Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Aunt Helen

As I get older, I find myself thinking about things and people who have been an influence in the person I’ve become. One who stands out is my Aunt Helen.

Aunt Helen was my mother’s oldest sister, about 23 years older than my mom. She was the kind of aunt who always made us feel welcome, even though her house didn’t have many toys to play with or much for some little kids to do. Being so much older than our mom, her kids were grown and gone and the household toybox had long been cleaned out and throw away.

I never heard her say a bad word about anyone. The worst exclamation I ever heard her say was “oh shoot!” She was a devout Nazarene woman, wearing her hair in a bun and always in her uniform long dresses, something that looked out of place in the short skirt era of the 1960s but looked perfectly normal on Aunt Helen.

“Aunt Helen” was her entire name. It never occurred to us to refer to her as just “Helen” as we did with other aunts. It just wasn’t right. It wasn’t just a title of respect or an indication of relationship. It was just a part of who she was.

I was the oldest of six kids, so growing up was tough, financially. Aunt Helen wasn’t well off financially either. She and Uncle Pete lived on social security and whatever odds jobs Uncle Pete could pick up on the side, like lawn mowing and such.

I always loved the Thanksgivings that included the two of them, which were most Thanksgivings. It was like having another gramma. She had this fabulous way of making green beans with a bacon and onion combination that filled my whole being. When I opened my catering business, “Aunt Helen’s Green Beans” were on the menu and were a very popular item.

One Thanksgiving, she didn’t bring her beans. She brought spaghetti. I remember I was about fourteen, and being an arrogant, non-thinking teenager, I threw a fit because she didn’t bring “my” beans. I never stopped to think about this older couple who lived on social security. I never considered that Thanksgiving was at the end of the month. I never gave thought to the idea that she may have prepared whatever she had in the cabinet because they didn’t have money to go to the grocery.

No, I didn’t stop to think about any of that.

But Aunt Helen, in her way of never saying anything negative to anyone, who never intentionally made anyone feel bad, just leaned over and said, with a smile on her face and nothing but pure love in her voice, “Oh I thought I’d just do something different this year.”

But she never came without her famous green beans again. Each year after that, she’d walk in and say, “Debi, I brought your beans this year!” I loved her for it.

As I share the green bean story, that’s not the thing that makes me miss her more than anything. It was the life lesson she left with me when I was about fifteen. A simple statement that helped form part of who I am.

It was a bad winter. Our home was heated by a wood burning stove and we were out of wood. We were heating the house by turning on the oven and leaving the oven door open, the kitchen chairs in a semi-circle around the stove as we struggled to stay warm. The cabinets were bare. I don’t mean kind of empty. I mean bare. Not even the obligatory can of old baking powder hiding in a back corner. Empty.

Our parents were out and at about fifteen years old I was babysitting the five younger siblings. Aunt Helen pulls into our driveway, comes in the house and hands me a partial bag of potatoes, apologizing that she didn’t have any butter or anything to cook them in but she said to me:

“I don’t have much but I’ll share what I’ve got.”

It was only a bag of potatoes, and it was a partial bag at that. But it was much more than just one more meal for a group of poor kids. It was pure love from a woman who didn’t know any other way. It was sharing what she had when she didn’t have anything herself. It was caring about what someone else needed above what she might need.

Even though I was only 15 years old, these almost-forty years later, I’m still remembering that simple action of love, that simple action of giving, that simple action of caring. It is directly because of that simple act that I set a family Christmas tradition of not being allowed to walk past a Salvation Army bucket without putting something in. I taught my children that even if it’s the last two nickels in our pocket, we will “share what we’ve got” with someone who has less than we do. I’m happy to share that my daughter has taught her two children the same tradition.

So here’s my holiday tribute to Aunt Helen, a woman who lived a simple life and made a big difference without even knowing it.

I still miss her.

Monday, November 1, 2010

There's Nothing Like A Baby's Smile

This poem was written when my sister, CJ, had her second son, Jason, approximately 1988? (how old IS my nephew anyway?). It was also published in the book "Windows of the Soul , the National Library of Poetry in 1996. A little cheesy, I'll admit, but I like it!


There's nothing like a baby's smile
To brighten up your day.
A smile so warm and full of love
To send you on your way.

There's nothing like a baby's smile
To let you know how much
Of the pleasure they can give to you
By their little kiss or touch.

There's nothing like a baby's smile
To make you feel so warm,
To make you count your blessing
for the day that they were born.

There's nothing like a baby's smile,
So cheery and so bright.
It makes you want to pick them up
and hold them very tight!

There's nothing like a baby's smile,
Nothing on this earth.
It's the final bit of evidence
of the miracle of birth.

"A baby is God's opinion that life should go on." ----- Carl Sandburg

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Rose Lady

This fictional story was written sometime around 1992-1994. I did know a lady years ago who wore a rose in her hair and I drew inspiration from her and her rose, but everything else in the story is absolute and pure fiction. It's just a simple love story. I will warn you that it's a big lengthier than the other stories posted so far.


Clair Dawson gave herself one last critical appraisal in the hall mirror. Her appearance was, as usual, impeccable. Her lavender dress was the perfect complement to her violet eyes. She pushed her silvery gray hair back over her ears, just enough to expose the gold earrings with a touch of lavender trim that were a gift to her from her eldest granddaughter for one of the many birthdays that had long since been forgotten.

With a nod of approval, she pulled her ivory, lace shawl up over her shoulders and gave the ever present flowers in her hair a comforting pat. Today she had not one, but two roses in her hair, the second being very small and hardly noticeable. Those flowers had become her trademark. Everyone in town knew Mrs. John Dawson by those flowers.

That’s how she was known: Mrs. John Dawson. Everything from her telephone listing to her personalized stationery showed her identity as Mrs. John Dawson. Unlike many of the younger generation, she believed a woman was a husband’s wife and should always carry her husband’s name, not because she thought a woman had to travel on her husband’s successes, but because it was proper.

She was never introduced as Clair Dawson, or ever as just Mrs. Dawson, and especially not just plain Clair, for there was nothing plain about her. You knew just by looking at her that she was someone important. Yet “important” was not the first word that came to mind when you met her. She carried a certain look about her that no one could imitate, a look that one had to be born with, a look that spoke volumes about her confidence, her influence, and her mastery of the social graces. After all, she was the prestigious widow of John Dawson, the late community leader who had passed away seventeen years ago today. Being the widow of John Dawson carried a certain level of responsibility and expectation, and it commanded a certain level of respect. Before she ever left the sanctuary of her home, she made sure to stop at the mirror in the front hall for one last inspection, to be sure that she as carrying out the responsibility as he would have liked.

She had been the perfect successful man’s wife, supporting him in his work, seeing that their three children were raised with proper manners and responsibilities, and serving on various committees and boards in the community. She was always in demand for the various organizations. Not only did having Mrs. John Dawson on your membership roster add a certain level of prestige to whatever the current cause of the day was, but she was well known for being able to get things done.

A few people in the small town of Mitton thought she was putting on airs. Those who knew Mrs. John Dawson knew how untrue that was. She wasn’t one who had to put on airs for she was born with the ability to be at home in any situation. She had hosted visiting dignitaries, political and business, in their large Victorian mansion that he had purchased for their tenth wedding anniversary. Those who were fortunate enough to be on her guest list were in awe of her as she gracefully floated among her guests, making everyone feel as if they were the guest of honor.

She was equally at home in casual slacks at the PTA cookout, serving hot dogs and hamburgers to the crowd, always with the ever present rose in her hair. She would smile at the children who wanted the Rose Lady to serve them their hot dog, and always managed to slip them an extra cookie for dessert. Even when she was on her hands and knees, working in her many flower beds, she exhibited certain touch of class and elegance that many tried to capture for themselves, but could never quite pull off as naturally as she.

The grandfather clock in the front hall chimed the hour and brought her out of her cloud of reminiscence. It was 11:00 and she had many things to do this morning.

Today she had to stop at the cemetery to place her traditional bouquet of flowers on John’s grave. She would do it alone, although it had taken many bouts with her children to enable her to make this homage without them. They told her she shouldn’t go visit his grave alone, that it was dangerous for her to be there by herself. She defied their opinions and went by herself once a week. They often tried to tell her how to run her life since their father’s death.

“I ran my life for years before you were born and I can do it now, “ she had firmly told them. She could not and would not admit to being lonely at night, especially when she walked up the wide staircase at the end of the day.

They couldn’t understand. Kids never did. They couldn’t understand that after all of those years of being with a man like John Dawson, that she couldn’t share such a private, intimate moment with anyone, not even for her own children. This was the time to talk with him and share her triumphs that she carried out in his name. Once a week, she took a small bouquet of flowers to his grave and shared her stories with him.

But today was different. Today was seventeen years of being alone. It was seventeen years of sitting in her parlor (for yes, she was one who still called it a parlor), drinking her tea and silently crying for the man she had once shared her most private fears and accomplishments. It was seventeen years of aching for his comforting hugs of reassurance when she thought she just couldn’t’ do it anymore.

Picking up a bouquet of flowers she had cut from her prize winning flower beds just that morning she left through her front door, double checking the lock before descending the porch steps.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dawson!” called out her neighbor, Mrs. Adkins.

“Good morning, Mrs. Adkins!” Clair responded. “Your tea roses are looking lovely this year!”

“Only because of your advice on winterizing. I know that’s what made the difference. They do look lovely, don’t they!” Mrs. Adkins beamed at herself and the improvement of her roses.

“Roses need to be cared for as if they are your children,” Clair told her. “Have a good day!”

Mrs. Adkins wished her the same and returned to straightening the edging of her flower beds.

Clair loved the walk to the cemetery. She loved walking through the small town of Mitton, especially this time of year when the flowers were in bloom. As she walked past the John Dawson Memorial park (named in memory of her husband partly because of his great contribution toward the quality of life in Mitton, and partly because of her great financial contribution to insure his memory), the sounds of the children playing the playground drifted out to her. This was the most precious sound in the world to her. Children were what life was all about. She had no patience for those who had to have their career first and children second. What were they thinking? The gift of a child’s smile was the greatest gift God could give a couple. She took her head as she walked on past the park, knowing she would never understand this generation even if she lived another eighty-three years.

The walk to the cemetery took a little longer these days. Her children were constantly after her to let them drive her. “Just call me, mother,” her daughter Lee Ann was always telling her. “I can come over and drive you anytime you want to go.” Clair always promised that she would call if the walk got to be too much for her, but she had never called. If it took a little longer to walk, then it took a little longer, that’s all.

She walked through Mitton’s small downtown area, waving to Terri Browning and her four year old son Michael, as they came out of the library. Clair often saw Terri and her son at the library. It was a sight she was proud to see. “Now there’s a mother who has the interest of her child at heart!” she often thought to herself.

Terri waived back to her. “Good morning, Mrs. Dawson!”

Michael liked seeing Clair. “Mommy, that’s The Rose Lady, isn’t it?” he would always ask her.

“Yes, Michael, it is,” Terri would tell him.

“She’s pretty. You should wear a flower, Mommy. You could be as pretty as The Rose Lady, too!”

Terri laughed, knowing that no one would ever try to imitate Mrs. Dawson’s trademark of wearing flowers in her hair simply because it couldn’t be done as successfully. “Maybe, Michael. Maybe. Now, hold Mommy’s hand as we cross the street!”

Michael grabbed tight to Terri’s hand as they crossed the street, but he was looking back at Clair.

“There she goes, Mommy! There goes The Rose Lady!”

Clair heard him and smiled to herself. A lot of people called her The Rose Lady. She liked the label. It made her remember what John had told her all those years ago when he gave her the first rose that she ever wore in her hair.

He had unknowingly authored her trademark. When they were just newlyweds, he had brought her a bouquet of flowers with one single rose in the center of the arrangement. He handed her the flowers and, pulling the single rose from the center, gave it to and said, “For all of the flowers that I could give you, none demonstrate the beauty of life like the rose. You are my rose, Clair, and any other flower compared to you cannot give me the same love of life like you. Every time I see a rose, I will think of you.” He had then placed the rose in her hair, behind her ear.

She had cried. No one deserved a man like John Dawson and she worked hard every day to prove her worth.

Ever since that day, she had worn a rose in her hair. No one in town could remember ever seeing Mrs. John Dawson without that trademark being present.

Many of the merchants and shoppers in the small downtown of Mitton nodded and waved to her as she walked by. That’s one reason she had never chosen to leave Mitton. Small town living, where everyone knew everyone else, just couldn’t’ compare to living anywhere in the world. She and John had taken trips to larger cities, some of them vacations, some of them business, and she couldn’t understand why people would live in a big city by choice. There were too many strangers, too many people who didn’t’ have time for a simple “good morning”. She couldn’t live like that. She enjoyed the closeness of a smaller town any day.

She turned south at the town drugstore and headed toward the cemetery. She loved the memories the drugstore held for her. In their dating days, before John had even thought about how big his business would eventually become, they had spent most of their time at the soda counter, sharing a milkshake or a Coca-Cola. Sometimes, when they were feeling extravagant, they would share a banana split and talk about the future when they would be able to afford each of them a banana split every day if they wanted! She often thought of stopping in for one of those banana splits on her way back home, but for some reason she never did.

She knew that around 3:30, Norris’s Drugstore soda counter would be packed with the kids from the high school. She hoped they realized what a rare treat it was for a drugstore to still have a soda counter. It was another of the many simple pleasures in life that was slowly disappearing in a world that seemed to move too fast.

The cemetery was in sight. It was only about three blocks down the hill from the drugstore, right next to the Methodist Church. She would have to remember to stop in and invite Reverend Prader to lunch next week. It had been awhile since she had visited with him and his wife.

She stopped at the entrance to the cemetery. Even after all these years, she hesitated before entering. It never got easier.

John was buried near the center, in the family plot. His parents, two uncles and an aunt were buried there. She always liked the idea that John wasn’t alone. He liked being with people. She liked to think that it was good he had family to talk to when she wasn’t there.

She gently placed her bouquet of flowers on top of his stone. It was getting too hard for her to stoop down and place them on the grave. Her knees worked just fine for walking but they didn’t like to stoop as much as they used to. She didn’t’ want to find herself stuck in a kneeling position alone in the cemetery. John understood. She had explained it to him long ago.

The familiar tear began rolling down her face. Everything she did, she did for him. He was such a good man, providing many jobs for the small town but always remembering the simple things were the most valuable. He set up a foundation to insure the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside, and had donated the land to be held as a preserve for the native plants of the area. Many of the elementary schools took field trips to this preserve and botanists from all over came to study the effects of nature when left alone by man. Both of them had encouraged landscaping of businesses and homes by donating plantings and their own elbow grease, along with their knowledge and expertise.

She missed him. Many of her friends and family had told her, seventeen years ago, that the hurt would go away, but they were wrong. They couldn’t know what it was like to live over 45 years with someone like John. The hurt didn’t go away. Many times it was more present now than it was then. She had missed him when their grandson was born premature and no one knew if he was going to make it. She had needed him then to hold her and reassure her that the baby would be fine.

She smiled as she remembered how foolish she had been to be mad at him for not being there with her. She had cursed him when she went home from the hospital, and he wasn’t there. She had needed him. She sat in his chair by the fireplace and rubbed the arms of the chair, making herself believe that John was holding her. It was comforting to feel the worn leather that had been rubbed soft by years of his use. She could almost make herself believe that he was there, and that made her feel better.

She had fallen asleep in his chair that night and when she awoke the next day she had gone to the hospital to be where she belonged, with her daughter and her grandson. He had been there for her, just like had always been and would always be. She had apologized to him on her next trip to the cemetery. She hadn’t been mad at him since.

Sitting in his chair had become almost a habit. She could sit there for hours and not feel so alone. She was glad she had insisted on keeping the chair.

Arranging the bouquet of flowers so they were perfectly centered on his stone, she told him about her week, how she had the grandchildren spend the weekend, and how they loved going to what they called “Grampa’s park”. She told him about Bob Simpson passing away and assured him that she had sent a respectable flower arrangement to his widow. She would call Barbara later in the week to see how she was doing and maybe have her over for lunch.

When she finished she stood silent for a moment, saying her prayer for him. With a quiet “amen”, she then reached up and pulled the small rose from her hair and placed it in front of her bouquet of flowers. She placed her finger to her lips and then gently pressed those fingers on the small rose she had laid on his stone.

“I love you, John Dawson,” she said and she turned and began her walk home.

She made one stop on her way home, at the Lester Sister’s Card Shoppe, where she bought a sympathy card for Barbara Simpson, and a birthday card for the church organist, Mattie Clarkton. She had selected cards with roses on the front cover for both of them.

She spoke briefly to a couple of people in the shoppe that she knew and went to the register to pay for her cards, where Lillian Lester would take her money, inquire on her health, and wish her a good day.

As she continued her walk home, she decided she would make herself a cup of tea when she got home and would drink it in the parlor. She would skip lunch. She didn’t feel like making anything. She was very, very tired today.

She climbed the steps of her Victorian home and noticed Mrs. Adkins had finished her bed borders, and how lovely they looked.

“I’ll have to be sure to tell her what a wonderful job she did,” she thought to herself as she unlocked her door and went inside.

She placed her purse and keys on the hall table, as she always did when she returned home. Removing her shawl, she headed for the kitchen where she began to make herself some tea. She would hang the shawl up later when she went upstairs. While she waited for the teakettle to whistle, she scanned her shelves to see if she had any crackers. There were a few cookies left that the grandchildren had somehow overlooked, but she wasn’t in the mood for anything sweet. She would have to go to the store tomorrow.

When the teakettle whistled, she poured the hot water over the two teabags that were resting in the china teapot that she had waiting on the tray. Also on the tray was a matching tea cup and saucer, and on another small plate, a slice of lemon. She selected a linen napkin from the drawer, picked up the tray and headed for the parlor.

She placed the tray on the same table she always used, the one nearest to John’s chair. She looked at the chair for a moment, rubbing her hands over the worn, dark leather, remembering how much she used to enjoy watching him read or listening to him talk while he sat there. With a deep sigh, she sat in the chair, feeling a warm feeling of contentment come over her as soon as she sat down. She reached for her teacup and poured a cup of tea, then added the lemon slice. She sat the cup back on the tray to allow it to cool for a moment.

She leaned back in John’s chair. It felt so good, so warm, so loving. It felt as if she were with him again. Sometimes when she slept, she would dream about him, which made her miss him all the more when she awoke. She felt very tired this afternoon. Maybe if she took a nap she would dream about him today.

That thought made her smile. She reached up and pulled the remaining rose out of her hair. She looked at it, stroked its soft petals, inhaled its soft scent, and in a low voice meant only for herself said, “Oh, John. I miss you.”

Still holding the rose, she leaned her head back to the comforting curves of the back of the chair, and decided that on her next trip she would call Lee Ann and ask her to drive her to the cemetery. She was so tired. She closed her eyes. She would rest just a minute before drinking her tea. Maybe just a short nap. She would like seeing him, even if it was only a dream.

The sun began its descent into the horizon and the shadows in the corners of the parlor grew longer. The tea sat untouched and cold. Her trademark flower had fallen from her hand into her lap.

The grandfather clock chimed on every hour and half hour, but no one heard it.

Time had stopped for Mrs. John Dawson.

"One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon-instead of enjoying the roses blooming outside our windows today.” ----Dale Carnegie

"Love is like a rose. When pressed between two lifetimes it will last forever." ---- Unknown

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Just a Few Cuts and Scratches, Mom"

This was written as a class project in my writing class at IUPUI in May 2009. The paper was on the topic of whether there should be an amendment to the Constitution to outlaw flag burning. The following is just the opening/introduction to the paper. It's a true story of my son's Iraq experience. The only time I cried when he was in Iraq was after I hung up the phone after talking with him when he called to tell us what happened and that he had "....just a few cuts and scratches, mom."


The military vehicle exploded in smoke and flame when it ran over the landmine, severely wounding the commander in the rear of the vehicle. The sergeant tried to radio for a medic before discovering his mouthpiece was just a hanging wire because the radio had been blown up. He started to grab his rifle that was right next to him, but the barrel had been melted into a candy cane shape from the explosion. Shouting for a medic, he pulled the commander from the burning wreckage that was turning black with ash from the flame, and tended to his wounds, simultaneously shouting orders to the other soldiers to secure the location and protect the platoon until reinforcements could get in and evacuate them. At some point, a soldier said, “Sergeant, shouldn’t you take care of that blood pouring out of your arm?” The 21 year old sergeant, in his haste to protect his men, hadn’t even noticed he’d been hit.

And when my son, United States Marine Sergeant John Meyer received his Purple Heart for injuries incurred in the line of duty in Iraq, and the Navy and Marine Corp Achievement Medal for bravery, it was the American Flag, the icon for which he voluntarily risked his life, that held his eye, its bright colors of freedom a striking contrast to the bland background of the Iraqi desert.

Thousands of miles away, in the United States, a protester illustrated his contempt for the war by pulling out a lighter and setting fire to the American Flag, its bright colors of freedom turning black with ash from the flame.

Most people automatically assume that this Mother-of-a-Marine would be in favor of an amendment that made desecration or burning the flag a crime. But to the contrary, it is because of my son and every other military son that I do not endorse such an amendment. I believe these sons of America, those today and those of yesteryear, fought to protect the ideals and freedoms represented by this flag ….. including the right to protest and voice disagreement with the very country our sons fight to protect.

"Most people live their entire life and wonder if they've made a difference. Marines don't have that problem." ...... Ronald Reagan

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Being an "Until It Looks Right" Cook

I’ve always described myself as an “Until it Looks Right” cook, but never realized until recently why or how I became a non-measuring cook.


I grew up the oldest of six kids in the days when Stay-At-Home-Mom was a given and not a job title. No matter what your income was, raising six kids was expensive and we were no exception.

Hand-me-down clothes were not a sign of poverty or embarrassment. It was just how things were done. Neighborhood moms frequently exchanged clothes when their youngest outgrew them and there was no younger sibling to pass them down to.

I explain frequently that we had perfect attendance at school because that’s where the food and the heat were. We lived in a couple of places that heated by wood and if there was no wood then we had no heat. Having heat stoves or furnaces that required fuel oil was no guarantee either. When the choice had to be made between buying fuel oil or food, we usually put on our coats and doubled up in the beds at night to keep warm.

I don’t look back on these days with resentment or regret. On the contrary, I’ve often shared that growing up dirt poor taught me things that many people never comprehend in their entire life. I learned there’s always a way to get by ….. and sometimes just flat out survive …… during the bad times. I learned there is a lot you can do with nothing.

And that segways into being an “Until It Looks Right” cook.

We rarely had food enough to feed eight people in our house, let alone all of the “fancy dancy” ingredients listed in recipes found in a Betty Crocker cookbook. The meals we made were invented on the spot based on what we had in the cabinet.

Another reason we just threw things together, other than never having all of the ingredients that a recipe called for, was because most recipes were never big enough for our family. We were a family of hearty German appetites and recipes to “serve 4” were cute to read about but never came close to being able to feed our clan.

I remember the day we pretty much only had tomato juice and flour in the house. Our homemade version of Tomato Dumplings were born. Another favorite was a chicken-bread casserole, similar to Thanksgiving stuffing except it was just baked in the oven. Canned chicken, onion, mixed with torn bread pieces, covered with a heavy coating of sage and baked until the top was crispy.

My family only knows potato salad as “Mom’s Mashed Potato Salad”. As a kid, all we had were some generic instant potato flakes and those were turned into a unique form of potato salad made with mashed potatoes. (To this day, the idea of biting into a piece of cold, unmashed potato just grosses me out!).

There are many people who, without having a bag of real potatoes in the kitchen, would have thrown up their hands and said, “No food tonight …. We’re out of potatoes.” But at our house we learned to improvise and adapt to what we had. Throwing things together to see how they turned out was just standard operating procedure.

So when I was learning to cook, we didn’t have cabinets of spices and a variety of ingredients. We didn’t own regular measuring cups and measuring spoons! (A coffee cup was “one cup” and a cereal spoon was “one teaspoon”). We made do with whatever was available.

And that, my friends, is a life lesson you can’t buy in a culinary school. It’s how I learned to throw things together to create my it-will-go-to-my-grave chocolate chip cookie recipe. It’s how I developed my signature Lemon Chicken Rosemary in a buttery Chardonnay sauce that became a mainstay of my catering business. It’s the science (so to speak) of my Potato-Pepper dish that is not only delicious and healthy but just colorfully beautiful!

So don’t ask me how much chili powder goes into my chili that my kids beg me to make. I just pour it in until it covers the top. Don’t’ ask me how many onions I chop. I chop enough until the red in the meat and the white in the onion look balanced.

You know ….. until it looks right!

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude." — Julia Child

"Once you have mastered a technique, you barely have to look at a recipe again" — Julia Child

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Graduation

This was written in September of 2004, a couple of years after this event took place. My daughter was out of the country and I was feeling "like a mom" as I reflected on the journey she was taking.

I looked around and marveled that we were here. The large crowd of parents, brothers and sisters who had come to the auditorium for the ceremony milled around outside in the pleasant weather waiting for the doors to open. Some families had driven quite a distance to be here. Some waited under a large shade tree just a few yards away. Most of us stood on the steps of the auditorium entrance, wanting to be able to get the best seat possible.

I looked at my two children and my husband, who were patiently and anxiously waiting with me to go inside and see our oldest daughter, Christine. We hadn’t seen her for a few weeks. John, her 11-year little brother, wouldn’t admit to missing his big sister, but I could tell how excited he was about today. Elise was only 4 but all I heard on the way here was how she was going to give her “Sissy” a big hug!

The doors opened and the waiting families began moving through the doors, all of us craning our necks for a glimpse of our child.

We found our seats, managing to get close to the stage and on the aisle, so we could slip out and get pictures. The band was playing as we waited, the brass section predominantly featured in most of the musical selections.

A side door opened and our children marched in. When I finally spotted Christine, I couldn’t believe it. When had she grown up on me? This little girl, who I remembered as the 5-year old kid swiping my cookie dough when she thought I wasn’t looking, was suddenly a young woman, who was about to step into the real world and embark on her own life.

I was among those parents who took our cameras over to the group to get a snapshot. As we tried to get their attention, the graduates sat erect and focused, disciplined and in control. It was their day.

The speaker went to the stage and we scurried back to our seats. The speeches were short and the pomp and circumstance began. Our children were being called one by one to the stage. With military precision, the ceremony went off flawlessly.

Two by two, parents slowly approached the stage with cameras in hand to get a close up of their child as they crossed that invisible threshold from child to adult. When we saw Christine ready to walk across the stage, we left Elise with her big brother, and my husband, Phil, and I took our cameras to the front. Phil stood closer to the center of the stage and I positioned myself at the side so I could capture a picture of her as she descended the stairs.

As she marched across the stage, I marveled at the subtle yet very noticeable change in her in just a few short weeks. She wasn’t that little girl I had hugged and waved good-bye to just 6 short weeks before as she began this journey. I could see the confidence in her walk as she marched across the stage. I was so enthralled with watching her that I almost forgot to snap the picture. But we got our pictures and returned to our seats. As I sat down, I tried to blink back the tears but I wasn’t doing a very good job. Suddenly Phil’s arm is in front of me, his handkerchief in his hand. I took it gratefully and return his knowing smile with thanks. Wiping my mom-tears, I welcomed his arm around my shoulder as he gave me a squeeze.

The ceremony concluded and the brass-heavy band played one last tune. The graduates were dismissed and with trained precision, they marched out of the auditorium.

My daughter had done more than graduate. She had just completed her six weeks of basic training.

My daughter was now a member of the United States Army.

Army life is not for the faint of heart. It is for those who are proud, determined and dedicated to the ideals we hold dear.
----David G. White; Deputy Chief, Well-Being Division

Friday, July 23, 2010

6 Steps to Being a Successful Step-Family

When Phil and I married in 1988, I had two children from a previous marriage and then in 1992, Phil and I had our youngest daughter. Having "been there, done that", we think we did a pretty good job eliminating the word "step" from our relationship with each other. Our local newspaper in Richmond, Indiana, did two separate and full page stories on us as a step-family that works. Here are just a few ideas of what we think we did right that we thought we'd share. We have to admit that most of what we did right had nothing to do with dealing with a "step" issue's just common sense parenting!

1. Make sure your relationship is on stable ground FIRST!
When I started dating after my divorce, I was determined not have a lot of “uncles” in and out of my children’s lives. My children knew I was dating but I did not introduce them to my dates until I was comfortable with how my relationship with the guy was going. This is the time period we had lots of conversation, got to know each other’s life philosophies and viewpoints on children and child-rearing. Once he and I established we were a good match, then and only then did we add the children to the mix.

2. Once the children are introduced, you have officially become a package deal!!
My husband and I cannot understand the stepfamilies we hear about in which statements such as “I love him/her but I can’t stand the kids.” are made. We view our relationships as an “all or nothing deal”. I was a divorced woman with 2 kids. If he chose to marry me, he chose to marry my children. If I chose to marry him, I was choosing for my children to “marry” him also. We knew up front we could not have a successfully blended family by leaving out 2 of the 4 ingredients. We compare it to making a BLT with mayo. Try making a good BLT but leave out the bacon and tomato! It just doesn’t work, does it?

3. Authority comes from both of you!
We get quite a laugh from the so called experts who proclaim that only the custodial parent can tell the children what to do and only the custodial parent can have any parental authority. We don’t understand how a family unit can be nurtured and blended if you tell the kids up front “You don’t have to listen to anything he/she tells you. I’m the only one who can tell you what to do.” When parents hire the teenager next door to babysit while the parents take in a movie, the teenager is given more authority than “the experts” claim the step-parent should have!

If the step-parent is going to function as a mother/father, that function includes parental authority. That’s why those early days of discussing child rearing philosophies are so important. One is not going to extend parental authority to a person who does not share the same morals and child rearing philosophies.

We also get a good laugh from those so-called experts who say, “When the kid says ‘you’re not my dad’ how do you answer that…..because the kid is right.” Our response is “so what?” The teacher is not their mother, but the child is expected to follow the teacher’s rules. The supervisor at their first job is not their father, but the child is expected to follow his rules.

Bottom line: If you don’t trust the step-parent to properly discipline your children when the need arises, what the heck are you doing marrying them in the first place?

4. Never, Never, NEVER bad-mouth the other biological parent in front of the children.
This was my #1 rule starting the day I filed for my divorce. No matter what happened between the two of us, he was still my children’s father and they still had a relationship with him. Yes, I will admit there were too many times that I had to bite my tongue, but I did. A kid’s only job should be “being a kid”. They should never have to worry about being in the middle, about which side to take, about being careful what they can say in which house, etc. Their only concern should be to have fun, no matter which house they’re in at the moment. As we like to put it, “A kid should never be involved in the business side of divorce.”

5. “It’s OK to talk about your other biological parent.”
Soon after we married, my oldest daughter started to tell us something funny that happened while she was at her bio-dad’s house. She stopped abruptly in the middle of the story. My husband (her step-dad) said to her, “Christine, it’s ok to talk about your other dad. I know you have one! I know where you go on the weekends. You don’t have to pretend he doesn’t exist. Now, tell us what happened.”

It was like the flood gates opened. She quickly became an animated 12 year old and had us in stitches as she shared her stories of weekend swimming with her little brother and her biological dad. We realized at that point what a burden she thought she had to carry. She thought she wasn’t “allowed” to mention her other dad in our house. Once we lifted that burden from her, she was able to be “just a kid”.

6. “Same rules, same love”
I picked up this wise bit of advice from a co-worker who was also a step-mom. She had married a man who had custody of a pre-teen daughter, plus they had two kids of their own. She treated all of the kids the same. Her biological kids didn’t get any treated any differently than the step-daughter.

We did the same thing. We never referred to the children as “her children” or “my step-children”. They were always “our” children. Our third child doesn’t even know she’s a “half” sister to her older brother and sister. We never drew lines between us to differentiate ourselves into two groups. We were a family.

One family.

"Those who say it cannot be done should stop interupting those of us who are doing it." ---- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, July 9, 2010

My Sister, My Hero

This story was written in September 2004 when my younger sister, who was also mentally retarded, was fighting a rare form of blood cancer. It is a story of faith, admiration and how someone with more life issues than we can imagine taught me about the real spirit of Christmas. I cry every time I re-read it.


Not many of us these days are fortunate enough to know a hero first hand. But I am. My younger sister, Vicky, who some might initially think the most unlikely candidate, is my hero.

Vicky just turned 40. Both kidneys are failing, but she’s not a candidate for a transplant because of her blood cancer. And she’s mentally only about 10-14 years old.

And she is my hero.

I am the oldest of 6 siblings. Vicky came along in slot #4, part of the middle children, always identified as “one of the middle two”.

As we were growing up, we always knew that Vicky was different, but it never mattered to us. Vicky was still our sister and our playmate. We teased and fought with her like we did with our other sisters and brother (yes, only one boy out of the six of us!) and she teased us and fought back. Our mom never allowed Vicky to be called “retarded”. While that term is politically incorrect today, back then it was the name attached to those with mental limitations. But we weren’t allowed to use it.

Vicky went to the regular school, and she worked hard in her Special Ed classes. She loved gym and sports and participated regularly in track meets and competitions.

We didn’t realize the full extend of her limitations until she was in her 20’s. Our sister, C.J., helped Vicky get enrolled in a school for the handicap for job training. After completing the training, Vicky spent the next few years living independently in her own apartment (and eventually rented a house) with a full time job and no government subsidy assistance. She was on a traveling volleyball team and went all over the country playing volleyball.

I remember her telling me a story about one of her trips. They were spending the night in a college sorority. When they arrived the sorority sisters lined up in the hall and cheered and applauded the team as they came in. To Vicky, that was the greatest thrill of her life, to have college girls applauding HER!

I was already proud of Vicky’s accomplishments. I remember we were at a baby shower and someone shared a funny story about Vicky. Vicky laughed along with the rest of us and said, “Oh, that’s ‘ole stupid me!” I stopped her and said, “Don’t say that so seriously! Vicky, do you know how to ride a city bus?” She looked at me like I was an alien and said, “Well, of course! I ride them all the time!”

I then said to Vicky, “Well, I’ve never ridden a city bus and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea on how to get somewhere on a city bus. So I guess that makes you smarter than me! So don’t you EVER say you’re stupid again, OK?”

Vicky got the biggest grin on her face and said, “OK, I won’t!”

Then a couple of years ago, Vicky went to the emergency room with a severe backache. The hospital began running test after test and finally came back with the news that Vicky’s kidneys had shut down to 10% of their capacity. More tests and still more tests were run and we were told Vicky had Multiple Myeloma, one of the rarest forms of blood cancer known. No known cause….no known cure.

Over the next year or so, we watched, waited and prayed as Vicky went through her chemotherapy. We teased her about her thinning hair and she teased us right back with things like, “At least the cost of my shampoo is down!” We watched, waited and prayed as she underwent bone marrow transplant procedures. We cried outside of her room as we realized she couldn’t quite grasp what was happening to her when she told a friend, “I’ve got a little cancer in my kidney, but it’ll be alright” with the optimism that only a 10-year old mentality could have in such a situation. We cried with appreciation when her volleyball team, who had just won a championship tourney, arrived at the hospital to give Vicky the team trophy. We cried with her as the pain got almost too much to bear and she cried out, “Just let me die, please!”

I knew Vicky was a true hero to me last Christmas. My daughter (who is a married working mom of a two year old) and I were trying to figure out how we were going to get all of our shopping done and lamenting over how much we hated the crowds and wondering why we always wait until the last minute and gosh, WHY did the holidays have to be so darn stressful?

The next day, I get an email from my sister, C.J. Vicky was in the hospital and they weren’t sure she would see Christmas at all. C.J. asked if we could come to see Vicky (we lived about 75 miles away) because Vicky had done her Christmas shopping and wanted to give us our gifts.

I instantly felt a blanket of shame rush over me. With her chemotherapy, and her medications, and her kidney dialysis to go through, Vicky still found the time and energy to do Christmas shopping for her family. She still found the energy to put the spirit of Christmas and thoughts of her family first in her mind. She wasn’t complaining about the crowds and the stress, and if anyone had a right to complain, it was Vicky.

After asking God to forgive me for forgetting the true meaning of Christmas and for focusing on my own selfishness, I immediately called my daughter and all of us made plans to see Vicky that weekend. Her hospital room was overflowing as our two families crowded in with gifts for Vicky.

It was the best Christmas I ever had.

Vicky made it through that Christmas. Her cancer is currently in remission and she is doing things she enjoys, which is mostly fishing with her friends.

Vicky will always be my hero for showing me that nothing is impossible, no matter what kind of limitations you may have. Vicky will always be my hero for reminding me that Christmas is about love and family, and about the limited time we have with them. Vicky will always be my hero for showing me how strong the human spirit is and that there is always a light at the end of the dark tunnel.

Vicky will always be my hero just because she’s my sister.


A footnote to this story. Vicky died on March 6, 2007. As we were cleaning out the room in the nursing home that had been her home for the last few months, I came across a large recipe box. My sister C.J. told me that Vicky was putting it together for me, since I was a caterer and liked to cook. C.J. told me, “Vicky would be so happy to know that you took that home with you.” I packed it up, crying with the idea that with everything Vicky was going thru in the last few months of her life, this little girl (and even though she was physically over 40 years old, she was eternally and forever a 10-year old little girl) was working on putting together a collection of recipes for her big sister, the caterer.

Vicky may be gone, but I still think of her often. And she’s still my hero

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. -----Christopher Reeve

Friday, July 2, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

This is a fictional piece written years and years ago as a start to a longer short-story, but never got finished. My question to you is "As it stands now, does this piece make you want more .... or does it make you want to just move to the next story?

“Are you coming or going?”

“Me? Oh, I’m going home.”

“Home? How long have you been gone?”

“7 years. It’ll be nice to get back.”

Karry smiled slightly as she stared out the window of the plane. The conversation between the two women sitting behind her faded in the background as she watched the baggage handlers throw more luggage into the plane. Home. After seven years, the woman still called it “home”. She probably had her own house, maybe a husband and a couple of kids. But she was flying to some town 3 hours away that she hadn’t seen in seven years and she referred to THAT as “home”.

Karry couldn’t imagine ever referring to the house that she grew up in as “home”. Hell, she never thought of it as home when she lived there, where she spent most of her teenage years counting the days until she could escape. There. That place. The house. Never “home”.

It’s not like there was such a place she could point to as “the place I grew up” since her parents moved every two years, or, as Karry liked to put it, “…every time the rent was due.” It wasn’t a skill she could put on her resume, but before Karry was 14, she had learned to move to a new house fast, and at night.

“Excuse me. Excuse me?”

A voice interrupted her thoughts. Karry looked up to see a woman looking at her.

“I’m in the middle seat. Is that your bag?”

Karry looked in the seat next to her and saw her canvas bag.

“Oh. I’m sorry. Yes, it’s mine,” she said, as she picked up her bag and shoved it under the seat in front of her.

“Thanks,” the woman said, as she squeezed into the row while trying to push her own canvas bag under the seat and get out of the aisle at the same time. She finally got her bag in the storage area then started lifting one hip then the other, trying to get her seat belts out from under her.

“Usually this flight isn’t this full,” she said as she finally got her seat belts adjusted and fastened.

Karry gave her a polite smile and turned quickly back to the window. The last thing she wanted was a talkative “travel buddy”. She wasn’t one of those people who liked to chit-chat with strangers while waiting on delayed planes or while standing in line at Starbucks. She often thought about what made her seemingly so different from the other folks who thought it was so normal to strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger, as if they had been friends and neighbors for years.

Maybe that was it. Karry never lived in one place long enough to make long term friends or really get to know the neighbors. She went to three different schools the year she was in the sixth grade. She had never learned how to be friends with anyone, because she knew in a few months she’d be moving to a new school. It was easier to be a loner and not connect with anyone.

A voice came over the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’d appreciate you quickly taking your seats so we can have an on-time take-off. If you are having problems finding a space for your luggage, one of our flight attendants will be happy to help you.”

Karry tuned everything out after that. She flew so often she had every speech memorized by now anyway. As one the sales reps for her company, she was gone about 10 days a month. She had moved up quickly in her company, getting 3 promotions in 4 years. Sometimes she had to pinch herself when she looked around and saw the evidence of her success. Her large house, the BMW she drove, even something as simple as getting her nails done every week. Growing up as one of the poor white trash in her small town, she never imagined she’d get to this position.

She pulled her book out of her purse and opened it to where she left off. But it soon lost her attention as her thoughts drifted back to the year she was in sixth grade….

Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family. ~Anthony Brandt

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Best is Yet to Come!

To continue the theme of thinking we missed out on things, the following is a summation of sorts of the great "little" things that I've accomplished .... and a great illustration of no matter what achievement we hit .... there is always more to come!


In my teens, I was a straight-A student.
In my 20's, I married my soul mate.
In my 30's, I won a beauty pageant.
In my 40's, I had a great job that enabled me to travel the country all the time.
In my late 40's, I opened my own business.
In my 50's, I enrolled in college to get my teaching degree.
The best is yet to come!!

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
---Muriel Strode


Monday, June 28, 2010

I Thought I'd Missed It ....

This was first written in 2003, when I was about 44 years old. Since this writing, I opened my own catering business, ran that for a few years, then "retired" and moved on, becoming a monthly columnist for a cake magazine. I also enrolled at college to get my degree to become a history teacher.

And to think "I Thought I'd Missed It".
Well past my fortieth birthday but long before I turned 50, I started to look over the various life choices I had made. I guess most people do that at some point in their lives. We think of our dreams and ambitions and wonder what might have been. We think about the things we missed and we spend a few minutes regretting the time forever gone and the inability to go back and do some things over.

As I looked back, I thought about the many things I felt that I had missed or missed out on. But then I slowly realized that I didn’t miss as much as I thought.

I thought I had missed becoming a teacher, something I had wanted to do since I was a second grader. I wanted to stand in front of a classroom full of kids and share my passion for reading, for history and for logically figuring out a complicated math problem.

I thought I’d missed doing that.

But then I remembered telling my kids that “….if you can read, you can cook” and teaching them how to follow a recipe; teaching them to read the instructions in a logical way to make it easy to understand. I remembered teaching them the history of my favorite dishes and why they were my favorite.

I remembered all of the new people at work who I shared my knowledge with and showed them how to perform their new job and where to find the information. I remembered teaching them the “why” (the “history”) behind a function so they would understand the logic behind it, so they would understand the entire concept, not just their small portion. I remembered that I wrote the manuals and the training programs and eventually ended up traveling all over the country and standing in front of small classrooms of sales people and teaching them how to sell my product.

Teaching……and I thought I’d missed it.

I thought I’d missed my chance to be a writer, to bring out not just the next Great American Novel, but THE great American novel. I thought about seeing my name in print in the bookstores and on the best seller list.

Then I remembered all of the times that I saw “written by…..” next to my name. I saw it once a week in a local paper when I wrote a wedding advice column. I saw it on poems I had written years ago that somehow managed to survive past those high school years when I doodled them out during some boring class time. I saw some of those poems hit a special “best seller” list when my daughter, then a teenager, chose MY poems to take to class and share with her friends. I remembered the family cookbook I was putting together to record and teach my family and their families about their family history. I thought about all of the company cookbooks, my husband’s campaign brochures, newsletters I worked on and the untold work tutorials that I wrote. I thought about the volumes of family history I had recorded for my kids and grandkids, so they would know their family, their heritage and their history.

Writing…..and I thought I had missed it.

I thought about the dream that most of us have about achieving fame and fortune; about being the star on the stage. Then I remembered the year I won the 1991 Mrs. Rose Queen Pageant and my stage was all of Wayne County, Indiana. I thought about the parades I was in, the stages I walked across, the radio interviews I had and I realized that a lot of people who run to Hollywood for that sole purpose, sometimes never achieve anything close to what I experienced.

I remembered all of the times I stood in front of a group of people that could range from 5 to 35 and taught them about how to sell a power cord. I was on stage….I was teaching….I was passing out a program I had written.

I thought about the fun times we have with a karaoke machine, our stage a garage and our fame limited to our family. And I thought about the people who never even take the chance to pick up a microphone just for the fun of it.

The “Star On Stage”……and I thought I missed it.

I always envied those people with artistic talent and I wanted to be one of those creative people. I recalled my short stint at drawing, but it was too much work. I resigned myself to think that I’d never have one of my paintings hanging next to the Mona Lisa, or have one of my art pieces take top dollar at a big art auction house.

But then I remembered all of the wedding cakes I created and I realized that maybe cake icing was my canvas. And while I couldn’t pick out colors to paint my kitchen, I could create a catering event that was an artistic masterpiece. I realized that my creative side was perhaps just slow to surface as I began creating wreaths out of pine cones and flags out of crochet thread.

So as I contemplate turning 50 and start reviewing where I’ve been and looking to where I’m going, I realize that sometimes we are so busy looking for the one “big break” that we don’t even realize we participated in the little opportunities that came along while we weren’t looking. We spend our time remorsefully thinking about what we wanted to do and completely overlook the great treasures and little adventures in what we actually did do.
Regret for the things we have done can be tempered by time. It is regret for the things we have NOT done that is inconsolable. ..... Sydney J. Harris