Weeding Out Envy

The Easter holiday is over and, though many people continue to celebrate the “Easter season” for another 40 days, many others have moved on and are preparing for summer. Similarly, for some teachers and students (namely my grandchildren) the “spring break” is over, while many others are only now in the middle of that post-winter respite.

This weekend I listened to my grandchildren lament the end of their spring break. I recalled similar days when I was a child attending Catholic school. Our “Easter break” began with Holy Thursday and we returned to school on the Tuesday after Easter. Some of my friends, who attended public schools, generally were out on “spring break” the week before or after us. I remember saying, “Those lucky ducks, they get off all week, while we only get a 3-day vacation!” My childish calculations ignored the fact that Catholic school students were often given a day off for the feast of the school’s patron saint or some other “holy day.” I’m sure public school students envied us on those Catholic-only free days. Those memories led me to think about the ways envy gets planted and ways to weed it out.

In our society, it is very difficult to escape those temptations. Daily we face advertising that plays on that emotion. Food, drink, transportation, housing, appliances, insurance, even particular medications are presented in a way that tempts people to obtain them or envy those who already have them. Athletes and movie stars are used in advertising to imply that you could live like a person you admire if only you purchase that shoe, cosmetic, cereal, vehicle, or medication.

For many years, I have endeavored to be content with the blessings I have and avoid the human temptations toward envy. I thought I was succeeding pretty well. After all, I had come to understand that the best medical care could not keep a person from getting cancer. I had seen the rich and famous leading lives of profound uncertainty and sadness. I knew that the most hyped medication could cause terrible side effects, which actually stole a person’s well-being.

Still as I entered my sixties, I envied the people who were retired. In my mind, those people could invest time in whatever endeavors they valued and not be bound by the requirements of employment. They had the ability to come and go as they pleased, without asking permission for “time off.” They could travel without trying to cram it all into only fourteen days per year. I believed that, when I retired, I would be free from envy. I expected I would be happier and more content and, on some level, that seemed to be coming true.

Then came spring break! I was enjoying the sprouting crocus and rejoicing in the fresh spring air. I delighted in holiday cooking, baking, and entertaining. I was looking forward to the green buds showing up on the trees. Instead, I got surprised by more shades of green popping up inside than outside.

Social media began to fill with photos of the Caribbean and warm, sunny vistas, as friends and acquaintances shared news of their travels and adventures. With the “heart-I-desire,” I clicked many “like” buttons and said to myself, “I am so happy for their good fortune.” Still, in my “Grinchy-green-heart,” very much like that little girl, fifty-some years ago, an inner voice grumbled, “Those lucky ducks, I wish I had the cash to go on that cruise…stay in that hotel…go on that tour…have dinner in that restaurant!” There I was, gifted with the free time I so desired, and my brain was still playing the lyrics of my youth, “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.”

It was time to seek out the wisdom of true friends because, as a wise man once said, “A true friend knows your weaknesses, but shows you your strengths.” Though I felt quite guilty to admit this old green nemesis was still lurking in the recesses of my psyche, I was glad to have friends to help me recognize that it wasn’t the emotion that mattered, but how I dealt with it. With their help, I began to focus on the love of my husband and family, the fidelity of friends, the comforts of my home, the beautiful places I have traveled, the blessings of my health, and the amazing wonders of each new day.

If this spring season, you happen to find seeds of envy sprouting in your internal garden, take a few moments to consider the people, places, and circumstances which have brought, and continue to bring, joy to your life. Remember, true happiness is not about having what you want, but wanting what you have!

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Again, I Say Rejoice!

Do you have any family traditions? Hopefully, several pop into your mind quickly. If not, stop and take a moment to think about what traditions your family celebrated when you were a child. Were there beloved family customs that stopped when some “keeper of the flame” passed away? What traditions do you miss the most and why? Have you started any new traditions with your family?

Why am I asking these odd questions? It is because I have been cooking and baking most of the day, because that is one of my family’s traditions based in the celebration of Easter. I am groaning because my back is aching, but simultaneously I am energized to realize the tremendous blessings of this day! I rejoice because I am still able to clean, cook, bake, prepare baskets for my grandchildren, and work side-by-side with my dear husband. I am grateful because I have the wherewithal to purchase groceries and invite others to share a meal. All this joy and gratitude erupts from the celebration of a tradition!

Today I reached into the cabinet over my refrigerator. It’s that hard-to-reach place. I always need to get a chair or step stool to access that cabinet. There, all the way in the back, is my grandmother’s lamb cake mold. The only time I use it is at Easter. Still, whenever I bring it down, I feel my grandmother and my mother performing this same ritual year after year. Even though my grandmother died when I was seven, and my mom has been gone over 13 years, in that one moment we are together again. That’s the type of tradition I am hoping you have somewhere in your memory.

Many traditions cluster around the holidays. A great number of customs are centered upon religious symbols, holy days, and rituals. One of the reasons I am cooking and baking, as if there is no tomorrow, is that my Polish-Catholic heritage promotes a fast from midnight on Thursday through Saturday, after we have our Easter food blessed. For generations we have felt the hunger, when Saturday morning finds the house filled with the aromas of ham baking and Polish sausage (fresh and smoked) being prepared for this ritual. Our stomachs become the physical expression of the spiritual hunger we have been pursuing throughout Lent.

On Saturday in the late morning or afternoon, we gather with many other very hungry people. The amazing thing is that, as we gather at our local parish, despite our growling tummies, everyone is smiling and greeting each other with the customary “Happy Easter!” Our bellies, like our souls, sense that the forty days of Lenten sacrifice and self-denial, are coming to an end. Easter arrives with the dawn!

I am not naive. I realize that this two-thousand-year-old tradition, does not end every problem. When I awake tomorrow, my arthritis will still be there, my mortgage will need to be paid, the concerns I have for my children, my grandchildren, my neighbors, and the world, will still be in my heart. What will be different is that the tradition will have reminded me that a promise has been made and is being kept, even though my human vision is clouded.

Traditions are the lenses that clear our vision to see, if only for a moment, to a place beyond the physical world. My human eyes and mind tell me that my mother and grandmother are gone, but when I hold that lamb mold, experience the sweet smell of the baking cake, and spread the frosting, something miraculous happens. For a split second, I see them more clearly than ever, I feel them breathe through every breath I take, and my entire body inexplicably rejoices.

Your traditions may be completely different. Maybe yours is watching a movie for the hundredth time with that someone special, going to the first ballgame of the season with your best friend, anticipating that annual fishing trip with the guys, or making hot cocoa “just like Grandma’s.” What really matters is that it is the one gift or memory that you want to reproduce and hand down to your own children. It is some act which touches you at a depth beyond logic. You can’t explain why, all you know is that it makes you feel connected to something or someone greater than yourself. It unites you to generations past and propels you toward future generations.

My prayer for you in the days ahead is, if you have had no family traditions, may you make an effort to begin one today! If you have lost touch with some cherished customs, may you rediscover them soon! Most of all, if you have and are continuing family traditions, may you realize what a tremendous blessing that is, and truly rejoice!

A Breath of Fresh Air

What do you do to mark the end of the winter season and move into spring? For some it is buying a new outfit, hat, or shoes. For others it might be planning a trip or “staycation” for Spring break. I have one friend who purchases biodegradable pots and potting soil to begin growing seedlings for future planting in his garden. My husband’s ritual is uncovering our patio furniture and his boat and preparing for a new season of fishing.

In general, for those of us here in the Midwest, spring is a real opportunity for new beginnings. The sun rises higher in the sky and shines longer and warmer. Spring rains wash away the dirty snow that tends to linger in parking lots and along roadways. After a long, and sometimes brutally cold or snowy winter, we can once again go outside sans heavy coats, boots, hats, and gloves.

For me the arrival of spring has deep spiritual connections because Lent always begins approximately six weeks before the vernal equinox. My family has always taken these Lenten days to contemplate our many blessings and the ways we have fallen short of the tremendous potential which has been knit into the fiber of our being. We make a concerted effort to set aside a bit more time for prayer, silence, meditation, living simply, helping others, and healing old wounds.

One of my ways to greet this season of new beginnings is the tradition of spring cleaning. I have heard that the practice actually began when homes were heated by fireplaces, and later when coal and oil were used to provide heat during the frigid winter weather. In those dark days of winter, evening light was also provided by kerosene or gas lamps. All these modes of heat and light produce a lot of soot and oily residue on surfaces. So the arrival of longer and warmer days would provide an opportunity to open doors and windows, wash curtains, clean walls and other surfaces to get rid of the layer of winter schmutz.

We are fortunate to live with much cleaner sources of heat and light, so though this spring ritual may no longer be absolutely necessary, I find it to be a very beneficial observance. It is a perfect adjunct to my Holy Week customs. It allows me to meditate upon the Biblical quote, “Get rid of the old yeast, so that you may be a new unleavened batch—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old bread leavened with malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” 1 Corinthians 5:7-8

In northern climes, we heavily insulate our homes in an attempt to keep the heat inside and the cold outside. This causes the air to get stale. Holy Week cleaning is the acceptance of Spring’s invitation to open doors and windows. Even though March temperatures usually linger in the 40s or 50s, I find it refreshing to take the curtains down and open the windows for thorough washing. There is nothing like the joy of sun shining through sparkling glass and fresh air filling the house.

I think of Lenten prayer as Windex for my soul. It helps me to pay closer attention to the old accumulations that cloud my vision. Prayer usually leads me to be more generous. As I gather items from the back of cabinets and closets to donate, I become lighter and freer and can see more clearly how I might be a magnifier of light, generosity, and positive action.

As I clear the “dust bunnies,” which forced air heat has blown into every little crevice behind furniture and wall decorations, I think about the old hurts that have crept into the hidden places of my soul. I pray for the courage to clear out those sullied recesses of my heart, and the strength breathe out the fresh air of forgiveness.

When I begin to tire, which happens more often as each year passes, I think of it as a perfect opportunity to sit quietly, with a glass of cool water or hot cup of coffee, and gaze out at the birds and squirrels in my yard. This afternoon I noticed that the crocus have popped in my front flowerbed. I went outside for a closer look and breathed in the aroma of the ground warming in the sunshine and listened to the frogs croaking in the fen across from my house. Spring brings new reasons for gratitude!

The very fact that I can no longer complete the task in one day, as I did in the days of my youth, reminds me that growth does not happen in an instant. These days the very process of spring cleaning teaches me patience and perseverance.

As you welcome these lengthening days of spring, no matter what you do to mark this time of new beginnings, I urge you to take a few moments to breathe in the fresh air of opportunity and greet each new day with courage, generosity, hope, and joy!

Super Coffee Cake

(Makes 3 cakes)

The coffee cake after baking and icing.
The coffee cake after baking and icing.

1 pkg. dry yeast
1/4 c. warm water (110 degrees)
1 c. milk
1 1/2 t. salt
1/4 c. sugar
1 t. grated orange peel
1 c. butter
2 eggs beaten
3 1/2 – 4 c. flour
1 egg yolk beaten
2 T. cream
1 can any flavor pie filling

Scald milk. Add sugar and salt to milk and allow to cool. Dissolve yeast in water. Sprinkle in a pinch of sugar. Let stand 5 min. to proof. Add 2 whole eggs, orange peel and yeast to milk mixture. Stir in flour gradually until soft yet not sticky consistency. Turn dough onto floured board and knead thoroughly.

Roll into a 12 X 18 rectangle. Take 1/3 of the butter cut into tiny pieces distribute over the dough. Fold in thirds. Roll out to 12 X 18 rectangle. Repeat twice. Cover dough and refrigerate 2 hours or preferably overnight.

Cut dough into thirds. **Use 1/3 and refrigerate remaining dough. Cut the single serving of the dough into thirds. Roll each third into a log about 15 inches long. Braid 3 logs together. Place braid on ungreased baking sheet (you may use parchment). Spoon 1/3 can of pie filling in between the braid openings. Cover lightly with plastic and clean kitchen towel. Repeat from ** two more times.

Let rise to double (about 2 hours).

Brush cake with egg yolk and cream. Top with streusel.

The coffee cake as it is ready to go into the oven, risen, brushed with egg/cream wash and sprinkled with streusel.
The coffee cake as it is ready to go into the oven, risen, brushed with egg/cream wash and sprinkled with streusel.

STREUSEL
1/4 c. melted butter
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. bread crumbs
1 T. cinnamon
Mix together until crumbly.

Place one loaf in middle of oven and bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Interior temperature should be 190 degrees.

ICING
1 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. vanilla
1-2 T milk
Mix powdered sugar and vanilla. Add 1/2 T of milk at a time until thin enough to drizzle. Mix until all lumps are gone. Drizzle confectioners sugar icing over cake while still warm.

Home in Home Ec.

Between September 1967 and June 1968

  • Fifty thousand participants protested the Vietnam war in the “March on the Pentagon.”
  • U.S. Navy pilot John McCain’s plane was shot down over North Vietnam.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
  • Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
  • The first human heart transplant was performed in South Africa by Dr. Christiaan Barnard.
  • The World Health Organization launched a program to eradicate smallpox.
  • Aretha sang “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” The Irish Rovers had a hit with “The Unicorn,” The Beatles released “Magical Mystery Tour,” and Otis Redding had the first posthumous number one hit with “The Dock of the Bay.”

It was during this time of protest, turmoil, medical advancement, and eclectic music, that I was a sophomore at Holy Family Academy, an all-girl Catholic high school in Chicago. My classes included, Religion, Latin, Biology, Geometry, English, Physical Education, and Home Economics. The Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth were our teachers, and they were still wearing the “full habit.” There were only two “lay teachers” in the entire school.

My H.F.A. Home Economics teacher was Sister Mary Eymard. She was a delightful woman, who really seemed to enjoy her days in the kitchen helping young girls learn to cook and manage a home.

image

In “Home Ec.” most girls disliked the white aprons we were required to wear over our uniforms. The apron had a front and back panel, to protect the uniform blouse, and was attached to the usual apron of gathered fabric which tied at the waist and covered our skirts. The back panel was secured with 2 thin strings that tied from back to front. When those were secured, we would reach behind and use the the much larger ties to secure the skirt part of the apron with a bow in the back. Even though most disliked the aprons, I think we ALL hated the hairnets which were also required.

In those years, we had no knowledge of a microwave oven. The concept of fast-food was still in its infancy. The hours invested in daily meal preparation and home baking were always considered “time well spent.” The Home Ec. class taught the basics of health and safety in the kitchen, along with food preparation. We had to write out recipes including, Scrambled Eggs, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Puffy Omelet, and Cinnamon Coffee Cake. I still have many of those original recipe cards!

At that time in my life, I was contemplating entering the convent. Little did I know  that a young man named Richard, who was my brother’s fishing buddy and a friend of the family for years, would steal my heart and help me realize that God was calling me to the Sacrament of Marriage, raising a family, and becoming a wife, mother and grandmother. That Home Ec. class was actually one of the most practical classes I took and I have used those skills almost every day of my life.

Sister Eymard and I remained friends long after graduation. I received her recipe for “Super Coffee Cake” sometime between 1970-72. It is a yeast-based coffee cake and takes about 1/2 hour to complete the dough. After the dough rests for 2 hours (or overnight), it is formed into a braid and decorated with filling. It rises for about 2 hours, is brushed with an egg/cream wash and sprinkled with a streusel topping. It bakes for about a 1/2 hour and then is drizzled with confectioners’ sugar icing.

In the forty-six years I worked outside the home, I only baked this coffee cake once every 2-3 years, on very special occasions, because of the extended preparation time. Now that I am retired, I hope to bake it more often. This weekend I will be sharing that recipe with my readers.  It will definitely be part of our Easter celebration this year and maybe you will make it part of your special celebration too! Thank you, Sister Eymard!

Surviving Daylight Savings Time

Have you been yawning all day? Do your eyes sting a bit? Have you felt like you are walking in a fog? Are you feeling a bit sad or cranky? If you have answered “Yes!” to any (or all) of those questions, you may be one of the many people who struggle with the change to Daylight Savings Time.

Since the 1900s, there has been much discussion and debate about the “benefits” of this one-hour time shift in the spring. Forty-eight of the United States and several other countries around the world observe Daylight Savings Time. Unlike most areas in Arizona, all the islands of Hawaii, and many other countries who choose to keep a consistent time throughout the year.

“Spring ahead, fall back,” is the old adage reminding people which way to spin the dial or press the digital buttons each year. For me, and many others, the return to Standard Time in the autumn is most welcome, because we “gain an hour” as we “fall back.” Having an extra hour of sleep doesn’t effect me. The “spring ahead” change is a completely different matter!

Logically, I realize that I am only talking about a mere sixty minutes, but I might just as well be suffering the jet-lag experienced during a trip to Europe. This first week of Daylight Savings Time causes me to feel groggy and like I could use a nap, even after I’ve taken a nap!

I decided that when I retired, I would allow my body’s circadian rhythm to determine my sleep cycle. So now, I go to sleep when I am tired and (most days) wake up without an alarm clock. I have found that cycle to be very regular, though it is very different from the schedule I had to keep for over 58 years of my life.  I empathize with all those who are still in school or part of the working world, who are not able to follow their natural cycles!

However, I have found it strangely fascinating that I am STILL experiencing the “Daylight Savings Blahs.” Extra sleep does not necessarily prevent the imbalance and lethargy! As I understand it, the shift in daylight exposure is the cause for the spring malaise. The quick shift to early morning darkness, and the late-night brightness confuses natural rhythms. The good news is there are actions we can take to perk our spirits at this time of year (and whenever we feel a bit tired or off-center).

First off, do not deny the feelings. Generally, burying physical, psychological, and emotional sensations will only come back to bite you when you least expect it. I repeat to myself, as often as necessary, “I have the choice to remain positive, even though I’m not feeling at my best right now.” I just admit that I am being influenced by something outside myself, and I choose to look inwardly and make a concerted effort to remain in balance.

Secondly, be gentle with yourself.  Admit that you are tired, sad, or cranky and assure yourself that it is a temporary situation. Adjust your workload, as best as you can, to accommodate the few days of decreased productivity. Do what is necessary, but don’t add extra chores until your body reaches its new equilibrium. Of course, if your boss imposes a new task, do the best you can to reprioritize your day. Do the tasks with the closest deadlines first, and evaluate any other deadlines that can be extended.

During the next few days, drink more water, do some gentle exercise (outside if possible), and spend some time in a quiet atmosphere to help your body adjust.  This is the perfect time to take that quiet bubble bath. After exercise, a leisurely shower can also be very soothing. Listen to some music. The scents of lavender and spearmint have been proven to improve mood. Along with those prudent life practices, I find it helpful to be more attentive to my breathing, taking several deep belly-breaths whenever I notice that I am sighing, chest-breathing, or yawning.

The most difficult task of the next few days is to resist the temptation to boost your mood with energy drinks, caffeine, or sugar, because they can cause dramatic swings in internal chemistry that only make it tougher for your body to adjust.

There may be many of us wishing that Daylight Savings Time would just go away, because it is beyond our control and can make the week following very challenging. Just keep repeating, “This, too, shall pass!” Before you know it, the flowers will be blooming, the world will once again be green and you’ll be feeling like you are back on track. If all else fails, remind yourself that you’ll get your hour back when Standard Time returns on November 6th!

Digging into the Past with Downton

I recently watched the “final episode of the final season” of Downton Abbey. Aside from the fact that I will miss the drama of the Crawley clan, their staff, and estate, I wondered how many Americans, living today, have any real experience of all the formality and protocol that governed the people of Downton in the early 1900s. Most of the people who lived in that era have gone to their great reward, but there are still those of us who have encountered similar social conventions in our own lifetimes.

All the “M’Lord” and “M’Lady” hierarchical language felt strangely familiar to me. When I was a child, and was speaking to (or about) an older person, I always had to use the terms “Mister” or “Missus,” and was never allowed to use a first name. There were adult cousins and friends I was instructed to call “Uncle” and “Aunt,” in conjunction with their first names. In many cases this left me very confused about my blood relationships. At age 13 or 14 I asked my mom, “What aunts and uncles are TRULY brothers and sisters to you and Dad?” At the same time, I asked her, “Why am I allowed to refer to “Wujek Lapczynski” and “Wujek Wojtkowski” by their first names?” She laughed and informed me that the two men were my father’s uncles, “Wujek” was just the Polish word for “Uncle!” Their actual names were Leo and Frank, but according to Polish custom, even my dad was not allowed to use their first names!

Though it is difficult for me to understand why aristocratic women of the time were expected to change outfits five times per day, I can understand the notion of changing clothing to fit the activity. When I was a girl I had “school,” “play” and “Sunday” clothes. I also understand quite well the dress code that was required of Anna, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy and others. I had only two school “uniforms” and five or six uniform blouses. When I came home from school, I changed out of the uniform into clothes suitable for play. On the weekend, everyone dressed for church in our “Sunday best,” which often included matching hat, gloves, and purse.

Speaking of hats, any Downton fan knows about the wonderful hats that are worn by the ladies on the show. Since I have a real appreciation for hats, I had to fight the greedy desire to obtain any (and all) of them. When I could overcome that guilty passion, my attention would turn to all the hats worn by the men of the abbey. They reminded me of Dad, he always wore a fedora, even when he was working on some household project. On Sundays at church, I remember him hanging his hat in the little clip, assigned for that purpose, on the back of every pew bench. While I was growing up, he was a salesman and always wore cuffed pants and “Florsheim” dress shoes. His “suit pants,” when they became a bit threadbare, were downgraded to “work pants.” When the shoemaker could no longer replace the soles or heels of his shoes, they would be put aside to use when painting or “bleeding” the radiators.

It’s interesting to me that the chores of the estate often triggered fond memories. Whenever I saw Bates or Molesley shining shoes, in their aprons and sleeve protectors, it brought me back to my days in eighth grade. Good students were rewarded with the “honor” of being asked to help the sisters clean the church or the convent on Saturday mornings. We felt particularly privileged when we were invited into the convent. The sisters’ vow of poverty allowed them three changes of clothing (called habits). Their best habit was for Sundays, the slightly older habit was for classroom use, and the oldest was worn while doing household chores.  The sisters always wore their “cleaning habits” on Saturdays.  Like servants of an earlier time, they also used aprons and sleeve covers to extend the life of even that oldest habit.

As the saying goes, there is a time and a season for all things, and it is time to say “Farewell to Downton!” I will miss my Sunday evenings with the Family Crawley. I must also admit that sometimes, though not often, like Mr. Carson, I find value in structure and the orderly rules of hierarchy. However, most days I agree with Mrs. Hughes. (Or should I have said Mrs. Carson?) I much prefer the warmth, relaxation, and friendliness of current social interactions. Like Lady Isobel Turnbull-Crawley-Grey, Baroness Merton, I am looking to the future, because there are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie! Wouldn’t it be amazing if, in that movie, we could hear the Dowager Countess tell George, Sybie, Marigold, (and Lady Mary’s baby-to-be), “Great-Grandma’s door is always open and you are always welcome!”

It’s a Beautiful Day

Just a few weeks ago, when I began planning this site, I made a promise that I would always be honest with myself and my readers. So I feel compelled to preface this post with the confession that it holds a tinge of melancholy.

The day started out fine with the words of Mr. Rogers’ opening song ringing in my ears, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood!” I think that is the hidden gift of living in the Midwest on the verge of Springtime. In early March, when you are greeted by a 50 degree morning, and the weatherman says “the temperature is going to reach 60 plus degrees by midday,” there is definitely a visceral reason for rejoicing.

Shortly after waking, I received information detailing the funeral arrangements for a dear friend. Her name is Rita and she was 80 years old. She had been widowed 5 years and 2 months. Her final years were spent living with dementia. To many, it seemed that she was losing all the memories of her adult life. I believe otherwise.

Then, within hours, I discovered that Mike, a friend-of-40-years, passed away at age 64. He had been born a little more than a year before me. For 20 years he and his wife raised their five children in a house that we could see from our back patio. We were more than neighbors.

In a heartbeat, all my plans for today’s post took on a new meaning. I would be lying, if I said that I was still singing “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” My mood had suddenly turned dark and introspective. Poets and musicians have said it far better than I, this earthly life is fleeting. We are but “candles in the wind.”

It was time to go on a hunt for the beauty hidden at the heart of the sorrow. I took a long prayer walk, because experience has taught me that there is a deep well of comfort and wisdom bubbling in the silence. Most of the time, I am too busy and pre-occupied to hear its message, but when I venture into the stillness, there it is, awaiting me with open arms.

Today, as I gazed into that well, I saw reflected so many treasured golden memories of shared laughter and tears. Once again, I could see our children growing and playing in the sunshine. I could hear engines revving, and envisioned young men working on cars in the backyard and having a cold beer in the sweltering days of summer. In my mind’s eye, I watched those same children becoming adults, getting jobs, finding love, getting married, and having children of their own. My heart caressed anew each and every cross-stitched ornament enclosed in annual Christmas greetings. The gift of imagination allowed me to taste afresh the foods shared at many church dinners and the moments of spiritual union as we sang, “one Church, one faith, one baptism”.

The music of the morning, buried by grief, began to swell again. My soul tearfully whispered, “Open the eyes of my heart. Please, open the eyes of my heart!” The blessing of holy tears unlocked the cold chain of grief that had encircled my spirit. The sheer joy of life gently washed over me like waves sliding onto dry sand. The souls, of all those who have gone before me, reached out and walked beside me, not bound by space or time. They sang into my heart their passion for living. They imparted their memories of surviving, no…THRIVING, through many tumultuous years. The violence of Prohibition, the scarcity of the Great Depression, the sacrifices of World War II, the uncertainties of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the horrors of assassinations, the strain of several recessions, the agony of personal trials, and the threats of worldwide conflicts could not defeat them or stifle their song! They continued to strive and move forward with brave perseverance and love.

Though they may no longer be visible in this world, they continue to guide me toward a path which leads to a life of dignity, courage, faithfulness, hope, AND JOY! I shall miss their physical presence, but I have been greatly blessed to have shared so many exceptional days, weeks, months, and years with an entire choir of wise and loving people. It truly is a beautiful day in the neighborhood!

Kluski and Milk

In my post, Comfort Foods, I said the dish that most reminds me of Mom is Kluski and Milk. Kluski (pronounced KLOO-ski) is actually Polish for noodles. This recipe is  free-form and has the flavor of an egg noodle and the texture of a dumpling. Kluski take a lot less time than making homemade noodles, but gives the same satisfaction. The recipe below is for a single serving. The kluski can also be made with rye flour, though Mom most often used white.

My comfort food kluski were always served floating in warm milk with a bit of butter, but they are much more versatile. They can be served in any recipe that calls for cooked egg noodles. They complement any soup, but can also be used with beef stroganoff or spaghetti sauce. They may also be topped with butter and served as a side dish.

For Kluski
1 large egg
2 Tbsp. milk
1/8 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. plus 1 Tbsp. of flour)

Bring about 6-8 cups of salted water to a boil while you are mixing the batter.

Mix the dry ingredients together. Whisk the egg and milk. Create a hollow in the dry ingredients. Pour the egg mix into the hollow.

Mix by hand from the sides until all the flour is incorporated into a thick batter. Batter will not be completely smooth.

This is what the thick batter should look like and the maximum amount of batter that should be dropped from the teaspoon.
This is what the thick batter should look like and the maximum amount of batter that should be dropped from the teaspoon.
When water has reached a boil, dip a teaspoon in the water to prevent the batter from sticking. Scrape about a half  teaspoon of the batter onto the spoon (on a flatware teaspoon this will look more like 1/4- 1/3 tsp) and then dip the spoon into the boiling water. The batter will drop off and sink to the bottom of the pot. Keep scrapping the batter and dropping it into the boiling water. As the kluski get done they will come to the top of the water. After you’ve dropped in the last of the batter. Allow the kluski to continue cooking another minute or two. Drain off the water. Pour about a cup of milk into the pot just to warm it. Do not allow milk to boil. You may also decide to put a teaspoon or two of butter into the milk. Put the kluski in a bowl and pour in the warmed milk. Enjoy!

NOTE: This recipe can be multiplied to accommodate more people. However, you will need to use a bigger pot and more water. You will also need to use a slotted spoon to clear the cooked kluski from the top of the water (otherwise your pot may boil over). Spoon the cooked kluski into a colander (placed in a bowl) and allow each batch to drain while you are in dropping in more batter.

 

Comfort Foods

You’ve just come home from work. It has been one of “those” days. You think, “Am I coming down with a cold?” You can not believe what your “friend” said in an email. Your bank account is down to $1.36 and your car is on empty. The doctor left a message that you need more tests. We have all “been there.” Some days can really try your patience. How do you deal with the stress?

Some folks go straight to that package of cookies. Others head for the freezer and dive into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy. Still others find the strength to prepare a pot of chicken soup with celery, carrot, parsnips, and wide homemade noodles. Most of us have a favorite food that we crave when times are tough and our psyches need healing.

I asked my relatives, friends, and neighbors about their favorite “comfort foods.” Their responses brought many fond memories for them and for me, along with some great conversations! My best friend reminisced about her mom making farina (AKA cream of wheat) with “toast smothered in REAL butter.” She added, “the contrast of the rich flavor of the butter on the crisp toast with the simple flavor of the smooth farina…” and then she sighed. Another friend connected her favorite food to memories of “Sunday dinner at a restaurant on 63rd and Stony Island near the L-tracks.” Her comments took me back to Chicago and the days my mom would fry “baloney” and onions in butter, and serve it as a sandwich on “Wonder bread”. Today I know it is supremely unhealthy, but the mere thought of its flavor and texture make me happy.

In preparation for this post, I was extremely surprised to discover that my mom, grandma, and generations before her would never have used the phrase “comfort food.” (That term was first coined in 1966.) They were just creating something that someone else could enjoy. It was all about nurturance and love. One of my friends said, “I remember Dad making popcorn. It is still one of my favorites.” Another recalled “chicken and dumplings at a restaurant where the server always knew exactly what I wanted.” One friend’s “Aunt Gertrude” created memories with her goulash. My cousin said her mom would imbed hard boiled eggs inside meatloaf! There went my theory that comfort food always had to be high in sugar or starch!

Scientists have been able to determine that comfort food is usually high in fatty-acids, carbohydrates, tryptophan, or theobromine, (that’s the magic ingredient in chocolate). All of those food components have an effect on serotonin, which stimulates the pleasure centers in our brains. They are certain that there is a “gut-brain connection,” though they are not exactly sure how it works. It made me laugh to think that macaroni and cheese with fried hot dogs (my husband’s favorite), creamed chipped beef on toast, or halva might, one day, replace Valium or Zanax!

It’s not quite that simple! Comfort foods also involve strong psychological components. Medical imaging has proven that, similar to the reaction of Pavlov’s dogs, the mere mention of a favorite food causes physical reactions. Positive changes occur in the brain when good memories are triggered. Several relatives and friends mentioned Polish traditions and customary foods: Easter lamb cake and home made pierogi (think Polish ravioli). For some, the favored pierogi filling was savory sauerkraut or cheese, while others mentioned sweet cherry or cheese, and plum varieties. Another Polish comfort food was nalesniki (crepes). Italian friends enjoyed lasagna, and dipping crusty bread in sauce or gravy (“fare la scarpetta.”) When I’m feeling under the weather, I still make kluski and milk because that dish helps me feel the touch of Mom’s caring hand, though she has long since left this world.

The only common traits I found in all comfort food was that they taste good and are not necessarily on the top of your doctor’s list of foods you should be eating. However, we must also remember that “all things in moderation” is eternal wisdom. Yes, caring for your health is a virtue! Still, when the clouds have rolled in and the world seems to be against you, I don’t think you’ll be reaching for the broccoli or carrot sticks.

I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that one of my Facebook friends said her favorite comfort food was “veggies.” I guess comfort is found wherever good memories come back to life!