Hymns in Ordinary Time

Ordinary: (n.) What is commonplace or standard

               (adj.) With no special or distinctive features; normal.

—the Oxford Dictionary online


When Mark and I come home from picking up the rug, the floor has dried to a soft, rejuvenated sheen. We cut the thick band of transparent tape the clerk—a rather manic and annoyed young man—wrapped vigorously around the 7 by 10 foot area rug at the store before he thrust it at Mark and hurried away. Now, Mark wrestles it to one end of the dining room.

We unroll the rug as if we’re part of the Fixer Upper crew—Mark gives it a neat kick, and we watch it spill out over the newly polished floor. The end that lands by me, though, the edge that’s right near the kitchen, is kind of crunched under itself.

I run and grab stacks of books. Jim comes to help, and we position heavy tomes all around the edge of the rug to flatten it. Any resemblance to Fixer Upper has ended right here.

We waggle-walk the heavy oak table onto the new carpet. Jim and Mark bring in the old chairs. The curtains are tucked away in the guest room; I retrieve them, and we slide them onto rods and hang them.

There is more to do; there are small jobs that will keep me busy for another few days, but the dining room is restored—drop cloths whisked away, table a clear, clean space.

I pause a minute, taking in the newly painted (“Roasted Cashew”) walls, the fresh white ceiling and trim, the softness of the white curtains and sheers, the colors of the framed posters—an antique map of Sicily, a photo of a worn blue rowboat beached in northwestern Scotland—that still need to be hung. Mark comes in and we stand together, assessing.

“I LIKE this room,” he says. And I agree.

Tonight, we will eat, altogether, around this table. So we chop and slice poultry and veggies, and we measure and steam rice—a chicken stir fry, a family-cooked endeavor. We pour sauces and stir and sample and soon declare rice and chicken and veggies perfectly done. We heap plates and carry them into the dining room, where we eat together for the first time in about three weeks—since I started the dining room project, since the drop cloths appeared.

Jim cleans his plate and sits back and sighs.

“This is like the old days,” he says. “This is like…ordinary time.”


Ordinary time. The phrase tolls loud in memory, loud from a Catholic childhood. In ordinary time, there are no feasts and there is no fasting.

I know just what Jim means: eating in the dining room is part of everyday life, ordinary, expected, taken for granted. And ordinary days, as the dictionary definition says, have no distinctive features; they are commonplace and not special.

Ordinary days are normal.

A memory heaves up through the flotsam. I am asking my mother if we can do something—go shopping, go visiting,–something.

We can do that, she agrees, as soon as things get back to normal.

She pauses, then adds, “Whatever THAT means.”

So this is an ordinary dinner, an ordinary evening.

Whatever THAT means.


I think about ordinary time, and I think about distinctive changes. There have been some in the last year: Jim has gone back to college, has gotten a job he enjoys very much in the college library. This summer, with renovations anticipated in the library, Jim is not working, and he struggles to create orderly days without the structure of work. 

This summer probably seems to Jim like the old days, but he has created for himself a new kind of ordinary time.

This year, every weekday morning, Mark gets up before 6:00 a.m., and he drives himself over to the rec center and works out for 45 minutes. I drag myself out of bed, too, and I lace up sneakers and take myself a good stretch of a walk. This is new; I can’t remember when we decided on these new practices, but they were certainly not ordinary when we wrestled them into our lives.

Now, if the day doesn’t start with exercise, we get antsy. The gym, the walking—it’s part of our new normal, a thread in the weave of what is now our ordinary time.

Ordinary time has to do with the pattern of the days, I think: the waking and rising, the steaming mugs that start the day, the work undertaken, the meals shared, the everyday things accomplished. The waning hours are important, too: sharing, maybe, a Netflix movie, a show on Hulu—a segue, always, into time spent with a book.

The shape and heft of each day seems, basically, same, and we try to remember. Did we go to the library Monday or Tuesday?

Are there markers we can use—that was the day AFTER the doctor’s appointment, right? And that appointment was on Monday, so the library MUST have been Tuesday.

We leave tiny blazes on the trail, but mostly, days are pretty predictable.

And then an event or project—painting the dining room, say—inserts itself, and the rhythm is shaken. I forsake regular housework to get this job done…and I discover that I don’t work as quickly as I used to do. I estimate the painting as a three-day job; but I am still doing touch-ups three weeks later.

The slowing is a change from what I think of as ordinary; the slowing is my new normal.

In the interim, tables and cabinets are covered with cloths, and chairs are shoved up against the bookshelf in the living room. The chaos bothers Jim; he takes his meals down to the basement, eats at his computer. Mark and I grab quick meals together, sliding the table cover back far enough to clear space for two plates, dragging two chairs into the dining room, putting them back when the meal is done. The paint paraphernalia does not invite lingering after a meal.

On nice mornings, we take breakfast outside and ignore the dining room altogether.

Through the bare windows, anyone passing by can see the old wooden ladder, which has, seemingly, become a permanent dining room fixture.

And just when the clutter and chaos start to feel ordinary, the painting is done; the floor is scrubbed and polished. The new rug, soft and pliant, accepts the table; the room is put together.

It is NOT the same; but using the space once again in the way we always have feels like a return to normal. It feels, as Jim says, like ordinary time.


But days can return to the regular pace—days can be times without feast or fast—and still not feel normal. This week, we pack to travel to Toledo, to attend an anniversary memorial service for a dear friend’s son. This son, a talented, vibrant 40-year old husband and father and college professor, died a year ago from an invidious, virulent cancer.

I know that my friend’s days may have returned to a routine in the year that passed. But I am quite sure those days will never quite seem, again, like ordinary time.

Just as they won’t for Ott, or Debbi, or Kathy or any of us who have lost people so closely woven into our lives that the fabric is unutterably altered.

If ordinary means with no distinctive features, then ordinary is gone. Each day bears the very distinctive feature of loss and absence.

And what of those, I think, who have endured illness or accident and come out changed—unable, maybe to live quite the way they did before? They must create a new ordinary; their normal has moved to a  very different point.


Even healthy, happy changes—new relationship, new job, a move—even these things, in their joyful transformations, morph our ordinary times.


“Ordinary time” seems to imply a return to what has always been usual, to the way we always lived before the monumental event happened. And how, I think, can that ever be? We are not the same people we were before the event. We are older; we have changed. We may be sadder or wiser or filled with the joy of accomplishment or we may be feeling any number of ways, prompted by the Thing that happened.

We may share our thoughts with the same people we talked to before. Or we may find that the Thing changed relationships, too. We may live in different places.

I open my laptop and look up “ordinary time—definition,” and I find that, although those times in the Church are indeed times without feast or fast, that is not the reason for their name. The Church weeks derive their name from ‘ordinal’; they are numbered and counted—the first week of ordinary time…the fourth week of ordinary time…


We may do same things, we may celebrate the same holidays, we may walk the same path, year after year. This Christmas, once again, we will hang the old ornaments on the tree—the stuffed mouse my mother made; the ‘best teacher’ ornament a special sixth grader gave me back in the eighties, Jim’s ‘Baby’s First Christmas’ orb. We’ll hang picture ornaments of grandkids and grand nieces and nephews—and the kids in the pictures have round cheeks and wide eyes. The kids in real life have tall, slender frames and independent streaks. Because they have grown and matured and changed; that is what is ordinary now.

Tradition reminds us, but it doesn’t paste us in place. Ordinary life has an ordinal bent—we are in our 35th year of marriage; I am in my 64th year of life. We have been seven years in this house. The dog has been gone, Mark realized today, for just over a year.


And yet. I know what Jim means—know the comfort in restoring the thing that’s askew to its original purpose, in returning the function to a room, in connecting with the people with whom we love to share certain times and holidays and events.

Because there is loss and there is awful wrenching pain, and there are even unforeseen joys that take our breaths away and alter the way we live. Of course these things change us. Of course they do. They must.

But maybe it’s the ordinary things that help us make it through—the yearly visit, the planting and the harvesting, the celebration of birthdays, the shopping for winter boots.

The meal shared around a family table.

There is a comfort in that, in knowing that, despite us and without us, some things—things that are important to us and to others,—will continue. We will never be the same; we will never unknow what we know now, what we didn’t know last year.

But in the threads of custom, of tradition, in the search for some kind of daily grace, there is safety. No matter how tenuous they may be, I find I still seek shelter in the ordinary times.

Shaken. And Stirred.

As I zipped along gray roads, under gray skies, to Coshocton, I listened to NPR’s food editor talk about planning Thanksgiving feasts.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said, “to mess with tradition, to shake things up a little.”

Hmmm, I thought.

Then she added, “But don’t shake EVERYTHING up. Some things are meant to be on the Thanksgiving table.”

She went on to talk about how they still fixed creamed spinach just the way her father had; it wouldn’t, she said, be Thanksgiving at all without Granddad’s creamed spinach.

Hmmmm, I thought again.

We have some spinach in the fridge, but I didn’t see creamed spinach being a hit at our Thanksgiving table.

It’s just as well that everyone’s tastes are different and therefore special.


But the food editor’s words gave me the permission I needed to stretch the lines. And my doctor’s injunction against wheat and gluten made stretching the lines a necessity.

So, we bought the turkey, a sassy little fourteen pounder. We got Idaho potatoes and frozen green beans and a jar of whole-berry Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. I even bought a bag of Pepperidge Farm stuffing because I couldn’t for the life of me think of a wheat-free alternative…and it would be blasphemy worse than that editor’s not creaming the spinach to skip the stuffing.

I bought the world’s tiniest pumpkin pie…none of us (sorry, pumpkin lovers) really cares for it. But still, it is not Thanksgiving to Mark without a crusty bit of pumpkin with a fluffy dollop of whipped topping. He enjoys that one small piece…and then spends the week after trying to get someone—anyone!—to take the rest of the pie off his hands.

So we were ready. I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and put on my hard-core cooking clothes—long-sleeved black t-shirt, black plaid flannel pants,—and went downstairs to sauté up some bacon.

Most of the bacon went onto a plate where Mark and Jim picked at it while they scrambled up eggs in the pan drippings. I rescued a good sized chunk, though; it was one odd, solid piece and both the boyos looked at it funny anyway. I hid that away for my shaking it up green beans.

And then, boyos out of the kitchen, I went looking for my pecan cookie bar recipe, and I couldn’t find it.

That put me in a little panic. The recipe is from an old, old Betty Crocker cookbook that my younger brother and I bought for my mother with carefully hoarded dimes and dollars way back in the late sixties. I remember feeling that zing of pure pleasure, knowing we had gotten something for Mom that she would just purely love, and I remember knowing just how precisely we had hit the mark when she opened it and didn’t say anything for a minute.  Then she said, “Oh,no! You shouldn’t have spent so much!”

Which we translated into, “I really, really like this.”

I inherited the book after Mom died, and the first recipe I made was the one for pecan pie bars. They were good; they were so good that, when I pot-lucked them, I was inevitably asked for the recipe. I took it out of its official three-ring binder so many times that the holes turned from islands into peninsulas, and the page itself grew soft as cloth. I folded it several times, and the bottom of the page just detached itself and floated away, and I stuck that cookie bar recipe back in the old cookbook, right up front so I’d always know where to find it.

And then, this Thanksgiving morning, I opened the book’s cover, hanging by a thread to its binding, and the recipe just wasn’t there. I pawed through other cookbooks—maybe I stuffed it in the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook! Maybe I put it in with the handwritten recipes. Joy of Cooking? Julia Child?

But, no; it was gone. And it was Thanksgiving Day, and we needed a reasonable facsimile of pecan pie that I could make with my homemade AP flour substitute, and the bar recipe had the authenticity of family history.

Damn. I was kind of upset.

Finally, I got online and searched “Becky Crocker pecan pie bars,” and I pulled up a recipe. It was not THE recipe. It put granulated sugar in the crust instead of powdered; it added corn syrup to the filling. I printed it out, debated with myself a minute, and then harkened back to the NPR food editor.

Okay, I thought. This will be another shaking it up dish.

I warmed up the oven and baked the crust with the organic, gluten-free flour mix I made from flours bought at the bulk store. I poured gooey, corn syrupy, nutty filling over the hot crust and baked it again. I watched the bars carefully, and as soon as they looked brown and set, I pulled them out and put them on the old wooden chopping board to cool.

Then I slathered the turkey with olive oil and stuffed its poor empty belly with fresh herbs, rained salt and pepper down on it, tented it with foil, and grappled it into the hot oven.

Let, I declared, the cooking time begin, and I pulled out onions and celery and carrots, garlic and some almost-gravy-thick turkey broth made on Tuesday from the frozen remains of the last bird we’d enjoyed. I sorted through herbs and spices and gleefully pulled out jars and tins and plastic tubs and stacked them on the counter.

I made the stuffing in the cast iron skillet, redolent of bacon residue. The breading and the veggies sucked up a cup of that turkey broth, and, as the bird developed its own pan drippings, I scooped some out to drizzle on top. I peeled potatoes and put them on to boil,and Jim decided a crisscross potato might be even better than mashed, so I directed him in that preparation, (“Like this?” he said. “Am I cutting it right? How much butter? Is that too much paprika?”) and we found an old metal cake pan and got that potato dish ready to roast, too.

And, here we go! I thought. Time to shake up the green bean casserole, too!

I chopped a whole onion and put it on to caramelize, and I mixed up some bechamel with the non-wheat flour—which thickened, I was happy to see, right nicely. I grated some Vermont white cheddar into that, and I chopped the funny chunk of bacon and threw those tasty bits in with the browning onions. I poured the French-style green beans into the big metal mixing bowl and shook in the sautéed bits and shlupped in the thick sauce, and stirred it all together, thinned it just a titch, and spooned it into a casserole. My counters were dotted with casseroles and waiting pots, and the turkey was starting to get all kinds of fragrant, and there was nothing to do but wait until just the right time to start loading pans into the oven, reeling things out, hoping everything would be done on time.

And the turkey baked on, as we remembered to take the brown-n-serve rolls out of the freezer and put them on a pan, where Jim slathered their butty little tops with butter. And we remembered, this year, to decant the cranberry sauce into a pretty glass dish—some years we’d get halfway through dinner, and think, Wait.  What’s…missing? and one of us would run to get the can opener.

And the turkey roasted up juicy and tender, and everything thing else bubbled right into the perfect finished state at just the right time, and we spread the brown and red plaid cloth onto the table, and Jim picked out fall-colored Fiesta ware, and Mark carved the turkey and, then, after hours of preparation, we ate.

In less than fifteen minutes, we were all full…full and happy. The dinner was just right. Traditional, with a twist or two, but all the things were there that connected us to Thanksgivings past, to stories we always have to tell, and to people we love and miss.


My sadly beaten phone hummed and buzzed from Wednesday afternoon through Friday; hummed with catching up texts and Facebook messages and emails and tweets. On Wednesday, two beautiful cards from lifelong friends dropped through the mail slot.

I grabbed the colored chalk and wrote “Giving thanks…” above the picture window on the chalkboard wall in the kitchen.  Every now and then, I added thoughts. “…for homemade spaghetti sauce,” I wrote once. And another time, “…fireplace fires.”

The next time I went into the kitchen, the list had grown. “Family,” it said. And, “love.”

Jim came in to put his blue plastic cup into the dishwasher.

“Hey,” he said. “I just thought: well, somebody ought to say it.”

By Thanksgiving morning, he’d added a couple things more.


On Thanksgiving night, we went to see The Crimes of Grindelwald. A boy stopped us to rip our tickets; he was silent and a little surly, and I didn’t blame him.

“Thank you,” I said, “for working on Thanksgiving.” A smile broke out all over his face, and he was a little jaunty handing me back the tickets stubs.

“Theater TWO,” he said, “and I think you’re gonna like it.”

Is that little appreciation enough? I thought; just that little bit?

He was right; critics be darned. We enjoyed the movie.


We fixed up a full divided plate of Thanksgiving feast for Mark’s mom, and the next morning, Mark got up and packed up the car and took off: back home, to see his mom and his siblings, to see Matt and Julie and the girls. I ate leftover green beans for breakfast and lunch. And then they were gone. Jim had turkey sandwiches for brunch, lunch,and snacking. The mail came with a letter and a magazine that was all about the holiday light shows in Ohio, and we went to the library, where I couldn’t help it: I brought home three more books.

I divided up my schoolwork and tackled three papers, and Jim spread his math book and notebook and scratch pad on the kitchen table and worked his way, conscientiously, through two lessons.

For dinner, a little woozy from all that turkey, we stir fried pork and veggies and tossed them in General Tso’s sauce. And Mark texted to say he’d arrived, and Terry texted a picture of special memorial blocks in the newly opened tunnel at the Toledo Zoo; Shaynie sent me a message, and Larisa texted to say she had wound up the day and was warming her toes with a fuzzy blanket and her innards with a little sip of wine.

It struck me, just then, that, just like the dinner, everything had turned out just right.


When I was a child, I looked forward so eagerly to Thanksgiving: everybody home; even Dad, a lot of the time, didn’t have to work. I’d get up in the morning, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade would be on, and I’d watch for a while, floating a bit on the fumes of the enormous turkey my mother had stuffed and put in the oven. But, although I hated to admit it, the parade was kind of…well, BORING, and I would wind up in a chair with a book.

Many years, we would make Turkeys From Hell out of apples and toothpicks, raisins and green olives with pimento gobblers—one for each place. But that was pretty quickly done, and then what?

I waited for dinner, which we ate in the dining room, a lace cloth on the table, and somebody always slopped gravy on it, every year. And then dishes and everyone disappeared…to watch football, out to see friends, into a bedroom, and a long quiet lull reigned before everyone would have digested enough to eat dessert.

There’s nothing to DO, I’d complain to my mother, and she, who’d been DO-ing all day, snapped, Go take a walk.

And I would pull on my jacket and tie on my sneakers and slough down the sidewalk, thinking, drenched deep with disappointment, Where’s the HOLIDAY part of this holiday?


But now, finally and belatedly, I think I get it. There’s the chance to be grateful, of course; the opportunity to count blessings. And all tied into that, woven together with it, is the awareness of bonds…to new friends and old friends, to family here with us, and to family gone on.

So, traditions…a recipe from my mother’s book, a visit to a much-loved place, a pie baked like no other can bake it, –well, they are more important on this holiday. And all the communications, –a letter, an e-card, a phone call, a Facebook post, –they are all drenched in meaning. The TIME of Thanksgiving is no-pressure time; I don’t have to be gifting or caroling,partying or volunteering. I am free to make a phone call, free to remember, free to stare into the fire and search deep down for the better self that surely is hiding, way down there.


That food editor was right, I think. It’s good on Thanksgiving, to give traditions a little shake.

But just a little one. Shaken too much, the beautiful meaning behind those traditions might just be obscured.

Up on the Rooftop (Thinking Pause)

It’s cold out on this roof. My fingers poke out of tattered gloves, and I wiggle the fiddle curiously. How does one hold it? I think of performers I’ve seen, of hoe-down scenarios, and I snug the gleaming wood instrument under my chin. I drag the bow across the strings; awful, discordant sounds screech out.

I put down fiddle and bow, and I stare out at the silent night, at the velvet, star-studded sky. The street: so quiet. The neighbors’ spotted white cat darts behind the white pillared house across the street. Muted lights glow behind drawn shades and drapes pulled tightly shut. Way down on Linden Avenue, car tires thrum. A buried, throbbing, bass pulses from the college bar a half a mile away, way over in the industrial district. To the south, the Christmas lights on the courthouse flare up: first red, which dulls to rose, then pales to white, then flickers away. Then a blast of green shoots up, fading, fading…It’s replaced by a triumphant golden glow.

Cold, clear, peaceful, I think. And I eye the fiddle again.

Then, “What are you doing out here?” asks Mark. He leans halfway out the open window of the spare room, hands flat on the black-clad roof. He pauses, he ponders, and then he crawls out to join me. The roof here is flat and broad and rimmed with a little railing: no danger of sliding and falling. I sit with my back against the wall, legs straight in front of me, silent fiddle in my lap. Mark slides over to join me. He slips his hand over mine and we weave fingers. We sit, quietly together, looking out over our little world.

And then, again: “Why are you on the roof?” asks Jim, his head out the window. There’s a little pause, and, “Wait,” Jim says. His head disappears.

He reappears a minute later with two warm, silky duvets, which he throws out the window ahead of him. He butt-slides over next to his dad, and we pull the coverlets over us, glad of the warmth, contemplative in the quiet night.

I handle the fiddle to Mark, who shakes his head. He says, “Oh, no. Not me.”

“I’ll try,” says Jim; he positions the fiddle backwards on his extended legs. He presses a finger on the frets, and he draws the bow across the strings. There is a long, sweet, lingering note. It splits the night and fades away. We listen to it disappear, and then we are silent.

Finally, I say it. “Without tradition,” I intone solemnly, “our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on the roof!”

We’ve got the fiddle. We’re on the roof.

But we are, all three of us, feeling pretty firm.


My December Country Living magazine comes in the mail. It is my guilty pleasure, a full half hour of guaranteed enjoyment: a celebration of home and hearth and hearty foods. This month, there’s a white house on the cover, the kind of house built, maybe, in the 1880’s—sprawling, two-storied, pleasingly gabled. The red front door sports an evergreen wreath with a crimson bow. Evergreen garlands wrap around the wrap-around porch, and two regal collies step off that porch to greet the viewer.

A vintage turquoise pick-up truck, Christmas tree resting on a plaid blanket on its roof, waits in the drive. There is a story here, of family and festivity, of grand preparations and gleeful anticipation of a great day.

I page through the magazine, and the story continues. I visit homes decorated for the holidays—vintage homes with deer heads on walls and hand-hewn tables; homes where a happy young mother plates cookies in the kitchen. A table is set with warm plaid blankets as tablecloth; there are tartan plates nestled on white chargers and tangerines snugged into a pine-bough runner. The old white chandelier shines above an evergreen garland that drapes a broad hutch, and I feel that hushed moment when the house is cleaned and decked and shining—the moment before the guests arrive, crowding in with faces rosy from the cold, shedding coats one-sidedly, juggling their dishes to pass as their host tries helpfully to grab the shrugged-off outerwear.

I look at the vignette and picture the peaceful preparedness shattering into the warmth and bustle of welcome.

The guests will soon arrive, the wassail begin.

I flip through the rest of the glossy magazine, contemplate the recipes, and I think this publication takes our cultural expectations and puts them onto paper precisely. The family homestead. The groaning board. The shining faces gathered joyfully around the table.

That’s the holiday.

That’s the tradition.


“I looked up tradition,” Mina says, “and it is supposed to be something that is handed down or done over generations. But my mother calls and says, ‘You HAVE to be here. It’s tradition.’” Mina exhales and looks at her dear confidantes, Corey and Blake. They are all 34; they are old school friends, moms of children five years old or younger. Mina is an assistant principal. Corey is a nurse practitioner. Blake is a CPA. They are smart, savvy young professionals.

“My parents,” Mina continues, “have only been having Christmas at their house since Grandma and Grandpa bought the condo when I was 14. Twenty years! I told my mother that’s hardly long enough to be considered tradition.”

“So, what are you going to do?” asks Blake.

“I caved.” Mina sighs. “My sister called and whined about how it just wouldn’t be the same, and my dad came over to let me know he had the train set up and he reminded me how much Little Barry loved the trains and the tree lights last year…and I just said, Fine. We’ll be there.”

“Well,” says Corey. “we’re not. Laura is old enough to want to wake up in her own bed this year, and run downstairs to open her gifts. We’re having Christmas in our own home, and I’m cooking a roast, and anyone who wants to come can join us.”

“You rebel,” says Mina. “How many people are coming so far?”

“I don’t know,” says Corey. “No one’s talking to me. Although my brother did call to thank me for ruining Christmas before he informed me we weren’t on speaking terms and hung up. Jeff’s parents will be there, though.” Corey crumbles her roll onto its little plate and turns to Blake. “What about you guys? What are you doing?”

Blake looks a little abashed. “Well, I’m incredibly lucky, I guess,” she says. “This summer, the whole family was at the beach, and my mother got us all together and suggested we figure out a way to celebrate together that didn’t make everyone crazy. So we decided we’d have the Burke family Christmas on Epiphany this year. The 6th is on a weekend, and it will ease up on that after-holiday letdown for the kids.” She looks at her friends almost apologetically. “We’ll go to Matt’s parents on Christmas Eve and then be at home on Christmas Day. My sister and her kids will probably come over that night.”

There is a little silence, and Mina and Corey look at her with a little unbelief and a little jealousy.

Finally, “That’s so cool,” says Mina. “I wish my mother could see that the tradition is about the being together and not so much about a command appearance on a certain day.”


Curious, I look up ‘tradition.’ Mina is right: the definition tells me it is a custom or belief handed down through generations. So it has to be pretty darned old, generations old, that custom, to properly wear the mantle of tradition.

So the claim that ‘You HAVE to be home! It’s our tradition!” is, really, a false one.

Because once those grandparents were young parents too, dragging their cranky children to one set of in-laws or the other, eating Edna’s dried out turkey when they’d rather be home with a tasty pan of lasagna and the promise of a family board game after dinner. But they did it—they sucked it up until the grandparents couldn’t host any more—until they moved into assisted living, or moved, tragically, into the green fields of a memorial park.

And then, “Our turn,” those parents sighed contentedly, and gloried in the kids around their own table, the food their own family favorites; they welcomed the grandparents well enough to join them, the kids’ friends with no special place to be. They welcomed the significant others as the kids grew into young adults.

They grew solid in their expectation that Christmas wasn’t Christmas unless every kid was home. Twenty years passed, and it began to seem like they’d celebrated this way forever. Like this celebration was tradition.

But it isn’t really—it’s just the way they’ve done things for a couple of decades, and a year dawns when a different kind of celebration is in order.

Expectation: not tradition.

And unrealistic expectations can overload and sink a holiday.


Jim is typing furiously. When he pauses to take a breath, fingers suspended above his keyboard, I ask him what he’s working on.

“A reading list,” he says. “Want to see? First, I want to finish It.” Stephen King’s thick tome sits next to Jim’s computer; the bookmark reveals he has only about an eighth of the book to go. Jim wants to read it through before seeing the movie, which people have told him is not bad, although, of necessity, it leaves out some parts of the dense and intricate book.

Then he wants to read The Wheel of Time series in its entirety; he has read the first four books, but now he wants to start, again, at the beginning, and follow Robert Jordan’s long saga until the very end of the very last book. Then, on to Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, and more.

It’s an ambitious list, and it does my aging English instructor’s heart good. It validates what we plan to do for the holiday this year, too, adopting an Icelandic custom on Christmas Eve. We’re going to grill steaks, and then snuggle into new flannels and light the fire in the fireplace, and we are going to crack open our new books. We’ll read, cozy in the fireplace glow, the tree lights twinkling, too, and we’ll dip into chocolates,—chocolates from our favorite local chocolatier.

My inner bossy teacher surfaced this November, and I gave each of the boyos a ‘Christmas Wish List’ form to fill out. It asked what books they wanted, and what kind of chocolates. It asked if they wanted any special gift cards, and then there was a category for ‘other.’ The boyos took the lists to separate corners, and thoughtfully filled them out. Their book lists were fairly long; on the ‘other’ list, both Mark and Jim listed only one simple, inexpensive thing.

Isn’t that funny? I thought to myself, and I wondered if we finally have circled around and settled on the kind of Christmas the three of us truly enjoy—with home and family and the permission to slip down into a chocolate-fueled reading binge part of a bona fide tradition from another culture. And with the creaky, crabby old dog safe in her own home, gnawing placidly on her rawhide candy cane, and not anxiously pacing a roomy kennel cage while her people are away.

Which is not to say that we don’t value the gathering with family and friends—gatherings we will try to do at different times and in other venues, preceding the holiday, stretching the holiday, maybe meeting at a restaurant with a broad hearth and blazing fire, and where no tired mama has to put together a meal and then, exhausted, clean up after it, too.

It seems to me that tradition guides the belief and the value: and we believe that the holidays give us a chance to connect with those we cherish. We would not honor the tradition if we didn’t make the connections, but we don’t have to do it the same way each and every year.

Instead we need to search inside and discern: what are our values? What do we want?

And we need to deal too, with the reality each of us brings to the table—that the autistic personality, for instance, does not do well with intense anticipation, or uncertain travel plans (“Where did you say we are staying???”) or the bustle of gatherings that flow and build with jokes and undercurrents and the puzzle and the mystery of family dynamics. Or that the dog is 14 years old, at least—her birth year uncertain—and that we might well be leaving the white-muzzled beast in a cold, lonely kennel for her very last holiday. Dogs do not care about Christmas, we remind ourselves, but there are dissenting voices arguing in both our heads.

And we love to read, to indulge ourselves with really good chocolate, and to enjoy the comfort and the glow of a warm, clean, cozy home. This Christmas plan, this year, and this place—well, it all seems very right.

But it’s not a tradition—it’s a practice: it showcases how much we value reading, and how much we value home and hearth. (And—all right—how much we value chocolate.) Next year, we may do something completely different—the Yule Book Flood just a practice that fit this year’s needs and circumstances like a warm and cozy hand-knit mitten.

(Whatever next year brings, though, I’m pretty sure there will be books and chocolate involved.)


So maybe—maybe—tradition is about the transmission, from generation to generation, of deeply held values, important beliefs? And maybe each of us has to measure that against our awareness of who we are and how we operate within our unique worlds.

So, say, giving is a tradition—a value passed down—caring for others who are in need. Maybe, for many years in our family of birth, people got together and assembled shoe boxes full of goodies to send overseas to children who, compared to our kids, had ridiculously little. And maybe, for whatever reason, we’ve decided that’s not the most effective way to give.

We could change the practice. We could knit warm hats for preemies, or order books for children who have none. We could ring a bell outside a supermarket or serve up a hot, sustaining meal at a soup kitchen. We could write a check to support a cause that touches our hearts. We could visit a lonely elder in assisted living whose family and friends are long, long gone.

There are many ways of giving, and some will bring us joy while others lard our bellies with dread. But if everyone found their own special way, wouldn’t the season be bright?

It’s not the practice that’s tradition—it’s the belief that undergirds it. And Christmas, I’ve been taught, is a time to give. I need to take that concept, and I need to make it mine.


My feet, I realize: I can’t feel my feet. They are poking out of the silky duvet. Encased in silly canvas ballet slippers, they are numbed by the frigid air.

“What time IS it?” I ask the boyos, and at that moment, away in the distance, the light show stops and the no-longer-illuminated spire of the courthouse disappears into black night. We sigh and shift and scrunch up the puffy blankets. We lift up the spare room window, the window we’ve left open just a crack—so the house stays warm, and so we can climb back into it.  We shove the blankets through and crawl in after them. Mark draws the window down and latches it securely.

The dog is dancing nervously at the foot of the stairs, her “Where were you?” and “I have to pee!” combination dance. We hurry down to tend to her concerns.

And Jim takes the old fiddle and tucks it away into the worn black leather case. He shoves it back onto the top shelf of the hall closet, and we bustle about to ready the house for the end of the day—coffee set up, dishes away, the table cleared and ready for morning.

There is much to do tomorrow—cleaning and shopping and packages to mail, a birthday surprise for a December sweetheart, trips to libraries, deadlines to meet, and the prep for a long-overdue repainting of the dining room. Tomorrow brings plastering and road trips, the roaring hum of the vacuum, meal-making decisions, and intense computer time.

But all of that is lit by the little spark of joy—a holiday approaches, a special time of celebration. We will meet it with tradition, with the beliefs we have examined to agree: these are things we value.

And we’ll shape our practice to those beliefs, and we’ll gather in the people we love so well.

Someone may coax sweet notes from a fiddle; someone may even make it sing, and toes may tap and arms reach out and the dancing may commence. Feet may pound and music thrum, but the floor, on its strong foundation, will hold firm. Not shaky. Not shaky at all.

We move into the holiday season, illuminated by our authentic knowledge; we move ahead, to celebrate tradition.


Here, by the way, is one post about Iceland’s bookish holiday tradition: http://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/jolabokaflod-meet-favorite-new-holiday-tradition/

Toothpicks and Traditions and Musing on Meaning

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.”
― W. Somerset Maugham


We were traveling for Thanksgiving. I was looking out my window as Mark drove; I was looking at the trees, all nearly bare, although some still had a furze of copper leaves. It was a gray day, and we drove in and out of rain, and my mind wandered.

I thought about the jar of cranberry sauce we’d left snugly in the pantry, and the stuffing mix, secure, at home, on the pasta shelf in the broom closet.

“We’ll have to shop when we get there,” I thought hazily, and then, unbidden, a question surfaced. “Should we buy stuff to make toothpick turkeys?”

I hadn’t thought about toothpick turkeys in years. On childhood Thanksgivings, while the turkey cooked, and when the parade was over, (I have to admit, while I looked forward eagerly to watching the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving, I always found it, in reality, to be dull), my mother would plunk the stuff to make toothpick turkeys on the dining room table.

Apples formed the bodies.  These were three-legged turkeys; they got a tripod of toothpicks for legs. I had to pluck an olive (Ick, I always thought; and olives still aren’t my favorite food) from a tall, skinny, brine-filled jar and spear it on a toothpick. Then the delicate task was to tease out the end of the pimento, tease it out just long enough to resemble a tom turkey’s red gobbler. If I was hasty or too forceful, the pimento escaped, and it was not easy to put it back in and begin again. There was always a little bowl full of empty olives drying on the table when I was done.

Finally I made tail feathers by skewering raisins onto more toothpicks, tightly stacked, with just enough pointy wood left at the bottom to stick them into the back-end of the apple. Each turkey took eight or nine raisin-laden toothpicks

And that was a toothpick turkey. One would go by each place-setting.

After the meal they would sit, ignored. None of us really liked either the olives or the raisins. My mother would finally take them apart, throw out the toothpicks with all their attachments, and use the poor, mutilated fruit to make apple cinnamon cake.

Still, they were a sort of tradition, and, grown, I would always provide the material for kids to make them. One year, at my brother’s house, Matthew and Ben and Tom–who must have been in the eight to eleven years old range–grabbed the playing field and concocted creatures unlike any seen before or since.  They might have had seventeen legs or five staring heads, pimentos long lost. The tail feathers might be anywhere, upside or downside; there might have been one raisin or thirty studding them. Several had fields of empty toothpicks, much like porcupines.  They marched across the table, an army of deformed toothpick aliens.

We laughed and took pictures and put one scary creation by each seat, and we called them the Turkeys From Hell. After dinner, we didn’t bother to dissect them. We just threw them away, wholesale.

That’s the last time, now that I think about it, I remember making toothpick turkeys.  That was a tradition that was easy to let go. It had no real meaning, except I suspect, to keep my annoying little self occupied on a holiday when my mother had many kitchen tasks to attend to.  There was no true sentiment attached. There was no reason to hope that generations moving forward would embrace the habit.

It’s not always that easy to let go of tradition.

So, say, you might have newlyweds Bob and Taja struggling to negotiate holidays, especially when both come from families who have ALWAYS done things this way. Both families have the big feast and the opening of gifts on the eve of Christmas. If they go to Bob’s parents, Taja’s will be bereft, their baby girl missing, their family unit cracked for the first time in 25 years.

“This is our TRADITION,” they will wail, and Taja, sitting on the edge of her chair with an unopened package in her lap, will be yearning, at her in-laws, to be taking part in the REAL Christmas celebration. And Bob will be awkward and uncomfortable, knowing his wife is not happy, knowing his family is annoyed, that they’re thinking, “Why can’t she be more enthusiastic? Why is she ruining our wonderful family Christmas?”

They may spend years, Bob and Taja, running from one house to other, exhausted and unhappy, fulfilling, to the letter of the law, at least, the family expectations. Ensuring the tradition survives intact.

Sort of.

No one examines the roots of the tradition, which was to gather a family group together, and to share joy. (Could they be just as joyful, early Christmas day?)

All this musing reminds me of the Easter ham story I read years ago, in a ladies magazine. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it goes like this:

The newlyweds, negotiating holidays, go to HER family for Easter dinner. And, as in many other households, Easter dinner at this one always has a huge ham at its center.

They arrive, the young couple, at her grandma’s house, and there are hugs and drinks passed out, and good-natured teasing before everyone is ushered to the table. The table is extended by many leaves,and all the people gathered ’round it, as is their custom, join hands and say a prayer of blessing.  Then the grandma gets up and goes to the kitchen.

She returns with the ham, glazed and studded, on a ceramic platter. Her daughter, the bride’s mother, follows her. She carries a plate with the end of the ham on it.

The ham proper goes into the center of the table. The bride’s mother puts the end of the ham in front of her husband, who happily cuts into it and takes a big chunk.

The groom is fascinated. “Why do they do that?” he asks.

His bride is puzzled. “Do what?” she asks.

“Serve the end of the ham on a separate plate.”

She looks a little stunned. “Well, it’s Easter,” she says. “We always do it that way.”

“But why?” he persists, and she gets a little annoyed.

“I don’t KNOW,” she says. “Ask my mother.”

So he does, when the opportunity allows, and she, too, is a little surprised and annoyed at his question. She directs him to HER mother, and he gets the same reaction.

“This is the way MY mother taught me to do it, so it’s how we always do it,” snaps Grandma.

The groom can’t let it go, so after dinner, they head to the nursing home, where Great-Grandma has opted for the communal feast rather than the family’s this year. They find her, replete and resting in her room.  After the obligatory greetings and inquiry, the groom takes her hand.

“Great Grandma,” he asks earnestly, “why does your family always serve one end of the ham on a separate plate?”

Great Grandma looks at him a long moment, taking his measure.  Finally she snorts.

Well, son,” she says, “I never had a pan big enough to fit a ham big enough to feed us all. I always had to cut the end off and roast it separately.”

These days, her daughter has a pan plenty big enough for the festive ham.  But
she still cuts out the end of the ham, even though she doesn’t know why she’s doing it.

It’s a tradition.

I know a woman who created, twenty years ago, a tradition of giving. It involved shopping for a child and donating those carefully chosen things to an organization that would distribute, it promised, her gifts to a child who needed them. She was very quiet about her giving, believing the best gifts are given in silence. But this Fall, she happened to mention the act to a good friend.

The friend looked troubled. The next day, with many apologies for intruding, she showed the woman an article that claimed her charity group was biased and judgmental and, perhaps, a little bit bogus. The woman was shocked.

She did her own research, and what she found disturbed her enough to end her twenty-year tradition.

“I don’t regret my impulse,” she told me, “but I regret the time and money I wasted, when I could have been making a difference.”

This year, she said, she is donating time at a local mission that offers homework help to kids after school. The kids also take turns, in teams, making dinner for their whole group.

This woman I know, a math whiz and a wonderful cook, tutors math on Tuesdays and oversees dinner prep on Thursdays. Her former tradition, she says, let her feel generous at a distance. Now she is right in the middle of the messy, unpredictable stew that is working with kids.

“It’s not a tradition,” she says. “My tradition was a knee-jerk, once a year, rote thing. I traded tradition for action. The kids are annoying and stubborn and beautiful. I look forward to Tuesday and Thursday.”


There are wonderful traditions; there are traditions with meaning and zest and the ability to infuse our lives and our gatherings with spirit. There is music and there is food; there are gatherings and games and giving. There are rich and warm and lovely things we do, singly and together, that give light and life and meaning to our years and to our passages. We should honor and keep those traditions.

But sometimes a tradition lies over the top of meaning like a heavy metal plate. It gets so hard to move it that we don’t; we let tradition cover meaning, and we go, for years and even decades, without budging that metal. And sometimes, when we finally are prompted–by a new family member, by a change; sometimes, even, by a loss–to move that heavy covering, we discover the meaning has gone.  It has tunneled through the dirt to a place where it can breathe. Or it has shriveled into dust that blows away when we finally lift that metal.

Like everything else in life, I muse, as the landscape slips by, streets shining dark on this soaked gray day, traditions need to be approached with mindfulness. With meaning. Without them–without the observant eye and the open heart–my traditions may be no more lasting than a toothpick-studded apple.


(Opening quote retrieved from goodreads.com)

Recipe Reminiscence

BC Cookbook

I think I was six when my mother first made the sweet dough.  She was searching for a yeast-raised coffee cake or sweet roll to serve for Easter breakfast: this particular recipe called for 11-3/4 cups of flour, a lot of muscular pummeling, and several raisings, deflatings, and raising-agains.

There was muttering; there was a floury mist and a fine silt that covered every kitchen surface, but, at the end of that first long-ago run through, there were trays and trays of wonderful, yeasty, cinnamon-scented sweet rolls.  Golden brown, light and powdery, they were topped with thick swirls of butter cream icing.  They sat, triumphant, those rolls, on six or seven cookie sheets around that big old country kitchen, an Easter-Eve culinary triumph.

Very few actually made it through to the next day: the yeasty creations were an unusual treat for four healthy boys and a sturdy sister with a willing appetite.

From that Easter on, the recipe became an expected part of family festivities.  I think Mom tired, quickly, of shaping all those individual sweet rolls by hand; one Christmas, she braided the dough into coffee cakes, frosted them, and using what was on hand, made a pleasing pattern with halved maraschino cherries and walnuts.  That, too, became law:  “Cherry NUT cherry!” my organized little niece Meg would intone, helping Grandma decorate the cakes.  No deviations were thereafter allowed. (It may not surprise you to learn that Meg grew into a wonderfully talented, highly disciplined, very orderly, engineer.)

The yeasty coffee cakes are still holiday essentials; I am thinking of them as Easter approaches.  I confess to giving up that fine layer of silt in favor of buying frozen yeast dough and skipping right to the raising and shaping steps.

But still. Easter morning without this particular coffee cake would just seem flat and wrong and weirdly devoid.


I am thinking of this–of coffee cakes and other favored family dishes–as my son Jim tackles a new project: organizing our rampant collection of recipes.

Some of our recipes spill out of boxes and folders; some are carefully collected and committed to notebooks and binders.  Recent clippings sit on top of the microwave.  Ripped-from-magazine possibilities poke from ‘real’ cookbooks,–an aging Betty Crocker binder from the late 1960’s, the red-checked Better Homes & Gardens classic I’ve replaced at least twice.

Just recently we went searching for the Buffalo wing dip recipe. I thought I knew which collection it was in, but couldn’t find it in the table of contents Jim had carefully organized a few years ago.  The title by which we called the dip didn’t match the title under which it actually resided.  Mark had been commanded to bring the dish to work for a birthday celebration; we needed to shop for the ingredients.  I was looking under ‘Buffalo’; the recipe actually was listed under ‘Hot.’  We found it, in time, but not without a little angstiness.

Jim’s organizational chore is timely and helpful, and it has me thinking of how we acquire the recipes we love.

For instance.

Our go to recipe for “Beef Paprika” comes from my old friend Pam Hall.  Pam and I worked together in college; we dated fast friends; broke but hospitable, we served a lot of scratch-cooked meals at our respective tables.  Pam’s talented mother tested recipes for Betty Crocker, and one of the recipes she tried out was Beef Paprika.  Cubes of beef that simmer in a rich paprika-based sauce, it starred in a meal Pam fixed for our troupe shortly after we stumbled onto that wonderful friendship.  I borrowed the recipe; I committed it to an index card.  I cooked it many times.

And then I moved out of that particular phase of my life, and I discovered, with dismay, that the index card was lost in the transition.  Pam moved away for graduate school, and we lost touch; and it was only years later that I discovered “Beef Paprika” was the cool insider’s pre-publication name.  The recipe is in that Betty Crocker Cookbook on my shelf, the very one my younger brother Sean and I scrimped and plotted to buy our mother in the late 1960’s.  It is called, there, Hungarian Goulash.  We still call it Beef Paprika; I still make it at least every other month.

And I never fail to think of Pam, who was a dynamic, successful woman, taken by an invidious cancer way too early.  I treasure the times.


My first real job after college, not counting things that had no relation whatsoever to my college degree (dental assistant, ice cream factory worker, deli clerk) was teaching middle school English at a little inner city parochial school. During my nine years there, I went from married to unmarried to married again.  And during that time, my role as doting aunt prepared me for a new step-mom gig, and finally for the impending arrival of my son James.

When James arrived, I left teaching to be a stay-at-home mom for a while, and joyfully joined the group of Catholic school mommies who met for breakfast every other week at one another’s houses.  The children played and fought and fell asleep to Sesame Street; we mommies ate delicious home-baked goodies and drank quarts of coffee and shared our worries and exhaustion and cost-saving tips.

And recipes.  Our family enjoyment of breakfast bakes and pig-picking cakes dates directly bake to those blessed bi-weekly outings, which offered sustenance on many levels.


I mentally fast forward twenty years to the Pasta Club, our group of seven friends with a love of cooking and a reverence for each other.  We took turns, every month or so, meeting at each other’s homes and enjoying meals that often, but not always, centered on pasta dishes.  One Saturday night, Kathie and Dan hosted us in their beautiful farmhouse, and  Kathie lifted the lids from two pots of fragrant soup.  I can’t remember what the second one was, I was so taken with her rich and hearty chicken and rice soup. I called her for the recipe not long after, needing a dish to pass for a work event, and she generously shared.  Last month, I made it for the Thursday lunch club that meets in our building, and the crockpot was pretty much scraped clean.  That soup says “fellowship” to me with every savory, cheesy spoonful.


The menus of our lives are gathered from family celebrations, from sharing with friends.  They are shaped by individual leanings and by nutritional needs. I have a repertoire of goodie recipes from the days we tried hard to avoid using wheat or dairy in Jim’s diet.  During that era, we also discovered an easy chicken and rice bake technique and added it to our regular offerings–one dish, thrifty, tasty, and inoffensive, ingredient-wise.  We wove that sucker into the family repertoire; we enjoyed it just last night.

And then there are Holy Grail recipes for which I continue to search.  In high school, at a bake sale, I tasted a bar cookie that was a revelation: all these years later, I taste those cookies in my dreams. I still scour websites and pore through magazines, seeking a cookie method that REACHES that bar.  And I circle in on a recipe that, baked at home, approximates the wonderful Reeses cup cookie in some, but certainly not all, Starbucks branches that are tucked into Barnes and Nobles stores.  (“STOP!!!” I yell when, on a trip to our old hometown, we approach the Peach Street exit outside of Erie, PA.  “STOP!  I have to get a cookie!!”)

My recipes are aided and abetted by thrift and an inherited horror of waste: I have tasty recipes that use up stale bread and the ends of bags of potato chips, nubbins of cheese, that little bowl of boiled potatoes, and the last bit of ham in the tupperware on the back of the shelf.  An anthropologist, I think, could look through the book that Jim is assembling, years hence, and probably make some pretty apt guesses about who we, as a family, are.


I think of our wonderful wellness coach who wants so badly for us to give up some of the things in our diet—white flour and sugar, most carbs and red meats, candy bars and cheese curls.  She offers us a snacking recipe of organic nut butter balls with flax seed and agave syrup, tiny sticky things that are no doubt very healthy.

And I think of my cookie jar, which cries out piteously when empty.  I think of Grandma’s Christmas fudge and special occasion roast beef and gathering a crew around a big pot of Mark’s parents’ sauce and meatballs.  I think of the chocolate chip cookie recipe we have all come to favor.

So, the flax balls: probably not, although we have committed to more salads and fewer mac and cheeses (but, oh! I have a wonderful recipe for mac and cheese…) We aim for healthy, but the foods of our life, the feast and the treats, are more than that.  They’re history and they’re memory; they’re ropes that tie us together, and they are joys that set certain days apart. We’ll always weave them in, just maybe not as often–but they’ll be more treasured, due to that.

“Is Chex mix an appetizer?” Jim asks, looking up from his perusal of rumpled, dog-eared recipes.  And I remember, suddenly, when he was a wee one and we lived down the street from Jane Lincoln, that talented French teacher, that wonderful mom.  Every Christmas, Jane would make buckets of Chex Mix, pack it into beautiful tins, and her glowing girls would bring those offerings to the neighbors.  Like Pam, Jane left us way too soon.  Like Pam, a simple dish is one of the things that keeps, for me, her giving, gallant memory alive.

“For sure, Chex mix is an appetizer,” I agree, and Jim turns back to his keyboard, fingers flying, gathering the recipes of our lives and loves together.


Wandering Back

They were three deep in the line–a lunch-time line; she looked at her fellow shoppers and concluded they were all using a scant lunch hour to make their purchases. A plump grammy-type lady had a basket full of little girls’ socks and sweaters; a twitchy gentleman in a long, expensive looking topcoat jiggled a trendy, bullet-shaped blender. Dell herself had the counter-top convection cooker that was her stepson’s number one wish this Christmas.

At the register, a young mom (bespectacled, no make-up, hair pulled back severely, her sleeping baby in a car seat in her shopping cart) fed baby toys onto the belt.

The cashier was a pretty young thing, pale of skin and startlingly black of hair–her lips and nails a vivid matching crimson. She languidly pushed the toys under the scanner with one hand.  The other hand held her smart phone, into which she was tittering. Tittering over, she’d fling her head back and listen, hand poised on an item to check out. The process was taking a long time.

The grammy sighed; the coated man twitched, and the young mom anxiously rocked the sleeping baby back and forth as she waited.

Back at the end of the line, Dell pulled out her own smart phone.  The store was Berger’s; the local owner, Freda, was famously imperious and impatient with her help.  Dell punched in her own office number, and, as her recorded message began, she started talking, loudly.

“Freda?” she crowed, and the cashier’s head jerked up.  “Yes! I’m waiting in line at the store. It looks like it’ll be at least 15 minutes so I thought I’d call you back.”

The cashier muttered a quick ‘gotta go’ and put her phone down.  She flashed an abashed apologetic look at the mom and began quickly shoving toys into bags.

Dell paused–her mission was accomplished, but a  demon had possessed her.  “Name?” she asked.  “No, Freda, I can’t see her name, but I can send you a picture!” She held her phone up, snapped a photo of the startled young cashier, and texted it to herself.

The grammy guffawed; the coat turned around and bestowed a pale smile.

By the time Dell got to the the register–which didn’t take long at all, considering–the cashier was leaking tears.  Dell paid in silence and lugged her hard-won bounty to the car.

There was a message on her machine, she saw as she flipped on the office lights, and she listened as she booted up her laptop.  Oh, lord: Mary Carole.  A former young colleague, MC had returned to grad school and now she was suffering agonies of indecision about next steps.  She called Dell and used her as a sounding board.  “I could do this,” she’d say, “but then I’d lose this and that!  But what if…”

Dell would listen patiently, interjecting a caveat or two. She’d learned, Dell had, to give a caller like MC ten minutes to vent. Then she took control of the conversation, soothed and encouraged, pleaded meetings and obligations, and promised to touch base again soon.

Which was not an empty promise, because the caller always called back.

But today, she wasn’t going there. She deleted the message and grimly moved a thick stack of files front and center. When MC called again–twice more–, she let the calls go through to voice mail.

On her way home, she stopped at that stupid three way corner with only two stop signs. One never knew if the approaching traffic was making a right or not,–fewer than half the drivers bothered to signal their intent–so people sitting where Dell sat had to be wary.  But the oncoming traffic cleared, and Dell waited while the car at the stop sign to her right, which had been waiting before Dell pulled up, made the turn.  Behind that car, a woman in a battered mini-van split her flat face into a wicked grin and made the turn in front of Dell, cutting her off just as she started to accelerate.

“Bitch!” thought Dell, and she laid on the horn.  FlatFace turned and waved gleefully.

Dell waved back, but she only used one finger.


At home, she checked messages.  Martin, who was away visiting family, had called to see how her day had gone.

“Well, let’s see,” Dell mused. “I made a cashier cry.  I ignored a plea for help from a  young friend. And I gave a stranger the finger.”

She turned on the flame under her teapot, and went into the living room to turn on the tree lights.  It was December 17th.

“Merry freaking Christmas,” Dell thought.


She woke up in the dark hours of the very early morning with the sense that something was terribly askew.  It was 4:12, and sleep was gone.  She got up, pulled on her warm, fluffy robe, let the dog follow her down the stairs of the quiet house.  She stood, the cold air bathing her ankles, on the back porch as Sheba ran into the yard to transact urgent business.  There were stars in the clear black sky, pinpoint diamonds.

Dell thought, with great clarity, “The thing that needs to change is ME.”

When the sky began to lighten, she called her boss and took a personal day.


That day, she sat down with her journal and made a list of all the things she loved about Christmas.  And then she clipped the leash on the dog and bundled up. They took a long walk; they meandered for over an hour.  When she got back to the house, she felt clear and centered; walking was Dell’s best form of prayer.

Martin was home in time for dinner, and they grilled veggies and sliced cheese and took rolls from the freezer. They constructed sandwiches and submitted them to the panini maker.  And they talked.  They cracked a bottle of wine, and they talked and talked and talked.  The talk deepened and turned into laughter; they sat on the couch in the living room and lit the gas fire and fell asleep by its glow.

The next day, Saturday, Dell made phone calls.  She called each of the boys, who normally woke up at 5:30 or 6 AM on Christmas to open gifts with their families before heading off to the in-laws for a full slate of festivities.  Then, late in the afternoon, they’d come to Dell and Martin’s for another full meal–rib roast and mashed potatoes–another round of tearing paper and mayhem, before taking their tired, cranky, overwrought kids home to bed.  Dell offered them Christmas off.  What if, she asked, they got together the next day?  Or, even, the day after?

The boys were shocked, but then thoughtful, and both asked to call her back.  She imagined earnest conversations with their harried wives, a little surprise, and then a realization–how much easier that would make things.  What do you think?

They both called back and asked if they could come the day after Christmas, and Dell agreed a Boxing Day celebration would be a wonderful thing. She passed the phone to Martin, so the boys could check in, make sure this wasn’t just some passing whim of Mom’s–let’s make sure Dad is good with this, too.  Martin’s calm laughter and easy tone assured them.

She called Mary Carole and let her talk for half an hour.

Dell got on Facebook and posted a note to all her friends.  “One of my joys at Christmas,” she wrote, “is sitting down to write cards to all of you, to touch base in writing, with time to reflect and savor.  But the days leading up to the holiday are so rushed that I usually plow grimly through the task.  This year, I’m taking time over Christmas to really enjoy the process.  So if you don’t receive a card from me before the 25th, know that it will be coming after Christmas–maybe even early in the New Year.  That will give me time to remember and anticipate and think about how important you are to me…and try to get that all into writing before I mail off my card to you.”

Seventy-two people pressed ‘like’ and three of her friends messaged what a great idea that was–and that Dell might just get a fat greeting a little later than usual, too.

She gave up any more trips to big box stores and bought gift cards at the supermarket instead.  Then she made special trips to small, local shopkeepers.  She bought hand-dipped chocolates and wooden toys, kaleidoscopes and candles.  She picked out bottles of local wine and beautiful chunks of cheese at a dairy in the country.  She found the most incredible ruby-red sundae glasses at an artisan’s shop in a little village twenty miles away.

She bought a wonderful painting of their town for Martin from a local artist. She bought hand-crafted necklaces for the daughters-in-law, and plump, whimsical animals for the littlest grands.

She took her time with the shopping; she didn’t always get out of the shops in fifteen minutes, but she had wonderful conversations with talented, original people.

She took the long way home from work, avoiding the three-way stop corner completely.

And she created fabulous stockings for Martin and the boys and their families. She even, because it was something she loved and not something Martin did easily, put a stocking together for herself.  It seemed silly at first, but she found herself anticipating pleasure of re-discovering those tiny treasures.

She did not make cashiers cry.  She did not give fellow travelers the one-fingered salute.


On Christmas Eve, because it was important to her, Martin went with her to the candlelight service at their church, and she soaked the soaring, hope-filled carols in through her pores.

On Christmas Day, because it was important to him, she watched “The Christmas Story” with Martin.  They snuggled in their old, comfy PJ’s, ate eggs and toast, and roared at Ralphie’s antics.  They didn’t dress until 2 PM.  Martin took a nap; Dell and Sheba went for another peaceful meander.  They ate chili for dinner and cracked open one of those bottles of local wine. Their phones burbled throughout the day, and they sat down and had relaxed conversations with the lovely persons on the other end.

On the day after Christmas, the boys and their families clamored in around 1:00; Dell and Martin passed out little boxes with the gift cards inside and the stockings, and they spent an hour unwrapping, exclaiming, and playing. Dell had called their favorite pizzeria, who delivered three huge  pies and dozens of  chicken wings  and they grabbed and ate–kids disappearing to play video games in the sunroom or toss a ball in the unseasonably sunny green weather or play on the carpet with tiny cars.  It was a carefree, relaxed celebration, and both boys thanked her, wondering if maybe THIS could become their new tradition.

She and Martin cleared up after they’d left, the silence pronounced after the whirlwind, and they agreed it had been a wonderful day.

Dell let her thoughts wander during the sermon the next day, sitting next to Martin, who needed an occasional nudge; he was inclined to indulge in a little nappy time as Reverend Cass plowed on, exploring her theme.  She thought about how rested she felt, and how that hadn’t been true two days after Christmas in any of the years gone by. And she realized how far she’d wandered from her core, obeying what she’d felt were society’s imperatives.  But who, really, had she been making happy?  Not Martin, not the boys, not her friends and extended family. Certainly not herself.

She had found herself turning into a shrew, a politely-veneered virago, and it had been time for a change.  A return to her beliefs; a return to her desires; a return to a true thoughtfulness about those dear to her.

And, in returning, a wonderful holiday.

Today she and Martin would go home and  frost the shortbread stars she’d cut out and baked in the quiet, calm of the house, post-family, yesterday.  Dell loved those cookies, had to taste them at Christmas, and today they had the leisure and the energy to do them justice.  And today, they’d decided, they would sit down and think, really think, about their time and their gifts and the way they could use them to help their community in the year to come.

It was simple. It was rich.  It had meaning.  Centered and grounded, Dell felt, for the first time in many, many years, the peace and hope of Christmas seep into her bones.

Put Her In A Pumpkin Shell

(A Loolie tale)

 Bottle of boos

Pinterest image from Teresasews (available on Etsy)

Cherry/Nut/Cherry; Caraway and Salt: The Foods That Take Us Home

Some foods grab us, hold us firmly, speak directly to our fondest memories.


Image from http://www.yelp.com

The recipe was in a sort of foodie magazine, a slender volume that talked about best recipes from different regions.  I did a double-take when I saw the cover: there, in all its splendid glory, was a beef on ‘weck sandwich.

Beef on ‘weck is western New York State food,–thinly sliced roast beef, tender in au jus, piled onto a kaisery bun (officially called a kummelweck roll) that has coarse salt and caraway seeds baked onto its lid.  Many aficionados slather the sandwich with horseradish for even more of a zesty kick.

There was a place, in my hometown of Fredonia, called the Park Pub; there, they served up beef on ‘wecks the size of small pizzas.  Six of us would cram into a booth and order one of the Pub’s giant ‘weck sandwiches and one of their enormous shrimp cocktails.  We’d get a pitcher of beer and a stack of plates and reach across and over and in front of each other, talking, laughing, debating, suggesting. That would take us through a fine portion of Friday night, the food fueling the camaraderie.

Outside of western New York, though, people looked puzzled when I mentioned the sandwich.  Even German bakers had never heard of kummelweck rolls, so beef on ‘weck became, like a real Lake Erie fish fry, something we looked forward to enjoying on our visits back home–and a dish we didn’t think about otherwise.

Until I saw that magazine and realized, Hey!  I could make these!


I have a new office in a new building with new colleagues down the hall, and these new colleagues have instituted a Thursday lunch club.  One Thursday in the semester is mine, and on that day, it’s my responsibility to bring lunch for the whole crew.  (The rest of the Thursdays, I get to eat wonderful things brought by other people.  I like this concept very much.)

My Thursday popped up last week. Because I discovered that our new Provost is from Jamestown, the western New York city where our Matthew lives (and where Lucille Ball is from), I thought I’d try making beef on ‘wecks, and I invited the Provost over to eat and to meet people on an informal basis.

It was no problem finding the beef to roast (I even stumbled on a buy one/get one sale), and I had the caraway seeds and kosher salt in my cupboard.  But the slicing of the beef became an unexpected challenge.


Years ago, when I was what my very funny boyfriend called a ‘supermarket deli wench,’ people would buy their beef and take it home and roast it in a big covered casserole. Then they’d bring that heavy lidded pot back into the store and tote it to the deli.  One of us would heft it over the stainless steel display case and pull off the lid, and we’d be overcome by the lovely scent of the juicy roasted meat.

The customer would laugh. “Go ahead and have a nibble when you’re done!” he or she would [usually] say, and we’d wrestle the meat onto the slicer and carefully shave off tender slices until only a tiny nubbin was left.  We’d hold it up inquiringly to the customer, who [usually] nodded, and then we would slap it onto the work surface, grab up one of our sharp deli knives and slice that little end into pieces.  The first one always went to the customer, the founder of the feast, who proudly popped it into her [or his] mouth, nodding and smiling, and then the deli clerks clustered tightly.  When we separated, there was not a trace of that roast beef nubbin left.

Everyone sighed, a gentle exhalation: “Ooooh; that was GOOD.”

The slices went deftly back into the roasting pan, covered with a big sheet of plastic wrap. The top went back on.  The customer took that bounty home to simmer it in its own beef juices.  They’d serve it with a pile of kummelweck rolls, bowls of horseradish right nearby. They’d offer an enormous casserole full of brown-sugary baked beans, always with bacon, and sometimes with ground beef mixed in, too.  There would be baked pasta and big bowls of potato and macaroni salad. There’d be green salads, tossed in Italian dressing.

That was dinner for graduations, showers, anniversaries, special birthdays.  It was a welcome wedding menu, in which case, of course, dessert would be a lovely tiered cake slathered in buttercream frosting with a googly-eyed plastic bride and groom sliding around on the top.  For all other events, sheet cakes crowned the meal, sometimes adorned with a festive message.


So. Last week, I rang the bell at two supermarket meat rooms and inquired if I could roast my beefs and bring them back to have them sliced.

‘Uh, no,’ both meat room clerks told me, giving me kind of an odd look.  Once a product leaves the store, they said, it is not welcome to return. They revealed that there are health and safety regulations involved that weren’t in force way back in 1975.

It made me a little huffy. And a little concerned.  How was I going to get my beef sliced thin enough to simmer in the juices, to stack the way it’s supposed to stack, so thin and tender it would fall apart on first bite?

Mark and I pondered and we decided: We will buy a meat slicer.

Which we did.


The new Provost came to the lunch, and my intrepid colleagues tried the meat on the salty buns and deemed them surprisingly good.  We ate all the salad I made with spuds grown by our coworker Randy, and the tray of apple pie bars was three-fourths gone by day’s end.

And then that weekend, I gathered up my stuff and hopped onto a plane for Fort Lauderdale to spend a birthday weekend with my darling niece and godchild, Shayne. When I told her about the luncheon, her eyes truly lit up.

“Beck on ‘weck is my FAVORITE,” she said.  “Can we make that for my birthday?”

We could.

And it was good. Again.

In fact, on Monday, my last day at Shaynie’s, we got up and I hugged kids and we drove the youngest, Miss Maddie, to her elementary school and went back and had beef on ‘weck sandwiches for second breakfast.  And when I texted Shaynie that I was home and safe, she texted back: Had another one for lunch!


Such a simple thing, to salt and caraway a sandwich bun, but the smell and taste take me–and Shayne–back to wonderful times, connect us to our earlier days, and connect us, too, to people we love and miss.

For another niece, Meg, it is the coffee cake my mother used to make that spells ‘connection.’  Early on, Mom discovered a recipe that involved 11-3/4 cups of flour, along with scalded milk, egg and sugar, yeast, and I don’t know what else; she made it at Easter time, a sweet, sticky dough that she’d shape, at first, into small sweet rolls laced with cinnamon and frosted, still warm, with butter cream.  Those took a long time to shape and bake and ice, but they disappeared at a rapid clip.  Mom decided to make coffee cakes instead; she would braid the dough into long, tender loaves that sprawled the length of a cookie sheet. (The cakes didn’t hang around any longer, but they took less time to shape and bake.)

When the braided loaves cooled slightly, Mom would frost them, and she would adorn the tops with candied fruit and nuts: cherry/nut/cherry.  Meg loved those cakes, and she loved the adornment, and woe to you if you switched it out.  Nut/cherry/nut was just not going to do.

I have made my mother’s coffee cake; I have washed the kitchen floor, white from the flour that foofs up in the first mixing and then floats gently on the house air currents to settle where it will. I have discovered that buying a bag of frozen bread dough, defrosting and shaping it, yields a yeasty cake that, when cinnamoned and frosted, tastes remarkably like Mom’s.  I have given up on cleaning floury floors, but not on coffee cake for Easter.

In Mark’s family of birth, pasta was the meal of celebration. As a child he sat at the children’s table at his grandparents’ house, and piled into the sugo and pasta, bread and salad.  The Sicilian sun of his grandparents’ childhood flavored the sauce. Mark was surrounded by siblings and cousins and laughter.

Later, the feasts moved, with his grandmother’s table, to his parents’ home; as Mark and his siblings married, a new generation of cousins were relegated to the children’s table in the front parlor.  But the food was the same–tender pasta drenched in red sauce, platters of sauce-cooked meatballs and pork and sausage, the crusty bread, the fresh crisp salad–always enough, too, if a friend tagged along or an out-of-town cousin showed up at the door.

It wasn’t just the food–it was the warmth and the incredible smell that enveloped you as you stepped inside from the cold; it was the sounds of laughter and welcome pouring from the crowded kitchen.


Mashed potatoes said ‘festive’ at my home port–big roasts of meat (although one year, Peppy, my first, special dog, stole the roast off the table while the family was in the kitchen gathering up the sides) with a giant bowl of fluffy white potatoes, butter melting on top.  There was an off-white lace cloth that fit the entire table, leaves and all; there was my mother’s special dinnerware with the pretty rustic scenes emblazoned on the plates.  Little pitchers of gravy, bowls of hot veggies, usually from a can. Stuffing if the meat was fowl. And tons of dessert–cookies frosted and sugared, pies with moisture beading on top, chocolate layer cakes with white icing between the layers and fudge frosting coating the outside. Cheap wine (my mother had a long Cold Duck period) and strong coffee.


Merged, Mark and I favor both kinds of meals and some choices of our own—lasagna says ‘special’; so does crown roast of pork, and we can both feel festive digging into a cheesy, saucy plate of eggplant parmesan.  We haven’t so much given up our food roots as expanded them, although some things–his dad’s breaded burdock, my father’s vienna sausage,–we have agreed to leave behind.


Oh, I know.  There are some reading this who think, “Gosh. Red meat on a seedy, salty bun. Ummm–no, thanks!” The strange sounding combination doesn’t say “childhood,” to those readers–doesn’t whisper, ‘Christmas’ or ‘Uncle Bill,‘Dennis’ or ‘Park Pub.’

But I bet there is a food that speaks to memories; don’t we all have a dish, a dessert, a stew, a treat, that calls us out of time and into childhood?  Isn’t there a steaming plate or a crunchy nosh that reconnects us to that patient child within?

There is food, and there are memories; sometimes they simmer long together.


Last week I was the roast beef bringer, the wizard of ‘weck.  I am returned to the land of crisp lettuce and boneless chicken breast, but I am better for my journey, and happy that I went.


Here’s a link for an easy Beef on ‘weck’ recipe: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/162533/beef-on-weck/

Ah, Happy Feast of St. Nick!

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20niholas#1

Blessing the children from photobucket.com/st%20nicholas#1

December 6th is, most places, celebrated as the feast of St. Nicholas. Maybe there’s something to be learned from a saint dead yea, these 16 centuries.

In my own experience, St. Nicholas was a capricious kind of saint.

Some years, on December 5th, my mother would remind us: “Put your shoes by the fireplace!” The next morning we’d get up, and there would be a little something there–a game, a coloring book, and maybe some foil covered chocolate coins (wrapped securely in plastic—we were often directed to find them on the side board–to protect them both from the prowling dog and from the stinky insides of the well-worn shoes.)

Other years, the day would slide by and somewhere around December 15th, someone would say, “Hey, isn’t St. Nicholas Day around now sometime?”

“Hmm,” my mother would say.  “You must not have been very good this year.”

I could always, as a child, find enough guilt in my hidden thoughts to explain the saint’s missed visit.  Only later did I imagine my harried mother, having said her prayers, climbing into bed just before midnight on December 5th, the house finally neatened and quiet.  I picture her just getting settled down…then bolting upright to say, “Oh, BALLS! [That was her favorite cuss word; I often wonder what exactly she thought was expressing when she used it.] St. Nicholas Day is tomorrow.”

And my half-asleep father would rumble, “Ahhh, don’t worry about it.  They’ve been little yi-yi’s, anyway.”

The years St. Nick DID come though, it was kind of a mini-miracle, the better, I think, because it was one that could not be depended upon.

At Catholic school, we learned about the saint, intrigued by some blood-soaked legends. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor, in the fourth century.  He is, Wikipedia informs me, the patron saint not just of children, but also of coopers, sailors, fishermen, merchants, broadcasters, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, pharmacists, archers, and pawnbrokers.  Quite an assembly for kids to be hanging out with–no wonder we loved the guy!

St. Nicholas also had many miracles to his credit.  Most famously, he saved three daughters of a poor family from what the nuns described as spinster-hood by tossing sacks of dowry gold down their chimney one night.  The chimney tossing is explained as either the saint’s personal modesty or his discretion–an anonymous gift is harder to refuse, after all, than face-to-face charity.  Legend variously has it that the girls had left their shoes by the fire and the money fell into the shoes, or that they’d hung their socks to dry from the mantel.  One of the flying money bags, it is said, slipped smack down a stocking, stretching out the toe.

The kindly gesture explains the tradition in some countries of putting shoes by the fire, and in our own country, of hanging stockings, on Christmas Eve. And good St. Nick, of course, morphed over many long years into Santa Claus.

I only read later,—the nuns never mentioned this particular wrinkle—, that, had the three poor virgins NOT gotten the dowries, they might have been forced into lives of prostitution, the only available work for unmarried women of the day.

So that was a very nice miracle, with very nice traditions growing from it, but there was a different miracle story we all clamored for in the second grade classroom at St. Joe’s. I remember it as the story of a traveller staying at an inn owned by an unscrupulous butcher.  In the night, the butcher attacked the man, chopped him up, and put the pieces in the pickle barrel.  The next day, St. Nicholas came to call, and asked about the missing visitor.  The butcher was all unknowing innocence, but, at a few words from the Saint, the traveller jumped from the pickle barrel, intact and unharmed. Woe to the greedy butcher!

When I looked the story up to get the details straight in my mind, I was surprised to find that the most common versions have the butcher chopping up either three children or three clerks.  The children went into the pickle barrels, but the clerks, on the advice of Mrs. Butcher, were baked into meat pies.  But again, a visit from the Saint, the power of prayer: victims restored, butcher’s guilt established.

What a horrible tale to tell children!  How we loved it! In the early ’60’s, in my Catholic school, saints and martyrs were our rock stars.  We reveled in their ultimate and gory sacrifices.

One of the churches we visited occasionally had a statue of Saint Lucy with her luminous face raised to heaven. [We’d go there  for the later Saturday confessions when we missed 3:00 confession at our own church.  I hated confessing there, because the priest gave whole decades of the rosary as penance. My brothers would taunt me–What did YOU do?  It took you half an hour to say your penance!  But they were only done faster because they went first…and then they abbreviated.]   She was holding a plate on which her eyeballs rested.

One of the reasons it took me so long to say my penance was that I knelt and stared at those glassy eyeballs.  The story was that Lucy, determined to live a virginal life as a bride of Christ, removed her eyes to give to a suitor who’d admired them.  An extreme  interpretation of “If your eye offend you, pluck it out,” for certain.

But I digress: St. Nicholas. When Jim and Matt were little, and when I remembered, I got them usually-banned sugary cereal as a special St. Nicholas Day treat–Christmas Lucky Charms, maybe, or red and green colored Cap’n Crunch.  Or sometimes, when I happened upon them in the store, I’d surprise the boys with those foil wrapped coins on the morning of December 6th.  We never made a big deal out of it, never left shoes by the fireplace; there was no disappointment when the Saint didn’t visit.

That was fun and low-key and a nice way to honor the Saint’s gifting tradition.

Revisiting the story, though, I am drawn by the saint’s anonymous distribution of dowry funds; his method of helping was one that enabled the parents to be the benefactors of their daughters’ good luck.  I like the dignity given to the family in need.

Several years ago, in a different town, at a different church, we were involved in a wonderful project the youth group put together. We shopped for an unknown family every Christmas. We put together a meal and gifts based on information from the family’s adults, who then were able to pick it all up and put it under their tree, serve it at their own table.  That’s how it should be–no strangers’ expectant faces waiting to be properly thanked; just a warm and loving, I hope, family holiday.

Hmm. Maybe there’s a way, this year, in this town, to toss a bag or two down an unsuspecting chimney.

So, anyway. Happy St. Nicholas Day!  Whether you put out shoes, hang stockings, or go through your day unhampered by the fact that the Bishop of Myra had it named for him 16 centuries ago or so, I hope this season of light brings lots of little miracles your way.

May we be miracles for each other during the darkness, too.