Turning the Tables

The first time I really felt like a grown-up was when my parents came to spend the weekend with me in my tiny studio apartment. I cleaned like a fiend all week, shopped for all my dad’s favorite foods, changed the sheets and made my bed like a hospital orderly (I would be sleeping on my couch), and planned out every single cup of coffee, snack, and meal. I made sure I had some new magazines on the coffee table for my mom to flip through while watching tv, and I also put a fresh roll of toilet paper on the night table by my bed for her to use to “wrap her hair” before bed. When the weekend had come to an end, after morning Mass on Sunday and a nice lunch out compliments of my dad, I remember feeling completely drained, totally exhausted.

After that first time, and soon married with children, I always loved when they came to visit me, and I always felt so grown-up and responsible, taking care of their needs, taking my mom shopping at her favorite stores, taking them to Mass at our parish church where we knew everyone and everyone knew us. Years and years later, when they came to stay with me for a few weeks after having lost every single thing they owned in Hurricane Katrina, I fretted over them to the same degree, but that time it was out of deep concern and compassion for what they were experiencing. My parents are both gone from this world, hopefully enjoying eternal life and true peace after so much hardship, illness, and personal tragedy.

This past weekend, my husband and I traveled to Pittsburgh to visit our older daughter. We stayed in a hotel Saturday night, had a wonderful meal Saturday night to celebrate Father’s Day and her birthday a bit early, met her for Mass on Sunday morning, and then enjoyed a nice lunch before my husband headed back home to Maryland. I stayed behind and spent the night in her apartment, as we are about to embark on our first ever mother-daughter trip. My daughter has a conference in Niagara Falls, and since I am out of school for the summer, I am tagging along.

Yesterday after my husband left us, we went out to do a bit of shopping. She took me to the two places I needed to go to pick up items I had mentioned I wanted, knitting needles and flip flops. Neither was absolutely necessary but she drove me around and waited patiently while I made my purchases. After a lovely dinner at the home of her friend’s parents, we returned to her apartment and watched tv and chatted. She fussed over me, made me a cup of tea, and after some wrangling, I convinced her to let me sleep on the couch since she had to rise early and dress for work today.

Today I have enjoyed a quiet and peaceful day alone in her lovely apartment, reading and doing a bit of writing. While saying my morning prayers, I prayed for my brother-in-law who is ill, in thanksgiving for my husband’s safe return home, and for my parents whom I miss greatly. As always, I also thanked God for the gift of my two beautiful daughters, now grown-ups living off on their own, far away from home, working and making a life for themselves. Being a guest in my daughter’s apartment has brought me much joy and a fond remembrance of hosting my own parents over the years. The tables have indeed turned.

Should I Put an Egg on It?

I am a very adventurous eater. I will taste just about anything, and my lemon curd tartlist of things I hate is very, very small. Lychee nuts and eggs. Yes, eggs. I don’t eat eggs unless they are beaten up in a cake batter or the whites have been whipped into a meringue sitting on top of egg yolks that have been beaten into a rich and creamy lemon curd, baked into a beautiful pastry shell.

lycheeMy first taste of a lychee nut was in 2002 in a restaurant Waterloo, Belgium, where we ordered chocolate fondue for a family dessert. The pot of gorgeous, glossy, dark chocolate sat atop a platter of just about anything you can imagine for dipping: cookies, pretzels, banana slices, pineapple chunks, marshmallows, strawberries, and then something I had never seen before. A quick word with the waiter confirmed it was a lychee. I tried it. I didn’t like it. It tasted like soap to me, perfumed soap.

scrambled eggsI’m told that I was fed scrambled eggs as a baby and spit them out immediately. My mother even tried arranging the scrambled eggs in a smiley face pattern on the plate to entice me into eating them, to no avail. Eventually she gave up and never offered me eggs any other way: boiled, fried, poached. I just opted out of eggs altogether with no further experimentation.

This was no big surprise because in truth, my mother didn’t eat eggs either. She worried that she had somehow influenced her first born into not liking them either. My first cousin, Penny, also doesn’t eat eggs. That makes three of us, so it seems to be genetic. Except that my father and my two brothers could have happily lived off of eggs. My dad liked them any kind of way, and for a while we had one of those old-fashioned egg poaching pots with a metal insert that held the little poaching cups suspended over the boiling water. He also loved a fried egg with his grits.

no eggAt all family get-togethers, my mother was in charge of the potato salad. She made really great potato salad and everyone in town knew it. She frequently made ten pounds of potato salad for receptions after funerals at our church. Of course, when she made the potato salad for our family, it was always divided into two bowls, one with hard-boiled eggs and one without, just for Penny, my mom, and me. Boy, do I miss her. My brother John Roy made potato salad for the reception after my dad’s funeral in May of 2015, and because of Penny and me, he left the eggs out. It was delicious, and with one bite I nearly started crying. Already melancholic over the loss of my dad, tasting my brother’s potato salad brought me right back to my mother. I have tried numerous times, but I don’t think I will ever get it just like hers, or in fact, just like his.

omeletMy husband loves eggs. When we go out for breakfast or brunch, he almost always orders an omelet. In theory, this sounds delicious to me. Cheese, onions, peppers, sausage, all sautéed together. But then add scrambled eggs to that and it is just not appealing to me. I feel the same way about frittata and quiche, although I do have a quiche recipe that I will eat. The secret is that the ratio of cheese to eggs is way out of proportion in my favor. I got the recipe from a co-worker’s wife decades ago. Let me know if you want me to share it with you.

magazine coverEggs are huge right now. Magazine covers, podcasts, Food Network cooking shows, eggs are everywhere. Bon Appétit’s April cover declares, “Put an Egg on It”. They followed up on April 12th with a podcast devoted solely to eggs. I listened intently. Poached eggs are still big apparently, but fried eggs are surprisingly huge, too. The podcast’s discussion on the fried egg centered on the use of olive oil as the fat, with “crispy edges”, and I must say that does sound appetizing. There was also a great deal of discussion about the “jammy egg” which apparently is a soft-boiled egg that can be peeled and sliced in half as opposed to eaten directly out of the shell. (That’s a six and a half-minute egg, in case you are wondering.) jammy eggJammy eggs are really popular right now plopped down in the center of a bowl of steaming ramen. I love ramen, but I’m not sure I want to mess that up with a runny yolk dripping all over my noodles.

So, the question is: Should I put an egg on it? Should I give eggspoached egg
another try? I mean, it’s been a really long time since I was a toddler spitting out scrambled eggs. Where would I start? I feel like Julia Roberts in that scene from The Runaway Bride. Oh, well, the jury is still out. In the meantime, I’ll have the potato salad and the ramen, hold the egg.

Irish Soda Bread in a Hurry

ACBCMy spring break is drawing to a close. For once I made sure I could really relax and not have a ton of school work hanging over my head the whole time. It made a huge difference. I had a great visit with my older daughter, did a bit of spring cleaning, baked an elaborate from-scratch chocolate cake for my husband’s birthday, had long walks with my dog each day, finished a short story I’ve been working on, did some other writing, and read a lot. This morning I slept in and then read for a while, a cozy mystery by an Australian author. It’s my first book of hers and it is enjoyable, light reading. At one point the characters, who have formed an Agatha Christie Book Club of all things,  have afternoon tea together, and being mid-morning, I decided to have a cup of tea and a bit to eat.

BWJMy husband and I have all but eliminated bread in our house but that’s what I really wanted. Tea and toast. Staring into the abyss that is a nearly empty fridge I saw the leftover buttermilk from the chocolate birthday cake recipe. Hmm, buttermilk. That made me think of Irish soda bread. Irish soda bread is a snap to make and goes really great with a steaming cup of tea, Irish or not. So, I grabbed my Baking with Julia cookbook and headed to the kitchen.

irish soda bread muffinsBecause of the low-carb mandate we have been living with, I had almost no all-purpose flour, having used three cups for the birthday cake earlier in the week. So, with a nod to Marion Cunningham’s original recipe, I had to improvise and substitute a bit to produce a half-recipe of her Irish soda bread. And, since I was in a hurry to get back to my book with the tea and toast, I baked it in a muffin tin to speed things up a bit.  I set up a tea tray with good Irish butter and my homemade orange marmalade. The end result? Yummy!tea tray

Irish Soda Bread in a Hurry

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup of self-rising flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • ½ cup raisins
  • 1 cup of buttermilk

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Spray muffin tin with vegetable cooking spray and set aside.
  • Put all ingredients in bowl of stand mixer except for buttermilk. Mix briefly to combine.good butter and jam
  • With mixer on low, slowly drizzle in buttermilk. Mix on low-medium until dough comes together and forms around paddle. If too sticky, add a tablespoon of flour until ball of dough forms. (Likewise, if too dry, add a few drops of buttermilk until ball of dough forms.)
  • Using an ice cream scoop, divide dough evenly between 12 muffin cups.
  • Bake at 375 degrees for 18-20 minutes, until tops are golden and toothpick comes out clean from center of dough.
  • Serve warm with good butter and jam.

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old by Michelle Blanchard Ardillo

What “new friends” have you made recently? Who are your favorite “old friends”?

Nerdy Book Club

Over Christmas break, I gave my 7th and 8th grade students a one-sentence homework assignment: read a good book. I told them it didn’t matter if it was long or short, above or below grade level, fiction or non-fiction. Just read a good book.
Upon their return to school, I asked them to write on an index card the title and author of the book they read over break. They then took turns sharing this information with the class, as I asked them general questions about the book: did you like it, was it good, was it challenging, would you read something from that author again? My goal was to inspire them to read each other’s books or, at least, do some reading for leisure. You see, in spite of having two built-in bookshelves in my classroom chockful of books, one organized by genre in pretty, brightly-colored and labeled baskets…

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Carbs: 6, Me: 0

bagelsWe are nearing the end of the first quarter of 2017. Before I became a teacher, the end of the quarter meant additional stress to get commercial real estate leasing agreements negotiated and signed. Now that I’m a middle school language arts teacher, the end of the quarter means essays and tests to grade, report cards, and progress reports. This weekend I gave myself a progress report. Carbs: 6, me: 0. In tennis terms, that would be a bagel. (Who knew?)

My love and ultimate renouncement of carbs played out in my previously published essay, Scared Skinnier. I was doing so well, until, the holidays, a/k/a the mother of all diet-related battlefields. My birthday was in October, where I celebrated a major milestone, documented in The Big One, quickly followed by a trip to Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. It’s been tough getting on back on track, and I’m none too happy with the pounds that have crept back on.

It’s amazing how quickly a bad habit will return in full force. First it was the grilled bread that came with my moules frites for my birthday dinner. Then it was freshly made corn tortillas served with rice and beans, I mean, it was Puerto Rico, for heaven’s sake. And, Christmas, seriously, have you ever seen the “haul” a teacher gets, both edible and non-edible, just before Christmas break? And, then Valentine’s Day…the only thing better than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup is a Reese’s Peanut Butter Heart. Basically, from October 11th to now has been one long, slippery, slide down the rabbit hole. That’s why I declared this past weekend as THE END. As in, stop the madness. No more. I’m done. Game, set, match. Fini.

But, deciding to go out with a bang and not a whimper, which is what winter is doing here in the DC metropolitan area with a late-season snow storm bearing down on us, I had a bagel this weekend.

We had an overnight guest on Friday night and we were all going to Mass early Saturday morning. My husband suggested coffee and bagels put out for our guest to help herself before Mass. Late Saturday afternoon, staring at the bag of bagels, I caved. We used to have a tuna bagel from Bagel City on Saturdays for lunch, but I haven’t had a bagel since July of 2015, when my ill-fated visit to a cardiologist put an end to my relationship with bread. Since then I’ve subsisted on Magic Pops, a break-like creation that looks like a six-inch flour tortilla but is only 4 grams of carbs with a really pleasing crunch. I cover them in peanut butter, cottage cheese, ham and cheese, tomatoes and mayo, avocado, tuna, Nutella, and anything else I can think of as a sandwich replacement.

As you can imagine, the toasted everything bagel with Irish butter I enjoyed Saturday afternoon was delicious. I had nearly forgotten how wonderful that dense chewiness is in a good bagel. I could almost hear the angels singing as I ate it slowly with a steaming cup of tea. In fact, it was so good, I had the exact same thing again on Sunday afternoon. See what I mean? Classic slippery slope.

I’ve declared Wednesday my restart day, deciding today that to start eliminating carbs the day before a major snow storm is just plain ridiculous. Yes, I will have to contend with Public Enemy No. 1 over Easter break, the Reese’s Peanut Butter Egg, but enough is enough. Let the games begin (again).

A Sea of Silver

braceletIt’s a thin bangle of sterling silver bearing a sliding charm, simple and low-profile like much of my jewelry. Etched into the silver charm shaped as a heraldic shield is a mighty ship, sails billowing in the wind. The bracelet, made by a popular
and trendy company, is called Steady Vessel: Journey/Fortune/Change. The card that accompanied the bracelet states, “Vessels are associated with discovery and fortune. Fortune awaits you. Set sail for life’s treasures.”

This was my Christmas present from my older daughter, who is my first of life’s treasures. How well she knows me and my love of water. On her Christmas card, she wrote that this bracelet was to remind me of all our times across the sea, our two years living abroad as a family when she was in middle school, and of all of my times on the bayou, because I was born and raised in southeast Louisiana with the Mississippi River for a back yard and the bayous leading to the Gulf of Mexico for a front yard.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the water, whether being in it, being on it, or just viewing it. Whether perched atop the levee of the Mississippi River on my first stop whenever I returned home or high above the Atlantic Ocean on my first trip to Europe at the age of 16, I have been filled with peace and inspiration whenever I am near the water. For several years, I rode the ferry to the old courthouse in Plaquemines Parish for my summer job working in the Clerk of Court’s office. I’ve taken an overnight ferry from Italy to Greece, and I’ve taken the Cape May ferry from Delaware to New Jersey. I’ve been on oyster boats, shrimp boats, deep sea fishing boats, whale-watching boats, and two cruise ships. And, near the end of each school year, I board an ancient skipjack and sail out of the port of Baltimore for a hands-on science field trip with my 8th graders.

This past fall on my 60th birthday, I paused to reflect upon my many blessings: a lifetime of satisfying work in two different careers; 27 years of marriage to my best friend and soulmate; raising two strong, independent, intelligent, and talented young women; and an enduring foundation of faith passed on to me by my parents. Undaunted by the notion of starting my 7th decade of life, I look forward to what the future holds in store. As I slip on this little sea of silver each morning, I find great inspiration in the symbolism of this bracelet, for I am the steady vessel, sailing ahead into the wind, looking forward to my next journey, my next fortune, my next change.

The Big One

It’s my birthday. Not just any birthday, either. It’s the big one. The big 6-0. As in, senior citizen discount at some places. As in AARP stuff in the mail EVERY SINGLE DAY.

birthday-streamers

My classroom

I had a great day. My classroom was decorated with streamers, lots of little goodies and treats found their way to my desk, students brought in cards and gift cards, room parents brought in a cake, a large pumpkin spice latte, a beautiful plant, and colleagues dropped by throughout the day with well-wishes and lovely gifts. One daughter gave me a gift bag full of birthday treasures and the other daughter sent the most beautiful arrangement of autumn flowers. My husband gave me a lovely glass and crystal cross, as well as a well-planned vacation for us in the near future.

 

flowers-from-maddie

Flowers from my daughter, Maddie

In spite of all of this, however, I’ve been thinking about this birthday with trepidation for about a year. I had trouble in my late fifties keeping the numbers straight. Am I 57 or 58? Sometimes I literally had to do the math. As in, “2014 minus 1956 equals 58. Yeah, that’s right, I’m 58.”

 

It’s not that I was in denial; I just didn’t care. The numbers didn’t seem to mean anything to me. I didn’t feel any differently at 56 than I did at 55 or 53 for that matter, so 57 and 58 really didn’t matter. BUT, and this is a big but, 59 hit me hard. On the morning of my 59th birthday, the first thing I thought was, “In one year I will be SIXTY.”

charles-dickens-action-figure

Charles Dickens action figure from my daughter, Margaret

There is no doubt about it. Sixty carries a certain degree of gravitas with it. My dad was 60 when his first grandchild, my older daughter, was born. Two years later, when my younger daughter was born, my mother was 60, and for her, that is when it all went to hell. She had a physical breakdown after enduring a very stressful incident where my baby brother was lost (and subsequently found, thank God) on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico during a historic ice storm. She nearly died, and in the ensuing tests, was discovered to need bypass surgery on several arteries to her heart, renal bypass surgery as a result of untreated high blood pressure, and a cone biopsy for cervical cancer.

twitter-birthday-wishes

Birthday balloons from Twitter!

The bypass surgery and cone biopsy went well, but the renal bypass did not, and she came out of that operation on dialysis and on the kidney transplant list. For two years she endured dialysis and poor health until my aunt, her sister, gave her the gift of life with one of her very own kidneys. This selfless act of love gave my family twelve additional years with my mother, twelve years we would not have had were it not for Nanny Pat and her perfect match.

 

So, I was thinking last year on this day, how can I be one year from all of that? Luckily, just before my 59th birthday, a very brusque cardiologist stopped me dead in my tracks, and said one sentence filled with words that had taken me a lifetime to hear, a lifetime of yoyo dieting, faux exercising, and moaning over the fact that I could not lose weight, a lifetime to finally get, “Have you read your own medical history? If you continue on this path, you will be giving yourself insulin in a year, with more challenging health issues to follow.”

downton-birthday-humor

Downton silliness from a co-worker

After emptying my purse of any and all edible items while standing at the parking pay station that afternoon, I cradled my iPhone on my shoulder while telling my husband, “I’m done. That’s it. The foolishness is over. DO NOT purchase or bring home anything from the following list: pasta, bread, white potatoes, rice, dessert.” Instead, we eat primarily from a new list: lean protein, low-fat dairy, seeds and nuts, fruits and vegetables, and beans.

array-of-cards-and-notes

An array of cards and notes from students and teachers

A little over a year later, I am not just a sixty-year-old woman, I am a new person. After a lifetime of having little to no willpower, I now understand that my everyday routine does not have to include large amounts of carbohydrates, which turn into sugar, which is a bad thing for me. I managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and successfully make it through major holidays, two birthdays, three vacations, daily trips to the faculty room, otherwise known as carbohydrate central, and much, much more. My husband and I have changed so much about how we eat, how we order food in a restaurant, how we grocery shop, how we treat ourselves.

hubby-birthday-gift

Crystal and glass cross from my husband

Late this summer I joined a gym. When I walked into Planet Fitness for the first time, it was my first time in a gym. I was grossly intimidated by the shiny machines, by the endless spandex, by the stoic way in which everyone was just going about their own business getting it done. With the help of a friend and my husband, I made myself comfortable on a few of the machines and began the process of slowly getting into better shape. This was made easier by the several years of dog-walking, where I slowly increased my daily steps from dismal to not too embarrassing.

birthday-macarons

French macarons and gifts from co-workers

Shopping for clothing in the last few months as I have continued to tone up a bit even when not losing any new pounds has become less of a dreadful experience, where I now leave with things that I “love”, not things that just “fit”. Everything I already own fits better, and a few things actually fall into that previously unknown category of “too big”. This summer I bought a bathing suit that I actually was happy with, and wore it in Florida to actually go swimming—without a cover-up.

birthday-plant-and-cards

Birthday surprises everywhere!

It’s the little things, right, but my blood work is not a little thing. With a modest weight loss of just a little over 10% of my starting point, I reversed all my bad numbers and increased all my good numbers. I am no longer pre-diabetic and I do not at this time need a statin or cholesterol-lowering drug.

pumpkin-spice-latte-and-cards

Gift cards and a pumpkin spice latte, my favorite!

Do I still have work to do? Absolutely. My next weight-loss goal is to lose enough to weigh the “lie” on my driver’s license. My next fitness goal is to tone up my arms so I can wear sleeveless dresses and tops, especially when my husband and I go to Puerto Rico in November, which was my big 60th birthday present. I can’t wait. Flying is so much more comfortable since I’ve trimmed down a bit, and I have no fear that the seat belt won’t buckle or that I will feel like I’m spilling out of my seat onto my neighbor. Going to Puerto Rico has been a dream of mine since second grade, when my good friend Patty moved there because of her dad’s work. I can’t wait!

birthday-dinner-with-margaret

Daughter Margaret and me at birthday dinner #2

And so as my big day, my big 60th birthday day, comes to a close, I feel content and at peace with my new age. I don’t think I will have trouble remembering how old I am this year, and not because I feel panicky about being this old. I feel really good about where I am right now, both personally and professionally.

birthday-dinner-with-belgian-friends

My husband and me at birthday dinner #1

My husband, who is my best friend in the whole world, worked really hard to make this birthday really special. I’ve gone out for a birthday dinner every single day since Friday! Some dining choices this long weekend have been healthier than others, but have no fear, I’m back on the wagon tomorrow! I’ll also be making a visit to Planet Fitness this week to work off some of this birthday glory before things get out of hand.

birthday-cake-at-school

Birthday cake from my students

My daughters have been so thoughtful and kind, just a reminder of what wonderful young women they have become. I am so incredibly proud of both of them; and while we miss having them at home with us, we are happy they are happily out on their own, making their own path through life.

maddie-at-joans-on-third

Daughter Maddie sent birthday wishes from LA!

This is my tenth year of teaching, and six weeks in, it feels like it will be my best one yet. My eighth grade class this year is unbelievable, a wonderful group of smart, hard-working, sweet, young men and women who really want to do well. They have re-inspired me to be the best teacher I can be, both for myself as well as for them.

mark-twain-quoteIn closing, I leave you with a favorite quote of the great American author, Mark Twain, who never took himself too seriously. As I start my next (seventh, YIKES) decade, I will try to remember this. I’ll keep working on my health and fitness goals, continue to grow spiritually and professionally, cherish my family and friends, and try not to take myself, or my age, too seriously. Cheers, à votre santé!