Family Food Traditions

In mid-December, I added a bag of mixed nuts – in their shells – to my holiday shopping list. My husband, the shopper in the family, called to verify, “Do you want salted or unsalted?” I tried to explain that you rarely find nuts salted while still in their shells. Finally he understood and brought me a bag of mixed nuts – still in their shells – unsalted of course. They were dumped into my fluted snowman pie plate. I searched high and low for my little metal nutcracker but it was nowhere to be found. It was always in the white lazy susan utensil holder on my counter top. 

My mom always had a bag of nuts in their shells in a bowl around the holidays. I can remember sitting with my dad, sharing the nutcracker, passing it back and forth, cracking and peeling walnuts, almonds, pecans, and whatever else was in the bag. Somehow, dumping those nuts in my snowman bowl means the holidays have officially begun, and I am whisked back to that activity with my dad. 

We all have food traditions that we inherit from our parents, and for those who are lucky, from our grandparents. Three of my four grandparents died long before I was born, and I have only limited memories of my dad’s mother who died a month after my sixth birthday. “Big Mama,” as she was called even though she was pretty small, would give me a little treat if I ran the gauntlet from the driveway to her door without crying. Many a day I was pecked by the rooster in her yard, which always won me a few squares of a Hershey Bar, because it was my favorite candy at the time (still love them), but also because a square of “chocolate flavored” ExLax could be mixed in with the real thing and I would fall for that every single time. Is it just the south (or perhaps just Louisiana) that a person’s overall state of health is judged by whether you had a bowel movement today?

Another food tradition was sharing an avocado with my dad. He would cut it in half and twist it, taking out the pit, and putting each half on a saucer. He would drizzle a little olive oil and red wine vinegar in the little hole, sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and hand me a saucer and a spoon. We’d have that as our “salad” before dinner. No one else in my family liked avocados so that was always our shared treat. I still eat mine that way today, and I never fail to think of my dad when I do, symbolically offering up the other half to his memory. Boy, do I miss him.

My mom’s favorite snack wasn’t something I liked, so I never had a handful of Cheez-Its on a paper towel, which she liked to balance on the arm of the sofa while she watched Ellen in the afternoon. I don’t know for sure if I dislike Cheez-Its or not, but the overly cheesy smell of them in the box put me off so I’ve never actually tried one. Anyway, I have too many things on my list of snacks that I love (too much) to add anything new to that list. 

Afternoon coffee was a big thing in my parents’ home, especially if one or both of them had taken a nap. Coffee was always made fresh post-nap. Sooner or later, my dad’s sister, my Aunt Helen, would drive up, or my dad would call her and tell her to come over for coffee. Something was always found to be put out with the coffee, a few store-bought cookies, some pretzels, or if we were lucky, a slice of cake my cousin Penny had baked. We also had fresh coffee after dinner most nights, when my mom would have an extra piece of French bread, with butter and a little jelly, and if no bread was left, she’d have a few Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies, with a light smear of butter on top of each one. Don’t gasp, just try it. Store-bought cookies need all the help they can get, and my mom believed a touch of sweet butter was just the thing. Boy, do I miss her.

Somehow, though, the Cheez-It gene skipped me and went straight to my younger daughter, who shocked me when she requested a box of them when I asked her what snacks to buy for her trip home this Christmas. Rest assured they were purchased; she could have asked for dust from the moon’s surface and I would have found a way to have it here for when she arrived. She had not been home since Christmas of 2019, as fear of covid forced us to cancel her trip home Christmas of 2020. Her asthma put her in a higher risk category, and as much as we missed her, we just wouldn’t take that chance. Of course we Facetime’d and Zoom’d all of this time, but loading up the kitchen counter with her favorite snacks was a small price to pay for actually hugging her and holding her close. Thank you science, it was because of her two doses of Moderna and the more recent booster, that we felt safe enough having her fly in from Los Angeles. We are back to Facetime and Zoom for our visits, with hopes of seeing her again in person this summer.

Speaking of that younger daughter, a few days in during our Christmas visit, an Amazon package arrived for me. Inside, a complete set of nutcracker tools. Even though she doesn’t sit and crack and peel nuts with me, she ordered this set for me, and now these new (and much improved) tools will remind me each holiday season of her as well as my dad. Boy, do I miss her. 

Silver Linings

BCB55D0D-151D-45DF-A63C-AA49012D7E64Today is April 11, 2020, Holy Saturday. It’s a gloriously sunny day in metropolitan Washington, DC. Spring, as they say, has sprung. The pink dogwood in my front yard is blooming, and the white dogwood in my backyard is doing the same. It’s brisk and windy, but beautiful out—out where we are not supposed to be during self-isolation and social distancing from the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing.

Maryland schools, including mine, will be engaging students via distance learning for at least two more weeks. Given that our neighboring Virginia has already announced campus closures for the rest of the year, I wonder if Maryland will follow suit, or if the president’s commitment to reopening the country to commerce and industry, a/k/a normal life, will affect that.

img_5960Either way, this is the time of year when I think about my summer plans, the start of the fourth quarter, the wrap-up of the school year. Last summer, my husband and I were supposed to go to Hawaii to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary, but on May 4, I tripped playing with my dog in our living room and broke my ankle. No luau for us, as I spent the summer in a non-weight bearing boot. This summer, we were hoping to at least get to Los Angeles to visit our younger daughter, who lives and works there as a writer. But, with the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, a summer vacation seems very uncertain as of now. Luckily, she is staying well and working from home, and we are thankful for the ability to FaceTime with her.

IMG_6578 2I can’t say that I am miserable in self-isolation. I’m with two of the three people I love the most in the whole world, my husband and our older daughter. We enjoy each other’s company, and we get along fairly well for three adults feeling the stress of the situation. We have a 16-pound troublemaker of a dog who keeps us laughing and pushes us outside to walk around the block for some exercise.

I love to cook and bake and being home-bound (but not chair-bound) has given me more time to do so. When I’m not teaching online via Zoom or preparing lessons and grading materials on Google Classroom, I am enjoying yarn crafts like knitting and crocheting while watching Netflix or Amazon Prime with my family.IMG_6566 2

I’m also enjoying more time for reading. I’m on my 6th book since my school campus closed, with a last-minute trip to my local MCPL branch the day before it closed. I have a nice stack still to go and my Kindle is loaded with possibilities if I run out.

IMG_6693 2The COVID-19 pandemic has been terrifying and watching the news for too long at any given time is very stressful. I’ve tried really hard to look for the positives, the silver linings, from this experience, the best of which is that my family of four is healthy and well cared for. Slowing down and staying home was a huge adjustment, but this time will eventually end. The curve will flatten, and the virus will run its course. Life, with all its stresses and busyness, will return to normal. Until then, we will get through this one day at a time, praying for those affected and those on the front lines of the battle, always looking for our own individual silver linings.

I Am a Teacher

calendarToday is Tuesday, November 26, 2019. For the last two weeks, I have been ready for tomorrow, Wednesday, November 27, 2019. Tomorrow is the start of a 5-day break from school for the Thanksgiving holiday. Saying that I am ready for it is a gross understatement. Like saying I like carbs. Or, I like to sleep late. Or, I like to read. People who know me well know that all of these are gross understatements. I am SO ready for my Thanksgiving break.

bootWhy? First, I didn’t really have a summer break from teaching. I spent my summer in a non-weight bearing boot, sitting in a recliner, waiting for my broken ankle to heal from surgery. Yes, it healed, but as grateful as I am that I am fully-mobile again, I still feel cheated. Teachers live for summer break where we can go out to lunch with friends, go on trips, spend weekdays running errands, reading for fun and not for professional development.

Second, I’m so ready to get in my kitchen and cook to my heart’s content, since for twelve long boring weeks I wasn’t able to cook. My kitchen is upstairs, thirteen wickedly steep and treacherous steps. My husband and daughter cooked some and we ate a lot of take-out. Uber Eats was Uber Regular. So, in preparation for the biggest food day of the year, I’ve been running through menu possibilities like Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 40 greatest hits.

In spite of all of this, though, even though I am SO ready for my Thanksgiving break, today in literature class, I was stopped cold in my tracks. Instead of wishing for the remaining hours to hurry by so I would be on my Thanksgiving break, I was reminded why I love teaching. In a very short, one-paragraph example of creative writing, I was reminded what I have to be thankful for, and why. With the permission of a very special student, I share with you what I experienced today.

mozartkugel tinWe had finished my lesson plan for the class period and we had about ten minutes left. I pulled out my “think-it tin” which originally housed Austrian chocolate hazelnut candies called Original Salzburger Mozartkugel. thinketsNow it is filled with little objects I find all over my house: a charm from a bracelet, the little plastic clip that holds a pair of socks together, a fake gold ring from a box of Cracker Jacks, a badge from Girls Scouts that never got sewn on, the spring out of a ball point pen, etc. Students reach in and pull out something. They get to decide what the object is, and then they write a story where the object is the main character. The slight twist for today was that the story had to be about Thanksgiving.

My student today pulled out something that he decided was a belt. In reality it is a dog collar for a Chihuahua (dog). In the past, students have decided it was a leather bracelet, like the ones you see hipsters wearing these days. But, today, it was a belt. And this belt had a lot to say.

MLKWhen you read this, your first reaction may be that it’s light-hearted and humorous. That it is. But look deeper and I hope you will see the serious side of it as well. My student, using a literary device called repetition, famously used by MLK Jr. in his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech, wove through his short paragraph life lessons and poignant reminders of what is really important in life. mother teresaHis very creative short story is reminiscent of some of Saint Mother Teresa’s famous quotes about doing small things with love, starting with loving your own family. Please read it. Consider it my student’s Thanksgiving gift to you.

thanksgiving feastThis Thanksgiving, let’s all focus on what is really important, not which side dishes to have or how many pieces of pie is too many. Let’s focus on loving each other. Let’s focus on being grateful and thankful for what we have, not what we wish we had. Let’s focus on appreciating our family, family thanksgiving 2018especially those who hold us all together. Let’s focus on love Let’s focus on being a belt.

 

 

 

 

I Am a Belt

Love Never Fails

It’s midday Sunday and I am just sitting down to write this week’s essay. It’s been a busy weekend. Friday night was the wedding rehearsal and rehearsal dinner for one of my colleagues, a third grade teacher at my school. Months ago, after announcing her engagement, she stopped me as I was coming in to school one morning and asked me to do one of the readings of scripture at her wedding. I am still surprised at how emotional I became when she asked me, immediately choking up and fighting back tears. I hugged her and said yes, of course, and thanked her for making me a part of her special day. Yesterday was the wedding and reception, and much of this morning was spent looking at wedding photos on Facebook posted by some of those in attendance.

I moved to the DC area from my home state of Louisiana in 1988, so by all accounts this should be my home now. But, with no extended family here, and not having grown up here or gone to school here, in a lot of ways I don’t feel “at home”. One of the times when this is most evident to me is when hearing about weddings. If we lived in Louisiana, we would be invited to weddings much more frequently than we are here in Maryland. We are friends with a lot of people, but often not close enough to get invited to weddings. It is understandable, with the high costs associated with even a modest wedding in this day and time, but nonetheless, when we are invited to a wedding, it is indeed a special occasion for us.

Our own wedding, June 10, 1989, was very small, mostly just family, a few of our own friends who mostly were involved in the wedding in some way, and a few friends of our parents. our rehearsal dinnerThe rehearsal dinner was at Tom’s family restaurant, Ardillo’s in Amite, Louisiana, founded by his grandfather Roy S. Ardillo, in 1947. My father-in-law continued to run it after the death of his siblings, until it closed in May of 2012.

at our receptionThe reception was at my parents’ house, with a table set up in the living room for the wedding cake made by a friend of my mom’s, the groom’s cake made by me, and finger foods that were made by my mom, some of her Sodality friends, and relatives. food at our receptionIt was in our minds, the perfect balance. We placed our focus on the wedding Mass, where we received the Sacrament of Matrimony. We had attended pre-Cana preparation at our then parish, St. Ann’s in Washington, DC, where we were both active in parish life while we dated and were engaged, Tom singing in the choir and me teaching religious education on Sunday mornings. planning our MassWe spent time picking out our readings, asking friends and family members to participate, and picking out music for the Mass. My good friend Ann was my maid of honor and Tom’s brother Jay was his best man. Our godparents brought up the gifts. My cousin, Penny, played the organ for the processional and recessional. our musiciansA mutual friend, Steve, who was instrumental in our spending time together early on, played guitar and sang, along with another friend, Kay, who cantored the Mass. Steve even wrote a song just for us and sang it after Communion. In every single way, to us, it was perfect.

This weekend’s wedding festivities were quite different by contrast. The bride has a large extended family, representing several different cultures. Both the bride and groom grew up here so they had many friends and family members to invite. The wedding Mass was held at the church parish of the school where we teach so there we all felt “at home”. children with coupleThe bride had invited her current 3rd grade class to the wedding, and they attended in full force, along with many of their parents, all smiles as they watched every move of their teacher on the altar. There was a certain energy to the wedding Mass that was almost palpable, brightly colored dresses and the sounds of young children filling the large church. The reception was equally lively, with a steel drum band playing during the cocktail hour and a DJ spinning popular hits in dance music after dinner. dancing the night awayFlower girls and junior bridesmaids danced the night away side by side with older relatives and middle-aged couples, ourselves included. The featured libation was chosen by the newly married couple, a rum punch, which was delicious and as colorful as every other detail of the two days of festivities. It was a beautiful celebration of the love of these two young people.

Knowing the bride stemmed from a large family, I was truly honored to take part in the ceremony. I was given the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. I know it well, having heard it many times at other weddings and as part of the readings in weekly Mass. I began practicing it as soon as she gave me a copy. Even though I serve as a Lector in my parish, Shrine of St. Jude’s in Rockville, as well as a Lector at some of our school Masses, I fully appreciated the significance of being asked to read at their wedding and wanted to perform this duty to the best of my ability. taking the reading to papal massOn September 23rd when I was getting ready for the Papal Mass, I folded it up and tucked it into my purse. I told the bride I would be taking her and her fiancé with me to the Papal Mass and then I would bring the Pope to their wedding Mass via the same piece of paper, which I did.

This reading from Corinthians is very powerful, and its power comes from the poetry of the words themselves. Studying and analyzing words is what I do for a living, teaching literature to middle school students, showing them how to break down passages of literature for its deeper meaning. Reading is one of the great joys of my life, and the more I focus on my own writing, the more I appreciate the beauty of words and the power that exists in truly well written prose. This piece of scripture is a fine example.

A reading from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians (12:31–13:8a)

Brothers and sisters:
Strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts.
But I shall show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues
but do not have love,
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
And if I have the gift of prophecy
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own,
and if I hand my body over so that I may boast
but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind.
It is not jealous, is not pompous,
it is not inflated, it is not rude,
it does not seek its own interests,
it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, 
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails.
The word of the Lord.

Even though St. Paul was not talking to a young couple about to embark on a lifetime together, this popular New Testament reading is still listed as a choice for Catholic wedding Masses. The detailed “laundry list” of what love is, as well as what love is not, can be applied to the Christian community of Corinth, who had fallen away from the teachings of the Gospel, as easily as to a young man and a young woman trying to live a life of faith in today’s fast-paced world. It is difficult to find time for peace and quiet reflection in a world of instant communication via many different types of social media, evidenced by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram images of this weekend’s wedding being posted while the events were still taking place. I myself fell victim to this increasingly more popular trend, holding handstaking a quick photo when the couple took their seats for the first reading. The way the groom so sweetly was holding the bride’s hand was so reminiscent of my favorite photo of our own wedding, a now-yellowed photo taken by a relative as we exited the church after the wedding, my new husband not only giving me his arm to walk me down the aisle but taking my hand as well.us leaving the wedding

In the end, this young couple needs only the excerpt from St. Paul’s letter to the people of Corinth and the closing words of the priest’s homily at their wedding to help them navigate the joys and strife of their new life together. It isn’t about the beautiful wedding attire or the delicious food and drink at spectacular venues. It isn’t about the Pinterest ideas or the ubiquitous iPhone cameras in the hands of nearly all of the guests. It isn’t about the rain and dark clouds that dampened the two days’ activities. It isn’t about the dress or the cake or the flowers. It is about love. And, love never fails.

“New Testament Readings.” For Your Marriage. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.