Small Town Girl in a Big City

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which aired from 1970 to 1977, was a sitcom about a young single woman moving to the big city of Minneapolis. The show began my freshman year of high school and lasted through my junior year of college. It was designed as a star vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore (1936-2017), who only four years earlier had finished her five-year run as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The new show was a very successful move as Moore’s show garnered 29 Emmy Awards and launched three successful spin-off series.

While I loved this show and will still watch the reruns when they are on, I always found it ironic that this show about a single woman moving to a big city with a big job in a traditionally male work environment, dealing with dating and relationships, aired on Saturday nights, which meant that its captive audience was single women all over America home dateless on a Saturday night.

The lyrics to the theme song still come immediately to mind if I happen upon a rerun showing Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air during the opening credits:

Love is all around, no need to waste it
You can have a town, why don’t you take it
You’re gonna make it after all
You’re gonna make it after all

In March of 1988, I moved from Hammond, Louisiana, to Bethesda, Maryland; just me, my two Persian cats, and all my furniture and belongings, neatly contained in 132 boxes all stamped Security Van Lines. In January of 1988, I had been flown into Washington, DC, for an interview with a large real estate development company based in downtown Bethesda. I was offered the job, a decent starting salary, and a moving allowance. Yes, this was a huge career advancement for me, but the real reason I was moving was to get closer to my then-boyfriend, not yet fiancé, and hopefully future husband, who was a graduate student at the University of Virginia.

The move to the Washington DC suburb was very exciting for me, having stayed in Hammond after college graduation. I was living in a two-bedroom, two-bath condo and quite happy working as a paralegal by day, heavily involved in community theatre by night. Hammond was a small town then, but it was much larger than my hometown, Port Sulphur, a town in southeast Louisiana since devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But along came Mr. Right, and somehow, Hammond no longer captivated me as it had since August of 1974.

My big city life began, moving sight unseen into my apartment on the 14th floor of Triangle Towers on Cordell Avenue. Frightened by the astronomical cost to park a car in my apartment’s garage, I sold it and moved here without a car. So on March 14, 1988, I woke up, got dressed for my first day of work, and stepped out of my apartment’s foyer to walk to work, six city blocks away.

Photo Cred: https://www.apartmentfinder.com/Maryland/Bethesda-Apartments/Triangle-Towers-Apartments

I was ready: dressed for success, navy suit, white silk blouse, pantyhose, and navy and white spectator pumps. I was not ready, however, for the weather . . . it was snowing! This southeast Louisiana girl was totally unprepared for the cold, much less snow; I did not even own an overcoat! My new co-workers filled me on the essentials I would need and that afternoon, on the way walking home from work, I bought an all-weather coat, an umbrella, hat, gloves, and a scarf! I must say, I felt like tossing that brand-new winter hat into the air when I arrived in front of my apartment building a few blocks later. Properly outfitted for the weather, I knew I would make it after all.

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.

Angie Kilcullen of Barn Again Home

Hot off the presses! Profile article on artist Angie Meche Kilcullen of Barn Again Home, in March issue of Washington Family Magazine, page 10. My first print publication! #ampublished!

http://digital.washingtonfamily.com/issues/March-2018/index.html

Soup: Easy Peasy (Really)

am temperatures

 

AM Temp

 

Let’s cut right to the chase. It’s cold. Really cold. Like single digit cold (as of this morning), and this is not Fargo, North Dakota. It’s Rockville, Maryland, suburb of Washington, DC. Even though the temperature climbed significantly during the day, it was blistering cold walking to my car at 5:15 today. #bombcyclone #teacherslovesnowdaystoo

I’m a Cajun girl, as you can see from my blog’s name. I never owned a coat until I moved to Bethesda, Maryland, in 1988. We didn’t even have many sweaters, other than the requisite wool ones that our Scottish cousins sent us every few years. We never wore them, though. Growing up in my hometown, Port Sulphur, Louisiana, is almost like living in the tropics, except there’s no beach, no resorts, and no celebs arriving on private jets for vacation. So basically, our version of the tropics was just gnats, mosquitoes, 100% humidity eleven months of the year, and summers so hot you ran from your air-conditioned house to your air-conditioned car to run errands or “go to town” which meant a forty-mile drive to New Orleans.

evening temp

 

PM Temp

 

So, waking up this morning to unseasonably cold temperatures, I knew in advance what I would be having for dinner tonight: soup. I love soup. I could eat it every day. In fact, I had homemade chicken noodle soup for lunch today. A few years ago, one of my requested Christmas presents was a baby Crock-Pot which I plug in at my desk in my classroom. It doesn’t cook but it does reheat. I bring my container of soup to school each morning, plug it in, and by lunch time, it is steaming hot and I am a very happy camper, which is important when you are a teacher. Trust me.

soup naziBut, that pot of soup was nearing its end so I had already made up my mind that I was making a big pot of soup when I got home from work. I knew what I had on hand in my fridge: an onion, some celery, two bell peppers, and a package of Italian sausage. That, combined with pantry staples, was all I needed to make a wonderful, belly warming dinner tonight. And the best part: there will be plenty left over for lunches the rest of this week!

easy peasy memeBecause I eat a lot of soup at school, people are always asking me about it. When I say it’s easy to make, they always look at me like I’m crazy. But, really, soup is easy. It’s all about layering the flavors. During the two years we lived in Belgium with limited TV programs broadcast in English, I watched a BBC One cooking show every afternoon, Ready Steady Cook. For me, that show was basically a lecture series in how to make soup. The British chefs made soup on almost every episode, and they always started a pot of soup the same way: in a large, heavy pot, sauté a finely sliced onion in a bit of olive oil. Season it with salt and pepper, dried herbs, and red pepper flakes. Add your veggies and/or protein, a starch if you wish (pasta, potatoes, rice), some broth, and simmer until veggies are tender and protein is cooked. Voila! Soup!

Italian Sausage and Bean SoupSoup du jour chez Michelle was Italian Sausage and Beans. I got home at 5:30, by 6:00 it was simmering away and I was setting the table, and at 6:15 we were soup-soup-souping away. With a little planning we could have had a salad and a crusty baguette, but – still – in under an hour, we were having a lovely bowl of soup and feeling all warm and cozy inside.

Here’s the “recipe”, adapted loosely from dozens and dozens of episodes of James Martin making soup on Ready Steady Cook, with my own Cajun twists here and there.

Michelle’s Italian Sausage and Bean Soup

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced (or orange or yellow, matters not)
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 1 32-oz carton of Swanson’s beef stock
  • 1 package of Johnsville Sweet Italian Sausage, casings removed
  • 2 15.5-oz cans Hanover cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 14.5-oz can Hunts petite diced tomatoes, with liquid
  • Seasonings

Directions:

  • In a 6-quart heavy pot with lid, brown sausage in olive oil, breaking it up into small pieces. When browned, remove sausage with a slotted spoon and set aside, leaving oil in pot.
  • Add onion to pot, and sauté on medium heat. Season with kosher salt and pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, herbes de Provence or Italian herbs, and garlic powder.
  • When onion is soft, add celery, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Cook on medium heat to allow tomatoes to soften and break down, stirring often.
  • Return sausage to pot and add cannellini beans and beef stock. Stir to combine, cover, and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. If liquid does not completely cover the solids, add more broth or water.
  • Optional: add a bag of baby spinach near the end of the cooking time to up the nutritional value, although it is pretty healthy as is. Bon appetit!

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.

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.

Invite Him to the Storm

imageOne of the things I love most about being Catholic is the ability to practice my faith anywhere, anytime. I’ve attended Mass in nearly every state and country that I’ve visited. Sometimes it has been in a foreign language, and while listening to the homily can be a challenge, I know the parts of the Mass so well I can easily follow along, responding quietly in English. I also always carry my Magnificat with me so I can read the readings and prayers, no matter where I am.

imageWhile visiting a friend in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida, I attended Sunday Mass at the Church of the Resurrection of our Lord. The celebrant was Fr. Oliver Toner, an old (his adjective, not mine) Irish priest, whose lilting accent and demeanor reminded me of one of my favorite priests of all times, Msgr. Oliver McGready, another Irish priest I was blessed to have as pastor of my parish church for over ten years.

imageThe Irish are always ready with a good story to make a point, teach a lesson, or simply just to entertain. Fr. Toner was no exception. The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time were from Genesis and Colossians, with the gospel coming from Luke. The church bulletin advised that the day’s readings were to “address the importance of persistent prayer.” It’s no surprise that this message was especially poignant, given the unrest and discord in the upcoming presidential election as well as the recent spate of violence and brutal killings in my home state of Louisiana, in Florida, in Texas, in Germany, and just recently, in France, where an elderly priest was beheaded while celebrating morning Mass.

imageFr. Toner’s homily focused in on a specific type of prayer, not one of asking but of thanking. His advice was to thank God for the negatives in our lives, not just the positives. In his typically-Irish way of using homey, intimate stories, he illustrated this with several examples. One was that of being called out to give last rites to a woman who had suffered a massive heart attack. The doctor, a golfing buddy of his, advised him that the prognosis was dire as the heart attack had damaged three-quarters of the woman’s heart. On his way out of the emergency room, he was approached by the woman’s husband who was seeking comfort and solace. Fr. Toner told him to pray, and in his prayer, try thanking God for his wife’s heart attack. The man thought it was crazy to do so but felt he had nothing to lose so he did. Months later, Fr. Toner was visited by the man and his wife, who had indeed recovered from the heart attack.

Fr. Toner told several other stories with similar threads, one including a blocked sewer pipe, which brought a laugh from the congregation. He didn’t just tell stories, however, he backed them up with a powerful passage from scripture, 1 Thessalonians 5:18. “In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In other words, thank God for everything, positive and negative.

imageOn the surface, this seems counter to what we have been taught in our prayer life. As a teacher, when I pray with my students, whether it be before a field trip, before a big exam, or before a rehearsal for the school play, I always tell them to thank God for the blessings He has bestowed on them and only then should they ask for what they need or want. Fr. Toner offered a different template for prayer, one which I will bring back to school with me this fall: ACTS. This simple acronym focuses our prayer efforts in four easy steps. “A” is for acknowledge God as our Father and worship Him in adoration. “C” is for confession of our sins which we bring to Him for healing and mercy. “T” is for thanksgiving, but Fr. Toner shared that perhaps we should think of trust instead, putting our trust in Him to help us through our ordeals. It is at this stage of prayer that Fr. Toner suggested we thank God for the negatives in our lives. Finally, “S” is for supplication, where we turn to God with our requests.

imageWhy should we thank Him for the problems in our lives, for the large and small crosses we feel we have been given to bear? Fr. Toner was ready with the answer to this. He wrapped up his homily by telling the congregation that God is waiting for us to give Him control, for choosing obedience over free will, for allowing Him to embrace the evil and transform it. Fr. Toner said simply, “Bring God into the storms of your life. God can surprise you.”

To sleep, perchance to dream . . .

4428688046_baabbdcaa4_b

2002 Pulitzer Prize, Spot News Photography, Steve Ludlum, New York Times

On the morning of September 11, 2001, before all Hell broke loose, I was at my desk working on a lease agreement for a tenant moving into one of the shopping centers managed by the company where I worked. As I worked, writing and editing legal language to insert into the document, I could hear people talking about an accident. We had an open office environment, and while I was enclosed in a cubicle, it had no ceiling or door. I was used to tuning out, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, the conversations of my co-workers. I could hear talk of a plane crashing into a building in NYC. Voices around me became more and more agitated, however, so I got up to investigate what was going on. Within minutes, no one was working; everyone was congregating in the hallways or hovering over someone’s shoulder as they frantically searched the internet for the latest news. Someone shouted that the big screen projector in the board room was showing live feed from CNN so I rushed there. As I entered the board room, the second plane was hitting the second building. Then I heard that a truck bomb had crashed into the State Department, one of the many horrific examples of misinformation from that day among the many horrific examples of actual true information. Two planes crashing in NYC is one thing, but a truck bomb at the State Department meant that it had struck closer to home, so I ran back to my cubicle, grabbed my purse, and ran to my car. I had three goals as I tore out of the parking lot: pick up my daughters from school, make contact with my husband,  and call my parents.

There was no traffic yet but it took me many, many tries to get through to my husband on my cell phone, who only said, “I’m okay, gotta go,” and many, many more tries to get to my parents. My mother informed me that they were about to get on the Mississippi River Bridge in New Orleans, heading to a doctor’s appointment. I told them to pull over and not get on the bridge, and to turn around and go home. Was whatever was happening going on in other major cities? NYC and DC, perhaps New Orleans, too?

I was among the first of parents arriving at my daughters’ school, as I was only three miles away. I went immediately to the office where the school secretary told me, “Just wait here, the principal is speaking to the middle school students. We’ll get your girls in a minute.” No questions asked, she knew I was there to pick them up and get them home where I hoped we would all be safe from whatever was going on.

In the car I explained to them the basics, which was all I really knew at that point: two planes had crashed into two buildings in NYC, and there were all sorts of stories of bad things happening elsewhere, including in DC. Once home, I told them no TV but they could watch a Disney movie or go to the den to play. They were 11 and 9 at the time, and they did as I asked. I had planned to make lasagna for dinner that night so I decided I would go ahead and do that while I waited for further news from my husband. At this point it was virtually impossible to get through to anyone on the phone, landline or mobile. Being in the kitchen, making lasagna, gave me something to do.

As I finished up the lasagna and popped it in the oven, my husband got home. He told me what he knew, and we watched the news for a bit. At that point, the Pentagon had already been attacked, and the plane heading back to DC had crashed in Pennsylvania. A wave of fatigue swept over me, and I literally felt as though I might just collapse. So, I went to bed. I set the timer for the lasagna, told my husband to take it out when it was done, and I fell into a deep, deep sleep.

roy blanchard napping

My dad and one of his famous naps in 1990, Mozart keeping watch

For me, going to sleep in the face of such tragedy and chaos was not new. On November 22, 1963, I was in the second grade. Sometime just after lunch, there was a knock on my classroom door. My teacher went to the door and spoke to someone in the hall. When she came back into our classroom, she looked upset. She told us to put our heads down on our desks and sit silently until she told us we could sit back up. So, we did just that. Eventually, one by one, we were called out into the hallway, to be collected by our mothers, who had rushed to the school as soon as the news had been broadcast that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.

kennedy assassination

Photograph by Justin Newman

In the car, she explained to me that the president had died. When we got home, just a very short car ride from my school to my house, she had me write a note to Caroline Kennedy, the president’s daughter, telling her I was so sorry that her daddy had died. Then, my mother told me to go and take a nap. As a second grader, I was really past taking afternoon naps, but the strange events at school and being picked up early, along with the sad news about the president and writing the sympathy note, had made me very tired. So I went to sleep, and slept until dinner time.

Hurricane Katrina

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Growing up in southeast Louisiana, hurricane season was a familiar evil. From June 1st to November 30th of each year, my father carefully watched the news and tracked any storms developing in the Atlantic Ocean. He was an expert at predicting whether they were a real threat or not, and subsequently whether we would need to evacuate or not. In August of 2005, he was very, very concerned about Hurricane Katrina. As the storm developed and grew stronger, we talked many times on the telephone about it. He knew it was going to be a bad one and began making plans where to take my mother, who was not well. Not New Orleans, not Baton Rouge, as they would normally go to my aunt’s house in the state’s capital, but this time to Houston, Texas.

With the enormity of this storm, all news stations covered it extensively.  And, as my father had predicted, along with nearly everyone else in southeast Louisiana, it was bad. The levee had broken north of my hometown, allowing the mighty Mississippi River free “reign” over Port Sulphur and the surrounding towns. My brother broke the bad news to my parents, the sheriff’s office had been down the road and there was nothing left in my hometown, except the Catholic church, which had been gutted by the storm waters, but the structure was still standing. My parents were devastated, and my poor mother, unwell and depressed, could not even tell me where she was staying in Houston. I finally got out of her that it was a motel with a foreign name starting with l-a-q. Eventually I figured out it was a La Quinta Inn in the Woodlands, a development in a Houston suburb.

PS after Katrina

Port Sulphur after Katrina. Photo by Commander Mark Moran, NOAA Aviation Weather Center, et al

Slowly the news began to sink in, that my hometown was gone, my parents’ home and all their belongings, except for whatever they had managed to pack in their car before evacuating, were all gone, every school I had ever attended was gone, and the homes of all my childhood friends, the sites of many birthday parties and sleepovers, all gone. The final straw was several days later my mother saying that she had gone into the bathroom and sat on the toilet to cry, after discovering that she had brought pantsuits with tops and bottoms that did not match, and one each of several pairs of shoes. She was a homeless person without even a matching pair of shoes. I felt so helpless and exhausted that I just went to bed.

Not all of these stress-induced naps have been over death or destruction. In 1990, my husband and I had our first child, a beautiful angel of a daughter named Margaret after my mother and Bellavia after my mother-in-law. It had been a difficult climax to an otherwise easy pregnancy. I had gone in for my weekly appointment during my ninth month and my blood pressure was extremely high. It was a Monday afternoon and my parents were flying in that night to be with us for the birth of their first grandchild. My OBGYN wanted to admit me right away but I explained the situation to her and she allowed me to go home provided I went right to bed and lay on my left side until morning, when I would be admitted and induced. We got to the hospital at 7:00 AM as instructed, and by 10:00 I was in a room with a dripping IV full of Pitocin. Absolutely nothing happened all day. Finally, in the late afternoon they changed the bag, and I started experiencing labor pains. By 9:00 PM, fourteen hours after being admitted, I was dilated ten centimeters and began to push. No baby, no progress. After three hours, my OBGYN decided it was time for a C-section, so off I went for an epidural, the one thing I was terrified of and had rejected when the labor pains had worsened earlier in the day. Just after midnight, our sweetly sleeping baby girl was brought into this world without so much as a whimper.

bringing baby home

Proud parents bringing baby home, 1990

Two days later we headed home in the blinding summer morning sunlight to our downtown Bethesda high-rise apartment, to be greeted by my mother handing me a cup of tea and buttered toast. No cup of tea has ever tasted so good, and after having my little snack, I lay down on my bed with my little baby sleeping in her crib nearby, and I fell fast asleep.

palm terrace

Port Sulphur Roundup, 1959, yearbook ad

As a young tot, when my parents could not get me to sleep, my father would bundle me up and take me for a ride down Highway 23 South to see the only neon light in my hometown, a giant palm tree advertising the Palm Terrace Motel owned by Mr. Roy Treadway. Once I saw that palm tree, I would settle down and fall fast asleep on the front seat of my dad’s car. Even today, if I am riding in the car for any length of time, I can put my head back and fall fast asleep. I guess I have my dad to thank for this, because one of the great joys of his life was every afternoon announcing to all, “You know what time it is? It’s naptime!”

evening prayer

Pinterest, Franciscan University of Steubenville

One of my favorite prayers comes from the Compline, the evening prayers of the Catholic Church. At night, after reading for a while, I say my evening prayers as my mother taught me so long ago: Hail Mary, Our Father, Guardian Angel, and Glory Be, and now I end with this simple request for protection while I sleep and rest. Thankfully, sleep has always been a restorative wonder for me, and I thank God for the ability to shut out the stresses of the day. Never having battled insomnia as some of my friends have, I have often thought that the moment I lay my head down on crisp, cool sheets, after a long day, whether it be one of normal work or play, or one of tragedy and chaos, is truly the best time of the day. “To sleep, perchance to dream…”, of a better and brighter day tomorrow.

 

Travel for Beginners

soy sauceI know almost nothing about soy sauce. I know I like to dip my sushi rolls into it and I know that the colored tops of the soy sauce bottles on the tables in Asian restaurants denote whether the soy sauce is regular (red) or low sodium (green). I know it is one of the two ingredients in the teriyaki sauce I make to go on Aunt Kay’s Sesame Chicken, a recipe I begged off of the wife of my husband’s boss after a dinner party at their house. I also know almost nothing about Singapore, like for instance, what languages the people speak there.

All that changed this week, however, and I didn’t even have to leave my house. I traveled to Singapore and learned about the ancient art of making soy sauce by reading Kirstin Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners. I am itching to go to an Asian market and buy a bottle of really expensive, artisanal soy sauce and have a tasting of it on little rice crackers. I am also intrigued with the idea of tasting a splash of it in a glass of ice-cold Sprite.

I really enjoyed reading Chen’s story of a young woman from Singapore who has made a life for herself in America, only to have it come crashing down around her when her American husband leaves her for a much younger but also Asian woman. She escapes the trauma of her life by returning home, flying back to the nest to the home, and business, of her parents. She reluctantly goes to work at her family’s artisanal soy sauce factory with her father, not kicking and screaming per se because the energy that would involve is not something she can muster, but with a melancholy resignation that it is better than staying home to watch her mother drink herself to death. Running on a track of constant avoidance, first of her parents and their provincial life, then of her first career, then of her husband, then of her family’s business, and finally of her very image of herself, she comes full circle and discovers who and what she truly is, the keeper of the legacy of her grandfather’s life’s work. I learned so much from Chen’s book.

A few years ago, a similar thing happened when I stumbled upon The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. This book also took me to a new and exciting world where I had little knowledge or background. Geography is not my strong suit so I can honestly say I did not even know where to find Bangladesh on a map. In reading The Newlyweds, I was transported into a world of internet dating, arranged marriage, and immigration. Although it was not her first novel, Freudenberger was new to me, and after finishing it I immediately Googled her to find out her life story. I was shocked that she was American, born and raised in New York City, and while she had taught English in Thailand, she was no more Bangladeshi than I. How had she managed to get inside the head of Amina so completely and how did she transfer to paper the complex character profile of an immigrant in an arranged marriage? As a burgeoning writer, this fascinates me, and it makes me jealous.

a week in winterImagining village life in an Irish town is not as challenging as the exotic allure of Asia, particularly because I have an affinity for British literature, films, and television. Yet, Maeve Binchy’s novels sweep you away with such force that you feel as though you could walk out of your own door and pop down to the village for a pint at the local pub. I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Binchy’s books, but it is her last one, A Week in Winter, finished just before her death, that perfectly blended her talent of rich development of quirky characters with the authentic imagery of her setting. A Week in Winter tells the story of an inn set high on the cliffs of Stoneybridge, a fictional town on the west coast of Ireland. I would eat ramen noodles for a year to save enough money to travel to Ireland to spend a few weeks at Stone House.

Halfway through the book, Binchy takes her readers on a cliff walk with two of her characters, Winnie and Lillian, and the imagery in that part of the story is particularly powerful:

“And at first, it was exhilarating. The spray was salty and the rocks large, dark, and menacing. The cries of the wild birds and the pounding of the sea made talking impossible. They strode on together, pausing to look out over the Atlantic and to realize that the next land was three thousand miles away in the United States.”

a moveable feastPaula McLain also has the power to jerk me away from my suburban 21st century life. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Paris several times but her book The Paris Wife not only takes you to 1920s Paris but also inside the marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. Drawing upon Hemingway’s own telling of his first marriage and life as a young, struggling writer in his nonfiction A Moveable Feast, she retells and embellishes the story from Richardson’s perspective. Hemingway’s angst over his writing and his constant search for approval of his work combined with Richardson’s loneliness and insecurity as a young bride is palatable and poignant.

McLain then jumps continents but remains in the 1920s to take us on safari, on a journey to colonial Africa, and into the life of Beryl Markham in her masterpiece Circling the Sun. My travels have taken me around Europe but never to Asia or Africa. While I have always wanted to visit parts of Asia, I had no desire to experience Africa, until, that is, I read Circling the Sun. McLain’s words describing Kenya paint a vivid picture, albeit a picture that cannot be recreated in today’s world, a picture I now long to see for myself. She is a master storyteller, and her ability to not only bring back to life both Hadley Richardson and Beryl Markham, but to make the reader truly care about them, is astounding.

states visitedMy first vacation was a 45-minute plane ride to Monroe, Louisiana, the opposite side of my home state, for my cousin’s college graduation. I was in the 8th grade and before that I had only traveled by car, to New Orleans (60 miles away) or Baton Rouge (120 miles away). Two years later I flew to Memphis to visit my friend who was a patient at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. Up until the year between my junior and senior years of high school, I had not been anywhere else. Before that high school trip to countries visitedEurope, my only real travel was between the pages of a book, where my passport was always at the ready and well-used. Being an avid reader during my childhood and adolescence broadened my very narrow view of the world and introduced me to people, places, and possibilities I could not imagine for myself. Even today, after having traveled to 18 countries and 30 states, I still read for these very same reasons.

book with flowersDo yourself a favor; take a trip. You don’t need to pack much; you only need some time and a comfy chair. Escape to another world, meet some new people, learn about a new culture, taste some new foods, learn some new words. Read a good book.

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.