The Harsh Reality of Truth

A few years ago, on “club picture day”, my good friend and colleague stood with me and the students in the after-school club that we jointly moderate to take our photo for the yearbook. Weeks later, the photos arrived and we were each given our copy. Later that day, when we were looking at the photo together, I truthfully remarked to my friend, “I’ll never wear that outfit again!” Her reply: “Me either, it’s going right in the Good Will bag when I get home!”

The morning of that photo, we reflected that we had each dressed with care, knowing we would be in several photos that day, documented for all eternity in the school yearbook, gazed at lovingly by our students for generations to come with fond remembrances of their time with us in our after-school clubs. (Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration.)

truth in crossThe “truth” is that on that morning when we dressed for school and the photos, we thought we looked good. We felt good in those outfits; we felt as though we looked our best. The reality is that when I looked at the photograph I was appalled at how I looked. I didn’t look anything like I thought I did in that outfit; and certainly, I didn’t look anything like I felt in that outfit. I knew that I would never feel good in that outfit again after seeing that photo.

truth-set-you-free-in-ciaWe learn about the truth in John’s Gospel. “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:31-32). So, does the truth set you free? Does seeing a photograph of yourself in an unflattering outfit set you free? Is it the photo that is unflattering or is it the outfit? Or, more disconcerting, is it that you really look that way that is the most troublesome?

Recently on the popular TV show Shark Tank, the sharks were pitched on a new product called The Skinny Mirror. This is a mirror that has been designed to make you appear as flattering as possible. The theory behind this, as presented by its founder Belinda Jasmine, is that some mirrors are distorted in a way that make you look heavier and shorter, while others give us a more true representation of our image. Buddha-Truth-QuotesShe found an old mirror in the attic and used it for three years before coming to the reality that it was affecting her self-image. She discovered that she looked better in some other mirrors than how she looked in her own mirror at home. So, after some research and development, she came up with The Skinny Mirror, a mirror that will send you off looking your best each day, or at least it will make you feel as though you look your best. Things were going well and it appeared as though one of the sharks was going to bite; Shark Lori Greiner even came up and took a turn in front of the display model. But, then things turned murky. Jasmine disclosed that some of her sales were to retailers. Wait, what? Retailers were installing The Skinny Mirror in dressing rooms so we would look better in their clothes and buy them thinking we looked great? Were retailers trying to unduly influence their customers? This didn’t sit well with the sharks and they all passed on the deal.

Is it just how we look or is it how we sound as well? I am a lector at Mass, which means I read a passage of scripture during the part of the Mass known as the Liturgy of the Word. I have a degree in speech, something that my father always joked about, “You knew how to talk when you went to college, why did you need to get a degree in it?” I take this job seriously. I study the scripture before Mass and read it silently several times. Then I read it out loud several times. I listen to the audio recording of the same scripture reading which is posted on the USCCB website. I am fully prepared for performing this ministry when I go to church. I dress modestly, being careful not to wear too much jewelry or anything flashy so as not to distract the congregation from the Word of the Lord. micRecently, a student gave me a CD with a recording of last year’s school play, which included my “welcome” speech before the curtain goes up. I was shocked at the sound of my voice. This is not how I thought I sounded. Sure, I’ve heard my voice on a recording before, on my voice mail message or in home movies, but I wasn’t doing “public speaking”, giving a speech before an audience. Do I really sound like that when I am reading scripture at Mass?

The truth is an interesting subject to study. There have been many famous quotes made by statesmen, religious leaders, authors, celebrities, motivational speakers, and others. In court, we “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God”.  On countless occasions we have watched politicians and politician wannabes tell us the “truth”, on live TV, only to find out later that it indeed was all a lie.

john bel edwardsRecently, my husband’s childhood friend and high school football teammate was elected Governor of the State of Louisiana. A major factor in the outcome of the race was intense campaign advertisements of the “he said, he said” nature. In the end, it appears that the people (well, at least the 38% of the registered voters who actually voted that day) voted for the candidate they believed, if not the candidate they believed in. I don’t personally know the new governor-elect, but I will take my husband’s word for it that he is a decent, good man of high moral character. Certainly, at face value the facts appear to document that. st augustine lionHe is a West Point graduate, served in the Army from 1988-1996, received a law degree from LSU, married his high school sweetheart (and is still married to her), and is the father of three handsome children. Has the nature of politics finally come around to this, a candidate winning an election because the voters were swayed by what was once considered normal and mainstream character and personality traits?

mark twainMark Twain in particular wrote of the truth often. Each year when I teach my Mark Twain unit in 8th grade literature, I give the students a selection of Mark Twain quotes to choose from. I’m always struck by the high percentage of choices that have to do with truth. Truth for a young adolescent is difficult. They almost all want to tell the truth but it is often clouded by fear and expectations. mark twain 2One on one, when I speak to a student about a situation, I can usually tell if they are being honest with me: eye contact or lack thereof, nervous tics, hemming and hawing, and changes in the story as my “discussion” with them continues. Most of the time, I get what I am after, the truth, with the hopes that the important lesson is not about the situation itself, but about telling the truth, or as some say, “manning up”.

My father was a stickler for the truth. Once when I was a little girl, I came out of the bathroom in the hallway of our three bedroom home (the only full bathroom in the house), with toilet paper wrapped around the calf of my leg. My father was in his normal position, on the sofa-right hand side-reading the newspaper and watching the news on TV. He glanced up and spotted the trail of toilet paper dangling from my leg. “What happened?” he asked. I didn’t hesitate for a moment, “I got a paper cut”, and continued to walk through the living room. He stopped me and questioned me further. “A paper cut? How? Where? When? With what kind of paper? On your leg? In the bathroom?” I made my excuses and continued on my way. My father did what any good detective would do; inspect the scene of the crime. Yep, razor on edge of the bathtub with drops of blood on the floor near the toilet paper. I was called back to the living room. “Tell me the truth and you won’t get punished. Were you playing with my razor?” Hemming and hawing ensued, I was ushered to the crime scene, where the evidence was still on display. bandaidAfter he cleaned my leg and put a Band-Aid on it, I was sentenced to kneeling on the hardwood floor in the hall, in full view of his place on the sofa, not for playing with the razor as he told me repeatedly for days, but for lying to him about it.

3 thingsRecently on Facebook someone posted an image that I shared so I could save it. Small children are notorious for telling the truth, even when we least expect it and most definitely don’t want it. Once when picking up my daughters from home day care, Nina, who had become a grandmother-figure to my two girls, brought me into her kitchen to give me a large shopping bag filled with the contents of a home-cooked meal: homemade chicken noodle soup (her specialty) and Mandarin Orange Jell-O Salad, another of her specialties. I thanked her profusely but was confused by the gesture. She had never given us dinner before. When I asked her what was the occasion, she said, “Don’t be embarrassed. It happens to everyone. I just thought a stress-free dinner would help.” Still confused, I loaded our dinner and my girls in the car. Immediately I asked the older daughter how was her day. Even at a young age, she was known for her keen observation and attention to detail. I figured she was my best bet at getting to the bottom of the mystery dinner. After hearing about who was on Oprah that day, and what was the afternoon snack, she finally said that she “may” have told Nina about the big fight. “The big fight?” I asked, horrified. She then went on to tell me that she had told Nina that her mom and dad had a big fight the night before and she was very upset and worried about it. Since neither my husband nor I could remember what the big fight was about, it couldn’t have been much of a fight. It was probably over the garbage or laundry or something forgotten from the grocery list. I tried to explain this to Nina the next day when I returned the dishes but she just smiled and patted my arm. The silver lining from this embarrassing episode: I got the homemade chicken noodle soup recipe and it is a family favorite to this day.

I also immediately shared this Facebook image with a friend. We often discuss the current trend, which indeed has grown legs of indeterminable length, of wearing leggings as pants. In full disclosure, I do not currently nor have I ever had the kind of body that could get away with wearing leggings as outerwear, and as a result some might say my feelings on this subject are sour grapes. But, I teach 8th grade boys and girls, in a Catholic school, with a strict uniform dress code, where we teach them to respect themselves and to respect each other. Yet, at out of school activities I see girls, on the cusp of womanhood, wearing nothing more than leggings and a sweatshirt, with every anatomical detail of their bodies from the waist down on view for the world to see, adolescent boys included. This is often accessorized with Ugg boots and the ubiquitous high ponytail swinging in the wind. I’ve also seen grown women, well beyond the “cusp” of anything, wearing leggings as pants, with only a brief nod at modesty by wearing a slightly longer tunic-style top.

do these make me look fatYes, leggings—as with small children and drunks—certainly tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Whether we look at ourselves in an unflattering photograph or in The Skinny Mirror, the harsh reality is that while we cherish and value the truth, often we see only what we want to see.

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What’s It Like Being the Mother of the Pied Piper

After graduation, I decided to stay in the town where I had lived and attended college for four years. I started working for a Kelly Girls temp agency and eventually landed a full-time position as a receptionist at a busy downtown law firm. At the end of the summer, my younger brother, Tommy, moved into his freshman dorm on the same campus where I had lived and thrived and flourished for four years. I knew nearly everyone on campus, both in the faculty as well as the student body. I was a member of a popular sorority, had run (unsuccessfully) for student government president, and was active in several on-campus clubs. I belonged to a service organization and attended weekly Mass in the on-campus chapel. Yet, within a few short weeks of the start of the new school year, I was being asked, “Are you Tommy Blanchard’s sister?” In a very short span of time, he cut a wide swath through the campus and made a lot of friends. He pledged a popular fraternity and it seemed that everywhere I went, people already knew him, and loved him.

Maddie and Mom first day of subbing Oct 16Fast forward nearly forty years, and I am experiencing this same sweet but still disconcerting situation. On October 16, 2015, my younger daughter, 23-years old and one year out of college, started substitute teaching at my school, the school where I began my own teaching career in the fall of 2007. She had completed the paperwork and background check only the week before she got the first call for a job: PE, not one of the strongest subjects for the Ardillo girls (myself included). Maddie teaching PENonetheless, she rode into school with me and we posed for a picture of our first day teaching together, both in the requisite dress code of the day, “Jersey Day”. When my homeroom came in at the end of 5th period to drop off their bags to go out to recess, they were all shouting at once, “Your daughter is the BEST!” I’m pretty sure she had never gotten that experience out of a PE class where she was the student!

A week later, she was called in to sub for social studies, much more in her bailiwick. The next day, when my 7th grade classes came in for literature, my own lesson plan was diverted for several minutes while they told me how great my daughter is and how much fun social studies was with her. Another day, another subject, she subbed for the other language arts teacher, her real strong suit, where she got to read and discuss passages from a Neil Gaiman book. On to 7th and 8th grade religion classes on another day and 6th-8th grade science on yet another. She received thumbs up from every single student who talked to me about her; even students who are quiet and passive in my own classroom were enthusiastic about their experience with her.

My birthday 2015Although she wasn’t crazy about babysitting when she was a teenager, she occasionally did take jobs to help out my friends and sometimes to cover for her sister when she had overlapping social activities. The response was always the same when I spoke to the families after, the kids all loved Maddie.

Leading retreat Nov 2014Last November, my principal hired her to lead the annual 8th grade overnight retreat. She took the assignment very seriously, writing up her talks and finding just the right music to play while students journaled after each talk. She developed bios and reflections about three saints and created prayer cards of the three saints for each of the 8th graders. In her own unique way, she was able to bring together a gaggle of rowdy teens to sit quietly and listen to spiritual reflections and talks about living your faith as a teenager and young adult. For days after the retreat, the 8th graders continued to talk about her and the impact she made on them in just a little over 24 hours.

Maddieinhospital (2)

Maddie being tenderly held by her big sister, with Grandma Margaret and Dad close at hand

A few weeks ago, at our annual fall parent/teacher conferences, one mom began the conference saying how much her daughter talked about Ms. Ardillo and what a great teacher she was. The mom, confused, said that this student’s older sister had had me for two years already so they were all familiar with Ms. Ardillo. Her daughter then said, “No, Mom, not Mrs. Ardillo, MS. ARDILLO, her daughter.” We had a good laugh about it, and I pondered at the likelihood that this parent/teacher conference was more about her daughter as my daughter’s student instead of her daughter as my student!

Maddie on guitarMaddie really is the good-natured and compassionate version of the Pied Piper. Instead of a magic pipe flute, she is a self-taught guitar and piano player, singer, and songwriter, and whenever she begins to play, people flock about her. Having written the music and lyrics for a musical while still in high school, she workshopped it at my school’s annual arts festival one year. It was a huge success and one of the students involved is now a high school senior, still acting and singing on stage. I saw him recently in a production of Les Misérables. After the show I was congratulating his mother on his performance and she said his real love of musical theatre all began with that arts festival workshop with Maddie.

MaddieatKennedyCenter (2)So, what makes her so special? I have given this a lot of thought, and as I explained to the mom at the parent/teacher conference, I truly believe it all boils down to one personality trait: her complete and total acceptance of a person at face value. She does not judge, she does not criticize, she does not compare. She takes each new friend as they are, and looks for the best of them, and that is what she reacts to. And, after all, isn’t this what people really want? To be accepted as they are? To be given a chance? To have their negative traits and personal flaws overlooked in lieu of their goodness and strengths? And, that is what Maddie does with each and every new person she encounters. This is certainly a special gift and grace from God, because I know that it is not one of my strengths. Her father and I try to be good people and we try to be the best we can be, but Maddie did not fully inherit this from our genes.

Maddie and dogShe has always looked out for the underdog. In second grade she came home and told me she had received a recess detention, and had to spend part of recess indoors with her teacher. The next morning at drop-off, I went in to the school to find out what had happened, as I couldn’t get a clear story from my eight-year-old daughter. The teacher just laughed and said it had all been handled, not to worry. I pressed on and she eventually told me that she “had” to give Maddie a recess detention because she had been involved in a playground altercation, but I hadn’t been called because she was trying to do the right thing. Her friend was being bullied by a boy, so she pushed him down and sat on him until he apologized. He ran inside crying to tell the teacher what Maddie had done. The bullying stopped, her friend recovered, and Maddie had a brief time-out with the teacher straightening the bookshelves, a job she surely must have loved, given her love of books even at that young age.

After a long day of teaching Nov 6We worried when she went off to college, living on her own four and half hours away, that she would be taken advantage of because of her good-hearted nature and accepting personality. We needn’t have worried; however, she survived her four years just fine, making friends left and right, not only on her own campus, but also on her sister’s campus ten blocks away and all over downtown Pittsburgh.

Maddie birthday 2015In a few months, Maddie is planning to move to California, to put her screenwriting degree to work and to pursue her dream job of writing for film and television. We will worry again, and we will miss her greatly. We enjoyed her return home to live with us after college (empty nesting is not all what it is cracked up to be), and we enjoy cooking together and watching our favorite TV shows. But, for as much as she is known for her very special people skills, she is a very talented writer who deserves to see her words on the big screen or on our television sets at home. pied piperAs she leaves all that is familiar to her, and heads off to the land of perpetual sunshine, I don’t worry about her being lonely or homesick for long. All she will need to do is don her Pied Piper persona and she will once again find herself the loved and cherished friend of many. Play on, Pied Piper, play on!

I Identify as a Couch Potato

i identify asEx-NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal, once a white and freckle-faced young woman with blonde hair, in the midst of a media meltdown, said to the world, “I identify as black”. Former Olympic gold medalist and Wheaties spokesperson Bruce Jenner transitioned out of the closet and said to the world, “I identify as a woman” and formally changed her gender and name to Caitlyn Jenner. I myself have not encountered an identity crisis of this magnitude, but I have a problem. For the record, I identify as a couch potato, preferably a couch potato with a good book and a cup of tea at hand. While I am most certainly not an athlete in any way, shape, or form, I continue to be plagued with typically sports-related injuries.

Last week I was plagued with a sore shoulder. It started when I woke up on Monday and I wrote it off as having “slept wrong”. The pain continued all day, even after taking Advil. On Tuesday, the pain was somewhat worse, and more troubling, it was hurting on the outside of my shoulder, not just inside. The skin on the top of my shoulder was very sensitive and sore to the touch. Wednesday brought pain inching its way up the number chart and I tried the heating pad that evening when I came home. Thursday, even after Aleve, it still hurt, so much so that I couldn’t go to sleep for a while, trying to get in a position that didn’t pull on it. red crossOn Friday, while driving to school, I heard the report that Stephen Strasburg, the pitcher for the Washington Nationals, had had a non-cancerous tumor removed from his shoulder. Naturally, I freaked out and began to imagine all sorts of scenarios where I hadn’t “slept wrong” at all but had something really seriously wrong with my shoulder.

medical symbolBy lunchtime on Friday, I made the decision to make an appointment with my doctor for that same afternoon. She asked me a few questions and immediately said, “rotator cuff”. I could not believe what I was hearing. How in the world did I get a rotator cuff injury? Wasn’t this something that baseball players and tennis players get? Naturally I did some research on Google and found that it can happen to anyone, not just athletes, from a fall or repetitive heavy lifting, neither of which applies to me. The OrthoInfo site, sponsored by American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, also says that it is almost always the dominant arm, which again does not apply to me as I am left-handed and it is my right arm that is affected.

torn aclThis is not my first sports injury. In the fall of 2007, I fell while on a school field trip, landing flat on my back across a railroad tie, with my left leg twisted and under me. I was helped to a picnic table (we were out in the woods doing a low-ropes course with the 7th grade), where I sat with an ice pack on my knee until it was time to board the bus for the trip back to school. A colleague brought me to the emergency room when my principal saw that I was unable to walk unaided. Diagnosis: torn ACL. Seriously. Who gets a torn ACL while on a field trip? The orthopedic surgeon who examined me and my MRI said, “This is a basketball injury, you know.”

carried offThis same knee had seen its share of misery before. In 1980, just before Christmas, I walked over to my television set to change the channel (broken remote) and then turned to walk back to my couch. I heard a slight crackling sound and down I went. A friend carried me to the backseat of his car and drove me to the emergency room as I writhed in pain. Diagnosis: dislocated knee and torn cartilage. torn cartilageThe orthopedic who examined me that night, called back to the hospital from his squash game-poor thing, also informed me that this was usually an injury caused by running and twisting motions like in tennis or basketball, not usually from changing the channel on the TV.

disc problemsIn 1995 I leaned into the backseat of my car to check the seatbelts of my 3-year old and 5-year old daughters. When I straightened up I knew something was wrong, very wrong. I managed to get myself into the driver’s seat and drive the few blocks to their school. I “walked” them in to their classrooms and then somehow managed to get myself back home. My husband came home and took me to the doctor, who sent me straight to a clinic for a MRI. Diagnosis: ruptured disc, with pieces of it pinching my sciatic nerve in my left leg. golfIt was Labor Day weekend, so I had to wait until Tuesday for surgery. This is a classic golf injury, and while I took golf to fulfil my health requirements in college, I had not touched a set of clubs since then.

little girl eye patchI’ve worn an eye patch twice in my lifetime. The first time was when I was in first or second grade and happened to come between two quarreling boys in my classroom. A punch was thrown and it landed on my right eye instead of the intended victim. The doctor joked and said that it looked like I had taken up boxing. Uh, no, just trying to retrieve my box of crayons from my desk. The second time I took on the pirate’s disguise was in 1977 when I received roses from the fraternity I served as “little sister”. I leaned in to smell them, and my suitemate bumped my arm, causing the decorative ferns in the vase to jab me in the left eye. Cut on the cornea, infection, eye swollen shut, trip to the campus infirmary and an ophthalmologist resulted in the wearing of an eye patch for a few weeks and all sorts of drops and salves administered throughout the day and night.

lymeEven though I don’t identify as an outdoorsy type, I still managed to contract Lyme disease in the summer of 2007. Perfect bulls-eye target in not one but two spots was evidence enough, but the dermatologist also did the blood work to confirm it and asked if he could photograph the markings for a medical study. Had I gone hiking or camping? Uh, no, just on a college tour with my daughter the summer before her senior year.

stretchingSo, I now can add rotator cuff injury to my list of sports-type injuries. It would be nice to know how I managed to injure my rotator cuff so I could avoid it in the future. I’m sure it is not from teaching literature and English all day, or directing the school plays. The only repetitive motion I do during the school year is moving my red pen around middle school essays, tests, and quizzes, and as I said, the injury is to my non-dominant arm. During holiday breaks and summers off from school, I do quite a bit of knitting and crocheting while watching TV in the evenings. I guess even though I identify as a couch potato couch potatoI should start doing warm-ups and stretching exercises before I begin my needlework. I would hate to end up with tennis elbow!

A Can Full of Memories

hershey barMy father told me once that his favorite treat as a child was a sandwich made of white bread, sweetened condensed milk, and a Hershey bar, left to warm outside in the hot Louisiana sun. I can just picture my dad, the little boy known by all as “T-Roy”, (Cajun for “petite Roy” or perhaps, as his mother and older sister would have felt, “little king”), biting into it, with the softened chocolate oozing into the warm and creamy condensed milk, and the gooey mixture squirting out of the sides of this dessert sandwich. This, no doubt, would have been washed down with a glass of milk, fresh from the cow.

Open can of condensed milkI grew up seeing a can of sweetened condensed milk sitting, opened with its metal lid hinged upward, on the counter next to my Aunt Helen’s coffee pot. She liked a spoon of it in her coffee, instead of sugar and regular milk, to create the perfect café au lait. I also have strong memories of seeing my cousin Penny eating the condensed milk out of the can with a spoon. We didn’t use it at home; my parents drank their coffee black with sugar, until much later in life when my dad started adding a bit of milk from the fridge to his coffee. And, since my mother was not much of a baker, we didn’t regularly have it around for making desserts.

mil cartonFresh milk, however, was a staple of my childhood home and of mine today. My brothers consumed vast quantities of milk along with entire boxes of cereal as an afterschool snack. My mom kept us well-stocked with milk, even though she didn’t drink it at all herself. My dad preferred a glass of milk with his lunchtime “half a sandwich”, only occasionally having “half a Coke” instead. For supper, the evening meal, I don’t remember him having anything to drink, until much later in life, when he started drinking red wine. He often had a glass of milk before bed, something I continue to do to this day.

canned milk and canned sweetened milkI am often asked by friends, who all know I love to cook and bake, what is the difference between sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. The answer is simple: sugar. Evaporated milk is just milk that has had half of its water content removed. Evaporated milk can be substituted in recipes for regular milk by adding water or straight out of the can for a richer, creamier result. For the most delicious mashed potatoes, try using evaporated milk. Just peel, cube, and boil the potatoes until fork tender. Drain them and allow them to “dry” a bit before adding them back to the still hot pan they were cooked in. Mash and season with salt and pepper, adding evaporated milk straight from the can until the glorious off-white mountain is the consistency you prefer. Then, add softened or melted butter, taste, and adjust seasonings if necessary, and serve to the sounds of oohs and aahs from your loved ones.

Bisquick_Heart_SmartMy family loves pancakes, waffles, and biscuits made from Bisquick, and years ago, when one of my daughters asked for Bisquick biscuits, I used evaporated milk because we were running low on fresh milk. The biscuits were even more tasty than usual, and since then I’ve always used evaporated milk for the Bisquick recipes. Nowadays I use the Heart Smart Bisquick and fat-free evaporated milk to prepare the recipes straight from the side of the Bisquick box. Of course, fat-free does not matter much on a low-carb health plan, so Bisquick doesn’t feature regularly in our meal planning much anymore.

peanut butter fudge recipeSweetened condensed milk is also fresh milk that has also been evaporated by half, with the missing liquid being replaced by sugar. These two products, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk, cannot be used interchangeably, but they both have their place in my pantry of staples. This is something I had to sort out myself years ago when I found a long-lost family recipe for fudge. The recipe, handwritten on a piece of paper torn from a stenographer’s pad, calls for “one large can cream”. When I first found the recipe in 2002, buried in a box of newspaper clippings, junk mail, and ephemera from my daughters’ elementary school, I knew right away I had found the missing treasure, the secret to my Aunt Lillian and my cousin Joy’s famous peanut butter fudge, but I was stymied by the term “can of cream”. I remember calling home, from Belgium to Louisiana, to ask my mom and dad what was a can of cream. My dad’s first answer was, pet milk“A can of Pet milk.” Next question: “What is Pet milk?” Finally, we established it was simply a can of evaporated milk, and off to the kitchen I went to recreate the dense, creamy perfection known as Aunt Lillian’s Peanut Butter Fudge. All of my daughters’ teachers that Christmas received a box of the fudge, and even those spoiled by growing up with Belgian chocolate and French pastries, swooned at the first taste.

Dr West fudge recipeI have another recipe, in my own handwriting, which calls for “3 cups cream” and in parentheses I have written “evap. milk” to clarify. This recipe I believe came from my friend Donna West, whose father was the local dentist. He made the best chocolate fudge and I think this is his recipe. I can remember eating it out of a glass Pyrex dish standing at the counter in her kitchen.

refrigerator lemon pieI also have been the recipient of handwritten recipes calling for evaporated milk’s first cousin, sweetened condensed milk. My mom sent me a recipe for “ice-box lemon pie”, advising me that she used to make it “years ago” but stopped because the raw eggs scared her after her kidney disease and subsequent kidney transplant. This recipe doesn’t scare me, especially with the availability of pasteurized eggs, and it is very simple to make, but the filling has somewhat of a “tinny” taste to me, no doubt caused by the sweetened condensed milk not having any actual cooking time to mellow out the canned taste.

hello dolly #1Another one of my cousin Penny’s sweet concoctions is the Hello Dolly cookie bar. This is no ordinary cookie, and could be used to test the levels of blood sugar after fasting, instead of the nasty glucose drink forced upon me when I was pregnant. It’s a simple layered cookie bar recipe: graham crackehello dolly #2r crust, layer of chocolate chips, layer of chopped pecans, layer of coconut, and then topped off with a can of sweetened condensed milk drizzled over the top. After baking, it is necessary to let it cool before tasting, or risk burning the roof of your mouth from the caramelized sugary liquid glue holding the layers together.

When you have tired of drizzling it over cookie bars or into your coffee, there are many other uses for sweetened condensed milk. Perhaps the most popular use for it outside of the United States is dulce de leche. This is sweetened condensed milk that has been slowly cooked until it caramelizes and browns, turning it into a thick, toffee-flavored spreadable substance that finds itself in between layers of butter cookies, known as alfajores, or used as the filling in a jelly roll sponge cake known as pionono. My husband LOVES dulce de leche, and while living in Belgium, I became friends, via French classes, with a woman from Argentina and a woman from Nicaragua. One day I innocently asked how to make dulce de leche and started something of a cultural war as they both excitedly tried to tell me how it was made in their family homes. It is a bit scary, placing unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk in a large stock pot filled with water, bringing it to a boil, and then reducing the heat to a simmer for three hours. The water must always be kept well above the tops of the cans or you will have sweetened condensed milk dripping from the ceiling of your kitchen after the cans explode. This can now be purchased ready-made, in a can that looks a lot like the sweetened condensed milk cans on your grocer’s shelves, but there is something satisfying about opening that can, after it has completely cooled, and unearthing that sweet, sticky goodness of dulce de leche that you created yourself.

In the rear of the Argentinian restaurant near our house tubs of dulce de leche can be purchased, as well as the jelly roll sponge cake, ready to be slathered with the toffee filling and rolled up. All it needs at that point is a dusting of powdered sugar and you have a delicious and exotic treat, albeit “assembled” rather than “homemade”.

Another shortcut dessert that takes just a bit more effort is a home cook’s version of the alfajores. The butter cookies are made using a box of yellow cake mix, and then spread with the dulce de leche, whether store-bought or simmered to perfection on your own stove. Cake box sandwich cookies are very easy to make: one box of cake mix (any flavor), two eggs, and one-half cup of vegetable oil. Mix together well, and then portion out onto parchment-lined baking sheets using a mini-ice cream scoop. Bake for 6-8 minutes or until lightly cracked on top and lightly browned on bottom. Allow to cool and then make a sandwich cookie with two of them and a filling of your choice: dulce de leche or a tub of frosting. My friends and family members adore these, and I’ve tried many variations: German chocolate cake mix with coconut pecan frosting, red velvet cake mix with cream cheese frosting, or lemon cake mix with dark chocolate fudge frosting.

A few years ago I became friends with a middle-grade children’s book author, Cindy Callaghan. At the time she had one published book, Just Add Magic, which was a fun read about a magic cookbook. I started a book club at my school, and after we read the book, we made some of the recipes in the back of the book and had a Skype visit with Callahan. We exchanged emails where I gave her feedback on the recipes and volunteered my cooking skills in the event she was in need of future themed-recipes. She gave me the wonderful opportunity to develop some easy to prepare treats for her next book, Lost in London, and featured my article on the British tradition of afternoon tea on her blog, along with my recipes. One of those recipes was for Banoffee Pie, a layered dessert consisting of a graham cracker crust, a layer of dulce de leche, sliced bananas, and whipped cream.

I absolutely love food, whether it is eating it, cooking it, shopping for it, or reading about it. During this journey of “an essay a week for one year”, I’ve discovered that I love writing about it as well. I love exploring the history of various foods and ingredients, finding their origin and connecting it back to my childhood memories. Many of our earliest memories revolve around food, and digging around a bit to find out the background on some of those memories is very rewarding. Whether it is a handwritten recipe thought to be long-lost, or a favorite cookbook, grease-stained and dog-eared, these things are all a part of me, even as I say goodbye to those I love who created these food memories for me.

The Scariest Drive Home Ever

driver's edWhen I first started driving alone in a car my father told me some basic things to always remember.  Never drive on an empty tank.  Get your oil checked regularly. Be sure your tires have air in them. Don’t fiddle with the radio or air conditioning while you are driving.  Don’t drive through bad sections of town alone by yourself.  If you ever think you are being followed, drive to a place with a lot of people like a grocery store or restaurant parking lot, or better yet, drive straight to the police station.  But, under no circumstances should you drive to your house, especially if you live alone!

and then there were noneBut, just like General MacArthur in Agatha Christie’s murder mystery masterpiece And Then There Were None, who went and sat alone by the sea when everyone knew there was a killer on the loose, I forgot absolutely everything my father had told me one night a long time ago when I had first graduated from college.

tangipahoa parishAfter graduating from college in 1978, with the offer from a sorority sister to share an apartment, I decided to remain in my college town. After working with Kelly Girls temp agency for just a few days I had a permanent job as a receptionist for a busy law firm. I worked hard and was soon promoted to legal secretary, moving from the front lobby to office space shared with the legal secretary of the managing partner. Eventually, upon the discovery by my bosses that I had been trained to do title work, I was moved again, to a private “office” which had been created by enlarging a closet into part of the office’s kitchen area.

law booksI wore many hats in this law firm. Part of my day was spent driving to the local courthouses, researching property titles for mortgages and real estate transactions. Upon my return to the office, I would transcribe Dictaphone tapes left on my desk by one of the three attorneys in the firm. I also maintained the law library by shelving books after the attorneys were finished using them as well as updating the law books with the latest “pocket parts”, a task I am sure is obsolete with the internet and online law library databases. Occasionally I would be asked to sit in on meetings with clients to take notes, and sometimes, I would be asked to do an initial draft of a brief or legal pleading.

campaign buttonAbout a year later, I was called in to the managing partner’s office one afternoon where he and another attorney were waiting to meet with me. They told me about a political campaign in which the firm was going to be heavily involved; the brother of one of the attorneys was running for sheriff. Would I be part of the steering committee for the campaign? Help with record-keeping of supporters and donations, schedule appearances for the candidate, etc.? It sounded very exciting to me, and since I was single with no serious obligations outside of work, I said yes.

dark carOne night I had worked late at the campaign headquarters.  There were only a few of us in the building.  We all walked out together to our cars, for safety purposes, and left at the same time, but since none of us lived near each other, we all headed off in different directions.  As I was driving home, I noticed a car behind me.  At a red light, the car pulled up next to me in the other lane.  The driver “tooted” his horn at me.  I did not look over; it was very late and dark, and I was alone in my car.  When the light turned green, I quickly pulled away.  He pulled in behind me.  Each time I turned, he turned as well.  I started to get a little scared and worried that this car was following me.  I even turned once when I didn’t need to, and sure enough, the other car turned, too.  I went around the block and got back on my path home.

deserted roadAs I pulled into the neighborhood of my apartment complex, the other car pulled in as well.  I started to panic.  I finally remembered what my father had told me: under no circumstances should you drive to your house, especially if you live alone.  I passed my apartment complex and went further into the neighborhood.  I only knew one person who lived in that neighborhood, one of the advisors from my college sorority.  I hadn’t been in touch with her since graduation, but I knew where she lived. I drove to her house, not really sure what I would do next.  I turned on to her street, closely followed by the other car.  By now, I was in full-blown hysteria, crying and shaking all over.  I decided I would pretend like I lived there and pulled into the driveway.  The other car pulled in behind me, in the driveway, blocking me from pulling back out.  I was trapped and scared to death.  Naturally, at such a late hour, the house was in complete darkness.  This was long before cellphones so I had no way to call for help.  I heard a car door slam—whoever it was behind me had gotten out of his car. I glanced in my rearview mirror to see a man walking toward my car. I was about to start blowing my car horn to try to alert the occupants of the house or a neighbor when the man started banging on my car window.head in hands

Too terrified to look up, I buried my head in my hands, saying a Hail Mary out loud, when I heard “Michelle, Michelle, it’s me, David. It’s me, David, from the bike shop.”

I had recently bought a bicycle at the local bike shop and the owner had put it together for me.  Since I had a small car, and the bike wouldn’t fit in it, he had dropped it off at my apartment.  It was a small town and I had seen him several times at various shops and restaurants.  He pulled in behind me on the highway when I left the campaign headquarters and recognized my car. bitmoji scaredApparently, he had pulled up next to me to wave to me.  When I didn’t look over at him, he suspected, rightfully so, that I was scared, that I thought he was a stranger following me.  He continued following me, trying to get my attention, to let me know that it was him, not a serial killer, following me.  When I didn’t pull into my apartment building, he knew I had panicked.

stalkerAfter I calmed down enough to speak coherently to him, he got back in his car and followed me to my apartment.  We got out of our cars and he told me everything I had done wrong, if he had been a stranger really following me.  Why had I pulled into a driveway where he could block my escape?  Why had I gone to the house of someone with whom I rarely had contact, in the middle of the night, when she would surely be asleep?  Why hadn’t I gone straight to the police station, or to the all-night grocery store, where there would have been people walking around?

thankfulStanding in the parking lot of my apartment complex, I had no answers for him. Even with everything my father had told me, I panicked and made all the wrong choices. If the car behind me had been someone with criminal intent, and not my friend from the bike shop, I hate to think what may have happened that night. In the end, this scary encounter with my friend David, driving home late at night on almost deserted roads, believing I was being followed, taught me the lesson I had not learned from my father. Thanks, David, for the scariest drive home ever.