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. 

At Sixes and Sevens

We are a family of four, but as a family in isolation during COVID-19, we are but three. Our younger daughter lives and works (currently from her home) in Los Angeles while our older daughter lives here in Maryland with us. She works from home most days so this social distancing has not been much of a change for her.

covid-19-handshake-alternatives-v3As three adults living together under one roof during this pandemic, we are getting along very well. For work purposes, we have established three separate and distinct work areas: Daughter #1 gets the small bedroom upstairs that she was already using as an office, hubby gets the den and the dog, and I get our home office, which is a small bedroom downstairs. The kitchen, dining room, and living room, all upstairs, are common areas where we congregate, while still keeping some space between us. We meet for lunch and afternoon coffee, but otherwise, we try to stay out of each other’s way. I am the outlier, the only one over 60, so we are being cautious because of the CDC guidelines for age, but I am not immuno-compromised and have no underlying health issues that are set forth for caution. Still, it’s best to be cautious given the devastating effects of this virus on some.

zoomI’m a full-time teacher and a part-time freelance writer, and my school is closed (as of now) through April 24, 2020. I’ve already spent two full weeks teaching online, via Google Classroom for the first week and a half, adding Zoom classes this past week. The Zoom classes I had on Thursday and Friday restored a sense of normalcy to this whole crazy situation. It was so wonderful seeing the faces of my students, 7th grade on Thursday and 8th grade on Friday. There was only a handful who didn’t log on to their scheduled Zoom class, basically the same percentage that could be absent any given school day.  In essence, those two thirty-minute classes were the best I’ve felt since my school closed on March 12, 2020. 

The rest of the time, up to and including this very moment, I have been at sixes and sevens. You may not be familiar with that saying, an old English idiom, but it means being in a state of confusion or disarray. During this self-isolation and school closure, I can certainly identify with this saying.

Richard_II_King_of_EnglandIts origin is not completely known, but it is thought to have originated in the 14th century, perhaps in a dice game, and early use in literature was by Chaucer in 1374, and later by Shakespeare in 1595 in his play Richard II, “But time will not permit: all is uneven, And everything is left at six and seven”.

H_m_s_pinafore_restorationGilbert & Sullivan used it in their 1878 comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore in the opening song of Act II, “Fair moon, to thee I sing, bright regent of the heavens, say, why is everything either at sixes or at sevens?”

In 1911, O. Henry published a collection of 25 short stories, for which he was a master, called Sixes and Sevens. He was certainly qualified to use it, being someone who was convicted on very sketchy evidence of embezzlement of a paltry $900 from the bank where he worked before becoming a writer. He was certainly at sixes and sevens for the three years he served in the Ohio Penitentiary. He had fourteen short stories published while imprisoned, under various pen names, but the pen name (and its origin which he refused to acknowledge) that stuck was O. H(io)(P)en(itentia)ry.

Eva PeronIn the late 70s, Andrew Lloyd Weber had Eva Perón use “at sixes and sevens” in the famous “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to describe her relationship with Juan Perón. 

It is an understatement that I am a creature of ritual and routine. The circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have stripped me of much of my ritual and routine, the very things that bring order to my daily life. With schools closed, but distance learning still going on, I feel completely at sixes and sevens. I’m at home 24-7, but I’m not on summer break, Christmas break, or Easter break. This week, week three of school closure, I am going to try to sort myself out by getting up at my regular weekday time, and following all my regular routines as though I was heading out the door at 7:15, my normal time.

I’m going to put on business casual clothes (one notch down from the professional attire I normally wear to school) and go to my classroom/home office and do lesson plans, prepare online materials, hold my Zoom classes, and grade research papers that have been submitted via Google Classroom. At the end of my school day, I’m going to shut it all down and go and cook a fabulous meal for my family and watch Jeopardy, my favorite way to relax. With a minimum of four weeks to go in our school closure, I can’t be at sixes and sevens another day longer.