“Making Memories”


When I was a little girl, my Nana was often a part of our holiday celebrations. She sometimes came with us on vacations, or on the daytime adventures that my Dad arranged to keep us all entertained.

Nana had a way of laughing even when things went wrong. I have a vivid memory of her hiking with all six of us kids and my parents through “The Flume” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I can hear her laughing as a sudden storm overtook us. We were suddenly drenched and cold, and none of us was happy.

“We’re making memories!” Nana called out in her laughing voice as we slogged our way through the dripping path. And some 50 years later, I still recall that memory with a smile.

I always hoped, when I was the mom of young children, that we were making happy memories together. I hoped that our holidays made memories, even when we discovered that mice had nested in our Christmas decorations. I wanted my kids to grow up with happy memories, funny memories, memorable memories. Even when it snowed on our camping trips or when we all had strep for Christmas.

Tonight is Halloween of 2020. In the face of the terrible Covid pandemic, few people are going door to door to Trick or Treat. Our neighborhood is silent and empty of kids. My grandchildren won’t be going out for candy.

It is a sad reminder that life is nothing like what we want it to be this year.

But we dressed up anyway, Paul and I, in costumes meant to make us look like our dogs. We pinned on our false ears and tails, rubbed make-up on our noses, and put on the dogs’ collars.

I made a guacamole witch and a “Ghosts in the Graveyard” dessert.

We went to our daughter’s house, where she and her three kids were in costume and the house was decorated with light up spiders and glow in the dark ghosts.

We had a supper of “Mummy dogs” and “Monster pizza” and then the kids searched the house for hidden candy.

There was no traditional “Trick or Treat”. There were no neighbors or friends or other kids wandering with glow sticks. It was nothing like Halloween is supposed to be.

But as Paul and I were getting ready to say good night and head back home, my three-year-old grandson Johnny threw his arms around my neck and asked breathlessly, “Nonni, wasn’t this the best Halloween ever?”

And you know what? It really was.

It was the best because Johnny’s parents made memories for their kids. And those memories will last a lifetime.

Happy Halloween 2020.

Nonni in Germany. The Segway edition.


You know about Segways, right? Those miracle movers that let you stand still and yet roll along the street without effort. Those fabulous two wheeled devices that you see tourists riding when you go into Boston or New York or Chicago or…..

Well. You know what I mean.

When we got to Berlin, I knew that there was a chance we’d be taking a Segway tour of the city. Actually, I was pretty sure we’d be doing it, because our German friends had given us a beautiful photo book full of the adventures they had planned for us. So I was ready to step onto my two wheeled chariot and head out to see the sights of one of the world’s great cities.

Except that when Katja and Jörg announced the next day’s Segway plans, it was right after dinner. Right after dinner on the day that I’d face planted into a hedge of stinging nettles while trying to take my first bike ride in over 20 years. I wasn’t feeling at my most athletic.

Or my most graceful.

Actually, I’m pretty sure that as we talked about our Segway tour, I was clutching a glass of incredibly crisp dry reisling in one hand and an ice pack in the other.

So I  thought I should just, you know, casually mention that I might not be, you know, the most graceful of Segway riders. I wasn’t scared. Exactly. I was more embarrassed in advance, picturing myself unable to get the thing to move, or having it careen out of control as I clung to the handlebars like an overweight monkey.

Katja, dear friend that she is, listened to my concerns and assured me that she and the others would keep me safe. But here’s the thing that makes her such a valuable person to have in my life. In her eyes, as she looked at me, I saw this: “You’re healthy, strong, capable. Why wouldn’t you be able to ride a Segway?”

It got me thinking.

So the next morning, after our Nespresso lattes and espressos (mmmmmm), our wurst and our bread and our (holy delicious) local honey, we headed into Berlin for our tour.

image2Yep. That’s me, second from the right. Helmet on head, feet on the platform, honest-to-God smile on my face.

That. Was. So. Much. FUN.

Seriously. If I didn’t live in the middle of the woods in rural Massachusetts, I would be saving up for one of these things right now.

It was magic! All you have to do is lean forward a bit, and it moves ahead on its own. Lean a teeny bit back (and I mean teeny bit. As in, just think the words “lean back”) and the thing slows down. It turns on a dime. It goes uphill, downhill, over bumps. No pedaling, no sweating.

Best of all, you don’t have to have the slightest bit of grace or athletic skill.

Perfect for me!

And Berlin, in all its beauty, charm, history, was right there in front of us to view and experience.

Amazing!

I might try one in Rome some day, if I get very lucky.

 

The Sound of Elementary School


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Ah, the magical sounds of elementary school in mid-December!  Such sweet music!  Truly.

Of course, I am not always able to appreciate the subtle loveliness of children’s voices in the week before the big vacation break.  I sometimes fail to appreciate the joy that they are sharing on the first day of Hannukah and a week before Christmas.

Sometimes, in spite of my best efforts, I find my own voice raised to scary levels as I desperately try to corral them long enough to walk down the hall to music.  There are moments, I must admit, when I am hard pressed to find the positives as 24 just-about-hysterical ten year olds attempt to work together to solve math problems in this sugar heightened time of year.

At times, it is all I can do to remain calm as I patiently repeat my mantra, “If you can hear my voice, clap once. If you can hear my voice, clap twice. If you can hear my voice, clap three times.”   At any other time of year, there is silence by the time I get to three.

Today I had to resort to, “If you can hear my voice, clap seventeen times and then stare at anybody who is still talking.”

Sigh.

But you know what? The joyful noise manages to penetrate through to me in spite of my hoarseness and my minor frustrations.

The joyful noise of happy, excited, well loved, well nourished children seeps into my ears and my heart and my soul, and I end my December days thinking, “I am so incredibly lucky to be here.”

Here are some of the sounds of our school in the past two days.

One of my little girls was dancing around in the meeting area, twirling and flinging her arms out with joy.  Her hair was flying, and her gorgeous turquoise eyes were gleaming. “Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, she sang in a husky voice.  I was trying to gather the children for a math lesson at the time.   “Honey”, I said to her, “I can see that you’re excited for Christmas.”

“No, I’m not!” she replied as she twirled, “I’m Jewish!”

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Two little first graders were walking in from recess, holding hands.  Both were flushed with the cold, and both were singing. “On the First Day of Christmas, my chula gave to me….”  The tiny blonde waved at me with the hand that wasn’t holding her friend’s.  Her black haired, dark eyed friend grinned at me, and the song resumed, “A partridge inapin free!”

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And there is the sound of tapping, drumming, clanging, pinging that goes on all day as little restless bodies do their very best to contain their excitement and hold in the giddiness.  Tapping on the desk, drumming on the book, clanging the pen on the back of a chair.

They can’t help it.  Music is joy, and they are joyful.

Sometimes I want to smother that joy, just for a second. Just so I can get them to sit still while I hand out the math paper.

Then I think of the children in other places, where war is raging, or famine is rampant. I think of children who are sad, or scared, or lonely, or lost.

And I look out at the churning mass of December joy in front of me, and all I can do is sing.

“On the first day of Christmas, my chula gave to me…….”

Fennel and Figs


I love Thanksgiving for all that it represents. I love the idea of being grateful; most of us have so many blessings in our lives. How lovely to have a holiday that helps us to recognize them all!

I love the history behind the holiday.  It makes me feel grateful to think about the Puritans celebrating that first harvest.  And whether or not their Wompanoag neighbors were invited or simply showed up makes little difference to me. I love the idea that on that first harvest celebration, all of the people in the area were happy to have had a successful growing season.  I love the fact that this small celebration happened before the outbreak of war between the two groups. Whatever else it was, the first Thanksgiving was a peaceful celebration.

Thanksgiving means a celebration of bounty, of luck, of health, of our ability to survive in harsh conditions.  I love it for all of that symbolism. Even though I am able to feed my family just by going to the farmer’s market or the store, I still feel as if I am one with the rugged settlers of the past who carved out a new life for their families in a dangerous wilderness.

And I love Thanksgiving because Abe Lincoln was the one who made it a real holiday. I love that it gained its status as a national day of celebration out of the President’s desire to recreate a sense of forgiveness and gratitude among us. After our four years of war with each other, after all of those thousands of deaths, I love the idea that this holiday was created to help us to celebrate our continued unity.

Mostly, though, I love Thanksgiving because it is so uniquely made of a mix of so-called “American tradition” and all of the multi-national traditions we’ve brought to the day since 1863.

For me, Thanksgiving will always make me think of figs and dates; those beautiful Mediterranean sweets were always a part of our after dinner ritual on Thanksgiving.  Before the pie, before the sour cream coffee cake made my Nana, we would sit with a big bowl of perfectly ripe fruit, a bowl of nuts and smaller dishes of those luscious dates and figs.

Thanksgiving is full of memories of special family foods, family rituals, family traditions. In my family, the meal used to start with turkey soup, and then moved on to big platters of ravioli.  My Sicilian Grandfather wouldn’t eat turkey, so we had ravioli and meatballs.  Then the traditional meal of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes, squash.  But there was always a dish of fennel on the table, too.  Lovely, crisp fennel that we would dip into a little bowl of olive oil, salt and pepper.

Just thinking of those meals makes me miss my grandparents so much.  Grampa, my Sicilian Grampa, could crack two walnuts in one hand, with no nutcracker. I thought that was the greatest feat ever.  And he would eat roasted chestnuts with us, letting us sip his red wine as we did.  He would eat those plump sweet figs, and talk to me about the fig tree in his yard in Augusta, Sicily, when he was a boy.

And I remember Nana, all 84 pounds of her, eating her Thanksgiving dinner at the big table at my Mom’s house.  She would take dainty bites of everything, from the turkey soup to the pumpkin pie, commenting on all of it as she did.

I will never, ever forget the holiday of 2001, not long after the terrible attack of 9/11.  At that point, Nana was losing her hearing and often simply faded out during large group conversation.  On that day, as about 30 of us sat around Mom’s long table eating, drinking wine and talking, Nana suddenly looked up from her plate and said, “This is so delicious!  I bet that Osama wouldn’t have been so mean if he could have had food like this!”

It was hilarious. We all imagined the US Army ordering up an airdrop of eggplant parmigiana.  What a simplistic idea!  And yet…..there was something so poignant about it for me; Nana realizing and expressing that “food is love” and that if only we could all be nurtured well, maybe we would be more peaceful. Maybe the world would be kinder, if only we all had enough to eat, enough to feel nurtured.

Thanksgiving in our house also meant Liz’s birthday.  My sweet baby sister Liz, my funny, smart, loving, amazing sister Lizzie; her birthday was always on Thanksgiving, or a day or to to either side.  We always stuck a candle in a pumpkin pie, and she was always so good natured about it.  Thanksgiving meant giving Liz her presents, singing to her, hugging her and telling her that we loved her.

I love this holiday because it is about repeating old themes.  Repeating recipes and birthdays and jokes and traditions.  The same foods on the same serving platters, with the same faces gathered around the table, sometimes telling the same stories.  I picture my Dad, seated at the head of the table.  Jovial, warm, funny, pouring the wine and telling stories.  Complimenting Mom on another job well done. My Dad.

But then enough time has gone by, and the faces around the table have changed.  Babies have grown up, grandparents and parents are gone.  The table is different, the platters are new, the wine glasses are from a different set.

This year we will be celebrating Thanksgiving at the new home of our daughter and son-in-law. It feels so very different from all of those celebrations of the past.

But you know what?

There will be fennel, and there will be figs.   And we will remember.

Hammacher Schlemmer


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Ah, those enticing words……”Hammacher Schlemmer”.

I hear them every year, right about this time….those enticing, alluring, enthralling words.  How they draw me in!  I mean, I am a middle aged teacher lady from Massachusetts.  What do I know of world culture?  It is only when I pick up my annual copy of the “Hammacher Schlemmer” catalogue that I am able to catch a glimpse of a richer, more sophisticated, more cultured world.

For years now, I have pictured two men, on German, one Swiss.  They wear coal gray three piece suits and have haircuts that cost more than my family’s annual income.  They sit in 80th floor offices, overlooking the Rhine, or the Danube or something. The post-modern furniture (what does that even mean?) seats ten comfortably.  Beautiful blonds secretaries wander in and out with Gevalia Kaffe and perfect chocolates.

Ah…..I can imagine it now……..

I have always assumed that “Hammacher Schlemmer” is a corporation formed by two Germanic families, long ago. I imagine that the original offerings included Swiss cowbells and lederhosen.  I have always pictured cold, crisp air and mountain scenes.

I guess I always thought that Heidi and her Grandfather once ordered a clock from the famed Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue (which at the time would have been handwritten on old newspaper).

So when our catalogue came this year, I was filled with nostalgic hope for a simpler time.  I opened the glossy pages to peruse the offerings.

Well, gee.

I found “The High Definition Camera Drone” for $299.95.       And “The Best Nose Hair Trimmer” for $19.95.

I also found “The Darth Vader Toaster”, which would allow me, (for a mere fifty dollars) to make my toast in a giant replica of Darth Vader’s Head. It would “transform my innocent slices of bread into sinister breakfast tokens of evil.” Yummy.

As I turned the pages of the glossy magazine, I was enticed by “The Nursery Rhyme Reciting Lamb” for $39.95, an item which I am sure any sane mother would want to drown within an hour of its delivery.  This was followed on the page by “The 12 Foot Inflatable Slumbering Santa”, an inflatable 7 foot santa with a motion activated belly that heaves up and down while he makes audible snoring sounds.  This is for people who don’t know what to do with $200 dollars.

I continued to flip through the pages, figuring that at any moment I’d come across something interesting, nostalgic, innocent and/or celebratory.

Well.

I found “The Hands Free Hair Rejuvenator”, an item that looked remarkably like the hat worn by Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future.”  This little device sells for $699.95 from Hammacher Schlemmer.

I also found “The Biofeedback Posture Trainer” for $89.95 and “The Automatic Flameless Candles” at $39.95 for a set of four.

Huh.  Pretty sure that these are the exact same “Automatic Candles” that I got at Stop N’ Shop for 99 cents each.

As I continued to go through the catalogue, I came to an interesting realization.  Not that I mean to be a skeptic, but I am pretty damn sure at this point that “Hammacher” means “useless crap” and “Schlemmer” means “at exorbitant prices”.

Oh, those Germans.  They really think they can pull one over on us!