Maple Man

 

the bucket

tapping the trees

Almost every year of our marriage, McIrish has made maple syrup. He started by buying a few taps and hanging buckets on the maple trees. The kids would go with their red wagon and check the sap, and with his help, put the full buckets into their wagon and pull it back to the barn. For the sap to run, the weather has to be below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. The first run of the year makes the best syrup (but is there really such a thing as bad syrup?). It takes a week or so to get enough sap for boiling.

Boiling Day is very exciting around here. We used to have a metal barrel with a hole cut in it, and McIrish would put in the evaporator pan. He’d add logs to the

The man, the legend

The man, the legend

barrel and sit there, listening to the radio (usually Car Talk). The kids would play and sometimes sled if there was still snow on the ground. We’d make popcorn. McIrish would throw a few hot dogs in the boiling sap and voila! Lunch was served. We upgraded our evaporator a few years ago to a proper stove (so we could get more syrup). The little shed where this all happens is the best outdoor man cave ever.

the boil

the boil

Friends often come and visit on Boiling Day. Many of them haven’t seen maple syrup being made before, including our little four-year-old twin neighbors. We showed them the boiling sap yesterday, and they were terribly excited. “I see it, Terence!” they exclaimed. “I smell the syrup!”

sap running

sap running

McIrish stands there like a benevolent overlord, chatting, adding sap, adding wood, sitting in the cool air, watching the dogs frolic in the mud and snow. I go out and sit as well, but I have a tendency to get too close to the stove and melt my fleece coat. I do love to hang out there with him, just talking, warming ourselves, rotating like chickens on a rotisserie. Sometimes, he lets me add sap, and I feel very important.

When the sap is reduced down enough, McIrish brings it inside for the final boil on the stove, and then, the somewhat terrifying filter, where he has to pour the superheat syrup through a cloth. and filter on the stove. The windows of the house steam up, and it smells so sweet. This year, we had the twins over for their first sleepover, and they were quite dazzled when McIrish brought us each a tiny glass of syrup to sip, still warm. The little boy spilled his and clapped his hands over his eyes. “Oh, no, what have I done?” he said, and we assured

Just beautiful.

Just beautiful.

him that these things happen and got him some more.

Maple syruping takes weeks. We only make a couple of gallons of syrup, but every time I make pancakes, which is something I only do when the kids are home, we get to have Daddy’s syrup. Weeks of work for a little sweetness throughout the year. True love in action.

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The month of Cape Cod

evening sky

I want to thank you, readers, for the past four weeks.

It was a very busy year. I wrote a book, went on two book tours, attended at least one writers conference, had a child graduate from college, took a lovely family vacation, and spent a memorable day in the emergency room thinking I was going to die and scaring the bejesus out of McIrish. I think I was on an airplane more than 50 times in 8 months.

winter capeThe Princess moved into her first apartment and started graduate school three hours away. Dearest Son had an internship for which he wore a suit and tie, and I realized that my little boy is a man.

This full schedule, and all these emotional upheavals, translated to the fact that I was having a hard time writing my latest book. And so, McIrish and I decided it would be good for me to get away. In the past, I’ve done this for a week or two, usually to someplace warm. This year, because I am a lover of skyscapes and the ocean, I rented a house at the edge of the Atlantic and discovered the wonders of winter on Cape Cod.

faithful friendI took sweet Luther, my better-behaved dog who wouldn’t charge into the ocean the way Willow does, and food that was easy to prepare and consume. Huggy Pillow. Lots of comfy clothes and my giant pink parka.

What happened then was one of the most profound and beautiful experiences of my life. The sound of the waves, the incredible clarity of the night sky, the comfort of Nauset Light’s beam swinging through the darkness. The howls of coyotes, the little fox that followed Luther and me on the beach, and reappeared in our yard the day we were leaving. The smell of salt air, the roar of a storm, even, remarkably, the feeling of a porpoise under my hands as a stranger and I tried to help her get back into the ocean. The exhilarating cold, the giddiness of being blown backward by the wind, unable to stand still in its force.

beachThere’s a holy feeling to being the only person on a beach, making the first footprints (and pawprints) of the day. Seeing sheets of snow gust past the house, to hear different voices of the wind coming from all directions all at once, and always, the ocean, like the earth’s heartbeat.

I know I sound romantic and poetic and maybe a little goofy. I felt that way, too.

IMG_9630There was the delight of visitors—my husband, my daughter, my sister. The long chats I had with my son. My dearest friend from college—our first solo sleepover in twenty-eight years, laughing so hard Catherine fell off the couch. A night with my cousins, another with my auntie. My wonderful, brilliant writer friends, Huntley Fitzpatrick and Stacia Bjarnason, the laughs, the stories, the ideas.

the cloudsI wrote most of my book this month—a book I’ve been struggling with for six months or more. I finally got to that place we writers live for, when the pages flow and the ideas leap from our fingertips. I cleared my head by walking my dog, through the woods, on the beach, going to the bay to watch the sunset, waking up every day to the sunrise flooding my house.

All that was because of you, because you read my books and have given me this beautiful, fulfilling, remarkable career. Thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my very full heart.

 

 

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A rather exciting afternoon

Luther's other true love

Luther’s other true love

So…My plotting friends had just left, and the ocean was wild, the tide very high. I thought, hey, I’ve been inside most of the past two days, plotting and laughing (and laughing and laughing) with Huntley and Stacia, eating lots of carbs and such. My doggy, who was in mourning because his two other mommies had just left, could use the exercise. And hence, I rode my bike to the beach.

As I walked down toward the waves, a man called to me. “Miss! Miss! There’s a baby dolphin stranded on the beach! Don’t let your dog get too excited!”

Baby? Dolphin!?! Stranded, as in needing rescue?

We were on the job.

dolphin!Turns out our baby dolphin was actually a harbor porpoise, but Ivan (my new best friend, despite his Boston Red Sox baseball cap) and I didn’t know that. I called 911 and reported it, then got a call from Animal Rescue, but the call kept dropping before I could give the information. I didn’t know if they got the location, or if they were coming, or if it was just Ivan and me.

The tide was coming in, and the waves were rough. No one else was around. Poor Flipper! She was wriggling and breathing through her blowhole, making Luther so, so excited to play. But, given that she’d probably never seen a dog before, and he definitely had never seen a dolphin before, I tied him to an iron pipe and went over to the beautiful little creature. “Don’t be afraid, honey,” I said. “We’ll help you..”

ocean“Let’s turn her,” said Ivan, as she was facing the beach, rather than the ocean.

And so, we gently, gently, tried to turn her. When the next wave came, it sloshed into our boots, and we got Flipper a little closer to the water. Then a huge wave came in, and pushed her right back…and knocked me down.

Let me tell you something about the northern Atlantic in February. It’s not warm. On the other hand, it never is, not even in August. Ivan helped me up, laughing, also drenched, and we tried again. And again. “The tide will take her into the ocean eventually, right?” I asked.

“As long as she doesn’t dry out, I think she’ll be okay,” he said.

my little friendBut it was hard to watch her struggle, so we tried again. She was cool and slippery, and the whooshing sound of her breath from her blowhole was strange and beautiful. Both Ivan and I had taken to calling her honey by that point, and every time a wave came, we pointed her to the ocean, hoping she could get deep enough to get back in, cheering her on. But she just wasn’t big enough to overcome the power of the waves.

Then, blessedly, we heard a shout! It was the real animal rescuers, and they had a sheet to carry her. We lay the sheet next to her and gently rolled her onto it, then carefully, carefully, lifted her up and carried her to the sand.

“They’re coming with a pickup truck,” the rescuer explained, and they would examine her to see if she was sick, then release her if she was healthy. I wish I had more photos, but my phone was drenched and irritable and didn’t want to turn on.

Did I mention I was soaking wet? Hair, glasses, pants, phone, parka, everything. I went to my faithful pup, who was terribly excited, and emptied the saltwater and rocks out of my boots. “Did you drive here?” Ivan asked.

“No, actually,” I said. “I rode my bike. But it’s not far.”

“I’ll drive you home,” he said, and because he was the type of guy who would go into the Atlantic Ocean to save a small mammal, I figured he was good people. And he was. Not only did he let me ride in his Jeep, sopping wet and grinning, but he let Luther in, too, and put my bike in the back, then drove me down the long dirt road to my house.

“What an experience!” he said, as exuberant as I was. “That was incredible!”

good luck, flipper!We shook hands and then hugged, and he said goodbye to Luther and went off.

I have a lot of laundry to do now, folks. Both Luther and I needed baths. I hope my boots will dry eventually, and that my parka can be washed in the machine.

But being so close to a porpoise, hearing her breath, talking to her, and feeling like you had, maybe, a small part in helping her…I’d do it again tomorrow.

Godspeed, Flipper! May you live a long and healthy life!

 

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Days alone

skyIf you’re a writer, there is something that I think is almost always necessary to do what we do…solitude.

For each of my books, I’ve needed to be alone. This does not include a faithful canine companion. Just alone from other people. When I was a baby writer, my children were tiny—six and three—so my alone time happened when they napped, or at  night. Bless them, they were the type of little ones who went to bed at 7:00. On the nights when McIrish worked at the firehouse, I’d jump on our big old clunky desktop in the bedroom we couldn’t afford to finish, and lose myself in story.

winter capeAs the kids got older and my writing became more lucrative, McIrish and I decided to allot some more serious alone time for me. He built me an office in the basement, which I fondly called the Pit of Despair. Cement walls, that one little prison-like window…but hey. It had a door, and that door closed. As the kids grew older, I would go to the Cape for a night or two in March, which served two purposes—I’d open our little house up there, the house my parents bought when I was little, and have two whole days to write without human contact. We didn’t have wi-fi back then. It was writer heaven. As the kids grew older, the days at the Cape became longer…two nights. Three. A weekend with my plotting buddies.

foggy dayWhen the kids were elderly and my writing responsibilities grew to become more than just stay at home and type, and I had to figure in things like book tours and speaking engagements, I started to go away in the winter. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, but I call it the winter blues. Our little house in the woods can feel claustrophobic, all those trees. My office isn’t well insulated, so I sit under blankets when I work there. Since I walk to my office, any kind of snow or ice makes it hazardous to someone as clumsy as I am.

So I rented an apartment a few years ago, first in Atlanta, then in La Jolla when a speaking engagement took me out there. I went back a couple years later, because La Jolla is so beautiful, and so warm.

beachThis year, I’m away for the longest I’ve been. A month. Both kids live away now, Dearest a sophomore in college, the Princess at nursing school in Boston. Rather than try to go somewhere warm, which would require a flight and more effort for McIrish to come see me, I rented a house on Cape Cod, back to my roots. Our little house isn’t winterized enough for a month there, so I found a pretty little house on another dirt road. The ocean roars, and I wake up to the sun streaming in through the windows, and the sky…the sky is so beautiful. At night, the stars are bright enough for me to understand why we’ve always looked to them as proof of God, as our heroes immortalized.

the cliffLuther is curled up on his mat as I write this. McIrish will come visit me today. My plotting friends will pop in—my sister and Huntley already have. But mostly there’s just me, my story, my good dog, the ever-changing voice of the ocean, the bracing wind and the glorious, endless sky.

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The white stuff

 

dame helenI’ve been going gray since my twenties, but things sped up after I had my kids (not blaming you, Princess and Dearest, but if the shoe fits…). Since I hit 50, there’s been a white streak in the front, which Robert, my hairdresser, has wrestled with. Do we make it look like blond streaks? Do we let it be? Do we try to make it gray (totally on trend) instead of white?

jamie leeFor decades, I’ve colored my hair, which in its natural state, was sort of a dark brown with some red in it, courtesy of my mom, who once had hair the color of an Irish setter. I was in a permanent state of hmmmph, having brown hair, as my sister and mother were regularly told what gorgeous hair they had, how stunning, how beautiful (still bitter much, Higgins?). As an act of rebellion, I colored my hair darker. Medium Golden Brown. 5G, as I recall. A rather boring description. Medium.

But since this summer, I’ve decided to let nature take its course. Same as when I threw away all my Spanx. I am what I am, and I’m gray. White in places. I don’t mind aging, frankly. I mean, sure, there are parts I’d do without. But then I remember Theresa and Melissa and David, friends who never got to hit middle age, and I start to love my gray hair. Several other friends never colored their hair, and were way dame judiahead of the “young people with gray hair” trend. Oh, the money and time they saved! Neither of my grandmothers felt the need to be anything other than what nature intended. My mom’s red has faded to strawberry blond, and I think it’s a shock that her child has more gray that she has. “Are you going to keep it that way?” she’ll ask. “I mean, it’s very pretty! I love it!”

The options were to go blond. Not for me—I’d spent my life trying to feel that brown hair was just as good as red hair, so blond felt like committing adultery. To have Robert dye it forever, which is not cheap in either time or money, or do a crappy job at home (for which Robert always chastises me).

“I want to go gray,” I told him a few months ago. “I’m either going to shave my head, or you’re going to help me.”

To his credit, he was excited. We are the same age, Robert and I, and he’s gray and very distinguished, you know? Because he’s a man, he gets to be distinguished. Another stylist, nice and graya woman, had told me I’d go back to coloring because gray would age me…but hey. I’m 53. I’m aged already. I don’t want to be 75 years old and have chestnut brown hair. I wouldn’t be fooling anyone.
So I’m salt and pepper now, with a silvery-white streak like new-fallen snow in the moonlight (she said, whipping out her author similes). My daughter says my hair sometimes seems to glow, which I quite like. When the sun hits it, there it all is—every year of my life, every wonderful experience, every sorrow, the map of my life in sparkling, shining, unapologetic evidence. My name is Kristan Higgins. I’m 53 years old, and my hair is turning white.

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The subtle art of not flirting

lurveI recently had a college-age reader write to me and share the fact that she’s never had a boyfriend. She professed to be ignorant of how to flirt, let a guy know she thought he was cute, talk to a boy in “that way” other girls seemed to know instinctively. Could I help?

I could! I was that girl! I remember in college, being completely oblivious to the fact that any guy liked me at all, helplessly and silently in crush with boys I never spoke to, sitting in my room reading on Saturday nights when my friends were at parties, because I dared not enter those social waters. I had never had a boyfriend. My first kiss came when I was 18 and three-quarters, at the tail end of my freshman year of college, and I only had the guts to let him kiss me because I was transferring (thank you, Brian! You live in my memory as an incredibly sweet guy).

Obviously, that changed, since I’ve been married for eons and have two children. I have lived and learned in good ways and in bad. My advice to her was…

flowersDon’t worry about flirting. It’ll come or it won’t. Flirting implies a comfort and sense of humor (to me, anyway). If you’re not comfortable, don’t force it. There’s no rule book here.

Make eye contact.

Smile at your romantic interest. It conveys interest, and in my experience, works better than pretending not to see him or her, which was my go-to move for years (and why I had such a hard time getting a damn boyfriend).

Ask questions that require more than a one-word sentence. Follow up “Where are you from?” with “How did you like growing up there?”

Be polite, positive and thoughtful. You can hold the door, too. While doing so, say, “Have a great day!”

Be complimentary. “I thought what you said in class was really smart.”

readFill your alone time with cool things. Ride your bike. Play an instrument. Read something not assigned for class. Take a walk. Watch the lunar eclipse. People who enjoy being alone give off an air of confidence and security, which are very appealing qualities.

Organize something dorky and fun, or go along on something dorky and fun. Did anyone ever have a bad time bowling? I think not. If your romantic interest doesn’t go along, that’s okay. You’re still out with people, showing the world you can do dorky and fun things.

Be sympathetic. We’re all in this human thing together. Those folks who are getting drunk or being too loud or sitting in their rooms playing video games…we’re all the same. Hoping people will like the real us, and maybe a little scared to show just who that is.

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Fika my life

 

swedenThis weekend, I had the opportunity to talk to the Philadelphia Romance Writers, and, being good writers, they took me to a bar afterward. I was having a lovely conversation with author Kim Golden, who lives in Sweden. She was telling us about how dark it gets in the winter, how cold it is. “Do you have hygge in Sweden?” I asked. Hygge is the Danish art of coziness, according to my daughter—candles and throws and pretty lights, and since Sweden and Denmark are neighbors…

“No,” said Kim. “We have fika instead.”

coffeeWhat she went on to describe made me want to pack my bags and move. Fika is a coffee break, as best as can translated. But it’s so much more. It’s about slowing down. Taking a break. Interacting with humans, not computers or phones. According to my understanding, it’s mandated by law that companies provide fika breaks—not one, but two. Morning and afternoon. One does not do errands. One does (or maybe has) fika.

And then there’s the actual coffee. Kim says no one in Sweden puts sugar in their coffee; it’s almost an insult. Milk is okay, but she says the coffee is so superior, you don’t need much. Swedes scoff at us Americans with our caramel and whipped cream coffee drinks (making them just like me, since I also scoff at those drinks, finding them a sign of moral weakness).

cookieThere’s coffee…and pastries. Yes, Higgins, I thought as Kim described the flaky cookies, the almond paste, the butter, you must move to Sweden. Soon.

I guess what I loved most of all is that it’s culturally expected—you take a break. It’s good for you. When I was in Europe a few years ago, I remember how no one had their phones out, because why would you? You were with humans, right there in the flesh. How in France, the waiter only brings the check when you ask for it, because he wouldn’t dare imply that it’s time to go. How the Danes ride their bikes to work and school, and make things at home cozy and cheerful.

We Americans could learn a lot from these practices, methinks. I think we’d all be kinder to each other if we were a bit kinder with ourselves.

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My delicate flowers

wonder womanI like to give blood; it makes me feel holy and heroic. “One pint saves three lives,” they like to tell you. Friday was a rainy day, and I’d just finished reading a book, so I was in that book hangover mode. I’d made the kids an appointment to give blood—they have the rarest blood types, and since Dearest received two transfusions in the hospital, we owe the world, right?

Right. So a grumpy son and an amiable daughter were off, when I said (perhaps because of some maternal instinct), “Why don’t I come, too?” I usually give platelets, which takes longer, but what the heck. Into the car we three went.

The blood drive was quiet, and they were happy to have us. As you might know, I love medical attention, and I was chatting up the phlebotomist. Since the Princess fainted the first time she gave blood when she was 17, I kept calling out, “How you doing, honey?” Dearest was a champ. The staff kept praising me for bringing my kids in, and I was preening happily and agreeing that yes, they were rather fabulous.

Dearest sprang from his bed and went to the snack table, the only reason he really does this. He also got a t-shirt, which was just extra. When I was done, brawny peasant stock that I am, I too sprang up and went to see my baby girl.

delicate flowerWhen the phlebotomist had taken the needle out, some blood squirted on her arm. “It was so dark and red,” she said, and then her eyes fluttered, and her face went white. “She’s fainting,” said the tech, and because I imagine the fainters are more exciting than we brawny types are, there was a sudden cluster around her. A cold cloth was put on her head, and the Princess, being her mother’s girl, was rather enjoying the attention. She felt sleepy and had a tummy ache but didn’t think she’d puke, God bless her.

Dearest Son, who is a good brother, came over and patted her shoulder, but because he is also a little brother, whispered, “Go into the light.” Thus assured of his sister’s good health he went back to eat more CheezIts.

red blood cellsI patted the Princess and murmured reassuringly, then instinctively glanced at Dearest. He was green. “Honey?” I said, then leaped over to him, just as he started listing to the left. A tech grabbed his shoulders and gently pushed his head to the table. They got him a mattress and he lay on the floor. “Give me my phone,” he whispered. What horrible last words.

“You fainted,” I said.

“I’m fine. My phone?” I kept it in my pocket, wiped his sweaty face and kissed his cheek, as he was helpless and I like to grab an opportunity whenever possible.

The Princess was sitting up, but then they quickly lay her back down, so I cantered between her gurney and my son’s mattress, patting and dabbing their sweaty, pale little faces. Shot off a text to McIrish, telling him his (Irish) children had both passed out, but their (Hungarian) mother remained strong as an ox and was caring for our offspring, but would be longer than expected. Back and forth betwixt children I went. Dearest was thrilled, as he hadn’t been too happy when I told him he was donating blood that afternoon. “You can never sign me up for this again,” he said smugly.

I pulled the car around, and the nice techs rather proudly escorted my children to the car, where we all thanked them for being so kind and helpful. The kids agreed that they’d had a great time, that karma had made Dearest faint, and that they could guilt me about this for quite some time. “I’m so sorry, kids,” I said.

FDM post blood“It’s not your fault,” said the Princess.

“It’s sort of your fault,” said Dearest, but with a smile in his voice. “But I will give blood again, don’t worry.”

“Me, too,” said the Princess.

They’re such good kids.

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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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