Just Say Cheese!

cheese signFor two years I lived in Belgium, where supposedly there is a different cheese for every day of the year. Just a few blocks from my house on Avenue de Versailles was my favorite store, Fromagerie Saint-Michel, and during those two years, I was a frequent customer. The ladies behind the counter were so helpful and allowed me to taste many different kinds of cheese on each visit. They would offer me suggestions as to which cheeses to serve together and what other foods should be served with them. I just loved shopping there.

Cheese has always been my favorite food. I’m pretty sure I could live off of cheese alone, although a crusty piece of baguette, with a thin spread of salty French butter, really makes a nice piece of cheese a whole meal. I love grainy, white cheddar cheese from Ireland as much as I love creamy, runny Brie from France. I like Swiss cheese with its big holes that look as though a mouse has been nibbling his way through the center. I like manchego cheese that comes from Spain, which tastes great with salty, green olives and honey-glazed Spanish almonds.

racletteOf course, cooking with cheese is even better than eating it plain. Who doesn’t love rich and creamy mac ‘n cheese, which my mom baked in the oven until the macaroni pieces sticking up around the edges were crispy and golden brown. A grilled cheese sandwich on toasted rye bread, cooked on low heat in a skillet coated with butter, is a great Sunday night dinner while I grade papers and get ready for another week of school. All over Europe people gather together for dinner parties, happily dipping chunks of bread, slices of apples, and tiny roasted potatoes into a cheesy dip called fondue. A slight variation of this is raclette, which is a nutty, mild and creamy cheese that is melted in front of a fireplace, and then the oozing melted part is scraped onto plates and passed around. This is also served with really good bread and roasted potatoes.

raclette grillCheese isn’t just for lunch and dinner, though. In the Scandinavian countries, people eat sliced cheese and cold cuts for breakfast. All along the East Coast of the United States, people smear cream cheese on bagels, sometimes with crazy flavors and sometimes just plain. In Italy, people spread fresh ricotta cheese on slices of toast and drizzle them with honey for breakfast or as an after-school snfondueack for their kids. And of course, there is no pizza without mozzarella!

Hands down, cheese is my favorite dairy product. Even though cheese is a close relative of yogurt, I could never love yogurt the way I love cheese. Cheese simply is the perfect food, eaten alone or on a sandwich, manchegosliced or cut into chunks, made into a dip or melted and scraped onto bread, for me there is nothing like it.  In fact, when someone is ready to take a picture of me, and they tell me “say cheese”, I am not smiling for the camera. I am smiling for the cheese!

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Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (And Work)!

ibm selectricWhen I started teaching 8th grade English, I had the urge to do some writing for myself. Modeling essay structure for my students became fun, not work. I had many papers to write in my graduate courses for certification to teach, and my instructors would tell me I was a good writer. But, teaching full-time while earning my teaching certificate did not allow much free time for creative writing. Once the certification process was complete, I began to tinker around with short stories and an idea for a young adult novel, but my beta readers all told me the same thing: Too much exposition. Takes too long to get started. You don’t write the way you tell your stories. Your stories are so much more exciting. This was also confirmed when I sent a piece off for a professional critique. The one positive comment: Your dialogue is so realistic!

So, I decided to back up and try a different tactic. Since telling stories seemed to be my strong suit, I decided to concentrate on writing creative non-fiction. So, on December 31, 2014, my daughters helped me create a website, this website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt. I set a goal: An Essay a Week for One Year. My hope was that in that one year of disciplined writing, of putting my work out there for all to see (and hopefully read), my writing would improve. I would learn to get to the point. I would learn to dive into the story rather than dilly dally around it. I would strengthen my ability to write something with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I would hopefully learn to write the way I tell stories, with more imagery and excitement. Practice makes perfect, right?

puccini in the sunMy first essay was about our dog, License to Carry. I pushed the “publish” button and the line was drawn in the sand. I’ve never ever given up on anything in my life, so I had no intention of giving up on this goal either.

However, 2015 proved to stretch me to my limits. For some crazy reason I decided to direct High School Musical Jr. for my former school’s spring musical. Rehearsals began in February, and middle schoolers came out in droves. It was the biggest cast ever, almost fifty 7th and 8th graders involved in the production. Think cheerleading uniforms for 25 girls and basketball uniforms for a bunch of boys, the largest number of boys we’d ever had show up for auditions. Balancing the extra workload of directing this mega-musical with teaching full-time, and squeezing out enough time to write an essay each week before my midnight Sunday deadline, was quite the challenge.

And, then God sent me yet another cross. My father in Louisiana became critically ill and was in and out of the hospital and rehab center. Things really escalated in April just before tech week for the musical. I flew to Louisiana to help my brothers manage my father’s care and make many difficult decisions, leaving the production to the care of the teachers on my team. They did a wonderful job of pulling it all together, and I returned to Maryland just in time to see the closing performance, which was a splendid success.

Sadly, my father died less than two weeks later, sending me back to Louisiana for his funeral, at a very busy time in the life of a middle school teacher: exams, graduation, report cards, permanent records, closing up a classroom for the summer. Somehow, in grief, I managed to keep my deadline each week, with several essays being written on my father’s computer. Those essays are still difficult for me to read, but most importantly I continued to pursue my goal, to write and hone my craft.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2015. Hurray, I had reached my goal, 52 essays, one a week for one year, all written and published on my website before midnight each Sunday! Whether out of habit or out of some competitive need to continue on, I continued writing my weekly essays until the end of April of 2016. At this point, a friend said to me, “Stop! You did it, now work on getting published in print!”

But, how? The answer came to me when I happened to pick up a copy of Washington Family Magazine, a regional parenting magazine dropped off at my former school once a month. In the February 2017 issue, I read the article, “Local Mom Profile: Welcome Back to the Table”. It was a great article, but as I was reading it, I thought, “I can do this. I can write an article like this.”

Later that week I queried Washington Family Magazine and asked if they would be interested in a profile of a local mom who had converted her garage into an art studio where she hosts the ever-popular paint night parties and uses her art to promote her social justice causes. After getting the green light to proceed, I signed up for one of her paint parties and subsequently scheduled an interview with her. I submitted the article in March, and then radio silence. In the months that followed, I followed up with the editor periodically while I shopped the article around to some national publications. I received polite rejections, although one did tell me it was well-written and enjoyable to read.

Published Articles Mar-AugThe article, “Local Mom Profile Artist Angie Kilcullen and Barn Again Home” was eventually published in the March 2018 issue of Washington Family Magazine, almost a year later. In the subsequent five months, I am happy to report that I’ve developed an ongoing working relationship with this local magazine:

April 2018: “Finish Strong: End the School Year on a High Note

June 2018: “Squash the Summer Slump” and “Local Dad Profile: Mark Turgeon, Father of Three and Father to Many More

July 2018: “Can’t Travel? Take a Literary Staycation

July 2018 (sister publication): “Book It: Take a Literary Staycation

August 2018: “Armchair Traveler: Books That Let You Travel the World (Without Leaving Home)” and (local kid profile) “Flying To Infinity and Beyond

And, I’ve submitted one for the upcoming September issue.

As with “An Essay a Week for One Year”, I’ve accomplished my goal of getting published in print. Onward to a new goal, to reach outside of this local market and get published in a national publication. I continue to work on my fiction writing as well, having spent some of this summer fine-tuning a short story that takes place at the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow. I’ve submitted it to a local literary contest. We’ll see. I’ve had good luck locally!

Baltimore’s Child Magazine

Please check out my article with this popular regional parenting magazine!

Book It! Stuck at Home? Take a Literary Staycation!1(1)

How to  End the School Year on a High Note!

Check it out!

1Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their August issue:

Armchair Traveler: Books That Let You Travel the World (Without Leaving Home)

Flying to Infinity and Beyond: Meet the 11-Year-Old Boy who Became an Instant Indoor Skydiving Star

 

Check it out!

1(1)To read my articles published in Washington Family Magazine‘s July issue, please click on the link!

Can’t Travel? Take a Literary Staycation!

 

Check it out!

June Issue Washington Family Magazine

June issue, Washington Family Magazine

Check out this month’s Washington Family Magazine for my freelance work in their June “Father’s Day” issue:

My Nanny Pat

nanny patMy aunt, Ann Patricia Harvey Tomancik, passed away on Friday, May 18, 2018, just 28 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After spending all weekend doing lesson plans and prepping for missing school, my husband and I flew to Louisiana early Monday morning for the wake on Monday, the funeral on Tuesday, a quick visit with my almost 92-year-old father-in-law Tuesday night, and then we flew  back to DC early Wednesday morning. While in Louisiana, I was able to spend time with my cousins and their families, with both of my brothers, my sister-in-law, my nephews, my husband’s brother and his wife and their two sons. Over the course of those whirlwind days and nights, I learned two important things: (1) it is wonderful spending time with family even in sad times, and (2) grief is exhausting.

On Wednesday, after coming home from the airport, I took a nap, did a bit of school work, and went to bed early, only to awaken on Thursday feeling exhausted and numb. Another nap on Thursday after school did not help, and I found myself half-asleep long before my normal bedtime. Thankfully, we had no school on Friday. After sleeping in late yesterday and today, I finally feel “normal”, although I am still feeling in a very personal way the loss of someone very dear to me. You see, she wasn’t just my aunt, and I felt an incredible and overwhelming need to express this. My cousin graciously allowed me to read my own eulogy to my aunt at the family luncheon that was held after the funeral and burial. Here it is.

To all of you, she was Mom, or Grandma, or Pat, but to me she was my Nanny Pat, my godmother, my mother’s only sibling. I was the flower girl at her wedding to Uncle Frank, and she has always been dear to me. As a little girl I remember our pilgrimages to Baton Rouge to spend a weekend with the Tomanciks, where I would be glued at the hip to my first cousin, Elizabeth, or as I have always called her, Lizard. When the Tomanciks came to visit us in Port Sulphur, I always knew there would be a tin of her little miniature pecan tarts coming out of that car.

One of the best birthday presents I ever received was my very own subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine. I was an avid reader even as a young child, and I had discovered the little magazine filled with stories in the bathroom of Nanny Pat’s house in Baton Rouge. Months later, near my birthday, I received one in the mail, with my very own name on the label. I believe I was 11 or 12 years old at the time, and I could not believe I was going to get one of these wonderful little magazines every single month for a whole year.

One summer we went to Baton Rouge for an entire week. My mom went to help Nanny Pat after she had surgery on the veins in her legs. During the day, my brothers and I went to Vacation Bible School with our cousins. I remember having so much fun that week. Another time, just after Michael was born, we went to Baton Rouge and collected Richard, who was a young toddler. He came home with us to Port Sulphur for a short while to give Nanny Pat time to recover with the new baby and the two older children, Lizard and Steve. My dad set up the baby bed in my brothers’ room and every morning Richard would wake early and stand in the baby bed, shaking the rails back and forth, singing the Batman theme song at the top of his lungs. If we shushed him, he would just whistle it instead. We would finally fish him out of the baby bed and bring him to the kitchen where he would happily eat or drink anything we put in front of him, shouting out, “I do, I do,” when we asked, “Who wants chocolate milk, who wants eggs, who wants toast?”

When I married into the Ardillo family in Amite, Louisiana, Nanny Pat married in as well, coming to visit my in-laws whenever we flew to Louisiana for Christmas or Easter. She loved eating at my father-in-law’s restaurant and having coffee or tea with my mother-in-law in her kitchen. Whenever one of my husband’s relatives was in the hospital in Baton Rouge, there would be Nanny Pat, sitting in the waiting room with them, keeping them company, praying with them, helping take their minds off of things. Just this past Christmas, she sent my father-in-law a Christmas card with a little note, which he kept on the kitchen table to show me at Easter.

My Nanny Pat loved my daughters, always asking right away when we talked, “How are the girls?” For birthdays and holidays, we always received thoughtful gifts in the mail, always things with ties to our Louisiana roots. She loved sharing pictures of her friends and family, especially her grandchildren, whenever we were together to visit. She wrote me long letters, many pages long, filling me in on the whole family and all of her friends, many of whom I had never met nor would ever meet. I always knew what was going on at Woods and Waters and in her church groups. She loved sending me clippings from the newspapers with recipes or articles about people I knew from Louisiana. It seemed like she was always thinking of me.

In 1995, my Nanny Pat gave my family a life-changing gift: she donated a kidney to my mother. My mother had been on dialysis for two years, and she was on the transplant list but she was not doing well. Nobody in my family was a match, not my dad, my brothers, or me. Lizard volunteered but my mother said no, since she was a young mom with two little boys, my mother wouldn’t take the chance that something would go wrong. It wasn’t a good time; Uncle Frank was seriously ill and Nanny Pat was busy taking care of him while worrying about her sister. After Uncle Frank passed away, Nanny Pat quietly went and got tested and then, to our surprise, announced to all of us that she was a perfect match. The surgery was June 20, 1995, and almost immediately my mother’s health improved. She saved my mother’s life and gave all of us twelve additional years with her. When my mother passed away in 2007, my Nanny Pat was at my side, in my parents’ little apartment in Belle Chasse, where they lived after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. She and I said the rosary together, along with my dad and brothers and my cousin Penny. I was so thankful she was there.

My Nanny Pat never met a stranger, she could make friends at the drop of a hat. She was so cheerful and full of life, even when I last saw her Easter week this year, before she even knew she was so ill. I will miss her so much, but I know I will see her again. For now, she is with Uncle Frank, my mom and dad, her brother, her parents, and all her relatives from Scotland who have gone before her. Thank you for everything, Nanny Pat. May Perpetual Light shine upon you.