Posts Tagged ‘family’

It’s less than two weeks before Christmas, a time when the pressure on parents to think about how they can fulfill their children’s wishes and dreams mounts apace.  It’s a time of holiday parties, of too much to do and too little time, of baking treats, visiting with friends and — in our house, anyway — thinking about the arrival home of our adored younger child, whose face we last saw (at least, without the aid of Skype) on August 29 as we drove away from New Orleans.

She’s had a good first semester at Tulane, and we’ve survived empty nest syndrome reasonably well.  And now, it’s time for a reunion.  And while my head has been filled with all the things we might do when she comes home — all the things I’ll cook for her, the Zumba class we’ll go to together, picking out the Christmas tree and decorating it, with eggnog in hand — the illusion was shattered today.

I’m from Connecticut, you see.  A dear friend lives in Newtown;  I know where Sandy Hook is.  More than that, the elementary school where our younger child was educated is right down the street from us.  Many days, Ben or I would walk her there, say goodbye as she went in the door, wave to the principal, thank her teachers for all they offered her.  So I really can not imagine what nightmare the parents of Newtown are living through right now.  How in the world could you have been planning for the holidays with your five- or eight-year-old one minute and find out, in the next, that the child has been blown away by a gunman?

What do we say, collectively, to those parents?  What do we say to the families of those who have lost a loved one…those families of educators who devoted themselves to our children, so that they would have the opportunity to grow and contribute and flower in their lives?  And why, in the name of all that is valuable in life, do we continue to believe that — because of this country’s struggle for liberty and the value of individual rights — we must have the right to bear firearms, allowing this catastrophe to happen over and over again?

By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t either of my children who died today.  By heaven’s grace, it wasn’t my nephew, who teaches in a charter school, or an extended family member’s second grade son, or my cousin, who is a school librarian.  But it could have been.  And it should not be.  Not ever.

We proudly proclaim that, as a country, we are the most powerful nation on earth.  And then, people who suffer from mental illness or who have lost their way in life use the rights we continue to proudly claim, to buy firearms and in one horrible moment, blow away the lives, the futures, of twenty small children and the teachers who cared for them.

Too often, we take our lives and our existence for granted, take our privileges as citizens of this country as ‘inalienable rights’ that can lead us astray.  There must be another way.  Because, for those good people of Newtown and for us as a nation, life as we know it will not be the same.  And we owe it to the memory of those children and teachers to make sure that the gun laws in this country are different so that this sad drama does not keep repeating.

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The holidays bring with them anticipation, excitement, expectation.  Already this year, I’ve heard from several people who are trying to figure out how to fulfill the wishes of their children, some of whom have gone hunting for their Christmas presents.  There are economic concerns, dreams that just once, at Christmas, everything could be ‘perfect,’ and the heightened hopes of those we love — all wrapped up in one, big, emotion-filled package.

And so, as a gift to all those who wonder if all can be fulfilled, and as a reminder to all of us about the qualities and values that are the most important at this time of year, I hand over this space to my husband, Ben Soule, who shares his recollections of “Putting on the Suit” at Christmas time.  Ben wrote this piece four years ago, but what he and I have found, miraculously, is that our daughter continues to call him to “put on the suit.”  The deeply felt correspondence with Santa has continued, just as the cookies and eggnog continue to be placed carefully on the table near the fireplace in the living room.  Some traditions are meant to endure, beyond reason, logic, or what we ‘know’ to be true.  And a good thing it is — for faith plays a big part in what makes Christmas the treasured holiday it is.



My wife and I always say that parenting is a process of letting go.  Most days you don’t notice, but there are moments when you realize your life has just taken a sudden irreversible turn.  What I had forgotten is that the same lurches come to our children.

Christmas in our house is a bustle of baking cookies, caroling with friends, going to church, making gifts and cards, buying presents, and spending time with family.  For twelve beautiful years, our younger daughter added her own piece: an unswerving belief in Santa Claus.  Most of her friends had already given it up, but we decided that we would do our best to support it as long as she continued to hold fast to her belief.  We found a way to answer her direct questions positively and honestly.  We wrapped the Santa presents in different paper, and each Christmas Eve, when she wrote an earnest note to Santa, we prayed that her list would overlap with what was hidden away in the basement.

Late on Christmas Eve, when all the presents were wrapped and under the tree, I would sit next to the tray of eggnog and Christmas cookies she had lovingly put out, with paper and pencil in hand, and close my eyes.

I once told my wife it was like “putting on the Santa suit.”  I tried to meet my daughter in her own reality.  It was a beautiful and difficult place to which she led me, and there, I became for a few moments a better person, floating a little bit above my fears and my faults.  Then I would write to her, using a neat backward-slanting script, and try to say something that would encourage her better qualities. I’d mention the reindeer, thank her for the snack, wish her a merry Christmas, and sign off – “S. Claus.”

Last year was different, however, and when she wrote her note to Santa, along with the doll accessories she requested an iPod – she was twelve after all.  Fortunately, she had dropped enough hints so that Santa was able to produce the requested item on Christmas morning.  As the day went along, however, she made it clear that she had been hoping for a better model –one that my wife and I had discussed but rejected as being too expensive for a sixth-grader.  We told her we’d talk it over.

Two days later, over breakfast, she called the question.  My wife and I had already decided to do the upgrade, which would come with a talk about caring for one’s belongings.  However, somewhere in the ensuing conversation, we slipped.  We were making a present from Santa conditional upon parental restrictions, and we didn’t notice the trap until we were in it.  One of us asked her an unguarded question, which, if she answered truthfully, would acknowledge Santa’s non-existence.  There was a small nod, a whispered “yeah.”  The last gossamer wisp of the veil that had protected her faith softly fell, and she was face to face with the bleak reality.  She collapsed in tears.  “I’m such an idiot,” she sobbed. “I really wanted to believe.” My wife held her, but I was blinded by a sudden realization – that next Christmas Eve my daughter would not lead me to that beautiful and difficult place where her faith in the impossible could lift me up and for a brief moment transform me.  My own tears stung my eyes.

Over time my daughter will learn for herself that the joys of Christmas can be found in many places – in making gifts and baking cookies, singing carols and sharing love with family and friends, in bringing magic to children, in helping those less fortunate than she.  She will learn that believing in Santa is an act of faith and love, not idiocy.  And starting this year I will have to relearn those things too.  But I will miss putting on the suit.

— Ben Soule

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Sometimes I worry about myself.  I fear that I may be turning into some version of “Mrs. Crankypants” with what I am about to say.  Nevertheless, here goes:  it’s now officially the holiday shopping season and there is not very much that I want to buy.

I know, I know…we’re supposed to.  And it does stimulate the economy. And right at this very minute, my younger daughter is Out There Somewhere, doing her part at the Black Friday sales.  And yeah, it’s true that right now, money is pretty darned tight for us.  And I suppose that does influence my thinking, to some extent.  But even when I think about what would be on my ‘wish list’ if money wasn’t an issue, there’s not a whole lot that I can come up with!

Sure, I would like to go on a nice vacation somewhere warm in the winter.  And I always like a little bling.  But really, what do I need or want?  I don’t need another cashmere sweater.  I love Chico’s (God knows I look like an ad for the company, most of the time) but I don’t really need more clothes. I don’t want a Keurig single-cup coffee thingie…I brew mine by the pot and like it that way.  And I don’t really want a George Foreman grill, even though my friends love them…my gas grill and my broiler pan work just fine.

I’ve got an iPod Touch and don’t really need an iPhone.  An iPad would be a fun toy, but one more gadget isn’t necessary.  And mostly, my husband and I seem to keep cleaning out stuff that we don’t need, rather than adding more to the pile. And all those gimmics advertised for “just $19.95”??  Nope, don’t need those either.  The Obama Chia Head, however…now that might make me think twice!  No, this year, as for the last couple, my husband and I will have a pretty short list of what we want, and we will be making a lot of our holiday gifts.

Ben is a fine artist, and he loves making our holiday greeting cards. This year’s design is finished, a text selected and — in a departure from the last ten or so years — we actually may get it done and hand-painted and in the mail before Christmas, rather than waiting till February (procrastination being a fine art to be honed).  I’ll be making some of the twelve-plus types of Christmas cookies that have been a part of my family tradition since I was a little girl…and then sharing them with friends and family.  Ben will be making part of the gift we give to our family and friends…as a fine woodworker, Ben makes beautiful items that we are glad to share with our loved ones.  And I’ll be adding some consumables, from my catering business, to go with the items Ben makes…homemade preserves and pickles, savory and sweet items, all made in my kitchen.  We feel like these are the most meaningful gifts, the ones made with our hands…and we look forward to sharing them.

Yes, we know our children will have their wish lists, and Ben and I will do our best to fulfill some of their wishes.  But for us – not a long list.  It is the season of giving, and we will be reaching out to family and friends, focusing on the gifts that we give to one another by just being, rather than by buying more things and stuff.  But that Chia head?  Might have to have that!

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For years I have had this cookbook idea which revolves around Thanksgiving.  In my mind, I always called it “Up From the Melting Pot,” and it would focus on the mix of cultural influences that converge around the one holiday which (it seems to me) almost everyone who lives in the United States celebrates in some way, no matter their culture or religion or country of origin.

But my friend, Sofia, convinced me that the ‘melting pot’ analogy isn’t quite right…this is not a process of assimilation, where you throw everything in the pot, boil it down and get some new unified (and perhaps, bland) soup or stew.  The idea here is not to lose one’s cultural heritage in favor of another, but rather to celebrate it, layered on top of this American holiday involving gratitude to native people for help with the harvest, of setting food in store for the coming winter.

So perhaps a “horn of plenty” analogy is better…where all those interesting flavors get put into a container and then celebrated, one by one and all together.  Whatever the best reference is, I find Thanksgiving to be an interesting holiday.  It really is a food-focused occasion…mostly, people come together, sometimes traveling over long distances, to reunite, share experiences, hopefully not argue, and…eat!

I started to realize that this might be interesting when I talked to friends who, low and behold, had entirely different Thanksgiving traditions from mine.  If we were spending the holiday with my mother’s family, we would drive to the family farm in Cuddebackville, NY and Gram, along with my Aunt Edith and my mother, would set a table with most of the foods you’d think of as Norman Rockwell ‘traditional’:  turkey with herb/white bread stuffing and gravy, corn (probably frozen from the summer harvest), mashed potatoes, yeast rolls, cranberry sauce, and maybe a green bean and mushroom soup casserole.  For a while, I went on a turkey strike, and my aunt got a Muscovy Duck which was roasted and stuffed and which I found delicious.  This meal would be followed by pies, including pumpkin, apple, and mincemeat (sometimes including deer meat in the mince, prepared by great-Aunt Addie!)  My father and grandfather and uncle would sit in the living room smoking pipes and cigars and cigarettes while watching football, my cousins and I would play with dolls in another room, and I suspect the women were left to mop up the feast.

Later we started celebrating Thanksgiving with my father’s side of the family.  We’d go to Newburgh, NY, or fly to Rochester where my cousin, Ellen, lived.  I’d be given champagne or wine with dinner (even when 13 or 14), and the appetizers, consumed as the women sat in the living room and the men sat in the den watching football, included my Aunt Estelle’s chopped liver, herring in cream sauce, meatballs, and clam dip.  The turkey was sometimes stuffed with a matzoh dressing, and there were always candied sweet potatoes as well.  Afterward we’d exchange presents — “Jewish Christmas,” my cousin dubbed it — and I remember it as a great, festive time.

Didn’t everyone have chopped liver for appetizers?  No?  My friend, Connie, a vegetarian of over 30 years, often enjoys baked stuffed Acorn Squash or sometimes, cheese fondue for Thanksgiving.  My friends Zoe and Lisa, who are raising three foster children, are making a Mexican stuffing for their turkey, one that the children were accustomed to having when they lived in Los Angeles.  Most versions include pork, tomatoes, chiles, pecans, and cornbread.  My friends Janice and Mike, who are African American, always serve ham in addition to turkey, along with macaroni and cheese, collards, and corn bread. Canadian friends include gougeres (a cheese puff) and an apple-carrot casserole.  And Latin American influences suggest a Mofongo stuffing (with fried plantains) goes well with the traditional turkey.

The common denominator, it seems to me, is gathering around the table, whether large or small, to celebrate.  My family’s dinner this year — which brings together members of my husband’s and my family — will include both ham and turkey, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, twice-baked sweet potatoes, broccoli, creamed onions, cranberry conserve, yeast rolls, raisin-squash bread, and a green salad.  For dessert, my niece will bring her fudge pie and perhaps a caramel pie (a southern favorite); there will also be an apple pie and my own favorite, a whole sugar pumpkin baked with bread pudding inside. And oh yes, there may be some of my other seasonal favorite on the dinner table:  Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish, which is NPR reporter Susan Stamberg’s legendary cranberry-with-horseradish mix that does indeed look like Pepto Bismol, but carries a wicked kick along with sweet and tart flavors.  There will definitely be leftovers for all (since eating a turkey sandwich before bed is practically mandatory behavior) and we’ll be playing board games and probably enjoying a first fire of the fall in our fireplace.

Any way you slice it, the holiday’s one for coming together.  And in case you’re looking for a new, fun cranberry recipe, try melding 16 oz. of cranberries, 1/2 c. white sugar, 1/2 c. brown sugar, 1/2 c. of currants, 1 small diced granny smith apple, 1/2 a sectioned grapefruit, 1/2 c. port wine, 1/2 c. orange juice, 1 tsp. orange zest, 1 tsp. cinnamon plus 2 sticks cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. ground cloves, a shake of nutmeg, and 1/2 tsp. ground ginger.  Simmer for 30-45 minutes, remove cinnamon sticks, and enjoy one of the most delicious cranberry conserves ever.  And to all – good wishes for a holiday filled with not too much excess, but boundless amounts of family and togetherness!

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September Song

She was born in 1918 in rural New York State, and yesterday would have been Vera Racine Weiner’s 92nd birthday.  She was the older daughter of a school teacher/principal and a housewife, and Vera was not altogether thrilled to find herself an older sister after many years of being an only child.  She was fiery and often single-minded and, though she loved her family, she was anxious to leave her country life and move to the city, any city, to become something important.

I’ve come to terms, over the years and particularly since my mother died in March of 2006, with the realities of who she was, as well as who she wasn’t.  She was a woman who worked with emotionally disturbed boys (at the Berkshire Farm for Boys) as a teacher, and later as an (untrained) dietician and occupational therapist, and as a (licensed) teacher in public elementary and pre-school settings.  She was a fine cook and loved to entertain.  She wanted desperately to have a child, miscarried more than once, and finally, after more than ten years of trying, got her one-and-only.

She was a crusader for the right of women to choose the size of their family, and a social and political liberal who used to curse at Richard Nixon and delight at everything Jack Kennedy said.  She loved to travel and, in her later years, spent weeks every winter in Barbados with my father and their close friends.  She adored her son-in-law (who she announced was ‘perfect,’ and her grandchildren, about whom she felt similarly.  And she was generous with the money she had carefully saved over her life, showering clothes (always clothes!) on her son-in-law and grandchildren, a hot tub on her family, and making sure that her younger grandchild had at least the beginnings of a nest egg (as her older grandchild had previously been given by another grandparent) to pay for her education, when the time came.

But, I have come to acknowledge, she was also something of a selfish social-climber:  influenced by people (mostly men) of ‘importance,’ by tasteful clothes with a fancy label, by shoes (I used to joke that she could take Imelda Marcos on, any day).  She was uninterested in music more recent than Patti Page or Tony Bennett, hated Shakespeare, and refused to go to movies. While she defended me if she sensed others were doing me wrong, she was continually critical about how I looked and what I weighed.  In her book, ‘you could never be too thin or too rich,’ and near the end of her life, as her behavior became somewhat obsessive and she displayed anorexic tendancies, the sad realities of  that shallow devotion became truer and truer.

She was stubborn — my father’s relatives would say, in Yiddish slang, stubbish — to the point of destructiveness, cutting off friends and even damaging her relationship (and our family’s) with her sister because of a fight over the interpretation of her parents’ will.  Her Aunt Laura once said to me, “It’s a good thing Oscar [my father] married Vera, because he was the only one who could handle her!”  And she drank to excess too often, displaying signs of alcoholism that she refused to acknowledge as she downed her martinis.

So, a warm and fuzzy mother she was not.  But she adored my father, and — acknowledging that good relationships are made out of a give and take that is not easily found — their marriage will always remain in my memory of one of the great love stories I’ve ever known.  When Oscar was dying of ALS, she insisted on caring for him in their home, even though it took a huge physical toll on her, as she cracked ribs trying to lift him or exhausted herself with his daily care.  She offered him the ultimate gift, allowing him to die in his own home, in his own bed:  a promise kept.

Yesterday the rains moved in to the Boston area. I spent the earlier part of the day at First Parish in Lexington, which Mom enjoyed attending (she would have loved the new minister, a young and outgoing and attractive man who is great at talking with folks of all ages) and she would have eagerly gobbled the raspberries I later picked from an organic farm in nearby Winchester.  But then the skies darkened and started to spit.  She always hated her birthday because it came at a time when, she said, the year was dying away.  I thought of that as I drove to a meeting at 3:30 PM with my lights on and a mist in the air.  Had she been alive, we would, no doubt, have made her a very rich chocolate cake, for she always had room for dessert although she picked at everything else.  And she would have loved seeing the thin and lovely young woman her younger grandchild has grown into, full of talent and promise.

The Kurt Weill song made famous by Frank Sinatra reminds us:

“Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

“Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you…
These precious days I’ll spend with you”

Her precious days are gone, now, and the memories remain:  good, bad, middling, mixed together.  On September 26, I thought of Mom, and all that she was, with eyes that saw her a bit more clearly, even through the mist of time and unsettled weather.

formal picture of Vera Weiner

Vera Weiner, c. 1990

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It’s hot-hot-hot in Lexington, Massachusetts, and my mind has been wandering, as I think of other places where I’ve spent hot summer days in a pleasurable way.  The place where my head keeps going is my grandparents’ farm, in Cuddebackville, New York.  When I was a kid, we’d get in the DeSoto, with a pillow in the back seat for me, and off we’d go to the farm.  When we lived in Ohio the trip took a really long time – I can’t remember us staying overnight on the way, but I remember being cooped up in the car for hours – and it was always great to be freed at our final destination.

We’d drive down Route 209, the last part of the trip, and I’d smell the manure on the fields and watch the lightning bugs flying as the day died.  When we finally drove down the bumpy gravel driveway, I’d look for my grandmother, coming out of the house to greet us.  She always had a clean but plain housedress on, with her corset underneath, stockings rolled up at the thighs, and orthopedic shoes, hair freshly done for our arrival.  My grandfather would be sitting inside, in his overstuffed chair with the antimacassars on the arms and back, reading the paper or watching Walter Cronkite.  The cats, Taffy and Fluffy, would be hanging around, waiting for us as well.

We’d have a farm dinner (almost always including a huge plate of corn on the cob, boiled red potatoes, fried green tomatoes), plus homemade rolls, sliced red tomatoes, and a chicken my grandfather had dispatched earlier in the day.  There was unpasteurized fresh milk to drink with the cream floating on top — from the cows in the barn – and fresh strawberries or blueberries on vanilla ice cream.  Later on, there might be sitting in the living room while the grown-ups watched Lawrence Welk and I played with the dollhouse and dolls that were kept in the attic for my visits, or we’d get to see my cousins, Linda and Brenda, and their parents, my Aunt Edith and Uncle Fred.

Life was simple and good.  The next morning I’d get out of my rollaway cot with the quilt on it that Gram had made, and go to the kitchen where Gram was making a first breakfast for Gramp before he went out to milk the cows.  Second breakfast came when my parents were up, after the milking was done…and that was followed by Gramp’s retreat to “his” sitting area, in the cellar, near the coal furnace, where an old sofa was.  In the summer, Gram would sometimes go into the cellar to make jam, using the summer kitchen where it was cooler, to work her magic on peaches, strawberries, cherries, cucumbers for pickles, or to crank out her fantastic chili sauce or corn relish.  This is where I first got interested in cooking, and I paid a lot of attention to what she was doing.

My cousins and I would pick wild berries, walk down to the kill and sit with a fishing pole (I never remember us catching anything, but the cold water of the kill was wonderful on a hot day), or play in the corn crib up on a rise.  Later in the day we’d go to the old bus where Gramp weighed the eggs he collected from the chicken coop, or run alongside Gramp, his hired man, and Barney the dog, to bring the cows out to the night pasture near the end of the property.

I wanted nothing more than to explore the farm with my cousins or spend time with my grandfather.  Life was not fancy in this part of the world, and as I grew older, I got pretty bored with life on the farm.  It wasn’t till much later that I began to realize what a gift I had received from my grandparents and the rest of my family.  I really wanted to garden, and I started to seek out spaces where I could dig in the dirt and plant scallions or potatoes or carrots.  I realized that, when I was selecting corn on the cob, I had learned how fresh corn smells — and that smell is the only way I know to find the really good stuff.  I made jars and jars of jams, relish, pickles, and they were my Gram’s recipes.  One of the recipes even was featured in Yankee Magazine, when they ran their “Recipe With a History” feature.

When I think of home on hot summer days, my mind goes to the farm.  My cousin Linda lives there still, and the corn crib, though rickety, is still there, along with the barn.  When Judy Collins wrote the song, “Secret Gardens of the Heart,” she must have had such a memory in her head:

“…I still see the ghosts
Of the people I knew long ago
Inside the old kitchen
They bend and sigh
My life passed them up
And the world passed them by

Secret Gardens of the heart
Where the old stay young forever
I see you shining through the night
In the ice and snow of winter…”
(Words and Music by Judy Collins. Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)/ Rocky Mountain National Park Music, Inc. (ASCAP)

I see the farm shining in the sun and in my memory I’m eight again.  Tomorrow, on  another hot day, I’ll remember my grandmother’s iced tea (loose tea, fresh lemons, sugar, mint), the breeze that came from sitting under the catalpa trees, and my heart will once more travel home.

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I’ve written previously about my sainted mother-in-law, who is coming out of a three-month cycle of illness that nearly took her away.  She is, at nearly 92, not done with life, and so — taking our cues from her — we are surely not done with her.  We are part of her team, her advocates, and she has been remarkable through all the challenges she has faced.  In her rehab facility, she works daily to regain strength and ability, and probably has one week to go till she maxes out on her progress.

The question is, what comes next?

My father, who was a social worker, used to talk about how the ultimate question, when dealing with child welfare cases was, “what is in the best interest of the child”?  That, he said, was how judges made their decisions about what kind of care, and under what circumstances, children should have.  And that is the same question that we face now:  what is in the best interest of the parent?

Phoebe would like to return home to her independent living situation.  But my father-in-law can not pick her up if she falls, may not be able to provide the protien-rich foods she now needs, administer all the medications she requires, or make sure that her personal and environmental hygiene are such that another infection is prevented.

The skilled nursing facility at their residence can provide these things.  But to move her there is to take her away from her life partner of 65+ years, out of the apartment and the routine that she enjoys.  And she will not be constantly present to spend each day with my father-in-law, causing him to feel more lonely and isolated.

Threading through these decisions feels like walking a minefield…what solves one piece of the puzzle may be a detriment somewhere else.  Ultimately, my mother-in-law’s safety and welfare are paramount, and that will likely be what guides our path.  Trying to navigate that road, and still preserve some of the happiness and sharing that have been part of my in-laws’ life together, is tricky business.

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