I celebrate the gathering of family, the reunion of loved ones. I choose the table cloth, polish the silver and wipe the crystal glasses until they shine. I light the candles and arrange the appetizers in a tempting display. I listen for the doorbell.
I remember an Advent anthem I sang in church choir, years ago. It was called Anticipation, and I cannot find the author or the composer, but the words remind me of the joyous preparation and promise of celebration.
“The sky is black; the dawn is but a promise, and here I wait, impatient for the light. My dearest friend is coming back tomorrow. Anticipation fills the endless night, and soon the sky will fill with golden sunlight. The day will break with joy beyond compare, and I will fly — I will fly — to meet him in the air.”
I look forward to celebrating the return of the sun’s light, to the reunion of parents, children, sisters, brothers and friends. May we all warm the dark nights with laughter and love, good will and good food, and remember our connection and belonging.
How do you keep your family history alive and pass it on to the next generation? And why is that important?
“It’s the story of those who always loved you…” Les Mis
My mother and siblings live in California. My grown children live in the Midwest. Miles and years have separated us in many ways, but sharing pictures and memories helps to connect us and remind us that we belong to each other, to an inclusive and growing circle of love.
My blog posts so far have recorded the births of five grandchildren, two life-threatening medical crises, and a cross-country move. This is my children and my parents at our house in Illinois on Easter Sunday, April 19, 1992: Things are looking pretty serene here!
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, my sister had just given birth to Grandbaby #6 on March 28. I have to confess that I have no pictures and no memories of seeing Dharam Kaur pregnant. My cross-country visits just didn’t coincide with that stage of her life. But with her help and through the magic of the Internet and digital photography, we can put that event into this chronology. Stay tuned!
By that time, my husband was three months past his coronary atherectomy. But he began to feel chest pains again while playing tennis on Father’s Day weekend. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment during his mother’s visit from California and discovered that the arteries that had been scraped of plaque had (because of their rough texture) accumulated an even greater blockage. He had open heart surgery right away to create a double bypass graft. I was glad that GranMarni was already on hand, and so was she.
We finally got to meet Cousin Amrit at Christmas time that year. We felt lucky to be together, to be able to travel again and to see our beloved kin.
And we were overjoyed to be celebrating the anticipated arrival of Grandbaby #7!
Little Emily, who had been so ill with meningitis when she was five months old, was just learning to smile for the camera. Her front tooth had temporarily retreated due to a fall. These snaggle-smile shots are some of my favorites!
I think now that perhaps a snaggle-smile is the best illustration of the complexity of life, of family life – part joy, part pain, full of effort and imperfection, sincere and staged, an expression of heart and soul. How wonderful to have big arms surrounding you and another snaggle-smile to meet yours, face to face.
If I want to see the magic of a winter wonderland, I have only to step outside my door. No need to represent it inside my home. No need for a “holiday tree” when you have a holiday ecosystem! I only wish I had a fireplace…
I’m grateful for the world as it is. It may seem harsh, but it is home. Chickadees and sparrows and cardinals and juncos are at the feeder. Deer lie under the trees at night and walk away during the day. Somehow, they live on in the darkness, in the cold, without complaining.
“Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.” – Nietzsche
Civilization kills. We are living in apocalyptic times. The Anthropocene is here; humans are dominating and destroying the Earth. Like all civilizations in history, though, ours will fall back into the dust, and Earth will absorb it in some fashion. I get angry with humans because of this. Our arrogance and hubris and stupidity is truly abhorrent. I would wash my hands from all association with my species if I could, but for two things: music and food. I am willing to forgive everything for Puccini and Marcona almonds sauteed in butter and thyme.
Perhaps it is nothing but hedonism to feel that my pleasure in a fine meal at La Reve on Tuesday might bring me back from the brink of utter despair. The “Holiday Train” event in the village late that afternoon had created horrific traffic congestion with black-clad pedestrians pushing strollers into the dark streets while some pop Christmas frenzy blared over a loudspeaker. I felt truly Scroogeish; humans are complete humbug. But then the ambiance of a Parisian bistro — chattering guests and tremulous accordion melodies — and the buttery oak in the Chardonnay spread its warmth over that cold, post-Truth fear surrounding my heart. I asked Irene, our Asian-American server, about how the chef prepared the pumpkin soup. We talked about how roasting brings out the deeper flavors of vegetables and stock bones and what items on the menu were gluten-free. By the time I had savored my way through triple-cream brie, salmon, lamb and chocolate caramel, I was ready to admit atonement of the human race was possible.
The next day, however, my thoughts turned dark again. How could I justify the expense of that meal, even though almost half of the cost to me was covered by a gift certificate? How had the animals invested in that meal been treated? How far had the ingredients traveled on fossil fuels to get to my plate? My awareness of suffering may have been dulled for a time, but it was not erased. I may have been treated quite well, but was I healed?
Healing. In Western culture, it’s about fixing pathology. In Eastern culture, it’s about making whole. Awareness is about opening up to understand the whole, the complete Oneness of the Universe. “Life is suffering” is the first noble Truth in Buddhism. Suffering is in the Oneness. Arising from the awareness of suffering are two responses (at least): Fear and Compassion.
I experience my fear for the human race and my compassion for it as well, blended contrapuntally. To recognize that only as thoughts criss-crossing my brain might drive me mad. To see that reflected in a complex pairing of wine and cheese or in the first act duet of Mimi and Rudolfo in La Boheme saves me from perishing from the ugly truth. I will never comprehend the Truth, although I live it every day. Making, enjoying, or experiencing Art is as close as I may ever come to holding the Whole in my heart. I believe that those who practice Meditation seek to do the same, while sparing the harm caused in producing Art.
May we all find a way to happiness, a way not to perish from the Truth, a way to be at peace with the Whole.
10 Family Foods. 10 Fabulously Festive Family Foods! (Ah, ah, ah…*thunder and lightening*)
Is this a Muppet Count-down? No, not really. This is Day #2 of my mother’s birthday present. Yesterday’s post introduced the project and 10 Background Bits of my mother’s life. Today being Christmas Day, I want to tell you about my mother’s culinary talents. This is a day that we would spend feasting and in high spirits. Christmas Eve Mass having been accomplished and Mom’s choir commitment completed, she’d turn her attention to Christmas dinner. There’s so much I could write about, but I’ll keep it down to 10 things, and I’ll limit them to things that I have actually made myself. Except for this first item…
1) Fruitcake — You may shudder, but wait! My mother’s fruitcake is a triumph of dark, rum-and-brandy-soaked cake popping with candied fruits and savory nuts. The recipe is from Julia Child herself. Mom used to make it weeks ahead of Christmas in a huge, plastic tub (which later served as an infant bathtub for my baby brother), wrap it in cheesecloth, douse it with brandy and let it age. A dozen foil-wrapped parcels went out to the most appreciative friends and neighbors. Now my sister Sarah makes it, and if I’ve been good, I may get one in the mail this year, too. I have NEVER attempted this on my own. I doubt I could live up to the legacy.
2) Roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and gravy from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook — Fannie and I have become good friends, and though my original copy is pretty trashed, I am partner to a bookseller and have a few new editions at my fingertips. Yes, I can make this…and have!
photo by Steve
3) Cran-orange relish — The recipe is on a postcard my mother sent to me when I moved back to the Midwest from California. It simply says, “1 bag cranberries, 2 navel oranges, 1 cup sugar. Grind and enjoy!” I should mention that I’m still using Grandma Marion’s food grinder from the 1940s. I’ll probably keep using it until that worn out cord and plug start a fire.
4) Pecan pie (and mince pie) — Again, from Fannie Farmer.
5) Lobster — When we lived in Massachusetts where I was born, Mom learned how to cook a live lobster. I didn’t end up cooking the first one on my own until we were living in California, and I was in college. My fiance Jim drove home from the fish market with the live lobster on his shoulder just to freak out passing motorists. I showed him how to hypnotize the lobster by holding it head down and stroking its tail. When it was limp, dropping it into the pot of boiling water (don’t forget a bit of Vermouth!) was a cinch.
6) Roast leg of lamb — Make slits in the outside and insert slivers of garlic cloves before putting it in the oven. I like rosemary and gravy more than mint sauce with it. I have a picture of myself one Christmas with a Lambchop puppet on my arm; we’re both looking aghast at the serving platter.
We can’t feast like Christmas all year long, so here are some samples of every day fare.
7) Soup — My mother kept a stock pot in her ‘fridge all week. On Wednesdays, when she’d be going out to choir practice, she’d make a batch of soup from leftovers and stock that we could eat ‘whenever’ and clean up without her supervision. To this day, she makes soup every week for the Food Pantry. Steve and I have dubbed her “Our Lady Of Perpetual Soup”.
8) Chili — The family recipe is pretty mild. Steve adds Tabasco and cheese and oyster crackers, and if I let him really indulge his Milwaukee roots, I’ll serve it on spaghetti noodles. Texas folk, please avert your eyes!
9) Chicken and rice — Basic dinner memories: the smell of onions and mushrooms sauteing in butter as the sun goes down. Add the chicken, rice and liquid to the same pot. Season with your favorite flavor combinations.
10) Brownies — Not from a box! Made by melting Baker’s chocolate and butter on a double boiler and adding it to the creamed butter and sugar. Then add the eggs and the flour and dry ingredients. Memorable mishaps: pouring hot, melted butter and chocolate into the creamed butter and sugar AFTER having added the eggs and watching bits of cooked scrambled eggs emerge. And my sister putting in half a cup of baking SODA instead of half a TEASPOON of baking POWDER. The brown, bubbly stuff spilling out of the pan and all over the oven resembled lava! Cool!
Tomorrow, for St. Stephen’s Day, 10 Musical Memories…
“My sainted mother” (as Gene Kelly used to say of his) is turning 80 on New Year’s Eve. She is a couple of thousand miles away in California; I am living in Milwaukee missing the sunshine of her warm personality. How shall I celebrate her life from this distance? I came upon an idea: post a blog entry every day from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Eve containing 10 things I appreciate about her. By her birthday, she will have read 80 reasons that I am so grateful for her long life.
I have decided to start out with “10 Background Bits”, pieces of factual information to set the stage for her “close up”. First, there is a family history for this kind of project. When my father turned 60, I presented him with a little typed booklet entitled “60 Memories of My Father”. The cover was made out of construction paper. It looked a bit like a school assignment for a 3rd grader, I admit. But it was made with love. My father ended up writing his own memoirs 8 years later in response to interview questions I sent him. 2 years after that, he began his mysterious journey into dementia and Alzheimer’s. For my mother’s 70th birthday, I wrote “!70 Foods 70!”, an anthology of food memories with pictures. (She is a fabulous gourmet cook.) My mother keeps that in a binder, each page engulfed in a separate plastic sheath. It looks a lot more professional than my first attempt. (She is also a museum archivist.) So this birthday project is one of a much-beloved series that has enriched me in the recollection and writing of it and, hopefully, enriched my parents in the receiving.
2) Time: Anne Louise was born December 31, 1934 – a blessed little tax deduction for her folks that year and their first child. My kids now know her as “Granne Louise”.
3) Place: Fair Lawn, New Jersey.
4) Mother: Marion Keeffe McFarland. A tiny spitfire of a personality, ambitious and shrewd, a capable survivor with a twinkle in her step. My mother and I both wore her long bridal veil when we were married. The secret she carried to her grave: she never got beyond the 8th grade in school.
5) Father: David Elmer McFarland, Jr. He was an electrical engineer with Public Service of New Jersey. His stateside responsibilities kept him home during WWII, keeping the power running, managing 5 Victory Gardens, and being husband and father. My mother adored her father: he was the calming antidote to her mother’s small furies and mini dramas, a grounding presence with a refreshing sense of humor. I think I heard once that he played the piano at a nickelodeon… I believe it, anyway.
6) Her younger sister, Sandy. Actually, her name is Marion like her mother, but her nickname distinguishes her. Her blonde hair, petite frame and bubbly personality came back to my mother’s mind often when I was in her view, since I was the only blonde and the youngest of her 4 daughters. Sandy was much like her mother: tiny and very social. My mother was more like her father: lanky and cerebral.
7) My mother’s natural strengths: precocious and enduring intelligence, musical talent, organization.
8) Her natural weakness: her eyes. She was finally diagnosed with myopia and ambliopia at age 5, and wore an eye patch and glasses. Her walleye makes for poor depth perception, but it gives her the peripheral vision that kept me from sneaking anything past her…ever.
9) Growing up: my mother’s stories of growing up sound to me like echoes from an early TV sitcom — pin-setting at the bowling alley for a penny a pin to earn spending money, which was then spent at the movies, often for a double feature; learning to drive on a dirt road around the town’s water tower with her boyfriend, Duff; keeping statistics for the school baseball team and flirting with the players; trips to New York City every year, where her Aunt would buy her a new coat. Happy days, it would seem.
10) Becoming an adult: because she skipped a year of school and her birthday’s so late in the year, my mother headed off to college at the tender age of 16. And not just any college — Radcliffe College. Her mother had two goals for her: either meet a rich man and marry, or get a first rate education so that you can support yourself. My mother got both the man and the education. She graduated in May of 1955, earning a B. A. in English with her thesis on Jane Austen. She married George William Heigho (Harvard ’55) in September that same year.
For a writing class 3 years ago, I was prompted to write my parents’ wedding announcement. Mom, always a sharp editor, made sure I got it right:
Anne Louise McFarland and George William Heigho II were married September 3, 1955 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Glen Rock, New Jersey. The bride is a graduate of Radcliffe College, and the groom is a Harvard graduate. The couple met at the Canterbury Club on campus during their sophomore year. Mrs. Heigho is the daughter of Marion Keeffe and David Elmer McFarland, Jr. of Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Her father is an electrical engineer with Public Service of New Jersey. The groom is the son of Dorothy Lauver and William Stephens Heigho of Detroit, Michigan. His grandfather, George William Heigho I, was the president and CEO of Calvert Lithographing company. The couple will be sailing to England on the Nieuw Amsterdam for their honeymoon, returning in a month to their new home in Boston. Mr. Heigho will then begin work with IBM.”
This portion of the birthday project also serves as a traditional Christmas Eve ghost story. The spirits of my Grandpa, Grandma, and father are affectionately internalized in my mother now. I’m sure she holds many more as well – notably (to me) my sister and my husband. The lives of friends, family, entertainers, neighbors, writers, thinkers and even fictional characters seem to animate her with exuberant ideas of connection. Conversation with her is peppered with the anecdotes of a host of souls.
Tomorrow is Christmas Day, and that chapter of 80 Years in 8 Days is dedicated to “10 Family Foods”. My mother’s table is the holiday feast I dream of every year. While visions of it dance in my head, I wish you, Mom, and dear readers, a Good Night.