One Chord

elton johnOne chord. That’s all it takes. One chord and I instantly know this song and the artist. It’s the sound of that one chord that caused me to have a reoccurring nightmare for weeks on end in 1974 where I would hear that chord and then faint, waking up hours later after having missed an entire live rock concert with my favorite rock star of all times, Sir Elton John.

I was introduced to Elton John in the summer of 1973 while on a student tour of Europe. Five girls from my high school, Delta Heritage Academy in Buras, Louisiana, went together on this trip and we were paired up with five boys from Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. We all got to be good friends, but one boy, Al, was the most popular of his group. He was fun and flirty with all of us, and deep down inside, I think we each thought he liked us best. While sitting on the bus on long rides from one country to another, he told me about Elton John and how much he loved his music. We had music on the bus, but no Elton John. The 1972 Harvest album by Neil Young was played so much that I knew every word to every song on that album. “…I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold. I’ve been in my mind; it’s such a fine line. That keeps me searching for a heart of gold…”

After my big adventure in Europe, I returned to high school for my senior year. The chaperones had given each of us a list of the addresses of all of the students on the trip so we could keep in touch. Al began writing me and several of the other girls in my group. He ended up coming for a visit, staying part of the trip with my family and part of the trip with another family. He brought hostess gifts to my mom, and for me, he brought me a book of piano sheet music from Elton John’s most recent album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. One of the hits from that album was “Bennie and the Jets”. The visit did not work out exactly as I had hoped, but my book of Elton John sheet music is still sitting in my piano bench.

In August of 1974 I headed off to my freshman year of college at Southeastern Louisiana University. After my parents helped me carry all of my belongings to my dorm room, and my mom helped me unpack a few things, we said our goodbyes and they headed home, which was a good two and a half hour drive away. 8 track tape playerThe first thing I did after they left was to set up one of my prized possessions: my 8 track tape player. It was a gift from the parents of my best friend, Judy. I had visited Judy in the hospital during our sophomore year of high school and the 8 track tape player was a thank you present. I only had a few tapes: The Carpenters, Barry Manilow, Simon and Garfunkel, and of course, Elton John, and I played them over and over and over. I played them so much that they began to “drag” when I played them. I’m not sure if it was the tapes wearing out or the machine itself but I discovered I could stop the dragging by wedging my hairbrush under the tape to support it and help hold it in its correct position in the machine.

So, on that August afternoon, feeling very melancholy about being nearly alone in my dorm—hardly anyone had moved in yet, including my roommate, a girl I had never met before, I popped in my 8 track tape of Elton John’s Madman Across the Water madman across the water 8 trackand sang along while I unpacked and got myself ready for my college adventure. Even today, some forty years later, hearing “Tiny Dancer” or “Levon” yanks me right back to that dorm room in Livingston Hall, and I can even close my eyes and picture myself standing at my dorm window, watching the boys rugby team practicing on the field adjacent to my dorm, while eating tuna salad on Club Crackers.

All of my family and friends knew how much I loved Elton John’s music. Just after classes started my freshman year, I received an early birthday card from my godmother, my mother’s only sister who I have always called Nanny Pat. In the card was a note about my present. She had purchased for me a ticket to see Elton John in concert at LSU. My uncle was going to drive to Hammond to pick me up, drive my cousin, Elizabeth—who I have always called “Lizard”, and me to Baton Rouge for the concert which we would attend, and then he would drive me back to my dorm, where he would have to sign me in with my dorm mother since it would be after midnight. ELTON JOHN IN CONCERT! Was that the best gift ever?

Now, you may recall I have told you about my Nanny Pat before. She gave me the subscription to Reader’s Digest magazine when I was just a young girl—my very own copy that arrived every month addressed to ME. I absolutely loved my Reader’s Digest magazines. That was the best gift ever. But this—this was something on a whole different level. This was ELTON JOHN. I was ecstatic over this early birthday gift. Everyone on campus knew I was going to that concert.

And, that is when the nightmares began. One night I dreamed I was in my uncle’s car, in the backseat with Lizard, and we get to the arena. We go inside and find our seats. The lights go down. The stage is dark until one single light shines down on a grand piano. Then we hear the chord—that one chord. And, that is when I faint. In the dream/nightmare, I faint and slink down between the stadium seats. My cousin is frantically trying to revive me but I stay out cold until the lights all come on at the end of the concert, when I wake up, look around, and realize that I have missed the entire concert.

I told my cousin about this and she calmly said she would take care of it. I had no idea what that meant but in the car on the way to Baton Rouge she tells me that she has “smelling salts” in her purse just in case the nightmare comes true. That’s what kind of person she is, always prepared, like a Girl Scout loaded down with merit badges. And, she hasn’t changed a bit. Recently, when my father became very ill and I flew down to Louisiana to see him, there she was, driving several hours alone; leaving her boys to fend for themselves so she could come and help me out.

So, on September 29, 1974, I saw Elton John in concert with Lizard at my side. It was a glorious concert, my first ever. And, when he played “Bennie and the Jets”, I swooned but did not faint. The smelling salts were not needed I am happy to report.
concert set list (2)Thanks to the power of Google, I was able to find the setlist from the concert and I am a little surprised as to how few songs he actually played. I don’t remember it feeling short, or feeling that there were so many of his hit songs he didn’t play. I just remember how great it was and how really great my aunt and uncle were to go to all this trouble for me to see my favorite rock star in concert.

I did get to see Elton John one other time. My parents gave my husband and I tickets to see him in concert for our anniversary in 2001. It was his “Face to Face” tour with Billy Joel. face to face (3)I’m not really a Billy Joel fan but beggars can’t be choosers. The concert conveniently was scheduled for when we were going to be in Louisiana for Easter break. My parents got up at the crack of dawn the day the tickets went on sale and drove to New Orleans to buy them. My dad waited in line while my mom sat in the car. It’s hard to picture that, my dad waiting in line to buy tickets for two aging rock stars. “Bennie and the Jets” was performed near the end of the concert. Just as I was thinking he wasn’t going to play it, there it was—the chord. And, the audience erupted as it always does when he hits it. He also played my other favorites “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon”, and many others. Billy Joel was very entertaining and the two performed together seamlessly. It was a great concert.

In June of 1994 Disney released its major hit The Lion King, with the VHS tape released in 1995. Our daughters were five and three at the time, and like little sponges, memorized every single word to every song in that movie. When we finally purchased a car that had a CD player in it, I stocked it with CD’s of my favorite Elton John albums. (Yes, I had come a long way from the 8 track tape!) One day I was driving them home from school, playing an Elton John CD, when my older daughter said, “Mom, that man sounds like the man singing ‘The Circle of Life’ in The Lion King movie.” I explained to her that, yes, it was the same man, Elton John. She was so shocked that I knew who he was and that I actually had CD’s with him singing things that weren’t from her movie! The Lion King revitalized Elton John’s career and introduced him to a whole new generation. His contributions also earned him an Oscar and a Grammy for music from that film.

In early September of 1997, in the midst of extreme grief, he asked his long-time lyricist Bernie Taupin to write new lyrics to one of his classic hits to pay tribute to Diana, Princess of Wales, who had died in a car accident in Paris, France. The new song, “Candle in the Wind 1997”, began with the words “Goodbye England’s rose” and was poignant and heartbreaking. Elton John performed the song live at Diana’s funeral, adding to the already other-worldly experience of the internationally broadcast funeral of such a young, vibrant, and beautiful woman.

My favorites of his repertoire all come from seven albums produced in the 1970’s, during my high school and college days. They instantly bring me back to the carefree and happy days of being a young adult, with my entire life ahead of me. goodbye yellow brick roadThese songs, particularly those from the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, are the ones I go back to time and time again. In The Wizard of Oz, the yellow brick road leads Dorothy and her new friends to the Emerald City, where hopefully the Wizard will help Dorothy return home. For me, however, these songs represent a time when I was heading out to make my own way in the world. Elton John’s early work is my “coming of age” music, and all it takes is that one chord of “Bennie and the Jets” to make me feel nostalgic and homesick.

Read ‘Em or Weep: A Cautionary Tale

summer readingAll over the country grade school, middle school, and high school students are scrambling to finish their summer reading assignments and projects. Some have put off reading a 300-page book to the very last minute and now finishing it in time to complete the assignment seems a daunting task. In the coming week, which is the week before school starts here in Montgomery County, Maryland, I anticipate many emails asking for clarification of the writing assignments and art-based projects for the books I require my rising 7th and 8th graders to read. Of course, the emails will be fraught with typos, grammar errors, and the ever present “texting” language.  After taking a deep breath, I will respond cheerfully to the questions and point them to the detailed instructions for the projects and the rubrics for grading them, which I posted on the school’s website at the start of the summer.
procrastinateWhen these emails begin flooding into my mailbox, I inevitably want to say, “Why did you wait until the last minute to start this?” but I won’t. They most likely have heard it from their parents, or it may already be obvious to them, and if not, this lesson may or may not be learned by them in the future. Some never learn this lesson at all. Well begun is half done, right? aristotleThis famous quote is attributed to Aristotle’s Politics, a work of political philosophy. If ancient Greek philosophy is not your style, how about the 1964 classic Mary Poppins? She also quoted this to her young charges when enticing them to clean up the nursery. For many, however, procrastination rules the day. I must admit, I am guilty of this myself…although never for anything having to do with reading.

At the end of each school year when I go over the summer reading assignments with the soon to be 7th and 8th graders, I always advise them to start their summer reading the very next day. Finals are over, the sun and sand of summer awaits; get those books and start reading, a few pages a day. Summer reading is just that: reading over the summer, the whole summer. alarm clockIt is not meant to be binge reading, condensed into a few days’ time, with the loss of freedom and the promise of scheduled wake-ups and bedtimes looming in the near future.

During the first few days of school each year we always discuss what we each did over the summer. As I teach in an affluent neighborhood, the responses from my students include family vacations abroad or somewhere tropical, weeks at their beach houses, elite sports camps, and swim team practices and meets at their country club pools. My summers growing up were quite different. During my pre-teen and teenage years, my father was self-employed as a soft drink distributor for the 7-Up Bottling Company. Taking a week off was not an option as he would have had to pay someone to take his routes for him for that week. That, combined with the expense of a family vacation for the five of us, simply wasn’t in the cards. So, my early summers were spent at the public library, where I devoured large numbers of books, many of which were read sitting on the cool, 800px-Terrazzo-normalterrazzo floors between the stacks in the fiction or biography sections. Reading about far-away places was my vacation. During high school, my mornings were spent at the local public pool teaching swimming lessons and working as a lifeguard in the afternoons. My first “vacation” was at the end of 8th grade, when my aunt and uncle took me on my first airplane trip to see my cousin graduate from college. We only crossed the state of Louisiana on that short 45-minute airplane ride but I was in heaven. I remember every detail from that trip, including the Plum Nuts Cake I had at the home of my cousin’s roommate. A foodie in the making, I asked Mrs. Ory for the recipe so I could make the cake for my mom when I got home. I still have the 3×5 index card with the recipe on it, and I still make that cake today-it is always a smash hit.

Why is summer reading and other independent reading important? I’m not really asked that by the parents of my students. They know it is important, but somehow, reinforcing that at home is difficult in today’s fast-paced society. sportsSports is part of it. Summer sports camp is required to maintain and improve their skills so they will make the teams in the fall and spring. If they make certain teams, they will be noticed by high school coaches. High school coaches from the private and Catholic schools sometimes have the ability to influence admission decisions. Playing and winning in high school means being noticed by college coaches. And, college coaches can influence not only admission decisions, but offer scholarships as well.

But, what if a student gets injured and can’t play that sport any longer? What if they aren’t really good enough for college sports? During a difficult parent meeting about a 7th grade student who was struggling with reading comprehension and writing in my class during my early years as a teacher, the father of this young boy told me his son would be playing basketball in high school and college, and given his height and prowess at the sport, he didn’t need tutoring or additional support in language arts. In fact, the student himself had told me that he was going to play in the NBA and then be a sports attorney after he retired from professional basketball. I’m not sure how he thought he was going to make it through college and law school if he couldn’t read and understand a short story in a 7th grade textbook. I’ve quietly tracked that student over the years, and I am sad to report that it didn’t actually work out the way the father (or the student) planned it.

summer readingA quick Google search will bring up many studies about the pros of summer reading to combat the “summer slump” and loss of skills as well as the importance of independent reading in the middle school years. In a short two page report, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction stated the following bullet points:

  • Numerous studies have shown that reading over the summer prevents “summer reading loss.”
  • Summer reading loss is cumulative. Children don’t “catch up” in fall because the other children are moving ahead with their skills. By the end of 6th grade children who lose reading skills over the summer are two years behind their classmates.
  • Reading 4 or 5 books over the summer can have a significant impact for middle school readers.

weepingSo, in response to the question “Why is there assigned summer reading?” I say, “Read ’em or weep.” In other words, read now or pay later. The statistics are clear.

When selecting the books I assign for summer reading for my students, my goal is one classic and one more contemporary work. My rising 7th graders read Hemingway’s masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea and Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, a work of realistic fiction, albeit historical to these young pre-teens, set in the 1960’s on Long Island, New York. The protagonist in Schmidt’s book is a 7th grade boy who is left behind on Wednesday afternoons when half of his class is dismissed an hour early to attend religious education at the Catholic church and the other half of his class heads to the temple for Hebrew lessons. Holling Hoodhood is the only Presbyterian in the class and the principal looks down his chart of teachers and their planning periods and assigns Holling to Mrs. Baker, the middle school English teacher, for that hour. As any teacher can imagine, Mrs. Baker is not happy about losing her planning period to be saddled with one student in her room. At first she attempts to make his life miserable by having him clean her classroom. As any normal 7th grade boy will tell you, cleaning the blackboard and erasers is infinitely better than having two periods of English class in the same day! Once Mrs. Baker figures out that Holling is not miserable enough with the cleaning tasks, she assigns him Shakespeare plays to read. shakespeareThat should do it, she thinks, he will be miserable! However, Holling, who is a good-natured young man even though he can’t attribute this to the saints or the Torah, begins to see the deeper meaning of the Shakespeare plays and how he can apply them to his own life, which is complicated by his parents’ lack of involvement in his activities and accomplishments. The Wednesday Wars is a great coming of age novel, with lots of sports, middle school pranks, and early adolescent stirrings mixed in with a very clever introduction to Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

My rising 8th graders read Steinbeck’s classic The Pearl and Agatha Christie’s well known mystery Murder on the Orient Express. As the protagonist in Orient Express is the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, the novel is filled with French phrases and utterances. The summer before, these same students will have read The Old Man and the Sea, which takes place in a fishing village near Havana on the coast of Cuba. This novella is filled with Spanish phrases and utterances. This is not by accident. Our school is fortunate to offer two foreign languages: French and Spanish. Students are introduced to both languages in first grade and then in second grade they choose the language program they wish to pursue through middle school where they will have foreign language three days a week. We are also fortunate that the faculty members for both languages are native speakers, which is an enormous benefit to the students in learning proper pronunciation. As a result, many of our students test out of either freshman Spanish or French.

A secondary goal in my choice of literature for their summer reading, as well as during the school year, is to broaden the world view of my students and to help them associate important literature and authors with world events and time periods. Studying the Medieval era in social studies while reading Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman in literature brings the students to a richer, deeper meaning of this important time period and how it shaped England and the rest of the world. medieval era pyramidBecause we are a Catholic school, it is easy to bring religion into the literature classroom with this award-winning novel which features heavily the importance of the Church and the lives of the saints in the daily life of all classes of people in Medieval England.

My 7th graders have one project each for the two summer reading books: an artsy project for The Old Man and the Sea, a travel brochure for Havana, Cuba; and an essay for The Wednesday Wars. In the first person narrative they are to write about what would be their own Wednesday war, which subject would they hate to have twice a day like the protagonist in the novel. As you might expect, a lot of students choose math as the one subject they would hate to have twice a day each Wednesday. A few say science, although not many given how much they love our science teacher at my school. A few say foreign language, but this is more about the lack of self-confidence they feel in having to deal with either Répétez, s’il vous plait or Puedes repetir eso, por favor in their respective classes.

Only a brave few, however, dare to say literature. That essay is their first introduction to me, as I will be teaching them for the first time. They obviously don’t want to start off on a bad foot with me, so they hide the fact that they secretly hate reading for several weeks into the school year, when I begin to notice a distinct reluctance to read aloud or shoddy work on reading comprehension questions. If only I could “flip the switch” on these students, change their minds about reading, turn them into lifelong readers who enjoy reading for leisure. perfumeIf only I could liquefy and bottle the feelings I had as a middle school student, sprawled on the cool, terrazzo floors of the Port Sulphur Public Library, as I read my way through book after book, constantly learning new words, experiencing new places, meeting new people, tasting new cultures. I would spritz them all with this eau de lisant if only I could.

Source:

Evers, Tony, PhD, State Superintendent. “Why Public Library Summer Reading Programs Are Important.” Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 21 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Aug. 2015.

Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner

My summer break is coming to a close; I am just one short work week away from my teacher orientation days that precede the start of each new school year. Next weekend at this time, I will be of course putting together my weekly essay as part of my “essay a week for one year” goal (this week marks #35 of 52, still on track!), but I will also be working on lesson plans for the first week of the 2015-2016 school year, my ninth year of teaching.

Last week I spent some time reflecting on how I spent my summer. As usual, I made frequent trips to the public library, carting home bags of books. My reading this summer was very eclectic. I began reading books about preserving fruits and vegetables, making jams and jellies, and canning in general. I had some new health issues which also required reading and research. I also read a good bit of fiction, another Agatha Christie, a few “chick lit” beach-type books, and most significantly, Paula McLain’s outstanding novel Circling the Sun, which introduced me to British colonial Africa and Beryl Markham. circling the sunI was very intrigued with McLain’s historical fiction of this time and place, and of Beryl Markham and the people she worked and socialized with while breaking barriers and glass ceilings everywhere she went. I didn’t know much about colonial Africa, and frankly, reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness put me off wanting to know more. But after reading McLain’s The Paris Wife, I vowed to read anything and everything she wrote after that. If you haven’t read anything by Paula McLain yet, please do yourself a favor and read The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun immediately.

One of my goals for this summer was to exercise more, and this I also accomplished, building up my daily walks in duration, while walking my precious pup Puccini and chatting with my neighbors in their yards along the way. As successful as my reading and walking were this summer, I fear that, once the school year begins and my school bag becomes stuffed with papers to grade, I won’t allot the time for either of these two important things: exercising my mind as well as exercising my body. I hope to find a better balance this year between my school work and my personal life, so making time for reading and exercising will be a top priority.

Recently I was chatting with someone and mentioned that I taught myself how to make jam this summer, and my husband quipped, “Lifelong learner”. In retrospect, those two words really sum up my personal philosophy. lifelong learning tshirtAs much as I love teaching, I truly love learning more. Over the years, I’ve taught myself enough about gardening to pepper my porch with lovely pots of flowering plants. Last summer I taught myself the art of decoupage and I was thrilled with my results. crocheted baby blanketIn 2002, I dusted off my knitting needles and crochet hooks from my childhood and retaught myself the basics well enough to make and sell scarves and other fashion accessories while living in Europe for two years. Europeans love their scarves! With a very basic beginner sewing machine I am able to patch, repair, hem, and sometimes create things for me and my family. baby quiltI love making baby blankets and quilts for my friends, in fact, I love giving homemade gifts whenever I can. Cooking and baking will always be one of my passions and nothing is more relaxing for me than to try out a new dish or learning about an exotic cuisine from some faraway place. Currently I am learning about and experimenting with low-carb cooking and eating. This, too, will prove difficult once the school year begins and visits to the faculty room become fraught with dangerous donations from well-meaning parents.

tom and michelle on metro to dcThis past Friday, my husband took the day off and we took the metro to DC for the day. We decided to spend the day at the National Gallery of Art, have a nice lunch in a museum café, and maybe learn something new from the art world. The weather was beautiful so we got off the metro a stop early and took a longer walk to the museum. Once there, armed with the museum map of “director’s favorites”, we wandered through the different galleries at our leisure. What did I learn? Well, for starters, I learned that I’m not a fan of the German painters. The art seemed to me to be cold and distant. I could feel a distinct difference when looking at paintings from other Europeans.

front of da vinci paintingI also learned that the National Gallery of Art is the home of the only Da Vinci in North America, and that it is painted on the front and back of the panel. reverse side of da vinci paintingWhen entering the gallery where Ginerva de’ Benci (circa 1474) is hanging, there is a buzz to the room. I remember experiencing this same buzz when visiting the Louvre entering the gallery where the Mona Lisa hangs, isolated and protected in all her glory. I had never heard of the Ginerva de’ Benci painting but it is pretty exciting being able to see a Da Vinci without crossing the ocean, and because it is owned by the Smithsonian, it’s absolutely free to view it.

We spent quite a bit of time in the Flemish galleries, near and dear to our hearts after living for two years in Belgium. Vermeer has his own little section. I first learned about Vermeer when I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier which is a fictionalized biography of Vermeer’s life, this particular painting, and the servant who sat for this portrait. The book was adapted into a stunni
ng film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.

vermeer girl with red hatTwo of the Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art also centered on one woman, and both seemed to have the same ethereal quality as Girl with a Pearl Earring. In The Girl with the Red Hat, I was struck by how much this woman reminded me of Princess Anne of the Royal Family of Great Britain, hat and all.princess anne

The other Vermeer painting, A Lady Writing, also features a woman donning a headdress of sorts. vermeer a lady writingMy husband and I studied it for a while and could not determine if she is wearing ribbons in her hair as decoration or as some primitive type of curling system. She is obviously of wealth, wearing what appears to be an ermine-trimmed dressing gown.

Our day at the museum was very enjoyable, and indeed, very relaxing. We strolled through the sculpture garden and sat for a while listening to the gurgling of the fountains. We had a lovely lunch from the Garden Café buffet (mostly low-carb choices) and even ran into our friend, Sister Marie de Sales, me and Sister Mariewho bestowed upon us a gift of great happiness, our dog Puccini. It was the perfect way to end my summer break.

Last school year ended with my father becoming very ill and dying in early May. This was the first summer in eight years without his annual two-week visit. my dad and me 2014While I am thankful that he did not linger in poor health and suffer, it is very bittersweet to think about his time here with my family each summer, watching cooking shows and Deadliest Catch, Edge of Alaska, and other fishing and hunting programs. He loved to eat out and was always coming up with new ways to steal the restaurant check away from us at the end of the meal. He also loved my cooking and always asked if I could cook a big pot of mussels or French onion soup while he was here.

Overall, this summer has been just what I needed: time to rest, relax, reflect, and refresh. I’ve had time to take care of some household repairs and reorganization, read and write more, work on some crafts, exercise and walk my dog several times a day, and of course, continue down my path of lifelong learning. In a week, I will be ready to take on the challenges of a new school year and all that lies ahead of me. Bring it on!

The Second Mrs. de Winter: Not Your Mama’s Cinderella

Cinderella vhsDespite what Walt Disney’s mega-marketing machine would have you believe, he did not create Cinderella. The story may have originated as early as 7 BC, but its European roots date from the mid 1600’s. The basic story line does not vary much: the prince or other wealthy man saves the poor orphaned girl from a desperate life, with or without a wicked stepmother or nasty stepsisters. Cinderella is the title character and our protagonist, and the story, in its many variations, is really about her.

Hollywood, Broadway, and the literary world have all brought us many, many versions of this well-known tale. Just looking through Julia Roberts’ filmography alone we can see many iterations of the Cinderella story. In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere saves Julia Roberts from a life of prostitution and cheesy fashion choices. In Erin Brockovich, the legal field and a tough but fair attorney together rescue her from near-poverty, but alas, not from her cheesy wardrobe. In Runaway Bride, Richard Gere again saves her from being all dressed up in white but not getting “a ring on it”. Cinderella is everywhere.

One Saturday in the fall of 1980 I was watching television while cleaning my tiny shoebox of an apartment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a studio apartment that in real estate speak would be described as cozy and “open floor plan”; the kitchen/dining/living room area was only separated from the bedroom and bathroom by a floor to ceiling curtain. I was a first-semester law student at LSU, and as much as I hated house-cleaning then and now, I was dreading even more a full day of reading case studies at the law library. I had channel-surfed for almost an hour and found nothing of interest until I came upon something already in progress, a black and white movie I had never seen before. However, I instantly recognized Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier as the leads, and that alone was enough to hold my attention.

du maurier booksI was awestruck by this movie and for several days had the characters and setting bubbling around in my head. However, in the days before Google, unless you had a TV Guide magazine or the newspaper, it was not that easy to find out what was on television. When I mentioned it to the mother of a friend of mine, she instantly knew which movie I was talking about. “It’s based on a novel, you know, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.” I didn’t know, so naturally, I rushed to the library to get a copy of the book.

Since I had never heard of the book Rebecca or been introduced to Daphne du Maurier prior to stumbling upon this movie, there wasn’t much I could do but proceed getting to know the movie and the book out of my preferred order. Almost thirty-five years later, it is hard to remember my initial reaction to reading Rebecca for the first time, as I have read it dozens of times since then. However, it is, and will always be, one of my favorite books, permanently lodged on my all-time top five list. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In this gothic novel, we get a glimpse of life on a grand English country estate (aka sprawling seaside castle amidst vast lands), set between the two great world wars, with the well-known trope of rich, dashing widower meets poor but pretty young girl. He marries her, and brings her home to a substantial dose of culture shock and all-out social class warfare. Classic Cinderella story, n’est-ce pas?

If you assumed the Disney version, though, you would be very wrong indeed. Du Maurier shatters all such assumptions. In Rebecca, the title character is actually the deceased first wife of the “prince”, and the story is really about her, so much so that we never actually learn the name of “Cinderella”. Du Maurier very craftily makes this young girl, released begrudgingly from her employment as a traveling companion to an old and pompous American woman to marry Maxim de Winter, the vessel through which we get to know the first and late Mrs. de Winter. It is through the slow unfolding of Rebecca’s story that we watch the second Mrs. de Winter save her prince. No spoilers; if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie get thee to Amazon immediately!

This glorious book, published in 1938, has sold millions of copies and is still in print all over the world in many different languages. It is still regularly assigned as required reading in high schools, where its status as a modern gothic novel with elements of romance, jealousy, crime, and mystery are artfully woven together, serving also as a good vehicle for teaching social class and hierarchy with the classic struggle of the upstairs and downstairs life of British nobility, even in post-Victorian England.

rebecca vhsThe movie Rebecca is equally glorious, and you don’t have to take my word for it. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also thought it was glorious, as they bestowed upon it the Oscar for Best Picture of 1940 (although at the time this top award was referred to as “Outstanding Production”). Having been nominated for a total of eleven awards, it also won the Academy Award for Cinematography; the choice of filming it in black and white did nothing to diminish the beauty of Monte Carlo, the roiling Atlantic Ocean, or the English countryside. The director, Alfred Hitchcock in his first American production, stayed true to the novel, with only a major change to the story line, required by the studio to uphold the morals of the time.  Du Maurier herself loved the film.

Hitchcock’s movie is not the only adaptation; the book itself reflects the jealousy felt by a woman for the previous lover of her husband. In a 2013 interview, du Maurier’s son, Kits Browning, revealed that his father had been engaged to a woman before his mother, and that woman signed her last name with “this wonderful great R”. He intimates that his mother may have been jealous of that first relationship, and those feelings inspired the plot of Rebecca, along with the “wonderful great R” featured prominently in both the book and the movie. In reality, du Maurier was more Rebecca than the second Mrs. de Winter, having grown up wealthy and privileged, holidaying in a mansion near the sea in Cornwall.

In Rebecca we have a female character that initially is weak and submissive, so passive and unimportant that, like Cinderella, she is not even granted a first name. She is skittish and worries over everything, even the most minuscule change to her hairstyle and whether her new husband will like it. She breaks a small China figurine and hides the broken pieces in a desk drawer out of fear for being reprimanded by the housekeeper for this accident in her own home. At the start of the book, again like Cinderella, we know very little about her past other than her occupation, presumably because she has no family and must make her own way in life. She goes from the care and control of Mrs. Van Hopper to the care and control of her new husband, a much older and even wealthier companion. While haunted day and night by the aura of Maxim’s first wife, which hangs over the family estate and all its inhabitants like a heavy, cloying perfume, we see the second Mrs. de Winter “come of age” and take control of a tragic situation when her dear Maxim most needs her. It is her strength, borne of love and the compulsion to lift the bitter fog of Rebecca’s memory, which saves them both, when all the world appears to come crashing down around them. While it appears that they lose everything in the process, the spell of Rebecca is broken. In du Maurier’s gothic novel, it is her Cinderella who saves the Prince.

Bibliography

House, Christian. “Daphne du Maurier Always Said Her Novel Rebecca Was a Study in Jealousy.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 17 Aug. 2013. Web. 08 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Cinderella.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Aug. 2015. Web. 9 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Rebecca (1940 film).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Wikipedia contributors. “Rebecca (novel).” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 1 Aug. 2015. Web. 8 Aug. 2015.

Comfort Food, or a Meal for Comfort?

GRITS socksI was born and raised in southeast Louisiana. I didn’t go far for college, only 100 miles, and after graduation I stayed in my college town until I moved to the Washington, DC, area in early 1988. Thus, for over thirty years, I ate, drank, and lived the life of a true member of “GRITS”, a “girl raised in the south”. (I didn’t come up with that clever acronym; it was on a pair of tennis socks I bought in a gift shop in the Grand Ole Opry Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, while on a business trip.)

I noticed the difference right away, virtually the first week after moving into my high-rise apartment in Bethesda, Maryland. Each morning I would take the elevator downstairs to walk to work. Most mornings I would arrive at the elevator at the same time as another young woman, about my age, and as we left the apartment building she was always headed in the same direction as me. The first few days I smiled at her and waited awkwardly in silence to reach the lobby. After about a week, when we got in the elevator I introduced myself and commented that it looked like we were walking to work in the same direction. We made small talk until we reached the lobby and then she said, “Have a good day” and sped off ahead of me. I never saw her again, and I lived there for two and a half years!  Obviously she didn’t want to chat with me in the elevator each morning or walk with me into downtown Bethesda, so she altered her morning schedule to avoid me. In the inimitable words of Dorothy, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”.

I experienced this same distant behavior frequently in my early years living in the DC area. Some people speculate that it is because of the transient nature of the area, with people coming to DC to work on Capitol Hill, with the military, or at NIH. Even if they stay in the area long-term, living in the immediate suburbs is expensive and stressful, so most people move farther out where they can afford to buy a house and start a family. Once my husband and I had a family of our own and our girls were in school, we found friends amongst the parents of their friends as well as from people we saw at Mass every Sunday. Little by little we made ourselves at home here, but still something was lacking.

Food is the main tool I have used to bridge the gap between my southern upbringing and my life as a transplanted “Yankee”. (I know that there are those of you who will say that Marylanders are not Yankees but one of my father’s first comments after being told we were expecting his first grandchild was, “Damn, a Yankee grandchild!”) At my first job in Bethesda, I became the go-to person for desserts. I would surreptitiously find out the favorite cake or pie of my co-workers and bring it in on their birthdays. Eventually, I had people making special requests: red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, carrot cake with coconut-pecan frosting, Mississippi mud cake, Italian cream cake, Louisiana bread pudding with hard sauce, German chocolate cake, peanut butter fudge, chocolate pecan pie, mini-cheesecakes, triple fudge brownies—these are all tried and true favorites in my trusty three-ring binder of dessert recipes.

In the south we have a tradition of bringing a hot meal to a family whenever they are in need: the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, recovering from surgery, moving into a new home, etc. Now, I know that this tradition is not exclusive to the south, and I myself have been the recipient of such kindness over the years here in Maryland. When we purchased our first home and moved in, the lady who was our home day care provider, almost like family to us, prepared a casserole of chicken cordon bleu for our first night in our new house. Yes, we ate it sitting on the floor gathered around the coffee table in the den, off of paper plates, surrounded by boxes and moving crates, but it was absolutely delicious and so appreciated. When I had the shingles in 2006, a good friend showed up at my door with a tray of Italian doughnuts: fried dough, piping hot and covered in sugar. If you haven’t experienced shingles (lucky you) you can’t even imagine how wonderful and comforting that tray of fried dough was—pure heaven. A year later, when my mom passed away, another dear friend dropped off a large container of her famous chicken salad with grapes, a platter of croissants, and a dessert. We had several great meals from that delivery, and while not strictly speaking a hot meal, one of the blessings of having a croissant stuffed with yummy chicken salad for dinner is that there are virtually no dishes to wash after.

For several years I made a large pan of lasagna to bring to friends. It seemed like the perfect meal: lasagna, garlic bread, and a salad. Now, I married an Italian and I love to eat at Italian restaurants, but otherwise I have no direct ties to that cuisine. I’m not even sure I like my lasagna so why was I cooking it for friends? Then, I switched to roasted Cornish hens on a bed of wild rice, a lovely meal, but surprisingly even people who love chicken are not a fan of the miniature gamy birds. Finally, it hit me—why not cook from my own roots? A pan of chicken jambalaya, a salad, and a baguette make a wonderful dinner, easy to transport and easy to reheat by the serving in the microwave. turkey and sausage gumboI recently took dinner to a friend who was recovering from surgery, offering a big pot of chicken and sausage gumbo, potato salad, rice for the gumbo, and triple fudge brownies for her kids.

fire king tulip mixing bowl

Fire King Tulip Mixing Bowl (set of three), vintage (mid-1950’s). Source for photograph: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/32228953556014519/

Although I am completely happy with my current gumbo recipe, my potato salad is still an issue. I mean, technically it’s fine—homemade and well-prepared—but, I am trying to recreate the potato salad of my childhood, so fine won’t cut it. My mom was the go-to person for potato salad, not only in my family, but in my entire hometown. She made it for family get-togethers at my aunt’s house. She was always assigned it when the sodality ladies in my hometown church parish prepared food for a funeral reception. My dad would peel the potatoes for her, a whole 10-pound bag at a time, using a paring knife, never a vegetable peeler. He had learned this in the Army he said, and there was very little potato on those long spirals of peel that would collect on the spread-out newspaper as he worked. French chefs are judged on the amount of potato left on the peel, and he would have passed that course with flying colors. After the potatoes were cubed and boiled, she would mix up her dressing (mayonnaise, mustard, pickle relish, some of the juice from the pickle relish jar, and vinegar) and pile it up in a white mixing bowl with tulips painted on the sides. I loved that bowl and always thought I would end up with it, but sadly Katrina got it instead.

I’ve tried many different recipes over the years. I’ve gone with every potato that can be purchased in a normal grocery store: russet potatoes, red potatoes, Yukon gold potatoes, etc. For a while, I only made German potato salad with the theory that if I couldn’t get mine to taste like my mom’s, then I would go completely out of the box and make something so totally different that any comparison would be moot. My husband wasn’t a fan, and he is particularly sensitive to potato salad where the potatoes aren’t cooked just right. So, I just gave up. I stopped making potato salad altogether. I never order it when eating out because it often has chopped boiled eggs in it, and that is the one thing (other than lychee nuts) that I absolutely can’t eat. I’m not allergic or anything, I just don’t like eggs, unless of course they are beaten up into a cake or pie or pudding or something else yummy.

After my father’s funeral in May, we all went back to my brother Tommy’s house for a family meal. My brother John Roy brought potato salad. I had asked specifically that he not put boiled eggs in it, and he obliged even though he prefers it that way. I took one bite and I was instantly transported to my mother’s table. There it was right in front of me. I asked him for the recipe and he just laughed (this is common in Louisiana).” There is no recipe,” he said, “it’s just potato salad.”  But, as always, I persisted, and so he gave me the basics and I vowed to try again.

When I made the gumbo dinner for my friend in June, I tied on my favorite apron and tried again with a 5-pound bag of russet potatoes, per my brother’s instructions. Yes, it was better—closer to my mom’s but nowhere near as good as my brother’s. I had even texted him several times while shopping for the ingredients to be sure I had it in my mind correctly, but still no dice. So, I’m not there yet. The elusive potato salad quest continues.

Bringing food to a good friend in need is an old southern tradition that I dearly love, both on the giving and receiving ends. “Can I bring you dinner?” just rolls out of my mouth the minute a friend shares difficult news with me. What better way to bring comfort to a friend other than a delivery of comforting food, regardless of the cuisine, recipe, or technical quality of the dish? Having a hot meal or a sandwich stuffed with a delicious homemade chicken salad in your own home prepared with care by someone who loves you is more than just a relief after a difficult day; it’s a reminder that home follows us, wherever we go, whatever we go through. And, as Dorothy says at the end of that timeless classic, “There’s no place like home.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

I’ve told you about mine; now it’s your turn! What’s your go-to comfort food or favorite meal to share? Comment below!

Here’s a few recipes to get you started in this ageless southern tradition!

Chicken and Sausage Gumbo

Ingredients for gumbo

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped
  • 1 bunch of green onions, green and white parts, chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • Meat (dark and white) from one whole chicken (see below)
  • 1 pound cooked andouille or smoked sausage, sliced into 1-inch disks
  • 3 quarts chicken stock or water (see below)
  • 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
  • garlic powder to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2-3 tsp of Lea & Perrin
  • 2 to 3 cups cooked long-grain rice, warmed
  • 1 bunch of parsley (Italian flat-leaf if possible), finely chopped
  • Filé powder (optional)

Ingredients for homemade chicken stock:

  • 1 whole chicken
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 2 large carrots
  • 1 large leek
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 large yellow onion

Directions for homemade chicken stock and chicken meat for gumbo:

  • Unwrap and rinse chicken, removing inner bag of chicken parts. Place whole chicken in large stock pot, including the neck from the inner bag. (Discard the rest of the chicken parts unless you want to fry up the chicken liver as a cook’s treat!)
  • In the stock pot with the chicken add
    • One large yellow onion, quartered (no need to peel)
    • Two large carrots (cleaned and scraped)
    • One large leek (sliced lengthwise almost to the root and rinsed carefully between the layers to get rid of dirt)
    • Two stalks of celery, rinsed clean, cut into halves
    • One head of garlic (no need to peel).
    • Fill pot with water, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cover. Simmer for one hour or until chicken is completely cooked through to 165 degrees.
    • Remove chicken carefully and set aside to cool. Using a spider or strainer, remove the vegetables and set aside. These veggies will not be used in the gumbo but are still very tasty! (The head of garlic is delicious squeezed out and eaten on bread or mixed into mashed potatoes!)
    • Strain chicken stock and reserve for use in the gumbo. Freeze any unused stock for future use.
    • Strip all meat from chicken and tear or cut into bite-size pieces. Set aside.
    • In a large skillet over medium-low heat, heat the andouille or sausage to remove excess fat. Drain on paper towels, and set aside with chicken meat.

Directions for gumbo:

  • While you are cooking the chicken and making the chicken stock, make a roux.
    • In a large saucepan over medium to medium-low heat, whisk together the oil and flour and cook, stirring constantly with whisk or wooden spoon, to make as dark a roux as you can without burning it. (The heat can be higher, but you must stir more assiduously to avoid burning it.) Be careful! A hot roux is as hot as caramel!
  • When the roux is medium-dark, reduce the heat to low and add the onion, bell pepper, green onions, garlic, and celery. Cook them in the roux until the onions are clear and have begun to brown a little, about 10 minutes. Stir frequently to prevent burning.
  • Slowly add the chicken stock, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming from the roux. Add the chicken meat and sliced sausage to the pot, along with the salt, pepper, hot pepper sauce, bay leaves, Lea & Perrin sauce, and thyme.
  • Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce to low. Cook uncovered on low for about an hour. While it’s simmering, occasionally skim fat and foamy material from the surface.
  • Reduce heat to low and simmer the gumbo, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 2 hours (it improves with time).
  • Remove and discard the bay leaves.
  • Check seasonings and adjust to taste.
  • Just before serving, add chopped parsley. Stir well and serve.
  • To serve, put about 1/2 cup of fluffy cooked rice in individual bowls and top with about 1 cup of the gumbo. Sprinkle with filé powder, if desired.

Gumbo recipe adapted from Washington Post food section, November 20, 2005, and from Blanchard/Songy family recipes.

Triple Fudge Brownies

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg. (4 oz.) BAKER’S Unsweetened Chocolate
  • ¾ cup unsalted sweet butter (1 and ½ sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • a pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 tsp instant espresso coffee powder
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (see note)
  • 1 tub of dark chocolate frosting

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  • In a large plastic or glass bowl, microwave chocolate squares and butter on high for 2 minutes or until butter is melted. Stir until chocolate is completely melted.
  • Stir in the sugar, the pinch of kosher salt, and espresso powder. Mix well.
  • Add eggs and vanilla; mix well.
  • Add flour and chocolate chips; stir until well blended.
  • Spread into foil-lined 13x9x2 inch pan that has been greased (spray foil with Pam).
  • Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out with fudgy crumbs. Do not over-bake. Allow to partially cool.
  • Open tub of frosting and remove the foil inner lid. Be sure to get all of the foil off of the rim. Microwave for 10 seconds and stir. Microwave again for 10 seconds and stir again. You are looking for a pouring consistency.
  • Pour frosting on top of warm brownies and set aside. Cool completely in pan or refrigerate for frosting to “set”.
  • Lift out of pan onto cutting board. Cut into 24 squares (6×4 rows). Cover tightly and store at room temperature.

Ghirardelli'sNote: if you want the chocolate chips to melt into the brownie rather than stay whole, do not use Nestle’s Toll House brand as they are specially formulated to retain their shape even when baked. To have the chips melt more into the brownie, use Ghirardelli’s chips.

Brownie recipe adapted from the side of the Baker’s Unsweetened Chocolate box: Baker’s One Bowl Brownies