Heirlooms

I can be overly sentimental about the things I love; collections or bits and bobs of things that evoke a certain memory or glimpse of a bygone era. I am especially fond of those things handed down or gifted to me by family members – pieces given out of love and the desire to pass along a good story or two.

I have written about my Aunt C before and her knack for choosing just the right gift for me. We share the same birthday and she seems to know this innate part of me that few others see. This year, for my birthday, she sent me the most dear ceramic spice shakers from her own kitchen. Also included was a compendium of recipes and stories from a local Philadelphia bakery called ‘Brown Betty’. Lastly, she included her own family recipe for old-fashioned lace cookies from her mother’s kitchen.

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I keep my spice shakers together with other special gifts from my Aunt C – a decorative light plate (Aunt C has small bits of whimsy like this throughout her California bungalow), a knob for a drawer to hold all those beloved bits and bobs, and a vase shaped like a bunch of radishes (to honor my passion for gardening).

I’ve made the “Plain Cake” recipe out of the cookbook several times now – a cake that was born from a Brown Betty family recipe shared at Sunday dinners and yearly birthday parties. The flavor of the cake, buttery and golden, tastes like home, like family. You feel sated and enfolded in warmth as it melts in your mouth.

If we are to accumulate “things” in this life, I am glad to have such a collection of things that lovingly speak to me of family and tradition and history when I use them.

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28

28.

An age I never really imagined I’d see when I pictured myself as some fuzzy version of a “grown up”. When I was a child and in a hurry to grow up I definitely imagined myself at 16 – getting a driver’s license and having the time of my life in high school. I also imagined myself at 18 – going to the prom, starting college, making my own decisions. I don’t really recall any thoughts about life past that point. I’m sure that, at age 10, few kids are thinking about their future selves at 30. Of course, there were the traditional girlish fantasies about marriage and children that I acted out with dolls and my little girl friends, but the possibility of it seemed so remote that it was difficult to realistically picture it actually happening. And now that January 14th has come and gone, I feel that I have so many milestones behind me that I am rather unexcited about moving forward.

I still don’t feel like an adult because I have so many goals yet to achieve thanks to mistakes and detours I have made along the way.¬† I am still in school, working on a 3rd degree so that I can become licensed as a nurse practitioner in 2014. I can’t remember a time when school wasn’t a part of my life. Many of my coworkers, who took what I would consider a more traditional approach to life, are in long term relationships, have gotten married, and/or now have children. I don’t think I appreciated how much losing a parent in adolescence could stunt one’s progress in moving towards “the future”. Despite finishing a nursing program and starting work in a career that I am excited about, I have still felt a bit stuck and rooted to one spot by my desire to return to life before the absolute-worst-day-of-my-life¬† in 2009.

Grief, though it wanes over time, is fairly omnipresent. I mean, does one ever not grieve the loss of someone they love? Since my birthday, at least 5 people have told me that 28 is a good year. I don’t know where this consensus comes from or if there is even any truth to it. Several individuals have told me that 28 was their “best” year, that really good things happened to them. I hope to high heaven that they are right. I could use a dramatic twist or turn along this road I feel that I am traveling along at a plodding pace. I can feel all of that potential energy that has built up behind me over the last 4 years about to launch me into some great kinetic state where change happens and achievements are made.

Luckily, I started my new year off right with a hearty brunch at Terrain at Styer’s with some of those nearest and dearest to me. Nothing reminds you of what is most important in life than the important people with whom you surround yourself.

These ladies know me better than most.

These ladies know me better than most.

 

We survived nursing school together.

We survived nursing school together.

 

Winter Traditions

Time has certainly gotten away from me this winter season. Isn’t that always the case, though, when Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s go flying by in quick succession? I think bears have the right idea with hibernation. Ideally, I like to slow down in winter – try to go to bed earlier as the sunlight is so fleeting, relax more with reading or crafts, and cook hearty dishes whose leftovers taste better as the days wear on.

I don’t think I have a favorite season. I seem to appreciate each natural cycle of the year for its unique personality – spring brings a sense of hope and awakening and rejuvenation as the days lengthen and stretch their legs, summer is full of energy and doing and our attempt to wring every last bit of joy out of each day, autumn is a riot of color as the leaves change and the heat and humidity give way to “sweater weather”, and winter is full of tradition, change, and expectation as we enter the new year.

I love our winter family traditions here in Philadelphia. They have changed over the years (my father no longer types out a Christmas morning letter from Santa, but the dining room centerpiece from the local florist arrives years after year) and feel a bit different than they did when I was a child, but the ritual layers beneath are mostly the same. I still think that there is something quite magical about the whole season despite the dark and cold that surrounds us.

Preparation – 5 or so years ago, our next-door-neighbors started a tradition called “Advent Soup Night”. In the Catholic tradition, Advent is the season of preparation before Christmas when Christians look forward to the joy that Jesus’ birth brings. It is a time of reflection and quiet as individuals think about all that has transpired in the past year and look ahead to the excitement and fresh start that is implicit with the coming of a new one. We celebrate this season by getting together with our neighbors and friends each Sunday evening for 4 weeks before Christmas. The evening notably features soup and bread. Each evening features anywhere from 2-4 soups depending on who is trying out a new recipe or if there is demand for an old favorite. Over the years, people have added small appetizers, wine, and dessert, turning our humble meal into a bit of a feast. Before eating, our host leads us in a reflection that is universal to all guests regardless of personal faith. Often the themes address darkness, light, hope, joy, sorrow, and peace. Then we sing a verse from “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before everyone grabs a bowl and heads into the kitchen. Advent Soup has become one of the most important traditions in my holiday season and I often find myself out of sorts if I have to miss a night due to work.

The tree – As long as my mother lives and breathes, we will have a live Christmas tree. A Douglas Fir to be exact. It’s scent heralds the coming of Christmas and I never get tired of finding the same, decades-old ornaments hanging from the branches.

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Easy, peasy Christmas banner

The lights – We always have little electric candles in the window. Actually, we keep these up year round. At Christmas, my brother and I add lights to the exterior of the house, carrying on the job my father would have done. There is nothing more comforting than coming home to those warm, tiny lights. No matter how long or how bad my day, I can always find my way home.

The food – Cookies are imperative. Each year, I try out a new recipe or two in addition to the tried and true “roll out cookie”. This year I added spiced and candied nuts to the mix. I usually gift these treats along with other edibles I have preserved throughout the year. I find baking very soothing. And what is more satisfying than a warm, homemade cookie?

The gardens – My mom and I have love taking in the holiday lights display at Longwood Gardens. I look forward to dinner in their cafe, hot chocolate, and strolling the grounds as the sun settles in for the night. In the dark, the landscape is a sea of colored lights upon the trees. The conservatory has a different theme each year – this year it is “stars” – that is elaborately conveyed through the many rooms of flowers and other flora.

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Roof of the conservatory

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Paper lanterns

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Halo of stars

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Kumquat Tree

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Water features

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Fantasy table display

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Outdoor display

Soup Season

I love soup.

If for nothing else, I love fall and winter because they are soup seasons. There is something very comforting about sipping warm broth on a blustery evening. My neighbors are also big fans of soup and we gather every Sunday during Advent (the month-long season of preparation before Christmas) for a soup night where we enjoy the company of friends and family, give thanks for the many blessings we have, and look forward to the coming new year. Each Sunday brings a new group of soups and we eat bowl after bowl of long-time favorites and new variations. I look forward to this tradition every year. Maybe more so than Christmas itself.

Growing up, my mother made a lot of meals in big pots. I am especially fond of her bright orange Le Creuset dutch oven that I can only now just lift. A lot of good, family meals have come out of the piece of crockery – meaty, melt-in-your-mouth pot roasts with a menagerie of root vegetables and burgundy broth that was sometimes served with creamy mashed potatoes or over egg noodles, pork roasts with apples and tart apricot glaze drippings, and hearty stews with deep brown gravy that creeps up the flesh of crusty bread as you clean your bowl. The other big pot is a silver stock pot that was used to wilt collards and kale for traditional southern “greens”. Sometimes the remains of a chicken or ham hocks or turkey legs would find their way in for stock. We would ladle out thick, green split pea soup or maybe a variation on a corn chowder or possibly something bursting with beans of all shapes and sizes.

Soup is easily my favorite meal. You can make a soup as complicated or as simple as you like given your time frame and list of ingredients. With the marvel of modern technology, we can now add a few cans of this or that and be done in an hour’s time. If you have a crock pot, cooking time can be drastically reduced as well.
Soup is also a very easy way to hide a multitude of sins as you don’t have to worry about getting every detail just right – you can adjust your flavor and your ingredients as you go along. Not to mention that it is such an easy way to incorporate those foods that are tremendously good for you but not palatable in their raw form. I will easily eat my weight in kale if it is in soup.

A friend of mine passed along a recipe for kale, sausage, and cannelloni (or cannellini) bean soup that she and her family had given high marks. My version of this idiot-proof dish is below. I was skeptical about the addition of lemon juice but found that it added a bright flavor that contrasts well with the smokiness of the sausage and more bitter flavor of the kale. This recipe could be easily made vegetarian or vegan if you substituted vegetable or mushroom brother and left out the sausage. In the future, I may add more vegetables and beans to boost the antioxidant value of this meal.

Other tweaks I made:

  • I did not use sundried tomatoes packed in oil as I didn’t want to add extra fat/calories. I found that my local Whole Foods sells sundried tomatoes in a resealable pouch that I can just keep on hand in the fridge.
  • Crushed or diced tomatoes could be used to avoid the mess of chopping whole tomatoes.
  • I used the “juice” from both the tomatoes and the beans.
  • I added a few extra leaves of kale and used regular curly leaf as I could not find lacinto. Wash well! Kale often has little tiny pests that look like gray or white fuzz.
  • I used 4 links of italian-style turkey sausage. I cooked it first then cut it into pieces.

The recipe says that it serves 4, but unless your family includes 4 giants it will easily feed you several times over. I placed a few portions in the freezer for later this winter. As a single lady, I do not shy away from recipes that make many portions as I love being able to pull things out of my freezer that are already made!

Kale, Sausage, and Cannelloni Soup

* 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

* 3 to 4 sausage links

* 2 cloves of garlic, minced

* 2 cans of cannelloni beans

* 1 can of whole tomatoes, coarsely chopped

* 40 ounces of low sodium chicken broth

* 1/3 cup sundried tomatoes, julienned, packed in oil and patted dry before using

* 1 bunch (6 to 8 leaves) of lacinto kale, stems removed and coarsely chopped

* juice of 2 lemons

* 3 Tbsp grated parmesean cheese with more for serving

* 1 tsp salt, more to taste

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat and cook sausages through. { I wanted my sausage completely cooked before being added to the soup } Add garlic and sundried tomatoes and cook for one minute. In a large pot, add chicken broth, beans, tomatoes, lemon juice, kale, 3 Tbsp cheese, sausage/garlic/sundried tomatoes from skillet, and salt. Simmer on low, uncovered for 30 minutes.

To serve: Ladle into bowls, top with more cheese and serve with crusty bread.

Badger Pride

This past weekend, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my cousin A.

A is the youngest of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family. I remember getting a call from my mom (who was present at her birth) on the day she was born. Despite being 8 years older and living on opposite coasts, she has come to be more like a sister to me. A reminds me to not take life so seriously sometimes, to treasure my friendships, to smile widely and laugh often, and to love with all my heart. I truly relish the fleeting time that we get to spend with one another.

Our family was pretty surprised (and proud!) when this southern CA girl decided to make Madison her home for college. My college experience was very intimate with only 2,300 students on the Barnard campus and I’ve been eager to see what life is like in Madison. The University of Wisconsin at Madison is home to the Badgers – the school’s immensely popular and successful football team. October seemed like a good time of year to see A, catch a heated game between UW and Minnesota, and try cheese curds (FYI – cheese curds are tasty little morsels when fried but will feel like lead pellets in your gut later).

Airplane goodies? Check!

Having your red gear is a MUST

Bascom Hall after a trek up Bascom Hill. It was quite the climb

Babcock Hall is where a lot of agricultural research takes place. More importantly, they also make ice cream here.

Lake Mendota on a cloudy morning

Displaying one’s Badger pride is very important. Note that those are W’s not M’s.

Camp Randall – aka where the football stadium resides

Kickoff

A sea of red in the student section

All smiles after UW won 38-13

Milestones

Yesterday, my father would have been 80.

I was at work at the hospital until 9:30p and almost forgot about the meaning behind October 3rd until I was caring for a patient with a new cancer diagnosis.

In nursing, though, the hectic pace of the day tends to leave little room for thought about the rest of life and I was glad to be busy.

I had never really thought of my dad as “old” until he was ill with cancer and it made him look hollowed out and lifeless. Maybe, I would have thought him “old” at 80 but his death in 2009 robbed me of the opportunity to see him as he would have been now. I can barely remember the sound of his voice at times. Photographs help but frustrate me with their two dimensions. The memory is a funny thing. When the moth of time has begun eating away at the facts and details of a memory, the imagination fills in the holes to create a slightly different version of the reality that was there before. While memories are comforting and it may have been better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, nothing compares to the real thing.

Dad at the Trinidad airport in 2005.

Dad, in remission from cancer, at my cousin’s wedding in Grafton, Wisconsin in 2008.

 

 

 

 

 

CEM

Those are the initials on the license plate of my Aunt’s golden BMW convertible. It’s also the name of the car. Pronounced “sem”. The initials actually stand for Catherine Ellen Money. That’s my Aunt, or Auntie C as the cousins like to call her.

Auntie C is petite and porcelain-skinned with poker-straight hair the golden red color of an LA sunset. She is the only one I know who can wear her fringe of bangs as naturally as if she were born with them. She pulls off the kind of outfits Anthropologie features in their catalogue – bold prints, saturated colors, delicate knits, cloche hats. The adjective that comes to mind when I think of her is “sprightly”

 

Despite the number of stamps in my passport, my favorite place in the world really is the South Pasadena bungalow where she, my uncle, and my cousin live. It is a deeply initmate place adorned with family photos, bird feathers collected from walks, fresh flowers, and whimsical decorative touches. An arbor covered with fuschia flowers creates a canopy of foliage in spring and summer to welcome you to the backyard garden festooned with twinkly lights, the lawn littered with grapefruits and oranges from nearby trees. The doors and windows are usually kept open and the southern California breeze drifts in and out with the promise of sunshine and care-free days.

 

 

Auntie C is my soulmate. She and I share a birthday – January 14. It even amazes me that she was born in ’58 and I in ’85. We are both Capricorns; headstrong and willful but also deeply emotional and attuned to the spirits and needs of those around us. Every year I eagerly anticipate the box that will come in the mail from California for my birthday. This year, within the cardboard, there was a pristine white box cushioned by layers and layers of deep pink and red tissue paper. Inside were three objects that might have seemed random to another person, but to me they make perfect sense. A light switch plate, a drawer pull, and a small vase.

This year I have been contemplating moving to my own space and without having told her, Auntie C picked out three things that she felt I could use to help make a new place my own. Small touches similar to those she has used to make her home unique. Three simple, yet perfect things to remind me of the beauty all around. The light switch plate looks as if it has a pattern of rays bursting forth, the drawer pull reads “favorite things to keep forever” – reminding me to cherish what I hold most dear, and the vase is shaped to look like a bunch of radishes which my cousin said made her think of me in my garden.

Auntie C is my soulmate because she just knows me.

27

“I woke up once in the middle of the night, and Buckminster’s paws were on my eyelids. He must have been feeling my nightmares.” Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer

I have read a great many books since my childhood but there are very few that linger within me the way this one does. I think of the way my own cat, Bali, will sleep upon my chest – sniffing my eyelids and laying a cool paw on my lips when my breathing blows through her fur, something she finds supremely annoying. She knows when I have awful dreams because she will sleep a good distance away to avoid my tossing and turning.

 

 

Tomorrow is my birthday. 27. Which means that it is almost 3 years since the worst day. Somehow, things seem unrecognizable since then. Even so, I find myself looking forward to each new year as an opportunity to put more distance between myself and 24. Time doesn’t really heal all wounds so much as it profoundly dulls them from a sharp stab to an underlying ache. A new year, a birthday, is yet another opportunity to peel away the next layer in the quest to discover all that life has to offer. What adventures are in store? What changes will occur? There is always the promise that what lies ahead will be infinitely better than what lies behind.

Just 3 years ago, Bali was a scrawny kitten whose face was oddly distorted by the bold orange and white patch above her eye. My mother professed that this was the ugliest cat she had ever laid eyes on. Now she is a hefty creature of 10lbs and the orange and white patch has seemingly shrunk to nothing but a daub upon her fur. Dad used to sit in his chair and call to her from across the dining room, “hey, Ballsy…come here”. He knew it was a ridiculous nickname but I always hear him in my head when she comes running to me, chattering in her cheerful mew.

So now I am 27 and Bali is almost 4 but the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same in this old house. I am curious to see what will be different about this year and what will remain as it is. I never really thought about coming this far before.

Reverb 10 for December 29 – DEFINING MOMENT

December 29 – Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

Those who have lost loved ones are probably familiar with the point in the grieving process where you realize that the person is never coming back. Obviously, you’ve known all along that death is pretty permanent, but it still takes quite some time before the less rational parts of your being accept the fact as well.

When my father’s portrait was placed in the lobby at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, I realized that there was the end, right there, on the wall. The portrait “unveiling” was like a period at the end of a sentence of the last paragraph on the last page of a book. Full stop. “Well, that’s that”, I thought. It’s amazing how we are born, we live and carve a path on this planet, we die, and all that is physically left is a painting on a wall in a lobby of a busy urban hospital. Dare I say millions of people will come to pass that portrait? They will read the accompanying plaque and wonder about the man behind the spectacles. There is no more knowing him. I have avoided stopping and staring at the painting when I am in the hospital for fear that someone with “catch” me and wonder what the heck I’m doing with my nose practically pressed up to the thing. I think about my dad, bodiless, floating around somewhere, watching me watch him. I get an odd feeling in my gut – the same feeling I get when I misplace something. I know that I KNOW where the darn thing is, I just can’t find it, can’t grasp it. It drives me nuts. Just where could he be? Where on earth could I have put him? I usually have to open up the box I keep in my closet of “mom and dad” to find him. I guess in a way, he does come back. Just not in the way I would like.

The portrait is so life-like, so warm and golden in its tones, that you almost expect him to wink as you pass by. But Hogwarts, HUP is not and I don’t expect to see my father’s visage floating in and out of the frame any time soon. My auntie Jackie, who lives in Richmond, on the same street that she once padded down barefoot as a child when it was a dirt road, told me of how she regularly talks to her deceased husband. Sometimes, when she visits him at the cemetery, she even yells at him. “I just go and cuss him out when I’m mad at him for leaving. Nothing wrong with doing that once in a while.” And I think that’s ok. It’s ok to be angry with people about being left behind and all the things they didn’t say and the questions they didn’t answer.

The aunties, or Daisies as the elder matriarchs in our family have come to be known, remind me that my grandma ‘Ree – whom I seem to greatly take after at times – did things a whole lot crazier than talking to dead relatives, so there should be no shame in it. I’m guessing there may be some days when I take a chair in the lobby and look across the corridor and have a word or two with my father; maybe even yell a little bit.

Reverb 10 for December 25 – PHOTO

December 25 – Photo – a present to yourself. Sift through all the photos of you from the past year. Choose one that best captures you; either who you are, or who you strive to be. Find the shot of you that is worth a thousand words. Share the image, who shot it, where, and what it best reveals about you.

Well, this is a tough-y since I am usually taking the photos and not having them taken.

Disneyland, California

This photo was taken a smidge before 2010 when I spent Christmas in LA in 2009. My uncle took the photo with my camera while we were waiting in an interminable line for Space Mountain at Disneyland the day after Christmas. I think it captures a good deal of what people tend to notice about me. Despite having what I consider “horse teeth”, I’ve always liked my smile because it’s genuine and lights up my entire face. If I’m happy, you will know it! I also like the way my eyes light up when I smile. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve. I am a vibrant, happy, outgoing, boisterous person who gets excited about the silliest things because it’s the littlest things that are most important: waiting in line with family during a day of fun, creating and sharing memories, laughing together.