Monthly Archives: January 2021

Homemade, with Love

I have always loved to cook. The smell of a stew cooking, or a roasted chicken, makes me salivate with expectation. I also enjoy the prep work, if I have the time to do it right. I like to line all my ingredients up on the shelf next to the stove, pretending I am a famous chef doing a cooking show. It is a pleasure to serve food that is tasty and nutritious.

            When I married Jerry, my late husband, he didn’t cook much, but he had a few recipes for which he was famous. Well, at least in our family. He did a lot more cooking after he retired. I was still working, and I asked him if he could cook at least once a week, and he readily agreed. He had some dishes that he made by feel, such as his famous potato dumplings. A bit of a perfectionist, he had been known to throw away a batch of potato dumplings because they didn’t “feel right.” I am not so fastidious. Sometimes a recipe looks a lot better on paper than it ever turns out, and Jerry ate a few of my “mistakes.” Although he was always gentle about it, I took the hint. He usually didn’t volunteer the information, but would respond to my question, “Did you like that?”

            He would smile and say, “Well…” He always cooked breakfast on weekends and recently enjoyed experimenting with his instant pot and sous vide cooking process.

            I like to make main dishes, such as soups or pasta with lots of vegetables and a little meat or seafood. I am famous in my family for pea soup, made with a meaty ham bone. My Better Homes and Garden Cookbook, c. 1966, is out of control with loose pages and recipes and has to be held together with a thick rubber band. It was my Bible when I first got married, but now I have recipes in numerous other cookbooks and places around my kitchen. I am always looking for new recipes for main dishes.

            Jerry had the sweet tooth I lack, and he liked to make desserts, even occasionally including his own birthday cake, which saved me the trouble, although I must admit I felt a little guilty about it. I am not that fond of cake, and would eat one piece, leaving the rest to him. Whenever I volunteered to bring a dessert to work for any reason, I knew I could ask him to bake something and he would be happy to oblige. I could even admit to the group that I didn’t make it, and I often received as much admiration for a husband that bakes as for the dessert I brought!

            His specialties changed over the years. Cinnamon Buns were a favorite for a while, but then he moved on. Everyone loved his Apple Dumplings, so he continued to make them. We both made bread and dough in the bread machine, but cut back when the extra pounds appeared. He did have a favorite Cinnamon Raisin Craisin Bread that was a crowd pleaser. Most recently, he made several different kinds of cookies, which were much in demand among golfing buddies and other friends. In fact, he had to make special trips to the golfers’ homes because the wives heard stories about the great cookies, but there were never any left when the husbands got  home!

            Jerry is no longer here, but I have managed to still enjoy forays into my kitchen. I have found that I can cook the amount I used to for both of us and have a tasty leftover meal, plus maybe a lunch. Then I don’t have to cook every day. It may seem strange, but food has tasted just so good recently. I even like my leftovers! I look forward to making my concoctions, and have found a couple of new recipes I plan to make again.

            But there is nothing like cooking for others. How better to show your love? My daughter, Stacy, is coming for a visit later this month. She will arrive on Jerry’s birthday and has already placed her order for the dishes she wants me to cook, including pea soup made with the ham bone from our Christmas dinner. We will drink a toast to Jerry, and I will keep her busy helping me in the kitchen, just like the old days, as I take care of her and enjoy being her mom. Pure love, no recipe needed.

My first cookbook c. 1966

Memories of My Father

We called my dad Pop. We loved him and looked up to him, but he was not affectionate. We knew better than to seek that from him. However, he really came into his own when he became a grandfather, and we called him Pop Pop. By then, he had mellowed. As a father his highest praise had been, “What’s the matter with that?” which we translated into “Good job!”  but, for me, it never felt like the praise I was seeking. In contrast, his grandchildren knew him as the “gamer,” who was always ready to play. When I moved back home to New Jersey after my first husband died, my daughter, Stacy, was only 16 months old. She adored her Pop Pop, and could not wait for him to come home from work. She would run up to him and say, “Pop Pop, fwing me!” and he would happily oblige, grabbing her hands and swinging her back and forth between his legs.

            He also would tease her at the dinner table, throwing a paper napkin at her, so of course she had to throw one back. He would grin and she would giggle until finally my mom said, “That’s enough, you kids.” For Stacy, he was the man in her life, and she felt comfortable crawling into his lap, something we five kids would never have done. We sought solace from our mother, who accepted us just as we were.

            During the ten years before I remarried, Stacy and I traveled home to New Jersey from North Carolina for all holidays and for two weeks every summer. Stacy and Pop Pop spent hours playing, inside and out. She loved all the games they played, mostly board games, and became the gamer she still is today. A favorite game was Clue; one time she caught him moving his token through a wall instead of using the door. He never lived it down that he was caught cheating in Clue!

            After I married Jerry, we moved to northern Virginia, and continued to travel often to see my parents. We also vacationed with them and played golf together. My dad was an excellent golfer, right into old age. He excelled at every sport he tried. His most notable sports achievement was winning the title of Badminton Champion of the state of Rhode Island in 1939.

            Stacy always remained close to her grandparents. When she was beginning her career in Raleigh after graduating from college, they moved to Myrtle Beach, about a three-hour drive from her. She visited them often, and we spent all our holidays with them. Pop Pop developed dementia during that time, and my mom had to take care of him. He would enter every sweepstakes that arrived in the mail, and would buy things he didn’t want or need, thinking that would enhance his chances of winning. Mom had to learn to intercept the mail before he could get to it. He always said he wanted the money to give to his kids.

            As my dad deteriorated, my mom became increasingly anxious about caring for him. One day she called me and said, “Daddy’s acting strange.” Jerry and I were living in northern Virginia, at least an eight-hour drive away. All my siblings were even farther away from them. Feeling frustrated that I could not help, I told Mom I would call Stacy. After I did, Stacy left immediately for South Carolina and spent the night with them. She called me to say that Pop Pop was fine and all was well.

            We kids knew that the situation with my parents could not continue as it was. Stacy volunteered to move to Myrtle Beach to take care of them, but my mom quickly squelched that idea. “You are not going to give up your life for us,” she said. My older sister, Marilyn, living in California, had been trying for years to get them to move close to her. She stepped up and took charge. Marilyn and her daughter flew to Myrtle, held a yard sale and packed up the old folks to move to California. Mom protested that she didn’t want to move so far from all her other children on the east coast, but Marilyn knew she was the one who could take care of them.

            “You know their best years are behind them,” I told Marilyn, and she understood what she was getting into. Pop Pop, now called Poppy, was 89 by then, and Nanny 84. The following year, we all flew to California for a family reunion to celebrate Poppy’s 90th birthday. He lived another five years, and died in his sleep.

            Remembering my dad, I am sure he had a lot to do with the woman I became. I was shy and insecure when I ventured out into the world, a bit of a dreamer who never wanted to be anything but a writer. I think Pop saw himself as a molder of his children. He wanted us to try harder, to be better. When you are a kid, you think every family is like your own. Probably a lot of dads were as emotionally unavailable as my pop, critical and slow to praise. He did the best he could, as we all do. In the end, we loved him, and we all turned out okay, each flawed in his or her own way, but living life and loving each other.

My Pop and me c. 1948

New Year, New Life, New Possibilities

How many of us have been counting down the days to 2021? How many of us have just survived the worst year of our lives? I am so ready for the new year! We are like snakes, ready to cast off the old, dead skin and slither into a better life.

            I think about December, 2019, and our last Christmas with my late husband, Jerry. He was sick then, not doing well with his cancer, but we had seen a miraculous remission before, and we had hope. Despite that, we all suspected that this was Jerry’s last Christmas, although no one talked about it. We bought a cut tree and I decorated the whole house. We entertained our family, including a baby great-grandson, and had a wonderful time together. This year I did not decorate, but enjoyed looking out the window at my neighbors’ lights and decorations. We had our family Christmas in Raleigh. We loved being together, but we were always aware that Covid-19 could be lurking.

            What do we have to look forward to in 2021? Vaccine! At some point we will all be vaccinated for the coronavirus, at least those of us who are willing. The disease will no longer be something we have to fear, and we won’t have to endure daily updates on how many people have died.  We should be able to go out, mingle with others as we choose, eat at any restaurant we like, and hopefully go back to life as we once knew it. Trump will no longer be president, and (if we’re lucky) we will no longer have to endure any news of him. I look forward, actually, to ignoring politics in 2021. I will save a lot of time when I do that, and it is an opportunity to live in a more loving way.

            Many of us have traditionally considered the new year a time to initiate self-improvement projects: lose weight, read more, write a book, take classes, be kinder, eschew politics, etc. Usually, these resolutions don’t last long. What might make 2021 different? Some people had enough time to work on those things already. Forced to stay home, others discovered how creative they were, and some families got closer. A couple of my resolutions are to be more compassionate and to work to be closer to all my family.

            A big difference in 2021 will be freedom! We’ll have a lot more choices in how to spend our time, and where we can go and who we can see. At some point, we can abandon our masks. I will be able to wear lipstick again! I want to travel and visit places I have only read about. I feel like the whole world is opening up to me.

            My optimist self says it’s about time for all of us to enjoy the good things we anticipate are coming in this blank slate of a new year. As I lived through 2020, I always knew it was going to get better, and it could always be worse. Yes, my husband died in February, and I had to endure intense loneliness along with my grief. But I am here. I did not get Covid, and no one close to me did either. I am emerging from my grief with profound gratitude for the life I do have, and the people who have helped me along the way, many unbeknownst to themselves. Dare I say it? Life is good.