Food is love


The idea that food equals love is not an original one. Years ago I had a friend, a teacher colleague, who used to talk about her own nuclear family growing up. They were Italians, like my own family, and her Mom raised her, as mine did, with the idea that feeding people is a way to show that you love them.

I totally live that way.

One of my favorite hobbies now that I’m retired is going through old, old cookbooks and reading about the delicacies of the past. I’ve been collecting old cookbooks that I read the way other people read a novel.

One of my favorites was a wedding gift to my Mother, given to her in 1950. The book was first published in 1901. It has tips on things like making a roast chicken. Step one? Kill the chicken.

Anyway, I was thinking today about the whole cultural idea of food as a show of love. And I think that feeding a hungry person is absolutely an act of love.

In my 61 years on this earth, I have brought food to friends who are grieving, family who are sick, friends and family who are celebrating milestones. I have made soup for fellow grad students on a snowy night. I’ve brought muffins to school on the morning after terrible and shocking events like 9/11.

And I’ve learned, slowly, to accept tortellini soup when I was the one in need. I loved it when a friend at school gave me a gift of lasagna for Christmas when I was a working mother of three little children.

So in the past few weeks, as Ellie has had her first bad cold and ear infections, I found myself thinking about “food is love” once again.She had the chills; I made her ginger lemon tea. Not from a tea bag. With actual grated ginger and lemon and honey.

I made soup. I had frozen chicken stock, made after we had eaten our locally raised, organic, sustainable birds. I cooked down the carcasses, peeled off all the meat, froze it into small cubes. Which I then cooked with garlic (antibiotic properties), onion, carrots, the herbs I dried from last summer……

It was good. She like it. She ate it. No biggie.

Except that I felt fabulous. I felt like Nonni of the year.

Why? I didn’t make her better; she still had to take her antibiotics and her nose drops. She still had her fevers and her chills.

But I COOKED for her. I showed her how much I love her. I gained a totally false but somehow satisfying sense of control over the microbes of the universe.

It was great.

Today Ellie and I roasted a big pan of beef bones, which we then put into a stock pot with veggies and spice.

It’s simmering on the stove right now. Just waiting for the next cold or flu to hit someone I love.

Food. Is. Love.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

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Proof That I Am A Lucky Nonni


Oh, I know. You’re all thinking, ‘Here she goes again. Ellie is perfect, Ellie is genius, blah, blah, blah.’

Well, the joke’s on you.

This post is not about Ellie.

OK. Well, not directly anyway.

This post is about the fact that I know I’m the luckiest women in the whole wide world because I get to spend every single day with my granddaughter, AND: her parents are so relaxed they even make ME feel calm.

Let me set the stage.

When I was a young mother of three beautiful babies, I was neurotic. Like, really.

The first time my first child threw up, I didn’t think, “Stomach bug.” Nope. I called my sister, sobbing. “She has a brain tumor!!!”

I am not calm. I am not a laid back Momma.

Nevertheless, in spite of me, all three of my kids have grown up to be healthy and happy adults.

Now I have Ellie. My love. My perfect “do over.” My chance to be the one who stays at home and does the nurturing.

God, I love that girl…..

So far, Ellie has given me the chance to relive all of my most precious Momma memories. I have given her a bottle, rocked her to sleep, held her while she napped. I have read her books, changed her diaper, sat her on the potty.

Hell, I have fed her my meatballs and watched her smear the sauce all over her face and hair.

These are the things that I missed so intensely after my nest emptied. These are the sweet memories that had me sobbing into my pillow at 3 AM.

Ellie has let me relive all of those moments. And this time I am acutely aware of the fleeting and profoundly moving nature of those moments.

I am so grateful to her parents for trusting me.

Still. I am a nut.

Yesterday Ellie came back to me after 10 full days away from each other. I went to pick her up and she was sobbing. “Mommy! Mommy!” she was chanting. Her Dad and I were both unsure of how to make her feel better about having her Mommy go back to work after school vacation.

I sang, I acted silly, I fed her oatmeal (OK, my husband made it the way she likes it…) and then we tried to settle into our day.

Somewhere around midday, I looked at Ellie and saw the drooping eyes, the red cheeks, the sad expression. Our eyes met, and she walked over to me. She settled into the space between my knees, and laid her head on my arm.

“Nanni,” she said.

I felt the heat of her skin.

Our Ellie had a fever.

I texted her Mom, gave her some Tylenol, poured her a cup of cool water. Then I sat in my rocking chair and held her against me. She was breathing fast, the way little ones do when they have a fever. Her head was resting against my cheek. Her hot little hand was holding mine.

I hummed some old songs. The songs I used to sing to her Momma and her Uncles. We rocked. She dozed. Every now and then, she turned to me with those shiny fever eyes and said, again, “Nanni.”

My heart melted right down into my toes.

Of course, I gave her Tylenol, and she perked up in 30 minutes. But still. For that brief time, I was right back in those special, beautiful, meaning-of-life moments, when I was the only comfort for a sick baby.

Mea culpa, mea culpa!

I was sorry that she was sick, and I did what I needed to do to make her feel better.

Still. I freakin’ loved that half hour of rocking her hot little body.

And this is why I’m the luckiest woman alive.

When I confessed this horrible truth to my daughter….when I explained to her how much I loved holding her sick child….she said, “So? It’s not like you infected her on purpose.”

She is a goddess. She let’s me be the neurotic Nonni I was born to be. Her husband is right there with her.

See?

Who in the world is luckier than me?

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Happy, happy Nonni

Layers on layers


I used to think that each of us was born as an unformed little white dot. I thought that every experience added on a layer, and that each layer covered the ones before.

I thought that we were like pearls. Layer on layer of life, constantly growing around us until we became fully formed humans. I thought that process would just keep on going until at last we die.

Some of that is no doubt true. We grow and we change and we certainly learn as we move along the paths of our lives.

But now that I’m on the downhill slope of this life, past the midway point, I have a completely different idea.

In the past few years, my husband and I have reconnected with some of our oldest friends. These are people who knew us when we were young and foolish. When we had no real idea yet of who we’d be.

When we weren’t much more than those unformed “dots.”

These were the people who watched us struggle to learn our limits, and who watched us struggle to define our dreams. They grew with us. Our friendships were more intense than any we’d ever have again, although we didn’t know that at the time.

Eventually, we grew up. We got our degrees. We parted ways as we moved into our ‘real’ lives. We became parents. We launched our careers. We grew into our adult selves.

Layers were laid upon our layers.

Then, oh so suddenly, we found ourselves at the point in our lives where we were no longer “on our way.” We were THERE.

Our children grew up. We became the “old guard” at our jobs.

We thought we were our fully formed, true selves.

But now we’ve hugged and laughed with those old friends. Now I see that its time to peel back some of those layers. Those layers of cynicism, and of fatigue. It’s time to scratch off the layers of unfulfilled dreams, and to let them fly away on the wind. It’s time to peel away the layers of self-criticism and drop them into the passing stream.

Now it’s time to go back to our truest selves, our best selves.

I think that in the presence of the people who knew us at our wide-eyed best we can once again find that inner, innocent self.

I think the pearl is in there, but it takes an old and true friend to help us find it.

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Memories of a snowy school day


Happy snow day to everyone living in the Northeastern U.S. It’s been pouring down hard all day, and we’re enjoying time by the fire.

Of course, now that I’m retired from teaching, a snow day is a mixed blessing. I get the day all to myself…yay! But I get the day with no beautiful granddaughter…boo.

I was lying in bed this morning, watching the snow falling out my window. I was thinking back on past storms, past snowy memories. Thinking of the times I enjoyed the snow with my own kids and the kids in my classroom.

There is one particular school day memory that still makes me smile.

It had snowed hard the evening before, but the roads were clear by dawn, so school was open. It was the first significant snow of the winter, and everyone was talking about it when they arrived.

I was standing in my classroom, teaching math, I think. The kids were restless. Feet were tapping, pencils were being rolled on desks. They weren’t misbehaving, but their minds were clearly not on multiplying fractions. I tried to pep things up a bit with made up word problems using their names, but it didn’t help.

I caught one little boy sitting with his chin in his hand. His face was aimed at me, and he was sitting quietly in his seat. But his bright blue eyes kept cutting to the window.

I looked outside myself.

The sky was the same china blue as my student’s eyes. The sun was shining down on a scene of perfect, pristine, sparkling snow.

Our playground didn’t have a single footprint on it.

I glanced at the clock. Two hours until recess.

Without saying anything, I suddenly closed my math book and snapped off the Smartboard. The kids sat up straighter in surprise. Every eye was on me.

Were they in trouble? What was going on? Why would a fifth grade teacher suddenly stop teaching in the middle of a math lesson?

“OK, gang.” I said, reaching under my desk for my boots. “Get your coats and snow gear on, quickly. If we move fast, we can be the first ones to hit the playground.”

The sound and the sight of those 24 ten year olds bursting through the back doors and racing across the snow has stayed with me for the past 10 years, as clear as can be.

They were the embodiment of pure joy.

I just stood there in the sun, watching them jump and kick and roll in that perfect snow.

For a little while, I felt like the greatest teacher in the world. I felt like a hero.

I hope some of them remember that morning. I hope they remember what it felt like to let go and just give in to happiness.

I’m sure they all went on to eventually master fractions.

But I hope they remember that sometimes it’s important to drop the book and just get jump in the perfect snow.

 

Thank you, President Trump


I know, that headline made you a little sick to your stomach. I get it.

Can you imagine how hard that was for me to type?

But you see, I am channeling my inner optimist. Who is hiding these days. Hiding really, really well.

My inner optimist is hiding behind the evidence that points to us having elected a mentally ill, out of control despot.

It’s hiding behind the realization that our Congressional leaders don’t really care that the guy with his finger on the trigger is out of his mind. They’re too busy fighting the traditional Democrat-Republican game of “YOU’RE A DOODY PANTS” to try saving us all from nuclear holocaust.

So.

I’m trying to look on the bright side.

For example, I might as well eat that dish of ice cream since we’ll most likely be incinerated before I can die of heart disease. Also, if we go into a long nightmare of civil war and the grid goes down, its probably the fat people who will live the longest.

Also, there’s this little fact.

Whenever I get anxious, I clean things. When my kids were little, Paul used to be able to judge how well the day had gone based on how the house looked when he got home. If every surface was sparkling and there was a smell of Clorox in the air, he knew that one of the kids had gotten on my last nerve. He’d open the door, sniff, and ask, “Oh, oh. Who is it this time?”

He’s a therapist, so he explained to me that my desire to clean the house was a reflection of my feelings of helplessness. When my life felt out of control, I asserted my superiority over dust and grime.

If that’s true, then I really have to thank President Trump.

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself unconsciously organizing closets, sorting through old clothes and scrubbing things I didn’t even know I owned.

My granddaughter is 18 months old. This morning the two of us scrubbed the floors in every room of this house. I buy her all kinds of art supplies and books and toys in my effort to be a wonderful Nonni, but we spent an hour with me sweeping and her using the wet swiffer.

She seemed to enjoy it.

But honestly, I didn’t realize just how anxious our new administration was making me until tonight.

I found myself vacuuming the garage with a glass of wine in one hand.

Thanks, Mr. President!

When the mushroom cloud appears overhead, at least my house will look fabulous in that last eerie glow.

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Life with my Muslim family: A sick day


When I was only 17, I was a very healthy and hearty young woman. I was lean, but not skinny. I was rarely sick.

My body had some adjusting to do, though, when I left Massachusetts and flew to Kairouan, Tunisia, to spend the summer as an exchange student. The dryness of the air so near the desert was hard for me. I remember how I used to dream of drinking ice cold water. The water in our home and around the city was safe, but it was warmer than ours at home, and it always had a slightly salty taste to me. My skin was dry, my hair was dry, even my eyes felt dry.

My Tunisian family showed me how to treat my skin and my hair with olive oil, which was abundant in that olive growing land. They noticed my craving for water, and kept a supply of small, sweet watermelons on hand.

The food that we ate that summer was incredibly delicious. We ate a lot of chicken, of fish, and a lot of mutton. I love lamb and discovered that I love the rich taste of mutton even more. We ate loaves of dense, chewy bread that came in round loves with a crisp crust. We got it from the market every morning, fresh and incredibly delicious. In the very dry air of Tunisia, any leftover bread was very dry by its second day. Almost too hard to eat, unless we covered it with honey from the huge jar on our kitchen shelf, letting the sweetness seep into the bread for a few minutes before we ate it.

What a delicious memory!

The one problem that I had with the food, though, was that even for an Italian American like me, it was very, very spicy. I once roasted and peeled hot peppers with my Tunisian sisters, and even though we coated our fingers with olive oil, we all had blisters when we were finished.

The result of all that spice was that after three or four weeks in Kairouan, I was suffering from a bad bout of stomach distress. I wasn’t sick, really, but I had stomach pain and I spent a LOT of time in the bathroom.

One hot morning I was feeling the distress of what I’d eaten the day before. I don’t know if I complained, or if I just ate less breakfast than usual. In either case, I was sitting in our family’s living room with a book when Maman came in with a glass in her hand. It was filled with something brown and thick. There was ice in there.

Truthfully, it didn’t look great. But she held it out to me, and said in her lovely French, “This is wheat. It will make your stomach better. Drink it, my daughter.”

I took it with thanks, and then gave myself a tiny, tentative sip.

Even now, almost 40 years later, I can conjure up the taste. Honey, wheat, nuttiness, the cold, cold ice cubes.  I drank it all down, and felt better almost at once.

I don’t know what was in that glass, but it made me feel so much better. I’m sure that some of my relief came from the love and care that went into the mixing of that magic elixir.

Maman Barrak is gone now, and I’m not sure that I ever told her how wonderful that moment was. I hope that she knew then how much it meant to me. I hope that she knows it now.

My Tunisian Mom, my beautiful Muslim Mom, was a blessing to me in so many ways. This story is only one of those ways.

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When I lived with Muslims


I was only 17 years old, completely naive and completely sheltered. I signed up for the American Field Service exchange program, figuring that I’d spend a summer in Ireland or Austria or somewhere else that was fairly familiar.

When my acceptance and placement package arrived with the news that I would be moving in with the Barrak family of Kairouan, Tunisia, my reaction was a mix of panic and disbelief.

Where the hell was Tunisia? What would I be doing in a place like that? What were the people like? The food? The weather?

Luckily for me, AFS didn’t give me much time to back out. I read all that I could about the country, feeling somewhat calmed down when I saw that it was hot and dry in the summer, and that the beaches were gorgeous.

The Barrak family sent me letters, some in French and some in English. They were warm, welcoming, excited to meet me. I saw pictures of all of their beautiful, smiling faces and realized that I’d be moving in with a happy, healthy family. In fact, they sounded a lot like my own Italian American family. We had six kids, they had five. They were all fluent in three languages, which was way more than I could say with only my English and my shaky high school French.

I got my shots (OUCH) and packed my bags and off I flew to another world.

I spent 12 weeks with my Tunisian family. I discovered that hard working, family loving Muslims are just like hard working, family loving Catholics. I learned that sometimes the teenagers rebelled against the parents’ limits, just like we did. I learned that when I didn’t feel well, my Tunisian Maman made me special foods and came to check on me, just like my American Mom did.

I discovered that olive trees are gorgeous, that couscous with lamb is beyond delicious, and that it feels cozy and safe to wear a sefsari when you walk around a city.

My summer in Tunisia changed my life. I am still in contact with the Barrak family, through the magic of Facebook. They are still upbeat, warm, loving and still stylishly beautiful (that’s where we have parted ways!)

The ban on Muslim immigration breaks my heart. It is wrong on so many levels. It is the most unAmerican thing that I can even begin to imagine.

I want to write about my time with my Tunisian family. I want to share some of my stories about being a naive American who landed in the middle of a Muslim country way back in 1973, when war was raging between Israel and Egypt and when terrorism hadn’t yet made us fear the world around us.

Stay tuned, please.

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Just five minutes


I remember when I was a kid, sometimes my Dad would lean his head back against the couch and say, “I’m not sleeping. I’m just resting my eyes.”

It used to infuriate me. My poor Dad! Father of six very active kids, full time businessman and do-it-yourselfer extraordinaire. He hardly ever rested.

But if we had a chance to spend time with him, we didn’t want him resting his eyes! It used to make me crazy.

Now of course, I completely understand the overwhelming need to “rest my eyes.”

I’m very, very lucky. I spend my days with my granddaughter, Ellie. At 18 months old, she still takes a good, long nap every day.

And she likes me to lie down with her.

Today was a pretty typical day, except that I was unusually tired. Last night I found myself overwhelmed with the fear of our mentally unstable President. I couldn’t get myself to relax and sleep.

I have fibromyalgia, too, and its flared up right now, so most of me hurt last night.

Anyway, I was really groggy today. I had a fun morning with Ellie in spite of my fatigue. We painted, we danced, sang and listened to our favorite band, Upstate Rubdown. We filled the birdfeeders, we played with the dogs, we swept the floor (don’t judge; she loves it.)

Finally, it was nap time.

Ellie and I put away her toys, chose a favorite stuffed animal (Floppy Puppy) and a book (Go Away, Big Green Monster!) and went into the guest room to nap.

Just like my dear old Dad, as soon as I put my head on the pillow, my eyes drifted closed. As usual, Ellie was less sleepy than her Nonni. I did what I often do.

I laid on my back, clasped my hands over my waist and let my eyelids close to the point where I could watch her, but she couldn’t see that I was awake. I thought I had outsmarted her.

Here is what I saw.

Ellie sat beside me, looking at my face. I saw her look around the room. She clasped her own hands together and I could see her lips moving as she sort of quietly mumbled to herself. Her gorgeous, silky brown curls were a halo around her head, with long pieces covering her eyes.

She raised her right hand and pushed the hair out of her eyes, then gave a deep sigh. Her head tilted to the right, and she frowned as she looked closely at my face. I didn’t move.

Ellie lifted her head, sighed again, and looked around the room. The bed has a raised bed rail, and I was lying between it and Ellie. She was sort of stuck. She plucked at her blue and white striped pants, then noticed her socks.

“Hockey!” she said loudly. That’s her version of “socks.” She looked straight at me, but I didn’t move. She deliberately pulled off one sock, still looking at my face. “Oh, Oh!” she cried.

I didn’t react. I’m good.

“More!” Ellie announced, and pulled off the other sock. She looked at me expectantly.

Nothing. I kept my eyes closed just to the point where I could still see her face.

She sighed.

She rested her chin on one hand, still looking at her unmoving Nonni. She touched my nose.

Nothing.

Suddenly, as if there was actually a lightbulb above her head, Ellie sat up straight. She wiggled a little bit closer to me, then suddenly leaned forward and planted a big smacking kiss right on my lips.

I burst out laughing, my eyes popped open, and I grabbed her around the waist.

“You win!” I said, and she giggled in victory.

Then she pushed my shoulder so that I’d lay back down. She grabbed her puppy under her right arm and rested her head on my chest. She immediately fell asleep, and so did I.

And here is what I’m thinking now, as I think back on this day.

If I had never had a single happy moment in my 60 years of life, those five minutes would have made my entire life worth it.

Ellie, you are pure joy.

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We Are Women, Hear Us Roar By The Millions.


I went to Washington to march on Saturday.

I drove in a packed car for 7 hours, hip to hip with other marchers. We were two 60 year old grandmothers, a 20 something man and woman, and a transgender teen.

We met up with others in Maryland; two more 60 year olds, our old friend and her husband, their two 30-ish daughters, and a few more people.

I was lucky enough to be with friends and with my two strong adult sons. I love and trust everyone who walked with me that day. We went into the Capitol city to express ourselves and to be heard. We listened, we cheered. Some of us wore pink pussycat hats. In the end we shuffled more than marched because of the density of the crowd.

At last we got back to the home of our hosts, and it was then that we discovered we’d had different reactions and different thoughts about what we had just experienced. The day left some of us uplifted, but it left others feeling hopeless.

And that was what made me stop and try to focus my thoughts.

Why did I go to such trouble? Why did I push my tired and already achy body to such lengths? Why did I put myself in the middle of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, knowing that it would (and did) scare the absolute hell out of me?

Today I finally figure out why I did it. Why I went down there.

I was scanning the headlines and I saw  that the new President just signed an order that is pretty routine every time we have a Republican President. That order says that no agencies overseas will get any money from us if they either provide or counsel women about abortions.

I stopped and re-read it. What the absolute hell.

So if a clinic in central Africa wants to keep women and children healthy and safe, they will not get any help from the richest country on earth if they even talk about safe abortion?

Suddenly I was absolutely enraged. I mean, hair on my arms standing up straight, heart pounding, ready to punch my veiny old fist through a wall enraged.

Because here we go. Again. The lives of women and children are completely meaningless in the eyes of these rich, privileged white men.

You already have 11 kids and no way to feed them? Tough shit, ladies. We won’t even talk to you about a safe way out for you, or for your living, breathing kids.

Now I know why I marched.

I marched even though I was afraid because I grew up believing that it was OK for men to say sexual things to me just because I was young and female. I hated, but didn’t complain about, cat calls, whistles, suggestions that strangers do things to me that I didn’t even understand.

I’ve been grabbed when I didn’t want to be. I’ve been kissed when I tried to wriggle away without “insulting” him. I’ve been the punch line of sexual jokes.

I marched because my daughter has been in a verbally abusive relationship. I marched because she was once slipped a date rape drug in a bar. Luckily, she was with protective and loving friends who saw her through it and she wasn’t hurt. But I marched because some men think its OK to do that to a woman.

I marched because I have a beautiful, smart, funny, loving granddaughter.

I marched because my daughter and I (and soon our little Ellie) understand that even in 2017 we shouldn’t walk on American streets alone after dark. Men can go wherever they want to go; we can’t.

We are women. Hear us roar.

We have just elected a man who brags about grabbing women by the pussy. He has had three wives, each one young and sexy. He’s made fun of women’s faces, of our bodies. He thinks he has the right to comment on our sexual attractiveness and to judge us by that one measure.

I marched because there’s an entire administration behind this guy. They accept him, his views, and his disgusting behaviors. They support him. They want to work for him.

I marched because damn it to hell and back again: OUR BODIES ARE NOT YOUR TOYS.

I refuse, refuse, refuse to go back in time to a place where Ellie might have to deal with a bunch of men telling her that they can grab her, force her to have sex, but deny her birth control or abortion.

THAT was the reality that I grew up with. That was my youth.

And I am NOT going to sit back and take a return to those days.

I didn’t march to change the world. I didn’t march, this time, to end the oligarchy or to upset capitalism, although I’ve marched for those reasons in the past.

No. This time it was personal for me and for millions of other women. We will not accept or respect or obey or honor a President who thinks he can put his slimy hands on any female body, just because he wants to.

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Image by Karen Shiebler

DeVos Vote Delayed: Contact Your Senators!


This is great news, from a great education writer.

Diane Ravitch's blog

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions delayed its vote on Betsy zdeVos from January 24 to January 31.

Maybe a few senators became indecisive when they saw how uninformed she was about the Department of Education, federal laws, and policies.

Maybe they were shocked to hear to hear her say that it was up to state’s to decide whether to comply with the federal law that protects the rights of students with disabilities.

Maybe they were surprised that she lied about being a member of her mother’s extremist, homophobic foundation for the past 14 years.

Maybe they hope to get a report on her financial conflicts of interest before approving her.

Maybe the two Republicans on the committee she hasn’t given money to are wavering.

Whatever the reason, the hearing demonstrated that she is unqualified for the job. She knows nothing other than  that she wants to…

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