Angels among us

Well, it’s that time of year, so I’m going to tell you a Christmas story. It’s not the happiest story, but maybe it’s a good story anyway.

When my father was killed many years ago by a drunk driver, I was just out of college at the time and worked for his  company. My dad was a  printer and made those coffee table books and posters for museums like the Met and the Smithsonian. He loved fixing a shadowhis clients. Dad was the king of long-term business relationships…he remembered where a kid went to college, remembered special anniversaries, asked after parents. His clients loved him too. As my father’s employee and especially as his daughter, I felt I owed it to his closest clients to go down to D.C., where Dad did most of his business, and see them in person.

You can imagine how it felt to sit in their offices six weeks after my father’s death and have those folks tell me how wonderful my dad was, to have them cry and shake their heads in disbelief that their old friend was gone. But I wanted to make Dad proud—doesn’t every daughter?—so I let them hug me, thanked them for their kindness and told them how much my father had always loved working with them, and how much it meant to my family and me to know how highly they regarded my dad.

washington-dc-85539_640It was awful. To this day, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Add to this, I didn’t know anyone in Washington. I didn’t want to go back to an empty room, so I walked around, found myself in Georgetown, which was bright with Christmas lights, awash in wreaths and ribbons, all those posh shops and beautiful restaurants, the elegant townhouses and wrought-iron fences. Snow was falling, and the whole scene looked like a Christmas movie. Georgetown truly is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America.

But I wasn’t really in the mood for a proper dinner. I spied to a Roy Rogers, figured I’d get a burger and maybe go to the movies and distract myself as long as I could before going back to my room. In front of the restaurant was a homeless man, sitting in the slushy snow on the sidewalk. “Can you spare some change, miss?” he asked. “Sure,” I answered. But I don’t have any right now. Come in the restaurant, and I’ll get some.”

homeless manThe guy was white, and he was dirty and skinny, reddish hair. I don’t remember his face too well, but he had a scruffy beard. He followed me in uncertainly—clearly he wouldn’t have been sitting on the street if that restaurant had welcomed the homeless. Up at the counter, I ordered two of everything—burgers, fries, coffee, milkshake (he could use some fattening up). Then I brought the tray back and asked him to eat with me.

He couldn’t believe I’d bought him food. He admitted that he would’ve spent my money on booze, and told me it had been a long time since he ate a square meal (if you could call it that) in a restaurant. “Most folks wouldn’t do this,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me eat with them.”

Before you think this is a story of my goodness, let me tell something. It isn’t. I was nervous. He did not smell good, this guy. I told him I was married (I wasn’t) and that my husband was meeting me in half an hour. I could’ve afforded to give him a hundred dollars, put him up in a hotel for the night, at least paid for cab fare to a shelter, and I did none of those things. I could’ve bought him a lot more than a hamburger and fries.

burger and friesBut he was thrilled, and I admit that it was kind of nice, sitting there under the disapproving gaze of the Roy Rogers manager. My new pal liked that we were breaking the rules…the rule was, he told me, that you had to buy something to come in the restaurant, and he couldn’t afford even a cup of coffee, being that he spent all his money on alcohol. He slept in his car most of the time, though he would go to a shelter tonight. He showed me a very old and tattered picture of a girl—his daughter. She would be in her twenties now, but he hadn’t seen her in a long time, and indeed, didn’t know where she was anymore.

At the end of the meal, I gave Ted the change from my twenty. He thanked me, and I waved as I crossed the street, sort of concerned that he’d follow me, take my purse, kill me, whatever. He didn’t. He just waved, a huge smile on his face. “God bless you, nice lady!” he shouted.

I’m guessing that Ted has died by now. Life on the street, alcoholism, illness…I’m quite sure I’ll never see him again. But I wish I could, because if I did, I’d thank him for giving me the chance to do something decent. I’d tell him how grateful I was that he showed me his most precious possession, that worn picture of his child. I’d apologize for being afraid of him, and thank him for reminding me just how much I had.

starsMost of all, I’d thank him for being nice to me. I was a lost soul that night with an awful ache in my heart…and Ted, he helped me. In the season of angels and miracles and hope, I think that Ted was a sort of angel, because that homeless man gave me a place to sit, a person to talk with, a chance to look outside of myself, at least for a little while.

 

So here’s to you, Ted. Hope you’re okay, wherever you are. And maybe someday, we’ll meet again.

 

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Labor of love

 

IMG_1292If you’re Hungarian, you know the wonders of what are simply called Hungarian cookies. They’re humble looking little things folded into squares or curved into crescents, and have several fillings: apricot, prune, nut, and sometimes cream cheese, if you miscalculate the amount of dough. They don’t look like anything special…but they are. Oh, readers, they are.

I can’t give you the recipe for three reasons: there are no fixed measurements; the smallest batch yields about 20 dozen cookies; and because it requires the skills needed require about ten years of apprenticeship.

I started learning at my grandmother’s kitchen table when I was already a pretty good baker, back in my twenties. My own mom doesn’t love to bake; it skipped a generation, she says, and so I was my gram’s girl. The Princess, my daughter, has been studying at my side since she was about ten. Now almost twenty-three, she’s getting the hang of it. In five or six more years, she might have the chops to try it on her own.

The dough itself has twelve ingredients; the dried fruit takes hours to stew, then cool. You have to grind them by hand; no food processors or mixers allowed. You need to know what it means when my grandmother’s notes say, “If it’s too wet, add some flour,” or “If you need it, add another egg.” My favorite instruction is “Mix till it’s right.” The few Hungarian words I know, aside from curses, come back to me: sütemény, lekvar, dioche.

gramI was the first granddaughter on both sides of my family. My dad’s mother didn’t have much use for me, but my mom’s mother more than made up for it. Those days when I’d ask if I could come help sift pounds and pounds of flour, or beat eggs just enough, or learn to fold the soft, fragrant dough around a spoonful of filling…I loved those days. Just Gram and me in the kitchen, the table elevated by the Encyclopedia Britannica (good for something after all). Gram would tell me about her own mother, her sisters, her days as a young wife and mother. I learned more about her life in those hours than in all the other days of the year, because we stood in that humble, sunny little kitchen for hours and hours, baking those cookies.

IMG_1292And the smell! The smell of those cookies is like nothing else except maybe heaven. The year after Gram died, I brought my dough and fillings and baked the cookies in her oven, so my grandfather would have that smell in his house, and I did that until he died. Eating one (or four) warm from the oven, when you can taste all those ingredients, when two days of hard labor has come to fruition…it’s the taste of love. My aunts and uncles love the cookies so much; the best compliment I can get is, “They’re almost as good as hers.”

I still have the cards Gram wrote out for me in her pretty handwriting, and I laminated them after she died. I prop them up on the windowsill in a little shrine as I work, and I tell my daughter stories of her great-grandmother, for whom she was named, and there is no Christmas tradition I treasure more.

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Kristan’s Christmas Crafting

 

pompomsIt’s that time of year again when I once again spend $300 at a craft store, waste countless hours and come to the oft-proven conclusion that crafting and I are not meant to be.

There was the time I was convinced by a friend whose name I won’t mention (RaeAnne Thayne) that I could make a wreath out of pages of a foreign edition of one of my books. Just fold and glue and stick and voila! Wrong, RaeAnne. Wrong. Fold and burn and stick and burn and spend an hour scraping glue off the table and googling candles“when does a burn need a skin graft?”

The time the kids and I made a gingerbread house with Santa on the roof, only to have the roof collapse and Santa break his back and a cookie reindeer lap up his blood. I still carry those emotional wounds.

The time I drew snowmen on a plate with special markers and my mother asked me if my three-year-old neighbor was the artist.

That year with the popsicle sticks and glass beads, when we made a Christmas ornament so heavy it snapped a tree branch.

gingerbread houseThe time I bought cylindrical cones I was going to spray with glittery green paint and spray-painted my face and half the cellar instead.

So. I’ll stick to baking. And making seasonal martinis. We all have our strengths.

 

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Oh, the humanity!

After several family interventions and one emergency visit from the United Nations, my mother has agreed to relinquish chef duties for Thanksgiving this year.

knife‘Twas a battle, readers! The Queen of the Giblets was not quite ready to pass the torch, but after she melted plastic inside the bird last year (“You just can’t let that go, can you?”), after she “accidentally” splattered me with boiling gravy, dropped (or threw) a knife so that it stuck quivering in the kitchen floor right near pinkie toe, my sister and I huddled together and strategized.

turkeyWe would cook the big feast this year—maybe add some new dishes that didn’t require cream of mushroom soup, canned onion rings or Cheez-Its—but Mom would still host, since she has the perfect house for company. My sister and I would go to her as a united front, possibly sending in the Princess when talks broke down. And so, with the “safety in numbers” theory firmly in mind, approached in a tactical method that would hopefully reveal the facts:

  1. Turkey is better without melted plastic;
  2. Our kidneys could not again process as much salt as she likes to use;
  3. Think of the children; and
  4. It was time her two fifty-something daughters made the damn bird all by themselves.

Fine,” she said after our fifth intervention. “Go for it. I’ll make a side dish. Or two. And a dessert. And cranberry sauce. And stuffing, because my stuffing is best.” (She has us there).

elsa marsShe won’t disclose exactly what she’s making just yet, and when I pop in to see her, she clutches myriad cooking magazines to her ample bosom. “I don’t know yet,” she says. “But you’ve got everything under control, don’t you?” It’s an accusation. “Want me to help cook the turkey?” A sinister laugh follows. “And don’t forget to make…the gravy.” Everything sounds slightly terrifying, as if she’s Jessica Lange in American Horror Story.

Since my sister is coming from New Hampshire, McIrish, the Princess, Dearest Son and I will be doing most of the cooking. Do I think Mom is hoping for an unmitigated disaster so she can lord it over our bowed and shameful heads for the rest of our lives? Maybe! Will she have made an entire turkey dinner as back-up? Probably!

Will we have a lovely Thanksgiving with lots of laughs? Absolutely.

I hope you will, too, dear readers.

 

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A serendipitous ending

 

josie

Dear little Josie

The other night, I got a text from my neighbors and close friends Josie, their young and skittish doggy, had bolted, jerking the retractable leash out of the mom’s hand and dashing off into the woods. They searched and called her, but it was raining hard, and the first day of early darkness.

Well, I’d been watching the Great British Bake Off finale and didn’t have my phone turned on for the text alerting me that Josie was missing. It was after 11 p.m. I texted back, but my friends had gone to bed.

Hm, thought I. Maybe I’ll drive around the block and look for her. McIrish was already asleep, and besides, he gets to rescue animals (and humans) all the time. Our block is two-and-a-half miles long, and it’s very dark and rural out here. Maybe my headlights would pick up a forlorn little doggy dragging her leash.

They didn’t. I went home and got into bed, then had another thought. Luther is incredible at seeing and smelling critters. Sure, sure, it was now after midnight, but I pictured Tess, the teenage daughter of Josie’s family. I love Tess. I’ve loved her since the day she was born. Also, Luther had been rather naughty lately—rolling in the same dead animal twice within 24 hours, tearing a chair in his exuberance to snuggle, etc. It was time for him to start earning his keep. Allegedly, he’s part bloodhound.

The LLBean muck boots and raincoat were put back on. I took Luther and walked down the street and into the woodsy area where Josie had last been seen. Luther was quite excited indeed at this late-night walk. Figuring the vast wastelands between Josie’s house and the big corn field would be a good place to start, I started down the dirt lane. Peeked in the old barn, thinking Josie might’ve taken shelter there.

coyote

The coyotes around here are huge.

Suddenly, Luther began dragging me up the hill, past the former cow shed. Alas, the beam of the flashlight showed no reflective eyes, and my gentle calls of “Josie, Josie,” went unanswered. Then I wondered if maybe Luther was smelling a bear or coyote, fisher cat or skunk. I imagined my family learning that I’d been mauled to death by a mountain lion (we do have one or two in Connecticut). “That damn hero complex of hers. She just HAD to go out in the middle of the night and get herself killed.” My funeral would not be as I often picture it, not with my husband and children irked with me.

So I went back home. At least, I thought, Luther’s smell was out there. If Josie was stuck, as we believed she was, hopefully the scent of a big male dog would keep the coyotes at bay.

In the morning, Tess came over; the schools were closed for election day, and both her parents had to go to work, unfortunately. She was trying hard to be brave, but she adores that dog. I tried to reassure her and, being Miss Hyper-Organized, had already googled “how to find a dog lost in the woods,” posted on Facebook and started a “lost dog” poster. I gave Tess something to eat, called the vet, the animal control officer and a kennel where lost dogs show up sometimes. Sometimes, pragmatism is the best balm for a worried heart.

the hero dog

Have nose, will travel.

Then we loaded Luther into the car with treats, an extra leash, and one of Josie’s toys for Luther to sniff for her scent (Hey. I watch movies. It could happen.) “Let’s start where Luther got excited last night,” I said, and so we went to the corn field entrance, where my dog again proceeded to charge up the hill. Tess headed toward the stream, calling “Josie! Want to go for a ride?” as suggested by the Google.

At the edge of the field where the wild stretch began, Luther started sniffing and leaping and trembling. Looking out over the bracken and snarls of pricker bushes, I said to Tess, “I think she’s in there somewhere.” We peered into the briars, but the undergrowth was so thick, we couldn’t see two feet in front of us. “Call her,” I said, and Tess did. We watched to see if any of the undergrowth moved, listened for a whine or bark. But there was nothing.

undergrowth

The undergrowth around here. Oy.

Then Tess’s young, healthy eyes caught a glimpse of something turquoise. “Josie?” she said. After a second or two, we heard a small jingle. Not Luther’s dog tags…but dog tags still. “Josie!” Tess said again, and crawled her way into the snarled, thorn-riddled brush. I tied Luther to a tree, and by the time I got back, Tess was so deep in the growth I couldn’t see her. “I’ve got you, Josie!” she said. “I’m here!”

josie and me

Hooray!

The leash was so tangled Josie could barely move. Tess unclipped her, but she couldn’t get out…honestly, we needed a machete. But I am a rather large and brawny woman, so I crashed into the briars and vines toward my brave little friend and her doggy, hefted Josie into my arms and carried her out to the field, Tess now able to follow the path of destruction I left.

Luther was thrilled to see Josie, and the two dogs, blithely ignorant to the emotional suffering the humans had endured, romped for a few minutes before getting their muddy butts into my previously immaculate car. Tess and I tore up the lost dog flyers and hugged…then noticed that Josie was in dire need of a bath. Back to my house, because I’m kind of an expert at washing stinky dogs. We fed Josie and toweled her off, and I took Tess home so she and her puppy could get some sleep.

from tessieLuther proved himself to be a true hound dog after all. I think he knows he did something important. Josie’s owners called me a hero and promised a case of Annie’s Mac and Cheese (they know me well) and many hugs as reward. But sometimes, all you need is to remember the face of a kid who found her dog after a long, cold, rainy night, and you don’t need a single thing more.

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Heartbreak dreams

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the day my father was killed by a drunk driver.

He didn’t get to meet the man I’d marry, or see any of his three kids get married. While my wedding was very happy, there was a stone in my heart that day. When I lost a baby, he wasn’t there to comfort me. He didn’t get to fall in love with his first grandchild, the Princess, or sit next to Dearest Son’s incubator and marvel at the miracle of him. He didn’t get to cuddle any of his five grandchildren. He didn’t get to see his daughter’s name on a book cover.

I think about how my dad would’ve been…a doting grandpa, smug and proud, always encouraging the kids to be great, work hard, dream big. He would’ve loved McIrish and his care of the land, his work ethic and love of outdoors—qualities they shared. I think of how proud my books would have made him. He would’ve come to all the awards ceremonies, and being my dad, he would have had a big bouquet of roses each time, whether I won or lost (but being my dad, he would’ve been confident that I’d win).

Sometimes I dream that my father is back, and that I’m introducing my kids to him. Those are hard dreams. Heartbreakers.

My dad had a special nickname for me only he used. No one calls me that any more. No one has called me that in thirty years. No one will ever call me that again. I’m older than my dad ever was. He’s been gone for more than half my life, and you’d think I’d be used to it. But I’m not, even though my memories of him are foggy now. I can’t really remember his voice. I miss him every day, but three decades have passed, blurring my memories.

Grief has is a presence unto itself—the absence of him is more acute than my old memories are, worn down by thirty years. The shock of losing him in such a brutal crash, such a stupid, preventable way has given way to the weary acceptance that he’s simply gone. The facts of my life have shifted. I’m a middle-aged woman who lost her dad so long ago that it’s normal now. That doesn’t seem fair.

Yesterday, I was driving back from New York, and I glanced at the car next to me. The driver was texting as we maneuvered through the difficult traffic—traffic caused by a car accident, ironically. I thought what I always think when I see someone driving stupidly: If you crash, I hope it’s only yourself that you kill. It’s a merciless thought because in that respect, I am without mercy.

Maybe, if you’re one of those people who texts while driving, or gets behind the wheel after a few drinks, hoping you’re sober enough, you’ll think of my dad, and me, left alone to figure out life without the one person I really looked up to.

I share a lot of my life with you, my friends and readers. I wanted to share my heartache on this wretchedly significant day. Don’t drive distracted. Put your damn phone in the back seat and ignore it. Don’t drive drunk or stoned or impaired. Be watchful. Be careful. Be smart.

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Better left untried

 

Last night, McIrish and I had the unique experience of sharing the family house on Cape Cod with my sister. We’d been there all together in the past, but with kids…this time, it was just the three of us to do a few final chores before we close the house, to hang out and get silly and yes, drink some wine.

doggyConversation turned to nudism. One of us had heard of a nude cruise vacation—nuises, as I started calling them. My sister enacted possible conversations and situations…sitting in recently vacated chair, for example, or bumping against someone in the hall as they’ve just left the bathroom. “Everyone would get Parvo,” I wheezed, ever thinking of cleanliness. My sister obliged us by demonstrating potential poses to keep certain parts off certain surfaces. She has a very strong core.

oceanTalk turned to swimming nude in the ocean, which I did once, in Sweden for a grand total of 12 seconds. (It was after being in a sauna, and when in Sweden…) I said it was something men think is sexy, but women have to consider the real-life complications. McIrish began to mansplain why there would be no complications, to which I said, “In a porno, you’re right. In real life, we have to think about these things. Also, you’re a man, so you lose this argument, since you don’t have the right parts.” He conceded.

cloroxBack to the nuises…did people take towels to sit on, as they do in the saunas of Sweden? Was the crew also naked? Did they hand you a container of Clorox Clean-Up wipes as you boarded? How much more sunscreen would you use? What if you were eating something hot, and it fell off your fork? The disco nights…the shuffleboard.

This morning, McIrish told me I had agreed to go on such a cruise. Listen. I might have had a little wine last night, but there’s not enough Chardonnay in the world to make me agree to that. Still, if you’re a nuiser, hey. Whatever floats your boat.

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The blues

bluesThe other night, I was feeling blue. No real reason…just blue. It wasn’t fatigue or sorrow or anything in particular. Maybe it was because I had just been to Cape Cod, and that’s my favorite place, and now I was back in boring old Connecticut. Maybe it was because I hadn’t been particularly productive that day, since I’d had myriad errands to do, and none of them was all that interesting. I’d also been thinking about my lost baby, and even though it’s been nearly 24 years, I still miss him. That would give anyone the blues, I think.

So the blues it was.

I decided to indulge. Had a bit of a cry, which is rare for me…I’m a happy weeper more than one who cries for sad things. Took a long drive, which failed to cheer me. I got a quarter pounder from McDonald’s; the first time in decades. Stopped at a Kohl’s and wandered the aisles, finding nothing of interest. Not even socks, which should tell you how blue I was.

It’s that time of the year when summer is abruptly gone, and the sky gets dark so early. I sighed a lot and just…felt sad.

rainy dayAnd there’s nothing wrong with that.

The next day was stormy, and I went to my office and listened to the rain on the windows, made a cuppa joe and felt happy once more. For no real reason. What comes around, goes around, as the saying goes.

I hope you’ll all have a happy week, my friends, and if you don’t, I hope it passes quickly.

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Forever young

last summerI have a cousin with special needs. She was born when I was thirteen or fourteen, and I’ve been kind of crazy about her ever since. She’s nonverbal and has Down syndrome and some other things that we don’t quite understand.

She lives in a lovely house in Massachusetts, and I visit her when I go to Cape Cod. The minute she sees me, she smiles, gives me a hug, then takes my hand and leads me to her room, where she takes off her shoes and presents me with her feet, which I rub. When she’s had enough, she takes my hands and makes me clap them, and I sing her a variety of songs: Rubber Ducky, Baby Beluga, maybe a few show tunes. I do a hand-clapping game, which she seems to like.

My cousin is pretty short, and I’m pretty tall, so she still seems like a little kid to me, though her hair is prematurely gray. Silver, really, like her dad’s. Sometimes we walk around the block if she’s up for it, and I narrate what we’re seeing, holding her hand, steering her this way and that. She often tries to get into my car, but I don’t have the proper safety harness for her, and I often have a dog with me. She doesn’t like dogs, though Luther may have won her over a bit the last time we went.

meeting lutherThe hardest part of visiting her is saying goodbye, because I can’t. She gets too upset, so her aides distract her, and I just slip out the door. Sometimes I cry a little bit in my car. My heart always feels achy and swollen after I visit, but I keep going. She’s my little sweetheart, after all.

A few years ago, I dreamed that my sweet cousin could talk. I said, “I love you, honey,” and she said she loved me, too, and I ran to get her mother, so my auntie could hear her talk, too.

And someday, in the next life, I hope I’ll get to hear her voice for real.

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Tips from a former cleaning lady

 

housekeeperI used to work as a housekeeper for a motel. It was disgusting sometimes…the things people left for other humans to pick up was mind-boggling. Other times, folks were quite tidy.

When the Princess was teeny-tiny, I cleaned houses in our neighborhood for some extra cash. I’d put my little one in a backpack and get to work. My grandmother taught me to clean house; it was a point of pride for her to have a tidy home, and because of her, I still love to clean. It destresses me, so my house is immaculate these days with all the ugliness in the world these days. I figured I’d share some tips.

Start from the top and work down. Knock down cobwebs, dust the lamps and the knickknacks on the high shelves, all the way down to the floor, so you can vacuum up all those dead spiders and such.

washFor a smelly carpet (thank you, dogs), sprinkle the surface with baking soda and cloves, then walk around the carpet till the powder is worked down. Leave it for 15 minutes or so, then vacuum slowly so you get everything up. The house will smell so nice, and so will the vacuum cleaner.

Nothing beats a toothpick when it comes to cleaning small corners on the stove, the mixer, around the faucet. It becomes a Zen-like activity.

Lemon juice and salt make stainless steel and copper look like new.

Rub wet coffee grounds into dark wood to erase stains.

laundryNothing beats Windex for glass.

For mold in a bath or shower, put on a respirator, spray with Clorox Clean-up or bleach (but be careful), let sit for ten minutes, then rinse with the hottest water you have.

Love smells like sheets hung out to dry in the sun.

Happy cleaning and calming!

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