My Nanny Pat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cross on Over to Nerdy Book Club!

After teaching The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I wrote about the experience–and and the man behind it–for Nerdy Book Club. Please read it here and let me know your thoughts!

Find the Joy – Everywhere and Anywhere

IMG_1040For over a year now, I’ve been ending my tweets and posts on Instagram and Facebook with #findthejoy. Whenever something makes me smile or makes me happy, I snap a pic and tag it #findthejoy. This stemmed from my desire to bring more joy to my social media posts, in an effort to combat the never-ending stream of negativity and sniping that is everywhere today. I also wanted to approach life from a more positive viewpoint, and to just be thankful for the things I have, rather than whining about the things I don’t have.

IMG_1140On April 28, I posted five photos I took while walking my dog after school. They were all taken either in my yard or on my street within a half a block away. I got quite a few comments on the photos on my various social media platforms. I’m far from a professional at photography and these were just quick snaps with my iPhone, holding as steady as possible while my 16-pound Maltipoo jerked my other hand repeatedly to continue walking. IMG_1041

This abnormally high level of traffic to my social media sites made me think about what was so intriguing to my friends about these photos. One possibility is that we had a miserable winter and spring seemed to be taking a leave of absence, so was it that things were blooming and sprouting finally? Was it the #findthejoy caption? Or, is it a sign that others feel similarly about social media: there is too much negativity out there.

IMG_1044My life is not perfect but I am in a very good place right now. I would love to lose some weight, but I weigh less than I have weighed in the past. My knees bother me, especially Mr. Lefty, with his torn ACL, but I don’t think about them that much except when I have to climb a few flights of stairs. I wish I had more free time to read and cook and craft, but I still love teaching and I love my students and the people I work with. I miss my younger daughter terribly (she lives in LA), but my older daughter is back living at home and we are really enjoying her. My aunt, who is also my godmother, is very ill far away in Louisiana, but my father-in-law at the age of 91-1/2 is recovering very well from a heart attack and subsequent treatment for that. I would love to travel overseas again, but I am so very happy at home with my dear hubby cooking a good meal in my new kitchen. So, for me it is very beneficial for me to try to remember to look at the positives in my life.IMG_1042

My conclusion is that we need to find the joy – everywhere and anywhere we can. We need to look for joy, and we need to not focus on our problems. I don’t think it is Pollyanna-ish to say that being in a bad mood breeds dark and melancholy feelings. Being thankful each and every day for the small pleasures of life can help push those negative thoughts aside.

chapelFor me, prayer is a big part of that. I pray frequently throughout the day. Granted, it’s not that difficult when you teach in a Catholic school and the whole school pauses three times a day to pray over the PA system. But I squeeze in other times in my day as well. There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness these days, and it seems to be tied to meditation and Buddhist teachings, things I am not well-schooled on. I do know, however, that when I pray, whether it is for an hour in Mass or during the Angelus at noon at school, I am focused like a laser beam on that prayer, as mindful as I can be that I am in the holy presence of God.

IMG_1045I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid the news, except for a quick glance at headlines on my phone. When driving, I listen to a podcast (What Should I Read Next by Ann Bogel is my favorite, along with Milk Street Kitchen and Bon Appetit) or the PBS classical music station. At home, I watch PBS, Food Network, or HGTV, and if all else fails, I watch a Columbo rerun. I read more now (thanks again to Ann Bogel) and even though I sometimes read things that are dark and gloomy, I am swept away into someone else’s dark and gloomy life, not my own.

Earlier this week, I went back out with dog and phone and snapped a few things that don’t scream out “beautiful”, however, I find them beautiful all the same. Definitely #findthejoy material. What do you think?

So, go on. Go out and find the joy – everywhere and anywhere. The more you look, the more you will find. Use #findthejoy and tag me on one of my social media platforms. Share your joy!

Some Assembly Required

food networkSometimes I pretend I’m on Food Network’s Chopped and open my fridge and pantry as though it is the wicker basket on the set. Then I create a new recipe with whatever I have on hand. As Lori Greiner on Shark Tank would say, “Sometimes it’s a hero, and sometimes it’s a zero.”

penguinToday after returning from running an errand, and in an attempt at avoiding the papers I need to grade, I decided to make dinner a bit early. Truth be told, I wanted to do something in the kitchen so I could watch the Penguins hockey game, something I really can’t do while grading papers!

rotisserie chickenSo, first I assessed what was on hand: a rotisserie chicken from the grocery, something I usually use as a protein boost to a pot of ramen noodles. I didn’t have much in the way of vegetables except for a red bell pepper, one onion, and a bag of pre-cut broccoli. Digging around in my pantry I found a bag of Basmati Rice Medley, rice medleya Trader Joe’s staple. I also found in there a can of cream of mushroom soup.

A chicken and rice casserole was coming to mind so I grabbed my rice cooker and got the rice started. In a five-quart pot, I sautéed on low heat the chopped onion and red bell pepper in a stick of butter, seasoned that with Kosher salt, freshly cracked black pepper, garlic powder, herbes de Provence, and crushed red pepper flakes. While the aromatics slowly simmered to supple softness, I chopped the broccoli and deboned the rotisserie chicken, chopping up the white and dark meat. I added the chicken and broccoli to the pot, along with the can of cream of mushroom soup. It looked a bit dry, considering I was going to add the rice once it was cooked, so I added a soup can of 1% milk and stirred it all together. I left it on low heat so the milk and cream of mushroom soup could thicken into a nice sauce holding all the other ingredients together.

cream of mushroomWhen the rice cooker chimed, I added rice to the soupy mixture until it looked to be the consistency of mac and cheese. I poured it all into a five quart casserole dish that had been sprayed with Pam, topped it with Progresso Italian style bread crumbs, and popped it into a 350 degree oven until it was bubbling and golden brown on top.

bread crumbsConsidering I used a rotisserie chicken, a pre-seasoned rice mix, and cream of mushroom soup, you can hardly call this cooking. Alright, I did sauté the onion and red bell pepper, and I did chop up the broccoli, but this was much more assembly than cooking. That being said, this chicken and rice casserole will make a lovely Sunday evening dinner served alongside a nice green salad. Best part? This will make me a very happy camper at lunch time all this week as I pop a lunch-size Tupperware of this in the faculty room microwave! Even if it was more assembly than cooking, it’s definitely a hero!

Chicken with Three Reds

So, today, we returned home from 10:30 Mass, all of us hungry and no one feeling like preparing a big meal from scratch. We had on hand a bag of perfect portionsPerdue Perfect Portions, boneless, skinless chicken breasts. I checked the pantry to see what could I do with them that would be more exciting than a quick saute in a little olive oil. I found a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, a jar of roasted red bell peppers, and tomato saucea small (8 oz) can of tomato sauce. Three reds, right? I had in mind something vaguely reminiscent of the tasty.com video of the “meatball bake” that has meatballs arranged in a pan bathed with marinara sauce and then covered in mozzarella and parmesan (very good by the way, and very low in carbs). I rinsed and patted dry the chicken breasts and arranged them in a 9×13 pan sprayed with Pam. I seasoned the chicken breasts on both sides with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, garlic powder, and dried Italian herb blend. roasted peppersThen, in my food processor, I blitzed the drained sun-dried tomatoes, the drained roasted red bell peppers, and the tomato sauce. I spooned that evenly over the five chicken breasts and covered them with a nice fluffy white blanket of grated mozzarella. I covered the pan with foil and baked in a preheated 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. During that time, I microwaved a bag of cauliflower rice cauliflower riceand tossed chopped romaine hearts with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. When the timer went off, I took the foil off the pan and sprinkled the chicken breasts with sundried tomatoesshaved parmesan cheese (the real thing). I put the pan under the broiler (on high) for 3 minutes until they were bubbly and brown. Not a gourmet meal by any stretch, and more heavily reliant on bottles and jars than I usually open for a meal, but in under an hour we had a lovely meal on the table before anyone could get “HANGRY” and ruin our nice post-Mass Christian feelings! Happy Sunday, everyone!

Finish Strong

The April 1issue of Washington Family Magazine is now available online. Please see my article “Finish Strong“, pages 14-15, with quotes from some of the best teachers I know!

Who’s Your Favorite?

top tenThese “top 10 of this” and “favorite 5 of that” lists are very popular these days. Someone is always posting a list of these types of things on Facebook: list your favorite book (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier), favorite song (“Your Song” by Elton John), favorite color (pink), favorite day of the week (Sunday), favorite Beatle (Paul), favorite food (cheese), etc. Answering these things on Facebook is supposed to help your “friends” get to know you better. To be honest, I enjoy reading these lists on my friends’ posts every now and then.

jesus and god with holy spiritRecently, one of my husband’s coworkers, a devout Catholic, lost his mother and my husband and I went to the wake. He and his wife are active in their church parish, which is something his wife mentioned about my husband and me when she introduced us to a friend of hers. priest cartoonShe then shared a story with her friend and me. She said she had recently been on a flight seated next to a man dressed in clerical clothing. She asked if he was a priest and he responded that yes, he was a Catholic priest. They chatted amicably for a few minutes, and then she asked him a question. She said that she hoped he wouldn’t think it was irreverent or sacrilegious, but she wanted to know, “Is it okay to have a favorite member of the Holy Trinity?”

whoa“Whoa!” slipped out of my mouth before I could catch it. She laughed and said that the priest had a similar response. As Catholics, we are taught about the Holy Trinity early on in our faith formation: “God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.” If they are three in one being, then how could you have a favorite? They can’t be separated that way, or can they?

mary with rosaryIn the weeks that have transpired since that conversation, I have thought about it quite a bit, and then, yesterday morning, after daily Mass, the priest gave a brief reflection after the Mass. He recounted a story to us about praying the rosary in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary, while his father was very ill in the hospital. In the middle of the rosary, he had a feeling of overwhelming spirituality come over him, and he stopped his rosary to pray directly to God the Father. He said it was almost as though Mary had stepped back and away from him in order for him to have this intimate conversation with God the Father. After this brief interlude, he resumed his rosary and felt at piece with the many issues weighing on him involving his father’s illness.

So, this young priest had clearly separated God the Father from the rest of the Holy Trinity. This made me think that perhaps my conversation with this woman at the wake was not that unusual after all.

The story from our priest reminded me about a similar episode in my own prayer life. Sometimes in the early ‘90s, I had just found out some bad news about my mother’s health. I left work and drove home, crying and sobbing over the dismal news. rosaryWhen I got home I went straight to my bedroom and got my rosary from my bedside table. I knelt there at the side of my bed and said the rosary, but somewhere in the middle of a decade of the rosary, I stopped saying a Hail Mary and turned my prayer directly to God the Father. I asked Him to please not take my mother then, to allow her to watch my girls grow up, to give her more time with us. God heavenI talked to Him about how she had struggled in her life and how she had had so many crosses to bear, losing both her parents at a young age, marrying my father and being part of a completely different culture, her many ongoing health issues, and later, losing every single thing she owned in Hurricane Katrina. I told Him everything, and I asked Him for peace in this crisis in my life. A calm came over me and I returned to saying my rosary. Clearly, I had had a spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Father, but until Saturday morning’s reflection, I had not really thought of it in that way.

god the sonAs a regular churchgoer, I think of the Mass in terms of God the Son. He is there, up on the crucifix, up on the altar, present in the Eucharist. We hear His stories in the Old Testament, we are His invited guests at the Last Supper during the Eucharistic Prayer. So, when I am in church, particularly in Mass, I feel that I am having that same spiritual and intimate conversation with God the Son.

holy spiritThat just leaves God the Holy Spirit. Catholic middle school students are told at dances to “leave room for the Holy Spirit” when dancing to slow songs. We’ve all heard the phrase, “It was the Holy Spirit” that did this or that. Last May, I received a call from a friend who told me of a job opening at my parish school, where my daughters were educated, where my husband and I spend so much of our time. I had always wanted to teach there but there was never an opening when the timing was right. This was the third time an opening in my content area and grade level had come up, and this time, I decided I would go in and interview for the position. Changing schools was a challenge, as I had only ever taught at one school for my whole career. Many times, I had taught four or more children from a single family, had watched the whole family grow up, graduate, and go to college. I had (and still have) many dear friends on faculty there. But, I felt the Holy Spirit was calling me to make this change.

hands on the earthYes, it was a change, fraught with challenge. I have six preps (lesson plans) a day now which is twice as many as I had before. I am teaching 6th grade literature for the first time. At my school, the 5th grade is part of the middle school, and before this year, I was not around 5th grade very much. The student body is very diverse, with students from El Salvador, Peru, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Philippines, India, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and many more. Learning to pronounce and spell some of the first and last names has been a bit of work, to say the least.

keep calmBut, there have been many blessings as well. All of those cultures blend together to make a very interesting and rich classroom environment. They are lovely children, polite and courteous, full of energy and enthusiasm, the same as children from my old school. I have grown greatly as a teacher, improving in many areas of my classroom skills. With increased preps, I have become much more efficient in my lesson planning and grading; I use my planning periods much more resourcefully. The atmosphere in the hallways and among the faculty is positive and upbeat. There is laughter everywhere. My commute is now only 1.7 miles each way, and I can be at school in about 5 minutes. I am more fully a part of my church parish community. And, I have my friend to thank for it, or do I? We both have commented that it was the Holy Spirit that made this happen, and so I offer prayers of thanksgiving to God the Holy Spirit each day for this opportunity.

gold triangleThe Holy Trinity has been a part of my faith life since I was born and baptized into the Catholic Church, but until that recent conversation at the wake, I’ve never really thought of them as having distinct and separate effects on my life. Saturday’s reflection after Mass has given me new insight into my prayer life and how I view God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God in three persons, the Holy Trinity.