The next three blogs are dedicated to the holiday season. This story just appeared in Chicken Soup’s new Merry Christmas book. Here’s to each of us sharing our light in the world.
The Latke Legacy
“This is not like Mom used to make,” I had to confess. It was my first Chanukah of being the latke lady. My mother’s potato pancakes were crisp, flat, and nicely rounded. The texture was smooth but not mushy and they shone with just a glint of leftover oil. I had been a latke apprentice for years, pressed into service by Mom. I was a key cog in the labor pool, peeling the potatoes, then wearing out my arm rubbing them against the stainless steel grater, using the side with the teardrop shaped holes. My mother must have known that enlisting my help would keep me from pestering her to make potato pancakes for other occasions. Only once a year did these delicious patties grace our table, when we lit the first candles of Chanukah and began the eight-day Festival of Lights.
My debut latkes were pale and greasy, like something carelessly served in a late night diner. I myself was pale and greasy from the stress of trying to coax the patties into cohesion. First they had drifted apart—too little flour. Then they had turned cliquish, glomming into militant lumps. When I had finally worked through the potato/flour/egg ratio, I bumped into the complex dynamic between potatoes, oil and heat. For three hours I had struggled to create this barely edible token of tradition.
Years passed. Every Chanukah, I faced a different challenge. The oil was too cold, too hot, not enough, too much. The texture was too coarse or too fine. The grated onions were too strong or too weak. The latke mixture was too thin then too thick. Every year, I hoped for pancakes that tasted like Mom’s and got instead grey leaden latkes. My daughters, who peeled and grated potatoes with me, examined my finished product warily, smothering it in the traditional applesauce and often taking only a few bites. I worried that when they grew up, they would forego the holiday tradition and turn to something simpler and more delicious, like frozen hash browns. I felt a sense of failure as a mother and as a tender of the tradition. My mother had shown me how to make the latkes: why couldn’t I measure up and instill the potato pancake protocol in my progeny?
Then my daughter Sarah, fresh from college and a first job, moved back to town and offered to help me prepare the holiday meal. She was a food channel devotee and had already orchestrated several dinner parties, creating the menus and cooking all the courses. She understood the relationship between vegetables, oil and heat.
“Mom, I think you need to squeeze more water out of the potato mixture,” she advised. “Maybe you could use a food processor to grate the potatoes. What if you used two pans instead of trying to cram so many into one?”
I stepped back and she stepped forward and under her guidance, we prepared the latkes. As I watched my daughter mastermind the cooking, I realized that tradition could be kept alive in many ways. My daughter was starting the tradition of “doing what you’re good at,” giving me a chance to forget my own culinary challenges and applaud her self-taught abilities.
That Chanukah night, everyone at the table oohed and ahhed at the sight of the latkes. Each one was golden brown and crisp, free of extra oil. I didn’t even have to secretly search and pluck out a “good one,” like I had been forced to do in previous years.
I looked around the table of friends and family and took a bite of my daughter’s latke. My mouth filled with the crunch, flavor and intriguing texture of a of well-fried potato pancake. This was the latke I had been waiting for; just like Mom used to make. Only better.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
Imagine sitting down for your favorite growing up meal. The sight, taste, and aroma of those hallowed childhood dishes would stir up a cornucopia of delicious memories.
Recently my friend Elizabeth cooked such a meal for her husband Charlie, who is living with early onset dementia. Charlie grew up in the 1950s, so Elizabeth bought a period cookbook. She and Charlie read through the recipes to see which ones he resonated with.
“I will cook your favorites and we’ll invite a couple of your old friends from high school over for dinner,” she told him.
Elizabeth is a terrific cook and Charlie loved this idea. They analyzed the potential entrees, Beef stroganoff, chicken Cacciatore, meatloaf, but Charlie kept returning to one page: the recipe for Johnny Marzetti Casserole.
At first, Elizabeth demurred. As an accomplished cook, she didn’t like the idea of serving guests such a simple meal. But Charlie was persuasive, so she bought ground beef, canned tomatoes, cheese, and elbow macaroni. She cooked up a big pan of Johnny Marzetti, otherwise known as goulash, American Chop Suey, or macaroni and beef.
Charlie and his friends went wild over the food and laughed as they shared memories of school, the neighborhood, their families, and favorite foods. The cookbook, the meal, and the cook were a huge success.
Next on Elizabeth’s list: take pictures of Charlie with his favorite dishes and paste them in a scrapbook along with the recipes.
What are some of your favorite childhood meals?
For me, the desserts were most important. I adored cream horns, Mrs. Smith’s Lemon Icebox Pie, and Mom’s brownies and chocolate cake, particularly the icing. We still include Mom’s memorial brownies, courtesy of my brother, Chef Daniel Barnett, at family gatherings.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
This blog is a tribute to my father, an honoring of my amazing brother, and a chance to share one of my dad’s favorite jokes. I welcome your favorite jokes and I wish you a lovely day of celebrating good fathers. Warmly, Deborah
THE JOKES ON HIM
It’s the fifties. My brother Dan and I sit opposite each other at the Formica kitchen table; my mother and father sit on each end.. We are eating Swiss steak, mashed potatoes and mushy-looking peas. My father is telling us about this sales call he had today. As he begins the story, Dan and I listen carefully. We want to see who can be the first to figure out if it’s regular boring adult conversation or a joke.
“So the man says to me,” my father says.
I screw up my mouth and nod at Dan. He nods back. It’s definitely a joke.
Some fathers like to train their kids by tossing them balls, wanting them to hone their catching and pitching skills. Dad tossed us one liners and puns, watching to see how quickly we caught on.
“My brother called the other day,” Dad would say and we all believed that Uncle Lou really had called until we were socked in the stomach with the punch line.
As we got older, Dan and I learned to keep our faces deadpan, to give my father no hope, no clue that we knew he was trying to be funny. We learned to sit still for several seconds after we had been surprised by a punch line and then, dissolve into spirited laughter if it was really funny or loud groaning if it was really terrible.
Despite all this exposure to fabulous stories, great deliveries and rollicking punch lines, neither my brother nor I are joke tellers. I like to throw spontaneous one liners into conversation, but cannot remember a long involved story. My brother has always been laid back, offering at most an occasional bon mot.
Fast forward to the nineties. We’re at a family reunion and it’s raining for the third day in a row. Twenty of us are crammed into my parents’ motel room eating a picnic lunch off drooping paper plates. My nephews squirm around, playing with various plastic weapons; my daughters and my niece sprawl languidly on one of the queen-size beds. Mom and I and a couple cousins camp on the other bed. Dan sits in a chair, reading a Richard Ford novel. My father paces in front of the television.
The noise in the room builds and my father stands still, then smoothes his shirt. I can tell from his posture that he is going to tell us a joke. My father does not silence the room. He does not have to. Dan and I are always alert for the first sign of our highest role: audience. Dan looks over at his two sons and cocks an eyebrow. I look at my daughters and nod once. They instantly quiet.
“This rain reminds me of the time I took my dog to the movies,” my father says.
Dan and I grin at each other. There is no dog in the history of our family.
“This dog was smart and loved for me to sneak him into the movies.” My father’s voice is so smooth and lulling, I almost believe this dog was part of our household. “One day I got caught and the manager made me promise to never bring that dog to the movies again. But one rainy night, I couldn’t resist.” He looks to Mom for confirmation and good sport that she is, she smiles back. “I sneak the dog into the movies. As we are leaving the theater the manager pushes his way up to me, pulls aside my jacket where the dog is hiding, and says in an accusatory voice, ‘So, how did your dog like the movie?’
‘ Oh pretty well,’ I answer. ‘But he liked the book better’.”
For a moment, the room is still. Then my nephew slaps his thigh and we all dissolve into laughter.
“And since we’re talking about dogs,” Dad says, taking his rightful place in center stage, between the television and the dresser. “Our next door neighbor has the most obnoxious dog.”
The jokes continue, each grander than the next.
Right after the one about the woman and the dry cleaners, my brother suddenly says, “I had this experience with my shoes the other day.” His voice is calm and plain. I smile, figuring the joke telling is over and we are moving into general conversation. Then I listen more carefully.
Dan tells a long and complex story– decidedly a bold mood in this charged atmosphere. My father has a patient expression on his face. My brother is articulate and calm, no histrionics, no mugging for the crowd. He may simply be telling an interesting story. I pray, “If he’s telling a joke, let him tell it well.” Dan stumbles over a word and I wring my hands. I feel like I am watching a tennis player’s first time on the court in an intense competition. I want my brother to win.
And then, Dan delivers the punch line. It’s smooth and elegant; sliding into us so unexpectedly, so easily that even Dad is caught off guard. Even Dad has that moment of hesitation and that flash of realization before he bursts into laughter and applause.
The applause dies down and my father segues right in. Dan folds his hands, content. I smile at him. I have read different accounts of coming of age. Yet here is one I have never seen before. My brother, emerging from years of quietly being in the audience, elegantly seizing the stage and then graciously giving it back. He has been heard. He has let us know, he is his father’s son.
“It’s stopped raining,” one of the boys says. “Let’s go out and play.” With a great roar, the boys take their swords and rush out to the nearby playground. The girls gather their purses and go to the quick shop for a diet drink. The cousins go off to do some shopping.
The room is quiet now, just my dad, my brother, my mom and I.
“I had no idea that you were such a great storyteller,” Dad says to my brother.
My brother shrugs. “After a while,” he says, “you catch on.”
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.
Psychologist Don Wendorf wrote Caregiver Carols: an Emotional, Musical Memoir to help other caregivers cope with their feelings and to help himself. Writing was cathartic for Don and it offered him insight and understanding into his caregiving journey. Don says, “I always encouraged my therapy clients to keep a journal and I have now experienced for myself just how helpful this is. The whole endeavor of creating something is very life-giving and essential.” Here are a few tips for caregivers from Don:
Take care of yourself the best you possibly can. Do as much as you can that nurtures your body, soul and mind. Exercise like a fiend. Go out with friends. Do creative stuff. Feed your faith. Avoid burnout at all costs. Seek out, accept and ask for even more help than you think you need or want.
Reach Out for Feedback and Support
Rely on people you trust to give you feedback about how you’re doing and if you’re looking burned out. They may be able to see what you can’t or won’t. Talk to other caregivers who know this path and use local or online support groups. Express your feelings to others and let them support and comfort and care for you. Man, it feels good.
Let go of perfection and forgive yourself and your caregivee when you goof up, which you ARE going to do.
Look beneath your anger and see what layers of emotion it may be covering up: anxiety, ambivalence, fear, sadness, resentment, helplessness, hopelessness, depression, remorse, guilt, regret, loneliness, neediness. I think the biggest for me was GRIEF: I was slowly losing the love of my life. Express your feelings. There is absolutely nothing unmanly about it and you are then less likely to use anger as a blanket emotion. So, Caregiver Guys: Man Up!
Here is a story celebrating mothers from my book, Love in the Land of Dementia.
My friend Karen gives me a gift: she says, “Tell me about your mother.”
We are sitting in a quiet mid-afternoon café and I let the question sink into me.
When friends occasionally ask me, “How is your mother doing?” I have different answers, depending on the situation. If we are in one of those conversations that are like confetti in brisk wind, I say, “She’s okay.”
If we are sitting across from each other and my friend is looking right at me, I answer, “She’s pretty deep into Alzheimer’s.”
“Does she recognize you?” she might ask.
“No, but she may recognize I am a person she likes,” I answer.
That usually ends that conversation.
But “Tell me about your mother,” is an invitation I don’t usually get.
“What would you like to know?” I ask.
She stirs her iced mocha. “Whatever you want to tell me,” she says softly. “I would like to know about her life and her interests.”
Since my mother has been in the nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I have seldom talked about the person she used to be. Occasionally my father and I reminisce about family vacations and outings. I sometimes ask Dad questions about our growing up days and the early days of their courtship. But I rarely think about the woman I knew all my life, the mother, grandmother, artist, gardener, compassionate friend, avid reader, bird-watcher, early morning walker, lemon-meringue pie baker. That woman is gone and I have spent a lot of energy learning to know and appreciate the woman who now commandeers her body.
As I consider what I want to tell Karen, I remember visiting my mom’s best friend, Bel, in California when I was a teenager. Bel, who was spunky and adventurous in a way that seemed so different from my conservative mother, drove me from Berkeley to the small resort where I would work as a chambermaid for the summer.
“Do you know how I met your mom?” she asked me, as we drove down the winding roads, past fragrant stands of eucalyptus trees.
“In Iceland, during the World War II,” I said. I had heard stories of the two of them taking a break from their work in the hospital by skiing, then stopping for a soak in a hot springs.
“No, we met earlier in Chicago. We were both nurses working the 12-hour night shift. The hospital had a room with a couple of bunk beds so we could rest on breaks. One night I walked in there and heard the most heart-breaking sobbing. It was Frances, crying her eyes out. I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Nothing.’”
I smiled. That sounded like Mom, never wanting to admit anything was wrong.
“Then I asked her again and she sobbed out that her husband Sam had died six months ago from pneumonia. She was so sad she didn’t know if she could go on. A bunch of other nurses and I were going to Florida for a short vacation and I persuaded your mother to join us. But as it turned out, we never went; a week later I decided to join the Army and I encouraged her to come along. We’ve been best friends ever since.”
“Your Mom was really brave, to serve in the Army during wartime,” Karen says.
I feel a little swell of pride. Mom’s tales of traveling in the darkest night on the troop ship, with bombs falling nearby, were so familiar I had never considered her bravery and courage.
Now I tell Karen how my father, encouraged by Bel’s husband, wrote Mom a letter, telling her he was ready to marry a nice Jewish girl. Was she interested? Was she available?
After some correspondence, Mom surprised herself by agreeing to meet him in Chicago. At the end of the week, my father asked her to marry him. She considered the offer for three weeks and accepted. Their whirlwind romance was fueled by practicality.
“What a great story,” Karen says. “Your mother must be an amazing woman.”
Sparked by Karen’s interest, I let myself feel my love for my mother as she used to be. I am in tears by the time our conversation ends.
“Thank you for asking me about my mother,” I say to Karen.
“Your stories make me want to call my own mom and hear her stories again.”
As I drive home, I think of more “mom” stories to share with my children and my brother. I see myself, along with my brother and father, as the carrier of my mother’s sacred legacy. I imagine myself tenderly fanning the embers, adding dry leaves and crumbled paper, creating a blaze with each memory. I realize I don’t have to give up Mom’s old self: I can be her historian and her scribe, carrying her stories with me, and making sure they live on.
I wanted to share this story from Love in the Land of Dementia, a tribute to my mother and her beautiful capacity for wisdom. Here’s to embracing the divine flow of life.
Let It Be
For the first time, my mother cannot really help prepare our Seder meal. She wanders around the kitchen, pausing at the counter, the stove, the table as if to collect something lost.
“What was I doing?” she asks.
“Setting the table,” I say.
“How many people are coming?”
“Ten,” I say, spilling the spoonful of oil in my irritation. An old football cheer floats into my mind, “First and ten, do it again. Do it again.” And again. Mom has already asked me these questions several times in the last 10 minutes.
When Mom and Dad drove up two days ago, Dad’s face was tight and he went straight to the guestroom to take a nap.
“Sometimes I wish I were hard of hearing,” he told me, later that evening.
Mom’s speech is like an old record player with a needle that refuses to leave its groove. The simple anchors of life, the who, what, where, and when of things, often elude her.
“Did you remember the macaroons for dessert?” she asks, a fork in hand.
“Yes,” I say, again. I crack an egg and have to scoop shell out of the bowl.
I stir the matzo mixture and take a breath. I have trained myself to be brisk and efficient, but now, around my mother, I need to be slow and soft.
“How many people are coming?” she asks.
“Ten,” I say, impatience pinching my throat. “Let’s take a break and go for a walk.”
I wipe my hands and look for the house keys. They are not on their usual hook in the cabinet. They are not in my purse, or lolling on the kitchen table. I feel a brief flutter of shame over the impatience I felt just this morning, when Mom misplaced her glasses case for the second time. Then I feel a stab of fear: am I too losing my mind?
She stops, Hershey’s bar in hand. “They’re right in front of you, Mom,” she says, pointing to a huddled mass of metal on the counter corner. I pocket the keys and double check to make sure I have turned off the stove.
Outside, the redbuds are flowering; the dogwoods skirting newly green lawns. My mother and I walk past a closed-down lemonade stand, three broken lawn chairs,set out on the curb, and a blond, floppy-haired girl, skipping over a pink jump rope.
“It was hard when my mother died. My father just disappeared, took off walking,” Mom says. “He was a good man, though.”
I nod. I remember as much about my mother’s childhood as I do my own. The story of her mother’s death is one in a series of memories Mom has told me all my life.
We pass a woman strolling a sleeping baby and Mom smiles.
“Did you get the macaroons?”
“Yes, I did Mom.”
“Did I already ask you that?”
“Your father gets mad at me sometimes,” she says. “He thinks I’m forgetting on purpose.”
“What’s it like to not remember?” I ask.
An eager black spaniel rushes up to us.
“I start a thought,” Mom says, bending to pat the dog, “and the end disappears. If I try too hard to catch it, that makes it worse. So I let go, and eventually I get the answer. Of course, by that time, something else is going on.” Mom smiles and shakes her head. Her hair is silvery and curly; her hands like fine dried flowers; her stride crisp and full.
All weekend, I have watched her happily listen to the conversations around her, passionately asking a question, then moments later, equally passionate, asking the same question. I have listened to her stories, which have the comforting familiarity of a well-worn quilt. These stories, which sprinkled my growing-up years, are now the major part of our conversations.
That evening, we celebrate Passover with a Seder service. As the service progresses, my father tells our guests about “Dayenu,” a Hebrew word that means, “Even that would have been enough.”
“It sounds like Die-aa-nu,” he says. “You repeat it after each of the sentences I’m going to read. It’s a way of expressing gratitude.”
My mother fiddles with the prayer book and asks for the third time, “Is it time for Elijah?”
“Not yet,” my father says, his voice tense. Then he calms and begins the Dayenu litany:
“Dayenu,” we all repeat.
“If God had taken care of us in the desert for 40 years without feeding us manna,”
“If God had fed us manna without…”
And so we follow the journey of our ancestors, promising we will be satisfied. With whatever we get.
As I repeat my gratitude and pledge my satisfaction with life as it is I think of my mother. I miss her remembering all the details of my life. I miss her knowing where the silverware drawer is. I miss telling her something I’m proud of and having her remember it. And yet, she is the living symbol of Dayenu, graciously accepting her failing mind and making the best of it.
“And now, it’s time to eat,” my father says.
My mother reaches over and pats my wrist. I see the patina of softness that burnishes her, the loving core that goes far beyond mundane daily detail. I see the woman who has loved me even during the years I wandered through a difficult wilderness.
As we sip our sweet wine and break off a piece of unleavened bread, I create my own litany:
If my mother gets pleasure out of life. . .
If she remembers who I am. . .
“This is a lovely Seder,” she says. “You did a beautiful job of putting all this together.”
I press her hand, look into her smiling face and say, “Dayenu.”
“It’s really a very simple program, but the results are unbelievable. You watch the film Alive Inside and you think those are just the reactions they chose for the camera, but we really do see instant and unbelievable results from many of those we work with.” Linsey Norton
Barrick Wilson of Wichita, Kansas, uses music to connect with his beloved wife Kristi.
Kristi showed the first signs of dementia in 2004, when she was only 60 years old. She was diagnosed in 2008 and three years later, Barrick took early retirement so he could care for Kristi fulltime. There were plenty of tough times as Kristi’s disease progressed and music helped ease the issues. Often Barrick took Kristie for a ride and they’d listen to favorite songs as they tooled along.
In the afternoons, they’d sit on the sofa and listen to Golden Oldies together, both singing along. Then Barrick learned about the Roth Project: Music Memories;” (which is similar to Music and Memory) and he signed Kristi up, working with the Central and Western Kansas office of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“I purchased a boxed set of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musicals, records her parents had listened to when Kristi was growing up,” Barrick says. “I included Jim Croce and Kristi’s grandmother’s favorite hymns.”
Barrick worked hard to develop a playlist that keyed in on Kristi’s emotional memories; volunteers from the Alzheimer’s Association helped load it onto an iPod. Then Barrick had the pleasure of sitting next to Kristi and reveling in her beautiful smile when she put on headphones and heard Some Enchanted Evening.
“The music is a calming influence,” Barrick says.
Kristi is one of a couple hundred people enrolled in the Roth Project through the Central and Western Kansas office of the Alzheimer’s Association.
“Our staff offers counseling services to care facilities and to families as to when and how to use the iPod, “ says Linsey Norton, the Association’s Program Director. “We also help care partners notice behavioral cues that allow them to reach for the iPod headphones instead of the anti-anxiety medication. We are working with chapters nationwide to help them develop iPod therapy programs for families in their communities.”
Music helped Kristi when she needed to transition to a memory care unit. The staff offered her headphones and her favorite songs several times a day. Kristi got up and danced when Leroy Brown came on.
Barrick is a pianist and has also incorporated the songs he used to play for Kristi when they were dating. During their courtship, he played the piano in her parents’ living room. Now he sits in the facility’s dining room, his wife by his side, and he plays I’m in the Mood for Love, If I Loved You and My Funny Valentine. These classic love songs transcend rational thought and create an engineering marvel, a bridge that connects Barrick and Kristi.
Barrick shares this advice for care partners:
- Find out as much about the disease as you can. Read, watch videos, become friends with the Alzheimer’s Association and listen to their advice.
- Take your time putting together a playlist that will trigger positive emotional memories for the person living with dementia.
- Be prepared to join the person with Alzheimer’s in her world. It’s like living in an improv theater; you don’t know what’s coming next.
- Take care of yourself. If you need help, ask for it.
A man who is living with Alzheimer’s strides onto the stage and people applaud wildly. His son leans across the drums and hands him his guitar. His daughter, poised on the banjo, subtly reminds the man to look at the monitor so he can remember the words to the songs.
Everyone on stage is tuned into making the performance a great experience for the man and everyone in the audience is eager to hear from him. “So what if he sings Rhinestone Cowboy twice,” says one fan.
This scene is a snippet from Glen Campbell’s documentary, “I’ll Be Me.” As I watched Glen connect through his familiar music and bask in the support of his family and fans, I wished that every person could be so supported and celebrated, particularly those who are living with dementia.
As we approach Valentine’s Day, I wanted to share this essay about appreciating each of us for who we are. For me, it’s a reminder to celebrate love and the creative spirit in all their glorious guises.
Please Take a Bow
By Deborah Shouse
The stage thrilled with activities. One man juggled 12 balls. From overhead, a woman floated down on streamers of royal blue fabric, and then wound herself back up to the arena ceiling. Lithe performers dressed as jungle animals danced and tumbled. I sat in the audience, awed by the amazing creativity of Cirque de Soleil. I hardly knew where to look, so much was going on. But one performer consistently drew my attention. A woman dressed as a wood nymph walked around pointing to whichever feat she most admired. As a man juggled dangerously long sticks, the nymph held out her arms toward him, her gesture saying, “Ta da, Look at this!”
The singer burst into an acrobatic aria and the wood nymph ran towards her, unfurling her arms in another “Ta Da” gesture, focusing our attention and directing our applause. One act after another somersaulted, soared and danced and the wood nymph was always there to shine extra attention on them.
Afterwards, I stood in the corridors with Ron and our friends, Jacqueline and Michael, talking over favorite parts of the show.
“I really liked the wood nymph,” I told Jacqueline. “We should take turns doing that for each other.”
She agreed. But then we both wondered, what would we applaud? Jacqueline and I did our writing work practically immobilized in front of the computer. Michael was a legal aid attorney and Ron had an antique shop. The last time any of us had even somersaulted was eons ago, in our firefly laden summertime back yards. Yes, we juggled, but it was the usual middle class shticks, wildly tossing around work, family, exercise, community, friends and more. All the more reason, I thought, to find an appreciator who understood when we performed at our personal peak.
As we discussed the amazing acrobatic skills we had just seen, I imagined going over to Jacqueline’s. There she sits at her dining room table, her computer screen bright, her fingers nimble. She is a great writer and she is working her craft. I stand nearby, face the imaginary audience seated in her living room, and hold out my arms, gesturing proudly towards Jacqueline. She smiles shyly and I hold my appreciative pose. Then Michael walks through on his way to the kitchen.
“Hi Deborah, what are you up to?” he says.
I nod towards Jacqueline, who is writing briskly, and unfurl my arms towards her.
“Oh, yes, I see,” Michael says. He applauds. Jacqueline sits up straighter and allows herself a little bow. A lot of people don’t understand what hard work writing is and I am here to make sure her audience appreciates the subtlety and strength of this art form. Suddenly, Jacqueline stops. I imagine a drum roll as she presses her lips together, furrows her brow and stares into space. She is trying to think of the right word. We all know how hard that is–it’s the equivalent of the back flip followed by the double mid-air somersault. She shakes her head in despair. The audience is on the edges of its seats, mouths agape, hearts racing. Will Jacqueline find the word? Or will she crash to the ground, her sentence in shambles, her paragraphs paralyzed?
Meanwhile, while I daydreamed, the Cirque de Soleil arena was emptying. We walked to our cars and the image of the wood nymph stayed with me all the way home.
As Ron and I walked toward our house, I remembered a conversation we’d had several weeks ago. “Why don’t you ever mention how great the yard looks?” he’d said. “I’ve worked hard on creating this.”
I had started to defend myself. Then I realized he was right. I liked the yard but its lushness was part of my normal world, the world I rushed blindly past. I hadn’t taken time to appreciate all the effort Ron had put into creating it.
Now I stopped on the sidewalk. The porch light illuminated the plants and ivy as I swept my arms toward the yard, then back to Ron.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for noticing.” He took a bow.
I followed him as he left the stage and went into the house.
Thanksgiving changed the year I went vegetarian. I did not mind giving up the tender, moist turkey or the savory oyster-specked stuffing. But giving up the flavorful flow of mushroom-laden gravy was quite another thing. I watched enviously as my family ladled the luscious liquids over their mashed potatoes, turkey and stuffing. As I nibbled dryly on my carrots, green beans and salad, my lower lip protruded. I felt left out and deprived.
My brother, Dan, ever alert to the pouting big sister, came up with a solution.
“Next year I will make special vegetarian gravy just for you,” Dan promised.
Years later, that special vegetarian gravy has become one of my favorite Thanksgiving rituals. I begin fantasizing about it the moment the autumn leaves turn crimson. I know that in mere weeks, my brother and his family will arrive and I will have my yearly boost of family and feasting, highlighted by gravy.
When my brother calls to tell me his travel plans, I write his arrival time and GRAVY on my calendar. The night he comes to town, we make the shopping list together, avidly discussing how many pounds of mushrooms we need for both the carnivore and vegetarian pots of gravy. I relish the early-Wednesday morning trip through the grocery store, where Dan and I and our children carefully select the foods we will be making the next day. We linger in the produce aisle, filling several sacks with gleaming white mushrooms and buying rustling yellow onions.
On Thanksgiving Day, Dan and I and other family members spend long, luxurious hours cooking. Dan mans the stove and I manage the slicing and chopping. Together we snap, peal, slice and dice the vegetables that will accessorize the turkey. I take special pleasure in wiping clean and slicing the mushrooms, then bringing my brother the brimming bowlful. When he has nodded his approval, I get out the old copper pot I bought in Germany in the early seventies. This year, Dan is improving his already amazing gravy. With his new immersion blender, he creates a rich base of caramelized onions, whose flavor surpasses that of the lowly vegetable cube. He adds in a little flour, then gentles the mushrooms into the onion broth. When the pot is bubbling with thickening nectar, he says, “Taste this and see what you think.”
I always think the same thing—“Wow, this is great.”
We are in a state of giddy and satisfied exhaustion by the time our guests arrive. We share grateful prayers with everyone and lay out the feast, including plenty of turkey-based gravy for the rest of the family.
Then comes the moment I have been waiting for: I sit down, my own personal pot of gravy poised by my plate. I cover the mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, and salad with the aromatic concoction and I savor every bite. But more importantly, I savor the bounty, creativity, and love that have gone into this simple dish. Through this gravy, my brother speaks with his hands and his heart, saying: “I care about you and I am going to make sure you are not left out and that you have something fantastic to eat.”
And now, if you’d like to bring home this delicious gravy, here’s how:
Dan Barnett’s Chicago Style Never-Enough-Mushroom Vegetarian Gravy
2 large onions (chopped)
2 pounds (or more) white button mushrooms sliced (can add some portabellas for enhanced flavor)
1 cup of white wine (of lesser quality)
Salt & pepper to taste
To create the gravy base:
In a four -quart pot, pour a thin layer of olive oil and turn the burner on medium.
Add the onions and sauté for10-15 minutes until they are caramelized (golden brown)
Add water until the pot is about half full.
Simmer slowly for 30 minutes.
Blend the onion water mixture using either an immersion blender or by transferring the mixture to a food processor.
Once you have the gravy base
Add the 2 pounds (or more) of sliced mushrooms, white wine and fill the pot with water until it is 3/4 full.
Every week, I have the joy of interviewing a couple and learning their love story. We talk about where and when they met, what they like about each other, and how they stay connected during life’s chaos and challenges.
Recently, I talked to a couple who met in their late seventies. Both had lost their spouses and both were amazed to fall in love again. When I asked how they kept their relationship strong, she answered, “Because of our age, we know we don’t have that much time left to be together. We enjoy every moment of every day.”
Since that conversation, I have thought often about her words: What would it be like to truly appreciate every moment? What would it be like to completely appreciate each person I spent time with?
Being present and appreciative were two of my goals when I spent time with my mom in her later years. One moment, I felt connected, holding Mom’s hand, sitting right next to her while pointing out interesting pictures in a magazine, and the next moment her head would be lowered, her energy drained and I felt alone and sad. But of course, I wasn’t alone; I was right next to my mother, still holding her hand. My task was to enjoy that quiet minutes as much as the time that Mom was interacting with me.
“Enjoy every moment of every day.” These quotes echo that important reminder .