memory of writing, for Mrs. Halsey in second grade, my first research paper. We had drawn slips to get our topics, and mine said, in Mrs. Halsey’s spikey, perfect, Catholic school script, “The mallard duck.”

I carried that paper home like a treasure or a sign. This, after all, was REAL homework! This was, finally, the big kid times.

I remembered the dull old encyclopedia, red cloth cover faded to rose, and the wonder of finding the article about mallards within. I remembered my mother patiently telling me how to take notes; I remembered her showing me how to record where I got my information. Because it was cheating, she informed me, to learn from someone else but to claim that knowledge as always having been our own. I nodded, serious and alert, and I carefully wrote the title of the article and the name of the encyclopedia at the very bottom of the page.  (That may have been the moment my fate as English teacher was sealed.)

I learned about downy feathers that lined ducks’ nests and the oil that gave the ducks their buoyancy and protected them from frigid waters. I learned about habitat and migration, about eggs and natural predators. I drew a square on my lined yellow page and inside it, I copied the encyclopedia photo of a nesting duck. I copied it in pencil; the picture was black and white. I drew a shiny glint spot in the eye, but, not being able to envision the colors, I did not  get my crayons.

When I was done, my mother told me I’d done well. “Well, this is what I’ll do,” I thought. “I’ll just write papers all my life.”

******************

Ducks, I remember. And research.

And why not a little research now? I think.

So I pull my iPad toward me, touch the Safari app, and pull up Yahoo. “Ducks,” I type, “symbolism.”

I get thousands of hits, and pick a promising one.

If a duck has waddled across my path, spiritanimals.com suggests, I should take note of my surroundings; a new opportunity is being offered. “You will have to move forward swiftly,” the page’s author advises, “so your new ideas can take flight.”

I like the sound of that and I read on. “Alternatively,” reads the text, “Duck may be reminding you that today is a day you should spend exploring your emotions.”

And just like that another memory surfaces, of being at Mark’s parents when Stephen and Patty come in, drenched and dripping from the rain.

“How are you?” someone demands, and they laugh together and say the words that were their mantra: “Just ducky.

**************

Ever after, when I asked Patty how she was, she would tell me she was just ducky. She said it the first time she beat cancer back. She said it when it returned seventeen years later, and she beat it back again.

But cancer is vile and clever and invidious, and it was waiting; it was working out a way around her strength. “We’ve got to be stealthy and quick to conquer this one,” it must have said. It must have, for Patty to be up and doing laundry of a Monday, and dead at cancer’s hand that Sunday, surrounded by her family, on that ironic Mother’s Day.

It struck so quickly she didn’t have time to fight it off, to be just ducky again.

************

When a dear one who lives far away dies, you can pretend there’s nothing wrong. There’s no big gap in your everyday life. You tamp down that sadness, and you pretend it’s just not there. You plunge into the whirlwind of daily routine, of Things That Must Be Done, and you deny, deny, deny.

I’m not listening, you say, and you plug your ears against the persistent whispers.

But the hurt of Patty’s death was there with me, waiting to be acknowledged.

*************

Some folks believe that when God or Nature or Spirit has a message for you, it will get through. It will come in a dream that carries through to daytime awareness. It will emerge in a passage from a book that speaks so clearly, so strongly, it must be acknowledged. A horoscope, read just for fun, will have sudden, deep-seated meaning.

Or it may come as a symbol, showing up over and over until it cannot be ignored.

**************

Despite the feyness of my Celtic roots, I’m a smart, sophisticated, educated, objective woman. I know that God has much, much better things to do with Her time than to send us image after image after image, to meet us at every corner, to suggest to us in certain terms that, although Patty may be gone, she is all right.

No, the ducks were just a coincidence. The ducks were what I call the ‘New Car Phenomenon’: I get a new car, and suddenly, I see that make and model all over the darned place.

I had my duck lenses on.

And so, I saw ducks.

I’m much too objective to think that we were getting a cosmic message, but I am glad, anyway, that those ducks were my catalyst to awareness. I can hear a message even if they weren’t sent especially to carry one.

Here’s the message I hear:

Remember (the ducks remind me) the blithe and blessed spirit that was Patty.

Wait. WHAT Was That You Said?

*********************************************************************

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.

Margaret J. Wheatley  at  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/margaretj283927.html#DW7KqoIsDM1uGJif.99

62 Years of Sauce

This year, my mother-in-law Pat gathered her grown children around her Thanksgiving table. They came from small cities and villages within her western New York county; they came from the west coast and from the Midwest.  They came to eat the first Thanksgiving dinner not cooked up and served up under the discerning eye of their father Angelo; he died in the dawning of 2015.

Ironically, Pat and Ang’s 62nd anniversary fell on Thanksgiving day itself this year.  The marriage spanned 61 years of growth and change, war and détente, peace, turmoil and resolution, births and nurturing, work and respite, loss and renewal–in the world, and in their lives.

That’s a lot of years together.

That’s a lot of spaghetti sauce.

**********

I ate spaghetti, growing up, and I liked it, but my Scottish mother’s version was not like ‘regular’ spaghetti. The sauce was thin enough to be translucent. Early on, she rebelled against shaping meatballs; instead she’d brown a big chunk of burger in the sauce pot.  One of my brothers had an aversion to the texture and sight of any kind of stewed veggies, so Mom would clamp the big metal grinder to the countertop and run an onion through it.  The grinding reduced the onion to mush; Mom would stir that into the cooking beef.  (She always cleaned out the grinder by running stale bread through it, behind the onion; often there’d be ground bread in the sauce, too, which didn’t bother anyone.)
She would pour cans of tomato sauce and tomato paste into the pot.  She would double the bulk with water, and stir in oregano and basil flakes.  She would simmer it all together and cook up two pounds of thin spaghetti.
We ate it all with no complaints; it was hot, flavorful, and filling.

It wasn’t, though, traditional Italian spaghetti sauce. When I married Mark, I would really begin to learn the intricacies and variations involved with cooking a wonderful, thick, bubbling pot of what his family called, in Italian, “soukup.”

*****

Angelo was the son of Sicilian immigrants Joseph and Mary–called Ma and Pa by their children and extended family. They married in the States in the early part of the twentieth century; they built a life in western New York, where they had seven children and Pa worked on the railroad. Ma was a stay-at-home mom; on Saturdays, Ang recalled, she would cook up a huge pot of sauce and bake enough bread for a week. Ang was always interested in cooking; he learned the secrets of sauce by watching Ma and helping her.

He brought those secrets, those tasty techniques, into his marriage with Pat, who was not Italian, but quickly learned the ins and outs of Italian cooking.

Sundays were family dinner days.  In the early years of their marriage, Ang and Pat lived in an apartment above Ma and Pa, and, after church, they would gather downstairs around a huge and groaning dining table. Several of Ang’s siblings would arrive with spouses and kids; a special table would be set up for the young ones.  Bowls and platters of pasta and sauce would emerge steaming from Ma’s kitchen, and the family would dig in with gusto.

When Ang and Pat bought their own home, that big table came to roost in their dining room, and the tradition of Sunday pasta dinners moved with them, too.  They had five children in all, four active boys, and then, ten years after Thomas, the youngest, was born, the lovely surprise of a baby girl.  Mark and his brothers brought friends home on Sundays; leaves extended the table to its utmost. Extended family might drop in. When the boys began marrying and grandchildren arrived, the practice of the children’s table had to be reinstated.

But the wonderful quality of the sauce never wavered.  When I first knew Pat–I was in college and we worked together at a bookstore–she canned tomatoes and tomato sauce, and the pasta sauce was simmered from ingredients mostly home-grown and hand-preserved.  A long simmer, the right seasonings, a little sweetness to cut the acid…attention to detail and patience were the most important qualities.  Spaghetti sauce was a delicious and inexpensive way to feed a hungry mob.

The sauce that Pat simmered up in the kitchen of her lovely hundred-year-old home was far different from my Scottish mother’s.  Pat and Ang served sauce that was thick, rich, and fragrant.  (Their sauce was to my mother’s what robust stew juices are to thin soups–both valid, of course, but mightily different.  I understood after first tasting Ang and Pat’s pasta why some Italian families call their red sauce ‘gravy’.)

Unless it was a Friday, or Lent, the sauce could contain many different kinds of meat–usually an abundance of meatballs, often Italian sausage, and sometimes pork or chicken.  My father-in-law was partial to putting pig trotters into his red sauce; I didn’t doubt that they sweetened the sauce. Those seemed, though, blatantly anatomical steaming on the plate of meat which Ang would strain from the sauce and place in the middle of the table. He and Pat would put little bowls of sauce at intervals; there would be grated cheese and crusty bread and greens to make a salad.  And two huge bowls of pasta with scoops could be easily reached from all seats.

A lot of sauce was ladled at that table; the sauce fueled conversation, discussion, and camaraderie.  As years went by, Pat’s methods changed; the proliferation of good, economical, high-quality canned sauce made the hard work of handpicking, peeling, juicing, and canning tomatoes unnecessary.  But the canned sauce was only a base for the magic that Pat and Ang worked in their kitchen.

Along the way, Ang discovered a recipe in his local newspaper; it was Dom Deluise’s mother’s meatball recipe, it was darned good, and we use our adaptation of it to this day. I imagine the sauce being shared around tables for generations to come–feeding hungry families, complementing joy and struggle.

So here, in honor of Ang and Pat’s long partnership, and of the first anniversary, just past, they’ve spent apart, here is the method for that long simmered sauce….

*************

We use (to feed 4-6 people):
–one 6-ounce can tomato paste
–one 8-ounce can tomato sauce
–one 24-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, traditional or meat flavored
–a portion of a recipe of Dom’s Mom’s meatballs
–three links of Italian sausage
–one onion
–one clove of garlic
–olive oil
–oregano
–basil
–rosemary
–a bay leaf

–one quarter cup of sugar

Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, and heat that over a medium flame. In it, sauté chopped onion until almost translucent, then add the garlic clove, crushed.  Stir until the veggies are sweated and soft, then add the tomato paste and sauce and spaghetti sauce.  Fill the empty sauce jar with water, twice, and stir into the pot.  Add the spices and sugar and bring to a simmer.  We cook and stir, simmer and steep, for at least three hours.

Meanwhile, bake the meatballs (recipe follows) and parboil the sausage. At least an hour and a half before serving–and you can do this well before then–add the meat to the pot and let everything simmer so the flavors will meld and blend.

As the acid bubbles to the top of the sauce during the early simmer, skim with a flat spoon.  You can sweeten the sauce in several ways.  We usually add at least a quarter cup of sugar; I know people who add a cup or more. We have a good friend who peels a carrot and halves it and throws both halves into a steaming sauce pot. Pork bones also seem to add sweetness and cut the acid; we save the bones and leftover meat from a roast, and in they go.

Chicken, also, cooks down into tender strands in the sauce and adds a wonderful flavor; I don’t recommend putting pieces of chicken in the pot with bone intact, though.  The tiny bones come unglued and separate into the sauce, and unsuspecting diners crunch down on bits of hard bone.  Much better to remove the flesh from the bones and throw just the tender meat into that simmering brew.

We like to serve this with a tossed green salad, grated parmesan, and a loaf of crusty bread.  Of course, a bold red wine goes nicely too.

It’s easy to double or triple this method for a crowd, and you can be daring with add in’s.  We love the sauce with fresh zucchini cooked into it, for instance. And in Lent, Mark’s dad always omitted meat and added sardines and chopped hard-boiled egg.  In those times, instead of topping the sauce with cheese, Ang would heat olive oil in his cast iron skillet, and brown up  a big batch of bread crumbs. The family would use them in place of parmesan, and Mark still loves his sauce topped that way.  And of course, vegetarian possibilities are endless, too. A neat trick Pat taught me was to add dried fennel to the sauce; its taste evokes Italian sausage, even when there’s none to be found in the freezer.

Leftover, this sauce makes a dynamite base for a thick, spicy chili.

********

Our version of Dom’s Mom’s Meatballs

2 lbs. ground chuck
1/2 lb. ground pork (ground turkey works, too, as does ground chicken…)
2 cups Italian flavored bread crumbs
4 eggs
1 cup of milk
1 cup of fresh parsley, chopped (or–I often use 1/4 cup of dried parsley)
1/2 cup grated cheese–our favorite is a romano/parmesan blend
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 minced onion
***Optional: 1/2 cup pine nuts

Mix all ingredients; let stand for 1/2 hour.

Shape into meatballs.

Fry gently (to brown), or bake on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

Add cooked meatballs to sauce and simmer.

All that I have are these…

Photos

“Awwww,” colleagues say when they ask me what I am doing on my vacation. I tell them I’ll be cleaning my neglected, cluttered house, and they look sad.

I compose my face in lines of resignation and nod, slowly.  Ah yes: what a martyr I am!

They squeeze my shoulder.

I sigh.

Then, on Friday evening, I pack up my desk, gleeful.  My sparkling little secret is that, when time and energy are in confluence, I LOVE cleaning.  I love the feeling of creating order, of restoring things dulled by time and dust to their original glow.

I go home, and the boys and I grill dinner; we watch four episodes of Dinners, Drive-Ins, and Dives together, and then I grab my book and trundle off to bed.  The next morning, I wake up in full cleaning mode.

********

Years ago, recently moved and in between jobs, I worked for a professional cleaning company, and I learned the technique of cleaning from the top down.  So I arm up with my Swiffer duster, new dust-catcher in place. I shoulder my bag of cleaning supplies, and I attack the ceilings in the rooms that have floors which can be mopped.  By noon, I have worked my way from cobwebs and furzy fan blades to cluttered countertops to splattered cupboard doors, and I’m wet-jetting the vacuumed tiled floors.

In the afternoon, I run errands. On Sunday, we take a family outing. But Monday morning, I’m back at it–the carpeted rooms fall one by one to my cleaning blasts.  James catches the spirit.

“Just tell me what I can do to help!” he proposes, and I am not one to let an offer like that go unanswered.  He runs up and down stairs with bags of trash and papers to recycle. He moves misplaced items to their proper niches.  He makes big piles of dirty linens disappear and returns with crisply folded clean ones.

In the afternoons, I treat him to a frappucino and a toasted stuffed pretzel at the coffee shop, where he sets up his MacBook and I open my hardcover with a blissful sigh, knowing that clear, gleaming spaces await me at home.

By Thursday we are almost done.  I am upstairs; I have flung open windows, and a fresh, cool breeze blows through.  The guest room is cleared and tucked and gleaming; Jim is putting finishing touches on his own newly organized spaces.  The master is vacuumed and tidied. The bed is made, pillows plumped, a soft, coordinated, sweet-smelling blankie folded neatly at its foot against the new November chills. I am putzing with the duster, clearing off horizontal surfaces of dressers and bedside tables. I pull open the drawer of the little table on my side of the bed and find unexpected treasure: a two inch stack of photographs with a couple of cards and a program or two thrown in.

I lift out this little stack and I look at the clock–it is 11 AM, and, for all intents and purposes, my work here is DONE.  So I close the drawer and I take the little pile of memories and I go downstairs to the dining room table.  And I plunge.

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There is a black-and-white photo from 1989 on top; seven school-aged  cousins  cluster on the lefthand side–photographer off kilter here, for sure.  Meg and Jessica bookend the standing boys; they both have curled bangs and big, long, permed hair. Jessica holds a fat gray and white cat (Well, hmmm: it could be orange and white for all I know, come to think of it; in this picture, everything is gray and white.) Matt, to Jessica’s left, holds up bunny ears behind her head.  Jason leans an elbow on Meg’s shoulder; Meg looks as though she is muttering under her breath.  Behind them, Ben, the tallest nephew, avoids eye contact with the camera.

In front, Tommy, signature bowl-cut intact, hugs a big old fuzzy black dog. Zack is on the other side, buzzed hair, grinning.  Zack is straddling a basketball.

They’re in a field of sorts; it is bounded by scrub trees and tall grasses, and I realize the photo must have been taken at a family picnic at my brother Dennis’s rented house in Machias, New York, when he was assistant principal at a middle school, a centralized rural school that had a name like Liberty or Freedom.  It seems to me that someone decided to be family photographer that day; they grouped all the kids together. (Where, I wonder, were Brian and Shayne?  College? Working? Out with friends?  Had Brian already moved to Chicago then?)

That unknown photographer also grouped the siblings together, and somewhere, probably neatly taped or glued into a photo album, I have  a special artifact from that picnic–the last photo, I think, taken of the five of us together.  The next time all the siblings gathered in one place it would be for Dennis’s funeral.  We would take pictures then, too, but there would only be four of us clustered, solemn and bereft.

We have pictures, too, of all the long-suffering people who’d married a sibling.  They smile in the photo, looking relaxed.  Probably best they don’t know, in that July of 1989, about all the interesting times ahead.

**********

I have drawers and cupboards full of photo albums and memory caches.  As a young girl, I loved preserving artifacts, so I have books packed with photographs, invitations, newspaper clippings, restaurant match books, and dried flowers–things gathered in my teens and early twenties.  I have books devoted to trips I took and books that detail family adventures.

We have scrapbooks that chronicle our moves–several from Whallon Street, with Matt growing up, from bowl cut to aviator glasses, from trendy teen to sailor to shaven-head daddy; Jim appears in there and grows from infant to tumbling toddler to serious-faced kid.

We have a book that shows our year in the old inn–circa 1820’s–we rented: a gracious and spacious place with a scary cistern in the basement. It was nestled in a vineyard that made Mark and Jim sneeze and wheeze for at least six months of that one year.

We have chronicles of our life on Orchard Street, in that house that embraced us, with those wonderful friends just houses away.  There, Jim learned to ride a two-wheeler, proud moment captured.  There, Mark launched into law school.

I have books from the law school years, photos that show the transformation of the house trailer we bought, an adventure in down-sizing we enjoyed and don’t want to ever do again. There are shots of Mark’s grinning classmates and their families–a wonderful, serendipitous mix of personalities that met and merged and then were flung apart after three years of intense, bonded study.

I have picture books from Mount Vernon, showing wonderful friends, amazing church adventures, a raccoon on the roof of the house on Pleasant.

So why was this jumble of pictures and mementoes stuck in a drawer?  Why this random mix of shots and moments  from all different ages and places? What was I doing with this pile of memories in my bedside table?

********

After the black and white shot of cousins, I find:

–a baptismal shot of Meg’s Mia, 2012, looking angelic in a frothy white christening gown, eyes sparkling as her head rests on a white satin pillow and she reaches for someone from the depths of a white wicker bassinet.

–a little stack of photos from my twelve-month foray (1993, maybe?) into home day care on Whallon Street. What I remember from that year–Jim was three, I think,–is being exhausted.  The pictures show picnics and parties, art projects and outings.  The kids are smiling and laughing, running and hugging.  I might not remember much, but we must have had fun.

—formal class pictures, with shiny faced students’ head shots stuck into little squares. There is one, too, of me and my colleagues from the Catholic school staff in all our eighties glory.  I linger there, remembering many who are gone.

—Miss Maddie, Shayne’s youngest, on her second birthday, hugging a blue balloon.

There are shots of workplaces, of a young Jim sitting at a vintage keyboard, of a winter scavenger hunt with a find by a railroad crossing sign–kids in knit caps and scarves forage in blowing snow. There are Christmas shots.  There’s a letter from Wendy, and a description of a an autumn hike in western New York.  There’s a program for the Picasso Effect, an exhibition of artists influenced by Pablo; that was from not so long ago in Columbus. I went to remember seeing the Picasso exhibit in Chicago with Brian.

There’s a cozy shot of Shayne, looking glamorous and snug, grinning as she curls up in an overstuffed chair, dangling one high-heeled foot over the edge. There is a photo Christmas card of Sean’s kids,–not arrived yet in that black and white shot from 1989–Sarah and Seamus and Liam, dressed as characters from Lord of the Rings, standing in front of some sort of a cave.

There are shots of our granddaughters, lovely Alyssa and kinetic Kaelyn. There is Alexander. Mark’s brother’s kids grin at the camera during a Zanghi family Christmas. There are snaps of grand-nieces and grand-nephews as they grow, year by year–Gabby, Pat, Maddie; Kirsten, Ryan, Mia; Quincie and Brennen. There is Zack’s grinning little mini-him.

**********

My mother kept, for a long, long time, a great big trunk full of photographs.  Once in a very great while, on an occasion as special and rare as the annual airing of the Wizard of Oz, she would pull out the trunk, and we would be allowed to look through the pictures.

We would carefully mull over black and white photos of unknown aunts and uncles, grandparents dead before we were born, people in quaint and antiquated clothes–photos that represented the mysteries of our past.  There were dashing young men; there were pretty women in flowered house-dresses or suits with high padded shoulders and spectator pumps. We knew some names and faces; but we never knew the actual people who sported the high lace-up boots, the skinny ties and voluminous sleeves.

Other kids had grandparents who visited.  Other kids had huge family celebrations, and other kids got cards and gifts from all their enormous extended Catholic families full of relatives.

Why didn’t we? I wondered.  Why didn’t we ever meet our long-lost aunts and uncles, our battalions of cousins?

Be careful what you wish for, muttered my father, alluding to mysterious conflicts, to long-buried events we could only imagine.  My mother said nothing.  Also in the pictures was a chronicle of the 18 month-long life of my sister Sharon, Mom’s firstborn, who died of encephalitis when my father was away in the Philippines during World War Two.

Later, when her kids grew up, and when things slowed down, my mother would put the photos in albums.  She would create collections and boxes for each of us children, which we would carry with us and augment and treasure.

But the mystery and allure of those unknown relatives stayed with me.  Perhaps that’s why I am pushed to chronicle every episode and adventure, ensuring new generations will have the facts they need.

*********
I set the photos aside to make some lunch for Jim and me, and afterwards, he has an appointment. I need to get packages to the post office; we have a little bit of shopping to do. The car needs gas.  I want to be back in time to simmer a pot of beef paprika.  I put the photos on a shelf.

The weekend dawns; we have recycling to do and people with whom we need to connect.

It is Tuesday–and I am back to work–before I get back to the photos. That evening, I examine a picture of baby Grace, my wonderful friend Teri’s baby girl.  I slide it next to the computer screen.  Teenaged Grace, on Facebook, holds a baby just about the same age she was in the photo–her brand new nephew.  Look at that–same gentle smile, fifteen years later.

I stack the photo pile, lining up edges on one side, and put it next to my computer.  I don’t know why I had gathered this particular clutch of memories–probably, they were squirreled away over months and years, with a vague, “I’ll get to these” self-promise as I slid the drawer closed and forgot them. But here they are, whyever.

I will bow to the times, and scan photos to share with the folks who grace them, or who fondly remember their subjects.  I will post some on my FaceBook page and enjoy the groans of young, respectable adults who might rather forget their big hair days, or their infant drool.  I’ll attach some to emails and connect direct.  Some, I’ll even use on my blog.

And then I’ll make a book. I have card stock and a binder that needs a purpose.  I’ll attach each item, label it as best I can–there are some photos without dates, with names missing (Who WAS that neighbor boy? I’m hoping Mark might know…) and I will place them all together, the treasures from my drawer, into a handmade book.

I think I’ll sketch a cover to decoupage onto the binder; I’m thinking of what, exactly, I can call it. Something, maybe, from Jim Croce’s lovely old song, “Photographs and Memories,”–words that show the loss, the gratitude in this month of thanksgiving, the depth of wonder, at the people and places I’ve been blessed to know.  Who knows–this random, seemingly meaningless jumble of mementoes may become my go-to memory resource.

“Photographs and memories,” sang Croce, “Christmas cards you sent to me…” and I heard the loss palpable in his voice. “All that I have are these, to remember you…”

I have these, and I have more; we all do–our memories, our continued relationships, the evidence, in grown up children, of love and conflict, supporting hands and wings grown strong enough to fly.  I have webs of connections that encompass long-lived bonds and draw in new ones. I have living memories of wonderful people passed now to another realm.  I have much to be thankful for, and much to which I look forward.

Croce was right: we sure did have a good time way back when.

And we’ll have more good times in the days–and, God willing, the years–to come.  I sort my photo treasure stack–some to scan and some to save, and some to mail away.  House cleaned, I have my gratitude project to begin.

One More Sailor Sounds the Bell

Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson
Grandpa Angelo with Alexander, his youngest grandson

Monday night, at 11:15, Jim knocked at our bedroom door.

“My stomach feels funny,” he said.

I sat up, poised to go into full mom-mode.  “How about a Tums, buddy?” I asked. “Would that help?”

“It’s not that kind of funny,” said Jim. He paused and then started to say something, but before he got very far, Mark’s cell phone rang.

It was Jim’s big brother Matthew, who, joined by his cousin Jeremy, had been sitting a loyal vigil at his Grandpa Angelo’s bedside. Matt was calling to tell his dad that the vigil was over; Angelo had made that final passing.

“Oh,” said Jim, softly, and he went back down the hallway and closed the door to his bedroom, needing to be alone for awhile.  Somehow, I think, his stomach had been letting him know the news Matthew shared over the phone.

******
Angelo was 94 when he passed peacefully from this life into the one that comes next.  He was a patriot and a family man.  He was a hard worker who believed in the value of education.  He was someone who didn’t give up, who cherished his faith, who was passionate about his interests.
******
Memories, stories, images, tumble…

I think about working with Pat, Mark’s mom, at the bookstore. Long before either of us thought we’d be connected by marriage, we were friends. I was a just-out-of-college, newly married, party-loving kid then; so were many of the crew.  Pat was maybe early forties; she trained us and she tolerated us, and one night we persuaded her to come out with us after work.  She let her husband know, of course, but Ang probably figured she’d grab a cup of coffee and be home, oh, maybe 45 minutes to an hour later than usual.  By 11, he was calling my home phone, a little frantic, asking my husband if he knew where we could be.
Where we were was the Park Pub; we were sitting with big drinks, sharing wedges of a giant roast beef on kimmelweck sandwich. We were laughing and munching and telling tales and confessing hopes and fears and great loves and disappointments, and Pat was gently riding herd on our exuberance.  She got home around midnight, I think, and the next few times Angelo came into the bookstore, he narrowed his eyes at me–a wary, speculative look.

Later, when life had shifted in unexpected ways, and Mark and I were dating, I would ask for an ashtray when I visited Pat and Ang.  I smoked while Mark and I dated and in the first part of our marriage.  Ang would get me the ashtray and talk about his own habit; he only smoked, he told me, when Pat was pregnant.  So he smoked for four of the first nine years of their marriage, from the early fifties to the very early sixties,–smoked while waiting to welcome Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy.  By the time a wonderful little surprise, Mary Ann, joined the cast in 1970, the need seems to have ebbed; the boys don’t recall Angelo smoking in anticipation of Mary’s birth. (Mark, 16 when his baby sister was born, confesses to being mortified that people of such advanced years on the planet could be having a baby. “ Mother, how COULD you? At YOUR age?” Pat remembers him saying.)

I remember rollicking meals with the family and an ever-changing cast of guests around the big dining room table that Ang inherited from his mother, another Mary, whom everyone in the family called ‘Ma’.  Ma bought the table from a peddler in the Depression era; the peddler shopped his wares from a horse-pulled wagon.  He’d load up the wagon and make his slow way from Buffalo into the outlying areas, stopping to see if housewives needed chairs, a sofa, a bed-frame.  Ma needed a table that would seat her burgeoning family. Ma and Pa–Grandpa Joseph–had ten children; the twins, Vincent and Theresa, died shortly after birth. The rest of the children,–Tony, Frances, Joe, Angelo, Lucy, Sam, John, and Russell, in that order–grew up strong, hard-working, and hungry.  They gathered around that table–stretched by up to eight leaves–for many years.

Ang remembered Saturdays at home and Ma baking bread and simmering spaghetti sauce.  For lunch she would flatten out a big hunk of dough, spread some of her good homemade sauce on top, grate cheese, chop meat–homemade pizza to feed her hungry kids and her husband, who worked hard at the railroad before coming home to tend his amazing garden.

Ang learned to make the sauce.  He and Pat were ahead of their time; they shared household chores, and Pat used her amazing customer service skills to pursue her own career in retail sales.  Ang would come home from the plant; Pat would leave for work; Ang would feed his own hungry horde.  But on Sundays, the whole family gathered together around Ma’s table.  Friends and extended family were welcome; there was always room for one more.  Mark’s college buddy Frank, who attended the Culinary Institute and cooked at the Tavern on the Green for a time, rhapsodized years later about eating lasagna at that table. The best he ever had, swore Frank stoutly, nothing to compare, before or since.

Now the table belongs to Ang’s baby girl; from Mary to Mary: a full circle.

Matthew, at Grandpa’s side for that final passage, wrote on his FaceBook page:  One more sailor rings the bell….farewell and following seas, Grandpa….
Matt served in the US Navy Presidential Guard, choosing his Grandpa’s branch of the service.  Ang served during World War II, on the Fletcher-class destroyer, the USS O’Bannon.  It was a ship that had a plucky and determined crew, and they saw a lot of action.  Famously, though, the O’Bannon miraculously avoided a confrontation when a Japanese sub surfaced within hailing distance.  A crewman was on the O’Bannon’s deck, peeling potatoes.  Somehow, he had the presence of mind to take the roughly grenade-sized spuds and begin lobbing them rhythmically at the submarine.  It submerged and left quietly,–not, I guess, interested in taking any chances.  The potatoes saved the O’Bannon that day, and she and her crew served honorably in many actions.

Angelo in Navy
Angelo, a young sailor on the USS O’Bannon


The war left a lasting impression on Angelo; he wrote movingly of his abhorrence of armed combat when he inscribed copies of the book Action Tonight, by James D. Horan, for each of his children. (Action Tonight detailed the O’Bannon’s World War II journey.) But Ang retained his deep love of country, and he kept close touch with his shipmates, attending reunions and sharing correspondences.  In November 2014, the local veterans’ association honored Ang in a special ceremony.  After WW II, medals which he had earned were somehow never delivered; he finally accepted those medals at age 94, in front of his family, friends, and admirers.


Jennifer, Angelo’s granddaughter, also serves in her country’s military; her Grandpa was very proud of his smart savvy granddaughter, an officer and a helicopter pilot with the US Army.

Ang and Pat believed  in education.  Ang himself never finished high school; in Depression days, boys from big families often didn’t.  They left school at 14 or 15, they got men’s jobs, and they contributed the money to their families without quibble or bicker.  But Ang and Pat were determined that their kids would go to college.  They couldn’t afford fancy residential schools, but there was a good SUNY college within an easy commute. All five kids earned their bachelor’s degrees there. Ang and Pat provided a roof and food and a car to get back and forth—and plenty of life lessons.

They might have been commuter students, but Mark, Joe, Stephen, and Tommy all made a real effort to be part of college life. And on Friday nights, that might mean partaking of the partying that was so much a part of 1970’s college culture.  They would crawl home in the early wee hours, sometimes to a chorus of birds greeting the dawn, and stealthily creep up the stairs to pass out in their beds. They needn’t have worried; their concerned parents had just the right hangover cure. 

Pat would vacuum at 7 AM; Ang would clash pots and pans; the boys would be rousted from bed to perform early Saturday chores.  Mark tells tales of mowing the dewy lawn; clipping the hedges that surrounded their football field side yard; scraping and painting house and garage;–all on a couple hours of sleep. He said he always had a really bad boo-boo head.  He said he never realized until then that sweat could actually smell like beer.

In 2001, Ang saw a blurb in the local paper that said a program was being set up to give high school diplomas to WWII vets who’d left school to go to serve their country.  Ang called the number. ‘Am I eligible?’ he asked.  He explained he had left school to work, only later, in his twenties, serving in the Navy.

The woman he spoke to gently told him no.  The award, she said, was only for those vets who actually quit high school to enlist.  Ang said he understood and hung up the phone.

Several days later, an article appeared in the paper begging the gentleman who’d called to inquire about the diploma to call back. After talking with Ang, the woman had been unsettled; she investigated and found that Ang WAS eligible.  He received his high school diploma that year, standing straight and tall in the  auditorium, applauded by family members and an SRO crowd of clapping community members and students.  He was 81 years old.

The stories about Angelo swirl as the family sits at the kitchen table–childhood escapades, work stories, memories of standing with Angelo in the basement, running the intricate, multi-gauge miniature railroad he’d set up over the passage of many years. There’s the story of the car Pat turned down to marry Ang, who was 14 years her senior; her brother offered to buy her a convertible if she’d abandon the idea of  the wedding.  Pat and Ang were married 61 years. The sons in particular remember hopping to it when their father began to utter the words, “By the Christ in heaven…” Mary Ann has her own stories to tell,  the cherished baby girl, the pretty teenager whose dates had to pass a tough, tough scrutiny.

Memories flicker and flash likes snippets of old time movies, out of context, out of order: Grandpa and Number One at the town dump, rescuing metal Tonka trucks left carefully at the edges by those whose kids had outgrown them, taking them home to sand and refinish, creating a dream of a fleet for a kid with a dirt pile.  Angelo with his eight year old daughter, come to the store to show the mom what they’d bought. Grandpa with a warm, pudgy hand in one of his, flowering plants carefully balanced in the other, walking toward the graves of his parents.  That picture morphs quickly, flipping through the years–the pudgy toddler gradually becoming a tall, handsome, young man, but still at the cemetery every year, still at Grandpa’s side. Angelo at Christmas, passing out decorative wooden wheelbarrows he’d painstakingly crafted in his basement workshop. Grandpa and granddaughter, barely old enough to sit by herself in a lawn chair, having a long serious conversation on a hot summer day, while her big brother buzzes energetically around the yard. Grandpa with any one of his beloved grandchildren, driving his little tractor around the lawn.

There are many ways to take stock of a man’s life; one of them is to count the number of grandchildren who post on Facebook, when he passes, that they have lost their best friend.  Ang took infinite pride in his wife, Pat, and his children, Mark, Joe, Stephen, Tommy, and Mary Ann. He was a kind and fond father-in-law to Patty and Phil, Susans and Pams,  a devoted grandfather-in-law to Julie. He was a loving brother, uncle, and friend. But in grandfathering, he seemed to come fully into his own.  He had unflagging time, love, and patience for his grandchildren, Matthew, Brian, Jeremy, Phillip, Bobby, Jim, Jennifer, and Alexander. He delighted in his great granddaughters, Alyssa and Kaelyn.

Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983
Angelo, Jeremy, and Matthew, c. 1983

He lived a long, hard-fought, wonderful life, did Angelo, and he passed from it convinced he was going home.  In the days and weeks and months to come we will, I hope, be able to write the stories down, to take scattered fragments and anecdotes and create a narrative that gives an inkling of just how rich the life, how lasting the legacy, Angelo leaves behind.

But for now–now I hope that man of faith is where he firmly believed he would be–at a long, many-leaved, celestial table, enjoying, maybe, some pasta and sauce with his parents and the siblings who’ve gone before.  Friends who’ve also made that trip are welcome, I know. As each of us contemplates that departure, we can do it knowing that no matter how many people crowd around that table, there will always be another leaf to add, another chair to pull up.  Plates will be passed from hand to hand; the newest guest will be given silverware and a napkin.  A glass of wine will appear on their right. 

There’s a great loss, of course, but great comfort in this: Angelo’s home with his parents tonight, getting things ready.