Unforgettable

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I had a tea party earlier this week with my niece. We brewed tea from the Empress Hotel in a sweet china pot decorated with pink roses and then sipped it in china cups that once belonged to my mother. We enjoyed little cookies that were a gift from one of my former students. We placed our delights on pretty china plates and my niece pretended that the goodies were crumpets. Our little ritual was enchanting, and my niece asked if we could find a day to enjoy such a tradition once each week. She has already chosen Tuesday afternoons as a possibility, and she wants to try out each of my various pots and china patterns along with different types of tea.

My niece noted that folks often have beautiful serving pieces but rarely use them, instead storing them away in cabinets for safe keeping. She thought it was nice that she was allowed to use such exquisite things, including some of my mother’s silver. Bear in mind that she is only in the fifth grade, but her wisdom and appreciation for the finer things is already fully formed.

Her comments and her joy got me to thinking about how we so often seem to wait for the perfect time to go places or use things, as though there is some magical moment for experiencing joy. All too often the so called best time for enriching our lives never actually comes. So many people die never having realized the dreams that dwell in their hearts.

Just last week I attended two funerals, one for a very young man and the other for someone only slightly older than I am. Both of them were souls who fully embraced life with trips, marathons, music, sports and friendships. They were not the sort to wait until the time seemed right to experience life to the fullest, so I wonder why so many of us seem to do that.

My paternal grandmother served her meals on china and ate with her best silver every single day. Her meals were special from breakfast in the morning to dinner at night. She used ironed tablecloths and beautiful serving bowls. She was a premier cook, but I wonder if perhaps her presentation was as important in creating an ambiance as were her culinary talents. Everyone felt quite special at her table, even on hot days in the middle of the week.

I’ve known people who kept their nice dishes and linens packed away. Their furniture was covered with sheets or plastic. They seemed to be waiting for some spectacular hour which never seemed to come. When they died nobody had ever seen the beautiful things that they owned. Often much of what they had was bartered in estate sales or sent to Goodwill because nobody associated any memories with the items. On the other hand we all recall my Grandma Little’s table settings with vivid detail. My brother even attempted to duplicate her style with the china that he purchased for his Thanksgiving feasts.

Grandma shared her pride and joy with us. We ate her tasty cooking and enjoyed stories and laughter on her well used and well worn dishes. She provided us with a feast for all of our senses that burned beautiful memories into our very souls. She made us feel special with the extra care that she took to allow us to enjoy her things as much as she did. Not once did she worry that we might break something. Instead she focused on making us feel loved and honored.

I suppose that it is natural to want to care for things that are expensive and might break. We see our everyday items bearing cracks and chips and we don’t want to damage the finer pieces. We assume that it will be wisest to bring out our best only on very special occasions and mostly save them for posterity, but what is the point of that? Why even own such things if we are only going to lock them away?

I was overjoyed that my niece enjoyed our little tea party so much. It gave me an opportunity to tell her about her great grandmother who had once owned the pieces that we used. We spoke of my mom and dad purchasing one place setting at a time as young marrieds. I told her about my father very proudly buying my mother some of her silver only days before he so tragically died. She understood the love story that I was telling her and wanted to know more. The items that we used made the tales more magical for her. We walked upstairs where I showed her pictures of my mom and dad, her great grandparents, when they were young and beautiful. She asked me to provide her with copies so that she might never forget who they were and how they once looked. She also made me promise that we would have those regular tea parties without fail. She even wants to bring one of her friends if I don’t mind.

My mother-in-law taught me how to prepare tea properly, the way her English mother had done. Each Sunday after dinner we sat at the same dining table that I now have and sipped on brew in lovely china cups while munching on tiny cookies. She told me about her family’s journey from England and of those who once braved the wild frontier of Nebraska. Like my little niece I was enchanted and invariably when I think of my mother-in-law I remember those special quiet moments that we shared. The tea and the cookies, the china and the silver, the stories and the love made our ritual unforgettable.

I suppose that if I have learned anything it is that we need to wear our fine garments, use our best dishes, travel to exotic places, live life in all of it’s glory. We only have so much time with the people that we love. Why not make those moments so special that they will never forget them?

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The Best Christmas Ever!

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I suppose that I’m still like a seven year old child rather than a seventy year old when it comes to Christmas Eve. I’m filled with such a sense of anticipation and joy. I know that most of my family members will be gathering at my niece’s home and soon we will all be united in an evening of fun. Christmas Even festivities have been one of the highlights of my whole year since I was a small child.

Back in the day we gathered at my Grandma Ulrich’s home, a tiny place where we were crammed together like sardines. Everyone understood that getting a chair was quite a feat, so once one was secured folks rarely moved for the entire evening. I always liked to arrive early to be certain that I would have a place to sit down.

My uncles filled big enamel tubs with oranges, apples and nuts, and my grandmother scurried about making sure that everyone had a cup of coffee. There was usually a gigantic Whitman’s Sampler on the dining table. Even though there was a nice listing of what each candy was on the lid of the box, some of my cousins determined the flavors by poking their fingers into the chocolate to see for themselves what to expect. Of course the best ones with caramel and nuts were usually gone rather quickly just like the best seats in the house.

We never exchanged gifts. Those were for my grandmother only. She reveled in all of the treasures and then promptly put them away in her room or her attic rarely to ever be seen again. My uncles had a money drawing the created quite a stir. The grand prizes were fifty dollar bills, something that I never saw. My luck generally resulted in a one and once in a blue moon a five. It was still tons of fun, and hope sprang eternal in my heart that one day I would get the big one.

It was so loud that it was difficult to hear anyone other than the person sitting right beside me. We’d laugh and carry on as though we were privy to all of the riotous conversations even though that was almost impossible. Just before midnight everyone would leave so that we would all be sound asleep when Santa made his rounds. It was incredibly fun.

After my grandmother died we kept up the tradition until my uncle who still lived in her house had died. After that everyone began creating their own Christmas Eve events. My brother decided to be the hero and host the festivities each year. We had been going to his home for decades, but his daughter requested a change of venue when she had three little ones and it became difficult for her to cart them around. Now we convene at her home.

At first we exchanged gifts, but then we decided to make things more fun by bringing a generic gift and then have a game of sorts. Each person draws a number and has an opportunity to either take a present from under the tree or steal one from someone who has already opened a gift. After three steals of the same object it becomes the property of the person holding it. It’s a loud and fun time with well over thirty folks strategizing to get the best of the lot.

My brothers and I also decided to continue the tradition of having a money drawing. Last year I actually got a twenty dollar bill. It was the best result of my entire life, so I’m now thinking that I might one day have a shot at landing one of the really big prizes. 

The best part of the evening is seeing everyone. People fly in from Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and other places. The crowd grows with each year as new members are added through  birth or marriage. We love each other so, and our kids all get along so well. I get a warm feeling just thinking about the gathering, and I can’t really understand why such things are stressful for some people because in our family everyone is accepted and appreciated just as they are. Nobody has to put on airs or pretend.

My brother and niece make all sorts of special dishes and Mike and I forego our diet for the evening. I munch on Reuben sandwiches, my brother’s special hotdogs, pecan pie, dips, cookies and things that I won’t dare eat again until the next Christmas Eve. The pounds that I gain are temporary and go away quickly when I return to my diet of mostly fresh vegetables and fruit.

I always go home feeling especially blessed for being in such a wonderful family. We are as loud as ever, but always full of fun and love. It seems to me that our gatherings are exactly what Christmas is supposed to be all about.

Merry Christmas everyone. May your holiday be filled with peace and love however you choose to celebrate.

Christmas Traditions

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I’ve been inviting a crowd of family members to my home on Christmas Day for a good while now. Back in the day both my mother and my mother-in-law hosted events that we attended. I was spoiled in never having to cook and clean for the holidays. I’d sleep in on Christmas morning and leisurely get the family ready to visit the grandparents around noon. I had little idea how much effort went into their galas until the day when my mother-in-law announced that she was very tired and feeling unable to find the energy to host such a big event any longer. She explained that she and my father-in-law would begin the preparation process weeks in advance and just could not do it anymore. That’s when I announced that I was taking on the Christmas Day project.

My mother-in-law was quite relieved, but my mother was annoyed that I was taking her special celebration away from her even though she too had become less and less enthusiastic about all of the labor and expense of such a grand celebration. It was difficult for her to accept the change, just as it was for everyone on both sides of the family who whispered that they liked things better with the old traditions. It took some time for the members of the family to actually enjoy Christmas Day at my home as they longed for the old ways. It’s been so long now since we went over the river and through the woods to grandmas’ houses that my event has taken on a hint of being a tradition. Both of the wonderful ladies who once served as hostesses are gone and the duties of providing a place to celebrate have fallen to me.

I spent many years attempting to find a good formula for feeding the guests. I tried turkeys, roasts, hams and all sorts of combinations. Nothing felt quite right, so one year I announced that I was going to do something very different. I made several batches of gumbo, cooked up some rice and offered a few salads and sides. It was an instant hit and so each December my husband Mike and I have spent days in the kitchen making enough of the seafood delight to serve the more than thirty folks who show up. It’s a long process because we do everything from scratch beginning with the rue. We use no gumbo bases or mixes which means that we do a great deal of chopping of onions, green peppers, celery, okra and garlic. It’s a yummy concoction that has granted us the designation of Gumbo King and Queen.

This year has been more busy than any I have encountered since I retired. It seemed as though making all of that gumbo would be to much for us. We usually cook two batches at a time and the process takes around four hours from start to finish. I came up with what I though was a brilliant plan to just purchase several of the huge Costco chicken pot pies and center the meal around those. I got a few thumbs up because it would certainly be a delicious way to go, but the quiet disappointment slowly began to rumble in the background. Most people still wanted the gumbo that they had learned to love.

I was steadfast until last week when my sweet son-in-law expressed shock upon learning that there would be no gumbo this year. Somehow that struck a chord with me because he’s had a tough year and I know that he needs as much joy as there is to be found. I girded my loins and went into attack mode. I purchased enough of the gumbo ingredients to make a firm commitment to insuring that there would be heaping pots of the brew on Christmas Day. I began by cooking up two batches all by myself because Mike was busy with his Christmas shopping. It took even longer than ever because I had to do all of the dicing, a task that Mike actually enjoys and I loathe. By the end of a very long session I had some very tasty gumbo simmering on the stove, ready to be frozen until just before Christmas Day. I was actually happy that I had decided to give the crowd what they want.

Like the mothers who worked so hard in the decades before I volunteered to ease their labors, I do a little bit each day to be certain that everyone will have a good time. We crowd into the house and it becomes filled with laughter and pleasant conversations. By the end of the day my home is littered with wrapping paper and dirty dishes and beautiful memories. I never regret being able to bring joy to the family.

I suppose that I too will one day find myself lacking in energy. I’ve already planned to begin cooking batches of my gumbo in October and slowly keep adding containers to the freezer until I have enough. One day I may give away my Christmas china and use paper plates and bowls in place of the finery. All of these changes will allow me to keep the tradition going until I finally pass down the baton to some willing individual. I suppose that this is the way things have been done for all time.

My grandmothers and Mike’s once opened their homes to the family on Christmas Day. Then it fell to our mothers to host the celebration. Now it is my turn. I think of it as an honor that I hope to continue as long as I can. My family is so relaxed and grateful to have a place to go that I don’t have to feel stressed or tied to certain ways of doing things. My grandchildren have even suggested that I teach them how to make the gumbo so that they can have a big gumbo making party to help me out. I’m sure that they will also be happy to enjoy some Costco pot pie whenever if it comes to that. What they really want is just to be together.

Confessions To Santa

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Santa has come to town. I saw it with my own eyes when I watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I learned long ago that I better not lie or he just might leave me lumps of coal on Christmas Day. Since I have absolutely no use for lumps of coal I suppose that the time has come for me to be totally honest about a few things.

I keep talking about my new healthy lifestyle and how great it makes me feel, but if I am one hundred percent honest I have to admit that I still miss a number of foods and lifestyles that I have attempted to forego. I haven’t prepared mashed potatoes or gravy for well over a year and I am known for making the yummiest versions on the planet. I long for a big heaping plate of butter filled potatoes with a well of gravy that is so full that it drizzles down the sides. There is no better comfort food on planet earth other than maybe macaroni and cheese. Not that I mention it I might note that I’ve given up all forms of pasta with cheesy sauces even though I do love such delights so much. My mouth is watering at the mere thought of how yummy cheesy dishes are.

I have to look away whenever I pass a donut shop, or see the long line of cars going through a drive through at Popeye’s Chicken on Tuesday bargain days. In the Hill Country of Texas I pretend that I am not the least bit interested in having a kolache, even though my mouth waters at the very sight of one filled with cherries or apples. I sometimes dream of enjoying a gigantic cinnamon roll with a cup of steaming hot tea. I don’t really know what a sugar plum is, but visions of butter pecan ice cream dance through my head even in the winter. I truly wonder if I will have the fortitude to avoid Borden’s egg nog over the holidays. The list of transgressions that I would like to make goes on and on, and I start pouting which is also a big no no when it comes to Santa Claus.

Everyone who is even minimally familiar with me recalls that I truly delight in an ice cold Diet Coke. I became habitually addicted to that drink when I first began having migraine headaches. I found it to be a quick fix for the nauseating symptoms that would overtake me without warning. Before long I was “medicating” myself with a Diet Coke first thing in the morning, at lunch time, and in the afternoon. After spending two years rebuilding bone by injecting myself with Forteo each day it seemed a bit ridiculous to potentially undo all of my hard work by drinking sodas, so at the beginning of February last year I went cold turkey on Diet Coke. I haven’t had one in all of that time, but my mind still longs for the way it calmed my headaches and felt so right with certain foods. I keep wondering when or even if I will ever be able to attend a party, enjoy some TexMex or watch a movie in a theater without longing for my one time favorite drink. Water is good and good for me, but sometimes it just doesn’t cut it.

I cheat with my eating mostly when I take a trip or go out with other people. I can’t enforce the strict rules that I usually apply to myself when I’m at home. Sadly I find that my body totally rebels when I do so, and I have to begin anew to cleanse myself of the offending foods. I gain three or five pounds in a single day and turning back is always difficult. I try to be steadfast in my determination to be healthy, but it can be a battle when everyone is ordering coconut cream pie or berry cobbler. Fasting from such luxuries is almost impossible in those cases and I cave in to group pressure. It then takes me two weeks to get back into the program.

The holiday season is coming. I know that the temptations will be overwhelming. I’ll try to offset my transgressions with more exercise. I’ll work a little harder at the gym, another activity that I have to admit is sometimes annoying to have to do. I always feel very good after I go, but it’s so easy to procrastinate and make excuses for skipping a day here and there. I whine that it’s unfair that I can’t eat whatever I wish, sit on my tush reading or watching movies all day, and still say fit and trim. I don’t like how I feel when I am bad, but I am so tempted to just throw in my hat and to be that way. After all, I’m seventy years old. Why should I have to be so fastidious with my diet and exercise?

Then I know that I must stay determined to keep to my regimen going as much as possible, so that when I have opportunities to fudge just a bit, it won’t be a disaster. I know that I can’t live like a monk all of the time. It is okay to take one cookie as long as I follow up with a walk. A wedge of pumpkin pie won’t kill me if I cut back on the sugar and carbs the rest of the time. The one thing that I will not do is take even a sip of Diet Coke because my craving for it is still so strong that I fear what will happen if I do. I now get my caffeine from nice warm mugs of Earl Grey or some Lusianne tea over ice now and again. Most of the time I now crave water instead. It’s my new habit, and one that is far better than any I have had in the past.

I feel much better now that I have admitted my weaknesses. I suppose that in confessing to Santa I have also realized that I am somehow managing to control my imperfections, while also indulging my cravings only once in awhile rather than as a routine. I do want to be strong, so I will push myself even when I truly don’t want to do so. I’m not so much worried about finding coal under my tree on Christmas day as learning that my bad habits have affected my health. It feels too good to feel good.

My Horn of Plenty

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I knew a man who had suffered greatly during the Great Depression. He and his family oftentimes went hungry and their mealtime staple was usually a pot of beans. When he finally made it into the middle class as an adult he refused to have beans at his table, not even red beans, although he was a bonafide Cajun.

My mother sometimes struggled to put food on the table, but she liked to brag that in spite of our meager budget we never once missed a meal. She was incredibly creative when it came to stretching the offerings in the pantry. She was such a good cook that we rarely noticed that we were sometimes nearing the end of our stores. Only once in a great while would the refrigerator be almost empty, and the cupboards be bare. Even then Mama used her ingenuity to whip up what felt like a feast. She told us that she had learned from her mother who fed a family of ten during the great depression. She told us the story of how our grandmother would cook a whole fish with head still attached. After everyone had taken their share Grandma would eat the head. Mama laughed and said the her mom was actually getting the part with the most vitamins.

I was a skinny girl who barely weighed eighty eight pounds on my wedding day. Food didn’t really matter that much to me. I rarely ate breakfast which was no doubt a bad thing, but I never really missed it. I took a sack lunch to school and it usually consisted of either a bologna sandwich on white bread or a fried egg sandwich. The egg was the more delicious of the two, but it embarrassed me to open the wax paper and let the aroma of cold egg waft across the cafeteria. Someone invariably made a comment, and I quietly did my best to disavow the idea that it was all that we had for that day.

It was supper time when my mother became like the Julia Childs of the low economic set. She was literally able to make hot dogs into a gourmet dish, often making up recipes to use the ingredients that she had on hand. After my Grandmother Little she was the best cook that I have ever known.

I suppose that I was much more affected by the scarcity of food in our home than I ever dreamed because I eventually developed a kind of fetish for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean cuts of meat. I like to have my larders well stocked at all times, and I get a bit nervous when they are not. I’m not much for purchasing junk food because that was never something that we kept around my childhood home. Instead I take great joy in visiting a farmer’s market or a really good produce department. I become like a kid in a candy store in such places. In fact, I actually enjoy going to such venues for fun. I suppose that if I am honest I must admit to carrying a hidden fear that the food will one day run out.

Nothing pulls at my heart strings more than seeing photos of starving children in distant lands. My mama used to caution us not to waste food, reminding us that children in some places would be more than happy to have the plenty that she put on our table. My brothers sometimes joked when she was not around that it wasn’t as though we could put our waste in a little box and send it somewhere that it would be appreciated. Of course, that was before we grew up and realized that even though we lived on the edge, we still had more than millions of souls whose misfortunes made ours seem like nothing.

I worked as a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank a number of times. Some of the students that I have taken with me ironically had used the services on a regular basis. It was humbling to realize that even within my own city there are families struggling to get the proper nourishment. I’ve often thought of my own mother and her incredible knowledge of ways to create a healthy diet on a very small income. We may have eaten beans and greens, but she understood the value that they gave to our diet, and cooked them so that they were also delicious. A problem that far too many people have, is a lack of understanding of how to feed themselves and their loved ones with only a small number of ingredients.

I have a good friend who is much like my mom. She uses every part of every kind of food that she purchases. She boils the tops of beets and the peelings from potatoes and all the rest of the seemingly unusable parts of vegetables to make broth that is filled with vitamins and flavor. She purchases big bags of overripe bananas that are practically being given away and freezes them for the smoothies that she makes her husband each morning. Whenever I’m looking for a good way to use food to its utmost she provides me with dozens of ideas. She even knows how to make her own chocolate and has devised a method for making ice cream that doesn’t even require a machine.

I used to shudder whenever I had cafeteria duty in the schools where I worked as I watched the garbage cans filling with perfectly good items that the children simply did not want to eat. I thought of those babies with bloated bellies and wondered if they would have been more than happy to munch on the food that would end up in a landfill. I found myself understanding what my mother had been thinking when she told me and my brothers not to take what we did not think we could eat. 

Food is one of our most basic needs. It is also a way to celebrate and gather with friends and family. We humans have turned eating into an art form. It is one of life’s great joys, and as I grow older it has also become a source of contentment for me to choose a juicy red tomato or find a display of perfectly formed apples. As I store away the meats, fruits, vegetables and grains I feel so thankful. Now when I make an egg sandwich for myself I see it as a great gift. The horn of plenty that is my refrigerator and pantry makes me feel quite thankful, particularly for having a mother who so quietly and courageously fed me an my brothers with no complaint and great joy. She taught me to have an appreciation for whatever I have and to never forget those who have so much less.